Thursday, March 29, 2012

Endure to the End

The more I read about Oliver Cowdery, the more I realize that my challenges are nothing in comparison. Obviously, we receive tests of our faith in accordance with and on the level we need to secure what we need to know for ourselves about ourselves. Of Abraham's commandment to sacrifice Isaac, Truman Madsen stated, "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." James Allen in his famous book As a Man Thinketh, states, "Our challenges do not make our character, but rather reveal our character."

As we endure and prove our mettle, our character grows. If we merely get through it and hope that we never have to face another challenge, we set ourselves up for the time when the challenge will just be more than God should ask of us and we cave, blaming God for our circumstances. Deep within we know that it was not God's plan that we should fail, but our own weakness that allowed us to be in the place where we find ourselves. Pride and fear keep us from gaining our place with Him, if we do not repent and apply ourselves to the task of rebuilding our faith.

In Section 23, Oliver is told, "Behold, thou art blessed and art under no condemnation. But beware of pride, lest thou should enter into temptation." The Lord obviously knew the weakness of the man and gave him the key to enduring to the end. In the end, however, it was pride that Oliver allowed to keep him from his greatest potential.

In Section 25, Emma Smith is told, "...[T]he office of thy calling shall be for a comfort unto my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., thy husband, in his afflictions, with consoling words, in the spirit of meekness." Later in that section she is told that she should lay aside the things of this world and seek for a better. Then she is reminded that she should rejoice and cleave unto the covenants into which she has entered. As did Oliver, she suffered untold persecution and tragedy. What she suffered and what her attitude was that kept her from joining with the saints in the trek west, we don't fully know. Much has been written that excuses her and much has been written and spoken that condemns her. What we do know is that she did not keep her covenants and allowed her pride to keep her children from receiving the blessings of being raised in the Gospel. Only now are their descendants beginning to return to the restored Gospel.

What can we learn from these examples? Obviously, we can determine a couple of principles. First, endure to the end includes every trial of our faith. Perhaps, like Oliver and Emma, the trial of our faith seems more than we can endure and we leave the faith. Often, however, it means we lose the fire that we once had to love and serve the Lord and we simply go through the motions. We ignore the promptings of the Spirit to visit the widow and the fatherless in their afflictions and find something else to do. I don't know if the condemnation of one is any worse than the other. We must work through these trials of our faith, no matter what the genesis of the trial might be, whether it comes from inside ourselves in the form of discouragement or pride, inside the Church in the form of perceived unfairness or offense from a leader or co-worker or from its detractors who somehow manage to strike a chord with one of their accusations. It may take some time, but if we remain as faithful as we can, pray without ceasing, and try to hear and obey the voice of the Lord, that trial will, after a time, become a distant memory. Our faith will grow and our blessings will increase.

The other lesson, in my experience, is that the Lord's servants are called to positions of responsibility and some of those have prominence to one degree or another. We must keep in mind that the position has the prominence, not us. Whether our calling puts us in front of a class, a congregation, a stake or the entire Church, we are not prominent, the office is. We do not punish the Church or punish God with our absence, our breach of covenants, or our loafing. The Church and God will thrive without our presence, but without the devout fire within us we do not thrive. They can get by without us, but we cannot succeed to any comparable or significant degree without them. I believe both Oliver and Emma learned this lesson. Oliver returned to the Church in humility. Emma never did, perhaps because of the circumstances in which she placed herself. Her posterity have paid the price, but mercifully, they are starting to return and the ordinance work is being done for those who have passed on since that difficult time. We can learn from them, if we will.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Priesthood Completes the Atonement

Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants is one of the most complete and, at the same time, compelling explanations of the purpose of such a complete organization as the Church is.  Looking at it as a whole you come to an appreciation of why the Lord would not sanction a church with little or no organization. You can also see why the Lord would not sanction a church with a corporate-style organization. The section also points out the importance of the Book of Mormon in bringing to the world the more complete understanding of the Atonement.

It begins with the calling of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the fact that they were ordained to their callings as first and second elders of the Church. It points out the Joseph received a remission of his sins, then "became entangled in the vanities of the world" (a reference to the incident where the first 116 pages of the translated Book of Lehi were lost), repented and was able to complete the translation of the Book of Mormon.

It next bears witness of the verity of the book, the confirmation of witness, some of whom witnessed the book by the ministering of angels. The coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the testimony of the witnesses proves to the world that God is unchanging and gives scripture to men today as he did of old. Those who humble themselves to receive these scriptures and work righteousness will receive eternal life while those who reject it will do so to their own condemnation.

Who is this unchangeable God? He is the same who created the heavens and the earth and created man and woman in his own image and likeness. He gave them commandments that they should love and serve him, but through transgression they became fallen, sensual and devilish. He then gave his Only Begotten Son who suffered, died and rose again, then ascended into heaven to assume almighty power. Now as many as will repent and accept baptism in his holy name and endure to the end will be saved, which includes those living today, those who lived before and those who will yet come. They must believe the words of inspired prophets and the Holy Ghost who bears record of the Father and the Son.

Yet, even after having received the ordinances and the justification through the grace of Christ; even after having received sanctification by our holy love and service as well as the grace of Christ, we may yet fall from His grace and depart from God. Therefore, even the sanctified must take heed and pray always, lest we fall into transgression.

What an amazing and inspiring summary of the creation, fall and atonement. It is a simple, inspiring summary of our duty and opportunity to build our character and become like Him: holy and sanctified. Who does not, in their heart of hearts, desire such a state? Yet we live in a fallen world; we have the concerns of fallen man and we will not always be sanctified and holy (though, I have met men and women who have learned to live above the petty concerns that weigh down the majority of us).

He now goes into the tools given to those who embrace the restored gospel, church, priesthood and priesthood ordinances.

Baptism is to be received by those who humble themselves before God and who have truly repented of their sins and are determined to serve Christ to the end. If that doesn't sound like an eight-year old, consider the verses later in the chapter that describe those who receive the sacrament. Not only do we make such a commitment at our initial baptism, but each week throughout our lives. As we mature and our lives become more complicated, this ongoing commitment becomes even more important.

Next, we receive the offices of the priesthood. With the exception of the office of a deacon, all priesthood offices have the duty to preach, teach, expound, exhort, watch over the church, and take charge of meetings. Throughout this portion of Section 20, it is clear that the whole purpose of holding offices in the priesthood is to be a strength to the church. The word church is not capitalized, indicating that these verses apply not to the organization - Church, but to the members - church. Exhort them to pray, see that there is no iniquity, hardness, lying, backbiting, or evil speaking. Teach them their duties, meet together often (including quarterly conferences) in order to see that they do their duties.

The wisdom in this type of organization is only now being recognized by the corporate world. If all the responsibility of these important matters is left primarily to one person, a minister or preacher (or even a boss), not only would much fall through the cracks, but little growth would take place in the individual members. Certainly, they would have the reinforcement of the Holy Ghost as they strive to live their lives, but taking this level of responsibility engenders loyalty, a deep commitment to the work and to the individual members, as well as personal growth in spirit and understanding.

The section ends with the exact words for those prayers/ordinances that can be performed outside the temple and which require the exact wording specified by scripture: the sacrament prayers and the baptismal prayer. It is once again observed that in order for the blessings of baptism to be realized and the commitments to be better understood and accepted as we mature, it is important that we meet together often to partake of the emblems of the sacrament.

So important are these ordinances and ordinations that records are kept and certificates are issued so no one can take this honor to himself upon a whim that he has received some order from God to act outside the structure of the Lord's church. The record is so important that specific instructions are given for the removal of a person's name should his actions of rebellion rise to the level of apostasy.

This is one of the most complete treatises and inspired writings in all scripture. Beginning with the need for the restoration and the publishing of the Book of Mormon to the explanation of who the unchangeable God is and describing the creation, fall and atonement all in a way that engenders hope, faith and gratitude, the Section then gives specific instruction for our accepting and performing the ordinances of salvation. It deserves careful reading and re-reading to extract for ourselves where we are and where we could be with just a little more effort and a little deeper commitment.

Monday, March 19, 2012

What Repentance Should Feel Like

The first half of Section 19 is defining Endless torment and Eternal punishment. It is God's torment and punishment as Endless and Eternal are two of his names. As we traveled from Utah after Dad's funeral, we listened to an audio book by Joel Rosenberg where he describes the end of the world. One character has demons scratching out his eyes and he realizes that that will be happening to him for the rest of eternity. The description in this section of the Doctrine and Covenants of what will happen to us if we fail to repent is not pleasant - we will suffer as Christ suffered, but we are also promised that we need not suffer if we would repent.

Then, the comforting words regarding his mission: "Learn of me, and listen to my words; walk in the meekness of my Spirit, and you shall have peace in me." He then commands us not to be covetous, not only of other's spouses, property or their lives, but not to covet even our own property. Earthly status, wealth, even reputation are secondary to the will of the Father.

"Pray always, and I will pour out my Spirit upon you, and great shall be your blessing - yea, even more than if you should obtain treasures of earth and corruptibleness to the extent thereof. Behold canst thou read this without rejoicing and lifting up thy heart for gladness?"

There is gladness when the Spirit is assisting our walk in life. What, though, of those times that we have acted to repel the Spirit? It is so easy to become discouraged because it seems that we fall into a pattern of behavior that we thought we had overcome or we violated our consciences once again. We know that we are forgiven if we repent, but that we must not enter into that sin again. We did anyway.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson gave a masterful address on this subject in the October 2011 General Conference.  Part of his talk addressed this issue: " Surely the Lord smiles upon one who desires to come to judgment worthily, who resolutely labors day by day to replace weakness with strength. Real repentance, real change may require repeated attempts, but there is something refining and holy in such striving. Divine forgiveness and healing flow quite naturally to such a soul, for indeed 'virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; [and] mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own' (D&C 88:40)." (Emphasis added)

There are two things to keep in mind. First, discouragement is not of God. The source of discouragement is Satanic.  There is a place for it if it brings us safety or redirects us to something better than what we are currently pursuing, but more often it keeps us from stepping out of our comfort zones and achieving more. Stare discouragement in the eye and go forward anyway. It is a subtle form of fear which is the antithesis of faith.  Second, Christ's atonement is not limited to just the first sin. It is an infinite atonement. Of course, we cannot use that as an excuse to continue in our destructive paths with the idea that we will someday take advantage of the atonement, but for today we will be self indulgent. But when we return to the Savior with sincere hearts and the true desire to change our lives, his grace is sufficient.  Now we can truly lift up our hearts for gladness.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Duty of Testimony

Sections 14-16 of the Doctrine and Covenants were given to the Whitmer brothers and Section 17 to David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris.  All of them have to do with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.  In each case, the man or men being addressed had a specific, but unexpressed desire to know what was of most worth to them. I think most of us, if we are truly anxious to do the will of God and live in accordance with his will, have desired to know the same thing.  "Just tell me what to do and I will do it." Usually, in answer to that inquiry we get silence, or only the smallest hint of what we should be doing.

In actuality, we don't really want to have our entire lives dictated to us.  We cherish those moments when we have received promptings and direction. These experiences have brought us joy and the satisfaction of knowing that we are an instrument in the hands of God. To have every step dictated to us, however, would eliminate our need for growth, learning and developing our gifts to make the decisions of life. Galileo stated, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." Part of the use of sense, reason and intellect results in failure. Failure is part of our learning; no one who succeeds in any aspect of life has done so without some failure (usually a lot) along the way.  We abhor failure and wish to avoid it, so we think we would prefer to just have the Spirit tell us everything, especially when we are young.  As we grow to see the place of failure, we are less concerned with it and are more willing to move on despite it, I think. "I have not failed," said Thomas Edison, "I have found 10,000 ways that won't work."

In the case of the Whitmer brothers and the Three witnesses, the thing that is of most worth is to declare repentance that they might bring souls unto Christ.  They were also charged with the duty to testify of the Book of Mormon and the fact that they had seen the plates either as one of three or one of eight witnesses.  They were cautioned that because they had the same power, gift and faith as the prophet that they must endure to the end so the gates of Hell could not prevail against them. They were promised that they would receive the greatest gift of all, which is the gift of eternal life. "[M]y grace is sufficient for you and you shall be lifted up at the last day. And I, Jesus Christ, your Lord and your God, have spoken it unto you, that I might bring about my righteous purposes unto the children of men."

In actuality, none of them remained faithful, or endured to the end.  They all committed serious transgressions to the effect that to some degree, they could be seen to have blood on their hands as they gave fodder to the mobs that drove the saints from one place to another by physical abuse, bloodshed, rape and destruction of property. Most of these men returned and asked forgiveness of the members of the Church and of the First Presidency, but none were restored to their previous prominence.  What does that mean for them, eternally? It means that the perfect God who knows them perfectly and who has the capacity for eternal perspective will judge them accordingly and that they will, assuming that their repentance was true and sincere, receive the gift that was promised to them, that is eternal life - the greatest of the gifts of God.

We must never presume that prominence in the Church (or any other aspect of life, for that matter) will assure us of eternal life.  We must never presume that lack of prominence in this life will condemn us eternally, either.  We may assume, however, that while we may delay, time does not, as Benjamin Franklin observed.  When we fail to use our short time that is allotted to us, or we waste it due to indolence, fear of failure or exposure of our weaknesses, self indulgence, or for whatever reason, we lose what we have been promised, or it is delayed until we take the opportunity to repent and use the time we have left to make up the difference as much as possible.  If you were to ask anyone who has absented himself or herself from activity in the Church, and later returned, they will express regret for the time they have wasted. They have also been absent when others could have used their attention, maybe in positions of prominence or maybe not; it doesn't matter.

In other words, when these men, and , by extension, all of us who accept covenants of sacrifice and consecration, were told to thrust in their sickles with their might if they expect to receive the greatest blessings in heaven and on earth, that challenge was serious.  Anything less deserves less of a result. We cannot expect that we can sit on the sidelines and nurse our doubts, coddle our fears, and grovel in our weaknesses and receive the blessings that those who put aside their excuses and apply themselves with all their hearts will receive. It would be eternally unfair. What shall we do? Stop thinking about ourselves and go to work. When prompted, call someone or visit someone. Know the handbook regarding our calling and do more research, commit it to prayer, act on promptings regarding it and, after setting goals, make a plan to achieve the goals. Have a daily plan to read and ponder the scriptures, including the Ensign and General Conference talks with the idea of finding those things we could be doing better than we currently are. 

In my experience, the results are above our expectations if we are willing to just do it without excuse or fear.

Friday, March 2, 2012

What We Know About God

Reading Sections 6-11 of the Doctrine and Covenants and knowing a little about Church history, some interesting observations can be made.  Oliver Cowdery was given some amazing promises and great spiritual experiences.  The things he witnessed during a few short years were likely beyond anything anyone in the Church today would experience in their lifetimes.  Oliver discovered two truths: 1. The more he experienced, the greater the growth and  joy he obtained. 2. The more he grew spiritually, the greater the burden, challenge and opposition he experienced.  The same is true of Hyrum Smith and many others. The difference among them is that those who endured and did not succumb to the challenges and opposition continued in growth and joy. Those who allowed the opposition and burdens to overcome them ceased receiving the blessings.  In most cases, they considered the great spiritual experiences as a distant memory of something that hardly seemed real any more.

Oliver had expectations of wealth and given the prosperous times, the expectations were well founded.  Land prices were accelerating at an unprecedented rate in Kirtland and all the upper part of Ohio as people moved into the fertile country to settle.  There was no central banking system, so money was produced by the local bank.  Our money today is the result of the type of money they had developed then.  Banks would take your gold or silver coin or bullion and issue you "notes" in various denominations. Your $5 note may be worth $5 or more, or less depending upon the good credit of the bank upon which it was drawn. Today we have a central bank, so our money is subject to inflation or deflation, but will never be worth nothing. Unfortunately, in Kirkland the bank, along with thousands of others, became the victim of the bursting of the real estate bubble and resulting depression and it failed.

Oliver had many trials from mobbers and others outside the Church and even disaffected members of the Church, but this time, he felt that investing with the prophet was his pathway to wealth.  His faith and that of several others was tried beyond what he felt he could bear and he left the Church.  He became a bitter man and an enemy to the prophet.

Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff and many others also lost their fortunes in the venture, but disassociated the bank from the restoration of the Gospel and continued faithful.  Revelations continued, the process of restoring the Gospel, the Church and the priesthood with its saving ordinances also continued.  Oliver felt that he had become an indispensable part of the process and became, at first, bitter when he saw that it all continued without him and that others had easily taken his place.  Later, this realization touched his heart to the point of turning him around and he sought to be readmitted into the Church.

We sometimes make mistakes similar to Oliver.  It may not be that we feel the Church cannot do without us, but we place our finite understanding before God's infinite understanding.  He gives us counsel we would rather not accept.  We find that the way we are living or the way someone we love is living is harmless in our own minds and that a loving God would accept that.  We try to create God in our own image.  We cannot (or choose not to), with our limited understanding, accept certain principles that have been revealed.

We have two choices.  We can continue faithful and accept that the principles are true and eternal, or we can give God an ultimatum that if he does not change the principle, the situation, the commandment, or whatever the case may be, we will leave him and his church. Put that way, the choice is clear, but when we are emotionally invested in the outcome, our ability to see the situation logically sometimes gets cloudy.

In my experience, it never works to try to punish God or his church.  As Cecil B. DeMille once observed, "We cannot break the Ten Commandments, we can only break ourselves against them."  The only process that works is to continue faithful and wait for the day that it becomes clear to us.  That day does come, eventually.  Why?

We know without any doubt that God's understanding is infinite, thus obviously superior to our own, so we trust in his wisdom and keep his counsel.  We know that God's power is infinite, but functions within universal laws which he cannot break because, if he did, the universe would be chaos.  Therefore, he can accomplish with his power what our puny arm is incapable of accomplishing.  Finally, we know his love is infinite and superior to our own.  Because he loves us he cannot excuse our kicking against the pricks and our violations of his laws and commandments, but will give to us what we deserve.  We will deserve what we truly seek.  When we come to the realization that what we seek is damning us, his love, power and understanding are available to change our hearts.

Where is Christ in all this? It is by his grace (enabling power) that we can approach the Father and receive the miracle of forgiveness.  I am reading a book written by Neal A. Maxwell when he served as a member of the First Quorum of Seventy - well before he became an apostle.  It is one of the books that came from my father's library.  It is entitled Things as They Really Are.  In it he talks of the reality of the purpose of life, the reality of a living God, the reality of a living church, a living prophet, living scriptures and things as they really will be.  It is typical of Elder Maxwell's writings; short, filled with brief metaphors, but direct.  In the chapter on The Reality of the Living God he makes the point these sections we have been  looking at in the D & C are making.

In this chapter he makes the point that it may be "nettling" to be reminded that our work is unfinished and that we yet have remaining possibilities, responsibilities and things that must be done or undone. "But, could we honestly worship the living God or care much about membership in the living Church if it all were not really so?"  He goes on to describe the various levels of acceptance of God.  There are those who are angry with God for not existing (he does not respond as a butler when they call), those who are angry because he does exist (that bothersome conscience thing), those who accept his existence, "but smugly do not choose to take him seriously."

Then there are "others [who] believe their morals are superior to God's. Because he does not adopt their issues or jump the hurdles they wish him to jump, they are not going to extend themselves in worship of him. The Lord describes such individuals as 'walking in darkness at noon-day.' (D&C 95:6) The living God will not be disregarded."

He then states that a "passive life force" (a God who is like a book on a shelf - there when you need him, but otherwise unnecessary) or "an indulgent grandfather God" (one who will change to match our superior morality) wouldn't worry about our life's challenges. "As long as we are being basically good boys and girls who might find some good to do in Tarshish [where Jonah tried to flee in order to change his mission to one he favored over Nineveh]. But we have a precise and loving Father in heaven who knows what we need and who loves us enough to get us to Nineveh instead of settling for the chores of Tarshish.
     "We keep forgetting that a test must really be a test, and a trial a trial... It is a measure of both the love of a living God and his perfect awareness of our needs.  In our hearts we often know this  even if we resent it!"

What of those who never choose to change their damning course; who place their morality before God's; who leave his living church, scriptures, worship and Christ's grace?  We also cannot assume we know their hearts, their conscience or their disabilities. We must only assume that a living God knows them deeply and completely.  They will receive what they have chosen and that with which they will be comfortable.  We weep for them, we grieve for them, but in the end, we must never cease loving them and trusting in a God whose infinite power will change them if they choose to come unto him.  Life tends to last a long time; longer than time, to be exact.  Much can happen that we cannot even predict.  We are patient and loving with them, but we do not accept evil and call it good.  We stay on a plane from which we can pull another up and not descend to a plane below where we should be.

The last verse of Section 11 states: "[A]s many as receive me, to them will I give power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on my name." That is why we seek to know his will for us every day of our lives.  That is why we conform to his will despite our desires to avoid the challenges of Nineveh and just stay comfortable in Tarshish. The result is always that we become better than we thought we could in every aspect of our lives.