Of Careers and Stepping Away

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Asked to give up successful careers, they all did.  Decades ago one was a world renowned heart surgeon.  Today he is president of a worldwide church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with some 16 million members.  His name is Russell M. Nelson.  At 96 years he is still vigorous, going about the world doing good.

One of his colleagues had been a Justice on the Utah Supreme Court.  Dallin H. Oaks stepped away from that post and his legal career when asked to assist in leadership of the Church, which he has now done for 36 years.

His colleague, Henry B. Eyring, has a Ph.D. and MBA in business administration from Harvard.  He left the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business to serve for six years as a college president.  Since 1980, he has been involved in spiritual education at all levels of the Church, with the exception of 7 years to help manage the Church’s physical operations.

The youngest of these three men is now 87.  All three gave up their successful careers to devote their full attention to religious matters, for decades.  None expected to be Church leaders.  They never applied for those responsibilities.  None of them retired from their jobs.  They were asked, and they stepped away in the prime of their professions.  They had faith that the Lord had something even more important for them to do.  They were invited to serve in what they would in an instant tell you was a more pressing calling.

These three are members of what is known as the First Presidency, the highest council of the Church.  They were called to their current positions after first serving as members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles.

Their colleagues on the Council of the Twelve have similar stories.  None planned to be leaders in the Church.  Some had careers in the automotive, real estate, investment, health care, airline, and banking industries.  Others came from occupations in education, on college faculties and as college presidents.  Another was president of a chemical company, another in manufacturing, yet another a heart surgeon specializing in cardiac transplants.  One of these had a career in international relations, in and out of government.  And one was an accountant and auditor—nothing meant by mentioning this profession last.

Departure from a vibrant career is not expected of everyone.  For all but a few, our chances may be no more than doing the marvelous good each day that our jobs may offer, as well as helping our families, neighbors, and communities.  The daily potential is endless, and the joys of job and service taken together can be great.  

Still, there is inspiration in the dedication of those who were asked to give up their careers and did so.  They are giving their all—retaining the preeminence of service to family, which may not be surrendered—to the opportunities to bless others whom the Lord puts before them.  Wonderfully, the Lord also, each day, puts before us opportunities to bless.  Through our work and our service we strengthen our communities, as the Lord would have it.

Of Defending Freedom and Divine Aid

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The story is told in The Book of Mormon of a kingdom rich in freedom, freedom from want, freedom from oppression, with much freedom of opportunity.  What could go wrong?

The generation that participated in building that freedom—it did not come free—yielded to a generation led by a dissolute king.  Under his leadership the society neglected the defense of that freedom.  That was a great danger.  The kingdom was encompassed and its people greatly outnumbered by enemies who nursed a centuries-deep hatred reinforced by an ideology of grievances of perceived victimhood.

Alluringly prosperous, the kingdom was a tempting honeypot to its much poorer neighbors, and yet for more than a generation it kept its enemies at bay.  That success stemmed from the intertwined combination of strenuous exertion and divine help from their faith in Christ.  Each time attacked—by overwhelming numbers—the people drew all of their might into the muster, on one occasion placing young and old into the ranks.  Appealing to and blessed by God, who strengthened their arms and demoralized their foes, the people of the kingdom repelled the invaders.

Their new king followed a different formula.  Governed by his appetites and the mirage of perpetual security, he taxed the people and he taxed his army, diverting resources to feed the wanton consumption of his court.  The people came to tolerate and then ape this corruption.  The generation that had deep faith in Christ and reliance upon that faith, passed on to one that at first kept up the forms of religious observance but without the spirituality in worship or soul.  Their focus shifted from heaven to the transient things of mortality.  They had plenty of reason to be unhappy with the king, from the escalation in taxes, to the perversion of the religious leadership, to the degradation in public morals, including the whoredoms and drunkenness.  Yet while there may have been dissatisfaction at first, the lavish public spending and the example of undisciplined revelry became popular, as it so often can.

The situation fit the pattern mentioned by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations, “What Dercyllidas said of the court of Persia may be applied to that of several European princes, that he saw there much splendour but little strength, and many servants but few soldiers.” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Vol. I, p.392)

The enemies began to notice, too.  Overcoming years of intimidation from their inexplicable defeats, the very proximate hordes commenced a series of minor raids.  As the scripture record relates,

And it came to pass that [they] began to come in upon his people, upon small numbers, and to slay them in their fields, and while they were tending their flocks.  And [the] king . . . sent guards round about the land to keep them off; but he did not send a sufficient number, and [their enemies] came upon them and killed them, and . . . began to destroy them, and to exercise their hatred upon them.  (Mosiah 11:16, 17)

The king responded to the raiders by sending his army, which “drove them back for a time; therefore, they returned rejoicing . . . saying that their fifty could stand against thousands” (Mosiah 11:18, 19).  Their enemies took them up on the boast.  “And now behold, the forces of the king were small, having been reduced . . .” (Mosiah 19:2)  Their enemies, though, came with their thousands, and the fifty, indeed the king’s entire army, fled at his command; the people exchanged freedom for bondage and poverty.

The message is clear, as intended.  Freedom for the people and for the nation, any nation, resides in the people doing all that they can and should for their defense, and a reliance upon God to reinforce their efforts.  That has been the formula for the United States, from the Revolution to now.  It is the duty of each generation to take the handoff of the responsibility from the previous one and pass it on secure to the next.  Hubris for accomplishments in the past will little overcome provocative weakness.  Maintaining freedom is a gift from God, who will help us to the extent we seek His help and demonstrate that we will do what we can to help ourselves.

Of the Spring of Relief and Re-Awakening

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We began this month with fasting and prayer “that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.”  I see our prayers in the process of being received and answered, and I feel to rejoice that there is a God who hears and who receives our prayers of faith.  I have long known, from much personal experience, that He does.  I am seeing it yet again, as I believed that I would.  I expect that you, too, are seeing the signs of the Spring of Relief.

With each new set of hard data of what is really happening, the dire predictions from so many, that frightened so many, are revealing themselves to be well beyond the mark.  That is cause for general celebration (I do not understand why some are angered by it).  Sickness rates and mortality rates continue to decline, approaching levels consistent with seasonal experiences.  Those most vulnerable are becoming easier to identify and protect.

The realized effects of the pattern of the disease offer growing cause for relief and hope for the many, even while we join in sympathy for those most afflicted by this flu strain, just as our hearts sympathize for all who suffer from the numerous ailments and sicknesses that are part of mortality.  No one of us is left unaffected by sickness for ourselves and loved ones.

The reality of the epidemic has wonderfully been falling far short of the dire predictions, for which we are grateful.  On the other hand, the economic experience has been as bad or worse than predicted.  Here the real numbers are also coming in.  I recall one estimate from the first of the month, considered then by some to be high and exaggerated.  The anticipated dark cloud was that by May there would be 27 million Americans unemployed by the Great Cessation and other effects of the state-ordered shutdowns.  By Thursday, April 23, the number of Americans applying for unemployment had reached 26 million, a number that does not include those who remain employed but whose business and income are fractions of normal.  Of those who had work just a few weeks ago, today one in six do not.

No government in known history has ever done this to its own people.  As the Great Cessation was put in place by government action—not by the disease itself—it is an encouraging sign that government leaders are increasingly taking action to restrengthen the economy and to allow the most powerful engines of economic strength, the business operators and employees themselves, to begin the steps to return to the normal processes of enterprise.  This is only just beginning, and it needs to be encouraged.

Will Rogers is credited with saying, “If stupidity got us in this mess, how come it can’t get us out.”  Governments can block economic activity; they are poor at generating economic growth.  They lack expertise and incentives for it.  But they can repair some damage, and they can remove the barriers they erected, to which more government leaders—at local, state, and federal levels—are turning their attention.

These are all trends to celebrate, replacing anger and despair with gladness and hope, a Great Awakening for us in which to be engaged.  Bring it on.

Of Rest and Relaxation

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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)

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