Sunday, May 4, 2014

To Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

Phil Sharp
Today's guest blogger is my daughter, Melanie Sharp, young mother and wife to a very busy bishop, Phil, in the Sunnyvale Ward in California. Phil asked her to speak on Easter Sunday, and this was her "reconstruction" of her thoughts after the fact, since she spoke without notes as she felt prompted to deliver her message. It's a message worth sharing:

Melanie Sharp Easter 2014
Sunnyvale Ward
To Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

Several years ago, I was asked to speak in church on Easter Sunday.  This wasn’t an invitation to speak in my own ward however; it was an invitation to speak to the female inmates at a local prison.  One of my Institute teachers was a volunteer there, and when I returned from a trip to India working in leprosy colonies, he asked if I would accompany him to share some of my experiences.  Being a holiday weekend, a family conflict soon came up for him and he wasn’t going to be able to join me after all.  I could either go alone or invite a friend to go with me.  I was dating Phil long-distance at the time, and when he told me he’d be in town for Easter weekend, I naturally asked if he’d be willing to join me.  Because….everyone wants to go on a date to a prison, on Easter, to sing and speak, right?  He said yes.

The day arrived and we had a remarkable experience.  Going into that prison was humbling and eye-opening.  These women were sincere, warm, and kind.  They listened intently, they shared their humble expressions and desires to follow Christ.  They seemed hungry for His truth, His peace, and His influence.  They expressed a sincere need for Him to heal them, forgive them, and set them free from the spiritual bondage they described.  It was a remarkable experience.  And as I sat there listening to and speaking to them, it hit me so profoundly that the experience of these inmates and that of the leprosy-affected I’d worked with in India were somehow similar.  Both groups were experiencing a form of bondage.  They both felt trapped, thwarted, and stuck.  Some felt bondage because of personal choices, some because of illness, some because of societal or family judgment.  Whether bondage from their own choices or the choices of others, most of them could relate to a shared sense that they in one way or another lacked freedom.

The prison date must have gone well, because a few months later I moved to the Bay Area to be closer to Phil, and began working as the director of after-school programs in East Palo Alto.  Most of you know that East Palo Alto is an a-typical city for Silicon Valley.  It has high rates of poverty and crime, and low rates of high school graduation.  It’s a unique place and I loved working there, but I soon realized that the theme of bondage ran through some of my students there as well.

One day I was talking to a 16-year-old who was such a good girl.  She was making good choices and carving out a hopeful future.  One day, in discouragement, she described to me the frustration she’d felt the night before.  She had called a local restaurant to order some Chinese food.  She’d completed the order, but when it came time to give her address she was told that they were sorry but they didn’t deliver to East Palo Alto.  She’d been disappointed and hurt and she said to me, “Really?  They won’t bring food to my house just because I live in EPA?  Can they do that?  What did I do wrong?”  Hers was the bondage of poverty, of the poor choices of others that had created an environment where people didn’t feel safe coming into her community.  In spite of her personal good choices, she was in bondage to the decisions and judgments of others.

Melanie and newborn
Phil and I got married shortly after my move to the Bay Area, and within a few short years, I found myself in the thick of raising several small children born very close together.  While I don’t want you to think this next story captures my general attitudes toward my responsibilities as a mother, I will share my experience on a day when I was feeling a less severe, but nevertheless genuine form of bondage in my own circumstances.  It had been a long day or a long week, and I had had it.  I was discouraged, tired, and frustrated.  As I went about my daily tasks, I allowed myself to begin murmuring and then complaining to God.  “Why is this so miserable?  You promised me joy for this life path, and all I feel is frustration.  I am exhausted and unhappy.  It seems like all I do all day is perform menial and meaningless tasks for a bunch of little people who don’t even appreciate it.  I feel trapped.  I feel like a slave!”  (It sounds dramatic now, but in that moment those emotions were very real!)  In an instant, the Spirit whispered gently, “Melanie, you are not a slave.  You are a servant.  There is a difference.”  My heart was changed dramatically by that sweet reminder.  One difference of course, is that being a slave is involuntary, and being a servant is chosen.

Joseph Smith taught, “When we enlist to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, we leave neutral ground forever.”  We choose a path of service and become servants to Him.  Christ taught that the greatest among you shall be your servant.  It is a path that may at times feel like it limits us, but in reality and in the long-term view, it is the way to freedom and peace.  In 2 Nephi 2:27 we read, “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man.  And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil, for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.”

It is truly our choice to follow Christ and receive His promised freedom, even when that freedom doesn’t come immediately.  Sometimes like Alma and Amulek, our shackles will fall in an instant as we yield to Christ and His will for us.  Other times, like for Joseph Smith, we may even die in bondage.  But if we can maintain an eternal perspective, and trust that God will keep all of His promises of deliverance, we can and will feel that freedom from circumstances, from illness, from the consequences of our own choices or those of others.  In Isaiah 61:1 Isaiah relates, “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;”

We all at times experience bondage due to life circumstances, mortality, illness, our choices, or the choices of others.  But Christ promises freedom.  He promises us a life of deliverance from bondage.  I know that Christ lives and saves us.  That is the message of hope on this Easter Sunday -- that He lives!  I know that He restored His church and His priesthood power through the prophet Joseph Smith.  I testify that if we continue in faith and discipleship, Christ will deliver us from any and all bondage we experience in mortality.  I am so grateful for that testimony and assurance.  

Additional Scriptures and Quotes:

“How are we, then, to understand Christ’s promise to preach deliverance to and liberate the captives in these circumstances? Why were not all these believers freed? Understanding the answer to the question why is not always easy for any of us, because such understanding is acquired only by our faith in Jesus Christ (see Philippians 4:7). That understanding necessitates, as King Benjamin taught, that we yield “to the enticing of the Holy Spirit, and [put] off the natural man and . . . [become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).
Those who can submit to the Lord’s will, knowing that life is truly more than mortality and more than we know with our limited perspectives, are also able to understand that Christ can liberate the spirit even when the body is in chains. We learn from Abinadi’s death by fire that God knows how his children suffer and is prepared to execute “vengeance upon those that destroy his people” (Mosiah 17:19). and trust in Christ can turn some moments of captivity into blessings in disguise.”  (Sandra Rogers, International Vice President at BYU, “To Proclaim Liberty to the Captives,” Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011).

Using the example of Joseph Smith’s experience in Liberty Jail, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shed great light on how the Savior can free those who remain bound. He said, “The lessons of the winter of 1838–39 teach us that every experience can become a redemptive experience if we remain bonded to our Father in Heaven through it. These difficult lessons teach us that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity, and if we will be humble and faithful, if we will be believing and not curse God for our problems, He can turn the unfair and inhumane and debilitating prisons of our lives into temples — or at least into a circumstance that can bring comfort and revelation, divine companionship and peace.” (Elder Holland, “Lessons from Liberty Jail,” Ensign, September 2009, 28).

Elder Scott said: “The beginning of healing [and the release from captivity caused by someone else’s misuse of agency] requires childlike faith in the unalterable fact that Father in Heaven loves you and has supplied a way to heal [or liberate or deliver]. His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, laid down His life to provide that healing. . . . The cure requires profound faith in Jesus Christ and in His infinite capacity to heal.” (Richard G. Scott, “To Heal the Shattering Consequences of Abuse,” Ensign, May 2008, 42).

“Through our faith, forgiveness, trust, and obedience, Christ liberates us from the prisons created by the agency of others. When we are able to understand his doctrine, rely on his love for us, and cast our burdens upon his shoulders, looking forward with his eternal perspective, we will have regained our freedom. By choosing him, we are delivered and bound no more.” (Sandra Rogers, International Vice President at BYU, “To Proclaim Liberty to the Captives,” Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2011).

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