After a month of sheltering at home, many Americans are missing their communion with God, faith and congregation, especially in the month where Passover, Easter, and Ramadan are observed. Is there a way to regain that sense of communion without going to church, temple, or mosque? Of course there is.
Emily Dickinson was the queen of sheltering at home. She had a close circle of friends with whom she shared intimate relationships, but she seldom went out in public, and she shunned most social customs and expectations, including the tradition of “being at home” once a week to receive drop-in callers. Instead, she made her own rules and determined her own path. Her poem “The Soul Selects her Own Society” celebrates the sovereignty of the individual, claiming that the soul is a “divine majority” that cannot be ruled by custom, tradition, or social democracy. She writes:
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
She identifies individual sovereignty as natural, inalienable, sacred and divine. As we adapt to “sheltering in place” and doing without our usual activities, we can learn a great deal from Dickinson’s poetry and her philosophy of being at peace while being alone.
Dickinson was a well-read second-generation transcendentalist who was heavily influenced by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Michael Meyer says in The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, “Like Henry David Thoreau, she simplified her life so that doing without was a means of being within. In a sense she redefined the meaning of deprivation because being denied something—whether it was faith, love, literary recognition, or some other desire—provided a sharper, more intense understanding than she would have experienced had she achieved what she wanted.” For examples of Dickinson’s “deprivation” poetry, you might want to read “Water is Taught by Thirst,” “Success is Counted Sweetest” and “Heaven—Is What I Cannot Reach!”
American Transcendentalism, founded by Emerson and his literary circle in the early 19th century, was influenced by the sacred works of eastern religions that had only recently been translated into German and from German into English. Emerson was particularly taken by the idea of direct revelation, and believed that all ideas were derived as personal inspiration (literally, to breathe in spirit) from God. Thus intuition was divine inspiration. Emerson used to carry a notebook with him and would jot down thoughts that came to him throughout the day. He would later develop many of these personal revelations into formal lectures and essays.
Joel Porte’s excellent Emerson in his Journals provides a chronological collection of Emerson’s random thoughts; one of my favorites is “The whole of Virtue consists in substituting being for seeming, & this God properly saith I AM” (May 30, 1835). You might want to contemplate that thought during your next leisurely walk or meditation session!
The transcendentalists did not reject God per se, but they often rejected organized religion, which they saw as posing a barrier between ourselves and that direct inspiration from God described by the eastern religions and embraced by their Americanized version of it. They also felt a strong affinity toward nature and believed that a person could come closer to God while exploring outside than while sitting inside a building, even one dedicated to worship. Dickinson, already resistant to going out in public, embraced this idea as well and expressed it charmingly in my favorite of her poems:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
and an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling a Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.
The “tree whisperer,” Peter Wohlleben, says in The Hidden Life of Trees, that trees are biologically drawn to one another so that their branches often intertwine at the top, creating a domelike shape. Dickinson’s speaker recognizes this shape in the vault of the orchard and transforms it into her church. In the second stanza she plays with the homophones “surplice” (a robe worn by a minister) and “surplus” (more than enough) to suggest that we have more than enough ministers to go around. She chooses instead to wear her “wings,” a clear allusion to angels and the divinity bestowed upon her by God himself. She needs no bell clanging in the distance to call her to worship when the sunlight and cheerful sound of birds draws her naturally outside.
In the final stanza she rejects the criticism of those who tell her she must come to church in order to be “saved” by claiming that God is her minister—a “noted clergyman” she says, implying, “perhaps you’ve heard of him?” And then the zinger—while the town folk endure seemingly interminable sermons on earth in order to get “to Heaven at last,” she is in Heaven every time she walks out into her Orchard sanctuary.
I don’t go so far as Emerson or Dickinson in suggesting that I have no need for a minister; I enjoy my church experience, and I’ve missed my church community during this time of sheltering at home. I’ve kept in touch through telephone and social media, but I miss the face-to-face communion with my friends. I’ll be glad when we can return, and I can again sing in the church choir and listen to the words of scripture and exhortation.
Meanwhile, I have enjoyed my own “Orchard sanctuary” these many weeks as I have hiked the canyon near my home, listened to the songs of birds in the trees, contemplated scripture, and enjoyed my inward conversations with God. I encourage you to find a place where you, too, can feel the peace that nature brings, and hear the sermon that God places in your heart.
The rising sun has long been a symbol of faith and hope, reaching back to pagan times when it was worshiped as a god. The sun brought light, warmth, nourishment, and most of all, reassurance that life would continue. “I know this as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow” is a familiar declaration of confidence.
Just as Christmas Eve is often celebrated with a midnight mass, Easter morning in most Christian congregations begins with a sunrise service. But not this year, when public gatherings, even for outdoor events, have been banned.
Why do Christians watch the sun rise on Easter?
The practice is a reminder of the faithfulness of the women who had loved Jesus and followed him throughout his ministry. When Jesus died, the Sabbath was only minutes away. His disciples had barely enough time to wrap his body in a clean linen cloth and lay it hastily in the nearby tomb owned by a disciple, Joseph of Arimethea, before the sun went down and the Sabbath began. The women who loved him would have to wait, grieving, through the long lonely hours of the night, before they would be able to wash away the blood and dirt and anoint His body properly with funeral spices and herbs. Those herbs included myrrh, which had been one of the gifts of the magi, symbolizing his death.
The women waited respectfully in the shadows of the garden until the sun broke through the darkness. Then they hurried forward to begin their final act of sacred service.
Similarly, Christians rise in darkness to watch the sun rise each Easter morning. It is an act of devotion and gratitude, and commemorates the loving service of these women disciples.
Our first experience with a sunrise service was less than inspiring, however.
Sunrise services had not been a part of our Easter tradition, but when our youngest daughter was attending preschool at the local Methodist School for Early Education, we decided to give it a try. We woke our children at 5 am, dressed them in their Sunday finest, and drove them to the church. The air was moist as we stood on the shore of the nearby lake, waiting for the service to begin. Our children were fidgety from standing and itchy from the damp grass sticking to their ankles. We had not prepared them for the event but simply dragged them to the shore and expected them to “get” it. A choir sang. A minister spoke. The sun rose. We went home. It was barely 7 am with all of Sunday stretching before us. Our kids were cranky all day. I was disappointed. Why hadn’t I felt uplifted by the experience?
Too often we go to a worship service expecting to be inspired or uplifted when we haven’t prepared. We take a passive approach, expecting to be moved without actually moving. We want to be spiritually fed, but what we really need is to partake of the spirit—to reach out actively and participate in the event. The choir hadn’t failed, and the minister hadn’t failed. The sun hadn’t failed, and certainly Christ hadn’t failed. I had failed. I had been an observer, not a participant. Simply attending a service was not the same as worship.
I learned from that experience the importance of preparation. We experienced many wonderful sunrise services as a family after that, but not in formal services. Instead, during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, I would read the story in the four Gospels and contemplate the events of the Savior’s final earthly days. I set my alarm for 20 minutes before sunrise on Easter morning and then, donning our robes and slippers, Mark and I would gently wake our children, wrap each of them in a comforter—a symbol of the Savior’s spirit, incidentally—and guide them quietly through the dark house out the back door and down the slope to the lake behind our house. We helped them into our boat and motored quietly to the center of the lake, where we listened to soft sacred music and nibbled on strawberries while we waited for the sun to rise. Birds chirped their wake-up songs, and occasionally a fish would splash out o the water. It was peaceful, cozy, and deeply spiritual.
Quietly I would remind the children why we rise so early on Easter to celebrate the sunrise. Jesus’s body had hung from the cross for six agonizing hours. Usually a person was crucified by being tied to the cross with ropes, and the body’s weight would put pressure on the chest, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. For a while they would push up on the board nailed below the feet to take a breath, but as exhaustion set in, they gave up and suffocated. But Jesus’s tormentors had driven nails through his hands and then through his wrists and feet. It must have been excruciating as he hung there for six staggering, agonizing hours.
I would remind them of the respect his followers had for the Sabbath, observing it as a day of rest even though Jesus’s body lay in the tomb without being properly prepared. But they were determined not to let his body wait one minute longer than necessary. As the sun broke through the darkness, they hurried to their work. But his body was not there. He had risen.
I always ended these family sunrise services by reading my favorite chapter in all the scriptures, John 20, which describes Mary Magdalene’s experience at the tomb. I have read it aloud more than a hundred times in my life, yet I can never get through it without a catch in my throat when Jesus calls Mary by name. I urge you to read it today.
On those Easter mornings when our children were young, we would stay in our boat a bit longer, listening to the birds call to each other their wake up songs. Then we would motor to the dock, the children would troop back upstairs for another hour or so of sleep, and Easter bunny would arrive to do his business. Our hearts were full, because the Son arose.
“How to Survive Thanksgiving!” The headlines are fairly blaring with post-election advice on how to get along with family members this holiday season. “Be prepared to walk out!” they advise, as though protest is the greater part of valor. They seem to think we have nothing to talk about except politics, and nothing in common at that.
This anticipation of acrimony makes me sad. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinner since I was fourteen years old, when my mother gladly relinquished the turkey duties to me so she could join the guests in the living room. I love the very concept of Thanksgiving: gathering family and friends around a table laden with delicious foods to contemplate blessings, express gratitude, reminisce with loved ones and become acquainted with new friends. I find it impossible to feel angry and grateful at the same time.
Yet I was told recently–rather angrily in fact–that gratitude is a bad thing–that expressing appreciation is a sign of weakness because it implies a hierarchy. The one giving thanks is now beholden to the other and is therefore diminished by the benefactor. She was offended by the very idea of apprecation. In sum, giving thanks should be banished from Thanksgiving. What a sad perspective on human interaction.
“Breaking bread together” has long been an expression and symbol of peace. In fact, the very word “companion” means “one with whom bread is broken.” We celebrate significant occasions with feasting or treats, and we associate special foods with special occasions. We break bread together in glad times and in sad, when we celebrate and when we mourn. We even call it “comfort food.” Family therapist Anne Frankel identifies family dinner as “the most important thing you can do for your kids….sitting down for a nightly meal is great for the brain, the body and the spirit.”
Breaking bread is also a longstanding element of contract negotiation. In biblical times, breaking bread was a way to signal that negotiations were finished and an agreement had been reached. Eating together was an intimate act, one that symbolized becoming a part of the family.
We see an example of this in the story of Eliezer and Rebekah in Genesis 24. Eliezer, Abraham’s chief servant, had been sent to Haran to find a bride for Abraham’s son Isaac. A gentile from Damascus, Eliezer was not of Abraham’s faith. Nevertheless, he prayed to the God of Abraham for guidance, and his prayer was answered in a miraculous way, leading him to find Rebekah at the well in exactly the manner Eliezer had described in his prayer. Overjoyed, Rebekah brought Eliezer to meet her brother Laban, who, seeing that Eliezer was tired and dusty from his journey of 400 miles, set food before the traveler.
But Eliezer would not eat until they discussed the proffered marriage contract. Then, after the negotiations were complete, they ate together, shared their stories, and marveled at the goodness of God. The next morning, when Rebekah was asked whether she was willing to accompany Eliezer back to Canaan to begin a new life as the wife of the prophet’s son, she replied simply, “I will go.” The story begins with a heartfelt prayer and ends with a feast of Thanksgiving.
Sharing food helps us break down barriers, open hearts, lubricate stories, heal wounds, and seal relationships.
Eating has also been used as sacred symbolism. Under the ancient law of sacrifice, families brought an animal to the altar to be slaughtered and burned. But this wasn’t a wanton or wasteful misuse of the animal; it was a ritualized blessing on their food and a reminder to their families that all gifts came from God. They shared a portion with the priest, called the “heave offering,” and brought the larger portion of the cooked meat back home with them to eat. Nothing was wasted, and gratitude was expressed.
Similarly, God used the Seder meal of roasted lamb, bitter herbs and unleavened bread as a symbol of the Passover, when the destroying angel had passed over the homes of the faithful before the Exodus from Egypt. It was during the Passover meal at the last supper of His mortal life that Jesus instituted the sacrament of communion, using the bread and wine as a symbol of His body and blood; He Himself would become the sacrificial Lamb.
We break much more than bread on Thanksgiving (although those soft yummy pillows of yeast and flour play a big role in the feast). Sharing food helps us break down barriers, open hearts, lubricate stories, heal wounds, and seal relationships. The best way to “survive” Thanksgiving during these turbulent times? Show a little more kindness, a little more grace, a little more love toward those around the table. And yes, maybe avoid a few topics–or better yet, find some common ground in them.
As we break bread this season, let us remember the holiness of the holiday, as recorded in the Thanksgiving hymn: “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing….Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own. ” Neither should we forget Him on this day made holy by our sincere gratitude for the gift of family, friendship, and all the goodness in our lives–even when it comes with a bit of darkness too. How to survive Thanksgiving? Banish divisiveness with sincere reflections of gratitude. And thrive.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Chapman University.
You can read more about Rebekah and other remarkable heroines of the Bible in her book Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ.
They say we have two opportunities to have a good parent-child relationship: first as a child, and then as a parent. You might not have been blessed with good parents, but you can choose to be a good parent in their stead. I suggest there is a third opportunity for a great parent-child relationship: when we become the parents of adult children.
Many years ago I had the good fortune to be in town when my oldest son, Tim, and his wife, Autumn, were moving into their first home. There was a flurry of activity that day as her parents and I rushed around town with them, purchasing household items, picking up furniture, ordering appliances, and taking care of their two young boys. After we made our last stop (to pick up a mattress) we all separated to our different cars to drive to the house, my son heading to one car while Autumn and the babies went to another car and I headed to mine. Suddenly my daughter-in-law stopped in the middle of the parking lot.
“Honey Cute!” she called out to Tim, as though she had suddenly remembered something important.
Then she cocked her head flirtatiously and said with the sweetest smile, “Didn’t you want to kiss me?”
And of course, he did. His heart and his face melted as he strode across the parking lot to give her a big hug and kiss, and added a kiss for each of the boys. This was a happy day, the day they were moving into their first house with their little family. Autumn had indeed remembered something important.
Since then their family has grown to include four children, and whenever Tim leaves the house, his little girls turn it into a national tragedy. The youngest will follow his car down the street if she feels he hasn’t said enough goodbyes. Her meaning is clear: “Daddy—didn’t you want to kiss me? Again??”
With a happy father’s smile, he’ll pull the car to the side of the road to give her one more hug and send her back to the house. And my mother’s heart melts to see the father my son has become.
My younger son, Todd, and his wife, Lindsay, aren’t parents yet, but they will be in December. Todd has lived in our family home on a lake in central Florida almost his entire life. He loves being on his boat and has been a patient teacher when his nieces and nephews want to wakeboard, or help him make his famous grilled pizzas, or do tricks on the trampoline. Being an uncle has been great practice for the next phase of his life, when their baby daughter arrives and he rightfully claims Fathers Day as his own.
This past summer I learned something new about the evolving parent-child relationship as my son took us out to play on the lake. I had always been the mom who took my children and their friends on adventures. I introduced them to their first roller coasters, taught them how to catch a wave on a boogie board, drove the boat so they could wakeboard and ride the inner tube, took them to Orlando Magic basketball games, read stories in their classrooms and at bedtime, went on ski trips and traveled together, ached for them when they were hurt or upset, and glowed proudly when they succeeded. I cherished their childhood. “Slow down! You’re growing up too fast!” is the catch phrase of motherhood, and I said it often. As a mom, wherever I go, the ghosts of my young children come with me, reminding me of happy times together. How I miss those golden days!
But grow they did, and now Todd was the one taking us out kayaking on the lake. It started as a normal afternoon adventure. But I soon noticed something subtle and different as we set off. Todd settled me into the front of the double kayak, pushed us out into the lake, steered the craft, and kept me safe. He watched cautiously behind as his father guided his single kayak along the stream, and waited at the little rapids to make sure his father got through safely, (and then got out of our kayak to help him when he didn’t.) He praised me when I paddled correctly around the cypress roots, and dragged the kayak across a sandbar with me in it so I wouldn’t have to put my feet into the oozing muck and possibly fall. He was protective and careful, just as I had been all those years ago—and just as I had then, he was enjoying the adventure as much as we were.
Later that day we went wake surfing, and Todd entertained us with his tricks. Then he brought out his old skurf board, the one with three fins for additional stability and easier control that he had used when he was learning. That one was for us. And it worked! I popped right up, found the sweet spot, and surfed behind the boat, with Todd and Mark shouting their approval and helping me improve. It was so much fun! Mark did great too, and Todd bragged to everyone about how well his dad had recovered when he started to fall behind the wave and fought to get back in front of it.
And suddenly I realized what had happened: Todd is now the “proud parent,” protective and encouraging. We’re now the “kids,” glowing with pleasure at his praise. My older son Tim acted the same way when we were hiking together in Bryce Canyon earlier this year, reaching for my hand when I needed a boost, offering to rest when he could tell I was winded, encouraging, praising, and enjoying the moment together.
I’ve noticed a new tenderness from my adult sons that wasn’t there before. They seem to realize that our time is growing short now. Every year we will become a little weaker, a little older, a little less able to use our bodies to do physical things. We’re aging, and I can almost hear their unspoken concern, echoing my own when they were younger: “Slow down! You’re going too fast!”
I thought again about how the ghosts of our children follow us as they age, reminding us of happy memories of the past. What I didn’t realize before was that the adult versions were there all along, learning how to be adults, ghosting us from the future, preparing for the time when they would be the protectors and guides. And they are just as wonderful in their roles as fathers as the children they once were.
Happy Fathers Day to my sons, and to you–no matter what role you happen to have today!
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature at Chapman University in California and Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. She is the entertainment editor for Liberty Magazine and the founding director of the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival. Her book Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ is available at matriarchsofthemessiah.com.
These photos of our children, taken twenty years apart in the backyard of our home in Florida, made me think of the flat where our family used to live. It was tiny even by Tiny House standards. The smaller of the two bedrooms was a narrow 6’ x 12’—more like a storage closet than a bedroom. Two children slept there, two on the couch in the living room, and the youngest on a pallet in the hallway. The small galley kitchen could hold two people at a time—three if one of them was the baby on my hip. The floorboards creaked when we walked, and the grinding of the building’s elevator, right next to the “master” bedroom, woke us up all night long. We had no washing machine, so each week I would carry piles of dirty clothes to the laundromat two blocks away. Each summer as we entered the front door with five children, seven suitcases, an umbroller and a diaper bag, I wondered how in the world we would manage to fit into this tiny space for three months.
Despite all this, I wept when we sold it.
The flat was located in St. Johns Wood London, just three blocks from the underground station, one block from Panzer’s and Europa grocery stores, one block in the other direction from Regents park, and 15 minutes to Piccadilly Circus and the theater district. It was where we spent some of our happiest summers. The children were the perfect ages for spending all their time with family. I can see them now, climbing through the big bay windows to reach the alley in the back where they would play tennis without a net, soccer without a goal post, or imagination games with their own dungeons, dragons, and little ponies. Two spinster sisters who lived upstairs would sit in their window watching them play, enjoying an afternoon’s entertainment with their tea and biscuits. We didn’t have a television, so we played board games, assembled jigsaw puzzles, and read stacks of books. My oldest discovered a sunny alcove at the end of the shared hallway where she would read Tin Tin, Asterix, and the Famous Five series of adolescent mysteries and imagine herself one of the Boxcar children.
We also didn’t have a car, so we traveled everywhere by underground, train, or big black taxis. We took day trips from London using a book I had discovered called, voila!, Day Trips from London. Its attention to detail predated Rick Steves’s travel books and provided us with magical days to Miss Havisham’s home in Rochester, Robin Hood’s tree in Nottingham, Henry VIII’s maze at Hampton Court, and home before bedtime. The pound was cheap back then, and so were the theater tickets. We went to West End plays as many as eight times a week, eating thick toast with apricot jam or berry tarts with clotted cream when we arrived home.
And it was safe. I could send the older two off to explore on their own with just their underground passes and each other. One night everyone wanted a taste of home from McDonald’s, but it was late and Mark and I didn’t want to go out. Not to worry! Tim and Valerie, aged 10 and 11, took everyone’s order and set off to Swiss Cottage, one stop away on the tube. At 10:00 at night! What was I thinking?? They were the original free-range children. Living in London had lasting effects on all of us. It instilled a lifelong love of the arts, history, books, travel, and fruit tarts. It taught us to love doing things rather than buying things. And it made us close as family.
So why did we sell it? Life intervened. Children grew. We purchased a house on a lake where boating and swimming sang their tantalizing siren songs every summer. Children grew even more, starting homes of their own. We began renting the flat to friends and then one friend wanted to buy it, promising with a forked tongue to let us use it whenever we wanted.
And so I found myself one Sunday evening sobbing inside a tiny apartment, aching at the thought of turning the keys over to the new owners the next day, packing up tattered books and pictures and board games with missing pieces. And I realized I wasn’t crying for the 800 square feet of creaking floorboards and grinding elevator cables. I was grieving the loss of those little children who used to climb through the bay windows to the back garden, eat toast with apricot jam, select stacks of books at Dillon’s and Foyle’s, and leave hand prints on the front door that the caretaker swore he missed when we left in September. I was grieving the loss of those children.
That moment in eternity when children are in the home is so incredibly hard, yet so incredibly hard to give up.
And that’s what I’m remembering this Mothers Day. Yes, having young children is a lot of work. It’s sleepless nights, runny noses, science fair projects, carpools and piles of dirty dishes. But it’s also snuggling in bed with a late-night conversation, loading the car with a passel of laughing school friends for an outing at the beach, and having no empty seats at the dining room table. That moment in eternity when children are in the home is so incredibly hard, yet so incredibly hard to give up.
As I finished emptying the flat of our personal items, I looked for a place where I could leave something of us behind. I reached inside the no-longer-functional fireplace and wrote on the bricks, “We were happy here!” signing each of our names in the arch of the opening. I did the same under the windowsill in the alcove where Valerie used to read. And then I handed over the keys and flew home to my adult children.
I miss those little kids who used to drive me nuts, but I love the aliens who have taken their place. Now we enjoy grown up conversations, pile into the car or a plane for adventures together, share a lifelong love for books and movies and art and theater, and work together in a family business. One daughter even earned a Ph.D. in Elizabethan history. Life is good, and being a mom is the best part of it.
Jo Ann Skousen is the author of Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ. Autographed copies are available at http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/ She teaches English literature at Chapman University and Sing Sing Correctional Facility and runs the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival.
When our children were young and still living at home, I would set my alarm for 20 minutes before sunrise on Easter morning. My husband and I would gently wake our children, wrap each of them in a comforter, and guide them through the dark house out the back door and down the slope to the lake behind our house. Then we would help them into the boat and motor quietly to the center of the lake, where we would wait for the sun to rise. We listened to soft music about the Savior and nibbled on strawberries while we waited for the sun. Birds would chirp their wake-up songs, and occasionally a fish would splash out o the water.
Quietly I would remind the children why we rise so early on Easter to celebrate the sunrise. Jesus’s body had hung from the cross for six agonizing hours. Usually a person was crucified by being tied to the cross with ropes. The weight of their body would put pressure on the chest, making it increasingly difficult to breathe until they suffocated. But Jesus’s tormentors had driven nails through his hands and then through his wrists and feet. It must have been excruciating. For six hours.
When he died, the Sabbath was only minutes away. His disciples had barely enough time to wrap his body in a linen cloth and lay it hastily in the nearby tomb owned by a disciple, Joseph of Arimethea, before the sun went down and the Sabbath began. The women who loved him would have to wait, grieving, through the long lonely hours of the Sabbath before they would be able to wash away the blood and dirt and anoint His body properly with funeral spices and herbs. Those herbs included myrrh, which had been one of the gifts of the magi, symbolizing his death.
The women were respectful of the Sabbath, but they were determined not to let his body wait one minute longer than necessary. As soon as the sun broke through the darkness, the women hurried to the tomb. The writers of the Four Gospels report the morning differently, based on how they heard the story themselves and what seemed most significant to them. The women included the Savior’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other women. Matthew tells us:
In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre.
2 And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.
3 His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow:
4 And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.
5 And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified.
6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
7 And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.
8 And they departed quickly from the sepulchre with fear and great joy; and did run to bring his disciples word. (Matthew 20: 1-8.)
That’s why we rose before dawn on Easter morning and had our sunrise services on the lake—to remember and honor those women who had loved and served Jesus. As the sun broke through the darkness of the lake, I would read the story of the resurrection from John Chapter 20, my favorite chapter in all the scriptures.
20 The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre.
2 Then she runneth, and cometh to Simon Peter, and to the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and saith unto them, They have taken away the Lord out of the sepulchre, and we know not where they have laid him.
Mary was so intent on her purpose for going to the tomb to wash and anoint his body that she seems to have missed the point of the angel’s glorious message: He is not here! He is risen! We do that too sometimes—we become so focused on our own goals that we miss the grander purpose God may have in mind.
3 Peter therefore went forth, and that other disciple, and came to the sepulchre.
4 So they ran both together: and the other disciple did outrun Peter, and came first to the sepulchre.
5 And he stooping down, and looking in, saw the linen clothes lying; yet went he not in.
John often spoke of himself in the third person as “the other disciple” or “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Jesus seems to have had a gift for making each person feel like His favorite–perhaps because, in his infinite love, we are indeed each his favorite. John felt that love deeply. Peter and John raced to the tomb to see what had happened, and John tells us that he got there first. But he was not first to enter the tomb. That privilege went to Peter, the chief apostle.
6 Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie,
7 And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.
I would always pause here in my reading to remind my children that, as busy as Jesus was that morning, He still took the time to fold his sheets and make his bed!
8 Then went in also that other disciple, which came first to the sepulchre, and he saw, and believed.
9 For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.
Although they had traveled with Jesus for three years, listened to His sermons, and offered to suffer death with him (For example, when Jesus said He was going to Jerusalem, where His life had been threatened, they did not yet understand the divinity of the Savior and the literal nature of the resurrection. That would come later, when He appeared to them in the “upper room” and “breathed on them, and saith unto them, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22). Thomas, who was not there with the other apostles when Jesus appeared, is sometimes maligned as “Doubting Thomas,” but we should remember Thomas’s great loyalty and willingness to sacrifice his own life. Only a week before, when Jesus told them he would be returning to Jerusalem, where His life had been threatened, “Thomas, which is called Didymus, [said] unto his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’” (John 11:16).
10 Then the disciples went away again unto their own home.
It had been crowded at the tomb that morning. The Roman sentries had been there, as well as several women, at least two angels, the Lord’s own mother, his chief apostles. All of them left the garden. Mary Magdalene alone remained in her grief.
11 But Mary stood without at the sepulchre weeping: and as she wept, she stooped down, and looked into the sepulchre,
We all know what it’s like when something precious is missing. We look frantically for it, often looking in the same place again and again, hoping against hope that we simply missed it the first time, and that it will be there now. Mary looked again into the tomb, hoping to see Jesus’s body. This time she saw two angels.
12 And seeth two angels in white sitting, the one at the head, and the other at the feet, where the body of Jesus had lain.
13 And they say unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? She saith unto them, Because they have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid him.
Mary’s grief was palpable. She still hadn’t quite realized the full implications of the angel’s earlier words: “He is not here! He is risen!” I remember feeling those words with a thrill of recogntion as I stooped into the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem, lying near the foot of the hill of Golgotha, just insde the old city walls. “He is not here! He is risen!” What a glorious realization that is.
14 And when she had thus said, she turned herself back, and saw Jesus standing, and knew not that it was Jesus.
15 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? She, supposing him to be the gardener, saith unto him, Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away.
16 Jesus saith unto her, Mary. She turned herself, and saith unto him, Rabboni; which is to say, Master.
Perhaps she hadn’t looked up at first to see who was standing in the garden. Perhaps her vision was clouded with her tears. Seeing was not believing, but hearing was. He spoke her name, and she recognized His voice. As simple as that. I can’t imagine a more tender, glorious moment. It doesn’t matter how often I read this chapter—those words always thrill me. I feel the spirit that must have surrounded the garden at that moment. I want to have that experience myself, of hearing my name, and recognizing His voice.
Who was Mary Magdalene? What made her so special? Jesus’s mother had been there in the garden. His chief apostle and John, the apostle whom he had loved the most, had been there. Why did he wait until they were gone before He made His presence known? Why did He show himself to Mary Magdalene, a repentant sinner, first?
I believe she represents each one of us as we approach the Savior in our own dark gardens.
Earlier that week, when Jesus had been dining at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, Mary had crept quietly into the house to bathe the feet of the Savior with her tears, dry them with her hair, and anoint them with a precious ointment. These same feet would be torn and bloodied by the nails of the executioners in a few short days. When his host questioned why he would let a sinful woman touch him, Jesus gently corrected him with these words:
44And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wipedthemwith the hairs of her head.
45Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
46My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
47Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. (Luke 7:44-48).
Her heart was so full of love and gratitude that she could barely contain it. It spilled out of her as tears. And His love for her was just as genuine and unmeasurable—infinite, like the Atonement. Recently missionaries came to our home for dinner, and in their message to us they asked, “What are the blessings of repentance?” It’s this—it’s the story of Mary Magadelene kissing the feet of the Savior; the story of Matthew, a publican, being called as an apostle; the story of Peter being given the opportunity to feed His sheep after denying knowing Him not once, but three times. It’s being surrounded by the spirit of love until tears course down your cheeks. Have you felt that? Have you felt the overwhelming love for and from the Savior? If not—can you seek it? It’s there for the asking. His arms are always stretched out toward us. We just need to reach up and grasp His hand.
Symbolically Mary Magdalene represents each one of us as we approach the Savior in gratitude for the great love and mercy he offers us. Jesus is often called the bridegroom, and the church is his bride. John wrote in the Revelation, “And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). In Ephesians Paul used marriage to explain the love of Christ and offers this counsel to husbands: “ Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25)
How did Christ love the Church? He suffered excruciating grief and pain and gave His life to rescue us.
Some might argue that Mary Magdalene is not an appropriate representative of the bride of Christ. After all, she is tainted by sin! Shouldn’t He have chosen a more appropriate representative? A chaste and virtuous woman, like his mother?
No. That simply doesn’t matter. Through the Atonement there is no such thing as “tainted by sin.” All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But through the refiner’s fire of the Atonement, all can be made whole and perfect, cleansed and pure.
The Atonement is infinite. To say that anyone who has repented is tainted by sin is to say that the Atonement is finite, limited, insufficient. And that simply is not true.
The story of the Bible begins in a garden with a woman, Eve, who falls. It ends in another garden with a woman, Mary Magdalene, who is redeemed. That redemption extends to each of us.
After she recognized his voice, Mary embraced the Savior in love. The embrace lasted only a moment. Then He gently told her,
17 Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.
And our God. No matter what we call Him, there is but one God, and He knows us by name. May we each hear His voice when He calls us, and recognize His gentle voice. For that is the purpose of His great sacrifice.
To learn more about Mary Magdalene, read Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ, by Jo Ann Skousen. Available at Amazon.com, or for an autographed copy go to http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/
We usually begin our remembrance of the Easter story with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before His resurrection. This great day has become known as Palm Sunday, because of the palm fronds His devoted followers strewed along the road in front of Him.
But the Easter story actually begins a few days earlier, when Jesus returned to Jerusalem to raise His friend Lazarus from the dead and, just as important, to strengthen the testimonies of His friends as He prepared to leave them.
Knowing that the Jewish leaders felt threatened by His growing popularity and wanted Him arrested for His unorthodox doctrine, Jesus had been avoiding the capital city for several months and had been teaching in the communities in the surrounding countryside instead. When His friends Mary and Martha sent word that their beloved brother Lazarus was deathly ill, Jesus’s disciples were worried that he might go to their home in Bethany, just a mile or so outside of Jerusalem. They were relieved when his initial reaction was to wait. “The Jews of late sought to stone thee,” they reminded Him, worried for His safety.
In reality, Jesus was determined to go. He knew the time for His great sacrifice and crucifixion had come. Soon His disciples would be serving and leading the Church by themselves, and they would have to rely on the Spirit to guide them. In Bethany He would perform a great miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead “to the intent that ye [His disciples] may believe” (John 11:15). He would also guide them to recognize the spirit of testimony that would sustain them after He left.
When Jesus reached the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days. Mourners filled the home, comforting the women. Jesus remained in the shadows of the garden and sent for Martha, the sister who had concerned herself more with domestic duties during His earlier visits to their home. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” she wailed in accusatory grief when she saw Him. The fact that she greeted Him with an anguished complaint indicates just how close they were.
Martha was concerned for her brother’s temporal life. “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection,” she said, but she wanted him back, on earth, now. Who has not cried out in anguish for a loved one to be spared?
Jesus was sympathetic to her grief, but He was more concerned for her eternal welfare. He sensed that she had uttered the correct words about the resurrection, but without true conviction of His role as her Savior.
Patiently He taught her one more time. “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”
With a jolt of spiritual recognition, Martha understood. “Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the son of God, which should come into the world,” she declared.
This simple yet powerful testimony echoes the words of Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God,” (Matthew 16:16) he had proclaimed. Jesus had responded to Peter’s testimony by explaining, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” In that shadowed garden, Martha received that same testimony of the Savior’s divine mission.
Personal revelation, the kind that Peter had just experienced, was the rock upon which Christ would build His church. Thousands of people had followed Jesus during His ministry, listening to His sermons, observing His miracles, and eating His simple feasts. But the time was now near when they would no longer see His physical face nor hear His physical voice. Just one week later, at the feast of the Last Supper, He would promise, “I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.”
Martha had received a personal revelation in almost the identical words as Peter’s, through the same spirit of truth. She too became a special witness of Christ and His mission as the Savior of the world.
Moments later, when Martha’s sister Mary also heard that Jesus was waiting in the garden, “she rose up hastily, and went out…[and] fell down at His feet, saying unto Him, ‘Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died.” This time Jesus did not ask His weeping friend to declare her witness. Apparently Mary had already experienced the testimony borne by the spirit of truth. Instead, he comforted her.
Suddenly Jesus was overcome by His own grief. The scripture tells us simply, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept in empathy for Mary’s grief that Lazarus had died. He wept for the Jews who had heard His words but had rejected them. He wept because He knew that, in just a few short days, His earthly life would be finished. And He wept because He knew that these dear friends would be weeping again in grief as they watched His own torment and death.
But He would not leave them comfortless: Lazarus would be with them. And the spirit of truth would be too. That spirit of truth is available to each one of us as we seek confirmation of sacred truths and declare them openly as witnesses of Christ. May we each find comfort in Jesus’s glorious truth: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live!”
READING GUIDE FOR EASTER WEEK
What would you say to your family and friends if you knew you had just a few days to live? What would be your final message to them?
During Easter week it’s valuable to read through the Four Gospels and reflect on what the Savior did on each of His final days. He cleansed the temple, taught several important parables, prophesied of the Last Days, and spent treasured evenings in the home of his dearest friends. He prepared for the agony of Gethsemane, the scourging of the guards, and the brutality of the crucifixion by celebrating the Passover with his Apostles and establishing the symbol of the sacrament that would represent His flesh and blood. The reading schedule below will help you prepare for Easter.
Matthew 21: 1-17
Matthew 21:18 – 22:46
Luke 19:41-48; 20
Mark 11:20 – 14:11
John 12:1-12; 12:27-50 (John doesn’t give a clearly chronological account, so these are approximations; the other Gospel writers place the anointing of His feet on Tuesday evening)
*Wednesday. Nothing is reported for Wednesday. Many people suggest that He spent Wednesday by Himself in prayer or with His family.
John 20 (my favorite chapter in the New Testament!)
*A careful reading suggests that everything we normally associate with Thursday actually occurred on Wednesday, and that Jesus actually spent two full nights in the tomb. If Passover occurred on Thursday that year, followed by the Sabbath, the women would have waited through two long nights, Passover plus the Sabbath, before they could anoint His body with burial ointments. This would fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah would spend three full days in the tomb.
Jo Ann Skousen is the author of Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ, which offers a bold new look at the remarkable women who are direct ancestors of Jesus Christ through his mortal mother, Mary. The book is available on Amazon and Deseret Bookstores. Personalized autographed copies can be purchased at http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/
As God was organizing the earth, he paused at the end of each creative period to admire his work and say, “It is good.” The earth was beautiful and glorious, fit for a king–and a queen. God had created light, water, mountains, valleys, plants, fish, birds and animals. He had created Adam and given him dominion over all the earth. But as God admired His final creation–Adam–He remarked, “It is not good.” Something was missing. That “something” was Eve.
“I will make an help meet for him,” God said, according to the King James Version of the Bible. But what does “help meet” mean? What is God’s definition of Woman? A closer look at the phrase in the original Hebrew Bible casts new light on the very nature and calling of Woman.
In the Hebrew text it is written as ezer kenegdo, which means much more than our modern understanding of a helper. “The verb azar, from which the noun ezer derives, means to succor, … to save from extremity, … to deliver from death” (Samuel Terrien, Till the Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood and Womanhood, 1985. 2004, 10). The word is most often used in the Bible in reference to a king, an army, or even to God Himself. It is a word that connotes superior benevolence or godly help from above, not inferiority or servitude.
What a powerful definition of Woman at the very moment of her creation! She is a benefactor, a rescuer and a savior. In fact, the authors of Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings on Genesis and Gender contend that the word “ezer should be translated as ‘power’ and [coupled with the adjective kenegdo] the verse should read: ‘a power equal to him” (Kristen E. Kvam 1999, 28). Other characteristics associated with ezer kenegdo include royalty, achievement, pioneering and risk taking (Terrien 11). In sum, Eve was created to be a partner with Adam and a powerful influence on her posterity.
These heroic characteristics fit the women whose stories are written in Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ. Biblical scholar Carolyn Custis James proclaims, “Eve and all her daughters are ezers—strong women who stand alongside their brothers in the battle for God’s kingdom” (James 2005, 36). Nor is it only in motherhood or wifehood that women exercise this great endowment from God. James adds, “We do not have to wait until we’re grown to become ezers. The doctor who announces the birth of a girl might just as well exclaim, ‘It’s an ezer!’ for we are ezers from birth” (James 2005, 36). I would suggest that it happens even before mortality. The very essence of womanhood is to be a powerful savior and rescuer. It is inherent in her character and in her essential spirit.
Matriarchs of the Messsiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ is available at amazon.com. Read the book, and then post a review for other Amazon readers–it’s easy!
Every Monday and Wednesday I drive up the river from my home just north of Manhattan to Ossining, where I park my car in an upper lot and hike down 114 uneven stone steps (yes, I’ve counted them) to Sing Sing, the notorious maximum security prison where I teach college and pre-college courses to the inmates. I check in at noon for my 1:00-3:00 class, hike back up to the lot for my two-hour break at 3:30, and then return at 5:30 for my 6:30 -8:30 class. Working with these students is a labor of love and the best part of my week.
The hardest part of teaching at Sing Sing isn’t dealing with the security guards, or those stairs, or the oppressive heat from the radiators, or the faint odor of mold that permeates the air and clings to my students’ papers. It’s figuring out where to eat between classes. Ossining is a small village on the Hudson River, and dining options are limited. It has several convenience-store delis, a couple of Chinese take-outs, a few nice restaurants that don’t open until dinnertime, a McDonald’s, and a diner. I usually opt for one of the latter two, where I can sit at a table and grade papers.
But I don’t complain. At Sing Sing my students have only two choices: eat it or leave it. Mostly they leave it, and cook their own meals from foods they purchase in the prison commissary.
As class ended on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving last year, the men asked what I would be doing for the holiday. Our children live in five different states and none could share the holiday with us, so we had invited several friends and their families to join us instead. I started to describe the meal I would be preparing—the turkey, the yam soufflé, my secret cranberry sauce, the homemade rolls and pies—and then I stopped myself.
“I’m sorry! This is kind of painful, isn’t it?” I sympathized. “You’ll probably get a gray slab of pressed turkey product tomorrow.” (Once I asked the men what the food is like in the mess hall, and they responded simply, “Gray.”)
But the men quickly corrected me. “We’re having a great meal!” Dan announced. “I bought a 6-pound turkey breast in the commissary.” He pointed to his buddy in the next seat. “He’s making a green bean casserole. My other buddy is bringing yams with marshmallows.”
Another classmate chimed in, “I’m bringing the dessert!”
“We got six guys coming to my cell for dinner!” Dan beamed.
Holidays can be the loneliest time inside. Family members will usually try to visit the week before or the week after, but they spend the holiday itself with family—at home, on the outside.
Nevertheless, in the gray cells of a gray prison on a gray November day, these men have learned how to bring light into their lives, simply by breaking bread –and turkey—together. As each of my guests entered my home on Thanksgiving, one bringing green beans, another bringing a salad, another bringing dessert, I thought of Blaze and Sha and Julio — and Dan, beaming over his six-pound turkey breast.
Friends are family we choose for ourselves. I’m grateful to call these special students my friends. And I’m eternally grateful for the light they bring into my life.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English literature for Mercy College at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. She is the author of Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ. You can purchase an autographed copy at http://www.matriarchsofthemessiah.com/buy-the-book/
I don’t like being told what to do. I tend to associate “obedience” with tyranny, authoritarianism, and force. I cringe at the phrase “Because I said so.” There’s a good reason that “love, honor and obey” was removed from the bride’s wedding vows.
Yet there I was, asked to give a sermon about obedience on Fathers Day. Assigned, in fact. Either someone has a dark sense of irony, or I had something to learn. Thankfully, it was the latter.
When Joseph Smith was mayor of Nauvoo, then the largest city in Illinois and growing every day with an influx of diverse immigrants, a member of the state legislature asked him how he was able to govern such a large and diverse population. Smith thought for a moment and then responded simply,
“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Steeped in libertarian philosophy and seemingly the antithesis of strict obedience, it is one of my favorite quotations.
One of my favorite scriptures has a similar theme: “Behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is a compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward” (D&C 58:26). Doesn’t this seem to suggest that strict obedience is a bad thing in God’s eyes—that it leads to lasting punishment rather than eternal reward?
One of the lessons I’ve learned as a professor of English literature is that words matter. Abstract concepts gradually transform with usage, so it’s especially important to understand their true, original meaning.
Here’s what I realized about the word obedience: it has the same root as obeisance. Now, obeisance isn’t a word we use very often anymore, but I know what it means. It’s a term associated with extreme respect, worship and adoration, often expressed through physical actions: a bow, a curtsy, a kiss on the hand. It is often accompanied by obedience, but the obedience follows as a natural consequence of love and respect. I think of Mary Magdalene kneeling at the Savior’s feet, washing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. This was obeisance. Not a “do-what-I-tell-you” kind of obedience, but obedience to an inner voice whispering, “This is your Savior. Show your great adoration and respect.”
A Clearer Understanding of Obedience
When asked how he governed Nauvoo, Smith didn’t say, “I let them do whatever they want.” He first taught them correct principles, and then they governed themselves. If I want my child to bake a cake, for example, it isn’t enough to send him into a kitchen filled with utensils and supplies. I need to provide some guidance on the proper combination of ingredients.
Did you know that a pound cake gets its name from its guiding principles? Originally cakes were made from a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, a pound of butter, and a pound of liquid, which included eggs, milk, and water. If a baker knew the guiding principles of cake baking, she could use her own judgment in selecting her sweetener, milled grain, spices, fruits and other flavors to make a variety of cakes. She could even substitute mayonnaise for the butter and eggs, as bakers did during World War II when eggs were scarce, because she understood the principle. You could say she disobeyed the rule of the recipe, but obeyed the principle of baking and governed herself to accomplish the founding goal– or “commandment”– of making a cake.
Obedience to God
I have learned through experience that the Lord is no tyrant. He is a loving, kind and concerned Heavenly Parent. So there must be more to this idea of obeying commandments than force, authoritarianism, or punishment. In the scriptures He explains His founding principles:
“Wherefore, I give unto them a commandment, saying thus: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy might, mind, and strength; and in the name of Jesus Christ thou shalt serve him.
“Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor do anything like unto it.
“Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things” (D & C 59:5-7; Matthew 22:35-39; Mark 12:39-31).
In other words, He commands us to Love. That’s His founding principle. If we truly love God, and truly love our neighbors, and feel gratitude in our hearts for the opportunity to do so, everything else is detail. And those details will fall into place, because we will have learned how to govern our own actions, with the right spirit and motivation. Obeying the commandments will no longer feel burdensome, because they will have become a natural part of who we are, filled with love.
That’s why He says, “It is not meet [appropriate] that I should command in all things.” If we have developed true obedience to the gospel—that is, obeisance—then we will naturally want to do the right thing. We won’t be forced to “clean our plates,” because every commandment will be delicious, desirable and nourishing, and administered in just the right amounts.
“Use Your Best Judgment”
When I was the director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Mercy College, I oversaw nearly 100 writing specialists who tutored nearly 1,000 students every semester. I could not possibly have “commanded in all things” for each of those tutoring sessions. Instead, I provided professional development training workshops twice a year, rather like a general conference of tutoring specialists. There we reviewed correct principles of good tutoring.
Often a tutor would raise her hand and ask, “What if…?” I would listen to the question and ask others how they might handle the situation. If the tutor persisted with another esoteric “What if….?” (What if the power goes out and the student has a cold and I can’t find my socks and the library is locked….) I would respond, “Use your best judgment.” These were professional writing specialists with graduate degrees and years of experience. It was not necessary to command them in all things. I had taught them correct principles, and they could govern themselves. They just needed the confidence that came from knowing that I trusted their judgment.
If we can do this at work, we can do this at home as well. I knew a father once who would often stop his children in their tracks and command them to do something completely unnecessary and insensible because, as he explained, “I’m teaching them to be obedient.” No. He was teaching them to be afraid. He was teaching them that sometimes his orders are capricious and don’t make sense. He was not teaching them correct principles that would guide their future actions. And he certainly was not teaching them obeisance, or respect. Rather, they learned to fear him and despise him.
The way to teach children to obey is with the principle of obeisance and respect, not punishment or tyranny. Discipline means “to teach,” not “to punish.” Using force was Satan’s plan.
Teaching principles is harder than saying, “Because I said so,” but it’s the only method that really works. It begins by focusing on long-term principles rather than on the immediate situation, because sometimes long-term results require violating standard rules. Jesus taught this principle when he told the parable of the ox that got stuck in the mire on the Sabbath. The long-term principle was to be a good steward of the ox; the short-term rule was not to do labor on the Sabbath. Both are important, so it takes wise judgment and understanding of principles to choose the correct action.
Good parenting—and good leadership, for that matter– requires us to be good examples of the principles we want to instill, and being completely trustworthy. As children learn to trust our judgment, they will begin to develop better judgment themselves. And they will obey us—that is, respect us– because they will realize how much we love them and want the best for them.
When I first began making chocolate chip cookies, I used a recipe and adhered closely to it. Sometimes my cookies turned out great, but often they were flat, sticky, and unappealing. Gradually I learned the tricks that made me a better baker: Don’t melt the butter. Stir the ingredients by hand. Notice the humidity, and adjust the amount of flour. Use real chocolate and vanilla, not imitation. Now, I don’t even need a recipe—I can bake delicious, beautiful chocolate chip cookies without even thinking about it. Baking has become a part of who I am. And I often use that gift in service to others, because I enjoy it. It isn’t a burden or a duty any more.
Obeying the commandments—with true obeisance, not duty or resentment—is the way we learn to become like God. It’s also the way we learn to become better parents, employers, leaders, and friends.
I grew up with an abusive father, but I was blessed later in my life by a stepfather who was kind, generous, wise, and honest. He would have commanded me to obey his word, yet he earned my great respect and love through his actions and his example. I would have done anything for him, simply because I loved him, and I trusted that he would never ask me to do anything that wasn’t for my own good.
On this Fathers Day I hope that all of us will commit to living by principles rather than by rules, and by obeisance rather than obedience. The triumph of persuasion over force is the foundation of a civilized society–and of a happy home.
Jo Ann Skousen teaches English Literature at Chapman University and Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Read more about the obeisance of Mary Magdalene in the final chapter of her book Matriarchs of the Messiah: Valiant Women in the Lineage of Jesus Christ.