NT 15: Absence and Easter

A few weeks ago I began pondering the idea of absence. Several circumstances gave rise to this train of thought, including musings about how people lose their faith in God. I wondered if they stopped feeling God’s presence for some reason and that opened a void which Satan could fill. What was only a momentary absence somehow becomes convincing proof of God’s non-existence.

In the three years of Jesus’ mortal ministry, He became defined by his irrefutable presence in Israel. He performed miracles with many witnesses, He taught convincingly in small and large group settings, He manifested God’s power on innumerable occasions, He boldly declared His origins and divine Sonship, He walked on water, He calmed storms, He raised the dead. His presence in one village led the people to drive Him away (Matthew 8:28-34, NT) while in many other communities He gained notoriety. His direct impact on the larger community became so marked that local rulers grew restless and began plotting how to make Jesus disappear.

Despite His own prophecies about His short-lived presence on earth, Jesus’ apostles continued to rely heavily on His accessibility and seem to have taken His proximity for granted. When some of the disciples failed to heal a young man on their own, they (sheepishly?) watched Jesus heal him and then asked why they could not succeed. Perhaps out of concern for His disciples to continue His work once He was gone, Jesus lamented, “how long shall I be with you?” (Matthew 17:17, NT.) No one seems to have made contingency plans in the event of Jesus’ permanent absence.

I imagine the apostles’ shock as Jesus was led away from Gethsemane, publicly humiliated and condemned to an infamous death. They weren’t counting on this. Some of the apostles stayed nearby as observers and mourners while Jesus hung on the cross. Many of them gathered together in the aftermath of the Crucifixion and burial, facilitating Mary’s urgent report of the empty tomb and providing the setting for Jesus to appear to them. But even after witnessing the resurrected Lord, some of the apostles simply returned to their previous lives (John 21:2-3, NT). How could they keep a movement alive when its founder was no longer present? Could people believe in someone who is absent?

The miracle of the empty tomb is the absent Christ. Because the tomb was empty on the third day, no grave will permanently keep its dead. Because the tomb was empty, all people can receive forgiveness of sin, healing, comfort, joy. Because the tomb was empty, the resurrected Christ could organize the spread of God’s work on the earth. In the absence of Christ, the apostles began their ministries to teach, heal, baptize, confirm, and testify of the once present Jesus and now resurrected Son of God. He didn’t become less real or stop existing when He was no longer a constant presence. The promise of His Resurrection provides the reality of glorified, eternal existence for all mankind.

This Easter I think of dear friends and dead family members, absent but not gone; separated by distance but not by memory; loved and not forgotten. Sometimes absence dims memory and makes us question the reality of our experienced past. At times I have lost the feeling of God’s presence in my life and it is tempting to question whether He was really ever there in the first place. But in that absence I have found compelling proof of God’s present reality, His mindfulness of me, His awareness of and concern for all His children.

Like the apostles had to learn in the wake of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, Christ’s absence from earth did not change His reality. In His absence, the apostles testified boldly of His eternal existence, glory, power, and presence. In His absence, we can continue to believe; we can hold fast to our faith; we can choose to press forward in our devotion and commitment to follow Him. We can, because He lives.

NT 14: Passion Week with Children

img_3201I was looking over the Come, Follow Me material for this week with its helpful day-by-day breakdown of scriptures pertaining to the last week of Christ’s life when an idea came to me to hide one plastic Easter egg each day for my children containing a numbered slip of paper with a scripture, song, and thought questions.

So far we have read about and discussed Palm Sunday, the cleansing of the temple, and the two great commandments. Each day I summarize the story, read the associated scriptures, and check for understanding. We are using the thought questions to bring the events of each day to our children’s level. For Palm Sunday, “the people laid their clothing and palm fronds on the ground in front of Jesus. How do we show Jesus our respect today?” For the cleansing of the temple, “how do we maintain the sacred nature of temples and chapels through our behavior?”

  1. Sunday, Triumphal entry into Jerusalem––Matthew 21:6-11; “Hosanna” (CS 66)
  2. Monday, Cleansing of the temple––Matthew 21:12-16; “I Love to See the Temple” (CS 95)
  3. Tuesday, Teaching in Jerusalem––I chose Matthew 22:12-16; “Love One Another” (CS 136)
  4. Wednesday, Teaching in Jerusalem––Matthew 25:35-40 (building on Tuesday’s scripture); “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” (CS 78)
  5. Thursday, Passover and Gethsemane––Matthew 26:26-28; “The Sacrament” (CS 72)
  6. Friday, Trial and crucifixion––Matthew 27:27-31, 57-60; “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown” (Hymn 197)
  7. Saturday, Preaching in the spirit world––Doctrine & Covenants 138; “Families Can Be Together Forever” (Hymn 300)
  8. Sunday, Resurrection morning––John 20:1, 11-16; “Jesus Has Risen” (CS 70)

On Easter Sunday every year we hide jelly beans and have a religious egg hunt. The eggs are numbered and each contains a symbol of an event from the last week of Christ’s life, with a heavy emphasis on the Atonement. There are lots of different lists online for this type of egg hunt. The number of eggs ranges anywhere from six to twelve or more. Here is the list I decided on several years ago and have used since:

  1. Palm Sunday: Green leaf
  2. Mary washing Jesus’ feet: Small vial of perfume
  3. Last Supper: Bread and sacrament cup
  4. Gethsemane: Olive
  5. Judas’ betrayal: Three dimes
  6. Crown of thorns: Rose stem
  7. Jesus’ robe: Purple/red fabric swatch
  8. Cross: Piece of wood
  9. Crucifixion: Nail
  10. Preparing Jesus’ body for burial: Whole cloves
  11. Stone rolled in front of the tomb: Small rock
  12. Resurrection: Empty egg

I have done this egg hunt with the kids each year for four years and they enjoy it every time. My narrative is a work in progress but I have used art and brief scripture passages to relate the events, as well as reading pertinent passages from My First Story of the First Easter by Deanna Draper Buck. (I even used The Berenstein Bears and the Easter Story one year.) It’s important that you work out your own best method of sharing the stories of Passion Week and the Atonement along with your testimony of Jesus Christ. Easter captures the central message of life in the most succinct way: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, NT). To help children discover the events of Easter in an interactive way can lay the foundation for their personal testimony of Jesus Christ.

NT 13: Finding the Faith-promoting Narrative

As I read the story of the Gentile woman in Matthew 15 last week I felt tempted to approach the scriptures from a feeling of indignation. But that did not seem like a productive effort. To read the Gentile woman’s experience in Matthew 15:21–28 as solely an example of victimization is to perpetuate the historical narrative about women and reaffirm women’s victimhood––all without providing any deeper, faith-promoting insight. To only focus on one side of the story is to miss the beauty of the exchange. To only see the woman as a victim is to miss the manifestation of a strong, inspiring character.

There is so much good to learn from this story! The Gentile woman demonstrates incredible determination in pursuing a miracle from Jesus, even after the disciples have tried to get rid of her. She shows amazing faith by pursuing healing at the hands of someone with whom she had no social, cultural, or religious intercourse. Her motherhood shines as she pushes against socio-cultural norms to save her daughter’s life. Her wit excels as she accepts the appellation “dog” without reaction and turns it back to Jesus to again request the miracle within the context of His analogy. And you know how the story ends…she gets her miracle.

Though stories about women are comparatively few in the scriptures, the Gentile woman stands out to me as a story of strength and resilience. Over the years, women of faith, wit, and goodness have blessed my life in countless ways. Maybe that’s the new narrative we can write, one of women uplifting others, women carrying others’ burdens, women strengthening each other, women blessing humanity.

Can you think of time when your life has been blessed by a woman?
Can you think of opportunities in which you might be able to bless humanity?

 

NT 12: Come Unto Him

Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30, NT)

These verses keep coming back to me after two weeks; every few days I turn them over in my mind. They played an important role in one my first experiences with full-time missionary work in the MTC call center. I remember talking to Sammy on the phone, sharing these verses with her, and then calling her almost every week until I left the MTC.

Two weeks ago I recognized a new facet to “learn of me,” replacing “of” with “from.” I began to recognize that learning from Christ can change how I carry my burdens. If I can become meek and lowly in heart like He is, my yoke can become easy and my burden light. I love the multiple meanings in this phrase that reveal the many ways in which Jesus Christ helps us. I have experienced Him carrying my burden for a time, and then again I have felt Him strengthen me to carry my own burdens. Over time I see how developing His characteristics has changed me to carry my burdens differently. Now I feel like I take things in stride, I have a better sense of humor, and I roll with the punches a little better than ten years ago.

To be meek––to recognize that I can’t solve every problem, that I am not strong enough by myself, that I don’t know everything––allows me to tap into the Savior’s limitless strength and wisdom. Attitude counts for so much when carrying one’s burdens. I think that dropping my “woe is me” attitude from years ago to be a little more light hearted and to take myself less seriously has made my yoke lighter, helping me “submit cheerfully and with patience” to any burden (Mosiah 24:15, BoM).

I really love Handel’s pairing of Isaiah 40:11 (OT) and Matthew 11:28-29 in the Messiah duet, He shall feed His flock/Come unto Him. Whatever our stage in life, the Savior can help us find rest to our souls.

 

I hope you enjoy this (non-copyrighted) rendition of He shall feed his flock from Handel’s Messiah. I sang it last week and wanted to share it with you.

NT 11: A Centurion, A Servant, and Humility

Ever since reading the story of the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 last week I have reflected on it over and over again. The centurion’s initial request for help (in person, according to Matthew’s account) precedes what struck me initially as a statement of ego: “For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it” (Matthew 8:9).

Was it really necessary for him to tell Jesus how influential and powerful he is in his sphere? Certainly Jesus understood that the centurion occupied a higher social status. But on the heels of the centurion’s self-identification “Jesus…marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:10). What about the centurion’s statement expressed such great faith?

Upon rereading the passage I couldn’t help but equally marvel at what I discovered. First, the centurion seems to have been working out his expression of faith, describing that he believes Jesus can just speak and perform a miracle because that is how the centurion operates in his own life. He recognized in Jesus something of a peer, a powerful man whose order would be immediately obeyed, just like him in his own household. The centurion understood the mechanics of directive and obedience, and therefore could believe in the application of the system to his request for help.

Second, I began to recognize in the centurion’s statement a profound humility. The centurion, in describing how he is obeyed in his household, was expressing his willingness to abase himself and become like one of his servants, ready to obey Jesus’ command, do whatever Jesus instructed in order to save his servant.

If only we would voluntarily give up status and accomplishments, the trappings of social position with which we pad our identities, and place them at the feet of the Savior, as readily as the centurion. What miracles could God work in our lives if we in faith expressed our willingness to obey God’s directions with the alacrity of the centurion’s servants?

Last year when my husband didn’t get the job we had been anticipating for six years, we had no backup plan. My husband applied to other academic jobs and began following leads from friends. As the weeks dragged on with no immediate prospects, we began praying to know what commandment we could keep more perfectly in order to qualify for our desired miracle. We focused on spiritual improvement within our family, expressing our willingness in prayer to do whatever God required of us. Within three months my husband had received and accepted an offer for an amazing job.

This lesson came full circle for me this week as another New Testament reading led me to Psalm 55: “As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. Evening, morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (v. 16-17, OT). When we can make such unequivocal statements as “the Lord shall save me” and “he shall hear my voice,” we express our firm belief that doing God’s will results in miracles. Just like the centurion we can acknowledge God’s power, cast aside illusions of personal greatness, willingly perform God’s instructions, and receive the miracles and blessings He waits to bestow.

NT 10: Finding a Way Back

I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, feeling like I had lost my way in scripture study and the blog. But I’m recommitting to daily study and weekly posting! My family needs this spiritual boost every day, and I need it to stay sane, be a halfway decent parent, and keep myself focused on spiritual things. Sometimes we lose our way and think that’s it, there’s no going back. But the Gospel teaches us that every day––every moment of every day––we can start fresh. Seeking forgiveness and help through the Savior’s Atonement allows us to find our way back to God and the path He wants us to walk.

Last week I intended to post some ideas for teaching children specific principles from the Sermon on the Mount. Here they are:

  1. Matthew 6:6, 17-18     One central idea I took from these verses was the need to not seek recognition for good things we do. We don’t need praise to justify good deeds or righteous choices…we just do/make them. Secret service can be a lot of fun for families to do together. Select one or more individuals or families and identify one way your family could serve each. Perform the service secretly and/or anonymously.
  2. Matthew 6:22-23      “[I]f therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Make two large eyes, one from dark (opaque) construction paper, one from vellum or another translucent but sturdy paper. On the opaque eye with the help of your children write a list of bad choices within the realm of their understanding. Hold a light behind the opaque eye. Can you see any light? Can that light illuminate anything through the eye? Make a similar list on the translucent eye but of good choices (e.g. praying daily, sharing, attending church as a family). Repeat the exercise with the light. Read the scripture and discuss.
  3. Matthew 7:7    “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Have a child stand on one side of a door and you on the other. Tell your child the goal is to reenter the room where you are but without pushing the door/turning the knob. Once s/he has figured out knocking and asking, invite her/him into the room and share the scripture. My girls did the object lesson at the same time and worked through the dilemma together. I testified that God hears their prayers and will answer them. Understanding that God does hear our prayers and questions, and will provide answers establishes an important foundation for additional Gospel understanding. For example, today we revisited Matthew 7:7 while talking about Joseph Smith and the First Vision.

Best of luck this week as you work on Matthew 8-9 and Mark 2-5!

NT 9: Spiritual Goals and Becoming

On Monday I introduced my kids to the Beatitudes. We talked about the linguistic origins of the word and explored Jesus’ teachings with the aim of identifying the characteristics and behavior that bring lasting, eternal happiness to people.

We listed on our easel all of the qualities described in Matthew 5:1-12.

We were eating dinner at the time which provided a natural object lesson in what it means to hunger and thirst after righteousness. We defined unfamiliar terms, discussing in turns what it means to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers. The kids were especially interested in the concept of mercy so we spent a little extra time on that topic.

I discovered several weeks ago that the Come, Follow Me curriculum really lends itself to goal setting which can create an opportunity for daily reflection as well as identifiable growth markers.

As part of this lesson we chose one of the attributes Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount and set a goal to work on developing that attribute this week. The kids now have a frame of reference for one aspect of their spiritual growth and we are all holding each other accountable for our behavior and efforts to become peacemakers.