Given in the Worcester Ward, Cheltenham England Stake on 12.v.2013 and heavily indebted to Lowell Bennion’s “What it means to be a Christian.”
I should like to add my voice of praise to the young men who have spoken to us today and also to their leaders, who serve them so selflessly. My talk today is directed towards these young people, among whose number is my own son. President Hinckley used to say that the purpose of the church is to make bad men good and good men better. Here are six things that I think, if followed, will make the youth — and indeed all of us — better Christians. In preparing this short talk, I have been influenced by Mormon writer and educator Lowell Bennion and I shall frequently be quoting from him.
1. Be grateful.
Life is a gift. In fact, most of the things that really matter come to us freely. Our mortal lives and the hope of eternal life are freely given. In my work with young people I have noticed that those who most impress are those who are aware of how fortunate they are. Be grateful and give back.
2. Follow Jesus.
Many people ask, “What is God like?” We already have our answer: “Jesus taught and exemplified the real values of life as no other person has done. He revealed the character and will of God.” In our devotional lives there is nothing better that we can do than study and apply the teachings of Jesus.
3. Have concern for people.
We are here to serve people not programmes or institutions or things. Notice how Jesus was interested in people, particularly the alienated of society and those we would consider to be sinners. He respected the law but did not make it an end to be served. He forgave the sinner, healed on the Sabbath and spoke out against those more devoted to rules than to people. “Even the Church is an instrument to bless people. It is not an end in itself. Man was not made for the Church, but the Church was made for people. We should not serve the Church, but rather people through the Church.” Be kind, don’t be self-righteous, and have mercy on those who “sin differently” than you do.
4. Place value on the truly valuable.
We frequently tell the youth that they need to get a good education and work hard so that they can live with economic dignity when they are older. These are tough times and they need every competitive advantage they can get, but it is one thing to put a roof over your head and to not have to worry about how you are going to pay the bills every month, it is another to be obsessed by material possessions. We are all guilty to some extent, judging by some of the cars in the car park and the electronic gadgetry on our laps. Make no mistake: these are luxuries. Have them if you must, but remember that the Christian will not “live in luxury while a third of mankind go to bed hungry . . . ” Be generous with your time and your money when you get it.
5. Have faith in God.
I like Psalm 73 (v. 26): “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Confidence that God is there, that he loves us and that our lives have eternal meaning ought to inspire us to give up worldly things in favour of divine things: faith, hope, and above all, charity.
6. Stop trying to be perfect.
What I am about to say might be misconstrued, so I hope I come across the way I intend. Jesus told us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48). You know the scripture: “Be ye therefore perfect.” The wish to be perfect — laudable though it is — really needs to be handled carefully. I had a Mormon friend who used to fill-in a form every night before he went to bed with the title “The Way to Perfection.” It had boxes to tick listing all the things a “perfect” person should do and a space to list all the sins that had spoiled his perfection that day. Again, I do not want to detract from the impulse to improve ourselves, to do good things and to avoid the bad, but I think this was a mistaken way to go about it.
For one thing, it risks becoming self-centred, as if life is all about you. Rather than obsess about himself, my friend should probably have been doing the washing up for his mum or reading his younger sister a bedtime story. It’s difficult to sin when you are serving others. Remember what Jesus said, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).
I also agree with Brother Bennion: “I think you are bound to fail if you try to be perfect as a human being, and you will have a sense of guilt, a sense of shame. You will be burdened with failure.” Many of our young people feel like this. Listen to me carefully: you will make many mistakes in your life and there isn’t anything you can do to stop it. Go out and serve others and you will hopefully simply make fewer mistakes. And remember, imperfection added to perfection is perfection. In other words, Christ has already made you perfect so stop worrying about it. His parable in Luke 18: 10-14 ought to stop us religious people in our tracks:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
It’s tough being a youth in this church but the young men sitting behind me, and the young women in the congregation (whose own achievements we really need to celebrate more often) are doing a great job. Have a think about these six things — be grateful, follow Jesus, have concern for people, place value on the truly valuable, have faith in God, stop trying to be perfect — and may God bless you.