Wednesday, June 24, 2009
My home ward had big Pioneer Day parties in the city park every year. The agenda never changed. We would start with the parade around the park. (I’m sure we must have appeared as a pretty rag tag group to the other townspeople in the park, but we didn’t care.) After the parade (in which EVERYONE participated) it was potluck time. Everyone’s moms brought their best potluck dishes and we ate and ate and ate. My dad was always in charge of making the home made root beer. We would finish off with a huge table of desserts and rootbeer floats made with home made root beer and ice cream.
Finally, after everyone was fat and happy and everything had been cleaned up and put away, the whole ward would head over to the city swimming pool which the ward had rented for the night. It was so exciting. I remember the smell of the pool and the coolness of the water in the hot summer air. Some of my favorite memories are riding on my dad’s shoulders as we had chicken fights with my friends and their dads. It was at a Pioneer Day swimming party that I first dove off of a diving board and a year later, closed my eyes, held my nose, gathered my courage, and jumped off the high dive.
So, why am I telling you this story? What’s the point? I have some great memories of Pioneer Day celebrations. I knew the pioneer stories that we learned in Primary and I knew the stories we’d learned in Family Home Evening, but as a child, I didn’t really know or care why we were all celebrating. I just wanted to have a good time. Have my Pioneer Day experiences changed me? Have they brought me closer to my Savior?
A few years ago, many of our youth participated in the handcart trek. Just like I used to do as a child, they dressed up in pioneer clothes. They didn’t have a parade, but they walked a long way pushing and pulling heavy handcarts up and down huge hills. Why did they do that? What’s the point? Did their experience change them? Did it bring them closer to their Heavenly Father and to Jesus Christ?
Elder Dallin H. Oaks asks the following question, "Now, after all these studies and activities, it is appropriate to ask ourselves, Therefore, what? Are these pioneer celebrations academic, merely increasing our fund of experiences and knowledge? Or will they have a profound impact on how we live our lives?"
Elder Oaks then answers his own question, "It is not enough to study or reenact the accomplishments of our pioneers. We need to identify the great, eternal principles they applied to achieve all they achieved for our benefit and then apply those principles to the challenges of our day. In that way, we honor their pioneering efforts, and we also reaffirm our heritage and strengthen its capacity to bless our own posterity and ‘those millions of our Heavenly Father’s children who have yet to hear and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ We are all pioneers in doing so."
So, what are some of the great, eternal principles that the pioneers embodied and that we need to apply in our lives? There are many, but I would like to focus on three principles that pioneers represented: faith, courage, and unity. Then, we can examine how we use those principles in our lives to strengthen and bless those around us. In Mosiah 4:10, it says, "And now, if you believe all these things, see that ye do them." I’m sure Mosiah gave that counsel because it is through our actions that we show our hearts to those around us. It is through our willingness to obey the commandments of the Lord that we show Him how much we love Him. The Saviour said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." (John 14:15)
So, let’s talk about faith, courage, and unity. With faith in Christ, the Mormon pioneers did the thing that defines all pioneers. They stepped into the unknown. They had an unknown prophet. The belonged to an unknown church. They were headed to an unknown country. Besides their unwavering faith in God, they had faith in their leaders, in one another, and in themselves. They trusted and obeyed and stood courageously strong against formidable opposition. Being faithful gave the Pioneers courage to be obedient. Remember, if we keep the commandments, we are showing Jesus Christ that we love him, and John says, "Perfect love casteth out fear." (I Jn 4:18) When we are obedient, we are filled with love for the Lord and in return we are filled with love from the Lord. Moroni, chapter 7 tells us that "charity is the pure love of Christ" and that it is a gift that Heavenly Father "bestows upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ." When we are filled with His love (charity), we are not afraid to do what is right and to be examples of obedience. His perfect love does cast out fear.
The pioneers forged strong bonds that created an amazing unity within their community. (Have you ever noticed that the root word of community is unity?) We have all heard stories from church history that point out the inclusivity of the early saints. (They were not exclusive, they were inclusive.) When the saints were driven out of Missouri, many were so poor that they didn’t have wagons or teams to use to make the trip. The church members entered into a covenant that no one would be left behind regardless of financial situation. Those who had little shared with those who had none. At great sacrifice, all were moved out of Missouri. Later, when the saints were pushed out of Nauvoo and began to move west, they again included all who desired to come with them. In D&C Section 136:8, the Lord told the Saints in Winter Quarters, "Let each company bear an equal proportion....in taking the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the families of those who have gone into the army, that the cries of the widow and the fatherless come not up into the ears of the Lord against this people."
Our Prophet, our Stake President and our Bishop have all asked us to become a united people. They have asked us to begin to create Zion in our homes, our wards, and our communities. The title Zion describes a perfectly unified community. In Moses 7:18, it gives this description of the city of Enoch. "And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them." I love that description. What does it mean to be of one heart and one mind? I believe it means that we have the same ultimate goal. That goal is to return home to our Heavenly Father when this life is over. And, we don’t want to return alone. We want to bring those we love home to Heavenly Father also. When Zion is described as "there were no poor among them," I believe it refers to two kinds of poverty. Certainly in a Zion community, people are not cold or hungry. Everyone’s physical needs are taken care of so that they can focus on the "needful" things of life. In a Zion community there is also no one hungry for the Gospel of Jesus Christ because all of the members of the community love each other (one heart) and share the teachings of God with each other (one mind.).
So, how do we create a unified "Zion" society? I believe it begins in our homes. Are our homes unified? In our homes are we of "one heart and one mind"? Do we talk in our families about our long term goal to have all of us return to our Heavenly Father? Do we have discussions with our children about what that means? Does that ultimate goal influence everything that we do in our families?
In our homes, do we "dwell in righteousness"? Are we, as parents, examples of obedience? Do we model happy righteousness, or do we do what’s right, but moan and groan about it? Or, even worse, do we not even choose the right? King Mosiah tells us to "consider on the blessed and happy state of those that keep the commandments of God." (Mosiah 2) Are our children learning through our examples that it is obedience to the commandments of the Lord that brings true happiness?
Are there any "poor among us" in our homes? I know that we are careful to take care of the temporal needs of our families. They have food to fill them, clothes to cover them, and a roof over their heads to protect them from the elements. But, are we sure that they are also filled with the spirit? Ephesians 3:17 says "That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend...and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God." Have we clothed our families in the "whole armor of God"? (Ephesians 6) Are they not only protected from the elements, but also from the "fiery darts of the adversary" who seeks "to lead them down to destruction"? (1 Ne 15:24)
It is my constant prayer that Joe and I will be able to raise our children in a Zion home. I’m sure that all of you that are parents pray the same prayer even if you don’t use the same words. What would change if all of the members of our families prayed for that blessing? What if all of us as sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins....What if we all prayed for unity in our families and then, with the Lord’s help, worked to become a Zion people?
The Lord gave the answer in D&C 136:11 as he was talking to the saints in Winter Quarters: "And if ye do this with a pure heart, in all faithfulness, ye shall be blessed; you shall be blessed in your flocks, and in your herds, and in your fields, and in your houses, and in your families." In 1 Ne 13:37, the Lord says, " And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end, they shall be lifted up at the last day; and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb...."
As we are able to bring unity into our families, we will become a Zion people. That unity will spread from our families to our wards and to our communities. We will be able to accomplish much good and to bring many who are searching to a knowledge of the Gospel and to the saving ordinances that lead to eternal life.
I’ll close with a final quote from Elder Oaks. He says, "We praise what the pioneers’ unselfishness and sacrifice have done for us, but that is not enough. We should also assure that these same qualities are guiding principles for each of us as we have opportunities to sacrifice for our nations, our families, our quorums, our members, and our Church."
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Lately, I’ve spent some time thinking about grace vs. works. I tend to be a gracer. I believe that (as stated in the 3rd Article of Faith) “…through the atonement of Christ all mankind are saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (emphasis added.)
Without the atonement of Christ (His Grace), it would not matter how many laws and ordinances we obeyed. We could not save ourselves or get ourselves back to our Heavenly Father. Paul said, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” (Romans 3:15) Nephi said “…no unclean thing can dwell with God….” (1 Ne 10:21) Since none of us are perfect (for all have sinned), we cannot be good enough to return to our Father’s presence without the blessing of repentance. Our works alone cannot get us into the Kingdom of God. Without the Grace of Christ, we sinful creatures cannot get back to our Father in Heaven.
I used to imagine that the Judgment Day would be something like this:
Heavenly Father, as Judge, would be sitting at a large desk or table. I would come up to the desk and stand before Him to be judged. He would take out a large scale (you know, the old fashioned kind that Lady Justice is always holding in pictures). He would begin to place on the scale my works. My good works on one side of the scale and my bad works on the other. I imagined that as long as my good works outweighed my bad works, I would be saved and enter into the Kingdom of God.
However, as I have grown older (and hopefully wiser) I have come to see that this is not so. If I have one bad work (sin) on the bad works side of the scale, I am kept out of the Kingdom. There is no place for me. I could have done so many good works during my life that they are piled to the ceiling and the scale is completely tipped over, but if there is the tiniest sin on the other side of the scale, I am unclean and I cannot dwell with God. My good works alone cannot save me. Without the gift of repentance, without Christ’s sacrifice for me, I am lost and cut-off from the presence of God. Christ’s Grace is that He offers to me the possibility of redemption through His mercy.
But, clearly, works have something to do with our salvation. The 3rd Article of Faith states that through God’s Grace “…all mankind are saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.” (emphasis added) If obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel does not have the power to save me without the Atonement, how does obedience fit into the plan?
I believe that the “atonement of Christ” and “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” are mentioned together in the third Article of Faith because the former leads to the latter.
Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)
Once I am truly saved through the atonement of Christ (His Grace), I become a “new creature” (2 Cor 5:17) and my desire is to keep Christ’s commandments as I understand them. Therefore, my works become irrevocably intertwined with my faith. As I learn more of Christ and the atonement, my love and gratitude to Him cause me to want to be like Him. And my desire to be like Him influences the things I do each day. Therefore, “obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel” follows my true conversion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And that obedience draws me closer to Him and allows me to become more and more like Him in my day to day life. If I remain on this path, I will become as the people of King Benjamin who had “…no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mos 5:2) Through my obedience and the Grace of Christ, I have had a “mighty change of heart.” (Alma 5:14)
I believe that our works play a part in our salvation as they manifest the change of heart that occurs as we become new creatures through the Grace of Christ.
But (and this is a BIG but), if I focus on my works, I run the risk of losing sight of the fact that it is only by and through the “merits and mercy and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne 2:8) that I have become a new creature. I can easily become enamored of my own merits and quickly forget that I did not bring myself to righteousness. And, in that frame of mind, I forget my purpose. I forget that as my heart becomes more like Christ’s, my purpose is the same as His, “…to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of men.” (Moses 1:39)
Being enamored of my own goodness, I may begin to count my good works, to keep a list in my head of all the good things that I do so that I can present them to the Lord at the Judgment Bar and guarantee my entrance into heaven. I may become so concerned about getting myself exalted that I forget my purpose. I forget that my job is not to save myself, Christ has already done that. My job is to help Him save others. My job is to share the joy, share the Gospel, share the good news, share my blessings with all men (and women.)
I am afraid that I could lose sight of Christ’s gift of redemption to me. I might begin to feel self important and become like one of the murmuring laborer’s in the Parable of the Laborers (Matt 20:1-16) I fear that instead of lovingly welcoming the late coming laborer’s into the vineyard, I could complain when they are given the same reward for which I have labored so long.
I do not want to be like that!
I want to focus on my Savior. I want to be good because I love Him, not in anticipation of some future reward. I want to humbly labor all my days to bring souls unto Him. I want to share great joy with souls that I help to bring into the kingdom of my Father. (D&C 18:15-16) I want to be the penitent prodigal, not the self-righteous older brother. (Luke 15:11-32)
There is a song that says this better than I can. I haven’t heard it for a long time and I can't remember who wrote it, but the words are something like this:
I want to be a window to His love
So when you look at me, you will see Him.
I want to stand so pure and clear that you won’t even know I’m here
And His love will come shining through me.
I want to be a doorway to the truth
So when you walk beyond you will find Him.
I want to stand so straight and tall that you won’t notice me at all
And through my open door He will be found.
A window to His love, A doorway to the truth
A bearer of the message He would have me share with you.
And with each passing day, I want to fade away.
‘Til only He can be seen and I’ve become a window to His love.