Category Archives: #1-#50

Hymn #48: Glorious Things Are Sung of Zion

zion

The word “Zion” is used prolifically in modern LDS vernacular. Zion had come to mean the church in general, the people of the church, the church in Utah, the heaven on earth prophesied regarding the Second Coming, and so on. Zion is even used as a name for new places, especially prolific during the pioneers’ journey to the Salt Lake valley. However, Zion originally referred to the city of Enoch which was taken up to heaven. This hymn, “Glorious Things Are Sung of Zion,” is a retelling of that story.

Let’s quickly recap the story. Enoch was a prophet of the Lord, living before the time of Noah. He was called by God to cry repentance unto the people, which he did. Many of them followed him, and they founded a city. Historically, the founding of a city by any group of people was often seen as an act of hostility towards the pre-established centers of population. This being the case, the armies of those cities got together and came to attack Enoch’s city.

When they got there, however, they were thwarted in their efforts by the power of God.

The earth trembled. The mountains fled. The rivers turned their course. The roar of lions was heard. The enemies of Zion were frightened and ran away because they “feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him” (Moses 7:13).

God was present with them, and not just in spirit. The scriptures say that “the Lord came and dwelt with his people, and they dwelt in righteousness” (Moses 7:16). How righteous must these people have been for God to physically reside with them and to defend them by means of moving the earth!

When we sing this hymn, we are retelling this great story of a city so holy and so righteous that it was protected, blessed, and eventually “received it up into his own bosom” (Moses 7:69). This city, Zion, or “mine abode” (Moses 7:64) was a place where people “of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there were no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). This city was a place where the inhabitants lived all of the commandments perfectly. Why do we sing the tale of Zion? Because that is what we are trying to be!

No wonder we often talk of Zion today! No wonder we refer to our stakes, or organizations, our very church as Zion. We don’t say it as if to indicate that we are ready for the Savior to dwell with us, but to remind ourselves of what we are trying to be and what we are working to become. We strive to be a society where “we will receive [each other] into our bosom, and they shall see us; and we will fall upon their necks, and they shall fall upon our necks, and we will kiss each other; And there shall be mine abode, and it shall be Zion” (Moses 7:63). We sing to remind ourselves that this is possible if we all, both individually and as a group, strive to be what the Lord wants us to be.

So here’s my question: What do you need to do to be a member of Zion? What commandments do you need to live more fully? What sins are you needing to rectify, what wrongs do you need to right? What carnal desire can you put away? What can you do to be ready to really be an inhabitant of the “City of Holiness” (Moses 7:19)? As we sing of what has been, let us be inspired to be what we can become. Let us truly strive to be a part of something that is “glorious” to sing about.

Hymn #5: High on the Mountaintop

Though Joel H. .Johnson wrote the text for this hymn, I feel I ought to note that Ebeneezer Beesley wrote the music. Woo! As a bonus, I really like the music, but I feel more qualified to talk about the text, so I will. Sorry, music buffs.

 

Mountains and temples have long been  metaphorically linked in Christian theology.  When there haven’t been temples, mountains have been the next best thing. Moses got the Commandments on a mountain, Nephi climbed one to ask about his broken bow, and the brother of Jared went there to figure out what to do about the dark ships.

There are several great layers to the mountain-temple metaphor.

First is the height of mountains. Since God is at the metaphorical highest point, a tall mountain is the closest we can get to him. (Well, except airplanes, but those are new inventions. But actually, this gives me a new respect for airplanes.) A mountain doesn’t put you where God is, but it puts you close enough to converse with him. I like that there’s effort involved in the process. I don’t know that I could get to the top of a mountain on my first try, anymore. I would have to work up to it. Similarly, not just anyone can go into the temples. Actually, that’s not true. Any and all are encouraged to go to temples, but there is still a requirement of fitness. The temple is spiritual, and a mountain is physical, but to get to the closest point to God, you’ve got to do some work.

Next is the similarity of beauty and peace. In both mountains and temples, the surroundings are often beautiful and quiet. There is time for reflection and for stillness. In fact, it’s almost impossible to avoid. You can’t even get the internet in either place! Sometimes it’s difficult for us to let go of all the things we’re used to paying attention to, hard for us to focus on one beautiful but unexciting thing for a while, but in the end, it’s worth it, and it makes us better.

Last is the perspective. I have a distinct memory of sitting halfway up a mountain, looking down at the city, and I could just barely see the cars below. There were so many, and I knew that each car had at least one driver, and many had passengers, too, and there were many times the number of people inside that were in cars, anyway. There were clearly hundreds and thousands of people down below. I tried to wrap my mind around the fact that they were all much like me, that they had their own worries about work and school and relationships and so on, and they were just as valid as mine. It was hard to believe, though. All those little tiny people with their little tiny insignificant worries. But instead of making my worries seem more important, it taught me that they were small, too. My little crushes or grades on that little GE class didn’t have eternal significance. They’d be forgotten again in a year. And sometimes, still, when I’m getting panicky about life, my instinct is to get to a mountain, where I can use my increased perspective to remember how tiny mt worries really are. Temples, of course, give a spiritual perspective, with similar results.

This hymn doesn’t ever actually say “temples,” but the metaphor is in place, and working hard. On top of the mountain is an ensign, or a flag, which is metaphorically God’s word. God promised he would share it, and he kept his promise. And now that that flag is there, now that God’s word is in his temples, there’s an additional reason to make the trek.

Again, with the both places, the more you go, the fitter you get, physically and/or spiritually. The fitter you get, the more other people take notice and think they might like that for themselves. Many of them go, and get fitter themselves, and attract others, too.

In this way, the gospel spreads itself, as people recognize its goodness and seek it for themselves. In this way, one banner on the top of one mountain is visible to the whole world.  And if we will make ourselves fit and go, we can save ourselves, our peers, all our posterity, and also the people who came before us.

pioneers

Hymn #36: They, the Builders of the Nation

pioneers

They, the builders of the nation,
Blazing trails along the way;
Stepping-stones for generations
Were their deeds of ev’ry day.

This hymn is, on the surface of it, an ode to the Mormon Pioneers, a group with a hallowed place in Latter-day Saint lore. This first (or second, depending on how you want to look at it) generation of saints in the latter days heard the gospel message, embraced it and converted, and gave up everything to be with their fellow saints, often having to start anew several times. They were run out of Ohio, out of Missouri, and out of Illinois. They journeyed across the prairie to build a home in the mountains where they could be safe from persecution. It cost them dearly; many of the saints were buried along the trail.

Stories abound in the Church about brave souls who walked across frozen soil barefoot, or who waded through icy water to carry others across a river, or those who felt the supporting hands of angels as they pushed handcarts across the plains. They’re dramatic stories, and they’re inspiring. They remind us the importance of sacrificing for the kingdom. They gave up comforts in order to help build the foundation of the Church for the generations that would follow. They blazed trails for their descendants; literal trails into the Rocky Mountains of course, but trails of faith and courage for their children and grandchildren to follow as well. We tell stories about the Pioneers not just for their drama, but for their ability to promote faith in us.

But setting aside the refrains of “blessed, honored Pioneer!” and “pushing on the wild frontier,” this could just as easily be about you and I. We are builders of the nation, too. The Pioneers helped to lay the groundwork for the kingdom, but it is by no means finished. It’s certainly an impressive feat that a church that first appeared in 1830 (in its modern incarnation, anyway) currently has over fifteen million members across the globe. The thousands of stakes and tens of thousands of wards sprawled across the nations is a testament to how far the Church has come. The nearly seven billion people alive on the earth who are not currently members of the Church is a testament to how far we still have to go.

The Lord’s stated mission for mankind is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Nowhere in that phrase does it indicate that ten or fifteen million is a pretty good number and that we can stop and take a break. We are to continue to build the kingdom, both from within and without. We are to lengthen our cords and strengthen our stakes, bringing more and more into the fold, and we are also to help to build each other up into fellowcitizens, being of the household of God. There’s a lot to be done.

It’s easy, then, to let those echoes of the Pioneers lull us into sleepiness, thinking that the hardest work is behind us. Listen to these words from the second verse and ask yourself if these can’t apply to you and I as much as they did to the early saints:

Service ever was their watchcry;
Love became their guiding star;
Courage, their unfailing beacon,
Radiating near and far.
Ev’ry day some burden lifted,
Ev’ry day some heart to cheer,
Ev’ry day some hope the brighter,
Blessed, honored Pioneer!

Those aren’t attributes only found in the mid-19th century. Lifting others burdens and cheering others hearts aren’t deeds limited to Pioneers; they’re deeds asked of everyone who has taken upon themselves the name of Christ through baptism. We are all fueled by service, love, and courage.

The Pioneers laid the foundation for the kingdom in their day, but when you stop to think about the magnitude of what lies ahead of us, we’re still laying the foundation ourselves. There are still “hosts of waiting youth” ahead of us just as there were ahead of the Pioneers. They blazed trails and showed us their faith. We, too, blaze trails for those that will come ahead of us, clearing a path for those to come so that they can walk in faith and righteousness. We are forging onward, ever onward, each of us a blessed, honored Pioneer.

Image credit: “Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice,” C.C.A. Christensen.

Hymn #18: The Voice of God Again is Heard

Those who have lived their lives in the Church have heard the story over and over, and those who aren’t may have heard it from someone who is a time or two. Joseph Smith, wondering which church he should join, went to the woods to pray and saw the Father and the Son, who told him that he should join none of them. They had a work for him to do, and through him, the gospel was restored in its fullness in our day.

And so it is. The voice of God, as we sing in this hymn, has been heard again in our day. He lives, and He has given His truth to us again. And now that we have it, it’s our duty to aid in the spread of that gospel by sharing it with not just some people, not just many people, but all people.

Rejoice, ye living and ye dead!
Rejoice, for your salvation
Begins anew this happy morn
Of final dispensation.

The word “final” is not idly chosen. This is it. There isn’t a fallback dispensation that we can rely on if we miss someone. We can’t lean back and take it easy, counting on someone else to pick up the slack. This is the last hurrah before the Lord’s second coming. When He comes, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is the Christ, but that’s no reason for us not to tell everyone beforehand. We want (and He wants) for His coming to be a joyful event, not a fearful one. We want everyone to bow and confess His name when He comes again because they were expecting Him. They knew He would come, and they knew who He was before He came.

O messengers of truth, go forth,
Proclaim the gospel story,
Go forth the nations to prepare
To greet the King of Glory.

There are full-time missionaries out there (many of them), and they do an outstanding job of proclaiming the gospel message. As the dispensation moves on and the second coming draws closer, those missionary efforts are intensified. There were just under 60,000 missionaries serving a few years ago; there are closer to 90,000 of them now. That’s a lot of messengers of truth. It’s even more when you consider that there are over 15 million members of the LDS Church out there with, ostensibly, the same mandate to proclaim the gospel, even if not in the same full-time sense. We share it with those we meet, glad tidings from Cumorah, a book to be revealed, the voices of Peter, James, and John, and so much more.

It’s an exciting time to be alive, and an exciting message to share. It’s one of joy, not one of fear. Redemption, restoration, and eternal life–that’s something that’s worth sharing with others. It’s something that’s worth shouting, too. Listen to how this hymn ends:

We shout hosanna, shout again
Till all creation blending
Shall join in one great, grand amen
Of anthems never ending.

The goal is to bring everyone back home. Everyone. And the goal is to have everyone participating in that last, great, grand choir singing praises to our Lord and King. Everyone. This is our last chance. There’s no failsafe dispensation following us. This is it. The voice of God again is heard, and it’s up to us to make sure that everyone hears it.

Hymn #34: O Ye Mountains High

First published in LDS hymnals in 1871, O Ye Mountains High is written in the context of the Mormon Pioneers and their travels to the Salt Lake Valley. Like a number of LDS hymns from the time, it references imagery from Isaiah 2, placing Zion “in the tops of the mountains.” At a time when the Saints were often driven from their homes and disowned by their families, the image of a strong Zion established in the Rocky Mountains was undoubtedly poignant.

O ye mountains high, where the clear blue sky
Arches over the vales of the free,
Where the pure breezes blow and the clear streamlets flow,
How I’ve longed to your bosom to flee!
O Zion! dear Zion! land of the free,
Now my own mountain home, unto thee I have come;
All my fond hopes are centered in thee.

Times have changed. Today, a large majority of Latter-Day Saints live far from the Rocky Mountains. They may not live near any mountains at all. Is “O Ye Mountains High” relevant to the saints at large? Or does it only persist as a memorial to our pioneer heritage?

In April 2008 General Conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a talk entitled “Faith of Our Fathers“:

The faith of our fathers—I love that phrase.

For many members of the Church, these words bring to mind valiant pioneers who abandoned the comfort of their homes and traveled by wagon and on foot until they reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake. I love and honor the faith and courage of those early pioneers of the Church. My own ancestors were living an ocean away at the time. None were among those who lived in Nauvoo or Winter Quarters, and none made the journey across the plains. But as a member of the Church, I claim with gratitude and pride this pioneer legacy as my own.

With the same joy, I claim the legacies of today’s modern-day Church pioneers who live in every nation and whose own stories of perseverance, faith, and sacrifice add glorious new verses to the great chorus of the latter-day anthem of the kingdom of God.

 We may not live in the mountains high—we may not even have clear streamlets or pure breezes!—but Zion is not stuck in the mountains. Zion has spread forth throughout the world. The hymn speaks of Zion as a place of freedom and strength, of temples and triumph. And indeed, eventually the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the lord. Eventually, the peace of Zion will prevail everywhere, not just in the mountains. Some day, Christ himself will personally reign upon the earth, and Zion will fill the whole earth.

Until that time, we can still establish Zion in our own homes. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that Zion is the home of the pure in heart. Is your home a place where the pure in heart dwell, where the Lord is welcome?

Just as the pioneer saints had hope in their new mountain home as a place of peace and worship, so too can we hope for our homes, wherever they may be, as a place peace and worship, refuge and rest. We can build our home in spiritual ”mountains high”, and we can build an environment of pure spiritual breezes and clear spiritual streamlets. As bearers of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, revelation and inspiration can be part of our daily lives.

You can bring Zion to you.

Hymn #24: God Bless Our Prophet Dear

People pray for a slew of different reasons. We pray to thank God for the blessings He provides us. We pray to thank Him for the lessons we are learning. We pray to express desire to come closer to Him. We pray to receive blessings for ourselves and for others. We pray for comfort. I could continue, but the gist of the matter is this: we pray to talk to God about the things that are important to us.

One of the many points of doctrine that makes the LDS faith so unique is the existence of modern prophets. We believe these inspired leaders give us direct counsel from the Lord regarding His people in the world today. True to the Faith states:

Like the prophets of old, prophets today testify of Jesus Christ and teach His gospel. They make known God’s will and true character. They speak boldly and clearly, denouncing sin and warning of its consequences. At times, they may be inspired to prophesy of future events for our benefit.

 Doctrine and Covenants 25:12 states: “The song of the righteous is a prayer unto me.” If the song of the righteous is a prayer, then let’s look at this hymn in that context. The words talk about the prophet’s heart, his health, his words and our ability to be impressed by them. It then turns to recognition that the prophet’s words will spread over the whole earth and expresses a longing to have this happen that we might become one as children of God, united in His church through His words delivered through a living prophet.

It seems only fitting that as we begin conference weekend as an LDS community, we take a moment to recognize the exquisite blessing that resides on earth with us in having a living prophet. And if we pray about things that matter to us, given this knowledge of the blessing the prophet is, praying for him should be at the top of our lists. It isn’t hard to imagine the role of prophet being one that weighs heavily on the ones called to this position. To be asked to lead the people of the world back to a knowledge of God is no small thing.

Let us then, as children of our Heavenly Father, join in a prayer for the prophet, especially during this exciting conference weekend, that he may have the strength and comfort needed to be God’s mouthpiece.

Click here to watch the 184th Semiannual General Conference

Hymn #28: Saints, Behold How Great Jehovah

One of the passages of scripture I find most interesting is 2 Nephi, 25:24-27. In it we see  Nephi so thrilled about Christ’s upcoming birth that he’s gushing like a twitterpated teenager. Since for me, Christ’s life is ancient history, it’s not always easy to imagine a world where that wasn’t the case. But Nephi isn’t reciting dry facts about times gone by, he’s talking so fast about the good times to come that he almost trips over his own words trying to work the word “Christ” in there so often.

He’s so excited about Christ and the new law that his current time seems pale and flat in comparison. He tells us that even though they’re pumped for Christ’s coming, they do still keep the law of Moses, but man! it’s kind of a chore, isn’t it, when you know there’s something so much better in the works? When you know how great the future is going to be, it’s hard to wait. But we have to wait, because Christ won’t come for another 600 years, but guys! It’s going to be so good when he arrives! I wish I could live under Christ’s law instead of the law of Moses! So we teach our kids the law of Moses but we also teach them about how it’s just a temporary thing because we want them to be ready when Christ comes–we want them to be prepared to live in that society, and not to stay foolishly dedicated to a dead law.

24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled.

 25 For, for this end was the law given; wherefore the law hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we keep the law because of the commandments.

 26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

 27 Wherefore, we speak concerning the law that our children may know the deadness of the law; and they, by knowing the deadness of the law, may look forward unto that life which is in Christ, and know for what end the law was given. And after the law is fulfilled in Christ, that they need not harden their hearts against him when the law ought to be done away.

And seeing that excitement, that joy, that longing for a law he will never get to live, I kick myself a little. We live in an exciting time! We have so much to be grateful for, so much information that we can use to make ourselves better, and we often forget what a gift that is. We forget what other people would have given to have what we have. But look! Look what we have!

Saints, behold how great Jehovah
Hath his blessings on you shed.
Zion ev’rywhere is growing
As the gospel light is spread!

To add to the excitement of having what we have, we find ourselves in a situation similar to Nephi’s. He was looking forward to Christ’s First Coming, and we look forward to his Second Coming, because we are in the last days. We don’t know the day or the hour when Christ will come again. But we do know some of the signs and prophecies that have been given throughout time, and we know it’s closer now than it’s ever been.

 Out of all past dispensations,
God is bringing into one
Ev’ry truth by prophets spoken,
For the last days have begun.
Now that we recognize the marvelous things that are happening, the signs that point to Christ’s return, our duty in these exciting times is to prepare ourselves and others. We don’t want to be caught clinging to old ways and old sins when Christ comes again. And so we tell ourselves and we tell our brothers and sisters:
Rise and lift up Zion’s standard;
Tell our Father’s children now:
Heaven’s blessed King approaches;
All men must before him bow.

Many people say the world is falling apart, and of course there are horrible things happening. Those horrible things are signs of the last days. But there are also great things happening, and not least among those are the blessings God gives us, many of which are also precursors to Christ’s glorious Second Coming. It’s a thrilling, anticipatory time to be alive! Let’s be grateful! But let’s also remember what the purpose of the advance warning is for: not just to get us excited, but also to give us time to get ready. Hosanna!

sunrise

Hymn #8: Awake and Arise

sunrise

Awake and arise, O ye slumbering nations!
The heavens have opened their portals again.
The last and the greatest of all dispensations
Has burst like a dawn o’er the children of men!

This is it. The end of days, the Second Coming, the final judgment, all of it is upon us. We’re in the very last days before all of this happens. It’s at our doors, and we don’t want to be caught napping lest that day come upon us like a thief in the night. We want to be prepared, so that rather than being taken by surprise, we will be ready, eagerly awaiting the coming of our Lord and King.

The image of the rays of the gospel message bursting forth like light across the world is well-chosen. It’s not as though the Lord’s teachings are any great secret. His mission, like that of His Father’s, is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. That’s a big task, and not one likely to be accomplished by skulking about in the shadows. He proclaims His gospel to all the world, and he commands us to do the same. Just as the rays of light pouring through our windows at sunrise call us out of bed and beckon us to take on the tasks of our day, the truths brought back to earth in the restoration prompt us to take action and spur others do to the same as we share those truths with them.

And yet we’re tempted, all of us, to block out those rays of light by pulling the covers back over our heads. When my alarm goes off in the morning, it’s rare that I leap out of bed full of pep and energy, eager to meet the challenges of the day. I get up, but I do so a little begrudgingly, as I’m sure you do. I’d really rather put off starting my day just by a little. Maybe five more minutes would do the trick. Maybe I could do without eating breakfast, or maybe I could skip the shower this morning. We’re faced with those temptations every day. When the gospel calls us to action (and it does often), we’re tempted to ask for a few more minutes. I know I need to prepare a lesson for church, but maybe I can watch a few more plays of football first. I know I need to make calls to schedule visits with my home teaching families, but maybe I could take a moment and read another chapter in my book first.

It’s difficult to feel the excitement of the gospel urging us on sometimes, but when we hear the second verse, perhaps we’ll be reminded of exactly why it is we have so much reason to be motivated to act:

The dream of the poet, the crown of the ages,
The time which the prophets of Israel foretold,
That glorious day only dreamed by the sages
Is yours, O ye slumbering nations; behold!

Many, many prophets had visions of our time, prophesying of the wonders we would see as the Second Coming approached. Job did, as did Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Joel, Micah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, to name a very few. This is the “time which the prophets of Israel foretold,” and they were excited about it. And here we are, living it. Why should we sleep through it, then? Why pull the covers over our heads when we can take part in spread of the gospel? We can watch and help as “truth, heaven-born, in its beauty and glory [marches] triumphantly over the world.” It’s so tempting to ask for just a couple more minutes, but when we sing this hymn (“brightly,” no less), we get a powerful reminder to awake and arise, to stand up and join the great cause, and to “lift up [our] voices in song and in story.” A bright and incredible day is on the horizon. Let’s make sure we don’t miss it.

Image credit: “Sunrise,” pixabay user Archbob, CC0 1.0.

Hymn #23: We Ever Pray for Thee

In the first few years after the restoration of the Church, it was quite possible that every member of the Church had at least occasional personal interaction with the prophet himself. Joseph Smith was even known to get down in the dirt and play games with the children.  The people knew the prophet, for they talked to him regularly.

These days, the vast majority of Church members have never met the prophet personally. We support and sustain him, of course, but our trust is based upon our faith in God, not personal experience. At a distance, it’s easy to make our modern prophets and apostles into idealized role models, practically perfect in every way.

As I listened to one of the apostles speak at a Stake Conference recently, I was struck by how false this idealism is. These are great men, of course, who have sought the Gifts of the Spirit and the blessings of revelation, but they are still just men. They have the same emotions that we do, the same long days and restless nights that we have. They get the same sicknesses, stub the same toes, and occasionally spill their drinks the same way we do. They are simply children of God who have learned to hearken to the voice of the Spirit, something we should all aspire to.

Today’s hymn is “We Ever Pray for Thee“. It’s message is simple—an acknowledgement of heavy burden borne by our prophetic leaders, and a prayer that they will be strengthened and empowered to handle the burdens placed upon them.

We ever pray for thee, our prophet dear,
That God will give to thee comfort and cheer;
As the advancing years furrow thy brow,
Still may the light within shine bright as now,
Still may the light within shine bright as now.

If advancing years “furrowing the brow” isn’t an acknowledgement of prophetic human-ness, I don’t know what is. Note that the sustaining blessing we seek for the prophet here is “comfort and cheer,” something we can all relate to. The prophetic calling does not remove the basic emotional needs all of us have.

We ever pray for thee with all our hearts,
That strength be given thee to do thy part,
To guide and counsel us from day to day,
To shed a holy light around our way,
To shed a holy light around our way.

As General Conference approaches in only a few weeks, it is appropriate to pray that our leaders will be given both spiritual and physical strength necessary to prepare for those duties—to be able to “shed a holy light around our way.” But this prayer alone is not enough; I hope we’ll also pray for willingness to follow that counsel.

We are truly blessed to have modern prophets to lead us—prophets authorized by God to direct his work and his ordinances throughout the world. But the Gifts of the Spirit are not limited to those who might address us at General Conference. We all have the same access to those gifts if we will earnestly seek them. “Seek ye earnestly the best gifts, always remembering for what they are given.” (D&C 46:8) As we learn to receive and act upon revelation for ourselves, the burden borne by our leaders will be lightened.

So yes, let’s pray for the prophet, and let’s pray for the apostles, presidents, bishops, counselors, and other leaders who have been called to guide us. But in doing so, let’s not neglect our own spiritual growth. Let’s listen to the prophet, but let’s also listen to the Lord.

Hymn #44: Beautiful Zion, Built Above

Beautiful Zion, built above;
Beautiful city that I love;
Beautiful gates of pearly white;
Beautiful temple–God its light;
He who was slain on Calvary
Opens those pearly gates for me.

While it is beautiful, I am a little surprised this hymn made it into the LDS hymnbook. In the LDS church, we do think of Zion as an actual heavenly city, but we also think of Zion as “the pure in heart,” which means it is here around us now on Earth. It is something that we are constantly trying to build up and thus not a city that we think of as “built above.” We also don’t talk much about the pearly gates: we see those more as a metaphor than as a reality. We are on board with temples, of course, but I’m pretty sure we don’t believe there will be temples as we now have them in heaven. Our temples are designed to teach us how to get to heaven, and once we’re there, that’s not instruction we’ll need any more.

Beautiful heav’n, where all is light;
Beautiful angels clothed in white;
Beautiful strains that never tire;
Beautiful harps thru all the choir;
There shall I join the chorus sweet,
Worshiping at the Savior’s feet.

Once again, we’ve got some significant differences. We do believe there will be light in heaven, and music, but we don’t believe that every moment of every day will be spent singing, or that there will always be harps involved (though a few harpists might want to continue the practice in heaven, so I won’t say harps will never be involved),  and while we believe we will worship the Savior, we also feel like we’ll continue to improve ourselves in heaven.

Beautiful crowns on ev’ry brow;
Beautiful palms the conq’rors show;
Beautiful robes the ransomed wear;
Beautiful all who enter there;
Thither I press with eager feet;
There shall my rest be long and sweet.

Here we go again. We don’t look forward to or expect literal crowns, or think we’ll be carrying around palm leaves, and while our art tends to show heavenly beings in robes, I’ve always assumed that was because Christ wore them when he came to earth, and at that time, robes were just what everyone wore. I don’t know that we have any solid doctrine on heavenly fashion.

So why, if the hymn is so far removed from LDS doctrine on so many levels, is it still included in our hymnbook? I can’t actually speak for the committee that chose it, but I’ve got a guess.

Mainly, we enjoy the symbolism. While at first glance, Gill’s heaven is a very sterilized and a little boring, with white clothes, pearly gates, and harp music, it’s got a lot happening under the surface. The white clothes of heaven’s inhabitants, says Revelations, have been dyed white in the blood of the Lamb. The dyeing isn’t an easy process for us, and the dying that produced the blood was clearly a difficult process for the Savior, too. Heaven’s sedate pace and appearance stands in stark contrast to the suffering and hardship it takes to get everyone there. As we struggle through our messy lives, wishing we had just another hour today to help get everything done, or wishing it weren’t so painful, Gill shows us a vision of what heaven can be–a rest. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel that keeps us motivated and moving along.

Personally, I might be more motivated by color than all white all the time, I prefer music played with guitars over harps, and I hope that in addition to praising God, we also get to go rock climbing and gardening and chili-cook-off-ing. But I also hope that my hard work will accomplish something, that I will be worthy of and suited to a place that is pure and peaceful and beautiful. And, honestly,  if I had to choose, I’d pick the pure heaven over the party heaven. Gill and I don’t agree on most of the details, but we do agree on the main points: heaven is where God is, where wrongs are righted, and where those who have worked hard are rewarded for their hard work.

Hymn #42: Hail to the Brightness of Zion’s Glad Morning!

Note: Today’s essay is by Tyler Severson, who is a new contributor here at the Beesley Project. We’re pretty excited about having him on board, and we hope you will be, too.

Today’s hymn deals with the shift of darkness to light, the dawning of the “glad reign” of Zion. The light of this new day pushes back the shadows of sorrow and mourning, and the hymnist rejoices in this, praising the morning for doing nothing more than arriving.

Morning always shows up. It’s not a surprise to anyone. The morning in question here was, in fact, “long by the prophets of Israel foretold.” The information was there. Anyone who wanted to see the morning just had to wait long enough. It was going to come the whole time.

That’s why, I think, mornings make for a pretty easy analogy. One of the first things in the natural world that we notice and come to rely on is the fact that, without fail, it will get light in the morning. Some days are brighter than others, but the sun is there, and it will always show up when it should.

This is especially fertile ground for gospel metaphors. Morning, dawn, new beginnings. Think of the morning of the resurrection, or the day dawn breaking of the beautiful, bright Millennial day. Consider the morning breaking, the shadows fleeing before the dawning of the Restoration’s brighter day.

It’s easy, then, for us to take morning–the literal end of darkness–and extrapolate it into our lives. We associate our hard times, sadness, depression, anger, loneliness, and every other negative thing with darkness, and we hope that just like it does in the natural world, every dark night is guaranteed its ending with the breaking of the dawn.

Think of the last horrible period in your life. Think of the misery and pain, the suffering emotional, physical, spiritual, or a sordid combination of them all. It probably seemed endless. Think of our lives, the trials and daily hardships, and how easy it is to become discouraged, coming to the conclusion that the sun will never rise again.

Our Redeemer promised us that this would not ever be the case. “I will not leave you comfortless,” he assured us. But how are we to trust that, when we’re all so desperately familiar with sorrow, grief, pain, and darkness? Many times comfort simply does not exist and cannot be found. We’re sure of this, convinced. Christ then explains the source of the comfort: “I will come to you.”

We’re not promised that he’ll be hovering over us, waiting for a bad thing to happen so he can snatch us up. In fact, he never promises the absence of discomfort. He seems to be promising that it will happen, that we will all be comfortless at some point. His promise is not that nighttime will not come; it is that the dawn will always break. Our Savior is the sun to our blackest nighttimes. He promises comfort, warmth, and–taking the long term view–an end to darkness for all time. And he promises that we can count on him to bring it.

And what with it? What does the Rising of the Son have to offer us? Flowers of joy and righteousness from deserts of sorrow and sin. Places of waste–wasted time, wasted virtue, wasted opportunities–rising in verdure and mingling in the song of redeeming love. Most importantly, the return for bondage for millions of people lost in the darkness of sin. Christ’s light and warmth let us see just how lost we are and let us find our way back to the right path. It makes so much sense that his birth, the dawn of salvation, would be marked by a day and a night and a day with no darkness.

Hail to the brightness of Jesus’ morning; joy to the hearts that in darkness have lain. Hushed be the accents of sorrow and mourning. Jesus, our Savior, begins his glad reign.

Hymn #22: We Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

With another General Conference just a month away, now is the season when church members are reminded what a great blessing it is to have a living prophet. This hymn articulates our feelings as we approach General Conference—our gratitude for modern revelation, our love for President Monson, and our eagerness to apply his teachings.

In addition to its potent celebration of the prophet, however, this hymn is remarkably clear in its articulation of the prophet’s specific message. I was surprised, for instance, by the following lines:

We listen to a prophet’s voice and hear the Savior too.
With love he bids us do the work the Lord would have us do.

Hosanna! Let our praise ascend unto the Savior’s throne;
Rejoice! The prophet has confirmed that by Him we are known.

Running throughout this hymn is a constant reminder that the prophet’s primary role is to strengthen our relationship with the Savior.

This even extends to the particular imagery this hymn chooses to invoke:

The Savior calls his chosen seer to preach the word of God,
That men might learn to find the path marked by the iron rod.

Here the verse draws on Lehi’s vision from 1 Nephi 8, and just about any primary child can tell you where “the path marked by the iron rod” leads: to the Tree of Life, a symbolic representation of the love of the Savior.

In our cultural excitement about priesthood authority and continuing revelation, our rhetoric sometimes overlooks what is most central to a prophet’s task. His job is to reveal as clearly as possible the love of the Savior and to point to the Savior’s path already outlined in the gospel. A prophet is indeed a revelator, but sometimes what we most need revealed to us is the heart of the gospel we’ve simply forgotten or overlooked in its simplicity: the Savior loves us, and we are known by Him.

I hear too many church members who walk away from General Conference jaded by “more of the same,” disgruntled that nothing novel ever seems to come from the pulpit. If we remember to pay less attention to the relative banality of conference talks and more attention to their actual content, we will find genuine truth where we’ve been prone to find only simple truisms. That is, when we genuinely “listen to a prophet’s voice,” we cannot help but hear the Savior’s grace and mercy in its overtones.

Hymn #35: For the Strength of the Hills

The thing I like best about this hymn (besides it being written so beautifully by LDS composer Evan Stephens) is the parallels it draws between the pioneers and the children of Israel.

The group of Latter-day Saints who migrated from all over the world to the Utah Territory to escape religious persecution and establish Zion have some notable differences from Moses’ exodus out of Egypt. The Mormon pioneers’ main push lasted about 20 years, while we know the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40ish years. The children of Israel were struck by fiery serpents for complaining about the food, the handcart pioneers struggled and died through harsh weather conditions and illness, but overall the similarities far outweigh the differences. The Lord led His Chosen People to a new land back in the days of Moses and in the early days of His restored church, He did it again with the Saints.

This hymn is an anthem to the people who made the trek to Zion in the latter days, those who had “borne and suffered long,” yet still praised God for being the “guardian of the loved ones [He had] brought from many lands.” This trek still continues to Zion and its outposts and stakes all over the world, the call to gather and establish communities, know Christ and act in love towards all our fellowmen.

As we read in Psalms 95, “O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation…let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (verses 1, 6-7).

Hymn #6: Redeemer of Israel

Redeemer of Israel,
Our only delight,
On whom for a blessing we call,
Our shadow by day
And our pillar by night,
Our King, our Deliv’rer, our all!

The Lord is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is ever before us, showing us the way back to His presence and into eternal life. We see that throughout this hymn with its rich Old Testament imagery. We aren’t simply told that the Lord will watch over us. We are reminded of the cloud that remained over the children of Israel by day during their flight from Egypt, and of the pillar of fire that protected them by night from the soldiers. We don’t simply have to trust that He will be there to aid us in our times of trouble. We’ve seen it in the past, and we know that He is unchanging. Why should today be any different?

We know He is coming, as we sing in the second verse, to gather His sheep and bring them to Zion in love. We’ve seen this. We’ve seen the children of Israel, lost and wandering in the “valley of death” brought to the land that they were promised. We know He will do this because the Lord does not forget His own, and we know we can receive blessings we’ve been promised because we are all His own. We are His sheep, and He knows us by name. He has delivered us in the past, and we know that He is unchanging. Why should today be any different?

We, too, have wandered in the desert “as strangers in sin and cried… for [Him].” We know what it feels like to be separated from Him through our own misdeeds. We know that when we make mistakes, we cannot remain in His presence. We know this because we’ve seen it in the past. The children of Israel made some pretty big mistakes, and they were separated from their Lord as a result. He is unchanging, and we can expect no less. But we know that He will hear our cries, because he heard those of the Israelites. He answered their prayers, and He will answer ours. Our foes may rejoice when they see our sorrows, we sing, but Israel–and we–shall shortly be free. It was so in the past. Why should today be any different?

We know that we can and will be redeemed not only because the Lord is unchanging, but because we have been promised those blessings by that same unchanging Lord. We have been promised that He will come to His own, and we have been given the signs of His coming. He will not come in meekness, but in power and glory. And as we sing in the fourth verse, “good tidings for us. The tokens already appear.” We’ve seen the signs, and we will continue to see them as that day draws near. The Lord will come, and we will know Him when He does, because we know Him know. He is already our shadow by day and our pillar by night. He is our King, our Deliv’rer, our all. We know this, because it was so in the past, and because it is so now.

Why should today, tomorrow, or any other day be any different?

Hymn #39: O Saints of Zion

O Saints of Zion, hear the voice
Of Him from courts on high.
Prepare the pathway of the Lord;
His reign on earth is nigh.
(O Saints of Zion, verse 1)

When Joseph Smith was guided to restore the true church of Christ, he needed to know what it should be called. By revelation, the church received this name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is indeed the Church of Jesus Christ, and we are indeed in the latter days, the last days before the second coming of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

However, many of us don’t really pay any attention to that. We certainly recognize how the Gospel makes our own lives better, and we express appropriate gratitude for those blessings. But the mission of the church is not simply to bless the lives of its members—the Church exists to prepare the whole world for his coming. When we read the revelations, that mission is undeniable. (See D&C 65)

Of course, the work of preparing the world does not just fall upon the church collectively—it falls upon us individually. Along with the Gifts of the Spirit and the Priesthood blessings we receive are covenants we have made; covenants to be witnesses of Christ at all times, in all things, and in all places that we may be in. Covenants to make known His works and His words. We are active participants in this preparatory work—or at least we should be. We have been called to “make straight the way of the Lord.”

Sometimes it’s easy to just ignore all that, and focus living the Gospel privately. Yes, we do believe in doing good for the sake of good without any need for public recognition. Christ chastised the Pharisees for making obedience a spectator event, after all. But while our obedience to God’s commandments is a personal matter, His call to obey is for the entire world.

It’s hard to look at the world around us and see how it could ever be prepared to receive the Lord. There are many wonderful people here, of course, but there is also so much hatred and bitterness and simple spiritual apathy. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the enormous task before us. And yet, God has prepared us for this very task. The Book of Mormon tells of the sons of Mosiah who went among the Lamanites, a people who had rejected every previous invitation to come unto Christ. Through their prayers, fasting, service, faith, and diligence, many of the Lamanites were brought unto Christ—including their king himself!

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored. Priesthood authority is spreading throughout the world as it never has before. The Gift of the Holy Ghost, the very Comforter that Christ promised to send, is available to more and more people every day. The mighty blessings of the temple roll forth throughout the world, touching hearts and guiding minds in preparation for the return of the Lord himself. There has never been a better time for inviting the world to come unto Christ!

Prepare the supper of the Lamb;
Invite the world to dine.
Behold, the mighty Bridegroom comes
In majesty divine.

Hymn #27: Praise to the Man

Today marks 170 years since Joseph Smith was martyred at Carthage Jail in Illinois. It’s been a long time. To put it into perspective, the United States has only been a country for 238 years, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence seems like it was forever ago.

What has happened in 170 years? Did Joe Smith’s little band of followers–those darn Mormons–just fall apart and disappear without him, as I assume his assassins hoped might happen?

We all know the answer to that is a big fat NO.

According the 2013 statistical report given in last April’s General Conference, there are now over fifteen million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Over 100,000 missionaries–including full-time and church service missionaries–are currently preaching the gospel and serving communities in need. 141 temples dot the globe with several more in various stages of completion.

The stone “cut out of the mountain without hands” of which Daniel once spoke continues to fill the earth. “The God of heaven” has “set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed.” Indeed “it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.”

Joseph Smith restored God’s kingdom to the earth. With his First Vision and subsequent visits from divine messengers, he opened the last dispensation. He received the necessary priesthood keys to provide each of us with the ordinances of salvation. What a great responsibility! What a sacred and honored duty! “Hail to the Prophet” indeed!

But here’s the thing. Even as we praise him, we acknowledge that Joseph Smith was just a man. We often hear him referred to as “the boy Joseph”; he was so very young, after all. Even this hymn of praise does not paint him as anything but what he was: a hero, a martyr, a prophet, yes, but at the end of the day still just “Brother Joseph.”

He was a man like any other man. He made mistakes and struggled under the weight of his calling and wondered, as we all sometimes do, “O God, where art thou?” (see D&C 121). This makes it easy for skeptics to find fault with him, claiming that such a flawed mortal could never have done what he claimed to do. Why would a perfect God use an imperfect man to restore His gospel? How can the church be true if Joseph Smith himself was not above reproach? Why do we believe in a prophet who is just so…human?

To anyone who asks such questions, I respond as Alma does:

Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise. And the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls. (Alma 37:6-7)

God does great things with imperfect people like Brother Joseph. Like you. Like me. Those statistics I cited above are not the result of wishful thinking or magic powers. A great deal of sacrifice from so many of God’s children has gone into building His kingdom in these last days.

Joseph Smith’s legacy gives me hope that I too can play a role in this great work. I may never commune with Jehovah in this life, and I certainly wasn’t “blessed to open the last dispensation.” But I do have a purpose here. I believe I was foreordained to accomplish amazing things. I believe you were too. If we can fight in the “conflict of justice” with the same faithfulness Joseph Smith showed, we too can “mingl[e] with Gods” and be “crowned in the midst of the prophets of old” someday.

Each of us has divine potential. Each of us has a place in proclaiming the gospel, perfecting the saints, and redeeming the dead. Each of us has something to contribute, however small or simple.

After all, a 14-year-old boy who was willing to ask the right question at the right time has helped bring about the salvation of millions.

So what small and simple things will you do today?

Hymn #49: Adam-ondi-Ahman

Out of several somewhat esoteric hymns in our hymnal, Adam-ondi-Ahman is one of my favorites (yes, I know I say that a lot!). This hymn also held a special place in the hearts of the early saints. In addition to being included in the first hymnal, it was sung at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple.

Adam-ondi-Ahman is the revealed name Joseph Smith gave to Daviess County, Missouri, and the site where Adam and Eve lived after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It is also the gathering place for a priesthood council prior to Jesus’s Second Coming. All of these roles are praised in these verses, and Phelps poetically imagines Adam-ondi-Ahman as home to Enoch’s city of Zion, as well.

Most of our information about Adam-ondi-Ahman comes from a vision of Joseph Smith which is now recorded in D&C 107:53-57. Joseph describes how, three years prior to Adam’s death, he gathered his priesthood-holding posterity in a grand council at Adam-ondi-Ahman to give them his last blessing. While they were there, the Lord appeared and granted Adam dominion, setting him “at the head” of the “multitude of nations” that would come from his lineage.  Adam then prophesied the history of the world, which was written into a book and sealed up.  (Cool, right?)

The crucial thing is that a similar event will precede the Second Coming. Adam will come to set in order the affairs of the earth (D&C 85:7). He will gather a council at Adam-ondi-Ahman, everyone will pass their priesthood keys back to him, and then Christ will appear, and Adam will hand the keys of the kingdom back to the Lord as he ushers in the millennium.

Adam-ondi-Ahman, then, is the site of two important councils: one at the opening of earth’s history and one at its close. And what’s more, the plan of salvation is very obviously a plan of families–Adam’s work began in a family council; he was given the keys of the priesthood so that he could save his posterity; and his work in the meanwhile is to send messengers so that all of that posterity can be sealed to him. Part of the thrilling message of Adam-ondi-Ahman is that we are a lot closer and more intimately connected to Adam and the ancient patriarchs than we often think we are. This hymn recognizes that connection. It pairs ancient events (life in “a garden place,” Enoch walking with God, and the fame of Zion) with the events of the last days.

The pattern at the beginning is the pattern for the end. What that means for us is that we have a picture of the kind of society we need to create prior to the Second Coming, and we have the following glorious image to look forward to:

Hosanna  to such days to come,
The Savior’s second coming,
When all the earth in glorious bloom
Affords the Saints a holy home,
Like Adam-ondi-Ahman.

 

 

Hymn #30: Come, Come, Ye Saints

Handcart Monument

Come, Come, Ye Saints is one of the most well-known hymns in the modern hymnbook. Penned by William Clayton while crossing the plains, the hymn has become a sort of anthem for the Mormon pioneers—and by proxy, our own pioneer heritage.

The lyrics of this hymn are rooted in faith—a persistent, pervasive faith that was characteristic of those who crossed the plains. Rather than just quote bits and pieces, I want to go through the entire hymn here. I hope you’ll take a moment to consider the words, and not just get swept along by the tune.

Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
‘Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell–
All is well! All is well!

Travelling 1,300 miles by covered wagon or handcart was hard work. They sang “Though hard to you this journey may appear” because it was hard. Not only was the journey itself hard, but the circumstance was not pleasant either. Many had already made a long trek from Europe to join the Saints in Nauvoo. Then, only years after arriving, they were forced out by angry mobs, made to leave most of their possessions behind. Their beloved prophet, Joseph Smith, had been martyred. Sickness was common. In short, things were really, really hard for many of the pioneers.

And yet, they pressed forward with faith.

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
‘Tis not so; all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we’ll have this tale to tell–
All is well! All is well!

In face of all these challenges, the pioneers always looked to God. Their struggle was not a futile one; they sought to “earn a great reward.” They truly believed that God had restored his Church, had sent prophets again. Despite everything that had happened, they truly believed: “Our God will never us forsake.”

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
We’ll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we’ll tell–
All is well! All is well!

In light of their history, it’s no surprise that the pioneers looked forward to a place where “none shall come to hurt or make afraid.” Many of them saw their trek west as the final step in a long journey to establish Zion. Free from the persecutions of angry mobs, Zion would be a place where they could worship their God with rejoicing.

In our day, we do not travel across the plains in hopes of establishing Zion. Rather, the stakes of Zion are spread across the world. We have the opportunity to build Zion wherever we are. Do we look forward to Zion with the same hope that the pioneers did?

And should we die before our journey’s through,
Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we’ll make this chorus swell–
All is well! All is well!

This is perhaps the most touching of all the verses. The pioneers recognized that death was a real possibility. At least 2,000 deaths of pioneers who died in the migration are recorded in the Mormon Pioneer Memorial Monument in Nauvoo. The pioneers made this journey knowing that there was a very real possibility that it might be their last.

And yet, they traveled with faith. Even in the face of death, they believed in their cause, and knew it was the right one. If death were to come, they felt prepared for it, knowing they were doing the will of God. And if not—if by the Grace of God they survived the journey, then how much more reason to be grateful.

You and I are not called to abandon our homes and cross the plains in extreme hardship. We are not asked to bear the burdens that the pioneers bore. But we bear that same heritage—the God that would never forsake them is our god too. The great rewards that the pioneers sought are available to us as well, if we will not shun the fight.

Do we seek to make the air ring with praises to our God? Do we seek to obey God rather than men? Do we have the same commitment to our faith that the pioneers demonstrated? Our times are certainly different, but the pervasive faith God seeks to instill in us is not.  I hope that each one of us can still respond to this same call: “Come, Come, Ye Saints; no toil nor labor fear.”

Hymn #43: Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded

Zion Stands with Hills Surrounded” is today’s hymn. The title alone evokes powerful imagery—the righteous city of God besieged by enemy armies, surrounded by attacking forces. And yet, Zion stands. Preserved by divine power, Zion stands in the face of overwhelming odds.

Zion stands with hill surrounded–
Zion, kept by pow’r divine.
All her foes shall be confounded,
Though the world in arms combine.

Scriptural prophecy speaks of Jerusalem being attacked by wicked nations immediately before the second coming of Christ. Certainly, as a church whose name includes the phrase “Latter-day,” we take interest in such prophecies. Much of the work we do as a church is to prepare the world for Christ’s second coming. And yet, as with many prophecies, the literal fulfillment is perhaps not the most relevant one.

While the literal city of Zion may in the future be surrounded, many of God’s children feel spiritually or emotionally surrounded today. We often feel that everything is conspiring against us, that the easy choice is never the right one, that we are constantly being worn down by the comments, crusades, and sometimes even cruelty of the world around us. Everyone seems eager to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong in some way, or to point out all the ways we could be better.

In the midst of all this, we have a hope-filled promise: God himself remembers us, and will not forsake us. Isaiah prophesied:

But, behold, Zion hath said: The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me—but he will show that he hath not.

For can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee, O house of Israel.

When we are beset by taunts, trepidation or trials, we can take comfort in this fact: the Lord is always with us. He will defend and sustain if we will trust in him. Of course, this does not always mean that our burdens will be light. Often, the burden remains heavy, but our ability to carry it is increased.  Our Father does not simply want to protect us as we are, spiritual infants. Rather, the whole purpose of his Plan is to help us develop the talents and abilities that are latent within us.

In the furnace God may prove thee,
Thence to bring thee forth more bright,
But can never cease to love thee;
Thou art precious in his sight.
God is with thee, God is with thee;
Thou shalt triumph in his might

So when you feel like surrounded Zion, with enemy forces on every side, remember this: God is with thee, God is with thee; Thou shalt triumph in his might.

Hymn #50: Come, Thou Glorious Day of Promise

The gathering of scattered Israel makes me think of coming home, in the most perfect way.

I have experienced this type of homecoming a few times in my life: listening for the sounds of car tires in the gravel that signaled my siblings coming home for Christmas break from college; watching the lights of Phoenix materialize beneath the belly of the plane that brought me home from Europe the first time; the year we had our first family reunion as siblings. This is the type of homecoming that feels so bright and sharp that you could laugh and cry and dance in the same moment.

In Jeremiah 31, the Lord promises to gather the posterity of Jacob from where they have been scattered: from the north country to the coasts of the earth, leading the blind and lame and pregnant in a great, happy company where “they shall not sorrow any more at all.”

This homecoming, this gathering, means bringing scattered Israel together through missionary work and asking them join an enormous, loving family where there is a place set for everyone at the table. And I believe that is what keeps people asking for answers, wanting to know life’s purpose and the strength of family ties.

It is this promise of belonging and finally seeing an end to our unbelief and misery and sorrow that eventually draws people to Christ, like scattered safety pins cling to a magnet.

Hymn #37: The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close

Yes, this is a winter hymn, and yes, its summer as we’re posting this. We sing about the snow falling over the night and the accompanying stillness. Snow has a way of muffling sound, creating a solemn silence that “invites all wearied nature to repose.” The whiteness of freshly-fallen snow is lovely, too; it covers everything equally and evenly, smoothing out the roughness of nature and making everything look soft and gentle. There’s symbolism in that. Listen to the first verse:

Pale through the gloom the newly fallen snow
Wraps in a shroud the silent earth below
As tho ’twere mercy’s hand had spread the pall,
A symbol of forgiveness unto all.

New snow makes everything white and clean. It stays that way until we tromp all over it, smashing it down and dirtying it, but for those first few moments, everything is pure. It’s no wonder that the Lord chose snow as a metaphor for repentance when He spoke to Isaiah. ”Come now, and let us reason together,” He said. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” The difference between scarlet and white is substantial. Scarlet–really truly bright red–doesn’t appear often in nature, but blood certainly fits the bill. That’s a jarring and unsettling sight, filling the viewer with the sense that something violent and painful has happened before them. And yet, fresh white snow can cover it up in our metaphor. No matter how jarring or gruesome that scarlet is, it can be white again.

As we sing, it’s a symbol of forgiveness unto all. Just as each of us is all too capable of creating those stains of scarlet in our lives, we each have the opportunity to repent and have those stains made white again. And when we take that perfect white snow and stomp it down, filling it with dirt and grime, we can have it made white again and again through the miracle of the Atonement. The miracle is extended to all of us, and new snow, like so many other things in our world, is a symbol given to us to help us remember that gift,

We sing further about the snowy mountains. The author of the hymn writes that these snow-capped peaks remind him of his home in the mountains in the west with the pioneers. It doesn’t come out and say it explicitly, but it sure sounds as though this is a hymn about Utah. Like many Latter-day Saints, I’ve lived in Utah, and while I enjoyed it just fine, it wasn’t a magical land filled with milk and honey for me. We do a perhaps too-good job of glamorizing Utah in the Church, convincing ourselves that everyone there is a faithful member and that things have a way of going right. I’ve heard people tell me that things would be alright for them and that they could live more faithful lives if only they could just get to Utah.

That’s taking things a little too far for my taste, but I don’t think that’s the message this hymn is conveying to us. Rather than setting up Utah as a promised, perfect land, the author is telling us about Utah because that’s where he felt of the Spirit most deeply and came to know his Savior. In this way, it’s like the waters of Mormon as described by Mormon himself. Remember the story? The people of Alma were taught and baptized at the waters of Mormon, where they came to know the gospel. How did they describe it?

And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, in the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever. Mosiah 18:30

There’s nothing special about the land itself. It’s what happened there that makes it so memorable to the people of Alma. The author of this hymn is no different. It’s not the mountains, or the valleys, or anything else that makes the land stick in his memory. It’s the time he spent with the Saints, and the experiences he had that drew him nearer to his Savior. That makes Utah his “home, the spot [he loves] so well, whose worth and beauty pen nor tongue can tell.”

Our homes and neighborhoods can be like that for us, too. As we come to know our Savior, our homes will become beautiful to us. Our towns will remind us of drawing nearer to our Lord, and they will make us want to sing praises to Him just seeing them. Seeing the snow on the mountains or on the fields reminding us of the miracle of forgiveness is an added kicker that makes it even more beautiful to our eyes.

Hymn #26: Joseph Smith’s First Prayer

Sacred Grove

Is there a God?

If so, how can we know about him? Does he care about us enough to communicate with us? Do any churches teach true doctrine? Is there any way we can discover truth about God, if he even exists? How can we know what he wants of us?

Questions like these may have been on the mind of Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820. They are certainly on the minds of many, many people today. The faith of millions rests on their answers. When fourteen-year-old Joseph walked into a grove of trees near his home, he didn’t expect to change the world. He simply had questions, and believed that God would answer them.

If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. (James 1:5)

What an answer he received! In response to Joseph’s simple prayer, a light descended from heaven and rested upon Joseph. God the Eternal Father and his son Jesus Christ personally visited Joseph Smith. They answered his questions. He knew, then, that there is a God. He knew that God can and does communicate with us. And he knew that at that time, no true church existed on the earth.

Joseph would eventually receive many other revelations. He would be taught true doctrine and directed to reestablish Christ’s church, with the same divine authority it held anciently. He would translate the Book of Mormon, a second witness of the divinity of Christ alongside the Bible. He would become the first divinely appointed prophet in this era. This vision was the beginning of a marvelous work, a pivotal moment in history.

But none of that had happened yet. After Joseph’s vision, he did not immediately establish a church. He did not yet have knowledge or the authority to do so. He had much yet to learn. After his vision, he just had a few more answers. He wrote this about that time:

I had now got my mind satisfied so far as the sectarian world was concerned—that it was not my duty to join with any of them, but to continue as I was until further directed. I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided. (Joseph Smith: History v26)

The primary lesson we should earn from Joseph’s first vision is not that all the churches were wrong, or that a Restoration was necessary. These are true, but they’re not the main point. The main point is this:

We can learn truth from God, through revelation.

We do not need to rely on the word of others to vouch for the truth. Yes, we have prophets, priesthood leaders, parents; yes, we have scriptures, seminaries, and sunday school. All of these things can guide us toward truth. But ultimately, our Heavenly Father expects us to come to him with questions. He wants to teach through revelation. He wants to enlarge and clarify our understanding of the things we have been taught. This is true for all people, but especially true for those who have received the Gift of the Holy Ghost after baptism. If we expect to participate in God’s work, we must learn to receive guidance directly from God if we expect to do his work.

We must learn to receive revelation, just as Joseph did.

Hymn #41: Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise

If you’re reading this, let me suggest you listen to this hymn first before we talk about it. Here’s a link to a YouTube video of a good arrangement of the hymn: Let Zion in Her Beauty Rise.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

[...]

[...]

…okay, so did you listen to it? Such an amazing tune, right?

But beyond the excellent musical structure of this hymn (other hymns are not so lucky), I love it for other reasons. For one, it focuses on the intense joy and majesty of Christ’s Second Coming. Let Zion in her beauty rise/Her light begins to shine, we sing in the first line. Ere long her King will rend the skies/Majestic and divine. 

Another reason why I love this hymn is because this concept of physically building Zion is personal to me. My great-great grandfather Jesse N. Smith, a particularly prolific polygamist in northern Arizona, was one of the Saints who had just enough time to put his feet up from the journey westward from Ohio to Salt Lake when the prophet Brigham Young took him aside and told him he was to go and “colonize the waste places of Zion.”

Well, I and some thousands of his descendants can trace our roots back to those waste places of Zion, places that assuredly looked pretty desolate, rough-hewn and uncivilized to the early Mormon settlers. Even today the winds are insistent, the soil is a composite of clay and sedimentary rock, and frankly the soil quality is immaterial since the growing season is only three months long.

But they did it, though in some ways I can’t imagine how. As the hymn states, they did their part to “sound the golden trump to earth’s remotest bound” by digging in their heels and raising up Zion wherever they were, though it meant starting over in a place that must have made some of them weep with disappointment after leaving Salt Lake City.

It is in these moments of pondering that I am glad my ancestors took on that backbreaking physical labor in their lifetimes. I also suspect they took up the cause of building Zion after their deaths, which means I get to work together with them someday to share the good word with others.

And this is why I sing this last line, my favorite in the entire hymn, as a kind of prayer: Dear Lord, prepare my heart/To stand with thee on Zion’s mount/And nevermore to part.

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Hymn #46: Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken

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I suspect that most of our readers are not familiar with this hymn.  Let’s start by reading the lyrics. Please don’t just skim over them; take the time to really read them. There’s something to learn here.

Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!
He whose word cannot be broken
Chose thee for his own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake our sure repose?
With salvation’s wall surrounded,
Thou may’st smile on all thy foes.

The opening phrase of this hymn comes from Psalms 87:3, which reads simply “Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God.” The city here mentioned is Zion, the city of God. During the millennium, Christ will reign personally upon the earth, and Zion, the New Jerusalem, will be the seat of his government. Christ will literally “choose [Zion] for his abode.” With such power resident, who could question the stability and glory of Zion?

And yet, as with many messianic prophecies, the physical fulfillment of the prophecy is not the only one—nor perhaps even the most important one for us to consider. Most of us—in fact, the vast majority of God’s children—will never dwell in the New Jerusalem while in mortality. So while there is a physical reality that will fulfill this prophecy, that physical city is also a symbol for us, a metaphor for what our own relationship with God should be.

Just as Christ will come and abide within the city of Zion, we also invite the Holy Ghost to abide within us—and if we are faithful, that welcome may one day to Christ himself. (See John 14:23 and D&C 130:3.) Just as Christ brings stability and glory to the City of Zion, so too can his Gospel bring stability and eventual glory to our own lives.

As we continue reading the lyrics, consider the parallels between our own lives and the millennial city of Zion. “Like it unto yourself”, as Nephi would admonish.

See! the streams of living waters,
Springing from celestial love,
Well supply thy sons and daughters
And all fear of drought remove.
Round each habitation hov’ring,
See the cloud and fire appear
For a glory and a cov’ring,
Showing that the Lord is near.

The Revelation of John teaches that “the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.” A cloud by day and pillar of fire by night led the ancient Israelites, and is recognized as a sign of God’s presence. Zion will have God within it, and his presence will be apparent. To what extent is God’s presence apparent in your own life?

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
Purchased by the Savior’s blood;
Jesus, whom their souls rely on,
Makes them kings and priests to God.
While in love his Saints he raises,
With himself to reign as King,
All, as priests, his solemn praises
For thank-off’rings freely bring.

The connection to our own lives becomes more apparent here in the third verse. We are all purchased by the Savior’s blood, not just those who will live in the physical city of Zion. We all can claim the promise of becoming joint-heirs with Christ. We are all invited to be his Saints, his children. Zion is for all of us, right now.

Of course, the millennial New Jerusalem will be unique and full of a Celestial glory that may seem far distant to us right now. It provides a metaphor for our bright future, a symbol of Hope. The contrast between our present imperfect state and the perfection represented therein is stark and bright. But God’s plan of Salvation and his work of Exaltation is powerful, even to the transforming of you and I, his fallen children. Consider this statement from Spencer W. Kimball:

“When Satan is bound in a single home—when Satan is bound in a single life—the Millennium has already begun in that home, in that life.”

(The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 172).

Pause for a moment. Read that again, and consider what it means.

God is real. We are his children. He wants to bless us, and will do so in abundance just as quickly as we will allow him to do so. We all have a long way to go, no doubt. But the journey is sweet and the burden is light, so let’s pick up and carry forward, going as far as we possibly can.

Image Source: https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/kansas-city-temple-lds-912536

Hymn #21: Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

Often when I read scriptural accounts of past ages, I tend to imagine the events as I would the events of a fictional novel. Conceptually I know it’s true, but in some ways scripture seems more like a fairy tale. Prophetic leaders with divine authority parting oceans, calling down fire, or raising the dead is all well and good in the ancient past, but that time seems so distant from today.

As a life-long member of the Church, I sometimes forget just how remarkable our message really is. We proclaim that God speaks now, both to prophets and to his people. We proclaim that prophets long dead returned in angelic form to give authority and direction to Joseph Smith. We proclaim that the Father and the Son literally appeared to a boy, instigating the literal Restoration of an ancient Gospel. We proclaim healing blessings through priesthood power, and sealing power in holy temples. We preach repentance to a wicked people who know not God.

It’s like we’ve been thrust right into the middle of a scripture story.

And really, I think that’s the point. God’s interaction with humanity is no different today than it was anciently. The same priesthood power, the same blessings, and the same covenants are again available on the Earth. This feels like a scripture story because it is a scripture story—it’s the continued story of the Father teaching and preparing  and tutoring his children.

So yes! Come! Listen to a prophet’s voice! Leave behind the erring schemes of days now past, and follow in the straight and narrow way. If the very God of the all creation is truly directing prophets in our day, how grand a message we carry!

Of course, prophets aren’t always popular in their own time… even among those who profess the same religion as the prophet. The Israelites murmured against Moses. The Nephites sought after riches instead of righteousness. The Jews crucified Christ himself. What heed do we give to God’s prophets today?

Just a few weeks ago, we had a spectacular General Conference, in which prophets, seers, and revelators addressed the entire world in a way inconceivable to ancient prophets. Modern technology brings them closer than ever to Alma’s wish to “cry repentance unto every people.”

Do we listen? Or does the message come in one ear and out the other?

We are told to search the scriptures, to read them repeatedly and ponder their message. I would suggest that the same direction applies to the messages of modern prophets. We have more access than ever before to the words of God’s chosen messengers. Should we not treasure up those words just as we do other scripture?

But perhaps you do. Perhaps you do take the time to read and re-read the messages of General Conference, along with your other scriptures. Lest we get complacent, let’s read the fourth verse of this hymn:

Then heed the words of truth and light
That flow from fountains pure.
Yea, keep His law with all thy might
Till thine election’s sure,
Till thou shalt hear the holy voice
Assure eternal reign,
While joy and cheer attend thy choice,
As one who shall obtain.

Our goal is not merely to do “well enough” or to be “pretty righteous.” God’s invitation to us is to keep His law with all our might, to seek the assurance of having our calling and election made sure. (It may not surprise you to learn that the fourth verse was written by Bruce R. McConkie, who was known for addressing this topic often.) Joseph Smith taught this:

“I would exhort you to go on and continue to call upon God until you make your calling and election sure for yourselves, by obtaining this more sure word of prophecy, and wait patiently for the promise until you obtain it.”

This may seem a lofty goal to some—and assuredly, it is. But God has grand plans for his children, and he lets us participate in them just as fast as we are able. He does not seek to withhold blessings from us; rather, he seeks to draw us ever closer to him, seeking to pour out blessings beyond what we can even receive. There is no room for complacency in God’s plan of salvation; no matter how much we learn and how much we emulate his Son, we still have so much more to learn.

The Gospel has been restored, and we are in the middle of a “marvelous work and a wonder.” Let’s participate fully in that work, not skimming lightly on the surface, touching only where it suits us. Prophets have been sent. Christ’s gospel is spreading throughout the world, as is the authority to administer its attendant covenants. The world is being prepared for Christ’s second coming. This is a momentous time.

So, please. Come, listen to a prophet’s voice. Listen, and heed.

Hymn #32: The Happy Day at Last Has Come

While Philo Dibble includes a lot of detail in his hymn about the “happy day” that “at last has come”, he doesn’t specify what day precisely about which he was writing. Was it the day of Joseph Smith’s first vision? The day he received the plates from Moroni? The day the church was officially organized? One could make a case of any of these and others.

Let’s see what Brother Dibble tells us about about this happy day and decide when it might be.

“The truth restored is now made known.”

This indicates that the day is post-apostasy, since the truth had to be restored. Anything from the day God and Jesus Christ appeared the boy Joseph in the Sacred Grove or after is a possibility.

“The promised angel’s come again to introduce Messiah’s reign.”

Here we get a little more ambiguous. Which angel are we talking about? Nephi teaches us a little something about angels: “Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost? Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ.“(2 Nephi 32:2-3)

By this token, we could argue that anyone speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost is acting as an angel, a messenger sent by God. On this happy day, someone–heavenly being or divinely appointed mortal–has or will proclaim the best tidings of great joy mankind has ever heard: Jesus lives and will return again.

This happens a lot. With 15 million members and 83,000 missionaries, people are proclaiming the gospel all the time. And when they do, they speak with the tongue of angels.

(Do you see where I’m going with this “when is the happy day” business?)

“The lands which long benighted lay have now beheld a glorious day.”

The Americas were “long benighted” when the Nephites were destroyed and the Lamanites dwindled in unrighteousness. But the Holy Land and surrounding areas also sank into the night of apostasy as one by one Christ’s Apostles were killed and the gospel fulness was lost. Other lands that (as far as we know) were not even visited by the Savior have lain in darkness even longer. Much of the world has received the good news of the gospel, but not every country has been touched by its light yet.

But slowly, slowly the dawn is breaking.

The day was foretold by prophets and anticipated by Saints. (see verse 3)

The time of the Restoration was foretold. The building of temples was foretold. The spreading of the gospel through missionary work, the organization of stakes throughout the world…everything pertaining to this last dispensation has been prophesied by prophets in every other dispensation. The Saints have been looking forward to the end of times for countless generations. Each step forward is another fulfillment of prophecy, another happy day.

Which brings me to what I have concluded is the happy day of which we sing in this hymn.

“Saints again shall hear the voice of Jesus in their ear.”

Every day another child of God hears the gospel message for the first time is a happy day. Every time we read our scriptures is a happy day. Each General Conference weekend, each visit to the temple, each Sabbath when we are instructed, each Family Home Evening…whenever we hear the word of God, it is a happy day.

His gospel is good news. His word is hope and love and eternal joy in the presence of the Father. Go read Jesus’ teachings. Share them with your family, friends, and neighbors.

Make it a happy day.

Hymn #11: What Was Witnessed in the Heavens?

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If you remember this hymn for anything, it’s probably for the opening bars. We have plenty of hymns in which the men drop out, leaving the women to carry the melody for a moment, but here, the opposite happens. The men are left alone for the first eight beats of each of the first two lines, and if your ward is anything like mine, there’s a strange sort of silence as the men try to figure out what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

It’s a shame when that happens, though, because we miss the call and response aspect of the beginning of the hymn. Listen to the first two lines:

What was witnessed in the heavens?
Why, an angel earthward bound.
Had he something with him bringing?
Yes, the gospel, joyful sound!

The angel we sing about was Moroni, as he appeared to the boy Joseph Smith, telling him the location of the Book of Mormon and teaching him about his role in the upcoming restoration of the gospel. The hymn is about the restoration, yes, but you’ll notice the tag “missionary work,” too. The men sing the part of someone who doesn’t know about the restoration, asking someone who does. That may not be apparent in the first verse, which feels more like exposition than genuine questioning, but it’s unmistakable in the second verse:

Had we not before the gospel?
Yes, it came of old to men.
Then what is this latter gospel?
‘Tis the first one come again.
This was preached by Paul and Peter
And by Jesus Christ, the Head.
This we latter Saints are preaching;
We their footsteps wish to tread.

It’s an honest enough question to ask. Don’t we already have the gospel? Isn’t the earth littered with Christian churches? What is this new gospel we’re talking about? It’s the same as we had before. It’s the same gospel we read about Paul and Peter preaching, and the same one we read about Moses and Abraham living as well. Jesus Christ stands at its head, and it was restored in its fullness to us today.

That’s an exciting prospect, if true. We claim a direct link to the church of Christ in His time. I remember learning about the Protestant Reformation in high school and talking about all of the branches of Christianity that came out of it. My teacher, knowing I was a Latter-day Saint, pulled me aside after class, showed me the chart with all the churches on it, and asked where mine fit. I drew a line off to the side from the top to the bottom and said, “This is our church. It’s the original church Jesus taught, restored in our day.” Nothing came of that conversation that I’m aware of, but the boldness of my claim has always remained with me.

It’s a bold claim that we make, and since it’s so bold, it’s our responsibility to make it often. And as we touched upon yesterday, we not only share the gospel with those we meet here, but those who have gone before without a chance to hear the gospel. “What became of those departed,” we ask, “knowing not the gospel plan?” The Lord extends an opportunity for them to hear and receive His teachings, too. The fullness of the gospel was gone from the earth for a long time (about 1700 years), so there’s a lot of catching up to do. We sing that as the angel said, the gospel is to go “to all men, all tongues and nations.” All doesn’t allow for much wiggle room. Everyone is entitled to know and share in those teachings. That’s a bold claim that we make, too.

Whether here on the earth or in the spirit world, everyone will have their chance to hear the gospel message and decide for themselves how they feel about it. “God is just to ev’ry man,” we sing, and it’s true.

Image credit: “Blue Sky and Clouds,” flickr user Sherrie Thai. CC BY-NC 2.0

Hymn #17: Awake, Ye Saints of God, Awake!

Awake, we’re told over and over in this hymn. We’re told twice in the title alone, and the tune, as with most hymns about Zion, is upbeat and powerful. We sing vigorously, an attitude about as far from sleep as possible. And yet it’s clear all of us (those of us singing, anyway), are quite literally awake. So why are we urging ourselves and other saints to awake?

What does it mean to be asleep?

Sleep is associated with refreshment and rejuvenation, certainly, but it’s also tied to fatigue and exhaustion. We sleep when we’re tired, and while we sleep, we’re usually completely unaware of the world around us. When we sleep, we dream, a word often associated with hopes and striving, but it can also represent unattainable ideas and goals, or even a state out of touch with reality.

In this hymn, sleep represents captivity and an inability to progress. The first verse urges us to “call on the Lord in mighty prayer that he will Zion’s bondage break.” There are times the saints of God have been in literal bondage; the children of Israel in Egypt immediately come to mind, but the people of Alma, held captive by the Amulonites in the Book of Mosiah qualify, too. They cried to their God that He would release them from their bondage, and He heard them and set them free.

In both cases, the promised deliverance only came after the people took action. It wasn’t enough for them to wish they were free; they had to exercise faith and ask God for His aid. Idle wishing for an escape from our trials is like, well, daydreaming. We may as well be asleep for all the good it does us. Instead, we call each other to action. We remind each other that while we rely on the Lord for all that we have, His blessing to us are conditional on our asking for them. We exercise faith through our actions, and the promised blessings come as we do so.

It’s right there in the fourth verse: Awake to righteousness; be one. We take action, we follow the principles we have been taught, and as we do so, we unite ourselves with others who do so. And if we do not – if we decide to blaze our own trial and stick to our own teachings rather than those revealed truths – the Lord says to us, “ye are not mine.” He will have a united and true people. He has given us the tools and teachings to do so, and has promised that we will find power in so doing. Our faith strengthens us, of course, but we draw power from the Father and the Son, who build us up and make us able to accomplish tasks beyond our own power.

We are reminded in the second verse that the “God of Jacob does not sleep.” He may not, in a literal sense (I won’t pretend to know), but in a symbolic sense, meaning that His attention is distracted from us, He assuredly does not. We are His work and His glory, and we are continually before Him. He dedicates His whole self and work to helping us to achieve what He has, perfection and eternal glory. He does that through calling us to action. Our action is essential to our progression; after all, we can’t hope to achieve anything by sitting around waiting for it to happen. So we are urged to awake, arise out of our too-deep sleep, rubbing our eyes and shaking off the last vestiges of dreams that call us back to bed. We get up, we remember our purpose here, and we move to action, helping others in their path along the way.

In short, we awake, we saints of God.

Hymn #4: Truth Eternal

In John chapter 8, we have record of one of my favorite teachings in all of scripture:

31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;

32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

In the following verses, Jesus first indicates that the promised freedom will make us free from sin. Crucially, though, when we are free from sin through the Son of God, Christ indicates that the truth ultimately leads us to Eternal Life, the greatest of all gifts of God. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”

The fourth hymn in our hymnal is titled “Truth Eternal.” In it, we sing of the same Truth that Christ taught his disciples, the truth that brings freedom.

Truth eternal, truth divine,
In thine ancient fulness shine!
Burst the fetters of the mind
From the millions of mankind!

Truth is not new; it is an unchanging constant from the beginning. When the fulness of truth was restored by Joseph Smith, it was the same ancient truth that has been taught by prophets through the ages, the truth that frees each of us from sin.

Of course, this eternal truth does nothing for us on its own. Truth cannot free us from sin, or exalt us, unless we act upon it. We rejoice to have the ancient truths restored to the Earth, but that alone is not enough. With knowledge comes responsibility, responsibility we willingly accept as we make various covenants. We should not think that through simple membership in Christ’s church, we will be burst free of the fetters that bind us. That blessing requires action from each of us. It requires following through on the covenants we have made.

Truth again restored to earth,
Opened with a prophet’s birth.
Priests of heaven’s royal line
Bear the keys of truth divine!

This restored makes powerful and significant claims. It is appropriate, then, that the veracity and authority of it was restored not just through visions, but actual visitation by those who administered this same truth anciently. What a marvelous claim to make!

The visitations of Moroni, John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Elias, Elijah, Moses, and surely many others lend divine authenticity to the restored Gospel. Though it can seem simple in our day-to-day lives, the restoration of the gospel was a divinely orchestrated event that speaks of careful planning and specific intent. When we take this truth into our lives and when we seek to share it with others, we are participating in a grand event. As has been said, it is a marvelous work and a wonder.

Truth shall triumph as the light
Chases far the misty night.
Endless ages own its sway,
Clad in everlasting day.

We frequently sing hymns that speak of the great battle that is currently raging over the hearts and beliefs of people worldwide. How encouraging it is to know that truth will triumph. In the face of our own frailties and weaknesses, God is still able to prevail. There is no reason for despair, no reason to abandon a sinking ship. In the end, all will know the truth, the truth that, if they will accept and act upon it, will make them free.

Hymn #2: The Spirit of God

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On  June 27, 2002, Saints in 72 countries around the world cried aloud, together with one voice, saying, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!”

I was there, wearing a suit that was crisp and new. The day had tremendous significance to me, as it was the day I was set apart as a full-time missionary, but it also had immense meaning to the Church as it was both the anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith and the dedication of the Nauvoo Temple. That dedication, broadcast via satellite around the world, was the first time that I can remember being part of the Hosanna Shout. Those of us in attendance—millions, I have to guess—joined with God’s prophet in waving white handkerchiefs and shouting those sacred words:

“Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!”

The word “Hosanna” comes from Hebrew, meaning “save now”, and the scriptures cite many examples of individuals or groups exclaiming it, often as a cry of jubilation. The first occurrence is in Psalms 118:25, translated literally; but it is rendered as the familiar “Hosanna” when retelling the Savior’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Nephi’s vision of the Tree of Life, when the Nephites see the resurrected Savior for the first time, and at other times as well.

There aren’t many times that we, as Latter-day Saints, shout in our worship services. The Hosanna Shout itself is reserved for sacred occasions—generally the dedication of temples, but it was also done (for example) at the dedication of the Conference Center in 2000. It was done for the first time in this dispensation at the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, a miraculous Pentecostal event that included angelic manifestations, speaking in tongues, and shortly thereafter the restoring of Priesthood keys through personal visitations to the prophet Joseph Smith by Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Savior Jesus Christ himself.

It was also at the Kirtland Temple dedication that W. W. Phelps’s hymn The Spirit of God was sung and became part of the LDS musical lexicon. The hymn had actually been written and published a year before that day in Kirtland, but it was there that it gained its meaning. The hymn aptly accompanies the dedication of a temple, as the Hosanna Shout is found right in the chorus:

We’ll sing and we’ll shout with the armies of heaven,
Hosanna, hosanna to God and the Lamb!
Let glory to them in the highest be given,
Henceforth and forever, Amen and amen!

With these words, The Spirit of God changes from being just a hymn—albeit a popular and beloved one—to being something far greater. When we sing this hymn, we literally unite in singing and praising God, saying, “Hosanna, hosanna, to God and the Lamb!”

There can be no doubt—The Spirit of God is a hymn about temples, and the glory of having temple worship restored to the Earth after centuries of apostasy.

The Spirit of God like a fire is burning!
The latter-day glory begins to come forth;
The visions and blessings of old are returning,
And angels are coming to visit the earth.

The first verse is the most familiar to us as Latter-day Saints. It speaks of the truths of the Gospel that had already been restored at that point—the angel Moroni, for one, had visited the earth and played a key role in bringing to light the Book of Mormon. But in another way, it is prophetic of what was to occur at Kirtland:

“…A noise was heard like the sound of a rushing mighty wind which filled the Temple, and all the congregation simultaneously arose, being moved upon by an invisible power; many began to speak in tongues and prophesy; others saw glorious visions; and I beheld the Temple was filled with angels.” (History of the Church, Vol.2, pp.427-8)

When we say that the Spirit of God like a fire is burning, it can be the fire of testimony in each of us; but it can also be what others saw outside the temple that day: “The people of the neighborhood came running together (hearing an unusual sound within, and seeing a bright light like a pillar of fire resting upon the Temple).”

The Lord is extending the Saints’ understanding,
Restoring their judges and all as at first.
The knowledge and power of God are expanding;
The veil o’er the earth is beginning to burst.

The second verse speaks to the spiritual education of the temple, and the power that comes to us from the knowledge we gain there. It’s reminiscent of the reasons that Abraham sought the Priesthood and temple blessings in his time: “…To be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and… to receive instructions…”

As we sing in this verse, the temple will extend our understanding of the mysteries of God, and the knowledge and power of God will expand within us. But more interestingly, the knowledge we gain in the temple causes the veil between us and the Eternal to become thinner; perhaps, should we be faithful enough, we can become like the brother of Jared and the Lord will momentarily remove the veil from our eyes.

We’ll call in our solemn assemblies in spirit,
To spread forth the kingdom of heaven abroad,
That we through our faith may begin to inherit
The visions and blessings and glories of God.

Solemn assemblies aren’t held frequently; they are generally held to sustain a new prophet and for the dedication of temples. There may not be a more sacred type of meeting held in the Church to which the general membership can be privy.

But what about “solemn assemblies in spirit”? Can we hold the personal equivalent of a solemn assembly within ourselves, and dedicate to the Lord the temples that are our bodies? Can we call ourselves to greater service within the Lord’s kingdom, to “spread forth the kingdom of heaven abroad?” Certainly we can—and doing so may be to only way we can “inherit the visions and blessings and glories of God.”

How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion
Shall lie down together without any ire,
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in Zion,
As Jesus descends with his chariot of fire!

The last verse is perhaps the second-best known, after the first, and it looks forward to the day when the temple will take on a new role. While now the temple allows us to receive ordinances for ourselves and for our dead, the day will come when the Holy One of Israel will return to His temple, ushering in a Millennium of peace when Christ will reign personally on the Earth.

As a 19-year-old in 2002, in my new suit and waving a white handkerchief, I shouted hosanna and praised God for giving his people a temple. But in retrospect, I had done it many times before… and have again many times since, in singing The Spirit of God.

Next time you sing this hymn, think about the chorus as you sing the words of the Hosanna Shout. Imagine waving a white handkerchief as you do, being there in Kirtland as the defining ordinances and blessings of a dispensation were ushered in after hundreds of years of darkness.

Join with me, and the very armies of Heaven, and together let’s sing: “Hosanna! Hosanna, to God and the Lamb!”

Hymn #19: We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet

This is the hymn that we, more than any other, associate with the leader of our church. We sing it at General Conference after he speaks to us. We sing it when he visits our local congregation (if we’re lucky enough to have him visit). I had a missionary companion who would listen to the song every morning. He would turn it on, look at me with an excited look on his face, and say, “Prophet song!”

I was set to write an essay about prophets for today. I was ready to tell you about the unique role prophets play in the gospel as watchmen, and about the sustaining power of continuing revelation. I read through the lyrics of the hymn, excited to find quotes that told us about the incredible gift of a living prophet.

A close reading of those lyrics, however, shows that the hymn is much less about prophets than we might be led to think. Listen to the first verse, excluding the first two lines:

We thank thee for sending the gospel
To lighten our minds with its rays.
We thank thee for every blessing
Bestowed by thy bounteous hand.
We feel it a pleasure to serve thee
And love to obey thy command.

I see themes of gratitude, obedience, truth and light, but not much about prophets. Adding the phrase “we thank thee, O God, for a prophet” certainly sheds a different light on the verse, but it seems to me in this hymn, we’re grateful for the entirety of the gospel, of which a living prophet is just one part. It’s not that we’re not grateful for him–after all, our gratitude for him is in the title–it’s that we’re not only grateful for him.

The gospel provides an anchor for us. We receive conflicting and changing messages in life, and having something constant to cling to helps us to stay pointed in the right direction. There’s a reason the gospel, the word of God, is described in scripture as an iron rod. It is strong, unshakable, and provided for us to hold to. It doesn’t just help us to stay put, either; it leads us to our final destination of God’s presence.

When dark clouds of trouble hang o’er us
And threaten our peace to destroy,
There is hope smiling brightly before us,
And we know that deliv’rance is nigh.

We are grateful for the gospel in its entirety because we know that obedience to it will bring us through the challenges of life. We can look those trials in the face with a smile, knowing that God will bring us through to the other side. We know He can be counted on to fulfill His end of the bargain, so long as we keep up our end. We can count on Him because, as we sing, “we’ve proved him in days that are past.” He has always, in every case, been there to support us (though perhaps not in obvious or expected ways), and we know that He always will be.

Prophets are an important part of this protective aspect of the gospel, of course. The Lord protects us by warning us of dangers ahead, and He does that through a prophet. While the gospel gives us general counsel, a prophet can give us specific counsel relevant to our unique situations. Ancient scripture can warn us about the dangers of dishonesty and theft. A modern prophet can counsel us against online piracy and copyright violations.

So we’re grateful for our prophet, but grateful for him as a part of the gospel as a whole. We are blessed to have that truth in our lives to guide us in the right way. We rejoice in that gospel, and “bask in its life-giving light.” We know that as we are obedient to the principles we’ve been taught (by a prophet, no less!), we can go on to eternal perfection and the happiness that will accompany it.

We’re grateful for the gospel, and we’re grateful for all of it.

Hymn #12: ‘Twas Witnessed in the Morning Sky

We’ve already covered a number of restoration hymns on this blog, but this one has some uniquely beautiful messages that I want to look at in detail.

The imagery of the first verse can teach us a lot about the Restoration generally. Notice that this is something seen specifically in “the morning sky.” Why the morning sky rather than midday or evening, or even plain old “sky?” The restoration of the gospel came as the dawn after a long night. Dawn is such a hopeful and refreshing time of day, much as the gospel brought hope and light and refreshment to the earth. We also learn that “an angel” came to bring “the gospel’s joyful sound.” This angel—Moroni—is also described as a “messenger” (see this post for more on the importance of angels as messengers), and it’s significant that part of what he helped restore was the priesthood, the “pow’r” by which the gospel “would be preached on earth / by men of God ordained.” This first verse even contains the goal of the restoration: that “all men” would “accept and praise [God’s] name.”

There’s a lot packed into that first verse—the message and messenger, the priesthood and its purpose—but there is one crucial word that the next two verses dwell on, and it’s buried in the following lines:

The messenger proclaimed anew
The gospel’s joyful sound.

Did you catch it? It’s the word “anew.”

The last two thirds of this hymn focus on the ancient prophets and how their dispensations connect up with this one. For instance, verse 2 recounts:

In ancient days the gospel plan
Was giv’n of God to men;
In latter days the gospel is
Restored to earth again.

And verse 3 says the following:

Apostles of a former day
To modern prophets came;
They brought the priesthood of our Lord
To bless the earth again.

This hymn doesn’t simply want to tell us about what is being restored to us; it wants us to understand where it is being restored from.

One of the most significant and powerful statements Joseph Smith ever made about the gospel came in a discourse he gave in the summer of 1839: “we cannot be made perfect without them, nor they without us.” Although we’re already familiar with this statement from D&C 128:15, in the discourse Joseph gives it a slightly different context. “They” are not just our immediate ancestors, for whom we must do family history work; they are the ancient patriarchs—Adam, Seth, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, etc! Joseph Smith was teaching that there is an important connection between us and the ancient saints, and it’s a connection we’ve got to be aware of.

It’s not enough that the gospel was restored anew to us; we have to be equally cognizant of where it was restored from, who had it before us, and how they lived relative to it. If we focus too much on our daily life and the principles of the restoration for us, we’ll miss the important covenants that stretch across generations.

This is why I’m so fascinated by this scene of Moroni coming to meet Joseph Smith. Moroni was sent precisely because he came from the previous era, because he was one of the ancients who cared enough about the covenant to risk his life and spend decades bearing the plates across a dangerous landscape all by himself. When he appeared to Joseph, it was not significant simply as a meeting of the human with the divine, but the ancient with the modern, forging a relationship and carrying on a covenant that must stretch across generations in order to accomplish salvation.

Along the same lines, Joseph Smith also told us to “go … and do the works of Abraham” (D&C 132:32). We’ve got to live the same faithful life, receive the same difficult revelations, and wrestle with the strangeness of the same God as our ancient fathers. We’re part of the same family, and if we don’t feel that bond across the generations, our very salvation—and theirs!—is at stake.

When this hymn tells us that the gospel is for “all men, all tongues, all nations,” the Lord really does mean all, including people from all time periods of history. We can’t forget that we’re in this together, on both sides of the veil. We’ve got to turn our hearts to our fathers, ancient as well as modern, and the ability to do so is one of the greatest blessings of the restoration.

Hymn #38: Come, All Ye Saints of Zion

Come, all ye Saints of Zion,
And let us praise the Lord;
His ransomed are returning,
According to his word.
In sacred song and gladness
They walk the narrow way
And thank the Lord who brought them
To see the latter day.

Given that it was written by none other than W. W. Phelps–printer of the Book of Commandments (the earliest edition of the Doctrine & Covenants) and author of 25 other LDS hymns–it’s not surprising that the topic of this hymn would be the gathering of Israel. It was an idea dear to the hearts of the early Saints. They clung to the hope that someday they would reach Zion, a beautiful place where they could worship God in safety, prosperity, and peace. Despite all the hardships they faced, people continued to join their ever-growing ranks. They sang happy songs, praising the Lord and thanking Him for restoring the gospel. They rejoiced to see the final dispensation ushered in during the latter days.

Come, ye dispersed of Judah,
Join in the theme and sing
With harmony unceasing
The praises of our King,
Whose arm is now extended,
On which the world may gaze,
To gather up the righteous
In these the latter days.

In 1841–only a few years after this hymn was written–Orson Hyde journeyed to Jerusalem to dedicate it for the return of the Jewish people. That return soon began in earnest, as Jews everywhere began to flock to the Middle East. The idea of observing Passover in the Holy Land became a reality for many throughout the world. With the establishment of the modern nation of Israel, there was no denying that the “dispersed of Judah” were being gathered again in the latter days.

Rejoice, rejoice, O Israel,
And let your joys abound!
The voice of God shall reach you
Wherever you are found
And call you back from bondage,
That you may sing his praise
In Zion and Jerusalem,
In these the latter days.

One of the scripture references for this hymn is Isaiah 52:7:

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!”

Usually this verse (and any other that talks about the feet of people on mountains) is taken to be a reference to temple ordinances performed by proxy for the dead. In that context, this verse could be referring to those who have died without knowledge of the gospel. As family names are found and taken to temples all over the world, the voice of God is reaching even those beyond the veil. The dead are given the opportunity to accept the saving ordinances performed on their behalf and be released from their spiritual bondage. They, too, can join in singing praises for the blessings made available in these latter days.

Then gather up for Zion,
Ye Saints thruout the land,
And clear the way before you,
As God shall give command.
Tho wicked men and devils
Exert their pow’r, ’tis vain,
Since He who is eternal
Has said you shall obtain.

The early saints congregating in Ohio and Illinois and eventually Utah, the Jewish people thronging to the Middle East, the countless souls in spirit prison waiting for saving ordinances–none of these gatherings have been without conflict and controversy.  Bringing so many people together is hard! And let’s not forget that the ever-elusive Zion is still not a specific physical location.

Yet still we come. We purify our hearts and covenant to follow Christ and create Zion in our stakes, wards, and homes. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints now has over fifteen million members throughout the world and is growing rapidly. In spite of “wicked men and devils” God’s work will be accomplished.

So let’s continue to gather up! Share the gospel, go to the temple, and clear a space for our brothers and sisters to join us in Zion, wherever we may be.

shepherd

Hymn #14: Sweet Is the Peace the Gospel Brings

shepherd

Fun fact, albeit one that adds little to our understanding of the hymn: The lyrics were written by Mary Ann Morton Durham, and the tune was written by Alfred M. Durham, her nephew.

As BJ pointed out on Monday, many LDS hymns additional verses that aren’t traditionally sung, and in order to get a full understanding of the hymn, we ought to look at the full text. This hymn has seven verses, only three of which are usually sung in our meetings. Those three verses are nice, but having read the last four over, it feels a shame that we miss them most of the time.

As the title suggests, this hymn is about the comfort the gospel brings us. The teachings and counsel we’re given, though they seem restrictive, are actually for our protection and “show a Father’s care.” They aren’t fences built to prevent us from getting out; they’re fences built to keep destructive forces at bay. We see the Father’s love in the gospel, and it brings us sweet peace.

Those fences, however, are only as effective as we let them be. A fence doesn’t do you much good when you leave the gate open, nor is it much use if you’re standing on the wrong side. The fourth verse reminds us that while the gospel brings us peace, it’s at least partially up to us to ensure that it stays with us:

May we who know the sacred Name
From every sin depart.
Then will the Spirit’s constant flame
Preserve us pure in heart.

The “sacred Name” isn’t a big secret only known to a select few. It’s the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. This is less an issue of knowing His name and more one of choosing to take it upon ourselves. When we do that at baptism, we promise to be obedient to His teachings, and as we do so, we can have His spirit to be with us to guide us in the right way. We are reminded of that promise every week as we take the sacrament. As we do our best to avoid making mistakes and to live up to our promise, in time, our desire to sin is taken from us, as we hear in the fifth and sixth verses:

Ere long the tempter’s power will cease,
And sin no more annoy,
No wrangling sects disturb our peace,
Or mar our heartfelt joy.

That which we have in part received
Will be in part no more,
For he in whom we all believe
To us will all restore.

The goal, in the long run, is a reunion with our Savior as we are welcomed back into His presence. Sin will have no power over us in that day, as we feel the “heartfelt joy” of being reunited not only with our Lord, but also with friends and family who have gone before. We won’t have a partial, indirect relationship with our Redeemer, but a direct one, where we can speak with Him face to face. All will be restored to us: health, relationships, purity, and joy.

And yet, there’s that phrase “ere long.” How long? I don’t get the sense that this is a day that will come any time soon. We’re to look forward to that day, preparing ourselves through righteous living, but it probably won’t be next week. It probably won’t be within the next fifty years. We work our hardest to remove things from our lives that keep us from feeling that gospel peace. We try to avoid sin, doubt, and apathy. We fall short, and we pick ourselves up again. And we fall short, and we pick ourselves up again.

The road is long. We push forward, trying our best to endure to the end. And as we do, we could sing the seventh verse to help us keep pushing:

In patience, then, let us possess
Our souls till he appear.
On to our mark of calling press;
Redemption draweth near.

In our patience we possess our souls. We remember that the journey is long, and that there are no shortcuts. As we stick to the path, we are secure in the knowledge that we’re headed to an end in which God Himself shall wipe our tears away. We possess our souls as we stay within the bounds He has set for us, standing behind the fence and feeling the sweet peace of knowing that even if the journey is long, we are in the right way.

Hymn #7: Israel, Israel, God is Calling

This hymn references a doctrine at the heart of Mormon theology: the gathering of scattered Israel. We get an overview of this in the tenth Article of Faith, a list of basic principles of Mormonism. It reads that Latter-day Saints believe in a literal gathering of Israel and its Ten Tribes, that “Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” 

This hymn is all about God calling His people to Zion, even commanding them to flee out of Babylon before “God shall all her tow’rs o’erthrow.” The first verse and fourth verses especially focus on an Old Testament-type God, the one who strikes evil from the earth and warns us to repent “ere his floods of anger flow.”

Most importantly, when God asks us to “come to Zion,” He isn’t demanding a mass exodus from wherever it is we live. In a great talk titled “The Gathering of Scattered Israel” by Elder Russell M. Nelson, he illustrates how God, in gathering His saints to Zion, is really asking us for a full conversion to Jesus Christ.

The choice to come unto Christ is not a matter of physical location; it is a matter of individual commitment. People can be “brought to the knowledge of the Lord” without leaving their homelands…The Lord has decreed the establishment of Zion in each realm where He has given His Saints their birth and nationality…The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.”  Zion is wherever righteous Saints are.

Part of this conversion is highlighted in a phrase in the fourth verse of this hymn especially: ”Mark how judgment’s pointing finger/justifies no vain delays.”

Vain delays. Man, what a turn of phrase. If we take “vain” here to mean “empty” or “meaningless,” it suddenly takes on even more specific and stinging meaning. In my opinion “vain delays” could mean an entire spectrum of spiritual stagnation. Delaying our conversion to Christ because we refuse to give up our favorite sins. Putting off repentance or even refusing God’s perspective because we are filled with what we think is right and proper indignation at someone else’s wrongdoing. Filling our lives with so many activities or so many time-wasters that we don’t have time for God or fellowmen.

In the end, I believe the point of God’s entire gospel is just trying to prepare us to be able to bear the glory of Jesus Christ when He comes again. In the Book of Mormon, Moroni warns us that by pushing Christ away, we merely ensure that we “would be more miserable to dwell with a holy and just God, under a consciousness of [our] filthiness before him, than [we] would to dwell with the damned souls in hell” (Mormon 9:4).

On the flip side, if we accept Christ and do what He asks us to, the blessings and protections and promises of glory are, to me, breathtaking:

Israel, angels are descending
From celestial worlds on high,
And to man their pow’r extending,
That the Saints may homeward fly.
Come to Zion, come to Zion,
For your coming Lord is nigh.
Israel, God is calling us.
So, I say we go.
Let’s go to Zion, spiritually allow ourselves the chance to give up our pet sins and pride and vain delays and take up residence in Christ’s kingdom “to go no more out” (Alma 34:36).
What do you say? You in?

Hymn #13: An Angel From On High

This hymn, this good, old-fashioned Restoration hymn, provides us a pretty good overview of the early days of the Latter-day Saint church. It’s an anthem to the Prophet Joseph Smith, a synopsis of the Book of Mormon, of the prophets who all cobbled together to write down history and revelation alike and hide it up so it could be discovered in the Lord’s appointed time.

An angel from on high
The long, long silence broke;
Descending from the sky,
These gracious words he spoke:
Lo! in Cumorah’s lonely hill
A sacred record lies concealed.

The angel referred to in this first verse is the Angel Moroni, who in life was the last caretaker of a record which had been carefully passed along for nearly a thousand years. This record told the story of Lehi, a prophet in Jerusalem and a contemporary of Jeremiah, who was commanded by the Lord to remove his family and flee into the wilderness before the great city fell. Lehi’s family migrated and multiplied and fell in and out of faith and eventually split into factions–the Nephites and Lamanites–who eventually broke into a war that only ended after all the Nephites were dead.

Moroni was given the task of finishing the record after his father, Mormon, had abridged it. Moroni wrote the following near the end of the record:

“I, Moroni, do finish the record of my father, Mormon…my father also was killed by [the Lamanites], and I even remain alone to write the sad tale of the destruction of my people…whether they will slay me, I know not.

“Therefore I will write and hide up the records in the earth; and whither I go it mattereth not” (Mormon 8: 1-4).

Can’t you feel his despair? Can you even imagine being the last of your kinfolk, the last of your kind, having to live out the rest of your life in hiding because the Lord commanded you to keep a record safe? I cannot even imagine the unutterable loneliness of Moroni’s final days.

Sealed by Moroni’s hand,
It has for ages lain
To wait the Lord’s command,
From dust to speak again.
It shall again to light come forth
To usher in Christ’s reign on earth.

So what does this mean for us, exactly? All the sacrifices and bloodshed and heartache that were part of bringing this record of an ancient, long-dead people into our hands…what do we do with it?

Moroni gives us the answer in his final chapter.

“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them…

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

“And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:3-5).

We read the Book of Mormon. We pray to ask if it’s real and truly the word of God. Then we follow its words. This record is full of the teachings of ancient prophets, who prophesied of Christ before He was born and gave testament of his Ultimate Sacrifice, when the earth would rend and the heavens weep at His brutal death.

I know this book is real, that these words are real words from truly inspired people, but also that by following its teachings my life is more peaceful and more complete. This book, the Book of Mormon brings me to God and to Jesus Christ. I also believe this book brought about the beginning of a restoration of Christ’s church on the earth, and that He will come again to bring peace and healing to our weary world and build Zion again.

Lo! Israel filled with joy
Shall now be gathered home,
Their wealth and means employ
To build Jerusalem,
While Zion shall arise and shine
And fill the earth with truth divine.

Hymn #40: Arise, O Glorious Zion

Like most of the hymns about Zion, this one is bright, strong, and uptempo. We sing brightly, and we sing with conviction. We sing with power, and it’s because when we sing about Zion, we sing about the kingdom of God. Other hymns focus on the God’s attributes, like His kindness and mercy, but this is less about Him and more about the organization of His kingdom. We’re singing less about the Master and more about the walls of His city.

It’s not surprising, then, that the hymn has a distinctly military feel to it. There’s a strong quarter time beat driving the melody, which moves quickly with cascading eighth notes. The soprano and tenor parts go all the way up to E, which is pretty high for a hymn intended for a mass audience. Those high notes give the hymn a soaring feeling, which adds to the sense of disciplined precision that comes with the quick pace. The tune is even titled “Victory.”

Military imagery abounds in this hymn. We begin by describing the Lord as our “sure defender.” He protects us from sin and death through His atonement, but here, the image is not so much a gentle shepherd as an armor-clad warrior. He is strong, and He is capable of beating back the forces of evil. He is our captain in the war against sin, and His victory (and ours, if we ally ourselves with Him) is sure.

We take part in the war too, of course. The victory is His, and it was hard-fought, but we have our skirmishes to come through as well. The third verse details our role in the struggle:

Thru painful tribulation
We walk the narrow road
And battle with temptation
To gain the blest abode.
But patient, firm endurance,
With glory in our view,
The Spirit’s bright assurance
Will bring us conq’rors through.

The gospel message of enduring to the end is just as apparent as is the imagery of military discipline. We are soldiers, trained in the duty of the Lord. Like soldiers, we are to give total loyalty and obedience to Him. We walk a narrow road, following our orders with exactness, turning neither to the right nor to the left. We do battle with temptation, and we do so not only because we have been so commanded, but because we know there is a reward in store. And as we follow those commands with “patient, firm endurance,” we help to earn the victory over evil. We don’t simply survive the struggle, as is often our sense of enduring to the end. This hymn tells us that we will be conquerors. We will be victorious, and just as there is no question who is the conqueror and who is the conquered in the aftermath of a war, there will be no question which side has won the victory in the end.

In the fourth verse, we return to the familiar theme of singing praise to our King. We join with the “hosts of heaven,” singing glory to our Redeemer. Having already sung three verses with military fervor, it’s not hard to imagine those hosts of heaven lined up in neat rows, standing at attention. We unite our voices in perfect unison, singing as one the “immortal theme” of praise.

This is the goal, and the end of our faith and devotion. We aim to arrive here, capable of making our hearts and voices one with the saints. Zion is the pure in heart. We give our hearts fully to the Lord and without reservation. That’s not to say that there’s no room for individualism in Zion, and it’s not to say that we’ll act as a hive mind, but it does imply to me that we will have purified ourselves (or, rather, have been purified through the cleansing power of the atonement) to the point where we can act and love as the Savior does. John told us that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.” We will see Him through His own redeeming love. When we can do that, we will be numbered among the pure in heart.

That’s the end goal, anyway. It’s still a long way off, and we have a lot of steps yet to cover in that journey. But this fourth verse reminds us of the end we’re striving for, and gives us a glimpse of the time when we can join with the hosts of heaven and sing glory to him “whose blood did us redeem.”

Hymn #25: Now We’ll Sing with One Accord

This is a hymn we don’t often hear in church. I don’t think I’ve ever sung it in sacrament meeting, although it turns out that I have at least heard it once. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang this hymn during the April 2009 General Conference. WordPress doesn’t allow us to embed the video here, sadly, but you can view it here. You should, or at the very least, listen to the hymn via the link we’ve provided at the top.

Notice anything unusual about the hymn? The rhyme scheme is unique among the hymns we’ve talked about so far this year. While most LDS hymns follow an ABAB scheme, this hymn uses AAABCCCD. The fourth and eighth line of each verse don’t rhyme with anything else in the verse, causing them to stand out from the rest of the lyrics. Perhaps even more interesting is that the fourth lines of the first, second, and third verses all rhyme with each other, and they in turn rhyme with the last line of the fourth verse. It’s an unorthodox technique that serves to tie the verses together, while drawing attention to the non-rhyming lines within each verse.

So why those lines in particular? How do they tie this hymn together? Well, first we’ll have to start with understanding what this hymn is all about. The first two lines tell us that “now we’ll sing with one accord/for a prophet of the Lord,” and those attentive enough to review the topics found at the bottom of each hymn will see that the prophet in question is Joseph Smith. (Even if you hadn’t, you could be forgiven for assuming the hymn was about Joseph Smith; “the prophet” virtually always refers to Joseph Smith within LDS psalmody.) We sing about his role as restorer (“brought the priesthood back again”) and as translator (“for the Gentile and the Jew/he translated sacredly”). We sing boldly, as we do with many of the hymns of the restoration. The claim of a modern-day prophet is a bold one, as are the claims of continuing revelation and restored authority from on high, and the tone of the hymn reflects that boldness.

So we’re singing about the restoration and Joseph Smith; what about those four lines in each verse that tie the hymn together? Let’s take a look at them and see. In verse one, the line that sticks out is “cheers the Saints as anciently.” We receive revelation and guidance from the Lord as did His faithful in years past. That’s cause for cheer. It’s easy to feel adrift in a sea of conflicting messages. The clarity of the gospel message helps us to keep our bearings straight, and it brings us joy.

In the second verse, the special line is “in its ancient purity,” referring to the restored authority of the priesthood. It was restored through Joseph, yes, but the authority is the same as it ever was. It is the authority of God given to man to direct His work as though He were here. It was given to men in ancient times, and it is given to us today. The line in the third verse dovetails with that theme nicely: “He translated sacredly.” Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, a book of scripture that shows us that God spoke to more than one group of people. He translated the book not because of his expertise in Meso-American languages, or because of his mastery of ancient scripture, but because he received authority from God to do so. It’s the same authority held by ancient prophets like Moses and Abraham, and it’s the same authority held by modern prophets like Thomas S. Monson today.

The hymn concludes with the line “purer for eternity,” referring to Zion. It will spread throughout the earth during the Millennium as every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is the Christ. And again, it has little to do with our own efforts (though we do, and will, work toward building the kingdom) and instead much to do with the power of the Almighty. This is His work, and it will not fail. The gospel has been restored to Earth, never to be taken again.

We sing about Joseph Smith, but these lines that stick out in the middle of each verse remind us that when we sing about him, we sing about the power of God, restored through him. Joseph is no longer with us, gone nearly 170 years now, but the church thrives. We revere him, but we worship the God who made the restoration he accomplished possible. And so when we sing this hymn, we sing about a great man, but also about great men to come (“prudent in this world of woes/they will triumph o’er their foes”) as they are given inspiration, guidance, and authority from on high.

Hymn #20: God of Power, God of Right

After spending some time with this hymn, I think it’s a pity that it isn’t sung more often. It’s of a handful that takes up less than a page in the hymnbook, but it contains a profound lesson about God’s process of turning ordinary people like you and me into celestial beings.

The hymn begins with an image of God’s strength:

God of power, God of right,
Guide us with thy priesthood’s might.
Forge our souls in living fire;
Shape them to thy great desire.

It’s not difficult to picture the Creator of all things sweating and pounding diligently to produce something useful and worthwhile out of raw material. Great effort, constant vigilance, and perfect timing are vital to this process; one misstep and the metal can be ruined. Lucky for us, the One forging our souls is a master blacksmith.

Likening souls to metal naturally brings to mind the ubiquitous metaphor of the refiner’s fire. I especially like this verse in Proverbs: “Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer” (25:4). Once the impurities are removed, the precious metal is not just left as a shiny lump, but it is shaped into a vessel–through “priesthood might”, as the verse says–to be filled as its Maker sees fit.

And with what does He fill us? With knowledge.

God of wisdom, God of truth,
Take us in our eager youth;
Lift us step by step to thee
Thru an endless ministry.

When we are ready and willing, He will teach us what we need to know to be like Him. We learn from the scriptures, the words of living prophets, our patriarchal blessings, instruction in the temple, Sunday School classes, personal revelation…as I’ve mentioned before, this is a gospel of learning. And, as the goal is to progress eternally, it will be an eternal process for us to gain the wisdom our Father has.

With all that earlier talk of power and might, though, it would be easy to see this as a forceful process. Fortunately for us this is not the case. God does not pound us into shape and cram us full of whatever is necessary for us to be saved. He doesn’t work like that, as the third verse reminds us.

God of mercy, God of love,
Let thy Spirit, like the dove,
Touch and humble, teach and bless,
As we serve in holiness.

His mercy and love are the reason He blessed us with the ability to choose for ourselves. If we will accept His mercy and allow the Holy Ghost to “touch and humble, teach and bless” us, we can be “shape[d] to [His] great desire”.

God is omnipotent; He can perfect even the most flawed among us. God is omniscient; He knows exactly what we need to be sanctified. God loves us; He lets us choose whether or not to let Him make us something great. It is our decisions that will ultimately determine our destiny (see this talk by President Monson).

Notice that the hymn is written as a prayer, though. We are acknowledging His attributes and asking Him to use them to guide us and lift us. We’ve already made our choice: to “serve in holiness.”

Hymn #3: Now Let Us Rejoice

Now Let Us Rejoice was included in the original LDS hymnbook, only five years after the church was organized. It was a time of great excitement within the church; significant new doctrines were being revealed frequently, and many had great spiritual manifestations. If you were a member of the Church at that time, you likely had a fairly strong belief that God was actively working in the world, and that revelation, visions, miracles, and so forth were not just things out of scripture. These were things happening last week, and happening now, and happening again soon.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve lost some of that faith today. It may seem easier to just focus on the things that affect us today, and let the future take care of itself. There are many wonderful things we teach and preach and discuss, of course—things that can help us become better people and draw closer to Christ. These are all very appropriate to discuss, and important for our salvation. We talk about how Christ’s Atonement can bring peace and healing to us now. We talk about service to others, and how we should strive to become Christ-like people. These are wonderful topics, and I’m glad we discuss them often. These are the things that will change us into the people God wants us to become. They will lighten our burdens and enrich our lives, and those are things we all need.

I wonder, though, if we get so caught up in the potter’s wheel or the refiner’s fire that we forget to have hope in the promises God has made. We are living in the long-prophesied last days before Christ’s return! His millennial reign, full of peace and happiness and glory, is close at hand! Shouldn’t that get us at least a little bit excited?

This hymn is excited about the millennium, and has no qualms about it. Here’s the chorus of the first two verses:

Then all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And none will molest them from morn until ev’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Jesus will say to all Israel, “Come home.”

Considering the persecution that early church members endured, the notion that “none will molest them” must have seemed pretty nice. We generally don’t face the same opposition they did, but it’s still not always easy to stand for faith and revealed truth in a world that has largely abandoned both.  Further, the millennium will be a time when “Christ will reign personally upon the earth, and the Earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” (Article of Faith 10)  How could we not be excited for that?

And yet, sometimes it seems so distant. It’s easy to believe that God has acted in the past, and that he will probably act sometime in the future, but it’s sometimes hard to believe that it could actually happen now, during our own lives. I don’t know if Christ’s second coming will be in my lifetime. I hope that it is—I look forward to it. But whether it is or not, I have hope in these and all the other blessings promised in the revelations. God has exciting things planned for the Saints, and it is appropriate to anticipate them and to be excited about them. The third verse has a different chorus, one that applies not just to those who live to see the millennium, but to every one who will accept the covenants God offers us:

Then all that was promised the Saints will be given,
And they will be crown’d with the angels of heav’n,
And earth will appear as the Garden of Eden,
And Christ and his people will ever be one.

Let’s keep hope in the promised blessings. When life is hard, let’s rely with faith on the arm of Jehovah, and trust that the end will be glorious. Whether in the millennium or after this life, there is a wonderful world in store for us. Now let us rejoice!

Hymn #9: Come, Rejoice

Come, Rejoice is one of several LDS hymns that praise God for the restoration of the gospel. Verse 1 invites all to “come, rejoice” because “the king of glory / speaks to earth again.” But the actual content of the restoration is presented in surprising terms:

Truth bursts forth in radiant light
Showing all the path of right

Truth is not what is illuminated, it is what does the illuminating; “truth” is what “show[s] … the path of right.” Too often we talk about the gospel as a bunch of “things I believe” or assertions to which we give intellectual assent. This hymn reminds us that truth encompasses much more. Truth is not the content of our gospel, but rather the enlightening power of our gospel, and a religious life involves allowing truth to guide our walk in “the path of right.” This demanding way of life—walking a certain path, singing a “joyous, wondrous strain”—is something we can get our whole soul behind. A religion that is nothing more than “stuff I think” doesn’t amount to much. The gospel, properly understood, is something one walks by, something that provides the melody of one’s life.

This hymn is also unique because it not only praises God simply for the fact of the restoration, but also for the method by which the gospel is restored:

Angels, messengers from heaven,
Come to earth once more;
Bring to men the glorious gospel;
Priceless truths restore

God sends “messengers from heaven.” The word “angel,” in both Hebrew and Greek, simply means “messenger,” and the scriptures are full of instances of God sending angels to earth. But scripture also contains stories of his earthly servants becoming messengers, as well.

One of the most potent examples occurs when the prophet Isaiah is startled to find himself, quite suddenly, in the middle of a vision. He sees the Lord and his heavenly council sitting in the temple. Naturally, Isaiah is concerned about his worthiness: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). After he cries out in distress, one of the seraphim lays a hot coal to his lips and says “thy sin is purged” (Isa 6:7), after which Isaiah is admitted into the council. He hears the Lord ask “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Without yet knowing the assignment, Isaiah faithfully responds “Here am I; send me” (Isa 6:8). He is given his prophetic commission to preach repentance to Israel, and the vision ends.

Isaiah becomes a human messenger, and the pattern is quite simple: he is taken into God’s heavenly council, receives an assignment, and is sent back out.

This vision is fairly common among ancient prophets. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi experienced the same call. He “saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded by numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Ne 1:8). One of the heavenly beings hands Lehi a book, in which he reads the destruction of Jerusalem. As a result, Lehi “went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard” (1 Ne 1:18). Like Isaiah, Lehi was taken into God’s heavenly council, received an assignment, and sent back out.

God’s pattern of sending angels/messengers to teach us truth is a powerful expression of love. He calls forth our faith not through abstract religious principles delivered en masse, but through personal encounters with his servants, and invites us to join his councils and participate in the same work. This is why the third verse no longer invites us to “come, rejoice,” but to “sing, rejoice!” By the third verse of this hymn, the congregation is enacting the ritual singing around God’s throne envisioned by Lehi and other prophets before him. When we participate in hymns, we are joining with the angels who praise in heaven. Hymn-singing is a powerful enactment of our joint participation in the work of the angels, and Come, rejoice reminds us of the symbolism of that worship.

God has revealed a powerful, illuminating Truth. He did it through messengers. And he invites us to participate in the same work.

Come rejoice, indeed.

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Hymn #31: O God, Our Help in Ages Past

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We hear a lot about the goodness, grace, and mercy of the Lord from the hymns. We sing about His kindness, and we rejoice in His endless love. The hymns are, after all, hymns of praise, or else what are we doing singing them? But for whatever reason, I don’t feel as much that the hymns emphasize the strength and stability of the Lord. Oh, we have those hymns, certainly (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” comes to mind, as well as almost any hymn that mentions the word “mountain”), but I imagine for every mention of the word “strong” in the hymns, you hear words like “good” and “joy” many times over.

This is a strong hymn. We are directed to sing “with dignity,” befitting the resolute strength and majesty of the Lord we sing about. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Isaac Watts wrote these lyrics in the 1700s. This was a time when God was not a figure to be loved so much as revered and feared. He inspired awe, not joy. That’s not to say that those gentler aspects weren’t understood, but they weren’t emphasized. The period was much more Johann Sebastian Bach than Janice Kapp Perry.

The Lord is strong and unmoving. When all other things are changing and unsteady, we can always depend on the Lord to be reliable. And so we begin our hymn by singing about His unchanging nature. He is our help in ages past as well as our hope for years to come. He has ever been there for us. He ever will be. It is never He who departs from us. He is always there, protecting and defending us, so long as we allow Him to.

This is how it’s always been, says verse three:

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

And so it ever will be. He is our shelter and our home. He is four walls and a roof that will never shake or crumble. The image is a vivid one, and maybe especially now that it’s winter. I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but where I am, it’s cold and windy. The rain is hitting the windows hard enough that it sounds like sand. The walls creak and groan under the gusts of wind, but they never give. Of course, they might, but then again, mine isn’t the house we’re talking about. If your house is the Lord, then you can be sure that it won’t collapse, no matter how strong the stormy blast. We can count on Him, and always count on Him, no matter what we’re up against. In the second verse, we sing that “sufficient is [His] arm alone, and our defense is sure.” If God is for us, who can be against us?

And as if several paragraphs of me making the same point over and over again wasn’t enough to convince you that the theme of this hymn is “unchanging,” we arrive at the fourth and final verse, which is nearly identical to the first:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home
.

The first and fourth verses almost serve as a chorus. In the verses, we get specifics, but in the chorus, we return to the general theme of the song, echoing the constancy of the Lord. And it’s fitting that in a hymn about constancy, the hymn itself is bookended with the same message. God always was our hope. He always will be. He is our refuge, and He will never fail us. He is our home.

Hymn #29: A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief

A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief is well-known as a favorite of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He asked John Taylor to sing it in Carthage Jail shortly before his death, and then asked him to sing it again. The scene is moving—a psalm in preparation for death, a memorial of an impending martyrdom.

The lyrics are from the poem The Stranger and His Friend by James Montgomery, which in turn draws inspiration from Matthew 25. As we sing the song, we take the place of the narrator and meet the stranger ourselves, a poor wandering man, lost and humbly seeking aid.

I had not pow’r to ask his name,
Whereto he went, or whence he came;
Yet there was something in his eye
That won my love; I knew not why.

In each verse, the stranger is found in need. Taking the place of the narrator as we sing, we give the stranger bread, of our scanty meal. We raise him up and fetch him water. We take him in, out of the storm. There are only a few hymns written in the first person, and even fewer that place us inside an external narrative. This is not a song about how Christ cared for the needy. It’s about us, and our need to do what Christ does.

And yet, even as we seek to lift others, a blessing returns back to us. The stranger gives back a crust of bread and it becomes manna to [our] taste. He fills the cup and returns it, and we sing “I drank and never thirsted more.” As he sleeps in our own bed, the floor we sleep on becomes “as Eden’s garden.” The service we gave without thought of reward multiplies and blesses our own lives far beyond the original gift we gave. As King Benjamin taught:

ye should do as [God] hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you. (Mosiah 2:24)

Not only do we receive blessings as we serve others—our own wounds are healed as well. From the fifth verse:

… he was healed.
I had myself a wound concealed,
But from that hour forgot the smart,
And peace bound up my broken heart.

Service to others heals wounds, alleviates trials, and strengthens us. This is something I understand conceptually, but often forget to apply in the hour of need.

This hymn does not focus on Christ’s life, teachings, or atonement as many others do. Rather, it emphasizes the Christ-like ideals we hope to find in ourselves—charity, service, kindness, and selfless love. As I sing this song, I am led to ponder my own desires. Would I give so freely to a stranger? Would I recognize the needs of someone who “often crossed me on my way?” Would I invite someone in out of the storm? Or am I, perhaps, too absorbed in my own activities to take notice? Am I too busy being myself to be like Christ?

We could stop after the first five verses and have a wonderful song about service and the blessings that it brings. The last two verses, though, really drive home the divine mandate we have to serve our fellow man. I like to imagine them as heard by Joseph in Carthage Jail. Take a moment to really read them.

In prison I saw him next, condemned
To meet a traitor’s doom at morn.
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him ‘mid shame and scorn.
My friendship’s utmost zeal to try,
He asked if I for him would die.
The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill,
But my free spirit cried, “I will!”

Then in a moment to my view
The stranger started from disguise.
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The Savior stood before mine eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named,
“Of me thou hast not been ashamed.
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.”

Imagine Joseph, hearing these words shortly before his death. Imagine the comfort it gave to a man who had suffered so greatly in restoring the gospel of Christ. Then, consider what it can mean for us. Christ himself taught that when we care for God’s children, we are serving God himself. Service to others is not just something we do to be like Christ; it is an integral part of our relationship with Christ. Just as Joseph came to know his Savior, we can know him too.

The poor, wayfaring man reminds us that our goal is not just to become like him; in the end and along the way, we seek to know Him. What a wonderful blessing!


Hymn #47: We Will Sing of Zion

The title says it all, really. We spend three verses singing of Zion. It’s a simple sentiment, and its simplicity speaks volumes. Each line only has from five to seven syllables (6 5 7 7 6, to be precise), and not a syllable is wasted in telling us what Zion is, who makes it up, and where it will go.

So what is Zion, exactly? We find out right off the bat: Zion is the pure in heart, those who seek the Savior’s part. The phrase “the pure in heart” is a stock answer in LDS culture to define Zion, but it’s a stock answer for a reason. The pure in heart are those without any, well, impurities in their hearts. They don’t have anything that distracts them or prevents them from giving themselves fully to their Savior. They are filled with His love, and as we sing, they seek the Savior’s part. They keep Him in their hearts and minds as best as they can.

As we purify our hearts and listen to the “revelations giv’n by God to men,” we learn one of Zion’s main functions. Zion readies us to see the Savior come again. It certainly helps us to prepare to meet Him at His second coming. We learn the signs, we learn His teachings, and we learn how to become more like Him. The prophets teach us by revelation, and we can receive those revelations, too, as we follow those teachings and keep ourselves pure. But I think Zion also helps us prepare for the second coming by getting us excited to see Him when He comes again. We look forward to that day. We are directed to sing resolutely. There is nothing holding us back, no lingering doubts, no unresolved spiritual hangups, no impurities (there’s that word again) preventing us from looking forward to that day with joy. And when we see Him again, we will feel that joy together with our fellow citizens in Zion.

We don’t know when that day will come. We won’t know until it happens. But in the meantime, we can help to build a community that looks forward to it right now, where we stand. We can keep His law in truth, and when we do so, the hymn promises that “hate and war and strife will cease; men will live in love and peace.” It reminds me of the beautiful passage in Revelation where John describes, well, I’ll let him tell you what he describes:

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

This is where Zion is headed. We look forward not only to the day when our Savior will come again, but to the day when we will live with Him and the Father, and when they will wipe the tears from our eyes, removing all of our sorrows and burdens, just as we are commanded to do in building Zion here. We look forward to seeing the Zion in heaven joined with our Zion on earth and made one, both in borders and in heart. And this is why at the end of the hymn, we sing (resolutely!), “Heav’nly Zion, come once more and cover all the earth,” because we want this not only for our friends, not only for our neighbors, but for everyone. We want to see everyone accept the outstretched arms and hands of our Savior, not just those we know.

We’ll get there, as we start building Zion here. And as we build it, we will sing of Zion, the kingdom of our God.

Hymn #1: The Morning Breaks

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When Parley P. Pratt wrote “The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee” in 1840, the morning was breaking.

Elder Pratt lived in the present tense of the Gospel being restored. He was baptized in 1830—later in the same year that the Church was organized as a formal entity—and eventually served as one of the first members of the Quorum of the Twelve in this dispensation. When he wrote these words, the Church had only been given an official name two years prior. Two more years would pass before the Book of Abraham would be published for the first time.

When this hymn opened the dedication of the St. George temple in 1877, Israel’s blessings were at hand. That same day, President Brigham Young received a revelation on how to reorganize the Priesthood and stakes of Zion. Six years later President John Taylor received a revelation on the organization of the Seventies, and thirteen years later the Manifesto, terminating the practice of plural marriage, was accepted in General Conference.

When this hymn was sung in General Conference in October 1925, Zion’s light was bursting forth. President Heber J. Grant stated that this particular hymn was deserving of its place at the beginning of the hymnbook—a “place of honor”—and it seems especially so given the revelatory context of that era.  President Joseph F. Smith’s miraculous vision of the redemption of the dead, now comprising D&C section 138, had occurred only seven years before. Family Home Evening had been announced as a Church program ten years before, and the inspired Church Welfare program would be instituted only eleven years hence.

When Elder Bruce R. McConkie famously used this hymn as the basis of a conference talk in 1978, glory was bursting from afar. Home teaching began in 1964.  In 1976 two revelations were added to the Pearl of Great Price, later to become sections 137 and 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. And, of course, just two months after Elder McConkie’s talk, the blessings of the Priesthood were extended to all worthy male members of the Church, as revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Spencer W. Kimball.

 

When we sing “The Morning Breaks” from our hymnbook, it’s still the dawning of a brighter day. We may look at decades and centuries past as a golden era of revelation, but it’s far from true.  The First Presidency released the prophetic “The Family” and “The Living Christ” proclamations in 1995 and 2000, respectively. Temple service was revolutionized when President Hinckley announced the construction of small temples in 1997, which he described as a “bright and clear” answer from the Lord on how to bring the blessings of the temple to everyone. And in October 2012—in very recent memory—the Lord’s prophet Thomas S. Monson announced a change in the age of eligibility for missionary service, a change that surely came as direction from on high.

Gospel light is spilling over the Earth, and it’s happening now. The morning is breaking now, the shadows are fleeing now, and clouds of error are rapidly disappearing as truth’s divine rays shine forth. We, too, 170 years after Elder Pratt penned these words, live in the present tense of the restoration of the Gospel.

It’s a blessed day. And the morning is only now breaking.