A Doorkeeper in the House of God

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Many years ago two brothers lived in what is now part of Iraq. They lived near or in the city Babel. The word “Babel” means both the “gate of God” and “to confuse”. In Babel, or Babylon, was a false temple – a false gate to God. The Babylonians wanted to reach heaven but they built a false gate and worshipped false gods. Many in our day also worship false gods.

Are we building and worshiping in false temples like the Babylonians? Are we worshiping at unholy altars? Are we letting the good crowd out the best? Do we make sacrifices to gilded calves? What do we allow in our lives to take priority over the gospel and the things of God? Do we wander on side-roads when we should be traveling on God’s heavenly highway to the temple and eternal life? The prophet Isaiah wrote of God’s highway, “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it.”((Isaiah 35:8))

This highway leads through the deserts: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” ((Isaiah 40:3)); it leads to the exalted heights: “And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted.”((Isaiah 49:11)) If we travel on God’s exalted roads, we are in the path to peace; we are on a temple road, a road for the clean and holy. Those who wander on strange roads are on the way to false temples and false gods.

Our worshiping in false temples could range from shirking church responsibilities to spending too much time pursuing work or recreation (or even family) such that other necessary activities are left undone. Our worship of false gods could range from obsessively following the latest trends, technologies, or celebrities to dishonoring the Sabbath day. All that is good is not exalting and too much of a good thing might hinder our salvation. We don’t have to focus only on the gospel and family – we can and should spend time doing other things – but if our devotion to these activities becomes our religion we are like the Babylonians.

Elder Oaks taught the importance of prioritizing in our lives: “As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all. Consider how we use our time in the choices we make in viewing television, playing video games, surfing the Internet, or reading books or magazines. Of course it is good to view wholesome entertainment or to obtain interesting information. But not everything of that sort is worth the portion of our life we give to obtain it. Some things are better, and others are best.”((Ensign, Nov. 2007))

Many things, people, and causes clamor for our attention. We can run around exhibiting a kind of attentional disorder trying to do everything (or conversely, doing too little or focusing on too narrow a thing) or we can wisely use and improve our time by choosing to spend the most effort on the best things. Our Savior Jesus Christ and our families come first. Anything that takes away from the centrality of God and a Christ-centered family is a false god.

So the Babylonians were building and worshiping their false temple – the great tower of Babel. Because of wickedness, this became a time of great confusion and war of words. Jared and his younger brother, their families, and friends left the confusion – they left the false gate to God – to find sanctuary elsewhere. The Lord led them to a new land of promise and covenant. To get to this new land, they first needed to cross an ocean. To cross the ocean they needed to build vessels. The Lord taught the Jaredites how to build the barges but the Jaredites quickly realized they would be in darkness for much of the crossing. Because the brother of Jared was the spokesman, he went and spoke with the Lord to ask about light during the journey. The Lord provided clear directions for the building of the vessels but when the question of light came up the interaction was different.

“And [the brother of Jared] cried again unto the Lord saying: O Lord, behold I have done even as thou hast commanded me; and I have prepared the vessels for my people, and behold there is no light in them. Behold, O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness? And the Lord said unto the brother of Jared: What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire….And behold, I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea?” ((Ether 2:22-25))

I love this interaction. The Lord asked the brother of Jared: “What will ye that I should do?” I love the humility of our Savior. Think about it; the creator of the earth asked the brother of Jared, “What do you want me to do?” He was willing to do what the brother of Jared decided. To provide some guidance, He pointed out some of the challenges of lighting a storm-tossed vessel and sent the brother of Jared on his way to figure out a solution.

“And it came to pass that the brother of Jared, (now the number of the vessels which had been prepared was eight) went forth unto the mount, which they called the mount Shelem, because of its exceeding height, and did molten out of a rock sixteen small stones; and they were white and clear, even as transparent glass; and he did carry them in his hands upon the top of the mount, and cried again unto the Lord.”((Ether 3:1))

The brother of Jared ascended the mountain to craft stones and then speak with the Lord high on the mountain top.

He prayed: “I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea. Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men. And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger. And the veil was taken from off the eyes of the brother of Jared, and he saw the finger of the Lord; and it was as the finger of a man, like unto flesh and blood; and the brother of Jared fell down before the Lord, for he was struck with fear…. And…behold, the Lord showed himself unto him, and said: Because thou knowest these things ye are redeemed from the fall; therefore ye are brought back into my presence; therefore I show myself unto you.”((Ether 3:4-6,13))

So great was the faith of the brother of Jared that the veil had no power to hide the Lord from him. The brother of Jared did not just converse with the Lord while separated by a veil, he was brought directly into the presence of the Lord. The brother of Jared worked to make the stones but the Lord filled them with light just as he filled the brother of Jared with light.

How can we apply this story to our lives? The scriptures are most useful when they result in a mighty change of heart. If we only read the words but don’t heed the words, we fall far short of what we can and should be. In the same chapter of James that Joseph Smith read before deciding to pray in a quiet grove of trees we read: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.”((James 1:22))

Just like the brother of Jared, as we act and do good things Jesus Christ fills us with light. As we do good things our souls are filled with lighted stones and we become more like Jesus Christ. Each stone of light in our soul softens our stony heart and Jesus Christ blesses us with a new heart of flesh.

The prophet Ezekiel testified with the words of the Savior: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them. And ye shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and ye shall be my people, and I will be your God.”((Ezekiel 36:25-28))

These are promises made to all who follow the Lord. We can be cleansed and blessed with a soft heart. This new soft heart comes as we are filled with the Spirit of God.

Let’s return to the brother of Jared. His [the brother of Jared’s] experience on the mountain was a temple experience. The brother of Jared entered into the Savior’s presence through the true gate of faith and diligence. That is what temples are for – helping the children of God – helping us – return to God’s presence.

Regularly performing temple work is important because it is the process whereby we and others can return to live with our Eternal Father. In temples we partake of saving ordinances without which we cannot return to live with God. Because of this, building and attending temples are among the most important things we can do as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 1834 the saints were building the Kirtland Temple but the temple was in serious trouble. The Saints soon needed to pay the mortgage loan on the temple lot but they did not have enough money to repay the loan. Faced with this problem, the Prophet Joseph Smith and other church leaders gathered in prayer and asked the Lord to send someone or some people who had money to save the temple. 200 miles from the birthplace of the Restoration lived the man who was the answer to prayer. John joined the Church in 1832. He was a wealthy and generous man. One night he had a dream that he was urgently needed in Kirtland, Ohio. Within two weeks, John sold his land, homes, hotel, and everything else he could and prepared to leave. On Christmas Day, John and his family left their mansion in New York in search of a mansion in heaven. John and his family headed west to the home of the saints. John arrived in January after 500 miles and a month of travel; he found the prophet (whom he had not previously met) and quickly discovered why he was needed in Kirtland. John loaned Joseph and the Church the money needed to pay the mortgage. Without John’s money, the loan would have defaulted and the temple land would have been repossessed. Without John Tanner’s consecration, the Kirtland Temple would not have been completed.((If John Tanner did not have the faith and money, the Lord would have provided someone else. I share this experience to encourage each of us to more faithfully act on inspiration.))

From the days of Adam, temples have always been important to the followers of God. In the ancient world, temples were often at the center of city life. This also is how some modern cities are designed, including Salt Lake City. Wherever the saints of God lived, they built temples. Adam built an altar upon which he offered sacrifices. This was the first temple. Many years later, the Lord commanded Moses to build a tabernacle – a portable temple. Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem that was alternately destroyed and rebuilt over the years. Shortly after Nephi and his family reached the Promised Land, they built a temple. Following the Restoration, the prophet Joseph was commanded to start building temples. The saints built one in Kirtland, Ohio. The saints fled Ohio because of persecutions – leaving behind the precious house of the Lord. They dedicated land in Missouri for a temple. That structure has not yet been built.

Once in Nauvoo, the Saints built a temple, finishing it with a trowel in one hand and a wagon in the other as they fled the country to head to the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young dedicated the Nauvoo Temple before it was fully completed so at least portion of the Saints could receive their temple blessings before they had to cross the plains. I’m sure those blessings gave courage and strength to many who faced the grueling journey ahead. The Prophet Joseph stressed the importance of temples: “The main object [of gathering the Jews, or the people of God, in any age of the world] was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation; for there are certain ordinances and principles that, when they are taught and practiced, must be done in a place or house built for that purpose.”((as cited in R. Millet, The Power of the Word, p.218))

The prophet Isaiah saw in vision latter-day temples and the church members who attend them: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, when the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths.”((2 Ne. 12:2-3)) One of the first things President Brigham Young did upon entering the Salt Lake Valley was designate the land for the future Salt Lake Temple – the mountain of the Lord’s house that is built in the top of the mountains. Isaiah saw that temple in vision as he prophesied of the last days.

In the last days – in our day – comes the clarion call to the temple. It is a call to go to the temple to hear the words of the Lord. This is what King Benjamin asked of his people: “And now, it came to pass that Mosiah went and did as his father [King Benjamin] had commanded him, and proclaimed unto all the people who were in the land of Zarahemla that thereby they might gather themselves together, to go up to the temple to hear the words which his father should speak unto them.”((Mosiah 1:18)) Mosiah called the people to come to the temple to hear the words of the prophet. We should also go to the temple and participate in the work of salvation.

This call to the temple is a call to learn the ways of God and to walk in the paths of the Lord. It is a call to one and all to visit the house of God as individuals and as families in order to receive the blessings of time and eternity. A temple is literally the House of the Lord. It is the place where ordinances necessary for exaltation are performed. Temple ordinances weld generation to generation, husband to wife, mother to daughter, and sister to brother.

We learn further of the importance of the temple in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Therefore, verily I say unto you, that your anointings, and your washings, and your baptisms for the dead, and your solemn assemblies, and your memorials for your sacrifices by the sons of Levi, and for your oracles in your most holy places wherein you receive conversations, and your statutes and judgments, for the beginning of the revelations and foundation of Zion, and for the glory, honor, and endowment of all her municipals, are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house, which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name. And verily I say unto you, let this house be built unto my name, that I may reveal mine ordinances therein unto my people; For I deign to reveal unto my church things which have been kept hid from before the foundation of the world, things that pertain to the dispensation of the fulness of times.”((D&C 124:39-41))

What we learn from this scripture is that the temple is a place of revelation. Within those walls we can know things that have been hidden from “before the foundation of the world.”

The temple is a place of covenant – it is a house of holiness. To be holy means to be dedicated, set apart, or consecrated. When we are holy we consecrate all our lives and everything we have to the work of the Lord. The prophet Zechariah spoke about consecration: “In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD…Yea, every pot in Jerusalem and in Judah shall be holiness unto the Lord of hosts.”((Zechariah 14:20-21)) Zechariah envisioned the day when even the horses and dishes would be consecrated for the work of the Lord.

Many of us do this in our lives – we drive our children and the children of others to church activities or we drive to our visiting or home teaching appointments; we also use our dishes to take food to those who are ill or in need. Those may seem like small matters, but that is the essence of consecration – it is using our means and lives to serve and support others and further the work of the Lord. John, whose money saved the Kirtland Temple, gave almost everything he owned to the Church without ever being repaid. Elder Maxwell taught, “Consecration is the only surrender which is also a victory. It brings release from the raucous, overpopulated cell block of selfishness and emancipation from the dark prison of pride.”((Neal A. Maxwell, “Settle This in Your Hearts,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 66)) Consecration is holiness.

Just as the Lord inspired John Tanner to go and save the temple, we should emulate his example and go to the temple, not to save it but to be saved and help save others. The temple not only will bless our lives but also the lives of those around us – most importantly our family for generations to come. The temple is a holy place that has eternal significance and provides eternal blessings. Let us follow the admonition of Isaiah by gathering all who will be gathered and beckon unto them: “Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.”

To paraphrase Boyd K. Packer: “What happens if we don’t [attend the temple]? Nothing happens. We miss everything. We live far below our privileges.”((Boyd K. Packer as quoted by Sander Larson and modified by me))

Moroni pleaded with us: “And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which beareth record of them, may be and abide in you forever.”((Ether 12:41)) I also urge you to seek Jesus. We more fully seek Jesus by attending the temple regularly.

In closing I echo the words of the Psalmist: “For a day in thy courts is better than a thousand. I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.”((Psalms 84:10)) Serving in the temple is a greater honor than anything the world can give. That we might leave the tents of wickedness and enter the house of God is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Safety through ordinances and covenants

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[I gave this talk in our stake’s Spanish branch. I don’t speak much Spanish so I relied on a translator of the bulk of the talk.]

Buenos días, hermanos y hermanas. Estoy feliz de hablar con ustedes hoy por asignación del Presidente Graham. Hablo solamente poquito Español y hablo como un niño y un gringo, por lo que se traduce el resto de mi discurso.

I’d like to talk about two things that help us to return to Heavenly Father. The first are ordinances. The second are covenants.

“An ordinance is a sacred, formal act performed by the authority of the priesthood. Some ordinances are essential to our exaltation. These ordinances are called saving ordinances. They include baptism, confirmation, ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood (for men), the temple endowment, and the marriage sealing. With each of these ordinances, we enter into solemn covenants with the Lord.”

“Ordinances and covenants help us remember who we are. They remind us of our duty to God. The Lord has provided them to help us come unto Him and receive eternal life. When we honor them, He strengthens us spiritually.” (https://www.lds.org/topics/ordinances?lang=eng)

The prophet Joseph Smith taught of the importance of ordinances in the Articles of Faith. The 3rd article of faith states: “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

We are obedient to the ordinances of the gospel when we keep the covenants we make. Obedience saves us by unlocking the power and path of Christ’s Atonement.

The fourth article of faith tells us how to start on this path: “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

The first covenants we formally make with God are baptism and confirmation. Any person who wants to live with God has to be baptized and confirmed. All ordinances and covenants have to be done through the proper authority. This is why we have full time missionaries. This is why we perform work in temples.

The fifth article of faith is about the authority of God: “We believe that a man must be called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof.” (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/a-of-f/1.3-5?lang=eng#2)

Ordinances are not valid without the proper authority given from God. Ordinances also do not have any power without righteousness. If we do not keep the commandments, our baptisms and confirmations will not allow us into heaven.

Saving ordinances and covenants were restored to the earth through the prophet Joseph Smith. The ordinances and covenants were first given to Adam and Eve. They were also given to their children. Abram also made the covenant with the Lord, who told him: “But as for thee, behold, I will make my covenant with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. And this covenant I make, that thy children may be known among all nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be called Abraham; for, a father of many nations have I made thee.” (JST, Genesis 17:8-9).

Abraham truly is the father of many nations. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are numbered among the children of Abraham and partakers of his covenants. This Abrahamic covenant, which includes the promise of numberless posterity, blessed and still blesses the children of Abraham.

This covenant of Abraham is clear in the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis: “And thou [Abraham] shalt observe to keep all my covenants wherein I covenanted with thy fathers; and thou shalt keep the commandments which I have given thee with mine own mouth, and I will be a God unto thee and thy seed after thee.” (JST, Genesis 17:12)

We find a record of God’s covenants with His children in the scriptures. The Old Testament contains covenants given to God’s children before the coming of Christ. The New Testament contains covenants offered by Christ and His apostles. The Old and New Testaments are rightly called the Old and New Covenants.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Saints in the Roman province of Galatia: “Wherefore then, the law was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made in the law given to Moses, who was ordained by the hand of angels to be a mediator of this first covenant, (the law.) Now this mediator was not a mediator of the new covenant; but there is one mediator of the new covenant, who is Christ, as it is written in the law concerning the promises made to Abraham and his seed. Now Christ is the mediator of life; for this is the promise which God made unto Abraham.” (JST, Galatians:19-20)

The new covenant given by Christ was lost from the earth not long after the Savior’s death and resurrection. The Book of Mormon is another record of covenants. This record contains the covenants given to small groups of people in the Americas but Mormon wrote The Book of Mormon for us. It is a book of teachings spanning more than one thousand years. The prophet Mormon edited and wrote the book and then gave it to his son Moroni. Moroni finished the book and then buried the plates. He sealed them up unto the Lord so that they might come forth later by the power of God.

Just as the prophets in the Americas were killed, Jesus Christ’s apostles in Israel were killed and the gospel became polluted. Over the next 1700 years, people wandered in darkness. There was light and faith but no authority. The true covenants of the Lord were not available upon the earth.

In the Doctrine and Covenants we read of the apostasy, which is still happening: “And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people; For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (D&C 1:14-16).

To reverse the apostasy, God and Jesus Christ appeared to young Joseph Smith. I recently walked through the Sacred Grove. It is a special place of peace. My small children recognized the spirit there. We also climbed the Hill Cumorah where Moroni buried the plates. We felt the Spirit there too. In the Kirtland Temple we saw the place where Jesus Christ and angels appeared to Joseph Smith. What an experience that was! They visited to restore truth, authority, ordinances, and covenants.

These restored covenants are contained in the Doctrine and Covenants. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord states: “And even so I have sent mine everlasting covenant into the world, to be a light to the world, and to be a standard for my people, and for the Gentiles to seek to it, and to be a messenger before my face to prepare the way before me.” (D&C 45:9)

Thus, we can be guided by the light of the new covenant; we can rally around it as armies would gather around a standard. We have ordinances and covenants to light the path back to Heavenly Father. They provide safety for us. God blesses us through ordinances and covenants. As we promise to follow Him, He promises us rich blessings. The greatest blessing is the gift of eternal life. Eternal life is a life with God; it is a life like God’s.

As a boy, I often went rappelling with my family – going down a cliff on a rope. When I first started out, these “cliffs” were no more than 15 to 20 feet tall. As skills progressed, the cliffs we went down were taller. It might not seem particularly safe to walk, jump, or run down the face of a cliff but with secure anchors and strong equipment, rappelling is safe. If safety procedures are not followed, however, rappelling can be fatal. This is true for many activities in life, including driving a car. My father had three main safety principles. 1) In order for rappelling to be safe you must be securely anchored. My father would, whenever possible, tie a rope to one anchor and then tie that anchor to a second anchor. He had a backup anchor in case the first anchor failed. In this manner, we always knew we had a sure foundation when we bounded down the cliffs. 2) As an additional safety precaution, someone would remain at the bottom the cliff acting as belayer. The belayer is able to provide friction on the rope by pulling it away from the cliff face to stop the person on the rope. 3) Another safety principle was to never use faulty equipment. Once our ropes showed signs of significant wear, they were replaced. Before and during each rappelling outing, we inspected our ropes and other equipment to make sure all were in working order. If we had a question about any piece of equipment, it wasn’t used. New equipment was always cheaper than a person’s life.

Ordinances – baptism, priesthood ordination, the temple endowment, a temple sealing – are like the equipment we used to go rappelling. They anchor us to a sure foundation through the journey of life. The covenants we make and keep are additional safety equipment. Covenants bind us to God the Father and to Jesus Christ. If we break our covenants, we are at risk of falling. One of the miracles of the gospel is if we fall, Jesus Christ can lift us up. When we fall, we can be saved by the Atonement.

I know God gives us ordinances and covenants to strengthen and bless us. They keep us anchored to God and open the path of Christ that leads home. I pray that God blesses you as you strive to be true to the ordinances you receive and covenants you make.

That Thy Joy May Be Full

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When Jesus Christ appeared to the Nephites He first reassured them; like many when confronted with a heavenly being, those gathered at the temple were afraid when the Savior appeared. I’m not sure why fear is the typical response; maybe people reflect on their sins and unworthiness in the presence of angels and fear destruction. Maybe it’s just the shock of someone appearing out of nowhere. Whatever the reason, Jesus first told the people to calm their fears. He visited as the merciful Savior to calm, teach, and heal. Jesus next invited all to come feel the marks of His crucifixion as a physical witness His triumph over sin and death. Third, He called and set apart twelve disciples, giving them the priesthood. After He established the core church organization He taught the basic doctrines of the church – mirroring the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus first gave the pattern of prayer then spoke of fasting, “Moreover, when ye fast be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance, for they disfigure their faces that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” (3 Nephi 13:16-18)

Fasting is of such importance that it was one of the first truths Jesus taught. Do we similarly make fasting a central part of our lives? Just as Jesus taught the pattern of prayer and then fasting, is fasting yoked with prayer in our lives? Fasting without focused prayer is just going hungry. It might have physical health benefits but fasting without prayer has limited spiritual health benefits. God will acknowledge our sacrifice without prayer but prayer combined with fasting is an opportunity for us to show our dedication to Heavenly Father. He in turn will bless us.

The first Sunday of every month is designated a day of fasting in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church members who are able are asked to fast for at least two meals. They are also asked to donate to the church the money they would have spent on the meals; more generous donations are encouraged. This is not a commandment, no church member is required to either fast or pay a fast offering, it is simply encouraged. Of those who are able, most pay much more than the cost of two meals. 100% of this money goes to help those in need, first in the immediate ward or branch and then more broadly from there if there is excess. All overhead for these fast offerings (and that overhead is very small) is paid by tithing; this means that 100% of fast offering money goes to help those in need.

Isaiah wrote of the relationship between fasting and helping those in need: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

As we fast, our bonds of sin, our heavy burdens can be broken. We should also fast to help others. I’ll add that if we are not helping others, we are not fasting as fully as we might. We also need to fast in the right spirit. Isaiah criticizes those who “fast for strife and debate.” (Isa. 58:4) In other words, those who fast for the wrong reasons often are irritable and short-tempered, what some call being “hangry”. If we do not fast with sincere purpose, we are just starving ourselves with little benefit. When we fast for the wrong reasons, we are more likely to “exact all [our] labours” (Isa. 58:3), as Isaiah said; in other words, we make sure others know we are suffering and take it out on them. This is what the Savior taught about on His sermon on the mount (and to the Nephites after His resurrection). Jesus said, “Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” (Matt. 6:16-18).

There are many promises associated with fasting. I think it’s interesting to look at the etymology of the word fast. It comes from a similar-sounding Old English word. This Old English word also formed the roots of other words that we still use today. For example, steadfast and fasten. By looking at how these other words are used in the scriptures we can learn more about promises that come to us through fasting in faithfulness.

Lehi spoke unto his son Lemuel saying, “O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” (1 Ne. 2:10). Lemuel was urged to be steadfast – to be firmly rooted in the gospel and to never waver in keeping the commandments of the Lord. Elsewhere, the prophets have commanded people to be “steadfast and immovable, always abounding in good works, that Christ, the Lord God Omnipotent, may seal you his” (Mos. 5:15). When we fast, we subject the desires of the flesh unto the needs of the spirit. When we fast we follow God’s commandment; we are proving ourselves steadfast and immovable and as such, through the Atonement of Christ, will be sealed to our Heavenly Father. We will be sealed for time and all eternity to our Eternal Father. His name will be fastened upon us.

To fasten something is to bind together, such as fastening two pieces of wood together with screws or ropes. Those things that are bound together become one. However, over time if care is not taken or if the fastener is weakened, what was fastened together might slip apart. The bond might break. We must always be mindful of our fastening to God and keep it strong. This bond to God makes us free. Captain Moroni, that great champion for freedom, made a banner out of his coat and “fastened it upon the end of a pole” (Alma 46:12) that he might be able to travel from city to city, waving the flag of freedom, rallying the believers of God to fight for their God, their families, and their homes. He wanted them to hold fast to the words of the prophets and to their God. As we respond to Captain Moroni’s call today and hold fast to our God, our families, and our homes, we will be sealed together with our Father.

When we fast, we sacrifice so that we might be able to become steadfast in our faith, becoming one with our God, to be fastened together with Him and Jesus Christ.

Fasting is an opportunity for us to faithfully sacrifice eating and drinking and pray for special needs for us or others. Fasting is an opportunity for God to bless us and others. Those blessings might not always be what we want.

Forgive me for sharing a personal experience. I share this because I think it will resonate with some of you; it might even be encouraging.

I set a goal when I was younger to get a specific job when I was all done with school. After years of graduate school, almost 15 years after setting that goal, I was finally in a place where I could apply for that desired job. I prayed and fasted for months that I could get the job. My parents, siblings and their families, and some friends prayed and fasted for me. With all those prayers and all that faith offered on my behalf, what happened? I didn’t get the job. I didn’t reach the goal set nearly 15 years before. Why weren’t my prayers and fasts answered? Why weren’t the prayers and fasting of others on my behalf answered?

First, they were answered but the answer was “No” or maybe “Not right now.” Second, I probably wasn’t asking for the right thing. My goal was good but it turns out that it wasn’t the job I was meant to have. I’ve found that I’m not always very good at wanting what Heavenly Father wants for me. Isn’t that one of the main tests of life? Learning to give up what we want when it isn’t what our Father wants for us? Our ultimate sacrifice – that’s what fasting is about is sacrifice; the law of the fast is part of the law of sacrifice. So our ultimate sacrifice is submitting our wills to the Father’s. We can, just as Jesus did, ask for another way but ultimately we need to submit our wills to the will of our Father. He knows what will bring us greatest happiness. He knows where we need to be and what we need to do.

So what do we do when we work towards something only to have the goal frustrated? We trust in God and accept His will. My parents have always encouraged my siblings and me to be the best we could wherever we were. A favorite saying was (and still is): “Bloom where you are planted.” I urge you to do the same.

I don’t have an answer yet about what job Heavenly Father wants me to have but opportunities are in sight; they just might be better than what I didn’t get. This is one of the messages I felt strongly that at least one of you needed to hear today. When we don’t receive what we want, when it seems as if our prayers and fasts have not been answered, it is important to keep trusting God. He has something better in store for you. The words of C. S. Lewis are appropriate here:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), p. 176)

You might want a cottage, God wants to give you a castle. You might want to be an angel, God wants you to be something more…someone more. Fasting is one of the methods by which our Father in Heaven helps us become who we are meant to become. One of the things God wants us to become is radiantly joyful. It might be a difficult path to that joy.

One such difficult path was shared on the Church’s Instagram feed on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. Some of you might have seen what was shared about a young woman named Katia:

“In the last few years, the following occurred: a tumbling accident left me in a wheelchair for more than half a year; my dad almost died from a brain hemorrhage (and lost his job a couple of times); my mother underwent a complicated surgery; I had to have a tumor removed; and my brother had to return home early from his mission because of health problems. It was a lot for our family to deal with. In the midst of all of this, my younger sister was struggling through an intense battle with depression that was scary and confusing for all of us. There was one point when I kind of just broke down. My parents taught me to never question why you are going through something, and instead to remember that God has a plan. But I guess it was the timing that got to me. I was just afraid of how much longer it would be like this. I can remember kneeling on the floor crying one evening in our living room. At one point, I looked up and I saw a picture of Christ on the wall. And I just felt at peace at that moment. I just had this feeling that I was meant to go through all of these difficulties. I knew it wasn’t going to be over soon, but I also knew there was a purpose in it all. I felt that God was preparing me to help others in the future—that I could be a light and example through my experiences. I knew I was going to be able to help somebody else at some point.” (https://www.instagram.com/p/BG9M_R7DyBT/?taken-by=ldschurch)

We can continue to have faith through trials. Fasting, even if it doesn’t result in what we ask for, will build faith. Eventually we will receive all that our Father can give as we press forward in faith, relying on the grace of Christ. Though fasting might be a trial now, ultimately, as we learn from restored scripture, fasting is about joy. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read: “And on this day [Sunday] thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting may be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full.” (D&C 59:13; emphasis added). When our fasting is perfect, our joy is full. Fasting is a means to bring joy to our lives. We make a small sacrifice of hunger. God in turn satiates our hunger and fills our emptiness with more than we gave.

Fasting in accordance with the law of sacrifice allows us to show love and devotion to God. God in turn showers forth love and blessings upon us.

Another part of the law of sacrifice is the law of tithing.

I remember being a full time missionary teaching the commandment of tithing. It was always challenging for me to testify of the blessings I had seen in my life from paying tithing. I grew up with the example of my parents who always paid tithing. Paying tithing was never a challenge for me but at 19 and 20 years old I was not in the same place in life as most of those I taught. I taught mostly middle age individuals who were working and supporting a family. That’s one reason I loved having members there to help teach the law of tithing. They could usually give more examples of the blessings they saw from paying tithing. An investigator or new convert being asked to donate 10% of their income was usually a significant challenge – that can be true for many of us, recent convert or not. On the surface tithing seems like a 10% pay cut. A convert joins the church and suddenly gets to live on 10% less income from before. I know some of you struggle with this. If you’re in school, funds can vary between slim and nonexistent. If you’re working full-time or part-time or not at all, funds can also vary between slim and nonexistent. God loves us and does not enjoy watching us struggle. So why does He require us to pay tithing?

There is not a single answer to that question and I’m not going to answer it. Instead, I want to share some blessings…I’ve seen in my life as I’ve paid tithing – most of these became clear after years of paying tithing. Isn’t that how the gospel usually works? We have to put forth the faith first, sometimes for years, before we are blessed.

[Two stories were removed to protect confidence in this setting].

I’ve seen tremendous blessings from paying tithing. Providing for a growing family on a graduate student income was a great lesson in budgeting and faith. Even though funds were severely restricted, we never ran out of money. We never had to do without the necessities of life. Another blessing was discovered when my wife and I looked back and realized we had very few medical costs for years. We worked on remaining healthy but we saw that the Lord blessed our family with good health. That is a blessing we both know was partially due to paying tithing and fast offerings. After all, the Lord promised us through Isaiah that if we fast (and, I might add pay tithing): “[our] health shall spring forth speedily” (Isaiah 58:8).

Being generous with tithing and offerings has other benefits.

Arthur C. Brooks ran a study looking at the relationship between charitable behaviors and  prosperity. He explained his findings at a BYU Forum address: “when people get richer, they tend to give more money away. But I also came up with the following counterintuitive finding: When people give more money away, they tend to prosper.

“Specifically, here’s what I found. If you have two families that are exactly identical—in other words, same religion, same race, same number of kids, same town, same level of education, and everything’s the same—except that one family gives a hundred dollars more to charity than the second family, then the giving family will earn on average $375 more in income than the nongiving family—and that’s statistically attributable to the gift…. [Other studies have found that] givers are healthier, happier, and richer in this country—and probably around the world. It gives us stronger communities; indeed, it gives us a more prosperous nation.”

Arthur Brooks went on: “As Christian people we are taught that giving is important to help others. I’m telling you that the data say giving helps you, so if you want to help others, don’t just give to them—think about what you can do today to help somebody else to give. The main beneficiary of a charitable gift is the giver.”

As we give we receive. I’m not encouraging paying tithing or giving fast offerings for selfish reasons but it is important to recognize and thank our Eternal Father for the blessings he gives us for paying tithing and other offerings. In Malachi we read: “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.” (Malachi 3:10). When God pours out those blessings on us – and those with eyes to see will recognize the blessings – we need to thank Him for them.

Brothers and sisters, the Lord gave us the law of sacrifice, of which tithing and fasting are a part, to help us be better. They are opportunities for us to be more Christ-like and serve others. They are opportunities for God to richly bless us as we faithfully offer up our sacrifices to Him. May God bless each of you through your tithes, fasts, and offerings!

The Fourth Article of Faith

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We have a series of statements about our core beliefs as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called the Articles of Faith. The fourth of these states: “We believe that the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.”

One evening as a missionary, my companion and I received a call from the hermanas, who asked if we could go give a blessing to a baby who hadn’t slept more than minutes at a time for a couple days and hadn’t stopped crying for hours. The baby was exhausted, her mother was exhausted and didn’t know what to do other than ask God for help. I think we’ve all been or will be there – in a situation where we are overwhelmed, exhausted, beaten down, looking for relief. Maybe we are like this mother or like the infant – in either case we need the Lord.

My companion and I prepared for the blessing and went over to the apartment, meeting the hermanas there. As soon as my companion took the infant in his arms, she stopped crying. We blessed her that she would be comforted and be able to sleep. During the short blessing the baby fell asleep. Her mother was greatly relieved and grateful to God. I was touched at the faith of the mother and baby. Infants have innate goodness and faith in Christ. I knew that it was because of their great faith that the prayers of the mother were answered.

Such can be the power of faith in our lives every day! Some of us might have the pure, but small, faith of a child. Though your beginning fire of faith might be small, righteous choices bring greater confidence in God, and your faith grows. Others might have more mature, tested faith. This is the more abundant faith we receive over time as we are tested and strive to remain true to the faith. At any stage of development, 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 principles and ordinances 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.

Just as faith is a shield to us we should shield our faith. Elder Neil L. Andersen said “There is an adversary who delights in destroying our faith! Be relentless in protecting your faith.” (Andersen, Oct 2015 General Conference). Faith in Jesus Christ should lead to repentance.

Most years when I was growing up my family would drive out to the desert near our home in Arizona and pick ripe prickly pear fruit to turn into jelly. It’s not an easy process. Each cactus plant is covered with large and small spines, threatening anyone who approaches too close. Each fruit also has spines on it so we picked them using tongs and dropped them in buckets. Usually within an hour we would have enough fruit for a large batch of jelly. One year when I was about 14 we were picking fruit when my sister called saying, “There’s a rattlesnake over there under the cactus!” I looked, asking “Where?” She stood by me, pointing right to it and said, “Right there under that cactus [about 10 feet away].” I looked but did not see the snake. I looked again in the same location and finally it became clear. The snake blended in perfectly with the ground, only becoming visible with close inspection. What appeared to be dirt, rock, and shadow was a serpent that would be dangerous if approached. We decided to not pick fruit from that cactus.

What is a spiritual application of this story? Sin can be like the snake. It is hard to recognize sometimes, especially for those who are inexperienced or who are not looking carefully. Sin, like venomous snakes, is increasingly dangerous when approached. Once we recognize it, it’s best to leave it alone and go elsewhere. Do not try to see how close you can get to it because eventually you will be bitten. The biting sting of sin burns. All of us sin, we all fall short. When we sin it is important to exercise faith in Jesus Christ unto repentance. Sin brings suffering. Repentance might bring suffering but it’s necessary to be cleansed from sin to live with our Father again.

Even though we do not seek suffering, in some instances suffering may be essential. Elder Ballard stated, “Pain and suffering [serve] a necessary purpose in the process of healing” (M. Russell Ballard, A Chance to Start Over: Church Disciplinary Councils and the Restoration of Blessings, Ensign, Sep. 1990). When we sin, we experience the loss of the spirit of the Lord. The small or large measure of suffering we experience can help us desire to repent and again feel the Holy Ghost. The Savior’s suffering was essential so that we all had a way to be resurrected and be forgiven of our sins. Without His suffering, we cannot be saved. In turn, when we sin, if we do not suffer at all, it is difficult to fully learn the impact of our sins and in turn the sweet mercy of forgiveness. Adam and Eve were taught that they would understand the bitter so that they could appreciate the sweet. This is why we should not be scared of suffering – it is a natural part of life and helps us learn to appreciate the good in our lives. We do not seek it, but we can find meaning in it. We can turn to the Lord and partake of the assuaging mercy of the Atonement. We can find that Balm in Gilead that soothes souls.

A story of the Savior teaches the healing process of repentance.

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

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

These men, bearers of the ill, were persistent and a little destructive. Sometimes we must destroy something to bring healing. Cancer treatments often involve chemotherapy, a drastic process that attacks rapidly dividing cancer cells (and as a side effect, bone marrow, hair follicles, and the digestive system, which all have rapidly dividing cells and are why chemotherapy usually suppresses the immune system, causes hair loss, and digestive difficulties). To kill the bad cells requires broad destruction. Epilepsy, when severe and not well-controlled by medication, sometimes requires cutting out portions of the brain causing the seizures. To heal, drastic actions and destruction can be required. Seeing the diligence and faith of those seeking healing for the man with palsy, Jesus was impressed and offered healing – not just the physical that was sought but also spiritual.

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

Healing might hurt us abominably but such pains are necessary. To heal us, the Savior hurt abominably. He suffered so that He might succor us. What He asks in return is faith, diligence (occasionally destructive), and repentance. Repentance leads to and grows from baptism.

Not long after returning home from my mission I had an opportunity to hike to the top of the tallest mountain in Arizona – Humphrey’s Peak. Much of the northern part of Arizona is a region called the Colorado plateau. This area is mostly high altitude desert but there are areas with luscious vegetation – towering pine trees, quaking aspens, and brilliant wildflowers. Rising above this plateau is Humphrey’s Peak, peaking over 12,600 feet above sea level. The parking lot of the main trail up to the peak sits at almost 9000 feet, leaving three quarters of a mile elevation to ascend along a 4.5 mile trail. The path winds up the mountain with loose jagged rocks underfoot. At the start of the trail there is thick vegetation but as you approach the tree line – the point above which trees no longer grow – the towering trees turn into bristlecone pines, sturdy trees hardened and twisted by strong winds and frost. Above the tree line the only plants left are hardy shrubs that can withstand the tundra climate. During the summer the air is often warm but snows can come during any month and weather changes rapidly. At the peak on clear days it is possible to see for over a hundred miles. In the distance you might see the mile deep gash of the Grand Canyon.

My parents, a neighbor, and I hiked Humphrey’s Peak. My mother did not want to hike the whole way so shortly after starting she told us to go on ahead. Soon, I wanted to ascend faster so I left my father and neighbor to follow up after me. When I hit 12,000 feet with about a mile to go I started feeling the altitude but I improved approaching the summit. Up at the peak, there was time for resting and enjoying the view. Parts of the landscape were blocked by clouds lower than the summit. I marveled at the winds that whipped clouds by me. It was serene being high on a mountain top. Mountains always remind me of the majesty of God. After a rest, it was time to descend the mountain. One thing I love more than hiking up mountains is running down them. This trail was challenging – a misplaced foot, a loose rock could result in serious injury – but running down a mountain is exhilarating. My muscles, bones, and joints ached for hours after the descent and my legs were sore for days but I enjoyed the run at the time.

What happened to my father and our neighbor? They eventually made it up and down but had to go slowly because my neighbor had altitude sickness due to the thin air.

What is a principle from this story? Climbing the mountain is like getting baptized. Baptism is the gate opening the path that we travel to try and return to our exalted home. But baptism is not the end. Those of us who are baptized members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints all covenanted with God – a covenant is a two way promise – that we would keep His commandments and always remember Him. If we want to reach the summit we cannot stop by the gate, we need to press forward with our eyes fixed upon the Savior. We work but none of us works our way to heaven. We are required to participate in priesthood ordinances like baptism but Jesus strengthens our lungs and legs. He lifts us up when we fall and strengthens us in spiritual and physical sickness. It is the Atonement of Jesus Christ that ultimately lifts us home but baptism puts us on the upward path, a spiritual one that we never need descend from.

Just as hiking does, baptism requires preparation. In Moroni we read of the requirements for and duties of those who are baptized: “And none were received unto baptism save they took upon them the name of Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end. And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith.” (Moroni 6:3-4).

Growing up in the desert, I gained a strong appreciation for water. Whether it was conserving water at home or making sure we had enough water while camping or backpacking, I learned how vital water, especially clean water, is for life. When I was young I went on two multi-day backpacking trips with my father and his varsity scouts – a 21 mile hike in the Grand Canyon when I was 11 and a 40 mile one through the Paria Canyon when I was 12. We could only carry enough water to last a day so on both excursions we relied heavily on spring water to survive. Water from the springs is pure; we could drink right from living streams. When there were no springs to replenish our water we had to purify our water by filtering, boiling, or using iodine tablets. The water from streams and rivers needed purification or it could have made us sick. If we did not have water, we would not have survived our desert hikes.

Many of the events in the Bible occur in deserts. The early part of the Book of Mormon also takes place almost exclusively in deserts. The Savior lived in Israel around Jerusalem, which receives little rainfall each year. Water is a precious resource. Drinkable water is even more precious. Because of the desert surroundings of many of the prophets in the scriptures, water plays a prominent role in many parables or scripture stories. “Then said he unto me, These waters issue out toward the east country, and go down into the desert, and go into the sea: which being brought forth into the sea, the waters shall be healed. And it shall come to pass, that every thing that liveth, which moveth, whithersoever the rivers shall come, shall live: and there shall be a very great multitude of fish, because these waters shall come thither: for they shall be healed; and every thing shall live whither the river cometh” (Ezekiel 47:8-9). In the desert, where water is, there is life. Because water provides and symbolizes life, it is easy to understand why so many prophets, including the Savior, referred to water in their teachings.

The Lord’s control and power over water was demonstrated many times throughout the scriptures. Moses parted the Red Sea to escape the Egyptians. Elijah divided the waters of the River Jordan, as did Elisha (see 2 Kings 2). Elisha also healed the waters of Jericho: “And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground barren. And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him. And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land. So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake” (2 Kings 2:19-22). Our own spiritual waters can also be healed and cleansed as we partake of the blood of the Atonement and as we follow our priesthood leaders, especially the Lord’s prophet.

The Jaredites and the people of Lehi both crossed over the oceans in order to travel to the Promised Land. They survived their trials by water with faith in the Lord. Sometimes the waters beat down and seem to attack our very foundation but if we are built upon stony ground instead of sand, we can weather the storms. Jesus walked upon the water. The Savior shed tears for friends as well as in Gethsemane and upon the cross. We use water today for the sacrament in remembrance of the Savior’s atoning blood.

Water is cleansing. The prophet Alma baptized in the waters of Mormon. The Savior demonstrated the importance of baptism by water when He was baptized in the River Jordan; baptism is essential for exaltation, which is why the Savior was baptized even though He was and is without sin. Through it we make a covenant – a two-way promise – with our Father. Baptism symbolizes the washing away of our sins.

But just as the Mosaic Law was incomplete without Christ, so is baptism without confirmation and the reception of the gift of the Holy Ghost. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “You might as well baptize a bag of sand as a man, if not done in view of the remission of sins and getting of the Holy Ghost. Baptism by water is but half a baptism, and is good for nothing without the other half – that is, the baptism of the Holy Ghost” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith, p.314).

By baptism we keep the commandment but through the Holy Ghost we are absolved of blame and purified. The blood of Christ sanctifies us (see Moses 6:60).

I’ll always remember what it was like to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. I was baptized and confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I was eight years old. I wrote in my journal that I felt warm and not just because it was in Arizona in the summer. The Holy Ghost blesses us with warmth and peace. At that early age I learned of the power of the Holy Ghost and of the consequences of sin. Before I was baptized I remember doing something I was not supposed to do but really did not have a strong feeling that it was wrong – I think I only realized it was wrong in hindsight. When I did the same thing after I was baptized I knew immediately it was wrong, I felt compelled to fall to my knees and ask Heavenly Father for forgiveness. That is the power of the Holy Ghost – He teaches us right from wrong and helps us know how we can be better. He warns us; He comforts us.

The first principles and ordinances of the Gospel are: first, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, Repentance; third, Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, Laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.

These are a foundation for us. If you have not been baptized, I encourage you to take that step. It is one you will not regret. If you have been baptized, continue on the path of faith, repentance, covenant, and spirit. I know Jesus Christ is our Savior. He loves you and me.

Nurturing the Seed of Faith and Testimony

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To testify is to declare a belief about, of, or in something. Testifying is the declaration of a fact or a truth – stating something that you know is true. The word testimony is a noun, which means that testimonies can be acted upon; someone possesses a testimony and can share it. The word testimony comes from the Latin word meaning witness. It is also related to the Latin words for three and stand, implying that a witness stands as another – particularly a third – witness.We are taught in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Doctrine & Covenants that the Lord’s pattern is for multiple witnesses to establish truth. Incidentally, testament is the same word as testimony; a testament is also a covenant. So we have an Old Covenant, a New Covenant, and a latter-day Doctrine and Covenants with, of course, the Book of Mormon standing as a special testament of Jesus Christ (and a special covenant between God and the remnants of the people of Lehi). All books of scripture serve to co-establish the truths contained within each other book; this includes God’s word, which shall be established by multiple witnesses (two or three; see Deut. 19:15; Matt. 18:16; D&C 6:28). We have multiple witnesses at church. Bro. [Smith] and I are visiting by assignment from the stake presidency to teach truths; the Holy Ghost also bears witness of the truths we share and the testimonies we bear. We are establishing truth through three witnesses. Even members of the Godhead, though united in testimony, purpose, and glory, serve as multiple witnesses. When Jesus Christ was baptized, His Father bore witness to John the Baptist saying, “This is my beloved Son.” The Holy Ghost also descended like a dove as a sign to John of the divinity of Jesus Christ. God’s pattern for testifying of His truths is well-established.

When Alma and Amulek preached in the land of Ammonihah, the people were amazed that two missionaries bore testimony: “And now, when Amulek had spoken these words the people began to be astonished, seeing there was more than one witness who testified of the things whereof they were accused, and also of the things which were to come, according to the spirit of prophecy which was in them” (Alma 10:12). This is one reason our missionaries go out two by two – there are multiple people to bear witness, to share their testimony of the truths of the gospel.

We gain knowledge about testimonies and how we gain one by listening to the Lord’s apostles. In the October 2001 General Conference Elder Richard G. Scott gave this powerful teaching about testimony: “A strong testimony is the sustaining power of a successful life. It is centered in an understanding of the divine attributes of God our Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. It is secured by a willing reliance upon Them. A powerful testimony is grounded in the personal assurance that the Holy Ghost can guide and inspire our daily acts for good. A testimony is fortified by spiritual impressions that confirm the validity of a teaching, of a righteous act, or of a warning of pending danger. Often such guidance is accompanied by powerful emotions that make it difficult to speak and bring tears to the eyes. But a testimony is not emotion. It is the very essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions” (Ensign, Nov. 2001, Scott; emphasis added).

Let me repeat: “[A testimony] is the very essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions.” A testimony is based on the goodness of our lives, of our characters, and our actions. Our testimonies are strengthened as we live in accordance to the principles and ordinances of the gospel. That is the only way to gain a testimony! Live the gospel principles that you want to gain a testimony of. If you want to have a testimony of tithing, pay it! If you want to have a testimony of Jesus Christ, follow Him! If you want to have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, read it and pray about it! We are taught in Alma 32 to “experiment upon the word.” As we test what God has told us, we can know of its truth.

“But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words” (Alma 32:27; emphasis added).

With these words, the prophet Alma taught the poor and outcast how they could develop faith. These humble people were struggling with their faith so Alma taught them how to increase it. My words are particularly directed at those who do not have a testimony or those who feel like they have a weak testimony. I pray that all may benefit.

The word experiment is only found in the scriptures five times. One of those is in the New Testament (see 2 Cor. 9:13). The other four uses of the word experiment are all found when Alma and Amulek taught the Zoramites. Alma developed an analogy of faith as a seed, encouraging those who listened to plant the seed of faith in their hearts then nurture it and watching it grow.

My wife Kristi and I recently taught this principle to our children. We talked about the seed of faith and how by nurturing it, it will grow. Then we planted actual seeds and, as we cared for them, watched them sprout and grow tall. We are still nurturing the plants as we wait for them to bear fruit. We build faith and testimonies the same way – it takes work and time. Alma taught the humble Zoramites to experiment upon the word of God, almost like performing a science experiment. I am a brain scientist by profession and so I spend much of my time doing science.

A foundation of modern science is to seek to discover facts that we hope lead to truth. Scientists study facts, which may or may not be true, by studying what can be observed or indirectly measured. I’m interested in understanding what will happen to the brain as someone gets older or what happens to a person’s brain after a major surgery. My goal as a scientist is to discover things through observation or experimentation that I hope are true and that will help people. While it is not possible to look at a person’s brain directly, I can give tests that measure how well it works. I can also use a machine to take pictures or movies of it.

In some ways, Alma’s faith experiment is similar to a science experiment. For one, Alma tells the people to look for evidence of the growth of faith – sometimes this evidence is not what we expect or is not immediately clear, “Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me. Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge. But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow” (Alma 32:28-30).

Alma told people to not cast the seed of faith out and not resist the Spirit of the Lord; if they accepted the seed, they would feel and understand the seed. They would be enlightened and filled. The seed, with nourishment, would grow into a tree producing fruit of light and purity, fruit which never spoils and is without end. In a scientific experiment, the scientist usually makes a prediction and then tries to show that it is wrong. That’s how many doctors diagnose illnesses – they believe the symptoms might be one thing but they have to rule out other causes. A faith experiment is not quite like this.

In a faith experiment we plant a seed, nourish it, and care for it; we don’t try to kill the seed of faith and then, if it survives, call it a good seed – that’s science. We don’t try to explain away feelings and faith as wishful thinking. We do all we can to try to show that the seed is good – because it is. There are many witnesses of the truth of God. The key is to believe and come to a knowledge for ourselves. We do not need to prove that God exists or that the gospel is true – He does and it is; the gospel is not on trial, we are! We should not fight faith, we nurture it. Neither should we sow the seed of doubt in our own minds or those of others.

Elder Holland said, “In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited…. When…moments [of trial and doubt] come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. It was of [the] very incident, [the] miracle [of healing the mind of a boy], that Jesus said, ‘If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.’ The size of your faith or the degree of your knowledge is not the issue—it is the integrity you demonstrate toward the faith you do have and the truth you already know.” (April 2013 General Conference)

Or, as Pres. Uchtdorf said, “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.” (October 2013 General Conference).

To those of you who are struggling in your testimonies – embrace what you have and help it grow by living the doctrines in the scriptures and taught by God’s living prophets.

I want to talk more about faith. The word faith is often used as a synonym for trust or belief. We’ll say “You just have to have faith.” That use is the main definition of faith as found in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines faith as “Belief, trust, or confidence.” That understanding of faith, as helpful as it is, falls short of the real power of faith. The apostle Paul wrote of faith: “Now faith is the substance [or assurance] of things hoped for, the evidence [or proof] of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

There are things that we cannot see but that do exist. There are truths that are self-evident and self-existent that are not and cannot be observed by us now – the scriptures and prophets teach us this. There are things that are real that we hope for but cannot see or hear or experience until some point in the future. As Alma stated: “And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21)

A part of faith is hope or belief but faith is much more than that. Thomas Hobbes explained faith in his work Leviathan: “But what (may some object) if a King, or a Senate, or other Soveraign Person forbid us to beleeve in Christ? To this I answer, that such forbidding is of no effect, because Beleef, and Unbeleef never follow mens Commands. Faith is a gift of God, which Man can neither give, nor take away by promise of rewards, or menaces of torture.” (Hobbes, Leviathan, iii. xlii. 271; spelling and punctuation not modernized). “Faith is a gift of God.” It’s not a gift we give to God – the gift we give God is integrity to the faith we have received. We believe in Him even though we don’t see Him. We believe, hope, and trust our Eternal Father. Faith transcends belief. Faith is a gift from God.

As Paul wrote, faith is an assurance of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen. That means faith is given to us as proof that our beliefs in God are good and true. Belief and good works lead to faith. Referring back to Alma’s analogy of the seed – we have desires to believe and then we plant the seed of faith. We do not create this seed, it is a gift from God. That seed must be planted and then not cast out by unbelief. To help the seed to grow we have to believe and trust and follow the Lord’s commands. As we do this, we are blessed with further evidence – with more faith – as we see the seed grow, sprout, and produce good fruit.

It is important to recognize that faith is the evidence or proof of God’s love that we desire; it is a great and wonderful power. Many times we feel like we are acting “just with faith” until we receive proof – some big spiritual manifestation that will remove the need for faith. But faith is exactly the proof we are looking for. How many times do we believe, trust, hope, and experiment upon the word but overlook our growing faith as evidence of God’s love because we’re so busy looking for something bigger – an angel or a clear sign from heaven? So often we seek for signs without realizing that faith is the answer to our prayers and the reward of our righteousness. Faith is a glorious gift from God. As Moroni wrote on spiritual gifts: “And to [some is given] exceedingly great faith” (Moroni 10:11). Faith comes of and by the Spirit of the Lord.

I want to share an experience when my testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith was strengthened and my faith grew. I’ll quote from my missionary journal: “Tonight we taught Sarah [name changed] the 1st discussion at the stake center. She bought us pizza! What an amazing discussion! Elders VanBebber, Malie, and I taught it. Sarah is amazing. Today Elder Malie and I reviewed the 1st [discussion] for companionship study and how we can apply it to Sarah. While doing that I decided to use the Joseph Smith pamphlet and read the Joseph Smith history in the discussion, something we do not always do. [Sarah] used to go to [the LDS] church [with friends] when she was 8 or so. She even wanted to be baptized but [when she] told [her mom, Sarah was not allowed to] go to that family’s house any more. What a change [Sarah’s mom] has gone through [we taught and baptized her mom previous to this experience]! I got to teach the Joseph Smith principle. While I paused after the First Vision story, the Spirit hit me hard and I started to cry. That is the first time that has happened to me – getting emotional like that in a discussion. As I testified of Joseph Smith I thought, ‘Now I can really…say that I know Joseph Smith is a prophet.’ I have always [believed] but now [my knowledge is sure]! This feeling I received, I shall never forget nor deny.”

I have not forgotten that feeling more than a decade later. That was one of the singularly important moments in my life. I have always believed Joseph Smith was a prophet. That’s not something I have ever doubted. My testimony of his calling as a prophet was based on years of going to church, reading the scriptures, praying, and learning about him. I saw and partook of the fruits the Lord restored through him to the earth. However, before that time I had not had a powerful experience like the one I had that evening as a missionary. That does not mean I did not have a testimony before – I did – but it was strengthened by that experience. How did I gain this witness? What I did not write at the time was how I had been reading my scriptures and praying with a sincere earnestness that I would receive a witness of the gospel. The Spirit I received while teaching Sarah did not come out of the blue, although that can happen; testimonies are most often gained through mighty prayer and righteous living. Sometimes – or most times – we must wrestle in prayer as we seek a witness of the gospel. The Spirit I received while teaching Sarah did not come out of the blue, although that can happen; testimonies are most often gained through mighty prayer and righteous living. Sometimes – or most times – we must wrestle in prayer as we seek a witness of the truths of the gospel. A strong testimony can take years of effort or it might come quickly but for those who seek it, it will come. Even if it takes a long time, God blesses us richly along the path to testimony.

For any who want to receive a witness of the truthfulness of the gospel, Elder Scott, one of the Lord’s apostles, offers His counsel: “Try reading the Book of Mormon because you want to, not because you have to. Discover for yourself that it is true. As you read each page ask, ‘Could any man have written this book or did it come as Joseph Smith testified?’ Apply the teachings you learn. They will fortify you against the evil of Satan. Follow Moroni’s counsel. Sincerely ask God the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, with real intent, if the teachings of the Book of Mormon are true (see Moro. 10:3–5). Ask with a desire to receive a confirmation personally, nothing doubting. There has to be an explanation of that book you can hold in your hand. I know that you can receive a spiritual confirmation that it is true. You will then know that Jesus Christ lives, that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Lord’s Church. You will confirm that the Savior guides His Church through a living prophet. These truths will become a foundation for your productive life.” (Elder Scott, Ensign, November 2003).

Most importantly, a testimony helps you draw near to Jesus Christ and partake more fully of His grace.

One final example of how to gain or strengthen a testimony is in the Book of Mormon. We read in Alma 17 of an encounter between Alma the younger and his friends, the sons of King Mosiah. They had not seen each other for years. “Now these sons of Mosiah were with Alma at the time the angel first appeared unto him; therefore Alma did rejoice exceedingly to see his brethren; and what added more to his joy, they were still his brethren in the Lord; yea, and they had waxed strong in the knowledge of the truth; for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God. But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God.” (Alma 17:2-3). The sons of Mosiah demonstrated the foundation for developing great faith and a strong testimony – search the scriptures diligently to learn the word of God and spend much time in prayer and fasting. By doing those things, our testimonies will grow. But as Brigham Young said, “More testimonies are gained on the feet than on the knees.” It’s important to live what we read and pray.

I add my testimony to that of the prophets that all can receive a witness of the truthfulness of the gospel. We can all know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is God’s word. We can know that Jesus is Divine, the Only Begotten Son of God, our Savior and Redeemer. We can know that God has a plan for each of us and that plan is to return to live with Him again and to someday see Him as He really is. I have not had an angel appear to me like the sons of Mosiah and Alma the younger but I have had something better; I have had the Holy Ghost – a member of the Godhead – witness unto me the truth of the Scriptures and the truth of the restored gospel. This is a miraculous witness that is no less miraculous than the visible ministering of angels.

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!

The Virgin Birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Destructive Healing

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

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

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

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

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

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/).

A Voice in the Wilderness, A Voice from the Dust

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Three hundred years before the death of Adam, the people of God lived in a land of righteousness, separated from those who chose to worship Mammon rather than God. Among this people a baby was born who would later cause mountains to flee and rivers to change course (Moses 6:34). This baby was to be a teacher and great prophet. He would save his people. This baby was Enoch, whose name means “teacher”; he bacame a powerful teacher. Enoch was a descendant of the righteous patriarch Seth, the son of Adam, and the great-grandfather of Noah, who was protected from the floods in his ark of covenant, in his tabernacle of wood. Noah weathered the elements within his sanctuary of faith; his great-grandfather Enoch also had great faith, commanding the elements to protect his people. As an approaching army threatened to destroy the people of God, Enoch turned in faith and humility to God, supplicating for rescue.

“And so great was the faith of Enoch that he led the people of God…; he spake the word of the Lord, and the earth trembled, and the mountains fled, even according to his command; and the rivers of water were turned out of their course…and all nations feared greatly, so powerful was the word of Enoch, and so great was the power of the language which God had given him.” (Moses 7:13).

Awed by such power, the enemies of his people fled. Enoch saved his people physically, he would save them spiritually.

The Lord, troubled by the wickedness of the people on the earth, came to Enoch, commanding him to call the people to repentance (Moses 6:26-30). Enoch, like so many who would follow, felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of his call. He felt inadequate, stating that he was “just a lad” and “slow of speech” (Moses 6:31). In reply, the Lord commanded him to be faithful, open his mouth, and be filled with the words of God (Moses 6:32). Faith overcame fear as Enoch fulfilled the commands of the Lord. He told the people that they must “choose…this day, to serve the Lord God who made [them]” (Moses 6:33).

Enoch made the choice to serve God. When callings come to us, whether they appear great or small, whether they be as relief society president, family history consultant, bishop, or nursery worker, we can follow the faithful example of Enoch and choose to serve the Lord our God. God will prepare a way for us to fulfill our callings.

At age 25 Enoch received the Priesthood from Adam (D&C 107:48). Enoch became a great prophet and seer, wandering in the wilderness, calling to the people to repent. He fearlessly taught and fearlessly prophesied.

“And it came to pass that Enoch went forth in the land, among the people, standing upon the hills and the high places, and cried with a loud voice, testifying against their works; and all men were offended because of him. And they came forth to hear him, upon the high places, saying…we go yonder to behold the seer, for he prophesieth, and there is a strange thing in the land; a wild man hath come among us.” (Moses 6:37-38). Enoch was seen as a wild man, a voice in the wilderness who prophesied hard things unto the people. The wicked were offended and became defensive. We see this happen repeatedly in our day – some protest against what the prophets teach, finding it offensive or parochial, words for an uninformed people, a distant past. There will always be many who mock in derision from their great and spacious false temple.

In Isaiah we read of the wicked complaining against the truth. Isaiah prophesied: “this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord: Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the [Lord] to cease from before us.” (Isaiah 30:9-11)

Truly the wicked take the truth to be hard! Prophets do not always speak smooth things. Yes, the doctrine they teach can be comforting but much is sharp to the wicked or hard-hearted. Enoch taught with such great power that although the people were offended, they were enthralled by the power of his words. As Enoch spoke “the words of God, the people trembled, and could not stand in his presence” (Moses 6:47). There is great power in the word of faith.

What did Enoch teach the people? Enoch taught of the fall of Adam, death, sin, repentance, baptism, the Holy Ghost, redemption through Christ, and resurrection. Enoch taught the words of Christ spoken to Adam on behalf of the Father: “By reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified; Therefore it is given to abide in you” (Moses 6:59-61).

We are born of water, spirit, and blood and must be obedient, repentant, and reborn through the water of baptism; we must be justified and cleansed from sin by the Holy Spirit; and we must be sanctified, becoming holy, though the atoning blood of Christ. All those symbols are part of the sacrament – bread to represent the body and burial of Christ, the Spirit to witness unto us and cleanse our sins, and the water to represent the sanctifying and covenant blood of Christ. Enoch taught the people the manner by which they could return to the presence of God.

Many people believed Enoch and repented. Because of their righteousness, the Lord blessed them with His glory. He also “blessed [their] land, and they were blessed upon the mountains, and upon the high places, and did flourish. And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:17-18). That same promise and blessing is available to us as we follow the Lord. Elsewhere great wickedness and apostasy flourished. Eventually the city of Zion and its people were taken from the earth: “And Enoch and all his people walked with God, and he dwelt in the midst of Zion; and it came to pass that Zion was not, for God received it up into his own bosom; and from thence went forth the saying, Zion is Fled.” (Moses 7:69).

After that apostasy reigned – the missionary efforts of Noah and others having little success. The heavens wept and a flood cleansed the earth. This weeping and cleansing foreshadowed the tears and blood of the weeping Christ as He atoned for the sins and sorrows of us all. After Christ’s resurrection, the early Christian church flourished, led by the apostles. Many rejected them and their teachings, eventually killing them. After the deaths of the apostles, the priesthood keys and priesthood authority were removed from the earth. Hundreds of years passed in global apostasy. Degrees of light and truth remained but God’s authority was not on the earth. Then in 1820, God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith, a 14 year old boy. The Lord called Joseph as a prophet. In May 1829 John the Baptist visited Joseph Smith and bestowed upon him the Aaronic Priesthood, preparatory to him receiving the Melchizedek priesthood and eventually all priesthood keys – all authorization to perform the work of the Lord, the work of salvation, which teaches the way and opens the doors for our return home to our Father in Heaven.

Throughout the ages and in our day, all prophets have testified of Christ and taught His doctrine. The prophets call as voices of clarity amid the wilderness of sin. They call unto us with the “voice of [Him] who dwells on high, whose eyes are upon all men [and women]” (D&C 1:1). The voice of the Lord is unto all; it is a voice of warning unto all men and women. This voice comes through the prophets, who are “given [power] to seal both on earth and in heaven” (D&C 1:8).

All are invited to hear the word of the Lord through His spokesmen, the prophets. Do we heed the call? Do we invite our friends and neighbors to hear the word? There is nothing more important in life than hearing and heeding the voice of the Lord and hearing and heeding the voice of His servants, the prophets. At times the prophets share the Lord’s voice of warning – warning against wickedness and warning against calamities to come.

“The anger of the Lord is kindled, and his sword is bathed in heaven, and it shall fall upon the inhabitants of the earth. And the arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people; For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.” (D&C 1:13-16).

We live in a time when people stray from the ordinances of the Lord, when they break the everlasting covenant. There are many who create their own gods and then seek to follow them. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated in this past April General Conference:

“Sadly enough…it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds. Talk about man creating God in his own image! Sometimes—and this seems the greatest irony of all—these folks invoke the name of Jesus as one who was this kind of ‘comfortable’ God. Really? He who said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like ‘comfortable’ doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in?” (Holland, April 2014 General Conference).

Prophets serve as a voice of warning. They do so in order to protect us. God gives us prophets so that we might be prepared and might know the path that returns home, in which home we might have a fulness of joy and a fullness of love.

Jesus said: “I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments; And also gave commandments to others, that they should proclaim these things unto the world; and all [the words of the prophets] might be fulfilled, which was written by the prophets…that every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world; That faith also might increase in the earth; That mine everlasting covenant might be established; That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world.” (D&C 1:17-23)

Joseph Smith was prepared and called by God so that faith might increase, that the everlasting covenant – that which binds families together and to God eternally – might be restored, and that the fulness of the gospel might reach the ends of the earth. One of the most important things Joseph accomplished was in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, a voice from the dust whispering words from voices in wildernesses that call unto all to repent and return to God.

The prophet Moroni pleaded with those who would read the Book of Mormon: “And I exhort you to remember these things; for…the Lord God will say unto you: Did I not declare my words unto you, which were written by this man [Moroni], like as one crying from the dead, yea, even as one speaking out of the dust? I declare these things unto the fulfilling of the prophecies. And behold, they shall proceed forth out of the mouth of the everlasting God; and his word shall hiss forth from generation to generation. And God shall show unto you, that that which I have written is true.” (Moroni 10:27-29)

It is true, brothers and sisters. The Book of Mormon is the word of God. It has changed my life, it has changed many of yours and will continue to change all our lives as we accept it. It was written for us so that we might come to know Christ, the Holy Messiah. The Book of Mormon is one of the greatest gifts given to us. Do we reject it, ignore it, or embrace it? Do we hide it under a bushel or do we proclaim its truth from the housetops? The Book of Mormon contains the words of those who spoke in the wilderness as voices of warning. It is imperative that we know and believe the truths contained within.

While much of what the Lord proclaims is a voice of warning, not always the “smooth things” people want to hear, there is also great comfort in the doctrines of Christ. Isaiah prophesied of the Atonement of Christ, of the comfort and pardoning it would bring: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her…that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:1-2). The prophets in our day also teach of this comfort.

Elder Holland taught: “It is crucial to remember that we are living—and chose to live—in a fallen world where for divine purposes our pursuit of godliness will be tested and tried again and again. Of greatest assurance in God’s plan is that a Savior was promised, a Redeemer, who through our faith in Him would lift us triumphantly over those tests and trials, even though the cost to do so would be unfathomable for both the Father who sent Him and the Son who came. It is only an appreciation of this divine love that will make our own lesser suffering first bearable, then understandable, and finally redemptive.” (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/like-a-broken-vessel?lang=eng)

One of the messages of the restored gospel is that of hope. We can have hope through the calamities foretold; we can have hope through our suffering. Christ showed us how to bear suffering – with poise amid provocation, with fearlessness and faith, with gratitude and grace. We will not be free from suffering – the blameless Christ suffered more than all – but we can have strength through our trials. There are many here who have suffered and do suffer greatly. There are some who feel the encroaching darkness of despair. There are some who suffer because of sin, illness, or heartache. Hold on! Strive on! Trust in God and be believing. At times all feel lost, alone, and afraid. We might feel like we are left in darkness – wandering in a wilderness – but if we stop to look up, we will see the majesty and mercies of the Lord as the stars in the sky. In our darkest moments the light of Christ will appear brightest. God is near if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. Christ suffered for our sins, He suffered for our infirmities; He suffered for our sorrows, our sickness, and our shortcomings. We are enabled and exalted in Him.

Though we walk through the valley of deepest darkness, though we traverse along a crooked trail of tears, though we stumble and fear like Peter a sinking, Jesus Christ takes our hands, lifts us up, dries our tears, and lights our way. He is our song in the night, our pillar of fire, and our shadow by day. He binds our wounds and repairs the breeches in our hearts.

What the Lord told the prophet Joseph, applies to us: “All [our trials] shall give [us] experience, and shall be for [our] good.” (D&C 122:7). Hope on! Trust on!

Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s prophet for us, just like Enoch was for his people. The words of the prophets – words of warning and consolation – are unto all as voices from the wilderness. One such voice pleaded: “Awake, and arise from the dust…and put on thy beautiful garments, O [sons and daughters] of Zion;…strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled.” (Moroni 10:31). May we so heed the words of the prophets and strengthen the stakes of Zion. May we remember the covenants of God and be true to them.