When I worked in New York City years ago, I lived on Staten Island. Five days a week I took the ferry across the harbor to Manhattan to work. You know how it is with commuting, you identify points along the way that tell you how much farther you have to go.
One of my reference points was the Statue of Liberty; every trip I looked at that tremendous statement of liberty. It is one of the world's most commanding symbols. For more than 100 years that green copper statue has welcomed people seeking another way, a better way. Her arm is reaching up, her hand, high in the sky, holds a lamp that seems to light the world with her goodwill. At night, that light glows as if to echo the words of the poet Emma Lazarus: "Give me your tired, your poor."
This familiar statue can be likened to welfare principles at work. We are talking today of our strengths — our talents and gifts of the spirit — that we give to the tired and poor. In the process, like this famed statue, we hold aloft a light for the world to see.
I want to add to this image two questions which are almost as familiar to Relief Society as "Charity Never Faileth." They are perhaps bullets underneath that well-known theme that remind us of our critical responsibilities in welfare work.
First question: What do you need? How many times have you heard it? How many times have you said it?
Second question: How can I help? Again, think of the number of times those are the first words you say as you step forward to help. They are sincere and heart-felt and indeed are part of our charge.
Now put those questions in the back of your mind while I talk of being a light to the world. We'll come back to them. I want to begin by reviewing with you the well-known Parable of the Ten Virgins from Matthew, Chapter 25.
In the parable, ten maidens are waiting to join in a bridal celebration. The bridegroom hasn't come and no one knows when he will arrive. The women, as was the custom, have lamps with them to carry to contribute to this great event. At first, the lamps are all lit and glowing. But the party is late and the maidens fall asleep. All of a sudden, in the middle of the night, the call comes to light the lamps. "The bridegroom cometh, go ye out to meet him."
And then the point of reckoning. Five of the maidens have extra oil to light their lamps and five don't. (The Hebrews described lighting the lamp as "trimming" in other words, "preparing.") The five who are unprepared, beg for some extra oil from their sisters who are well supplied; their pleas are refused. They race to the market to buy some oil to start their lamps.
In the meantime, the bridegroom arrives, the five wise, well-prepared maidens join in the celebration and the doors are closed. When the other five arrive — late — they are not admitted, "Lord, Lord, open to us," they say. "But he answered, I know you not."
This parable puzzles many. Why didn't the virgins share? There is such virtue in sharing. Why was the party so hastily convened and at such an odd hour? Who was in charge of this procession? Where was the charity? And how could they lock the door so heartlessly? Repentance is a powerful tool--couldn't it have been used here? And what of the oil. How could oil be so important?
Oil is the heart of this parable. It is the message for us today. If we go back, now, to our first question: "What do you need?" My answer is: "Oil."
Oil is what distinguished the five who were wise from the five who were foolish, foolish because they were unprepared.
Oil for our lamps is our spirituality, our testimony, our spiritual self-reliance, our centering on eternal perspectives and our personal commitment to Jesus Christ. When our lamps are full of oil and we have filled our reserves, we are full of the Holy Ghost. "We are wise and have received the truth and have taken the Holy Spirit for [our] guide" (D&C 45:56).
Oil was a most precious commodity in the time of Christ. The oil from olive trees, like the ones in the Garden of Gethsemane, were ancient Israel's source of light. Olive oil was used because it produced the dearest, brightest and most steady of flames of all the vegetable oils.
Preparation of olive oil required effort and skill. Immediately after harvesting, the olives had to be pressed to ensure that the product did not go rancid. The method used most often was to treat the olives and then, when they were properly crushed, to place them into a special basket from which the oil could be drained into a bowl. The top layer, "the first oil" was skimmed off and used for lighting lamps.
Isaiah referred to it as the "oil of joy" (Isaiah 61:3), the Psalmist described it as "oil of gladness" (Psalm 45:7).
Oil brings many images to mind. Remember I described olive oil as the dearest, brightest and most steady. These are the words I would use to describe so many women, like you, who have prepared and are continuing to prepare. Women who accept callings and serve with vitality and dedication. Women who are at their meetings, ready to learn, to contribute from their own personal store of knowledge and testimony. Women who say, "What do you need?" and then find it, and do it. They have oil to fill the lamp. Often they do little things, and those things matter so much. Like Donna saying "I'll drive," or Joyce bringing me the first daffodils in bloom.
Imagine the number of small olives it takes to fill the large vats with oil. Understanding that oil has to be pressed, treated, worked over, our sisters are always applying the counsel in the Doctrine and Covenants: "Wherefore be faithful, praying always, having your lamps trimmed and burning, and oil with you, that you may be ready at the coming of the Bridegroom" (D&C 33:17).
Now, the second question, "How can I help?" Clearly we can provide a place for the "tired and poor" to begin to build their own oil reserves. We also can add to the supply some of the brightest beams of goodness on the earth today, and that's you, the women of the Relief Society.
The Ten Virgins represent members of the Church, those who profess a belief in Christ and who confidently expect to be included among the blessed in the final glory of the Second Coming. That's the story line of the parable. That the Lord used women as his example in this Parable is sobering to me for only half the women were ready.
If we were to take this room as a test case, half of us, everyone on this side, would be heading for the door right now to get to the store for more oil. Imagine your own Relief Societies. What would you do without Dorothy or Nancy or Anne or Sybil? And what about Renee who always sits right in front of the window, second seat in from the wall? This is a parable for us as members of the Church, sisters, and we must heed the warning. Remember the question, "What do you need?" The answer is oil.
The bridegroom in the parable, as we all know, is Jesus Christ. His arrival at the wedding feast is representative of the Second Coming. But the message of the parable is not that he came, because we know that he will. The lesson is that when he came, only five stood with their lamps ready and burning. What happened?
All ten virgins had enough oil in the beginning to light their lamps. But they grew tired, lost patience with the process of waiting. They had heard of his coming for so long, so many times, that the statement became almost meaningless to them.
Some of them were so busy polishing their lamps that they used their energy just keeping the exterior bright and beautiful. And then when the forerunners called out, "Go ye out to meet him," there was no reserve. Does this happen to us today?
The lighted lamp which each of the maidens carried is the outward symbol of following Christ. We have our visible symbols of following Christ and his teachings like attending meetings, bringing our scriptures, accepting callings, signing up for Welfare assignments.
But it isn't enough. It gets us invited to the party. It doesn't mean we will be ready to go at the hour we are called to "Come." We must have oil in our lamps.
Can you share your oil sisters? Can you reach into your soul and share your ten years of morning prayer or family prayer? Can you share the personal peace of regular temple attendance and paying tithes? Or the spiritual truths that have been borne to you as you have visited sisters in their homes? Can you share the strengths that are formed on a mission or from supporting a missionary?
You can share what you have learned, but you can not share the spiritual power that is in your soul. Not one sister in this Church will be saved on the merits or abundance of another. These individual efforts invite the Holy Ghost to be with us to prompt us in righteousness.
To renew their oil, the five foolish went to "them that sell." But, we know we can't buy spirituality. We can't borrow it. The market for us is traded in obedience, diligence, valiance, and prayer.
President Spencer W. Kimball counseled, "In our lives the oil of preparedness is accumulated drop by drop in righteous living." (Faith Precedes the Miracle p. 256)
Once again, to our questions, "What do you need? How can I help?" We can help by being as prepared — ourselves — as we can be. Alma said, "Let your hearts be full...for the welfare of those around you" (Alma 34:27). Jacob said, "I am weighed down with much more desire and anxiety for the welfare of our souls."
Sisters, we are in the business of improving the welfare of souls. As leaders, how can we help fill reserves so that each sister will stand with her lamp held high and her light burning brightly?
We can use the program of Relief Society to teach spiritual preparedness, to bring sisters to an understanding of what matters most, to provide a setting where the spirit of the Lord dwells in abundance, to bring together sisters whose common bond of the gospel establishes trust, friendship, honor and association. Let me give you some specifics that provide that needed "oil."
1. We can emphasize study of the gospel. Oil for our lamps comes in understanding gospel principles, being literate in the scriptures, knowing where to go for answers. Encourage your teachers to use the scriptures in their lessons and ask your sisters to study the lessons and to bring their scriptures each week. Have scripture study classes in homemaking. Find ways to help the sisters know the words of God.
Sometimes we may focus our gospel study by teaching people to read, and to read with comprehension. Gospel literacy is one of Relief Society's important emphases. Until our members can read with comprehension, they can not begin to fill their lamps with the oil they will need. This is where those who have been given much — can give.
In recent months, the general Relief Society has become aware of some special literacy programs in several Salt Lake area schools where help was needed. When we sent out the plea for volunteers to the Relief Societies in seven stakes, we had a tremendous response. Sisters, there is such a need for the Church's Gospel Literacy Effort. I look ahead to see literacy as much a part of the work of Relief Society as programs that have been with us for many years.
In one of these school projects, a sister said to her neighbor, "I have been looking for a place for myself in the Church." And then with a big smile she said, "This is it. I am loving what I am doing at this school. I am so excited to see the Church involved in work like this." She had found a dollop of oil for her lamp. During the past two Years she had become less active. It was like falling asleep in the parable. She had begun to sit closer and closer to the door until she had almost quit coming. Her children were dropping out of activity, as was her husband. And then she found a place, and her light began to shine.
2. We can strengthen our meetings, our lives, and our assignments through the power of prayer. Start every Relief Society function with prayer — whether it's a Sunday meeting, praying before a visiting teaching call, a presidency meeting or your own personal pondering. Pray for your sisters.
Assign your prayers for meetings in advance. Take the prayer as seriously as you take the lesson. Prayers are critical to the spirit of a meeting, so choose wisely. Everyone in this room prays and so do all our sisters. So put to good use this reservoir of oil. As we pray to our Father in Heaven, he pours out his peace upon us. As he answers our prayers, our oil reserves increase dramatically.
Let me share a story where prayer opened the door for a Laurel to make the transition to Relief Society. A stake Young Women's president told me of this experience she had while training a new ward Young Women's president. Before they began their session, they prayed for guidance; and it came.
The two sisters felt prompted to set aside their manuals and go visiting. They also knew where they were to go. So on a cold January night, they went to the home of a second year Laurel who had not been to Church since Primary. Neither of them knew her, and they felt awkward as they knocked on her door. They learned later that the family had refused visiting teachers, home teachers and even a visit from the Bishop.
The young girl was home and invited them in. She sat and talked with the two leaders for nearly an hour. It was obvious from her clothes and her language that she had distanced herself from the Church and some of its teachings.
But as they talked it became clear that she was hungry to talk to these two women she didn't even know. Once when they got up to leave, she just kept talking; and they sat down again. A light of remembrance was lit in that young woman from the visit of two Relief Society sisters who were currently serving in Young Women. Prayer had prompted that new beginning.
A door opened that night. Now the Relief Society can reach out to bring her into the circle of sisters. Every ward has young women who stand outside the room, reticent to come in. There are also young women who are far away from the Church and don't know where the door even is. When you think of your sisters, think of all of them, young and old, the ones you know and the ones YOU don't.
3. We can count on inspiration from the Lord. With the Holy Ghost as our guide, we will know how to lead our sisters. We will have "ears to hear" the answers to that question, "What do you need?" There is no lack of good ideas in our organization, but when we rely on the spirit for inspiration, we act with the power of God.
Through this inspiration many women are called to silent acts of service. A young mother wrote me of the challenges associated with the birth of her daughter. Little Amanda was born with a cleft lip and palate. Her mother said: "We had wonderful support while in the hospital. Family and friends came and extended their love. My dear friend, Janice, came to the hospital. With others I was strong, with Janice I could cry." She has continued to support us since. Janice tended Amanda when she was three weeks old so that I could attend the baptism of my oldest son. She did not ask, "What can I do?" She said, "This I am doing."
And then she concludes, "I am grateful for the Relief Society program. In the past nine years I have been on the receiving end many times. To have sisters who care about you and are willing to reach out is truly a blessing."
We all feel the oil pouring into our souls at those moments when we touch each other as the Lord has inspired us to do.
4. We can continue to emphasize living the commandments. That isn't a platitude, sisters. Some of us are dimming our lamps — instead of trimming them — by the choices we make, the things we emphasize in our lives, the things we value. Faltering in the Lord's commandments is like adding water to our oil. The two don't mix.
I have a friend who teaches the gospel doctrine class in her ward. At the first of this Year she was talking with a less-active friend who had come to Church with one of her daughters for the first time in many months, maybe years. The gospel doctrine teacher encouraged her friend to come to Sunday School. Her friend remarked, "I've never read The Book of Mormon. I don't even have one."
Well, the next day, this teacher got one, had her friend's name put on the cover, wrote her testimony in the front of the book, and then took it to her home. Her friend wasn't there and so, afraid she would lose her nerve, she left The Book of Mormon at her friend's house.
And then she waited for her friend to come to class. She waited for two months. She worried that she had ruined their friendship, that her boldness had caused offense. Finally this note came in the mail. "I can't believe you brought me this book. I am trying to read it and understand it. Thank you for pointing me this direction. I'm trying."
It was the Gospel literacy effort in action. And the oil supply for both of them grew richer.
5. We can work with our priesthood leaders in shaping our programs. I am so grateful for the blessings of the priesthood. The power that comes through the priesthood leadership of this Church cannot be denied.
I felt it when President Hinckley announced the Gospel Literacy Effort in 1992: "Now a great project is to be undertaken...its consequences will go on and on and be felt in the lives of generations yet to come. It is a program designed to bring light into the lives of those who can neither read nor write." (Gordon B. Hinckley, "Ambitious to Do Good," Ensign, March 1992, p.6)
I felt it, too, when we have met the past weeks with our advisors to begin review of new lessons for the Relief Society. I know you understand the blessings of the priesthood in our callings and in our individual lives.
Let me share with you a tender story I received from a missionary who was asked to visit a sister who had been considered less active because she attended only Relief Society, sometimes the investigator Sunday School class, and then always left right before the sacrament meeting.
One day when the missionaries were in her home, the sister lifted a bench cushion where she had hidden her copy of the Ensign. She had hidden it because her husband was so antagonistic about her interest in the gospel.
"I want to show you something I found," she said. "Look," she said, as she pointed at full page pictures of President Monson and President Faust. "Look at the eyes of these men. They are the most beautiful [eyes] I have ever seen. They look like they love people — and could even love a woman like me."
The letter then explained how this sister loves the gospel and would give anything to have her husband embrace it, so she could attend church regularly, and even bless her food without recrimination.
The missionary concluded the letter, "This is what makes up our Church. Good individual women who want the gospel to touch as much of their lives as it possibly can. Women who believe in their Savior. Women who love Him and would do anything for Him."
I can only add, these are women who will be prepared when he comes.
6, We can give greater value to good works. Are there any better women than the ones in your congregations? I don't think so. When we speak figuratively of treading the oil press, we speak of sisters who are quietly doing their part every day, sisters who are taking care of each other. Let me give you a wonderful example from another sister missionary serving in Russia.
She wrote: "Lyuba Kappenkova, a six-month Church member, has risen to the mighty challenges of Relief Society president of Sneggerie, the northern-most group of Novozebirsh, Siberia Russia. You would be proud to see Lyuba in her efforts to start our little Relief Society and nurture its growth.
She, along with her counselors, understands the important of visiting teaching and is helping these sisters serve each other, build each other — saving them from the dangers of inactivity. They are strong, choice and beautiful women. Many of them are the only church members in their families.
Conditions are not easy for them. They are building a strong foundation which will support them in their trials ahead as the Church's newest saints. [I have] only one short and very precious week left of my missionary time. I know that my sisters will be left in good hands — they are taking care of each other."
The conclusion of the Parable of the Ten Virgins is significant. It says, "Watch, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh." Watch, sisters, is a call to be ready. Five were prepared. The other five misinterpreted their time. "This is the time...to prepare to meet God."
These are difficult times. Our wards are teeming with "the tired and poor...the tempest tossed" and the adversary is using every device, every tool and trick to deplete our reserves. He wants to leave us empty, sisters.
May we recognize the need to stock and restock the shelves and cupboards of our souls with the "oil of joy." May the Holy Ghost be with us in abundance. May our daily acts shine as a beacon to each other I pray, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.