"Being Inside Has Helped Us Look Outward"
It is wonderful to be with you this morning in our virtual devotional. One of the things that I love the most on a day like this at the College is being with you, looking into your faces, shaking your hands and telling you how much I love you. Well, two of those are not possible with the current conditions, but one is. I want you to know how much President Kusch and I love you and that our prayers are about you every day.
If I had told you two months ago that church buildings would be vacant on Sundays and that the Conference Center would be closed, or empty for General Conference, would you have believed me?
Could you have imagined trains with no riders or that main streets in downtown Salt Lake would be almost deserted in the middle of the day?
Do you feel anxious and worried that the circumstances in the world today leave you feeling a little like these pictures that I took a few days ago - alone?
This has been a very different time for all of us, but I want to share with you two lessons that I have learned as I have spent more quiet time at home reflecting on many things.
The first lesson is this: Good circumstances do not guarantee righteousness, and likewise, difficult situations do not cause us to turn away from God.
On the first day of our governor’s mandate to stay at home and be safe, I was reading in Jacob 5; his wonderful allegory of the olive tree. One of the great lessons for me from Jacob’s comparisons is about the connection between the condition of the soil and the quality of the fruit that the tree yields.
At one point in the story, the Lord of the vineyard makes the following comment to his servant:
“Look hither, behold I have planted another branch of the tree also; and thou knowest that this spot of ground was poorer than the first. But, behold, the tree. I have nourished it this long time, and it hath brought forth much fruit.” (Jacob 5:23)
My dear friends, as I have had occasion to talk to you on campus, and you have shared with me your stories (some of which have proved hard situations for you) and your testimonies with me, I see that you are examples of what Jacob was teaching. Righteousness is not determined by circumstances, but rather, it is a choice that we make to live as steadfast disciples of Jesus Christ. We can choose to live as saints, walking in faith - even when the soil in which we are planted is not of our choosing and is less than ideal.
So, take heart, know that even in today’s difficult circumstances, when things may seem uncertain, one thing that is constant is the promise at the end of Jacob’s allegory. The Lord makes this declaration to his servant, referring to our time in the world’s history; “...for the last time have I nourished my vineyard...wherefore I will lay up unto mine own self of the fruit...and the good will I preserve unto myself.” (Jacob 5:76-77)
We can live righteously, with the Spirit in our lives, and the Lord, whose vineyard this is, has promise to help us.
Elder Holland taught, “[the Lord Jesus Christ] will strengthen you when you waver. He will be your light when it seems most dark. He will take your hand and be your hope when hope seems all you have left.” (General Conference, October 1998)
Hope and help from heaven can be ours regardless of our personal circumstances.
The second lesson that I have learned is this: Being isolated has helped me look outward for connections with others.
In our family (President Kusch, me, our three daughters and our son) we have started a group text thread where we share words of encouragement when one is feeling low. We exchange funny stories and pictures (to lift our spirits), and currently, we are having a recipe contest and we send pictures of our missteps as well as our successes with a new baking technique. We are connecting with each other every day, and I love it!
We have group Zoom calls with our children and grandchildren so that we can see each other’s faces and catch up on what is going on with everyone. Doing this is fun and helps us feel connected with each other.
One of our daughters has been organizing some old family photos and has shared with us some of the gems she has found. We have laughed at some of the clothing choices and hairstyles from years ago but have also remembered the occasions on which these photos were taken.
I have heard from old friends, and it has been wonderful to reconnect with them.
I have had more time to reach out to our neighbors and ward members. One dear sister replied to my inquiry of how she and her family were fairing by simply saying, “Thank you for asking.” We should act quickly on promptings that we receive when someone’s name comes into our mind because we understand that many times prayers are answered through the actions of another.
President Nelson said some weeks ago that as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have the great privilege of ministering, serving our neighbors and providing much-needed comfort and assurance. “Please take good care of yourselves and your loved ones,” he said, “and look for opportunities to help those around you, near and far.” (President Russell M. Nelson’s “Message of Hope during Coronavirus Outbreak,” Church News, April 2020)
Let me give you some examples of those who have made connections with others and have blessed their lives with kindness.
One of our daughters purchased a case of sacrament cups from her local church bookstore, then packaged them into small bags and delivered them to ward members.
Another of our daughters very recently moved into an apartment in a new town with her three children. She was in great need of bare necessities and had scoured her neighborhood stores to locate what her little family needed.
A friend from high school, who lives in another state, heard of her plight and sent a precious package of relief.
My sister heard of her town’s need for face masks and has been using her fabric supply and her skill to sew and donate dozens of these precious items.
One of our daughters has been busy creating some small watercolor paintings that she is sending to friends to cheer them up and help them know that they are loved.
One of my sisters spent hours lovingly preparing and personally delivering an individual Easter lesson to each of the children in her Primary class. Each little egg has a small item inside that corresponds with a scripture about Jesus Christ.
People from all around the world are showing kindness as they connect with and serve their neighbors.
I could go on and on with examples of people who have lifted others even when their own burdens may be heavy.
How can we connect with others going forward? Certainly, there must be something that we can think of to do to lift, strengthen and bring joy to another person.
In an interview with the Church News on April 1, Elder Holland taught that at a time when physical contact is limited, members can rely on technology such as social media, email, Skype and FaceTime. He said, “We ought to dedicate a certain part of our day to communicating with people who need a boost. Of course, we get a boost from doing that, so everyone is lifted up. There is no particular merit in wringing our hands about the visit we cannot make or the face-to-face presence we cannot create. Let’s do the best we can.”
My dear brothers and sisters, when we can once again be together, I will look forward to seeing you and telling you in person how much you are loved. But in the meantime, one thing is sure, I never want to forget the lessons that I have learned through this experience of isolation and reflection.
Righteousness can be ours regardless of our circumstances when we rely on our Savior, and true happiness comes our way as we look beyond ourselves to love and serve each other.
May the Lord bless you as you begin this semester is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
"Outward, Inward, Upward"
I begin my remarks this morning with two personal experiences: one that took place long ago, and one that’s rather recent.
Many years ago, when our son was in high school, he and I made a quick trip to a local outdoor shopping mall on a pleasant Northern California summer evening. We arrived, parked the car and began making our way to a favorite store.
I do not remember what diverted my attention, but something caught my eye. I continued walking forward but not looking forward, which quickly turned into a recipe for disaster as I walked directly into a steel and concrete beam that supported the roof of the shopping center. As I did so, my glasses flew off my face, and I hit my forehead directly onto the corner of the beam. The pain was excruciating. I saw stars, I got very dizzy, but fortunately, I did not pass out. The pain was horrible, but the embarrassment was worse, as directly to my right there were about 50 people in an outside dining area enjoying their dinner. Some of them must have seen what was coming, but no one warned me! As I sat down on a nearby curb, a server from the restaurant kindly brought me a glass of water, asking, “All you alright, sir”? I assured her that I was. It took a few minutes to regain my composure and then we were off to shop. We returned home, glasses in hand, with a large knot on my face and an accompanying bruise. I have not forgotten this experience, nor has my son, and I imagine those 50 people who watched this unfold have not forgotten either. And, I rather imagine that if something like this happened today, someone would have it posted on Instagram in seconds.
Over the past year, I have included swimming as a regular form of exercise in preparation to participate in a couple of triathlons. A local recreation center has a pool available for early morning lap swimming, and I have enjoyed adding this to my running and cycling training.
Not long ago, after an early morning swim, as I was leaving I saw someone I knew coming towards me. She was with a friend and they were deep in conversation and only looking straight down as they walked – but with no steel beams in front of them! They were oblivious to anything other than their conversation – with the only things they could see being their feet and the floor. I wondered if she would look up and say hello – because I knew she would if she knew I was walking right by her. I decided not to say anything – as a bit of a social experiment – just to see what would happen. They carried on their conversation - never looking up – and because I did not say anything, we both missed an opportunity to say hello, and, if nothing more, wish each other a good day.
Well, what do these two experiences have to do with you and me? Are there lessons for us to learn as we think about looking outward, looking inward, and looking upward?
This morning Sister Kusch has taught us in a powerful and very tender way about the importance of looking outward, of serving others, and in so doing, blessing our own lives.
Given our current circumstances, I imagine you have been spending more time inside than outside. You have probably found yourself wondering what to with much more discretionary time available. As I prepared my remarks for today, a question came to mind that I would invite you to consider, “During these recent weeks, what have you been praying for and praying about?”
We have seen temples close, missionaries brought home, church meetings suspended, the global economy disrupted, well over a million people infected with the coronavirus and thousands who have tragically lost their lives. We have been asked to “shelter in place” for our own safety and the safety of others. If during this time we fail to look outward and miss the opportunity to look inward, and upward, we might lose the opportunity to build and strengthen our faith in Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ – at a time when it is needed more than ever.
In a recent Church News interview that Sister Kusch referred to with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, he said:
“This is a rare time of enforced solitude when we don’t have a lot of trivia or superficial busyness distracting us from considering the truly important things in life. Such times invite us to look into our soul and see if we like what we see there. The result is a “kind of mandatory Sabbath — a time when we step away from our normal routine, from life as usual, and consider our dependence on God and the blessings from Him we so often take for granted.”
During our missionary service in Mexico, I loved to hear the people pray. Their prayers were faith-filled and powerful. And they were always filled with gratitude for things we so often take for granted: food on their tables, a roof over their heads and the simple truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Their example is one that could benefit us all, as we spend a little more time counting our blessings and thanking God for them. So, I would ask again, “What have you been praying for and praying about?” Has gratitude for Heaven’s blessings been a part of your prayers?
One of the more trying times in the history of the Church and in the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith was the winter of 1838-39 when he and six of his associates were falsely accused, ordered to be executed by a firing squad and ultimately cast into prison, to spend a bitter winter in the Liberty Jail. They lived in conditions that no human being should ever be subjected to: cramped and filthy quarters, no blankets, rotting food and blasphemous guards. In spite of these inhumane conditions, when writing the history of the Church, Elder B.H. Roberts described Liberty Jail as a “prison temple” for Joseph. Why would Elder Roberts describe Joseph Smith’s experience in such vile circumstances with the sacred comparison of a temple?
Could it be that because Joseph remained anchored to God and to the Savior – with his eye single to Their glory – and never ceasing to look upward, that he was able to receive the profound, sacred, revelatory instruction that is found in Sections 121, 122 and 123 of The Doctrine and Covenants? Could it be that he learned that even in the most miserable of conditions heaven could be very, very close? Could it be that he learned that by not blaming God for his circumstances, but through faith and humility, every experience – especially the miserable ones – in life can be redemptive and filled with Divine companionship and peace? Could it also be that Joseph learned in a very personal and direct way that because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, someone knew more about his suffering than he could ever comprehend, that he would never be abandoned and that deliverance and an eternal reward would surely come?
There were undoubtedly other important lessons that shaped the remainder of Joseph’s mortal ministry, but how blessed we are for what we have because of what he experienced.
It is unlikely that any of us will ever face the persecution, the opposition and the cruel treatment that Joseph Smith experienced. But we will face challenges. We ARE facing challenges and conditions in the world that, while not unprecedented, are certainly new for all of us. And so, the lessons Joseph learned in his extremity in Liberty Jail provide a pattern for us not only in our present conditions, but for any conditions we might face in the future.
And so, what are the lessons for us as we look outward, inward and upward?
We can look outside ourselves and seek opportunities to do a little something to bless others, knowing that in so doing we may very well be the answer to someone’s heartfelt prayers.
We can live with a little more gratitude for God’s abundant blessings and count them a little more often. We can try to be a little more obedient, submissive and humble. We can forgive more freely and strive to let go of anger or malice toward someone who may have wronged us. We remember that the true test of a Christian life is how we live the gospel not only when it is convenient, but especially when it is not.
We can steadfastly anchor our lives and our faith in and on God the Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. We can pray a little more fervently. We can spend a few minutes more thinking about the Savior’s infinite and eternal Atonement as we prepare for and partake of the sacrament. We can remember that God’s love for us is constant, and that because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, there is hope, there is succor and there is the Balm of Gilead.
And because we know and do and remember these things – even in the most difficult circumstances – we can stand with the Prophet Joseph Smith and say: “…let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed,” trusting in the Savior’s sure promise that “…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.” I so testify with all my heart.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.