Sincere Seekers of Truth

In April 1977, Elder Delbert L. Stapley bemoaned what he saw as a tide of relativism with regard to the notion of a true church:

“My brothers and sisters and friends, the following statement is sometimes voiced by well-intentioned and sincere individuals: “You go to your church; I’ll go to mine; but let us walk together.” However, can people really walk together if they don’t agree on the basic teachings of the doctrines of Christ? Do all Christian churches teach the true gospel and its principles and also have the authority to administer the saving ordinances which will guide and exalt their members in God’s heavenly kingdom?

Elder Stapley rejected the teaching that remains in vogue today that “all roads lead to God.” He emphasized that “it is a philosophy inconsistent with the teachings of our Lord,” and that [t]here  is no logic or reason to the proposition that inconsistent teachings and differing doctrines can bring about the same results. If truth comes from one source—God—how can it be so diversely taught? We know that all truth does emanate from God and is therefore unchangeable, consistent, and unified. Consequently, not all Christian churches with their dissimilar teachings can provide a fulness of truth.”

The restoration ultimately began because of a sincere desire to find out where a young seeker could turn for truth. God did not provide the popular modern answer that all churches lead back to him.  Instead, he emphasized the need for a restoration of his Church and proclaimed that all other churches lacked the fullness of truth.

That is a hard truth for modern ears to hear. But in our justifiable and praiseworthy efforts to be inclusive, we risk loosing sight of the very question that took Joseph Smith to his knees in the sacred grove.  We risk becoming complacent.

Today a multiplicity of churches and doctrines abound, all claiming one source. Such a claim, of course, defies reason and contradicts the teachings and pattern established by Jesus Christ. A sincere seeker for truth must ask: “Which, if any, of the varying Christian groups is right?” For guidance, the apostle James gave this counsel: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” (James 1:5.) If you sincerely put this promise to the test in seeking light and truth, you will be rewarded.

In Joseph’s day there was great confusion and tumult, but at least people were asking the right questions. In our day, the relationship between various faiths has improved and ecumenicism is on the rise, but so many are put off from ever asking one of the most important questions that they will ever ask.  How tragic

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Blessings and Righteousness

The advent of false doctrines like the prosperity Gospel have had the unfortunate tendency to make us discount true doctrine taught consistently by the Lord. In particular, as a culture we have developed an aversion to teach the truth that many blessings are predicated on righteousness.

At the start of the April 1977 conference, President Spencer W. Kimball delivered a very old school sermon about the importance of keeping the commandments in order to be able to call down blessings from heaven.

He began by speaking of then recent efforts in the Church to fast and pray for rain in the face of a drought.

Early this year when drouth conditions seemed to be developing in the West, the cold and hardships in the East, with varying weather situations all over the world, we felt to ask the members of the Church to join in fasting and prayer, asking the Lord for moisture where it was so vital and for a cessation of the difficult conditions elsewhere.

Perhaps we may have been unworthy in asking for these greatest blessings, but we do not wish to frantically approach the matter but merely call it to the attention of our Lord and then spend our energy to put our lives in harmony.

I love President Kimball’s focus on calling on the Lord and then working to put our lives in harmony.

President Kimball reported on the miraculous results: “With the great worry and suffering in the East and threats of drouth here in the West and elsewhere, we asked the people to join in a solemn prayer circle for moisture where needed. Quite immediately our prayers were answered, and we were grateful beyond expression. We are still in need and hope that the Lord may see fit to answer our continued prayers in this matter.”

He then spoke about how the scriptures link things such as peace, and moisture from heaven to keeping the commandments and in particular to sabbath day worship.

His invitation to self examination rang true with me:

Perhaps the day has come when we should take stock of ourselves and see if we are worthy to ask or if we have been breaking the commandments, making ourselves unworthy of receiving the blessings.

The truths of the Gospel have not changed. God still promises us blessings if we repent and have faith in him. We are not, however, guaranteed a life free of sorrow or trials.

We cannot use material wealth as a proxy to judge spiritual righteousness. That is a dangerous perversion of the truths being taught. But equally perverse would be to detach the scripturally mandated link between righteousness and blessings. We must not over correct and lose sight of eternal truth.

Being Bold Amidst the Storms

The Priesthood Session of the October 1976 conference had two talks that really made me feel a greater sense of urgency in my missionary efforts and in my dedication to the Gospel.

First, Elder Rex D. Pinegar shared a story from the life of President Spencer W. Kimball that made me reflect on how much more bold I need to be in my efforts:

Our beloved prophet not only calls us to be better missionaries, to lengthen our stride, he shows us how. In 1975 my wife and I were with President and Sister Kimball in Bogota, Colombia. As we were in the airport for his departure, an airlines representative met with us. Upon being introduced to this fine young man, the prophet extended his hand with these words, “Young man, I hope the next time I shake your hand you’re a member of this church.” Without any hesitation, and with his eyes fixed firmly on those of the prophet, the man replied, “Sir, so do I!” The President turned to the mission president and obtained a commitment from him to teach the man the gospel. Words President Kimball had spoken to missionaries in Bogota had been exemplified in deed: “Give full energy and thought to the Lord’s work–your lives will be rich because of it.” That day I saw how the prophet’s full thought was centered on living the spirit of the calling, as well as carrying out the physical duties that are his.

I was so impressed by the effectiveness of this missionary approach by the prophet that I tried it myself in Puerto Rico. Just a few weeks later I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for a district conference. Following the morning session a Brother Martinez brought his nonmember mother and sisters up so I could meet them. As I leaned down over the railing of the stand I could hear the words of President Kimball ringing in my mind. Out they came: “Ma’am, the next time I shake your hand, I hope you are a member of this Church.” To my amazement and joy, her reply came quickly and sincerely, “And sir, so do I.” Five weeks following the conference the Martinez family was baptized. The father followed the rest of the family into the waters of baptism by three weeks. This experience has been repeated at least six times. My life has become rich by following the example set by President Kimball.

When I was a full-time missionary I had that kind of boldness. It's easier to be bold with people in far away countries, but so much credit harder to be bold with our neighbors. I talk about the church with people all the time. I'm rarely silent about my beliefs. And yet, this story makes me realize that I have been far too timid.

A story shared by Elder Marion G. Romney had a similar impact:

In any event, the charge came to my mind recently as I listened to the report of a returned missionary.

He told us that the wife in the family in whose home he and his companion were living was interested in the gospel; her husband was not interested, however. But finally he warmed up a little and said that when the missionaries had nothing else to do he would listen to them. Sometime thereafter when a wet and windy storm drove them in from tracting, finding him alone, they gave him the first missionary lesson. He didn’t exhibit much interest at first, but when they had concluded, he stood up and said, in effect:

“Do you know what you have just told me?”

They thought they did.

“Do you believe it?” he asked.

“Yes,” they replied, “we believe it.”

“Well then,” he declared, “you don’t understand what you’re saying. If you really believed that God and His resurrected Son, Jesus Christ, actually came to this earth in 1820 and personally appeared to a boy and gave him the message you say they gave him, no storm could drive you in from doing your work. With a message like that you would have to stay out there knocking on doors and delivering your message.”

As I have thought about this incident, I have asked myself the question which I now put to you: How much of a storm does it take to drive you in? How much of a storm does it take to drive me in?

How easily dissuaded or distracted are we from sharing the Gospel because we worry about being uncomfortable? If we truly understand how precious and incredible the Gospel is, we will be bold in sharing and willing to take on whatever inconvenience needed to share our witness.

A Personal Relationship with God and Christ

One persistent criticism that I have heard Evangelicals level at Mormons is that we do not believe in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That argument is based on a BYU devotional given by Bruce R. McConkie where he denounced a then prevalent philosophy among the BYU faculty focused on developing special closeness to the savior at the expense of other members of the Godhead. Some have taken this talk to mean that Mormon's cannot draw close to Christ. That is of course utter nonsense. As Elder McConkie himself said during his devotional:

Now I sincerely hope that no one will imagine that I have in the slightest degree downgraded the Lord Jesus in the scheme of things. I have not done so. As far as I know there is not a man on earth who thinks more highly of him than I do. It just may be that I have preached more sermons, taught more doctrine, and written more words about the Lord Jesus Christ than any other man now living. I have ten large volumes in print, seven of which deal almost entirely with Christ, and the other three with him and his doctrines.

In October 1976, a few years before Elder McConkie's devotional, Elder James Faust, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy spoke about developing a personal relationship with the savior in moving and powerful terms. Some might see his remarks as contrary to Elder McConkie's speech, but I see them as wholly compatible.

There is a great humility and timidity in my soul as I presume to speak about coming to a personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Son of God.

Recently in South America, a seasoned group of outstanding missionaries was asked, “What is the greatest need in the world?” One wisely responded: “Is not the greatest need in all of the world for every person to have a personal, ongoing, daily, continuing relationship with the Savior?” Having such a relationship can unchain the divinity within us, and nothing can make a greater difference in our lives as we come to know and understand our divine relationship with God.

We should earnestly seek not just to know about the Master, but to strive, as He invited, to be one with Him (see John 17:21), to “be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man” (Eph. 3:16). We may not feel a closeness with Him because we think of Him as being far away, or our relationship may not be sanctifying because we do not think of Him as a real person.

President Faust spoke of the need to truly come to know Christ because knowing him will "unchain the divinity within us. And as we come to know about Christ, and feel of his love we also come to know our father in Heaven. This is the pattern of the Gospel. We learn of him and are then transformed by him.

Interestingly, President Faust's message was reprinted in the Ensign in 1999 with a slightly different focus on coming to know Jesus Christ AND Heavenly Father.

There is great humility and timidity in my soul as I presume to discuss coming to a personal knowledge of God, the Eternal Father, and Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world and the Son of God.

Critics might suggest that this was a white wash of President Faust's talk in light of Elder McConkie's criticism. But I rather see that President Faust's decades of service made it even more clear to him that our relationship with God and our relationship with Christ are inexorably intertwined.

Or perhaps it is true that Elder McConkie's words influenced others to avoid using the "personal relationship with Christ" language. Nevertheless, the message is the same and in complete harmony. Come to know God and know the Savior because your eternal life depends on it.

True Beauty

Elder Sterling W. Sill spoke about the somewhat unusual topic of death and dying well. But what I really enjoyed in his talk was his discussion of true beauty.

I am going to quote at length because it allows Elder Sill’s unusual insight to shine:

We sometimes imagine that Jesus is different than we are, but the Prophet Joseph Smith tried to describe his some fifteen or sixteen visits with the angel Moroni. Moroni was a soldier who lived upon our continent. For the last thirty-seven years of his life he lived alone. He said, “My father hath been slain [as well as] all my kinsfolk, and I have not friends nor whither to go. “Wherefore,” said he, “I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life.” (Morm. 8:5, Moro. 1:3)

He didn’t have a warm bathroom to go into every morning or someone to get him a good breakfast or provide him with clean clothing. We might imagine that during these many long and lonely years he had allowed his personality to run down a little bit. And then we see him for the last time as he stood there on the edge of his grave, writing us his last paragraph. In closing his great book he said, “And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead.” (Moro. 10:34.)

And then there followed a long silence of fourteen centuries. For 1,403 years we heard nothing more, until on the night of September 21, 1823, this same old man, now resurrected and glorified, stood by the bedside of Joseph Smith. And the Prophet tried to describe him as he then appeared. And while he said that was impossible, yet he tried. And here are some of the phrases he used. He said, “His whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning.” (JS–H 1:32) Not only was his person glorious, but even his clothing was brilliant. “Beyond anything earthly I had ever seen,” said he, “nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant.” (JS–H 1:31)

We all know the things that we do to make this body a pleasant habitation. We bathe it and keep it clean; we dress it in the most appropriate clothing. Sometimes we ornament it with jewelry. If we’re very wealthy we buy necklaces and bracelets and diamond rings and other things to make this body sparkle and shine and make it a pleasant place. Sometimes we work on it a little bit with cosmetics and eyebrow tweezers. Sometimes we don’t help it very much, but we keep working at it all the time.

Now if you think it would be pleasant to be dressed in expensive clothing, what do you think it would be like sometime to be dressed in an expensive body–one that shines like the sun, one that is beautiful beyond all comprehension, with quickened senses, amplified powers of perception, and vastly increased capacity for love, understanding, and happiness. And we might just keep in mind that God runs the most effective beauty parlor ever known in the world.

As Elder Sills describes, true beauty is more than skin deep. True beauty comes from the soul. 

One of the most radiant spirits I’ve ever known was a 90+ year old member of the church living in Krasnoyarsk Russia named Taisia. Taisia was one of the first and strongest members of the Church in the area. When she spoke of the gospel and the savior, her face glowed and her countenance shone. Each week, we went to her and blessed the sacrament for her, and as we did so her radiat expression lit the whole room. I loved basking in her light. It was one of the most edifying and powerful experiences of my life. 

Taisia was not beautiful by earthly standards valuing youth and physical beauty. But she had truly internalized what it meant to be a beautiful soul. She had met the measure of her creation. May we do likewise.

Now I don’t know what it would be like if we sometime discovered that we had missed the goal of life and had allowed ourselves to become only telestial souls. I do know that it would be as far below the celestial as the twinkle of a tiny star is below the blaze of the noonday sun.

In a Single Bound

One thing I love about General Conference is being able to read excerpts of inspired poems written by non-member authors who nevertheless were moved upon by the Holy Ghost.

In the October 1976 conference, Elder William H. Bennett quoted from the poet Josiah Gilbert Holland to speak about the need to press forward unto perfection by our daily efforts. Holland was a favored poet around this period, as this poem called Gradatim and another poem entitled God, Give us Men, were frequently quoted by General Authorities.  (According to the Corpus of LDS General Conferences, God, give us men was quoted 17 times from 1912-1974, while Gradatim was quoted at least 6 times in addition to this talk).

I was really moved by the full text:

GRADATIM

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit round by round.

I count this thing to be grandly true:
That a noble deed is a step toward God,
Lifting the soul from the common clod
To a purer air and a broader view.

We rise by the things that are under feet;
By what we have mastered of good and gain;
By the pride deposed and the passion slain,
And the vanquished ills that we hourly meet.

We hope, we aspire, we resolve, we trust,
When the morning calls us to life and light,
But our hearts grow weary, and, ere the night,
Our lives are trailing the sordid dust.

We hope, we resolve, we aspire, we pray,
And we think that we mount the air on wings
Beyond the recall of sensual things,
While our feet still cling to the heavy clay.

Wings for the angels, but feet for men!
We may borrow the wings to find the way —
We may hope, and resolve, and aspire, and pray;
But our feet must rise, or we fall again.

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.

Heaven is not reached at a single bound;
But we build the ladder by which we rise
From the lowly earth, to the vaulted skies,
And we mount to its summit, round by round.
Josiah Gilbert Holland

 

I especially loved a portion of the poem that was not quoted by Elder Bennett but that really fit his theme well:

Wings for the angels, but feet for men!
We may borrow the wings to find the way —
We may hope, and resolve, and aspire, and pray;
But our feet must rise, or we fall again.

Only in dreams is a ladder thrown
From the weary earth to the sapphire walls;
But the dreams depart, and the vision falls,
And the sleeper wakes on his pillow of stone.

I love the poetic usage of the theme of wings as a metaphor for our natural desire to soar above our mortal and frail imperfections. I love the image of ladders drawn from Jacob’s ladder, suggesting a smooth and eternal climb.

In our moments of spiritual uplift, we feel like we have angels wings. And through revelation, dreams, or temple worship, we feel like we ascend up a smooth ladder up to heaven. And then, we leave the temple or step back to reality.  Our weak and carnal nature reasserts ourselves.  We wake up on an uncomfortable pillar of stone.  And then we have to go to work and build our own imperfect path through small and simple steps.

This poem sirs up for me a desire to do better at achieving angelic lift more frequently. I know that I need to be lifted on angel wings and climb up the celestial ladder more frequently in order to be more fully guided as I attempt to build my own ladder.

The challenge of having a living prophet

Reading older general conference addresses is a rewarding mix of challenging and comforting messages. 

The first session of the October 1976 conference offered lots of both, but I’m going to focus on some of the parts that were personally challenging. 

President Kimball spoke of the evil’s of pornography and urged members to join the fight against obscenity:

And so we say to you: Teach your children to avoid smut as the plague it is. As citizens, join in the fight against obscenity in your communities. Do not be lulled into inaction by the pornographic profiteers who say that to remove obscenity is to deny people the rights of free choice. Do not let them masquerade licentiousness as liberty.

Precious souls are at stake–souls that are near and dear to each of us.

As someone who has long been just about a free speech absolutist, this is a very challenging message that feels directed right at me. As I read such thoughts, I reflect deeply on how I can do better to align my professional and intellectual vocations with the demands of God through a living Prophet. I find such challenges to be one of the greatest things about having a living prophet on the earth.

Another point from President Kimball likewise challenged me as a conservative who usually wants to see limited or smaller government. President Kimball spoke of the importance of family life, and held up a social program in France as an example:

Family life is gaining ground. Some countries are coming to an appreciation for children and family life.

We note that France has now repudiated that program which would limit life. It is said that if a couple’s combined ages in France do not exceed fifty-two and one of them is employed, the couple can borrow $1,350 from the government on demand. This is for the payment of rent, payment on a home, or for household equipment, with fifteen months to pay.

If a French couple has a baby before the loan payment is due, their debt is reduced by 15 percent for the first child, 25 percent for the second child, 25 percent for the third, and complete debt forgiveness for the fourth. In France the expectant mother is said to receive $150 for prenatal care. This is a step in the right direction.

President Kimball’s remarks suggest that government can and should play a role in supporting and promoting the family and family values. This pushback on more traditional anti-government conservatives views is extremely valuable for all who listen. This is exactly how it should be.