Priesthood Blessings: A Matter of Form or Substance?

February 10, 2005

Recently we had some illness in our family. There is not much in this world that I have faced which is worse than having sick children. Particularly when the afflicted one is a baby who can’t talk yet, such times are difficult to endure. There is a constant nagging worry about what to do- go to the doctor? Put the child to bed? WHAT?!? Anyway, when our baby was sick last week, as well as my wife and my other children, it seemed as though a dark feeling had settled upon the Fowles house. We felt unsettled and anxious.

We were so thankful to be able to call our neighbor from around the corner to come and help administer in healing blessings. The feelings of darkness and anxiety were replaced with light and calm reassurance as we blessed my children to heal them in the name of Jesus Christ. Truly, Jesus Christ is the light of the world and the Prince of Peace, as was confirmed to our hearts once again as we performed that temporally saving priesthood ordinance. And priesthood as restored to Joseph Smith is His power.

Yet after the adminstrations, I had to pause and wonder: what if the Brother from around the corner had not been able to come help me annoint? I’m sure it would have been fine- necessity would have dictated that I do both the annointing and the sealing myself. But that got me wondering about why we even need to bother with 2 brethren then. Furthermore, when the good Brother came to my aid, he took the time to put on a white shirt and a tie before coming, even though it was evening. I did the same, out of habit. What if neither of us had bothered to put on nicer clothes? Would the blessings have been any less efficacious?

This all got me wondering about why we even need to annoint in the first place? I know there is scriptural basis for it, and that this is simply how priesthood blessings are given- but why? Would the Lord withhold special blessings from an infant because the formality of annointing was not completed? I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing a merciful God would do. It seems like the Spirit could dictate just as surely the healing words with or without oil beforehand, though. And it seems to me as though the substance of the priesthood ought to overcome the form of the ritual performed. So are we concerned with form or substance in priesthood blessings?

Brother Knight also poses a similar question– he discusses how many people in his ward tack on a perfunctory “if it be the will of the Lord” to their blessings and attach great importance to those words. But do those words really do any work?

Throughout the Old Testament, form seems all pervasive and seems like it might trump substance. Complex rituals are laid out for nearly every ordinance and sacrifice. In the New Testament, however, the new gospel wine seems to be rich with substance and generally unweighted by form. But in today’s church, a great deal of emphasis is placed on form. Our most sacred rituals are laden with form.

So here’s a chance for you gospel scholars to weigh in. Are priesthood rituals a matter of form or substance? Which is more important? If they are both of equal importance, then what should we do if we aren’t able to follow the form? Can we give priesthood blessings for healing unpreceded by the annointing ritual?

I am very interested in your thoughts, and especially interested in your thoughts backed up by scripture/modern statements of General Authorities on this matter (although I would also be happy to just hear your own thoughts, without any scripture). If this has already been done at T&S, I apologize- send me the link and this will be a short discussion!

(Now back to my study of form versus substance in the land of contracts, where substance definitely rules the day these days- except of course for that pesky statute of frauds…)

On Millstones and the Condescension of God

February 10, 2005

Lest anyone think that I am insensitive to the plight of abused children because of my response to Martha Nibley Beck’s accusations against her father Hugh Nibley that he sexually abused her as a child while wearing Egyptian ceremonial dress, I wish to express that nothing is further from the truth. I have a particularly soft spot in my heart for innocent children who have been mistreated or abused, whether physically, sexually, or emotionally. Stories of child abuse in the media make me physically ill and my heart breaks for the children. If anything causes enmity towards God to enter my heart, it is reports of the suffering of the little ones.

Last week, we had stories in the media of the Dollars, a couple who tortured their children, locking them in a closet, pulling out their toenails and banging their feet with hammers, and starving them over extended periods of time such that by the time of their rescue, they looked like Auschwitz survivors.

This week, we have a Tuscon couple who locked their daughter in her room for over a year and sexually abused her:

Investigators determined that the girl — described as 5 feet 6, weighing only 97 pounds and “significantly malnourished” — was kept in a bedroom with its single window covered by a blanket, its door fastened by an outside lock.

This 14 year old girl also had likely not been to school since the fourth grade.

Punishment should be swift and severe for the perpetrators of such acts. If anything in this entire world makes me question God and his love for us earthlings, it is such occurences of child abuse. As bad as this latest story is, it pales in comparison to the pure evil that is being perpetrated against children in places like Thailand’s sex industry and as a result of pornography and the sexual licentiousness that abounds in our society.

Although I was always bothered very deeply by stories of cruelty to children (I used to have nightmares about kidnapping and such as a little kid), the first time that an awareness of this cruelty shook my entire being was when I first heard of the plight of Kaspar Hauser, a child severely abused and neglected for sixteen years and found in Nuremberg in 1828. The Count Anselm von Feuerbach, a judge on the Bavarian Court of Appeals, took interest in the case and resolved to come to the bottom of it. It remains, however, to this day, a mystery just who Kaspar Hauser was. The preface to the 1833 English translation of Feuerbach’s account of Hauser’s story briefly summarizes Hauser’s experience:

Hauser was at that time [that he was found in Nuremberg] about sixteen or seventeen years old, had never learned to speak, and soon showed that he had been shut out during his whole life from all communication with the world. A narrow, dark dungeon, in which he was always obliged to remain in a sitting posture, so that even his bones had assumed a peculiar shape, had been all the space allowed to the unhappy being in this wide world; water and coarse bread, all the food he had ever tasted; a shirt, all his clothing; and now and then stripes, inflicted by the unseen hand of his fiendish keeper, when he happened to make a noise — all he knew of any being besides himself. He was but just allowed to vegetate — and what a wretched vegetation in his forlorn condition.

Only a few years later Hauser was stabbed to death in a pub. A life of misery, horrible in its details, and, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. These accounts turn up regularly; other stories are even worse which combine such isolation and neglect with routine rape and sexual exploitation in the child-sex industry. I have no insight or answers as to how this can be allowed to happen. It bothers me greatly and tempts me to question God’s love for us. In the end, though, I must confess, like Nephi upon being questioned concerning the “condescension of God,” that I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.