This is the text of a talk I gave today. I played around with structure, a bit, putting it together more like a personal essay than a typical talk. Hope you enjoy!
Several years ago, I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The focus of the seminar was the Reformation. One of the guest speakers was Dr. John D. Roth, a professor of history at Goshen College , a Mennonite school. Dr. Roth was there to talk about what’s come to be called the Radical Reformation, the movement that gave birth to the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and German Brotherhood. He talked about their historical origins and practices, and shared some of the stories of the martyrs who were killed by both Catholics and Protestants for their aberrant beliefs. He passed around a nineteenth-century copy of Der Märtyrspiegel, in English The Martyr’s Mirror, a book that documents the martyrdom of many believers in Europe during the sixteenth century. It may seem morose, but I find a number of these stories inspiring.
One of my favorite of these martyr stories actually comes from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and concerns two disabled men that were burned at the stake in London, 1556. One was blind, while the other was lame in one leg. When the second’s crutch was taken away from him, he caught hold of the other and exulted, “Be of good comfort, my brother; for my lord of London is our physician. He will heal us both shortly; thee of thy blindness, and me of my lameness.” (i) What appeals to me in this story is the assurance the lame man has in Christ’s mercy and goodness at the moment he is to be martyred—and being burned alive is a particularly gruesome way to be killed. For many of these martyrs, they could have easily preserved their lives by denying their association with the Anabaptists, as they were called, but this man’s faith was no mere mask to be worn for company. His faith was his very essence.
The Martyr’s Mirror contains a number of very meticulously articulated etchings to accompany these stories. After passing around the book, Dr. Roth then pulled out a velvet packet and explained that a man in Holland had been cleaning in his attic and found a series of twenty-five copper engraving plates, originals from the fifteen hundreds, images of men and women being tortured or killed for their beliefs. He donated them to the college.
One of the favorite stories among the Mennonites is the story of Dirk Willems, who was imprisoned for his beliefs. While waiting to be executed, he was able to escape the tower in which he’d been locked. He ran out into the winter’s night, chased by guards. They came to a frozen river, over which Willems quickly crossed. The guard immediately behind, fell through a weak spot in the ice. Most people, of course, would have taken advantage of that opportunity and kept running, but Willems returned to the guard. Not wanting the other man to suffer or die, since his comrades had refused to go out onto the ice after him, Willems crept as close to the man as he could, extended his hand, and pulled the guard from the ice, whereupon he was arrested, detained, and subsequently burned at the stake. In rescuing the guard, Willems showed that his faith was likewise, not a mask, but a manifestation of his true and Christian essence.
The Willems story presents an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, he could have preserved his own life by continuing to run. In doing so, he would have saved himself from suffering and death, if only temporarily. Additionally, many would argue that he did not owe the guard good will, since he had been part of the killing mechanism. But Willems was not everyone. Dr. Roth, in retelling the story, asserted that Willems stopped to help the guard because of the love of Christ that was in him. He could not 1 allow another to suffer while he had the chance to stop it, so he turned and aided his captor.
In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma the younger had been both the civic leader and the ecclesiastical leader of the Nephites, but after noticing “with great sorrow that the people of the church began to be lifted up in the pride of their eyes, and to set their hearts upon riches and upon the vain things of the world, that they began to be scornful, one towards another” (ii) and that there had arisen a “great inequality among the people, some lifting themselves up with their pride, despising others, turning their backs upon the needy and the naked and those who were hungry, and those who were athirst, and those who were sick and afflicted.” (iii) In general, the church became wicked and this very wickedness caused it to become a “great stumbling–block to those who did not belong to [it]; and thus the church began to fail in its progress.” (iv) In consequence of this, Alma decided to give up his civic position, to concentrate on teaching the Gospel. I wonder if this situation also posed a dilemma to Alma. On the one hand, he might have been able to pass laws or judgments that might have protected the humble, faithful saints who were still committed to the Gospel, who walked after the ways of God. I’m sure that holding the position he did in the government brought with it a sense of prestige and status, but Alma chose to serve the people through serving God exclusively and explicitly instead. He gave up his position as chief judge and set out on a mission—a mission not of conversion, as it were, but one of re-conversion.
He began with the congregations in the Nephite capital of Zarahemla. He rehearsed to them the number of times the Lord had delivered their ancestors and even themselves from the Lamanites and other enemies. He rehearsed to them about when the Lord had delivered them from the sorrow and suffering of sin. More specifically, he focused on the recent delivery of some of the people from the bonds of wickedness and war through the ministry of the prophets Abinadi and his own father, Alma the elder. Alma then turns the focus on the people themselves and asks, “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you?” (v) He asks if they have remained clean and can “look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances?” (vi)
To make an etching, the artist must first create the image in negative on a sheet of brass or copper with ink. The plate then is introduced into a strong acid bath, the most common etchtant, as the solution is called, is ferric chloride which is so strong it is now used in water purification and sewage treatment plants. The solution eats away slightly at the metal, but is most aggressive on the ink, oxidizing it and the metal it has come in contact with. When the plate is removed from the acid bath, treated with baking soda or another base, then rinsed and cleansed, the image is ready for processing. To do this, a thin layer of ink is spread on the plate, and a piece of clean paper or cloth is laid on it and pressure applied. When the paper or cloth is removed, the image remains upon it. The process can be rather time consuming. Sometimes it takes up to 24 hours to fully neutralize the etchtant; but, in the end, copper etching plates are very durable can yield extraordinary images that can be used for years before fading. The great Dutch artist, Rembrandt is quite well-known for his etchings. As a family, we have been fortunate enough to see several Rembrandt prints, including several depicting important scenes from the life of Christ. They are exquisite and the detail is extraordinarily clean, even after four hundred years.
Alma’s question of whether we in the church can look up with the image of God engraven in our countenance relies on a kind of metaphor called synechdoche, in which a part of a person is used to represent the whole. By implication, if the face has God’s image, then the whole body must also be good and, thus, the spirit must be clean as well. One can, of course, ask whether other images can be engraven upon us. Paul, in First Corinthians, offers a rich, logical argument about the nature of bodies. Comparing Adam, through whom death and corruption were introduced into the world, and Christ, through whom salvation came to humankind, he observes:
The first man [Adam] is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. (vii)
Paul’s argument here is set up by a series of three parallel statements, the second two amplifying the first. If we are of the earth, then we will have an earthly body and an earthly image. If we are of heaven, we will have a heavenly body and a heavenly image.
Putting ourselves in the place of the copper plate, we may ask ourselves, “What is it that can engraven the Lord’s image onto me?” There are many possible answers, but one I would like to focus on is tribulation. We tend to look at tribulations as burdens or even punishments, and sometimes they may be a result of our own action or inaction. But, the Lord tells us that there are other reasons they come upon us. In Revelations, the Lord states unequivocally, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent…[and] To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.” (vii) Rather than bemoaning our tribulations, we can look at them as evidence of the Lord’s attention and affection. From personal and difficult experience, I know that this is not at all an easy thing to do! As we writhe in physical, emotional, or spiritual agony, it can be very difficult to see beyond the pain and see the hand of the Lord. The trick then becomes how to work through tribulations in a positive way.
A wise answer was suggested by Martin Luther, the central figure in the Reformation. Because Luther was wise and so well loved, dinner guests used to write down what he said and these writings were published after his death as Die Tischrede des Martin Luthers, or The Table Talk of Martin Luther in English. He often spoke of tribulations, but one statement stands out as particularly significant:
When I am assailed with heavy tribulations, I rush out among my pigs, rather than remain alone by myself. The human heart is like a millstone in a mill; when you put wheat under it, it turns and grinds and bruises the wheat to flour; if you put no wheat, it still grinds on, but then ‘tis itself it grinds and wears away. (ix)
Luther’s prescription, then, is to render service to others. (He may have gotten that from Elton Jenson.)
In the October 2009 General Conference, Elder L. Whitney Clayton discussed burdens, noting how they can bring us closer to the Lord. They “may help prepare us to hear the word of the Lord” or “may humble us and motivate us to seek heavenly shelter from societal storms.” But significantly, “bearing up under our own burdens can help us develop a reservoir of empathy for the problems others face.” Furthermore, Clayton observes, the Apostle Paul taught that “we should ‘bear … one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.’” (x) Alma the elder noted that baptism signifies that we are “willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea… willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (xi)
Beyond these points, though, I believe there is something of deeper importance. As we seek opportunities to serve others and help them with their burdens, we become more Christ-like. We begin to see others as he sees them, to love them as he loves them. The love of Christ is a transformative experience. When we experience it and accept it, we necessarily change in ways that can affect others. Let me illustrate by telling you a story from my mission. There were two elders who had contacted a woman and her son. After leaving this woman’s apartment one cold January night, they ran into a man entering the building. The three merely exchanged customary greetings, but the brief meeting left an impression on the man. During the next visit, the woman asked the two elders, “What did you say to my ex-husband?” The elders, a bit surprised what she meant. The woman proceeded, “The night you were here, you met him at the door. He had come over to bring my son a Christmas present, and when he came up here he asked if I knew two young men. He described you two, and then he said, ‘They were really good people, I could just tell it.’ What did you two say to him?” The two missionaries were just trying their best to be good ambassadors of Christ. They were trying to serve the beautiful people of Germany, whom they had grown to love. Brothers and sisters, others can feel it, can sense the Spirit if we live worthy of it and carry it with us. On that night, those two simple servants had the Lord’s image engraven on their countenances and others could sense it and were touched by it.
Brothers and sisters, I believe the Lord himself felt burdened by his cares. I can easily imagine Him being tempted in His sorrows to ask questions and to doubt. Isaiah asserts that he was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,” (xii) yet he never allowed the sorrows and grief keep him from loving and serving others, thus working beyond his temptation. It is my testimony, that when we are in tribulation and turn our gaze outward to do even the smallest acts of service for others, we will find that we will more frequently carry the image of heaven marked upon us.
i From Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, p. 399 (Spire Books, 1998)
ii Alma 4:8
iii Alma 4:12
iv Alma 4:10
v Alma 5:14 – 15
vi Alma 5:19
vii 1 Corinthians 15:47 – 49
viii Revelation 3:19 – 21
ix From The Table Talk of Martin Luther, p. 166 (Dover Publications, 2005)
xi Galatians 6:2
xii Isaiah 53:3