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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Closer and closer...

WE ARE UNDER THE TWO MONTH MARK. I REPEAT. WE ARE UNDER THE TWO MONTH MARK.

Can I just leave already? God is pretty funny making me wait five months. I will be the most patient person by the time I actually leave on my mission. It makes me wonder what will test my patience on my mission.

In the meantime, since I last posted, I have gathered all my missionary outfits! Sure it took two days of tortuous shopping, but I lived, and so did my wallet. (Yay for sales and mothers!) I also had to get a root canal. They're not as bad as people make them sound. Well, except that my dentist lost a file in my canal so I have to go to an endodontist and see if they can fix it. :/ MY TEETH BETTER BE PERFECT ON MY MISSION.

Anyway... The friend spotlight of this week is the amazing Sydney Sands. She leaves for her mission to Kobe, Japan in 8 days. 8 DAYS. I don't know how I'm going to live without my dear friend. She's a wonderful fangirl, a smart ditz, and the awesomest blonde I know. (Besides me, of course.) I had the opportunity to perform at her farewell. I was terrified and did horribly, but nobody needs to know that, right? Sydney's talk was wonderful, though, and it's impossible for me not to share that wonderful message with you, my dear readers. I hope it inspires you as it did me. You should also visit her blog where all her letters will be posted!

Sydney's Blog

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Ohayou gozaimasu, brothers and sisters. Good morning. I am Sister Sydney Sands, and I have been called to serve in the Kobe, Japan mission. Thank you for showing up to my farewell, whether intentionally or not, and you’ll wanna buckle up—I’ll be up here for the next twenty minutes. For your listening (and my speaking) convenience, I have planted people throughout the pews to laugh at all my jokes.
Take a step back from this Sunday morning and think for a moment about your favorite book or your favorite movie. Does it have at least one sequel? I’m sure it does—all movies have sequels these days. I’d like you to take a moment and think about how long it felt, waiting for that sequel.| | Got it? Wasn’t that a long wait? Now, imagine the next sequel coming out in two years. Now imagine five years. Now imagine waiting 1700 years. No joke—seventeen hundred years. It wouldn’t be in your lifetime. It wouldn’t be in your children’s lifetime. Generations of lifetimes would pass and you would still be left waiting for the end of the story. When the next part of the trilogy came out, you wouldn’t even recognize it as a sequel.
Two hundred years ago, that’s where the world was—unable to recognize the continuation of its most influential story—the story that I’m about to tell you today: The restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This story begins at the very beginning of the creation of mankind—Adam and Eve. Adam was made the first prophet. He walked and talked with God and taught his children the gospel. Soon, the people fell away and were left in spiritual darkness. Noah brought back God’s light after the flood and taught his children. Their children fell away and into darkness. The same cycle happened with Enoch, Abraham, and Moses. These “cycles” are called dispensations, and have always ended with a spiritual darkness called an “apostasy,” where it is “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). An apostasy begins when the people shun the word and God removes his prophets from the earth, cutting off mankind from priesthood authority. However, God loves his children, and each apostasy ends with the beginning of a new dispensation. With each new dispensation, God provides two things: A prophet, and new information on the Gospel.
Prophets are given the priesthood. They are the only ones authorized to speak for God and reveal new doctrine, among other things. Prophets learn by revelation, and in turn reveal that to us. When there are no prophets on the earth, there is no proper authority, and so the gospel falls from heavenly interpretation to human interpretation, which is, of course, faulty, fractured, and sometimes, straight-up false. Without prophets, no new revelation is given, basically severing our connection with God. After all, the scriptures are all testaments of Jesus Christ.
In the parable of the vineyard in Mark 12, the dispensations are compared to a man who owns a vineyard. He builds a tower, then let the workers, the “husbandmen” handle the vineyard. “And at the season he sent to the husbandmen a servant, that he might receive from the husbandmen the fruit of the vineyard. And they caught him, and beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent unto them another servant; and at him they cast stones, and wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully handled. And again he sent another; and him they killed, and many others; beating some and killing some. Having yet therefore one son, his wellbeloved, he sent him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my son.”
God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son. Christ was sent to overcome death and atone for our sins. During his short thirty-three years on earth, the Savior also taught the Gospel, organized his church, called the twelve Apostles, and gave them priesthood authority by the laying on of hands. He fulfilled prophecy and was ultimately killed by those he saved. Before his death, as mentioned, he gave his apostles the priesthood, which meant that they were able to perform saving ordinances and establish his church through the world. However, shortly after Christ’s death, the world fell apart. Paul was beheaded, Andrew was crucified, Thomas was speared, James was clubbed and stoned, and most of the other apostles were also brutally martyred. The priesthood was gone, and the world fell into the great apostasy.
Without the main pillars of the church to rely upon, people turned to human wisdom to interpret the scriptures and principles of the church. The Romans, who persecuted the Christians, then became Christians themselves, used a council to settle important religious questions. They debated over philosophies and physically changed the scriptures. Not just the Romans, of course—entire books have been lost as a matter of course. Don’t you remember Ahijah, Iddo, and Shemaiah? Of course you don’t—they don’t exist anymore—they were lost. My favorite Old Testament prophet, Nathan, had a book. It’s gone. Samuel had another book. Disappeared. On top of that, the Bible used to be hand-copied by monks. If you had to copy page after page every single day with no spelling errors and no change of pace, what would you do, other than go crazy? Well, to make the work more efficient, you might cross off a word or two. What if, instead of a monk, you were a cardinal in politics? Vote for me and you’ll go upstairs, vote for him and you’re going downstairs. And some people, like the commonwealth, simply couldn’t help their misinterpretation—there was no Google, no howtocatholic.com, no phonelines. How were they supposed to know if their beliefs were 100% canon? How were they supposed to know the scriptures when most of them couldn’t read Latin, much less read at all?
Some people realized that they felt uncomfortable with the Gospel, and wanted to reform it. First evidence was the great Catholic schism, where the church divided into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Next was the great Protestant divide, when Martin Luther protested against corruption in the Catholic Church. William Tyndale translated the scriptures and made them available to the common people. John Wycliffe preached that the church should have no part in political power.
All of these reformations played a big part in what people looked for in a church, but God’s power was still absent. Every Church has truth in it—some a little, some a lot—but the priesthood was gone. That’s why reformation, as much as it helped, didn’t fix the problem. |Every apostasy requires restoration.| And these reformations opened the doors to that restoration.
That same restoration was in the works since before Christ was born. In 1Nephi 13, an angel is showing young Nephi the history of the land of promise. Nephi sees the Gentiles (that’s us, the non-Jews) go through a struggle to religious freedom, despite the darkness and apostasy. As he watches the Gentiles cross the Atlantic ocean with the Bible in hand, the angel promises that the Lord will not “suffer that the Gentiles shall forever remain in that awful state of blindness…For behold, saith the Lamb: I will manifest myself unto thy seed, that they shall write many things which I shall minister unto them, which shall be plain and precious; and…these things shall be hid up, to come forth unto the Gentiles.” Once again, we’re the Gentiles. The Lord promised Nephi, a prophet who lived almost two thousand years before us, that the Lord would give the book that Nephi wrote to us. Everyone here in this room was promised two thousand years ago that we would receive the sequel to the Bible because God loves us, and will never let us be in the darkness for long.
However, I can’t read Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and ancient Arabic, all of which featured in the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon. We needed a seer and a revelator—someone ordained of God with the power to administer the ordinances outlined in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Sound familiar? We needed a prophet. Someone old and educated and learned. A theologian. A local hero to rally the people, to spread the word of the new scriptures and the new dispensation. At least, that’s who I would have chosen.
God had very different plans. Instead of pulling a Goliath from the masses, he picked a David. Fourteen years old, farmboy poor, third-grade education, cheery disposition. The Lord chose Joseph Smith Jr. to reestablish the church and translate thirty pages a day, six days a week, with some archaic glasses he found in a box buried in a hill. Why? It may be because he was young, and had his whole life to preach the gospel, it could be because his heart hadn’t hardened against new doctrine, it could be because his parents were religious, it could be because he lacked wisdom and could not have possibly written the Book of Mormon. It could be because he lacked wisdom and so he asked of God.
The Second Great Awakening was a phenomenon peculiar to the United States, and some historians believe that it is the reason why we have higher church attendance than any other country in the world. It was a huge ordeal—hundreds of new churches in buildings, on soap boxes, parading around on the grass collecting members, shouting fiery words, preaching in the road to passersby. Every which way one was bombarded with doctrine—all from the same book, but thousands of interpretations, everyone threatening spiritual death if you didn’t listen. How was one supposed to know where to go? What church to choose? Young Joseph Smith Jr. was in this position. His parents belonged to different sects, and both were very adamant in their faith. However, the family often shared in scripture study, and so the scriptures were what Joseph turned to when in doubt. And so he read the fateful words: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5)
And so he did. “I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me,  and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
“It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
And Joseph Smith did. His vision led to the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the translation of the Book of Mormon.
This is an incredible story, especially considering that it only took a little more than a century for the church to increase from six members to one million.  Sixty years after that, and the church went from one million to |fifteen million.| Wow. Wow.
I’m not a prophet. I’m not a leader of millions. I wasn’t born in the Second Great Awakening, and I can’t put “translated a companion to the Bible” on my resume, so I had trouble relating to the story of Joseph Smith. What makes the restoration so important, so impactful, other than the fact that it happened? After prayer and study, I’ve decided that the restoration provides us two messages: a declaration of love, and a call to action.
The Restoration is a message of love. 1John 4:8 states that “He that loveth not knoweth not God; |for God is love.”| |God is love.| Salt is salty. Water is wet. God is love. Water doesn’t try to be wet—it doesn’t see you jump in the pool and say “Oh, let’s get him wet.” It just is. God just is. He doesn’t look at someone who’s doing poorly and go “Oh, I need to love him.” He just does. Despite the death and persecution of His Only Begotten, the Lord of the Vinyard still loves us. We are ignorant, so he sends a prophet. We are weak, so he sends the comforter. We are imperfect, so he gives us a Redeemer. God so loved the world, but he didn’t love it in the way that we love green grass or the sky or clouds or sand on the beach. God loved the world because he loves you. He knows your name, he hand-crafted your body and wept when you were hurt, and you never saw Him, but He was there, holding your hand when you were summoning the courage to squish that spider, or when you were taking that physics test, or when it felt like everyone had abandoned you. He is perfect, and He is love, and what we do matters to Him. He wants us to grow up to be like Him one day—happy and perfect and loving, so He gave us the chance at knowing everything He does.
That’s what scriptures are—testaments of Jesus Christ. We have the Old Testament, the New Testament, and Another Testament, the Book of Mormon. All these have been written to testify that Jesus is the Christ, our Savior and our Redeemer. “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2Ne. 25:26) The rest is just extra. For it is “upon the rock of our Redeemer…whereon if men build, they cannot fall.” (Helaman 5:12) If religion does not bring you closer to God, it is useless. It will not comfort and it will not save.
The Restoration illustrates God’s love—his proof that he will answer any and all questions. As he told Nephi, he will not let us be blind. We’ve been given the tools—now it’s up to us to use them.
There’s a book that I love by C. S. Lewis called The Screwtape Letters—a collection of letters from the devil Screwtape to his young nephew Wormwood. All of these letters are guides to lead his “patient” down to hell. On the very first page, he tells Wormwood that argument is useless in convincing a man away from God. “Jargon,” he says, “not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don’t waste time trying to think that materialism is true! Make him think that it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”
In today’s society, much of the debate around religion and morality deals in jargon. We judge their value on whether they’re ‘conservative’ or ‘progressive,’ ‘academic’ or ‘practical.’ ‘Conventional’ or ‘ruthless.’ ‘Popular’ or ‘unfashionable.’ We throw in all these reasons—Oh, the word of wisdom is ‘practical.’ Oh, the Book of Mormon is ‘well-written.’ The Prophet is ‘a good man.’ That’s why you should follow it. Rarely do we ask the most important question: |‘Is it true?’|
The Restoration is a call to action—demands us, through example, that we ask the important questions, not the convenient ones. You heard in Anna’s lovely musical number—“Oh, what a beautiful morning,” and you’ve heard the phrase “in the first morning.” Those who rise early—those who do not hesitate to take action—are the ones who will succeed, who are called of God. I compare waking up in the gospel to a personal conversion, because it is only through the light of Christ that we can truly see. We are commanded to wake up and set our eyes on that light of the world, the husband of Israel, the Redeemer of our souls, and so we must have faith that it is true.
A familiar parable on faith is that of the Ten Virgins, who took their lamps and went forth to meet the bridegroom. “And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.” The five foolish ones had no oil, and so were not able to attend the marriage. Although some people believe that the five wise ones were selfish in not sharing their oil, I liken it to sharing flashlight batteries. You can’t just expect someone to give you one of theirs. It doesn’t work that way—then you just get two people with no light. Just like you can’t share oil or flashlight batteries, you cannot share faith. I stand here today as a witness of the Gospel, but I cannot stand here in your place.
Don’t just assume that the Book of Mormon is true. Don’t just assume this church is the right one or that President Monson is the prophet. |Ask.| God is waiting for you to ask. He could be waiting to give you the most spiritual experience of your life. The very title page of the Book of Mormon invites you to question the validity. It is up to you to ask.
But there is a catch. A special way to ask, illustrated in Moroni 10, verses 4-5. You’ve heard them a million times before, but they’re important, so humor me and try to find something new in them, this time. “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 you 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. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
Did you catch the special technique? You need to have two things: a sincere heart and real intent. Both are things you’ll need to develop inside yourself.
Sincerity is freedom from hypocrisy and integrity in your desire. Your question has to be one that you want to know the answer to. If you just ask about the Book of Mormon because you figured “Hey, why not?” you’re not likely to get a sincere answer.
This next part, real intent, is what I consider to be the most important part of the prayer. Real intent is the resolve to change your life according to the answer you receive. This one’s harder, because we are creatures with a high moment of inertia—meaning that it’s really, really hard to get us moving. Often, this is because we don’t quite understand the magnitude of whatever principle we’re praying about. Boyd K. Packer illustrates this point, saying that “True doctrine, understood, changes behavior and attitude.” When we truly understand a piece of the gospel, we change ourselves to fit it. That is the morning of our conversion. It is the moment, or the accumulation of moments that tell us that what God has to say is worth our time. It’s humility, when we understand and demonstrate meekness to the Lord. It is progression—because the closer we adhere to the principles and ordinances of the gospel, the more blessings that we’re given. Real intent is the respect in understanding that God is higher than we are, and the love and clarity of understanding that He is just waiting to give us the world.
Obedience is the final step—the only way to cement our feelings in stone. It is the little things, the everyday effort, which keeps us in the church. In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape warns Wormwood against action. “The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about his new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy (God) plants in a human soul. Let him do anything but act…The more often he feels without acting, the less he will ever be able to act, and in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.” Once our prayers are answered, it is our duty to live our lives according to the answers we receive. It sounds like a big burden—it is a big burden, but as Christ says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Brothers and sisters, everything that I have said today is either true, or it is not. I have a testimony that every word that I have spoken is the truth, and as perfect a truth as can be revealed to someone as imperfect as I am. I stand here as a witness of the restoration of the Gospel in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church is true. Prayers are answered, and God loves his children. I testify that the veil is thin and that he is always, always close. I testify that he loves you, and that he loves me, and because He loved the world he sent his only Begotten Son. I testify that he is a God of Love and a God of Miracles. I testify of perfection, and for the next eighteen months, I will testify and introduce those who are ready to God. I testify that God is waiting for the introduction, and that he will direct my paths. I testify that prayer with sincerity and true intent, followed by action is the most certain way to know anything in the gospel, and I testify that that kind of knowledge is necessary in these latter-days. Learn it for yourself. Love it. Live it.
Brothers and sisters. Good morning.

I say these things in the name of the one Redeemer, even Jesus Christ, amen.
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Maybe I should just steal her talk.... We'll see.