Friday, December 18, 2009

"Hark! Listen to the Trumpeters": A Forgotten Hymn

There's a hymn in the Spanish LDS hymnal titled "Oid el toque del clarin" (no. 153). The first time I heard it, at a Church meeting in Bolivia, I looked for its equivalent in the English hymnbook but couldn't find it, so for years I've assumed that this upbeat, happy anthem about enlisting in the Lord's army and fighting for Zion as a Spanish original.

Well, recently I was reading volume 2 of History of the Church, and it gives the proceedings of the first-ever meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in our era. In fact, it was the meeting where the Twelve Apostles were chosen and ordained. The date was February 14, 1835. Just before the meeting adjourned, they sang a hymn, "Hark! Listen to the Trumpeters," which seemed appropriate in part because all of the Twelve had been members of Zion's Camp:
Hark! listen to the trumpeters!
They sound for volunteers;
On Zion's bright and flowery mount
Behold the officers.

Their horses white, their armor bright,
With courage bold they stand,
Enlisting soldiers for their king,
To march to Zion's land. . . .

We want to cowards in our bands,
Who will our colours fly:
We call for valiant-hearted men,
Who're not afraid to die.

To see our armies on parade,
How martial they appear!
All armed and dressed in uniform,
They look like men of war.

They follow their great General,
The great Eternal Lamb--
His garments stained in His own blood--
King Jesus is His name.
[page 186]

These are the words to "Oid el toque del clarin"! Even the meter fits. It makes me wonder how it got into the Spanish hymnal but not in the English, since it appears to be of English origin.

I had a rhetoric professor at BYU who said that since the Latter-day Saints are no longer threatened by violent mobs like we used to be in Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo, the war-themed hymns are no longer relevant to us. I think I disagree. When I hear hymns like "Oid el toque" or "We Are All Enlisted" or "Onward Christian Soldiers," I don't feel stirred to take up arms against my neighbor. But I do feel inspired to defend my home against spiritual assailants, and I do gather courage to face personal adversity. There's something rousing and encouraging about those hymns. You don't have to be violent to like them. That's what I've enjoyed about "Oid el toque," and it's nice now to have it my native language.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Yes, There Is Hope for the American Marriage

A few weeks ago, Caitlin Flanagan wrote a cover story for Time magazine titled "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?" The question seemed to be prompted by recent high-profile acts of infidelity. The article turned out to be somewhat bleak but at the same time refreshingly respectful of marriage and its importance in society.

Take for example this excerpt from the end of the article:

"The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it--given the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized--simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in the harness.

"Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function--to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits fo conduct and character that will ensure the generation's own safe passage into adulthood? Think of it this way: the current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can't be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their children's lives--that's the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old.

"Who is left to ensure that these kids grow up into estimable people once the Mark Sanfords and other marital frauds and casual sadists have jumped ship? The good among us, the ones who are willing to sacrifice the thrill of a love letter for the betterment of their children."

In other words, do it for the kids!?

Is that answer satisfying to you?

I respect Flanagan's defense of marriage in the name of setting a good example for the next generation, making the world a better place, and so on. And I agree that children are the real victims of divorce. But there's more to it than that!

Do married people really think to themselves, "I'd kind of like to pursue some other romantic interests right now, but I can't stop thinking about the cumulative effect that would have on society for generations to come. And besides, if I leave my family now, who will pay for my assisted living when I'm 80?"

There's a piece missing here. If the betterment of children is the main purpose for marriage, then what about all those couples who can't have children? Or what about the couples whose children have grown? If marriage is just a practical institution for raising children--the best we've come up with so far--then why stay married after it has served that purpose?

Part of the reason, I think, is those "bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets." I think if we really understood love, all those things would bind us together rather than drive us to someone else. "Love is what you go through together" (“Thurber,” Life, Mar. 14, 1960, 108), and at least part of the purpose of marriage is to teach us how to love.

Why marry? To learn how to give yourself to someone else. To put your life completely into someone else's hands and take someone's else's life completely into yours. Is that risky? Yeah, but when it works, nothing else in life is so richly rewarding. The alternative is to stay inside your selfish shell forever.

After reading this Time article, I can see what Elder David A. Bednar meant when he said that marriage really makes sense only in the context of God's eternal plan for His children.

Now compare Ms. Flanagan's noble but incomplete case for marriage with this personal story from former BYU president Rex Lee and his wife, Janet:

Rex: "Those of you who have spent any time in a hospital know how much fun it is. During those four months [while battling cancer that eventually took his life], I had no choice. I had to stay there. But day after day, Janet was there also, not just part of the time, not just in the morning or afternoon, but all day. I would tell her, 'Look, I can't leave this place. But you can. I'll be fine without you for a morning, an afternoon, or even a day. Get out of here and preserve your own sanity. Go see your friends. Go sightseeing. Go to the park. Go anywhere. I certainly would if I could.' And friends would call, inviting her to go places. She usually found ways to turn them down. Occasionally she went, at their insistence and mine. When she got back, she would invariably tell me she had felt uncomfortable all the time she was away.
"At first I thought that was positively weird. And then I began to realize: This was no put-on. She wasn't just trying to make me feel good. As astounding as it was to me, Janet really preferred to be there in that miserable hospital with me. My life, and every aspect of my welfare and happiness, were just as important to her as they were to me. And that, my friends, is love. ..."
Janet: "He was completely bald, his face was swollen from medication, and he had lost over twenty-five pounds. He looked like an old man in his feeble attempts to walk. His shoulders slumped, and he shuffled his feet as he slowly pushed his I.V. pole trying to get in a few minutes of daily exercise. ... As I sat by the bedside of someone who barely resembled my husband, I knew that I loved him more completely than I had ever loved before."

Janet Lee gets it. That's why we get married, and that's why we stay married. If we can learn what Janet learned about love, then I believe there is hope for the American marriage.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tear Heaven Open

I recently came across a song by Johannes Brahms, "O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf," with text based loosely on Catholic liturgy. I found deep meaning in it from the perspective of a Latter-day Saint. Below is a very liberal translation from German, followed by some commentary.

O Savior, tear heaven open!
Hasten down to us from heaven.
Tear off for us the lock and the door;
Rend heaven's gate forevermore!

God, send down dew from heaven,
And manifest Thyself therein.
Break, ye clouds, and rain down
The king of Jacob's house.

O earth, burst open,
That mountains and valleys may become green.
O earth, bring this flower forth;
O Savior, spring up from the earth.

Here we suffer great distress;
Before our eyes looms bitter death.
Come lead us with Thy mighty hand
From misery to the Father's land.

We all desire to thank thee, Lord,
Our Savior now and evermore.
We all desire to praise thee
Forever and eternally.

Catholics (and Protestants too, I suppose) sing this (or something similar) during Advent. In that context, tearing heaven open refers to the coming of the Messiah--both His mortal birth and His Second Coming. But I see another layer of meaning here.

Maybe the most powerful message of the Restoration of the gospel is that revelations and heavenly manifestations happen today, now. Put another way, the Savior's Advent, in a sense, is not just a past event or a future event--it's ongoing, and it can happen individually as well as publicly. The heavens are not closed.

God chooses to manifest Himself sometimes in dramatic impressive thunderstorms, but more often in the dew, which, frequently enough, symbolizes revelation both in the Old Testament and in modern scripture.

The image of the earth bursting open also has special meaning to Latter-day Saints that may not be apparent to others. In addition to the allusion to Christ's Resurrection, we detect a symbolic reference to the Book of Mormon, the tangible fulfilment of the ancient promise that truth will spring forth out of the earth to accompany the righteousness sent down from heaven.

That seems appropriate here, because nowhere is the message stronger than in the Book of Mormon that the Lord manifests Himself to all--in every nation, to every man or woman who seeks Him. Revelation is not confined to biblical history nor to biblical geography, and the Book of Mormon is bold proof. In a very real sense, the Book of Mormon is the tool that the Lord is using to tear open heaven, to tear off the lock, and to rend heaven's gate.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

I Learned Something at the Arctic Circle

We took our kids to the Arctic Circle for lunch on Saturday.Not that arctic circle. The one that sells greasy french fries.

This particular Arctic Circle had a big play area, so my kids went to run around there after they finished eating. (Actually they went before they finished eating, but I wasn't about to say, "You kids have to stay here and eat the rest of those greasy french fries before you can go get any exercise.")

Anyway, my son TJ organized a game of freeze tag (appropriate for the arctic circle, I suppose) with his siblings and about a dozen other kids. It was getting a little intense, so I decided to go "supervise." At some point, I can't remember how, it was determined that I would be "safe," which means that anyone who is touching me cannot be tagged by the person who is "it."

As I stood there fulfilling my responsibilities as "safe," it occurred to me that the game was a good metaphor for how I'd like my kids to see me as a father. They spent a lot of time clinging to my legs, but of course they couldn't stay there--then what would be the point of the game? Sooner or later they had to let go and venture into the world where "it" lurks. But anytime "it" got too close, they scurried back to me as fast as they could, grasped my legs again, and breathed a delighted sigh of relief while they geared up for another venture away from "safe." And it was important to the kids that I stay in one place throughout the game, so that they always knew where "safe" was.

I hope my children consider me (and our home) a safe place throughout their adolescence, or even throughout their lives. I know they can't just cling to me forever--that would defeat the purpose of life--but I hope that when the world gets a little too close, they'll know where I am, and they'll be able to run to me and feel safe.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Bridge Builder: Origin of an Oft-Quoted Poem

Maybe you've heard of Will Allen Dromgoole's poem "The Bridge Builder." It's the one where an old man crosses a chasm and then turns around to build a bridge over it because, he says:
There followeth after me today
A youth whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm that has been naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.

He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;

Good friend, I am bu
ilding the bridge for him.

A lot of people have quoted this poem, notably President Thomas S. Monson. But do you know the story behind it? Of course you don't, but that's what makes this blog so great: I'm about to tell you.

The poem first appeared in Dromgoole's 1918 book Rare Old Chums. The "chums" are a little girl and her aging father. The girl "followed [the old man] at his heels, lived upon a word, a glance from him, and was so truly happy if he so much as looked her way." At first the father pays most of his attention to her brother, the only boy in a family of many girls, but the young daughter is not jealous--she's glad because the boy makes her father so happy.

But then tragedy strikes: the son dies, followed soon by the old man's wife. All of the older daughters marry and move away, and the father comes to realize that this loyal, adoring little girl is all he has left. They move to a little cabin by a river and go fishing every day. Life is peaceful, except for the girl's growing fears that her "old chum" will die soon and leave her alone.

On the way to their fishing spot they cross a gulch--deep, but narrow enough to leap across. Each day they notice that the gulch is getting a little wider, and one day the old man says, "I should like to bridge this chasm. It will be beyond all crossing by and by."

The girl notes with sadness that by the time the gulch is too wide for them, her father will not likely be around anymore. "Father," she says, "we can always cross it, as long as you need to."

"Ay," he answers. "But after me? You will travel the road when I am gone."

His words touch her so deeply that she thinks about them all day, until they form themselves into a song in her head, which she calls "Building the Bridge."

Today the poem is well known, but Rare Old Chums seems to be mostly forgotten.

For some reason, the story is even more moving to me than the poem itself. Maybe it's because in this context the bridge is not just an anonymous, random act of kindness, a considerate gesture for the sake of leaving the world a little better. Rather it's a father's gift to his apprehensive daughter. I have two daughters myself, so I know a little bit about what made that father want to build that bridge.

So in a sense, "Building the Bridge" is a Father's Day poem. This is, essentially, what it means to be a father! If you read the whole book (it's less than 100 pages), you'll see that the bridge is symbolic of another chasm that the father bridges for his daughter--one much wider than the gulch they crossed on the way to their fishing spot.

The image below is from the book itself, and will enlarge when you click on it.