Monday, December 20, 2010

beauty for ashes

(Disclaimer: this post is heavy on words/phrases that probably won't make sense if you are not the same religion as I am. I am terribly sorry if this is completely confusing to some of you, and I really won't feel bad if you don't read any of it. I also want to say that I do not have any agenda in posting this other than that of recording my feelings-- feelings that happen to be of a spiritual/religious nature. If that bothers you, you'll probably want to skip this post. I promise to get back to posting pictures of my kids soon, but this was important for me to document, too :).)

I don't often post blogs with a ton of text and zero pictures, but I've been thinking about writing this down for a while now and I feel like it is important enough to record and share here. There will be so many posts full of Christmas decorations and parties and presents and I feel like it is necessary for me to also take a few moments to focus on the supernal gift of the Savior of the World during this season. I don't think that the spiritual part of my life is proportionately focused on here, and since it makes up such a huge part of my day to day life I feel like I should write about it more often.

I gave the lesson in Relief Society (a sunday school-type meeting for the women in our congregation) on the first Sunday of this month. I had planned to teach about the Savior (as this was going to be our "Christmas" lesson), but as I studied talks and scriptures in preparation I felt impressed to talk more specifically about the atonement of Jesus Christ. In my research for the lesson I came across a talk by Elder Bruce C. Hafen that was truly one of the most beautiful and inspiring things I've ever read. Perhaps some of you have read this before, but I hadn't, and it really is worth passing along. The full text can be found here, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I am going to go ahead and write down some of what I presented in the lesson here and will include many quotes from that talk, but you really should read the full text.

I started the lesson by having a sister in the ward read a personal story written by the mother of one of my students. Kathy Soper is an incredibly gifted writer and editor, and she also happens to be the mother of a little boy with Down Syndrome who I have had the privilege of teaching for the past two years. I came across her blog quite awhile ago and read something she had written about her experience in giving birth to Thomas (her son in my class) and the way that it had impacted her testimony of the atonement. Her words are here, and are so incredibly beautiful. My favorite parts:

"When I was first awakening to Christianity I found it difficult to fully sympathize with Jesus. I didn’t doubt that what he endured was awful, much more awful than anything that man has endured. But after all, he wasn’t a regular guy. Didn’t being a demi-god give him just a wee bit of an edge?
It took me years to realize that, in fact, Jesus’
supercapacity did not work in his favor, so to speak. Actually, the opposite was true. Yes, he was stronger–much stronger–than any of us. But that just meant he was able to bear far more. It didn’t make it easier. It just made the depths much, much deeper. And that’s just the beginning. Not only did the depths exceed any place within our ability to grasp, but he also had the capacity to free himself from those depths at any given time.

This is the stunning truth of Christianity: that a being not only voluntarily suffered beyond our puny mortal comprehension, to free us puny mortals, but also sustained his suffering through his own power. His body did not manufacture its own misery, as a woman’s does during labor. He was not just a willing participant in an act beyond his control. The circuit of pain could remain open only through his own unflagging will.

I still cry every time I think about Thomas’s delivery. I’m frightened by the memory of pain so keen and commanding. And I’m ashamed of my weakness, ashamed that I had, even for a fleeting time, looked for an out.

But God is wise enough to not offer us outs in times of creative extremity. No, that’s a torment he reserved only for himself."

Oh, I just think that is so powerfully written, and I am left feeling so awed by the impossible gift of the atonement. I can't comprehend it-- I can't even imagine it, really-- and yet, I do feel it. I feel the personal and tender effects of it in my life on a regular basis and I am so stunningly grateful for it.

Then we talked about D&C 19: 16-19 and I am not really going to go into that part here, but basically we discussed that we all will have moments of "trembling because of pain" (though obviously we weren't comparing ourselves to the Savior), and that we are required to give the gift of our will to Heavenly Father in the same way that Jesus did. The moment we will be fully cleansed (from sins, weaknesses, sadness, inadequacy etc.) will be the moment that we make a complete offering of our will, which is likely a lifetime pursuit.

After a few personal stories (mine and others), I moved on to the bulk of the lesson which was from Elder Hafen's talk that I referenced earlier.

We talked about the under-emphasis that we, as Latter Day Saints, sometimes put on the role of the Savior's grace in our lives. We tend to focus on the importance of doing works (because faith without works is dead, right?) and fulfilling OUR end of the deal. Which, according to Elder Hafen, may actually be a disservice to ourselves and even a little bit of a slap in the face to the Savior who MEANT for us to USE His grace. Yes we need to do our part, but in reality, our part is nothing compared to the amount of grace that the Savior offers us to make up where we fall short. Here is a quote (emphasis is mine):

"The Savior himself was not concerned that he would seem too forgiving or soft on sin. Said he, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28, 30.) He spoke these comforting words in the context of asking his followers to develop a love pure enough to extinguish hatred, lust, and anger. His yoke is easy—but he asks for all our hearts.

His words do not describe an event, but a process. He does not request the answer to a yes-or-no question, but an essay, written in the winding trail of our experience. As we move along that trail, we will find that he is not only aware of our limitations, but that he will also in due course compensate for them, “after all we can do.” That, in addition to forgiveness for sin, is a crucial part of the good news of the gospel, part of the victory, part of the Atonement."

I loved thinking about how freely Christ offers me His grace and am making more of a concentrated effort to recognize all of the moments in my day-to-day life that I could ask Him for a little dose of that.

The rest of Elder Hafen's talk discusses two other areas (aside from compensating for sin) where the Lord's grace (through the atonement) blesses us. Those two areas are: 1)sweetening the bitter things in life and then 2) coming to the point of attaining divine perfection.

We talked about the things (besides sin) that bring bitterness (meaning heartache, sorrow, disappointment, or just strife in general) into our lives. There are so many things in life to be sad about, so many things that are hard. Do we view the atonement as the bridge across all of the bitterness we see/face everyday? I know that I pray when I am having a rough day or something, but I do not typically think, "Holy cow, I am having such a bad day, I need a dose of the atonement!" Elder Hafen stresses that we do not use the atonement enough throughout the minutes of our lives to sweeten the bitter things we taste.

"Life is a school, a place for us to learn and grow. We, like Adam and Eve, experience “growing pains” through the sorrow and contamination of a lone and dreary world. These experiences may include sin, but they also include mistakes, disappointments, and the undeserved pain of adversity. The blessed news of the gospel is that the Atonement of Jesus Christ can purify all the uncleanness and sweeten all the bitterness we taste...

...Bitterness may taste the same, whatever its source, and it can destroy our peace, break our hearts, and separate us from God. Could it be that the great “at-one-ment” of Christ could put back together the broken parts and give beauty to the ashes of experience such as this?"

We talked about how much more personal and rich our relationships with the Savior could be if we consciously tried to use the atonement more in our lives each day as we dealt with anything that was less than ideal. I mentioned that this would be such a beautiful way to keep our covenants to "always remember Him." If we actively connected with the Savior, through the atonement, in any and all of our adverse places we would be more fully keeping our covenants.

We then talked about how one of those "bitter" places that tends to plague women is the feeling of inadequacy.

"The Savior desires to save us from our inadequacies as well as from our sins. Inadequacy is not the same as sinfulness—we have far more control over the choice to sin than we may have over our innate capacity. The Lord will not save us in our sins, but from them. However, he can save usin our inadequacies as well as from them. A sense of falling short or falling down is not only natural, but essential to the mortal experience. But, after all we can do, the Atonement can fill that which is empty, straighten our bent parts, and make strong that which is weak."

Um, I love that. Holy cow, I cannot get over what an enormous, life-changing, soul-stretching blessing the atonement is. I feel like I just kind of cheapen it with all of my adjectives.

After discussing those parts of the atonement, we finished up by briefly talking about how as we come to apply the atonement in those other areas (sin and bitterness) something remarkable happens. We become like the Savior. Our countenances become like His, our nature becomes like His, and we progress in our quest for divine perfection. It is like this beautiful cycle that propels us to where we want to be.

"Through the Holy Ghost, the Atonement makes possible certain spiritual endowments that actually purify our nature and enable us to live a more “eternal” or Godlike life. At that ultimate stage, we will eat the fruit of the tree of life and partake of God’s divine nature. Then we will exhibit divine character not just because we think we should, but because that is the way we are.

The purpose of the endowment of charity is not merely to cause Christ’s followers to engage in charitable acts toward others, desirable as that is. The ultimate purpose is to transform his followers to become like him:“he hath bestowed [this love] upon all who are true followers of his Son, … that when he shall appear we shall be like him.” (Moro. 7:48.) “At-one-ment” thus seems to mean not only being with God, but also beinglike God.

Another affirmative endowment of grace is the gift of hope, which blesses us with the state of mind necessary to deal with the gap between where we are and where we seek to be. As the remission of our sins makes us lowly of heart and meek enough to receive the Holy Ghost, the Comforter fills us with “hope.” (See Moro. 8:25–26.) The gift of hope offers peace and perspective, like the encouragement we feel when a close friend gives us insight about a difficult problem and we sense that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Such hope can be literally life-sustaining when given us by the Savior, for the light at the end of life’s darkest tunnels is the Light and the Life of the world."

Obviously there wasn't time to read all of these quotes in the lesson, but I wanted to record them here. After reading some of Elder Hafen's words, and discussing them a bit more, I closed the lesson by paraphrasing/reading some of these stories. I'll include the full quotes here because they really are THAT good.

"After Adam and Eve had partaken of the tree of knowledge, the Lord barred the way to the tree of life. They needed the time and space and shaping purpose of mortality. (See Alma 42:5.) They needed to taste the bitter in order to “prize”—to grasp the meaning of—“the good” represented by the second tree. The Lord never intended that we should partake of the tree of life and thereby gain full access to perfecting grace before we have stumbled and groped to learn all we can from the disappointments and surprises of this vale of tears. We, like Adam and Eve, must make the best of our circumstances. We need not apologize for the typical untidiness of those circumstances. It is their very lone and dreary nature that allows them to shape us as they do. Perhaps we can only appreciate and comprehend the gift of eternal life after we do all we can do. Until we are prepared in what may look like very imperfect ways to receive them, we are not ready for the gifts that perfect our nature.

In his dream of the tree of life, Lehi found himself in a dark and dreary wasteland and saw others surrounded by a great mist of darkness. The pathway home from this darkness was the way to the tree of life—the same tree, I suppose, as the one from which Adam and Eve were barred until they, too, had walked the trail Lehi took. The path was marked by the iron rod, the word of God. (See 1 Ne. 8:7–30.) Holding fast to this rod in the mists of darkness, we, as did Lehi, grope and move our way homeward. As we do, we are likely to find that the cold rod of iron will begin to feel in our hands as the warm, firm, loving hand of him who literally pulls us along the way. We find that hand strong enough to rescue us, warm enough to tell us that home is not far away; and we summon our deepest resources to reciprocate, until we are again “at one” in the arms of the Lord.

It is so important for us to be on the Lord’s side. But we should never forget that the Lord is also on our side.

Each of us will taste the bitter ashes of life, from sin and neglect to sorrow and disappointment. But the atonement of Christ can lift us up in beauty from our ashes on the wings of a sure promise of immortality and eternal life. He will thus lift us up, not only at the end of life, but in each day of our lives.

“Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God … giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might, he increaseth strength. … They that wait upon the Lord shall … mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (Isa. 40:28–31.)"

I have some questions for God. There are a few things that I struggle to understand and wonder about. I pray for clarity and answers often. The most overwhelming feeling that always comes when I ask is that I have received enough of a testimony of the things that are important to keep me on the path that I need to be on. One of those things that I am undoubtedly, 100% certain of is the reality of the atonement of our Savior. Tears burn down my cheeks now as I type this and feel the assurance, once again, that our Savior did in fact, suffer in the Garden of Gethsamane, that He did take upon Himself the weight of my sins, that He felt the confusion I sometimes feel, that He understands my feelings perfectly, that He suffered so that I would not have to suffer as much. I know that this incredible event that I truly struggle to wrap my mind around, really did take place, and that I will be blessed in countless ways forever because of it. I don't know how it happened, but I know that it did. And I am so, so grateful. So grateful for the opportunity to celebrate the birth of the Christchild this week. The birth that made all of these infinite blessings a reality.


CGhica said...

Thanks for sharing!

Katrina said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Liz! I feel like I need to re-read it a few times to really grasp everything. Real powerful stuff here! I have been in primary for the past year and half so I don't get a lot of spiritual nourishment at church. I love your lesson.

I especially love this idea: "We talked about how much more personal and rich our relationships with the Savior could be if we consciously tried to use the atonement more in our lives each day as we dealt with anything that was less than ideal."

I need to ponder this idea more and implement I think. Thanks again!

Kaylie and Mike said...

Thank you for sharing your testimony. You are truly an inspiring person, and you write so beautifully. Reading your post made my day a million times better :) P.S. you have the most beautiful children. Both of their eyes just shine :)

Mama Janet said...

I learned so much from your perspective and feel like printing it out and studying when I have more time. I'm grateful for you inspiration and testimony. I learned so much about the atonement just by loosing Steve. Death and birth bring us so much closer to the truth of the Savior.