Thursday, March 30, 2017

Talk to P5: Celestial Families 03-19-2017

[This talk was given to a congregation where a large portion have no experience with small towns of any kind, much less a Utah Mormon town.  The culture in those towns is unique in many ways, and I attempted to share a flavor of it in my talk.]

I come to you this morning as a member of the Stake High Council to talk to you about Eternal Families.  The assignment came from our Stake Presidency, but the topic was assigned by your Bishopric.  I am always delighted to fulfill this kind of assignment, but I have to tell you that this is a particularly poignant time for me to discuss this topic. 
There are many aspects to the topic of Eternal Families.  Eternal families are built on Earth, but will eventually be composed of resurrected beings who are celestial in nature.  That means people who have made good choices and endured in being faithful.  People learn how to be celestial people by listening to the promptings from the Holy Ghost, but it also takes many teachers, and others who are positive examples, and who help us learn how to hear the spirit whispering to us.  Most of us also need a fair amount of encouragement to go the course.    In addition, there are certain ordinances that are required to be done  and that can happen while we are here on Earth, or vicariously after we are dead.
One of the key things we do as members of the church is build Eternal Families, but I have always felt a little bit out of synch with my own family.   Let me give a little bit of background information.
I have pioneer ancestors on my Mother’s side of my family.  One of my ancestors sat and ate at the same campfires as Brigham Young as they crossed the plains from Winter Quarters to the Unsettled Salt Lake Valley in 1847.  My grandfather’s Daddy walked along that same route when he was 7 years old, in 1850.  Another of my ancestors stopped to plant fields of grain during the great exodus from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters, even though he would not live to see it harvested.   I have more pioneer ancestors  with those kinds of stories.  This is an awesome heritage and I am very proud of them.
But on my father’s side of my family I have NO such heritage.  My father went to the little town of Fillmore Utah  to learn how to fly in the Army Air Corps during WWII.  There he met and married my mother, but he never joined the church.  So I grew up in a part-member  family in a small Mormon town.  To help you understand the magnitude of the mono-culture in those little towns, let me tell you that there was a Catholic family who lived in the next block over from us.  They were the ONLY catholic family in town.  More, as far as I know they were the only completely non-LDS family in town.  We had part-member families, and we had inactive families, but they were the only ones with no ties to the church at all.  When I went to first grade, their daughter was in my class.  I quite liked her, but I always knew that she was part of THE Catholic family, even though I had no clue what catholic was.  I tell you this to illustrate how pervasive the church culture saturated our lives there.  Everything that happened, happened in the context of the church.
Living there, I always felt like my own family was kind of broken.  One foot in, and one foot out, as it were.  As I grew up, my siblings and I were baptized, but our church activity waxed and waned, sometimes strong, sometimes just hanging on.  I became serious about the church when I was 16 and have been serious about it ever since.  I married my wonderful wife in the temple and we’ve raised our 6 children safely wrapped tightly in the church.  But I still felt like I came from a religiously broken family.
Three years ago, my 91 year old father had a stroke.  He mostly recovered, but one side of his body was weaker than the other, which made him frail and forced him to use a walker.  The biggest outcome of it was that he couldn’t  talk very well.  If he needed to say something that came automatically, he could say it just fine.  Things like “Hello,”  “Yes, please,”  and “Thank you,” came out like it does from all of us.  But if he had to think about what he was saying, he just couldn’t spit it out a good portion of the time.   That made conversation difficult.  The stroke also made him slow down a lot and we could see him aging month by month.
In August 2015 I visited him.  As it turned out, that visit was about a week before he died.  My sister and I were sitting with him when he asked me, “When I die are you going to make me a Mormon?”
This was a startling question.  It isn’t how we think of things as Mormons.  But I understood his concern because I knew how he fit into the small-town Utah culture.  What he knew about the church was filtered through friends who were largely not active in the church.  And I knew that his question was really about whether we were going to override his agency by doing what he had chosen not to do.
So I told him, “Dad, when you die I am going to baptize you, and I am going to seal you to my mother, but you should understand that nobody is going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do.  You will have the opportunity to learn about the gospel, and if you decide you want to accept it, those ordinances will be there for you.  But if you don’t,  they  won’t mean much of anything.  It will be your choice.”
He was looking down, but after a second he looked up with a smile and said, “That’s good.”  He had a hard time getting all that out, so I didn’t press him for whether he meant  it was good that I was going to do the ordinances, or whether it was good that he wouldn’t be forced, or both.    As I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided that I think he meant both.
You probably know that we don’t do vicarious temple work for people until at least a year after they pass on.  I let my siblings know that I was going to do his work.  None of them objected.     So,  I counted the days.     One year after he died, I printed out his ordinance cards.   It included the card to do his baptism and endowment, but that also opened up other ordinances.  I was able to do the cards to seal him to my Mom, and me to them, and my little brother who was killed when he was a young man.  And my Dad to his parents, whose own work was done some time ago.  And Dad had a sister who died in a tragic accident when about a week old, so I prepared to seal her to her parents, too.  And I had some other family names I had been working to get ready.
So, I was all set.    I was ready to go down to the temple and put my family together.
But I got to thinking about it.  It isn’t just my parents.  Families run both directions: back to ancestors, and forward to descendants.   My kids, and my nieces and nephews  are my parents’  descendants, too, and they are equally affected.  My kids know all about Dad’s story and I wanted them to be part of it, too.  So I decided to involve them as much as I could.
About this same time, my grandson proposed to a very nice young woman who is from the San Diego area.  They were planning a December wedding at the San Diego temple.  Not all of our kids would be there, but several of them were, so my daughter and I planned how to do my temple work in San Diego without detracting from her son’s wedding.  Here is what we worked out.
1.       I had several baptisms to do, including my father’s.   These had to be done before anything else.  So, after the wedding, and after the massive photo session on the temple grounds, I took my teenage grandson and teenage granddaughter back into the temple and we did the baptismal ordinances.  I performed all those baptisms.  First up was my grandson, acting for my father.  I have to admit that I was pretty emotional.  I started to cry before we even started and it was very hard for me to speak.  Much harder than I’d thought it would be.                This is a sign that I am getting old.  When I was in my 20’s I joined the US Marines, who turned me into a lean, mean fighting machine.   In those days, I never cried!  Now I am trying to be a man of God, and I get emotional.                        My grandkids were a little bit shocked to see me loose it that much.  But we got it done.        We did baptisms that spanned 7 generations in that session, all family members, including one who I had been researching for over 40 years.
2.       The next day, the adults returned to the temple.  My good wife, my son, and I came early and did all the initiatory work.   Then we met the others and we had just the right number of names for each of us to do an endowment session.   Isn’t that interesting?  This wasn’t something we planned and worked out - I just had a bunch of male names and female names and we had that many men and women in our group.                 Again, this was an emotional time for me.  I held it together pretty well, but when we got to the celestial room, I looked at my son who was acting as proxy for my father, and we threw our arms around each other and next thing we knew we were blubbering on each other’s shoulder.  Now THAT was embarrassing!
3.       After our session, we met up with a sealer and went into a sealing room.  My sealing to my parents was a “live” ordinance, so the paperwork had to be specially prepared by the temple office.  The others were ordinary sealings by temple standards.       I had planned and organized this part.  I made sure each one of us got to participate.   I also made sure each of the girls got to act as proxy in a sealing involving my mother , whom they all remember.  Same thing with the men.  There were a lot of wet eyes.  By this time, my tear ducts felt like they’d been wrung out.  Literally!  They were sucked dry.   I’ve never felt that before.
After that, we went to a nice place for lunch and hit La Jolla beach to watch the sunset as we basked in the glow of love for our family.

After all these years, I finally feel like my own family has been fixed.    I can look back over the generations to my grandparents who came from opposite sides of the World, and met and built a life in California.  My great grandparents who left Kentucky after the Civil War because there was land in Texas, and who built a life in San Angelo.  And back and back.
Eternity includes all the time before now and all the time after now.  It includes both directions.  And so do Eternal Families.  
We need to look back to all those people who came before now, and understand who they were and why they did the things that led to us being who we are.  We need to know how our family fits together.
Brothers and Sisters, the numbers involved in this work are hard to grasp.  Each generation doubles the number of people involved, even without counting siblings.  Sometimes, my ancestors are also your ancestors.  Odds are that if I laid out all my ancestors and their families and you laid out yours, we would find we have a common ancestor before we got further back than the age of our country.  Maybe not, but the odds are that we would.
And as we grow old and watch our children and their children and theirs, we will be seeing my children and your children making interconnections in their own families.
That is the nature of all families.  But what does it take to make them eternal families?              It goes back to understanding that Eternal families involve people who have led near-celestial lives and have celestial characters.
We get so involved in this that we forget that all of them have the same concern my father had – that they are not forced to do something they don’t want.  We can’t control them.  I now think of my father as LDS,  BUT My father spent his entire adult life living among LDS people, and my Mother desperately wanted him to join the church.  He chose not to do so.  He may well continue to make that choice.  It is his choice to make, not mine.  I have to remember that I have done my part – I performed the ordinances for him, like I told him I would.  If he chooses not to accept them, then he will drop out of my eternal family.  He will still be my earthly father and I will still love him, but he may choose not to be in the eternal family I am trying to build.
For those who choose to become celestial beings, they will become part of eternal families.  Maybe not quite like we know them today.    Our responsibility to them is not to force them to be like us, rather we are commanded to keep them in our hearts, - “To turn the hearts of the children to the fathers”.  In other words, it is our responsibility to do temple work as thoroughly and completely as we can.  It is our responsibility to make sure that we are becoming celestial beings.
Also, it is our responsibility  “To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children”.   It is our responsibility to help our children and grandchildren become celestial beings.  Again, they get to make their own choices, but we are responsible to teach the things they need to know so that they understand their choice.
And finally, what do each of us have to do to become celestial beings who can be part of our eternal family?  It is simple.  Keep the commandments.  All of them.  As good as we possibly can.  
It can be a bit overwhelming to think of it in terms of keeping ALL the commandments.  We are told by our prophets to do a lot of things.  It helps to simplify it by bundling them together.   In Matthew 22, verses 36 through 40 we read:
36 Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
Now that sounds much simpler.  It is nice to reflect on what this scripture means.  In actual fact, it is very hard to keep all the commandments, but it’s nice to see the end goal from this scripture.  It helps us see why we have so many commandments to follow -  to know that they can be boiled down into simple concepts.  It helps us choose a thing or two to work on until we get better at it.  And then we can move on to another area where we can improve.
Becoming a Celestial person takes a lot of hard spiritual work, but the rewards are huge.    And the joy of being in a Celestial Family is the best reward of all.

And I say this ….