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.