I Assure You: They’re Not

neither-do-i-condemn-thee

Dear Will:

I recently spoke with a friend who has not attended church in quite some time. After she shared with me a tender story about what had brought her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place, I felt compelled to ask: “Then why have you stopped coming?” She responded with a common, sad sentiment: “I don’t feel worthy.”

My heart sank. Worthy? As if any of us is ever truly worthy! Her words left me troubled, puzzling over our human propensity to shun God due to our nagging imperfections. And I’ve concluded that this tendency leads to several persistent and problematic misconceptions:

1. We act as if we could hide from Him –This notion has been around approximately forever. You’ll recall that after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they heard the voice of God and hid themselves for shame (see: Genesis 3). They seemed to think that they could hide transgression behind a bush. Likewise, sometimes our indiscretions make us too ashamed to pray or attend church when those are just the things we need in an hour of weakness. “Oh,” you say, “but how could I ever come before Him after what I’ve done?” To which I say: How can you not? He knows already anyway. And He wants to help.

2. We feel that we’re not good enough – I hear this one all the time. “All of those people at church are so much better than I am.” Without going into detail, let me put it this way: NO THEY’RE NOT! In truth, we all have our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. It is those weaknesses that draw us together. You’ll recall that Jesus was once criticized for socializing with sinners, to which He responded: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12). His invitation was to all—especially to those who might feel unworthy. He said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). You’ll note that He didn’t say: “Come unto me, all ye that already have your act together.” Paul reiterated that thought when he said: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That includes, by the way, whoever sits next to you in Sunday School.

3. We believe we can never be forgiven – The scriptures are full of examples of those who felt that forgiveness was no longer possible for them. Yet Jesus was (and is) consistent in His willingness to extend forgiveness to all. And let’s be clear especially about this: You can never be worthy of that forgiveness; you can never earn it. He gives it freely. In this regard, His grace is truly sufficient—no matter what you or I may have done to make ourselves unworthy. In truth, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland put it this way: “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it. . . . [However] far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012.)

I hope by now you have recognized in all of this an implied invitation, which I will now make explicit: Come join us on Sunday at the Santiago Creek Ward. You’ll fit right in. I’ll be saving you a seat in Sunday School.

PW

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His Hand Is Stretched Out Still

Dear Will:

It was near dawn. The men, many of them fishermen by trade, had sailed through the night in an effort to cross the Sea of Galilee. Nevertheless, after many hours, still they had not reached Gennesaret because a powerful wind was working against them. Sleep-deprived and muscle-weary, no doubt they were exhausted by the ordeal, their nerves frazzled as they battled fatigue and fear and frustration. And still the waves rose, the wind blew, and their ship remained far from the distant shore.

If it’s true that it’s always darkest just before the dawn, then perhaps at that early morning hour they had begun to give up hope. Perhaps they felt—with good reason—that they had done all they could and yet all was for naught. Perhaps they felt as if they had been forsaken, left on their own to struggle against the forces of nature, to save their lives if they could or to resign themselves to the inevitable destruction that seemed to loom nearby.

And then, as if enough weren’t already enough, they gazed into the stormy distance and saw some sort of apparition—a phantasm, perhaps—approaching on the waves. It was very frightening—so frightening, we’re told, that they cried aloud.

Somehow, in the midst of the chaos and the panic, at this moment of ultimate desperation, a voice rose above the din. “Be of good cheer,” they heard. “It is I; be not afraid.”

It was a voice they knew. It was the voice of Jesus, their teacher, their mentor, their friend. With renewed hope surging in his breast, one of the fishermen answered back. “Lord,” cried Simon, “if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” When Jesus bade him come, Simon threw first one leg, then the other, over the side of the boat and walked upon the water toward his Lord. And still the wind blew. Still the waves climbed and fell.

We do not know how many miraculous steps Simon took that night. We do not know how far he ventured beyond the rail of that storm-tossed ship. But we do know that he walked toward Jesus, and that at some point he began to consider the difficulty of what he had undertaken, and that when he saw the effects of that boisterous wind—as the waves crashed all around him—it was, at last, too much. Giving in to fear, Simon began to sink, and he called out once again: ”Lord, save me.”

“And immediately,” we read, “Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, ‘Of a truth thou art the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:22-33).

Who among us has not felt at some point that his life was like a boat on a storm-tossed sea? Who among us has not felt overwhelmed, pushed to the point of emotional or physical exhaustion? Who hasn’t felt at one time or another that she simply could take no more? Who hasn’t felt to cry out, “Lord, save me”?

Of course, the promise of this story is not that the winds won’t blow. It isn’t that the waves will not rise up against us nor that journey will be made easy. The promise is that when we move toward Him He will move toward us. The promise is that if we feel ourselves starting to sink, He will reach out His hand and lift us up again.

It is not without effort, mind you. “Take my yoke upon you,” He says (Matthew 11:29). “Draw near unto me and [then] I will draw near unto you,” He promises (D&C 88:63). “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” He urges, and then, indeed, “all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33)

“Come unto me,” says Jesus, “all ye that labour, [all ye that] are heavy laden”—you and you and you and me—all of us—“and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

This brings to mind something I witnessed recently while hiking. A man and woman were climbing a steep trail together. The man was out in front, and after stepping up onto a rock he turned and—in a moment of old-fashioned chivalry—he extended his hand to help the woman up. But the woman would have none of it. In a moment of new-fashioned liberation, perhaps, she bounded on past as if her companion weren’t even there.

That’s right. She totally left him hanging.

I loved it. But as I watched that scene play out, it brought to mind a phrase often repeated by Isaiah in reference to our Lord and Savior: “His hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25, etc.). As I wandered the hills that day, I began to consider how often the Lord has extended His hand toward me and I have failed to grasp it.

How often have I have faced obstacles and chosen simply to power through them on my own? How often have I chosen to do things my way in contradiction to the inspired guidance of a loving Father? How often have I allowed pride and stubbornness to separate me from the Divine? And yet, no doubt, His hand was stretched out still.

How often do we disregard the commandments or think we know better than the prophets of God? How often do we make ourselves miserable, allowing ourselves to be dragged down to the gulf of misery and endless wo (Helaman 5:12)—and yet His hand is stretched out still?

How often? And yet—no matter how often—we cannot disqualify ourselves from this promise. We cannot put ourselves beyond His reach. In fact, no matter how foolish our choices may have been, no matter how far we may have drifted—He will be waiting there for us, and His hand will be stretched out still.

Even if we have been richly blessed and have chosen nonetheless to walk away, and even if in our wanderings we seem to have wasted our divine inheritance on riotous living, when we come unto ourselves and look, at last, toward Christ, we will see that His hand, as ever, is stretched out still (see Luke 15:11-24).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has stated: “However many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012).

When Jesus took on a mortal body—when He condescended to become like us—he suffered sicknesses and pains, afflictions and temptations, infirmities of every kind so that He would know, in that moment of despair, how to succor us commensurate with our suffering (Alma 7:11-12). That is, He came to understand and know what it is you feel when you lose your job or when the baby is sick or when you said that awful thing you never, ever should have said. He knows what it’s like when your husband dies or when your son is having a crisis of faith. He knows the ache that comes from feeling unloved or unnoticed, friendless even among the friendly. He knows all about your sleepless worry when the purse is empty and the end of the month is still two weeks away. He knows your disappointments, your frustrations, your hopelessness and your doubts. And above all, He knows the emptiness you feel when you commit that sin—again—that you swore you would never again commit, or when you find yourself bound by addiction or bad habits or spiritual weakness of any kind, weighed down by present-day consequences of bad choices made many years ago.

He descended below them all (D&C 122:8)—suffered them all—that we might not suffer (D&C 19:16). It is for that very reason that He said: “Come unto me,” for that very reason that He promised rest and relief to the heavy laden. It is for that very reason that His hand is stretched out still.

As we welcome in this Easter week, may we reflect on the promise of that outstretched hand—a promise He can keep today because of what He suffered for us nearly 2000 years ago. May we find ourselves, as Simon and Mary and Enos and countless others, calling out to Him in our moments of need. May we show our thanks for His sacrifice by accepting His love and taking His name upon us and keeping His commandments.

And may we always remember what took place on that first Good Friday—the very best Friday of all—when His hands were stretched out across that sacrificial beam. His hands were stretched out then . . . that they might be stretched out now. And to this day, His hands are stretched out still.

PW

“I’m So Sorry”

Dear Will:

There are these three boys next door who think my son is the coolest. They stand at the wall between our houses and call his name; or sometimes, if they’re feeling brave, they come to the door and ring for him. There’s nothing unusual about any of that except that Seth is nearly 13 and the boys next door are six, five, and three. It’s a strange friendship, to be sure, but Seth is the sort of good-natured fellow who takes genuine pleasure in creating fun and adventure for the kids next door.

Were they brats, Seth might not be so enthusiastic, of course, but the truth is that the half-pint neighbors are delightfully charming. They’re around frequently enough that they and I have even developed a standard greeting: “Hey,” I’ll bellow, as I climb out of my car, “what’s the big idea?!?”

“Nothing!” they respond in perfect unison, grinning each time at the familiar ritual. In fact, it’s gotten so that when they see me they’ll often yell “Nothing!” even before I have a chance to say my line. Irresistible.

These are very little boys who nevertheless show few of the tendencies you and I might otherwise ascribe to three so young and so, um, related. They do not squabble. They do not tease. They don’t even show any open resentment toward the youngest for always tagging along and asking the sorts of inane questions that tend to drive older brothers crazy. And recently it occurred to me that, in spite of all of the play and competition and backyard sports in which they and Seth engage, I had never heard any them cry.

Had never. A couple of weeks ago, I was summoned to the backyard by Seth, who was in full-blown panic. I came out to discover water gushing out of my automatic sprinklers. The little fellow in tears—heartfelt tears—was trying to explain that it was all an accident. They were playing some sort of incomprehensible game involving the bocce balls, and one of those heavy wooden spheres had come down hard on the sprinkler mechanism and cracked the main. They didn’t mean to, he kept insisting. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” I had to shut off the water completely in order to also shut off the tears.

As it turned out, the automatic sprinkler array had to be completely rebuilt because of the precision placement of that crack. I had to ask for outside help, and the grass went unwatered for days until the work was complete. I don’t know what that’s going to cost me, but you can rest assured that the project was not in the budget.

Nevertheless, I am neither angry nor annoyed. How can I be upset at a little boy for an accident? In truth, I’m not even a little upset. If he had been defensive or belligerent, or if he had denied responsibility, I suppose I would be grumbling about the whole thing. But the fact is that he was genuinely contrite, remorseful in a way that leaves me still feeling sorry for him. I found myself wanting to comfort him, reassure him, make his pain go away. I wanted him to feel deep down that there was no real harm done, that I had forgiven him even before he had asked for my forgiveness.

In light of those very real, very human, very familiar emotions—his desperation to be forgiven and my heartfelt desire to reassure him and forgive—is it even somewhat difficult to believe that God will forgive us of our misdeeds? If we mortals are capable of such compassion, imagine how much more profound is the love of God directed toward those who come to Him with broken hearts and contrite spirits. Imagine how willing He is to lift our sorrows and heal our pains. “Come unto me,” Christ says, “all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Believe it.

PW