Monday, January 11, 2010

A Stranger in a Strange Land

To say I was uncomfortable would be too mildly put. On a number of occasions when I was a kid, my parents and I would go camping and we would stay at a campground that didn’t take reservations. Back then it was first come, first serve. In order to get a good campsite, you had to arrive early. My parents needed my help to find a good spot, and I found myself very afraid.

While driving through the campground, I remember my dad suggesting to me, “Johnny, why don’t you get out and hold this spot? We’ll keep looking, and if we find a better one, we’ll come back and get you.” As a boy I worried what would happen to me if they didn’t come back. Maybe they would leave me. I knew it wasn’t true, but the fear was real. Still, I would get out of the car and wait, and wait, and wait. I had plenty of time to wonder, “What if?”

Fortunately, my fears were never realized. Mom and Dad always came back for me. I don’t think I have any lasting scars from those occasions, but the memory is clear and the fear very tangible. I remember what it was like to be a stranger.

In the hymn, “O My Father,” Eliza R. Snow penned the words:

For a wise and glorious purpose
Thou hast placed me here on earth
And withheld the recollection
Of my former friends and birth;
Yet ofttimes a secret something
Whispered, “You’re a stranger here,”
And I felt that I had wandered
From a more exalted sphere.
(Hymns, 292)

Like my experience at the campground, we have each been placed on this earth by our Father in heaven. But this is not really our home. We are only strangers here. When I feel a longing for something more familiar, in both senses of the word, it is the closest I come to getting homesick.

The word “strange” sometimes has a negative connotation. If I were to say, “That person is strange,” it usually isn’t meant as a compliment. A person, a place or an experience that seems strange may refer to something this is different than we are used to. Trying to find comfort or security in that experience, we tend to label the circumstance rather than ourselves. It is a coping strategy to dissipate the awkwardness of the moment.

Many of the strange and different experiences we have on earth are actually lessons that we need in order to progress. Recognizing this can help us identify strategies that will help us learn quicker and adapt to unique circumstances. If we are looking in the right place, it will help us to increase our faith.

I believe we each go through experiences that, at some point, make us wonder, “How did I get here? What happened to my familiar surroundings? This is not what I had expected would happen.” Retrospective moments are usually easier than passing through those events. Therein lays the beauty of faith.

Similar to my fear about my parents’ instruction to wait for them, it is not uncommon for us to worry about whether or not Father will help us when we are in the middle of a test. If we make and keep covenants with Him, will He really help us? Will he come back for us and gather us? Sometimes we are afraid that he will leave us. Deep down inside we know it’s not true, but the fear is real.

I have spoken to friends before about living the law of tithing. I am convinced that tithing is a principle with promise, and that it has less to do with money and more to do with faith. Yet there are times when a friend was worried that if they paid their tithing they wouldn’t have enough to pay their mortgage or rent. “What if I get kicked out of my apartment? What if I lose my house?” Those who have lived this law and have gained a personal testimony know that God keeps His promises. “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.” (D&C 82:10)

Perhaps there are some who choose not to serve a full-time mission because they are afraid they will miss out on opportunities that won’t wait for them. A young man may worry that a girlfriend or a scholarship won’t be there when he returns. A couple may worry that they will miss out on events like the baptism of a granddaughter. Yet the Lord is clear that He will bless those who honor and serve Him.

A member of a congregation may be asked by a member of the bishopric to accept an assignment or calling, but worry, “If I accept this assignment, I won’t have time to do the things that I want to do. I will have to give up too much.” This kind of fear does not produce faith. Instead it crowds it out of the heart.

If we are faithful in keeping our covenants, and are willing to give our time, our talents, and our means to building up the kingdom of God on earth, Father will come back to pick us up. He will gather His children and care for them as he has promised.

Recently, after a conversation with a friend, I considered the strength of my personal conviction to follow God. I thought on how secure my personal testimony was in aiding my obedience. In my reflection I identified three questions to consider. First, can God lie? The answer is a resounding no. He cannot lie or He would cease to be God. Second, can God speak to us? Yes, he can and does speak to us through His Holy Spirit. Lastly, will God lead us astray? The answer is no. He will not because everything he does is to help us to return to His presence. Knowing these things are true should prevent me from doubting Him in times of trial. Yet, these three truths are the often the first things we attack when it feels like God has left us alone.

We are creatures of fear with a destiny of faith. However, we can’t receive an inheritance from Father and be joint-heirs with Christ unless we are willing to overcome our fears and serve Him. It may help us to overcome our fears by looking to Abraham and the way he demonstrated his faith.

If you are one who has ever felt that you grew up in a less-than-stable home, where parents were dysfunctional or even less than supportive, or if you lived in a home where the gospel was not taught or practiced during critical growing up years, then you should not feel alone. Abraham, the patriarch, had a similar circumstance. Yet, in spite of a difficult life, Abraham rose above the trials and has entered into his exaltation. First, however, he was tested.

Abraham was living in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans when he found himself in a strange place. His fathers, having turned their hearts from God, endeavored to take away the life of Abraham by having him sacrificed on an altar to the Egyptian gods. As the priests of Elkenah were about lay their hands upon him to take his life, Abraham called upon God in prayer and was delivered from the priests. The Lord saved Abraham and said, “Abraham, Abraham, behold, my name is Jehovah, and I have heard thee, and have come down to deliver thee, and to take thee away from thy father’s house, and from all thy kinsfolk, into a strange land which thou knowest not of….” (Abraham 1:15-16)

The Lord told Abraham that He would take him to a strange land. Why? Because He knew that is what Abraham needed in order to prepare him for the blessings which the Lord would give him.

From the land of Ur (which is not far from modern-day Kuwait, approximately 100 miles up the Euphrates River from the Persian Gulf) the Lord led Abraham to a place called Haran (Closer to modern day Turkey, or west of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria.) Depending on the source you look at, Abraham was in his 60’s or 70’s when this took place. The Lord would then lead him to the land of Canaan, to Egypt, and then to Canaan again. Abraham was not allowed to retire in a comfortable little cottage. At the age when people in our society consider such things, Abraham was definitely on the move.

Abraham also endured other difficult trials near the latter part of his life. A famine ensued in the land of Ur which caused Abraham’s brother to die. This was another reason for him to leave. Abraham experienced another famine in Canaan and survived. Because of his faith in the Lord, the Lord provided for him and saw him through.

Family matters continued to be a challenge for Abraham. While in Egypt, Pharaoh desired his wife and tried to take her. In the land of Canaan, Abraham had to separate from his nephew, Lot, because of a disagreement over their possessions. Abraham later had to fight in battle to rescue Lot. There was disappointment when Sarah could not bear him the son he desired so much. This lead to him taking Hagar to wife and their subsequent separation because of Sarah.

Through all of the trials that Abraham endured, he did not complain. The Lord had promised him a posterity as numerous as the sands of the sea or the stars in the heaven. Yet, for most of his life, Abraham had no children. Notwithstanding this disappointment, “he believed in the Lord; and [the Lord] counted it to him for righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) He did not doubt that the Lord would keep his promises.

Abraham was 84 years old when Hagar finally gave him a son. However, Ishmael was not the one with whom the Lord would establish his covenant. For that, Abraham would have to wait again. It was at the age of 100, when Sarah was 90, that Abraham received the blessing he sought his entire life. Sarah bore him Isaac.

Some years later Abraham was tested beyond anything he had experienced in his life up to that point. The Lord spoke to him and asked him to give up the thing he had waited for his entire life. He was asked to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. How much time transpired until Abraham climbed the Mount in Moriah with Isaac I don’t know; but Isaac was old enough to understand the law of sacrifice and recognize that there was no lamb with them for a burnt offering.

As Abraham bound his son and laid him on the altar, I can only imagine that he may have had flashbacks to the time when he himself laid upon an altar in the land of Ur. Perhaps he wondered why the Lord would ask such a thing when He had prevented Abraham from being offered up as a sacrifice in a similar manner. I would wonder, “If it was wrong then, why is it not wrong now?” What a strange circumstance to find yourself in. Abraham did not question, however. He merely obeyed. It wasn’t until he had stretched forth his hand to take the knife to slay his son that the Lord stopped him. It was enough. The Lord said to Abraham, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thing only son from me.” (Genesis 22:12) The Lord then provided a ram which Abraham offered instead.

Abraham was frequently a stranger in a strange land. He found himself in strange and unique circumstances, places that most of us would find very uncomfortable. Were it not for his unyielding faith in God, and were it not for his unfailing obedience, Abraham would not have been able to receive the promised blessings the Lord had offered to him. He would not have been prepared for his exaltation.

Because the Abrahamic covenant was extended by the Lord to Abraham’s posterity, based on their worthiness, it is important to look at the conditions for receiving the promised blessings. After the Lord told Abraham that his posterity would be numerous, He also said, “Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them….” (Genesis 15:13)

While this scripture refers to the captivity of the House of Israel in Egypt, there is a definite message in it for those who seek the same blessings of salvation. How can we expect the same blessings as Abraham without being tested in a similar manner?

Speaking of those who believed at the time of the restoration of the gospel, the Lord told Joseph Smith, “I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them, wherewith they have been afflicted, in consequence of their transgressions; Yet I will own them, and they shall be mine in that day when I shall come to make up my jewels. Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified.” (D&C 101:2-5) The Lord confirms that this type of testing, regardless of its form, is necessary to refine His children so that they can be sanctified and worthy of exaltation.

Perhaps, then, the strangeness of this process is that it is less important to the Lord that a sacrifice is actually made, and more important that the giver is willing at any moment to show the Lord that He is preeminent in all things. Thus were the sacrifices of Abraham counted unto him for righteousness, because he was prepared and ready to make the offering.

The beauty of this story is that God keeps His promises. He has promised to gather His children. He will, and He is. Regardless of how strange and difficult the circumstances are, The Lord will always come back and help us if we are faithful and wait upon Him. He will pick us up.

Because our fears are so tangible and real at times – fear of things that we may or may not be able to see but are not true – we must be diligent in protecting our hearts from this sabotage of faith. Fear and faith cannot exist in the same mind at the same time. Fear robs faith, and if we let it continue, fear will rob us of obedience, sanctification, and exaltation. It will keep us from being joint-heirs with Christ.

It is important to note that our faith, while placed in things that we cannot see or feel at times, is just as real as our fears, and more so. It can be just as tangible. Interestingly enough, though, the reasons to have faith are more founded than the reasons for our fears. If we believe in God, and we believe that He cannot lie, He will speak to us, and He will not lead us astray, then we have to believe that with God all things are possible. We have to believe that he will keep His promises.

If we are faithful in keeping our covenants, and are willing to give our time, our talents, and our means to building up the kingdom of God on earth, Father will come back to gather us. He will help us. If we are willing to sacrifice, He will prove that He will not forget us. As we look to the Lord in difficult times we will realize that we truly are strangers in a strange land. We are also a peculiar people whom the Lord has promised to assist. When we are faithful and not fearful, miracles happen. Father will always come back to pick us up.

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