Of Jesus Christ and Life

Life. Jesus said, “I am the life” (Doctrine & Covenants 11:28).

Jesus said, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:32)

Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:25, 26).

I will tell you the story of a German woman, whom for this relation I will name Hertha Lux Bullerman. Hertha was the mother of 5 children, three boys and two girls. She lived in far eastern Germany.

Her first child was a daughter, Ursula. Her second was her first son. He was named Fritz. Ursula and Fritz were close, as first and second born children can be.

Next was born another son, named Hubertus. Hubertus died a day short of four weeks after he was born. Hertha’s next child was a third son, to whom was given a name similar to his brother’s, perhaps in memory of his brother who lived such a short time. This third son was named Hubert. Hubert died from typhus, a few days short of his third birthday. Last born of the children was Hertha’s second daughter, named Christa.

Hertha Lux Bullerman outlived all of her children except her oldest, Ursula. She also outlived her husband, Alfred, who died in 1938 of an incurable disease, just a few short years before that disease, tuberculosis, became very curable.

The family was religious. Alfred was a Lutheran minister, and they all lived in the parsonage, along with Hertha’s father for a time, who was an organist for the church. It was Ursula’s job to work the pump that gave the air that gave the sound to the pipes of the organ. For Ursula, as a child, that was hard work. You could get tired long before the music was through.

Ursula’s grandfather, Theodor Bruno Waldemar, was proud of her. They would often walk in the town, old grandfather and young granddaughter. When other children saw them walking together, they would sometimes call out, “There comes the old musician, with his daughter, the clarinet.” Grandfather would beam with pride, while Ursula thought altogether differently about the peer recognition.

I speak of these things and these people, because this is life, and they lived it. And they are all children of God, the God of the living.

Yet so much of it happened before my mortal life, before I arrived on earth and my mortal reality began. Did it really happen? How could it be real? Are the people of the past, of long ago and not so long ago, real? I am quite sure that it was and that they are.

One year and a month after the death of Hertha’s husband, Alfred, Germany was at war with nearly all of its neighbors.

Hertha’s remaining son, Fritz, was 16 when the war began. Before the war was over he would serve in a tank on the Russian front. Fritz never returned home. He died, in late autumn of 1943, in Ukraine, not far from where there is war again today.

A year later, in November 1944, the old musician, Hertha’s father, died. Of Hertha’s family, she and her two daughters remained. In not many weeks all three would flee for their lives from the Red Army.

The three women, barely fitting on the overcrowded refugee train, could take very little with them. Why did Hertha bring with her the folder containing her family history? With her world crashing down around her, with so many of her family and friends gone, with her homeland behind her and a merciless enemy at her back, why would those records of the dead have any value? Were these people who had gone, children, husband, father, family, real anymore?

Jesus said, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Jesus said, “I am the life”.

Hertha and her daughters, Ursula and Christa, found refuge in southern Germany. Though her new home would soon be occupied by another enemy, it was a more merciful one than the communists.

Hertha and both daughters survived the war. The younger one, Christa, married and had children of her own, though she died from an illness in the mid-1960s. The older sister, Ursula, married an American soldier and came to the United States. She brought with her that treasured folder of family history, preserved by Hertha through fire and flame, through tragedy and chaos.

Ursula herself died just 10 years ago, from Alzheimer’s disease. She had forgotten much of what I have remembered for you today. While my mother’s memory of these people faded away the people did not. She regained them and her memory of them all just as she joined them in the world of spirits.

We all have such stories. I am glad for those that I have saved. I wish that I had saved more. That folder of family history mattered very much. Why did my grandmother entrust that folder to my mother? My grandmother rescued more than her daughters in the cold winter of 1945.

Because the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ extend life to all, I have confidence in the day when we shall be united.

Of Love and Superheroes

Some years ago, one of my children gave me a very lovely replica. It is a ring. The ring is modeled from the description J.R.R. Tolkien gives of Sauron’s one ring, central to Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. The power of the legendary ring was awesome. Unfortunately, it was also altogether evil, so evil that no mortal could wield it without eventually becoming overpowered by the ring itself.

Just hefting the replica, holding it in my hand, and being fully acquainted with the story (the only books besides the scriptures that I have read more than three times), I have to confess that I would be sorely tempted to put on such a ring of power, conceited that I could hold and turn its powers to good—good as I saw fit. In the story, several mighty yet foolish ones were corrupted by the very thought of wielding the ring of power, while the wise were wise enough to recoil from the attempt. Tolkien had a keen insight into the varieties of human nature.

Similarly, perhaps you have at a dinner party or other casual conversation with friends discussed what kind of “super power” you would wish to have, were you given such a choice. Some say great strength, others the ability to fly, or the ability to see in the dark or through opaque objects, or the power to be invisible, among others. Immortality is a favorite.

These fanciful musings and entertaining discussions may not be as fanciful as we might think. Certainly modern technology is constantly making commonplace what would have been marvels in centuries past. Consider trying to explain to a George Washington of the 1780s a jet aircraft, or a phonograph (let alone today’s latest sound reproduction devices), or a personal computer and the Internet. He would have as much trouble believing as we would have explaining. Can we in turn conceive of the instruments and tools our grandchildren will someday have as everyday conveniences?

Yet the greatest miracles of man’s invention are trifles compared with the power of God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

This was the same who, during His mortal ministry, calmed the storm at His will, brought sight to the blind with the touch of His hand, healed the sick with the word of His mouth, and restored the dead to life and vigor at His command. This was the same who perceived men’s thoughts, saw men’s hidden acts, predicted the future, and personally triumphed from death to immortality, the first of all who would be resurrected by His power.

This omnipotent God wants to give us of His power, far beyond that of the supermen of mortal imagination:

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)

Paul explained that this was promised us as heirs of the Father, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

The Book of Mormon tells of one Nephi, who had a mustard seed or more of faith and to whom God extended heavenly power. Because of Nephi’s faithful dedication and spiritual strength, the Lord had been able through Nephi’s ministry to bring tens of thousands of people to repent of their sins and follow Christ. A few years before the Savior’s birth the Lord declared to Nephi,

And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word . . .

The Lord then explained to Nephi that “all things” meant anything, from moving mountains to national calamities. All this the Lord would entrust, He said, “for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” (Helaman 10:5-10) God could trust Nephi with His awesome and infinite power, because Nephi would use it only for God’s purposes.

Can the Lord trust us with His power, or, like Tolkien’s mighty ring, would too much power turn us to evil and self-destructive employment of the power in devastation and sorrow? A hypothetical question? Look at what man has done with God’s great power of procreation. Designed to unify man and woman and raise children within the love, happiness, and security of families, the misuse of God’s power of life has led to hate, misery, broken families, degradation, despair, abused children, abortion, and many other terrors. The evils of the abuse of the powers of procreation are second only to murder in their consequences.

The example of family life is instructive. Families are intended as environments where wise parents prepare children for society, plying greater responsibility as children demonstrate—under parental guidance and correction—their ability to make good use of their opportunities. In this way, when children reach adulthood they are ready to take on adult responsibilities and bless their own spouses and children rather than abuse and lead them to grief.

God’s commandments are designed for the same purpose. As we obey them, not only are we blessed because the commandments highlight the paths of happiness, but through obedience to God’s commandments we obtain experience and gain God’s confidence that He can entrust us with His heavenly gifts.

The greatest of all the gifts of God, and His most heavenly, is charity, the pure love of Christ, the essence of eternal life. As we grow in the use and possession of this love, we become Christ-like.

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 even as he is pure. (Moroni 7:48)

That is how we can each and all become real superheroes. As we want what God wants, because we love as He loves, we become ones on whom He can bestow His power to bless His children in miraculous and powerful ways, now and in the eternities—without the personality flaws and self preoccupation of the comic book superheroes that provide interesting plots as they inflict sorrow on those around them. We become fit for all that God wants to give us. Imagine all you can, your thoughts cannot reach it.

Of What We Know and What We Are

Recently, while reading in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I thought back to when my two oldest daughters attended nursery during Sunday School hours at church. We were then members of a congregation with many young families. There were so many children that they divided the nursery into Senior Nursery and Junior Nursery. The dividing line was between those who had turned two by the start of the year and those who had not yet reached that august age. My older daughter—who is a real sweetheart and has since become the mother of daughters herself—was very proud that she was in Senior Nursery, while her sister was in Junior Nursery.

The mysterious relationship between my reading of the Romans and those events of not so long ago is that both emphasize how brief and transitory this life is. Whether our mortal life is allocated more than 70 years or fewer than 7, the time all told is rather short, and I dare say mercifully so.

This life is filled with the rich, the beautiful, as well as what is poor and ugly, and mostly what is very much temporary and does not matter. The emperors of Rome came and went so quickly, few living to die of natural causes. They scraped and fought and intrigued and connived to possess what they could not hold for long and which at the end left them nothing. The royal purple for the emperors at last was little more important than whether my daughters were in Senior or Junior Nursery. It all mattered about the same.

Some things do matter, greatly. While they can involve tangible things, all that in this life of lasting value is intangible and survives the universal tomb. Now I am watching my children cope with the mighty challenges that life concentrates into the years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. Life’s calling, personal dedication, education, careers, marriage, family, truly life-changing decisions come at these young people inexorably in relentless and rapid succession. They have tangible elements of mortality to employ as tools to aid and markers to help measure the evaluating and making of these important decisions. They wade into deep problems when these material tools are mistaken for the real things.

As parents we watch, support, counsel, encourage, but the decisions are no longer ours. With no small amount of concern, and with generous measures of satisfaction, we can witness these whom we love the most exercise their own free will to lay out the remaining course of their mortality. For Mom and Dad, this period of life has been rich, sometimes painful, and frequently joyful. It is for us a harvesting time, even while for our children it is mostly a time of planting.

I am reminded that, with each graduation, one proceeds from the top of a staircase onto the bottom step of a new one. When my daughter left Senior Nursery, she was at the bottom of the classes of Primary. The seniors in high school become the freshmen in college. The college graduate becomes the “newbie” at work. In my employment I frequently am called upon to consider candidates for jobs. Shall I tell you how little impressed I would be to learn that a particular applicant had been student council president or editor of the yearbook?

I believe that so it goes in the heavens. We eternally progress from stage to stage, with Jesus Christ as our Guide, Leader, and Teacher, each stage well done qualifying us to begin the next, bringing us ever closer to become more like our Father in Heaven. The value is in this very real becoming. Our greatest worldly achievements of rank and fame have in heaven as little weight as our grade school awards convey into adulthood. With much concern God watches how we make our decisions, how we develop our character, with satisfaction and joy as we choose what is good and act well. Like wise parents, God cannot and will not choose for us, our choices at planting being part of His joy in the harvest.

Again, as I recall my children in nursery, and my grandchildren there today, I reflect that there is so much that I would tell them but which they would not begin to understand. There is a treasury of what I have learned in over 5 decades that I would share but that would be completely incomprehensible to a granddaughter or grandson in primary school.

Then I reflect that compared to my Heavenly Father, my treasury is the knowledge of an infant, that I even today am such a little child in terms of what I know. Indeed, were I to know all that there is available to know in this life, it would still be so very little compared with what our Father in the eternal worlds knows and has for us to learn when we once again live with Him. A modern Apostle, Dallin H. Oaks (a former university president), once remarked that an omniscient God is not all that impressed with our Ph.Ds.

But if I do well with what He has given and taught me, I have received the living hope from His Son that I may come step by step in the presence of the Father to know all that He would share, which is everything. That is humbling and exhilarating. I am glad that I have not really very long to wait, and that I can learn my first lessons even now.

Of Thanksgiving and Light

This Thanksgiving I am reminded of thoughts of just a few years ago.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It is a warm, pleasant, kind, family day. Not surprisingly, it is a day of reflection for me, despite of—or because of—all the family and busy activities involved with the day. As busy as the day may be, it is for my mind and spirit a day of rest, a very family day, a day when all is right because the family is right. It is a day during which I reflect with gratitude upon how, through the blessings of God, I have been able to provide for my family and that we have been able to enjoy so many good things. We gather rich in the mutual affection we have for one another, comfortable in how pleasant it is to be in each other’s presence. It is very appropriate that we celebrate with a bounteous meal shared by as much of the family as we can gather and often with fond friends, representing the bounties that God has bestowed upon us in the previous months.

Thus in our home, Thanksgiving Day is a time of reflecting on the abundant blessings of the past. It also serves as a gateway to our Christmas celebration, in which we celebrate all of the good things of life made possible through Jesus Christ. On Thanksgiving night, as soon as darkness has descended, we turn on the outdoor Christmas lights for the first time of the season. There is the apple tree, shining in brilliant white lights in memory of the Tree of Life, which Tree is a representation of “the Love of God, . . . the most desirable above all things . . . and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:22, 23).

Beside that tree, red lights flame the upward and outward branches of a maple tree, symbolic of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in opposition to the tree of life. This illumined tree represents how by the exercise of our power of choice we also unleash our energy to become good or evil—and that we do not always exercise that power for good (see 2 Nephi 2:15, 16).

In the middle of the yard, our flagpole is transformed into a tall, narrow multilight cone topped by a bright white star of light, again representing a tree, our Christmas tree. This and the tree we decorate inside the house are bright reminders that through Christ we can obtain “every good thing” (Moroni 7:25), whether spiritual or material.

The doorway to our house is outlined with a garland of evergreen also illumined with light to proclaim to family or friends that they will find welcome inside. Similarly, our lamppost is trimmed with red and green lights as if to say, “Here we are, don’t lose your way. Come and celebrate with us.”

In many ways it is very appropriate that we initiate this holiday season with a celebration of gratitude. The spirit of gratitude is the foundation of humility, and humility is the first step to opening our hearts to receive the Christ. So bring on Thanksgiving, welcome the family and friends, and open our hearts and homes to Christ, who brings us every good thing.

(First published November 21, 2010)

Of Dead Family Members and Getting to Know Them

Some years ago a radio commentator expressed revulsion toward the popular fascination with genealogy. To make his argument short, he did not see the point. In his view all of those people are dead and gone. What do they matter?

Inasmuch as the comment was made before recent notable advances in research on gene-based hereditary diseases, we can excuse the radioman’s ignorance of how important genealogy can be to tracing the roots of many things that make us ill. At the time, however, I would have liked to relieve his ignorance of other points perhaps even more relevant and important.

In all fairness, I agree with a narrow part of his argument, his objection to the democratization of the old aristocratic practice of using genealogy to prove yourself better than someone else. Such a pitiful exercise in arrogance and pride is pointless. Given how family trees intertwine in just a few generations, there is probably nary a person of western European background who is not a descendent of Charlemagne. The story is similar for people from other parts of the world. And we are all descendants of Noah and Adam, so where are the bragging rights?

It is on his central point where the radioman’s rejection of genealogy falls to the ground. What a woeful and lonely view of man’s condition is embodied in the view that once someone dies he is forever gone! Genealogy, or more broadly speaking, family history, is founded on the belief that the dead in profound respects live on, that they do matter to us. Let me suggest three ways among many, ranked in a generally progressing order of importance.

  • The members of our family who have passed on are in many aspects part of us, beyond the shared DNA. Much in our habits, practices, language, beliefs, and our culture in general has deep roots in those who raised and taught those who raised and taught us. Most of that is probably worth retaining and cherishing, some of it in need of overcoming, but there is a rich heritage there to be discovered. Significant personal meaning can be found in the recognition that the current generation is only the leading edge of something very big that has been going on a long time.
  • As I mentioned, you do not have to do much family history research to discover that we are linked together, more connected than separate. Few genealogists can avoid the powerful realization of being part of the family of man. Our respect for humanity and for each other deepens.
  • Most important, the dead are not gone. They have merely passed from this brief state of mortality, brief for all of us, to the next state on the journey that makes up eternity. Each of us will soon be joining those who once walked where we walk. Family history is the effort to get to know them now, whom we have the privilege of knowing better for a much longer time than mortality has to offer.

Explaining the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus Christ reminded them that our Father is God of the living, not of the dead (Mark 12:26, 27). The mission of Jesus Christ is to provide life to all, to carry out the “work and the glory” of God, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

Jesus Christ speaks more than symbolically and beyond His own relationship when He refers to God the Father. The family relationships and ties, so precious to us now, are eternal. That means that they not only are intended to last forever, but they reach across the generations, beyond death—to generations past and future. They can be among those few precious things we take with us to the grave and beyond. That is not a vain wish of every loving husband and wife and father and mother. It is an inheritance from our Divine Father.

We can begin to build and extend and preserve those relationships here and now. Why wait?

(First published January 6, 2013)

Of Holidays and Recreation

The holidays are fast upon us. The store displays are relentless clues (even if they rush things a bit). While growing up I looked forward to Hallowe’en, in part for the costume and candy celebration itself, but in no small part as the gateway to a series of rich and usually joyful holidays. October ended with Hallowe’en, and then Thanksgiving was observed a few weeks later. Right after Thanksgiving we were into the Christmas holidays. Quickly after Christmas came New Year, followed in February by Valentine’s Day, and at varying intervals Easter arrived amidst the celebration of Spring and new life.

I have a generous treasury of enchanting memories from those holidays. I recall one magical Hallowe’en as a young boy in a neighborhood full of children. The early evening’s streets and sidewalks were filled with costumed colleagues, all busily canvassing the ready houses, milling about, comparing each other’s sweetened haul, each house ready to greet you with a smile or perhaps an expression of wonder while adding to the bulging bag of treats.

Thanksgiving, perhaps the warmest and kindest of holidays, is rich in tradition, from the family and friends who gather, foods that are prepared, the china and silverware that are used, to the preview of coming cold weather. For me and mine, Thanksgiving has been a busily gentle holiday, crowded with activity and effort, but calm and purposeful. Rambunctious noise seems foreign to the day, even with a morning pick-up football game among Church members included. Thanksgiving speaks a time of Christ-like peace in my memory. If there were exceptions, they are forgotten. A prayer, a toast, and a feast that symbolizes the riches bestowed on us by God. In later years, with my own family (my wife and our children), the evening has witnessed the first lighting of the outdoor Christmas lights. Thanksgiving has brought on the Christmas season at our home.

Christmas for us has always been a season, with many holidays. The Advent holidays lead us inexorably to Christmas Eve. In those weeks there are many celebrations, ours and others, traditional and new. We began a new tradition last year that we anticipate repeating this season. Christmas Day itself has been a time when all ordinary activity seems to stop, a Sabbath of Sabbaths. We take an emotional breather, we contact family members not spending the day with us. We enjoy time together and some time occupied alone. For us, we then let the Christmas festivities wind down of themselves to their conclusion at Epiphany, the day we quietly finish the celebration until we near the end of the new year just begun.

Speaking of which, New Years’ Eves in my life have varied widely in observance. Maybe most memorable are an evening spent with my best friend shooting a basketball at the new hoop above my garage door, and another evening as a missionary in the Canary Islands, reflecting on the arrival of 1980, musing on what the end of the twentieth century would mean two decades later. That evening, those decades appeared to be rushing at me.

Then there are Valentine’s Day and Easter arising in steady succession. Each has its own traditions, each creating its own imprint in life’s recollections.

These have stocked my treasury of marvelous memories. I am rich with them. Yet I have more observances to come. To these I look forward.

Here is what I believe about these riches. I can take them out of the treasury each year and seek to recreate them, to work to experience them all over again. If I do, I have but relived and re-experienced what I already have. I add little new to the treasury. Many people celebrate this way. It seems to me a squandered opportunity and probably dangerous. I doubt that the previous charm can be revived, that the wondrous experience of the past can be recaptured. I fear that the joyful and rich memory might even be harmed by the failed effort. Worse, much can be consumed, much exertion expended, and still frustration and misery—for myself and others—may result in the trying.

I believe that a better approach would be to create new magnificent memories. These can build upon the past and work from valuable traditions. The good of the past can be drawn upon to create something greater. The effort is to make a new experience, not vainly recall to life a treasured memory. Not every holiday experience will produce equal joy and beauty, but if allowed to live for its own sake each will add to the fullness of life and the value of our storehouse of life’s treasures. Each will have the chance to be the most marvelous experience yet.

I am not prepared to concede that the best of my life has been lived or that the finest that I can do is recreate only what has happened before. I fancy to live life on the rise. I see no loss in trying.

Bring on the holidays. I plan to observe them each as never before.

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!