Of Christmas and Faith in Miracles

The events associated with the birth of the Savior occurred in a miraculous time during an age of miracles. It was also an era of grinding poverty, breathtaking opulence, and many gradations of wealth in between. People were ignorant, well educated, parochial in vision, and metropolitan in view. Religious beliefs involved spurious superstitions, animistic traditions, polytheistic practices, monotheistic faith, and sophisticated atheism.

That is to say that those times and ours have more in common than we might have supposed, which is the point of my writing this evening. Perhaps we create too much distance between us and the birth of the Savior. Measured in human lives, 2000 years is a long time. In the eternal measures of God and heaven, it must be acknowledged as being brief, a matter of yesterday and common memory.

That being true, it would be odd to assume that God, whose miracles were on prominent display in Judea of long ago, would work by miracles yesterday and not do so today. The lack of belief in either one logically undermines faith in the other, because it assumes limits on either God’s ability or His willingness to work by miracles, a possibility hard for the mind to accept. The disbelief in either ancient or modern miracles inclines the mind to reject God’s miraculous interventions entirely.

For some it can be much easier to believe in miracles of the past than to recognize modern ones. Others may be willing to see God’s hand in their own lives but consider the ancient scriptural accounts as morality stories, the details of which should not be taken too literally. We find examples of both among our contemporaries and throughout history.

Of course, among the sophisticated set have always been those who doubted miracles of both past and present. With no recognition of personal involvement in miracles, they reject the word of those who actually witnessed them. They are quick to dismiss others’ experiences, with nice attitudes of condescension for the “lovely legends” and “faith traditions,” that must be taken figuratively if accepted at all. When those who know assert the reality of the wonders, the sophisticates can be known to turn to anger and scorn.

And yet reality can be stubborn and defy rejection. Angels delivering messages from God to priests in the Temple and to shepherds in the fields, God speaking to common men by dreams, signs from God to men in distant places motivating them to “traverse afar” to witness God’s works of salvation, and many other examples of heaven’s direct involvement in human affairs can be easier to dismiss if they only happened in hazy history. When presented with facts of past and present miracles skeptics are hard put to know how to deal with them, other than to dismiss them out of hand and cast ignorant aspersions on those claiming any direct and tangible involvement with Divinity. Nevertheless, the facts remain.

It works the other way, too. Denying modern miracles makes it easier to deny their existence long ago and to convert them into lovely stories instead of real world evidences of the power and love of God and of His involvement in our lives. If there are no miracles now, then they were unlikely to exist in the past. The miracles attendant to the Savior’s birth are transformed into fabulous fabrications rather than marvelous signs of the reality of the birth of the Son of God. The reality of modern miracles, however, attests to the reality of the miracles recorded in ancient scripture.

Admittedly, with rare exceptions, miracles are not for the edification of the faithless anyway. The Lord usually provides room for disbelief for those who choose to disbelieve and for their own sake spares the doubtful from divine confirmation of what they doubt. The Lord did not send angels to invite the leaders of society to the stable in Bethlehem, but instead He called out to those who readily accepted His invitation to witness the baby laid to rest in the cattle’s manger. He did send signs, and through the signs a summons, to the believing wise men of the East who had faith that this child was to be the King of Kings.

Similarly, in modern times, to prepare the way for the approach of the Savior’s second coming, the Lord has reached out through angels, heavenly messengers, and by His own voice to the humble faithful who are ready to believe His word, confirming their belief with many and miraculous signs and wonders.

It is a lot easier to believe in the wonders of the Savior’s birth when we witness and receive their like in our own day. Our unchangeable God works by similar methods with all of His children. And the saints of all ages rejoice.

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 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 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.