Joy and Faith

[Stake Conference, April 2019, General Session]

As this conference comes to a close, I would like to offer an encouraging word…

Men (and women) are that we might have joy.  Can we really have joy in this life?  Not very well if we think joy is the result of everything going perfectly (or nearly perfectly) in our lives.  Joy does not come from living the life that everybody else is trying say they live through their social media.  Joy does not come from being outwardly attractive or popular or financially successful.  It doesn’t come from being healthy, though we should strive to be healthy.  It doesn’t come from being good at something, though we should strive to be good at many good things.  It doesn’t come from serving in a particular calling, though we should all strive to serve well.  It doesn’t come from being righteous.

Where does joy come from?

Toward the end of King Benjamin’s sermon, his people humbly cry out for mercy and for the atonement of Christ to be applied to them.  Here is what happens next:

“the Spirit of the Lord came upon them, and they were filled with joy, having received a remission of their sins, and having peace of conscience, because of the exceeding faith which they had in Jesus Christ.”

From this story, joy is the result of knowing that our sins have been remitted, of having peace of conscience, and having faith in Jesus Christ.  King Benjamin later says to his people, “ye have known of his goodness and have tasted of his love, and have received a remission of your sins, which causeth such exceedingly great joy in your souls.”

On another occasion, Alma mentions three sets of opposites:  “good or evil, life or death, joy or—[its opposite]—remorse of conscience.”  Alma would understand this.  Of the height of his conversion, he said, “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy… and… there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was joy.”

How did he get to that joy?  Immediately before that joy came, he says,

“I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy … concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. 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.  And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more.”  And then he speaks of his joy.

His life didn’t become perfect. It was difficult.  He didn’t become perfect, I’m sure.  He probably disappointed himself, occasionally.  But I would bet you, based on what we know of him, that he retained his sense of joy which came to him because of his faith in the Savior and because he believed what the Savior had done for him.

I believe that too many of us are living with too little joy.  We are burdened by the challenges of life, by disappointments in ourselves, and by the struggles of our loved ones.  But that is not what causes us to miss out on joy.  We miss out on joy because we are slow to believe that the Savior has done for us what he has done for us.  And we can be slow to place our faith in him regarding loved ones and situations beyond our control.

We must accept what Jesus has done for us; accept that our sins have been remitted; loosen the death-grip we sometimes have on our guilt and self-loathing; and receive the gift of the Atonement.

Have you ever read the stories of Jesus healing a person and thought it would be wonderful if that had been you?  Think of the ten lepers who were healed; the woman with the issue of blood; Peter’s mother-in-law; blind men; Lazarus; Jairus’s daughter; all the diseased and disabled Nephites who were brought to him…

These healings were wonderful for the people who received them and their loved ones.  But Jesus’ mission was not to physically heal people.  There are millions of people before, during, and after the life of the Savior who have lived in miserable conditions and were not physically healed.  All the Savior’s physical healings were metaphors.

Jesus came so that all can be healed spiritually—that all can receive a remission of sins and, like Alma, have our guilt swept away.

He healed those people physically, so that you may know that he can heal you spiritually.  A leper was made whole so that you and I will understand that we can be made whole from even persistent sin.  He healed the Gentile woman so that you and I understand that his healing applies to all, including you and me.  He raised Lazarus and the son of the widow from Nain so that you and I understand that there isn’t anything he can’t overcome.

Why do we persist in believing that we are dirty?

When you were baptized, you received a remission of your sins.  Minutes later, you were confirmed and invited to receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost so that, upon condition of a broken heart and a striving to change and improve, we would, through that priceless gift, retain a remission of our sins.  Retaining a remission of our sins is not dependent on our changing.  It is dependent on our striving to change (which is largely what repentance is) and on our retaining faith in the Savior.

Remission of sins isn’t a one-time, momentary experience.  It is with us as long as our faith in the Savior is genuine and active.

In the temple, we receive blessings which, in more than one respect, are unspeakable.  Those were not one-time pleasant moments.  Actually receiving those blessings now (including promises of some blessings that will be realized in the future) is where joy comes from.  All based on the Savior and our connection to him.

The Anti-Nephi-Lehies testified that God had “taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the merits of his Son.”

We have to ask ourselves this question:  In which do I place the greatest faith:  my failings or the Savior’s success; my imperfection or his perfection; my guilt or his forgiveness?  My failings, my imperfections, and my sins are absolute realities.  But all of them are weaker than the Savior’s success.  Otherwise, he would not have healed Lazarus.  Nor would he have declared to the paralytic—straight in the face of those who opposed him—“thy sins be forgiven thee.”  He didn’t do that just for Lazarus or just for the sick man.  He did it for you.  Joy is yours if you believe him.

Sometimes, people accuse members of the Church of Jesus Christ of not being Christian.  In those moments when we hold more tightly to our guilt and self-loathing than to the Savior’s forgiveness, they might be right.

Let’s remind ourselves for a few minutes of one of the great stories from Jesus’ life and teachings. There is great joy for all who believe it.

It is the story of two actual people who are opposites and it is also involves a parable.

Jesus accepts an invitation to eat with a Pharisee named Simon—in Simon’s home.  An unnamed woman is also there.  She is only identified as a sinner—by Simon—though Jesus also acknowledges this.

During the meal, the woman weeps, washes Jesus’s feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses his feet, and applies an ointment to them.  Simon is disgusted that Jesus permits this.  Jesus perceives Simon’s thoughts and says these tender, ominous words, “Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee.”  And then he tells this parable:

“There was a certain creditor which had two debtors:  the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty.  And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both.”

Please note the point in the story at which the creditor (God) forgives the debtors (us).  It is when they accept and acknowledge that they have nothing to pay, which indicates that their hearts had become truly broken and their spirits contrite.  When we hold fast to the idea that we must be righteous in order to qualify for heaven, we are believing that we have something to pay.  That belief keeps us from joy.

Jesus then asks:

“Which of them will love him most?  Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most.  And [Jesus] said unto him, Thou hast rightly said.”

We can take from this that the more we recognize our dependence on the Savior, the more we will receive forgiveness and the more we will love Him.

Jesus then turns to the woman, but speaks to Simon:

“Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.”

And here it comes:

“Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.  And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.”

Why were her sins forgiven?  Because she loved the Lord, acknowledged her inability to save herself, acknowledged his ability to save her, and had a broken heart and a contrite spirit.

Why did Jesus not declare Simon’s sins forgiven?  Because his heart was hard.  He failed to express love for the Savior.  And he believed more in his own righteousness than in the Savior’s ability to remedy an inability to pay.

Brothers and Sisters, our outward acts of righteousness will do very little for us.

On the other hand, a love for God, genuine humility before him, and our sincerely striving to follow him will enable him to do everything for us.

Am I saying that we don’t have to succeed in our efforts to follow the Savior?  If that’s a yes/no question, then, yes, that’s what I’m saying.

Am I saying that we don’t have to humbly, sincerely strive with all our best efforts to keep the commandments, keep our covenants, and follow the Savior?  No.  We must strive.  Enduring to the end in faithful effort is part of the deal.  We must be deeply sincere in our efforts.  We must recognize our failures and shortcomings.  We must experience Godly Sorrow—frequently if not constantly.  Repentance must be our way of life.

The scriptures say that if we follow God and keep the commandments, we will prosper.  Is that true?  Absolutely.  If we do so with a humble dependence on him and a willingness to accept the realities of the Atonement, we will experience peace of conscience and joy.  Will I be exempt from cancer or from job loss or from the illness of a child or from a child’s painful choices?  Of course not.  The greatest, joyful prosperity comes in our hearts and minds through our faith in the Savior.  Will we prosper temporally?  Yes, to the extent that we follow principles of self reliance and it is the will of God.  Even the righteous eventually get sick and die.

Nephi said, “I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell.”

That we may glory in Jesus, exercise faith in him (and not merely belief), and experience the joy of having our guilt swept away in Him is my prayer for every member of our stake.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Thou Shalt Love the Lord Thy God

[Stake Conference, April 2019, Adult Session]

During the last week of the Savior’s life, the various groups opposing Jesus were desperate to entrap him, so they peppered him with questions they hoped would embarrass him.  Famously (or infamously), a man described as a pharisee, a scribe, and a lawyer asked the Savior to identify “the great commandment in the law.”  Jesus answered by quoting one of the most important passages of all scripture, known to Jews as the Shema, which says, in part (see Deut. 6), this:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:

5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

Jesus called this “the first and great commandment” and said that the entire Law of Moses comes from the two commandments to love God and to love each other.

The Shema continues with one of the most important early references to home-centered study and learning:

6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

Lastly, Moses continues with these words, which some Jews practice literally.  We don’t, but we should consider the tremendous emphasis they add to the great commandment:

8 And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes.

9 And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Let me repeat here the key words from this critical teaching:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord:

5 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:

What does it mean to love God?

The “first and great commandment” is to love God entirely.  What does it mean to love?

The dictionary definition that makes most sense to me in this context is “to be devoted to.”  We are to be wholly devoted to God.  That devotion should fill our hearts and our souls and efforts.

But what about the feeling of love?  Is love also a feeling?

That may be tough at times.  Devotion and commitment are choices.  I can be devoted to God and love him in that sense entirely according to my own choices.  Feelings, though, are hard to choose.  They tend to be more the result of things both inside and outside us.  The ideal feelings toward God may include things like profound gratitude and reverence.

I believe that those feelings result most from our knowledge and understanding of who God is and what He has done and does now and will yet do for us.  They result from knowing how He feels about us and about the sacrifices He has made on our behalf, highlighted by the Atonement.  They come from understanding something about his perfect attributes of mercy and generosity and patience and compassion.

Can we love God with all our heart, soul, and might if we don’t feel the feeling of love in our hearts?  Yes, we can in the sense of being devoted to him and choosing him and following through on that choice.  We can also strive to know and understand him better, which will build our appreciation for him and facilitate the feelings of love.

Here is kind of a strange-sounding thing you might try sometime.  I don’t do it very often, but on rare occasion I have.  Try saying your evening or morning personal prayer without using words.  Instead of talking to God, which is how we should usually pray as Jesus taught us, just feel.  Get him in your mind and let your feelings provide your prayer’s expressions.  As you consider him and that he knows your feelings as well as your thoughts, you might feel things like awe and reverence, like gratitude, like being small and dependent, like respect and admiration.

To the extent we don’t feel those things, I think we might simply strive to know and understand him better.  While we do, we can persist in patient devotion.

What does loving God look like?

Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”  We know from the Pearl of Great Price that God’s work is to save and exalt us.  We know from the Doctrine and Covenants that our work is to keep the commandments.  The Second Great Commandment, of course, is to love each other, including that person who offended us or who with whom we disagree or just don’t like.  We can assume that this should be an active love—that we would actively seek to lift, support, build up, and help each other.  We can assume that loving our neighbors doesn’t merely consist of feeling a warm feeling towards them (unless, of course, we are actually incapacitated).

We could try to insert here a long list of commandments and actions that would reflect our love for God.  We could talk about doing this or doing that—or not doing this or not doing that.

The trouble is that if we try too hard to describe what loving God might look like, we will end up converting love for God into a checklist—and a checklist mentality is already a source of trouble in our culture.

God is neither the Great Accountant tabulating our debits and credits nor is he the Great Scorekeeper tallying our points and fouls.  He is our omniscient and loving father who asks for our love, our devotion.

Suffice it to say that when we love God, we will love our neighbor, keep his commandments, and allow our love for God to inform all of our important decisions.  We might develop the habit of asking ourselves, each time we face an important decision:  which choice will best reflect my devotion to God?

The first of the Ten Commandments says that we are to have no other god before our God.  Surely that means that we should neither worship nor love anything more than we worship and love both our Father in Heaven and the Savior.  There are many alluring worldly temptations involving money and appearances and momentary pleasures.  Our love for God must be strong enough that we will worship him more than them.

What happens to us when we love God?

Normal things happen to us.  Life happens to us, including good and bad.  We sometimes labor under the notion that loving God and keeping his commandments will result in in an absence of trouble—or at least an absence of tragedy and catastrophe.  It doesn’t.  Otherwise, how would we explain Abinadi and Nephite women and children being thrown into a fire.  How would we explain the early apostles, Joseph Smith, or faithful members of the Willey and Martin handcart companies?  God will not rob us of the mortal experience, whatever that may mean for us.

What will He do?  He will do things that matter far more than our temporary physical struggles in mortality.

  • Paul taught “that all things work together for good to them that love God.”
  • Moses taught that God’s mercy is extended to “them that love [God].”
  • Jesus clearly taught that those who love God receive forgiveness.
  • And in the Book of Mormon, we read that if you “love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.”
  • I also believe that loving God inspires in each of us the development of Christlike attributes, including love for others, gratitude, humility, meekness, and modesty—not merely modesty in how we dress, but modesty in our behavior, including our use of social media.

May I suggest tonight—besides the obvious suggestion that we all love the Lord—that we leave no doubt in the minds of our children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and all those who are dear to us that we love God and are filled with gratitude to and for Him.

In the Church Handbook of Instructions, there is a section on Leadership which applies to all of us.  It says, in part:

All Church leaders are called to help other people become “true followers of . . . Jesus Christ.” To do this, leaders first strive to be the Savior’s faithful disciples, living each day so that they can return to live in God’s presence. Then they can help others develop strong testimonies and draw nearer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.

This pattern—being a faithful disciple in order to help others become faithful disciples—is the purpose behind every calling in the Church.

Callings and positions entirely aside, each of us can be a “faithful disciple in order to help others become faithful disciples.”  Let us share with all around us, beginning most importantly with our families, that we love the Lord and that that love is what motivates and informs the choices we make.

I share Paul’s testimony:  “all things [do] work together for good to them that love God.”

In closing, let me repeat the words of Moses, the Shema, with some slight modifications:

The Lord our God is one Lord:

And we shall love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our might.

And these words… shall be in our hearts:

And we shall teach them diligently unto our children, and shall talk of them when we are at home, and when we leave our homes, and when we go to bed, and when we rise up.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Twelve Things to Teach Our Children at Home

[Ward Conferences, 2019]

In our last General Conference, President Nelson said, “The long-standing objective of the Church is to assist all members to increase their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and in His Atonement, to assist them in making and keeping their covenants with God, and to strengthen and seal their families…  Scriptures make it clear that parents have the primary responsibility to teach the doctrine to their children.”

Our conference today focuses on the idea of home-centered church—or home-centered gospel learning.  I would like to suggest twelve things that parents should especially teach their children at home—and that children should make a point of learning.

First is the nature of our relationship with God.

God is our father.  He loves us as a perfect father would love his children and desire their development and happiness.  Jesus Christ is our brother and also loves us with a perfect love.

Neither of them will tolerate or excuse any sin – yet their plan for us provides an escape from the worst effects of sin for those – and only for those – who love them and submissively receive them.

When I imagine meeting the Savior or my Father in Heaven, I anticipate feeling great love.  I imagine receiving an embrace that will melt all my feelings.  I imagine an overwhelming gratitude that helps me embrace them back.  However, for all their kindness and goodness, I do not think of them as my “chum” or my “buddy.”  I also imagine at that meeting an overwhelming impulse to prostrate myself before them in acknowledgement of my nothingness and in total awe and respect for their perfection.

God is to be loved and gratefully reverenced.

Second, faith.

Faith is one of those lovely thoughts that seems so warm and cozy when the sun is shining and the birds are singing.  But the Lord makes the rain to fall on the just and not just on the unjust.  And those of us who fancy ourselves just are sometimes quite shocked and indignant, even feeling betrayed or abandoned, when the rain falls hard on us.

How will your child react when the rains of life have the water up his chin?  What does God’s plan for us really look like?  Why is uncertainty an essential element of the mortal experience?  What is the role of adversity?  How am I special?  And how am I not?  Why did God leave his Only Begotten alone in the Garden of Eden?  And why will he leave you and I (more or less) alone at moments to experience things on our own?  Why should I trust God in those moments?  And what does it mean that faith is a principle of action?

Each of us feels a responsibility to dress our small child in a warm coat when they must be out in a cold rain.  How much greater our responsibility to teach our children to trust God in their toughest moments.

Third, testimony.

We need to teach our children how to develop testimonies.  Where does a testimony come from?  The Holy Ghost is the most important place.  There are additional evidences that the doctrine of the Church is correct and that the Church is led by men with legitimate priesthood keys.

Our children need to know how to pray, how to try to recognize the Spirit, and how to observe the impact of following the teachings of the Savior and the counsel of living prophets.  They need to know the critical importance of the Book of Mormon.

They also need to see and hear our testimonies, which we must each nurture.  This brings us to…

Fourth, questions.

What is your daughter to do when she has questions that might challenge her testimony?  Here is a catastrophic scenario for how she might handle it.

  • First, she encounters a truth that is easily open to criticism, such as: Joseph Smith had some young wives in addition to Emma.
  • Second, she thinks this might be a game changer and wonders why nobody ever told her before.
  • Third, she thinks it possible that people have been trying to keep unpleasant truths from her so her best bet for exploring this is from people outside the Church.
  • Fourth, she immerses herself in the viewpoints of so-called “anti-Mormons” and “former Mormons.”
  • Eventually, she opts out of church activity.

In this scenario, she has taken an understandable path for someone who believes people have been trying to hide things from her.

How might parents handle this better?

  • They might teach their children about Church history and about the Church’s reasons for its same-sex policies and about its love for gay people and all
  • They might teach their children that questions are normal and good and that they have no need to fear expressing them.
  • They might teach their children about the answers we have to their questions, including in Church-published materials.
  • And they might teach their children about the fact that we don’t have an answer to every question – and about how we handle unknowns.

Fifth, repentance.

I recently heard two mistaken expressions with regard to someone who had committed an egregious sin and, wonderfully, wanted to repent and move on.  The first was that this person decided to go to his bishop to “begin the repentance process.”  The second was that, in so doing, he wanted to get his sin “taken care of.”

Well, repentance does not begin with confession.  And talking to him won’t “take care of” the issue.

For some sins, talking to the bishop is an essential step.  But even then, repentance doesn’t happen in the bishop’s office.  Repentance happens inside a person’s heart.  Repentance isn’t a two-step, five-step, or 50-step process.  Repentance is a genuine change of heart and mind that inevitably results in a change of behavior; it is a reorientation of a person’s entire life toward God.

Genuine repentance is the most rewarding and comforting—and one of the most testimony-building experiences that we can have.

Sixth, the Holy Ghost.

We parents generally do a decent job of teaching their kids about the Holy Ghost.  When an 8-year-old is interviewed for baptism and the Bishop asks about the role of the Holy Ghost children give some good answers:

  • He will warn me of danger.
  • He will comfort me when I’m sad.
  • He will help me know what is true.
  • Some even know that the Holy Ghost will testify specifically of Jesus.

I think we need to teach them one other very important thing.  Her is how Elder Bednar put it, quote:

“The Holy Ghost is a sanctifier who cleanses and burns dross and evil out of human souls as though by fire…  Receiving the sanctifying power of the Holy Ghost in our lives creates the possibility of an ongoing cleansing of our soul from sin…  We are blessed both by our initial cleansing from sin associated with baptism and by the potential for an ongoing cleansing from sin made possible through the companionship and power of the Holy Ghost.”

He added:

“May I respectfully suggest that our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son do not intend for us to experience such a feeling of spiritual renewal, refreshment, and restoration just once in our lives.”

Your children know that they were clean at baptism.  How many of them understand that they can be (and many are) as clean now as they were then?

If you’re unrepentant, you’re in serious trouble.  If you’re humble, repentant, and striving, the Holy Ghost is cleansing and sanctifying you on an ongoing basis and you are clean.

Seventh, teach your children about the ordinances and covenants beyond baptism.

Do you—both dads and moms—know how to teach your sons and daughters about the covenant of the Melchizedek Priesthood?  What does it mean to receive the Priesthood, the Savior, and His servants?  What does it mean to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God?  What does it mean to magnify your calling?

If your sons think that serving a full-time mission is a bigger deal than receiving the Priesthood, then we’ve failed them and their future wives and children.

What about the Endowment?  Will you provide your children with the same level of unpreparedness that we received from our parents?  Or will you help them understand what it means to make a full, adult-level commitment to God and to ponder and learn?

Parents would do well to focus more on their kids’ preparedness for the temple than for a mission, though the latter is also important.  Parents might also help their children who aren’t serving full-time missions consider the timing of receiving their Endowment and the wisdom of receiving it well ahead of their temple marriage.

Eighth, being a missionary.

We must undo the compartmentalization of missionary work in many of our minds.  Nobody should start being a missionary when the stake president sets them apart.  And nobody should stop being a missionary when they are released from their calling.

A great topic for family discussion is how to be a conscious, active missionary without a name badge.

Ninth, consecration.

Let me share with you four statements from Church leaders.

First, from LDS.org: “The law of consecration is a divine principle whereby men and women voluntarily dedicate their time, talents, and material wealth to the establishment and building up of God’s kingdom.”

Next, Joseph Smith: “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary [to lead] unto life and salvation.”

Next, Bruce R. McConkie in General Conference:

The law of sacrifice is a celestial law; so also is the law of consecration. …we must be able to live these two laws.

“Sacrifice and consecration are inseparably intertwined. The law of consecration is that we consecrate our time, our talents, and our money and property to the cause of the Church: such are to be available to the extent they are needed to further the Lord’s interests on earth.

“The law of sacrifice is that we are willing to sacrifice all that we have for the truth’s sake—our character and reputation; our honor and applause; our good name among men; our houses, lands, and families: all things, even our very lives if need be.”

Lastly, the following statement is included in this very first week’s study material in Come Follow Me—For Individuals and Families.  It says, speaking of the infamous “rich young man,” “What he learned—and what we all must learn—is that being a disciple means giving our whole souls to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.”

Tenth, many are called, but few are chosen.         

Setting our hearts upon the things of the world and aspiring to the honors of others—whether through misguided ambitions, social media, or neglect of God and His commandments—will keep us from the blessings of heaven.  “To be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”

How do we, as families, establish and maintain proper priorities and be spiritually minded?  What a great topic for a family discussion!

Eleventh, perfectionism and vulnerability.

There is a little epidemic that runs through Utah County LDS culture.  It manifests itself in our trying to convey to each other that all is well with us and we have no challenges or struggles.  We try to look good on the outside and keep others out of our insides.  The answer to every “Hi, how are you?” is “Fine, how are you?” because we can’t change the subject fast enough.

Smiling, looking nice, and keeping a nice home, of course, are not sins.

The problem is when we create a culture based on shame and judgmentalism.  Too often, we are following Satan’s advice to “hide” out of unhealthy shame and we do it to avoid the judgments we imagine from others—judgments which are frankly not coming if we’d allow ourselves to discover that.

I don’t think we should go around reciting to everyone we meet all of our failures, shortcomings, and embarrassments.  But I do think we need to teach our children how to be real and vulnerable and how to create a community of genuine love and understanding.

Twelfth, manhood.

How do our sons learn to become outstanding husbands and fathers?  Two ways, I think.  We hope their own fathers’ examples will teach them positively.  And we hope some good things will rub off on them if they go to Church.

But it’s not enough.  All fathers set bad examples in addition to good examples, and osmosis doesn’t magically and sufficiently happen at church.  We need to be explicit and address the subject head-on.

This will require vulnerability from fathers to teach what they should be instead of who they are.  And it will require a willingness from mothers to explain to both their husbands and sons what a wife needs and what genuine manhood looks like to a woman.

Paul said men are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.  Boys need to be taught by their fathers and mothers what it means to love a woman in a Christlike way.

Testimony

Brothers and Sisters, a new era has come to the Church.  Our homes are to be the center of our worship, our study, and our development.  Fathers and mothers have a divine responsibility to teach their children.

I testify that President Nelson holds priesthood keys and is the mouthpiece of the Lord today.  I testify that Jesus Christ lives and is our Savior.  And I testify that life eternal is to know God and Jesus Christ, whom He sent.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Spiritual Self-Reliance

[Stake Conference, October 2018]

My comments today are intended for both young and old, but I confess that I have our youth and young single adults particularly in mind.  I hope that you will recognize the Spirit teaching you something that is important for you to know or act on this morning.

Let me first give three examples of difficult, even painful situations which, despite our hopes to never encounter them, occur every day around the world to those who are, as the Savior said, “both the just and the unjust.”

First, imagine the scenario of an unexpected emergency or catastrophe.  It could be a flood or an earthquake; an outbreak of war or a disruption in the food supply; it could be a loss of power or a collapse of our financial system.  Think of the different levels of preparedness at which an individual or family might be the moment the problem strikes.  Some might be well prepared to weather the storm until normalcy returns.  Others might be completely unprepared and have some very difficult times.  Many would be somewhere between those two extremes.

Second, imagine the challenges that can follow a person who takes little or no interest in learning.  Being “educated” doesn’t necessarily mean having one or more college degrees.  It means being interested in learning enough to invest time and effort into it—which might be through formal schooling or may be through practical, hands-on learning.  Those who don’t pursue learning may have some extra challenges in life.  Some may be financial.  Others may involve personal relationships.  Some may be easily taken advantage of or struggle to solve their own problems.  In contrast, someone who actively accumulates knowledge and know-how may be in a better position to navigate life and its financial, emotional, interpersonal, and other challenges.

Third, imagine the person who needs employment but can’t find it or has suddenly lost it, perhaps through no fault of his or her own.  The lack of a job can, obviously, create financial hardships, but it can be even more challenging than that.  Work often includes an enhanced sense of purpose and value and the satisfaction of contributing.  It can include valuable friendships and learning opportunities.  When Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden of Eden, Adam was given the gift of work.  Work is a gift and the absence of it can be a very heavy burden.

Those three scenarios illustrate three concepts that are critical when we talk about “self-reliance.”  They are:  emergency preparedness, education, and work (or employment). God wants each of us, individually and as families, to be self-reliant.  He wants us to be physically, mentally, and economically healthy and to be able to care for ourselves and our loved ones—and, ideally, for others as well.  He wants us to be prepared to handle problems that come to us unexpectedly, perhaps through no fault of our own.  Temporal self-reliance is important to God and should be an active pursuit for each of us.

But I would like to emphasize today the concept of spiritual self-reliance.  And here, perhaps, is where I would like our youth to be especially listening.  God also wants us to become spiritually self-reliant.  He wants us to be able to stand on our own two feet spiritually, not having to lean too heavily on parents or others in our lives.  He wants us to be able to face and withstand challenges and he wants us to be in a position to help others become spiritually self-reliant.  I will admit that I think our circumstances in Highland Utah can sometimes create a spiritually protective, somewhat homogeneous environment around our youth that can leave them vulnerable to a lack of spiritual self-reliance if they have not sufficiently established it before encountering the world away from here.

Now let’s revisit those three scenarios, but this time from a spiritual perspective.

The first one regards emergency preparedness.  What spiritual emergencies may confront us in our lives?  They are not uncommon.  Members of our stake have unexpectedly lost loved ones in the past year.  Some have been abused or mistreated or perhaps felt betrayed.  Some have been confronted by arguments against the Church that they had never considered and unexpectedly find themselves in the so-called “crisis of faith.”  Events happen in people’s lives which cause them to question foundational things they have relied on including the very existence of God.  People who have felt confident in their beliefs about God and His plan for us—perhaps they’ve even stood and borne public testimony of those things—experience some event in life that makes them wonder if they were fooling themselves all along and that maybe, on second thought, none of it actually is true.

How would you prepare for such a spiritual emergency?  How would you become spiritually self-reliant to the point that your faith would be a strength to you at such a time of crisis?

We might start with the words of Helaman, who said we must build a spiritual foundation that is based on the Savior, “that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds,… when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you…, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.”

Another Book of Mormon prophet, Nephi, taught us to hold dearly to the word of God.  Nephi described the iron rod as, “the word of God; and whoso would hearken unto the word of God, and would hold fast unto it, they would never perish; neither could the temptations and the fiery darts of the adversary overpower them.”

Notice Nephi doesn’t just say to read our scriptures:  he says to “hearken unto the word of God,” which surely means to practice what those scriptures teach.

In fact, it is not enough to say our prayers each day and read our scriptures each day if we do so mechanically without really engaging mentally and spiritually.  For example, we might study the challenges that faithful people in scriptures went through and ponder questions like “why do bad things happen to good people?” and “why does God not seem to intervene more when people hurt each other” or “why does God permit suffering in the world?” or “why don’t I get a more vivid and unambiguous answer to my prayers?”  Strong foundations are built upon coming to know God and coming to understand His plan for us through thoughtful study and prayer and application of scriptural teachings.

Elder Holland said, “When those moments come… hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.”  The more bricks we can lay in our spiritual foundation before large challenges arise, the better we’ll handle them.

Now let’s take that a step further with the second scenario.  The second scenario illustrates the issues around education and learning and the question of whether we will actively seek out learning or not.

In this last General Conference, President Nelson announced a tremendous opportunity for us in this regard.  He announced, quote, “A New Balance between Gospel Instruction in the Home and in the Church.”  The resulting headline has been that we’ll only have two hours of church on Sunday.  That’s the wrong headline!  The bigger story is that the living prophet of God is exhorting us to increase our personal and family study—our “spiritual education” if you will—outside of church—and especially at home—and especially on Sundays.

Just as a lack of worldly know-how can make financial and other challenges more difficult, a lack of understanding of true doctrine and other spiritual matters can decrease stability, increase uncertainty, confuse direction, and exacerbate other problems in our lives.

How do we learn spiritually?  As already mentioned, we study (and don’t just “read”) our scriptures.  We invest time in seminary and institute.  Sister Hansen in our stake teaches a wonderful class for the sisters each week.  We use the Sabbath and “home evening” and family scripture study.  And we don’t just engage mentally, we engage spiritually.  We pray and we seek the Holy Ghost to guide us. Jesus said that “if any man will do His will, He will know the doctrine,” so, much spiritual learning comes from faithfully doing.

One area related to education some of us can do better in is preparing our children for ordinances and covenants.  If we’re not careful, we’ll do more to prepare for missions and wedding receptions than we do to prepare our kids to understand the covenants they make when they receive the Melchizedek Priesthood, the Endowment, or the Sealing Ordinance.  The result of that can be a very unhelpful ignorance and a delay (or worse) in receiving the blessings of consecrated discipleship.

We must diligently “seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”

The third scenario was about employment and the blessing of work and the problems created by not working.  This, too, has a spiritual parallel in service, ministering, and working to build the kingdom of God.  We are commanded to love God and to love our neighbor, but it isn’t enough to have loving feelings for them in our hearts when we are able to also do things to bless others and to express that love.

Let me mention three ways we can be “employed,” so to speak in the Kingdom of God.

  • We can be actively involved in ministering to others, including those we’re assigned to minister to. Being assigned to love someone is highly underrated (from what I sometimes hear).  Some of the people I feel the most love for and most love from are people I have come to know either because I was assigned to them or they were assigned to me.
  • We can, if not limited by circumstances, serve in church callings and do our best to magnify them. Every church calling is about serving and helping people.  Finding the ways we can best do that is both fun and rewarding.
  • Lastly, we can engage in the work of salvation, specifically missionary work and temple and family history work. I can consciously engage in missionary work right now, every day, and I can make time in my life for temple and family history work.

We can do all these things in wisdom and order, considering the realities and priorities of our individual circumstances.  The more gospel activities are an important part of how we live our lives, the more spiritually strong and self-reliant we will become.

Brothers and Sisters—and especially you youth and young single adults—our Father in Heaven “maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”  Before we came here, we lived with Him.  But we needed to experience some things outside of His immediate presence in order to grow and in order to prove ourselves.  That experience includes strong opposition.  I hope you have experienced and do experience many sunny days, but none of us, no matter how righteous, is exempt from rainy days.  We need to develop the spiritual strength to be able to withstand a downpour—and, perhaps, a prolonged downpour.  And even on those partly sunny, partly cloudy days we need the strength of faith and testimony, both built upon a foundation of the Savior, to guide us as we navigate the every day challenges and questions of earth life.

May we each act and not be acted upon.  May we look to the Savior, hold to the rod, heed the words of a living Prophet, and not be “tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness”—or simply by the lies and deceits of the Devil.  There is good and there is evil.  God lives, and Satan and his strategies and philosophies are real.  The best defense is a good offense.

I testify that you are a child of Heavenly Parents.  God is not a creation of man.  You are a part of His family.  Jesus Christ is our brother.  We love and worship Him.  He sacrificed everything for us and offers forgiveness and mercy to all who demonstrate to Him a broken heart and contrite spirit.  This is His Church.  Fifteen men hold critical and legitimate priesthood keys.  President Nelson has been called to exercise them.  We will be blessed if we follow him.  I express my love to each of you in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Name of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

[Stake Conference, October 2018]

When I was a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Seattle, it seemed to me that, with respect to religion, there were four kinds of kids at my school.  There was a large group who seemed very irreligious.  There was an even larger group who were inconspicuously Protestant or Catholic and didn’t speak of it much.  There were the self-proclaimed “PTL” kids (PTL stood for Praise the Lord) who were very conspicuous “born-again” evangelical kids.  And then there were the so-called “Mormon” kids.  There were very few of us, but people knew who we were even though we generally dressed the same as they did and played the same sports and musical instruments and attended the same classes as everyone else.

My non-member friends and acquaintances during Junior High and High School knew me as a “Mormon.”  They knew I wouldn’t smoke, drink, or swear.  They knew I wouldn’t be at certain types of parties and that I believed in chastity.  In fact, if I did anything they thought wasn’t straight down the middle of the road, they would remind me that I was a Mormon and shouldn’t be doing that.  For me, peer pressure wasn’t as much about pushing me to do the wrong thing as it was like guardrails keeping me on the straight and narrow.

There was always a little undercurrent of an unspoken rivalry between those of us in the Church and the Praise the Lord born-again kids.  We knew we were right and they were wrong, and they knew they were right and we were wrong, and we were generally too immature to handle our differences in a very productive or instructive way.  We mostly stayed away from each other.

When I was in 8th grade, a girl from my ward asked me if I would help her with two teachers at our school who were asking her questions about our religion that she wasn’t very comfortable with.  Mr. S., a science teacher, and Mr. W., an English teacher were challenging her, and her parents told her she should get a priesthood holder with her, and there weren’t many of those to choose from, so I was it.  The four of us started meeting over brown-bag lunches while Mr. S. and Mr. W. tried to explain to my friend and me that Joseph Smith was a fraud and that we needed Jesus because we really weren’t Christians and the path we were on was going to lead us straight to hell. I will spare you details of our many lunches, but suffice it to say that those experiences became foundational in my testimony as I was forced to think about what I believed and why I believed it.

I have pretty much been in Utah for the 34 years since I graduated high school.  Most of the kids I went to school with I haven’t seen in many years and am merely facebook friends with now.  Mr. S. and Mr. W. I don’t even recall ever seeing again after Junior High.  I don’t have too many regrets regarding those men.  I learned a lot from our discussions and I did my best to teach them and even to testify to them.  I tried my best to convince them that I believed in the same Jesus they did and that, just like them, I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior and was every bit as committed to Him as they were.  They didn’t buy it, but I feel like I did the best I could, particularly with them being more than twice my age.

I do have a regret, though, regarding my non-member schoolmates—and I have thought about this since President Nelson’s remarks regarding the name of the Church.  Those kids knew me very well as a “Mormon.”  But I was not having brown-bag religious debates with them and they didn’t know what “Mormon” meant—at least not from me they didn’t.  They knew that I was a straight arrow compared to lots of kids and they knew that I was religious, but they didn’t know much about the actual substance of my religion.

What if the term “Mormon” never existed?  What if the only way that I ever referred to myself—or that the world ever referred to us—was as members of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Mr. S. and Mr. W. probably still wouldn’t have been satisfied.  But how great would it be if all the kids who knew me well as a teenager knew me as a person who loves the Savior instead of a person in an odd religion they knew little about that was called “Mormon”?   Honestly, the PTL kids did a much better job of communicating what they believed than I did.  Fortunately, a lot of us are still facebook friends and I can still do something about that.

Words Matter!

Shakespeare asked the question, through Juliet, “What’s in a name?”  And he answers his question in wonderful Shakespeare style, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet;” suggesting that the name doesn’t really matter.   But it’s interesting to look at those lines a little more carefully.

In the play, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet are in love.  The dilemma is that the Montagues and the Capulets don’t get along and so theirs is a forbidden love.  One morning, Romeo overhears Juliet speaking about him from her upper-floor window.  She is openly lamenting his name.

O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Tis but thy name that is my enemy;–
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name! that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title:–Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

As lovely and fun as those words are, Juliet’s argument that a name doesn’t matter isn’t always true.  Why not?  Because we have covenanted with God to take upon us the name of Jesus Christ.  Shakespeare’s words are thoroughly trumped by those of King Benjamin (in Mosiah 5:7-9; my own emphasis added):

7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made, ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you; for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.

8 And under this head ye are made free, and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free. There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh; therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ, all you that have entered into the covenant with God that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.

9 And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God, for he shall know the name by which he is called; for he shall be called by the name of Christ.

Sometimes we struggle with words, especially if they seem to involve too many syllables and feel awkward because of their length.  Since home and visiting teaching were replaced by ministering, I have heard many members struggle with knowing how to refer to themselves and others.  Some people still refer to others as home teachers or visiting teachers because they find it too difficult or strange to call them ministering brothers or ministering sisters.  Some people struggle with how to introduce themselves to others.  Whereas it felt natural to say, “Hi, I’m your visiting teacher,” it now feels awkward to some to say, “Hi, I’m your ministering sister.”  Some drop the “brother” or “sister” and refer to themselves or others simply as “ministers,” but we’ve been asked not to do that.  The best way to overcome that challenge may be to practice!  Use “ministering brother” or “ministering sister” in a sentence a dozen times and by the time you’re done, you’ll begin to feel comfortable.  Avoid saying them and the discomfort will be prolonged!

Regarding the name of the Church, it behooves us to follow the Prophet and to work to overcome our old ways and get it right.  President Nelson took exception to the idea that clarifying the proper name of the Church is “inconsequential.”  He said this is “not a name change. It is not rebranding. It is not cosmetic. It is not a whim. And it is not inconsequential.  Instead, it is a correction.” And, he said, “It is the command of the Lord.” “For thus shall the church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”  He went on to say, “the name of the Church is not negotiable.”

In light of President Nelson’s very clear teachings and my own personal experiences, characterizing the name of the Church as “consequential” and “non-negotiable” makes total sense.

My full-time mission experience is like my teenage experience.  In Germany, there were two well-established religions:  Catholicism and Lutheranism.  There were also two other religions that were well-known in some ways:  the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.  What did people know about Mormons?  Very little.  They knew we wore suits, rode bikes, and knocked on doors in pairs.  They knew we were American.  Many of them “knew” we were polygamists and quite a few “knew” that we rode in horse buggies and wouldn’t use electricity.  They could not know that the Book of Mormon teaches of Jesus Christ because they hadn’t read it.  And one reason they hadn’t read it is because none of them wanted to live in polygamy, ride in horse-drawn buggies, and go without electricity!  The incorrect name of the Church was a stumbling block to its own growth.  It still is.  President Nelson said, “the Lord’s Church is presently disguised as the ‘Mormon Church.’”  Surely, he is not exaggerating or making a mountain of a mole hill.

It seemed especially noteworthy in General Conference that President Nelson approaches this topic in a repentance-like fashion.  He said, “I realize with profound regret that we have unwittingly acquiesced in the Lord’s restored Church being called by other names, each of which expunges the sacred name of Jesus Christ!” Unquote.  Repentance is an important course correction born from a change of heart and a change of mind.  That is what’s happening here.

One of the questions facing you and me is whether we will also repent.  “When we omit His name from His Church,” President Nelson said, “we are inadvertently removing Him as the central focus of our lives.”  We are also failing to communicate to others that He is the central focus of our lives.  I think again of those two groups in my high school.  The non-religious kids knew there was a “Praise the Lord” group and they all knew who was meant by “the Lord.” And there was the small “Mormon” group—but few, if any, had any clue at all that the central figure in our lives was Jesus Christ.  Similar in Germany.  At least some had an idea who the Jehovah’s Witness were referring to when they referenced Jehovah.  But the term Mormon completely obscures the role of the Savior and literally removes the Savior from critical aspects of our missionary efforts.

So, if it feels awkward to say, “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” instead of, “I’m a Mormon,” then let’s commit to it and get over the awkwardness through lots practice.

When young men and young women in our stake return from serving full-time missions, I try to convince them that they are not done being missionaries.  We all became missionaries when we took the name of the Savior upon us at baptism—and we strengthened that commitment through the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood.  One extremely simple way we can stand as a witness is to make clear exactly who we are standing as a witness of by referring to Him in the name of our Church—His Church.

Let me add my testimony and then close with President Nelson’s promise.

As I told those two school teachers and have told many others since then, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  It is by his grace alone that I (or any of us) could be blind and then see.  It is by the perfection of his love, kindness, devotion, mercy, and compassion that the wounds of my sins can be healed.  It is by His grace that “a wretch like me” can be made clean through His blood that I might be able to return to the presence of Heavenly Father.

In response to the Savior’s question, “Will ye also go away,” Peter asked, “Lord, to whom shall we go?”  The truth is, there are many to whom we can go—many to whom people do go.  Idols and false prophets abound in many worldly doctrines and sometimes even in popular personalities.  These days, people are easily caught up in the trendy “philosophies of men” that villainize any attempt to even question them.  But I join Peter with all of my heart in spite of my many failings in recognizing that there is only one to whom we can go who will, one day, by His grace, make us whole and help us be all that we ever could be.

I testify that Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

Now I don’t think we need any more reason to get on board with what President Nelson is asking regarding the name of the Church, but he added this to his remarks:

My dear brothers and sisters, I promise you that if we will do our best to restore the correct name of the Lord’s Church, He whose Church this is will pour down His power and blessings upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints, the likes of which we have never seen. We will have the knowledge and power of God to help us take the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people and to prepare the world for the Second Coming of the Lord.

So [he continued, perhaps quoting Shakespeare], what’s in a name? When it comes to the name of the Lord’s Church, the answer is “Everything!” Jesus Christ directed us to call the Church by His name because it is His Church, filled with His power.

May we follow the Prophet—who is following the Savior—and helping us do the same if we are willing.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.