Friday, July 27, 2012

Perfection

I'm grateful we don't need it before we can be happy. Or helpful. Or even right.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In Memoriam

(click the link below to go to the post)


(23 December 1805–27 June 1844)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Stretched Out Still



I started reading Les Miserables before I ever saw it on stage. I'd heard the score and was intrigued by it. My first impression upon beginning the book was how much the play left out, particularly concerning the Bishop and convict Jean Valjean.

The play doesn't tell you, for example, that the bishop is a repentant sinner, sort of an Alma the Younger figure, who really messed up in life before he decided to reform and become a priest. That one fact really shapes, for me, his actions in not only forgiving Valjean for stealing silverware from him but also in claiming Valjean's innocence of the crime to the policemen who have arrested him.


The bishop knows something of God's grace, and so he extends it to even those least likely to reach for it. And guess what? They reach!


And extend it to others still more downtrodden than they:

Valjean and Fantine
Valjean and Cosette
Valjean and Marius
And change lives, towns, cities, cultures...even the world...for the better. Paying it forward. It's a eucatastrophic cycle.

Even if Jean Valjean never existed, how many millions lives and scores of generations have been touched and ennobled by his story?

This brings me to another story of the Lord's grace, a true one.

In Alma 8 in the Book of Mormon we encounter a man named Amulek who is sent, by an angel, to Alma the Younger. Alma has just preached in Amulek's home city of Ammonihah and has been kicked out, even though he fasted, prayed and wrestled mightily with God for Him to soften the hearts of the people there. 

Discouraged and exhausted, both physically and spiritually, Alma turns his back on the city, never intending to come back. However, when he is met by an angel and instructed to return and preach again, he "returns speedily" to the city, not knowing what step to take next or even where he will spend the night.

The Spirit impresses Alma to ask the first man he sees for a place to stay and a meal. And, to Alma's surprise, the man—Amulek—agrees with enthusiasm, telling Alma that he has been looking for him. "I know that thou art a holy prophet of God," Amulek says, "for thou art the man whom an angel said in a vision: Thou shalt receive. Therefore, go with me into my house and I will impart unto thee of my food; and I know that thou wilt be a blessing unto me and my house." (Alma 8:20)

Wow. Isn't it wonderful that the Lord impresses those who are righteous and in tune with the Spirit to help their fellow men? Not only does Alma stay with Amulek while he recovers his strength, but Amulek accompanies Alma in his preaching, standing with him against his friends and business partners.

But there is something we don't know about Amulek at this point. Something we don't find out until weeks later when Alma, having spoken to the gathered Ammonihahites, turns the time over to Amulek to be a second witness.

Amulek steps forward and introduces himself to the people. He comes from a heritage of spiritual stalwarts, and he himself has become a great man in Ammonihah's society. He has a large network of friends and allies, and he is quite well to do.

"Nevertheless," Amulek goes on, "after all this, I never have known much of the ways of the Lord, and his mysteries and marvelous power."

A little surprising, considering his ancestry. But Amulek clarifies: "I said I never had known much of these things; but behold, I mistake, for I have seen much of his mysteries and his marvelous power...Nevertheless, I did harden my heart, for I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know; therefore I went on rebelling against God, in the wickedness of my heart, even until..."

You guessed it.

Until his angelic visitation and summons to help Alma, God's weary servant. (Alma 10:2–8)

So it wasn't that Amulek was righteous enough to be led by the Spirit to help the struggling prophet. In fact, the Lord was aware of Amulek's hardness and sent not the Spirit but an angel to talk to him and command him—not prompt him—to action.

Why? Amulek was just like everyone else in Ammonihah; he had willfully turned his back on God every time the Lord extended His hand to save him. It seems counterintuitive that if Amulek had repeatedly slapped away the Lord's hand the Lord would extend it again, now, when it wasn't just Amulek's wellbeing on the line but a hiding prophet's too.

And why reach so gently? Amulek doesn't describe the angel's attitude as being angry. The angel simply appears, tells him that Alma is coming and that Amulek is to take care of him and that Alma will be a great blessing to Amulek's household as a result.

Kind of like the Bishop's attitude to Jean Valjean; no condemnation. Only a merciful call to improvement. And, I think, because the summons is so heatless, Amulek, like Valjean, learns that God is not only just but gracious and merciful and that He loves him—and we will do anything for one who truly loves us.

So Amulek repents. He is schooled in the gospel by Alma. He stands with Alma and preaches, stands with Alma and is ridiculed, stands with Alma and is bound and cast into prison, stands with Alma as the sacred records and converted women and children are burned before his eyes—women and children he knows and among whom may even be members of his own family. In everything, Amulek never leaves Alma's side.

Do you know something? I think the Lord knew he wouldn't.

Just as the bishop knew one sullen, violent convict could do a world of good once something touched that hardened heart of his. Just as Jesus Christ knew that each of us, regardless of our weakness or belligerence, was worthy suffering and dying to save.

"The Lord seeth not as a man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart." (1 Sam. 16:7)


Isn't that something to be grateful for?


The Lord had known Amulek for years—all of his life and before, in the beginnings of the pre existence. Amulek may have thought he knew what he wanted in life; he may have convinced himself that he didn't need or want interference from God, that he could tough it out on his own. But Amulek's heart and mind, the deepest layers and darkest corners, the wishes, fears, and dreams that perhaps even Amulek wouldn't admit to himself or allow to surface, were before the Lord as an open book. No barrier Amulek put up could dim the Lord's vision of him.

The Lord knew the godlike qualities Amulek possessed—the depth of Amulek's loyalty, the fire of what his testimony could be. He foresaw that Amulek could stand before multitudes and touch their hearts as perhaps no one else could. He knew that Alma needed a companion like this. So He kept reaching out, despite Amulek's shoulder-shrugging and outright belligerence.

Eventually He had to use a stronger approach. It worked; Amulek reached up to catch the Lord's hand. And when he did that, he began to fulfill the potential he had come to earth with, to reach his hand toward his fellow mortals and help them feel the same sublime connection that God had given him.

It is the same with us.

Ancient Israel blatantly rebelled against the Lord, perpetrating crimes and hypocrisy so great that the Lord could not hold back punishment, the penalty of laws broken. Nevertheless, He says over and over that "His hand is stretched out still." And that is where we get some of the most beautiful verses in the scriptures. Zion, ravaged, bereaved and weeping in her sackcloth and ashes, will become queen of queens, mother of mothers, as soon as she reaches for the hand the faithful Bridegroom still holds out for her.

The Lord knows us, better than we have ever let anyone know us. And, wonder of wonders, He loves us, knowing all. He does not focus on our failings but on our potential. He loves us so much that He has offered the most precious of blood to ensure our safety, our ability to reach, no matter what.

He will not give up on us.

He has invested too much in us to retract His hand.

And once we believe that and reach in return, He will grasp us and pull us up and show us the vision of whom He sees us as, who we really are. Children of God, beloved by Him, and capable of becoming like Him. His greatest wish. His truest desire. His consuming work. His perfect love.