The Harbinger of Salvation

POSTED BY: Millet

03/18/11


Peace is what it’s all about in the gospel sense. Although most members of the Church know what peace is, I believe peace has not yet been given its day in court; maybe we have not fully appreciated as a people what a remarkable “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) and what a transcendent manifestation of the new birth peace is! Peace is a priceless gift in a world that is at war with itself. Disciples look to him who is the Prince of Peace for their succor and their support. They know that peace is not only a cherished commodity in the here and now but also a harbinger of glorious things yet to be. Peace is a sure and solid sign from God that the heavens are pleased. In referring to a previous occasion when the spirit of testimony had been given, the Savior asked Oliver Cowdery, “Did I not speak peace to your mind . . . What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:23).

Sin and neglect of duty result in disunity of the soul, inner strife, and confusion. On the other hand repentance, forgiveness, and rebirth bring quiet and rest and peace. While sin results in disorder, the Holy Spirit is an organizing principle that brings order and congruence. The world and the worldly cannot bring peace. They cannot settle the soul. “Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the Lord; and I will heal him. But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isaiah 57:19–20).

Hope in Christ, which is a natural result of our saving faith in Christ, comes through spiritual reawakening. We sense our place in the royal family and are warmed by the sweet family association. And what is our indication that we are on course? How do we know we are in the gospel harness? “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13; emphasis added). The presence of God’s Spirit is the attestation, the divine assurance that we are headed in the right direction. It is God’s seal, his anointing, his unction (see 1 John 2:20) to us that our lives are in order. John Stott, a beloved Christian writer, has observed, “A seal is a mark of ownership . . . and God’s seal, by which he brands us as belonging forever to him, is the Holy Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is the identity tag of the Christian” (Authentic Christianity, 81).

We need not be possessed of an unholy or intemperate zeal in order to be saved; we need only be constant and dependable. God is the other party with us in the gospel covenant. He is the controlling partner. He lets us know, through the influence of the Spirit, that the gospel covenant is still intact and the supernal promises are sure. The Savior invites us to learn the timeless and comforting lesson that “he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come” (D&C 59:23). Peace. Hope. Assurance. These things come to us by virtue of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ and as a natural result of our new creation. They serve as an anchor to the soul, a solid and steady reminder of who we are and Whose we are.


Christians in the Holy Land

POSTED BY: holzapfel

06/01/09


national-geographic-with-depth_smallDuring the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk every day and then celebrate with family each evening at dinner. Several years ago during this special season, I was leading a group of BYU Jerusalem students on a field trip into the West Bank (known today as the Palestinian Territories or simply as Palestine). Nablus, ancient Shechem, was just heating up as one of the flash points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, so a BYU Palestinian security guard (all of whom were loved by the students) accompanied us as additional safety precaution for our trip into this Palestinian area. As we made our way back to Jerusalem, the students were surprised when he pulled out his lunch and began to eat it. As he looked around with a sandwich in one hand, he said to the shocked students, “Hey, I’m Christian!” It had not dawned on them that any of the security guards could have been Christians; they were simply assumed to be Muslims.

My experience as tour director to the Holy Land is that most North American tourists assume that all Palestinians or Arab-Israelis are Muslims. Truly the Arab Christians are “the forgotten faithful” (see “The Forgotten Faithful: Arab Christians,” National Geographic, June 2009, 78–97). Surprisingly, in 1914 more than 26 percent of the population living in what is known today as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, and Syria were Christian (87). Not too long ago, Palestinian Christians constituted the majority in Bethlehem, representing about 80 percent of the population. Today they make up about 10 percent of what is now decidedly a Muslim city. The decline in Bethlehem, as well as Nazareth, parallels what has happened in the entire region, where Christians now constitute less than 9 percent of the total population. Ironically, today, much of the West views these Christians suspiciously, and at the same time they are increasingly marginalized and even forced to convert or flee by their Muslims neighbors. They are between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

It may be interesting to note that there have been many well-known Christians from the Middle East or Middle Eastern descent. For example, Abdalá Jaime Bucaram Ortiz, Lebanese Catholic president of Ecuador (1996–97); John Sununu, Palestinian-Lebanese Greek Orthodox Christian U.S. political leader; Carlos Ghosn, Lebanese Maronite Christian CEO of Nissan and Renault; Hanan Ashrawi, Anglican Palestinian activist and spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority; Paul Anka, Syrian Christian U.S. pop singer; Salma Hayek, Lebanese-Mexican Roman Catholic actress; Azmi Bishara, Arab-Israeli Greek Orthodox member of the Israeli Knesset; and Tony Shalhoub, Lebanese Maronite Christian and Emmy Award-winning TV star of Monk.

A few more experiences in the Middle East reveal the unique situation that Middle Eastern Christians find themselves in today.

In a private conversation with a Palestinian Christian friend several years ago, he told me he did not like living under Israeli occupation but he feared that if the Palestinian established their own nation, it would become an Islamic religious state. In what I can only describe as complete but composed despair, he added, “There may be no future for me and my family in this land,” a land where Christianity was born and a land where his family had lived for more than five hundred years as Christians.

During a tour of the Holy Land five or six years ago, several participants talked to a Palestinian during one of our rest stops. Apparently, the brief discussion had begun with a few harmless questions about his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, as they talked with him, it became clear that they supported the current policies of the political state of Israel, including the expansion of the Jewish settlements into Palestinian lands of the West Bank. As I drew nearer, they asked him, “Why don’t the Palestinians just move to Jordan and allow Israelis to have their own country?” They apparently assumed that Palestinians did not have the same kind of historical connection or claims to the land that Jews did—that the Palestinians, as Muslims, were aliens and foreigners in the Holy Land.

These tourists were surprised when he responded, “Why don’t you Americans think or care about us, your Christian brothers and sisters? Aren’t we followers of Jesus like yourselves? Aren’t Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and Jerusalem sacred to us too?” Then he revealed himself as a Palestinian Christian—not a Palestinian Muslim. They simply assumed, like my BYU students, that all Arabs or Palestinians were Muslims. They discovered in their conversation that his family had lived in the land for centuries and had been Christians far longer than their own families, who were most likely pagan peasants living in the backwaters of Europe when his progenitors accepted Christianity in the Holy Land nearly two thousand years ago. Somehow, it now seemed wrong to them that believing Christians who had lived in the land for so long were persecuted, driven, and marginalized by competing political, economic, and religious ideologies of the region.

This month’s National Geographic article on Middle Eastern Christians is a great introduction to their story, highlighting an important insight to the conflict that may not be as familiar to us as it should be. In the end, it is all a lot more complex than we generally assume.


God Is Back

POSTED BY: holzapfel

05/27/09


god-is-back-book-depth_small2For the past two hundred years, European thinkers such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber believed that religion was doomed and that God was dead. However, history always seems to surprise us. Few political leaders and academics in the past would have guessed that people of faith and their institutions would play such an important role in the world today. Even the events of September 11, 2001, demonstrate that what is taught in a religious school in Saudi Arabia is important to understand no matter where you live. Additionally, the 2008 US presidential election revealed that religious beliefs are still very important even though the American Constitution requires no religious test for those seeking office (Article VI, section 3 states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”).

One of the latest efforts to understand how and why faith is rebounding in the face of pervasive and profound secularism is John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009). Of interest, Latter-day Saints are mentioned on several occasions (see pp. 18, 19, 65, 115, 124, 229, 233, 350, 357, 371).

The authors describe their efforts as a “long journey” and add, “No doubt [this book’s] overall message will depress many secularists; at times it has depressed us too. Some terrible things have already happened in this century in God’s name. More are undoubtedly on the way.” They conclude, “Unevenly and gradually, religion is becoming a matter of choice—something that individuals decide or believe in (or not)” (372). This model, where choice plays a central role in the decision to believe or not believe, is thoroughly American. Hence, the wave of the future is the American model, in which there is no established state church and people decide on their own what they will believe.

  • The book offers many surprising insights, including:
    “By 2050, China could well be the world’s biggest Muslim nation as well as its biggest Christian one” (5).
  • “Many older conflicts have acquired a religious edge. The poisonous sixty-year war over Palestine began as a largely secular affair. . . . Nowadays, in the era of Hamas, Jewish settlers and Christian Zionists, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has become a much more polarized, sectarian battle, with ever more people claiming that God is on their side” (13).
  • “One poll in 2006—fifteen years after the fall of the Soviet regime—discovered the 84 percent of the Russian population believed in God while only 16 percent considered themselves atheist” (13).
  • “Most [statistics] seem to indicate that the global drift toward secularism has been halted, and quite a few show religion to be on the increase. One estimate suggests that the proportion of people attached to the world’s four biggest religions—Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism—rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005 and may reach 80 percent by 2050″ (16). However you look at it, faith is more likely to impinge on you than it once did, either because it is part of your life or because it is part of the lives of some of those around you—neighbors, colleagues at work, even your rulers or people seeking to topple them” (24).
  • “The most thorough study of American religious beliefs . . . demonstrates clearly that the world’s most powerful country is one of the most religious. More than nine in ten Americans (92 percent) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit” (131).
  • “Social scientists have produced a mountain of evidence that religion is good for you. . . . Daniel Hall, a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, has discovered that weekly church attendance can add two to three years to your life, . . . [resulting in] ‘a substantially longer life expectancy’” (146).
  • “Religion also seems to be correlated with happiness. One of the most striking results of Pew’s regular survey is that Americans who attend religious services once or more a week are happier (43 percent very happy) than those who attend monthly or less (31 percent) are seldom or never (26 percent)” (147).
  • “Religion can combat bad behavior as well as promote well-being” (147).
  • “Religion seems to provide social bonds. . . . Churches offer a safe place where people can get to know each other and pool information and expertise. They put people with problems in contact with people with solutions” (148–49).

In the end, the authors remind us how wrong past experts have been about God and religion, including Peter Berger, who assured the New York Times in 1968 that by “the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture” (52).


“The Stones Would Immediately Cry Out”

POSTED BY: holzapfel

05/07/09


When Jesus came to Jerusalem on what would be his last visit, he walked from the Mount of Olives to the Holy City. As he did so, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). Luke adds, “And some of the Pharisees from among the multitude said unto him, Master, rebuke thy disciples. And [Jesus] answered and said unto them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:39–40).

Stones are everywhere in this rugged land. Not only do people see them everywhere; they walk on them and visit places made out of stone, such as the Garden Tomb or the rock-hewn tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the bedrock where Abraham offered Isaac, now covered by the Dome of the Rock; the rock where Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (part of the altar in the Church of All Nations); and the massive Herodian retaining wall of the Temple Mount. I returned this past week from a visit to Jerusalem. Sometimes church bells, the call of the muezzin, and the Jewish Sabbath siren capture our attention—competing sounds floating through the air. But the real story is in the stones.

On my flight to Jerusalem, I read Simon Goldhill’s latest book, Jerusalem: City of Longing (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008). It helped me in my visit, providing some insights that allowed me to tie together a mass of information and years of experiences in Jerusalem. As I thought about the people I met (guides, tourists, cab drivers, and a host of other people), I realized how often most of us want to see the stories about Jerusalem as “black and white.” However, as Goldhill proves in this well-written narrative, “the city has to be viewed from multiple perspectives if it is to be appreciated” (viii), and the stories are “much more complicated and much more interesting than the stereotypes” (ix).

Instead of producing a chronological storyline, the author provides a look at different places (most associated with rock or stone) connected to pivotal points in the story of Jerusalem. As he tells his story, Goldhill provides some of the “competing narratives” (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) providing their own black-and-white versions of the events (282). He adroitly concludes, “The tensions between the three Abrahamic religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] are intently aimed at the holy places, their possession, their guardianship, their symbolic value” (47). In a very real sense, guardianship of each site allows each group to share its own validating narrative.

Goldhill concludes, “Jerusalem has a strange relation to stone” (224). He notes that even “the archaeologists try to make [them] speak” (225). Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is “the inevitable disappointment of the lost, the fragmentary, the unknowable and shattered past” when relying upon archaeology (225).

Not everyone will agree with the sites and stories Goldhill decided to include, but readers will discover that he “tried to tell this story in as simple and as neutral a way as possible” (281). Whether you have visited Jerusalem in the past, plan to visit Jerusalem in the future, or are only interested in Jerusalem, this book is worth a visit—providing a nuanced approach to a complex city. He concludes, “To be in Jerusalem is always to wander in a city of longing, as one seeks to find one’s own place in the layers of history, imagination, belief, desire, and conflict that make Jerusalem what it is” (332).


Good Friday

POSTED BY: holzapfel

04/10/09


Harry Anderson, "The Crucifixion"

This week’s blog was written by guest writer Eric D. Huntsman, associate professor of ancient scripture.

During his conference talk of April 5, 2009, President Uchtdorf referred to Sunday morning as Palm Sunday. Looking forward to Easter, he encouraged members of the Church to focus their minds more fully on the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. President Uchtdorf said, “It is fitting that during the week from Palm Sunday to Easter morning we turn our thoughts to Jesus Christ, the source of light, life, and love. The multitudes in Jerusalem may have seen Him as a great king who would give them freedom from political oppression. But in reality He gave us much more than that. He gave us His gospel, a pearl beyond price, the grand key of knowledge that, once understood and applied, unlocks a life of happiness, peace, and fulfillment.” In his talk, Elder Holland also pointed to the events of the Savior’s last week: “As we approach this holy week—Passover Thursday with its Paschal Lamb, atoning Friday with its cross, Resurrection Sunday with its empty tomb—may we declare ourselves to be more fully disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Today is Good Friday, observed by much of the Christian world as a day of great solemnity and holiness. As a young boy, aware of the day because of my many Roman Catholic and high-church Protestant friends and neighbors, I thought the term “Good Friday” was an oxymoron. What was so good about the day Jesus died? Only as I became more mature in the gospel did I come to understand that Jesus’ death was holy, a sacred act sealing the atoning journey that had begun the night before when he took upon himself our sins and our sorrows and then, as a sacrificial victim, carried that burden to the altar—in this case a cross—where he paid the ultimate price. Later I came to understand another, linguistic nuance. Many see the use of “good” in Good Friday to be an archaic use as in “good-bye.” Here it may be a synonym for “God,” in which case it is “God’s Friday,” that day of cosmic significance when the Father reconciled the world to himself: “But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement” (Romans 5:8–12).

As a Latter-day Saint, so much of what Good Friday commemorate once seemed uncomfortable to me. “We worship a living Christ, not a dead Christ,” was the common refrain I grew up hearing. It was easier to acknowledge that Jesus somehow took upon himself the burden of our sins and sorrows in Gethsemane and then move as quickly as possible through all the unpleasantness of the trial, abuse, and crucifixion to the joy of Easter morning. The cross was particularly unfamiliar, if not uncomfortable, to me. The Church does not rely heavily upon images in our churches and temples, although other kinds of symbolism abound. Not understanding the theological details of the mass being a “real sacrifice” in the Roman Catholic tradition, I did not grasp why the crucifix carried such weight to my friends. Not bothering to ask my Protestant friends what the cross meant to them, until adulthood I was oblivious to the fact that to them the cross was not just a symbol of his death for us, it was also, to them, a symbol of his resurrection because the cross was empty!

Further study, however, has brought a new awareness of the scriptural and symbolic richness of the imagery of Jesus’ death on the cross. Here it is not the cross itself, whether it was an upright pole or simple scaffolding upon which the victim’s crossbeam was tied or nailed. Nor is it the religious iconography of a Latin or Greek cross. Instead, for me, the significance of the crucifixion lies in the image of Christ “being lifted up,” the cross itself as a tree, and in the lasting marks or tokens of his sacrifice that it left.

Three times in the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he must be lifted up as part of his returning to the Father and his drawing of all men to himself (see John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32–33), and the last time he makes it clear that this was a reference to how he would die. Crucifixion was a humiliating but above all a very public form of execution, but what seems to be significant here is that Jesus’ sacrifice is there for all, in every age and place, to see. John 3:14 directly connects it with the raising of the brazen serpent upon a pole in the wilderness (see Numbers 21:9), an image that Book of Mormon authors recognized and expanded (see 2 Nephi 25:20; Alma 33:19; Helaman 8:14–16). Therefore the crucifixion illustrates that Jesus’ salvific death provides healing and life to all who will simply look to him.

But perhaps the strongest endorsement of “lifting up” imagery came from Jesus himself, who told the Nephites: “My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works” (3 Nephi 27:14–15).

Recognizing that crucifixion was tantamount to “being hanged on a tree” adds another level of symbolism. Under the law of Moses, cursed was anyone who was hanged on a tree (see Deuteronomy 21:22–23), perhaps explaining one of the reasons why Jesus’ opponents were anxious to have the Romans crucify him. While it is not completely clear what rights of capital punishment the Jewish authorities might have had (the prohibition against putting any man to death in John 18:31 might have referred to Jewish law, since they could not execute on Passover), having the Romans kill Jesus did more than shift blame. Jewish execution for blasphemy would have been stoning, whereas Roman execution for treason or rebellion was crucifixion. The high priest had asked Jesus the night before, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61), and nothing could have proved that Jesus was just the opposite, cursed of God, than having him hanged on a tree. Nevertheless, this “cursing” was part of the Savior’s descending below all things. Indeed, Paul wrote, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13).

What was amazing, however, was that the cross, the Tree of Cursing, became, in effect, a Tree of Life to us. After Jesus expired, a soldier pierced his side with a spear, “and forthwith came there out blood and water” (John 19:24). Hearkening back to Jesus’ discussion of living water with the Samaritan woman in John 4 or his discourse on the life-giving Spirit in John 7 in which rivers of living water flow out of him, this sign suggests that Jesus’ death brought forth life. Indeed, in medieval iconography there developed the image of the “verdant cross,” or green cross, which was often portrayed as sprouting leaves and fruit.

Finally, crucifixion left lasting tokens of the Lord’s saving act, marks that were used to impart a sure witness that he was the Lord and God of those whom he saved. Although the experience of Thomas after the Resurrection does suggest that we should be believing before we receive such assurance (see John 19:24–29), Jesus’ display of the marks in his hands, feet, and side took on almost ritual significance when he appeared to the Nephites at the temple in Bountiful: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).

For these reasons, as I read, review, and ponder the Savior’s last acts on this day, I am no longer skittish of imagery that was once foreign to me. Instead, I rejoice in what Jesus did for me and see it as a necessary precursor not just to Easter morning but to the great gift of eternal life, the precious fruit of the tree, which “is the greatest of all the gifts of God” (1 Nephi 15:26; see also D&C 14:7).