Talk on 15 March 2015
So, on Wednesday, April 1, 2015, I will fly to Mexico, D.F. and report to the Mexican Missionary Training Center, and then I will be assigned an area to serve in the Mexico, Saltillo Mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I will be emailing my family once a week and, if things go according to plan, someone will post portions of my emails on this blog so that everyone can read about my adventures as they please. Even if I can’t spend days on social media, I’d like to stay relevant while abroad. For my first blog post, I’ll share the talk I gave on Sunday, March 15th.
This is the final version of the talk. I’ve added as many ad-libs as I can remember. The notes are portions I decided not to use in the talk but I still think are worth including, just in case they have some value.
Brothers and sisters, good morning. Y buenos días hermanos y hermanas! I am so pleased and blessed to be up here this day, to declare my love for my Savior and his plan, and my gratitude for this extraordinary opportunity that I’ve been given. For 2 years, I will forget lesser endeavors to focus on serving others. As excited as I am to do this, my choice to serve a mission for this church did not come without great struggle. Every day I have to consider the ponderance of this momentous decision.
For those that aren’t familiar, an LDS mission requires young women and men to give up their lives at home for 18-24 months to teach and preach abroad, sharing their message to those who want to come to know the joy of Christ’s gospel for themselves. This is a lot to ask, especially today, when it seems more and more churches are asking less and less of their members. How dare the church ask so much of its young people! I suppose I should explain why I came to the decision that I did, after which I will describe my preparation for my mission to Saltillo, Mexico, which is to say, “how I was transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and why it required aligning my will with his.”
But first, I want to tell a little back story: in March of 1839, the prophet Joseph Smith dictated and sent forth a letter from Liberty Jail detailing his communication to God while falsely imprisoned. In the letter are words of anguish from a man desperately suing for divine relief. He could have been justifiably angry for the torment wrought upon him, but Church History and Modern Revelation says the innocent prophet “breathed a spirit of tolerance and love for his fellow man” (2:176). Smith’s plea and God’s response became what we now know as Doctrine and Covenants 121. Frustrated at God’s apparent neglect of the saints, Smith cried, “let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us. . . Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:4,6), to which God replied, “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment. . . How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints. . . Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:7,33,45). God never forgot Smith in his trials. Completely aware of how he was mistreated, he elected to let the prophet and the saints endure the refiner’s fire yet longer.
I tell you this story to say this: God has a plan for each of us. He is so aware of us and our struggles and he wants to lift us up, but he wants to make us stronger even more. If Joseph Smith was allowed to be martyred, certainly God will allow us to endure the various trials of mortality. Our savior, the greatest of us all, had to suffer at the hands of the unrighteous to fulfill his mortal obligation. It is when we align our will with that of our Father’s that our trials consecrate us. Elder Neal A. Maxwell put it this way: God has customized a curriculum for each of us. It is up to us to listen to the promptings of the Spirit and follow that curriculum for ourselves. We have a “rendezvous with destiny” (Maxwell, “But for a small moment”). And so goes my mission preparation process. This has been a process of aligning my will with God’s, in figuring out his curriculum for me, and following that curriculum in faith. Helaman writes that sanctification comes through “yielding our hearts unto God” (Helaman 3:35), or aligning our will with His.
Almost a year ago, when I finished my first year at BYU, I got down on my knees and I prayed for opportunities to serve the people of Atlanta in preparation for my mission. That Sunday, as I was eying the door, ready to go home and think about myself for the rest of the day, Elder Savage and Elder Rawlings interrupted my plans and invited me to help them teach in the city. Though reluctant at first, I now know this was an answer to the prayer I had made previously. There is no better way to serve than to bring souls closer to Christ. The Lord taught that if we love him, we must feed his sheep (John 21:16). In my case, I had to let go of my stubbornness and align my will with that of Heavenly Father’s, and I can say I am truly blessed for doing so. Serving the people of Atlanta has been the single greatest preparatory action for my mission. When I teach others about Christ, I feel the joy the spirit brings for myself.
In the 6th chapter of John, Jesus gives the Bread of Life Sermon, offering his body as an everlasting sacrament to believers who, if they came unto him, would never hunger, and would even be raised up at the “last day” (v. 54). So profound was this message that many disciples rejected Jesus after the sermon, saying, “This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (John 6:60). Asking his 12 if they would also leave, Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of Eternal Life” (6:68). No other response in scripture has touched me more than Peter’s. Such love, faith, and devotion are present in the words, “to whom shall we go?” Peter believed Jesus, even if he didn’t fully comprehend his words, which is understandable, because Christ basically just told his disciples that if they eat him, they’ll live forever. Obviously, 2000 years of theological hindsight have given us ample perspective, but what an earth-shattering doctrine to introduce! Our lives, which is to say our curriculum, are a preparatory state, a time for us to decide if we are going to be like Peter––the rock upon which Christ’s church was established––or the disciples who fell away because Christ’s message was hard to hear. And of course because of the sacrament offered by our Redeemer, we are able to make that decision again and again. His message was strange, radical, even heretical. Our Savior did not suffer and die on the cross because he told people to love each other, though he did do that, to be sure. No, he was martyred because he challenged the status quo. He “came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). He provoked and threatened leadership with his strange messianic teachings. “It is one thing to believe in Jesus as we want him to be, it’s another thing to believe in him as he truly is; that tests true discipleship” (Prof. Matthew Gray).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers a profound theology, one that is “hard to hear,” to use the words of the disciples that fell away. I propose that this church is, by design, meant to challenge and provoke its members, to cause them to explore spiritual paths they never thought possible. So much about the gospel of Christ may be hard for people to hear. Take any doctrine, practice, sacrament, or belief espoused by the church, and I’m sure someone has made a stumbling block of that issue. And justly so. The scriptures tell us that many are called, but few are chosen. How wonderful it is to be alive, and to exercise our agency to choose God’s curriculum, to choose “liberty and eternal life through the great Mediator of all men,” to quote 2nd Nephi 2:27. This is what sets us apart: our belief that freedom of choice makes us in fact godly, that our destiny is limitless. A rendezvous with destiny awaits us, again from Neal A. Maxwell. Of our infinite potential, Saint Jerome wrote, “God made man for that purpose, that from man they may become gods. Those who cease to be mere men abandon the ways of vice and have become perfect are gods and sons of The Most High” (Letters of St. Jerome).* Most Latter-day Saints know God’s plan for us simply as the Plan of Salvation.**
Christ’s gospel may be hard to hear for some, but for its faithful adherents, it is a heaven-sent message of hope, peace, joy, and happiness. I hope we can follow the counsel of Saint Jerome and abandon the ways of the natural man and instead pursue plans in-line with the will of our Heavenly Father, as challenging as such wisdom may be to hear.
In a round about way, I suppose this encapsulates the transformative element of the restored gospel for me. Only by becoming converted and transformed by the power of the Atonement have I been able to prepare for this mission. I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve always been enthusiastic to serve a mission, or to even to participate in this church. That I should give up 2 years of my life to The Lord was a very hard thing to hear. However today I am immensely grateful for my privilege to serve the people of Mexico. I am grateful the restoration of Christ’s gospel on this earth. This truly is the “body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12) and the building “fitly framed together” (Eph. 2:21), to use Paul’s vision of Christ’s church on earth. I am grateful for the work of Joseph Smith, who aligned his will with that of the Father’s, bringing us the Book of Mormon and the restored gospel. We cannot overestimate the profundity of his heroic efforts to humankind, which led to his persecution, imprisonment, and early death. Literary critic Harold Bloom called Smith “an authentic religious genius” who restored the “archaic Jewish religion” (The American Religion, 1992). Though flattering to the young prophet, this analysis would not surprise any Latter-day Saint. However, not to spite Bloom, Smith was far from a genius theologically or intellectually. Anyone who has read his personal works can attest to the fact that that man could have never written large portions of the standard works without direction from God Almighty. Attacks on Smith’s integrity may continue until the millenium, but I know that his work, the publication of the Book of Mormon, is truly a modern miracle. In my hands are the words of The Lord, written by His prophets and translated through the power of the Holy Spirit. Though it is a hard thing to hear, I cannot deny what the Spirit has revealed to me. If God could speak to the early Christians who gave us the New Testament, despite them already having a Torah, then certainly he could speak to the Latter-day Saints to give the world modern scripture. God’s ways are perennial. As sure as the Missouri River flows, knowledge will be given to the saints today and forever.
At certain points in my life, my path has diverged and I’ve had to choose between the the world’s expectations of a 20 year old boy, and Heavenly Father’s expectations of me. In most cases, I’d like to think I’ve chosen the latter. I believe that, though it may be the choice that is hard to hear, serving a mission is what the Father expects of me. I cannot deny my duty to serve for what the world considers too much time because I have become converted by the gospel of Christ. I have been given “earnest of the spirit” (2 Cor. 1:22), again, to quote the Apostle Paul. I have seen a glimpse of the magnificent blessings of service, which far outweigh any sacrifice I might make as I embark on this next chapter in my life and fulfill my curriculum in faith. I suppose true discipleship is accepting Smith as he truly was, though we may question his actions; accepting Christ’s gospel as it is, though it’s difficult to practice; accepting this church as it is, though we may have our doubts; and accepting Christ as he was and is. I aspire to Peter’s example. When asked if he would turn away at the hardness of Christ’s sayings, he asked, “to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”
I want to thank my father for pushing me to go on a mission, and my grandfather, Bishop Hopper, for paving that way for me. I want to thank my grandparents, John and Jeanne Hopper, for their righteous example of service. And President Sullivan for encouraging me to be stronger and better. I especially want to thank my mom, Cindy Hopper, for how she has served me from my infancy. I’m not sure where I’d be without her stellar example and testimony. And I am thankful for this congregation which has provided me with Sabbath day respite for a good while now. I am indebted to all the wonderful examples in my youth who have encouraged me to stick with the gospel. I love the people of this church so much, and although I don’t know them, I feel I have a deep love for the people of Mexico. I want to say all these things in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
* Before the various ecumenical councils squelched such so-called heresies, many Early Christian theologians agreed with Saint Jerome. Dan Peterson characterizes the restored gospel as on “not yet transformed by Greek philosophy”
** Joseph Smith wrote, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Though not in fashion with Christians today, the historical record indicates Early Christian thinkers thought similarly of our destiny. Saint Athanasius wrote, “God became man so that man could become God.” Saint Justin Martyr said, “All men may be worthy to become gods.” Saint Aerenaus: “We have not been made gods, but at first merely men, then at length gods.” Tertullian: “For we shall be even as gods. Clemente of Alexandria: “In the future life we shall be among gods, those who have become perfect and become pure in heart.” Latter-day saints refer to this doctrine more specifically as exaltation or deification, although “The Plan of Salvation” or “The Great Plan of Happiness” generally describes our multi-step plan that began with premortality.
Stay tuned for blog updates as I prepare to leave!