Sunday, May 29, 2011

Thou Shalt Not Covet

Elder Robert D. Hales, April 2009:

Being provident providers, we must keep that most basic commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” (Exodus 20:17). Our world is fraught with feelings of entitlement. Some of us feel embarrassed, ashamed, less worthwhile if our family does not have everything the neighbors have. As a result, we go into debt to buy things we can’t afford—and things we do not really need. Whenever we do this, we become poor temporally and spiritually. We give away some of our precious, priceless agency and put ourselves in self-imposed servitude. Money we could have used to care for ourselves and others must now be used to pay our debts. What remains is often only enough to meet our most basic physical needs. Living at the subsistence level, we become depressed, our self-worth is affected, and our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and the Lord are weakened. We do not have the time, energy, or interest to seek spiritual things...

When faced with the choice to buy, consume, or engage in worldly things and activities, we all need to learn to say to one another, “We can’t afford it, even though we want it!” or “We can afford it, but we don’t need it—and we really don’t even want it!”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

An Introduction to the Book of Mormon

How Firm a Foundation

In Mark chapter 10, we read of a noble, rich man that inquires of Christ, "What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" Finding that the man had kept the commandments from his youth, the Savior instructed the rich young man to, "go thy way way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor... and come, take up the cross, and follow me." Though we do not know if or when this young man may have obeyed, at the time of his encounter with Christ he, "went away grieved: for he had great possessions."

Turning to his disciples, the Master Teacher commented, "how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!" Then again, "With men that trust in riches, it is impossible [to enter into the kingdom of God]; but not impossible with men who trust in God and leave all for my sake, for with such all these things are possible."

Honest self-evaluation may reveal to each of us what we may have in common with the young rich man. It is easy to feel like everything will be okay because the bills are paid with money left over for groceries and maybe even some savings. Do we pray more sincerely when our cash reserves are low?

The principle behind what Christ taught the young, rich man is taught more explicitly by King Benjamin in Mosiah chapter 3: "There shall be no other name given nor any other way nor means whereby salvation can come unto the children of men, only in and through the name of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent." Faith in Christ is the first principle of the gospel and absolutely essential to salvation in the kingdom of God. When we place our trust elsewhere, we introduce false idols and false security into our lives. We become like the foolish man, who built his house upon a sandy foundation.

Even the mention of idol worship conjures up ideas of gold calves made thousands of years ago or the neighbor that is always out in his front yard washing his new car. Yet when tragedy strikes or stress mounts, where do you and I turn? If we look for comfort in a batch of freshly baked cookies or retreat to the chocolate stash in our dresser drawers, we may well find that sweet treats have hindered or even replaced the deepest, most sincere trust in God that is required to return to Him.

Riches of cash or of calories are not alone in their ability to replace our faith with false security. Some create idols of intimacy, of drugs or alcohol, and still others trust most in their own education, their favorite sports team, the power of their preferred political party or their ability to control or influence those around them. When we put our trust in these things more than God-- when we turn to them in our difficult moments rather than to our Heavenly Father who waits to teach us and to bless us-- it is as though each of us were departing from the Savior just as the young rich man.

Victory over this form of idolatry requires a healthy dose of humility. We must change our thinking from, "What do I want to do?" to "What would the Lord have me do?" We recognize that the comfort we find in idolatrous trust of money or food or whatever allows the natural man to gain strength; so we strive to "yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit" that put off the natural man as they help us become, "submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, [and] willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us]" (Mosiah 3:19). In other words, as we find success and refinement in humility, we will also develop a deep and abiding faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Lord has promised that he will care for our needs, "for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things" (3 Nephi 13:32). Our job is to believe him-- believe he will do what he says he will do-- then take up our cross and build upon his firm foundation.

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
is laid for your faith in his excellent word.
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
who unto the Savior for refuge hath fled?

In every condition, in sickness, in health, 
in poverty's vale or abounding in wealth,
at home or abroad, on the land or the sea
as thy days may demand so thy succor shall be.

Fear not, I am with thee; oh, be not dismayed,
for I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of sorrow shall not thee o'erflow,
for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

E'en down to old age, all my people shall prove
my sov'reign, eternal, unchangable love;
and then when gray hair shall their temples adorn,
like lambs shall they still in my bosom be borne.

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I cannot, desert to his foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no never, no never forsake.

(How Firm a Foundation, attr. to Robert Keen, 1787)

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Relationship Collage

Sometimes in the scriptures, particularly in the New Testament, it seems as though the text randomly and very suddenly jumps from one subject to another. One moment we're reading about forgiveness, the next about salt or sheep or coins, and the next about faith or knocking on doors or picking motes or beams from our eyes. The seeming disjointedness has often contributed to my own perception of the Bible as a more difficult text than its Book of Mormon counterpart.

That changed a little bit this week as my wife helped me see the connections in the seemingly unrelated passages of Matthew chapter 18. Focusing on the connections, rather than the apparent lack of connections, turned an obstacle into a blessing as I saw the Bible in a whole new light.

In Matthew 18, Christ teaches his disciples about caring for children, plucking out eyes or cutting of hands that offend us, seeking for lost sheep, dealing with those who have offended us and a king who forgave an unforgiving servant before delivering him to the tormentors because of his unforgivingness. Each passage seemed to be independently useful, but tangent from any core theme or moral.

Read more carefully, and inserting the Joseph Smith translations where they appear, the lesson transforms into a collage of focused doctrine, stories and experiences on a single theme. It began with this question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"

Using a child as an example, Christ responded: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-3). Remembering the teachings of Paul (Romans 8:16-17) and King Benjamin (Mosiah 5:7-8), we can understand from this reply that as we humble ourselves and take His name upon us through baptism, we may become joint heirs with Christ of all the Father has. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who make and keep the baptismal covenant, returning through the Atonement to the Celestial Kingdom with the innocence of small children. Adding the requirement of faith in verse six, Christ  provides a complete, profound yet succinct answer to the question.

Having highlighted our relationship with our Heavenly Father in his reply, the Savior then takes the rest of the chapter to teach us about our earthly relationships. This should sound familiar to those who have listened to any of the modern sessions of General Conference, which also tend to teach the gospel in a family-centered context. The essence of all of our relationships, Christ teaches, must be to prepare each other to return to live with God. He explains that:

If thy hand or they foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. And a man's hand is his friend, and his foot, also; and a man's eye, are they of his own household.

In other words, it is better to end a relationship with a friend or family member than to miss your opportunity to live forever with your Heavenly Father because that relationship drug you down.

Recognizing this as the extreme case, Christ works backward toward the more forgiving ideal. While terminating relationships is an unfortunate possibility, just as our Father cast out Lucifer, the seriousness of that prospect demands additional attention. In this middle ground between ending relationships and the ideal forgiveness, Christ clarifies that we must do all we can to recover the relationships and the souls involved with three specific steps:

First, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou has gained thy brother.

Next, if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

And finally, if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. 

What the disciplinary councils of the Church bind on earth is also bound in heaven (Matthew 18:18-19). That means that an unrepentant person who is excommunicated from the Church is also removed from his or her fellowship with Christ. They no longer bear his name nor do they qualify to enter the Celestial Kingdom of God. The very salvation of that soul is at great risk, so Christ promises that disciplinary councils will not face the decision alone: For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. 

We are all children of a loving Heavenly Father. We can become pure as a little child and inherit eternal life from our Father in Heaven if we will be humble before Him and enter with faith into the covenant of baptism. Baptism is the covenant that allows us access to the full redeeming power of the Atonement. This is our relationship with God.

Because we are dependent upon the Lord's forgiveness of our every misdeed, we should also be quick to forgive others of their offenses against us. This is the ideal outlined at the end of Matthew 18. No collection of offenses they may have committed against us surpasses the mountain of offenses we have committed against the eternal laws of God. We should settle each offense against us with compassion for the offender.

In some situations, certain offenses may need to be escalated from a private discussion. A family, neighborhood, judicial court or other small group may be called upon to resolve an offense. Even still, compassion is required to provide every possible opportunity for the offended and the offender to recoup their stressed relationship with each other and reinforce their individual relationships with Christ.

When offenses cannot be resolved between individuals or a group of individuals, the disciplinary councils of the Church may intervene. Christ attends every such council and it is the Savior, our eternal judge alongside the Father, who directs the decisions of the disciplinary councils of the Church. Decisions made in these councils are binding on earth and in heaven.

Of those who refuse to hear the voice of the Lord in the councils of the Church, the Lord says to, let them be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican...for it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed than to have friends or family and be cast into hell fire.

So it comes full circle. Seeking the connections in the scriptures has highlighted a collage of principles and doctrines that I previously had not seen. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who make and keep covenant relationships. We form one such relationship with our baptism. Others are forged in the temple, when we welcome a new child into the world or as we become one with our fellow Saints.

May each of us gain the light and truth we need for our lives as we search the scriptures, and may we live worthy to sustain and uphold our covenant relationships.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

An Observation for Missionaries

Missionaries and their Mission Presidents around the globe have often wondered why they may not be getting the thousands of conversions-- or in some cases, dozens or even any-- that we read about in the Book of Mormon and in Church history. On my own mission I certainly pondered that question. I did all I could to be faithful, and I was certainly willing, but I wondered how I could bring more souls to Christ and why it wasn't easier. It was the true gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of His priesthood authority and organization that we were preaching, after all.

Some understanding came from Alma 26:22, where the Lord teaches through Ammon that bringing souls to repentance is a gift. Rather than a formula, demanding repentance, faith, good works and continual prayers in exchange for the conversion miracle, I realized that while all of those things are required, the blessing that I sought was a gift from God that would come in His own time and in His own way.

An excellent example of this principle can be found in 3 Nephi 7. In this chapter, a people that had repented in the aftermath of their preservation from terrorists had returned from righteousness to wickedness. The prophet Nephi went among the people "with power and with great authority" and "began to testify, boldly, repentance and remission of sins through faith on the Lord Jesus Christ" (3 Nephi 7:16-17).

Because of his great faith, the scriptures record that "it were not possible that [the people] could disbelieve" the words of Nephi. Yet, a full year passed and "there were but few who were converted unto the Lord". Those were converted also began to testify, but a second year passed without significant change. Nephi and those who were converted had extreme faith, repented in the face of much opposition and were continually going about doing good and even performing miracles-- if anyone has ever qualified to bring souls to Christ it was this group of missionaries.

Qualification is not enough, however. Unable to earn such a blessing, each of us relies on the grace of God to grant us the blessings of heaven according to the timing, mercy and love of our Father in Heaven.

For Nephi, the beginning of the third year was the time appointed of the Lord for him to baptize. His teaching did not change-- he stilll "did preach unto them repentance and remission of sins" as he had before (3 Nephi 7:23). Yet, "there were many in the commencement of this year that were baptized unto repentance; and thus the more part of the year did pass away" (3 Nephi 7:26).

When we qualify ourselves and seek to do the will of the Lord with all patience and with all diligence, the Lord will bless us in His own time and in His own way. Such blessings are a gift from God, neither earned nor deserved, but come because He loves us and He wants His children to return to Him. Let us all press forward, then, in diligence and patience, to qualify ourselves for the gifts of God that when the time is right we may be ready for the blessings of heaven.