Category Archives: #51-#100

Hymn #61: Raise Your Voices to the Lord

Raise your voices to the Lord,
Ye who here have heard his word.
As we part, his praise proclaim,
Shout thanksgiving to his name.

Shout thanksgiving! Let our song
Still our joy and praise prolong,
Until here we meet again
To renew the glad refrain.

It’s a short hymn with just eight short lines, and since it’s so short, it’s a fine choice to close a meeting. Sometimes, when we’ve had a particularly fine meeting in which we’ve felt the Spirit’s influence and been inspired, the last thing we want to hear is something long and droning that diminishes what we’ve already heard. Sometimes the most welcome sight in a meeting is someone offering a short benediction to bring an edifying experience to a close.

The theme of thanksgiving is also apt. A brief closing hymn goes well with a particularly uplifting meeting so as not to try to upstage what has already been shared. We are thankful for the fine messages we have heard. We are thankful for the blessing of meeting together with our fellow saints, or for being able to hear the gospel message. We are thankful for a loving Father who has brought these blessings into our lives, and for the chance we have had to draw nearer to Him.

So with such a short hymn, I’ll get out of the way of the message, too. Thanksgiving is over and past, but that’s no reason for gratitude to be behind us as well. What are you grateful for?

Hymn #93: Prayer of Thanksgiving

If you are a regular reader of my posts, you know that I love to get into the nuts and bolts of words. I’m all about definitions, parts of speech, and the like. So when I looked at this hymn, I decided to start by defining thanksgiving. And notice, I’m using the lower case word, indicating that I’m not defining the holiday.

Thanksgiving is a noun. It’s an expression of gratitude, or a prayer of thanks. With that definition in mind, the title explains what this song is: it is a prayer of gratitude.

The first line says, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” The rest of the lines, however, innumerate many of the things the Lord does for His people. So this is a group prayer, where we gather with the intent of seeking blessings as well as listing some of the things we, as a group, are thankful for.

I, like many of you, took the opportunity during the month of November, to write down one thing a day that I am grateful for. I have done this the last several years, and I’ve noticed something really interesting. When I actively look for my blessings, I am more patient, more kind, more able to see blessings when I would otherwise only see my trials. The effect was so noticeable the first year I did this that I ended up writing down these things I was thankful for during the months of December and January as well.

President Monson, in the October 2010 General Conference, stated:

To express gratitude is gracious and honorable, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live with gratitude ever in our hearts is to touch heaven.

Are there times that it would be easier to list our struggles than our blessings? I would be lying if I said no. But we, as Latter-Day Saints, know that God loves us, that His mission is for us to be happy and to return to Him, and that He allows us to stretch that we may grow. Regardless of the situation, the trial, or the hardship, there are some fundamental truths to which we can cling:

“He forgets not his own.”
“Beside us to guide us”
“Thou, Lord, wast at our side.”
“Our defender [He] wilt be.”

He will never leave us. He will never forsake us. He will never desert us.  Isaiah 54:10 states, “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee.”

Ultimately, that is the greatest blessing we have. We have a Father who loves us to the bitter end, despite and in spite of our decisions, our circumstances, our acting in accordance with our agency. He wants us to be better, to reach higher, to achieve more, but He loves us anyway, simply because we are His.

What more could we ask for? What more could we give thanks for, especially on today, Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to focusing on those things we have been given by our Almighty God?

“Thy name be ever praised!
O Lord, make us free!”

Hymn #94: Come, Ye Thankful People

This is one of the Thanksgiving hymns in the hymnal (three of them in all), but after the first line, there’s not a mention of gratitude in the entire hymn. And yet in the subsequent fifteen lines, the theme of harvest is mentioned six times. It’s not a hymn of thankfulness; it’s a hymn of sowing and reaping.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that gratitude and harvest are connected. American Thanksgiving has its roots in early settlers being shown how to plant and cultivate crops by natives. They commemorated the harvest each year with a feast to show their gratitude for their bounty. They sowed, and they reaped, and they were thankful.

We do likewise, only we’re not the ones sowing much of anything. “All the world is God’s own field,” we sing in the second verse. He sows will He will, and we see that bounty accordingly. Everything we have comes not from anything we’ve done, but because the Lord has seen fit to give it to us.

In fact, when you get down to it, not only are we not the ones sowing, but we are, in fact, the ones being sown. We touched on this last week, but we are the seed being strewn throughout the world. We are the wheat and the tares, and we are grown “unto joy or sorrow.” We are planted, cultivated, and raised to maturity. We are harvested and brought into the barn. There is nothing more valuable in the eyes of the Lord of the harvest than we are. That’s what we’re thankful for as we sing this hymn. We aren’t singing about the blessings the Lord has placed in our lives, we’re singing about the blessings the Lord has made of our lives. We are precious, and He has made us so. We show our gratitude for that gift by doing our best to keep our lives pure and clean before Him. “Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure might be,” we sing in closing. It’s a hymn of harvest, but it’s also a hymn of gratitude as we show our thanks for being that pure, precious grain.

#92 For the Beauty of the Earth

In the Primary class that I teach, we always start out by allowing a few minutes for the children to answer a question about themselves. It usually leads into the lesson, but sometimes just provides an outlet so that they won’t feel as strong a need to interrupt the lesson to talk about their escapades of the day before.

This last Sunday, the time of year being what it is, I asked the children to say something they were grateful for, and to explain why they were grateful for it. Each of them had very good answers, mostly family members who take care of or play with them. There was little to no hesitation, no having to pass and take time to think about it, no moping that there was nothing for which they were grateful.

As adults, I think we are much more likely to forget how important and simple it is to show gratitude. If we are having a particularly bad day, or week, or month, we can feel like we have nothing. “Count your blessings!” we are so often told. But what if we are so down that we have trouble thinking of enough blessings to count? That’s where today’s hymn can be a blessing in itself.

This hymn is three verses of lists of gifts that Heavenly Father has given us, without our asking, before we even knew how much we wanted and needed them. His beautiful creations that are all around us, the time we have here on Earth, our families, love, and the joy of love. What can be more joyous than love?

Let us be like little children and be quick to remember the things that make us grateful. But if you’re having trouble, sing this “hymn of grateful praise” to give you a jump start. Once the list has been started, I testify that it will become much easier to continue.

fear

Hymn #97: Lead, Kindly Light

fear

Like many other Latter-day Saint men, I served as a missionary from the ages of nineteen to twenty-one. I packed my bags, put on a suit, and did my best to teach the gospel to everyone I saw in northern Japan for two years. It was a fantastic experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

If you haven’t served as a missionary yourself or if you aren’t familiar with the process, then it’s worth understanding that missionaries stay in the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah for a bit before they’re sent to their appointed mission. Those being sent to an area with a language they already speak usually only get a couple of weeks; those who don’t (like me) get a little longer so they can get a crash course in the language. But whether you’re there for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, the experience is mostly the same for everyone. You see young men and women walking around carrying books, reading scriptures, practicing teaching techniques, and big bright smiles on their faces. And while those smiles are wonderful to look at, if you look just a bit higher, you’ll usually see terrified eyes.

For many young missionaries, this is the first time they’ve been away from home for this long, and it’s certainly the most consequential thing they’ve ever been asked to do. It’s daunting, and it’s downright scary at times. I was ready to pack up and go home after my first night, but I gathered myself and promised that I’d stick it out. Just look at that picture of me at the top. That’s the picture they took of me my first day in Japan, and you can see the fear in my eyes. I suspect I wasn’t the only one that was scared, though. And I suspect that’s true because of how often I heard other missionaries tell me that today’s hymn became their favorite while in the MTC.

This is a hymn about faith in the face of fear. “The night is dark, and I am far from home,” we sing, and for many young missionaries, it was the first time. It’s still true for many of us. Despite our best efforts, we often find ourselves trapped in the dark night, surrounded by the encircling gloom. The world is scary, and the things we are asked to do are daunting. But through the darkness we catch a glimpse of the light, and even if it only lights one step in front of us rather than the “distant scene,” that’s enough. We can take a single step toward the light, trusting that more will be illuminated for us.

The tune of the hymn is a gentle one, and the modest tempo and 3/2 time make it feel like a lullaby. The lyrics are comforting, but so is the music itself. I’m sure that contributed to my humming it while the horrors of life in a foreign country far away from my family and friends bore down on me. It’s soothing and peaceful, and it always calmed me down when I felt especially panicky. It also helped to strengthen my faith when it wasn’t particularly strong. When I wasn’t sure I would be able to carry on, or when I found doubts creeping into my mind about whether or not I was doing the right thing with my life, the lilting refrains of “lead thou me on” gave me strength.

Being a young missionary filled with fear is no different than being a young parent with wide eyes, or stepping into any new phase of life with that look of excitement and terror on your face. Life is scary sometimes. Life is scary a lot of times, but, well, let’s listen to the final verse and see why it’s not so bad, after all:

So long thy pow’r hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone.
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!

Hymn #98: I Need Thee Every Hour

In 2 Nephi, Chapter 4, Nephi sorrows because he is man, he is weak, and he is a sinner. Even this prophet of the Lord acknowledges the difficulties of living in a world where he is surrounded by temptations and admits that he himself commits iniquities. He realizes that, without God, he is nothing. If this is true of a man who has spoken with angels and performed seemingly impossible tasks, how much more true is it of us?

As I’m sure it has for many, this hymn has been intensely personal for me during times of trial and sadness. It expresses the feelings that, in my anguish, I can’t always seem to articulate on my own: temptations are stronger when I’m don’t feel His presence; without Him, life has not meaning; and, to put it plainly, I need Him.

The words become even more poignant to me when I realize that it is so true that I need Him every hour. Not just during the times of pain and weakness, but during times of happiness and triumph as well. In every moment of my life, I can find a reason to either thank or plead to the Lord. I can never be without Him.

It is because of Him that both Nephi and I have found purpose in life and reason not to be discouraged by our imperfections.

26 …why should my heart weep and my soul linger in the valley of sorrow, and my flesh waste away, and my strength slacken, because of mine afflictions?

27 And why should I yield to sin, because of my flesh? Yea, why should I give way to temptations, that the evil one have place in my heart to destroy my peace and afflict my soul? Why am I angry because of mine enemy?

28 Awake, my soul! No longer droop in sin. Rejoice, O my heart, and give place no more for the enemy of my soul.

29 Do not anger again because of mine enemies. Do not slacken my strength because of mine afflictions.

30 Rejoice, O my heart, and cry unto the Lord, and say: O Lord, I will praise thee forever; yea, my soul will rejoice in thee, my God, and the rock of my salvation.

Without Him, we are lost. With Him, miracles are performed, strengths become weaknesses, and even the most lowly of us can find comfort in the greatest or seemingly meaningless trials. We need Him every hour. And He will always be there.

Hymn #77: Great Is the Lord

Great Is the Lord was one of the hymns written by Eliza R. Snow for the original LDS hymnbook in 1835. Its lyrics praise the Lord for the restoration of the Gospel and its attendant blessings.

The four verses found in our modern hymnbook are just a portion of the original eight. Take a moment to read it, straight from the 1835 LDS hymnbook (hymn #70):

1 Great is the Lord: ’tis good to praise His high and holy name:
Well may the saints in latter days His wondrous love proclaim.

2 To praise him let us all engage, That unto us is giv’n:
To live in this momentous age, And share the light of heav’n.

3 We’ll praise him for our happy lot, On this much favored land;
Where truth, and righteousness are taught, By his divine command.

4 We’ll praise him for more glorious things, Than language can express,
The “everlasting gospel” brings, The humble souls to bless.

5 The Comforter is sent again, His pow’r the church attends;
And with the faithful will remain Till Jesus Christ descends.

6 We’ll praise him for a prophet’s voice, His people’s steps to guide:
In this, we do and will rejoice, Tho’ all the world deride.

7 Praise him, the time, the chosen time, To favor Zion’s come:
And all the saints, from ev’ry clime, Will soon be gather’d home.

8 The op’ning seals announce the day, By prophets long declar’d;
When all, in one triumphant lay, Will join to praise the Lord.

If I had to pick only four verses to keep, I’d likely choose the same ones we have in the current hymnbook (v. 1, 2, 5, 6), but it’s enlightening to read them in their original context. The saints were excited to live “in this momentous age”, an age when the everlasting gospel was restored, when priesthood power existed to confer the Gift of the Holy Ghost, when a prophet’s voice again spoke His word! They looked forward to the restoration of the ancient City of Zion and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

In short, they praised God because they saw the power of God acting around them. They were part of the nascent “marvelous work and a wonder,” bringing the restored Gospel again to the world. They believed in a living, active God, not one trapped in an ancient book.

Do you have that same faith? Do you believe in a God who “speaks, not spake”? Certainly, the doctrinal revelations announced by the prophet today today are not of the magnitude or frequency that they were in Joseph Smith’s day. We rejoice that God has sent prophets, of course, and are eager to hear their words. But what happened to the frequent doctrinal revelations of the early years of the Restoration?

I believe that God does still speak, in glory and magnitude and frequency. His goal, though, is not simply to build a kingdom of prophet-followers, but rather a kingdom of spiritual adults, saints who can have learned to recognize the voice of the Spirit and to hear to the words of God. He wants all of us to come unto him, not just unto his prophets. He wants us all to receive revelation.

This message is repeated throughout the Book of Mormon. Nephi asked his brothers why they had not asked God for understanding of their father’s visions. Alma the Younger’s life was changed forever when he learned for himself of the power of Christ’s Atonement. Shortly before the birth of Christ, the prophets Nephi and Lehi recorded that there were many who received “many revelations daily.”

The message of the restored Gospel is not simply that we should Follow the Prophet. That is a foundation—a good first step, and an important one—but if we stop there we have missed the point. If all we needed were a prophet, we would not need the Gift of the Holy Ghost, nor scriptures nor prayer. We could just let the prophet receive all the revelation.

But that’s not what God wants. He is a god who speaks, who speaks to all who will listen, all who are capable of hearing. We determine that capacity by our willingness to follow his laws. So when we sing “Great Is the Lord,” we praise a God who still acts, who still guides this marvelous work and wonder. We praise a God guides his prophets but also guides his people. We praise a God who has gathered and is gathering Zion throughout the world. We praise a God who is preparing the world for the Second Coming of his son Jesus Christ.

There is one change in this hymn from the 1835 original that I find enlightening:

To praise him let us all engage, That For unto us is giv’n:
To live in this momentous age, And share the light of heav’n.

To praise him, let us all engage. Praise is not merely a matter of words and song, but of action and participation. Unto us it has been given to live in this momentous age, and to share the light of heaven. Let us not merely drift by, waiting for leaders to guide and instruct us. Let us instead actively seek revelation, actively repent and improve and more closely emulate Jesus Christ. Let us be a part of this work.

Let us engage.

Hymn #52: The Day Dawn is Breaking

I feel like I’m starting to sound like a broken record on these, and for that, I apologize. Many of these hymns written early in the LDS church’s history tend to share some excitement. “Look what’s back! Isn’t it great? Aren’t you excited about what comes next?”

Well, yes. Kind of. Sometimes.

When people talk about the Second Coming, there are two sides. There’s the Christ comes in glory and rules the world in wisdom and love and everything is sunshine and rainbows side. And then there’s the wars and fire and famine and basketball-sized hail and utter destruction of many of the wicked but also many of the righteous side, too.

Honestly, that second side doesn’t sound like good times to me. And while other people waxed rhapsodic about how wonderful the Second Coming will be, teenage me was panicky. “I’m so jealous of your generation!” my leaders often said. “I probably won’t be around for the Second Coming, but you probably will be!” Statements like that made me actually wish that they were completely wrong, and the Second Coming would happen long after my death. If, no matter how good I was, I could still be maimed or suffer other horrible fates, and the righteous are resurrected and live with God any, then I could happily miss the Second Coming.

But then I went to a class about it, and the teacher suggested that a person’s anxiousness for the Second Coming was a marker of how righteous they really are. I’m still not sure how true that is, but it’s an interesting concept, and I started to doubt how unshakeable my goodness really was.

And then a decade or so passed, and I found out through hard and disappointing experience that my goodness really WASN’T unshakeable. I tried to do everything right, and failed, and tried again, and failed again, and continued on and on until I realized I couldn’t do it alone. And I asked God for help and made a little progress and then still failed, and tried and failed and tried and failed and asked for help and tried and failed. And somewhere along the way I started to lose hope.

They say faith and hope are linked, and I’m not saying they aren’t, but faith was easier for me. I could believe in a loving, merciful, just God, I could have faith that he would make every effort for me, no problem. But I didn’t know how to hope, any more, that even with all that help, I could make it back. I didn’t believe heaven was for me.

I finally recognized what was going on, and I asked for help again, this time to have hope, and I took some of the help I was most reluctant to take, and I found a tiny flicker of hope in my soul and fed it and fed it and fed it. I have hope again. And faith. And while I am still not anxious to experience the terrifying pre-Second Coming events, I expect the rest will be nice. I don’t think I’m ready for it to be now, but then again, I assume that as long as I’m trying to be a good person and move forward in my life, one time is as good as another. I’m doing pretty well.

But I don’t yet have the confident hope of Joseph Townsend.

Then pure and supernal, our friendship eternal,
With Jesus we’ll live, and his counsels obey
Until ev’ry nation will join in salvation
And worship the Lord of the beautiful day.

He’s not couching his view of the future in “if we’re good enough” or “so long as we don’t get crushed by a falling building.” He would pass my teacher’s test. There’s nothing holding back his hope–it’s magnificent! No second guessing! No regrets! The future’s going to be great!

And you know what? It probably will be. But I’ll need to level up my hope a few times before I can sing this hymn with all the feeling it’s meant to have. I’m just glad, though, to see his view as a real possibility for my life, now. I hope you can, too. And if you can’t, you may need to cut yourself a little slack. In between all your failures, you’re becoming a better person.

Hymn #57: We’re Not Ashamed to Own Our Lord

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)

There are some things that seem obvious in hindsight, but that go unnoticed until someone points them out. I recently had a realization along those lines:

You will develop skills and attributes only to the extent that you spend time on them.

A few applications of this law:

If you say you want to develop faith, but never spend time building your faith, then your faith will not grow.

If you say you want to better understand the scriptures, but never spend time reading the scriptures, then you will not understand the scriptures better.

If you say you want to be more like Christ, but spend little or no time doing the things Christ did, then you will not be more like Christ.

Most church members, if asked, could probably give a reasonable 10 minute talk on “How to be more Christlike” or “How to build your faith.” Prayer, scripture study, service—it’s not hard to come up with the right answers. But no matter how much we claim to want them, nothing will change unless we actually do them.

If you never seem to have time for scripture study, then you’ll never seem to get the blessings scripture study brings. If you never spend time pondering the teachings of Christ, you’ll never gain new insights.

The hymn ”We’re Not Ashamed To Own Our Lord” opens with its titular phrase:

We’re not ashamed to own our Lord
And worship him on earth.

The rest of the hymn lists blessings that come from “owning the Lord,” from openly and transparently following him throughout our lives. It especially talks about the glories of Christ’s millennial reign for the righteous on either side of death. These are great blessings, awesome and marvelous.

But they only apply to the extent that we actually follow Christ. Are we ashamed to talk about gospel topics with our friends, regardless of the day of the week? Are we too tired to get up early and read our scriptures? Do our secular interests crowd out our spiritual needs?

Before creation’s second birth,
We hope with him to stand.

We do indeed hope to stand with Christ. But hope is not enough—we must take action. If that hope is to be fulfilled, we need to spend time on it. We need to prepare ourselves for that day, just as He is preparing the world at large.

What do you spend your time on?

Hymn #51 – Sons of Michael, He Approaches

This is a really unique hymn, which is probably why I have never heard it sung or performed anywhere, ever. It deals with a very specific doctrine–that is, the return of Adam (Michael) to Adam-ondi-Ahman to head a great gathering in which the keys of the Priesthood throughout history will be accounted for and returned unto Christ prior to the establishment of His Millennial Reign.

The story, though, starts a long time before that; specifically, in the twilight of Father Adam’s mortal life:

Three years previous to the death of Adam, he called Seth, Enos, Cainan, Mahalaleel, Jared, Enoch, and Methuselah, who were all high priests, with the residue of his posterity who were righteous, into the valley of Adam-ondi-Ahman, and there bestowed upon them his last blessing.

And the Lord appeared unto them, and they rose up and blessed Adam, and called him Michael, the prince, the archangel.

And the Lord administered comfort unto Adam, and said unto him: I have set thee to be at the head; a multitude of nations shall come of thee, and thou art a prince over them forever.

And Adam stood up in the midst of the congregation; and, notwithstanding he was bowed down with age, being full of the Holy Ghost, predicted whatsoever should befall his posterity unto the latest generation.

This was an incredible event in the history of the young human race. It was the crowning event of the life of Adam, father of us all, and confirmation of his dedication and righteousness. He delivered unto his posterity a blessing of faith and righteousness. His calling and election were, if they had not been already, made certain. He was promised power, glory, and a princely role in the next life. His righteous generations surrounding him, I imagine it was quite possibly the happiest day of Father Adam’s mortal life.

Three years after this glorious council, Adam died, having been faithful in all the Lord asked of him. Elder Mark E. Peterson taught, “After [Adam’s] mortal death he resumed his position as an angel in the heavens, once again serving as the chief angel, or archangel, and took again his former name of Michael. In his capacity as archangel, Adam, or Michael, will yet perform a mighty mission in the coming years.”

This mighty mission is described in prophecies both ancient and modern. The first mission* given to Michael is that of once again gathering the holders of the Priesthood of God at Adam-ondi-Ahman (the same site as his last great council) prior to the Second Coming of Christ. The biblical prophet Daniel foresaw this event, referring to Adam/Michael as “The Ancient of Days”:

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him:thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened….

[B]ehold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

Regarding this ancient prophecy, the Prophet Joseph Smith was told, “Spring Hill [Missouri] is named by the Lord Adam-ondi-Ahman, because, said he, it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people, or the Ancient of Days shall sit, as spoken of by Daniel the prophet.”

To bring it all together, let’s turn to Joseph Fielding Smith talking about this council:

“This gathering of the children of Adam, where the thousands, and the tens of thousands are assembled in the judgment, will be one of the greatest events this troubled earth has ever known. At this conference, or council, all who have held keys of dispensations will render a report of their stewardship. Adam will do likewise, and then he will [surrender] to Christ all authority. Then Adam will be confirmed in his calling as the prince over his posterity and will be officially installed and crowned eternally in this presiding calling. Then Christ will be received as King of kings, and Lord of lords….[I]t is a gathering of the Priesthood of God from the beginning of this earth down to the present, in which reports will be made and all who have been given dispensations (talents) will declare their keys and ministry and make report of their stewardship according to the parable….When all things are prepared and every key and power set in order with a full and perfect report of each man’s stewardship, then Christ will receive these reports and be installed as rightful Ruler of this earth. At this grand council he will take his place by the united voice of the thousands who by right of Priesthood are there assembled. This will precede the great day of destruction of the wicked and will be the preparation for the Millennial Reign”

The sheer scope of this boggles the mind. All men who have ever or will ever hold keys of the Priesthood will be summoned to this event, in which they will stand accountable for their use of these keys. All keys will be returned unto their source, even Christ. Michael will be crowned with his promised blessings and Christ will return as King and Lord of Earth.

Now that we’ve gotten all THAT understood, the text of the hymn becomes significantly clearer. The preparation for the return of Christ is culminated in the return of Michael, and this hymn recognizes the joy and majesty inherent in this event.

One interesting thing here (and maybe it’s just me that never really thought about it) is the degree of reverence, almost worshipfulness, that will be extended to Michael. The hymn suggests we will bow low before him, hail his reign, raise aloft our voices in a torrent power of song, break forth in dancing, and, again, raise a chorus that will rebound through space.

And, on reflection, why not? This man is the starting point of everything Our Father set in motion on the earth. He, by the side of Jehovah, aided in creating the planet and all things in it. He was the First Man, our spirit brother choice enough to be the first human on Earth. He and his glorious wife, Eve, Mother of our generations, made the bold and essential choice to fall that man may be. They lived the Gospel of Christ throughout their mortal lives, through joys and sorrows. They demonstrated faith and righteousness second to none.

Adam gets a bad rap in the Bible and throughout most of Christendom (though not as bad as Eve, whose treatment at the hand of her children is often egregiously offensive). He is regarded as the source of original sin and the great failure of mankind. He is considered the weakling who couldn’t keep from eating that one fruit and thus damned us all to a life in the lone and dreary world. Though these ideas are loosely based in truth, the restored gospel shows that they barely glimpse the great scope of Adam’s role. Adam, the Man, was declared a prince in his lifetime and will be a prince eternally. Michael, the Archangel, will usher in the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ on the earth. As far as I can tell, Michael is second in Priesthood only to the Lord. He is, literally, the patriarch of our race.

There is some debate about this event’s breadth. It is suggested that any who have held priesthood keys will account for them. “Today the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles hold those keys. Priesthood keys are also given to the Presidency of the Seventy; presidents of temples, missions, stakes, and districts; bishops; branch presidents; and quorum presidents—including Aaronic Priesthood quorum presidents.” That’s quite a lot of people. The hymn (and the prophesy of Daniel) talk about thousands of people, even “ten thousand times ten thousand,” which would not be a small, quiet gathering. On the other hand, Joseph Fielding Smith said:

When this gathering is held, the world will not know of it; the members of the Church at large will not know of it, yet it shall be preparatory to the coming in the clouds of glory of our Savior Jesus Christ as the Prophet Joseph Smith has said. The world cannot know of it. The Saints cannot know of it—except those who officially shall be called into this council—for it shall precede the coming of Jesus Christ as a thief in the night, unbeknown to all the world.

Whatever its size, whoever its attendees, it will be a glorious day. But it will herald greater days yet, as Christ returns in triumph. Whether I will (in the flesh) participate in either of these events is unknown to me. I hope I can. Either way, the return of Michael is an event to be greatly anticipated, when “the ancient one [shall] reign in his Father’s house again.”

*The other missions of Michael, beyond the scope of this hymn, include calling forth the resurrection of the dead (D&C 29:26) and commanding the forces of God’s armies at the last great battle with Satan (D&C 88:110-115).

warriors

Hymn #84: Faith of our Fathers

warriors 

Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to thee till death!

The word “fathers” is mentioned three times in this hymn (and once in each chorus), while “God,” “Jesus,” “Lord,” the presumptive objects of our faith, and so on appear a grand total of once (“thru the truth that comes from God mankind shall then be truly free”). It might seem like the hymn is buriyng the lede a little, then. Shouldn’t we focus more on the Lord, who is the author and finisher of our faith, rather than those who taught us to love and follow Him? Aren’t we confusing the message with the messenger?

Perhaps, but for many of us, this is where we get our start. Whether we have the gospel taught to us from birth or later in life, at some point we found ourselves novices to the teachings of the Savior. Someone had to show us the way. That might have been a friend who wanted to share something with us that brought them joy, or a missionary spending years in the service of the Lord, or yes, a parent trying to raise their child in the gospel. We sit at their knee, whether literally or figuratively, learning precious truths line upon line. It’s only natural that in our formative phases, our understanding of the truth of the gospel is less an intrinsic one and more a reliance on our mentor. “I know God lives because my mom told me so,” we might say, and at first, that’s enough.  In time, we will develop our own convictions as we draw nearer to the Savior, and as He draws nearer to us in turn.

There’s nothing wrong with that reliance. Sometimes our faith is shaky, and it’s good for us to have someone else’s faith to fall back on. One of the more famous stories from the Book of Mormon is that of the 2,000 stripling warriors, who, though young, marched into battle secure in the knowledge that the Lord would protect them if they remained true to Him. Listen to Helaman, their prophet and commander, describe their faith:

Now they had never before fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives; yea, they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.

And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it. (Alma 56:47-48)

These young men surely had their own witness of the Lord, but here they tell us that they were willing to march into battle and face death because of the sureness of the knowledge of their mothers. Their mothers told them that God would protect them if they had faith. I imagine they also taught that even if they were to be taken by death, that was not the end, and that they could be reunited someday, if they would not doubt. And they did not doubt, and the Lord saw them through their war without a single one of them falling in battle.

They did not doubt their mothers knew it, and neither do we. Our mothers know it, as do our fathers, our friends, our missionaries, our church teachers and leaders, and anyone else on whom we rely for a more unshakable witness when ours is not so stable. Our faith is centered in our Lord and Savior, but it is held up by those who helped us to shape and build it. So it’s not that strange that we should sing about the faith of our fathers, nor that we should sing that “in spite of dungeon, fire, and sword… our hearts [will] beat high with joy whene’er we hear that glorious word.” The word is “faith,” but the word is just as much “fathers” that causes our hearts to beat with joy.

Hymn #62: All Creatures of Our God and King

All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

At the death of Jesus Christ, scripture records great destruction. The rocks were rent, the earth shook, and the veil of the temple was torn apart. The account in the Book of Mormon is even more harrowing: for three hours, a storm of earthquakes, fire, lightning, and whirlwinds tore apart the land, causing such destruction that for three days no light could be seen, and no fire could be lit. Enoch saw in vision that Earth itself groaned at His death.

We often think of the earth as our mortal home, a place of rivers, oceans, mountains, lakes, fields, forests, rocks, and hills. It’s a place where things can grow, where life can flourish. And all of this is true, but the earth is more than that. Scripture teaches that the earth itself has a spirit, like do all of God’s creations. (Moses 7:48-49)

If the earth has a spirit and can groan at Christ’s death, then surely it can also rejoice at the restoration of the Gospel in the last days and the anticipated Second Coming of Jesus Christ! Surely there is nothing that would bring greater relief to the earth itself than the peace that comes of righteousness. And if the earth itself can rejoice over the coming of Christ, surely so too can the rest of his creations.

Dear mother earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The word “Alleluia” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word (הללו יה), which means “praise ye Jehovah”. In this hymn, not only do we praise the Lord personally, but we also invite all of God’s creations—animals, plants, wind, water, the earth itself, even the sun and the moon—we invite all of God’s creations to join with us in that praise. I can think of no other hymn that so fully acknowledges both the breadth of His creation and the loving relationship he has with it.

So when you sing this hymn, remember that we are not alone in praising God. We are part of a vast chorus, wide as the universe itself, praising God and rejoicing in his plan of Salvation and Exaltation.

Hymn #79: With All the Power of Heart and Tongue

With all the pow’r of heart and tongue,
I’ll praise my Maker in my song.
Angels shall hear the notes I’ll raise,
Approve the song, and join the praise.

The closing hymn in my ward’s sacrament meeting last Sunday was “The Lord Is My Light”. That’s a hymn which, unlike this one, I know well enough to leave my hymnbook closed, well enough to pack up my bag and tend to my children while singing every word. Which is exactly what I did. But as I sang, I felt the power of that hymn move through me.

While sometimes I sing quietly, trying to blend in with the congregation, this time I couldn’t help belting out, “The Looooord is my liiiiiight! He is my joooooy and my so-ong!” It felt magnificent to sing praises to hymn with all the power my heart and tongue possessed.

I can think of a few times when I’ve felt certain that angels were joining the chorus, most of them surrounding sacred events such as temple dedications. But this was just sacrament meeting. Nothing special, right?

Except that our meeting houses are sacred spaces, dedicated as a house of worship to the Almighty God. Sacrament meeting is a time of renewing sacred covenants, of teaching and learning Christs doctrine, and of communing with the Spirit and with our brothers and sisters. Why shouldn’t it feel special each week? Why shouldn’t angels attend and sing along with us?

I’ll sing thy truth and mercy, Lord;
I’ll sing the wonders of thy word.
Not all thy works and names below
So much thy pow’r and glory show.

I think it’s easy for us to focus on the dramatic church stuff. Capital letter events like The Restoration or The Pioneer Exodus or The Day the Priesthood Was Made Available to All Worthy Men. Well-known names like Eliza Snow and Hugh Nibley and Gladys Knight. Epic conversion stories like that of Alma the Younger and grand miracles like the crickets and the seagulls. It is good to remember these things and to talk–and even sing–about them.

But it is the Lord’s words, truth, and mercy which should have the bulk of our attention. He gave His Only Begotten Son so that we might not be forever shut out of His presence. His gospel, plain and simple, is written out in the scriptures for us to study daily. Our job is to seek His truth and accept the mercy He extends to us.

Amidst a thousand snares I stand,
Upheld and guided by thy hand.
Thy words my fainting soul revive
And keep my dying faith alive.

In recent months I’ve seen many people walk away from the Church for various reasons. What astonishes me, though, is the people who have stayed. These are people who even I would have said had good reason to leave, much as it would have saddened me to see them go. And I think these last two lines are the key to why some stand firm when others just cannot: “Thy words my fainting soul revive and keep my dying faith alive.”

It’s the little things we do–reading our scriptures, praying, attending sacrament meeting every week–that keep us close to our Father in Heaven. The little things help us fortify our foundation in the gospel by reminding us daily of God’s truth and mercy. When we turn our attention away from His words and toward the thousand snares around us, we lose sight of His power and glory, and we falter.

So let’s use all the power of heart and tongue–and I would add “might, mind, and strength“–to remember Him, serve Him, and praise Him.

Hymn #63: Great King of Heaven

This hymn became intensely vivid for me when I read one of the scriptures in its footnotes:

D&C 128:23–Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

Upon reading this verse, I saw this hymn as more than just a reverent form of praise to be sung by solemn church-goers lining pews in their Sunday best. Instead, it is a majestic tribute to the “Great King of Heaven” to be voiced not only out in mountains, valleys, and all His other creations, but by all his other creations. Indeed, upon closer inspection of the hymn’s lyrics, they specifically say that “The vales exult, the hills acclaim, / And all thy works revere thy name.”

To think of mountains shouting for joy, rivers flowing with gladness, and rocks weeping for joy creates a beautiful image, but let’s continue the personification. Mountains can crumble, rivers can dry up, and even rocks can be broken apart. However, not once in this hymn, nor in the scripture with which it is associated, do any of God’s creations ask for protection, comfort, or healing. They don’t plead to be more comfortable or beautiful. They simply acknowledge and praise their creator.

As we sing this hymn, it suggests that we are joining the throng already praising the Lord. Can we do it with the humility shown by his other creations? While it is perfectly acceptable, and even commanded, that we ask the Lord for His blessings, are we able to occasionally set aside our personal requests and acknowledge the infinite blessings we have already been given? I know that I, personally, feel like I am always in need of something, and it’s hard not to focus on what I believe to be my needs. However, I think these times of simple gratitude help us to remember our Creator, our Heavenly Father, and that he knows what we need even better than we do.

It is not for His benefit that we acknowledge our God. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, and that won’t change because we were stubborn. Instead, we are asked to show gratitude for our own good. By setting aside even our righteous desires for a short time, we show humility, gratitude, and a willingness to accept His will.

As we continue to pray to our Heavenly Father and ask for His blessings, let us remember to set aside time to simply join “With myriad echoes, prais[ing] the Lord.”

Hymn # 64: On this Day of Joy and Gladness

“Worship” is a concept that has long puzzled me. It sounds formal to me, and my brain conjures up pictures of solemn and/or ecstatic chanting people, addressing God directly and praising him and probably burning incense, too. But the LDS church Sunday services aren’t big on that kind of stuff, and for a long time, though I felt that God might be pleased with my efforts at being a good person, I wasn’t performing my mortal-to-divine duties by telling him, in a highly structured and direct way, what a great god he is. A part of me wanted that type of service, but another part pushed back: if God is so great and self-reliant, why does he need a bunch of imperfect beings to pat him on the back and tell him he’s doing a great job?

My understanding of worship has evolved in the years since I’ve been considering it. Now I think of it more as natural gratitude for God, and less as validation for an oddly insecure all-powerful being. I still don’t know how, exactly, God reacts to the praise of his people, but I do know that, as a parent, he’s pleased when his children remember to say thank you. This hymn, for me, is a perfect song of worship, that seems to satisfy both my current desire to acknowledge and thank God for the goodness he blesses us with, and also my longstanding desire to participate in a formal, soul-swelling worship service with others.

It is designed to be sung in a “sacred place of worship.” That is usually a church, but because this is a song of worship, simply singing it makes any place a place of worship. It would still be appropriate if sung in my car (I do much of my most meaningful prayer while driving to and from work), or on the mountain peak I sat on last night (as I was filled with gratitude for a world that not only provides for our physical needs, but is breathtakingly spiritually nourishing, as well), or even while you’re nervously walking down a creepy alley or apprehensively sitting in a hospital room. This song, simply by being sung, creates an appropriate setting for itself.

The hymn begins and ends with the usual sorts of religious language. We praise God’s name, and we tell people about his glories. I don’t mind singing it, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

The part I find most interesting starts in the second verse. We shift from singing God’s praises to demanding blessings. We instruct that the “fount of Zion” be opened wide, and that its very best blessings should flow forth to us, the Saints who “nobly serve” in the gospel. Personally, I have a hard time thinking of myself as “noble servant.” I see myself as more of a “well-intentioned flounderer.” But we believe that God sees and honors our intentions, and that he blesses our every righteous effort. So though my accomplishments may be small, God wants to reward me for them. We also believe that God wants to bless us, but sometimes there are blessings we have to ask for to receive. Though the tone of this verse can start to seem a little pompous, it is actually still an expression of worship. We know that God wants to bless us for the little good that we manage to do, and we know that he wants us to ask for those blessings. So when we instruct the fount of blessings to be pushed into higher gear, we’re demonstrating that we know the (amazingly generous) promise, and we trust that God will keep his word. We’ve done our part, and so we can confidently expect God to do his.

The third verse moves on to our greatest hope: that we will be able to work in God’s kingdom, where his children are gathered in. Two of the things I like best about this church are encompassed in this goal. The first is that we want to work. Ours is not a religion of stagnation. We are not happy unless we are growing and progressing as people, and contributing to the larger world. The second is that we are glad to be reunited with our friends and family. Ours is a loving, welcoming religion, and when we recognize something good, we want to give others the opportunity to share it. Again, this is worship. We appreciate the opportunities God has given us, and not in an “oh, that’s nice” sense, but in a “yes, please, I’d really like to be a part of this, sign me right up!” sense.

And then we come for the third time to the chorus, which satisfies that persistent longing in my breast to sing God’s praises. The “alleluias” are swelling and exultant, and every moment seems to build in happiness. This, I think, is one of the many blessings of gratitude to the people who feel it. The more we take the trouble to be thankful, the more we see to be thankful for. The joy and gladness in this song isn’t a reflection of what we’ve been given (although we have a lot of be glad and joyful about); it’s a healthy and beneficial frame of mind we are cultivating through our consistent worship.

I still don’t know what, precisely God gets out of our thanks, but I over and over again, I see that everything he asks us to do–even praising him–also benefits us. And for that, I thank him.

Hymn #59: Come, O Thou King of Kings

Come, O thou King of Kings!
We’ve waited long for thee,
With healing in thy wings,
To set thy people free.
Come, thou desire of nations, come;
Let Israel now be gathered home.

We touched briefly on the subject of enduring to the end yesterday. It’s a substantial part of our doctrine. It’s not enough to have a moment of clarity and declare our conversion, only to return to our regular lives moments earlier. Our conversion has to be lasting, our actions sustained, and our faith deepened. But to what end are we to endure? How long is long enough?

This hymn gives us an idea. We ask the Lord to come again, as He has promised us. “We’ve waited long for thee,” we sing, and for those of us patiently enduring to the end, we truly have. We continue in the path, waiting for the return of He who is the author and finisher of our faith. It is in Him that our faith has an end when we see Him. We no longer need faith, having a full knowledge of Him. He will come and deliver His promised blessings to those who have waited for Him, coming with “healing in [His] wings.”

He also comes to “set [His] people free,” however you’d like to interpret that. He will certainly deliver His people from oppression as He comes to personally reign on the earth, yes, but I like to think of it as deliverance from sin. He has already given His life as a sacrifice for sin. He prepared a way for us to return to our Father when we fall from the path, and it’s in this sense that He is the author of our faith, having written the book (not literally, of course, although the scriptures are filled with His words) on how to follow that path. (The fact that the word “author” shares a common root with “authority” cannot be an accident.) As we follow that path, we are brought nearer to His presence, and when He comes again to earth, we can be drawn literally into His presence, as Israel is “gathered home.”

It’s a time to look forward to. The earth will be cleansed from sin, and our adversary will be bound for a season as we have the chance to live in love and peace. We will hear hosannas from “all the ransomed throng,” a group in which we might find ourselves if we’ve worked toward this day. He comes unto His own, and those are they who will find redemption. We make and keep covenants so that we can find ourselves worthy to stand with Him in that day. We soldier on, one day at a time so that we can “the wide expanse of heaven fill with anthems sweet from Zion’s hill.” We eagerly look to the day when He will rule as our Lord here among us, and we can “welcome in [His] peaceful reign.”

That day is still a ways off, though. It would be one thing if we knew the day He would come again. We would know how much time we had left. We could put off repentance, knowing that if the Lord wasn’t coming for six months, we could make amends in five months’ time. That’s not how it works, of course. No one knows when He will come again, and so we live in constant readiness, keeping ourselves worthy and prepared for that day when He comes again. We endure, remaining faithful to our covenants to to His commandments each day. And as we do, we look forward to that day when He comes again “with healing in [His] wings to set [His] people free.”

Hymn #53: Let Earth’s Inhabitants Rejoice

Yesterday I watched a turkey vulture peck at a chunk of meat at the Phoenix Zoo and, naturally, thought about Christ’s Second Coming. Specifically I remembered these verses in 2 Nephi 30, which echo Isaiah’s words in the Old Testament:

“And then shall the wolf dwell with the lamb…and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (2 Nephi 30: 12-13, 15).

The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord. Isn’t that the most marvelous phrase? Understanding the Lord’s will and works can even neutralize the killing instinct between species, bringing peace to every level of His creation. In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah gave one of the most beautiful prophecies of peace I have ever read.

“And [the Lord] shall…rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Micah 4:3).

Think of it. A world without war, where weapons are modified to till the earth and the skills of killing are lost to future generations. The thought of laying aside our current world–a place where wars rage and children starve and many, many people lose their lives in acts of senseless violence–makes me feel at once hopeful and a little weepy.

And that, in a nutshell, is the message of this hymn: peace restored by the Prince of Peace. Putting our faith in Him we can hope for a “blissful time…the day by holy men foretold/When man no more with man will strive/And all in each a friend behold.”

Hymn #100: Nearer, My God, To Thee

On a simplistic reading, this hymn is about using our trials to come closer to God. But I think that’s actually far too simplistic and misses the mark of what is, personally, my favorite hymn, a hymn based on one of the most gorgeous stories in the Old Testament.

Nearer, My God, To Thee was written by Sarah Flower Adams as a personal favor to a Unitarian minister. When the minister visited their family one evening, he mentioned that he was having trouble finding a hymn to accompany his next week’s sermon on Genesis 28:11-19. Sarah volunteered to compose a poem for the occasion and what emerged has become one of the most poignant religious anthems in Christendom.

Genesis 28 is the story of Jacob’s nighttime vision of a ladder reaching into heaven, and it inspires four out of the five  verses of this hymn. Jacob is the “wanderer” who finds himself traveling across the wilderness. On one occasion, when “the sun [had] gone down,” he lay down for the night in a place filled with boulders (his “rest a stone”). While asleep, he had a vision of a ladder reaching heavenward (“steps unto heaven”) on which angels were ascending and descending. At the top of the ladder was the Lord, who renewed the Abrahamic Covenant with this fledgling patriarch before sending him on his way eastward.

It is Jacob’s curious behavior after his dream, however, that I find particularly interesting and on which I want to dwell in this post. Genesis 28 recounts:

“And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’ And he was afraid, and said ‘How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob … took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el.” (Gen 28:16-19)

When Jacob first happened upon this place, there was nothing to mark it as particularly sacred. It was just “a certain place” (Gen 28:11) he happened to come to by chance. But in the morning, after the dream, he views the landscape with new eyes. What looked like a mere boulder field was, in fact, “none other but the house of God,” and the disparity between its appearance and its reality startles him.

This, I think, is a profound metaphor for the nearness of God’s grace. At any moment we might find ourselves in a profoundly sacred space, a space filled with angels and covenants and “steps unto heaven,” if only we had eyes to see. God’s power often irrupts into our lives without warning, for no apparent reason. God’s grace is at the same time so ubiquitous and so potent that it’s almost shocking when it reveals itself to us, and frightening in how often we fail to see it.

But Jacob’s response is more than a simple expression of surprise. After his startled exclamation, Jacob sets up a pillar and anoints it, what the hymn refers to with the lines “Out of my stony griefs / Bethel I’ll raise.”

It’s almost as if Jacob is trying to echo the ladder he saw in his dreams. In the course of his horizontal journey, he learns that there is a possibility for vertical ascent, as well. And so when he awakes, his first task is to make visible that verticality–to mark this space as sacred, to name it, anoint it, and alert other wanderers to its importance. Our task, like Jacob’s, is to take the mundane, to glimpse God in it, and then to get to work rendering visible God’s grace in the world.

Thus, the first message of this hymn is that a desire for nearness with God calls forth a certain kind of response to the world.

But if there is a second message in Jacob’s story, it is that our spiritual journey operates at a level other than the visible. Blessings and trials are all external, visible things. But there’s something deeper that runs through such vicissitudes, something constant that disregards the external realities of our lives.

The sense is not that we take our trials and learn lessons from them and turn them to good (though we certainly must!). I think this hymn is more nuanced than that. Rather, the message is that in spite of our trials, apart and separate from them, our focus remains the same.  Trials or blessings don’t change anything; they merely operate at the visible level. Our “song” ought to be the same whether we’re blessed or not, because the refrain of our lives operates in a different sphere.

We sing as if we were Jacob, receiving the vision, raising Bethel, and making the Abrahamic covenant anew. We begin as “wanderers” in “darkness,” bearing “stony griefs,” and we progress to become angels, “cleaving the sky,” flying “upward”  as we ascend the ladder to fulfill our wish of growing “nearer” to God. But regardless of whether we are being raised by a cross (verse 1) or carried upwards by the wings of angels (verse 5),

Still all my song shall be
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!

Hymn #83: Guide Us, O Thou Great Jehovah

No matter what your personal views on morality are, it’s clear that there are a lot of different voices competing for attention. We hear some people telling us that something is good and right and others telling us that it’s evil. These voices seem to surround us and shout so loudly that it’s difficult to hear ourselves think. It can be confusing and disorienting. What are we to believe?

When it’s hard to know what to cling to, it’s reassuring to know that there is at least one source out there that we can count on to be constant and unchanging. We can count on the Lord to teach us truth, no matter what. It doesn’t matter what we hear, or what circumstances the world finds itself in. He is the source of truth and light. And since we know that He will always tell us the truth, we can count on Him to guide our way forward.

Guide us, O thou great Jehovah,
Guide us to the promised land.
We are weak, but thou art able;
Hold us with thy pow’rful hand.
Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit,
Feed us till the Savior comes,
Feed us till the Savior comes.

We will struggle in the face of so many competing influences. We can’t help it, being human. But while we are weak, He is able to withstand those temptations, and He can help us to proceed forward. And we can count on the Holy Ghost to be a positive influence on us, helping to steer us back to Him. He is not here on earth with us, and we don’t know when He will be, but we can rely on the Spirit to nourish us spiritually and keep us well-fed until His triumphant return.

He guides us in the same way he guided the children of Israel during their flight from Egypt, although perhaps not as visually impressively. As Israel left Egypt, the Lord went before them as a cloud by day, serving not only to keep the hot desert sun off of them, but also showing them clearly which direction they needed to travel. At night, He stood before them as a tremendous pillar of fire, not only providing them light, but also keeping the Egyptians at bay. While we don’t see a pillar of fire before us today, he can still be a “fiery, cloudy pillar” for us. We have His words that show us the direction we need to take, and that can also act as a cover from trials and temptations. His Spirit can light our way as we trust in Him just as clearly as can a pillar of fire. He is there to guide us the same as He did the Israelites, provided we are willing to accept His guidance.

It’s when we don’t listen to His counsel and instead let the din of the world drown it out that we fall into trouble. That’s an easy enough trap to fall into. And by the same token, it’s an easy trap to avoid. We just have to find the one voice, the one influence in our life that never changes.

When the earth begins to tremble,
Bid our fearful thoughts be still;
When thy judgments spread destruction,
Keep us safe on Zion’s hill.

When we are confused, scared, or fearful, we can take courage in what the Lord tells us. We can trust that He is constant and unchanging, and that He will always lead us in the right. And as we place our trust in Him, we can know that He will keep us safe on Zion’s hill, singing praises and glory unto Him.

sparrow

Hymn #75: In Hymns of Praise

sparrow

We sing praise to the Lord for a lot of different things in the hymnal. We sing about His mercy, His grace and goodness, and His love. We sing about His power and might, and we sing about His righteousness. There’s a lot to praise, certainly. Here, we sing about his strength, as we hear in the chorus. Listen:

Exalt his name in loud acclaim;
His mighty pow’r adore!
And humbly bow before him now,
Our King forevermore.

We sing of His strength, and we do so with strong voices. This is the One who “ruleth earth and sky” and commands the “shining planets.” He is the Ruler and the Creator of the universe, and it is His to command. He tells mountains to move, and they move. He tells the ocean to draw back, and it draws back. Nature recognizes its Master, and it obeys. We do our best to obey as well, but we’re nowhere near the perfect servants that nature is. Which is fine, of course; it’s our free will that makes us disobedient at times, but also what makes us worth fighting for and redeeming. When we freely give our will over to our Lord, we are of infinitely more worth than nature, and have so much further that we can progress.

We are the purpose of all of this. “This is my work and my glory,” the Lord said to Moses, “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” We exist so that we can have what He has. We are of infinite worth to Him. He knows us, He loves us, and He wants us to grow and progress.

It doesn’t always feel like that, of course. We have difficulty hearing His voice or feeling His presence sometimes, whether it’s because we’ve strayed from Him, or simply because we need time alone to grow. I’ve felt that loneliness, just as you have. It’s difficult to feel like no one is there for you, and that no one understands your sorrow and pain.

Verse three gives us hope:

The little flow’r that lasts an hour,
The sparrow in its fall,
They, too, shall share his tender care;
He made and loves them all.

We stop and consider the lilies of the field. These little flowers, small, insignificant, and utterly common, one of thousands and millions, do not fall without the Lord knowing. He is aware of each of His flowers. He created them, each of them. He knows their petals, their stems, their pistils and stamens. He knows the contour of their stalks and the number of their seeds. They are His.

He knows the sparrows, each as they flit through the air, peck at the ground, and gather twigs for their nests. He knows their feathers, their toes, and their eyes, each unique, even though they are one of millions of seemingly-identical birds. They are not unremarkable to Him. He knows them, because He created them.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.

But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.

Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31)

“Ye are of more value than many sparrows.” The Lord knows His sparrows, and He loves each of them; how much more so will He not love us, in whose image we are created? We are His work and His glory. We are the reason He suffered, bled, and died, and we are the reason He rose again. I can promise you that He who loves His lilies and sparrows loves us so, so much more.

And so we sing in the fourth verse, which ties together the seeming dichotomy between the all-powerful ruler of the universe and the gentle Lord who knows the details of that universe:

Then sing again in lofty strain
To him who dwells on high;
To prayers you raise, and songs of praise,
He sweetly will reply.

Image credit: “Sparrow Tree Branch Bird,” pixabay.com user gabicuz.

Hymn #67: Glory to God on High

When I was nine or 10 years old my brother Paul gave my dad this CD of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was the first CD we ever owned as a family and the only one I remember being around for several months, if not years. “Glory to God on High” was track 5 on the album and anytime I hear it, or any of these other (admittedly kind of obscure) hymns, I am thrown back in time: all of us rushing into the house after church, throwing an apron on over our Sunday clothes and helping mash potatoes, squeeze limes for limeade, or set the table. Setting the table was the preferred task because it meant you could sneak a fingerful of mashed potatoes out of the bowl before the meal started.

Diving into the scriptural text of this hymn takes it out of its prosaic roots for me. “Worthy the Lamb,” repeated at the end of every verse is out of Revelations 5, where John sees Jesus Christ opening the Book of the Seven Seals.

The LDS New Testament manual explains to us that the book sealed with seven seals teaches us that the seals each represented a thousand years of history. “In ancient times, official documents, scrolls, and records were closed shut with a seal of wax that usually had an imprint signifying the one who sealed it. Documents thus sealed were only to be opened by one with authority and in the presence of witnesses. In this case, the ‘will, mysteries, and works of God’ (D&C 77:6) were recorded in the book John saw. Only Christ had authority and was worthy to open it.”

This scripture is pretty powerful. “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof,” the beasts and elders say to Christ, “for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation.” Then John writes that many angels round about the throne take up the cry: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing” (Revelation 5: 9-12).

I usually think of Jesus Christ as my Advocate and friend, the one who ate with sinners and washed the feet of his disciples, but it is in these moments of scripture that I remember His majesty.

Glory to God on high!
Let heav’n and earth reply.
Praise ye his name.
His love and grace adore,
Who all our sorrows bore.
Sing aloud evermore:
Worthy the Lamb!

Hymn #87: God Is Love

bloom 3

It’s summer where I live. In many places around the world, summer is something to look forward to, with its promise of popsicles and fresh produce and beautiful weather. Here, however, summer just means hot. Sweating to death, celebrating when you find a parking spot in a tiny scrap of shade, cranking the air conditioning until October kind of hot.

Most summers I want to hide in a cool place with a tub of ice cream until temperatures outside become bearable again. This year, though, something is different. I’m seeing the desert in a new light.

Dozens of geckos congregate by our porch light to feast on bugs. A family of birds has made its nest in my neighbor’s cactus. Much to my husband’s chagrin, a persistent cricket sings lonely love songs outside our bedroom window every night. Our bottle tree is filled with busy bees and hummingbirds.

The saguaro are blooming.

You see, even here in this scorched desert there is life and hope and beauty and wonder. There are bougainvillea and kangaroo’s paw and oleander and desert honeysuckle. The century plants have sent up twenty-foot spires that will soon be topped with fiery orangey-yellow fluff like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

This hymn speaks of nature–earth and air and sea, hills and woods, breezes and birds–as a manifestation of God’s love for us. He created “Earth and her ten thousand flow’rs” specifically for mankind. Think about the magnitude of that undertaking for moment.

Sure, God gave us wood and stone with which to build, water to drink and to bathe in, and broccoli and berries and bacon to eat. But he also gave us mountains to climb and caves to explore. He gave us oceans to sail, rivers to cross, lakes to swim in. He gave us dogs and cats to domesticate and love, birds to mimic our own voices, horses and oxen to bear burdens we aren’t strong enough to bear.

And what of all the things in this world that don’t necessarily “serve” us? The fangly fish in the depths of the ocean? The tiny tree frogs in parts of the rainforest where no human has ever been? Hippos and javelinas, polar bears and penguins, obscure fungi and weird mosses and other innumerable, unfathomable flora and fauna?

Maybe He made them to give us something new to discover. Lightning storms to demonstrate the power of electricity. Stars for us to study and navigate and wish on. Ants to show us how to cooperate, and elephants to teach us about caring for our young, and butterflies to remind us that change can be beautiful.

Maybe He made them to make us laugh. Giraffes with their crazy long necks. Monkeys acting like funny little old men. The duck-billed platypus, for goodness’ sake.

And maybe He made them to remind us who He is: our Creator. He can make anything, has made all things. His might and power are boundless, and He uses them for our benefit. He made this world in all its wonderful weirdness because He loves us.

He loves even those of us who live in the burning desert. He loves us enough to make the saguaros bloom.

Hymn #85: How Firm a Foundation

How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
Who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?

This is a hymn that gets a lot of play time, and rightfully so. It’s upbeat. It’s uplifting. It’s got a whole bunch of verses so a ward chorister can easily add or subtract them to fill the time as needed.

And since it is so familiar, I’m not sure what new light I can shed on it. Undoubtedly you’ve noticed that most (and arguably all) of the verses were written from the Lord’s point of view. “I am thy God,” we sing in verse three, reminding ourselves exactly who it is we worship and what He has taught us.

And really, “what more can he say than to you he hath said?” Nothing in this hymn is new information. It’s in every book of the scriptural canon, in every General Conference report, in everything we do, for this is His church. He is our foundation.

A good portion of the lyrics here are either paraphrased or almost directly quoted from Isaiah (see chapters 41 and 43), so we get a hint of the Old Testament fire-and-brimstone Jehovah. “Fear not,” He commands His people, “Be not dismayed.” He will call them through deep water, rivers of sorrow, and deepest distress. There will be foes to face and even “all hell [may] endeavor to shake” them.

But, as a counterpoint to all these daunting demands, we are reminded that He is not only a just God who demands sacrifice and strict obedience. He is also a merciful and loving Savior–the Good Shepherd–who will succor, uphold, and sanctify His children. “In ev’ry condition,” He reminds us, “I am with thee…and will still give thee aid.”

Which isn’t to say things won’t be tremendously difficult. When Joseph Smith was confined for months in Liberty Jail with no reprieve in sight,  he begged in prayer to know why God seemed to have forgotten his people in their suffering. The reply, found in section 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants, shares the same message of this hymn in its entirety:

“And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7)

He freely admits there will be “fiery trials.” In fact, He knows exactly what they will be for each one of us. But, He instructs us, if we put our trust in Him, “The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design / Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”

And that’s really the crux of it all. The last verse tells us with repetitive finality that if we build our lives with Jesus Christ as our foundation, we will never be alone and we will never fall. (see Helaman 5:12)

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, I’ll never, no never,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake!

Hymn #73: Praise the Lord with Heart and Voice

On its surface, this seems to be a pretty typical hymn of praise. God is good, and we’re here to sing about it. We sing about the gifts that He has given us (“life and light,” “truth revealed, “grace,” and “wondrous love,” to name a few), and we sing about our adoration for Him for those gifts. But it’s not really a hymn about any of those things. We aren’t singing about the restoration, or about the Atonement, or anything else like that. We’re not even expressing gratitude, particularly. We’re simply offering praise to the One who gave all of that to us.

If we were to leave the hymn there, there wouldn’t be much to dissect. There’s not much under the surface of praise. But it’s when we look at the title that we find a little more to consider. Yes, this is a hymn of praise–it’s the first word of the title, after all. But consider how it is that we praise our Lord. We praise Him with not only our voice, but also with our heart. We tell Him and others about His goodness and mercy, but we feel it in our hearts as well. Our praise isn’t limited to only our words, but it lives in our actions, too.

We talked about our hearts last week. They represent the most central parts of our being. When we speak of something being near to our heart, we mean that it is very dear to us. And so when we say that we praise the Lord not only with our voices, but with our hearts, we mean that our praise comes from our very cores. These are not idle words. We feel this praise deeply. When we “sing with joy for grace made known,” we’re not simply saying that this grace is good. We feel it. That praise permeates us and is a key part of who we are.

Offering praise from our heart is more than a one-time event. Unlike a song of praise, a heart of praise can be constant. Everything about our lives offers glory to the Lord. It is evident in our actions, our words, and our thoughts. Others can see it when they talk with us.  The Book of Mormon prophet Amaleki touches on this idea, describing it as “[offering] your whole souls as an offering unto him.” Every part of us, starting from our hearts and radiating outward, is filled with praise for our Lord. It begins to encompass every part of our being.

That’s a state of mind that takes some time to reach. For many of us, it can be fleeting. We can feel that fullness of praise sometimes, but as we are caught up in other parts of our lives, it fades, slipping through our fingers. For those times that we can’t offer our whole hearts to the Lord, we do our best by offering our voices. Sometimes, rather than feeling that praise from inside out, we work to feel it from the outside in. As we offer our praise “in loud acclaim,” our hearts can be softened. We invite the Spirit to testify of the truth of what we are singing (and invite Him to offer praise of His own), which helps us to offer our hearts as praise as well. We work to offer praise with both our hearts and voices, “[singing] the wonders of his name.”

Hymn #58: Come, Ye Children of the Lord

The stereotypical representation of a Christian heaven usually involves angels on a cloud plucking their harps in eternal praise of God. That imagery has never really resonated with me—I believe we’ll have plenty of meaningful work to keep us busy throughout eternity, so the idea of lazily sitting around on a cloud in lazy praise of our God just doesn’t seem right.

And yet, the scriptures do speak of angels who shall “worship him forever and ever.” (Doctrine and Covenants 76:21). While we may not be toting harps everywhere we go, worship and veneration of our Heavenly Father is an eternal principle. I do not believe it will not be our only heavenly occupation, any more than scripture study is all we are expected to do here on earth. Nevertheless, songs of Heavenly praise are probably not a rare sight in the eternities.

Come, Ye Children of the Lord extends this concept even further, referencing the songs of praise we might sing during the millennial reign of Christ. It draws from passages like this one in the Doctrine and Covenants:

And the graves of the saints shall be opened; and they shall come forth and stand on the right hand of the Lamb, when he shall stand upon Mount Zion, and upon the holy city, the New Jerusalem; and they shall sing the song of the Lamb, day and night forever and ever. (D&C 133:56)

The millennium will be a time of rejoicing and peace, a time long anticipated by prophets both ancient and modern. Though it often seems distant, we should recall that the Lord named this church The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for a reason. This church is intended to prepare the world for the second coming of the Messiah, inviting all to come unto him and to receive him.

We preach and sing about the millennium often, but I don’t know if there’s any hymn that speaks more directly to the joy and happiness that will prevail on the earth at that time. Consider these passages:

Oh, how joyful it will be
When our Savior we shall see!
When in splendor he’ll descend,
Then all wickedness will end. (verse 2)

All arrayed in spotless white,
We will dwell ‘mid truth and light.
We will sing the songs of praise;
We will shout in joyous lays. (verse 3)

Earth shall then be cleansed from sin.
Ev’ry living thing therein
Shall in love and beauty dwell;
Then with joy each heart will swell. (verse 3)

As we consider this hymn, it’s important to remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not just intended to bring us individual peace and comfort. The gospel is meant to bring peace to the entire world. It is, in no uncertain terms, a world-changing doctrine. It will make of this world a paradise, where all can live in happiness and harmony.

And yet, take note of the first phrase of this song:

Come, ye children of the Lord,
Let us sing with one accord.
Let us raise a joyful strain
To our Lord who *soon will reign*

We are not supposed to defer our praise until the millennium arrives. Rather. We sing now, joyously, in anticipation of the blessings our Father has promised us in the future. We do not need to delay our rejoicing; whether the promise is fulfilled for us, our children, or our grandchildren, the promise is still rich and full. If a parents’ greatest ambition is to provide a better world for their children and their children’s children, then should we not rejoice in the coming millennium?

I think it sounds pretty great.

Hymn #86: How Great Thou Art

There are few hymns as classic as How Great Thou Art. It’s been a favorite of Christians all over the world for  over a hundred years. Its popularity is due in large measure to the universal experience it describes: who hasn’t “see[n] the stars” or hiked among “lofty mountain grandeur” and felt overawed by the majesty of their environment? This hymn captures the wonder and reverence many people find in nature.

But this is more than a simple nature hymn. Although the first two verses sing about “rolling thunder,” “birds sing[ing] sweetly” and “the gentle breeze,” the last two verses focus on the Savior. Verse 3 is especially touching:

And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

This hymn combines awe at nature with awe at the Savior’s sacrifice for the simple reason that both manifest God’s goodness and power with a strength and poignancy rarely found elsewhere. Christ’s majesty was manifest as much in the scene of his brokenness as in his majestic creations. Where the world saw a criminal getting his just desserts, despised him and viewed him as the smallest, least significant, and most worthless, in that moment God’s power was being made manifest. In that meekness and submissiveness is the same majesty and grandeur, if only we’d learn how to see it.

And this is where I find the chorus most intriguing.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!

I think it’s significant that it is our “soul,” in particular, that sings these praises. This is an instinctual spiritual response. Our spirits are tuned to respond to the splendor of creation and the Savior’s love with praise and wonder at God’s greatness. But this praise should not remain instinctual or in our hearts only. Verse 4 describes our behavior at the last day, “when Christ shall come … and take [us] home:”

Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, “My God, how great thou art!”

What our soul had only silently affirmed (“how great thou art”) will become our literal speech at the last day. A crucial part of our journey through mortality is learning to allow our soul’s spiritual yearnings to direct our actions, until it is our spirit, rather than our flesh, that guides our nature. We must learn not only to feel God’s greatness, but also to affirm it.

“We must give birth to the word that is swelling in us by giving voice to the promise it contains. Will not this saying strengthen your faith, Alma asks? Yea, he answers, it will strengthen your faith “for ye will say I know that this is a good seed.” [Alma 32:30] Why is our faith strengthened? Because we gave voice to the word within us.” ~ Adam S. Miller [1]

God is good. He may not be fair or predictable, but He is good. Let’s get to the work of verbalizing it.

[1] Adam S. Miller, “You Must Needs Say that the Word is Good,” in An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Salt Press, 2011), 39.

Hymn #71: With Songs of Praise

For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads. (D&C 25:12)

Music is a huge part of Latter-Day Saint culture. Our first hymnal was published only five years after the church was organized. It is standard to sing at least three hymns (sometimes four or more) at any sacrament meeting, plus more during the other two hours at church and at any other meetings that we may attend. We have our own award-winning, internationally recognized choir, for heaven’s sake! Throw in Gladys Knight, the Osmonds, David Archuleta, Alex Boye, Lindsey Stirling, The Piano Guys…the number of musically talented Mormons is astounding, and I’m not surprised.

With songs of praise and gratitude
We worship God above,
In words and music give our thanks
For his redeeming love.

After moving into a new ward, I found out I was pregnant with our second child. The first was not yet old enough for nursery, and I worried that my already strained ability to worship would take another hit when baby #2 arrived. As things stood, my Sundays were largely taken up by cheerios and diaper changes and whisking a loud baby out of yet another meeting, and I missed being able to sit still and soak in the spirit.

Then the ward choir director invited me to come sing.

Against my usual inclination, I handed the baby off to my husband and nervously went to practice. I was welcomed with smiles and a folder of music and then we sang! And sang and sang and sang until I thought I might burst from the joy of it all. This was what I had been missing! This was the renewal and reconciliation with God that I needed to desperately.

If “a heartfelt song by righteous ones is prayer” then I am certainly praying when I practice those choir songs. The music we perform truly “unites us and invites the Spirit to be there.” Even when my almost-but-not-quite-a-true-soprano voice can’t quite reach that high G. Even when there aren’t enough tenors to balance out the basses. Even when nobody really likes the arrangement we’re singing. The Spirit is present and we sing together as one.

As this hymn indicates, the seed of Abraham sang their praises to God so many years ago. In years to come the Saints will sing “the new song of the Lamb.” Meanwhile I will be belting out my part as best I can. Sure, my Sabbath is still occupied largely with my babies and their accoutrements, but when I make my way up to the stand with the rest of the choir, this chorus fills my heart:

Then come before God’s presence!
With singing worship him!
Express the heart too full to speak,
In one exultant hymn.

-

(On a related note, the most recent comic from The Garden of Enid made me laugh. We’ve all been there, haven’t we?)

Hymn #68: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

In our LDS hymnal, the text for A Mighty Fortress is credited “Martin Luther, adapted.” There is undeniably quite a bit of adaptation here. The original German text contains four verses, which are interesting in their own right but not the focus of this analysis. Here, I wish to examine the doctrine taught in the lyrics we have in the LDS hymnal.

God is strong, never failing

A mighty fortress is our God,
A tower of strength ne’er failing.

The Book of Mormon speaks of the “Strength of the Lord,” often referencing increased strength and ability given to the righteous in battle. Other scriptures speak of the word of God as a sword. Yet here, the strength of God is represented not as a dynamic, offensive force but rather a sure and immovable one. Both symbols are instructive, but this one is surely appropriate in our day, when values and morals are changing so rapidly. The truth does not shift or change; true doctrine stands firm and powerful against all attempts to sway it.

God helps us overcome ills and trials

A helper mighty is our God,
O’er ills of life prevailing.

In the middle of a song about the strength and majesty of God, this phrase is unique. It teaches that God uses this great power and stability to help us. His goal is not simply to gain power for the sake of power, but rather to enable and bless all of his children. When the “ills of life” strike, whatever they may be, we can always turn to our God.

God has opened the path for us to return to Him

He overcometh all.
He saveth from the Fall.

“He overcometh all” is an understated phrase with profound implications. Christ has overcome death, sin, sorrow, and separation. All the pains and injustices we observe here on Earth are overcome through Christ, and will be resolved to our complete satisfaction when we return to our eternal home. Of specific note is that Christ has overcome the Fall. Of all the victories of Christ, this one is perhaps the greatest, as it is the one that most directly impacts the work of God. If the Fall had not been overcome, we would all be left without hope of reunification with our Father, and would eventually become spiritually dead.

God is powerful, as evidenced by Creation

His might and pow’r are great.
He all things did create.

The creation of all things gives support to our faith. Our God is not simply one who loves us and encourages us to be nice. He is not simply the God of Friendly Interactions™, though some today would cast Christ in that role. As we examine the vast creations of God, we instead gain a sense that he is far greater and far more powerful. In the book of Moses we read “Worlds without number have I created.” As we step back and view the enormity of God’s creation, we cannot help but be awed by scope of it. And yet, he is not only a god of broad strokes, but also a god of intimate detail. I enjoy examining individual leaves in our garden, or individual blades of grass. Truly, the life all around us testifies of the skill and power of God.  At even finer detail, internal cellular structures and microscopic interactions testify to the intelligence and capacity of God. From the unfathomable to the minuscule, God’s creation draws our minds and our hearts unto him.

God will reign eternally

And he shall reign for evermore.

Ours is not a fleeting God, one to be toppled by the next wind of doctrine or the next discovery of science. He will retain his power and ability forever. He will also retain his love for us, his children, eternally. He is a mighty fortress, never to fall or be swayed.

And we are his children. What a wonderful heritage is ours.

Hymn #54: Behold, the Mountain of the Lord

We are often reminded of Mormon’s admonition that we should seek Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith and Charity are easily understood, but I’ve found that many people don’t have a solid understanding of what “Hope” means.

During my teenage years, I thought that maybe Hope referred to a stronger faith in the Gospel. If Faith is not to have a certain knowledge of things, then I thought perhaps Hope meant that not only did we believe it was true, but we really wanted it to be true. We “hoped” it was true. While it’s nice to hope that the gospel is true, this is not the Hope that the scriptures urge us to seek.

Hope is the feeling of anticipation we have for future promised blessings. Hope is the opposite of despair—it is the belief that things will be wonderful in the future, and the excitement we have for arriving at that future time. Mormon taught us to seek Hope because God has made lots of promises about the future, and some of these are conditional upon our obedience. As we gain greater understanding of the blessings to come, we will have greater strength to resist temptation and overcome difficult times.

God has promised us resurrection. He has promised us eternal life, if we will make and keep the covenants he has set out for us. He has promised guidance through the Spirit. He has promised forgiveness, and strength in overcoming our weaknesses. He has promised us peace in this life. The gospel is full of promises. This makes sense, of course; why would someone choose to follow the guidelines and restrictions imposed by a religion if there were not some promised benefit for doing so? Hope grows as we begin to understand how much God loves us, and how much he desires to bless us.

So what does all of this have to do with Behold, the Mountain of the Lord, today’s hymn?

This hymn describes the conditions that will exist during Christ’s Millennial Reign. While many people seem to be afraid of the calamity preceding the Second Coming, I’ve never felt that way. I figure that if it’s going to happen while I’m around, being afraid isn’t going to change anything. Instead, I choose to look forward with Hope at the prophesied conditions during the millennium. Here are just a few of them, mentioned in this hymn:

Behold, the mountain of the Lord
In latter days shall rise (verse 1)

The rays that shine from Zion’s hill
Shall lighten ev’ry land (verse 2)

[Christ's] judgments truth shall guide;
His scepter shall protect the just
And quell the sinner’s pride. (verse 2)

No strife shall rage, nor hostile feuds
Disturb those peaceful years (verse 3)

They’ll hang the trumpet in the hall
And study war no more. (verse 3)

These promises give me hope—hope that the increasingly perilous conditions that exist now will not continue forever. Hope that if the destruction preceding the Second Coming does come in my lifetime, it is not the end. Hope that if it does not come in my lifetime, my descendants will someday see a time when these promises will be fulfilled. There is yet glory and peace and justice ahead, and there is reason to rejoice.

We really do believe the Christ will reign personally upon the earth. We really do believe that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory. We do not know when it will happen, but we know that “the world is being prepared for the Second Coming of the Savior in large measure because of the Lord’s work through His missionaries.” (Elder Neil L. Anderson, April 2011). Our work right now is in preparation for that exciting event, so how important for us to have Hope in that time. We are not preparing the world for destruction; we are preparing it for the peace and joy and beauty that follows.

The final verse is a fitting conclusion to this hymn. It repeats the same words twice, a reminder that gospel-oriented hope should inspire not daydreaming but action.

Come, then, O house of Jacob, come,
To worship at His shrine,
And, walking in the light of God,
With holy beauties shine.

Hymn #66: Rejoice, the Lord Is King!

Lift up your heart! Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!
Lift up your heart! Lift up your voice!
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice!

Wycliffe, Luther, Tyndale, Calvin, Knox, Wesley.

The author of this hymn is not John Wesley, the founder of the movement in 18th century England that became Methodism and Wesleyanism—but it was his younger brother Charles, considered very much a leader alongside John in the movement. While John is known for his sermons, Charles is known for hymns.

And there is plenty to be known for. Charles Wesley composed over 6,000 hymns, including six in the LDS hymnbook. Rejoice, the Lord is King isn’t his most well-known hymn (that would probably be Hark! The Herald Angels Sing), but it is still published in over 600 different hymnbooks and sung to thirteen different tunes.

The brothers Wesley preached to the common people. The text of this hymn is as simple and straightforward as they come, and it applies equally to the aristocracy and the plowboy. The message is, simply, to rejoice—the Lord is king.

What this hymn does not do is spend a great deal of time giving reasons for us to rejoice. Including the repetition of the chorus, that sort of narrative only fills about 1/3 of the song. In all reality, the fact that Jesus Christ is our Savior is plenty of reason to rejoice, and the other 2/3 of the hymn is a call to action. Rejoice! Again, I say, rejoice!

We all have struggles, and challenges befall all of us—but ultimately, there is nothing that can happen to us in this life that isn’t dwarfed by the magnitude of the Savior’s atonement and our Heavenly Father’s plan for us. We each have an eternal nature and destiny. We’re instructed specifically in scripture to not worry about what mere mortal men can do to us; we have much to rejoice about that will make such things insignificant.

John and Charles Wesley knew they had much to rejoice about. They taught, at times under persecution from the Church of England and others, that the Holy Ghost testifies of truth to us individually; that only the grace of God has power sufficient to save; and that we can, in time, become “perfect in love.”

Rejoice! Give thanks and sing!

And we should know, even more, how much cause we have to rejoice. Living in the light of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, we have a living prophet and apostles; we have temples dotting the earth in which we make sacred covenants; we have scriptures in our homes, freedom to worship, and—above all—a divine elder brother, a Savior who died that we all may live!

Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!

Hymn #70: Sing Praise to Him

How do you praise the Lord?

As a church, we tend to be reserved about how we lavish praise on the Lord. Mormon church meetings generally emphasize reverence over boisterousness, and while we certainly sing praises to the Lord, we generally do so in traditional music styles (hymns) and with traditional instrumentation (organ or piano). The distinction is cultural rather than doctrinal—the way we show praise is simply “the way we do things,” rather than a point where we have been commanded one way or the other.

Regardless of how you choose to show it, we have plenty to sing praises for. This hymn, Sing Praise to Him, goes back to the 17th century and was written by German lawyer and hymnwriter Johann Jakob Schütz. The first three verses of Brother Schütz’s hymn give a rapid-fire list of reasons for us to sing praises to our Creator. They neatly divide into characteristics of the Lord (what He is) and the Lord’s ongoing actions toward us (what He does):

What He is:

  • The Lord of all creation
  • Source of power
  • Fount of love
  • The rock of our salvation
  • Never far away
  • An ever-present help and stay, through all our grief and distress
  • Just and right

What He does:

  • Reigns above
  • Fills our souls with healing balm
  • Stills every faithless murmur
  • Leads us with a hand tender as a mother’s
  • Watches over us, never sleeping

It can be easy to miss, while singing a hymn, the significance of a list like this. While we sing the words, we overlook that any single point in this could be the topic of a hymn itself (and may already be). The fact that the Lord fills our souls with healing balm, for example, with the mercy and forgiveness and Divine comfort that only He can bestow, can be and is the topic of many, many a sermon.

While the first three verses of the hymn provide this remarkable list, the real poetry for me is in the fourth verse. It’s where, if the three verses of praise were overwhelming, we come back down to Earth:

Thus, all my toilsome way along
I sing aloud thy praises,
That men may hear the grateful song
My voice unwearied raises.
Be joyful in the Lord, my heart!
Both soul and body bear your part.
To him all praise and glory!

The way we all make through this life is indeed toilsome. We all need to be picked up sometimes, having fallen over the obstacles that inevitably trip us up. It’s harder then, when we’re lying on the ground, knees scraped and hands dirtied by the struggles of mortal life, to raise our voices and sing praise. We may need to be strong of will to overcome our weakness of flesh: “Be joyful in the Lord, my heart! Both soul and body bear your part!”

Why do we do it? Why do we keep picking ourselves up, and more pertinently, why do we again sing praises to God when we do? Because we know what He has done for us. We know that Jesus Christ has atoned for our sins, and made it possible for us to become perfect as He is. We know that we cannot now see past this mortal probation, but that there is eternal joy in store for us if we endure faithfully. We sing praises to the Lord, with unwearying voices, so that other will hear our grateful song, and have the same joy that we have in the Lord.

To Him, indeed—all praise and glory.

 

Sunlight and Dogwoods

Hymn #89: The Lord Is My Light

Sunlight and Dogwoods

 

I used to think this was a song of joy. The tune is happy and lilting, we sing about light, and the chorus explicitly refers to the Lord as “[our] joy and [our] song.” So why, then, when we review the topics listed for this hymn, do we not find “joy”?

A quick look at the first verse can illuminate the situation for us. Listen:

The Lord is my light; then why should I fear?
By day and by night his presence is near.
He is my salvation from sorrow and sin;
This blessed assurance the Spirit doth bring.

The chorus is about joy and light, but the verses are all about faith and trust. We sing about assurance, and we sing about power. We are directed to sing not “joyfully,” not ” brightly,” but “resolutely.” We are filled with faith and knowledge that even when the Lord isn’t visibly near is, we can feel Him near and draw strength from that.

It’s one thing to believe in God when it’s easy to do so. On days where your life is easy, sunshine is streaming in, and you aren’t encountering any challenges to your faith, it’s a snap to remember to pray always and keep Him in your heart. But on days where you’re feeling tested, whether spiritually, emotionally, or physically, it’s much harder, and sometimes, singing or thinking about light and joy doesn’t cut it for you.

The second verse asks us what we do on those days when the sunlight seems blocked from our view:

The Lord is my light, tho clouds may arise,
Faith, stronger than sight, looks up thru the skies
Where Jesus forever in glory doth reign.
Then how can I ever in darkness remain?

We’ve all had days where, in despair, grief, or whatever else, we look to the heavens for comfort. And on some of those days, we look up expecting rays of sunshine, but see only dark clouds. What do we do when no comfort seems to be forthcoming? This hymn reminds us not to look with our eyes, but with our faith, “stronger than sight.” The eye of faith cuts through those clouds and lets us see the Lord where He is.

Faith is, as we know, the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We can’t see the Savior standing next to us, especially not with life’s stormy clouds blocking our view. Faith provides substance to things things we hope for. When we exercise our faith, we can see the Lord as though He’s standing right there. His light, which fuels our faith, penetrates through those clouds and allows us to see. As real and crushing as our trials can feel, when we have faith to buoy us up, we too can ask how we could ever remain in darkness.

That’s not to say that exercising our faith is a walk in the park. The third verse gives us a sense of the timeframe we’re looking at:

The Lord is my light; the Lord is my strength.
I know in his might I’ll conquer at length.
My weakness in mercy he covers with pow’r,
And, walking by faith, I am blest ev’ry hour.

As he gives us the ability to overcome our trials through our faith in Him, we can come off conqueror–but notice the words “at length.” We are not always delivered immediately. We often aren’t delivered until we’ve had to endure those trials for some time. We’re given the chance to learn patience and longsuffering through our trials, and also to learn gratitude as those trials are removed from us after we’ve learned patience. But don’t think that the Lord simply allows us to suffer, only finally choosing to intervene after an arbitrary number of days, weeks, or years. His power can (and does) compensate for our weakness. When we rely on Him through our faith, we are, as we sing here, “blest ev’ry hour.” We don’t have occasional moments of deliverance sprinkled through the gloom. The rays of sunshine are always there. It’s only when we walk in faith that we can see them piercing the cloud cover.

The Lord is my light, my all and in all.
There is in his sight no darkness at all.
He is my Redeemer, my Savior, and King.
With Saints and with angels his praises I’ll sing.

“There is in his sight no darkness at all.” He is the rays of light that reach us through the clouds. He will unceasingly brighten our lives and give us hope. And when we walk in faith, we are always entitled to see those rays of light. The clouds are dark, and they may feel overwhelming at times, but faith helps us to see that there’s more to the world than those clouds.

Image credit: “Sunshine and Dogwoods,” Duane Tate, 2005, via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hymn #96: Dearest Children, God Is Near You

I don’t believe in using scare tactics on children. They always seem to backfire. Either you wind up with a nervous kiddo who is paranoid about the tiniest things, or one who no longer believes anything you say because they proved you wrong by not wetting the bed after playing with the campfire.

I have heard people use God or Jesus to scare children into behaving, saying things like, “Jesus saw what you did and he is not happy about it.” This becomes problematic in the same way as any other scare tactic: either the kid winds up terrified of God’s disapproval or he stops believing because of a lack of immediate Heavenly consequences.

When we sing this hymn, though, it’s hardly, “You better watch out, you better not cry”…or else! The first verse nicely illustrates this point:

Dearest children, God is near you,
Watching o’er you day and night,
And delights to own and bless you,
If you strive to do what’s right.
He will bless you, He will bless you,
If you put your trust in him.

Not a threat or warning to be seen. Yes, God is near us and watching all the time, but not to punish. Three times we are told He will bless us, and that He delights to do so. What’s more, He delights to own us. His pleasure in recognizing us as His children speaks of His unconditional love for us.

In his Sermon on the Mount, the Savior reminds us how much concern our Father has for our well-being:

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30)

He watches us “day and night” because He wants to take care of us. He sets His angels to “keep a faithful record of the good and bad [we] say” so He will know how best to attend our needs.

In all that watching He is bound to see us make mistakes. Fortunately for us He also “delights to teach us”, as the third verse says. We have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost to encourage us to keep the commandments, to prick our conscience when we rebel, to comfort us as we repent, and to rejoice with us when we do what is right. This kind of guidance is, to me, far more helpful than constant fear of chastisement.

Our Father in Heaven is ever-vigilant for He is, like any loving parent, protective and proud of His children. What does He ask in return? That we try our best. That we trust Him. That we heed the Spirit’s promptings. That we cherish virtue. Above all, that we prove faithful to Him.

And even if we aren’t, He will be faithful. Whatever we do, God is near us.

Hymn #76: God of Our Fathers, We Come unto Thee

Ebenezer Beesley composed the music for this hymn, but the text is by Charles W. Penrose—an apostle and First Presidency counselor to Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant. The music is tremendously memorable, and the message of this hymn is undoubtedly its equal.

If you can’t recall the tune just from the title, listen here. You may recognize it. There aren’t many hymns with this vigor.

The first two verses are a plea, each ending with the same supplication, punctuated by the chorus:

God of our fathers, we come unto thee,
Children of those whom thy truth has made free.
Grant us the joy of thy presence today;
Never from thee let us stray!

Grateful for all that thy bounty imparts,
Praises we offer with voices and hearts.
Life of our being, and sun of our day,
Never from thee let us stray!

Never! Never!
Never from thee let us stray!
Ever! Ever!
Ever to thee will we pray!

We are all imperfect beings, living here as mortals in a time of probation. We’re constantly making mistakes, and having to ask our Heavenly Father to forgive us (which, mercifully, He does). Having been given reprieve, we ask Him for other things we suppose we need. When He blesses us, we go further into His debt—King Benjamin reminds us that because of this, we will always be unprofitable servants.

The prayer of this hymn goes even further, as it asks the Father to give us the strength to not depart from His ways in the first place. It’s an acknowledgment that we’re here to be tested, but that we lack the ability to pass the test on our own.

It’s akin to the New Testament father whose son was possessed of an evil spirit. The father brings his son to Jesus to be healed, but lacks the faith for it to happen. His plea to the Savior—“help thou my unbelief”—could come from any of us. So often we need our Heavenly Father to help us help ourselves; “Never from thee let us stray” is a pre-emptive prayer, asking for help now so that we can bypass some of the suffering that would come when we eventually do stray later.

But then—there’s a switch. What started as a plea becomes resolve.

Blest with the gifts of the gospel of peace,
Dwelling in Zion, whose light shall increase,
Led by the priesthood along the bright way,
Never from thee will we stray!

Strengthened by thee for the conflict with sin,
Onward we’ll press till life’s battle we’ll win;
Then in thy glory forever we’ll stay;
Never from thee will we stray!

Blessed with the gospel, dwelling in Zion, led by the Priesthood, and strengthened by the Lord, we’re able to give him our word—never will we stray. We are fully committed to staying on the strait and narrow path. Many times we will be like Peter, whose firm resolution of dedication to the Lord was tested and in a time of weakness he felt short and denied the Christ. But like Peter, we will get second chances, and we can be mighty tools in the Lord’s hands.

The onus is on each of us to ask the Father for the strength to do this. Our prayer of “never from thee let us stray” shows the desire to believe that is required to build faith. Once that faith grows, we can take on the resolution of the last two verses of this hymn and tell the Lord that we choose His side. This hymn gives us the words to sing (and pray), that we’ll win life’s battles and stay in the Lord’s glory forever.

And, ever with vigor, it is punctuated by the chorus.

Never! Never!
Never from thee let us stray!
Ever! Ever!
Ever to thee will we pray!

Hymn #55: Lo, the Mighty God Appearing!

Even if you didn’t see the direction to sing energetically, or even if you didn’t see the exclamation points littered throughout the song (a whopping twenty of them in four verses), this is a hymn that you almost can’t help but sing with vigor. The melody almost begs to be played as a fanfare with trumpets. In other hymns, we sing praise to our Lord for His goodness, His kindness, and His mercy; here, we hail Him as our ruler and king.

Consider the words we use to describe Him in the first verse:

Lo, the mighty God appearing!
From on high Jehovah speaks!
Eastern lands the summons hearing,
O’er the west his thunder breaks.
Earth behold him! Earth behold him!
Universal nature shakes.
Earth behold him! Earth behold him!
Universal nature shakes.

He is mighty. He speaks from on high. He sends forth thunder, and all nature shakes at His presence. We feel of His power and majesty in this hymn, and the tune reflects both that power and majesty. It’s a tune befitting the announcement and arrival of a king.

It’s interesting that the response of nature is mentioned so often in this hymn. It begins by announcing His presence to us, but it goes on to mention the awed reaction of the earth and sky to that arrival. In the first verse, we hear that the land hears the summons and “universal nature shakes.” The whole earth trembles at His coming. He created the earth and all things in and on it; surely it recognizes its creator. The second verse continues, mentioning that fire, clouds, and tempests will accompany Him at His arrival.

It’s His second coming, of course. He will come in power and majesty, and there will be no mistaking the response of nature at that time. In fact, there will be only one group whose reaction won’t be sure, and that’s ours. We, as humans, have the ability to choose for ourselves how to react in any situation. That agency is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, perhaps second only to life itself. And so while the earth and skies will shake at His coming, we may not. We may choose to recognize the arrival of our King. We may not. It is given to us to choose.

The phrase “less than the dust of the earth” occasionally appears in scripture to describe the state of man. That’s not to say that mankind is somehow worth less than dust. Of God’s creations, only humans are created in His image, so surely we carry more intrinsic value than dust. But dust obeys God’s every command without question. If He commands it to move, it moves. If He commands a mountain to move, it moves, and if He commands a sea to be dry, it dries. But when He commands us, we often question Him. We ask if He really needs us to do that right now, or if it could maybe wait until this afternoon, or even just until the next commercial break. Our agency is a tremendous gift, but when it comes to pure obedience, that gift makes us less than the dust of the earth.

Of course, we will be accountable for those choices. In the fourth verse, we are reminded that His judgments are just, and that at the second coming, “God, himself the judge, is there.” He knows us, and He knows what we have done with His gift of agency. He will judge, and judge perfectly and justly. And so as we sing, we are reminded of that day. We are reminded that we will stand before Him and will answer for our actions. And as we are so reminded, hopefully we take a moment to consider those actions, and whether we could be a little quicker to heed His call now rather than waiting until the last day. Perhaps we could lend a hand to someone in need, or offer a kind word. And as we do so, we can, along with the heavens in the final verse, “adore him, and his righteousness declare.”

Hymn #99: Nearer, Dear Savior, to Thee

Nearer, dear Savior, to thee,
Nearer, nearer to thee–
Ever I’m striving to be
Nearer, yet nearer to thee!

A few years ago, I sat next to a new father on a flight to California. He was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility fatherhood brings. He worried he did not know how to raise a child to be a good, moral person. With so many perils and distractions in the world today, how could he teach his son to know what was right? How could he even know what was right himself?

We were flying out of Salt Lake City, so I wasn’t surprised when he asked if I was a Mormon. I replied that I was, indeed. He then asked me something I’ve considered numerous times since:

What are the principles that guide your religion? What tenets does your religion provide?

My initial inclination was to share the Articles of Faith; I’ve heard of similar situations since I was in Primary, and that always seemed to be the appropriate response. I started down that path, but quickly saw that these were not the answers he was looking for. He didn’t want to know how my religion was different from other religions, and he didn’t really want to know what I believed—he wanted to know how my religion guides my life.

I wasn’t sure how to give him a succinct answer at the time. There is so much we are counseled to do, so much that we believe. How should I shrink it down into one or two guiding principles? Is service the key? Charity? Scripture study? Prayer? Family Home Evening?

Honestly, I don’t think I gave him a very useful answer. I bounced between a few topics, hoping to find one that resonated with him, but I never really struck the right chord. It bothered me; I felt like I should have a solid answer to a question as fundamental as this one.

As I’ve considered this topic since, I would now give a different answer:

My religion teaches me to be like Jesus Christ. I study his life and his teachings, and I try to do what he would do. I try to live so that every day I am a little closer to Him.

When I read the words to this hymn, this conversation I had years ago kept coming to mind. Fully half the lines in each verse are some variation of the phrase “Nearer, dear Savior, to thee.” There is something important to this topic, one we should not pass over lightly.

What does it mean to be near to the Savior? Perhaps it means that we quickly and consistently turn to him, and rely on him in times of need. When temptations arise, when frustration, disappointment, or tragedy come upon us, do we turn away from the Savior and rely on our own strength? Or do we choose to draw nearer to him, seeking his peace and comfort?

Perhaps, nearness to the Savior refers to our emulation of him, however imperfect. Do we do what he would do? When others observe our actions and behavior, do they see an approximation of Christ to some degree? Do we try to do what he would do? Do we think what he would think? Are we, as the Primary song suggests, “following in his ways?”

Maybe nearness to the Savior is about our relationship with Christ. The scriptures refer to him as our Savior, our father, our teacher, our guide, our brother, our King, our friend, and numerous other titles. As you consider your own relationship with Jesus Christ, what words or titles come to mind? Are you comfortable calling him your friend? Do any of these titles seem out of reach?

The verses of this hymn suggest all of these interpretations. We can draw near to the Savior in a variety of ways, and they’re all important. This isn’t a buffet; it’s a wide-ranging invitation that covers every facet of our lives.

The chorus of each verse is a simple two-line refrain:

Take, oh, take, and cherish me,
Nearer, dear Savior, to thee.

When I read prophetic accounts of meetings with the Savior, I’m struck by how often they mention the power of his embrace. Jesus Christ loves us, powerfully and completely, and he invites us to come unto him—”Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you.” (D&C 88:63.) He wants to lift us and warm us and strengthen us and empower us. He wants to heal our wounds and take away our sorrows. He wants to give us everything he has, and wants us to become like he is.

He loves us. He loves you. Accept his invitation. Each day, nearer, yet nearer, to Him.

Hymn #65: Come, All Ye Saints Who Dwell on Earth

Ah, enduring to the end. It’s a common theme in LDS doctrine and will undoubtedly be revisited time and time again as we examine the hymn book this year. It can feel tiresome after a while. “Again?” you roll your eyes. “Do we have to talk about enduring to the end again?”

Yes. And here’s why: because we haven’t done it yet.

How easy it would be to check off the right boxes and say the right words and then call it a day. How many more hours we’d have to do whatever we want! How much fun we could have on Sunday! Yet for all the necessity of saving ordinances and sacred covenants, they aren’t worth anything if we don’t live up to them.

And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

And now, behold, my beloved brethren, this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God. (2 Nephi 31: 19-21)

Sure, we made it this far, but there is so much farther to go. We can always be learning and improving, strengthening our faith and repenting.

His love is great; he died for us.
Shall we ungrateful be,
Since he has marked a road to bliss
And said, “Come, follow me”?

The words of the hymn are simple, but the implications are heavy. The Savior endured all our pain, fear, disappointment, guilt, grief, shame, and despair to provide us a way back to our Heavenly Father. Are we so selfish that we would reject this gift because “it’s just too hard” to keep trying? I certainly hope not.

“The straight and narrow way we’ve found!” And when we let go of the iron rod and wander off the path, he offers us a chance to come back and hold onto it again. Shall we ungrateful be? No. “Let us travel on” until we are “perfected by his love.”

Which will only happen if we endure to the end.

Hymn #69: “All Glory, Laud and Honor”

I’d like to consider as a whole the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor”. By “as a whole” I really mean lyrics plus lyricist plus the dates in which he lived. This is hymn has a few years on the others in the book. Its author, Theodulph of Orleans (sometimes rendered as Theodulphe, or Theodulphus), served as a theological advisor in the court of Charlemagne. He was likely born in Spain and died in France, and would have written these lyrics in Latin, as religious texts would not be translated into regional vernaculars until the Reformation. In 1851 the lyrics were translated into English by John M. Neale.

I think this translation process is incredibly interesting. When it comes to translating poetry, you usually have to choose between rendering a literal translation that probably won’t rhyme, or adapting each line to preserve the original structure of the verse. Being myself no serious student of Latin (though not for want of trying), I cannot say with full confidence what school of thought Neale used to make his translation. What I can say is that when you consider all of this, it is remarkable how many children’s voices it captures in a single line.

“The lips of children made sweet Hosanas sing,” says the first verse. There’s our own native tongue, English, including all those of us who were ever Primary children, singing Primary songs about things we trusted in but did not comprehend. Backing up a step, in Theodoulph’s likely native Spanish we’d have los ninos, and in French les enfants, and tracking all the way back to Latin we’d have pueri singing Hosanas (and from there let’s not forget the Greek and the Hebrew origins of Hosana, which gives us Israelite children singing “a shout of fervent and worshipful praise”).

It almost makes the rest of the singers mentioned in the hymn seem less impressive- the angels, and the rest of us, with all these children bearing the Lord’s various names on their hearts and voices. In this way this hymn shows us space and time not unlike the endless reflection between two facing mirrors. Add to this the great love Christ has for children, and you have a choir that almost makes the other singers mentioned in the hymn- angels, the rest of us- seem almost, well, a little less impressive by contrast.

I think of a child I saw in Italy, a few years ago when I visited. He was crying out to his mother for attention, and it struck me so deeply that I wished I could record it in my mind to replay. I think of his plea, recognizable even to a foreigner who didn’t speak his language, and imagine his prayers. That boy may be raised Catholic, or agnostic, or atheist, or Latter-Day Saint, but my heart warms to know that when our children speak to God, in whatever way they understand, He understands them too. However they know Him, and in whatever language they raise their voices, He knows and hears them too, and His love for them is endless.

Hymn #88: Great God, Attend While Zion Sings

I am not what I (or Nephi) would call “a visionary woman”. I seem to remember more of my dreams than the average Peter or Molly- that is true. Usually I know they mean nothing, like the ones that have more in common with a Dali painting than real life. But once in a while, I have one that just… feels important. I think the best test is your waking emotion, and how long it lingers, especially if the feeling is positive. I do believe the Lord communicates with us through dreams, from ancient times through today.

And just as Christ shared many of the same parables to teach His followers on separate continents, I believe that the Father can share the same visions to His children across time. Take as a special instance the case of the vision of the tree of life. We have at least three instances of it- Lehi and Nephi, and also Joseph Smith Sr., who was of course the father of a rather well-known man inclined to revelation. That makes me wonder how many faithful men and women, seekers of Christ across the years, have seen the plan laid out in this way. Here are a few of the elements of the symbolic vision of the Tree of Life, in my own words:

At the end of the long path through the darkness, grows a great and beautiful tree. It bears fruit such as is beyond comparison for taste and value. It is so delicious and so quintessentially Good that any partaker would want to share it with his or her loved ones. (And that is the only way to increase our capacity to feel boundless joy, no?) Many who journey in the direction of the tree stay true to the path and the iron rod along it. And yet, some are delayed, dismayed and deterred by the darkness. Some wander, lured by the decadent artificial lights of a great distant Babylonian city. Some wallow in a filthy river, and some fight its current. Some jeer from their city towers at the travelers… and maybe some of the pilgrims, to block the sound, raise their voices in prayer or in song.

I think of this allegorical scene when I review the lyrics for “Great God, Attend While Zion Sings.” I wonder if its author, scholar and Protestant minister Isaac Watts (who was a prolific hymn-writer and psalmist, publishing an astounding excess of 800 of such in his day), was not also privy to it at some point. The second verse, “No tents of ease nor thrones of pow’r / Should tempt my feet to leave thy door,” avows that the singer shall not be persuaded by the false, temporary glory of men. The fourth, saying that “[God] gives us all things and withholds / No blessings due to upright souls”, verbalizes the faith had in the destination by they who walk the path.

The Lord is our sun, our shield, our King. He speaks to us, He protects us, and He keeps His promises. Zion has every right and reason to sing, with such a great God at her center.

Hymn #56: Softly Beams the Sacred Dawning

Swiftly flee the clouds of darkness;
Speedily the mists retire;
Nature’s universal blackness
Is consumed by heav’nly fire,
Is consumed by heav’nly fire.

While this is an excellent and joyful Second Coming hymn, this third verse made me think of a scene in C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle,” the final book in the Narnia series. There is a scene where there is a kind of false Aslan being kept in a stable and an ape named Shift, the brains of the deception, is interpreting “Aslan’s” will for the Narnians. Things come to a head and Tirian, last king of Narnia, forces his way into the stable door only to find it has become a kind of bridge into a world where the real Aslan rules, along with the Pevensie children and all the other faithful Narnians, living and dead.

Under those deep blue skies and soft summer breeze and trees laden with fruit, a ring of dwarves sit exactly where they were tossed into the stable at the start of the scuffle. They are blind to the paradise around them and convinced they are still sitting in the stable, even as Lucy is begging them to see their surroundings.

“Your wonderful Lion didn’t come and help you, did he?” they jeer. “And now–even now–when you’ve been beaten and shoved into this black hole, just the same as the rest of us, you’re…starting a new lie.”

Aslan’s response is that they have “chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out” (Chapter 13).

They have chosen cunning instead of belief.

This phrase cuts me to the heart, because I have done this exactly. I have chosen knowledge over faith, becoming “wise in [my] own eyes, and prudent in [my] own sight” (Isaiah 5:21). I have done this because  there is a kind of safety in it. Choosing knowledge is building yourself an edifice with your own hands. Choosing faith is admitting that your vessel is cracked and needs to be constantly refilled.

“And when the times of the Gentiles is come in, a light shall break forth among them that sit in darkness, and it shall be the fulness of my gospel” (D&C 45:28, emphasis added).

Let this hymn be a reminder that we don’t have to sit in darkness. We will still have trials and have our bodies broken, our heartstrings rent, our beloveds suffer. However, by spreading the Good Word around, we have a chance to spread that light as well as take it into our lives and hearts to refine us, to warm us, to comfort us.

Yea, the fair sabbatic era,
When the world will be at rest,
Rapidly is drawing nearer;
Then all Israel will be blest,
Then all Israel will be blest.

Hymn #60: Battle Hymn of the Republic

When Julia Ward Howe penned new words to the popular Union soldier song, “John Brown’s Body”, she drew an overt parallel between the Abolitionist movement and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was a bold move. It paid off, though, as Battle Hymn of the Republic is now among the most beloved patriotic songs in the United States.

But this hymn is not about freeing slaves from bondage.  Or perhaps it is, just not only in the way the Union soldiers of 1861 were thinking.

Let’s look at the third verse, which speaks of Jesus’ birth “in the beauty of the lilies”. Lilies are Easter flowers, though, so when we sing of a Christ who was “born across the sea…with a glory in his bosom,” we probably aren’t referring to the Baby Jesus. Instead we are singing of the Resurrected Lord, reborn when He rose from the tomb on the third day. It is this rebirth that “transfigures you and me”.

That same resurrected Jesus appeared alongside God the Father to Joseph Smith nearly two thousand years later (but, interestingly enough, only a few decades before Sister Howe wrote these verses). It was then that the Lord, as the second verse says, “sounded forth the trumpet that will never call retreat”.  The fullness of the gospel would never again be taken from the earth. Restored light and truth freed mankind from the darkness of the Apostasy.

When the Book of Mormon was translated, we learned more about the connection between the Atonement and our freedom:

And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. (2 Nephi 2:26-27)

The Savior suffered so we could be free from the bonds of sin, and He rose again so we could be free from the bonds of death. Heavenly Father then gave us freedom to choose for ourselves whether to follow Him or not. We, as Latter-Day Saints, know these truths; not everyone does. Therein lies our obligation to “live to make men free.”

Let us bring men to an awareness of the source of their freedom to choose. Let us teach them the law, so they can know the consequences of their choices. Let us show them how to repent and come unto Christ that they may be free from sin. Let us invite them to take the necessary steps that lead to eternal freedom. Let us perform those same ordinances by proxy for the dead so that they too may be free. Let us live our lives in such a way that we lead others to Christ and help them become truly free.

The glory of the Second Coming of the Lord has been foretold. Until that day comes, “Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer him; be jubilant my feet!” for His truth is marching on.

Hymn #80, God of Our Fathers, Known of Old

Rudyard Kipling wrote this hymn.

This was enough to recommend itself to me when I first heard this hymn in 2005, because beneath this rural Arizonian exterior there is a devoted Anglophile. The text is the first three verses of Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” written in the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It was later included in the English Hymnal in 1906 under its present title.

There is something about this hymn that seems like a secret, satisfying handshake between Rudyard Kipling and Mormons. In some ways this hymn is incredibly specific to Victorian England–references to navies and captains and kings holding down the “far-flung battle line.” Even the musical structure of this hymn seems slightly militaristic, stolid, marching toward the end phrase.

But, ah! the end of each verse unfolds into real melodic beauty at the same time Kipling brings us back to the source of our power.

“Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget, lest we forget.”

Speaking of forgetting, I often think of the children of Israel singing the third verse as an anthem as they wandered in the wilderness, chanting is as a kind of talisman against forgetfulness of the Lord Jehovah and His mercy in delivering them. This last verse is us pleading with the Lord, the Old Testament Jehovah, to spare us from His wrath.

Far-called, our navies melt away;

On dune and headland sinks the fire.

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!

Judge of the nations, spare us yet,

Lest we forget, lest we forget.

But the second verse is the real heart of the hymn. We are stripped of all worldly power: no captains, no kings to protect us. And yet when we are pared down to our most naked and vulnerable, “still stands [His] ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart.” Christ’s sacrifice still remains as our greatest protection when all other channels to happiness have failed us.

The only thing the Lord requires from us is everything. In exchange for our time, our goods and our most closely guarded sins, He promises us peace, protection and an understanding of our place in His kingdom.

All we need to do is remember who we are, lest we forget it and turn away from Him.

Lest we forget.

Lest we forget.

Hymn #72: Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

This arrangement is a translation of a German chorale based on Psalms 103 and 150. The text is essentially a list of reasons why God is deserving of our praise. He is our health and salvation. He prospers and defends us. He shows us goodness, mercy, and love. Amen and amen.

As with any translation, some of the author’s intended meaning has probably been lost or altered. What surprised me, though, was to learn that the version we sing isn’t entirely true to Catherine Winkworth’s translation either. Sure, the words are (for the most part) hers, but the text has been shuffled around and several verses are missing entirely from our hymnal. Why was this version of the hymn included in our hymnal and not another?

When I compared the LDS text to another, longer, and seemingly more complete* version, I found three notable differences.

The first is a mention of “psaltery, organ, and song”. This is an obvious throwback to the Psalms of the Old Testament, after which this piece was modeled. Both psalteries and organs can be encountered throughout the Book of Psalms. Mentioning instruments and music helps strengthen that connection.

The second difference I found was a connection not to biblical ideas but to more contemporary ones. The verbiage “his Saints” and “Abraham’s seed” are not in any other rendition of the hymn (as far as my limited research found) which makes me think their inclusion and possible addition was very deliberate. These phrases hint at Zion, an idea which was dear to the hearts of the early Saints. They could have served as a much-needed reminder that the Lord would bless His chosen people, despite their frequent persecution and hardship. Today it recalls sacred duties, covenants, and blessings. If nothing else, this wording insists that we, as Latter-Day Saints and descendants of Abraham, include ourselves among those whom the Lord has blessed and those who should be first in praising Him for it.

Which brings me to the final difference I noted: the word “worship.” While every version of the text that I found included “praise” and “adore”, neither of these carry the same weight that “worship” does. It indicates formality, ceremony, reverence, and holiness, all of which in turn point to the temple. My Sabbath church attendance–especially now that I have small children–rarely feels as sacred and worshipful as a visit to the temple does. Maybe we should worship in the temple more often. Maybe we should bring some of that worship into our Sunday services.

Finally, let’s address the unique perspective from which the hymn was written. We’re singing to ourselves. Many hymns are prayers addressed to God or sermons addressed to fellow saints (or sinners, as the case may be) but the introspection of this piece seems fairly unique. It is a frequently-used construct in Psalms of the Old Testament, but elsewhere? Not so much.

The admonition to remember “how all thou needest hast been / Granted” and to “ponder anew / What the Almighty can do” is a testimony to ourselves of what we know to be true.  At its most basic, this psalm is intended to remind us that we already know how glorious the Creator, Savior, and Almighty King is. We know He lives. We have seen His hand in our lives. We would do well to remember that and praise Him.

*The longest example of this hymn that I could find also appeared to be the most inclusive of other versions. You can read it here for comparison.