NT 19: Atonement and Harmony with God

Paul’s letter to the Romans may very well contain the highest concentration of my favorite scriptures. I love Paul’s imagery and his powerful testimony of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Romans 5 offers a beautiful explanation of Christ’s role in the salvation of the human race. As always, my reading of these scriptures is grounded in revealed, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doctrine.

Paul’s teachings about Christ’s role in salvation rely on the foundational doctrine of the Fall which explains the necessity of a redeemer. The Fall describes Adam and Eve’s decision to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Their choice to disobey the commandment not to eat that fruit resulted in not just their dismissal from Eden but it brought upon mankind the conditions of physical death and spiritual death (separation from God through sin) (see v. 12). Paul describes sin as an ubiquitous condition of mortality: it is taken as granted that humans will sin (v. 19). A divinely ordained law establishes the shape of sin and, by so doing, necessitates consequences.

The consequences, however, are not insurmountable nor are they eternally damning if we follow Jesus Christ. His law requires the performance of specific ordinances and daily behavior in order to qualify for salvation. He will help us keep the law while providing forgiveness if we fall short of the law’s requirements. He justifies us according to our faith (v. 2) and repentance. One of Paul’s beautiful images relates to his conception of salvation as returning to harmony with God. Where mortality and sin put us into conflict and discord with God, Christ brings us back into harmony with God the Father by providing forgiveness of sins as well as resurrection (v. 1, 10). This is the crux of Christ’s Atonement, that He provides redemption from sin and death, the blessings of salvation which “abound unto many” “through our Lord by whom we have now received the atonement” (v. 15, 11). Christ puts as at-one with God.

Where sin is a given condition of mortality, pervasive, and sure to lead to spiritual death, we can find relief in Christ’s grace which does “much more abound” (v. 20). His grace is more ubiquitous than sin. Personal righteousness (i.e. performance of ordinances, keeping commandments, repentance) will insure that grace reigns “unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21).

NT 18: Building a Temple

Sorry to have been MIA for the last several months! I’m drafting posts of insights I’ve had over that time and will publish them shortly. But in the meantime, let me share something current…from the last 12 hours.

Last night as I read 1 Corinthians 3, I noticed a progression in Paul’s ideas that I hadn’t noticed before. I usually focus on verse 16 and quote it as a stand-alone idea: “Know he not that ye are the temple of God?” as if we (my usual interpretation of “ye” is my physical body) are already temples and merely need to maintain them. Reading verse 16 in context with the previous verses added a new dimension to my understanding.

I began to see in chapter 3 a larger vision of earthly growth and development. Paul establishes the starting point of human existence in verse 3, an initial stage of carnality from which we are meant to pursue the spiritual existence Paul preaches in Romans and Corinthians. Building a Christian character, worthy to inherit eternal life requires a foundation. Paul identifies how he and fellow missionaries helped the members lay a foundation for their lives through baptism. This foundation is Jesus Christ (v. 11). Paul then counsels them to build on that sure foundation.

But how and what the members (us) build on this foundation is critical (v. 10). As I approached verse 16, I began to see that Paul is describing a lifelong process of personal refinement through righteous living (“every man’s work” v. 13-15): honesty, fidelity, integrity, Christian service—much what he also counseled to the Roman church members. The end result of our efforts, Paul suggests, is more than just a spiritual existence (in contrast to the carnal). We become temples. Think about the adjectives you would use to describe a temple: Holy, sacred, consecrated, dedicated, clean, pure, sanctified. What amazing qualities to identify the sum of our lives, character, and bodies––and what an amazing reward (v. 13)!

I wanted to share Paul’s metaphor with my children in a way that they could understand and see the beauty in Paul’s teaching. This morning we sat on the floor together and brought Paul’s metaphor to life with blocks and pom poms.

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We first built our foundation while one child read verse 11: Jesus Christ is the foundation. We discussed how baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost are essential ordinances for building this foundation. I reminded the kids of the good choices Paul encouraged the Romans to make which we had discussed for Family Home Evening on Sunday. As we identified righteous choices (including deeds and behavior) we added blocks.

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As Paul reminded the Roman saints, we “all come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The kids and I talked about bad choices that we all sometimes make (e.g. telling a lie, fighting with each other, judging others) and added pom poms to our structure. We then added more blocks for good choices, watching as our structure fell apart and resisted completion. This was a great opportunity to talk about repentance: asking for God’s forgiveness, stopping the wrong behavior, and making more good choices.

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As we continued building I had one of the kids read, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” We discussed the importance of keeping our bodies and spirits clean and pure through righteous choices and behavior. We eventually built a beautiful structure, firm on its foundation.

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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 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 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 7: Temptation, Mortality, and Hope

img_2650I made bread today. This is my late grandma’s recipe and every bite brings a wave of nostalgia. And it’s just really, really delicious bread.

Today I studied the temptation of Christ following His forty-day fast in the wilderness (cf. Matthew 4:1-11, NT and Luke 4:1-13, NT). The temptations Jesus experienced seem to reveal a pattern of human frailty: physical hunger, desire for control over life and death, and lust for power over external things and people. If we have Christ’s perspective of the reality of earth life and eternity, that perspective quickly exposes Satan’s lies about the supposed importance of satiating physical hunger at the expense of more important things, his lies about mortal ability to control anything, and his lies about the need for “power.” Satan knows mortal weakness, though, and knows just how to get us.

Like today. Some of the “magic” I have felt the last few weeks has rubbed off and I’m left to my own strength again; left to fight those temptations that are uniquely mine. But are those temptations only mine? Going on the strength of 1 Corinthians 10:13, maybe our temptations and sufferings really aren’t that unique. “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man…” (1 Corinthians 10:13, NT). If temptations fall into a pattern of human frailty, maybe our temptations and sufferings aren’t that different from people around us.

We sometimes wonder if Christ really did experience every pain, affliction, sorrow that every person on earth has ever or will ever experience. The conceit of suffering suggests that no one can know, no one can possibly fathom just how difficult this temptation or challenge really is. The conceit of suffering also convinces us that if no one has experienced exactly what we’re going through, then no one can possibly help. And we effectively cut off the only real source of comfort, help, and healing that exists: Jesus.

He really did experience EVERY pain, sorrow, affliction, sickness, disappointment, temptation (Alma 7:11-12, BoM). He KNOWS. He understands what we’re going through. He wants to help. If we acknowledge His prior experience and accept His knowledge, we can open ourselves to help, healing, and change.

As for my temptations today, I don’t know if Jesus had any of His own kids to yell at, but He did experience mortality and I believe that He understands (at the very least) the weakness at the heart of my temptation to yell. He provided “an escape” for me several weeks ago (when I didn’t yell at my kids for a whole week!) and He can help me learn how to overcome my weakness, stop giving into temptation, and change my behavior to something more godly.

NT 4: Casting Out Fear

The other day my kids and I were discussing the angelic visitations recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. We named everyone who received such a visit (Zacharias, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds) and I asked the kids if they could remember the first thing the angel said to each person or group. My oldest daughter excitedly answered, “Don’t be afraid!” Why would an angel sent from God say “fear not” before anything else?

We could tie a specific expression of fear to each of the New Testament figures who received an angelic visitor. Zacharias may have been afraid of what people would think of a geriatric father. Mary could have feared for her socio-economic future and her life. Joseph was already afraid of society, shame, and (probably) what would happen to Mary if he divorced her. The shepherds may have been completely disoriented by the angel’s sudden brilliant appearance in the dead of night and probably feared for their lives and their sheep. Each group may have also been afraid at the outset of what God might require of them and feared being equal to the task.

Fear seems to be a universal emotion. In my mind it is distinctly tied to mortality. Fear doesn’t exist in the presence of God, in heaven––God is always encouraging us to cast out fear because it is contrary to His nature and what He wants us to experience (see 2 Timothy 1:7, NT).

I readily relate to the fear each group must have experienced. Fear is one of my default emotions: Fear of what people think of me, fear for my children when they’re out of my sight, fear for what my kids will pick up at school, fear of being shot down when I share the Gospel, the list goes on. The angel’s words of Matthew 1 and Luke 1 probably had a calming effect and created a sense of confidence and peace in the listeners. The words of 1 John 4:18 came to my mind as I pondered this theme and they had a similar effect on me: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear….” How does “perfect love” cast out fear, I wondered? What does “perfect love” look like?

If I love my kids perfectly, then I prioritize Gospel learning with them and I have faith in the lessons we learn at home; I have hope in their salvation through Jesus Christ (should anything happen to them while out of my immediate care); I am able to see the bigger picture and don’t get caught up in minutiae. What if I loved God perfectly? If I love God perfectly, then I keep His commandments, I love and serve others willingly; I put God before anything else in my life, I prioritize scripture study and prayer; I turn the other cheek and don’t hold grudges; I trust fully in His power, His plan, and His love.

And then there will be no room for fear.