Which Way Do You Face?

One of the more profound  and thought provoking messages from this past General Conference came from Elder Lynn G. Roberts of the Presidency of the 70 who challenged us to answer the question “Which Way Do You Face.”

“Which way do you face?” President Boyd K. Packer surprised me with this puzzling question while we were traveling together on my very first assignment as a new Seventy. Without an explanation to put the question in context, I was baffled. “A Seventy,” he continued, “does not represent the people to the prophet but the prophet to the people. Never forget which way you face!” It was a powerful lesson.

I think that a lot of the confusion in the Church comes when members forget which way we are supposed to face. Instead of representing God to world, through missionary service, preaching the gospel, and inviting others to come to Christ, they begin to instead try to represent the ways of the world to God. They import some of the theories of the world such as conflict theory, or radical queer or feminist theory and attempt to right the perceived wrongs in the Church of God. Such individuals truly have their orientation or perspective backwards.

As Elder Lyons emphasizes, such an attitude is a gross inversion of the first two great commandments. We are called after all, first to love God with all our heart and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. If we focus on loving our neighbors to the exclusion of obeying God and hearkening to his commandments, we are harming not only our spiritual growth, but the people we are claiming to love. We are representing a false idol of tolerance and love as a stumbling block in their path. We are denying the essence of the Gospel which is faith in Christ, repentance of our sins, baptism for the remission of sins, and reception of the sanctifying power of the atonement of Christ through the Holy Ghost (and continuing to press forward unyielding until we reach perfection).

“Trying to please others before pleasing God is inverting the first and second great commandments  It is forgetting which way we face. And yet, we have all made that mistake because of the fear of men. In Isaiah the Lord warns us, “Fear ye not the reproach of men” In Lehi’s dream, this fear was triggered by the finger of scorn pointed from the great and spacious building, causing many to forget which way they faced and to leave the tree “ashamed”

Indeed, ultimately when we forget which way we face, we are deceiving not only others, but ourselves. We tell others and ourselves that we are facing God, while in reality we are seeking more fully to please the God of this world.

“When people try to save face with men, they can unwittingly lose face with God. Thinking one can please God and at the same time condone the disobedience of men isn’t neutrality but duplicity, or being two-faced or trying to “serve two masters”

Elder Roberts example of those who failed to remember which way they faced is sobering: King Herod, King Noah, King Saul, and many of the Pharisees, Tragically, all of these men had potential to do great things in the name of God. Because they ultimately forgot who they were supposed to face, they instead turned towards wickedness and stood strongly in the way of God. They feared the opinions of men, and lusted after praise and glory more than they feared god and desired for his kingdom.

Yet, unfortunately, today this great and tragic sin continues. In the timeless words of the Lord’s warning to the world in first section of the Doctrine and Covenants, “They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.”

Even in the Church, we are not exempt from those who forget which way they face. One would think, that in a church built on the rock of revelation, and with biannual General Conference where we can receive edifying instruction from those called of God, it would be easier in our day to remember which way we are to face. But unfortunately, Satan seeks to counterbalance the greater availability of the word of God, with more noise and tumult. He seeks to seduce members of the Church and lead them into the ways of the world. As Elder Packer has explained, in our day we live inside of the great and spacious building. We are surrounded by teachings of the world which contradict the Gospel, and it is unfortunately seductive and easy to begin to turn around and begin to apply those teachings to Christ’s Church:

“The scornful often accuse prophets of not living in the 21st century or of being bigoted. They attempt to persuade or even pressure the Church into lowering God’s standards to the level of their own inappropriate behavior, which in the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, will “develop self-contentment instead of seeking self-improvement” and repentance. Lowering the Lord’s standards to the level of a society’s inappropriate behavior is—apostasy. Many of the churches among the Nephites two centuries after the Savior’s visit to them began to “dumb down” the doctrine, borrowing a phrase from Elder Holland.”

Elder Roberts message is a timely warning for each one of us. We can all begin to forget which way we face at times. We do it when we grumble over a calling, or when we second guess ourselves and fail to speak out in favor of God’s Church and his standards. We do it when we put our priorities over God’s priorities. We all do it at times. Yet, it is never too late to repent and return to face God. It is never too late to remember which way we are supposed to face. No matter if we have been spun around by the sophistry of the world, God will lovingly accept us. His church is always there to help us. God will take us and transform us into his likeness and image. The Savior died to make it possible for us to experience that great change of heart and to learn to serve God with all of our heart, might, mind, and strength.

A Tale of Two Prophets

In Sunday School this week and for the next few weeks, we are studying the writings of the Prophet Jeremiah.

I find it truly fascinating how the Prophet Jeremiah is used in dramatically different ways by more conservative and more liberal members of the Church.

In the more conservative narrative, Jeremiah is a fearless and fierce critic of the corrupt practices found by the people of his day. He tirelessly calls out those that worship idols and those that engage in sinful sexual and other practices. As the teacher’s edition of the Sunday School manual emphasizes “Jeremiah’s mission was to raise a voice of warning to these people, and his denunciations of their wickedness are among the strongest in all scripture.” Jeremiah is described as a watchman on the tower and compared to modern day prophets who warn of wickedness. The lack of obedience to the Prophet’s message and the willingness of the people to instead listen to smooth and pleasant prophecies rather than repent is central to this message.

In contrast, the more liberal characterization of Jeremiah focuses on different aspect of Jeremiah’s life. This blog post by Ron Madsen epitomizes this characterization. The emphasis is on the fact that Isaiah was an outsider, not part of the religious establishment, and  “called outside of the prevailing and well structured church authority lines/ institution.” The emphasis is on the corrupt nature of the religious establishment and those leaders of the Church today are compared to watchmen asleep on the tower. Jeremiah’s message is used largely as an indictment of the treatment of the poor in society. Rather than a ringing endorsement of the message of following the modern day prophets seers and revelators, Jeremiah is used to draw into question the prophetic calling and inspiration of modern day leaders.

I am not sure these two narratives need to be seen as mutually exclusive. Certainly, Jeremiah called out the corrupt and apostate religion of his day, and emphasized true practices of worship and a moral life. Jeremiah also championed the poor and the needy. Yet, it seems dangerous to use Jeremiah to encourage skepticism towards those called as Prophets, Seers and revelators in our day. Each General Conference, we hear the leaders of the Church clearly tell us how we can repent and draw closer to the savior. Their message is often unpopular as Jeremiah’s message was in his day. They teach a standard of morality and conduct that is largely scorned in our day.

It is important to note that while the establishment in Jeremiah’s day was largely religious, the establishment in our day is largely scornful of religion and religious sentiment. The message taught by true prophets will always discomfort the comforted to some degree. It will often strike those listening as old fashioned or out of date. Certainly, Jeremiah’s call to destroy idols and places of high worship struck many as old fashioned and unnecessary. The Church in our day thus serves a similar role.

The more liberal interpretation of Jeremiah seems to imply a general skepticism of establishments, be they political, social, or religious. Yet, in our day we have a church that is built on the rock of the savior. Critics of the Church often forget that Jesus Christ stands at the living head of the church. It is being led by continual and ongoing revelation. The problem in Jeremiah’s day, as in ours is that people were more willing to listen to smooth and pleasing words than to the good word of God. They were willing to listen to those who said eat, drink and be merry. They were willing to do anything to avoid actually needing to repent and come to Christ.

Those who attack the leaders of the Church ironically tend to use the outsider message of Jeremiah in order to encourage the exact kinds of deviant behaviors he would have condemned.

LDS Living Free Subscription Giveaway

I have been asked to help sponsor a give away of a years subscription to LDS Living. When I first saw a copy of LDS Living in the waiting room of my wife’s doctor I was pretty skeptical about the magazine. I imagined that it would be schmaltzy and full of low quality faith promoting stories. But as I looked at the magazine, I was actually pretty impressed by the quality of the stories that I saw there. One of my favorites is their cover story on a book My Name Used to be Muhammad which I subsequently read and reviewed here. Indeed, one of the most valuable things that I have found on their site are their summaries of books by general authorities and other church leaders. For instance, they recently put up a list of Elder Scott’s 21 Principles to Help you Live by the Spirit from his most recent book. I have found the content on their site highly faith promoting and often quite insightful and valuable.

Until the end of the year, LDS Living is having a promotion on subscriptions. A year long subscription is only $12.00.

In order to win a free subscription, you have to leave a comment on this blog. I will select a winner in a week (Wed. Nov. 19th).

While you are here, I encourage you to take a look at some of the posts I have written and leave comments. Some of the posts that I recommend would be this talk on my conversion to the Gospel given in 2009, this post about my choice to serve a mission,  this post outlining my gradual conversion to supporting the Church’s position on the family, and posts defending the church’s position on gay marriage.

LDSLiving_stackofmagazines

Gathering the Outcasts

Today my wife and I taught a Sunday School Lesson based on the last part of the Book of Isaiah. This portion of Isaiah has always been a personal favorite of mine. I especially love Isaiah’s sweeping vision of the last days and the Millennium. What stands out to me the most is how revolutionary Isaiah’s teachings on the spread of the Gospel to the whole world and even to the stranger or the gentile would have been to those of his time. Living in the 21st century, we take for granted that knowledge of Christ has spread across the world. Yet, in Isaiah’s time knowledge of Jehovah the God of Israel was localized and not well known. Those in Babylon or Assyria saw Jehovah as another deity of a conquered people. In Israel likewise, the idea that those no born in the covenant could become part of Israel was foreign and revolutionary. After all, only those of the tribe of Levi could hold the priesthood, and gentiles were not allowed access to the main portion of the Temple of Solomon.

This all makes Isaiah’s proclamation in Chapter 56 all the more incredible.

¶Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people: neither let the eunuch say, Behold, I am a dry tree.

 For thus saith the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant;

 Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.

 Also the sons of the stranger, that join themselves to the Lord, to serve him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants, every one that keepeth the sabbath from polluting it, and taketh hold of my covenant;

 Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer: their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.

 The Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him.

The Lord is telling all those who will hear, that his house and the ordinances and blessings therein are available to all. None are turned away from the House of the Lord if they are willing to covenant with the Lord and keep the commandments (Sabbath is often a shorthand for other commandments). Elsewhere, in Isaiah 66 Isaiah talks about those that will help gather Israel and talks about calling priests and levites from among the nations.

I love the reference to gathering the Outcasts. This is such an accurate description of what the savior did in his life. Whether tax collectors, cripples, or Samaritan, the Lord invited all to follow him. In our day likewise our call is to take the Gospel to all the nations of the world regardless of race, language, or religious belief. It is truly incredible to be a part of the Lord’s work in these latter days and to proclaim the gospel to all the world.

I also love the reference to Eunuchs ie those unable to have children naturally.  God promises them a name better than of sons and daughters. He promises that they will be children of the covenant and receive all of the promises blessings. Many today are unable to have children either due to not being married, due to same sex attractions, or simply due to infertility. Yet, the Lord’s promise through the prophet Isaiah is to all. No matter how broken we think we are, the Lord will heal us and bless us. His house is open to us if we are worthy and striving to keep the commandments. There will be no blessing lost because of our condition in this fallen world. I testify that Isaiah’s promise is true and that the Lord truly loves all of this children

Thousands Brought to the Knowledge of the Lord

Recently, I was reflecting on my mission. I served in Russia in Siberia specifically (Novosibirsk Mission). It is often said to be a difficult mission with many people highly resistant to hearing our message because of the ingrained traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church. I consider myself to have been a highly successful missionary because of those that was I able to teach and bless. Yet, my wife’s mission in the Philippines baptized about as many converts in a month as we did in a whole year. Reading about accounts of thousands converted in the Book of Mormon, it is hard at times not to wish one could have had a greater impact.

 And thousands were brought to the knowledge of the Lord, yea, thousands were brought to believe in the traditions of the Nephites; and they were taught the records and prophecies which were handed down even to the present time. (Alma 23).

Today, during sacrament meeting, I reflected on the number of people I was able to talk to about the Gospel on my mission, and realized the full impact that I was able to have as a single missionary laboring in a far away part of the Lord’s vineyard.

In my mission, we had a goal of talking to at least 10 people on public transit/on the streets/tracting each day as a companionship. I was one of those missionaries that struggled to keep my mouth shut, and so I usually sought to talk to at least that many people personally and often exceeded that by a large amount.

I figured that if I had talked to somewhere between 10-15 people a day, seven days a week for the course of a full length mission of two year, I would have talked to around 10,000 people over the course of my mission

Of course, at least 75% of the people I talked to rejected me outright. And yet, still that is thousands and even tens of thousands “were brought to the knowledge of the Lord.”

This isn’t something unique to me alone. Every full time missionary has such an incredible footprint. I don’t think we can fully realize how many we are able to invite to come unto Christ in the time that we serve. Even though many reject the message, it is amazing to think about how many people we are able to reach out to and simply invite.

I am so grateful that I served a mission and was able to be used as an instrument in the hand of the Lord. I know that I was not always a perfect missionary, but I am so grateful that I was able to put my heart and mind into serving God.

If you ever feel discouraged that you were not able to teach or baptized more people on your mission, know that your service still impacted thousands or tens of thousands.

Finding Strength through Unity

The rejection of Kate Kelly’s appeal regarding her excommunication made me reflect on what made me so uncomfortable with the movement and its means. I am in support of many positive changes to ensure that women are more included in wards, councils and etc. Indeed, I believe that the leaders of the Church are well aware of the need for positive change and are actively seeking to improve the roll of women in the church. Nevertheless, I strongly oppose the protests and other organized efforts of Ordain Women. Perhaps, most of all, I detest the efforts to smear the Church in the media undertaken by representatives of Ordain Women.

Today in Elder’s Quorum we discussed Lesson 20 in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual and I came across a quote that helped confirm in me my dislike of efforts to draw the world’s attention to warts and weaknesses in the Church:

“I believe it is our solemn duty to love one another, to believe in each other, to have faith in each other, that it is our duty to overlook the faults and the failings of each other, and not to magnify them in our own eyes nor before the eyes of the world. There should be no faultfinding, no back-biting, no evil speaking, one against another, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We should be true to each other and to every principle of our religion and not be envious one of another. We should not be jealous one of another, nor angry with each other, and there should not arise in our hearts a feeling that we will not forgive one another our trespasses. There should be no feeling in the hearts of the children of God of unforgiveness against any man, no matter who he may be. …

…We ought not to harbor feelings one against another, but have a feeling of forgiveness and of brotherly love and sisterly love, one for another. Let each one of us remember his or her own individual failings and weaknesses and endeavor to correct them. We have not reached a condition of perfection yet, it is hardly to be expected that we will in this life, and yet, through the aid of the Holy Ghost, it is possible for us to stand united together seeing eye to eye and overcoming our sins and imperfections. If we will do this, respecting all the commandments of the Lord, we shall be a power in the world for good; we shall overwhelm and overcome all evil, all opposition to the truth, and bring to pass righteousness upon the face of the earth. For the Gospel will be spread and the people in the world will feel the influence which will be shed forth from the people of Zion, and they will be inclined more to repent of their sins and to receive the truth.”

This type of unity that Joseph Fielding Smith described is one that is unfortunately at times illusive. Certainly, the vitriolic anti-Ordain Women responses from some members of the Church also fell short of the standard espoused by President Smith. We need to love each other as fellow saints. Seek charity, patience, and the guidance of the spirit in our interactions.

And yet, a couple things stood out to me. We are to be united in order to overcome our sins and imperfections. We are also to do so while respecting all of the commandments of God. The teachings of Christ and of the Prophets and Apostles must be our rallying cry and our message to the world. When instead, we display division, contention, and disagreement about the divine teachings of the Prophet and Apostles, we lose power and influence as a Church. The world focuses more on the division and less on the incredible things that unite us as disciples of Christ. When the world sees protests on gay rights or ordination of women, they see a house divided against itself. They see our mortal failings rather than our divine strength.

In the recent marriage synod, deep divisions among the cardinals of the Catholic church spilled out into the open for all the world to see. I am so grateful that the brethren that lead this Church follow the principles espoused by President Joseph Fielding Smith. They are unified and speak with one voice. Even though they may disagree with one another, they abstain from criticism and vitriol. They are dedicated first and foremost to the advancement of the Church and Kingdom of God. I believe it is precisely this unity that gives the members of the Quorum of the Twelve such spiritual power and exactly that kind of unity that we need in the Church in order to be able to invite others to come unto Christ with spirit and power.

I wish that members of the Church more fully hearkened unto the teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith and sought to build zion and improve themselves rather than found fault in others or in the Church.

Engraved on the Palms of His Hands

Today my wife and I taught Sunday School in our ward. Our subject was Isaiah 40-49. As I read the material, I was struck by the beautiful words of compassion and comfort that Isaiah offers to Israel (“Comfort Ye, O Comfort Ye” is the first verse of Chapter 40). I loved that Isaiah speaks so powerfully of the Lord’s never ending compassion and care for his people. A couple of verses in particular resonate with me each time I read these chapters.

13 ¶Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.

 14 But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.

 15 Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.

 16 Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.

I love the powerful image that these verses invoke. When I think of the nails driven into the saviors palms and wrists, it is almost overwhelming to think that it was done for me and for each of us. Yet, God literally engraved each of us on the plan of his hands. When Christ appeared to his disciples and to the Nephites, he showed them the wounds on his hands. Those wounds remain as a tangible symbol of the atonement. As a tangible reminder of how much Christ gave up for each one of us.

Having a young child (3.5 months) helps me to really connect with verse 15 as well. As I have seen my wife feeding my daughter, I have witnessed the incredibly powerful bond that has formed between them. Yet, were we not nurtured at our Heavenly Father’s side in the pre-earth life? Does he not love us and care for us with the same level of devoted compassion as a mother feeding a child.

I testify that the Lord truly does love us with that same devoted love. He loved us so much that he sent his firstborn and beloved son to die for us. Christ loves us so much that he suffered the atonement and forever engraved us on the palm of his hands. I am so grateful for that love and bear my witness of it.