Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Following Christ

One of my favorite missionary lessons that we teach is called the Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, when I first heard about this lesson I questioned the name. After all, isn't the Gospel of Jesus Christ...like, everything? As I have studied, taught, and lived the doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I have learned that the Gospel isn't EVERYTHING, it's just everything that matters, which is an important difference. It is everything we need to achieve salvation.

The first thing that I learned was that the word Gospel means Good News. That changed my question from "What is the Gospel?" to "Why is the Gospel such good news?" I found the answer as I looked at the five steps of the gospel individually:

Faith: The first step in the Gospel of Jesus Christ is Faith in Him. Faith entails trusting in His words and commandments, and believing that His sacrifice and Atonement have the power to change and improve us.

Repentance: The next step in the Gospel is repenting of our sins. Repentance is only possible if we have faith in Christ's Atonement, and the act of repenting actually builds our faith! It's a self-continuing cycle. When we repent, we feel bad for transgressing God's commandments and ask Him for forgiveness. We feel the sweet peace that comes from knowing that God has forgiven us and has given us a second chance.

Baptism: The only tangible step to the Gospel of Jesus Christ is being baptized by someone holding the proper authority, what we call the Priesthood. Christ Himself demonstrated this step by walking 40+ miles to the only man with the authority to baptize at that time: John the Baptist. He taught that baptism is a symbol of our devotion to God and a promise that we will serve Him. In turn, God seals the forgiveness that we received during the repentance process and allows us to progress to the fourth step of the Gospel.

The Holy Ghost: Baptism qualifies us for the reception of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. The Holy Ghost is the third member of the Godhead and is God's personal messenger to each of us. Before baptism, He can lead and guide us towards truth, but after baptism we are promised that He will remain with us ALWAYS, as long as we remain worthy by keeping the commandments. His role is to build our faith in God and Jesus Christ and to help us progress through life.

Enduring to the End: This final and crowning step is a continuous repetition of the other four. It involves building our faith by keeping the commandments and repenting when we mess up, living true to our baptismal promises, and striving to have the Holy Ghost with us always. Enduring to the End means living true to the principles that we believe now and forever, throughout our lives.

So, here we are. We have our five steps to the Gospel of Christ. As I said, we learn in the scriptures that these are EVERYTHING we need to gain Salvation (which is just a fancy word for "go to heaven"). All other things that we teach in the church are just appendages to these! The Priesthood is simply the authority necessary to perform baptism and preach the gospel. The commandments are the qualifications for and the promises made at baptism. The sacred work we do in the Temples are tools for enduring the end. Scripture study, prayer, and church attendance build our faith and help us keep the Holy Ghost with us always. Everything points to the Good News.

The Good News of the Gospel is this: because Jesus Christ loved us enough to come down here, live a perfect life, suffer for our sins, and then give up his life for us, we are not doomed to fail. Through Christ's Atonement, we can be forgiven of our sins, we can overcome our weaknesses and addictions, and we can become more Christlike each and every day!

I know that the Gospel truly is God's plan for each one of His children, because I have seen and felt it work in my life every day! There have been many times in my life when I've had cause to doubt the things I believe and give up, but The Lord has been there to help me endure, and I know He'll help me to the end. I have felt the sweet peace and comfort that comes from the Holy Ghost, and I have felt it testify to me that Jesus truly is the Christ. As I've grown to better understand the promises I made when I was baptized, I've learned to appreciate and honor that sacred ordinance. Every day I strive to repent of my sins and thus come closer to my Savior. And above all, I have felt the sustaining power and peace that come from faith in Christ and His Atonement.

I have seen the Good News work miracles in the lives of the people I have taught, and I KNOW that these are the things that qualify each of us to live again in God's presence. I feel so privileged to be a missionary, sharing these things that I have learned.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My Mission is for Him

Before my mission, I had a lot of friends and acquaintances express their surprise that I was going to spend two years going door to door "selling" my church to strangers. Others told me that a service mission was much more honorable than a proselyting mission, more Christlike even. On my mission, I've met many people that did not like what I represent and told me, with varying degrees of kindness, that I am misguided.

To them I quote the words of the prophet-historian Mormon:

"Behold, I am a disciple of The Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of Him to declare His word among His people, that they may have eternal life."

I want everyone to know that I'm not here to convince anyone to join my church or win them over to my philosophies, but to open the doors of eternal life to the people I meet.

While some of my friends are surprised that I have dedicated this time in my life to sharing my beliefs, I am equally surprised that so many churches DON'T do that! If you had the "words of eternal life", wouldn't you want to share them? Especially if the Savior had commanded you to "teach all nations, baptizing them"? I know that I would. I know I do!

So, back to that first scripture. "Called of Him to declare His word among His people, that they may have eternal life." The thing that caught my attention in this scripture was the repeated word "Him/His". Over and over it points us back to Jesus Christ, just as a missionary should. We're not here to disseminate information or "win people over". We are here to bring souls unto Jesus Christ.

I think the key to all of this is that we, as humans, can't do anything to save ourselves. We are doomed the first time we make a mistake. Only Jesus Christ has the ability to save us. So, as missionaries, we can't save anyone. We can only point them towards Jesus Christ and let Him do the saving.

So what does bringing souls unto Christ entail? Is that just a euphemism for that idea of going around arguing about differing doctrines? Is it a label we put on our efforts to make ourselves feel good?

No. It is real.

Bringing souls to Christ is the simple act of teaching, testifying, and inviting, over and over, lesson after lesson, day after day, forever. We teach from the scriptures and help people feel of God's love for them. We testify of the principles we teach, telling stories of how they have blessed us in our own lives. And then we invite, show people what the next step in their relationship with God could be, as long as they are willing to accept it. "Will you pray with your family each night?" "Will you come to church with us this Sunday?" "When you find out that these things are true, will you follow the example of Jesus Christ by being baptized?"

I know that this is truly God's work, and it is real. I know that He loves each and every one of us and that He wants each of us to qualify to live with Him and our families in Heaven for eternity. But I also know that that can't happen without the Gospel of Jesus Christ, namely faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, baptism, receiving the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end. That is why I am here, hundreds of miles from home, sharing what I believe. Because I have been called of Him to declare His word among His people, that they may have eternal life.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Biking Up Hills

It is said that you never forget how to ride a bike. That may be true, but you can definitely lose your biking muscles.

I learned that this week, when my companion and I got bikes. The past missionaries in this area have thought that it was too hilly to bike, so this has been a walking area for a long time. However, in the interest of saving our time and our feet, we payed a deposit to the mission and got some old street bikes. In retrospect, we realize that there was some credit to what the past missionaries have said about the hills. There are definitely a lot of them. However, we're powering on! Even when it means going painfully slow up Glassman Way, or dodging traffic on 36th Avenue, or worst of all, showing up to our appointments hot and sweaty.

I learned something though, last Saturday night as we were biking up the hill to our house: it gets easier every time.

Not just the uphills, but the downhills and the flats as well. As I build muscle and learn how to use the gears most effectively, I can tackle the tough hills with less and less trouble. As I gain confidence, I am able to let myself gain more and more speed on the downhills without fearing for my life. As I improve my balance, I am able to impress the local children on the flat stretches by waving at them with both hands, letting my bike steer itself (usually in a strait line).

With the increasing heat this time of year, sometimes I wonder if it's worth it to bike, but we've been able to get so much more done than we would have on foot! They've been such a blessing for us.

As I pondered on my short biking experiences, I was struck by the symbolism of biking uphills becoming easier and easier.

In our lives, we have times when we can cruise down hills, picking up speed and enjoying the ride. During these times, we are still working to fulfill our responsibilities, but for one reason or another we face minimal challenges and make a lot of headway. Other times our lives are like the flat roads, where every rotation of our pedals seems to move us forward in leaps and bounds. We are in a pattern of living where our every effort is rewarding and satisfactory.

Then, we have our uphill climbs. These challenges can feel insurmountable, especially in the heat of the moment. They can be physical, such as a debilitating illness. They can be emotional, like a bout of depression. Perhaps they are mental, as we struggle in school or our careers. Often they are spiritual, the days when we wonder if there is any purpose to our life choices, or doubt or self worth in the eternal scheme of things.

Whatever forms these challenges take, they will always be there. No matter what. There is no degree of wealth, fame, wisdom, love, spirituality, or expertise that can exempt us from challenges, just the way that even the strongest bikers still have to go up hills.

There's something neat about hills though: they make us stronger. If you bike up the same hill each night to get back to your house (like I do), it gets easier and easier over time. If you were training for a professional mountain biking race and had to climb up a specific mountainous trail, you would probably strategically bike up bigger and bigger hills each week until you hit your goals.

In our lives, God acts as the perfect coach. He motivates and encourages us as we pass over bigger and bigger hills. His goal is not necessarily to make us travel a certain number of miles, but to help us become the strongest bikers we can be. He doesn't have personal quotas of how many trials we each must pass through, but He seeks for each of us to reach our highest potential as disciples of Jesus Christ.

As we overcome these trials, they become less burdensome to us. Do you remember how frustrated you were as a child as you first learned how to tie your shoes? Now you can probably do it with your eyes closed! Do you remember how a cancelled play date was once the end of the world? Now you deal with a range of disappointments maturely and optimistically. This pattern continues throughout life as we bike over bigger and bigger hills.

God, however, does not force us to comply with his training regiment. This brings us back to that first point: you can lose your biking muscles.

Every good decision we make increases our ability to make good decisions in the future; we develop our muscles. Every bad decision we make decreases our ability to make good decisions in the future; our muscles atrophy. It is that simple! Our willpower is constantly waxing and waning as we either use or neglect it. On the downhills, and even on the flat stretches, the difference is not as noticeable. It is hard to test your muscles in those instances. On the uphills, however, it becomes painfully apparent what you are made of. All of your preparations, or lack there of, either reward or punish you.

Most people can be good when life is good to them, but that is not what life is about. Our life is about being good regardless of how the world around us is behaving. We must push through our challenges without changing who we are, emerging victorious on the other side. In biking terms, we must press on when we are tired. If we have to slow down, that is alright. We simply cannot stop and turn around.

My friends, I know that life is not easy. Many of you have had experiences more difficult and painful than I can understand. But there is one who does understand, and that is our Savior, Jesus Christ. It is He that asks us to keep pedaling forward.

I would like to end with the words of the Book of Mormon prophet Omni:

"And now, my beloved brethren, I would that ye should come unto Christ, who is the Holy One of Israel, and partake of his salvation, and the power of his redemption. Yea, come unto him, and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and praying, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved."
The Lord asks us to Endure to the End, meaning keep pressing on throughout your life. Even with His help, that is not an easy thing. But with His help, it will always be possible.

So pedal on, and never give up.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Challenge to Become!

This past Easter season, even though it is already gone and forgotten by most people, has meant a lot to me. Even though I've experienced many Easters before, this one was extra special. It was sad, because it was the first Easter I spent away from my family. But it was also joyous, because more than ever before, I understood what it was all about.

One thing I thought a lot about this Easter was the difference between Easter and Christmas. At Christmas time, it seems to me, we celebrate the life of Christ, and the miraculous events surrounding His birth. It is a commemoration of a historical event. What a wonderful opportunity to think of the things He did on the earth! Easter, though, is different. To me, Easter is a celebration that Christ didn't just live (past tense), He lives. He LIVES!!

That message is an important one. It is a message of hope, of peace, and of excitement! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Redeemer of Mankind, LIVES!
Before I go any further, I'd like to invite you all to watch this video produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It was released a few weeks ago to celebrate the life of the Savior, and the message of hope that it brings.

Did you watch it? Good. What did you think? Were you, like me, inspired by it's message of hope? Were you, like me, inspired by the thought of new beginnings? Because that's what Easter is all about for me. New beginnings.

During the Savior's life, He made it clear that His message wasn't just an "FYI" that people could sample from. It wasn't just the things we needed to know, or even the things that we needed to do. His message is about who we need to be. Why did the Savior focus so much on the people we needed to become? It is because He understood our divine destiny and purpose in life. He knew that this life wasn't the end of our existence, but a stepping stone to become more like Him. It was a time to condition, teach, and test us. 

In October of 2000, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, one of our church leaders, gave an amazing speech called The Challenge to Become. In it, he shared the following parable:

"A wealthy father knew that if he were to bestow his wealth upon a child who had not yet developed the needed wisdom and stature, the inheritance would probably be wasted. The father said to his child:

"'All that I have I desire to give you—not only my wealth, but also my position and standing among men. That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself. You will qualify for your inheritance by learning what I have learned and by living as I have lived. I will give you the laws and principles by which I have acquired my wisdom and stature. Follow my example, mastering as I have mastered, and you will become as I am, and all that I have will be yours.'”

God, like this father, could easily give us anything. He could grant us immortality and angel wings, then set us on a cloud to play harps for eternity. He could give us untold treasures of gold and silver, He could probably even alter our body chemistry to leave us in a paralyzed state of bliss and leave us there to ignorantly experience arbitrary pleasure. But that's not what He wants for us. He doesn't want us to have the things He has. He wants us to be the kind of person He is. What do I mean by that? He wants us, eventually, to be perfect. He wants us to be perfectly loving, perfectly kind, perfectly hard-working, perfectly knowledgeable. He wants us to be perfect in faith, hope, dedication, and virtue. And those are things He can't give us! He wants us to learn them, by following the example of His son.

Do you see how this ties back to Easter? God has great blessings in store for us, but most of those blessings have more to do with who we are than with what we have. And without the miracle of Christ's sacrifice, without His resurrection, without Easter.... there would be no way to get from where we are to where He wants us to be.

In the last night with His followers, Christ gave Peter a powerful instruction: "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren". At that point, Peter had experienced some amazing things, and he had a testimony of the Savior. Yet Jesus spoke of Peter's conversion as if it were a thing of the future! How could that be? Because Peter knew the right things, and was doing the right things, but he was not yet the person that he needed to be.

It is the nature of life that we will constantly be fine-tuning ourselves and seeking to improve in little ways. That's okay, we're not meant to reach perfection in this life. The important part is that we know where we're trying to go. It doesn't matter how many steps we take if we are facing the wrong direction. Are we complacent with where we are at, or do we strive to be more like the Savior? Do we accept our weaknesses as unchangeable personal traits, or are we cultivating the Christlike attributes of love, obedience, faith, and virtue? Above all, are we satisfied with what we are doing, or even what we know, or are we truly trying to become someone?

After this life, we will stand before God and give an accounting. The wealth we obtained will mean nothing. The relationships we had won't matter to much either. We will be judged on the person we became. 

What are you doing to become?

Monday, April 21, 2014

Messages of Peace

One of the most powerful tools that God has blessed us with in this day and age is the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon was translated by the power of God by a young man named Joseph Smith. The story of the history of the Book of Mormon is amazing, but it is a tale for another time. If you're curious, you can read the Introduction to the Book of Mormon here, Joseph Smith's first-hand account here, or a summary of its purpose and history here (links for days! I hope you have time to read my post after all those...).

What I want to focus on today is how the Book of Mormon has helped ME in MY life. I've talked before about how it helped me gain a testimony of Jesus Christ and of His church, but that is really only the tip of the iceberg. The Book of Mormon has brought peace, power, and direction to my life, both in the good times and in the hard times. I'd like to highlight this peace, power, and direction by sharing three stories of when I've learned specific lessons from the Book of Mormon.

The first story I'd like to tell took place my Junior year of High School.

During this time, I felt like I was doing pretty well, but I was frustrated in a few weaknesses and bad habits that I just couldn't seem to shake. I'd go back and forth, doing well for weeks and months, then messing up again and feeling terrible about myself. One night, when I was feeling particularly trapped and hopeless, I decided to turn to the Book of Mormon for comfort.

I opened it to Alma 32. In this chapter, a missionary named Alma has been preaching to the wealthier population with no success, but is suddenly approached by a crowd of impoverished people searching for a way to worship their Lord. They explain to Alma that because they can't afford nice clothes, the preachers have kicked them out of the synagogues which they helped to build, and now they have no way to practice their religion. Alma shares this insight:

"...it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom;"

When I read those words, I was filled with peace. Suddenly something clicked, and I realized that the people being kicked out of their church could be a symbol of my repeated failures to kick a bad habit. I realized that even though my mistakes where bad, they did not exclude me from God's love. They were part of His plan! God allows us to make mistakes so we learn to rely on His power and His help. That verse of scripture sustained me for months to come as I continued to work on overcoming my weaknesses. To this day, it is a reminder that our shortcomings do not condemn us, they give us opportunities to humble ourselves and grow.

The next story happened only a few weeks ago. I wasn't going through any specific difficulties that I remember, but this passage was still a great strength to me, and I was able to share it with several people that I met with that week. The chapter was Ether 6. It is the exciting story of a group of people who are instructed to make wooden barges to cross the ocean to reach the promised land. At this point in the story, they have finished their preparations, and are ready to take a huge leap of faith and trust the Lord to guide and protect them. This reminded me of our decision to come here to Earth! Just like these people, we had to make the decision to trust God and come down here, knowing that there would be challenges and uncertainties that we couldn't imagine. Yet we came down anyway, trusting the Lord to guide us.

At this point, there is a bit of a plot twist. Almost as soon as these faithful people set off into the ocean, they are hit by a major storm. We are told that the Lord caused mighty winds to blow that tossed this little band of travelers every which way. I have to imagine that they are a little bit irked at that. Here they are, having followed everything the Lord asked them to do, and suddenly they're being buried by waves and tossed to and fro, and it looks like they won't survive the journey. However, they are patient, just as we must be in life. And, we are taught that their trials weren't without cause. Verse 8 says:

"And it came to pass that the wind did never cease to blow towards the promised land while they were upon the waters;"

I love that. These winds weren't useless, they were driving them towards the promised land! At the end of the day, we all hope to become like His Son by perfecting ourselves and overcoming our weaknesses, just as these people wanted to reach the promised land. Just as the winds drove them towards their ultimate goal, our trials, even though they don't always make sense, drive us towards our ultimate goal of living with God again.

The last scripture I'd like to share is one that I chose to memorize early in my mission. All through seminary, we were encouraged to memorize scriptures, but I never really understood why until my mission. Memorizing scriptures shows God that we care about His words. We don't want them just available to us, we want them to be a PART of us. When we memorize verses or even just phrases from the scriptures, we are treasuring up essential truths that are always there for us when we need them.

The scripture is 3rd Nephi 5:13, which says:

"Behold, I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. I have been called of him to declare his word among his people, that they might have everlasting life."

This scripture is simple, but I have gleaned a powerful message from it. It has to do with the repeated words "him" and "his", referring to the Savior. I have been called of HIM to declare HIS word among HIS people. To me, this has been a constant reminder that this isn't man's gospel. It is Christ's. This church isn't just some institution that I happen to work for. It is the kingdom of God, and I should be honored to be a part of it. The people that I teach aren't just strangers, they are children of Heavenly Father. Remembering this scripture has helped me stay devoted to my calling and remember why I'm here on a mission. It isn't for myself, it is for Him.

Anyone can have experiences like these with the Book of Mormon. They don't happen all the time, or even most of the time. But my experience has been that they come when we need them most. I have compared it to conversations you might have with one of your friends. Not every conversation is going to be deep, meaningful, and rewarding. Chances are, most are just going to be causal pleasantries. But every once in a while when you need your friend the most, he or she will be there for you.

I know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, and it is a powerful tool that He has given us out of love. I have shared three personal experiences, but I have had many, many more. I know that reading from the Book of Mormon regularly can bring us comfort and strength when times are hard. It can give us direction and guidance when we feel we're doing alright. It ties us to the Lord and helps us understand Him better.

Please share with me some of your favorite passages from the Book of Mormon (or the Bible!) in the comments! I'd love to hear what your experiences have been!