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.

Broken Cisterns That Can Hold No Water

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Israel during the Iron Age (started before 1000 B.C. and ended around 700 A.D.¹) is believed to have had a climate similar to today’s. It can be very hot and dry, particularly during the summer months. Jerusalem typically receives less than 22 inches (554 mm), which is significant rain for a semi-arid region, but Jerusalem receives no to trace amounts of rain on average during the months of May through September. This makes the storage of potable water vital for sustaining life. In ancient times (and modern) cisterns were cut into rock and, if necessary, lined with waterproof plaster. Cisterns could be small or large, even large enough to be classified as reservoirs. Cisterns could collect rain water directly or receive run-off water that was filtered through layers of sand, silt, and rocks. Methods of construction varied by location throughout Israel and as technology advanced. One example of a cistern found in Israel is depicted below (Figure 1). Other cisterns were open and many were small. Open cisterns, such as those that were common throughout ancient Israel, were constructed in the following manner: “Only the conduits and the upper opening of the cistern can be seen on the surface. The opening is marked by a large stone in which a hole was cut, to which a wooden or an iron door was often attached. Below the opening a bottleneck was cut, lined with well-cut and dressed stones. This neck went down to the bedrock, usually the soft chalk. Below the bottleneck the cistern widened, typically in a rounded shape achieved by cutting into bedrock.” (Rubin, 1988). Many homes had cisterns built into the foundation in order to collect rain and drainage from the roof (Figure 2).

cistern

Figure 1. From Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. "Water conservation methods in Israel's Negev desert in late antiquity." Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Water was and is important. Cisterns had to be constructed correctly otherwise they could leak water or the water could become contaminated. Cisterns had to be lined precisely and often needed plastering for waterproofing. If this was not done or was done incorrectly, the cistern was broken and could not hold water.

The prophet Jeremiah was from a village called Anathoth, which was 3 miles (4.83 km) north of Jerusalem. He lived around 600 B.C. The Lord called Jeremiah as a prophet and Jeremiah began his ministry around 626 B.C. and continued at least until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

Jeremiah showed great courage in the face of many trials. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and called the people to repentance. The prophet Lehi, who plays a prominent role early in the Book of Mormon, was a contemporary of Jeremiah. Whereas Jeremiah’s mission was to remain as a warning voice to Israel, Lehi was commanded to flee Jerusalem, running over the wall, and head to a new, promised land. How lush and bountiful the Americas were compared to the land of Israel!

Jeremiah has been referred to as the “Weeping Prophet” because of his lamentations over the destruction of Israel and the wickedness of the people: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:1-2). The great artist Rembrandt painted lamenting Jeremiah (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the book of Jeremiah we read of the two great evils of the people of Israel: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13). The people of Israel turned away from God. They rejected the Living Fountain. The people of Israel had forgotten the miracle of Moses – the great salvation provided by God – when their mothers and fathers wandered in the wilderness: “And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Exodus 17:3-6).

The Israelites forsook the Lord. They also “hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Broken cisterns were life-threatening, particularly during the summer months. Wells and other sources of water were available but cisterns could be built close to homes and could be more easily defended. The Lord, through Jeremiah, lamented over the poor eternal craftsmanship of the Israelites. They were more focused on the things of the world than they were on the things of God. Many Israelites made choices to worship the golden calves created by their hands rather than turn to the Lord in remembrance of His great power and salvation. The people of Israel longed for the things of Babylon while not believing that destructive Babylon was on their doorstep, about to demolish their homes and lead them away into captivity. Rather than partaking of the living waters of the Lord and remaining free, their cisterns were broken and many perished. It’s no wonder that Jeremiah lamented!

                                                                                                                                     

¹Side note on the subject of iron and carbonized iron (steel). Steel was likely first produced before 3000 B.C. There is evidence of manufactured steel dating to about 1800 B.C. found in an archaeological site in Turkey (Akanuma, H. (2005). “The significance of the composition of excavated iron fragments taken from Stratum III at the site of Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey”. Anatolian Archaeological Studies 14: 147–158.). Steel dating from 667 B.C. has also been found in archaeological excavations in Thebes  (Williams, Alan R., and K. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. “Ancient steel from Egypt.”Journal of Archaeological Science 3, no. 4 (1976): 283-305.). This steel was thought to be brought by an invading Assyrian army. While bronze, copper, and iron were used broadly, steel was manufactured for tools and weapons all around the Mediterranean region, particularly the near/middle east. Steel was thus produced and used during the time of Jeremiah (which was also the time of Lehi, Nephi, and Laban [who, according to the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, owned a steel sword]).

Rescuing the Lost

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There is little more beautiful than those who have wandered returning home and changing their ways. In what is one of the most powerful teachings ever given, Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son.

Related to this is the parable of the lost sheep. Both the prodigal son and parable of the lost sheep demonstrate God’s great love for us. He yearns for us to return home to live with Him again.

Whether we are prodigal sons or daughters (we all are in our own ways), lost sheep, or are those seeking the lost, the call is to follow the Savior home. God loves us and rejoices when we repent and help others repent. We must take part in hastening the work of salvation and rescuing those who are lost, particularly if we are the ones who are lost.

Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the sheep of his fold;
Dear is the love that he gives them,
Dearer than silver or gold.
Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are his “other” lost sheep;
Over the mountains he follows,
Over the waters so deep.

Out in the desert they wander,
Hungry and helpless and cold;
Off to the rescue he hastens,
Bringing them back to the fold.

Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the lambs of his fold;
Some from the pastures are straying,
Hungry and helpless and cold.
See, the Good Shepherd is seeking,
Seeking the lambs that are lost,
Bringing them in with rejoicing,
Saved at such infinite cost.

Out in the desert they wander,
Hungry and helpless and cold;
Off to the rescue he hastens,
Bringing them back to the fold.

Dear to the heart of the Shepherd,
Dear are the “ninety and nine”;
Dear are the sheep that have wandered
Out in the desert to pine.
Hark! he is earnestly calling,
Tenderly pleading today:
“Will you not seek for my lost ones,
Off from my shelter astray?”

Out in the desert they wander,
Hungry and helpless and cold;
Off to the rescue he hastens,
Bringing them back to the fold.

Green are the pastures inviting;
Sweet are the waters and still.
Lord, we will answer thee gladly,
“Yes, blessed Master, we will!
Make us thy true under-shepherds;
Give us a love that is deep.
Send us out into the desert,
Seeking thy wandering sheep.”

Out in the desert they wander,
Hungry and helpless and cold;
Off to the rescue we’ll hasten,
Bringing them back to the fold.

Mary B. Wingate, Dear to the heart of the Shepherd

3 Nephi 11

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The focal point (or, global maximum, if you will) of the Book of Mormon starts in 3 Nephi 11 when Christ appears to some of the survivors of the destruction that occurred after His death. I was struck by what Christ told those who were there. Here He was coming to some of His chosen people after His resurrection; He could tell them anything so what He first taught the people must be supremely important. So what did Christ teach? What did Christ do?

  1. He testified of Himself and His mission and that many prophets testified of Him (see verses 10-11). With this He not only stated the importance of His mission but also the missions of all the prophets before (and after) Him.
  2. He testified of the Father and that all Christ did was His Father’s will (see verse 11). This is His humility in reiterating the supremacy of the Father.
  3. Christ commanded those present to feel the wounds in His hands, feet, and side so that they would have a solid witness of His reality (see verses 14-17).
  4. The Savior then gave unto Nephi power to baptize (see verse 21). Nephi possibly already had this priesthood authority but at this time he was called as an apostle of the Lord (and made chief apostle). Jesus then called others as apostles, giving them authority to baptize (see verse 22).
  5. Jesus condemned disputations among the people, particularly about doctrine or ordinances (see verse 22). He also taught other important doctrines – repentance (and implied faith; see verse 23).
  6. Implicit in Christ’s call to the apostles was their role as missionaries (see verse 23).
  7. Christ then gives the words of the baptismal prayer, one of the few set ordinance prayers we have in the LDS Church (although the modern baptismal prayer is slightly altered). He also makes it clear that baptism is by immersion. Once again, with this the Savior reinforces the importance of baptism for salvation but also the importance of strict adherence to the ordinance of baptism (see verses 23-26).
  8. In the context of baptism and the baptismal prayer (performing the ordinance in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), the Savior teaches of the oneness of the Godhead (see verse 27).
  9. After this, the Lord Jesus Christ once again condemns disputations and contentions, particularly over doctrines and ordinances of the gospel (see verses 28-30). The Savior spends what amounts to three verses about the evils of contentions. He will shortly teach the people that peacemakers are blessed. Now, I do not believe the Savior was calling for pacifism at all costs but He wanted to make sure that people did not argue and fight one with another. How can a Zion society exist if people fight one with another? The Savior’s stressing of the evils of contention is one of the reasons there was many years of peace following Christ’s visit and brief ministry among the Nephites.
  10. Christ then moves into summarizing His doctrine (verses 31-40).
    1. The spirit of prophecy and testimony (verse 32), particularly how the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost testate of and for one another.
    2. Have faith in Christ (verse 32).
    3. Be baptized in the name of Christ (verse 32).
    4. Faith and baptism and repentance are necessary for salvation and for returning to dwell with the Father (verses 33, 37, & 38).
    5. There are consequences for willfully not believing in Christ and following Him (verse 34).
    6. Those who have faith in Christ will be blessed with the Holy Ghost (verse 35).
    7. It is important to have your foundation upon the doctrine of Christ. Any who seek to go beyond His doctrine to add or take away from it are cursed (verses 39-40).
  11. Missionary work is essential (verse 41).

I want to interject that anything after verse 18 was directed to Nephi and the apostles, Christ spent little time directly teaching the people at this point. He spent individual time with them but then left the bulk of the teaching to His anointed servants. This is an important point. Of the recorded words and actions we have of the Savior’s first hours in visiting with the Nephites, He taught the people little before calling His apostles and making sure they knew that they had primary responsibilities for teaching His doctrine and performing His ordinances. This mirrors what Christ did during His mortal ministry – He first called His apostles and then started teaching. The foundation of prophets and apostles is key.

While there are more lessons to be gleaned from this chapter, I thought it an interesting exercise to focus on what Christ and did in the first few hours of His visit. I want to re-stress the fact that Christ took time at the start of His visit to visit with each individual. The Savior is focused on people, on individuals. He knows all our names and knows each of us individually. Our task is to know and follow Him.

Chronic Pain

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Here are brief and powerful words of wisdom from Pres. Boyd K. Packer about not needlessly suffering through chronic pain of sin:

“Guilt is spiritual pain. Do not suffer from chronic pain. Get rid of it. Be done with it. Repent and, if necessary, repent again and again and again and again until you—not the enemy—are in charge of you.” (Packer, How to survive in enemy territory, Ensign, October 2012).

Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, and Naked

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14 And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;

15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue [from the Greek vomit] thee out of my mouth.

17 Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked:

18 I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.

19 As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.

20 Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

21 To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.

22 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches. (Rev. 3:14-22).

John covered a lot of doctrine in these verses. I want to focus mainly on verses 17 and 18: “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see.”

The church members in Laodicea were prideful. They believed they were wealthy because they had worldly riches. They are oblivious to the fact that they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. How can they [we] not know that they are wretched?

The prophet Alma taught his son: “Do not suppose, because it has been spoken concerning restoration, that ye shall be restored from sin to happiness. Behold, I say unto you, wickedness never was happiness. And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; they are without God in the world, and they have gone contrary to the nature of God; therefore, they are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness.” (Alma 41:10-11).

When we are doing things that are contrary to the nature of God, when we are not striving to like a godly life, we are in a state contrary to the nature of happiness. We cannot be happy, at least not truly happy. It is simply not possible. Now, we might lack insight about our unhappiness but we, in our sinful states, are unhappy all the same. The converse of this is not true – not all sorrow or unhappiness or depression is caused by sin – but if we believe the scriptures, we know that those who sin (particularly if they are not sinning in ignorance) are living in a state contrary to the nature of happiness and are wretched and miserable.

What does all this have to do with the Laodiceans and their worldly wealth? The prophet Moroni watched his civilization crumble because of wickedness. He watched culture and religion decay into wildness and anarchy. Why did this happen? Pride. “And I know that ye do walk in the pride of your hearts; and there are none save a few only who do not lift themselves up in the pride of their hearts, unto the wearing of very fine apparel, unto envying, and strifes, and malice, and persecutions, and all manner of iniquities; and your churches, yea, even every one, have become polluted because of the pride of your hearts. For behold, ye do love money, and your substance, and your fine apparel, and the adorning of your churches, more than ye love the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” (Moroni 8:36-37).

We learn in the New Testament a similar connection between pride, money, and wickedness: “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness.” (1 Timothy 6:10-11).

The cure for this cancer of pride and wickedness is to flee from the love of money. We must flee from pride just as Joseph fled from Potipher’s wife. We do not just run away, we run towards Christ and His Atonement; we run from evil towards good. That is the only way to avoid being “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” even if we have worldly wealth. Sin blinds us to our condition. We, as I wrote earlier, in our sinful states do not realize that we are blind. We follow blind guides instead of reaching for Christ, who can heal our blindness. Those who repent, those who follow Christ will overcome the world just as He overcame the world. Those who are righteous will be able to sit with Christ in His throne, which is His Father’s throne. Those who overcome can become like Christ and inherit what He has inherited. Do we sell this eternal inheritance for a worldly bauble? Do we give up a throne for a minute of amusement?  The only true and happy way is through Christ.

Arising from darkness – the miracle of forgiveness

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This is the talk (with very slight modifications) I gave in Sacrament Meeting today. Much of it is found in other posts on this blog but I edited, arranged, and added the material. It was an almost 30 minute talk (I’m grateful I had prepared enough material, although I had plenty of backup prepared as well that I did not have the use).

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

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

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

Even in times of our own suffering we can help heal others. In the days before Allison’s funeral, my sister and her husband took time to visit and comfort the boy who was driving the car. Allison died because of his mistake but he was going to have to live with her death. They wanted to let him know that they forgave him for what happened. “There was hurt but no hate.” (Faust, April 2007 General Conference). They exemplified one of the greatest miracles in life – the gift of forgiveness. This is a gift given to us by Christ and one we can give to others. Those who Pres. Lee said are “sick in soul and spirit and downhearted and distraught” might be aching for one thing from us – the healing that comes from us offering the gift of forgiveness.

We are approaching the time when we celebrate Christ’s birth. As Christmas day nears some of us might be worried about getting presents planned, organized, finished, purchased, packed, wrapped, and shipped. We might wonder how we are going to pay for presents. In this bustle it can be easy to feel overwhelmed; it can be easy to forget that the greatest gifts are gifts of ourselves. Whether we can afford to buy and give expensive presents or not, we can all afford to give one gift – the gift of forgiveness. We can forgive others for any real or perceived wrongs they did to us or loved ones and in turn we can be forgiven by God.

Pres. Henry B. Eyring said of forgiveness,

“Many of us have lost loved ones to death. We may be surrounded by individuals who seek to destroy our faith in the gospel and the Lord’s promises of eternal life. Some of us are troubled with illness and with poverty. Others may have contention in the family or no family at all. Yet we can invite the Light of Christ to shine on us and let us see and feel some of the promised joys that lie before us…. [Christ] came into the world to be the Lamb of God, to pay the price of all of the sins of His Father’s children in mortality so that all might be forgiven. 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 [time] you can give and receive the gift of forgiveness.” (Ensign, December 2009).

Some people are quick to forgive others. There is a story of told of George Albert Smith, who was president of the church from 1945 to 1951. 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 called the mayor of Salt Lake City and said, ‘What kind of city are you running? [I want] that blanket back.’ Or he could have called the chief of police and said the same thing. Or he might have said to the guard, probably a Latter-day Saint, ‘Are you blind?’ [Instead], 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.’” (Madsen, Presidents of the Church, p.224).

Now that is forgiveness! Pres. Smith’s response showed his forgiveness and love for others, especially those who wronged him. We are commanded to forgive one another in part because the Lord is so willing to forgive us; we need to follow His example. “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). My sister and her family were able to forgive the young man who struck Allison. 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. It also does not mean that we cannot seek appropriate recompense when necessary, but we should always forgive. There is little more damaging to a person than the festering disease of an unforgiving heart. When we refuse to forgive others, we give them control over us; we let others determine our happiness. In our unforgiving, we do more harm to ourselves than to those whom we do not forgive. While we need to forgive others, sometimes that forgiveness needs to be directed inwardly.

Elder Holland stated: “There is something in us, at least in too many of us, that particularly fails to forgive and forget earlier mistakes in life—either mistakes we ourselves have made or the mistakes of others. That is not good. It is not Christian. It stands in terrible opposition to the grandeur and majesty of the Atonement of Christ. To be tied to earlier mistakes—our own or other people’s—is the worst kind of wallowing in the past from which we are called to cease and desist….”

“When something is over and done with, when it has been repented of as fully as it can be repented of, when life has moved on as it should and a lot of other wonderfully good things have happened since then, it is not right to go back and open up some ancient wound that the Son of God Himself died trying to heal….”

“Faith is for the future. Faith builds on the past but never longs to stay there. Faith trusts that God has great things in store for each of us and that Christ truly is the ‘high priest of good things to come.’” (Remember Lot’s Wife)

Forgiveness is such an central principle and commandment that when Jesus taught His disciples how to pray He included the following phrase: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Again, the lesson is that we are required to forgive others if we want to be forgiven. After Jesus ended His prayer He said, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:14-15). That seems like a strong case for the importance of forgiving others! It is a simple condition for forgiveness – forgive others to have our sins forgiven. There can be more to being forgiven, but forgiving others is a necessary step.

Others might wrong us but sometimes we are the ones who have wronged others. In these instances we must ask for forgiveness and repent. There is a story of a man who snapped in anger at his children. They started to cry. Realizing his error, he went to their room and asked for forgiveness. They quickly jumped into his arms and kissed him, forgiving him for any wrong. This man stated:

“I learned a lot of lessons from that. But the one that sticks with me the most, because I’m a father, is that it’s a father’s job to repent first. That’s what is means to me to be a father – to be the first one to repent and heal the relationship. My children were anxious and willing to forgive and be friends with me. But I had to start it. It seems to me that that’s the way relationships are healed. It’s no more complicated than that. It may take longer in some cases, but there isn’t much more to it than simply yielding your heart to what you know is the truth and saying, ‘I’m sorry.’” (Warner, Bonds that make us free, p. 261).

I’ve made my share of mistakes in parenting. Parenting is hard work; it takes effort and patience. But it also takes more than that; it takes love and selflessness. As a parent it is especially important to be the first one to repent and ask for forgiveness. Repentance is often a necessary step to forgiveness.

Forgiveness is precisely what Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection were about. 2000 years ago a baby was born in humble circumstances. His birth came without much earthly adulation but the heavens were resplendent with signs and wonders for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Angels appeared to shepherds, wise men followed a gleaming star, and the righteous and wicked alike went without night in the New World. That tiny baby was the Son of God – the Creator and Lord of heaven and earth. He who showed his spirit body to the brother of Jared now had a body of flesh. He who will return as Christ the Conquering King came first as a lowly Babe in Bethlehem. There is little we know about His early life; we do know Jesus was born in Bethlehem, dwelt in Egypt, and grew up in Nazareth. He was visited by wise men some time in his first few years of life. He grew up learning from Joseph and Mary. At age 12 He spent time teaching the priests in the temple – they marveled at His knowledge: How does the son of a carpenter, a 12 year old boy know so much about the scriptures?! At age 30 Jesus started His ministry full-time. Over the next three years He lived without a home, spending most of His days walking the dusty roads of Galilee and Jerusalem. He called men to be apostles. He taught, healed, and performed many miracles. The greatest miracles He performed were forgiving sin. Jesus then instituted the sacrament, atoned for all the sins, sicknesses, and pain of humankind, stood trial, and died upon the cross. But that was not the end! On the 3rd day Jesus rose from the dead, bringing everlasting life to all people. He rose triumphant from the grave, victorious over death and hell.

Jesus accomplished all this to bring the possibility of eternal life to humankind. He did this because He loves us. Because of this love and His 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 to 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).

We can be forgiven but sometimes before we repent the darkness of sin can be overwhelming. We might cry out with the fearful sailor:

It darkens. I have lost the ford.

There is a change on all things made.

The rocks have evil faces, Lord,

And I am [sore] afraid. (Source).

Sin leads to a hellish darkness of separation from God – poignant and painful – a pain that feels endless. This separation from God is spiritual death. However, there is help available there is a way that we can be born anew, free from this type of death. This help comes through faith in Christ’s Atonement and through repentance. These are like radiant rays of the sun bursting through the dark clouds that burn away the dreary mists of life. Through Christ’s suffering, we are provided solace for sin. Jesus is our song in the darkness of night. He is our pillar of fire. He stabilizes the rudderless and calms the stormy seas of sin. This is the true miracle of forgiveness – that the turmoil of our suffering can turn to peace.

Alma, the great Book of Mormon prophet, shared his experience in overcoming his sins. He rebelled in his youth; he led people away from the church and from God. His family prayed and fasted for him and through a great miracle, he was able to repent of his sins. He described his repentance to his son:

“13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities…I saw that I had rebelled against my God…

16 And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:13,16-20).

This light and joy from Christ can replace the darkness and sorrow. The Lord is willing to forgive us as we repent. Alma did some terrible things but he was able to repent.

Elder Holland said recently, “Whoever you are and whatever you have done, you can be forgiven. Every one of you…can leave behind any transgression with which you may struggle. It is the miracle of forgiveness; it is the miracle of the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ. But you cannot do it without an active commitment to the gospel, and you cannot do it without repentance where it is needed.” (Holland, Oct. 2011 General Conference). I testify that this is true. I’ve been blessed with the miracle of forgiveness in my life; I’ve seen this miracle work wonders in the lives of others. One of Satan’s most insidious lies is that we are not good enough to repent; that we could never be forgiven. We are good enough and we can be forgiven. The miracle of forgiveness is a manifestation of Christ’s mercy.

In what is one of the most moving descriptions of the Lord’s mercy, the prophet Micah described the Lord’s feelings for the House of Israel – for all of us. Micah expressed his hope for redemption; he said: “Therefore I will look unto the Lord; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me. Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me: he will bring me forth to the light, and I shall behold his righteousness” (Micah 7:7-9). The Savior pleads our cause. He is our court-appointed defense; what better defense can we have than someone who truly, completely, and perfectly understands and loves us? Christ can bring us out of darkness into the light. Micah later continues with another moving and loving description of the Lord: “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19). The Lord executes justice but he delights in mercy and is compassionate. He loves each of us dearly.

The Savior’s life was filled with many acts of mercy. He gave sight to the blind; He cured all manners of infirmities; He cast out devils; He took time to bless children even when He was tired and hungry; He brought the dead to life. However, His greatest act of mercy was the Atonement. “And he cometh into the world that he may save all men if they will hearken unto his voice; for behold, he suffereth the pains of all men, yea, the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children, who belong to the family of Adam. And he suffereth this that the resurrection might pass upon all men, that all might stand before him at the great and judgment day” (2 Ne. 9:21-22). This single act made it possible for all to live again and for all to receive forgiveness of sins as they repent and have faith in the Lord. The way is prepared. “Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (2 Ne. 9:50). The Savior’s mercy, His forgiveness, is offered freely to us as we repent.

As we repent, the Lord’s Spirit cleanses us and the Savior’s Atonement sanctifies us. The great prophet Enoch was taught these truths: “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” (Moses 6:59-60).

This is a three part path to sanctification. First, when we sin, we need to repent. An important part of that process is baptism. Second, through confirmation and the re-confirmation that comes when the Holy Ghost burns in our hearts, we can have our sins forgiven; we are absolved of guilt and brought back into alignment – we are justified – with Christ. Lastly comes the greatest miracle – through the blood of Christ we can be sanctified. This means we are not only forgiven, it means that our very nature is changed so that we no longer have desires to do wrong. It means that we become holy as God is holy.

I have been speaking about our need to forgive others as well as our need for forgiveness. In a hymn we learn more about forgiveness.

“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.” (As Now We Take the Sacrament)

“Forgiveness is a gift” from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. It is Jesus’ gift to each of us as we repent. Forgiveness is the gift that each of us, no matter how rich or poor we may be, can afford to give to others. No matter who we are or what we own, forgiveness is the greatest gift we can receive. None of us can return to or Father without the Savior’s mercy.

Mercy is a major component of forgiveness. In order to receive mercy, we must be merciful. We are commanded to be merciful: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Mercy is a beautiful doctrine but one eternal principle seems at odds with mercy – justice. Justice and mercy are usually mentioned together even though many times they seem like they are mutually exclusive of each other. On the surface, it does not seem possible for someone to be both just and merciful.

In the book of Alma we find one of the clearest descriptions of the interplay between justice and mercy. We learn that justice must be served – it is an eternal law that cannot be broken: “Now the work of justice could not be destroyed; if so, God would cease to be God…. Do ye suppose that mercy can rob justice? I say unto you, Nay; not one whit. If so, God would cease to be God.” (Alma 42:13,25). However, we know that God is both just and merciful. Justice must be fulfilled but God provided a way for justice and mercy to be served: “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15). The Great Lawgiver, even the Lord Jesus Christ, offered himself as a merciful sacrifice so that justice would be fulfilled. The great Book of Mormon teacher, Jacob, younger brother to Nephi, called the Plan of Salvation the “merciful plan of the great Creator” (2 Ne. 9:6). The Plan of Salvation is a Plan of Mercy.

Mercy is such an important principle that it is one of the main messages of the Book of Mormon. In the first chapter of the first book in the Book of Mormon Nephi writes, “Behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Ne. 1:20). Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. Lehi had had a vision and started preaching the impending destruction of Jerusalem. It was not a popular message. However, the Lord was mindful of Lehi and his family. Lehi had a special calling to leave Jerusalem and work his way to a promised land. That is the Lord’s mercy; He delivered Lehi’s family from destruction. Their path was not easy but the Lord was merciful. Nephi explained how to obtain mercy – simply have faith in the Lord. The Lord has merciful feelings for all people. However, He can only be as merciful as people allow Him to be: “Thus doth the Lord work with his power in all cases among the children of men, extending the arm of mercy towards them that put their trust in him” (Mosiah 29:20). He cannot fully bless us with His mercy if we do not have faith in Him and if we do not pull all our trust in Him. To receive a fullness of mercy we must repent of our sins.

We can trace the Lord’s mercy throughout the Book of Mormon as people are freed from bondage – physical and spiritual. Even though much of the tone of the Book of Mormon is negative – it is after all, a chronicle of civilizations that destroyed themselves – there is always the underlying message of hope and mercy that things will work out in the end. This is the message for our lives – there is repentance and forgiveness. There is mercy to be found. This is a promise given to those who return to live with God again. This is one of the great miracles in life – that we can be forgiven of our sins and be able to return to live with God. Heavenly Father is willing to forgive us because He loves us. As we repent, we can have the pain and hurt of sin washed from our wounded hearts. We can be made whole and pure.

Forgiveness is a precious gift we must give others and one that we can receive ourselves. It can be a gift of peace to others and a blessing of joy to ourselves.

Ephesians 2

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Chapter 2 in Ephesians is full of powerful doctrine. There is more than I can cover without turning this post into a casserole of Utah proportions (this is simply a reference to the popularity of casseroles in Utah – they are usually simple to prepare and can feed a lot of people, so they are useful for church functions).

Paul (we assume Paul wrote this epistle) talks about Christ’s role as Reconciler. He redeems us from our fallen state: “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off were made nigh by the blood of Christ.” (Eph. 2:13). When we are fallen or when we are not part of Christ’s covenant people (i.e., Gentiles), we are strangers. We are separated from the flock. Christ’s blood brings us near, it removes the title of stranger, adding the title of fellow citizen with the saints: “Now therefor ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” (Eph. 2:19).

That is an important thing to keep in mind – that we (members of the Church) are of the household of God. Who are household members? They are family (this is one reason why in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we call each other “brother” and “sister” {we are also all spirit brothers and sisters}). So we, through the blood of Christ, become sons and daughters of God. We all are spiritually but through sin – none of us is perfect – we suffer spiritual death. Christ’s Atonement gives us life as we repent, which is how we accept His redemption. Repentance is more than just a verbal and spiritual acknowledgment, it involves real contrition; it also involves ordinances – baptism and confirmation and the sacrament. Through Christ’s Atonement we can be adopted back into God’s family. What does it mean to be a son or daughter? It means that we have the potential of the parent.

Now we get to another interesting verse. Those who are saved by Christ, who are now fellow citizens with the saints (meaning those who have joined Christ’s church)  “are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together growth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2:20-21). So those in Christ’s church (again, this is anyone who is redeemed – which is a process, it’s not a one-time event – by the blood of Christ) must be built upon a foundation of the apostles and prophets. Some might believe that Christ gave us the original apostles and they were enough, however, Judas Iscariot was replaced and Saul/Paul was later called as an apostle so clearly there was a pattern established to have new apostles called when needed. Paul also stated: “And he [Christ] gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-13). These are things that have not happened yet – a unity of the faith; knowledge of the Son of God unto a perfect man. We still have a lot of work to do until we reach those goals. What this means is that apostles, prophets, evangelists (called Patriarchs in the LDS Church), pastors (we in the LDS Church use the term “Bishop” but the role is the same), and teachers all should be part of Christ’s church. So our foundation as members of Christ’s household is upon prophets and apostles. We need them to guide us and to help perfect the saints and perform the work of the ministry. They are our sure foundation with Christ as the Chief Cornerstone. Christ is the chief prophet and apostle; He is more than prophet and apostle, of course, but those callings are His to bestow on others.

Thus, Christ’s church has to have prophets and apostles. His church is the “building fitly framed” in which the saints dwell (in this case Christ’s church is not restricted to an earthly institution, it includes His organization in Heaven. So when we as a church – when we as members of the church – are truly saved by Christ’s blood, we can become sanctified as a holy temple in the Lord. This sanctification is the process that truly lifts us to God as His sons and daughters. This process is only possible through Christ’s redeeming blood.

A Wilderness of Sin

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I’ve written this before but I love Truman G. Madsen’s talks and books and videos. You probably don’t want to get me started talking about them or else I might not stop for a long time. I, like so many other people, first discovered him while I was a missionary. I heard his talks about Joseph Smith. I purchased his Timeless Questions, Gospel Insights talks. I purchased his audio biographies of the Presidents of the Church. By now I’ve listened to just about every recorded talk of his out there. I even once had the privilege of attending one of his talks at BYU; I wasn’t going to miss it for the world and I didn’t.

I’ve been listening to some of his BYU addresses again. I’m always struck at his insights into the gospel. There are very few people who have his mix of speaking abilities, knowledge, intellect, and faith. One thing he said in his talk The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength was striking.

Whatever diminishes our relish for spiritual things, whatever we cannot consistently invite the Spirit to attend, is not for us. Sin and selfishness are furtive, they are half-hearted, and they are self-dividing. But Christ’s way is whole-hearted, and the wholeness becomes holiness. Sin cannot sing. The music of sin is a dirge. It is a wilderness crying in a voice. But Christ’s way is song–a new song, a lifting song. Sin loves darkness and covers up. It is darkening. But Christ’s way is light. And light cleaves to light. Sin and the defiant defense of sin is ugly. Christ’s way is beautiful. And everlastingly so. There is no joy in iniquity and, contrary to the world, there is no joy in inequity. We are promised that one day, should we be faithful, we will be equal in heavenly things and even ultimately in earthly things.

That’s some amazing imagery and word play. It’s even more impressive if you know that he speaks extemporaneously. I really love the line about sin being “a wilderness crying in a voice.” Truman Madsen’s phrase is a reference to Isaiah 40:3: “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.” That verse is quoted or alluded to a number of other times in the scriptures. It is a reference to John the Baptist, who cried as a voice in the wilderness preparing the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. What did John teach? Repentance and baptism.

So Truman Madsen’s calling sin a “wilderness crying in a voice” is a very fitting reversal of a reference to John the Baptist and thus to repentance and baptism. The solution for sin is repentance and baptism. That’s an entire sermon in a sentence.

There’s more but I’ll let you read the rest of his talk(s). Or, better yet, listen to them.

Pres. Packer’s Conference Address – Misconstrued by LGBT Groups

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At General Conference Pres. Packer gave an excellent talk about repentance and the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Pres. Packer talked about how faith, repentance, and the Priesthood can help overcome temptations and sin.

At one point in his talk Pres. Packer said the following (what he said in Conference appears italicized and bolded, what was published as the official text is in brackets). I’ll quote at length because context is important:

“We teach a standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes or counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. From the Book of Mormon we learn that ‘wickedness never was happiness.’ Some suppose that they were preset and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies [changed to temptations in the printed version] toward the impure and unnatural. Not so! Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, He is our Father. [Changed to “Remember, God is our Heavenly Father.”]

“Paul promised that ‘God . . . will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.’ You can, if you will, break the habits and conquer an addiction and come away from that which is not worthy of any member of the Church. As Alma cautioned, we must ‘watch and pray continually.’ Isaiah warned, ‘Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!’

“Years ago I visited a school in Albuquerque. The teacher told me about a youngster who brought a kitten to class. As you can imagine, that disrupted everything. She had him hold the kitten up in front of the children. It went well until one of the children asked, ‘Is it a boy kitty or a girl kitty?’ Not wanting to get into that lesson, the teacher said, ‘It doesn’t matter. It’s just a kitty.’ But they persisted. Finally, one boy raised his hand and said, ‘I know how you can tell.’ Resigned to face it, the teacher said, ‘How can you tell?’ And the student answered, ‘You can vote on it!’

“You may laugh at this story, but if we are not alert, there are those today who not only tolerate but advocate voting to change laws that would legalize immorality, as if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God’s laws and nature. A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. For instance, what good would a vote against the law of gravity do? There are both moral and physical laws ‘irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world’ that cannot be changed. History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that will follow as surely as night follows day.

“Regardless of the opposition, we are determined to stay on course. We will hold to the principles and laws and ordinances of the gospel. If they are misunderstood either innocently or willfully, so be it. We cannot change; we will not change the moral standard. We quickly lose our way when we disobey the laws of God. If we do not protect and foster the family, civilization and our liberties must needs perish.” (Source: links to watch or listen to the {unedited} talk are on the right side of the page).

Following his talk, some within the gay community took issue with his words and called them hateful (see this article, for example). Others heard in his words a call to violence against gays. There is no violence or hate in Pres. Packer’s words or intent. You cannot take the 15 words he said out of the context of the entire talk (which is 2422 words long – so, people are getting upset over 0.62% of his talk! I know the issue is not that simple but critics are quite myopic about his talk). If you want to know what the real message and tone of his talk, read the following selection from his talk:

“President Joseph Fielding Smith told me of a repentant woman struggling to find her way out of a very immoral life. She asked him what she should do now. In turn, he asked her to read to him from the Old Testament the account of Lot’s wife, who was turned to a pillar of salt. Then he asked her, ‘What lesson do you gain from those verses?’ She answered, ‘The Lord will destroy the wicked.’ ‘Not so!’ President Smith said that the lesson for this repentant woman and for you is ‘Don’t look back!'”

His message isn’t that the wicked will be destroyed, it is that we can repent and change and be forgiven. We all have access to the grace of God. His message is that God loves us and wants us to be happy but happiness is not found in wickedness.

Some people heaped on more criticisms when the text published online was different from what was given in Conference, as if Pres. Packer was back-pedaling from his comments (although, LGBT groups are still upset that he called homosexual tendencies/temptations {in context there is no significant difference between the words} “unnatural and impure”. They also do not like it when church leaders call homosexual behavior sinful and wickedness, which it is; I know some people might object and say that my statement begs the question but I believe in the moral standards that God has set for us. I believe that homosexual behaviors are sinful but that the feelings or tendencies or temptations are not sinful).

It has been standard church practice for many years to allow the speakers at General Conference to make minor edits to their talks before the text is published (sometimes what is said deviates from what was prepared and so in Pres. Packer’s case, the removal of a phrase might simply be bringing his talk back to what he originally wrote). That is not something the church just started to try and cover up Pres. Packer’s words. Besides, the changes to the text do not change the tone or message of his talk.

For example, saying “temptation” instead of “tendency” is simply a code shift from a secular word to a gospel word. The meaning is the same within a religious application. In other words, the operational definition of “tendency” in Pres. Packer’s talk is synonymous with “temptation.” Again, the context is important.

As I stated earlier, the minor changes to the text are not enough (and were not meant to) quiet critics. The Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, stated:

“You have risked further alienating LGBT youth and potentially contributing to suicides of even more vulnerable young people. You’ve told them that their very identities are ‘impure and unnatural’ and you’ve incited the violence and bullying that often drives them to suicide… I hope you will cease putting young people in real peril and acknowledge the scientific truth: sexual orientation cannot be changed, nor should it be.”

Can any honest person read (watch/listen to) what Pres. Packer said and come to the conclusion that Pres. Packer was “[inciting] the violence and bullying that often drives [LGBT youth] to suicide”? To state that is disingenuous and creating harmful intent where none was intended. That statement reminds me of what the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in the Wentworth Letter: “The Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church 4:540; emphasis added). Another word for calumny is libel, which is essentially what the Human Rights Campaign created against Pres. Packer.

To clarify my point further, I’ll provide an imperfect analogy. Let’s say someone says in a public meeting that she likes fast cars. The group People Against Driving Really Fast (I made them up) then puts out a press release saying, “Ms. Public told kids to drive cars really fast at unsafe speeds. She’s responsible for deaths due to reckless driving behavior.” That’s an outrageous misconstrual of what was originally said and intended. My example, while not perfect, is similar to what LGBT groups have done with Pres. Packer’s words.

If you want to understand the LDS Church’s official position towards those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, read this statement from the Church. Of note is this paragraph: “We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different – whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason.  Such actions simply have no place in our society.”

Now moving on to online reactions. I read comments by some people online that those of us who support what Pres. Packer said should show the scientific proof that homosexual tendencies can be changed. That is not an entirely fair request because it assumes that the burden of proof lies with those who believe that homosexual behaviors are sinful and should not be indulged in. In reality, there is at least an equal burden of proof due from the other side. The HRC said: “I hope you will cease putting young people in real peril and acknowledge the scientific truth: sexual orientation cannot be changed, nor should it be.” First, where is the proof that sexual orientation cannot be changed? That is a broad statement to make, especially when it has no scientific footing. I know there is some research showing that some methods (therapies) of changing sexual orientation are not effective but – and yes, I have done an exhaustive peer-reviewed literature search – there is no evidence that sexual orientation cannot be changed; the statement that sexual orientation should not be changed is a matter of opinion and not one of scientific inquiry (although, that does depend on how the matter is defined). Further, and I know this is anecdotal, but people can and do change their sexual orientations: from straight to gay, from gay to straight, and so forth. By the way, I don’t see many gay rights groups protesting changes from straight to gay; however, they will likely explain that the person was always gay so it wasn’t really a change, it was simply a flash of clarity and honesty or their environment became less hostile so they could “come out”. But again, that is making assumptions without good evidence.

Additionally, after reviewing the limited peer-reviewed research in the area, at best only 30% of the variance in homosexual behavior is explained by genetic (biological) factors. However, there might be some genetic factors that we don’t know about yet but based on what we know from science today, most homosexual behavior cannot be explained by biological factors. Also, I was being fairly generous with the 30% of variance figure because there are as many articles showing no genetic link as there are showing a genetic link with homosexuality. Let me know if you want the references; there are not very many studies that have been done in the area (one is this: Mustanski and Chivers. {2002}. A critical review of recent biological research on human sexual orientation. Annual Review of Sex Research). Further, there have not been replications of some of the key research linking sexual orientation with genes. In a 1995 review (published in the New England Journal of Medicine) of Dean Hamer’s Science of Desire book – where Hamer wrote about his research looking for a “gay gene” – Susan Bradley stated the following:

“Despite Hamer’s cautions, his use of the term ‘gay gene’ is somewhat misleading. We can relate to the need to find simple terminology to help the public understand this highly complex field, but the term implies more than Hamer’s work establishes. In this respect, the public and even the professional community have understandably overreacted to these findings as though they were proof of the biologic basis and with it the immutability of homosexuality.”

Granted, a book review is opinion but she is correct in cautioning people against jumping to conclusions based on misunderstandings of research, especially research findings that are tenuous at best and not reproduced. For anyone (regardless of their beliefs) to imply that the scientific evidence for or against the genetic (biological) basis of homosexuality is in any way settled is an expression of ignorance at best and malfeasance at worst. It is a controversial field of research with few (or no) solid conclusions.

However, and most importantly, Pres. Packer said the strength to overcome homosexual tendencies (temptations) comes through faith, repentance, the Priesthood, and the Atonement. How can you do a scientific study of that? Well, I know how to set such a study up but quantifying repentance is not an easy thing to do. I’d certainly be hesitant to try and conduct such a study and I love quantifying everything that I can quantify. So my question to gay rights groups is this, “where is the scientific evidence that proves (I’m using that word but it is not strictly accurate to state that by science can we prove anything) that faith, repentance, and the Atonement of Jesus Christ are not effective at changing sexual orientation?” After all, Pres. Packer spoke about changing behavior through the Atonement of Christ. Is that a fair question for me to ask? It’s just as fair as asking for evidence that sexual orientation can or cannot be changed. Again, those questions address the root causes of homosexuality and not the efficacy of some “therapies” that some have espoused as effective for changing homosexual behavior. Frankly, we do not know the root causes of homosexuality.

Homosexual behavior is wrong; it is sinful. Does that mean that someone who engages in it is bad or worthless? No! We are all children of our Heavenly Father who loves us. Regardless of our temptations or tendencies – be they pornography, lying, cheating, homosexuality, alcohol use, or whatever – we can overcome sin through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We can live the happier, purer life by following the commandments and the teachings of His living prophets and apostles. Pres. Packer is an apostle; he is a prophet (he is also human and imperfect) who speaks God’s words. The translations and transcriptions of those words are not always perfect, although they often are as close as is possible to being perfect. Pres. Packer made no statements that he or other church leaders have not said previously. He did not directly or indirectly incite violence towards homosexuals; he merely talked about the path that brings true and lasting happiness in this life and in the next – that of righteous living by faith in and repentance through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

[I have to apologize that my post did not flow particularly well. I didn’t have time to edit it and spend a lot of time on the organization and structure of it. So if it comes across as a little disjointed, it was due to a lack of editing on my part].