Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"And the Lord hath performed his word..."

"Whatever good we do, we must look upon it as the performance of God's promise to us, rather than the performance of our promises to him.  The more we do for God the more we are indebted to him; for our sufficiency is of him and not of ourselves."

~Matthew Henry (1662-1714) commentary on 1st Kings, 8:20

Friday, August 06, 2010

Alma 39, a parable

You have driven to southern Utah to do some camping and hiking with your 17 year old son, your 10 year old nephew and 6 year old niece. After hiking in, you find a good campsite near some slot canyons you hope to explore and set up camp.

The next morning your niece and nephew wander off to explore the area a bit while you start breakfast and your son reads.  Time passes and they don't return so you call to your son who stuffs the magazine he was reading into his back pocket and the two of you start out to look for them.  It doesn't take long for you to find them standing at the bottom of a small slot canyon, about 10 feet down.  You can see the traces of the small slide they created as they slipped down the side of the canyon.  They are unhurt, but they are unable to get themselves out.  The sides of the canyon are too steep for them to navigate and the ends of the canyon are clogged with debris from earlier flash flooding.

You tell your son to wait with the children and you scurry off to your campsite where you gather up the long rope your father had put in the trunk of your car before your trip.  Returning to the site you realize that there are no trees to which you can tie the ropes but you and your son both weigh significantly more than the two children and you know your nephew has some experience rappelling, so you make a plan.  Handing the rope to your son you instruct him to find a place where he can sit and brace himself and serve to anchor it.  You take the other end and toss it over the side of the canyon, instructing your niece on how to tie it around her waist properly.  She manages to do so with the help of her brother and with some effort you and your son are able to pull her out of the canyon with your father's rope.  Checking to see that your son is well braced for the second rescue, you throw the rope to your nephew who secures himself.  You wedge yourself against a rock and start to pull and he begins the ascent.  As he nears the top you reach out one hand to help him over the edge when suddenly the rope behind you goes slack.  Unable to stop the rope from slipping with just one hand in spite of your frantic efforts, you watch, horrified as your nephew falls back into the canyon.  You yell and quickly  peer over the edge.  He is seated at the bottom of the canyon, doubled over, holding his arm.  You turn around and yell a question to your son asking what happened.  He is sitting where you left him, a magazine at his side. It is quickly apparent to you that while attempting to pull the magazine out of his pocket to look at it, he had lost his grip on the rope.  He was pulling out the magazine to read it!!!???  Now????  You feel the utter dismay and frustration at his thoughtless negligence surge through you.  You tell your nephew to hold on, that you'll try again.  He replies adamantly he can't do that, his arm hurts too much, his ankle is twisted and what if the rope fails again like it did just now?   You do all you can to reassure him that it will work, but having having fallen once he doesn't trust the rope. You turn back to your son and the wind riffles the pages of the magazine beside him.  You realize it's a copy of "Penthouse".

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Alma 39

“Most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost”. (Alma 39:5) This is the phrase that Alma uses as he chastises his son, Corianton in chapter 39 of Alma after Corianton had left the ministry and gone after the harlot, Isabel.

But Alma is not talking about sexual sin. Fornication and adultery certainly are serious sins, but they are not the ones Alma is talking about. A close reading of this chapter reveals that he is talking about something more destructive; the sin of abetting the spiritual death of another person.

Alma remonstrates Corianton in verse 2 for his boasting in his strength and wisdom. Corianton seems to have been a cocky fellow, the sort of overly confident person who is generally unaware or dismissive of the effect of his actions on others. When called to be a missionary he, after awhile, left the ministry (v. 3) to pursue Isabel, likely thinking about nothing much more than his own interests and desires, ignoring completely the effect of such actions on others. Alma is very clear in verse 3 about what Corianton SHOULD have been doing instead. And it is not chastity he talks about, it is the abandonment of his calling to teach people about Christ and the light and truth of his gospel. “Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou was entrusted,” says Alma, “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord?” (verse 5)

Now it’s easy to think that the “these things” refer to sexual sins, but there is a brilliant exposition in verse 6 that shows that "these things" is something else.

In verse 5 Alma says Corianton’s sin as almost as abominable as the sins of the shedding of innocent blood (consciously causing the untimely physical death of someone else) or denying the Holy Ghost (choosing spiritual death for yourself). In verse 6 he lays out clearly the latter of those two sins and its analogy to the sin of which he accuses Corianton. Watch the parallel.

“For behold, if ye deny the Holy Ghost when it once had place in you, and ye know that ye deny I, behold this is a sin which is unpardonable;

Yea, AND whosoever murdereth against the light and knowledge of God, it is not easy for him to obtain forgiveness.”

Alma is telling Corianton that his serious sins has been that abandoning his calling to teach light and life and, not only that, then acting in ways that actually abet the spiritual death of others. Alma elaborates in verses 11 through 13 when he again warns Corianton not only to avoid Isabel but to avoid being led away by any vain or foolish thing because “Behold, O my son, how great iniquity ye brought upon the Zoramites; for when they saw your conduct they would not believe in my words. And now the Lord doth say unto me: Command thy children to do good, lest they lead away the hearts of many people to destruction…turn to the Lord…that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly”.

The three great sins are not denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and breaking the law of chastity. The three great sins are denial of the Holy Ghost (choosing your own spiritual death), murder (causing the physical death of another) and this third one: aiding and abetting another person’s spiritual death. Christ’s great work for us is the effectuation of redemption from physical death and spiritual death. You can see why it might be therefore that our greatest sins are committed when we work directly against that, causing physical death or spiritual death in ourselves or in others.

This is the reason Alma spends the rest of chapter 39 admonishing Corianton to repent and return to the Lord and his calling to the ministry “that ye lead away the hearts of no more to do wickedly” and declare the word to the people “that salvation might come unto them, that they may prepare the minds of their children to hear the word at the time of his coming” (verses 13 and 16) . He is calling upon Corianton to cease committing the sin of abetting spiritual death and to take up the work of encouraging spiritual life.

Perhaps we take too lightly this sin, or perhaps we, like Corianton simply are oblivious to the seriousness of it. Jesus however did not and was not.

Matthew 18: 6-7:
And whoso shall offend (GR: cause to stumble) one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come: but woe to that man by whom the offence commeth!

Sexual sin is a serious sin, but it is not the sin Alma is talking about in Alma 39:5. It is the sin of self-indulgently and unconcernedly causing, aiding or abetting another’s spiritual death and rejection of light, making it harder for them to find and return to the Lord’s presence thereby “lead[ing] away the hearts of many people to destruction” (vs.12), particularly when we have been called and accepted a call to bring them spiritual light and life, that the Lord decries so seriously and that Alma calls “most abominable in the sight of the Lord save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost.”

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Alma 34 (warning...long....)

Over the years I have run into way too many people who read the words of Amulek in the 34th chapter of Alma and believe that people they love are doomed if they do not repent and turn to God in this life. They become anxious and fearful for the souls of their loved ones, which gets in the way of their being hopeful and full of faith. The two verses that seem to be quoted the most frequently are verses 34 and 35. Thirty four talks about not “procrastinating the day of your repentance” and then verse 35 reads:

"For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold ye have become subjected to the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked."

That certainly, at first glance, seems like a message of “get your act together and believe before you die or you are toast”, but if you read the whole chapter and take these two verses in context, the message is quite different and much more nuanced and subtle.

Amulek begins his discourse by adding his testimony to Alma’s of the divinity and of atonement of Jesus Christ and of the necessity for faith and repentance on our part (verses 1-16). He then strongly counsels his listeners to pray constantly and consistently and then, after developing faith and prayer, to become full of charity towards their fellow men (verses 17-30). He has, in a nutshell, covered the basics of the teachings of Christ: faith, repentance, prayer/communication with God and charity.

Having outlined the essential elements of Christian life he then begins to urge his listeners to embrace them now, and not put it off. You can see it in verses 31-34:

“harden not your hearts any longer”, “this life is the time”, “do not procrastinate”, “ye cannot say , when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent”

And then comes verse 35, and the casual reader thinks, “oh no! When he dies, it will be too late!” But a closer reading reveals that Amulek is not talking about physical death nor is he talking about a deadline. He is talking about spiritual death and about becoming.

Look at the messages in verses 31-36. In the interest of space I will just pull out the key phrases

31. “come forth and harden not your hearts any longer”: Hard heartedness is not helpful.
“now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent…immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you.” You can start to change now and you will immediately start reaping the blessings of forgiveness and redemption. There is no waiting for it, it is available right now. This is a message of hope.

32. “this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God”: The purpose of life on earth is to become the person God hopes we will be. That work is not just for our time in paradise or prison, it’s the purpose of our life now. And all the other things we think life is about, money, fame, power, stuff, romance, thrills, careers, athletics or whatever, are not what this life is about. Rather the things Amulek talked about before; developing faith, repentance, prayer/communication with God and charity, are the purpose of this life.

“and if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed”: First of all, what is “the night of darkness” that comes? It is not physical death. Doctrine and Covenants 84:54 sheds some light on this:

“your minds in times past have been darkened because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received”

Darkness comes from choosing not to believe and from refusing to take seriously the things that are important. When Amulek talks about the night of darkness he isn’t talking about death, he is talking about the point in one’s existence, either in this life or the next, when one becomes a person who has the light of truth within himself so seriously dimmed by unbelief and/or a failure to take seriously the pursuit, on any level, of faith, repentance, communication with God or charity, that he no longer finds any interest in nor will he make any effort to choose any of those things, preferring darkness to light. And the darkness isn’t just a little bit of darkness, but a night of darkness. Amulek is talking about a spiritual state of being, a spiritual, not a physical death.

34. This verse challenges the assumption that some of Amulek’s hearers have that they can postpone this hopeful change and repentance, which he outlined in verse 31, until after they hit this dark point described in verse 33 (which they may actually think they may not ever hit if they play their cards right). And he also addresses those who think they might postpone this change until after they have finished all their earthly pursuits and are in the next life, those who think that it will be easy to change their minds and hearts when they stand before God and therefore hope to live it up in this life, postponing their repentance, thinking it will be easy to switch after they’ve finished. You might call this latter the “have their cake and eat it too” crowd. “Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis [the ”night of darkness” of verse 33] that I will return to my God…that same spirit that doth possess your bodies at the time that you go out of this life…will have the power to posses your body in the eternal world”. You may notice that in these words Amulek is also addressing those who believe they can change anytime they want, they just don’t want to right now. It is a common refrain heard among us all, and most commonly pointed out in the lives of those who are addicted to substances. But we all employ that rationalization about the sins we enjoy and wish to keep a little bit longer before we give them up. Amulek’s message is that it will be just as hard then as it is now, so postponing it is not as smart a plan as you might think or hope it might be. (And look at all the smart reasons to begin to repent now in verse 31.)

35. “if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death” What kind of death? Remember verse 32? Spiritual death. It’s clear from the ensuing phrases that this is what he is describing: “behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil…the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked”. Here he is warning again against thinking it is worth it to put off repentance and change. He is saying that it is even possible to keep putting it off so long that you get yourself so far down the path of sin and darkness that you have completely given yourself over to embracing darkness and closed yourself off from the light of the Holy Spirit. This, he says, is where determined unrepentance will ultimately (not just 200 years from now, but ultimately) land you if you do not ever choose to turn back. This is, actually, an interesting discussion of what damnation (“the final state of the wicked”) really is. It is not just a judgment call by God. It is the ultimate natural consequence of many, many continuous choices to embrace sin and reject repentance over a very long period of time.

Amulek finishes his discourse by outlining, in verses 37-41, things we can do to assist the repentance process which he hopes we will choose now instead of procrastinating it. Having outlined the basics of Christian life and exhorted his hearers to repentance and frankly addressing the pitfall of procrastination he knows we will be tempted fall into instead, he describes all the principles and tools that will help us to make that repentant change of heart. These verses describe the ever-so-helpful practices of confessing Christ, listening to the Holy Spirit, humility, worship, thanksgiving, recognition of God’s mercy, watchful prayer, patience, bearing afflictions, returning kindness for reviling, and hope.

Amulek’s discourse is not a “do it now or it will be too late when you die” sermon. It is a discourse on the essentials of Christian discipleship, a call to repentance, a promise of the blessings that come from that, a warning about the lies of the temptation of procrastination, a discussion of spiritual death, and an outline of the principles and practices God has given us to help us to avoid that spiritual death both in this life and in every aspect of our eternal existence. It is a message of hope the veracity of which you can see playing out its light in the life of every person you know, including yourself, who is, on any level, no matter how imperfectly or far from the mark, desiring to do and/or be good. And it is counsel to you and me to hope, have faith in Christ, love, repent and praise and employ the merciful aid of God in our lives now, not later.