Homeward Bound to the Personal God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Service

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

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

Jesus taught:

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

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

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

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

Unity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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