Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Looking Steadfastly Toward Heaven

"Mountain Lion" by K. Baughan
One night recently, I arrived home from a business trip after dark. As I got out of my car, I heard something rustling in the bushes a few yards behind me. It sounded like something bigger than a squirrel or a cat, which always gets my imagination working. I glanced in that direction and saw the porch light reflecting off a single pair of large eyes amid the darkness of the bushes.

This experience could be unnerving for anyone, but it is even more unnerving in a rural, forested area known for bobcats, bears and mountain lions. Feeling almost certain that I was being watched by a hungry mountain lion, I stopped where I was with my car door still open and turned on my cell phone flashlight. Turning toward the bushes, I pointed the light at my stalker only to find that my hungry mountain lion was really a deer who was probably more terrified of me than I was of it. With a deep sigh of relief, and a chuckle about the whole situation, I closed the car door and went inside the house.

All of us have had experiences where we thought we saw or heard something that turned out to be much different when we looked closer, asked again or decided to investigate. What may have been muffled or shrouded in darkness can suddenly become clear when we turn to face the source of a light, movement or sound.

Following the death of Christ, there was great destruction in the Americas. Valleys became mountains, mountains became valleys, entire cities burned or fell into the ocean and many people were carried away in large tornadoes. The chaos must have been overwhelming.

When the earth settled and the fires died down, there came three days of complete darkness. The darkness was so thick, flint wouldn't spark and fires wouldn't light. Amid the blackness, and in the wake of prodigious disaster, the air was filled with sorrowful cries of grieving and regret.

Dawn finally came and scripture records there were many people gathered around the temple marveling at the transformation of the land and "conversing about this Jesus Christ, of whom the sign had been given concerning his death". Suddenly, "they heard a voice as if it came out of heaven; and they cast their eyes round about, for they understood not the voice which they heard". It was a small voice, but it pierced them to their cores. The people had just experienced fires and earthquakes, but this voice made their bodies quake on solid ground and their hearts burn without a flame.

Though the people could hear the voice and feel of its power, they could not understand its message even when it came a second time. Finally, the people "did open their ears to hear it... and they did look steadfastly towards heaven, from whence the sound came." This time they understood the voice and were privileged to hear God, our Heavenly Father, introduce His resurrected Son, the Savior Jesus Christ.

There have been many times in my life when the voice of the Lord has seemed muffled. Sometimes I have known something was there, like the eyes staring at me from the bushes, but was unable to recognize what it was. Other times it has seemed as if the answers to my prayers were being intercepted somehow so that I could not hear at all. This has been especially true when I have been discouraged or feeling rejected or lost.

In every instance, I've found the volume and clarity I needed to understand when I have turned toward the source of the messages I have sought. Praying more earnestly, studying more sincerely and striving more diligently to do the Lord's will turns our hearts and minds to Him and shines a light on the doctrines and principles we are seeking to understand.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Stripling Fathers

Every Latter-day Saint youth has heard the story of the two thousand stripling warriors. Speaking of those young men after a great military victory, the prophet Helaman, who was also their leader in battle, wrote:

Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives...

And now it came to pass that when [the Lamanites] had surrendered themselves up unto us, behold, I numbered those young men who had fought with me, fearing lest there were many of them slain. But behold, to my great joy, there had not one soul of them fallen to the earth; yea, and they had fought as with the strength of God; yea, never were men known to have fought with such miraculous strength; and with such mighty power did they fall upon the Lamanites, that they did frighten them; and for this cause did the Lamanites deliver themselves up as prisoners of war (Alma 56:47, 55-56).

Helaman explained that "they had been taught by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying: We do not doubt our mothers knew it" (Alma 56:47-48). As these young warriors put their faith in their mothers' promise that God would deliver them, they were able to fight with "miraculous strength" and "as with the strength of God" so that not one soul of them was lost despite their own inexperience and overwhelming odds.

Without trying to steal any of the credit from the valiant mothers, which is often noticed and appropriately so, popular youth speaker John Bytheway has wondered aloud what the fathers of these young men were doing the whole time. The simple answer comes about twenty verses earlier in the same chapter:

And now it came to pass in the second month of this year, there was brought unto us many provisions from the fathers of those my two thousand sons (Alma 56:27).

The Lord has shared his plan for successful families in The Family: A Proclamation to the World. It reads in part:

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

Fathers are given three roles in this paragraph: to preside, to provide, and to protect. Presiding in love and righteousness requires knowing the doctrines of the gospel, striving toward self-improvement first, gently and meekly leading in the home and then teaching children what they need to know and do. Whenever possible, fathers should also provide for their family's needs and maintain the home as a sanctuary that is safe from the physical and spiritual dangers of the world.

The fathers of the stripling warriors were valiant and brave men who led by example. They had been violent and savage before they were converted to the Lord, but when they were taught the gospel they committed with all of their heart, might, mind and strength. They left their homeland to seek religious freedom, ultimately settling as peaceful neighbors among a people who had previously been their most bitter enemies. They covenanted with the Lord that they would never again shed the blood of mankind and kept that promise even at the peril of their own lives.

When war broke out between their home country and their new country, they were loyal to the Lord. Though they could not fight themselves, they offered their faith and their two thousand sons in defense of their freedoms. While their sons were away, they continued to magnify their duty as fathers by sending 'many provisions'. From these verses we see that both the mothers and fathers of the stripling warriors were fulfilling their divinely appointed roles and contributing to the divine protection and ultimate success of their sons in battle.

As our kids leave the house each morning, and one day for good, they step onto a great battlefield. The perils are no less serious than those faced by the stripling warriors. The enemy of their souls will attempt to prey on their inexperience and use every strategy he knows to make them feel outnumbered, doubtful and discouraged. He will seek to wrap them in the chains of sin and drag them down to a miserable destruction.

Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live.

As we fulfill the same divinely appointed roles that existed two thousand years ago, and that have been taught again in our time, we prepare our children to fight with the strength of God and to be preserved by his miraculous power. And what's more, we will teach them how to raise their own families in the joy and protection of the Lord.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Four Quadrants of Prayer

In his best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey outlines a method for organizing our priorities and managing our time. Simply put, it begins with classifying each task we perform into one of four quadrants: urgent and important (Quadrant I), not urgent and important (Quadrant II), urgent and not important (Quadrant III), or not urgent and not important (Quadrant IV). By classifying our work in this way, we can be most effective with our time and effort as we identify and concentrate on the most important tasks first.

As obvious and straightforward as this might seem, Covey teaches it explicitly because, as it turns out, focusing on the most important tasks is not at what most people naturally do. Of course we all "put out fires" first, doing those things that are important and also very urgent. Then, however, most people tend to move to those tasks that are urgent but not really important. We delay more important tasks to check email, tend to a distraction or address some other "pressing" matter. Surprisingly, when the urgent tasks are all complete, most people drift toward tasks that are neither urgent nor important, leaving the important but not urgent tasks for last.

This quirk in human behavior is unfortunate because it is those important task that are not urgent that create the most value in our lives. These are things like building relationships, making plans for long-term success, preventing future crises, developing discipline and perspective, and improving ourselves through training or recreation.

"Effective people stay out of Quadrants III and IV because, urgent or not, they aren't important," Covey writes in his book. "They also shrink Quadrant I down to size by spending more time in Quadrant II... Quadrant II is the heart of effective personal management."

While putting first things first may help any aspect of our lives, there is great power in applying this principle to our daily prayers. Most of us already turn to God for help when we are in dire straits and we need the Lord to intervene to prevent serious consequences, but what do we pray for next? And when was the last time you prayed to build your relationship with God or discuss something important that wasn't on a tight timeline?

The pattern of revelation used to direct recent changes in Church procedure exemplifies what can happen when we spend quality time discussing the important elements of our lives in sincere prayer. President Nelson explained:

When we convene as a Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, our meeting rooms become rooms of revelation. The Spirit is palpably present. As we wrestle with complex matters, a thrilling process unfolds as each Apostle freely expresses his thoughts and point of view. Though we may differ in our initial perspectives, the love we feel for each other is constant. Our unity helps us to discern the Lord's will for His Church.

In our meetings, the majority never rules! We listen prayerfully to one another and talk with each other until we are united. Then when we have reached complete accord, the unifying influence of the Holy Ghost in spine-tingling! (April 2018).

This process can take many months as each member ponders, studies and prays about what is being considered. That was the case with the decision to combine ward Melchizedek Priesthood quorums into a single quorum. The result will be better direction for a more supportive, responsive and unified priesthood quorum. A similar process was used to call new apostles, assign counselors in the First Presidency, identify locations for new temples and modify and enhance the home and visiting teaching programs now wrapped into a cooperative ministering effort.

Following the examples of modern day prophets and apostles, we would do well to consider where we might prayerfully counsel with the Lord. What aspects of our testimony need to be strengthened before we have a crisis? What is our personal mission on the earth and how can we go about accomplishing it? Where should we dedicate our resources of time and energy to develop Christlike attributes and build metaphorical temples in our lives? What should we be learning now to help the people we will meet next year, teach our children in a few years and face the challenges of the next decade?

When urgent prayers are done, we make little progress with hurried, rote or habitual monologues offered to check the box that we think will bring blessings from heaven. "Ask not, that ye may consume it on your lusts," the prophet Moroni taught, "but ask with a firmness unshaken that ye will yield to no temptation, but that ye will serve the true and living God" (Mormon 9:28).

Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save. Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him. Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks. Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening. Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies. Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness. Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them. Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.

But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness. Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you (Alma 34:18-27).

The Lord asks that we offer our prayers "with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ" (Moroni 10:3-5). We do this as we counsel with Him about those things, urgent or not, that are important in our lives and for which we need his guidance. As we do so, the promise is sure: "he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."

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.