First Presidency Christmas Devotional 2014

I really enjoyed watching the Christmas Devotional tonight. I always love the Christmas music conducted by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the focus on the savior. Though I did think it strange that President Monson and President Uchtdorf did not speak tonight, I still thought that the speakers covered a wonderful variety of topics and really helped the viewer remember the birth and atonement of Christ.

I especially liked Elder Maynes (of the 70) talk where he focused on how the Christmas story was truly a family story. He talked extensively about the character and virtues of Mary and Joseph as well as the savior. As a still relatively new husband with a small child, I have gained a deeper appreciation for the tender feelings that Mary and Joseph must have felt as they looked upon their child. Scholars hypothesize that Joseph must have died quite young in the life of the savior, because he is not prominently featured in the life of the Savior, but I am appreciative of his character and integrity. Just as Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of the Savior, I also believe that Joseph was chosen to be the earthly father of the savior.

Sister Oscarson spoke about how one of the greatest miracles of the Christmas story is the love that it reflects. She urged us to be generous with our time and money and to be more Christlike in our association with family and friends not in this Christmastime, but throughout the year. My wife and I are going later this week to visit my family in Israel, and so this advice was really relevant to me.

Elder Christofferson  spoke of the condescension of the savior.  He emphasized that Christ needed to come down to earth and experience the full range of the human experience in order to help us be lifted up. I loved his message that if we look to god in every thought, everything we suffer will also lead us to be better. Just as savior’s experiences were redemptive, so too will our experiences help us to redeem and lift one another.

Finally, President Eyring spoke of the light of Christ. I am excited to read this talk more thoroughly once it is in print. I especially liked that President Eyring emphasized that everyone can feel the light of Christ no matter what faith or religion one belongs to. I remembered instances in my life before my conversion, when I felt drawn closer to God and uplifted. Given that I am the only one in my family that is in the Church, it is often easy to forget about the role of the light of Christ and the role It plays witnessing truth to all. I am grateful that God truly loves all of us and bears witness of truth to each of us no matter who we are or where we are from.

Moral Elevation and the Sacrament

Conservative pundit Arthur C. Brooks recently wrote a fascinating op-ed in the New York Times entitled The Trick to Being More Virtuous.  In that post, Brooks talks about an experience he had when speaking at BYU. After he spoke, he was given a variety of BYU swag including a briefcase with a prominent BYU logo. Although not a member of the Church or an alumni or BYU, Brooks decided to carry around the briefcase. He noticed that as he did so, he subconsciously and at times consciously began to act more kindly to others and to try to “live up to the high standards of Mormon kindness, or at least not besmirch that well-earned reputation.” As Brooks describes it, “Almost like magic, the briefcase made me a happier, more helpful person — at least temporarily.”

Brooks goes on to describe a psychological phenomenon called “moral elevation” where those who are exposed to examples of positive behaviors and emotions tend to emulate those behaviors. Brooks goes on to apply this concept to political discourse and urges his readers to be a good and virtuous example even amidst the tumult and rancor of contemporary politics. Brooks message is needed and powerful, and I urge everyone to read his thoughtful piece.

Reading Brooks article got me thinking about the role of moral elevation in the church and in our lives. As I did so, I thought about the perfect example of the savior. Clearly, if any one person or thing can elevate our sights or inspire us to greatness, it is the incomparable example of the savior of mankind. As we remember how he overcome temptations or responded with charity to rancor and vituperation, we too can be inspired and uplifted.

This helped me think about the sacrament that we partake of in church each week in a new light:

“O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him and keep his commandments which he has given them; that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.”

During the sacrament we take upon ourselves the name of Christ and covenant to remember him always. As we wear the name of Christ and remember him in our day to day conduct, his example will uplift and inspire us. The sacrament itself is a weekly token or physical reminder of the savior and his perfect example.

However, something is unique about the sacrament and the savior’s atonement. Unlike any other source of moral elevation, the atonement provides not merely a reminder of our goals and aspirations, but the means by which we may truly become transformed and sanctified. Unlike Brook’s BYU briefcase, the impact of remembering the Savior and his atonement is not temporary or transitory. The atonement is a power which can propel us upward to heights we never could achieve on our own.

I am grateful for the weekly opportunity to partake of the sacrament, as well as other sources of moral elevation in the Church which help us remember our covenants and strive to be more like the savior (temple garments for instance are another very tangible daily reminder of our covenants. We need these daily and weekly reminders of our savior, because we are quick to forget and easily drawn in by the temptations of the world. We need him in our lives every hour of every day. By his grace, we will be uplifted and transformed, of this I bear witness in the sacred name of Jesus Christ.

Gratitude and Being Stretched

One of my really good friends just wrote a phenomenal blog post about gratitude and all of the things he is grateful for. Reading it really reminded me of all of the many things that I have to be grateful for both big and small that so often go unsaid.

Perhaps above all, I am grateful to my Heavenly Father for a myriad of experience that have stretched me, shaped me, molded me and helped me become the person I am today. I know that I still have a long way to go as well and many more stretching and shaping experiences to go.

In the six years since I learned about the Church, I feel like I have had enough experiences with both highs and lows to fill a whole lifetime. The euphoria I felt when I first gained a testimony, the agony I felt as I deliberated how to tell my father about my decision to be baptized, the cleansing peace I felt upon baptism, the tortured months trying to decide whether to serve a mission, the incredible love I felt for those I taught as a missionary and the pain I felt when they choose not to accept the gospel, the joy of falling in love and getting married, the rush of law school, and the incredible bliss of being a father have all been compressed into a rather short period of time.

Being married and becoming a parent have both been stretching experiences for me as well. Being married means getting to experience all of those highs and lows with someone else. It means always having someone there to listen, but also always someone there who you can blame or get frustrated at. Marriage is a crucible which I think brings out all ones traits both good and bad in a very sharp and discreet fashion.

Being a father likewise is stretching in so many ways. It is so incredible to look on your child and to know that she is completely dependent on you for guidance and protection. Seeing her get hurt is truly heart breaking. Being a father has helped me better understand God and also see my own inadequacies; when I am unkind or easily angered or impatient, I worry about the example I will be setting for her. I have several close friends who are currently struggling with infertility, and I feel so incredibly blessed to have a daughter at this time. I don’t know why my wife and I were able to have children right now while others cannot. All I know is that I needed and need daily the stretching experiences that come from fatherhood. I feel inadequate at times, but I am so grateful to heavenly father for entrusting her to us.

I am grateful for those many experiences that have shaped me. I think I struggle sometime to know what to do in the less action packed moments when everything seems fine. I struggle with too much peace and serenity. I get a foreboding sense that things cannot remain so for long. Yet, just as I am grateful for the stretching moments, I know that I need to learn how to appreciate the moments of calm. I need to simply fully enjoy the many blessings that I have. One constant in life is things always do change, but I can make the most of the circumstances that I have been currently given.

I am grateful for Thanksgiving and the opportunity on this holiday to reflect and to remember all that I truly do have to be grateful for.

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