Sunday, July 27, 2014

Happiness and Ancient History

Tutankhamun was about nine years old when he became the Pharaoh of Egypt. During his reign from 1332 - 1323 BC, Egypt prospered by improving trade relations with their neighbors. Then, at age 19, Tutankhamun died suddenly. Scientists do not agree on the cause of death, but historical records indicate that the young king had walked with a cane and may have suffered from epilepsy. The prevailing theory is that Tutankhamun broke his leg, as found in his mummified remains, during an epileptic seizure. When the leg became infected, the already-frail leader was unable to fight the bacteria and ultimately died a premature death.

While we can't be sure of the cause of Tutankhamun's death, his tomb leaves no doubt of his incredible wealth. Ancient Egyptians were often buried with worldly possessions because they believed they would need those possessions in the afterlife. Kings were venerated through the construction of large pyramids and tombs filled with riches. In 1922, Howard Carter and George Herbert found Tutankhamun's tomb, his mummified remains, and more than 3,000 treasures-- most of them solid gold. Though one of Egypt's lesser Pharaohs and buried in an unusually small tomb for his stature, Tutankhamun has been immortalized as 'King Tut', one of the best known images of ancient history.

King Tut's discovery underscores not only the wealth and history of ancient Egypt but also our own inability to carry our possessions with us when we die. For some the phrase 'you can't take it with you', which became popular after Tut was found more than 90 years ago, has become an excuse to 'eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die' (2 Nephi 28:7). This school of thought supposes that we will maximize our joy in life by spending all we have on things that will bring pleasure today.

Abd Al-Rahman III was an emir and caliph in 10th-century Spain that lived by the can't take it with you philosophy. As an absolute ruler he lived complete luxury. He wrote of his life, 'I have now reigned above 50 years in victory or peace; beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity'.

Yet, as is often the case, the more fame, fortune and pleasure Al-Rahman acquired, the more he wanted and the less satisfied he became with his life. He later wrote: 'I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to 14.'

The story of Al-Rahman and a scientific explanation of his tragic plight was included in a recent edition of the New York Times. The entire article is worth reading.

Like the Spanish monarch and the ancient ruler of Egypt, many of us today spend the majority of our time in pursuit of money, recognition and pleasure. We want to do whatever we feel like doing; and, truth be told, our natures are hard wired to pursue money, recognition and physical pleasures-- sexual pleasure, in particular. This is how Mother Nature ensures we pass on our DNA and preserve our species. But, as one well-respected economist has observed, this is where the evolutionary cables have crossed:

'We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness,' he explained. 'My brain says, "Get famous." It also says, "Unhappiness is lousy." I conflate the two, getting, "Get famous and you'll be less unhappy."'

'But that is Mother Nature's cruel hoax,' he continued. 'She doesn't really care either way whether you are unhappy-- she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that's your problem, not nature's. And matters are hardly helped by nature's useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.'

Social sciences are only now very gradually coming to understand the truths the gospel has taught for thousands of years. Alma taught his son, Corianton, around 74 BC:

And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness (Alma 41:11).

Abinidi taught the wicked King Noah: 'Remember that he that persists in his own carnal nature, and goes on in the ways of sin and rebellion against God, remaineth in his fallen state and the devil hath all power over him' (Mosiah 16:5).

Perhaps most famously, King Benjamin taught his people:

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

Christ thought this message was so important that he taught it to the Jews in Jerusalem and repeated it almost verbatim to the people in the Americas. 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal,' he said.

This teaching from the Savior is particularly credible. Not only did he teach without purse or scrip or 'where to lay his head', but the scripture records that he was explicitly tempted with wealth, fame and pleasure by the devil himself. Satan, the father of lies, first tempted Christ to turn rocks to bread to bring soothing pleasure his fasting stomach. Satan next tempted Jesus to throw himself from the temple and let concourses of angels rescue him in the city center, an act that would undoubtedly bring fame and silence his critics. Finally, the devil promised the Savior untold wealth and kingdoms if he would worship evil. In all cases, Christ refused to heed to temptation and cast the devil from his midst (Matthew 4).

In these verses to the Nephites and the Jews, the the Savior teaches us, who are likewise tempted to compromise our principles for worldly gain, how to avoid or successfully respond to the temptation. First, don't worry about worldly wealth, fame or physical pleasure. 'But', his sermon continued, 'lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.'

King Tut's tomb suggests that the treasures of heaven are different from the treasures of earth that Satan uses to tempt and mislead those who will follow him. Where Satan delights in the misery of the rich and famous (and those in pursuit on one scale or another), our Father in Heaven has provided a plan for our happiness regardless of our material riches. Christ's teaching gives us another clue should anyone suppose that gold and silver not pursued today will collect gold and silver with interest after death. Inasmuch as there will be rain and moths in the Celestial Kingdom-- both strong possibilities given that said kingdom will be here upon this earth-- we must also conclude the treasures of heaven are made neither of metal nor of fabric in order that they might not rust nor be corrupted by moths.

So what are the incorruptible treasures of heaven? At least three speakers addressed this question in the April 2014 General Conference. Elder Anderson stated very directly that 'Families are the treasure of heaven' (April 2014). Elder Donald Rasband taught that we accumulate treasures in heaven as we 'us[e] our time, talents, and agency in service to God.' Finally, Elder Michael Teh taught that the treasures of heaven include Christlike attributes such as faith, hope, humility, and charity; family relationships; and an understanding and testimony of the doctrine of Christ.

In other words, the treasures of heaven are not a pile of gold bars or a Beverly Hills mansion that will be thrust upon you when you die, but rather an accumulation of the attributes, relationships, and knowledge you develop on earth. They are not a tomb full of incredible riches, the fame of a monarch, or all the pleasures in the world. Whether or not those things exist in the Celestial Kingdom, the real treasure of heaven is our own, genuine, eternal happiness made possible by the atonement of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

This being the case, we should note that Christ's teaching to 'lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven' indicates that it is not enough for us to simply stop coveting pleasure, fame and riches, but we must also be actively engaged in a good cause, helping others and developing our own character in the process. To us, as to the rich man who had kept the commandments from his youth, Jesus says, 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me' (Matthew 19:20-21).

The final verse of Christ's instruction to the Jews and Nephites, respectively, teaches us the guiding principle: 'where your treasure is,' the Savior taught, 'there will your heart be also' (3 Nephi 13:21). If our treasure is our food, our careers, the number of Facebook friends we have, or the sum of our bank accounts, then we have not yet put off the natural man and are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness. Fortunately for us, repentance is simple. If we would change our hearts and become as saints and children, we need only to change what we treasure. 'He that findeth his life shall lose it,' the Lord cautioned, 'and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it' (Matthew 10:39).

We can't take worldly wealth with us after death, but the things that matter most can't be kept in a tomb. If we set our hearts on our relationships including service to others, on developing knowledge and refining our characters, then 'ye shall be the richest of all people', the Lord has said, 'for ye shall have the riches of eternity' (D&C 38:39).

Which leads us to a final question: if riches are a bad thing, why have so many of the Lord's anointed been wealthy? Or really, why have any of them been so well off?

Abraham filled entire valleys with his livestock and had an army of servants at his command large enough to invade Sodom and rescue Lot. Joseph was among the most senior leaders of a prosperous Egypt. Lehi left considerable gold and silver when he left Jerusalem. Many of the apostles and other leaders in the Church today have had prosperous careers as lawyers, pilots, engineers, doctors, professors and businessmen.

Jacob taught, 'Before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good' (Jacob 2:18-19). Here again we see the instruction to lay up treasures in heaven first as we pursue the kingdom of God through righteous living, but Jacob adds that after we have done this riches will come if we seek them.

That the riches of earth follow the pursuit of heavenly treasures is neither coincidence nor a case of getting gold bars dumped on us randomly because we said our prayers and watched a session of conference this year. We know that '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' (D&C 130:20-21).

In many cases, relative wealth is the natural consequence of a life focused on relationships, knowledge, and self-improvement. This statistical relationship has significant support. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 70 percent of all jobs are found through networking. People with doctorate degrees are five times less likely to be unemployed and make more than four times as much annual income on average than a high school dropout. In other words, people focused on what matters most-- relationships, knowledge and character--are more likely on average to find good work, keep good work, and do good work.

If we treasure the treasures of heaven, spreading the good fortune of our riches will be a part of who we are. We will use our riches for the intent to do good-- to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer to the sick and the afflicted-- and our wealth will not be a curse but a great blessing to the kingdom of God.

We will also need to continue to be diligent. Speaking to the earliest of the modern saints in 1831, most of whom were very poor but whose collective posterity is among the wealthiest on earth, the Lord cautioned not to treasure our treasure: 'It must needs be that the riches of the earth are mine to give,' he taught. 'But beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old' (D&C 38:39).

It is too late for Abd Al-Rahman III to add happy days to his life; but yours are still adding up. The only question left is what you'll choose to treasure in your heart-- and how happy you will be with your treasure.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

To Be A Pioneer

We’ve all heard stories of the early pioneers who sacrificed all they had, including their own lives in many cases, to preach the gospel, build up the church, preserve the authority and truth that had been restored, and support those in greater poverty than they found themselves. Driven from state to state and then into the wilderness, the pioneers faced harsh conditions as they walked the nearly 2,000 miles across the Great Plains and over the steep passes of the Rocky Mountains. Many of them experienced severe hunger and fatigue, and many left behind friends and family that did not share their faith, that had apostatized and persecuted the saints, or who had died from any one of the many perils they encountered along the way.

Every year on July 24, the membership of the Church celebrates the eventual success of our pioneer forbearers who first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. More families would make the long and hazardous journey over the next decade. These individuals’ faith in Christ and willingness to endure all things has made it possible for us to gather here today. Not unlike Easter, where we celebrate the Savior’s victory over death and hell, to me Pioneer Day is a holiday where I can rejoice in the triumph of the Saints as their faith in Christ was victorious over the death and hell the devil sought to inflict upon them.

The scriptures are filled with stories of individuals, families and nations that were led to promised lands through their reliance on the Lord. Abraham inherited the land of Canaan, the Israelites returned to that land from Egypt, the friends and family of Nephi and the Brother of Jared were guided to the Americas, Alma the Elder led a faithful band back to Zarahemla, and Enoch’s city was translated.

In each case, as with the early pioneers, the faithful have faced significant challenges. Abraham’s father tried to sacrifice him to idols, the Israelites ran out of food and water, Nephi’s brothers doubted his every move and often tried to kill him, the Jaredites needed to find light and air for their barges, Alma’s people endured a period in slavery, and Enoch’s people were assailed by nations on every side. Most of these groups endured long journeys, years of uncertainty, poverty, hunger, illness, death and people who fought their efforts to live righteously.

All of these people are pioneers. They courageously went forward and prepared the way for those who would come after them. Each of them has contributed to the life we enjoy today—a life of relative prosperity where temples dot the earth and we can highlight favorite scriptures on our tablets without needing a hammer and chisel.

They succeeded because of their faith, unselfishness, willingness to sacrifice, obedience, unity, cooperation, commitment, integrity, endurance and courage. If we are to have the same success in reaching the promised lands of our lives, and blaze the trail for those coming behind us, we must develop these same attributes amid the challenges of our day.

Elder Oaks has taught[1]:

Many of our challenges are different from those faced by former pioneers but perhaps just as dangerous and surely as significant to our own salvation and the salvation of those who follow us… The wolves that prowled around pioneer settlements were no more dangerous to their children than the drug dealers or pornographers who threaten our children. Similarly, the early pioneers’ physical hunger posed no greater threat to their well-being than the spiritual hunger experienced by many in our day. The children of earlier pioneers were required to do incredibly hard physical work to survive their environment. That was no greater challenge than many of our young people now face from the absence of hard work, which results in spiritually corrosive challenges to discipline, responsibility, and self-worth.
There are many other dangers that pervade our society and will stop our progress if we succumb to them. With the dangers however, also come significant blessings if we will choose to receive them. One of the greatest blessings that we share with pioneers throughout scripture is the presence of a living prophet on the earth. His counsel steers us away from the obstacles that would damn our progress. Consider a few recent examples:

“Choose wisely when using media because whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you. Select only media that uplifts you… Do not attend, view or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in anything that presents immorality or violence as acceptable. Have the courage to walk out of a movie, change your music, or turn off a computer, television, or mobile device if what you see or hear drives away the Spirit”.[2]

“We cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey. Likewise, we cannot fully love our fellowmen if we do not love God, the Father of us all.”[3]

“It is impossible to stand upright when one plants his roots in the shifting sands of popular opinion and approval. Needed is the courage of a Daniel, an Abinidi, a Moroni, or a Joseph Smith in order for us to hold strong and fast to that which we know is right. They had the courage to do not that which was easy but that which was right. We will all face fear, experience ridicule, and meet opposition. Let us—all of us—have the courage to defy the consensus, the courage to stand for principle. Courage, not compromise, brings the smile of God’s approval.”[4]

Do we have the faith to be obedient to prophetic counsel?

Finally, we should not be surprised if it takes significant time and effort to develop the attributes that will help us meet the challenges we face. Marathons are rarely ran the first time a person gets off the couch, the best crops do not come from the first or second or third year of planting, and the faith to see God does not come from a single, thoughtless petition to ‘bless the food’ or ‘drive home safe’. 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 while wandering the desert for 40 years; and the early Saints received the restored gospel through the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants over 27 years before they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. We’re still waiting to return to Jackson County to build the New Jerusalem.

The final challenge, once we are on the right path, is to endure. To add a few miles or a few blocks or a few feet to the end of the path so our children and grandchildren will know the way back to our Heavenly Father. To “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men… feasting upon the words of Christ, and endur[ing] to the end”.[5]

If we are willing to do this, then Pioneer Day is about us too because we will be one of them. We will cross the figurative Great Plains and Rocky Mountains of our lives, we will mark the path for our children and grandchildren to follow, and we will be able to rejoice with those who have gone before in the Celestial Kingdom of our Father in Heaven.

[1] See Dallin H. Oaks, “Following the Pioneers,” Ensign, November 1997,

[2] “Entertainment and Media”, For the Strength of Youth,

[3] See Thomas S. Monson, “Love—the Essence of the Gospel,” Ensign, May 2014,

[4] See Thomas S. Monson, “Be Strong and of a Good Courage”, Ensign, May 2014,

[5] See 2 Nephi 31:20-21,

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Bring on the Second Coming

There's a statistic floating around cyberspace that claims that a single edition of the New York Times contains more information, on average, than a 17th-Century Englishman would have encountered in their lifetime. This factoid makes sense only if restricted to written information, and a counter argument could be constructed to suggest that the average 17th-Century Englishman gained more useful information from conversations with other people than exists on all of Facebook. The point here is not to validate either argument, but rather to point out that the printed word-- and now the digital age-- have flooded our browsers and our lives with information and put an incredible portion of the cumulative knowledge of mankind at our fingertips. If you are not impressed, I dare say Benjamin Franklin would be-- and who knows what men like Galileo, Newton and Einstein could do with a Google search and an online subscription to JSTOR.

So what's in the info-packed New York Times these days? Today's cover story is a tribute to a heroic firefighter who became trapped and later died while searching for residents in a burning Brooklyn high rise. It's one of many sad stories and the only one on the front page with any element of inspiration. Other stories include gruesome killings in Kenya, a racially-driven murder in Palestine, political tension with Germany after an intelligence officer was accused of spying, more information about the most recent in a long history of IRS scandals and an article encouraging readers to relax their values and stretch the definition of family until it breaks. America's most popular newspaper doesn't paint a very bright picture of the world.

News-induced melancholy is not limited to readers of the New York Times either, nor is the Times unique in its approach. Earlier this week there were several major and local news entities headlining stories of parents that have killed their children; military action or potential action in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, North Korea, Congo, Columbia, and elsewhere; big earthquakes in New Zealand, Tonga and Alaska; athletes and actors who, despite the success they once enjoyed, now have lost their way in life and have been arrested for a variety of base and demeaning crimes; political conflicts caused more by wanting to get credit than any sort of convictions; murders so numerous it is almost hard to be shocked at each new story; growing acceptance of homosexuality and other spiritually grievous behavior; and every other sort of depressing, deflating and divisive content imaginable.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps life in the 17th Century must have been nice. Then I remember my mother. I think she hated watching the news-- who can blame her?-- but growing up my dad and I would tune in often and usually discuss a few of the events that had been reported. Whenever our discussion began to take a sorrowful tone or the uncertainty just seemed too much to bear, my mom would exclaim, 'Bring on the second coming!'

What I think she was trying to teach me is that even though the world can seem overrun with evil at times, and our hearts will sometimes ache for innocent children and broken families and the rejection of truth, we need not abandon our hope in humanity, our brothers and sisters, nor in that Christ, our glorious Savior and Redeemer, who will come again.

What I've realized since my teenage years is that the last days can be as great as they sometimes appear to be terrible. We are able to use our agency to see only the hopeless gloom and doom that dominates news reports or, through the eyes of faith, experience the thrill of hope that can come as we see the fulfillment of prophecy and the hand of God preparing the world for the coming of His Son.

Ancient prophets saw our day and looked forward with rejoicing to this time when the world would be prepared for the Savior to come again. They wrote of the latter days so that we would be able to recognize the times in which we live and, by recognizing these signs, take courage in the knowledge that the glorious return of Jesus Christ is near. Christ himself taught of our day:

In that day shall be heard of wars and rumors of wars, and the whole earth shall be in commotion, and men's hearts shall fail them, and they shall say that Christ delayeth his coming until the end of the earth.

And the love of men shall wax cold, and iniquity shall abound.

And again, the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world, for a witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come, or the destruction of the wicked (D&C 45:26-27, JST Matt. 24:32).

President Ezra Taft Benson wondered aloud in a 1982 address:

Are we not witnessing the fulfillment of these signs today? The gospel is being extended to all nations which permit our missionaries to penetrate their countries. The Church is prospering and growing. Yet in undiminished fury, and with an anxiety that his time is short-- and it is-- Satan, that great adversary to all men, is attempting to destroy all we hold dear. The greatest system of slavery ever devised by the forces of evil--communism--has been imposed on over one billion of the earth's inhabitants. We constantly hear or read of wars and rumors of wars. Atheism, agnosticism, immorality and dishonesty are flaunted in our society. Desertions, cruelty, divorce, and infidelity have become commonplace, leading to a disintegration of the family. Truly we live in the times of which the Savior spoke, when 'the love of men shall wax cold, and iniquity shall abound.'

The world hasn't become more virtuous since 1982. As the testimony of the servants of God is rejected on an ever-greater scale, the Lord has warned that then will come the testimony of earthquakes, thunderings, lightnings, and the waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds (D&C 88:89-91). There will be desolating illnesses and a scene of conflict such as the world has never seen before followed by even greater signs in the heavens (D&C 45:31-33, 40-42). Are we hearkening to the signs that have been given and preparing for the things we know will come? Or are we letting information overload dull our sensitivity to the miracles in our lives and distracting us from seeing what would be of greatest lasting value to our faith and salvation?

At the same time the Church has grown to over 15 million members-- nearly three times as many as in 1982-- and there has never been more temples, more missionaries, or greater access to the ordinances of the gospel and the tools for family history work in the history of the world. Like the New York Times, truth and testimony are also more accessible around the world today than ever before. Are we focusing on these great and encouraging signs of the second coming or are we so focused on the gloom and doom that we have become blinded to all that would lift us up and give us the courage to carry on?

Through all of this our agency remains. We choose whether we will be shocked, offended, proud, without hope or motivated, steadfast, faithful, and even joyous that the signs of Christ's coming are being fulfilled before our very eyes. President Benson taught that 'an otherwise gloomy picture [has] a bright side-- the coming of our Lord in all His glory. His coming will be both glorious and terrible, depending on the spiritual condition of those who remain.' It is ours to choose, regardless of circumstance, whether today and tomorrow and the next day will be glorious or terrible.

For the people of ancient America, most days were terrible. The scripture records:

And the people began to forget those signs and wonders which they had heard, and began to be less and less astonished at a sign from heaven, insomuch that they began to be hard in their hearts, and began to disbelieve all which they had heard and seen-- Imagining up some vain thing in their hearts, that it was wrought by men and by the power of the devil... And thus did Satan get possession of the hearts of the people again, insomuch that he did blind their eyes and lead them away to believe that the doctrine of Christ was a foolish and a vain thing (3 Nephi 2:1-2).

Plagued by terrorists, government corruption and class warfare, the people would repent and remember the signs they had seen for a time, only to become consumed by selfishness and again forget the signs they had seen in order to seek for personal glory and gain. This philosophy eventually destroyed their  government and divided the people into tribes that each subscribed to their own laws and 'relative morality'. Unprepared for what they had once known was coming, this people could only mourn their iniquities and their dead when struck by a three-hour earthquake with vicious thunderstorms, city-consuming landslides and sinkholes that swallowed their towns and dropped their villages into the sea.

We cannot afford to be blinded by pride nor soothed by the philosophies of the world. Our peace and joy in a tumultuous world depend more than ever on our willingness to make the gospel, particularly daily scripture study and prayer, a priority in our lives.  Living the gospel softens our hearts and allows the Holy Ghost to help us discern the signs to the faithful, to feel of God's assurances, and to move forward with confidence because of the revelations we have received strengthened our testimonies. As we build spiritual strength and stand in holy places, we will be able to withstand the storms of evil and of nature that will come. If we are righteous, we may even feel to rejoice-- for the coming of the Lord is near.