In June 1987, I toured the Paraguay Asuncion Mission, including a very isolated branch located in a distant area called Mistolar. These members had virtually no communication with others except through infrequent radio contact. The mission president, John Whetten, and I made the challenging two-day journey to visit this branch of 214 members.
When we arrived, we found the people smiling and happy, though on the surface it seemed that they had little reason to be joyful. First, melting snow from the Andes Mountains had flooded over the banks of the Pilcomayo River and destroyed their village. When the people moved six miles from the river, they suffered an even more disastrous flood that left three feet of water on their land for a month. This time, they lost their homes, food, and clothing. Even their chapel was washed away.
I asked the 27-year-old branch president if, because of the harsh conditions, any of them were sick. He answered, “Oh, I don’t think so, but I will check with another priesthood leader.” That leader looked at the branch president and said, “You know we have thirty-nine priesthood bearers, and if someone is ill, we anoint and bless them and they often recover.”
Then I asked if any of the 214 members were less active. The branch president raised his head and said firmly, “Not one of us is less active in this church of Jesus Christ. We made covenants when we were baptized, and we promised the Lord that we would remain true and faithful to him to the end.” I was humbled by their commitment.
I asked the branch president to call a meeting for that evening. There, I dedicated the land that it would be blessed and that the weather would be moderated. At the end of the meeting, a sister offered the closing prayer in her Nivacle dialect, which was translated into Spanish for me. She said, “Even though we have no food or clothing, have lost our chapel in the flood, and are hungry, we still have happy hearts and bright countenances. We will not complain, because we have something even more important: faith in thee and in thy Son, our Redeemer.”
Since that time, circumstances have moderated for them. There was heavy snowpack in the mountains the next year, and the spring melt water came right up to the property of these faithful Saints, but there was no flood. Rains continue to be favorable, hunting acceptable, and gardens productive. These people have been blessed for their faith and their obedience. Today, they even have a seminary program for their youth.
Though they live in a remote area of the world, they stand as sterling examples of how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can bring us joy. With minimal material possessions—by the standards of modern cultures—they nevertheless appreciate the spiritual gifts they receive through the gospel.
At this season when we usually celebrate the Savior’s birth by giving generous gifts to each other, we all would do well to remember his supernal, unparalleled gifts to us. We might think, too, of the gifts we could give to him if our hearts are truly repentant and full of charity.
Among the most important of his gifts to us are the Atonement, mercy, and grace. They open the way to salvation.
It was our Father’s plan to provide a Savior for us—his only Begotten Son in the flesh, Jesus Christ—who could pay the atoning price for the sins that we would commit. Our sins would inevitably bring upon us spiritual death, barring us from Heavenly Father’s presence. But Christ would intercede in our behalf; his atonement would meet the demands of eternal justice against us, making it possible for God to forgive our sins upon our repentance.
Alma teaches us of the heavenly balance between justice and mercy. “And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also” (Alma 42:15).
His gift of mercy is conditional upon our repentance. Imagine, for example, that your sins have pulled you into the bottom of a deep pit. From a cliff high above, the Lord tosses a rope to you—the rope of mercy. In order for the rope to be of any help, you must tie it around you and fasten it with the knot of repentance. This is the only way to be pulled free of sin.
In a very real way, repentance is one of the gifts we give to our Savior when we “offer a sacrifice unto the Lord [our] God in righteousness, even that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit” (D&C 59:8). Through repentance, we may “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). Nephi taught: “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23).
The grace of Jesus Christ makes up for our deficiencies when we are striving with all of our hearts to obey. Then we are promised that we will receive grace for grace unto salvation: “For if you keep my commandments you shall receive of his fulness, and be glorified in me as I am in the Father; therefore, I say unto you, you shall receive grace for grace” (D&C 93:20).
When we are on the path our Savior has taught us to follow, additional gifts from our Lord will be manifest in our lives, both in blessings upon us and in the blessings that we share with others through service. Charity will motivate us, and we will have reason to rejoice in Christ, as do those committed, faithful Paraguayan Latter-day Saints in Mistolar. I have had opportunities to see this truth verified over and over, in many different areas of the Church.
For example, I saw the gifts of the Savior amply manifest in the lives of faithful Saints in Guatemala while I was serving in Central America.
Once during a conference of the Guatemala City Guatemala Atlantico Stake, I devoted my remarks to the importance of remembering our deceased ancestors, doing all that we can to help release them from their spiritual prison. As I was finishing my talk, a well-dressed sister on the second row appeared to become quite shaken. She was helped out and went to the bishop’s office. The stake president’s wife went out to help her and returned in a few minutes to report what had happened. She explained that apparently the woman’s deceased mother’s words had come to her mind, “The path you are on is correct. Keep the commandments. Be obedient. Be not afraid; do the work for me.”
The sister recovered her composure immediately following a priesthood blessing, and a sense of deep peace and happiness lingered with her. Within a week, she took steps to have temple ordinances performed for her mother. Because she was receptive to the gifts of the Savior, she was prepared to receive additional blessings and to share one such blessing with a loved one.
Through obedience to the Savior’s teachings, we frequently receive blessings of both spiritual and physical strength and protection. To amplify, let me say that members in rural Guatemala often must walk long distances just to be active in the Church. (I hasten to add that I know this is true also in other areas of the world for many faithful members who must sacrifice much simply to worship together.) The average walk to district conference for members in Momostenango, in the mountainous highlands of Guatemala, is one and one-half hours. For some, it is three or more hours! Yet the average attendance is 60 percent, and would be higher but for the need to leave someone behind to guard home and property.
I know of one branch president who rises at 3:30 A.M. each Saturday and walks eighteen kilometers—just over eleven miles—to be available to serve members of his branch. Another leader walks five hours one way to attend district leadership meetings every other Saturday.
Undoubtedly these members gain physical strength through their efforts. But I have been struck by their spiritual power. I know that choice gifts come from the Lord to devoted members such as these, often in the form of blessings that may be unseen and perhaps even unnoticed at the time.
Several years ago, before construction began on the temple in Guatemala City, a group of men, women, and children worked all one day, some until 11:00 P.M., clearing bushes, dense undergrowth, and garbage from the temple site. When heavy machinery moved onto the site the next morning to clear tree roots and logs, it was discovered that the land was heavily infested with poisonous snakes, including the feared barba amarilla. Yet not one man, woman, or child had been molested by the vipers!
One of the gifts promised to faithful members is an abundance of the word of God (see Alma 12:10). This abundance need not be limited by such barriers as lack of education or language proficiency. Two-thirds of the members in Momostenango speak only Quiché, a native Mayan dialect, and neither speak nor understand Spanish. Knowing this, the mission president was prepared to use a translator during a conference; he would deliver a sentence or two, then wait for the translator to repeat it in Quiché. But as he started to give his talk, he felt the guidance of the Spirit encouraging him not to use a translator but to simply speak Spanish. Accordingly, he asked the translator to be seated and gave his talk as directed. He knew the members were understanding him, and eight of them came forward afterward to verify, in Quiché: “We understood all you said.”
Many of these humble members have learned well the lesson that joy is found in living the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we need not live in humble circumstances to learn this. Rather, the key to receiving the Lord’s gifts is a humble heart. I know of many members who live elsewhere who also receive abundantly of the Savior’s gifts and generously use their time and means to share the blessings of the gospel with others.
Salvation through the Savior is the greatest gift of all, and it is open to everyone who will obey his teachings, no matter where or under what circumstances they may live in the world. For me, this fundamental doctrine is summed up in verses two and six of the moving hymn “How Great the Wisdom and the Love”:
His precious blood he freely spilt;
His life he freely gave,
A sinless sacrifice for guilt,
A dying world to save. …
How great, how glorious, how complete,
Redemption’s grand design,
Where justice, love, and mercy meet
In harmony divine!
(Hymns, 1985, no. 195)
Great and glorious indeed is the plan that provided redemption for all humankind through our Savior. I know this plan was born of our Father’s surpassing love for us. Let us rejoice together in Christ during this Christmas season, in gratitude for his gifts, and particularly for his atonement, his mercy, and his grace.