Church was pretty good yesterday. I was surprised because the high council was speaking, and typically high council speakers are not the best.
Sacrament Meeting starts at 9:00 AM in my mom's ward now, so that means getting up an hour earlier than I used to, and for this night owl that is a challenge.
The topic the high council were assigned was "Christian Courage: Standing Up for What You Believe." I was on the defense because with all the talk about religious freedom and gay rights and such, that could have easily entered into either talk, but happily it didn't.
The primary theme of the first talk was more or less now that Mitt Romney's almost certainty of becoming the Republican candidate for president, Mormons and Mormonism will be scrutinized even more, and we have to be willing to own our Mormon beliefs and not apologize for them or sidestep them. We have to stand up for what we claim to believe.
The second talk kind of echoed similar sentiments, and the speaker used a story about how when President Monson was young and in the military, a commanding officer was telling the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant soldiers where to go. Because President Monson didn't feel he fit any of those categories, he remained and thought he was alone and therefore felt uncomfortable. It was only when the commanding officer said something like, "And what do you all call yourselves?" that President Monson realized there was a group of Mormon soldiers standing behind him. It was a good lesson to him that even when you feel alone standing up for yourself, there are always others standing behind you, even if you don't realize it.
I actually thought both talks were well-delivered. But what I really enjoyed was Sunday School. The old teacher was released just before I left to go back home to Jonah. I really enjoyed his lessons. But the new teacher is a good friend of mine, and someone who I really connect with. I knew she'd be an equally good teacher, and I was right.
When I found out the lesson was going to be on the allegory of the olive tree in Jacob 5, I wasn't really excited, but my friend made the lesson interesting and relevant. She had me draw a picture of an olive tree. I'm not a master artist or anything, but apparently I'm a better drawer than my friend is, and I can draw somewhat. In any case, several people thought I'd done a good job.
We talked about the symbols in the allegory and what they mean, but my friend really focused on Christ and his atonement. One thing that struck me was that she said in the story the Lord doesn't just command the workers to labor in the vineyard and then leave them to do so. He labors with them. He goes into the "trenches," so to speak, with them and works side by side with them. I like that image. It actually relates to something else I've wanted to talk about in my blog.
I don't take the Ensign myself, but I do try to read it when I have the opportunity to do so. Having been away with Jonah for the last three months, I haven't been reading the Ensign, so when I came back to Utah, I decided to catch up on reading the past few issues because my mom does subscribe to the magazine.
I was reading the February issue and came across the First Presidency Message by Henry B. Eyring and several things really seemed to resonate with me.
He said when he prayed as a kid he pictured his Heavenly Father as being far away, but now he pictures Him as being close by. I had never really considered that. I pray all the time, and although Heavenly Father appears in my mind as a familiar, relatable, and grandfatherly figure (albeit a Colonel Sanders-esque figure), I still have always kind of talked to Him as though He is somewhere distant. I mean, I talk to him in an intimate way, but always seem to think of Him as being out in the void somewhere.
I like what Eyring says. I like the idea that He is very close to us, perhaps right by our side holding us in His arms or sitting across from us.
I am learning more and more that the image of God that we're sometimes given in various religions does not ring true in my heart. Yes, Heavenly Father is an all-powerful, all-knowing, immortal being, and that sometimes can make Him seem unrelatable or distant. But it's really been imprinted on my heart that Heavenly Father is our Father. He is our Parent, and like an ideal parent, He wants what's best for us and tries to help us grow up to be like Him, but at the same time He is very forgiving, willing to let us make and learn from our own mistakes without judgment, and loves us no matter what.
Even though the Old Testament God sometimes makes Him appear so, I do not see God as an angry, wrathful, punishing God or as someone who's ready to smite us if we fail; I see Him as Being who feels deeply for His children, knows each of their hearts, and loves and supports them no matter what. I think He is sad when we make choices that He knows will make us unhappy, but like a good parent, He still loves us and cares for us.
When I read the Prodigal Son, that father is very much as I think Heavenly Father is. He loves both sons equally, and even if the prodigal son hadn't come back, the father loved him just as much when he was gone as when he returned. There was no judgment or spite on his part. He was just glad his son was home.
President Eyring give Joseph Smith's account in the sacred grove as an example of who God is (and I found it interesting that I must have recited that account numerous times in French when I was on my mission because when I read it in English, I could remember it almost verbatim in French. It's funny what sticks with you.).
He called Joseph by name. He introduced Jesus as His "Beloved Son." In later scriptures like D&C 100:1 He calls Joseph and Sydney Rigdon his "friends." And isn't it interesting that Sydney later apostatized (and God, in His infinite knowledge, surely knew that he one day would), yet He still afforded him the title "friend"?
In the same issue there is a story about a woman who realized that with God we are never alone. Believe me, I know that when we are in the thick of things it is hard to believe that sometimes. I have waged my own battles in life where it felt like God had completely abandoned me. But He hasn't. He never does. Whether we believe it or not, whether we feel it or not, our Father is always with us.
Two quotes that were in this issue of the Ensign were by Dieter F. Uchtdorf. They were both taken from a General Conference address and I have included the two combined (plus a bit more) here:
"Think of the purest, most all-consuming love you can imagine. Now multiply that love by an infinite amount — that is the measure of God’s love for you.
"God does not look on the outward appearance. I believe that He doesn’t care one bit if we live in a castle or a cottage, if we are handsome or homely, if we are famous or forgotten. Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.
"He loves us because He is filled with an infinite measure of holy, pure, and indescribable love. We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked.
"What this means is that, regardless of our current state, there is hope for us. No matter our distress, no matter our sorrow, no matter our mistakes, our infinitely compassionate Heavenly Father desires that we draw near to Him so that He can draw near to us."
I really felt the truth of these words as I read them, and my own experiences have validated that truth. I think religions sometimes put conditions on God, but I am convinced that our Heavenly Father and His love for us do not fit in the confines that religions sometime attach to Him.
Continuing with my friend's Sunday School lesson, as she focused on God's love and the Savior's atonement, she made reference to a hymn we had just sung in Sacrament Meeting: "We Are All Enlisted," and she pointed out the lyrics, "Happy are we, happy are we," and she asked us, "Are we?"
With a gospel that supposedly has the greatest truths known and which teaches us that "men are, that they might have joy," why do so many Mormons seem to worship in such a lackluster way in our Sacrament Meetings? Why when we sing our hymns do we sound like we're singing a funeral dirge? One lady commented that when she worked for the Church, so many of its employees seemed to come to work without a smile on their faces. Another brother, who still works for the Church, said, "Well, let's not forget, it is still a corporation." And it hit me: we often treat our meetings like...well, meetings. The LDS Church in some instances seems more like a business to me than communal, spiritual place to worship our Father.
I was watching an episode of the sitcom, "The Middle" the other day. In this particular episode the main character and her family go to their regular church where the pastor is very dry, and the main character and her family are bored. Then a black friend invites them to his church, which is filled with lively singing and a rousing sermon and "Hallelujahs!" and "Amens!" Even though the main character and her family end up deciding the familiarity and comfort of their normal religion is what works best for them, in that moment when they go to this lively and energetic church service, a whole new world opens up for them.
Now I'm not saying the LDS Church needs to be like a Baptist revival or that church is supposed to entertain us; but I do wonder (and have wondered for many years) why the church that has the restored gospel and is the Lord's established church on earth must be so dry and uninspiring at times. And I know it's not that way everywhere. My friend says his ward in Tonga is quite lively. So why do ours here sometimes feel like a board meeting where the speakers would rather be having a root canal than giving the talk they've been assigned? Why do we go through the motions when we're singing our hymns as if we're half-asleep? And what effect does that have on people who are investigating the Church? If we're not doing things to invite and cultivate the Spirit, how do we expect those who are exploring the Church to feel it?
One last thought: one of the verses we read in Jacob 5 was verse 4, which says,
"And it came to pass that the master of the vineyard went forth, and he saw that his olive tree began to decay; and he said: I will prune it, and dig about it, and nourish it, that perhaps it may shoot forth young and tender branches, and it perish not."
While this verse isn't necessarily to be interpreted as such, it occurred to me that it is the young generation that will revitalize the LDS Church. I'm not saying that the old guard is causing the Church to "decay." I'm just saying it will be interesting to see what happens to the LDS Church as the younger generation is called into leadership positions.
PS. As I was finishing up this post a sister in the ward called me. She was so impressed by my olive tree drawing, she wants me to draw a caricature of the following scripture from Jarom: "Behold, it is expedient that much should be done among this people, because of the hardness of their hearts, and the deafness of their ears, and the blindness of their minds, and the stiffness of their necks; nevertheless, God is exceedingly merciful unto them, and has not as yet swept them off from the face of the land."
I'm thinking of drawing a Lamanite with a stone heart wearing a neck brace, sunglasses, and ear muffs. It's supposed to be a funny caricature. Anyway, that's my starting point. I may ask Jonah and my niece for suggestions, too. They're both a bit more artistic than me.