NT 17: What Does the Atonement Mean to Me?

Last week in Come, Follow Me we read about the Savior’s suffering in Gethsemane. I was also preparing to speak on Sunday about the Atonement. I reflected frequently on what I know and continue to learn about the Atonement. These are a few of the lessons that came to mind as I read and pondered Matthew 26 and Mark 14.

  1. Even Jesus wanted to give up: “let this cup pass from me” says so much to me about the extremes and agonies of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. One of the miracles of the Atonement is that He wanted to make the suffering stop…but He completed it because He knew that it was necessary to provide the opportunity for repentance and eternal life for all of God’s children.
  2. Weak things become strong: to me, the Atonement provides the opportunity for transformation––not just sinner to saint, or mortal to immortal, but also shy person to enthusiastic ministering sister/brother, or socially awkward to strong friendshipper. In a miraculous way through the Atonement, Christ is able to step into our weaknesses, give us His strength to begin improving, and teach us how to improve.
  3. Will power and energy: on my mission I learned that even when bone tired and without energy, I could keep working if I had the desire/will power.
  4. He really does understand: again, a miracle of the Atonement I don’t fully comprehend, but I know Christ understands each and every person who has ever lived on earth. He knows what we’re going through, and He CAN help.
  5. Being enough: not sure what I meant by this originally but we all need to embrace the fact that Christ loves us––imperfect us––just the way we are. He loves us enough to also see our eternal potential and encourage and facilitate its development.
  6. Joy in misery: this is another transformation topic I ponder…the fact that even in the midst of experiencing tremendous pain, disappointment, or misery, we can experience joy in the Gospel through Jesus Christ.
  7. Just me and God: learning to rely on God without having anyone else physically present on whom I could rely was a fear-inducing but necessary lesson. While studying Come, Follow Me I have reflected on how confident Jesus must have been to teach the way He did, prophesy the things He prophesied, and pursue His path to Atonement, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. God the Father was His bedrock and He needs to be ours as well.

NT 16: Admitting that I Lack

While speaking with a friend today I experienced a profound moment in which I revealed something about myself that I didn’t even realize was true. We are all sick at my house, the weather is terrible, and I “needed” to run an errand; so I called a friend to sit with my kids. But in the process of feeling embarrassed about asking for help with a non-essential errand I realized that my impulse to call was actually driven by a feeling of loneliness. What I really needed was interaction with another adult––I needed to talk, to let a friend know I wasn’t feeling well, and to feel healed by sharing my burden.

I wondered later if that’s how the rich young man felt who came to Jesus asking, “what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, NT). The rich young man who was doing a good job of being a decent human being, who was keeping the commandments,  felt the need to talk to someone about his life and his eternal trajectory. Did he realize he was missing something in his quest for eternal life? Was he merely seeking to justify himself? Was he looking for a pat on the back? Did he have any sense of what he lacked (but maybe hoped that wasn’t really it)? Jesus, piercing the young man’s soul, answered, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor…” (ibid. verse 21, NT).

It is shocking to feel like you have a handle on life and then be forced to acknowledge that you’re missing something crucial. I needed human interaction and compassion, the rich young man needed to let go of his grasp on worldly wealth. Both needs necessitated recognition of the truth and humility to act. Change is painful but it can also be liberating once we get over that initial hurdle.

To become a richer human being––a fuller, more complete person––is the process of a lifetime. But it requires us to ask hard questions along the way about our progress and performance, and be ready to act on the answers we receive from family, friends, and God. It requires us to share our best and worst selves, to open up, to ask, “What do I need to change? How can I improve? What weakness needs strengthening?” as Elder Larry R. Lawrence suggested in his October 2015 conference talk “What Lack I Yet?”. The answers may shock, upset, grieve us, or we may have sensed that lack all along. When we humbly accept and act, we enter onto a plane of deeper experience that helps us transform, little by little, into the divine individuals God knows we can become. And all those little changes gradually accumulate to make us more like the perfect Savior who has been supporting, enabling, and helping us all along.

 

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: Holy 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 Holy 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.