Of Vanity and Christmas Gifts

The prophets, ancient and modern, are clear that this life is a very artificial thing. The earth and this mortality did not just happen. They were carefully planned in the sphere of the eternities, for very specific—and lasting—purposes.

Abraham reported this, from a vision wherein he saw God speaking of us, His spirit children, before He created the earth:

We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; and we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; and they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; . . . and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. (Abraham 3:24-26)

Some centuries later Moses had a related vision, in which the Lord told him,

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

Our glory appears to be the Lord’s glory. It is the Lord’s work and glory that we grow and progress forever. The mortal mission and sacrifice of Jesus Christ were all part of His work for our immortality and eternal life. I am not sure that the Lord cares anything at all about anything we do other than what we do that affects His work and His glory. I do not find any evidence in the scriptures that anything else that we do matters to Him. Of course, in an eternal context, nothing else we do really matters to us, either. All of that other stuff is what the author of Ecclesiastes refers to as “vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

That vanity, the key theme of the Book of Ecclesiastes, is what many people seem to think that this life is all about. Many people live this life as if this life really mattered much, when in truth, all that matters about this life is how it affects the true reality, which resides in the eternal worlds, beyond this world and life. Lasting value and meaning are found in what we take with us when we leave this world.

That is a good filter, if we wish to discern what in this life is imperishable and real and what is temporary and vain. If you take it with you past the grave, it matters. If it does not, fuhgeddaboudit. Or, at least, do not set your heart on it or waste much time with it.

That might be a good guide for Christmas gifts. By that I mean, consider the purpose behind the giving of the gift. Is its purpose to transfer possession of vanity, that has no reach beyond the grave? Or is it instead intended to communicate and strengthen ties of love, friendship, to show kindness, to build relationships, to facilitate personal growth and progress, to memorialize pleasant shared experiences, to express and transmit value? Consider how it may be tied to this list of eternal verities that stay with us:

Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (Doctrine and Covenants 4:6)

There is a lot of Christmas Spirit in that list. Such solemnized gifts are not likely to break and never grow old. They are very real. To the extent they embrace such virtues, I think we remember them.

Of Naked Ladies and the House of Israel

Some call them Naked Ladies. Others invoke the adjectives Resurrection, Surprise, or Magic. A more formal name seems to be Amaryllis Belladonna. They are lily-like flowers (but distantly related to lilies), with large, trumpet-like blossoms. They certainly look like lilies to me, no offense intended to the botanists.

I first noticed these mystery flowers when they appeared one summer in my backyard. I do not know how they got there. This summer there are several of them, each summer a few more. They are beautiful. But even more, I find them a wonder. Unless you were careful to notice their abundant but brief and non-flowering leaves at the beginning of the growing season, you would have little expectation that in the hottest and driest time of the summer you were to be blessed by an eruption of beauty in your yard.

These flowers bloom on tall stalks that break through the dry ground without any leaves or other trace of the plant at all. It took me a season or two to connect their abundant leafy growth in early spring with the blossoms of later summer. From that spring verdure the plants gather and store in their bulbs the strength that lies dormant for many weeks after the leaves have all died away.

The tall, slender stems of late July and August, with their lovely pink blossoms but no foliage of any kind, I must suppose give the flowers their name, Naked Ladies. The variety of other names testify that these flowering bulbs suggest many things to many people. If you did not know that they were there, hiding in the ground, you would have a surprise when the stalks rocket up in a matter of days to bloom in abundance. From a plant that seemed to have died off with the spring, the resurrection of blossoms arises at a time when the most intense heat of the summer dries out many other flora. From barren ground, with no apparent preparation or support, the blossoms appear like magic.

I can embrace all of these images and their accompanying names, to which I would add another—at least another metaphor if not another name. They remind me of the house of Israel.

Long ago Israel thrived in the land called Canaan. Twelve Tribes, descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob, named Israel by the Lord Jehovah, put down deep roots and flourished between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and into surrounding territories. As the people stayed faithful to God, kept His commandments and ordinances, Israel grew and prospered.

As with the plant I have in mind, Israel’s time of flourishing was relatively brief. Before the end of the eighth century, B.C., Ten of the Twelve Tribes had fallen away from the faith of God into the paganism of their neighbors. Their lands were conquered and the people carried away captive and out of the further knowledge of history. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin alone remained, the Jews of today. In time they, too, were driven from their homeland and scattered all over the world.

For thousands of years the house of Israel has remained in captivity and Diaspora. All but the Jews have remained unnoticed, and the Jews have been subjected to waves of persecution that has risen and ebbed but not wholly ceased.

Yet Israel has lived, strength acquired long ago awaiting the season of sprouting and blossoming, as foretold by numerous prophets, ancient and modern. Through Moses, the Lord declared to Israel,

That then the Lord thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all nations, whither the Lord thy God has scattered thee. (Deuteronomy 30:3)

Through the prophet Ezekiel,

For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord God, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things. I will accept you with your sweet savour, when I bring you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen. (Ezekiel 20:40, 41)

When Jesus Christ visited His believers in America, shortly following His resurrection, teaching them about the house of Israel He promised, “I will gather them in from the four quarters of the earth; and then will I fulfill the covenant which the Father made unto all the people of the house of Israel.” (3 Nephi 16)

In our day, modern prophets of Jesus Christ have declared the approaching fulfillment of the covenant:

We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes . . . (Articles of Faith 10)

Those surprise flowers each year remind me of the Lord’s promises to the house of Israel, as today we are witnessing those slender stalks arise unexpectedly from barren lands, just beginning to bloom. It is wondrous and beautiful. A work of God.

Of the Meaning of Life and the Purpose of Love

Does life have meaning? If so, what is that meaning? The answer, to be valid, must discover meaning for lives lived 70 years and longer as well as those lived for 70 minutes or fewer. That is to say, that it must reveal meaning for all members of the family of Adam and Eve. I have to admit that I cannot fathom an answer that life offers meaning only for some people but not for others, that the others are just stage props for those fortunate humans for whom life really matters.

I would also posit that in order for life to have meaning for man, then man’s existence cannot end with the end of mortality, that life must have an eternal character for there to be meaning to it. Temporary meaning is no meaning in the end. If there is an end, then in the end what does it matter?

I will add that, if there is eternal existence, that whispers to me a strong intuition of the existence of God, the existence of a being who has it all figured out, who has used eternity well. I do not offer this point as a proof at this moment, but rather as a likelihood. There are other proofs that I know and could offer for the existence of God, for God has not hidden Himself from His children who want to know Him. He sent us here to find out which of His children really want to know Him: that is one of the purposes of this life, closely related to the central purpose of life. The process of coming to know God is an individual work that necessitates the personal development of what is also God’s defining characteristic. That development involves the process of living in this life on earth.

That is to say that one way of describing the central purpose and meaning of life is this: for each individual to develop an ever greater capacity to love. That may sound sentimental and trite, but it is nonetheless true. Good fiction draws its vitality from important themes of reality. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series climaxes with the discovery that the most powerful “magic” in the world is love, belittled and scorned by the arch villain of the series even as he is destroyed by its strength.

Love, particularly the love of God, is the central theme of scripture. The scriptures taken altogether are an unfolding exposition of God’s love operating among His children and either embraced or rejected by them. The scriptures describe the deepest and most complete form of love as charity, “the pure love of Christ” (Moroni 7:47), the greatest of all the gifts of God (see 1 Corinthians 13:13).

Elsewhere the scriptures name “eternal life” as “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (Doctrine and Covenants 14:7). This is not a contradiction, as eternal life and charity are coincidental. To possess one is to possess the other. Consider these passages of scripture together. The first is how God describes His work, what He does, which must therefore be very closely related to His meaning, His purpose:

For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

The second is how the ancient Israelite prophet Lehi described man’s purpose to his family:

men are that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2:25)

This means that immortality, eternal life, and joy are all connected. Jesus taught that they are united in the personal development of the divine trait of love. During the Savior’s preaching in Jerusalem in the last week of His mortality, the legalistic Pharisees sought to trip the Savior up with a question that to them must have been a real poser, undoubtedly a favorite debate topic:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

Conceptually this is just another way to introduce our topic about the meaning of life, for surely the commandments of God and the meaning of life are closely related, God’s commandments designed to lead His children through a life of meaning and fulfillment. The answer of Christ, who before His birth had given the commandments to the prophets, silenced for a time His tempters; at least, no rejoinder is mentioned in the record, perhaps because Jesus was referencing what He had given in the laws He revealed to Moses (see Deuteronomy 6:4,5, and Leviticus 19:18).

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

All the rest of the gospel is elaboration of these two commandments. That is the purpose of life, to develop charity, the pure love of Christ, the complete soul-filled love of God, which manifests itself in loving our neighbors as ourselves. How do we do that? As Jesus said, that is the purpose of the law and the prophets. “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

As the ancient American prophet Mormon taught,

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 as he is pure. Amen. (Moroni 7:48)

Mormon’s people nearly all rejected his counsel and descended into a hatred that devoured their civilization in pointless dissolution.

Life has meaning because it has choices with real consequences. We feel and see and live them everyday. Amidst the easy-to-see evils of the world, there are plenty who choose to do good, to love their fellows and increase in their love of God. There are and have been those who live life to its fullest, growing in the greatest of all gifts and the mightiest of all powers by being true followers of Jesus Christ, increasing in the love by which they become like Him and by which they will know Him.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. (1 John 4:7,8)

Let us love, that when at last we see God, as we all will, we will recognize Him, because we will have become like Him in the most meaningful way.

Of Old Time Religion and What’s Good Enough for Me

Is there a revival or camp meeting song more popular than “Old Time Religion”? Maybe, but few, and few serve so well to stir up so quickly good feelings about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Try getting the song out of your head after singing or even listening to it for a while—not an easy task. It is bouncing around in my head even as I write.

Like a good campfire song, it lends itself easily to new verses improvised on the spot by each singer in turn. Because of that, I do not know that there is an official set of lyrics.

All of the variations you might hear or sing begin with—

Now give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
Give me that old time religion.
It’s good enough for me.

That lead verse sets the pattern. After it come verses like the following:

Makes me love everybody.
Makes me love everybody.
Makes me love everybody.
It’s good enough for me.

I particularly like that thought, because the religion of Jesus Christ is designed to change us so that we do love everybody. The greatest gift of God is charity, the pure love of Christ. If a religion is unable to bring about that change in people, then it is not the religion taught by the Savior.

Here is another verse that I like:

It was good for the Hebrew children.
It was good for the Hebrew children.
It was good for the Hebrew children.
It’s good enough for me.

Some modern religions seem to have forgotten the Hebrew children. You cannot have the true “old time religion” without including them. As Moses and the other Old Testament prophets taught, the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was the religion of Jesus Christ. It was Christ—referred to as the Messiah and as Jehovah in the Hebrew scriptures—who as the God of the Old Testament gave the Hebrews their religion, the religion of direct revelation from God that brought them out of Egypt, and it was good enough to bring them prosperity whenever they followed it.

Of course, the old time religion of God is even older than the Hebrew children, since it was the religion taught by God to Adam and his descendants, observed by Noah and his family on the Ark. There were other old time religions, but they were not good for anybody, with no power to save in heaven or on earth.

And when the Hebrew children forsook the old time religion and instead embraced the pagan religions of their neighbors, the Lord could not protect them. Many rediscovered God’s old time religion once they were in exile in Babylon. That lies behind another stirring verse:

It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It was good for the prophet Daniel.
It’s good enough for me.

It was good for all of God’s prophets and taught by them. That included the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles and prophets of the church Jesus established during His mortal ministry. This verse captures that spirit:

It was good for Paul and Silas.
It was good for Paul and Silas.
It was good for Paul and Silas.
It’s good enough for me.

That old time religion, of Apostles and prophets who spoke directly with God, and through whom the Father continued to speak regularly to His children, had power to save. As the song continues,

It will take us all to heaven.
It will take us all to heaven.
It will take us all to heaven.
It’s good enough for me.

I am very grateful that God’s old time religion of prophets and Apostles of Jesus Christ is on the earth once again, just as it was anciently. I will add my own verse:

It will help us follow Jesus.
It will help us follow Jesus.
It will help us follow Jesus.
And that’s good enough for me.

Of the Power of Change and the Power of Christ

Change is in the air. It is autumn, the leaves have begun their brief flash of color before gliding to the ground to be swept away.

Fall is also the season when politicians promise change. The mood predominating among the electorate this year seems to be disillusionment with Change. They want change from Change—that is, from Change that makes things worse and reinforces what is bad in Washington. At least for now, voters are showing a strong preference for candidates who do not fit the usual political mold, who reject solutions imposed from Washington. Such moments do not come very often, and like the autumn they seem to pass too quickly.

Yet with all of this discussion of the change apparent in nature and the political world, it seems strange to find those who doubt the ability of people to change. Properly understood, the plan of God for His children is all about change.

The central message of Jesus Christ and of all of His prophets has been the need and possibility for people to change, to change their world by changing themselves, from the world of unhappiness and distraction, to a life of purpose, growth, and deep joy. All who have drawn close to the Savior have experienced change, have drawn upon His power to change, and the closer they drew to Him the more that they changed and became more like Him.

Consider the early Apostles who lived while the Savior walked the earth. Mere fishermen (Peter and John) were turned into inspired leaders whose testimonies have endured for two millennia. A tax collector (Matthew) was converted into a human benefactor. A persecuting zealot (Paul) turned into a powerful missionary. In earlier days, a slave (Joseph) became viceroy of Egypt, a fugitive from Pharaoh’s court (Moses) became the mighty lawgiver who led Israel from bondage, a shepherd (David) became King of Israel. The change in these whom history calls great was repeated among millions of their less well-known compatriots.

In our own times, an untaught boy (Joseph Smith) became a wise prophet and religious founder, a craftsman (Brigham Young) became the greatest colonizer of the West. Again, these are more prominent examples among millions of others similarly changed through the power of Christ, the more effectively changed the closer that they approached Him.

When I was in college a friend explained to me her disillusionment with her church, which in her view told its members to be good but somehow lacked the power to transform them. It lacked the power of Christ, who made change of life possible. As the ancient American prophet Mormon explained in a letter to his son, Moroni, through Jesus Christ our sins can be forgiven, our past can be overcome.

And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God. (Moroni 8:26)

There is power, the greatest power on earth, the power to change the greatest creations on earth, the children of God. There is the power to transform men and women and make them fit to live with the Father in His presence forever, “that ye may at last be brought to sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the holy prophets who have been ever since the world began, having your garments spotless even as their garments are spotless, in the kingdom of heaven to go no more out.” (Alma 7:25) Thank God that power is on the earth.

(First published October 11, 2010)