Shabat Shalom

My Husband and I were recently invited to attend Shabbat services and a Passover dinner with the Jewish community at his school. We started out at the nondenominational chapel on campus that was set up with a partition down the middle. Men sat in the chairs on the right women on the left. On each seat was a paper book with the words to the service in Hebrew on the right, English on the left. The rabbi’s young son stood at the front in his suit and kippah, his beautiful falsetto voice echoing throughout the hall as he led everyone confidently in the worship services. This was not unlike many scenes I witnessed during my semester abroad in Jerusalem. In fact it brought back sweet memories of the culture and people I grew to love and become fascinated with during my time there. I sat next to a girl my age that practiced law downtown. She was cute, accomplished and we immediately hit it off.  Our conversation covered the usual get to know you questions but somehow shifted into how our religions are similar.

I mentioned my time in Jerusalem and how learning about the ancient world was not only eye opening but very validating as a “devout” Christian. It was amazing to me how almost everything anciently in some way revolved around religion whether that was mono or polytheistic.  And that for thousands of years the rituals involved was part of the way of life and played a role in major historical landmarks.  Her eyes widened as she nodded in agreement and said “yes! I totally feel the same” We then began to discuss the prevalent modern day mindset of keeping things agnostic or even atheist. How it is relatively new and our unfamiliarity with ritual worship causes us to see it as something scary.  We totally understood each other for a moment and felt the thrill of meeting a stranger who shares your unique perspective.

We spent the rest of the evening with her helping me follow along in the Hebrew text of the Shabbat services and giggling over silly things like when I made a fool out of myself by standing at the wrong time. But here we were two women who didn’t even believe in the same God, nonetheless we both had conviction about our faith and found comradery in each other’s religious dedication.  It inspired me to reach out more to those around me and buoy them up in their beliefs. Heaven knows we need each other as the world grows more and more unfamiliar in and uninterested with religion as a whole.

This experience that evening was topped off by our interaction with the Rabbi. He oversees all of the Jewish services and facilitates the Jewish community in and around Harvard. He patted us both on the back and excitedly declared “We need to have you over for dinner! We need friends like you guys!” Now I’m not sure what “like you guys” referred to but his tone was unmistakable. He displayed not only openness but a yearning for more exchange between devout people. Like I said, we NEED each other!

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Easter is a Big Deal

For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Easter is a big deal. After all, Christ’s atonement, death, and resurrection are central to the Church’s teachings. It is because of Christ that everyone will be resurrected, that we can be forgiven of our sins, make positive changes in our lives, have access to God’s blessings and grace, find strength to face life’s challenges, and have inner peace no matter what happens to us. It is all because of Him.

How do we Mormons traditionally celebrate such a significant holiday? Primarily, we attend our regular worship services, including sacrament meeting, on Sunday. Easter Sunday is very similar to every other Sunday with hymns, prayers, speakers, and the administration of the sacrament (when we reflect on Christ’s sacrifice and renew baptismal covenants as we partake of bread and water – symbolic of Christ’s body and atoning blood). On Easter Sunday, the hymns and speakers have an Easter focus, and I think many find the sacrament to be especially meaningful to them that day. Some families come to church in new Easter clothes, some families will have had an Easter egg hunt and received goodies from the “Easter Bunny,” some families will have a special Easter dinner – but those things are up to each family and are not official Church traditions.

Other than Easter Sunday services, though, Mormons do not have traditional ways of observing Holy Week as many other Christian churches do. Christ’s suffering and death means everything to us, but culturally we focus much more on Resurrection morning. Honestly, I kind of wish that as a Church we officially observed Good Friday because reflecting on Christ’s suffering and death provides such meaningful joy at His resurrection. (I think this opinion falls into the category of what interfaith proponent Krister Stendahl from Harvard Divinity School called “holy envy” – finding elements of other faiths to admire and emulate.)

And yet, Easter is a holiday that is at least as big of a deal to us as Christmas is. Gordon B. Hinckley, former President of the Church, surmised, “There would be no Christmas if there were no Easter.” Ultimately, we celebrate Christmas because Christ fulfilled His mission on Earth as the Savior and “drank the bitter cup” – suffered for our sins, died, and was resurrected for us. That is the reason to celebrate both holidays with great rejoicing!

In my opinion, sometimes Easter can be too simple, too candy-and-bunny-focused, and too understated – as “hollow as the chocolate bunnies we devour” (wrote Janet Hales, Mormon author of A Christ-Centered Easter) – if we let it. Easter can come and go as just another date on the calendar if we don’t give it much thought. In the end, Easter Sunday and Holy Week are really what we make of them.

LDS Church leaders have repeatedly emphasized establishing righteous family traditions, particularly those that strengthen our faith in Christ. Easter is a prime opportunity for Christ-centered traditions that draw us closer to Him and to our families.

Just as Christmas Day is the culmination of a month-long season, I have found it meaningful to try to also make a “season” for Easter in my family. I like to start a couple weeks before Easter so we really get in the Christmas Easter spirit (same thing, right?). Some of our “Easter season” traditions mirror favorite Christmas traditions: singing and playing music about the Savior (Handel’s Messiah works for both Christmas and Easter), putting up decorations that remind us of the Savior, planning some family-focused time and activities, giving Christlike service to others, reading parts of the Four Gospels’ accounts of the Savior’s life, reflecting on the Savior and bearing testimonies of Him, offering prayers of gratitude and praise, watching movies about the Savior (such as these Bible Videos), making favorite foods to be enjoyed at a special dinner and/or breakfast, and acting out some parts of the scriptural accounts (such the Triumphal Entry). My family and I also like to follow the events of the Holy Week by reading the corresponding scriptures for each day and doing a related activity (such as visiting an LDS temple on the day Jesus cleansed the temple). Though continually evolving with each year, these Easter traditions have become meaningful to my family, in addition to our worship at Easter Sunday sacrament meeting.

As an interesting side note, this year Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday in April, which is during the spring General Conference of the Church. Semi-annually, General Conference weekend is broadcast worldwide from Salt Lake City and takes the place of church services. Modern-day prophets and apostles will share messages about Christ and His gospel. To me it seems like a great way to reflect on the Savior on Easter. I’d encourage you to watch it here April 4-5.

Question: What are some ways you make Easter a personally meaningful holiday for you and/or your family?

Challenge: If you haven’t already, begin thinking about how you will honor and reverence Christ during this Easter season. Brainstorm ways to make Easter an especially important time.

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An Eternal Perspective of Special Needs

I was really excited to come across this resource the other day on the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, geared towards knowing how to include and reach out to those with special needs.

Six months ago, my daughter was diagnosed in the NICU with a brain injury that will have lifelong implications. In common terminology, her injury manifests itself under the all-inclusive/broad term “cerebral palsy.”

Initially, her diagnosis was excruciating to hear as all our dreams and expectations had to change. One of the best sources of hope for me then and now is keeping an eternal perspective of her mortal condition.

She was once, just like all of us, a spirit who dwelt with Heavenly Father prior to birth. Her perfectly formed spirit did not have cerebral palsy then and does not have cerebral palsy now. Her condition is a temporal, or bodily, condition. She needed to come to Earth to receive a body as part of her eternal progression and to learn important lessons here, many of which will be related to the challenges of her temporal condition. The strongest spirits, I believe, often come in the weakest bodies.

Jesus Christ’s resurrection means so much more to me now, and without that hope, my daughter’s situation would be a lot harder for me to accept. I like to think of a butterfly as a symbol for my daughter. Although she is trapped in the cocoon of an imperfect mind, one day she will emerge glorious and perfect into who she really is inside. One day her spirit and her body will be reunited, free from the challenges she experienced on Earth, “restored to [a] proper and perfect frame” (Alma 40:23).

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President Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, shared this insight about people with special needs: “Spirits which are beautiful and innocent may be temporally restrained by physical impediments. If healing does not come in mortal life, it will come thereafter. Just as the gorgeous monarch butterfly emerges from a chrysalis, so will spirits emerge.”

The Spirit has taught me that I, too, am meant to be changed through my experiences with my daughter. Heavenly Father has greater things in store for us than we had planned. His ways and thoughts are higher than my ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).

President Packer said, “If our view is limited to mortal life, some things become unbearable because they seem so unfair and so permanent. There are doctrines which, if understood, will bring a perspective toward and a composure regarding problems which otherwise have no satisfactory explanation.”

For me, those hopeful doctrines include the eternal nature (no beginning and no ending) of the soul, the perfect restoration made possible through the Resurrection, and the enabling power of Christ’s Atonement which gives me strength to confront challenges.

I need the Savior’s grace, His power, on a daily basis to handle the challenges of being a mother. As I actively look for His grace and tender mercies amid the challenges, I realize He is helping me. I know His love has a healing power. When my faith submits to fear and I start to sink into seas of sadness and despair, I need to be like Peter and reach out to Jesus for His sustaining power. Seek His wisdom and guidance, strength, love. Trust His plan for our family and that He will make great things come from this. Easier said than done sometimes, but He is coaching me through it.

Note: I am still learning much about special needs and eternal perspective. I know there are people with more experience and profound insights. If you have something to add, please comment below!

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Stronger Together

Faith, grace, love, prayer, strength. I’ve come to better understand these topics over the past year because of a dear friend. A friend who, in fact, is not of my Mormon faith. Her faith has strengthened mine, and I hope mine has strengthened hers in some way.

Several months before meeting her, I had an important, preparatory insight. My husband invited a friend over from school who had recently become a Christian in another faith; this friend had prayed to God to know if Christ was real and received what he felt was an affirmative answer to His prayer. As he explained his experience, I was reminded that God answers everyone’s prayers, no matter the religion.

There are absolute truths that God imparts to our spirits, no matter who we are. God loves all His children and blesses all with spiritual experiences that are intended to help guide each person back home to Him. That love and those spiritual experiences come whether you are Mormon, Catholic, Born-Again Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, etc., or even if you do not claim any faith.

It should be noted that I do believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be God’s true church on the Earth today, restored as the same church Christ established while on the Earth. That belief, however, does not preclude me from gleaning valuable insights from the perspectives of other religious people. I’ll not criticize you for believing differently from me. Rather, I am strengthened as I try to see things from another perspective—in fact, I need that and crave that. Most importantly, I feel strengthened from the support and camaraderie that comes from other people of faith.

I have learned that when we stop contending with other religions about who is “right” and begin building each other up by sharing our faith-filled experiences and working together for the common good, everyone benefits. Society at large benefits. I believe a community of faith, even if diverse, is a force for good and morality in an increasingly hostile world of selfishness, militant atheism, and moral relativism.

Faith is not a crutch to fall back on out of weakness. Instead, faith has been an anchor to me, steadying and strengthening me through life. Faith in God has helped me—among other things—overcome depression, start a family, endure NICU-related sorrow and heartache, pursue intimidating goals in the face of adversity, and look forward with hope to the unknown future.

I am grateful for interfaith efforts such as interfaith dialogues (e.g., a Catholic and Mormon students lunch-n-learn I attended recently, bible studies open to all denominations, the Vatican Summit, etc.), faith-promoting websites like Faith Counts, and faith-based relief and humanitarian agencies. These causes strengthen the faith of all religious people, enabling them to better face the challenges of life and to affect society in positive ways. We have much to learn from each other and much to gain from our ties.

The following quote from the MormonNewsroom.org website summarizes this idea nicely: “The spiritual and physical needs of the world require goodwill and cooperation among different faiths. Each of them makes a valuable contribution to the larger community of believers. In the words of early Church apostle Orson F. Whitney, ‘God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous, for any one people.’ Thus, members of the Church do not view fellow believers around the world as adversaries or competitors, but as partners in the many causes for good in the world…People of good faith do not need to have the exact same beliefs in order to accomplish great things in the service of their fellow human beings.” (For more information, please see this page of the Mormon Newsroom website.)

Some may read this and ask, “So does one need to be a person of faith in order to make a positive difference in the world?” Not necessarily – that is not the point. Rather, the take-away is that people of faith must stick together to support the very existence of faith and religious freedom. Faith is strength, and we are stronger together.

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Why can’t we be friends?

My husband is currently attending business school at Harvard which has been a phenomenal experience for our entire family (we have 2 kids). Thinking back on the debate we were having on whether or not it was worth applying seems almost comical now. There is no end to the gushing fountain of experiences school has to offer. We were worried that it wouldn’t be worth our money, or that the 2 years out of the workplace would have unforeseen effects on his career. Being the supportive wife that I most of the time am, I was happy either way and tried to feel out on my own what was right for us. And like I mentioned 1.5 semesters down and we laugh at our pre-business-school-selves.

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For us, you can not put a price tag on the depth and breadth of relationships we have created at school. People that, had we not been forced together in the microcosm that is business school, we would have never gotten so close. Because everyone’s address book is expanding by the second there is a unique openness and genuine interest in learning about peoples backgrounds and interests. I have yet to meet 2 people that are even similar. Everyone is so different, including us! Our mormon born, non-drinking, kid raising selves have found that there’s a place for our variety among the melting pot.

I have had more discussions about my faith and the beliefs of others then ever before in my life. Almost daily. And it is never with any strings attached. That is what I love about this atmosphere of education and enlightenment. While academia may seeIMG_2099m restrictive and close minded, especially when it comes to religion, the attitude everyone has of learning has been so evident in every conversation I have. “You wear weird underwear? Cool! I had a sex change!” “You are all about kids? Awesome. I’m not interested at all. ever.” You voted for Mitt? Sweet. I worked for Elizabeth Warren! Let’s be friends!”

I treasure this environment that business school as brought into our life. I know it’s not so simple in the “real world” but why not?

I’m a mormon and I’d love to tell you all about what I believe and why I do what I do. And I’m dying to learn about where you’ve been and what makes you tick. Can we be friends?

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The Christus: Who is Christ to Us?

Christus in the Salt Lake North Visitors’ Center

Christus in the Salt Lake North Visitors’ Center

“That’s Jesus Christ!” my two-year old son exclaimed in an excited but reverent whisper. We stood together in awe amid the Christmas crowds at the Christus statue in Temple Square. My son wriggled against our arms during the audio presentation, eager for the speaking to end so he could run up to the magnificent likeness of Jesus and give it a “big hug.”

The larger-than-life Christus statue stands prominently year-round in the North Visitors’ Center in Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah. The original, created by sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen and located in Copenhagen, Denmark, inspired leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) to adopt it as a symbol of the Church’s focus on Jesus Christ. Now, replicas of the Christus can be found in several LDS Visitors’ Centers throughout the world.

It is not uncommon to see a Christus statuette displayed in homes of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Recently, the Christus on my mantle has served as a poignant reminder to me of Christ’s roles in my life. (Please note that Mormons do not worship the statue itself but display it to inspire and to remind us of Christ and His teachings.)

First, take a moment to look at the stance of the Christus, as shown in this photo. Notice the outstretched arms, the foot stepping forward, the prints of the nails on the hands and feet, the wound in the side, the head slightly bowed.

Christus

Christus statuette on my mantle

The specific stance of the Christus is symbolic to me of some of Christ’s important roles:

Creator. As depicted in the Christus, Christ has power to create with His hands. Perhaps the position of His arms shows Him displaying the grandeur and expanse of His creations. As Paul wrote, “For by him were all things created” (Colossians 1:16). And, the Prophet Joseph Smith testified, “that by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:24).

The Second Coming by Harry Anderson

The Second Coming by Harry Anderson

King. Christ appears to stand majestically, acknowledging His people with devotion as He lowers His head. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Revelation 19:16). His stance resembles many artists’ depictions of His Second Coming, when every knee shall bow at His feet (D&C 88:104), and He shall rule and reign over the earth in righteousness (Articles of Faith 1:10).

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Detail from Jesus Christ Visits the Americas by John Scott

Sacrificial Lamb of God, Savior. Perhaps this was Christ’s humble pose when He offered to carry out the Father’s plan to redeem mankind by sacrificing Himself for sin. In obeisance to the Father, He submitted Himself in the pre-mortal existence with: “Here am I, send me” (Abraham 3:27). He was chosen and anointed to be the Savior, as the Latin title “Christus” denotes. After triumphing over death and sin, He showed His resurrected body to His disciples in Jerusalem and to the people in the Americas: “Arise and come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth, and have been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Nephi 11:14).

Foot of the Christus

Foot of the Christus

­Friend. His outstretched arms are ready to embrace us when we need to feel “encircled in the arms of [His] love” (2 Nephi 1:15). One foot is stepping towards us (an outreaching gesture similar to Michelangelo’s finger of God in The Creation of Adam), which to me portrays how earnestly He seeks to be near us. His gesture is that of someone who cares—indeed, a friend. In fact, He called us His friends, for whom He was willing to lay down His life (John 15:13). (Coincidentally, His right hand’s position resembles the American Sign Language sign for “I love you,” which, though not intentional, is still fitting.)

Hand of the Christus

Hand of the Christus

Burden Bearer. His outreaching arms also appear eager to take a heavy box or burden from us and carry it. He beckons, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28-30). Notably, Thorvaldsen’s original Christus bears these Danish words: “Kommer Til Mig” – “Come Unto Me.”

Benefactor. It is as if He is motioning for us to behold the bounteous blessings which He has given us, encouraging us to see His hand in our lives. His hands are ready to bestow even more blessings. Truly, it is through Christ that we receive all good things from Heavenly Father; though we are undeserving, Christ’s grace grants us heaven’s tender mercies (Moroni 7:24). Christ tells us that His arm of mercy is ready to receive us: “Behold, mine arm of mercy is extended towards you, and whosoever will come, him will I receive; and blessed are those who come unto me” (3 Nephi 9:14).

Intercessor, Advocate. Perhaps His stance is that of presenting Himself before the Father, interceding and advocating our pleas for mercy. He appeals on our behalves: “Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life” (D&C 45:3-5). While entreating our cause, He presents the nail prints in His hands, where we have quite literally been graven upon His palms (Isaiah 49:16). He has already paid the debt we incur through sin and satisfied the demands of justice.

The Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). His hands do not point a direction to go but instead draw attention to Himself as The Way—the way to live now, the way to eternal life, the way to come unto the Father. He acts as our Exemplar: “What manner of men [and women] ought ye to be? Verily, I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). He serves as our Teacher, perhaps portrayed here to be using His hands while expounding doctrine—doctrine such as, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Certainly, so much more could be said about the roles of Jesus Christ; this is not a comprehensive list. These are select roles Thorvaldsen’s Christus has come to symbolize for me. Christ is real; I know that. Thinking of and writing about Him fills my soul with reverence, stillness, gratitude, and wonder. As I gaze up at the Christus, He stands supreme, and I stand all amazed.

The Christus

The Christus

What thoughts or feelings does the Christus stir up in you? What roles does Christ have in your life? What think ye of Christ?

To learn more about Christ and about Mormons as Christians, read this talk by Apostle Robert D. Hales (one of many similar talks).

 

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