Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blessed Are They Who Have Not Seen

The Gospel of John records an interesting episode that took place a week after Christ's resurrection. Since this Sunday marks a week after Easter, I thought it would be appropriate to write about this episode today.

On the day of His resurrection, Christ appeared to the women who came to the empty tomb, then to the assembled disciples as they hid in an upper room. He ate with them again, and gave them the opportunity to feel His wounds and gain an intimate knowledge of the reality of His death and resurrection. They must have been overjoyed to see Him--their grief and lamentation turned into praise and adoration.

That evening, John records that "Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe" (20:24-25).

In the break between this verse and the next are eight days left unrecorded. I have thought this week about what took place in those intervening days. Thomas had not been present, and so could not believe that such an unprecedented thing as the Resurrection had taken place. Did Thomas regret whatever circumstance had kept him from that room that Sunday evening? Did he mourn the lost opportunity? Did he wonder if he would ever get a chance to see the friend he had lost?

What did Thomas think about during that week? Did the other disciples try to convince Thomas of their experience? One by one, did they bear testimony of the living Christ? Did Thomas's heart break to hear them? Did he want to believe that Christ was alive, but simply found their tale too fantastical to swallow?

Did the other disciples think less of Thomas for his unbelief? Did Thomas think less of himself, that the other disciples had been given an experience that he had been denied? Did he doubt his own relationship with the Lord he loved? Did he pray and seek for an understanding of why he, out of all of the disciples, had been left out of this magnificent event?

A week passed--a week that must have been the longest week of Thomas's life, a week that must have tried his faith and made him question his high calling. Only then did Thomas receive the great blessing of seeing his Lord. His response to that manifestation demonstrates that he does not deserve the pejorative title "Doubting Thomas." Rather, I like to call him "Thomas, the Believer."

"And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. 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 20:26-29).

There have been times in my life when I have felt like Thomas--left out in the cold, wanting to believe, but doubting, like I'm the only one missing out on some great cosmic secret that everyone around me seems to understand so readily. I grate to hear others question my faith and devotion, applying a formulaic approach to the gospel, and concluding that because I do not yet believe what they believe, my lack of knowledge must be due to a lack of righteous desire, earnest prayer, or sincere searching. In doing so, they forget that the gospel is not a formula, that God is not a vending machine, that things of the spirit are more complicated than reductionist logic will allow, that just as the wind "bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). Spiritual experiences and their accompanying heavenly knowledge, though immutably promised (Doc. & Cov. 104:2), are non-programmable and cannot be forced.

Thomas never denied his testimony of the things he did know, even while he was waiting for a experiential confirmation of the things he did not know. In this same vein came the Lord's invocation, "blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Going forward in faith, with an eye single to the glory of God, even when the way is uncertain, when the logic of a situation will not permit a blind belief in a self-contradictory miracle, will be rewarded with the Lord's blessings, in the Lord's own time and in His own way. When we cry out with the honesty of incomplete knowledge, with faith seeking understanding, "Lord, I believe! Help thou mine unbelief," He will hear our prayers and visit us in our afflictions. He may not remove our heartaches or answer our questions immediately, but His love for us will not diminish because of them. On the contrary--I believe His love for us will only increase as He sees our faithfulness and discipleship, even in times when our faith and our knowledge are lacking and incomplete. When we have times like Thomas, we can find comfort in the love that our Savior has for us, even in our mortal weakness, and in pressing forward in faithful discipleship, receive the blessings promised to those "that have not seen, and yet have believed."

"And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:30-31).

Sunday, April 4, 2010

From The Archives: Let Us Not Mock God With Metaphor

SEVEN STANZAS FOR EASTER

By John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells' dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

From Updike, John. "Telephone Poles and Other Poems" (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,1961).

I love Updike's beautiful poem, especially his sense of the literal nature of Christ's resurrection and the miracles that accompanied it, reflected in phrases like "weighty with Max Planck's quanta, vivid with hair" (Call me a nerd; a reference to Max Planck in an Easter poem made me grin). I have appreciated the opportunity I have had to visit the places where the stories of the scriptures occurred, and to become acquainted with the real places and real people involved in the stories I have long loved. Now these places are real to me--full of meaning, their dust blowing in my eyes and their birds chirping in my ears, their water lapping at my feet and their trees shading my face, their cool stones giving me a refuge and standing as a monument against time.

The scriptures are about us, it is true, but there is another side to the coin. The scriptures are about people who were very different from us, who lived in places far from our homes. They are beautiful metaphors, but they are not just metaphors, not just morality plays. They are also wonderfully literal explorations of the loves of real people, who lived in real places, felt real emotions, and had real experiences with the divine.

My testimony is of the literal reality of the scriptural accounts of the life of Christ. I know He was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and worshipped by shepherds. I know He fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. I know He healed the lepers, gave sight to the blind, unstopped the ears of the deaf, and raised the dead. I know He suffered in Gethsemane, was crucified on a tree, died, was buried, and literally rose again the third day. I know He stands today at the right hand of the Father, and He will literally come again to judge the living and the dead.

Let us not mock God with metaphor, for He literally lives.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Very Holy Week



This has been a truly inspiring and beautiful Holy Week.

On Palm Sunday, I attended services at a Methodist church in Salt Lake, where their bell choir's canticle and their choir's selection from Wagner accompanied the exultant hearts of the congregants, who praised the Lord with palms, as had His people anciently. I spent time throughout the week arranging a song composed by a dear friend, which bore beautiful testimony of Christ's mission as our "Savior, King, and Friend." The spring cleaning associated with Passover came next, as I purged my home of leavened items and prepared a traditional meal of roasted lamb, rice, and unleavened bread. Wednesday and Thursday night I ate a ceremonial seder dinner with close friends and loved ones, and as we discussed the Lord's deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, and the Lord's last supper with His disciples, my heart was stirred in remembrance. Truly this night was different from all other nights.

On Good Friday, I spent the morning thinking about the physical punishments that my Savior suffered that day. In a way I hadn't expected, I confronted my own discomfort with pain and recognized the salvific nature of that suffering. I spent the afternoon in Salt Lake's majestic cathedral, first for a meditation on Christ's seven statements from the cross. I have holy envy for the emphasis on meditation in the Catholic faith. There is nothing quite like a cathedral to draw one's mind upwards in contemplation of holiness. Following the meditation, the cathedral filled with people, who fell still as the children's choir walked out, dressed in their choir robes. They stood behind a wooden screen, and the air filled with music. Their sensitive rendition of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater seemed to soar over the congregants, the notes hanging in the air with an ethereal beauty.

Stabat Mater is a Latin poem that meditates on the sufferings of Mary when she saw her son abused and crucified. As I listened, with the acoustics of the cathedral making the already-lovely music transcendent, I realized, for perhaps the first time, that Mary was the only one who had a sure knowledge of Jesus' divinity. Others had seen angels, witnessed miracles, or received a testimony by the Holy Spirit, but Mary was the only one who knew of a surety that Jesus was who He said He was. She knew that, while yet a virgin, she had conceived, and she knew her child was God's divine Son. So while any mother's soul would ache to see her son in such pain, Mary's pain would have been so much greater because of her perfect knowledge of His identity. She watched her son whipped, mocked, and condemned. She stood with Him at the foot of the cross and heard His last words and watched Him die. And through it all, she knew beyond the possibility of doubt that her son, the man that her people were destroying, was God's Only Begotten Son in the flesh, the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior of the world. How she must have wept! How she must have ached to run to His side, to comfort Him as she had when He was a child in her home! How she must have longed to embrace Him! How she must have mourned over His lifeless form! Though it is not customary in the LDS tradition to think about Mary, her life filled my mind. Her pain engulfed me.

The music ended, and the congregants filed out. I remained in the cathedral, praying, reading, and meditating on the last days of the Savior's life. I read from the scriptures, from the words of modern prophets and scholars, and meditated on the meaning of Christ's infinite atoning journey. I found sober meaning in the five sorrowful mysteries of the rosary--the agony in the garden, the scourging at the pillar, the crowning with thorns, carrying the cross, and the crucifixion on Golgotha's cruel tree. Clothed in black, I mourned the death of my Savior. I mourned to think that I had caused Him such pain, that His death had been required to atone for my stubborn pride.

"For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:6-8).

The Stations of the Cross service that evening began with the words of a Bach Chorale,

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown...

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain; Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
The clergy then processed around the sanctuary, carrying the cross. At each station we joined them in praising the Lord for His redemptive suffering and death, read the scriptural story, prayed for strength to remain faithful, and sang a hymn of remembrance. Though I wouldn't describe the day as "happy," it was certainly Good. The quiet contemplation occasioned by the events of that day led to what a friend has called "a swelling of the soul," as my heart reached out in devotion, stretching to touch the wounds of God.

As I left the cathedral, I was shocked to see street preachers protesting outside, waving their defamatory signs and screaming their hateful slogans. I was filled with a deep sadness to think that anyone could be hardened and irreverent enough to disrupt the spirit of something so holy. And then, in a flash, I realized how appropriate it was that some small part of the taunts that met Christ on His last day should be thrown at His followers as they remembered His painful journey two millenia later. Those who screamed, "Crucify Him!" had likewise lost their reverence for the One who was most holy. He had told His disciples to expect opposition, "If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you" (John 15:18). "But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (16:33).

As I drove past these people, the words of the Master came into my mind, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?" (Matthew 5:44-46). What reward, indeed? If Christ could forgive and pray for the men who put Him on the cross, why did I find it so challenging to love difficult people? Why, when I tried to pray for these people, did the words stick in my throat?

That evening I learned something of the contrast between the Lord's magnificent power and my own weakness, between His transformative grace and my own petty small-mindedness, between His self-sacrificing love and my selfish indifference. Tears sprang to my eyes unbidden as I realized that even on this, the holiest of days, my nature was still so very far from my Savior's.

I drove down the street to the Salt Lake Temple. I decided to do initiatories that evening, though I usually avoid them. The beauty of being with women that evening, women clothed with power and authority, was healing to my soul. In a place filled with light, I was washed, anointed, and clothed by women of faith, as my Savior had been during the last week of His ministry. As I finished the work, I felt impressed to ask the last worker a question that has troubled me for a long time. As she answered, her empathy and love caressed my broken heart, and the Spirit filled the room in a way that cannot be written. As we embraced, our tears flowed freely and the love of the Savior surrounded us and drew us into the communion that Christ had prayed for, "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21). Sustained by that love, I went to the celestial room. Sitting in a quiet antechamber behind a stained-glass window, I received an answer to prayer that I had not expected, but had earnestly hoped for. And I discovered, once again, what by now should no longer surprise me--the Father's plan really is all about Jesus. His love for all His children--and for me individually--is infinite and endless. In speaking with Him and gaining that knowledge once again, I was overcome.

Saturday was General Conference. I got to go to the Conference Center with friends for both sessions. To sit and learn from the Lord's prophets is always a beautiful experience, but this year, Conference seemed especially good. The talks focused on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and how we can care for our families and neighbors and find faith and hope in a frightening world--a very timely message. The music added immeasurably to the Spirit. As I was heading to get in line for the first session, I ran into a dear friend I met in Jerusalem, who is currently serving a mission on Temple Square. I haven't seen her for far too long, and since I'll soon be leaving the state, I probably won't have another chance to see her for several years. The wealth of shared experience hung around us as we clung to each other. We spent Holy Week together last year, waving palm branches in Bethphage on Palm Sunday, celebrating Mass in Gethsemane on Good Friday, and looking over the Mount of Olives at sunrise on Easter morning. Now she is spending her life testifying of Christ, in Arabic when possible, and always with the Spirit. Her life is full of light, and she continues to inspire me. Seeing her there was a tender blessing.

Today was Resurrection Sunday. I awoke early, and read the accounts of the first Resurrection morning. Having stood at the foot of the cross, and at the sepulchre weeping, during the past few days, this morning I ran with the disciples to the empty tomb, and saw, and believed. The morning meant so much more to me because of the week that had preceded it. I listened to a friend's beautiful song, evocative of the emotions that filled Mary Magdalene at seeing the empty tomb. And I listened to Handel's Messiah, that beautiful Easter piece that immortalizes holy scripture with soaring music. I watched Conference in my living room, in the peaceful stillness that my soul craves, and was buoyed up and inspired to do and be better, to go forward with faith in the One who atoned for me and so conquered sin and death.

May each of you have a happy Resurrection Sunday. For Christ is risen! Hosanna, He is risen indeed!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Enough To Die For Me

Today is Good Friday, the day Christ died for our sins. It's the most somber day in the Christian liturgical calendar, and an important step before the joy of Easter morning. It doesn't lend itself well to chocolate or pretty lights or brightly-colored eggs delivered by mythical figures, but it isn't a day we can afford to skip over.

We tend to forget about it in the LDS Church, running straight from the wondrous atonement begun in Gethsemane, past the scourging and the trials and the cross and all the painful bits, and straight to the glory of resurrection morning. But the cross stands in the way. Jesus, in speaking to the Nephites, defined His gospel in terms of the cross, "this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father... And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me" (3 Nephi 27:13-14).

As I have meditated on Christ's journey this week, I have been filled with an overwhelming sense of how great the price of our redemption was, of how much love it took to complete His infinite atonement. I have been struck with a profound sense of gratitude and awe that the sinless Son of God would care for me enough to suffer to greatly--and not just to suffer, but also to die for me. He endured the agony in the garden, when the weight of the aggregate incompleteness of fallen man was imposed upon him. He was betrayed by one He loved and abandoned by all others, mocked, spit upon, and tried by the men He had created. He was scourged at the pillar, crowned with thorns, and forced to carry His own cross. Finally, as the culmination of his suffering, He was nailed to Calvary's cruel cross to die. With His last breaths, He forgave those responsible for His agony. He was abandoned even by His Father, and His last prayers went unanswered. His suffering is greater than any that I could experience. It is great enough to demand my reverence, my love, and my complete and unreserved devotion.

I think of my own sufferings, of how they pale by comparison. When I feel like my trials are too much to bear, that the pain is too great, the loneliness too intense, I imagine myself standing before my Savior, showing Him the paper cuts and scratches on my hands and feet where the thorns and branches along my life's road have grazed my skin. And I imagine Him looking at my wounds with love, and showing me His own. And as I look, I find that the contrast is too great for words--the holes in His hands beside the callusses on mine, the thorns in His brow beside the sweat on mine, the stripes on His back beside the knapsack on mine. And in this dream, as I fall at His feet to worship Him, and see the marks of the nails even there, I finally understand that my Lord walked a more painful road than I had imagined, that He really has borne my griefs and carried my sorrows, that the punishment that brings me peace was laid upon Him. I weep to see that I have caused Him so much pain, to know that He was willing to bear it because of His love for me. And in that transcendent, infinite, sacrificial love, my pain is turned into joy, my grief into love, my confusion into understanding, my forgetfulness into awe.

Truly, it is wonderful that He should care for me enough to die for me. Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!