Sunday, January 24, 2010

Spiritual Safety

I was asked to speak in church today. My topic was on Elder Holland's last General Conference talk entitled "Spiritual Safety". So here is a copy of my talk :)

Good afternoon brothers and sisters. My name is Steven Bristow and I will also be speaking on the subject of spiritual safety. Now, before I go on, lemme tell you something. The Bishopric are super sneaky! I was innocently trying to get information on the next program when I was cornered. Brother Clegg pounced on me to “supposedly” give me the speakers for the following weeks for the program…then, rather nonchalantly, he said, “oh, I need another speaker, could you speak?” I thought my calling was a safe one…no one is safe!

Ahem, so anyway…I’m a psychology major. The usual response to that statement is, “how does that make you feel” or “so are you psychoanalyzing me right now?” First of all, it’s a major, it’s something that I do, and I feel really good about it…duh! That’s why it’s my major. Second of all, are you paying me when I’m just talking to you? Then no, I am not psychoanalyzing you. And third, I’m only an undergrad! I can’t do therapy yet! But I am a super good listener…

There is something very interesting that I discovered in psychology. There was one day, we were discussing what makes a person change their mind or form an opinion of something or another. The majority of people thought that it was a commitment of beliefs first, followed by actions. Wrong! The best and only way to convince someone of the truth is to first get them to engage in an act, which then changes their beliefs.

For example, in WWII, the military was trying to get the general public to eat the less appetizing meats so they could send the good cuts to their troop. They hired a person to try and change the publics mind. He went across the country giving presentation after presentation about delicious recipes and how good it would be for the troops. When he returned to headquarters, the military reported no change in meat consumption. Our awesome salesman then came up with a new idea. He again traveled across the country. But this time, he didn’t do a presentation at all. He got to the city, and then asked the people who attended his seminar how THEY would go about changing the public’s mind. The people got together, and came up with their own ideas. These groups did NOT present on their ideas. However, this time when the salesman returned to headquarters, there was a 3% increase in purchasing of the less appetizing meats.

Now that isn’t a huge percentage, but if you consider that it’s across the entire United States, that’s a TON of people! And that’s very effective. Why do you think that the General Authorities tell us to test the words of the scriptures and of the Gospel? When we first engage in an action, not only is there a physical difference in the response of our brains, but if you really think about it, it gives the Spirit an opportunity to prove that what we are doing is right and works. If we just sit there, close are eyes, and try to force ourselves to believe something, it’s not going to work. Ever tried to force yourself to believe something?

According to Elder Holland, our hearts are the center of our faith. It is the location of our loyalties and values. Christ said, Men’s hearts shall fail them.

What are we doing to prepare ourselves for a time when our hearts shall fail us? Are we acting instead of just believing? Do we remember the words of “I Am a Child of God” that say, “teach me all that I must DO, to live with Him [meaning Jesus Christ] someday.”

When I was a freshman in college, I took the two halves of the Book of Mormon during my first year. I was given the assignment to read the whole book in a total of four weeks. Two for the first semester, and two for the second. Now, that seemed impossible. Having attempted to read the Book of Mormon before, and failing before, I found the task daunting. But since my grade depended on it, I began my journey.

The first half flew by. I enjoyed my semester and couldn’t wait to read the second half for the following semester. Over Christmas break, I realized a challenge was coming up in the Book of Mormon. It’s found on the last few pages. It says, “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would aask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not btrue; and if ye shall ask with a csincere heart, with dreal intent, having efaith in Christ, he will fmanifest the gtruth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

I knew the challenge was coming, so I began to pray every night that I would be spiritually prepared to take the challenge. The night finally came and I went into the basement of Helaman Halls to say one of the most sincere prayers I have ever said. I knelt, and prayed.

Brothers and Sisters, the power of the Spirit that was there was miraculous. Never in my life have I felt closer to my Heavenly Father than at that moment. I can testify to you that that promise is true. I know that the Book of Mormon is true. I can never deny it and I will never deny it. No matter how hard my trials are, I know that book is true. And I’m in good company.

To quote Elder Holland, “would Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?

Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor.9 Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon”

Joseph Smith was in liberty jail during the winter of 1838-1839. While there, he and his companions were forced to walk in a stooped position, they were given contaminated food that was sometimes poisoned, they were freezing and when they had access to a fire, they had to breath constant smoke. "Pen, or tongue, or angels," could not adequately describe "the malice of hell" that he suffered there.

For some of us, we are in that hell. Either through no fault of our own, or through poor choices, we are surrounded by that hell. We can, however, turn that hell into a prison temple. Of course, the prison in which Joseph Smith was trapped in was not like our temples; it lacked beauty, purity, and cleanliness. So how can we call it a temple? And what does the title of "a prison temple" teach us about the love of God and how that love is manifest?

It teaches us that we can have beautiful, profound, inspired, and sacred experiences with the Lord in any situation we are in. I believe that with all my heart. We can have these experiences when we are faced with the insurmountable, the unjust, and the cruelest opposition and odds we have ever faced.

In one way or another, we will all spend time in our own little jail. We may face things that we do not want to face for reasons that may not be our fault. In fact, we may be trying to live the absolute best that we can, and for those reasons face difficult circumstances. We may face ridicule or persecution, we may endure heartache and separation from loved ones, and we may even be left hungry, forlorn, and alone.

These difficult lessons teach us that God uses these opportunities to reach into our very souls, if we do not curse God for our problems. "He can turn the unfair and inhumane and debilitating prisons of our lives into temples--or at least into a circumstance that can bring comfort and revelation, divine companionship and peace.

Everyone faces trying times. When this happens, we sometimes fear that our friends, family, and even God has abandoned us. We may be tempted on occasion to cry out with bitterness of heart, "Oh God, where art thou...? How long shall thy hand be stayed...? Yea, O Lord, how long shall [we] suffer...before...thy bowels be moved with compassion towards [us]?"

I want to tell you right now, that when these moments come into our lives, that we cannot succumb to the fear that God has abandoned us or that he does not hear our prayers--whether uttered aloud or from the depths of our souls. He is right there with us, where He has always been! Our prayers are heard. And when we weep, He and the angels of heaven weep with us. He is your father, and you are his child. Even when unmerited things may be done to us by our enemies but also, in some cases, by those whom we thought were friends, we must remember that God is with us. Jesus Christ said, "I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up".

We must also always remember that just because difficult things are happening, it does not mean that we are unrighteous or unworthy of blessings or that God is disappointed in us. We have to remember that no matter how miserable we are, we are in very good company. The same thing happened to the Savior of the world. He had been falsely accused, been torn away from family and friends, cast into the hands of murderers and yes, he was triumphant. So if the Savior himself, the most perfect being to ever live faced such injustices, we cannot expect that we will not face some of what He endured. However heavy our load might feel, it would be a lot heavier if we did not have the Savior who had gone before us to lift that burden with us, and for us.

We don't want to look for sorrow. We don't want to become martyrs. Trouble seems to find us when we're not looking. But remember that when you see a little bit of your prison coming for you, that God has not forgotten you, that He has been where you are, and that He will provide for your deliverance and comfort.

Finally, and this for me is the most difficult, we must learn to remain calm, patient, charitable, and forgiving. Even when faced with distressing circumstances that make us want to lash out at friends, or God, we must remember that "no power or influence can or ought to be maintained...[except] by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned".

I believe the most poignant example of this is when the Savior was hanging on the cross and said, "Father, forgive them; for they know now what they do". The real test of our Christian discipleship is when things are not going smoothly. That is when we get to see what people are really made of and how committed we really are. When we are able to handle such difficulties with charity, and patience, the spirit of God can reach us. It cannot penetrate a heart hardened by hate or anger, self-pity or vengeance. That spirit can only find access to us when we have a heart striving for the principles of true discipleship.

It is hard for us to be cheerful in these situations. In fact, there are those who no matter how hard they try, just can't seem to smile. But that doesn't mean we can't be optimistic. We can always hope for a brighter tomorrow! In those cold and lonely hours, we can turn to the Lord, wait upon His mercy, and see his arms stretched out towards us. He does love us.

Finally, I want to leave you with the testimony of Elder Holland. I can wholeheartedly testify to what he says: "I testify that heaven's kindness will never depart from you, regardless of what happens. I testify that bad days come to an end, that faith always triumphs, and that heavenly promises are always kept."

The only way to truly have peace in this life, is to rest upon the cornerstone of our religion, the Book of Mormon. It is the foundation upon which we must build our testimonies. I promise you that if you build upon this foundation, you will not fall.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A New Year

So it's the beginning of a brand new year. I know of a lot of people who start their year with a couple new goals or things like that. For me, I have a general idea of where I want to go and how I'm going to get there. So my goals kinda just evolve as I go through my day-to-day life.

I've actually been having a hard time with depression lately. I know from my studies that depression can come in cycles that last from weeks to years. Having experienced a two year cycle of depression, I'm really nervous about it coming back again. But there's something I started doing that's really helped: volunteering.

To be honest, I was looking for a volunteer opportunity more to get into grad school than to do service to my fellow man. There's a man from my home ward who I contacted. He runs a clinic that deals mostly with people who are sexual offenders. I didn't know this when I first started my group therapy session. Lemme tell you about it.

I attended two group therapy sessions. One was a group of adolescents and the other ranged from eighteen to probably sixty something. The adolescent group just talked about their school life, problems with parents and authority figures, and other problems that seem fairly common among teens.

The adult group dug a little deeper. They talked a lot about relationships and commitment. Now, I have big commitment issues so I thought this was very interesting. One member spoke about how he felt this need to tell basically everyone his whole life history and all of his "transgressions" in order to feel ok with himself and the other person.

Now...I feel that same way. There are times in which I feel like I'm getting close to someone and I feel like I can't get any closer to that person until they know almost everything about me. Obviously there are some things that stay private but for the most part, I tell them everything. So I understood what this group member was talking about.

The therapist leading the discussion then asked all of us what we would do in a situation where someone asked us about our pasts. After much discussion, we all seemed to come to the conclusion that it's better to simply say something to the effect of, "There have been some things I have done that I am not proud of, but I am moving forward".

I've been thinking a lot about it since that group session. I think one of the reasons I gush everything about me to another person is because it then takes the responsibility of them liking or not liking me off of me, and onto the other person. For example, if they know everything about me, and then decide to not like me, it's not my fault. It is their fault that they cannot accept me for who I am. That makes me feel safer and more justified in my relationships.

I do think I could come to the point one day of being happy with who I am, without everyone knowing every minute detail about me. It is going to take a lot of work on my part and a lot of trust. I have a hard time trusting that people will like me for me, hence I spill my guts just to make sure.

So the therapy sessions were fantastic. I felt really good just listening to these honest to goodness good people who had just messed up. I could see their desire to change and admired them for working so hard to change. It's inspired me to be just a little better.

And so I'm making some changes myself. I've recommitted myself to living the Gospel. I'm going to have to learn a lot of self-discipline and self-mastery to do it but I do believe it's possible. My Bishop and I talked yesterday for a long time and he really inspired me to do just a little bit better. I prayed for the gift of hope and an eternal perspective to help me get through this.

I do believe in the Atonement and it's cleansing power. But I do also struggle with believing in it's power to work for me. The idea that Jesus Christ could really pay for all of my sins and the rest of humanities is quite mind-boggling. But hey, this is just one of my many leaps of faith. I haven't been let down in the past so why should I worry now?

I spoke to a friend last night who is very close to me. He is probably the closest thing I have ever had to a boyfriend. I explained to him what my Bishop and I had talked about and he was so understanding, loving and accepting. He told me that he truly admires me and knows that I will be a dad some day. When he said that to me, I just burst into tears. I had almost given up on my hopes and dreams of being a father. But the Spirit testified to me that I will be a father some day. And a really good one too :) Or so I hope ;)

He will support me in my decision as I'm sure all of my friends will. This year is going to be a struggle, but I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm working towards it. Thank you for your love, prayers, and support. You mean the world to me.