Snapshots of Life

Monday, June 23, 2014

Yielding Hearts unto God

I suspect few people in the United States with any kind of connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not been exposed to the recent controversy surrounding two members of the Church being summoned to disciplinary councils for apostasy.  It seems that everyone has an opinion on the issue.  An awful lot has been said on the subject from a variety of sources.  Comments have been emotionally charged; judgments from all along the spectrum of opinion and orthodoxy fly around social media and the comment boards of news articles like missiles in a war.  The dynamics of this fiasco were on my mind as I went to church last week.    

Last Sunday was Father’s Day.  Our littlest one was sick, so it was just my oldest and I in Sacrament meeting.  The primary kids excitedly rushed to the stand when it came time for them to sing for the congregation – well, maybe not the older ones.  My precocious but shy 4-year-old stood in the front row next to her little 4-year-old friends.  She leaned against the short front wall of the dais, nervous but beaming.  The kids began to sing and I caught her look to me several times out of the corner of her eye as her subtly dimpled grin stole across her innocent face.  The words and melody were familiar, but somehow felt new:

Our Father has a family.  It’s Me!
It’s you, all others too: we are His children.
He sent each one of us to earth, through birth,
To live and learn here in our families.

God gave us families
To help us become what he wants us to be –
This is how He shares His love,
For the family is of God.     

Perhaps the sense of newness came from the feeling of love and joy that rested upon me in that moment like warm sunshine on a cold morning.  The warmth lingered as the kids continued through all of the verses of the song and a tear or two escaped my eyes.  I love that stirring of the soul.  It is an experience more felt than thought, yet there is illumination and wonder impressed on both the heart and mind.  I felt such gratitude for the miracle of my own little family (and I promise it is not hyperbole to call it a miracle).  I also felt gratitude for the church family that surrounded me in those pews.  I felt gratitude for God’s perfect love, and I sensed that others felt it too.

Such moments of communion are precious, even if not frequent.  It’s one of the reasons I love to attend church – the tender yet unpredictable moments of communion with fellow believers and with my Heavenly Father.

I was especially appreciative of the experience because it came in the midst of my concern and sadness about the current tensions in the Church.  It was a reminder of my love for my faith and my church family.  And, what would a family be without some drama, anyway? J  I really believe and embrace the idea expressed in the primary song that it is in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, especially family and close community, that God most effectively “helps us become what He wants us to be”.  So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about over the past week:  As one who wants and tries to be a disciple of Jesus, how does God want me to respond to this situation in my own heart and life?  I suspect the answer to such a question will be different for everyone, but I would like to share some of the insights I have had.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an opinion about Brother Dehlin and Sister Kelly.  It would be a real stretch to say that I haven’t wanted to make a few posts and comments expressing thoughts about their methods and their conclusions.  I would also be dishonest if I said I haven’t experienced emotional reactions or judgments about them and their works, which is testament to my own pride.  However, they are also my brother and sister in Christ, for whom I am called to show genuine compassion.  I’m certainly not in the wagon of folks who appear almost jubilant at the prospect of excommunication.  I don’t know if these two individuals should be disciplined because I don’t know them and I don’t know their hearts; that matter is between them, the Lord, and their local priesthood leaders.  I would not want to be walking in the shoes of their stake presidents and bishops right now, that’s for sure.  What I do know is that whether or not they are deserving of excommunication, their souls are still of great worth in the sight of God.  These circumstances do not call for celebration or gloating by any members of the church, but then neither do they call for self-inflicted socio-religious martyrdom by these two activists.  Of course, we each must make choices (judgments) about ideas we embrace and affiliations we make, but we would do well to remember that final judgments are left to God.

With all of that said, I’ve come to this conclusion:  Outside of my capacity to pray for all of those involved I have zero control over Brother Dehlin and Sister Kelly, and I have no influence over the leaders who will be participating in these decisions.  Online and print arguments about whether or not they should be disciplined or whether their activities are appropriate will likely change very few opinions.  There is some constructive dialogue happening, but the great majority of what is being said is serving no purpose outside of inflaming tensions.  Which brings me to the question raised above.  How does God want me to view these circumstances?  What can I learn from them in my pathway of discipleship?  What does He want me to do and to be?

Recently I read the Book of Helaman in the Book of Mormon.  When I was contemplating the current controversy in the Church I recalled circumstances described in the third and fourth chapters of the Book of Helaman that bear striking resemblance to those occurring right now before our very eyes.  In the broader societal context the people were setting aside the commandments of God.  The civil laws that had been set up by King Mosiah had begun to be corrupted and altered as well (Hel 3:22-23; 4:21-22).  Despite this there was general peace throughout the land except for the presence of some secret combinations by Gadianton robbers.  I’ll let the reader draw the parallels to today.  In the midst of these conditions, though, the church experienced a period of “exceedingly great prosperity”.  Tens of thousands of people joined the church and the blessings poured out upon the people of God were so great that even the leaders of the church were “astonished beyond measure”.  It was a time of great joy (Hel. 3:24-26, 31-32).  Does that sound a lot like what the latter-day Church has experienced in the past couple of decades, and especially in the past few years with the so-called “Mormon moment”?

Unfortunately, it didn’t last for the folks in the Book of Mormon.  Pride began to enter into the hearts of the “people who professed to belong to the church of God” (Hel 3:32).  Members of the church began to persecute and afflict other members of the church!  Their material wealth and prosperity compounded their pride, which continued to grow (Hel 3:33-34, 36).  Before long there were “many dissensions” and contention within the church (Hel. 4:1).  The situation deteriorated to the point that the people of God lost the capacity to have the Spirit dwell with them.  Because they thought they were so great and strong, they were left to their own strength, they were not protected and preserved by God, and the church began to dwindle (Hel. 4:11-13, 23-26). 

Mormon, the narrator of the Book of Mormon, describes the reason for their struggles thusly:

And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites…  (Hel 4:12).

If that is not a warning to us who profess to belong to the church of God, I don’t know what is.  To me the parallels are remarkable.  Let me be clear lest anyone interpret my thoughts here as pointing a finger at particular persons or groups: to do so would be prideful – the very thing this story is warning about.  So again, this message from the Book of Mormon is an invitation for ALL of us to reflect on the state of our own mind, heart, and behavior.  As President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “Pride is the universal sin” and “the great stumbling block of Zion.”  In a General Conference address, President Uchtdorf said the following about pride:

Pride is sinful…because it breeds hatred or hostility and places us in opposition to God and our fellowmen. At its core, pride is a sin of comparison, for though it usually begins with “Look how wonderful I am and what great things I have done,” it always seems to end with “Therefore, I am better than you.”…
Pride is the great sin of self-elevation. It is for so many a personal Rameumptom, a holy stand that justifies envy, greed, and vanity.  In a sense, pride is the original sin, for before the foundations of this earth, pride felled Lucifer, a son of the morning “who was in authority in the presence of God.”  If pride can corrupt one as capable and promising as this, should we not examine our own souls as well?...
This sin has many faces. It leads some to revel in their own perceived self-worth, accomplishments, talents, wealth, or position. They count these blessings as evidence of being “chosen,” “superior,” or “more righteous” than others. This is the sin of “Thank God I am more special than you.” At its core is the desire to be admired or envied. It is the sin of self-glorification.
For others, pride turns to envy: they look bitterly at those who have better positions, more talents, or greater possessions than they do. They seek to hurt, diminish, and tear down others in a misguided and unworthy attempt at self-elevation. When those they envy stumble or suffer, they secretly cheer.  (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Pride and the Priesthood, Ensign, Oct. 2010).

Fortunately, the story of dissension and contention in the church of Book of Mormon times is not left without direction for the readers of the book today.  In fact, several beautiful truths are presented to help us avoid the eventual state that came about in the ancient church in the Americas.

First, consider with me the mindset of many of the people who had hardened their hearts against that which was good.  It seems that they came to rely on reason alone to draw their conclusions, and were preoccupied with a fear of being stifled, oppressed, and “kept in ignorance” (Hel 16:15-23).  They seem to have assigned questionable and selfish motives to leaders of the church.  Their perspective is summed up in the statement, “thus they will keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives.” (Hel 16:21 emphasis added). 

Contrast that unwillingness to yield with the more humble part of the people, keeping in mind that humility is the antidote to pride.

Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God. (Hel 3:35).

To yield is to give or to render, it should not be confused here with merely letting something happen or stopping for someone else to pursue their path, as at a traffic intersection.  No, yielding our hearts to God is to center our hope in Him, to believe in Him, and to act according to His counsel.  Such yielding moves us to prayer and fasting, to practicing humility, and to cultivating faith.  Is not faith a state of extraordinary surrender?  The promise is clear that this surrender of our hearts to God opens them up to joy, consolation, and sanctification – or the process of becoming saintly.  We are each invited to be saints, which means so much more than having a name on the records of the Church or participating in a cultural identity.  The yielding of our hearts to God the Father that leads to joy and sanctification is active, intense, and prolonged.  It is the doing and the being of discipleship.  Will contention exist in the church if we are each yielding our hearts to God?       

Second, repentance emerges as a clear theme in the text that discusses the contentious circumstances in Helaman.  In the 16 chapters of the Book of Helaman, some form of the word repentance is used at least 57 times.  Some have a negative, even cynical, view of the concept of repentance (which just might stem from pride).  I know sometimes I do.  But in reality, repentance is a merciful, hopeful doctrine.

…For this cause, that men might be saved, hath repentance been declared.  Therefore, blessed are they who will repent and hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; for these are they that shall be saved.  And may God grant, in his great fullness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works.  And I would that all men might be saved. (Hel 12:22-25). 
The word repentance evidently comes from a Greek word that denotes “a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world” (LDS Bible Dictionary).  We are commanded to constantly repent in our daily walk along the pathway of discipleship not because God is some kind of sadistic disciplinarian, but because He is a patient Father.  He calls us to examine ourselves – our views and our ways – and to climb ever higher toward Him (Isaiah 55:9).  Repentance attunes us to God’s grace, which is His help and strength to meet life’s challenges.  Will contention exist in the Church if we each possess a penitent heart, especially in our recognition of the pull toward pride?

Finally, take a look at a description of many of those who professed to be saints at this time:

Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide. (Hel 12:6).         

Contrast that sentiment with the feeling of others at the time who recognized that “except they should cleave unto the Lord their God they must unavoidably perish.” (Hel 4:25).  To cleave in this context means to adhere or attach to strongly.  The connotation is a deep spiritual and emotional connection – the ideal two-way parent-to-child relationship.  Such relationships are forged only through intimate interaction and communion.  To cleave is to trust with all of the vulnerability that trust requires, a risky but freeing experience indeed.  It is perhaps the hardest doctrine in Christianity, and certainly paradoxical to the culture of independence and defiance in which we are socialized.  For we are called not just to passively follow, but to willingly submit ourselves to Jesus Christ, even as a child submits himself to his father (Mosiah 3:19).  We allow God to be our guide.  In the pattern of the Savior, we voluntarily sacrifice our own will – whatever that will may be – in the interest of the will of the Father.  We do not rupture the attachment or abandon the relationship when things get tough.  We hold fast forever.  Will there be contention in the church if we each try to truly cleave unto the Lord our God?

Perhaps for those of us not involved in these disciplinary actions the question of whether or not someone should be excommunicated is a misguided question to be debating.  The more relevant questions in the midst of this contention, at least for me, are self-reflective:  Am I yielding my heart to God?  Am I striving to refine my understanding and behavior through repentance, especially when it comes to the sin of pride?  Am I cleaving to my Father in Heaven?  I know I have a long way to go, though I am committed to press forward on this thorny but incredible journey with my fellow striving saints and with the grace of God.  After all, we are all in this together and it's the only way that we can "become what He wants us to be".  I hope that we can avoid the tragedy and the suffering experienced by the people of the Book of Mormon.  I sincerely pray for the best possible outcome for each of us, for my brothers and sisters involved in these controversies, and for the church that I love.                  

Sunday, May 19, 2013

To Administer in Spiritual Things

I was asked to speak in the adult session of stake conference this weekend.  What follows is the result.  Blogging appears to be dying, which I think is a bit sad because I like to see what people are up to.  I really would like to post more often.  The writing is cathartic for me, but finding the time is the issue.  Anyway, I'm sorry that like 8 out of the last 10 posts have been church talks, and spread out months apart at that.  I think I've given 6 talks in the past 1.5 years...I'm hoping for a break for awhile.

We have long been taught that the priesthood is the authority of God delegated to men on earth to act in all things for the salvation of mankind.  Given that we are an adult audience tonight I will focus my remarks primarily on the Melchizedek priesthood.  It was revealed to the prophet Joseph Smith that another name for this priesthood is The Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God.  An “order” is a group or body of persons of the same occupation or pursuit.  The word “priesthood” comes from the translation of the Greek word hierosyne (hē-e-rō-sü-nā), whose root word indicates sacred – given or devoted to God.  Thus, in being ordained to the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God, we enter into a body of persons who have given themselves over to God and committed to the occupation and pursuit of His work on the earth in the pattern of His Beloved Son.  Brothers and sisters, as those who have been clothed in the holy priesthood, are we living up to our privileges? 

We learn from the Book of Mormon that we have been “called and prepared from the foundation of the world” with a “holy calling” to hold the priesthood of God in the latter days (see Alma 13:3, 7-8).  We receive this marvelous power with a covenant, in which we pledge to magnify our calling in the order (D&C 84:33).  In so doing we become “the seed of Abraham” and inherit the covenant of Abraham (D&C 84:34).  We are called to become “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation” (Pet. 2:9) with a charge to bless all the families of the earth, beginning with our own. Consider the profound blessing and responsibility of the priesthood!

Let us here remember that the priesthood is not just a manly issue, it is fundamentally a family issue.  The fullness of the priesthood is only received by man and woman together!  I say this with genuine sensitivity for any and all who may feel that such a statement is exclusionary, invalidating, or hurtful.  I join with you in rejoicing in a Heavenly Father whose grace is fully sufficient for any and all circumstances.  “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now [we] know in part; but then shall [we] know even as also [we are] known…” (Cor. 13:9-10).  One thing is certain, that the blessings of the priesthood can be extended to all people, men and women alike.  The priesthood is primarily concerned with salvation and no man can receive salvation by performing the ordinances, only by receiving them himself, and then honoring the associated covenants.  “Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.” (D&C 84:20-22).

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we make the bold and miraculous claim that this priesthood of which I have spoken was restored to the earth through angelic ministers, even those three ancient apostles Peter, James, and John.  They received the priesthood directly from Jesus Christ the Lord.  They conferred the priesthood upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery by the laying on of hands and ordained them apostles.  The 3 witnesses to the Book of Mormon, of which Oliver Cowdery was one, then sought out and ordained 12 apostles in the latter-day as part of a restoration of all things.  One of those men was Brigham Young.  President Young later ordained Joseph F. Smith an apostle, who ordained David O. McKay an apostle, who later ordained LeGrand Richards an apostle.  Elder Richards ordained my maternal grandfather, Glen R. Balli, a high priest in the Melchizedek priesthood, who later ordained my father, Carl J. Sorenson, to the office of high priest in that same priesthood.  In 1999, when I was 18 years of age, my father laid his hands upon my head conferring upon me the authority of the priesthood of Melchizedek, then ordaining me to the office of Elder.  And so there exists an unbroken chain of priesthood authority from the Lord himself to my father and then to me.

Several years ago before I was married, I was in the height of what was definitely the most intense personal suffering I have ever experienced.  The details are insignificant but the pain of my soul was very real.  Unfortunately, it seems that too often we men tend to have a more difficult time seeking blessings than the sisters.  I had never to that point in my life, as far as I can recall, gone to my father to solicit a blessing.  That is not to say that I had not received them from him, but I had never gone to him to ask for one.  My dad is a good and humble man.  He exercises the priesthood with more power through meekness than I have seen in any other man.  On this night I was so overwhelmed, so desperate that I humbled myself and went to him.  I shared my agony with him and my mom.  My parents, including my dad, embraced me and expressed words of love as I sobbed in their arms like a little child.  Then, my dad placed his loving and humble hands upon my head and blessed me through the power of the priesthood.  He is my mortal father, but in that sacred moment he was also a servant of the living God.  He was the spokesman for my Eternal Father and a representative of Jesus Christ.  I was not immediately healed, but for the first time in several nights I was able to sleep and I received some measure of comfort.  More importantly, as I look back there is no question that that blessing was a turning point in my journey.  I had been blessed by the authority of the priesthood, yes, but I had also been blessed by the power of the priesthood through the faith and righteousness of my father.  I further testify that my mom’s faith, righteousness, and prayers enhance that priesthood power.

Authority in the priesthood comes by way of ordination through the laying on of hands by the Lord’s authorized administrators.  All those who hold the priesthood have the authority to exercise it within their stewardship.  Power in the priesthood, however, is the spiritual capacity to influence circumstances through the grace of Jesus Christ.  It is manifest according to the degree of understanding, faith, obedience, and righteousness of the holder (see David A. Bednar, Ensign, May 2012).  I am grateful that my father has always had the authority of the priesthood.  I am additionally grateful that he has exercised power in the priesthood.  Hear the words of President Boyd K. Packer:

…Distributing the authority of the priesthood has raced, I think, ahead of distributing the power of the priesthood. The priesthood does not have the strength that it should have and will not have until the power of the priesthood is firmly fixed in the families as it should be…it is now our responsibility to activate the power of the priesthood in the Church. (Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, May 2010).

Indeed, the revelations repeatedly remind us that “many are called, but few are chosen” (D&C 121:34).  Why?  Because we too often honor men more than God, we hide our sins, and gratify our pride, and focus on worldly ambition.  We treat our positions of trust and responsibility as positions of control, domination, or manipulation.  But in such circumstances the power of the priesthood cannot be connected with the powers of heaven, for they are withdrawn! (see D&C 121:35-37).  Principles of righteousness are the keys to maintaining priesthood power.  Notice that principles of righteousness go beyond following an enumeration of sundry commandments.  Obedience to the commandments is important to be sure, yet the principles of righteousness that the Lord chose to specifically list in discussing priesthood power are traits of the inner man.  Persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and genuine love; kindness, knowledge, charity, and virtue, these are ways of being even more than ways of doing.

We are called to follow the Savior.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  To bear fruit in our priesthood ministry we must abide in Him, which means that we will walk as he walked.  We will draw living water and spiritual nutrients from the Source of life and truth (see John 15:4-11 and 1 Jn. 2:6).  There are many images of masculinity perpetuated in popular culture.  Two in particular seem to dominate.  One is the man who is a complete doofus – emotionally inept and unable to communicate or engage in any kind of healthy relationship outside of a sporting activity.  The other is the Casanova – the man who is absorbed in himself with a life revolving around the pursuit of status, money, sex, or all three.  We are inevitably impacted by these messages, but ours is a call to a different path – the holy priesthood after the order of the Son of God.

President Lorenzo Snow taught, “There are men in this Church who are as good in their hearts and feelings as men ever were, but lack faith and energy, and do not obtain really what is their privilege to receive. If their faith, their energy and determination were equal to their good feelings and desires, their honesty and goodness, they would indeed be mighty men in Israel; and sickness and disease and the power of the evil one would flee before them as chaff before the wind…the dead will rise; and everything that was ever done by man since the days of Adam, you will be able to do through the power of God and through a proper ambition.”  (Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Series, pg. 212).

Callings in the priesthood within the Church will come and go, but our calling in the home is eternal.  It is in the family where the power of the priesthood is perhaps more important than in any other setting or circumstance.  The Proclamation on the Family states that fathers have the responsibility to “provide the necessities of life and protection for their families”.  For years I thought of this as primarily physical protection, but few are the occurrences when physical protection is required.  Much more often, it is spiritual protection, through the priesthood, that is needed most in our day.  Pres. Packer proclaimed, “Now, fathers, I would remind you of the sacred nature of your calling. You have the power of the priesthood directly from the Lord to protect your home. There will be times when all that stands as a shield between your family and the adversary’s mischief will be that power. You will receive direction from the Lord by way of the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, May 2010).
In the Melchizedek priesthood we are called to “administer in spiritual things, agreeable to the covenants and commandments of the church” (D&C 107:12).  How many of us truly know and live the doctrine of the priesthood pertaining to home and family?  President Snow declared, “Men who wish to retain their standing before God in the holy priesthood must have the spirit of prophecy, and be qualified to administer life and salvation to the people; and [even] if they cannot do it to the world they must do it at home, in their families…that their hearts may be inspired with words of life at their firesides, in teaching the gospel to their children. (Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church Series, pg. 133).

As husbands and fathers, holding the sacred priesthood, we fulfill our call to administer in spiritual things by teaching the gospel, fostering faith, and promoting spiritual practice as an equal partner with our spouse wherever possible.   We also perform ordinances and provide priesthood blessings for our wives and children.  What a beautiful way for a man to serve and minister to his family.  We are unique in the world of religion in this divine privilege to participate with God in offering healing, comforting, and saving ordinances to our own families.  Think of that!  This, I am convinced, is one way for men to create profound emotional and spiritual bonds with their children, of the type that develop so naturally in relationships with a loving mother.

The priesthood is also a channel that facilitates revelation.  President Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated, “The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that the priesthood is a ‘channel through which the Almighty commenced revealing His glory at the beginning of the creation of this earth, and through which He has continued to reveal Himself to the children of men to the present time.’…If we are not seeking to use this channel of revelation, we are living beneath our priesthood privileges” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Ensign, May 2011).  We learn from revelation that the power of the priesthood unlocks the privilege of having the heavens opened and enjoying the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant (see D&C 107:18-19).  May I suggest that few blessings compare to such a thrilling promise.  Though most of us have a long journey to make before the blessed day when we enjoy the presence of the Father, we can grow in light and truth until that perfect day!  It is done through revelation, line upon line.  No setting is more suited to teach this doctrine, to testify of it, and above all to model it, than the family.
I count it as one of the great and humbling privileges of my life to bear the priesthood of the living God!  It is a sacred and beautiful experience to exercise that priesthood, and to receive inspiration from on High in behalf of those I love the most – my wife and children.  I testify of both the authority and power of the Holy Priesthood to bless lives, to work miracles, and to save souls.  May we each more fully come unto the Father and hearken unto the voice of the Spirit that He may “teach [us] of the covenant”, which He has confirmed upon us for our benefit and for the benefit of the whole world (see D&C 84:47-48).  God grant that in so doing our “confidence will wax strong in the presence of God and the doctrine of the priesthood will distill upon our souls as the dews from heaven” (D&C 121:45).  It is then that the scepter of power in the priesthood – that scepter of righteousness and truth – will be ours forever and ever.  In the name of the Great High Priest, even Jesus Christ, amen. 

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Take Up the Cross and Follow Me

Tania and I were asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting on Easter.  As always I have a difficult time paring things down when I'm preparing.  We were the only speakers but there ended up being a surprise confirmation and then the primary sang 3 verses of 3 songs.  I ended up cutting out about 1/4 - 1/2 of this.  I figured I'd post it here to at least give the appearance that I am current on my blog!  

Happy Easter, Brothers and Sisters!  On this holy day I am grateful for the opportunity to witness of Jesus Christ.  I am afraid that sometimes as Latter-day Saints we do not put enough emphasis in our individual and family practice on Easter.  In preparing these remarks I have sincerely sought the direction of Heaven.  Let there be no confusion that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially on this day, “we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, and we prophesy of Christ.” (2 Ne. 25:26).  I humbly invite the Spirit to attend us that we may be edified together. 

We have gathered together to worship today as followers of Jesus Christ.  We are all at different points along that pathway of discipleship.  There are varying degrees of commitment, but by virtue of our being here today we have accepted the invitation to follow Him.  The Church is not a museum of perfected saints, it is a laboratory of imperfect souls striving to become saints through the grace of Jesus Christ.  It is not a display case of finished products, but the workshop of the Refiner.  We therefore need not be dismayed or distressed when we see around us sin and struggle, “for we all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).  That is why we have Christ and His church.  Our weakness, our sin, and our struggle point to the beauty and miracle of the Church, not to any deficits.

My message today is for every soul that finds himself or herself along that path of discipleship, whether we have just begun or whether we are an experienced traveler.  I am particularly mindful of those who are struggling.  There are those with us today that have unseen wounds – wounds from sin, wounds caused by others, or wounds from painful circumstance.  You have come seeking hope and healing.  There are likewise others who are questioning their testimony and grappling with their faith.  You have come seeking reassurance.  Still, there are others weighed down by grief or suffering with illness.  To each and to all, I humbly invite you as a fellow traveler, to join me in recalling the doctrine of Christ.     

Jesus knew of His death and by what manner it would come long before it occurred.  During His final journey toward Jerusalem, where He would ultimately face the fate of the cross, a young man came running to Him.  He besought Jesus to tell him what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus reminded him of the 10 great commandments.  The young man responded, “Master, all these have I observed from my youth.  What lack I yet?” (Mark 10:17-20; Matt 19:16-21).  The record continues:

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. (Mark 10:21).

Brothers and sisters, we are each that young man.  Note that Jesus looked on him with love.  Often when we talk about this verse we focus on Jesus’ invitation for the rich young man to “sell whatsoever [he] has and give to the poor”.  So, how on earth do those of us who are not rich apply this invitation?  I do not think the Savior’s instruction to this young man was as much about giving up his riches as it was about the invitation that immediately followed.  Giving up riches was merely preparatory to what came next:  “come, take up the cross, and follow me.”  Ultimately, the call was to take up the cross and follow the Son of God.  For this young man, and to some extent for all of us, that involves a financial sacrifice, but without exception for all of us it involves the willingness to give “whatsoever we have” in terms of our heart, might, mind, and strength.  That call – that invitation – is for everyone! 

What does it really mean to take up one’s cross and to follow Jesus?  Joseph Smith gives us insight in his translation of the phrase, saying, “And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments” (JST Matt 16:26).  We learn here that to take up the cross involves giving up the things of the world and of the flesh, and being obedient to God’s will.  Is this not what Jesus did as He took up His cross?  He says, “follow me,” as if to say, “let me show you the way, for, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ that leads to happiness, wholeness, and eternal life (John 14:7).”  On this Easter Sabbath as we worship together let us follow Him then, in our mind’s eye and in our hearts, as we review together His final days and moments.  Let us observe so that we might learn what it really means to take up the cross and follow after Jesus Christ.

It is commonly thought that Jesus was crucified on a Friday.  Thursday, just the day before His climactic death, became a solemn and sacred day.  Jesus ate His last supper with his beloved disciples, which was likely a Passover meal.  The ritual of the meal is rich with symbolism regarding God’s dealings with His people, especially the freedom from bondage of death and sin.  Jesus used the profound symbolism in the ceremonial meal to introduce the new covenant and to institute the sacrament.  He broke bread to represent His bruised body and broken heart.  He blessed wine to represent His blood that would soon be shed.   Partaking of the sacrament today connects us back 2 millennia to that sacred night.  He is still calling us to remember Him and to take upon ourselves His name. 

Following sacred interactions and teachings in that intimate setting, then the singing of an hymn, Jesus and His disciples retired to a familiar garden.  The spot is called Gethsemane, which in Hebrew means the “place of the olive press”.  Here was likely an olive press in which harvested olives are placed between two huge circular stones.  An operator manually turns the top stone like a wheel causing the olives to be crushed under the pressure and grind of the heavy, moving rock.  The olive skin ruptures and oil flows out to be collected.  It is Mark who tells us that Jesus went into the garden and began to be “sore amazed” or “astonished” (Mark 14:33-34).  It seems that though He knew what He had to do, even He was awestruck at what Elder Maxwell called “the awful arithmetic of the atonement”.  He fell to the ground and cried out, “Abba (which in Hebrew means, “Papa” or “Dad”), Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:36).  Luke, a physician, informs us that under the crushing weight of all the sins and sorrows of every soul, blood came from every pore (Luke 22:44).  No wonder pure olive oil is used to anoint in sacred ordinances, for it represents the healing blood of the Son of God, shed at the place of the olive press, even Gethsemane. 

Interestingly, in the law of Moses before the sacrificial lamb was slaughtered on the altar, the worshipper placed their hands upon the lamb and confessed their sins.  So in that sacred garden it was as though we all collectively placed our hands on the Lamb of God, our sins being transferred to Him who became sin for us, though He knew no sin (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

We know from modern revelation that the burden Jesus carried in the garden and in the horrific events to follow was far more than just the sins of the world.  From Alma we learn:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.  And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. (Alma 7:11-12).
What marvelous meekness did Jesus exhibit in the midst of His own wrenching!  He, even the mighty Jehovah, cried that the bitter cup might be removed, but then submitted Himself in magnificent vulnerability to all of the will of the Father.  He gave all that His divine soul could give, and most importantly He gave His will!  He did not shrink!  Glory be to the Father!  Jesus partook and finished His preparations unto the children of men (See D&C 19:18-20). 
As the narrative of the Savior’s final hours continues the scene intensifies in horror.  He is betrayed with a kiss by one whom He loved from His inner circle.  At the mere sound of His voice He could have called legions of angels to His defense, but still He does not shrink from the cross that lies ahead.  In fact, He heals one of the aggressors.   His disciples for the most part scatter.  In tragic irony He is brought before the High Priest and the governing body of the Jews, who mock and deride Him, then convict Him of blasphemy for only speaking truth.  How pained must have been His sensitive soul to be rejected by those who professed to worship Jehovah. In their pride and conviction they failed to see their Salvation standing before them.  Amazingly, the innocent flesh they slapped and spit upon had just hours before issued blood for them too.  Nevertheless, He “set His face like a flint” (Isa 50:7) to the path ahead.
Having been condemned by the Jews He was passed to the Romans on Friday morning.  He was accused of treason and insurrection before the governor, Pilate, on the charge of claiming to be the King of the Jews.  Pilate eventually saw Him as an innocent man but that did not stop the Roman soldiers from their taunting abuse.  At the time of the Passover it was customary for a prisoner to be pardoned and released from prison.  In another twist of irony Pilate asks the multitude of Jews gathered if they would like him to release Barabbas (who was likely a real insurrectionist and murderer) or Jesus.  They chose Barabbas, who’s name in Hebrew means ‘son of the father’.  Jesus, the literal Son of the Father, begotten in the flesh, was thus condemned to be crucified at the mandate of a shouting mob. Pilate washed his hands of it, but as Elder Maxwell has said, those hands were never more dirty.  Jesus was dressed in a scarlet robe with a crown of thorns placed on His head.  Cruel mockery and whipping followed.  The scene is almost too gruesome to bear.  But we must look, Brothers and Sisters, we must look to that majestic figure who did not shrink!

From Isaiah we read:   He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa. 53:3-6).

Without question Jesus must have been physically, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted, but it was not yet finished.  He was forced to carry His cross to the place of the skull, that hill called Calvary.  We know that crucifixion was a cruel way to die. It was also a shameful way to die. Jewish tradition said, “cursed is the man who hangs from a tree”.  Crucifixion was a death for rebels and vile criminals as a warning to everyone else.  Imagine, the God of Heaven, He who was without shame, carrying a cross of shame upon which He would die!  Even still, it is in His hour of torturous pain that He is thoughtful of others and even forgives.  His clothes were ripped from His body, spikes driven through His hands and feet, He is taunted on every side to “come down and save himself”, and when He asks for but a little water He is given nothing but bitter drink.  

So, as Paul says, Jesus was fully “obedient to the death of the cross” (Phil 2:8), having descended below all things.  If the symbolism is perfect it was likely around 3:00 p.m. on Friday when the Lamb of God spoke His last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.  It is finished” (Luke 23:46; Jn 19:30).  It would have been the very hour when the sacrificial lamb of the Passover was being slain on the altar of the temple.  Surely, He was the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8).

Happily, the majestic story does not end with the crucified Christ.  Following His death His loving disciples carefully placed His body in a sealed and guarded tomb prior to the Jewish Sabbath.  Oh, but wonder of wonders and miracle of miracles, on the morning of the 3rd day that stone was rolled away!  The angel of God proclaimed to those marveling disciples, “He is not here: for He is risen!” (Matt 28:6).  There is no message more important or more joyous in all of God’s creation.  “Oh how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of…death and hell.” (2 Ne 9:10).

The scriptures are clear that through the Savior the resurrection of the physical body is a free gift to all who will ever live upon the earth.  “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor 15:22).  We therefore gratefully rejoice, “Oh death where is thy sting?  Oh grave where is thy victory?” (1 Cor 15:55).

If that were the only consequence of the atonement and resurrection it would still be the most glorious news ever contemplated in the heart of man.  Yet, there is more!  There is so much more!  Through His atonement and subsequent resurrection He promises mercy, grace, and succor to forgive, to empower, and to comfort us in all of life’s difficulties.  He promises not only immortality of the physical body but eternal exaltation as heirs of God and joint-heirs with Him.  To whom are these promises extended?  From Nephi comes the word: 

For he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Wherefore, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation.  Behold, doth he cry unto any, saying: Depart from me? Behold, I say unto you, Nay; but he saith: Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price…Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay… (2 Ne. 25:24-28).

“Any” and “all” truly mean any and all.  There is no one for whom this statement does not apply.  When we ask how we receive forgiveness, healing, or strength; when we wonder how we inherit eternal life, the invitation is that same invitation the Savior made to the rich young man:  “Come, take up the cross, and follow me”.  

Of course, it would be inappropriate to compare our experiences to those of Jesus.  Only He took upon Himself the sin, and pains, and sicknesses of all men and women.  Only He overcame death so that all might live.  Therefore there is nothing that we can teach Jesus about any kind of pain or struggle.  Yet, though His suffering surpasses our individual trials by far, there is still so much we can emulate from Jesus as we face our own gethsemanes, whether those trials are brought upon us by ourselves, imposed by others, or created by mortal circumstance.  The prophet Joseph said, “You will have all kinds of trials to pass through.  And it is quite as necessary for you to be tried as it was for Abraham and other men of God…God will feel after you, and he will take hold of you and wrench your very heart strings…” (Joseph Smith, Journal of Discourses 24:197).  

So at His invitation to take up the cross and follow Him, what do we learn from watching Him go through that process?  It seems to me that by inviting us to take up our cross, He is inviting us to take up our shame, our sin, our pain, our worldly inclinations – no matter what they are or how we came to possess them – and to follow Him to Gethsemane and Golgotha. In those holy places of discipleship we are required to give our all, just as He gave His.  Mercifully and beautifully His not shrinking becomes the source of comfort and power for us in those mortal experiences from which we want to shrink.  Indeed, when we humbly submit to, rather than resist His will, His grace is sufficient to give us strength in weakness (see Ether 12:27 & 2 Cor 12:5-10).    When we “crucify the old man” and “yield ourselves unto God” we are born again and “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-13). 
Taking up the cross then, is loving as He loved and serving as He served, it is keeping the commandments, it is being patient and meek in suffering, it is forgiving, it is being bold in defense of truth, it is all of those attributes and actions that we witnessed in Jesus in our review today of His last moments.  But, above all, it is bowing the knees of our hearts to God.  It is freely, lovingly, submissively offering our will to Him, for that is all we really have to give to Him who has given us everything! 
The beautiful words of the hymnist, Isaac Watts, illustrate this well:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my heart, my all.

So, my Brothers and Sisters, the theology of Christ is not a passive theology.  It does demand our all, and in return we gain all, even all that the Father hath!  Let us go forward from this chapel on this Easter Sabbath asking the same question posed by the rich young man, “What lack I yet?”  If we are holding on to our favorite sins, let us repent.  If we need baptism, let us be baptized.  If we have wondered, let us return.  If we hold malice in our heart, let us forgive.  If we have wronged another, let us make amends.  May we take any and every step necessary to take up the cross and follow Him. 

I testify of God our Father, that His love is perfect.  He is a Father of miracles.  I express gratitude for His plan of happiness and redemption!  I am a witness of Jesus Christ.  I bear testimony that His grace is fully sufficient to make us strong in our weakness.  I have knelt before His throne of grace in the midst of torturous trial and acknowledge before you that I have received abundantly, not of myself but of Him who is so good!

I close with the words of Nephi:    

But, behold, the righteous, the saints of the Holy One of Israel, they who have believed in the Holy One of Israel, they who have endured the crosses of the world, and despised the shame of it, they shall inherit the kingdom of God, which was prepared for them from the foundation of the world, and their joy shall be full forever. (2 Ne. 9:13).

In the name of Him who took up the cross for us, even Jesus Christ, amen.