Friday, June 26, 2009

Of More Importance Than They All

There are a lot of important things in this life. Families are important. Having a source of income is important. Supporting one's community is important. Good friends are important.

There are a lot of important things in the gospel. Prophets are important. Scriptures are important. Accepting and magnifying callings is important. Family history and temple work are important. The priesthood is important.

Alma, in speaking to the people of Gideon, talked about the importance of living in accordance with the teachings of the Gospel. But he focused his sermon on a declaration that has always moved me, commanding his people to "look forward for the remission of your sins, with an everlasting faith, which is to come. For behold, I say unto you there be many things to come; and behold, there is one thing which is of more importance than they all—for behold, the time is not far distant that the Redeemer liveth and cometh among his people" (Alma 7:6-7).

And then, speaking of the Redeemer's mission, he said, "And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me" (Alma 7:11-13).

Alma was a powerful speaker who knew and taught the gospel with breadth and clarity. He doubtless knew and understood many important truths of the gospel. But one truth received the distinction of "most important"--that the Redeemer would live and come among His people, suffering their pains, atoning for their sins, and granting them power over death and hell according to the power of His deliverance.

I, too, have realized, time and again, that this glorious truth is the most important thing I could know, the most important thing I could study, the most important thing I could understand, the most important thing I could declare. It trumps all other doctrines, theories, or topics of interest as the single most salient fact in the history of the universe.

Speaking of this beautiful truth, Isaac Watts wrote,

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Indeed it does. Such wondrous love, such amazing grace, demands all that we have and ever hope to be. As King Benjamin told his people, " if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and...if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants" (Mosiah 2:20-21).

We don't serve God because we're doing Him a favor, or because He needs an advisor. We serve Him because we love Him, and we love Him because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). We serve Him because our hearts, humbled by such love, move us to an expression of thanks that is deeply sincere even though it is eternally insufficient.

Truly this is the most important fact in all eternity. Christ came to die for sinners--for us. In doing so, He reconciled the finite with the Infinite, the incomplete with the Complete, the fallen with the Exalted. He blots out our sins according to the power of His deliverance. Many things are important. But, with Alma, I proclaim that the Atonement of Christ is of more importance than they all. For, as it was in Alma, this is the testimony which is in me.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Teach Them Dilligently To Thy Children

I recently overheard the story of a young woman, who was preparing to be endowed the following day in anticipation of her upcoming temple marriage. When she expressed some nervousness about the experience, her sister gravely counseled her, "Just remember, when the goat comes by, jump on it!" She was puzzled and hesitant, and wondered what she was getting herself into.

Of course her sister was joking. No goats (or any other animals) are involved in any of our temple ceremonies. But I believe that the fact that this young woman was able to be suckered into believing such a thing by her sister's offhanded comment indicates a fundamental problem with the way we think--and teach--about the sacred.

Mormons have a funny relationship with the sacred. Not given to levity, we strive to give sacred experiences and truths proper respect. Somewhere along the line, "respect" came to be synonymous with "silence," and we decided that sacred things ought to be completely secret, lest any unprepared "swine" defile our "pearls" with their uncouth speech.

I admire the reverence that began this trend, but I despise what has come of it. With no clearly drawn lines, our desire to show respect and avoid vulgarity has led us to avoid speaking of any aspect of sacred things (to the point that some are unwilling to discuss the color of the temple carpet!), and so has left us and our children unprepared for our encounters with the sacred.

We do the same thing when we teach our children about sex. Mormonism officially regards married sex as good, sacred, and holy. But practically, we're very Victorian about it, and our embarrassed silence is only reinforced by our recent emphasis on its "sacredness," since we can conveniently import the same hush-hush attitude that we use for all other sacred things, and use it as a justification for our embarassment. Any reference to sex is couched in so many euphemisms and analogies as to be utterly incomprehensible--"marital intimacy," "procreation," and "the birds and bees" being among the more intelligible ones I've heard. Discussions of sex with youth quickly degenerate into embarrassed winking from leaders, and repeated recitations of horror stories of nice young men and women who lost their virtue and thus ruined their lives irreparably. The emphasis is always on "DON'T!", and even when accompanied with some passing reference to the joys of married sex, the take-away message seems to be, in the words of Laura Brotherson, "Sex is dirty, nasty, evil, and wrong...so save it for someone you love!" Parents take their children out of sex ed, fearing age-inappropriate information. Their awkwardness prevents them from discussing the subject with their children. And then young brides and grooms get married without any understanding of or instruction in an activity that can be a strong welding link--or a divisive wedge--in their marriage, understanding little about the mechanics of sex except for the basic plumbing.

The parents and leaders are well-intentioned, of course, but the life-long problems (and I have watched them unfold--in both arenas!) that result from this style of teaching are grave enough to warrant serious reflection on our discourse about the sacred.

The Doctrine & Covenants teaches us about speaking of sacred things. The Lord said, "Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer, wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation" (Doc. & Cov. 63:64). Clearly, when we speak of sacred things with care and through the Spirit, there is no condemnation--in fact, such speech is commanded, not merely permissible. Consider an earlier commandment: "And they shall observe the covenants and church articles to do them, and these shall be their teachings, as they shall be directed by the Spirit. And the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith; and if ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach" (Doc. & Cov. 42:14). Obviously the Lord's commandment in both instances is not "do not teach," but rather, "do teach--but when you teach, make sure you do it with the Spirit."

Hugh Nibley discussed this subject with feeling and a hint of irony. He said, "What the Mormons like best about their temples is the obligation of secrecy that exonerates them from ever having to speak, and hence to think, about what they have learned by the ordinances and teachings. So strict are they in observing the confidential nature of those teachings that they, for the most part, scrupulously avoid dropping so much as a hint to outsiders by putting any of them into practice." (Petersen, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, 361)

Would we baptize a child--or a new convert--without telling him what to expect, without outlining for him the covenants associated with baptism? Of course not. Why would we send our children into any other sacred or life-changing experience without preparing them--and not in a brief hour-long talk right beforehand, but from the moment they are able to understand the significance of the event?

Would it kill us to teach our kids directly and specifically, albeit in age-appropriate ways, about experiences and ordinances we hold dear? Would it not lead to children more prepared to understand and receive truth, who can meet the future without fear or apprehension, who can confront the sacred elements of their lives with appropriate eagerness and gravity?

But to develop this spiritual maturity our children must be taught, as Paul said, "How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?" (Romans 10:14).

I believe that children raised in a home in which sacred topics are discussed in an atmosphere of openness, trust, acceptance, and love, by care and constraint of the Spirit, will learn from their parent's examples how to meet the sacred with enthusiasm and solemnity, and without levity or trepidation. They will learn to value and appreciate the things their parents value, and will thereby come to know the Lord and to rejoice in His love.

"And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).

Friday, June 12, 2009

Life Isn't Fair

Remember when you were a kid, and your brother got the last scoop of ice cream, or your sister got to play with her friends while you had to do chores, or your friend's family spent spring vacation at Disneyland (again) while your family visited Aunt Mabel (again), whose house always smelled like cats? Remember how you whined to your parents..."But it's not fair!"

If your parents were anything like mine, they probably didn't care too much for your whining, and repeated a phrase you quickly grew to resent: "Tough. Life's not fair." Whereupon you probably went off to pout at the terrible injustice that had been done to you.

Well, a fact that used to be a source of great irritation to me has become a source of great joy. Life isn't fair! Thank God it isn't fair!

I'm not being facetious. It isn't fair that God allowed us to come to this beautiful earth, an earth filled with so many wonders, where we can experience kindness, love, and contentment. It isn't fair that He gave us prophets since the beginning of time, that He spoke to them from heaven nd thereby directed the affairs of His children. It isn't fair that He led our ancestors out of bondage and captivity, that He delivered them from their enemies, that He fed them in the wilderness and led them to a land of promise. What did they do to deserve such miracles? Truthfully, they did nothing. They did not deserve such magnanimity. Life isn't fair. Deliverance and redemption was not what the children of Israel deserved. It was not fair. It was gloriously unfair.

It isn't fair that God condescended to come to earth in the form of man. It isn't fair that He lived as a peasant instead of as the King He was. It isn't fair that He, who was sinless, suffered for our sins, that He, who was whole, bore the aggregate agony of the incompleteness of fallen man. It isn't fair that Christ suffered in Gethsemane and died on Calvary, that He rose again the third day so that we could "have life, and...have it more abundantly" (John 10:10). What did we do to deserve this infinite and eternal sacrifice? Truthfully, we did not deserve such great love. Life isn't fair. The Atonement of Jesus Christ was not what we deserved. It was not fair. It was gloriously unfair.

It isn't fair that God has spoken again in these days, that He and His angels have ministered to men in the flesh. It isn't fair that we have heard "Glad tidings from Cumorah" (Doctrine & Covenants 128: 20). It isn't fair that we live in a time when the priesthood, the power of God, is on the earth. It isn't fair that by its power we can be sealed eternally to our families and to God. It isn't fair that God would continue to speak to His prophets down through the ages, even to the present day, leading His children and drawing us back to Him. It isn't fair that He would reveal Himself in His temples, that He would give His children ever-increasing light and knowledge, that He would visit us in mercy and love and teach us how to become as He is. What did we do to merit such great power and glory? Truthfully, they are not things that we deserve. Life isn't fair. The Restoration and the blessings of the restored gospel are not fair. They are gloriously unfair.

To ask for fairness is to ask the Lord to turn us over to the buffetings of Satan, to allow us to die physically and spiritually, to abandon us to our own fallen condition. "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).

I am ever so greatful that the Lord, like my parents, doesn't seem particularly interested in being scrupulously fair. His work is to "bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man," (Moses 1:39) the most ambitious and least "fair" pursuit in the universe. "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). Eternal life is the "greatest of all the gifts of God" (Doctrine & Covenants 14:7). I could not, no matter how great and prolonged my effort, do anything to merit eternal life. Because eternal life is not fair. Eternal life is gloriously unfair.

Thanks be to God!

Picture from http://shadows-canisters.tripod.com/

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

This Much I Know Is True

This is, with minor revision, the testimony I shared in church last week.

I have been pondering, these last few months, the story told in the gospel of Mark about the father of a boy sick of the palsy. When he saw Jesus, he came with his child in his arms, pleading, “Lord, if thou canst do anything, have mercy on us, and help us.” The Lord told him that all things were possible if he believed. The gospel then records that “immediately he cried out, and said, with tears, “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.”

I feel a lot like that man. I feel like crying to the Lord in equal parts faith and desperation, “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” My belief is far from perfect, but it is strong, and I pray that it will be enough.

I have also been struck lately with Nephi’s response to the angel, when he asked, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi admitted a lack of understanding, but declared, “I know that God loveth His children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.” I feel like Nephi. I do not know the meaning of all things. In fact, I know the meaning of very few things, indeed. But there are a few things I do know. I know God lives. Like Nephi, I know God loves His children. I know that He knows me. I know that He hears and answers every sincere prayer, even if I do not always understand His answer. I know that Jesus Christ is my Savior., and that His is the only name given under heaven whereby men and women can be saved I know that the Atonement is the greatest power in eternity, that it is greater than all the forces of earth and hell combined. I know that it is the power to overcome all things, to be at peace, to be healed, and to be made whole. And I know that when I come before God in humility, desiring to give up all my sins to know Him, He will, through the power of His Son’s Atonement, heal my heart, see my belief, and help my unbelief.