Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Eternal Blessings of Marriage?

I can still remember when my family went to the temple to be sealed together for time and all eternity[1]. I was only nine years old, so my memory is fuzzy, but I remember well spending what seemed like all day long in the temple nursery (I’ve since found out that it was probably just 2-3 hours while my parents went through the endowment ceremony) playing with these really fun marble tracks where you put a marble (or marbles) in the top and the marble raced down the tracks. I remember too, that this was a big deal—a very big deal, and was supposed to be sacred, as well as very important to us as a family.

About the time we grew really bored with the toys, the temple workers that were watching over us dressed each of us in a totally white outfit (dresses for the girls and pants and dress shirts for the boys, complete with ties) and brought us into the temple sealing room where we were sealed to our parents. I don’t remember what, exactly, was said, but I do remember kneeling around the alter (I think they placed my baby sister in my parents hands which were entwined over the alter), with my parents, brothers, and sister while something very special happened.

My dad has since shared with me that going to the temple to be sealed to his family was one of the deepest, and strongest experiences he has ever experienced, as he was surrounded by the love and care of many good friends from our ward, and of course his family too. This experience figures deeply in my dad’s “knowing” that the LDS church is true, despite his inactivity these many years.

I couldn’t help but think about this experience as I read this month’s First Presidency message on the LDS website. In it Elder Richard G. Scott recounts his wedding to his bride many years ago, as well as goes on to share the blessings that this type of wedding carries. He says, in fact that “two of the vital pillars that sustain Father in Heaven’s plan of happiness are marriage and the family.”

And, so I wanted to look at what the Bible has to say about marriage and family, and see if I could find the same thread there. Marriage, after all, was something God created in the beginning, and in some ways it seems as if Elder Scott has a valid point. God was the one who said,
It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. (Genesis 2:18)
After which Adam said of his wife:
This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.  (Genesis 2:23-24)
 And, in Matthew 19 Jesus reaffirms the sanctity of marriage when He quoted this passage, and added to it that nothing should tear that union apart.
And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:4-6)
 So, in many ways biblical Christianity would agree with Elder Scott, marriage is an institution that was created by God, and even in our time is blessed by God. It is in fact, sacred to God. There are other passages in the New Testament that sternly warn Christians not to mess with the marriage bed, and to do all in their power to keep marriages together.

However, Elder Scott’s teaching doesn’t end with just saying marriage is wonderful and blessed by God, but adds to the biblical teaching of marriage by adding a concept that’s uniquely LDS. He adds that if a couple is married in the temple those blessings will go on into the eternities. Or in other words, if a couple gets sealed together in the temple as my parents did, their marriage, and their bonds with their children, will last forever—they’ll be together in the state of being married forever (teaching I’ve heard about this states that the eternities will be very much like it is here, working together and being surrounded by children, grandchildren, etc. forever and ever—the picture they paint is like the most ideal commercial you’ve ever seen of a retired couple surrounded by bright, happy, and perfect children and grandchildren smiling and happily enjoying life together.)
But, that again, is not a teaching we see in the Bible. Jesus, who had the perfect opportunity to teach about this wonderful truth, taught just the opposite.
The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.  (Matthew 22:23-30)
 And, Paul also seems to teach a different ideal when he taught that being single could actually be a real help to the furtherance of God’s work.
 I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. (1 Corinthians. 7:8)
Instead of focusing on marriage and family as His Father’s ideal for the world, Jesus instead taught that the MOST important thing for a person to do was to love and serve God, and that from that love of God we should love each other (and not just our spouses and children):
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)
 And, I think there’s real good reason Jesus taught that. You see, God created us to worship Him, and Him alone.
Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness. . . (Ps. 29:1-2)
 I could quote scripture, after scripture, after scripture that says that our chief aim in life should be to glorify Him: God Almighty! In fact, the one topic God strongly condemns again and again in the Old Testament is the worship of idols. It’s easy for us to see (and condemn) the people of the old Testament when they were fooled into putting their trust in blocks of wood, or statues of precious metals, but what we don’t often see is that today we still have idols: it’s just that our idols are more subtle: our work, our money, our things, and maybe most of all our families. You see, biblically speaking, an idol would be anything that comes between, or is more important to us than our relationship with God. (This could even be a church, or a strongly held belief.)

And, I think that’s what can happen when we exalt marriage and family to the point of being the point of eternity. I was listening the other day to a LDS friend of mine giving a radio interview, and while I can’t judge and shouldn’t judge her relationship with God, what came across in the radio interview was her relationship with her dad even though he is no longer alive. Now, I knew her dad, and loved him very much. He was one of the most loving men I’ve ever known, and I too mourn him and wish his life had lasted longer. But, as I listened to her it kept coming back to her dad and what he was doing in the afterlife. He was, in essence, the one who was directing her life paths. He was the one who was waiting for her patients to pass over into the afterlife (she was a hospice nurse).

And, truthfully that’s what comes across in Elder Scott’s address too: his wonderful wife. I didn’t know her personally so I can’t vouch for what he says, but from what he says she was a wonderful, kind, wise, and loving woman. And, I can relate to his missing her, and appreciating her input in his life. And, I can even relate to his deep desire to be reunited with her, I too have friends who’ve gone before and whom I desperately miss. But, unlike Elder Scott, my greatest desire isn’t to be reunited with them. My greatest desire is to see and be with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who will make all things perfect, and will make heaven, well. . . heaven!

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about what we’ll be doing in the eternities. But, John in his Revelation from God gives us a glimpse:
And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever. And the four beasts said, Amen. And the four and twenty elders fell down and worshipped him that liveth for ever and ever. (Revelation 5:11-14)
And, that’s just how it should be: you see the Bible teaches that ALL the honor, ALL the praise, and ALL the glory are due to God Himself, and to no one else. That’s why I can honestly say I’m so looking forward to heaven when I’ll be with Him, and He will wipe away my every tear, and He will provide my light, my joy, my fulfillment in ways that my family—much as I love them, and rest assured I do—never can.

[1] The ideal for Mormon families is for the parents to be sealed together when they are first married. When done that way, all the kids automatically are “in the covenant,” and don’t have to be sealed to their parents. In my family, however, my father was a convert. Since by the time he converted my parents had five children, we too had to go to the temple and be sealed to them. My youngest brother who was yet to be born didn’t have to go through this physical sealing since he was born “under the covenant,” or after my parents had been sealed together.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Is the Temple a Beacon or a Distraction?

I was reading President Thomas S. Monson’s General Conference address entitled The Holy Temple—a Beacon to the World (http://lds.org/general-conference/2011/04/the-holy-temple-a-beacon-to-the-world?lang=eng). The article talks about a lot about the sacrifice that members make to first build the temples, and to attend the temple throughout the world and that this burden is getting lighter and lighter because there are now temples throughout the world. President Monson went on to detail three reasons that faithful members should continue to strive and sacrifice to attend the temple no matter the cost. These are his three reasons:
  1. We will be more able to bear every trial and to overcome every temptation,
  2. We will find peace,
  3. We will be renewed and fortified.
And, it’s true, that my experience in the LDS temple was a peaceful, and renewing experience. It helped me on some level because it gave me the time to step away from the world, and be quiet. (Sometimes it was such a break that truthfully I had trouble staying awake—I was pregnant, working full-time, as well as holding down church callings so in defense of myself I was really, really tired!) I’m not so sure about the trials and temptations part of it, but the temple did give me a chance to be renewed in my commitment to the LDS church (it was, after all, a requirement of the endowment itself to pledge and re-pledge total and complete allegiance to the Church.)

The problem was though; that the peace I found in the temple was not biblical peace, renewal, fortification, or even strength for trials and temptations. Instead it was the kind of strength that one gets from being in the right place at the right time. For instance, when I worked, I worked in downtown Phoenix and in downtown Phoenix there was a beautiful and quiet old Catholic Church. One day, out of curiosity I decided to take a peak inside. I did, and entered (Catholic chapels are meant to be a place that anyone can enter—often at any time—and sit quietly, pray, reflect, or whatever else is needed.), and to my complete surprise found an incredible spirit of peace and contentment there. I’m sure if I’d have stayed longer some of the same things that happened to me while sitting at the LDS temple would have happened there too, but since I was on a short lunch break, I looked around for a few moments and then left.

Biblically though, there’s really only ever mentioned one source of peace, renewal, and strength: the Lord Jesus Christ.
Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14:27)
The Old Testament temple wasn’t a place of peace and contentment at all but instead was a place of controlled chaos. The main point of the old temple was to sacrifice animals as a picture for what Christ would do in the future. It did this by killing those animals and shedding their blood in order to cover up (to cover up is what the word atonement literally means) man’s sins. Because that was the main use of the Old Testament temple it was a noisy place: animals bellowing, the priests working hard, and people wanting forgiveness wailing loudly (see Luke 18:9-14 for an example of this. In Luke 19:46 Jesus even went into the temple to teach impromptu, something I never saw happen in the LDS temple of today). The temple was anything but a place of peace and quiet. Ceremonially it gave people forgiveness of sins, and with that peace, renewal, and fortification, but in no way was it like what a LDS temple is today. Instead, people got their strength, peace, and contentment from knowing God and knowing they had done the right thing to make peace with Him. It’s why David could claim God to be his Rock, (2 Samuel 22:2) or his strong defensive Tower (2 Samuel 22:3, Ps. 61:3), not because of the temple (there was no temple in David’s lifetime), but instead because David knew and trusted God.

In the New Testament the end of temple worship was symbolized by God at the moment Jesus died when the veil of the temple, a big, thick, and heavy cloth suddenly tore from top to bottom and thus signified that the way into the Holy of Holies was now open to man and that man could now openly approach God without the Old Testament temple sacrifices (see Luke 23:45). New Testament peace, therefore, comes not from doing certain things, but instead from our trusting and knowing God; from being in a relationship with God where we know we are His, and He is ours.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand. . . (Romans 5:1, 2)
Too, in the New Testament we’re told that the strength to overcome temptations, and to withstand trials comes also from knowing Jesus and being known by Him. It comes not from doing certain things, or performing certain rituals, but instead by living in a relationship with Jesus where we allow Him to work on us, and in us, changing us into what He wants us to be.

Therefore,if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,”  which all concern things which perish with the using—according to the commandments and doctrines of men?  These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)

. . .that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. . .  But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. (Romans 8:1-9)

So, in the end I have to wonder if maybe building, sacrificing for, and attending the temple is a bit of a distraction. If, maybe going to the temple might actually keep me distracted from building my relationship with Jesus. If sitting through a two hour endowment ceremony, plus the time for dressing, driving, etc., might actually have been better spent praying, learning God’s Word, even meeting together with other believers: all New Testament disciplines, and all disciplines that will connect me with Him who is Peace, who is Strength, who is Renewal, and who is Fortification. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

Keeping Yourself Unspotted from the World

This past Saturday I went to the Saturday morning session of General Conference for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints with my sister-in-law, Margo. I really enjoyed being with Margo and sharing something that to her was important, and we had nice visits both on the way into Phoenix and out. (We were both visiting my mother who lives 30 miles north of Phoenix and conference was shown at the Stake Center, which is in Phoenix.)

One of the talks in the Saturday Morning Session was given by L. Tom Perry, an apostle in this church, and one of the top leaders of this church. (LDS folks sustain Elder Perry as a prophet, seer, and revelator in their day.) In the talk, Elder Perry made a statement that caused me to reflect a bit: it was that one should “keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Of course I’m familiar with this command because it’s a biblical command found in James chapter 1 and verse 27. And since Elder Perry brought it up, it made me reflect on just how, biblically, a Christian keeps oneself unspotted from the world.

It’s interesting that this command is given right before James launches into his discourse that encourages Christians to work out their faith—to do good works because the world knows we’re Christians by what we do and not just by what we believe. And, that’s usually what we think about when we think about keeping ourselves unspotted from the world. We think about the things we can and should do to keep ourselves unspotted: moral chastity, keeping our language clean, taking care with what we watch on TV and movies, what we listen to on the radio, what we read, who we associate with, and much, much more.

The trouble is that while these are wonderful things for a Christian to do (and we should do these things), to do these things alone, biblically, is to risk becoming like a Pharisee from Jesus day. Here’s what Paul had to say about his experience as an “unspotted” Pharisee:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, (Philippians 3:8)
 And, then Paul went on to talk about what he considered most important:

. . .that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:  (Philippians 3:8, 9)

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is from John 15 where Jesus talks about what the Christian life is all about. Here’s some of it:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)
Notice that in this passage Jesus says that unless you “abide” (or stay in a relationship with Him) in Him, you simply cannot bear fruit. Fruit bearing in scripture is the doing that James talks about, and is how we keep ourselves unspotted from the world. Notice too that Jesus says that unless we’re abiding in Him, we can’t do ANYTHING!

And, that’s the overwhelming message of the New Testament: that we can’t do anything by ourselves, in fact, that everything we do, do is tainted. But, that with Jesus, in a relationship with Him, and knowing Him by faith, we can do everything. And, that in a relationship with Jesus we can be truly unspotted and live a life that’s unspotted by the world.

That’s why in the Christian life it’s often said that while the doing is, of course, important, it’s way, way more important to be. Because you see, doing alone only leads to a legalistic focus on rules and regulations, and ultimately on self: what am I doing for God (I being the key word here)? Whereas being focuses on He who made the rules: Jesus Christ, and being with Him. The focus of being therefore is Him and what He wants me to do and of course as we are (being) we will do.

And, that’s just what Paul discovered when he said that he considered all things as “dung” in comparison to being known by Jesus in the righteousness that comes from faith. Paul had discovered that there’s really no comparison between doing and being.