Monday, March 29, 2010

Palm Sunday: Hosanna In The Highest

This is a powerful and poignant week in the larger Christian community. This week, Western Christians celebrate the last week of the Savior's mortal ministry, beginning with His triumphal entry, and encompassing his powerful teachings and parables of that week, the Last Supper He held with His disciples and friends, His Atonement, trials, and death, His burial, and His glorious Resurrection.

We begin with the day known as Palm Sunday, which marks Christ's triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. Two centuries ago, a man known as Jesus of Nazareth rode into the city from His night residence in Bethany, in the home of Simon the Leper and his children Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, all dear personal friends of Jesus. He rode on the back of a donkey, in the manner of the ancient kings of Israel as they went to be crowned. The symbol did not escape the notice of the people, who, having heard of His arrival, "spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:8-9). Hosanna, they cried--literally, "Oh, save us now!" They recognized Christ as the king He was, and quoted (and sang, perhaps) a Messianic Psalm (Psalm 118) to greet Him.

The scene was enough to interest the rest of the city's inhabitants, whose numbers had swelled tremendously in anticipation of the Passover, which would be celebrated in just a few days. Newcomers wanted an explanation, and Matthew records that "all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee" (Matthew 21:10-11). The disciples were not shy about proclaiming the greatness of their Master, as Luke records, "the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen" (Luke 19:37).

All this adoration bothered the Pharisees immensely, as Luke records: "And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples" (Luke 19:39). But despite their plots against His life, and the harm He knew would come from so much publicity, the Savior refused to rebuke those who acknowledged the truth: that He who then descended the Mount of Olives was about to descend below all things, to rise above all things, that He might be in and through all things, the light of truth (Doc. & Cov. 88:6). He was and is the "light [that] shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not" (John 1:5). And though that week did not end as the disciples then expected, by the end of it they knew even more powerfully that Christ was the Lord, "for they shall not be ashamed that wait for me" (Isaiah 49:23).

Instead, Jesus rebuked the Pharisees, and testified that He was the promised Messiah: "And he answered and said unto them...if these [disciples] should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out" (Luke 19:40).

I feel driven to echo the testimony of these disciples, and to speak for the mute stones that would cry out. Like the disciples, I praise the Lord for the mighty works that I have seen. Like them, I cry Hosanna!--Oh, save me! My heart shouts praises to the Holy One of Israel. I praise Him for His light, which pierces the darkness of my heart. I praise Him for His healing power and mercy. I praise Him because He weeps, and because He laughs, because He smiles and sings and loves and teaches and heals. I praise Him because He died and because He lives. I love Him. I have given my life to His service.

Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!

Friday, March 26, 2010

From The Archives: Ode To The Nameless Wife

I love stories of exemplary women from the scriptures, even though they are fairly few and far between. One woman that I've thought about a lot lately is the wife of Alma the Younger. We never learn her name. In fact, Alma never even mentions her existence, but he had children, so I figure he must have had a wife.

What of this woman's story can we reconstruct, without any mention of her? What lessons can we learn from her life? I've managed to gain a lot from her. Bear with me for a moment as I construct what I believe is a convincing picture of her character.

First, let's review her husband's life. His father, also named Alma, was the high priest over the church in his land. Alma Jr., therefore, was in line for the office, and should have been among the most righteous, given his noble parentage. Instead, Alma and his buddies, the sons of Mosiah, went about trying to destroy the church of God. Alma "became a very wicked and an idolatrous man. And he was a man of many words, and did speak much flattery to the people; therefore he led many of the people to do after the manner of his iniquities. And he became a great hinderment to the prosperity of the church of God; stealing away the hearts of the people; causing much dissension among the people; giving a chance for the enemy of God to exercise his power over them" (Mosiah 27:8-9).

So Alma, in spite of his father's teachings, was a bad apple. I imagine, based on his description of his torment and his later attempts to make restitution for his sins, that he was guilty of apostasy, idolatry, adultery, hedonism, and a few other fairly heinous things. I also imagine, leading the wild lifestyle he was, that he wasn't married at the time. (This argument also holds up if he was married, but it's simpler and more intuitive if he was a wild, wicked bachelor.)

Now the short version of the rest of his story (this post is supposed to be about his wife, after all): An angel appears to Alma and his buddies as they're out worshipping idols, sleeping around, and generally breaking every known commandment. The angel gives Alma a royal telling-off, and he falls into a coma for a few days wherein he is tortured with all his sins, comes to Christ, applies the Atonement, repents, wakes up, and testifies of Christ, his past sins, and his current saved condition. The he and his buddies spend years going around preaching the gospel, confessing their sins, and trying to repair the wrongs they had done. Alma eventually becomes high priest (Alma 4:4), like his father. He has some sons. He gives some of the most powerful and profound discourses in the Book of Mormon, and, at the end of his life, was translated (we think) (Alma 45:18-19).
(For a more complete account of his life, see Alma 36, Mosiah 27, Robert Millet's article, and the Wikipedia article on him.)

Great. So how about his wife? We don't know much about her. Maybe she isn't mentioned because she died in childbirth. Maybe she outlived Alma. No idea. We don't have any of her words recorded.

But, going with the assumption that she married Alma after his spectacular conversion, we know one major thing about her: She must have understood and had faith in the power of the Atonement. Think of it--Alma and his father must have been well-known in their community. Alma's people must have known of their leader's greatness and his struggles with his wayward son. They would have heard him preach to them, and seen the sorrow in his eyes as he preached against the sin that was growing in the hearts of his people, hearts he knew were being led away by his own son. There must have been sleepless nights for Alma Senior and his wife as they wondered how they had failed as parents, and what they could do to reclaim their son. Alma Senior organized a group fast and prayer when Alma Jr. was struck down, and Alma Jr.'s testimony, confession, and missionary work were public. So his wife would have known of his prior rebellion. She would have known of the depth of his apostasy and wickedness. She may even have personally known the people whose testimonies he destroyed, the women whose virginity he took, the people he flattered away from their covenants and responsibilities. The community could not have been so large that she would have been unaware of Alma's past, for "this thing was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:26).

Yet she married Alma and bore him three sons: Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton (who strayed while on his mission but later returned and repented). She must have been a great woman to be the wife of such a great prophet, and to raise such great sons.

I wonder if her husband's past ever tortured her. I wonder what she thought about before she married him. I can't believe that his past didn't cross her mind. I imagine that she thought long and hard about his repentance, and about what repentance really means. She must have understood that the Atonement really does have the power to change a person, to give them a different character, to change their desires. She had the faith required to marry him because she knew that the power of the Atonement was real, that she didn't have to worry about her husband straying again, because he had experienced a "might change of heart," and had "no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually" (Mosiah 5:2).

One of my greatest fears has always been that I would marry a man who was abusive or unfaithful to me or to the Lord. What Alma's wife did strikes me as terrifying, which may be why I admire her so much for her understanding of a principle I believe, but have yet to fully comprehend.

"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. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already...And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light" (John 3:16-19).

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Clouds of Darkness and Circles of Fire

When Nephi and Lehi (the brothers) were preaching in the land of Nephi, they were thrown into prison by an army of Lamanites, and kept without food. After many days, the Lamanites went to the prison to kill them. Much to their astonishment, "Nephi and Lehi were encircled about as if by fire, even insomuch that they durst not lay their hands upon them for fear lest they should be burned. Nevertheless, Nephi and Lehi were not burned; and they were as standing in the midst of fire and were not burned" (Helaman 5:23). Unwilling to touch the missionaries that had been divinely protected, the Lamanites didn't know what to do.

As Lehi and Nephi spoke to them, "the earth shook exceedingly, and the walls of the prison did shake as if they were about to tumble to the earth; but behold, they did not fall....And it came to pass that they were overshadowed with a cloud of darkness, and an awful solemn fear came upon them. And it came to pass that there came a voice as if it were above the cloud of darkness, saying: Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings...And it came to pass that the earth shook again, and the walls trembled. And it came to pass that the Lamanites could not flee because of the cloud of darkness which did overshadow them; yea, and also they were immovable because of the fear which did come upon them. Now there was one among them who was a Nephite by birth, who had once belonged to the church of God but had dissented from them. And it came to pass that he turned him about, and behold, he saw through the cloud of darkness the faces of Nephi and Lehi; and behold, they did shine exceedingly, even as the faces of angels. And he beheld that they did lift their eyes to heaven; and they were in the attitude as if talking or lifting their voices to some being whom they beheld"

Aminadab, a dissenter from the Nephites, told the Lamanite mob that Lehi and Nephi were conversing with the angels of God. The Lamanites asked him, "What shall we do, that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us? And Aminadab said unto them: You must repent, and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ, who was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you"

The men began to pray in earnest, "yea, they did cry even until the cloud of darkness was dispersed. And it came to pass that when they cast their eyes about, and saw that the cloud of darkness was dispersed from overshadowing them, behold, they saw that they were encircled about, yea every soul, by a pillar of fire... yea, they were encircled about; yea, they were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not, neither did it take hold upon the walls of the prison; and they were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory"

As I was reading this story recently, I realized something that had never occurred to me before. The fire that encircled the people had been there throughout the whole story. When the walls shook, the fire was there. When the army prayed to the voice they heard, the fire was there. The fire didn't appear when the cloud of darkness lifted--the fire had always been encircling the people, unseen, hidden by the cloud, but still there. But it was only when the darkness had lifted that the people "saw that they were encircled about" by the fire, and the sight of God's power surrounding them filled them with "that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory."

"And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words. And it came to pass that there came a voice unto them, yea, a pleasant voice, as if it were a whisper, saying: Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world. And now, when they heard this they cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came; and behold, they saw the heavens open; and angels came down out of heaven and ministered unto them...and they were bidden to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt" (v. 27-49).

It is comforting to me to realize that even in our darkest moments, we are surrounded by the fire of God's protection and His glorious love. Even when everything is black, even when the walls that hold up our dwellings shake, even when our hearts are filled with awful fear, when the darkness that clouds our lives seems impenetrable, we can have confidence that God's protective power surrounds us. And when we rend the veil of our unbelief, when we exercise faith in Christ, we can see the glory of God, and be given His whispered peace, His angelic ministrations, and His infinite love.

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Lord Is My Shepherd

The first principle of the gospel is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Joseph Smith told us that three things are necessary in order to exercise faith in the Lord: First, a knowledge that He actually exists; Second, a correct idea of His character and attributes; Third, a knowledge that our course in life is according to His will. (See Lectures on Faith)

I wish to focus today on the second of these three prerequisites for faith: a correct idea of God’s character and attributes.

We’re encouraged, in scripture and in church meetings, to develop a personal relationship with the Lord. We’re told to pray to Him, to tell Him the desires of our hearts. We’re told that, through the Holy Ghost, we can receive personal revelation from the Lord relating to our particular circumstances or challenges.

The Lord, in the Doctrine & Covenants, instructed His people about His character and attributes, so that they could exercise faith in Him and enter into a right relationship with Him. Quoting John, He spoke of His role as God’s Word, the Firstborn, who created worlds and came into the world as the light of the world, full of grace and truth. “He received a fulness of the glory of the Father; And he received all power, both in heaven and on earth, and the glory of the Father was with him, for he dwelt in him” (Doc. & Cov. 93:16-17). Why are these things important for us to understand? The Lord explained, “I give unto you these sayings, that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fulness” (v. 19).

Knowing the Being we worship, He says, is essential to our progression. Without this knowledge, we could not receive of God’s “fulness,” because we would lack an understanding of what that “fulness” includes.

How do you see God? What is His relationship to you? When you pray to Him, what mental image do you have of Him? What is He like? I’ve found that the way I think of God at different points in my life directly affects my relationship with Him, how willing I am to trust Him, and my ability to exercise faith in Him.

Sometimes we tend to think of God like we think of the paramedics—we only call on Him if there’s an emergency. Nothing of us have anything against the paramedics, and we’re glad they’re there in case we need them, but we don’t call 911 at the end of the day, just to chat. When we think of God like we think of the paramedics, we pray sincerely only in times of great trouble or sorrow. We pray that He will intervene and fix our problems, and we believe that He will answer our prayers, but we don’t see much use for God when things are going well. The Lord described this attitude, saying, “In the day of their peace they esteemed lightly my counsel; but, in the day of their trouble, of necessity they feel after me” (Doc. & Cov. 101:8).

Sometimes we tend to think of God as the Giant Vending Machine in the Sky—we figure that if we do the right things, insert the right change, blessings will immediately pop out the slot at the bottom. After all, we’ve earned them. We’ve kept the commandments, done 100% of our home teaching, and didn’t God say, “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say?” (Doc. & Cov. 82:10). It’s tempting, really, to think of binding God and working our way to heaven—it makes life seem as if it’s in our control.

Sometimes we tend to think of God as the Great Avenger. We keep the commandments out of fear of punishment. We overemphasize God’s justice to the exclusion of His mercy. We imagine that He’s angry at us, that because of our brokenness, He could never love us, could never be pleased with us. We see our sins in stark contrast to the perfection He expects, and feel ashamed and guilty. We remember reading that “the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance,” but forget that the next verse contains the promise, “Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven” (Doc. & Cov. 1:31-32).

Mormon identified this tendency to misrepresent God’s attributes as a new kind of idolatry. And he’s right. If we worship a god who is not the one true God, even if we call him by the same name, we are in essence worshipping a false god, a god that we have “imagined up unto [our]selves,” a god with no power to save (see Mormon 9:10,15).

In the spirit of avoiding idolatry and of coming to know the God we worship, let’s explore some of the terms the Lord uses to refer to Himself. The Lord doesn’t describe Himself as an ambulance driver or a vending machine—He calls Himself a shepherd—the Good Shepherd. Like any good shepherd, Christ “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). The Psalmist wrote, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul” (Psalm 23:2-3).

But if the Lord is to fill the role of shepherd, we must be His sheep. A fellow blogger has pointed out recently how unpopular it is in our culture to be considered a sheep. We label people “sheep” when they blindly follow a leader (generally a leader we disagree with) without independent thought. But Jesus wasn’t asking us to blindly follow. He was asking us to be familiar enough with His voice to be able to distinguish it from the other voices that call to us, to follow His voice because we know Him and trust Him. Speaking of a good shepherd, He said, “the sheep hear his voice: and he calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And...he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” (John 10:3-5, emphasis added).

Our decision to follow Christ, then, isn’t a matter of blind obedience. It’s a matter of familiarity with and trust in the voice that calls to us. It isn’t a matter of being pushed or prodded in the right direction, for the Good Shepherd leads from the front, and He is followed by those who know His voice. Alma taught that Christ calls to us with His own name, and if we recognize that name because we have taken it upon ourselves, then we will hear His voice and follow it, and will become His sheep, “the good shepherd doth call you; yea, and in his own name he doth call you, which is the name of Christ; and if ye will not hearken unto the voice of the good shepherd, to the name by which ye are called, behold, ye are not the sheep of the good shepherd” (Alma 5:38). The Lord told Alma that those who were baptized in His name would be received by Him, “And he that will hear my voice shall be my sheep; and him shall ye receive into the church, and him will I also receive....And whomsoever ye receive shall believe in my name; and him will I freely forgive...For behold, in my name are they called” (Mosiah 26:21-24).

Each person who “shall be found at the right hand of God...shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ...remember also, that this is the name...that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression; therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress, that the name be not blotted out of your hearts...Remember to retain the name written always in your hearts, hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also, the name by which he shall call you. For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?” (Mosiah 5:9-13).

It is comforting to me to know that the Good Shepherd doesn’t keep a book of the names of His sheep, blotting out the names of those who have gone astray. Instead, He calls us all by one name—His own name. We are His, not based on whether we are good enough to have our names written in His book, but rather on whether we are humble and faithful enough to retain His name written in our hearts. The ball is completely in our court. He will continue to call to us. Will we hear His voice?

“For behold, in my name are they called; and if they know me they shall come forth, and shall have a place eternally at my right hand” (Mosiah 26:24).