Of Helping God and Helping Fathers

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When I was twelve my parents moved us to an old farm house.  It was basically solid, but it was old.  The house had not been occupied for a decade or more, other than by varieties of wildlife.  It needed a lot of work.  My father moved in about a month before us to begin the restoration, bringing it close to livable when we all moved in.  Still, it was a bit like camping out inside the house for the first several weeks.

Being a fixer-upper brought the house within my parents’ price range, though the $90 a month mortgage was still a strain.  My father did nearly all the restoration work himself. 

The roofers, called in to repair numerous leaks, were particularly interested in the slate shingles.  Once they had taken those off, we never saw them again—roofers or shingles.  Our wonderful neighbors helped us with an emergency roof replacement when the hired roofers left us high but far from dry in the midst of a thunderstorm. 

My father, who had been a public works inspector where we lived before, knew a great deal about ceilings, walls, carpentry, electrical wiring, plumbing, and other very practical things.  He tried to pass some of that knowledge on to me. 

I remember helping my father replace pipes.  He did not need the help.  I am quite sure that I slowed him down.  He had me participate in the work so that I could learn something about plumbing, and maybe even something about working.  I remember many details about plumbing, carpentry, and electricity that my father taught me.  I learned what was between walls.  He taught me many of the little details that you need to observe to make something work right and last long. 

My father did not teach me everything he knows about keeping a house in good repair, but he taught me everything that I know.  He did it by showing me.  He taught me about tools by putting them in my hands.  I experienced what the right tools did and how using them properly made the work easier, made impossible work suddenly doable.

My father often explained the principles behind what we did.  When he helped me move into my new house he noticed that we had a two-car garage, but only one car.  He told me that was a problem.  Why? I asked.  “Because you will fill one side up with stuff.”  He was right.  When we could finally afford a second car, we had a lot of work to do to clear the garage to make room for it.

Our Heavenly Father gave us earthly fathers to teach us much about Him.  As do the fathers of our flesh, the Father of our spirits allows us to learn by helping Him with His work.  He revealed that His work is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)  The Father often does this important work by getting us to help Him.  He calls upon us to help our brothers and sisters, His children. 

The Lord does not need our help.  “I am able to do mine own work” (2 Nephi 27:21), He said.  Our Father often does that work by giving us the tools to help one another, teaching us how to use the tools, and then working with us.  He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to show us how by example (and to fix our mistakes).  By doing that helping work we become more Christlike.  We learn to love each other as the Father and His Son love us.  We learn to become like Them.  We also learn to teach and love our children, as the Father loves us.

Of Mothers and Sons

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Just a few years ago, which after this last 12 months seems like another era, I witnessed an event at Penn Station that still moves me.  I was seated at a crowded food court.  With time on my hands before my train, I was enjoying a little something that I hoped was gluten-free (a diet prompted by genetics rather than preference).

A dozen steps away was a man behind a counter selling ice-cream snacks.  With shuffling steps a gaunt, old, grey panhandler approached.  His hand pulled something from the pocket of his ill-fitting battered trousers.  I could see that it was some change, which he was counting as he shambled toward the counter.  There was a look of desire in his eyes, which took on a saddened cast as he paused, counted again, and turned away, just a few feet from the ice-cream counter.  His sum of pocket change was short.

I was not the only one watching.  At another end of the counter was a mother, enjoying ice-cream with her two teen-age boys.  A quick word from the mother to the older and taller son sent him on his way.  A couple of minutes and a brief conversation later the boy returned, escorting the old man.  In short order the man left again, with joy on his face and a tall, full ice-cream cone in his hand that just a few minutes before did not hold enough change.

That was it.  That was the end of the story.  Or was it?  A small expense became a rich lesson from mother to son.  The mother could have done nothing, or she might have called out to the disappointed man.  She sent her son and gave him a personal experience in kindness that the boy may long remember into manhood.

The service was not requested.  It was spontaneously offered.  The gift, the effort, the quick initiative, was a small event converted into a teaching moment by a mother drawing from ready wells of charity.  I feel confident that the mother did not know that I was a witness, as her attention was on both sons and on a man who could have a moment of disappointment, reinforcing his penury, converted into a bright memory of happiness.  Which was sweeter for him, the ice-cream or the friendly attention?  I suspect that the mother and her sons gained a happiness, too, sensing how their simple act of humanity toward a fellow child of God connected them all in a moment of goodness.

This was charity.  I do not refer to the price of the ice-cream but to what made it a gift.  The scriptures define this charity as the pure love of Christ, which can well up from our hearts in precisely the method and moment when it is needed.  There was nothing premeditated in the event.  It was just a mother from her fountain of love, blessing a luckless man, a son and his brother, and at least one witness who will hope to remain vigilant for when such opportunities cross my path.

Surely there are greater acts of love than this.  Yet millions of such small personal kindnesses are a contagious mortar that builds a community.  I am grateful for mothers who feel to teach that to their sons.

Of Easter and the Constitution

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One morning in Tennessee, almost 160 years ago, many thousand U.S. soldiers were quietly enjoying breakfast on a beautiful spring Sabbath, thinking of little more than passing a quiet Palm Sunday and sometime soon thereafter continuing the destruction of the rebel army in nearby Corinth, Mississippi. That was, until the rebels came calling and rudely interrupted breakfast.

By the end of the battle the next day the rebels were in full retreat, but over 13,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing, and nearly 11,000 rebels had met the same fate. Shiloh turned out to be a major victory for the United States Army, opening up nearly the whole western part of the rebel confederacy to reunification. The import of the victory was missed by much of the population of the loyal states, however, whose senses reeled from a bill of losses of husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers never seen before in the life of the Republic.  General U.S. Grant, whose coolness under pressure made the victory possible, was mercilessly criticized in the press.

The nation little understood that the casualties of Shiloh would be only the first of many tens of thousands more who would suffer from civil war in the land of Washington and Jefferson before 1862 would be over. Then there would be 1863, 1864, and 1865 to follow, running the tally of destruction ever higher.  In 1865, near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln summed up in his marvelous second inaugural address—for a term of office that would last the rest of his life, less than 6 weeks—“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. . . . Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding.”

All Americans today benefit from that profound victory and the others that brought an end to the rebellion and that upheld the Constitution. It was a strange and new thing for the world that the words on a piece of paper, written by men of an earlier generation, could create a system of government and affect so many lives. It was the lives of those who fought to sustain the Constitution that gave it that life, men who insisted on living by those words and organizing a free society within the protections of its provisions.

The same is true today, as with each generation:  we are called upon to uphold that Constitution, those words on a piece of paper, and hand it on down, as strong as ever, to our children. Those men who died at Shiloh cannot do our work for us today. Neither can the men who fought and died in Europe and the South Pacific and on many other places of battle.  Just as important as those who died to preserve the Constitution are those who have lived to maintain the Constitution. They, however, could do no more than pass that freedom under constitutional law to us. We have it today. What will we do with it?

As Ronald Reagan taught in his 1967 inaugural address as Governor of California,

“Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

We must not let it become extinct. It is under challenge from enemies without, who hate the liberty and worth of the individual enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and it is endangered by those within the nation—some in very high places of power and responsibility— who see the Constitution as a barrier in the way of their plans to replace individual rights, value, initiative, and worth with the ages old system where the government and the governors run the lives of the people and decide who wins, who loses, who gets what, and how much.

Our forebears fought a revolution and crafted a new system in the New World to get away from that rule by the few. The lesson we need to learn anew, is that it is the job of the many individuals who make up each generation to win that freedom again, because there will always be those eager to impose their will on others and use and direct and take the resources that they themselves did not earn, who will want to have their way with other people’s money and other people’s lives.

No one’s sacrifice is the same as anyone else’s. Read no unfairness in that, because to sacrifice is to absorb unfairness. We cannot avoid the call to sacrifice.  Not even Christ, the greatest of all, could.

As we celebrate Easter we should remember the sacrifices of the Savior, by which He absorbed all unfairness. His sacrifices made Easter possible, by which all that is wrong is overcome and ultimate freedom bought for each person born into this world. We are privileged by Christ to be given the chance to join in that effort to preserve and extend the blessings of freedom to our families, our friends, and to people we do not know and may never meet.

At Gethsemane, then Golgotha, and from the Garden Tomb, Christ has created the framework that makes freedom possible. He inspired the founders who built a nation of liberty as the beacon to all mankind that it has been for almost 250 years. As our Easter worship, let us take up the last call given by Abraham Lincoln to the nation as the Constitution was reaffirmed in struggle, who recognized the great value of America for the world:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Of Easter and the Triumph of Life

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Spring might have appeared early this year, and Easter late, and that is fine with me. Sometimes Easter arrives while winter still lingers, but this year Easter’s message of life and renewal will be fully broadcast in the flowers and trees. I think I love the bright azaleas and tulips best.

Let their message of perennial life be matched in our hearts, as renewal and rebirth come to our souls through the power of Jesus Christ to make all things new and to make death a temporary pause. Without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, nothing would matter, for death would prevail as the final statement to each and all. Since Christ overcame death and rose from the dead to eternal life mortality is converted into the exception to the normal existence of life. Mortality is to be endured, and more than endured, used to prepare for our eternal existence after we have all died and then risen from the grave to immortality.

To be sure, our mortality is intense and at times all that we can bear, for which reason it is mercifully short, the very oldest of us living not long past a mere century. If life is so important, does it make any sense for it to be so brief? If each of us is so filled with love, does it seem right that our love ends so quickly? With each human so richly endowed with creativity, can it be that all of our creations corrode and fade away to nothing? Why did my mother’s memory leave before she did, and is our memory of her doomed to the same fate to be lost eventually forever?

The answer of death is yes, all is vain, all will be lost. Christ’s victory over death means that the answer is no, and that all good things are redeemed and preserved forever, and not just preserved, rejuvenated to live and grow without end.

Which is to say that the continuation of life is reasonable, as it is true. The joy of Easter is that its story is real, that through the resurrection of Christ life and all of its riches are to be everlasting, as they should be.

No fact of antiquity is more certain than Christ’s resurrection, no event of the ancient years has left us with more evidence. To the testimonies of those who walked and talked and ate with the resurrected Christ, as preserved in at least five separate records gathered centuries later into the Bible, the Savior has brought to light the witnesses of His visit to His followers in ancient America shortly after His resurrection in Jerusalem. Over the course of three days Jesus Christ taught, healed, and prayed with those who had long been waiting for His appearance, as prophesied by their prophets for six hundred years. More than two thousand of them, one by one, touched the wounds in His hands, feet, and side,

and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety (3 Nephi 11:15)

that this was “Jesus Christ, whom the prophets testified shall come into the world” (3 Nephi 11:10).

Those are the ancient witnesses and evidences. They are to be treasured. These were not ancient experiences to the people who lived them and testified of them. They were just as current and real as anything we experience today. As Christ explained to the Sadducees, God is the God of the living, of life (see Matthew 22:32). We need not rely on the ancient witnesses alone. Christ has called contemporary prophets and Apostles living with us and among us in our day, just as He did during His mortal ministry. Their witness is the same as Peter, James, John, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul, Nephi, Mormon, and others who knew with a certainty that Christ rose from the dead as the God of life. In this mortal life death so often seems to prevail that we all need reminders from those who know of the triumph of life.

You can hear their modern words. They report the same message that the Savior has shared with mankind throughout history, but God knows that we each have a need to hear it in our own day.

With confidence, as you enjoy the buds and blossoms of spring, take in their proclamation of life made possible by Christ’s victory over death, by which all that is good is saved.

Of Anger and Gratitude

The week before His atoning sacrifice and resurrection, Jesus Christ told His Apostles that a time would come when, “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”  Once again, in our day, Jesus Christ has called Apostles to spread His message.  This November, when much that was swirling around the world made it feel like such a time was upon us, Christ’s prophet, Russell M. Nelson, called for people to rise above clamor and cool the global distemper.  He asked that people take the week of Thanksgiving to flood social media, each day, with expressions of gratitude.  Millions responded.

Here is the collection of my expressions of gratitude, employing the label #GiveThanks:

Illumination.  Spent a pleasant afternoon with Christmas lights, preparing for Thanksgiving Night to flip the switch for the Christmas season.  I am grateful for the people who invent these wonderful beauties and for our trading system that makes them available.  Cambodia was this year’s new source of bright LEDs.  

Books.  I have long thought that one of the greatest bargains in the world is a book.  An author spends years, perhaps a lifetime, writing and sharing his thoughts, his research, his experience, his ideas, his wit, and charm, his spiritual insights, and much more.  And we buy it for a few dollars.  I am grateful for those who write, publish, and make books available.

Music.  The Christmas season quickly approaches.  Music is one of the most wonderful and penetrating ways of celebrating Christmas, in all of its aspects, from the sacredness of the birth of Christ, to the many wonderful traditions and fetes of celebration.

I have a theory that all truly great music—simple or complex—is not created but rather discovered by the composer.  Such music is, I envision, part of a body of music already known and celebrated in heaven.  I could be wrong, but some music is so sublime that it seems to me impossible that heaven could not already be aware of it.  It is my thought that “Greensleeves” belongs to such a class of discovered music.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, the folk tune “Shenandoah,” among many others, are part of that divine play list, along with beauties yet to be discovered.  So it seems to me.  I am deeply grateful for those who write, perform, and make music available.

Work.  I have come to appreciate work.  I am grateful for work.  It gets stuff done.  My father was a worker.  He was always working, on the job, at home, at Church.  My sons know how to work and are quick to pitch in.  My older son tells me it’s the key to his success in his career:  he looks for the tough jobs and succeeds with them.  I have seen it, in him and his brother, as the key to success throughout their lives.

I am grateful for the opportunities to work, at home, at Church, and in my career.  I am grateful for those who work and those who gave me the opportunity to work and allowed me to apply inspiration to work smarter.  I have found work to be the key to faith:  you work at what you have faith in, and you get more faith.  It keeps on growing.  It’s worked for me.

By the way, my Dad liked to tell me that lazy people made the world go round, because they found easier ways to do more.

Art.  A multitude of thanks to those, throughout the ages and into the present, who have produced art that has stirred my soul:  mind, spirit, and body.  I think that the artistic sense is part of the divine in each of us, as examples of artwork are coequal with human history.  As with all gifts from God, some nurture their artistic sense and produce inspiring wonders.  I love to see such works as I visit art museums, which can stimulate the “muse” in me more than other museums.

The National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., is a favorite.  Having seen others around the world, it is truly world class.  The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, is breathtaking, especially since the remodeling has achieved marvelous things with light.  It takes nothing away from these wondrous museums to admit that I was stunned with my first visit to the Louvre.  The incomparable wealth of artistic beauty into which I was immersed overwhelmed me.  I am grateful for these museums, and for many smaller gems of artistic display that I have visited.  I never feel that there is enough time to take in the experience—good reason to keep going back.

Friendship.  Humans are social animals.  My experience tells me that we all need friends.  I am grateful for my friends, and I thank them for their friendship.  I thank them for welcoming my friendship.  Our friendship enriches life and strengthens us in times of challenge.

One of the great challenges of recent months has been to overcome barriers to friendship, whether physical barriers, psychological barriers, or even political barriers.  I thank my friends for their innovative and extra efforts to rise above those barriers.

I recall the lyrics to the song, “What a Wonderful World:”

“I see friends shaking hands, saying how do you do. They’re only saying I love you.”

It is healthy.  I love my friends.  They make me wealthy in what really matters.  Thank you.

Family.  Families are meant to last.  I am grateful that I have been part of a family all my life.  I first learned of love in my family.  The joys of family—such as we experienced in today’s Thanksgiving Day gathering—can make existence in this world of sin all worth it.

Thanks to those who form and keep families, who work hard to preserve and strengthen their families.  I think of not just the family of my wife and me and our children, but a family that reaches in both directions, a family with roots and branches.  My ancestors have not disappeared into nothingness, and I anticipate a posterity that extends forever.  I am strengthened by them all, through Jesus Christ who made families, such as His, to last forever.  Of this I am forever grateful.  It literally means everything.

Of Prophets and Modern Times

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In the eighth century, B.C., kings of Judah looked toward an alliance with Egypt to protect them from the Assyrians.  A prophet of God, Isaiah, warned them that insecurity would come from it.  He reminded the king and his people to trust in God, the source of their defense in their days of strength, spiritual and material.  Under divine inspiration Isaiah prophesied,

“Say ye not a confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither shall ye fear their fear, nor be afraid.  Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.  And he shall be for a sanctuary . . .” (Isaiah 8:12-14)

After efforts at alliance proved unreliable, Hezekiah, the king of Judah, eventually followed the Lord’s counsel.  As prophesied (see Isaiah 8:8), the armies of the Assyrian empire overran the land and laid siege to Jerusalem, reaching “even to the neck”, but the city did not fall.

In another part of the world, an ancient military leader in the Western Hemisphere wanted to know where his people were who had been taken captive by an invading army.  He asked the prophet of God, Alma, who inquired of the Lord.  Alma told the general where to find them, whose army then surprised the invaders, “and there was not one soul of them . . . that were taken captive” that was lost (Alma 16:8).

As a child I often mused how marvelous it would be to live in a time when Jesus’ Apostles, who lived so close to the Lord, walked the earth.  What would it be like to hear directly from those who personally knew the Savior?  In my youth I discovered that Apostles, called by Jesus Christ, were on the earth once again.

Through the power of modern communication, they recently spoke to all who would listen, as they do every six months (and as often as possible in between).  Here are some of the things that a few of them most recently said:

“Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God.  The question for each of us, regardless of race, is the same. Are you willing to let God prevail in your life? Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life?  Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other?”—Russell M. Nelson

“I bless you with an increased desire and ability to obey the laws of God. I promise that as you do, you will be showered with blessings, including greater courage, increased personal revelation, sweeter harmony in your homes, and joy even amid uncertainty.”—Russell M. Nelson

“The Lord’s teachings are for eternity and for all of God’s children.  As followers of Christ we must forgo the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.  We move toward loving our adversaries when we avoid anger and hostility toward those with whom we disagree.”—Dallin H. Oaks

“We must notice the tribulation of others and try to help. That will be especially hard when we are being sorely tested ourselves. But we will discover as we lift another’s burden, even a little, that our backs are strengthened and we sense a light in the darkness.”—Henry B. Eyring

These are but a few nuggets chipped from the vein in the goldmine.  They are reminders that God the Father remains so mindful of us as to place living Apostles and prophets among us today as He did anciently.  I first learned that in my youth.  I have learned it again every day since.

Of Family Reunions and Families Forever

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Every couple of years our family gets together for a reunion.  To maximize the association of cousins—and to some degree to test patience—we all pile into a single house.  It has to be a big house, to accommodate the families of our five children and my wife and me.  Our population breached 20 several years ago.

Finding a rental house large enough to accommodate us is not easy.  It usually involves, along with “big,” such criteria as spacious kitchens, with twice the number of stoves, ovens, and refrigerators.  Large dining areas are needed so that we can enjoy the sociality of eating together.  Also essential for us is a spacious place where we all gather for devotionals, entertainment, singing, and games.  And, of course, there must be lots of sleeping places.

Fortunately, houses that have all these features offer a lot more, including rec facilities, porches with a peacefully grand view, game rooms, barbecues, occasionally a pool, and always a pool table.  To my pleasant surprise, while nearly all have offered movie theaters, these have been generally little used.  As we hoped, the cousins, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters prefer to spend time with one another—including as much time with Grandma and Grandpa as we could wish.

My daughter sent me a beautiful e-mail a few days ago.  She and her family had been watching a video about Temples, like the one where she and her husband had been married.  She wrote about one of her boys, I will call him “Jackson” for anonymity.  Jackson was much impressed by the Temples and remarked, “Wow, these are the best family reunion houses, ever.”

Maybe Jackson spoke more than he knew, for he was completely correct.  The Temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are entirely focused on families, with the explicit intention of uniting families forever.  Such Temples are, in every sense, family reunion houses.  Marriages there are performed not just for this life, but for time and all eternity.  Our Heavenly Father intended that family association be eternal and sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to make it so.  I personally believe that Jackson was inspired.  As the scripture says, “little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned.” (Alma 32:23)

The Temple where my wife and I were married, just outside of Washington, D.C., has been closed for some two years for renovation.  It will be reopened soon, preceding which there will be a public open house.  I invite you to come inside and see it and experience the feelings that inspired my young grandson to declare that it is one “of the best family reunion houses, ever.”

Of Life and Creativity

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Our Heavenly Father gave us life, and He intends for us to be creative with it.  In so doing we find joy.  God wants us to have joy.  Facilitating our joy is what He does with His life.  It is His creativity.  In the process He gains a fulness of joy.

Let me illustrate from ancient scripture.  When Jesus Christ, shortly after His resurrection, visited His disciples in the ancient Americas, He bid the multitude to kneel.  Then Jesus knelt, and He prayed to God the Father for them.  This is from their record of that prayer:  “no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.”  (3 Nephi 17:17)  How would you feel if you heard Jesus Christ pray to Heavenly Father for you?  Could you find words to express your joy?  Neither could these disciples.

How did Jesus feel?  The account relates, Jesus said, “And now behold, my joy is full.”  What does it take to fill the capacity for joy of the Creator and Savior of the world?

Some days later, meeting with those whom Jesus had chosen to lead the ancient church in the Americas, the Savior promised them that because of their faithful service their “joy shall be full, even as the Father hath given me fulness of joy; and ye shall be even as I am, and I am even as the Father” (3 Nephi 28:10).

This was in keeping with what the Lord revealed through the prophet Lehi, some 600 years before, “men are that they might have joy.” (2 Nephi 2:25).

How does it happen?  Consider the difference between life and non-life, the difference between animate creatures and inanimate objects.  The distinctions are many, but for this discussion I would focus on the fact that those that have life are movers, actors.  They act upon the inanimate things around them.  I recall once complaining in frustration about my computer, when I was reminded that computers are stupid; they can only do what they are told to do.  Even the much vaunted “artificial intelligence” of computer programs is for all its sophistication still artificial; there is an artist behind it.

Every thing in the universe moves only as it is forced to.  The children of God are different.  In giving us life God gave to each of us the power to move, to initiate action, to create.  We can give (an endless power if used properly, whereas taking is always limited and has an end).

God created the earth (among an infinity of other works).  He organized the chaotic elements around Him and made something marvelously beautiful.  God “saw every thing that he had made” and He saw that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).  And then He gave it to us.  He did so that we might have something to work with as we learned to create.  God did not build the farms and the cities.  He left those for us, allowing us to participate in creation, and experience the joy of creation.

His creation is our example.  It is creation with a purpose, it is organizing the resources around us for greater joy.  The most meaningful form of creation is creation-giving, creating what we then pass on to others.  If you consider the commandments of God, they all have as their purpose to enhance our ability to create and then bless others with our creations, to receive more from God and each other that we might create more and share more, and in the process that we might learn so that we might go on creating forever.  Sin is what limits our creativity.

What we create and keep to ourselves has a way of becoming unsatisfying.  It has an end in us, and in that end the joy is lost; it might just as well have not been created at all.  When we give, when we create-give—and in return receive and give—this creation moves forward.  When the creation and the joy are passed on, as they are passed on, they have no end.  The creative work lasts forever and becomes more.  Man, by engaging in such creation experiences joy and creates joy.  That is what our Father sent us here to learn to do.  By so doing, we learn to become like Him, creatively joyful in turn.  We gain more life, we become more lively, until the Lord gives us all that He has, eternal life.

Of Religion and Liberty

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In recent days the Supreme Court of the United States, in two related decisions, gave a welcome reaffirmation of the constitutional protection of the free exercise of religion.  The cases involved practical application of the principle First Amendment right.  One case, Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, involved the Obamacare Act and contraceptive insurance coverage.  The other, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, concerned religious schools and their employment policies.  Both cases were decided by strong 7-2 votes. 

Readers will look to other forums and formats for the specifics of these interesting decisions.  I raise them as noteworthy inasmuch as governments in the last few months have acted unkindly toward religion and its exercise, much to the harm of people and the  jeopardy of their other rights protected in the First Amendment.

Not only is freedom of religion and the exercise thereof found in the First Amendment to the Constitution, it is the first freedom mentioned.  Free speech, freedom of the press, freedom peaceably to assemble, and the right to petition the government follow next, in that order.  This is not necessarily a ranking of importance of these five freedoms.  All are essential, but I would suggest that the latter four are strengthened by freedom of religion and will be put at risk without a vigorous regard for that freedom.

This is not hypothetical.  As an experiment to deal with the unknown effects of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) many state governments (and the federal government to a lesser degree) engaged in an abrupt and progressive impairment of the constitutional rights of nearly all within their jurisdiction.  Of the five freedoms of the First Amendment, governments applied or tolerated the harshest limitations on religion and its practice.  Churches were closed, its members forbidden to meet together, even in small groups.  Administrations of religious rites considered sacred were blocked, even in application to the dying as well as the living.

In my congregation, in my church, we gather, we fellowship with one another, we sing together, we pray together, we teach each other, we provide service to one another, we follow the pattern of what Jesus Christ did and calls upon us to do in the practice of becoming kinder, more loving people.  Government restrictions have made that very hard to do, and are unable to replace it with anything.

One of the leaders of the church, David A. Bednar, an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lately said this in remarks on the importance of religious practice:

Latter-day Saints are hardly alone in this need to gather. . . Our Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical friends gather for mass, baptisms, confirmations, sermons, and myriad other religious purposes.  Our Jewish friends gather for worship in their synagogues.  Our Muslim friends gather in their mosques.  Our friends in the Buddhist, Sikh, and other faith traditions likewise have sacred places to gather and worship together. And because gathering lies at the very heart of religion, the right to gather lies at the very heart of religious freedom.

In the United States and elsewhere, in this experiment into which we were rapidly immersed, people “throughout the free world,” as David Bednar reminded, “learned firsthand what it means for government to directly prohibit the free exercise of religion.”

Science, including the science of self government, requires us to learn from our experiments.  What have we seen in the social laboratory within which we have been living?  While freedom of religion has been curtailed, other liberties have eroded.  Freedom of speech has been restricted; people have become very careful about speaking their minds, avoiding certain words, even limiting their associations with neighbors, and they do not like it.  Communication even on social media has been censored. 

Press freedom is no longer robust.  Media broadcasters are careful to avoid use of newly minted proscriptions of this or that phrase or word, with correspondents and announcers disappearing from their jobs almost overnight for violation of some new taboo.  People have become increasingly mistrustful of “the news.”

Many assemblies are prohibited.  Where allowed, numerical limits have been imposed on how many people can assemble in the same place.  More nettlesome, as is the usual case with the violation of rights, restrictions are applied and enforced unevenly, some favored and others not.

Governments, especially local governments, turn deaf ears to constituents raising concerns with the application of restrictions.  Arrangements for schools run by local governments are in confusion. 

Overall, people feel isolated, alone, helpless, and, for too many, hopeless.  They look for and find temporary relief in acts of rebellion, minor or otherwise.

This is where freedom of religion can be seen as important to the other freedoms.  Churches have often in western societies been a counterweight to government tyranny, which is why the governments of Europe tried for centuries to control them.  As the Red Army imposed its Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe, persecution and control of religion were a priority. 

The first amendment prohibits government control of religion, specifically to preserve freedom of the churches, which in America has also worked to accommodate variety of religious practice.  All of the churches, together, need the first amendment to thrive, as do their members.  No other human organizations are as organized, enduring, and meaningful to people.  Without vigorous, free religions, people are left alone to defend their other rights, with alternative organizations that at best are anemic by comparison.

In the words of David Bednar, “With goodwill and a little creativity, ways can almost always be found to fulfill both society’s needs and the imperative to protect religious freedom. . . . Never again can we allow government officials to treat the exercise of religion as simply nonessential.”

Of Material and Spiritual

Photo by Angus Gray at Unsplash

Selfishness or selflessness?  Hard to find many defending selfishness or saying a word against selflessness.  Yet these two concepts are intertwined in thousands of years of philosophical debate over materialism and immaterialism.  While those two philosophical ideas appear as opposites, they each are, at most, half of reality.  Indulged in, each can lean toward a self-centered view of the world, the materialist surrounding himself with all that he can grasp, the immaterialist indulging in a cocoon of isolation from which he never emerges.

As most of us go about our daily lives, it may seem hard to conceive of the libraries of books filled with one side arguing that all that our senses constantly perceive is all that there is, while another school of thought just as vehemently asserts that it is all illusion, that the material is a false cloak covering spiritual reality.  Which is right, and which is wrong, and does it matter?  Can we bring the ideas together?

To shorten a very lengthy debate, materialists contend that the history of the progress of mankind is the story of overcoming physical obstacles and learning how to make the elements yield to our control, resulting in longer, healthier, more productive lives.  In similarly abbreviated fashion, the contention of immaterialists—sometimes referred to as spiritualists—is that at the end of the day all that physical “progress” means nothing, that its focus makes no one happy, that it chains people to an aggressive pursuit and struggle against one another that fails to bring lasting joy, instead feeding greed, covetousness, and hostility.  There is much more to the arguments, but that is their flavor.

To engage the debate on more practical terms, the materialist might argue that the spiritualist, by rejecting a very material world, is starving while living in a garden, dwelling in poverty amidst plenty.  The spiritualist might reply that the materialist may satisfy his appetites by feasting, but in the end he will still die, and by failing to transcend his surroundings he will die unhappy, having accomplished nothing lasting.

You may consider yourself partial to neither approach.  That would be understandable and proper, for man is by nature physical and spiritual.  The scholarly division is contrived, unnatural, isolating indivisible halves of existence.  The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, embraces the complete man.  When Jesus, as Creator, “saw every thing that he had made” of a very physical earth that included man and woman, He pronounced it all “very good” (Genesis 1:31).  Later, in our times, Jesus declared, “And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used . . .” (Doctrine and Covenants 59:20)  Furthermore, the scriptures teach, “there is a spirit in man” (Job 32:8).

The material is real; we are immersed in it.  As spirit children of a Heavenly Father, our challenge is to put our spirits in charge of the physical things, to control our environment as the Father does.  The physical is not here to slow us down or to bind our spirits.  Neither is it an instrument of penance for us to overcome and then be done with.  The material exists to facilitate our development and enhance our being.  We became more when our spirits united with our bodies.  The material is here to be used, first for learning and then for doing.  Joy comes in discovering how to use the physical well.  We are to subdue the earth, to become masters over the physical, not masters from the physical or to escape from the material.

The evil is when we shorten our vision, no longer employing the material for our growth and progression but becoming slaves to wanton appetites, food and drink devolving into our gods of gluttony and drunkenness, material things becoming objects of avarice instead of instruments of service.  We come to worship our tools, betraying our divine heritage as makers and wielders of tools.

The truth of the whole matter is found in the union of the spiritual with the material.  As children of God, it is our heritage to become like our Father.  Growing in the love of God, we govern our appetites and enlist our tools in the cause of ennobling one another.

The Master, Jesus Christ, explained it this way:

For man is spirit.  The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected receive a fulness of joy.  And when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.  (Doctrine and Covenants 93:33, 34)

God created this very material world out of available elements, placed our spirits into physical bodies to learn how to control material things.  Christ was Himself born into a physical body that He also might enjoy the union of spirit and element.  Then He  willingly surrendered that union in death so that He might be resurrected from the dead, inseparably united as spirit and body, ensuring that for all of us the separation of spirit from body would be merely temporary while the unity of spirit with body, and the joy of that union, could last forever.

In so doing, Christ, and each of us, may receive the fulness of eternal joy that only our combined nature can achieve.

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