Sunday, July 10, 2016

Staying on the Path with the Word of Christ

Follow in His Footsteps
by Liz Lemon Swindle
If you knew your time on earth was coming to a close, what would you tell your children, your friends and your loved ones to help them with their sojourn here? If you could write just two or three pages that you knew would be read by faithful seekers of truth for thousands of years, what would you include on those pages?

In the final chapters of 2 Nephi, the prophet for whom that book is named had that very opportunity, which he used to summarize the gospel plan. The primary purpose of our life on earth is to qualify to return to live with our Heavenly Father. Our physical bodies, the tests and trials we endure, and everything else that is part of living here on earth is ancillary to this main objective.

Nephi explains in 2 Nephi 31 that the path that leads us back to our Heavenly Father begins with living the gospel. Scripturally defined, this means we are striving each day to have faith, to repent of our sins and correct our mistakes, to make and keep sacred covenants such as baptism and to be worthy of and willing to listen to the voice of the Holy Ghost. This is how we find the path.

“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay: for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).

Nephi emphasizes here that we find our faith through the word of Christ and that, once we have found the path that leads to eternal life, we start walking along the path by “feasting upon the word of Christ” and enduring to the end. He emphasizes this again in Chapter 32, in which Nephi explains how to stay on the path once you have found it.

“Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.

“And now I, Nephi… am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given to them in plainness, even as plain as word can be… But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Nephi 32:3, 7, 9).

As we begin walking the strait and narrow, we will undoubtedly find it is not a well-groomed trail. Rather, it is a wilderness trail and there are obstacles along the way. We should not be surprised if, from time to time, our trail has a strenuous incline or we are required to cross a stream of doubt or the way becomes rocky and it is difficult to know which way we should go.

In such times, it is critical that we stay on the path. As a teenager, my father, brother and I endeavored to backpack across the Uintah mountain range in Utah. The first couple of days went well. As we reached the summit of Bell Pass however, my dad suggested we leave the path and take a shortcut. He had been looking at the map and he was confident he had found a better way. My brother and I were less confident, but we agreed and began walking across the rugged mountain tundra. After about three hours of walking, we came to a large cliff. There was no way around it, we were unequipped to repel down it and we were now out of water and nowhere near reaching our camp.

To make a long story short, with great effort we eventually made it back to the trail and found drinkable water, but our so-called shortcut put us so far behind schedule we never made it to our planned destination. Ending up in “some other place” is not the outcome we want for our life’s journey. We must stay on the gospel path, as Nephi directs, by receiving the words of Christ delivered through the Holy Ghost in response to our study and our faith. As we study the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets and ask the Lord our questions in prayer, we will learn the principles and receive the revelation we need to stay on or return to the path despite the obstacles.

Finally, in Chapter 33 Nephi explains that when we have entered the path and made some progress, we will have the charitable desire to share what we have found with our families, our friends, and the world. The first thing I usually do after I have found a great hiking trail is text my brother or post pictures on social media so my friends and family can share the incredible views. In essence, once we are converted, we will want to do missionary work to bring others onto the trail and help convert all of God’s children.

Not coincidentally, all of these principles are illustrated in Lehi’s dream. The faithful in the dream felt their way toward the truth and then clung to the iron rod, which is the word of God, through mists of darkness and the mocking of the world. Then, when Lehi tasted of the fruit to which the word of God led him, he immediately turned and looked for his family so they could taste it, too.

Now I’d like to remind all of us of Nephi’s words and suggest a few things we can do to lengthen our stride and improve our rate of progress toward the kingdom of God, whatever that rate might presently be. “For ye have not come thus far,” Nephi taught, “save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him… Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).

Sometimes when you start to get tired on a long hike, it helps to think about how far you’ve already come. On my own spiritual journey, that includes a time when I was 17 and I decided to take Moroni up on his promise regarding the Book of Mormon. I was working three jobs at the time and would often come home very tired, but I wanted and needed to know for myself. I found that it took some time before I could really settle into the text without my mind wandering, so I committed to read four chapters each day. I would pray before I read and I would pray after I read. By the time I crawled into bed the cares of the day had melted away, but after weeks of reading at least four chapters each night I still didn’t feel I had received an answer.

Then it came. One of my jobs was delivering pizza and I had just dropped off a pair of pies for someone in my ward. I was listening to the radio, as I often did. As I drove past the cemetery, suddenly my soul was illuminated with a powerful and clear impression that the Book of Mormon is true and that I needed to prepare to serve a mission. For a few moments these thoughts drowned out my music and I knew my prayers had been answered because I had been studying and developing my intent and capacity to act when an answer did come.

Three years later I sat in the kitchen of Brother and Sister Gruenewaelder for a simple evening meal. I had been studying Joseph Smith History and somehow that topic had prevailed at the table that night. After dinner, my missionary companion and I recounted again the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. As I testified that Joseph Smith had, in fact, seen God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, the spirit again came powerfully to my soul and I knew for certain that these things were true.

This summer it has been my privilege to be studying the New Testament. Reading in Luke Chapter 19, I read a version of the parable where the Lord gave his servants ten pounds, five pounds or one pound and then went away for a while. This was, I assume, long before Brexit, when it may have still been reasonable to be dealing in pounds. As you know, those with ten or five pounds doubled their investments, while those with only one pound did not act and lost what they had been given.

Reading Luke’s version, the Lord’s command before he departed stuck out to me. “Occupy till I come,” he told his servants; or, as the Greek translation in the footnote advises, “Do business till I come.” The words of another scripture came to my mind as I read and I remembered that the Lord has told us in our dispensation to be “anxiously engaged” in good causes, and particularly in establishing Zion preparatory to his Second Coming. In that moment I also had a few ideas of things I could be doing to be more anxiously engaged in the Lord’s work.

When the going gets tough and I start to feel spiritually tired or doubt starts creeping into my thoughts, it helps me to remember that the word of Christ has taught me and guided me as often as I would listen. He has led me to the gospel, to the Church, on a mission to faraway Germany, to a wife that is beautiful in every way, to a family that brings me joy, to meaningful work I enjoy, to truths that keep me grounded when the world is in commotion, and to be here speaking with you today.

Now, if we have found our way to the path that leads us back to our Heavenly Father, it is my responsibility and yours to start walking and keep walking. It’s not enough to stand at the trailhead and it’s not enough to have a good couple of days and then decide at the top of a pass that we’re going to head off in our own direction! If we are going to reach our desired destination, and I hope none of us would aim for anything less than exaltation, we must press forward along the path by feasting upon the word of Christ.

The word of Christ is found in the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets, and the personal revelation we receive through the Holy Ghost. When we feast upon the word of Christ, we will do more than simply read the words. Rather, we will use divinely inspired resources like the topical guide, the bible dictionary, scripture cross references, seminary and institute manuals, and so forth, to seek to understand the stories and details in the scriptures. Then we will seek to identify and better understand both stated and implied doctrines and principles in the text.

A doctrine is a fundamental, unchanging truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, 1.3). Elder Boyd K. Packer taught that “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior” (“Little Children,” Ensign, November 1986, 17). As we learn and apply the doctrines of the gospel in our scripture study, we are more likely to live consistent with the laws that govern our happiness.

Likewise, Elder Richard G. Scott has taught that “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” (“Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge”, Ensign, November 1993, 86).

For example, as a freshman in college I learned in my introductory economics class about the principle of sunken costs. That principle says that if I spend $25 on nonrefundable movie tickets for Friday night and then learn there’s a party where I’d rather be, I should go to the party. I’ve spent the $25 either way and so the best choice is the one that brings me the greatest utility or makes me happiest. More generally, decisions are best made looking forward rather than looking backward.

The same principle holds true when we have sinned. We compound our sin when we decide what to do next based on the sins and errors committed in our past. The Lord invites us to come to him, to let our scarlet-sin-stained garments be cleansed white as snow, and to be anxiously engaged in doing good moving forward rather than turning to salt looking backward.

Another principle I have learned is that a study of the doctrines and principles of the gospel in scripture and prophetic teachings unlocks personal revelation. I’ve heard it said that if we want to talk to God we should pray; and if we want God to talk to us, we should read our scriptures. I have experienced this in my own life, as illustrated earlier, and I testify now to you that it is true.

As we seek to find and understand doctrines and principles in our study, we will be like the young woman who began digging in the sand at the beach. Very soon, she found a precious gem in the sand and held it up to the sun to inspect its brilliant light. Thrilled with her discovery, she put the gem in her satchel where it would be safe and continued to dig. She soon found another gem, and another, and another. Some of the gems were only just below the sand’s surface, others were further down, but each shone brilliantly when the young woman held it up to the light of the sun and added it to the collection she had in her satchel.

The sand in this parable is like the stories and contextual details in the scriptures. As we begin to ask questions and search for greater understanding, we are digging in the text and we will soon find that the Holy Ghost will illuminate shining principles that will lead us down the path toward our Heavenly Father. We may have to dig longer for some and less for others, but all the principles we need for our lives are waiting in the word of Christ for us to find them.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Brothers and sisters, the scriptures offer us so many doctrinal diamonds. And when the light of the Spirit plays upon their several facets, they sparkle with celestial sense and illuminate the path we are to follow” (“According to the Desires of [Our] Hearts,” Ensign, November 1996, 21).

Just as digging at the beach every day could soon build a collection of treasures, a regular study of the scriptures brings edification.

The word edify comes originally from the Latin roots aedes, meaning a dwelling or a temple, and facere, meaning to make. Therefore, to edify relates to building a temple and means to build or strengthen spiritually. A temple is built brick by brick or stone by stone, but when it is completed it is a beautiful and sacred refuge where God himself may dwell. Physical strength comes workout by workout or day by day filled with hard work, but over time we find we are able to do more without tiring. Likewise, as we consistently study the word of Christ, we will find that with edification comes also joy, peace, enlightenment and desires for righteous living that we can use to build a happy and fulfilling life.

In addition to our regular scripture study, sometimes we find ourselves on rough patches of trail that we don’t know how or don’t have strength enough to cross on our own. These patches are given to us as a gift to help us seek and obtain greater edification that the Lord is ready to give us. At a recent BYU-Idaho devotional, Sister Sheri Dew taught that “once [we] have received a spiritual witness of the truths that form a testimony, even [our] thorniest questions about our doctrine, history, positions on sensitive issues, or the aching desires of your hearts, are about personal growth. They are opportunities for [us] to receive personal revelation and increase [our] faith” (“Will You Engage in the Wrestle?, May 2016).

Some of those thorny questions might include things like:

- Why am I the only one in my family who struggles to believe?

- Will the Lord ever forgive me for breaking my covenants?

- Why is life so hard sometimes?

- Is a prophet infallible?

- Did Joseph Smith really have more than one wife?

- How do I know if I’m receiving revelation?

- Why can’t women be ordained to the priesthood?

- What if the Church’s position on gay marriage bothers me?

- How do I understand the temple when I can’t ask questions about it?

- How do I raise my children to be righteous in an evil world?

We can approach these spots in the path as doubters, who look for a quick excuse to turn around or leave the path altogether, or as seekers ready to put forth the effort to learn by study and by faith. Seekers know that they have not “come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him” and that questions or hard times do not erase the word of Christ we have already received into our testimonies. On the contrary, rough patches in the trail provide a renewed opportunity to spend some time digging at the beach, as it were, to be edified, and to take a few more steps toward our ultimate goal of returning to live with our Father in Heaven.

Please don’t misunderstand here: the decision seekers make to use difficult questions or experiences to enhance their gospel study is not only about preserving past investment, though we should not easily decide to walk back down the path, but like my decision to go to the party instead of the movie I’d already paid for, it is a forward-looking decision. Seekers know that what may be a small difference of attitude today can determine whether they reach their destination at the end of the trail or find themselves lost in the wilderness at the top of an impassable cliff. Seeing the future on the horizon with an eye of faith, seekers know that rough patches are just rough patches, that the gems they need are already on the beach, as it were, and that, like the view from the top of a mountain that I am anxious to share with all of Facebook, the best is yet to come.

In summary, brother and sisters, I submit that each of us have only come as far as we have along the trail through the word of Christ and our future progress is dependent upon our willingness to feast upon the word. We enhance our study as we seek to understand the context and content, identify and understand doctrines and principles, and then ultimately gain a testimony of and apply those principles.

What good is a satchel full of gems relegated to the attic of our minds? Rather let us do business until he comes, anxiously applying what we have learned to our lives, that the treasures we find may be added upon at his return. As we press forward with a firm grasp on the iron rod, we will be edified and find the strength and joy we need for our lives.

Sacrament Meeting Talk (as written, at least) 7/10/2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sequoiadendron Giganteum

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California is an organism unlike any other in the world. At well over 200 feet tall and sometimes more than 35 feet wide, the Sequoiadendron Giganteum, better known as Giant Sequoia trees, are the largest living things on earth.

They're also one of the oldest. Some of the Giant Sequoias standing today have held their ground for more than 3,500 years. They have tasted of the same winds that filled the sails of fishing boats during China's first dynasty. Perhaps they heard when Babylon fell, the singing of the Israelites being led out of Egypt, or the clanging of swords and shields as the Jaredites battled to their own extinction. Only the Bristlecone Pines of the Great Basin and Chile's Alerce trees have lived longer.

Over last three millennia, while Sequoias have stood tall, literally hundreds of forests have been eliminated due to fires, insects, droughts and other natural phenomenon. Others have been cut down to build homes, weapons, canoes and books. Some forests have regrown; some have struggled because of poor soil quality, harsh environmental conditions, or the prevalence of nut-eating animals that devoured their potential before it ever had a chance to take root. Surely Sequoias are among the luckiest species on earth to have avoided all of that.

Except, of course, that Sequoias haven't avoided those things at all. Sequoia trees grow at high elevations where life-sustaining air and water are both in short supply. Their trunks are so large and so soft (you can punch them without hurting your hand) that it is physically impossible for the trees to push sufficient water from the roots to the branches basking in the sun high above the ground. As they grow, Sequoias provide shade for other plants that soon begin to crowd the trees and suffocate their roots. Worst of all are the disasters.

In the mountains of central California, it is not uncommon for naturally occurring fires to burn hundreds of thousands of acres on an annual basis. Drought conditions can persist for several years and every twenty years or so there will be a winter with no snow at all. When most trees don't have enough moisture to produce sap, the insects invade and wipe them out. All of these and more-- like the earthquakes for which California has become infamous-- happen regularly in and around the groves of Sequoia trees. Really, Sequoias are set up for miserable failure. So how are they still here? How have they endured when nothing else has?

One meaningful way we can answer those questions is by looking for true principles in a similar situation set in a different environment. This will help us discern eternal truths from circumstantial evidence.

After the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833, the Lord commanded the Prophet Joseph Smith to lead a group of men from Ohio to help their fellow church members. Roughly 200 men were gathered for what many at that time thought would be a military mission to reclaim property and push back against the mobs that were persecuting the Saints. The group, originally known as the Camp of Israel but better known today as Zion's Camp, was entirely self-funded with some members consecrating as much as $170 (valued at more than $5,000 today), at a time when most Americans made less than a dollar a day. It would also prove to be an extremely difficult and soul-searching experience for its participants, who would walk as much as 40 miles each day through dehydration, hunger, sickness, humidity and heat.

Ultimately, the Lord would disband Zion's Camp before it had fought a single battle. Some of the men were angry at this outcome and apostatized from the church. Others were disappointed or supposed the camp to have been a miserable failure. Joseph Smith, who had contracted cholera and suffered a great deal himself while marching from Ohio to Missouri, would later explain to the Saints, "God did not want you to fight. He could not organize his kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham" (History of the Church, 2:182n). Through incredible opposition, the Lord unlocked even greater potential.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Quorum of Seventy were founded in February 1835. Nine of the original Twelve and all members of the Seventy had marched with Zion's Camp. These men would go on to baptize thousands. They would organize the wagon trains across the plains and establish communities throughout the mountain west. In short order, and with faith in the Lord's blessings, they would make the desert blossom as a rose and build both the temporal assets and spiritual legacy that are a great strength to the Church even today.

The prophet Lehi taught that "it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, ... righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad" (2 Nephi 2:11; see also verse 15). This was true even in our pre-mortal existence, when Lucifer sought to destroy the Father's plan and capture His glory. Cast out of heaven, Lucifer and his followers roam the earth tempting and seeking to deceive those who were loyal to God. Yet, as Elder Oaks has pointed out, "that the evil one, who opposed and sought to destroy the Father's plan, actually facilitated it, because it is the opposition that enables choice... that leads to the growth that is the purpose of the Father's plan" (Opposition in All Things, April 2016).

Sequoia trees are no different: their adversity is their strength. Their height protects their cones from many of that animals that would use their cones for food and ensures the trees get the sunlight they need. Their soft trunks, useless to mankind for wood, store moisture and are naturally fire-resistant. Though insects may penetrate their bark, Sequoias are not dependent on their trunks to push water to the rest of the tree. The grace of an occasional fog provides moisture to the branches, preventing the trees from dying, and allows the tree to grow back where insects may have burrowed.

Then, every so often, the stress of drought and crowding underbrush reaches fever pitch and a bolt of lightning sets the forest on fire. What would be the end of most trees is a glorious beginning for the deep-rooted Sequoias as the fire's heat begins to expand the otherwise tightly sealed Sequoia cones. As the cones are opened, each tree releases up to 400,000 winged seeds onto the freshly fertilized ground below. Because the trees are so tall, seeds can float hundreds of feet away to find an open patch of ground. Through incredible opposition, even greater potential is unlocked.

As seeds turn into seedlings and seedlings turn into trees, Sequoias create an additional barrier around their groves. Where there are Sequoia trees, it will be difficult for other trees to grow; and where few other trees grow, fatal forest fires are reduced to brush fires that cause temporary pain and scarring but also fertilize the ground so the Giant Sequoias can grow stronger and establish a generation to last another three thousand years.

One thing that distinguishes us all from Sequoia trees is ability to choose. Sequoia trees are what they were created to be and they fulfill their role in God's plan. Each of us has been created as child of God with a divine and glorious potential. Our role is to learn to be like our Heavenly Father through faith in Christ and his Atonement, repentance, making and keeping covenants, relying on the Holy Ghost and enduring all things; but unlike Sequoia trees, we are allowed to choose whether the opposition inherent to this life will unlock our potential or weaken our ability to resist the dangerous fires of worldly philosophies and temptations. We can plant the seed of our testimony on fertile ground and become the faithful builders of an eternal Zion; or we can harden our hearts and become like the destructive apostates that are swept away when times get tough.

We get to choose what kind of a tree we will be in the forest of God's creations, but the choice we make will determine our destiny. If we will choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, using opposition to build the strength of our faith rather than deplete it, offering all we have and are as Abraham did, the Lord will send us his tender mercies as the fog to strengthen us now and expand our souls until they are more glorious than even the Giant Sequoias.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Magic Mirrors and the Perfect Law of Liberty

About an hour east of Frankfurt, Germany, is the small city of Lohr. Like hundreds of other European cities, the highlight of Lohr is the spectacular castle that was once the center of a bustling fiefdom. Inside, visitors find thousands of evidences of the wealth and luxury of its former occupants, but none more striking than the iconic Lohr Mirror.

The Lohr Mirror Manufacture of the eighteenth century was truly ahead of its time. After thousands of years of using pools of water or polished copper to produce faint and distorted reflections, the Lohr Manufacture had developed an elaborate production process that resulted in more reflected light and much clearer images.

By the 1720s, Lohr mirrors had gained a reputation for "always speaking the truth" and became a favorite gift of the European crown and aristocratic courts. Like Narcissus of Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection and would rather die than part with it, it was during the heyday of the Lohr Mirror Manufacture that people began to be accused of spending excessive amounts of time "looking into the glass," almost always in self-admiration.

It was also during this period that Phillipp Christoph von Erthal gave an elegant full-length Lohr mirror to his second wife, the Countess Claudia Elisabeth von Venningen, to display in the Lohr Castle where they lived. When Phillipp died in the 1740s, local legend says the "talking mirror" became the center of Claudia's life. Increasingly obsessed with her own image, Claudia soon began to be insanely jealous of her step-daughter, the Baroness Maria Sophia von Erthal, whom the people of Lohr adored as an "angel of mercy and kindness" and the ideal princess.

Before long, Maria, who is better known today as the Grimm Brothers’ "Snow White", was forced to flee 22 miles through the mountains to escape her stepmother's murderous plots. She found sanctuary for a time in the mining community of Bieber, which was primarily staffed by children at the time, until her stepmother found and poisoned her there.

The fairy tale gets a little strange at this point, but in the story of the Countess von Venningen, we find a troubling obsession with self-image that, like Narcissus, leads to physical and spiritual death. We can expect a similar consequence if we hold our own self-interest like a mirror between us and the rest of the world, for it will severely inhibit our ability to make connections, build relationships and see and enjoy all that is good about life. In selfish and narrow-minded seeking for whatever life we've conjured up for ourselves, the Lord has promised that we will lose our lives (Luke 17:33).

The tragedies of Narcissus, the Countess and others like them are made worse by the realization that the images that have so captivated their subjects are nothing more than distorted reflections of physical light, void of substance and incapable of showing the viewer a complete picture of the reality within or around them. The Lord told Samuel that he, "seeth not as a man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Though our physical appearance may deceive ourselves and others for a time, the Lord knows the reality of who we are and our inner thoughts, desires and emotions.

We can now and someday all will have a perfect knowledge of who we really are. Paul wrote that "for now we see through a glass, darkly," but that one day, "when that which is perfect is come," we will see these realities "face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12). This includes the glorious truths of our divine heritage. The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares that "all human beings--male and female--are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny."

James, the brother of Jesus, taught us how we can see ourselves as we really are. "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer," he said, "he [or she] is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what matter of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed" (James 1:23-25). 

The particular language here provides us the insights we need. Both Paul and James speak of perfection in contrast to our present vision, and more particularly, in contrast to what we see in the mirror. Paul tells us that we will see clearly “when that which is perfect is come”. James suggests that looking into the perfect law of liberty is in direct competition with looking forgetfully at our reflection. But how do we look into a law? And how does that really contrast with the man who looked into the mirror-- like Narcissus and the Countess-- yet forgot who he really was?

In a 1981 General Conference address, President Marion G. Romney reminded us that many of those with the greatest political and economic freedom never experience true freedom of the soul. "Free agency," he cautioned, "precious as it is, is not of itself the perfect liberty we seek, nor does it necessarily lead thereto. As a matter of fact, through the exercise of their agency more people have come to political, economic, and personal bondage than to liberty."

Yet, "notwithstanding the fact that through its misuse, political, economic and personal liberty are lost, free agency will always endure because it is an eternal principle. However, the free agency possessed by any one person is increased or diminished by the use to which he puts it" ("The Perfect Law of Liberty", October 1981, emphasis added).

In other words, we "are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil" (2 Nephi 2:27). This is not done all at once, but each choice we make either adds to our freedom or to our bondage. The Countess von Venningen had nearly unlimited political and economic freedom. She could have won the affection of her people by throwing wonderful parties or planting elaborate gardens or easing their burdens. Instead, she allowed each glance at the mirror to narrow her vision and replace potential for joy with enraged jealousy until she became a slave to her obsession and sealed her own fate to an eternal bondage.

Contrast the Countess' experience with the Apostle Paul, who was often persecuted and penniless. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

Despite all of this, Paul wrote to Timothy shortly before his death: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Paul, who forfeited economic and political freedom to become a disciple of Christ, and who was writing from a prison cell in Rome, expresses here the perfect freedom of the soul he enjoyed despite earthly tribulations.

Christ taught that "whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth forever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:34-36). And again, "they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom. For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory" (D&C 86:21-22). And again, "Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven" (D&C121:45).

This, then, is the perfect law of liberty: that as we choose obedience to the laws of Christ, we will find liberty of the soul in direct proportion to our obedience until our obedience and our liberty become perfect. If we look into the perfect law of liberty, that is, if we lay aside our filthiness and become doers of the word as James directs, the light that is reflected back at us will not be imperfect physical rays but the perfect light of Christ, of the gospel, and of things as they really are (D&C 93:28Jacob 4:13). 

"That which is of God is light," the Lord taught the Prophet Joseph Smith, "and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day" (D&C 50:24). When we follow President Monson's counsel to defy the consensus and choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, we are choosing liberty and eternal life rather than captivity and death and we will receive more spiritual light as a result-- but there are really two processes going on at once.

First, through our faithful action upon the words of God we receive more light and truth from the Lord. We will be capable of even greater faith and obedience. But second, and of equal or greater importance, is that as we continually repent and improve in our obedience we are refined, not unlike a Lohr Mirror, until we become mirrors of spiritual light that "always speak the truth". That is, we undergo a process of learning and refining until we perfectly reflect his image in our countenances (Alma 5:14).

"Ye are the light of the world," the Lord taught, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16). Our goal in striving to obey the words of scripture, of modern prophets, and of the Holy Ghost, is not to become our own dim light in the world but rather that through our good works our brothers and sisters will see the Light of the World, our Savior and theirs, and come into his fold.

To be able to reflect that light, James again directs: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). "And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world," the Lord has taught us in modern times, "thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day" (D&C 59:9).

As we strive to live the gospel, we are both receivers and reflectors of the light that gives liberty to us all. If we choose, our light and liberty can grow until the Lord's image is reflected in our countenance and, thus endowed with light and truth, we will stand confidently in the presence of God as one of his fold, not as rulers of a small fiefdom but as heirs to the supreme celestial light and glory of the King of Kings and the Creator of the Universe (John 10:14, Matthew 7:31D&C 93:36John 3:21).

Then, perhaps, you'll also have a chance to meet the real Snow White. If you do, perhaps you can also ask her what that business with the prince was really all about.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sinners and Fools

Every Primary child knows the story of the Wise Man and the Foolish Man. The Savior taught:

Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon the house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27).

Like the fool who built his house on a poor foundation, we have all made mistakes and errors in judgement. On a wilderness backpacking trip many years ago, my brother and dad and I set out to cross a particular mountain range over the course of about a week. After climbing a particular pass, we decided to leave the trail for what appeared to be a shorter path over a flat mountain summit. We thought our shortcut would give us more time to relax and go fishing.

Over the next couple of hours we crossed the rocky mountain tundra until we came to the top of a tall and seemingly impassable cliff face that stretched the entire length of the mountain. Below the cliff was a loose rock scramble to the base of the mountain. We did not have the equipment or expertise for either the cliff or the scramble, but we had also used the last of our water supply and were not anxious to walk back the way we had come.

It only took a few moments to decide to throw our backpacks off the cliff. We watched them bounce, roll and slide to a stop near the base. Then we began scaling the cliff face. It was slow going, but we made it to the scramble and slid down the loose rocks to recover our packs. Exhausted, but fortunately uninjured except for the 18-inch hole in my new pants, we recovered our packs and climbed over the last few boulders in the scramble to reach the meadow beyond. Now several hours behind schedule, we walked only a few paces to find the nicely groomed trail we had left hours earlier.

Our errant judgement had made our hike more difficult and cost us in time and the money I now needed for new pants. Ultimately, it also meant that we would not make it to our planned destination in the time we had. But though our mistakes were regrettable, they were not sinful nor were they without educational benefit.

The apostle John taught that "whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4). Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught that sins result from willful disobedience of the laws we have received by explicit teaching of the scriptures, prophets, parents, teachers or the Spirit of Christ, our conscience, that teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong and provides a defense from situations that are spiritually harmful ("Sins and Mistakes", BYU Speeches, August 1994). We can transgress the laws of God by doing things we've been commanded not to do, such as lying or stealing, and by doing not doing things we have been commanded to do, such as keeping the Sabbath Day holy and sharing the gospel. Sins are, in essence, rebellion against God; certainly our blunder did not amount to rebellion.

The mistakes and folly common to us all, like the foolish man's construction on sandy ground, result from ignorance of the laws of God, the workings of the universe or the people God has created. Our mistakes may be choices to do something good rather than something better or best. Though our navigational error was regrettable, it was, like all mistakes, also educational. I learned the value of staying on the trail, having a plan for water and making decisions based on the best way forward rather than where I've been. If we learn from our mistakes, we diminish our ignorance and will make better decisions in the future.

It is important to distinguish between sins and mistakes in our own behavior, and the behavior of those for whom we have stewardship, because the Lord has commissioned different responses for each. The Lord taught the early leaders of the church that "any member of the church of Christ transgressing, or being overtaken in a fault, shall be dealt with as the scriptures direct" (D&C 20:80). Having separated transgression and fault as separate types of offenses, he later explained the difference between error and sin and gives instruction for the correction of each: "Inasmuch as they erred it might be made known, ... And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent" (D&C 1:25, 27).

For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the actor. The foolish man did not need to be humbled or penalized but rather to be taught how to find good ground for his house. When we make errors, we ought not to rant at ourselves for our stupidity but rather correct our mistake and move forward. Likewise, often those who are led astray from the Church or with whom we have political or other arguments are in error rather than transgression and merit correction, not chastisement or denouncement as sinners.

Of course, children of any age cannot sin until they have learned what is right. If they have not been taught, the scriptures say their sins are upon the heads of their parents (D&C 68:25). But it should be no surprise that most of our children's errant actions are borne of ignorance, not rebellion, meriting our teaching and correction rather than our condemnation and punishments.

An illustration of this principle may be found in a short story to which we can all relate. One night shortly after his daughter had begun dating, Brother Keith Merrill found himself anxiously waiting for her to come home. He had given her a strict curfew and had been suffering for twenty minutes because she was late.

"When she came in," he later said, "I immediately read her the riot act. I forgot my policies. I forgot all my positive thinking. I forgot all the great things that I knew I should do. I just simply said, 'You promised to be home at 12:00. You were not home at 12:00. I worry about you. We made a call. You weren't where you said you would be. You said you would call.' And I went right down the list---bing, bing, bing, bing, negative, negative, negative."

After some time, Brother Merrill's daughter responded. "'Stop!' she said... 'We haven't been drinking, we haven't been smoking, we haven't been immoral or unchaste. We didn't go to any R-rated movie. We haven't been to a party where there were drugs. We weren't out shooting speed or doing anything else. We haven't been making out, we haven't been doing anything bad, Dad. I'm 15 minutes late for curfew, so let's keep this in perspective'" (“Building Your Child’s Self-Esteem,” Families Are Forever, television series on VISN cable network, 1989).

Brother Merrill was able to find the humor in his own overreaction, and no doubt joy in his daughter's goodness, and spent the next several minutes laughing on the floor. It doesn't always end as well. One way we can improve our response in such situations, as the young Sister Merrill pointed out, is to keep things in perspective by correctly categorizing the offense and responding appropriately.

None of this is to say that mistakes are always okay. Some mistakes may lead to sins or become sins at an extreme level. We may disagree vehemently with a friend or family member, but contention is always a transgression. A big mistake, like stepping in front of a bus, may have more severe impacts than a small sin or may prevent us from reaching our desired eternal destination. Other times, the same act may be a mistake or a sin depending on the intention of the actor. The idea that ignorance is bliss is false because while ignorance may cause error rather than sin, intentional ignorance is in itself a sin. It is necessary for us to all make mistakes so we can learn and grow; we do not all need to sin.

In any case, our responses to ourselves and to those around us should be full of love. Our focus should be on those we serve and mercy should go hand in hand with reproof.

Elder Bruce C. Hafen has taught:

Mercy and repentance are rehabilitative, not retributive. The Savior asks us to repent not just to repay him for paying our debt to justice but also to induce us to undergo the personal development that will purify our very nature... When the Atonement and our repentance satisfy the laws of justice and mercy, we are, in effect, free from sin. But just as the sinless Christ was 'made perfect' through interaction with his Father's grace, so his atoning grace can move us beyond the remission of sins to the perfection of a divine nature. Those who inherit the celestial kingdom are 'just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood' (D&C 76:69, emphasis added)("Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ", Ensign, April 1997).

Though the Lord chastises us for our sins, everything is done in the interest of our progression and happiness. Rather than sitting comfortably on the thrones of power to look down and command those weaker than him, he descended below us all and suffered for us in Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha, so that he would have grace to give when we fall short. Certainly he has grace to give those who may be falling short around us; it is our honor and responsibility to accept that love and grace for ourselves and reflect it to our children and others around us even when sinful behavior requires us to chastise and call them to repentance.

The scriptures carefully distinguish between sinners and fools. Each of us has certainly been both of these from time to time. We can learn from and correct our mistakes. We should not willfully rebel against God and must be chastised and repent when we do. Understanding the difference between sins and mistakes helps us to better feel the love of our Father in Heaven and the Savior who suffered on our behalf, to respond and be better as parents and stewards, and to teach Christ-like responses to a world increasingly leaving the trail to build their easy lives upon the sand.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Planning for Success

Before any of us were born there was a great council in heaven to plan for the earth on which we live, our mortal lives and our eventual exaltation. Planning, including setting and reaching goals, always has been and always will be an essential part of gospel living. Elder Ballard has famously taught that, “If we don’t set goals in our life and learn how to master the techniques of living to reach our goals, we can reach a ripe old age and look back on our life only to see that we reached but a small part of our full potential.”

Goals, plans and resolutions can be difficult to implement. We often begin like the people of Lehonti that summited a mountain to avoid unnecessary war: “fixed in [our] minds with a determined resolution” (Alma 47:6) to lose weight or read our scriptures or get out of debt. It seems like everything is going to go our way. This is the year we reach our goal!

And then the rationalizations start. Soon, we find ourselves willingly walking down the mountain… and into a trap.

We’ve all been there; but unlike Lehonti’s army we don’t have to stay there. If you’ve had trouble setting or keeping meaningful goals that help you excel in life, perhaps a return to the core principles of planning will help you find a more successful approach. Here are five keys to setting resolutions that are both extraordinary and reachable.

First, planning of any sort starts with a vision of what the future looks like. Proverbs teaches that “where there is no vision, the people perish” (29:18). In case it isn’t obvious to you, breaking resolutions within three days counts as perishing—and it could just be because you haven’t thought about it enough.

Before you set a single goal, take time to dream. What will you look like if you lose that weight? How will you feel getting that big promotion? How will your demeanor change if you read your scriptures consistently? How will your relationships be if you make time for date night or playing with your kids? What would life be like with children that have been taught to be independent or the financial standing to retire and serve a mission?

Think about who you want to become and fall in love with that version of yourself. This is a critical step in the process—and often the most neglected. Goals are not expectations to live up to but possibilities to live into; just as God “created all things… spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth” (Moses 3:5), we have to visualize our possibilities before we can make them reality.  Even if you don’t set any goals at all for a month or two months or three, make sure you can see the light at the end of your tunnel.

Next, with your vision in mind, you can begin developing plans to become your future self. If you are working toward a new career or a big promotion, what additional education or experience do you need? How will you change your diet or find more time to exercise to reach your fitness goals? When will you practice playing the guitar, speaking in public, hitting your golf ball into the fairway or cooking in a dutch oven?

No matter our goal, we should always have a plan that outlines how we will be successful. The oft-quoted axiom is true: failing to plan is planning to fail.

I learned this as a young missionary in Central Europe. Elder Perry was our area president and his office was ten steps across a parking lot from the stake center where many of our meetings were held. He loved to come to our meetings, even when he wasn’t scheduled to make an appearance, and he would always take the time to shake all of our hands.

While shaking hands, Elder Perry would often ask us about our plans: plans for our areas; plans for our missions; and plans for life after our missions. We learned quickly that “I’m not sure yet” wasn’t an acceptable answer. “Always have a plan,” he would say. Your plan may change from time to time, but always have a plan you are committed and working to achieve.

Our plans will likely include friends, family, coworkers and others upon whom we will rely to reach our vision. Life’s greatest successes and eternity’s greatest joys can only be reached by people working interdependently. You should identify your role in the plan and the role you will ask the people around you to play. Your role in whatever plan you conceive is your personal mission statement.

When you have laid out your vision and identified the major steps along the way, the third key to setting reachable resolutions is to begin to walk toward your goal. We don’t need to see every detail to start. Planning of any sort is a faith exercise. As we begin striving in the direction of our vision, the details will become clearer.

Like many students, I started college without a clear idea of what I wanted for a career. I first enrolled as a physics major. Then I decided to be a pilot. By my sophomore year I had decided to go to graduate school. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I would go to medical school or business school or law school, but I knew I wanted to be a professional something. I chose to study economics because it was a rigorous study that would help me get into whatever graduate school I chose.

As an undergraduate student, I was often tempted to stray from the path I had chosen. The recreation management majors, after all, spent their days hiking and rafting, or at least I assumed they did; meanwhile, I was sitting in the library trying to figure out why the entire Greek alphabet was involved in my econometrics formulas. With the help of frequent prayers and a wife with more sense than I have, I managed to make it to my senior year studying economics. I still didn’t know what I was going to do for graduate school.

One day at church, an inspired conversation with a friend introduced me to a graduate program I hadn’t previously considered. I researched and applied to several programs, including one that I attended. Excellent advisors and mentors have helped me make wiser choices along the way and introduced me to the career field I have pursued.

Each decision along my path has taught me more about myself and clarified the details of my vision of the future. I still do not see every step along the way, but starting to walk down the path has helped me learn to discern opportunities that will move me toward my vision from distractions that would leave me wandering around the same metaphorical block or losing sight of my ultimate goals.

A vision, appropriate plans, and the faith to start walking are necessary but insufficient elements for long-term success. The fourth key to extraordinary and reachable resolutions is to identify our core values.

This summer, my family took a trip to New York State. We had never been before and talked excitedly for months about our visions of seeing Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty and the Hill Cumorah Pageant. As we began to plan however, we soon learned that it was just as important to plan our route as it was to plan the destinations we wanted to see. Did we want to take toll roads or drive around them? Was there a more efficient route that allowed us to see more? Where would we stop to sleep each night?

Our core values help us know which way to go when we face decisions in our lives. When traveling across New York, my family chose places to stay based on the safety, price and proximity to the attractions we wanted to see. These factors made it easier to decide when and where we would stop for the night. Your family may have chosen to stay somewhere with more amenities or an even lower price based on what is important to you. In the same way, our values help us know what decisions to make to get the outcomes we are seeking.

Of course, sometimes we make decisions that are inconsistent with our values. We stay in a dirty hotel even though we can’t stand it and end up not sleeping well. Or we buy something we think we want only to regret the purchase later. Explicitly identifying our core values helps us strategically and consciously improve our decisions so they can propel us toward our vision more effectively.

Because each of us is unique, explicitly stating our values only works if we are authentic to what is really important to us. This is not the place for aspirational statements. Values are not goals and the values we want but don’t yet have won’t help us.

As someone who does strategic planning for my organization for a living, I had tried more than once to develop a vision with a plan and stated values for my family—and more than once it had failed to catch on. My research for those plans indicated that faith, love, knowledge, opportunity and action were five values often stated in one way or another by families I admired. The trouble is, that’s not a very convincing argument for three kids ages five and under.

Looking closer at who we are as a family revealed that we are a family that values adventure. We are devout and family-oriented. We are independent and love to learn. Honestly, these values sound a lot like the ones I had researched, but the researched values were not personal or authentic to our family. Now when we come to a fork in the road, or even just want to find something to do for the weekend, we decide to do the adventurous thing—and we’re happier and making greater progress toward our family vision because of it.

Finally, we all must ultimately realize that success is not earned—it is given. The fifth key to successful resolutions is to trust completely in God and recognize his hand as the giver of life’s greatest successes.

In the Old Testament we read of a conflict between Gideon’s 32,000 men and 135,000 Midianites (Judges 7:1-3). Despite being desperately outnumbered, the Lord told Gideon, “The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me” (v. 2). Only after the Lord commanded Gideon’s army be reduced to a mere band of only 300 men—less than one percent of its original size and now outnumbered 400 to 1—did the Israelite soldiers trust enough in God to be victorious.

How would you pray if you knew the odds were stacked against you as they were against Gideon’s army? How would you converse with the Lord if you knew your life was on the line and it was impossible for you to save it yourself? If we will pray with that same earnestness, nothing will be impossible for us.

This is the same lesson the Lord taught the sons of Mosiah. After serving fourteen years as missionaries, Ammon celebrates their successes among the Lamanites. The key to their success is in verse 22 of Alma 26:

Yea, he that repenteth and exerciseth faith, and bringeth forth good works, and prayeth continually without ceasing—unto such it is given to know the mysteries of God; yea, unto such it shall be given to reveal things which have never been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls unto repentance, even as it has been given unto us to bring these our brethren to repentance (emphasis added).

Many of us talk about our goals as if we just need to try harder or muster more discipline or resolve; but muster as we may, how often do we set the same goal over and over and over again? Ammon did not earn his greatest successes and we will not earn ours. Our willpower alone is not enough. If it were, we would have already done the things we dream of doing.

Immediately following Moses’ death, Joshua became the new leader of the Israelites. He was uncertain about how to move forward. The Lord explained his vision for Joshua and taught him how to find success: “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee withersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:8-9).

President Eyring has taught that we “need strength beyond ourselves to keep the commandments in whatever circumstance life brings us.” Like Ammon, we must recognize that we are “nothing” because “as to [our] strength [we are] weak” (Alma 26:12). Even the Savior withdrew from the multitudes at times to pray and receive strength from the angels of heaven (Luke 22:43). If we will do the same, the Lord will be with us always to give us success.

From the beginning the Lord has planned for our every success. He has a vision of what we can become. Through his prophets, he has taught us that “all human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, Nov. 2010, 129). Each means all of us-- not collectively but rather every one of us individually-- have a divine destiny, or the potential to be like our Heavenly Father and live the life he lives. There are no exceptions. The Lord sees this glorious potential in you and in me.

He has been putting plans in place to help us reach that potential for eons. The Lord told Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). He planned the creation of the earth, the mortal life that teaches us to repent and serve God, and the opposition in all things that makes our choices meaningful and refines our judgment (Alma 42:4, 2 Nephi 2:11, Moses 3). He planned the families and dear friends that support us and the challenges that teach us valuable lessons. At the center of it all he planned a perfect atonement to pay for our sins and enhance our efforts (Mosiah 14). We shouted for joy in the premortal realm when we learned of the plan that made possible our immortality and eternal life (Job 38:7, Moses 1:39).

The values that guide our path back to Him are contained in His gospel. Faith, repentance, hope, charity, endurance and obedience help us see the straight and narrow path to our divine destiny. Temptations will surely come to stray from that path, but the more we rely on gospel values the brighter they shine and the clearer our vision of what the Lord has in store for us becomes.

Whether you envision a closer and more loving family, a healthier life, achievement in your professional life, or something else entirely, the Lord is anxious to bless us if we will begin walking toward our vision with faith. He has been planning our success for thousands, maybe millions of years and he delights in our progress. If we will rely on him, he will fight our toughest battles. He will go before our face, he will be on our right hand and on our left, his spirit will be in our hearts and his angels will be round about us to bear us up (D&C 84:88).

Through faithful planning we can reach a ripe old age and look back to find we’ve walked a great deal of the path toward our potential. We can prepare to return to live with our Heavenly Father again. And we can succeed in whatever resolution we pursue. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Seven Critical Lessons of the Seventh Day

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. He created the light and divided it from the darkness. He created the atmosphere and the clouds, the dry land and plants to cover it, and the sun and the moon and the stars. He made every living creature. He made mankind in his image and gave them dominion over the whole earth. And God saw everything that he had made that it was very good (Genesis 1).

In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them. And he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it (Exodus 20:11, Genesis 2:2-3).

As with all the works of Christ, our Great Exemplar, the events of the creation provide patterns and doctrines intended to help guide our lives. Among these are what I call the Seven Critical Lessons of the Seventh Day.

The scriptures state that the Lord rested from all his work on the seventh day. This is the First Critical Lesson. President Spencer W. Kimball once observed that “sometimes Sabbath observance is characterized as a matter of sacrifice and self-denial, but it is not so. It is merely a matter of shifting times and choosing seasons. There is time enough, particularly in our era of the world’s history, during the six days of the week in which to do our work and play”.

Though we live in the world, it is critical for our spiritual health to rest each Sabbath from the profane, secular, temporal and worldly things that are in constant competition for our attention and priorities. President Kimball taught:

We have become largely a world of Sabbath breakers. On the Sabbath the lakes are full of boats, the beaches are crowded, the shows have their best attendance, the golf links are dotted with players. The Sabbath is the preferred day for rodeos, conventions, family picnics; even ball games are played on the sacred day… To many, Sabbath-breaking is a matter of little moment, but to our Heavenly Father it is disobedience to one of the principal commandments.

The Lord invites us to find a safe port from the storms of life by following his example and resting from our daily cares on the Sabbath day.

But we should know that the rest of the Lord is different from simply dropping anchor for a long nap. The scriptures say that the spirits of the righteous, after they die, are “received into a state of rest” (Alma 40:12). Yet, the Prophet Joseph Smith taught that such are “exalted to a greater and more glorious work” and President Brigham Young taught that “there is an almighty work to perform in the spirit world” (Teachings, 326; JD, 4:285). Though we rest from the things of the world, when engaged in the work of the Lord the Sabbath day may sometimes be our busiest.

Again quoting President Kimball, “If one merely lounges about doing nothing on the Sabbath, he is breaking it.” Rather, the Lord has said:

And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day; For verily this is a day appointed unto you to rest from your labors and to pay thy devotions unto the most high. Nevertheless thy vows shall be offered up in righteousness on all days and at all times; But remember that on this, the Lord's day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord. And on this day thou shalt do none other thing...

The word "sacraments" originates from the Latin words for "solemn oath" and "sacred". Oblations are our gifts to God; he asks for a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and also that we devote our time and talents to building up his kingdom on the earth. We may not have a great deal of time to seek forgiveness of our sins, prepare to renew our covenants, build our faith through gospel study or serve others during the week, but these are all things we can do as we rest from worldly cares on the Sabbath. That we should be anxiously engaged in a good cause on the Sabbath is the Second Critical Lesson.

The Third Critical Lesson is to remember the Lord has blessed the Sabbath day and he blesses us for observing it. Christ taught his disciples that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In the same breath that the Lord admonishes us to attend church he promises that so doing will help us keep ourselves unspotted from the world. Later in that same chapter, he says:

And inasmuch as ye do these things with thanksgiving, with cheerful hearts and countenances... Verily I say, that inasmuch as ye do this, the fulness of the earth is yours... But learn that he who doeth the works of righteousness shall receive his reward, even peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come 
(D&C 59:5-23).

Observing the Sabbath is not a sacrifice but rather the path to individual and collective peace and prosperity. To the children of Israel, the Lord promised that if they would keep the Sabbath day holy:

Then will I give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit… and ye shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid: and I will rid evil beasts out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land (Leviticus 26:2-6).

These blessings are readily available to us if we will honor the Sabbath day.

Fourth, the Lord hallowed the Sabbath day. In the same way church buildings and temples are dedicated spaces for the Lord’s work, the Sabbath day is time that has been sanctified and consecrated to the work and glory of God. Just as temples are holy places, the Lord has commanded the faithful in every dispensation to, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

Our willingness to forego worldly things and focus only on holy activities is an indication to the Lord that we’re willing to keep the covenants we have made with him. President Russell M. Nelson has taught:

I learned from the scriptures that my conduct and my attitude on the Sabbath constituted a sign between me and my Heavenly Father. With that understanding, I no longer needed lists of dos and don’ts. When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, ‘What sign do I want to give to God?’ That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear (“The Sabbath is a Delight”, April 2015).

The Fifth Critical Lesson is to notice the symbolism of the seventh day. In Hebrew, the number seven is symbolic of completion and perfection. The tabernacle was built in six days and dedicated on the seventh, likewise heaven and earth were made over six creative periods and sanctified on the seventh. The Sabbath day completed the Creation and made the work that had been done acceptable before a God that is and must be intolerable of the least degree of imperfection.

This pattern is repeated throughout the Lord’s plan of happiness. In the Book of Moses, the Lord reminds us that the creation story of Genesis refers to the spiritual creation of heaven and earth:

For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth. For I, the Lord God, had not caused it to rain upon the face of the earth. And I, the Lord God, had created all the children of men; and not yet a man to till the ground; for in heaven created I them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air; (Moses 3:5)

It was on the seventh day that the Lord finished his work, watering the face of the ground, providing physical bodies for Adam and Eve and placing them in the Garden of Eden. It was on the seventh day that the creation was made completely perfect and perfectly complete.

The conclusion of this first Sabbath day ushered in six thousand years of mortality. At the end of these six thousand years will come the Millennial day of rest. Joseph Smith, clarifying a scripture in Revelation chapter 8, taught:

As God made the world in six days, and on the seventh day he finished his work, and sanctified it, and also formed man out of the dust of the earth, even so, in the beginning of the seventh thousand years will the Lord God sanctify the earth, and complete the salvation of man, and judge all things, and shall redeem all things (D&C 77:12).

This second great Sabbath day we will rest from the temptations of the evil one, complete the missionary and temple work to be done, and be resurrected from mortality to immortality. The next seventh day, the Millennial Sabbath, will complete and perfect the work of mortality.

With so much emphasis on the seventh day, which is actually Saturday, the Sixth Critical Lesson addresses briefly why most Christians now worship on Sunday, which is the first day of the week.

The short answer is that they don’t. Christians don’t worship on the first day of the week, but rather on the eighth day of the week. Let me explain:

Until the Atonement of Christ was complete, the faithful worshipped on the seventh day of the week. Then something happened. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, died for us on a Friday, the sixth day of the week symbolic of man and rebellion (i.e. Adam and Eve’s creation on the sixth day). On the seventh day, the Savior rested and visited the spirit world. On the next day, the eighth day, a Sunday, Christ was resurrected.

The number eight is symbolic of covenants and new beginnings. It’s symbolic of resurrection and salvation. Israelite males were circumcised at eight days old as a sign of God's covenant with them. We are eight years old when we may be baptized or “reborn”. And, through the ordinance of the sacrament administered on the eighth day of each week, we renew our covenants with God and his promise to forgive us our sins, allowing us to be reborn again on this eighth day of every week.

The pattern of going from seven to eight is also frequently repeated in scripture. The desert tabernacle had seven pieces of furniture while Solomon’s temple had eight. There are seven covenants in the Old Testament and an eighth in the New Testament.

Finally, the Seventh Critical Lesson is to recognize that all of this has been meticulously planned and perfectly executed as an example for you and I. The Savior wants us to come unto him and partake of his rest each week. He wants us to renew our covenants and begin each week without the weight of the last. He wants us to stay unspotted from the world and enjoy peace and prosperity. He offers to give us greater light and knowledge from heaven if we take the time to seek it.

If we are going to heed his command to, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), we are going to need a day to complete our most important work, to dedicate ourselves and to be sanctified and made acceptable to God. This is why, after the Lord who labors for our immortality and eternal life created the light and the atmosphere and the plants and animals and Adam and Eve, as a capstone to his creation, on the seventh day the Lord made the Sabbath.