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)

Of Faith and Life

I hesitate to get into this discussion, because I consider it basically silly. It is almost entirely a semantic argument, divorced from reality. I speak of the phony and diabolical debate that poses faith in opposition to works.

I enter into it, because this manmade doctrine too often becomes a shield against repentance and the changing of one’s life to become like Jesus Christ and receiving all that He has to offer us, which is everything. In modern days, Jesus Christ announced that all who receive Him, “receiveth my Father; and he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.” (Doctrine and Covenants 84:37, 38)

That is to say, I take up the issue not to debate the doctrine, for there is no salvation in doing that. Rather I seek to focus on how we live our lives to receive Christ, because happiness and salvation can be found there.

I know that there are some human doctrines that hold that a man or woman is “saved” only by faith, absolutely and completely unrelated to any good or evil that the person may do at any point in life. That is the doctrine. I do not, however, know of anyone who lives in accordance with that doctrine. Since I do not know and could not possibly meet everyone, I do not deny that there might be someone who lives his life by that doctrine—I cannot imagine it—but I have yet to meet him, and I doubt that I ever will.

I say that because I hold that how someone lives is an exact and complete expression of his faith. People think, however briefly, before they act, and their action is an expression of their faith in what will happen as a result of that action.

You might ask, what about the person who acts on reflex? I would ask, how did that person develop his reflex if not by thoughtful action, repeated over and over? His reflex is the expression of his faith exercised in the development of the reflex.

The same would be true for habits that have become very hard to break. You may say that a smoker knows and has faith that smoking is bad for his health. That may be true, but people do a lot of things that they understand to be bad for their health, but they do it anyway because it seems to them like a good idea at the time. Often a desire for immediate gratification of a physical appetite overcomes understanding of some long off harm. After all, all life takes place in the immediate moment, and the promise of future effects often can seem less persuasive and less real to the mind. Faith in the present can trump faith in the future.

What does that have to do with faith and works? Everything. What people do are their works, and what they think before hand is where their faith resides before it manifests itself in their works, in what they do. All we do, except perhaps when we sleepwalk, is a union of our faith and works. Only in unreal, semantic debate is it possible to separate faith and works. I have little time in this brief life for that debate.

The Apostles of Jesus Christ have all been, every one of them, practical men, living everyday life as we do. The very practical James wrote in the New Testament, to those who asserted a separation between faith and works, “I will show thee my faith by my works.” (James 2:18) So do we all. Then in metaphor James explained, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). As the body without the spirit is dead, there is no life in faith and works when separated.

I would offer another analogy, albeit one less elegant. To say that faith and works can be separated and, moreover, that we can be saved by faith without any regard to our works makes as much sense as saying that a house can be built by plans alone, without brick and mortar. A plan without the bricks and mortar is just so many pieces of paper, providing no shelter, warmth, or comfort for the living. A house without plans will be nothing more than a pile of building materials awaiting application of some intelligent design. There is no house without both design and materials organized and applied according to the design.

Sometimes at this point in the discussion an objection is made that there is no faith, no salvation, without grace, and that no amount of works no matter how good can make up for a lack of grace. All of that is true. And that is what I would explain next as a concluding point.

Never forget, ever, during this life of mortality that all of this existence on earth is temporary and was designed to be so. All of mortality eventually has an end. Men get into great difficulty when they try to make this mortality last. Nothing of mortality lasts. God designed and created this temporary life as a learning time and a place of testing to prepare us for worlds where endlessness is the rule, the existence where God lives and where most of life takes place, without end.

Part of that preparation in this life involves the voluntary reception by us of things from the eternal worlds that God offers to us in this world of mortality. Anything of any real value in this life is what God has extended to us from the eternal worlds, and that is all that survives from our mortal existence. It is all that we need and any good thing that we could want.

All of those extensions of eternal things from eternal worlds come by grace, the free gift of God. We can demand none of them, and there is nothing that we can do to merit them, but we do have to qualify for them. Basically, to qualify for them we have to demonstrate to God that we will receive the things of eternity rather than despise them. And then He gives them to us.

Let me illustrate by returning to the house analogy. The plans for building the house are like faith. Organizing and applying the bricks and mortar according to the plans are our works. By grace God has inspired our plans, and by grace we receive from God the building materials. Indeed, by grace God even works to correct the errors in our building. Without grace there would be no plans, no materials, no house perfectly formed.

God will not, however, build the house by grace. He leaves that for us, in this world of action, and effort, and choice. In what we do, by the exercise of our faith in Him through our actions, we show what we would do with what God gives us, and we qualify to receive all that the Father has. We live our faith in this way so that the Father may say to us when we return into His presence, “thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.”(Matthew 25:23)

(First published August 31, 2013)

Of Grace and Will

One of the pernicious doctrines of men attributed falsely to God is the idea that God whimsically blesses and saves some of His children and curses and condemns others. This doctrine, never taught by any of the prophets and apostles of God, would have us believe that God unjustly tilts the scales in favor of some of His children over others. This god of whim is a creation of man’s imagination, much like the gods of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. He is not found in the real heavens from which we each and all came for our brief time of mortal testing and to which we each and all can qualify to return, based upon our own thoughts, words, and deeds—the exercise of our will.

One version of this false and pernicious teaching is the idea that man is saved by grace and by grace alone—regardless of what he does. It is true that we rely upon the grace of Jesus Christ in order to return to the presence of God the Father, to live with Him again forever. It is also true that this grace is free: there is nothing that we can give that entitles us to the Savior’s grace. There is nothing that we can exchange in trade for His grace. In that very important and essential sense, the grace of Christ is free. We have no right to the grace of God.

Having said that, grace is within reach of any and all who qualify to receive God’s free gift of grace, and any and all of God’s children can qualify. To qualify for but not purchase grace means that it is granted to us above and beyond what we deserve. The ancient American prophet, Nephi, explained to his people, “that it is by grace that we are saved, after all that we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23) The “all that we can do” is how we qualify to receive the grace of God, but it still falls short of being equal to the blessings that God bestows.

Does that not still mean, then, that God gives His grace to whomever He prefers? The answer is yes and no. In order for the gift of God to be grace, not an entitlement, God is free to extend grace to any to whom He wishes. He has said that He wishes and wills to extend grace to all who through their own choices meet conditions that He has prescribed, conditions that any and all can meet if they so choose.

Another ancient American prophet, Jacob, explained it this way:

Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. (2 Nephi 10:24)

The qualification is to yield your will to God, to want what He wants. Then, after reconciling your will to God, He extends to you the free gift of His grace, an everlasting gift of blessings beyond what we could ever earn.

I liken it to college scholarships. I was awarded several of these, that very generously helped fund my college education. I did not earn any of them—they were all free gifts from the sponsors. I could not demand them. I gave nothing in return. I did, however, have to qualify for them by my scholastic effort. I had to meet the prescribed standards.

Similarly, through His atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ won an infinite endowment, upon which He draws to bless any and all who reconcile themselves to His will. As we do so, He graciously brings us into His presence forever.

(First published August 17, 2008)

Of Miracles and Modern Times

My son famously declared to his school colleagues in morning devotional, “Brothers, I believe in miracles.” I do, too. I have witnessed them. I have experienced them.

Believing in miracles supposes some understanding of what they are. I understand all miracles to have their source in the Divine. No connection to God, no miracle. That is to say, each miracle is an intervention into the world of mortality from the realms of eternity. That is why all miracles are to some degree other worldly, but not entirely other worldly, because part of the marvel is that they take place here. I suppose that what we see as miraculous on earth would not seem so miraculous to us or anyone else in heaven.

While God is the source of the power in each miracle, the essential feature of a miracle is its timing, not its substance. In fact, it seems to me that all of the miraculous quality consists in the timing. Is restoring sight to the blind a miracle? Certainly it was when it took place in 100 B.C. Today we have medical procedures that restore sight for many, perhaps daily, with techniques that we have learned but which were unknown anciently. These are marvelous procedures of great benefit, but we do not look upon them as miraculous. The difference is timing.

Curing a man of leprosy, ordinarily impossible in the days of the ancient Apostles except through divine intervention, is quite common today with the proper medicines. The difference surely is knowledge, but knowledge acquired over time. An antibiotic treatment would have been a miracle in the days of the Caesars.

As time goes by and medical and scientific knowledge advance, there is little that was considered miraculous in bygone eras that cannot be replicated today, and what cannot yet be done we can fully expect one day can and will be. That takes nothing away from the miracles of antiquity, but rather makes them all the more understandable. Increasingly as we look at miracles, we replace the question, “How could they do that?” with the question, “How could they know?”

There is no “magic” in a divine miracle. God does not nullify the laws of nature any more than we can. But He knows them better. He knows them all, and He exercises them as He pleases to do His work, which seems and is wonderful to our eyes.

God knew the powers of controlling vapor and flame in the days of Moses, but man’s knowledge of it was primitive. What was involved with the control of energy in the pillar of fire that guided Israel by night and the “pillar of a cloud” that guided them by day (see Exodus 13 and 14)? Is it something we could do 2,000 years after the birth of Christ? Very probably. The miracle was not in the substance, but in the timing, a very explicable exercise of fire control that was once beyond the skill of man.

But in this example there was an even more important display of the miraculous timing of God. The pillars of fire and vapor appeared exactly when needed, either to guide Israel or to keep the armies of Pharaoh at bay. They were taken away just in time to lure Pharaoh’s armies into the flood. With their back to the sea and the Egyptian chariots nearly upon them, Israel despaired. But not Israel’s prophet, as Moses declared, “Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you to day” (Exodus 14:13). The timing was all and everything.

In my own day and life, I have received the piece of information, just in time. The increase in salary has come precisely when needed. The new medical treatment became available none too soon but not a day too late. An acquaintance was made, too beneficial to have been by chance. Closed doors have been opened.

Others have witnessed greater than these, the recovery from terminal illness, the power to endure the unendurable, the inspiration to touch the hearts of one and of many, the means to build, to comfort, to restore, and to renew. Nearly all have come in answer to prayer, from a God who is easy to be entreated.

Should these seem small to you, especially when compared with the miracles of the prophets recounted in ancient scripture, bear in mind that miracles are not given to satisfy a popular appetite for spectacle, but rather they have always been employed by God to do His work, which is most usually done quietly.

Yet I would offer a couple of great modern works of God for your contemplation. Consider the translation of an ancient work of scripture from an unknown language by a young man barely literate in his own native tongue. And consider that this work, The Book of Mormon, would be so powerful in the testimony of Jesus Christ as to make millions of Christians on every continent of the world. Consider the miracle of thousands of these people crossing a thousand miles of 19th century American wilderness to an even more desolate and barren wasteland, carving out of the desert an empire of cities, farms, and enterprises, a successful effort unmatched by any other colonization effort in the history of the Americas. These are epic works of God worthy to stand alongside any of antiquity, no less powerful for happening in our time.

These and other modern miracles point to the truly greatest miracles in the work of God, the quiet transformation that takes place in the hearts of men by the power of repentance and forgiveness, which makes an ordinary man or woman full of kindness, someone who “envieth not, and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (Moroni 7:45). That is the miracle that is the most awe inspiring of all.

(First published September 10, 2013)

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