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)

Of Coming to Heaven and the Lord’s Supper

The lyrics to a Spanish song that I enjoy listening to include this line:

Para entrar en el cielo, no es preciso morir.

That translates into, “In order to enter heaven it is not necessary to die.” Of course, that is true. I have often said and know from some experience that eternal life can begin even in mortality, since the core element of eternal life is to possess the spiritual gift of charity, meaning the pure love of Christ (see Moroni 7:47), the one spiritual gift that never ends.

While it is not necessary to die to receive eternal life, we do need to come unto Christ. Eternal life means living with God the Father, in His presence, and inheriting all that He has. To qualify for that existence where perfect love and goodness prevail from this world of imperfection, corruption, and sin, it is necessary to come unto Christ, who has overcome all and who offers to help us to overcome all.

We come unto Christ only on His terms. We cannot command that He come to us on our terms. He is the perfect being, and we are very much short of that. We are the ones with distance to cover. Christ condescended to come as mortal man into our presence and our world of evil, but He did not condescend to partake of the evil. We have. He left our world through death, as we all will, but then was resurrected, which none were before Him, but because of whose resurrection all will follow.

Following resurrection, we will all be judged by the Father to determine whether we may remain in the Father’s presence and continue to grow and develop under His care. At that judgment, Christ will identify for the Father those who have come to the Son and thereby qualified to remain in heaven.

How do we come unto Christ? What are His terms? Just these, that we solemnly promise by covenant with Him and the Father that we will accept Him and keep His commandments. That is, we promise that we will follow Christ and stay with Him. How can coming unto the Savior mean anything less? Either we come unto Him or we do not.

The Savior has declared that this solemn promise and covenant is to be made in such a way as to be unmistakably imprinted on our minds, rich with the symbolism of washing away sin, burying the unrighteous way of life, and then rising to newness of life in accordance with the laws and ways of heaven. This covenant and symbolism are present in the ordinance of baptism. We place ourselves in the Savior’s hands via those whom He has personally chosen to represent Him. We are buried in water, washed and cleansed from sin, and arise out of the water in the image of the resurrection into a Christian life.

The person who approaches baptism truly repentant of all of his sins, genuinely committed to a complete turning away from all evil, will feel the powers and joys of heaven filling his heart. He will enter into the presence of God through the power of the Holy Ghost. In fact, shortly after baptism, the next step in coming unto Christ is to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands of Christ’s representatives, just as the Samaritans anciently, who were baptized by Philip and soon thereafter were given the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands of the Apostles Peter and John (see Acts 8:12-17).

I have experienced those steps personally and testify that it works just that way. Through faith, repentance, and baptism, sins are washed away, and through the gift of the Holy Ghost the heart is changed and filled with the gift of charity, the pure love of Christ.

Sad to say, and I would not excuse myself by noting that it happens to us all, not long after the covenant is made the covenant is broken, and it is not broken by God. He perfectly fulfills His part. On our part, sins are once again indulged in, old or new ones, or both. The Spirit is grieved and withdraws, the gift of charity is also withdrawn, the man is left back on his own. With the covenant broken what are we to do?

With a graciousness that far surpasses the patience of any mortal man, God allows us to remake the covenant and come unto Christ again. We need not be rebaptized. God has provided another ordinance that allows us to reaffirm the baptismal covenant and reclaim its powers and blessings. As with baptism, it is a physical action that embodies a spiritual commitment. Also, like baptism, it is designed and prescribed by God in a symbolic form that reminds us of Jesus Christ through whom our redemption is possible.

I refer to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As with baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper comes in two parts. In the first, we partake of broken bread, reminding us of the Savior’s body broken for us and soon after resurrected. In the second we partake of water or wine to remind us of the blood shed by Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross.

As we partake of the sacrament with the same intent and spirit with which we were baptized, the whole baptismal covenant is reaffirmed and renewed, and we resume our Christian life. We return to Christ. We need this sacrament or our baptism would be nullified by our later sins. We need it to retain the effects of our baptism.

It is astonishing, really. It is a marvelous manifestation of the grace of God that He offers us this opportunity, weekly, to renew our solemn baptismal promises that we not so solemnly break. While we renege, the Lord does not. In fact, He offers us the second, third, and hundredth chance, which by all rights and justice He need not do. Which of us would have such patience with those who broke their promises to us?

Because of the Lord’s patience, to enter into heaven, the presence of God, again and again, it is not necessary to die. It is necessary to live, and to do that we must come unto Christ, and He beckons to us, all the time. Why wait to answer His call?

(First published August 26, 2012)

Of Holidays and Recreation

The holidays are fast upon us. The store displays are relentless clues (even if they rush things a bit). While growing up I looked forward to Hallowe’en, in part for the costume and candy celebration itself, but in no small part as the gateway to a series of rich and usually joyful holidays. October ended with Hallowe’en, and then Thanksgiving was observed a few weeks later. Right after Thanksgiving we were into the Christmas holidays. Quickly after Christmas came New Year, followed in February by Valentine’s Day, and at varying intervals Easter arrived amidst the celebration of Spring and new life.

I have a generous treasury of enchanting memories from those holidays. I recall one magical Hallowe’en as a young boy in a neighborhood full of children. The early evening’s streets and sidewalks were filled with costumed colleagues, all busily canvassing the ready houses, milling about, comparing each other’s sweetened haul, each house ready to greet you with a smile or perhaps an expression of wonder while adding to the bulging bag of treats.

Thanksgiving, perhaps the warmest and kindest of holidays, is rich in tradition, from the family and friends who gather, foods that are prepared, the china and silverware that are used, to the preview of coming cold weather. For me and mine, Thanksgiving has been a busily gentle holiday, crowded with activity and effort, but calm and purposeful. Rambunctious noise seems foreign to the day, even with a morning pick-up football game among Church members included. Thanksgiving speaks a time of Christ-like peace in my memory. If there were exceptions, they are forgotten. A prayer, a toast, and a feast that symbolizes the riches bestowed on us by God. In later years, with my own family (my wife and our children), the evening has witnessed the first lighting of the outdoor Christmas lights. Thanksgiving has brought on the Christmas season at our home.

Christmas for us has always been a season, with many holidays. The Advent holidays lead us inexorably to Christmas Eve. In those weeks there are many celebrations, ours and others, traditional and new. We began a new tradition last year that we anticipate repeating this season. Christmas Day itself has been a time when all ordinary activity seems to stop, a Sabbath of Sabbaths. We take an emotional breather, we contact family members not spending the day with us. We enjoy time together and some time occupied alone. For us, we then let the Christmas festivities wind down of themselves to their conclusion at Epiphany, the day we quietly finish the celebration until we near the end of the new year just begun.

Speaking of which, New Years’ Eves in my life have varied widely in observance. Maybe most memorable are an evening spent with my best friend shooting a basketball at the new hoop above my garage door, and another evening as a missionary in the Canary Islands, reflecting on the arrival of 1980, musing on what the end of the twentieth century would mean two decades later. That evening, those decades appeared to be rushing at me.

Then there are Valentine’s Day and Easter arising in steady succession. Each has its own traditions, each creating its own imprint in life’s recollections.

These have stocked my treasury of marvelous memories. I am rich with them. Yet I have more observances to come. To these I look forward.

Here is what I believe about these riches. I can take them out of the treasury each year and seek to recreate them, to work to experience them all over again. If I do, I have but relived and re-experienced what I already have. I add little new to the treasury. Many people celebrate this way. It seems to me a squandered opportunity and probably dangerous. I doubt that the previous charm can be revived, that the wondrous experience of the past can be recaptured. I fear that the joyful and rich memory might even be harmed by the failed effort. Worse, much can be consumed, much exertion expended, and still frustration and misery—for myself and others—may result in the trying.

I believe that a better approach would be to create new magnificent memories. These can build upon the past and work from valuable traditions. The good of the past can be drawn upon to create something greater. The effort is to make a new experience, not vainly recall to life a treasured memory. Not every holiday experience will produce equal joy and beauty, but if allowed to live for its own sake each will add to the fullness of life and the value of our storehouse of life’s treasures. Each will have the chance to be the most marvelous experience yet.

I am not prepared to concede that the best of my life has been lived or that the finest that I can do is recreate only what has happened before. I fancy to live life on the rise. I see no loss in trying.

Bring on the holidays. I plan to observe them each as never before.

Of Commandments and Happiness

Nothing out of date with these observations made more than five years ago.

We sing a hymn, “How Gentle God’s Commands,” the first two lines of which proclaim—

How gentle God’s commands!
How kind his precepts are!

I suppose that the Ruler and Creator of the world, who offers us all that He has, eternal life (“the greatest of all the gifts of God”—Doctrine and Covenants 14:7), could require from us anything in return. What He asks of us is that we be happy, and He shows us how. Every commandment of God (here I speak of God’s commandments, not the commandments of men) is calculated to promote our happiness and guide us away from unhappiness.

Let us examine a few to illustrate. The Lord commands that intimate sexual relations be reserved for a man and a woman within the bonds of matrimony. This commandment, much disparaged by popular voices, would if followed virtually end all forms of venereal diseases, including the modern scourge of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and the heartbreaking and life-ending consequences they bring. Abortion would also nearly end, since the vast majority of abortions are performed on unwed women. The social and economic trauma of children being born into one-parent households would similarly be dramatically reduced. And the deadened emotional wasteland caused by promiscuity would be avoided.

The Lord has commanded that we observe the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. The Sabbath is a day to gather with fellow believers in the worship of God. It is also a day to refrain from usual activities we would call work and focus instead on rest and acts of service to one another. Perhaps less observed today than ever before by the world in general, this commandment is particularly suitable for modern times. Increasingly, people are cut off from one another, associations reduced to momentary casual encounters. The Sabbath brings people together in pleasant association and sharing, with a focus on what uplifts one another. Furthermore, it offers a pause from the daily routine, giving opportunity for mental rest and perspective, a time for pondering, meditation, and preparation for renewed and more thoughtful endeavor.

A third example I would choose is the law of the tithe. The Lord commands the saints to donate one-tenth of their income. At first view, this commandment might seem all loss. Is not a person better off with 100% of his income than he is with 90% of his income? The answer to that is undeniably yes, particularly if that income were forcefully taken away, as in excess taxes. The tithe, however, is purely voluntary. The Lord requires it, but He does not take it. You still have all of your income, for it is by your free choice that you make a donation or not, much as with any other way in which you would choose to dispose of your income. That is important, for by making a freewill donation, you give of yourself and receive all of the moral benefit that comes from such a voluntary gift. That gift is not diminished if you, like I, have noticed that you have always received more back in services and blessings than you have ever given. After all, you could choose to be a free rider and never contribute a dime. Moreover, the law of the tithe is eminently fair. All are asked to donate 10%, rich or poor. Those who earn more contribute more, those who earn less donate less, but all are subject to the same rate. Through the tithe—together with the voluntary labor of the membership of a church without a paid, professional clergy—all have full opportunity and satisfaction of participation in the most important work and activity in the world today: sustaining the work of the kingdom of Jesus Christ.

These are but three examples of many. I chose them, because they are among the commandments that some today might consider onerous. These, like all of God’s commands are rich and generous in their benefits. I have merely touched the surface of the benefits from observance of each of these commandments. God loves us, and His commandments are a bounteous example of that love.

(First published March 1, 2009)

Of Easter and the Resurrection of Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(First published February 22, 2009)

Of Hard Things and the Holy Spirit

Life is rife with hard things. They are what make life worth living. The easier matters are intended for rest and relief and perhaps enjoyment, but they offer little growth. The hard things do, and life is all about growth. When living things stop growing they decay.

God understood from the beginning the hard things that we would face. Many of them He put here for us, “for our sake” (though we arrange plenty of hardships for ourselves). When man and woman were expelled from the Garden of Eden God explained to them, “cursed is the ground for thy sake. . . Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee. . . In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread. . .” (Genesis 3:17-19, emphasis added)

Our Heavenly Father knew that by facing and overcoming the hard things of life we would advance and progress and become worthy to be called His children, His heirs. As a loving Father He has also promised that we need not face the hardships of life alone, that His help would be ready at hand to take our best efforts and amplify them to be equal to the challenges, by which we are “glorified”.

. . . we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. For I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:16-18)

It is common to believe that some people, such as the wealthy, have it easier, that perhaps they face fewer of the hard things of life. The Savior took on this assumption directly. He taught His disciples that such views have it backwards:

. . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld their thoughts, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but . . . with God whatsoever things I speak are possible. (Matthew 19:24-26, JST)

No one escapes hard things. Like opportunities for growth, they are for everyone, including the rich. We can, however, overcome life’s troubles, God working with us, making all good things possible.

How is it done? Sometimes, surely more often than we know, God intervenes directly and removes obstacles, provides tools, brings friends and allies, and otherwise lowers barriers or lifts us over them. Perhaps even more frequently He increases our power and ability.

The Holy Spirit in particular can give us the power to do hard things as we qualify for that help. Consider some of the gifts of the Spirit. The ancient American prophet, Moroni, reminded us that these spiritual powers “are many”, given “unto men, to profit them.” As examples he cited wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, interpretation of languages, and others, explaining that these gifts of the Spirit are available to “every man” (see Moroni 10:8-17). The Apostle Paul provided a similar list in his letter to the saints at Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 12:8-11). A modern Apostle, Parley P. Pratt, offered us this description of the power and influence of the Holy Spirit, speaking as the others did from personal experience, not theory or hypothesis:

It quickens all the intellectual faculties, increases, enlarges, expands and purifies all the natural passions and affections. . . It inspires, develops, cultivates and matures all the fine-toned sympathies, joys, tastes, kindred feelings and affections of our nature. It inspires virtue, kindness, goodness, tenderness, gentleness and charity. . . . It invigorates all the faculties of the physical and intellectual man. . . . In short, it is, as it were, marrow to the bone, joy to the heart, light to the eyes, music to the ears, and life to the whole being. (Parley P. Pratt, Key to the Science of Theology, p.101)

With such godly influence we can surmount every challenge that we need to rise above and withstand the sorrows of life we are called upon to endure. That is the secret, at least in part, to the counsel and promise from God,

Therefore, let your hearts be comforted; for all things shall work together for good to them that walk uprightly. . . (Doctrine and Covenants 100:15)

Of Joy and Prayer

According to my own experience—and others have given similar reports—the most fun, pleasure, and joy in this world come from the presence of the Holy Ghost. That influence enlivens the whole soul: body, spirit, and intelligence.

Some avoid prayer, or pray in a perfunctory manner, because they consider prayer to be boring, work, drudgery. Prayer indeed can be difficult at times, for it calls forth sincerity, faith, and humility, three traits that go against the grain of modern culture. So I will admit that prayer can require work, but I think that boring and drudgery apply only to prayer that is short on sincerity, faith, or humility. Fortunately, those elements are free and within the reach of any willing to apply them. They do take time, and so does effective prayer.

It is well worth the effort to take the time to apply these elements in prayer to the Father, in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ. There are few better ways to invite the presence and influence of the Holy Ghost. When that is understood and acted upon, prayer can become the most enjoyable activity in this life.

I recall a memorable recognition of that fact, when accompanying the missionaries who were teaching the gospel to a friend of mine. This friend had known some significant experience with drug abuse. The influence of the Holy Ghost was present in that discussion, felt by all four of us. The joy of that presence was noted by my friend with these memorable words: “This is better than drugs.” He was right.

(First published October 12, 2008)

Of Physical Temptation and Exaltation

Many passages of scripture make plain that through the appetites of the flesh, especially when turned to lusts, Satan finds his readiest avenue for temptation. Here are just a few examples:

For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. . . . So then they that are after the flesh cannot please God. . . . For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:5, 6, 8, 13, JST)

Besides writing that to the Romans, Paul similarly warned the saints at Galatia:

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other . . . Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. . . (Galatians 5:17, 19-21)

John, the Apostle, made a similar point:

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. (1 John 2:16)

One more out of many, from the Epistle of James:

But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. (James 1:13, 14)

Such passages have led unenlightened readers to embrace ancient Greek and Indian philosophies that consider all things material to be evil, seeing life as a continuing process to overcome the physical and leave the material world behind. The philosophies that envision the struggle between good and evil to be the struggle between spirit and matter are at odds with other central principles of Christianity, particularly the Creation and the Resurrection.

If matter is evil, then why would God create a very material world in a vast, material universe, and call it “good”?

And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:31; see also verses 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25, in which the various phases of the creation are described as “good”).

In modern revelation, Jesus Christ explained further how God delights in providing the blessings of a very physical world to His children:

Yea, all things which come of the earth, in the season thereof, are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; yea for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man; for unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion. (Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20)

The beauties of the earth are not accidental. Neither is it a sin to recognize and appreciate their goodness. Man was not born into a body into a material world as a punishment, as if placed in a straightjacket in a prison, both to be escaped. Possession of a physical body was the next major step in a process of progression that embraces all good things, among them the very elements of the universe.

Again in modern revelation Jesus Christ explained,

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)

The power of physical bodies and the control of the physical world are so great that God provided a time of learning and testing through which man could learn to control the elements before receiving full, immortal control of them. Mortality is designed as a brief time for each of God’s children to learn and understand the challenges and joys of a material world, eternal spirits clothed in temporary, physical bodies.

The metaphor God uses to remind His children how important bodies are is the Temple (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 3:16, 17; Doctrine and Covenants 93:35). God refers to bodies as Temples, sacred, to be used and cherished for eternal purposes as houses for the immortal spirits of men. Since the beginning, God has given men laws and commandments as guides to use their bodies safely. Just like all great instruments of power, physical bodies can enliven or enslave. God’s commandments unfailingly show man the path to empowerment and away from captivity. Sin is not in the use and enjoyment of the physical but rather in the misuse and abuse of the physical, whereby the spirit, rather than controlling matter, is overcome by it. Nearly all sin can be traced to allowing appetites to govern action rather than letting the spirit in man—guided by the Spirit of God—rule.

As in all things, Jesus Christ is the great example. Already as God in the spirit before His birth, He entered into mortality to take upon Himself all of the challenges and opportunities of physical existence. The Savior’s miraculous control of the elements is well known and recorded by legions of witnesses. He also experienced the full depths of the challenges and pains of mortal, physical existence.

An ancient American prophet-king, named Benjamin, foresaw Christ’s mortal experience, and witnessed that He would not spare Himself from its full trials:

And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and abominations of his people. (Mosiah 3:7)

To a modern American prophet, Joseph Smith, who was undergoing great physical trial and anguish, Jesus related how deep His own experience had been, and summed it all up with the declaration, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:8).

What did Jesus mean? He meant that after experiencing the full breadth and depth of what the physical world could do and offer, He let the will of the flesh be swallowed up in the will of the Spirit. Doing the Father’s will, Jesus Christ physically and mentally suffered for the physical sins of all mankind of all time, meriting no portion at all of the suffering. The Spirit of Christ conquered, in spite of all that the physical appetites or wants of the flesh in a physical world could demand, and He controlled His physical body to submit to what the physical would refuse if it could. Remember, there was no point, in Gethsemane, in the kangaroo court of the Sanhedrin, under the lash of the Roman tormenters, or on the cross itself, where Jesus could not have said, “enough,” and stopped the suffering. Surely His body called out for it, but His Spirit always remained in control of the flesh as he drank the dregs of the atoning cup of suffering to the very last.

Having conquered all of the demands of a physical world, Christ gained it all. On the third day, He did not pass into a nirvana of spiritual nothingness, but rather He took up again a very physical body, a permanent and immortal body, forever gaining all power and all joy that only comes from spirit and element, inseparably connected, with the will of the spirit always in command. Christ gave up the physical body in death on the cross, subjecting the demands of the flesh to the demands of the spirit. With His Spirit fully and forever in control, Jesus Christ took up His body again in perfection on resurrection Sunday.

In so doing, Christ made available to all of us every good thing, including all of the good things of God’s glorious—and very material—creation.

(First published March 24, 2013)

Of the Arrival of Christmas and the Return of the Christ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol of the Bells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ding dong ding dong. . . dong!

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

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

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

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

Of Christmas Experiment and Joyful Merriment

This weekend we undertook an experiment. Like other people, we love to celebrate Christmas with friends and family. Joy and merriment have long claimed a place at Christmastide. Can merriment detract from or reinforce the heart of our Christmas celebration? Can merriment be part of rejoicing in the life and mission of the Savior, Jesus Christ, gathering in the joy? Are worship and merriment compatible? This is not a theoretical question. It is a practical one. Try this experiment.

We brought together a roomful of our friends, giving to each just one request: come prepared to choose a favorite Christmas carol, and briefly explain what makes it a favorite of yours, what it means to you, what it speaks to you. Our plan was then to sing each carol as it was suggested and its meaning described.

That was the core. Not complicated, but it was wonderful. We had refreshments, of course, and there were some instruments (piano, violin, and a ukulele) to add a touch of variety. There were just about a dozen of us, limited by the size of the room.

There were few fancy singers in our group (we did, though, have three music teachers, by chance), still the hardiest and most resilient carols over time seem to lend themselves to voices of all qualities. In the course of two hours we had a memorable mix of worship and merriment that produced a glowing joy in each of us.

For my choice I hearkened back to a theme that I discussed in a blog post three years ago (which you can find here). The “Coventry Carol” is a heart-wrenchingly sad lament of a mother for her baby murdered by the soldiers of the cruel King Herod, jealous of the very rumor of a child born to be King of the Jews. I picked that carol, because to me it reaches directly to the meaning of Christmas, a meaning that was prophesied for thousands of years that would soon have its fulfillment.

Some more foolish than perceptive have complained that God warned Joseph to take his family to Egypt and out of Herod’s reach but did not save the other little children of Bethlehem. They little reflect that the Father did not spare His son, but just postponed the day of His murder. Even more, they miss that by that sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—as innocent then as He was as a baby—He did save all of those little children, and all of us who would receive Him and His sacrifice.

There were other moving stories that evening, briefly told, happily sung. One woman related a carol connected to a letter recently uncovered, authored by the man who would become her father, written in a foxhole at the Battle of the Bulge, sent to the woman who would become his wife and her mother. We sang, “O Come, O Come, Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.”

There was a note from our son, serving a mission in Brazil, who offered a requested carol with a beautiful expression of its meaning, read by his mother. We sang, at his request, “What Child Is This?”

I consider the experiment successful. The influence of the Holy Ghost was present. We experienced the fusion of joy and merriment. To verify the success the experiment needs to be repeated by others. You try it, too, and see whether you can replicate and confirm the results.

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