Sunday, June 30, 2013

How I Found Happiness and began the Best Year of My Life -- My Discovery of Christ's Atonement

I'm so thankful to my freshman Bishop, Bishop Armstrong.  Back in 2009, I had some trouble with the notion of repentance.  In response, he challenged me to read and study out of the book Preach My Gospel.  Well, it has been almost four years, and I still haven't completely read it yet.  But I did make the right choice in following the promptings of the Spirit that invited me to begin reading it again in January.  For several weeks, I got up a little earlier than normal and read the scriptures, using Preach My Gospel as a guide.

The cool thing about Preach My Gospel is that it's designed as a tool to help you teach others about the church.  People who have never heard about Jesus Christ of the notion of pre-existence or the idea of baptism need to be informed about these kinds of things in very simple, basic terms.  They can then build from that solid, straightforward foundation and, line upon line, precept upon precept, they can learn more until they have gained a full-blown testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As I was reading about the Atonement in Preach My Gospel, I came to an astounding and somewhat horrifying discovery: I, myself, did not know very much about the Atonement.  Not enough to teach anyone else about it at least, that's for sure. How could I ever teach someone about something I didn't even remotely understand?  It's true, you can't ever completely understand the Atonement, but I didn't even feel like I understood even the most basic parts of it; mainly, how it applied to me, and to people in general. 

Furthermore, how could I much less have a testimony of something like the Atonement while remaining so ignorant about it?

DO I have a testimony of the Atonement? Suddenly my whole spiritual center was called onto the carpet for questioning.  Alma talks about conversion -- a change of heart -- a receiving of Christ's image in our countenance -- a spiritual rebirth.  Have I truly experienced these things?  Am I truly converted? Do I really have a testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ?  

I've been a member of the church all my life.  For twenty-two years I have worked under the assumption that I was a child of God and that the Gospel was true... but I don't think I ever TRULY believed it in my heart.

So I started doing some research.  I learned a little bit more about what the Atonement actually entailed.  My memory was refreshed about a couple of things, like how the Atonement overcomes both physical AND spiritual death.  I learned that Christ not only suffered for our sins, but also for every other unfairness, struggle, or pain we've ever suffered or will suffer.  He was able to do this because He, Himself was not only capable of doing it (due to the fact that He is God's Only Begotten and he led a perfectly sinless life) but also because he was willing to do it.  The Atonement was indeed a choice.  It did not HAVE to happen.  Christ could have damned us all by being selfish and not finishing the work he was appointed to do.  But he was willing to suffer all of that sin, heartache, and hurt because he loved us.  And, as hard as it is for us as humans to wrap our brains around that kind of love, it is SO IMPORTANT. 

By the time I had to leave for school the morning after reading all of this stuff and coming to all of these epiphanies, I asked myself the following questions:

So if the Atonement is super important and vital to our salvation (which I assume it is), what can I do to actually get it to work in my life?  What must I PHYSICALLY DO to implement the Atonement? How do I use it? 

 I know obedience is part of it.  I know God wants us to show that we care about what the Savior did for us by following His example and obeying His commandments.  Sure. I get that.  But there are people all over the world who do amazing, good things; people who lose themselves in service to others, who keep themselves clean and chaste.  People who are truly sorry when they make mistakes.  People who love the God that they know, without ever hearing about Christ or the Atonement.  People who are good, yet ignorant.  They exist all over the world.  Some die without ever hearing the good news of the Gospel.  Why is it that we so strongly encourage people to hear about it?  Why is it that we send out thousands upon thousands of missionaries every year so that they can tell these ignorant people all about it?  What important missing piece does the Atonement provide in our lives?


I guess knowing about the Atonement allows us to use it.  But then there's that question, how is it that a person can USE the Atonement?  It's not like a pill you can take or a hat you can put on.  It's not a physical thing as much as it is an eternal, esoteric and ambiguous idea. And it's hard to wholly implicate an idea into your life in a way that yields any tangible, perceivable results.  It's like faith in the fact that you must trust that the Atonement works without seeing or hearing or touching any physical evidence of its working.

This sort of makes me jealous of the Catholics.  They believe in the idea of TRANSUBSTANTIATION. It's a long word that basically references the idea that the Eucharistic emblems of bread and water literally change into the blood and body of the Savior as they are partaken by worthy members of the church.  It's a false doctrine, I know, but it interests me.  The idea that you are actually eating the blood and body of Christ may be wrong and even a little grotesque, but I can understand why people might like to think that the Sacrament works that way.  This idea of making Christ a PHYSICAL PART of us -- of having him be a part of our own physical bodies -- helps us make him a part of our soul.  It makes coming unto Christ seem just a little more possible.  To change something that cannot be physically perceived or handled is a challenge for us, so we seek some way of making our desire to be like Christ as physical of a thing as possible.  We may believe in a physical change, in hopes that the spiritual change may soon follow.

Now it's never as literal as transubstantiation, but I do believe there is some truth in that notion.  Performing a physical act helps the promises we make and the mindsets we adopt seem more REAL.  That may be a reason why God has us perform ordinances like baptism, confirmation, and rituals done in the temple.  Doing something physical helps us remember the spiritual experience better, but I think it also results in a physical change within us.  Change only happens with action.  Again, inertia. We must fight it with movement. Physical transformation. As I have learned about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have concluded that Spirit itself has matter.  They say God is light as well as truth. And while truth may not have any physical properties, light does.  Perhaps God manifests his spirit physically through light... Perhaps our spirits within us -- which, incidentally, are in the possession of the Light of Christ -- have physical properties as well.  Perhaps the neurons, cell structures, and molecular foundations of our physical bodies are fueled by this physical spiritual matter.  Perhaps when we talk about being "quickened by the Spirit," we are referring to the way the spirit physically enlivens a human being.

I guess my point here is this: Maybe spiritual things like the Atonement aren't as esoteric and abstract as I initially believed.  But this really is all beside the point.  That discovery was made after the fact -- after I experienced what I experienced on Wednesday, January 9, 2013.  

Nothing earth-shattering happened.  No large miracle took place.  I saw no angel, witnessed no amazing wonder... heck, I didn't even physically hear that still, small voice that people sometimes hear.

It was like everything was the same, but at the same time, everything was different.

I got up from that period of studying about the Atonement. I got dressed and got in my care and drove to school.  I can't remember what I wore, but I know it was black and white... no, it was gray! I remember! I was wearing my new skinny jeans -- gray ones -- that mom gave me for Christmas, as well as a gray-and-black flannel T-shirt... I felt very comfortable. Beautiful, even.  My new short haircyt actually looked like it belonged to me that day.  I walked into Music 305 (first-semester of Western music history), and I felt like smiling at everyone... I sat and listened to Doctor Howard, and every word that came out of his mouth seemed to fascinate and excite me.

I have this bad habit of attaching meaning to everything. I may talk more about this in another post, but I tend to associate simple objects, places, and events with negative experiences that I've had previously with them.  If I watch a movie with a boyfriend and we end up having a bad break-up, I usually can't watch that movie again without feeling sick inside.  But today, it was like the opposite was happening.  Everything around me seemed to remind me of happy things.

The experience reached its climax directly after class was done.  I was sitting in the foyer of the Madsen Recital Hall, reading about chant.  Back in the medieval period, monks would sing a lot of psalms in a chant.  Oftentimes, they end with something called the Lesser Doxology.  Essentially, it's a little tag that is added at the end of the psalm that praises the Trinity ("Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost").  But sometimes the Doxology doesn't quite mesh with a given chant melody; sometimes the modes are different.  So what writers of chant would do is create alternate endings to the doxology so that you could go straight from the Doxology into a new verse of chant.  It all makes lots of sense now, but as I read about it that morning, it didn't make much sense right away. 

But then, after re-reading a few things, thinking about it for a moment, and exerting a little bit of patience, it was suddenly like a lightbulb went off in my head and everything made sense.  There were alternate endings for the doxology to help ease musical motion between chant verses! DUH!

And then, without warning, I found myself crying.  I'm having trouble finding words for what I felt in that moment.  JOY, definitely, but more than just joy.  I remembered, in that moment, where the joy came from.  I found myself saying prayer after thankful prayer to my Heavenly Father. I thanked him for music, for chant, for the class, for the book, for my brain!

And suddenly the world around me changed.

Have you seen these commercials?  There's this allergy medicine called Claritin, and I feel like the commercial for this drug provides a good demonstration for what seemed to happen to me in that moment as I was studying.  Watch and see how the beginning picture is different from the end.  Yes, the invisible strip pulls away and suddenly everything is brighter and more colorful than it was before, but the cool thing is you probably wouldn't have realized that the first part of the commercial really was a little dull and blurry until you saw the drastic difference.  That's kind of how it happened to me.  The world I was looking at before, it was okay.  But when you start seeing things in an eternal perspective, everything GLOWS.  Suddenly everything around me was bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, and I could actually see it.  It's like those little toys you get at McDonalds, where all you see is red dots unless you put it under this screen that makes a picture.  I was finally seeing the picture!  My perspective had changed so that I could get a glimpse of the world the way God sees it. It was like I put on a pair of glasses that makes the entire world clearer and more vibrant.  I didn't even know that the lenses I was using before were that bad!  But now that I had seen this, I could never go back to the old way of looking at things.  Why look through lenses that make things seem dull and unfocused? Lenses of anger, regret, jealousy, or heartbreak -- you'll never see the beauty of things unless we choose to see things in a way that makes them beautiful.

The Atonement makes things Claritin clear. 

I discovered that I had figured out more than simply how to use a lesser doxology. I had figured out how the Atonement can work in my everyday life.  There was the REAL miracle...

Using the atonement involves discovering the deeper meanings behind why we do things.  The deeper meanings behind existence.

Elder Bednar puts it best when he says that the Atonement has enabling power.  Not just healing power.  It doesn't just fix your sins and overcome death.  It makes you capable of DOING THINGS.  I like to think of the Atonement as a TRANSFORMING AGENT that allows those very real, physical transformations to happen.

What can the Atonement transform? Well, it turns something simple like saying you're sorry into something meaningful: Repentance.  And repentance is something that can change the physical nature of your soul.  The Atonement changes something simple like service into something meaningful: Charity. And Charity can change the physical nature of your soul.  It turns marriage into sealing. It turns temporal into eternal. It changes a simple thing like a promise into a covenant.  It turns a seed of faith into a tree of testimony.  It changes belief into perfect knowledge.  It turns trials into blessings. It changes hard hearts into soft ones. It turns happiness into joy. It turns death into life. The Atonement provides reason, meaning, significance, and satisfaction for every experience we have, every thing we learn, and every relationship we develop.

So, with my aptitude for attaching meaning to everything... I, of all people, should be capable of inserting this powerful transforming agent into my everyday life.  All it takes is a little change -- just remembering that amazing Atonement, allowing it to transform that which is ordinary into something EXTRAordinary.

I think that's what conversion is.  Funny. I've been a member of the church all my life and only NOW do I recognize that I have yet to be converted to the Gospel -- to receive this change of heart.

Elder Bednar says something I really like in his talk called "The Atonement and the Journey through Mortality."  He says that Christ has the power to TRANSFORM us (TRANSFORM!) into what we could NEVER have become by ourselves.

I've seen that in my own life! Here I have been working my butt off trying to be happy without involving Christ... I'm working so hard, and all that work will never get me as far as the Atonement will.

But now, here I was, rejoicing in a tiny happy moment while studying. My joy was so full. I never could have imagined being this happy so quickly after such a horrible year of break-ups, abandonment, eating disorder, and depression.  The change was almost immediate.  Just gaining a tiny bit of awareness of what Christ has done for me had immediate, exponential, positive results.  
I was happy all day. I was happy all week.  I was happy all month. And I am still happy now, six months later.  I haven't cried, I haven't hurt, I have learned to forgive my enemies, love my neighbor, and rejoice in trials.  And people have noticed.  "You seem to glow, Hannah," a friend of mine told me the other day. "Your sharp edges have softened.  You're not as fearful as I remember you being when I met you."  I have formed closer relationships with people; I don't think I would have made some of the friends I have made if it weren't for this new attitude.   I don't think I would have gotten through some of the new trials I have had to experience this year without this new attitude.  Everything has changed. I am healed, but even more important, I have been enabled by the power of the Atonement.

Now I know why members of the Church are so excited about going on missions. They want other people to feel this same joy that they have felt through gaining an awareness of and using the Atonement.

It is so real.  There is no doubt in my mind that Christ not only loves us, but understands us with complete and perfect empathy.  I testify that God has given us this Gospel to be happy.  It is the Atonement that makes us happy.  We are the ones who choose to use the Atonement, and therefore, we are the ones who in the end determine our own happiness.  I have learned that I can choose to keep this eternal perspective.  It's not about control anymore.  It's not about trying to force the transformation. It's now about trusting. It's about patience. It's about loving what you have.  Feeling peace and joy from the ultimate source, rather than having faith in things that will not make us eternally happy.  I am a new person.  I really am.  I am happy.  I am thankful. I am whole.

It's real. I know it. I love it.

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