Sunday, December 28, 2008

Gospel Centered Goal Setting

The talks at church today were about goal setting and the lesson in priesthood continued the theme. I had a few thoughts as I listened to the talks. First, a favorite verse in Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish" (Proverbs 29:18). I think this applies to the need for revelation, but also to the need for dreams and expectations for life.

The Pearl of Great Price makes clear that creation is a two step process. Things must be created spiritually before they are created physically. That is true of planets and lives. Having a vision allows us to backwards engineer our lives. We can see where we want to be and the gap between where we now reside. Then we can see what steps are necessary to get there.

The marathon runner Juma Ikangaa, said, "The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare." Success takes work, and we have been sent to succeed in this life. One thing mentioned during priesthood was that we need to remember our Patriarchal Blessings. Many promises rest on hearkening to the "if" statements in those blessings.

The most important thing when setting goals is to seek the Spirit as a guide. When we have a goal, Alma 32 is a guide to accomplishing it.

We need to awake and arouse our faculties and peform an experiment on the goal. Then, if we exercise a particle of faith and can no more than desire to accomplish the goal, that desire can work in us until we are able to move forward (see Alma 32:27).

Goals, like the word of God, can be likened to a seed, especially if the goal was inspired by the Spirit. If goals are good and true, they can be planted in our hearts. Then if we do not cast the goal out by our unbelief, they can swell within us until they make us better than we were. Good goals will enlarge our souls and enlighten our understandings (see Alma 32:28).

As we accomplish different goals, we will be able to know that we have been inspired in setting those goals. Our ability to envision and attain new goals will increase (see Alma 32:34).

Whenever we set goals but neglect them, they will not take root and grow. Any trial that comes along will scorch them like the hot sun on a malnourished plant (see Alma 32:38).

This is not because accomplishing the goal would not have been good in our lives, but our ground was barren. If we don't nourish the tree, we can't expect any fruit from it (see Alma 32:39).

As we set goals and nourish them with great diligence, patience, and faith, they will begin to spring up in us creating great strength (see Alma 32:41).

The Spirit can inspire goals of all kinds: education, exercise, diet, relationships, church service, and whatever else could improve our lives. But with Spirit-inspired goals, it is vital that they are not cast away like typical New Year resolutions. Making and keeping commitments to the Lord is at the center of the Restored Gospel.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Jesus the Christ

The following is a talk I have prepared for today:

This Christmas season, I was pondering how to give a gift to those who mean the most to me. Having just finished school, I don’t have the financial means to give toys. The greatest gift is Jesus Christ. When we come to know Him and love Him, we become driven to share that gift. Ironically, it is only by sharing this gift that we have any to give away. The same is true of all the great Christian attributes - faith, hope, and charity - the more we give them, the more we have to give.

I want to share today a few experiences and thoughts I have had which have brought me closer to Jesus Christ. In August 2002, I sat in a chapel in Dallas as an Apostle of the Lord, Richard G. Scott, addressed a group of college age single adults. He spoke about dealing with the challenges of life by knowing about the plan of happiness. He said we often know about the general plan of happiness, and how the atonement of Jesus Christ applies to everyone. But we need to have a testimony of how the atonement applies to us – our specific plan of happiness, which will be revealed to us piece by piece. With our willingness comes direct guidance without compromising our agency.

The atonement is a very personal event. Listen to this description from Alma:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (Alma 7:11-12).
Jesus Christ experienced all these things that he may know how to reach each one of us. Brigham Young said it this way: Jesus the Christ descended below all things literally – according to the flesh – so that no case in human history, no person, no life, however tragic or sin-stained, would fall outside of His compassion or His power.

I have a trio of favorite related scriptures from the Book of Mormon:
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation...

Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden (2 Nephi 26:24, 28).

And ye see that I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me, that ye might feel and see; even so shall ye do unto the world; and whosoever breaketh this commandment suffereth himself to be led into temptation (3 Nephi 18:25)

And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil— (3 Nephi 27:14).
These have a series of beautiful ideas to me. Jesus Christ does everything for the benefit of the world because he loves the world. None are turned away and Christ was lifted up to draw all men to him and lift all men up.

Joseph Smith pointed out that we set stakes limiting the power of Jesus’ atonement by our unbelief. Nephi’s stubborn brothers provide an example of doing just that. Immediately after his remarkable vision which expanded on Father Lehi’s earlier vision, Nephi found Laman and Lemuel arguing about the meaning of Lehi’s dream. Nephi “said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?” Stating what they thought was obvious, Laman and Lemuel responded, “We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:8-9).

Any time we are tempted to feel that something which would be good in our lives is impossible, we are just like Laman and Lemuel: “I can’t get a testimony,” or “I can’t change and repent,” or “I can’t survive school,” or “I can’t serve a mission,” or “I can’t get a job,” or “I can’t start a family in times of such turmoil.” It doesn’t matter what any one of us can or can’t do. This is the Lord’s work. We are children of God. We have an Older Brother named Jesus Christ. It is their work and glory to give all of us immortality and eternal life (see Moses 1:39).

Later in the narrative, Laman and Lemuel were threatening to throw Nephi off the cliff for trying to build a boat. Nephi rebukes them saying, “And I said unto them: If God had commanded me to do all things I could do them. If he should command me that I should say unto this water, be thou earth, it should be earth; and if I should say it, it would be done. And now, if the Lord has such great power, and has wrought so many miracles among the children of men, how is it that he cannot instruct me, that I should build a ship?” (1 Nephi 17:50-51).

Nephi is trying to get his family to the Promised Land – just like us. He is ready to exercise his priesthood and walk to America if he has to. He has an easier task. He gets to build a boat. I love his question: “How is it that [the Lord] cannot instruct me?”

Centuries later, King Benjamin is teaching his people and tells them something remarkable:
[T]he Lord God hath sent his holy prophets among all the children of men, to declare these things to every kindred, nation, and tongue, that thereby whosoever should believe that Christ should come, the same might receive remission of their sins, and rejoice with exceedingly great joy, even as though he had already come among them (Mosiah 3:13).
They lived about 124 BC and if they believed, they could rejoice as if Christ had already come. Think of the application for us: if we believe NOW, we can rejoice as if the Millennium has already started. We don’t have to wait for Christ to actually return.

All of this is contingent on us repenting and more fully accepting Christ into our lives. The kind of repentance I am talking about is the most difficult. We can’t just wash our hands and get the dirt of our sins off. As then Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said in April 2007 Conference:
True repentance brings us back to doing what is right. To truly repent we must recognize our sins and feel remorse, or godly sorrow, and confess those sins to God. If our sins are serious, we must also confess them to our authorized priesthood leader. We need to ask God for forgiveness and do all we can to correct whatever harm our actions may have caused. Repentance means a change of mind and heart—we stop doing things that are wrong, and we start doing things that are right. It brings us a fresh attitude toward God, oneself, and life in general.
Moroni records this promise: "But as oft as they repented and sought forgiveness, with real intent, they were forgiven" (Moroni 6:8).
Real intent means that we have genuine sorrow, but also love. With real intent, we love those we may have wronged and strive to make it right. With real intent, we speak with priesthood leaders when necessary to show our humility before the Lord. Repentance is not just fixing a particular sin; it changes our heart.

When someone has a blood disease, they need new blood. It is sometimes necessary to give the person a bone marrow transplant to help them create their own new red blood cells to fight the disease. Our repentance needs to be as deep as our bone marrow. We get new blood when we become the children of Christ:
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 (Mosiah 5:7).
Preach My Gospel says, “As we obey God, He blesses us… He helps us change the desires of our hearts” (p.62). When we are the children of Christ, we have new blood and a new heart. We no longer have any desire to sin. We move beyond constantly repairing the same mistakes; we move to loving and serving those around us.

When we come to know and love Jesus Christ, we are more and more able to live the kind of life he lived. At this season when we remember his birth, let us also remember the atonement he performed. Let us remember the chance that atonement gives us to repent and get new blood. That is the kind of gift that we can carry beyond the holiday season.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Have Ye Inquired of the Lord?

During the priesthood lesson today and we read this statement from Joseph Smith:
It is the constitutional disposition of mankind to set up stakes and set bounds to the works and ways of the Almighty.
It is one of the greatest tricks of Satan to convince us that God does not have enough power to save us. Some say in their hearts, 'God can bless others, but not me; He can answer others' prayers, but not mine; He can forgive others, but not me.'

As we discussed this idea that people limit the power of God by their lack of belief, the story of Laman and Lemuel came to mind. Nephi had just finished receiving his own version of the dream his father had shared with the family. Nephi entered the tent and found his older brothers arguing about the dream of Lehi. Nephi records:
8 And I said unto them: Have ye inquired of the Lord?
9 And they said unto me: We have not; for the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us (1 Nephi 15:8-9).
Laman and Lemuel had good examples in their father and brother. Lehi and Nephi were men who - by their willingness to obey the commandments of God - paid the price to get answers to their prayers. But Laman and Lemuel didn't believe that God would answer them. Nephi personally knew better. He had just received a remarkable answer to his own prayer.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Ezekiel 37

I had a chat after institute graduation with one of our institute teachers back in April. He had just noticed some great new insights from Ezekiel 37. I have been meaning to flesh this out a little, so I will try to recreate what he shared with me six months ago.

The chapter seems to be divided into two separate parts. The first half talks about a valley of dry bones. Ezekiel is told to prophesy:
Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord (Ezekiel 37:4).

Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel (Ezekiel 37:12).
The dry bones of ancient Israel is actually its apostasy. When the Lord's people turn away from His covenants they are dead - at least spiritually, if not physically. Only the God who can raise the dead can save Israel from its self-imposed grave. As John records:
Jesus said... I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live (John 11:25).
The final result of the words of Ezekiel is:
And ye shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves (Ezekiel 37:14).
The rest of the chapter, which had always seemed unrelated, is actually how the Lord brings his people up from their graves.
16 Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions:
17 And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand (Ezekiel 37:16-17).
The two sticks are a way for the tribes to recognize each other. Some analysis I had read from BYU said that ancient Israel would use a stick with markings and then split the stick down the middle. Only when the two sticks were brought back together would the markings line up with each other and have any meaning.

The Stick of Judah symbolizes the Bible. It comes from the tribe of Judah and contains the writings of Jewish prophets. For the two sticks to come back together, there must be prophets from Ephraim with their own writings. The only book that meets that requirement is the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Portions of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were led by the Lord from Jerusalem to the American continent. Their writings became the Book of Mormon.

The purpose of the Book of Mormon is
to show unto the remnant of the House of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations (Title Page)
Only with the Bible and Book of Mormon together can scattered Israel be brought back home.
21 And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land:
22 And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all:
23 Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwellingplaces, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. (emphasis mine Ezekiel 37:21-23)
In order for modern Zion to be built, Israel will have to be gathered from all corners of the earth. The Book of Mormon is the book which must tell Israel who they are and how to gather. Then they will no longer live in a valley of dry bones, but in the garden of the Lord. When there is nothing but spiritual death around them, Zion will live abundantly.

And the best part is that having emerged from the valley of dry bones, modern Israel will be able to show those around them how to put flesh and life into their bones as well.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Without Revelation You Won't Survive

In Institute class this week, we discussed the importance of being able to receive, recognize, and act on revelation. In the December 2005 Commencement at BYU-Hawaii, President Boyd K. Packer said:
Now, you won't survive spiritually unless you know how to receive revelation...Now I don't know whether you know how to receive revelation, but you won't survive without it...Well now, it's a noisy world, and you're going to have to learn personally, and privately and individually that revelation will come when the Lord can speak to our feelings.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with the apostles, I've learned this: the pattern of our receiving revelation is no different than the pattern I had when I was a father teaching seminary - a pattern that is available to you.
Revelation is the great mystery of the Restored Church. It leads the whole Church and individuals. Revelation drives the hierarchical structure of the Church and supports individual freedom and agency. Revelation inspires missionaries in their labor and converts who choose to join the Saints.

There are several keys to receiving personal revelation. Obedience to the commandments, hearkening to the counsels of modern prophets, and practice at listening to promptings of the Spirit all make it easier to hear and recognize inspiration in the future.

One thing my Institute instructor has repeated several times is: never suppress a generous thought. That is one of the most common ways revelation will come: as generous thoughts to serve and bless those around us. Nurturing those generous thoughts - to forgive, to love, to give of time or means, to speak well of others, to share the gospel, or to serve in the temple - will be the key to spiritual survival as the last days become increasingly tumultuous.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Next Year In Zion

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have long anticipated building Zion. The ancient city of Enoch exemplifies the type of society we strive to build - one worthy to be taken up to heaven to live with God.

Zion has several characteristics:
- It is inhabited by the pure in heart
- It is the city of God
- It cannot fall (see D&C 97:19-21)
- Its people are of one heart, one mind, they dwell in righteousness, and there is no poor among them (see Moses 7:18)
- It will be a place of refuge for Mormon and non-Mormon alike
- It will be a place of safety from war
- The wicked will fear to attack Zion (see D&C 45:68-70)

Other characteristics could be listed and this blog is created as a place to store ideas I have about what Zion is and how to bring it about.

The question is how far are the Latter-day Saints away from creating Zion as described above?

A clue was pointed out to me today at Church. In Deuteronomy 1:2 it says, "There are eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of mount Seir unto Kadesh-barnea." A quick consultation with the maps in the back of the Bible reveal the location of Ancient Israel:

They were between points 8 and 12 on the above map. Israel spent 40 years living 11 days from their promised land. Had they been prepared, they could have been in their own Zion in two weeks! We will be surprised to discover how close we already are to Zion once we have it.

When the Prophet Joseph Smith saw his people kicked out of Jackson County, the center point of modern Zion, his motto became: "Next year in Zion."