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.

Of Defending Freedom and Divine Aid

Photo by Štěpán Vraný on Unsplash

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 Fasting and Relief

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

To a physically empty room, but to a crowd of millions gathered electronically around the world, a prophet of God spoke reassuringly about times of turmoil.  Russell M. Nelson, Prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was conducting a worldwide conference with the more than 16 million members of the Church.  Fewer than 10 people, presumably including the cameraman, were in the room, and all were practicing social distancing as urged by government officials.

President Nelson has refused, however, to engage in spiritual distancing.  Quite the contrary, his work is aimed at bringing the hearts of people together.  In keeping with the great commandments to love God and love our neighbor, President Nelson called for a worldwide fast this coming Friday, Good Friday.  “Good Friday would be the perfect day to have our Heavenly Father and His Son hear us!”  As part of the fast, he counseled that we pray “that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized.”

This call was extended not just to members of the Church.  President Nelson invited all to join in.  Who would not be in accord with the focus of these petitions?

This fast is well timed and well targeted.  Well timed, because during the Easter season, Christians from around the world are focused on the most important miracles that Jesus Christ performed on our behalf, His suffering and atonement for our sins—which no one else could do—and His resurrection from the grave, which no one had done before and because of which all of us will experience.  A worldwide devotional petition to the God of miracles for His help will at this Easter time give many, shut out from their houses of worship, a way to focus their faith on a very traditional Christian act, temporary self-denial of physical nourishment to emphasize spiritual nourishment and commitment to God and His work.  People may wish to do as latter-day saints normally do when fasting, take the money that would have been spent on the skipped meals and donate it to those in need, of which there are a lot more than there were a few weeks ago.

The fast is well targeted, because the call highlights the four most urgent areas in which we need divine help:  controlling the virus, blessing the caregivers, strengthening the economy, and returning life to normal.  I know of no one not acutely in need of one or more of these petitions.

The New Testament tells of when Jesus Christ was asked by a lawyer which commandment was greatest.  The ancient lawyer was hoping for an argument.  Instead, he received inspired teaching.  The Savior replied, love of God and love of our neighbors, explaining that from these two commandments come all of the others (Matthew 22:35-39).  In essence, all of the rest are commentary on these two.  This fast is all about those two commandments.

Consider joining us in this fast this Good Friday, to the extent that you can.  Let God our Father, who reminded us that He acts in accordance with the faith of His children, hear our prayers and witness our devotion.  He will surely welcome such a global expression on behalf of His children and their welfare.

Of Rest and Relaxation

Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

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

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

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

God commands us to rest.

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

He also offers rest as a reward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Discovered Music and Enthroning the Savior

nails

Many people are introduced to the melody, “Greensleeves,” via the well-known Christmas carol, “What Child Is This?”  There could hardly be a better introduction.

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.

The words to the carol of which I write are fit for the melody.  They are a soul deep meditation on why the birth of this Baby is so important.  The musings lead to an answer found in what this Child would later do.  The mortal mission of Christ the King is incomparably important to you and me.

I fear that many modern renditions miss—or perhaps even avoid—the point. Among the some two dozen recordings of the carol in my possession, I recently discovered to my surprise that all but maybe four leave out the second of three verses, the one that holds a central place in the poem penned by the author, William C. Dix.  Some repeat, again and again, the true declaration of the first verse that this Child is “Christ the King.”  Recognition of that reality is important, but how far does it get you?  Even Herod believed and feared that prophecy, a belief that goaded him to destroy all of the babes of Bethlehem that his soldiers could find.

Why did Christ the King find it necessary to lower Himself to be born among men?  That is the central question, understanding the answer to which converts our attitude toward Christ from more than reverence for a Divine Monarch into humble love born of joy and boundless gratitude.  The second verse explains what is at the heart of Christmas.  But listen to your recording and see whether these words are included:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The babe, the Son of Mary.

This little Child would be pierced by nails and spear when He was older but no less innocent.  Why would He submit to that?  Why would the King submit to that?  We worship Christ not just because He is the King, but because of what this King has done for us.

I conceive of a day, a moment, when those very men who pounded the nails into the Savior’s hands and feet come personally to realize, come face-to-face with, what they have done.  What depth of grief that this knowledge will cause to the minds of those men—of those moments in that day—I can imagine in only the smallest degree.  They will be the only men, among the billions who have trod the earth, who with hammers in their fists drove nails into the hands and feet of the Creator and their Savior.  What will that recognition mean to them?

Perhaps the Savior’s plea from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” will be the beginning of some healing solace when they do know what they personally did.  I suspect that this is not the limit of the mercy that the Savior will extend to these, His brothers, who were so close to the Son of God in this horrible way.

Then I am drawn to consider, how will we feel when our day comes, and it surely will, when we stand face-to-face and see those wounds in His hands and feet?  How will we feel when we come to understand perfectly, as we will, that our own, personal sins made those wounds necessary, that because of what we knowingly have done there was no other way, that we helped to make those nails unavoidable?  More, how will we feel, looking in the Savior’s eyes, when we fully understand that depending on our repentance the suffering that we personally caused was entirely and eternally worth it, or in absence of our repentance all for naught?  At that moment our joy and our love or our grief and pain will be without measure.

Let us decide now, for we may, to let our loving hearts enthrone Him.

Of the Songs of Angels and Our Part in their Story

MilkyWayStones
There are many beautiful carols sung, performed on instruments, whistled, and even hummed to celebrate Christmas. They are among the more significant and important ways of remembering and worshiping the Savior as we commemorate His birth—the most important is to do His works, as He showed us.

A beautiful American carol—not heard nearly enough today—is “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” words by Edmund Hamilton Sears, music by Richard Storrs Willis. Part of this carol’s power, much like “Joy to the World,” is that it unites the certain news of the Savior’s birth with the prophecies of Christ’s return. Just as surely as Christ’s birth happened in complete fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and prayer, so may we trust that the prophecies of the Savior’s return will be fulfilled in every particular.

The night before His birth, the Savior declared to the prophet Nephi, “on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Nephi 1:13) That declaration applied to all of the prophecies, those of His birth, His ministry, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return in the latter days.

That is the message of the carol by Sears and Willis:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

The carol begins with reflections on the ancient story, proclaimed by unimpeachable messengers from heaven, of the birth of the Prince of Peace, tidings sent from His Father, the King. The carol does not stop there. It moves forward to remind us what that song of old means for us today. In short, the story did not end on that midnight clear; the story continues. We are in the story.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The angels’ work has not ended, their song continues, the messengers of heaven yet minister to us in modern times to our weary world. As today’s leaders say more and lead less, and the “babel” of voices increases, the need for the message of the angels grows. The angels still have much work to do. They are needed now ever as much as they were two thousand years ago. What is their message? That the days proclaimed by prophets throughout the ages are arriving. Ours, too, is a momentous age. We are part of the story spoken and begun anciently, still extending toward a conclusion yet ahead.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

As we worship each Christmas time, and throughout the year, let the message of this song, and the words of the prophets—ancient and modern—remind us that the time is hastening on as foretold. As we live and move through the weary world, we need not be weary. We can listen to the messages from heaven and rejoice. We can own the Prince of Peace our King and send back the song that the angels in our day are still singing.

Of Jesus Christ and Life

Life. Jesus said, “I am the life” (Doctrine & Covenants 11:28).

Jesus said, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Matthew 22:32)

Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself” (John 5:25, 26).

I will tell you the story of a German woman, whom for this relation I will name Hertha Lux Bullerman. Hertha was the mother of 5 children, three boys and two girls. She lived in far eastern Germany.

Her first child was a daughter, Ursula. Her second was her first son. He was named Fritz. Ursula and Fritz were close, as first and second born children can be.

Next was born another son, named Hubertus. Hubertus died a day short of four weeks after he was born. Hertha’s next child was a third son, to whom was given a name similar to his brother’s, perhaps in memory of his brother who lived such a short time. This third son was named Hubert. Hubert died from typhus, a few days short of his third birthday. Last born of the children was Hertha’s second daughter, named Christa.

Hertha Lux Bullerman outlived all of her children except her oldest, Ursula. She also outlived her husband, Alfred, who died in 1938 of an incurable disease, just a few short years before that disease, tuberculosis, became very curable.

The family was religious. Alfred was a Lutheran minister, and they all lived in the parsonage, along with Hertha’s father for a time, who was an organist for the church. It was Ursula’s job to work the pump that gave the air that gave the sound to the pipes of the organ. For Ursula, as a child, that was hard work. You could get tired long before the music was through.

Ursula’s grandfather, Theodor Bruno Waldemar, was proud of her. They would often walk in the town, old grandfather and young granddaughter. When other children saw them walking together, they would sometimes call out, “There comes the old musician, with his daughter, the clarinet.” Grandfather would beam with pride, while Ursula thought altogether differently about the peer recognition.

I speak of these things and these people, because this is life, and they lived it. And they are all children of God, the God of the living.

Yet so much of it happened before my mortal life, before I arrived on earth and my mortal reality began. Did it really happen? How could it be real? Are the people of the past, of long ago and not so long ago, real? I am quite sure that it was and that they are.

One year and a month after the death of Hertha’s husband, Alfred, Germany was at war with nearly all of its neighbors.

Hertha’s remaining son, Fritz, was 16 when the war began. Before the war was over he would serve in a tank on the Russian front. Fritz never returned home. He died, in late autumn of 1943, in Ukraine, not far from where there is war again today.

A year later, in November 1944, the old musician, Hertha’s father, died. Of Hertha’s family, she and her two daughters remained. In not many weeks all three would flee for their lives from the Red Army.

The three women, barely fitting on the overcrowded refugee train, could take very little with them. Why did Hertha bring with her the folder containing her family history? With her world crashing down around her, with so many of her family and friends gone, with her homeland behind her and a merciless enemy at her back, why would those records of the dead have any value? Were these people who had gone, children, husband, father, family, real anymore?

Jesus said, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Jesus said, “I am the life”.

Hertha and her daughters, Ursula and Christa, found refuge in southern Germany. Though her new home would soon be occupied by another enemy, it was a more merciful one than the communists.

Hertha and both daughters survived the war. The younger one, Christa, married and had children of her own, though she died from an illness in the mid-1960s. The older sister, Ursula, married an American soldier and came to the United States. She brought with her that treasured folder of family history, preserved by Hertha through fire and flame, through tragedy and chaos.

Ursula herself died just 10 years ago, from Alzheimer’s disease. She had forgotten much of what I have remembered for you today. While my mother’s memory of these people faded away the people did not. She regained them and her memory of them all just as she joined them in the world of spirits.

We all have such stories. I am glad for those that I have saved. I wish that I had saved more. That folder of family history mattered very much. Why did my grandmother entrust that folder to my mother? My grandmother rescued more than her daughters in the cold winter of 1945.

Because the atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ extend life to all, I have confidence in the day when we shall be united.

Of Blasphemy and Racism

Blasphemy! Heresy! Treason! Racism! All loaded words, used less to convey meaning than for their effect as weapons. Few weapons in history have been as powerful. They have killed thousands, perhaps millions, and silenced many more. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” These will. They are intended to.

Consider “blasphemy.” It is a common hammer of religious leaders who are doubtful of their deity’s ability to defend himself. These nervous clerics and acolytes step in to threaten and, where they can, inflict the harshest penalties against any and all they accuse of “blasphemy,” which usually means saying anything that the listeners consider untoward or disrespectful vis-à-vis their deity. The harshness of the penalties, and the vagueness of what qualifies as an infraction, create a terror that intimidates both speech and action among others, which is the basic purpose of the label. The religious leaders of Judea during the days of Jesus’ mortal ministry repeatedly tried to silence Him by hurling “blasphemy” at Him. On the day of His death, they cried blasphemy to stir up the anger of the population—although they used another word, “treason,” when addressing the Roman authorities. Several dozen nations today (with little opposition from the U.S. State Department or other executive branch officials) are seeking to make blasphemy a globally recognized crime, at least when touching upon Islam or its sensitivities.

“Heresy” has similar uses. Rather than a crime of the impious, it is invoked in pious disagreements about whom or what is sacred. The Spanish Inquisition comes readily to mind. The accusation seems to be most commonly employed by those who lack confidence in the convincing power of their doctrines when faced with competing ones. “Heresy” is intended to close ears, “heretic” to silence speakers, both intended to end the debate.

Next we come to “treason,” which can be a real phenomenon and a genuine crime against the nation or people, and when proved and the traitor caught usually answered with stern—if not brutal—penalties. Genuine treason puts the nation or community at risk by exposing weaknesses to enemies.

In former times, as well as in nations governed by authoritarian regimes, “treason” has been invoked, however, less to label traitors to the state and the society as to subdue opponents to the supreme leader. Kings, emperors, czars, dictators, and others of the ilk sit nervously on their thrones—and for good reason. They lack legitimacy yet enjoy immense power (or its illusion), which lures other would-be despots. Nearly every one of the Roman emperors, for example, met death at human hands. The Soviet Union never had a legitimate transfer of power from one boss to the next. Tyrants, therefore, have little tolerance for opposition and are credulous of every rumor of resistance. That makes accusations of “treason” powerful tools of terror for scoundrels in such societies to employ to settle grudges, dispose of enemies, steal lands and wealth, or otherwise gain advantage. Many innocents have been so victimized.

Which brings us to “racism.” This is a modern weaponized word. Originally coined to identify people who would justify plunder and oppression by employing racial prejudices, it has been preserved long after such plans and schemes are suppressed by law and proscribed by social convention. Indeed, the word only works as a weapon because of the universal social opprobrium already attached to it. Its power as an epithet comes because no one in civil society considers it tolerable, any actual existence a bizarre aberration. Calling someone “racist” is tantamount to accusing him of being unfit for public association and worthy of ostracism. It is therefore used most commonly today, like the use throughout history of the other weapon words, to end debate, to intimidate opponents, to plunder wealth, and in general to gain advantage. “Racism” is the modern world’s “blasphemy,” “heresy,” and even “treason.” “Racism” is used to cause hurt, even where the absence of authentic racism causes none. Worse, it is used by real racists to shield or camouflage their own bigotry.

Employed as a weapon word, racism is losing meaning. When was the last time you heard a reasoned discussion and debate of racism? Intellectual dialog is avoided for fear that raising the subject in an impartial way will court exposure to accusation, much as discussion of blasphemy, heresy, and treason in times past. What is left, for example, when racism no longer means conscious prejudicial action but is applied—as it is by the Obama Administration—to mean manufactured statistical discrepancies among people who admittedly have no intention to act in a prejudicial manner?

For the wielders of the weapon, the meaning of racism must be kept general and undefined to maximize the number of potential targets. Feeding the outrage attached to it is a constant labor as is constantly finding new eruptions of racism where none exist. The recognition of racism (especially where it is absent) must be automatic and assumed proven when employed—addressed if at all only by the mea culpa of the accused, followed by public contrition and the ceding of wealth or advantage to the accusers.

Where, I wonder, does the real racism lie? Can racial distinction and prejudice wither when they are regularly conjured for personal advantage? What does that do to a society where laws and culture already universally hold racism in contempt? What is the appropriate term for the moguls of the racism industry who prosper by the preservation and promotion of racism? When will the public immolations for private gain end?

Of Love and Superheroes

Some years ago, one of my children gave me a very lovely replica. It is a ring. The ring is modeled from the description J.R.R. Tolkien gives of Sauron’s one ring, central to Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. The power of the legendary ring was awesome. Unfortunately, it was also altogether evil, so evil that no mortal could wield it without eventually becoming overpowered by the ring itself.

Just hefting the replica, holding it in my hand, and being fully acquainted with the story (the only books besides the scriptures that I have read more than three times), I have to confess that I would be sorely tempted to put on such a ring of power, conceited that I could hold and turn its powers to good—good as I saw fit. In the story, several mighty yet foolish ones were corrupted by the very thought of wielding the ring of power, while the wise were wise enough to recoil from the attempt. Tolkien had a keen insight into the varieties of human nature.

Similarly, perhaps you have at a dinner party or other casual conversation with friends discussed what kind of “super power” you would wish to have, were you given such a choice. Some say great strength, others the ability to fly, or the ability to see in the dark or through opaque objects, or the power to be invisible, among others. Immortality is a favorite.

These fanciful musings and entertaining discussions may not be as fanciful as we might think. Certainly modern technology is constantly making commonplace what would have been marvels in centuries past. Consider trying to explain to a George Washington of the 1780s a jet aircraft, or a phonograph (let alone today’s latest sound reproduction devices), or a personal computer and the Internet. He would have as much trouble believing as we would have explaining. Can we in turn conceive of the instruments and tools our grandchildren will someday have as everyday conveniences?

Yet the greatest miracles of man’s invention are trifles compared with the power of God:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

This was the same who, during His mortal ministry, calmed the storm at His will, brought sight to the blind with the touch of His hand, healed the sick with the word of His mouth, and restored the dead to life and vigor at His command. This was the same who perceived men’s thoughts, saw men’s hidden acts, predicted the future, and personally triumphed from death to immortality, the first of all who would be resurrected by His power.

This omnipotent God wants to give us of His power, far beyond that of the supermen of mortal imagination:

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (Matthew 17:20)

Paul explained that this was promised us as heirs of the Father, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

The Book of Mormon tells of one Nephi, who had a mustard seed or more of faith and to whom God extended heavenly power. Because of Nephi’s faithful dedication and spiritual strength, the Lord had been able through Nephi’s ministry to bring tens of thousands of people to repent of their sins and follow Christ. A few years before the Savior’s birth the Lord declared to Nephi,

And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word . . .

The Lord then explained to Nephi that “all things” meant anything, from moving mountains to national calamities. All this the Lord would entrust, He said, “for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.” (Helaman 10:5-10) God could trust Nephi with His awesome and infinite power, because Nephi would use it only for God’s purposes.

Can the Lord trust us with His power, or, like Tolkien’s mighty ring, would too much power turn us to evil and self-destructive employment of the power in devastation and sorrow? A hypothetical question? Look at what man has done with God’s great power of procreation. Designed to unify man and woman and raise children within the love, happiness, and security of families, the misuse of God’s power of life has led to hate, misery, broken families, degradation, despair, abused children, abortion, and many other terrors. The evils of the abuse of the powers of procreation are second only to murder in their consequences.

The example of family life is instructive. Families are intended as environments where wise parents prepare children for society, plying greater responsibility as children demonstrate—under parental guidance and correction—their ability to make good use of their opportunities. In this way, when children reach adulthood they are ready to take on adult responsibilities and bless their own spouses and children rather than abuse and lead them to grief.

God’s commandments are designed for the same purpose. As we obey them, not only are we blessed because the commandments highlight the paths of happiness, but through obedience to God’s commandments we obtain experience and gain God’s confidence that He can entrust us with His heavenly gifts.

The greatest of all the gifts of God, and His most heavenly, is charity, the pure love of Christ, the essence of eternal life. As we grow in the use and possession of this love, we become Christ-like.

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. (Moroni 7:48)

That is how we can each and all become real superheroes. As we want what God wants, because we love as He loves, we become ones on whom He can bestow His power to bless His children in miraculous and powerful ways, now and in the eternities—without the personality flaws and self preoccupation of the comic book superheroes that provide interesting plots as they inflict sorrow on those around them. We become fit for all that God wants to give us. Imagine all you can, your thoughts cannot reach it.

Of Resolutions and Getting Past Frustration

Several years ago I wrote the following about New Year’s resolutions. Don’t despair about how yours are going, or even if you have not made any.

Not to discourage you from making New Year’s resolutions, but how are your 2012 resolutions coming? Are you still on track? Given up on them? Thinking about it? They can drive you nuts.

The problem is not so much with making resolutions at the start of the year. Psychologically, a new beginning that is tied to a new beginning of the calendar can be a good motivator, particularly to get started. Neither is there a problem with choosing to change something or do something for the better. Given a minute or less, every honest person can identify a habit in need of change or a practice in need of adoption. The problem is usually not even that the aim is too high, the goal too unrealistic, the resolution too ambitious.

If anything, the real problem is that the resolution is too narrow, too small, too unimportant, particularly if taken without a greater context. Each of us should be self aware enough to recognize plenty of material to work with to create a depressingly long “needs improvement” list. The question of where to begin—if we persist—may soon be overwhelmed by the question, where does it end? There are too many for any one to hold our attention. We need to look beyond the individual sin or foible, on to why we are willing to sin.

Martin Luther was in large measure driven away from the Catholic Church because of its emphasis on specifically repenting of each and every sin, correcting every personal flaw, large and small, with particularity. There was no apparent end in this life to the correcting, no bottom to the list of sins, especially with a list being added to each day. Repenting of each and every sin, he never made enough progress on his own list.

Fortunately for Luther and for everyone else, the God of Heaven has never called upon us to repent of each of our sins seriatim. Neither have His prophets. That is a man-made idea, and one that is sure to lead to deep moral frustration.

To be sure, God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Doctrine and Covenants 1:31). Heaven is the ultimate “white room;” not a speck of evil can be tolerated there, no room for anything unclean in the least degree (see 3 Nephi 27:19).

God does not require us to repent of each sin. He requires that we repent of all sins. There is a difference, all of the difference in the world. The first suggests that we can repent of sins in some kind of order, working on some sins while still playing with some of our favorites, even if only temporarily. The true doctrine is more demanding and more liberating: God wants us to give up sinning, the willingness to do evil. The focus on individual sins is misplaced, as if the source of the problem is in the act itself, what we do, whereas the real source is found in why we do what we do. God wants us to change our hearts (and will help us to do so), knowing that with the change in their nature of our actions will then take care of themselves.

Carefully search all Christian scriptures, ancient and modern, and you will find God consistently calling upon His children to repent of all of their sins. He does not ask for or condone a selective repentance that focuses on this or that individual sin or ever ask us to work down our personal list of evil. He asks us to give it up, all of it. What the Lord requires of His children to be acceptable to live with Him again is a change of life. The ancient American prophet Alma described this repentance, this change of heart, as a man who has “desired righteousness until the end of his days” (Alma 41:6). John, the Apostle of ancient times, referred to this change as walking “in the light” (see 1 John 1:5-10).

This change of heart comes from belief in Christ, a powerful wholehearted belief that manifests itself in our actions. Another ancient American prophet, Samuel, declared it with these words:

And if ye believe on his [Christ’s] name ye will repent of all your sins, that thereby ye may have a remission of them through his merits. (Helaman 14:13)

Notice that it is true, vitalizing belief that brings about the change of action. A modern prophet, Spencer W. Kimball, explained true repentance in this way:

In connection with repentance, the scriptures use the phrase, ‘with all his heart’ . . . Obviously, this rules out any reservations. Repentance must involve an all-out, total surrender to the program of the Lord. (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p.203)

One last point: note that perfection is not required to enter into the light. As the Apostle John taught, those who enter into the light are in the process of making themselves pure (1 John 3:3), Christ giving them the power to do so through the soul-enriching influence of the Holy Spirit.

Make your resolutions and do them now, but put them in the context of changing your heart and thereby your whole life. Aim for the highest of all. Then we know where to begin and where it all ends. And keep in mind, Christ allows you to start over when you slip up.

(First published January 1, 2012)

%d bloggers like this: