After quite the Saturday morning, I spent the rest of the day preparing to speak in Church Sunday morning. I learned a lot in preparing for my assigned topic and thought I would share. If you have any personal insights, please offer them!
One of my favorite books is The Highest In Us by Truman Madsen. I received it as a gift in college and was immediately drawn into the truths Elder Madsen proposes. In the preface he writes, “The nightmare is all about us. And as we peer out at the world, whether by the aid of television or not, there is much of horror and of corruption. Yet, on occasion, quiet voices remind us, again all evidence to the contrary, that there are overwhelming possibilities locked within mankind.”
Have you ever thought about the possibilities locked within yourself? The abilities and achievements and contributions YOU could make to the world? To God’s eternal plan?
I, personally, think often about this. What will I contribute? Who am I becoming? What am I going to offer as my life’s work? What is my mission here?
I have always believed I had something important, something great, to do here in this life. And I have always believed the very same thing about those around me.
One day (July 24, 2004 according to the post-it note I wrote this experience on) as I sat thinking upon this belief–how and what I was to do–the Holy Spirit came to me and spoke to my heart, “Great things are accomplished by making yourself available to the Lord.”
Now this is not a deeply hidden mystery. It almost seems like common sense really. But on that day, at that point in my life, this truth was magnificent. Let me share it again. Great things are accomplished by making yourself available to the Lord.
Since that day, there have certainly been times that I have neglected this truth, allowing myself to be sidetracked by my own plans, wants, desires, weaknesses, and sins. But I have begun again (I love that we get to do that!) to try to live what I learned that day as I’ve recently felt an intense desire to better understand God’s plan for me, and how I can make the most of the time I have on earth.
So if great things are accomplished by making ourselves available to the Lord, the question then becomes, how do we make ourselves available to Him?
I believe the answer to this question is the key to unlocking what Elder Madsen called the “overwhelming possibilities within us.” The answer to this question is what Sister Elaine Dalton, General President of the Young Women organization of the LDS Church, asked us to return to. The answer, is what President David O. McKay said is worth more than our lives.
I believe the answer, is Virtue.
The word virtue comes from a Latin root meaning strength, courage, and excellence. Today the word virtue means moral excellence, goodness, chastity. It also means an effective force, power.
Such interesting definitions, wouldn’t you say?
Let’s take a look at the very first definition, “moral excellence.” To be moral means to understand the distinction between right and wrong and then live by those rules of right conduct, rather than on legalities or customs.
To be excellent means you possess outstanding quality or superior merit.
So to be morally excellent, or virtuous, means you have the outstanding quality of living by rules of right conduct. It means you have a superior understanding and ability to make choices based on the distinction between right and wrong rather than on legalities or customs.
Sister Dalton described it as “‘a pattern of thought and behavior based on high moral standards.’ It encompasses chastity and moral purity. Virtue begins in the heart and in the mind. It is nurtured in the home. It is the accumulation of thousands of small decisions and actions.”
So what does this mean for me? Or for you?
First, let me ask, what are the patterns of thought and behavior by which you live? How do you treat and speak to your family? How do you serve in your Church capacities? Are you an honest employee? What media and entertainment do you partake of and bring into your home? What sort of language do you use? How do you respond to counsel? What do you do when a prophet or apostle, or God for that matter, asks you to do something?
May I share a recent personal experience? I love music. I love all different genres and styles. But I’ve felt a prompting of my conscience for a while that I needed to clean out my music. Now don’t jump to conclusions that I had an iPod full of smut. I don’t, and didn’t. But there were a few songs, that I loved to run to and to dance to, that had a great beat, melody, and production, but they insinuated immoral situations lyrically that I shouldn’t have been listening to. But I kept avoiding the prompting…because well…I liked my music. And change is hard.
Now simultaneous to these thoughts about cleaning out my music, Frit and I began training for the triathlon. Anyone, who has trained for a physically brutal event like this can attest to the fact that it consumes your life. We ate, drank, and slept triathlon. And as I trained, whipping my physical self into shape, I found a greater desire to do the same for my spiritual self. I was stepping it up in my exercise and nutrition plan and felt my spirit asking, almost begging, for the same stretching and pushing. Additionally, those thoughts of life and accomplishments and making myself available to the Lord began to appear in my mind.
So, I put together a spiritual training plan similar to my physical training plan. It’s a difficult plan, one that stretches me and forces me to make this aspect of my life a focus. One element of the plan is to read, listen to, or watch, one General Conference sermon every day. In preparation, I downloaded the most recent Conference onto my iPod.
Well, last week as I was on the train to work, I was listening to music and the screensaver on my iPod appeared. It’s just the generic one, where album covers from your playlists bounce around the screen. Different artists bounced around, and then Elder Holland’s face appeared, and then LL Cool J, or Nelly, or someone. And I felt immediate discomfort—discomfort knowing that those two things couldn’t exist in the same sphere. I couldn’t live in both worlds. I couldn’t, and can’t, expect to enjoy the fullness of the Spirit and some of the music in my iTunes library. But change is hard. And I said to myself that I’d clean it out soon, but not that day.
Then Frit and I completed the triathlon. It took me two and a half hours to complete the course and the experience was physically excruciating at times. At one point I really didn’t know if I could keep going. There were killer hills on the bike route and the run and I’d never trained on hills (which is a whole other gospel lesson in and of itself). But as I ran past the finish line with everyone screaming for me and knowing that I’d done it, I knew that I’d never again be able to say, about anything, “I can’t do this.” Because I’d just done that race.
So when I sat down in front of my computer this weekend staring at my iTunes, making a list of the dozen or so songs that needed to be deleted, feeling ridiculous that such a task was as hard as it was for me, I thought of my race. I thought about the finish line. I thought about that moment when my legs were shaking at the top of a hill and my lungs couldn’t find enough air and I turned to Frit and said, “I really don’t think I can do this,” and she said, “Yes you can.” And then I did. I thought of my belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. I thought of Elder Holland’s face and how it’s his world that I want to live in. I thought of all the other right choices I’ve made in my life and how I felt after making them. I thought of my Savior and how much I love Him, and how much He loves me. And I remembered that I’ve done hard things before. And I pushed delete.
In the last General Young Women’s Meeting, Sister Mary N. Cook said, “You must establish patterns of virtue that will keep you on this path throughout your life.”
Patterns of virtue. Patterns of making choices based on what is right. In a special pamphlet for LDS youth called “For the Strength of Youth,” which is just as much for me as it is for the teenage girls I teach every Sunday, it says, “Have the courage to walk out of a movie, turn off a computer or television, change a radio station, or put down a magazine if what is being presented does not meet Heavenly Father’s standards.”
Elder Madsen, later in his book, writes, “One supreme compliment to a member of the Church is, ‘He is active.’ But so are falling rocks and billiard balls. The word the Lord uses, and the question derived from it is, ‘Are you a lively member?’ Are you alive? It is no longer a question of whether you have been through the standard works, but whether the life and light in them has somehow passed through the very skin of your bodies and enlivened you. It isn’t whether you say your prayers in a proper fashion and position and time, but whether you open up honestly what is alive and more or less dead within you to the Source of live and stay with it and with him until the return wave of life enters you.”
It is Virtue that makes us lively. It is right choice upon right choice, based on right motives, that enlivens us and transforms us into a vessel through which the Lord can work mighty things and great accomplishments.
We do not live in a world of grey, although the world would tell us it is so. But matters of morality, honesty, chastity, modesty, gender, and integrity are black and white. Period. And Virtue is the power, both literally and figuratively, to make the distinction between what is black, and what is white.
“Virtuous women and men possess a quiet dignity and inner strength. They are confident because they are worthy to receive and be guided by the Holy Ghost. President Monson has counseled: ‘You be the one to make a stand for right, even if you stand alone. Have the moral courage to be a light for others to follow. There is no friendship more valuable than your own clear conscience, your own moral cleanliness—and what a glorious feeling it is to know that you stand in your appointed place clean and with the confidence that you are worthy to do so’” (Elaine S. Dalton, A Return to Virtue).
What can each of us do to return to virtue? As Sister Cook said, “the course and the training program will be unique to each of us.” But as I’ve looked at my own life, a particular article of my LDS faith has played and replayed in my mind:
“We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
I have since begun to measure my music, my literature, my movies, my work ethic, my desires, my Church service based on those qualifications. And if it doesn’t measure up, I have begun to delete it from my life. (Please note, I am not perfect at this.)
But it is what ends that article that stands out to me most. Those last five words: We seek after these things. I have come to understand that it is not just what we rid our lives of that makes us virtuous. It is what we seek after.
And that which is virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy will not be found on Access Hollywood or in the pages of Cosmo or on primetime television. Please don’t misunderstand. There is absolutely a place for entertainment and enjoyment (and believe me I have plenty of favorites) but not at the expense of our personal Virtue. Just as Virtue is gained by patterns of right choices, it is lost by patterns of bad choices. And each pattern begins with one choice.
In closing may I read another excerpt from Sister Cook’s talk? She says, “It is the cleansing power of the Atonement that makes it possible for us to be virtuous. We all make mistakes, but ‘because the Savior loves you and has given His life for you, you can repent. Repentance is an act of faith in Jesus Christ. … The Savior’s atoning sacrifice has made it possible for you to be forgiven of your sins. … Determine to partake worthily of the sacrament each week and fill your life with virtuous activities that will bring spiritual power. As you do this, you will grow stronger in your ability to resist temptation, keep the commandments [remain clean], and become more like Jesus Christ.’”
May I encourage you, as the Lord has encouraged me these last few weeks, to make yourself available to Him by cleaning out that which is unvirtuous and seeking after that which is lovely and of good report. In doing so, He WILL help you accomplish great things. He WILL help you live a life of value and worth and strength. That is my witness.