The gospel’s great truth is this: this isn’t it. This mortal world, though eternally important in its implications and consequences, is but the second act. This wouldn’t matter so much except that this realization changes essentially everything. Indeed, not only changes it but alters it almost unrecognizably: what seemed of grave import is suddenly a laughing matter and what hardly gave us pause now fills our minds with serious reflection.
Recently, while in Buenos Aires, Becca and I visited a most unusual zoo where we met, at the opening sidewalk, a full-grown dazzlingly beautiful tiger being led around on a leash as if he were a poodle. We proceeded to enter cages where puppies—and we—mingled with full-grown lions—only the latter, to our surprise, were being cowed by the little dogs. Mere mutts, with no pedigree at all, yapped at the heels of the kings of the jungle and those royal beasts bore it without a reaction because they, the lions, were raised amongst the puppies. Brought up in a world of smallness and seeming sameness, those great predators believed themselves common mongrels.
My father, seeing a picture of Missy next to a true Mufasa, commented, “man, someday those lions may realize what they can really do—when that happens, I hope I’m not the one in the cage.”
And that, I wager, is one of the great purposes of the Gospel: it is the place where lions come to remember who they are. Indeed, the gospel, and its reflections in the outside world—Nature, the chapel, the scriptures, writing in the best books—are really the only places where we can heed Jacob’s invitation to see the world as it really is. In the gospel we learn who we really are and just what it is we are made of. We learn that some things are actually of worth but that most of what the world values is only that which moth and rust doth corrupt, which thieves do break through and steal.
With the plan of salvation it becomes apparent that family is the point, and that, in sharp contrast, most of those things to which the world aspires constitute sound and fury, signifying nothing. We were sent here to be together as husband and wife and we join together in that union so we may thereby make our way together back to the presence of God.
And that of course, in the end, is our reason for everything; reunion, atonement, coming home again. The gospel helps us realize the import and gravity of T.S. Eliot’s observation that the true voyage of discovery will be to return where we started and see the place for the first time. All of this, of course, only realized through the merciful power of Him who is present in every part of what is important—the Redeemer and our advocate before the Father.
There is a danger in this knowledge, however, for it freights us with solemn responsibility. For the gospel teaches that it is not just we who are lions—it is everyone around us. Indeed, Satan has done one better than those zoo-keepers. The latter used real puppies to convince the lions they were impotent; the former, however, is so very clever that he has used real lions to convince other lions that they are not who they really are—what an awesome frightful magician he is! For the truth is: in all the world, amidst all the strife, poverty, corruption, wars, envy, and pride—there resides not one single puppy, rather, only lions unaware. Everyone I meet—and scoff, hate, abuse, fool, and harm—is not a mere mortal, but a lion slumbering beneath the illusion upon which our scorn feeds. Each beggar who stretches out his hand to me—his skin mottled, his eyes cloudy, his breath laced with yesterday’s booze—is a lion with unfathomable potential. We treat each other as we do because Satan in his great cunning has convinced us that there is something more precious than souls—that land, wealth, status, power, or, really, anything, is more important than the welfare of all the world’s lions. That is His great lie—the great reversal, the great perversion: he would have me believe, as he has taught from the earliest generation, that I am not my brother’s keeper.
Thus he bids us wear disguises, hoping we see only the masks when we look at our fellow travelers. He has done this so subtly, for he divides the world in so very many ways: ethnicity, class, race, home, pedigree, academic degree, ancestry, skin color—on and on the list continues, all of them names of lesser distinction applied to the sons and daughters of the living God, distractions from who we truly are. He will use anything—any distinction, any difference—to bring us, as President Benson taught, to have pride looking both up and down. Any enmity he can engender is merely the reflection of our forgetfulness. But in holy places, in sacred moments, we remember. The light of the gospel cuts through this mortal fog and grants us a view as long as we care to gaze. And with that view—stretching on as it does past the horizon and on to something like eternity—we see we really are all alike—the accoutrements with which we adorn ourselves during this mortal journey are trinkets, nothing more. In the end, each man is only one Being’s spiritual son, and that will be, finally, the identity that most matters.
The prophets, the scriptures, and all the world’s greatest teachers preach this same great truth: that our fellowmen are what matter most. Thus Marley’s cry echoes down through the ages as he desperately seeks to alert all of us before it is too late to the truth he only grasped when, dead, he found himself forced, trembling and in agony, to survey the wasteland of lost opportunity that was his life: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode? Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me?’” And then, with utter pathos, his plaintive reply to his still-foolish friend’s attempt at consolation: when Scrooge says, “but Marley, you were a very good man in business,” the doomed man howls—along with the rich man who finds no drop of water to quench his burning tongue—“business! Mankind was my business.” It is no wonder both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young preached that, when it comes to beggars, it would be better to heed the appeal of ten liars than to turn away one honestly seeking succor.
For that is the other great truth: we are all beggars, recipients, if we will, of the divine gift. When we present before our maker, it will be starkly, horrifyingly naked unless we are clothed with that covering which is not of our own design. Only that which is gifted to us will cover us in that day. And only therein vested can we find the presence and peace of mind to then look up and hopefully hear those blessed words: “well done.”
For the atonement is the heart, the tree, the vine, the sun, the vital force. Without it the rest withers and pales, drained of life, worse than death. The devil and his angels are all we would be without it. The stark reminder given us in the book of Mormon most forcefully is that only through Christ does anything else worth worrying about have meaning because it only through the atonement that the reuniting that will be the end of the faithful saints’ journeys is possible. When the Brother of Jared found the veil drawn back to reveal his Savior he realized it was ultimately “the righteousness of the Redeemer,” not of Mahonri, that made that meeting possible. Thus the most important symbolism in every gospel ordinance suggests that everything else goes back to the sacrifice of the Lord—it is only though his most painful price that our blood can be redeemed. We are all beggars in tatters, true, but he has rewards our pleading and our utmost effort with blessings beyond measure—with the opportunity to return to the one place, the one presence, where we could never, ever, on our own, deserve to be. Clothed in His glory, having then done our all, we will, at that day, through His great suffering in Gethsemane and Calvary, find that our hope for a “far better land of promise” has been made blessed mellifluous reality. We will then know, as we once did long ago, the sweet embrace of Jesus. We will know, in that moment of oneness with He who bought us out of captivity, that His grace makes our earnest effort enough. For His love has not wavered, does not falter, and will not, at that most vital moment, fail—it is a perfect atonement and we, through it, will arrive home again to go no more out forever.