Of Rest and Relaxation

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

The Lord has a distinctive idea of “rest.”  We may see rest as a pause, a respite, a separation from work and activity.  Rest and relaxation are often closely associated.  In music, a rest is when the musician is not making sound—but as my musician wife likes to remind those whom she conducts, when you are not playing or singing, you are still performing.  The rest is part of the music, often a vital, important part.

That brings me closer to my point.  Rest is part of the music of God.  He is not casual about the importance of rest.  God rested.

It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever:  for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. (Exodus 31:17)

God commands us to rest.

Six days thou shalt do thy work, and on the seventh day thou shalt rest:  that thine ox and thine ass may rest, and the son of thy handmaid, and the stranger, may be refreshed. (Exodus 23:12)

He also offers rest as a reward.

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)

Rest may be an eternal principle.  As Enos said, approaching the end of his life,

And I soon go to the place of my rest, which is with my Redeemer; for I know that in him I shall rest. (Enos 1:27)

What does the Lord identify as rest?  It can seem very busy.  For example, referring to those who follow Him, the Lord said, “If they live here let them live unto me; and if they die let them die unto me; for they shall rest from all their labors here, and shall continue their works.” (Doctrine and Covenants 124:86, emphasis added)  Brigham Young taught that after people who have been laboring in Christ’s work die they “are just as busy in the spirit world as you and I are here.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 3, p.370)

The Sabbath day is so closely identified with rest that it is often called the day of rest.  In the Sabbath the Lord has hallowed the way that He views rest.  Consider how He asks us to keep the Sabbath day holy.  In April 2015, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ, and today the Lord’s Prophet to the world, Russell M. Nelson, spoke of the Sabbath as a delight, and discussed how we can make it so.  Focusing on the principles involved, he offered broad categories of activity, including worshiping God, serving His children, teaching our own children, studying the scriptures and inspired instructions of the prophets, working to gather and share family history, visiting the lonely, caring for the sick and afflicted.  That sounds like a lot of doing.  I recall that when I was a missionary, my Sabbath days were more filled with activity than any other day, working for the Savior.  There was a lot of doing, and there still is, and it still delivers rest to the soul.

Notice the words that the Lord employed, through the prophet Isaiah, to describe rest:

And it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall give thee rest, from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou was made to serve. (2 Nephi 24:3)

The Lord offers us real rest, deep, profound rest.  It is more than the shallow substitutes and (too frequently) even counterfeits that the world calls rest—substitutes that can leave us worn out, stressed, and still seeking for something deeper.  The rest that God offers is surcease from anxiety, from mental conflict, from routine and activities that provide little lasting meaning, from all that places us in bondage, replacing all of these with peace, with accomplishment that lasts and stays with us now and through the eternities.  It is a gathering of and tending to the riches of relationships built with God, with our families, with our friends that are all intended to last forever.  It is rising above the trials and turbulence of the world, and ending any turbulence within our own hearts.  This is the rest that Christ offers to us.

On the night before His crucifixion, Christ said to His Apostles,

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace.  In the world ye shall have tribulation:  but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

And then Christ took upon Him our sins and sorrows and troubles that we might know and have true rest, in this life and forever in the life to come.  This is all very real—and refreshing.

Of Humanism and Religious Freedom

Can a creed that claims to be non-religious be itself a religion? Is the professed irreligion of the leading social elites not only a religion but America’s state religion, reinforced by Federal, state, and local governments?

Consider a typical school commencement ceremony, whether college or high school. A speaker declares that we must leave all talk of God behind, toss into the dustbin the dogmas of religion that divide us, and embrace a view of life that brings people together in a common cause of humanity, a village of fellow passengers on this tiny planet as it wends its course through the universe. At another similar commencement ceremony a different speaker declares that we should rise above the hates and lusts of mankind and embrace the love of God, join together in our common heritage as children of the family of God, learning to live with each other here that we may all the better live with our Heavenly Father in the eternities. Which of these, today, is likely to receive the greater applause and public commendation? Which of these speakers, on the other hand, is more likely to be censored and not even permitted to present his views, perhaps under threat of a lawsuit? Or, to make the question easier to answer, which is more likely to receive favorable coverage in the media?

Expressions of skepticism about God and His existence are embraced, praised, and rewarded in contemporary American society. Declarations of faith in God meet anything from patronizing smiles, to hostility, to punitive sanctions under the prevailing culture. The predominant American society, while professing to be neutral about religion, has some very strong opinions about religion and its expression.

In a land of constitutional free speech, that allows no state religion, this should seem an odd discussion, a throwback to history. Cursory familiarity with the historical chronicle would bring to mind other places and times when an incautious word on religion could earn a speaker severe punishment, not excluding cruel execution. Deviation from the local religion was certainly risky business anciently. We also may recall tales of the Spanish Inquisition and the bloody controversies of the Protestant Reformation, as well as the perennial anti-Semitism that has followed the House of Israel throughout its Diaspora. Social revolutions have dealt harshly with religion, from the French revolution to every communist regime, while clumsily endeavoring to create new secular religions (that failed miserably to engage adherents).

The malodorous plant of state religion followed the colonists to America, but it had trouble taking root, particularly among the English colonies. The freedom of wide open spaces, and the need for an armed populace, made oppressive government difficult to maintain. Thomas Jefferson considered the establishment of legal guaranties of religious freedom in Virginia to be among his life’s most important achievements (the other being the founding of the University of Virginia). The principle of that law was later made a part of the United States Constitution with the adoption of the First Amendment.

The public outcry from media and politicians (with little echo from the general populace) over recent efforts of states to reinforce freedom of religion against encroachments by regulatory dicta and court edicts strongly suggests that there is one—and only one—protected national religion in the United States today. It needs no protection offered by these state laws, because its tenets are the motivating heart of the government actions threatening all of the other religions. It goes by many names—as do many broad religions—and includes a variety of sects, also not uncommon among religions. For facility of discussion, I will refer to just one of its appellations, Humanism.

The religion of Humanism has a core belief—shared by all of its sects and denominations—that man is the measure of everything. Man decides what is truth, what is good, what is real. Yes, that is more than a bit narcissistic, which is probably the key to its attraction, particularly among the intelligentsia and the elites. The chief corollary to this main tenet is that God does not matter, whether you believe in Him or not (some Humanist sects tolerate a belief in God or some sort of Supreme Being for reasons of nostalgia and to broaden popular acceptance).

Humanism has an elaborate set of dogmas, commandments, taboos, and rituals. It has its own liturgical language, which is required to be used, for example, in all doctoral dissertations—especially those in the social sciences, though its linguistic hegemony is now reaching to hard sciences as well—and in more colloquial versions observed by all media outlets, especially broadcast journalism. Humanism has its sacred texts along with its college of revered and beatified Humanists of yore.

I was going to write that Humanism has its own seminaries, but, frankly, that includes nearly all colleges and universities in the nation. The clergy of Humanism is largely self-appointed, though it has intricate, Byzantine hierarchies, with no one at the top for long, though all presume to speak for everyone. The clergy are supported by varieties of orders of acolytes and sycophants, the gathering of disciples a key method of rising in Humanism’s hierarchy, and the loss of disciples a sure path to disfavor and obscurity.

While most religions preach exceptionalism, exclusivity, or preeminence, whether in faith or favor with God, Humanism may be the most intolerant of all. Being the state religion, it uses the full power of legislatures, regulators, law enforcement agencies, and the courts to advance its cause and bring in to line people who disagree with its tenets and prescriptions, who violate any of its taboos—particularly who utter any of its taboo words—or who remark on the foibles of its revered demigods. Significantly, any practice by any other religion that interferes with Humanism must yield to Humanist demands, not excluding the profligate use of federal, state, and local moneys to fund its projects, prescriptions, and priests.

Therein lies the explanation for both the desire of various state legislatures to reaffirm religious freedom and the inveterate and fierce hostility to these efforts from the media and a bevy of national celebrities. Freedom of religious belief and practice is a threat only to an established national religion, erecting obstacles to forced conformity with the state church. Failure of efforts to reaffirm the protections of the First Amendment will result in an increasingly intimidating society, constraining intellectual freedom and unauthorized religious observance to a degree unseen in the United States since 1787.

In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Those words are the most prominent inscription in the Jefferson Memorial. Jefferson might get into trouble saying such a thing at a modern commencement ceremony at the University of Virginia.

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 Vanity and Christmas Gifts

The prophets, ancient and modern, are clear that this life is a very artificial thing. The earth and this mortality did not just happen. They were carefully planned in the sphere of the eternities, for very specific—and lasting—purposes.

Abraham reported this, from a vision wherein he saw God speaking of us, His spirit children, before He created the earth:

We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; . . . and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26)

Some centuries later Moses had a related vision, in which the Lord told him,

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

Our glory appears to be the Lord’s glory. It is the Lord’s work and glory that we grow and progress forever. The mortal mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ were all part of His work for our immortality and eternal life. I am not sure that the Lord cares anything at all about anything we do other than what we do that affects His work and His glory. I do not find any evidence in the scriptures that anything else that we do matters to Him. Of course, in an eternal context, nothing else we do really matters to us, either. All of that other stuff is what the author of Ecclesiastes refers to as “vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

That vanity, the key theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is what many people seem to think that this life is all about. Many people live this life as if this life really mattered much, when in truth, all that matters about this life is how it affects the true reality, which resides in the eternal worlds, beyond this world and life. Lasting value and meaning are found in what we take with us when we leave this world.

That is a good filter, if we wish to discern what in this life is imperishable and real and what is temporary and vain. If you take it with you past the grave, it matters. If it does not, fuhgeddaboudit. Or, at least, do not set your heart on it or waste much time with it.

That might be a good guide for Christmas gifts. By that I mean, consider the purpose behind the giving of the gift. Is its purpose to transfer possession of vanity, that has no reach beyond the grave? Or is it instead intended to communicate and strengthen ties of love, friendship, to show kindness, to build relationships, to facilitate personal growth and progress, to memorialize pleasant shared experiences, to express and transmit value? Consider how it may be tied to this list of eternal verities that stay with us:

Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (Doctrine and Covenants 4:6)

There is a lot of Christmas Spirit in that list. Such solemnized gifts are not likely to break and never grow old. They are very real. To the extent they embrace such virtues, I think we remember them.

Of Christmas and Faith in Miracles

The events associated with the birth of the Savior occurred in a miraculous time during an age of miracles. It was also an era of grinding poverty, breathtaking opulence, and many gradations of wealth in between. People were ignorant, well educated, parochial in vision, and metropolitan in view. Religious beliefs involved spurious superstitions, animistic traditions, polytheistic practices, monotheistic faith, and sophisticated atheism.

That is to say that those times and ours have more in common than we might have supposed, which is the point of my writing this evening. Perhaps we create too much distance between us and the birth of the Savior. Measured in human lives, 2000 years is a long time. In the eternal measures of God and heaven, it must be acknowledged as being brief, a matter of yesterday and common memory.

That being true, it would be odd to assume that God, whose miracles were on prominent display in Judea of long ago, would work by miracles yesterday and not do so today. The lack of belief in either one logically undermines faith in the other, because it assumes limits on either God’s ability or His willingness to work by miracles, a possibility hard for the mind to accept. The disbelief in either ancient or modern miracles inclines the mind to reject God’s miraculous interventions entirely.

For some it can be much easier to believe in miracles of the past than to recognize modern ones. Others may be willing to see God’s hand in their own lives but consider the ancient scriptural accounts as morality stories, the details of which should not be taken too literally. We find examples of both among our contemporaries and throughout history.

Of course, among the sophisticated set have always been those who doubted miracles of both past and present. With no recognition of personal involvement in miracles, they reject the word of those who actually witnessed them. They are quick to dismiss others’ experiences, with nice attitudes of condescension for the “lovely legends” and “faith traditions,” that must be taken figuratively if accepted at all. When those who know assert the reality of the wonders, the sophisticates can be known to turn to anger and scorn.

And yet reality can be stubborn and defy rejection. Angels delivering messages from God to priests in the Temple and to shepherds in the fields, God speaking to common men by dreams, signs from God to men in distant places motivating them to “traverse afar” to witness God’s works of salvation, and many other examples of heaven’s direct involvement in human affairs can be easier to dismiss if they only happened in hazy history. When presented with facts of past and present miracles skeptics are hard put to know how to deal with them, other than to dismiss them out of hand and cast ignorant aspersions on those claiming any direct and tangible involvement with Divinity. Nevertheless, the facts remain.

It works the other way, too. Denying modern miracles makes it easier to deny their existence long ago and to convert them into lovely stories instead of real world evidences of the power and love of God and of His involvement in our lives. If there are no miracles now, then they were unlikely to exist in the past. The miracles attendant to the Savior’s birth are transformed into fabulous fabrications rather than marvelous signs of the reality of the birth of the Son of God. The reality of modern miracles, however, attests to the reality of the miracles recorded in ancient scripture.

Admittedly, with rare exceptions, miracles are not for the edification of the faithless anyway. The Lord usually provides room for disbelief for those who choose to disbelieve and for their own sake spares the doubtful from divine confirmation of what they doubt. The Lord did not send angels to invite the leaders of society to the stable in Bethlehem, but instead He called out to those who readily accepted His invitation to witness the baby laid to rest in the cattle’s manger. He did send signs, and through the signs a summons, to the believing wise men of the East who had faith that this child was to be the King of Kings.

Similarly, in modern times, to prepare the way for the approach of the Savior’s second coming, the Lord has reached out through angels, heavenly messengers, and by His own voice to the humble faithful who are ready to believe His word, confirming their belief with many and miraculous signs and wonders.

It is a lot easier to believe in the wonders of the Savior’s birth when we witness and receive their like in our own day. Our unchangeable God works by similar methods with all of His children. And the saints of all ages rejoice.

Of Noel and Becoming Certained

Here is a challenge for you. Find the origin of “Noel.” There are a respectable breadth and shallow depth of information on where this word came from. While today we use it commonly as a synonym for Christmas, agreement pretty well ends after that. Uncertain roots and meanings do not seem to inhibit the use of the word “Noel” this time of year.

I expected general consensus that Noel was of French derivation. A little research, however, turns up a competing claim that the word has a Gaelic or Celtic source. That need not disprove the theory of a French origin, since many Celtic peoples lived in France (or Gaul) before the Romans came, and many who today live in the northwestern parts of France trace their genealogies to Celtic roots, especially in Brittany.

Another French origin theory links the word to Latin, but here again opinion diverges. One school traces Noel from the Latin word natalis, suggesting a meaning derived from a reference to birth, particularly celebration of the birth of the Savior.

The other French-from-Latin line takes us to Nowell, and from there to Nouvelles, referring to the Latin word for “news”: novella, as in the good news of Christ’s birth. With no personal claim to expertise in the science of etymology, I will admit to a preference for this derivation. Aware of the French way of smoothing out Latin words, Nowell sounds like a very understandably French form of Novella. Moreover, we have Medieval and Renaissance carols using the words Nouvelles and Nowell in much the same way that Noel is used in more modern carols. In each case, the word is sung as a way of proclaiming joyous news, which fits very well with today’s French greeting of the season, Joyeux Noel! Good news also happens to be related to the meaning of “Gospel” (which, by the way, comes from old English).

Which brings me to the popular carol, “The First Noel” (perhaps translated from the French), which begins like this:

The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
[and so forth].

Children love to sing Christmas carols. The carols, after all, have laid claim to some of the most memorable melodies. The words of carols, however, can at times challenge the vocabulary of little children. Through many years of singing “The First Noel” I was certain that the word “certain” in the second line was a verb, not an adjective. In my young mind it described what and why the angel was speaking to the shepherds. The angel appeared in order to certain the shepherds.

While I was not sure what it meant “to certain” the shepherds, today I am not so sure that I was wrong in hearing a verb. Why the angel chose those shepherds and perhaps not some others who might have been nearby seems to me less important than his purpose. The angel wanted those shepherds to know, to understand, to be certain of what they saw, and thereby to be witnesses. The angel explained to the shepherds what was happening, what it meant, where it was happening, how to recognize the marvel, and then the shepherds quickly went to see for themselves, personally. Immediately afterward they shared what they knew.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . . And they came with haste, and found . . . the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. (Luke 2:8-17)

The Lord wants us to believe His word, but He wants our belief to mature into certainty, into knowledge. As the Savior Himself prayed to the Father in the presence of His disciples,

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)

Following His resurrection, Jesus was careful to make His disciples certain of His resurrection so that they might witness to others of what they knew, enabling others at first to believe and then come to know for themselves by the testimony of the Holy Ghost.

Wherefore I give you to understand, . . . that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Similarly, in our day, the Lord would that we had living faith grown to knowledge through the Holy Ghost. As the ancient American prophet, Moroni, testified,

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)

I, too, have been certained. I know for sure that God is real and that Jesus Christ was resurrected and is the Savior of the world. I am not alone in that knowledge. Many have believed and had belief confirmed by the assurance of the Holy Ghost.

This Christmas season—or any season—I invite you to become certained, as were those poor shepherds and millions of God’s children before and since. For you, like them, that would be discovering the true Noel of Christmas.

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 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 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.

%d bloggers like this: