Sunday, December 23, 2012

Good Tidings of Great Joy

In the Wake of Tragedy

All of us will wade through tragedy in our lives. Whether a death or a diagnosis, a broken dream or a divorce, all of us will, at one time or another, experience some degree of anguish, loss or uncertainty. In such times, inspired spiritual leaders often share the insightful account of a horrific tragedy that occurred nearly 2100 years ago.

Two missionaries were teaching in a large city. Many people were converted by their teachings, but the majority of those in the city were angry. They didn't like someone, least of all missionaries claiming they were sent from God, telling them they should change.

The majority began to persecute those who believed the missionaries. They threw rocks at the believing men and drove them out of the city. Then they did the unthinkable. Under the direction of the town's political leader and top legal authority, they gathered the women and children who believed the missionaries' teachings and burned them alive.

The missionaries, whose names were Alma and Amulek, were tied up and forced to watch in horror. Amulek responded much as you or I might respond: 'And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.'

Alma, who was also a prophet, explained the mind of the Lord his colleague. 'The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch for mine hand,' he said. 'For behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.'

Our Heavenly Father, who knows the end from the beginning, sometimes allows bad things to happen to good people-- to his own children whom he loves dearly and perfectly--because those good people are better off having gone through the anguish, suffering and struggle of tragedy.

Though Amulek may have understood and believed in Alma's explanation, knowing the truth didn't make everything okay. He had witnessed a horrific tragedy-- these mothers and wives, sons and daughters would not be with their families again in mortality. It was senseless, unfair, horrific and tragic. It was painful and hard and sad. Perhaps worst of all for the restrained Amulek, though present he was unable to stop it. He was unable to fight, unable to give his life to protect the innocent victims of a heinous crime.

Amulek also recognized that time marched forward. There was no chance to come to terms with what had happened. Despite the assurance of his prophet companion, he was still in the hands of his enemies and there would yet be many demands placed upon him.

As it was for Alma and Amulek, the time following a tragedy in our lives can be more difficult than the moment of tragedy itself as facts and feelings become less surreal. We are not likely to be beaten, stripped of our clothes, bound, imprisoned, interrogated or mocked as Alma and Amulek were, but we may question ourselves, blame ourselves or others, harden our hearts against faith and family, and ride a rollercoaster of emotions from guilt to sorrow to anger to emptiness.

Regardless of the tragedy, or how hard it may be, the solution for us will be the same as it was for these two missionaries. After several days of inhumane treatment, no doubt physically and emotionally exhausted, Alma turned to the Lord in prayer.

And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound.. and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain... And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands.

The Lord has the power to deliver us from the bands of depression, guilt, pride, anguish and sin. Through faith in him, our wounds can be healed and our hearts can know peace.

Like Alma and Amulek, our path to deliverance begins with heartfelt prayer and the belief that God will answer. Alma did not know how the Lord would respond; he only knew that the Lord would answer his prayer. Then, when Alma saw the answer to his prayer, he had the faith to stand up and walk out of the prison.

Tragedy is inescapable. We may suffer incredible things. Those we love will die. We may lose a job or know great disappointment. Senseless acts of violence will take innocent lives. Family relationships may feel as though they are under siege. Terrible things will happen. Our hearts will ache. Tragedy will strike without boundaries nor respect to gender, race, color, creed or socioeconomic status.

In the wake of tragedy, our Savior extends his open arms. We may restore peace to our hearts and feel the warmth of His love as we turn to him in faith.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Because I Have Been Given Much

Around 86 B.C. the prophet Alma resigned his elected post as the leader of his country and, as the prophet at the time, effectively called himself on a mission. He would serve 2-3 years in the cities of Zarahemla and Gideon before taking a brief pause and calling himself to serve five more years in Mulek and Ammonihah.

While in Gideon however, Alma speaks of a tender mercy he received from the Lord. Referring to his first area, Zarahemla, he exclaims, 'Blessed be the name of God, that he hath given me to know, yea, hath given unto me the exceedingly great joy of knowing that they [in Zarahemla] are established again in the way of his righteousness.'

Most of us can probably relate to how Alma must've felt at the time. Zarahemla was the nation's capital. It was the city where he had grown up as the son of the prophet, where he and the king's sons had caused trouble as youth, where he was converted by the power of God, and where he had lived and worked as the nation's leader. He must have known many of those he taught. Some may have been family or friends. He cared for the welfare of the people and the city. He had worked hard to help individuals and families make better, more faith-filled decisions, and now he had somehow learned that it was all paying off. The people of Zarahemla were choosing to live righteous, happy, prosperous lives. Just as any of us would thrill to see a wayward friend or relative returning to the gospel path, the progress of the people in Zarahemla brought Alma 'exceedingly great joy' .

Alma doesn't say how he knew that the people of Zarahemla were righteous again. He wasn't in the city at the time. Perhaps he ran into someone in Gideon or got a letter from home or simply felt the peace of the Holy Ghost teaching him it was so. What he does say is that the knowledge of Zarahemla's righteousness was given to him from God.

Several years ago I was privileged to hear an MTC devotional given by Elder Bednar. At the time I was a recently returned missionary reveling in the stories he shared from the field. Among other topics in his talk, Elder Bednar took a few moments to address why some missionaries had success almost in spite of themselves while others, even those who worked very hard, did not seem to enjoy the same success in finding, teaching and baptizing new members of the Church. This is a question every struggling missionary has wondered about. Certainly I did.

Elder Bednar answered by turning to Alma 26:22. It reads:

Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing--unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance...

Elder Bednar then shared what I have learned to be a wonderful truth with the 2600 missionaries gathered at that devotional. The point of the verse, he said, was not that there is some magic formula for convert baptisms. We may qualify for blessings but there is not a point where we either earn them or deserve them. At the end of the day, success in the mission field is given. Missionary success is a gift from God that, like all gifts, comes at the timing and discretion of the Giver.

There are more than 280 references in the standard works of things that are 'given' from the Lord to his children on earth. These include: dominion, kingdoms, flocks, herds, children, manna, priesthood, Christ, wisdom, signs, responsibility, stewardship, lands, inheritances, freedom, rest, laws, spouses, companions, kings, cities, rain, hearts to perceive, eyes to see, ears to hear, answers to prayers, the shield of salvation, deliverance, frost, banners, travails, the tongue of the learned, cleanness of teeth, understanding, counsel, commandments, life, witnesses, a Sabbath, rewards, gifts, horsepower, heritage, meat, food, the reward of our hands, knowledge, might, blessings, revelation, promises, the name of Christ, Church organization and government, what to say or write, ability, mysteries, spiritual gifts, life missions, power to command water, direction, scripture, visions, callings, living water, thanks or blessings, names, the Holy Ghost, grace, hair, assurances, the words of Christ, authority, a thorn in our flesh, added days, faith, suffering, everlasting consolation, good hope, judgement, inspiration, love, doctrine, records, and a sound mind. The list grows if we consider things that he 'gives' or 'gave' or things we 'receive', 'are blessed with' or 'get'.

Looking through the list I realized that I was the too often ungrateful recipient of most of the gifts referenced in scripture. I enjoy the Sabbath, a full head of hair, freedom, a calling, an abundance of food to eat and the grace of God in more ways than I comprehend or know. As I see other blessings I enjoy and consider still more not listed explicitly in scripture, I begin to feel the joy that Alma felt for his friends in Zarahemla.

It is wonderful that we can feel the joy of gratitude, particularly through the holiday season. We must also remember that to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48, D&C 82:3). Moses taught the Israelites that 'every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee' (Deuteronomy 16:17).

Our feelings of gratitude are best expressed through our actions. To say we are grateful is nice; to show we are grateful by serving and giving to others is sanctifying. The Lord admonished us:

And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church. For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby (D&C 46:10-12).

Everything the Lord has given us is designed to bless our lives and the lives of those around us. Though we may strive to live worthy and do much good of our own free will, we simply cannot do enough to earn or deserve the many gifts the Lord gives us each day. The air we breathe, our spouses and children, the senses through which we experience life and the continuation of life itself are some of these most precious gifts.

There is no magic formula to receiving many of these gifts, but the Lord has told us how we can express our gratitude. The poet said it best:

Because I have been given much, I too must give;
Because of thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live
I shall divide my gifts from thee
With ev'ry brother that I see
Who has the need of help from me.

Because I have been sheltered, fed by thy good care,
I cannot see another's lack and I not share
My glowing fire, my loaf of bread,
My roof's safe shelter overhead,
That he too may be comforted.

Because I have been blessed by thy great love, dear Lord,
I'll share thy love again, according to thy word.
I shall give love to those in need;
I'll show that love by word and deed:
Thus shall my thanks be thanks indeed.