Of Charity and Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus Mormon counseled,

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

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

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

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

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

Of the Arrival of Christmas and the Return of the Christ

Christmas came this year. Nothing could stop it. People could and did choose to ignore it, with varying success, but their efforts made no difference to Christmas’ arrival. Neither poverty nor wealth could hold it back. Merchants lamented the shortened shopping season. Early wintry weather interfered with many transportation plans. Irreligionists of many stripes raised their usual objections to the public symbols of Christmas and in some places succeeded in suppressing those symbols. Wars and rumors of wars exerted their perennial presence to mock sentiments of peace on earth all the while proving its need. On personal levels, challenges at work, demanding academic schedules, unexpected as well as chronic illness, the death of loved ones, and many other matters and intrusions of varying importance fought for the precedence of our attention.

Many causes large and small could easily leave the feeling that there was no time for Christmas, this year or other years. The distractions of life can all too easily make the sources of lasting value appear as distractions.

I am again reminded of the words of Charles Dickens. He spoke through the mouth of young, idealistic Fred, in answer to his Uncle Ebenezer’s rodomontade against Christmas. The not yet but soon to be converted miser thought his daily work focused on important matters, all the while missing out on the sources of joy in life. Fred reminded his Uncle, as a prelude to a change of heart, how Christmas symbolized humanity’s worth in life’s lasting values, to which worldly wealth can serve as a facilitator but never a replacement.

There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, . . . Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of those people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it! (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

And so this year, in 2013 Christmas came, inevitably, inexorably, as it has for some two thousand years, and many blessings with it. The good and bad and indifferent that hitched along for the ride could not affect the driving core of Christmas, its fundamental, joyful message of hope of salvation for all, to one degree or another as each opens up—or not—to receive it.

It is in the driving arriving context of Christmas and the mission of Christ that it is appropriate to look to one of my favorite Christmas carols. I confess that this is difficult to do without the music, essential to the power of the carol’s message. I refer to the “Carol of the Bells,” a joyful Christmas message woven by Peter J. Wilhousky into the driving music of Mykola Leontovych’s Ukrainian song of Winter and the approaching Spring.

I love this carol for many reasons. One is that its origin of uniting Winter with Spring embodies the message that Christmas derives its meaning from Easter. Jesus was the Christ, the Anointed One, because of His ultimate sacrifice and victory over death and hell, a mission for which He was chosen before the world was created. Having fully accomplished His mission, as a resurrected God, Jesus declared, “I have drunk out of that bitter cup which the Father hath given me, and have glorified the Father in taking upon me the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:11). That is the reason for and fulfilment of our Christmas joy.

Here are the lyrics. Importantly, as you read the words, feel their rhythm, central to the message:

Carol of the Bells

Hark how the bells,
sweet silver bells,
all seem to say,
throw cares away.

Christmas is here,
bringing good cheer,
to young and old,
meek and the bold.

Ding dong ding dong,
that is their song
with joyful ring
all caroling.

One seems to hear
words of good cheer
from ev’rywhere
filling the air.

Oh how they pound,
raising the sound,
o’er hill and dale,
telling their tale,

gaily they ring
while people sing
songs of good cheer,
Christmas is here.

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,
Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas,

On, on they send,
on without end,
their joyful tone
to ev’ry home.

Ding dong ding dong. . . dong!

The lyrics, like the tune, are repetitive, incessant, and by that technique insistent in rhythm. On, on they come. They demand attention. Like bells, they are loud and piercing. As someone knocking at the door, their message—and presumably the messengers—will not be denied. The tune is joyful, but not light and airy. Rather announcing a joy that comes from the soul, heartfelt, it is not the celebration of a party, but the celebration of a triumph, lasting and permanent, ever reaching out to more people, to every home.

So each year, onward Christmas comes, no holding it back, even as Jesus came into the world, as prophesied for thousands of years. There was nothing to hold Him back or deter His mortal mission of redemption, not the jealousy of Herod “the Great,” the pusillanimity of Pilate, the hatred of the leaders of the Sanhedrin, nor the darkness of priestcraft and its traditions. All was turned by God to assist in achieving the mission of the Christ.

And since then, onward marches the calendar, each year Christmas arrives, symbolic that the day of the Savior’s return, as prophesied by Himself and His prophets, inexorably approaches. As Christ announced, only He and the Father know the precise day and time, but it is certain and each day closer. The arrival of Christmas each year is a reminder to me, that the time of rejoicing is coming, the hope and assurance of which justifies rejoicing today, and every day.

Christmas will come again next year. Ready or not, I am glad of it and will welcome it.

Of Christmas and Celebrating Hope

The story of Pandora and her box (or jar) has been retold for thousands of years, with minor variations. The key elements of the tale from Greek mythology are consistent. Pandora was endowed with many wonderful gifts and talents, among them beauty, music, persuasion, and others. She was also given a box, which she was told never to open. Try that out on anybody: “Here is an interesting box. It is yours. DO NOT EVER OPEN IT!” I expect that the result would ever be the same, the box will eventually be opened. As the story goes, it was, introducing into the world evil in all of its forms. Last of all, however, from the bottom of the box, came hope.

I believe hope to be an underappreciated and little understood gift from God. Hope is essential to happiness, salvation, and life. I know of no happiness without it, I cannot imagine any achievement not preceded by hope. In all salvation, temporal or eternal, hope draws us forward. It is foundational to life and living. Hope is ever at war with despair (for example, the Spanish word for “despair” is desesperanza, or the absence of esperanza, “hope”): despair is life-draining, while hope feeds life.

In this understanding of hope, I do not refer to the weak sentiment most common in everyday parlance, the wistful wishing for something better, a wish that seldom acts as a motivator for effective action. I have in mind the hope spoken of by God and His prophets, against which the forlorn reach from despair—as valuable and comforting as that may be—pales in comparison.

Consider how the power of hope is described in this account of the preaching of the ancient American prophet, Ether:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. (Ether 12:4)

Notice the power of this hope, an anchor to the soul, making those who possess it sure and steadfast, the person who has gained it always abounding in good works. Nothing weak or wistful here. Such hope is a mighty, heavenly gift, with mighty results. Also notice the connection between hope and faith, the former being a powerful fruit of faith.

I have thought that a fair definition of “hope” is the personal recognition that something desirable is attainable. By faith we learn of the desirable object as well as gain the recognition that it is within our reach. When that happens, hope is born in our hearts, and we are stirred to action to attain it. That is life itself. Dead things, inanimate objects, reach for nothing, always acted upon, never doing the acting.

There are many things that each of us values and would very much desire to attain, to gain, to build: love, knowledge, wealth, improvement, new abilities, bridges (real and figurative), but we do not act to realize our desires until we first gain the idea that we can be successful. Without hope of success we may go through the motions in a lame sort of way, guided by routine that can become drudgery. We are energized—even beyond what we thought were our limitations—as soon as we gain a vision, as soon as we believe the prized fruit to be within our reach, when we have hope. Then there is little stopping us. Obstacles are overcome, means are found, tools are made, skills developed.

In my reflections I have named my three daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity, as each one seems especially to personify one of these three great gifts of God. My oldest daughter would be named Hope. Throughout her life, once she has gotten it into her head that something worthwhile is within her reach she has done whatever it takes to realize it. Because of that, through great and consistent effort, overcoming many obstacles, she has become rich in all of the eternal things, in everything that matters. Her mother and I admire her for it. Her achievement need not be unique. It is within reach of all of us. Each may have such hope and become so rich.

There are many reasons for the perennial popularity of Christmas. Surely one of these is that it is a celebration of hope offered to everyone. Salvation did not come to earth with Christmas. The sacrifice and atonement that Jesus Christ would work out to bring about all salvation would await another three decades after His miraculous birth. With Christmas, the birth of the Savior, there arrived in Person the assured hope that salvation would come. The angel who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem the night of the nativity was filled with that hope, with that assurance, that caused him to rejoice and share with the shepherds his message “of great joy” so that they, too, might have this great and assured hope: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10, 11)

The hope of Christ, in all of its power to action and motivation for every good thought and deed, is worthy of general celebration, every year. The salvation of Christ has been placed within reach of everyone. Having that hope can become a personal anchor as we realize its promise, becoming sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, that each of us personally, here on earth, can be filled with “peace, good will toward men.” At least in part, that is what Christmas is all about.

Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)