Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Higher Point of View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord taught through the Apostle Paul:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 10, 2017

That They Might Have Joy

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

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

President Boyd K. Packer summarized in 2004:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 30, 2017

His Hand is Stretched Out Still

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Withdrawing to the Wilderness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Continue in the Things Which Thou Hast Been Assured

Few ministries in the history of the world are as striking as the apostle Paul's. Originally known as Saul of Tarsus, he inherited Roman citizenship from his father and Jewish faith from his mother. Educated at the Harvard of his day, Paul became a pharisee and actively persecuted Christians, who he perceived to be perverting Judaism, until a vision of Christ changed the current of his life. He would go on to become a great missionary, teacher, disciple and apostle who endured a great deal of persecution himself and was ultimately martyred for his testimony of Christ in Rome.

Near the end of his life, Paul was kept in chains in a dungeon that was exposed to the elements. He was a long way from home and had very little contact with friends or family. He knew he was going to die. He decided to write a final letter to his friend Timothy, who was the first ordained bishop in Ephesus. A lesser person might have used this as an opportunity to vent about the grievances of justice he had endured or perhaps to give final instructions regarding his estate. Paul was inspired instead to share one final sermon that would prove more valuable to you and I than to Timothy.

After admonishing Timothy to stay faithful, he prophesied of the perils of the last days, or in other words, the perils of the times in which we now live. The people in the world at that time, he writes, will be self-centered, irreverent, ungrateful, perverse, dishonest, undisciplined, faithless, traitorous, reckless and conceited. They will be people who love pleasure more than God and follow their appetites into all kinds of addictions and sins. All of these things would come because the people would deny the power of God; they would be ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth because they would refuse to consider spiritual evidence or learning from divine sources (2 Tim. 3:1-7).

Certainly this is the state of the world today. As morals fade and faith is increasingly unpopular, it might seem like the philosophies and ways of the world will soon overwhelm the faithful. Church attendance is down worldwide; truths about creation and the sanctity of life have been banished from schools and replaced by worldly philosophies and courses that encourage students to commit moral sins; and those who stand up for religious liberty are often harassed and accused of being bigoted, hateful, fearful, or worse.

Paul concedes that the righteous will be persecuted in our times and that "evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving, and being deceived," but also prophesies that the folly of the world "shall be manifest unto all men" and overthrown just as the Egyptian priests who resisted Moses (2 Tim. 3:8-9, 13). He reminds Timothy, and all of us by extension, that "God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind" (2 Tim. 1:7).

While we wait for folly to be overthrown, we may wonder how we "press forward with a steadfastness in Christ" amidst worldly currents of chaos, immorality, deceit, violence, persecution and degrading values (2 Nephi 31:20). Further, how do we keep our faith when some of those worldly philosophies start to make sense or we feel our faith is maybe not as strong as it once was or as we feel it needs to be?

Paul, who had been both persecuted and persecutor, gives a two-part answer based on his experience: "Continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of," he told Timothy, "knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that...the holy scriptures [are] able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 3:14-15).

In another letter, this one to the believers in and around Jerusalem, Paul addressed those saints who were beginning to falter because of the difficultly of staying on the gospel path. To these ancient church members who thought testimony, conversion and baptism would put them beyond trouble, Paul counsels, "Call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions... Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward. For ye have need of patience, that, after ye have done the will of God, ye might receive the promise" (Hebrews 10:32, 35-36).

Each of us have had sacred experiences that have been and are foundations for our testimony. These experiences are most often times when we knew God was speaking to us. Maybe it was how we felt when we were baptized or when we heard the prophet speak at General Conference. Maybe we were directed to go another way or make a different choice. Or maybe we felt God's love when reading a particularly meaningful passage of scripture, witnessing an answer to our prayers or enjoying the feelings of cleanliness that follow sincere repentance. Whatever those experiences are in our lives, we must not forget them now nor discredit their divine author.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has taught that we should, "first doubt [our] doubts before [we] doubt [our] faith" (Come, Join with Us, October 2013). "In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, [we must] hold the ground [we] have already won, even if that ground is limited" (Elder Holland, Lord, I Believe, April 2013).

Elder Holland adds, "If it was right when you prayed about it and trusted it and lived for it, it is right now. Don't give up when the pressure mounts. Certainly don't give in to that being who is bent on the destruction of your happiness. Face your doubts. Master your fears. 'Cast not away therefore your confidence.' Stay the course and see the beauty of life unfold for you" (Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence, March 1999).

The second part of Paul's response requires that we acknowledge that God has also spoken to us through his prophets. We turn to God and begin our journey back to him through the study of his revealed words. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God," he explains, "and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be [complete], throughly furnished unto all good works" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

When the world seems to suffocate us, or when we are offended by the evil around us, or when we are tempted to subscribe to worldly philosophies on love or life or anything else, we can find the strength, healing, comfort and answers we need in the Holy Scriptures. Honest study of the scriptures will build our faith, courage, resolve to act upon the truths we learn. We will more often find the inspiration to repent of our misdeeds until, step by step and habit by habit, we become complete and perfect in the sight of God in spite of all that is around us.

This was what Paul experienced as he sat in a Roman dungeon through heat and cold and storms and wind. He had given status and riches to be there. He had lost every worldly thing and would soon give his life. But he had also heard Christ's voice. He had felt God's assurance carry him through his most desperate hours. He knew it was true. He knew death was not the end. He knew he would see his family again and rejoice in the presence of God. And he knew it was possible for us as well, if we would hear God's words and stay on the path that leads back to him.

And so, instead of complaints or regrets, Paul writes to Timothy in the confidence of his God: "For 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 there 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).

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Return with Honor

When I was in high school, I often went over to my friend Devon's house. We were there most days for lunch, after school and whenever else we were looking for something to do. Above the front door in his house was a sign that read, "Return with Honor."

It was a simple sign with a simple message: don't screw up. Don't go places you shouldn't go, do things you shouldn't do or be someone you shouldn't be. I thought it was just another way of reminding their family, and all others that have used the slogan, to be good.

There is value in reminding ourselves to be good. That is, theoretically at least, why most LDS 8-year-olds don fresh CTR rings, at least for a few weeks, as they try to remember to Choose The Right. In an oversimplified way, we wear temple garments and attend church every week and put pictures of Christ in our homes so we can remember the promises we have made with God to be good.

Returning with honor is much more than that, however. Many of us have known people who were "good" and did what they were "supposed" to do but were without honor. They are the missionaries who served but didn't work; the temple-married couple who make others uncomfortable with how unkind they are to each other; and the church attendee who rejects all invitations to serve in a calling. These individuals, and others like them, go through the motions but seldom garner much esteem or respect because of the hollow selfishness of their efforts.

Honor is aligned with patience, kindness, contentment, joy for others, sacrifice, humility, modesty, self-discipline, hard work, virtue, hope, faith and love. We honor those who give their lives for our freedom, who give years of study and research to develop vaccines or send people to the moon, who teach us what they know, and who inspire us to be better. There is no honor in selfishness; but that doesn't mean that we don't have a role.

To understand how we can return with honor, we first must recognize that the subject of this sentence is implied. It is you. You are being admonished to return [yourself] with honor. How do you get that honor?

The next part of the statement requires the acknowledgement that to return, we first need to go. There are dozens of scriptural decrees to go a step or two into uncertainty, to go without sin, to go after what was lost, to go show yourself to the priest, to go on the Lord's errand, or go teach the gospel. In order to return, we first have to get up and go.

Finally, the added value to this phrase comes with a deeper understanding of honor. There are many sources of honor. We may receive worldly honors from universities, news media, community service groups or professional organizations. We can receive honors from our peers, our twitter followers or our bosses. Some of these can be good, but they cannot be what we treasure in our hearts. Like Captain Moroni, we are to, "seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of [our] God, and the freedom and welfare of [our] country" (Alma 60:36).

In one of his recent conference addresses, President Uchtdorf shared an experience he had as a new General Authority. One day he was driving with President Faust to a stake conference. Among the important principles they discussed, Elder Faust explained how gracious the members of the Church are to General Authorities. He said, "They will treat you very kindly. They will say nice things about you." Then with a chuckle he said, "Dieter, be thankful for this. But don't you ever inhale it" (Pride and the Priesthood, October 2010).

While we can be grateful for our health, wealth, possessions, or positions, as President Uchtdorf went on to explain, when we begin to inhale our own importance or power or reputation they will begin to corrupt the honor we think we have. In his pre-mortal rebellion against God, Lucifer, the Son of the Morning and a person of some influence, demanded, "Give me thine honor, which is my power" (D&C 29:36).

Honor, like love or respect, cannot be demanded or taken upon ourselves. None of us can award ourselves a Nobel Peace Prize or an honorary doctorate degree from a prestigious university. Though we may inspire fear, we cannot control another's admiration. We are even less able to require the respect and esteem of a perfect being who knows all things and has all power.

Yet, God is anxious to give us honor. He promises, "if ye are faithful ye shall be laden with many sheaves, and crowned with honor, and glory, and immortality, and eternal life" (D&C 75:5). "For thus saith the Lord--I, the Lord, am merciful and gracious unto those who fear me, and delight to honor those who serve me in righteousness and in truth unto the end" (D&C 76:5).

Honor is the highest esteem or respect we can receive from another person. We cannot take it for ourselves, but we can give it and are commanded to honor those who honor God, including our parents, our spouses, and the laws of the land where we live. We are also commanded to honor the Lord.

My friend's mom could have put up a sign that said, "Be Good". Instead she put up a sign admonishing her family to act in such a way that others would willingly give their respect and esteem. She wanted her family to be anxiously engaged in good causes, to know what it was to sacrifice a meal so another could eat, to experience the reward of working hard to bless someone else's life, and to love so deeply that life's ambitions could be replaced by a desire to make others happy. Most of all, her sign directed her family to be the kind of people that an all-knowing, all-powerful God would delight to have on his side and to recognize for his or her faithfulness. She wanted them to not only be good, but to be courageous, fiercely righteous and persisting in patient faithfulness in the course God placed before them.

That was too long of a sign to fit over the door, so she summed it up: Return with Honor. I wonder if our heavenly mother has one just like it.