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:

" 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!

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Power of Families

There are few things in this world that we have from our birth to our death. There are few things that we would sacrifice everything for. There are few things that can edify and instruct, comfort and counsel us when we are inconsolable or at a loss of where to go. But The Family is no ordinary organization.

One of the first principles that we teach people as missionaries is that families are ordained of God. They are a gift from Him to bless us, to strengthen us, and to teach us. Families come in many shapes and sizes, but any family that centers itself on Jesus Christ can eventually be reunited in the eternities and receive all the blessings that God has to offer.

I don't know about you all, but when I was young, I had a hard time appreciating my family. I loved them, no doubt about it, but I couldn't comprehend a fraction of what they did for me. Maybe it's because I'd always grown up with a loving family, so I didn't recognize how important and beneficial my family was. Perhaps as a teenager I resented the "loss of freedom" that I imagined my family inflicted on my. And besides, they were so dorky! Did they really have to always embarrass me like that?

I think we all have moments when we don't give our families the credit they deserve. We get busy with careers and hobbies, we get distracted by life or fall into a rut. In short, we take them for granted. I think that I was in that state for many, many years. I simply didn't appreciate that my family was good for me! Fortunately, the Lord blessed me with some experiences that helped change my mindset.

It started on Christmas Eve, 2012. I was a Junior in High School, and enjoying a break from my busiest year of school. My mind was on my friends, on my goals for the coming Track season, and what my plans were for my remaining week and a half of freedom. But then the thought came to me: Wait. I didn't get my parents any Christmas presents. Now, I have never been a good gift giver, and up to that point it didn't really bother me. Looking back, I guess I was just selfish. (For the record, I'm still not a great gift-giver, but I am trying to improve!) This time, though, I was filled with a deep guilt. I scrambled to find something I could do in the 12 hours before our family would open our presents, but my mind was completely blank. Finally, I resorted to writing each of my parents a long letter. I don't remember much of what I wrote, but I imagine I did my best to sincerely express my gratitude for everything they'd done for me. As I wrote, though, it just felt fake. It's hard to throw something together last minute and still be sincere about it.

Christmas came, and my parents actually appreciated the letters! I was pleased that I'd made it work, but I was more grateful for the lesson that I learned. Because I realized that it wasn't just my gift giving that was poor, it was my attitude towards being a son and a brother. It wasn't until then that I realized that up to that point, I'd viewed my family as a way to get the things I wanted, instead of people that I needed to care for. I realized how selfish I'd been, only joining the family for meals and pulling the "I have homework" card anytime they wanted to spend time with me.

BUT, I didn't stop there, at the regret stage. I resolved to change. I decided that from that day forward, I would be a better son and a better brother. Now, I won't say I became a perfect family member, or even a good one, because I'm not sure how my family felt about my change (or if they even noticed it). I can say, though, that I began to sense a change in MY life.

Although there were many blessings that came as I dedicated more to my family, most of them boil down to the relationships I had with my parents and siblings. I stopped viewing them as burdens or obstacles, and started to actually get to know them better. I started developing real relationships with them, and I was amazed at the results! My love for them increased, and I started to genuinely care about them in a way I'd never experienced before. They became my best friends! I began to trust them, to love them, to appreciate them. As a result, I felt better about myself, because I was part of something larger than myself. I was no longer driven by selfish desires, but by a desire to make them happy!

Now, as a missionary, my relationship with my family has changed a lot. Our communication is limited to weekly emails, occasional snail-mail, and Skype calls twice a year. However, I still love my family more than anything, and I still feel them sustaining me in my hard times and rejoicing with me when I am successful. They motivate me in all that I do, even from hundreds of miles away. And I am still so grateful that I invested some quality time with them over the last few years, even though I wish I had started sooner.

In 1995, the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints issued a statement on the role of families, called The Family: A Proclamation to the World. I would like to share a few of my favorite excerpts from that statement:

"We...solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children."

"The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally."

"The family is ordained of God... Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities."

I know that the family unit is truly ordained of God, and that He wants us to be successful and happy with our families. As we strive to bring our families closer to Jesus Christ's teachings, we can be blessed with peace, love, and strength, and eventually live together with them forever.

I'm so grateful for the blessings that God has given me, and especially for my family.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

What To Do When People Don't Like You

This past weekend was one that I was looking forward to for a long time, and it did not disappoint! The reason that I was so excited was General Conference! General Conference is a meeting that is held every six months by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in which our leaders give us counsel and advice on how to conduct ourselves and brace for the challenges of the next six months.

The many speakers at General Conference are rarely given a specific topic to discuss, but are instead asked to pray and ponder on what the needs of the church are at that time. Despite the fact that the speakers do not correlate, there are often subtle "themes" for each conference. This conference, one of the biggest themes that I saw was Responding to Opposition. By Responding to Opposition, I mean the idea of "disagreeing without being disagreeable". Responding to Opposition means being both confident and loving when others challenge the things we believe.

Opposition has been a hallmark of Christianity and religion in general for a long time. It is becoming taboo to talk about religion in public and professional settings, and many religious principles are ridiculed in the media and in the intellectual world. This is the kind of opposition that I'm concerned about, and it is going to increase in the coming months and years. It isn't always explicit or hostile, but it is there. Even between religious sects, there are simple misunderstandings that can lead to stigmas and tension.

Now, the natural human response when people criticize our beliefs, whether religious or otherwise, is not productive. Human nature tells us to get defensive or angry, to fight back, or to label groups of people as "us" and "them", or even "friend" and "foe". We are inclined to lose our tempers, to hold ourselves aloof from any actual discussion, and sometimes to hold long and bitter grudges.

But what does that accomplish? What do we gain from that? Well, it is certainly the easiest path, in that it doesn't require us to make informed decisions about the people around us. But is the easiest path the best path?

Short answer: no.

Elder Zwick, one of the speakers at General Conference, gave an excellent talk entitled "What Are You Thinking?" In it, he gave some advice about reacting in a Christlike manner to people we may not have the kindest feelings towards. He said:

"We have seen unchecked anger erupt in public places. We have experienced sporting events, in the political arena, and even in our own homes.

"All of us... have regretted jumping headlong from the high seat of self-righteous judgment and have spoken with abrasive words before we understood a situation from another’s perspective. We have all had the opportunity to learn how destructive words can take a situation from hazardous to fatal.

"There exists today a great need for men and women to cultivate respect for each other across wide distances of belief and behavior and across deep canyons of conflicting agendas. It is impossible to know all that informs our minds and hearts or even to fully understand the context for the trials and choices we each face."

In essence, Elder Zwick asked each of us, before we say something we regret, to take a moment and consider the other person's perspective. While his words were mostly in regard to our daily interactions with family and friends, they apply perfectly to the way we respond to opposition to the church as well.

So, how should we react when someone challenges the things we believe? Well, first things first, REMEMBER TO BE RESPECTFUL! If you immediately jump to the conclusion that you are under attack and that you need to shout empty rhetoric at the other person until they agree to get baptized into your church, you are taking the wrong approach.

Instead, take a minute to employ Elder Zwick's advice. Consider where the other person is coming from. Maybe they heard an inaccurate description of your views. Maybe they have had a personal experience that makes the topic they've brought up a very touchy one. Maybe they're genuinely curious about what you believe! Next, make sure you understand their concern. We've all experienced that awkward conversation where you ask a simple question and get a long-winded a different question. Make sure you know what you're saying and what they're saying. Finally, try to respond to their concern in a clear, concise fashion. If they are genuinely interested, you can go into some detail about why you believe the things you do. If you sense that the other person is just trying to pick a fight, you can give a brief statement of what you believe, then drop or change the topic as tactfully as you can. Above all, remain calm and friendly as you talk!

To demonstrate, let's look at the following conversation that I just made up in my head. I'm going to use the name "John" for us, and "McKenna" for the "questioner".  First there will be a bad example, what human nature wants us to do, then there will be a good example, of how Christ would have us react.

Bad Example:

McKenna: "So John, I heard that your church doesn't let you drink alcohol. What's up with that?"

John: "Alcohol is terrible! It's an evil, addictive drink that will ruin your life! Get away from me!" 

*John then runs away waving his hands in the air, leaving McKenna rather confused and disenfranchised*

Okay, I confess, that example may or may not have just been for fun. I hope you have never experienced anything like that.

Good Example:

McKenna: "So John, I heard that your church doesn't let you drink alcohol. What's up with that?"

John: "Well that's a good question, why do you ask?"

McKenna: "Well, at my church each week we drink a little bit of wine to remember Jesus and what He did for us, like they do in the Bible. And my parents will drink beer with their friends sometimes. It's just a social thing, there's really no harm in it."

John: "Oh, I see! Well, I know a lot of churches do the same thing you do with the wine each week. We actually do a pretty similar thing, except we use water instead of wine. The reason we don't drink alcohol, though, is because of something called the Word of Wisdom, have you heard of it?"

McKenna: "I haven't, what's that?"

John: "The Word of Wisdom is kind of like a health code that they ask us to follow. Except it's not just the church that asks us to follow it, we believe it comes from God, through a prophet named Joseph Smith. In our church, we believe that we have modern-day prophets, a lot like the prophets in the Bible."

McKenna: "Okay...I still don't see why drinking is bad, though."

John: "Well, obviously drunk driving and alcoholism are negative consequences, but there's a lot of other consequences that we don't really understand. We don't know all of the reasons why we do the things we do, but we have enough trust in God and his representatives to do the things that he asks."

McKenna: "How can you put so much trust in the leaders of your church? That seems kind of silly..."

John: "Yeah, it does kind of seem like that. But I've prayed for myself about prophets and about the Word of Wisdom, and I just feel at peace when I think about them. We don't take everything the prophets say for granted, we are encouraged to seek our own answers from God, and then follow what we feel."
McKenna: "Well that makes sense I guess. I never thought of it that way. Thanks John!"

See how John was able to turn a question into a missionary opportunity? In the first example, John assumed that McKenna was a brain-washed heathen, and they both ended up offended. In the second one, though, he took time to understand her before answering the question, and it ended up being a positive experience for both of them! Opposition doesn't have to be a negative experience!

It is a fact of religious life that we are going to meet people who deride our beliefs. However, as we respond to their questions and concerns in a respectful manner, acting in "boldness, but not overbearance" (Alma 38:12), we can strengthen our own testimonies and be an example to those around us. Please, please, please remember faith, meekness, and love as you encounter those who scoff at the things you believe.

It comes down to this: Understand your beliefs well enough to answer questions about them, and understand the beliefs of others well enough to be humble and loving when you answer their questions.

I hope that these principles help you as much as they've helped me. I've been able to maintain friendships based on mutual respect as I've tried to be humble and open-minded. Some of my most cherished friendships could have been ruined multiple times if I hadn't made an effort to be open-minded as I've answered questions, and I believe that I've helped my friends understand my views better in the process.

Please be kind! Please be loving! We cannot claim to represent the Savior if we do not follow His example of pure love and humility, even when people don't like what we believe.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Gratitude: Little Things with Big Results

One night, before I went to bed, I knelt to offer a personal prayer to God as I usually do to end the day. I was tired, and the day had been frustrating. I was ready to tell God about all the bad things that had happened to me that day, and ask Him for strength to overcome my challenges the next day. Just as I was about to begin my prayer though, I stopped. The thought came into my head: How would the Savior pray? Surely the Lord, whose every act called out "Not my will, but thine be done", would not even think of complaining to the Father.

What can I pray about, then? I asked myself. I was answered by a memory of something that another missionary shared with me. He had shared that every once in a while, it is beneficial to try to pray only in gratitude, to not ask for a single thing. So I decided to try it.

"Dear Heavenly Father," I began, "Thank you for the wonderful day that I had and the opportunities you placed before me. Thank you for the snow that we've received. Thank you that we were safe as we went through our day and that we were able to complete everything that we needed to accomplish. Thank you for my companion, for his spirituality and ability to influence those around him for good. Thank you for putting me here in this part of the world..."

It did not take long for my attitude to change. It is obvious that our thoughts direct our actions, but I'm amazed at how the reverse is sometimes true. By challenging myself to be more grateful in my prayers, I was able to change not just my words, but my way of thinking.

If I had said the prayer I originally intended to say, I would have ended the night frustrated, fatigued, and bitter. Instead, by assuming an "attitude of gratitude", I was able to fall asleep peaceful, happy, and content. It set the right tone for my next day and made a lasting impact on my effectiveness - and satisfaction - as a missionary!

What is it that makes gratitude so important? Why can such a simple thing make such a big difference in our life? While I don't have a full answer, I think that PART of the answer is that gratitude influences the way we view the world around us.

In the New Testament, the Apostle James teaches us how small things can make a big difference in our lives. While he was talking specifically about the way we speak, I think his words can apply to gratitude as well:

Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.

So how does gratitude "turn about" our view of the world? Here are a few ways:

Increases our Charity:

Charity is defined as "the pure love of Christ" (Moroni 7:47). To many people, charity is simply money that we give to the needy. It can be so much more than that! It is something we feel towards the people around us that is manifest in the things we do and the words we say. 

When we go out of our way to be grateful, and EXPRESS that gratitude, it helps us appreciate others more, and can improve our relationships with those we care about. When we try to be grateful towards God, we begin to view the people around us as blessings, rather than burdens, and our actions towards them will change accordingly.

Decreases our Pride:

When I say pride, I don't mean school spirit or our loyalty to your government. I mean the feeling that we are better than others, that we don't need help, or even that we don't have to listen to God. It is the pride spoken of in the scriptures that led people to ignore the prophets and often resulted in complete destruction.

Gratitude helps strip us of pride. It takes us out of the "me" mindset, and helps us reject the notion that we deserve more, that we're held back by our circumstances. It allows us to humbly thank God for the blessings we do have, instead of demanding more. It can also help us see the good in others instead of focusing on the bad and trying to elevate ourselves.

Builds Self-Esteem:

Now, some of you are probably saying "Wait! How can gratitude decrease pride and increase self-esteem? Well, hold your horses, I was getting to that.

Part of my frustration when I first began to pray in the story above was a feeling that people didn't value or appreciate me. Paradoxically, I felt worthless and undervalued at the same time - I had too much pride and a low self-esteem at the same time. However, when I began to count my blessings, I realized that even if other people didn't value me, and they did, I was still loved by God. Why else would He give me so many opportunities and blessings? As we are grateful, we begin to "collect" evidence of God's love for us, which helps us feel valued and important.

Improves Satisfaction:

In this month's Ensign, a magazine published by the LDS church, there is a wonderful article on "Lasting Happiness". It describes the way having "things" doesn't make us happy. It sites both religious doctrine and scientific studies to show that we get pleasure from the necessities of life, not from the luxuries. "Lasting happiness" is something we chose to feel, and that's what I mean by satisfaction.

When we stop looking at the things we DON'T have, we're able to spend more time appreciating the things we DO have. Looking at what we want makes us feel upset, stressed, ashamed, fearful, discouraged, and fatigued. Looking at what we have (or being grateful) makes us feel content, happy, optimistic, and just all-around good.

So, obviously being grateful has a LOT of benefits. Why is it so hard then? Well, human nature wants us to feel victimized or slighted, and it leads us to always strive for more "things". In order to step out of that mindset, we need to take a step back and count our blessings, in one way or another. Like I did, you can say a prayer of gratitude. You can also keep a notepad with you, and list the good things that happen to you each day. You can pick a person that you're close to, and list all of the things you like about them. You can even sit down and force yourself to write out 50 or 100 or 500 blessings you have in your life! Whatever the method you use, it is important to be sincere, but have fun as well! Appreciate the little things.

I know that God has blessed us with everything we have in this life, including each breath we take. He loves us so much, and the least we can do is acknowledge all that He's given us. The world is a beautiful place!

So, sit back and smell the roses. Watch the sunset. Kiss your spouse. Savor your favorite meal. Look for good in every moment, and you will find it.

Please, leave a comment and share what some of the greatest blessings are in your life!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Can You Be Sure?

Recently I was talking to one of my friends from back home over Facebook. This friend is a member of the church, but is struggling somewhat with her testimony. She is going through a time in her life that ALL church members go through, where she is figuring out for herself what she believes.

During the course of our conversation, she asked me "How did you know that this was the true church? How can you be sure?"

How can you be sure?

That question, that deep, probing question, is one that every religious man or woman must be prepared to answer. How can we "stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places" (Mosiah 18:9) if we don't even know HOW we know that God exists?

Well, I am a firm believer that each of us needs to find that answer for ourselves. We all have a unique path to walk that leads to a sure knowledge of God. I hope, though, that by sharing how I came to MY answer, that YOU will be able to get to YOURS

C. S. Lewis once said that "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important." In that spirit, I'd like to invite anyone and everyone that DOESN'T know yet if God is real or what they believe about Him to take the time to ponder and come to their own conclusion. I would invite them to follow the same steps that I took in coming to know God.

So without further ado, because there's been plenty of that already, I'd like to outline the steps that I took to learn for myself that God is real, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is God's true church on the earth today.

1. Gain Information:

This first step seems simple, but it is of vital importance. It is also a continuous process that lasts a lifetime. For me, this information mostly came from my parents and from church. As I grew up going to Sunday School and listened to the stories about Jesus, I was able to develop a foundation of knowledge of what the church believed. This knowledge was augmented at home as we read from the scriptures as a family and my parents taught me lessons about what was right and wrong. So, almost from my infancy, I had three vital, and connected, pools of information: 1) The basic beliefs of the church, 2) A familiarity of the scriptures, and 3) A clear understanding of what was morally right and wrong.

2. Acknowledge Other Opinions:

This step, too, seems obvious and maybe it is for most people. Like the first step, though, it is a continuous process that we always need to keep in the back of our mind. We NEED to know that there are people in the world, a LOT of people, that don't believe the things that we believe. I distinctly remember the moments in elementary school when I first found out that not all people go to my same church, not all people hold the moral standards that my parents taught me, and that not all people even believe in God. Each one was a shock to me, but were obviously necessary steps in my development. We cannot know that WE believe in God, without also knowing that OTHER people DON'T believe in God. In addition, we can't really be kind, loving, productive members of society without understanding and accepting the beliefs of those around us.

3. Test the Waters:

For me, testing the waters mostly meant deciding if the rules that I learned at church were actually good for me. It may take different forms for different people, but for me it went something like this: "I've been taught that I shouldn't say mean things about people, and I try not to. But does that actually make sense? Well, one time I DID say something mean about someone and they found out, and then I wasn't happy. And when people say mean things about ME I feel sad...yeah, that makes sense. I probably shouldn't say mean things about people." The process may seem juvenile, but hey, I went through this between the ages of 8 and 12 for dozens of principles. And it worked! Over time, I became committed to the individual commandments that we as members of the church are asked to obey. It wasn't just because that's what I'd been taught anymore, it was now because that's what I believed. That's what I knew. For myself.

4. Become Familiar with the Holy Ghost:

One of the basic ideas of our religion is that as we follow God's commandments, we are eligible to receive and feel the Holy Ghost. Different Christian religions have different ideas about the Holy Ghost, but I'm not going to go into that right now. However, you can read our beliefs here. Long story short, the more we keep the commandments of God, the more receptive we are to spiritual experiences and revelations. As I became committed to obeying God's commands, I began to have my prayers answered in more profound ways, I began to have deeper insights when I went to church, and I began to feel contentment and peace in my life. Granted, I was only 12 or 13 at this point, so what did "contentment" really mean? But to me, young as I was, it was a sign of progress.

5. Search With Real Intent: 

This step is really a tipping point, and most of the people I've taught on my mission have already been at this stage in their spiritual journey when I first met them. 
To "Search With Real Intent" means to do everything in your power to find answers for yourself. The Lord has mercifully given us some tips on how best to do this in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon:

"Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

"And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost."

In other words, read the scriptures and pray about them. This passage talks specifically about finding out if the Book of Mormon is true, but I believe it applies for any spiritual answer we are trying to obtain. But again, I'd like to emphasize the REAL INTENT part of it. God has PROMISED us that we can know for ourselves, but we have to want it. We have to really want to know if God lives, if the Book of Mormon is true, or whatever it is that we are asking God.

6. Recognize the Answers:

This is where I've seen some people get hung up, especially lifelong members of the church who claim to not believe it anymore. Unfortunately, in our culture we often wait for big, dramatic answers to our questions to God. This is not the way God works. He teaches us "line upon line, precept upon precept". The knowledge and faith that we've been discussing comes slowly, bit by bit, over a long period of time. In fact, I would hope that it continues to grow throughout our mortal lives. I can only speak as an almost-nineteen-year-old, but I know that so far my faith has only increased from year to year as I've lived the gospel.

Oftentimes, we cannot recognize the answers God is giving us until after the fact. We look back and see the blessings that have come, the things that we've felt, and the decisions we've made. There may be many facets of "our answer", and we can't see them when they're happening. So, if on your spiritual journey you feel that you have been patient for long enough and haven't yet received your answer, you may have to take a step back and look at the previous days, weeks, months, or even years, and look for your answer in the details of your life.

For me, it came one day as I was reading the scriptures. I was reading some of the prophecies about our day that are contained in the Book of Mormon. I was probably 13 years old. I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was no longer just reading a book, I was reading scripture. I realized that I had already put my full trust in the book I held in my hands. I immediately knelt and prayed, and essentially asked God if I had received my answer. A calm, peaceful feeling of love filled my heart, and I knew that I had. I knew that God was real, that the Book of Mormon was true, and that the LDS Church was Christ's true church.

7: Repeat as Needed:

Even after that experience, there have been many times when I've been led to doubt what I believed. Circumstances, experiences, and new information have always kept me on my toes. This is part of God's plan though. I mentioned that the first few steps were continuous processes, and in a way all 6 steps are the same way. God asks that once we know for ourselves what we believe, that we keep doing the things that got us to that point. That way, when we are led to doubt our testimony, our testimony only gets stronger in the long run. It continues to become wider - to cover more principles of the gospel - and deeper - to give us more strength in times of trouble. It becomes a priceless treasure that cannot be taken away.

I would like to again invite everyone to find out for themselves what they believe. If you aren't LDS, that's okay. Find out for yourself IF you believe in God, and WHY you believe in God. If you want to know, turn to God, and He will show you the way.

If you know anyone who would benefit from hearing my experiences, I'd encourage you to share this with them. In addition, I'd ask that you share YOUR experiences with them. If you feel comfortable, please post in the comments how you learned for yourself what you believe.