Sunday, April 1, 2018

Easter Thoughts

I've spent a lot of time thinking, talking and writing about different aspects of my worldview including my religion, political leanings, and books that have inspired me.  Often my posts may sound overly analytical or even critical against policies and injustices I may find within the cultures and communities I'm a part of.  Speaking specifically of the LDS church culture, it's no surprise to anyone that I have strong feelings and opinions that sometimes seem to go against the mainstream.

Today, however, rather than focusing on the things I have questions about, I want to focus on the things that I believe. I'd like to talk about my testimony of my Savior, Jesus Christ, and how a belief and hope in Him has shaped the way that I interact with others and the way I view the world.  I'm not trying to speak on behalf of anyone else or convert anyone to my way of thinking.  I just want to express my own personal beliefs about who Jesus Christ is and what He has done for me.  Whether you believe in Christ or not, whether you belong to an organized religion or not, whether you consider yourself spiritual or not, I hope that this post can at least be an interesting study into what one person believes is true and give you a better understanding of who I am as a person.

First a quick background into my religious upbringing.  My mother was born into an LDS family but didn't attend church from her early teens through her early 30's.  My father wasn't raised in any religion and while he is a spiritual person is somewhat skeptical of organized religion in general.  My mom began attending church again around the time I was born and my siblings and I attended the LDS church with her growing up.  My dad briefly joined the church when I was 8 (we were baptized by the same missionary) and left the church around the time I turned 11.  We were sealed as a family (Mormon's believe that families can be together for eternity when sealed by those in authority) when I was 10 years old. My dad hasn't really attended any church since that time although he's well versed in scripture and spiritual matters.  My mom has served faithfully in many callings in the church (we don't have paid leaders at the local levels of the church- so when we're asked to do things it's called a calling).  She was one of my primary presidents, young women's presidents and stake young women's president while I was growing up and has served as a seminary teacher and Gospel Doctrine teacher for the last 10 years or so.  She's pretty knowledgeable when it comes to the gospel and has the unfortunate task of fielding most of my questions and concerns and complaints about the church.

And so I find myself incredibly dedicated to a religion that I also occasionally disagree with or feel hurt by.  On my bad days all I can see are the policies that I want to change (the role of women, our treatment of the LGBTQ community, our tendency to romanticize our history as perfect, etc).  However, on good days I'm filled with the an enormous gratitude for the teachings that I've received from being a member of the church. 1) That Jesus Christ is my Savior, 2)That I have Heavenly Parents who love their children, 3) That we are commanded to love others as much as we love ourselves and 4) Our Heavenly Parents have given us the gift of the Holy Ghost, our agency and direct lines of personal revelation to help us achieve our goals in this life and lead us to a new life to come. I'm trying to live my life in a way that reflect these beliefs and I want others know that to me, following these beliefs is what it means to be a Latter Day Saint.

Mormons get a bad rap sometimes because we do a lot of things that seem very different from other religions. If you're not a member of the church the "weird" stuff might even be all you know about Mormons.  These include the facts that we study from the Book of Mormon in addition to the Bible, we wear different underwear, we don't drink alcohol, we attend a temple, we perform baptisms for the dead, many youth go on a two year mission, etc.  Because these things get talked about so often (in and outside of the church) we can sometimes lose sight of the most important aspect of the religion, which is our faith in Jesus Christ.

I remember the first time someone told me I wasn't a Christian.  It was in a Jr. high P.E. class.  The girl sitting next to me during warm ups leaned over and told me that she'd noticed I had been talking with a girl in our class who was Mormon and that I should be careful because Mormon's weren't Christian.  I asked her how she knew I was Christian and she told me that she'd heard me talk about Christ before.  I replied that I was a Mormon too and since she knew I was Christian she could believe that the other Mormon girl was christian too.  She left the conversation sad, saying that I wasn't a Christian after all and that at her summer bible camp one of the classes she went to was about how terrible Mormons were and how to avoid them.  I remember telling her a couple more times that I believed in Christ and so I was a Christian, but she let me know that I wasn't because I didn't accept him into my heart the same way that she did.   My two main thoughts from that conversation were: 1) how did she know how I accepted him in my heart? and 2) Would Christ teach a class on how to avoid other people?  Didn't he spend his life talking with and serving the tax collectors, the poor, the sick, prostitutes, and unbelievers?

I attended a pretty religiously charged high school.  I had the opportunity to discuss religion with many of my friends and even some of my teachers.  While I've learned so much from my friends of other faiths and have had many friends who respect my beliefs, high school was also spent defending my religion from some pretty negative criticisms from others.  Interestingly enough several of my closest friends were jewish, agnostic and atheist. Probably because while my ideas seemed strange to the other Christians in my school, my atheist and Jewish friends thought all Christians were wrong and didn't see me as being any weirder than any of their other religious friends. In many ways my non-Christian friends were much more Christian in their treatment and respect for my opinions.  I've had amazing friends with many different religious or non-religious beliefs that have deeply touched my life.  I believe that truth can be found in many places and each of us will pick up the things that we need or feel inspired to carry with us.  And from each interaction, friendship and relationship we will find ourselves changed.  This is how it has been for me.  My testimony is a living thing and I'm constantly picking up new pieces or letting go of pieces that no longer fit.

However, the central piece of my testimony is my Savior Jesus Christ.  So what are the things I believe about Him?  Twenty-two years after that first person told me that I didn't accept Jesus into my heart correctly, I want to try and set the record straight about how I accept Him and who I believe He is.

First some things I believe about who He is. I believe that Jesus Christ is the literal son of our Heavenly Parents.  He was born to Mary and raised in this life by Mary and Joseph.  This made him both divine and mortal.  This is the condescension of God.  I also believe that all people on the earth are spiritual sons and daughters of Heavenly Parents.  This makes Christ our brother.  And I think of him that way often.  As my brother and friend.

I don't believe in a trinity in that I believe Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are two distinct beings. I do however believe that they are in complete unity of purpose.  Christ talks many times of being one with the Father.  However, He also talks about being one with the church and tells us that we can be one with the Father.  This leads me to believe that when he talks about "being one" with the Father- he doesn't mean they are the same person, but that they are on the same mission.  Further evidences that they are separate beings are when he prays to the Father; when he's baptized and people hear the voice of God in Heaven, see Christ in the water, and the Holy Ghost as a dove; and when Stephen is martyred and sees Father, Son and Holy Ghost as separate beings.

I believe that Jesus Christ is the only person to make it through this life perfectly- meaning without sin or mistake.  This was accomplished through His inherited divinity from God and His total dedication and understanding of the Gospel and purposes of God.  That purpose being to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of men and women. Central to that mission is also that they want us to have joy in this life and the next. In that vein, I believe that all the commandments that we've been given are here to help us have joy and are not just an arbitrary test to see if we'll listen. Commandments bring us joy because they help us love one another, maintain control over our own lives, and to become more like Christ.  They aren't a to-do list with us getting points added or subtracted from our score every time we follow each of those commandments.  God doesn't love us more when we keep the sabbath day holy and he doesn't love us less if we smoke a cigarette.  However, if we keep the sabbath day holy we get the blessing of having a peaceful day of rest and enjoyment.  If we never smoke a cigarette we don't have to worry about becoming addicted, paying enormous taxes, or having an increased risk of cancer.

I believe that Christ spent his mortal life teaching, helping, serving, healing and loving those around Him.  Because He was perfect and had a will completely in line with the mission of our Heavenly Parents, He was able to love and have perfect charity for those around Him.  He also taught us how to have a more perfect love for those around us.  Having charity requires us to put away our selfish desires.  Being less selfish means being less self centered.  If we are loving others as much as ourselves we aren't going to lie to, harm or steal from others.  Just as Christ came to redeem and not to condemn, we know that we shouldn't judge or condemn others either.  Each of us may judge what we are going to do but we must also allow all others the right to decide for themselves how, where and what they will worship. This makes Christ a perfect example, a leader, a teacher, and a prophet.

At the end of his mortal ministry, Christ, empowered by his divine heritage and his perfect mortal mission, was able to perform the atonement on our behalf.  I define this as a reconciliation between God and man.  Through this atonement he enabled us to become one with our God again.  Just as he and the Father (and Mother) are one.  This atonement involved and intercessory prayer in Gethsemane, a crucifixion, and finally a resurrection. This makes him our redeemer and our savior.

In Gethsemane he prayed on behalf of the world and took upon himself our sins, our shortcomings, our mistakes, our sorrows, our pains, and our abuses.  Then, while carrying them, he allowed himself to be crucified to pay the price for those sins. By paying this price he used His mercy to satisfy the laws of justice.  While, as I said before, our sins don't make God love us less, they do prevent us from being one with Him.  If God's purposes are for us to have joy and love those around, then every time we make choices that deviate from that purpose (i.e. when we steal, or cheat or lie or harm others) then we are not being one with our God.  Christ, now aware of those sins and mistakes and intimately familiar with the fallen condition of the human family, becomes our advocate to the Father.  As we repent with our hearts, in his name, we can be reconciled again to our Father.  Christ understands how our intentions, our ignorance, and our confusion can lead us to part from God's plan and He makes up the difference for us. Instead of our sins resulting in a permanent separation from our Heavenly Parents or a spiritual death, we can now repent and be clean again, one with our Savior, and one with our Heavenly Parents.

But not only did Christ's atonement save us from this spiritual death, it also freed us from physical death! And that is the gate he opened when he raised himself up from the tomb three days later. Mormons are sometimes criticized for not putting enough emphasis on the cross.  We don't wear them or use them in our decor or on our church buildings.  However, to me, it's not that we don't believe in the cross but that we put our emphasis on the fact that the cross is now empty! That death is temporary and that Christ now lives! I love the story of him and Mary at the tomb.  That a woman is the first witness of Christ's rebirth seems fitting since women (our mothers) are the first to witness our first births.  He was triumphant over death and opened the way for us to be triumphant as well.  I believe that there is life after this life.  Not a heaven and hell that we see depicted on tv or in books, but a glorious new life where we will be free of our physical, emotional, and mental burdens that plague our life here on earth. Where we will be able to be with our loved ones and see them perfected as well. Where we will have a full realization of the good and bad we put in the world.  With this new perfect knowledge of our lives, we will choose for ourselves if we feel worthy and ready to enter the presence of God.  This makes Christ our savior, our redeemer and our King.

But knowing who He is is or what He has done is only half of accepting Christ into your heart.  We must take hold of the gift He's given to us and use His teaching to better our lives.  This doesn't mean to be perfect through our own works but to become perfect through repentance.  Another criticism that I've recieved is that Mormons think we can buy our way into heaven through good works. I can honestly see how that could be a perception given that Mormons have a lot of "rules" and "practices" that seem to be different from other groups.  However, I have been taught, and believe that the only way we are saved is through the grace of Jesus Christ! He gives us each this gift and asks us only to receive it. Recieving it means to repent and be one with Him.  However, I do believe this Gift leaves us changed.  The bible tells us that faith without works is dead. When we truly love someone it leaves us changed. When we truly love and accept the Savior it helps us change our lives.  As I mentioned before- we follow His Commandments because we love Him and we realized that He gave them to us to keep us safe and happy.  When we repent and accept Jesus into our lives we no longer want to cheat or harm others.  We don't gossip about others or assume the worst in people.  We are kind to others even when they aren't kind to us. We respect and make room for people who are different than us.  We listen to different opinions and respectfully state our own.  We are changed and we do better, because we know better, because our Savior has shown us the way.

In respect to us "earning" our way into heaven- I recently read an article discussing the parable of the ten virgins.  It talked about that one solution to the problem of not having enough oil could have been to have larger lamps.  But that wasn't the solution because none of us can change the size of our lamp. None of our lamps are large enough to carry enough oil to last through the night.  We don't increase our lamp size by doing right and decrease it by doing wrong.  The thing that makes us wise is realizing that our lamp is too small to last through the night.  We are wise when we bring that extra oil, the Savior's oil, to make up the difference. He will fill our lamp and get us through the night.  He will increase the light we emit and bring us safely to the wedding party.

Yes, reading our scriptures and saying our prayers and attending the temple can help us become better.  But we're aiming beyond better, we're aiming for perfect.  None of those things alone can get us where we need to be. Scriptures, prayers, and temples are all there for the sole purpose of bringing us closer to the Savior and improving our relationships with our fellow man.  To paraphrase Paul- it's charity or nothing!  If you have not charity you have nothing, because Charity is the pure love of Christ.  Without His love for us we are nothing. Without my love for Him I would be nothing.

So, I believe I am a Christian.  I study about Christ, I believe in Him, I believe Him, I pray in His name, and I try so hard to love as He loved.  I fall short.  I fall so short every day.  I say wrong things. I do wrong things. I put myself first. I let pride and envy dictate my decisions.  I speak without thinking. I talk more than I listen. I write half baked soapboxy posts. I can be ignorant, judgemental and dismissive of others.  I lose my patience.  I swear a little ;) and so so much more.  But I know that Christ loves me. And I know He loves my family. And I know he loves the person I sit next to on the bus. He loves the people I go to church with. He love you and the people you go to church with. He loves your family. He loves people who don't believe in Him. He even loved the people who killed Him. He loves the world. He loves us all. Equally. I am amazed at the power that idea gives to me.  It frees me from sin, from anger, from envy, from ignorance. It allows me to forgive things I couldn't forgive on my own.  He takes that from me and gives me peace.

Being a Christian goes beyond time spent in worship, interpretation of the bible, degree or calling. It's not manifest in what we say, in our success or in the size of our audience. Being a follower of Christ is manifest in our actions and in the changing and opening of our hearts. Christ left people better than he found them. Being a follower of Christ means leaving people better than you found them.  That is who Christ is to me.  He takes my little wimpy lamp and he makes it shine.  He finds me broken, and alone, and sick and he heals me.  He gives me an eternal family. He fixes my wrong thoughts and actions.  He shows me how to repent, and apologize and forgive.  I'm trying to leave people better. Not by preaching at them or trying to change them or anything like that.  But by simply being more loving and accepting. By listening and being more honest. I'm trying to focus more on others and less on my own pride, opinions, or insecurities. Christ helps me do that.  And He helps make amends when I fall short.

This Easter I am so grateful for Christ's love for me.  I'm grateful for His infinite atonement.  I'm grateful for the peace having charity brings to me when I manage to have it- as fleeting as it can be! And I hope that in some small way I have shared that peace with you, not by my words, but in my deeds. These are my beliefs and they feel good to express. I'm grateful to all those who share their beliefs with me and trust me with their truths. I'm grateful for all of those people, Christian or not, religious or not, who have left me better than they found me. I know that Easter means something different to each of you. This is what it means to me. He is risen!

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