The Sacrifice of All Things
Making a Sacred Life
I’d like us to have a vision together. Please picture this in your mind as vividly as you can while I describe it. Imagine a tall and barren hill rising out of a desolate plain. Maybe it was once green and alive, but it has been wasted. Scorched by the sun, blasted by the wind, every living thing now avoids it. Walking to the top of the hill, you can see the lifeless sun-baked land stretching in every direction. Standing at the top you find the stump of a tree, already ancient when it was cut down many years ago. On the flat top of the weathered stump you see thousands of tightly packed rings.
Something draws your eye down to the roots: you see a tiny sprout beginning to shoot out, growing upward, unfolding its first deep green leaves in the sun. The stem continues climbing, knee high, waist high, now overhead. It doesn’t pause as it begins to set branches that stretch out in broad tracery—budding, blossoming, and finally bursting with leaves. As the branches rise overhead it casts a pleasant dappled shade, cooler and more comfortable on your shoulders than the full sun.
You feel the ground tremble under your feet and look down. You see that as the shoot has grown into a new tree, its roots have bored deeply down into the ground; where they cracked the stone under the hill you see water rise and overflow, pouring out from under the thick roots. You touch the water. It is cool and crystal clear, alive in the play of sunlight. You bring a cupped hand to your mouth and drink. It is sweet, and your thirst is gone. As you watch, the water continues to bubble up, flowing away from the tree in four streams to the north, east, south, and west. At first each stream disappears quickly into the empty soil, but as more water flows, the stream extends further and further down the hill.
Now looking at the edge of the stream, you see tiny delicate blades of grass spring up. A carpet of green spreads across the hill as the water fills the soil, and amidst the growing grass you see bursts of color as goldenrod, yarrow, poppy, penstemon, paintbrush, and monkshood explode with an array of other wildflowers. As the water pools here and there on its winding course, you hear the first croak of frogs, the splash of jumping fish, and the songs of birds.
When the water reaches the plain below you see that it carries with it this explosion of life, the grass and flowers dancing in the breeze. Here and there in the new grasslands the seeds of ancient trees awaken and take root, bringing stands of forest out of the prairie. Between the trunks you catch a glimpse of a doe with her fawn jumping lightly on mossy soil. All around you is a symphony of life.
You turn back to the tree in wonder at its power of resurrection and see that while the blossoms fall in snowy spirals there are radiant fruits growing. Each one seems to catch the white sunlight and glows as the branches grow heavy and bow. You reach up as a branch seems to reach down to you; you pick the fruit and eat, and you are filled, and you are alive.
Holiness, Wholeness, and Healing
That is a vision of healing, and of things becoming whole again. And there is an interesting secret buried in those words. The words “heal” and “whole” come from the same ancient root, heilig. That same root gives us our word “holy.” That which is healed and made whole is also made holy. To make something holy is to set it in its proper order, devoted to its highest purpose, to make it most enduringly and intensely real and alive.
Changing topics for a moment, have you wondered what your spirit is made of? The scriptures teach that a spirit is made of words, light, life, intelligence, and mind. Those things aren’t poured into a mold and mixed up at random. A spirit has a pattern, and IS a pattern. Your spirit is the pattern of being that makes you you, the pattern that you act out as you live in your body. (John 6;63, D&C 84:44-46, Lectures on Faith 5). Like Jesus, whose spirit fills the immensity of space, you will learn that your spirit can extend beyond your own skin and imprint itself on the world around you for better or for worse. When we talk to each other, when we work together, when we tell stories, when we sing and paint and build and dance, we are sharing our spirit patterns with one another.
In Romans chapter 1, Paul says that the invisible things, the hidden patterns, of God are revealed by the things that he has made. In the same way, the hidden spirits within you are revealed by the things that you make in the world of matter.
You could view your spirit as sheet music and your body as an orchestra performing the music of your spirit. The orchestra reveals and makes alive the music as it performs. And we need to be careful not to mistake the clumsiness or lack of skill of the orchestra as a deficiency in the music. But broadly speaking, how you live and what you make is a revelation of your spirit.
There are patterns of being, or spirits, that cause life to flourish, to grow vibrant and varied, to grow strong and resilient, to grow more and more beautiful. There are patterns that orchestrate life into a harmony so beautiful that it could go on forever and you would continue choosing to live it, and so beautiful that people would choose to live it with you.
There are also spirits that cause life to diminish and wither; that cause relationships to strain, to crack, to break. There are patterns of being that cause people to come apart, to disintegrate; and then cause families to disintegrate, and then cause cities and nations to disintegrate.
So when we read the scriptures and learn about holiness and unholiness, about being poor in spirit, about hungering and thirsting after righteousness, about making peace and giving others grace, about eternal life, about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, these phrases aren’t just meaningless religious jargon. These are deeply practical and very real things that lead to life or death. To say that Christ’s spirit is holy, and that you can receive that spirit, is to say that you can learn the sacred art of binding up all broken things, to set things within you and around you on the path toward their highest and most beautiful purpose. This is real.
Out of Your Belly Shall Flow Living Water
Jesus once met a woman by a well and asked her for a drink. She is all of us, with her life in disarray, with her relationships fractured and broken, and her spirit asleep in the dust. At the well Jesus says, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to you “give me to drink”; you would have asked the same of him and he would have given you living water….whoever drinks of the water from this well will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give her shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give her shall be in her a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4).
That living water is the spirit of Christ (John 7:38). It is his words, his light, his intelligence, and his mind. It is his way of being. If you drink it, it will change you. First it will heal you. It will take the fractured mess that is your spirit and begin to gather it into something coherent, something harmonious, one piece at a time. Though you were at war with yourself, you will find the little spirits inside of yourself make peace with one another as they enlist together in the service of something higher. You will experience this as a release of tension, a quieting of dissonance in your mind, and a sense of newness about yourself and the world. This living water will gather even the parts of yourself that seem like fatal flaws and it will resurrect them into your greatest strengths (Ether 8:27). And it won’t stop with you. It will flow out from your roots and begin to create a new world around you. Where you go, things will become cleaner, broken things will be repaired, and the world will grow more beautiful. Where you go there will be more laughter, more love, and more joy. Other people will find rest, and life, and the peace of God, in you. Flowers and fruit will spring up at your feet.
The world around you will become holy, because you have healed it, because you are holy, because you have been healed.
Now we need to talk about sacrifice. Joseph Smith taught that a religion can only have the power necessary to bring us to salvation and eternal life if it requires the sacrifice of all things (Lectures on Faith 6). I don’t know if that sentence is more terrifying for the old, who have many things, or for the young, who haven’t even gotten a chance to start gathering things yet.
The word “sacrifice” means literally to make something sacred, to take something mundane and ordinary and to put it to the service of a transcendent and sacred purpose. To give it up, or upward. Those moments when life feels meaningless, purposeless, or arbitrary, or when we feel at war with ourselves, those are moments when the pieces of life are not gathered properly in our own judgment in service of what we believe to be most high.
You have to sacrifice everything you have and everything you are. You have to sacrifice yourself. Jesus commands you to take up your cross and follow him, meaning follow him to the place of your own execution by crucifixion. If you were inventing a religion to trick people into following you with pleasant tall tales, then that is not what you would tell them. But that is Jesus’s message. You have to submit all the parts of your being to the cross.
I can imagine each of us in a quiet moment kneeling and offering ourselves to God. And I can imagine God’s response: “Good. I can work with that.” But I can also hear him say “That’s only the beginning. You don’t even know all the parts of yourself, let alone how to sacrifice them.” I’m sorry to say that you will discover these pieces of yourself as they break down, and fail, and when you confront problems you don’t know how to solve. When that happens you have to let things die which have grown old and insufficient; ideas, desires, ways of thinking and understanding, habits, and paradigms, and more.
But the miracle of the cross of Christ is that those things that are given willingly to death upon it will be resurrected. When you choose to give your life as a body for Christ's spirit, you will find that pieces of yourself will die along the way. But you will also see those pieces resurrected, now filled with God’s spirit and put to their proper use. The perfection that God has in mind for you isn’t a neutered, amputated, lobotomized sterility, where pieces of your spirit and body have been turned off. Christ wants all of you. This will not be a movement toward a uniform cookie-cutter image of pious, bland, sameness. Instead it makes each of us more fully and uniquely and eternally ourselves.
Death Into Glory
Sometimes people think that seeking and receiving God’s spirit means only allowing yourself to think about pleasant things, and that God’s spirit only tells you things that make you feel good. That is false. The roots of the tree of life reach all the way into hell. Joseph Smith said that if you wanted to lead a soul to salvation, even your own soul, then your mind and your vision must stretch as high as heaven, but also “search into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss,” and the “broad…expanse” of eternity. God’s spirit doesn’t just paint over the tomb and leave the bones. It opens the tomb and calls forth all dead things into new life: dead ideas, dead relationships, everything preventing life from flourishing eternally. If you receive that spirit, then you will have to learn how to wrestle with the ugliness and pain of life, to identify and overcome spirits that are evil, and let God work through you to transform death into glory, to make beauty where now there is only ashes.
If you offer your whole self to the path of Christ, to making creation whole, holy, and healed, then you are prepared to be baptized by fire and by the Holy Ghost. Then you will finally have taken the advice you were given after baptism to “receive the Holy Ghost,” and if you “receive the Holy Ghost it will show unto you all things what you should do” (2 Nephi 32). That vision we began with is many things, but one of those things is a vision of what you are called to become through the grace of Christ. If you receive God’s baptism of fire you will then have a well of living water flowing out from your belly, making your life holy, a living sacrifice, a sacred garden in a world of stone.
Bob Sonntag is an architect and artist, seeking understanding through drawing and writing.