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.