Sunday, January 22, 2017

Abiding in the True Vine

Over one-third of America's vegetables and two-thirds of the fruit and nuts are grown in California's San Joaquin Valley. Although the Valley is home to more than 90 percent of the celery, garlic, walnuts, artichoke and kiwi you'll encounter, the signature crop is the grapes that make those dancing California raisins.

Thousands of pounds of those raisins are produced at a Church-owned vineyard in the heart of San Joaquin. The mile-long rows of the vineyard stretch as far as the eye can see and each of the local congregations are responsible for harvesting a row or two of grapes, drying them into raisins and preparing them for packaging. The raisins grown here support the Church's welfare system and humanitarian efforts around the world.

My family is among those that volunteer. As my wife or I cut a bunch of grapes from the branches of the vine, our kids lay them out to dry on large sheets of paper. It doesn't take long to notice that some branches have lots of grapes, others have fruit that has not yet fully grown, and sometimes there are places where the branches have fallen or been cut from the vine and there are no grapes at all.

The image of a grapevine with its branches and fruit is the basis for one of the Savior's parables in which he taught that the world is like a large vineyard. "I am the true vine," he taught, "and my Father is the husbandman" (John 15:1). Each of us are like a branch of the vine. The fruit is a symbol of our righteous actions.

A vine brings life and nourishment to the branches. Had we been in the upper room in Jerusalem where Christ and his disciples ate the Passover together for the last time, we would have heard him testify that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life of the world. He is the Way because he provided a perfect example and it is only through him and his Atonement that we can return to live with God. He is the Truth because he is the source of all truth and lived all truth perfectly. He is the Life because he created all life in the heavens and the earth, he is "the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things" (D&C 88:13), and he makes it possible to overcome physical and spiritual death and return to life through repentance and our eventual resurrection.

As branches in the vineyard, it is imperative to realize that the fruits we bear are not our own. If we cut a branch from a vine and plant it elsewhere in the vineyard, it will certainly wither and die. That is because the branches rely completely on the life and nourishment delivered through the vine to produce fruit for the harvest. Branches that have been partially severed or are too limited in their capacity fail to produce good fruit because they are not able to deliver enough nutrients in time for the harvest.

Accordingly, the Savior taught, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:4-5).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught that the word "abide" used in these verses means to remain firmly and permanently attached to Jesus Christ and His Church ("Abide in Me," Ensign, May 2004, 32). When we abide in the true vine, we live abundantly because the light and life he provides flows through us and we become the instruments and bearers of his marvelous works.

The Bible Dictionary explains, "It is ... through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the Atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts."

Jesus Christ is the true vine. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life of the world. It is his light that sustains all that grows in the San Joaquin Valley and throughout the world. He was planted by the husbandman, our Heavenly Father, who cares for us and wants us to bear good fruit in abundance. He delivers life and nourishment to each of us so that we may have every possible opportunity to fulfill the measure of our creation.

In the end, the abundance of our lives hinges on whether we will choose to abide in him. He cannot give us the light and truth we need to prosper if we're only partially committed or are unwilling to grow our capacity to act on what we receive. On the other hand, if we will firmly attach ourselves to him through our faith and repentance, there is nothing we cannot do. Through the strength of the true vine and our own best efforts, we can lay hold on every good thing and prepare ourselves now for the harvest and exaltation in the Lord's vineyard.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Parable of the Gems

With a new year comes new hope, new Sunday school curriculum and new resolutions to read and study the scriptures the way we know we should be. This parable, adapted from the LDS Church Education System training for seminary and institute instructors, may help with that last part:

There once was a young woman who dreamed she was walking along a quiet and secluded beach searching for gems in the sand. As she knelt down and began raking her finger slowly through the warm surface, the tiny grains of sand glittered invitingly in the sunlight. Before long, she noticed a colorful gem and picked it up. 

Not wanting to lose it, the young woman carefully stuck the sparkling gem in her pocket for safekeeping. Eagerly returning to her search, she quickly discovered more gems resting just beneath the surface. As she collected the gems, she began to wonder if there were more gems hidden deeper in the sand. Determined to find out, she began to dig. With effort, time and patience, she was rewarded again and again with breathtaking jewels.

Each time she found a new gem, the young woman held it under the sunlight and studied it carefully. She turned each one over in her fingers, exploring its many shapes and facets. She thoughtfully and patiently examined the gems she had found and soon began to appreciate the unique qualities and characteristics of each one. Feelings of attachment to her new-found treasures began to grow within her.

After searching for a while, the young woman gathered her gems together and held them up to the sunlight. She was filled with awe as the light danced off the gems in a rainbow of colors. As the young woman sat appreciating the beauty of the gems, she looked up and saw her father approaching. Smiling warmly, he said, "I've been watching you dig in the sand. What did you find?"

The young woman eagerly displayed the handful of gems. Her father then asked, "Now, what will you do with your treasures?"

When we open the scriptures, it is as though we were standing on the beach with the young woman. The context and content of the scriptures are the warm sand beneath our feet.

While it can be pleasant just to read the stories in the scriptures, we won't find any gems until we start to dig. As we look for details in the context and content of the scriptures, we'll find valuable principles to guide our lives and enlighten our understanding. Elder Richard G. Scott taught, "As you seek spiritual knowledge, search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances" (Aquiring Spiritual Knowledge, October 1993).

Some principles will be easy to find. As we read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, for example, we will notice the obvious message that we should be kind to all of God's children. Other principles will require us to dig deeper. Questions will help us in our search. Who is the certain man in that parable? Why did the Savior specify that he was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho? Did it have to be a Samaritan? What is the significance of the Samaritan's offer to pay any cost to heal the man? (Read more about this topic here.)

When we find true principles, we can hold them up to the light of the gospel to continue exploring their truths and implications. It may help to write those principles as short statements in the margins of our scriptures or in a study journal. As we expand our understanding beyond the context where the principle was found, we will be able to see how each principle applies to our past and present experiences. More importantly, we can begin to feel the truthfulness of each one.

Finally, after each exciting session of digging on the beach, we will have the opportunity to ask ourselves how we can use and apply what we have learned. When we are diligent in applying the principles of the gospel to our lives, we will have more experiences we can use to reinforce our testimonies and add light to future study sessions.

Our scripture study will be enriched as we seek to understand the context and content of the sections we read, identify doctrines and principles, and then work to better understand, feel and apply those principles. We may also find that we're better motivated to continue studying because we will see those principles changing our lives and it will be fun-- like digging in the sand at the beach.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Settle This in Your Hearts

People have all kinds of reasons for not doing all kinds of things in life. Some won't go to war. Some don't want to work. Some excuse their way out of responsibility. Some claim to be too tired, ill, busy, poor, or self-conscious to get involved. Some claim self-importance and talent only for bigger things. There are those content to let somebody else do it and others who simply talk up a storm about love or peace or investing one's humanity. Yes, there are all kinds of reasons and all kinds of people.

That is the introductory paragraph to an article by Leon R. Hartshorn about President Heber J. Grant (New Era, January 1972). President Grant was the seventh president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and widely known as a man without excuses. "If it wasn't an easy task," Hartshorn explained, "he worked to bring about the proper result anyway. He tackled the impossible with enthusiasm, rising to the challenge in seeming glee."

One of the best-known stories about President Grant is about how he learned to play baseball. As the only child of his widowed mother, President Grant wrote of his childhood that he "grew more or less on the principle of a hothouse plant, the growth of which is 'long and lanky' but not substantial. I learned to sweep, and to wash and wipe dishes, but did little stone throwing and little indulging in those sports which are interesting and attractive to boys, and which develop their physical frames."

As a result, when he finally joined a baseball club he was assigned to play with boys two age groups younger than his own because he didn't have the strength to run, bat or even throw a ball to the next base. He was teased by the other boys and it would seem he had many good reasons to quit. He wasn't very athletic and clearly baseball wasn't his thing. Besides, did he really need to endure the verbal abuse of his peers or the embarrassment of playing with kids much younger than himself? Wouldn't his time be better spent helping his widowed mother or developing talents he was already inclined to do well?

People have all kinds of reasons for not doing all kinds of things in life, but not Heber J. Grant. He later stated, "So much fun was engendered on my account by my youthful companions that I solemnly vowed that I would play baseball in the nine that would win that championship of the Territory of Utah."

President Grant started saving his tips from shining shoes and soon had enough to buy a baseball. "I spent hours and hours throwing the ball at Bishop Edwin D. Woolley's barn, which caused him to refer to me as the laziest boy in the Thirteenth Ward. Often my arm would ache so that I could scarcely go to sleep at night. But I kept on practicing and... eventually played in the nine that won the championship of the territory and beat the nine that had won the championship for California, Colorado, and Wyoming" (Presidents of the Church Student Manual, (2012), 122-29).

President Grant's unwillingness to excuse himself from difficult tasks aided his rise in business and helped him to be a trusted instrument in the Lord's work. This principle of success is illustrated again in the Parable of the Great Supper. Speaking to a group of lawyers and Pharisees, Christ taught:

A certain man made a great supper, and bade many: And sent his servant at supper time to say to them that were bidden, Come; for all things are now ready.

And they all with one consent began to make excuse. The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.

So that servant came, and shewed his lord these things. Then the master of the house being angry said to his servant, Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in hither the poor, and the maimed, and the halt, and the blind.

And the servant said, Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room. And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper (Luke 14:16-24).

There may be times when our reasons are valid and we ought to excuse ourselves; but when it comes to living the gospel, we will always forfeit blessings when put other priorities above the Lord. In the Savior's words, "Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple. Wherefore, settle this in your hearts, that ye will do the things which I shall teach, and command you" (JST Luke 14:27-28).

President Grant solemnly vowed to play on the baseball team that won the territorial championship before he could throw a ball to the next base or swing a baseball bat, but he was successful because he began with end in mind and worked diligently toward his goal. Just as a surgeon doesn't make an incision without a plan for closing it and a track star doesn't start a race without knowing where the finish line is, we should settle in our hearts what our lives will be about. Will we accept the Lord's invitation to be his disciples or will we make excuses to justify our absence? Though we will not speak at our own funerals, we determine to a large degree what others will say by the way we live our lives with or without excuse.

If we decide to be disciples of Christ, there will certainly be hard times ahead. That path has never been easy. We bear our cross when we face those challenges we don't want to face with faith in God's plan for us. Christ did not say he would suffer in Gethsemane as long as he didn't miss the game or die for us unless it would embarrass him in public. Rather, he put aside even his best excuses to do the will of the Father. As the cross is a symbol of Christ's death, we bear our cross when we live and die for him, for others, and for the gospel.

People have all kinds of reasons for not doing all kinds of things in life. The Lord challenges us to settle in our hearts now whether we will follow him when the prophet says something we don't like, when we're tempted to watch popular but offensive movies and television shows, or when we need to repent of our sins or forgive someone else. He challenges us to settle in our hearts now whether we will be disciples like President Grant or if we're too tired, ill, busy, poor or self-important to attend the Great Supper of blessings he has prepared for us.

Yes, there are all kinds of reasons and all kinds of people. Who are you going to be?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

You Are What You Eat

Most cells in your body have an expiration date. A stomach cell only lives for a couple of days, skin cells last about a month, and red blood cells are with you about four months. Cells in your pancreas are hard at work regulating your blood sugar for about a year. Bone cells hang on for 25 - 30 years. Only very few-- like the cells that make the lens in your eye or the muscle of your heart-- last a lifetime.

So you don't fall to pieces, your body is constantly replacing, healing and regenerating cells that are injured, dead, or just worn out from helping you do what you do. This perpetual renovation means that the cells and molecules that make your physical self are seldom all the same from one moment to the next. You are always changing. And you're constantly deciding-- subconsciously or not-- what it is you're changing to be.

That's because your body gathers its building materials, be they for your liver or your toenails, from the nutrients in your food. In this way, we literally become what we have chosen to eat. A low-nutrient diet forces our body to improvise and we end up with the biological equivalent of a house made from cardboard and packing tape. Healthy eating gives our bodies what they need to build something a little stronger and more efficient.

For thousands of years, part of healthy eating has been whole-grain breads. Interestingly, bread also plays a significant role in many Bible stories and observances. Unleavened bread remains an important culinary and symbolic part of the Passover; it was bread from heaven, called Manna, that fed the Israelites in the desert after they escaped from the Egyptians; ravens brought bread to Elijah when he was hiding from the queen; and the widow of Zaraphath had an endless supply of oil and meal to make bread after feeding the prophet the last of what she had.

In the New Testament, Satan tempted Christ in the desert to turn rocks into bread and Christ broke bread to introduce the ordinance of the Sacrament to his apostles. There are dozens more examples, but none so impressive as when Christ used five loaves of bread and a few fish to feed 5,000 people on the coasts of Galilee. Some scholars believe that it was actually closer to 15,000 including women and children. Regardless of the number, it caught the people's attention.

Most of the thousands of people who were fed on this occasion had walked 5-7 miles along the coast of the Sea of Galilee to meet Christ on the other side. The Savior had left the city by boat that morning after hearing his friend and cousin, John the Baptist, had been murdered. He had gone to be alone, but when he saw the crowd of people he had compassion on them and ministered the rest of the day to them.

When evening came, Christ encouraged the people to stay rather than making the long walk back to the city to find food. He broke five loaves of bread and a few fishes into pieces and had his disciples distribute the pieces to the crowd. After all had eaten, there were more than five loaves of bread and a few fishes left over. It was a miracle!

The first reaction of those present was to testify that "this is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world" (John 6:14), but that reality means different things to different people. This crowd was hoping it would mean a lot of free meals. "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone" (John 6:15).

Human nature has hardly changed in two thousand years. The masses today often choose not only their religious and political leaders but also their furniture store and orthodontist based on the "free bread" that can be offered. At first glance, it may even seem that Christ avoided a great opportunity here. The people wanted him to be their king! How much easier would it be to share his message as a king than as a carpenter?!

Christ explained his refusal the next day when the crowd found him in the city. "Verily, verily, I say unto you," he said, "Ye seek me, not because ye desire to keep my sayings, neither because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled" (John 6:26). The Jews wanted a temporal Messiah that would free them from Rome and put food in their bellies; Christ had come with the much greater mission to free us all from sin and death and put the gospel in our hearts so we could one day be like him.

His mission wasn't concerned with votes or consensus or popular opinion, but rather commitment and devotion and discipleship. Followers without faith aren't any better than if they hadn't followed at all.

Addressing the crowd's focus on their next meal, he concluded his explanation with an admonition to, "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you" (John 6:27). Said another way, it's not the pot luck after church that nourishes our souls but the feast upon the Word that happens during church, at home and wherever else we choose to open our scriptures or go to our knees in prayer. It is by ingesting his gospel, not funeral potatoes and Jell-o, that our souls are able to heal, replace toxic habits and behaviors, and become stronger and more faithful.

With the advantage of two millenia of hindsight, it may seem easy to spot the short-sightedness of the people of Capernaum. They stood in the presence of the Creator, a god through whom all things are possible, and asked only for another loaf of bread. It is sometimes harder to recognize such smallness when our own approaches to the Divine become focused on similar requests for temporal wants or "golden goose" solutions that may be equally inappropriate and ungrateful.

Yet, we as they are often most persistent about our least important needs. When Christ refused to become their king, the crowd asked for Christ to simply provide more bread. When Christ refused again, they changed their approach and asked for the bread as a sign that he, like Moses, was doing the work of God. When Christ offered the bread of the gospel as a superior alternative to the manna their ancestors ate, the people responded, "Evermore, give us this bread," or, "That sounds great, but what we really need is something that goes with our lamb stew" (John 6:34).

Finally, in response to the crowd's oblivious persistence, Christ gave the people the formula for an endless supply of bread. "I am the bread of life," he taught, "he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). Unfortunately, the crowd was so focused on what they wanted that they did not perceive that they were being offered something much greater than a loaf of honey wheat. We can avoid their folly by zooming out to see that the formula Christ presents here-- and previously to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well (John 4:13-14)--  is fulfilled in at least two different ways.

First, Christ gives us the bread and water of His gospel as we come unto him. That is, as we exercise our faith, continue to repent and improve ourselves, make and keep sacred covenants, and receive and follow the Holy Ghost, our souls receive the nutrients they need to repair and rebuild. And just as our DNA provides the blueprints for our physical bodies to build according to our biological heritage and the available nutrients, our souls have within them the potential to be like our Heavenly Father and our Heavenly Mother if we'll just feed it the right nutrients.

And second, Christ offers us the bread and water of the sacrament as symbols of his sacrifice for us and the covenants we have made with him. When the Lord instituted the Passover, he instructed the Israelites to both mark their doorposts with lamb's blood and consume the meat of the lamb in a special meal. The Israelites were physically saved and physically fed by their obedience. In like manner, the Lord instituted the sacrament so that we could symbolically eat the flesh of the Lamb of God and mark the doorposts of our souls with his blood. We are fed both body and spirit as we partake and delivered from sin and death through our obedience and the power of his atonement.

We witness as we partake of the sacrament that we will always remember him and keep his commandments. But what's more, Christ and the covenants we have made with him become a little more of who we are-- physically and spiritually-- as we take the sacrament each week.

Every day we decide to eat hot dogs or steaks, carrots or chips, yogurt and berries or twinkies and soda. We make the same kind of decisions about building spiritual cardboard huts or something more enduring. If we make a regular diet of the meat which endureth unto everlasting life, we will find that we will change from this moment to the next. More specifically, we will become the gospel that we have consumed and the image of the Lamb of God will radiate from our countenances. The choice is ours, but buyer beware: you are what you eat.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Faith in Impossible Christmas Stories

Our family recently rebooted our daily scripture study. We had done well for awhile, encountered a few distractions and then suddenly realized it had been weeks since we had sat down together to read. We needed a reminder and a new burst of motivation.

The day after we started reading again, our oldest son came to his mom with some confessions. He is seven years old and his admissions were mainly focused on fibs and half-truths he had told about things that had happened at school. More confessions came on the second day and it really seemed like our family scripture study was helping him make better choices.

On the third day, he confessed again on the drive home from school. When he had vented, he added with concern, "Hey, Mom? Do you think that Santa will still bring me a present since I fixed it?"

So that's it.

Of course, my son's behavior is based on an impossible premise. There's just not enough time for one old man on a reindeer-powered sleigh to deliver hundreds of millions of presents around the world in a single night. Behavioral scientists observing my son's behavior might then conclude that his behavior has been completely irrational-- and they would be right except for two important details: first, my son is making decisions with imperfect information; and second, despite his lack of knowledge, his faith in Santa has always been rewarded as promised.

Indeed, our faith in Christ operates in much the same way. Though we are often "left in the dark" when it comes to the details, the Lord encourages us to live his gospel and see for ourselves whether our faith will be rewarded as promised. Just as my son ascribes Santa's deliveries to magic, we often see the fulfillment of God's promises as miracles-- and at no time do we celebrate our belief in those miracles more than during the Christmas season.

The biblical account of the first Christmas begins with the miraculous story of an angel who appeared to Zacharias in the temple. The angel told Zacharias that his wife, who had not been able to have children and was now "well stricken in years," would have a baby boy. Such a birth was not only improbable, but physiologically impossible.

A few months later, the same angel appeared to announce another impossible birth. This time he was speaking to Mary, a young woman engaged to the rightful heir of King David's throne. According to the commandments of the Lord and the customs of the day, the couple had remained chaste prior to their wedding:

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus...

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God... For with God nothing shall be impossible. (Luke 1:30-31, 34-35, 37).

In both cases, the appearance of an angel alone may seem unlikely if not viewed through the lens of faith; but the subsequent pregnancies of a virgin and a barren old woman challenge even the faithful. Yet, as the angel instructs, with God nothing shall be impossible. The question is not whether his word will come to fruition, but how we respond to even the most impossible promises.

Perhaps we will be logical, like Zacharias, who was skeptical of the angel's message though the divine messenger stood before him. His skepticism made his experience more difficult, but when his wife bore a son as the angel had prophesied he was ready to believe.

Mary's fiance had a similar reaction. We don't know what, if anything, Mary shared of her experiences, but Joseph sought to break off their engagement until he saw the angel himself in a dream. His vision persuaded him to believe the impossible and move forward with the wedding.

Elizabeth, Zacharias' wife, had been "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" despite living her entire life in a culture that incorrectly believed that her inability to have children was a form of divine punishment (Luke 1:6). Clearly, she was a woman of faith. Yet, knowing her conception was impossible, Elizabeth appears to withhold judgment for several months. Finally, she allowed her hope to sprout a greater faith and rejoiced that the Lord had taken away her shame. When Mary visits a month or so later, Elizabeth instantly recognizes the joy of her unborn child and testifies that Mary is the mother of the Christ.

Mary was also a woman of faith who, according to the angel, had found favor with God. When she heard the angel's impossible news, she responded with a humble and willing statement of faith. "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord," she said, "be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). When Elizabeth saluted her as "blessed... among women," Mary gave a similar response: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call be blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name" (Luke 1:46-49).

None of us knows all of the details about how Mary and Elizabeth conceived their miraculous children, nor are those details particularly important to our salvation, but as we respond with faith we will benefit from the many promises made possible by the lives of Jesus Christ, our Savior, and his Elias, John the Baptist. We can receive a remission of our sins, the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, knowledge to guide us through our most vexing problems and happiness in times of trial.

We can also receive greater faith that with God nothing is impossible. At Christmas we celebrate that a virgin did conceive and bear a son. That son walked on water and calmed the storms; turned water to wine and fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and some small fish; healed the blind, the leprous and the paralyzed; brought the dead back to life; atoned for our sins and was resurrected. Because of Him, we can see estranged family members reunited, be relieved of physical or mental anguish, find the strength to forgive, have a chance to pursue our impossible dreams and return to live with our families in the presence of God forever.

There were many others who responded to the impossible news of Christ's birth. Three kings traveled for years to bring gifts and worship him. King Herod tried to kill him. Simeon and Anna looked for him their entire lives and immediately recognized him and rejoiced when they saw the Christ child in the temple. Our experience will depend a great deal on our response to his invitations. Will we be skeptics, like Zacharias, and throw rocks into our own path; or will we allow "he that is mighty" to do "great things" in our lives because of our faith in him?

One indication may be our efforts to understand and rely on Christ through our study of the scriptures. Though our family may not always be consistent, it is a blessing in our lives to know that our faith-inspired study does indeed help our son, and all of us, respond with readiness to the Lord's invitations to serve his children. We don't know exactly how but we've noticed that it always seems to work-- no cookie tax required.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Gardens of Our Hearts

There are many times in scripture when you and I are compared in metaphor to the trees of an orchard or the grain of the field. One such occasion is in the third chapter of Matthew when John the Baptist preaches in the wilderness of Judea. John's growing popularity had become a concern for the ruling classes who had gained power and wealth by subjecting the people to often ridiculous additional rules and regulations cloaked as inspired additions to the Law of Moses.

Speaking to these ruling classes, but also to all of us, John declared: "If ye receive not [the preaching of him whom God hath sent] in your hearts, ye receive not me; and if ye receive not me, ye receive not him of whom I am sent to bear record; and for your sins ye have no cloak. Repent, therefore, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance" (JST Matthew 3:34-36).

Like a tree or a staff of grain, each of us bears the fruit of our labor. Worthy actions and desires are equivalent to good fruit in the metaphor. John reminds us that true repentance includes receiving God's word in our hearts and then changing our actions so that we may again be worthy of the Lord's harvest. Lest we think we can repent half-heartedly or offer impure fruits to the Lord, John reminds his listeners that "the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:10).

A lot can be and has been said about how we can change our actions, but John's repentance flowchart dictates that we focus first on planting the right seeds in good ground or, in other words, cultivating righteous desires in our pure, receptive hearts. This is also the focus of another agrarian metaphor, the Parable of the Sower, which Christ shared with an audience similar to John's. In the parable, which could also be called the Parable of the Soils, a sower goes out to plant seed in his field. Some of the seed falls into the road, some onto rocks, some into patches of weeds and some onto good ground where it can grow strong and bear fruit.

Two of the soils in this parable-- the rock and the road-- are hard and impenetrable. People with similarly hardened hearts may appear do everything right on the surface, but ultimately are unable to produce good fruit because they lack the depth of conviction and the ongoing spiritual nourishment to support their testimonies through tough questions or a difficult season in life.

Likewise, if we plant desires in our hearts that are not consistent with the word of God, even if they seem to be good at the time, we may find one day that the fruit we hoped to grow has been suffocated by other plants. The Savior taught that "where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also" (Matthew 6:21). We cannot plant our fields with corn and then be surprised when there's no wheat to harvest.

Elder Ardern recently reminded us that planting the right seeds in our hearts requires our attention and intention. "With the demands made of us," he said, "we must learn to prioritize our choices to match our goals or risk being exposed to the winds of procrastination and being blown from one time-wasting activity to another" (A Time to Prepare, October 2011). If we truly desire the things of God, we may find it necessary to do a little weeding from time to time to keep our growth on track.

Finally, the prophet Alma expounded how to plant the right desires in our softened hearts. "If ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart," he taught, "behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves-- It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me" (Alma 32:28).

He continues, "If ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst" (Alma 32:41-42).

In the words of Elder Oaks, our "desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions. The desires we act on determine our changing, our achieving, and our becoming" (Desire, April 2011). The desires we plant in our hearts determine the fruit we will eat now and in eternity.

Each of us has many desires competing for our attention each day. Some, such as desires to meet physical needs, may be strong without much effort from us. Others depend more heavily on our nurturing. In all cases, the desires we consider most important are most likely to be transferred into action. This includes overriding compelling physical desires to go camping, to fast or to work through the night; or allowing unrighteous desires to overcome our want of health, honesty or virtue.

Of course, ultimately we decide what desires are allowed to take root in our hearts; but the Lord has promised that we will yield the fruits of what we plant. "A just God," Alma taught, "granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life" (Alma 29:4).

From the farmer's point of view it may seem obvious that planting the right seeds in good ground is essential to yielding a profitable crop, but very few inherit such conditions. What do we do when we find patches of rocky or weed-filled ground in our garden? How can a person change what they treasure or have already planted in order to eventually harvest that field of wheat or orchard of delicious fruit?

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Robert Butchart moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island, Canada. He was among the first to develop and sell cement that could be packaged in sacks rather than barrels and Vancouver Island's rich limestone deposits were an integral part of his formula. He constructed his first quarry and cement plant in 1904 and would soon become a primary supplier of cement to rapidly developing cities from San Francisco to Seattle.

Robert's wife, Jennie, was the company's chemist. She was also a homemaker who cared very much for the sweet peas and roses planted at her family home near the quarry. As the limestone deposits were exhausted, Jennie determined to create something of beauty from the enormous pit that mining had left behind. She had tons of topsoil carted in to line the bottom of the abandoned quarry. Then she began to plant.

Jennie Butchart planted terraced flowers, white poplars and Persian plums. As more deposits were exhausted, she planted a Japanese garden and ivy that climbed up the quarry walls. She planted Tibetan blue poppies, California Redwoods, a private garden, a rose garden and two Italian gardens. Robert collected ornamental birds for the gardens and began assigning cement plant staff to help with weeding and maintenance. Little by little the garden grew and with growth came notoriety.

Today, Butchart Gardens is one of the five most renowned gardens in the world. 550 staff care for the 55-acre garden that receives more than a million visitors annually from around the world. Tourists come to tour the gardens, to take in an outdoor symphony concert or fireworks show, to ride the carousel with their kids and to enjoy the wonderful and awe-inspiring natural scenes unique to Butchart Gardens.

We may feel at times like our hearts, in whole or in part, are as hard and empty as an exhausted mining quarry. It may seem impossible to grow anything good or that all or part of us is just destined to be an empty limestone pit. While these feelings may be very real for us and even duly justified, they are tragically limited in their scope. We too often see ourselves in terms of yesterday and today; but our Heavenly Father, Elder Wirthlin has taught, sees us in terms of forever. Like Jennie Butchart, He looks at the empty hole in our hearts, sees the majestic gardens we can grow and then makes it possible for us to start planting.

Inevitably, we will all have to lay down some new soil from time to time. We do this as we decide we want to want to. In Alma's words, "behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words" (Alma 32:27). We break apart the stony ground and prepare it for planting as we set aside our cynicism in order to hear and feel the testimonies of the faithful.

The scriptures speak about this change in terms of what we seek. "When people [in the scriptures] are described as 'having lost their desire for sin,'" Elder Oaks has taught, "it is they, and they only, who deliberately decided to lose those wrong desires by being willing to 'give away all [their] sins' in order to know God." The Lord has taught that we should seek earnestly the best gifts (D&C 46:8) and that we will find what we diligently seek (1 Nephi 10:19) and consistently pursue.

When we have prepared our hearts and aroused our faculties to live the teaching of the gospel the best we can, our desires will sprout and begin to grow. We will begin to see how paying tithing, serving others and living the commandments beautifies our lives. We will defend time dedicated to studying the scriptures, serving others and building family relationships against even the most appealing intrusions and continue to nourish righteous desires through our faith and persistent effort.

"What we insistently desire over time is what we will eventually become and what we will receive in eternity," Elder Maxwell has taught. "Only by educating and training our desires can they become our allies instead of our enemies" (According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts, October 1996). Every day the world will try to influence our desires to buy something, click on something, play something, read or watch something. We must consistently seek to refine, purify and elevate our desires; to train them to be wheat instead of turning to corn.

As we plant more of the word of God in our hearts, we will be increasingly able to see what the completed garden will look like. The vision of what we can become will increase our desire and power to act enormously. Like Jennie Butchart, we will want to plant more gardens and to share what we have found with others. The transformation in our hearts will be as if we had been born again.

Along the way, we will learn a simple formula that will help us receive the blessings we seek from the Lord. The formula is recorded by Enos, among many others, who prayed "with many long strugglings" for his cousins, the Lamanites, "and labored with all diligence" to that end. The Lord recognized Enos' desires and efforts. "I will grant unto thee according to thy desires," the Lord responded to Enos' prayers, "because of thy faith" (Enos 1:11-12).

It is by grace we are saved after all we can do; and it is the faithful combination of our righteous desires and diligent efforts that will yield the blessings of the Lord, including the fruits of repentance, peace and prosperity that will enrich our lives on earth and forever after. "Let us remember," Elder Oaks taught, "that desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions. In addition, it is our actions and our desires that cause us to become something, whether a true friend, a gifted teacher, or one who is qualified for eternal life."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

If Thine Eye Offend Thee

In his epic final sermon to his people in ancient America, King Benjamin warned:

I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not (Mosiah 4:29-30).

It is easier than ever today to walk, click or even glance our way into situations that tempt us to sin in one way or another. In response, the Lord has taught that we must be proactive in our efforts to prevent or avoid those influences that would lead us into temptation. If thy hand or foot offend thee, he taught, "cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into [eternal] life maimed, than having two hands [or feet] to go into hell" (Mark 9:43, 45). Likewise, "if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire" (Mark 9:47).

Our feet, hands or eyes can offend or betray us if they cause us to stumble, to be lead astray, to sin or to abandon our faith. Of course, Christ was not advocating a policy of amputating first and asking questions later. Rather, he understood that amputation is a procedure reserved for body parts that have become seriously damaged, infected or diseased and could betray the best interests of the body by causing further harm or even death if not removed.

Further insight comes through the Joseph Smith translation of these verses. That text states:

If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; or if thy brother offend thee and confess not and forsake not, he shall be cut off... And again, if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; for he that is thy standard, by whom thou walkest, if he become a transgressor, he shall be cut off... And if thine eye which seeth for thee, him that is appointed to watch over thee to show thee light, become a transgressor and offend thee, pluck him out (JST Mark 9:40, 42, 46).

Each of us must evaluate the people and principles that guide our lives. Do we have a friend or family member that consistently tries to get us to do or accept things we know are contrary to God's commandments? Do we subscribe to a cause or behaviors or a school of thought that may ultimately lead us away from our faith in Christ? Do the leaders we choose to support and follow illuminate the path that will lead us back to our Heavenly Father or do they use illusion to lure us in some other direction?

"It follows," Elder Walter F. Gonzalez has taught, "that such cutting off refers not only to friends but to every bad influence, such as inappropriate television shows, Internet sites, movies, literature, games, or music. Engraving in our souls this principle will help us to resist the temptation to yield to any bad influence ("Today is the Time," Ensign, Nov. 2007, 55).

The Lord's teaching leaves no room for exceptions. He does not say to sever relationships unless it would be awkward or to stop following toxic leaders unless the better leaders don't seem to be popular. As any good physician would, he says clearly and decisively that we should terminate any influence in our lives that may betray the welfare of our souls.

There are diverse ways and means employed today to lead the faithful away from the strength and protection of their faith in the Good Shepherd, but each of us is admonished to be proactive in our efforts to root out spiritual infection and evil influences by the echoes of King Benjamin's words:

If ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not (Mosiah 4:29-30).

Remember: Amputate those infections influences and perish not.