“Fire where once were ashes.” These words, an inversion of a line by the English poet Byron, are a reminder that in bygone times keeping a fire in a home’s hearth was critical. By the dawn of a winter’s morning, the heavy logs placed on the fire the night before would be reduced to ashes—the fire apparently dead. Yet when the ashes were brushed away, a glowing coal often would be found, from which the fire could be rekindled.
As with fires, so too with faith. Though covered by the ashes of neglect and estrangement, faith often can be fanned back to life.
One of the great tragedies of life occurs when a sheep or lamb who has come to Christ drifts away from the sheepfold of God. Some become inactive; others are critical or prone to find fault. A few precious souls fall prey to ravenous revilers who call evil good and good evil. (See Isa. 5:20.) For some, serious transgressions may even result in forfeiture of their Church membership.
In each who leaves, the flame of faith falters and grows faint. It may even disappear under the ashes of indifference or sin. To all who for whatever reason have drifted away, the First Presidency addressed a loving message in late 1985: “Come back,” they said, “come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints. …
“We plead with you. We pray for you. We invite and welcome you with love and appreciation.” (Ensign, Mar. 1986, p. 88.)
No part of our role as the Lord’s under-shepherds is more important than that which takes us out into the highways and byways of the world to find and bring back members of the flock of Christ who have wandered away, in whom the fire of faith and testimony has dimmed and grown cold. As we do so, ours is the joy expressed so beautifully by the Savior in that powerful parable found in Luke 15:
“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
“And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing.
“And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost.” (Luke 15:4–6.)
In response to the call of the First Presidency cited above, a major effort is being made in the United Kingdom/Ireland/Africa Area to find and bring back precious souls who have strayed from the shelter of the sheepfold of Christ. The work is being assisted as a team effort by faithful, full-time missionaries, who serve primarily as “finders,” and local priesthood holders and sisters, who function in the vital fellowshipping role.
Though some novel procedures and mechanisms are used in this “Find My Sheep” program, in its essence the problem and the solutions to it are as old as mankind. It is, and probably ever will be, the tendency of some to stray from the fold of the Good Shepherd. None of us is immune to that human frailty. Finding lost sheep and loving them back into full fellowship with the Saints must therefore be envisioned as an intrinsic, eternal part of the shepherd’s role.
The scriptural reminder that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10) takes on new meaning to those involved in finding lost sheep and helping to rekindle faith. The joy felt in heaven when a precious lost child is found and brought back is echoed in the hearts of faithful under-shepherds. They speak of the growing realization in the hearts of the many who have left the fold that life without Christ is like a life of perpetual twilight; of prayers by loving parents that someone would find a prodigal son or daughter; of tears of joy and gladness at rediscovery; of a reawakened desire to sup again at the table of the Lord. Such returns are a great miracle.
The greatest miracle of all is not the finding of those who are lost. Rather, it is the ability of the Savior’s love to heal and make whole, to apply a balm of Gilead to sin-sick souls, to restore to full understanding precious truths long since hidden by the cares of the world and the wiles of the wicked.
Why does Christ welcome back those who have been lost? Why does he call upon us to go out into the wilderness of the world to find and bring back those in whom the fire of faith has grown cold? The answer is both simple and profound. He does so because he loves us, seeing in each eternal worth as the sons and daughters of God. “And he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … and all are alike unto God.” (2 Ne. 26:33.)
What are we learning as we find and welcome back those precious lost ones? For one thing, we’re finding that they’re not much different from the rest of us. During a lifetime we oscillate repeatedly between being nurturing shepherds and nurtured sheep. That fact underlines our mutual interdependence—for we are all “the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.” (Ps. 95:7.) We are responsible for each other—not as our brother’s keeper, but as brothers and sisters freely “willing to bear one another’s burdens” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:8–9.) We cannot escape that responsibility, nor expect someone else to accept it for us.
Among those in whom the fire of faith has grown cold we find souls with special burdens: the lonely, the single, the aged, the ill, the troubled, the spouse or child from a broken home. For them, the shepherds must have special, tender care. Sad to say, sometimes the shepherds have not reached out in love and tenderness to those whose needs are greatest. I think of a family, recently found and now being fellowshipped, in which a son is in military service, the aging parents both have health problems, and a handicapped daughter in her late twenties remains at home. I wept to learn that contacts with the family have been so infrequent that we lost all touch with them for a time.
We’re finding, too, that circumstances change during life and that someone who has previously been indifferent—even cold—towards the Church may change over time. The Savior’s words come to mind:
“For ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.” (3 Ne. 18:32.)
I think of a woman, baptized in 1930 and long less active, who, when contacted in 1968, said that she and her husband and son had attended another church for many years and were happy with that arrangement. She was found again a few weeks ago after all those years of being lost. In the interim, her husband had died and her attitudes have changed. She now is very friendly and wants contact with the Church, including visits from home teachers. She still has her copy of the Book of Mormon! Incidentally, the missionaries were led to her through her nonmember brother, whose friendliness suggests that he, too, can be brought to Christ.
This leads me to reiterate one of the cardinal characteristics of newly found sheep: the flame of faith dies hard, and often it can be fanned back to life in them, even though it is covered with the ashes of apparent disinterest. The wise words of President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., come to mind:
“It is my hope and my belief that the Lord never permits the light of faith wholly to be extinguished in any human heart, however faint the light may glow. The Lord has provided that there shall still be there a spark which, with teaching, with the spirit of righteousness, with love, with tenderness, with example, with living the Gospel, shall brighten and glow again, however darkened the mind may have been. And if we shall fail so to reach those among us of our own whose faith has dwindled low, we shall fail in one of the main things which the Lord expects at our hands.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1936, p. 114.)
A loving story told by wonderful missionaries in the England London Mission illustrates the enduring truth of President Clark’s words. One of them wrote:
“We located a man who was quite gruff and unfriendly as he came to the door. He demanded to know how we had found him and what we were doing there. He wanted nothing to do with the Church, he said. Despite our attempts to reason with him, the good brother remained adamant and bitter in his desire not to have membership in the Church. In his anger, he wrote a letter to the bishop, then and there, demanding that his name be removed from the records of the Church.
“As we were walking toward our car, I continued to speak to the man about the importance of the gospel in our lives. I bore my testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and what it has done to benefit the many who have made the effort to live its principles and keep the commandments of God.
“I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I admonished him to pray, study the scriptures, and think seriously of what he had just done. I pointed out that he could still rescind the letter if he wished. Following a few moments of silence he said, softly: ‘You’d better hold the letter for a while to give me time to think.’”
How great is the power of pure testimony!
We are finding that many who have strayed had no real intention of doing so. Some drift away in the first few critical weeks or months after baptism, when faith is still tender and vulnerable. The flame of their faith grows faint more by neglect than by anything else.
One man, baptized twenty-six years ago and long since lost, looked back on his experiences after he was found again. “Before I got a chance to learn,” he said, “the missionaries left and I thought the members didn’t care. I quit going to church after a few weeks, even though I had a testimony. I still know that the feelings I had at baptism were the whisperings of the Spirit. The gospel is true.”
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the man contemplates what might have been. His nonmember wife, who had not objected to his baptism, has left him, and none of his three children are members, either. Sheep who become lost may take others with them, including lambs not yet born.
The work of finding and fellowshipping takes time and perseverance. Many lost sheep have been found and brought back only because of the dogged efforts of faithful shepherds who would not give up—who refused to believe that all possible avenues had been investigated and all possibilities considered, who believed deeply that the fire of faith and testimony can be rekindled, and who continued to search and struggle until the lost was found and brought home.
Missionaries in the England Coventry Mission tell this tender tale:
“We were seeking four brothers, baptized in southern Wales as children from 1913 through 1927. We had little to go on. Their current ages, if they were still alive, would range from seventy-three to ninety-one years, so there was no point in trying to locate them through their parents. The village where they lived at one time had been torn down many years ago.
“After extensive questioning of local inhabitants, we were told that in all probability all four brothers were dead. They had come from the Welsh coal mines to work as miners in England, and miners in those days did not have a long life-expectancy. Something impelled us, however, to continue searching.
“Finally, the widow of one of the brothers was located. She told us that one of them was still alive, though more than eighty years of age. We went to the address, knocked at the door, and said, ‘Are you Mr.__________?’ He replied: ‘You are Mormons! Welcome! Come in!’ Then that grand old lion stood tall and declared: ‘I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and always have been!’ We were showered with gifts of produce from his garden and are going back to visit him until we complete his family pedigree so the names of his three brothers (all long since dead) and other loved ones can be taken to the temple.
“Only the Lord will know how many times my companion and I were convinced that all four of the brothers were deceased and that our only recourse would be to visit cemeteries if they were to be found. There were many tears on both sides when we finally found the lone survivor. He knew the Church cared for him, and we knew that the fire of faith still burned brightly in his bosom.”
Some members drift away because they lack the courage to proclaim their faith to an apostate world. Fearing man more than God (see D&C 3:7), they become “ashamed of the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 1:16). In their fear, they stray away, and they may take others with them. They are in special need of a loving hand to lift them up and rekindle their faith. Missionaries in England recently encountered one such family. They reported:
“One sister we met had been only partially active for more than thirty years. There was never any doubt in her mind about the truthfulness of the gospel, but her husband forbade her from ‘getting too involved,’ and certainly she was not to allow any Mormons to visit their home.
“One day her husband informed her she could again return to limited activity, but only on Sunday. There was to be no weekday participation, and certainly no special projects or programs to claim her time! She felt sure this mood change would be of short duration, but she went cautiously about her return to activity.
“Not knowing the sensitivity of her home situation, we unwisely visited her without an appointment. Her husband made no attempt to hide his displeasure. We noted a picture of three beautiful children on the mantelpiece and quickly determined one cannot go wrong talking about a person’s grandchildren. Forty-five minutes later, as we prepared to leave, everyone was relaxed and speaking freely about many subjects. Equally as important, we had an invitation to return—extended by the husband.
“A week or so later as we visited with the dear sister, she related that a few days following our visit to their home, her husband had asked if he could speak with her on a very important matter. He began by saying: ‘I think it is about time I had a talk with the bishop to learn if my baptism of thirty-five years ago is still valid. If so, maybe I’d better begin to honor it.’
“This good brother and his family had moved into the area many years ago, and he had never acknowledged being a member of the Church. He had warned his family to maintain silence regarding his membership. His withdrawal from activity, according to him, was caused by the two-pronged problem so often expressed by less-active members: failure to be adequately taught the gospel, and failure in fellowshipping. We visited several times with this brother and listened attentively and tearfully as he related the anguish of more than thirty years of fear and false pride that had prevented him from returning to church, even though he knew the gospel was true.
“One wonders if he sensed something impending, because his change of attitude and desire to return to full fellowship were cut short by his death in less than two months’ time. His loving, patient, long-suffering wife has expressed the comfort she feels knowing he really did believe, but needed help to return.”
Another lesson we have learned about newly found souls is that many—perhaps most—of them know little about the gospel. Lack of knowledge clearly is a factor in their inactivity.
The fire of faith and testimony soon falters if it is not fed. Few who have drifted far away have experienced the frequent referral to gospel principles that is needed to drive essential truths into the soul to the extent that behavior begins to change. Few are familiar with the scriptures, those powerful witnesses of Christ. (See John 5:39.) Their knowledge of the saving and redeeming truths found in the Book of Mormon is especially deficient. In a word, most require conversion. We have found that without conversion, activation is fleeting and superficial. These perceptive words from Alma 23:6 say it best: “As many as believed, or … were brought to the knowledge of the truth … and were converted unto the Lord, never did fall away.”
The responsibility which falls upon shepherds to ensure that those who hear are brought to a knowledge of the truth through spirit-directed, inspired teaching is obvious. Those who attend priesthood quorums, auxiliaries, and Gospel Essentials classes must feel the Spirit through inspired teaching and experience the joy and edification it brings. (See D&C 50:17–23.)
Love is the principle that unifies all that is done to find and bring back those who are lost. To be effective, this finding effort must be both organized and personalized. True shepherds know that each sheep is different from all others, with unique strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, and talents.
In a recent testimony meeting in England, a lovely sister expressed the joy she and her husband had felt when they joined the Church more than fifteen years ago. A few months after their baptism, the missionaries who had taught them, and to whom they had felt especially close, completed their missions and returned home. Soon doubts, fears, and uncertainties began to gnaw at the new converts as old habits and old friends began to lure them away from the fold of Christ.
They were saved from a slow slide into inactivity, she said, only because a couple in their ward loved and cared for them. Many evenings were spent discussing gospel principles and Church procedures. Aid was given in cultivating and enjoying new friendships. The new converts were encouraged to accept Church callings and were helped to be successful in carrying them out.
Love extended to this couple early in their Church life prevented the need for reactivation later on. The sister concluded her testimony: “We sometimes went to church when we didn’t particularly want to, but we knew our friends loved us, and we grew to love them. That love has become deeper as we realize more each day what they did for us.”
Finally, we have found that those in whom the fire of faith burns low have nonmember family and friends who would be receptive to the call to “come unto Christ.” A few examples will illustrate the point.
A nonmember family living within the boundaries of one of our wards in England was told by their sectarian minister that they should go to the nearest church to have their infant daughter christened. It so happened that the closest church building, to which the parents dutifully went, was a meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the baby was blessed by a local priesthood leader.
That was eleven years ago. The name of that little girl, now in her twelfth year and blessed but unbaptized, was still on our records, though technically it should have been dropped a couple of years ago. Neither she nor her parents had been contacted, so far as we can tell, since the day she had been blessed; the family had moved, and their address was lost. That failure of shepherding aside, the family was found by “Find My Sheep” missionaries. The parents had separated sometime during the intervening years. The mother now has three children, and she and her family are eager to learn about the gospel.
In another instance, a mother and her two children who were baptized eighteen years ago and then lost now have been found and are being retaught. The husband, a nonmember, is joining in the missionary discussions, and the children, now grown and married, have their spouses involved as well.
In summary, then, finding, bringing back, and caring for lost sheep and lambs are tasks of supernal significance assigned by the Good Shepherd to faithful under-shepherds. In the accomplishment of these tasks is found some of the richest joy of work in the Master’s cause. How thrilling it is to assist in brushing away the ashes of apathy, indifference, even antagonism, to reveal and revive the still-flickering flame of faith. Those so involved can exult with Ammon: “Yea, my heart is brim with joy, and I will rejoice in my God.” (Alma 26:11.)