Sunday, July 27, 2008

Belonging to the One True Family

I consider myself fairly close to my family. We have our modes of interaction, our traditions, our ways of doing things, and for the most part, I enjoy them. Wassail and the Carpenter's Christmas album around a live Christmas tree covered with an array of mismatched ornaments tells me that I'm home for the holidays. When my Dad and I tease each other, we're showing how much we love each other. I'm more likely to find my mother with a power tool than with a feather duster. Our furniture doesn't always match, the Christmas stockings are still up in July, and our bookshelves are covered with pictures. And I love all the quirky things about my house and my family that tell me I'm home.

My mother, who is a very wise woman, taught me to love our family and our traditions. She also taught me not to believe that the way our family did things was the only right way. "Amy," she said, "remember that you don't come from the One True Family." Other people, she said, would do things differently, and I wasn't to insist on my own way with my roommates or my husband just because my family had always done things in their own way.

It was a funny way of putting it, but "the One True Family" is an expression I have come to appreciate as I've lived with a variety of roommates and known people from many walks of life. I've learned that their variety is what gives life its richness and depth, even though it requires some flexibility to adjust to the quirkiness in others that I so appreciate in my own family.

But I've also come to realize what a blessing it us that we all can belong to the real One True Family--that is, to the family of God. When I look at others with spiritual eyes and understand that they are all my brothers and sisters, no matter how they behave, where they come from, or what I think of them, it becomes so much harder to dislike them or to judge them. It becomes so much easier to love them. Paul wrote about this blessing in one of my favorite passages of scripture:

"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. 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 8:14-17).

What a rich, varied, and beautiful family we have! What a blessing it is to belong to the family of God, to have Him as our Father, to be able to become joint-heirs with Christ! How grateful I am to know that while my earthly family is not perfect, we can be an eternal family by keeping our covenants, and so can be members of the One True Family, and members of the household of God.
"Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It’s Not You, It’s Me

With the rise of no-fault divorce laws came a new set of acceptable grounds for divorce. Previously, one partner would have to demonstrate that the other had been unfaithful, abusive, or downright awful. Now they just have to allege "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage."

It's a convenient phrase that stops us from feeling guilty about our failure to succeed at making the marriage work.

"There is something deceptive about [the phrase 'irretrievable breakdown']. The passive, impersonal structure, the dry legalities of the language, conceal a lie. It suggests that a marriage has an independent organic existence. It exonerates us by portraying us as merely the clinicians pronouncing the body dead. But at what precise point does the breakdown of a marriage become irretrievable? The moment we declare it so, and no sooner. And the marriage doesn't just break down. We disconnect the life support. While it requires will to make a marriage work, it also requires a quite horrifying act of will to bring one to an end." (Taylor, John. "The Death of a Marriage." Sunday Telegraph (Australia), 30 May 1999, 13; as cited by Hafen, Bruce C., "Covenant Hearts," Deseret Book 2005, p. 236)

Amen.

I think it's awfully sad to see marriages and relationships break up over petty things. But it's even sadder to see the parties refuse to take responsibility for their choices. I yearn for the days when, among the Nephites, "every man expressed a willingness to answer for his own sins" (Mosiah 29:38).

I submit that there is only one major reason for a marital breakdown (or any relationship breakdown, for that matter), and that is this: one or both parties decides that they do not want the relationship enough, or that they do not want the other person enough, to do what it would take to make the relationship work. Very few people will say this. They will say, "oh, we did not get along," or "we fell out of love," or "we weren't compatible." But in each case, what they mean is, "One or both of us decided that the costs of this relationship were greater than its benefits, and thus we were not willing to pay those costs."

And although I posit this as a catch-all reason for divorce, I won't go so far as to universally condemn it. The wife of an abusive man may decide that the costs (e.g. the pain caused by her husband's constant battering) are greater than the benefits of her marriage (e.g. the chance to have a father for her children, or her husband's income or position), just as the cuckolded husband may decide that the costs (e.g. the pain caused by his wife's constant infidelity) are greater than the benefits of his marriage (e.g. the meals she makes or the company she provides), and perhaps rightly so.

But barring such extreme circumstances, alleging irretrievable breakdown seems like a pretty cheap cop-out. If a marriage broke down, it’s because someone chose to do things that would destroy it, or neglected to do something that would have preserved it. As prophets have warned, “individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.”

May we, as the Relief Society Declaration proclaims, “seek spiritual strength by following the promptings of the Holy Ghost,” and having done so, more fully “dedicate ourselves to strengthening marriages, families, and homes,” that we may be a force for good and truly come to “rejoice in the blessings of the temple,” which bind our families together forever, if we remain faithful.

Picture from http://electexiles.files.wordpress.com

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Sacrament--The Keys of Death and Hell

Just before His Atonement, betrayal, trial, and death, Jesus ate a final meal in an upper room with His disciples. Tradition states that this was a Passover meal. At the end of the meal, Christ took the "afikomen"--the "bread of redemption," and blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples, commanding them "Take, eat; this is my body" (Matthew 26:26). He then blessed a cup of wine, and passed it to His disciples, saying, "Drink ye all of it. For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:27-28).

When Christ appeared to the people of the Americas, He gave the same command, and instituted the sacrament among them, in remembrance of His Atonement. Many churches, my own included, still observe this ordinance weekly, in remembrance of Christ.

Reading and thinking about the sacrament prayers last week made me realize something. I had always assumed that the bread of the sacrament was a token of Christ's mortal body, which He laid down as a sacrifice for us. So where the sacrament prayer says "that they may eat [the bread] in remembrance of the body of thy Son," I always just tacked on "which died for them," to parallel the other prayer's structure, "that they may do it [drink the water/wine] in remembrance of the blood of thy Son, which was shed for them" (see Moroni 4-5).

But Christ's command to the Nephites threw a different light on the whole subject. After instructing them to observe the ordinance of the sacrament, Christ said, in perfect parallel of the sacramental prayer, but inserting the missing phrase, "And this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you. And it shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you" (3 Nephi 18:7).

So the body symbolized by the bread of the sacrament is not Christ's mortal body, but the body He showed to the Nephites--that is, His resurrected body. So the parallel structure in the prayer is not "that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, which died for them," but rather, "that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, which was resurrected for them."

Thus the sacrament becomes a two-fold emblem of Christ's mission of deliverance from death. The water/wine represents His atoning blood, which was shed for us in Gethsemane as He performed the Atonement, and which cleanses us from sin, or spiritual death. And the bread represents His resurrected body, which left an empty tomb and enabled each of us to overcome mortality, or physical death. By taking the sacrament, we recognize that the Savior whose Atonement we commemorate by partaking of the emblems of His flesh and blood holds the keys to both death and hell, that He has "ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth" (Doctrine & Covenants 88:6).

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What Are We To Do With Jesus?

Two millennia ago, Pilate stood before a mob of his subjects, who cried out for the release of a well-known murderer and rebel. After giving in to their demands, Pilate inquired wearily as to the fate of the other well-known prisoner, brought to him only hours before. Matthew records that, "Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?" (Matthew 27:22).

We don't have a lengthy legal brief or an elegant speech composed by Pilate at this trial--only a few snatches of conversation. But what few of his words the gospels record have resounded throughout time, as each man and woman has been faced with the momentous question of far-reaching implications--"What think ye of Christ? whose son is he?" (Matthew 22:42). In this respect, Pilate's few words were more profound than he ever understood.

What are we to do, then, with Jesus which is called Christ?

"And some began to spit on him, and to cover his face, and to buffet him, and to say unto him, Prophesy: and the servants did strike him with the palms of their hands" (Mark 14:65).

"And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads. And saying...If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross....[and] mocking him...said, He saved others; himself he cannot save" (Matthew 27:39-42).

"He began to preach among the people, and to declare unto them that there should be no Christ...And he said: If there should be a Christ, I would not deny him; but I know that there is no Christ, neither has been, nor ever will be" (Jacob 7:2,9).

"And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: 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--That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created" (Doctrine & Covenants 76:22-24).

"They did cry out with one accord, saying: Hosanna! Blessed be the name of the Most High God! And they did fall down at the feet of Jesus, and did worship him...And Nephi arose and went forth, and bowed himself before the Lord and did kiss his feet" (3 Nephi 11:16-19).

"Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:27-29).

"In a coming day I shall feel the nail marks in his hands and in his feet and shall wet his feet with my tears. But I shall not know any better then than I know now that he is God’s Almighty Son, that he is our Savior and Redeemer, and that salvation comes in and through his atoning blood and in no other way." (Bruce R. McConkie, The Purifying Power of Gethsemane)

Like Thomas, Nephi, and the rest of Christ's disciples, ancient and modern, let us come unto Christ, kneel at His feet, and call Him Lord and God.

"O then despise not, and wonder not, but hearken unto the words of the Lord, and ask the Father in the name of Jesus for what things soever ye shall stand in need. Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him" (Mormon 9:27).

Picture from jesuschrist.lds.org

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Futility of Regret

From time to time, in the course of some discussion about my life, or a recent turn of events, someone will ask me, "If you had know X at the time, would you still have done Y?"

It always strikes me as an absurd question. There's a good reason why we don't know the end from the beginning: Frankly, if someone had told me five years ago what would happen in my life these past five years, I would have crawled under my bed and refused to come out. But I'm glad that I didn't choose that route. I have very few regrets about my choices, even if I do at times wish the consequences had been different.

Would I still have done Y? The short answer is, "perhaps not," if I was only looking at the short-term consequences of decision Y, especially if they were painful. But when I see the big picture, not only is the point completely moot (since I DID do Y, and there's no undoing it), but the question is based on a faulty premise. There is no possible way of knowing what I might have done had circumstances been different, or had I only known at the beginning the things I could only have learned by passing through the experience. The important thing is that I didn't know X when I did Y. I have since learned X, but I've also learned Q, R, S, and T, and they have strengthened and transformed me. And I learned all those things specifically because I chose Y. There was no other way. Furthermore, we know that all things work together for the good of those who love the Lord—that all of our choices can bring us joy if we allow the resulting experiences to bring us closer to God and to rely more fully on His power and mercy.

Now, I'm not saying it's a good idea to try crack because going through rehab will teach you valuable lessons (although I'm sure it would), or to sleep around because the painful repentance process that follows will ultimately bring you joy (though it will). But I am suggesting that we not beat ourselves up about past decisions we made using our best judgment and the limited information we had at the time. We didn’t know the end from the beginning, and if we couldn’t have foreseen the consequences, what’s the use in putting ourselves on trial for things beyond our knowledge or power to control? I don't think we do ourselves any favors when we judge our past selves based on our present knowledge. In the past we weren't the people we are today--how could we have been? We didn't know then the things we know today--how could we have? We hadn't had the same experiences, we hadn't learned the same lessons. In short, so much of what determines our choices is formed in the experiences that result from those choices. Since right now we only see “through a glass, darkly,” we could stand to be a bit more gentle with ourselves.

At least, I know I could.

Picture from http://www.scottpetersonproductions.com

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dayenu!

One of my favorite holidays is Passover.
"But you're not even Jewish!" you protest.
So what? That hasn't stopped me from celebrating Passover these last five years. And why should it? Passover isn't just about being Jewish. It's about celebrating the Lord's great mercy and power to deliver His people. It's a holiday that recalls Israel's captivity in Egypt, and reminds us that the Lord who delivered His ancient covenant people will still deliver us today.
My favorite part of the Passover service is a prayer known as the Dayenu, so named for its constant refrain. "Dayenu," in Hebrew, means "it would have been enough" or "it would have satisfied us."
Here's Wikipedia's translation of the prayer:

If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had carried out judgments against them,and not against their idols
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had destroyed their idols, and had not smitten their first-born
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had smitten their first-born, and had not given us their wealth
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had given us their wealth, and had not split the sea for us
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had split the sea for us, and had not taken us through it on dry land
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had taken us through the sea on dry land, and had not drowned our oppressors in it
ֹDayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had drowned our oppressors in it, and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years, and had not fed us the manna
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had fed us the manna, and had not given us the Sabbath
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had given us the Sabbath, and had not brought us before Mount Sinai
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had brought us before Mount Sinai, and had not given us the Torah
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had given us the Torah, and had not brought us into the land of Israel
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had brought us into the land of Israel, and not built for us the Holy Temple
Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

It's an incredible prayer of thanksgiving and praise to a God so great and glorious that we cannot help but praise Him for His mercy, for His deliverance, for doing so much more than that which would have sufficed. The attitude behind the prayer is so humble, and the power in crying "Dayenu!" with others assembled to remember and give thanks for the Lord's deliverance is indescribable.
I think we each need our own personal Dayenu! Instead of a list of demands, "please bless me with this, and please give me that," occasionally we need to stop and remember how great the Lord's blessings to us have been, and, overwhelmed, cry out, "Lord, it is enough!" (see Gen. 45:28).
The Lord's blessings to me have been beyond my power to express. Truly the Lord has given me so much that there has not been "room enough to receive it" (Malachi 3:10).

If He had given me the Holy Temple, and not restored the ordinances that bind families together for time and eternity,
Dayenu!

If He had restored the ordinances and not given me loving parents who honored their covenants with complete fidelity,
Dayenu!

If He had given me loving, faithful parents and not sent His Holy Spirit to dwell with me,
Dayenu!

If He had sent His Spirit and not brought kind, loving friends into my life,
Dayenu!

If He had given me friends and not the opportunity to study under professors who are leaders in their fields at a world-class university, to be taught by those who love the Lord, and to associate with those who strengthen my testimony,
Dayenu!

If He had blessed me with such great educational opportunities and not the chance to date some of His finest sons,
Dayenu!

If He had blessed me with dating opportunities and not given me a brother who is an example to me as he worthily serves a mission for the Lord,
Dayenu!

If He had given me my good brother and not spoken peace to my heart through the whisperings of His Spirit,
Dayenu!

If He had spoken peace to my heart and not filled me with the indescribable joy that passes all understanding through the Atonement of His Son,
Dayenu!

If He had filled me with joy and not given me a hope that I can return to live with Him again,
Dayenu!
It would be have been enough!

Lord, Dayenu! It is enough!

"When ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them...remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts" (Moroni 10:3).

Picture from www.inspirational-motivational-quotes.com/

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor

This painting by Arnold Friberg, entitled “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” hung in my bishop’s office when I was young. It shows General Washington in the snow at Valley Forge, kneeling in prayer, and is based on an eyewitness account of Isaac Potts, who recalls,

“In that woods…I heard a plaintive sound as of a man at prayer. I tied my horse to a sapling & went quietly into the woods. To my astonishment I saw the great George Washington on his knees alone, with his sword on one side and his cocked hat on the other. He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was the Crisis & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world. Such a prayer I never heard from the lips of man. I left him alone praying. I went home & told my wife. We never thought a man could be a soldier & a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington. We thought it was the cause of God & America could prevail.” (Diary and Remembrances of Rev. Nathaniel Randolph Snowden, 1770-1851)

Friberg’s painting has always seemed intensely personal and strikingly profound to me, as if the artist were able, for a brief moment, to reach into those wintry woods, and into Washington’s soul, and from there into the soul of America and back again. It teaches me about Washington as a person, about life, leadership, and true greatness. Here we see a great man on his knees in the snow, in private dialogue with his Creator pleading for the welfare of his men and their cause.

As a people, we have the tendency to revere the Founders, especially Washington, the man we call the Father of our country. We respect them because of what they stood for, because their words captured the soul of America. Washington had a free spirit. He believed that freedom was worth fighting for. He believed that God had given to men that right. Americans, by and large, share his beliefs. We respect him for his courage, his dignity, his leadership, his strength, his devotion, and his selfless service. We know that he was a very humble man and a man devoted to his country. When he relinquished power after the war and again following two terms as president, refusing to be called king, the American people knew that in this man breathed no tyrant. He is America’s Cincinnatus, the epitome of civic virtue. He represents the essence of democracy, for he was a man who was willing to fight for freedom and then make that freedom eternally perpetuating, protected, and possible by enshrining it in a founding document that continues to be an example to the nations of this world. To America he represents all that this country stands for, and to the world all that it can be.

Our founders believed in God and could not help but see His hand guiding the beginning of their new Republic, a nation that would later make it a point to constitutionally protect a man’s right to worship as his conscience dictates. From their miraculous deliverance from a force far superior to their own to what they termed a “miracle” at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, they were moved to echo the words of Benjamin Franklin to that Convention, “All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor…the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” Washington, before the United States had gained its independence, understood this sentiment, and knew that indeed it was impossible for his fledgling nation to rise to prominence without the aid of “that powerful Friend.” The men who signed the Declaration of Independence put their faith in divine providence for support of their declaration, and then mutually pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Their pledge has always touched me, for these were great and powerful men pledging to one another and to God their support of the principles they had therein called self-evident—that all men were created equal and free and had inalienable rights given to them by their Creator, who endowed them with the ability to govern themselves and all the attendant rights and privileges that accompany that capacity. These were men who felt the importance of their calling acutely, and were willing to pledge all that they had, and indeed, all that they were, in support of these ideas. These were much more than empty academic theories. They were core beliefs of the founders, principles upon which they were willing to stake their very lives, and, what is more important, their honor. Here, on the battlefields of the revolutionary war, Washington is shown demonstrating that he believed in the principles that these men had invoked, that he still held that honor sacred, still revered that Creator who had given all men the rights for which they were then fighting and dying. Here Washington was fulfilling that sacred oath, staking his life and his honor for the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” that those men had cited in that immortal declaration, and relying on the Framer of the universe to support him in his fight.

Friberg teaches a great lesson about humility in his painting, for here he shows the great and honored General Washington, the man most revered by centuries of Americans, on his knees in the snow, his head bare and bowed in an attitude of supplication. His posture is not one of grandeur but one of reverence. Washington is not the triumphant conqueror astride his charger or the noble statesman creating history with a flourish of his pen, but rather the humble petitioner before the throne of One mightier than he, his horse behind him and the tokens of his authority bent with him to the ground. We feel as if we are intruding, for Washington never intended his private benedictions to be seen, and certainly never dreamed that they would be preserved on canvas for generations to come. Lacking a closet, he prayed in secret in the woods, believing the promise that “thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:6)

I believe that the true power of a great leader comes, not from his ability to make flowery speeches, but rather from his dedication to principles that he knows are right, even at personal cost. We know that Washington was a wealthy man, and, had the colonies not rebelled, he could have lived out his life in comfort and prosperity. But Washington was spending the winter of 1777-78 on this frozen Pennsylvania plain with his weakened Continental army because he knew that freedom was more important than comfort, that peace was not just the absence of war but also the presence of freedom and justice, and that, as Aristotle said, “we make war that we may live in peace.” Washington answered to a higher cause than personal aggrandizement, and on that proving ground demonstrated his devotion to the cause of freedom.

Washington is an example to us all, private citizens and public officials alike. He was a true patriot, a man who believed in the freedom of all men, “a soldier and a Christian.” He is an example of humility, civic virtue, honesty, and—perhaps the greatest attribute of all—integrity. The freedoms he fought for are ones that we all should be willing to fight for, and the life he led is one we should emulate. I honor his humility in privately beseeching the Almighty God for the welfare of his cause, for it truly was and is and ever will be the cause of freedom for all peoples of this world.