Did This One with My Eyes Closed

 

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Dear Will:

I hope you will not think me especially loutish when I admit that sometimes I have a hard time staying awake at the ballet. And at the symphony. And pretty much in any meeting that involves sitting and listening passively. As long as I stay locked into the subject at hand, I’m fine. But should my mind wander, even briefly, I turn into Captain Nod, that sag-eyed, bobble-headed drooper at the back of the conference room (or at the front of the chapel). Years ago I started taking notes during church services simply to keep myself from fading. It works. Most of the time.

I don’t buy tickets in the orchestra section hoping to get in a good nap, mind you. It’s just that sometimes the body takes over no matter what efforts the mind might undertake to remain in control—especially if the room is dark and stuffy and the guy with the pointer is a little (how shall I put this?) soporific. In desperate moments I’ll occasionally stand and walk around during someone else’s presentation in order fend off an eye-fluttering face-plant, but sometimes even that doesn’t work: I once nodded off while standing in a dimly-lit conference room in Bordeaux when jetlag, PowerPoint, and a languid Frenchman teamed up to carry me off to Monde Somnolent in spite of my best efforts to remain alerte—which I believe is French for not keeling over mid-snore. (It could be worse: I have a friend who has been known to doze off during a one-on-one conversation . . . in the middle of his own sentence. We keep such friends around so that we can feel better about ourselves. It works. Most of the time.)

It takes only one snorer during Act II of Sleeping Beauty (a moment of irony lost on no one at the ballet) to know that you are not alone in your inability to stay awake on command. Even so, I find my greatest reassurance in scripture: No doubt you’ll recall that even Peter, James, and John—Jesus’s most trusted friends—could not keep their eyes open on what was the Most Important Night in the History of the World. As Jesus prayed the most sacred of prayers—to which they had been invited as especial witnesses—His senior apostles, in spite of themselves, drifted off to sleep. Disappointed though He must have been, Jesus showed that He understood well the limitations of the mortals around Him when He said: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

The compassion and love Jesus showed in that moment shows that that He gets me. He understands that sometimes my shortcomings are too much for even my very best intentions. The flesh is weak. When elsewhere He promises that his “grace is sufficient,” He means that He’s got my back, that He can make up for all of the lapses that really matter—and then some.

That’s why I take particular solace from this verse of scripture: “The Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind” (D&C 64:34). Flawless execution would be an unreasonable standard. But willingness and effort? That I can do. It might not get me through those adagios that seem always to show up in the second movement, yet it fills me with enough hope to get me through this life and into the next.

But just in case: If you could wake me for the resurrection, I would really appreciate it.

PW

 

Illustration: Pat Bagley

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I Assure You: They’re Not

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Dear Will:

I recently spoke with a friend who has not attended church in quite some time. After she shared with me a tender story about what had brought her to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the first place, I felt compelled to ask: “Then why have you stopped coming?” She responded with a common, sad sentiment: “I don’t feel worthy.”

My heart sank. Worthy? As if any of us is ever truly worthy! Her words left me troubled, puzzling over our human propensity to shun God due to our nagging imperfections. And I’ve concluded that this tendency leads to several persistent and problematic misconceptions:

1. We act as if we could hide from Him –This notion has been around approximately forever. You’ll recall that after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they heard the voice of God and hid themselves for shame (see: Genesis 3). They seemed to think that they could hide transgression behind a bush. Likewise, sometimes our indiscretions make us too ashamed to pray or attend church when those are just the things we need in an hour of weakness. “Oh,” you say, “but how could I ever come before Him after what I’ve done?” To which I say: How can you not? He knows already anyway. And He wants to help.

2. We feel that we’re not good enough – I hear this one all the time. “All of those people at church are so much better than I am.” Without going into detail, let me put it this way: NO THEY’RE NOT! In truth, we all have our weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. It is those weaknesses that draw us together. You’ll recall that Jesus was once criticized for socializing with sinners, to which He responded: “They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick” (Matthew 9:12). His invitation was to all—especially to those who might feel unworthy. He said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). You’ll note that He didn’t say: “Come unto me, all ye that already have your act together.” Paul reiterated that thought when he said: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That includes, by the way, whoever sits next to you in Sunday School.

3. We believe we can never be forgiven – The scriptures are full of examples of those who felt that forgiveness was no longer possible for them. Yet Jesus was (and is) consistent in His willingness to extend forgiveness to all. And let’s be clear especially about this: You can never be worthy of that forgiveness; you can never earn it. He gives it freely. In this regard, His grace is truly sufficient—no matter what you or I may have done to make ourselves unworthy. In truth, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland put it this way: “Surely the thing God enjoys most about being God is the thrill of being merciful, especially to those who don’t expect it and often feel they don’t deserve it. . . . [However] far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012.)

I hope by now you have recognized in all of this an implied invitation, which I will now make explicit: Come join us on Sunday at the Santiago Creek Ward. You’ll fit right in. I’ll be saving you a seat in Sunday School.

PW

By This Shall All Men Know

Dear Will:

I sat yesterday in a Sunday School class with the finest people I know. Our text was John 13 (just following the Last Supper) wherein Jesus washes the feet of His apostles and utters these defining words of Christendom: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). He was saying, in essence, that the best way to tell who His true followers are is to watch how they treat others.

The scene there in the Santiago Creek Ward could not have been significantly different from the one you might have seen on the evening of June 17, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. That is, until things became entirely different. About an hour into the Bible study that night, a visitor pulled out a gun and shot ten of the worshipers, leaving nine of them dead. The misguided ideas which drove him to that hateful act remain in stark contrast to the message of love inherent in the book they studied together that night.

Two days after the murders, survivors and relatives of some of the victims gathered at a legal hearing to confront the accused killer. But rather than releasing the full force of the anger and pain which surely they feel, they took the opportunity to extend forgiveness to the man apparently responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. To those who are not believers, what transpired at that hearing may have been entirely unexpected. But to those who have embraced the teachings of Jesus, they should not be. Remarkable still. Truly remarkable. But not unexpected at all.

How is such tenderness possible in the face of such heartbreak? Barack Obama explained it well on Friday, June 26, at the funeral services for The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who led the Bible study that night. In his wise and moving eulogy of the senior pastor, the President evoked a truth that rests at the heart of Christian theology. “God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.”

Grace. God’s love extended to the undeserving. Not earned, but given freely. Not claimed by the entitled, but accepted—humbly—by the unworthy. Not just manifested in the face of tragedy, but triggered by tragedy itself. Amazing grace. That has saved a wretch like me time and again. That compels me to be my best today and enables me tomorrow to strive for even better.

“As a nation,” said the President, “out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.  We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

To do that, we must go and do likewise. We must follow the good example of the members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “As I have loved you,” said Jesus, “love one another” (John 13:34). It’s what He asks of those He has loved. And it is the essence of discipleship.

PW