Friday, November 26, 2010

Eight Steps to Perfection

Sermon on the Mount

I've stood on the sloping hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee and imagined what it might have been like to be in that audience.  The Sermon on the Mount continues to be one of the most quoted pieces of scripture in the Christian tradition.  More than a theological essay on what constitutes "blessedness," the Savior offered an eight-step process leading to the fulfillment and universal happiness everyone seeks.  We call them the "The Beatitudes," but I have come to believe they are an outline for living designed to procure the perfect life. 

This topic of perfection is interesting.  Go back twenty or thirty years and you find Apostles preaching it is achievable, a goal to be sought, and a destination within our grasp if not in this life then the next.  More recently, scholars have suggested "perfection" isn't really that at all -- it's more a matter of being "complete," or "finished" in our faith in Christ's perfection.  I favor the latter interpretation, only because it seems to reflect more accurately on my belief in Christ as the Deliverer, the Savior and Redeemer.  (See Moroni 10:32-33).  I can "strive" for perfection in this life, perhaps one thing, one attribute, one principle and one commandment at a time, but in the end I must still rely totally and completely on the merits of Christ's perfection and perfect my faith in Him to be "finished" and "complete" in my faith.  Despite my best efforts at perfection without Jesus Christ, I remain a fallen mortal, weak and unfit for the Kingdom.

I've done perfect work with the Word of Wisdom, Sabbath day observance, with tithing, with Church attendance, with a host of other "achievables," but perfect in everything?  Uh, no, not even close.  But in my hope of Christ's perfect atonement for me, I have come close to perfection as I come to view myself as fallen and weak. 

I believe the Beatitudes offer a way of life worth pursuing.  Four of the eight have to do with our individual souls, the living and sanctifying of our personal lives.

1.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.

2.  Blessed are they that mourn.

3.  Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness.

4.  Blessed are the pure in heart.

"To be poor in spirit"

Goates cousins

I see myself as spiritually needy.  I have been poor in spirit when I lack faith, and the older I grow the more aware I am of my dependency upon the Lord for everything -- breath, clothes, warmth, transportation, food, health and life.  When I witness the births of these little grandchildren I realize now more than I ever did as a young father how precious, how fragile, and what a miracle birth really is.  I now never let a day pass without acknowledging fervently my gratitude for guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit.  When I have been poor in spirit and acknowledged it, I have been made rich almost in the moment I have asked for a greater endowment.  There have been times when I needed to be filled, to be rich in spirit -- times when I was a father and my best efforts fell short, times as a bishop when there were no easy answers to perplexing problems I had never considered until they were presented to me by struggling souls.  I had to be rich to fill those who were poor in spirit.  And now looking back, I realize I have been nothing more than a conduit for the Spirit.  Needing forgiveness myself, it has been easier to forgive, and realizing how patient God has been with me, it has been easier to value patience as a virtue in my interactions with others.  I hasten to add "easier," but still working at it.  Thus I have been made rich in spirit.  Each day presents a new day for expanding need to have more spirit within me.  Each day together and individually we plead for the guidance of the Spirit -- to be made rich in spirit.  All the wealth and learning or worldly position cannot displace the need for the Spirit in our lives.  To have the Spirit is the polar opposite of pride or self-conceit.  I have never known a person filled with pride who had the Spirit.  Job reminds us, "The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."  When we sense our need for the Spirit, we are ready for adoption into the "church of the Firstborn, and to become the elect of God."  (See D&C 76:50-70).

"To mourn"

I have routinely mourned as I have come to understand my feet are firmly planted in clay.  While I long to surmount and triumph over ALL my sins, I am routinely mourning continually over a few I keep repeating.  I know what it is to experience "godly sorrow that worketh repentance."  The magnitude of my sins may not be as noticeable as others', but the awareness of the incremental need to improve is escalating daily.  I don't let my mourning for my weakness consume me, however, because my faith in Christ accelerates through my new found awareness and hope displaces the sorrow for self.  My tendencies are slipping away.  Old age has something to do with it, I suppose, but choosing consciously to avoid sin wipes away the mourning.  Losing the desire to sin while younger is more imporant than losing the ability to sin when older.  I love the way the Apostle Paul said it, as he found "glory in tribulations knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope."  (Romans 5:3-4).  The formula is offered in the true definition of what membership in the Church involves:  You must be willing "to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light."  You must be willing to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.  (Mosiah 18:8-9).  I never understood that passage until I was a bishop -- the mourning has more to do with the old man of sin dying than an actual funeral.  I had a perpetual stock of Kleenex on my bishop's desk.  Never before or since have I witnessed such sorrow.  In a word, we mourn first for our own sins until we develop faith in Christ, then we succor and comfort others in their mourning over theirs.  As we lift and bless others, all the boats in the harbor rise including our own.

"To hunger and thirst after righteousness"

I once heard someone explain fasting this way:  "To fast without a purpose is merely to starve."  Have you noticed how precious water is after twenty-four hours of abstinence?  Have you savored the taste of food when you have gone without for a day or so?  Was that hunger and thirst coupled with a spiritual purpose?  Has desiring a spiritual gift or seeking a worthwhile purpose enhanced your lack of temporal comfort for a period?  When we experience that hungering and thirsting, we begin to understand what the Savior must have had in mind when He said we must hunger and thirst after righteousness with as much fervor as quelling our physical hunger and thirst when it seems so urgent.  It's that hungering and thirsting that leads those who come camping in Woodland and other holiday weekends to come seeking fellowship with the saints in our three-hour block of meetings, even when the seating is hard to come by.  It's that hungering that drives us into the scriptures to feast at the doctrinal banquet table, and steers our course to temple altars where the water of eternal life is dispensed without restriction.  Those who keep the Sabbath day holy experience that hunger and thirst instead of snowmobiling, four-wheeling, hunting and boating on the Lord's day.  When our children were younger and we passed many of the them headed for the hills while we were headed to Church, I often remarked to lighten their mood, "They aren't really having fun.  We're going to have a lot more fun in three hours of meetings."  The most familiar motto of Mormonism may be this one:  If you ask with "a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest . . . truth . . . unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost," and by its power you "may know the truth of all things."  (Moroni 10:4-5).  When we seek to know the truth of all things, we are then seeking righteousness with all our hearts.  Then "your whole bodies shall be filled with light and there shall be no darkness in you."  (D&C 88:67).

"The pure in heart"

President Harold B. Lee
Only the pure see God.  Harold B. Lee used to tell the story from Jewish writings of a man who saw an object in the distance, an object he thought was a beast.  As it drew nearer he could perceive it was a man and as it came still closer he saw it was his friend.  You can see only that which you have eyes to see.  Think about what it must have been like to live in Galilee in the time of Jesus.  You may have known and recognized Jesus only as a son of Joseph the carpenter.  His critics called him a "winebibber" (drunkard) because his teachings were so counterculture to the corrupt Jewish Pharisees.  Others thought he was possessed of devils.  If you were there, how would you have seen Him?  Would you have known the Son of God when you met Him?  Even two of his disciples did not know him on the road to Emmaus until "their eyes were opened."  (Luke 24:13-27).  Only the righteous saw him as the Son of God.  Even now, only if you are pure in heart will you be able to "see God."  There are many among us today who cannot see God in His leaders, the living prophets He has sent to guide us.  Those who find fault speak from an impure heart.

Entrance into the Kingdom

It is not enough to "be good."  We must be "good for something" to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  We must actually do something in our relationships with others to be acceptable candidates for membership.

5.  Blessed are the meek.

6.  Blessed are the merciful.

7.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

8.  Blessed are they which are persecuted.

"The meek"

Elder Neal A. Maxwell
Elder Neal A. Maxwell wrote the book on meek.  Said he:  "Meekness ranks so low on the mortal scale of things, yet so high on God's: 'For none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart' (Moroni 7:44).  The rigorous requirements of Christian discipleship cannot be met without the tutoring facilitated by meekness:  'Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly' (Matthew 11:29).  Jesus, the carpenter, 'undoubtedly had experience making yokes' with Joseph (Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4 [New York: Abingdon Press, 1962], 925), and thus the Savior gave us that marvelous metaphor (see Matthew 11:20).  Unlike servitude to sin, by wearing his yoke we truly learn of the Yoke Master in what is an education for eternity as well as for mortality.  Meekness is needed, therefore, in order for us to be spiritually successful -- whether in matters of the intellect, in the management of power, in the dissolution of personal pride, or in coping with the challenges and routine of life.  With meekness, living in 'thanksgiving daily' is actually possible even in life's stern seasons (Alma 34:38)."  ("Meek and Lowly," BYU Devotional, October 21, 1986).  "He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty." (Proverbs 16:32).  One who is meek is teachable and a natural leader, though often overlooked.  Though he may be trampled on earth during mortality, he is the "salt" of the earth and will one day inherit it.

"To be merciful"

President Gordon B. Hinckley
To receive the mercy we for which we hope and desperately need from our Savior, we must extend it to others first.  In the laboratory of family life we often exchange unkind and cruel words, we render harsh judgments, and we criticize unfairly.  Those whom we are closest to often receive the worst of us.  Years go by without the needed salve of forgiveness.  Regardless of the details (even if we are justified in our anger toward the acts of others or their misjudgment of us) we are nevertheless required to forgive ALL men.  (D&C 64:8-11).  President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote a definitive article on this topic in one of his First Presidency Messages.  It's one thing to say we love each other, then quite another to take their names in our lips and openly criticize, judge, or reject them for whatever wrong they have perpetrated against us.  Who are we to complain about being misjudged or treated unfairly by our fellowmen, when our complaint is directed toward the Savior?  Did He descend below it all or not?  Can we teach Him anything about irony or being unjustly persecuted?  Our willing suffering is often a needed witness against greed, evil and despotism.

"Peacemakers, the children of God"

These are rare human beings in my experience.  Peacemakers shall one day be called the children of God. Trouble-makers in our modern world, however, are easy to discern.  They are everywhere.  "World peace," that long-sought goal, can only be accomplished one heart at a time.  James Ferrell offered a blockbuster book a few years ago, The Peacegiver: How Christ Offers to Heal Hearts and Homes.  If we could all learn to put away all the metaphorical swords we use against family, neighbors, work associates, political opponents, obnoxious drivers, lousy customer service personnel, etc. (it's a long list, isn't it?) we would live in a more peaceful world.  And the world of peace can begin only in our hearts.  Perhaps this is the ultimate answer to world peace.  Could it be that simple?  How ironic the heralded hymn at His birth was "Peace on earth, goodwill to men."  Since that day, however, the world has known little of peace.  Someone did a study about war since the Restoration in 1830, and discovered the world has not had a day of peace since.  That's an irony that will one day be overturned.  One day the Prince of Peace will finally introduce peace to this world, but only after we have filled up the dregs of war to overlowing and exhausted ourselves.  To be a peacegiver and a peacemaker in the midst of darkness is as "otherworldly" as one could be.

"The persecuted"

"Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet the scaffold sways the future,
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own."

There is a price to be paid for discipleship.  None will pay the uttermost farthing for Christ without suffering persecution for the truth's sake.  The history of the world is replete with stories of the martyrs in the cause.  Tyndale and other great reformers, pilgrims, prophets, pioneers and prophets have been sacrificed and slain in the fray.  While the persecution may be more subtle in these last days, the minions of the abyss are raging against the light as never before.  Darkness is everywhere, but so is the warmth of the light from the "Son."  Those who do not "see" God nor His servants may temporarily deter others in their quest for truth, but someday those forces will be overcome and the Messiah will come.  Those who have been persecuted will be recompensed for their losses.  The scales will tilt again to adjust for those who seek God's righteousness.  As long as this earth stands there will be evil, those who love and make a lie, in opposition to an almost universal quest for that which is right.  Whether we find it in direct opposition to the Church or in our political discourse, most oppose that which they do not comprehend.  Like the World War II bomber pilots, always remember if you aren't drawing some flak from below you probably aren't over your target.  The Savior taught, "Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets."  (Luke 6:26).

Some would call the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes "simplistic" today.  However, as it was timely counsel then, it remains timeless instruction leading toward perfection and exaltation today.

If we would truly be "blessed," here are the eight steps toward realizing "blessedness" and perfection.

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