Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Publican's Prayer

Luke records a parable spoken by Jesus to a group of men "which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (Luke 18:9), probably the Pharisees of His day. It begins,
"Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican" (v. 10).

The publicans, in Christ's day, were the tax collectors, traitorous Jews who colluded with the occupying Roman authorities. They were seen as corrupt and hated by the other Jews of their day. The Pharisees were the respectable people, the doctors of the law, the scholars and teachers.

"The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner." Then Jesus gave the moral of this story, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Luke 18:11-14).

Something snapped inside of me this month. Maybe it was when a friend made a hateful comment about my worthiness. Maybe it was just a lot of built-up irritation at living in "The Bubble" for too long. In any case, I realized that so much of what was bothering me, and what I had been learning the past few years, could be summed up by this parable of the publican's prayer.

I recently wrote about how tired I am of philosophies that divide the world into "us" and "them," that shut others out while vaunting ourselves, that allow "family values" to trump Christian charity. It is in this spirit that I write about my own inadequacy and unworthiness. As was the case with Joseph Smith, "in making this confession, no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature" (JS-H 1:28). After all, we are all sinners, all in need of Christ's infinite Atonement. I think we all recognize that, at least mentally. But one of the most frequent errors we make (and I'm certainly guilty of this, from time to time) is to believe, in some small, perhaps unspoken, part of us, that "of course we all need the Atonement. I just need it a little less than most, thank you very much. I'm doing pretty well on my own." How incredibly presumptuous!

Maybe that's why I like sinners so much. I've had the opportunity to mix with some communities of very broken people, people who only came to their senses when they hit rock bottom and realized how much they needed their Savior. Whatever other problems they may have, they've been honest with themselves about what a big mess they've made of their lives. They sincerely want to change but know that they will need a power greater than their own to conquer the demons of each day. They are acutely aware of their reliance on their Redeemer. They have callused their knees in prayer. They have broken hearts. They are acquainted with the Lord in their extremities. My two favorite books about the Atonement (see here and here) are written by such people. Their challenges may be peculiar to them, but their understanding of the power of the Atonement is universally applicable. They realize in humility the truth that many of us try to avoid--we all need the Atonement, and we need it desperately.

I remember talking to such a friend one night. Despairing because of the mess he had made of his life, my friend was only beginning his journey toward understanding the true meaning of the Atonement (as, I suppose, we all are). "We're all sinners," I told him, as we talked about that great gift. He scoffed. "But Amy," he said, "my sins are so much bigger than yours." I hesitated. And then, the Spirit bore a powerful witness to me, and I began. "No, John. Both of our sins separate us from God. They keep us both from enjoying His love as fully as we could. Our sins differ in degree, not in kind." In the following months, I learned the truthfulness of those words.

There is a lot of humility required to admit that we are all "prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love." It's hard to admit that we're broken, profoundly damaged, not just superficially wounded. But the scriptures continually testify that the Atonement is not a Band-Aid for a flesh wound, it is a quadruple bypass for a stony heart. And it is that heart that must become new in order for us to return to our Heavenly Father. It is that heart that must be given to the Lord, wholly and without reservation. It is that heart that must be carried into the land of Moriah, and left there on the altar.

This is not easy. But it is sweet, and oh, so necessary. God can only give us a new heart if we are willing to give up the old one. It is easy to imagine that we can obey the gospel, and do all the right things, and thereby become good people, better versions of ourselves, but still retain our own natures. It is easy, but it is wrong.

I am beginning to understand that the Lord requires more than that, but that what He offers in return is infinitely more than I had imagined. He offers His holiness. He offers exaltation. He offers blessings beyond our comprehension. As He told His children in an earlier time, "Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation" (D&C 58:3). He offers to make us saints through the Atonement of Christ, but only if we are willing to put off that which is natural and normal and and corrupt, and put on that which is eternal (see Mosiah 3:19). And we cannot do this without admitting that what we are is so far below what God wishes us to be that only the infinite Atonement of the Infinite One can save us. The people of King Benjamin learned this, and "viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth." Only then could they all cry "aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mosiah 4:2). The Lord gave them what they asked for, and they experienced a "mighty change of heart" (Mosiah 5:2). They felt to sing the song of redeeming love (Alma 5:26).

And so have I. Not because I am so very worthy, so very good, so very righteous, for I am a sinner. I am redeemed, not on my own merits, but "because of the righteousness of [my] Redeemer" (2 Nephi 2:3). I am saved because of His love and His holiness, not my own. And having caught a glimpse of that great love, that infinite holiness, and my own carnal state, my own tendency to wander from my God, my heart cries out in the words of a beloved hymn, "Here's my heart, Lord, take and seal it for Thy courts above."

For, in the words of the publican, God has been merciful to me, a sinner. (Luke 18:13).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Allahu Akbar!

Each morning, a haunting voice calls over the ancient city of Jerusalem from green-painted minarets scattered throughout its neighborhoods. Its plaintive cries echo across the sleeping homes of that timeless land. For weeks, I awoke each morning before dawn, with that voice ringing in my ears, and heeded the call to prayer on my balcony, overlooking the holy city. Even today, though I have left that beautiful land, its cries still echo in my heart. The cry from the minarets is simple but powerful, filled with a deep longing and a firm resolve. "Allahu Akbar!" it begins: God is most great, or God is greater.

This month I once again remember an event some years ago that was a watershed for me in my spiritual development. It hurt more than anything in my life ever had. It forced me to face some of my greatest fears. It drove me to my knees. It taught me to rely on the Lord, to trust in His mercy, and to feel of His great love.

I have recently had the lessons of that struggle repeated, and been humbled. I have seen the hand of the Lord guiding me, shaping me into the person He wants me to be. It has not been easy--I am stubborn and not easily shaped. My creator's medicine is, as ever, a bitter pill to swallow. In tasting it, I am reminded of Joseph Smith's words to the early Saints, "God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings." He wasn't kidding.

What I learned many years ago, and what I have learned many times since, is that there are some experiences that only the Lord understands, some paths that only He has walked, some roads that have no earthly map. To travel these paths requires great faith in the Lord, and at times I have had to walk in darkness, unsure of my footing, unable to see, with my natural eyes, the way ahead. My prayers have become more earnest as I have learned to quiet my heart so that I can listen for the Lord's voice up ahead, still and small but insistent and penetrating.

This deep stillness of soul comes only after earnest prayer and searching. It brings with it a quiet humility, a firm resolve, and a power beyond what I had imagined possible. It fills me with love. It allows me to be taught of the Lord and to receive "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding." It radiates through my being and leaves me speechless, gasping in wonder.

I have felt some portion of what Enos described: "The words which I had often heard... concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart. And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul" (Enos 1:4). And in the stillness, the Lord spoke to Enos, in words that must have filled him with unspeakable joy: "Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed." Trusting in the assurance that he had received, Enos records that "my guilt was swept away." And then, filled with wonderment and awe at the total transformation that had taken place, he asked for understanding of the power he had just witnessed, "Lord, how is it done?" When I imagine this scene, I see Enos, his eyes filled with tears of overwhelming joy, whispering his question in complete astonishment, baffled at the mighty change that had transformed his heart and satisfied his soul's deepest hunger.

And the Lord's simple answer was, as it has always been, "Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen...wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole" (v. 5-8). I have tasted some portion of that great wholeness, and I testify that it is far more than a story. The "mighty change of heart" that can and must take place in each of us through faith in the Savior really IS "mighty." It is so utterly removed from the ordinary that its power is stunning and breathtakingly beautiful. Confrontations with such miraculous divine power cause us to exclaim, as did Moses, "Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed" (Moses 1:10). We sense in some measure the grandeur of that which is beyond us, but mercifully within reach.

Enos learned, that day in the forest, of the Lord's miraculous transformative power. He learned what the minarets daily proclaim to the world in joyful solemnity--Allahu Akbar! God is most great, or God is greater. Today I stand with him as a witness that the power of God is greater than any trial we may face. It is greater than the storms that rage about us, the billowing deep that threatens us, the powers of evil that oppose us. It is greater than sin, greater than death, greater than our infirmities, and even greater than our hearts. When my soul has hungered, when my heart has cried out for relief, I have felt the Lord's comfort in the painful stillness. I have been taught miraculous truths from on high and endowed with a power beyond my own. I have felt the Lord's transforming power and felt to say with Enos, "Lord, how is it done?" To describe this glorious reality, I have no adequate words.

Our trials may wrench our very heart-strings, but we have the assurance that God will be with us forever and ever (Doc. & Cov. 122:9). "For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee" (Isaiah 54:10). No matter what I may face in the days ahead, the cry from the minaret will always echo in my heart--Allahu Akbar! God is greater.

Picture from http://www.twainquotes.com/