Thursday, July 31, 2008

August, and the Book of Mormon

August. The month makes me think of hot sunshine, weary air conditioners, lemonade cravings, cold backyard pools, premature back to school anxiety—and an urgent desire to read the Book of Mormon.

Weird, I know, and a very strange end-of-summer tradition. It all started four years ago. I was eighteen and was getting ready to start my freshman year at BYU. School started on August 30th that year. During June, July, and the first part of August I was still working my high school job and getting ready to move away from home for the first time.

As I started packing, I went through all the memories I had stored for all my growing up years. In a box under my bed I found a packet of envelopes I had received from a Young Women’s New Beginnings activity the year before. Inside each envelope was a spiritual thought with a scripture reading assignment from the Book of Mormon. Our leaders had called this scripture study program a “30-day Walk with Christ” and had challenged us to open an envelope a day and, by following the reading assignments, read the entire Book of Mormon in a month.

I had lasted less than a week. Swim practice and choir concerts had gotten in the way, and only a couple of envelopes had ever been opened. As I came across the packet again, however, I decided not to pack the envelopes away yet and set them aside, outside the cardboard box. I hadn’t been able to do the 30-day walk before, but wouldn’t this be a perfect time, right before I left for college? I felt like I could use a great spiritual boost just before I moved away from home for the first time.

I planned the thirty days so that I would finish reading the Book of Mormon right before my mom and I drove to BYU. I wasn’t perfect; some days I forgot or didn’t have time for the full reading assignment so I’d have to catch up and do double the next day, but I did it. After I reached the goal, I didn’t think too much about it—my mind was suddenly occupied with class schedules, buying textbooks, making friends, and settling into dorm life—but looking back I can see that reading the Book of Mormon in those thirty days just before I went to college did bless my life, immensely. The “spiritual boost,” as I called it to myself, helped me remember who I was even though I was in a new place, far from home, and making my own decisions.

That was the first time I read entire the Book of Mormon during the month of August. A year later, August 2005, I was back home again and working for the summer. In the Ensign that month, the First Presidency message, by President Hinckley, was about the Book of Mormon. President Hinckley began his message by talking about Parley P. Pratt’s experience with the Book of Mormon and how Pratt eventually wrote the hymns “An Angel From on High” (#13) and “The Morning Breaks (#1). President Hinckley’s message then continues as he adds his own praise for the Book of Mormon:

"Today, a century and three-quarters after its first publication, the Book of Mormon is more widely read than at any time in its history. Whereas there were 5,000 copies in that first edition, about 5,000,000 are currently distributed each year, and the Book or selections from the Book are available in 106 languages. Its appeal is as timeless as truth, as universal as mankind. It is the only book that contains within its covers a promise that by divine power the reader may know with certainty of its truth."

It is President Hinckley’s memorable challenge that we all remember the most about the August 2005 First Presidency Message: “I offer a challenge to members of the Church throughout the world and to our friends everywhere to read or reread the Book of Mormon. . . . Without reservation I promise you that if each of you will observe this simple program, regardless of how many times you previously may have read the Book of Mormon, there will come into your lives and into your homes an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord, a strengthened resolution to walk in obedience to His commandments, and a stronger testimony of the living reality of the Son of God.”

August 2005 was the second August that I read the Book of Mormon, thanks to President Hinckley’s challenge. My summer job was the most monotonous employment imaginable: I was pulling staples for a large company’s record archiving project. It was good money, but very, very boring. We were allowed to listen to headphones as we prepared the documents for scanning, and so I spent most of the summer checking out books on tape and CD at the library and listening to them at work. After the August 2005 Ensign came out, I decided to listen to an audio recording of the Book of Mormon before I left my job and went back to BYU. The recording was about 24 hours long, so covered just about three work days. I decided to save this book for last.

My last three days of work were amazing! I had never read the Book of Mormon in so short a time before. Listening to the audio recording was a unique experience too. I remember I popped in the first CD and started pulling staples, but it only took about five minutes until I had to grab some scratch paper and take some notes. I kept a pen handy next to my work so I could write down phrases that had struck me or thoughts I had during the reading. What amazed me most was the entire book fit together so much better than it ever had before; because I was covering the whole history and chronology in just three days, I understood where all the flashbacks and break-off groups fit in to the book as a whole.

At the end of my three day Book of Mormon spree I had eleven pages, front and back, of notes, thoughts, and impressions from that reading. I couldn’t help writing things down as I listened. I still have those notes, the record of when I reread the Book of Mormon just after I turned nineteen years old. By fulfilling the prophet’s challenge, I, with the rest of the Church, truly felt “an added measure of the Spirit of the Lord” in my life for the rest of that year.

Because of these two previous experiences, when August rolled around in 2006 I felt this intense intrinsic urge to read the Book of Mormon again. I had stayed in Provo that whole summer to work as an EFY counselor, and I finished my final EFY session the last week of July. I had a few weeks off of work before school started after Labor Day, so I decided to give in to that desire and challenged myself to read the entire book before school started. I spent all my free time reading the Book of Mormon. It took me a couple of weeks because I had other things going on as well, but I remember how great it was to pull my picnic blanket onto the lawn in front of my student apartment complex on a free afternoon and read the scriptures just because I wanted to.

The same thing happened the next year. August 2007 began and I felt this habitual desire to read the Book of Mormon during the month, so I did. This year will be my fifth year in a row that I’ve read the Book of Mormon during the month of August. It’s become a given activity at this time of year for me now, but this year, like every year, is a little different. President Hinckley’s challenge is a treasured memory for all of us now. This year is also the first time I won’t be going back to school in the fall because I graduated from BYU in April. As I look back on the past five Augusts, I am so grateful for the inspiration I had to rely on the scriptures to give me the strength I needed to get through transitional times that seemed to come every year, in August. I hope I can always be sensitive to do what the Holy Ghost tells me that my spirit needs, and I hope that throughout my life I will always read the Book of Mormon in August.

Monday, July 21, 2008

My Own Temple Dress

I was very excited to go through the temple for the first time. Receiving my temple endowment at that specific time was a preparation for my temple marriage, but I knew that making covenants in the House of the Lord in the temple endowment was an important step on my personal spiritual progression as well as a necessary prerequisite to my temple marriage. I scheduled my first temple trip a few weeks before my wedding so that I could recognize receiving my temple endowment as its own special event and not just something adjacent to my marriage.

The day before my endowment session, my mom took me to the distribution center to buy my first temple garments. While we were there, I realized that I had always expected that my mom would buy me my own temple dress. I had hinted at this a few weeks previous, but my mom had said that it might be a few years until I purchased my own temple dress and robes and not to worry about it. As the attendant rang up our purchases, I peeked longingly into the room further in the store where they had racks of white dresses. I was too shy to ask my mom to buy them for me outright, but I hoped that she would notice that I was looking.

She didn’t. She finished paying for the garments and we left the distribution center. I felt like I had to drag my feet back to the car. This was silly. Why did I have my heart set on my own temple dress? Why was it such a big deal?

My mom pulled the car out of the parking lot and headed onto the freeway.

“We’re all set, right?” she asked. I think she noticed how quiet I was.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said, but untruthfully. We passed a few exits, and suddenly I felt like I was going to cry. Inside, I chastised myself. Why was I being so impractical? This wasn’t that big of a deal. Finally, I pushed the unsuccessful chastising voice aside and expressed my honest feelings.

“Mom?” I ventured, turning my face to my left, towards her.

“Yeah, honey?” she replied as she took a glance in the rear-view mirror to facilitate a lane-change.

“I think I really want my own temple dress.”

I stared at my feet, at the muddy navy-blue car mats. I felt like I was sinking in my seat because it felt like such a childish request, and yet it was really how I felt.

“Should we go back then?” my mom asked. I couldn’t quite tell what her mood was, but the question didn’t sound anywhere near angry or annoyed. I was relieved.

“Yeah. Mom, is that okay?” I asked, looking at her again.

“Sure. Let’s do it.”

She pulled back into the right lane, took the next exit, and turned us around to go back to the distribution center.

When we walked back into the distribution center the attendant was surprised to see us again so soon. I was embarrassed, but my mom simply said that we decided to buy a temple dress and robes today as well. I couldn’t believe it; my mom didn’t mind that having my own temple clothes really mattered to me.

We tried on different styles of temple dresses and chose one that my mom and I both liked. It was nice that she was there to help and be a part of choosing one. The distribution center also gave us a discount, which was very helpful, because it was my first time going to the temple. As we drove away the second time, I felt like I was filled to the brim with happiness.

The story of my temple dress taught me a lot about the love my earthly mother has for me and also taught me about prayer and the love my Heavenly Father has for me. Under “Prayer,” the Bible Dictionary explains that “the object of prayer is not to change the will of God, but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant, but that are made conditional on our asking for them.” The Bible Dictionary entry continues by saying, “Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work, and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings.” Like my earthly mother, who was very willing to give me a temple dress when she knew that it was something I really wanted, our Heavenly Father is willing to give us many blessings if we only ask for them in prayer.

Prayer is naturally an act of humility. As we kneel before our Heavenly Father and counsel with him (see Alma 37:37), we acknowledge his power and our submission to his will and purposes. Through prayer, we can commune with our Father in Heaven. In doing so we can show our love for him and our desire to draw closer to him as we also feel his infinite love for us. King Benjamin teaches that when we “humble [ourselves] before God” we can “[taste] of his love” (Mosiah 4:10-11). King Benjamin further counsels us to “always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God . . . and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come” (vs. 11). This counsel highlights the necessity of humility to prayer; both humility and prayer are necessary for our spiritual progression because they allow us to develop a personal relationship with God. By recognizing our dependence on God, we can draw closer to him and learn how to do his work.

Having my own temple dress when I received my temple endowment was not something that was an absolute need in my life, but it was a sincere desire of my heart. Turning the car around to go back to the distribution center to buy the dress was a striking example of the mercy of my mother. I certainly hadn’t done anything to even begin to deserve the gift that I desired, but she gave it, willingly, because she loved me. Likewise, there are many things that our Heavenly Father is willing to bless us with to satisfy the righteous desires of our hearts as well as our needs. All blessings, whether or not they are essential to our spiritual or temporal survival, are manifestations of God’s mercy. He blesses us before we ever draw close to deserving a blessing, and when we try to repay our debt to him by serving him, he immediately blesses us again, leaving us indebted to him “forever and ever” (Mosiah 2:24-25).

Because I had to ask my mom to buy me a temple dress in complete humility, having done nothing at all to deserve it, the situation turned into an opportunity for her to demonstrate her love and mercy towards me. This in turn gave me the opportunity to appreciate the debt I owe her and to spur me to want to be merciful and loving to other people as well. King Benjamin promises that when we humbly pray to God and remember His greatness and our own nothingness, “Ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye shall grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true” (Mosiah 4:12). And, even further, we will begin to want to reach out to others, “to live peaceably,” to serve those in need, and to teach our children righteousness (vs. 13-16). Thus by humbling ourselves in prayer to God, “[calling] upon his holy name that he would have mercy upon [us]” (Alma 34:17) with our “hearts . . . full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for [our] welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around [us]” (vs. 27), we learn more of his love for us as we grow in love and faith towards him.

The story of my temple dress reminds me every time I see or wear it not only of the special covenants I made when I received my temple endowment, but also how the love and mercy of my mother demonstrated the love and mercy of the Lord and how by asking for our righteous desires in the prayer of a meek and humble child (see Mosiah 3:18-19) we can “learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God[--that] God is our Father, and we are his children” (BD “Prayer”).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Pioneer Legacy

Much to my mother’s disappointment, my brother was born just after midnight on July 25th. No, the disappointment wasn’t my brother, it was the date. When she went into labor the day before, Mother was so excited that the baby would be born on the 24th of July. That would mean that he would have parades and celebrations on every birthday of his life, but instead he came into the world just a few minutes too late.

I have heard this story over and over again, and the funny thing is that I don’t think my brother has ever seen a Pioneer Day parade. We grew up in California, and the 24th of July wasn’t a holiday to anyone else in our town except other ward members; everyone still had to go to work. We did celebrate, but without any thing like a parade. Primary singing time for the entire month of July was always dedicated to “Pioneer Children Sang as They Walked” and “To be a Pioneer,” and there was usually a ward barbecue on that day, or as near to it as possible.

In 1997, however, our primary registered a pioneer float in our town’s Fourth of July parade. The parade still wasn’t on my brother’s birthday, but at the age of almost five he dressed up with the rest of us and marched behind the pioneer float. During the weeks before, my mother sewed calico and gingham bonnets and dresses for my sisters and me. Dad even joined in the preparations and fitted a frame of chicken wire over our play wagon and covered it in white paper.

By celebrating Pioneer Day in our ward and family, I learned at a young age to appreciate the Church members who sacrificed so much to protect the Church from persecution so many years ago. In recent years, however, I’ve realized that there are other pioneers that have influence my life who never pushed a handcart or walked thousands of miles. In the First Presidency Message of the July 2008 Ensign, President Uchtdorf talks about the importance of pioneers of all kinds. He mentions how he does not have ancestors that were 19th century pioneers who crossed into the Salt Lake Valley. However, he claims that these saints are his “spiritual ancestry, as they are for each and every member of the Church” because they “established . . . a spiritual foundation for the building of the kingdom of God in all the nations of the world” (p. 5).

President Uchtdorf’s acknowledgment that he has no pioneer ancestry surprised me, but of course it makes sense because his family joined the Church in Germany during World War II. Then I remembered that my mother also has no literal pioneer ancestors. My father’s ancestors were pioneers who had joined the early saints in Nauvoo before crossing the plains, but my mother’s family history is different. Her parents joined and fell away from the Church before she can remember. Even though her parents were never active again, my mother says that faithful home teachers came to their home regularly just the same. These home teachers urged my mother’s parents to allow to her to be baptized. Her mother didn’t give permission until my mother was nine.

After that time, her family still was not active in the Church. But one day when my mother was thirteen she noticed a copy of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine in the house. She was drawn to the book and felt a strong impression that she needed to start going back to Church. She went alone at first, and then her older sister joined her. Years later, her older brother also reentered activity. All three of them had temple marriages, and because of their faithfulness all fourteen of the children of their combined families have been born in the covenant. Out of us fourteen—myself, my siblings, and my cousins—we have so far had five full-time missions, four temple weddings, and two more children born in the covenant. There are no handcarts or wagons in my mother’s ancestry, but the fruits of the labors of the pioneer legacy of her and her siblings have been great.

The 19th century pioneers crossed the plains to the Salt Lake Valley to build Zion, God’s kingdom on earth. My mother journeyed away from the habits of a less active family in order to build her own Zion home. I may think that the pioneering of faith is a thing of the past that belongs to my Mormon pioneer ancestors and my valiant mother, but President Uchtdorf reminds us that we all are pioneers, that we must be diligent in strengthening our families and “building a spiritual foundation that will establish the Church in every part of the world.” Each of us can trace our spiritual heritage to the first member of our family to accept the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that first member might even be ourselves. No matter where the heritage of testimony began, we each have a charge to continue the pioneer legacy. My brother wasn’t born on the 24th of July, but he and I both carry the pioneer legacies of our parents and ancestors—a sacred trust of faith.