Sunday Sermon: “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs”

I spoke on the assigned topic, “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs,” today in my Salt Lake City ward. 

0301-dream-james

A boy’s depiction of the tree of life, including the mists of darkness.

We don’t have a written record of the prayer Joseph Smith offered in a grove of trees in the spring of 1820, when the Father and the Son appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven. But we’re fortunate to have the words of another prayer the Prophet offered, a prayer much more troubling, a prayer we’ve all become familiar with since it was placed in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants:

“O God, where are you? And where is the pavilion that covers your hiding place? How long will you stay your hand, and your pure eyes behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of your people and your ear be penetrated with their cries? O Lord, how long will they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions before your heart will soften toward them, and your bowels be moved with compassion toward them? O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of everything in them—stretch forth your hand; let your eye pierce; let your pavilion be taken up; let your hiding place no longer be covered; let your ear be inclined; let your heart be softened, and your bowels moved with compassion toward us” (D&C 121:1-4).1

I imagine it was cold the day Joseph dictated this prayer to God in the middle of a letter to the Latter-day Saints who were being driven from their homes in Missouri. Joseph and a few other friends described the ironically named Liberty Jail as a “hell surrounded with demons.”2 There was no pillar of light, but the Spirit whispered to the Prophet that his troubles would continue for an unspecified season. It was one of the darkest times in Joseph’s life. Ten thousand Mormons who believed his revelations, who forsook friends, family and homes to gather to a new promised land, were being forced to flee in the middle of the winter. . Despite our faith-promoting histories of these events, the saints weren’t free of fault in these troubles, but nothing could have warranted this forced mass exodus. What about the revelations? What happened to their Promised Land? Joseph, their prophet, couldn’t find God at the moment he most needed him. Some of the saints later described following bloody footprints in the snow.3

I was asked to speak about “How we can rely on the Lord for all of our needs.” How can we rely on the Lord for all our needs? Should we? It’s a difficult question. In fact, I should confess that I don’t often feel like the Lord is providing me with all my needs. You might call it ingratitude, or a lack of faith on my part. My mom has the kind of faith that helps her see the hand of God in all things, but that’s a spiritual gift I haven’t been blessed with. Maybe a few of you feel like I do. It’s not that I don’t feel grateful to God for the many things I’ve been blessed with, it’s that I have a difficult time knowing when God is involved in the process, and there are times when I don’t feel my needs are met and when no number of prayers can help.

I don’t frequently feel like I’m seeing the whole picture. The prayer I offer, when I can bring myself to offer it, is like our hymn that says “Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th’encircling gloom, lead Thou me on! The night is dark, and I am far from home, lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene—one step enough for me.” Even that one step, though, sometimes takes place in darkness. So I try to step anyway, or other times I falter. Why can’t I feel God’s hand guiding me on, lighting the path?

There’s a passage in the gospel of Matthew that I tend to fall back on:

“Beware of practicing your charity before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they’ve received their reward. But when you give alms, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (NRSV Matthew 6:1-4).

Jesus warns his disciples against ostentatious displays of good works, he says they should serve without the need for open recognition. I figure if anyone is good at pulling this off, it has to be God. So that’s one reason I’m still standing here, still trusting and worshipping God even though I’m unsure about how much my blessings can be directly attributed to God. There are too many people worse off than I am—too many people better than I am and more faithful, with more difficulties—for me to feel like I’ve earned anything special. When it comes down to it, my belief in Heavenly Father—however imperfect—does something more for me than provide for all my needs. More often I find myself surrounded by inscrutable blessings and curses, and I feel like Job, who said “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gives, and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I’m uncertain I can blame God for the bad any more than I can be assured he’s directly caused the good. Maybe you feel like I do.

Think again of that passage in Matthew, Jesus is speaking of doing good works, asking his disciples to love one another, to serve one another. During his mortal ministry he couldn’t provide for everyone’s needs, and he sometimes even outsourced his work blessing others to his disciples, even though they sometimes stumbled (Mark 9:28-29). When I stop to think about it, this is the most obvious way I’ve seen the hand of God working in my life after all. Jesus said “As I have loved you, so should you love each other. This is the way to let your light shine, this is how people will know you’re my disciples.” Tertullian, one of the early Christian Fathers writing in the first century after Jesus died, put it this way: “[When] thou hast seen a brother, thou hast seen thy Lord.”4 According to Tertullian, seeing the face of another person is like seeing the face of the Lord. This puts a different emphasis than we’re accustomed to noticing in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We see the face of God in the face of another, in the face of those we serve and those who serve us. President Harold B. Lee put it like this: “You can see only that which you have eyes to see… Only if you are the pure in heart will you see God, and also in a lesser degree will you be able to see the “God” or good in [other people] and love [them] because of the goodness you see in [them].”5

Spencer W. Kimball put it like this:

“God does notice us, and he watches over us. But it is usually through another person that he meets our needs. Therefore, it is vital that we serve each other in the kingdom. The people of the Church need each other’s strength, support, and leadership in a community of believers as an enclave of disciples. In the Doctrine and Covenants we read about how important it is to “… succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). So often, our acts of service consist of simple encouragement or of giving mundane help with mundane tasks, but what glorious consequences can flow from mundane acts and from small but deliberate deeds!”6

How can I rely on the Lord for all my needs? Even though I’m not sure, I believe the Lord relies on me to help others with their needs. Of course, that feels like a lot of pressure to put on someone. This story from President Henry B. Eyring has encouraged me:

“…all of us will be sent by the Lord to succor those in need. …[W]e will feel the influence of the Spirit increase our power to serve. You will find yourself more able to recognize pain and worry in the faces of people. Names or the faces of people … will come into your mind with the impression that they are in need.

Bishops have that feeling come to them during the night and each time they sit on the stand looking at the members of their ward or thinking of those who are not there. It can happen to them when they find themselves near a hospital or a care center. More than once I have heard the words when I walked in the door of a hospital: ‘I knew you would come.’

We need not worry about knowing the right thing to say or do when we get there. The love of God and the Holy Spirit may be enough. When I was a young man I feared that I would not know what to do or to say to people in great need.

Once I was at the hospital bedside of my father as he seemed near death. I heard a commotion among the nurses in the hallway. Suddenly, President Spencer W. Kimball walked into the room and sat in a chair on the opposite side of the bed from me. I thought to myself, ‘Now here is my chance to watch and listen to a master at going to those in pain and suffering.’

President Kimball said a few words of greeting, asked my father if he had received a priesthood blessing, and then, when Dad said that he had, the prophet sat back in his chair.

I waited for a demonstration of the comforting skills I felt I lacked and so much needed. After perhaps five minutes of watching the two of them simply smiling silently at each other, I saw President Kimball rise and say, ‘Henry, I think I’ll go before we tire you.’

I thought I had missed the lesson, but it came later. In a quiet moment with Dad after he recovered enough to go home, our conversation turned to the visit by President Kimball. Dad said quietly, ‘Of all the visits I had, that visit I had from him lifted my spirits the most.’

President Kimball didn’t speak many words of comfort, at least that I could hear, but he went with the Spirit of the Lord as his companion to give the comfort.”7

So no, I’m not always sure I can rely on the Lord for all my needs. Our lives are full of ups and downs, and I’m not the type who thinks God orchestrates every single thing. But I believe I’ve received refractions of the Spirit when I’m directly engaged in doing what I understand to be God’s will, when I’m keeping covenants to mourn with those that mourn, comfort those who need comfort, rejoice with those who feel to rejoice, serve those who need service, accept service from those willing to offer it, and even when I feel chastised at the moments when I fail to do any of these things. I hope one day I’ll be able to look back, like Nephi did: “My God hath been my support; he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness; and he hath preserved me upon the waters of the great deep” (2 Nephi 4:20).

But for now, I’m still scratching my way through the thickets; I’m still swimming. If you ever feel to say, like Joseph did in Liberty Jail, “Oh God, where are you,” I pray someone will be there to lift up your hands. And I pray you’ll do the same when your time comes to serve, and that together you’ll see the face of God.

 

FOOTNOTES:

1. My paraphrase. See the original letter on the Joseph Smith Papers website here.

2. Dean C. Jessee, “‘Walls, Gates and Screeking Iron Doors’: The Prison Experience of Mormon Leaders in Missouri, 1838–1839,” in Davis Bitton and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, New Views of Mormon History: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Leonard J. Arrington (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987), 25; Justin R. Bray, “Within the Walls of Liberty Jail,” Revelations in Context, lds.org.

3. “The Saints Petition to Congress,” November 1839, in History of the Church, 4:24–38; the mention of bloody footsteps is on p. 36; Lyman O. Littlefield, Reminiscences of Latter-day Saints (Logan, UT: Journal Company Printers, 1888), 72–73. See William G. Hartley, “The Saints’ Forced Exodus from Missouri,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 347–90.

4. De Oratione Liber, Tertullian On the Prayer.

5. Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1973), 59. This and the Tertullian reference are from Jacob Rennaker, “Everyone…Even the Atheists,” John Adams Center blog, June 12, 2013.

6. Spencer W. Kimball, “Small Acts of Service,Ensign (December 1974). My mother in law reminded me of this quote while we were talking about the topic of the talk.

7. Henry B. Eyring, “Serve With the Spirit,” Ensign (October 2010). John Durham Peters called my attention to this anecdote either here or here.

Comments

  1. KerBearRN says:

    This. All of it. Thank you.

  2. Wonderful, Blair. I would love it if this talk was read from every pulpit in the Church.

  3. J. Stapley says:

    Moving stuff. Thanks Blair.

  4. Great read. Thanks

  5. Nice post. A couple of thoughts.

    First, I have always that there is a critical, but often overlooked, difference between the phrase “the hand of the Lord in all things” and “God causes all things to happen.” The first I can find in the scriptures (D&C 21); the second, I cannot. Your talk suggests that you, too, appreciate this distinction.

    Second, I don’t know that I have ever expected the Lord to satisfy all of my needs. Maybe I should. But whenever I have felt that my needs are not being met, the thought has never occurred to me that God is at fault. Invariably, I am to blame. (Don’t misunderstand this comment—I am not being critical of your talk, which I thought makes several valuable points. Rather, on a certain level, your perspective is one that has never occurred to me.)

  6. Silly question. I have not read enough of your posts to know your writing well, but I’m wondering if the paraphrasing of scripture the way you did (still in quotation marks) has some special meaning that I should be grasping. I’m not criticizing, but feel sort of like I’m missing something that those familiar with you understand.

  7. Wouldn’t change a thing, Blair. Well done.

  8. Thanks guys.

    Mike, recently I’ve been reading a book by James Goldberg called The Five Books of Jesus, which essentially takes the gospel narratives and weaves them together in a certain way, with different language than that of the KJV. His work has provided a lot of interesting insights into the New Testament I hadn’t previously thought of. I sometimes get so used to the official wording of scriptures that my mind starts to gloss over them too easily. The paraphrasing of D&C was my experiment with the intent of conveying the same information in a way that sounds fresh to capture people’s attention again.

    EFF: I don’t know if God’s at fault, either, just like I’m usually not sure if blessings are straight from his hand either. What I hoped to communicate in the talk is that such attribution has, for me, become somewhat of a side issue, where my attention has become more focused on serving and being served in the moment. I lack the spiritual gift, if you can call it that, of easily recognizing God’s interventions either way, but I still seek to keep the covenants I’ve made.

  9. Blair: I, too, lack the spiritual gift of which you speak—of being able to always recognize God’s interventions. Unlike many in our Church and other faiths, I have a strong “testimony” of randomness and chance. Some times bad things happen, good things happen, or bad things are barely avoided (e.g., a near miss in a car accident) for no reason other than shear bad/good luck. To attribute all such events to God, in my opinion, would impede my understanding of the science of probability and the universal laws that govern the operation of the universe. Having said that, when I receive a blessing (and I have received more than my fair share in life), I am inclined to attribute it, at least in part, to the hand of God or that of His righteous children.

  10. Blair,

    This is right on for me. Thank you for providing the words I’ve struggled to find.

    PS – I downloaded The Five Books of Jesus back when you gave the heads up it was available free of charge in digital format, so thanks 256.

  11. Maryland Musician says:

    Thanks for so eloquently putting to words what I have felt for years and years. I thought I was alone.

  12. “Jesus warns his disciples against ostentatious displays of good works, he says they should serve without the need for open recognition. I figure if anyone is good at pulling this off, it has to be God.”

    I paused at this–a unique way of seeing God’s hand when I may not otherwise recognize it.

    Your whole talk spoke to my soul. Thank you.

  13. questioning says:

    Nice,

    If God was too obvious … too ‘ostentatious’ … in pouring down blessings (rather than just rain) then it would remove the need for faith. I think he likes the ambiguous universe.

    I heard a fervent talk on Sunday where the speaker, illustrating the doctrine that we are created in the image and likeness of God – said something like – when you look in the mirror you are seeing the face of God.

  14. “when you look in the mirror you are seeing the face of God.”

    questioning, if you are interested, I wrote the following five years ago on my personal blog:

    “A Higher Way of Seeing God” (http://thingsofmysoul.blogspot.com/2008/06/higher-way-of-seeing-god.html)

  15. questioning: A few years ago, I gave talk in Church as part of the annual Christmas program. I concluded with the following poem by Eleanor Farjeon, an early 20th Century American author, which captures the same sentiment quite nicely (I especially like the last stanza):

    Shall I to the byre go down
    Where the stalled oxen are?
    Or shall I climb the mountain’s crown
    To see the rising star?
    Or shall I walk the golden floor
    Where the King’s feast is spread?
    Or shall I seek the poor man’s door
    And ask to break his bread?

    It matters not. Go where you will,
    Kneel down in cattle stall,
    Climb up the cold and starlit hill,
    Enter in hut or hall,
    To the warm fireside give your cheek,
    Or turn it to the snow,
    It matters not; the One you seek
    You’ll find where’er you go.

    His sandal-sole is on the earth,
    His head is in the sky,
    His voice is in the baby’s mirth
    And in the old man’s sigh,
    His shadow falls across the sea,
    His breath is in the wind,
    His tears with all who grieve left He,
    His heart with all who sinned.

    Whether you share the poor man’s mite
    Or taste the King’s own fare,
    He whom you go to seek tonight
    Will meet you everywhere;
    For He is where the cattle wend,
    And where the planets shine—
    Lo, He is in your eyes! Oh friend,
    Stand still and look in mine.

  16. Sharee Hughes says:

    Ray, Thank you for your link to your blog. Loved your butterfly analogy.

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