Category Archives: #101-#150

Hymn 125: How Gentle God’s Commands

You know the old object lesson of the stick and the carrot, where both reward and punishment are used to motivate a mule? I feel like our church, in modern days, loves to talk about the carrot God offers us, but we don’t often mention the stick. This often comes out in discussions of the Old Testament; how could such an angry, vengeful God be the same as our dear, kind, gracious, merciful one? Yet of course they are the same God, and what’s more, the nature of God hasn’t changed.

It confuses me; why talk about one aspect and ignore the other? But at the same time, I think this approach works for me. Maybe which aspect we focus on is a matter of what holds more weight, culturally? When I feel bullied, I get stubborn. However, when I feel loved and welcomed and like my tasks are manageable, I am much more likely to be patient and motivated. Plus, if I can get all carrot and no stick, isn’t that ideal? Shouldn’t I prefer pleasant guidance to painful guidance?

In my struggle to understand the nature of God, sometimes I wonder if God’s “stick” is more the natural consequences of our actions than his vindictive punishment. I don’t see God as a guy who likes to take out petty revenges on his own (still rather idiotic) infant children. It’s easier for me to see him as similar to my own earthly father, who once responded to my observation that he didn’t worry about what I was eating at college with, “well, I figure if you don’t eat well, you’ll get sick, and then you’ll learn to eat well.” I know it’s tempting to paint our heavenly parents after the mold of our earthly parents, and probably inaccurate, but it’s the best I’ve got, and it makes sense to me.

If I’m right, and God’s “stick” is just letting us experience the bad things in life, then this hymn has both stick and carrot. If you think I’m wrong, just stick to the parts about the carrot, and we’ll still be good. But keeping this analogy in mind, I’d like to separate this hymn into both types of encouragement.

Carrot:
gentle commands
kind precepts
constant care
community of Saints
security: guarded by God’s hand
sweet refreshment
God’s approved, unchanging goodness
a song

Stick:
burdens
anxious load pushing down your weary mind

It looks to me like by trading in awful things, you get fantastic things. Imagine if you went to the car dealership, and they encouraged you to trade in your old junky ’87 car with no heater and bad gas mileage and a radio that gets only static for a new, sleek, modern, efficient, FancyCar in good working order. It’s a great deal! If you give up your right to the stick, you get the carrot. If you move forward, it doesn’t hurt as much, plus you get a delicious snack, plus you ultimately make it to your amazing destination. It should be an easy choice.

Like a mule, though, we can get stubborn and tired, and we forget to think it out logically. But if you remember to act instead of being acted upon, and you follow the advice of this hymn, I expect you’ll find the journey a little more pleasant.

Hymn #150: O Thou Kind and Gracious Father

I love the simplicity of this prayer, for that is what this particular hymn is: a prayer to our Father in Heaven. The soaring first lines acknowledges His greatness and goodness and our comparative insignificance:

O thou kind and gracious Father,
Reigning in the heav’ns above,
Look on us, thy humble children;
Fill us with thy holy love.
Fill us with thy holy love.

I leave that repetition because that is the phrase I’d like to address. The remaining two verses continue the prayer–we ask our Father to instruct us in how to better serve and revere Him, to resist temptation, to do His will–but it’s that “holy love” in the first verse which stands out to me.

It brings to my mind the word “charity”, which we generally (and sometimes glibly) define as “the pure love of Christ” (see Moroni 7:47). That preposition “of” is a tricky one; it holds a surprising number of different meanings, depending on context, for such a short word.

“The pure love of Christ” could mean “pure love from Christ”, i.e. the love he has for all mankind. This is the love that prompted him to offer himself as a sacrifice for our sins, to suffer beyond human capability, and to die that we might live again.

“The pure love of Christ” could also mean “pure love for Christ”, i.e. the love we have for our Savior because of his Atonement in our behalf.

“The pure love of Christ” also means–and this is one of the most common interpretations I come across–”pure love like Christ”, i.e. the love we have for our brothers and sisters in mortality. This is the love that prompts us to reach out in service and lift others in kindness.

And here’s how they all tie together:

  • God loves us: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
  • Jesus Christ loves us: “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” 1 Nephi 19:9
  • We love Jesus: “We love him, because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19
  • Because we love him, we are obedient to him: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” John 14:15
  • He asks us to love one another: “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:12-13

So when we ask to be filled with God’s holy love, we are praying to be reminded of His love for us, to take advantage of the Atonement offered by His Son, and to have His help in loving those around us.

It is still a simple request, but sometimes a difficult one to fulfill. We are, after all, human. Sometimes we’re not especially loveable. Fortunately, God loves all of us and He answers all of our prayers. We can be filled with the pure love of Christ. We can learn to do His will, to love and serve His children, and to gain eventual salvation.

We simply have to ask for and accept His help.

Hymn #117: Come Unto Jesus

come unto jesus

What is God’s plan for His children? What is His purpose in sending us to Earth, through the veil? To sum it up succinctly, Lehi states that, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). God wants His children to be happy. We are here to learn to have lasting happiness, which happiness comes through obedience to God’s commandments.

Some wonder why, then, God allows His children to suffer. Many ask, “If God were real,” or “If God cared, why would He put me through this?” The thought of a loving Father who allows His children to struggle with pain and suffering, whether by our own choices or circumstances, seems, at first, counterintuitive if we believe 1 John 4:8, “God is love.”

I have a toddler, and he is infinitely curious. Just the other day, he learned how to open and shut the top drawer in the kitchen. As many times as I tell him not to, he goes back and does it again. Even if I physically remove him from the situation, he finds his way back to the drawer again. Yesterday, when playing this fun game, he shut his fingers in the drawer. His poor little fingers were stuck in the drawer and he was both scared and in pain. I, like any parent would, came to his aid, opened the drawer  to unstick his fingers, and held him until he felt better.

How many times does God do this for us? How many times does He warn us of both trial and sin? How many times does He try to teach us to avoid these situations or to prepare for them? And how many times does He come to us when we need Him, offering what help and comfort we allow Him to give? In 3 Nephi 10: 4-5, Jesus tells the people of the Americas:

“How oft have I gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and have nourished you. And again, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings.”

 Orson Pratt Huish, the author of this song, pens a profound plea to the reader:

Come unto Jesus
… He’ll ever heed you
…He’ll surely hear you
…He’ll safely guide you
…Ever he calls, “Come to me.”

 If we but ask, our Savior will be there to pick us up and to guide us to “brightest mansions above.” As many times as He asks for us to follow, He will gather us up at least that many times. Just like the situation with my toddler, He offers us guidance and instruction to keep us safe. And, just like the situation with my toddler, He offers us rescue and comfort when we fail. Huish’s words remind us that God is in control, regardless of our situation. As Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated:

“Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are ‘like a broken vessel,’ as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter.”

 2 Nephi 26:33 states, “For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”

Do we actively come unto Jesus when we are oppressed, either by our circumstances or our choices? Do we seek His rest? Do we search for the power of the atonement, or the power to allow us to have that joy that God so desperately wants us to have? No matter the situation, no matter how dark the moment or how dim our hope may be, His love will find you and gently lead you/ From darkest night into day.

Hymn #110: Cast Thy Burden upon the Lord

Often, when we are called on or asked to do something by priesthood leaders, or when we receive personal inspiration, the task seems extremely difficult. When I was called as a Relief Society president for a YSA branch, I was sure that I didn’t have the proper disposition or interpersonal skills to do any good in such a position. However, when I let go of my own insecurities and focused on doing the work of the Lord, I felt Him work within me and give me the necessary tools to serve His daughters.

The Lord can take on concerns for physical needs as well. In Doctrine and Covenants Section 84, several men are told through revelation that they are to leave on missions without bringing money, food, or even extra clothing. They are told to not even think about these things, but to have faith that the Lord will provide everything they need.

Even when we feel inspired, it can be scary to let go of our worries when we are doing something like looking for a job, making a big move, or even preparing for a big test. However, that is exactly what we are counseled to do. Let go of your concerns, give them to the Lord, and “he shall sustain thee.”

This hymn also assures that “He is at thy right hand.” I found this interesting, as most talk of being on the right hand is in reference to Christ’s position in relation to Heavenly Father. At least, that’s what I think of the most. I was curious as to what it meant when the Lord was the one on our right hand. What I found is that we can find the Lord on our right hand when he is providing protection and aid, as in Isaiah 41:13.

The last couple of lines implore,

Let none be made ashamed

That wait upon thee

As we wait upon, or serve, the Lord, we will also be protected from shame. We should never be ashamed of serving God, but that’s not what these lyrics say. They say that whoever serves Him should never be ashamed at all. When you are following God’s will, serving Him, and have His protection at your right hand, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

Whether currently in the throes of deep tribulation or preparing to take on a task that seems Herculean in measure, we don’t need to fear or worry. We can give all those feelings that hold us back to God, and He will take care of our needs, protect us from harm, and help us feel confident in our endeavors.

Hymn #146: Gently Raise the Sacred Strain

Gently raise the sacred strain,
For the Sabbath’s come again
That man may rest,
And return his thanks to God
For his blessings to the blest.

Why do we worship?

Why do we take a day off each week and spend it in church, singing hymns, listening to sermons, engaging in prayer, and doing any of a number of things that take the place of something much more fun? We could be watching football with friends, taking a drive through the country, or going to the movies. Surely anything would beat sitting through church, right? Worse yet, once church is over, we’re not supposed to come home, peel off our Sunday clothes, and run out and catch up with all of those fun things we set aside for a few hours. We’re supposed to stay home and spend the day with family. Ugh, right? Sundays are so restrictive!

Well, while it may feel that way sometimes, we might do well to remember that “the sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath.” Sundays aren’t designed to punish us, or to make us feel constrained or miserable. The Sabbath is designed for us, and specifically “that [we] may rest.” It’s a day for us to rest from our labor, but also from the hustle and bustle of our lives. We spend the day in quiet contemplation, thinking about the ways we have been blessed and returning our thanks unto Him who gave us those blessings. That’s not to say, of course, that we are to sit at home all day ticking off blessings until it’s time to go to bed. We can find plenty of good ways to fill our time and still keep the Sabbath a holy day. But we are to rest, not only as a way of rejuvenating ourselves for the coming week, but also as a way of taking time out of our lives to remember the Lord. That might mean sacrificing things that others enjoy on Sundays, whether that’s playing golf with friends, going to brunch at a nice restaurant, or anything else.

I’m struck by the fact that we raise the sacred strain “gently.” So much of what we do in the gospel is with kindness and softness. There’s no need to declare our Sabbath activities from the rooftops. We go about our days quietly, gently, and with meekness. We “partake the sacrament in remembrance of our Lord.” We do our best to keep Sunday a “holy day, devoid of strife.” And perhaps most importantly, we make our day emblematic of our lives by making it an offering to the Lord. He asks for one day out of seven to be His, and we offer it to Him willingly. So too do we offer our lives to Him, and on the Sabbath we rededicate ourselves to that offering by partaking of the sacrament. “We bring our gifts around of broken hearts as a willing sacrifice,” we sing in the third verse, “showing what his grace imparts.” We submit our hearts and our wills to Him, and when we meet on Sundays, we have the chance to see that sacrifice in others, and we can see the blessings that dedication to the Savior brings. That inspires us to redouble our efforts in His service, knowing what we can become as we give ourselves to Him.

We learn of Him on the Sabbath, and we learn how to become more like Him. By partaking of the sacrament–the only ordinance we take part in more than once in our lifetime–we remember the magnitude of the sacrifice He made for us, and we remember that we have taken upon us His name, and that through that name and sacrifice, we can be made clean again. We worship the Lord because He made it possible for us to return to that purified state, and we dedicate our Sundays each week to give ourselves the chance to contemplate that fact. It’s something that can take more than a couple of hours each week, and it’s why worship isn’t something that is restricted to a meetinghouse, but is constantly before us.

Holy, holy is the Lord.
Precious, precious is his word:
Repent and live,
Repent and live;
Tho your sins be crimson red,
Oh, repent, and he’ll forgive.

prayer

Hymn #142: Sweet Hour of Prayer

prayer

The simple double long meter and the pounding rhythm of bum BUM, bum BUM, bum BUM, bum BUM make this an instantly recognizable hymn, as well as an easy one to learn to play. It’s not uncommon to enter a Latter-day Saint home and hear a child plunking this tune out on the piano. There’s nothing too tricky about it, which is fitting, because when you get down to it, there’s really nothing too tricky about prayer. We address the Father, we offer thanks for blessings received, we ask for further blessings, and we do so in the name of the Son. Amen.

It’s simple, and perhaps because it’s so simple, it’s easy to overlook. A child can pray, and sometimes after a lifetime of prayer, our prayers can feel rote and facile, like a child’s. “Thank you for this day. Bless us to be happy. Bless us to be nice.” We may catch our minds wandering during a prayer, and often, we may catch ourselves nodding off. Sometimes it’s difficult to make something we repeat so often into a meaningful act.

And make no mistake–our prayers are intended to be meaningful acts. When we pray, we address our Father and are called “from a world of care and bid… to [our] Father’s throne [to] make all [our] wants and wishes known.” Prayer allows us to remove ourselves from the world and stand before a loving Father who wants nothing more than to hear from us. He doesn’t want us to hold back. He wants to know all of our wants and wishes. He wants to hear from each of us, and often. We are to pray in good times as well as in “seasons of distress and grief.”

But if He is so anxious to hear from us, why doesn’t He begin the conversation, we may wonder. We may wonder why we never hear an audible answer to our heartfelt prayers. We may wonder why we bother with the futility of it all when it seems so meaningless and solitary. It’s an easy question to ask ourselves, and an easy challenge to our faith until we remember that it’s our faith itself that powers the interaction. Our faith is tested by being required to address a being that we cannot see or hear, but who is real nonetheless. As we exercise faith in Him, our faith is strengthened as we receive our answers through the confirming presence of the Holy Ghost. Our asking for blessings can often unlock favors the Father is only too willing to bestow on us but that are made conditional on our asking. “Thy wings shall my petition bear,” we sing in the second verse, “to him whose truth and faithfulness engage the waiting soul to bless.” We are waiting for the promised blessings of prayer, yes, but He is also waiting for our prayers so that He can provide those promised blessings.

He wants us to pray. He implores us. We are asked over and over to pray, whether in our church meetings, in scriptures, in counsel from our leaders, in teachings from our parents and family, and so on. And we are counseled to do so not merely on occasion, but to do so as a way of life. We pray always, hoping that by drawing nearer to the Lord, He will draw nearer to us. And He does so, just as He has promised. When we feel His love come as an answer to prayer, even if we don’t see His face, hear His voice, or feel His presence, our faith is strengthened, and our desire to pray increased a day at a time.

And since he bids me seek his face,
Believe his word, and trust his grace,
I’ll cast on him my ev’ry care
And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!

Image credit: “cold prayer,” flickr user Keith Riley-Whittingham. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Hymn #141: Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee

Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills my breast

Does the very thought of Jesus fill my breast with sweetness? Honestly, those probably aren’t the words I would choose. I’m prone to forget, prone to wander. Prone to get distracted by the things around me, and prone to neglect the things of God. I recognize these things, and know I could and should do better, but acknowledgement alone does not bring a change of heart.

When I think of Christ’s Atonement, though, it does fill me with hope. Hope that even in my imperfection, Christ still extends his arms out to me, inviting me to come with him. He does not excuse my weakness, but he does patiently wait for me to accept his blessings. When I fall, he does not condemn me; he simply offers the hope of forgiveness.

O hope of ev’ry contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
To those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!

Like you, I am imperfect. Christ’s mission to rescue the sinners comforts me, because it’s all too easy to feel lost. I’ve been given so much spiritual help—I have easy access to scriptures, frequent messages from prophets and apostles, the Gift of the Holy Ghost,  good friends and supportive family, and so much more. The easy excuses for spiritual negligence are all used up. And yet, even with all these opportunities, I often find myself distracted by other things. I don’t study the scriptures as often as I should. My prayers are frequently more rote and hollow than sincere and seeking.

I should do better, of course. I know I should. Obedience to God’s commandments isn’t simply obedience for its own sake—rather, every choice of obedience brings blessings. “I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” When I make time to study the scriptures, I feel knowledge flowing into me. I recognize the revelation, the spiritual strength it gives me. When I focus on real prayer, I’m filled with peace.

But so often, I fail to do what I know I should. I’m imperfect. I’m trying to do better—I’m trying to be like Jesus—but I’m not there yet.

And it’s precisely for this reason that the Atonement of Christ fills me with peace. He came not to save the perfect but the imperfect, the flawed, and the failing. He suffered in Gethsemane and died on the cross to save me and to lift me. And you, and our neighbors, our friends, and people we don’t even know. Christ is the way, the only way back to an eternal home our perfect and exalted Heavenly Father. Because of him, we who repeatedly fall short are not cast off eternally. Even when we fail again and again, His way is still open to us. Every step we take along His path brings us greater strength, knowledge, peace, and comfort. He’d love for us to all be further along this path, of course—he wants to bless us immeasurably. But even when we fall short again and again, his patience endures.

I’m not yet at the point where the simple thought of Jesus fills my heart with sweetness and peace. I still have to ponder for a moment, to remember all that he’s done for me. But because of him, I have hope that someday I’ll reach that point.

To those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!

Hymn #114: Come unto Him

I wander through the still of night,
When solitude is ev’rywhere–
Alone, beneath the starry light,
And yet I know that God is there.

This hymn starts off (to me at least) with imagery that reminds us of the story of Enos, the Book of Mormon prophet who went into the woods to hunt, recognized that “[his] soul hungered,” and knelt in prayer, looking for his own experience to mirror those of his father, which had sunk deep into his heart. An answer came to him, an audible voice that told him that his sins were forgiven him. He prayed on, engaging in conversation with the Lord. It’s a powerful story, one that teaches us of the importance of deep, meaningful prayer.

I’ve offered prayers like that. My soul has hungered, and I’ve turned to the Lord, hoping to have a significant spiritual experience. And those experiences have come, although not in such a grand or profound way as Enos’ was. Most people don’t see visions, hear voices, or encounter angels as a result of prayer, no matter how meaningful or heartfelt. That doesn’t make our spiritual experiences any less powerful to us, though. “I kneel upon the grass and pray,” we sing in the first verse of this hymn, and we are met with “an answer… without a voice.”

The Holy Ghost touches our hearts as we give them to the Savior. He testifies of the Father and the Son, helping us to remember why it is that we believe in Him and trust Him. We are filled with His love. Our hearts are purified. We don’t need to see an angel to feel that love, nor do we need to engage in an audible conversation with the Lord to have our sins cleansed from us.

“When I am filled with strong desire and ask a boon of him,” we sing in the second verse, “I see no miracle of living fire, but what I ask flows into me.” When we offer our sincere prayers to the Lord, we can feel the promised blessings come into our lives. Those blessings are confirmed to us by the Holy Ghost, which is that “miracle of living fire” we feel, but do not see.  Two other Book of Mormon prophets, the brothers Nephi and Lehi, felt that living fire manifest to themselves powerfully, as did the people they taught. They felt the words of Christ sink deep into their hearts, as did Enos, and their lives were changed for it. Our lives are changed too, when we do the same.

The central message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are to come unto Him. We are to give our lives to Him, our hearts, and everything else that makes us who we are. As we do so, we are filled with His love, and we know that the Holy Ghost will testify of that love to us. He will always be there for us. It’s up to us to draw ourselves near to Him. We remind ourselves of that every time we sing this hymn.

Come unto him all ye depressed,
Ye erring souls whose eyes are dim,
Ye weary ones who long for rest.
Come unto him! Come unto him!

Hymn #130: Be Thou Humble

There’s a particularly tense scene in the film The Philadelphia Story where Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant are discussing their failed marriage. She jabs at him for his alcoholism, and he then turns to Jimmy Stewart (the unwilling, uncomfortable third party in this exchange) and speaks a barb I’ve never forgotten:

“[S]trength is her religion, Mr. Connor. She finds human imperfection unforgiveable.”

I remember this line so perfectly because this vice is the one closest to my heart. The thing about this type of pride–lack of forgiveness for other humans–is that it is so completely anti-God. Consider this parable Jesus spoke in Matthew 18 (vs. 23-35):

Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.

…one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents…his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

…Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

…So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

There are times that I have been like this servant, taking those I suppose have wronged me by the throat and demanding penance. But in this hymn, the author’s simple advice will heal us, all: be thou humble.

Be humble in thy weakness. Acknowledge your weaknesses before Him and don’t pretend to yourself that they are strengths.

Be humble in thy pleading. Pray and ask, but be ready to hear and accept the Lord’s response. He will give you assurance in the path He directs.

Be humble in thy calling. The Lord will guide you how to best serve His children in humility and love.

Be humble in thy longing. Endure to the end and the Lord, in time, will lead you home.

Hymn #115: Come, Ye Disconsolate

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts; here tell your anguish.
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

I’ve got a firm testimony that sorrow and anguish are part of the mortality package deal. Between disease, aging, injury, and constant physical needs, living in these bodies of ours is a challenge. Then there’s agency, both ours and that of every single other person on earth, which creates the potential for so many people to make so many choices that negatively affect so many other people. Eventually, almost inevitably, life happens, and at some point each of us find ourselves wounded, weak, and weary.

Which means at some point in our lives, every one of us is the individual addressed in this beautiful, repetitive hymn. “Come,” we are told four times in three short verses. Come to the mercy seat, to the feast of love.

But why? What–or who–is there that beckons us to bring wounded hearts and anguish?

Here speaks the Comforter.

When first we “came unto Christ” in baptism, we were blessed with the companionship of the Holy Ghost. He reminds us of truths we know and restores our hope in Christ. He brings us peace amidst chaos and guidance in times of confusion. He, unsurprisingly, comforts us when we need it most.

Here see the Bread of Life.

As we listen to the Holy Ghost, we draw nearer to our Savior. We learn that He truly is the Bread of Life, as He once told His disciples: “He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve felt disconsolate. I’ve often described how I felt in those moments as hollow or even dead inside. At the time I knew something was lacking; in hindsight I can easily identify the missing pieces. Hope. Joy. Love. All the things that Jesus Christ promises with which to fill us if we come unto Him.

Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

When the doctor tells you it’s cancer. When the ultrasound shows something is not quite right with the baby. When the phone call comes because there has been an accident. When your husband tells you his love for you is gone. When you wake up every day alone in an empty house.

Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot cure.

When you struggle against the stigma of physical disability or mental illness. When you encounter injustice in the workforce because of your race, gender, religion, size, or age. When you are bullied and belittled by people who should know better, who should treat you as a brother or sister. When you start to believe that this is how it is supposed to be.

Earth has no sorrow but heav’n can remove.

While so many limitations may not be removed from our bodies and minds right away, the Holy Ghost can guide us to medical professionals who can best help us endure them well. While unkind and even downright evil people may not be removed from our paths, we can trust in a Savior who loves us and believed us worthy of the greatest sacrifice ever given.

We may not see a single hardship removed from our mortal lives. However, someday–some blessed day–we will fervently kneel at the throne of God and know, as we have ever known, that He will show us mercy and grace and love.

And we will be healed.

Hymn #107: Lord, Accept Our True Devotion

Today’s hymn is a really lovely collection of sentiments of religious devotion. It’s a sampling of the kinds of hopes and yearnings a devout Christian might experience, and when read/sung with a prayerful attitude, there’s a lot in these lyrics that can resonate with us.

The first verse is a nice illustration of this:

Lord, accept our true devotion.
Let thy Spirit whisper peace.
Swell our hearts with fond emotion,
And our joy in thee increase.
Never leave us, never leave us.
Help us, Lord, to win the race.

If we take the verse as a whole, it sounds as if “win[ning] the race” is achieved by accomplishing the four things listed above–the Lord accepts our devotion, we feel at peace through the Spirit, we feel fond emotions, and we find greater joy in the Lord. If that’s the case, notice how internal all of this is! These are not objective markers that can be witnessed by the world. “Win[ning] the race” is about who we become as people.

If we further examine these four phrases, we might also notice that they’re each external to us. We perform “devotion,” but we hope that the Lord will accept it, which is outside of our control. We pray for the Spirit to give us peace, and for the Lord to change out hearts.

All of the things listed here take the Lord’s help, and that’s why our posture in heaven, once we’ve won the goal, is not preening or self-congratulation, but praise:

That on resurrection morning
We may rise at peace with thee,
Ever praising, ever praising,
Throughout all eternity

This hymn is a testament to how our journey home is so completely intertwined with God’s help.

But is there anything praiseworthy about needing so much help? Why should our weakness be a source of praise? Because God wants to help us, and if our lives were not structured in weakness, we wouldn’t have a relationship with the Savior. People who don’t need saving can’t be saved, and don’t have saviors. The kind of relationship we hope to build with the Lord requires complete dependence on him, and because he glories in that process, who are we to begrudge it? Self-sufficiency is never cause for rejoicing, and the sooner we sacrifice our vain ambitions to be independent and self-sufficient, the sooner we’ll find ourselves praising along our path.

Hymn #106: God Speed the Right

This well-known hymn offers a simple prayer  that is repeated no less than twelve times: “God speed the right.” And although there is much we could say about this line in its own right, I want to use this post to reflect on all the things the hymn leaves implicit. God Speed the Right is, I think, most striking for what it does not say.

First, notice the complete lack of divine perspective in this hymn. There are no words from the Lord promising us that good will triumph. There are no scriptural allusions reassuring us that this kind of zeal is warranted. The entire hymn is simply the hopeful, triumphant words of the saints without any textual justification. That’s quite unusual in our hymnal! Because hymns are intended to comfort or encourage us, they often remind us of the Savior, imagine his words to us in a difficult moment, or reflect on the promises of scripture. There is none of that here. This is a “prayer ascending” “to heav’n” without any mention of heaven’s response, and we ought to notice how unusual that is.

And while this does contain several clues regarding the context in which it’s spoken, it’s mostly implicit. The only way you can pray for God to “speed the right” is if “the right” isn’t here yet–if you’re praying from a situation of abuse and injustice. This is hinted at in several other lines, as well:

  • “In a noble cause contending
  • “Ne’er despairing, though defeated”
  • “No event nor danger fearing
  • Pains, nor toils, nor trials heeding”

In fact, when you consider just how optimistic and encouraging this hymn feels, it’s a little jarring to realize how gloomy its context is. That discrepancy is precisely what I want to dwell on. How can this hymn be so upbeat while contemplating such miserable circumstances? And how can it be so optimistic without explicit divine reassurance?

Because of this disparity–between gloom and injustice on the one hand, and buoyant zeal on the other–I find this hymn to be a particularly strong example of hope. Hope isn’t a virtue that we talk about much (we’re more comfortable defining and thinking about faith and charity), but for that very reason it may be the virtue that we most need to develop.

If you’ll forgive a particularly long quote (with rather too many ellipses), here is my favorite definition of hope, from Joseph M. Spencer:

“Real hope … emerges from or at the point of … objective hopelessness, and it emerges as a kind of conviction that the objective order of things can be changed. … Where despair gives up on the world in miserable conviction that it cannot be otherwise, hope gives up on the world in joyful affirmation that it can–and will–be otherwise. Hope … gives up on every hope in the fallen world at the very moment that it recognizes the possibility of a better world, a transformation of the world.” [1]

And again:

“If everyday hope is only a relatively weak desperation–a kind of self-confidence that one can find one’s way through the world–specifically Christian hope is set in motion by one’s trust that an event has somehow upset the regular order of things. … Trusting that the world changes (because Christ’s death and resurrection testify to it), one garners the hope necessary to get to work on the world.” [2]

This is what I see at work in this hymn. The disparity between this hymn’s context and its optimism comes precisely because the saints are motivated by hope–by a conviction that the world is fallen and unjust and in desperate need of a complete overhaul, but by an equally strong conviction that God will change that, and even more precisely, that we can effect that change with God’s help.

This is a hopeful hymn precisely because it connects our present actions with a future outcome that is, as yet, invisible. God’s “right” needs speeding because it isn’t yet here, but we are absolutely 100% certain that it will come, and that it will come as a response to our labor.  Thus, the prayer that “God speed the right” is as much a prayer that we will speed our labors, and in a kind of hopeful consecration get to work creating the kind of kingdom God intended for us to build.

[1] Joseph M. Spencer, For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope (Greg Kofford Books, 2014), 22.
[2] Spencer, For Zion, 23.

Hymn #138: Bless Our Fast, We Pray

We fast every first Sunday of each month as a church, and more often as the occasion calls for it. We go without food for two meals, and we offer the money we would spend on that food to the church, which is spent on those who are less fortunate. We all do this, and while we do our best to make sure we have a reason to fast, we often remember a little too late and just go hungry for a day. Just like with prayer, we participate with varying degrees of intent and faithfulness.

But why is it that we fast? Isn’t prayer enough? Why do we add the element of hunger to our supplication to God?

Feed thou our souls, fill thou our hearts,
And bless our fast, we pray,
That we may feel thy presence here
And feast with thee today.

We forego filling our bellies so that the Lord can fill our hearts and souls as we fast. It’s symbolic, like so many other parts of the gospel. There’s nothing inherently sacred about going without food, We do it because we are asked, and because the Lord has promised that if we do, we can feel our commitment to Him deepened and our faith strengthened. It’s prayer, coupled with action to increase its effect.

We act not only by abstaining from food, but by giving that food (or its monetary equivalent) to those who need it more than we do. We sing about this in the hymn’s second verse:

We’ve shared our bread with those in need,
Relieved the suff’ring poor.
The stranger we have welcomed in–
Wilt thou impart thy store?

We do our part. We do the things that we are asked, and we do as the Savior would (and asked us to do) in giving to the poor. And as we do so, we remember that we are entitled to the Lord’s blessing as a result. We approach Him with confidence, knowing that we have acted in accordance with His will.

This is the fast the Lord has chosen. We make sacrifices to help others in their difficult times. We take action to show the Lord the extent of our dedication to Him. And it’s no accident that our fast Sundays are the times we are asked to share our testimonies. We take action by giving up our food and giving it to others, and we take similar action by sharing with others our knowledge of the truth of the gospel. We make our fast a meaningful exercise (as best as we can, anyway), and the Lord in turn blesses and sanctifies our fast as He has promised.

It’s more than going hungry, and it can be more deeply meaningful than simply skipping a meal or two. But then again, so much of the gospel is deeper than it appears on the surface. Prayer is more than kneeling and closing our eyes. The sacrament is more than bread and water. Tithing is more than cutting a check. We offer our actions and our hearts, and the Lord blesses both as we offer them to Him.

Hymn #129: Where Can I Turn for Peace?

This is a favorite hymn of many, probably because we all have this feeling from time to time. Things are hard, things are difficult, and despite our best efforts, things don’t go our way. And we wonder, when nothing seems to be going right, where we can turn for a little comfort. Where can we find peace, especially when it seems like everything in the world is conspiring to make us feel so miserable?

We can always turn to our Savior. He is always there for us, the quiet hand to calm our anguish. What’s interesting about this hymn, though, is not the sentiment that the Lord will always  be there to comfort us. That’s hardly surprising. What’s interesting about this hymn is the notion that it’s never He who turns away from us. We are the ones who must turn to find peace, which suggests that at some point, we were the ones who turned away from peace. We are the ones who “with a wounded heart, anger, or malice… draw [ourselves] apart.” We are hurt, we are wronged, and we withdraw ourselves to be miserable. And then we cast about, wondering why it is that we can’t find peace.

This is not, of course, to diminish the struggles of those who find themselves turned from peace at every moment through no fault of their own. I’m not suggesting that the darkness of life can always be swept away with nothing more than a positive outlook. I’m not suggesting that the reason things are hard in your life is because you haven’t bothered to want to feel peace. But I am suggesting that more often than not, we are the ones who remove ourselves from the Lord and from the peace that He brings. And I am suggesting that we can turn back to Him to feel that peace once again.

He answers privately. When we turn back to the Lord, we often do so in prayer and yearning. We pour out our hearts to Him, desperate to feel some measure of comfort during a trying time. And He answers us, “reaching [our] reaching in [our] Gethsemane.” We don’t bleed from every pore, and we don’t take upon ourselves the sins of others in our dark times, but it’s no stretch to compare these moments of agony and straining to feel the love of our Savior to the moments when the Lord Himself felt most removed from His Father. We stretch out our hands to Him, hoping to feel something, anything in return. And He, having endured such trials Himself (and then some), cannot help but reach back. In fact, He is always reaching to us. It’s when we reach in our Gethsemane that we can feel His hand in ours. “Constant he is and kind,” we sing, and that constancy is reflected in the fact that He ever reaches out to us, wanting nothing more than to comfort us and bear us up.

We all suffer from time to time. Life is difficult. I know that, and you know that, and yet we still flounder during these times, struggling in vain to feel peace in our own lives. And in those times, the Spirit refreshes our memory, whispering to us, “Who, who can understand? He, only One.”

And so it is, and so we turn to Him in our dark times, the One who can make them light again. He is gentle, He is kind, and He will bring us peace, because He is filled with “love without end.”

Hymn #131: More Holiness Give Me

Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am. (3 Nephi 27:27)

This is the commandment, and the goal each of us is striving for. We are to become perfect, even as our Savior is perfect. It’s impossible, of course, which is why the Savior sacrificed himself for us in order to pay for our misdeeds. We do our best to follow his law and keep his commandments, but when we stumble, His sacrifice makes it possible for us to return home.

That’s an incredible thing for Him to have taken upon Himself, and it’s something we feel acutely, I’m sure. We are to be like Him, One who loved His brothers and sisters so dearly that he was willing to sacrifice Himself for us all. No big deal, right? Just become like that and you’re set.

It’s a daunting task, and one that none of us is equal to. So we plead with the Father, begging Him to at least help us along that path. Even if we can’t be perfected all at once, at least let us take a single step toward that goal. Help me to overcome this one sin, we pray. Help me to make at least this aspect of my life perfect so I can move on to tackle another area. Help me to be more patient. Help me to be a little kinder. Help me to be more willing to serve.

We’ve all offered prayers like this, and they probably sound a little like today’s hymn. “More holiness give me,” we ask. We’re trying our best, honestly, but we’re just not quire there. We aren’t asking for everything right now, but at the moment, we need just a little more “patience in suff’ring,” or “joy in his service.”

There’s a lot to ask about, and there’s a lot we ask in this hymn. We plead for patience, for faith, prayerfulness, gratitude, hope, meekness, and strength, to name just a few. By the third verse, it starts to feel repetitive and even demanding. Every line starts with “more,” and it begins to feel like a child asking for more, more, more. Maybe we feel a little guilty asking for so much. Perhaps we could do without the patience today, Lord, if only we could feel “more longing for home.” Maybe today all that is needed is “more tears for his sorrows,” or “more sense of his care.” Just a little will do today. We don’t mean to ask for so much.

Then again, perhaps we’re right to ask so much of Him, and maybe it would do us well to ask for even more. He is so, so willing to give to us, if only we’ll ask. “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you,” He once told us. “Seek me diligently and ye shall find me.” When we ask, He will answer. Even the least of us will give to each other when asked; how much more so will He, the Lord of all, be willing to give to us if we will but ask?

So we ask, even when it feels like too much. We ask for “hope in his word” and “meekness in trial.” We ask for so, so much, because we have been asked to do so, so much. We are tasked with becoming like Him in every aspect of our lives, and so we pray for improvement in every aspect as well. We pray, as the last two lines so simply state, to be “more blessed and holy– more, Savior, like thee.”

And He, He who asked us to be more like Him, is ready and waiting to grant that request, if we will be ask.

Hymn #132: God Is in His Holy Temple

Mount Timpanogos Temple

A few weeks ago my wife and I celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary. We decided to do something different this year—we celebrated it as our family’s birthday!

We first took our children to the temple where we were married. The oldest is only 5, so they’ve never been inside the temple. We walked around the temple grounds, looking at the flowers, the trees, and the beautiful stained glass windows. I pointed out the symbols of the sun, moon, and stars on the exterior of the building. We talked about the Angel Moroni on top.

After we’d walked around for a while, we took our kids briefly into the lobby of the temple, the small waiting room before the recommend desk. We taught our children about the sacred nature of the temple. When the oldest asked why everyone was so quiet there, we taught them that reverence helps us to hear the Holy Spirit and understand what our Heavenly Father wants us to do.

We didn’t stay there too long; perhaps only 5 minutes. Then we went out, took some pictures, then went and got some ice cream as a family. But those brief moments in the temple stuck with our children; they’ve brought it up a few times since.

Today’s hymn, God Is in His Holy Temple, speaks of the reverence that prevails in the temple.

God is in his holy temple.
Earthly thoughts, be silent now,

One of the defining characteristics of the temple is how removed it is from our everyday cares. When we visit the temple, we are often able to let go of the pressures and concerns of everyday life and simply bask in the reverence that exists there. With nothing to distract us, we are able to recognize the guidance of the Spirit more easily. We can be taught from on high as we recognize this Spirit.

And yet, our constructed and dedicated temples are not the only temples of God here on the earth. Paul wrote: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth within you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)  While the first verse of this hymn focuses more on temples where we gather together in worship, the second verse opens with this phrase:

God is in his holy temple,
In the pure and holy mind,

One of the great blessings we receive upon joining Christ’s church is the Gift of the Holy Ghost. This gives us the opportunity to have the Spirit with us always… if we live in a way conducive to His presence. The same closeness to the Spirit that exists in the temple can be ours outside it too. But in this temple, there is nobody else checking temple recommends for us. Each of us is responsible for choosing what enters our own mind.

Let our souls, in pure devotion,
Temples for thy worship be.

Is my soul a temple for the worship of God? Is yours? What could you change to make your soul a more temple-like place? How can you invite the Spirit to be with you more constantly?

Hymn #149: As the Dew from Heaven Distilling

I think the difference between dew and rain is especially stark in northern Arizona. Dew gently settles on your sleeping bag after a night of sleeping on the trampoline, and burns off shortly after the first rays of 5 a.m. sun start to bake you awake. Dew is constant and insistent, but easy to forget about until the next time you wake up with a damp pillow after sleeping outside.

Rain in northern Arizona is sporadic and violent, especially in the late summer months. When I was a kid we called these storm clouds “thunderheads” because they rolled over your campground without warning, black and threatening, and dumped on you as if an impatient Rainmaker slit open the bottom of the cloud instead of giving it a few gentle shakes. These storms were relentless and only consistent a few weeks a year. But that smell, the smell of the earth softening and the plants and trees sighing in relief after the storm is one that makes me all at once happy and profoundly homesick.

In this hymn, the word of God is compared to both dew and rain. In Deuteronomy His doctrine is “distil[led] as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” (32:2). To me these are the small and constant commandments He gives us, the spiritual housekeeping of daily tasks and habits that keep open the channels to Him.

In Isaiah, His word is more insistent: “the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater.

“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

The Lord doesn’t call back His commandments, sometimes raining them down at a rate that stings. But His word, His doctrine brings its own reward. When we obey we both accomplish His purposes, and He in turn blesses us for our obedience. Sometimes these blessings are as physical as seed to sow and bread to eat; other times we are given peace, courage, charity, patience.

Sometimes this rain bring healing from grief or anxiety or depression or addiction or the feeling that we are worthless or unloveable or totally alone.

These are the times God’s commandments, like the rain that lashes down, also cleanses us us, bringing its own healing in the aftermath.

Hymn #143: Let the Holy Spirit Guide

I teach the Gospel Essentials class in my ward, and have the privilege of teaching basic doctrine each week. There are basic lessons on faith, scriptures, and prophets; each lesson covers basic tenets of our faith. They’re a joy to teach, because they let me boil down the gospel to its most basic parts—ultimately, it’s at least as instructive for me as it is for the investigators and recent converts that attend.

But while each gospel principle has a lesson dedicated to it, the Holy Ghost has two: one is about the Gift of the Holy Ghost, that we receive after baptism, and the other? It’s about the Holy Ghost as a member of the Godhead. As an entity, a person. Someone with identity and purpose. While our discussion of the Holy Ghost tends to center around the Gift, this hymn, Let the Holy Spirit Guide, is about a person.

Let the Holy Spirit guide;
Let him teach us what is true.
He will testify of Christ,
Light our minds with heaven’s view.

Notice the pronouns—the Holy Ghost is a he. How different is it to think of a person teaching us what is true, and testifying of Christ, than to think of an abstract spiritual concept, a conscience, or some sort of shoulder angel?

When we have some understanding of the Holy Ghost as a person, albeit not corporeal, it changes how we think of being taught by the Spirit. A common concept is that the Holy Ghost teaches us by infusing us directly with knowledge, putting thoughts into our minds that we wouldn’t have had on our own. While this may be true, it does not supplant that we still must learn the same way we learn from mortal teachers—bit by bit, line upon line, starting with the basics and adding complexity when we’re ready for it. The Holy Ghost is an unparalleled teacher, but we’re still the same learners.

Let the Holy Spirit guard;
Let his whisper govern choice.
He will lead us safely home
If we listen to his voice.

Who do you turn to when you have a key decision to make? For me it’s my dad—he’s like a version of myself that has more experience, more knowledge, and who can help me see around corners because of his vantage point. The Holy Ghost is that, and more; he’s like a version of ourselves that has a true eternal perspective, and who can add that insight to our decision-making. If we let his whispers impact our choices, then we will indeed return to our Heavenly home.

Let the Spirit heal our hearts
Thru his quiet, gentle pow’r.
May we purify our lives
To receive him hour by hour.

When our hearts need healing, it can be hard to let others help us. The Holy Ghost has the capability to be the quiet, gentle strength we crave but don’t know how to ask for, of others. The onus is on us, though, to continually receive him and allow him to help us.

It’s a basic, foundational principle, that the Holy Ghost is a personage of Spirit. But when we get too far from the underlying doctrine, we forget what is so simple: the Holy Ghost is a person. He wants to teach us, protect us, and heal us. And if we’re willing to let him into our lives—as we do with friends, teachers, and family members—then he will be the best friend we can have.

Hymn #116: Come, Follow Me

“Come, follow me,” the Savior said.
Then let us in his footsteps tread,
For thus alone can we be one
With God’s own loved, begotten Son.

This hymn is so familiar. Just having read those words, you’ll probably have the tune stuck in your head for a while.

And it is such a simple phrase: “Come, follow me.” A command, but a gentle one. Compelling enough for Peter and Andrew to leave their fishing nets straightaway (see Matthew 4). Not compelling enough for a rich young man to give up everything he had to obey it (see Matthew 19).

Maybe his unwillingness was due to the commitment involved. It’s not enough to follow Jesus Christ for a little while. It’s not even enough to follow him throughout mortality; “no,” we realize, “this extends to holier spheres.” If we are going to be true disciples of Christ, we must give him our life, our soul, our eternity.

Not only shall we emulate
His course while in this earthly state,
But when we’re freed from present cares,
If with our Lord we would be heirs.

Nor is enough to wait until we are “freed from present cares” to make this commitment. If we hear the Savior’s call in this life, we can’t say, “Sounds good, Lord. I’m gonna have some fun now, though, and I’ll see you in the hereafter. Save me a place in your kingdom, will ya?” Alma explains:

Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world. For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked. (Alma 34:34-35, emphasis added)

If we spend our lives cultivating a spirit that is stubborn and rebellious, or lazy and indifferent, or more concerned with exploring doubt than building faith, death is not going to change us. Why should it? The veil will be removed from our minds, yes, but it takes time to learn humility, dedication, and trust. Time that our Father has graciously given us here on earth to practice those attributes. Time that we should not waste.

We must the onward path pursue
As wider fields expand to view,
And follow him unceasingly,
Whate’er our lot or sphere may be.

We will be presented with opportunities to choose again and again in this life: will we continue in the path the Savior set for us, or will we explore other options? Will we follow him when he is not here personally to direct us, but delegates that responsibility to imperfect mortals like ourselves? Will we follow him when our lives are filled with trials, doubts, fears, and sorrows? Will we follow him when our lives are easy and filled with joy and success?

“Whate’er our lot or sphere may be,” will we follow him?

That is the one question that matters in this life. And he has already given us the answer that leads to “thrones, dominions, kingdoms, pow’rs, and glory great and bliss”.

“Come,” he bids us. “Follow me.”

Hymn #147: Sweet Is the Work

The work doesn’t feel very sweet today. It feels heavy and sad and a little bit futile. Many things are weighing on my mind and my spirit, and a hymn of triumph and joy is not exactly fitting for my mood.

But the text of this hymn brings me hope.

I love the Lord. I love to “praise [his] name, give thanks and sing.” I see his hand in my life and know that he is mindful of me. His truths–even the ones I don’t fully comprehend–are beautiful, and I love to learn about and discuss them. Writing about the hymns here brings joy and an added measure of the Spirit into my life.

But I know that there are many who do not feel that way. I have brothers and sisters whose hearts are seized by mortal cares, who are unsure of his divine counsels and wonder whether they shine brightly enough to cut through the darkness of doubt.

This is my prayer: that my heart may be found in tune with God’s will. That “my inward foes shall all be slain nor Satan break my peace again.” That I can live in such a way that “when in the realms of joy I see [God's] face” it will be in full felicity, because I will know that despite my weaknesses I have done my best.

It’s my prayer for all of you as well. Because while we may not know everything now, someday we will. When we return to our heavenly home, “then shall [we] see and hear and know all [we] desired and wished below.”

Our knowledge will be complete. Everything will make sense and wrongs will be made right.

And oh, how sweet it will be.

Hymn #112: Savior, Redeemer of My Soul

Like we do in many hymns, we sing about our Savior in this hymn, and as we often do when we sing about the Lord, we sing particularly about His atoning sacrifice. His “mighty hand hath made [us] whole, [His] wondrous pow’r hath raised [us] up and filled with sweet [our] bitter cup.” He, and He alone, has purified us when we had strayed from His presence. He has redeemed us, and it’s that role in particular that we sing about.

Isaiah wrote about the bitter cup, giving us an image that I’ve always found powerful. Listen:

Awake, awake, stand up, O Jerusalem, which hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury; thou hast drunken the dregs of the cup of trembling, and wrung them out.

[But] thus saith thy Lord the Lord, and thy God that pleadeth the cause of his people, Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again. (Isaiah 51:17, 22)

Sometimes, in our lives, it’s not enough that we drink out of the cup of His fury. Not only do we stray, we seem to insist on drinking the dregs of the cup. We return to the sin that separates us from Him again and again, refusing to return to Him and refusing to let Him help us. The Lord sees us, and He, our God who pleads our cause, gently takes the cup out of our hands. “Let me,” He says, and does what we cannot by drinking the bitter cup to the uttermost. The juxtaposition between the cup of fury and the kindness and softness he treats us with has always been striking to me.

We cannot drink the bitter cup ourselves. We cannot pay the price for our own sins, no matter how willing we are, or insistent that we drink the dregs of the cup of trembling. We’re simply not capable of it, and if we can’t settle our own spiritual debts, there’s no chance that we could do so on behalf of anyone else, let alone everyone else. The price is simply too high. But the Savior could, and He did. We are bought with a price, Paul wrote, and as we discussed earlier, the cost was dear. And so we must love Him too. Listen to the second verse:

Never can I repay thee, Lord,
But I can love thee. Thy pure word,
Hath it not been my one delight,
My joy by day, my dream by night?
Then let my lips proclaim it still,
And all my life reflect thy will.

“Never can I repay thee, Lord, but I can love thee.” Those few words sum up our relationship with the Master. He has suffered too greatly, too deeply for us to ever hope to balance the ledger. His pains were sore, how sore and exquisite, we know not. But he doesn’t ask us to repay Him. He asks only that we love Him, and do His will. And so we do. We do the things He asks us to do. We learn of Him, and do our best to emulate Him and follow His example. In all things we let our lips proclaim His gospel, and let all our lives reflect His will.

He has given us more than we can possibly comprehend, and He asks for so little in return. But as we offer what little we have, He pours out His redemptive gifts on us, helping to change “frowning foes to smiling friends” and making us “more worthy of [His] love.” He can change us, making us both in “perfect harmony with [Him]” and making us more “fit… for the life above.”

He has redeemed each of us. What tongue our gratitude can tell?

Hymn #126: How Long, O Lord Most Holy and True

This, surprisingly, is hymn of despair. Although there are precious few songs in our hymnal that express this kind of anguish, I’m grateful for the diversity of experience they attest to.

Part of what is so poignant about this hymn is the way that despair is paired with expressions of belief and devotion. The trials through which the hymn progresses are all the more devastating because the singer is expressing faith, but not yet experiencing the fruition of that faith. “Shadowed hope our joy delay[s]” even though “our hearts confess, our souls believe / Thy truth, thy light, thy will, thy way.” We know that God has a “loving will” and can “release our anguished, weary souls,” and yet we are still in “the prison tow’r”, caught in “grim confusion’s awful death.”

The contrast is devastating! And it is a contrast that deserves to be devastating because it expresses the lived experience of so many people. As much as we like to tell personal narratives in which trials are overcome and we emerge stronger, with Shiny Faith 2.0, the fact of the matter is that many people experience suffering far more pervasive and long-lasting than we may be comfortable admitting. There are people with debilitating, incurable physical and mental illnesses, people who live with chronic pain, and people who have lost more loved ones and experienced more personal grief and disappointment than we even knew was possible in one lifetime. Faith takes on a radical cast when it is called to answer the truly chronic trials of human life.

There are few people who experienced this truth more profoundly than Joseph Smith. The “how long?” that opens this hymn echoes Joseph’s own famously beleaguered plea:

How long shall thy hand be stayed? … Yea, O Lord, how long shall [thy people] suffer these wrongs … before thine heart shall be softened toward them?” (D&C 121:2-3)

But buried in these same verses is a truth that has given me comfort when I consider the gut-wrenching struggles of mortality. Joseph ends his plea with these words:

“Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.” (D&C 121:6)

I have long found it interesting that Joseph calls the saints God’s “servants.” It recasts his question in a whole new light. It is as if he were asking: ‘Haven’t we been good servants? A servant receives fair recompense for their actions, and we are not finding that justice. Why haven’t we received our wages?’

It is in this light that I find God’s response overwhelmingly moving:

My son, peace be unto thy soul…” (D&C 121:7)

God’s response is essentially: ‘Joseph, you’ve misunderstood. You aren’t my servants, you are my sons, and sons are treated differently.’

Servants are hired. They punch in at 8:00 am, they punch out at 5:00 pm, and in return they are given a fair wage at the end of each day. Sons, however, are in a relationship far more binding, and thus far more demanding. In return, they are given a full inheritance, but it can only be obtained through the rigorous work of being sealed.

When we face the injustices and unfairness of life, we would do well to remember that God does not deal with us as servants, but as sons. The answer to the question “how long?” may be difficult to hear and even more difficult to bear, but the promise is that if we will allow ourselves to be true sons, “endur[ing] it well,” we will find “peace … unto [our] soul” and “triumph” (D&C 121:7-8).

“How long?” Perhaps longer than we wish. But the Lord remains “Most Holy and True,” and his goodness extends to engaging us in the painful but truly rewarding work of being Sons.

Hymn #139: In Fasting We Approach Thee

Why do we fast?

The essential answer is simply “we fast because God has commanded us to fast.” If God asked us to burn sacrifices, we would burn sacrifices. If God asked us to run ten miles at least once a month, we’d all take up running. It’s just what we do.

And yet, obedience without understanding is never the goal. God often teaches us through symbols, and the rituals and ordinances we carry out are often full of them. So, why do we fast? This hymn provides a few suggestions.

[We] pray thy Spirit from above
Will cleanse our hearts, cast out our fear,
And fill our hunger with thy love. (verse 1)

The concept of filling our hunger with His love is an interesting one to me. Fasting definitely introduces a “hole” in us. It not only induces physical weakness, but it often feels as if there’s a pit in our stomach.  The natural man’s remedy to fasting is to fill that hole with food, but God invites us to instead seek to fill it with divine blessings.

Thru this small sacrifice, may we
Recall that strength and life each day
Are sacred blessings sent from thee (verse 2)

Fasting reminds us of our own dependence. Within just a few hours of skipping a meal, we are weak, humbled, and very aware of our own needy-ness. Fasting can serve as a reminder of our own dependence on God, for his blessings and continued sustenance. It can also symbolically remind us of our own spiritual dependence. How much are we spiritually weakened when we go just a day or two without scripture study, or a few hours without prayer?

And may our fast fill us with care
For all thy children now in need. (verse 3)

In our own fast, we are also more able to sympathize with those who are in physical need. Many of God’s children barely have enough to survive. We who have so much, who can skip a couple meals without any lasting consequences—surely fasting reminds us of our responsibility to care for those who fast because they have no choice, or who worry every day how they’ll make ends meet.

This fast, dear Father, sanctify (verse 4)

Because fasting has been commanded by God, obedience brings additional blessings. Our simple choice to obey increases our faith, and gives us access to spiritual blessings God is ready to pour out upon us.  Our fasting can be sanctified, made holy, if we do it in faith. It can bring an added measure of the Spirit, with the accompanying blessings that brings.

There’s a beautiful passage in Isaiah about the power that can accompany a humble and faithful fast. Take some time to really read it:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward.
(Isaiah 58:6-8)

And then comes verse 9:

Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.”

What a beautiful promise.

So next time you’re fasting, make it a true fast, a sanctified one. Seek the blessings God has already promised to those who fast in humility and faith. The blessings are great.

Hymn #121: I’m a Pilgrim, I’m a Stranger

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I’m a pilgrim, I’m a stranger
Cast upon the rocky shore
Of a land where deathly danger
Surges with a sullen roar,
Oft despairing, oft despairing,
Lest I reach my home no more.

A pilgrimage is a journey, often a long one, to a sacred or holy place. Often the financial burden of a pilgrimage is great, or the journey itself is difficult, or the pilgrim chooses to abstain from food for a period of time…sacrifice is usually involved in one way or another. Generally speaking, the purpose of any pilgrimage is to demonstrate faith and religious devotion.

In the context of this hymn, mortal life is the pilgrimage that each of us must take. We left our premortal home with our Father in Heaven to come to earth where exist both temporally and spiritually “deathly danger”. Verse two is anxiety-ridden, for life is treacherous and too many of our brothers and sisters never find their way home.

Misty vapors rise before me.
Scarcely can I see the way.
Clouds of darkest hue hang o’er me,
And I’m apt to go astray
With the many, with the many
That are now the vulture’s prey.

But let us not forget that a pilgrimage is not just a miserable experience designed to frighten and discourage us. It is a journey to a holy place that results in spiritual growth and enlightenment. Is that not why we came to earth? To have our faith and obedience tested? To see if we would do all things whatsoever the Father commands? (see Abraham 3:25)

We journeyed here to mortality on an earth created specifically for us. It has its problems, yes, but God himself declared it to be good (see Genesis 1). Even when the world is at its worst, this “rocky shore” upon which we have been cast is full of sacred spaces. The Wikipedia entry on pilgrimages is (surprisingly) eloquent on this point:

“Such sites [i.e. those visited by pilgrims] may be commemorated with shrines or temples that devotees are encouraged to visit for their own spiritual benefit: to be healed or have questions answered or to achieve some other spiritual benefit.”

There are places and experiences like this for us throughout mortality. The baptismal font is a sacred place, as is the chapel where baptismal covenants are renewed each week. Temples are being built all over the world to provide refuge, revelation, and a source of spiritual strength. A father giving a priesthood blessing to a sick child, a young woman searching the scriptures for answers to a troubling question, any time the miracle of birth occurs…each of these are “shrines” of a sort that mark the path of our pilgrimage.

Every time we have a sacred experience, the place or moment where it occurs is sanctified, and the Holy Ghost reminds us that we are headed toward our heavenly home. When we go through stretches of life with few of these holy milestones, we can still draw strength from those we have passed and look forward with hope for the next one. And always, always, our Father is there to help us find the way.

O my Father, I entreat thee,
Let me see thy beck’ning hand;
And when straying, may I meet thee
Ere I join the silent band.
Guide me, Father, guide me, Father,
Safely to the promised land.

Eventually, if we continue in the strait and narrow way, each of us will complete our personal pilgrimage here and return to live with our Father in Heaven. We will make many sacrifices along the way, and we will face many hardships, it is true. But if we watch for them along the way, we will find many sacred reminders of where we are headed, and each holy encounter brings us ever closer to the promised land.

Image source

Hymn #135: My Redeemer Lives

This hymn is probably best known for two reasons; first, it’s frequently mistaken for much better-known “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” (it’s the next hymn in the book, and they even share the same first line), and its lyrics were written by Gordon B. Hinckley.

Like “I Know That My Redeemer Lives,” we declare our witness that the Savior lives. We sing about all the wonderful reasons we have to rejoice in His life. He is “victorious over pain and death,” and He paved the way for us to be free from them as well. He is the “one bright hope of men on earth.” It is only through the path He teaches that we can return to Him and become like Him. That path is the “beacon to a better way, the light beyond the veil of death.” We sing joyfully, and there’s a lot to rejoice about.

All of that is wonderful, of course, but how do we know it?

I haven’t seen the Savior in person, and I very much doubt that I ever will during my stay here on earth. I suspect the same from virtually every other person on the planet. There’s speculation that the Twelve have seen Him, since they’re called to be special witnesses of Christ, but that’s all it is, speculation. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of them haven’t seen Him, either. Seeing Him in the flesh removes our need for faith, the bedrock principle of the gospel. We trust that He lives, and as we place our faith in Him, we are blessed and supported in our lives.

That’s not to say that we’re left to trust blindly that He lives, though. We are given every opportunity to know that He lives, loves us, and is eager to take an active role in our lives if we will but let Him. The third verse of this hymn begins, “Oh, give me thy sweet Spirit still,” and therein lies the key. Relatively few of us are given the chance to see the Savior face to face, but all of us have the opportunity to receive the Holy Ghost. The Spirit testifies to us of the Father and the Son. He does so gently and quietly, inviting rather than compelling us to listen. When we hear truth, more often than not the Spirit confirms that truth to us softly, saying (although usually not audibly) something simple like, “Yes, that’s true, and you know it because you remember it, don’t you?”

The Holy Ghost brings all things to our remembrance. He doesn’t teach truth so much as confirm it. When it comes down to it, each of us already knows in some corner of our mind that Jesus is the Christ; after all, we lived with him before we came here, and chose the Father’s plan for our lives, knowing that He would be our Savior and Redeemer. We already know that He lives. We’ve seen Him and known Him. Our minds are covered with the veil that makes faith and obedience meaningful here on earth (there’s no need to have faith in a being you can constantly see before your face), but the Spirit can pull that veil back from time to time, giving us a dazzling glimpse of knowledge we once had.

That powerful feeling manifests itself differently for everyone. For some, it’s a rush of emotion, leading them to tear up. For others, like myself, it’s a powerful flash of insight and clarity. In any case, the word “sweet” is well-chosen to describe those feelings. The Spirit touches our hearts and helps to reconcile us to God. We can know that He lives, and that He loves us. And as we receive that sweet witness, reminding us of truths laying dormant in our hearts, we receive courage to carry on. We receive, as we sing in the conclusion of this hymn, “the faith to walk the lonely road that leads to thine eternity.”

Hymn #133: Father in Heaven

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I didn’t immediately recognize this hymn from its title. You may not either. If you don’t, you might consider taking a minute to click on the link at the top of the page and listen to the first verse. In fact, it won’t even take you a minute. Go on, give it a listen.

Did you listen to it? Did you hear the dip to a minor key there in the second phrase? Go back and listen again if you didn’t.

Hear these thy children thru the world resounding.

I imagine most hymns could be considered prayers, but the lyrics to this one sound as though they could literally be the words of a prayer. Father in Heaven, we pray, hear Thy children. The hymn goes on to ask the Father specifically to hear His children as they praise Him and give thanks for the peace He has given them, but the minor fall heightens that phrase. When viewed this way, the hymn takes on a new meaning. It’s about that moment of doubt, where we have faith sufficient to pray to the Father, but maybe not as much confidence that He’ll answer us.

It’s a familiar feeling, because we’ve all had that experience. We encounter difficult times, harder than we feel we can bear. We do our best to soldier on, trusting in the Lord that things will get better, only they seem to get worse. It could be a challenge with our health, or our family, or our work, or schooling, or any of a number of things. We feel low, and we get down on our knees, asking God if He is truly there, and where our aid is.

This isn’t something that only happens to those of us (the majority of us, I’m sure) whose faith is weak. No less a man than the prophet Joseph Smith had this experience. We read about it in the Doctrine and Covenants, which records his time in Liberty Jail, one of the lowest points of his life. “O God, where art thou?” he cried, and you can feel his anguish. It’s your anguish too, that night that you asked Him the same question. And at that dark hour, the Lord spoke to Joseph, just as He speaks to you and me. “My son,” He said, “peace be unto thy soul.” And it was comforted, just as ours were.

We know that our trials will be for a small moment in the grand scheme of things. We know that most of our lives will be spent in relative happiness, just as most of this hymn is spent in the relatively happier major key. But in those dark moments, the trials seem to last forever. Doubt can poke through, but if we exercise faith enough to still trust in Him, even if only enough to ask if He is there, we can see that peace shine through all the brighter by comparison with that darkness.

Filled be our hearts with peace beyond comparing,
Peace in thy world, and joy to hearts despairing.
Firm is our trust in thee for peace enduring,
Ever enduring.

Image credit: “Gloomy Weather 3,” deviantART user lamogios. CC BY-SA 3.0

Hymn #136: I Know That My Redeemer Lives

 

He lives, he lives, who once was dead.

This statement is, perhaps, the very foundation of Christianity. Jesus Christ, crucified between thieves and buried in a tomb, lives. None other ever had power to rise from death of his own accord. The resurrection stands as a testament to the divinity of Christ.

More than simply a witness of Christ, though, his Resurrection offers us hope. Because he lives, we will live again. More, because he lives he continues to bless us. Christ is not simply a great prophet who lived and died—he lives. He continues to act. Though his greatest work is complete in the Atonement, his mission is not yet complete because we are not yet complete.

I Know That My Redeemer Lives speaks directly of our relationship with Christ. He is not simply an unknowable force for good working in the background. Rather, he is our “kind, wise heavenly friend.” He comforts us when faint. He blesses us in time of need. He silences all our fears and calms our troubled hearts.  Christ is our guide and our companion.

Over the course of four verses, this hymn expresses four verses full of blessings we receive because He Lives. Four verses full of reasons to rejoice. This outpouring of simple gratitude makes this one of my favorite hymns.

I often quietly sing this hymn to myself, when I find myself alone. I did so just a few nights ago, on my back porch late at night while everyone else was asleep. Gazing up into the starry night and singing quietly, I watched as the Earth’s shadow passed over the moon, producing a beautiful lunar eclipse. I thought about the greatness of God, about the vastness of the Earth, the moon, and the Sun which he created. I thought about how amazing that the same being who was instrumental in creating such a beautiful scene also ”pleads for me above,” seeking to prepare a mansion for me there. I reflected on my own relationship with Christ—my own faith and willingness to follow him.

Perhaps on such occasions, I am not truly singing to myself. I am not singing to entertain, nor to pass the time. Rather, I sing to express my gratitude to our Father for his Son. I sing to orient my soul to Him.  When I sing this song, I sing to God himself, offering gratitude and awe for the resurrection and atonement of Christ. I sing to offer testimony. Scripture teaches that “the song of the righteous is a prayer unto God;” when I sing I Know That My Redeemer Lives, that prayer seems to draw me in.

He lives! All glory to his name!
He lives, my Savior, still the same.
Oh, sweet the joy this sentence gives:
“I know that my Redeemer lives!”

Knowledge that Christ lives brings joy. When we sing this hymn, we express four verses full of reasons for that joy, but there are many, many more. Our relationship with Christ is personal, is intended to be personal. As we grow to know him, we will find more and more reasons to rejoice in his life.

So, as we conclude the Easter season, take a moment and read this hymn. Consider your own relationship with Christ. If you were to add a verse, what would it say? When you reflect upon his atonement and his resurrection, what thoughts bring you joy?

Hymn #108: The Lord Is My Shepherd

seek that which is gone astray

Despite Hollywood’s prolific use of Psalm 23 in funeral scenes and the fact that this hymn is categorized under “funeral” in the LDS hymnal, it wasn’t until the 20th century that “the valley of the shadow of death” began to be associated with actual death. And honestly, the psalm upon which “The Lord Is My Shepherd” is based doesn’t really talk about death, the resurrection, or even the afterlife. It does, however, talk about our daily need for our Savior’s goodness and love.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou annointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Psalm 23)

“The valley of the shadow of death” is a reference to mortality, a time when death is a looming eventuality for all of us; we don’t know when we will die, but we do know it will happen at some time. And we know that, in the meantime, Jesus Christ will guide and protect us “all the days of [our] life”.

But how? What does The Good Shepherd do to keep us, his little flock, safe during our time here on earth? The words of the hymn give us some answers.

“I feed in green pastures.” The Savior calls himself the “bread of life”, and says that “he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35) As we read…no, feast on his words, we are filled with understanding, joy, inspiration, hope, love, and more. The pastures of his doctrine are not only green but vast and full of delicious morsels if we take time to discover them.

“He leadeth my soul where the still waters flow.” We speak often of how narrow the way to eternal life is. That sometimes makes it seem difficult and even dangerous, as if there are cliffs and chasms on either side waiting to swallow us up if we take one wrong step. We neglect to remember, however, that the strait and narrow path is a peaceful one. The imagery of still waters–undoubtedly flowing from the purest source–is a reminder that keeping his commandments brings us peace in our homes, minds, and hearts.

“Restores me when wand’ring.” Even if we stray from the well-marked path of righteousness–whether by ignorance or rebellion or something else entirely–we always have the option of repenting and returning to the fold. Jesus suffered for our sins so that we could be “restored”.

“Redeems when oppressed.” Again, when we are oppressed by guilt and sin and our own unworthiness, the Atonement is available to us. The price of our sins has been paid; we need only accept that redemption and repent.

On a more practical note, when we are literally oppressed in this life by other people or organizations or illness or whatever the case may be, we can still have hope for redemption. When our burdens are heavy and suffering seems never-ending, “The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble.” (Psalms 9:9) Even when our situation is not immediately improved, we can take comfort in his love and have hope for eventual relief.

“Since thou art my Guardian, no evil I fear.” Faith in Jesus Christ makes us unafraid. Not that we don’t have our personal phobias (I’m looking at you, spiders) but we trust that no matter what, all will be well. This recent post from Sam discusses this point further; I highly recommend reading his take on why we don’t need to fear.

“With blessings unmeasured, my cup runneth o’er.” Have you ever attempted to honestly count all your blessings? Try it some time. I start losing track once I begin to name all the wonderful people who have influenced my life or all the ways my body is a miracle. And then I realize how ungrateful I am never to have acknowledged just how cool opposable thumbs are. Blessings unmeasured, indeed.

“With perfume and oil thou anointest my head.” This line references the consecrated oil used in certain priesthood blessings, such as those for the sick. It also brings to my mind initiatory ordinances in the temple. To me, this line is symbolic of Christ’s ability to provide for needs that are both immediate and temporal, as well as eternal and spiritual in nature. No matter what we lack, he has us covered.

With all the ways our Shepherd cares for us, truly what can we ask of His providence more?

Hymn #128: When Faith Endures

This is a simple, direct hymn. It’s not ornate or eloquent like some hymns. It’s just one verse expressing one simple idea: Faith in God helps us overcome fear.

Fear is an emotion that’s all about the future. It doesn’t make any sense to fear for the past; we fear when we look at what’s happening around us and have anxiety at what it might lead to.  Fear is, of course, a useful emotion in the same way that pain is a useful sensation—it can warn us of dangerous situations and help protect us. If we live constantly in fear, though, we’re missing something important: Hope.

Just as fear is based in anxiety about the future, hope is based in belief in a better future. In a gospel context, Hope refers to our anxious desire for the blessings God has offered to us. We have hope that our families will be eternal, hope that we will live eternally with our Heavenly Father, hope that our pains and sorrows in this life will be made right in the next. The Gospel of Christ really does offer some wonderful gifts to those who will live by its precepts.

I’ve often heard that faith and fear are opposites. While the message is sound, I would modify it slightly. I would suggest that Hope and Fear are opposites. Hope is a view toward a better future; fear is a view toward a worse one.

What, then, are we to make of this hymn, that has as its closing line this phrase:

His love assures that fear departs when faith endures.

Numerous passages of scriptures declare a relationship between faith in Christ and this gospel-centered Hope. Mormon wrote eloquently about it in Moroni 7:

And again, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you concerning hope. How is it that ye can attain unto faith, save ye shall have hope?

And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.

Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope. (Moroni 7:40-42)

 

As we build our faith in Christ, we will also build our faith in his promises. We will have a greater belief in the atonement of Christ, in his Resurrection, and in the wonderful gift of Eternal Life. Faith cannot be built without action, and as we act in accordance with gospel principles, we will naturally look forward with an eye of hope toward these blessings.

Hope built from faith leaves little room for long-lasting fear. We might still have temporary fear; hope in Christ does little to calm the nerves of a parent watching their young child perched precariously on a ledge. But the long-lasting fears—fear of losing loved ones forever, fear of death, fear of nothingness, fear of separation—these fears are all washed away in the hope of promised blessings, the hope that is the fruit of the seed of faith.

Build your faith.

Hymn #103: Precious Savior, Dear Redeemer

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Jesus Christ I often focus on his power and majesty. He is the Son of God! He is the King of Kings! Sure, he loves us enough to die for us, but that fills me with more awe and wonder than anything else. To use words like “precious” and “dear” when referring to my Savior feels a little weird. I call my daughters precious. I call my husband dear. Why is it hard for me to think of my Elder Brother in those terms?

I keep my most precious things close. If they aren’t physically with me, I at least know where they are and have a reasonable assurance that they are safe and well. I check on them frequently. It makes sense that my relationship with Jesus Christ should be treated the same way. If I’m not consciously drawing near to him, I should at least feel confident that he is there, that he loves me, and that I am doing his will to the best of my ability. I should check in with him frequently. I am dear to him, and he should be precious to me.

The final lines of the first two verses–”May each soul in thee abide” and “Let us never from thee stray” respectively–reaffirm the need to keep precious things safe and close. But from what?

In this hymn the words “sin” and “tide” are closely linked not once but twice. There are times in our lives when we reach spiritual peaks; being good comes easily and the Holy Ghost truly is our constant companion. There are other times when we grow weary or complacent or bitter or confused or whatever the case me be. Sin and doubt creep into our lives, as a rising tide slowly advances up the shore.

The Savior can provide a bulwark against this rising tide, keeping us safe and dry in his protection. But we must continually maintain our relationship with him, lest any crack in the barrier allow the tide to break through and overwhelm us. We must have the “swift conviction” necessary to ask for his help in “turning back the sinful tide” as soon as we recognize its advance.

I know I’m not the only parent who insists that my daughter stays right by my side–preferably holding my hand–when we are in a parking lot. This, I think, is what is meant by the “narrow way”. Staying within the bounds prescribed by our Savior protects us from nearby dangers and potential distractions; if we were allowed to wander, we might get lost or injured or who knows what else. With Christ’s “loving arms around us” we are safe.

Even at our Savior’s side, we will experience trying times. I’ve written about this before. Life will be hard, but with his help we can endure. Our hearts may be broken, but he can bind them. We may know sorrow, but he will bear some of that burden so we are not overwhelmed. We will undoubtedly cry, but he will dry our tears. The storms will come but they will pass, and if we keep Christ close in our hearts, in the end we will know “everlasting peace” in our Father’s presence.

 

Hymn #101: Guide Me to Thee

When my husband served a mission in east Germany, his dad sent him a copy of the poem “The Gate of the Year” by Minnie Louise Haskins. It begins like this:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

This little poem sums up the last two years of our family’s life so perfectly it hurts my feelings a little bit.  It was as if my husband and I stood before that same gate and asked for a light–a flashlight, an oil lamp, anything–to guide us where we should go. The way seemed hopelessly dark and we were sure we would lose our way.

“Take my hand,” the Lord said to us. We balked at this direction, clamoring for familiarity over faith. For months and months we wandered, blindly feeling our way along the path and wondering when things would finally get better.

When tears bedim my eyes,
Guide me to thee.
When hopes are crushed and dead,
When earthly joys are fled,
Thy glory round me shed.
Guide me to thee.

When we finally reached out to Him, the blessings were immediate. He gave us confidence in our decisions and peace in our trials. But most importantly, we found our path illuminated.

E’en in the darkest night,
As in the morning bright,
Be thou my beacon light.
Guide me to thee.
Putting our hand in His seems like such a small thing, but then again the Lord asks for a lot of small things. Read your scriptures, pray, climb this mountain, wash in the river Jordan, look at this bronzed serpent. He is merely trying to smooth out the path for all of us, to guide us all back to Him.

Hymn #105: Master, the Tempest Is Raging

The Grace Harwar sailing in a storm

For anyone who has read New Testament this story is a familiar one, included in two of the four gospels, and it begins in a boat.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full. And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish? (Mark 4:37-38)

They lyrics of the first verse are, appropriately, written from the disciples’ point of view. They are afraid they will capsize and drown, and feel shocked–perhaps even a little betrayed–that Jesus can sleep through it all. Their indignation is understandable; they are, after all, in a boat with the only perfect man who ever lived, a man whose miracles extend even to raising the dead. Why would nature behave this way toward disciples of the Son of God? Shouldn’t their boat be protected from such deadly storms because he is in it?

Unfortunately, being a disciple of Christ doesn’t make one immune to the tempests of life. The most devout Christians and devoted Saints have been tested and tried to their very limits. Mosiah and Alma had apostate children who attempted to destroy the church. Hannah and Elisabeth and Rachel and many others faced long years of infertility. So many pioneers buried family members on their trek to Zion. Storms happen, and sometimes we get caught in their wake.

The tempests we face may be literal forces of nature, results of our own choices, or the consequences of someone else’s actions that are beyond our control. When they arise, we generally find ourselves pleading for our Lord to take notice of the storm and rescue us from it.

Master, with anguish of spirit
I bow in my grief today.
The depths of my sad heart are troubled.
Oh, waken and save, I pray!
Torrents of sin and of anguish
Sweep o’er my sinking soul,
And I perish! I perish! dear Master.
Oh, hasten and take control!

Whether our sinking soul is due to the guilt of sin or the heartbreak of loss, the frustration of helplessness or just the general stress of life, sometimes we truly feel like we are perishing. Hope is lost, and there is nothing to do but lay down and die.

And yet.

We are protected when the Savior is in our midst. Maybe we aren’t spared from being tossed about by the waves, but let’s not forget the wise man who built his house on the rock. The rains came down on his house just as they did on the house built on sand, but his house was not washed away.

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the arock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman 5:12)

If we center our lives on Jesus Christ, he will be with us to lift and guide and sustain us in our most trying times. Remember, as the chorus says:

Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea
Or demons or men or whatever it be,
No waters can swallow the ship where lies
The Master of ocean and earth and skies.

Our God will not let us fail if we put our trust in him. We might be as Job and lose every single thing we have in this life, but still he gives us hope of eternal peace and joy in the life to come.

And so, when “the terror is over” and “the elements sweetly rest”, we should not (to continue the metaphor) kick Jesus out of our boat because we don’t need him to protect us anymore. Let our prayer be, as in the third verse, that we will live our lives in such a way that his Spirit will remain with us until we live with him again:

Linger, O blessed Redeemer!
Leave me alone no more,
And with joy I shall make the blest harbor
And rest on the blissful shore.

 

Image credit: “The ‘Grace Harwar’ sailing in a storm,” Flickr user National Maritime Museum, 1929, via Flickr. CC-NY-NC-ND 2.0

Hymn #145: Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire

flame

James Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns, over 100 of which are still in common use in Christian churches today. Within our own LDS hymnbook, we find Montgomery in the byline of two of our most beautiful and beloved hymns, The Lord is My Shepherd and A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief. We know and love those hymns, but another of his—Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire—lacks nothing in the poetic majesty and beautiful pure doctrine for which we revere the others.

Every verse allows vivid imagery to unwind profound doctrinal insights. This is a hymn to drink slowly, and to savor… every word. There are three key insights that we take away from this text: that prayer comes in many forms, that prayer is beautiful to God, and that we never pray alone.

Prayer Comes in Many Forms

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near.

The prophet Alma, two thousand years earlier, taught the same message. Sometimes a prayer is spoken aloud on bended knee, following a prescribed pattern and using familiar phasing. Other times it is unexpressed, a “hidden fire” that we dare not expose to others and even hesitate to take before the Lord. At other times, prayer is simply “the upward glancing of an eye,” the acknowledgment that a power greater than our own is needed to shoulder the burden we carry. So often prayer is a silent plea, but it does not fall on unhearing ears.

Prayer is Beautiful to God

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try;
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high.

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”

The Savior, in His earthly ministry, repeatedly taught the value of the individual—whether via metaphor of a lost sheep, for whom the shepherd left the others to find, or a piece of silver that the disquieted owner rejoiced when he found again. If the Lord puts so much emphasis on finding those who have gone astray and bringing them back to the fold, it makes sense that the sweetest sounds He can hear—the “sublimest strains”—are our voices coming to Him, instead of the other way around.

We Do Not Pray Alone

Nor prayer is made on earth alone:
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus at the Father’s throne
For sinners intercedes.

Many times we turn to prayer in the times when we feel the loneliest. Sincere prayer almost appears to be an individual pursuit, as we wrestle before God with our sins and pains. We do not see, however, what is happening on the other side of the veil—our Savior, Jesus Christ, pleading our cause and adding His influence to the things we are praying for, no matter how insignificant they may be in the Father’s eternal plan. It’s a tremendous, miraculous gift. We have a Savior, and it is through Him that our prayers are heard by our Father in Heaven.

When James Montgomery writes that prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, he doesn’t mean that our sincere desire is to pray; nor does he suggest that prayer is simply how we ask for what we desire most. No, the message to each of us is that when the desire stems from deep in our soul, unabated by ego, bias, and human imperfection, then it is prayer—our Heavenly Father hears.

And if we’re listening, He may answer.

Image Credit: benuski, Flame, March 3rd, 2006 via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Hymn #120: Lean On My Ample Arm

This hymn is one of the least well-known in the hymnbook. It’s also one of my favorites. Like the more popular Be Still My Soul, this hymn reminds us that constant peace is available through the Savior no matter what the circumstances. I have loved that message of rest and comfort ever since I was introduced to this hymn, but it wasn’t until I started looking more closely at the lyrics that I began to appreciate its gorgeous imagery.

The hymn’s title comes from the very first line:

Lean on my ample arm,
O thou depressed!

Throughout the hymn, the Savior speaks to us personally and closely. He is not depicted addressing us out of heaven, but as our intimate companion, walking next to us. This, in fact, is why he can request that we “lean” on his arm—the only way you can lean on someone is if they’re walking beside you.

As the hymn progresses, however, we learn a bit more about our surroundings:

And I will bid the storm
Cease in thy breast.
Whate’er thy lot may be
On life’s complaining sea,
If thou wilt come to me,
Thou shalt have rest.

We are tossed on “life’s complaining sea,” and that upheaval is reflected in the “storm … in [our] breast.” Jesus promises that he can “bid the storm / cease” and give us “rest.” The metaphor of stilling a storm, of course, comes from the New Testament (see Matt 8:23–27; 14:22–33). The God who commands all of nature can certainly grant the same peace to an anguished or turbulent heart.

Thus, we’re not invited to lean on Jesus’ arm because he is simply walking beside us, but because we are like Peter, and the Savior is reaching out to grab us as we take a few impetuous steps on the water. His “ample arm” is not just a convenient (but ultimately unnecessary) luxury; it’s our lifeline, the only thing between us and the storm.

If possible, the second verse contains even more moving imagery than the first:

Lift up thy tearful eyes,
Sad heart, to me;
I am the sacrifice
Offered for thee.

This is a scene I imagine taking place at the foot of the cross. If we “lift up” our eyes, we will be confronted with the image of Jesus’ “sacrifice / offered” in our behalf. I find it interesting that out of all the possible moments of the Savior’s ministry that could have been used to illustrate peace, this hymn draws on two of the disciples’ most difficult and tempestuous experiences. In spite of the frightening and discouraging outlook, the Lord extends this promise:

In me thy pain shall cease,
In me is thy release,
In me thou shalt have peace
Eternally

In one sense, this assurance is deeply troubling and almost ironic—how can He offer us peace, rest, and release, when he himself is currently portrayed in captivity and experiencing intense pain? It’s precisely this incongruity, I think, that I find most tender about this hymn. Jesus is speaking to us from the moment of his most intense suffering. Rather than saying “I’ve been through that in the past,” he’s saying “it’s okay; I’m going through it, too.” The second verse is an image of divine empathy rather than sympathy. We often try to encourage others by offering hope, by playing up the happy ending. We see this, for example, with Be Still My Soul, whose lyrics address us from the perspective of the “joyful end” when “grief and fear are gone.” By contrast, Lean on My Ample Arm is sung when the grief and fear are radically present, and assures us that we can have peace even then.

This message is at its most explicit here in the culminating line:

In me thou shalt have peace
Eternally

As Latter-day Saints, we’re used to hearing the word “eternal” used to refer to the afterlife. It’s noteworthy, I think, that this hymn uses the adverb (“eternally”) rather than the noun (“in eternity”). Its most basic definition is: “in a way that continues or lasts forever; permanently.” The peace offered to us is available during our trials, not just when they end. The Savior offers us constant, unending peace, no matter our circumstances. When we, like the Savior, are feeling the weight of the cross we’ve taken up, peace is available even then, and it’s available precisely because of the cross He willingly bears.

All we have to do is lift up our eyes, and notice our surroundings. If we look closely we’ll see Christ right there.

Hymn #134: I Believe in Christ

If ever there was a hymn written to confirm that Mormons are indeed Christians, it’s this one. Just as the Articles of Faith lay out the basics of Latter-Day Saint doctrine, this hymn explains in fairly simple terms what we believe about Jesus Christ.

It’s like a manifesto of our Christianity.

Eight times we sing, “I believe in Christ,” then follow each affirmation with what precisely we believe about him.

“He is God’s Son.” Literally. Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten of the Father. As such, he inherited traits from his Immortal Father that enabled him to perform miracles, to suffer the Atonement, and to be resurrected after his crucifixion.

“As Mary’s Son he came to reign.” He was born to a mortal mother in humble circumstances. The traits he inherited from her–the ability to experience pain, sickness, and ultimately death–were also necessary for him to fulfill his mission on earth.

“He healed the sick; the dead he raised.” He spent his ministry in service to others: relieving suffering, showing mercy, healing the broken-hearted, bringing hope to those who had none. He called upon the power of God and gave people a chance to exercise faith they didn’t know they had.

He “marked the path.” By his example–not just his teachings but also his actions– we know what we need to do to obtain eternal life: love God, love others, keep the commandments, and endure to the end.

“He is the source of truth and light.” The Savior himself said it better than I can: “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12) Furthermore, he told the Brother of Jared, “And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me; for good cometh of none save it be of me. … I am the light, and the life, and the truth of the world.” (Ether 4:12)

“He ransoms me.”  By paying the price demanded by justice and offering mercy to the sinner, he defeated both death and hell. That Atonement makes it possible for us to gain eternal life and exaltation. Put in terms a Christian of any denomination would recognize: it is by his grace that we are saved.

“He is my King! … My Lord, My God … He stands supreme.” It isn’t called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for nothing. He stands at its head and we acknowledge him as our divine King.

“He [will come] again to rule among the sons of men.” He lived, he died, he lived again, and he will return to earth in all his glory, might, and majesty. We look forward not with fear but with hope for the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is the Lord God. (see Philippians 2:10-11 and Mosiah 27:31)

Say what you will about any other point of LDS doctrine, we believe in Christ.