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)

Of What We Know and What We Are

Recently, while reading in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, I thought back to when my two oldest daughters attended nursery during Sunday School hours at church. We were then members of a congregation with many young families. There were so many children that they divided the nursery into Senior Nursery and Junior Nursery. The dividing line was between those who had turned two by the start of the year and those who had not yet reached that august age. My older daughter—who is a real sweetheart and has since become the mother of daughters herself—was very proud that she was in Senior Nursery, while her sister was in Junior Nursery.

The mysterious relationship between my reading of the Romans and those events of not so long ago is that both emphasize how brief and transitory this life is. Whether our mortal life is allocated more than 70 years or fewer than 7, the time all told is rather short, and I dare say mercifully so.

This life is filled with the rich, the beautiful, as well as what is poor and ugly, and mostly what is very much temporary and does not matter. The emperors of Rome came and went so quickly, few living to die of natural causes. They scraped and fought and intrigued and connived to possess what they could not hold for long and which at the end left them nothing. The royal purple for the emperors at last was little more important than whether my daughters were in Senior or Junior Nursery. It all mattered about the same.

Some things do matter, greatly. While they can involve tangible things, all that in this life of lasting value is intangible and survives the universal tomb. Now I am watching my children cope with the mighty challenges that life concentrates into the years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. Life’s calling, personal dedication, education, careers, marriage, family, truly life-changing decisions come at these young people inexorably in relentless and rapid succession. They have tangible elements of mortality to employ as tools to aid and markers to help measure the evaluating and making of these important decisions. They wade into deep problems when these material tools are mistaken for the real things.

As parents we watch, support, counsel, encourage, but the decisions are no longer ours. With no small amount of concern, and with generous measures of satisfaction, we can witness these whom we love the most exercise their own free will to lay out the remaining course of their mortality. For Mom and Dad, this period of life has been rich, sometimes painful, and frequently joyful. It is for us a harvesting time, even while for our children it is mostly a time of planting.

I am reminded that, with each graduation, one proceeds from the top of a staircase onto the bottom step of a new one. When my daughter left Senior Nursery, she was at the bottom of the classes of Primary. The seniors in high school become the freshmen in college. The college graduate becomes the “newbie” at work. In my employment I frequently am called upon to consider candidates for jobs. Shall I tell you how little impressed I would be to learn that a particular applicant had been student council president or editor of the yearbook?

I believe that so it goes in the heavens. We eternally progress from stage to stage, with Jesus Christ as our Guide, Leader, and Teacher, each stage well done qualifying us to begin the next, bringing us ever closer to become more like our Father in Heaven. The value is in this very real becoming. Our greatest worldly achievements of rank and fame have in heaven as little weight as our grade school awards convey into adulthood. With much concern God watches how we make our decisions, how we develop our character, with satisfaction and joy as we choose what is good and act well. Like wise parents, God cannot and will not choose for us, our choices at planting being part of His joy in the harvest.

Again, as I recall my children in nursery, and my grandchildren there today, I reflect that there is so much that I would tell them but which they would not begin to understand. There is a treasury of what I have learned in over 5 decades that I would share but that would be completely incomprehensible to a granddaughter or grandson in primary school.

Then I reflect that compared to my Heavenly Father, my treasury is the knowledge of an infant, that I even today am such a little child in terms of what I know. Indeed, were I to know all that there is available to know in this life, it would still be so very little compared with what our Father in the eternal worlds knows and has for us to learn when we once again live with Him. A modern Apostle, Dallin H. Oaks (a former university president), once remarked that an omniscient God is not all that impressed with our Ph.Ds.

But if I do well with what He has given and taught me, I have received the living hope from His Son that I may come step by step in the presence of the Father to know all that He would share, which is everything. That is humbling and exhilarating. I am glad that I have not really very long to wait, and that I can learn my first lessons even now.

Of Vanity and Christmas Gifts

The prophets, ancient and modern, are clear that this life is a very artificial thing. The earth and this mortality did not just happen. They were carefully planned in the sphere of the eternities, for very specific—and lasting—purposes.

Abraham reported this, from a vision wherein he saw God speaking of us, His spirit children, before He created the earth:

We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; . . . and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26)

Some centuries later Moses had a related vision, in which the Lord told him,

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

Our glory appears to be the Lord’s glory. It is the Lord’s work and glory that we grow and progress forever. The mortal mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ were all part of His work for our immortality and eternal life. I am not sure that the Lord cares anything at all about anything we do other than what we do that affects His work and His glory. I do not find any evidence in the scriptures that anything else that we do matters to Him. Of course, in an eternal context, nothing else we do really matters to us, either. All of that other stuff is what the author of Ecclesiastes refers to as “vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

That vanity, the key theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is what many people seem to think that this life is all about. Many people live this life as if this life really mattered much, when in truth, all that matters about this life is how it affects the true reality, which resides in the eternal worlds, beyond this world and life. Lasting value and meaning are found in what we take with us when we leave this world.

That is a good filter, if we wish to discern what in this life is imperishable and real and what is temporary and vain. If you take it with you past the grave, it matters. If it does not, fuhgeddaboudit. Or, at least, do not set your heart on it or waste much time with it.

That might be a good guide for Christmas gifts. By that I mean, consider the purpose behind the giving of the gift. Is its purpose to transfer possession of vanity, that has no reach beyond the grave? Or is it instead intended to communicate and strengthen ties of love, friendship, to show kindness, to build relationships, to facilitate personal growth and progress, to memorialize pleasant shared experiences, to express and transmit value? Consider how it may be tied to this list of eternal verities that stay with us:

Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (Doctrine and Covenants 4:6)

There is a lot of Christmas Spirit in that list. Such solemnized gifts are not likely to break and never grow old. They are very real. To the extent they embrace such virtues, I think we remember them.

Of Christmas and Faith in Miracles

The events associated with the birth of the Savior occurred in a miraculous time during an age of miracles. It was also an era of grinding poverty, breathtaking opulence, and many gradations of wealth in between. People were ignorant, well educated, parochial in vision, and metropolitan in view. Religious beliefs involved spurious superstitions, animistic traditions, polytheistic practices, monotheistic faith, and sophisticated atheism.

That is to say that those times and ours have more in common than we might have supposed, which is the point of my writing this evening. Perhaps we create too much distance between us and the birth of the Savior. Measured in human lives, 2000 years is a long time. In the eternal measures of God and heaven, it must be acknowledged as being brief, a matter of yesterday and common memory.

That being true, it would be odd to assume that God, whose miracles were on prominent display in Judea of long ago, would work by miracles yesterday and not do so today. The lack of belief in either one logically undermines faith in the other, because it assumes limits on either God’s ability or His willingness to work by miracles, a possibility hard for the mind to accept. The disbelief in either ancient or modern miracles inclines the mind to reject God’s miraculous interventions entirely.

For some it can be much easier to believe in miracles of the past than to recognize modern ones. Others may be willing to see God’s hand in their own lives but consider the ancient scriptural accounts as morality stories, the details of which should not be taken too literally. We find examples of both among our contemporaries and throughout history.

Of course, among the sophisticated set have always been those who doubted miracles of both past and present. With no recognition of personal involvement in miracles, they reject the word of those who actually witnessed them. They are quick to dismiss others’ experiences, with nice attitudes of condescension for the “lovely legends” and “faith traditions,” that must be taken figuratively if accepted at all. When those who know assert the reality of the wonders, the sophisticates can be known to turn to anger and scorn.

And yet reality can be stubborn and defy rejection. Angels delivering messages from God to priests in the Temple and to shepherds in the fields, God speaking to common men by dreams, signs from God to men in distant places motivating them to “traverse afar” to witness God’s works of salvation, and many other examples of heaven’s direct involvement in human affairs can be easier to dismiss if they only happened in hazy history. When presented with facts of past and present miracles skeptics are hard put to know how to deal with them, other than to dismiss them out of hand and cast ignorant aspersions on those claiming any direct and tangible involvement with Divinity. Nevertheless, the facts remain.

It works the other way, too. Denying modern miracles makes it easier to deny their existence long ago and to convert them into lovely stories instead of real world evidences of the power and love of God and of His involvement in our lives. If there are no miracles now, then they were unlikely to exist in the past. The miracles attendant to the Savior’s birth are transformed into fabulous fabrications rather than marvelous signs of the reality of the birth of the Son of God. The reality of modern miracles, however, attests to the reality of the miracles recorded in ancient scripture.

Admittedly, with rare exceptions, miracles are not for the edification of the faithless anyway. The Lord usually provides room for disbelief for those who choose to disbelieve and for their own sake spares the doubtful from divine confirmation of what they doubt. The Lord did not send angels to invite the leaders of society to the stable in Bethlehem, but instead He called out to those who readily accepted His invitation to witness the baby laid to rest in the cattle’s manger. He did send signs, and through the signs a summons, to the believing wise men of the East who had faith that this child was to be the King of Kings.

Similarly, in modern times, to prepare the way for the approach of the Savior’s second coming, the Lord has reached out through angels, heavenly messengers, and by His own voice to the humble faithful who are ready to believe His word, confirming their belief with many and miraculous signs and wonders.

It is a lot easier to believe in the wonders of the Savior’s birth when we witness and receive their like in our own day. Our unchangeable God works by similar methods with all of His children. And the saints of all ages rejoice.

Of Carols and Carnage

Among the beautiful carols of Christmas there is one that surely seems odd and out of place. At least that is how I, as a young child, thought of it. The haunting melody is in significant measure responsible for its lasting popularity, but the words are anything but joyful for a joyful celebration. Rather than recount the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the song expresses the inconsolable sorrow of a mother of Bethlehem mourning the cruel murder of her little child. Popularly known as “The Coventry Carol,” it includes these words:

O sisters, too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day;
This poor Youngling for whom we sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All children young, to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee,
And ever mourn and say;
For thy parting nor say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

The song helps retell the sad chapter in the story of the early days of the Savior’s mortal life when jealous King Herod, fearful of even rumors of potential rivals for his throne, ordered the slaughter of all of the children in Bethlehem of two years old and younger. Sometime before, Herod had been advised by the wise men of the birth of the future King of the Jews. The wise men mistakenly thought that Herod would rejoice with them at the news of the birth of the Messiah and freely told him what they knew. Under cloak of feigned rejoicing, Herod sent the wise men to Bethlehem, the place prophesied in the scriptures as the city where Christ would be born. He urged them to report back when they found the child, that he might come “and worship him also.” (Matthew 2:8)

But worship was far from what Herod had in mind. Herod’s reaction was typical of many throughout history when confronted by the work of God. He saw only danger to his own power and sought to destroy God’s work if he could. The Lord warned the wise men, who avoided Jerusalem on their way back home. Herod struck out in anger and ordered the death of all of the young babies in Bethlehem. Again as throughout history, Herod missed his mark, for Jesus was no longer there. Joseph, warned by an angel, had taken his little family away to Egypt.

Among those who take it upon themselves to second guess God there are those who would question why God would save His Son, while allowing all those other children in Bethlehem to be slain. Again, these critics miss the mark. They get it wrong by failing to consider the whole picture.

God the Father did not spare His Son from the slaying of the children at Bethlehem. The unfair and cruel carnage begun in David’s city was finished on Calvary. Jesus’ life was spared only momentarily so that it could be offered as the last sacrifice for all. That seemingly doleful song merits an essential place in our Christmas celebration. It points us to the full meaning of Christmas as part of a story that winds through Bethlehem and leads through sorrow in Gethsemane to death on Calvary.

Importantly, the story continues on from there to a glorious resurrection morning on the third day. This saddest of carols reminds us that Christ was born to save us, in spite of the evils of the world that He most of all could not escape, a salvation that extends especially to the children of Bethlehem and to all of the little children of the world.

(First published December 5, 2010)

Of Noel and Becoming Certained

Here is a challenge for you. Find the origin of “Noel.” There are a respectable breadth and shallow depth of information on where this word came from. While today we use it commonly as a synonym for Christmas, agreement pretty well ends after that. Uncertain roots and meanings do not seem to inhibit the use of the word “Noel” this time of year.

I expected general consensus that Noel was of French derivation. A little research, however, turns up a competing claim that the word has a Gaelic or Celtic source. That need not disprove the theory of a French origin, since many Celtic peoples lived in France (or Gaul) before the Romans came, and many who today live in the northwestern parts of France trace their genealogies to Celtic roots, especially in Brittany.

Another French origin theory links the word to Latin, but here again opinion diverges. One school traces Noel from the Latin word natalis, suggesting a meaning derived from a reference to birth, particularly celebration of the birth of the Savior.

The other French-from-Latin line takes us to Nowell, and from there to Nouvelles, referring to the Latin word for “news”: novella, as in the good news of Christ’s birth. With no personal claim to expertise in the science of etymology, I will admit to a preference for this derivation. Aware of the French way of smoothing out Latin words, Nowell sounds like a very understandably French form of Novella. Moreover, we have Medieval and Renaissance carols using the words Nouvelles and Nowell in much the same way that Noel is used in more modern carols. In each case, the word is sung as a way of proclaiming joyous news, which fits very well with today’s French greeting of the season, Joyeux Noel! Good news also happens to be related to the meaning of “Gospel” (which, by the way, comes from old English).

Which brings me to the popular carol, “The First Noel” (perhaps translated from the French), which begins like this:

The first Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
[and so forth].

Children love to sing Christmas carols. The carols, after all, have laid claim to some of the most memorable melodies. The words of carols, however, can at times challenge the vocabulary of little children. Through many years of singing “The First Noel” I was certain that the word “certain” in the second line was a verb, not an adjective. In my young mind it described what and why the angel was speaking to the shepherds. The angel appeared in order to certain the shepherds.

While I was not sure what it meant “to certain” the shepherds, today I am not so sure that I was wrong in hearing a verb. Why the angel chose those shepherds and perhaps not some others who might have been nearby seems to me less important than his purpose. The angel wanted those shepherds to know, to understand, to be certain of what they saw, and thereby to be witnesses. The angel explained to the shepherds what was happening, what it meant, where it was happening, how to recognize the marvel, and then the shepherds quickly went to see for themselves, personally. Immediately afterward they shared what they knew.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy . . . . For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. . . . And they came with haste, and found . . . the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. (Luke 2:8-17)

The Lord wants us to believe His word, but He wants our belief to mature into certainty, into knowledge. As the Savior Himself prayed to the Father in the presence of His disciples,

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)

Following His resurrection, Jesus was careful to make His disciples certain of His resurrection so that they might witness to others of what they knew, enabling others at first to believe and then come to know for themselves by the testimony of the Holy Ghost.

Wherefore I give you to understand, . . . that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

Similarly, in our day, the Lord would that we had living faith grown to knowledge through the Holy Ghost. As the ancient American prophet, Moroni, testified,

And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)

I, too, have been certained. I know for sure that God is real and that Jesus Christ was resurrected and is the Savior of the world. I am not alone in that knowledge. Many have believed and had belief confirmed by the assurance of the Holy Ghost.

This Christmas season—or any season—I invite you to become certained, as were those poor shepherds and millions of God’s children before and since. For you, like them, that would be discovering the true Noel of Christmas.

Of Thanksgiving and Light

This Thanksgiving I am reminded of thoughts of just a few years ago.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It is a warm, pleasant, kind, family day. Not surprisingly, it is a day of reflection for me, despite of—or because of—all the family and busy activities involved with the day. As busy as the day may be, it is for my mind and spirit a day of rest, a very family day, a day when all is right because the family is right. It is a day during which I reflect with gratitude upon how, through the blessings of God, I have been able to provide for my family and that we have been able to enjoy so many good things. We gather rich in the mutual affection we have for one another, comfortable in how pleasant it is to be in each other’s presence. It is very appropriate that we celebrate with a bounteous meal shared by as much of the family as we can gather and often with fond friends, representing the bounties that God has bestowed upon us in the previous months.

Thus in our home, Thanksgiving Day is a time of reflecting on the abundant blessings of the past. It also serves as a gateway to our Christmas celebration, in which we celebrate all of the good things of life made possible through Jesus Christ. On Thanksgiving night, as soon as darkness has descended, we turn on the outdoor Christmas lights for the first time of the season. There is the apple tree, shining in brilliant white lights in memory of the Tree of Life, which Tree is a representation of “the Love of God, . . . the most desirable above all things . . . and the most joyous to the soul” (1 Nephi 11:22, 23).

Beside that tree, red lights flame the upward and outward branches of a maple tree, symbolic of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in opposition to the tree of life. This illumined tree represents how by the exercise of our power of choice we also unleash our energy to become good or evil—and that we do not always exercise that power for good (see 2 Nephi 2:15, 16).

In the middle of the yard, our flagpole is transformed into a tall, narrow multilight cone topped by a bright white star of light, again representing a tree, our Christmas tree. This and the tree we decorate inside the house are bright reminders that through Christ we can obtain “every good thing” (Moroni 7:25), whether spiritual or material.

The doorway to our house is outlined with a garland of evergreen also illumined with light to proclaim to family or friends that they will find welcome inside. Similarly, our lamppost is trimmed with red and green lights as if to say, “Here we are, don’t lose your way. Come and celebrate with us.”

In many ways it is very appropriate that we initiate this holiday season with a celebration of gratitude. The spirit of gratitude is the foundation of humility, and humility is the first step to opening our hearts to receive the Christ. So bring on Thanksgiving, welcome the family and friends, and open our hearts and homes to Christ, who brings us every good thing.

(First published November 21, 2010)

%d bloggers like this: