Sunday, August 24, 2014

Farewell Talk

Today I gave my farewell talk in church! It went very well. I guess it wasn't truly farewell - I've got two more weeks or so - so I've still got time to really say my farewells to everyone. Thanks for all the well wishes. I'm going to miss everyone, but hey, it's only two years. You can keep up with me here. I'm needed in Ecuador.

Here's the text of the talk that I managed to put together over the past week (really the past few days). I didn't follow this strictly when I actually gave it, but this is most of it. I'm not sure I was really able to communicate what I wanted to, but I think I got most of it:

Good morning, Brothers and Sisters. As the new school year and autumn approaches, we’re all going to be faced with new challenges and changes. There’s change everywhere - I can’t believe that I’ve been around longer than Google, or Youtube, that I can remember dial-up and VHS. Many of you can remember even farther back than that, and I already consider Star Wars Episode I to be ancient history. Challenges are everywhere, too, and none of us are without them. Students have new classes and sometimes new schools, parents have new responsibilities and schedules, and of course there are things that we can always work on, that are always a challenge. I think the gospel gives a universal response as to how we can deal with all of these things.Specifically, I think of it as one hymn goes, “Press forward, Saints.” And, how do we press forward? As the hymn says, “With steadfast faith in Christ.”

The problems with these many challenges and changes is that, very often, we fall flat on our faces. It’s good to push ourselves to achieve, but the path is never easy and at times appears to be impossible. The ladder that many of us climb stretches far above into infinity, and perched at the top is the ultimate goal of “perfection.”

This goal of perfection is reflected everywhere today, and also reflected is how striving for this goal can be dangerous. Athletes strive to get faster times and better statistics, but often at the cost of performance-enhancing drugs and poor reputations. Businesspeople aim for bigger profits and higher ceilings, but as a result have to offer up their families and social lives at the bargaining table. In school we’re judged on how close to perfect, to 100 percent, we can get. I’ve seen many friends driven to breaking point as they participate in the college admissions arms race, loading themselves down with honors classes, extracurriculars, and activities that set unachieveable expectations. A recent Wall Street Journal article quoted one such student, now at Yale, as saying, “I might be miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.”

The scriptures also seem to point to perfection as the ultimate goal. On the Sermon on the Mount, Christ preached, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” We’re expected to fulfill our callings, attend church and activities, follow the commandments and find time to spend with our family in between, all the while being happy, righteous examples.

However, we know the truth is that it’s impossible to do all that. There was only one perfect person who lived on the Earth and we will never be able to measure up.

And that’s ok!

We will, inevitably, fall short, and that’s the first lesson to learn about pressing forward. It certainly took me a long time to learn. Even the greatest prophets have fallen short. Imagine how Peter must have felt after denying Christ thrice, weeping bitterly. Alma the Younger described his feelings of inadequacy, saying, “But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins. Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments...Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.” (Alma 36: 12-13, 15)
It’s very hard to set aside one’s pride and realize that, yes, we all have weaknesses that must be overcome. However, we are here on this Earth to learn. We need to simply press forward. The question is, how do we learn from our mistakes and weaknesses, and how can we work to overcome them?
There’s a classic story of a boy who one day passed by a storefront with his dad and saw a shiny, sporty red bicycle, complete with a bell on the handlebars. The boy was immediately captivated by the bike. He could imagine riding it to school and showing it to his friends, how proud he’d be to own such a machine. He immediately turned to his dad and asked if he would buy the bike. The dad thought about this and told him, “Well, I’m sure if you saved up for it you could buy it,” and they continued on. The boy set to work finding as many odd jobs as he could, collecting coins through his hard work over the coming weeks. They passed by the store again and this time the boy pulled out all he’d earned. He counted it up a came to a total of some 70 cents. Excitedly, he looked at the price tag of the bike. However, the dad noticed that as the boy did so, his expression fell. The dad took a look at the price tag as well. It was far more than 70 cents. The boy said, with sudden realization, “I’ll never have enough money to buy this bicycle.” Seeing his son’s distress, the father made up his mind. He placed his hand on his son’s shoulder and looked him in the eyes. “That’s ok, son,” he said. “You give me your 70 cents. I’ll pay the rest.”
Our Heavenly Father knows that what we pay will never be enough. That is why Christ paid the price for us through the Atonement. To keep pressing forward, we need to rely on this. After feeling his weaknesses, Alma explains he “...remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.” (Alma 36:17-19) We can all have this experience through repentance, and find the hope to keep going.
The essential thing is to learn from the mistakes that we make. One great example of this, as many great examples do, comes from the movie The Lion King. At one point, Simba is contemplating going back to Pride Rock, saying, “But going back means I'll have to face my past. I've been running from it for so long.” At which point Rafiki hits Simba over the head with his stick. Simba of course says, “Ow! Jeez, what was that for?” And Rafiki responds, “It doesn’t matter! It’s in the past! ...the past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it...or learn from it!” He swings his stick again and Simba ducks this time, to which Rafiki says, “Ha! You see?”
No matter how many times we make those same mistakes, “for all this, his hand is stretched out still. (Isaiah 9:21) God will forgives us not only seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:22) That gives me great hope, that I can keep trying and trying. I know that I will fall short every time, but the hope I have through the Atonement is what picks me back up to try again. If we do all we can, then the grace of God will take care of the rest. Moroni commanded, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ...” (Moroni 10:32) There is nothing to be gained from sitting around, but if we strive our best to press forward, living the commandments to the best of our abilities, then we will have success. We have every opportunity to keep going.
However, even though we may know we must press forward, where exactly are we pressing forward to? How can we keep going if we don’t even know in which direction? To expand my movie analogies, we have to be like Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade and take a leap of faith. Having faith that there is a way prepared before us is essential to pressing forward.
Nephi was a great example of this, as shown in 1 Nephi 3: 7. When asked to put himself in peril, he responded: “And it came to pass that I, Nephi, said unto my father: I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” Nephi wasn’t afraid of Laban, or his tens, or even his tens of thousands. He knew whose side he was on, and that because of that, he would be safe. We can have that faith, too, as long as we remember that we’re also on God’s side. He wants us to succeed, but in order to succeed at something we need an obstacle, first. That is why weaknesses are given to us; so that we can have something to overcome. (Ether 12:27) Nephi knew, and we can know, that these obstacles may seem insurmountable, but God has prepared a way for us to overcome them.
It will almost never be easy, or and the way will not appear simply. I imagine it is like an analogy Elder Bednar once used, where one is walking through a dimly lit fog. There is enough light to see the next step or two, but beyond that it is impossible to make anything out.
So what do we do to take those steps, and attempt to see the next ones? I think it’s important to keep following the commandments. In fact, that is probably what will take us in the right direction. The family that is out of work can press forward paying tithing, having faith that somehow what they need will be provided for them. The sick patient can press forward in following the word of wisdom, having faith that they will have the health to recover. To borrow from Elder Bednar again, it is oftentimes as he described in the October 2013 General Conference, “Sometimes we may ask God for success, and He gives us physical and mental stamina. We might plead for prosperity, and we receive enlarged perspective and increased patience, or we petition for growth and are blessed with the gift of grace. He may bestow upon us conviction and confidence as we strive to achieve worthy goals. And when we plead for relief from physical, mental, and spiritual difficulties, He may increase our resolve and resilience.” (The Windows of Heaven, October 2013 General Conference)
And we need to be immediately obedient to the promptings and counsel that we receive. Alma was run out of the city of Ammonihah, and was making his way towards another city when an angel appeared and commanded him to go straight back. Not only did Alma obey, but he “returned speedily.” (Alma 8: 18) He didn’t even hesitate to do what was asked of him, and as a result he was able to meet Amulek, probably the best companion a missionary could ask for. Alma didn’t know what was going to happen, but he pressed forward regardless.
Part of this, as well, is having the humility to do these things. We can’t be pressing forward on our way, we have to be doing it on the Lord’s way. Only that way can lead us to victory, but we need to be willing to put ourselves on that path in the first place. That can often mean sacrifice and hardship, but it is it is the only way forward.
That’s the kind of faith that we need to have. We can be confident, that no matter the trial or hardship, there will be a way for us to overcome it. Such trials are given to us for our own benefit (Ether 12:27), and there is nothing we can’t overcome by relying on Christ’s Atonement. As it says in 2 Nephi 31:19, “for ye have not come thus far save it were by the word of Christ with unshaken faith in him, relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save.” We can pick ourselves up again and again, and press forward. The way is prepared for us, and by obedience to the commandments we can follow it.
I’m excited to go on a mission, but also anxious. There are so many unknowns and plenty of things I can get worked up about. However, I’ve been able to find the faith to press forward. A scripture that has helped me immensely is found in D&C 84, starting in verse 81: “Therefore, take ye no thought for the morrow, for what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, or wherewithal ye shall be clothed. For, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow, they toil not, neither do they spin; and the kingdoms of the world, in all their glory, are not arrayed like one of these. For your Father, who is in heaven, knoweth that you have need of all these things. Therefore, let the morrow take thought for the things of itself. Neither take ye thought beforehand what ye shall say; but treasure up in your minds continually the words of life, and it shall be given you in the very hour that portion that shall be meted unto every man. ...And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for 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.” Heavenly Father is saying not to worry about the mundane things. As long as we have faith, we can press forward knowing that the Lord will be with us.
I know this church is true. I know that by living the Gospel and pressing forward we can find true joy in this life. I’m so grateful to be part not only my family but a ward family that provides incredible love and support. I know that my work as a missionary won’t end after being in Ecuador, and it won’t really have begun there, either. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I’d like to close by quoting 2 Nephi 31:20. “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.” I know Christ’s Atonement makes it possible for all of us to press forward, and I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.