BYU devotional address by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, 2012
Elder Holland, “We NEVER check our religion at the door!”
Welcome to this devotional broadcast, wherever you are in this big, wide, wonderful Church. Thank you all for caring enough to be in attendance, including those of you who are here on the Dixie State College campus in my hometown.
There Have Been Many Calls to Leave Babylon
To invite the Spirit of the Lord to be with us, I requested the hymn we began this meeting with: “Israel, Israel, God Is Calling.” It is one of the great classics of the Restoration and provides the framework for much of what I want to say to you tonight. We could have added “Ye Elders of Israel” for the same purpose. I love hearing the missionaries around the world cry out, “O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell; we’re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell.”1 The message of those two hymns is essentially the same—that God is always calling to the children of Israel to a place where, ultimately, all will be well.
Israel, Israel, God is calling, Calling thee from lands of woe. Babylon the great is falling; God shall all her tow’rs o’erthrow. …
Come to Zion, come to Zion, And within her walls rejoice. … Come to Zion, come to Zion! Zion’s walls shall ring with praise.2
In effect, this has been Israel’s history down through the ages. When things got too sinful, or there was too much secularization in society, or life with the Gentiles was destroying the moral code and commandments God had given, the children of the covenant would be sent fleeing into the wilderness to reestablish Zion and start all over again.
In Old Testament times Abraham, the father of this kind of covenant, had to flee for his life from Chaldea—literally Babylonia—in his quest for a consecrated life in Canaan (what we would now call the Holy Land).3 It wasn’t many generations before the descendants of Abraham (and then Isaac and Jacob)—by then full-fledged Israelites—lost their Zion and were in bondage in far-off, pagan Egypt.4 So Moses had to be raised up to lead the children of promise into the wilderness again—this time in the middle of the night, without even time for their bread dough to rise! “Israel, Israel, God is speaking,” they undoubtedly sang in their own way. “Hear your great Deliv’rer’s voice!”5
Not many centuries later, a story of special interest to us unfolded when one of those Israelite families, headed by a prophet named Lehi, was commanded to flee even beloved Jerusalem because, alas, Babylon was again at the door.6 Here we go again! Little did they know that they were going to an entirely new continent to establish a whole new concept of Zion,7 but so it would be. And little did they know that it had already happened just like this once before with a group of their forefathers called the Jaredites.8
As noted, this is a worldwide broadcast to an increasingly international Church, but it is of interest to all who celebrate the Restoration of the gospel that the colonization of America was born of a group fleeing from their former homelands in order to worship as they wished. A distinguished scholar of the Puritan settlement in America described this experience as Christianity’s “errand into the wilderness,” the effort of modern Israelites to free themselves of Old World godlessness and once again seek the ways of heaven in a new land.9
For tonight’s purpose I remind you of one last flight, the flight for which our hymn tonight was actually written. It was our own Church, led by our own prophets, leading our own religious ancestors. With Joseph Smith being hounded through the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri, and finally being murdered in Illinois, we were to see the latter-day reenactment of Israel’s children again seeking for a place of seclusion. Brigham Young, the American Moses, as he has been admiringly called, led the Saints to the valleys of the mountains as those foot-weary Saints sang:
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared, Far away in the West, Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid; There the Saints will be blessed.10
Zion. The promised land. The New Jerusalem. Where is it? Well, we are not sure, but we will find it. For more than 4,000 years of covenantal history, this has been the pattern: Flee and seek. Run and settle. Escape Babylon. Build Zion’s protective walls.
Until now. Until tonight. Until this our day.
Our Call Is to Build Zion Where We Are
One of the many unique characteristics of our dispensation, this the dispensation of the fulness of times—the last and greatest of all dispensations—is the changing nature of how we establish the kingdom of God on earth. You see, one of the truly exciting things about this dispensation is that it is a time of mighty, accelerated change. And one thing that has changed is that the Church of God will never again flee. It will never again leave Ur in order to leave Haran, in order to leave Canaan, in order to leave Jerusalem, in order to leave England, in order to leave Kirtland, in order to leave Nauvoo, in order to go who knows where. No, as Brigham Young said for us all, “We have been kicked out of the frying-pan into the fire, out of the fire into the middle of the floor, and here we are and here we will stay.”11
Of course, that statement wasn’t a comment about the Salt Lake Valley only or even the Wasatch Front generally; it became a statement for the members of the Church all over the world. In these last days, in this our dispensation, we would become mature enough to stop running. We would become mature enough to plant our feet and our families and our foundations in every nation, kindred, tongue, and people permanently. Zion would be everywhere—wherever the Church is. And with that change—one of the mighty changes of the last days—we no longer think of Zion as where we are going to live; we think of it as how we are going to live.
Three Incidents That Lead to Three Lessons
To frame this new task just a little, I wish to draw tonight upon three incidents Sister Holland and I have experienced within the fairly recent past. If time permitted I could cite dozens more, and so could you.
Number one: A few years ago a young friend of mine—a returned missionary—was on one of the college basketball teams in Utah. He was a great young man and a very good ballplayer, but he wasn’t playing as much as he hoped he would. His particular talents and skills weren’t exactly what that team needed at that stage of its development or his. That happens in athletics. So, with the full support and best wishes of his coaches and his teammates, my young friend transferred to another school where he hoped he might contribute a little more.
As fate would have it, things clicked at the new school, and my friend soon became a starter. And wouldn’t you know it—the schedule (determined years before these events transpired) had this young man returning to play against his former team in Salt Lake City’s then-named Delta Center.
What happened in that game has bothered me to this day, and I am seizing this unusual moment to get it off my chest. The vitriolic abuse that poured out of the stands on this young man’s head that night—a Latter-day Saint, returned missionary, newlywed who paid his tithing, served in the elder’s quorum, gave charitable service to the youth in his community, and waited excitedly for a new baby coming to him and his wife—what was said and done and showered upon him that night, and on his wife and their families, should not have been experienced by any human being anywhere anytime, whatever his sport, whatever his university, or whatever his personal decisions had been about either of them.
But here is the worst part. The coach of this visiting team, something of a legend in the profession, turned to him after a spectacular game and said: “What is going on here? You are the hometown boy who has made good. These are your people. These are your friends.” But worst of all, he then said in total bewilderment, “Aren’t most of these people members of your church?”
Incident number two: I was invited to speak in a stake single-adult devotional—one of those open-ended “18-and-over” sort of things. As I entered the rear door of the stake center, a 30-something young woman entered the building at about the same time. Even in the crush of people moving toward the chapel, it was hard not to notice her. As I recall, she had a couple of tattoos, a variety of ear and nose rings, spiky hair reflecting all the colors now available in snow cones, a skirt that was too high, and a blouse that was too low.
Three questions leapt to my mind: Was this woman a struggling soul, not of our faith, who had been led—or even better, had been brought by someone—to this devotional under the guidance of the Lord in an effort to help her find the peace and the direction of the gospel that she needed in her life? Another possibility: Was she a member who had strayed a bit maybe from some of the hopes and standards that the Church encourages for its members but who, thank heaven, was still affiliating and had chosen to attend this Church activity that night? Or a third option: Is this the stake Relief Society president? (Somehow I was sure she was not.)
Here is my third example: While participating in the dedication of the Kansas City Missouri Temple just a few months ago, Sister Holland and I were hosted by Brother Isaac Freestone, a police officer by profession and a wonderful high priest in the Liberty Missouri Stake. In our conversations he told us that late one evening he was called to investigate a complaint in a particularly rough part of the city. Over the roar of loud music and with the smell of marijuana in the air, he found one woman and several men drinking and profaning, all of them apparently totally oblivious of the five little children—aged about two through eight years of age—huddled together in one room, trying to sleep on a filthy floor with no bed, no mattress, no pillows, no anything. Brother Freestone looked in the kitchen cupboards and in the refrigerator to see if he could find a single can or carton or box of food of any kind—but he literally could find nothing. He said the dog barking in the backyard had more food than those children did.
In the mother’s bedroom he found a bare mattress, the only one in the house. He hunted until he found some sheets (if you could call them that), put them on the mattress, and tucked all five children into the makeshift bed. With tears in his eyes he then knelt down, offered a prayer to Heavenly Father for their protection, and said good night.
As he arose and walked toward the door, one of the children, about age six, jumped out of bed, ran to him, grabbed him by the hand, and pled, “Will you please adopt me?” With more tears in his eyes, he put the child back in bed, then found the stoned mother (the men had long since fled) and said to her: “I will be back tomorrow, and heaven help you if some changes are not evident by the time I walk in this door. And there will be more changes after that. You have my word on it.”12
What do these three incidents have in common? Not much really, except that they happened to Sister Holland and me in the recent past. And they give three tiny, very different real-life examples of Babylon—one personal and as silly as deplorable behavior at a basketball game, one more cultural and indicative of one-on-one challenges with those who live differently than we do, and one very large and very serious matter, with legal implications and history so complex that it would seem to be beyond any individual one of us to address it.
In posing these three challenges, I intentionally did not use sensational cases of sexual transgression or physical violence or pornographic addiction, even though those might strike closer to home for some of you than the examples I have used. But you are smart enough to make unspoken applications.
Lesson 1: Never “Check Your Religion at the Door”
First, let’s finish the basketball incident. The day after that game, when there was some public reckoning and a call to repentance over the incident, one young man said, in effect: “Listen. We are talking about basketball here, not Sunday School. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. We pay good money to see these games. We can act the way we want. We check our religion at the door.”
“We check our religion at the door”? Lesson number one for the establishment of Zion in the 21st century: You never “check your religion at the door.” Not ever.
My young friends, that kind of discipleship cannot be—it is not discipleship at all. As the prophet Alma has taught the young women of the Church to declare every week in their Young Women theme, we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,”13not just some of the time, in a few places, or when our team has a big lead.
“Check your religion at the door”! I was furious.
Lesson 2: Show Compassion, but Be Loyal to the Commandments
But let’s stay with this for a minute because there is a second lesson on its way. Lesson number two in tonight’s quest for Zion is that in my righteous indignation (at least we always say it is righteous) I have to make sure that I don’t end up doing exactly what I was accusing this young fan of doing—getting mad, acting stupid, losing my cool, ranting about it, wanting to get my hands on him—preferably around his throat—until, before I know it, I have checked my religion at the door! No, someone in life, someone in the 21st century, someone in all of these situations has to live his or her religion because otherwise all we get is a whole bunch of idiots acting like moral pygmies.
It is easy to be righteous when things are calm and life is good and everything is going smoothly. The test is when there is real trial or temptation, when there is pressure and fatigue, anger and fear, or the possibility of real transgression. Can we be faithful then? That is the question because “Israel, Israel, God is calling.” Such integrity is, of course, the majesty of “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”14—right when forgiving and understanding and being generous about your crucifiers is the last thing that anyone less perfect than the Savior of the world would want to do. But we have to try; we have to wish to be strong. Whatever the situation or the provocation or the problem, no true disciple of Christ can “check his religion at the door.”
That leads me to the woman with the rainbow hair and the many splendored rings. However one would respond to that young woman, the rule forever is that it has to reflect our religious beliefs and our gospel commitments. Therefore, how we respond in any situation has to make things better, not worse. We can’t act or react in such a way that we are guilty of a greater offense than, in this case, she is. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have opinions, that we don’t have standards, that we somehow completely disregard divinely mandated “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in life. But it does mean we have to live those standards and defend those “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in a righteous way to the best of our ability, the way the Savior lived and defended them. And He always did what should have been done to make the situation better—from teaching the truth, to forgiving sinners, to cleansing the temple. It is no small gift to know how to do such things in the right way!
So, with our new acquaintance of the unusual dress and grooming code, we start, above all, by remembering she is a daughter of God and of eternal worth. We start by remembering that she is someone’s daughter here on earth as well and could, under other circumstances, be my daughter. We start by being grateful that she is at a Church activity, not avoiding one. In short, we try to be at our best in this situation in a desire to help her be at her best. We keep praying silently: What is the right thing to do here? And what is the right thing to say? What ultimately will make this situation and her better? Asking these questions and really trying to do what the Savior would do is what I think He meant when He said, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”15
Having said that, I remind us all that while reaching out to and helping back a lamb who has strayed, we also have a profound responsibility to the 99 who didn’t—and to the wishes and will of the Shepherd. There is a sheepfold, and we are all supposed to be in it, to say nothing of the safety and blessings that come to us for being there. My young brothers and sisters, this Church can never “dumb down” its doctrine in response to social goodwill or political expediency or any other reason. It is only the high ground of revealed truth that gives us any footing on which to lift another who may feel troubled or forsaken. Our compassion and our love—fundamental characteristics and requirements of our Christianity—must never be interpreted as compromising the commandments. As the marvelous George MacDonald once said, in such situations “we are not bound to say all that we [believe], but we are bound not even to look [like] what we do not [believe].”16
Judge Righteous Judgments
In this regard—this call for compassion and loyalty to the commandments—there is sometimes a chance for a misunderstanding, especially among young people who may think we are not supposed to judge anything, that we are never to make a value assessment of any kind. We have to help each other with that because the Savior makes it clear that in some situations we have to judge, we are under obligation to judge—as when He said, “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine.”17 That sounds like a judgment to me. The alternative is to surrender to the moral relativism of a deconstructionist, postmodern world which, pushed far enough, posits that ultimately nothing is eternally true or especially sacred and, therefore, no one position on any given issue matters more than any other. And that simply is not true.
In this process of evaluation, we are not called on to condemn others, but we are called upon to make decisions every day that reflect judgment—we hope good judgment. Elder Dallin H. Oaks once referred to these kinds of decisions as “intermediate judgments,” which we often have to make for our own safety or for the safety of others, as opposed to what he called “final judgments,” which can only be made by God, who knows all the facts.18 (Remember, in the scripture quoted earlier, that the Savior said these are to be “righteous judgments,” not self-righteous judgments, which is a very different thing.)
For example, parents have to exercise good judgment regarding the safety and welfare of their children every day. No one would fault a parent who says children must eat their vegetables or who restricts a child from running into a street roaring with traffic. So why should a parent be faulted who cares, at a little later age, what time those children come home at night, or what the moral and behavioral standards of their friends are, or at what age they date, or whether or not they experiment with drugs or pornography or engage in sexual transgression? No, we are making decisions and taking stands and reaffirming our values—in short, making “intermediate judgments”—all the time, or at least we should be.
Some Issues and Laws Have Eternal Consequences
When we face such situations in complex social issues in a democratic society, it can be very challenging and, to some, confusing. Young people may ask about this position taken or that policy made by the Church, saying: “Well, we don’t believe we should live or behave in such and such a way, but why do we have to make other people do the same? Don’t they have their free agency? Aren’t we being self-righteous and judgmental, forcing our beliefs on others, demanding that they act in a certain way?” In those situations you are going to have to explain sensitively why some principles are defended and some sins opposed wherever they are found because the issues and the laws involved are not just social or political but eternal in their consequence. And while not wishing to offend those who believe differently from us, we are even more anxious not to offend God, or as the scripture says, “not offend him who is your lawgiver”19—and I am speaking here of serious moral laws.
But to make the point, let me use the example of a lesser law. It is a little like a teenager saying, “Now that I can drive, I know I am supposed to stop at a red light, but do we really have to be judgmental and try to get everyone else to stop at red lights? Does everyone have to do what we do? Don’t others have their agency? Must they behave as we do?” You then have to explain why, yes, we do hope all will stop at a red light. And you have to do this without demeaning those who transgress or who believe differently than we believe because, yes, they do have their moral agency.
My young friends, there is a wide variety of beliefs in this world, and there is moral agency for all, but no one is entitled to act as if God is mute on these subjects or as if commandments only matter if there is public agreement over them. In the 21st century we cannot flee any longer. We are going to have to fight for laws and circumstances and environments that allow the free exercise of religion and our franchise in it. That is one way we can tolerate being in Babylon but not of it.
I know of no more important ability and no greater integrity for us to demonstrate in a world from which we cannot flee than to walk that careful path—taking a moral stand according to what God has declared and the laws He has given, but doing it compassionately and with understanding and great charity. Talk about a hard thing to do—to distinguish perfectly between the sin and the sinner. I know of few distinctions that are harder to make, or at least harder to articulate, but we must lovingly try to do exactly that. Believe me, brothers and sisters, in the world into which we are moving, we are going to have a lot of opportunity to develop such strength, display such courage, and demonstrate such compassion—all at the same time. And I am not speaking now of punk hairdos or rings in your nose.
Lesson 3: Use Gospel Values to Benefit Communities and Countries
Now lastly, the difficult story from Kansas City. Not many of us are going to be police officers or social service agents or judges sitting on a legal bench, but all of us should care for the welfare of others and the moral safety of our extended community. Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve devoted an entire general conference talk to this subject two years ago. In speaking of the need for us to influence society beyond the walls of our own home he said:
“In addition to protecting our own families, we should be a source of light in protecting our communities. The Savior said, ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’ …
“In our increasingly unrighteous world, it is essential that values based on religious belief be [evident in] the public square. …
“Religious faith is a store of light, knowledge, and wisdom and benefits society in a dramatic way.”20
If we don’t take gospel blessings to our communities and our countries, the simple fact of the matter is we will never have enough policemen—there will never be enough Isaac Freestones—to enforce moral behavior even if it were enforceable. And it isn’t. Those children in that home without food or clothing are sons and daughters of God. That mother, more culpable because she is older and should be more responsible, is also a daughter of God. Such situations may require tough love in formal, even legal ways, but we must try to help when and where we can because we are not checking our religion at the door, even as pathetic and irresponsible as some doors are.
We aren’t going to solve every personal or social problem in the world here tonight. When we leave this evening, there will still be poverty, ignorance and transgression, unemployment and abuse, violence and heartache in our neighborhoods and cities and nations. No, we can’t do everything, but as the old saying goes, we can do something. And in answer to God’s call, the children of Israel are the ones to do it—not to flee Babylon this time but to attack it. Without being naive or Pollyannaish about it, we can live our religion so broadly and unfailingly that we find all kinds of opportunities to help families, bless neighbors, and protect others, including the rising generation.
I have not uttered the word missionary in this context for fear you would immediately think of white shirts and name tags. Don’t limit me on this. Stay with the big picture—the huge need—to share the gospel always, whether you are a full-time missionary or not. Latter-day Saints are called upon to be the leaven in the loaf, the salt that never loses its savor, the light set upon a hill never to be hidden under a bushel. And your age group—18 to 30 for the most part—is the time in a person’s life when your acquaintances are most likely to accept the gospel if it is presented to them. We know that. A number of studies conducted by the Church have told us that.
So start presenting! If we do right and talk right and reach out generously with our words and our deeds, then when the Savior cuts short His work in righteousness, says time is no more in this last, great dispensation and then comes in His glory, He will find us—you and me and all of us—doing our best, trying to live the gospel, trying to improve our lives and our Church and our society the best way we can. When He comes, I so want to be caught living the gospel. I want to be surprised right in the act of spreading the faith and doing something good. I want the Savior to say to me: “Jeffrey”—because He knows all of our names—“I recognize you not by your title but by your life, the way you are trying to live and the standards you are trying to defend. I see the integrity of your heart. I know you have tried to make things better first and foremost by being better yourself, and then by declaring my word and defending my gospel to others in the most compassionate way you could.”
“I know you weren’t always successful,” He will certainly say, “with your own sins or the circumstances of others, but I believe you honestly tried. I believe in your heart you truly loved me.”
I want to have something like that encounter someday as I want nothing else in this mortal life. And I want it for you. I want it for us all. Israel, Israel, God is calling—calling us to live the gospel of Jesus Christ personally in small ways as well as large, and then to reach out to those who may not look or dress or behave quite like we do, and then (where you can) go beyond that to serve in the widest community you can address.
To help you do that, I leave along with my testimony, an apostolic blessing on each of you this night. I bless you, by the power of the priesthood and the commission that I have received, to know that God loves you, that He needs you in this last and greatest dispensation when everything is accelerated and more and more is expected. I bless you, with apostolic authority, that your prayers offered in righteousness will be answered, that your personal fears will be lifted, that your backs and your shoulders and your hearts will be strong for the burdens that are placed upon them. I bless you as you strive to be pure in heart, offering yourselves as instruments in the hands of God for establishing Zion in these latter days everywhere you stand. I bless you to be true friends to each other and to those not of your circle to whom we should reach out. Above that, I bless you to be friends of the Savior of the world, to know Him personally, and to have confidence in His company.
I love the Lord Jesus Christ, whose servant I am trying to be. And I love our Heavenly Father, who cared enough to give Him to us. I know that, regarding that gift, God is calling to Israel in these latter days and that He expects us to respond to that call and to be more Christlike, to be more holy than we now are in our determination to live the gospel and establish Zion. I also know that He will give us both the strength and the holiness to be true disciples if we plead for it. I testify of the divinity of this work, of the love and grandeur of Almighty God, and the infinite Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ even down unto the least of each one of us. I bless you with this hope for happiness and holiness, tonight and tomorrow and forever, in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.