Sunday, February 25, 2018

Risk, Benefits, and Alternatives

A few years ago, I had a medical condition that required surgery. On the appointed day, I went to the hospital and began preparations for the operation. Once I had settled in the hospital bed, the surgeon came in to see me. As he had in his office a few weeks prior, the surgeon explained the operation, gave me a few post-surgery symptoms to watch out for, and answered my questions.

In the medical world, my short conversation with the surgeon is known as "risks, benefits and alternatives," or more colloquially, as RBAs. Surgeons are required to personally share this information with each patient. If a patient has a question later on, the surgeon must return to address that question personally. No part of RBAs can be delegated to a nurse or other staff.

Our Heavenly Father operates in our lives very much like a surgeon. The scriptures testify that all of us lived with God before we were born. We are his spirit children (Romans 8:16-17). "Even before [we] were born, [we], with many others, received [our] first lessons in the world of spirits and were prepared to come forth in the due time of the Lord" (D&C 138:56). When the time was right, God the Father personally shared the risks, benefits and alternatives of His plan for us in a grand premortal council.

As with any surgeon, the Lord provided information but the choice was ours. We knew that life would be a difficult learning experience and that the stakes were high. Side effects would include pain, frustration, temptation and other symptoms common to mortality. We would need to check in frequently with our Heavenly Father and rely on the Great Physician, our Savior Jesus Christ, to help us heal the wounds we would inevitably receive. If we were faithful to the prescribed plan, we would find great joy, peace and love in this life. We would have his image in our countenances. We would return home to Him to inherit all He has in the life to come. If not, our progress and our royal inheritance would be lost.

Some of our brothers and sisters chose not to come to earth. Perhaps for some, the risks were too great. Lucifer, the scriptures say, wanted God's glory without enduring the trials of life and attempted unsuccessfully to create his own alternative. Many followed him. All people that have lived, that now live, or will yet live, understood the risks, benefits and alternatives and chose to proceed with the plan to come to earth.

Thankfully, unlike most surgeries, our communication with our Heavenly Father does not end once the procedure has begun. Throughout our lives, it is often the case that we will think of questions we may not have before. Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there a specific mission or purpose for my life? How can I have peace, love and joy when my circumstances aren't ideal? What should I do about a particularly vexing problem I've encountered at work or in my marriage or just with life in general?

We must never allow ourselves to believe that we are alone. Our Heavenly Father is invested in our success and He is always there to guide the operation of our lives. "For behold," he has said, "this is my work and my glory-- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39).

Just as a surgeon will return when a patient has a new question, our Heavenly Father has provided access to him through prayer. He is always there and he always answers in his own time. Christ taught:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened (Matthew 7:7-8).

We should never hesitate to speak with our Heavenly Father about the trials and temptations we face. We should pray to him about our aspirations, ask him for the strength and protection we need and express our gratitude for his marvelous plan and the Savior that makes it possible (Alma 34:17-27).

These years later, the pain of my medical condition is now a distant memory. Following my surgeon's orders, I was able to make a full recovery. Even so, his name and contact information remains on my medical record and in my phone in case I ever have a question.

I know that I can always contact my Heavenly Father also; and that he will take my calls personally. He oversees the mortal operation that I chose to experience. He knows how to make it a success and he's deeply interested in doing so. You see, he's not only my surgeon, my god and my king; he's also my dad and he wants me to come home.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

An Offering Unto the Lord in Righteousness: A Prophecy Fulfilled

 An ancient prophecy was fulfilled with an announcement made, and largely missed, in December of 2017. Like so many other Bible prophecies, its fulfillment foretells the Second Coming of Jesus Christ in the same way that new leaves on a fig tree foretell the coming of summer (Mark 13:28-29).

Around 445 B.C., the Lord spoke through the prophet Malachi:

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple... And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness (Malachi 3:1-3).

There are several parts to this particular prophecy: the messenger, the Lord coming to his temple, the purification of the sons of Levi and the offering unto the Lord in righteousness. Each part is connected to the others and has occurred in its own time over the last 190 years. The final piece was made possible just two months ago.

First, the Lord sent his messenger to prepare the way before him in the spring of 1829. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were prayerfully engaged in the work of translating what we now know as the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ when they came across a passage they did not understand. As they often did, they went into the woods to pray for the greater light and knowledge the needed. Joseph recorded that as they did so,  "a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:

Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness" (D&C 13, JSH 1:68-72).

The messenger introduced himself as, "John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament". It is particularly fitting that the man who was called to prepare the way for Christ's earthy ministry would also have a key role, now as a resurrected heavenly messenger, in the restoration of the priesthood preparatory to the Second Coming. It is equally appropriate that John would echo the prophecy of Malachi he was sent to fulfill.

Restoration of the Priesthood of Aaron was soon followed by the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood and then the doctrines related to temple worship. After building the first temple of our dispensation in Kirtland, Ohio, Jesus Christ appeared suddenly on April 3, 1836. Joseph and Oliver testified:

We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us... His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: 'I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father' (D&C 110).

To understand the remaining parts of this prophecy, we first need to understand who the sons of Levi are who are to be purified and offer an offering in righteousness. In the Old Testament, the Levites performed sacrifices in the tabernacle, which was essentially a portable temple. Those sacrifices were offered on behalf of the Israelites requesting forgiveness of sin, as a sign of personal commitment to God, in gratitude for one's blessings or to continue to be at peace with the Lord. Each of these offerings were intended to point the minds of the people to the Messiah who would one day come to free them from their sins. These sacrifices were only to be done by ordained priests in the Levitical Priesthood-- and only the male descendants of Moses' brother Aaron, a Levite, were permitted to be ordained priests. The Levitical Priesthood is also known as the lesser, the preparatory or the Aaronic Priesthood.

Beginning with John the Baptist's ordination of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the sons of Levi are once again called to do the work of the Priesthood of Aaron. The Lord has taught:

Therefore, as I said concerning the sons of Moses-- for the sons of Moses and also the sons of Aaron shall offer an acceptable offering and sacrifice in the house of the Lord, which house shall be built unto the Lord in this generation, upon the consecrated spot as I have appointed... whose sons are ye; and also many whom I have called and sent forth to build up my church. For whoso is faithful unto the obtaining these two priesthoods of which I have spoken... become the sons of Moses and of Aaron (D&C 84:31-34).

The sons of Levi in our day are those who have inherited his priesthood as restored by John the Baptist. Over the last several decades, there has been a renewed emphasis on purity among these modern-day priests of the Aaronic Priesthood. Whether "raising the bar" or lowering the age for missionary service, these young men have risen to the challenges of modern prophets to live with greater purity and devotion than generations past. There can be no question the Lord has been purifying the sons of Levi, and continues to purify them, in our day.

Finally, we can turn our attention to the nature of the offering to be given in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Clearly, it cannot be a blood sacrifice in the way the ancient Levites offered animals. Amulek, an ancient American missionary, explained:

Therefore, it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice, and then shall there be, or it is expedient there should be, a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle, and none shall have passed away.

And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal (Alma 34:13-14).

In modern temples, just as in Solomon's temple, there are baptismal fonts where the living may act as proxies in performing baptisms for the dead. This principle of the gospel has been present whenever there have been temples on the earth. "Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead," wrote the Apostle Paul in one sermon about resurrection, "if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:29).

In December 2017, the First Presidency of the Church announced that, under the direction of the temple presidency, ordained priests in the Aaronic or Levitical Priesthood may be asked to officiate in baptisms for the dead, including performing baptisms and serving as witnesses. This is a change from the last 180 years, when only those who were ordained to the higher or Melchizedek Priesthood could officiate. Now in more than 150 temples around the world, priests are once again performing sacred ordinances on behalf of those in need of repentance, divine covenants and the peace of God.

Echoing Malachi in an 1842 letter to the Saints, the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote:

Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand; and who can abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire, and like a fuller's soap; and he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness. Let us, therefore, as a church and a people, and as Latter-day Saints, offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness; and let us present in his holy temple, when it is finished, a book containing the records of our dead, which shall be worthy of all acceptation (D&C 128:24).

With a simple announcement that went unnoticed by most of the world, the Lord is fulfilling the prophecies of all the ancient prophets and preparing the world for his eventual return. It is as Christ has said; and today there is another leaf on the fig tree warning us of the approaching summer.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Higher Point of View

There's a humorous skit about a woman who visits a fortune teller to decide whether she should change careers. "The crystal ball says it would be boring," the fortune teller reports. "But," he adds, "it could be fun though."

The woman then asks about her upcoming vacation. As the fortune teller gazes into the crystal ball with horror, he reports that it will be a total disaster that will leave her lonely and crying. "But," he concludes again, "it could be fun though."

"How could that be fun?!" the woman asks.

"Anything can be fun," comes the reply. "It's all perspective really."

"Anything could be bad, too," the woman countered.

"It could be," the fortune teller agreed, "but it could be fun though."

A similar conversation occurred in the family car on the way to church a week or two ago. My wife had commented on what a good year our family has had. My first instinct was to agree. We welcomed a child to the family in April, I got a big promotion at work, we had a lot of fun traveling to new places and things seemed to be going well. It had certainly been a good year.

As I thought a little more, I paused. Yes, a lot of good things had happened, but some bad things happened, too. Our county experienced a catastrophic wildfire, flooding on two separate occasions and snow events that knocked out power. Some extended family turmoil persisted, there were months with more demands than we could meet and days when we just seemed out of sync. There were illnesses and injuries and world events that added to a pile of evidence that could convince any jury we'd just had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.

Our perceptions can have dramatic effects on our spirituality and happiness. When I saw the world with my wife's sense of optimism, I experienced a sense of gratitude that was encouraging and uplifting. As doubts came, my hope diminished and I began to relive the stress and burdensome weight of life's difficult experiences.

Of course, we will all have hard days. We will all have questions or doubts at times, including some regarding our faith. The perspective we allow to prevail in our thoughts and attitudes will ultimately affect our actions and the happiness we choose to allow into our lives.

The Lord assures us that "my ways [are] higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:5-9). When it gets hard to see the bright side, the Lord encourages us to continue to act in faith, doing the things we already know he would want us to do; try to examine issues and situations with his eternal perspective; and then seek for truth in divinely-appointed sources including the Holy Scriptures and through prayer.

The Lord taught through the Apostle Paul:

Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God... Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 2:5, 9-11).

The Lord is able to help us see the world from a higher point of view if we are willing to sincerely seek after his truth. This allows us to reframe our questions and view our lives based on the Lord's standard of truth rather than accepting the world's premises or assumptions. In the context of the plan of salvation and the teachings of the Savior, for example, death is not the end of our existence, love does not justify sin and faith without works is dead. Through the lens of the gospel, we can find comfort at the passing of a loved one, courage to act on an impression and the gratitude and warmth of God's love as we remain true to the commandments he has given us.

This higher perspective is especially important in the way we view other people. Though we may be frustrated at the driver that cuts us off on the freeway, an arrogant colleague or an unhelpful customer service agent, the Lord sees the great worth and potential in all of us. He sees you and I and those that annoy us equally as "a little lower than the angels", "more precious than fine gold" and his royal heirs "crowned with glory and honour" (Psalms 8:5, Isaiah 13:12, D&C 18:10). One of the great things about the holiday season is that with just a little gratitude, patience and some kindness, we are all able to experience greater joy and peace on earth.

As a new year begins, there are certainly untold triumphs and discouraging setbacks ahead. Some we will be able to control, others will be immune to our influence. It could be the worst ever, but I think it could be fun though.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

That They Might Have Joy

The world is increasingly in commotion. There are political upheavals, wars and rumors of wars, personal tragedies, attacks on family values and all kinds of economic woes. One report to the United Nations confirmed that "weather-related disasters such as floods and heatwaves have occurred almost daily in the past decade, almost twice as often as two decades ago... Predictions of more extreme weather in the future almost certainly mean that we will witness a continued upward trend in weather-related disasters in the decades ahead" (Miles, Tom. Article linked).

While nightly news reports increasingly align with Biblical descriptions of "perilous times" when "nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places" (2 Timothy 3:1, Matthew 24:7), there are more personal disasters too. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce; one in five Americans suffers from mental illness; almost a million people declare bankruptcy each year; we are afflicted by debilitating and life-threatening diseases and the suffering of those we love; and more people than ever are having crises of faith that eventually lead to having no faith at all.

President Boyd K. Packer summarized in 2004:

I know of nothing in the history of the Church or in the history of the world to compare with our present circumstances. Nothing happened in Sodom and Gomorrah which exceeds in wickedness and depravity that which surrounds us now.

Words of profanity, vulgarity, and blasphemy are heard everywhere. Unspeakable wickedness and perversion were once hidden in dark places; now they are in the open, even accorded legal protection.

At Sodom and Gomorrah these things were localized. Now they are spread across the world, and they are among us ("One Pure Defense", Feb 6, 2004).

Amid a world of stress, fear, chaos and wickedness, it is easy to become discouraged, worried or hopeless. Yet, the Lord has said that we can experience greater hope and peace in our lives as the prophecies that precede the Second Coming of Christ are fulfilled (Matthew 24:6; D&C 45:35). What's more, he has promised that the righteous in our times will be gathered while "singing with songs of everlasting joy" (D&;C 45:71). How can this be, when our lives are filled with so much suffering, confusion, oppression and difficulty?

The prophet Nephi experienced some of the conditions that are common to our day. As a young man, his father left a life of prosperity to take his family into the wilderness prior to the destruction of Jerusalem. On at least one occasion, the family nearly starved to death. Nephi's rebellious older brothers led wicked lives that led to a great deal of suffering for their family. They frequently fought with Nephi and tried to kill him and their father many times. As his posterity grew, Nephi's people separated into a new nation that took up arms to defend their liberties and their families from the descendants of Nephi's brothers that sought to enslave and destroy them.

Given all he experienced, we could easily expect Nephi to be a mess of a person with myriad mental afflictions worthy of our pity. Instead, Nephi writes that he and his people "lived after the manner of happiness" (2 Nephi 5:27). So what can we learn from Nephi's experience that will help us sing songs of everlasting joy despite the commotion all around us and even, at times, within us?

A further study of Nephi's resilience reveals that at least one source of strength was his unwavering focus on his purpose. The Lord has clearly declared his own mission relative to his children on the earth: "For behold, this is my work and my glory-- to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). Our purpose within God's larger plan may seem less clear.

Leadership guru Ben Zander has observed that the reason for much of what we do is simply to "make our eyes shine". Shining eyes, he explains, reveal our joy in the journey and our hope for the future. Most of us tend to do things that we think will awaken opportunity in us and those around us.

Nephi said it this way: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy" (2 Nephi 2:25). This is the purpose of our lives on earth: to have joy. Every commandment the Lord has given leads to this outcome. Joy is the reason for multiplying and replenishing the earth and joy is the reason for keeping the Sabbath Day holy. As we learn to better live by the laws that God has given us, we will discover a greater measure of joy in our daily lives.

That, of course, does not mean we'll always be happy. Consider Paul's counsel to the members of the ancient church in Hebrews 12:

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God...

Ye have not resisted unto blood, striving against sin... despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou are rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth...

Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Hebrews 12:1, 2, 4, 6, 11).

None of us would suppose that the Savior was happy to be tortured and killed on the cross at Calvary, yet Paul explicitly states that Christ did so for the joy it brought him. Few of us take pleasure in the difficult challenges we encounter in life or in the humility of correction, but through the exercise of our trials we often grow in wisdom and find the peace that precedes the deepest joy.

Ultimately, like all else that is good in life, true joy is a gift from God predicated upon our ability to have his spirit to be with us. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, [and] temperance" (Galatians 5:22-23). And, like all other gifts from God, he is anxious to share it with us if we will allow it: "If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?" (Matthew 7:11).

Painting by Greg Olson
The Lord illustrated how we can share in his joy in a vision given to Nephi's father, Lehi, and later to Nephi also. In the vision, Lehi was led to a glorious tree filled with the most delicious fruit he had ever tasted. He stated that the fruit was "desirable to make one happy" and that it "filled [his] soul with incredibly great joy" as he ate. The fruit was available to all, but many chose not to approach or left in shame after they had begun to eat.

The Lord explains later that the fruit Lehi saw was symbolic for the Love of God. Elder David A. Bednar has taught, "The greatest manifestation of God's love for His children is the mortal ministry, atoning sacrifice, and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The fruit on the tree can be considered a symbol for the blessings of the Savior's Atonement."

Because of the Savior's Atonement, each of us can receive joy as we exercise faith in Him, repent of our sins, make and keep sacred covenants including baptism and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost in our daily lives. Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, as we accomplish our purpose of having joy in this life, we are also attaining God's purpose to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man.

Modern scripture expounds upon the testimony of ancient prophets with prophecies of thunderings, lightnings, tempests, and "the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds" (D&C 88:88-90). It continues, "And all things shall be in commotion; and surely, men's hearts shall fail them; for fear shall come upon all people" (D&C 88:91). Yet, the Lord has promised that we need not be troubled when we see these things going on around us.

Ben Zander has suggested that if we are not finding joy in the goals and activities of our lives, we need only to "move the goalposts". As we turn to the Lord and strive to better live the gospel outlined in the Holy Scriptures-- that is, as we live after the manner of happiness-- our eyes can shine and we can sing the heartfelt songs of everlasting joy even in the darkness and chaos that sometimes surrounds us. This is our purpose here on the earth: that we might have joy.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

His Hand is Stretched Out Still

The Israelites of the Old Testament were almost constantly in a heap of trouble. On one occasion in the Book of Isaiah, the Lord gave a long laundry list of their grievances against Him. The Israelites were chastised for turning away from God, following leaders that had caused them to err, lying, hypocrisy, denying help to the poor, fighting unnecessary wars, selfishness and pride. It's a shameful list that may seem more familiar to you or I than we'd like to admit.

After each verse of accusations in this particular part of Isaiah, the Lord repeats the same warning coupled with a merciful invitation. "For all this [my] anger is not turned away, but [my] hand is stretched out still" (Isaiah 9).

Each of us, like the Israelites of Old, have committed offenses against God for which there must be consequences. In the words of the apostle Paul, "All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Trailing our offenses is a warning: "For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance." Mercifully, the Lord continues, "Nevertheless, he that repents and does the commandments of the Lord shall be forgiven" (D&C 1:31-32).

Whatever sins we may have committed, whatever pain we may be carrying in our hearts, or however lost we may sometimes feel, the Lord's hand is stretched out still. He promises there is still hope for us and that he will be there to lift us up if we will just keep trying.

This is possible because of the infinite and eternal Atonement of Jesus Christ, which includes his suffering in Gethsemane, his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection. Amulek, a great missionary in ancient America, taught:

For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made.

For it is expedient that there should be a great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man, neither of beast, neither of any manner of fowl; for it shall not be a human sacrifice; but it must be an infinite and eternal sacrifice...

And behold, this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal.

And thus he shall bring salvation to all those who shall believe on his name; this being the intent of this last sacrifice, to bring about the bowels of mercy, which overpowereth justice, and bringeth about means unto men that they may have faith unto repentance. And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety" (Alma 34:9, 10, 14-16).

An infinite number is one without limits that cannot be detracted from or added upon. Likewise, eternity is an unbound measure of time expanding indefinitely into future and past. Therefore, an infinite and eternal atonement is an unlimited offering on our behalf. Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, there is no sin that cannot be forgiven, no wound that cannot be healed, no weakness that cannot be made into a strength, no past that cannot have meaning and no future without hope.

President Boyd K. Packer shared an illustration of this principle at a leadership training held a few months before he died. He said that he had searched backward throughout his lifetime, looking for evidence of the sins that he had committed and sincerely repented. He could could find no trace of them. Because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and through sincere repentance, his sins were completely gone as if they had never happened (Reeves, Linda. The Great Plan of Redemption. Ensign. November 2016.).

Sometimes we all find ourselves in a shameful heap. For those things we do that offend God, his anger is not turned away. He has a zero tolerance policy for sin. Justice must be satisfied.

Yet, because he longs to help you and I return to his presence, his arm is stretched out still. The Son of God died so that we can try again. He atoned for our sins, our afflictions, our sorrows and our weaknesses to meet justice's demands and heal the scars on our souls, regardless of their size or how long they have been there. If we will repent and follow his commandments, it will one day be as if we had never been scarred at all.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

Since the time of Adam, the Lord has prepared his people for the blessings of the temple. In these holy houses, we can be taught, make certain covenants, and receive ordinances that enable us to live in the presence of God. Temples are literally houses of the Lord where we can feel His spirit and learn His will for us. Because "no unclean thing shall be permitted to come into [His] house" (D&C 109:20), the Lord has taught that we must prepare ourselves to be worthy for temple worship.

The concept of preparation prevails in many of our endeavors. A person is not admitted to a university, for example, until they have worked to achieve sufficient academic standing and met all other criteria for eligibility. Similarly, anyone may enter the temple who is willing to prepare well for that privilege. Priesthood leaders have the authority and responsibility to represent the Lord in determining our eligibility to attend the temple as we meet with them.

Preparation for temple attendance includes physical, intellectual and spiritual elements. Physical preparation includes an outward appearance that is modest and clean. Wearing our "Sunday best" as we enter the temple reflects our respect for the Lord and the importance of the learning, revelation and covenants that occur in the Lord's house.

Intellectual preparation might include a study of the scriptures, particularly the Old Testament and topics relevant to temple worship or principles we are seeking to learn. The Old Testament underscores the antiquity of temple worship and the enduring nature of its ordinances. Symbols were used anciently to teach profound truths and this method of instruction continues to be used in temples today.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we must prepare spiritually to attend the temple. In Psalm 24, King David asked, "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place?" He answered simply, "He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart... He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation" (Psalm 24:3-5).

When Christ came to the temple in ancient America, he taught:

And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end. Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day (3 Nephi 27:19-20).

Because of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection, we can be washed and sanctified as we act in faith; repent of our sin; covenant through baptism to take His name upon ourselves, keep his commandments, and always remember him; and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. We prepare for temple worship as we take appropriate steps to have clean hands and a pure heart.

The Lord was teaching the early members of the Church how to prepare for temple worship before a temple was even constructed. In December 1832 or January 1833, the Lord commanded the Saints to, "Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God" (D&C 88:119).

One verse prior, the Lord instructs, "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and by faith" (v. 118). As was the case for most farmers of that time, few of the early leaders of the Church had more than a third grade education. Before they, or the rest of the church members, would be ready for the blessings of the temple, they would need to further their education.

Obediently, these faithful men began gathering each morning after breakfast in an upstairs room of the Whitney Store in Kirtland, Ohio. There they were instructed in topics of religion, languages, history, geology, politics, and anything else that could be taught.

As was common in those days, many of the men in the newly established school would pull out their pipes once breakfast had settled in their stomachs. Often, the room would get too smoke-filled to see the instructor. Then, when finished with their pipes, many would use chewing tobacco in one side or both and spit with varying degrees of accuracy into spittoons located on the floor.

The disgusting mess of spit and tobacco left behind after one of these sessions was very difficult to clean and even stained the floor. After just a few weeks, Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, to whom the chore of cleaning the floor often fell, became very concerned by the lack of cleanliness associated with using tobacco products. Joseph inquired of the Lord and received a revelation now commonly known as the Word of Wisdom.

The Word of Wisdom lays out the Lord's law of health for our time. It starts with this preamble: "Behold, verily, thus saith the Lord unto you: In consequence of the evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom by revelation" (D&C 89:4).

The Lord then lays out the law. Alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea are "not for the body," but "all grain is good for the food of man" and fruits and vegetables are to be eaten in their proper seasons. Meat is also ordained for our use, the Lord instructs, but it is to be eaten sparingly and with thanksgiving (D&C 89:5-17).

If we follow this law, the Lord promises that we "shall receive health in [our] navel and marrow to [our] bones; And shall find great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; And shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint. And I, the Lord, give unto them [that obey] a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them" (D&C 89:18-21).

In the context of history, the Word of Wisdom was clearly ahead of its time. There was no scientific research on tobacco products in the 1830s and alcohol was considered safer than water to drink. Temperance societies were just beginning to convince the public to replace their morning whiskey with a cup of coffee, which had been a rare luxury item until those same societies successfully lobbied for the removal of the import tariff on coffee beans. Manufacturers, meanwhile, were still discovering the profit potential of addictive substances, drugs and hormones to increase animal production, and genetic modification techniques.

At the same time, the Word of Wisdom was not unprecedented. Daniel, in the Old Testament, "purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king's meat, nor with the wine which he drank" (Daniel 1:8). Instead, he made a deal with the eunuchs: they would let him and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, eat only grains and drink only water for ten days, then they could compare their health with the other children.

Daniel clearly believed that his food choices were a matter of faith ordained by the Lord. To deviate from those choices wasn't just a physical setback, but a defiling of his soul. After ten days, the eunuchs saw his healthy countenance and took the meats and wine away from the other children. But another consequence of their behavior is sometimes overlooked. The scriptures explain, "As for these four children, God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams" (Daniel 1:17).

The particulars of the Lord's law of health have varied slightly in different periods of world history, but whenever there have been prophets on the earth the Lord has given commandments for the care of our bodies. These commandments help us to be ready to serve others and keep other commandments, to be sure, but also prepare us for the blessings of "hidden" knowledge and wisdom received by Daniel and promised to us through the Word of Wisdom.

It is this "hidden", or sacred, knowledge that comes through revelation from God to each of us in His temple. Through his spirit, He can teach us the answers to some of our most complex questions, give us the insight to seek a better approach or nudge us toward actions that will bless our lives. To hear his voice and receive the strength we need to obey His word, we must be prepared to receive Him.

So we see again that in every gospel dispensation, including our own, the Lord has prepared his people for the blessings of the temple. It is there that we can be sealed together as families for time and all eternity. It is there, in His house, that our Heavenly Father teaches us, His children, many of the most sacred doctrines of His gospel. Every other gospel principle leads us to the temple because the temple leads us to Him; but our eligibility to participate depends on willingness to come to him through our physical, intellectual and spiritual preparation.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart... He shall receive the blessing from the Lord, and righteousness from the God of his salvation (Psalm 24:3-5).

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Withdrawing to the Wilderness

Sometimes after a busy day there's nothing better than sitting on the couch watching your favorite television show. Taking a few minutes to relax can take our minds off of the things that are causing our stress and rejuvenate our strength so we can finish out the day. But then sometimes we finish a television show with the same lingering feeling we might have when we just got home from vacation and realize we really need a vacation. So, of course, we watch another unsatisfying episode and another until we're so exhausted we can't help but fall asleep.

The average American watches about five hours of television per day. If we count the media we consume on tablets and phones, that number spikes to 10 hours and 39 minutes of screen time each and every day (The Total Audience Report: Q1 2016, Nielsen Media, 2016). We might have different reasons for being so plugged in, but most of us would agree that at least one primary reason is to "recharge our batteries," so to speak.

Yet, if any of us had a cell phone or tablet that needed a ten-and-a-half hour charge-- plus seven hours in sleep mode-- to function the other six hours of the day, we would likely think it was time for a new device. Most of our ancestors farmed the land from dawn until dusk, a job that required roughly 10-14 hours of hard labor per day. So what's wrong with us that we can barely put together six and a half nonconsecutive hours of work before we need to "recharge our batteries" for the rest of the day?

Perhaps the problem for at least some of us is that we're plugging our batteries into the wrong outlet. Each of us is a spirit child of our Heavenly Father. We chose to come to this earth to obtain physical bodies and become more like Him. Our bodies can become tired and fatigued, but so can our spirits. Responding to physical and spiritual fatigue with the same treatment of television and vacations is like grabbing a sandwich every time you get thirsty-- it might quell your hunger but you'll still be thirsty (and you're probably gaining some weight, too).

Most of us know what to do when our bodies our tired, but we're less sure how to plug in the ol' spiritual batteries. We can learn how to rejuvenate our spirits by carefully observing the example of our Savior, Jesus Christ, during his ministry.

Time isn't very carefully delineated in the New Testament, but it's clear that Christ had some very busy days. In Luke chapter five, for example, Christ recruited Peter, James and John; traveled several miles on foot to a certain city where he healed a man with leprosy; taught and possibly healed some Pharisees; healed a paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof and forgave him of his sins; explained why he spent his time with sinners; called Matthew the publican to follow him; answered some questions about fasting and authored a new parable about putting new wine in new bottles. Whether all of this happened in a single day or over a few days, the text makes it clear that Christ was almost constantly thronged with people as he went about teaching, healing and ministering to them.

It must have been exhausting for the Savior to keep up this routine day after day after day. He was still mortal, after all, and subject to the same fatigue and burnout that we all experience when we work long hours. If he could feel the virtue leaving him as he healed the woman that touched his garment, how did he avoid feeling like he had an empty tank with nothing more to give?

We get a clue about halfway through the chapter. As Christ was teaching a crowd that included a number of Scribes and Pharisees, Luke reports, almost in passing, that "the power of the Lord was present to heal them" (v. 17). Taken alone, this statement may seem ordinary or even a little obvious. Luke could have made this statement at pretty much any time, but he only said it here. His statement builds upon the prior verse where Christ, "withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed" (v. 16).

There is a similar pattern throughout the scriptures and the ministry of Christ. Moses had to withdraw himself from the Israelites to talk with the Lord and receive the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Elijah was told to withdraw himself onto a mountain where he experienced the Lord's power and heard His voice. The spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be with God and prepare for his ministry (JST Matthew 4:1); he emerged triumphant over the devil and his temptations. The word of God came to John the Baptist in the wilderness and Christ went to John the Baptist to be baptized (Luke 3:2, 21). Christ went to a mountain in the wilderness to pray and then walked across the water to his disciples' boat. Peter, James and John climbed a mountain in the wilderness before witnessing Christ's transfiguration and receiving priesthood keys from Moses and Elias (Matthew 17). There are many more examples like these.

In every instance throughout scripture, the person goes into the wilderness with a stressor that is, to stay with our analogy, draining their batteries. It may be a particular question or a more general spiritual fatigue. In the wilderness they talk with God and have a spiritual experience that shows them God's power and teaches them more about His plan for us. The pattern concludes with emergence from the wilderness with a resolution to their stressor and an increased spiritual capacity that enables them to do great things they would not have otherwise been able to do.

Each of us can experience spiritual rejuvenation as we live the pattern found in scripture. We withdraw into the metaphorical wilderness when we separate ourselves from the world to seek after the things of God. This might be a few quiet moments in the scriptures or on our knees in prayer. It could be attending the temple and feeling the spirit of the Lord in His holy house. Certainly it includes when we seek to enter divine covenants such as baptism or marriage.

As we seek to know God, He will teach us through his spirit. We will learn the things that we should do and be endowed with the power to do all that He has commanded. It isn't uncommon to find that, bit by bit and grace for grace, the Lord has not only recharged our spiritual batteries but upgraded their capacity as well.

Then, just as an hour on the couch can give us a second wind, we will emerge from our experience with the spiritual strength to address the challenges and stressors we all have in our lives. We will have the knowledge and strength to do great things that we hadn't previously imagined we could.

Withdrawing from the world to recharge our spiritual batteries admittedly takes a little more effort than sitting on the couch to recharge physically, but if we will plug in to the right source we can find the strength and satisfaction we seek. No binge watching necessary.