“The prisoners shall go free”
Editor’s note: This post is part of a collaborative effort of Mormon bloggers who are reading and writing about General Conference talks. We call it the General Conference Odyssey. This article at Meridian Magazine explains more about the Odyssey, and includes some thoughts from those of us participating in this project.
One of the things I appreciate about being a part of this effort is to read the words of my fellow brothers and sisters. Their perspectives and experience enrich my experience engaging the words of the prophets. Of course, we don’t want our posts to replace the words of the prophets, but we hope perhaps this project will inspire you in some way, as it has us.
The other posts from this week’s reading, which focused on the Saturday Afternoon Session of the October 1971 General Conference, are at the bottom of the post.
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My brothers and sisters, it is my desire and hope that I might say something meaningful to those who find themselves confused, discouraged, and lost in this mixed-up world—something that will give each one encouragement and faith that there is a way to find oneself.
So begins Victor L. Brown in his October 1971 talk, “I Was in Prison, and Ye Came Unto Me.”
I write this post with similar hopes.
In this mortal world, where the veil blocks our view and understanding of what we knew when we lived with God before, it is no wonder that sometimes we feel alone, afraid, confused, and overwhelmed. My head knows the truths of the gospel; I can give all the answers about why I shouldn’t feel alone, afraid, confused, or overwhelmed. But sometimes in my mortal weakness, I still do. (Perhaps you do at times, too?)
When I’m feeling this way, personal stories of hope and healing reach my heart faster than just about anything.
Before reviewing Elder Brown’s talk, I would like to share one of my favorite stories of hope and healing, from a friend named Mark. I hope you will take a moment to watch this video.
Mark had spent five years in the Arizona State prison system and immediately ended up in trouble with the law, which landed him back in the criminal justice system. For nine years.
He talks of having “unmistakable feelings that God was reaching out.”
“God, I believe that you’re there, and I believe that you are trying to help me. What I don’t understand is why. Why would you want to help me – I’m a convict, I’m an addict, I’m an alcoholic and I haven’t tried to follow you? Why would you want to try to help me?”
The answer? “It’s because I love you.”
Mark gained a conviction of God’s reality and a testimony of the Church. He was able to serve a mission. He went to BYU. After a hard break-up with a girlfriend, the hole in his soul that he’d tried to fill with addiction started to call to him again, and he ended up back in addictive behavior, including using, living on the streets, and robbing a store at gunpoint. As Mark sat in the bushes, hiding from the police after the robbery, the horror of what he had done hit him. He felt so hypocritical — after all, God had saved him already once before, and he felt he had thrown that away. And now he had caused terror in the life of another human being as he had held up the store.
Mark had the gun, this time pointed toward himself, ready to end his life.
And then the words came clearly to his mind:
“I’m still here.”
Mark followed the prompting to turn himself in. He spent nine more years in the prison system, and with the help of 12 steps (a guide to the Atonement), turned his life around. He is now married with a son and shares his tender, powerful testimony with others as a missionary in the Church’s Addiction Recovery Program.
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I grew up in a strong home, with parents who loved each other and the gospel. I was a good kid, a rule-follower, always active in the Church, always the obedient child (except with that eighth grade science teacher — I don’t know what my deal was with him, but I was such an obnoxious student in that class). I served a mission at 21, loved serving in the Church in college, in graduate school, as a young single adult starting my career on the East coast, as a young married, and as a young mother.
But even with my testimony and all my church activity, I had my own hole in the soul. I loved God as well as I knew how — by serving Him and being obedient — and was devoted to His work. But, quite frankly, I also feared Him (and not in the way the scriptures encourage us to fear God). I perceived Him more like a referee waiting for me to make a mistake, than a Father ever-ready to help and lift me. I could genuinely testify of and believe in His love for others, but I always worried that I wasn’t doing enough to deserve His love myself. I felt His guidance in my life decisions, but I didn’t ever feel settled, safe in His arms. That unsettledness only added to my shame, because I was a good Mormon! I knew I should feel better, happy. But I often didn’t.
Real struggles with anxiety and depression surely contributed to some of this struggle, to be sure. But over the past few years, I have come to realize that at the core of my unsettledness — that hole in my soul — was a set of false beliefs about God that I’d been carrying around my whole life. I was in my own kind of prison without really knowing it, definitely not knowing how to get out.
Joseph Smith taught: “It is the first principle of the gospel to know for a certainty the character of God.” “I want you all to know Him,” he said, “and to be familiar with Him.” 2 We must have “a correct idea of his … perfections, and attributes,” an admiration for “the excellency of [His] character.” 3 (Quoted by Elder Holland in “The Grandeur of God.”)
Stories like Mark’s have helped me come to understand the nature of God more fully.
No wonder I liked Elder Brown’s talk.
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Jim and Ed found God and the Church in an “unlikely setting” — the prison system. Just like Mark, these were men who had spent years wandering aimlessly in life, violating laws of God and the land. And, in God’s way at time, they also discovered a loving God ready and waiting to help them.
Jim’s story was one of a broken home and painful childhood. He got in trouble with the law. But while there, he was introduced to an LDS chaplain.
“Even though he found himself in prison, he had taken the first step to a freedom he had not known existed.
“After a few weeks of exposure to the program of the Church specially designed for prison life, he said he was able to give up smoking. He became involved in the various religious programs sponsored by the Church social service agency. He said, “I haven’t smoked a cigarette since that day. I haven’t had a cup of coffee since December of last year.” He goes on to tell of the good feeling of accomplishment in overcoming bad personal habits.
“He also tells about the family home evening program conducted by his home teachers. He explained that he would have given up in discouragement many times had it not been for this wonderful couple who had been assigned as his home teachers. He said they actually loved him as a son, something he had never experienced in his life, even as a little boy. In his own words: “I have been in this program since June 16, 1970. For these sixteen months, I probably made more changes in my life—inside these walls away from the rat race of society—that I know are going to determine my whole future more than the first twenty-three years of my life before prison. I had no idea at all what the LDS people were or what the Church was until I went to prison.
“I am not proud of being in prison, but I am proud of my experience while being there.”
Jim graduated from the Church’s inmate Institute program, and was, at the time of the talk, planning to prepare for baptism after he had paid his debt to society.
Ed also was ministered to through a loving couple and family who loved him like their own flesh and blood. He graduated from the inmate Institute program, and was asked to speak at the graduation services that Elder Brown had attended.
As he stood at the pulpit, he took a piece of paper from his pocket. Holding it up to the audience, he said: “You probably can’t read this, but this is the most important document in my life. This is my baptismal recommend that will permit me to be baptized next Thursday.” Ed was baptized. After his confirmation, he walked over to a corner of the room where he could be alone and wept. He wept even more when he was ordained a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood.
I love how Elder Brown ends his talk by saying that
There are many who find themselves in circumstances similar to those of Jim and Ed—not necessarily confined to a correctional institution, but nevertheless in prison, a prison from which legal authorities cannot release them, a prison of personal habits such as alcohol, drugs, immorality, selfishness, dishonesty, laziness, aimlessness; yes, these can be more confining and damning than any state prison.
I submit that we all have our chains that bind us, and not all are as obvious as some of the ones listed above. Take, for example, this list of things mentioned in Elder A. Theodore Tuttle’s talk from 1971. He quotes a Deseret News article:
“’We chase paychecks, and don’t give a second look to the glint of the rising sun on a snow-topped peak.
“’We chase our way through the appointments of a crowded desk calendar, and fail to take time to chat with the next-door neighbor or to drop in on a sick friend.
“’We chase social pleasures on a glittering noisy treadmill—and ignore the privilege of a quiet hour telling bedtime stories to an innocent-eyed child.
“’We chase prestige and wealth, and don’t recognize the real opportunities for joy that cross our paths. …’”
Elder Tuttle continues:
“Someone rephrased this thought: ‘Too often we are involved in the thick of thin things.’
In modern revelation the Lord said:
“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
“Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men. …” (D&C 121:34–35.)
Here is instruction to straighten out our values.
Note again the admonition: “their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world”—not on the things of the spirit. And they “aspire to the honors of men,” rather than seeking approval of God.
Or take the things that have kept me imprisoned through so much of my life — things like fear of the future, obsessed perfectionism, “performance=worth” beliefs, insecurity, feelings of being “not enough.” My way of aspiring to honors of men came simply in wanting approval and reassurance in my insecurities, and never wanting to say ‘no’ because I worried about what people would think of me if I did.
And somehow I did not believe that I could get assurances from God in that personal way.
So when I started to hear stories like Mark’s when I brought my perfectionistic, people-pleasing self to the 12-step program, I started to consider that if God can reach out to someone who has just robbed a bank, could He not reach out to me with the same kind of clear, direct, personal love?
If He will find someone in prison and give them freedom, can He not do that for you in whatever may be keeping you feeling stuck in your life?
As mortals, we are find ourselves prisoners in one way or another at times. The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are all free, through Him, if we will receive what He has done for us and let Him change us, calm us, comfort us, help us.
As I pondered this week’s readings, I was reminded of a favorite scripture that was one my mission trainer and I would cheer en voz alta while leaving our apartment.
“[S]hall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.”
This scripture is written about the salvation for those who have passed on without the gospel in their lives through temple ordinance work for the dead. But as I reflected on Elder Brown’s talk, I felt that it is a scripture about all of us. We can all be redeemed from our prisons, raised from our own spiritual death — whatever may separate or distract us from the love of God — through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
“Avanzad, en vez de retroceder. ¡Valor, hermanos; e id adelante, adelante a la victoria!”
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Other posts from this week’s General Conference Odyssey: