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 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 Mountains and Forever

They say that the mountains of the East are far older than the mountains of the West and at one time were just as lofty. Over ages and ages the Appalachian Mountains have been worn down by wind and rain and the other engines of change, their substance contributing to much of the land on which many of the people of the southeastern United States today live and where generations before them cleared the land, built their homes, and at length departed.

The sugary white beach sands of Florida’s Emerald Coast are said to be uncountable grains of quartz eroded from the mountains far to the north. The cities of Wilmington, Delaware; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; Macon, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; and numerous others are outposts along the “Fall Line” of the eastern seaboard, marking where the ocean once met the land and where eons later waterfalls and rapids set the limit that colonial ships could travel up the rivers. All of the land between these cities and today’s coast was created from the rocks of the timelessly ancient Appalachians.

And yet these mountains are still majestic for all of that wear and tear. The clouds ever cling to the Smoky Mountains, while in Virginia, as the Blue Ridge, the mountains rise as the rocky fence that for the early colonists divided the new land between what they called east and west.

I recently spent a week in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the western side of the Smokies. In the morning the view of Mt. LeConte and other towering peaks greeted me, and at night they fed evening reverie.

Each evening of the week the family gathered for a devotional on a wide porch with that marvelous view as our backdrop. Each adult family member, often helped by a younger participant, took a turn leading us in song, prayer, scripture study, and a spiritual message. Spiritual thoughts came easy in that setting. On one evening in full twilight I called upon the setting for my visual aid.

The mountains of the East are distinguished by being blanketed in forest framing the occasional meadow, with very infrequent exposed rock. I drew attention to the forest covering, noting that among the woodland growth there were a fair number of trees shorn of every leaf—long dead. I remarked that all of the living trees that we saw would die in turn, and that the mountains themselves were steadily disappearing, imperceptibly wearing away. We live in a world that of itself is a world of steady decay, with no earthly exceptions.

And then the point of the message (with little ones in attendance you have to reach the point soon enough): each one of us is older than the mountains before us. Our Heavenly Father told us long before time all about this world and His plan for us here while we lived in His presence in His eternal home that preexisted the earth. From that eternal world we were sent to a world where all was change and where decay prevailed. This temporary world is our learning, growing, and testing ground, where we have full freedom to choose who and what we want to become.

Into this world of death and decay Jesus Christ was sent by His Father and our Father to redeem every good thing, including (most of all) those who would choose to rely upon His power and grace to become good and be brought back into the eternal worlds of the Father’s presence. All good, all beauty, all loveliness of this world would be saved by Christ and amplified where moth and rust do not corrupt. That was the power that Christ the Redeemer won by His atoning sacrifice. As beautiful and great as the view before us, Christ came that we might rise above and lay claim forever to it all, losing nothing worth keeping. Most of all, that included especially all of us gathered on that porch and our eternal relationship as family.

And that was the lesson of the mountains and the forests before us, presented in fewer words. But the truth of the message lingers and will not wear away.

(First published June 25, 2013)