Sunday, January 15, 2017

Elevating Our Testimonies and Commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ

I have a few questions that I would like everyone to ponder – Why are you here? Why did you come to church today, or any Sunday? Why are you a member of this church? Are you here or a member of the church because that is what is expected of you or because you grew up in the church? Being a member of the Lord’s Church is not easy. The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has the power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation. There comes a time when we all need to ask these questions and decide if living the commandments and principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is important to us. My wife shared that moment that we had.
Often when a new year begins we make resolutions about something we want to accomplish during the year. Some of the resolutions include weight loss, getting more exercise, work, and family goals. How much thought do we give to gospel related goals? I would like to suggest a few things that we all can do to elevate our testimonies and our commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There are 4 areas that I believe we can all improve:
1.     Sabbath Observance
2.     Gospel Study
3.     Keeping our Covenants
4.     Temple & Family History
First, Sabbath observance.
Over the past year there has been much discussion from the General Authorities, at the stake level, in our ward council meetings, and in sacrament talks about how we can improve our Sabbath worship. Our Ward Council has had many discussions about how we can improve our meetings, especially Sacrament Meetings.
As members, there are a few things that will help. You all know the Primary song “Saturday”, the first line is “Saturday is a special day. It’s the day we get ready for Sunday”. How much thought do we give towards preparing for our Sabbath? Sacrament meeting should be the most sacred meeting we have. Some of the things we can do to help bring the spirit to the Sacrament meeting include: being here before the meeting starts. I have never understood why we have a culture in the church that coming to meetings late is an acceptable practice. It is not and it distracts from the spirit when we come in late. The time that our block starts does not matter, there are always members that will be coming in late. I encourage you to plan so you can be here early and listen to the prelude music and prepare for the sacrament. When you do come, join us in the chapel instead of staying out in the foyer.
Another thing we have been asked to do is to put all our electronic devices away when we come into the chapel. There is no need to have our phones or other devices out during the meeting. When you come to sacrament meeting take care of anything you need to so when you come into the chapel you can stay for the entire meeting. We should be able to sit through sacrament meetings without having to get up and leave. I am not talking about parents that need to take their children out, but I am talking about members that get out and then come back in for various reasons. I realize that there are some valid reasons and we need to be patient with members that have emergencies.
How do you prepare to take the sacrament? Do you think about things that you have done that you need to ask the Lord’s forgiveness before coming to Sacrament Meeting? What do you do during the sacrament? The sacrament is the primary reason we have sacrament meeting and we need to prepare for it and take the time to think of the blessings of the atonement and repent when we need to. How do you know if you are worthy to take the sacrament? Unless someone with priesthood keys has said you cannot take it, you can. If you have done something during the week that you need to repent of; repent, then come take the sacrament and plead for the Lord’s forgiveness. If you feel unworthy, come see me and we will talk about it and we will decide if you are still worthy to take the sacrament or not.
An important part of keeping the Sabbath day holy is attending our meetings. When you come in for a temple recommend interview one of the questions is do you attend your sacrament and priesthood (for the brethren) meetings. Your meetings are here in this ward. You should be making every effort to be here every Sunday when possible. We understand there will be exceptions when family events like priesthood ordinations, missionaries coming or going, and weddings. These should be exceptions; you should not be going home every weekend to go to church with your families or friends. Keeping the Sabbath includes all our meetings not just sacrament meeting. Sunday School, priesthood, and relief society meetings are important and we encourage everyone to stay for all our meetings.
How do we deal with noisy children in sacrament? Parents need to decide for themselves when it is necessary to take babies or young children out and as members we need to be patient with parents with children. We want all our families to feel that they are welcome in the chapel. We need to teach our children that it is more comfortable to be in the chapel than it is to be taken out. When our children were young and they needed to be taken out of the chapel, we went out and sat on the couch with them on our lap. We did not allow them to run around the foyer and play. As parents, you will need to have a plan and do the best you can to teach your children the importance of reverence in the chapel.
Our meetings need to start and end on time. When you are asked to speak in sacrament keep your talk within the time limit you were given. When you are teaching a lesson, end your lesson on time. If the clock in the chapel or classrooms are not working do what you need to so you know what time to end your talk or lesson. Taking more time for a talk or lesson than you are given is disrespectful of the other participants in the meetings. As a bishopric, we have decided that we would not take time in sacrament for announcements so we can have as much time for the speakers as possible. We are also working on taking less administrative time in our other meetings as possible. We print the sacrament program so all the members can have the announcements that you need to know the events that are happening in the ward and stake. We encourage each couple to have a program when you come into sacrament meeting and read the announcements. We also have our ward Facebook page where we will publish information about activities.
How do we spend the rest of the Sabbath when we are not in meetings? Are we trying to keep the spirit in our homes by what we watch or listen to? Are the activities we participate in appropriate for the Sabbath. I encourage you as couples to discuss this in family home evenings and family councils when you have children old enough. Let your children know what is acceptable. I like the council the brethren have given about lists of things we can and cannot do on Sunday. Rather than such a list we should be asking “What message am I sending? Do my activities on the Sabbath bring me closer to the Lord and invite the spirit?”
The second principle for elevating our testimonies is Gospel Study.
What are we doing individually, as couples, and eventually as families to study the gospel and prepare for the lessons we will teach or participate in on Sundays? Are you reading the Sunday School, priesthood, or relief society lessons? For our gospel study together, my wife and I have started reading the class member study guide for the Gospel Doctrine class. When we finish that we read the lesson out of the teachings of the Prophet manual or the conference talks, or subject from the Index to the Triple Combination. I would recommend that approach to you for your daily study together.
I would recommend you take time individually to study the scriptures, conference talks, etc. When I run in the mornings I love to listen to conference talks, devotional talks from BYU or BYU Idaho. It is a great way to spend the time. We all should study the lessons and be prepared to discuss them whether we are teaching or participating. This is how we invite the spirit into our meetings so they all will be edified.
The third principle is keeping our covenants.
The covenants we make when we are baptized, receive the priesthood, enter the temple for our endowments and temple marriage are essential to our salvation. Keeping those covenants all our lives is just as important. We must plead for the Lord to give us the strength and courage to be obedient to his commandments when we pray to him every day in our morning prayers and give an accounting each night on how we did. We need to repent when we slip and make a mistake and then seek to do better the next day. We are not perfect and will never be in this life but that is where the Atonement of Jesus Christ can help us get back on the straight and narrow path.
We must always strive to have the spirit be with us and never do anything that will drive the spirit away. Does the music we listen to, the movies we watch, the games we play, what we are doing on our computers invite the spirit or drive it away. If you need to change your habits, do it now. If you need to repent, do it. If you are doing anything that will jeopardize your temple recommend worthiness change now, come see me if you need to. I plead with you to make this a matter of prayer and talk to your spouse about changes that need to be made.
There are many members who are struggling with their testimonies. They wonder what to believe when it comes to keeping the commandments. How can we know when we are getting lost in the mists of darkness of the world? President Russell M. Nelson speaking in last Sunday’s World Wide Devotional to the youth said:
“Divine law is incontrovertible and irrefutable. Divine law cannot be denied or disputed and when God’s laws are obeyed, relevant blessings always result. Blessing are always predicated upon obedience to applicable law. Existentialists can expound, relativists can rationalize with their constricted views of reality that truth is only a subjective experience; laws are laws. God’s truth is really true. What God says is right, IS right and what he says is wrong, IS wrong. That is why it is imperative that you know God’s laws, they control this universe and multitudes of others. When divine laws are broken, consequences follow. Even though our hearts ache for those who break God’s laws, penalties must be paid. Divine law must be obeyed.” (World Wide Devotional for Youth)
Part of keeping the covenants we have made is to always be worthy of a temple recommend. Questions in the temple recommend interview deal with our testimonies of the Godhead, the atonement, the restoration of the gospel, supporting the general authorities and local leaders, living the word of wisdom, the law of chastity, paying a full tithe, and how we treat our families and others. Are the choices we make in our conduct and actions in keeping with the standards of the church and are we worthy to have a temple recommend?
Are we good neighbors? Do we treat everyone we meet as children of Heavenly Father? Are we 100% home and visiting teachers? There are not many things that we can consistently be 100% at and home and visiting teaching is one of them.
Loyalty to the prophet and other general authorities is becoming more important as the standards of the world continue to degrade. We must always be careful not to criticize the brethren in public, on social media, in talks or when teaching. Having questions is ok and it is important when we question policies or statements from the general authorities that we study it by going to the proper sources for answers and then praying to the Lord for a witness that it is true.
President Nelson last Sunday said:
“While the world is filled with uncertainty, there need not be uncertainty in your heart and mind about what is true and what is not. Uncertainty is born of imperfect or unknown information. As an Apostle, I plead with you to learn God’s irrevocable laws. Learn them by study and by faith. That means among other things, living by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God. Pray to discern between God’s laws and the philosophies of men including those cunning counterfeits of the advisory. Through eons of time, Lucifer has honed his craft. He is skilled at distraction, distortion, deception, and misdirection. I plead with you to avoid his cunning snares as you would a plague. Entrapments designed by Satan can only bring to you misery, spiritual captivity, and death. This is true every time. The sad consequences of yielding to Lucifer’s lures are predictable, dependable, repeatable, and regrettable. Conversely, I promise that as you keep God’s commandments and as you live by his laws, you’ll become increasingly free. This freedom will unveil to you your divine nature and allow you to prosper personally, you’ll be free from the bondage of sin, you’ll be free to be you an effective righteous leader. You’ll be prepared to lead by precept and by example wherever you are needed. Happily, the blessings of keeping God’s commandments are predictable, dependable, and repeatable.” (World Wide Devotional for Youth)
The last principle is attending the temple and doing family history research.
When my wife and I were married in the Washington, D.C. temple in 1975 there were 16 temples, only three were outside North America. We had a goal to visit all 16 but only have been to nine of those original 16 and we are getting farther behind all the time.
By 1980 only three more temples were built. Since then 136 more temples have been built, 70 that are outside the U.S. There are another 12 temples under construction and another 18 announced bringing the total to 207 temples, half of those are outside the U.S. It has been estimated the 80% of the church membership lives within 200 miles of a temple. For the members living in the U.S. it is much less and for us in Utah most of us live within a few minutes of a temple.
When I graduated from BYU and moved to Washington state, the closest temple was the Oakland, California Temple. To go to the temple, we would get on a bus and ride 12 hours, spend the day doing sessions and then ride the 12 hours home again. We normally would do these temple trips once a year. In 1980, the Seattle, Washington Temple was dedicated and we only had a three-hour drive to the temple and we would go once a month. In August 1989, just before we moved here to Logan, the Portland, Oregon Temple was dedicated. Had we not moved, we would have been only 45 minutes away. We thought we were in heaven. Now we live only 5 minutes from the Logan, Temple. In the three hours that it would have taken us to travel to the Seattle Temple are 12 temples.
What a blessing to live where we do and when we do. Is it any wonder why our leaders ask us to go to the temple as often as we can? Speaking about temple attendance, Elder Richard G. Scott said:
“When a temple is conveniently nearby, small things may interrupt your plans to go to the temple. Set specific goals, considering your circumstances, of when you can and will participate in temple ordinances. Then do not allow anything to interfere with that plan. This pattern will guarantee that those who live in the shadow of a temple will be as blessed as are those who plan far ahead and make a long trip to the temple.
I encourage you to establish your own goal of how frequently you will avail yourself of the ordinances offered in our operating temples. What is there that is more important than attending and participating in the ordinances of the temple? What activity could have a greater impact and provide more joy and profound happiness than worshipping in the temple?” (“Temple Worship: The Source of Strength and Power in Times of Need”)
Elder Scott suggested 11 things we can do to get more from our temple sessions:
1.     Understand the doctrine related to temple ordinances, especially the significance of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.1
2.     While participating in temple ordinances, consider your relationship to Jesus Christ and His relationship to our Heavenly Father. This simple act will lead to greater understanding of the supernal nature of the temple ordinances.
3.     Always prayerfully express gratitude for the incomparable blessings that flow from temple ordinances. Live each day so as to give evidence to Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son of how very much those blessings mean to you.
4.     Schedule regular visits to the temple.
5.     Leave sufficient time to be unhurried within the temple walls.
6.     Rotate activities so that you can participate in all of the ordinances of the temple.
7.     Remove your watch when you enter a house of the Lord.
8.     Listen carefully to the presentation of each element of the ordinance with an open mind and heart.
9.     Be mindful of the individual for whom you are performing the vicarious ordinance. At times pray that he or she will recognize the vital importance of the ordinances and be worthy or prepare to be worthy to benefit from them.
10.  Recognize that much of the majesty of the sealing ordinance cannot be understood and remembered with one live experience. Substantial subsequent vicarious work permits one to understand much more of what is communicated in the live ordinances.
11.  Realize that a sealing ordinance is not enduring until after it is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise. Both individuals must be worthy and want the sealing to be eternal.
Through the temple ordinances we are sealed as families for eternity, if we live worthy and keep God’s commandments. Elder Scott spoke about losing a daughter and a son and then his wife:
“What I am trying to teach is that when we keep the temple covenants we have made and when we live righteously in order to maintain the blessings promised by those ordinances, then come what may, we have no reason to worry or to feel despondent.
I know that I will have the privilege of being with that beautiful wife, whom I love with all my heart, and with those children who are with her on the other side of the veil because of the ordinances that are performed in the temple. What a blessing to have once again on the earth the sealing authority, not only for this mortal life but for the eternities. I am grateful that the Lord has restored His gospel in its fulness, including the ordinances that are required for us to be happy in the world and to live everlastingly happy lives in the hereafter.” (“Temple Worship: The Source of Strength and Power in Times of Need”)
One of the best ways to improve your temple experiences is to do family history research and take the names of your own family members to do their temple work. Many of them have been waiting many years for you to do their work. Searching and finding ancestors is easier now than ever before. The church and other organizations have provided tools for us to use and we need to devote the time to do it. We have family history consultants in our ward that can help you. Sign up for the Sunday School class and learn how to use these tools. Doing family history work is an excellent activity for the Sabbath day.
When the prophet Joseph Smith introduced the work for the dead to the Saints in Nauvoo he said:
Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy. How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of those that bring glad tidings of good things, and that say unto Zion: Behold, thy God reigneth! As the dews of Carmel, so shall the knowledge of God descend upon them!
Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.
Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers! (D&C 12:19, 22-23)
Brothers and sisters, we live in the dispensation of the fullness of times. We are the ones that were reserved to prepare the earth for the second coming of Jesus Christ. President Nelson in his address last Sunday said that you are the future leaders of this Church. Where will you be in forty years? Will you be among the presiding councils of the church or will you be lost in the mists of darkness having fallen away. Will you be among those in the great and spacious building that are scoffing at those who are faithful and partaking of the fruit of the tree of life or will you be like Nephi and heeded them not?

Where you are will depend on the daily choices you make in keeping the commandments of God. As for me and my house we have chosen to follow the brethren and serve God with all our hearts, might minds and strength. My hope and prayer is that you will make this the year where you elevate your testimony and commitment to keeping the commandments and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As you do so, Heavenly Father will place you where he needs you and you will be a blessing to his children and your families. I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Here I Raise My Ebenezer

As Professor Dumbledore, would say “another year gone”. Often in January we look forward to a new year by making new year’s resolutions. I am not one to do new year’s resolutions because normally by today (January 1st) they would already be broken. Today I want to stop and look back on the year that has just finished. Are you satisfied with your year? How many of your resolutions made it past January? I believe that before we make new resolutions for this coming year, we need to take an accounting of what we did the past year and then we can build on those accomplishments or repent and do better this year. Remembering the past is an important principle as we look to the future.

One of my favorite Christian hymns is “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” written by the 18th century pastor Robert Robinson. Over the years there have been several versions since his original one but my favorite is the arrangement that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings:

1. Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

2. Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.

I had often wondered what the first line in the second verse meant – “Here I raise my Ebenezer”. What is an Ebenezer? The answer is found in the Old Testament 1 Samuel chapter 7. The Israelites are being attacked by the Philistines and they fear that they will be defeated. They pray to God for help and in response the Lord smites the Philistines. To help the Israelites remember the Lord’s help Samuel takes a stone and sets it up as a memorial, he calls it “Eben-ezer, saying Hitherto hath the Lord helped us. (1 Samuel 7:12).

Curt Holman speaking at a BYU devotional explained what Eben-ezer means and how we can apply the principle in our lives today:

In Hebrew the word ebenezer means “stone of help.” This raised stone was a reminder to the Israelites of what the Lord had done for them. This Eben-ezer quite literally was a monument set to remember the great help that God granted the one raising the stone. The Old Testament is replete with examples of the children of Israel forgetting the many miracles and spiritual experiences given to them by the Lord.

In an address given to religious educators, President Spencer W. Kimball said that remember could be the most important word in the dictionary (see “Circles of Exaltation,” BYU summer school devotional address, 28 June 1968, 8). This is a strong statement that gives us pause to reflect on why a modern-day prophet would make such a deliberate and specific reference to the importance of one word. Today my comments will be centered on this very principle—more specifically, on the importance and value of remembering our own spiritual experiences and recognizing that these experiences, given to us by the Lord, have brought us to where each of us is today. In other words, by remembering we are raising our own Ebenezer.

It seems the Lord recognized the tendency of the natural man to quickly forget his God. Perhaps this monument would help the Israelites remember the Lord and turn their hearts to Him. I also find it particularly significant that this scripture references that this monument, built by the Israelites, would also stand as a witness to their children, who might ask of its meaning.

This story has great application for us even today. Each experience that we have with the Spirit can be like placing a stone on our own personal monument, reminding us of God’s hand in our lives. These monuments can also serve to strengthen others as we share our experiences.

Some of us may have large, stable monuments that are continually built and fortified with great personal spiritual experiences that acknowledge God. Others may believe that their monuments are small or insignificant—maybe even eroding. If you have these feelings, I invite you to do two things.

First, look to your past and reflect upon your life. You will see the divine guidance of our Heavenly Father and how He has brought you to where you are today.

Second, earnestly seek opportunities and environments in which the Spirit can touch your heart. (“Raising Your Ebenezer: A Monument to Remember”)

An important principle that we learn from the Israelites is that they were easy to forget the hand of the Lord in their lives; thus, they had to have the monuments or Ebenezer’s to help them remember. The last part of the second verse of the song “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” goes:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.

We are the same, if we are not careful to write down our spiritual experiences we can be “prone to wander” when our testimonies are tested, it will be easy to forget how the Lord has blessed us. Even the smallest and simple things need to be written down, those experiences that individuals that are not in tune with the spirit would say was luck or a coincidence.

I had one of these ‘tender mercy” moments this year with one of the members of my student ward. I often ride my bike to work at USU and then shower before going to work. One Monday after going for a ride, I went into the locker room to shower and could not remember the combination to my locker. I was frustrated because I have never had a problem remembering it before. I had to go out to the service desk and ask them for my combination. When I went out to the front, one of the members of our ward was there. Over the weekend we had a ward activity and had borrowed some lawn games from the university. Some of the equipment was broken while they were playing the games and the young man from our ward was there returning the equipment. He was the one that check out the equipment and was responsible for it and he was trying to explain what had happened. I could tell he was frustrated and so I stepped in and told him I would take care of it, which I did.

After I had arranged to pay for the damage I headed back to the locker room to get dressed for work. The thought came to me: “The reason you forgot your locker combination was because you were needed out there to help that young man. I was there when a member of my ward needed me. Was that luck or a coincidence? I think not. The Lord knows our needs and he will often will prompt others to help us when needed.

We need to write down these experiences so that we can go back to them and help us remember when we are experiencing dark or difficult days. Remembering will keep us from wandering away from the God we love. My challenge to us is to look back and build our own ebenezer’s to help us remember what the Lord has done for us. Then we can look ahead and plan for the new year.

Your comments and questions are welcome.