Friday, December 26, 2014

On Becoming a First Watch Disciple

After reading yesterday's post, someone sent me an e-mail asking, "Do we really have to wait on God until the very last minute before we can be rescued?" As I pondered an answer to that question, I reflected on whether or not there might be an exception to the fourth watch observations I had made.

The world about us is increasingly chaotic and troublesome. In recent days as 2014 ebbed to a close, we have witnessed unrest in the streets of America over racial tensions arising from police shootings of black teenagers and the seemingly retaliatory brutal assassination in Brooklyn of two of New York's finest. We can debate the causes for this uprising, but that is not the point. Our collective faith and determination to right our national ship of state must continue to be in evidence in the days and years ahead, or we will default to this kind of lawlessness in the streets.

The imagery of a ship being tossed to and fro on the mighty deep is a familiar theme in the scriptures. It could be true for nations as well as individuals. As my little individual ship is tossed to and fro amid the mighty waves of mortality, like the barges Mahonri Moriancumer built, I have become convinced it must be “tight like unto a dish,” otherwise it would have sunk a long time ago.  (See Ether 2:17).

There is insight here that is priceless. The barges in the scriptural account are prepared for a journey to the promised land. The journey would provide “waves of the sea,” “winds,” “rains and floods,” and even “mountain waves.” The account tells us “the winds have gone forth out of my mouth” – in other words, God is the cause of the wind that causes the mountain waves. So why didn’t Moriancumer just say to the Lord when asked how to solve the problem of the light in the vessels, “Lord, why don't you just NOT blow the wind so hard?” However, leaving the problem to be solved by Moriancumer, the Lord offered this comfort:  “I prepare you against these things.” (Ether 2:23-25). Note, the preparation the Lord was focusing on here was Moriancumer's personal preparation for that which was to come, not on preparing the vessels, which was Moriancumer's primary objective. I think, painful as it is right now, that we are being prepared for the Lord's Second Coming.

C.S. Lewis
C. S. Lewis said lots of cool stuff, and this is just one example:

. . .ye cannot in your present state understand eternity. . . But ye can get some likeness of it if ye say that both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective. . . all their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved. . . That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, "No future bliss can make up for it," not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say "Let me have but this and I'll take the consequences:" little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man's past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man's past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say "We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven," and the Lost, "We were always in Hell." And both will speak truly. (Lewis, C. S., The Great Divorce, a Dream. HarperSanFrancisco, (c)1946, 1973, 2001, 69).

As perhaps an addendum to what I wrote about yesterday and in answer to the e-mail writer's concern, I can declare there is one area in our lives where the Lord is a “First Watch God.” Whenever I have sought to be forgiven in my life His response is always immediate and overwhelming. Have you ever been so “filled with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh?” (2 Nephi 4:21). I have. When we repent and come unto Him seeking forgiveness, the response is instantaneous. I can cite several scriptural examples from The Book of Mormon to prove the point.

Enos tells us he received an immediate answer to his plea for forgiveness:

And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.
Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.
And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.
And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.
And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.
And I said: Lord, how is it done?
And he said unto me: Because of thy faith in Christ, whom thou hast never before heard nor seen. And many years pass away before he shall manifest himself in the flesh; wherefore, go to, thy faith hath made thee whole.  (Enos 1:2-8, emphasis mine).

Amaleki, when he began to be old, said by way of invitation and promise:

And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved.  (Omni 1:26, emphasis mine).

King Benjamin’s people were forgiven instantly:

And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men.
And it came to pass that after they had spoken these words the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ who should come, according to the words which king Benjamin had spoken unto them.  (Mosiah 4:2-3, emphasis mine).

Zeezrom, one of the infamous converted Anti-Christs, was similarly healed:

And it came to pass that Alma said unto him, taking him by the hand: Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation?
And he answered and said: Yea, I believe all the words that thou hast taught.
And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.
And he said: Yea, I believe according to thy words.
And then Alma cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord our God, have mercy on this man, and heal him according to his faith which is in Christ.
And when Alma had said these words, Zeezrom leaped upon his feet, and began to walk; and this was done to the great astonishment of all the people; and the knowledge of this went forth throughout all the land of Sidom.
And Alma baptized Zeezrom unto the Lord; and he began from that time forth to preach unto the people.  (Alma 15:6-12, emphasis mine).

Ammon, who converted King Lamoni, described it this way:

And it came to pass that after he had said all these things, and expounded them to the king, that the king believed all his words.
And he began to cry unto the Lord, saying: O Lord, have mercy; according to thy abundant mercy which thou hast had upon the people of Nephi, have upon me, and my people. . .  (Alma 18:40-41).
[Then he’s in a little trance for awhile, and when he awakens he declares to his wife the queen:]
And it came to pass that he arose, according to the words of Ammon; and as he arose, he stretched forth his hand unto the woman, and said: Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou.
For as sure as thou livest, behold, I have seen my Redeemer; and he shall come forth, and be born of a woman, and he shall redeem all mankind who believe on his name. Now, when he had said these words, his heart was swollen within him, and he sunk again with joy; and the queen also sunk down, being overpowered by the Spirit.  (Alma 19:12-13, emphasis mine).

The queen also received instant help when she awakened with this testimony on her lips:

And it came to pass that she went and took the queen by the hand, that perhaps she might raise her from the ground; and as soon as she touched her hand she arose and stood upon her feet, and cried with a loud voice, saying: O blessed Jesus, who has saved me from an awful hell! O blessed God, have mercy on this people!  (Alma 19:29, emphasis mine).

Then Lamoni’s father gets immediate forgiveness when Aaron teaches him:

And it came to pass that after Aaron had expounded these things unto him, the king said: What shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? Yea, what shall I do that I may be born of God, having this wicked spirit rooted out of my breast, and receive his Spirit, that I may be filled with joy, that I may not be cast off at the last day? Behold, said he, I will give up all that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy.
But Aaron said unto him: If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt bow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the hope which thou desirest.
And it came to pass that when Aaron had said these words, the king did bow down before the Lord, upon his knees; yea, even he did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily, saying:
O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day.  (Alma 22:15-18).
[Then he too sleeps for awhile and when he awakens, this:]
Now this was done in the presence of the queen and many of the servants.  And when they saw it they greatly marveled, and began to fear.  And the king stood forth, and began to minister unto them, insomuch that his whole household were converted unto the Lord.  (Alma 22:23, emphasis mine).

When Alma later told his conversion story, he related how quickly salvation came to him:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!
Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.  (Alma 36:17-21, emphasis mine).

Even the wicked people who came to kill Lehi and Nephi, sons of Helaman, received an instantaneous deliverance:

And Nephi and Lehi were in the midst of them; yea, they were encircled about; yea, they were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not, neither did it take hold upon the walls of the prison; and they were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.
And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words.
And it came to pass that there came a voice unto them, yea, a pleasant voice, as if it were a whisper, saying:
Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world.
And now, when they heard this they cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came; and behold, they saw the heavens open; and angels came down out of heaven and ministered unto them.
And there were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things; and they were bidden to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt.
And it came to pass that they did go forth, and did minister unto the people, declaring throughout all the regions round about all the things which they had heard and seen, insomuch that the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of them, because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received.
And as many as were convinced did lay down their weapons of war, and also their hatred and the tradition of their fathers.
And it came to pass that they did yield up unto the Nephites the lands of their possession.  (Helaman 5:44-52, emphasis mine).

We live in a day when hatred among people of different ethnic backgrounds (think Lamanite and Nephite civilizations) extend back to the beginning of Abraham’s tribal family feuds. All are related to Father Abraham, but the differences between these peoples are often dramatized and exacerbated, much as the race relations in America rise to unwarranted heights when the flames are fanned as they are today. Ishmael was saved in the wilderness to give rise to a vast Islamic world population today, a small percentage of which is wreaking havoc not unlike the Gadianton robbers of another time. Who can doubt when we read of these miraculous conversions that the same thing could not happen again as liberty and freedom spreads abroad in the war against terrorism today? Despotism, while it may flourish here and there for a season, cannot be sustained. It is the yearning for freedom, however, that endures.

When we seek forgiveness, there is no doubt the God we worship is a "First Watch God."  But that degree of forgiveness implies we must do “all that we could do” (see Alma 24:11; 15) to receive the blessings sought. The key lies not in God’s power to grant. The key that unlocks salvation in our lives rests in our hands – when we knock, He opens immediately. As powerful as the atonement is, it never has power in our lives until we give Him permission to heal us.

Hugh Nibley
I love the perspective of Hugh Nibley, who when asked to sum up all he had learned, replied that we must become really good at two things in mortality - to repent and to forgive. He fleshes it out this way:

The test for this life is not for knowledge; it is not for intelligence, or for courage, or for anything like that. That would be a huge joke. None of us knows very much, none of us is very brave, none of us is very strong, none of us is very smart. We would flunk those tests terribly. As Alma said, we are only to be tested on one thing - the desires of our heart (Alma 41:3); that is what we are really after. . . Thus we don't need to go on forever suffering the same nonsense in order to see the things we can be tested for, namely the two things and the only two things we are good at: we can forgive and we can repent. These are the two things the angels envy us for. (Approaching Zion, 300-301).

In Luke 17, the Lord Jesus Christ admonishes the disciples to “Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4).

He raises the stakes even higher in our dispensation with this: “My disciples, in days of old, sought occasion against one another and forgave not one another in their hearts; and for this evil they were afflicted and sorely chastened. Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:8-10).

Elder Neal A. Maxwell
If that is the standard He expects of us, isn’t it reasonable to suppose we could expect Him to do at least as much for us when we need forgiveness – even if it’s seven times in a single day? But how do we get to be so good at forgiveness just like Him? Practice, practice, practice. We are organized into families for that express purpose, so that we may have (as Neal A. Maxwell used to say) “laboratory material” on which to work.

I know that small slights and offenses are all part of rubbing against each other. I know I may have been the cause of some of that among all of you, and for that I seek your forgiveness. Such was never my intent to hurt anyone. But it happens. I try to do my best and years go by, it seems, before I take action to make needed repairs. Like many of you, I am a great procrastinator, but I hope to be better and better as the slippery slope before me and death looms ever more slippery. I love you all and I seek your forgiveness for whatever it is I may have done, not done, or said or not said to have given offense.

In that spirit, while toiling forward in my discipleship late into the Fourth Watch and beyond, my desire is to become a First Watch Disciple who dispenses immediate forgiveness and seeks to swiftly repent as often as seven times a day when needed. That it may be so for all of us, I pray.

And don't be surprised, having done all you know how to do in the way of repenting, if the wait for deliverance continues on for a little while longer. It's all part of your preparation to bring you forth a little more burnished and finished from the fires of adversity. In the immortal words of Earl Hayes, "Pure gold was never refined in an air-conditioned chamber."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

We Worship a Fourth Watch God

On this Christmas afternoon in Pine Valley, the snow is piling up, the trees are adorned in a covering of white, and I'm listening to Christmas carols in the quietude of the scene spread before me. I'm in a reflective mood, and cleaning up some old files on the computer. I found an entry I had written during a bleak time of doubt and fear about the future. All these years later things did work out for us. I wrote these words when the hour was the darkest, just before the dawn's light began to shine. The answers that had seemed so elusive eventually emerged, and yielded themselves after persistence, faith, hard work and consistency. This was "self talk" back then, now I share it with those who may be toiling in the darkest time of their lives:

Several years ago I was given a Christmas gift that endures. It was a talk on CD given by Michael Wilcox titled “The Fourth Watch.” It was right on point for us. Echoing back to me in my ears was the advice and counsel I have given to so many over the years. But looking back, it’s always different when you’re the one in the barrel going over the falls. It’s so much easier to be the dispenser than the recipient. I am grateful to Julie for giving us this gift of inestimable worth to remind us that even when it seems we are receiving no answers that there is still hope to be found in the journey!

A useful bit of historical trivia to help you understand the New Testament scriptures: Brother Wilcox explains that the Hebrew day was divided into four three-hour segments beginning at 6:00 a.m. The third hour is 9:00 a.m., the sixth hour is noon, and the ninth hour (when the scriptures say the Savior was crucified) is 3:00 p.m.

At night, the three-hour segments are divided into “watches.” The first watch is 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., the second watch is 9:00 p.m. to midnight, the third watch is midnight to 3:00 a.m., and the fourth watch – the object lesson of his talk – is 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.

He teaches some powerful principles to those of us who have toiled in faith, seemingly with no answers coming our way. He gives the example of the Savior’s walk on the water as the illustration. Many of you, perhaps, have not come to realize yet that His coming to the troubled and weary disciples who had rowed all night on the Sea of Galilee was in the darkest and most foreboding time of the night – just before dawn.

He had fed the multitudes earlier in the day (five thousand men plus the women and children), sent them away, and told the disciples to get into a ship and row to the other side. Then the scriptures say (Matthew 14:23) he “went up into a mountain apart to pray,” and he must have prayed into the evening and well into the night all alone.

Meanwhile, the ship “was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary.” Mark in his record (Mark 6:48) adds the detail that “he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them.” John says “it was now dark, and the Jesus was not come to them. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs (a “furlong" is about 220 yards, so you do the math – they were no doubt tired and exhausted by now), they see Jesus walking on the sea.” (John 6:17-19).

Well, what are the lessons to be learned by this extreme example from the scriptures? 1) He sees us toiling in our discipleship from a vantage point far higher and more superior to ours; 2) He knows we are often exhausted and apt to grumble about our circumstances, yet loves us anyway; 3) He has power over all the elements that conspire to create the waves of adversity and has the power to calm them; 4) He tells us not to be afraid. I would add one more – when He does come to us in the fourth watch “immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.” (John 6:21).  In other words, the timetable of when He comes to us is His not ours, and when the time is fully ripe in the fourth watch it seems the miracle is immediate.

Brother Wilcox suggests that we worship a “fourth watch” God. I used to say, “God loves a cliffhanger.” It seems when all help is seemingly spent, when the last extremity has been reached, then and only then – in the fourth watch – does He respond in mercy and kindness. I suppose that fact is mandated in discipleship to determine whether or not we will really – REALLY – learn to trust Him.

Brother Wilcox cites the example of Hagar with Ishmael in the wilderness, when the “water was spent in the bottle.” (Genesis 21:15). He gently chides her with “What aileth thee, Hagar?” Oh, I don’t know, she had just been cast out of Abraham’s household, was at the point of starvation and dehydration, near death, and she could not have had much to complain about, could she?  He told her (and all of us) that someday, “I will make him a great nation” (verse 18). God “opened her eyes” when all hope was lost and “she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink” (verse 19). He came in the fourth watch, but He DID come!

Another example was the widow in Zarephath who was commanded to sustain Elijah in the moment of his extremity, when all she had was “a little water in a vessel,” and "a morsel of bread,” “a handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse,” just enough to make her last meal for herself and her son in preparation of their death. (1 Kings 17:8-16). The promise was once again fulfilled, and “the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Elijah.” He came in the fourth watch, but He DID come!

I’ve also wondered about Abraham and his sacrifice of Isaac (see Genesis 22).  In that example I have learned not to fear the long hike up the mountain of preparation. I’ve learned to embrace the tests that come along the way. And I’ve learned that by accepting the invitation to join the church of the Firstborn, consecration defies (and is in direct contradiction) to the natural man within us. There is no evidence that Isaac resisted even a little bit. He went forward in his uncertainty trusting his father. “Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the LORD called upon him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham; and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him; for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me (verses 10-12). Again, He came in the fourth watch, but He DID come!

Extreme examples? Yes, each one. But are our lives any less dramatic? When all seems to be lost in our lives, we can paint ourselves into these stories and learn to trust God at all costs. That’s what the path of discipleship is all about, and yes, it is a dangerous doctrine.

What is coming up ahead of us on the path of discipleship as we live our lives on borrowed time well into the sixth seal is a darker night and more fierce winds on the sea. It will take fourth watch faith if we are to successfully navigate our dark night of stormy seas up ahead. But remember, He WILL come even in our fourth watches!

We really do worship a Fourth Watch God! He hears your desperate pleas for help. He will succor you in your afflictions. He will be merciful and kind.