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 Old Time Religion and What’s Good Enough for Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is another verse that I like:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ

As we approach the Easter season, it may be valuable to reflect on the meaning of the season. It is, after all, Easter that gives meaning to Christmas, and the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ give meaning to Easter.

Few if any events of ancient history are as well attested as the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His rising from the tomb after His death at the hands of the Roman executioners is a hard fact. It is a particularly hard fact to grapple with if one is of the mind that religious phenomena are “spiritual”—by which critics mean “unverifiable.” Their efforts for nearly two thousand years have been to try to change the subject or impugn the witnesses or make the reality appear somehow merely symbolic, allegorical, or fabulous. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains as startlingly real today as it was to the Greco-Roman world of 34 A.D. The emergence in the 1830s of powerful new evidence of the Savior’s resurrection from the dead makes objections to its reality impossible to sustain.

The list of witnesses of the resurrected and immortal Christ is a long one, spanning continents, ages, and sexes. It begins with Mary Magdalene, in Jerusalem, who went to the tomb early on Sunday morning after Jesus’ execution, expecting anything but to see Jesus alive once more. She was there to finish the process of anointing the body, which she and others could only hastily begin on Friday evening. To her wonderment and sorrow the tomb was empty. Rather than expecting that the dead was alive once more, her one thought was to find where the body now was. To a joy that none but she could describe, Mary was told by Jesus Himself that He was risen from the dead. Mary also became the first to testify of the Savior’s resurrection, as she quickly reported her experience to the disciples (John 20:1-18).

The record reports how later, in the evening, the resurrected Christ appeared to these disciples, who included at least ten of His apostles in company with others of Jesus’ followers. As if to answer future skeptics, Jesus made a point of the physical reality of the resurrection from the dead. First, to attest to the death, he had those present handle the mortal wounds in hands, feet, and side (the last inflicted by the Roman soldiers to assure the death of Jesus before they removed His body from the cross), as He declared to them, “handle me and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-21) Next, to demonstrate the full functionality of a resurrected body, Jesus ate a piece of broiled fish and part of a honeycomb (Luke 24:41-43). This is tangible evidence, intentionally offered by the Savior to emphasize the fact of His physical resurrection, with a very physical body.

Sometime that same day Jesus walked for an extended time with two disciples as they journeyed to the nearby village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). A week later the apostle Thomas, who had been absent the week before, was added to the list of physical witnesses, as he in turn was shown the mortal wounds of the risen Christ (John 20:26-29). Again in Galilee Jesus met His disciples for a meal of fish and bread and then taught them about charitable service while sitting with them around the fire. To these and other interactions of the mortal disciples with the immortal, risen Christ, is the record in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that “above five hundred brethren at once” saw the resurrected Christ, to which Paul adds his own personal witness (1 Corinthians 15:6-8).

The Book of Mormon, first published in 1830, is another witness, from a separate people on another continent, of the Christ who had lived, died, and been resurrected far away in Jerusalem. Across the ocean, in ancient America, Jesus Christ appeared to 2,500 more disciples who became personal witnesses of their resurrected Savior. “And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom was written by the prophets, that should come.” (3 Nephi 11:15)

To these ancient testimonies, the list grows with modern day witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Add the names of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery, “That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22,23; see also Doctrine and Covenants 110:1-10).

The testimony is sure. You can accept it or not, but you cannot change the fact that Jesus, once dead, rose again from the dead, as He and the prophets foretold and as He and the prophets since have reported. With that knowledge, Easter becomes more than a quaint relic of just another “faith tradition”. It becomes a celebration of the greatest event in the history of the world.

(First published February 22, 2009)

Of What I Believed and What I Found

Until the day that I was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ I had not affirmatively adhered to any of the various creeds of the denominations of Christendom, none of them in particular, but I have always had faith in God and Christ. My parents, acting upon the best knowledge and light that they possessed at the time, had me baptized when but a few days old into the Lutheran church (I think that it was the Missouri Synod, but I am not sure of that). I was quite short of sin at the time of my infant baptism, a claim that I confess I could not make when I approached the waters of baptism on my own volition later in my youth.

Also upon the initiative of my parents, and without any resistance on my part, I was a regular and active attendee at the protestant churches my parents attended. I sang in youth choirs, and I tried to pay attention to the weekly sermons. Often I would sit by myself on the front row, right in front of the minister’s podium, and watch him go page by page through his text. I regularly attended Sunday School and was involved in the lessons. It was at one such Sunday School where as a little lad I was taught by the Sunday School teacher, my mother, to build my house upon a rock.

In my childhood I grew up in suburban communities, richly endowed with a wide variety of Christian churches and sects, and when as a youth we moved to western New York I became acquainted with still others. My experience was that people chose their protestant church in accordance with what suited them as to location, music, oratorical powers of the minister, the fellowship of the members, the physical facilities of the local building, worship customs and practices, meeting hours, and a variety of other factors. Whether one denomination was “true” in comparison with another was not a question that I recall ever being raised. The general attitude that I could discern was that each and all of the denominations were recognized as possessing no more or less truth of consequence as any other.

I do not remember a beginning to my faith in Christ or my assurance of the presence of God. I recall them as much as I can recall anything from my earliest memories of my earliest thoughts. What I was taught in my childhood reinforced that faith. Indeed, if the churches taught anything, it was to have faith in God and in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, I thought of more. More than occasionally I pondered why the churches of the day were so different from the Church of Christ as described in the New Testament. None of them was even close in resemblance. I imagined that it would have been marvelous to live in the days when Apostles of Jesus Christ walked among men and when the gifts of the Spirit were abundant. I also pondered, even as a child, the situation of people in China and elsewhere who had little knowledge of Christ and no access to His saving ordinances. The churches offered no solution to the problem of these people other than to try to reach them by missionaries as much as possible. But what was the fate of those who missed out in the meantime? I never heard the question asked or an answer offered.

I was also taught by my mother to pray. Prayer was a part of my daily routine. I had a deep reverence for the Holy Bible, a copy being one of the first books I ever “bought” (by redeeming a book of green stamps). The churches I attended taught from the Bible, particularly recounting the stories. As I got older, I sensed, however, a hint of embarrassment on the part of minister and teacher about relying upon the Bible too literally. We were not encouraged to bring a copy with us to church or class.

All of that changed after my mother invited the Latter-day Saint missionaries to come by and tell us something about their church. She really had my brother in mind, since at the time he was wrestling with all of the distractions of young manhood. She felt that they might do him some good. When the missionaries arrived, I was home and he was not. I listened and learned.

What the Latter-day Saint missionaries unfolded to me was the ancient Church of Christ in its fullness, all restored on earth today. Once more living Apostles walked among men, with all the same gifts and powers of the Spirit manifested as they were nearly 2,000 years before. The scriptures came alive, the Holy Bible resumed its place as a standard reference for daily living and communion with God, its messages and miracles embraced into real life rather than mere moral tales of antique lore. As they did anciently, the living prophets and Apostles were revealing more from God, guidance directly relevant to our current and modern conditions, all fully in harmony with what God had always said.

One example I learned and had until then never been taught was news of the work to spread the message and redemption of Christ to all people, wherever and whenever they lived. As the Bible taught and as modern prophets taught, those who left this life without access to the gospel of Christ would hear that message in the world of spirits, where they lived and waited for the day of resurrection to come when the Savior returned to the earth, as He promised. None were to be left out, all to have as full a chance to receive God and Christ as would any other.

Echoing what I had always believed, the Latter-day Saints proclaimed that Jesus Christ was the Savior of all the world and of all mankind, His religion not just a faith for a segment of the population in one part of the world. Together with the Holy Bible of the ancient east The Book of Mormon was a testimony from the ancient west that salvation is in Jesus Christ and in Him alone, proclaimed by two societies of antiquity separated by an ocean but united in the same witness from God of the divinity of His Son.

To these ancient testimonies of Christ were added the modern testimonies of men and women who knew. The Latter-day Saints gained through their faith personal knowledge born of personal revelation of the Savior Jesus Christ. Through prayer and many personal unimpeachable experiences their faith had grown to solid assurance.

To their witness I add my own, gained in the same way. Building upon my own faith in Christ, exercising the familiarity with personal prayer taught me by my mother, I acquired just as the saints of old days and modern times a deep personal knowledge and assurance that God is real, that Jesus Christ is resurrected and the Savior of all, and that His Church is on the earth again possessing and manifesting all that it had anciently.

I found the true and living Church of the true and living God. The interaction has made my life richer and better, deeper and full of value. Since and from that discovery I have been gaining every good thing.

(First published March 10, 2013)

Of New Scripture and Modern Prophets

Some critics of The Book of Mormon and of modern revelation cite Revelation 22:18,19 as warning against any additional scripture beyond the Holy Bible. Those verses read as follows:

For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

This scripture is clear, and it is important to all of us. There are, however, many things wrong with the argument of those who would draw upon this passage to silence the God of the universe and to quash divine scripture—whether ancient or modern—of which they might not approve.

First of all, it should be pointed out that the Lord through Moses said a similar thing way back in Deuteronomy 4:2:

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.

This passage of scripture is also clear, and the same principle is as important to us today as it was to the ancient people of Israel. It is the same principle that the Lord spoke through John: no man is authorized to take it upon himself to alter the word of God.

It seems absurd to think that these passages mean that the Lord must be muzzled and that nothing can be added to the canon of scripture. That would make for a very short Bible–not only nothing after Revelation (which was not the last book of the Bible to be written), but nothing after Deuteronomy.

That must have been clear to the early saints in the decades following the Savior’s ascension into heaven, the ones who put the Bible together many years after the Revelation of John was written. It was these who chose to include in the Bible parts of the New Testament written after the Revelation of John.

Second, how could the misinterpretation of Revelation 22:18,19 be applied to object to The Book of Mormon, since most of The Book of Mormon was written in centuries before John wrote Revelation? Would this misinterpretation apply to any other ancient records of the word of God that might be discovered? Much better, it seems to me, to rejoice at receiving more of the word of God.

Which brings me to the real meaning of these passages in Revelation and Deuteronomy. It is also the plain reading of the language. Both of these passages emphasize the principle that man should not add to or take away anything from the word of God. They say nothing against God adding to His own word if He chooses to do so. It would be pretentious, if not blasphemous, to assert that God could not add to His own word.

If, then, man is prohibited from adding to the word of God, but God is not prohibited from adding to the scriptures, how would God do it? He would do it the same way that He gave us Deuteronomy and Revelation and all of the scripture that He has revealed since. He would act through “holy men of God”, as Peter explained, who reveal the word of God “as they were moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Peter 1:21) Who would presume to deny such inspired utterances?

It was exactly through such inspired men that the Holy Bible was written, as was The Book of Mormon. In this same way, God speaks to man and adds to His scriptures in modern times.

(First published September 14, 2008)