I have been blessed immensely by my association with Steve Harris, my partner in Omega Financial Group, LLC, and the one (among many) who has been engaged with me in the pursuit of Legacy Now. He has taught me a lot about the atonement, and has allowed me to share his recent insights on this page.
"Feeling the Atonement"
Sacrament meeting talk, Steven W. Harris, March 8, 2009 (used with permission).
The immensely quotable J. Golden Kimball said in a 1927 General Conference address:
I do not know that I have ever had a greater desire in delivering a message to the people that the Lord will burn into their hearts. After years of experience, I have learned that it is not what you say that counts, it is what you feel. It is not what the speaker delivers, it is what he thinks.
Brigham Young once said:
I wish to see the Elders get up there and manifest their spirits and speak as they feel when they are alone in their meditations. . .
I would ask that the Spirit be here in rich abundance. I, like J. Golden Kimball, have a profound desire this morning that you, my beloved friends, might feel what I have to say. I sincerely want to follow Brother Brigham’s advice that I might speak as I feel when I am alone in my meditations. My talk this morning is entitled “Feeling the Atonement.” Over three months ago I received a call to serve out at the County Metro Jail located just off of 3300 South and 900 West. This “prison gig” of mine, three hours every single Sunday afternoon from 1:00 to 4:00 pm, has totally blown my mind and has caused me to reflect upon and feel the Atonement of Jesus Christ in new and very powerful ways. I will never be the same person. I want to share with you some of the experiences I have been privileged to have at County Metro Jail.
But before I tell you exactly what I do out at the prison and a little about the jail itself and the inmates, let me set the table for this talk by telling you a couple of stories that might seem unrelated at first glance to my calling at County Metro and to my topic. A number of years ago a beloved former member of the ward family once told me something that I have never forgotten. Somehow the topic of children, wayward children specifically, came up between us. I knew that one of his children had gone through a very rough time, a time in which this particular child had broken more than a few major commandments. I will never forget his response to my question when I asked him how he had reacted when he had learned this child had taken a substantial detour from the strait and narrow path. With uncharacteristic emotion this beloved former member of our ward started to tear up as he told me with emotion: “It made me love my son even more.” In many ways the men and women inmates at the County Metro Jail and all other fellow travelers here on earth paralyzed and bound by sin are our wayward sons and daughters whose afflictions must afflict us and whom we must love with an increase of unconditional love.
Now for the second story. As many of you know, two of my great heroes are my great-grandparents, F. F. & Marie Samuelsen. They joined the Church in December of 1891 by being baptized in the icy cold waters of Arhus Bay at midnight to evade the ever vigilant Danish police and Lutheran clergy who would have loved to disrupt the baptismal service. These great grandparents of mine showed incredible courage as they joined the Church. I am profoundly grateful for them. They were first cousins. Their mothers were sisters. My great grandfather loved his Danish family. He spent the last 10 years of his life, the 10 years he spent in the United States doing temple work in the Salt Lake Temple for thousands and thousands of his deceased Danish family members. Yet, for some odd reason the temple work for my great grandparents’ maternal grandfather was not completely done. All temple work on this particular line stopped for this common grandfather of theirs. Why? On a couple of different occasions over the years I commenced concerted efforts to solve the mystery, but my efforts had ended in abject failure.
In a very difficult time in my life I received a strange but powerful prompting that “we will help you if you will help us.” The “we” in that prompting meant my kindred dead, specifically this dead end family line. Needing the help I dove back into the heretofore fruitless search to complete temple work for my 3rd great grandfather. This time I enlisted the inspired aid of Jim and Rosalind Hoggan. Slowly but surely, thanks to the Hoggans, a long lost Danish cousin in Copenhagen and the miracle of the Internet I was able to crack open the case. For reasons I will not bore you with I was convinced -- very plausibly I might add -- that this seemingly forgotten 3rd great grandfather of mine was a direct descendant of titled, noble Danish warrior stock. As it turns out the truth was much more sobering and was initially more than a little depressing. As it turns out, this 3rd great grandfather of mine did at least three separate stints in Danish Prisons in the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s. We think it is highly likely that he actually died while in prison. Some of his sons, great-great uncles of mine, also did time in Danish prisons. I learned that this family of indigents received food and other aid from the City of Copenhagen. Some of my 3rd great grandfather’s daughters, probably including the mothers, my great-great grandmothers, of both FF and Marie, were taken away from the family by the City of Copenhagen and sent to live with farm families. Talk about a dysfunctional family! My pipedreams of having a noble 3rd great grandfather were blown to smithereens. But somehow from the loins of my troubled 3rd great grandfather my beautiful, valiant great grandparents emerged. Go figure.
After just a few moments of soaking in the fact that this ancestor of mine was a hardened, recidivist Danish jailbird, my heart was suddenly flooded with unconditional love for him. I was washed over with waves of unconditional love for him and his unfortunate family. Just like our beloved former ward member was filled with additional love for his wayward son, I was inundated with a tsunami of unconditional love for my troubled ancestor. I wanted to go back in time and rescue him and his family from the clutches of grinding poverty and crime. I wanted to teach him the Gospel of Jesus Christ that his grandson and granddaughter so courageously accepted with all their hearts in 1891. I have reflected long and hard about the trials and tribulations that he and his family must have gone through. I wondered what the conditions were like in the Danish prisons he spent time in. Was he just trying to provide food for his large family? Did he have problems with alcohol? I am convinced that my hero/great grandfather has already preached with great love and tenderness the gospel of Jesus Christ to him in the Spirit world. Life is so much better for him in the Spirit World. I just happened to be reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah a short while after I learned of my ancestor’s Danish rap sheet that hit me like a thunderclap:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; (Isaiah 61:1).
Through the Atonement of the Savior my 3rd great grandfather’s broken heart has been mended, liberty has been proclaimed to this Danish convict and the prison doors of poverty, crime, loneliness and perhaps alcoholism have been blasted apart. I am confident that my troubled ancestor is no longer bound by his sins because of the
Atonement and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the discovery a couple of years ago that my ancestor had “done time” in Denmark helped prepare me for my current calling out at the prison. Just like my ancestor, my new-found buddies out at County Metro can have their broken hearts mended, liberty proclaimed to them and the prison doors of substance abuse, sexual addiction and self-hatred blown off the hinges by the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Elder Bruce C. Hafen has written that: “We cannot really feel charity -- Christ’s love for others -- without at least tasting His suffering for others, because the love and the suffering are but two sides of a single reality.” Elder Hafen went on to say that we must be “afflicted in the afflictions of other people.” A father must be afflicted with the afflictions of a wayward son. We as ward members must be afflicted with the rather sudden inactivity of one of our ward members. We must be afflicted with the afflictions of the least of those among us, such as the guys and gals out at County Metro, if we are to feel the Atonement, to feel the love that Christ has for us.
Brothers and sisters, we live in a world full of hopelessness and despair. We see it all around us. The scriptures teach us that in the last days “men’s hearts shall fail them.” (See Moses 7:66; Luke 21:26; D&C 45:26; D&C 88:91). The Apostle Paul described the people of our day when he wrote:
. . .in the last days shall come dangerous times. Men shall be lovers of themselves, covetous, haughty, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, wicked, without affection, without peace, slanderers, incontinent, unmerciful, without kindness, Traitors, stubborn, puffed up, and lovers of pleasure more than of God. . . (2 Timothy 3:1-4).
What’s a disciple of Christ to do? As the hymn says “Where can I turn for peace” in tumultuous times like these? Let me give you the short answer -- Christ. It is no secret that we live in a world saturated and aflame in sin. It is hard not be tainted by this sinful world we live in. It is very important that we recognize and come to understand the powerful, paralyzing effects of sin.
“The greatest burden a man or woman can bear in this life is the burden of sin. Sin estranges. It alienates. If allowed to remain and thus not repented of it leads to hopelessness and despair. (Moroni 10:22).” (McConkie and Millet The Holy Ghost, 77).
Let me repeat, “The greatest burden a man or woman can bear in this life is the burden of sin.” People in this swanky and sophisticated world of ours do not like to talk about “sin.” It just isn’t cool. It isn’t politically correct. As a matter of fact, the biggest problem we mortals face on Planet Earth is not global climate change, diminishing oil reserves, nuclear warheads in the hands of crazy third world despots or even the fact that the Mountain West Conference is not automatically included in the BCS bowl selection process. Without a doubt the greatest problem we face stems from two sobering facts. The first fact, the Lord tells us in D&C 1:31: “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance.” Stephen Robinson has written how the Lord really feels about sin: “. . .he can’t stand it, he can’t tolerate it, he can’t blink or look the other way, or sweep it under the rug. He can’t tolerate sin in the least degree.” The second fact is: I sin and you sin. What is a sinner to do? Inquiring minds wanna know. How can a sinner like me and a sinner like you, along with all the inmates out at County Metro Jail ever get back to the presence of our Heavenly Father??? Short answer: the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I believe that we totally underestimate the power of the Atonement in our everyday lives and in the lives of our fellow sojourners here on Planet Earth. We all need to feel the power of the Atonement in our lives.
This crazy world of ours does not recognize the all encompassing power of the Atonement. This crazy world of ours believes the cure for what ails us is self-esteem. If we just loved ourselves a little more; if our kids just had more self-esteem they wouldn’t use drugs and engage in risky, promiscuous sexual activity. The world would have us believe that the thing the 6 million inmates need the most is to have more self-esteem. Self esteem makes the world go round. “Things as they really are,” as revealed by the Holy Ghost, practically shout at us that what we really need is the healing balm of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Recognizing the fact that we are all sinners and that we all are desperately in need of the Atonement seems in the world’s eyes to be provincial, quaint and hopelessly outdated. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In a terrific book, Reason for God, the author, Timothy Keller, writes that because of all of our sinful natures we all ought to be more excited about achieving “low self-esteem” rather than having “high self-esteem.” Keller refers to an author and professor at Columbia University, Andrew Delbanco, who was doing research on Alcoholics Anonymous and was attending AA meetings around the country.
One Saturday morning in a New York City church basement he [Delbanco] was listening to a “crisply dressed young man” who was talking about his problems. In his narrative he was absolutely faultless. All his mistakes were due to the injustice of others. He spoke of how he going to avenge himself on all who had wronged him. “His every gesture gave the impression of grievously wounded pride,” Delbanco wrote. It was clear that the young man was trapped in his need to justify himself, and that things could only get worse in his life until he recognized this. While he was speaking, a black man in his forties, in dreadlocks and shades, leaned over to Delbanco and said, “I used to feel that way too, before I achieved low self-esteem.” Delbanco later wrote in his book, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope:
This was more than a good line. . . As the speaker bombarded us with phrases like ”got to take control of my life,” and “I’ve got to really believe in myself” -- the man beside me took refuge in the old Calvinist doctrine that pride is the enemy of hope. What he meant by his joke about self-esteem was that he learned no one can save himself by dint of his own efforts. He thought the speaker was still lost -- lost in himself, but without knowing it.
By “low self-esteem” the man in the dreadlocks did not mean that the young man should come to hate himself. He meant that the young man was “lost in himself” until he could admit he was a very flawed human being, a sinner. He would never be liberated to see his own flaws in their true light, to forgive those who had wronged him, or to humbly seek and receive forgiveness from others. The Christian doctrine of sin, properly understood, can be a great resource for human hope. . .
I think Keller is really on to something. I think the Book of Mormon agrees with Keller, particularly one of the most spiritually mighty men in all the scriptures, that amazing straight arrow and man of God -- Nephi. As I read 2 Nephi 4:17-19, tell me if you think Nephi “suffers” from “low self esteem” --proper and godly “low self esteem.”
17 . . .my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am! Yea, my heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities.
18 I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me.
19 And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins; nevertheless, I know in whom I have trusted.
If sin is truly the greatest burden we mortals can bear. If sin results in hopelessness and despair answer me this question: Why is it that every single week I go out to County Metro I feel the spirit so strongly? Why does the Spirit practically hit me over the head with a lead pipe, especially when I go into maximum security and go cell to cell? Shouldn’t hopelessness and despair hit me over the head rather than the Spirit? Why, why, why? Let me read you an excerpt of a recent letter I wrote to my missionary son, Winston, in Argentina:
Surprisingly, there is a tremendous spirit that exists at prisons. I feel it every single time I go out to the prison. Charles Colson, a former top aide for President Nixon during the Watergate fiasco, ended up doing time for some of the stuff he did while he was an aide to Nixon. His seven-month stay in prison totally changed his life, it led him to start Prison Fellowship Ministries. He travels to prisons all over the world. He said this about bringing the gospel to prisons:
When I go into prisons and talk about the fact that people can be forgiven, the people I talk to know that they are sinners, I mean, there’s no pretense in prison. I love to preach in a prison. I’d rather preach there than in any of your best churches in the country, because the people in prison understand that they need God’s grace and forgiveness. They need to know if it’s possible to have a new life.
I would agree with Colson, there is no pretense in prison, the prisoners know they are sinners and they want to believe that Christ offers them a second chance. Heck, the Atonement offers us unlimited chances. I have learned that it is very wrong to put limits on the Atonement. When I am out at the prison, I really FEEL the Atonement and I FEEL the hope that Christ brings to all of us. We are all sinners, and we all fall short of the mark. All of us need the Savior. Many of us think that we can be our own savior by earning our way back into the presence of Heavenly Father by doing good deeds. The unvarnished truth is that none of us can earn our way back to Father. All of us must allow Christ’s infinite Atonement to wash over us. We cannot be our own savior.
My attitudes towards inmates, people in general and the Atonement has been powerfully and permanently changed. This was certainly what happened to Colson.
. . .who’d want to go to a prison? My idea of a prison was a place where you locked up rotten criminals, throw away the key, left ‘em there and forget about ’em. That’s how most American people think.
But as Christians, we shouldn’t feel that way, because Jesus Himself told us that what we do for the least of these, we do for Him. And so when we visit a prisoner, we’re visiting Jesus. We should have the greatest compassion for those who have sinned the most and who therefore most need to hear the gospel.
Spending ninety minutes going cell to cell in maximum security sure looks and feel different if I have the mindset that I am visiting Jesus in each cell. It makes you look at each and every “cellie” differently if you truly believe you are visiting Jesus. I feel like my heart, like the heart of the Grinch in The Grinch That Stole Christmas, has grown a couple of sizes larger through my nine weeks at the prison. This is a very good thing. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ, especially through the powerful teachings about the Atonement contained in the Book of Mormon, enhances what we know to be true about the Atonement and about the Savior.
Let me give you a quick answer why the Spirit is so strong out at County Metro. The Savior in 3 Nephi 12:6 says:
And blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost.
It is important to note that the word “all” precedes the phrase “they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Everybody who hungers and thirsts after righteousness can rightly expect that they will be filled with the Holy Ghost. It is a promise. It doesn’t matter whether you live on Willow Bend Drive or whether you find yourself spending 23 hours out of 24 hours with your cellie. The scripture does not read “all those who are righteous.” It includes those who are not righteous but who “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is the key. The Savior promises us, even my buddies out at County Metro, that we all will be filled with the Holy Ghost if. . . we/they “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Wow. God is so generous.
Let me now take you on a whirlwind tour of County Metro Jail and tell you briefly what I do each Sunday. Let me tell you about a couple of the inmates I have met, whose names have been changed -- to steal a line from Dragnet -- to protect the incarcerated. Finally, let’s finish up by talking about feeling the Atonement in our
The County Metro Jail cost $63 million to build and was completed and ready for incarceration in January of 2000. It is a big place. It has 668,000 square feet and houses a little over 2000 male and female inmates. It has more inmates than Brighton High School has students! On an average day, 96 people are booked into Metro Jail. Each year over 34,000 people are booked into Metro Jail! 34,000! The average cost per day for each inmate is $73.25. Each delicious meal of prison gruel served up to the inmates costs a mere $0.76. In this prison complex are over 400 hidden surveillance cameras. Big Brother is always watching you. There are over 700 sworn officers and civilian staff working out at the Metro Jail. There are also close to 400 volunteers currently serving at the prison.
It is estimated that 85-90% of the inmates out at Metro Jail are there because of substance abuse and other addictions. I have always believed that keeping the Word of Wisdom was a smart thing to do, but after serving out at the prison for over twelve weeks I now believe that the Brethren should call the “Word of Wisdom” the
“Words of Catastrophic Consequences.” The dangerous and devastating effects of violating the Word of Wisdom aka “The Words of Catastrophic Consequences” CANNOT be overestimated. I wish I could shrink all of you, put all of you in my coat pocket and sneak you into maximum security with me to see firsthand why we should NEVER even think about violating the Word of Wisdom. The phrase: God can change our desires -- only God can change our desires -- plays over and over in my head as I observe upfront and personal the vast human carnage and collateral damage caused by an addiction to drugs, alcohol and prescription drugs.
We are referred to by some of the guards and some of the inmates as the “God Squad.” Solid. Out at Metro Jail, we God Squad members are under very strict rules. First of all, to all the prisoners I am known merely as Brother Steve or as just plain old Steve. We are under strict instructions not to reveal personal or family information to the inmates that might be used by the inmates and their friends on the outside to possibly exploit me or my family. There is not supposed to be any physical contact between me and the inmates. We are not to shake hands, hug or pat on the back any of the inmates. This is harder to do than you might think. Sometimes your heart melts when you sense the loneliness and shame that the inmates often endure in jail. A natural human reaction to such things is to want to reach out and provide appropriate human contact. We are not supposed to bring anything into the jail that has not been approved by Metro Jail and we are subject to searches by jail personnel at anytime. We are only allowed to bring in pencils without metal tops because apparently some of the guys are skilled at turning ink pens and other seemingly innocent items of personal property into dangerous sharp metal objects known as shanks. Cellmates are called “cellies," as in “Me and my cellie are getting along well.” The world we live in here in the Salt Lake Valley outside of prison is referred to the “outs,” as in, “I wonder how my family is doing in the outs” or “How is the weather in the outs?”
I have led a very sheltered, white bread kind of life. Dorothy, Toto and her family lived next door to me in my childhood home in what seemed to me to be the great plains of Kansas . In my formative years only guys who were in the Navy had tattoos. Well, County Metro ain’t Kansas and my personal discomfort with tattoos has quickly gone by the wayside. Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t like tattoos, but it is a little difficult not to become a bit of a tattoo connoisseur because of the sea of “ink” that is found at County Metro. Some of the guys are walking talking kaleidoscopes of ethereal inky creations -- living, breathing cornucopias of tattoos. Some are magnificent and some are pathetic. My favorite tattoo so far was a nicely rendered BYU tattoo with a snarly cougar coming through the Y on an inmate’s forearm: Stunning, and more than a little incongruous.
One of the great benefits of this Church gig is the guys I work with. There are a lot of former bishops and wonderfully solid priesthood brethren, people with hearts the size of Montana, men full of wisdom and mercy. I am the least among them. I am honored to serve with each of them. For many of us, if not all of us serving out at County Metro jail is the highlight of our week. Another wonderful benefit to serving out at the jail is that according to my 16-year old son, Andrew, I now have more street cred[ibility] than my 20 year old missionary son, Winston, will ever have! All my life I diligently sought after street cred[ibility], with little or no luck, now I find myself swimming in it as I serve at the jail. Go figure.
The three hours I spend at the jail are spiritually very intense. The time goes by like [snap fingers]. All of us serving in the afternoon shift meet for a quick meeting a few minutes before 1:00 pm. We stand, sing a hymn together, kneel and have prayer together and then we receive our assignments. We spend the first ninety minutes literally going cell-to-cell in maximum security. We are hustled out of maximum security promptly at 2:30 pm. We then gather in a room and take a short break before we get up and meander over to minimum security to teach a “non-denominational” Sunday school class to inmates in minimum security. We are promptly hustled out of our classes at 4 pm so that the inmates can enjoy their sumptuous $0.76 meal. Only on Fast Sunday do the smells wafting from the dinner wagons even remotely smell enticing.
My favorite part of my three hours out at the jail is going cell to cell. Odd, huh? Maybe it was the countless doors I knocked on in Finland as a missionary. It is so ironic that I enjoy much greater “success” going cell to cell in maximum security than I ever did going door to door in Finland. It is in maximum security that I “feel” the atonement the most. Whenever I press the button to be admitted to maximum security I am always a tad nervous. When I walk through the automatic doors into maximum security I am always bowled over by the Spirit. Always. When you walk into maximum a raised platform manned by 2 prison guards is directly in front of you. There are no bars in each of the cells, a floor to ceiling Plexiglas sliding door allows anyone to immediately ascertain what is going on in each cell. When we enter maximum security all eyes are upon us. There is always a rather spectacular collection of tattoos to view from afar and up close as we start going cell to cell. There are two levels of cells, a lower level and an upper level. It is like visiting the zoo, except instead of the animals in the cages there are two “cellies” in an 8 x 10 foot cell. These guys spend 23 hours out of 24 hours in their cells with their cellies. Each cell contains a metal bunk bed attached to the wall on the left. The toilet with a smallish modesty wall is in the left back corner of the cell. In the right back corner of the cell is a rather small triangular desk with a non-descript metal desk chair. That’s it. To describe the cell accommodations as “Spartan” would be an understatement. Most everybody in maximum security, if they aren’t sleeping, is up to visiting. We have been told that when we enter maximum security the inmates are much quieter than they normally are. As I left maximum security last week I overheard one inmate express his fond hope to another inmate that he might be able in the future to walk up behind the other inmate and put out his burning cigarette on the back of his neck. Well, maybe not everyone is hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
My usual opening line to the inmates in each cell is “What can I do to help you?” Inevitably the inmate will smile and say “Can you get me out of here?” Most will ask if I a have message for them and will request that I pray for them and their families. One Hispanic inmate told me he wanted to feel the presence of the Lord. No pressure. A lot of times I share with them one of my all-time favorite scriptures, Ether 12:27 from the most powerful book on the planet, The Book of Mormon. In this verse the Lord Jesus Christ himself is talking with that amazing prophet/general, Moroni. These are literally the words of Christ:
And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
Keep in mind that 85 to 90% of the inmates in County Metro have a huge weakness for drugs and alcohol, a weakness that has started them down a life in crime and that has landed them in jail. They are all ears for the words of counsel of the Savior to Moroni and the stunning promise that Christ will “make weak become strong unto them.” I ask the inmates if they would like to make, with Christ’s help, weak things become strong. This verse is so powerful: God can change desires; only God can change desires.
I always leave a prayer at each cell. As I leave one cell to go to another one we do “bones” through the Plexiglas. On occasion, I will even give a priesthood blessing through the Plexiglas to an inmate. I am always struck by the love that Heavenly Father has for each and every one of His inmate/sons. Never underestimate the love that God has for each of us.
It has been my experience that Church callings seldom come at comfortable times for service. I actually seriously considered turning down this opportunity to serve at the jail because I knew I would be forfeiting my beloved Sunday afternoon nap. Service does not come easily for me. I can be quite stingy with my time. I am so glad I decided to forego my weekly Sunday nap for service out at the prison. As I go cell to cell I am reminded of what I believe is a wonderful eternal principle. This wonderful eternal principle is perfectly articulated by President Lorenzo Snow:
When you find yourselves a little gloomy, look around you and find somebody that is in a worse plight than yourself; go to him and find what the trouble is, then try to remove it with the wisdom which the Lord bestows upon you; and the first thing you know, your gloom is gone, you feel light, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, and everything seems illuminated.
Certainly, if you are in maximum security you are not in a good place, in fact you are in a really bad place. When I have attempted to help these inmates in max I have found, just as President Snow promised, that my gloominess is blown away and I feel light and illuminated. All my problems are put in their proper perspective and I feel the love that God has for these wonderfully messed up brothers of mine and the love that Heavenly Father has for me. It happens every time. God is true to His word and is so generous to us!
The fact that I enjoy my time in maximum the best does not mean that I do not love teaching my class in minimum security. Class size varies from 4 from 15 inmates. Some inmates come into my class clasping their Triple Combinations and Bibles. Many of my students have little or no religious background. I am always surprised by the heartfelt prayers that are offered up by the inmates. Some prayers are right out of sacrament meetings and some are rather awkwardly but beautifully offered up. Many times the inmates express gratitude for the roof over their head and the food they eat. On a couple of occasions the inmates have asked for God to bless their jailers because “they are suffering more than we are.” Some of the guys in my classes are pretty rough around the edges, rough but still very lovable. Of all the hundreds of classes I have taught in Church over the years it was the first time I have ever had a student answer a question with an answer that contained an f-bomb. I love to open my Book of Mormon to Alma 7:11-13 and read:
And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
I love to teach these brothers of mine that Christ’s atonement was an infinite atonement, that not only did Christ take upon himself our sins, but he also took upon himself all our afflictions, pains, disappointments and frustrations. I teach them the meaning of the word “succor” which means to “run to the aid of someone.” I tell them that Christ is poised to run to their aid and that because He took upon himself our afflictions, disappointments and frustrations He totally understands what is going on in our lives and He knows exactly how to help us, each and every one of us. Elder Merrill J. Bateman said something very profound about the
Atonement that further "personalizes" the Atonement:
For many years I envisioned the Garden of Gethsemane and the cross as places where an infinite mass of sin and pain were heaped upon the Savior. Thanks to Alma and Abinadi, it is no longer an infinite mass but an infinite stream of people with whom the Savior became intimately acquainted as he suffered our sins, pains, and
afflictions. I testify that he knows each of us, is concerned about our progress, and has the infinite capacity not only to heal our wounds but also to lift us up to the Father as sanctified sons and daughters.
I learned in my first week at the prison in the Sunday school class that God plain and simply does not give up on us. One spectacularly tattooed inmate mentioned that he felt like he needed, along with his girlfriend to go back to Church. He explained that he was raised LDS but that he was not sure that that was the direction he wanted to go church-wise when he gets out because he wondered how accepting ward members would be of him and his tattoos. As he spoke in class I received a monstrous prompting that I was to tell this young man immediately after class that the Lord wanted him back in the fold. Midway through the class a guard called this inmate out of the classroom for some reason and I was confused why I had received the strong prompting to deliver the message that the Lord wanted him back in the fold. At the very end of the class the inmate came back into the multipurpose room where the class was taught and stood in the doorway and looked directly at me. He knew that I had a message to deliver to him. I walked over to him and delivered the message the Lord wanted me to deliver. Tears filled both our eyes. For some odd reason I told him how much I loved the temple and then he really started to cry as he told me his story -- he was a returned missionary -- and how much he loved the temple and how he longed to return to the temple.
Sometimes you can see the effects of the atonement happen in front of your very eyes. Perhaps the most powerful experience I have had at the jail was the opportunity I had to teach one of the inmates -- let’s call him “James” -- the missionary discussions under the direction of the Branch President. James is in his late twenties. He dropped out of school in the 10th grade. The Branch President told me, without being specific, that James had confessed his sins to the Branch President, and that it had taken two long sessions to confess all his sins. He told me that short of murder he had just about done it all. You would never know this by looking at him. He had a countenance full of light. He had read The Book of Mormon at least twice cover to cover and he not only had a testimony of its truthfulness but he also loved The Book of Mormon. James is a very intelligent and articulate guy, with an extensive collection of tattoos on his chest and arms. He had been a drug addict for 10 years and had been in and out of federal and state prisons because of his drug addictions. He came from a very dysfunctional family situation with no father in his life. On a couple of different occasions as he completed sentences in state and federal prisons he believed he had adequately prepared himself to withstand the temptations that drugs had previously offered him, only to find out that after a time he went back to old ways, old friends and old addictions. Furthermore, he found that rather than enjoying life on the “outs” he found that he did not want to be around people and he could not look people straight in the eyes when they spoke to him or when he spoke to people. He told me that the last time he was released from prison he felt like a giant load of mud had been dumped on him, that he felt bogged down and paralyzed by all this mud in his life on the outs. The mud he was struggling with was his sins. Remember:
The greatest burden a man or woman can bear in this life is the burden of sin. Sin estranges. It alienates. If allowed to remain and thus not repented of it leads to hopelessness and despair.
James told me that after he had confessed all his sins to the Branch President -- remember, it took him two long sessions to do this -- and dove into The Book of Mormon he could now look people straight in the eyes and he felt light and happy. James’ countenance was full of light. He was hungering and thirsting after righteousness. I had just witnessed the incredible power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I had felt the atonement. The majestic words of Isaiah flew into my mind:
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (Isaiah 1:18).
Stephen Robinson referring to this scripture wrote that, “. . .What the Lord is saying is ‘I don’t care what you did. It doesn’t matter what you did. I can erase it. I can make you pure and worthy and innocent and celestial.’"
Someone once wisely said:
A fully repentant black sheep is a white sheep.
James is becoming a white sheep through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. I had seen this with my very eyes! We can become white sheep. Christ can do the same thing for our wayward sons and daughters, our wayward grandsons and granddaughters. He can do the same thing for us. Don’t put limits on the atonement in our own lives and in the lives of others. King Benjamin reminds us in his divinely dictated sermon to his people: “For behold, are we not all beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19). Put another way, “Are we not all prisoners of sin?” We may believe in Christ, but do we believe that He can make our scarlet sins as white as snow? I testify to you that He can! He did it for James and He can do it for me. He can do it for you!
Feeling the atonement in our lives is crucial to our happiness in this crazy world of ours. Elder M. Russell Ballard has written:
. . .only as we accept the Atonement in our lives and strive to live the gospel can we meet the challenges of life and find peace, joy and happiness. . . I believe that if we could truly understand the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ we would realize how precious is one son or daughter of God. I believe our Heavenly Father’s everlasting purpose for His children is generally achieved by the small and simple things we do for one another. . . If we truly understood the Atonement and the eternal value of each soul, we would seek out the wayward boy and girl and every other wayward child of God. We would help them to know of the love Christ has for them. We would do all that we can to help prepare them to receive the saving ordinances of the gospel.
President Howard W. Hunter reminded us:
If our lives and our faith are centered upon Jesus Christ and his restored gospel, nothing can ever go permanently wrong. On the other hand, if our lives are not centered on the Savior and his teachings, no other success can ever be permanently right.
Brothers and sisters we need to feel the atonement in our lives. Though we may never be able to fully comprehend how the Savior worked out the infinite atonement, nor fully understand its vast scope, we can certainly ponder and pray and express gratitude for the atonement in our lives. We can come to feel the Atonement on a regular basis in our lives. Elder Richard G. Scott has written:
Pondering the grandeur of the Atonement evokes the most profound feelings of awe, immense gratitude, and deep humility. Those impressions can provide you powerful motivation to keep His commandments and consistently repent of errors for greater peace and happiness.
I know that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ. The Atonement is infinite in its scope. We can become white sheep through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.