Sunday, December 25, 2016

Faith in Impossible Christmas Stories

Our family recently rebooted our daily scripture study. We had done well for awhile, encountered a few distractions and then suddenly realized it had been weeks since we had sat down together to read. We needed a reminder and a new burst of motivation.

The day after we started reading again, our oldest son came to his mom with some confessions. He is seven years old and his admissions were mainly focused on fibs and half-truths he had told about things that had happened at school. More confessions came on the second day and it really seemed like our family scripture study was helping him make better choices.

On the third day, he confessed again on the drive home from school. When he had vented, he added with concern, "Hey, Mom? Do you think that Santa will still bring me a present since I fixed it?"

So that's it.

Of course, my son's behavior is based on an impossible premise. There's just not enough time for one old man on a reindeer-powered sleigh to deliver hundreds of millions of presents around the world in a single night. Behavioral scientists observing my son's behavior might then conclude that his behavior has been completely irrational-- and they would be right except for two important details: first, my son is making decisions with imperfect information; and second, despite his lack of knowledge, his faith in Santa has always been rewarded as promised.

Indeed, our faith in Christ operates in much the same way. Though we are often "left in the dark" when it comes to the details, the Lord encourages us to live his gospel and see for ourselves whether our faith will be rewarded as promised. Just as my son ascribes Santa's deliveries to magic, we often see the fulfillment of God's promises as miracles-- and at no time do we celebrate our belief in those miracles more than during the Christmas season.

The biblical account of the first Christmas begins with the miraculous story of an angel who appeared to Zacharias in the temple. The angel told Zacharias that his wife, who had not been able to have children and was now "well stricken in years," would have a baby boy. Such a birth was not only improbable, but physiologically impossible.

A few months later, the same angel appeared to announce another impossible birth. This time he was speaking to Mary, a young woman engaged to the rightful heir of King David's throne. According to the commandments of the Lord and the customs of the day, the couple had remained chaste prior to their wedding:

And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus...

Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God... For with God nothing shall be impossible. (Luke 1:30-31, 34-35, 37).

In both cases, the appearance of an angel alone may seem unlikely if not viewed through the lens of faith; but the subsequent pregnancies of a virgin and a barren old woman challenge even the faithful. Yet, as the angel instructs, with God nothing shall be impossible. The question is not whether his word will come to fruition, but how we respond to even the most impossible promises.

Perhaps we will be logical, like Zacharias, who was skeptical of the angel's message though the divine messenger stood before him. His skepticism made his experience more difficult, but when his wife bore a son as the angel had prophesied he was ready to believe.

Mary's fiance had a similar reaction. We don't know what, if anything, Mary shared of her experiences, but Joseph sought to break off their engagement until he saw the angel himself in a dream. His vision persuaded him to believe the impossible and move forward with the wedding.

Elizabeth, Zacharias' wife, had been "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" despite living her entire life in a culture that incorrectly believed that her inability to have children was a form of divine punishment (Luke 1:6). Clearly, she was a woman of faith. Yet, knowing her conception was impossible, Elizabeth appears to withhold judgment for several months. Finally, she allowed her hope to sprout a greater faith and rejoiced that the Lord had taken away her shame. When Mary visits a month or so later, Elizabeth instantly recognizes the joy of her unborn child and testifies that Mary is the mother of the Christ.

Mary was also a woman of faith who, according to the angel, had found favor with God. When she heard the angel's impossible news, she responded with a humble and willing statement of faith. "Behold, the handmaid of the Lord," she said, "be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38). When Elizabeth saluted her as "blessed... among women," Mary gave a similar response: "My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call be blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name" (Luke 1:46-49).

None of us knows all of the details about how Mary and Elizabeth conceived their miraculous children, nor are those details particularly important to our salvation, but as we respond with faith we will benefit from the many promises made possible by the lives of Jesus Christ, our Savior, and his Elias, John the Baptist. We can receive a remission of our sins, the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost, knowledge to guide us through our most vexing problems and happiness in times of trial.

We can also receive greater faith that with God nothing is impossible. At Christmas we celebrate that a virgin did conceive and bear a son. That son walked on water and calmed the storms; turned water to wine and fed thousands with a few loaves of bread and some small fish; healed the blind, the leprous and the paralyzed; brought the dead back to life; atoned for our sins and was resurrected. Because of Him, we can see estranged family members reunited, be relieved of physical or mental anguish, find the strength to forgive, have a chance to pursue our impossible dreams and return to live with our families in the presence of God forever.

There were many others who responded to the impossible news of Christ's birth. Three kings traveled for years to bring gifts and worship him. King Herod tried to kill him. Simeon and Anna looked for him their entire lives and immediately recognized him and rejoiced when they saw the Christ child in the temple. Our experience will depend a great deal on our response to his invitations. Will we be skeptics, like Zacharias, and throw rocks into our own path; or will we allow "he that is mighty" to do "great things" in our lives because of our faith in him?

One indication may be our efforts to understand and rely on Christ through our study of the scriptures. Though our family may not always be consistent, it is a blessing in our lives to know that our faith-inspired study does indeed help our son, and all of us, respond with readiness to the Lord's invitations to serve his children. We don't know exactly how but we've noticed that it always seems to work-- no cookie tax required.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Gardens of Our Hearts

There are many times in scripture when you and I are compared in metaphor to the trees of an orchard or the grain of the field. One such occasion is in the third chapter of Matthew when John the Baptist preaches in the wilderness of Judea. John's growing popularity had become a concern for the ruling classes who had gained power and wealth by subjecting the people to often ridiculous additional rules and regulations cloaked as inspired additions to the Law of Moses.

Speaking to these ruling classes, but also to all of us, John declared: "If ye receive not [the preaching of him whom God hath sent] in your hearts, ye receive not me; and if ye receive not me, ye receive not him of whom I am sent to bear record; and for your sins ye have no cloak. Repent, therefore, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance" (JST Matthew 3:34-36).

Like a tree or a staff of grain, each of us bears the fruit of our labor. Worthy actions and desires are equivalent to good fruit in the metaphor. John reminds us that true repentance includes receiving God's word in our hearts and then changing our actions so that we may again be worthy of the Lord's harvest. Lest we think we can repent half-heartedly or offer impure fruits to the Lord, John reminds his listeners that "the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire" (Matthew 3:10).

A lot can be and has been said about how we can change our actions, but John's repentance flowchart dictates that we focus first on planting the right seeds in good ground or, in other words, cultivating righteous desires in our pure, receptive hearts. This is also the focus of another agrarian metaphor, the Parable of the Sower, which Christ shared with an audience similar to John's. In the parable, which could also be called the Parable of the Soils, a sower goes out to plant seed in his field. Some of the seed falls into the road, some onto rocks, some into patches of weeds and some onto good ground where it can grow strong and bear fruit.

Two of the soils in this parable-- the rock and the road-- are hard and impenetrable. People with similarly hardened hearts may appear do everything right on the surface, but ultimately are unable to produce good fruit because they lack the depth of conviction and the ongoing spiritual nourishment to support their testimonies through tough questions or a difficult season in life.

Likewise, if we plant desires in our hearts that are not consistent with the word of God, even if they seem to be good at the time, we may find one day that the fruit we hoped to grow has been suffocated by other plants. The Savior taught that "where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also" (Matthew 6:21). We cannot plant our fields with corn and then be surprised when there's no wheat to harvest.

Elder Ardern recently reminded us that planting the right seeds in our hearts requires our attention and intention. "With the demands made of us," he said, "we must learn to prioritize our choices to match our goals or risk being exposed to the winds of procrastination and being blown from one time-wasting activity to another" (A Time to Prepare, October 2011). If we truly desire the things of God, we may find it necessary to do a little weeding from time to time to keep our growth on track.

Finally, the prophet Alma expounded how to plant the right desires in our softened hearts. "If ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart," he taught, "behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves-- It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me" (Alma 32:28).

He continues, "If ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst" (Alma 32:41-42).

In the words of Elder Oaks, our "desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions. The desires we act on determine our changing, our achieving, and our becoming" (Desire, April 2011). The desires we plant in our hearts determine the fruit we will eat now and in eternity.

Each of us has many desires competing for our attention each day. Some, such as desires to meet physical needs, may be strong without much effort from us. Others depend more heavily on our nurturing. In all cases, the desires we consider most important are most likely to be transferred into action. This includes overriding compelling physical desires to go camping, to fast or to work through the night; or allowing unrighteous desires to overcome our want of health, honesty or virtue.

Of course, ultimately we decide what desires are allowed to take root in our hearts; but the Lord has promised that we will yield the fruits of what we plant. "A just God," Alma taught, "granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life" (Alma 29:4).

From the farmer's point of view it may seem obvious that planting the right seeds in good ground is essential to yielding a profitable crop, but very few inherit such conditions. What do we do when we find patches of rocky or weed-filled ground in our garden? How can a person change what they treasure or have already planted in order to eventually harvest that field of wheat or orchard of delicious fruit?

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Robert Butchart moved from Ontario to Vancouver Island, Canada. He was among the first to develop and sell cement that could be packaged in sacks rather than barrels and Vancouver Island's rich limestone deposits were an integral part of his formula. He constructed his first quarry and cement plant in 1904 and would soon become a primary supplier of cement to rapidly developing cities from San Francisco to Seattle.

Robert's wife, Jennie, was the company's chemist. She was also a homemaker who cared very much for the sweet peas and roses planted at her family home near the quarry. As the limestone deposits were exhausted, Jennie determined to create something of beauty from the enormous pit that mining had left behind. She had tons of topsoil carted in to line the bottom of the abandoned quarry. Then she began to plant.

Jennie Butchart planted terraced flowers, white poplars and Persian plums. As more deposits were exhausted, she planted a Japanese garden and ivy that climbed up the quarry walls. She planted Tibetan blue poppies, California Redwoods, a private garden, a rose garden and two Italian gardens. Robert collected ornamental birds for the gardens and began assigning cement plant staff to help with weeding and maintenance. Little by little the garden grew and with growth came notoriety.

Today, Butchart Gardens is one of the five most renowned gardens in the world. 550 staff care for the 55-acre garden that receives more than a million visitors annually from around the world. Tourists come to tour the gardens, to take in an outdoor symphony concert or fireworks show, to ride the carousel with their kids and to enjoy the wonderful and awe-inspiring natural scenes unique to Butchart Gardens.

We may feel at times like our hearts, in whole or in part, are as hard and empty as an exhausted mining quarry. It may seem impossible to grow anything good or that all or part of us is just destined to be an empty limestone pit. While these feelings may be very real for us and even duly justified, they are tragically limited in their scope. We too often see ourselves in terms of yesterday and today; but our Heavenly Father, Elder Wirthlin has taught, sees us in terms of forever. Like Jennie Butchart, He looks at the empty hole in our hearts, sees the majestic gardens we can grow and then makes it possible for us to start planting.

Inevitably, we will all have to lay down some new soil from time to time. We do this as we decide we want to want to. In Alma's words, "behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words" (Alma 32:27). We break apart the stony ground and prepare it for planting as we set aside our cynicism in order to hear and feel the testimonies of the faithful.

The scriptures speak about this change in terms of what we seek. "When people [in the scriptures] are described as 'having lost their desire for sin,'" Elder Oaks has taught, "it is they, and they only, who deliberately decided to lose those wrong desires by being willing to 'give away all [their] sins' in order to know God." The Lord has taught that we should seek earnestly the best gifts (D&C 46:8) and that we will find what we diligently seek (1 Nephi 10:19) and consistently pursue.

When we have prepared our hearts and aroused our faculties to live the teaching of the gospel the best we can, our desires will sprout and begin to grow. We will begin to see how paying tithing, serving others and living the commandments beautifies our lives. We will defend time dedicated to studying the scriptures, serving others and building family relationships against even the most appealing intrusions and continue to nourish righteous desires through our faith and persistent effort.

"What we insistently desire over time is what we will eventually become and what we will receive in eternity," Elder Maxwell has taught. "Only by educating and training our desires can they become our allies instead of our enemies" (According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts, October 1996). Every day the world will try to influence our desires to buy something, click on something, play something, read or watch something. We must consistently seek to refine, purify and elevate our desires; to train them to be wheat instead of turning to corn.

As we plant more of the word of God in our hearts, we will be increasingly able to see what the completed garden will look like. The vision of what we can become will increase our desire and power to act enormously. Like Jennie Butchart, we will want to plant more gardens and to share what we have found with others. The transformation in our hearts will be as if we had been born again.

Along the way, we will learn a simple formula that will help us receive the blessings we seek from the Lord. The formula is recorded by Enos, among many others, who prayed "with many long strugglings" for his cousins, the Lamanites, "and labored with all diligence" to that end. The Lord recognized Enos' desires and efforts. "I will grant unto thee according to thy desires," the Lord responded to Enos' prayers, "because of thy faith" (Enos 1:11-12).

It is by grace we are saved after all we can do; and it is the faithful combination of our righteous desires and diligent efforts that will yield the blessings of the Lord, including the fruits of repentance, peace and prosperity that will enrich our lives on earth and forever after. "Let us remember," Elder Oaks taught, "that desires dictate our priorities, priorities shape our choices, and choices determine our actions. In addition, it is our actions and our desires that cause us to become something, whether a true friend, a gifted teacher, or one who is qualified for eternal life."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

If Thine Eye Offend Thee

In his epic final sermon to his people in ancient America, King Benjamin warned:

I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not (Mosiah 4:29-30).

It is easier than ever today to walk, click or even glance our way into situations that tempt us to sin in one way or another. In response, the Lord has taught that we must be proactive in our efforts to prevent or avoid those influences that would lead us into temptation. If thy hand or foot offend thee, he taught, "cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into [eternal] life maimed, than having two hands [or feet] to go into hell" (Mark 9:43, 45). Likewise, "if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire" (Mark 9:47).

Our feet, hands or eyes can offend or betray us if they cause us to stumble, to be lead astray, to sin or to abandon our faith. Of course, Christ was not advocating a policy of amputating first and asking questions later. Rather, he understood that amputation is a procedure reserved for body parts that have become seriously damaged, infected or diseased and could betray the best interests of the body by causing further harm or even death if not removed.

Further insight comes through the Joseph Smith translation of these verses. That text states:

If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; or if thy brother offend thee and confess not and forsake not, he shall be cut off... And again, if thy foot offend thee, cut it off; for he that is thy standard, by whom thou walkest, if he become a transgressor, he shall be cut off... And if thine eye which seeth for thee, him that is appointed to watch over thee to show thee light, become a transgressor and offend thee, pluck him out (JST Mark 9:40, 42, 46).

Each of us must evaluate the people and principles that guide our lives. Do we have a friend or family member that consistently tries to get us to do or accept things we know are contrary to God's commandments? Do we subscribe to a cause or behaviors or a school of thought that may ultimately lead us away from our faith in Christ? Do the leaders we choose to support and follow illuminate the path that will lead us back to our Heavenly Father or do they use illusion to lure us in some other direction?

"It follows," Elder Walter F. Gonzalez has taught, "that such cutting off refers not only to friends but to every bad influence, such as inappropriate television shows, Internet sites, movies, literature, games, or music. Engraving in our souls this principle will help us to resist the temptation to yield to any bad influence ("Today is the Time," Ensign, Nov. 2007, 55).

The Lord's teaching leaves no room for exceptions. He does not say to sever relationships unless it would be awkward or to stop following toxic leaders unless the better leaders don't seem to be popular. As any good physician would, he says clearly and decisively that we should terminate any influence in our lives that may betray the welfare of our souls.

There are diverse ways and means employed today to lead the faithful away from the strength and protection of their faith in the Good Shepherd, but each of us is admonished to be proactive in our efforts to root out spiritual infection and evil influences by the echoes of King Benjamin's words:

If ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember and perish not (Mosiah 4:29-30).

Remember: Amputate those infections influences and perish not.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Sacrament for All Time

One of the most celebrated events in Judeo-Christian history is the exodus of the Israelites from slavery. The Lord had prepared and preserved the prophet Moses to be his mouthpiece as he introduced miracles and plagues to persuade the Egyptian Pharoah to free his covenant people. When none of these were effective, a tenth plague was announced that would kill the firstborn of each family.

To preserve the lives of the faithful, the Lord also introduced the ordinance of the Passover. Those that would listen to Moses were instructed to find a male lamb without blemish and kill it after three days. The meat was to be well cooked and eaten in in a hurried way with shoes on and staffs in hand as if they would need to traverse the desert regions out of Egypt immediately following their meal. The blood of the lambs was to be displayed on the doorposts of each home as a token of their covenant.

On the appointed night, the firstborn of Egypt died. After the death of the king's son, the Israelites were finally allowed to leave Egypt.

For generations, the Passover ordinance brought together the past, the present and the future in the religious observances of faithful Israelites. It was a memorial of the what the Lord had done to preserve their lives, a reminder of vigilance required to meet the demands of the Law and be saved from death, and a call to be prepared for deliverance from bondage and for the coming of the Lord.

Three thousand years later, the same Lord that taught the Israelites about the Passover sat himself at a Passover meal in an upper room in Jerusalem. He had come to fulfill the Law of Moses and to introduce a higher law. He had prepared and preserved the lives of Peter, James, John and his other apostles to perform miracles and share the gospel message that would free mankind from the bondage of sin. He knew that no other power, no other sort of spirituality, nor the philosophies and wonders of men would be enough to save us from the spiritual death destined for us all.

To preserve both the physical and spiritual lives of the faithful, the Lord introduced the ordinance of the Sacrament. That very evening, he would go as the Lamb of God, without blemish, to Gethsemane and then to Golgatha to suffer and die for the sins and inadequacies of all mankind. Now he offered bread to his apostles so the faithful could partake of his flesh and wine to display on the doorposts of our souls as a token of the covenants we have made with him.

Like the Passover, the ordinance of the Sacrament reminds us of what the Lord has already done for us, what we should do today to be saved by the blood of the Lamb and that we need to prepare for him to keep his promises and for his glorious Second Coming. Each is worthy of our reverent contemplation. If we have appropriately prepared, we can partake of the sacrament with an attitude of urgency as if our deliverance from sin and death waits only upon our final swallow.

Just as the Israelites were delivered by the death of the king of Egypt's son, so are we delivered by the death of the Son of the Living God, the King of Kings. But not by his death only, but also by his life, for he lives and he will come again in what is sure to be a great and terrible day in eternal history of heaven and earth.

See also: Exodus 12, 1 Peter 1:18-23, Alma 34:36-41.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Upon This Rock

Not long after the death of John the Baptist, Christ led his disciples to the base of Mount Hermon in the northern reaches of Galilee. Soon he would ascend that mountain with Peter, James, and John and be transfigured before them. God the Father would be present to testify of His Beloved Son. Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist would appear to relay priesthood authority and keys. In short, the Church of Christ and the power to administer the ordinances thereof would be restored. Before the Church could be built however, the Savior sought an opportunity to lay the foundation.

At the base of the mountain was the city of Caesarea Phillipi. Though proximate to Israel, this was a Gentile resort city in the same vein as a modern Las Vegas. Since the time of Alexander the great several hundred years earlier, it had also become a place dedicated to the worship of Pan, the faun-like Greek god of nature and the wild often associated with sexuality. Unlike other Greek gods, Pan was worshiped almost exclusively in natural settings such as the hot springs present at Caesarea Phillipi. The springs at this site were so warm that they emitted a constant wave of steam through the entrance gates, which became known locally as the "Gates of Hades".

Had the disciples been aware of what was about to occur, they might have recognized the similarities between their setting in Caesarea Phillipi and their Israelite ancestors that worshiped a golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. It was on Mount Sinai that God revealed himself to Moses. Now that same God sought to reveal himself to his disciples.

"Whom do men say that I the Son of man am," he asked. In that worldly setting, his disciples responded with worldly speculations. Then the Savior asked, "But whom say ye that I am?"

Peter responded resolutely, "Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

It is worth remembering that some time just prior to the 16-mile journey to Caesarea Phillipi, Peter had a life-changing spiritual experience. In the dark of night, exhausted from more than nine hours of rowing in a storm and surrounded by the fears of his peers, Peter had hearkened to the voice of the Lord to leave the boat and walk on water. Somewhere along the way, or perhaps gradually all along the way, Peter had prepared himself to receive and follow spiritual promptings. Now his confidence in those promptings allowed him to answer the Lord's inquiry with conviction.

The Lord commended Peter for his answer and emphasized that "flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven." Christ continued:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:18-19).

What was the rock that Christ would use to build his church? What was the foundation that had to be laid for the pending restoration to succeed?

Was it Peter himself, whose name means "small rock" in Greek? They were, after all, in a Greek city; but if Peter were the foundation wouldn't it be the Church of Peter rather than the Church of Christ?

Or did Christ mean the rock of the mountain where he would soon ascend with Peter, James and John to restore priesthood authority and keys? Certainly it would be hard to miss the large rock face that was the strength of Caesarea Phillipi. Was Christ simply hinting that his church would be restored on that mountain and that Peter would be present?

Or did Christ refer to the city built into the rock? Didn't the apostles build the church of Christ largely upon similar Gentile cities in Turkey, Greece and Syria after the ascension of Christ?

All of these theories and many more have been debated by scripture scholars for hundreds if not thousands of years. Perhaps all of them have some merit. Thankfully, the Lord taught the Prophet Joseph Smith the primary intention of this expression. He explained, "Jesus in His teachings says, 'Upon this rock I will build my Church...' What rock? Revelation" (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 195. emphasis added). 

Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. This is the rock emphasized by the Savior as the foundation of His Church. It was His Church. Peter would be chosen to serve as Christ's mouthpiece on the earth for a time, but the Savior himself would continue to lead the Church by revelation just as he had periodically revealed his will to Moses on Mount Sinai. 

Christ leads his restored church today through revelation to prophets, just as he has always done. As Joseph Smith testified, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded upon direct revelation, as the true Church of God has ever been, according to the Scriptures" (TPC: JS, 195). This distinguishes the Church from all other religious sects.

Likewise, we have the promise of our Creator and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, that if we will rely on the foundation of revelation in our lives the world will not prevail against us. Even if it seems as though we stand at the gates of hell, if we are prepared and willing to follow the promptings we receive the best is yet to come. There is a glorious experience for each of us at the top of the mountain.

Twice each year, living prophets address the Church to share the mind and will of the Lord as it has been revealed to them. If we are prepared and willing to follow the promptings we receive, the Lord will teach us what we need to do to get out of the boat, to be protected from the evils of the world and to see his plan from a higher altitude. As we are all children of God, we are all encouraged to listen to what the Lord has to say. Archived messages and information about how to view these messages live can be found at

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Walking on Water

All of us have heard the story about the time that Christ, and for a short time, Peter, walked on water. We know that the wind was blowing and that Peter took a few steps on the choppy sea before he began to doubt and sink. We’ve talked at church and at home about the importance of keeping our focus on Christ and how Christ will help us when we falter. We know this stuff, and it is important, but we also miss a lot when we examine this experience as an isolated incident. Consider for a moment the many lessons available for us in the context of this story:

Less than 24 hours before Christ traversed the surface of the stormy sea, he learned that his cousin, friend and predecessor, John the Baptist, had been killed unjustly to satisfy a young woman who had danced for the king. The news was a heavy blow and Christ soon boarded a ship across the Sea of Galilee to the wilderness where he could be alone to grieve.

When he reached the opposite coast however, Christ found that thousands of people had walked the several miles around the sea to be with him when he arrived. Rather than sending them away or being frustrated that he couldn’t get a moment for himself, Christ spent the rest of the day preaching and healing the sick.

When evening came and there was no food, Christ could have very easily dismissed the crowd with no ill will. Surely after the loss of John and a full day of ministering to the multitude, he would have been justified in doing so. But the scriptures say that he was moved with compassion and instead performed a miracle to feed the multitude.

Finally, sometime after dinnertime, Christ told the disciples to take the boat and head home. He stayed with the crowd a little longer and then sent them to their homes as well. It had been a full day. Christ was probably physically and emotionally exhausted, but he was finally alone. Still seeking solace himself, he climbed a nearby mountain to pray.

Hours later, the disciples were struggling to get home. The five-mile journey that might normally take about two hours had stretched into a very difficult nine or more hours of rowing in a choppy sea against a blasting wind. What physical strength they had was likely exhausted. Different personalities in the boat may have been upset or annoyed or even a little incredulous that they had battled through the entire night and were still stuck out in the middle of the sea. Some might have been scared that they weren’t going to make it across at all.

Then, sometime between three and six in the morning, the disciples saw a mysterious figure out on the water. Christ had seen them struggling from the temple-mountain where he had been praying and had walked the five or more miles to where they were. He was unrecognizable in the dark of night and the disciples cried out in fear of what they thought may be an evil spirit. Christ responded, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”

Peter recognized the voice of the Lord and answered, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” Peter’s qualifying statement, “if it be thou”, indicates that Christ was probably still at least partially hidden by the darkness. Christ told Peter to come to him.

Most of us recognize that it is a bit irrational under normal circumstances to get out of a boat that is nowhere near land. By this logic, it is then completely irrational to do so at night amid high wind and waves when you are completely exhausted from a full day of service and a full night of rowing and your peers are terrified of what they see outside the boat. Peter knew this, but Peter got out of the boat.

In utter contradiction to everything he knew to be possible, Peter then walked on the water. He took a few obedient steps before suddenly becoming aware again that he was in the middle of the storm and that what he was doing was impossible. As he sensed himself beginning to falter, he called out, “Lord, save me.” Immediately, the Savior stretched forth his hand and caught Peter. When both men had reached to boat, the storm ceased. The rest of the disciples then recognized the Lord and worshipped him.

The boat made landfall in early morning and again Christ was met by crowds of people seeking healing for themselves and their loved ones. Despite all that had happened and now more than 24 hours without sleep, Christ spent the day ministering unto the people, healing their sick, contending with the Pharisees, and performing another miracle to feed the multitudes.

In the 24 verses adjacent to the story of Christ walking on the water in Matthew 14, we find a rich context with filled with insightful details and instructive gospel lessons. In these verses we learn that Christ always has time for us and is always ready to provide help and healing. We learn that when we serve others even when we are grieved or sad, we are following the example of our Savior. We learn that we can find solace in the temple and in prayer, just as the Savior did.

The context prepares our heart and mind to learn that even though God might not always spare us from the storms of life, he is aware of us and will come to our aid; that we get credit for trying; and that if we will try to come to him he will catch us when we start to sink. It helps us see the power of love and the deceit of fear.

From Peter we learn that sometimes we cannot overcome our trials on our own or even with the support of friends and family; but that doesn’t mean our trials cannot be overcome. We learn the importance of recognizing the voice of the Lord and trusting his voice above the fearful voices of the world or even our own logic. We do not have to see Christ to know he is there. And though it may not always be rational or even possible to obey his voice, the Lord will help us do the impossible if we will just get out of the boat. Indeed, the boat is often our biggest obstacle.

The story of Christ walking on the water is one of the best-known Bible stories worldwide. Its richness is enhanced when we understand the emotions, symbols and other details surrounding it. And best of all, it is true and so are the principles we learn from it. Jesus Christ is the Creator of heaven and Earth. He is our Savior. He loves us. He wants each of us to come to him. He wants each of us to walk on water.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Glory of God is Intelligence

"The glory of God is intelligence," the Lord has declared, "or, in other words, light and truth" (D&C 93:36). If it is our goal to be admitted into his presence and thereby obtain his glory, we must pursue light and truth with the decisions that we make.

We will not always be successful in our pursuits, individually or collectively. The Lord taught Joseph Smith that "the wicked one cometh and taketh away light and truth, through disobedience, from the children of men, and because of the tradition of their fathers" (D&C 93:39). As a missionary in Germany I often spoke with people who were unwilling to hear about the restored gospel because of their ingrained family traditions, regardless of whether they were active in those traditions or spiritually uplifted by them. Likewise, most of us have experienced the absence of light in our lives that follows when we fail to study the scriptures or pray regularly.

There are more ways that we could disobey than would be worthwhile to list, but it is particularly germane here to consider those things that have become habit or tradition. Are there traditions in your life that take away light and truth rather than helping you or your family to grow in light and truth? This might include the movies and television shows we choose to watch, when and what types of activities we choose to do as a family, our Sabbath-day worship, the social and political causes we support, and how we fill our spare time.

Of course, each of us has agency and many of these decisions are between us and the Lord; but that doesn't mean that what we're comfortable doing is what the Lord would have us do. Abraham grew up in a family that worshiped idols and may have become an influential man in that society had he followed in the footsteps of his father. Yet, he decided to break the tradition to seek after "greater happiness and peace and rest" through the priesthood covenant (Abraham 1:2). We do well when we use our agency as Abraham did: to break the traditions that separate us from God and replace them with those that bring greater light and truth into our lives.

The Lord explains how this can be done:

Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you... And if your eye be single to my glory, your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light and comprehendeth all things. Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will (D&C 88:53, 67-68).

As we seek to sanctify our lives of those traditions that may be robbing us of the light and truth God desires to send into our lives-- including those that may be good but are not better or best-- the Lord will prepare us to see his face and abide his glory.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Staying on the Path with the Word of Christ

Follow in His Footsteps
by Liz Lemon Swindle
If you knew your time on earth was coming to a close, what would you tell your children, your friends and your loved ones to help them with their sojourn here? If you could write just two or three pages that you knew would be read by faithful seekers of truth for thousands of years, what would you include on those pages?

In the final chapters of 2 Nephi, the prophet for whom that book is named had that very opportunity, which he used to summarize the gospel plan. The primary purpose of our life on earth is to qualify to return to live with our Heavenly Father. Our physical bodies, the tests and trials we endure, and everything else that is part of living here on earth is ancillary to this main objective.

Nephi explains in 2 Nephi 31 that the path that leads us back to our Heavenly Father begins with living the gospel. Scripturally defined, this means we are striving each day to have faith, to repent of our sins and correct our mistakes, to make and keep sacred covenants such as baptism and to be worthy of and willing to listen to the voice of the Holy Ghost. This is how we find the path.

“And now, my beloved brethren, after ye have gotten into this strait and narrow path, I would ask if all is done? Behold, I say unto you, Nay: for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.

“Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).

Nephi emphasizes here that we find our faith through the word of Christ and that, once we have found the path that leads to eternal life, we start walking along the path by “feasting upon the word of Christ” and enduring to the end. He emphasizes this again in Chapter 32, in which Nephi explains how to stay on the path once you have found it.

“Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.

“And now I, Nephi… am left to mourn because of the unbelief, and the wickedness, and the ignorance, and the stiffneckedness of men; for they will not search knowledge, nor understand great knowledge, when it is given to them in plainness, even as plain as word can be… But behold, I say unto you that ye must pray always, and not faint; that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Nephi 32:3, 7, 9).

As we begin walking the strait and narrow, we will undoubtedly find it is not a well-groomed trail. Rather, it is a wilderness trail and there are obstacles along the way. We should not be surprised if, from time to time, our trail has a strenuous incline or we are required to cross a stream of doubt or the way becomes rocky and it is difficult to know which way we should go.

In such times, it is critical that we stay on the path. As a teenager, my father, brother and I endeavored to backpack across the Uintah mountain range in Utah. The first couple of days went well. As we reached the summit of Bell Pass however, my dad suggested we leave the path and take a shortcut. He had been looking at the map and he was confident he had found a better way. My brother and I were less confident, but we agreed and began walking across the rugged mountain tundra. After about three hours of walking, we came to a large cliff. There was no way around it, we were unequipped to repel down it and we were now out of water and nowhere near reaching our camp.

To make a long story short, with great effort we eventually made it back to the trail and found drinkable water, but our so-called shortcut put us so far behind schedule we never made it to our planned destination. Ending up in “some other place” is not the outcome we want for our life’s journey. We must stay on the gospel path, as Nephi directs, by receiving the words of Christ delivered through the Holy Ghost in response to our study and our faith. As we study the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets and ask the Lord our questions in prayer, we will learn the principles and receive the revelation we need to stay on or return to the path despite the obstacles.

Finally, in Chapter 33 Nephi explains that when we have entered the path and made some progress, we will have the charitable desire to share what we have found with our families, our friends, and the world. The first thing I usually do after I have found a great hiking trail is text my brother or post pictures on social media so my friends and family can share the incredible views. In essence, once we are converted, we will want to do missionary work to bring others onto the trail and help convert all of God’s children.

Not coincidentally, all of these principles are illustrated in Lehi’s dream. The faithful in the dream felt their way toward the truth and then clung to the iron rod, which is the word of God, through mists of darkness and the mocking of the world. Then, when Lehi tasted of the fruit to which the word of God led him, he immediately turned and looked for his family so they could taste it, too.

Now I’d like to remind all of us of Nephi’s words and suggest a few things we can do to lengthen our stride and improve our rate of progress toward the kingdom of God, whatever that rate might presently be. “For ye have not come thus far,” Nephi taught, “save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him… Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:19-20).

Sometimes when you start to get tired on a long hike, it helps to think about how far you’ve already come. On my own spiritual journey, that includes a time when I was 17 and I decided to take Moroni up on his promise regarding the Book of Mormon. I was working three jobs at the time and would often come home very tired, but I wanted and needed to know for myself. I found that it took some time before I could really settle into the text without my mind wandering, so I committed to read four chapters each day. I would pray before I read and I would pray after I read. By the time I crawled into bed the cares of the day had melted away, but after weeks of reading at least four chapters each night I still didn’t feel I had received an answer.

Then it came. One of my jobs was delivering pizza and I had just dropped off a pair of pies for someone in my ward. I was listening to the radio, as I often did. As I drove past the cemetery, suddenly my soul was illuminated with a powerful and clear impression that the Book of Mormon is true and that I needed to prepare to serve a mission. For a few moments these thoughts drowned out my music and I knew my prayers had been answered because I had been studying and developing my intent and capacity to act when an answer did come.

Three years later I sat in the kitchen of Brother and Sister Gruenewaelder for a simple evening meal. I had been studying Joseph Smith History and somehow that topic had prevailed at the table that night. After dinner, my missionary companion and I recounted again the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. As I testified that Joseph Smith had, in fact, seen God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, the spirit again came powerfully to my soul and I knew for certain that these things were true.

This summer it has been my privilege to be studying the New Testament. Reading in Luke Chapter 19, I read a version of the parable where the Lord gave his servants ten pounds, five pounds or one pound and then went away for a while. This was, I assume, long before Brexit, when it may have still been reasonable to be dealing in pounds. As you know, those with ten or five pounds doubled their investments, while those with only one pound did not act and lost what they had been given.

Reading Luke’s version, the Lord’s command before he departed stuck out to me. “Occupy till I come,” he told his servants; or, as the Greek translation in the footnote advises, “Do business till I come.” The words of another scripture came to my mind as I read and I remembered that the Lord has told us in our dispensation to be “anxiously engaged” in good causes, and particularly in establishing Zion preparatory to his Second Coming. In that moment I also had a few ideas of things I could be doing to be more anxiously engaged in the Lord’s work.

When the going gets tough and I start to feel spiritually tired or doubt starts creeping into my thoughts, it helps me to remember that the word of Christ has taught me and guided me as often as I would listen. He has led me to the gospel, to the Church, on a mission to faraway Germany, to a wife that is beautiful in every way, to a family that brings me joy, to meaningful work I enjoy, to truths that keep me grounded when the world is in commotion, and to be here speaking with you today.

Now, if we have found our way to the path that leads us back to our Heavenly Father, it is my responsibility and yours to start walking and keep walking. It’s not enough to stand at the trailhead and it’s not enough to have a good couple of days and then decide at the top of a pass that we’re going to head off in our own direction! If we are going to reach our desired destination, and I hope none of us would aim for anything less than exaltation, we must press forward along the path by feasting upon the word of Christ.

The word of Christ is found in the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets, and the personal revelation we receive through the Holy Ghost. When we feast upon the word of Christ, we will do more than simply read the words. Rather, we will use divinely inspired resources like the topical guide, the bible dictionary, scripture cross references, seminary and institute manuals, and so forth, to seek to understand the stories and details in the scriptures. Then we will seek to identify and better understand both stated and implied doctrines and principles in the text.

A doctrine is a fundamental, unchanging truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Gospel Teaching and Learning: A Handbook for Teachers and Leaders in Seminaries and Institutes of Religion, 1.3). Elder Boyd K. Packer taught that “True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior. The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior” (“Little Children,” Ensign, November 1986, 17). As we learn and apply the doctrines of the gospel in our scripture study, we are more likely to live consistent with the laws that govern our happiness.

Likewise, Elder Richard G. Scott has taught that “Principles are concentrated truth, packaged for application to a wide variety of circumstances. A true principle makes decisions clear even under the most confusing and compelling circumstances” (“Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge”, Ensign, November 1993, 86).

For example, as a freshman in college I learned in my introductory economics class about the principle of sunken costs. That principle says that if I spend $25 on nonrefundable movie tickets for Friday night and then learn there’s a party where I’d rather be, I should go to the party. I’ve spent the $25 either way and so the best choice is the one that brings me the greatest utility or makes me happiest. More generally, decisions are best made looking forward rather than looking backward.

The same principle holds true when we have sinned. We compound our sin when we decide what to do next based on the sins and errors committed in our past. The Lord invites us to come to him, to let our scarlet-sin-stained garments be cleansed white as snow, and to be anxiously engaged in doing good moving forward rather than turning to salt looking backward.

Another principle I have learned is that a study of the doctrines and principles of the gospel in scripture and prophetic teachings unlocks personal revelation. I’ve heard it said that if we want to talk to God we should pray; and if we want God to talk to us, we should read our scriptures. I have experienced this in my own life, as illustrated earlier, and I testify now to you that it is true.

As we seek to find and understand doctrines and principles in our study, we will be like the young woman who began digging in the sand at the beach. Very soon, she found a precious gem in the sand and held it up to the sun to inspect its brilliant light. Thrilled with her discovery, she put the gem in her satchel where it would be safe and continued to dig. She soon found another gem, and another, and another. Some of the gems were only just below the sand’s surface, others were further down, but each shone brilliantly when the young woman held it up to the light of the sun and added it to the collection she had in her satchel.

The sand in this parable is like the stories and contextual details in the scriptures. As we begin to ask questions and search for greater understanding, we are digging in the text and we will soon find that the Holy Ghost will illuminate shining principles that will lead us down the path toward our Heavenly Father. We may have to dig longer for some and less for others, but all the principles we need for our lives are waiting in the word of Christ for us to find them.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Brothers and sisters, the scriptures offer us so many doctrinal diamonds. And when the light of the Spirit plays upon their several facets, they sparkle with celestial sense and illuminate the path we are to follow” (“According to the Desires of [Our] Hearts,” Ensign, November 1996, 21).

Just as digging at the beach every day could soon build a collection of treasures, a regular study of the scriptures brings edification.

The word edify comes originally from the Latin roots aedes, meaning a dwelling or a temple, and facere, meaning to make. Therefore, to edify relates to building a temple and means to build or strengthen spiritually. A temple is built brick by brick or stone by stone, but when it is completed it is a beautiful and sacred refuge where God himself may dwell. Physical strength comes workout by workout or day by day filled with hard work, but over time we find we are able to do more without tiring. Likewise, as we consistently study the word of Christ, we will find that with edification comes also joy, peace, enlightenment and desires for righteous living that we can use to build a happy and fulfilling life.

In addition to our regular scripture study, sometimes we find ourselves on rough patches of trail that we don’t know how or don’t have strength enough to cross on our own. These patches are given to us as a gift to help us seek and obtain greater edification that the Lord is ready to give us. At a recent BYU-Idaho devotional, Sister Sheri Dew taught that “once [we] have received a spiritual witness of the truths that form a testimony, even [our] thorniest questions about our doctrine, history, positions on sensitive issues, or the aching desires of your hearts, are about personal growth. They are opportunities for [us] to receive personal revelation and increase [our] faith” (“Will You Engage in the Wrestle?, May 2016).

Some of those thorny questions might include things like:

- Why am I the only one in my family who struggles to believe?

- Will the Lord ever forgive me for breaking my covenants?

- Why is life so hard sometimes?

- Is a prophet infallible?

- Did Joseph Smith really have more than one wife?

- How do I know if I’m receiving revelation?

- Why can’t women be ordained to the priesthood?

- What if the Church’s position on gay marriage bothers me?

- How do I understand the temple when I can’t ask questions about it?

- How do I raise my children to be righteous in an evil world?

We can approach these spots in the path as doubters, who look for a quick excuse to turn around or leave the path altogether, or as seekers ready to put forth the effort to learn by study and by faith. Seekers know that they have not “come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him” and that questions or hard times do not erase the word of Christ we have already received into our testimonies. On the contrary, rough patches in the trail provide a renewed opportunity to spend some time digging at the beach, as it were, to be edified, and to take a few more steps toward our ultimate goal of returning to live with our Father in Heaven.

Please don’t misunderstand here: the decision seekers make to use difficult questions or experiences to enhance their gospel study is not only about preserving past investment, though we should not easily decide to walk back down the path, but like my decision to go to the party instead of the movie I’d already paid for, it is a forward-looking decision. Seekers know that what may be a small difference of attitude today can determine whether they reach their destination at the end of the trail or find themselves lost in the wilderness at the top of an impassable cliff. Seeing the future on the horizon with an eye of faith, seekers know that rough patches are just rough patches, that the gems they need are already on the beach, as it were, and that, like the view from the top of a mountain that I am anxious to share with all of Facebook, the best is yet to come.

In summary, brother and sisters, I submit that each of us have only come as far as we have along the trail through the word of Christ and our future progress is dependent upon our willingness to feast upon the word. We enhance our study as we seek to understand the context and content, identify and understand doctrines and principles, and then ultimately gain a testimony of and apply those principles.

What good is a satchel full of gems relegated to the attic of our minds? Rather let us do business until he comes, anxiously applying what we have learned to our lives, that the treasures we find may be added upon at his return. As we press forward with a firm grasp on the iron rod, we will be edified and find the strength and joy we need for our lives.

Sacrament Meeting Talk (as written, at least) 7/10/2016

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sequoiadendron Giganteum

High in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California is an organism unlike any other in the world. At well over 200 feet tall and sometimes more than 35 feet wide, the Sequoiadendron Giganteum, better known as Giant Sequoia trees, are the largest living things on earth.

They're also one of the oldest. Some of the Giant Sequoias standing today have held their ground for more than 3,500 years. They have tasted of the same winds that filled the sails of fishing boats during China's first dynasty. Perhaps they heard when Babylon fell, the singing of the Israelites being led out of Egypt, or the clanging of swords and shields as the Jaredites battled to their own extinction. Only the Bristlecone Pines of the Great Basin and Chile's Alerce trees have lived longer.

Over last three millennia, while Sequoias have stood tall, literally hundreds of forests have been eliminated due to fires, insects, droughts and other natural phenomenon. Others have been cut down to build homes, weapons, canoes and books. Some forests have regrown; some have struggled because of poor soil quality, harsh environmental conditions, or the prevalence of nut-eating animals that devoured their potential before it ever had a chance to take root. Surely Sequoias are among the luckiest species on earth to have avoided all of that.

Except, of course, that Sequoias haven't avoided those things at all. Sequoia trees grow at high elevations where life-sustaining air and water are both in short supply. Their trunks are so large and so soft (you can punch them without hurting your hand) that it is physically impossible for the trees to push sufficient water from the roots to the branches basking in the sun high above the ground. As they grow, Sequoias provide shade for other plants that soon begin to crowd the trees and suffocate their roots. Worst of all are the disasters.

In the mountains of central California, it is not uncommon for naturally occurring fires to burn hundreds of thousands of acres on an annual basis. Drought conditions can persist for several years and every twenty years or so there will be a winter with no snow at all. When most trees don't have enough moisture to produce sap, the insects invade and wipe them out. All of these and more-- like the earthquakes for which California has become infamous-- happen regularly in and around the groves of Sequoia trees. Really, Sequoias are set up for miserable failure. So how are they still here? How have they endured when nothing else has?

One meaningful way we can answer those questions is by looking for true principles in a similar situation set in a different environment. This will help us discern eternal truths from circumstantial evidence.

After the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833, the Lord commanded the Prophet Joseph Smith to lead a group of men from Ohio to help their fellow church members. Roughly 200 men were gathered for what many at that time thought would be a military mission to reclaim property and push back against the mobs that were persecuting the Saints. The group, originally known as the Camp of Israel but better known today as Zion's Camp, was entirely self-funded with some members consecrating as much as $170 (valued at more than $5,000 today), at a time when most Americans made less than a dollar a day. It would also prove to be an extremely difficult and soul-searching experience for its participants, who would walk as much as 40 miles each day through dehydration, hunger, sickness, humidity and heat.

Ultimately, the Lord would disband Zion's Camp before it had fought a single battle. Some of the men were angry at this outcome and apostatized from the church. Others were disappointed or supposed the camp to have been a miserable failure. Joseph Smith, who had contracted cholera and suffered a great deal himself while marching from Ohio to Missouri, would later explain to the Saints, "God did not want you to fight. He could not organize his kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham" (History of the Church, 2:182n). Through incredible opposition, the Lord unlocked even greater potential.

The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Quorum of Seventy were founded in February 1835. Nine of the original Twelve and all members of the Seventy had marched with Zion's Camp. These men would go on to baptize thousands. They would organize the wagon trains across the plains and establish communities throughout the mountain west. In short order, and with faith in the Lord's blessings, they would make the desert blossom as a rose and build both the temporal assets and spiritual legacy that are a great strength to the Church even today.

The prophet Lehi taught that "it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, ... righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad" (2 Nephi 2:11; see also verse 15). This was true even in our pre-mortal existence, when Lucifer sought to destroy the Father's plan and capture His glory. Cast out of heaven, Lucifer and his followers roam the earth tempting and seeking to deceive those who were loyal to God. Yet, as Elder Oaks has pointed out, "that the evil one, who opposed and sought to destroy the Father's plan, actually facilitated it, because it is the opposition that enables choice... that leads to the growth that is the purpose of the Father's plan" (Opposition in All Things, April 2016).

Sequoia trees are no different: their adversity is their strength. Their height protects their cones from many of that animals that would use their cones for food and ensures the trees get the sunlight they need. Their soft trunks, useless to mankind for wood, store moisture and are naturally fire-resistant. Though insects may penetrate their bark, Sequoias are not dependent on their trunks to push water to the rest of the tree. The grace of an occasional fog provides moisture to the branches, preventing the trees from dying, and allows the tree to grow back where insects may have burrowed.

Then, every so often, the stress of drought and crowding underbrush reaches fever pitch and a bolt of lightning sets the forest on fire. What would be the end of most trees is a glorious beginning for the deep-rooted Sequoias as the fire's heat begins to expand the otherwise tightly sealed Sequoia cones. As the cones are opened, each tree releases up to 400,000 winged seeds onto the freshly fertilized ground below. Because the trees are so tall, seeds can float hundreds of feet away to find an open patch of ground. Through incredible opposition, even greater potential is unlocked.

As seeds turn into seedlings and seedlings turn into trees, Sequoias create an additional barrier around their groves. Where there are Sequoia trees, it will be difficult for other trees to grow; and where few other trees grow, fatal forest fires are reduced to brush fires that cause temporary pain and scarring but also fertilize the ground so the Giant Sequoias can grow stronger and establish a generation to last another three thousand years.

One thing that distinguishes us all from Sequoia trees is ability to choose. Sequoia trees are what they were created to be and they fulfill their role in God's plan. Each of us has been created as child of God with a divine and glorious potential. Our role is to learn to be like our Heavenly Father through faith in Christ and his Atonement, repentance, making and keeping covenants, relying on the Holy Ghost and enduring all things; but unlike Sequoia trees, we are allowed to choose whether the opposition inherent to this life will unlock our potential or weaken our ability to resist the dangerous fires of worldly philosophies and temptations. We can plant the seed of our testimony on fertile ground and become the faithful builders of an eternal Zion; or we can harden our hearts and become like the destructive apostates that are swept away when times get tough.

We get to choose what kind of a tree we will be in the forest of God's creations, but the choice we make will determine our destiny. If we will choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, using opposition to build the strength of our faith rather than deplete it, offering all we have and are as Abraham did, the Lord will send us his tender mercies as the fog to strengthen us now and expand our souls until they are more glorious than even the Giant Sequoias.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Magic Mirrors and the Perfect Law of Liberty

About an hour east of Frankfurt, Germany, is the small city of Lohr. Like hundreds of other European cities, the highlight of Lohr is the spectacular castle that was once the center of a bustling fiefdom. Inside, visitors find thousands of evidences of the wealth and luxury of its former occupants, but none more striking than the iconic Lohr Mirror.

The Lohr Mirror Manufacture of the eighteenth century was truly ahead of its time. After thousands of years of using pools of water or polished copper to produce faint and distorted reflections, the Lohr Manufacture had developed an elaborate production process that resulted in more reflected light and much clearer images.

By the 1720s, Lohr mirrors had gained a reputation for "always speaking the truth" and became a favorite gift of the European crown and aristocratic courts. Like Narcissus of Greek mythology, who fell in love with his own reflection and would rather die than part with it, it was during the heyday of the Lohr Mirror Manufacture that people began to be accused of spending excessive amounts of time "looking into the glass," almost always in self-admiration.

It was also during this period that Phillipp Christoph von Erthal gave an elegant full-length Lohr mirror to his second wife, the Countess Claudia Elisabeth von Venningen, to display in the Lohr Castle where they lived. When Phillipp died in the 1740s, local legend says the "talking mirror" became the center of Claudia's life. Increasingly obsessed with her own image, Claudia soon began to be insanely jealous of her step-daughter, the Baroness Maria Sophia von Erthal, whom the people of Lohr adored as an "angel of mercy and kindness" and the ideal princess.

Before long, Maria, who is better known today as the Grimm Brothers’ "Snow White", was forced to flee 22 miles through the mountains to escape her stepmother's murderous plots. She found sanctuary for a time in the mining community of Bieber, which was primarily staffed by children at the time, until her stepmother found and poisoned her there.

The fairy tale gets a little strange at this point, but in the story of the Countess von Venningen, we find a troubling obsession with self-image that, like Narcissus, leads to physical and spiritual death. We can expect a similar consequence if we hold our own self-interest like a mirror between us and the rest of the world, for it will severely inhibit our ability to make connections, build relationships and see and enjoy all that is good about life. In selfish and narrow-minded seeking for whatever life we've conjured up for ourselves, the Lord has promised that we will lose our lives (Luke 17:33).

The tragedies of Narcissus, the Countess and others like them are made worse by the realization that the images that have so captivated their subjects are nothing more than distorted reflections of physical light, void of substance and incapable of showing the viewer a complete picture of the reality within or around them. The Lord told Samuel that he, "seeth not as a man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Though our physical appearance may deceive ourselves and others for a time, the Lord knows the reality of who we are and our inner thoughts, desires and emotions.

We can now and someday all will have a perfect knowledge of who we really are. Paul wrote that "for now we see through a glass, darkly," but that one day, "when that which is perfect is come," we will see these realities "face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12). This includes the glorious truths of our divine heritage. The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares that "all human beings--male and female--are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny."

James, the brother of Jesus, taught us how we can see ourselves as we really are. "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer," he said, "he [or she] is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what matter of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed" (James 1:23-25). 

The particular language here provides us the insights we need. Both Paul and James speak of perfection in contrast to our present vision, and more particularly, in contrast to what we see in the mirror. Paul tells us that we will see clearly “when that which is perfect is come”. James suggests that looking into the perfect law of liberty is in direct competition with looking forgetfully at our reflection. But how do we look into a law? And how does that really contrast with the man who looked into the mirror-- like Narcissus and the Countess-- yet forgot who he really was?

In a 1981 General Conference address, President Marion G. Romney reminded us that many of those with the greatest political and economic freedom never experience true freedom of the soul. "Free agency," he cautioned, "precious as it is, is not of itself the perfect liberty we seek, nor does it necessarily lead thereto. As a matter of fact, through the exercise of their agency more people have come to political, economic, and personal bondage than to liberty."

Yet, "notwithstanding the fact that through its misuse, political, economic and personal liberty are lost, free agency will always endure because it is an eternal principle. However, the free agency possessed by any one person is increased or diminished by the use to which he puts it" ("The Perfect Law of Liberty", October 1981, emphasis added).

In other words, we "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" (2 Nephi 2:27). This is not done all at once, but each choice we make either adds to our freedom or to our bondage. The Countess von Venningen had nearly unlimited political and economic freedom. She could have won the affection of her people by throwing wonderful parties or planting elaborate gardens or easing their burdens. Instead, she allowed each glance at the mirror to narrow her vision and replace potential for joy with enraged jealousy until she became a slave to her obsession and sealed her own fate to an eternal bondage.

Contrast the Countess' experience with the Apostle Paul, who was often persecuted and penniless. He wrote to the Corinthians:

Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness" (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

Despite all of this, Paul wrote to Timothy shortly before his death: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing" (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Paul, who forfeited economic and political freedom to become a disciple of Christ, and who was writing from a prison cell in Rome, expresses here the perfect freedom of the soul he enjoyed despite earthly tribulations.

Christ taught that "whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth forever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:34-36). And again, "they who are not sanctified through the law which I have given unto you, even the law of Christ, must inherit another kingdom, even that of a terrestrial kingdom, or that of a telestial kingdom. For he who is not able to abide the law of a celestial kingdom cannot abide a celestial glory" (D&C 86:21-22). And again, "Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven" (D&C121:45).

This, then, is the perfect law of liberty: that as we choose obedience to the laws of Christ, we will find liberty of the soul in direct proportion to our obedience until our obedience and our liberty become perfect. If we look into the perfect law of liberty, that is, if we lay aside our filthiness and become doers of the word as James directs, the light that is reflected back at us will not be imperfect physical rays but the perfect light of Christ, of the gospel, and of things as they really are (D&C 93:28Jacob 4:13). 

"That which is of God is light," the Lord taught the Prophet Joseph Smith, "and he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light groweth brighter and brighter until the perfect day" (D&C 50:24). When we follow President Monson's counsel to defy the consensus and choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, we are choosing liberty and eternal life rather than captivity and death and we will receive more spiritual light as a result-- but there are really two processes going on at once.

First, through our faithful action upon the words of God we receive more light and truth from the Lord. We will be capable of even greater faith and obedience. But second, and of equal or greater importance, is that as we continually repent and improve in our obedience we are refined, not unlike a Lohr Mirror, until we become mirrors of spiritual light that "always speak the truth". That is, we undergo a process of learning and refining until we perfectly reflect his image in our countenances (Alma 5:14).

"Ye are the light of the world," the Lord taught, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16). Our goal in striving to obey the words of scripture, of modern prophets, and of the Holy Ghost, is not to become our own dim light in the world but rather that through our good works our brothers and sisters will see the Light of the World, our Savior and theirs, and come into his fold.

To be able to reflect that light, James again directs: "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). "And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world," the Lord has taught us in modern times, "thou shalt go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day" (D&C 59:9).

As we strive to live the gospel, we are both receivers and reflectors of the light that gives liberty to us all. If we choose, our light and liberty can grow until the Lord's image is reflected in our countenance and, thus endowed with light and truth, we will stand confidently in the presence of God as one of his fold, not as rulers of a small fiefdom but as heirs to the supreme celestial light and glory of the King of Kings and the Creator of the Universe (John 10:14, Matthew 7:31D&C 93:36John 3:21).

Then, perhaps, you'll also have a chance to meet the real Snow White. If you do, perhaps you can also ask her what that business with the prince was really all about.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sinners and Fools

Every Primary child knows the story of the Wise Man and the Foolish Man. The Savior taught:

Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.

And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon the house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27).

Like the fool who built his house on a poor foundation, we have all made mistakes and errors in judgement. On a wilderness backpacking trip many years ago, my brother and dad and I set out to cross a particular mountain range over the course of about a week. After climbing a particular pass, we decided to leave the trail for what appeared to be a shorter path over a flat mountain summit. We thought our shortcut would give us more time to relax and go fishing.

Over the next couple of hours we crossed the rocky mountain tundra until we came to the top of a tall and seemingly impassable cliff face that stretched the entire length of the mountain. Below the cliff was a loose rock scramble to the base of the mountain. We did not have the equipment or expertise for either the cliff or the scramble, but we had also used the last of our water supply and were not anxious to walk back the way we had come.

It only took a few moments to decide to throw our backpacks off the cliff. We watched them bounce, roll and slide to a stop near the base. Then we began scaling the cliff face. It was slow going, but we made it to the scramble and slid down the loose rocks to recover our packs. Exhausted, but fortunately uninjured except for the 18-inch hole in my new pants, we recovered our packs and climbed over the last few boulders in the scramble to reach the meadow beyond. Now several hours behind schedule, we walked only a few paces to find the nicely groomed trail we had left hours earlier.

Our errant judgement had made our hike more difficult and cost us in time and the money I now needed for new pants. Ultimately, it also meant that we would not make it to our planned destination in the time we had. But though our mistakes were regrettable, they were not sinful nor were they without educational benefit.

The apostle John taught that "whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law" (1 John 3:4). Elder Dallin H. Oaks has taught that sins result from willful disobedience of the laws we have received by explicit teaching of the scriptures, prophets, parents, teachers or the Spirit of Christ, our conscience, that teaches every man the general principles of right and wrong and provides a defense from situations that are spiritually harmful ("Sins and Mistakes", BYU Speeches, August 1994). We can transgress the laws of God by doing things we've been commanded not to do, such as lying or stealing, and by doing not doing things we have been commanded to do, such as keeping the Sabbath Day holy and sharing the gospel. Sins are, in essence, rebellion against God; certainly our blunder did not amount to rebellion.

The mistakes and folly common to us all, like the foolish man's construction on sandy ground, result from ignorance of the laws of God, the workings of the universe or the people God has created. Our mistakes may be choices to do something good rather than something better or best. Though our navigational error was regrettable, it was, like all mistakes, also educational. I learned the value of staying on the trail, having a plan for water and making decisions based on the best way forward rather than where I've been. If we learn from our mistakes, we diminish our ignorance and will make better decisions in the future.

It is important to distinguish between sins and mistakes in our own behavior, and the behavior of those for whom we have stewardship, because the Lord has commissioned different responses for each. The Lord taught the early leaders of the church that "any member of the church of Christ transgressing, or being overtaken in a fault, shall be dealt with as the scriptures direct" (D&C 20:80). Having separated transgression and fault as separate types of offenses, he later explained the difference between error and sin and gives instruction for the correction of each: "Inasmuch as they erred it might be made known, ... And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent" (D&C 1:25, 27).

For mistakes, the remedy is to correct the mistake, not to condemn the actor. The foolish man did not need to be humbled or penalized but rather to be taught how to find good ground for his house. When we make errors, we ought not to rant at ourselves for our stupidity but rather correct our mistake and move forward. Likewise, often those who are led astray from the Church or with whom we have political or other arguments are in error rather than transgression and merit correction, not chastisement or denouncement as sinners.

Of course, children of any age cannot sin until they have learned what is right. If they have not been taught, the scriptures say their sins are upon the heads of their parents (D&C 68:25). But it should be no surprise that most of our children's errant actions are borne of ignorance, not rebellion, meriting our teaching and correction rather than our condemnation and punishments.

An illustration of this principle may be found in a short story to which we can all relate. One night shortly after his daughter had begun dating, Brother Keith Merrill found himself anxiously waiting for her to come home. He had given her a strict curfew and had been suffering for twenty minutes because she was late.

"When she came in," he later said, "I immediately read her the riot act. I forgot my policies. I forgot all my positive thinking. I forgot all the great things that I knew I should do. I just simply said, 'You promised to be home at 12:00. You were not home at 12:00. I worry about you. We made a call. You weren't where you said you would be. You said you would call.' And I went right down the list---bing, bing, bing, bing, negative, negative, negative."

After some time, Brother Merrill's daughter responded. "'Stop!' she said... 'We haven't been drinking, we haven't been smoking, we haven't been immoral or unchaste. We didn't go to any R-rated movie. We haven't been to a party where there were drugs. We weren't out shooting speed or doing anything else. We haven't been making out, we haven't been doing anything bad, Dad. I'm 15 minutes late for curfew, so let's keep this in perspective'" (“Building Your Child’s Self-Esteem,” Families Are Forever, television series on VISN cable network, 1989).

Brother Merrill was able to find the humor in his own overreaction, and no doubt joy in his daughter's goodness, and spent the next several minutes laughing on the floor. It doesn't always end as well. One way we can improve our response in such situations, as the young Sister Merrill pointed out, is to keep things in perspective by correctly categorizing the offense and responding appropriately.

None of this is to say that mistakes are always okay. Some mistakes may lead to sins or become sins at an extreme level. We may disagree vehemently with a friend or family member, but contention is always a transgression. A big mistake, like stepping in front of a bus, may have more severe impacts than a small sin or may prevent us from reaching our desired eternal destination. Other times, the same act may be a mistake or a sin depending on the intention of the actor. The idea that ignorance is bliss is false because while ignorance may cause error rather than sin, intentional ignorance is in itself a sin. It is necessary for us to all make mistakes so we can learn and grow; we do not all need to sin.

In any case, our responses to ourselves and to those around us should be full of love. Our focus should be on those we serve and mercy should go hand in hand with reproof.

Elder Bruce C. Hafen has taught:

Mercy and repentance are rehabilitative, not retributive. The Savior asks us to repent not just to repay him for paying our debt to justice but also to induce us to undergo the personal development that will purify our very nature... When the Atonement and our repentance satisfy the laws of justice and mercy, we are, in effect, free from sin. But just as the sinless Christ was 'made perfect' through interaction with his Father's grace, so his atoning grace can move us beyond the remission of sins to the perfection of a divine nature. Those who inherit the celestial kingdom are 'just men made perfect through Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, who wrought out this perfect atonement through the shedding of his own blood' (D&C 76:69, emphasis added)("Beauty for Ashes: The Atonement of Jesus Christ", Ensign, April 1997).

Though the Lord chastises us for our sins, everything is done in the interest of our progression and happiness. Rather than sitting comfortably on the thrones of power to look down and command those weaker than him, he descended below us all and suffered for us in Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgotha, so that he would have grace to give when we fall short. Certainly he has grace to give those who may be falling short around us; it is our honor and responsibility to accept that love and grace for ourselves and reflect it to our children and others around us even when sinful behavior requires us to chastise and call them to repentance.

The scriptures carefully distinguish between sinners and fools. Each of us has certainly been both of these from time to time. We can learn from and correct our mistakes. We should not willfully rebel against God and must be chastised and repent when we do. Understanding the difference between sins and mistakes helps us to better feel the love of our Father in Heaven and the Savior who suffered on our behalf, to respond and be better as parents and stewards, and to teach Christ-like responses to a world increasingly leaving the trail to build their easy lives upon the sand.