Can you Imagine?
by Nathan Mitchell
In old Nauvoo, when the Saints were gathering there—literally by the boatload—Brother Joseph would often be there to greet the new coming saints. He would say to them some pretty audacious things. He would say to them things like, “We’re so glad that you’re here. We were hoping that you would be coming soon. We’ve been waiting for you.”
He would look them right in the eye and say, “We need someone with your abilities for this work.” Such a familiar greeting from a relative stranger must have provoked various reactions. I’m sure many hearts were thrilled, and some were comforted. I imagine that, for some, there was that panic that we feel when someone recognizes us but we don’t recognize them in return. Still for others—I’m sure there must have been a few—that may at first have seemed disingenuous, to receive that kind of greeting. It may have come off a little like a sales pitch.
But if there were any who were initially incredulous or suspicious of his sincerity, those shadows of doubt were soon dispersed by his example. He proved that he was the real thing through his devoted service and his consistent love. That love is one of the Prophet Joseph’s many spiritual gifts.
He was given this gift, and cultivated this gift, to be able to see others the way that God sees them—even his enemies. I want to tell you here today, that I have been praying about you over the past few weeks. I want to share with you an experience that I have had in that process, as I have anticipated our time together.
I don’t consider myself to be a visionary man. To this point in my life, it seems to not have been my gift. But I have been praying about you. I’ve been asking Heavenly Father to show you unto me, or to be more precise, that I might see you, or perceive just a little of your world, your experience, your hearts, and your needs, so that I could know what to share with you that might do us both the most good.
So, although you are relative strangers to me, I admit that I feel a little like Brother Joseph when I tell you that I am so glad that you decided to come here today. I wish that I could look into your eyes individually as he did to those saints, so that you could know it is neither pretense nor platitude when I tell you I was hoping to see you here today, that we need someone with your abilities for this work, and, because God answers prayers, I feel I have a message or two to deliver to you.
In saying that, I want to make clear that I don’t pretend to receive revelation for you. I don’t have that stewardship; it’s not my accountability. That job will be left to you. I’m a sojourner, like you. We are fellow pilgrims, and, for today at least, we share this path together. And it is an honor.
At our house, we love the missionaries. We love to feed the missionaries, and we love to have the missionaries over. We love to hear their stories and their lessons. We’re usually one of the first to know, in our ward, when a transfer happens—because a new missionary will often accidentally tract into our home. It’s a bit of a surprise.
Sometimes when I meet a new elder or sister for the first time, they are surprised to find out that I have what they often call “a real job.” I am, indeed, a counselor by profession. I work in a wilderness treatment center for at-risk adolescents and young adults called Anasazi: The Making of a Walking. At Anasazi, we utilize the wilderness settings and primitive living skills to help families of these youth to address behavioral [challenges].
I’m passionate about the work that we do at Anasazi. Looking back on my journey into that field, I can see that it wasn’t by happenstance that I ended up there. I had a journey of my own, which includes some mental health issues and some learning struggles. Some of them meet diagnostic criteria and some of them don’t. But for a lot of us in that field, we go into it thinking that we can get some access to figuring ourselves out. It hasn’t happened so far; I’ll let you know if it does.
From my youth and into my early adulthood, these struggles, for me, went unrecognized and untreated. I know that some of you here today share in those struggles. For some of you, you are already aware and on the path to recovery. Some of you are not. I know that you suffer, and no one else sees that you suffer. Part of my message for you today is that you don’t need to suffer the way that you are, that there is light and there is help, and there is hope for all of us.
I know that in the depths of that struggle, the darkness can feel almost overwhelming, and we may begin to fear that the light may never come. But as each day dawns, the rising sun repeats its teaching of a powerful and fundamental lesson that we must never forget, and that is that light chases away darkness.
This simple truth is not a mere observation of a natural phenomenon, but more like a law which is applicable to the physical and non-physical aspects of our world and our lives. Sometimes it can be easy to forget this truth. If we have not grown past feeling, or are driven too much to dull and distract our senses, then we may be fortunate enough to notice when we are walking in darkness.
Having made that realization, sometimes we will employ various strategies to get ourselves out of it. Sometimes, we may try to seek the source of that darkness, as though it were a fountain, and if we could plug up that fountain then there would be no more darkness in our lives. Sometimes, noticing there is darkness in our lives, we’ll try to gather that darkness, to sweep it up with a broom, or scoop it up with a shovel, so we can collect it and contain it and get rid of it. And sometimes, we notice that we are walking in darkness, and we’ll try to replace that darkness with something that is just a little bit less dark.
None of these strategies can work, because only light has that power to expel darkness. These strategies can turn out to be like illusions. They can give us the counterfeit feeling of making progress, because there is movement. But we must never confuse movement with actual progress. They are not the same thing.
There is a singular effective formula for ridding one’s life of darkness, and that is by adding light—and not just once. We must seek light and add it to our lives continually. When finding that one is walking in darkness, the wise, observant pilgrim will immediately look for light. The fact that you are here today tells me that you know quite a bit about it already, that you know where to look for light.
Prophets and apostles, both ancient and modern, including this past weekend of general conference, have been teaching and re-teaching us why we must look for light, and how to do it. As a mental health practitioner, I know many Latter-day Saints who have operated under the tragic misunderstanding that we must simply pray our blues away. And if that didn’t work, they surmised that it must be due to a lack of faith or, even more tragic, a lack of worthiness—which only reinforced some of their most destructive beliefs and thoughts.
This is one of the reasons that I find the imagery of light so helpful. When the sun rises, you may notice how freely nature seems to let go of the darkness. It does not resist the light the way we sometimes do. In addition to looking for the light in the usual, Primary-answer type ways, there may be some ways of looking for light that you may not have thought of. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the Primary answers, because obviously you already know them.
But some of the other ways that you might not have thought of I do want to share with you. Some of these are: developing a sense of wonder and awe and gratitude. President Uchtdorf has spoken extensively, a number of times, about that subject—about being grateful, and cultivating that attitude of gratitude.
One of the other solutions or ways to look for light that you might not have thought of—and I think this is maybe one of the most important—and that is our connection with each other, the community that we share. Whenever we are in darkness, it feels like we are alone. God has placed us on this earth in the midst of others, and given us strict instructions to be one. That’s a powerful step that we can take when we find out that we are walking in darkness, to reach out for help. And not only to reach out for help, but to reach out in service with the aim of connecting to someone else and being useful, being helpful in their journey.
Another way that we are taught sometimes to seek for light and to look for light is taught by Alma. In the fifth chapter of Alma, he reviews a technique for looking for light that I think is pretty intriguing and has helped me to gather light in a way that has really changed my life—which is why I want to share it with you today.
In the fifth chapter of Alma, starting about verse 16—this is after the very famous chapter in Alma, this sermon that he delivers, is full of beautiful doctrine that he delivers. It is going to be very familiar to you, where he talks about having “a mighty change” (Alma 5:13) of heart, where he talks about have you “received his image in your countenances” (Alma 5:14).
In verse 16, he begins by saying, “I say unto you, can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord.” This phrase, “can you imagine,” is something that we use quite a lot in our day-to-day conversation, but I suspect that Alma is using it somewhat differently here, because he repeats it a number of times. Can you imagine? Alma is trying to get these people to engage that faculty, that ability that God gave them to simulate this experience. This experience simulator, this imagination of ours, is a powerful tool to help us to understand gospel principles, especially to understand the scriptures and to gather light, to understand those things in our heart. For understanding, after all, happens in the heart. This is a principle that is taught throughout scripture.
I would like to maybe do a little exercise with you today, with that in mind—this idea of trying to imagine more deeply, more fully, as you study the scriptures. Let’s explore a New Testament story to illustrate what I mean. This will be in the 13th chapter of Matthew. He records a pretty well-known story here. This story finds the apostles all gathered together, following and listening to Jesus. They are aboard a boat with the Master, as He is preaching to a group, a multitude that is over on the seashore. So as He is teaching them these things, He teaches them the parable of the sower. This is the part when one of the apostles, after He is finished with the parable, he asks, “Why do you teach to them in parables?”
I want to make sure that I set this up properly, to engage your imagination in the way that Alma talks about. I’m going to go ahead and read some of these verses with you, and I’m going to invite you to ponder a few of these questions, again, with the aim of engaging the imagination in a deeper way that will hopefully lead to some understanding that you haven’t been aware of before. I want you to close your eyes. You can leave off writing notes for a minute. You may catch another moment or two of sleep, but that won’t be quite as useful to you as if you stayed awake. Imagine in your mind’s eye that you are one of these apostles. I just want you to ponder these questions.
Imagine in your mind’s eye that you are one of the apostles on the boat. Depending on which apostle you are, you may be very comfortable on a boat, or you may be very, very uncomfortable. How does the Savior speak, as He addresses you, the apostles, versus the way He speaks to the multitude? How close are you sitting to Him as He speaks? Are you sitting on the deck? On a pile of nets? Are you sitting on some kind of chair? How long have you been sitting there? What is that doing to your body?
Who is sitting next to you? What has your conversation with that person been like that day? What time of day is it? What is the weather like? What are you wearing, and how long have you been wearing it? When was the last time you had something to eat or to drink? What have you been doing that day? Who have you been thinking of? Have you been walking all day? Have you been fishing all day? Where does the Savior look, as He teaches? At which moments does He look at you? Does He hold your gaze, as if to teach you something in specific? Do others in the quorum notice this happening?
In this teaching, Jesus quotes a well-known prophecy from Isaiah. If you are a Jew and chosen to be one of the Twelve, are you familiar with this prophecy? What do you experience as the Savior speaks about this prophecy fulfilled? I’m going to go ahead, with that in mind just sort of pondering and putting you in that place. I’m going to read what Jesus says to the apostles in response to this question, “Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matthew 13:10).
Starting in verse 11, “He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
“For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.
“Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
“And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:
“For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have close; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear.
“For verily I say unto you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them" (Matthew 13:11-17).
I wish that we were in a Sunday school class, so that I could see what this experience is like for you, if this sort of deep imagining has had any impact on your understanding of this passage, that hopefully has been familiar to you before today.
I want to close with my testimony. Brothers and sisters, I know that Joseph Smith saw exactly what he said he saw. I know it. I likewise know that each one of us is going to live forever, whether we like it or not. I testify to you of the divine mission of the Savior Jesus Christ, that His mission is always to heal our hearts, to make us one with Him and with His Father, that we can live with Them again. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Nathan Mitchell is co-executive director for the Anasazi Foundation. He is known for his on-screen performances as Joseph Smith in “Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration,” “Praise to the Man,” “Emma Smith: My Story,” and “Treasure in Heaven: The John Tanner Story.” He portrayed James G. Willie in “17 Miracles” and Simon Peter in “The Life of Jesus Christ” Bible videos.
Nathan earned his master’s degree in mental health counseling from the University of Phoenix and a bachelor’s in fine arts/acting from Brigham Young University.
He enjoys spending time with his wife and four children and is an avid woodworker, hiker and fisherman.