Monday, December 26, 2011

Discovering the *Real* True Meaning of Christmas

Today I was going through some old files and happened across an essay I wrote while I was in grad school. I was visiting my favorite guys' apartment in the ward, where most of my best friends lived and where I had many amazing and involved conversations. On this particular night, I was talking to Josh when his roommate Brad came in, in the midst of some new insights about the atonement that he wanted to share and discuss. After some very good conversation, curfew came around so I went home and went to bed. However, it must have still been on Brad's mind, because he ended up writing an essay on his thoughts and sharing it with Josh and I. It was a very good and interesting essay, but I don't have his permission to post it, so I won't. However, he ended with this paragraph:
I haven’t figured out the mechanism behind the application of grace, nor how the Atonement supplies the “infinite grace” (Moroni 8:3) that was “made possible by his atoning sacrifice (Bible Dictionary). I’d also like to learn how to “tap into” this grace more. Please send me any insight into these three matters.
I was so intrigued by this line of thought that I wrote my own essay and sent it to him and Josh:
First, a quote from "The Broken Heart," Elder Bruce Hafen’s excellent commentary on the atonement, which I really give a very high recommendation. This is from the introduction, on page 7: "I once wondered if those who refuse to repent but who then satisfy the law of ustice by paying for their own sins are then worthy to enter the Celestial kingdom. The answer is no. The entrance requirements fro Celestial life are simply higher than merely satisfying the law of ustice. For that reason, paying for our own sins will not bear the same fruit as repenting of our sins. Justice is a law of balance and order and it must be satisfied, eiher through our payment or His. But if we decline the Savior's invitation to let Him carry our sins, and then satisfy justice by ourselves we will not yet have xperienced the complete rehabilitation that can occur through a combination of divine assistance and genuine repentance. Working together, those forces have the power permenantly to change our hearts and our lives, preparing us for Celestial life . . . the 'natural man' will remain an enemy to God forever- even after paying for his own sins- unless he also 'becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ and becometh as a child' (Mosiah 3:19)." I believe this is the general idea that you are getting at in your grace essay. So, the general question becomes then, how does the atonement give us that infinite grace that allows us to become like the Father, so that the atonement is a rehabilitative thing instead of just a restorative thing? To answer this question, I think we need to take a step back in time to the Garden of Eden. Before Adam and Eve partook of the fruit, there was no death in the world. They were both spiritually and physically intact. (2 Ne 2:22-23). They had physical bodies, but they were not truly separated from God the way we are today. But they were incapable of progressing. Without the fall, “all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end” (2 Ne 2:22). It was only after the fall that Adam and Eve had the necessary knowledge to know good from evil and to make conscious, informed decisions that would either bring them closer to God or farther away from Him. As we know, this agency is a critical part of the plan of salvation. No man can be saved in ignorance, it is only by consciously making good decisions and intentionally turning our hearts to God and allowing Him to change them for us that we can achieve Exaltation. However, it was also the fall that created the first real spiritual distance between God and His children on earth. For the first time, they really needed Him, His wisdom and guidance and love, but since God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, they were cut off from Him- they were spiritually dead. From this, I can see two important ways that the atonement provides grace for us. First, it provides us access to God. Because of the fall, or because of Adam’s transgression, we all undergo spiritual death with our physical birth. We are separated from God and He can no longer come to us and assist us because of the unclean state in which we live. Christ and the atonement are a critical part of our contact with the Father. We pray to Heavenly Father in the name of Jesus Christ because He is literally our contact between earth and heaven. Although I do not understand how, the atonement bridges he gap of spiritual death for all men who will merely come unto Christ and allow Him to open a window to heaven. Now comes the second point. The atonement overcomes spiritual death, and by so doing, allows us access to God’s goodness and blessings- or what we might call this grace. Grace, ennabling power, that which compensates for our imperfect attempts and sanctifies us. Another quote from Elder Hafen: “Consider the life and experience of the Savior himself, because His own development was marked by his receipt of the Father’s grace. His experience shows us also that being free from sin is not quite the same thing as attaining divine perfection. ‘Though he were a son, yet he learned obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him’ (Hebrews 5:8-9)” Even the Savior Himself learned things and attained perfection through mortality and grace. Now, how does one access this grace, this power that allows us to take what we have, and through the Lord’s assistance, become so much more than we could on our own? Honestly, I think the answer to that is much more closely tied to the basic teachings of the church than most people realize. When we are asked to read our scriptures and pray and ponder on the solemnities of eternity, we are doing those things which bring us in line with the will of God. Another way of saying this is that we are coming to Christ. It is by grace we are saved after all we can do- and what we can do is come unto Christ. You may find, as I do, that the nearer I come to Christ, often the less satisfied I am with myself. In these instances, I take comfort from remembering Ether 12:27: “And if men will come unto me, I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto all men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me.” See the connection? As we come unto Christ, He shows us our weakness. He shows us things we could not see before and helps us correct them- through His grace. It is sufficient to perfect us, but only if we are humble. Any man who is absorbing the gospel through constant study and conversing with the Lord through frequent prayer should be on the right path. One other principle that I find to be quite applicable to accessing grace through the atonement- we must offer everything we have to the Lord if He is going to be able to do anything worthwhile with it. He asks for our hearts- our whole hearts, not just part. He asks us to love him with all our minds, not just half. Only when we can give our whole selves to Him can He really start to make a masterpiece. We must consecrate ourselves to Him, consecrate our actions and our desires and ourselves, so that “he will consecrate [our] performance[s] unto [us], that [our] performance[s] may be for the welfare of [our[ soul[s]” (2 Ne 32:9). For further edification, I strongly recommend reading “The Broken Heart.” I have a copy in my apartment if you want to borrow it (you’re welcome to it also, Josh). Also, for something a little shorter but also loaded with lots of insights on the atonement, Elder Hafen wrote a conference talk that covers many of the same basic ideas, “Beauty for Ashes.” It can be easily found on the church website. Thanks for giving me an excuse to write this out. It’s a lot longer than I anticipated, but it felt good.
I'm so glad I happened across this today. Isn't this what Christmas is really about? Celebrating the beginning of a life that would end with the greatest act in history? Merry Christmas to you all, and remember that the true spirit of Christmas is not about giving each other gift of merchandise, no matter how selflessly given. It's about changing our souls from the inside out and rejoicing in the atonement that makes all men free. This is the true gift of Christmas.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Today was amazing- we visited gorillas and the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali. I want to write my thoughts on the Memorial before I forget. [p] I've been reading Paul Rusesabagina's autobiography as well and I'm in the middle of reading about his experiences hiding over a thousand people in the Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali during the Interahamwe bloodbath. He had been in Brussels with his wife and two-year-old son on a vacation a mere week before the genocide's official and intense beginning when the president's plane was shot from the sky. Through a truly amazing set of events, Paul and his family stayed safely- although not comfortably- in the hotel with their refugees. [p] Paul notes several times how he wished he had stayed in Brussels a little longer, and not come back when the trouble started. I read that last night. Today as I walked from exhibit to exhibit, I thought about Paul and what he went through to save those lives, and his periodic regrets of having returned to Rwanda. And the other thought that kept popping through my head was from Music and the Spoken Word this past summer- "a ship in a harbor is safe, but that's not what a ship is made for." [p] Paul Rusesabagina and so many other brave people like him were ships on the ocean during the genocide. They risked their own lives to protect the lives of others. Paul wished that he was safely in Belgium- in his harbor, as it were, but it's hard not to believe that this particular ship's voyage was perhaps one that Paul was assigned before he came. [p] Like Paul, we all long for our safe harbor on some level. It's different for each of us, but each of us deserves to reflect on what that harbor is that's keeping us off the high seas- or perhaps a better approach is to identify the high seas when they arrive and sail into them without looking back at the harbor. [p] The other mail idea I took from the memorial was a theme I saw throughout the building. There were allusions to "how could we let this happen?" and "we must prevent this from ever happening again." And there was one very powerful plaque that related something like this: "The Nazis did not exterminate six thousand Jews and the Hutus did not kill a million Tutsis. They killed one, then another, then another, a million times." [p] As Paul writes in his book, there was no magical switch on April 6th, 1994 that caused the Hutus to suddenly hate and turn on their Tutsi neighbors and friends. It built up slowly, over years of propaganda and decades of racial division encouraged by foreign powers. It was done one toxic idea at a time, as people played on wrongs, real and imagined, , that the Tutsis had inflicted on them as the ruling class. [p] And then I pondered how those small grudges and divisions built and built until they created a genocide. [p] Last year, I had a powerful conversation with someone about a close friend of mine who I'd been having some trouble feeling close to. As we spoke, this man asked me what I had done to create the distance between us. I reflected and confessed that all I could think about were the thinks she had done to me. [p]I was gently reprimanded as the man stopped me and said, "no, no, that's not how you go about healing a relationship. Can you see that really the conflict between you and your friend is no different than the conflicts that we are at war over? They all start with a misunderstanding that goes deeper and deeper until a relationship si broken, or a war begins." [p] So, as I read the plaque that stated that until we truly learn from the past, "never again" will stay "again and again," I concluded that the way to prevent a genocide is at the very roots of a society. If we can set aside our pride for humility and allow love to swallow up our differences, if we can have the courage to be honest with each other and live the mantra that we are all on the same team- if my friend loses, I also lose in some way- then we need never fear another genocide. However, if all we are relying on are the band-aids of law enforcement, armies, and the UN, then who's to say it won't happen again? [p] So, for myself, I choose to take a stand against genocide and other atrocities by living my principle. I chose to take a stand by eliminating prejudice from my life, and living so there are no strangers in my life. I choose to love, and to feed that love so there is no room for hate. If I do this, if we do this, how many lives can we change? [p] perhaps you'd like to reflect on yourself and make your own personal resolution to stand with me.