This Great and Amazing Church

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Devotional Talk Given at
Brigham Young University-Hawaii

March 18, 2004
Dr. Stephen Russell
Visiting Professor of Economics 

Brothers and Sisters, Aloha! 

Sister Russell and I deeply love the Brigham Young University Hawaii Ohana.  One of the highest privileges of our lives is the association that we have with you dear students.Sam from Cambodia, Ifraz from Fiji, Olya from Russia, Frederic from New Caledonia,  Yoon Ha and MeJong from Korea, Vaite from Tahiti, Amy from Vietnam, Wilson from New Zealand, Allen from Thailand, Li Na from China, Jeremy from Arizona—all of you, you are precious to Brother and Sister Russell.

When Elder LeGrand Richards—an apostle of an earlier generation—went to Europe on his first mission, a fellow missionary said to him:"I met a man the other day who knows more about religion than I ever dreamed of.I told him that if he had something better than I had, I would join his church." This missionary expressed concern to Elder Richards that maybe he had said the wrong thing and made the wrong offer.  Elder Richards responded, "Elder, you told him just the right thing.  If he has something better than you have, you ought to join his church." 

"Does he have something better than a personal visitation of God the Father, and his Son, Jesus Christ, in a pillar of light, after centuries of spiritual darkness, to open the dispensation of the fulness of times?  Does he have something better than the coming of Moroni with the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?Does he have something better than the coming of John the Baptist with the Aaronic Priesthood, the power and authority to baptize by immersion for the remission of sins?  Does he have something better than the coming of Peter, James, and John—Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ—with the holy Melchizedek Priesthood?  Does he have something better than the coming of Moses with the keys of the latter-day gathering of Israel?  Does he have something better than the coming of Elijah to turn the heart of the children to their fathers in fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Malachi?  Does he have something better than holy temples and temple ordinances for the living and the dead?  Does he have something better than the opportunity you have to take your sweetheart to a temple and be sealed to her for time and all eternity?  Does he have something better than patriarchal blessings, something better than living Apostles and Prophets, something better than the great Society of Zion?  If he has something better than that, you should join his church!"

Several months ago Sister Russell and I were visiting with dear friends.We had a delightful conversation about many aspects of Latter-day Saint life.We talked about our love for the Savior and what a privilege it is for us to live on earth in the days of the Restoration.  We talked about the rebuilding of the Nauvoo temple and many aspects of Church History during the Nauvoo period.The conversation soon moved to our love for the Book of Mormon.We talked about the Hill Cumorah pageant.Soon we were discussing a book entitled The American Religion written by the distinguished professor of humanities at Yale University, Harold Bloom, a Jew, who describes Joseph Smith as "the greatest and most authentic of American [religionists]."  Thereafter our  conversation drifted to the growth of the Church in the Philippines.  Later we were reviewing with each other our favorite talks in the most recent General Conference.  Toward the end of our delightful visit as two couples who treasure this gospel, my friend said to me: "What a wonderful evening of conversation about the things we love.  This Church is so rich in history, so multifaceted, so diverse in all of its dimensions, that I just don't know what people in other religions have to talk about!"

My testimony is that this church is a gift from a loving Heavenly Father—that there is nothing in all the world that compares to membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Today, I would like to share with you six reasons I believe that this is a great and amazing church.

First, this church is great and amazing because this church is a great friend to its members.  We find in the Church the greatest spiritual and social fulfillment that can be found anywhere.

Let me share a few personal experiences to illustrate.

In May of 1967 I graduated from BYU-Provo with a wife and two small children.  The following day I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.  We had orders for Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, near Dayton, Ohio.  We loaded our little family in our very old car and commenced a journey across the country to my first Air Force assignment.

We had been led to believe that military housing was plentiful at Wright-Patterson.  However, when we arrived at the base, to our dismay, we learned that the wait for base housing was at least one year.  We had less than one hundred dollars and our first Air Force paycheck was thirty days away.  What were we to do?A family of four in a new location with little money and no place to live.

We decided to locate the only friend we had in Ohio—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  We telephoned a counselor in the bishopric of the Fairborn Ward, Denny Foscarini.  I introduced myself and told him of our plight.  He said, "Brother Russell, are you in a position to stay in a motel tonight?"  I said that we were.  He then asked that our family come to his home the next day.  We arrived that next evening and for the first time the Foscarini's met the Russells.  We had dinner.  Then the blessing came.  "Brother Russell, on Friday, we are going on vacation for  thirty-days.  Would your family be willing to stay in our home?"

Brothers and Sisters, I don't think that instant bonding between the Russells and the Foscarinis, that sense of trust, that spirit of sharing, could have possibly occurred were in not for our mutual friend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

During the years of the Vietnam War, I received orders to Taiwan, the Republic of China.  This would be a remote assignment, meaning that I would go without my family.  This assignment, although not entirely unexpected, was heartbreaking to me.  We had four little children, including an eight-week-old baby girl, that I would leave behind for 15 months of military duty.

I made a covenant with the Lord."Heavenly Father, I promise to do all I can to build up the kingdom in Taiwan.  Please take care of my little family while I am away and please bless me to have the strength to bear this separation."

I left my family in Utah and flew from Salt Lake City to McCord Air Force Base in Washington State where I boarded a military aircraft.  I shed tears when I bid farewell to my wife and four little children at the Salt Lake Airport.  I was emotional as my flight left McCord Air Force Base.  But the depths of sadness came to me when, after transferring aircraft in Taipei, we landed in a C-130 aircraft on an airfield at Ching Chuan Kang Air Base in Taiwan to begin my new assignment.  I was half way around the world from the people I loved.  My little eight-week-old daughter would be 17 months old when I would see her again.  I would miss Christmas with my family, I would miss five birthdays, I would miss Thanksgiving, I would miss our anniversary.Brother Russell was a sad Brother Russell that day.

I had to find my friend.  And my emotional health required that I find my friend quickly.  During in-processing, I asked for the name of the LDS contact on base.  I was told that  Senior Master Sergeant Luman P. Lewis, from Bossier City, Louisiana was on record  as the leader of the Mormons.

I was not on that base sixty minutes before I had Brother Lewis on the phone.  "Brother Lewis, this is Stephen Russell.  I just arrived on base.  I'm missing my family and I want to have contact with the Church."  Brother Lewis responded, "Welcome to CCK, Brother Russell.  Our little Church group consists of seven other lonely guys just like you; we all miss our families.  We gather every evening at 7:00 P.M. in my dorm room.  We find if we stick together, we all stay out of trouble."

I went to Brother Lewis's room that night.  I find it challenging to describe the peace that came to me when I saw his Latter-day Saint smile, when I felt his firm Latter-day Saint hand shake, and when I saw Latter-day Saint things in his room.  There were photos of his family and of temples.  I saw copies of the Ensign magazine and the Church News on his table.  The scriptures were on his pillow.  I knew that I was with my friend, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Brother Lewis served the eight of us in his room that night vanilla ice cream floating in grape juice.  I had never heard of grape juice floats before or since.That was an unusual combination. But I got used to it.  Brother Lewis served grape juice floats every evening. 

Night after night, we'd meet at Brother Lewis's room.  We would review the news of the day, share stories from home, eat ice cream floating in grape juice, play games, or go to a movie or a ball game.  Sometimes we'd go to town.  But we would always go as a group, because we knew that being away from our wives, there was safety in numbers.

I honestly don't know how I could have survived socially or spiritually were in not for  President Lewis and the LDS Servicemen's Group at CCK, Taiwan.

Even today, whenever  I encounter grape juice, my mind goes back to a dorm room in Taiwan 34 years ago, and I am reminded of what a great friend I have in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This great and amazing church is a blessed source of enrichment, of comfort, of security to its members.

A second reason this church is great and amazing is because it produces a uniquely righteous people in a world that is moving toward moral bankruptcy.  In the words of scripture, the Latter-day Saints are a peculiar people.

Let me illustrate with a few more experiences from my years in the military.

My first assignment in the Air Force was with the F-111 Fighter development program—to do economic analysis and trade-off studies.  This was a prestigious assignment in an important national defense program.  This position was a real opportunity for young Lieutenant Russell "to shine."

This was in the days when the Air Force glamorized alcohol.All social events in the Air Force  seemingly focused on alcohol.  My commander was Colonel Darwin E. Rasmussen.  And Colonel Rasmussen was a great promoter of  the Air Force social scene. 

Shortly after my arrival, Colonel Rasmussen announced that the F-111 Program needed to throw a cocktail party to welcome the Russells.Oh, dear!I knew well that military officers had social responsibilities and that my advancement through the ranks required that we support the Air Force social agenda.  Here I am, a brand new Air Force Officer, assigned to the nation's highest priority national defense program, trying to make a good impression in my first position,  and I am to be the guest of honor at a drinking party.

We went to the Rasmussen home on the appointed evening.We were apprehensive.  How would we decline cocktails at a cocktail party held in our honor?Colonel and Mrs. Rasmussen greeted us at the door, took our coats, and graciously guided us to seats.  Then Colonel Rasmussen started taking orders around the room.  Far to my right was Fred Sills, the senior program manager.  "What are you drinking tonight, Fred?" asked Colonel Rasmussen?  "I'll have a Manhattan," was the response.  Next to Fred, Captain Walker asked for a Martini.  Then we heard orders for other alcoholic beverages with strange and unfamiliar names.  As Colonel Rasmussen approached us, I knew we would decline his offer.  But how would we do it without offending him?  I just knew that this social fiasco, only two weeks after entering active military service, was about to torpedo my career.  Then Colonel Rasmussen stood before the Russells.  He looked at me and my wife and said, "For you dear people, we have orange juice, Seven Up, or ginger ale."

I have no idea how Colonel Rasmussen knew that we were Latter-day Saints.  But he did know, and he showed great respect for our standards.

A few years later, when I was director of budget at another Air Force Base, Colonel Rothman, the Deputy Commander, called me into his office one day to discuss budget matters.  In military style, I formally reported to his office with a salute.  "Captain Russell, reporting as ordered sir."He invited me to be seated.  "Captain, may I get you a cup of coffee?"  "No, thank you, Sir" I replied.  "How about a cup of tea?"  "No, Sir, I don't drink tea."  "Well, Captain, it's only ten in the morning and I am not going to offer you a beer!"  I smiled and said, "No, Sir, I don't drink beer either."  Colonel Rothman was wearing these funny-looking half-frame reading glasses. He tipped his head down, looked above his lenses, and in an artificially gruff voice said, "Are you a Mormon?" I swallowed hard and said, "Yes, sir." He broke into a smile, stood up, stretched forth his hand to shake mine and said, "Good for you, Captain.  I have never met a Mormon that wasn't a fine officer."

These experiences and many others manifested to me that Latter-day Saints, with their standards, maintain a separate identity when we are out in the world.  I have consistently found that the Word of Wisdom is a behavioral emblem, an identifying mark, that facilitates our being identified as people with very high standards.  The Word of Wisdom is a badge of separateness that sets us apart from the world.      

In New Testament times, the apostle Peter said to the members of the Church,  ". . . ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar  people."  (I Peter 2:9).  In this context peculiar means a preserved people, a rare people, a people distinct from all others.

Peter was communicating the idea that members of the church were separate from the world, that as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ they were a chosen and a holy people.

Throughout scripture, God's covenant people are taught by prophets to keep themselves unspotted from the world and to maintain a separate identity.  To be sure, we don't maintain a separate society.  We mingle with and love the people not of our faith.But we do maintain a separate identity.

The shield, the badge, the identifying mark that we as Latter-day Saints carry to set us apart as the Lord's peculiar people is in large part the Word of Wisdom.  But the Word of Wisdom is only one aspect of the principles of morality that make members of the church a separate and peculiar people.The other aspect relates to our high standards of virtue and decency.

We live in a world of moral chaos.  In much of modern culture, movies, television, music, and celebrities glamorize that which is degrading, vulgar, immoral, and disgusting.

The open acceptance of homosexual behavior and the incredible unraveling of the traditional family with inappropriate relationships are distorting that which is sacred and are undermining the very fabric of society.  Our world's hedonistic decline toward evil is frightening.

Yet we find emanating from Salt Lake City a strong and consistent voice for righteousness.  This Church is unequivocal about the Word of Wisdom, about the law of chastity, about standards for decent behavior.

In this Church we have a belief system centered in absolute truths, and not moral relativism.  We teach that the commandments of God are not open to broad or private  interpretation.

This Church offers a sure standard in all aspects of wholesome living.  Consider, as a key example, the Church's Proclamation to the World on the family.  There is no equivocation in the proclamation.  There is no ambiguity about this church standing for chastity and virtue and wholesome living within the structure of the family.

In the midst of a world that is physically, socially, and spiritually sick with tobacco, alcohol, drugs, divorce, immorality, pornography, same-sex relationships, and all manner of vulgarity and indecency, this church stands to all the world as a beacon of truth and righteousness, declaring  the standards for living that bring approval in heaven and happiness on earth. 

This Church influences what we eat and what we drink.  This church influences how we spend our time and how we spend our money, what we read, and what we watch.  It influences whom we marry and where we marry.  It influences how we dress, and when we shop.  It influences the words we speak and how we behave.  And all of this for the happiness and well being of its people.  

We stand before the world with badges of clean living, strong families, and moral uprightness.  Indeed, this great and amazing church is recognized the world over as the great champion of good health, clean living, strong families, and personal righteousness.

In the words of scripture, this great and amazing church makes its members a peculiar people.

Another reason that this church is great and amazing is because its affairs are accomplished by volunteers.  We have no paid ministers.  We don't pay our choir members or our organists.  We don't pay a stipend to Sunday School teachers.  The stake presidents, the bishops, the Young Women presidents, the Primary teachers, the librarians, those who serve as temple ordinance workers, as hosts at visitors centers, as ward and full-time missionaries are all volunteers.  For their work they receive but one form of payment—the joy of service. There is nothing like it in all the world.Such service stands as witness that this is a great and amazing church. 

In particular, consider our missionary force.  Our young missionaries postpone education plans and career goals. Sometimes they set aside scholarships and extraordinary opportunities in athletics to be ministers of the gospel.  Their priorities are not dating, or varsity sports, or slick automobiles, or building their net worth.  What is amazing to the world is that they do missionary service at their own expense or at the expense of their families.  And they return home declaring that this period of service was the best two years of their lives!

We today in the Church have 55,942 full time missionaries in 123 nations and 21 territories whose priority is the scriptural injunction in Matthew 28:19, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you . . ."I know of no other organization that can elicit that type of service, particularly from young adults.

And then we have our senior missionaries who serve proselyting and service missions all over the world.  Recently I was looking at an announcement on a ward bulletin board soliciting service missionaries in various areas:  A couple needed in South Africa to be office workers and fleet managers—$1900 per month.  Service missionaries with health care experience needed in Ghana—$1400 per month.  A couple needed in Chicago, Illinois to work as recruiters for the LDS Institute Program—$1800 per month.  Service missionaries with administrative and accounting experience needed in London England to manage church properties—$2600 per month.  These monthly dollar amounts are not salaries—they are the estimated monthly costs that these volunteers will have to pay out of pocket for the service they provide!

There is nothing like this army of volunteers, of proselyting missionaries, of temple missionaries, of CES missionaries, of service missionaries.  That the work of the Lord in this Church is done by volunteers at their own expense who wear out their lives in service shows this to be a great and amazing church.

I also find the senior leadership of this Church great and amazing.  Our General Authorities are not graduates of theological seminaries.  They are not professional clergy.  They are not great orators who seek to heap glory unto themselves with ministerial robes, marketing schemes, and crusades.

In New Testament times, when Jesus called the presiding authorities for the kingdom of God on earth—the Twelve Apostles—he didn't seek volunteers.  He didn't seek professionals.  He went to the spiritually prepared and the worthy and said, "Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you . . ." (John 15:16)

And so it is in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Unlike any other religious system of which I am aware, the presiding authorities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints do not train and apply for position, they do not seek advancement, and they do not negotiate compensation packages.  On the contrary, the presiding authorities of this Church are called by revelation to leave their chosen careers and to enter full-time Church service.

Represented in our Quorum of the Twelve today are university presidents, prominent business leaders and corporate executives, a nuclear engineer, a Harvard MBA, a Harvard PhD, a state Supreme Court Justice, a renowned cardiovascular surgeon and medical researcher, noted authors, a University of Chicago Law Professor, a mayor of Palo Alto California, a President of the Utah Bar Association, and others of great achievement.

In the field of economics, we have a principle called opportunity cost.  The opportunity cost of any choice is the best foregone alternative.  In the eyes of the world, the opportunity cost for our General Authorities to leave their successful careers and their chosen paths to a leisurely retirement has to be viewed as very high.

Life as a General Authority demands great sacrifices of time and energy.  It requires heavy administrative burdens; extraordinary responsibilities for resources, programs, and people; and continual travel away from home and family.

Why do these prominent men of  commerce, education, science and law accept these calls?  Because they love the Lord Jesus Christ and desire to serve him ". . . with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their strength, and with all their mind."  (See Luke 10:27)

These brethren seek no glory unto themselves.  Rather they are humble men of God directing the work of the Lord under inspiration and revelation from the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Savior and Redeemer.

A church which can ask for and receive the voluntary services of its millions of members, from Primary teachers to missionaries to General Authorities, is unique in all the world.Such service stands as a witness that this is a great and amazing church.

And then there is the issue of finances.  We have no fund raising campaigns in this Church.  We don't have donor recognition lists, we don't have a system of pledges, we don't hold raffles.  We don't charge for weddings or funerals. We don't even pass a collection plate.  And yet the financial position of this church is solid.  We have large operating budgets and large capital budgets.  We have no debt.  How is this possible?

The members of the Church pay their tithing.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not the only church which in modern times has attempted to establish the principle of tithing, but we are the only one which has succeeded.  The payment of tithing is a reflection of the deep, underlying strength of the Church, which lies in the testimony of its people.  A tithe paying people are a great and amazing people.

Brothers and sisters, how blessed we are to belong to this Church.  I love this church with all of my heart.  To me, the greatest privilege in all the world is to have a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and to belong to this great and amazing church. 

This Church is great and amazing because it is a great friend to its people.  The Church nurtures us, blesses our lives, and provides us with a spiritual and social home.

This Church is great and amazing because it produces a peculiar people, a people of high standards, a pure and righteous people who stand apart, anchored to morality and truth in a world of lost values.

This church is great and amazing because its work is accomplished by volunteers.

This Church is great and amazing because of the nature of its senior leadership.  Our beloved General Authorities—men of distinction called from all walks of life—truly set this church apart.

This Church is great and amazing because of its system of finances based upon the law of tithing.

Most of all, this church is great and amazing because it is true.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the New Testament Church restored in these latter days.This is the Church led by Apostles and Prophets.  This is the church that is built upon the rock of revelation.  This is the Church that unlocks the hidden truths in the Bible.This is the Church with priesthood authority.  This is the church that the God of heaven set up, in fulfillment of Daniel's interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream,  as a kingdom to never be destroyed but to stand forever.  (See Daniel 2:44)

Hence, the God of Heaven declared to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants that "[The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is] . . . the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth . . ."

And this is my testimony to you in the name of Jesus Christ.Amen.