Sunday, December 23, 2012

Good Tidings of Great Joy

In the Wake of Tragedy

All of us will wade through tragedy in our lives. Whether a death or a diagnosis, a broken dream or a divorce, all of us will, at one time or another, experience some degree of anguish, loss or uncertainty. In such times, inspired spiritual leaders often share the insightful account of a horrific tragedy that occurred nearly 2100 years ago.

Two missionaries were teaching in a large city. Many people were converted by their teachings, but the majority of those in the city were angry. They didn't like someone, least of all missionaries claiming they were sent from God, telling them they should change.

The majority began to persecute those who believed the missionaries. They threw rocks at the believing men and drove them out of the city. Then they did the unthinkable. Under the direction of the town's political leader and top legal authority, they gathered the women and children who believed the missionaries' teachings and burned them alive.

The missionaries, whose names were Alma and Amulek, were tied up and forced to watch in horror. Amulek responded much as you or I might respond: 'And when Amulek saw the pains of the women and children who were consuming in the fire, he also was pained; and he said unto Alma: How can we witness this awful scene? Therefore let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.'

Alma, who was also a prophet, explained the mind of the Lord his colleague. 'The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch for mine hand,' he said. 'For behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.'

Our Heavenly Father, who knows the end from the beginning, sometimes allows bad things to happen to good people-- to his own children whom he loves dearly and perfectly--because those good people are better off having gone through the anguish, suffering and struggle of tragedy.

Though Amulek may have understood and believed in Alma's explanation, knowing the truth didn't make everything okay. He had witnessed a horrific tragedy-- these mothers and wives, sons and daughters would not be with their families again in mortality. It was senseless, unfair, horrific and tragic. It was painful and hard and sad. Perhaps worst of all for the restrained Amulek, though present he was unable to stop it. He was unable to fight, unable to give his life to protect the innocent victims of a heinous crime.

Amulek also recognized that time marched forward. There was no chance to come to terms with what had happened. Despite the assurance of his prophet companion, he was still in the hands of his enemies and there would yet be many demands placed upon him.

As it was for Alma and Amulek, the time following a tragedy in our lives can be more difficult than the moment of tragedy itself as facts and feelings become less surreal. We are not likely to be beaten, stripped of our clothes, bound, imprisoned, interrogated or mocked as Alma and Amulek were, but we may question ourselves, blame ourselves or others, harden our hearts against faith and family, and ride a rollercoaster of emotions from guilt to sorrow to anger to emptiness.

Regardless of the tragedy, or how hard it may be, the solution for us will be the same as it was for these two missionaries. After several days of inhumane treatment, no doubt physically and emotionally exhausted, Alma turned to the Lord in prayer.

And Alma cried, saying: How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord? O Lord, give us strength according to our faith which is in Christ, even unto deliverance. And they broke the cords with which they were bound.. and the earth shook mightily, and the walls of the prison were rent in twain... And Alma and Amulek came forth out of the prison, and they were not hurt; for the Lord had granted unto them power, according to their faith in Christ. And they straightway came forth out of the prison; and they were loosed from their bands.

The Lord has the power to deliver us from the bands of depression, guilt, pride, anguish and sin. Through faith in him, our wounds can be healed and our hearts can know peace.

Like Alma and Amulek, our path to deliverance begins with heartfelt prayer and the belief that God will answer. Alma did not know how the Lord would respond; he only knew that the Lord would answer his prayer. Then, when Alma saw the answer to his prayer, he had the faith to stand up and walk out of the prison.

Tragedy is inescapable. We may suffer incredible things. Those we love will die. We may lose a job or know great disappointment. Senseless acts of violence will take innocent lives. Family relationships may feel as though they are under siege. Terrible things will happen. Our hearts will ache. Tragedy will strike without boundaries nor respect to gender, race, color, creed or socioeconomic status.

In the wake of tragedy, our Savior extends his open arms. We may restore peace to our hearts and feel the warmth of His love as we turn to him in faith.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Because I Have Been Given Much

Around 86 B.C. the prophet Alma resigned his elected post as the leader of his country and, as the prophet at the time, effectively called himself on a mission. He would serve 2-3 years in the cities of Zarahemla and Gideon before taking a brief pause and calling himself to serve five more years in Mulek and Ammonihah.

While in Gideon however, Alma speaks of a tender mercy he received from the Lord. Referring to his first area, Zarahemla, he exclaims, 'Blessed be the name of God, that he hath given me to know, yea, hath given unto me the exceedingly great joy of knowing that they [in Zarahemla] are established again in the way of his righteousness.'

Most of us can probably relate to how Alma must've felt at the time. Zarahemla was the nation's capital. It was the city where he had grown up as the son of the prophet, where he and the king's sons had caused trouble as youth, where he was converted by the power of God, and where he had lived and worked as the nation's leader. He must have known many of those he taught. Some may have been family or friends. He cared for the welfare of the people and the city. He had worked hard to help individuals and families make better, more faith-filled decisions, and now he had somehow learned that it was all paying off. The people of Zarahemla were choosing to live righteous, happy, prosperous lives. Just as any of us would thrill to see a wayward friend or relative returning to the gospel path, the progress of the people in Zarahemla brought Alma 'exceedingly great joy' .

Alma doesn't say how he knew that the people of Zarahemla were righteous again. He wasn't in the city at the time. Perhaps he ran into someone in Gideon or got a letter from home or simply felt the peace of the Holy Ghost teaching him it was so. What he does say is that the knowledge of Zarahemla's righteousness was given to him from God.

Several years ago I was privileged to hear an MTC devotional given by Elder Bednar. At the time I was a recently returned missionary reveling in the stories he shared from the field. Among other topics in his talk, Elder Bednar took a few moments to address why some missionaries had success almost in spite of themselves while others, even those who worked very hard, did not seem to enjoy the same success in finding, teaching and baptizing new members of the Church. This is a question every struggling missionary has wondered about. Certainly I did.

Elder Bednar answered by turning to Alma 26:22. It reads:

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 never have been revealed; yea, and it shall be given unto such to bring thousands of souls to repentance...

Elder Bednar then shared what I have learned to be a wonderful truth with the 2600 missionaries gathered at that devotional. The point of the verse, he said, was not that there is some magic formula for convert baptisms. We may qualify for blessings but there is not a point where we either earn them or deserve them. At the end of the day, success in the mission field is given. Missionary success is a gift from God that, like all gifts, comes at the timing and discretion of the Giver.

There are more than 280 references in the standard works of things that are 'given' from the Lord to his children on earth. These include: dominion, kingdoms, flocks, herds, children, manna, priesthood, Christ, wisdom, signs, responsibility, stewardship, lands, inheritances, freedom, rest, laws, spouses, companions, kings, cities, rain, hearts to perceive, eyes to see, ears to hear, answers to prayers, the shield of salvation, deliverance, frost, banners, travails, the tongue of the learned, cleanness of teeth, understanding, counsel, commandments, life, witnesses, a Sabbath, rewards, gifts, horsepower, heritage, meat, food, the reward of our hands, knowledge, might, blessings, revelation, promises, the name of Christ, Church organization and government, what to say or write, ability, mysteries, spiritual gifts, life missions, power to command water, direction, scripture, visions, callings, living water, thanks or blessings, names, the Holy Ghost, grace, hair, assurances, the words of Christ, authority, a thorn in our flesh, added days, faith, suffering, everlasting consolation, good hope, judgement, inspiration, love, doctrine, records, and a sound mind. The list grows if we consider things that he 'gives' or 'gave' or things we 'receive', 'are blessed with' or 'get'.

Looking through the list I realized that I was the too often ungrateful recipient of most of the gifts referenced in scripture. I enjoy the Sabbath, a full head of hair, freedom, a calling, an abundance of food to eat and the grace of God in more ways than I comprehend or know. As I see other blessings I enjoy and consider still more not listed explicitly in scripture, I begin to feel the joy that Alma felt for his friends in Zarahemla.

It is wonderful that we can feel the joy of gratitude, particularly through the holiday season. We must also remember that to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48, D&C 82:3). Moses taught the Israelites that 'every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord thy God which he hath given thee' (Deuteronomy 16:17).

Our feelings of gratitude are best expressed through our actions. To say we are grateful is nice; to show we are grateful by serving and giving to others is sanctifying. The Lord admonished us:

And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church. For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby (D&C 46:10-12).

Everything the Lord has given us is designed to bless our lives and the lives of those around us. Though we may strive to live worthy and do much good of our own free will, we simply cannot do enough to earn or deserve the many gifts the Lord gives us each day. The air we breathe, our spouses and children, the senses through which we experience life and the continuation of life itself are some of these most precious gifts.

There is no magic formula to receiving many of these gifts, but the Lord has told us how we can express our gratitude. The poet said it best:

Because I have been given much, I too must give;
Because of thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live
I shall divide my gifts from thee
With ev'ry brother that I see
Who has the need of help from me.

Because I have been sheltered, fed by thy good care,
I cannot see another's lack and I not share
My glowing fire, my loaf of bread,
My roof's safe shelter overhead,
That he too may be comforted.

Because I have been blessed by thy great love, dear Lord,
I'll share thy love again, according to thy word.
I shall give love to those in need;
I'll show that love by word and deed:
Thus shall my thanks be thanks indeed.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Women in the Gospel

Each of us have been blessed by the women in our lives. Our mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives, daughters and friends have given us their unparallelled love, their wise counsel, and their gentle care. They have given us life itself and lessons on how to live it well.

The daughters of God have a sensitivity to the spirit, a giving nature, an unrivaled sense of loyalty, and an ability to create and nurture that is unique to feminism. So grand are their gifts that God has entrusted to them the guardianship and stewardship over human life. Nothing could be more grand, more majestic, or more honorable than womanhood and motherhood.

Women are the bedrock of any society. The love of a wife or mother motivates more courageous action than a presidential decree or act of Congress ever could. Wise leaders have always sought to protect women just as they would want to protect any great treasure.

Yet, through the annuls of time there have always been those who have twisted and misrepresented the heritage and destiny of women. They have tried to stereotype women as unintelligent, however beautiful, and have convinced too many that motherhood is little more than an insignificant biological coincidence.

Trouble for women seems to come in large part because of how our first mother, Eve, has been portrayed in art, humor and dogma as, well, the First Stereotype. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Modern prophets give us a different picture of the Mother of All Living:

There is no language that can do credit to our glorious mother, Eve. Eve--a daughter of God, one of the spirit offspring of the Almighty Elohim--was among the noble and great in [premortal] existence. She ranked in spiritual statue, in faith and devotion, in conformity to eternal law with Michael (Bruce R. McConkie. "Eve and the Fall". Woman. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979. p. 69).

Among the great and mighty ones who were assembled in this vast congregation of the righteous were Father Adam... and our glorious Mother Eve, with many of her faithful daughters who had lived through the ages (Joseph F. Smith, D&C 138:38-39).
We and all mankind are forever blessed because of Eve's great courage and wisdom. By partaking of the fruit first, she did what needed to be done. Adam was wise enough to do likewise (Russell M. Nelson, General Conference, October 1993).

It was Eve who first transgressed the limits of Eden in order to initiate the conditions of mortality. Her act, whatever its nature, was formally a transgression but eternally a glorious necessity to open the doorway toward eternal life. Adam showed his wisdom by doing the same...

Some Christians condemn Eve for her act, concluding that she and her daughters are somehow flawed by it... Informed by revelation, we celebrate Eve's act and honor her wisdom and courage in the great episode called the fall (Dallin H. Oaks, General Conference, October 1993).

Eve is, 'honored by Latter-day Saints as one of the most important, righteous, and heroic of all the human family' (Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992. 2:475.). Zebedee Coltrin related this insightful vision he shared with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, the prophet:

The heavens gradually opened and they saw a golden throne, on a circular foundation, something like a lighthouse, and on the throne were two aged personages, having white hair, and clothed in white garments. They were the two most beautiful and perfect specimens of mankind he ever saw. Joseph said, 'They are our first parents,' Adam and Eve (The Words of Joseph Smith. Provo: Brigham Young University. vol. 6.).

That Eve would be exalted to a throne as the lucky consequence of what is often considered a clumsy or unrighteous 'mistake' is inconsistent with the gospel of exaltation, which requires each person to exercise both self-mastery and great faith in intentionally choosing to do what is right. Clearly, popular culture has been wrong about Eve.

Misnomers about Eve, and therefore women in general, may have their origins in both the story of the Creation and the story of the Fall. Others have written more extensively on these subjects, and their works are worth our time and consideration (see 'Mother Eve' by Beverly Campbell or this article by Valerie Hudson Cassler, for example). I will make only a single point about each event here.

First, oppressors of women often point to the verses in Genesis that say Eve was created from Adam's rib to be a 'help meet' for him. They interpret this verse to suggest women exist to serve men. Understanding that the reference to Adam's rib is, 'of course, figurative' (Spencer W. Kimball. Blessings and Responsibilities. Ensign. March 1976, p. 71), we can focus our attention on what it means to be a 'help meet' for someone.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a 'help meet' as being, 'even with or equal to'. In the article by Beverly Campbell referenced above, she reports that the Hebrew text uses the phrase to mean an equal saving power of some majesty. So President Benson confirmed, 'In the beginning, God placed a woman in a companionship role with the priesthood... She was to act in partnership with him' (To the Elect Women of the Kingdom of God. Woman. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book. 1979. p. 69.).

The Lord confirmed the equality of male and female in another misunderstood verse from Genesis. Elder Bruce C. Hafen explains, 'Genesis 3:16 states that Adam is to 'rule over' Eve, but... over in 'rule over' uses the Hebrew bet, which means ruling with, not ruling over... The concept of interdependent equal partners is well grounded in the doctrine of the restored gospel' (Crossing Thresholds and Becoming Equal Partners. Ensign, August 2007. pp. 24-29.).

The truth that Eve was Adam's equal-- in intelligence, in spirituality, and in potential-- adds clarity to the account of the Fall. Gospel scholar Hugh Nibley explained that, '[Eve took] the initiative, pursuing the search for ever greater light and knowledge while Adam cautiously holds back... It is she who perceives and points out to Adam that they have done the right thing after all' (Patriarchy and Matriarchy. Old Testament and Related Studies. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book. 1986. p. 92). Eve acted in courage and in faith to complete her mission on earth. This could only have happened as it did if Eve were both capable and involved in the process all along. The blessings given to her from God on account of her righteousness and courage are explained more thoroughly in the writings listed above.

The reality is that while many have used the events of the Creation and the Fall to subject women, these events justify instead a reverence, honor, and yes, a respect for the daughters of Eve who share the divine heritage and spiritual blessings of that great matriarch. This has always been the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ; it is the message of God's prophets to us today.

In the ministry of Jesus Christ, gospel scholars write that the term 'woman' as used by our Savior was 'highly respectful and affectionate', a usual way of speaking with the Jews when they showed the greatest respect to the person spoken to', and 'implying no severity nor disrespect'. Christ used this term tenderly when he spoke to his mother on the cross or when he appeared following his resurrection to Mary Magdalene before showing himself to the apostles.

Elder Quentin L. Cook confirmed in the April 2011 General Conference that 'the errand of angels is given to women'. He said:

Our doctrine is clear: Women are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves them. Wives are equal to their husbands. Marriage requires a full partnership where wives and husbands work side by side to meet the needs of the family... Sisters have key roles in the Church, in family life, and as individuals that are essential in Heavenly Father's plan.

Elder L. Tom Perry taught, 'There is not a president and a vice president in a family. We have co-presidents working together eternally for the good of their family... They are on equal footing. They plan and organize the affairs of the family jointly and unanimously as they move forward' (General Conference, April 2004).

The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches:

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. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose....

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

With our gender comes specific, equal roles within the family and society. Some have argued that these roles undermine the equality of men and women. Two principles apply here: first, it is important to understand that 'equal' does not necessarily mean 'same'. Two men may have many differences from the other, yet they may stand on equal ground. Second, we drastically undervalue human life when we suggest that a woman is only a mother. There is no more important role in any organization than being a righteous mother. No CEO or political leader or academic genius can influence society or perform so hallowed a work as a mother with her children.

Elder Cook admonished: 'No woman should ever feel the need to apologize or feel that her contribution is less significant because she is devoting her primary efforts to raising and nurturing children. Nothing could be more significant in our Father in Heaven's plan.' At the same time, 'we should all be careful not to be judgmental or assume that sisters are less valiant if the decision is made to work outside the home. We rarely understand or fully appreciate people's circumstances. Husbands and wives should prayerfully counsel together, understanding they are accountable to God for their decisions.'

Elder Ballard affirms, 'Sisters, we, your brethren, cannot do what you were divinely designated to do from before the foundation of the world. We may try, but we cannot ever hope to replicate your unique gifts. There is nothing in this world as personal, as nurturing, or as life changing as the influence of a righteous woman.'

In this light, we begin to see that 'in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a woman... occupies a majesty all her own in the divine design of the Creator' (Jeffrey R. Holland). We see the intent of her creation to be a power equal to that of men, her spiritual vitality in responding to God's law and moving His plan forward, the respect she has earned from the Savior himself, and her infinite potential. We also see the so-called 'battle of the sexes' as the work of the same devil who was outwitted in the Garden of Eden and seeks to cause oppression and misery on the earth.

No wonder it is the women's organization of the Church that so often leads the way in reaching out to friends and neighbors. No wonder we are commanded and given opportunity to marry, pairing priesthood and womanhood as the perfectly matched parents of God's spirit offspring. As we revere our own mothers for their selfless sacrifice in our birth, so the Spirit has taught prophets in every dispensation the reverence owed to Mother Eve and her daughters. The young women of the Church are reminded as they recite their theme each week; societies around the world would benefit from a similar education.

In the meantime, we can unite our prayers with those of Elder Ballard:

I pray that God will continually bless the women of the Church to find joy and happiness in their sacred roles as daughters of God. My dear sisters, we believe in you. We believe in and are counting on your goodness and your strength, your propensity for virtue and valor, your kindness and courage, your strength and resilience. We believe in your mission as women of God.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Bridling Our Passions

Catholicism teaches of the Seven Deadly Sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. These sins are considered the root of all other sin in Catholic doctrine and threaten the soul of an offender with eternal damnation because they destroy the grace and charity within a person. A person who is guilty can repent, however, and through the conversion of their heart and the gift of the sacrament they can regain the grace once lost.

Each of the Seven Deadly Sins is a concession of our will to the impulses and instincts of our physical bodies. The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that these impulses are not in themselves sinful. Paul taught that our bodies were sacred, not unlike a temple (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). They are a gift from God for our premortal valiance, a necessary tool in our progression on earth, and a part of our eternal reward as we are resurrected after death.

Indeed, our appetites can greatly benefit our overall wellness as they communicate to our consciousness which foods will satisfy our body's nutritional needs. Emotions add richness and depth to our lives as we mourn a lost friend, find pleasure in a job well done, gain trust others or even celebrate our team's game-winning score. Sex drive brings spouses together and preserves humankind. These and other impulses preserve our lives and and joy to our existence.

Yet, since the time of Adam, 'Satan hath come among the children of men, and tempteth them to worship him; and men have become carnal, sensual, and devilish, and are shut out from the presence of God' (Moses 6:49). If we allow our impulses to control our behavior, rather than training them to align with an overarching life mission to return to live with God and using our mind and will to make rational decisions, we surrender our agency to chance and submit our lives to be tossed to and fro by whatever cravings may come along.

For this reason, King Benjamin taught the people of ancient America that 'the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit' (Mosiah 3:19). Abinadi explained that 'he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, remaineth in his fallen state and the devil hath all power over him. Therefore he is as though there was no redemption made, being an enemy to God; and also is the devil an enemy to God' (Mosiah 16:5).

As we look around our troubled world, many of the tragedies and social plagues we observe are the result of surrendering to the carnal demands of our undisciplined flesh. Obesity has become an epidemic that diminishes our ability to serve others by restricting our movement, endurance and lifespans. Large political rifts divide countries and harden hearts as powerful emotions crowd out the rational thoughts that would help us resolve our differences, adopt a common vision and cooperate to find real solutions. Broken homes, broken hearts and shattered dreams lie in the wake of the millions upon millions who have been shredded by infidelity, pornography, fornication, sexual perversions, sex crimes and other abhorrent sexual behavior that is too often complicated by abortions, domestic disputes, and the crushing weight of shame and guilt.

It is a relief to know that God has provided commandments to steer us away from the kinds of actions that would, sooner or later, lead to our own misery. Paul taught:

For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are after the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not after the flesh, but after the Spirit, if it so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you... For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do subdue the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Romans 8:5-9, 13).

Like the boundaries of an athletic field, the laws of God help us keep our focus on the things we must do to be successful and happy in our lives. They do not prevent us from crossing the line; they only warn us that we cannot reach our goals or be successful in life if we do not keep ourselves in the field of play.

We remain 'in the game' as we heed the Lord's warning, given through his prophet, Alma, to 'bridle all [our] passions, that [we] may be filled with love'. A bridle on a horse does not debilitate a horse, but rather channels the horse's strength and power to move horse and rider toward their destination. We bridle our passions as we exercise discipline and focus our body's powerful appetites on doing good.

On the first Sunday of each month, we choose to fast for 24 hours and give of our incomes to the poor and afflicted. This bridle invigorates our spirits and gives us power to control our hunger.

We can combat carnal selfishness as we make conscious decisions to serve others. As with fasting, using the bridle of selfless service is often immediately rewarded with gratitude and joy.

Deciding to do good and exercising the willpower to follow through will provide many opportunities to bridle our passions and build spiritual strength. Consciously choosing virtuous thoughts can protect our souls from the threats of sexual sin. Putting aside a video game for a few days or leaving an inappropriate movie can provide an opportunity to find the same emotional satisfaction through a more meaningful activity. Staying productive will steer our souls through the temptations and carnal cravings that may seem louder when we are idle.

As we consciously choose to do right, our lives will be happy, our countenances will shine bright, and our carnal natures will give way to the divinity with us. The Lord taught Alma:

Marvel not that all mankind, yea, men and women, all nations, kindreds, tongues and people, must be born again; yea, born of God, changed from their carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters; And thus they become new creatures; and unless they do this, they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God.

If we will rise above the carnal natures represented by the Seven Deadly Sins and choose to use our agency to live righteous lives, we will be able to rejoice as Alma when he said: 'My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and bonds of iniquity. I was in the darkest abyss; but now I behold the marvelous light of God. My soul was racked with eternal torment; but I am snatched, and my soul is pained no more' (Mosiah 27:25-29).

Monday, October 15, 2012

Testimony and Conversion

In Matthew 16, Christ asks his disciples, 'Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?' The disciples relayed the speculation of the day that perhaps Christ was one of several possible Old Testament prophets returned to fulfill some prior prophecy. Christ then asked, 'But whom say ye that I am?' Peter responded, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Christ responded with a one sentence sermon on testimony:  'Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven' (v. 13-17).

To have a testimony of the gospel is to have a knowledge in our hearts and minds that it is true. The Holy Ghost can witness to our souls that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that the authority and doctrine of Christ's church was restored through Joseph Smith, and of all other things which are true.

The holy scriptures record the testimonies of dozens of prophets and disciples of Christ from the beginning of the world to modern times. Job testified almost four thousand years ago:  'For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God' (Job 19:25-26). Likewise, Alma testified to the people of the ancient Americas that 'the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me' (Alma 7:13).

In the dawn of the current gospel dispensation the prophet Joseph Smith declared:

And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father-- That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God (D&C 76:22-24).

The Holy Ghost has provided a divine witness of Christ to the thoughts and feelings of sincere inquirers in every era of time and upon every continent where people have asked God to know the truth. None of us can obtain a testimony entirely on our own; it is a gift that must be given to us. We gain our testimonies as the Holy Ghost shares his; similarly, sharing our testimonies with others invites the Holy Ghost to testify all who hear it, ourselves included.

Though testimonies are given as divine gifts, our hearts and minds are prepared to receive testimony as we desire to have it and show our desire through obedience to God's commandments. The same Alma mentioned above once compared testimony to a seed that must be planted and nourished in order to grow (Alma 32:28-42). As the laws of biology explain the growth of a seed, the laws of the gospel will teach us what we must to to receive the faith and testimony we desire.

The Lord taught Joseph Smith that the first step is to ask in prayer. 'If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peacable things-- that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal' (D&C 42:61).

It is up to each of us to nourish and grow the knowledge we desire to have with all the time and attention we might give a growing plant in our garden. The Lord promises that 'every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened' (Matthew 7:8).

As necessary as it is to receive a testimony of the gospel, testimony alone is insufficient to bring about salvation. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has explained: 'To testify is to know and to declare. The gospel challenges us to become converted, which requires us to do and to become' ('The Challenge to Become, October 2000). Christ taught, 'Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven' (Matthew 7:21). In other words, 'Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven' (Matthew 18:3).

This is the same message King Benjamin delivered to his people about 124 years before the coming of Christ. He taught:

Believe in God; believe that he is, and that he created all things, both in heaven and in earth; believe that he has all wisdom, and all power, both in heaven and in earth; believe that man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend. And again, believe that ye must repent of your sins and forsake them, and humble yourselves before God; and ask in sincerity of heart that he would forgive you; and now, if you believe all these things see that ye do them (Mosiah 4:9-10).

As we allow our testimonies to direct our actions we will experience a change of heart. The people of King Benjamin had 'a mighty change... in [their] hearts, that [they had] no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually' as a result of their obedience to the words of their prophet-king. Almost 40 years later, King Benjamin's grandsons helped a rival kingdom to experience a similar conversion.

Faith in the words of scripture and the courage to repent and change transformed the once bloodthirsty, angry, warmongering rivals into a steadfast, faithful, and peaceful people. Allowing their testimonies to guide their actions, the people who called themselves Anti-Nephi-Lehis buried their weapons and knelt in prayer even as the disbelievers among them massacred thousands of their friends, family members and countrymen. In turn, the actions of this converted people eventually softened the hearts of the disbelievers and inspired tens of thousands to plant the seed of conversion in their hearts (Alma 24).

The people of King Benjamin and the Anti-Nephi-Lehis are examples of the dedication, commitment, miracles and strength that can and will occur in the converted heart.

Paul taught the Ephesians that all testimony has been given that we may all attain 'the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ' (Ephesians 4:13). In the most recent general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard taught: 'Only when our testimony transcends what is in our mind and burrows deep into our heart will our motivation to love and to serve become like unto the Savior's. It is then, and only then, that we become deeply converted disciples of Christ empowered by the Spirit to reach the hearts of our fellowmen'.

Elder Oaks has taught that 'this process requires far more than acquiring knowledge. It is not even enough for us to be convinced of the gospel; we must act and think so that we are converted by it. In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.'

He continued, 'It is not enough for anyone to just go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become... Now is the time for each of us to work toward our personal conversion, toward becoming what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.'

We take the 'next logical step in our complete conversion to the gospel of Christ by assimilating its doctrines deep within our hearts and our souls so we will act and live consistently--and with integrity--what we profess to believe.  This integrity simplifies our lives and amplifies our sensitivities to the Spirit and to the needs of others. It brings joy into our lives and peace to our souls--the kind of joy and peace that comes to us as we repent of our sins and follow the Savior by keeping His commandments' (Ballard, 2012).

What things might you profess to believe without living that belief consistently? Is there a variance between how important you say your family is and how important you treat your family? Could someone quickly discern your faith in Christ by the language you use, the discipline you exercise in your life, or what you choose to do for entertainment and recreation?

In our attempt to take the next step toward the consistent, joyous life of a converted disciple, Elder Ballard reminded us to seek opportunities to serve those around us. He promised that 'if you do this--at home, at school, at work, and at church... you will be prompted by the Spirit and magnificently motivated to help pollinate the world with the pure love of Christ and His gospel'.

Elder Oaks also shared practical counsel for becoming converted. As we take the next step, he advised, 'we should remember that our family relationships--even more than our Church callings--are the setting in which the most important part of that development can occur. The conversion we must achieve requires us to be a good husband and father or a good wife and mother. Being a successful Church leader is not enough. Exaltation is an eternal family experience, and it is our mortal family experiences that are best suited to prepare us for it.'

He continued:

Our needed conversions are often achieved more readily by suffering and adversity than by comfort and tranquility... Most of us experience some measure of what the scriptures call 'the furnace of affliction'. Some are submerged in service to a disadvantaged family member. Others suffer the death of a loved one or the loss or postponement of a righteous goal like marriage or childbearing. Still others struggle with personal impairments or with feelings of rejection, inadequacy, or depression. Through the justice and mercy of a loving Father in Heaven, the refinement and sanctification possible through such experiences can help us achieve what God desires us to become.

We are challenged to move through a process of conversion toward that status and condition called eternal life. This is achieved not just by doing what is right, but by doing it for the right reason—for the pure love of Christ.

Our path toward conversion begins as we plant the seed of testimony in our hearts. As we nurture it with regular scripture study and frequent, fervent prayer, our testimonies may grow in both breadth and depth. True conversion will come as we apply what we learn to our daily lives. Our righteous action will also allow the Holy Ghost to expand our testimonies and provide additional opportunities for a more complete conversion.

John taught, 'If any man will do his will, he shall know the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself' (John 7:17). What could you do this week to expand your testimony and conversion? Is there a gospel principle you would like to have confirmed to your soul by the Holy Ghost? Is there some needed repentance that could take place this week? In what ways can we make our lives more consistent with our testimonies? Have you completely washed away the desire to do evil like the people of King Benjamin did?

Though we'll all fall short at times--sometimes way short of where we'd like to be--we are not alone. The Holy Ghost can and will testify to our hearts and minds that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, as he testified to Joseph Smith, Alma and Job. Through the atonement of Christ we can be forgiven of our sins. We can be given the strength to make our actions consistent with our testimonies.We can become converted disciples of Christ and experience the joy and peace the Lord has promised.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Christlike Leadership

This semester I have the opportunity to co-teach a class on leadership at one of America's great universities. The class spends most of the time focusing on the works of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who have published several bestselling books on leadership over the last 25 years.

As I've studied the course materials and interacted with the students in the class, my thoughts turn frequently  to the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Jesus Christ is much more than a great philosopher. He is the son of God, the source of light and goodness, and the leader of the cause of righteousness. He stands at the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though the vocabulary may be different in religious versus business or government settings, becoming a great leader requires us to become more like Him.

Kouzes and Posner wrote in their bestseller, The Leadership Challenge, that the first of five attributes all great leaders have is that they 'model the way'. Christ is called 'the Great Exemplar' because his life was the perfect example of what our lives should be (see 1 Nephi 31:9). Though powerful and of noble heritage, he lived a humble life of service to others. Peter taught the ancient church:

For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow in his steps: Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously: Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye are healed. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls (1 Peter 2:21-25).

The second attribute Kouzes and Posner identify is to 'inspire a shared vision'. Christ taught that the faithful would have a 'crown of immortality, and eternal life in the mansions' of heaven (D&C 81:9). Millions of Christians have taken hold of that vision, unconfirmed by science, and press forward with faith and hope to their common goal.

Attribute number three is to 'challenge the process'. Christ did what was right regardless of tradition or the expectations of those around him. As a twelve year old, he stayed at the temple when his family headed for home because it was where he needed to be. To the surprise of the John the Baptist, Christ was baptized to fulfill all righteousness.

Christ challenged his disciples to have the faith to walk on water, to become great through service to the least, to allow the little children and strive to be more like them, and to believe in the resurrection. He challenged the uninspired laws instituted by the scribes and pharisees and invited them to 'cast the first stone'.

Fourth, great leaders enable others to act. The atonement of Christ gives each of us access to his grace, which the scripture guide defines as the, 'enabling power from God that allows men and women to obtain blessings in this life and to gain eternal life and exaltation'.  He taught that 'all things are possible unto him that believeth' (Mark 9:23).

Finally, Kouzes and Posner round out their list with the note that great leaders encourage the heart. Anyone who has turned to Christ with their burdens has felt the hope and joy of their relief. Christ asks us to 'fear not' but be believing. He comforts the sincere heart with the knowledge that all our trials will be 'but a small moment' and that if we endure well, we will triumph (D&C 121:8).

There are many examples from the life of Christ that show he was a great leader by the standards set by experts among men like Kouzes and Posner. The challenge for us as leaders-- that is, as parents, business managers, volunteer coordinators, teachers, scout or activity day leaders, examples to our neighbors, etc.-- is to live up to the standards set by the example of Christ.

Jesus Christ loves all people. He was never patronizing or hypocritical; he lifted others' burdens and put into action all that he taught. His leadership inspired those around him to rise to new levels and achieve things they had previously never believed were possible.

Do our children feel as uplifted in the way we treat them? Do we motivate our employees through trust and love? Do we respect the agency of others? Do we validate the need our friends and family have to feel valued and important? Do we love others?

Long before there was a bestseller, Christ taught each of us how to lead in this oft-quoted passage:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile-- Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou has reproved, lest he esteem the to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

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 Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion (D&C 121:41-46).

Though speaking directly to priesthood leaders, the counsel here is valid for leaders in every setting. As our children know that our love for them is stronger than the cords of death; as those in our stewardship at work and at church see our patience and understanding; as we serve our friends and neighbors with charity and love unfeigned-- then we will be leading as Christ would lead.

As we seek to be better leaders in our homes, our workplaces and our communities, we need only to strive to walk in the footsteps of our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is more than a great leader. He is the source of truth, our great Exemplar, and our friend.To be a better leader-- a better parent, disciple, manager or civil servant-- we need only to become more like Him.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Grace and Piano Lessons

A lesson on grace from a 2011 BYU Devotional by Brad Wilcox. :

Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher... Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.

If the child sees Mom’s requirement of practice as being too overbearing (“Gosh, Mom, why do I need to practice? None of the other kids have to practice! I’m just going to be a professional baseball player anyway!”), perhaps it is because he doesn’t yet see with mom’s eyes. He doesn’t see how much better his life could be if he would choose to live on a higher plane.

In the same way, because Jesus has paid justice, He can now turn to us and say, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19), “Keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we see His requirements as being way too much to ask (“Gosh! None of the other Christians have to pay tithing! None of the other Christians have to go on missions, serve in callings, and do temple work!”), maybe it is because we do not yet see through Christ’s eyes. We have not yet comprehended what He is trying to make of us.

Elder Bruce C. Hafen has written, “The great Mediator asks for our repentance not because we must ‘repay’ him in exchange for his paying our debt to justice, but because repentance initiates a developmental process that, with the Savior’s help, leads us along the path to a saintly character” (The Broken Heart [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 149; emphasis in original).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks has said, referring to President Spencer W. Kimball’s explanation, “The repenting sinner must suffer for his sins, but this suffering has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change” (The Lord’s Way [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991], 223; emphasis in original). Let’s put that in terms of our analogy: The child must practice the piano, but this practice has a different purpose than punishment or payment. Its purpose is change.

I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven."
I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”

They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”

I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”

Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” 

They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place. Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for. As my friend Brett Sanders puts it, “A life impacted by grace eventually begins to look like Christ’s life.” As my friend Omar Canals puts it, “While many Christians view Christ’s suffering as only a huge favor He did for us, Latter-day Saints also recognize it as a huge investment He made in us.” As Moroni puts it, grace isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).

The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can live after we die but that we can live more abundantly (see John 10:10). The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed (see Romans 8). Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to.

I know a young man who just got out of prison—again. Each time two roads diverge in a yellow wood, he takes the wrong one—every time. When he was a teenager dealing with every bad habit a teenage boy can have, I said to his father, “We need to get him to EFY.” I have worked with that program since 1985. I know the good it can do.

His dad said, “I can’t afford that.”

I said, “I can’t afford it either, but you put some in, and I’ll put some in, and then we’ll go to my mom, because she is a real softy.”

We finally got the kid to EFY, but how long do you think he lasted? Not even a day. By the end of the first day he called his mother and said, “Get me out of here!” Heaven will not be heaven for those who have not chosen to be heavenly.

In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus.

Jesus checks His clipboard and says, “Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.”

Brad begs Jesus, “Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.” That’s how I always saw it.

But the older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it will not be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, “Let me stay.” No, he will probably be saying, “Get me out of here!” Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging on that occasion, it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, “Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay.”

The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there. If Christ did not require faith and repentance, then there would be no desire to change. Think of your friends and family members who have chosen to live without faith and without repentance. They don’t want to change. They are not trying to abandon sin and become comfortable with God. Rather, they are trying to abandon God and become comfortable with sin. If Jesus did not require covenants and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, then there would be no way to change. We would be left forever with only willpower, with no access to His power. If Jesus did not require endurance to the end, then there would be no internalization of those changes over time. They would forever be surface and cosmetic rather than sinking inside us and becoming part of us—part of who we are. Put simply, if Jesus didn’t require practice, then we would never become pianists.

(Click here for the rest of the talk.)

Sunday, September 2, 2012

An Insight on Holiness

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we talk a lot about things that are holy. Our doctrine includes extensive discussion of the Holy Ghost, holy temples, holy scriptures, holy priesthoods and the Holy One of Israel. We dedicate each building on our university campuses, every one of the thousands of meetinghouses around the world and even our homes as holy places. We talk about it 528 times in scripture and 89 times in the hymns of the Church. Though perhaps not frequently addressed directly, holy people, places and objects are a big deal to us.

That may seem very natural for a religion to talk so much about holy things. In at least one context, after all, 'holy' can simply indicate the person, place or thing has some association with divinity. As many religions strive to build an association with divinity in the lives of its members, it would make sense that they would integrate holy things, including people, to help pave the way.

Yet, in a subtle way, holiness in the LDS Church can take on a slightly different connotation than outside the Church. Where most other faiths talk about holiness as an inherent trait given to a person, place or thing, we refer to holiness more as a developed or earned capacity. It is one thing to have divine potential, but something else entirely to be developed into something that is actually like God.

Dozens of temples around the world are not holy because of the materials with which they are built or the spot of ground upon which they're constructed. Nor are they holy simply because they are a temple, though temples are generally considered holy places. Temples are holy because of the presence of the spirit of the Lord and the sacred ordinances that are performed inside.

This view of holiness is unique in the world. It means that temples can stop being holy if no longer used for their intended purposes. The temple in Kirtland, Ohio, is an example of exactly that. As early members of the Church were driven from the state, the Kirtland temple, despite the sacred and miraculous events that had occurred there, became just another building. It is frequently toured today as a historic site of the town.

The same is true of all other things considered holy in the Church. If the Holy Ghost were to give up his divine mission; if the testimony of Christ were removed from scripture; if the priesthood were removed of its efficacy; if the Lord were to withdraw his influence from any of these things due to unworthiness or apostasy, they would no longer be holy.

Followers of Christ are invited to 'stand in holy places'. The Church handbook instructs that 'these holy places include temples, homes, and chapels. The presence of the Spirit and the behavior of those within these physical structures are what make them 'holy places'' (Handbook 2, 1.4.1; D&C 45:32; 87:8; 101:22; 2 Chronicles 35:5; Matthew 24:15).

Consider for a moment how you act at home, in a chapel or at the temple. If it is the behavior of those inside these buildings that make them holy places, are we contributors or detractors? Do our actions on Sunday contribute to a holy day? Do we, as the handbook directs, 'invite the Spirit into [our] homes through simple means such as wholesome entertainment, good music, and inspiring artwork'?

Likewise, each of us can become holy as we invite the Spirit into our lives and through individual righteousness. Even in the appropriate context, that comes off as a little strange. World religions have historically saved that title for prophets, popes, rabbis, apostles, monks, saints and various spiritual leaders. There seems to come a certain prestige or aura when something or someone is referred to as being holy.

King Benjamin explained in 124 B.C. that being holy is nothing to be patronizing or stuck up about. In fact, those are good clues we're not quite there yet. He explained how we can all be saints-- that is, how we can all be holy-- in this favorite verse of scripture:

The natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).

Being holy is simply a part of becoming a saint and a disciple of Christ. Through seeking the Spirit and righteous action, our lives may become holy as we allow the Lord to shape us into the people he intends for us to be. As I have sought more holiness in my own life, I have often echoed the prayer of Philip Paul Bliss. Perhaps it will inspire in you the courage to endure and to continue striving that it inspires from time to time in me:

More holiness give me,
More strivings within,
More patience in suff'ring,
More sorrow for sin,
More faith in my Savior,
More sense of his care,
More joy in his service,
More purpose in prayer.

More purity give me,
More strength to o'ercome,
More freedom from earthstains,
More longing for home.
More fit for the kingdom,
More used would I be,
More blessed and holy
More, Savior, like thee.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Adam and Eve and Full Partnership in Marriage

After God had created all the wonders of the Earth, his last creation was a man he called Adam. Because it was not good for man to be alone, God created a woman, Eve, to be, 'an help meet for him' (Moses 3:18):

And I, the Lord God, caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam; and he slept, and I took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh in the stead thereof; And the rib which I, the Lord God, had taken from man, made I a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said: This I know is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh (Moses 3:21-24).

In today's language, we might say that Eve was created to be 'an aid worthy of' or 'equal to' Adam, or more simply, Eve was created to be Adam's wife. This phrase, as well as many others throughout the creation passages especially, indicate the relationship of Adam and Eve was one of two corresponding parts of the same great whole. Eve is called a 'help meet' indicating her equality and similarity to Adam. A rib is used metaphorically to express how Adam and Eve fit together as if of one body. The oneness of man and woman, their cleaving to and caring for each other apart from the physical and spiritual support of parents again shows how men and women correspond to make what President Spencer W. Kimball taught is, 'a complete man, which is husband and wife' (Ensign, Mar. 1976, p. 71).

In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, modern prophets teach us that it is 'by divine design' that 'both a man and a woman are essential for bringing children into mortality and providing the best setting for the rearing and nurturing of children.' A man is not physically complete without a woman, nor is a woman without a man.

Yet the completeness of a husband and wife goes far beyond the physical or procreative powers alone. A man is not spiritually complete without a woman, nor is a woman without a man (see Handbook 2: 1.3.1). The marriage covenants required for exaltation can only be accepted together (D&C 131:1-4). These are not arbitrarily imposed, but rather designed to guide us to become perfect or complete (see Matthew 5:48, footnote b). Through these covenants we become one and the same with our spouse in the eyes of God's law. Procreative acts may be the consummation of the marital covenant, but it is the covenant itself which welds our souls together.

The physical and spiritual unity of a husband and wife can create a depth of feeling beyond what we observe in any other relationship. Adam expressed the closeness he felt with Eve as if she were, "bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh'. These feelings come as we leave behind our single lives and establish our marriages as the first priority. This requires cleaving to each other, which means our striving to keep the covenants we have made to God and each other will be more important than any other person or interest.

President Kimball taught that, "Even the children must take their proper but significant place" (Ensign, Mar. 1976, p. 72). If we will dedicate the necessary time to building a healthy marriage, study after study has shown that a mother and father working together in love and unity will provide the best possible upbringing for their children. In fact, happily married couples are more productive in many aspects of their lives, not just parenting-- the interdependent whole is significantly more effective than the sum of its parts.

Understanding that a married man and women are two parts of one whole helps us see how seemingly selfish actions only damage ourselves as we indirectly attack our own souls. Unfortunately, too many only realize the depth of their spiritual connection with their spouse when it has been severed. Worse than the pain of losing an arm or a leg, divorce is a dismemberment for which there is no medication or prosthesis. Just as none of us are able to regrow a limb or even a hair of our heads without our Father in Heaven, healing after (or hopefully before) divorce can only come through the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Our first parents provided an example of a marriage that was the full partnership God intends every marriage to be. After being driven from the Garden of Eden, not unlike the way many of us eventually move away from the free rent and food of our parents' homes, Adam, 'began to till the earth... and to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow... And Eve... did labor with him' (Moses 5:1).

Elder Marion G. Romney referenced this passage when he said, 'The word with... is very significant. It means more than physical labor. It connotates a common purpose, understanding, cooperation and love.' He continued, 'Even when circumstances justify a wife's working away from home to support her family, she should be laboring 'with', not on her own nor in conflict with her husband... In Latter-day Saint families the husband and wife must be one' (Relief Society Magazine, Feb. 1968, pp. 85-86).

Adam and Eve worked together, prayed and worshiped together, sacrificed together, taught their children the gospel together, and mourned over wayward children together (see Moses 5:1, 4, 12, 27). They were united with each other and with God.

 The Family: A Proclamation to the World includes this guidance:

Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

Despite our different roles at times, husbands and wives can enjoy full partnership with their spouse when they take care to work with each other rather than merely working near each other. We must pray together, respect each other, forgive each other and have fun together.

A full partnership means we will always have a friend with whom we can frequently counsel about the decisions and activities of our family. It means having someone by your side as you approach the Lord with your questions. It means having a therapist when you're struggling to learn and grow, a copilot when there's a long drive ahead and someone to laugh with you when you just can't hold it in any longer.

We will experience the greatest happiness in marriage when we are willing to commit all we have and are to the fidelity and success of our marriage covenants. That is, we will experience the greatest happiness in marriage when we are willing to commit all we have and are to the happiness of our spouse.

Adam and Eve, as man and wife, were unified physically and spiritually. They worked together in full partnership, progressed together down the path of life, and were recognized in the eyes of the Lord as one.

As with our first parents, so it may be with us. Each of us may become perfect or complete as we, having already become one with Christ through baptism, join ourselves by covenant to a man or woman with whom we correspond and fit together. Most often we will choose to share a common name as an outward symbol of our inward covenant. Then, working together in full partnership and having our covenants sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise, we may find joy in this life and exaltation in the world to come.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Olive Trees and World History

If you've read the Book of Mormon, you've read the Allegory of the Olive Tree in Jacob 5. Referencing the scattering and gathering of Israel, this chapter tells the story of an olive tree whose natural branches are spread throughout the vineyard and then brought back to preserve the life of the tree.

Through symbolism and metaphor we see the fall of ancient Israel, the rise and fall of people like the Nephites and Lamanites, the rise of the gentiles to save the covenants of Israel, the great efforts to gather Israel in the last days, the triumph of the righteous over the wicked, the Millennial reign and the end of the world. There are many more lessons as we observe the relationship of the Lord of the Vineyard (God) with his servants (the prophets), the essential role each of us play in our own time and the tireless efforts of the Lord to save and preserve each of us.

As mentioned in a recent post, one interesting detail of the allegory is the way the Millennium is ushered in. It does not say that there would be a large cleansing of the Earth at Christ's Second Coming, as I have always imagined. Rather it says the natural branches of the house of Israel will be reintroduced. As a reference, remember fruit symbolizes the lives and actions of individuals, roots are the covenants God makes with faithful men and women, and the vineyard is the earth:

And if it be so that these last grafts shall grow, and bring forth the natural fruit, then shall ye prepare the way for them that they may grow. And as they begin to grow ye shall clear away the branches which bring forth bitter fruit, according to the strength of the good and the size thereof; and ye shall not clear away the bad thereof all at once, lest the roots thereof should be too strong for the graft, and the graft thereof shall perish, and I lose the trees of my vineyard (v. 64-65).

In other words, evil will be defeated piece by piece, group by group, person by person. It will be 'plucked', rather than 'chainsawed' or 'mowed', to make room for a growing amount of goodness and righteousness. Though Christ's presence will greatly enhance the work of his servants, the work will still need to be done.

Anyone who has been ordained to the priesthood has been called to start that work today. We are asked to strengthen both root and branch and usher in a time when all people of the whole earth will choose to be righteous. If we are faithful, we will one day find ourselves gathered together with the Lord when he will say:

Blessed art thou; for because ye have been diligent in laboring with me in my vineyard, and have kept my commandments, and have brought unto me again the natural fruit, that my vineyard is no more corrupted, and the bad is cast away, behold ye shall have joy with me because of the fruit of my vineyard (v. 75).

I want to be in that meeting. As each of us strives to keep the Lord's commandments and rescue those in our stewardship, beginning with our own families and those we home teach, I hope we will be able to see each other there and rejoice together in the bounty of the final harvest.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

As the Waters Cover the Sea

The scriptures teach that 'the time cometh speedily' when 'the Holy One of Israel must reign in dominion, and might, and power and great glory' (1 Nephi 22:24-26). Millions of the faithful anxiously wait for this glorious second coming of the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ. It is certain He will come.

Far less certain, however, is what will happen after He does. Part of this is likely by design, for 'my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord' (Isaiah 55:8). For what it's worth, there are dozens of clues in the scriptures that begin to paint a picture of what life would be like after Christ comes again.

John wrote that the faithful would live with Christ a thousand years after His second coming (Revelation 20:4). Isaiah explained that Christ, 'will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go for the law... And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares' (Isaiah 2:3-4).

The very mention of Zion points our minds to the example of the City of Enoch, which was transfigured for its righteousness. That flourishing city was called 'Zion' because, 'they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them' (Moses 7:18). We often connect the law of consecration with both mentions of Zion, and rightly so, because 'Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom' (D&C 105:5).

As unfathomable as it is, Millennial Zion sounds like a dramatic transformation from much of the world around us. Yet, it is important to remember that none of this will 'just happen'.

Joseph Smith taught, 'When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves. And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy' (D&C 130:1-2).

In other words, we're not going to automatically transform into wonderful people just because Christ has come again. We must be striving now to be the kind of people that would exist in Zion. We can take comfort in knowing that the laws of the gospel provide a foundation for eternal growth and progress.

Baptismal covenants allow us to take upon ourselves the name of Christ, becoming unified with him and justified with the law through His grace. Sanctification comes through the Holy Ghost by virtue of the Atonement. Together, these principles allow us to live in the eternal glory of the Millennial reign of Christ.

For Zion, the eternal nature of the gospel means that all things must be done of our own free will. The Lord will never take our agency from us. Consecration becomes much less a 'perfected socialism' in this light, as some describe it, and much more a natural result of people seeking to contribute to the interdependent progress of the whole. Call it 'capitalism with a heart'. Call it the baptized economy. Call it a small government monarchy. Whatever you call it, compulsion will not be a part of it.

Our motivation will instead come from knowledge, 'for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea... Wherefore, all things which have been revealed unto the children of men shall at that day be revealed; and Satan shall have power over the hearts of the children of men no more, for a long time' (2 Nephi 30:16-18). So the truth will make us free from the power of Satan and we will choose to be Christ-like because we will understand perfectly what that is, how it looks and how it changes the quality of our lives.

Sadly, this will not last forever. Millennial Zion will suffer the same fate as the Zion of the Americas after the visitation of Christ. After hundreds of years of peace and prosperity following the coming of Christ, some of the ancient American people began to be prideful. As pride entered their hearts, the devil again had power to persuade them to false teachings, vain ambitions and secret combinations. As with the ancient Americans, so will the people of the Millennium choose to abandon the peace and prosperity of an interdependent society in pursuit of selfish gains and pleasures.

The difference is that the end of Millennial Zion will mark the end of the world:

And again, verily, verily, I say unto you that when the thousand years are ended, and men again begin to deny their God, then will I spare the earth but for a little season; And the end shall come, and heaven and the earth shall be consumed and pass away... But behold, verily, I say unto you, before the earth shall pass away, Michael, mine archangel, shall sound his trump, and then shall all the dead awake, for their graves shall be opened, and they shall come forth-- yea, even all. And the righteous shall be gathered on my right hand unto eternal life; and the wicked on my left hand will I be ashamed to own before the Father; Wherefore I will say unto them-- Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

We all know what side we want to stand on when the people of the earth go their separate ways. If we will have the same sociality in the Millennium as we do now, is there anything you or I should change before the Savior comes again? If knowledge of the Lord can bind Satan for a thousand years, can we push Satan's influence out of our lives with faithful scripture study and prayer? If baptismal covenants allow us to abide eternal glory, shouldn't we make absolutely certain that we are keeping those covenants?

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will come again. As we become acquainted with his voice, learn of Him and strive to become unified with him, we will be prepared to meet him and to become an active citizen in Millennial Zion.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Word of Wisdom on Obesity and a Healthy Diet

According to the American Heart Association, 145 million Americans over age 20 are overweight. Of those, 74.1 million Americans are in the 'obese' category. Together, more than two-thirds of all American adults are overweight, fueling a multi-billion-dollar industry of fad diets, miracle pills, weight loss counselors and weight-related medical procedures.

Many members of the Church – as many as 3 million of us in America alone – are a part of the epidemic weight gain. It turns out the stereotypical Mormon diet of casseroles, funeral potatoes and Jello carries its fair share of calories. As members of the Church, we also have the guidance of the Lord and His prophets, specifically the Word of Wisdom. Following this inspired code of health will help us take care of our bodies, fend off – or return from – obesity, and eventually be able to "run and not be weary" and "walk and not faint."

Found in the 89th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Word of Wisdom provides at least three guidelines related to obesity and overeating. First, the Word of Wisdom teaches that we must watch what we put into our bodies. Second, we learn that we must watch how much food we put into our bodies. And finally, when we are converted to the Word of Wisdom as the Lord's code of health, our willing obedience will bring physical and spiritual blessings.

At the most basic level, every member of the Church knows that the Word of Wisdom teaches us to avoid harmful substances like alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea. In the spirit of this counsel, each of us should evaluate whether we consume these or other substances that may be harmful to our bodies or habit-forming. Processed snack cakes, soda pop, deep fried foods and energy drinks are only a few of the popular, but physically harmful foods on the supermarket aisles. These foods have little or no nutritional value, make us feel tired, create habits that are hard to break, fuel our appetites for more unnecessary calories and expand our waistlines. In short, many foods available at the neighborhood store may contribute to obesity, which in turn contributes to untold numbers of diseases and medical complications.

Knowing we would be bombarded with the widest variety of food, beverages, medicines and herbs in human history, the Lord gave the Word of Wisdom as a forewarning against the, "evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men." While the Lord deems harmful substances of all kinds "not for the belly," we are advised to eat "all wholesome herbs... all grain... as also the fruit of the vine," and, "flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air." A consistent, natural diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, lots of water and some lean meat provides the nutrients our bodies need without the empty calories that spark our appetites or meaningless overeating.

The Lord continues his counsel and commandment for the dietary care of our bodies with the charge that "all these [are] to be used with prudence and thanksgiving." A person can gain a significant amount of weight through simple mismanagement of portion sizes, even if their diet is stacked with fruits, vegetables and grains. Using prudence means to use discretion, sound judgment or temperance. Greater prudence in our diets is discretion to say 'no' to a second piece of chocolate cake, wisdom to drink water instead of soda, and temperance to take only enough food at the dinner table to satisfy your hunger. It is prudence that recognizes obesity as a debt of calories, and unifies the grocery list and the dinner menu to get us out of that debt.

President Boyd K. Packer, of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, reminded us one general conference that "The Word of Wisdom is 'adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints'. It is buttressed by other scriptures. They teach that the good things of the earth 'are made for the benefit and the use of man, … Yea,' the Lord said, 'for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul, … to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion' (D&C 59:18–20)." His counsel was for us to, "learn to use moderation and common sense in matters of health and nutrition; and particularly in medication."

Finally, the Word of Wisdom promises our careful observance of its counsel will yield health, wisdom, endurance and protection. The determination to change the kinds and quantities of foods we eat may be found in the realization of the surety of these results. No matter how many diets or miracle drugs we have tried and failed, careful obedience to the Word of Wisdom will bring the support of heaven in reaching our goals. If we will strive to eat a healthy, natural, prudent diet, the return on our investment of effort will be physical, spiritual and mental strength.

No harmful substance will cloud our wise judgement. No excess weight will keep us from enduring. Through obedience to the Word of Wisdom, we can avoid the perils of a plague of obesity sweeping the nation.

**This article was originally written for Deseret Connect on February 9, 2011. It was never published by Deseret Connect or its related sites.**