Sunday, January 30, 2011

How to Gain a Testimony

I have noticed on the occasional Sunday I wake up with reasons all ready flowing through my mind as to why staying home from church would be really quite nice. After all, I almost have a headache, or I'm just more tired than I can remember being in quite some time. Before I'm even out of bed I can hear the children arguing and it would simply be best for all involved if I stayed right where I am!

This attitude typically happens on Sundays when church is the best possible place to be, either because I'm needed there in behalf of someone else, or there is something happening - a lesson being taught or a friend who needs to talk - that is for my personal benefit. Today was one of those days where the latter reason was true.

On the rare fifth Sunday of the month the bishop of the the ward (the spiritual leader over our local congregation) is asked to give a lesson to the men and women age eighteen and over. The lesson topic is not assigned, but rather given over to the bishop to decide as the Holy Spirit guides him. As I happened to be married to the current bishop in our ward, I knew the topic beforehand.

Normally during the same hour the adults are being taught on gospel principles, I am in with the youth age 12-17 and other youth leaders. Today as I stood in the back of the class trying to take count of the girls who had come, the Holy Spirit came over very strong and said, "You need to go listen to your husband teach." Hearing actual words doesn't happen very often to me, so after the initial shock I picked up my bags and quietly left.

The room was rather packed as the meeting had started. I was excited to see assigned quotes and stories handed out, as that seems to get people involved and talking. One of our wonderful men saw me standing and directed me to an empty chair, and I managed to keep from stepping on any one's toes as I crept over to sit down.

Last week I felt inspired to write about what a testimony is. Today's lesson my husband prepared was also on testimonies. The lesson revolved around two different ideas I'd like to touch on today. First, how does a person gain a testimony?

In my last post I said a testimony is a spiritual witness given to us through the Holy Spirit that something is true. As I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nicknamed the Mormon Church, I have chosen to refer to a particular book in the Book of Mormon - another testament of Jesus Christ. This reference beautifully describes the testimony process.

Gaining a testimony begins with hope. "And now as I said concerning faith - faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true" (Alma 32:21). We must have a sincere desire to know if something is of God. Coming to Him in prayer to ask about spiritual things without truly wanting to know the answer will do you no good. It would be akin to standing directly in front of the Lord asking Him to prove Himself by performing a miracle, but inwardly ready to explain it all away through scientific methods. Christ could perform acts of grandiose accomplishment right in front of our faces, but if we have all ready decided it cannot be real the act itself will not mean a thing. There is no way the Holy Spirit can give us a witness to the truth. We will easily reject that which has been born of the Spirit.

So before you go to ask the Lord if something is of Him, talk to yourself first. Be honest in discovering what your intentions are. Do you truly want to know? If the answer is no, perhaps now is not the time to ask. If this answer disturbs you go to the Father in prayer, asking what you need to do and where you might go to learn more in order to receive a change of heart.

If you find your desire to know the truth is sincere and full of hope, I would invite you to look upon this desire as a seed, and begin an experiment.

"Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts, and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves - It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me...

"...As the seed swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good...behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for it sprouteth and beginneth to grow...

"...Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away" (Alma 32: 28-32).

You come to the Lord with a sincere desire to know if something is true, good, or right. It has been in your heart and made you feel uplifted and you want to know, not just believe, that it is indeed of God. You have turned to the scriptures to read about it, you have studied and pondered upon it, and you have prayed to know if it is true. Does the light and warmth leave you? Do you find the thoughts, ideas, and understanding leave your mind? If so, the seed was not good. It was not inspired of God, and needs to be left alone. On the other hand, does the feeling of warmth, of light, of understanding stay with you? If so, then the seed was good and deserves to be nurtured.

Like any seed our hope and faith need to be nourished. Just as a seed needs sunlight, good earth, and water to grow and become strong, the tender beginnings of a testimony needs nourishment as well. We must continually look to find out more about the thing we hope to gain a strong testimony about. Continue to read the word of God, to find other good books and works to help gain understanding, as well as continue in prayer. The more we nourish this seed, the greater it will become, until it is strong enough to stand on it's own.

As Alma says in verses 33-34: "And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand."

If you seek to gain that spiritual witness to the truth of something about which you have read or heard, ask yourself if it is good. What feelings does it bring? Seek to discover if you truly want to know if it is of God. Turn to His word to study and ponder upon the subject. Then go to the Father in prayer.

"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 ye shall 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" (Moroni 10: 4-5).

A testimony does not stop with an answer, however. We must begin to live the truths we've received. For example, what good does it do us to have a testimony about paying tithes and other offerings if we do nothing about it? Our testimony in it will grow weak, and when we find ourselves tested and tried regarding paying our tithing, we may find our testimony too weak to sustain us through the trial. Testimonies are not dependent on how much we love the gospel of Jesus Christ, or on how much we love Him, but rather on how much we are willing to live it.

The second thing discussed in our lesson today was on how our testimonies are often based on answers to prayer. Or rather, what seems to us to be a lack of answers. Often we attach our belief in God and His love for us to whether or not He answers a prayer. One woman in class made a wonderful comment. She said sometimes we look for answers with a great big cone around our head and focused on the front door, because that's where we believe the answers should come from. After all, that is what has worked for us before. Sometimes, though, Heavenly Father is giving us answers through the back door, where we are unwilling to look. If we could take off the cone and turn around, we might find the answer needed.

Answers to prayers do not come in one particular way, always in a form we are familiar with, or in a time we desire. There are moments we are asked to practice patience and wait for the answer. If some of you have asked and have not received an answer, are you doing what is necessary for when the answer is ready to come? We must place - and keep - ourselves in harmony with the Lord. Continue to read the word of the Lord, to pray, to attend church, and to live according to His gospel.

How do we know if the answer is to wait? How do we know if the answer, which has come in an unexpected method, is truly of God? In the Doctrine and Covenants, a collection of revelations given to Joseph Smith during his time here on earth acting as the Lord's prophet, we have been given the needed information.

"But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong" (D&C 9:8-9).

If you receive peace, it is good. Wait until the answer you seek is ready to be given. If instead you you find yourself without peace, with a sudden stop of thought, it is not good and should be let go. In times like this it is most important to show faith in the Lord, regardless of whether or not we feel we have received an answer, and practice patience. We must remember that His knowledge and understanding far exceeds our own.

To close I want to take a moment to testify about this church to which I belong. Even though I have grown up being taught the doctrines of this religion, I too was encouraged to practice what was being preached. I planted my own seeds about the Book of Mormon and the truthfulness of this being the Lord's restored gospel. These seeds have blossomed and have grown until my original faith became dormant as belief turned into knowledge. I have received my own spiritual witness, one I cannot deny. It is a sure knowledge. I don't expect everyone out there to share this with me, as this witness was for me alone. However, I would invite all of you out there to discover the truth for yourselves, when you are ready.

If anything you have read here on my blog has brought you feelings of peace and warmth, if you find yourselves wanting to know more about this Church and what we are taught, if the desire is sincere and your heart truly seeks a spiritual witness, the best way to know is not through me but through the Lord. Read the Book of Mormon for yourselves. Feel free to ask questions of those knowledgeable in this gospel. Look up the Church approved sites to help gain further light and knowledge.

I will put up a few links to go to if you wish to read more:
Book of Mormon

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Testimony: A Spiritual Witness

At the tender age of seventeen I received a firm witness to the truthfulness of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being Christ's fully restored gospel here in this day and age. Something in me had always known the gospel I had been taught since before I could talk was not only important, but vital to my very being.

This is not to say I took it seriously at all times throughout my life. Yet never did I rebel against it. The term "Choose the Right," the motto of our Primary program (set up to teach children ages 3-11), had set itself almost in stone in my soul. I didn't always choose the right, or makes choices with my Savior in mind. Too often I made some very wrong decisions and managed to get myself in a whole lot of trouble. Fortunately I learned from these choices. The greatest lesson, one that has stuck with me for years after, has been this: When we choose the right, or truly focus on what it is the Lord wants us to do, peace and happiness follow.

Now I'm not saying life suddenly becomes easy when we focus on the Lord. Temptations, trials and the impact from choices others make will be a constant throughout our lives. They are necessary if we are to learn all we possibly can before returning to live with our Father in Heaven, for it is through opposition, and our learning to deal well with opposition, that our greatest lessons are learned.

During our main church meeting today (Sacrament Meeting) a sweet woman and friend named Shellie spoke of the horrible year 2010 had proven to be for her. It had been a huge struggle from beginning to end, especially the end. Her grandmother, a woman with whom she shared a beautiful and intimate bond, had passed away. Shellie considered this the last straw - she simply could not handle any more. Her faith was shaken. Her testimony had grown so fragile. To Shellie it had grown apparent God had abandoned her, had turned His back and left her to wallow in misery. How could this have happened?

Shellie talked with her husband, who I imagine was lost in what to tell her. Yet his answer to her distress came in the reply of one question: "Do you have a testimony of the gospel?" She replied, "Yes." It was, indeed, still there. It had become crumpled under the pressures of the year, but it was still there. "Well then," he continued, "you have two options. You can either trust in everything you've been taught and rely on Heavenly Father to help get you through this, or you can turn your back on Him and be miserable.

His words, though hardly comforting, resonated in my friend. Here she'd been thinking God had turned His back on her. Was it possible she'd been the one who had turned? After much time contemplating the awful year, she began to see how seemingly unrelated circumstances had been provided by Heavenly Hands to help her get through all the rough times, in particular when it came to the death of a most beloved grandmother.

I can guarantee you as she continues to heal from the trials and tribulations over the last year she will find her testimony stronger than ever before.

When is this curious thing we call a testimony? I believe most religions refer to it as a witness of the Holy Spirit of the truthfulness regarding spiritual things. Testimonies, or witnesses, come after the trials of our faith. Testimonies are living things, like muscle. Muscle needs to be worked, stretched, developed if it is to remain strong. Muscle needs to be broken down so it might gain greater strength. We cannot gain a strong muscular testimony if we go through life never acting on the things we believe are true, if that faith is never broken down at times so it might gain in strength.

A testimony is more than faith. It is the culmination of knowledge given through spiritual confirmation. In other words, belief is no longer necessary because the Holy Spirit has told us it is truth. That is a testimony.

The tricky thing about a testimony is it cannot be held in your hand. It is not a physical object you can show people so they can see what it is you know. It is intangible, personal, and for you alone. You can share this precious gift by word of mouth and through deed. Others can be impacted by the strength of your testimony, but it doesn't mean they will accept it as truth. They have to discover those spiritual truths for themselves.

Brigham Young, a leader and prophet of our Church many years ago once stated, "No one can make me deny what I know." This has become one of the most important statements for me to live by. It is this little truth that helps me to realize why developing a testimony of our very own is necessary if we are to stay strong throughout this life, especially when the winds of persecution, doubt, and trials blow. This testimony is what will keep us firmly in place when everyone and everything around us whirls with the pressure to change. It is what helps me to trust in the Lord even when the tides of affliction come pounding down upon me.

I know. Two simple, yet powerful words. What do you, who have acted upon your own faith, who have experienced the trials meant to strengthen your belief into knowledge, know to be true?

This is what I know. This is what the Holy Spirit has witnessed to me. Here is what I cannot deny. I know Jesus Christ is our Savior. I know He lived as the immortal Son of God and the mortal son of Mary. I know He endured more than we can ever imagine so that we might have the chance to repent of our sins. I know He died on the cross. I know that regardless of what others may say, He did in fact rise from the dead, freeing us all from the bonds of eternal death. I know He loves us without reservation, and is always looking for the day we will stop turning our backs to Him, and will enter into the circle of His love and forgiveness. This, my friends, is what I know.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Purpose and Faith

"My dear friends, you are a royal generation. You were preserved to come to the earth in this time for a special purpose. Not just a few of you, but all of you. There are things for each of you to do that no one else can do as well as you. ... If you will let Him, I testify that our Father in Heaven will walk with you through the journey of life and inspire you to know your special purpose here" (Bishop H. Burke Peterson, "Your Life Has a Purpose," New Era).

I like to believe there's a part of every person on earth who ponders longingly on the idea that we all have a special thing we are called upon to do, that there is something God the Father needs of just him, or her, or even me. I like to think that each of us has that desires to be special, unique, and important in the giant scheme of things. Do you know what? I don't have to believe it. I know.

When Bishop Peterson speaks of this generation, he is not speaking of one specific in this current year. He is speaking about all of those who have been saved for this last dispensation when the gospel of Jesus Christ has been returned to the earth for the final time before His second coming. Do you comprehend what this means? It means our grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, teachers, leaders, siblings, friends, children, nieces, nephews, students, grandchildren, and so on down the line were saved for this time.

"For nearly six thousand years, God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the Second Coming of the Lord. Every precious gospel dispensation has drifted into apostasy, but ours will not. ... God has saved for the final inning some of his strongest children, who will help bear off the Kingdom triumphantly. And that is where you come in, for you are the generation that must be prepared to meet your God.

"All through the ages the prophets have looked down through the corridors of time to our day. Billions of the deceased and those yet to be born have their eyes on us. Make no mistake about it - you are a marked generation. There has never been more expected of the faithful in such a short period of time as there is of us" (Ezra Taft Benson, "In His Steps," in Speeches of the Year, 1979).

The lesson in our Young Women (girls age 12-18 in our church) class today focused on recognizing our vast importance in God's plan of eternal salvation and ways to find out what our purposes in this life are to be. I wanted to discuss the points made in our class today, in particular because if we are to find true happiness and fulfillment in this life, we must place our goals in accordance with that of our Father.

1. Communicate with Him through prayer
2. Holy Ghost - follow his promptings
3. Ask for a priesthood blessing
4. Patriarchal Blessing - use it as a guide
5. Study
6. Think or meditate about what you have studied
7. Inquire of the Lord
8. Choose righteously
9. Kingdom of God - SEEK IT!!!

Prayer - the strongest link we possess between ourselves and our Father in Heaven. The ability to communicate one on one with a being who loves us more than we can possibly comprehend. It does not matter if He knows everything we've done that day. It is not important that He knows our every thought. His own desire for us to come to Him in daily prayer, many times a day, is intense. He invites us to come unto Him throughout the scriptures, to seek Him. Pray for counsel, pray for peace, pray for help, pray for answers. BE SPECIFIC in your prayers. Never be afraid to ask Him for things you really want. But remember, in all things it is not our will that must be obeyed, but the Father's. Most important, take a few seconds after your prayers to listen intently for a possible answer. Don't "doorbell ditch" your prayers. He has taken time to listen to you, it is just as important to take a minute or so to listen back.

For those of us who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church), we believe that the keys of God's priesthood were restored to the earth through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Every worthy priesthood leader can be asked to give a priesthood blessing. It is not just reserved for those who are sick. Priesthood blessings can be offered for guidance, for peace, for counsel as well. We are given patriarchal blessings when deemed ready and worthy by our bishops and stake presidents. These are personal scripture and should be referred to often.

Study. I'm not just talking about the scriptures, though those are most important. We also have a myriad of resources available in the form of study guides, Church magazines, and books written by those knowledgeable in the gospel. Not only should we read, but we need to ponder the things we read. We must ask the Father in prayer if the things we have read are good and true. We cannot rely on the testimony of everyone else around us and expect to stay strong and recognize the promptings of the Holy Spirit. We must learn to do this for ourselves.

Make righteous choices. It's a simple enough thing to say, but not always the easiest thing to do. It is a challenge to go through life making good choices, even when we get older and supposedly wiser. Yet we must act on the things we study, ponder, and learn, for faith alone is not enough. The surest way to gain that testimony we need is to act and prove these things to be good. Elder John Groberg said:

"In the past I have tried to figure out whether I should go into business or into teaching or into the arts or whatever. As I have begun to proceed along one path, having more or less gathered what facts I could, I have found that if that decision was wrong or was taking me down the wrong path - not necessarily an evil one, but one that was not right for me - without fail, the Lord has always let me know just this emphatically: 'That is wrong; do not go that way. That is not for you!'

"On the other hand, there may have been two or three ways that I could have gone, any one of which would have been right and would have been in the general area providing the experience and means whereby I could fulfill the mission that the Lord had in mind for me. Because he knows we need the growth, he generally does not point and say, 'Open that door and go twelve yards in that direction; then turn right and go two miles.' But if it is wrong, he will let us know - we will feel it for sure. I am positive of that. So rather than saying, 'I will not move until I have this burning in my heart,' let us turn it around and say, 'I will move unless I feel it is wrong; and if it is wrong, then I will not do it.' By eliminating all of these wrong courses, very quickly you will find yourself going in the direction that you ought to be going, and then you can receive the assurance: 'Yes, I am going in the right direction. I am doing what my Father in Heaven wants me to do because I am not doing the things he does not want me to do.' And you can know that for sure. That is part of the growth process and part of accomplishing what our Father in Heaven has in mind for us" ("What Is Your Mission?" in Speeches of the Year, 1979).

Seek to further the Kingdom of God. We must align ourselves with Him, to mark our course in life as parallel with the gospel. This takes faith.

All of these things are tied together by the Holy Ghost, or Holy Spirit. It is through this marvelous individual that prayers are answered, that right choices can be confirmed, that blessings are given, and testimonies are received. This Spirit is a precious gift given to those who will receive it and act in accordance with the commandments so as not to drive this Spirit away.

In doing all these things we can find through the direction of our Father many of our missions here on earth during our short lives. We can walk as the Lord walked, strengthened by trials of our faith. There are things our Heavenly Father have planned for us to do in this life that we can do as no one else in the world past, present or future could even try to accomplish. There are people we are meant to influence as no one else in the world could do. But if we are not living in accordance to His Gospel, if we refuse to exercise faith in Him, in His Son, and in ourselves, we will never know how truly remarkable we are. We will never know just how important we were in God's plan.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Happy New Year!!!

All right so I'm a little late on the whole new year thing, but better late than never, right? Right.

I have great hope for this new year. Though I may not be able to convey to all of you out there the feelings in my heart when I think of what may come our way, when ever my thoughts begin to linger on whether or not we will see wonderful things happen my heart begins to burn with a warmth I have not felt in some time.

I think of the rainbows, and double rainbows I witnessed in 2010, and they bring me thoughts of promises and covenants. Into my mind flows the thought that if we were faithful during the trials of the last several years, if we did our best to keep our side of the covenants and promises we've made with the Lord and with our Heavenly Father, if we've sacrificed without thought of gaining anything in return, 2011 will be a time of having our faithfulness rewarded. This will be a time of healing, of good things being spread throughout the earth, and blessings will abound.

During 2010 I spent much of my time reinventing myself. At the beginning of the year I suffered horribly from the effects of a very profound depression. Only those who have gone through this can possibly understand the hole I found myself trapped in. With the prayers and help of many people I was at last guided to an inspired counselor who, over the course of many months, began to help me discover some misguided notions I'd unknowingly developed over my life. He gave me the tools I needed to not only climb out of my hole, but to start filling it up so I wouldn't fall in again.

As I reached the fall and beginning of the winter months there was an improved change in my attitude, but the filling of my hole has been slow going. I still feel greatly unmotivated to do many of the things that used to come so naturally. I have two books I've been trying to write that I have no desire to touch. A monthly family newsletter used to find it's way into the in boxes of family and friends' e-mail, but that stopped last May. For a few months my husband and oldest kiddo took over cooking and even a large part of the cleaning. It's been rough, for all of us, but I'm starting to realize it was a necessary period of rest on my part. This hit home last week as I found myself cleaning the bathroom and being perfectly okay with doing it.

For me 2011 feels like a year of beginning anew. I've even set for myself some goals to help me come back into balance and keep me focused on important things. Learning to say no and not feel guilty about it. This is one of the things I have the hardest time with, but have actually put into practice already when telling a darling friend I couldn't babysit her boys' anymore.

I need to start having some better communication between myself and my Heavenly Father. My prayers for several months now have become insincere, as though I knew what to pray for but forgot that I was speaking to my Father in Heaven, who is real, and who loves me in ways I will never comprehend. As silly as it may sound, the easiest way to fix this has been to find somewhere else to pray. In the morning when I'm warming up the car I find myself far more awake and no where near as hurried. In the evening, after everyone else has been asleep for a few hours but before I head to bed, I'll kneel down next to the couch in the living room to pray. Changing the setting for my prayers has already made a big difference.

Our family is making a bigger effort to read from the scriptures every night. Each of us takes a verse to read, as opposed to Dad and I doing an entire chapter by ourselves. The kids all moan and groan when we tell them it's time to read, but by the time we've finished for the night they all have something to say about what they've learned. It's been wonderful.

Those are my three big goals for the year. It's enough for now, and if I decide to expand on them or add more as the year continues I'll look upon it as a sign I'm doing well. In the meantime I'll keep looking for those double rainbows and feeling hope.

May this new year bring hope to all of you this year. May your hearts be full of joy, and may you be able to accomplish those things most important to benefit yourselves and those around you.