Habits of Christ-centered Homes

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Jesus spent much of His ministry walking and talking with people. One day he was asked to come minister to a young girl who was ill. As He walked to bless the daughter of Jairus, who would die and be brought back to life, many people followed Him or pressed around Him to gawk. In this setting while Jesus traveled, we read in Mark about an experience of faith: “And a certain woman, which had an issue of blood twelve years, And had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse, When she had heard of Jesus, came in the press behind, and touched his garment. For she said, If I may touch but his clothes, I shall be whole. And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up; and she felt in her body that she was healed of that plague. And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him, turned him about in the press, and said, Who touched my clothes? And his disciples said unto him, Thou seest the multitude thronging thee, and sayest thou, Who touched me? And he looked round about to see her that had done this thing. But the woman fearing and trembling, knowing what was done in her, came and fell down before him, and told him all the truth. And he said unto her, Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole; go in peace, and be whole of thy plague.” (Mark 5:25-34)

One of my favorite works of art is a painting by James Christensen of this woman who needed healing. In the painting, she reaches out to touch the hem of Christ’s cloak. The pressing crowds, the background, and even the Savior other than part of His cloak are not in the painting because the focus is on the woman’s great faith as she reaches towards the Savior’s healing. A copy of this painting takes a prominent place in our home to serve as a reminder of the power of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. As we keep our thoughts and homes centered on the Savior our faith in Him will be strengthened and His Spirit will be with us.

After miraculously feeding the thousands, Jesus sent his disciples away on a boat while He went to pray to and speak with His Father. He spent hours in communion with His Father. The following day in the hours before the rising of the sun, His disciples were on the boat in the midst of contrary winds and stormy seas. On the unsettled water “Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And [Jesus] said, Come.” (Matthew 14:25-29)

I can imagine Peter crying out to the Son of God, the Light of the world, as he stepped from the boat onto the waves:

“Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene–one step enough for me.” (John Henry Newman, Lead, Kindly Light)

“When Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God.” (Matthew 14:29-33)

Some observations about this story. We know Peter had great faith – He walked on the water to the Lord! How many of us have the faith to take even one successful step? Peter’s faith was great – it was not until he took his eyes off the Savior, when Peter looked at the storm around him, that he became afraid, started to doubt, and began to sink beneath the waves. As Peter’s faith faltered and he cried out to the Lord, Jesus immediately reached out and caught Peter. Jesus responded to Peter’s plea for help immediately! King Benjamin spoke of these immediate blessings: “[The Lord] doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?” (Mosiah 2:24). We are forever indebted to the saving, grasping hands of the Savior.

The winds continued to blow around Peter and his Master. It was only after making it to the boat that the winds ceased and peace prevailed. Blessings come while we experience the storms of life; greater blessings and peace come after trials of our faith.

One of the most important lessons from this experience between Jesus and Peter is not the great faith Peter had, it is what happened when Peter looked away from the Savior. As soon as Peter looked away, he focused on the waves and wind; Peter focused on the storm and turmoil and became afraid. With that fear came sinking doubt. If we lose focus on the Savior, though the consequences might not seem as immediate to us as Peter’s were to him, we begin to lose faith and begin to sink.

In order to weather the stormy days we live in we must focus constantly on Christ. This focus needs to start in our hearts, minds, and homes. The moment we look away and become fearful of the storms, our faith can falter. Satan tells us lies about the things we fear the most – the waves are too large, the winds too strong, we are unloved, we have sinned too much to repent, we cannot overcome our genes or our biology, we are failures, there is no hope for the future. Satan tries to hit us and hurt us where we are weakest but through Christ all our weaknesses and fears can become strengths. Jesus Christ suffered that we might triumph in strength. He reaches down to pull us up.

The prophet Nephi exulted of the Savior: “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Nephi 25:26). Nephi strove to build a Christ-centered home. He set an example for us to follow so that we can fill our homes with the love of God. We can fill our homes with God’s love as we consistently keep His commandments. We can pattern our homes after our heavenly home, where God dwells.

During the final meeting with His apostles, a meeting paralleled many years later by Joseph Smith giving his last charge and saving ordinances to the latter-day apostles and others, Jesus gathered with His friends to celebrate Passover. He performed the ordinance of the washing of feet. Jesus broke bread and drank wine in sacrament with His disciples. He sent one off who would betray Him and then taught the apostles significant doctrines. Only after Judas departed did the real teaching and blessings begin. What the Savior taught during these late hours is covered in just over four chapters in the book of John – one fifth of a book covering three years of Jesus’s ministry. That so much of the book of John focuses on this time is one indication of the importance of what Jesus taught before His atoning suffering in Gethsemane and His death upon the cruel cross.

What did Jesus teach? One of the most powerful lessons in all scripture is found in John 17, what is commonly called the intercessory prayer – intercessory meaning praying or petitioning on behalf of another. Of this prayer John wrote: “These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” (John 17:1-4)

The key verse here is “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) Life eternal is knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ. As we strive for eternal life we must strive for a knowledge of God. Even more, we must not only have a knowledge of Him but also truly know Him. The better we know Him the more we love Him. How can we fully love something we do not understand? How can we truly love someone we do not know? The more familiar we are with someone, the more we understand and love that person.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision was a light in the darkness of knowledge about God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Joseph had clear evidence that the Father and the Son are distinct beings. One of the implications of knowing that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ are distinct Beings is that we have a special relationship to God (He is our Father, not just the Savior’s) and we have an opportunity to become more like Him. We are His children and as His children we can grow and develop, gaining attributes of our Divine Parent.

This is what was so revolutionary about what was re-taught in bright clarity to the world when Joseph Smith, a young man of 14, saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. It upended not only the world’s misconceptions of the nature of God but also of the world’s misconceptions of the nature of men and women and of their divine potential, even though that potential would not be understood for years. We can have a personal, loving, relationship with God our Father here on earth just as we had with Him before we were born with physical bodies.

A simple recent experience reminded me of the nature of God’s love for us. As I was praying, just seconds into a prayer, my infant son started crying in the other room. I asked my Father if He would please excuse the interruption to the prayer because my son needed me and then I closed the prayer. I had the distinct impression that my Eternal Father understood completely. My concern for my son mirrored His concern for me, for you, and for all His sons and daughters. That is the nature of God – He is our Father; He loves us; He watches over us. He knows us and wants us to have joy. God hears our prayers. Experiences like this can remind us of our heavenly home.

We can pattern our homes after our heavenly home and build them upon the Lord Jesus Christ. We can do this by establishing patterns of righteousness. Our righteousness can become habitual. The brain is made up of 87 billion neurons – the brain cells that allow us to breathe, think, walk, talk, pray, serve, and love. Each of these cells is connected to others with an estimated total of 100 trillion connections. That’s a staggeringly large number – the number 1 followed by 14 zeros! These connections are not set for life; they strengthen or weaken constantly based on what we do and learn. Even simple actions, such as clapping or raising our hands in sustaining of church leaders, changes blood flow within our brains for half a minute. Each thought we think, each action we do, changes our brains. As we learn and re-learn things, the connections between brain cells change. If we do things over and over they become habits; habits might be easy or difficult to develop but they are usually hard to lose. This is because habits are ingrained within deep recesses of our brains; they travel along major brain pathways automatically and at rapid speed. Each thought or action we have or do has the potential to become a habit if we repeat it. What habits are you forming? What connections are you making in your brain – positive, uplifting, faithful ones? Or are you strengthening connections that lead you away from Christ? The roads of the mind can elevate or debase. Do we seek and strengthen the paths that will lead us back home?

I’d like to share four habits we can develop that will help us focus our families on Christ. These are not meant to be prescriptive, rather they are shared as examples of the types of behaviors we can instill in our homes, whatever the size or state of our family.

Habit 1

In our home every week or two we pick a scripture to memorize. Each time there is a new scripture, it is printed out and placed on a door where everyone will see it regularly and be able to read it. All in our family are encouraged to memorize the verses. In the morning – during breakfast or in the car on the way to school – we take turns reciting a memorized verse (it does not have to be the one for the week) and talk about the scriptures. With this constancy and repetition, all of us (except our baby) have been able to memorize a number of verses. This process doesn’t take long but it requires consistency. Having scriptures memorized allows us to recall them when we need a spiritual boost. Even if some of the specific words of the verses slip from memory, the principles will be retained and will provide strength against storms.

Habit 2

The first habit was knowing the words of prophets of the past. The second habit is learning and knowing the names and teachings of the current prophets and apostles. Knowing who the Lord calls as His chosen servants is important for recognizing how His work is accomplished upon the earth. More important than knowing names and faces of the prophets and apostles is being familiar with their recent messages. Frequently for Family Home Evening we talk about one of the church leaders and discuss the most recent general conference address. We distill one of the main messages of the talks into a single simple phrase. We also pick out a scripture from the talk or find a related one to memorize and discuss. This past week our family discussed Elder Holland’s talk “Where Justice, Love, and Mercy Meet” and learned 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” We all experience sin and death, just as Adam and Eve did, but through the merciful atonement of the Savior Jesus Christ we will overcome physical death and may overcome spiritual death. Understanding the need for the Savior and the centrality of Him needs to start in the home. As we listen to, read, and follow the words of the Lord’s living prophets, we follow Jesus Christ. As our homes are filled with the words of the prophets, we fill our homes with the light and spirit of Christ.

Habit 3

The third habit we seek to instill in our children is a set of simple habits: 1) weekly Family Home Evening, 2) regular journal writing, and 3) daily personal and family prayer. These are ways we show daily devotion to God. In Family Home Evening we have the opportunity to “preach…receive, [and] understand one another [that all will be] edified and rejoice together.” (D&C 50:22). Each of us takes turns teaching a lesson, choosing a song, saying a prayer, arranging a treat, and sharing a scripture or short spiritual thought. When everyone participates, everyone feels some level of responsibility. This helps the children pay better attention and be more involved in the evening.

Journal writing is also an important habit that helps us reflect on the present and anchors us to the past. I was encouraged to write in my journal regularly as a child. We encourage our children to write regularly in their journals. While we sometimes hear protests, these journals will be appreciated later. Journals can become sacred texts to us and our families. Many of the books of scripture are journals of the prophets.

Much can be said about prayer. Personal prayer is, as I frequently tell my children, the most important thing we can do in the day. Prayer is an opportunity to for us to converse with our Father. He loves us and wants to speak with us. When we pray we have the opportunity to thank Him. We have the opportunity to tell Him about our thoughts, desires, strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failings. He knows all these things but wants to hear from us. It is far too easy to become complacent in our prayers. It is easy to be like the brother of Jared of old and slip in our personal communications with God, something for which he was criticized severely (Ether 2:14-15). We must make time for God. Family prayer can also bring great blessings of unity and love.

Habit 4

The fourth habit is Sabbath day observance. The Sabbath is a holy day, a day sanctified for us. To be sanctified is to be set apart, holy, dedicated. Is that what our Sundays look like? Is it a day different from the other six of the week or is it just another day? Is it a day spent worshiping God and strengthening our family, or is it merely a “fun day”? I love hearing my children say, “This is Sunday music!” or “That’s not a Sunday movie!” and see them choose to stay in their Sunday clothes all day. Both are signs that they recognize that Sunday is a special day; it is a day to cast off our normal activities, to put off doing our pleasure, and dedicate ourselves more fully unto God. One of the greatest things we can do throughout the week and on Sunday before church is prepare for the sacrament. Partaking of the sacrament is an opportunity to partake of the grace of God. It is a sacred ordinance, central to our week and our lives. It is a time to worship the Lord and offer up our sacraments to God, as we read in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 59:9).

Pres. George Albert Smith, the president of the church from 1945 to 1951, said of the Sabbath: “It is not an insignificant thing to violate the Sabbath day. I want to say that you lose every time you violate the Sabbath day, you lose more than you can gain, no matter what you may think you are going to gain. To forget that it is the Lord ’s Day, as some of us appear to do, is ungrateful. He has set apart one day in seven, not to make it a burden, but to bring joy into our lives and cause that our homes may be the gathering place of the family, that parents and children may…increas[e]…love for one another…. Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy…and it will bring to you great joy and our Heavenly Father will bestow upon you the blessings that result from obedience to his advice and counsel.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, Chapter 16)

Keeping the Sabbath Day holy is a habit we can gain or maintain. There are few things we can do that will strengthen our own spirituality and our homes better than keeping the Sabbath Day holy. It is a sign to the Lord of our faith. He richly blesses those who honor his holy day.

One way to honor the Lord by honoring the Sabbath is attending church. Jesus Christ established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to make individuals better and families stronger. Those who are baptized and confirmed members of Christ’s church are “called his people” – they take upon themselves the name of Christ. The responsibilities of baptized members of Christ’s church include:

• Bearing one another’s burdens
• Mourning with those who mourn
• Comforting those who need comfort
• Testifying of God in all things and times through their words and deeds

Those in the church have a primary responsibility to take care of each other. Our devotion to God and our discipleship of Christ is evident in what we do and how we serve others. This sentiment echoes what the Savior taught His disciples on the eve of His death – “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)

The words of the hymn remind us of our duties at home and to those around us:
“Perhaps today there are loving words
Which Jesus would have me speak;
There may be now in the paths of sin
Some wand’rer whom I should seek.
O Savior, if thou wilt be my guide,
Tho dark and rugged the way,
My voice shall echo the message sweet:
I’ll say what you want me to say.” (I’ll Go Where You Want Me to Go, Mary Brown, Hymns #270)

There are loving words we need to speak in our homes and to all around us. We need to say what the Lord wants us to say and help others along the way. Ultimately God wants us to return home to Him. That does not mean we need to be perfect now but the Lord requires us to try to be better; the atonement of Jesus Christ will help us overcome our shortcomings and sins.

The four habits I mentioned – memorizing scriptures, knowing the words of the living prophets, personal and family daily devotion, and Sabbath day observance – will help us draw near to God. They will help us strengthen our homes, allowing them to be places of refuge and peace. Our homes can become sanctified houses dedicated with the spirit of holiness to the Lord. May we strengthen our homes by following the Savior! May our homes be sacred places where the Spirit of God dwells! May they be edifices where we feel comfortable inviting the Lord to dwell. May we build our homes into tabernacles where we might kneel and greet the Lord Jesus, the Great Redeemer!

Must-read: Joseph the Seer

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints just published an article (will appear in the October 2015 Ensign) on Joseph Smith, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and the role of seers and seer stones: https://www.lds.org/ensign/2015/10/joseph-the-seer?lang=eng

I believe that this article is a must-read for members of the church or for those interested in Mormon history. I’m grateful for the continued work the church does into releasing copies of primary historical sources, doing so according to high historical standards for preservation and research. While none of the information in the above article is new, having current scholarship presented in a straightforward and concise manner is helpful.

Also of note in the article is a photograph of one of Joseph Smith’s seer stones (not the ones included with the gold plates), which the church has in its possession. It’s a rock and has no power beyond the power and inspiration given to the seer using it.

Patriarchs: Conduits of Revelation

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One of my favorite parts of my patriarchal blessing is where the patriarch slips from addressing me directly (“You have…” or “I bless you…”) to referring to me in the third person (“Jared…and his…”). It’s just a half sentence that is third person instead of first but it’s one of the highlights of my blessing.

Why?

It’s an instance when I can see the direct revelation from the Lord to the patriarch. Instead of hearing the words of the conduit of revelation that half sentence of third person narrative is a glimpse at the Source of all light and knowledge. It serves as a witness to me that the Lord knows and loves me. It serves as a witness that the patriarch spoke for God. This small narrative ‘mistake’ was a steady hand on the tiller of the ship Adolescence during a turbulent storm. It still provides comfort.

Patriarchal blessings are beautiful expressions of God’s love for us. If you have not received one, work towards receiving that special blessing. If you have received one, take to to re-read it so that you might be more mindful of God’s love for you and of His hand in your life.

A Jealous God

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Abinadi the prophet lamented over the wickedness of King Noah and his priests. In a short chiasmus Abinadi prophesied:

And except they repent and turn to the Lord their God, behold, I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage; and they shall be afflicted by the hand of their enemies. And it shall come to pass that they shall know that I am the Lord their God, and am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of my people. And it shall come to pass that except this people repent and turn unto the Lord their God, they shall be brought into bondage; and none shall deliver them, except it be the Lord the Almighty God.1Mosiah 11:21-23

To see the chiasmus more clearly, refer to note.2A. And except they repent and turn to the Lord their God,
B. behold, I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage; and they shall be afflicted by the hand of their enemies.
C. And it shall come to pass that they shall know that I am the Lord their God, and am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of my people.
B. And it shall come to pass that except this people repent and turn unto the Lord their God, they shall be brought into bondage;
A. and none shall deliver them, except it be the Lord the Almighty God.

Abinadi also expounded on the Ten Commandments:

And now, ye remember that I said unto you: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of things which are in heaven above, or which are in the earth beneath, or which are in the water under the earth. And again: Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them; for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generations of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.3Mosiah 13:12-15

In both these quotes, Abinadi referred to the Lord as a “jealous God”. This is a concept familiar to the ancient house of Israel4see the list of Old Testament references to God as “jealous”.

The Hebrew word translated into English as “jealous” is qinah (also of the form qanah or other derivative words). When applied to humans, jealous, as used in the Bible, typically refers to envy5e.g., Numbers 5:14 and thus sin. It can also refer to zeal6e.g., Psalm 69:9, which could be both positive or negative, depending on the circumstance and usage.

When referring to God as “jealous” the best interpretation is that God is fiercely protective of Truth, covenant, and His covenant people. A jealous God is a God Who defends right with zeal. A jealous God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.7Doctrine and Covenants 1:31; Alma 45:16 A jealous God knows that wickedness never was happiness.8Alma 41:10 As a jealous God, the Lord requires faithfulness and commands that we should have no other Gods before Him.9Exodus 34:14 This is a harsh reality but it is a reality that provides safety and countless blessings. It is a harsh reality that leads to eternal life, an inheritance as an heir like Christ.10Romans 8:17 God’s commands are not forced; all His children are able to express will and act independently, if they desire, from God.11There are some who are without mental/emotional capacity to understand choices or fully express moral agency. In some way or another, this is true of all of use because we do not fully understand the consequences of our actions or inactions. God, as a perfectly loving and just God, will weigh all in the balance with the intent to bless His children to the extent He is able.

A jealous God is not filled with petty envy but rather with charity. God loves us enough to set firm boundaries. We can wander through life or we can travel the strait road of the jealous God, a road that leads to unimagined heights and countless blessings. God is jealous because He zealously protects His covenant children, particularly as they are faithful unto their covenants. This does not mean they are without suffering but their sufferings will be for their good.12Doctrine and Covenants 122:7

Notes and References   [ + ]

1. Mosiah 11:21-23
2. A. And except they repent and turn to the Lord their God,
B. behold, I will deliver them into the hands of their enemies; yea, and they shall be brought into bondage; and they shall be afflicted by the hand of their enemies.
C. And it shall come to pass that they shall know that I am the Lord their God, and am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of my people.
B. And it shall come to pass that except this people repent and turn unto the Lord their God, they shall be brought into bondage;
A. and none shall deliver them, except it be the Lord the Almighty God.
3. Mosiah 13:12-15
4. see the list of Old Testament references to God as “jealous”
5. e.g., Numbers 5:14
6. e.g., Psalm 69:9
7. Doctrine and Covenants 1:31; Alma 45:16
8. Alma 41:10
9. Exodus 34:14
10. Romans 8:17
11. There are some who are without mental/emotional capacity to understand choices or fully express moral agency. In some way or another, this is true of all of use because we do not fully understand the consequences of our actions or inactions. God, as a perfectly loving and just God, will weigh all in the balance with the intent to bless His children to the extent He is able.
12. Doctrine and Covenants 122:7

Homeward Bound to the Personal God

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During the final meeting with His apostles, a meeting paralleled many years later by Joseph Smith giving his last charge and saving ordinances to the latter-day apostles and others, Jesus gathered with His friends to celebrate Passover. He performed the ordinance of the washing of feet. Jesus broke bread and drank wine in sacrament with His disciples. He sent one off who would betray Him and then taught the apostles significant doctrines. Only after Judas departed did the real teaching and blessings begin. What the Savior taught during these late hours is covered in just over four chapters in the book of John – one fifth of a book covering three years of Jesus’s ministry. That so much of the book of John focuses on this time is one indication of the importance of what Jesus taught before His atoning suffering in Gethsemane and His death upon the cruel cross.

What did Jesus teach? One of the most powerful lessons in all scripture is found in John 17, what is commonly called the intercessory prayer, intercessory meaning praying or petitioning on behalf of another. Of this prayer John wrote: “These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. I have glorified thee on the earth: I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” (John 17:1-4)

The key verse here is “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3). Life eternal is knowing God the Father and Jesus Christ. As we strive for eternal life we must strive for a knowledge of God. Even more, we must not only have a knowledge of Him but also truly know Him. The better we know Him the more we love Him. How can we fully love something we do not understand? How can we truly love someone we do not know? The more familiar we are with someone, the more we understand and love that person.

Joseph Smith’s First Vision was a light in the darkness of knowledge about God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. Joseph had clear evidence that the Father and the Son are distinct beings. One of the implications of knowing that God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ are distinct Beings is that we have a special relationship to God (He is our Father, not just the Savior’s) and we have an opportunity to become more like Him. We are His children and as His children we can grow and develop, gaining attributes of our Divine Parent.

Most of Christianity, at least in formal theology, believes that Jesus Christ is not a separate Being from the Father – a distinct manifestation but not a separate physical Being. If our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are separate individuals – They are! – and if Christ is the Son of God – He is! – then all children of our Father have the potential to become more like Christ for that is what is clearly taught in the scriptures. The Savior prayed to His Father in the last hours of His mortal ministry: “Neither pray I for these [His Apostles] alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:20-22).

Christ is the Son of God and we are also children of God; then we can be, as the ancient apostles taught and as modern prophets and apostles teach, joint-heirs with Christ of all that our Father has! To the Romans Paul taught: “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” (Romans 8:17). That is quite a promise! This pleading for oneness with the Father is thus not just metaphorical. Christ pled that His Father would bless His apostles and all those who believe and follow Christ’s teachings with the same oneness that He and the Father share. This does not diminish the power or authority of God or Christ – for their power and authority are endless and eternal. Rather, it shows our true relationship to God; we are His children and He loves us not just as a perfect God but as a perfect Father.

This is all what was so revolutionary about what was re-taught in bright clarity to the world when Joseph Smith, a young man of 14, saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ. It upended not only the world’s misconceptions of the nature of God but also of the world’s misconceptions of the nature of men and women and of their divine potential, even though that potential would not be understood for years. We can have a personal, loving, relationship with God our Father here on earth just as we had with Him before we were born with physical bodies.

A simple recent experience reminded me of the nature of God’s love for us. As I was praying, just seconds into a prayer, my infant son started crying in the other room. I asked my Father if He would please excuse the interruption to the prayer because my son needed me and then I closed the prayer. I had the distinct impression that my Eternal Father understood completely. My concern for my son mirrored His concern for me, for you, and for all His sons and daughters. That is the nature of God – He is our Father; He loves us; He watches over us. He knows us and wants us to have joy. God hears our prayers. Experiences like this can remind us of our Heavenly home.

There is a visual phenomenon called afterimage where when looking away from an object (usually a bright object such as a light bulb), there is an image that appears to float in front of our eyes. This image “burn in” is caused by a severe depletion of pigment chemicals in the eye. Normally, we compensate for this loss of chemicals by rapidly and subtly moving the eyes around, changing where we focus our vision. Doing this gives the time for the pigments to replenish, allowing cells within the eye to work efficiently again. But when we stare at something, especially if it is bright, we can temporarily overuse these pigments.

To get an afterimage, stare at a lightbulb for a couple seconds (not the sun – that will damage your eyes). Afterimages occur when you focus intently on an object with high contrast or brightness. This process often results in a negative afterimage (like camera film negatives) but bright lights can create positive afterimages where the brightness of the light appears to still be there when you look away. In other words, when staring at bright lights, we continue to have that light before our eyes even when looking away. These afterimages last just for seconds but are reminders of the light that was before us.

Before we were born we all lived with our Father in Heaven. We basked in His radiance, we felt His glory and presence, and were filled with His light; it was continually before our eyes. We knew His Spirit and saw His burning glory. Joseph Smith said that this brightness and God’s glory were above that of the sun: “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description” (JS-H 1:16-17). In another account of his First Vision, Joseph Smith stated that it appeared as if the trees surrounding the Father and the Son were on fire. This is why Isaiah stated that the Lord lives in “everlasting burnings” (Isa. 33:14).

We all lived with God before our mortal births and partook of His glory and radiance. We are born through a veil of forgetfulness but the “afterimage” of God’s glory remains with us. The poet Wordsworth expressed it well when he wrote:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

We are not left utterly naked when we come to earth. We have the afterimage of our pre-earth life given to us by light of Christ; we have remembrances of old light and the giving of new light unto us through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, which all people feel at some point. The test is whether or not we accept and act upon those burnings. As with visual afterimages, if we do not look to the Light, if we turn away from God in our sins and do not turn to face Him again in repentance, the light of Christ fades from our lives, becoming the light of common day, and we lose the spiritual afterimage that is our intimation of our immortality. It is imperative that we seek out this light and replenish Christ’s image in our lives by constantly looking to God and loving Him.

Service

One way can keep God’s light and love with us is when we love and serve others.

Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf said: “Humans are prone to dislike or hate those we do not really know. This is our human nature. But the more we get to know those who are different from us, the more we learn that perhaps they are not so different from us after all…. If we each learned to genuinely love God and to love our fellowmen as our brothers and sisters, we would have more compassion and the problems of the world could be more easily solved.” (Pres. Uchtdorf, Facebook post Saturday, April 25).

Jesus taught:

“34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:34-40).

Knowing God comes as we know His children. Serving God comes as we serve His children. Loving God comes as we love His children.

I’m going to share an experience as an example of the kind of opportunities that are around us to serve others. Recently I had an opportunity to do a small act of service. A few months ago I was driving to work when I saw a man walking along the side of the highway. This man was dressed in old clothes and looked like he had experienced a hard life. He held a sign but I couldn’t read it until I was passing him; he needed a ride to a location in town that I would drive right by on my way to work. As I contemplated whether or not I should turn around and give him a ride, I was soon too far down the road to easily get back to him. I justified my actions by telling myself that I didn’t know where he was going until I was passing him at 60 miles an hour and I was in a hurry to get to work so I could get a better parking spot. What weak justifications these were! Those were probably similar justifications to those thought by the priest and Levite as they ignored the injured man who was later helped by the kindly Samaritan. Feeling bad as I drove on, I vowed that if I saw him again, I’d stop and give him ride. A few weeks later I saw him on the side of the road wanting to go to the same location. I was able to get over to a turning lane and work my way to him but another driver just ahead of me did the same thing and gave him a ride. This time, while I didn’t serve him, I had tried to serve and so I felt much better. Then just a couple weeks ago I saw him again. I was able to pick him up and give him a ride to his destination. Along the way John told me a sad story of a hard life. He was grateful for the ride and I was grateful for the opportunity to serve. It was a small thing but it helped me to reflect on the Savior’s teachings.

Are there times in our lives when we need to pick others up and give them a ride along the road to eternal life? Do we notice those around us who are struggling for the strait and narrow road and offer to help? Even simple acts of service are important because those simple acts done unto others are done unto the Lord. As we get to know others, as we serve others and love others, we serve and start to understand God. Knowing God is part of eternal life. As we come to know God, we can become one with Him, having a unity of purpose, love, and power.

Unity

It is worth repeating what Jesus prayed for His disciples and for us: “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one.” (John 17:19-22)

Unity. What a special blessing it is! We can be unified when we love and serve others.

Some years ago on a bright Utah morning, the weather was cooling down as Fall approached. I woke up early to get ready for class. It was my first semester back at Brigham Young University after my mission. I had worked through a busy summer and was excited to be back in school and back to one of my favorite places in the world.

My first class was at 8 AM that Tuesday morning so I was up early, getting ready for the day. I turned on the television to watch the morning news while I finished preparing for school. On TV was shocking news. Something – a plane or a missile (reports were unclear at that time) – had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. I watched as smoke poured from the building. Everyone was in shock. Then, as I watched the coverage, a plane hit the second tower. Shortly later, the towers collapsed.

I attended both of my classes that day. One of my classes was cancelled after we got there but I have notes from another class so we worked the best we could through the terrible events. I watched more news coverage – much of the world watched the news. I read news stories online and saw photos and videos of the events of that tragic day. I had never been to New York City. I did not know anyone from New York or who had a personal connection with someone who lost a life in the attacks. I was only weeks into a new semester after a two year break from school. I was living in a new apartment with new roommates. There was so much going on that I don’t remember many more specifics of that day and following weeks. There are many more people who were affected much more than I was. The effects on me were circumstantial but still vivid. It’s difficult to imagine what it would have been like – and what it still is like – for those directly affected.

What I do remember is how the people of our nation came together; we united as people, we united as states, we united as a nation. We united across faiths and ethnicities. We united as one. The foundation of our nation for many years has been – e pluribus unum – “out of many, one”. We stand united, we fall divided. Unity is something desired by the followers of God. Unity is what Jesus pleaded for in His great intercessory prayer (see John 17) – that He and we might be one with His Father.

It was as a united people that we banded together in prayer and service. Many people answered that horrific act of hate and violence at the hands of wicked men with acts of love and compassion for others. As a nation, in spite of hurt and anger, our love for one another burned brighter and with more clarity in the days and weeks following the tragedies of September 11, 2001. Our hearts turned to family and friends. Our hearts reached out to strangers. Good Samaritans shared their oil of life, their means, and of their love with those in need.

The unity quickly dissolved in our nation but for a time it was there and powerful. We as individuals can strive for such unity in our homes, our wards, and our communities and not just in the face of great tragedy.

We can have unity when we serve, love, and care for others.

How can we apply these principles and make meaningful change in our lives? Without action, these words don’t mean much. I encourage each of you to start every day and ask your Father in Heaven in prayer for specific experiences to serve or help someone and then go throughout your day attentive to and acting upon such opportunities. I know some, maybe many of you do this already. As you do this, you will see the hand of God in your life and in the lives of those around you. As you do this, your love of others will grow. As you and I bear one another’s burdens, we serve God. As we serve God, we know Him. Our Heavenly Father placed us all here on earth through the miracle of birth. He loves us – He loves me and He loves you. Our Father wants us to return home to Him.

May we pray to the Father with the poet: “If you find it’s me you’re missing, If you’re hoping I’ll return, To your thoughts I’ll soon be list’ning, In the road I’ll stop and turn. Then the wind will set me racing As my journey nears its end, And the path I’ll be retracing When I’m homeward bound again. Bind me not to the pasture; Chain me not to the plow. Set me free to find my calling And I’ll return to you somehow. In the quiet misty morning When the moon has gone to bed, When the sparrows stop their singing, I’ll be homeward bound again” (Marta Keen, Homeward Bound).

May we be homeward bound to the loving and very personal God, our dear Father in Heaven! God lives and loves us.

Stepping on a Snake

Southern black racer
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Yesterday I walked down to our mailbox to collect the mail. There was an alumni magazine from my doctoral university so I started reading through it on my way back home. Being spring and Florida, I was wearing flaps (sandals). As I stepped onto the walk that leads to my front door I felt something rubbery under the front of my foot. I looked down, jumping back a bit as I did, to see a large black snake. My first fleeting thought was that it was a toy snake but I knew we didn’t have any and then it quickly slithered away to repair its dignity under some bushes. I always enjoy seeing snakes so I ran inside to call out my family to come look at the snake I stepped on. It was a Coluber constrictor priapus, also known as a southern black racer (because of their speed). These black racers are not poisonous, they can be feisty though so I was glad it did not bite me (I was in flaps so my foot was out in the open), as deserving of a bite I might have been. I shooed the snake away from our front door and it hurriedly slithered away, looking like it was thankfully uninjured.

This experience has direct gospel applications. I wasn’t watching where I was going and ended up stepping on a snake. I we are not careful in life and continuously mindful of where we are going we can step into dangerous situations. Life requires concentration and focus on our destination. even if we do not do anything wrong, we can end up somewhere where we do not want to be.

Note: snakes aren’t bad even if they terrify many people, I’m just taking a little license here and comparing it to something bad.

The Virgin Birth

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I came across an article written by Stephen Webb, a professor at Wabash College, who argues that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is obsessed with Jesus Christ. I haven’t had time to read the article in depth yet but one paragraph caught my eye.

“Mormon metaphysics is Christian metaphysics minus Origen and Augustine—in other words, Christianity divorced from Plato. Mormons are so materialistic that they insist that the same unchanging laws govern both the natural and the supernatural. They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

“Mormonism…is…Christianity divorced from Plato” – precisely. Mormonism is true to the original Christian church before post-apostolic Christian leaders modified it with Greek philosophy. I’ll agree with that statement.

However, the last line of the paragraph is an incorrect representation of LDS theology: “They also deny the virgin birth, since their materialism leads them to speculate that Jesus is literally begotten by the immortal Father rather than conceived by the Holy Spirit.”

No we do not deny the virgin birth (links to five different general conference talks that specifically reference Christ’s birth as a “virgin birth”). We do not understand the virgin birth; it’s one of the things God has not yet revealed but we accept it.

Elder Quentin L. Cook’s statement summarizes ‘Mormon’ theology on the matter: “The essential doctrine of agency requires that a testimony of the restored gospel be based on faith rather than just external or scientific proof. Obsessive focus on things not yet fully revealed, such as how the virgin birth or the Resurrection of the Savior could have occurred or exactly how Joseph Smith translated our scriptures, will not be efficacious or yield spiritual progress. These are matters of faith.” (Cook, In Tune with the Music of Faith, April 2012). In other words, while there are many things we would like to know, we do not and cannot know everything in this life so “obsessively” focusing on unknowns does not benefit us spiritually. We can study and pray to know such things but making sure our faith is true and our hearts are pure is more important.

Update: Another part of the article that is incorrect: ‘The Book of Mormon places the birth of Jesus in Jerusalem, much to the delight of biblical fundamentalists who use such discrepancies to score debating points.”

This is based on a misunderstanding of Alma 7:10, which reads: “And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.” [By the way, this verse also counters his statement that Mormons do not believe in the virgin birth]. The key in the verse is Jesus is born “at” Jerusalem, not “in”. I won’t bother adding anything to what has been covered thoroughly elsewhere on the matter (and here). Okay I will. Why would Joseph Smith, who was versed in the Bible make such a blatant error as to say that Jesus was born in Jerusalem (ignoring the fact that the Book of Mormon say “at Jerusalem” and not “in Jerusalem”) when it’s clear that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (5 miles from Jerusalem)? He wouldn’t and didn’t. Take time to read those responses about the issue.

Love At Home

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One of the saddest things I’ve seen recently in a TV show or movie was during an episode of The Cosby Show. Two of the sisters have a disagreement and start fighting. I know many people watch that and laugh at the ridiculousness of it but it brought me to tears. There is nothing I find more disheartening than discord in homes. Seeing or hearing families fighting, arguing, or yelling at one another in anger is always profoudly disturbing to me.

I understand getting angry and annoyed but anger is almost always ugly. People have a difficult time thinking clearly when angry. Things are said or done that normally would not be said or done. Those less-than-thoughtful words and actions then exacerbate the problem, creating a feedback loop that can degenerate into something more hideous – a terrifying chimera of anger, distrust, and hate. Not all anger devolves into this, certainly, but our homes should be temples of peace and love and kindness rather than battlegrounds.

Our homes should be places of refuge and safety. Our homes should be full of kindness, service, and love. When we become angry and vent on family members, when we allow anger and fighting to enter our home, we drive away the Spirit of God and in essence desecrate the temple that should be our home. Anger and fighting have no place in our homes. The great prophet king Benjamin taught us to not:

“suffer that [our children] transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin, or who is the evil spirit which hath been spoken of by our fathers, he being an enemy to all righteousness. But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another.” (Mosiah 4:14-15).

I’ve been married for more than 10 years. Not once have my wife and I fought. We’ve only rarely disagreed about things. I cannot even recall (should I even want to) a time when I was annoyed with my dear wife. I try to not do things or say things that could annoy my wife. Marriage is a sacred relationship; temple marriage, in particular, is founded upon covenants of righteousness and consecration. What this means is that everything we do should strengthen our marriages. One of the key things we can strive for and have to strengthen our marriages is unity. There is little my wife and I value more than unity as a couple and family. This leaves no place for anger or fighting. We need to be kind and gentle in all that we do.

We have been commanded to “Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another.” (Doctrine and Covenants 136:23). This leaves no place for arguing or fighting. If we want our children to be kind to one another we need to be good examples for them, which means we need to cease responding in anger to them. One of the best ways to reduce bad behavior is to encourage good. Jesus taught through the words of Isaiah that “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.” (3 Nephi 22:13). Peace in our homes and hearts comes when we are taught of the Lord. Peace comes through testimony and the Spirit as we strive to follow Jesus.

I started this post this morning and then after stake conference watched a new Mormon Channel music video that I feel is appropriate here.

“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

Destructive Healing

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“And again [Jesus] entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them. And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” (Mark 2:1-5; emphasis added).

Jesus visited Capernaum, a small (by today’s standards) town on the northwestern edge of the Sea of Galilee. It is thought to be near (or was?) the hometown of the apostles Peter, James, John, and Andrew. It is in this setting that the miracle recorded in Mark occurred. Jesus was in a house preaching to a packed audience – standing room only – with overflow outside the house. Hearing of Jesus’s visit, four men carried a man with palsy (paralysis, maybe with seizures as well) on a bed (stretcher) to visit the Lord for healing. They could not enter through the door so they got on top of the house and broke apart the roof over where Jesus was standing/sitting while preaching. I like that they broke apart the roof; they destroyed it to get to the Savior.

These men, bearers of the ill, were persistent and a little destructive. Sometimes we must destroy something to bring healing. Cancer treatments frequently involve chemotherapy, a drastic process that attacks rapidly dividing cancer cells (and as a side effect, bone marrow, hair follicles, and the digestive system, which all also have rapidly dividing cells). Treating cancer frequently requires such systemic destruction. Epilepsy, when severe and not well-controlled by medication, sometimes requires cutting out portions of the dysfunctioning brain to stop the seizures. Sometimes drastic actions are required. Seeing the diligence and faith of those seeking healing for the man with palsy, Jesus was impressed and offered spiritual and physical healing.

C.S. Lewis wrote on this process of healing through destruction: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.” (Lewis, Mere Christianity).

Healing might hurt us “abominably” but such hurts are necessary. Healing certainly hurt the Savior abominably. He suffered so that He might succor. What He asks in return is faith, diligence (occasionally destructive), and repentance.

Building a Habit of Charity

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The brain is made up of 87 billion neurons – the brain cells that allow us to breathe, think, walk, talk, pray, serve, and love. Each of these cells is connected to others with an estimated total of 100 trillion connections. That’s a staggeringly large number to contemplate. The number 1 followed by 14 zeros. These connections are not set for life; they strengthen or weaken constantly based on what we do and learn. Even simple actions, such as clapping or raising our hands in sustaining of church leaders, changes blood flow within our brains for half a minute. Each thought we think, each action we do, changes our brains. As we learn and re-learn things, the connections between brain cells change. If we do things over and over they become habits; habits might be easy or difficult to develop but they are usually hard to lose. This is because habits are ingrained within deep recesses of our brains; they travel along major brain pathways automatically and at rapid speed. Each thought or action we have or do has the potential to become a habit if we repeat it. What habits are you forming? What connections are you making in your brain – positive, uplifting, faithful ones, or are you strengthening connections that lead you away from Christ? The roads of the mind can elevate or debase. Do we seek and strengthen the paths that will lead us back home?

One way to elevate our minds is to strive for Christlike attributes. The greatest of these is charity. What is charity? Charity is the chief virtue. It is the “pure love of Christ, [that] endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” (Moroni 7:47). Charity is without end, it endures forever. Charity is not helping others, it is not treating others well; charity is the pure love that comes from God. Charity is a gift from God. It is a pure fruit from an everlasting tree of beauty and purity with preciousness above all else.

Charity is a gift from God and is manifest in those who believe in Christ and are striving to be like Him. C. S. Lewis explained his belief in Christ; he said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else” (Lewis, Is Theology Poetry?, 1945). The Savior testified of His Light, “I am the light of the world, he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness…” (John 8:12). Christ also said, “Ye are the light of the world…let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works…” (Matt. 5:14,16). What is this light? Did Christ mean that He was a physical light, a form of electromagnetic radiation that simply brightens the world around us? It is true that the resurrected Christ shines with a radiance above the brightness of the sun, as Joseph Smith described, but this is not really what Christ meant when He said that He is the light of the world.

Jesus created the earth, the moon, and the heavens above. He caused the sun to shine upon the earth to give us life. Jesus lights the earth around us but He also does more than that – He lights our souls with His love. Christ is love. Love is energy, you can feel it – it radiates like the sun. When we are told to “let [our] light[s] so shine” the Savior is telling us to follow His example by lighting others’ lives by love; we are to warm the hearts and souls of those around us through the warm radiance of charity. When we follow our Lord by keeping His commandments, He lights our souls with His love. When we have His love, we can share it with others. This means that it is not possible to light someone else’s soul without a burning in our own. This is a light that is in all people’s souls. In some it burns with a dazzling brightness, in others it flickers like a dying candle. When we have charity, the light of Christ shines through us with great intensity. When we are filled with charity we see the eternal light in those around us – we know that all are sons and daughters of our Eternal Father in Heaven. We know that all have the potential to become as He is.

But becoming like God is a process. None of us is perfect; we are fallen, living in a fallen world. We are in an embryonic stage, trying to grow up and control these wonderful but mortal bodies the Lord blesses us with. Sometimes we sin, sometimes we turn away from God, sometimes we forget who we really are. All of us on this earth, in the grand council of heaven, subjected our spiritual bodies and wills to the will of the Father; that is why we are here in mortality – we said in shouts of joy, “I will follow God’s plan for me!” Now as mortals we are trying to subject our physical bodies to the will of the Father – truly a difficult task. Just as in the premortal world, again Christ was the consummate example. He subjected His will completely to His Father’s; this surrendering of His will culminated with His death on the cross and His triumphal resurrection from the tomb in the ultimate act of love. Jesus Christ gave us the perfect example of charity.

We are commanded to serve others. Opportunities to serve come with baptism, when we covenant to be comforters: “And now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:8-9). A responsibility we have as Latter-day Saints is to help alleviate the suffering of others. We have been commanded to “look to the poor and the needy, and administer to their relief that they shall not suffer” (D&C 38:35). As Latter-day Saints and Christians we have been commanded to, “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

The miracle is that by mourning with those who mourn and helping other people bear their burdens, our own burdens and suffering are lifted. The Savior spent His life focused on others but His ultimate act of selflessness, His ultimate act of charity, was when He shed His precious blood for each and every one of us. In this act, His will was completely swallowed up in His Father’s. The Atonement is infinitely Other-focused – it was not done to benefit Jesus. In the premortal world, Christ answered the call to act as propitiation for the sins and sorrows of God’s wayward children. He performed the greatest selfless act the world ever knew or will know. As we follow Christ and turn our focus outward and serve others without seeking personal gain, we will find the cure for suffering. In doing good to others, we will overcome our sorrows and sufferings. We do not suffer while selflessly serving others. Just as the Savior did, we can serve to bring light and life to others.

We might serve others at first because it is a commandment – we might serve out of a sense of duty but the more we serve the more we will do so out of love. The Apostle Paul taught: “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Tim. 1:5). This means that we are given commandments so that we might learn charity and serve with a pure heart, good conscience, and real faith. The end of commandments, or in other words the purpose of commandments, is that we might become Christ-like – full of God’s love, which is charity. While there are many good reasons to serve others, the highest and best reason is because we love others and are filled with charity. Charity is a measure of perfection.

While our motives to serve others might not always be out of pure charity, by serving we keep a commandment and work toward the day when we will be filled with God’s perfect love. Charity can be strengthened by action. Through repeated desires and actions we can make feelings and actions of charity more automatic; acts motivated by charity can become habits, written upon the tables of our hearts (see Prov. 7:3) and the pathways of our minds.

Pres. Henry B. Eyring wrote recently: “A few days ago, I met in my office with a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to discuss work on increasing the spirit and the power of the Sabbath to build faith in Jesus Christ. As I later pondered this conversation, I felt that faith in Jesus Christ is built more by acting than by listening, even when the teacher or speaker has the power of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost testifies of our Heavenly Father and of the Savior with the purpose of moving us to repent and to keep commandments. Those are actions. It is the actions to pray, repent, and keep the commandments that build faith in the hearts of disciples of Jesus Christ.” Elder Henry B. Eyring, posted on Facebook on Sunday, Feb. 1, 2015; https://www.facebook.com/lds.henry.b.eyring/posts/808659242514886)

As we act, we are blessed. If we want faith, if we want charity, we should act. Go and do. The call to action sometimes requires what I call a loving kick in the pants.

In October 2012, Elder Holland gave us such encouragement. He told of the apostles toiling after Christ’s death. The apostles were fishing without success when the Savior appeared on the seashore, although at first they did not recognize Him. It was not until He asked them to cast their nets again into the water that they recognized Him. By following His counsel, they caught many fish and came to shore to talk with their Savior. This is where the chastisement – the loving kick in the pants – started.

Jesus asked Peter three times – “Do you love me?” Peter responded, “Yea Lord, I do.” But the Savior needed to teach Peter a lesson – Peter had not fully grasped the nature of his calling as Apostle (and chief Apostle – the president of the church – at that!).

Now quoting Elder Holland:

“Jesus responded… perhaps saying something like: ‘Then Peter, why are you here? Why are we back on this same shore, by these same nets, having this same conversation? Wasn’t it obvious then and isn’t it obvious now that if I want fish, I can get fish? What I need, Peter, are disciples—and I need them forever. I need someone to feed my sheep and save my lambs. I need someone to preach my gospel and defend my faith. I need someone who loves me, truly, truly loves me, and loves what our Father in Heaven has commissioned me to do. Ours is not a feeble message. It is not a fleeting task. It is not hapless; it is not hopeless; it is not to be consigned to the ash heap of history. It is the work of Almighty God, and it is to change the world. So, Peter, for the second and presumably the last time, I am asking you to leave all this and to go teach and testify, labor and serve loyally until the day in which they will do to you exactly what they did to me.'”

Elder Holland continued with an admonition to all of us: “My beloved brothers and sisters, I am not certain just what our experience will be on Judgment Day, but I will be very surprised if at some point in that conversation, God does not ask us exactly what Christ asked Peter: ‘Did you love me?’ I think He will want to know if in our very mortal, very inadequate, and sometimes childish grasp of things, did we at least understand one commandment, the first and greatest commandment of them all—’Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind.’ And if at such a moment we can stammer out, ‘Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee,’ then He may remind us that the crowning characteristic of love is always loyalty. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments,’ Jesus said. So we have neighbors to bless, children to protect, the poor to lift up, and the truth to defend. We have wrongs to make right, truths to share, and good to do. In short, we have a life of devoted discipleship to give in demonstrating our love of the Lord. We can’t quit and we can’t go back.” (Holland, The First Great Commandment, October 2012).

Will we be able to answer the Savior when we stand before Him to be judged that we really do love Him, that we loved Him enough that we put Him first in our lives? Did we love Him enough to really love other people? Do we really understand the weight of the responsibility we bear when we are baptized and are confirmed and make sacred covenants to follow the Savior? Do we feel like we can stand before the Savior today with clean hands and a pure heart having done all we can to follow His commandments? If not, what changes need to be made? Start making the changes today.

One of those changes we might need to make is to see others as our Father sees them. This vision requires charity. Charity isn’t just loving people for who they are it is loving people for who they might become. Charity is understanding the eternal potential and divine spark within all people. Charity is helping others draw near to God by seeing and edifying the good within. Do we love others enough to help them grow? Do we love others enough to help them return home giving them a loving kick in the pants when needed? Do we love and fill our lives with kindness?

Elder Wirthlin said, “The measure of our love is the measure of the greatness of our souls…. Love is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the pathway of discipleship…. Often, the greatest manifestations of love are the simple acts of kindness and caring we extend to those we meet along the path of life.” (Wirthlin, The Great Commandment, Oct. 2007)

Each simple act of kindness can be a manifestation of our love. Each hand we hold or tear we wipe, can share the love of God with His precious children. “Real love is best shown in the ‘how’.” (Holland, How do I love thee?, BYU Speeches, Feb 15, 2000). How do I love thee? Let me show you the ways.

One way to feel and show charity to others is when they are dealing with loss and grief for that is when love is needed the most.

With the strike of an automobile, some years ago tragedy struck our family. My 11 year old niece Allison was crossing a road on her bicycle with her father and younger sister when an automobile struck her, killing her instantly. It was a challenging time for my sister and her family. It was difficult for all the extended family. But who we are as people is defined by how we respond in the face of tragedy. Do we respond with faith or do we answer with festering bitterness? Do we forgive wrongs or do we allow the cankering cancer of hate to grow inside ourselves? I believe tragedy is a time to turn towards others, particularly our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. The healing waters of Christ cannot wash away our hurt and grief if we keep them locked within the stony tables of our hearts. We must offer our hurt and grief to the Savior. Christ’s suffering – His Atonement – not only helps us overcome sin and death, it helps us overcome sorrow, suffering, and pain. Sorrow, suffering, and pain are not removed from our lives but their effects can be lessened. We can even find joy amidst the hardship as we turn towards Christ. Then one day, we have been promised that “every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude” (Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, Nov. 2008 Ensign).

Jesus offers hope and healing to all who mourn. Isaiah tells us that the Savior: “bind[s] up the brokenhearted [and] proclaim[s] liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound…. [He] comfort[s] all that mourn; [and] appoint[s] unto them that mourn in Zion [and] give[s] unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified” (Isaiah 61:1-3). In these tender verses we learn of Christ’s role as healer; we learn of His great love for us. He pours forth the olive oil of mercy unto those in need and He comforts those who mourn: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

God shall wipe tears from our eyes – what a touching, beautiful, and miraculous experience that will be! What love our Father has for us! This is a miracle we can perform for others; this is a love we can share with others. Pres. Harold B. Lee said of this miracle – the miracle of healing those who sorrow and who suffer with spiritual sickness: “The greatest miracles I see today are not necessarily the healing of sick bodies, but the greatest miracles I see are the healing of sick souls, those who are sick in soul and spirit and are downhearted and distraught, on the verge of nervous breakdowns. We are reaching out to all such because they are precious in the sight of the Lord and we want no one to feel that they are forgotten.” (Lee, April 1973 General Conference). The Lord came to heal the sick – in body and spirit. We are commanded to follow Christ; we must to do as He did and reach out to and heal those who are dejected and sick in spirit.

Even in times of our own suffering we can help heal others. In the days before Allison’s funeral, my sister and her husband took time to visit and comfort the boy, a teenager, who was driving the car that hit her. Allison died and my family suffered because of his mistake but he was going to have to live with the weight of her death on his shoulders. My sister and her husband wanted to let the boy know that they forgave him for what happened. “There was hurt but no hate.” (Faust, April 2007 General Conference). They exemplified one of the greatest acts of love – the gift of forgiveness; it is the ultimate miracle, the ultimate gift of love. This is a gift given to us by Christ and one we can give to others. Those who Pres. Lee said are “sick in soul and spirit and downhearted and distraught” might be aching for one thing from us – the healing that starts when we offer a gift of forgiveness. What greater love is there than laying down hurt and hate and extending arms in love? What greater Christian attribute is there than that of forgiving those who might not deserve forgiveness and loving those who might not deserve love? This is charity, being filled with the pure love of Christ.

I pray that all our thoughts might be drawn out to God, that we might strive to be as He is, filled with a radiant, pure love. I pray that we might fill our hearts and strengthen the pathways of our minds with good and with love. This church is true. Jesus Christ lives and loves us!