Tag Archives: Love

Hymn #310: A Key Was Turned in Latter Days

In the spring of 1842, some women in Nauvoo had gathered to organize a sewing society intended to help with the construction of the Nauvoo Temple. Though Joseph Smith spoke highly of their proposed charter, he had told them that God had something greater in store for them. He invited them to meet with him again a few days later, and on March 17, the Relief Society was formed.

At that first meeting of the Relief Society, Joseph told the sisters that their society lead to better days for the poor and needy:

I now turn the key in your behalf in the name of the Lord, and this Society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time henceforth; this is the beginning of better days to the poor and needy, who shall be made to rejoice and pour forth blessings on your heads. (History of the Church vol. 4 pg. 607)

Eliza R. Snow, second president of the Relief Society, later said “Although the name may be of modern date, the institution is of ancient origin. We were told by our martyred prophet that the same organization existed in the church anciently.”

Today’s hymn is A Key Was Turned in Latter Days, and it references this founding of the Relief Society. From the very beginning, it has been a charitable organization, seeking to relieve the suffering of those in need. Though the motto wasn’t officially chosen until 1913, the phrase “Charity Never Faileth” seems to describe the society well from its very beginning.

Though it may sometimes seem that Relief Society is simply another class in church with some visiting teaching mixed in, it seems that the Lord’s vision for it is much greater. The Relief Society cares for those in need, both locally and throughout the world. Their mission is Christ-like compassion and service. Sometimes that simply involves taking care of someone who just moved into the ward, or someone who just had a baby. Other times, it means organizing blood drives or collecting supplies for survival kits. In some areas, the Relief Society has a literacy program to help adults learn to read.

A key was turned in latter days,
A blessing to restore—
A gift of charity and peace—
To earth forevermore.
Our Father, we would turn our hearts
To those who seek thy face,
Give hope and comfort to the poor
In mem’ry of thy grace.

In their Christ-like service, members of the Relief Society set an example for all of God’s children. Sons and daughters see the example of a mother’s compassionate service and faithful visiting. Men and women alike are reminded of the importance of charity in our discipleship. As sisters reach out and serve in the name of Christ, the effects of Christ’s love are scattered throughout the world, lifting everyone a little bit closer to Him. The Relief Society indeed does many small and simple things, but by small and simple things great things are brought to pass.

Hymn #230: Scatter Sunshine

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

(Matthew 25:37-40)

This passage from the New Testament is oft-quoted, but also oft-ignored. As disciples of Christ, we have the opportunity to emulate him, to do as he would do. It’s fairly easy for us to take care of those immediately around us—members of our own family, for example—the truth is that we are surrounded by so many more people.

When Christ encouraged us to serve “the least of these my brethren,” he did not mean simply “the least of these who you see every day.” In a simple trip to the grocery store, a ride on the bus, or a walk in the park, we interact with dozens of God’s children. Surely among them is someone in need.

Of course, we cannot know the needs of every person around us. The Spirit may occasionally prompt us to reach out to a stranger in a specific way, but often we have no particular guidance. How can we lift the burdens of those around us when we know nothing about them?

This question, I would suggest, is at the heart of today’s hymn.

In a world where sorrow
Ever will be known,
Where are found the needy
And the sad and lone,
How much joy and comfort
You can all bestow,
If you scatter sunshine
Ev’rywhere you go.

Needy, sad, and lonely people are all around us, as are the disappointed, discouraged, and frustrated. Some people only have a hard day once in a while, while others seem to be constantly beset. We cannot solve all of their problems, but we can work to lighten the load.

Scatter Sunshine,” this hymn encourages. Scatter sunshine everywhere you go. Sunshine is not heavy. It is not complex. It is simply a ray of light from afar. We do not need to carry the entire burden of every person we see; that is the realm of Christ alone. But through simple actions, we can make someone’s life a little easier, make their world a happier place.

Slightest actions often
Meet the sorest needs,
For the world wants daily
Little kindly deeds.
Oh, what care and sorrow
You may help remove,
With your songs and courage,
Sympathy and love.

“Little kindly deeds,” we sing. A smile as you pass in the library, or patience as you wait in the grocery store. Picking up someone else’s litter. A friendly wave to a neighbor. An encouraging remark to someone learning a new skill. Our days are full of opportunities for service that take only seconds, if we can only seek them out.

There are, of course, big things we can do to help others. There are many in dire need, the type of need that a simple smile will not solve. We have many opportunities for large acts of service—we certainly should not ignore those. But as we follow Christ in the large things, let’s not forget to follow him in the small things too, for in lifting others, you may just find that some of that sunshine scatters right back into your own life.

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 #187: God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son

Jesus Christ teaching

Today’s hymn, “God Loved Us, So He Sent His Son” is a commemoration of the great Atonement, when Jesus Christ offered his life as a sacrifice for sin. For all sin. It emphasizes the perfection of Christ, his role as our Savior and exemplar, and the covenant we make in partaking of the bread and water that we will always remember him.

This Atonement is the key part of God’s plan to save and exalt us, his children. It provides a way for us to learn from our mistakes instead of being condemned by them. It makes divine forgiveness possible. To the believing soul, it is easily identified as the most important event in the history of the world.

It’s critical, though, that while the Atonement itself is given to us freely, the greatest blessings it makes available to us are only available if we take action ourselves. Each of the following phrases reminds us of our own role in receiving this divine gift:

To show us by the path he trod
The one and only way to God. (verse 1)

That in his off’ring I have part (verse 3)

In word and deed he doth require
My will to his, like son to sire, (verse 4)

Learn conduct from the Holy One. (verse 4)

Partaking now is deed for word
That I remember him, my Lord. (verse 5)

To receive true forgiveness, we must enter into an agreement with Christ: He shows us the way and we follow him. We are trained by Christ—we enter into a sort of apprenticeship with him. Though we may be weak and imperfect, as we “learn conduct from the Holy One” we will find the “one and only way to God.”

This is a beautiful, contemplative hymn. If we ponder the lyrics as we sing, it will guide us toward a more sacred experience as we partake of the sacrament.

And yet, despite all this, the line that stands out to me the most is the very first one: “God loved us, so he sent his Son.” In October 2003, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland gave a conference talk that I’ve never forgotten titled “The Grandeur of God.” He suggested that everything Christ did, up to and especially including the Atonement, was intended to demonstrate to us not just his own love, but the love of our Heavenly Father. Take a moment to read (slowly, please!) what Elder Holland said:

Jesus did not come to improve God’s view of man nearly so much as He came to improve man’s view of God and to plead with them to love their Heavenly Father as He has always and will always love them. The plan of God, the power of God, the holiness of God, yes, even the anger and the judgment of God they had occasion to understand. But the love of God, the profound depth of His devotion to His children, they still did not fully know—until Christ came.

So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness.” In His life and especially in His death, Christ was declaring, “This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.” In the perfect Son’s manifestation of the perfect Father’s care, in Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “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. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

Indeed, God loved us, so he sent his Son. I hope we’ll follow him.

Hymn #293: Each Life That Touches Ours for Good

“The Lord answers our prayers,” said Spencer W. Kimball, “but it is usually through another person that he meets our needs.” It’s rare that He Himself will descend to do the things we ask of Him. Instead, He sends a kind family member, a trusted co-worker, or even a gentle stranger to help us along our way. Possibly most often is the case when he places a loving friend in our path when we need bearing up.

“Each life that touches ours for good,” we sing at the beginning of this hymn, “reflects thine own great mercy, Lord.” Friends, family, and others offer kindness and support to us, and who else could they possibly be reminding us of? The Lord is the great example to all of us, and when we do any good thing, anything kind, loving, generous, or virtuous, it’s because we learned it first from Him. The Apostle John said of the Savior, “We love him, because he first loved us,” though he could just as easily have said, “We love family, friends, and everyone else he places in our path, because he first loved us.”

What greater gift does thou bestow,
What greater goodness can we know
Than Christlike friends, whose gentle ways
Strengthen our faith, enrich our days.

This second verse speaks for itself, but I’ll do my best to add what little I have. Good friends, kind family, and every other loving person placed in our path are a supreme blessing. They bear us up, stand with us when we need comfort, weep with us when we weep, and rejoice with us when we have joy. A Christlike friend can strengthen our faith, as we sing. We learn how to love and how to trust in our Lord through a trusted friend who demonstrates those attributes in his or her own life.

It’s difficult for me to find anything to add to this verse simply because it feels so simple and obvious to me, and that’s because it’s something I feel so keenly in my own life. I’ve been richly, richly blessed with good people in my life. I have a loving family, and I have dear, good friends. I find myself thanking the Lord for each of these people often, and I have ample reason to thank Him for each one of them. There were kind people placed in my life during lonely times as a teenager that I still cherish relationships with today. The same goes for my college years, and it continues today. The Lord places good people in our path to help us along, and it is in their faces and kind deeds that we can see His face and His deeds.

If you’re reading this, and you and I are acquainted to nearly any degree, then please know that you are one of these dear friends that I’m speaking about. We may have met as young people in middle or high school. You might be one of those friends I met in college and shared movie nights and late night conversations with. You might be a fellow writer for the Beesley Project, with whom I get to share my feelings, appreciation, and love for the hymns, and all of whom (except Kim, but that’s only because we hadn’t met yet) I thought of by name when considering a project like this.

And maybe you’re someone I’ve only met or spoken with once, as we crossed paths in the street or shared a short conversation while waiting in line. Relationships don’t have to be deep to be meaningful. Even small kindnesses can remind us of the love the Savior has for each of us. And it’s worth remembering that not only do we have good and kind people placed in our paths, but that we also have the chance to be a good and kind person placed in someone else’s path. We don’t know when we’re the one the Lord is counting on to support someone else, whether it’s through lending a helping hand, a kind deed, or even just a smile.

So no matter who you are, I want you to know that when I sing the fourth and final verse of this hymn, I sing about you:

For worthy friends whose lives proclaim
Devotion to the Savior’s name,
Who bless our days with peace and love,
We praise thy goodness, Lord, above.

Hymn #221: Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd

My flock was scattered upon all the face of the earthIn this hymn version of the parable of the lost sheep (see Luke 15) we seem to have a few different types of “sheep”. The most frequently mentioned group is “the sheep that have wandered.”

They are also called “lambs that are lost” or “straying”, and I think we can assume that at one point these sheep were with the rest of the flock. They knew their shepherd and followed him…until they didn’t. Something distracted them, or delayed them, or they got bored and wandered off to find some new adventure. It’s a clear metaphor for anyone who was a member of the church but has since left, although it could represent anyone who has broken a commandment and strayed from the path even just a little.

(That’s all of us, in case you had forgotten.)

As verse two says, these sheep were “saved at such infinite cost.” The Atonement and repentance is what enables these lost sheep to return to the Good Shepherd’s presence, and He rejoices when they do so.

The second group is the “‘other’ lost sheep” mentioned in the first verse. Being “other”, they have never been and are not yet part of the fold. But they will be. Rather, they can be if found and “rescued.” These are the people who don’t yet know Jesus Christ or his restored gospel. Once taught and baptized, they are part of the fold, and like their fellow Saints, they follow where their Shepherd leads.

Which leaves us with the third group: the “ninety and nine.” Verse three reminds us that these sheep are also dear to the shepherd. He doesn’t leave his flock to rescue a lost sheep because he doesn’t care about them as much as the one; rather he hastens to rescue it because he knows the remaining flock is going to be okay.

But just because they are safe and happy in their little enclosure doesn’t mean they should stay there and shut everyone else out. If we know the shepherd, we have a responsibility to help him out:

Hark! he is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today:
“Will you not seek for my lost ones,
Off from my shelter astray?”

 

There are so many lost sheep. Those who have strayed need to know they have a place in the fold, no matter where they have been or what they have done. Those who have never seen the green pastures need to be led there, “not,” as Peter teaches us, “by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).

I wrote this a few years ago; it’s definitely relevant here. This is what it doesn’t say in Luke 15:

4) What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not grudgingly leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

5) And when he hath found it, he chastiseth it for having gotten itself lost, then layeth it on his shoulders and bring it back to the fold, where the other sheep turn away from it and judge it as a lesser sheep than they which remained with the shepherd all along.

6) And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice because of what I have done; for I have found my foolish sheep which was lost. Am I not clever and righteous?

Because if that’s what it said in Luke 15, and I happened to be that proverbial sheep, I’d up and get myself lost again. Who wants to hang with a holier-than-thou shepherd and his judgmental herd?

Jesus loves us. All of us. Those of us in the church, those who have left it or struggle to feel they belong there, and those who have never even heard of it. We all belong to him. And so when he calls us, we should answer him gladly: “Yes, blessed Master, we will!”

Hymn #87: God Is Love

bloom 3

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

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

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

The saguaro are blooming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn #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 #194: There Is a Green Hill Far Away

It’s a short hymn with only eight lines, but despite its brevity and simplicity, it packs a punch. The lyrics “we may not know, we cannot tell what pains he had to bear” speak volumes, as do the lyrics that complete that thought: But we believe it was for us He hung and suffered there.

The Atonement is unfathomably deep and impossibly broad, and we can’t hope to understand it in its fullness. And that’s alright, because we aren’t asked to. We can understand how it applies to us personally. We can make use of it in our own lives, striving to repent and exercise faith in the One who has made it possible to become clean again. For me, it’s overwhelming to think of the staggering magnitude of the Atonement and the suffering the Savior endured on the cross and in the garden of Gethsemane. I feel so inadequate when I try to think of that. So I don’t think of that. Instead, I can think about how He suffered for me, and while that’s still an overwhelming thought, it’s more personal, and somehow more manageable for me.

There’s a lovely bit of wordplay in the third verse that I’ve noticed every time I’ve sung this hymn for the last ten or fifteen years. I don’t know that it appears in other languages (wordplay is notoriously difficult to translate), or even that it’s intentional, but I’ve always liked the double meaning that can come from these words:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n and let us in.

The lyrics ostensibly refer to the fact that there was only One who was able to suffer the consequences of sin for everyone, thus allowing us to return to the presence of the Father. And yet you can just as easily read a different meaning into that word “only.” While it’s true that He only could unlock the gate, it’s also true that He only could unlock the gate. He cannot force us through, nor will He. He paid the terrible price to open the door for us, but it’s up to us to make that first step. Both readings impress themselves on my mind when I sing this hymn.

The lyrics of the fourth verse seem to drive home that same idea. Listen:

Oh, dearly, dearly has he loved!
And we must love him too,
And trust in his redeeming blood,
And try his works to do.

We place our trust in Him. We cannot know that our sins will be forgiven simply by hearing those words. We receive that confirmation as we act on those words, and as we do so, we feel the purifying influence of the Spirit washing us clean. The Spirit brings our knowledge of the power of the Atonement back to our remembrance, helping us to strengthen our faith and trust in the Savior. Our love for Him is strengthened, too.

There’s a double meaning in this verse, too, convincing me further that I’m not simply seeing something that isn’t there in the third verse. We are told that the Savior has loved us “dearly,” and both meanings hold true. “Dear” can refer to deep affection or regard, and that’s certainly true of the love our Savior holds for each of us on a personal level. During those moments of insight when I can feel His love without reservation, I can feel how much He cares about me in particular. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a better description of that love than “dear.” But it can also mean “at a high cost,” and that’s a meaning that brings a gasp to my throat when it comes to mind as I sing. Surely no one paid a higher price for love than our Savior did in the garden of Gethsemane. When he begged the Father to “remove this cup,” we are given the slightest glimpse into the terrible agony He felt. And when we read further the phrase, “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” we feel the love He had not only for His Father, but for each of us for whom He suffered.

He has loved dearly, no matter how you choose to define it, and we must love Him, too. And we do, as we place our trust in Him and do the things He has asked. We remember the suffering He felt on that green hill far away, but we also remember the depth of the love that led Him to that hill. And we trust in His redeeming love, and try His works to do.

Hymn #219: Because I Have Been Given Much

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

This is a beloved hymn in the LDS Church. If you’ve spent much time with us at all, chances are excellent you’ve heard it at least once, and if you’ve been a member for most of your life, chances are excellent you’ve sung it a couple hundred times. It’s the song about gratitude. I’m not going to try to be tricky here and argue that it’s secretly about something else (although take a look at those topics at the bottom; missionary work? reactivation? fasting? there’s more than meets the eye here), although I do want to explore the depth of the gratitude we express in this hymn. Let’s consider a few words from that first verse.

1. How much is “much?”

We sing that we have been given “much” from the Lord, but how much are we talking about? I think we all understand that He created the heavens and earth, as well as the animal and plant life thereon. Certainly we should be thankful for those gifts. But surely this doesn’t include things that man has created, right? We should be thankful for our lives, of course, but should we give thanks to the Lord for, say, television, or smartphones? Do I need to be grateful for the database that I built at work?

We have been given much, but a more accurate word might be “all.” The Lord has given us everything, from the earth we stand on and the air we breathe to our wit, intelligence, and creativity. If we build anything, it’s only because He gave us the ability to do so in the first place. King Benjamin, in his wonderful valedictory address to his people in the Book of Mormon, taught that even if we were to “render all the thanks and praise which [our] whole soul has power to possess,” we would yet be unprofitable servants. He has given us so much that we can never come out ahead, particularly since as we extend our gratitude to Him through our obedience, He gives us further blessings. There’s no way for us to catch up.

Fortunately, He doesn’t ask us to catch up. All He asks is that we keep His commandments, and one of those is to be grateful. So we offer our gratitude to Him for all that we have, and we certainly have much.

2. How many days is “each?”

We pledge in this hymn to express gratitude and share our gifts with others each day we live. That doesn’t mean that we do those things only on Sundays, or only when it’s convenient for us. It’s easy to be grateful and share at those times. We’re good at offering gratitude when we’re recognized for it, or when everyone else is also doing so. It’s a breeze to offer what we have to others when we’re confident they will be too polite to accept. But it’s something else when we see someone in need and we know it would cost us more than a trifle to stop and help. We may be driving somewhere and see someone stopped on the side of the road. We may justify not stopping because we’re in a rush, and think to ourselves, “Someone else will probably stop,” or, “I’m sure they’ll take care of it.” We may hear that an acquaintance needs help fixing their house, and think “I don’t know them that well,” or, “I just got home from work, and I’m too tired to go out.”

We’re good at finding ways to justify inaction and ingratitude, but the hymn makes it clear that we are to be grateful and giving each day we live. We don’t get days off. There aren’t times when it’s optional to give thanks or aid. We are to be grateful always, even (and perhaps especially) when it’s difficult. And in those times that it’s difficult to be grateful, we can take comfort in the fact that others have made the same pledge, and they will be there for us when we need help.

3. How many people is “every?”

We declare that we will share our blessings with “every” brother (or sister, of course) that we see. As we mentioned before, it’s very easy to share our blessings with friends and family. These are people that we know and love, and of course we would share with them. They would share with us. It’s less easy to offer our blessings to those we don’t know as well, or who don’t seem to be able (or willing) to repay us.

The commandment is simple: We are to share our bounty with everyone. We don’t distinguish based on intent, or appearance, or belief, or anything else. We have been blessed without reservation, and we spread those blessings similarly without reservation. The apostle John wrote that “we love [the Lord], because he first loved us.” We could just as well say that we love others because He first loved us, and we bless others’ lives because He first blessed ours.

I think we readily understand the message that we are to be grateful because we have been so richly blessed, but we might be slower to understand the breadth of that gratitude.  Our gratitude isn’t expressed in passing. There’s nothing shallow about it. It should be all-encompassing, and we’re probably slow to admit that because we know how difficult a task it is.

Fortunately, He doesn’t ask us to do it all at once, or even to be able to do it all at once. He asks for our best effort, and as we give that, He blesses us more and more.

Hymn #294: Love at Home

This, along with “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” might be the most-played hymn in the entire book. We often hear beginning piano students plunking out the familiar “bum ba bum ba bum bum bum, bum ba bum bum bum.” The melody and chords are simple, and it’s fitting, because the message is just as simple. The word “love” appears nineteen times in the hymn (an even twenty if you count the title), just in case the theme eludes you, but there’s a very specific sort of love we’re talking about. Listen:

There is beauty all around
When there’s love at home;
There is joy in ev’ry sound
When there’s love at home.

We’re talking about creating loving, strong families. We’re talking about creating refuges from the forces of anger and hate. We’re talking about a place that we can feel safe, whether that’s four walls protecting us from a howling wind or an embrace protecting us from hurtful words. We are taught to make our homes holy places where the Spirit can dwell, and when we do so, we can certainly expect beauty and joy to abound in our homes.

But take another look at those words. Which places do you suppose the author referred to when he wrote that there was beauty “all around?” Which sounds fall under the category of “ev’ry?” Certainly we can expect there to be joy in our homes when there is love there, but I don’t think we’re to take such a narrow definition of “all” and “ev’ry.” I think we’re meant to understand that when we create loving homes, we can expect everywhere to abound with love. We can expect kindness and joy anywhere we go.

That’s not to say that everyone in the world has to first secure love at home for us to see this sort of effect. I think it means that we have to make sure that we teach love, and nothing but love. Showing your family that you love them isn’t too tricky, I think. We all have struggles with our families from time to time (some of us more than others), but the bonds of family are tight. For many of us, loving family isn’t difficult. The trick is teaching our families love for everyone else, too. It sends a mixed message when we tell a child with one breath how much we love them and with the next how we can’t believe the coach of the football team we’re watching would be so moronic as to call a draw play on 3rd and 17. We internalize these messages, and we learn, unfortunately, that we should love some people, but it’s okay not to love others. We end up teaching the message that there is joy in many sounds, but not all. Hate and envy occasionally annoy, and life becomes a bliss too incomplete.

The Lord counseled us to first cleanse the inner vessel in order to cleanse the outside. That can refer to purifying our hearts, certainly, but I think it can just as easily refer to purifying our families as well. When we take care to speak with love and gentleness in the home, we can’t help but do the same out of the home. We won’t be so quick to take offense from others (even when it’s intended!), but rather, we’ll be inclined to let it pass. We can see our fellow men not as adversaries, or even as strangers, but as friends, just as our Savior sees them.

That’s not to say that we won’t encounter frustrations, or that if we simply try to love our families a little more that we’ll somehow be able to go through life without any problems. We’re human, and we’re weak. We all have moments where we struggle, and we have them often. The Lord knows this, and He views those moments with mercy. As we make sincere efforts to treat others with love, and especially as we build homes of love to create strong families, He helps us to come to view the world as we sing in the final verse:

Kindly heaven smiles above
When there’s love at home;
All the world is filled with love
When there’s love at home.
Sweeter sings the brooklet by;
Brighter beams the azure sky.
Oh, there’s One who smiles on high
When there’s love at home.

Hymn #309: As Sisters In Zion

As Sisters In Zion is written specifically for the women of the church, and it includes language to that effect. Nevertheless, the message found here is applicable to all of us. If you’ve never had opportunity to sing this hymn, I encourage you to read the lyrics before we start.

The text of this hymn praises qualities and actives often associated with the women of the church: gentleness, comforting the weary, strengthening the weak, cheering the downtrodden. These are, of course, not exclusively feminine traits; they could also be used to appropriately describe the great exemplar, Jesus Christ himself. They can apply to us all.

As I’ve studied these lyrics, the collaboration between the sisters in Zion and divine helpers, guiding their work, really stands out to me. It’s right there in the first verse:

As sisters in Zion, we’ll all work together;
The blessings of God on our labors we’ll seek.

The work of building God’s kingdom is not one we undertake alone. God has not requested this effort of us as some sort of “price of admission,” before we can receive his blessings. Rather, it is something he takes active interest in. God wants us to build Zion, and he seeks to help us.

The first couplet in the second verse also strikes me:

The errand of angels is given to women;
And this is a gift that, as sisters, we claim

Our mission is framed in exalted terms— it is “the errand of angels.” This is both an ennobling and wearying phrase. If this errand were simple or easy, it probably wouldn’t require angelic intervention, would it? But the opportunity to participate in the work of God is a privilege to be claimed, not a burden to be borne. We each have talents and gifts that enable us to serve with the angels in God’s work, and it is a privilege to exercise those talents in their intended way.

I wonder, how often do we view our callings and religious duties as burdens that weigh us down, rather than gifts that bring us in association with angels?

Perhaps what stands out most to me is that these lyrics make no attempt to promise blessings for our service. We are not serving because it will make us happier, or lift our own burdens (though it will). Rather, the implied reward is the work itself: the building up of Zion. This is a wholly selfless view—we lift others because we share God’s vision for mankind and rejoice in bringing it about.

With this in mind, the opening lines of the third verse seem appropriate:

How vast is our purpose, how broad is our mission,
If we but fulfill it in spirit and deed.

There are no small dreams here; God invites us to participate in his work to exalt all of mankind—every soul that will accept it. The cooperation of mortals, angels, and the Holy Spirit are all essential to bring it about. Only through divine help can we adequately meet this great call.

As brothers and sisters in Zion, we have a dual relationship with deity. We are currently working out our own relationship with God, seeking to come back into his presence as we learn to keep our covenants. And yet, at the same time we actively work at his side, serving as companions in the great work of bringing salvation to all mankind.

My fellow companions of God, let us serve well.

Hymn #311: We Meet Again as Sisters

I have to confess: I’ve agonized over this hymn all week. Every time I read the title, I am reminded of all the jokes I’ve heard about the sisters of the church having meetings to plan their upcoming meetings. The sarcasm isn’t unwarranted. When I think about all the things women are involved in or in charge of–Relief Society, Young Women, Primary, compassionate service, visiting teaching, girls’ camp, various committees, etc.–it’s no wonder we seem to meet again and again and, oh yes, yet again.

This hymn simplifies all that busyness, though, and meetings take on a significance beyond all the cookies and crafting. The first two verses give us the two main reasons women of the church should meet at all: to observe the Sabbath and to “plan our service.”

The first verse lays out an ideal Sunday. We go to church to “worship God together, [we] testify and pray.” Through our worship, we invite the Spirit to be present, to “enlarge our minds with knowledge and fill our hearts with love.” And while we may not experience a perfect Sabbath every week, the goal is always to show that we “love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind.” (Matthew 22:37)

The hymn’s second verse, unsurprisingly, hints at the second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” (vs 39) In our non-Sabbath meetings, we should plan to give service, help those in need, “show charity and kindness,” develop our talents and use them to bless others. It’s a good rubric to keep in mind; one or both of these commandments should be addressed every time we hold a meeting.

In my adult life, I’ve been in many different wards, and each Relief Society has functioned differently. Some women place a strong emphasis on rituals and culture, while others have broken dramatically from tradition. Some value elaborate centerpieces and homemade handouts, and others really couldn’t care less. From what I have seen, though, every successful Relief Society–wherein sisters feel loved and great things are accomplished–is centered on the actual purposes of the organization, which we find in the third verse.

We meet to sing together
The praises of our Lord,
To seek our exaltation
According to his word.
To ev’ry gospel blessing
The Lord has turned the key,
That we, with heav’nly parents,
May sing eternally.

As the Church Handbook states, “Relief Society prepares women for the blessings of eternal life.” The saving ordinances of the gospel are available to everyone, and Relief Society provides whatever assistance women need as they work out their salvation. Whether that means addressing temporal needs or spiritual ones, the goal is the same: to “seek our exaltation.” Together. As sisters.

Hymn #29: A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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