“In greeting you, I will paraphrase Paul's words: 'Unto the Church of God in the Utah South Area, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be Saints, grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ,'” said Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
He addressed 235 stakes from the Utah South Area during a conference held in the Marriott Center with 15 stakes in attendance. The other 220 stakes viewed the conference via transmissions to stake centers across the state, making it the largest gathering of Latter-day Saints outside of general conference. It is estimated there were over 400,000 people at the Marriott Center or viewing the broadcast.
“Because I am unable to personally meet with all of you in your 235 stakes where you are gathered in your many chapels, I'm giving to you my own epistle today to express my love and gratitude and to provide you some specific counsel,” said Elder Ballard.
He compared the Church in Utah to a heart of the Church body throughout the world. Elder Ballard said, “The Saints in Utah help pump gospel truths through the entire world — giving the members important spiritual oxygen and essential nutrients.”
Citing a Gallup poll, Elder Ballard said that the Utah South Area is one of the most religious areas in the United States, revealed in the flourishing religious landscape.
However just like any heart needs regular checkups to remain healthy, Elder Ballard had several recommendations to share at the conference.
“These recommendations include maintaining healthy practices that you are already engaged in and, in some cases, recommending adjustments in your spiritual exercise and well-being,” he said.
Elder Ballard warned of practices and influences that could separate an individual from the Spirit. He shared a story about a grove of sequoia trees on the BYU campus. Tall, resilient and able to resist damage from bugs, fungi and forest fires, it came as a surprise when one of the large sequoias on campus suddenly died last year. Surprisingly, an arborist found that the tree died from lack of water.
“The arborist discovered that the aquifer that nourished the little grove had shifted as an unintended consequence of the construction of the new Life Sciences Building, just east of the grove,” Elder Ballard said.
He continued, “To me this is a perfect analogy of what happens when stalwart Church members, the 'very elect,' who for all appearances seem to stand tall and erect in faith, die spiritually.”
To keep members from spiritually dying from a lack of living water, Elder Ballard advised members to maintain essential, daily habits that “keep us rooted, grounded, and connected to [Christ].” These habits include daily prayer, fasting, studying the scriptures and the words of the living prophets, keeping the Sabbath day holy, partaking of the sacrament, worshiping in the temple often and reaching out to the needy, poor and lonely.
“When someone stops doing these simple but essential things,” Elder Ballard said, “they cut themselves from the 'well of living water' and allow Satan to muddle their thinking.”
Of concern to him was knowing that “individuals who don't stay focused on the simple doctrine and gospel of Christ will eventually listen to false teachers and self-declared prophets and adopt worldly philosophies,” Elder Ballard said.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking questions or investigating the Church's history, doctrine or practices, Elder Ballard said. He advised Church leaders to help those who come to them with difficult questions. “When someone comes to you with a question or concern, please don't brush the question off — do not tell him or her to not worry about the question. Please do not doubt the person's dedication to the Lord's work. Instead, help the person find the answers to their questions.”
Elder Ballard said that the Lord doesn't expect His Saints to have advanced degrees in Church history and doctrine, but members can still provide many — not all — answers for those who are sincere.
“Another concern I have is you live so close to Church headquarters that some of you may have become casual in listening to the Lord's servants,” Elder Ballard said. An effect of this attitude is choosing to miss sessions of stake and general conference, seeing that time as time-off from Church assignments.
Members living beyond their means in order to keep up with their neighbors is another concern. “We make a very serious mistake when we compare our lives with those who have much wealth, forgetting that most of us have already prospered in the land,” Elder Ballard said. “Please be content and enjoy the blessings you already have received instead of becoming slave to unwise use of consumer debt.”
Over-programmed lives and constantly being distracted by technology and social media also cut members off from the Spirit, he said. “Please carefully look at your calendars and consider where you might cut back and enjoy a less hectic life more fully,” Elder Ballard advised. “The Lord counseled us to find time to 'be still and know that I am God'” (Psalm 46:10).
Additionally, Elder Ballard spoke on how Church members, who throughout history have been a discriminated minority, must treat their friends, neighbors and colleagues who are not members of the Church.
“Although we take seriously the 'Great Commission' and charge from the Lord, 'Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,' we honor and respect agency” (Matthew 28: 19-20). Elder Ballard continued, “If a neighbor, work colleague, or schoolmate is not interested in investigating the gospel, we must always continue to extend the hand of friendship.”
The Utah South Area has unprecedented access to educational opportunities, Elder Ballard said. “Those who have the gift of knowledge or who have had the opportunity to obtain an education should never look down on any of God's children with disdain because an individual lacks the gift or opportunity of education,” he said.
Also speaking at the conference were Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy; Sister Linda K. Burton, Relief Society general president; and Bishop Dean M. Davies, second counselor in the presiding bishopric.
Elder Hallstrom spoke on hastening the work of salvation. “This work of salvation includes member missionary work, convert retention, activation of less-active members, temple and family history work, and teaching the gospel,” he said. Instead of working in competition with each other, each of these aspects of salvation bolster the others and work together, he said.
Treating the Sabbath day like a treasured gift from God can help improve Sabbath day experiences, Sister Burton said. “We can give a sign of love to our heavenly Father and the Savior by choosing to do things on the Sabbath day that demonstrate our Love for Him,” she said. “Partaking of the sacrament is more than just renewing our baptismal covenant, for we are cleansed again each time we worthily partake and remember Him. Doing so helps us repel the stains of the world and keep 'unspotted' from it.”
Bishop Davies spoke on how patterns given by the Lord help keep His people from being lost. For instance, in the Book of Mormon, “the patterns witness, teach and testify to us that wickedness never was happiness and only leads to misery and pain,” Bishop Davies said. “On the other hand, you can also see and feel that patterns of righteous living bring peace, joy, and strength to individuals, families and communities.” Bishop Davies invited everyone to read the Book of Mormon. “Brothers and sisters, a steady, daily partaking of the words of the Book of Mormon will grant you, the reader, an understanding and spiritual nourishment that cannot be obtained any other way,” he said.
Elder Ballard concluded the meeting, saying, “I testify that if you will carefully consider the counsel and direction you have received from each one of us today, you will find your feeder roots connected to the 'well of water springing up into everlasting life'” (John 4:14).