Cover image: Come, Follow Me, by Scott Sumner.
When my oldest daughter was halfway through college, she considered serving a mission. She had always been an obedient, good person and tried to do what was right and good. But school and the world were having a way with her a little bit. Her heart was strong, it was a gospel-oriented heart, but like most of us, the world took hold from time to time.
She started to pray about serving a mission. She prayed and considered, and prayed and considered some more. But she could not get clarity of mind about whether she should stay in school or at the age of 22, put her life and potential marriage prospects on hold to serve the Lord.
She called me one evening asking what she should do. I asked her a question, “Why do you want to serve a mission?” She answered that she loved the Lord and wanted to serve him, and there was something she felt, perhaps inspiration, telling her there was a purpose in serving, but she didn’t know exactly if it was inspiration or why the Lord wanted her to serve.
My advice to her was to get started. Begin the process of submitting her papers. My experience had been that when you move deliberately in the direction you feel inspired to act, the Spirit often, will confirm your decision or let you know you are on the wrong path. But sometimes you must be on the path and walk forward before you get that understanding.
So, she started her mission papers. She kept praying but had little spiritual confirmation that her actions were right or wrong. She had her final meeting with the bishop, but still no confirmation. She again asked me what she should do, I felt inspired to tell her to keep up with the process. The Lord would help her know what was right.
Well, she submitted her papers. Like all missionaries and parents do, we waited anxiously for her call. When her papers arrived at her school apartment, we happened to be in town for a work meeting. So, we met in a small conference room, and with her brothers and sisters on the phone, she opened her mission call.
She read the letter out loud and it said: “Sister Christensen, you are hereby called to serve in the London England mission.” Of course, we all let out a cheer and her brothers and sisters cheered, but our daughter was rather silent. I wondered, “What was the matter? Was she disappointed? Was she upset?”
As the cheers were dying down and the chatter from her brothers and sisters subsided, she turned to me and mouthed the words, “Now I know.” The spirit had told her it was the right path for her to follow.
Well, she left home with the knowledge that this was the Lord’s will for her and went to England. Despite trials and challenges, she served a faithful mission. When she returned home, she wasn’t the same young woman we knew before she left. It was as if her body was the same, but the spirit inside her was different. She had a maturity about her that was beyond what I could imagine, and it was remarkable. Her understanding, kindness, ability to hear the promptings of the Lord, and strength to obey were new and impressive.
As I observed this change in her nature, the scripture that came to mind was from Ezekiel, when through him, the Lord declares, “A new heart…will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Ezekiel was a prophet who was uniquely called to live among and preach to the Jews in captivity (see Ezekiel 1:1). And, at the time, the Lord was using that captivity to take away the stony heart of his people. For many years, prophets had warned and warned again that the Lord would scatter his people unless they repented.
In 1 Nephi 1:4, Nephi writes, “For it came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah, my father Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days; and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed.”
Elder Gerald Lund, speaking of Lehi’s day, said, “Ezekiel was contemporary with Lehi and could easily have been one of those prophets. We know the names of four of the prophets of that day—Lehi, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Daniel. Lehi’s call was to lead a colony out of Jerusalem to a promised land. Jeremiah’s call was to stay and bear witness of the destruction of Jerusalem. Daniel was called into exile, but he went into the royal courts and there was allowed to get a picture of the grand world view of history. Ezekiel was called to go among the captives and explain to them why this terrible tragedy had happened.”[i]
I find it interesting how the Lord administers his gospel to his children. He does so in a way that helps us remove our stony heart and replace it with a new spirit. He can and does put difficult circumstances in our path to help put a new spirit within us. What we learn from Ezekiel is helpful to us as we travel in this strange land on earth.
Israel in Ezekiel’s Day
It is important to note that at the time of Ezekiel, not all of Israel was carried away captive. By 580 B.C., there was still a core group of Jews living in Judea. Also, there were Jews living in Samaria and Galilee, and also in Palestine. Other Jews found a home in Egypt. But it seems that for those carried away captive into Babylon, the desire to return, and to be redeemed was strongest.
King Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem and to teach the Jews a lesson, took captives back to Babylon. Then a few years later, he laid siege to Jerusalem again and to teach another lesson, he:
“… carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, even ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and smiths: none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land… And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon, and the king’s mother, and the king’s wives, and his officers, and the mighty of the land, those carried he into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon…. And all the men of might, even seven thousand, and craftsmen and smiths a thousand” (2 Kings 24:14-16).
So, the learned, the priests and the leadership of Jerusalem were taken into Babylon. This included Daniel and Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 1:3).
Why did the Lord scatter Israel in this manner? Why take the priests, the upper and middle class of Jerusalem into Babylon and leave the remaining Jews scattered in and around Jerusalem?
Nephi tells of his father’s efforts to preach to the these very people of Jerusalem: “And it came to pass that the Jews did mock him because of the things which he testified of them; for he truly testified of their wickedness and their abominations; and he testified that the things which he saw and heard, and also the things which he read in the book, manifested plainly of the coming of a Messiah, and also the redemption of the world.
“And when the Jews heard these things, they were angry with him; yea, even as with the prophets of old, whom they had cast out, and stoned, and slain; and they also sought his life, that they might take it away. But behold, I, Nephi, will show unto you that the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith, to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:19-20).
From Nephi, we learn that not only did the Jews reject Lehi’s admonition to repent, but also the things of which he testified including “the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the world.” They rejected the Messiah.
Perhaps they had strayed so far in their understanding, that they placed more trust in their Davidic heritage thinking that no matter how they lived, they would be favored. Perhaps they placed their trust in themselves or their traditions, made little room for the Messiah in their hearts, and forgot to humble themselves and listen to the prophets. They forgot where to look for their salvation.
This happens to us in our day as well. Do we place more trust in our bank account, in the thinking of the world, or in our own position? Do we look to google or other worldly sources for truth or learning? Have we carved out so little time for Jesus Christ in our life, that our thoughts are rarely about him?
If so, then we can learn a lesson from Ezekiel and these scattered Jews. If we will turn to God, he can restore us, redeem us from our fallen state. Likewise, the people of Jerusalem who were scattered had to learn by their experience the need for redemption. And that is the message Ezekiel shares with them while they are in captivity. He tells them that they have been scattered, they have been separated from Israel, but redemption can and will happen.
I find in my life and the life of my family I often learn this same lesson. That when we are separated from God, we long for redemption and we learn by our own experience, the need to return to the Lord and offer a broken heart and contrite spirit as we lean on him for his mercy.
We may wonder from time to time, why we must go through the difficult times we experience in life. And I suspect we are much like those in Jerusalem at the time of these prophets. We may place too much trust in ourselves, the world, or our own thinking. But Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the light. It is through him we are saved.
Jacob writes, “Wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them, and that wasteth the days of his probation for awful is his state! O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish. But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:27-29).
I can imagine that for many of the Jews carried into Babylon, they may have asked, “Why are we punished so, when all around us are people who are as disobedient as us? God is not destroying them? Perhaps the answer is: “unto whom much is given, much is required” (D&C 82:3). But there is something important about their special relationship with him:
“I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick…” (Ezekiel 34:16). The Lord Jesus Christ asks for a broken heart and a contrite spirit. He asks for a new name, a new heart, and a new spirit. He asks for sheep that will faithfully follow their shepherd.
These circumstances and teachings of Ezekiel reminds us: there is a pattern we observe in all of scripture. The Lord uses scattering and gathering as a tool to teach us how to follow him. Even today, we are currently in the midst of a great gathering.
Ezekiel speaks for the Lord when he writes, “For I will take you from among the heathen, and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land…. And ye shall be clean from all your filthiness and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh and…I will put my spirit within you.” (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
Where we Place our Trust
How, given the prophets they had in their midst and the messages of those prophets, could the people of Jerusalem in Lehi’s day reject the prophets and their message?”
Well, perhaps they didn’t start out that way. But over time, they relied on their own strength or answered questions based on their own intellect and forgot the need to rely on and have faith in the Lord.
Elder Maxwell said, “Trust in the Lord as he leads you along. He has things in mind for you that you can’t know right now, but will unfold to you and you continue to prepare.”[ii] In our day, I see many of us struggling with the questions of the day. We turn to social media or opinions of influencers or other voices of the world. But safety and peace is found when you trust in the Lord as he leads you along. Trusting in the Lord also means trusting in his prophets.
As a young missionary, I served in Sapporo Japan. Over the first several months of my mission, I struggled learning a difficult language and was challenged with the lack of interest on the part of the people in what we had to share.
We taught very few lessons and baptisms in our mission were infrequent. During the first few months of my mission, I did not see a convert baptism. I was discouraged and wondered at times why I was serving.
One month, during transfers I was made a senior companion and my newly assigned companion was coming from the MTC. I was scared and wondered why I had been called to train this new missionary when my language skills and my faith were so weak.
This young Elder was amazing. He was full of faith and positivity. Shortly after he arrived, we scheduled a lesson. A sister from our ward had a husband who was not a member. She asked us to come to her house and teach him. In those days, we used memorized discussions. I had memorized the discussions, but while I memorized the words, I didn’t know the meaning of all those words. It was just sounds. And I couldn’t speak very much conversational Japanese at all.
My companion, being a new missionary, was no better. So, as we prepared for the lesson, we fasted and prayed. Our prayers were desperate pleas for help. We needed help to even carry on a basic conversation, let alone teach the gospel in a way someone would believe. We knew we could not teach this lesson by our own skill or strength and didn’t want to let the sister down.
So, on the day of the lesson, we practiced the first discussion over and over again. We rehearsed questions and answers. We prayed and prayed again. When we arrived at the house at the appointed time, I was really scared. We were invited in and sat down. We introduced ourselves and the sister and her husband said something I didn’t understand. I didn’t know what to do. All I could think of was to start the discussion.
So, I ignored what they said and started with my rehearsed memorized lesson. My companion and I took turns talking from memory. At the appointed times, we asked a question that was part of the discussion like, “Do you believe in God?” They answered. The problem was I did not understand what they said. So, we would ignore their answer and continue with our memorized lesson.
At one point in the discussion, we asked the prepared question: “Will you be baptized?” The husband responded “yes.”
I was so excited; I didn’t know what to do. This had never happened to me before. So, we finished up the memorized discussion and left hurriedly before we had to make any small talk because I was certain I couldn’t understand it.
We rode our bikes around the corner, dropped to our knees and thanked our Heavenly Father for his goodness and help. Well, this good brother did get baptized. Over the next two transfers, we baptized three wonderful people. It was a time of complete reliance on the Lord.
As time went on, my Japanese improved, my teaching skills improved, and I served in wonderful companionships and tried my best to be a faithful and hard-working missionary. Soon I could carry on most conversations and understand what was being said. Some people even commented that my Japanese accent sounded authentic. But for the rest of my mission, I never baptized another person.
As I reflected on this special time in my mission, I realized that the Lord doesn’t need skilled Japanese speakers or capable missionaries as much as he needs missionaries who rely completely on him. Miracles happened because we trusted in him with all our hearts.
The Lord wants people who trust in him. One reason I believe the more affluent and educated were taken from Jerusalem captive into Babylon, is that as a whole, they did not place their trust in him. One author said, “The Lord put Israel’s best in captivity to teach Israel’s best what redemption is and who is their redeemer.”
The Gathering in the Last Days
In Ezekiel 37, the Lord speaks of Jerusalem’s future. Not of their immediate future, but of their future in the last days. Ezekiel was carried in the Spirit and shown a valley of dry bones and told:
“Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts.’ Therefore, prophesy and say unto them, ‘Thus saith the Lord God; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel’” (Ezekiel 37:11-12).
Perhaps there are multiple meanings here: the first is that there will be a resurrection of the dead. And in that day, when the resurrection happens, those dead will come alive and be brought to Israel.
Another figurative meaning may be that the hope of captive Israel, my hope and your hope at times, is so far gone, that it is like dried bones. There is no reason to believe our hope will ever live again. But Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, can make life and hope from ashes. He has the power to redeem. You are not so far gone in your mistakes or struggles that he cannot redeem you and bring you to a new life.
That great gathering of the children of Christ, the resurrection, will be an amazing gathering to behold. A few years ago, speaking at a devotional, my friend Jeff shared his hope for that day.
In 2003, he and his wife Christine went to the hospital for a test. Christine was pregnant and she had not felt the baby move for a day or two. When they hooked up Christine to the monitors, they found a heartbeat, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. With the monitor running, the nurse stepped out of the room.
Then, something changed. The regular heartbeat on the monitor stopped. They called for the nurse, she thought the monitor had slipped, so she searched for a heartbeat. Then she called another nurse to search for a heartbeat. They kept searching and still no heartbeat.
All of a sudden there was chaos in the room, doctors were called, explanations were made and they started an emergency C-section. The baby was born and wasn’t breathing, there was a faint heartbeat and a loss of blood. Christine, the mother was fine, but the baby Caroline was air flighted to a children’s hospital for care.
When Jeff arrived at the children’s hospital baby Caroline was beneath a plastic shield and he gave her a blessing that she would live and have a strong heart and lungs. Well after weeks of time and lots of tests and opinions from experts, he learned that his daughter would have strong lungs and heart but because of the loss of oxygen to her system during delivery, she suffered severe brain damage.
Almost 20 years later, that little girl named Caroline is stuck at a developmental level of a three-month-old child. She cannot talk, they are unsure of what she understands, her eyes and ears seem to function, but it is unclear how much she can process of things going on around her. She has frequent seizures or tremors, eats through a stomach tube, and has a special diet.
Sometimes she will start to cry, and they don’t know what to do to help her. Jeff says she chimes in with her “aah” sounds when they sing to her, and she smiles when they sing her favorite songs.
There is lots of love in their family and lot of long days and nights. In the midst of this trial, they have grown. They have a unique kind of love in their family and lots of hope. Hope that someday in this life but most likely the next, Caroline will have the chance to know and feel and experience what it is like to talk and sing and connect with other people.
Jeff said, “God does not expect me to pray for Caroline with faith she will be healed. He invites me to pray for her with faith in Him, in his wisdom, to do what is best, though it may cause her and me—and Him—temporary anguish of soul. God takes the long view.”[iii]
In the bible, there is a little-shared story of a father who brings his son, who was crippled and mute, to Jesus to be healed. The boy at times would get angry and tear and foam at the mouth and gnash his teeth. When the father asks Jesus to heal his son, Jesus replies, that with God all things are possible for those that believe.
And the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Jeff says he can relate to this man. That in his days and nights of enduring and praying and hoping he has needed such sustaining of his belief as he patiently cares and hopes and prays for Caroline.
Recently, their family was having a lighthearted discussion about a momentous topic: Jeff’s hair or rather the lack of it because he is mostly bald. Jeff said to his wife and daughter, “in the Resurrection, they won’t even recognize me with my curly locks.” Without a pause, his daughter Lizzy said, “I think we will be too distracted by Caroline talking.”
In another verse in Ezekiel 37, the Lord tells Ezekiel to join two sticks together:
“Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions: And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand” (Ezekiel 37:16-17).
In General Conference in 1982, Elder Boyd K. Packer spoke of the recent changes to the scriptures in which the Bible and the Book of Mormon were indexed and cross referenced to each other. He said:
“The stick or record of Judah—the Old Testament and the New Testament—and the stick or record of Ephraim—the Book of Mormon, which is another testament of Jesus Christ—are now woven together in such a way that as you pore over one you are drawn to the other; as you learn from one you are enlightened by the other. They are indeed one in our hands. Ezekiel’s prophecy now stands fulfilled.”[iv]
Ezekiel goes on to prophesy that the children of Israel will be gathered from among the nations and become one kingdom with one king. “Moreover, I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.” (Ezekiel 37:26)
I believe that promise extends to all of God’s children. May the Lord bless us as we seek to gather Israel and to trust in him as he seeks to gather us to him in our life today.
[i] Gerald N. Lund, Ezekiel: Prophet of Judgment, Prophet of Promise, BYU Religious Studies Center.
[ii] Neal A. Maxwell, For I Will Lead You Along, April Conference, 1988.
[iii] Jeff S. McClellan, Thy Troubles to Bless, BYU Speeches, July 10, 2018.
[iv] Boyd K. Packer, General Conference, October 1982.