Sunday, February 12, 2017

Blessings of the Priesthood

One of the greatest understatements in all of scripture is found in the first verse of the Book of Abraham. Threatened with being sacrificed to idol gods by his Father, Abraham writes, “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my fathers, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.”

What Abraham said next changed his life and the course of human history. It has the power to change your life and mine. He said, “And, finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers, and the right whereunto I should be ordained to administer the same; having been myself a follower of righteousness, desiring also to be one who possessed great knowledge, and to be a greater follower of righteousness, and to possess a greater knowledge, and to be a father of many nations, a prince of peace, and desiring to receive instructions, and to keep the commandments of God, I became a rightful heir, a High Priest, holding the right belonging to the fathers" (Abraham 1:1-2).

Now, that was a really long sentence; but focus on what he was searching for and why. Finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers.

The blessings of the fathers are, of course, the blessings of the gospel and, more specifically, the priesthood. Our journey to greater happiness and peace and rest begins with two critical priesthood ordinances. When we have developed a measure of faith in Christ and repented of our sins, we are baptized by immersion for the remission of sins. Having been made clean before the Lord, we are then baptized and sanctified by fire and by the Holy Ghost.

To the ancient Israelites wandering in the desert, a pillar of fire was a symbol of the presence of the divine. Likewise, through the priesthood ordinances of baptism and confirmation, we are admitted into Christ’s church and into the presence and constant companionship of the divine. These are great blessings, but just like going to a concert or a movie, admission is only the beginning.

Elder Bednar has taught, “The simplicity of [the confirmation] ordinance may cause us to overlook its significance. These four words—“Receive the Holy Ghost”—are not a passive pronouncement; rather, they constitute a priesthood injunction—an authoritative admonition to act and not simply be acted upon.

“The Holy Ghost does not become operative in our lives merely because hands are placed upon our heads and those four important words are spoken. As we receive this ordinance, each of us accepts a sacred and ongoing responsibility to desire, to seek, to work, and to so live that we indeed ‘receive the Holy Ghost’ and its attendant spiritual gifts” (Receive the Holy Ghost, October 2010).

What greater happiness and peace and rest can we expect if we accept the ongoing responsibility of inviting the Holy Ghost into our lives? Consider, as an example, the apostle Peter. He was the Savior’s chief apostle, the “rock” and future leader of Christ’s church and one of the Lord’s most devoted friends. It is Peter that has the faith to walk a step or two on the water, who learns by the spirit that Jesus is the Christ, who witnesses the transfigured Christ and who cuts off the ear of Malchus in defense of our Lord. In short, Peter was a pretty good guy.

Yet, when the Sanhedrin seized the Savior and sentenced him to die, Peter wasn’t feeling so good. He was recognized three times as he followed the proceedings and each time Peter denied his association with the accused. When he realized what he had done he went out and wept bitterly. Then, when the Lord was gone, he went back to his fishing boat aggrieved. It must have seemed like it was over—like there was nothing more to hope.

Six weeks later, everything looked different. Peter and John noticed an older man in front of the temple who was lame from his birth. When they healed the man, a crowd gathered and Peter testified of the same Christ who the leaders in the crowd had just crucified. Brought before the Sanhedrin himself, Peter boldly declared: Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand before you whole (Acts 4:10).

What changed for Peter? Yes, Peter had spent 40 days with Christ after his resurrection, but he had spent three years with him prior to his infamous denial. He had seen the Savior’s glory, witnessed the raising of the dead numerous times and testified of the divinity of Christ even before the Savior was tried and crucified. Now Peter was making bold declarations before the very audience that had made him ashamed of Christ less than two months prior.

Of course, the difference is the gift of the Holy Ghost that Christ had promised and Peter had received on the day of Pentecost. Through the Holy Ghost we can receive the attendant gifts of confidence, sanctification and peace of conscience, knowledge of all things, strength to endure all things and a desire to share the gospel. There are many, many more. With these blessings, Peter is able to overcome his fear of men and transform from student to teacher, from follower to disciple and from having a testimony to being converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we grow in the gospel, we will participate in other ordinances made available to us through the priesthood. Like the gift of the Holy Ghost, each one returns blessings on an exponential scale if we give the requisite effort to make them operative in our lives. We won’t have a celestial marriage just because we are married in the temple, but if we work to develop a relationship based on gospel principles like forgiveness, kindness and love, we will find much happiness and peace and rest in our families in this life and throughout eternity. We aren’t forgiven of all sin just because we take the sacrament bread and water on Sunday, but as we prepare and commune with God we will add inspiration and spiritual strength to the forgiveness we seek.

It was my pleasure to attend the temple yesterday to assist our youth in performing baptisms and confirmations for the dead. This priesthood service does not guarantee salvation for myself or for those for whom ordinances were performed. We both have more work to do. But there were many tender mercies that have brought greater peace into my life. It was great to see the seminary students I teach most mornings getting an opportunity to experience the gospel in action. Many of the names were from the country where I served my mission and I was grateful the Lord would provide an opportunity to serve that people once again. And Brother Black rekindled my desire to do more family history work as he relayed his goals to prepare names for the temple.

In addition to priesthood ordinances, the Lord uses his priesthood to bless our lives as those with authority lay their hands on our head and pronounce blessings of comfort, healing or guidance. None of us likely remember when we may have received a name and a blessing as a baby. This blessing is unique in that the priesthood holder acting as voice addresses Heavenly Father and calls down blessings from heaven on behalf of the child as inspired by the Holy Ghost. As I’ve returned to journal entries where I’ve recorded what I could remember of each of my children’s blessings, I’ve been inspired to find that many of the pronounced blessings already manifest themselves in the lives of Hyrum, Camden and Allie.

The Church Handbook of Instructions directs that “Every worthy, baptized member is entitled to and should receive a patriarchal blessing, which provides inspired direction from the Lord” Handbook 2: Administering the Church [2010], 20.12.1). Patriarchal blessings include a declaration of a person’s lineage in the house of Israel, providing valuable insights into his or her past and responsibilities on earth, as well as personal counsel from the Lord. As we study and follow the counsel in our patriarchal blessings, we receive guidance, comfort and protection (LDS Gospel Topics: Patriarchal Blessings).

We may request priesthood blessings whenever we feel they are needed in our lives. Brother Tyra received a blessing in our quorum meeting last week in preparation for his eye surgery. As was heard in that blessing, the Lord often expresses his love for us, information about our true identity, and what the Lord would like us to do through priesthood blessings. He is anxious to bless us, but also requires that we have faith in his power.

Over a century ago, when Elder J. Golden Kimball presided over the Southern States Mission, he called for a meeting of the elders. They were to meet in a secluded spot in the woods so they would have privacy. One of the elders had a problem with one of his legs. It was raw and swollen to at least twice the size of his other leg. But the elder insisted on attending this special priesthood meeting in the woods, so two of the elders carried him to this meeting place.

Elder Kimball asked the missionaries, “Brethren, what are you preaching?”

They said, “We are preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“Are you telling these people that you have the power and authority, through faith, to heal the sick?” he asked.

They said, “Yes.”

“Well then,” he continued, “why don’t you believe it?”

The young man with the swollen leg spoke up and said, “I believe it.” Here is the rest of the story told in Elder Kimball’s words: “[The elder] sat down on a stump and the elders gathered around him. He was anointed and I administered to him, and he was healed right in their presence. It was quite a shock; and every other elder that was sick was administered to, and they were all healed. We went out of that priesthood meeting and the elders received their appointments, and there was a joy and a happiness that cannot be described” (In Max Nolan, “J. Golden Kimball in the South,” New Era, July 1985, 10).

Did you catch that? There was a joy and a happiness that cannot be described. Isn’t this what Abraham was looking for? Isn’t this what you are looking for? Greater happiness and peace and rest are the fruits of the priesthood. The blessings of the fathers are available through priesthood ordinances and priesthood blessings. They also come as we serve in priesthood callings.

In seminary this week we read about the first General Conference of the ancient church. The apostles were wrestling with a difficult problem: the rapidly growing church needed a way to meet its temporal and business needs while keeping the apostles’ mandate to preach the gospel and be witnesses of Christ to all nations. The solution was to call seven disciples who were honest and “full of the Holy Ghost and of wisdom” to assist the apostles in their work. As the bishopric does for us when we are called to serve in the church, the apostles laid their hands on the newly-called disciples heads and set them apart for service in God’s kingdom before the conference ended.

As these seven disciples served in and magnified their callings, the scriptures record that “the word of God increased; and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people” (Acts 6:1-8).

We might not feel like our calling contributes to missionary work or is a catalyst for miracles, but every calling does and is. We are set apart through the power of the priesthood and every calling from nursery teacher to prophet, seer and revelator serves through that same power. Primary pianists, relief society committee members and the building coordinator are all performing priesthood functions; and priesthood service qualifies us for priesthood blessings. We can help increase the word of God, multiply the membership of our ward, improve in our obedience to God’s commandments, and even bring about great wonders and miracles through inspired diligence in our priesthood callings.

Priesthood ordinances, priesthood blessings and priesthood callings are only three ways through which the Lord extends his blessings to us. Consider that the heavens and the earth and all that in them are were created by the power of the priesthood; that the Atonement of our Savior was possible only through the power of the priesthood; and that the just and the unjust will be resurrected at some future day through the power of the priesthood. Every blessing we have, realized or taken for granted, is possible only through the priesthood power of our Almighty God.

Some of these blessings are given to us by a loving Heavenly Father who, I believe, delights in spoiling us with his blessings. As a wise parent, he also realizes that sometimes our happiness and peace and rest must be earned for us to be successful. Abraham left home in search of learning and a better life. Peter left his career—twice!—to learn from Christ and be worthy of the Holy Ghost. The youth gave up a Saturday morning to serve in the temple. The young missionary believed he could be healed. Stephen magnified his church calling.

These things may feel like sacrifices or heroic efforts at times to us, but to God they are lessons in living how He lives. That is his goal for us: immortality and eternal life. Eternal life is his life—a life filled with perfect happiness and peace and rest because of perfect priesthood ordinances, blessings and service. With every heartfelt prayer, every trip to the temple, every Sunday School lesson taught and every meal delivered to someone in need, we practice living how he lives. We practice eternal life.

Our Savior lived a life without sin, left his apprenticeship as a carpenter to do his Father’s work, suffered agony in Gethsemane and on Golgatha and was resurrected on the third day. Because of Him, and His priesthood, I know there is greater happiness and peace and rest available for us all if we will seek the blessings of the gospel, which are the blessings of the priesthood.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Receive the Holy Ghost

In the six weeks that followed the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the apostle Peter undergoes a miraculous transformation. It is a change that has had lasting impacts on the history of the Church and the world; and a similar change is within all of our reach.

Simon Peter is a prominent figure in Christ's ministry. He was the Savior's chief apostle, the "rock" and future leader of Christ's church and one of the Lord's most devoted friends. It is Peter that has the faith to walk a step or two on the water, who learns by the spirit and testifies that Jesus is the Christ, who witnesses the transfiguration and the most sacred miracles of Christ, and who cuts off the ear of Malchus in defense of Christ immediately prior to his crucifixion. In simple terms, Peter was a good guy.

Yet, when the Sanhedrin seized the Savior and sentenced him to die, Peter wasn't feeling so good. He was recognized three times as he followed the proceedings and each time Peter denied his association with the accused. When he realized what he had done he went out and wept bitterly. Then, when the Lord was gone, he went back to his fishing boat aggrieved. It must have seemed like it was over-- like there was nothing more to hope.

Six weeks later, everything looked different. Peter and John noticed an older man in front of the temple who had been lame from his birth. When they heal the man, a crowd gathers and Peter testifies of the same Christ who the leaders in the crowd had just crucified. Peter and John were then brought before the Sanhedrin themselves, where Peter boldly declares:


Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand before you whole (Acts 4:10).

What could have made such a difference in so little time? Yes, he had been with Christ for 40 days after the resurrection; but he had been with Christ three years before his infamous denial. He had testified that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" before he decided he'd go back to being a fisherman (Matthew 16:16). Now he and John were defying a direct order from the Sanhedrin, ignoring threats of violence against them, and "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name" when they were imprisoned and beaten (Acts 5:41).

The difference wasn't the prints of the nails in the Savior's hands or his resurrected glory alone, as wonderful as it must have been to witness the Resurrected Lord. Peter had seen Christ's glory, witnessed the raising of the dead on more than one occasion, and had a testimony of the Savior's divinity even prior to his crucifixion. It also certainly wasn't that like-minded individuals had assumed political power or that the risk of association had diminished. To the contrary, Christ had prophesied that Peter would be crucified for his testimony. So what else could it have been?

In the closing moments before the Savior's ascension into heaven, he repeated a promise to his apostles that he had made before. "Ye shall receive power," he said, "after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

A week later, "they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance" (Acts 2:4). A crowd of 3,000 people gathered in Jerusalem that day and Peter taught them the gospel. The hearts of the people in the crowd were softened until they asked Peter and the disciples, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Peter responded, "Repent, and be baptized... and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:37-38).

Peter had experienced the power of the Holy Ghost prior to the resurrection. When he had testified of Christ's divinity in Ceasarea Phillipi, Christ's response confirmed that "flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 16:17). He had participated in the first sacrament and the ordinance of the washing of feet. These spiritual experiences and others like them were intermittent however, and in many ways insufficient to facilitate full conversion. In between spiritual high points, Peter was left to himself and the weakness of his own flesh.

It is only after Peter and John receive the gift of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost that they really begin their ministries. Only then do they have the boldness to stand in a crowd of Jewish leaders and testify of those leaders' sins and their ignorance of the teachings of all the prophets regarding Christ's return and the restoration of the gospel. Only after Peter is "filled with the Holy Ghost" does he have the courage to stand before the Sanhedrin and preach of the same Christ that was hated and crucified by them. Only then do the apostles perform many signs and wonders in defiance of the high priest and then explain with plainness that "we ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

Receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost brings confidence, sanctification and peace of conscience, knowledge of all things, strength to endure all things and a desire to share that gift with all of the children of God. It helps Peter overcome his fear of men and transform from student to teacher, from follower to disciple and from having a testimony to being converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is only natural that, given the opportunity to teach the people after experiencing the gift of the Holy Ghost, he teaches the goal and promise of receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Peter's teaching is for us, too. The Lord stands ready to bless each of us with the power that is accessory to the gift of the Holy Ghost, but we have to be ready to receive it. Elder Bednar explained:

 These four words-- "Receive the Holy Ghost"-- are not a passive pronouncement; rather, they constitute a priesthood injunction-- an authoritative admonition to act and not simply be acted upon. The Holy Ghost does not become operative in our lives merely because hands are placed upon our heads and those four important words are spoken. As we receive this ordinance, each of us accepts a sacred and ongoing responsibility to desire, to seek, to work, and to so live that we indeed "receive the Holy Ghost" and its attendant spiritual gifts ("Receive the Holy Ghost", October 2010).

The gift of the Holy Ghost is sometimes called the "baptism of fire". In ancient Hebrew culture, fire was a symbol for the presence of the divine. Thus, we receive the gift of the Holy Ghost only after we repent and are baptized by the proper authority for the remission of sins. Only then are we worthy of the presence of the divine.

Likewise, after this gift has been bestowed upon us, it operates in our lives as we remain worthy of it. Elder Bednar taught, "Receiving the Holy Ghost starts with our sincere and constant desire for His companionship in our lives." When we desire to live in the presence of the divine, we invite the companionship of the Holy Ghost as we make and keep sacred covenants, seek virtuous thoughts and actions, strengthen appropriate relationships with friends and family and commune with God through scripture study and prayer.

In short, we can be transformed by the presence of the divine if we're willing to leave old habits behind and heed the priesthood injunction to receive the Holy Ghost. If we will do this, the promise of the Lord is that, come what may, we will receive power-- power to know all things, to overcome all things, to endure all things, and to witness in our homes, our communities, on social media and to all people foreign or domestic. Most miraculous of all, through the gift of the Holy Ghost we receive power to change ourselves, the legacy we leave for our families, and the entire world.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Learning to Live an Eternal Life

There is a well-known proverb of the Cherokee Native American tribe that warns, "Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes." Harper Lee expounded in her classic book, To Kill a Mockingbird, when she wrote: "You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

There are several benefits to really getting to know someone. Turning to another literary source, Orson Scott Card mused in his book, Ender's Game, that "I think it's impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves."

We develop greater empathy and compassion for others as we learn to understand them. By taking a walk in someone else's shoes, we also get to see how their chosen lifestyle leads to the results we see on the surface. We see the discipline and drive of the successful businessman, the passion and long hours of an accomplished artist, or the integrity and virtue of someone enjoying peace of conscience.

The lifestyle of the Mormon pioneers might not be one you would be quick to choose for yourself. At least, not at first. They were persecuted, betrayed, driven from place to place, and endured incredible challenges. Yet, they were also a unified people, blessed with faith and resolve, and among the most productive the world has ever seen. Consider, they built a great city not once, but several times over. Nauvoo rivaled Chicago in size and enterprise. Groups of saints contributed to the rise of Salt Lake City, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Boise and dozens of others-- and in each place they were innovators of the railroad, irrigation, guns, and technology of every sort. Clearly, the early saints knew the secrets of an abundant life.

All around the world, LDS youth groups have the chance every few years to really get to know the pioneer ancestors of their faith as they recreate some of the conditions experienced while crossing the Great Plains. Pushing handcarts in period clothing inspires sore muscles and spiritual growth as youth begin to experience what faith looks like. It can inspire greater courage in the face of difficult trials, a stronger work ethic, and a more passionate resolve to press forward. In short, coming to know the early pioneers teaches the youth how to be modern pioneers.

In similar fashion, our Father in Heaven wants us all to really get to know him and the way he lives. The principles that guide his life will teach us to have the same happiness, success and peace he enjoys. The Savior taught, "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" (John 17:3).

We come to know our Father and His Son the same way that our youth come to know their pioneer ancestors. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: "To know God is to think what he thinks, to feel what he feels, to have the power he possesses, to comprehend the truths he understands, and to do what he does. Those who know God become like him and have his kind of life, which is eternal."

Eternal life is said to be the greatest of all the gifts of God, but it isn't a gift in the sense of a present we open at Christmastime. It is much more like the decades of memories and lessons we get as a gift from our families and loved ones. As we seek to be like God-- to think what he thinks and do what he does-- we experience glimpses into his eternal lifestyle that teach us about our own path to happiness and success. Over time and extending into our lives after death, we will come to know him better because we will have adopted his lifestyle. We are then able to see the world as he sees it and comprehend the universe as he understands it. At the same time, we will receive of his glory and the countless blessings he enjoys because we are living according to the principles upon which those blessings are predicated.

Said another way, eternal life isn't an object like a car or a book or a new tie; nor is it an opportunity in the same sense as a new job or a chance to move to California. Rather, eternal life is a lifestyle that contributes to our health and happiness, develops even our weaknesses into strengths and unites families even beyond the grave. It is God's lifestyle, and he's already told us how we can start living it and being blessed by it.

You may know the Divine Lifestyle Plan by it's other name: the Gospel. At it's core, living the gospel includes trusting in God, striving to improve ourselves, making and keeping sacred covenants, receiving all the benefits of the Holy Ghost in our lives and actively enduring through life's trials with the patience and faith of the pioneers.

Anchored to that core are many more beautiful truths that add richness to our budding eternal lives. For example, the gospel teaches that "if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come" (D&C 130:19). The joys of reading and education are joys of an eternal life. God comprehends all things and reaps the benefits of that knowledge; each of us are similarly blessed proportional to our studies.

Likewise, the Lord taught that "in the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; And in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into... marriage" (D&C 131:1-2). Marriage between a man and a woman is a divinely ordained practice essential to a Godlike lifestyle. The love and support we have in our families continues to grow as we learn to know our Father and strive to emulate his Son.

Learning to live as God lives also means learning to have robust moral character. Teenagers walking through a wilderness area develop character because the trail is hard and through the difficulty of their trek they are reminded of their many blessings allow their hearts to turn to pioneers who sacrificed so much for them. Godlike character, Elder Bednar has taught, "is demonstrated by looking and reaching outward when the natural and instinctive response is to be self-absorbed and turn inward."

We observe the character of Christ throughout the gospels, but perhaps nowhere is it more poignant than in the chapters leading up to and including his suffering in Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha. Never in the history of mankind has anyone had a better reason to focus on themselves for a few moments; but Christ never does. In the Garden he prays, "not my will, but thine be done." When confronted by Judas and the mob, he petitions for his disciples to be allowed to leave unharmed. He reassured his disciples, healed the ear of Malchus, sought Pilate's spiritual wellbeing, found someone to care for his mother, ministered to two robbers, and asked for his persecutors to be forgiven-- all while being condemned, abused and tortured to his death.

Most of us will not be asked to die for someone else, but we are called upon to take up our cross and live Christlike lives. Though our own burdens may be heavy, developing the character needed for an eternal lifestyle means we should look and reach outward even when our natural and instinctive response is to turn inward. As we extend the hand of mercy to those less fortunate than ourselves, retrieve the lost sheep, visit the sick and elderly, serve as home and visiting teachers, teach our primary or Sunday school class with patience and love, respond to a questioning coworker and support righteous causes in an increasingly wicked world, we act as God would act and, with the help of his grace, qualify for his divine blessings.

The Lord has said that his work and glory is the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39). Immortality is a gift to all of us by virtue of his Atonement. Eternal life is the gift of his life-- to live as he lives and become as he is. We learn his lifestyle by beginning to live it today-- doing what he would do, thinking what he would think, studying to know all he understands, and praying for guidance along the way. It includes men being ordained and attending to priesthood duties, men and women getting married and sealed in holy temples, and all of us loving and serving others and letting our light shine in an increasingly dark world.

As we come to know God, our Father, and his son, Jesus Christ, we will also come to love them. President Russell M. Nelson has taught, "The best evidence of our adoration of Jesus is our emulation of Him." That is, the best evidence of our respect for Christ and His Atonement is our willingness to use it so that his life and death will not have been in vain-- to adopt a gospel-centered lifestyle, his lifestyle, that maximizes its benefit.

Our Heavenly Father has given us this life so that we might have the chance to walk a mile in his shoes. Wearing bodies of flesh and blood and burdened with the cares of the world, we are given the opportunity to experience what faith feels like. If we will choose to take up our cross and press forward with faith in every footstep, we will learn to be spiritually minded, to have charity, to seek learning by study and by faith, and to serve others even when we are struggling. In short, by coming to know God, our Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent, we learn to be like him and to live an eternal life, which gift is the greatest of all the gifts of God.

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.