Our last Sunday in Afghanistan. We had a great meeting last night. Merrill and I both spoke and there was a certain poignancy to that since he and I have worked so closely the last year.
There was easily over 30 people there and that's only half our group. The other half flew directly from Kandahar. I imagine next week when we're all together in Shelby we'll have close to 60 people in attendance. It will be pretty cool.
I actually had to turn up the volume on the clavinova to compensate for the thunderous sound of all the male voices. It was great!
Merrill's topic was 1 Nephi 3:7 and he gave a great talk on preparing for life’s challenges. He recounted the trials and struggles that Nephi went through. He then pointed out that Nephi had spiritually prepared himself ahead of time and because of that he was able to succeed whereas Laman and Lemuel could not because they were relying on the arm of the flesh. He also talked about how the Lord could have made their challenges easier; i.e. getting the plates, but part of the learning process is going through the struggle of finding the answers. It was a great talk.
I was assigned the topic of “Return with Honor.” I had been praying all week that I would be able to deliver something that would be of worth to the brethren. All week I really struggled with what to say and up until yesterday morning, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say.
I talked about how are we going to return. We can either go back better than we are right now or we can return to the status quo. I know everyone of us has made commitments to ourselves and to the Lord to do better but the real test will be after we’ve been home for a while to see if we fall back into old habits and routines. I talked about areas of my life that I haven’t done so well on this deployment and what I was going to do to improve. I talked about the areas that I have had success and how I want to continue to succeed in those areas. I talked about returning to my wife and how I want to honor her and treat her like the queen that she deserves to be treated. I know I was not alone in those thoughts and feelings.
Earlier in the week I had read a passage in a book written by Christian authors about overcoming the natural man. Several passages of the book really struck me (in fact I felt a stinging rebuke in some of their words) and wouldn’t leave my thoughts as I prepared this talk so I decided that the Lord wanted me to include them in my comments.
They talked about obedience versus mere excellence in our relationship with God. They posed the question, what is the difference between obedience and excellence? Some may argue that they are the same, that if we strive for excellence we will achieve obedience but they suggested otherwise. They suggested that to aim for obedience is to aim for perfection but that excellence is something else, something less than perfection. They argue that mere excellence allows room for a mixture of standards.
Take American businesses for example. US businesses strive for excellence. It is through excellence that they will obtain and keep your business. However, in the business world, excellence does not equal perfection. US businesses could strive for perfection but it’s too costly in terms of their profits. Rather than be perfect they know it’s enough to seem to be perfect to their customers. By stopping short of perfection they find a profitable balance between quality and cost. They look to their peers to discover the best practices of the industry.
This thought really struck me in particular as in many instances, this is the kind of man I am. It is so much easier to appear to be perfect in my callings at church, in my relationship with my wife, in how I perform my job that I stop short of perfection but still portray the façade of excellence. But in terms of my spiritual development where does that get me? Close to but just short of where I want to be in terms of my relationship with the Lord.
I continued reading.
The authors then posed the following questions.
How far can we go and still seem perfect?
By how far can we stop short but still seem perfect?
I then thought of the question, How far then, does that keep us from the Lord?
We all know someone who we look up to and think that they are perfect, or pretty close and wish we could be more like them. We all portray a certain image of what we want others to think of us, at least I know I do, but then we all say to ourselves, if they only knew the real me what would they really think?
That thought made me think of this scripture.
Matthew 23:27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
I decided that I wasn’t quite a whited sepulcher, yet, that my real problem was that I wasn’t striving for that perfect obedience to God’s commandments and the other things in my life that would allow me to truly feel like I was living up to the standards that I wanted for myself. I realized that if I was only more obedient then I would not have made the mistakes that I have over the last year.
Christ commanded his disciples to be perfect, even as he and his Father are. (See Matt. 5:48; 3 Ne. 12:48.) But this commandment may seem overwhelming. I know I become discouraged at the thought of becoming perfect. It’s too hard. It’s easier to appear to be perfect, to achieve that appearance of excellence than actually be that way.
Moroni taught that we should “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; … and love God with all your might, mind and strength, … that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.” (Moro. 10:32.)
The scriptures go on to say,
If we love and serve the Lord and keep his commandments, it will be possible for us to become “perfect in Christ.” (See Gal. 6:2; Mosiah 18:8–10; Mosiah 24:14–15, 21; Alma 33:23.)
Stephen E. Robinson has written:
“Perfection comes through the atonement of Jesus Christ. That happens as we become one with him, a perfect being. It is like a merger. If you take a small, bankrupt firm that is about to go under and merge it with a corporate giant, what happens? Their assets and liabilities flow together, and the new entity that is created is solvent.”
“This is similar to what happens spiritually when we enter into a covenant with the Savior. We have liabilities; he has assets. So he proposes a covenant relationship. After the covenant is made, I become one with Christ, and as partners we work together toward my exaltation. I do all that I can do, and he does what I cannot yet do. For now, in partnership we are perfect, through His perfection.”
Brother Robinson goes on to say:
“Sometimes we feel very inadequate when we compare ourselves to others. We may even begin to despair. But when the Lord looks at us, he measures us against ourselves. His expectations are based on our abilities. He simply asks, Are you doing all that you can do at this time? Consider the principle of tithing. The man with ten million dollars is expected to pay one million dollars in tithing. The child with ten cents is expected to pay one penny. Both offerings are a full tithing in the eyes of the Lord.”
“In our home we have what is now called the parable of the bicycle. It dates back to when my daughter Sarah, who was seven years old at the time, came in and said, “Dad, can I have a bike? I’m the only kid on the block who doesn’t have one.”
“Well, I didn’t have the money then for a bike, so I stalled her. I said, “Sure, Sarah.”
“She said, “How? When?”
“I said, “You save all your pennies, and soon you’ll have enough for a bike.” And she went away."
“A couple of weeks later I heard a “clink, clink” in Sarah’s bedroom. I asked, “Sarah, what are you doing?”
“She came to me with a little jar, a slit cut in the lid, and a bunch of pennies in the bottom. She said, “You promised me that if I saved all my pennies, pretty soon I’d have enough for a bike. And, Daddy, I’ve saved every single one of them.”
“My heart melted. My daughter was doing everything in her power to follow my instructions. I hadn’t actually lied to her. If she saved all of her pennies, she would eventually have enough for a bike, but by then she would want a car. I said, “Let’s go look at bikes.”
“We went to every store in town. Finally we found it—the perfect bicycle. She was thrilled. Then she saw the price tag, and her face fell. She started to cry. “Oh, Dad, I’ll never have enough for a bicycle!”
“So I said, “Sarah, how much do you have?”
“She answered, “Sixty-one cents.”
“I’ll tell you what. You give me everything you’ve got and a hug and a kiss, and the bike is yours.” Then I drove home very slowly because she insisted on riding the bike home.
“As I drove beside her, I thought of the atonement of Christ. We all desperately want the celestial kingdom. We want to be with our Father in Heaven. But no matter how hard we try, we come up short. At some point all of us must realize, “I can’t do this by myself. I need help.” Then it is that the Savior says, in effect, All right, you’re not perfect. But what can you do? Give me all you have, and I’ll do the rest.”
“He still requires our best effort. We must keep trying. But the good news is that having done all we can, it is enough. We may not be personally perfect yet, but because of our covenant with the Savior, we can rely on his perfection, and his perfection will get us through.”
So what I took away from this is that I need to quit striving for the appearance of excellence or even mere excellence but strive for obedience.
I love Brother Robinson’s words, that all the Lord requires is our best effort, that after we do all that we can do, it’s enough.
So as I return with honor for me what that means is that I will return home, leaving my past mistakes behind and commit to being a better man, husband and father.
I didn’t mean to actually share my talk with you but as I got going it all just sort of flowed onto the page. Returning with honor is something all of us will do but since last night I’ve decided that the real test will be six or seven months from now to see if we are still holding on to that honor. I hope the answer is yes.