19 August 2012, Urbana Ward
Let me begin with two parables. First parable: when a river has flowed away, what is left is its bed. A riverbed can be starkly beautiful, in its own way—a pleasure to walk along and study. But the life and movement it tokened of are largely gone while it rests in this state.
Second parable: a window lets in the light and the view from the other side. In a dark room, even a dirty window is welcome. But the window best fulfills the measure of its creation when it is invisible and transparent to the light which through it beams.
We do not confuse the window for the light, nor the riverbed for the river. Riverbeds and windows are necessary, but they speak of what they are not.
Brother J— asked me to speak today on the difference between God and his church. I am extremely wary of setting up any false dichotomies in discussing this line of reasoning, knowing that we often fall short of the glory God would have us pursue but also that we strive. But just as the riverbed is most perfect only when water flows freely, and the window is most perfect when it lets light shine unblemished, so too our religion is purest when we grow up into the principles the Lord has set for us to attain.
The church organization which we are members of is preoccupied with two primary tasks: preserving itself as a vehicle for the ordinances and covenants God has revealed to date, and providing a setting where we can put into action the covenants we have made. It accomplishes this through providing opportunities for instruction, service, fellowship, and sacrifice, and by the Church’s reported indices, the work is thriving. However, Brother Donald Hallstrom warned:
Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. erein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed.
By contrast, the things of the gospel are usually less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are of greater eternal importance. (Converted to His Gospel through His Church, April 2012 General Conference)
We often report our success to the world in terms of the number of meetinghouses or temples we’ve built, or the number of missionaries or Books of Mormon there are. But the true measure of the church’s success is found only in the heart and mind and spirit of each person who encounters the gospel of God that the church is charged with administering.
We are occasionally subject to scorn or confusion when we reveal that we are members of an organized religion. Unfortunately, organized religion has often been far too complicit in defending the world as it is instead of re-imagining it as the Lord would have it be. (I know that I tend too often to read in the scriptures a validation of the choices I am making and the priorities I have rather than a call to repentance.) And at its best the church—or religion—is a major agent for positive change in the world.
But even in the temple, the focal point of our practice, religion gets a bad rap. It too easily becomes a repository of tradition both false and true, rather than a dynamic call to activity. As Ralph Waldo Emerson preached, “Men more easily transmit a form than a virtue.” Sister E— S— spoke last week about the beautiful and good traditions her family and youth leaders shared with her, living traditions that she has been able to pass on to her family. But I know that I also hold onto many false traditions and ideas which have interfered with me better attaining the calling I feel from the Lord.
Now when I say calling here, I mean something much broader than the assignment or role we play temporarily in our wards and branches. I mean that many are called, and few are chosen, and we are foreordained to tasks that we have long since forgotten but can yet discover. Part of the calling I feel from the Lord is a commission to ferret out truth wherever it may be found, but I have not sought as diligently as I should. Regardless, I have hope that in the body of Christ I can better follow that calling. But my greater calling is that of discipleship—to obtain and follow the discipline of Jesus. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in a wonderful sonnet about the measure of our creation:
… [T]he just man justices,
Keeps grace, that keeps all his goings graces,
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ; for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his,
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
False ideas have kept me from playing Christ as freely and often as Heavenly Father hopes for me. The gospel is a dangerous thing to an ego as developed as mine—remember that Aslan is not a tame lion. I have a potent fear of knowing the whole truth, rather than only the portion which may support me in my position. My standard of truth is too often my current attitudes rather than the Spirit of the Lord. These words of Joseph Smith cut deep:
There has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. … Even the Saints are slow to understand. … [W]e frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, … fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all. [I know that I cannot!] How many will be able to abide a celestial law, and go through and receive their exaltation, I am unable to say, as many are called, but few are chosen. (HC 6:184–85)
Mormonism has such a wonderful potential in it to tap into, a heady sense of divine calling and purpose that brings us unto Jesus Christ, to be perfected in him. I had a dream once where I found myself in the halls of the third story of a very tall building. I stepped into an elevator and pressed the button for the top story. Yet as the elevator ascended, it didn’t stop, but arched over and away from the top of the building to a train station. Where that train went I didn’t know, for I had to return quickly, but I was able to step into a cross-shaped courtyard back at the bottom of the tall building and see the sky high above me. So I am at the bottom of the well, but I can still see the light. I do not know where God will take me in this life and beyond, but I know it will be to places more wonderful than I have guessed or imagined.
When Brother J— asked me to speak, he thought he was giving me five days to prepare. But I have been preparing this talk for five years. For me, the crux of the matter—the difference between God and his church—is this. I have been in the midst of a slow-burning faith crisis for several years now (I’ll spare you the details, so you don’t have to cover your children’s ears). But I have had cause to reevaluate who I am, what I believe, and why I do what I do. I don’t know the end of it yet, or all of the path forward. So when I ask this question, it is deadly serious to me. I have been turning it over in my head, in one form or another, for many years now, and I am sharing with you what pieces of answers I have found. The question is this: why stay with an imperfect organization? Or again: what truth is there in Mormonism? If I believe in God, why am I compelled to hold onto something as frustrating, inconvenient, and provincial as religion can be?
The measure of a signpost is not its height or the quality of its craftsmanship, but where it points. It has one task, and its worth hinges on its fulfillment of that task. I must judge if it points me true, and even if it does, I must get on my feet and start walking, for only a fool stands beneath the signpost and proclaims that they’ve arrived.
So, in short, what is my personal spiritual assessment today of the difference between God and his church—or, phrasing it differently, given God, why have a church at all? What gravity of Mormonism holds me yet in its orbit? Partially it affords me the opportunity to glimpse a portion of God’s work among women and men. Partially it provides a real-time proving ground for the principles of charity we are taught. A large part of it I referred to earlier—the sense of possibility, and the fact that I have been exposed to beautiful ideas by my association with the church.
The church has preserved sacred writings—by which I mean more than just the scriptures. I mean all the holy experiences preserved in journals and sermons, which would have disappeared into two centuries’ dust were it not for the body of believers who valued those revelations.
But for me at least, I think what holds my fascination better than anything else is the peculiar sense of possibility that hangs in the air thick around Mormonism. Peter could not have conceived of walking on the water until Jesus had done it before him. Just so, Mormonism shows me the infinite radius of the possible. To ponder seriously the idea of God and His Father, eternity piled upon eternity, is to experience vertigo more effectively than a mere void could give me. Whatever its failings or successes, conventional Christianity labored for far too long under the theological illusion of a single world—that the universe consisted of only the tiny sliver of a solar system ensphered around us. But from the beginning, Joseph Smith revealed a creation of “worlds without end”—a finding which has been resoundingly consonant with scientific astronomy. (Although we seem to have lost the spiritual astronomy!) I hope that what we accomplish we accomplish because of rather than despite our traditions and religion.
Some holy men and women have glimpsed the broad possibility which Joseph Smith also saw—but I don’t know that I take any of this half so seriously as it deserves. And yet, to the extent it or anything distracts me from the Christ of the cross, the Christ of our quickening, it can undermine me.
Does the signpost—the church—effectively point me to Jesus Christ? It teaches me the need for a Redeemer, and it shows me a road on which I have found virtue. It teaches me that the calling I feel was a foreordination to seek God’s voice and understand the roots of his progress. It has given me a way to create meaning and direction for my life’s efforts, and it has taught me that the way to best create that meaning is through Jesus Christ. All of these do indeed point me to Christ.
But, ultimately, my best answer is—simply enough—my testimony. Any testimony is founded not in theory but in experience—if you bear true witness of personal revelation, it is because you have received it—there is a specific experience in your mind when you testify of it. I have received it. I stay with the body of believers in Jesus because what I have learned here has opened me to some of the most profound experiences and hopes of my life. I believe in dreams and in visions. I believe that the faithful dead visit the living. I believe in the spirit of prophecy because I have received it while blessing my children. I believe in the gift of healing because I have been commanded to rise healed from my sickbed, and I have done so. I believe in prayer not only because of my own experience with it but because I have heard a man—talk to God. I believe in the Atonement of Jesus Christ because I have felt even the smallest part of its power. It has efficacy to heal and to raise. And so I keep seeking for more truth because there is always more to receive and to create. Of this truth that is in me I witness in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.