Sunday, January 15, 2012

Reaching Out with Love to Those Not Here

This talk was given this morning in San Bernardino Fourth Ward.

Dear brothers and sisters, it is a pleasure to worship with you this morning. I bring you the love and greetings of President Garvin and his Counselors. They love you, and pray for you, and want the best for each of you. I hope that you have felt that love as you have met with them.
I am here by assignment this morning. I feel humbled by the responsibility to speak to you on rescuing our lost brothers and sisters, because the San Bernardino Fourth Ward has been an example to the rest of the Stake in reactivation. Still, I don’t believe that we have achieved perfection in that area of the gospel. With that in mind, I pray that the Holy Ghost will touch our hearts so that the doctrines that I share with you may be beneficial to all of us.
We have been encouraged to refer to our lost brothers and sisters not as “inactive” members, but as “less-active” members. I would suggest that we also think of them as the “once-converted” members of the Church.
As I continue to read the scriptures, I have encountered phrases that catch my eye; some because of their subtle humor; some because they say so much in so few words.
For example, Jacob, in chapter 6:12, says “O be wise, what can I say more?” Doesn’t that sum everything up well?
Or in the Doctrine and Covenants, Section 59:4, where the Lord promises those who come to Zion that they will be “crowned with blessings from above … and with commandments not a few.” Have you ever thought about being crowned with commandments?
Or in Section 92:2, where Frederick G. Williams is commanded to “be a lively member ...” I hope we are all lively members.
One more, in Section 66:11: “thou shalt magnify thine office, and push many people to Zion with songs of everlasting joy upon their heads.” This created an interesting mental image. I found the concept of pushing people to Zion amusing until I moved into this valley.
In the 15-plus years we have lived in Highland and San Bernardino, I have had the opportunity to play a small part in pushing many people to Zion. I sincerely hope that I have not pushed anyone away.
Heavenly Father knew that not everyone who came to Zion would stay. He knows that not all who accept the gospel will remain active and faithful. The Savior addressed this in several parables. I quote first from the parable of the sower, or as James Talmage called it, the parable of the soils, in Matthew, Chapter 13.
“And he spake many things unto them in parables, saying, Behold, a sower went forth to sow;
“And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up:
“Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth:
“And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.
“And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them:
“But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.
“Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”(Matt. 13:3 - 9)
When his disciples did not understand, Christ gave this explanation:
“Hear ye therefore the parable of the sower.
“When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.
“But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it;
“Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended.
“He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful.
“But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matt. 13:18 - 23)
At different times in our lives, our hearts are prepared to receive different things. What did not resonate 20 years ago may resonate now. It all depends on the condition of our hearts. Most of you here this morning, if not all, have receptive hearts, the fertile soil that brings forth an hundredfold.
But our brothers and sisters who are not here today may have been those who received the seed sown by the wayside, which Satan did not permit to sprout; they may have been those who received the seed into stony places, and left when things got tough; they may have been those who received the seed among the thorns, who are so preoccupied with the things of the world (or with making a living) that they cannot join with us today.
Regardless of the cause, we need to prayerfully seek them out, and bring them back into fellowship with the saints. I love that word fellowship. It means that we gather as peers in the gospel of Jesus Christ; as equals before the Lord. Our temporal status matters little when we gather together here in the Lord’s house. That is why I am addressed as Brother Stevenson and not Doctor Stevenson or Professor Stevenson. That outside stuff doesn’t matter to me when I am here. And regardless of my calling in the Church, “Brother Stevenson” will always be an acceptable and appropriate way to address me. (And as we get older and have trouble remembering first names, it is helpful to be able to call each other brother and sister.)
The Lord expects all of us to try to help those who are away from Church fellowship for any reason. Reactivation is one of the most significant problems facing the Church now, and throughout the history of the Church in our dispensation and in all other dispensations as well.
One-third of Heavenly Father’s children strayed, before they even left his presence.
Imagine the heartbreak of Adam and Eve, who taught the gospel to all their children. But Satan came among them and said: “Believe it not; and they believed it not.” (Moses 5:13) I can’t imagine that Adam and Eve just gave up on those children. I think that those who remained nearby were loved and fellowshipped by their family, and I’m sure that Adam and Eve prayed for their children and their posterity right down to the end of their lives.
As we continue to read in the scriptures, the problem was ongoing. The children of Israel were continually straying, as were the children of Lehi.
So becoming separated from the body of believers and the responsibility to find and rescue those lost believers has been happening from the beginning.
Apparently Jesus was concerned with this problem during the early part of his ministry. In Luke 15, he gave three important parables. Ordinarily when we speak of these parables, we emphasize the principles of repentance and forgiveness, because the lost has been found.
President David O. McKay felt that part of these parables had been misinterpreted or misapplied. In General Conference in April 1945, he said, “There is another phase of these parables which appeals to me even more than the rejoicing … I desire to refer to the conditions that contributed to their being lost.”
Then he sets the stage for us. “The scene is a large gathering of publicans and sinners who have assembled, it seems, in quite large numbers to hear the message of Jesus. Standing [to the side we picture] Pharisees and Sadducees who are sneering at the Man of Nazareth who is speaking to these publicans and sinners, and the Pharisees and Sadducees are judging him, I suppose, by the company he is keeping. By the Sadducees, the publicans and sinners are looked upon as lost [and they certainly didn’t care about rescuing them]. To the multitude Jesus speaks three parables.”
The first, we know as the parable of the lost sheep.
“And he spake this parable unto them, saying,
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
“And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
“And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.
“I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance” (Luke 15:3 - 7).
How did that sheep get lost? He was just doing what sheep do. He was not rebellious. If you follow the comparison, the lamb was seeking its livelihood in a perfectly legitimate manner. He didn’t intend to get lost but became distracted. Either stupidly, or perhaps unconsciously, it followed the enticement of the greener field, the prospect of better grass until it got out beyond the fold and was lost.
So we have those in the Church, young men and young women, who wander away from the fold in perfectly legitimate ways. They are seeking success in business, success in their professions, or perhaps just trying to survive financially. Before long they lose the habits of church attendance, and finally become disconnected from the fold.
Some of these wandering sheep were allowed to wander far too long, and we have trouble locating them. It is better to reach out before they stray too far.
How do you get a lost sheep back into the fold? You go out and find him, turn him around, and bring him back into the fold. Usually the sheep is so glad to be back safe in the fold that he runs and jumps for joy.
We refer to the second parable as the parable of the lost coin.
“Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it?
“And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost.
“Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” (Luke 15:8 - 10)
Evidently this coin was not lost from the woman’s coin purse. It was not a part of her household money, but was apparently a part of her dowry. Thus the loss of this coin was very significant. That is why she made such a great effort to find it.
In this parable, the lost item, the coin, was not in itself responsible. It was lost through neglect or carelessness of its owner. When the owner, the woman, realized it was missing, she searched diligently until she found the missing coin.
Our charge is not only coins, but the living souls of children, youth and adults. Not just to seek them diligently, but to try not to let them get lost in the first place.
Someone may be wandering because of a careless remark of a peer in Young Men. No one takes corrective action, and the young person misses first one week, then another, then another until he finds new friends who may lead him away from the paths of righteousness.
Someone may wander because no one cared to greet them at a church activity or meeting. Others may wander further when they work up the courage to come back and no one notices, or another unkind remark is made.
Someone may wander because of the indifference of a home teacher or visiting teacher or leader, because he or she lacked support at a critical juncture in their lives, and made wrong choices.
All too frequently, we are not even aware that it was our neglect or our careless words that helped that soul to become lost. It is so important that we tend to our stewardships; that we take note of those who miss meetings once, then twice; that we reach out to them before it is too late.
President Monson quotes the poet:
He stood at the crossroads all alone,
The sunlight on his face.
He had no thought for the world unknown—
He was set for a manly race.
But the roads stretched east and the roads stretched west,
And the lad knew not which road was best.
So he chose the road that led him down,
And he lost the race and the victor’s crown.
He was caught at last in an angry snare
Because no one stood at the crossroads there
To show him the better road.
Another day at the self-same place
A boy with high hopes stood.
He, too, was set for a manly race;
He, too, was seeking the things that were good.
But one was there whom the roads did know,
And that one showed him which way to go.
So he turned from the road that would lead him down,
And he won the race and the victor’s crown.
He walks today the highway fair
Because one stood at the crossroads there
To show him the better way.
May we prepare ourselves so that we will recognize those who stand at the crossroads, and be willing to direct them in their important decisions. We will not know in this life how many lives we have touched by our small words and actions. Mother Teresa said “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”
President Monson has shared the story of Louis Jacobsen. “He was the son of a poor Danish widow. He was small in stature, not comely in appearance—easily the object of his classmates’ thoughtless jokes. In Sunday School one Sabbath morning, the children made light of his patched trousers and his worn shirt. Too proud to cry, tiny Louis fled from the chapel, stopping at last, out of breath, to sit and rest on the curb that ran along Third West Street in Salt Lake City. Clear water flowed along the gutter next to the curb where Louis sat. From his pocket he took a piece of paper that contained the outlined Sunday School lesson and skillfully shaped a paper boat, which he launched on the flowing water. From his hurt boyish heart came the determined words, “I’ll never go back.”
“Suddenly, through his tears Louis saw reflected in the water the image of a large and well-dressed man. Louis turned his face upward and recognized George Burbidge, the Sunday School superintendent. ‘May I sit down with you?’ asked the kind leader. Louis nodded affirmatively. There on the curb sat a good Samaritan ministering to one who surely was in need. Several boats were formed and launched while the conversation continued. At last the leader stood and, with a boy’s hand tightly clutching his, they returned to Sunday School. Later Louis himself presided over that same Sunday School.”
Our responsibility is to keep the trust that God has placed in us, calling us to guard these precious souls. As President Ezra Taft Benson frequently stated, “It is better to prepare and prevent than to repair and repent.”
The third parable is that of the prodigal son. There have been many commentaries offered on this parable.
“And he said, A certain man had two sons:
“ And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.
“And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.
“And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want.
“And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.
“And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him.
“And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!
“I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,
“And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.
“And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
“And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.
”But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet:
“And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry:
“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.
“Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing.
“And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant.
“And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.
“And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him.
“And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:
“But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.
“And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.
“It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:11 - 32)
In this parable, the young son was lost because he wanted to be lost. He didn’t wander off; he wasn’t lost by neglect. His was a planned departure, and he probably could not have been easily convinced to return. The damage had been done long before. Often these individuals do not return until they bring great suffering upon themselves (and sometimes others) as a result of their transgressions.
The prodigal son used his agency unwisely. He rebelled against his father and wanted freedom from the restrictions of home and church, in order to indulge his passions and be like his friends. As we know, eventually he hit rock bottom and made his way back.
In this parable, the older son was not much better than the younger son. He was full of judgment and criticism, and lacked charity. I hope that at some point, he also “came to himself” and repented of his superior attitude. I hope that we never adopt the same behavior as the older son.
We know many of these people. All we can do is to pray for them, and love them. We must let them know that we will stand by them if they choose to return.
As we read the scriptures and listen to the words of our leaders, we understand that the lord has given us a means to rescue those who are not here. It is through home teaching. No new program is needed.
This is primarily a priesthood responsibility, but that doesn’t let the rest of you off the hook. I am mostly mentioning the men and calling them to action, but please, good sisters and youth, we cannot do this without your help and support.
There are basically two ways to solve the problem of inactivity: prevention and reactivation. Both need to be approached simultaneously. The pool of less-active prospective elders is continually filled by less-active youth. We must hang on to our youth!
Studies have shown that the cost of activities is not important, nor is the number of activities. The critical factor is the closeness of the relationship between the youth and their leaders. Youth leaders must reach out to the less-active and the wavering.
All activities should be strengthened with service and spiritual objectives so that every activity is meaningful and worthwhile.
And let’s not forget righteous peer pressure. Young men, young women, if you choose, you can be a powerful influence for good. It may require you to step outside your comfort zone, but that’s what the journey to perfection is all about.
Once members leave the flock, we cannot help them unless we know who they are. We need to identify those who are most receptive, and work with them first.
One of the brethren in the Book of Mormon is an example of this. In Alma, chapter 10, Amulek describes himself as less-active: “I never have known much of the ways of the Lord, and his mysteries and marvelous power.” That is often the problem. Often the less-active just haven’t been taught the gospel. He continues, “I was called many times and I would not hear; therefore I knew concerning these things, yet I would not know.” (Al. 10:5 - 6)
It sounds as though his home teachers, parents, and others had talked to him and tried to activate him, but even though he knew they were right he hardened his heart and would not give in.
So here was a good, hard-working man who didn’t really understand the gospel, but who had feelings through the years that he ought to get active. He resisted even though he felt he ought to come back.
The Lord knew all about Amulek’s feelings, so he sent Alma to home teach and activate this man. Amulek was ready; Alma needed prompting to call him---and you know what happened after that.
I think it is important to note that Alma did not receive the prompting until he had become discouraged and was ready to give up. It may be the same for us. The prompting may not come until we have tried and seemingly failed a time or two.
There are many Amuleks in every ward---good, honest men. Men who know, yet who don’t know. Men who are sick of being away from the Church. Men who want a better life. There are good fathers among these men. Some are civic leaders. Many have wives and children who would also like to join with us. Most are ordinary Latter-day Saints without a knowledge or testimony.
When men of faith visit these brethren and become their friends, love them, and teach them the gospel, they and their families will come back.
Once we find them, we must tailor a message to fit the individual. Often, home teachers bring a one-size-fits-all message that doesn’t resonate with the members being visited. If we want to reach our lost sheep, we must prayerfully prepare a message that will be of worth to those we visit.
We must seek to be a friend. If a lost member sees himself or herself as a “project,” we will fail in our mission. We must bring the love of our Savior to them. That means that we must also feel that love in our own hearts. And we must never forget that they are precious children of our Heavenly Father.
I believe that the two keys are: to help them feel our love for them, and to help them feel the Spirit. With the Spirit, and with the love of Christ, we cannot fail. Without it, we cannot succeed.
Most important, we must remember President Hinckley’s statement that every member requires three things in the Church: a friend, a responsibility, and nourishing with the good word of God.
It requires a wise, inspired Bishop, working together with a well-trained Ward Council to bring this to pass. Through the Ward Council, the converting, loving, activating power of the whole ward can be focused on some chosen families. And you will see miracles happen. You have seen it here already.
In many ways, I have been preaching to the choir this morning. But I would like to offer a challenge to you. Will you continue to help your ward grow? Will each of you prayerfully select an individual or family that you can bring back into the fold? Will you determine something, however small, that you can do this week or this month to bless the life of one of our Father’s lost sheep? And then will you do it? The priesthood leaders in your ward are prepared to help you. The Lord will bless you as you do this great work of redemption.
We should remember the promise from James: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;
“Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19 - 20)
I would love to have my multitude of sins covered, and I would imagine that all of you would as well.
Brothers and sisters, this is the Lord’s work. It is his true Church, which offers us the ordinances of salvation and exaltation.
I testify to you that we have a loving Heavenly Father who lives and loves us. We are literally his children. His greatest desire is for his children to return to his presence. He has promised us greater joy with him if we have helped to save the souls of his children.
I pray that we may be able to experience this joy together, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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