Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Journeys of Faith

Sometime in the three years following the birth of Christ, a group of travelers arrived in Jerusalem from an unnamed eastern country. The group, which had likely come over 1,000 miles by camel or on foot, was notable for the noble men who were their leaders-- considered wise either because of royal status or education or devotion to the gospel-- and journeyed because they recognized a new star in the heavens that testified of the birth of the Messiah.

That heralding star had likely not appeared for some time, possibly even years, when the group finally arrived in Israel's capital city. Scripture does not say exactly how long the star shone over Bethlehem nor how long this group of easterners had been traveling, but it is clear the wise men, or perhaps one or more of their wise wives, found it necessary to pull over in Jerusalem and ask for directions. Knowing they sought the King of the Jews, they inquired at the palace.

King Herod was apparently not aware of the star and its prophecy, but he certainly knew of the political threats posed in the prophesies of the Messiah. He consulted with his advisers to direct the travelers to Bethlehem and, attempting to compensate for his own unpreparedness, petitioned them to do a little scouting for him and report back to the palace.

As they walked down the palace steps, the wise men would have had every reason to question the legitimacy of their voyage. It had been so long since they saw the star-- and since then they had faced the numerous challenges and fatigues inherent to a journey across the desert without a notable confirmation that they were on the right path. When they finally reached the palace, there was confusion and little knowledge about the prophecied King of the Jews they sought. Even if the Christ child would be born in Bethlehem, as they had just learned from the king's advisers, there was no way to know which house in town to go or whether he was still in Bethlehem at all. Maybe this was a dead end or just a wild goose chase. Or maybe they hadn't really seen or understood the prophecied star. Wouldn't things be easier if it was right?! Maybe they would be better off turning around and going home-- or at least searching less diligently to mitigate the risk of disappointment.

Thousands of miles away in the Americas, those kinds of doubts had quickly dominated the public discussion. They had also seen the star, but some small groups immediately began to persuade the masses that they had not really seen the star or that, if they did see a star, it was not the prophesied sign of Christ's birth (3 Nephi 1:22). Most of the people did not listen at first, rejoicing in the birth of the Savior; but within a few years the people, 'began to be less and less astonished at a sign or wonder from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and blind in their minds, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen' (3 Nephi 2:1-3).

That would not be the case with the wise men, who wasted no time listening to foolish doubts or pondering potential failures. Instead they set out immediately from the palace, traveling the five-mile road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the darkness. Somewhere along that path, 'lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshiped him’ (Matthew 2:9-11).

As we seek the Savior in our journey through life, at Christmastime and throughout the year, we will face many of the same kinds of trials as the wise men did. The Lord will give us revelation that we will need to trust and believe absolutely even when the special feelings have long since faded. Sometimes it may seem that we've hit a dead end or that there is no possible way the Lord could keep His promises. We may question ourselves and whether God has really spoken to our minds and hearts or if He is really guiding our path. Certainly the world around us will question our devotion and mock our reliance on the revelation they ignorantly see as strange or only imagined.

We will be tempted to quit, to trust in only what we can calculate or see for ourselves, to believe that we have reached a dead end or that God has not dealt fairly with us, or to hesitate and shy away from hard things. And if we give in to those temptations, we will most often find that we are giving up on finding Christ when we are nearest to Him, giving up the miracles and blessings we have just worked so hard to make possible, and giving up our chance to worship at His feet and live in His presence.

In the story of the wise men we see a wiser path for our lives. Journeys of faith, like journeys through the desert, simply do not happen without exertion, endurance through fatigue, and determination to press forward despite our doubts and fears. But then, if we will 'press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men', the Lord will confirm our faith and guide us to our goals; He will purify our hearts and we will know Him; and we will learn for ourselves that 'whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day' (2 Nephi 31:20, Alma 36:3).

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Covenant Example

When Abram was around the tender young age of 75, and that really isn't so old when you live to be 175, it's safe to say that he began to have a few family troubles. The root of the trouble was his father, Terah, and possibly others in his family, who had turned against the gospel taught by Adam, Enoch, and Noah to instead worship the wood and stone idols of the Egyptians.

A part of Egyptian idol worship included sacrificing men, women and children on an altar to their idol gods. As the scriptures begin their account of Abram's life, idol priests had just sacrificed three virgins because they were virtuous and refused to bow down to the idols. Abram had spoken out against the atrocities being committed, but writes that his fathers 'utterly refused to hearken to my voice' and 'laid violence upon me, that they might slay me also, as they did those virgins upon this altar'. At the last moment, as the priests were about to sacrifice Abram, an angel appeared, untied him from the altar and helped him escape.

This context sheds some light into one of the greatest understatements in all of scripture as Abram wrote of his circumstance that he, 'saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence; And finding there was greater happiness and peace and rest for me, I sought for the blessings of the fathers'. The sought-after blessings included great knowledge, increased capacity to obey the commandments, to be a father of many nations, and ultimately the priesthood (Abraham 1:1-2).

With this background in mind, the story of the man who would become Abraham, the great patriarch, shows us how we can live in an evil world yet remain steadfast and loyal to the one true God. The scriptures are filled with stories that provide similar examples, yet Abraham's account is unique because of the clarity and detail given to the covenant process as he attains the blessings he desired.

Like Abram, our hearts may yearn for greater happiness and peace and rest. We may long to be reunited with relatives who have passed on, to have greater spiritual strength for the trials we face, or to better understand the Lord and His love for us collectively and individually. Abram, more than anything, wanted posterity. With Abram, as with us, desire for the blessings that come from covenants with God is a first step toward finding what we seek.

The next step is to prepare to receive the Lord's blessings. Abram was taught about the blessings of the covenant he would make on at least four separate occasions over the next 24 years (see Genesis 12:2-3, 13:14-16, 15:5, 15:18). Along the way he made smaller covenants and his faith was tested. He moved his family several times, risked his life in Egypt, experienced famines, knew prosperity, resisted Sodom and Gomorrah, rescued his nephew from a foreign army, paid tithing, experienced frustration at continued infertility and dealt with all the emotional and relationship challenges of taking a plural wife who bore a son while his first wife remained childless. Through it all, Abram 'believed in the Lord; and the Lord counted it unto him for righteousness' (JST Genesis 15:12).

When Abram had acted on his desires, learned about the covenant he would make, trusted in the Lord and proved his faith and obedience through all manner of difficulties, he was finally prepared enough to covenant with the Lord. This sacred occasion is differentiated from his previous encounters with divinity by the presence of the Lord himself. Though Abram had talked with God several times previously, this is first time the Lord appeared to Abram. It is also the first time the Lord predicated covenant blessings on specific requirements.

'Walk before me,' the Lord said, 'and be thou perfect' (Gen 17:1). The commandment to be perfect has been a covenant requirement to the faithful in all ages. Among other places, the command to be perfect is repeated each week as we renew our covenants through the sacrament. The presence of this requirement is evidence of the covenant nature of Abram's conversation with the Lord. Covenants are two-way promises with God-- it's not a covenant if we don't have to do anything-- so we can understand that earlier mentions of covenant blessings must have been made as instruction and encouragement preparatory to the time when Abram would be ready to enter into the covenant with the Lord.

Another evidence of Abraham's covenant is the new name he received. Names are often associated with covenants. We take the name of Christ upon ourselves when we are baptized, for example, and wives often take the surnames of their husbands when they are married. Similarly, Abram was told that he would now be called Abraham, which means 'father of many nations', reflecting his greatest desires and the nature of the covenant he was making with the Lord.

The Lord also repeats the blessings of the covenant. Abraham is to become the father of many nations, heir of the chosen land of Canaan, and the head of God's covenant people. He is also promised that these blessings would be everlasting, providing access for Abraham's posterity to receive the covenant and blessings of Abraham while also admonishing Abraham and his posterity to keep the covenants given to preceding generations.

In other words, Abraham will not only have so many posterity that they are as difficult to count as stars in the sky, but this covenant allows those unending generations of posterity to be linked together with all previous generations retroactively back to Adam, being bound by the same requirements and receiving the same blessings. Fittingly, this strong family element that appears to satisfy and exceed Abraham's desires also allows for each new generation to learn and progress upon the last, line upon line, covenant upon covenant, here a little and there a little toward the Lord's requirement for perfection.

Since we're responsible for keeping all of the covenants given through the Lord's prophets, it's worth knowing what those covenants are. Three significant covenants predating Abraham include the covenants made with Enoch, Noah, and Adam. Interestingly, these great men are also seen as fathers in the covenants they made with God-- Enoch as the father of Zion or of the righteous, and Noah and Adam, whose experiences are remarkably similar, as the fathers of all people that came to Earth after them.

The Lord covenanted with Enoch that when men should keep all of God's commandments, Zion should again come on the earth. Noah covenanted that when all of his posterity (all people everywhere) embrace the truth, and look upward, 'then shall Zion look downward, heaven and earth shall tremble with joy, and the general assembly of the church of the firstborn shall come down out of heaven and possess the earth until the end come'. Adam's covenant is revealed to us through temple ordinances.

In each case, covenants are accompanied by tokens or signs. For example, Noah was given the rainbow as a token or sign (reminding us to 'look upward') that the earth would not be destroyed by flood again until his covenant was fulfilled.

The Lord introduced circumcision as the token of Abraham's covenant. This was a particularly appropriate sign given the sins of Abraham's generation, most notably infant baptisms and false teachings of Abel as a Savior rather than the coming Christ. Circumcision performed at eight days old was a reminder that a child was not old enough for baptism, nor accountable before the Lord because of the Atonement of Christ, until they were eight years old. The number eight in Hebrew importantly symbolizes the first in a new series, such as the first day of a new week, or more relevant to baptism, resurrection or rebirth. Baptismal covenants are likewise renewed through the sacrament ordinance administered on the eighth day of the week.

Circumcision was also a fitting token for Abraham's covenant because of the covenant's strong family focus. Abraham lived close enough to Sodom and Gomorrah that he could see them, so circumcision may have been a relevant reminder of sexual purity and the law of chastity. More importantly, Abraham's covenant includes both the promise of posterity and the ability for that posterity to be born into that covenant. Thus, the organ of the body that produces posterity and brings about physical birth is the organ on which the token was made. Later on, when Christ fulfilled the Law of Moses, the token is changed to a 'circumcision of heart', which references the organ of spiritual rebirth. Though the token changed, the covenant remains the same.

In keeping with that strong family focus, it is important to note that Abraham's covenant was not made in isolation. Genesis 17 clearly shows that Abraham's wife also covenanted with the Lord. She too was given a new name-- now Sarah instead of Sarai-- and with it a similar promise that she would be the mother of nations and kings. She also received the very personal promise that, though she had been barren 100 years, she would yet give birth to a son.

Sarah's covenant also explains why it is Abraham's second son, Isaac, that is chosen to carry forward the Lord's covenant. Ishmael was Abraham's oldest son, but he did not inherit the right to the covenant because his parents had not yet entered into that covenant themselves. Though Abraham later would, there is no indication that Hagar, his mother, ever did. Isaac, on the other hand, was born fourteen years after Ishmael to a mother and father who had entered the Abrahamic covenant with the Lord.

Even after desiring the Lord's blessings, preparing for them, and entering into a covenant with the Lord, the blessings of the covenant are not certain. Covenants provide a vehicle by which desired blessings can be achieved, but we, as Abraham, still have to live up to the terms of the agreement we have made to reach our final destination.

For Abraham, filling the terms of his covenant required more than thirty years of additional tests and trials. He fought an uphill battle to save the wicked city of Sodom, had family members die, and was compelled to exile his second wife and oldest son. Then Abraham, who had nearly been sacrificed to idols by his own father, who wanted posterity most of all, was asked to do the unthinkable and sacrifice Isaac, his son of miraculous birth, the symbol of his covenant posterity and the son Abraham called his 'beloved'.

There can be no doubt that the command to sacrifice his son was heartbreaking for the 'father of many nations'. He had received promises from God that may have confused him or made this commandment seem like it did not make sense. Yet, this experience would be the climax of Abraham's life and the capstone on the covenant the Lord gave his posterity through him. It is no coincidence that so many details of this account foreshadow the Atonement of Christ, also an only son miraculously born to a father of many nations and who put the capstone on the covenants of salvation with his sacrifice.

Despite the sorrow that must have been in Abraham's heart, the scriptures say that he rose early in the morning to obey the Lord's command. Traveling three days to the place the Lord had appointed, Abraham took his son to Mount Moriah, a major hill now located in the city of Jerusalem where Solomon's temple would later stand and on the same range of hills as Golgotha, the place where Christ was crucified.

For the last part of the journey, Isaac carried the wood for his own sacrifice on his back. Noticing they did not have an animal to sacrifice, Isaac inquired of Abraham, who could only reply, 'My son, God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering'.

Isaac was to be that lamb, and he submitted to his father with the meekness of that gentle animal. Now in his thirties, as the Savior was at the time of his crucifixion, Isaac was certainly capable of overpowering or escaping Abraham, now more than 130 years old, but instead he laid on the altar to be sacrificed. At the last moment, an angel of the Lord stopped Abraham and a ram was offered in Isaac's place.

It is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of Abraham's relief and joy at the angel's interference or Sarah's delight when she learned her only son would be allowed to live. Family was the most important thing in their lives. They had been separated from their parents by apostasy and struggled for multiple decades to have children of their own. So it was only after Abraham was willing to do the Lord's will in all things, even giving up the thing he had righteously desired most all of his life, that the Lord pronounces the blessings of the covenant they had made upon him.

'Because thou has done this thing,' the Lord says of Abraham's perfect obedience in the way of the Lord, 'I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven... And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.'

As we desire the blessings of the gospel, we must also prepare to enter and keep covenants with the Lord. We will also be tested and tried to help us learn to trust in the Lord and become perfectly obedient to his commands.

President John Taylor taught these words he heard from the Prophet Joseph Smith:

You will have all kinds of trials to pass through. And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God, and God will feel after you, and He will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings, and if you cannot stand it you will not be fit for an inheritance in the Celestial Kingdom of God... If God had known any other way whereby he could have touched Abraham's feelings more acutely and more keenly he would have done so (Journal of Discourses, 24:197; 24:264).

When we are ready to give up our own will and the things that we desire most, the Lord is prepared to bless us with the greater happiness, peace, and rest that we seek, and all the blessings of exaltation promised by covenant to the great patriarchs of the scriptures.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Building Bridges

After more than a full year of preparing, including building customized boats and taking crash courses in botany, Captain Meriweather Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark led their Corps of Discovery out of Saint Charles, Missouri, in May of 1804. Their round-trip journey to the Pacific Ocean was two-and-a-half years and 8,000 miles of backbreaking work, including crossing several deep gorges and frequently being forced to carry supply-laden boats overland for a dozen miles or more to find the next river or stream.

One of the most difficult challenges for the expedition came at the Great Falls Portage of Montana in June 1805. Here all equipment and supplies, including canoes, had to be carried or pushed in makeshift wagons across 18 miles of rough terrain to avoid a dangerous stretch of falls and rapids. Many in the company had been sick with an unknown illness for over a week when they arrived at Great Falls and the crude wagons required almost constant repair. Prickly pear cactus tore through the men's moccasins and the company encountered several aggressive animals, including a grizzly bear, a wolverine, and three bull buffalo in one eventful day. Clark wrote in his journal that the dog, Seaman, was 'in a constant state of alarm with these bear and keeps barking all night', making it difficult for the men to sleep. Lewis summarized the condition of his men this way:

They are obliged to halt and rest frequently for a few minute. At every halt these poor fellow tumble down and are so much fortiegued that many of them are asleep in an instant. In short, their fatiegues are incredible; some are limping from the soreness of their feet, others faint and [are] unable to stand for a few minutes, with heat and fatiegue, yet no one complains.

The 18-mile detour took 32 days for the Corps of Discovery to complete. It included near-drownings, a violent hailstorm, a sunken boat, and five days making two replacement canoes from Cottonwood trees.

When learning about the hardships of this expedition, it is easy to find yourself musing, as President Monson once did, 'If only there were modern bridges to span the gorges of the raging waters'! Modern bridges bring incredible benefits to those they serve. A bridge over Great Falls Portage would have allowed Lewis and Clark to cross in just a minute or two, possibly leading to an easier route that would have spared a month of hardship and hastening their arrival at the Oregon Coast. Such benefits would be unlikely to come without a cost, however. With all the benefits that bridges bring to those who come behind, very often they require incredible sacrifices from their builders.

As the Corps of Discovery was making its way back to Missouri in the summer of 1806, just such a bridge builder was born in faraway Prussia (modern-day Germany). His name was Johann Augustus Roebling. He would leave everything he had behind and move to the United States in his mid-twenties to become a failure of a farmer and then a modestly successful engineer. In 1867, he began working on the designs for the iconic Brooklyn Bridge.

Just before construction on the bridge began, Roebling stood on a nearby dock completing the finishing touches on his designs. He wanted the bridge to be perfectly located and positioned to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. While on the dock, an arriving ferry crushed his foot, requiring several toes to be amputated immediately. The surgeries were insufficient, and he died from tetanus 24 days later. His son, Washington Roebling, would take over the project and start construction on January 3, 1870.

Within a very short time of working in the caissons to build the foundation, Washington Roebling and many of the workers contracted decompression sickness. The illness left the younger Roebling paralyzed and forced him to direct the entire construction from his apartment, where he had a view of the bridge. For the next thirteen years until the bridge's completion, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling, learned engineering and served as the critical link between her husband, the architect, and the engineers on site. The bridge was opened on May 24, 1883.

The cost to build the Brooklyn Bridge was officially $15.1 million, but that is only counting dollars. Forty four people died building the bridge-- men and women-- and the number of injuries was not counted. Emily Roebling, among others, gave up nearly all of her time for 13 years, learned a new trade, cared for a paralyzed spouse, and abandoned much of what had occupied her time before to focus on the massive construction project.

Within 15 years of the bridge's completion, the population of Brooklyn doubled from 580,000 to over a million people. Brooklyn would become a borough of New York City and New York City would become a major commercial hub, something most historians argue would not have been possible in a more confined city without the Brooklyn Bridge. Still one of the largest and busiest bridges in the world today, the Brooklyn Bridge serves more than 137,000 cars and 2,700 pedestrians every day.

Just as the Brooklyn Bridge has helped New York City to thrive more than it otherwise could have, there are bridges to be built in each of our lives if we are to reach our full potential and allow our children and grandchildren to do the same. There are people with whom we need to connect or reconnect, obstacles we need to avoid, destinations we need to reach and paths we need to make easier for those coming behind us.

Few bridges rise without sacrifice. In constructing bridges to the hearts of men, we will undoubtedly be called upon to give up our prejudices in order to find common ground upon which to build. The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have shown us the way as they have formed a foundation of friendship with faiths that disagree or have even historically fought against the Church, erected a public policy that works across political party lines to emphasize unity and humanity, and continue to reach out to those who may not be familiar with the Church or no longer feel connected.

President Uchtdorf has explained how this is done. 'As you accept the responsibility to seek after truth with an open mind and a humble heart,' he taught, 'you will become more tolerant of others, more open to listen, more prepared to understand, more inclined to build up instead of tearing down, and you will be more willing to go where God wants you to go.'

A bridge does not connect the same place with itself, but rather links together two places or things that may be very different. As Brooklyn and Manhattan thrive separately but interdependently, so our greatest happiness lies in building bridges that unify us with others despite differences through tolerance, active listening, optimism, respect, and cooperation. Grounded by our faith in Christ, without exaggerating virtue, building bridges to the hearts of our family members, those we serve, those we live or work near, and perhaps especially those with whom we don't seem to have anything in common will enrich our lives and improve our charity.

If we are to build bridges over the waters of mediocrity and connect our present to our greatest potential, we will also very likely be asked to sacrifice our fears. The Lord himself asked us to, 'fear not even unto death' (D&C 101:36). Referencing General Stonewall Jackson's famous quote to, 'never take counsel from our fears', Elder Bednar recently taught:

To not take counsel from our fears simply means that we do not permit fear and uncertainty to determine our course in life, to affect negatively our attitudes and behavior, to influence improperly our important decisions, or to divert or distract us from all in this world that is virtuous, lovely, or of good report.

To not take counsel from our fears means that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ overrules our fears and that we can press forward with a steadfastness in Him. To not take counsel from our fears means that we trust in God's guidance, assurance, and timing in our lives.

Reaching our full potential or avoiding a particular rocky patch in our lives may require some tough decisions while we are yet a long way off and unable to see the path ahead. It may mean a change of careers or moving to a new place. It might mean proposing marriage, having another child, or facing life with something we see as a disadvantage. It might not make sense at the time, but we will build bridges that pass over unnecessary hardships as we listen and obey to the Lord and his prophets when they ask us to put aside our fears and move forward in faith. Elder Ballard has provided another example of how we build bridges when we put away our fears:

The growing prominence of the Church and the increasing inquiries from others present us with great opportunities to build bridges, make friends, and pass on accurate information... You as members can help this to happen by reaching out and sharing with others the basic information found in the Articles of Faith, along with such things as the facts, faith, families, and fruits of the gospel.

No doubt, there are bridges for each of us to be building today. There are relationships to be forged, goals to be reached, and people coming behind that will be able to go farther if we'll just prepare the way. Each bridge we set out to build will require a dedication of our time and most will only be successful if we are willing to sacrifice our pride and human frailty to trust in God and press forward with a steadfast faith in Christ.

Unlike the workers on the Brooklyn Bridge, we can speak directly to the Grand Architect of our individual bridges as we pray to our Heavenly Father with a broken heart and contrite spirit. He knows the blueprints for our bridges and can see the glorious potential of our effort. He also knows of our sacrifices-- of the metaphorical falls and rapids, sicknesses and storms, fatigues and wild animals that bar the way. He is cheering for our success and wants us all to progress along the path that leads to eternal life. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to build the bridges along that path that were impossible for us so that we can cross the wide chasms of sin and death and return to live with Him again.

As we make our way through the untamed wilderness of life in search of the truths of His kingdom, He asks only that we follow His example and drop a few planks across a brooklet or a stream, build a few bridges of love with people different from ourselves, achieve a few things greater than ourselves, and help pave the rest of the path so we, with our descendants, can reach the safety and prosperity of His presence.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Growing Up Unto the Lord

On a certain occasion in Capernaum, Christ called a little child over to a group of his disciples and set him in the midst of them. 'Except ye be converted, and become as little children,' he explained, 'ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.'

Many in the world would argue that the requirements set forth by the Lord in this verse of scripture are mutually exclusive. Children are too ignorant and immature to be converted, they argue, and a mature Christian would not behave as a child. Thankfully, Christ explained a little further: 'Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me' (Matthew 18:2-5).

Hundreds of years earlier, the Lord had asked King Solomon what he needed most. Solomon responded, 'I am but a little child... Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people.' The Lord granted Solomon 'wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore' (1 Kings 3:7, 9; 4:29). Elder Derek A. Cuthbert has explained that 'wisdom, understanding, [and] largeness of heart are signs of maturity. When Solomon acquired these qualities, he was no longer 'but a little child''.

We can reconcile these two accounts and their contrasting views of childhood by realizing attributes, not age, are desirable. Unlike physical maturity, spiritual maturity is not a given-- but it is necessary. We must be innocent, humble, simple, faithful and loving as children; but we must also develop wisdom, leadership, accountability, dependability, and self-mastery. Christ himself had to undergo a process of increasing in wisdom and favor with God and man (Luke 2:52). Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophet Helaman wrote that his sons, the same Nephi and Lehi that would become prophets and missionaries, 'began to grow up unto the Lord' in their youth (Helaman 3:21). They began-- a choice-- and continued the process until they were able to testify so powerfully that none could deny their words.

Becoming spiritually mature is a process worthy of our attention. Sociologists have long noted an increase in people putting off family responsibilities, so-called 'failure to launch' or 'extended adolescence', declining civility, and other indicators of general immaturity. In a world where 'going with the flow' would stifle our development, Elder Marvin J. Ashton counseled that moral conduct is, 'generally developed through self-discipline, resilience, and continuing effort.' Consider two more scriptural accounts:

A certain man had two sons. One day, the younger son approached the man and asked to receive his share of the inheritance. The man granted his son's request and the son moved away from home. Immature and unwise as he was, the son wasted all of his money on parties and indulgences he ought not to have allowed himself. When the money ran out, the son fell on tough times. He tried to get a job feeding pigs, but it was barely enough to live on. After much pondering, the son 'came to himself' with this epiphany: he would repent of his sins and return to live with his father. Though he came back empty handed, through the hardships of life he had chosen to become wiser and more mature. He was, as Joseph Smith once said of himself, a rough stone shaped and polished in the stream of life. The prodigal was received into his father's house with much rejoicing.

Compare the parable of the prodigal son to the account of Nephi in the Book of Mormon. Like the prodigal, Nephi was a younger son of his father, Lehi. Nephi was 'wise beyond his years' because he was humble and worked hard to know and do the will of God. When his father received revelation for the family, Nephi prayed for confirmation; and when the Lord asked Lehi to send his sons on a long, life-threatening journey to retrieve the brass plates, Nephi resolved to, 'go and do the things which the Lord has commanded'. Nephi's life wasn't easy and, like Joseph Smith and the prodigal, his maturity came at great cost-- his family moved into the wilderness leaving his friends behind, the family valuables were stolen, he walked hundreds of miles, he manually constructed a massive ship and the tools to build it, he had to search for food and sometimes went hungry, he was hated and beaten by his brothers-- but because of his maturity from a young age, the Lord showed him 'great things' and called him to be a leader of a prosperous people.

The fact that maturity is a choice may not be more apparent in all of scripture as it is in the account of Nephi. Nephi's brothers shared many of the same experiences, yet remained bitter and angry, or in other words, spiritually immature. They confused physical and spiritual maturity, believing they were entitled to the blessings Nephi received just because they were older. They had no tolerance for Nephi's faith nor the discipline to have strong convictions of their own. Their unwillingness to 'come to themselves', to turn to the Lord, or to learn from their hardships only exacerbated their unpreparedness and immaturity. They metaphorically removed their stones from the stream so they could remain rigid on the shore.

Paul taught that the first choice we make on the path toward maturity is to 'put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). In a 1987 address to the Church, Elder Ashton explained that we put away childish things when we abandon abusive arguments, temper tantrums, demeaning or painful criticism, self-judgement, positive or negative labels of ourselves or others, fruitless complaints, disrespect, threats, malice, resentment, retaliatory practices, hard-heartedness, and contention. 'Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice,' Paul wrote to the Ephesians, 'And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you' (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Contentious debates are increasingly prevalent in religion, politics, and sports. President Uchtdorf has recently reminded us that, as mature disciples of Christ, 'we must realize that all of God’s children wear the same jersey. Our team is the brotherhood of man. This mortal life is our playing field. Our goal is to learn to love God and to extend that same love toward our fellowman. We are here to live according to His law and establish the kingdom of God. We are here to build, uplift, treat fairly, and encourage all of Heavenly Father’s children.' By these fruits, we can gauge our spiritual maturity.

Elder Ashton gave a few more examples of spiritual maturity:

Some will chide and belittle leaders and students of higher education for participating in code of conduct guidelines, but those appropriately involved in the wholesome process of mature behavioral discipline welcome the environment. Responsible student conduct on any campus is applauded. A pledge of 'on my honor I will do my best', either in writing or when self-enforced, can make the difference in character development. Making and keeping commitments may seem restrictive and outdated in a world where 'play it loose' is the pattern, but the benefits are clear to the mature.

He continued:

Those who are immature resent counseling or having to report in. They may feel that such interviews are juvenile. Those who strive for continual growth realize that counselors can help one analyze himself and find solutions to personal problems. In our church, counselors are a great source of strength for the prophet as well as for all of us... Moral maturity and scholastic maturity must be blended to produce a truly adult person. A commitment to improve on a daily basis should be a high priority in the lives of those who would move in the right direction.

In his most recent General Conference address, Elder Dallin H. Oaks taught that we should be respectful of the beliefs or nonbeliefs of others, obey the law of chastity by abstaining from sexual relations outside of traditional marriage, strive to understand God's plan and gain perspective from it, follow the higher standards of the Lord's commandments, and have the courage to stand on principle. These are all part of being spiritually mature, as is a willingness to face the challenges of life and determined service to others.

Choosing to become more spiritually mature brings blessings of wisdom and understanding that will improve all of our other decisions. Many times, it will mean choosing to do the right thing even when it is very hard for us. We may be called upon to face the unknown, to repent from sins that damn our progress, to stop making excuses for not doing what we ought, to lose something or someone we hold dear or to press forward amid seemingly insurmountable odds. As we choose to be shaped and polished by the stream of life each day, and as we seek maturity through obedience, scripture study and prayer, we will find that it is only when we learn to grow up that we can really become like a little child and secure our entrance to the kingdom of heaven.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Praying (and Persevering) for a Promised Land

More than four thousand years ago, two brothers had a dilemma. They lived in a city founded by one of Noah's grandsons in the middle of modern-day Iraq. Both men were fathers and providers for their families. They were righteous men, but the city where they lived had become wicked. They knew the Lord was not pleased with what was going on around them. They also knew that the Lord's pending wrath meant the people would be scattered and their languages confused-- and that they might not ever see, or be able to understand, each other again.

Faced with this difficult circumstance, one of the brothers, whose name was Jared, did what every older brother and fearless leader would do: he delegated. 'Cry unto the Lord,' he told his brother, 'that he will not confound us' (Ether 1:34). When the Lord had promised not to confuse the language of Jared and his brother, Jared asked his brother to pray again for their friends and a third time, accepting that they may be scattered like the rest of their people, for direction on where they should go.

To this third inquiry, the Lord responds that he would, 'go before thee into a land which is choice above all the lands of the earth' (Ether 1:42). Though the land would be choice and their descendants were promised to become the greatest nation on earth, the work didn't stop there. This small group was not yet ready to receive that ultimate blessing. Preparation would take at least, but likely much more than, five more years.

That preparation included four significant moves-- first north to the land of Nimrod, then out into the wilderness 'where there never had man been', on to the land along the beach, where they lived in tents for four years, and finally across the ocean to reach their ultimate goal. Their travels included building barges to cross the water on at least two separate occasions (with earlier builds likely enhancing the quality of the vessels that would cross the ocean), finding and preparing food for themselves and herds of animals they had brought with them, and solving problems of insufficient light, steering, and air on the eight water-tight barges built to cross the ocean. They were spiritually prepared as they sought answers to their prayers, followed the Lord in a cloud across the wilderness and, after they had been faithful for many years, as the brother of Jared saw the premortal Christ and all things from the beginning of the world to the end.

The final leg of their 6,000-mile journey isolated three or four adults, if they were divided evenly, with their children and animals in eight windowless, water-tight barges for just over eleven months as they crossed the ocean. The ocean waves were like mountains and the winds were fierce. The craft were tossed and frequently submerged under the water, sometimes only coming up for air after they had prayed for relief. The people, now unified as 'Jaredites', had learned to trust in the Lord, so they filled their time with grateful singing and praises to God.

When they finally landed on the American continent, the 'promised land' they had been working for years to achieve, there was more to be done. After rejoicing and thanking the Lord for what he had given them, they set about the work of dividing the land, tilling it to plant their crops, and establishing a government. Their lives were not likely very easy by our standards, but they had achieved something far greater. 'They were taught to walk humbly before the Lord,' the scripture says, 'and they were also taught from on high'. Becoming what the Lord wanted them to be, and knowing him well enough that he could teach them his will and doctrine, was far a greater prize than even the land they had acquired.

Whether a physical place or a goal to achieve something significant in our lives, each of us is striving toward our own 'promised land'. In our striving, it is useful to take note of the pattern that is prevalent in scripture. Of all the stories of peoples led to promised lands-- be it Abraham, Moses, Lehi, the modern pioneers or one of the others-- each began in the face of a difficult situation. Abraham was nearly murdered by his father; Moses was left for dead in the deserts of Arabia; Lehi was troubled by the prophecies that Jerusalem would be destroyed; and Joseph Smith wrestled with the question of which church he should join.

What separates these men from their peers, why they were led to great blessings and ultimately empowered to obtain 'promised lands' when others facing the same challenges around them were destroyed, is twofold: first, these men took their challenges to the Lord with faith that He would respond; and second, having received an answer from the Lord, they worked hard to accomplish His will for them.

None of these examples initially prayed for a promised land, either. The brother of Jared prayed to preserve the language of his family and friends; Abraham desired to be saved from his father and then to receive the priesthood; the Israelites prayed for freedom; Lehi prayed in behalf of his people; Joseph prayed for truth. Each received the desires of their hearts, but then submitted themselves to the further counsel and direction given by the Lord.

A period of temporal and spiritual preparation ensued in every case. Most of the stories we read in scripture come from these refining periods in the lives of the faithful. The Jaredites wandered over five years to reach their goal, learning shipbuilding and the nature of God as they went; Moses and the Israelites witnessed many miracles and received the Ten Commandments that would be the basis of their government while wandering the desert for 40 years; the early Saints received the restored gospel through the Book of Mormon and learned how to build temples in the 27 years it took to reach the Salt Lake Valley and are still waiting to build the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri.

It should be no surprise that reaching significant goals also takes significant time and effort. It takes an average of nine months for a baby to be born and an average of eighteen years to teach that baby to be an adult; great companies take an average of four years to define their values and another seven to fifteen years to realize their greatest successes (and five years of research just to figure that out); successful military campaigns are rarely won in a day, the best crops do not come from the first or second or third year of planting, marathons are rarely ran the first time a person gets off the couch, and the faith to see God does not come from a single, thoughtless petition to 'bless the food' or 'drive home safe'. Even when these goals are achieved, it will be following the Lord's guidance for our lives that will bring blessings so great that we will sing grateful praises though we're tossed and submerged by the storms of life.

Like Jared and his brother, we are faced today with the most difficult of circumstances. Though our individual lives have different challenges, we share a fallen, sinful nature that is unworthy to return to our Heavenly Father. Whatever other promises you or I may obtain from the Lord, He has promised each of us a place in His kingdom if we will follow the pattern outlined in scripture.The journey begins with earnest prayers for ourselves and others that we may receive His promise, then requires a significant period of preparation as we repent, receive necessary ordinances and develop the traits and abilities needed to make the final leg of the journey. Finally, if we endure it well, it will be our privilege to go about our Father's business in the promised land of His Celestial Kingdom.

It is God's desire that we all obtain this promise, and with it, all that He has. It is possible if we will follow the example of the prophets by turning to Him in faith and, trusting in His divine wisdom, put our time and effort to accomplishing His will for us.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Saved by a Good Samaritan

In Luke chapter 10 we read of a certain lawyer who inquired of the Savior, 'Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?' Christ, the master teacher, answered by asking the lawyer what was written in the law of Moses. The lawyer recited: 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.'

Christ commended the lawyer for his response, but the scripture states that this particular lawyer was 'willing to justify himself' and so, as lawyers sometimes do, he began looking for a loophole. Such loopholes, then as now, are often found in the way words are defined. The lawyer inquired again of the Savior, 'who is my neighbor?'

Most of us are familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan that the Savior related on this occasion. It is the story of a certain man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell among thieves and was left half dead. Lying naked on the side of the road he was passed over by a priest and a Levite before a despised Samaritan bound up his wounds and took him to an inn, promising to compensate the innkeeper for whatever expenses were necessary to heal the injured man.

The parable provided a powerful answer to the lawyer's attempt to rationalize. Everyone is our neighbor and we are expected to treat all people with love and mercy, regardless of status or prejudice. The message of the parable is so clear it is impossible to misunderstand the point and the lawyer's inquiries ceased.

There is also a deeper meaning hidden in this parable that may not have been lost on the lawyer. We have to study and ask questions to find what would have been common knowledge to those in ancient Israel. For example, why did the Savior specify in a hypothetical story that the journey was made from Jerusalem to Jericho? Why was the journey made by a certain man, rather than just any man? Why did the thieves take even the man's clothes-- wouldn't that be hard to do on a highway between major cities without getting caught?

A topographical map reveals that Jerusalem, the holy city, sits in the mountains more than 3,000 feet above Jericho's location below sea level. The man in the parable went from a high, holy city to a low place, got beat up, wasn't helped by the administrators of the law of Moses, then was healed by a man who was despised because his heritage was half of the chosen race and half from the impure world of the Gentiles.

Starting to sound familiar?

The lawyer, and each of us, are the certain man in the Savior's parable. We come down to this earth from God's presence and are battered by life's difficulties and our own sins. As fallen men and women we are helpless ('naked'), unable to heal our own souls and unworthy to return to God's presence. Even the rites of the sacrament symbolized in the Passover or the ordinances of the temple cannot save us of their own accord.

As the Samaritan bound up the wounds of the man in the parable, our Savior, Jesus Christ, is the perfect physician of body and soul. He was born of Mary as the Son of God to atone for our sins and break the bonds of death through his resurrection. Isaiah testified:

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed
(Isaiah 53:5-6).

Finally, an inn is a temporary place of refuge that is open to all. This life is a temporary state away from our heavenly home in God's presence. The Savior brings us into his church to be cared for while we are here. He also promises us, as hosts of those who may be lost or injured in our stewardships, that he will repay all that we give to bring health of soul to those we serve.

With the additional meaning in this parable, Christ again addressed the lawyer's primary question, 'what shall I do to inherit eternal life'. The answer for the lawyer, and for all of us, begins with believing in Christ as our personal Good Samaritan and Savior. It is His Atonement that gives meaning to the sacrament and other ordinances of gospel law. It is He that binds up our wounds and takes away our pains, our sorrows, our remorse, and our weaknesses. It is with his stripes that we are healed.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sacrifice Brings Forth the Blessings of Heaven

William W. Phelps purchased his first copy of the Book of Mormon on April 9, 1830, three days after the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He did not immediately join the Church, but wrote in his journal that he was convinced Joseph Smith was a prophet as early as December 1830. He was imprisoned in April 1831 to 'keep [him] from joining the Mormons'. He was baptized June 10, 1831, and opened a print shop in Independence, Missouri.

Brother Phelps gave a lot to his faith. He left his life in New York to travel with the saints to Kirtland and Missouri. He served missions. He gave hundreds of dollars to help fund temple construction in Kirtland. He is credited with writing sixteen hymns in the current hymnal and worked to publish the original copies of the Book of Commandments, now the book of Doctrine and Covenants. It was while working on the Book of Commandments in 1833 that his printer shop and home were attacked by a mob that destroyed the press, threw furniture through widows and then leveled the two-story shop.

When Brother Phelps was accused of mishandling Church funds in 1838, he criticized the prophet for a time and lived outside of the blessings of the Church for just over a year. He ultimately chose to give up even his pride for his faith and wrote a letter to Joseph Smith asking for forgiveness. Joseph wrote in response, 'Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal... Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, for friends at first, are friends again at last.'

Four years after W.W. Phelps returned to the Church more loyal and committed than he had ever been, the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred in the Carthage Jail in Illinois. He had given everything he had-- many things more than once-- for the prophet; now he was compelled to give the man that had been his spiritual leader for over a decade to a cruel, uncivilized mob. It was in this context, less than a month after the prophet's death, that he wrote:

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.

Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.

At a time when it would have been easy to complain or sorrow over all that had been required of him, Brother Phelps declared his testimony and gratitude in the final verse of his prose. 'Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;' he wrote, 'Earth must atone for the blood of that man. Wake up the world for the conflict of justice. Millions shall know "Brother Joseph" again.'

In the scriptures we read, 'There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated-- And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated'. Nothing in our universe happens randomly. Eternal and unchanging natural laws ('truth') govern everything we experience, know and encounter, including consequences to our choices. Inquiring minds from every sort of interest are discovering more of these truths every day.

Brother Phelps expressed one of these pure truths in his tribute to the Prophet Joseph Smith. 'Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven,' he wrote. How does this happen in a day when we are not chased by mobs, forced to abandon our homes or trekking across the great plains in the dead of winter as W.W. Phelps and the early saints would do after the prophet was killed?

Just as we receive revelation line upon line, the effects of abiding by natural and spiritual laws are most often gradual. We might not notice the ever-so-slight change in our bodies if we eat a donut for breakfast or choose to go for a walk, but over time the consequences of seemingly insignificant choices sum together to dictate what diseases we develop, how long we live, and the quality of our lives. Similarly, we might not notice how we change when we say our morning prayers or forget to read our scriptures, but all the while our testimonies are growing or deteriorating based on how we nourish them.

Many of the sacrifices we are asked to make today are sacrifices of unhealthy, unrighteous, or unhelpful habits and desires. We are asked to change who we are-- not because it will be hard or because there will be times we fall on our faces, but because sacrifice brings the blessings of heaven. As we give up comfort food, we may come to better know the Comforter. As we study diligently each day, forgoing other activities when scheduling conflicts arise, the Lord will distill the mysteries of the kingdom as dew from heaven. When we exchange our selfishness and pride for humility and charity, the Lord will give us confidence in his presence and replace our weaknesses with strength.

In a BYU devotional held earlier this year, long-time exercise science professor Larry Tucker explained it this way:

While walking the roads of Palestine, Jesus encouraged others to follow Him. We will also be blessed if we follow His footsteps. Because He was not denied agency, He could choose for Himself. Christ chose to live a life of sacrifice. He displayed remarkable self-control. He learned at an early age to do what is right and let the blessings follow. To care for our temples, we too must learn self-control. If there were no consequences, most of us would rather eat a cookie than a carrot or be entertained rather than exercise. However, we often have to sacrifice today to earn the richest blessings tomorrow. It may take more than a lifetime to learn to master the flesh as Christ did, but the Lord expects us to do our best and to keep trying ('The Human Body: A Gift and a Responsibility' by Larry Tucker, BYU Speeches, May 28, 2013).

Though sometimes we are asked to make incredible sacrifices, few of us will be asked to give all that we have-- and then do it again and again and again. We won't likely be asked to walk the plains and perhaps none of us can quite comprehend the void the early saints must have felt when Joseph Smith was murdered. But we, as they, are still asked to sacrifice all that we are to follow in our Savior's footsteps. We, as they, are taught to give all we can to temple work and building the kingdom of God on the earth. And we, as they, call down the blessings of heaven as we strive to understand and apply the Atonement of Christ through our own personal sacrifices.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Line Upon Line

Around 1440 A.D., a goldsmith in Germany's wine region forever changed the world. Adapting the design for screw-type wine presses of the day, Johannes Gutenberg used his metalworking skills and observations of local wineries to build a printing press with movable type. The press marked the first time in world history that the written word could be mass produced and made available for the common man. It triggered religious reformation and political warfare with the printing of the Bible. Science, art and culture spread quickly with the distribution of Grimm's Fairy Tales and academic texts from the world's leading minds. It was a revolutionary breakthrough in a time when the world desperately needed a break.

Less than four centuries later, Joseph Smith's earnest prayer was answered with the glorious appearance of God, our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. Joseph learned, and subsequently we have all been given the opportunity to know, the reality of God and a great deal about His nature. The knowledge that God is real, has a physical body of flesh and bone, continues to speak to men through revelation and is separate from His Son changes our understanding of humanity, our own purpose in life and the love and potential available for each is us in profound ways. The restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, beginning with the First Vision, is the most significant breakthrough for the progress of humankind since the resurrection of Christ nearly two thousand years ago.

Each of us benefit daily from countless big breakthroughs that have occurred over the last six thousand years. Vaccines and medications keep us healthy or improve the healing process; business breakthroughs give us more for our money and grow our investment accounts; technology breakthroughs help us communicate instantly around the world; social science breakthroughs improve our understanding of people and the societies they create; and our own personal breakthroughs build confidence and shape our outlook on life. In fact, big breakthroughs have become so common it's almost unfathomable to consider what the world would be without Edison's lightbulb, Franklin's essays on politics, Bell's telephone, Newton's laws of motion, Luther's common Bible, or Jobs' iPod.

Dealing so frequently with revolutionary things can sometimes make it hard to deal with revelatory things. We may become frustrated or confused when the answers to our prayers don't come as quickly as a microwaved meal or as loud as the movie theater surround sound. Revelations that don't come with a powerful spiritual affirmation may seem like they're not revelations at all or sometimes we may even feel like we've received conflicting guidance. Our feelings may be magnified if we know we are praying for something good or asking about something important like whom to marry, when and how to grow our families, which job to take or school to attend, or how to help someone who may have wandered astray from the Lord's path.

Elder Bednar has taught:

Let me suggest that many of us typically assume we will receive an answer or a prompting to our earnest prayers and pleadings. And we also frequently expect that such an answer or a prompting will come immediately and all at once. Thus we tend to believe the Lord will give us a big answer quickly and all at one time. However, the pattern repeatedly described in the scriptures suggests we receive 'line upon line, precept upon precept,' or, in other words, many small answers over a period of time. Recognizing and understanding this pattern is an important key to obtaining inspiration and help from the Holy Ghost.

In many ways, receiving revelation is a lot like riding a bicycle. You may get on the bike to reach a destination, but it takes a lot of pedaling to get there. Similarly, a baby chick's big breakthrough may be when the egg cracks, but a successful hatch requires a lot of prep work from the chick before it ever encounters the outside world.

The truth is that most of what we see as overnight breakthroughs are the result of a lot of prep work. The average business 'breakthrough' is seven years in the making. Gutenberg worked four years to make his printing press. Edison famously found 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb before he found the one that made him famous. Joseph Smith pondered the words of God on his own, with his family, and in several congregations before learning God's will for him. If we want to see the full picture, we have to be willing to assemble the puzzle.

Elder Bednar continued:

Sister Bednar and I frequently visit with students who wonder about career choices and how to properly select a school at which to study and receive additional education. Many times a student is perplexed—having felt as though “the” answer about a career or a school was received at one particular point in time, only to feel that a different and perhaps conflicting answer was received at another point in time. The question then is often asked, “Why did the Lord give me two different answers?” In like manner, a student may sincerely seek to know if the person he or she has been dating is “the one.” A feeling of “yes” at one time may appear to be contradicted by a different feeling of “no” at another time. May I simply suggest that what we initially believe is “the” answer may be but one part of a “line upon line, precept upon precept,” ongoing, incremental, and unfolding pattern of small answers. It is clearly the case that the Lord did not change His mind; rather, you and I must learn to better recognize the Lord’s pattern as a series of related and expanding answers to our most important questions. [“‘Line upon Line, Precept upon Precept’ (2 Nephi 28:30),” BYU–Idaho devotional address, 11 September 2001; emphasis in original]

In my own life it is incredible to look back and see how the Lord has put experiences and individuals in my life that have contributed to finding answers to my prayers. Often I have not seen them as answers because I have viewed them in isolation, but strung together they create a continuous pattern of revelation that has guided my life to better things than I would have dared imagine for myself.

God has never told me what career I should pursue, but he has shown me that I like teaching, given me leadership opportunities, and even used a pretty girl and an upset parent to steer me toward a graduate program I never would have considered otherwise. Before He confirmed I should marry my wife, He first showed me the fun we'd have, gave me glimpses of her divine nature, helped me mature and be a man, and blessed me with a heart brimming over with love for her. And just as Gutenberg's press and Edison's lightbulb have been the foundation for many wonderful inventions since, the Lord continues to build future revelations upon the answers He has already given us.

The greatest architecture on the planet was constructed brick by brick; the grandest literature is printed page by page; and even the best football teams have to move the ball up the field to score a touchdown. The answers to our prayers may not often be the completed book, but the Lord will give us the next page or two if we seek it. He has promised:

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Parable of the Town Drunk

There's a story of a town drunk that had two sons. One of the sons was very successful in business and in life; the other was a no-good drunk like his father. When people inquired why the second son had become a drunk, he'd say, 'What else would I be? Look who my father is!' Tellingly, when those same people would ask the first son why he was so successful, he'd answer, 'What else would I be? Look who my father is!'

Each of us have different circumstances in life. Some have had a difficult past, others face hard situations today, and most of us will find ourselves in difficult circumstances at some point in the future. The Lord has taught us through the prophet Lehi that it isn't our circumstances, but our choices that matter: 'There is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon... Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself' (2 Nephi 2:14, 16).

Lehi continued:

And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself (2 Nephi 2:26-27).

In a way, we face the same choice as the sons of the town drunk. We can make an excuse of our circumstance and allow ourselves to be acted upon, or we can  "gird up our loins" and use the redeeming power of the Atonement to act for ourselves. We can allow the passions of our flesh to determine our destiny, or we can have the strength through Christ to be anxiously engaged in good causes and a disciplined life.

This is the choice we face every morning when we get out of bed. What will you choose today?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

It's Okay for Life to be Hard

Let's face it: most of the time, we want life to be easy. We want to sleep in every morning, love our work, have kids (and siblings and parents and in-laws and...) that always get along, be the picture of health despite a few indulgences, have lots of free time and always have enough money for everything. Sometimes falsely imagining that money alone brings a life of ease, we glamorize wealthy actors and athletes who we suppose live such a life and dream about what it must be like. We yearn with Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye: 'If riches are a curse, may God smite me with it! And may I never recover!'

Tevye's prayer concludes with a pleading question to which most of us can relate:

Lord, who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am;
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,
If I were a wealthy man?

We know we are on earth to be tested, but must life be so hard sometimes? Would it be so bad to catch a few more breaks?

Elder Oaks answered Tevye's inquiry in a 2003 General Conference address. 'Yes, Tevye, it might,' he said. 'The revelations, for which we are grateful, show that we should even give thanks for our afflictions because they turn our hearts to God and give us opportunities to prepare for what God would have us become... Let us give thanks for what we are and for the circumstances God has given us for our personal journey through mortality.'

The Lord does not allow difficult things in our lives to punish us or make us miserable. Rather, He taught Moroni, 'I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.' If we humble ourselves and have faith in Him, 'then will I make weak things become strong unto them' (Ether 12:27). The Lord has told us we should 'fear not', 'let [our] hearts be comforted', 'rejoice evermore', and 'in everything give thanks' because the hard things in our lives will 'work together for [our] good' (D&C 98:1, 3). He is in control; we can trust Him to make even the bleakest challenge a great blessing in our lives.

One of the bleakest times in Church history was the winter of 1838-39. While the members of the Church were persecuted and being driven from Missouri by the governor's 'extermination order', the Prophet Joseph Smith and five others were held in the cold, damp, cramped and smoke-filled dungeon of Liberty Jail. Joseph called it a 'hell, surrounded with demons... where we  are compelled to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths, and witness a scene of blasphemy, and drunkenness and hypocrisy, and debaucheries of every description'. They were poisoned four times in their food, 'making them so violently ill that for days they alternated between vomiting and a kind of delirium, not really caring whether they lived or died'. Only a little dirty straw insulated them from the cold stone floor while they slept and there were insufficient blankets for what remains the coldest winter in Missouri history. Unable to help their families through persecutions and a forced march to Illinois, the depression became so overwhelming that the prophet pleaded in his prayers, 'O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?'

The Lord responded with some of the most comforting language in scripture: 'My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes... for their bounds are set, they cannot pass. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.' Again the Lord assured the prophet that the hard things in his life were necessary and not in vain: 'If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good' (D&C 121-122).

The sacrifices made in Liberty Jail were rewarded with revelations and peace even greater than the suffering. Despite the brutality and vile atmosphere, the prison became a sacred place, a spiritual temple of sorts, where the prophet received revelation for the Church and the faith of the incarcerated men was reinforced an hundredfold as they were protected and sustained by an Almighty God when no other thing prevented them from death. Five months of misery were followed by five years of the peace and prosperity of Nauvoo, a blessing that included many more revelations that may not have come as they did without the prison-temple experience of Liberty Jail.

President John Taylor was among those persecuted and driven from place to place with the Saints. He left his struggling family to serve missions in Europe without purse or scrip, witnessed the murder of the Prophet Joseph in Carthage, walked the plains to the Salt Lake Valley, and spent much of his later life in hiding. He taught, 'We have learned many things through suffering. We call it suffering. I call it a school of experience... I have never looked at these things in any other light than trials for the purpose of purifying the Saints of God that they may be, as the scriptures say, as gold that has been seven times purified by the fire' (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: John Taylor [2001], 203).

The Lord desires to say of us what he has said of John Taylor, Joseph Smith, Abraham, Nephi, Isaiah and others: 'For, behold, I have refined thee, I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction' (1 Nephi 20:10). Can we expect to earn the same reward if we are not willing to pay the same price?

We live in an age of convenience and instant gratification. Few of us struggle to survive with what we can grow in gardens or build with our own hands. Our lives are generally easier than the billions who have come before us over the last six thousand years. Despite our many blessings, each of us must spend some time in our own figurative prison-temples.

Often these prison-temple moments are thrust upon us with a diagnosis, the loss of a job, the death of a friend or family member, or the actions of others. Other difficult things in our lives are brought on by our own choices, particularly as we let appetites overcome discipline or as pride engenders ingratitude and entitlement.

In this month's Ensign, President Monson cautioned us all against the dangers of taking life too easy. 'We forget how the Greeks and Romans prevailed magnificently in a barbaric world', he wrote, 'and how that triumph ended—how a slackness and softness finally overcame them to their ruin. In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and a comfortable life; and they lost all—comfort and security and freedom.'

The descendants of the ancient Nephites that saw the risen Christ fell away because they knew only prosperity and so became proud and abandoned the principles that had brought their successes. We who live in the last gospel dispensation and carry the legacy of the pioneers in the world's most prosperous times cannot afford to meet the same fate.

The Lord has given us the difficult things in our lives to help us be humble and avoid the kind of spiritual and temporal destruction that met the Nephites. Our experiences will help us be disciplined and stand firm for truth and freedom. Our task is not to change the difficulty of our lives, but to have faith in the guidance we receive from God and gratitude for the circumstances God has given us for our personal journey through mortality.

The Lord to whom Tevye prayed loves each of us and wants us to become like Him. The experiences we have are gifts that give us the best possible opportunity of developing those traits that will make us happy and allow us to return to our Heavenly Parents. Therefore the Lord admonishes:

Verily I say unto you my friends, fear not, let your hearts be comforted; yea, rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks; Waiting patiently on the Lord, for your prayers have entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth, and are recorded with this seal and testament--the Lord hath sworn and decreed that they shall be granted. Therefore, he giveth this promise unto you, with an immutable covenant that they shall be fulfilled; and all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good, and to my name's glory, saith the Lord (D&C 98:1-3).

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Five Quotes on Families

Many of the grand structures of the world are the large stone and brick buildings left to us by ancestors that lived hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. The Garni Temple in Armenia, the pyramids of Egypt, the castles and cathedrals of Europe and the palace at Palenque are just a few examples of constructions that have stood through hundreds of years of harsh weather, fierce warfare and other forces that have brought the demise of those around them.

In each case, these buildings are planned and constructed around a single stone known as the foundation stone or chief cornerstone. The foundation stone is usually not visible to those admiring magnificent ancient structures, but it is the first stone laid and the most important for the strength of the building.

Families are the chief cornerstones of our societies. It is through families, centered on marriage, that rising generations learn the value of freedom, love, discipline, tolerance, rights, responsibilities and human worth. In families we are introduced to God, have our first experiences with other people and begin to experience truth in action. When marriages and families break down, communities are weakened, governments become less effective and societies face a growing risk of collapse.

For many of the same reasons, families are also at the center of God's plan for us and each of our eternal destinies. We lived with our heavenly family before this life, we are born into families on Earth, and God allows us to live with our earthly families throughout eternity if we enter into sacred covenants such as marriage and keep His commandments. If we construct our lives around the covenants and values that unite our families they can be a great and enduring strength to us.

What follows are five quotes from modern-day prophets to help us all as we attempt to build and strengthen our families and all they support. Each of these quotes are included in Elder L. Tom Perry's book, Family Ties: A Message for Fathers.

The first quote on families comes from President Spencer W. Kimball, who shared with us the recipe for success in married life:

The formula is simple; the ingredients are few, though there are many amplifications of each.

First, there must be the proper approach toward marriage, which contemplates the selection of a spouse who reaches as nearly as possible the pinnacle of perfection in all the matters that are of importance to the individuals. Then those two parties must come to the altar in the temple realizing that they must work hard toward this successful joint living.

Second, there must be great unselfishness, forgetting self and directing all of the family life and all pertaining thereunto to the good of the family, and subjugating self.

Third, there must be continued courting and expressions of affection, kindness and consideration to keep love alive and growing.

Fourth, there must be complete living of the commandments of the Lord as defined in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Speaking to men, Elder L. Tom Perry taught that too many marriages suffer from unrighteous leadership. Reminding us all that the Lord's way is the way of persuasion, gentleness, meekness and love, he taught:

Your wife is your companion, your best friend, your full partner. The Lord has blessed her with great potential, talent, and ability. She, too, must be given the opportunity for self-expression and development. Her happiness should be your greatest concern. Learn how to magnify both your roles in order that both husband and wife can be found having fulfilling and happy lives together. Brethren, your first and most responsible role in life and in the eternities is to be a righteous husband.

Brigham Young added:

Our families are not yet ours. The Lord has committed them to us to see how we will treat them. Only if we are faithful will they be given to us forever. What we do on earth determines whether or not we will be worthy to become heavenly parents.

If we will do these things-- be selfless and kind, respect and honor our spouses and live the gospel-- we can have healthy marriages and experience the strength and joy that can come from living in family units. We will be able to contribute to successful communities and prosperous or
ganizations of all kinds-- and those organizations will, in turn, be able to reinforce our families. Again from President Kimball:

Our success, individually and as a Church, will largely be determined by how faithfully we focus on living the gospel in the home. Only as we see clearly the responsibilities of each individual and the role of families and homes can we properly understand that priesthood quorums and auxiliary organizations, even wards and stakes, exist primarily to help members live the gospel in the home. Then we can understand that people are more important than programs, and that Church programs should always support and never detract from gospel-centered family activities...

All should work together to make home a place where we love to be, a place of listening and learning, a place where each member can find mutual love, support, appreciation, and encouragement.

I repeat that our success, individually and as a Church, will largely [depend on] how faithfully we focus on living the gospel in the home.

Finally, as we make family a priority in our lives and learn from our experiences there, Brigham Young has taught that we will have a model for righteous leadership that extends to other leadership opportunities that we may encounter.

The Priesthood... is [the] perfect order and system of government, and this alone can deliver the human family from all the evils which now afflict its members, and insure them happiness and felicity hereafter.

Remnants of ancient civilizations that lost track of families are all around us. It is not enough to build buildings that will last through the ages; we must ensure that our lives are built upon the foundation stone the Lord has provided so that we may also stand in the magnificence and grace of God through the eternities ahead.