Does God perform encores?
Applause almost lifted the roof off the Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. After recently listening to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra perform there, I joined the audience in clapping loudly for a long time, yearning for an encore. When music speaks to our souls, we desire more of it. Does God abide by the same principle, granting us encores by speaking directly to our needs? In the account of the first Christmas, the Bible makes clear that God spoke forcefully and clearly to Jesus’ father Joseph. “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for who is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,'” Matthew 1:3.Does God gives encore performances, speaking to us as if He were a neighbor across the fence greeting us? Certainly another Joseph, founder of the Mormon Empire, believed God continues to communicate as He did during the first Christmas. On Dec. 23, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known popularly as Mormons, celebrates Joseph Smith’s birth with ceremonies commemorating this 200th anniversary.Smith started a religious movement, based on his conviction that God spoke directly, convincingly and accurately to him. The Mormon witness has swelled in political might, voting virtually as a bloc for the Republican Party’s family values. Evidently, the Mormon crusade for preserving the traditional family strikes a winning chord. Masses resonate with Mormonism. Between 1950 and 2000, the Latter-day Saints (LDS) opened wide doors to meteoric growth, tripling their church membership. What started as a dangerous trek into the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, has become a massive religious movement to which 12 million members belong, mostly living outside the United States.This church believes God spoke directly to Joseph Smith in a series of visions. Smith, they allege, heard God’s voice as clearly as if his mother were talking to him. She made sure that Smith benefited from a Christian upbringing in a church. Her husband took to religion too but despised organized expressions of it, like churches. As a boy in 1820 Smith attended a Presbyterian church. When two Presbyterians get together, they soon form the First and Second Presbyterian churches. This fractious spirit erupting in fights over correct doctrine ran roughshod over the region where Smith grew up. Besides bitterly contesting doctrine, churches competed by stealing members from each other, causing “no small stir and division.”Smith wanted a fresh word from the Lord because he detested religious infighting among churches. God spoke to him, he claimed. Smith gave several accounts of these divine conversations, with each rendition zeroing in on aspects of these talks. In 1838 he published a succinct version of these encounters with the Lord in History of the church. Readers sense immediately the aversion shared by God and Smith’s father to sectarian feuds. Could Smith have confused God’s voice with the angry outbursts of his dad towards organized religion? Smith recounts, “In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right … I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion or else I must do as James directs.” Smith was referring to a place in the New Testament’s book of James where those who seek a word from the Lord are urged to ask directly for God’s wisdom. Out of this quest for God speaking to him through the angel Moroni, Smith received, as if God were dictating it to him, the Book of Mormon.Does God repeat, like an orchestra giving an encore, His Christmas conversation with Mary’s husband Joseph? Did God give an encore to Joseph Smith, speaking directly to him? I hold two reservations about anyone approaching me and saying they have a direct dial to the Lord. First, does this religious train of direct revelation ever stop? By what calipers do we size up this long line of seers who hear God? Are they con artists, hallucinators, confused seekers whose intense wishes became for them a divine voice? Or are they, as Mormons believe about Smith, true prophets who heard God’s voice?Most orthodox Christian traditions other than Pentecostal are wary of saying that God immediately speaks to us. Doesn’t the first Christmas show that God speaks through history, that He comes among us in events that presented Jesus, the Christ, to the world? Who among us, with our puny sense of hearing, can accurately monitor God’s voice? At best it comes to us crackly, like a cell phone losing its reception. God’s authoritative voice reverberates in the voice of Jesus, born into history. God speaks indirectly, yet clearly, through the lineage of King David, of whom Joseph and Mary claimed descent.My second reservation focuses on seers who shortcut God’s authoritative word in the Bible by claiming He speaks directly to them. They assume God is speaking their language. Usually, how they translate what they hear from God is riddled with mistakes, like an American tourist trying to translate a foreign language he knows nothing about. For instance, some early Quakers obeyed the command first given to Isaiah to “go naked for a sign,” Isaiah 20:2-3. Quaker women paraded nude through the streets of Salem and disturbed the town meeting at Newberry, Mass. Mind you, this prancing in the buff happened in stern puritan Massachusetts. Reformer Roger Williams thought this exposure did not come from on High but from Satan acting like Playboy’s Hugh Heffner. Williams worried about Quaker women forsaking modesty by stripping in the meetinghouse.God speaks indirectly through Jesus in the Bible. He is God’s voice. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens leads 8:30 and 11 a.m. worship as Jonathan Edwards at Dillon Community Church on Jan. 15 and returns at 6 p.m. to portray Thomas Jefferson and Edwards in a debate over who Jesus is. Vail, Colorado