Monday, December 26, 2016

Christmas 2016

We had a wonderful Christmas this year, spending lots of time with family.  (One thing that made it exceptionally special was that it was our first Christmas with our newest grandchild, Olive.)

But the whole of the month was enriched with Christmas related activities. My wife Margaret and I sang in two choirs and got to know some heartbreakingly beautiful music. Along with a neighbor and her young daughter, we went caroling and took treats to people in our neighborhood, including a couple visiting from Russia. (To them we sang--in Russian--a carol I learned from my father-in-law 30 years ago.) We took part in online Christmas scripture reading and discussion organized by a nephew and his wife (see And we took part in the "Light the World" program of service and Christian discipleship sponsored by the LDS Church.

One struggle I had during practices for one of the choirs was being struck with sudden and overwhelming emotion while singing several of the songs. One of them--and one of my favorites--is "What Sweeter Music," composed by John Rutter, with words from the seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick. [See note 1 below for more on this song.]

One phrase in particular always struck me with particular force: "We see him come, and know him ours." Why does that line affect me as it does? The present tense "We see him come" makes the reality and presence of Jesus Christ feel immediate, almost palpable. And it emphasizes his presence among us: "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth."

But the words that affect me most are "and know him ours." I feel something reciprocal in that: as he is ours, we are also his--we belong to him; his mission is to heal us and deliver us; he has bought us with his blood. But his love for us, his saving work on our behalf, his dwelling among us, have in some sense made him ours. He belongs to us. He became flesh; he took upon him human nature; he experienced human life in all its dimensions, including (through his perfect empathy and love) our grief, our despair, our alienation and sin. That old (by now) pop song "What if God were one of us" is truer than it intends to be, or true in a deeper way. The Son of God is an eternal divine person, but he is also part of the human family.

I also thought during this Christmas season of that experience now 41 years ago in New York City that I wrote about last year. And I've wanted to share that again. Here, along with the link, I offer my continuing conviction that we are all beings with an eternal nature and destiny, and that Jesus is a real and eternal being whose mission is central to the meaning of our lives and our eternal futures.

The link: ("Thoughts for Christams: Why I Believe in Jesus Christ").

Note 1: As long as the following link works, you can hear "What Sweeter Music" here:

You'll find the words, as they are heard in John Rutter's composition, further below. They are based on a poem by seventeenth-century poet Robert Herrick titled "A Christmas Carol, Sung to the King in the Presence at White-Hall" (see or

The line "We see him come, and know him ours" comes at 1:57-2:03 in

"What Sweeter Music" (lyrics)

What sweeter music can we bring
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honor to this day,
That sees December turned to May.
That sees December turned to May.

Why does the chilling winter's morn
Smile, like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly-shorn,
Thus, on the sudden? Come and see
The cause, why things thus fragrant be:
'Tis He is born, whose quickening birth
Gives life and luster, public mirth,
To heaven, and the under-earth.

We see him come, and know him ours,
Who, with his sunshine and his showers,
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

The darling of the world is come,
And fit it is, we find a room
To welcome him. To welcome him.

The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.
Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly, and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour, who's our King,
And Lord of all this revelling.

What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Pope, the Constitution, and other newsmakers--and reasons for hope and charity

Those who follow current events will know that Pope Francis and the US Constitution have been in the news recently, as have what I consider to be deeply troubling statements by certain public figures.

The Pope and Donald Trump

Pope Francis was briefly in the news for criticizing those who propose mass deportation and the building of walls: "A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel."

Donald Trump, who has proposed building a wall between the US and Mexico, responded that the Pope's comments were "disgraceful," adding that "No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man's religion or faith." Trump's social media director called the Pope's remarks "hypocritical" since there is a wall around the Vatican. (But, it should be noted, there are openings in that wall that allow for easy access to the Vatican.)

The war of words calmed down as Trump said he liked the Pope and the Pope indicated he has been speaking in general terms and was not trying to advise Americans who to vote for.

In defense of the Pope, I would say that he is entitled to express his opinions. Of course, as a public figure and the leader of a large religious group, he ought to exercise care in expressing those opinions. But I don't think he intended to question anyone's religious affiliation. Instead, I believe he was using "not Christian" to describe certain attitudes and behavior that, in his view, are not in harmony with the teachings of Christ. And in this case, I agree with him.

In fact, I believe that religious leaders have an obligation to provide moral guidance. I'm a Latter-day Saint ("Mormon"), and, though I'm glad the leaders of my church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) work hard to maintain partisan neutrality and are sparing in their involvement in political issues, I'm also glad they have taken positions on some issues, encouraging (for instance) a compassionate approach on immigration and undocumented residents.

Speaking of religion, morality, and politics, Mr. Trump made another interesting (and I think appalling) statement just yesterday, suggesting that we might want to follow the (possibly apocryphal) example of General John Pershing, who, according to Trump, while seeking to subdue resistance from Muslims in the Philippines, dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood (eating pig's meat is forbidden by Islamic as well as Jewish law) and then "lined up the 50 people and they shot 49 of those 50 people, and he said to the 50th, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened--and in 25 years there wasn't a problem."

For the Council on American-Islamic Relations, however, there was a problem in Trump's rhetoric, which they said had "crossed the line from spreading hatred to inciting violence." In their view:
By directly stating that the only way to stop terrorism is to murder Muslims in graphic and religiously-offensive ways, he places the millions of innocent, law-abiding citizens in the American Muslim community at risk from rogue vigilantes. He further implies that our nation should adopt a strategy of systematized violence in its engagement with the global Muslim community, a chilling message from a potential leader. We pray that no one who hears this message follows his gospel of hate.
How would religious leaders weigh in on this issue? That depends on the leaders. But I'm confident that Catholic and most mainstream Protestant leaders would find Trump's suggestions offensive, as would leaders of other religious communities. Latter-day Saints leaders have not commented directly on Trump's statement, but they have made statements in favor of tolerance and goodwill among those of different religious traditions and against actions deliberately offensive to others' religious beliefs. For instance, in response to threats made by some Americans to burn the Koran, the Church released a statement saying: “A key tenet of our faith is to accord everyone the freedom to worship as they choose. It is regrettable that anyone would regard the burning of any scriptural text as a legitimate form of protest or disagreement.” (

(For more on Latter-day Saints and Muslims, see a blog I posted over five years ago:

The US Constitution

The US Constitution is often mentioned in political discussions in the United States. Many with widely different views believe that their own views are more in harmony with the Constitution than anyone else's. I believe the the Constitution is an important and even an inspired document. But it obviously shows the signs of human construction, and it can obviously be interpreted in different ways by different (and all imperfect) human beings.

I admire the view of those described as "originalists," who think that modern judges should determine the document's meaning in accordance with the intent of the original authors of the Constitution. But even if I were to accept that view wholeheartedly, I would have to acknowledge that the wording of the Constitution did not mean exactly the same thing to every individual involved in its composition or approval and that the best we can do, given our own limitations and the complexities of historical interpretation, is to approximate what we think was the original authors' intent. Even if the original authors had a single, uniform understanding of every word in the document (which they didn't) and even if we could determine that understanding perfectly (which we can't), I think we could still legitimately consider the possibility that changing circumstances might require us to adjust (even if just slightly) what we take to be the meaning of the words.

Having said that, I think it's interesting that some of those who present themselves as strict constructionists in regard to constitutional interpretation have suggested something that I would (semi-facetiously) describe as revising the meaning of the Constitution without going through the amendment process. What I'm alluding to is the current controversy over whether President Obama should nominate a successor to Antonin Scalia as a member of the US Supreme Court. I believe it's clear that the Constitution indicates he should (that is, not only does he have the option of doing so; he has the duty).

Here's how the relevant wording reads (from Article 2, section 2):
He [the President] . . . by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . . Judges of the supreme Court. . . .
The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.
By the way, Supreme Court Justices have occasionally been appointed without a vote in the Senate during a recess and then approved when the Senate reconvenes. That, however, is not what is at issue now, simply whether the President should appoint a justice (subject to the Senate's consent) while the Senate is in session or should relinquish that duty and leave it to his successor, who will take office almost a year from now.

The Senate, of course, has the option of approving the President's appointment or rejecting it. Historically, almost all appointments were approved, often by unanimous vote. That changed mainly beginning in the 1960s (with rejection of some nominations by Lyndon Johnson) and especially after the rejection of Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork in the 1980s. Since then, the process of considering and voting on Supreme Court nominations has been increasingly politicized. This is the first time, though, that a strong move has been made to prevent having a President even make a nomination or having the Senate consider the nomination.

Some have suggested that there's a tradition that presidents don't nominate a Supreme Court Justice in the final year of their presidency. That is not true. For one thing, one of President Reagan's nominations was approved in the last year of his presidency.

In any case, I see the delay some are calling for to be a kind of "amending" of the Constitution without going through the amendment process. The new wording (assuming that such a process were to take place) would be something like this:
He [the President] . . . by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint . . . . Judges of the supreme Court during the first three full years of his term. But he shall not make such an appointment during the final full year of his term. . . .
Just to be clear: this is not how the Constitution currently reads. I suppose some would limit the prohibition on a fourth year Supreme Court nomination to a president's second term and allow him to make such nominations during his entire first term. But that seems odd since the fourth year of a first-term president would still be an election year, and the presidential election could still be taken, as some have suggested (but as the Constitution does not), as a referendum on who should fill a vacancy in the court. As for the Constitutional allowance for a recess appointment without (initial) Senate approval, I'm not sure what those pushing for a delay would say.

I'm confident that if Mitt Romney had been elected president, none of those now calling on President Obama to delay making an appointment would argue for a hypothetical "President Romney" to delay. On the other hand, there very well could be Democrats, in such a situation, calling for delay. I hope that I'm independent minded enough that I would still favor following standard constitutional procedure, even if I wasn't sure I would like the outcome.

(Another issue: I have wondered whether a delay in filling a Supreme Court vacancy could theoretically be indefinite. That is, could a president indefinitely delay nominating a justice--including a chief justice--and could the Senate indefinitely delay giving consent, not to mention delay even considering the nominee? Such delays could, of course, in some circumstances lead to a constitutional crisis, as could similar delays in following the provisions of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment about filling the office of vice-president when a vice-president succeeds to the presidency after the death, resignation, or removal from office of a president. I've tried to think through this issue in a separate blog post:

Antonin Scalia

I think it likely that Justice Scalia would NOT have been in favor of a year-long delay in filling a Supreme Court vacancy, even during an election year. Besides being devoted to the letter of the Constitution, Scalia regretted the politicization of the court and was on friendly terms with justices who differed from him ideologically. He was especially good friends with Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan. In fact, he privately (and indirectly) suggested that President Obama consider Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, on the grounds that, knowing the President wouldn't appoint an ideological clone of Scalia, he should nominate "someone smart." Scalia specifically mentioned Kagan, probably for her pragmatism and sense of humor as well as her intellect, and in fact, when she eventually became a member of the court, they struck up a close friendship. (See

Today, a funeral was held for Justice Scalia. The funeral mass held for him is, of course, very different from the funeral that will be held a week from today for my father-in-law Robert Blair, who died yesterday morning. But as I watched part of Scalia's funeral, I saw some connections. This funeral was celebrated by one of Scalia's sons, who is a priest. In his homily that son taught several truths with which I heartily agree. He expressed great love for his father but also acknowledged that he, like all of us, was a sinner. His father was not yet perfect, he said, or rather Christ is not yet perfected in him--and until that happens in any of us, we cannot enter heaven (or what Latter-day Saints call "the celestial kingdom" or the fullness of God's presence). He referred to his father as an imperfect man who needs further cleansing through God's grace.

As I assume most readers are aware, Scalia was Catholic, and this allusion to an intermediate state--sometimes called Purgatory--is a distinctively Catholic doctrine, something strict Protestants don't believe in. (The strictly Protestant view is that everyone goes to either heaven or hell immediately upon death.) Also, the funeral mass included a great deal of praying for the dead--something again that Protestants don't generally do, holding that there is nothing we can do for those who have died. In fact, 500 years ago, these issues were at the root of the Reformation.

Though the Latter-day Saint view isn't exactly like that of Catholics, we differ even more from strict Protestants on these issues. We believe we can do something for those who have died. That in fact is one of the main purposes of temples. There the work of salvation extends to those who have died. It follows that we believe there is an intermediate state between death and final judgment. Joseph Smith taught that "it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave," and a later prophet, Joseph F. Smith, taught (echoing the New Testament teachings of Peter) that the gospel is preached to those who have died that they might prepare to receive the blessings of eternal life. (See 1 Peter 3 & 4 and Doctrine and Covenants 138.)

C. S. Lewis too believed in such an intermediate state, despite the fact that he considered himself an ordinary Anglican, that is, a member of a more or less Protestant church that theoretically rejected the idea of Purgatory. Lewis stated his view in a book titled Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, where he says that he believes in Purgatory and that "Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me." He continues: "Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the 'Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory' as that Romish doctrine had then become." Yet, he says, "Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'" Then he says:
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
I find the language of Joseph F. Smith in Doctrine and Covenants section 138 still more illuminating and more deeply in harmony with the fundamental doctrines of salvation:
29 And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them;
 30 But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.
 31 And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel.
 32 Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets.
 33 These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands,
 34 And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. . . .
 57 I beheld that the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead.
 58 The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God,
 59 And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation.
The work of salvation is universal, extending to both sides of the veil (by the way, Scalia's son referred to "the veil" being especially "thin" at funerals), extending to the past, present, and future, reaching every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. There is great reason for hope, great reason for charity, even toward those whose words, attitudes, and behavior seem at present something less than fully "Christian." Taken strictly, that would describe all of us.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Thoughts for Christmas: Why I Believe in Jesus Christ

Today is the fortieth anniversary of one of the most important and memorable days of my life. On December 25, 1975, I was in New York City, where I was attending graduate school. That day I had a set of experiences that has helped shape me and given a foundation for the rest of my life.

Though I missed my family back in Utah, I decided to stay in New York City for Christmas, given the cost of a flight. I was living in International House, on 122nd Street and Riverside Drive (across from Grant's Tomb). But I spent Christmas eve with a family who lived a few blocks away in Manhattan (on Amsterdam Ave., I believe), one of the few families with children I knew from the church I attended. I stayed the night with the family and spent Christmas morning with them. Being with a family for Christmas eve and morning took away much of the sting of being away from my own family. Then I returned to International House.

It was a grayish day. I remember looking out of a window and seeing the city looking particularly bleak. For whatever reason I felt bleak inside too: empty, aching, alone. I tried to shake the feeling. I remember going to a common area so I could be around other people. That eased things temporarily. But when I went back to my room, the intensely bleak feelings returned. As time for bed approached, I told myself I would feel better the next day after a night's sleep. And I got ready to go to bed.

But as I sat on my bed I had the impulse to reach over to my bookshelf and get my scriptures. I opened them to the Gospel of John and started reading in the chapters where Jesus speaks to his disciples following the Last Supper. I don't remember how deliberately I opened to those chapters--it felt almost as if the book opened there of its own accord--but it was the perfect spot for my needs.

As I read parts of those chapters, I had an experience unlike any I had ever had before. It didn't feel as if I was reading the words: rather, I felt the words being spoken to me. It felt, very clearly and powerfully, as if the voice of Christ himself was speaking directly to me:

"Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. . . . I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14: 1, 6)

"I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing." (15:5)

"Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy.
     "A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world.
     "And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. . . .
     "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." (16:20-22, 33)

Those words--and the voice I felt speaking them--filled the emptiness, brought warmth and life, softened and even took away the ache. I felt something substantial and vital in me, something that had come from elsewhere but that had become part of me, laying a solid foundation--a foundation that I've felt has never left me, despite many challenges and failures I've experienced in the intervening years.

Then something else remarkable happened. After reading from the Gospel of John, and still in the wake of the experience, I knelt and prayed. I had prayed every night since coming to New York City. But this felt real and alive in a way that my prayers had not usually been. For the past four months, I had prayed every night for each member of my family--my parents and my siblings--but with the passage of time, their names had almost become mere labels. Even my memory of their faces had become vague. But this night--December 25, 1975--as I thought of each of them (Mom, Dad, Nancy, Annette, Larry, Daren, and Lynda), I not only remembered their faces clearly, I felt the essence of who they were; I felt their presence more vividly and substantially even than I usually did when I was with them. Somehow what had happened to me as I felt the voice of Jesus and heard his words had enabled me to know and sense the reality of those who were closest to me in a deeper and more powerful way.

As might be expected, that way of experiencing things did not continue with the intensity I have just described. In fact, there have been bleak moments since then, times of emptiness and aching and feelings that I have been far away from where I want to be. But the experience of that evening left an indelible mark. I have remembered it clearly for forty years and cannot forget the reality and power and significance of what I heard and felt.

That is one of the experiences that have made of me a follower of Jesus Christ.

But it was not the first, and has certainly not been the last.

Age 12 and beyond

The first time I bore my testimony in public--in a Fast and Testimony Meeting (see note 2) when I was 12 years old--I declared that I knew that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God." I still remember the clarity of the conviction I expressed that day (probably in late 1962), which was based on having read the New Testament Gospels. As I had read them, likely as an 11-year-old, I felt very clearly that these were honest reports of events that had actually happened, that these accounts conveyed the experiences of people who had actually known Jesus Christ and had actually experienced the things recorded in the Gospels.

I have since become aware of theories suggesting that the putting together of the gospels may be more complicated than I had realized at age 12. But I still hold to my early conviction. Even allowing for the collecting and editing of words and information, I sense strongly the reality of the events recorded in the Gospels.

My reading of scholarship related to the Gospels has confirmed my confidence in them. Of course, scholars differ in their interpretation of the Gospels and of their authenticity, and a plausible case, on purely intellectual grounds, can be made for different views. But I find myself compelled to reject views that start with the assumption that miracles don't happen, that prophecy is impossible, or that God is not a real, personal being. If you start with the assumption that miracles don't happen, then of course you'll be skeptical of the miracles reported in the Gospels. On the other hand, if you are open to the possibility of miracles, if you've experienced them yourself or know of others who have, then the miracles recorded in Gospels are entirely plausible. The resurrection of Christ in particular is well attested, with hundreds of witnesses and with some very specific accounts--from Peter and John racing to the tomb, to the women, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Christ's appearance to ten and then eleven of his disciples, to Paul's encounter with the very Jesus that he was persecuting--that seem to me clearly to have their source in authentic personal experience.

Are the New Testament texts reliable from a scholarly point of view? In a short but detailed book, F. F. Bruce makes a good case that they are. (See The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? It is well worth reading.) Raymond Brown, a highly respected Catholic scholar, has done solid and insightful work on the Gospel of John in particular that I find far more persuasive than criticism by scholars who are skeptical of that gospel's authenticity. In an essay titled "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," C. S. Lewis has applied his characteristically penetrating insight (and his sparkling wit) to New Testament scholarship. Both that essay and another titled "What Are We to Make of Jesus Christ?" demonstrate how Lewis's expertise as a reader of literature can be used to illuminate the Gospels. (For my own direct response to some of the criticism skeptical of the New Testament text, see another of my blog posts at

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts his conversion to Christianity, based in part on his reading of the Gospels--an experience that convinced him that the events they describe "almost certainly happened" and that also revealed to him the compelling personality of Jesus Christ, a person with a distinctively human and individual character yet through whom shone the light of holiness and divinity. Another discovery that helped lead to Lewis's conversion was the way that the gospel accounts, arising from the down-to-earth Jewish mentality that was hostile to myth, nevertheless carried profound mythic significance. He described this discovery in another essay titled "Myth Became Fact," in which he argues that the distinctiveness of Christianity lies in part in the way a powerful mythic story "comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens--at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences." In the New Testament we find God speaking to us, not through the minds of poets writing in mythic or romantic modes, but through living people and real events taking place in the world of concrete human experience. (See note 3.)

Christ's power, glory, and moral perfection

I've referred to several writers who have supported my sense that Christianity is distinctive among world religions in having its foundation in real events, including resurrection, involving a divine person who "was made flesh, and dwelt among us," a person who was fully human but who also possessed the power and glory of God. Based on my own careful reading, I am fully persuaded that the New Testament accounts derive from eye-witnesses, from people who "beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father," "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). I find further confirmation of the authenticity of these accounts and of the realities they describe in the Book of Mormon--another book of scripture for whose reliability I believe there is solid evidence--and in the experiences of modern witnesses.

I respond with gratitude and awe to Christ's power and glory. But I choose to follow him above all because of his moral character. I find my own feelings echoing those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who wrote: "My moral image and ideal is Christ. . . . [T]here is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more loving, more wise, more courageous and more perfect than Christ" (quoted by Richard Freeborn in The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, ed. Charles Moser, page 304).

Christ's moral perfection--his goodness and love--make him worthy of worship and discipleship. I also experience his moral character, along with his teachings and the example of his life, as a personal call made to me to change, to become what I have it in me to become, to become ultimately like him: perfect in love, obedience, courage, humility, integrity, and wisdom.

His life and teachings make it clear that this kind of change requires a profound transformation, a kind of death and rebirth, a consecration of my life to his service and the service of those around me. The call to change can seem daunting and overwhelming. But besides exemplifying what I want to become, Jesus Christ is also the central figure who assists us as we engage in the process.

My feelings about the call to change are incorporated in a poem that I wrote in the 1970s--possibly before that day forty years ago I have described above. The poem plays on the fact that, though we celebrate Christ's birth in December, it may very well have taken place at another time of the year, possibly in the spring--that is, in the same season in which he was crucified and resurrected. Christmas is thus a reminder of his entire life, including his agony in the garden, his suffering at the hands of Roman soldiers, his suffering and death on the cross, and his glorious resurrection.

The poem is titled "Spring Birth":

The words that warmed the winter nights
And set a boy's soul listening
Are not now quite so comforting
(Although they warm with stronger fire
And gather in one living Word).
The words are not so comforting
Because they turn my mind to spring —
The first green hints of shoots and stems
That, for full growth, point to the need
Of the death and burial of the seed.

Winter scenes seem coldest now
As signs of wakening life appear
And hope of spring joins with the fear
Of movement toward another winter.
Even watching the night-time sky
Whose stars seem fixed in place and kind,
1 see a pattern of change designed
By the seasons' steady, slow rotation
And remember a light that touched the earth
To teach the wonder and the pain of birth.

The morning and the evening star
That in one season rose and fell,
Buried in darkness only to swell
Sun-like in everliving light,
Shines now to urge my following,
Though by a way I fear to go,
A way requiring me to know
Of both the birth and death in spring.

The help Christ offers

I believe that Jesus Christ is a real, living person, who dwells (as the scriptures record) "at the right hand of God" (Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 10:12; 1 Peter 3:22) and who is "the brightness of [God's] glory, and the express image of his person" (Hebrews 1:3).

I also know him as one who understands us, loves us, and comforts and heals us. One of my favorite verses in the Christmas carol "Once in Royal David's City" attests to the power Jesus has to understand us, a power that comes from his having experienced the fullness of human life:

For he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

There is scriptural support for this view of Jesus. We read in Hebrews 4:1, concerning Jesus, that "we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." The Book of Mormon prophet Alma affirms that the Son of God was to experience human life so that he could understand our experience from the inside and so extend mercy and assistance:

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. (Alma 7:11-12)

I believe it is clear--from my own experience and what I know of human history--that human beings need divine help if they are to rise above their challenges and defects and overcome the powers of evil and destruction and have any hope of coming to the fullness of their possibilities. I believe that Jesus Christ provides that divine help, through his example and teachings and through the fellowship and strength he offers us and which we can obtain if we will put our trust in him.

There are times when the things we say about Jesus Christ seem to us to be just words, when we seem to be talking to ourselves in the dark. In our capacity for self-involvement and abstraction, we humans seem able to turn everything we experience into nothing more than phantoms in our minds. Yet despite my struggles with this tendency, I have been blessed with a lifetime of events and relationships that tell a very different story--that enable me to affirm with certainty that our experience puts us into relation with things and persons that are "other and outer" (to borrow a phrase from C. S. Lewis), that there are experiences to which we rightly respond with gladness, "Is this not real?" (to borrow a phrase from Alma), knowing that the answer is "Yes!"

My experience forty years ago, and countless experiences before and after, persuade me that Jesus Christ is all that he claimed to be, all that the scriptures testify he is. I choose, therefore, to believe in him and seek to know him, trust him, and follow him.

[For related thoughts, written a year later, see "Christmas 2016" at]


Note 1: I started this post on December 25, 2015, and did a very rough and sketchy draft, which I worked into a complete post on December 27, followed by a bit of tinkering on December 28 and later.

Note 2: Once a month the worship service in the church I belong to--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--is called "Fast and Testimony Meeting." Members are invited to fast for 24 hours and contribute the cost of the meals skipped (or more!) to help people in need. On other Sundays, part of the worship service consists of prepared talks given by designated speakers. But on "Fast Sunday," there are no designated speakers; instead, anyone in the congregation who wishes to can stand and "bear testimony": offer a declaration of faith, sometimes accompanied by a brief sharing of significant life experiences. Often a dozen or more people stand and bear testimony in this way in Fast and Testimony Meeting.

Note 3: I've borrowed the idea in the preceding sentence from what Humphrey Carpenter imagines Tolkien to have told Lewis as Lewis was struggling to understand the meaning of Christianity. See The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979) 44.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Greatest of These Is Charity

I’ve just had a profound experience this morning: reading inspired words about charity; about specific experiences, actions, relationships, and their effects—and simultaneously feeling challenged and (at least momentarily) transformed, lifted up with a desire to live in the way these words describe.

Two thoughts:

(1) The power of words. I became aware of this “address” because my wife Margaret posted a link. But I put off reading the address—it was long; there were no pictures; I would get around to it some other time. I got around to it this morning and am deeply grateful I did. I decided I would copy the address in a blogpost, add some pictures, and maybe make it a bit more inviting to busy and easily distracted people like me.

(2) The message. The message of this address is absolutely core, central, crucial. Any of us will ignore it at our peril. To quote just a bit of the message:

“To put it simply, having charity and caring for one another is not simply a good idea. It is not simply one more item in a seemingly infinite list of things we ought to consider doing. It is at the core of the gospel—an indispensable, essential, foundational element. Without this transformational work of caring for our fellowmen, the Church is but a facade of the organization God intends for His people. Without charity and compassion we are a mere shadow of who we are meant to be—both as individuals and as a Church. Without charity and compassion, we are neglecting our heritage and endangering our promise as children of God. No matter the outward appearance of our righteousness, if we look the other way when others are suffering, we cannot be justified.”

These are the words of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a man whose words and whose demeanor many of us love. In addition to the core message he presents here, President Uchtdorf’s address gives insight into his own heart and also offers remarkably revealing insight into the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Thomas S. Monson.

I hope you’ll take a look.

Harriet and Dieter Uchtdorf with Salt Lake City Inner City missionaries

The Pattern, the Path, and the Promise

Transcript of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's address to the Salt Lake City Inner City Mission, given December 4, 2015.

[NOTE: The Salt Lake City Inner City Mission involves over 800 service missionaries who spend between 8 and 30 hours a week joining members of 185 inner city Mormon congregations in worship and working with those there to overcome challenges and become more self-reliant. For more information, see]

The Pattern, the Path, and the Promise

My beloved brothers and sisters, my dear friends, it has become almost a negative cliché for speakers to say, “I’m pleased to be here, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to address you.”
However, please know of my tender feelings, that Harriet and I are very pleased to be here among beloved friends. I have looked forward to being with you, as you truly exemplify the spirit of this season every day of the year. It is a privilege to spend part of the Christmas season with you, who give so much of yourselves to bless those in need.
My wish would be that—instead of only me talking—I could listen to your experiences in which the Lord has worked through you and you have witnessed the transforming power of God’s love.
My beloved friends, dear associates in the Lord’s work, as I look out over this faithful group, I am deeply impressed with your willingness to serve at a time of life when many choose to simply sit back and enjoy leisure and rest. This year I turned 75, and I realized that in the Lord’s work we never retire. I am told that some of you are even in your 80s and that you are still serving with great dedication!
I bring you the greetings and love of President Thomas S. Monson. As I prepared my remarks, I noticed that you are serving in about the same geographic area where our dear prophet and president, Thomas S. Monson, served as a 22-year-old bishop. He often reminds us of those special days in his life.
President Thomas S. Monson carries tremendous responsibilities, and regardless of being 88 years of age, he still loves to serve God and fellowmen with all his heart, mind, and strength. All of his life, when he has seen those in need, especially the poor and needy, his heart has instantly reached out to them in deeply personal ways. So much of what he has done has gone unseen and unannounced, and it still does.
I am a personal witness that the Lord sustains President Thomas S. Monson in spite of his age. Brothers and sisters, you should hear President Monson pray for you. In turn, I assure you, he needs your prayers! All of us in our so-called “golden” years need the Lord’s help, but imagine the burden that President Monson carries! Those who work with him each day know how deeply President Monson is involved in every decision of major importance to the ongoing work of the Lord’s kingdom. His is the final decision on key matters.
Regarding one most recent example, I am a witness that the Lord directly inspired President Monson with respect to the calling of the three new members of the Quorum of the Twelve, as Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. He alone had the responsibility to obtain the Lord’s will on this critical matter, and he did! That’s how the Lord is leading His Church, and it works wonderfully.
Of course, President Monson is 88 years of age. His walk is not as brisk anymore. He used to swim swiftly nearly every day; he can’t do this any longer. His short-term memory is not what it once was, and long work days are becoming tougher for him. I guess these things sound quite familiar to most of us who are advanced in age. And of course we who stand closest to our dear prophet love to help our dear friend and leader.
Fortunately, God is at the helm. The Lord’s divine system of Church government ensures that the Church is always in good and steady hands. The quorums of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles are the Lord’s pattern for His Church.
Let me be clear: President Monson is God’s prophet on earth, and the Lord inspires him to lead us and build the Lord’s kingdom. I love and sustain our dear prophet, President Thomas S. Monson.
As I contemplate his life of service and the service that all of you are rendering at a more mature season in life, I’d like to share with you a message that is dear to me.
Today I would like to speak of a pattern, a path, and a promise the Lord has established.

The Pattern

When you search the scriptures and study the Lord’s dealings throughout all dispensations, you will see a consistent, common pattern. The Lord has always commanded His children to serve and to love Him and to seek the welfare of their brothers and sisters.[i] These two commandments become one, of course, because those who love God and strive to serve Him will also find themselves filled with concern for others—to use Jacob’s words, “weighed down with much … anxiety for the welfare of [their] souls.”[ii] They will certainly not be willing to sit by and watch their brothers and sisters perish.[iii]

Look at those rare societies that approached to becoming a people of Zion: from Enoch to Melchizedek to Alma, and on to those blessed disciples in the days following the Savior’s life, both in Jerusalem and on this continent, to the early Saints in the days of the Prophet Joseph. All Zion societies have three things in common: They are of one heart and mind, they dwell in righteousness, and there is no poor among them.[iv]

That last ingredient is such a common, fundamental element in these societies that we can rely on the fact that unless we care for one other—temporally as well as spiritually—we cannot please God, and it is impossible to become a people of Zion.
I would even say that we will not succeed if we only go through the motions of religiosity. We could cover the earth with members of the Church, put a meetinghouse on every corner, dot the land with temples, fill the earth with copies of the Book of Mormon, send missionaries to every country, and say millions of prayers. But if we neglect to grasp the core of the gospel message and fail to help those who suffer or turn away those who mourn, and if we do not remember to be charitable, we “are as [waste], which the refiners do cast out.”[v]

Indeed, as one ancient prophet put it, if we “turn away the needy, and the naked, and visit not the sick and afflicted, and impart of [our] substance to those who stand in need … if [we] do not any of these things, behold, [our prayers are hollow], and availeth [us] nothing, and [we] are as hypocrites who do deny the faith.”[vi]

We can only have hope of Zion with “every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.”[vii]

To put it simply, having charity and caring for one another is not simply a good idea. It is not simply one more item in a seemingly infinite list of things we ought to consider doing. It is at the core of the gospel—an indispensable, essential, foundational element. Without this transformational work of caring for our fellowmen, the Church is but a facade of the organization God intends for His people. Without charity and compassion we are a mere shadow of who we are meant to be—both as individuals and as a Church. Without charity and compassion, we are neglecting our heritage and endangering our promise as children of God. No matter the outward appearance of our righteousness, if we look the other way when others are suffering, we cannot be justified.
We “meet together oft”—yes, “to fast and to pray,” to teach and learn, but also “to speak one with another concerning the welfare of … souls.”[viii] This was true in the Nephites’ Zion-like society, and this is the work in which you are deeply engaged.

It should not surprise us that caring for the needy is such a central part of our faith. A century ago, President Joseph F. Smith reminded the Saints that “it has always been a cardinal teaching with the Latter-day Saints, that a religion that has not the power to save people temporally and make them prosperous and happy here, cannot be depended upon to save them spiritually, to exalt them in the life to come.”[ix]

Yes, this has been the pattern of our Father from the days of Adam until now. Those who love Him and strive to walk in the path of discipleship have this in common: they “remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple.”[x]

The Savior, of course, exemplified this pattern, for He walked among and loved the sick, the broken, the rejected.
He spent time among the poor, the unpopular, and the burdened. He knew that it was the sick, not the whole, who need a physician.[xi] He reached out to those who sorrowed and suffered.[xii] Matthew tells us that “his fame went throughout all Syria: and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with divers diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic, and those that had the palsy; and he healed them.”[xiii]
He forsook the riches and honors of men and instead ministered to and healed those who were most in need.
President Brigham Young summed up this pattern in these words: “The Latter-day Saints have got to learn that the interest of their brethren is their own interest, or they never can be saved in the celestial kingdom of God.”[xiv]

Salt Lake City Inner City missionaries with refugees from Bhutan

The Path

Not only is this the pattern God has given to His children, it is also the path we must walk if we wish to please God.
We are called to follow the example of the Savior, and it is impossible to do so if we set aside our compassion and refuse to care for our fellowmen.
Jesus “Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses.”[xv] In Nazareth, the Savior announced His ministry and foreshadowed His work by saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.” Preaching the gospel was one part of His mission. He also came “to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised”[xvi]

If we are to be His disciples, to represent Him on earth, we must follow His path. When I look over this wonderful group of servants of the Lord, I know that we could fill the evening with stories of you doing precisely that.
Let me share just one such story with you.
Brother and Sister Misbach had recently moved to a small, quiet town to retire. They were comfortable. Content. But it wasn’t long before they felt a yearning to do something more to benefit others. They submitted their names to the Church and requested to serve as humanitarian missionaries. They were called to serve in Hyderabad, India.
But after they arrived, they began to feel discouraged and helpless. There was so much poverty, hunger, sickness, and desperation all around them. In spite of being surrounded by four million people in that city, they felt completely alone and lost.
There was so much to do. And where could they even start?
One day they heard about a school for blind children and went to visit. The furnishings were so sparse; children were crowded together in a tiny space. A rope led from the back door, across a vacant space, to an outside toilet.
The Misbachs did not know what to do or where to begin. Nothing in their lives had prepared them for anything like this.
But they decided to begin anyway.
With the help of the Church and in cooperation with the local government, they built six new indoor toilets.
They acquired braille typewriters.
Sister Misbach organized the children into a choir. They became so good that they entered a talent competition sponsored by a local TV station and won first, second, and third place.
Years later they went on their second mission, this time to Nepal. They discovered a leper hospital that had been founded by Mother Teresa but had since fallen into disrepair. The Misbachs bound up wounds and provided bandages, blankets, clothing, and baskets of fruits and other nourishing food. They brought in books for schools and water for villages. They trained teachers in English.
On their third mission, the Misbachs went to Thailand, where they helped the homeless, the elderly, and the street children in Bangkok.
Brother Misbach said, “We could have stayed home and been content, but we knew that we were needed so much more here. As a consequence, we feel much closer to Heavenly Father and to our Savior.”
Sister Misbach agreed. She said, “I wanted our children to understand more than their little world. I wanted them to understand better the example of the Savior and how He walked among the poor and ministered to them. And I wanted them to see that we did what the prophet of God wanted us to do.”
The Misbachs’ children wrote in a letter to them that they couldn’t stop talking to their friends and neighbors about their parent’s exemplary life in helping God’s children in many different places around the world.
While the inner city of Salt Lake may not be as exotic or remote as Hyderabad, Nepal, or Bangkok, the work you do is just as important to the Lord and to the people to whom you minister.
You are the hands of the Savior, ministering to God’s children.
You are angels of God to those you serve.
You are examples to your families, to me, and to all the world of what a disciple of Christ should do.
The following commentary describes the hearts of the people in the days of Alma the Younger: “And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”[xvii]

The Apostle Paul summed up the entire law of Christ in five words: “Bear ye one another’s burdens.”[xviii] That is how we fulfill the law of Christ. It is how we fulfill all the law and the prophets, for “whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”[xix]

It is our love for God that kindles our love for those around us. This is the path of discipleship. It is the path God desires us to walk.
English class in the Salt Lake City Inner City Mission

The Promise

At the end of this path, there is a promise. You here are witnesses that the Lord blesses those who reach out to bless the lives of others.
President Gordon B. Hinckley once said:
"I commend most warmly those who with a compelling spirit of kindness reach out to those in distress, regardless of whom they might be, to help and assist, to feed and provide for, to nurture and to bless. As these extend mercy, I am confident that the God of heaven will bless them, and their posterity after them, with His own mercy. I am satisfied that these who impart so generously will not lack in their own store, but that there will be food on their tables and a roof over their heads. One cannot be merciful to others without receiving a harvest of mercy in return."[xx]

I’m sure each of you could testify that these words are certain.
Our beloved and Almighty God, who is aware of the fall of a sparrow, will surely smile upon an individual and a people who are full of charity and kindness. Surely, those who “lift up the hands which hang down”[xxi] will find that their own hands are lifted up in their time of need. Without a doubt, those who bring peace to others will find peace in their own hearts. The merciful will surely find mercy.

Sometimes we think that those we help are the ones who receive the greatest blessings, but I am not so sure. Something happens within us as we extend ourselves to others. We become more refined, more charitable, more humble. Our hearts become more receptive to the Spirit, and the windows of heaven can be opened to us.
You, your children, and your children’s children will be blessed because of the compassion you are showing while serving your mission.
But as you have experienced, the blessings do not all come at the end of the path. Often, the reward is in the doing. When asked why he was so faithful in the Church, one elderly brother replied, “I’m faithful because it feels good. It makes me feel right when I do right.”
I suspect that if I were to ask each one of you, you would affirm that the work itself is reward enough—that it helps you feel good, that it feels right when you do right. The scriptures tell us that as a result of our charitable service, our confidence in the presence of God will wax strong.[xxii]

Isn’t it wonderful that we are twice and thrice blessed for our righteous efforts?
Truly, our perfect Father in Heaven opens the windows of heaven and pours out a blessing to those who incline their hearts to Him and seek to bless their fellow men. In the Gospel of Luke, the Savior offers these words of hope: “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.”[xxiii]

All I need to do is look into your eyes and see the Spirit shining in your faces to know that this is true.
I believe these promises hold true today, especially for those who give of themselves so that others may rise from despair to joy.
We have a beloved scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God … And if it so be that you should labor all your days … and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father! And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!”[xxiv]

Now, this scripture is most often applied to those who are preaching the gospel—and for good reason. However, I wonder if it does not also apply to the temporal work of saving people by lifting them up, freeing them from pain, delivering them from captivity, bringing joy and hope into their lives.
I believe it does, because there is no better way to preach the gospel.
And how great will be your joy for the blessed and hallowed work you do during your mission experience.
Assisting with efforts to find employment

In Conclusion

The work you are doing follows the pattern that God has ordained for His Saints from the foundation of the world. As you go about this work, you are walking in the path of discipleship. As you give of yourself to others, surely you will reap the blessings promised by our Heavenly Father.
This is the Lord’s way—not only to care for and lift up those in need, but to refine ourselves in the process.
This is the pattern, the path, and the promise that has existed since the dawn of the world.
My dear friends, my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, I feel impressed to bestow upon you an Apostolic blessing.
I bless you to know that the Lord knows and loves you.
He knows your hearts and is pleased with your sacrifice.
He smiles upon you.
He will uphold you and prepare the way for you.
He will soften hearts and open doors. He will give you wisdom in your moment of need to transform lives and sway decisions. He will send His angels before you. And with the help of heaven, your talents will be multiplied.
Because you have given of yourself to others, I bless you to know that you are in the hands of the Lord. As you lift those around you, the Lord God, the Creator of the Universe, will lift you up. He will place within you a peace that surpasses understanding.
He will bless you and your loved ones in the hour of need.
He will spark in your soul a testimony that will shine brightly within you, and others will look upon you and know that this is what it means to be blessed of God.
My beloved friends, I admire you, I love you. I am grateful for who you are and what you do.
May you, during this Christmas season, feel the special warmth and blessings that come from following the example of the Savior. This is my prayer and blessing for you, and for your loved ones, in the sacred name of our Redeemer and Master, in the name of Jesus the Christ, amen.

[i] See 2 Nephi 1:25.
[ii] See Jacob 2:3.
[iii] In this we emulate God, who is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
[iv] See Moses 7:18–19.
[v] Alma 34:29; see also Matthew 25:31–46.
[vi] Alma 34:28.
[vii] Doctrine and Covenants 82:19.
[viii] Moroni 6:5.
[ix] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith (1998), 164.
[x] Doctrine and Covenants 52:40.
[xi] See Matthew 9:10–12; Luke 5:31.
[xii] See Luke 6:20–21.
[xiii] Matthew 4:24.
[xiv] Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 217.
[xv] Matthew 8:17.
[xvi] Luke 4:18.
[xvii] Alma 1:30.
[xviii] Galatians 6:2.
[xix] 1 John 3:17.
[xx] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Blessed Are the Merciful,” Ensign, May 1990, 70.
[xxi] Doctrine and Covenants 81:5.
[xxii] See D&C 121:45.
[xxiii] Luke 6:38.
[xxiv] Doctrine and Covenants 18:10, 15–16.