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Hymn #214: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I hope you are all having a wonderful Christmas day and that you are celebrating this blessed day with the ones you love. It is a privilege to sit down today and share my thoughts with you regarding this hymn.

I have attached a link to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s performance of this song with guest speaker Ed Herrman during the choir’s Christmas concert of 2009. I would suggest that you take the time to watch Mr. Herrman tell how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the lines to this carol. If you are anything like me, you will be teary eyed by the end of it.

Part of me wants to just tell you to watch the video and then say amen, as it does such a wonderful job sharing the spirit of the carol, but I will add my voice in testimony to this hymn and its meaning.

Let’s start by answering the following question: What is the true meaning of Christmas? Christmas, or Christ’s Mass, as the word’s original form, is a day of celebration. It is a day dedicated to the celebration of Christ’s birth. His birth is essential to Christendom: without the birth of the Savior, there would be no atonement and no resurrection, cutting us all off from the presence of the Lord forever. It is a day that we celebrate as the beginning of the greatest life ever lived and is generally associated with words like peace, holiness, and joy.

When Longfellow penned the words to this hymn, he started by recognizing the chimes that traditionally rang in Christmas day. He then explains how, in the depths of despair, he thinks about all the unrest in his life and in the world, and wonders if there is a point to any of this. After all, “There is no peace on earth… For hate is strong and mocks the song/ Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Then, something miraculous happens. The spirit descends on him, and he feels the light of the season. He pens, “The world revolved from night to day.” The Savior is often called the light of the world, for good reason. Light is a universal symbol of peace and hope. Where there is light, there cannot be darkness, synonymous with despair and pain.

As Longfellow feels the tender, sweet promptings of the spirit, his spirit is quite literally lightened. He feels the sweet power of the atonement, healing him from the pain he has been suffering. He exclaims:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

That is my message to you today. Because our Savior was born, the right will always prevail. Though turmoil and trials will visit us as individuals and as a society, peace shall return because our Savior had such good will to men. He is the ultimate gift, one which we will spend our lives striving to both understand and honor. Today, on this most holy of days, may you and yours, with “a voice, a chime, a chant sublime,”  take the time to honor our Heavenly Father and His most precious Son, the first gift of Christmas, the most precious and most treasured offering any of us will ever receive. May the spirit of Christ fill our homes and the world. My there truly be “Peace on earth, good will to men.”

Hymn #205: Once in Royal David’s City

This hymn has an interesting history. It was first published in 1848 in a hymnal titled Hymns for Little Children, which I will discuss later.  And, since 1919, Kings College Chapel Cambridge has sung this as their processional hymn for their Christmas Eve service, wherein a soloist sings the first verse, the choir sings the second, and the congregation joins in for the third verse. Usually, the soloist is a choirboy. I have posted a video performance of this traditional performance of this hymn, as I found both the history and the performance particularly lovely.

Why would this song have first been published in Hymns for Little Children? We know that one of the ways God explains discipleship is to tell us to, “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19). When we look at this hymn through a child’s eyes and with the traits of a child, what will we find?

The story emerges of the magnificence of a great God, who is all powerful, and of a once great city, where kings and rulers changed the course of history. Juxtapose this with the arrival of a tiny baby, helpless, born in a shed made to hold livestock, to a humble woman who would raise this boy “with the poor, and mean, and lowly.”

It occurs to me that when Christ says in Doctrine and Covenants 88:6 that, “[I] that ascended up on high, as also [I] descended below all things, in that [I] comprehended all things, that [I]e might be in all and through all things, the light of truth,” He wasn’t just referring to the act of the atonement. He came to this earth, Lord of all, into circumstances far below that of which he was worthy. His mother and the man who acted as his earthly father couldn’t find another place for this baby to be born. And relatively soon after his birth, this little family was forced to flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of Herod (Matthew 2:13-15).

The lyrics of this song are a simple yet profound testimony of our Savior’s birth and His mission. He truly did descend below all things throughout his life, living in the poorest and humblest of situations, and He did this so that He could love us better and more perfectly. God is, indeed, love (1 John 4:16). He understands us and He wants us to understand Him. He truly wants to “[Lead] his children on/ To the place where he is gone.” That is the reason for the season. This miracle child whose mission was to grow up, learn, teach, and ultimately, die that we might live, is a gift unlike any other ever given.

To quote Ezra Taft Benson:

“We may never understand nor comprehend in mortality how He accomplished what He did, but we must not fail to understand why He did what He did.
Everything He did was prompted by His unselfish, infinite love for us. Hear His own words:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; …
“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink.” (D&C 19:16, 18.)

 May we remember during this season of bustle, bows, and baking, Santa and sleighs, presents and parties, the truest and most pure gift ever given and the reason behind its offering.

Hymn 137: Testimony

The witness of the Holy Ghost,
As borne by those who know,
Has lifted me again to thee,
O Father of my soul.

The beginning of this hymn makes reference to a gospel principle we don’t always spend a lot of time on: that not everyone is equally capable of developing their own testimony. We spend a lot of time talking about how you have to have your own testimony; you can’t rely on your parents’ or friends’ forever. Of course, it’s a great goal to seek for your own testimony. However, I’m not positive that everyone’s efforts will be equally rewarded.

D&C 46: 13-14 says

” 13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.

 14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.”

In our haste to encourage people to seek their own witness of the truth of the gospel, I wonder if we overlook those who, for whatever reason, don’t tend to have the big dramatic certain witness. Do we make them feel less welcome or less adequate? That’s a big oversight, especially as I suspect that quite a few of us are going more on faith than knowledge.

This hymn invites all to participate, though. We see both those who know, and those who the Holy Ghost has spoken to through the first group. We go through the basics: God and Christ exist, we have a living prophet. As a result of hearing these truths, we are moved to ask God to stay with us. In our transformation, the pain of the past is eased, and we start to think we know what heaven is like.

It’s not heaven, of course, and it doesn’t last. In fact, it only lasts for “one brief instant.” But really, isn’t that the point? We have to move in faith. If we knew all the time, life wouldn’t be the transformative experience that it’s meant to be. Whether or not testimony comes easily to you, it fades again fast. It’s frustrating, and we have to keep working hard to get those little glimpses, but those little glimpses keep us going until we can transform ourselves into the type of people that can live in that kind of joy all the time.

Hymn #74: Praise Ye the Lord

Praising the Lord is an action that most, if not all, Christians try to do. Praising comes in many forms. Nephi explains it well when he says, “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies” (2 Nephi 25:26). 

We praise the Lord for many reasons, but perhaps the reason that stands out the most in the lyrics of this hymn is that we are happy to have a God of action on whom to rely. Our God is not a God of the past, nor is He a silent partner in our lives or in the world. He is constant and he is active.

The song enumerates many of these actions:

    • made the sky, earth, and seas (verse 4 lines 2, 3 )
    • saves the oppressed (verse 5 line 2)
    • feeds the poor (verse 5 line 2)
    • sends peace (verse 5 line 3)
    • releases captives (verse 5 line 4)
    • gives sight to the blind (verse 6 line 1)
    • supports the sinking mind (verse 6 line 2)
    • helps the stranger, widow, and fatherless (verse 6 lines 3, 4)
    • loves and knows the saints (verse 7 line 1)

What a wonderful list of attributes that our God has! Truly, this is a God to be praised. Based on this list, we can create another list of adjectives that describe this kind of God.

  • powerful
  • merciful
  • mindful
  • loving
  • active
  • protective
  • compassionate
  • proven

I could go on. Our God is a mighty God, indeed! And we praise Him because He is so mighty, yet uses everything He is and everything He has to bless our lives. “Of all his creations of which I’m a part,/ Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me” (Children’s Songbook pg. 228). The amount of work it takes to keep everyone in mind on an individual level is insurmountable, yet He does it. The amount of patience it must take to watch all of us learn and fail and struggle and succeed is unfathomable, yet He does it. The amount of mercy it must take to forgive the repentant of sins more numerous than I can count is incredible, yet He does it.

Nephi, in praising the Lord, says, “O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm” (2 Nephi 4:34). Do we do this, too? Do we take action to do everything we can to prove to our God, through our actions and our words, that we appreciate Him and everything He does for us? Do we recognize His infinite power and bow to it rather than to the will of man? My prayer and my hope for all of us is that we do and that we strive to be better in our recognition of our Lord every day.

Hymn #275: Men Are That They Might Have Joy

1. A voice hath spoken from the dust,
Its message pure, without alloy,
Of treasured hope and sacred trust:
Oh, “men are that they might have joy.”

2. Should sorrow come, we’ll not despair,
For He would not that men should pine.
The grief that comes we’ll learn to bear
Until again the sun doth shine.

3. Before the Lord, then, humbly go.
His message will our spirits buoy.
On us his blessings he’ll bestow,
For “men are that they might have joy.”

 

If you asked the average person on the street what they most wanted, you would probably get a multitude of answers. Money, family, friends, their wife to stop nagging about taking the trash out. If you then asked these people why they wanted these things, the words might be different, but the meanings would be the same: we all want to be happy. No one wants to be miserable, and the things we do each day are, at the heart of them, pointed at providing ourselves with happiness.

We aren’t the only ones who want us to be happy, either. Jacob, in teaching the people of Nephi, stated simply, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25). The plan of salvation is designed so that we can be happy. The creation of the world, the garden of Eden, the fall of Adam, his posterity, the spiritual prison and paradise that exist pre-judgment, the judgment, and the degrees of heavenly glory all exist so that we can achieve joy.

Let’s, for a minute, discuss the joy that is intended for us. The highest degree of the celestial kingdom has us sealed to our families and living as gods. Can you think of anything better? God certainly thinks this is the ultimate way to have joy, and I try not to argue with Him. Getting to that place where our joy will be full is going to take some work. We know this. We have to keep the commandments and actively come unto Christ that we may partake in His infinite atonement to even be considered worthy of this joy. And that’s where some people lose sight of the end goal.

This mortal existence is difficult. You are human, so I’m assuming this is no revelation to you. We are plagued with disease, famine, natural disasters, and our own choices. Whether by our own hand or the circumstances we are dealt, we will struggle. We will go through difficult moments. And we will, most likely, hate it. At least, I know I hate it. But doesn’t this clash with God’s ultimate goal for us, this desire He has for us to have joy?

Alma 34:34 states, “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men to perform their labors.” The word labor means hard work or great effort. If we are going to labor for something, we are going to have to focus and toil as we move toward a goal. And sometimes that’s hard, both physically and emotionally. We cannot expect God to exalt us if we haven’t proven worthy for that exaltation, and that means that we are going to have to show Him that given the choice between His way or the world’s way, we’re going to choose His way. The second verse of this hymn reads: “The grief that comes we’ll learn to bear/ Until again the sun doth shine.”

 Adam fell. We know this. And when he fell, he was told, “Because thou hast… eaten of the fruit of the tree of which I commanded thee, saying—Thou shalt not eat of it, cursed shall be the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also, and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, until thou shalt return unto the ground—for thou shalt surely die—for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou wast, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Moses 4:23-25).

 But God is not a terrible God. He is just. And he provided a Savior for Adam and his posterity. “As thou hast fallen thou mayest be redeemed, and all mankind, even as many as will” (Moses 5:9). And Adam understood this: “Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God” (Moses 5:10). God wasn’t just going to hand over joy to Adam. Adam had to work for it. But it was a very real and tangible possibility. Even though Adam had the daunting task of, with his wife, populating a new world, and even though his children didn’t always follow the things he tried to teach them (I’m looking at you, Cain), there was joy in knowing they could return to their Father’s presence and be not only with Him but like Him.

As we struggle and toil, and we work and sweat and learn, let us remember why we are doing this. We are learning. God wants us to learn so that we can make an informed decision: follow Him or not. And may we all choose to follow Him and to inherit the joy that awaits us in His arms.

Hymn 254: True to the Faith

When I was younger, I was a socially awkward kid.  Instead of blaming my limited social life on my own interpersonal shortcomings, I mostly decided that I had few friends because I was so holy and the other kids were just intimidated by me. Although I don’t remember the exact thoughts in my head,  there was one day I must have been verbally patting myself on the back about my moral superiority, congratulating myself on resisting the siren calls of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. (To be fair, none of those things were ever offered to me, but again, I told myself it was because the other kids already knew my answer and didn’t want to waste their time.) Anyway, I must have been waxing rhapsodic about my wonderful powers of resistance and holiness, because my dad joined the conversation and stopped me cold.

He said that it WAS good that I was refraining from participating in bad activities, but it wasn’t enough. You don’t get into heaven just by avoiding everything bad, although that’s good too. If you want to really be righteous, my dad told me, you also had to actively do and be good.

His thought took the wind right out of my sails. All that time I’d been feeling like I was doing everything right, but it turned out I’d just been not doing a few things wrong. True godliness requires action. This concept, this focus on doing rather than on avoiding is one of the aspects that draws me to True to the Faith.

We start out with the negatives: Will the church waver in its defense of goodness? Will be we cowards? No! Will we leave the church, even when the going gets tough? No! It’s important stuff, but it’s the baseline.

The real meat comes in the last two verses, when we get to the positives. By this point, we’re not dealing in questions, we’re making flat-out assertions. We’re going to put in the work and be saved. We’re going to stick with the truth. We’re going to watch for and pray to God, we’re going to work, and we’re going to do it enthusiastically. Yes! We’re going to try to be worthy of heaven. We expect to be saved with the faithful of generations past. Yes!

The move from avoiding the negative to achieving the positive is a good choice on many levels. It means I’m not just playing defense, keeping the baddies from scoring a goal in my area. Instead, it’s taking the offense, and helping my team to get ahead. It makes me a contributor instead of someone who’s content to coast and go along for the ride.

It also makes me more compassionate. Now that I’m not looking at others to see how I’m better than they are, I can rejoice in the great things they do and can teach me. I’m happier and nicer to be around, and I get more out of my friendships and acquaintances.  I build others up, and they build me up in return. I don’t think righteousness is a zero-sum game. We can all be winners together. As a bonus, I’m not such a pill anymore, and I might actually get the chance to turn down drugs or inappropriate sex one of these days (I’ve fallen victim to rock and roll, though, and I don’t plan to give it up).

That brings me back to the negatives. Though we must do and achieve good things through the gospel, we can’t give up on those negatives. It is not acceptable to stop defending truth, just because we’re trying to be personally worthy. We shouldn’t leave the church, just because we know we’ll someday be part of a heavenly community of great followers of Christ.

We strive for a balance of action and inaction, achievement and resistance. Though they seem like opposites, in reality, the two sides are interconnected. Taoism might describe this interplay as yin and yang (or rather, yang and yin). Though I doubt True to the Faith will become a popular Taoist hymn, I think it fits. Two forces, one positive, one negative, that both work together seamlessly to meet a greater goal. Whatever you call it, I’m glad my father pointed out my imbalance when I was a child, and I’m glad I’ve also learned not to still value those basic negative virtues, even as I strive for positive accomplishment.

No! Yes!

Hymn #82: For All the Saints

1. For all the Saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
I had never heard this hymn before, but it seems ideal for Conference weekend. The week over, we have a chance to take a break from our usual struggles, and recognize how much we are indebted to Christ.
2. Oh, may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the Saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
As thousands of LDS people converge on the Conference Center in Salt Lake, and many more thousands watch in their homes or local church buildings, I find it easier to think of us as  unified organization. Of course, the battles our army fights are not really against other people: they are more against our own inner demons. But as we win those fights–and I believe that on the whole, we ARE winning–we become better people, more worthy of term like “faithful,” “true,” and “bold.” And while I’m not too anxious to get a gold crown, I would like to be counted with my honorable predecessors.
3. Thou art our rock, our fortress, and our might;
Thou, Lord, our captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, our one true light.
We don’t achieve all that on our own, though, through the strength of our numbers or our own moral superiority. We are a mighty army because we are based on Christ–he is the real power behind any accomplishments we may claim. That mass of humanity doesn’t attend Conference because they’re good people. They go because they base their lives on Christ, and he organizes them into something greater.
4. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Not everyone at Conference is equally motivated or powerful in their life battles. Life is exhausting, and different points of doctrine and policy are confusing, and sometimes it’s hard to want to continue. But the words of God through his prophets are not only (or even mainly) for those who have it all together and never feel tired or doubtful. When the more downtrodden and disheartened members of the church hear Conference, we are strengthened and empowered and ready to start working hard again.
5. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
This friendly, brave, refreshed army of humanity isn’t just destined for the Conference Center twice a year: it has a greater purpose. Ultimately, we hope to find ourselves in heaven. I know that not everyone will have the ability or desire to live in heaven, but the number that will, will be staggering. We will come from all over the globe, speaking different languages, familiar with different cultures, perhaps having practiced different religions in life, but we will be unified in our love for our God and our consistent efforts to do what is right. And as we filter in the gates, it will be like the happy crowds crossing the road to the Conference Center, except on a much grander and more glorious scale.
There’s something about that fellowship, something about a huge group of people who are trying their best and glad to be together. Sometimes I start to feel isolated at church, like my little unorthodoxies or questions or imperfections make me an imposter. But (most of) the talks Conference remind me that I am not an imposter–I am a work in progress, as are all the other people at church. But together, with our good intentions and continued efforts, we are a force to be reckoned with. For all the Saints, this is an important reminder, and a joyous one.

Hymn #223: Have I Done Any Good?

I recently watched a video clip put out by the Church (you can watch it here) about a mom who has a full day planned, but all of her plans get pushed to the side by last minute tasks that others ask her to do. By the end of the day, she is frustrated, tired, and feeling very empty, a sentiment with which I’m sure many of us can relate. Just before she sends her children to bed for the evening, her son offers a family prayer, and in that prayer, he says, “Thank Thee that we could get all the things done that You needed us to do today.” She stops and thinks about everything she did that day, and the video flashes to how those acts of help and service she rendered sincerely impacted the lives of those who received them.

As I watched this video, the words of the second verse of this hymn came to my mind:

There are chances for work all around just now,
Opportunities right in our way.
Do not let them pass by, saying, “Sometime I’ll try,”
But go and do something today.
‘Tis noble of man to work and to give;
Love’s labor has merit alone.
Only he who does something helps others to live.
To God each good work will be known.

Simple acts of kindness, whether it be through a phone call, a small gift, a surprise visit, or some other act of service, shape our lives. As human beings, we have experienced and will experience trials that push us beyond that which we think we are able to bear, and one of the reasons many we are able to hold on and have faith is the goodness of others who act in God’s place to care for us when we need it most.

Each of us also has extensive opportunities to be the person offering those kindnesses and services. Often, we don’t know the impact of our actions. We can’t see the healing we have on others’ hearts. We can’t tell how a casserole, a plate of cookies, babysitting, a phone call, a listening ear soothes the soul of those to whom we offer our efforts. But that’s not why we do those things. We do them because “Love’s labor has merit alone.” We serve because we love God and we strive to do as He asks and love or neighbors. God knows our hearts and He sees our simple acts of kindness for what they really are – an outward manifestation of charity, His pure love for each of us. King Benjamin perhaps says it best in Mosiah 2:17

When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

Fellow beings means more than just those to whom we would naturally be drawn to give our time and . As Jesus illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan, everyone we come in contact with is our neighbor and is deserving of our help. The challenge to be the hands of the Lord is to do good in all the world, to all men, at all times, and in all places. And, like the parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates, this means those that would ordinarily not be prone to return that service were we the ones in need.

So here’s the big question: we all know the hymn, we all know the sentiment, but what are we doing about it? May I suggest following the counsel from the chorus, to wake up, to act, and to find the joy in being a servant of the Lord.

Then wake up and do something more
Than dream of your mansion above.
Doing good is a pleasure, a joy beyond measure,
A blessing of duty and love.

300 – Families Can Be Together Forever

Something I’ve noticed in my association with faithful Christians of other sects is that they have an unofficially dichotomous belief regarding the eternal nature of the family. Many of them profess that, scripturally, the family doesn’t last beyond this life. But they often follow that by saying that in their hearts, they’re sure they will see their loved ones beyond the veil, and that they will dwell together in happiness.

C.S. Lewis, one of the great Christian philosophers of our time, wrote a beautiful and heart-wrenching book entitled A Grief Observed following the death of his beloved wife, whom he refers to as “H.” In this soul-bearing account, he says:

On any view whatever, to say, ‘H. is dead,’ is to say, ‘All that is gone.’ It is a part of the past. And the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and Heaven itself is a state where ‘the former things have passed away.’

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

Unless, of course, you can literally believe all that stuff about family reunions ‘on the further shore,’ pictured in entirely earthly terms. But that is all unscriptural, all out of bad hymns and lithographs. There’s not a word of it in the Bible. And it rings false. We know it couldn’t be like that. Reality never repeats. The exact same thing is never taken away and given back….For that is what we should all like. The happy past restored.

And that, just that, is what I cry out for, with mad, midnight endearments and entreaties spoken into the empty air.

I read this for the first time on my mission, and it broke my heart. I knew that the Church’s teachings on eternal families were unique, but I’m not sure I had recognized until this point just how much comfort and consolation they can offer.

Today’s hymn was written as a song for children, and its simplicity reflects that. But when a child (or anyone, for that matter) sings this song, they are learning and preaching a sacred doctrine unknown to all other sects and churches. Heavenly Father has a plan for us. It is a plan that allows us to be with those we love–those to whom we are born and those to whom we willingly join ourselves–not merely til death do us part, but for the literal expanse of all eternity. The Lord has shown us this path, and it is through His church, His priesthood, His gospel, His temple, and His grace.

If I remain true and faithful to my covenants, I know that everything, eventually, will be okay. My mother and father, my brothers and sisters, my wife and my children–none of them will be lost to me, no matter what cruelties and uncertainties mortal life produces. Of course these blessings are contingent upon faithfulness and obedience; all of God’s blessings are. But if we all do our best, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who is the author and finisher of our faith, Heavenly Father’s plan lets us be forever with our loved ones.

Joseph Smith, writing about baptism for the dead, said that “the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children…[f]or we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect.”

That welding link is the Forever Family. And of this joining of the living and the dead in unbroken connection, he wrote:

Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy.

This simple hymn is that voice of gladness and mercy. Nothing is gone forever, if only we will follow the Plan. And that, just that, is what I cry out in tearful, humble gratitude and prayers of thanks spoken to a listening God.

Hymn #95: Now Thank We All Our God

All of us have some cute or moving story about children’s prayers. Those little events are wonderful and sweet and they often melt my heart. But let’s all be honest, most children are terrible at praying. Either they mumble something unintelligible, say things that have no reasonable place in a decent prayer, or (most commonly) they just robotically regurgitate the same prayer they said yesterday and that they will undoubtedly say tomorrow. Kids are creatures of habit and routine, and if they’ve found a prayer that takes care of their business, they’ll stick to it like glue.

The reason I mention this is that today’s hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God” was actually written by Martin Rinkart as a prayer for his children to offer up. As far as it goes, it is nigh infinitely superior to the “please bless we can be good” that my wife and I conjured up for our children. This short prayer-hymn (Psalm? Let’s call it a psalm.) is chock full of wonderful, essential doctrine and would really help put a kid on the right path. I’m not saying we should necessarily encourage rote praying, but let’s just take a look at this thing. It offers up some great lessons for everyone, not just the little children.

Verse 1:

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom his earth rejoices;
Who, from our mothers’ arms,
Hath blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

There’s a little Primary ditty that teaches kids how to pray: “I begin by saying ‘Dear Heavenly Father,’ I thank him for blessings he sends. Then humbly I ask him for things that I need, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen!” It’s an innocuous little wisp of doctrine, but today’s psalm follows it perfectly. When we pray, the first thing we do is thank our God for all he has done for us.

And how do we do this? Of course we thank him with our voices, and hopefully our hearts are behind those words as well. But what a lesson is to be found in the inclusion of thanking God with our hands! Brother Rinkart, with just that little inclusion, provides his little ones with an incredibly important lesson summed up beautifully by the Nephite king, Benjamin: When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God. Our hands and all the actions they can do–the weary they can lift up, the tears they can wipe away, the burdens they can carry, the blessings they can give–are key in offering our sincere gratitude to God.

Something that my wife and I have really tried hard to drill into our kids’ heads of late is that they have what they have because God gave it to them. It’s a heady lesson, and it’s something I don’t feel I necessarily fully understand (or at least remember) in my everyday life. Here again, teaching the children: We have been blessed from the very beginning, from when we fit in our mothers’ arms, and the quantity of these blessings is completely beyond our ability to tally. That is enough to be sincerely grateful for right there, but then the kicker: He still continues to bless us. Even after everything we have received, our merciful Father is still doling out the blessings and the mercies. The gifts grow ever more countless by the moment.

Verse 2:

Oh, may our bounteous God
Through all our life be near us,
With ever-joyful hearts
And blessed peace to cheer us,
And keep us in his love,
And guide us day and night,
And free us from all ills,
Protect us by his might.

The second verse is similarly beautiful in its language and lessons, but there’s a bit less to dig into there (besides, I feel like I’m already a bit rambly on this one). It’s the request for blessings we need, the other great part of prayer. The thing that sticks out most about this is the prioritization of the requests. When we think of asking God for things, a lot of the time the first one is “Please keep me safe and/or healthy.” We think, “Man, it’s scary out there, and I’m just this fragile chunk of meat. I hope God will take care of me.” It’s not wrong, but it’s not exactly looking too far into our eternal priorities either.

Check out Brother Rinkart and his kids, though. What is the most important thing? Please, Father, be with us. Please help us to be happy and have peace, even though the world is often sad and cruel. Please love us and guide us in the right way. Oh, and if it be thy will, please keep us safe and protected.

Beautiful. What a marvelous perspective. This is where the biographical element becomes interesting. Martin Rinkart wasn’t just some guy writing pretty poems. He was one of four ministers in the German town of Eilenburg when the Thirty Years War happened. Eilenburg, for whatever reason, became a safe haven for refugees from the war. As more and more people crowded into the town, it became a veritable petri dish of disease and pestilence. One of those four ministers decides that God obviously doesn’t want him hanging around with sick people and skips off to a healthier place. The other two ministers, faithfully served until they fell victim themselves.

This leaves Martin Rinkart as the sole spiritual leader of a group of people who have been displaced from their homes, whose families were killed in battle, whose children are dying of plague. He has to help and guide and bless and lift up some of the most downtrodden of all people. He is performing an estimated 50 funeral services daily. One of those services was for his own wife, leaving him alone to care not only for his beleaguered flock, but for his young family all by himself.

This man gave more than 4,000 funerals in a single year, including his own wife. And in the midst of that, when all hope should dry up and all faith should retreat and when God is nowhere to be found… he comes up with “Now Thank We All Our God.”

This humbles me to the dust.

This is a simple little song, my friends. It’s only two verses (there’s a third not included in the LDS hymnal, probably because it gets a little Trinitarian) that aren’t really that complicated or fancy. But there is so much to learn here. So many lessons to take away. May we all learn to pray like Brother Rinkart prayed and to believe like he believed. May we all serve and thank God with hearts, hands, and voices.

Hymn #172: In Humility, Our Savior

As Christians, the most pivotal piece of doctrine we cling to is this: we have a Savior who died for us so that we can repent of our sins. Each of us needs that forgiving power, but how often do we really think about what that means? How often do we take the time to recognize what we have been given and what opportunities are afforded us because of the Savior’s sacrifice?

The Atonement needed to be meted out to us because there is no other way for us to become clean and to therefore be prepared to enter fully into the Lord’s presence. As Lehi teaches his son, Jacob, in 2 Nephi 2:7,

“Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.”

How great a love must the Savior have for us if He was willing to suffer,

“Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—(D&C 19:18).”

This hymn is a powerful plea to our Savior regarding this sacrifice. It is, as it states, a humble prayer, that we remember Him, that we have help to become like Him, and that, through the power of the sacrament, we take full advantage of the healing power of the Atonement, both for forgiveness from our sins and for the power to forgive others their sins.

There are two lines of text that stand out to me in that they indicate direct and specific prayers to the Lord. In the first verse, the text states: “Let me not forget, O Savior, Thou didst bleed and die for me …” and in the second, “Then, when we have proven worthy of thy sacrifice divine, Lord, let us regain thy presence.”

We are, essentially, asking that the Savior helps us to remember His sacrifice and to then do something about it by living up to that knowledge. After all, the ultimate goal is to regain His presence, or to “Let [His] glory round us shine.” And isn’t that the Savior’s ultimate goal as well, to have us in His presence, to have us return to our Father, and to receive all He would give us, if we have proven worthy?

“For those that live shall inherit the earth, and those that die shall rest from all their labors, and their works shall follow them; and they shall receive a crown in the mansions of my Father, which I have prepared for them (D&C 59:2).”

Hymn #111: Rock of Ages

My great-grandmother passed away when I was nine. Hers was the first funeral I remember attending. Any sadness I felt was mostly borrowed; I was too young to really grasp the situation, and she had been old and sick as long as I could remember. My memories of that day are few: my mother comforting her mother, my dad’s hand sitting heavy on the nape of my neck, and everyone singing the unfamiliar hymn “Rock of Ages”.

It’s an appropriate piece for a funeral. In the final verse we contemplate our mortality, our “fleeting breath” and the inevitable closing of our eyes in death. Indeed, when we at last rise to worlds unknown and behold our Lord and Savior on His throne, our dearest hope is that He will not turn us away. It’s a song about human inadequacy and the hope that we’ll be saved in spite of it.

When my brother turned eight and chose to be baptized a year or so later, he asked that “Rock of Ages” be one of the songs on the program. We thought it was a bizarre request—why wouldn’t he want a Primary song instead?–but my parents didn’t argue. And so it came to pass that we sang what to my young mind was a funeral dirge at my brother’s baptism.

Looking at the lyrics now, I feel bad for ever having questioned his choice. Here is the first verse:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Is this not a song about baptism and repentance? Of seeking the cleansing power of the atonement and having faith that it will make us whole?

The footnotes for this hymn reference the book of Moses, where God Himself explains better than I ever could what is meant by a “double cure”:

…Ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye may be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by water ye keep the commandment; by Spirit ye are justified, and by blood ye are sanctified. (Moses 6: 59-60, emphasis added)

Baptism by immersion is necessary, and along with it, the Gift of the Holy Ghost. But it is the atoning blood of Jesus Christ is what sanctifies us and makes us worthy of eternal life and immortal glory.

The second verse is a simple sermon on this doctrine. We cannot be righteous enough; all are sinners no matter how hard we try. We cannot feel enough remorse for our sin; sorrow does not satisfy the demands of justice. Even participating in saving ordinances such as baptism is not enough to earn us exaltation. We freely acknowledge our deficiency and dependency on the Savior. We plead with Him to have mercy on us.

Thou, O Lord, art the rock upon which we try to build our lives, the rock cleft for us in Gethsemane and on the cross. Whether we are children just trying to do what is right, nearing the end of a long and full life, or muddling along somewhere in the middle, “thou must save, and thou alone.”

Hymn #192: He Died! The Great Redeemer Died

Jesus Appears to Mary

Nearly two-thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth suffered at Gethsemane, died on the cross, and was resurrected in glory. It’s easy to approach an event that happened so long ago with a sort of academic sterility; in Church we often discuss how we benefit from the Atonement, who it applies to, the effects of the Atonement, the prophecies that foretold it, etc. These are all important and valuable things to understand, and I’m glad that we learn them.

But the Atonement was a very different affair for those who knew Jesus personally. It was not simply a process of infinite Messianic suffering in, infinite spiritual blessings out. This was the cruel, agonizing death of someone they loved, someone who had worked miracles, who had opened their eyes to God. He had taught them, questioned them, guided them, and blessed them. Jesus Christ’s followers must have seen in him something wondrous. So when Christ died, the hopes of many (who did not yet understand) died with him.

This is the topic of today’s hymn, He Died! The Great Redeemer Died.

Come, Saints, and drop a tear or two
For him who groaned beneath your load;
He shed a thousand drops for you,
A thousand drops of precious blood.

Christ’s death was not simply an academic affair. It was a pinnacle of emotion, a profound chasm of despair. The earth itself groaned at his death, and in some regions, darkness covered the earth for three days.

Can you imagine how the followers of Christ must have felt at his death? The loss, hurt, the lack of direction? Surely Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, could not be killed by mere men. This could not be! Did some question their faith, wondering whether this could really be the promised Messiah after all? He had said he would die for men, but surely it wasn’t supposed to happen so soon?

And yet, Christ was dead. Crucified between thieves, rejected by both the Jews and the Romans.

Here’s love and grief beyond degree;
The Lord of glory died for men.
But lo! what sudden joys were heard!
The Lord, though dead, revived again.

In the face of all this despair, consider  what the joyous news of Christ’s Resurrection must have meant. I often hear people express gratitude for the resurrection because it heralded Christ’s victory over death, extending resurrection to all of us. Certainly, we should be grateful for that. But when Mary Magdalene, Peter, or Thomas saw Christ resurrected, I don’t think their first thought was appreciation for their own freedom from death. Rather, they felt tremendous joy at this evidence of Christ’s divinity. They had not believed in vain. They had not lost their friend and leader. The work was not cut short. Jesus of Nazareth, the Great Redeemer, had taken up his life again!

It’s hard to adequately appreciate the magnitude of this event. Recall, perhaps, a funeral you have attended. Imagine the wonder you would feel upon seeing the deceased only a few days later, eating fish and honeycomb, literally more alive than ever before. What emotions might they have felt?

The rising Lord forsook the tomb.
In vain the tomb forbade him rise.
Cherubic legions guard him home
And shout him welcome to the skies.

The rejoicing at Christ’s resurrection was not limited to his earthly followers—all of heaven rejoiced at this great victory. If there were angels singing at his birth, surely they were also present at this culmination of Christ’s mission, the central point in the Father’s eternal plan for his children. This was a glorious, tremendous event!

So the next time you have occasion to consider Christ’s Atonement and Resurrection, remember to feel it. It’s an occasion not just for contemplation, but also rejoicing!

Hymn #15: I Saw a Mighty Angel Fly

The thing I like best about this hymn is the joy it gives to this part of John’s Grand Revelation. As I’ve written before, there are parts of the book of Revelation that I find much less than comforting. But here, this angel is loudly proclaiming the Good Word of God, “to calm our doubts, to chase our fears/And make our joys abound.”

While I understand the overall message of this hymn is about the gospel being “preached unto every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (D&C 133:37), this line in the second verse that caught my eye: “Fear God, and make the Lord your friend.”

There’s a line in my very favorite book, an autobiography called “A Girl Named Zippy” by Haven Kimmel, that pretty well sums up this up for me: “It appeared that everyone around me was flat-out in love with [Jesus], and who wouldn’t be? He was good with animals, he loved his mother, and he wasn’t afraid of blind people.”

While this line always makes me laugh, it also makes me think. Isn’t it mutually exclusive to fear the Lord and yet make Him my friend? I don’t think so, actually. In this context I think the word “fear” is not about cowering before an irate Old Testament Jehovah; it’s about not wanting to disappoint Him.

In Alma chapter 7 he writes of Christ taking on people’s infirmities “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people” (Alma 7:12). In opening our hearts to Him we make the Lord our friend. He becomes the One we tell our secrets to, the One we share our triumphs with, the One we entrust with our heartache.

How do you go about making the Lord your friend?

 

Hymn #298: Home Can Be a Heaven on Earth

“The family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.” (from The Family: A Proclamation to the World, 1st paragraph)

We often talk about the importance of families in our religion. Nearly everything we do is, in one way or another, directed toward stabilizing and strengthening families. The crowning temple ordinance is the one that seals families together for eternity. We do family history work. We preach marital fidelity and extramarital abstinence. We encourage Family Home Evenings, canceling all church activities on Monday nights to avoid separating families. We quite literally believe that the highest blessings God can give are available only to families, not to single individuals.

Families are central to this faith.

It’s no surprise, then, that we have a hymn about making our home a sacred place. While we can teach the importance of family in our church meetings, the truth is that those meetings cannot strengthen our families on their own. Building a strong and happy family is a day-to-day task, one that cannot be accomplished if we only think about it for a brief three-hour period each week. These bonds are only built under constant effort.

The first verse calls out the many attributes we hope to see in an ideal home. We sing about “happiness and joy, rich blessings from above—warmth and kindness, charity, safety and security.” Who wouldn’t want a home like that? And yet, it’s the unfortunate truth that there are some people who have never known home to be a happy, welcoming place. There are those who think of home not with fondness but with fear. There are many who may look at this list and only realize how much more work there is to do. It’s important to remind ourselves what a good home can be like, or what it should be like. Like a guiding star or a lighthouse beacon, these reminders can help us see how to act, no matter how far away from the ideal we may be.

The second verse gives some specific counsel on how to attain this happy home. Drawing family near each week. Serving Him with cheerful hearts. Parents teach and lead the way, Children honor and obey. Each of these phrases references a specific principle. Family Home Evening. Service. Guidance. Respect. These are all important principles in building a happy family. Further, they’re all things we need to actively instill. We can’t just sit around hoping that our children will learn to give service; we need to teach and set the example.

The third verse continues the theme of the second verse, giving specific points of counsel. This verse, however, focuses more on learning the doctrine of the Christ. Praying daily in our home. Searching scriptures faithfully. Singing hymns of thanks. Each of these phrases encourages us to each strengthen our personal relationship with Christ. The gospel gives a unifying purpose and direction to a family, and it helps each member realize the importance of the family relationships they hold. Another passage from The Family: A Proclamation reads “Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I believe this to be true.

As I examine the hymn as a whole, I was drawn to the last line in each verse:

Making home a part of heaven,
Where we want to be.

Reaching for our home in heaven,
Where we want to stay.

Leading to our home in heaven,
Where we long to stay.

This hymn reminds us that our home is not merely a place to build family ties. In its holiest form, home can be a reflection of heaven, a mirror of that sacred place where we once lived with our Father, and where we hope to live again with our own families. With each verse, we intensify the expression of our desire for that holy place.

Heaven is not just a wonderful place, filled with angelic choirs and pristine clouds. Heaven is our eternal home. To the extent that we make our earthly homes a reflection of our true home, we will find them more welcoming, more peaceful, and more fulfilling. Truly, only the Temple of God can compare with the home in sacredness, if we make of our home what God desires.