Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jeremy's Talk - Given to the his home (Mormon) congregation on Dec 30th

*at first I was going to make jokes about Lanie’s talk and how it wasn’t very good, but she got sick the night before. So instead I talked about how the timing was great because if it were just 2 days later the new year would be here and church would start at 9 and no one would’ve been there.
All kidding aside, I’ve been asked to speak about becoming fully converted to the gospel and learning to live the standards. I like this topic; I think it’s extremely relevant as I get ready for my mission, but also very relevant in my own life story as well. But first, let’s address the mission. This Wednesday I’ll enter the MTC and begin my mission, where for two years, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, my life will be devoted towards serving the Lord and inviting the people of Armenia to forgo the traditions of their fathers, make covenants with God, and enter the waters of baptism. Now I know the only thing most of you are thinking right now is, “wait, he’s going where?” To be honest, when I read that I was assigned to labor in the Armenia Yerevan mission, I didn’t know there was a country named Armenia, much less where it was. While you could look up Armenia on Wikipedia using your smartphones and know exactly as much as I do about the place, I’ll share a few facts for fun.
Armenia is believed to have been inhabited since the Stone Age. The Kingdom of Armenia was the first to adopt Christianity as an official religion in 301 AD, and the majority of the country now follows the Armenian Apostolic religion. The Armenians use Dram as currency,  and speak Armenian     (if you listen really closely, you can hear the six years of French I studied going down the drain). The language has its own alphabet, but apparently it is fairly similar to languages like Greek and Albanian. One of the national symbols is Mount Ararat, believed to be the famous mountain where Noah’s Ark landed after the cleansing flood.  To answer your questions, yes, if I get to visit the mountain I will be taking a twig and claiming it as part of the original ark. Armenia was originally a part of the Ottoman Empire and then a part of the USSR until becoming independent in 1991. But more importantly, Armenia is apparently known for having the
best-tasting apricots in the entire world. So if you’re nice to me, and send me lots of letters, I’ll bring you back some apricots.
More relevant to my actual mission is the fact that less than one percent of the country is LDS. The church website lists them as having around 2,000 members. Even though the nation is reportedly smaller than the state of Utah, the fact is, the church is tiny. In 1991 the nation was dedicated for preaching the gospel, but currently there are no temples, stakes, or wards, just one district with 15 branches. The nearest temple is in Kiev Ukraine. Needless to say, I have plenty of work to do.
 Okay, that’s officially everything I know about Armenia, but I promise to tell you more in two years. But I want to get back to the topic I was assigned, becoming fully converted to the gospel and learning to live the standards. At first, this statement seemed redundant in places. To me, conversion was kind of an all or nothing word, either you were converted or you weren’t, and there was no need for a term “fully converted”, which sounded equally redundant as the term “incredibly unique”. I decided to look up the word conversion. At first the evidence was in my favor; I found an entry that defined conversion as “a complete change”. But then synonyms I found the word “transition” and I realized that even though a conversion to the gospel does entail a complete change, it really is a process, not an event, and there can be numerous steps before one can claim the title of “fully converted”.
My next issue came with the correlation between the two terms. I first felt that if one did become fully converted, they wouldn’t need to “learn” to live the standards, they would just live them, because they are the standards of the gospel they’ve just become fully converted to. As I pondered this a bit I finally realized my original impressions were not only illogical, but they were also a bit egotistical, and very hypocritical.
 First, I’ll reference a real world secular example. Whenever I drive, I’m always on the lookout for a speed limit sign, like most of you I’m sure. When I see a sign that says the limit is forty –five miles an hour, do I think “I really should drive that speed” ? Hardly. Instead my thought is usually, “okay, that means I can drive 52, 53, and most likely avoid a speeding ticket. I’m not rejecting speed limits completely; I don’t believe that people should drive whatever speed they fancy. But I also believe the people who created that sign are fully aware many drivers could safely drive faster. The speed limit being 45 incorporates the possibility of bad weather, traffic, and the fact that many drivers will instantly add 5 to whatever the sign says. My personal belief is that the safest speed to drive is the speed everyone else is driving, so you could easily say that I’m somewhat, but not fully, converted to the idea of a speed limit. But even if someone made a great argument and then I believed, regardless of other drivers, I should drive what the sign tells me to, that doesn’t mean I would never speed ever again. I would have to learn to live those standards.
Now I’ll apply it to a situation thousands of missionaries have faced, with confidence that my mission will be no different. An investigator of the church has been taught by the missionaries, prayed aloud, felt the Spirit, and put in the effort to read the Book of Mormon. They know it’s true. They are somewhere between non believer and fully converted, and heading fast towards the latter. But something holds them back, whether it’s a Word of Wisdom issue, or the fact that they live with a member of the opposite sex but won’t move or get married. They might not even know the exact reason, or are simply dragging their feet, afraid to fully commit. Does this mean that they haven’t felt the Spirit as strongly as I have? Or that I know with a stronger surety that the Book of Mormon is true? Hardly. All this means is that we really do have to learn to live the standards of the church. For me to assume that conversion was a one step process and instantly entailed obedience to all standards was foolish, and it ignored the fact that my own conversion has been a long process.
Rewind 5 or 6 years and you’ll find an awkward kid (that’s me) who had been raised in the church by goodly parents, felt the spirit, done some minor studying of the scriptures, attended church and mutual, etc. I was doing fine for a basic 14 year old. I wasn’t antagonistic towards the gospel at all, but in no way was I fully converted. But as the years went on, small doubts regarding the gospel arose. And as tragic life changing events took place those doubts only grew larger. While any church leader will tell you that angelic visitations causing conversions, such as Saul or Alma, are the exception, not the rule, and that these events don’t cause conversion, but begin the process, I still waited on a one time, doubt erasing, surefire sign from God that the church was true. writes that “conversion comes as a result of righteous efforts to follow the Savior.” But instead of putting forth the effort, I simply became more frustrated. As I grew older and attended my freshman year at BYU these problems persisted, and the question of a mission grew larger and larger. But still I did nothing, simply deflecting questions about a mission with empty promises that I would serve. These weren’t lies; I had in no way made up my mind not to go, but I lacked preparation in every way, and was constantly unsure of what I would do.  I was stuck.
When I was 14 Elder Holland visited our Stake Conference. To be honest I don’t remember anything he said, with one exception. To the youth of the Richmond stake, Elder Holland was very clear. “Don’t you leave the church”, he said. “You aren’t smart enough.” While I still laugh and the forwardness of Elder Holland and the subtle insult he dealt us all, his statement was true that day and even truer as I struggled to decide what to do.  I knew I wasn’t smart enough to leave the church, and had no intentions of doing so. But I could not find the motivation to fully embrace the gospel and its standards and start my mission papers.
In the General Conference of October last year Tad R. Callister spoke about the Book of Mormon. I love this message, so I’m going to quote a long passage.
   “That is the genius of the Book of Mormon—there is no middle ground. It is either the word of God as professed, or it is a total fraud. This book does not merely claim to be a moral treatise or theological commentary or collection of insightful writings. It claims to be the word of God—every sentence, every verse, every page. Joseph Smith declared that an angel of God directed him to gold plates, which contained the writings of prophets in ancient America, and that he translated those plates by divine powers. If that story is true, then the Book of Mormon is holy scripture, just as it professes to be; if not, it is a sophisticated but, nonetheless, diabolical hoax.
C. S. Lewis spoke of a similar dilemma faced by someone who must choose whether to accept or reject the Savior’s divinity—where there is likewise no middle ground: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. … You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. … But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
       I believe the church as a whole follows the same pattern, having no middle ground. Yet there I stood, where so many others currently stand, on this phantom middle ground I created for myself. I knew enough not to reject the church entirely but I had not experienced a conversion strong enough to push me towards two years of service. For those who may be interested, this “no man’s land” includes activities like
-         Knowing that God and Christ exist, but being unwilling to pray to them every day.
-          Reading the Book of Mormon and knowing it isn’t fake, but ignoring Moroni’s heed to ask for a witness of its truthfulness, and therefore being uninterested in sacrificing worldly things to tell others of its great message.
-         Attending church meetings and enjoying gospel discussions, but not feeling the Spirit.
-         Believing with all your mind that families are eternal, but not being willing to act in a way that will ensure that blessing is guaranteed.
I could tell many times that Bishop Barbee would’ve preferred to reach across his desk and smack me when I told him that I was looking for an answer, but simply didn’t feel like praying and studying every day. His patience and love amaze me. Eventually my bishop at BYU, who was a former leader of Marines, gave it to me straight. I was feeling better about the idea of a mission, but still looking for a sign it was right for me, even though I knew it was a commandment, and that it would be the greatest thing I ever did. He finally asked me “why don’t you just start your papers?” To which I responded, I’m waiting for a sign. He said “But you already know the answer. You know in your head you’re supposed to go. Faith is a principle of action. If you have faith and start your papers, the Lord will confirm it is the right decision in your heart, and you’ll feel better about serving.” I told him I didn’t feel comfortable starting the process if I wasn’t one hundred percent sure I was supposed to go at this time. He thought a moment, then simply said “then you’ll never get your witness.” I finally realized that with the gospel, and especially with the decision to serve, at one point or another there had to be a leap of faith. I was never going to know 100% it was the right thing to do unless I actually did it. Standing here today, I’m freakin out. Like seriously I’m gunna go crazy. No one can describe a mission perfectly, because it’s such a different experience than the normal lives we live. And because of that I’ll never be sure that I’m ready to go until I go do it and see. I started my papers, but I still didn’t feel prepared. Then one day I was remembering one of the classic sections of the Doctrine and Covenants about mission work, section 4. I had recited it for years as a youth, but this time I opened the scriptures and read slowly. I read verse 3, and suddenly I knew that I was supposed to go now. “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work”. Then I read verse 5, and suddenly I felt less unprepared. “And faith, hope, charity, and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.” Faith and hope- I have to do my best to prepare but ultimately there are many concerns I will have to leave in the Lord’s hands. In no way do I feel ready to learn the Armenian language. But I know that if I study and prepare, the Spirit can be there when I teach, and that’s the only real converter. Charity and love- to give up my time, money, education, family, friends, dogs, and most importantly the American food I love so much, I have to love the people I work with, or else I’ll go insane. The moment I read my call, without even knowing where they lived, I knew the Armenians were the people for me. Everything I’ve learned about them since has only added to my excitement to serve them. The eye single to the glory of God is self-explanatory. I can’t call others to repentance unless I personally know the blessings of righteous living.
            I want to stress the fact that having doubts about the gospel is fine. There was nothing wrong with me being unsure about a mission. The problem arose when I decided not to do anything about those questions.
            The last question I want to address is why. Why do I feel the need to speed? Why can’t some investigators break their habits? Why did it take so long for me to come around? I believe what Elder Callister said in conference, and after I actually spent time reading the Book of Mormon by myself I had a period of time where I actually believed that I could convert my friends if they would just agree to read a few verses. One of my favorite scriptures comes in Alma. Alma and Amulek are preaching to the Zoramites, and they keep asking him a lot of questions. Finally in verse 14 of chapter 33 he says “now my brethren, I would ask if ye have read the scriptures? If ye have, how can ye disbelieve on the Son of God?” Now after this Alma explains that all the prophets do the exact same thing, testify of Christ. It seems that the word “read” in the verse entails a lot more than reading one verse, being unable to call it a hoax, and therefore being fully converted.  But I love this verse, because just reading the scriptures is a great place to start.
            The easy answer to these questions of why could simply be that we are indeed human, and as humans we have carnal tendencies and are destined to fail. It’s part of the entire plan, so that we can experience and grow. As a driver, I feel more productive when I’m driving faster than the limit and everyone else, like it will actually affect my arrival time. Investigators struggle because their bodies have hard cravings to overcome, or they don’t want to leave the comfort of their situation. As for me. Call it bitterness towards God, or maybe I didn’t want to grow up, or maybe I was just lazy and thought I could fly under the radar. But I want to discuss a deeper answer, and I’ll quote Elder Holland again in one of my favorite messages about missionaries ever, called “Missionary Work and the Atonement”
            Anyone who does any kind of missionary work will have occasion to ask, Why is this so hard? Why doesn’t it go better? Why can’t our success be more rapid? Why aren’t there more people joining the Church? It is the truth. We believe in angels. We trust in miracles. Why don’t people just flock to the font? Why isn’t the only risk in missionary work that of pneumonia from being soaking wet all day and all night in the baptismal font?
You will have occasion to ask those questions. I have thought about this a great deal. I offer this as my personal feeling. I am convinced that missionary work is not easy because salvation is not a cheap experience. Salvation never was easy. We are The Church of Jesus Christ, this is the truth, and He is our Great Eternal Head. How could we believe it would be easy for us when it was never, ever easy for Him?
I believe that missionaries and investigators, to come to the truth, to come to salvation, to know something of this price that has been paid, will have to pay a token of that same price.
For that reason I don’t believe missionary work has ever been easy, nor that conversion is, nor that retention is, nor that continued faithfulness is. I believe it is supposed to require some effort, something from the depths of our soul.

            Brothers and Sisters, I know that full conversion requires a lot of effort to achieve and maintain. I know that we have to learn to forgo our carnal desires, whichever ones we’ve been burdened with, and we have to learn to live the standards. I know that as we do these things we will be greatly rewarded for our efforts. Since I started my papers back in the spring I’ve felt better every day about my mission. Don’t get me wrong, I’m on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But I’m excited to give it everything I have, and let the Lord handle the rest.
            There’s a lot of people I should thank. All my youth leaders and teachers, Bishop Barbee, Bishop Carlson. All my friends for supporting me regardless of their own beliefs. Sister Anderson and Sister Bleyl, and all the women of the ward who I’ve felt have acted like second mothers to me and my family. My own mother for putting up will all the grief I put her through to shape me into what eventually became the man I am. My family for making my life worth living and enjoying, and always loving me. As I leave on my mission I have to single out my older brother. He was an awesome example to me when he left for Guatemala. But as many of you know he had been serving about 6 months when our mother died. And without ever really saying anything, my brother taught me two important lessons, and even though it took a while, those lessons have always stuck with me. The first is that missions are flat out important. When your brother doesn’t come home for our moms funeral, you realize what he’s doing instead is pretty important. And the second was that part of the reason he didn’t come home is that my brother knew without a doubt he would see my mother again. He had to. And that always stuck with me, and now as I know that myself I’m confident there are people in Armenia who need to hear the message of eternal families from me. And they need me to help them take the steps to seize those promises.
   I want to bear my testimony of the Book of Mormon. I know it is the word of God, that every page testifies of Christ, and that studying and embracing this book will bring us pure happiness. I have a testimony of the Atonement. Jesus Christ was the only person who could do it, and He did it for each and every one of us, but more importantly in my life, He did it for me. And now He is the only person who can say to me, “I know exactly what it’s like to be you.” And because of that He can lift my burdens and pay for my sins if I allow Him to. I have a testimony that this church is true, and I’m truly excited for the opportunity to help further establish it in Armenia.
I want to close with my mission scripture, Alma 29 verse 9 and 10.
I know that which the Lord hath commanded me, and I glory in it. I do not glory of myself, but I glory in that which the Lord hath commanded me; yea, and this is my glory, that perhaps I may be an instrument in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentance; and this is my joy.
And behold, when I see many of my brethren truly penitent, and coming to the Lord their God, then is my soul filled with joy; then do I remember what the Lord has done for me, yea, even that he hath heard my prayer; yea, then do I remember his merciful arm which he extended towards me.

No comments:

Post a Comment