Monday, August 13, 2012

Out of the Wilderness

My scripture reading for Monday was the Book of Numbers, Chapters 33 through 36.  Chapter 33 gives a very brief summarization of the Israelites' journey from the time they left Egypt until they reached the promised land of Canaan; a full forty years' worth of wandering in the wilderness, during which an entire generation passed away except for two individuals.  Though I'd been reading about the Israelites in the Old Testament for quite a while up to that point, it was still quite something to be reminded that they'd been wandering for forty years.

Why did it take so long?  Well, because, quite frankly, they were rather wicked.  God had delivered them from Egypt, from the bondage of slavery, and shone them many great and glorious daily miracles, and they still rebelled against Him and His law.  Why did they rebel?  You'd think they'd be grateful, especially since they'd prayed specifically for deliverance, for the fulfillment of God's covenant with their ancestor, Father Abraham.  And God kept His word, giving the Israelites their land of promise; but, because He didn't do it right away, or because the path there led through harsh conditions, or because their time in Egypt had conditioned them to not be quite so humble after all, God felt the need to humble them further.  It's a theme we see repeated throughout the scriptures, and indeed history itself.

We also would do well to recognize it in ourselves.  I'm not the most patient of men, myself; I've been in situations when I couldn't see the end and so allowed myself to think "This particular trial has gone on long enough."  But, especially lately, I've had to remind myself each time that only the Lord can see the end of all things, including trials.  He gives directions because He's the only one who can see the way to go.  It's up to me to trust Him and follow those directions, even if they lead through the wilderness; even if it takes forty years of wandering.  I'm only 31 now, so even strictly from a calendar-based perspective, I haven't endured nearly as much as the Lord's chosen people in centuries past.  Maybe, just maybe, if I don't rebel or complain or lose my patience, it won't take me as long as it took them to reach my own promised land; but, long or short, if I'm to make it there at all, then I need to follow God's directions.

Update August 14:

My scripture reading this morning was Romans, Chapters 3 through 6, and they seem to pertain directly to this.  In chapter 5, I'd highlighted verses 3 and 4:  "[W]e glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope".

Friday, August 10, 2012

Am I a Jew?

My scripture reading this morning was The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, chapters one and two.  Though there is certainly quite a bit on which I could focus in just these two chapters, I'm going to talk about the last half of chapter two, in which Paul discusses who is truly a follower of Christ:

[T]here is no respect of persons with God.
For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;
(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:
Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
... For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:
But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
--Romans 2:11-15, 28-29

A little background for the uninitiated:  "Jew" here refers to members of the House of Israel, aka God's chosen people, and "Gentile" refers to everyone else in the world, those who have presumably never even heard the true gospel because Jews didn't share the gospel with Gentiles until Christ came along and changed everything.  Paul was expounding on a principle that may sound familiar to a lot of us today but was most likely fairly new to his audience:  Our hearts determine our worthiness.  He wasn't saying the law itself was unnecessary; in verse 13, he clearly states that only "doers of the law" are justified.  But those who don't know the law can still follow it, or at least try to, and those who do are better prepared to meet God than those who know the law but don't follow it.

C.S. Lewis caused a bit of controversy in his book "The Last Battle", the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia, when he depicts a meeting between Aslan the Lion (the personification of Jesus) and a soldier of Tash (the personification of the Devil).  Though the soldier thought he was a servant of Tash, his desire was to do good, and so his service was accounted as service unto Aslan.  As he is told, "no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him."  To put it a bit more biblically, "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit." --Matthew 7:18

Are we good trees?  Are we "Jews inwardly"?  Do we seek to serve God and live righteously, whether we know how to or not?  That is the purpose of life, I feel.  It's still important to know the law, to be taught it and to teach others so that we may all know better how to follow it.  But we should keep in mind that God's true followers are not defined by their knowledge, but rather their hearts.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Provident Living and the Love of Money

One of our lessons in church today was on provident living.  The word "provident" means having or showing foresight, such as providing economically for the future.  That sort of preparation could include saving money, acquiring insurance, reducing debt (or avoiding it entirely), and many other methods for ensuring you have the means to support yourself and your family in the future.  While accidents and emergencies by their nature are unpredictable, you can still prepare for them.

What does all this have to do with the gospel of Christ, though?  Why does it matter how we spend our money or prepare for the future if preparing for heaven is the most important thing in life?  Well, first of all, there's the Savior's declaration in the Sermon on the Mount that we cannot serve two masters, "God and mammon", meaning worldly treasures (Matthew 6:24).  Some see this as simply meaning we shouldn't pursue riches or the vain things of the world and instead focus on serving God.  While that's an important part of it, there's another way that the world becomes our master:  Debt.  When you are indebted to someone, be it a creditor, a bank, the government, or some other person or entity, you give them power over you.  Granted, it's worldly power, but you have still become bound to them.  While that's not necessarily evil, it does mean you have less time, energy, and resources to devote to he who is your true Master (Matthew 23:8).

Another tie between living a fiscally responsible life and living a spiritually healthy one is found in the Book of Mormon, where the prophet King Benjamin exhorts his people to give service to one another whenever possible, declaring it to be the way to give true service to God.  In his own words, "[A]ll you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give" (Mosiah 4:24).  There have been times in all our lives, I'm sure, when someone has come to us for help, either for money or some other reason.  Did you have enough to share with them?  If not, then there's no shame in that; especially these days, we've all experienced times when we barely had enough for ourselves, if that.  But why did we not have enough to share?  Was it because we wasted it on things we didn't need?  Were we forced to turn away the poor among us because our chosen lifestyles weren't exactly "provident"?

Maybe we have enough for ourselves, our families, our friends, and for those in need.  What then?  Do we have license at that point to "upgrade" our standard of living?  Is there anything inherently wrong with brand name clothing, sports cars, dining out multiple times a week, taking trips at a moment's notice, as long as we can still live debt-free and give a handout every now and then?  I wouldn't think so.  By itself, money isn't evil, but rather the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10).  As in all things, you need to examine the true motivation behind what you do with your money.  We're warned repeatedly in the scriptures that it is our intentions that inform our actions and, therefore, our destination in the life to come.  The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob was faced with this issue among his people:

And now behold, my brethren, this is the word which I declare unto you, that many of you have begun to search for gold, and for silver, and for all manner of precious ores, in the which this land, which is a land of promise unto you and to your seed, doth abound most plentifully.
And the hand of providence hath smiled upon you most pleasingly, that you have obtained many riches; and because some of you have obtained more abundantly than that of your brethren ye are lifted up in the pride of your hearts, and wear stiff necks and high heads because of the costliness of your apparel, and persecute your brethren because ye suppose that ye are better than they.
And now, my brethren, do ye suppose that God justifieth you in this thing? Behold, I say unto you, Nay. But he condemneth you, and if ye persist in these things his judgments must speedily come unto you ...
Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you.
But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God.
And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good--to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted. - (Jacob 2:12-14, 17-18)

Jacob doesn't condemn people for seeking riches; in fact, he promises them that they'll find the riches they seek, if they seek them in order to help others and if they seek the kingdom of God before all else.  That promise was echoed by the Savior who promised his followers they would be fed, clothed, and provided for if they sought first for the "kingdom of God, and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).

So, you see, there is a balance between earning enough money to provide for yourself and those around you and earning so much money that it becomes an end in itself.  As in all things, finding that balance becomes simpler when we commit to love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).  If we do that, then we'll always have the guidance and the support of our Father in Heaven.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A House of Prayer (Mark 11: 17)

It is recorded numerous times how the Savior, Jesus Christ, drove "moneychangers" out of the temple in Jerusalem.  These moneychangers were there for semi-legitimate reasons, as people needed to buy animals for sacrifice and change Roman coins for Jewish money; that's likely why they'd been allowed to continue and expand for so long.  However, their "enterprises" had grown corrupt; also, they'd grown onto the temple grounds themselves.  Christ admonished them, saying, "Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer? but ye have made it a den of thieves."  And with these words, he evicted the merchants and dealers from his Father's house.

Latter-day Saints are often criticized for not allowing people who are not members of the LDS church in good standing with the church into our temples.  From the beginning, though, temples were always consecrated to those who were expressly allowed within the walls for however long it took to perform specific ordinances, and who promptly left once those ordinances were performed.  Some today would have us make the temples into spectacles, museums to be toured at will, and our ordinances to be put on display for whomever wishes to see them.  The Lord's house is a house of prayer, though; it is there for the devout, not the curious.

If people are curious about the Latter-day Saint church and wish to observe us, then they are free to do so in our churches and our weekly services.  If they are truly motivated by a desire to learn and not merely to satisfy their need for entertainment or worse, then they can read the scriptures, speak with our members, and attend our meetings.  They are even free, if the opportunity arises, to see a temple while it is under construction or immediately before it is consecrated in special "open house" events.  We do nothing in our temples that conflicts with the laws of God, or even the laws of the land; but you can't expect us to simply hang a "free admittance" sign over the door.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Many are called, but few are chosen (Matthew 20: 1-16)

Jesus told a parable about a man who hired laborers to work in his field.  The man hired some in the morning, others during the day, and some in the evening before the day's work was done.  At the end of the day, he gave each man the same compensation.  The men who were hired first but paid last thought they'd be paid more than the others because they'd worked longer.  It's a reasonable frustration, if you think you're getting paid by the hour.  But the work of the Lord, we must remember, is not based on how many hours or days we work, nor are we rewarded on that basis.  The work of the Lord is to bring the gospel to everyone, to spread the message of salvation and redemption for all humanity.  In the end, it won't matter how much longer you were a part of that work than another; as long as you both are called to the work and endured to the end, your reward in Heaven will be the same.  There's a saying in my church:  it doesn't matter where you are along the path, so long as you're heading in the right direction.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Abraham, Father of Many Nations

First, let me say Happy Father's Day to all fathers out there, present and future.  This day is a special day, indeed, to remember not only our earthly fathers and how they've helped us in our lives, but also to remember our Father in Heaven and honor Him.

As part of my daily scripture study today, I read Genesis chapters 12 and 13.  In those chapters, Abraham (known at that point by the name Abram), received a promise from the Lord that in him shall "all families of the earth be blessed" and that "if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered."  Abraham, as you may know, was the father of Ishmael and Isaac, and the grandfather of Jacob, who became known as Israel.  Through these children and grandchildren, we have the religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Some would dispute the claim that the earth has been "blessed" by these religions.  Setting aside the present-day influence of each for the moment, let's take a look at the history for a moment.  If you've seen "The Ten Commandments" (or read the Bible), then you know that Moses, after he was exiled from Egypt, dwelt in the tent of Jethro, part of a tribe of pious descendants of Ishmael who claimed Abraham as their father.  Moses' life was rescued and influenced by these people, and his own influence on history is almost unmatched.  (Almost.)

The man whose impact on history is unmatched, of course, is Jesus Christ, a descendant of the Jewish king David, and by whose birth all history is numbered.  The laws of Moses, particularly the aforementioned commandments, are perhaps the most famous laws in history.  The advent of Christ, however, made all things new.  His famous Sermon on the Mount, which can be found in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, replaced many tenets of the law, creating a gospel and philosophy of love that was nearly unprecedented at the time.  He told us to love our enemies as well as our friends, to "turn the other cheek" when offended or attacked, to not judge others or even be angry with them, because we can't come unto God with anger in our hearts for any man, least of all our brothers.

If these new concepts were Christ's only contributions to the world, then that would still have been enough to change it; but he did so much more in his time on earth.  He healed the sick, raised the dead, and brought the gospel of repentance to all the world.  He died for us all and rose to live again, that we ourselves may one day conquer both sin and death.  His example, his teachings, and his actions are all blessings upon the world, no matter what others may have done in his name.

The promise that God made to Abraham, that through him and his seed all nations of the earth should be blessed, has seen its literal fulfillment in the birth of Christ; but are we not all his seed?  Do we not all have an obligation to do the work of blessing the earth, of making it a better place than when we arrived?  Do we not owe that to our Father Abraham, or even more to our Father in Heaven?  One of the commandments that Moses brought to the people of Israel was a commandment to honor our fathers and mothers.  How do we propose to honor all our fathers, including Abraham, this day and always?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Faith in the midst of adversity (1 Kings 17-19)

As part of my effort to maintain this blog with equivalent effort to that devoted to my other two blogs, I will be updating you on my Sunday School lessons each week. The scriptures we studied this week were 1 Kings, Chapters 17 through 19, from the King James Bible. In them, we read about the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who lived in the time of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, two of the most wicked rulers of ancient Israel. They were apostates from the church of God who worshipped Baal and various other false idols. Elijah was instructed by the Lord to pronounce a drought and famine on the kingdom. After informing the king of the Lord's intention, Elijah left for the wilderness. Ahab sent his servants everywhere to bring Elijah back to him, but no one could find him.

The drought lasted for years, eventually reaching the entire kingdom. Elijah was sent to the home of a widow and her son, whose supplies were almost gone. He learned the widow had resigned herself to starving to death and was about to make one last tiny meal for herself and her son. Elijah asked her to make some food for himself first, promising her in the name of the Lord that her supplies would last as long as the drought did. She believed his words, and did as he asked. Sure enough, as long as the drought lasted, she and her son had enough to eat.

Food and water weren't their only problems, though. Her son was sick and died during the time Elijah stayed with them. The widow, thinking of her past sins, asked Elijah why he had come, to save their lives or take them? Elijah prayed over her son's body, asking God to restore his life. When the boy revived, so did the widow's faith in God and the prophet.

The drought was well into its third year by the time the Lord sent Elijah back to King Ahab. Things had grown so bad that Ahab himself, as well as his servants, went out into the kingdom to scrounge for whatever they could find to keep themselves and their livestock alive. One of the servants, Obadiah, encountered Elijah, who told him to go back to Ahab and tell him that Elijah had returned. Knowing how much Ahab had been trying to find Elijah the last two years, Obadiah was afraid it was a trick, that Elijah would disappear again and that Obadiah would feel the king's wrath over it. Elijah promised to follow, so Obadiah went to inform the king of the prophet's return.

When he saw Elijah, Ahab asked him "Are you the reason Israel has had so much trouble all this time?" Elijah turned it around on him, reminding Ahab that the Lord ruled in Israel and that it was Ahab's apostasy that had brought on the drought. His wife Jezebel had even put to death all the prophets of the Lord, except for those that Obadiah had been able to save by hiding them and secretly feeding them.

Elijah challenged Ahab at this point to gather as many of his own prophets as he could, and he would prove whose God ruled in Israel and the world. The challenge was for both the false prophets and Elijah to sacrifice to their own gods to see who would respond. Without lighting the altars themselves, whichever sacrifice burned would be the sacrifice to the true God. Ahab's prophets, despite their best and most fervent efforts, couldn't call down the heavenly fire.

Elijah, on the other hand, called down enough fire to literally consume the sacrifice, the altar, and the water-filled trench he had put around it. The people who saw that day were left with no doubts in their minds. When Elijah commanded them to round up the prophets of Baal and slay them, they did so without question. Rain returned to Israel that very evening.

Ahab went to his wife Jezebel to tell her of all that had happened. Clearly unimpressed by the power of God or that the drought had ended, she cared only about her prophets being killed and vowed to do the same to Elijah. Apparently, that was the last straw for the prophet, who left civilization again. When the Lord asked him why he had fled, he replied that, despite everything he'd done and shown the people, they still persecuted the prophets, and now the Queen had signed his death warrant. He basically despaired at being, in his eyes, the last of the faithful.

God told Elijah not to despair, that there were still many left in Israel who had not turned from the faith. He then sent Elijah to anoint new rulers in the land who would slay the wicked. He also told him where he could find a new disciple.

There is more to this account than the punishment of sin and the rewards of faith. Anyone can see the lessons learned by the widow and her son, by the witnesses to the dual sacrifices, and by Elijah himself. What I would hope people would learn from this is that even after seeing such miracles as the Kingdom of Israel had seen in its years, it was still possible to fall away. And even though Elijah was a great prophet who spoke with God directly, he still had doubts about how much good he could do for the people. There have been miracles in almost every age of man, and yet we remain the same; doubting, skeptical, and drawn to whatever new "god" comes along, be it a statue, a bush, or just plain money. Under those conditions, even the strongest of us can wonder if there's any point in trying.

And yet, there are still those who believe in God, who have faith in his power and good works, and who worship him and seek to do good despite all the evil in the world. To me, the hero of this story is Obadiah, who even though he feared for his life at the hands of the king and queen still defied them and tried to save the lives of the saints. We can't all be prophets and call down fire; but we all can do our part to help others, no matter the circumstances. And who knows if our sacrifices, whatever they may be, will invoke the power of God in however large or small a measure to change our lives and the lives of others?