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Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Unchanging Standards of the Gospel by Julie L. Spencer


Let me assure you that I am not quoting Dieter F. Uchtdorf when I tell you this story about an airplane manufacturer! For those of you who don’t know, President Uchtdorf used to be an airline pilot and is now one of the prophets of our Church. Whenever he speaks in church he tells stories about airplanes. The story I’m going to share was taken from an article written by Elder Allan F. Packer of the Quorum of the Seventy called ‘Heavenly Father’s Fixed Standards.

Elder Packer writes “My first job out of college was working for a major airplane manufacturer. While there I learned to make airplanes that were safe, the company had specifications for every part. The parts had to be certified as meeting all standards, including shape, size, materials, and tolerances.

“If a part met the standards, it would be placed in inventory for building an airplane. If it didn’t meet the standards, the part would be rejected and returned to the supplier. Suppliers of parts were careful to understand and meet all of the requirements, including the tolerances.

“Would you willingly ride in an airplane made with substandard parts? Of course not! You would want the parts to exceed the standard. Some people, however, appear to be willing to embrace substandard behavior in their lives. But only by knowing, understanding, and living the doctrine of Christ can you adopt the behavior needed to qualify for exaltation.

“Tolerance is a word that is heard frequently in society today, usually in the context of tolerating or accepting other people’s cultures or behavior. Sometimes it is used by people wanting acceptance to do something without consideration of its impact on society or others. My purpose is not to talk about that definition but to focus on the engineering definition of the word and its application for us.

Tolerance is used to define acceptable variations from a defined standard. In a manufactured part, the tolerance might be specified to be five inches long, plus or minus a thousandth of an inch. Another part might be defined to be made of a certain material that is 99.9% pure, like gold bars. The Lord has set tolerances to help us qualify for exaltation.”

I have a confession to make. I love reading Twilight novels. I know that probably shocks some of you (can you hear the sarcasm dripping from my so-called confession?). There are four rather thick novels in the series, plus a small novella that goes along with the third book, an unfinished fifth manuscript that you can read online on theauthor’s website, and an official illustrated guide that goes along with the series. Other than the study guide (which I’ve read once and shared a series of book reviews for it), I have read the novels about twenty times (I know, I know, it’s embarrassing!).

But, in an effort to redeem myself, let me tell you about another study guide that I use nearly every day: the Old Testament Student Manual covering Genesis-2 Samuel. If you attended Brigham Young University you could actually take this as a class called Religion 301. I have also read The Book of Mormon Study Manual, the Doctrineand Covenants Study Manual, and the Church History Study Manual. I’m working my way through the Old Testament and then I’ll start in on the New Testament.

I know from experience that these things take time. I’m not just reading this manual, I’m using it as a study tool to learn what the prophets have taught about the details of the scriptures, the cross references, the history and languages and cultures that surrounded the writing of these scriptures. I know that this manual will take me several years to get through, even if I study with it every single day.

So, one morning at breakfast I closed the manual and with an exasperated sigh said to the kids “ugh, this is going to take me five years to get through!” C.j. (my sixteen-year-old who was a few years younger at the time) looked right at me and, without hesitation, asked me “how come it takes you five years to read the scriptures but a day & a half to read a Twilight novel?” I didn’t have a really good answer for that! What I do know is that this study manual teaches me things that I didn’t even know that I needed to know. Last week when I was reading about a particularly confusing passage in Leviticus, I came across the following clarification that really struck me as applicable to a lot of things in today’s society. It reads:

Many things in God’s laws are puzzling at first but become clear and understandable upon further investigation. Some laws however seem to have no key at present for its correct interpretation. But these laws were not the product of man’s attitudes, but were direct revelation for the Lord! Speculation on why the Lord revealed different requirements is pointless until further revelation is received on the matter.

Many things in the ancient laws have changed over time such as the requirement for men to never cut their sideburns or how many steps away from your home you were allowed to walk on the Sabbath, but God’s standards have not changed. The evidence of this is all throughout the scriptures: Moses came down out of the mountain to find the people sinning and asked God to forgive them.

In Exodus 32:33 we read “And the Lord said unto Moses Whosoever hath sinned against me, him will I blot out of my book…nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them…and the Lord plagued the people.”

That’s nothing compared to the days of Noah when the people were so sinful that God flooded the whole earth. In other parts of the scriptures, God sent prophets to warn the people to repent: Jonah was sent to warn the people in Nineveh lest they be destroyed, and Lehi cried repentance to the people of Jerusalem before he left and took his family away into the wilderness to avoid being killed. We have prophets on the earth today, and I wonder: are we listening to their warnings?

Sometimes it feels that the world is upside down right now! But in 2 Nephi 15:20 we read “wo unto them that call evil good, and good evil, that put darkness for light, and light for darkness, that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!”

I’ve been asked by someone very close to me: “Why do you care? This (meaning other people’s unrighteous living) doesn’t affect you and any way!”

Oh, but it does! The spread of evil affects everyone, because it lower’s society’s standards to a point that they are lower than God’s standards. If Satan can get society to agree that evil is good and good is evil than he can encourage more and more people to follow him.

Satan is miserable and he wants everyone else to be just as miserable as he is, so he uses our weaknesses against us. He finds the chinks in our armor and shoots his arrows right into our hearts. He uses our bodies against us because he knows that our bodies will naturally be drawn to experiences that make us feel good. Food, drinks, drugs & medications that stimulate our minds & bodies, or that calm our minds and bodies, things on television that are entertaining – laughing in particular makes us feel good because it releases endorphins, so if Satan can make society perceive evil things as funny, he can get us smiling and laughing as we’re hearing or seeing inappropriate things.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on physical relationships because this isn’t the correct audience, but Satan knows what feels good to our bodies and he uses that to his advantage! God made our bodies this way, and physical relationships are meant to bring great joy and satisfaction into our lives. But Satan knows that our bodies will respond to any external stimulation whether that’s something on television, in a magazine, something we hear or see or witness…or something that happens with another person!

Satan has twisted these things to make us believe that if it feels good, it must be good, but that’s just not true. That is why it’s so important for us to turn to God’s words when choosing how to live our lives and not just relying on what feels good to our bodies. God has laid out a road map for us to live by and given it to us in a way that we can understand it…if we choose to learn it.

I’m not just talking about reading the scriptures. Not all of us in this world even know how to read. But the church has set up programs to teach us right from wrong even from a very young age.  

The songs we teach the Primary children drill the Gospel standards into the children’s minds so that they can draw on them when they’re older. The ‘For the Strength of Youth pamphlet’ lays out a very clear description of right and wrong. Our Sunday school classes are also part of that road map.

We don’t just attend church or Sunday school once in our lives and then we know everything God wants us to know. We go and learn his teachings over and over again so that we can know right from wrong.

But even if we’ve never been taught right from wrong, we inherently know right from wrong and we feel it in our hearts when something we’re doing is wrong. If we are truly listening to the Spirit of God, we will realize deep in our hearts if something we’re doing is okay in God’s eyes – in His standards!

In the Primary song: ‘I Will Follow God’s Plan for Me’ We are affirming that we will take these principles of the Gospel and we will go out into the world and live according to that plan because we know that it will bring happiness. Songs like this paired with lessons we learn in Sunday school have powerful impact on our lives!

Let me read you some of the words from that song: “I will follow God’s plan for me, holding fast to His word and His love. I will work, and I will pray; I will always walk in His way. Then I will be happy on earth, and in my home above.”

Some of the lessons that the little kids learn in Sunday school are taught include the following: ‘Jesus Christ Wants Us to Love Everyone,’ ‘I Can Be Pure and Righteous,’ and ‘Jesus Christ Performed Miracles.

Some of the lessons that the teenagers learn include: ‘Becoming More Christ-like,’ ‘Marriage and Family,’ and ‘The Plan of Salvation.

Some of the lessons the adults are taught include: ‘Keep the Ordinances as I Delivered Them,’ ‘I Can Do All Things through Christ,’ and ‘Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God’.

These lessons are part of God's plan and part of his road map. As the song reminds us: they will bring happiness on earth and in heaven.

Going back to the article from Elder Packer, we read: “God has established what we must do and the standards we must meet. Something quite remarkable is that He gives us the moral agency to decide whether to accept and meet those standards. However, there are consequences to our decisions. He gave us agency, but He does not give us the authority to change the standards or the consequences of our decisions.

“Because there are standards and because we have agency to choose, there is a Final Judgment, at which time each of us will be reviewed to see if we meet the standards – in other words, to see if we have lived within the standards and tolerances God has defined. His judgment will be final.

“The doctrine of repentance allows us to correct or fix defects, but it is better to focus on meeting God’s standards than to plan on invoking the principle of repentance before the judgment.”

Elder Packer gave us his definition of tolerances. I want to share a definition for the word Standard.

My favorite dictionary is the Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus. I know you probably think I’m weird to have a favorite dictionary, but this one is special because years ago I began marking a little dot next to any word I looked up for any reason. Sometimes it’s to confirm the spelling of a word, sometimes it’s to clarify something about a word, and sometimes it’s to find a replacement for a word that I use too often in my writing and need a synonym for it (hence the need for the thesaurus!).

There are several definitions for each word, usually because some words can be used as a noun or a verb or an adjective or an adverb, and they all have different meanings. So, one of the definitions for Standard is that it is a flag or an ensign. Kind of fitting since the article I’ve been quoting is out of a magazine called the Ensign, but that’s not really the definition I’m seeking. So, there are the other three definitions I want to focus on:

Standard – (flag or ensign) 1. a measure serving as a basis or example or principle by which others are judged. 2. the degree of excellence required for a particular purpose. 3. Having recognized and permanent value, authoritative.

Let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about the difference between what I call ‘man-made rules’ and compare them to God’s standards. As far back as we can read in the scriptures, many things have changed and man-made rules have come & gone, but the standards remain the same.

Although I don’t work for the federal government, I work inside a government building. I work for the Gratiot Conservation District. Almost every county in the United States has a conservation district, sometimes referred to as a ‘soil and water conservation district’ and most of these are housed within a USDA Service Center. Inside each service center there are usually four entities: Farm Service Agency, Farm Credit Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Services (or NRCS), and that county’s conservation district. The conservation district office is usually within the NRCS office and we work very closely together.

Because we are located inside the NRCS office, we have to follow all of NRCS Standards & Specifications. It gets annoying, but when a farmer who has never done any erosion controls on his property suddenly wants to start, there are scientific ways that the erosion controls need to be installed in order for them to work (much like building an airplane but a lot less important).

Flip that around to the nit-picky stuff in the federal government. Sometimes I joke that I have to ask permission from NRCS in order to blow my nose, but it’s not far from the truth with things like the storage room in our office. The storage room is used by permission from NRCS, and my conservation district is or is not allowed to use it depending on who’s in charge on their side of the office, and whether or not that person happens to be mad at me that day!

They’ve had a lot of turnover in their side of the office and when a new person comes in and starts trying to boss us around, it doesn’t go over very well. We are usually a great team in our office but I get really defensive if someone comes in and starts trying to boss my employees around and equally as annoyed if someone tries to boss me around.

Right now I have boxes and boxes of stuff that are stacked all around my desk area (office supplies, books and other items that are inventory that’s for sale, outdated files that legally have to be kept for seven years, supplies for our tree sale that only happens twice a year – that kind of thing). When someone new takes over on the NRCS side of the office, that person usually tells me that I can just move all that stuff into the storage room! Then someone else will take over and try to boss me around like I’m their receptionist instead of the administrator (which I really don’t like) and suddenly there’s a need to get ‘my’ stuff out of ‘their’ storage room and so it all gets moved back out and stacked around my desk!

Well we just got another new person again and she told me that I could use the storage room and I told her “no, thank you.” I don’t have time to keep moving all of my boxes. So for now I just work in a little cave surrounded by stacks of boxes. Luckily it’s still a corner office with a view out of two windows, one of which overlooks a beautiful grassy field where deer come to bounce around and play!

But one thing I did in that federal building could have potentially gotten me in a lot of trouble! Apparently I committed a felony during the government shut-down a few years ago when I went into my office to grab some files that I needed. Was I warned ahead of time that I wasn’t allowed to do that? Yes! In writing multiple times as well as verbally! But the silly people gave me a key – what we they thinking!?! My conservation district doesn’t close just because the federal government does and I had to run my business while the government officials in Washington D.C. got their act together. This is where consequences could have really messed me up! I probably could have been fined or received jail time! Thankfully I was forgiven and given a pass…this time.

We too can be forgiven by God for the big things we do wrong as well as the little things.

I do feel sometimes like some of the man-made rules in the church are a bit nit-picky (like the storage room in my office), but those rules are there for a reason. It’s usually because procedures help us all to do things in a uniform manner so that everyone in the Church knows what’s expected of them. I can’t tell you how many times in the 18 ½ years since I was baptized that I’ve been told that I’m not supposed to do ‘this’ or ‘that’ because this or that manual tells us how the Church wants it to be done. I sometimes roll my eyes, shake my head and try to do it ‘the right way’ and kind of grumble to myself about what a silly rule it is!

Sometimes these rules change with the times. I’m sure that the rules that helped guide the pioneers safely out to the Salt Lake Valley are quite different than the rules about which websites are allowed to be access using the church’s Wifi.

But the standards of the Gospel don’t change. It was wrong to murder someone back in the 1800’s just like it’s wrong to murder someone today. Maybe that’s an extreme example, but it’s an example of some of God’s laws that don’t change with the times and don’t change according to pressures from special interest groups or what’s considered politically correct. What’s wrong according to God’s laws is still what’s wrong according to God’s laws.

Brother Glenn Beck mentioned on his radio talk show this week that he had an epiphany while he was off on sick leave this past month. Glenn Beck joined the Church in 1999 after he was already quite famous as a radio talk show host and author. He now owns his own internet news station and has a daily radio and television show. I listen to him frequently, but not every day. He’s kind of extreme and a little crazy, but so am I so who am I to judge. Anyway, back to his epiphany.

He said that he’s decided there is no way we can fix this country politically. He told his listeners that we could change every leader in Washington D.C. and we will still be in trouble as a country until we change ourselves.

Coming back from a four-week doctor prescribed ‘vacation’ he said he has a more clear understanding of what will work and what won’t work. He says “our problems stem from us!” and the reason he believes that is that while he was gone he got all his news from Facebook. He didn’t check any network news, no Drudge Report, no newspapers or magazines, not even the news network or website that he owns. He says he got all his news from ‘you’ (meaning his listeners, friends and family on Facebook) and he decided that this is where everyone else gets their news as well.

So he decided to evaluate what is trending on Facebook and ponder what people are reading about. The stories he got were telling about the American culture: Planned Parenthood and Cecil the Lion. There was also the shooting in Tennessee, but those were the only stories that he saw come to the forefront. He said that he realized that the problem is within us, but so is the solution!

He said that the world is suffering from a real illness that stems from peoples lack of faith in the individual and faith in God. He said that there is no political solution, no financial solution, nor military solution. He quoted Gandhi and told his listeners what Gandhi said about Christians: that there is so much dynamite in the New Testament of the Bible that it could shake the foundations of the western world, if not the whole world, that there’s enough dynamite in the New Testament to revolutionize everything, but Christians just won’t see it or just won’t do it.

Brother Beck said that maybe the solution is so simple, so easy, that we either fail to recognize it or fail to see that it actually has power because we’ve become disillusioned.

But it’s the only thing that you can actually change, and that’s you! You can’t control others, you can’t control situations. You sometimes can’t even control yourself. But, he said, living a set of principles does change the world, and changing you as an individual changes the world. He then shared a bit of history.

He talked about how ancient cities all had walls to defend themselves, and that if a city didn’t have a wall, it would be overtaken by the enemy and torn apart. He talked about how the walls are much easier to defend than to rebuild, but that it is possible. So he told a little tale about a leader of a city going to one guy, we’ll call him Ted for now. This leader goes to Ted and says: could you just rebuild this little section of the wall behind your house? Then he goes to Phil next door and says: can you rebuild this little section of the wall behind your house? And he continues all the way around the city until he has talked to every person who lives next to the edge of the city and pretty soon the whole wall has been rebuilt because each person just focused on his little section of the wall.

I (Julie) sometimes feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. I wish I could wave a magic wand and fix all the problems of the world. I wish I could provide food for the hungry and water to the people in the desert who are thirsty, and jobs for the people who can’t find them, and treatments for every illness. But, I can’t and nor should I. I can only focus on my little section of the wall – my little corner of the world!

I used to question how my job is important to the world and then I saw the news story about the city of Toledo last summer when they had so much algal bloom in their water that they couldn’t even draw drinking water out of it for. Drinking water is the most important thing in the world. We, as humans, can survive without a lot of things, but not without water. I promise that if the internet stops working, you will live through it. If they stop making Twinkies, you will live through it. If you don’t have drinking water, it won’t be long before you will not be able to sustain life. So, that makes what I do for a living one of the most important jobs around.

How does preventing soil erosion in central Michigan prevent algal blooms in Toledo, you ask? Fair question. Everything we do on the land affects the water, and we are headwaters of three watersheds. Gratiot County is not just the geographic center of Michigan, but it’s also a high point at which all water flows away from a central point. Kind of like the tip of a mountain, except it’s a very small mountain that is barely detectable without a GPS unit. What we do in central Michigan affects a lot of people and saving sediment and nutrients (like agricultural runoff and failing septic systems) from entering the water helps to provide fresh water for people downstream.

Our water flows into the Saginaw Bay, into Lake Huron, and eventually down to Lake Erie where it could theoretically affect the City of Toledo! I don’t think that we actually caused their problems, but hopefully you can see my point. I can’t solve the problems of the world, but I can help in my little corner of the world. I can rebuild my section of the fence!

One of my philosophies in life, and one of my goals, is to live my life in a way in which I am learning and growing everyday. I know that I’m not perfect, but I also know that I don’t have to use my imperfections to dismiss or excuse my behavior.

In John 8:7 in the New Testament we are taught the story of the woman who was taken in adultery and brought before Jesus for judgment. We often use that story as a means of teaching that none of us is perfect because we focus on the sentence: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”

But, Jesus didn’t say to her ‘It’s okay that you’re sinning. I understand that you just wanted to live your life freely and go out and experience the exciting things in life and be free to explore and experiment.”

No, He said: “Go, and sin no more.”

Elder Packer summed it up like this: “We must not be deceived or give heed to those who would attempt to convince us that God’s standards have changed. They (people) have no authority to change the standards. Only the designer, Heavenly Father can change the specifications.

“All of us easily recognize how ridiculous it would be for a supplier of airplane parts to listen to some uninformed individual who promotes making changes to the specifications or tolerances of a part. None of us would want to fly in an airplane manufactured with such a part.

“Likewise, no one can accuse an airplane manufacturer of being unthoughtful or intolerant when it rejects such parts. The manufacturer would not allow itself to be intimidated or bullied into accepting parts that could not be certified. To do so would jeopardize its business and the lives of the passengers who might fly in its airplanes.

“The same is true with God’s laws and commandments. His standards are fixed, and no on can change them. Individuals who think they can will be greatly surprised in the Final Judgment.”

I want to live my life in a way that is pleasing to the Lord, and I know that I sin way more than I want to. I am weak. I need the atonement and forgiveness that Jesus promised me. Every day I want to get just a little bit better at staying true to God’s standards. I want to do as He taught: to go…and sin no more.

I say these things in the name of my Savior and your Savior, even Jesus Christ. Amen.

What's your opinion about the unchanging standards of the gospel? -Julie L. Spencer

Click here to read the entire article from the August, 2015 Ensign. Scroll down and click on 'Download the August Issue.'

Click here to listen to podcasts of Glenn Beck's radio program. The podcast I was quoting from was broadcast on 8/4/15.

For more information about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, go to Mormon.org.