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 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 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 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 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 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 Life and Resurrection

Recently I had some quiet time to enjoy a beautiful day, the kind of day that makes Spring famous. As I sat on my backyard patio, the sun was bright, the temperature cool. There was a gentle breeze. The air was fresh and alive. The early Spring flowers were blooming, the daffodils and the jonquils.

In the neighborhood the cherry trees and pear trees were in full bloom. Almost all the other trees were budding with the tender Spring green of their new leaves. The mix of scents from the trees, plants, and grass was pleasant and lively. The grass was greening from the Winter brown. I could hear the sounds of the songbirds as they seemed to vie with each other for lead solo in the wildlife choir. All was pleasant, charming, lively, as I sat taking it in while munching on some strawberries.

I should hate to give it up—the whole experience, the sight, the sound, the smell, the taste, the touch, not just the strawberries.

We live in a very physical world. God intended it that way. God went to a lot of trouble to create a very physical world. He took great pains to make it beautiful and lovely. As the Lord revealed to Moses, “And out of the ground made I, the Lord God, to grow every tree, naturally, that is pleasant to the sight of man; and man could behold it. (Moses 3:9) . . . And I, God, saw everything that I had made, and behold, all things which I had made were very good” (Moses 2:31).

In the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 59, we read,

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. . . (Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20).

I am reminded of a song that was sung at our wedding reception, sung by one of my wife’s college friends. Written and made famous by John Denver, it is called “Annie’s Song,” and it says in part,

You fill up my senses
Like a night in the forest
Like the mountains in springtime
Like a walk in the rain
Like a storm in the desert
Like a sleepy blue ocean

The Lord meant to fill up our senses, and He called it very good.

Did God make all these things, all the beauties of this earth, to be used by us only for life’s short day, to be laid aside forever when our bodies are placed in the grave? Once we die, are our senses never to be filled again? Is John Denver never to sing again? Will Helen Keller never see a sunset or hear a waterfall? Will little children who die in their infancy never run in the grass?

Apparently so, were we to rely for our light upon the religions of man. In the teachings of the religions of the world, the things of this physical world are temporary at best, frauds, a distraction from reality. In not a few teachings, this physical world is the sign of evil itself, wherein all things embodied are evil, and life is a quest to cast aside all things material and physical. For in the teachings of the world, God Himself is supposed to be without body, parts, or passions, a great nothingness to which we should all aspire.

Alone and apart from the religions of men and of the world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that God was not lying when He declared that His creation and all things He made “were very good.” As members of the Church of Christ, we announce that all that God does is eternal.

It would seem odd, indeed, for God to spend so much time and effort to create the world and the worlds—and all of their details and beauties—if they were not very important. In fact, the Lord emphasized just how important the material world is when He explained in the Doctrine and Covenants something about Himself and physical elements. God declared that, “The elements are the tabernacle of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:35), something that young Joseph Smith saw for himself with his own eyes, when the Father and the Son appeared to him in that First Vision in 1820.

Through the Prophet Joseph Smith the Lord further revealed, “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) So it was that the Lord explained to Lehi, the prophet, “men are that they might have joy. And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men” (2 Nephi 2:25, 26).

It is true that we shall all die, that we shall not only be touched by death but shall experience it, personally. A couple of years ago my son and I drove by a cemetery with what seemed to me an unusual sight. Lined up along the back were dozens of burial vaults, all waiting for their occupants, some day, sooner or later. Not one of us knows who will be the next occupant, but we cannot deny that we all will go there. There’s a place for us. But it is not the final place.

Those of us who have placed a loved one in the tomb, and have faced this one of life’s most real experiences, know that as we have faced this experience with the bright testimony of the Savior’s resurrection, the sting of death is removed. The sadness is one of parting, not the hopeless despair of irretrievable loss. With the Apostle Paul, we proclaim, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? . . . Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57)

The resurrection and all the good things of life that come with it are real. It is death that is temporary and fleeting.

So, for baseball games and walks in the woods, for ice cream and for spaghetti, for flying through the air and swimming in the sea, for symphonies and chirping birds, for soft warm blankets and cool smooth silk, for fast cars and slow buggies, for fireworks and handshakes, for the scents of the sea and the perfumes of the gardens I thank the Risen Lord and praise my Savior, for making all of these available forever.

We sing praise with the hymnist, Folliott S. Pierpoint:

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flow’r,
Sun and moon, and stars of light,

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild,

Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.
(Hymn 92)

To which I add my own witness of the Living Christ. I have stood in the tomb. It was empty, for Christ is risen, as He said. And all good things by and through Him are saved.

(First published April 12, 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 Free Agency and the Game of Life

This past week my wife and I were drawn to an interesting and insightful headline from the Sports section of the newspaper: “Free agency can be useful tool if used correctly”. Very true. This may be true in the games of sports. It certainly is true in life.

In professional sports, free agency means having some choice as to which team a player may join and on what terms, depending on talent and performance, interest, and the advocacy skill of his representative, among other factors. Used well, the player may go on to a successful and happy career, profitable for him and for his team, opening up even greater opportunities, including perhaps championship achievements and continuing successes beyond. Used unwisely, free agency can lead to a career that is a frustrating struggle inhibiting growth, achievement, and limiting follow on opportunities.

In life, free agency means that you and I can choose our manner of living in mortality and, in the process, the terms of living and opportunities available in the immortal worlds, depending again on talent (as expressed in performance), interest (again demonstrated by performance), and the effectiveness of our representative. If you will agree to His terms, you can have the very best Advocate as your representative, who only emphasizes your triumphs and takes upon Himself the blame for all of your failures.

A popular board game I knew as a child was “The Game of LIFE.” In this game several players compete by moving along the board on a marked path, buffeted by the vicissitudes and aggrandized by the rewards of life as determined by the cast of the die. Its virtue is that it presents to children how life is a steadily moving journey filled with a variety of experiences building to some degree on the ones before. The game was not a favorite of mine, because it asks for little skill from the players, the events of the game subject almost entirely to chance. In that sense, it teaches the false lesson that how you fare in life has almost nothing to do with your skill and the exercise of your free agency and everything to do with fate, beyond your control. Success or failure happens. Perhaps the game does little harm as a diversion, but I have not played it in a long while.

Life is not a game of chance. Neither, is it a sport, least of all a spectator sport. Each of us is the key and central player involved in making and applying decisions. The period of life called mortality is a testing ground, where decisions are free only because results are meaningful. The results derive their meaning from their reach into the worlds of immortality, following our death and resurrection. Because life has meaning then, it has meaning now.

That meaning is a gift from Jesus Christ, purchased by His free gift of voluntarily suffering for our sins, including surrendering His life in an unjust execution, one that He could have prevented should He have exercised His free agency not to bear our burdens. Because of the injustice of that suffering, He came back from the dead and conquered death, to die no more. Death was thus converted into a temporary interlude for all of us, allowing the choices of this life to extend beyond the grave.

If, on the contrary, each one of us were to end in death, if our being were then to cease to exist, then nothing we did would really matter in that end. Whatever we did, whatever we achieved, whatever we learned, so what? It would all be gone, never to be reclaimed.

Nothing we do makes any difference in the end, if in the end we are nothing, literally nothing. As far as we are concerned, it all vanishes with us, and any memory of us ends with the end of any who remembered. With nothing now mattering later, then all loses any present meaning. Any meaning we attach to anything now is a mirage, or even a charade. Like a child’s game, things seem to matter until the game is over, when nothing matters.

If nothing that we do matters, then the choices and decisions that we make do not matter, they have no lasting result, they make no real difference in the end. Whether we put too much salt or pepper in the soup, it makes no difference if no one eats it. With death as the end of it all, of all existence of any kind for each of us, then we really have no freedom, because we cannot and do not change anything for ourselves or for others. In any and all cases, whatever choices we make, it all ends the same way, in complete nothingness, annihilation of being. Choice itself becomes meaningless, a mirage, a charade.

But it is not like that in reality. It does not feel like that, and very few of us, even the atheists among us, believe or act like nothingness is our destiny, as if what we do is lost in the void, as if our choices do not matter. Christ’s redemption of us and of the world has changed everything for everyone. It gives lasting value to our choices, our actions, our decisions, making them all very real, preserving their consequences, their reach into the continuing life beyond our very temporary death. Our decisions can and do affect ourselves and others, in lingering ways. Christ’s redemption from death makes our freedom possible, then and now, because what we do matters, and how it matters is preserved.

With that freedom, Christ has given us a tool, which certainly can be useful, if used correctly. Fortunately, He also has given us guidance and still gives us guidance so that we may get and save the best results from the use of our free agency. And that is a big part of why we celebrate Easter, why Christ’s atonement and resurrection are the central event in Earth’s history.

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)

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