Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Sacrament Talk

Today, my wife and I were both assigned to speak in Sacrament. I've decided to post a transcript of my talk here:

Good afternoon, brothers and sisters. I’m grateful for my wife’s testimony – there’s really nothing more precious than sharing your core beliefs with your eternal companion and your children. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says in the introductory video to the temple open house – and I paraphrase – “I cannot imagine heaven without my wife, and my children.” So true it is. And that’s relevant to the subject of my talk today – you’ll learn why in a few minutes.

I was asked to choose a talk from our most recent General Conference of the Church upon which to speak. I chose to speak on “The Church Statistical Report, 2008,” as presented by Brook P. Hales, Secretary to the First Presidency.

He begins by saying, “Brothers and sisters, the First Presidency has issued the following report concerning the growth and activity of the Church as of December 31, 2008.”

He then goes on to list some significant numbers, including:

Total Church Membership: 13,508,509

Just to put that in some perspective; only California, Texas, New York, and Florida have a population of more than 13 million people. So if all the world’s members were a U.S. state, we’d be the fifth largest state. And 13 million is nearly TWICE the population of present-day Israel.
Brother Hales then gave us another number:

Converts Baptized: 265,593

That, by the way, is just over FIVE convert baptisms for each full-time missionary currently in the field.

I think those are absolutely magnificent numbers! And better yet, they’re not just numbers – each of those 265,953 represents a unique SOUL. A son or daughter of God who, after searching and wondering, reading and praying, found the true church AND did what was necessary to be baptized and become a member. I think that’s awesome.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord told Joseph Smith to remember that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;” and that “if it so be that you should labor all your days in crying repentance unto this people, and bring, save it be one soul unto me, how great shall be your joy with him in the kingdom of my Father! And now, if your joy will be great with one soul that you have brought unto me into the kingdom of my Father, how great will be your joy if you should bring many souls unto me!”

Now, perhaps none of us, individually, brought any of those 265,953 souls unto God (though perhaps some of us did) – but certainly no ONE of us brought ALL 265,953 souls unto God. Nevertheless, we, as a Church – as members of this great Holy organization – each may have played some part in that – whether by supporting a missionary, encouraging a friend, paying tithing, praying for the missionaries and the missionary work itself, or just being a good example to others and good representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Perhaps you referred an investigator to the full-time missionaries, or maybe a seed you helped plant in someone’s heart, years ago, finally blossomed and resulted in that person’s baptism during the last year.

You may never know how you touch and change the lives of others.

But even if you can’t directly trace any of those 265,953 baptisms back to yourself, those “many souls” are certainly reason for we as members of the Lord’s true church to rejoice!

Now, the Bishopric will be relieved to know that I didn’t really choose to give my WHOLE talk on the Statistical Report. It was more of a lead-in to the talk I chose to speak about, which is Elder Quentin L. Cook’s talk, onOur Father’s Plan—Big Enough for All His Children.”

In it, Elder Cook describes some things that can be beneficial to those investigating the Church, and some things that are hindrances to their progress. I’d like to focus on some of those items today, and consider how we, as members, can work to make the conversion process smoother and more accessible for those who wish to learn the truth of the Gospel and act upon it.

In other words, how we can be missionaries.

Elder Cook says,

“Because of the uplifting doctrine of the Restoration, members rejoice in the gospel and find joy and satisfaction in the Church. We are viewed favorably when we live the teachings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. When members don’t live the teachings, it can be a stumbling block to those who do not belong to the Church.”

This is of course a reference to Alma 4:10 in which the Nephite church members had waxed proud, and in their prosperity began to persecute others.

An example of Church members not living the Gospel having an ill effect on an investigator can be found in my own conversion story.

I was introduced to the teachings of the Church by a woman I was dating who was a very inactive member – who no longer lived any of the Church’s teachings and who was not outwardly recognizable as a member. Nevertheless, she gave me a Book of Mormon, and the first thing I read was Joseph Smith’s testimony of the First Vision (found in the Pearl of Great Price).
Right when I read it, I knew it was true – because the Holy Ghost witnessed it to me, directly, spirit-to-spirit, with an amazing power. And that knowledge has only grown stronger in me over the years, bolstered by a thorough study of doctrine, careful reading of the scriptures, regular prayer, striving to keep the commandments, and undeniable personal experiences.

Since I immediately knew that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, it followed logically that the Book of Mormon was true. So I was able to read it the very first time without skepticism, knowing that what I was reading was an inspired translation of actual ancient records.

I nearly finished the Book of Mormon in 1993, but unfortunately, I allowed my life circumstances to get in the way, and I put it aside until 1996, when I finished reading it, called the missionaries, took the discussions, and got baptized.

Now, I take full responsibility for my own choices, namely for letting three years slip by before acting on the testimony I’d gained. But if that member who’d introduced me to the Gospel had actually been living it during those years, I’m certain I would’ve been baptized sooner.

A contrasting example is found in the fact that the place where I was living at the time I took the missionary discussions was not a good environment – in fact, I never would’ve asked the missionaries to enter that home because of the things that were going on there. So, I took the discussions at a member home – some nice folks I’d met while attending church. Those folks made me feel welcome in their peaceful, family- and Gospel-centered home, and they showed me genuine friendship.

That’s one way that we, as members, can help with the conversion of investigators – by offering our homes as places of refuge for those who need a safe, clean place to meet with the missionaries and see an example of what a “celestial” home can be like.

Another area Elder Cook cites as a potential stumbling-block for people investigating the teachings of the Church is that of a proliferation throughout Christendom of doctrines that are false, yet so oft-repeated through the ages that they become commonly understood to be the truth, even though they are definitely NOT true. Such repetition of false doctrines over the ages, combined with a general agreement among other churches on certain incorrect teachings, can make some of the doctrinal truths found in the Lord’s true Church a little harder to swallow when finally heard for the first time.

Elder Cook put it thusly:

“My principal concern is for the honorable people on the earth who are open to religious faith but have been discouraged or confused by incorrect doctrine. For instance, with respect to the doctrine that revelation still exists, some very good people have been confident that the Church could not be true because they have been taught, and therefore believe, that the heavens are closed and there will be no additional revelation, no scripture, and no pronouncements from heaven. Let me emphasize that this widely held belief is not scriptural, but it is a stumbling block to some.”

And there are many other examples of such doctrines. But I believe that anyone who is open to the truth, and honestly and humbly seeking it, will (just as I did) find the doctrines of the true Church to be like “coming home.” Things will finally make sense.

Elder Cook also talked about another incorrect teaching found outside the Church. He said,

“For many of these people who are open to religious faith, one issue has been particularly troubling. They have had a difficult time reconciling the correct doctrine that we have a loving Father in Heaven and the incorrect doctrine that most of mankind would be doomed to eternal hell. … At the time Joseph Smith received revelations and organized the Church, the vast majority of churches taught that the Savior’s Atonement would not bring about the salvation of most of mankind. The common precept was that a few would be saved and the overwhelming majority would be doomed to endless tortures of the most awful and unspeakable intensity. The marvelous doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph unveiled to us a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind, including those who do not hear of Christ in this life, children who die before the age of accountability, and those who have no understanding.”

I don’t know about you, but I think that is GOOD NEWS! It’s fantastic news. Considering there are some Christians who believe that only 144,000 people will get to return to our Heavenly Father, it is very welcome news that in fact the invitation is open to ALL of His children; and as many as repent, receive all the appropriate ordinances by those with authority, and endure to the end – will receive that great blessing of returning to live with our Father in Heaven.

Another area that can be a hindrance for those who are learning about the Church is the abundance of opposition aimed at the Church, much of it from other Christian churches. But despite how outspoken others may be against us, we are counseled in the Church, as Jesus counseled his followers, to “turn the other cheek to the smiters,” and to not sink into contending with others.

Elder Cook said,

“…notwithstanding the significance of our doctrinal differences with other faiths, our attitude toward other churches has been to refrain from criticism. They do much good. They bless mankind. Many help their members learn of the Savior and His teachings.

A reporter for the Washington Post visited one of our Church meetings in Nigeria. The reporter interviewed one new member and told of his conversion. The reporter states:
‘[He] said . . . he jumped off a city bus and walked into the [LDS Church building]. . . . He immediately liked what he heard inside [the chapel], especially that no one preached that people of other faiths were going to hell.’ This echoes the feeling of numerous converts to the Church since its organization.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley said,

“I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. … We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree.”

Now, we may not receive that respect from members of other churches all the time – and the kind of aggressive “anti-Mormonism” that prevails among some may make it harder for converts to progress, since they must deal with a lot of misinformation that is thrust at them.

But the fact that the Church is so tolerant of others, and does not go around protesting other faiths, but instead reaches out in love to all, counteracts those attacks in a powerful way. To me, it really shows that Christ is the head of this Church.

Elder Cook’s talk, for me, really struck the missionary chord in my heart. It was a great reminder that EVERYONE – all souls who come to Earth – are welcome to “come unto Him” and partake of that sweet fruit of the Gospel – and that it is up to US who already have it, to share with those who don’t. Or, at the very least, to enable others to partake through our own examples, prayers, and efforts to keep the commandments.

President Hinckley also said:

“Now, my brethren and sisters, the time has come for us to stand a little taller, to lift our eyes and stretch our minds to a greater comprehension and understanding of the grand millennial mission of this The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is a season to be strong. It is a time to move forward without hesitation, knowing well the meaning, the breadth, and the importance of our mission. It is a time to do what is right regardless of the consequences that might follow. It is a time to be found keeping the commandments. It is a season to reach out with kindness and love to those in distress and to those who are wandering in darkness and pain. It is a time to be considerate and good, decent and courteous toward one another in all of our relationships. In other words, to become more Christlike.

We have nothing to fear. God is at the helm. He will overrule for the good of this work. He will shower down blessings upon those who walk in obedience to His commandments. Such has been His promise. Of His ability to keep that promise none of us can doubt.”

I believe that if you have a strong testimony, you want to share it with your fellow brothers and sisters in the world. Of course, sharing it is often thwarted by our own fears and shortcomings. That’s why, I believe, we need to focus on our testimonies – work on making them so strong, so powerful, that they cannot be held back by those weaknesses. Those of us who are so blessed as to have the Gospel in our lives have an obligation to share it with others.

I joined the Church too late to go on a mission - a fact I regret. I’m consoled by the fact that I will have the opportunity to serve a mission (or missions) with my wife one day. And right now, I’m in a missionary calling, as a Ward Missionary. And even without a calling, we all have the opportunity to be missionaries.

President David O. McKay said that every member is a missionary.

The "Threefold Mission of the Church" is “Preaching the Gospel,” “Redeeming the Dead,” and “Perfecting the Saints.” My patriarchal blessing states that I will have a role in all three, and to prepare myself for it. It says I don’t need to be called on a far away mission to preach the Gospel – that there are people in my own neighborhood who are without the Gospel, and I can share it with them. I’ve never forgotten that, even if I do a generally poor job of acting on it. For the last decade and a half, my missionary focus has been largely on my own family, since I’m the only member in my family.

I’m so driven to bring the Gospel to my family because I know that it is true and I know that it is SO good. Have you ever come across something SO great, so wonderful, so fulfilling, that you just HAD to tell others about it – so they could share in that joy and find out for themselves how great it is? It's natural that if you've found something awesome that you would want the people you love to also be able to partake of it.

Father Lehi, the first prophet of the Book of Mormon and progenitor of the Nephite civilization, experienced a dream – or a vision – that spoke of that very feeling: tasting something spectacular and desiring to share it with his family. In his dream, he saw a tree, “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy”:

“And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirous that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit.”

Not only is sharing the Gospel something that one wants to do, it is also something that we are commanded to do throughout the scriptures. Jesus told Peter to “Feed my sheep” (and in case anyone missed it the first time, he said it three times in a row). And he wasn't talking about animal husbandry.

There are many ways to be a missionary besides an official call. As a home teacher, you can help folks return to church activity and the blessing of the Gospel by being their friend and providing them with Gospel messages when you visit. Or, more informally, you can reach out to people you know, give someone a Book of Mormon and invite them to church, or just be a good friend to people around you. Your example alone can go a long way. Sometimes people may just be interested to know more about your church when they see the clean, honest and upright way you live and how happy you are.

There are many opportunities to share your faith and your testimony with people. You just have to stay attuned to those opportunities, and then TAKE them when they occur.

It’s up to us, those who have the Gospel, to be instruments in the Lord’s hands in bringing it to the people of the Earth.

President Hinckley has said:

“The little stone which was cut out of the mountain without hands as seen in Daniel’s vision is rolling forth to fill the whole earth. No force under the heavens can stop it if we will walk in righteousness and be faithful and true. The Almighty Himself is at our head. Our Savior, who is our Redeemer, the Great Jehovah, the mighty Messiah, has promised: ‘I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.’

‘Therefore,’ said He, ‘fear not, little flock; do good; let earth and hell combine against you, for if ye are built upon my rock, they cannot prevail. …

‘Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.’”

I find that very comforting - perhaps something we should remember as we prepare to do something missionary-oriented.

Brothers and sisters, the Gospel changes lives, now and eternally. Last year, it changed the lives of 265,593 people – people who learned the truth of their existence, gained the joy of repentance and forgiveness, and discovered that they really CAN have the thing that everyone naturally, inherently desires in their heart – the opportunity to be with their families forever. (I told you I’d eventually connect that Elder Holland quote at the start of my talk – the one about not being able to imagine heaven without his wife and children.)

The Lord said, For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.How many of this year’s quarter million converts will YOU have a hand in helping into the Kingdom of God? The Lord has said in this dispensation – to us – that the field is white aleady to harvest.

May I suggest that you “start small” – focus on ONE person, or one family. And then look for ways to make a difference, and pray for help in receiving promptings and acting on them.

I testify that missionary work – sharing this glorious and wonderful gospel with those who are seeking truth – is the manner in which we participate in the Lord’s work and glory. It is THE great cause in which every Latter-day Saint should be anxiously engaged in one way or another. Heaven Father offers the Gospel to all of His children – but it’s up to us to deliver it.

I leave this with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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