Lord, How Is It Done?

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The Book of Mormon is a collection of writings and commentary by an ancient American prophet named Mormon, who lived around the year 400 AD. It tells histories and teachings of a few different groups of people who were independently guided from the Middle East to the Americas. The main group lived near Jerusalem during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah preached against the sins of God’s covenant people. He taught it was not enough to be covenant people, salvation only comes through following the commandments of the Lord. Who we are is not as important as what we do and who we become.

The people in Jerusalem rejected Jeremiah’s teachings and continued to sin. Sinning against greater light brings greater condemnation. The Israelites in the time of Jeremiah rejected the Lord in the same way most people rejected the Lord and the teachings of Noah before the flood. Instead of receiving safety from an ark of covenant, the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day were swept away by a flood from the east. A flood came to Jerusalem and the house of Israel in the form of the Babylonians. Babylon was a major kingdom within ancient Mesopotamia. It was in what is currently Iraq. Many Israelites were taken captives of the Babylonians and carried away from their homes. Many never returned home to their promised land.

One family who lived near Jerusalem just a decade or so before the destruction of Jerusalem was the family of Lehi. Lehi had a remarkable vision where he saw God and was called as a prophet.

Lehi’s son Nephi wrote of the experience: “[Lehi] saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God. And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day. And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament. And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read. And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord.” (1 Nephi 1:8-12)

Lehi saw God. He saw Jesus Christ and His first twelve apostles. Then Lehi read words out of the book of God. The Spirit of God filled Lehi when he read. As we read the words of God we too are filled with the Spirit.

Lehi also saw Jerusalem would be destroyed in not many years. After the vision, Lehi preached to the people, warning them of impending danger. He was faithful to his calling. Lehi prophesied of the future coming of the Messiah and of the necessity of repentance. Lehi did what prophets since the time of Adam have done – he testified of Jesus Christ. Many of these prophecies of the Messiah are lost or obscured in the Bible but the Book of Mormon teaches them with great clarity. Lehi pleaded with those around him to repent and be saved. Those in Jerusalem did not believe him; they laughed at him and some tried to kill him.

Nephi wrote of this: “And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world. And when the Jews heard these things they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away. But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance.” (1 Nephi 1:19-20).

Lehi testified of the coming of the Messiah – the Anointed One who would redeem Israel and the world. This Messiah would shortly deliver Lehi and his family from destruction through His tender mercies. Jesus Christ watches over us, offering His tender mercies to each of us. He delivers us from destruction as we exercise faith in Him and sometimes even when we don’t.

To save Lehi’s life and for other grand purposes, the Lord sent another vision to Lehi. In that vision the Lord told Lehi to leave his home and depart into the wilderness. Lehi and his family promptly left their home, land, gold, silver, and other precious possessions. The Lord asked them to sacrifice all they had — they did. The Lord offered to save them but in return they had to give up everything. In a faithful and difficult act of consecration, Lehi and his family left the comforts of home as refugees, fleeing for their lives. Thousands of years later, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would flee Illinois as refugees. They were led out into the wilderness, the high deserts of Utah. The Mormon pioneers, like Lehi, followed the Lord in faith.

At first Lehi and his family did not travel far (that was again mirrored by the initial Mormon pioneers, who wintered not too far from Illinois in what is now a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska — a place we call Winter Quarters). The reason Lehi did not travel far soon became apparent. The Lord asked his family to return to Jerusalem and obtain a copy of the scriptures. These scriptures also contained Lehi’s family history. Laban was the keeper of this copy of the scriptures. Lehi’s sons went to obtain the plates from Laban. They were eventually successful because the youngest son – Nephi – boldly declared his faith and trust in God: “I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Nephi 3:7).

Getting the scriptures from Laban was not easy. Lehi’s sons had their gold and silver stolen by Laban when they tried to buy the scriptures from him. Laban sent servants to kill the boys but they escaped. It was then Nephi demonstrated his remarkable faith in God when he went back to try again. Would you have been persistent like Nephi and go back into the lion’s den, as it were? The third time was a success for Nephi because of his faith in God and faithfulness in doing the hard things asked of him.

The boys returned successful to their parents in the wilderness. They sacrificed much to obtain a copy of the scriptures and their family history. How much effort do we put in obtaining and reading the scriptures? Do we give our all like Nephi or do we casually read a verse or two when we remember? Do we similarly work hard to obtain our family history? We have a gospel responsibility to seek out our deceased ancestors and perform sacred ordinances for them in sacred places. How many of us are fulfilling this responsibility?

The Lord knew Lehi and his descendants needed both the scriptures and their family history. Those items and teachings provided a way to bind them together culturally, religiously, linguistically, and spiritually. The scriptures obtained from Laban would serve them in the way scriptures serve us today; they strengthen, provide counsel, provide insight into God’s plan for His children, and they teach us how to be better people. The scriptures teach of Jesus Christ.

After one more trip into Jerusalem to convince a family to join them in escape from impending destruction — this family conveniently had a number of unmarried daughters — Lehi and his tribe traveled south and then east across the Arabian peninsula, a trip that took them years. This band of refugees then set up camp in a beautiful oasis near the Indian Ocean. This was not their promised land. That would come after more hard work and faith.

The Lord commanded Nephi to build a ship, something he had never done before. Again he was faithful and fulfilled the commandments of God, building a remarkable ship not patterned after other ships of the day. THe Lord gave Nephi revelation about how to build it. We similarly can receive revelation concerning our jobs, our callings, and our responsibilities. The Lord can show us new ways to do new things, particularly when our efforts align with His eternal purpose. God’s purpose — God’s work — is to bring to pass the eternal life of His children (see Moses 1:39). He provides the means necessary to accomplish His plan.

During this time on the beach while starting to build the ship Nephi taught his brothers of the power of God. He reminded them of Moses, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. He chastised his brothers Laman and Lemuel for being slow to repent: “Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God…. he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words.” (1 Nephi 17:45). Nephi also testified of his great faith in God: “If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them.” (1 Nephi 17:50). What great faith! Is our faith as strong as Nephi’s? If the Lord commanded us to do all things, could we do them? If our faith isn’t that strong, that gives us something to work towards. We can be perfect, eventually.

Lehi and his family prepared and then got on the ship to sail the thousands of miles to the promised land. Through faith in God they made it to the Americas where they built new homes. Nephi and those of his family who would go left his older brothers Laman and Lemuel. Once again Nephi fled as a refugee, this time to escape his oldest brothers who had murderous intent.

This was the start of the Nephite people. Nephi acted as ruler and prophet. He and his people built a temple. Nephi’s younger brother Jacob became a powerful teacher. Together they taught their people the Law of Moses and the coming of the Messiah Jesus Christ. They taught of the necessity of baptism and repentance. They taught their people they must “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life. And now…this is the way; and there is none other way nor name given under heaven whereby man can be saved in the kingdom of God.” (2 Nephi 31:20-21).

Nephi clearly taught salvation only comes through Jesus Christ. This is something prophets in our day also boldly declare. As we press forward in faith, diligently studying the scriptures and the words of living prophets, and endure in keeping the commandments to the end of our lives, we can be saved through the grace of Christ. I also add my witness that it is only through the Savior Jesus Christ we can be saved.

Nephi eventually became old and transferred the duty of keeper of the records and scriptures to his brother Jacob. Then Nephi died. Jacob became old and turned the record keeping to his son Enos. Then Jacob died.

Enos shared a powerful experience with prayer and repentance he had as he pondered the teachings of his father.

Enos wrote: “I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins. And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.” (Enos 1:2,4).

After his much praying and supplications Enos heard a voice say, “Thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.” (Enos 1:5).

Enos was a man of faith. He testified he knew God could not lie so his guilt was swept away. Then Enos asked one of the most important questions in the scriptures: “Lord, how is it done?” (Enos 1:7).

How were Enos’s sins forgiven? They were forgiven by his faith in Jesus Christ. They were forgiven through the Atonement of Christ.

When we repent, how are our sins forgiven? In same way they were for Enos — through faith in Jesus Christ and through His atonement. When we repent, do we trust God and believe our sins are forgiven? When we repent do we forgive ourselves? How does forgiveness happen this? Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

A prophet who lived hundreds of years after Nephi, Jacob, and Enos testified of the power of Jesus Christ. Benjamin taught his people of the many miracles Jesus Christ would perform. For each one we might ask as did Enos: “Lord, how is it done?” Benjamin said:

“The time cometh, and is not far distant, that with power, the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity, shall come down from heaven among the children of men, and shall dwell in a tabernacle of clay, and shall go forth amongst men, working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, causing the lame to walk, the blind to receive their sight, and the deaf to hear, and curing all manner of diseases. And he shall cast out devils, or the evil spirits which dwell in the hearts of the children of men.” (Mosiah 3:5-6).

Next King Benjamin taught how Jesus would accomplish the many miracles.

“And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death; for behold, blood cometh from every pore, so great shall be his anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people. And he shall be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary. And lo, he cometh unto his own, that salvation might come unto the children of men even through faith on his name; and even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him. And he shall rise the third day from the dead; and behold, he standeth to judge the world; and behold, all these things are done that a righteous judgment might come upon the children of men.” (Mosiah 3:7-10).

How did Jesus cast out devils? How did He heal the sick, bless the weary, and raise the dead? How did He rise from the dead? He did all those things through His faith and through His divine power. He did them because He is the Son of God. He is divine. Although we are not holy as Christ is holy, we too can perform miracles through faith in Christ and through the Spirit of God.

Benjamin also taught another miracle that comes through Christ: “Even if it were possible that little children could sin they could not be saved; but I say unto you they are blessed; for behold, as in Adam, or by nature, they fall, even so the blood of Christ atoneth for their sins.” (Mosiah 3:16).

This verse contains important doctrines. We learn little children cannot sin but they too need salvation. We learn little children are saved through the atonement of Christ. Another important doctrine is tied to the salvation of little children. Jesus Christ’s Atonement overcomes the effects of Adam’s fall. It was because of this clarification in the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith wrote: “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression.” (AofF 1:2). How is it done? Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ; through the great mercy of God.

It is because of Christ’s wonderful Atonement we can overcome sin and death. It offers hope to the hurt and solace to the sorrowful.

Seven years ago my sister’s family experienced a shocking loss when their daughter Allison, my 11 year old niece, was hit and killed by a car as she rode her bike. At the time I wrote: “Yesterday as the lights [went] out here on the East Coast, in the West, a different light dimmed and then disappeared. In a moment worlds changed and hearts broke. Bicycle and automobile danced a tragic ballet, extinguishing the light of one so small. As this light faded from earth, leaving a hole in the hearts and darkness in the lives of loved ones, a brighter light grew and radiated with an unfiltered luminosity in an eternal world. The sorrows and tears of earthly separations were balanced by the tears of joy from reunions with other pure lights. [Her] death…brought a dearth of joy to all who mourn [her] passing but [Allison’s] life brought love and joy to those around [her].”

My sister, brother in law, and their family at the time had to start putting the pieces of their shattered lives back together. They started by spending time in prayer and in the temple.

The loss of a child under such circumstances is devastating. It is a hellish darkness of separation – poignant and painful; a pain one might expect would never end. But with the inexorable march of time comes a deadening of the pain. The storm passes, the numbness fades, but still gray skies remain. There is room for laughter and joy but at times the grief can be overwhelming. So would go life, the only solace in the numbness of time, without knowledge of God’s plan for His children. However, there is more solace available; it comes through faith in Christ’s Atonement and the knowledge and power of eternal families. These are like radiant rays of the sun bursting through the dark clouds and burning away the dreary mists of life.

Jesus is like a song in the night. He is a pillar of fire. He restores breaches in our hearts and families. He stabilizes the rudderless and calms the stormy seas. The Lord blesses us with His tender mercies – friends, family, and other loved ones who provide meals and support. There are the mercies of the promptings and love provided by the Comforter – the Holy Ghost. Most importantly, we are blessed to know that because of the sealing power of the Priesthood, Allison can be forever part of her family. All who lose family members to death have a promise of eternal reunion when families are sealed together in the temple. That knowledge is almost unbelievably comforting. At a time when we think we might be completely devastated, we feel some measure of peace even though peace seems so out of place.

Again, we ask with Enos, “Lord, how is it done?” How are these hurts and pains and great sorrows healed? How do we have hope after such loss? It is only in and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I testify of His eternal love. Through Him we can overcome sin and will overcome death. Through Jesus Christ we can return to our Eternal Father in Heaven as we consistently and persistently do what is right.

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!

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!

Dropping the Rope of Addiction

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This post is for those who are struggling – personally or through friends or family – with the monster of addiction. This post is written from the perspective of a mental health professional (which I have training as) but does not constitute professional advice. I am not a therapist (I’ve chosen a career in research and teaching) but I have training as a therapist.

Individuals seeking help in overcoming substance abuse, pornography addiction, eating disorders, or any other addictive behavior often fall into three categories: the home run hitter, the negative and bitter, and the perpetual quitter. The home run hitters do just that – they quit without much struggle, hitting a home run, changing their behaviors right away. The negative and bitter don’t believe that they will overcome their addictions and they try to blame other people or external factors for their problems; they play the victim card, often without any hint of accepting personal responsibility. Those individuals are the hardest to work with because they see no need to change or have no desire to change. On the other hand, the perpetual quitter frequently tries to quit but never succeeds; the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. It is those who struggle over and over to try and overcome addiction that I want to address.

Erase Addiction

The following examples are fictional but are true to life; they are not atypical of people seeking treatment for addictions. These examples are based on people I’ve worked with during my professional training but I’ve changed specifics (e.g., names, ages) as well as taken the liberty to apply them to a church and gospel setting (e.g., made them members or investigators of the church).

Tobacco

Ralph is 53 years old with a 35 year history of smoking 1-2 packs of cigarettes per day. He recently had a chest scan that revealed a spot on a lung. His doctor told him he needed to stop smoking. Ralph has wanted to quit for years to save money and to save his health but never could. He has a daughter he wants to help through college and as he nears retirement he not only wants to have more money for retirement but he also wants to live long enough to retire. Ralph has tried patches, pills, behavioral treatment, and going cold turkey. Each time he tried quitting Ralph slipped and started smoking again. He means well but Ralph has been unable to quit.

Part of the challenge is that Ralph believes that he can win the battle over smoking. Wait, isn’t that what he wants – to beat the addiction and stop smoking? Yes, but stopping doesn’t require fighting. Part of the problem is that deep down Ralph believes that he can slay the giant of addiction. He can’t. Few people have that strength and willpower and those who do usually develop the ability it through years of practice of self-control, something that years of addiction aren’t exactly evidence of – self-control.

Then Ralph meets the missionaries (or Ralph could be someone newly baptized). They teach him and give him blessings. He is excited and hopeful because he believes in the Savior’s Atonement and its power to heal. Yet, even as his faith grows, Ralph is not quite successful; he is not able to stop for a long enough period in which to be baptized (or, if he was baptized already, he slips back into the addictive behaviors). Ralph starts to despair and feel unworthy, his blossoming faith starts to waiver. What can be done?

Pornography

Matt is 19 years old and a life-long member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He developed a pornography addiction at age 18 and has struggled with quitting since he first approached his parents and bishop. There were some days when the urges of the addiction were so bad he spent the majority of those days viewing pornography, shutting out the rest of the world. Concurrent with the addiction he struggles with depression, which feeds his addiction and is fed by his addiction. He meets bimonthly with his bishop and weekly with a therapist. He prays, reads the scriptures, and attends church weekly. His addiction, however, remains. Matt tries to quit but the siren lure of pornography catches him back each time.

Tug-of-war

Both of these cases illustrate a few of the many challenges faced by those who struggle with addictions. Even with the power of the Atonement, behavioral, emotional, psychological, or physical issues might interfere with success in overcoming addictions. Just as not all medical conditions are cured through faith (the vast majority are not), not all addictions are cured by faith and “trying harder”. I’m not downplaying the role that the Atonement must play for many addictions constitute sinful behavior – addiction is not an excuse for sin – but faith and repentance are not panaceas in this life.

Below is a perspective on addiction that I’ve found helpful professionally. It is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an approach to psychotherapy that I feel has much to offer. Part of this approach is discovering true end goals of life and identifying how current behaviors, emotions, and/or cognitions are or are not detracting from those goals. Once overarching goals are recognized, manageable sub-goals can be established and any barriers to fulfillment identified. With these goals in mind, we can understand how some actions are counterproductive, even if they seem like the right actions to be doing (such as trying to beat the monster of addiction – again this post is focused on individuals who struggle to quit or change, not to those few who are the home run hitters).

Addiction is like playing tug-of-war with a monster on the other side of a gorge. You think that if you can just pull the monster in you will be free from your addiction; the problem is that it’s stronger than you are. You might even think that you can cross the chasm and fight it (maybe the other side looks greener too) but you will lose. The only way to conquer it is to let go of the rope and live your life on your side of the chasm. Then the monster will no longer be pulling back on you. In doing this you are not ignoring the monster – it’s there and real but you are simply choosing to stop fighting it so that you can move on to greater and more productive goals.

This concept of overcoming addiction can be quite successful because when you fight things, you dwell on them. If you play tug-of-war with the monster of addiction you focus all your energy on it. In doing so, you allow it to have power over your life. That’s the irony of fighting the monster – you might think that you are choosing to battle it but in reality you are giving up your freedom of choice. You might think that it is a fight on your chosen ground and at your chosen time, but the monster stands there, waiting for you to fight – it enjoys the contest. The monster only has something to do when someone fights with it. This is a fight few people can win.

So instead of playing tug-of-war, should you cross over the bridge to attack the enemy there? No. Once again, that places your focus on the monster; plus then you are in its territory. That’s like an alcoholic who tries to quit by going to a bar just so she can say that she’s there but not drinking – “look how strong I am!”. It’s not a good idea. That is not the way to win. Once again, by striving to do so you focus on the monster. It’s like me telling you to not think about purple bunnies. Whatever you do, do not think about purple bunnies – not the wiggling of their little noses, not the ridiculous purple hue of their fur, not their munching of juicy carrots. Of course, the first thing you just did was think about what I just asked you not to think about – purple bunnies. The more you try to suppress the thought, the worse it gets because you keep your focus on it. Addictions are the same way.

You need to drop the tug-of-war rope and walk away. Acknowledge the monster, accept the monster as part of your life – it’s real and it’s big and scary. When you drop the rope you are not ignoring the monster, you acknowledge it’s there and real, you just choose not to fight. Ignoring it does not solve your problems because then you are in denial and in the river of denial you usually end up eaten by crocodiles. So instead of just ignoring the monsters, say “I know you are there; I know that you are a terrible thing in my life; I know that you want to fight me and I want to fight you but I cannot win. I embrace you and let you go.” Instead of straining and putting all your efforts on fighting the bad in your life, acknowledge it and then fill your life with good. You embrace (or shake hands – whichever metaphorical action you prefer), let go, and move on. What you move on to is important though. You can’t beat addiction with a life full of nothing, addiction will always win over void! Addictions exist in part because of some internal void. So instead, fill your life with good.

The key to overcoming the monster of addiction is establishing positive goals and working towards those goals rather than fighting against the monster. The goals could be related to family, work, hobbies, service, church, or community. It is in striving towards good goals that the monster of addiction finally goes away.

For all the perpetual quitters out there – if you are trying to overcome addiction of any sort (and it could be anything physical or emotional) but find yourself constantly quitting with little success, it is time for a shift in tactics. That shift could be to acknowledge the monster, drop the rope, walk away, and work towards positive goals in your life. Instead of fighting the bad, do good. Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38) rather than going about fighting evil all the time. In the same manner, addiction no longer has power over you when you stop fighting it and start working towards good goals. It doesn’t mean it’s gone for good – the monster will remain, lying in wait – but if you stop fighting you can start living. This is not an easy thing to do if there are years of addictions to overcome but it is a simple process and will provide success through diligence and over time.

What will give great power to the process and allow you to fully overcome is the Atonement of Christ. Jesus’s Atonement enables you to be free from the shackles of your sin. It enables you to overcome all, just as the Savior overcame all. Sincere repentance will allow you to “shake at the appearance of sin” (2 Nephi 4:31), no longer having a disposition to do evil (Mosiah 5:2). However, just as you must rely on medical treatment in addition to faith in Christ, there are many instances when you must rely on professional help for addictions. When you or the person you love fall, when you stumble along the path of freedom, don’t get discouraged, don’t give up! That is precisely the time when you need to double your determination and your prayers and keep clinging to the iron rod. God loves you and wants you to succeed. Don’t give up hope, keep walking towards your goals. Through faithfulness and honest striving towards Christ, whether in this life or in the next, you can be free. You shall overcome some day.

Rope image by Michael Heiss used under a Creative Commons license.

Four Glorious Gifts From God

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The prophet Moroni wrote to encourage us to “Deny not the gifts of God, for they are many; and they come from the same God. And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all; and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men, to profit them” (Moroni 10:8).

We receive four glorious gifts from God.

1. Faith

The first glorious gift is faith.

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1). Let me say that again with words that clarify the meaning: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the proof of things not seen.” Faith isn’t just hoping something is true; it isn’t just believing in God – faith is much more and much more powerful. Faith is evidence; faith in God is proof of Him and His love for you. Walking by faith isn’t blindly following Christ, it is following Him because you have proof that what you are doing is right. Faith is a gift from God. Moroni wrote: “And to [some is given] exceedingly great faith” (Moroni 10:11). Faith comes of and by the Spirit of the Lord. If you want stronger faith, pray for it and keep the commandments. God will bless you with more and more faith as you follow Him.

Faith is a shield unto us. The Apostle Paul counseled: “Above all, [take] the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked” (Eph. 6:16). In battles, the Roman shield was of key importance. It served to protect most of the body while allowing the legionnaire to attack his enemy with his sword or spear. The soldier moved his shield around to ward off blows and could use it to attack the enemy, if necessary. If the armies were farther apart, such as at the beginning of a battle, then small groups of legionaries would often make a testudo, or tortoise, formation in order to protect themselves from arrows. The legionaries in front or on the edges crouched behind their shields, blocking attacks from front. Those behind or in the middle held their shields over their heads and the heads of those in front. This formation was slow but very strong and could withstand strong attacks from the enemy. Soldiers could withstand more and stronger attacks as a group than they could individually.

Paul said the shield of faith was the most important armor for us. Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel. It is the foundation of the gospel; all other things build upon it. Faith is a shield; it can protect us from onslaughts by the Adversary. It also is stronger when combined with the faith of others – we stand stronger together than we do alone, which is one reason it’s important to attend church regularly and be an active part of a branch or ward. Who is has not been at church (recently) but could be or should be? Who is missing out on the faith-strengthening experience of attending church and partaking of the Sacrament? Who can you invite to join the army of the Lord? Inviting others to Christ will strengthen your faith in Him and help others develop faith in Christ.

With great faith, great works can be accomplished.

“In New Zealand, President Kimball was stricken with…the flu, suffering around the clock with either fever and perspiration or with chills. Three thousand young people were waiting at a local stadium to hear him speak, but were told, ‘Tonight you will hear from President [N. Eldon] Tanner, because President Kimball is ill.’ Thirty minutes before the meeting was to start, President Kimball, still limp, spoke to his physician, Russel M. Nelson, who was waiting with him, and said, ‘Tell [my wife] we’re going.’ They had to practically carry him to the car. At the stadium, a young man giving the opening prayer said, ‘We are three thousand New Zealand youth. We are assembled here, having prepared for six months to sing and to dance for thy prophet. Wilt thou heal him and deliver him here?’ As he said ‘Amen,’ the car drove into the stadium. Three thousand voices cheered that the prophet had come. He stood, strengthened even in his illness, and bore his witness to them.” (Madsen, T. G. (2004). The Presidents of the Church: Insights into Their Lives and Teachings. Deseret Book. p. 350-351).

Such was the power of the faith of the New Zealand youth and the faith of the prophet. Such can be the power of faith in our lives!

2. Peace

The second glorious gift is peace.

One morning my mission companion and I spent the morning tracting without success. It was a warm but cloudy April morning in Seattle, Washington. The spring day was lovely with white, pink, and red apple and cherry blossoms floating gently down from the trees like snow. When we walked through the blossoms on the ground, they swirled around our shoes like hundreds of delicate butterflies trying to take flight. It was one of the most serene and beautiful sights I have ever seen. We walked along tree-lined roads near the coast of the Puget Sound – up and down the steep hills sharing a message of hope, peace, and restoration but no one was listening. People were generally kind to us but no one was interested. I was struck by the contrast of the rejection of our beautiful message on such a beautiful day. My companion and I felt more dejected the more we were rejected. Then adding a bit of injury to insult, at one house a dog ran up and bit me on the leg as my companion and I started walking up the driveway. It wasn’t a large bite but I was bleeding and my pants had a tear in them. We kept tracting for almost an hour to finish off the area then walked home so I could get cleaned up. I felt discouraged by the unsuccessful morning capped off with an unfriendly dog.

All the way home I kept thinking, “How can this day get any worse? I bet I could be hit by a car on my walk home. That would be worse.” Sometimes it helps me feel better if I imagine for a couple minutes how my life could be worse, then I realize my life is beautiful, regardless of difficulties at the time. So I spent part of the walk back to the apartment wondering how my day could get worse; it got worse.

Our mail was there when we got home. Missionaries opening mail are like children on Christmas morning so normally receiving mail is a joyful experience. There was a letter from my parents! I opened the letter to learn that Eric, a friend from high school and one of my roommates at BYU, had been in a taxi with his companion when a truck hit their vehicle, killing Eric. I was shocked. I was speechless. I was heart-broken. However, during this time of acute grief all I could think about was how Heavenly Father must have felt as He watched the persecutions, suffering, and death of His beloved Son. I prayed for the comfort of Eric’s family; I prayed for my own comfort. Then suddenly, after a few minutes, the pain was gone. My grief was intense but brief. I was still sad but there was no longer any pain. I knew Eric died doing the Lord’s work and was now in a much brighter world still doing the Lord’s work. Amid grief and loss and pain, the Lord provides peace. The Lord’s peace heals our pain. Brothers and sisters, that is the nature of the Atonement. It removes the sting of death and sin – miraculously – and replaces it with peace.

Many of you and many throughout the world have felt this peace. In the midst of the Civil War, following the news that his son had been injured in a battle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the following words:

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

These words resonate strongly in our tumultuous world today. People cry for peace but peace can be hard to find. Nations strive against nations. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers strive against one another. Hate, mistrust, abuse, and violence are rampant. It is enough to cause people’s hearts to fail and fear. Many feel that hope is lost, that “hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth.” The answer for despair and darkness is not found in human philosophies. The answer is not found in worldly goods. The Answer once lay in a manger surrounded by animals and bathed in radiant starlight.

In the most humble of births the King of Heaven and Earth, the Prince of Peace, came to earth. He came with no great earthly fanfare; angels witnessed to those with ears to hear and the star witnessed to those with eyes to see. This singular event was the start of the most important 33 years in the history of the world – a life like no other. Jesus Christ was a gift from God to bring peace and salvation to earth.

In contrast to the humble birth and life of the Savior, the Christmas season is full of frenetic shopping and greedy consumerism. However, there is much positive too; it is also a season full of giving, thanksgiving, love, family, and joy. At this Christmas season, I pray that we all might remember Who Christmas really is about.

Christmas should not be about getting, although we are given so much by God, it should be about giving. It is a time that we celebrate the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ. He gave His life – His whole life – for us so that we could be saved. Just as wise men brought the young Jesus gifts, so too should we give gifts to others. The best gifts are not the ones that cost money. We should give of our time and our love. We should give service to those in need and even to those who do not think they are in need.

Pres. Thomas S. Monson said, “For a few moments, may we set aside the catalogs of Christmas, with their gifts of exotic description. Let’s even turn from the flowers for Mother, the special tie for Father, the cute doll, the train that whistles, the long-awaited bicycle—even the books and videos—and direct our thoughts to God-given gifts that endure” (Monson, April 1993 General Conference). [Commentary: after looking back at that talk, I realized how similar my talk/essay was to his in structure. The similarity was unintentional. I collected that quote years ago and included it without referencing the talk specifically].

The greatest gift we could give this Christmas time is the gift of our hearts, our souls, and our will to the Savior. We can rededicate ourselves to Him and to living His gospel. We can do the things that the Savior would do – help others, lift those who suffer, do good to those who spitefully use us, and share of our abundance (or even of our lack of abundance) with those around us. Most of all, we can give the gift of peace by our peaceful actions towards others. We can give peace to the hurt, the suffering, the lonely. We can spread peace in our home and in our hearts by focusing on the Savior. “Blessed are the peacemakers”, Jesus taught. Blessed are those who are filled with peace and help others have peace.

3. Holy Ghost

The third glorious gift is the Holy Ghost

“Therefore say, Thus saith the Lord God; I will even gather you from the people, and assemble you out of the countries where ye have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel. And they shall come thither, and they shall take away all the detestable things thereof and all the abominations thereof from thence. And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: That they may walk in my statutes, and keep mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:17-20)

The Holy Ghost gives us a new, soft heart. No more will we be afflicted with spiritual stenosis, we can have a strong, soft heart sensitive to the Spirit. We can teach others how to recognize that Spirit and receive it into their hearts. This is a responsibility we have to our families, to our visiting or home teaching families, to those we teach at church – the responsibility of helping others recognize the Spirit of the Lord. Through the gift of the Holy Ghost we can know the path back to our heavenly home.

4. Atonement & forgiveness

The final glorious gift is the gift of forgiveness through the Atonement of the Messiah.

This Christmas season, whether we can afford to purchase gifts or not, we can all afford one gift – the gift of forgiveness. We can forgive others for any real or perceived wrongs they did unto us or loved ones and in turn we can be forgiven by God.

Pres. Henry B. Eyring wrote,

“As we gather in [our] heavenly home, we will be surrounded by those who have been forgiven of all sin and who have forgiven each other. We can taste some of that joy now, especially as we remember and celebrate the Savior’s gifts to us…. In the Christmas season we feel a greater desire to remember and ponder the Savior’s words. He warned us that we cannot be forgiven unless we forgive others (see Matthew 6:14–15). That is often hard to do, so you will need to pray for help. This help to forgive will come most often when you are allowed to see that you have given as much or more hurt than you have received. When you act on that answer to your prayer for strength to forgive, you will feel a burden lifted from your shoulders. Carrying a grudge is a heavy burden. As you forgive, you will feel the joy of being forgiven. At this Christmastime you can give and receive the gift of forgiveness. The feeling of happiness that will come will be a glimpse of what we can feel at home together in the eternal home for which we yearn.” (Ensign, December 2009).

Forgiveness is precisely what Christmas is about. That tiny baby born in a manger was the Son of God. Jesus lived so that we might have the promise of eternal life. He did this because He loves us. By His love and power we can be forgiven of our sins. We all make mistakes. We all sin and fall short of God’s laws. But we can be forgiven. God said of Joseph Smith (and of each of us, for we all sin), “Nevertheless, he has sinned; but verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness, who have not sinned unto death.” (D&C 64:7).

Because the Lord is so willing to forgive us, we are commanded to forgive one another, “Wherefore, I say unto you, that ye ought to forgive one another; for he that forgiveth not his brother his trespasses standeth condemned before the Lord; for there remaineth in him the greater sin. I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” (D&C 64:9-10). We are required to forgive all people – without condition. It does not matter what they did to us, the only thing that matters is forgiving. This does not mean that we sanction people’s misdeeds or sins but we should forgive. There is little more damaging to a person than the festering disease of an unforgiving attitude.

There is a story about George Albert Smith, who was a prophet of God. Pres. Smith was a peacemaker who sought never to “be an enemy to any living soul” (The Presidents of the Church, Madsen, p.222). The story goes as follows, “George Albert Smith had an old 1936 Ford with a very precious blanket on the front seat made by Navajo Indians; they had sewn the names of all the Twelve into the blanket, along with his own name. The car wasn’t locked because it was in a guarded Church parking lot. But the blanket was stolen anyway. George Albert walked out from his meetings and found the blanket was gone. He could have [got upset but what did he do?] He said simply, ‘I wish we knew who it was so that we could give him the blanket…, for he must have been cold; and some food also, for he must have been hungry.’” (ibid., p.224). Now that is forgiveness! Pres. Smith’s response showed his forgiveness and love for others, even those who wronged him – especially those who wronged him. We can emulate Pres. Smith’s example and forgive others.

In the hymn As Now We Take the Sacrament we sing:

“As now our minds review the past,
We know we must repent;
The way to thee is righteousness—
The way thy life was spent.
Forgiveness is a gift from thee
We seek with pure intent.
With hands now pledged to do thy work,
We take the sacrament.”

“Forgiveness is a gift” from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ Christmas gift to each of us as we repent. Like peace, forgiveness is another gift that each of us, no matter how rich or poor we may be, can afford to give to someone this Christmas season. What greater gift is there than the peace that comes from wrongs and trespasses forgiven? What greater gift could we give ourselves than to let go of the hurt and bitterness and pain we retain when we are unforgiving? This Christmas, give the gift of forgiveness to someone who needs yours.

As we move along the path of life, may we remember these four glorious gifts from God – faith, peace, the Holy Ghost, and forgiveness. May we share our faith with others through the actions of our lives, may we be peacemakers, may we follow the promptings of the Holy Ghost and teach others how to feel, recognize, and receive that Spirit, and may we forgive others! The Church and the gospel are true. We are led by a prophet of God who reveals God’s will. As we follow the prophet we will be blessed with gifts from God.

Image by Andy Noren. Used under a CC license (summary: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/).

An LDS Perspective on Death

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Not very long ago, a family I know lost their young son Evan when he drowned. This little boy was always so bright-eyed and cheerful at church. A line in one of the most moving and powerful novels ever written – Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton – reminds me of Evan. The story is about a black African pastor whose son kills the son of a wealthy white landowner (who lives nearby). The story is one of suffering but also redemption. There is a touching scene where the umfundisi (pastor), the father of the murderer confronts his neighbor, the father of the slain. During this difficult encounter the umfundisi admits to his neighbor “it was my son that killed your son.” After this revelation, both men talk for a brief time. During that conversation, Mr. Jarvis, the wealthy landowner, reflected on the times in the past that he rode past the umfundisi’s church. He then asked if the umfundisi had ever seen – years ago – his young son ride by the church.

“Jarvis listened to the sounds in the house. Then he spoke very quietly. Perhaps, you saw the boy also, he said. He too used to ride past Ndotsheni. On a red horse with a white face. And he carried wooden guns, here in his belt, as small boys do…. I remember, umnumzana [said the umfundisi]. There was a brightness in him. Yes, yes said Jarvis, there was a brightness in him.”

That last line in that touching encounter reminds me of Evan – there was a brightness in him. Every time I saw him walking down the hallway at church, I saw that brightness. That brightness has faded from this life but it is not forever lost. Evan’s brightness only glows with more intensity in the next life – waiting to illuminate his family when they are reunited once again.

Rob Gardner used a poem written by his grandmother in his musical production Joseph Smith, the Prophet. This poem is the thoughts of a mother who lost a child. I will take the liberty of making minor edits so that it fits more with Evan’s death and all children who are lost so young.

“The wind through the cypress made them sway
And rolled the clouds back that winter day
The sun shone through long enough to say
Your baby was here, but cannot stay.

For there are more important things to do
And [he] must add a gleam to heaven’s hue
To help brighten the pathway for one and all
For through the darkness, great men fall.
This little spirit so pleasant and fair
Returned to the ones who were waiting there.
And when I walk out in the night divine
I know one of the stars that shine is mine.

[He] came to the earth just for a while
[Just] long enough to see [him] smile
For this little [child] we loved so much
Was just too precious for a mother’s touch.”

As a parent of young children, I was especially touched by the experience of Evan’s death. Even so, I can’t really understand the grief the family went through. The loss I’ve experienced in my life has been different than the loss of a child, so it pales in comparison. [This essay was originally written in 2009; since that time my family experienced the loss of a niece, a particularly difficult event, and I’ve lost other friends and acquaintances to death; most of them have been young, about my own age]. All deaths of friends or family members can be trying experiences. I’d like to share a few experiences with death I’ve had over the years and some of the knowledge and comfort I gained through those times. In all these experiences, other people suffered much more than I did; others had more poignant pains and more severe suffering but each of these experiences also affected me deeply.

When I was 15, the cousin I was closest to – in age and in friendship – took his own life. I spent a lot of time with Tanner over the years. He attended scouts with me because his ward didn’t have a very active scouting program. I spent countless hours and days playing with him on campouts, sleep-overs, reunions, and other activities. I even copied his Eagle Scout project. During the summer of 1995 I had planned on spending three weeks as a member of the Geronimo Scout Camp staff. I spent three weeks the previous year as a member of the staff of the camp; I had a great time. 1995 was different. I didn’t enjoy my time there. After only a few days I was miserable and homesick. The scout troop from my ward was up there that week (as was my father) so I decided to leave early and go home with them – two weeks early. I quickly learned why I needed to be home; I believe my discomfort and misery were meant to help me be home when I needed to be home.

The night I came home, a Saturday, one of my sisters woke me up in the middle of the night to say that my cousin Tanner had hung himself. I’m normally groggy when I wake up but I was wide awake then; I was in a bit of shock. I walked into the front room and lied down on the couch. I don’t know if I cried very much then. I actually don’t think I ever really cried much about Tanner’s death; I was upset by it and sad but I didn’t cry much. I don’t know why, I’m normally emotional about such things (and more so the older I get). It is likely that his death was accidental – that he really didn’t mean to kill himself; he may have just been playing what he thought was a game. It was a dangerous game and he died. His parents and sister were devastated; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone suffer as much as Tanner’s mother, my aunt, did. I’ve missed Tanner over these years but I know that I’ll see him again in the life to come. He made a choice and he died but there is great hope for Tanner. That’s one of the beauties of the gospel – it provides hope.

A year or two after Tanner died a young man in my ward shot himself. While I cannot say I was a good friend of his, we were in scouting together and went to church and school together (he was a year younger than me) so we were around each other a lot. He lived just down the street from me. Following Max’s death we had ward and stake youth meetings where we talked about his death and suicide in general. One of the only Priest quorum lessons I explicitly remember was taught by his father (he was our young men’s president) following Max’s death. He talked about coming home from church and finding his son dead. He spoke of how Max’s choice put him on a much more difficult road to eternal life than it otherwise would have been. Through the sadness, Max’s father expressed hope for his son. I’ll never forget that lesson. It was a moving and a powerful experience and one of the most influential lesson’s I’ve ever had at church.

The next death of a friend occurred when I was serving as an LDS missionary. One of my freshman roommates at BYU (and also a friend from high school) was killed when a truck hit the taxi he was in. Eric was serving as a missionary in Argentina at the time. He, like Evan, was a person who had a brightness in him. I found about his death in a letter from my parents. My companion and I had spent the morning tracting without success. It was a warm but cloudy April morning in Seattle. The gray skies always made all the greens and other colors appear so much more intense. The spring day was lovely with apple and cherry blossoms floating gently down from the sky like a light snow. When we walked through the blossoms on the ground, they swirled around our shoes like hundreds of delicate butterflies trying to take flight. It was one of the most serene and beautiful sights I have ever seen. We walked along tree-lined roads near the coast of the Puget Sound – up and down the steep hills sharing a message of hope and restoration but no one was listening; no one was interested. They were very kind to us though. I thought it ironic that so much rejection of our message occurred on such a beautiful day. To add to the drama, I was bitten on my right thigh by a dog as my companion and I walked up a driveway. It wasn’t a large bite but I was bleeding and my pants had a small tear in them. We finished tracting the area 45 minutes later then walked home so I could get cleaned up.

All the way home I kept thinking, “How can this day get any worse? I bet I could be hit by a car or something on my walk home. That would be worse.” Sometimes it helps me feel better if I imagine worse things happening; then I realize my life is beautiful, regardless of the difficulty at the time. I spent the whole way home wondering how my day could get worse; it got worse. I opened the letter from my parents only to read that my friend Eric had been killed in an accident. I was shocked. I was speechless. I was heart-broken. I sobbed for 5 minutes. However, during this time all I could think about is how Heavenly Father must have felt as He watched His beloved Son suffer and then be killed in a most gruesome manner. I prayed for the comfort of Eric’s family; I prayed for my own comfort. Then suddenly, after those 5 minutes, the pain was gone. My sorrow was intense but brief. I was still sad but there was no pain. I knew Eric died doing the Lord’s work and was now in a much brighter world still doing the Lord’s work. As a side note, not coincidentally, my companion at the time also had a friend killed in an accident while he was serving a mission. He was able to understand what I was going through. The Lord understands our needs and places other people in our lives to help fill those needs.

Not too long after I got home from my mission – the following summer, in fact – I found out that my friend Donald, who also was one of my roommates my freshman year at BYU, had been killed in a farming accident. Once again, I was shocked. Donald was very personable. He was so interested in other people – in meeting them and getting to know them. As a freshman in college, many of the people he wanted to get to know were girls, but he was very good with people in general. He was fun to be around. He was also a good person. Two of my freshman year roommates were dead; they both died in tragic accidents. I hoped the trend did not continue.

The next 4 deaths I experienced were not as sudden but they were still painful. My grandfather John died after a quick fight with cancer just a few days before my oldest daughter was born. In 2008, within one and one-half months of each other, my other three grandparents died after extended fights with various dementias. At the beginning of May 2008 my family and I attended the funeral of my grandmother Beverly. Her spirit slipped out of her mortal frame into the eternal realm and her body was laid in the ground. Her passing was not unexpected but the pain of separation for us was acute. Then just about one month later my grandmother Maxine passed away. Her death was also not unexpected but again, the pain of separation was acute. Shortly after her death, her husband, my grandfather Wallace, followed her into the eternal worlds.

At times such as these our minds often turn to eternal matters as we experience these emotions of sadness and grief. These events were sad because they involved separation from loved ones; they were events signaling the end of mortal life. However, through the blessings of the temple, these separations are only temporary. My grandparents merely passed from one stage of their existence into another through the door of death. This door appears ominous and heavy to us but it leads from a world of despair and darkness into one of light and love. While there is sorrow on our part, there can be joy knowing that they are reunited with other loved ones who have gone on before. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also strengthened by the knowledge that at some point in the future we will all be reunited as families.

One thing that got me through all of these hard times is a sure knowledge of the resurrection. I have faith in the Savior and in life after death. Death is part of life – it happens to all – but that fact rarely assuages our grief. Death that occurs early in life usually seems tragic while death in late life rarely seems tragic. With a broader perspective, whether or not a death is truly tragic depends more on the type of life lived rather than the length of life lived. However in reality, when we lose loved ones we still feel the intense pain of separation regardless of the goodness of a person’s life. I believe we should grieve. However, at some point the pain we feel can be replaced by joy. It may take a long time; we may never fully move beyond the pain in this life but tasting that bitterness will help us appreciate the sweetness that comes when we are reunited with our lost loved ones in the life to come.

Following the death of my granny but before her husband – my grandpa – died, I had a dream about her. I share this personal experience because of the symbolism of it and because it strengthened my testimony of the reality of life after death. That’s my purpose in posting this series about lessons I’ve learned from death – to share my testimony that this life is not the end; there is life after death. Some dreams are just dreams but I think some are very meaningful and some are inspired, even visions. This dream falls into the meaningful, symbolic category.

In my dream my family members were all sitting in an LDS chapel. My aunts and uncles were there too – it was our whole extended family. We were all sitting there talking quietly when Granny walked in. She still appeared old but she looked well, like she did before her dementia. She sat down and started talking with various family members – she was the same Granny we all knew. She didn’t stay long. When she stood up to walk out she grabbed Tanner’s hand (he just appeared by her side – Tanner is my cousin who died in 1995) and the two of them exited through the chapel doors. That was the end of the dream. It was really nice to see Granny as Granny again. I thought this dream was wonderfully symbolic of Granny leaving our family who are all still living and going to be with those who have already passed on to the other side. She simply walked through a door to a different phase of existence.

The Savior did not just suffer for our sins, He atoned for our sorrows and sufferings. Once again a quote by Alan Paton is enlightening: “I have never thought that a Christian would be free of suffering…. For our Lord suffered. And I come to believe that he suffered, not to save us from suffering, but to teach us how to bear suffering. For he knew that there is no life without suffering.”

The prophet Alma taught how the Savior’s atonement helps us overcome death and sin and sorrow and sickness: “And [the Savior] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12). The Savior suffered in part so that He would fully understand our sufferings. This means, as Alma said, that He knows how to heal our wounds; the Great Physician will apply His balm of Gilead and the salve of salvation.

The great prophet Enoch had a vision that spanned the ages of the earth. He saw many people in many times. He saw the great wickedness upon the face of the earth. He saw the flood in the time of Noah wipe out all the people of the earth except for Noah and his family. Enoch’s response to this vision was similar to many of our responses to death. “And as Enoch saw this, he had bitterness of soul, and wept over his brethren, and said unto the heavens: I will refuse to be comforted; but the Lord said unto Enoch: Lift up your heart, and be glad; and look. And it came to pass that Enoch looked; and from Noah, he beheld all the families of the earth; and he cried unto the Lord, saying: When shall the day of the Lord come? When shall the blood of the Righteous be shed, that all they that mourn may be sanctified and have eternal life?” (Moses 7:44-45). The blood of the Lamb that was slain sanctifies us, which sanctification is not just a purification of our sins but also a change in our very beings. Sorrow is replaced with exultation.

Joseph Smith, while a prisoner in the Liberty Jail pleaded, “O God, where are thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?… Remember thy suffering saints, O our God: and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.” (D&C 121:1,6). In reply the Lord comforted Joseph: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high” (D&C 121:7-8). What comfort comes from Him who descended below all and rose triumphant from the grave, victorious over death! The prophet Joseph Smith and his wife Emma experienced the loss of multiple children. Surely their grief was intense as they buried their little children amid the turmoil of the Restoration. Joseph said, “The Lord takes many away even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on the earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 196-197).

Faced with the loss of precious loved ones we often wish that they could remain with us, but our views are often limited and one-sided. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin offered some comforting words not long before he passed away:

“You may feel singled out when adversity enters your life. You shake your head and wonder, ‘Why me?’ But the dial on the wheel of sorrow eventually points to each of us. At one time or another, everyone must experience sorrow. No one is exempt…. Sometimes the very moments that seem to overcome us with suffering are those that will ultimately suffer us to overcome…. The Lord compensates the faithful for every loss. That which is taken away from those who love the Lord will be added unto them in His own way. While it may not come at the time we desire, the faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude. One of the blessings of the gospel is the knowledge that when the curtain of death signals the end of our mortal lives, life will continue on the other side of the veil. There we will be given new opportunities. Not even death can take from us the eternal blessings promised by a loving Heavenly Father.” (Joseph B. Wirthlin, Nov. 2008 Ensign).

One line is especially key: “The faithful will know that every tear today will eventually be returned a hundredfold with tears of rejoicing and gratitude.” Our tears of sorrow will – sooner or later – turn to tears of joy. We don’t always or even often understand some of the hard things we are asked to bear – and little could be harder to bear than the premature death of a child – but the Lord understands our pains. The Savior personally experienced them – all of them and more! He knows who we are personally and hears our prayers. He even matches our tears with His own.

The Prophet Joseph offered these words of faith to those suffering the pains and pangs of loss: “If I have no expectation of seeing my father, mother, brothers, sisters and friends again, my heart would burst in a moment, and I should go down to my grave. The expectation of seeing my friends in the morning of the resurrection cheers my soul and makes me bear up against the evils of life. It is like their taking a long journey, and on their return we meet them with increased joy.” (Source). Sometimes that long journey into the eternities occurs early in life and sometimes it occurs late in life; but for all, it does occur.

One of the great blessings of the gospel is the sealing power that binds families together for eternity. This power was held by many of the ancient prophets. It was lost from the earth during the great apostasy that promptly followed the death of the Savior’s original apostles. Elijah came to the prophet Joseph Smith to restore this power. This restoration was prophesied by Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” (Malachi 4:5-6). To someone who lost a child or a parent or a sibling to the dark clutches of death, these words resonate with a euphonious and joyful sound. Hearts readily turn to those who are dead. What is comforting is that with the sealing power, as hearts turn there is more than just longing; there is real power in the sealing of a family together. The bonds of family continue beyond the grave and into the eternities. That’s the great blessing of the gospel – we can be together forever with our family. This sealing occurs in the temple. Sealing the generations together is “the great work…done in the temples of the Lord in the dispensation of the fullness of times” (D&C 138:48).

In the Kirtland Temple in 1836 the Prophet Joseph had a vision of the Celestial Kingdom (see D&C 137). He saw some there who died before the restoration of the gospel (particularly his brother Alvin). He marveled that people like Alvin could be exalted without having received the gospel while they were alive. This is one of the most liberal and amazing blessings from our Heavenly Father. All will have the opportunity to receive the ordinances of the gospel either in this life or in the life to come. They can accept or reject those ordinances – they can choose not to fully consecrate themselves to Truth and the Lord – but they will have the choice. The doctrine that is even more comforting, particularly to parents who lose their little ones, is that all children who die before they reach accountability will be saved in the celestial kingdom as Joseph saw in vision: “I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven” (D&C 137:10). That’s a very comforting doctrine; I also think it can add extra incentive for parents to live righteously so they will be able to live with their children again!

Death need not seem completely tragic. As the Prophet Joseph said: “The only difference between the old and young dying is, one lives longer in heaven and eternal light and glory than the other, and is freed a little sooner from this miserable, wicked world. Notwithstanding all this glory, we for a moment lose sight of it, and mourn the loss, but we do not mourn as those without hope” (Source).

As much as fathers love their children and miss them terribly if they die, mothers are often more distressed by the deaths of their children. There is something special about carrying the child for 9 months then approaching the gates of death to bring forth a new child through the doorway of life; this act and service creates a special bond between mother and child. If this bond is shattered by a premature death, even though the break may be only temporary, mothers are often devastated. Joseph Smith offered these words of comfort to mothers who have had their children sealed to them: “‘Will mothers have their children in eternity?’ Yes! Yes! Mothers, you shall have your children; for they shall have eternal life, for their debt is paid…. Children … must rise just as they died; we can there hail our lovely infants with the same glory—the same loveliness in the celestial glory.” (Source).

That’s another wondrous blessing of the gospel – we mourn those who die but we do not mourn without hope. In the acute and even chronic pain of separation, as overwhelming the grief may be, with the blessings of the gospel, there is always a beacon of hope in the darkness. This beacon may appear dim and distant but it is there to comfort us in our darkest hours. We can see this beacon as we let our faith break through the wall of despair. Eventually this beacon will grow brighter until we are able to embrace once again the source of the light as we cross from this life to the next and are reunited with our loved ones.

Sometimes the light of these loved ones blesses in this life in our times of sorrow. In the October 2000 General Conference, Elder Robert D. Hales spoke on suffering but more specifically on experiences that help us overcome suffering. He missed the April 1999 and October 2000 General Conferences due to multiple surgeries. I remember parts of his talk vividly – some of what he said resonated strongly with me while I watched and listened to him, an apostle of the Lord bear testimony of the comforts God provides to His children. As he was suffering in pain in the hospital, Elder Hales reflected on the blessings of the gospel.

“On a few occasions, I told the Lord that I had surely learned the lessons to be taught and that it wouldn’t be necessary for me to endure any more suffering. Such entreaties seemed to be of no avail, for it was made clear to me that this purifying process of testing was to be endured in the Lord’s time and in the Lord’s own way. It is one thing to teach, ‘Thy will be done’ (Matt. 26:42). It is another to live it. I also learned that I would not be left alone to meet these trials and tribulations but that guardian angels would attend me. There were some that were near angels in the form of doctors, nurses, and most of all my sweet companion, Mary. And on occasion, when the Lord so desired, I was to be comforted with visitations of heavenly hosts that brought comfort and eternal reassurances in my time of need.” (Hales, Nov. 2000 Ensign, Online Source).

Sometimes angels visibly comfort us in our dark hours. As members of the Church we are entitled to the ministering of angels as we live worthily. These angels are not always seen but sometimes they are seen; when they minister unto us they provide great comfort and hope.

For me, one way of obtaining comfort for another’s death is remembering that I was there in the pre-earth life when the Plan of Salvation was presented. We all were there. We were there when Lucifer presented his alternate plan, which was rejected. We were there and shouted for joy at the opportunity to come here to earth, to gain a body and become more like Heavenly Father. We accepted this opportunity to come, even though we knew there would be hard things to bear and many sorrows to experience. There are times in this life that I shrink from the bitter cups from which I am asked to drink; we all drink dregs of bitterness in our lives. Knowing the bitter, we are better able to appreciate the sweet.

The sweetness that we can taste comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ and from the tender assurances of the Holy Ghost. Death is not (or will not be) a stranger to any of us; sooner or later we all see death visiting those we know and love. Sometimes he appears as a merciful end to suffering and other times he appears heartless and cold, robbing us of those we love too soon in life. One day he will call at each of our doors, beckoning us to him. Death is not the enemy, he simply brings the key that opens the door leading from this life into the next. Sometimes he comes riding in a chariot of fire pulled by flaming horses (see 2 Kings 2:11); other times he silently appears without fanfare. Death is not the end; it is a door – a small step in our lives but a giant leap towards our eternal progression. Christ suffered and died that we might all live again and enter again in to the presence of the Lord.

“For behold, [Christ] surely must die that salvation may come; yea, it behooveth him and becometh expedient that he dieth, to bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, that thereby men may be brought into the presence of the Lord. Yea, behold, this death bringeth to pass the resurrection, and redeemeth all mankind from the first death—that spiritual death; for all mankind, by the fall of Adam being cut off from the presence of the Lord, are considered as dead, both as to things temporal and to things spiritual. But behold, the resurrection of Christ redeemeth mankind, yea, even all mankind, and bringeth them back into the presence of the Lord.” (Helaman 14:15-17).

The resurrection is something we can look forward to with great joy, especially if we are striving to live the gospel of Jesus Christ: “I say unto you that this mortal body is raised to an immortal body, that is from death, even from the first death unto life, that they can die no more; their spirits uniting with their bodies, never to be divided; thus the whole becoming spiritual and immortal, that they can no more see corruption.” (Alma 11:45). Through death and resurrection we see an end to corruption of the flesh. That’s one of the great blessings of the resurrection and all who have lived on the earth will receive the blessing of resurrection. We have experienced the aches and pains of life and will have greater joy in the incorruption of our bodies in the resurrection. We can also see an end to corruption of the spirit as well and be whole and pure in the resurrection through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel and through the blood of the Savior.

The Savior’s sacrifice made it possible for us to live again. His Atonement made it possible for us to live with our families throughout eternity. We can be reunited with those we love. Additionally, the Savior’s sacrifice made it possible for us to be healed of our hurts and aches and sorrows. We can find peace in this life and in the next. We are all part of our Loving Father’s merciful plan of happiness; He wants us to be happy, to have joy in this life and in the next. Christ loosened the chains of death (see Alma 11:42) and is there to break open the prisons of our despair. In Him we find solace, comfort, and peace. Whether we lose a child, a friend, a parent, a grandparent, or any other loved one, we will see them again. The sorrow of our separation will be replaced with joy in our rejoining. Death is not the end; it is the beginning of a new day and a new dawn.

Note: This is a repost and slight update of an essay I previous posted in separate parts on my blog. Links to the original posts are found in this post I wrote in reflection on the death of my niece.

The Wounded Christ

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This brief and beautiful message for today comes from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

“The wounds in [Christ’s] hands, feet, and side are signs that in mortality painful things happen even to the pure and the perfect, signs that tribulation is not evidence that God does not love us. It is a significant and hopeful fact that it is the wounded Christ who comes to our rescue. He who bears the scars of sacrifice, the lesions of love, the emblems of humility and forgiveness is the Captain of our Soul. That evidence of pain in mortality is undoubtedly intended to give courage to others who are also hurt and wounded by life, perhaps even in the house of their friends.” (Holland, Christ and the New Covenant, Deseret Book Company, 1997, p. 259)

When Was Jesus Born?

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We celebrate the Savior’s birth on December 25th but there is considerable debate regarding when Christ was born (not that Wikipedia is authoritative but see for example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronology_of_Jesus#Day_of_birth). From the Book of Mormon we gain clarity.

“And now it came to pass, if there was no mistake made by this man [Nephi] in the reckoning of our time, the thirty and third year had passed away; And the people began to look with great earnestness for the sign which had been given by the prophet Samuel, the Lamanite, yea, for the time that there should be darkness for the space of three days over the face of the land… And it came to pass in the thirty and fourth year, in the first month, on the fourth day of the month, there arose a great storm, such an one as never had been known in all the land [heralding the Savior’s death].” (3 Nephi 8:2,3,5).

When the sign was given of Christ’s birth, the Nephites set that date as the beginning of their new calendar. So given that the calendar was accurate (it’s possible that it was off by a few days or even more over the course of 33 years), Christ died on the 4th day of the 1st month of the 34th year. Depending on how that statement is interpreted, it means the Savior died right around (or on, if there are some inaccuracies with that Nephite calendar, which there likely were) His 33rd birthday (although it could be understood to be that He had just turned 34 if the 34th year = 34 Nephite AD rather than being the start of Savior’s 34th year – counting from 0 – which would be 33 Nephite AD). Having just turned 33 (rather than 34) gives the Savior about a 3 year ministry (ages 30, 31, and 32 – see Luke 3:23), which is generally accepted as the length of His ministry, although there is some debate regarding the length of Christ’s ministry (but I will not cover that here).

But from the Book of Mormon, we at least have the answer to when Christ was born – at the same time of year at which He died, which was at the time of Passover (roughly corresponding with our late March to early April, typically when we celebrate Easter). The symbolism of all of this is rich – the First Born Pascal Lamb, whose atoning blood allowed for the passing over (forgiving) of sins, entered the world in blood and spirit and shed His blood and suffered in and gave up His spirit at the time that Jews celebrated the salvation of their first born sons and their salvation from captivity in Egypt. Christ is the One who died to free the captives, releasing them from prison like the Israelites passing through the Red Sea out of captive Egypt. I think it would be even more symbolic (but ultimately unnecessary) if the Savior was resurrected on His birthday.

None of this really matters in the end but if the Nephite calendaring system is accurate (it probably was quite good), the Savior’s birth occurred at the same time of year as His death, right around the beginning of April.

Bible Videos in Preparation for Easter

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been releasing a series of brief videos covering the last period of Christ’s mortal ministry (they will release many more videos in the future covering more of His life and teachings). All the videos the Church has released or will release are available on BibleVideos.org. Each video is professionally but simply and powerfully done, sticking to the King James Version text from the Gospels. I’ll post the videos in temporal order.

Christ’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem

The Last Supper

Jesus Warns Peter and Offers the Intercessory Prayer

The Savior Suffers in Gethsemane (click to visit the page, I cannot embed the video yet).

Jesus is Tried by Caiaphas, Peter Denies Knowing Him.

There will be four more videos released before Easter; I’ll post those once they are up.