Monday, January 24, 2011

I think your talk made everyone uncomfortable...but in a good way.

That was one of the comments I got after my talk in church yesterday. 

This was the talk I gave, more or less.

I am a sinner. I say this not to confess of any major sins, for like Joseph Smith, such things are not in my nature. But, I am still a sinner. I am more aware of that basic facet of my character every day. I am, at the root of all things, a sinner.

You would think that my recognition of my own sinful nature, the multitude of ways in which I fall short on a daily, if not hourly basis, would make me more compassionate to my fellow travelers in this fallen world. But in an act of even greater sin, my own pride distances me from those with whom I travel. I am driven to find ways in which I am better than others, in which my own choices are superior, in which my personal understandings are vindicated through my assumed correctness.

This is a barrier to receiving the grace of God in my life. The only way to overcome this prideful  disposition is through the grace of the Atonement which pride keeps me from accessing. How do I escape this dilemma, of my sin keeping me from the ability to repent?

Nephi exhorts us:
For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do…And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

It is only through Christ that I can find remission of my sins.

Elder Quentin L. Cook taught us in General Conference that:
The final two days of the Savior’s mortal ministry prior to His Crucifixion are profoundly important and in some ways beyond comprehension. So much of what is essential to our eternal destiny occurred on Thursday and then Friday, the day Christ was crucified. The Last Supper, a Passover supper, the “established memorial of Israel’s deliverance from bondage,” was commenced Thursday evening. 1 Ordinances and doctrines of great importance were initiated at the Last Supper. I will mention just three. First, the Savior introduced the ordinance of the sacrament. He took bread, broke it, prayed over it, and passed it to His disciples, saying, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” 2 In this manner He instituted the sacrament. Second, His overwhelming emphasis was on doctrines teaching love as a preeminent principle. He taught, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” 3 Third, through Christ’s intercession or direction, “the Holy Ghost was promised to the apostles” as another Comforter. 4

Books could and have been written on each of those three ways in which the Savior changed the way his followers would worship the Father. For today, however, I would like to focus on the second, the emphasis on love. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Do we have love one to another?

Christ’s love for each of us, the essence of charity, is the love that will set apart his disciples in the world. While the sacrament is an ordinance of the gospel reserved to members of this church, I find it interesting that the gift of charity and the witness of the Holy Ghost, in his function as testifier of Jesus Christ, is available to all who seek Jesus Christ, regardless of religious denomination. Christ did not reserve the gifts of his ministry just for a select few, for the chosen amongst his followers, but is willing to bless all those who follow Him, whatever their circumstances.

Elder Cook went on to say:
He was not teaching a simple class in ethical behavior. This was the Son of God pleading with His Apostles and all disciples who would come after them to remember and follow this most central of His teachings. How we relate and interact with each other is a measure of our willingness to follow Jesus Christ.
As we listen to the messages of this conference, we will be touched in our hearts and make resolutions and commitments to do better. But on Monday morning we will return to work, school, neighborhoods, and to a world that in many cases is in turmoil. Many in this world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree. The Savior taught us to love even our enemies. 13 The vast majority of our members heed this counsel. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught. I invite each one of us individually to recognize that how we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior. It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable. Violence and vandalism are not the answer to our disagreements. If we show love and respect even in adverse circumstances, we become more like Christ.

What lessons should we learn from this?

How often do we reserve our charity for members of the church? Do we think that our fast offerings discharge our duty to care for the poor and the afflicted? Do we love our neighbors, even those who disagree with us? Do we pray for our enemies, for those who despitefully use us and persecute us? If not, are we demonstrating the love for our neighbors that Christ demonstrated to those who opposed him? Christ did not rail against those in high political position, against powerful enemies, against those who opposed his work. Instead, through a steady ministry of quiet and personal labor, he changed the world for the better. At the end, he forgave those who had sought to destroy his life and his work. The Atonement has as much power over a Sadducee as over Simon Peter.

How does this help me in my quest to be more humble, to love as Christ would love?

Many years ago, my brother found out that his wife was having an affair, and had become involved in several illegal activities. This lead to an acrimonious divorce, with law enforcement becoming involved as the full extent of his wife’s activities became known. The consequences of her actions played out over several years.

When I was in the MTC, I got a letter from my mother, updating me on all sorts of family news. Included were the latest problems my brother was having because of his ex-wife’s behavior. She had cost him his career, was denying him access to his son, and was exposing his child to negative influences. As I knelt to pray that evening, I prayed for my family, especially for my brother. As I went to close my prayer, I felt my tongue stopped. I literally could not end my prayer. It was my first real experience with a stupor of thought. As I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do, I heard a voice tell me I needed to pray for my sister-in-law. Actually, the voice called her by name. As I knelt and struggled to pray for someone who had caused so much pain and destruction to people I loved, I felt my heart softened. I saw her as He sees her, as a daughter of God who has made bad choices. As I prayed for her, for her to come back to the church, to seek forgiveness, to know of the love that her Father has for her and that I still held for her as a sister in the gospel, I saw, though through a glass darkly, the love that Christ has for each of us, regardless of the choices that we have made in our life. Only after I sincerely prayed for someone I had considered an enemy was I able to say Amen.

As I look back at that experience now, more than a decade later, I see other lessons from that experience that I missed the first time. First, I am impressed that she was called by name. Even after engaging in behaviors that both the gospel and the world would condemn, she was still known by name to the Father. Just like Moses and Joseph, Christ knows her by name. Every one of us is known to the Father by name, regardless of what we have done. The Father does not turn his back on any of us, ever. We are all precious in his sight, regardless of what we have done, regardless of our education, political affiliation, religious identity or sexual orientation. God loves each one of us. The commandment to love others as He loved them knows no barriers.

Secondly, I see myself in my sister-in-law. I see myself as someone who has made bad choices, who has sinned, who is unclean in the sight of God. Though our sins differ in magnitude, the effects are the same. No unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God. To think that I am somehow better than her because her sins are greater in my sight than the omissions I have made, is Satan’s lie. I am in as much need of the Atonement as she was. To puff myself up in my own sight just adds to the sins for which I need forgiveness.

We follow Christ when we love others, regardless of what they have done or who they are. Now, this does not mean we have to agree with or support what they have done – Christ repeatedly told those taken in sin to sin no more – but he also never denied the sinner his love and the blessings of his ministry. Christ spent his time ministering to the sick and the afflicted, those who were most in need of his care.

President Uchtdorf said:
I am not suggesting that we accept sin or overlook evil, in our personal life or in the world. Nevertheless, in our zeal, we sometimes confuse sin with sinner, and we condemn too quickly and with too little compassion. We know from modern revelation that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” 4 We cannot gauge the worth of another soul any more than we can measure the span of the universe. Every person we meet is a VIP to our Heavenly Father. Once we understand that, we can begin to understand how we should treat our fellowmen.

I have often heard the word tolerance used to describe our attitude towards those who engage in behavior the gospel denounces. We tolerate those who disagree with us, or who live lifestyles different than ours. The word tolerate is not used in the scriptures. The word love is used 564 times. There is a difference between tolerance and love. I love my cat. When he gets mad at me, he pees right outside his litter box. I tolerate that behavior because I love my cat. I do not tolerate my cat. How much more greater is the command to love one another than my love for my cat? No one wants to be tolerated. We do not hope for a valentine’s card that says, “I tolerate you.”  I do not tolerate people, if I am following Christ’s example. I love them. 

My brother is gay. He has known he was attracted to men since elementary school. The kids in his ward, sensing that something was different about him, shunned him and made fun of him. In addition to this, they would get up in church during testimony meeting and talk about how thankful they were to be part of such a wonderful ward, and that it was so great that they youth all loved each other. The worst teasing he got was not from members of the church, rather from children at school that bullied him on an almost daily basis. But, at least we weren’t as bad as other people are is not a really high bar to reach. Despite that, he stayed active in the church and served an honorable mission. When he came home from his mission, he struggled with the church's teaching. He tried to find a home within the church, where he could be loved. One day, one of the sisters in the ward asked him why he wasn't married. When he told this woman, who he had known for over a decade, whose husband was a member of the bishopric, who had served honorably in many positions of responsibility in the ward, that he was gay, she slapped him.

In Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ says:
Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.
Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:
Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

My brother has left the church. As sad as that makes me, it is hard for me to blame him. He has found a community of people who love him, who support him, who care about him as a person in a way that he never found within the church among those who claim to be followers of Christ. While I know that it is his choice to leave the church, and he will be held accountable for that choice, I also know that we will be held accountable for those whom we treat without mercy, without compassion, and without love. When we act without love towards others, we are violating the commandments of God, and will be held accountable for that sin.

Elder Uchtdorf pleaded with us to:
let our hearts and hands be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our Master, we are called to support and heal rather than condemn…It is unworthy of us as Christians to think that those who suffer deserve their suffering…Sunday is a good day to remember that our Savior willingly took upon Himself the pain and sickness and suffering of us all—even those of us who appear to deserve our suffering. 6

As we follow Christ, “as we teach of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies,” then will we learn that it is only through Christ, and through the gift of the Atonement that we can ever overcome our own weakness. Love requires humility. Without humility we cannot follow the example of Christ and be a believer in both word and deed.

As we extend our hands and hearts toward others in Christlike love, something wonderful happens to us. Our own spirits become healed, more refined, and stronger. We become happier, more peaceful, and more receptive to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.

This is the answer for me specifically, and each of us more broadly, as we seek to overcome our own sin and weakness. As we act with Christlike love for all of God’s children, we are perfected. We become more humble, more gentle, more like Christ. I pray for each of us, but especially for me, that we can be blessed with the ability to see all people as Christ sees them, that we can love them as He would, without pride but with a humbleness of heart and a fullness of purpose, that we can follow the commandment of Christ to love one another at all times and in all things and in all places.


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