Sunday, July 31, 2016

On ordinances

As I tried to decide what to speak about, a talk that Elder Bednar gave in the most recent General Conference kept coming to mind. He spoke about retaining a remission of our sins, and consequently spent much of the talk discussing the ordinances of the Gospel. As I thought about that, a memory came to mind. Just a few weeks after Doug and I started dating, we were sitting, talking and laughing, with a large group of friends in a lounge in one of our dorms, and he had his laptop. He opened up a blank word document and typed D&C 84:20: “Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.” He then added, “Why is the power manifest in the ordinances?”, and handed the computer to me and awaited a response.

I confess that I don’t remember what I typed at the time, but as much as my limitations will allow, I’d like to speak to that question. We talk a lot about love, mercy, grace, and rightly so. But these are not disembodied, vaguely defined ideals for us. They take shape and are made manifest in the ordinances of the Holy Priesthood. We use the shorthand of “Holy Priesthood” or “Melchizedek Priesthood” to avoid unnecessary repetition of the Lord’s name, but it is good to be reminded from time to time that it is the Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God.  It is through his power, and authority that He alone can delegate, that we receive and perform ordinances. Without that power and authority, the ordinances are without eternal consequence. Nothing else can bring eternal exaltation. Each worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holder can trace his line of authority back directly to Jesus Christ, not to feel that he is powerful, but rather as a reminder that it is not his own power, and not authority that he takes unto himself. It is the Lord’s power and the Lord’s authority that is exercised, only so long as the bearer remains a humble and worthy vessel.

I think this speaks to one of the reasons that we see the power of godliness made manifest in the performing of sacred Priesthood ordinances: when we participate in ordinances righteously, we come to God in humble obedience, and act in perfect unity with him and his eternal laws, engaging the pathway to exaltation. As Elder Bednar put it, ordinances are “physical acts which signify an underlying spiritual act.”

In Doctrine and Covenants section 93, the Savior declares that he made flesh his tabernacle in order to become one with the Father. For our Father’s plan to work, it was absolutely essential that the Savior perform his greatest work in a body of flesh. Where is the power of godliness made more manifest than in the overwhelming love and incomparable power of the Lord’s Atonement? He physically ached. His mortal body bled. His temporal face was surely twisted in agony. But there has never been a more spiritually significant act in all of eternity. The most spiritually significant act that ever took place also had a very physical element. We ought to keep that mind when contemplating the seriousness and vital importance of the ordinances we are privileged to perform on this side of the veil. As Elder Bednar explained, “The ordinances of salvation and exaltation administered in the Lord’s Church are far more than rituals or symbolic performances. Rather, they constitute authorized channels through which the blessings and powers of heaven can flow into our individual lives.” They are not mere cultural touchstones or rites of passage. They are the gateway to eternal salvation and exaltation.

Some of the first ordinances we generally receive are baptism by immersion, and receiving the Gift of the Holy Ghost. The Savior himself, when preaching to the Nephite people after his resurrection, proclaimed, “Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.” Baptism is essential to our salvation, and a necessary gateway to most of the other ordinances we may receive.

Most ordinances are accompanied by a covenant. When we are baptized and receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost, the Lord cleanses and purifies us through the Holy Ghost by the power of his Atonement. Most of us need purifying again within days if not hours of our baptism. The Lord knows that we are still learning, that we are frail and all too prone to indulging the whims of the natural man. One of the ways he helps us to remember and honor the work of the ordinances we’ve received is by placing us under covenant.

The power of the ordinances is magnified by covenant keeping. Elder Ballard recently said, “Sometimes we are tempted to let our lives be governed more by convenience than by covenant. But there is no spiritual power in living by convenience. The power comes as we keep our covenants.” When we receive the baptismal ordinance, we covenant to always remember the Lord, to take his name upon us, and to bear one another’s burdens. The Lord asks these things of us not to weigh us down, but to lift us up. By receiving this covenant, we become accountable to him as well as to the body of Christ. That accountability draws us back time and again to the first and great commandment--to love the Lord with all our hearts--as well as the second-- to love our neighbors as ourselves--at times when we might otherwise slip into the powerlessness of the convenient life.

I’m convinced that one of the sins that many of us falls prey to the most often, is partaking of the Sacrament lightly or thoughtlessly. Because the Lord knows our frailty, he has instituted the administration of this powerful cleansing ordinance weekly. But how often do we simply habitually reach out and take our scrap of bread and our sip of water as just that--a scrap of bread and a sip of water? With no thought about what it means, with no reflection on the powerful ordinance we are privileged to partake in? How often do we just not even show up, because we’ve convinced ourselves it not that big of a deal to miss Sacrament Meeting. We have a testimony, we know what the right things are, we’re trying to be a good person. What does it matter if we aren’t always there?

We need to be cleansed. We need to remember. Elder Bednar explained, “The sacramental emblems are sanctified in remembrance of Christ’s purity, of our total dependence upon His Atonement, and of our responsibility to so honor our ordinances and covenants that we can stand spotless before [Him] at the last day.” We are often far too casual about the things of eternal importance. Do your children see you partake of the Sacrament with seriousness and attention? Do you listen to the ordinance prayers with contemplation? Do we really realize the phenomenal power inherent in the act of truly engaging the act of partaking of the scrap of bread and sip of water that are the holy and sanctified emblems of our Savior’s torn flesh and spilled blood?  There is so much joy inherent in the chance to be a little bit better each week, to partake of the Lord’s goodness and mercy and be wholly cleansed again, just as we were after participating in the baptismal ordinance. No matter what we have done, no matter how far we have wandered, the Lord is there, offering an opportunity each week to come home, and try again.

The ordinances of baptism, the Gift of the Holy Ghost, and the Sacrament, as astounding and utterly essential as they are, should not be enough for us. The temple should be our goal. The ordinance of the Endowment teaches us how glorious and gifted the Lord intends us to be. He asks us to commit our time, talent, means and anything and everything with which he may bless us to building the kingdom of God, and in return he offers us an eternity of growth, progression, and joy.  Elder Robert D. Hales once said, “The temple’s saving ordinances are essential to--and even the central focus of--the eternal plan of happiness.”

In the 84th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, as the Lord explains the power manifest in Priesthood ordinances, he continues, “this greater priesthood. . .holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. . .without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood. . .no man can see the face of God.”

We need the ordinances of the temple, the ordinances of that higher Priesthood, to dwell with our Father and Jesus Christ eternally. Elder Bednar emphasized, “Everything we do in the Church--every meeting, activity, lesson, and service--is to prepare each of us to come to the temple and kneel at the altar to receive all of the Father’s promised blessings for eternity.”

 If you are struggling with the covenants of baptism or feel distanced from the ordinances of the Sacrament, and the temple seems too far out of reach to even contemplate, please don’t quit. Don’t get discouraged. The Lord loves you infinitely. No life is ever so broken that it is beyond his ability to bless and uplift. No soul is ever beyond the reach of his love, and the glorious mercy and love of his Atonement. Each part of the body of Christ is needed, even the feeble ones, and the older I get the more convinced I am that we are, each one of us, in one way or another, or at one time or another, the feeble one. We all feel weak, rejected, discouraged, or overwhelmed sometimes. Elder Holland testified, “Keep trying. Keep trusting. Keep believing. Keep growing. Heaven is cheering you on today, tomorrow, and forever.”

Participating in the ordinances of the Priesthood will not only demonstrate the Lord’s power in our lives, it will help us to better understand that everything he does is for our eternal good and progression.  The power of the Lord to act in our lives is limited only by our agency. Receiving the ordinances of the Gospel helps us to better know Him who created us, and who we were created to be. It is the ordinances of salvation, administered through the Holy Priesthood by the power and authority of Jesus Christ that transform a repentant soul into a cleansed and sanctified one; that prepares an obedient soul into one taught and prepared to enter God’s kingdom; and transforms a group of loving and dedicated individuals into an eternal family bound to each other and our Father in Heaven. I bear my testimony that this is His church. He loves us with a perfect love and is anxious to share his knowledge with us, as we humble and ready ourselves for instruction. He will lead us grace by grace until that perfect day, when we become joint heirs with Christ, and receive a fullness grace and truth.