Seeking Charity: A Study of the Heart

In a recent study of charity, I came across an unexpected pattern. I had expected references to service, love, and charity to be plentiful in the Book of Mormon, but found that they were generally isolated to specific contexts such as King Benjamin’s sermon. However, there was a word that is often linked to the concept of love that showed up with surprising frequency: heart. In fact, the heart is referenced on average every 1.17 pages in The Book of Mormon.

These references include the people of Alma expressing that baptism “is the desire of our hearts” (Mos 18:11) and then that their “hearts [were] knit together in unity and love” (Mos 18:21). We see individuals “pour out their hearts to [God]” (Mos 24:12) and are asked if we have “experienced a change of our heart” (Alma 5:26). The state of our hearts is an integral part of conversion, perhaps because of its close relationship with repentance.

We see the Lord “prepare their hearts to receive the word” before Alma and Amulek teach (Alma 16:16), then Alma states that “the word […] must be planted in their hearts” (Alma 33:1). Those who were taught by Ammon and his brethren testify that repentance had “taken away the guilt from our hearts, through the mercies of his Son” (Alma 24:10). And after conversion, it was the origin of incredible joy as Ammon exclaims, “my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God” (Alma 26:11).

But the most prominent usage of the word heart is in reference to the dichotomy between hard heartedness and soft heartedness. While we can dedicate our hearts to the Lord, time and time again, The Book of Mormon makes reference to those who have set their hearts upon riches and the vain things of the world. While it is at the core of conversion, repentance, and divine joy, it can also be at the core of hate, bitterness, and greed.

Instead of thinking about charity as a series of outward expressions such as love, kindness, and service, this line of study convinced me that is deeply internal. Although it manifests itself in these outward expressions, it is actually a state of being at the center of who we are and what we value.

This new insight made Sister Carol F. McConkie’s talk on holiness from April General Conference stick out to me in a new way. Like charity, holiness seems to be an internal state of being, and in fact, Sister McConkie uses similar language in her opening statements: “I see the beauty of holiness in sisters whose hearts are centered on all that is good, who want to become more like the Savior. They offer their whole soul, heart, might, mind, and strength to the Lord in the way that they live every day.”

Charity and holiness go beyond righteousness that can be described in a list. Referencing the story of Mary and Martha, Sister McConkie teaches, “Sisters [and I would add Brethren], if we would be holy, we must learn to sit at the feet of the Holy One of Israel and give time to holiness. Do we set aside the phone, the never-ending to-do list, and the cares of worldliness?” In other words, upon what do we set our hearts? She continues, “Prayer, study, and heeding the word of God invite His cleansing and healing love into our souls. Let us take time to be holy, that we may be filled with His sacred and sanctifying Spirit.” It isn’t enough to do these actions, we must let them change us. That internal transformation is what leads to outward expressions of love, forgiveness, patience, gentleness, meekness, long-suffering, and compassion.

She concludes with a hope for all the sisters, “May our lives ever be a sacred offering, that we may stand before the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

I would venture to say that the state of our heart is linked with our holiness and I particularly loved the imagery of a sacrificial offering. As we think of charity in terms of the pure love of Christ, Christ’s love was manifested in how he consecrated all he did to the Father and then gave his life for each one of us, it seems to follow that charity could be seen as offering our hearts and lives to the Father as well.

One of the most beautiful discussions of this concept is a poem written by George Herbert, an Anglican priest in Wales during the 16th Century.

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,

Made of a heart and cemented with tears;

Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;

No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.

A HEART alone

Is such a stone,

As nothing but

Thy pow’r doth cut.

Wherefore each part

Of my hard heart

Meets in this frame

To praise thy name.

That if I chance to hold my peace,

These stones to praise thee may not cease.

Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,

And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

I pray that each of us will have heart-changing experiences, that we may choose to set our hearts upon the things of the Lord rather than the vain things of the world. I pray that this soft-heartedness will be manifested in all our actions and that we will exemplify the pure love of Jesus Christ.

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Reflections on My Mission: Purpose and Grit

The beginning of my mission was hard. Soul-crushing, lonely, the stuff resilience is made of hard. Everything I had been excited about, so sure about came crumbling down around me with every investigator who flaked us and every person who sped by me without so much as a glance. I came to appreciate people who would actually say “No, thank you” or “I’m not interested” as they walked by because at least they were acknowledging me as a human being.

Then one day on a crowded bus I had a brief conversation with a graduate student. I told him about my missionary service and he told me about his research. He was from somewhere in Western Europe—the Netherlands, I think—and was studying how humanitarian relief efforts were approached in different countries. With every word, I was filled with more and more envy. If I’d written down a dream life on a piece of paper at that time, it would be exactly what he was doing. As far as I could tell, he was doing something big and important and interesting and noble and I knew that that was what I had given up to come on a mission.

The conversation ended when one of us got off the bus, I think it was his stop, and I was left with this lingering feeling of emptiness and the questions that had been on my mind for weeks flooding back with incredible magnitude: “Why was I here? Was I even accomplishing anything? Couldn’t I be making a bigger difference doing something else?”

Almost as soon as those thoughts crossed my mind, for the hundredth time, another one rose to meet them: “What he is doing is good, but what you are doing is essential.” Humanitarian aid would help people survive and hopefully thrive, but what I was sharing would transform lives eternally. I was offering people the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. In the parable of Mary and Martha, I was choosing the better part. And in that moment, I knew that no matter how many people ended up listening to me while I was on my mission and no matter what I ended up doing after I got home, that this was one of the most important things I would ever do.

After that day, my mission didn’t magically become any easier, but the realization shaped the way I dealt with frustratingly fruitless days, heart-breaking disappointments (because having an investigator call off their baptism is heart-breaking), and not give up in the face of mental health challenges. It gave me a reason to keep fighting and made the small miracles all the more sweet.

Autumn

fall-pictures-stewart-falls-7.jpg

Growing up in Las Vegas where there are only two seasons (blazing hot oven and sort-of bearable), moving to Utah opened my eyes to what seasons could really be. And ever since the moment I looked up on my way home from class and the mountains had started changing colors and the cold nipped at my nose and ears, I have loved autumn…until this year.

For whatever reason, I was NOT ready for fall this time around. Summer is about rest and adventuring. Fall is about returning to school and friends and setting goals, and for whatever reason, I was not quite ready to be responsible just yet. I didn’t feel ready for the balancing act of homework on top of work work and social responsibilities. It’s not that I didn’t want it to come, I just wasn’t ready for it to come quite so soon.

But yesterday, a fellow autumn-lover taught our lesson at church. The topic was the sacrament, which normally makes you think about spring and Easter, right? But she shared something I didn’t know about fall. You see, if all the trees didn’t turn bright orangey-hues and let go of their leaves, they would die. They wouldn’t be able to survive the winter and they wouldn’t be able to generate new growth in the spring. Fall and the sacrament is about shedding our burdens and growing deeper roots so that we can get taller and be green again.

If you’ve ever had a time in your life when you’re just kind of living day-to-day and weren’t sure what you were doing or if God was even that interested, and then something subtle jumped out at you and you were like, “This! This was for me! This is what I needed to hear right now,” that was me during this lesson yesterday. Not only did I need to hear about the sacrament, but I needed to hear it in terms of something really personal to me. As stupid as it sounds, I think God knew that my negative feelings about fall were bugging me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong and why something I normally love so much, was bringing me the opposite of joy. And so He reached into my heart and gave me a new reason to love this time of year.

People always say that God is in the details of our lives, but sometimes I don’t give Him enough credit. Happy Autumn everyone!

 

Reflections on My Mission: Fear and Faith

 

Buckeye

Every mission has its challenges, and every missionary has their challenges. One of my challenges was street contacting. In Poland, a staunch Catholic, post-Soviet nation, we didn’t have a lot of investigators, or members to visit, so we spent the majority of our time on the street trying to find people to teach.

This entailed walking up to strangers, trying to start a conversation, and bringing up things like their relationship with God, their hopes for their family, and what role religion played in their life, an intimidating task without a language barrier.

This turned out to be significantly more difficult for me than I’d anticipated. Every time I saw another person, an internal battle would rage inside of me about whether or not I was going to contact them. I knew it was the right thing to do, that I had flown half-way across the world to do just that, but every muscle in my body told me it was too scary, too awkward, and I wasn’t very good at speaking Polish anyway.

Then, after I would walk past them, I was filled with guilt for not following through. I mean, I even had a companion right next to me to help me out if I stumbled.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy at first, but what became even more difficult was the fact that it didn’t get better with time. Months went by, and it was still a terrifying battle just to walk on the streets or sit next to someone on a bus. I didn’t understand why God’s response to my struggle to serve Him wasn’t to help me out.

I arrived in Poland at the beginning of Fall, and during one of my first weeks there my companion and I were going for a walk with a member named Ania. On our walk, Ania bent down and picked up one of the buckeyes that were all over the ground in the park. She explained that they were lucky, and that many Polish people would take them home and keep them on shelves, in drawers, and in their pockets. So, of course, I picked a few up and put them in my pockets.

What this meant was that every time I was having one of my internal battles about whether or not I was going to contact a person, I was clenching the buckeyes in my pockets. In order to talk to a person, I needed to let go, take my hands out of my pockets, and open my mouth.

Every time I let go of the buckeyes, it was an act of faith. Of letting go of my fears and trusting God and trusting myself. Of allowing myself to make mistakes. If I could just let go of the buckeye, I would have the courage to take my hands out of my pockets and talk to the person passing by.

I have some good news and some bad news about how this story ends. The good news is that I survived my mission and met some of the most amazing people, several of them by street contacting.

You see, over months and months of missionary work, I trained myself to let go of the buckeye as soon as I saw a person. But that didn’t mean that it was any easier or that it didn’t take just as much faith. I remember contacting on the very last day of my mission and consciously realizing that I had just as much fear and anxiety about contacting as I did at the beginning of my mission, and yet it was my automatic response. Why?

For starters, my desire to do it had increased because I had seen the impact of the gospel in several people’s lives. And once I got passed the initial contacting phase of the conversation, meeting new people and learning about their lives was one of my absolute favorite things about my mission, even when they decided they didn’t want to learn more about Mormonism. Although the fear never really went away, I was still able to move forward and have good experiences.

A few months ago I was taking a walk during my lunch break and when I looked down I saw a whole bunch of buckeyes on the ground. It made me smile. Being from Las Vegas, I’d never seen them in the United States before, so naturally I knelt down and picked one up.

It’s funny how it somehow made its way into my pocket on days when I had to teach a lesson, a big meeting, or the day I started graduate school. Every time I put my hands in my pocket, it reminds me that I can do scary things, that I can trust the Lord even when I’m afraid, and that I can’t let the fear of making mistakes stop me from moving forward with my life.

So here’s one of my stories of fear and faith. What are the buckeyes that have given you strength to succeed in your life?