Breathe in. Breathe out.
I get the shivers, and that's when I know to begin...
I want to begin with a question. What is a pioneer? I’ve considered this question carefully as I’ve thought about the answer I would share with you today. And as I’ve studied the lives of men and women I’ve admired, both inside and outside of the Church, I’ve noticed that they share one common element that defines them as pioneers—their willingness to face challenges larger themselves in order to find and know the truth about their lives and their world. In that way, we are all pioneers for making the necessary sacrifices to be in this room today, but I was asked to talk specifically about the experiences of converts and modern pioneers. So after modifying my perspective, I found myself asking a new question: What does it mean to be a pioneer today?
But first, consider with me Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee responsible for the persecution of countless Christians. He took Christian men and women and cast them into prison. He consented to the martyrdom of Stephen, and watched as this servant of the Lord was stoned to death. And in Acts 9, we read:
Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
The task of being a pioneer has not changed. Mankind has been fighting the same wars with himself and those around him for thousands of years, observable in the questions we ask ourselves every day. Think of the last time you faced a decision or a problem that seemed beyond your ability to handle. After, “Why me?” and variations of that question we use to communicate how helpless we feel, we eventually come to the point where we finally ask “What should I do now?” And it’s at that point we have the opportunity to become like Saul and the pioneers we celebrate today: the pioneers who made the decision to change their lives, forgive themselves for who were before and what they had done, and to listen to the Lord when He speaks to them. That was the decision that Saul had to make when he chose whether or not to obey the Lord’s instructions, and go into the city. It’s that decision in our every-day living that makes us pioneers.
8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth.
13 Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:
14 And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.
15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.
Imagine if you were Ananias. You’ve just been instructed by the Lord to help someone you know has hurt, killed, and imprisoned members of your Church. All around, this situation doesn’t look very good to Ananias based on everything he has ever seen and learned on his own. Do we ever question whether ALL men can be pioneers in their own lives? Do we hesitate when we see that Heavenly Father invests faith in someone else that we may doubt? Do we ever say of someone we know, “I cannot speak to him or her about the Church because he/she would NEVER accept the truth I have come to understand” and refuse to give that person a chance to prove us wrong?
17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.
18 And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.
19 And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.
20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.
21 But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?
22 But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ.
When Saul was doubted by those that knew of his past, he redoubled his efforts to teach others about Christ, improving his world and changing himself. And eventually, his name changed from Saul to Paul, and he became not just a disciple, but an Apostle for the Lord. And because of Paul, we have almost all of the New Testament, in the form of letters and teachings to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians; the Hebrews, Philippians, Thessalonians and Colossians. He was a great teacher, an essential pioneer in the hands of the Lord, and a great example to us in this day on how to be a more saintly society, a people of pioneers in body, mind, and spirit.
I have a great testimony of the changes that we take upon ourselves when we become members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the fullest of our abilities. These changes we are making are essential to reach our fullest potential, and to achieve the greatest good.
I testify of the Word of Wisdom, and the changes it has allowed me to make in my own life. I did not always feel this way. Although my attraction to the Church was instantaneous, my willingness to be obedient was not. I drank coffee and tea, I had my ears pierced multiple times, I wanted tattoos, I ate what I wanted, wore clothes that did not get me much respect, and I viewed my body as something that I could use and abuse in any way I wished because it was mine. This I did, for many, many years and yet I saw no reason why I should change. I did not see how these sacrifices were connected to becoming a better person. But I knew the Church was true, and that meant ALL of the Church—every part—and to be a convert meant I was going to have to be a pioneer about this part too. And as I took each change, studied it, applied it to my life, and disciplined myself to seek the value in what I was being taught, I found the wisdom of the Almighty in every commandment. By obeying the Word of Wisdom, committing to the Law of Chastity, and challenging my perception of my body, I had to face appetites within myself that had always controlled me, and I learned I had the power to fight back. I learned that before I could make any other changes to my life, before I could even think of teaching the Gentiles like Saul, I had to stop acting like one of them because it wasn’t enough anymore.
But dealing with physical appetites is only the gateway to the challenges of becoming the kind of mental pioneer Church members have to be in these latter days. In order to be pioneers of mind, we take upon ourselves two essential tasks: the discipline of our thoughts, and the pursuit of knowledge. By the time we face our physical appetites, we discover that we must be aware of all of our thoughts all of the time in order to control them. We have been instructed by numberless prophets, apostles, local leaders, and brethren of all ages, from all ages, to beware of the things we put inside of our heads. We have been cautioned about our language, our music, our literature, and anything that engages our mind because of how difficult our thoughts are to control, and how permanent can be the damage to them. And we might think, “That’s easy for a bunch of old men to say. They were born into completely different circumstances than me. How could anyone so out of touch understand my pain?” I spoke to a member of the Church not long ago who said he was embarrassed to have to introduce his friends to our Church because it is led by a bunch of old, white men. But rather than judge him harshly, I decided to go out of my way to prove him wrong. I found something that is a little long, but I want to share it in its entirety because it shows that even our prophets share in the challenges they invite us to face today. The following was written by President Spencer W. Kimball:
"No peace had yet come, though I had prayed for it almost unceasingly. . . . I turned toward the hills. I had no objective. I wanted only to be alone. I had begun a fast. . . . My weakness overcame me again. Hot tears came flooding down my cheeks as I made no effort to mop them up. I was accusing myself, and condemning myself and upbraiding myself. I was praying aloud for special blessings from the Lord. I was telling him that I had not asked for this position, that I was incapable of doing the work, that I was imperfect and weak and human, that I was unworthy of so noble a calling, though I had tried hard and my heart had been right. I knew that I must have been at least partly responsible for offenses and misunderstandings which a few people fancied they had suffered at my hands. I realized that I had been petty and small many times.
I did not spare myself. A thousand things passed through my mind. Was I called by revelation? . . .
If I could only have the assurance that my call had been inspired most of my other worries would be dissipated. . . .I knew that I must have His acceptance before I could go on. I stumbled up the hill and onto the mountain, as the way became rough. I faltered some as the way became steep. No paths were there to follow; I climbed on and on. Never had I prayed before as I now prayed. What I wanted and felt I must have was an assurance that I was acceptable to the Lord. I told Him that I neither wanted nor was worthy of a vision or appearance of angels or any special manifestation. I wanted only the calm peaceful assurance that my offering was accepted. Never before had I been tortured as I was now being tortured. And the assurance did not come. . . .
I mentally beat myself and chastised myself and accused myself. As the sun came up and moved in the sky I moved with it, lying in the sun, and still I received no relief. I sat up on the cliff and strange thoughts came to me: all this anguish and suffering could be ended so easily from this high cliff and then came to my mind the temptations of the Master when he was tempted to cast Himself down--then I was ashamed for having placed myself in a comparable position and trying to be dramatic. . . . I was filled with remorse because I had permitted myself to place myself . . . in a position comparable, in a small degree, to the position the Saviour found Himself in when He was tempted, and . . . I felt I had cheapened the experiences of the Lord, having compared mine with His. Again I challenged myself and told myself that I was only trying to be dramatic and sorry for myself.
. . . I lay on the cool earth. The thought came that I might take cold, but what did it matter now. There was one great desire, to get a testimony of my calling, to know that it was not human and inspired by ulterior motives, kindly as they might be. How I prayed! How I suffered! How I wept! How I struggled!"
In this excerpt, we see a Prophet of the Lord have to endure what many of us have to do on a regular, maybe even a daily basis. We find ourselves overcome with negative thoughts in which we question our ability to face the responsibilities Heavenly Father has given us. But the Holy Spirit tries to reach out to us, reminding us of the truth we may have forgotten in a moment of frustration or despair. We are invited to remember that God does not expect us to do anything alone. Like President Kimball, we have the choice to remember all we have been taught—that we are precious sons and daughters of a great promise, that we have power and potential beyond our ability to imagine. It is true that we have many tasks ahead of us in the days to come, but we cannot afford for the Adversary to plant fear, doubt, and lies in our minds… because if you let him, he’ll be able to reach out and touch your heart, and he’ll be able to take anything and everything from you then. Discipline your minds; do not let him get that close to you, my wonderful brothers and sisters. Have the courage to face his lies and deceptions and say, “For Zion’s sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth.”
But in a society that turns parents against their children and children against their parents, that praises those who share hatred, but not faith, that teaches Man to love himself instead of others, and that money—not knowledge—is power, it can be hard to navigate the pessimism of the natural man today. And when we keep the standards of the Lord, it can feel as if we have lost our place in this world. I literally watched as my friends and family pulled away from me because they had an idea in their heads of what they thought a Mormon was, and I guess they feared that what I knew was contagious somehow. My mother tried to sabotage my efforts of coming into the Church. I would go to school, and my teachers would treat me differently because of what I am. They treated my principles like they didn’t matter, and would make jokes and accusations about the Church in front of me because they didn’t know what else to do. I would come home, and because of Mitt Romney, or the Fundamentalists in Texas, or even that LDS guy on American Idol, suddenly everybody was an expert on the Church, what we think and who we are. News analysts, journalists, and documentarians who don’t even know us try to speak for the Church and for us. They mock us for our faith in our prophets, and they treat the most sacred aspects of our religion with scorn and disrespect. They use our own history against us, twisting facts to sell stories and attract viewers. And the chilling part of all this is that it works.
And we could turn a blind eye to the way we are treated. But that is no longer enough, which is why Elder Ballard has encouraged us to join the conversations that take place about us, especially on the internet. He realizes that for many of us, this is asking us to face reservations we may have about speaking to others about the gospel. This is asking us to commit to being well-versed with our scriptures, our doctrine, and our history down to the most specific details because that is what it will take to undo the damage that has been done.
I testify that if we will be willing to be vessels for the truths we’ve been taught, we can and will change the way people see us. My mother went from trying to chase me out of the Church to defending me from others at graduation parties and family functions. My friends respect me for the sacrifices that I’ve made for my faith, and they now feel comfortable enough with me to express their desires to have more faith in their own lives, which has opened the door for missionary opportunities—just like we’ve been taught to expect.
We are taught to be pioneers in our minds because it allows the truth to sink deep into our souls where it cannot be touched by doubt and deception. We will be blessed to feel more secure in ourselves, and this peace of mind will show in everything we do. Only then will we truly begin to approach the spiritual richness of being a Latter-day Saint.
When we act in a way that reflects our divine nature in the truest sense, we approach the holiness that is our potential. We become pioneers for the Lord, with hearts so fertile, He can plant any truth or commandment inside of them, and obedience will grow. That kind of faith is difficult even for Saints with strong testimonies to achieve. Elder Gerald N. Lund spoke in April’s General Conference about God’s relationship with our hearts and spirits, saying,
“The Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit, which allows Him to dwell in our hearts and communicate directly with our spirits...
The heart is a tender place. It is sensitive to many influences, both positive and negative. It can be hurt by others. It can be deadened by sin. It can be softened by love. Early in our lives, we learn to guard our hearts. It is like we erect a fence around our hearts with a gate in it. No one can enter that gate unless we allow him or her to.
In some cases the fence we erect around our hearts could be likened to a small picket fence with a Welcome sign on the gate. Other hearts have been so hurt or so deadened by sin that they have an eight-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire around them. The gate is padlocked and has a large No Trespassing sign on it.
Individual agency is so sacred that Heavenly Father will never force the human heart, even with all His infinite power. Man may try to do so, but God does not. To put it another way, God allows us to be the guardians, or the gatekeepers, of our own hearts. We must, of our own free will, open our hearts to the Spirit, for He will not force Himself upon us.”
Are we preparing our spirits to meet our Heavenly Father? Are we taking advantage of the opportunities we have been given to face our fears, to become the pioneers we covenanted to become when we were baptized? I encourage us all to ask ourselves those questions the next time we feel lost, afraid, alone, or broken. I pray we will remember that “the Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit” because he doesn’t ask us to be perfect. On the contrary, he invites us to be broken because:
“It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume… it is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.”
When we become converts and pioneers for the Lord, there will be times when it seems like a never-ending test. You encourage yourself to move forward in good faith, but it feels like you’ll always have your back to the sunrise like the pioneers did as they moved West… having only the sun as a guarantee as it dips below the horizon in front of them, and the choice they’ll have to make the next morning. Do we turn our backs on another sunrise and keep going, or take the easy route and return to the life we lived before, and everything we had instead of the truth? And I agree with Sister Vance when she said that being a convert isn’t easy. It’s not. But every part of the experience is necessary, and it brings us all to a realization that is crucial for any Latter-day Saint.
We are a people that will always know great sacrifices, and we cannot be afraid of change. Changes in ourselves, changes in our lives, in our world, in the people around us, and in the things we love and cherish. We may not pull handcarts, or walk across plains, over mountains, and through valleys anymore, but I trust we’ve all felt the struggles of the pioneers in our own ways. We marvel at their strength for all they have achieved, but we cannot allow ourselves to doubt the value of the work we have been given in our own day, and the accomplishments we’ve already made. We must embrace change, because despite what people think about our conservative way of life, our principles and standards bring about the only change worth embracing—the change that brings humanity’s best efforts back into this world, and preserves the goodness of the Lord in the hearts of His children.
That is what it means to be a pioneer today.
In closing, I want to bear my testimony that I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church of God, the only one of its kind upon the earth. I testify of Joseph Smith, our beloved prophet, and the divine origins of his mission. I testify of the Restoration that he gave his life to preserve. I testify of our scriptures, the Bible and the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. As powerful as they have been through time, they will continue to bless us with understanding and truth. And finally, I testify of you brothers and sisters, and the goodness of your hearts. I have not known many of you for very long, but I embrace you all as my Church family, and I pray that you always know how much our Heavenly Father loves you.
Peace be with you all this day, in the name of Jesus Christ. AMEN.