March 31, 2013

The Most Glorious of All Messages

I gave this talk in Sacrament Meeting last Easter, and I felt moved to share it today as yet another opportunity to rejoice in the miracle and reality of Christ’s victory over death. 

Admittedly, when I was given the invitation by Brother Warnock to speak on the subject of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, I felt a little intimidated. As with many topics in the gospel, the doctrine of resurrection is both simple in its definition and complex in its implications for both our eternal salvation and our lives on this earth. Having grown up in the Church, the concept of resurrection is much more familiar to me than it is to society at large. This is a blessing, of course, but it also creates the possibility that I will begin to take this precious knowledge for granted. One of the goals of my talk today is to remind us of the sacredness and the reality of the doctrine of resurrection—specifically Christ’s Resurrection—which will, in turn, inspire both reverence and joy. The Bible Dictionary defines resurrection as “the uniting of a spirit body with a body of flesh and bones, never again to be divided” (761). Though others had been brought back from death, Christ was the first to be resurrected on this earth because He became immortal in the reuniting of his spirit and body. The same Bible Dictionary entry goes on to say that “To obtain a resurrection with a celestial, exalted body is the center point of hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Jesus in the most glorious of all messages to mankind” (761). It is my privilege to share this, the most glorious of all messages, with you today and to explore why the Resurrection is the central point of hope in the gospel and in our lives.

President Howard W. Hunter made the following powerful statement in a 1986 General Conference address.
Easter is the celebration of the free gift of immortality given to all men, restoring life and healing all wounds. Though all will die as part of the eternal plan of growth and development, nevertheless we can all find comfort in the Psalmist’s statement, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Ps. 30:5.)  
It was Job who posed what might be called the question of the ages: “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14.) Christ’s answer rings down through time to this very hour: “Because I live, ye shall live also.” (John 14:19.) 
Even with the logic of nature’s regeneration and even with the testimony of that empty garden tomb, there are still those who feel the grave is a final destination. But the doctrine of the Resurrection is the single most fundamental and crucial doctrine in the Christian religion. It cannot be overemphasized, nor can it be disregarded. 
Without the Resurrection, the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes a litany of wise sayings and seemingly unexplainable miracles—but sayings and miracles with no ultimate triumph. No, the ultimate triumph is in the ultimate miracle: for the first time in the history of mankind, one who was dead raised himself into living immortality. He was the Son of God, the Son of our immortal Father in Heaven, and his triumph over physical and spiritual death is the good news every Christian tongue should speak.
Job’s question “If a man die, shall he live again?” is one that many searching souls in this earth will pose within their hearts. Some have even convinced themselves that this question is not worth asking because they believe that this life really is all we have, and that death extinguishes our spirits and reduces our bodies to rotting flesh buried in cramped soil. For those of us blessed to know that Christ overcame all things, including the death of the body, we likewise ask a question found in the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”: “Where, O death, is now thy sting? Where thy victory, O grave?” We know that death is not the end. 

As I have thought about the Resurrection this past week, one thing that keeps coming to mind is that Christ’s role as our Savior and Redeemer means that He will show us by example what is possible. In a world characterized by change and decay, Christ overcame the greatest enemy of them all: death. “With men, this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). We likewise may deem it impossible to overcome a sin or a weakness, but the Resurrection stands as a reminder that the same divine being who accomplished the impossible by rising again on the third day is our personal advocate. Just as He performed the Atonement for each of us individually, He rose again for each of us individually as a perfect witness that He has indeed “overcome the world” and all of its limitations. He has overcome the world and all of its cruelest and most unfair experiences. Not only that, but He stands willing and able to help us do exactly the same thing. If we put our faith in Christ, we can be assured the same victory He won. 

Can you imagine what might happen if the whole world were to have faith in this one doctrine—that Christ died and rose again, guaranteeing the free gift of immortality for our own bodies? Not only that, but our bodies will rise up again in perfection, without the physical limitations that beset some of us in this mortal life. As Elder Russell M. Nelson said last week in Conference, “Be we reminded that a perfect body is not needed to achieve one’s divine destiny. In fact, some of the sweetest spirits are housed in frail or imperfect bodies. Great spiritual strength is often developed by people with physical challenges, precisely because they are so challenged.” Once again, I reiterate that a perfect body is not needed to achieve one’s divine destiny. How sweet this must be to the ears and hearts of those who suffer from blindness, deafness, the inability to walk, chronic pain, or other weaknesses and debilitation of the mortal body. It might be hard for those people to envision how their body will one day be free of those imperfect earthly conditions, just as we all may find it difficult to actually envision our spirits as cleansed and totally free from sin. Christ, through His Atonement and Resurrection, has shown us that both the frailties which beset the body and the weaknesses which beset the spirit can be overcome. He freely offers His assistance—that is to say, His grace, His mercy, His strengthening power—to enable our own story of victory over death and over sin. It can be hard to see how His victory will indeed become our own victory, especially since we find ourselves in the middle of our own salvation story. Faith is what helps us cling to the knowledge that, in spite of what your body or spirit faces now, things will get better because Christ paved the way for each of us to experience our own personal triumph.

My mind is drawn to a particular resurrection story in process that is unfolding here in Provo. I quite vividly remember the early December morning in 2010 when my friend and I were driving down Center Street on our way to the highway to catch a flight back to Michigan. My friend, who had only recently moved into the area, asked, “What is that building?” I must have been rifling through my bag and not looking up to see. “It’s on fire!” I immediately looked up to see smoke billowing from the beloved Provo Tabernacle. I simply could not believe it. Later that night, stranded in a Texas hotel, I read official reports of the fire. My heart ached. Even though I had only been a resident of Provo for four years, I had already enjoyed numerous Stake Conferences in that building and—perhaps even more dear to my heart—several beautiful BYU choir performances in which I was privileged to take part. I had friends who had grown up in the area who probably had memories of other Church and community-hosted events like firesides, concerts, and graduations. As I read in a Deseret News report of the event: “The building not only serves our members and the community, but it is a reminder of the pioneering spirit that built Utah. The damage appears severe, and until we make structural assessment, we don’t know whether this historic treasure can be saved.” I would like to read a few other excerpts from this article—quotes from members of the community about their reactions to the Tabernacle’s burning. 
“The writer behind CJane’s guide to Provo said she hopes it can be rebuilt, if not saved.
‘I'm really hoping that there is some way to save some part of the history of the place,’ she said. ‘This morning, when I saw that it was up in flames, I felt a shock like I would if it was a family member. I think that losing the Provo Tabernacle is like losing a prominent member of our society. It's going to be felt far and wide. It's a huge loss.’ 
‘(I'm) devastated, heartbroken,’ said resident Phillip Kunz. ‘This building represents so many things to almost every resident of Provo and really the entire valley—graduations and ceremonies and important meetings and then just the symbolic nature of the building—its architecture and the historic way it came about. It's just tragic, heartbreaking.’”
The article concludes with this statement by Mayor Curtis: “Clearly there will be sentiment on all sides to try and make this building something it once was. I just hope that’s even a possibility.”

Because we have the benefit of even just a year and a half of additional experience, we can smile a little when we hear these statements of devastation and uncertainty because we know now that the former Tabernacle has been lifted to higher purposes. In October 2011, President Monson announced that the damaged Tabernacle would be transformed into a second temple in Provo. The groundbreaking date has been set for May 12 of this year, which happens to be my Great Grandma Green’s birthday. Were she alive, she would be turning 113 years old on that day. She did not have the opportunity to partake of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ in this life, but it is a source of great joy and peace that she—as with all of our ancestors—has the opportunity to accept a baptism and an endowment made by proxy in a holy temple such as the one that will soon grace Provo Center Street. While no one would wish such a tragedy upon the Tabernacle, we can see now how the Lord’s plan for that building was much higher than anything we could have imagined for it. Likewise, His plan for us reaches above and beyond that which we can imagine for ourselves. 

When I think of the Provo Tabernacle, I think of a phoenix, “a mythical bird with a colorful plumage and a tail of gold and scarlet. It has a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, near the end of which it builds itself a nest of twigs that then ignites; both nest and bird burn fiercely and are reduced to ashes, from which a new, young phoenix or phoenix egg arises, reborn anew to live again.” We too are phoenixes—we will one day rise from our ashes. Only, unlike the phoenix, who is only destined to live again as long as its old self, we will become incorruptible in our resurrection and we have the opportunity for eternal progression that will never reduce us to ashes again. However, in the midst of our own mortal experiences—which may at times feel as though we are being reduced to ashes—we may rightly find ourselves asking the same questions Provo residents asked of the Tabernacle: Can it be restored again? I hope so. What a heartbreaking thing, we may think. Or, to repeat the words of Mayor Curtis, only now applying them to ourselves: I just hope that’s even a possibility. 

Sometimes, in the face of fierce opposition or a trial that has left us broken, it is all we can to do hope for even a possibility that we can be restored to our former health or happiness. If that is the case for you right now, please know that you have my heartfelt sympathy. It is easy to feel like the blessings of resurrection are so far in the future that we cannot enjoy them now. The joyous message of the Resurrection is not only intended to give us hope for the future, though it is true that we all look forward to a time when we will be reunited with dear and loved ones. Our knowledge and understanding of the Resurrection can aid us in finding peace and happiness now. Remember that Heavenly Father is looking down on us now, just as we are able to read those statements of uncertainty made by Provo residents in the aftermath of the fire, and thinking, “Don’t worry. Much better things are in store.” Remember that “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.” I imagine that this verse means we are conquerors because we, too, will overcome death and sin because of the Savior’s victory.

Elder Franklin D. Richards said, “Easter time is indeed a forceful reminder that the human spirit cannot be confined. It does not deny the reality of death, but it offers us an assurance that God has preserved life beyond the grave.” I love that: the human spirit cannot be confined. When challenged by rulers demanding some sign of his authorization to clear the temple of profane vendors and money changers, Jesus declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. “Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear it up in three days? But he spake of the temple of his body” (John 2: 19-21). Christ did raise up his body. He is raising up the Provo Tabernacle. He will raise us in our tabernacles of clay.

He lives! He loves us! And I think those two things are perhaps more intimately connected than we can understand. May we all let Him raise us up and lead us into life eternal.

March 29, 2013

Marriage Equality and the Power of (His) Love

I’m guessing I’m not the only one who has felt more than a little tension this week surrounding the issue of marriage equality. There are a lot of feelings, deep and sincere, on both sides of the ongoing debate. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it can be hard to understand how to reconcile the opinions widely held among Church membership with my own ever-changing views about what it means to be a good citizen and a good Christian. But for those of you struggling to understand how to relate to those in favor of marriage equality, I would ask you to read this beautiful piece written by my dear friend Terry, who has been like a brother to me for almost as long as I can remember. 

To my friends and family that believe that ‘marriage’ is between one man and one woman. To you, I say, I can get on board with that. I have no need for the word and I personally do not want to infringe on your perceived or believed sanctity of the institution. I can support you in this. 
To my friends and family that believe that government should leave churches alone and pass no law which infringes upon their rights, I say, I can get on board with that. I would personally never want anyone telling a church who they have to marry, who they have to allow to worship among them, who they have to administer to, or what they should believe or teach. This is your belief, your church, your relationship with God and your right. I can support you in this.  
To my friends and family who believe that I will go to hell and be denied eternal life and salvation, I say, I can get on board with that. It is your right to believe this and I personally would never question the depth of your conviction or expect that it should ever be changed. I know that your beliefs are based in God and love and when you say this it comes from a need to save this soul and I would expect nothing less. I ask only that you not condemn me in your hearts on this earth and I can support you in this. 
To my government that passed a defense of marriage act (DOMA) defining ‘marriage’ as between one man and one woman, knowing full well that all federal laws related to relationship oriented financial benefits and protections use the term ‘marriage’ to bestow these benefits, I say, I am a highly taxed, fully contributing, law-abiding citizen of the United States of America and I demand equal treatment under the law.  
When my mother passed, my father had the right to claim on her social security earnings when he needed them. I demand that right and I will have it, now or later.  
When my mother passed, her retirement savings were passed to my father under a tax protected status. I demand that right and I will have it, now or later.  
When my mother was dying in the hospital, my father had the legal right to make decisions on her behalf if needed. He had the legal right to be at her bedside and support her, to hold her hand and say goodbye as she passed on. I demand that legally protected right and I will have it, now or later. 
These are but a few of the rights being denied me and many of your citizens. 
Please government, feel free to amend every law ever written and replace references to ‘marriage’ to ‘lawful union.’ In this way, the rights that I demand, deserve and am entitled to under the constitution as a law abiding, tax paying citizen of these United States will no longer hinge upon the definition of the word ‘marriage’ and the word ‘marriage’ can be preserved without infringing upon my pursuit of happiness and legal representation and treatment under the law. I can support this. I do demand it and I will get it, now or later.  
These are my thoughts. I do not speak on behalf or in representation of any other person or movement. Just thought I would clarify.  

I hope my fellow Christians can join me in loving Terry for his honesty and humanity (and for me, a million other reasons). He is wonderful. I don’t doubt that God has marvelous things in store for him.

Love does solve everything. Not necessarily our love, though. At least not by itself. This week, Christians worldwide are honoring the suffering, crucifixion, and glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. His sacrifice was one of love, and one that continues to manifest itself in my life daily. He loves us perfectly—every last one of us, and in all our stubbornness and our failure and our weakness. He loves freely.

He also heals freely. He fixes broken things and rejoices in their mending. Everything will be made right in the end through His atoning power, which is nothing more or less than a perfect Love.

This I believe.

These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. 
(John 16:33, KJV) 

March 9, 2013

Questions Holy

An interesting and wonderful thing about art and worship and soul-searching and most every beautiful thing we do is that it often starts (and almost just as often ends) with a question—an earnest and thoughtful one, maybe two or three if the situation calls for it. Interestingly enough, the first question mark that shows up in the Bible happens in Genesis 3:1, when Satan, the serpent, says to Eve: "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" It's tempting (pun not intended, but duly acknowledged) to see that first question as being a sign of Satan's devilish serpentine behavior. There are a goodly number of folks in this world who really do think that asking questions is a dangerous business, and perhaps for good reason because it is indeed a powerful thing, this question-asking. What's interesting to note about Satan's first question, though, is that it presumesand perhaps even insists onits own answer.

Moving forward in the Genesis account, it isn't long before God enters the picture with a question of His own, for Adam: "Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:9). 

Where art thou? What a powerful question. And a somewhat curious one, if you think about it. After all, God is omniscient, so there is no practical or ordinary purpose in inquiring as to His son's whereabouts. But of course, the Lord's purposes are anything but ordinary; He is ever in the business of the extraordinary. So why this question when He very well knew where Adam was?

I don't purport to know the mysteries of God, but one explanation that resonates with me is the idea that the Lord is ever entreating us. One of my favorite scriptures of late is found in Doctrine & Covenants 112: 13, "[B]ehold, I, the Lord, will feel after them." God was not unsure about where Adam was, but maybe Adam was. Having sinned and hidden himself from the Lord (both literally among the trees and metaphorically behind branches of shame), Adam was asked to make an accounting. My sense of this is that the Lord did not seek him out solely to punish him but also because it matters to Him where we are, especially in relation to Him. Another of my favorite questions from the Father—and a related onecomes in the next chapter, when He asks Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" (Genesis 4:9). God is invested in whether or not we are watching out after one another, as brothers and sisters in this whole post-Eden experience of ours.

So there we have Satan's first question to womankind and God's first question to mankind. What of the first question asked by a human? Those of you familiar with the Bible are already smiling and/or weeping because you know what is about to come next; it's the story that perhaps defines the human struggle of negotiating that which is Other, of coexisting on this earth we inherited: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). I think God's previous questions to us are sufficient evidence that the response is an overwhelming yes. And yet we keep asking God this question in our own ways, throughout our human history and our individual lifetimes. We never seem to be quite done asking whether we are our brother's keeper and, perhaps more importantly, what that requires. (Forgiveness? Vulnerability? Love unfeigned?)

The first question posed in the Book of Mormon is likewise about brotherly relationships. Laman and Lemuel are angry with their brother Nephi because all their lives had been endangered in trying to procure the brass plates containing their genealogical record from the wicked King Laban. They basically start beating him up when an angel appears and says, "Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod?" (1 Nephi 3:29). I'm not sure there is ever going to be a good answer to that question.

For some reason, being reprimanded by an angel isn't quite enough for Laman and Lemuel. They doubt the Lord's power of deliverance just after the angel leaves: "How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?" (1 Nephi 3:31). Nephi immediately follows with a question of his own: "Let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?" (1 Nephi 4:1). In other words, he asks, "[W]herefore can ye doubt?" (1 Nephi 4:3). We learn from this account that there are questions of doubt and questions of faith. I prefer the latter. Wherefore can ye doubt?

We get a similar question from the Lord Himself, the first one recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. The year was 1829 and Oliver Cowdery, later a scribe for the Book of Mormon and among the first of the restored Church's apostles, had received a confirmation from on high that the Lord intimately knew his heart. Yet, he was facing some additional questions and frustrations. God reminds Oliver of a night of fervent prayer: "Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?" (D&C 6:23). This is one of my favorite faith-inspiring questions. What greater witness can you have than from God?

However, there are some really sincere and holy questions that come from a place of hurt. Not the least of these is the plea of our Savior on the cross: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). David had prophesied this question in Psalm 22, and the same line of questioning was later reiterated by Joseph Smith in a beautiful prayer he offered while imprisoned in Liberty Jail: "O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?" (D&C 121:1). I think this creates an interesting parallel with God's asking after Adam in Genesis. There are wonderful scriptural precedents for those times when we feel to ask God why He has forsaken us. His response to Joseph is inspiring: "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment" (D&C 121:7). I take comfort in a related passage from Isaiah 54:7, "For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee." I think the Lord honors our sincere questions, even if they express pain or loneliness. Maybe especially so. 

In the face of a really devastating loss some years ago, I had an earnest conversation with one of my professors. "I know everything will be okay in the end," I told him. "But what do I do in the meantime?"

"That's it!" he exclaimed, probably too enthusiastically for my tastes at the time. "You have it figured out! Life is all about what we do in the meantime."

"Wait... but... I don't have an answer."

"You don't need it," he responded. "You have the right question. Now go work on it."

It was right around that time when I offered up one of my most earnest prayers to date. I'm sure I asked God why He'd forsaken me or why I had to undergo such a thing and feel so utterly alone. I'm sure I asked Him what was the purpose, why so much suffering. But maybe the most important thing I asked on my knees was: Do you even love me?

And yes, my child had never sounded so sweet.

March 1, 2013

On swans and letters to you

Dreaming in Welsh   by Temple Cone

The sky is making love to a swan, they say,
And why not, when the town quiets suddenly in a snowfall
As if no one lived there.  Shop windows unlit,
The roads clear of traffic, the glow of a street lamp
Seems to darken all it touches with its thin light.
Alone in the house, I listen to the soft pittance
Of flakes drifting against the storm window.
Outside, a man coasts downhill on a bicycle.
His rear wheel slips slightly as he slows
Before my neighbor’s mailbox.  Through the snow,
I can hardly see if he slides a letter in or takes one out,
Or if he simply stares a while into the box.
When he pushes off, the dark rolls in behind him
The way ink blooms in a glass of water, and I reach
For the letter I just finished writing you.  For the words
Seem fleeting and fallen as the snow, and I worry
How they will sound to you—like the call of whistling 
Or a faint tapping at your window?  But I’ve sealed
The envelope, written the address, even chosen a stamp.
Then I read your name across the front.  Your name
Is the one, maybe the only, true thing I’ve written.