A New Year

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As we approach the beginning of a new year we are led into a period of introspection. We look back at the previous year and celebrate all of our accomplishments and, perhaps, lament some what could have beens. We are also full of hope for new opportunities and experiences that the coming year will bring. We commit be to try a little harder and to be a little better. In some ways the New Year is a sacramental experience. When we partake of the sacrament each week, the atonement of Christ makes it possible for each of us to lament and repent of our mistakes and covenant to try a little harder and to be a little better. If we approach the New Year in the same way we approach the sacrament- meaning that we focus on the Saviour’s atonement and our reliance on him we may be led to make changes that will of eternal import. 

This does not mean that the more mundane aspects of our resolutions are unnecessary. Rather that these actions and decisions are a part of something greater. As we develop this train of thought I recognise that I can strive to submit to the Saviour in every aspect of my life. Every aspect of my life: Church, personal, work and family are actually all acts of worship that can draw me closer to the Saviour. Hence the scriptures teach us that the commandments and the living of the gospel are not temporal, rather they are spiritual (see D&C 29: 35). As we approach this New Year let us contemplate the resolutions we are to make; how do the decisions we make draw us closer to the Saviour? What will the opportunities for spiritual development be as we consider the Saviour and his influence in every aspect of our lives? I have a view of the atonement of Jesus Christ that goes beyond the final few days of his life. Rather, his whole life was, in some way incomprehensible to us, part of his atonement. Christ’s entire mortal experience (not just the last hours) became a part of his atonement in order that he could suffer “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… that he may know according to the flesh how to succour his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:11-12). Often we focus on the atonement as being to pay the penalty for our sins, and that is certainly the case. But the atonement serves many more purposes than that. 

The compassion theory of the atonement draws humanity into a relationship with Christ as a person realizes the impact of sin. The atonement also draws humanity into this relationship in every area of human life. Blake Ostler describes it this way:

When we let go of our past and release the painful energy of alienation [and suffering], Christ experiences and receives into himself the pain that we have experienced to be transformed by the light of his love. If we refuse to let go of our past histories and the pain that arises from our sins, [sicknesses and infirmities] we will continue to experience that pain. If we let go of that pain, however, then Christ experiences the very pain we release, but we no longer have to. In his Passion we find compassion” (Ostler, 2001: 236). 

In this understanding of the atonement the focus shifts to the on-going presence of Christ’s work in our individual lives. A relationship with Christ is not purely to be gained through repentance and at judgement day but is to be developed in the act of living in mortality. We, therefore, need to consider how we can utilise the example of Christ more in our every day lives. You may be able to think of some specific examples of how Christ influences you in your every day decisions and actions.

This week has been rather busy for me, and as I consider the Saviour’s example I recognise how much more patient and loving I need to be. If we explore the events in Matthew 14 we read how Herod has just had John the Baptist killed:

When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart:…

It seems as though the Saviour was seeking some time alone to mourn the loss of his cousin. Certainly this appears to be the case later in the chapter where he is able to be alone to pray. But at this point he was unable to find the solitude he sought. We read further

and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.  And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, 

There is a possibility at this point that he could have asked the multitude to give him some space to concentrate and to be alone. The scriptures continue that Jesus

was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick. And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals (vv13-15).

How many times in our lives do we find ourselves encumbered with our own issues and concerns, only to find others asking for our time and attention? For me, as I contemplate the various events and requests I have received this week I can reflect on the Saviour and reflect on my need to be a little bit better than I am right now.

One other aspect of the Saviour’s example will form the bulk of the remainder of my time. This aspect of his life is the relationships that he formed and developed. As such, the example provides us with a pattern for our relationships one with another.

We look first and foremost at the relationship that Christ has with his Father; a relationship that we should be seeking to emulate with our Heavenly Father. The Book of Mormon teaches “The Father and I (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Ghost are one” (3 Nephi 11:36 cf 1 John 5:7). While recognising their separate nature it is important in understanding who God is to maintain a unity within the Godhead. This oneness is “a oneness of mind, of knowledge, of purpose, of will” (Roberts, 1903: 29). It is possible to extend this understanding of the unity of the Godhead and describe it as “so complete that each of the distinct divine persons has the same mind in the sense that what one divine person knows, all know as one; what one divine person wills, all will as one” (Ostler, 2001: 463-464). There is a unique oneness among the three members of the Godhead, which according to Jesus all people must work towards: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17: 21). James E. Talmage taught that “the mind of any one member of the [Godhead] is the mind of the others, seeing as each of them does with the eye of perfection, they see and understand alike. Under any given conditions each would act in the same way… their unity of purpose and operation is such as to make their edicts one” (Talmage, 1988: 41). They are thus “one God, meaning one Godhead” (McConkie B, 1979: 511): “This unity is so profound that there is only one power governing the universe instead of three, for what one divine person does, all do as one” (Ostler, 2001: 464). 

The unity of the Godhead expands the definition of exaltation to mean a unity of individuals with the Godhead: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17: 21). Exaltation must be understood as a completion of the unity with the Father, Son (and Holy Spirit).

Exaltation as a unity with the Godhead is therefore possible, as exemplified through the life of Christ. Christ became one with the Father through obedience to his commandments and the aligning of his thoughts and goals to the Father. As joint heirs with Christ to receive the same inheritance of Christ (salvation), we  must strive to develop this unity throughout our lives. Prayer is an example of how this unity is important for the development of our relationship with Christ:

As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are his children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7: 7-11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationshi: Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other (BD: Prayer).

The example Christ set, in terms of his eternal destiny and the way he achieved the unity with the Father is crucial. If we hope to receive exaltation we must develop a relationship with Christ during mortality to hope for a continuation of that relationship beyond the grave. To receive exaltation we must know what, and behave as, Christ taught.

Just as Christ developed his relationships with the Father, so should we. However, the relationships he formed in his life were not restricted to his Father. He showed love and compassion to his mother, his friends, complete strangers and even his enemies. He had taught people to love their enemies, and in the Garden and on the cross he showed just how much he loved his enemies as he died for the very people who nailed him there. What can we learn from Christ’s mortal relationships?

Each of our relationships is a prelude to the unity we find with our Heavenly Father. Every relationship is patterned after the eternal relationships we are striving to develop. In our relationships we can be a little more Christlike. We can exemplify more of the patience and compassion he showed in his mortal life. Christ knew what is was to be betrayed, to be hurt and denied by those closest to him. Yet, he still showed love. Interestingly, in my twenty years of conducting Temple Recommend interviews, the most oft discussed question is about a person’s conduct in relationship with our families. We can all do a little better, we can all be a little kinder.

These relationships, for the most part, are taken for granted by most people. Most of you would agree that our relationships with the Godhead and with our families should be preeminent in our lives. It is another relationship that we are all a part of that I now turn. A relationship that we can sometimes overlook or even neglect because our attention we feel is better served elsewhere. This is the relationship we have with each other as members of the Church, and more particularly as members of the Hyde Ward.

Our relationships to other people are formalised within the Church; as Church members we are given the opportunity to serve one another. Through these service opportunities we are able to “work out [our] salvation” (Philippians 2:12):

And we did magnify our office unto the Lord, taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads if we did not teach them the word of God with all diligence; wherefore, by labouring with our might their blood might not come upon our garments; otherwise their blood would come upon our garments, and we would not be found spotless at the last day (Jacob 1:19).

The service that is given by all members of the Church is a prelude to the service and unity that can be found within exaltation (unity with the Godhead):

In the [Godhead] the three are one God, yet each is fully personal; in the Church a multitude of human persons is united in one, yet each preserves her or his personal diversity unimpaired. The mutual indwelling of the persons of the [Godhead] is paralleled by the coinherence [or cooperation] of the members of the Church (Ware, 1993: 240).

Thus, a participation in the work of the Church is a necessary preparation for exaltation. If we hope for exaltation we must spend life developing relationships. The most important is with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But one important way that we do that is in relationship to other people. The Church (including the ward and the Stake) is organised to help us develop unified relationships that prepare us for exaltation. Each of us is an integral part of the Ward and we should each make every effort to develop this service and unity, without which we cannot hope for exaltation. This may be a bold claim to make: that our exaltation depends on how we contribute to the Ward and relate to those people around us. It is nonetheless true, as each of these are indicative of the grace we have received in our lives.

If we are to have the type of relationships we are aiming for there are three things that each of us should have. These were first outlined by President Hinckley:

  • A friend
  • A responsibility 
  • To be nourished by the good word of God

In exploring these things we must recognise that our first responsibility is to ourselves to ensure that we have, and are continuing to maintain, each one of these. We must then go beyond ourselves to ensure that every member of this ward has all three of these things as well.

A friend

The best way to have a friend is to be a friend. We do not sit idly by waiting for someone to make an effort to be our friend, we make an effort to reach out to all of those around us. To take an interest in and develop relationships with others. The Saviour describes us as his friends- he is able to do so because of the service he has rendered and the relationship we are seeking to develop with him. Let us learn of each other, let us celebrate one another’s successes, and let us mourn with those that mourn. There are people from many backgrounds in this ward; we should make an effort with each and every one of them. I was somewhat surprised not long ago when a member of the ward told me of a job opportunity they thought I should go for. I was surprised because it was to be teaching in a school- I haven’t taught in a school in over five years. This told me that I had not made an effort to interact with this particular member in a meaningful way. I needed to do better. I don’t expect us to know the ins and outs of all of our loves but it would be nice to take an interest in a person and help the feel as though they have a friend. We will be having a ward activity in January to which everyone is invited. This will be an opportunity to learn more of one another and develop friendships. As more information comes out about this evening please make every effort to attend.

Most importantly this friend is a person on whom we can call should the need arise. This is first and foremost our role as a Home and Visiting Teacher. In this way we can be sure that every member has at least one or two friends. Brothers and sisters, in this area we must do better. If, as James tells us, ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.’ What does it say about our religion and our conversion if we fail to visit people and spend time with them?

A responsibility

As a Ward Council we will endeavour to ensure that every member of this ward has a responsibility. This may be serving as a Home Teacher, serving on a presidency, teaching a class, organising some logistical issues, providing technical support and many other things that will help members of this ward in their efforts to draw closer to the Saviour. We are often told that it does not matter where we serve but how we serve. Brethren and sisters this is so true. Our responsibility when we are given an assignment or a calling is to carry it out to the best of our ability. There are many people throughout this ward who magnify their calling in ways that astound me (in a positive way). I am so grateful for the service that is given. But, speaking generally, this is also an area where we can do better. Two months ago, when I was first called, I said from this pulpit:

What do I mean by treading water? We may come to Church, we may read the scriptures, we may accept our callings but do not let them sink deep into our hearts so that they affect our desires and actions every day of our lives. There are too many people in this ward who are sitting on the sidelines; maybe shouting encouragement and admiring the view but are doing little else. This sounds harsh, and don’t get me wrong there are many people who have consecrated their lives to the service of God and the Gospel permeates every action they perform and every role they have. These are the people for whom Church service is a joy rather than a chore. Do we feel as though we give too much? I am often surprised when people are asked to complete a small act of service (whether that is a responsibility in Church or for another) and a litany of how busy that person is pours forth. One of the most told parables of Jesus is the Good Samaritan. In this narrative a priest and a Levite do not stop to help the injured man. Why do they not stop? We can imagine that there are very good reasons- maybe they are fearful of taking on such a responsibility, maybe they worry about being late for other events, or maybe they are worried for their own safety. If I stop and think these are all very good reasons to carry on their way. However, in the end none of these mattered in the eyes of the Saviour; the same person who uttered the words ‘Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ (Matt 25: 40).

I felt as though I was being harsh in the words that I said. But as I read back through the talk I realised I had ameliorated or softened my comments. I gave people credit for sitting on the sidelines shouting encouragement. I’m not convinced that is what we are doing at all. I think some of us are sat on the sidelines either with an attitude of disinterest or worse, are negatively commentating on what is going on. I’m sorry, but to become Christlike in the way that we develop relationships we need to be actively involved in them. In this case, we need to be actively involved in the efforts of this ward; in the building of the kingdom of God. If we feel on the periphery it is because we have moved. When we do not feel the Holy Spirit it is usually because we have moved ourselves away through our actions (whether we recognise them or not). The best way to get the Spirit back is to do things that move ourselves back towards him. This can be replicated on a ward level. If we do not feel a part of things, then we may have imperceptibly moved away in thought or deed. What is our responsibility- to do things that involve us and move us back towards the centre. If we do not feel a part of Relief Society- we attend Relief Society meetings. If we do not feel close to certain people, we make the effort to get to know them. If we do not feel as though others are serving us- we serve them. The list could go on- at certain times, I have felt like a visitor at the ward, and out of the loop- what can I do- well, I could sit and moan, or as I did on one such occasion I offered to help organise an activity to help me serve.

There are other responsibilities that we all have that we must not neglect. We have a responsibility to share the Gospel in every situation that we find ourselves in. Let us share those experiences. We have a responsibility to complete family history and temple work. Again, let us be anxiously engaged in this. Let me reiterate challenges to each of us in this regard:

  • Let us all, those of us who are aged twelve and over, be worthy of and carry current Temple recommends.
  • Let us hasten to the Temple as often as our circumstances allow. I would suggest at least monthly.
  • Let us take family names to the baptistery with our youth and new members every quarter. We do not have long until January 28th– which will be our first opportunity to complete some baptisms. Let us get moving.

Nourished by the good word of God

What are we doing, first and foremost to ensure that we are nourished by the good word of God? Are we studying the scriptures, are we pondering and praying about their meanings? Are we studying the words of the prophets and apostles? Are we preparing for our lessons so that we can feel of the Holy Ghost and be edified? I often tell the story of falling in love with Ruth through reading the words she sent me each week in a letter. It is eminently more possible to develop a loving relationship with the Saviour as we study his words. This will ensure that we are kept on the right path.

President Hinckley has said, beginning by quoting from the Book of Mormon:

Moroni [says] concerning them after they are baptized: “And after they had been received unto baptism, and were wrought upon and cleansed by the power of the Holy Ghost, they were numbered among the people of the church of Christ; and their names were taken, that they might be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer, relying alone upon the merits of Christ, who was the author and the finisher of their faith” (Moro. 6:4). 

In these days as in those days, [every individual is] “numbered among the people of the church . . . [to] be remembered and nourished by the good word of God, to keep them in the right way, to keep them continually watchful unto prayer.” 

What are we doing to ensure that every member is nourished by the good word of God? Are we reading from the scriptures in our visits with members, are we opening the scriptures with our families? Are we studying together as presidencies, quorums and auxiliaries? President Hinckley continued:

It is imperative that [individual] become affiliated with a priesthood quorum or the Relief Society, the Young Women, the Young Men, the Sunday School, or the Primary. He or she must be encouraged to come to sacrament meeting to partake of the sacrament, to renew the covenants made at the time of baptism. [“Find the Lambs, Feed the Sheep,” Ensign, May 1999, 108.]

We are not a social club, though we should be social. We are The Church of Jesus Christ on earth today. We must ensure that all are fed and nourished by the good word. I have outlined many things we must be doing. First and foremost we must address these issues for ourselves, then we must move out and help others draw close to Christ.

Christ’s example was one of drawing people in, including the excluded. We must follow his example. He did not just die for the people he liked or associated with he died for all people. We may feel that we are doing okay in and of ourselves and that is great, but we must do more than seek for those immediately around us. Martin Luther King once said:

In a real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly (King, 1967, p. 181).

Let us conquer the spiritual hunger that we find around us. For us to have a blessed community we must ensure that every member of this ward has:

  • A friend
  • A responsibility and
  • Is nourished by the good word of God.