Of Naked Ladies and the House of Israel

Some call them Naked Ladies. Others invoke the adjectives Resurrection, Surprise, or Magic. A more formal name seems to be Amaryllis Belladonna. They are lily-like flowers (but distantly related to lilies), with large, trumpet-like blossoms. They certainly look like lilies to me, no offense intended to the botanists.

I first noticed these mystery flowers when they appeared one summer in my backyard. I do not know how they got there. This summer there are several of them, each summer a few more. They are beautiful. But even more, I find them a wonder. Unless you were careful to notice their abundant but brief and non-flowering leaves at the beginning of the growing season, you would have little expectation that in the hottest and driest time of the summer you were to be blessed by an eruption of beauty in your yard.

These flowers bloom on tall stalks that break through the dry ground without any leaves or other trace of the plant at all. It took me a season or two to connect their abundant leafy growth in early spring with the blossoms of later summer. From that spring verdure the plants gather and store in their bulbs the strength that lies dormant for many weeks after the leaves have all died away.

The tall, slender stems of late July and August, with their lovely pink blossoms but no foliage of any kind, I must suppose give the flowers their name, Naked Ladies. The variety of other names testify that these flowering bulbs suggest many things to many people. If you did not know that they were there, hiding in the ground, you would have a surprise when the stalks rocket up in a matter of days to bloom in abundance. From a plant that seemed to have died off with the spring, the resurrection of blossoms arises at a time when the most intense heat of the summer dries out many other flora. From barren ground, with no apparent preparation or support, the blossoms appear like magic.

I can embrace all of these images and their accompanying names, to which I would add another—at least another metaphor if not another name. They remind me of the house of Israel.

Long ago Israel thrived in the land called Canaan. Twelve Tribes, descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, named Israel by the Lord Jehovah, put down deep roots and flourished between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and into surrounding territories. As the people stayed faithful to God, kept His commandments and ordinances, Israel grew and prospered.

As with the plant I have in mind, Israel’s time of flourishing was relatively brief. Before the end of the eighth century, B.C., Ten of the Twelve Tribes had fallen away from the faith of God into the paganism of their neighbors. Their lands were conquered and the people carried away captive and out of the further knowledge of history. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin alone remained, the Jews of today. In time they, too, were driven from their homeland and scattered all over the world.

For thousands of years the house of Israel has remained in captivity and Diaspora. All but the Jews have remained unnoticed, and the Jews have been subjected to waves of persecution that has risen and ebbed but not wholly ceased.

Yet Israel has lived, strength acquired long ago awaiting the season of sprouting and blossoming, as foretold by numerous prophets, ancient and modern. Through Moses, the Lord declared to Israel,

That then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all nations, whither the Lord thy God has scattered thee. (Deuteronomy 30:3)

Through the prophet Ezekiel,

For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord God, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things. I will accept you with your sweet savour, when I bring you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen. (Ezekiel 20:40, 41)

When Jesus Christ visited His believers in America, shortly following His resurrection, teaching them about the house of Israel He promised, “I will gather them in from the four quarters of the earth; and then will I fulfill the covenant which the Father made unto all the people of the house of Israel.” (3 Nephi 16)

In our day, modern prophets of Jesus Christ have declared the approaching fulfillment of the covenant:

We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes . . . (Articles of Faith 10)

Those surprise flowers each year remind me of the Lord’s promises to the house of Israel, as today we are witnessing those slender stalks arise unexpectedly from barren lands, just beginning to bloom. It is wondrous and beautiful. A work of God.

Of the Meaning of Life and the Purpose of Love

Does life have meaning? If so, what is that meaning? The answer, to be valid, must discover meaning for lives lived 70 years and longer as well as those lived for 70 minutes or fewer. That is to say, that it must reveal meaning for all members of the family of Adam and Eve. I have to admit that I cannot fathom an answer that life offers meaning only for some people but not for others, that the others are just stage props for those fortunate humans for whom life really matters.

I would also posit that in order for life to have meaning for man, then man’s existence cannot end with the end of mortality, that life must have an eternal character for there to be meaning to it. Temporary meaning is no meaning in the end. If there is an end, then in the end what does it matter?

I will add that, if there is eternal existence, that whispers to me a strong intuition of the existence of God, the existence of a being who has it all figured out, who has used eternity well. I do not offer this point as a proof at this moment, but rather as a likelihood. There are other proofs that I know and could offer for the existence of God, for God has not hidden Himself from His children who want to know Him. He sent us here to find out which of His children really want to know Him: that is one of the purposes of this life, closely related to the central purpose of life. The process of coming to know God is an individual work that necessitates the personal development of what is also God’s defining characteristic. That development involves the process of living in this life on earth.

That is to say that one way of describing the central purpose and meaning of life is this: for each individual to develop an ever greater capacity to love. That may sound sentimental and trite, but it is nonetheless true. Good fiction draws its vitality from important themes of reality. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series climaxes with the discovery that the most powerful “magic” in the world is love, belittled and scorned by the arch villain of the series even as he is destroyed by its strength.

Love, particularly the love of God, is the central theme of scripture. The scriptures taken altogether are an unfolding exposition of God’s love operating among His children and either embraced or rejected by them. The scriptures describe the deepest and most complete form of love as charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47), the greatest of all the gifts of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).

Elsewhere the scriptures name “eternal life” as “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). This is not a contradiction, as eternal life and charity are coincidental. To possess one is to possess the other. Consider these passages of scripture together. The first is how God describes His work, what He does, which must therefore be very closely related to His meaning, His purpose:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

The second is how the ancient Israelite prophet Lehi described man’s purpose to his family:

men are that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)

This means that immortality, eternal life, and joy are all connected. Jesus taught that they are united in the personal development of the divine trait of love. During the Savior’s preaching in Jerusalem in the last week of His mortality, the legalistic Pharisees sought to trip the Savior up with a question that to them must have been a real poser, undoubtedly a favorite debate topic:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Conceptually this is just another way to introduce our topic about the meaning of life, for surely the commandments of God and the meaning of life are closely related, God’s commandments designed to lead His children through a life of meaning and fulfillment. The answer of Christ, who before His birth had given the commandments to the prophets, silenced for a time His tempters; at least, no rejoinder is mentioned in the record, perhaps because Jesus was referencing what He had given in the laws He revealed to Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:4,5, and Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

All the rest of the gospel is elaboration of these two commandments. That is the purpose of life, to develop charity, the pure love of Christ, the complete soul-filled love of God, which manifests itself in loving our neighbors as ourselves. How do we do that? As Jesus said, that is the purpose of the law and the prophets. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

As the ancient American prophet Mormon taught,

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified as he is pure. Amen. (Moroni 7:48)

Mormon’s people nearly all rejected his counsel and descended into a hatred that devoured their civilization in pointless dissolution.

Life has meaning because it has choices with real consequences. We feel and see and live them everyday. Amidst the easy-to-see evils of the world, there are plenty who choose to do good, to love their fellows and increase in their love of God. There are and have been those who live life to its fullest, growing in the greatest of all gifts and the mightiest of all powers by being true followers of Jesus Christ, increasing in the love by which they become like Him and by which they will know Him.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

Let us love, that when at last we see God, as we all will, we will recognize Him, because we will have become like Him in the most meaningful way.

Of Men and Women

I hope and have every confidence that at some future day my posterity and yours will look upon the popular efforts of our popular culture, working mightily to smooth out the differences between men and women, and conclude, “Huh?” The differences are real, profound, and obvious.

You have to work very hard to convince young children that men and women, boys and girls, are pretty much the same. The differences are to them an unremarkable truth. And so they remain, despite efforts to pretend they are otherwise. And so, I believe, the differences between man and woman will persist, with unhappiness and poverty the rewards for efforts to obliterate them.

Not that it has not been tried before. It has always come to grief. One story comes from the French Revolution. A leader of the National Assembly proclaimed that the new government had almost completely eliminated all differences between the sexes, when a voice from the back softly retorted, “Vive la différence!”

I, too, embrace the differences and am glad of them. Having been married more than three decades I can testify from long experiment that the many differences between husband and wife, man and woman, have played a central role in our happiness. Even as a youth I often mused upon how my life had been enriched by the influence of women. That was not a new discovery for mankind even if it was for me. Benjamin Disraeli said as much in the 1800s: “There is no mortification however keen, no misery however desperate, which the spirit of woman cannot in some degree lighten or alleviate.” (Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, p.311) I am not aware of any exception to that maxim.

This variety is eternal, built into human nature from the very beginning:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Genesis 1:27)

This was no accident of nature. Together man and woman, male and female, are the image of God.

My children have always noticed the difference and profited from it. When they phone, they rarely ask for “Dad.” If Dad answers, they will sweetly and briefly chat and then ask, “Is Mom there?” With Mom they will then talk for a long while, hours sometimes.

On the other hand, while growing up, when they wanted permission to do this or that, more often than not, they went to Dad. To guard against this clever maneuver, my wife and I early made a pact that we would not openly disagree regarding the denial or approval of a child’s request and would seek to consult to get a parental consensus if a matter of consequence were involved. That worked well, but the children still knew where to go first to make their pitch.

The paradigm was similar when it came to bugs, vermin, and fixing broken things, unclogging drains, moving the rubbish—all jobs usually given to Dad and faced with trepidation when Dad was not available. As the boys got older, these jobs increasingly found their way to them, too. The flip side was that all illnesses and injuries were brought to the attention of Doctor Mom. They still are, no matter how far away the child may be.

These patterns have been successful for peace and harmony in the home. Life would be harder if my wife and I struggled against the differences that gave us distinct skills, insights, and abilities, related to being a woman and being a man. One of the greatest blessings of marriage has been to enlist an undying union with the owner of a wealthy supply of talents not easily possessed by the other.

My conversation with friends and colleagues have shown this pattern to be too common to be attributable merely to differences of personality. The differences between man and woman are real and enriching. I thank my God for making man and woman in His image, together.

Vive la différence!

Of Old Time Religion and What’s Good Enough for Me

Is there a revival or camp meeting song more popular than “Old Time Religion”? Maybe, but few, and few serve so well to stir up so quickly good feelings about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Try getting the song out of your head after singing or even listening to it for a while—not an easy task. It is bouncing around in my head even as I write.

Like a good campfire song, it lends itself easily to new verses improvised on the spot by each singer in turn. Because of that, I do not know that there is an official set of lyrics.

All of the variations you might hear or sing begin with—

Now give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
It’s good enough for me.

That lead verse sets the pattern. After it come verses like the following:

Makes me love everybody.
Makes me love everybody.
Makes me love everybody.
It’s good enough for me.

I particularly like that thought, because the religion of Jesus Christ is designed to change us so that we do love everybody. The greatest gift of God is charity, the pure love of Christ. If a religion is unable to bring about that change in people, then it is not the religion taught by the Savior.

Here is another verse that I like:

It was good for the Hebrew children.
It was good for the Hebrew children.
It was good for the Hebrew children.
It’s good enough for me.

Some modern religions seem to have forgotten the Hebrew children. You cannot have the true “old time religion” without including them. As Moses and the other Old Testament prophets taught, the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was the religion of Jesus Christ. It was Christ—referred to as the Messiah and as Jehovah in the Hebrew scriptures—who as the God of the Old Testament gave the Hebrews their religion, the religion of direct revelation from God that brought them out of Egypt, and it was good enough to bring them prosperity whenever they followed it.

Of course, the old time religion of God is even older than the Hebrew children, since it was the religion taught by God to Adam and his descendants, observed by Noah and his family on the Ark. There were other old time religions, but they were not good for anybody, with no power to save in heaven or on earth.

And when the Hebrew children forsook the old time religion and instead embraced the pagan religions of their neighbors, the Lord could not protect them. Many rediscovered God’s old time religion once they were in exile in Babylon. That lies behind another stirring verse:

It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It’s good enough for me.

It was good for all of God’s prophets and taught by them. That included the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles and prophets of the church Jesus established during His mortal ministry. This verse captures that spirit:

It was good for Paul and Silas.
It was good for Paul and Silas.
It was good for Paul and Silas.
It’s good enough for me.

That old time religion, of Apostles and prophets who spoke directly with God, and through whom the Father continued to speak regularly to His children, had power to save. As the song continues,

It will take us all to heaven.
It will take us all to heaven.
It will take us all to heaven.
It’s good enough for me.

I am very grateful that God’s old time religion of prophets and Apostles of Jesus Christ is on the earth once again, just as it was anciently. I will add my own verse:

It will help us follow Jesus.
It will help us follow Jesus.
It will help us follow Jesus.
And that’s good enough for me.

Of Commandments and Happiness

Nothing out of date with these observations made more than five years ago.

We sing a hymn, “How Gentle God’s Commands,” the first two lines of which proclaim—

How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!

I suppose that the Ruler and Creator of the world, who offers us all that He has, eternal life (“the greatest of all the gifts of God”—Doctrine and Covenants 14:7), could require from us anything in return. What He asks of us is that we be happy, and He shows us how. Every commandment of God (here I speak of God’s commandments, not the commandments of men) is calculated to promote our happiness and guide us away from unhappiness.

Let us examine a few to illustrate. The Lord commands that intimate sexual relations be reserved for a man and a woman within the bonds of matrimony. This commandment, much disparaged by popular voices, would if followed virtually end all forms of venereal diseases, including the modern scourge of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the heartbreaking and life-ending consequences they bring. Abortion would also nearly end, since the vast majority of abortions are performed on unwed women. The social and economic trauma of children being born into one-parent households would similarly be dramatically reduced. And the deadened emotional wasteland caused by promiscuity would be avoided.

The Lord has commanded that we observe the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. The Sabbath is a day to gather with fellow believers in the worship of God. It is also a day to refrain from usual activities we would call work and focus instead on rest and acts of service to one another. Perhaps less observed today than ever before by the world in general, this commandment is particularly suitable for modern times. Increasingly, people are cut off from one another, associations reduced to momentary casual encounters. The Sabbath brings people together in pleasant association and sharing, with a focus on what uplifts one another. Furthermore, it offers a pause from the daily routine, giving opportunity for mental rest and perspective, a time for pondering, meditation, and preparation for renewed and more thoughtful endeavor.

A third example I would choose is the law of the tithe. The Lord commands the saints to donate one-tenth of their income. At first view, this commandment might seem all loss. Is not a person better off with 100% of his income than he is with 90% of his income? The answer to that is undeniably yes, particularly if that income were forcefully taken away, as in excess taxes. The tithe, however, is purely voluntary. The Lord requires it, but He does not take it. You still have all of your income, for it is by your free choice that you make a donation or not, much as with any other way in which you would choose to dispose of your income. That is important, for by making a freewill donation, you give of yourself and receive all of the moral benefit that comes from such a voluntary gift. That gift is not diminished if you, like I, have noticed that you have always received more back in services and blessings than you have ever given. After all, you could choose to be a free rider and never contribute a dime. Moreover, the law of the tithe is eminently fair. All are asked to donate 10%, rich or poor. Those who earn more contribute more, those who earn less donate less, but all are subject to the same rate. Through the tithe—together with the voluntary labor of the membership of a church without a paid, professional clergy—all have full opportunity and satisfaction of participation in the most important work and activity in the world today: sustaining the work of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

These are but three examples of many. I chose them, because they are among the commandments that some today might consider onerous. These, like all of God’s commands are rich and generous in their benefits. I have merely touched the surface of the benefits from observance of each of these commandments. God loves us, and His commandments are a bounteous example of that love.

(First published March 1, 2009)

Of Charity and Forever

The more I ponder, the more I am brought to the conviction that the pure love of Christ, what the scriptures call charity, is the purpose of life and its highest ideal. So much of this life is designed to provide the opportunity and conditions for developing charity.

Consider this description of charity, provided by the ancient American prophet, Mormon.

And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (Moroni 7:45)

The Apostle Paul offered a very similar description in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he explained that faith, hope, and charity are closely intertwined (see 1 Corinthians 13).

On this earth, in mortality, man does not come by charity naturally. It seems that to develop charity its opposite must be possible, too. As one connects us with heaven, the other ties us to the world of death. We see abundant evidence that this is so.

Where is the man or woman who naturally possesses all of the traits that are part of and unified in charity? We are all drawn to traits the very opposite of charity, to suffer as briefly as we may, to be frequently unkind, often puffed up, normally seeking our own, and surely too easily provoked, thinking plenty of evil, bearing perhaps some things but far from all, with limited hope, and of weak endurance. Gloriously, we all to some degree by our efforts and with the help of others rise above these evils and exhibit and make part of our natures some portion of the elements of charity. Most people seem to mix the two opposites to varying degrees.

God reaches out to lift each of us up and above our mortal nature. Charity is a gift from God, one that He bestows upon those who qualify to receive it by demonstrating their willingness to receive it and live by it. The more we desire it and live by it, the more that charity remains with us and becomes part of us and changes us. When the Spirit of God comes upon us and enters into our hearts and fills our minds, we taste, we experience charity for a time, in all of its aspects, all unified together (the virtues of charity are of a kind and part harmoniously and mutually reinforcing). For a time, the virtues of charity become our virtues.

Thus Mormon counseled,

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God. . . (Moroni 7:48)

That is what it means to be a “son of God,” born of the Spirit. By following Jesus Christ, living as He would, the gift of charity is bestowed upon us, enabling and teaching us in our hearts and minds how to live like Christ, to do the works that He would do, giving us the power to believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. As we experience personally the pure love of Christ our nature changes and we become progressively like Christ.

The world provides ample opportunities to exercise and develop those virtues that we know in spiritual vision but which we need to practice in fact to make ours, to make ourselves into their image, the image of Christ. We are surrounded by evil, by hardship, by difficulty, by those who need our help. Reaching to heaven, charity enlightens us to know how to conquer evil and gives us the power to cope with hardship, overcome difficulty, to bless, promote kindness, relieve suffering, and “endure all things.”

Yet we fall short from time to time, we lose the vision, we turn away. Sin is any and all that would keep us from developing charity. Repentance brings us back by allowing us to change, to seek and qualify for forgiveness of our sins through Christ’s redemption and again be ready for our hearts and minds to be filled with the gift of charity by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Once more we exercise faith, we gain hope, “but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). We may keep charity forever, and as we experience charity in this world we personally learn what forever means.

Of the Meaning of “Still” and the State of the Union

These thoughts, first published almost a year and a half ago, still seem pertinent today.

Notice how frequently these days when discussing the state of the American union, or any parts thereof, people rely upon the word “still.” That is a bad sign. When someone says, “I am still able to see my own doctor,” he or she implies that continued access is in doubt. Rather than reassuring, it insinuates caution and reveals anxiety. What do you hear when someone says, “At least I am still married”?

You do not commonly hear people using “still” in connection with things that they are sure of. If a baseball player boasts, “I can still hit the ball out of the park,” is he likely to be in his prime or in the twilight of his career?

Allow me to offer for your consideration a dozen recent objects of STILL in public discourse about the condition of the nation:

  • The United States is still the largest economy in the world.
  • The United States still has the strongest/best military in the world.
  • The dollar is still the world’s reserve currency.
  • The United States still is a free country.
  • America still is the land of opportunity.
  • The Supreme Court still can be counted on to defend the Constitution.
  • By hard work and best effort you still can become anything you want.
  • My children will still have a better life than I have had.
  • My children will still live in a bigger house than the one I grew up in.
  • In this country you can still get the best healthcare.
  • America still has the deepest, most liquid, and efficient financial markets.
  • At least the air you breathe is still free.

Undoubtedly, you can think of more for the list. Then, there are some things we do not hear people saying “still” about any more:

  • America is the best place to get an education.
  • Americans make the best cars.
  • I can freely speak my mind.
  • I can trust what I hear or read in the “news.”
  • You can count on the elections not being rigged.

I forbear going on. You can add more if you wish. There are some topics where the doubt is too palpable for people to venture “still” in their expressions.

If we leave the discussion at that, then we have a sad commentary on the sad state of the union. The expression of “still” in our conversation can reveal a desperate clinging to the past with a forlorn wish that things will work out for the future, without doing the good works to make the good future happen.

I would suggest, though, that “still” can also mean “not over,” or “not gone.” We need not settle for “still” and do nothing about it. That which we value can be reclaimed from assault and reinforced, the erosion stopped, the tide turned. After all, John Paul Jones is famous for winning a naval battle from the deck of his sinking—but still afloat—flagship, because he used it as a platform from which to regain what was lost. “I have not yet begun to fight!” is still part of the American heritage.

(First published February 10, 2013)