Monday, December 31, 2012

Elder Banner's Christmas letter

Christmas Letter: The Character of Christ
Elder Josh Banner

               MERRY CHRISTMAS!!! I cannot believe that it is already Christmas again! I swear that it has not yet been a year since the last time I wrote a Christmas letter! That was soooooo fast! But I am excited for the opportunity I have to, once again, be writing a Christmas letter to you. I know that if each of you decide to read, study, and (most importantly) pray to get what you need out of these scriptures and experiences it will benefit you. But I know you are thinking, “Well Elder Banner was long winded and liked the sound of his voice before the mission. Now he has been living with a deaf person for 4 months, this will be long...” That might be true..... I apologize! Ha ha
               Like last year I decide that, though severely limited by budget, I can still share with you that which is my most valuable possession, my knowledge and testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ. As we now celebrate Christmas; which is a wonderful time to remember His birth, His life, and the wonderful gifts He provided for us; I will try and explain things I have learned of Him. I will try to be brief but this is a subject that is complex and detailed. I may ramble on for more than I intend and for that I apologize.

               I want to start this with a quote from Elder David A. Bednar. He said, “Learn of Christ, not just about Him.” It is very important to note that distinction. We are all familiar with what Christ did, but who of us is familiar with who Christ is? What is He like? What is His Character? Only through knowing who Christ is and why He did what He did can we begin to emulate and live like Him. That is the subject of our study today.
               We start this more specific study with a quote from Elder Neil A. Maxwell who said, “There would have been no Atonement except for the character of Christ”. Now, that is an interesting statement. Why? Why would the Atonement be impossible “except for the character of Christ”? The answer is that without constantly living in accordance with this character, Christ would not have been sufficiently prepared to take upon Him the infinite burden of the Atonement. But, again, why? What is this character and why is it so important?

What is Character?

               In the Oxford English dictionary it explains character as “...the sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or race; mental or moral constitution; moral qualities strongly developed or strikingly displayed”. Brigham Young, when testifying of the truthfulness of the Bible, emphasized the importance of the charterer of Christ by saying,
               “...the Bible is true. It may not all have been translated aright, and many precious things may have been rejected in the compilation and translation of the Bible; but we understand, from the writings of one of the Apostles, that if all the sayings and doings of the Savior had been written, the world could not contain them. I will say that the world could not understand them. They do not understand what we have on record, nor the character of the Savior, as delineated in the Scriptures; and yet it is one of the simplest things in the world, and the Bible, when it is understood, is one of the simplest books in the world, for, as far as it is translated correctly, it is nothing but truth, and in truth there is no mystery save to the ignorant. The revelations of the Lord to his creatures are adapted to the lowest capacity, and they bring life and salvation to all who are willing to receive them.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 124)
               So Brigham Young said that the Character of Christ is one of the simplest things in the world. Why then is it not more commonly known? This is not a new question. Joseph Smith spoke of this in his famous King Follett discourse. He asked the audience, “What kind of a being is God? Does any man or woman know? Have any of you seen Him, heard Him, and communed with Him? Here is the question, perhaps, that will from this time forth occupy your attention. The apostle John says, 'this is life eternal' – to know God and Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent.” (See John 17:3 and King Follet Discourse [HC 6: 302-303]) If our purpose in life or 'life eternal' is to know God and Jesus Christ and if that is the only way we can rightly 'take upon us the name of Christ' and be like Him, then what is His Character? Who is He? What is the Character of Christ?

The Character of Christ

               Elder Maxwell commented, “Jesus' character necessarily underwrote His remarkable atonement. Without Jesus' sublime character there could have been no sublime atonement! His character is such that He "[suffered] temptations of every kind" (Alma 7:11), yet He gave temptations "no heed" (Doctrine and Covenants 20:22).
               Someone has said only those who resist temptation really understand the power of temptation. Because Jesus resisted it perfectly, He understood temptation perfectly, hence He can help us. The fact that He was dismissive of temptation and gave it "no heed," reveals His marvelous character, which we are to emulate (see Doctrine and Covenants 20:22; 3 Nephi 12:48; 27:27).”
               Elder Bednar shows us more clearly by saying, “Perhaps the greatest indicator of character is the capacity to recognize and appropriately respond to other people who are experiencing the very challenge or adversity that is most immediately and forcefully pressing upon us. Character is revealed, for example, in the power to discern the suffering of other people when we ourselves are suffering; in the ability to detect the hunger of others when we are hungry; and in the power to reach out and extend compassion for the spiritual agony of others when we are in the midst of our own spiritual distress.” And thus we come to realize that character is shown, demonstrated, and exemplified by looking, reaching, and turning outward when the natural and instinctive response is to be self-absorbed and turn inward. That is the Character of Christ.

Examples of the Character of Christ

               If that is the Character of Christ, where can we find examples of it? Let's turn in the New Testament to Matthew chapter 4 to start. In verse 1-9 we read about Jesus, having concluded His forty days of fasting in preparation for His ministry, being tempted of the devil. The devil tempts Jesus three different times in succession and Jesus resists the temptation every time. Now following a forty day fast the Savior was probably more than a little bit weak, and after each successive confrontation with the devil the Redeemer must have been emotionally and spiritually drained. With that in mind, please read verse 11 which says: “Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.” Now that is great, following these experiences angels came to strengthen Christ. I know I would have appreciated that as Christ must have. But is that how it happened? Now, with the help of modern revelation, we can see a better example of the Character of Christ. The Joseph Smith translation of verse 11 says: “Then the devil leaveth him, and now Jesus knew that John [the Baptist] was cast into prison, and he [Jesus] sent angels, and behold, they came and ministered unto him [John]”. What a remarkable example of the Character of Christ. Christ, in the midst of trials Himself, turned outward in compassion and thought of John and sent angels to comfort him.
               Another example is found in 3 Nephi where it explains Christ coming to visit His “other sheep” (John 10:16) here in the Americas shortly after His resurrection. He came to them, established His church, called the 12 apostles, and taught how to perform ordinances such as baptism, explains the doctrine of Christ, delivers the Sermon on the Mount, and then explains many other things. He then tells them that He has to leave them. At this point we are in chapter 17. He [Jesus] “perceives that [they] are weak” or in other words tired or overwhelmed by all of His teachings. They needed some time before they could learn again. Christ notices that, advices them to go to their homes so they can ponder and ask God for understanding to prepare themselves for His [Christ's] next visit. He then explains a little of what He is going to do. He is to go back to his Father and then to the lost ten tribes of Israel along with more of His “other sheep”.
               We then read in verse 5-8: “and it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them. And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you. Have ye any that are sick among you? Bring them hither. Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither and I will heal them for I have compassion upon you; my bowels are filled with mercy. For I perceive that ye desire that I should show unto you what I have done unto your brethren at Jerusalem, for I see that your faith is sufficient that I should heal you.”
              Instantly Christ turns outward in compassion and love to those who merely “desired Him to stay”. They didn't say anything. They didn't have to. The Master was able to perceive their desires and instantly turned out to help and heal them. He didn't think of all He still needed to do, He still had a full plate. He had already spent hours of His time teaching these people but was willing to stay longer. There was no turning inward and thinking what He wanted, he immediately turned outward to help, to love, and to be an example for the multitude and the record says, “and He did heal them every one”. For even greater examples of this Character I would encourage you to read the last half of 3 Nephi Chapter 17.
               But one of my favorite examples occurred following that which took place in Gethsemane. Having just sweat great gouts of blood while taking upon Him the sins, pains, and suffering of the world. Christ returns to find His apostles asleep. They couldn't wait with Him “one hour”. He gently rouses them just in time for another of His apostles, who had betrayed Him, lead soldiers to arrest Him with a servant of the High Priest. Peter, in an attempt to avoid the inevitable, cuts off the ear of the servant of the High Priest. What is the pain of losing an ear compared to all the pain from sin and all of the pain the whole world would eventually feel? Nothing right? Yet Christ, in the midst of the most terrible agony that He would ever bear and more than any of us could even imagine to bear, reaches down to lift the servant and then heals his ear.
               That is the Character of Christ! That is who He is! That is what He does, every time! He will always turn outward in love and compassion to help those are in need! Especially when it is hardest for Him, it doesn't matter what is happening to Him, what pain He may be experiencing, He will always turn outward. Now, imagine this, when we accepted our baptismal covenant we agreed and promised to take upon ourselves His Name. That means to be like Him! Now, is that even possible? With what we have learned about the Character of our Savior, can we accomplish that? The answer is we can! But it takes a little bit of work and desire.

How to emulate the Character of Christ

               It is interesting to note that the core, the root, of the word character is the word ACT. That is fundamentally important! As we have seen through our Great Exemplar, the nature and consistency of how one acts reveals in a powerful way his or her character. With Christ, we know that He is one that “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). The key to building, developing, and cultivating a Christ-like character is consistently turning outward in love and compassion to help and lift others, to go about consistently “doing good”.
               If we, in our individual lives, are able to “[put] off the natural man” meaning resist the impulse to turn inwards and think only of self, and “[become] a saint through the Atonement of [Him who we are trying to emulate]” (Mosiah 3:19) which means turning outward in love and compassion to help and lift others, then we can take upon ourselves the very character of Christ. This is not a big thing or one single event. These are not horrible experiences every time. These are the little things. This is helping others through the midst of our own trials. This is going and tucking in your children after a long day when you are ready to sleep. This is helping someone on the side of the road when you had a long day at work. This is helping a friend feel better when you are personally struggling with something they don't know about or don't care to see. This is saying yes to that person that asked you to a dance when you would rather go with someone else, but you know how much it would mean to them who asked you. This is that missionary going to teach the gospel and serve others even though he or she is homesick and knows all the help they could give at home. This is visiting those who don't get many visitors when you feel you don’t have time. This is stopping what you're doing to give someone a hug that needs it. This is pausing your conversation to say hi to someone who looks like they are having a bad day. That is the Character of Christ!
               We do not need to take upon us the agony of sins and remorse and pain of the world to follow the Savior. We do not need to be punished, hated, and abused to follow the Savior. We do not need to travel half-way round the world to follow the Savior. We can lift where we stand and help those in need as the situation arises. We can emulate the Character of Christ merely by consistently acting in the way that He would.
               Now can you imagine what this world would be like if everyone tried this? There would be no war, there would be no regret, there would be no murder, no thievery, no lying, no inequality, and there would be no situation wherein any of us would ever feel alone or unloved. That is one solution to all the world's problems.
               Here is an experience that was shared by Elder Bednar that describes the type of person we could become through constantly living and acting in accordance with these principals.
               Let me now briefly share with you two memorable experiences from my service as a stake president that highlight the relationship between our actions and a Christ like character.
               Early one summer morning I was showering. My wife called to me in the middle of my shower and indicated that I was needed immediately on the telephone. (This was before the day of cell and cordless phones). I quickly put on my robe and hurried to the phone. I next heard the voice of a dear sister and friend informing me of a tragic automobile accident that had just occurred in a remote area involving three teenage young women from our stake. Our friend indicated one of the young women had already been pronounced dead at the scene of the accident and that the two other young women were badly injured and presently were being transported to the regional medical center in Fayetteville. She further reported that the identity of the deceased young woman was not yet known. There was urgency in her voice, but there was no panic or excessive alarm. She then asked if I could go to the hospital, meet the ambulance when it arrived, and assist in identifying the young women. I answered that I would leave immediately.
               During the course of our telephone conversation and as I listened to both the information being conveyed and the voice of our friend, I gradually became aware of two important things. First, this friend's daughter was one of the young women involved in the accident. Our friend lived approximately 35 miles from the hospital and therefore needed the assistance of someone who lived closer to the city. Second, I detected that the mother simultaneously was using two telephone handsets--with one in each hand pressed to each of her ears. I became aware that as she was talking with me, she was also talking with a nurse at a small rural hospital who had initially attended to the three accident victims. Our friend was receiving updated information about the condition of the young women in the very moment she was informing me about the accident and requesting my help. I then heard one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard in my life.
               I faintly heard the nurse telling this faithful mother and friend that the young woman pronounced dead at the scene of the accident had been positively identified as her daughter. I could not believe what I was hearing. I was listening to this good woman in the very moment that she learned of the death of her precious daughter. Without hesitation, and with a calm and most deliberate voice, our friend next said, "President Bednar, we must get in contact with the two other mothers. We must let them know as much as we can about the condition of their daughters and that they will soon be in the hospital in Fayetteville." There was no self-pity; there was no self-absorption; there was no turning inward. The Christ like character of this devoted woman was manifested in her immediate and almost instinctive turning outward to attend to the needs of other suffering mothers. It was a moment and a lesson that I have never forgotten. In a moment of ultimate grief, this dear friend reached outward when I likely would have turned inward.
               I then drove to the hospital with a concern in my heart for the well-being of the two other beautiful young women who had been involved in the accident. Little did I realize that the lessons I would learn about Christ like character--lessons taught by seemingly ordinary disciples--were just beginning.
               I arrived at the hospital and proceeded to the emergency room. After properly establishing who I was and my relationship to the victims, I was invited into two different treatment areas to identify the injured young women. It was obvious that their respective wounds were serious and life threatening. And the lovely countenances and physical features of these young women had been badly marred. Within a relatively short period of time, the two remaining young women died. All three of these virtuous, lovely, and engaging young women--who seemed to have so much of life in front of them--suddenly had gone home to their Eternal Father. My attention and the attention of the respective families now shifted to funeral arrangements and logistics.
               A day or so later, in the midst of program planning and detail arranging for the three funerals, I received a phone call from the Relief Society president of my home ward. Her daughter had been one of the victims in the accident, and she and I had talked several times about her desires for the funeral program. This faithful woman was a single mother rearing her only child--her teenage daughter. I was especially close to this woman and her daughter having served as both their bishop and stake president. After reviewing and finalizing several details for the funeral of her daughter, this good sister said to me, "President, I am sure it was difficult for you to see my daughter in the emergency room the other day. She was severely injured and disfigured. As you know, we will have a closed casket at the funeral. I have just returned from the funeral home, and they have helped my daughter to look so lovely again. I was just wondering ...why don't we arrange a time when we can meet at the mortuary and you can have one last look at her before she is buried. Then your final memories of my daughter will not be the images you saw in the emergency room the other day." I listened and marveled at the compassion and thoughtfulness this sister had for me. Her only daughter had just been tragically killed, but she was concerned about the potentially troublesome memories I might have given my experience in the emergency room. In this good woman I detected no self-pity and no turning inward. Sorrow, certainly. Sadness, absolutely. Nevertheless, she reached outward when many or perhaps most of us would have turned inward with sorrow and grief.
               Let me describe one final episode related to these three tragic deaths. On the day of her daughter's funeral, this Relief Society president from my home ward received a phone call from an irritated sister in our ward. The complaining sister had a cold and did not feel well, and she basically chewed out the Relief Society president for not being thoughtful or compassionate enough to arrange for meals to be delivered to her home. Just hours before the funeral of her only child, this remarkable Relief Society president prepared and delivered a meal to the murmuring sister.
               We appropriately and rightly speak with reverence and awe of young men who sacrificed their lives to rescue stranded handcart pioneers and of other mighty men and women who repeatedly gave their all to establish the Church in the early days of the Restoration. I speak with equal reverence and awe of these two women--women of faith and character and conversion--who taught me so much and instinctively reached outward when most of us would have turned inward. Oh how I appreciate their quiet and powerful examples.”
               On my mission I have seen many examples of people who have taken upon them the Character of Christ. Most are not as dramatic as those above but they are just as important and awe-inspiring. From those who say, “We can feed you whenever you don't have a dinner” to one person who, after being in a car accident that was not his fault but resulted in him breaking a few bones in his neck, turned around soon thereafter to serve the members of our branch in ways too numerous to mention. There is no thinking of self in either of these instances or anything in between. In all those who emulate the Savior choose to self others without thinking only of self.
               We can all become like Jesus Christ by doing these small things to help others. This has become one of my main focuses and I hope I was able to present the information in a way that can help you understand the importance of these principals. I love you all! I am so thankful for the opportunity I have to know each of you! I am truly grateful for that! I know this is possible. We can become like the Savior! I love my Savior. He is real; He came here and was born of Mary more than 2,000 years ago. He grew up, went about doing good, and satisfied all that was asked of Him, both by those here and His Father in heaven. He loves each of us and took upon Him our sins and all that is not perfect in our lives and then died for us. He suffered, bled, and died for me that I may be comforted and be able to repent of all of my mistakes. As He has for all of you. He suffered for everything that I have done wrong. He was buried and rose on the third day to break the chains of death and Hell. He paved the way for us to become like Him and live with Him, our Heavenly Father, our families, and all those whom we love forever. I love Him. I know He lives. I have never seen Him but feel as if I have. I know He loves me and would do anything to help me as He would for you. I know this is His church once again established on the earth and nothing gives me as much joy as being out here, serving Him. He is our Savior, our Redeemer, our Judge, and our Advocate with the Father. He is Emmanuel, the great I AM, Jehovah, the Way, and the Light. He is the Bread of Life and the Water of Salvation. He is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. And it is with His name I testify that these things herein are true. With His name, Jesus even the Christ, Amen

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