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POSTED BY: Millet
God does not expect us to work ourselves into spiritual, emotional, or physical exhaustion, nor does he desire that the members of the Church be truer than true. There is little virtue in excess, even in gospel excess. In fact, as we exceed the bounds of propriety and go beyond the established mark, we open ourselves to deception and ultimately to destruction. Imbalance leads to instability. If Satan cannot cause us to lie or steal or smoke or be immoral, it just may be that he will cause our strength—our zeal for goodness and righteousness—to become our weakness. He will encourage excess, for surely any virtue, when taken to the extreme, becomes a vice.
“Gospel hobbies” lead to imbalance. To instability. To distraction. To misperception. They are dangerous and should be avoided as we would any other sin. President Joseph F. Smith said: “We frequently look about us and see people who incline to extremes, who are fanatical. We may be sure that this class of people do not understand the gospel. They have forgotten, if they ever knew, that it is very unwise to take a fragment of truth and treat it as if it were the whole thing” (Gospel Doctrine, 122). To ride a gospel hobby is to participate in and perpetuate fanaticism. On another occasion, President Smith taught, “Brethren and sisters, don’t have hobbies. Hobbies are dangerous in the Church of Christ. They are dangerous because they give undue prominence to certain principles or ideas to the detriment and dwarfing of others just as important, just as binding, just as saving as the favored doctrines or commandments.
“Hobbies give to those who encourage them a false aspect of the gospel of the Redeemer; they distort and place out of harmony its principles and teachings. The point of view is unnatural. Every principle and practice revealed from God is essential to man’s salvation, and to place any one of them unduly in front, hiding and dimming all others is unwise and dangerous; it jeopardizes our salvation, for it darkens our minds and beclouds our understandings. . . .
“We have noticed this difficulty: that Saints with hobbies are prone to judge and condemn their brethren and sisters who are not so zealous in the one particular direction of their pet theory as they are. . . . There is another phase of this difficulty—the man with a hobby is apt to assume an ‘I am holier than thou’ position, to feel puffed up and conceited, and to look with distrust, if with no severer feeling, on his brethren and sisters who do not so perfectly live that one particular law” (Gospel Doctrine, 116–17).
True excellence in gospel living—compliance with the established laws and ordinances in a quiet and consistent and patient manner—results in humility, in greater reliance upon God, and a broadening love and acceptance of one’s fellowman. What we do in the name of goodness ought to bring us closer to those we love and serve, ought to turn our hearts toward people, rather than causing us to turn our nose up in judgmental scorn and rejection. The greatest man to walk the earth, the only fully perfect human being, looked with tenderness and compassion upon those whose ways and actions were less than perfect.
We have been counseled to stay in the mainstream of the Church, to see to it that our obedience and faithfulness reflect sane and balanced living. While we are to be true, we need not be truer than true. While we are not to partake of the vices of the world, we are to live in it. While we are to “be valiant in the testimony of Jesus” (D&C 76:79), we are not to be excessive in our zeal. We will arrive safely at the end of our gospel journey through steady and dedicated discipleship—loving and trusting the Lord, keeping his commandments, and serving his children—not through righteousness crusades or spiritual marathons. True conversion manifests itself in settled simplicity.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
A few years ago, a colleague and I sat at lunch with two prominent theologians. This was not our first visit together because we had met two years earlier and had had a sweet and delightful discussion of Jesus Christ, the centrality of his Atonement, the lifting and liberating powers of his grace, and how our discipleship is and should be lived out day by day. In that initial meeting there was no defensiveness, no pretense, no effort to put the other down or prove him wrong. Instead, there was that simple exchange of views, an acknowledgment of our differences, and a spirit of rejoicing in those central features of the doctrine of Christ about which we were in complete agreement—a sobering spirit of gratitude for the incomparable blessings that flow from the life and death and transforming power of the Redeemer.
Now, two years later, we picked up where we had left off, almost as if no time had passed at all. Many things were said, diagrams were drawn on napkins, and a free flow of ideas took place. Toward the end of our meeting, one of our friends turned to me and said: “Okay Bob, here’s the one thing I would like to ask in order to determine what you really believe.” He continued: “You are standing before the judgment bar of the Almighty, and God turns to you and asks, ‘Robert Millet, what right do you have to enter heaven? Why should I let you in?’” It was not the kind of question I had anticipated. (I had assumed he would be asking something more theoretical. This question was poignant, practical, penetrating, and personal.) For about thirty seconds, I tried my best to envision such a scene, searched my soul, and sought to be as clear and candid as possible. Before I indicate exactly what I said, I want to take us forward twenty-four hours in time.
The next day I spoke to a large group of Latter-day Saint single adults from throughout New England who had gathered for a conference at MIT in Boston. My topic was “Hope in Christ.” Two-thirds of the way through my address, I felt it would be appropriate to share our experience from the day before. I posed to the young people the same question that had been posed to me. There was a noticeable silence in the room, an evidence of quiet contemplation upon a singularly significant question. I allowed them to think about it for a minute or so and then walked up to one of the young women on the front row and said: “Let’s talk about how we would respond. Perhaps I could say the following to God: ‘Well, I should go to heaven because I was baptized into the Church, served a full-time mission, married in the temple, attend worship services regularly, read my scriptures daily, pray in the morning and at night. . .’” At that point the young woman cut me off with these words: “Wait. . . . Wait. . . . I don’t feel right about your answer. It sounds like you’re reading God your résumé.”
Several hands then went up. One young man blurted out: “How did you answer the question? Tell us what you said!” I thought back upon the previous day, recalled to mind many of the feelings that swirled in my heart at the time, and told the single adults how I had answered. I looked my friend in the eye and replied: I would say to God: I claim the right to enter heaven because of my complete trust in and reliance upon the merits and mercy and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” My questioner stared at me for about ten seconds, smiled gently, and said: “Bob, that’s the correct answer to the question.”
Obviously a person’s good works are necessary in the sense that they indicate what we are becoming through the powers of the gospel of Jesus Christ; they manifest who and what we are. But I also know there will never be enough good deeds on my part—prayers, hymns, charitable acts, financial contributions, or thousands of hours of Church service—to save myself. The work of salvation requires the work of a God. Unaided man is and will forevermore be lost, fallen, and unsaved. It is only in the strength of the Lord that we are able to face life’s challenges, handle life’s dilemmas, engage life’s contradictions, endure life’s trials, and eventually defeat life’s inevitable foe—death.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Hanukkah, the Jewish Feast of Dedication, begins this Friday night at sundown. The Hebrew word Hanukkah actually means “dedication.” The eight-day festival in 2009 runs from Saturday, December 12, to Saturday, December 19. It is a holiday period of considerable significance, both religiously and historically, to Jews the world over. But it should also be of some importance to Christians, including Latter-day Saints, for without the events celebrated in Hanukkah there would have been no Christmas.
Here’s the story: The ancient Jewish people in the land of Israel faced a grave threat when the Greco-Syrian despot Antiochus IV became king of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC. Syria controlled Judea at the time, but the Jews had been treated with tolerance by previous Syrian rulers. Antiochus IV, however, saw himself as a Greek deity in human form (he even adopted the name Epiphanes), and he set a goal to convert all the peoples of his realm to the worship of the Greek pantheon.
Seeking this goal with the Jews, Antiochus had his troops occupy Jerusalem and its Jewish temple, replacing the ceremonies that honored the God of Israel with pagan rites, and converting the edifice into a shrine for Zeus. The temple was defiled. Pigs were slaughtered on its altar by false priests in acts of disdain for the law of Moses and Jewish values.
Jewish religion in general was outlawed. The scriptures (books of what we call the Old Testament) were confiscated and burned. Jewish ordinances and practices, such as circumcision and prayer to the Lord, became capital crimes. The historical book of 1 Maccabees reports that “the women who had circumcised their children they (the Syrians) put to death under the decree, hanging the babies around their necks, and destroying their families and the men who had circumcised them” (1 Maccabees 1:60). Had not something happened to change the course of Antiochus’ program of cultural genocide against the Jews, their religion and identity would have been obliterated within a few generations.
But something did happen. In 167 BC, inspired by an Aaronic priestly family known as the Hasmoneans, the people of Judea revolted against the Syrian occupiers. Their war of independence was led by a Hasmonean priest known as Judah Maccabee. Often called the Hasomonean Revolt, or alternatively the Maccabean Revolt, the insurrection gained strength and was ultimately successful in repulsing the Syrian forces. By the winter month of Kislev (around our December) in 164 BC, the Jewish freedom fighters had recaptured Jerusalem’s temple mount, and liberated the temple from the pagan Syrians. As the war continued, the Maccabean forces eventually drove the Syrians out of the land of Israel.
Having freed Jerusalem, the Jews undertook to cleanse and rededicate their holy temple. According to rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud (TB Shabbat 21:b), when the Hasmonean priests entered the temple they found only one jar of consecrated olive oil to light the great seven-branched lamp (menorah) in the temple holy place for a single day. But anxious to rededicate the edifice, the high priest poured the oil into the seven cups on the menorah branches, and lit the lamp. The oil that was only enough for one day burned for eight whole days, enough time for new oil to be pressed and consecrated. This was seen as a miracle and a sign that God had been with the Jews in establishing their freedom and saving their religion and identity. The eight-day dedication period was celebrated by the Jews in Israel, and eventually throughout the world, each winter from that very year until the present, beginning on the 25th day of Kislev, and has always been known as festival of Hanukkah, the “feast of dedication.”
Modern Jews do a number of things in their Hanukkah celebrations. The first, and most important, is the lighting of Hanukkah lights. A nine-branched Hanukkah menorah (known in Hebrew as a Hanukiah) is the main instrument of the lighting. Small candles or vials of olive oil are placed in the arms of the menorah, one of which is elevated above the other eight. On the first night of Hanukkah, the elevated candle (known as the Shamash) is lit, followed by one other candle which represents the first day of Hanukkah. On the second night of Hanukkah, the Shamash and two candles are lit, on the third night three, and so forth until the eighth night of Hanukkah, when the Shamash and all eight candles are lit. The lit Hanukiah is placed in a windowsill each night so that all in the community can see that the Jewish family is celebrating the festival.
Other Hanukkah activities include the preparation and eating of foods fried in oil, such as potato latkes (spicey, fried potato pancakes) and donuts known as sufganiot. The frying in oil is a reminder of the miracle of the oil. The old practice of giving children coins to spend at Hanukkah has evolved into a gift-giving tradition for the holiday season. And children often play a game with a small, four-sided top called a dreidel. Sometimes Hanukkah is called a minor festival, but this is only because it is not mandated in the Torah (the scriptural law of Moses). In practice it is a major Jewish holiday period, widely celebrated and loved.
Those who celebrate Christmas each December may find it of interest to know that Jesus, who was genuinely Jewish, traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah. The Gospel of John reports, “It was . . . the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch” (John 10:22–23). Jesus honored the Hanukkah festival the same way he honored the Passover and other feasts: he taught the people of his own divine identity and mission.
Christians also ought to consider this: If there had been no Hasmonean revolt, and if Jerusalem and the temple had not been liberated and rededicated—if Antiochus and the Syrians had succeeded in obliterating Jewish religion and identity—then there would not have been a Jewish village called Nazareth, nor would there have been a Davidic Jewish village called Bethlehem. There would have been no Jewish nation awaiting the coming of that Redeemer. The entire setting for the birth and life of Jesus of Nazareth would not have existed!
But, thanks be to heaven, there was a revolt, and the Jewish nation not only survived but thrived. And because of these events, the way was prepared for the first Christmas. It seems entirely appropriate at this season that we join in wishing each other “Happy Holidays.” Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas to all!
POSTED BY: holzapfel
The term Advent comes from the Latin adventus, meaning “coming” or “appearance.” Beginning the fourth Sunday before Christmas, Advent helps Christians not only to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus Christ but also to look forward to his glorious Second Coming. Although Advent customs may be foreign to many, like so many other seasonal traditions they are a wonderful way to turn our attention more fully to the true meaning of Christmas.
Many Advent traditions come from Germany, where Martin Luther encouraged its continued observance as a way of teaching children and families more about the significance of the coming of Jesus Christ. It came to be celebrated by both Roman Catholics and Lutherans there and has become a common celebration in many Christian faith communities throughout the world.
One of the best known Advent customs is the lighting of the candles in an Advent wreath, a simple or decorated evergreen wreath with four candles placed in the circle and a single white candle in the center. The wreath itself represents the never-ending circle of God’s love, that he is forever the same in his love toward his people. The green of the wreath, as in the Christmas tree, represents the hope of eternal life that comes through Christ and serves a reminder of the freshness of God’s love and promises. The light of the candles reminds us that Jesus is the Light of the World, that his birth represented the coming of the light into darkness, and that we are called to reflect that light in our lives.
The outer candles are purple, the color of royalty, although customarily the third one is rose or pink. Traditions differ regarding the symbolism of the candles. One is that they represent the hope, love, joy, and peace that come through Jesus Christ. Each Sunday before Christmas an additional candle is lit, creating a beautiful stepped effect as the previous weeks’ candles burn down further. Scriptures can be read and carols sung as part of the lighting, which we do before family prayer. The four candles can also represent the different Old Testament covenants that God made with his servants, beginning with Noah and continuing through Abraham, Moses, and David. The central white candle is known as the Christ candle. It is lit on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and represents the new covenant made possible through Christ.
While formally observing Advent is not part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, individuals and families can often adapt and employ such traditions for their own use. President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has spoken positively of the Advent traditions that he grew up with in Germany in a recent First Presidency Christmas devotional, as have other converts to the Church. As my wife and I were developing our own family traditions early in our marriage, observing Advent was one that we found enriched our Christmas season, and in recent years we have found that it is a wonderful way to teach our children, share spiritual experiences with them, and keep them focused on the true meaning of Christmas.
For LDS families, Advent can be adapted by reading not only from the Old Testament and New Testament but also from the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price (see our selection at my Advent site). While not all families may wish to observe such Advent customs, spending time with the scriptures and enjoying beautiful music on the Sundays of Advent can be uplifting and provide meaningful reflection on the season.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Those who are interested in the Doctrine and Covenants need to roll up their sleeves and begin to mine the treasure in the latest volume of The Joseph Smith Papers, released a little over a month ago on September 22, 2009. This stunning oversized volume, Manuscript Revelation Books (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009), reproduces the original revelation manuscripts in actual size and color. The binding and design are excellent. The book is a treasure in itself, but the content is pure gold.
Robin Scott Jensen, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, my Religious Education colleague, edited this particular volume. The introductory essays alone are worth the hundred-dollar price tag.
This week, BYU Studies released its latest issue (48, no. 3), containing excellent essays by the editors and by Grant Underwood (BYU History Department) highlighting the discovery of the manuscript for “A Book of Commandments and Revelation” (pp. 7–17), a review of the history of the manuscript through publication of the 1833 Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (18–52), a discussion of the significance the manuscripts (53–66), and a review of how the manuscript can help us understand the “process by which Joseph Smith received, recorded, and published” his revelations (67–84). Added to these four outstanding essays is a response by the former archivist of the Community of Christ, Ron Romig (85–91).
Steve Harper notes, “The Book of Commandments and Revelations (BCR) will have an immense influence on the scholarly study of early Mormon revelations” (53). That is definitely true. His work, along with that of his coeditors, will provide current and future historians an opportunity to examine these important primary sources without traveling to Salt Lake City, Independence, or Provo. The publication’s impact on our understanding of Joseph Smith’s prophetic career cannot be fully appreciated now. However, BYU Studies has begun providing the kind of thoughtful consideration of the Book of Commandments and Revelation manuscript that will appear during the next few years and decades. If you own Manuscript Revelation Books, you need to get a copy of the latest BYU Studies—an important and valuable contribution to our understanding of The Joseph Smith Papers.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Guest blog by Clyde Williams, professor of ancient scripture at BYU.
My recollections of general conference as a young boy take me back to the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse and long lines outside the Tabernacle on Temple Square for the priesthood session. I remember in April 1965 as the aging President David O. McKay attended one of his last priesthood sessions. After he gave a brief greeting and expressed appreciation for the priesthood brethren, all stood in the fieldhouse and the Tabernacle and sang “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” For me the feeling was electric. There came a powerful witness to my heart that he was the Lord’s prophet on earth.
Since those early days, the personal significance and importance of general conference has continued to grow for me. I remember when announcements were made of significant policies, procedures, or administrative changes such as the inclusion of what is now D&C 137 and 138, the new LDS edition of the Bible, the formation of the quorums of the Seventy, the subtitle for the Book of Mormon, the proclamation on the family, President Hinckley’s statements on body piercing and tattoos, and the stand against same-sex marriage.
How do we respond when reminders of principles and practices are given or new policies are announced? Our initial response can be telling or informative. When we are spiritually in tune, we can, like King Benjamin’s people, be blessed with “the manifestations of his Spirit” and thus “have great views of that which is to come” (Mosiah 5:3). We will sense a need for something to be said on an issue, and when it is said we find ourselves in harmony.
A passage struck me as being profound when applied to general conference:
Son of man, the children of thy people still are talking against [meaning near] thee by the walls and in the doors of the houses, and speak one to another, every one to his brother, saying, Come, I pray you, and hear what is the word that cometh forth from the Lord.
And they come unto thee as the people cometh, and they sit before thee as my people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness.
And, lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not. (Ezekiel 33:30–32)
Clearly, Ezekiel here describes a people who think highly of a living prophet but do not heed his words. It is like people speaking highly of President Thomas S. Monson and how good his talks are and yet, when it comes down to it, not following his counsel.
Another trap one can fall into is thinking general conference is like a buffet table. Commenting on this potential pitfall, Elder Neal A. Maxwell explained: “Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate!” (Things As They Really Are [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978], 74).
In October conference in 1975, President Kimball was concluding the conference and spoke of the many uplifting and inspired talks that had been given. I was a bit stunned and sobered by what he said next: “While sitting here, I have made up my mind that when I go home from this conference this night there are many, many areas in my life that I can perfect. I have made a mental list of them, and I expect to go to work as soon as we get through with conference” (in Conference Report, October 1975, 164). Who among the Saints did not feel there were many things we needed to work on? I was moved to tears as I thought about this humble prophet who had given so much of his life and would yet give so much more as he sought to do the Lord’s will.
The seriousness with which President Kimball approached general conference was apparent. He also made it clear as he closed the conference that October afternoon how everyone else should view the conference proceedings:
Well, now, brothers and sisters, this is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to all who are listening in, we have not been fooling. What we have said to you in these three days is truth, downright truth, and it has a definite bearing upon the salvation and exaltation of every soul that could listen and hear. (click to hear President Kimball’s statement)
As you listened to his voice, you can feel the earnest and affirming power by which these word were said. I believe they hold true for every general conference. I am truly grateful for the profound impact that general conference has had and continues to have in my life.
POSTED BY: holzapfel
Luke prepared a two-part work known as the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts nearly two thousand years ago, but the stories are as still as fresh and exciting as any modern story. He may be at his best in the last two chapters of Acts, which contain one of the finest first-century sea travel narratives to have survived from the past (see Acts 27–28). Paul had been languishing in prison for two years at the Roman provincial capital of Judea when Luke begins this well-known part of the story: “And when it was determined that we should sail into Italy, they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band” (Acts 27:1).
Luke provides a dramatic account of a storm, a warning, and then a shipwreck. Paul, who has been pictured as tireless missionary out to save the world, does in fact save the crew, soldiers, and prisoners. They find safety on an island, most likely modern Malta, and after three months, board a grain ship from Alexandria, Egypt, headed for Rome.
Luke continues, “And landing at Syracuse [in modern Sicily], we tarried there three days. And from thence we fetched a compass, and came to Rhegium [modern Reggio Calabria, Italy]: and after one day the south wind blew, and we came the next day to Puteoli [modern Pozzuoli, just north of Naples]” (Acts 28:12–13).
I have been retracing Paul’s journeys during the last fifteen years. This has been not only a professional project (I teach New Testament) but also a personal quest—Paul has had a hold on me for some time. This past Sunday, I was finally able to visit one site that has been on my agenda for a very long time—Pozzuoli. With an old missionary companion, Steve Smoot, leading the way, we made our way to this quite small Italian seaside town.
Pozzuoli has been in the news lately. Only last week archaeologists unearthed a marble head of the Roman emperor Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 (click here).
At this point, Luke transitions from the sea travel narrative to the land travel narrative with six emotionally laden words: “and so we went toward Rome” (Acts 28:14). Of course, Rome was the final destination of the journey, but more importantly, the climax of his story in Acts—Paul will announce the “good news” in Rome, the heart of the empire itself.
The best part of visiting historical sites is that from that day forward I will feel something different as I teach a particular story. Like Luke, I will be able to provide a word picture to my students. In this case, I will visualize the blue Mediterranean Sea, the shoreline crowded with boats, nets, and birds, and the surrounding hilltop horizon at Pozzuoli. In my mind’s eye, I will picture Paul climbing the bluffs that separate the village from the plain above to begin his journey toward Rome. I will recall the heat and humidity and the smell of the seawater and the fish. My students will travel with me as we travel with Luke and Paul to Pozzuoli while reading the account of a journey to Rome.