Of Dead Family Members and Getting to Know Them

Some years ago a radio commentator expressed revulsion toward the popular fascination with genealogy. To make his argument short, he did not see the point. In his view all of those people are dead and gone. What do they matter?

Inasmuch as the comment was made before recent notable advances in research on gene-based hereditary diseases, we can excuse the radioman’s ignorance of how important genealogy can be to tracing the roots of many things that make us ill. At the time, however, I would have liked to relieve his ignorance of other points perhaps even more relevant and important.

In all fairness, I agree with a narrow part of his argument, his objection to the democratization of the old aristocratic practice of using genealogy to prove yourself better than someone else. Such a pitiful exercise in arrogance and pride is pointless. Given how family trees intertwine in just a few generations, there is probably nary a person of western European background who is not a descendent of Charlemagne. The story is similar for people from other parts of the world. And we are all descendants of Noah and Adam, so where are the bragging rights?

It is on his central point where the radioman’s rejection of genealogy falls to the ground. What a woeful and lonely view of man’s condition is embodied in the view that once someone dies he is forever gone! Genealogy, or more broadly speaking, family history, is founded on the belief that the dead in profound respects live on, that they do matter to us. Let me suggest three ways among many, ranked in a generally progressing order of importance.

  • The members of our family who have passed on are in many aspects part of us, beyond the shared DNA. Much in our habits, practices, language, beliefs, and our culture in general has deep roots in those who raised and taught those who raised and taught us. Most of that is probably worth retaining and cherishing, some of it in need of overcoming, but there is a rich heritage there to be discovered. Significant personal meaning can be found in the recognition that the current generation is only the leading edge of something very big that has been going on a long time.
  • As I mentioned, you do not have to do much family history research to discover that we are linked together, more connected than separate. Few genealogists can avoid the powerful realization of being part of the family of man. Our respect for humanity and for each other deepens.
  • Most important, the dead are not gone. They have merely passed from this brief state of mortality, brief for all of us, to the next state on the journey that makes up eternity. Each of us will soon be joining those who once walked where we walk. Family history is the effort to get to know them now, whom we have the privilege of knowing better for a much longer time than mortality has to offer.

Explaining the resurrection to the Sadducees, Jesus Christ reminded them that our Father is God of the living, not of the dead (Mark 12:26, 27). The mission of Jesus Christ is to provide life to all, to carry out the “work and the glory” of God, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

Jesus Christ speaks more than symbolically and beyond His own relationship when He refers to God the Father. The family relationships and ties, so precious to us now, are eternal. That means that they not only are intended to last forever, but they reach across the generations, beyond death—to generations past and future. They can be among those few precious things we take with us to the grave and beyond. That is not a vain wish of every loving husband and wife and father and mother. It is an inheritance from our Divine Father.

We can begin to build and extend and preserve those relationships here and now. Why wait?

(First published January 6, 2013)

Of Men and Women

I hope and have every confidence that at some future day my posterity and yours will look upon the popular efforts of our popular culture, working mightily to smooth out the differences between men and women, and conclude, “Huh?” The differences are real, profound, and obvious.

You have to work very hard to convince young children that men and women, boys and girls, are pretty much the same. The differences are to them an unremarkable truth. And so they remain, despite efforts to pretend they are otherwise. And so, I believe, the differences between man and woman will persist, with unhappiness and poverty the rewards for efforts to obliterate them.

Not that it has not been tried before. It has always come to grief. One story comes from the French Revolution. A leader of the National Assembly proclaimed that the new government had almost completely eliminated all differences between the sexes, when a voice from the back softly retorted, “Vive la différence!”

I, too, embrace the differences and am glad of them. Having been married more than three decades I can testify from long experiment that the many differences between husband and wife, man and woman, have played a central role in our happiness. Even as a youth I often mused upon how my life had been enriched by the influence of women. That was not a new discovery for mankind even if it was for me. Benjamin Disraeli said as much in the 1800s: “There is no mortification however keen, no misery however desperate, which the spirit of woman cannot in some degree lighten or alleviate.” (Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby, p.311) I am not aware of any exception to that maxim.

This variety is eternal, built into human nature from the very beginning:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (Genesis 1:27)

This was no accident of nature. Together man and woman, male and female, are the image of God.

My children have always noticed the difference and profited from it. When they phone, they rarely ask for “Dad.” If Dad answers, they will sweetly and briefly chat and then ask, “Is Mom there?” With Mom they will then talk for a long while, hours sometimes.

On the other hand, while growing up, when they wanted permission to do this or that, more often than not, they went to Dad. To guard against this clever maneuver, my wife and I early made a pact that we would not openly disagree regarding the denial or approval of a child’s request and would seek to consult to get a parental consensus if a matter of consequence were involved. That worked well, but the children still knew where to go first to make their pitch.

The paradigm was similar when it came to bugs, vermin, and fixing broken things, unclogging drains, moving the rubbish—all jobs usually given to Dad and faced with trepidation when Dad was not available. As the boys got older, these jobs increasingly found their way to them, too. The flip side was that all illnesses and injuries were brought to the attention of Doctor Mom. They still are, no matter how far away the child may be.

These patterns have been successful for peace and harmony in the home. Life would be harder if my wife and I struggled against the differences that gave us distinct skills, insights, and abilities, related to being a woman and being a man. One of the greatest blessings of marriage has been to enlist an undying union with the owner of a wealthy supply of talents not easily possessed by the other.

My conversation with friends and colleagues have shown this pattern to be too common to be attributable merely to differences of personality. The differences between man and woman are real and enriching. I thank my God for making man and woman in His image, together.

Vive la différence!

Of Jesus Christ and Revolutionary Doctrines

There are several key doctrines of the gospel of Christ revolutionary to the general world. I do not include the existence of God, since belief in God is as old as human thought. The first man and woman believed in God, and that belief has continued—with much variation—among their children to our present day. Belief in God is not exceptional. It comes easily to the human mind. Disbelief seems to be more artificial.

Without an attempt to list the revolutionary doctrines of Christ by order of importance, I nevertheless will begin with the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and in His divinity He walked among mankind for some 34 years. Through word and deed Jesus proclaimed His relationship to the Father. That being true, and it is, all non-Christian religions are human inventions, however well-meaning they might be. Christ being a God, what He said was true, what He taught was true, what He did had divine approval and purpose. There is peril of the highest order in disregarding any of that.

Next I would turn to the revolutionary import of the resurrection, beginning with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Savior’s resurrection was as sure as His death. Jesus made significant effort to demonstrate the physical nature of the resurrection. When He appeared to His disciples in their shut up room on the evening of that first new day He had them touch the wounds in His hands and feet and the wound in His side inflicted by the executioners to make certain of His death, assuring the disciples that, “a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” (Luke 24:39) When the disciples for joy yet doubted their own senses, Jesus emphasized the reality by eating some broiled fish and honeycomb to demonstrate the tangible nature of it all (Luke 24:41-43). The disciples even felt His breath on them (see John 20:22). In the Americas, shortly afterwards, thousands more beheld the resurrected Christ and personally felt the wounds of His execution (see 3 Nephi 11).

In this mortal world, death is as common as birth. The resurrection, already begun, will become as common as death, and will overcome death, making death as temporary as mortal life. Hence the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians that, because of the resurrection, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:54) That very physical resurrection rescues from oblivion all done in this very physical world, endowing it all with lasting meaning, nothing of value lost.

The fact that we each and all existed before we were born, in another sphere and in the presence of God, our Father, is another revolutionary doctrine of Christ. Jesus taught that His Father was also our Father, the literal Father of our spirits. On the morning of His resurrection, Jesus commanded Mary Magdalene to tell His disciples, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Apostle Paul, who taught that we should obey “the Father of spirits, and live” (Hebrews 12:9), wrote to the Romans, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16, 17).

As His spirit children, we lived in the presence of our Eternal Father before this creation. The earth was purposely made for us, designed for our growth and development in our brief mortality. Not only did Christ’s resurrection preserve meaning and purpose for this mortal existence, but that purpose preceded the beginning of mortality. Among the many consequences of that revolutionary truth is the reality that all members of the human race are more than figuratively brothers and sisters. The children born to mortal parents existed before their birth, and they come from the same eternal home as did their parents. There is a deep-rooted respect that is due in both directions between parent and child.

In that context it is appropriate to recognize the revolutionary import of the Christian doctrine of the eternal nature of the marriage relationship. If we come from an eternal family that was formed before the earth was, then it becomes natural to recognize that life’s closest relationship, between husband and wife, is not a temporary arrangement. Love is the highest virtue of the highest heaven. Love finds its deepest manifestation in the marriage union. God, who preserves all good things, could not mean for that relationship to end with death. As Christ paved the way for us to live on through the eternities, so He prepared the way for a loving marriage to last forever for those who desire it enough.

Perhaps on another day I will more than touch upon other Christian doctrines that revolutionize the world and human relations. Among these would be the opportunity to talk with God and receive direct, personal revelation; the ability to change human nature, for better or for worse; the reality of individual freedom, such that God is not responsible for our personal decisions, we own them; and the continuing, unfinished canon of divine scripture, from ancient time into the modern era (scriptures were always revealed in a modern era to those who first received them).

These revolutionary doctrines of Christ are eternal, connecting us to an eternal universe, which makes them revolutionary to a mortal world where endings seem to prevail. They are rejuvenating to mind and spirit. When Christ taught them to the people of the ancient Americas, He declared that “all things have become new.” (3 Nephi 12:47) They make things new today.

Of Man and God’s Work

On the sacred mountain, made sacred by the personal presence of the Divine, Moses spoke face to face with God, without whom “was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) Moses beheld in vision the many creations of God and many worlds on which God had placed His children, much as with this creation. The Lord explained to Moses that, “as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.” (Moses 1:38)

That creative work is what God does and has been doing and will continue to do. Then God explained to Moses the “Why” behind it all:

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

That is to say that what God does is entirely purposeful, the “what” of His work intrinsically tied to the “Why.” And why He does what He does, and what He does, is all related to man. We are His children, and the Father is literally our Father. On the morning of His resurrection, the Father’s firstborn son, Jesus Christ, declared to Mary Magdalene, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father” (John 20:17). The Son was speaking literally not figuratively.

Our Heavenly Father is more interested in our growth and progress than even the most loving earthly parents are in the growth and progress of their children. His happiness is connected with our happiness and progress, His “job satisfaction” derived from our moral improvement. That improvement, in turn, comes from the righteous exercise of our freedom to choose and do good.

The exercise of our choice is all that we can give to God that He does not have, and He will not deprive us of that power of choice. He will not take it, because by doing so our “choice” becomes worthless to Him. It is the fullest and therefore richest exercise of that freedom that He seeks and applies His own effort to empower and encourage and protect. To diminish our freedom is to diminish its worth to Him. Compelled virtue is no virtue at all and has no value to the Father or to His children. By choosing good in an environment where we may select evil we become good; by living virtuously among full opportunities to embrace vice we become virtuous. Through that process—with the free gift of the Savior to retrieve us, upon conditions of repentance, from evil choices—we expand our freedom, rejecting all that would enslave us. In so doing we qualify for God’s ultimate gift, eternal life.

That is the process and what life is all about. God devotes His attention to creating the necessary environment and conditions for our eternal progression. Then He stays involved to help each of us as much as we will allow. His love for us extended to the sacrificial offering of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who used His own free will to rescue us out of the depths of evil if we would apply what choice we may have left to turn with all our hearts away from darkness toward light.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)

This being God’s work and His glory, He cares very much about what we do that affects that work and glory. That is also to say that nothing else we do matters to Him. It is only in the context of His work for our immortality and eternal life that anything we do really matters. God is probably not very interested in whether we buy the blue car or the white car, per se, as it has little bearing on immortality and eternal life. God could be interested, however, if we choose to buy the blue car after agreeing beforehand with our spouse to buy the white one, as unity in marriage matters a great deal to our eternal progress, as does keeping promises.

All of this begs the question, if something does not matter to God, should it matter much to us? In fact, paying excessive attention to the minutiae and distractions of life can become a big deal, if doing so draws our time and effort away from what truly drives virtue.

Customs and traditions can do this very thing. Consider the recent Christmas season. Were there little things, maybe many little things, that competed for your focus on Christ and the commemoration of His mission, and the many good works that the Christmas season offered? Customs and traditions can do that if we are not careful.

The Savior, during his mortal ministry in Galilee and Judea, frequently pointed the people to their traditions that interfered with what He called the “weightier matters”, such as “judgment, mercy, and faith”. He called that straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel (Matthew 23:23, 24). Do we not see a similar error in the political correctness of today that raises an uproar over a stray word—no matter how ugly—while embracing all varieties of immorality and family destruction?

God’s work is all related to us, because we are related to Him. Knowing God’s work, and making it our work, may be as important and valuable for us today as it was for Moses in his time. I suspect so.

Of Marriage and Happiness

Last week I completed teaching another “Strengthening Marriages” course at church. The principles I taught were my own. By that I do not mean that I thought them up. They are mine because I embrace them. The course was designed under the direction of living Apostles and prophets. The concepts are divinely inspired. Their purpose is not to “fix” troubled marriages but rather to help husband and wife in any marriage increase the joy of this most important of all human relationships.

Here is a summary of some of the key principles taught.

The first and foundational principle is that the family is not only the most important institution in the Church but is in fact the most important institution in all time and all eternity. The marriage relationship is our most important relationship and can be the source of our greatest joy, beginning now and lasting forever. The key to that joy is building our marriages and our homes on the rock of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. So built, we can withstand all that this life of trial throws at us, allowing us to begin living in heaven already while here in mortality.

Another central principle of happiness is unity in marriage. Husband and wife are intended to be one. Man and woman were created to be united and become a greater one. No man or woman is complete or whole without wife or husband. To enjoy the most of that unity husband and wife should allow their differences in gifts to complement one another. God intended man and woman to be much alike but also significantly different in physical, mental, and even spiritual gifts. Embrace that, do not fight it. Unity in marriage also requires complete loyalty to each other, placing commitment to each other above any relationship with anyone else on earth. This unlocks an unending wealth of happiness in marriage.

Important in the day-to-day life of marriage is nurturing love and friendship with each other. Frequent expressions of love and kindness—in ways large and small— play no small part in that nurturing. The proper expression of intimacy in marriage is a gift that God has extended to His children that, kept in proper channels, unlocks enormous eternal power. Complete faithfulness to each other strengthens that intimacy and enfolds it in an ever increasing love.

Both husband and wife should expect and acknowledge that there will be challenges. The purpose of mortal life is to be immersed in a world of challenges and grow from those challenges, our reactions to them shaping us into who we choose to be for the eternities. In marriage we find help to face those challenges, a help meet that we can find in no other way or relationship. Husbands and wives, with the aid and inspiration of the Lord, can work through any challenge. This is part of the marriage covenant. Marriage, to be what the Lord intended, to manifest all of its power for joy, must be a covenant, not a contract, a covenant through which we give all to each other without consideration of an “exchange.” The concept of “prenuptial” agreements, of counting the contributions of each in marriage, are foreign to the eternal union of souls that marriage can be as intended by God.

An important principle of happiness that needs to be applied whenever a challenge arises within the marriage itself, be the challenge large or small, is that we can choose to react in patience and love rather than in frustration and anger. That may take practice, but it is a rewarding practice. As children of God, we can increase our power and freedom to make that choice each time that we choose well. Strong lines of communication between spouses will enable us to respond to challenges most effectively. When looking at each other, seeing the admirable qualities rather than the temporary weaknesses facilitates that communication and builds the confidence that underlies it.

A successful eternal marriage involves the Lord as a constant Partner, Help, and Guarantor of the covenant. He wants us to succeed. We draw upon His help and strength through faith and prayer. Modern prophets for a hundred years or more have counseled that great power comes to husband and wife and then to their family from such inspired practices as regular, daily family prayer and scripture study and weekly family home evening. From long experience I can tell you that this is true.

We know that we each will come up short from time to time. The atonement of Christ gives us the best tool for dealing with our shortcomings and not letting them harm our marriage: forgiveness. We discussed how we need to seek forgiveness from each other and be ever ready to extend forgiveness. The result is peace, trust, and security.

Do not neglect to follow, jointly, principles of sound family finances. Managing family finances together can be a powerful way of uniting marriage in real life. As we manage the material elements of our life we build eternal spiritual ties with each other. In a material way we see our complete union growing closer. A few of the key principles of successful financial management include paying an honest tithe (as a constant reminder of the spiritual nature of all things material), spending less than we earn, and the freedom that comes from living within a budget.

These are just highlights of the marvelous truths that God has revealed to us through His prophets to make our marriages what He intends them to be, the greatest source of happiness and joy in this life and happiness and fulfillment beyond anything that we can imagine in the eternal worlds.

As you consider them, think on the words of the modern prophet Brigham Young about the marriage relationship:

But the whole subject of the marriage relation is not in my reach, nor in any other man’s reach on this earth. It is without beginning of days or end of years; it is a hard matter to reach. We can tell some things with regard to it; it lays the foundation for worlds, for angels, and for the Gods; for intelligent beings to be crowned with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. In fact, it is the thread which runs from the beginning to the end of the holy Gospel of salvation—of the Gospel of the Son of God; it is from eternity to eternity.
(Brigham Young, October 6, 1854, Journal of Discourses, 2:90)

(First published June 8, 2013)