Thursday, February 28, 2008

Strengthen thy brethren. . .

Ok, so after David Archuleta (an adorable Mormon munchkin) sang the atrocity that is John Lennon's "Imagine" on American Idol last night, I was going to write a diatribe about the hypocritical egomaniac that was John Lennon and the mindless worship of him these days, but then I thought better of it since I just popped off on Oprah the other day.  Two nasty posts in a row running people down probably isn't in anyone's best interest, especially mine.  So instead I've decided to post a talk I gave in Sacrament meeting a month ago (January 27).  It seemed like the more constructive thing to do.  Enjoy.

I was asked to speak on "Converting to Christ" and it has been a struggle for me to write this talk.  Part of the reason for that has probably been self-doubt.  As most of you know, one of the great frustrations of having a three year old at home is that you have someone who is able to repeat with crushing exactness everything you shouldn't have said.  I had a few of those moments this week and I just though, who am I kidding?  But I got over myself and pushed forward.  The other struggle has definitely been the very personal nature of the subject.  Each one of us, whether you joined the Church 25 years ago or last week or were raised with the Gospel, has a conversion story of some kind and that story is a deep part of who we are.  I kept getting distracted because its such an important topic.  If we are not converted to Christ, then nothing else we do, no matter how good, matters much because either we aren't doing it for quite the right reasons or it will not last--we won't be able to maintain it.   Having a converted heart is key to all else we can hope to accomplish for good.

I tend to be a somewhat concrete thinker and so I usually assign people in my mind to principles, so that I always have an example at hand to draw on, rather than trying to define the idea.  I don't think I'm unique in that when I think of conversion, I usually think of Paul from the New Testament.  Paul spent most of the early years of his adult life using his position and authority to persecute, sometimes quite maliciously, the true saints of God.  But Paul had a conversion if ever there was one.  He heard the Lord and when the Lord identified himself, Paul's response was immediately humble obedience.  He didn't try to justify himself or became indignant or shameful.  He simply replied, "Lord, what would you have me do?"  Near the end of his life, Paul wrote to his friend Timothy and said, "I have fought a good fight.  I have finished my course.  I have kept the faith."  Despite his early sins and mistakes, which could've seemed daunting to overcome, Paul's conversion was so complete, it was so borne out in his actions, that he could say that with confidence.  I can remember the first time I read the scripture.  I was sixteen and I thought, "That's who I want to be.  I want to live the kind of life that when that life draws to a close I can say with confidence, 'I have fought a good fight and I have kept the faith.' "  At that point, I already had a testimony that Jesus was the Christ, that he was the Only Begotten of the Father and that this Gospel was true, but I knew I wasn't that person yet. 

I am still trying to become that person.  Conversion is a process, not an event.  When we talk about conversion stories, usually what we're talking about are those few divine, crystallizing moments where we've gotten on our knees and asked in sincerity and hope if it was true and received a witness that it was.  Those moments are unspeakably important, but they are, in fact, only the beginning of a conversion.  It's a long road from receiving a confirmation of truth to receiving His image in our countenances.  And that, ultimately, is what we want to do--to change our natures so completely that others can see His image in our countenance.  That is not an easy process, but it is a simple one.  A lot of us try to make the Gospel more complex than we need to--than it is--missing that its profundity is partly in its simplicity.  I think one of the reasons for that is that we simply are so incapable, with our limited mortal minds, of comprehending the fullness of the Atoning Sacrifice of our Savior and the love that he must have for us that we feel like we must have to do something more, bigger, than what we have been asked to do.  But the Lord asks something very simple--keep his commandments.

We become converted to Christ by doing all those things that a Primary child could tell you we should do: reading our scriptures, saying our prayers, attending our Church meetings, taking the Sacrament, listening to the Spirit, holding Family Home Evening and going to the temple.  By the time most LDS kids hit 9 or 10, they can rattle off that list in response to nearly every question, every lesson.  But those are the right answers.  They are the Primary responses because they really are the answer to nearly everything.  Becoming like the Savior, becoming converted to Him, really is THAT simple.  There is scarce a question or doubt that we could not have answered by the scriptures if we are searching them with an honest, open heart.  There is hardly a fear or problem that cannot be solved with prayer if we are listening quietly for answers and for comfort.  And very few troubles of the world can make it into the temple if we go in honesty and humility.  We become converted to Christ by doing as He has asked and forsaking our sins with a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  A converted heart never says, "It wasn't that bad, its not that big of a deal," no matter how small the sin.  A converted heart is a repentant heart--someone who says, "I can do better".  Not in a prideful I-can-do-it-myself way, nor in a self-deprecating, cynical way--beating yourself down because you fell short again.  Its saying it with hope and confidence and enough faith in the Savior that even though we know we are imperfect and weak we know that through the Lord we can do better.

A conversion is often called a change of heart. I'm a word person, I like words, their meanings and origins and such, so I thought about some of the other uses of the word "convert". This year, my dad converted his library into a dining room.  A conversion is when you take something and transform its use or function.    When we convert to Christ, we speak of changing our heart--not because we literally change the use of our mortal heart muscle, but because we speak of the heart as the center of ourselves, of who we really are.  So we take a heart that even at its best is somewhat worldly and selfish, and through the Spirit, we transform it into a heart like His.  How converted we are to Christ is directly reflected in how much we are like Him.

At the Last Supper, the Lord turned to Peter and told him, "When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren".  That admonition applies to us as well. There are many ways that we strengthen, but certainly one of the things that the Lord meant by telling Peter this was the responsibility to share the Gospel, to preach the truth.  As a Church, we grow in numbers every day, but members of the Church still account for less than one half of one percent of the entire population of the world.  That's a lot of people who still need to hear the good news of the Gospel.  And it is indeed very good new.

A few years ago I had a physical experience that helped me to better spiritually empathize with those who have not yet heard that message.  Just a couple of months before Doug and I got married, I had spent the day out with my sister helping her get some shopping done with her two small children.  On the way home, I had a grand mal seizure and blacked out.  When I started to come to, I was in an ambulance.  I was raised by two EMTs, so ambulances are not unfamiliar to me, having spent a fair amount of time in them as an observer, but I couldn't quite put together where I was.  The first thought I had was a mental image of Doug, kneeling on a hillside in Hawaii with the Pacific Ocean behind him.  I knew, because this was the first thing that I remembered, that this must be someone important, but I could not for the life of me think who.  Finally, from somewhere in the random misfirings that were occurring as my mind rebooted itself, I found the name, "Doug".  I still didn't know who he was or what that meant, but I had something to attach to that face.  In this supremely strange state of consciousness the strangest (and worst) part was that I didn't know who I was.  If you had asked me at that moment what my name was, who my parents were or even what year it was, I couldn't have told you.  And I knew that I didn't know.  It was a lonely, frustrating and nearly panicked feeling.  But fortunately for me, it was physical problem, rather short lived.  As I have thought about that experience and the terrible feeling of knowing that I didn't know who I was, I've thought about some of the people I've known who've probably felt that way, spiritually, for most of their lives.  I have known many people who didn't know who they were, who didn't know what it meant to be a child of God and I now realize that some of them have been quite lonely and frustrated and scared.  When we have become converted ourselves, it is our privilege and obligation to share the Gospel with all who will hear.  We must strengthen our brethren by testifying.

There are so many words to describe the Lord and His ministry here on earth, but I always come back to just a few that stick out to me, one more than all the others: obedience.  The Savior was nothing if not perfectly obedient to the Our Father in all things.  The more converted we are, the more we are like the Savior and the easier it becomes to be obedient.  And the more obedient we are the more we become like the Savior.  Its a beautiful cycle.  As we become more Christ-like, being obedient to our Father in Heaven becomes more and more second nature because we know that the Lord wants only good things for us.  In his book "When Thou Art Converted", Elder M. Russell Ballard writes: "There is nothing good that exists in this world without His will and pleasure.  When I contemplate the creation process and realize that the Father promises to all His sons and daughters who are willing to pay the price of keeping His commandments that He will give them all that He has--everything!--I feel that it is indeed worth the price.  D&C 76:58 says, 'Wherefore, as it is written, they are gods, even the sons of God.'  Oh if we could only begin to understand what that really means!  If we could just place that priority properly in our lives and live up to it, we would never have any difficulty making the right decisions. We would always have tucked away in the back of our minds this eternal reality: 'It is worth it'. . .We would pay any price, under any circumstances, because we know more surely than we know anything that it is worth it."

I thought about that quote last week during Sunday school as we discussed Lehi's vision of the tree of life.  A great tragedy is told in that story.  There are those who make it all the way to the tree and partake of the fruit and then fall away.  They knew the love of God, they had tasted of its sweetness, but they were not changed, not really--they were not converted and so they could not withstand the pressures of the world and were lost.  I've known a few of those people in my life--they have touched the truth, but they can't hold onto it.  I remember one in particular, who I love very much, who once told me that doing the right thing, even when she knew what it was, was just too hard.  I felt so much pain for her as I tried to help her understand that it is so much harder to not do the right thing.  Yes, initially it can be difficult to choose the right, but the more often we make wrong or bad decisions, or simply ones that aren't as good, the harder life gets even when its pretty good.  The more frequently we submit to the will of the Lord, the easier life gets even when its pretty hard.  When the Lord said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me. . .for my yoke is easy and my burden is light," he meant it.  What could we possibly be asked to bear, what load could ever be too heavy, if we have Christ to help us carry it?

Which leads me to another thought.  Earlier I said that when I think "conversion" I think of Paul, but the other person I think of is my paternal grandmother.  Now, I say that realizing full well that there are people that know my grandma who if they heard that would respond, probably with a chuckle, "I never really thought of Elda as a spiritual giant," but that's really part of my point.  She certainly has her share of flaws and has made her share of mistakes, most of them obvious, but her faith is simple and pure.  In my short life, I have seen her changed from a good and faithful woman who was nevertheless somewhat famous for her fiery temper and snap judgments into a woman who usually speaks softly and with gentleness and has a great deal of patience.  This change is not just a product of age or circumstances.  She simply believes that whatever the Lord requires is right.  She gave birth to six little boys and two little girls.  One of those boys she lost in infancy more than 50 years ago, another she lost to a logging accident when he was a young man about 30 years ago.  A year and a half ago, she lost one of her daughters in a manner that was, to say the least, incredibly shocking and painful.  As I played at home with my two small children and tried to process the news of my aunt's untimely death, it seemed to me that it was too much to ask of any mother to have to bury three of her own children, let alone lose a daughter the way my grandma did.  But I have talked to her often and watched her closely since then, and she has amazed me.  She has never seemed to be consumed by her grief the way that others sometimes have.  I have never seen her filled with anger or rage at the the man who took her daughter from her, as nearly every other member of the family has been at some point, myself not excluded.  I have only heard her speak of him only with confusion and worry, and often with concern for his own well-being, his eternal future.  Not two decades ago, this was a woman who wouldn't speak to a family member for months over an inadvertent miscommunication and now she feels some compassion even for the one person who has caused her deepest pain.  Trule, she has been converted--transformed--and done it, by her own word, by striving to be obedient in doing all those things a Primary child could tell you we need to do.

To my mind, the most difficult thing Christ has asked of us is, "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them which hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you."  But He has  nothing of us where He has not shown the way Himself.  When He was on the cross, He pled, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."  He looked around at those that had beaten Him, whipped Him, spat upon Him, mocked Him and crucified Him and as He was full of pain and exhaustion and near to death, what He felt for them was love.  He did not demand justice for their actions or speak their condemnation--both of which He certainly had the power and the authority to do.  He asked for mercy to be shown unto them.  When we are truly converted, when we truly have a heart like His, there is no room for anything but love.  There can be no hate in our hearts for our brothers, friends, or even those who would make themselves an enemy to us.  To be sure, that is not an easy thing, but it is possible.  I am certainly not there yet, but I have seen it--in a simple woman as full of flaws as any of the rest of us--and that give me hope than I can get there.  The first step in converting to Christ is coming to a knowledge of who He is and thus who we are--sons and daughters of God.  The next step is seeing others that way--children of God with infinite worth and potential. When we are converted to Christ, we see all men and women, no matter who they are, no matter what our differences and no matter how they may treat us, as our brothers and sisters, deserving of our love, patience, forgiveness and longsuffering. It is not always easy, but as we strive to be that kind of person and become more converted, it gets easier.  And it is always worth it.

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