Of the Songs of Angels and Our Part in their Story

MilkyWayStones
There are many beautiful carols sung, performed on instruments, whistled, and even hummed to celebrate Christmas. They are among the more significant and important ways of remembering and worshiping the Savior as we commemorate His birth—the most important is to do His works, as He showed us.

A beautiful American carol—not heard nearly enough today—is “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” words by Edmund Hamilton Sears, music by Richard Storrs Willis. Part of this carol’s power, much like “Joy to the World,” is that it unites the certain news of the Savior’s birth with the prophecies of Christ’s return. Just as surely as Christ’s birth happened in complete fulfillment of thousands of years of prophecy and prayer, so may we trust that the prophecies of the Savior’s return will be fulfilled in every particular.

The night before His birth, the Savior declared to the prophet Nephi, “on the morrow come I into the world, to show unto the world that I will fulfill all that which I have caused to be spoken by the mouth of my holy prophets.” (3 Nephi 1:13) That declaration applied to all of the prophecies, those of His birth, His ministry, His atoning sacrifice, His resurrection, and His return in the latter days.

That is the message of the carol by Sears and Willis:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heav’n’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

The carol begins with reflections on the ancient story, proclaimed by unimpeachable messengers from heaven, of the birth of the Prince of Peace, tidings sent from His Father, the King. The carol does not stop there. It moves forward to remind us what that song of old means for us today. In short, the story did not end on that midnight clear; the story continues. We are in the story.

Still thru the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heav’nly music floats
O’er all the weary world.
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov’ring wing,
And ever o’er its babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

The angels’ work has not ended, their song continues, the messengers of heaven yet minister to us in modern times to our weary world. As today’s leaders say more and lead less, and the “babel” of voices increases, the need for the message of the angels grows. The angels still have much work to do. They are needed now ever as much as they were two thousand years ago. What is their message? That the days proclaimed by prophets throughout the ages are arriving. Ours, too, is a momentous age. We are part of the story spoken and begun anciently, still extending toward a conclusion yet ahead.

For lo! the days are hast’ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav’n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.

As we worship each Christmas time, and throughout the year, let the message of this song, and the words of the prophets—ancient and modern—remind us that the time is hastening on as foretold. As we live and move through the weary world, we need not be weary. We can listen to the messages from heaven and rejoice. We can own the Prince of Peace our King and send back the song that the angels in our day are still singing.

Of Charity and Forever

The more I ponder, the more I am brought to the conviction that the pure love of Christ, what the scriptures call charity, is the purpose of life and its highest ideal. So much of this life is designed to provide the opportunity and conditions for developing charity.

Consider this description of charity, provided by the ancient American prophet, Mormon.

And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and 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)

The Apostle Paul offered a very similar description in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he explained that faith, hope, and charity are closely intertwined (see 1 Corinthians 13).

On this earth, in mortality, man does not come by charity naturally. It seems that to develop charity its opposite must be possible, too. As one connects us with heaven, the other ties us to the world of death. We see abundant evidence that this is so.

Where is the man or woman who naturally possesses all of the traits that are part of and unified in charity? We are all drawn to traits the very opposite of charity, to suffer as briefly as we may, to be frequently unkind, often puffed up, normally seeking our own, and surely too easily provoked, thinking plenty of evil, bearing perhaps some things but far from all, with limited hope, and of weak endurance. Gloriously, we all to some degree by our efforts and with the help of others rise above these evils and exhibit and make part of our natures some portion of the elements of charity. Most people seem to mix the two opposites to varying degrees.

God reaches out to lift each of us up and above our mortal nature. Charity is a gift from God, one that He bestows upon those who qualify to receive it by demonstrating their willingness to receive it and live by it. The more we desire it and live by it, the more that charity remains with us and becomes part of us and changes us. When the Spirit of God comes upon us and enters into our hearts and fills our minds, we taste, we experience charity for a time, in all of its aspects, all unified together (the virtues of charity are of a kind and part harmoniously and mutually reinforcing). For a time, the virtues of charity become our virtues.

Thus Mormon counseled,

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. . . (Moroni 7:48)

That is what it means to be a “son of God,” born of the Spirit. By following Jesus Christ, living as He would, the gift of charity is bestowed upon us, enabling and teaching us in our hearts and minds how to live like Christ, to do the works that He would do, giving us the power to believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. As we experience personally the pure love of Christ our nature changes and we become progressively like Christ.

The world provides ample opportunities to exercise and develop those virtues that we know in spiritual vision but which we need to practice in fact to make ours, to make ourselves into their image, the image of Christ. We are surrounded by evil, by hardship, by difficulty, by those who need our help. Reaching to heaven, charity enlightens us to know how to conquer evil and gives us the power to cope with hardship, overcome difficulty, to bless, promote kindness, relieve suffering, and “endure all things.”

Yet we fall short from time to time, we lose the vision, we turn away. Sin is any and all that would keep us from developing charity. Repentance brings us back by allowing us to change, to seek and qualify for forgiveness of our sins through Christ’s redemption and again be ready for our hearts and minds to be filled with the gift of charity by the power of the Holy Ghost.

Once more we exercise faith, we gain hope, “but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). We may keep charity forever, and as we experience charity in this world we personally learn what forever means.

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 Christmas and Celebrating Hope

The story of Pandora and her box (or jar) has been retold for thousands of years, with minor variations. The key elements of the tale from Greek mythology are consistent. Pandora was endowed with many wonderful gifts and talents, among them beauty, music, persuasion, and others. She was also given a box, which she was told never to open. Try that out on anybody: “Here is an interesting box. It is yours. DO NOT EVER OPEN IT!” I expect that the result would ever be the same, the box will eventually be opened. As the story goes, it was, introducing into the world evil in all of its forms. Last of all, however, from the bottom of the box, came hope.

I believe hope to be an underappreciated and little understood gift from God. Hope is essential to happiness, salvation, and life. I know of no happiness without it, I cannot imagine any achievement not preceded by hope. In all salvation, temporal or eternal, hope draws us forward. It is foundational to life and living. Hope is ever at war with despair (for example, the Spanish word for “despair” is desesperanza, or the absence of esperanza, “hope”): despair is life-draining, while hope feeds life.

In this understanding of hope, I do not refer to the weak sentiment most common in everyday parlance, the wistful wishing for something better, a wish that seldom acts as a motivator for effective action. I have in mind the hope spoken of by God and His prophets, against which the forlorn reach from despair—as valuable and comforting as that may be—pales in comparison.

Consider how the power of hope is described in this account of the preaching of the ancient American prophet, Ether:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. (Ether 12:4)

Notice the power of this hope, an anchor to the soul, making those who possess it sure and steadfast, the person who has gained it always abounding in good works. Nothing weak or wistful here. Such hope is a mighty, heavenly gift, with mighty results. Also notice the connection between hope and faith, the former being a powerful fruit of faith.

I have thought that a fair definition of “hope” is the personal recognition that something desirable is attainable. By faith we learn of the desirable object as well as gain the recognition that it is within our reach. When that happens, hope is born in our hearts, and we are stirred to action to attain it. That is life itself. Dead things, inanimate objects, reach for nothing, always acted upon, never doing the acting.

There are many things that each of us values and would very much desire to attain, to gain, to build: love, knowledge, wealth, improvement, new abilities, bridges (real and figurative), but we do not act to realize our desires until we first gain the idea that we can be successful. Without hope of success we may go through the motions in a lame sort of way, guided by routine that can become drudgery. We are energized—even beyond what we thought were our limitations—as soon as we gain a vision, as soon as we believe the prized fruit to be within our reach, when we have hope. Then there is little stopping us. Obstacles are overcome, means are found, tools are made, skills developed.

In my reflections I have named my three daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity, as each one seems especially to personify one of these three great gifts of God. My oldest daughter would be named Hope. Throughout her life, once she has gotten it into her head that something worthwhile is within her reach she has done whatever it takes to realize it. Because of that, through great and consistent effort, overcoming many obstacles, she has become rich in all of the eternal things, in everything that matters. Her mother and I admire her for it. Her achievement need not be unique. It is within reach of all of us. Each may have such hope and become so rich.

There are many reasons for the perennial popularity of Christmas. Surely one of these is that it is a celebration of hope offered to everyone. Salvation did not come to earth with Christmas. The sacrifice and atonement that Jesus Christ would work out to bring about all salvation would await another three decades after His miraculous birth. With Christmas, the birth of the Savior, there arrived in Person the assured hope that salvation would come. The angel who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem the night of the nativity was filled with that hope, with that assurance, that caused him to rejoice and share with the shepherds his message “of great joy” so that they, too, might have this great and assured hope: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10, 11)

The hope of Christ, in all of its power to action and motivation for every good thought and deed, is worthy of general celebration, every year. The salvation of Christ has been placed within reach of everyone. Having that hope can become a personal anchor as we realize its promise, becoming sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, that each of us personally, here on earth, can be filled with “peace, good will toward men.” At least in part, that is what Christmas is all about.

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)