Friday, May 26, 2017

Pure religion

Sacrament Meeting talk 04/16/2017

Our little girl is getting baptized next week, and I’ve been pondering the promises we make in our covenants, particularly in taking the Savior’s name upon us, and what that should look like. We promise to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand need of comfort; we promise to take care of each other. For years, I had a sign on my wall that displayed a scripture from Galatians: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”  I still largely believe that it’s as simple and as difficult as that.  As I was thinking about that, I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post my dad had put up about turtles.
My parents live near a sizeable wildlife refuge that consists of several shallow lakes and ponds, and there are many turtles that live in the refuge.  Several roads, including the highway, run next to or across the it, and consequently there are sometimes turtles in the road.  It isn’t uncommon for these little creatures to be run over.  Yesterday my dad was out doing some wildlife photography, and caught on camera a couple who had stopped to pick up some turtles and get them safely back to the water. That isn’t an uncommon occurrence either.  People who ignore the turtles moving slowly across the road, and even the people who run them over, aren’t bad people, and certainly don’t intend any harm; usually, they are just in a hurry and don’t have time to worry about turtles, or, more often, they simply don’t even notice.  I have said many times that I believe a great portion of human misery is caused not by malice, but by myopia.  How much good have we failed to do, or even harm have we failed to prevent, because we simply didn’t take the time to slow down and look around us, beyond our immediate destination or concern, and see what we could do--however small--to build the kingdom of the Lord by some small act of service that was easily within our reach?
James describes pure religion as visiting the fatherless and the widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.  Service is a bit like immunizations, healthy eating, and exercise all in one: it helps us build a strong relationship with the Savior, increasing our spiritual health and personal strength, as well as keeping us focused on and occupied by good things, protecting us from distractions and temptations.
Too often we treat service like a check-list of things we have to get done, and when we are approach it that way, it often feels overwhelming or draining. Elder Marion G. Romney once said, “Service is not something we endure on this earth so we can earn the right to live in the celestial kingdom.  Service is the very fiber of which an exalted life in the celestial kingdom is made.”  The covenant we make at baptism, to learn better to be our brother’s keeper, to look on the needs of our neighbor with compassion and patience, prepares us for the ultimate covenant of service we make to consecrate our time, talent, and means to the building of the Lord’s kingdom.
In the same letter, James counsels to be not just hearers of the word, but doers of the word.  He tells us to “lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word”.  In other words, he tells us to let go of any greed, selfishness, laziness, and be teachable so that we can have the word--the Savior--written on our hearts.  To assess how well we’re doing with that instruction, we can ask ourselves a question posed by another ancient prophet, “Have [we] received His image in [our] countenances?”  The service we give and how we give it is not about tasks we check off--it’s about who we are becoming.
The Lord asks us to consecrate our means, and while this serves a very practical need--people need to be fed and clothed and housed and cared for--this is also about helping us become the people he needs us to be. When the wealthy young man comes the Savior and asks how he might obtain eternal life, the Savior reiterates the commandments, which the man says he has kept from his youth. And so the Savior tells the man to sell all that he has and follow him.  The Lord doesn’t always ask us to part with all our earthly possessions to serve him, but he does ask that our hearts are prepared and willing if that is what is required of us.
And that, in part, is why the Lord asks us to consecrate our time and our talents.  I’m annoyed if I feel like someone has cheated me out of my money, but I struggle not to be angry when someone wastes my time--I can’t get it back, and I feel like they’ve stolen a little piece of my life.  The Lord isn’t just asking us to donate some of our stuff, he’s asking us to dedicate our lives and who we are; he isn’t concerned with the substance of what we have so much as he is the substance of who we are.
A few months ago, during the massive flooding in Louisiana, an old friend, who lives in Oregon and is not a member of the Church but knows that I am, contacted me and asked if I had any way that I could get ahold of someone in Louisiana who might be able to find a few people to get a dad who was in one part of the city to his wife and infant who were at a hospital in another part of the city, because their car was inaccessible and there was no working public transportation due to the severe weather.  Without personally knowing a soul in the area, I told him that I could.  It reminded me of our own experience a decade ago when our infant son ended up in the hospital hours from home, where we knew no one.  We called our bishop and informed him of the situation, and an hour later, a couple of high priests were in the hospital room helping my husband administer a blessing to our son, with messages from their wives about meeting other needs we might have.  No matter where my children are, or anyone else I love for that matter, even if I can’t get to them I know that there will be someone I can call on to serve them and love them, because of who those Christ-centered souls have chosen to be.  That is pure religion, and in an often unkind, ugly, fallen world, it’s hard to imagine a more celestial blessing.  That is the natural fruit of choosing to be a Zion people.
One of my favorite lines, by W.H. Auden, is “You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at it.”  What talents has the Lord blessed you with? What skills has he given you the chance to learn, what educational opportunities has he extended to you?  All those things can be used to build the kingdom, though sometimes it isn’t immediately obvious to us how, and we may need the help of the Spirit to know in what way the Lord would have us use those gifts.  One of the adversary’s most effective tools for dissuading us from serving is trying to discourage us and convince us that we have nothing to offer.  President Packer had a response to this that I love: “When you say ‘I can’t’. . .I want to thunder out ‘Don’t you realize who you are? Haven’t you learned yet that you are a son or daughter of the Almighty God?’”  You most certainly do have things of value to offer, and in the areas where we fall short, the Lord has promised that he can make weak things strong.
But most importantly, we each need to remember one very important thing as we reach out to serve: its not about me.  If you’re thinking about your insufficiencies, your focus is on you.  If you’re worried about whether or not someone appreciates the service, you’re thinking about you.  If you are angry or impatient or annoyed, chances are very good you’re thinking about you.  We are, each of us, a work in progress; everyone you serve, and everyone you serve with, is going to have some rough edges, some glaring blindspots, some idiosyncrasies that you find more annoying than charming, and they are going to make mistakes and they are going to fail.  That’s, if not irrelevant, at least of minor importance.
The Lord loves you: flaws, sins, annoying personality traits, and all.  And he loves each of those you live and serve and work with just as much.  He is not asking you to put up with that weird ward member that you got stuck putting on the ward Christmas party with or to try to be polite to that clueless blowhard you got assigned to home teach, he is asking you to love his child. He is asking you--imperfect, morally accident-prone, spiritually clumsy you--to be his hands in the life of one of his children.  That is not a logistical obligation, it is a divine privilege and sacred trust. The Lord declared that his work and his glory is the immortality and eternal life of man.  He doesn’t say men, and he doesn’t say Man; the salvation of the Lord’s children is reliant upon the salvation of each individual child.  The Lord has given everything for us, and in return he asks us to pray for guidance, and then stop thinking about ourselves and look around us to see what needs to be done.

Over and over, the resurrected Lord emphasized to his apostles that the way to manifest their love for him was to feed his sheep.  In speaking of this teaching, Elder Holland reminded us recently that “we have neighbors to bless, children to protect, the poor to lift up, and the truth to defend. We have wrongs to make right, truths to share, and good to do.  In short, we have a lifetime of devoted discipleship to give in demonstrating our love of the Lord.”

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