Sunday, April 18, 2010

Conversion is Becoming

The aroma of fresh, golden crusted bread baking in the oven is temptation enough for me to stop whatever I am doing and remember how much I enjoy a good slice, or two, or even three. Mmmmm. I love my wife’s recipe. Her bread is very satisfying and slightly addicting unless you have a healthy amount of self restraint. Her last batch of four loaves was gone within hours, thanks to my charming children. I would do well to hide a loaf before I am left with naught but a temptation to remember.

Liz has been perfecting her white bread technique for many years. From her I have learned that good flavor starts with good flour. Yet there are other ingredients besides that make an enormous difference in how good the bread will turn out. Salt and oil each play their part in adding the right flavor. Yeast lifts and gives rise to the bread. Lethicin adds elasticity. Vital wheat gluten strengthens the dough, adds protein, and increases shelf life. Dough conditioner softens the texture and enhances flavor. With the correct knowledge and ability, a baker can take the necessary ingredients and convert them into a beautiful loaf of bread. Fortunately, Liz understands the art and science of bread making well enough to create something wonderful in nearly every instance. One exception has little to do with the recipe.

There are only a few things that I have a hard time eating, and bread that is slightly doughy is one of them. Every once in a while a batch of bread will turn out this way. It smells good, it looks good, and it has all the right ingredients. However, when we cut into the loaf, the slice is a little doughier than it should be. We have discovered that this usually happens when we are in a hurry, and the dough isn’t given sufficient time to rise before baking. Without proper leavening, the bread may be hard to swallow.

Similar to bread making, leavening is an important process in our eternal progression. We need outside help to overcome the conditions of mortality. We need a lift up. Without the help of God, we could not overcome the bonds of sin and death. However, by the grace of God we may be converted into something much, much better. Instead of becoming a loaf of bread, we are here to become like our Father in heaven. This transformation requires the right ingredients, the right process, and the right amount of time. As in the case of my least favorite bread, proper leavening makes all the difference in our conversion.

Ancient Israelites were familiar with bread that was both leavened and unleavened. These were used in their feasts, their customs, and their sacrifices. Jesus used the example of leaven, or yeast, as a comparison of how the kingdom of heaven can bless all of God’s children on earth. (Matthew 13:33) Conversely, he also warned his disciples “of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees,” speaking of their doctrine and teachings which were not correct. (Matthew 16:6-12) When we put our trust in the Lord’s will, He will lift us up with Him. Yet when we trust solely in our own strength, we may find ourselves lifted up in pride instead.

Regarding this process of conversion, the prophet Nephi quoted the Lord saying, “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Nephi 28:30-31) Nephi points out that one of the most critical ingredients in our own recipe for conversion is the Holy Spirit. He will provide proper leavening in our lives to uplift and edify as we follow His promptings.

King Benjamin, an ancient American prophet, taught a beautiful sermon about the atonement of Jesus Christ and how we can become like Him. First he described our initial, natural state which, like the lump of unbaked dough, is not worthy of heaven unless we undergo a conversion process. He said, “For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord….” It is when we are willing to replace the bad leaven with good leaven that we become what the Lord intended us to become. (Mosiah 3:19)

The beauty of this doctrine is that we do not have to focus on all the things that we are not. We don’t have to know how to make a perfect loaf of bread. All we are required to do is listen as the Holy Ghost teaches what we should do. We merely have to submit our own will to the will of the Father. King Benjamin continues. As we yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, we become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” Simply by listening and following, we begin to change. It is in that moment that we become like God. This is the process of becoming. It is the process of conversion.

When my children can smell the bread baking in the oven, it is not uncommon for them to ask or wonder when it will be done. Similarly, it is not uncommon for me to ask myself how I am doing in my conversion process. “When will I be done? How is my conversion coming along?” My answers tend to vary depending on when I ask the question.

At certain times in my life, I may be feeling quite good about things. I feel the influence of the Holy Spirit and I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to. I feel justified. Then I learn a principle that changes my understanding and I realize I have further to go. While the realization is enlightening, I almost feel like I am taking a step backward when I learn something new. This is a funny paradox that is not as dubious as it sounds.

While our lives may be measured against a perfect standard, namely that of the Savior’s, we are only judged on the knowledge we have been given. Joseph Smith taught, “Men will be held accountable for the things which they have and not for the things they have not.” Consequently, a man or woman who lives up to the light and knowledge given them my have a clear conscience. Once that knowledge is increased, the person is required to live a higher standard. God will continue to increase their knowledge according to their faithfulness and ability to apply it. Thus conversion is not measured by knowledge but the willingness to follow it.

I wonder how the apostle Peter felt about his conversion just prior to Jesus Christ’s death. Jesus spoke to Peter and told him that Satan desired to have him and to sift the children of the kingdom as wheat. Then Jesus said, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (Luke 22:32) If Peter, the chief apostle, who had been with the Lord during His ministry, was not converted, then who would be? What did he lack? Peter’s response to Jesus was that he was ready to go with Him to prison and even death. It was then that Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him three times, and His words were fulfilled.

Without judging Peter, we can use his example to evaluate our own faithfulness. It is one thing to stand by the Savior when He is there to give us courage and strength. But what about the times when He is not? How do we fare in our trials when it appears that, like Peter, we are alone? What is the leaven that we choose to help us rise above the temptations of the adversary? With the proper ingredients, process, and time, we may become converted like Peter. It was after Jesus was resurrected and glorified that Peter more fully felt the gift and power of the Holy Ghost as was promised. (John 7:39; 14:26, 16:7) Not only did Peter feel it, he followed. As we live worthy of the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, and as we yield to His enticings, our hearts become sanctified and we likewise become converted.

Like Peter, we could ask when the Brother of Jared became converted. At what point did he have sufficient faith that he could rend the veil of unbelief and see the Lord Jesus Christ? The answer of that moment is less clear. However, what is clear is that his experience was slightly different than Peter’s. Peter was with Jesus when he ministered and performed miracles. He received his witness by the Holy Ghost after being with him. The brother of Jared believed before seeing Jesus Christ. His witness came after he was sanctified by the Holy Ghost. He became converted one prayer at a time. Each time the brother of Jared received instruction, he followed. And each time he followed, he was blessed. Neither Peter nor the brother of Jared relied upon their own strength. Their leaven was of God.

Remembering that conversion is not the same thing as being converted can be a great comfort. Conversion is a process. It is the process of becoming. Because of our natures, we all fall short of the example of Jesus Christ. His invitation to “be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect,” (3 Nephi 12:48) is not attainable in this life, but beginning the process of becoming perfect is. This would suggest that Father is more concerned with direction than perfection. If our hearts are turned towards Him, we should be content to take the time necessary to let that conversion take place, line upon line, grace for grace. As Nephi said, “for we know that it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do.” (2 Nephi 25:23) While we are not expected to run faster than we have strength, or be judged according to knowledge that we do not have, we should do all things within our power to follow the Holy Spirit.

So, back to the question, “Am I done yet?” Like the bread in the oven, we can measure our progress in becoming converted by checking results. With the loaf of bread, the greatest change occurs as the dough cooks thoroughly and the crust becomes hardened. With our own conversion, it is the heart that undergoes the greatest change, and the outer parts of our heart become softer, not harder. To be complete, the change must be just as thorough.

The prophet Alma described this change as a spiritual rebirth. He asked, “have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14) By Alma’s definition, a change of heart is apparent when we become more like God, when we receive Him into our hearts and everything that we do. This occurs more thoroughly when we are ready and willing to give up the natural man – our natural desires that are in conflict with the will of God – and instead yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. We trade the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees for the leaven of God.

As you look at your own heart and find that you aren’t done yet, don’t be discouraged. If you have the needed ingredients of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and if you have begun the “process of becoming” by rising above the temptations of the world, then it is just a matter of time before the heat in the oven will convert the dough into bread. A steady and consistent course of becoming converted is more important than arriving at the destination.

Conversion is “becoming” in both meanings of the word. As we become more like Jesus Christ, our end result will be more desirable. By focusing on following the Holy Ghost, the other ingredients in our lives will take care of themselves. Life will have a better flavor. We will become more capable, and our hearts will be stronger. Everything about us will be enhanced because we will have received the Lord’s image in our countenances. As we choose to have a change of heart, one step at a time, the conversion of becoming will be very rewarding.

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