Dear brothers and sisters, here is a beautiful wish for a new year—sung in Spanish: “A hope, the world rejoices / The light of a new day is born.”1
Sister Gong and I were surprised and concerned when we tested positive for COVID-19. Thank you for your messages and prayers for our full recovery. Though in isolation, we did not feel isolated. Now Sister Gong and I pray even more for all who suffer pandemic hardships.
In the world, there are some 1.47 billion adults ages 18–30. In our Church, 2.3 million adults ages 18–30 live on 6 continents in some 180 countries and territories. You read the Book of Mormon in over 114 languages.
Sister Gong and I love meeting you, whether in Rexburg, Idaho; Manaus, Brazil; Bogotá, Colombia; across the world;2 on every continent; in every circumstance.
Do you know we now have a North Pole Alaska Stake?
We gather today via technology. I pray the Holy Ghost will make us one in faith, touch your heart, and open your path in these challenging times.
Dear brothers and sisters, God lives. Please come feel His love and His power to grow and change. Let Him encircle you “in the arms of safety”3 with His assurance you are enough. You have immense divine capacity you can develop daily.
Today I share three invitations that have helped inspire me to (1) deepen my relationship with God, (2) change the future now, and (3) become a better me. I pray, taken together, these invitations will strengthen your faith and draw you closer to God and those around you as you find enduring joy on His covenant path.
First invitation: with profoundly inclusive love, Heavenly Father promises, “Be still, and know that I am God.”4
I grew up in the city but love backpacking in the mountains. Free to explore, my friends and I hiked all day, then camped by wilderness lakes under heaven’s expanse to the night song of the wind.
Recently, Sister Gong and I drove to a place so dark and beautiful we could see the Milky Way. It was almost as bright as this photo.
The Milky Way is the stuff of myth, marvel, and mystery. In Chinese, Milky Way is “Tian He” (“river of heaven”). In Belarusian, Estonian, Finnish, it is the “way of the birds.” Some call the Milky Way the “road to Santiago.” In Cherokee, it is “the way the dog ran away”; in Hebrew, “the river of light.”5
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. … And God saw that it was good.”6 God is knowing, powerful, and good. The purpose, elegance, and harmony of His creations witness His infinite love and His plan of happiness for each of us. Alma testifies, “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness … there is a Supreme Creator.”7
It takes conscious effort to slow down and “be still.” It takes spiritual openness and humility to “know that [God is] God.”8 Sometimes slowing down in things that matter less helps us find the things that matter most.
An important way to know God is God is to discern His signature in creations made to gladden the heart. We sing:
For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.9
Another way to know God is to see goodness and meaning in divine relationships—in tenderness, serendipity, reconciliation, forgiveness, sacrifice.
President Russell M. Nelson recently noted art, literature, and music can enrich us.10 So can the sciences, when understood with faith.
Here are two famous views of the night sky.
From science, a Hubble telescope Deep Field image reminds us, as the great prophets Moses and Abraham saw, that God’s creations include galaxies on galaxies, without number, even in places the night sky seems empty.
From art, Vincent Van Gogh captured Starry Night as oil on canvas just before sunrise. Astronomic recreation of the sky in June 1889 suggests Van Gogh’s morning star is the planet Venus. Great art inspires new ways to see God’s goodness.
God’s goodness can enrich our souls. Today’s noisy, cluttered, polluted world can make it hard to “be still, and know that [God is] God.”11 We don’t remember how noisy the kitchen fan is until we turn it off. Superficiality, mirages, secular rabbit holes distract and confuse. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is old news, though we are still glued to our devices. Some think multitasking 24/7 increases our value or importance.
We position and frame life to be “Insta-perfect” for that next Instagram post, even though we know “Insta-perfect” is neither “insta-” nor “perfect.” We worry new filters, also unreal and unrealistic, affect swipes or double-taps.
In the documentary The Social Dilemma, tech insiders warn, “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.” Some experts now fear social media unexpectedly hurt societies and personal well-being. They worry social media algorithms designed to optimize online use, sharing, and monetized advertising profit also foster suspicion, division, and depression.12 Perhaps most telling, these tech gurus protect their families from excessive social media use.
To be still and reflective is not to be lonely. Leonardo da Vinci said, “While you are alone you are entirely your own.”13 Slowing down declutters my head and heart. Then gratitude and its twin virtue, humility, can open my spiritual eyes and ears to the evidences of His generous abundance all around us.
One Hebrew-language commentator explains the term be still can mean “let go.” Know that I am God can translate as “recognize His saving power in our lives.”14 In other words, to “be still, and know that I am God” is to let God prevail in our lives.15
President Nelson says, “Nothing opens the heavens quite like the combination of increased purity, exact obedience, earnest seeking, daily feasting on the words of Christ in the Book of Mormon, and regular time committed to temple and family history work”16—a covenant path to enduring joy.
When we slow down and seek with faith, our perspective changes. One preparation day as a young missionary in Australia, Elder Marion G. Romney (later an Apostle and member of the First Presidency), pondered Doctrine and Covenants 76.
“When he finished reading he was surprised to realize it was night. … He looked up into the heavens, where the Southern Cross and other stars shone with unusual grandeur. As he gazed in wonder, he seemed to be carried beyond them by the Spirit so as to see the things he had been reading about. In a miraculous manner, he was given to know that those things were not fables, but were realities of the most profound significance.”17 His biography says, “Thereafter he had an eternal perspective.”18
Eternal perspective can anchor us today. As prophesied, “All things shall be in commotion.”19 The Lord says His voice is heard in earthquakes, tempests, pestilence, waves of the sea heaving themselves beyond their bounds.20 In these times, some call good evil and evil good;21 others say, “Eat, drink, and be merry; … for tomorrow we die.”22 But spiritual light and truth chase the darkness from among us.23
The Lord assures, “Peace, be still.”24 “Stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.”25 Please, dear brothers and sisters, “be still, and know that [God is] God.”26
Now, our second invitation: build relationships that change the future now.
Recently, I was grateful to thank someone I have not met before but who changed my future.
Her name is Melba Oakes (no relation to President Dallin H. Oaks).
When Melba was 21 years old, she was newly married and living in San Mateo, California. Melba and a 17-year-old new convert named Jean became friends.
The only member of her family to join the Church, Jean was attending school far from home. Some in Jean’s family hoped she would forget the Church in a new place.
Yet, in small and simple ways, Melba and others were there with Jean. When Jean graduated from high school, Melba was there. Melba Oakes still has Jean’s wedding invitation.
Jean fell in love and married a wonderful man named Walter. In fact, they were married three times—in a Chinese wedding, in an American ceremony, and sealing for time and eternity in the holy temple. When they met, Walter had a strong Christian testimony but did not yet know The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So Jean and others taught him the restored gospel. He became a faithful Church member and stake patriarch.
As you have guessed, in marrying Walter Gong, Jean became Jean Gong, my dear mother. Today my mother is 94 years old. Melba Oakes is 98 years old. They have been friends in the gospel for 77 years.
Recently, I learned Sister Melba Oakes lives in St. George, Utah. I phoned to thank her for changing my future and that of my family. In helping Jean Gong when she was a first, fragile convert, Melba Oakes blessed what are now 4 Gong family generations on this side of the veil and 34 known Gong family generations on the other side of the veil, stretching back to First Dragon Gong, born AD 837.
Sadly, others of my mother’s friends are no longer in the Church. One left after some Church members excluded her because of her race. Another drifted when she felt she had to choose between Church and non-Church friends. A third let worldly pressures create doubts about Church teachings. Of course, you face even more intense challenges today.
I am eternally grateful to Melba Oakes and everyone who helped my mother when she was new in the gospel. I also credit my mother. She has been steadfast in her faith and valiant in her testimony. She and my father determined to belong strong in God’s true Church. They succeeded despite societal pressures and some Church members with racial prejudices.
Brothers and sisters, there are Jean Gongs and Melba Oakeses all around us—in our apartment, workplace, ward or branch, in our circles and associations. No one wants to be a project. We each look for sociality and opportunities to contribute. We all need a safe place to seek and ask, a safe space to learn and live gospel doctrine and Church culture. We want to be seen as adults and to be responsible and contribute as adults.
We want Church to be a place where we don’t judge each other, and we repent if someone feels we are judging them in a hurtful way. Our Guadalajara Mexico Temple matron says the holy temple inspires her to “judge less and love more.” She’s right. Please come as you are. We need you. As we become compassionate and inclusive, and invite others to do the same, our gospel community becomes more open, vulnerable, and inviting. In a sense, we all become new converts, returning members, new move-ins, seeking our way.
In divided societies, disciples of Jesus Christ can share a common divinity and humanity greater than any differences. In darkening, sometimes claustrophobic times, believers radiate His light and liberating truth. Where there is spiritual famine in the land,27 we celebrate Him as living water and the bread of life.
In a parched world, thirsty for a smile, hungry for a hello, we can redefine our comfort zones. Sit by someone sitting alone. Include, compliment, encourage, in person and online. Give the benefit of the doubt. Listen, go, be there. Minister with a timely thought or scripture. Notice a tear or smile. Pray always.
Today, you help me. Tomorrow, I help you. We are here for each other. That’s what gospel friends and family do.
I know many of you are the only member, or the only active member, in your family. You are valiant and faithful, but often it is hard. Please hold tightly to the iron rod—or, as a young adult in Manaus, Brazil, put it, “feel the steel.” Determine you will be steadfast and immoveable, a strong link in your generations. It will be worth it.
It matters less if we are the first generation or the sixth generation in the Church than that we are valiant in our testimony of Jesus Christ. Please plant, nurture, and protect that precious seed of faith. Let it take strong root and blossom in you and your eternal family.
Please be a Melba Oakes or a Jean Gong; build relationships today that change the future for the coming 1, 5, or even 77 years.
This brings us to our third invitation: become a better you by working with and beside the Lord of the harvest.
As we learn to work with faith and diligence, the Lord of the harvest, through the law of the harvest, can bless us with “joy in the fruits of [our] labors.”28 As we work hard and work smart, opportunities open. What some call luck, we acknowledge as blessings. We know humble prayer and earnest persistence together bring miracles in His time and way.
The New Testament book of Galatians describes the law of the harvest as “for whatsoever a man [or woman] soweth, that shall he also reap.”29 We should “not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”30 Put another way, we harvest what we plant—good is restored for good, as are righteousness, justice, and mercy.31
London and Luke Brockbank, faithful returned missionaries recently sealed in the holy temple, say they learned the law of the harvest with their families in the garden while growing up.
[Start video transcript]
London: Well, we would get up bright and early before the bees and before the heat and try and get as many weeds pulled, as many plants planted, and try and keep things growing with fertilizer and mulch, and just maintaining everything in its own proper season.
I mean, everybody likes and enjoys picking the fruit—and getting to eat some of it while you’re picking it—but I’d say probably weeding is the most challenging because you’re down on your hands and knees, and after a while you start to ache. And your hands are dirty. We would stain the tips of our fingers and our thumbs green from pulling.
Elder Gong: That’s why they said you had a green thumb.
London: Yes, you’d think it was because the plants grow well; it’s because the weeds are getting pulled.
Luke: London talked about how you just kind of do all the basic things that you do to run a garden. You know, you’ve got to fertilize and plant. You can’t just go to the garden once a week and expect it to all be really good.
[End video transcript]
Elder Gong: I asked London and Luke about our Savior as the true vine who nourishes us spiritually.32
[Start video transcript]
London: When we are taking care of plants at the orchard, we need to fertilize them so that they have the proper nutrients to continue growing. That’s similar to our testimonies in that we can’t just live off of one spiritual experience. We need that constant renewal of new experiences. Remembering our spiritual experiences—they’re wonderful things to reflect on, but we do constantly need more.
Luke: The only thing we can have 100 percent confidence in is the Savior. And I think in that way He really is the true vine, that we can always rely on Him. And if we try our best to kind of align our will to His like it said—that He’s in us and we’re in Him—the Savior is the one that can really get you through.
London: I love the Savior, and I have a very strong testimony of Him and what He’s done for us. He really does feel like a best friend, like someone that’s never going to leave your side. Because I’m sure we’ve all had good friends that have left our side, unexpectedly or expectedly. Either way, it’s not a fun experience. But it’s so wonderful to know that the Savior never will, that He will always be with us, and that He is there to comfort us and help us when we need.
[End video transcript]
Elder Gong: Thank you, London and Luke. London, Luke, and I talked about justice and mercy in the law of the harvest. We reap what we sow. But God also adds His mercy to our efforts. The Apostle Paul says, “I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.”33 When God gives the increase, He opens the windows of heaven and pours out blessings, such that there shall not be room enough to receive them.34 Seen with spiritual eyes, the Lord’s tender mercies often generously exceed what our work alone may merit.
Sometimes life feels unjust and unfair with hard, dark, lonely moments. With righteous desire and obedient effort, we may feel we have done everything asked of us. Yet things may have not worked out the way we had hoped. It is hard. We may feel despondent, disgruntled, maybe even bitter. In such times, please remember, in ways we cannot comprehend, the “Son of Man hath descended below them all.”35 He understands because He’s been there.36 “Behold,” our Savior says, “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.”37 He promises, “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”38
We wait on the Lord with anticipation and sometimes with anxiety. His promises are sure: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”39 “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”40 “Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.”41
In His time and way, God will make right injustices, sorrows, disappointments. For the willing and humble, His is a gospel of second and third chances, to seventy times seven.42 Those who keep God’s commandments are and will be “blessed in all things.”43
In our day, with immense suffering and humanitarian needs everywhere, we feel compelling cause and divine purpose in offering Christian service. For us, love of God and neighbor means covenant opportunity and covenant responsibility. A recent Church survey indicates young adults are identifying and addressing pressing humanitarian needs in Europe, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, North America, the Pacific, and almost everywhere else around the world. You and your friends, to mention just a few:
support women’s refuge centers,
help with natural disaster cleanup and relief,
provide children nutrition,
build local communities, and
deliver food to food banks.44
In this COVID pandemic, our members, our friends, and our Church are delivering our largest-ever humanitarian response, with 1,031 COVID-19 response projects in 151 countries. Those in need are receiving over 28.4 million personal protective equipment (PPE) items, 3.5 million food items, 1.8 million hygiene kits, and 1.07 million pieces of medical equipment and supplies.
Thus far, from farm to table, over 700 truckloads of food and other essentials have traveled 1.6 million miles from our Church’s bishops’ storehouse system to 380 food banks, homeless shelters, and charitable agencies. I asked what’s in a typical 18-wheeler truck. Typically, each truck brings 3,264 cans of beef or turkey; 7,488 cans of corn, green beans, or diced tomatoes; 6,528 cans of stew, soup, or chili; and 792 jars of our famous—and this is my favorite—Church-produced peanut butter, full of nutrition, energy, and goodwill.
Our trucks also carry fruit, legumes, and puddings produced or processed at our Church’s 19 farms, 3 orchards, 4 canneries, 1 dairy, and 3 livestock operations. Perhaps you live in a community where our Church has partnered with local groups to provide food and other essentials.
Global food relief and food security concern us. The United Nations predicts COVID disruptions may push an additional 130 million individuals into chronic hunger. While only a start, our humanitarian contributions are ongoing, needed, and welcomed in vulnerable areas such as Somalia, Yemen, D.R. Congo, Haiti, and Zimbabwe and in conflict regions in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, D.R. Congo, and the Africa Sahel region, among others.
Hungry children need food. With one humanitarian partner, we are delivering 30 million meals to school children in nine developing countries. Each meal plate includes 482 life-sustaining calories of grains, protein, vegetables, and fruits.
As we have seen, our Church makes global humanitarian donations and also provides generous support in North and South America and other areas where many Church members live.
Refugees and internally displaced persons are a great humanitarian challenge. Our Church is on the front line of multiple refugee crises. With our partners, we provide food, hygiene, water and sanitation, shelter kits, clothing, personal protective equipment, and educational support in Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
We fit and fulfill local needs. We respect local custom and culture. For example, the devastating 2004 tsunami in Indonesia killed or left missing an estimated 228,000 individuals. Our worldwide Church fast helped rebuild mosques, buy sewing machines to make needed traditional clothing, and reestablish homes and schools. Islamic leaders told us, “We fast, so donations from fasting hold special meaning for us. Your fast and sacrifice reflect your faith and love of God.”
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our covenant belonging with God and with each other invites us to be good and do good. As you know, our Church provides humanitarian assistance without regard to race, religious affiliation, or nationality. Our humanitarian activities are not used to proselyte our beliefs. We work with partners of all faiths or of no faith. We respond to immediate and long-term needs. We stay while needs continue, long after the news cameras have gone. We foster self-worth and self-reliance. We feel Heavenly Father’s blessings as we express our love of God in doing all possible for our brothers and sisters—His sons and daughters—everywhere, in every way we can.
Brothers and sisters, as you learn, grow, and serve, and as you strive to be valiant in your testimony of Jesus Christ, please be patient and understanding with yourself. Too often we are too hard on ourselves. The Lord invites us to come as we are, to do all things in “wisdom and order.” He does not expect us to run faster than we have strength, even as we are diligent and valiant.45
Sometimes, we may feel less wanted or less committed if the Lord has not asked us to do “some great thing.”46 Yet often what the Lord most needs is for us to let our brightening light shine brightly each day. Remember, Jesus is the true vine. Your spiritual growth and happiness are precious to Him.
In summary, as this new year begins, may I invite you to receive the full blessings of three invitations:
“Be still, and know that [God is] God.”47 Let His goodness and creations stir your imagination, calm and assure your heart, and testify He waits ready to deepen your personal relationship.
Change the future now. Nurture multigenerational relationships that will bless you and those around you for years to come.
Trust the Lord of the harvest to help you become a better you. As we work with and beside Him in His vineyard, the Lord of the harvest will give an abundant increase. His are the blessings of a joy which is full.48
Three additional actions will help you to strengthen your faith and to be valiant in your testimony of Jesus Christ:
Worthily hold a current temple recommend. Please do so even if the temple is not fully open. Please do so even if you may need to put some things in order in your life.
Let your bishop or branch president know who and where you are. If you do not currently hold a Church calling, please consider saying, “Bishop (or branch president), when the Lord has a calling for me, I would be happy to serve in our Church.”
We each need wings and roots—a wide circle of friendship and sociality and a smaller circle where we can serve regularly with peers and caring leaders, including a bishop who holds keys.
As you knock, ask, and seek, please create a personal environment that nurtures faith and helps you keep God’s commandments. Given in love, God’s commandments protect and bless. Please live worthily so the Holy Ghost can be your constant companion and help you find what you most need and seek. Do not let the world pretend to offer you things it cannot deliver.
Dear brothers and sisters, God is our Eternal Father. His Beloved Son is our Savior Jesus Christ. Eternal ordinances, covenants, and doctrine are found in His restored Church called in His name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Restoration of the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ continues, from the Prophet Joseph Smith to President Russell M. Nelson today. The Book of Mormon and holy scriptures testify, as I do, that Jesus is the Christ.
Dear friends, let your light shine!49 Continue faithful in your covenants and valiant in your testimony of Jesus Christ. May God cradle you in His compassion and bless you in your righteous hopes and desires. May you find covenant belonging and joy in His gospel, place and space in His Church, which is our Church. In the sacred and holy name of our Savior Jesus Christ, amen.