HOLLY’S GOING ON A MISSION IT’S A NEW YEAR’S MIRACLE! She’s posted before at YMF (see her Sunday Spotlight here and her essay here). She leaves for the California Ventura mission on January 15th, where she will be speaking Spanish. Read her farewell talk below, if you like. Given in the State College 1st Ward on Dec. 29, 2013.
Good morning! It’s great to be home and to see so many of you who I know and love dearly. And plenty of people I’ve never seen before in my life, hello! As most of you know, I’m attending school out in Utah, and at the beginning of December, I went up to Salt Lake with some friends to attend the Utah Symphony’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. It’s a sing-along that they do every year, and I had a good time trying to follow along in my score and sing those wickedly difficult runs. It was a long evening, even though we didn’t do the whole thing, and I was thinking about the text to the music. The libretto pulls from the lament in Psalm 2: “Why do the nations so furiously rage together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?”, and also from Isaiah’s lament that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way”. (Isaiah 53). After these observations of the ways we as human beings fail to live up to our own highest ideals and to God’s call to us, I’m left feeling pretty down about human nature. That seems to be how it usually is—we are always falling short, despite our good intentions. But then there is this bass solo, singing the text of 1Corinthians 15:52: “The trumpet shall sound, the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” This might be more properly read as being about a future resurrection, but I think setting it in our lives now is just as moving. “We shall be changed!” It’s a proclamation of hope—that we can be different that we currently are. And I think this hope for change and renewal is at the heart of the Gospel.
The Gospel can change how we understand ourselves and our relationships to the people around us, and that in turn profoundly affects the way we experience our lives and the choices we make. As individuals, we can be better than we are, and on a broader societal level, as a human family, we can be better than we are. The Gospel gives us a vision of the world as it could be. Scripture describes this hope to us: Ether 13:9 says, “And there shall be a new heaven and a new earth; and they shall be like unto the old save the old have passed away, and all things have become new.”
a new heart
One of the ways the Gospel can change our lives is by taking us outside our own ego and selfishness. We are so focused on our own needs and wants, the proverbial natural man or woman. And that part of us maybe isn’t malicious, but does look at other people instrumentally: what can I get from you, why should you matter to me, prove to me that you’re worth my time. The Gospel teaches us love for the Other, even and especially when it isn’t rational or in our own interest. In Ezekiel 36:26, God promises us, “A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” This is a description of an encounter with the divine that leaves us a new person, with a new heart. “A heart of flesh”—we’re made more fully human by this change, more able to love and be loved, without turning inward in selfishness.
The Gospel is a call to radically re-envision our relationships with other people. Jesus proclaims the upside-down kingdom, where weakness and willing vulnerability lead to strength. The nativity story begins with a helpless baby and the condescension of God. Jesus tells us that true leaders are foremost servants. He says: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant:” (Matt. 20:25-27) That’s a very different way to conceptualize power.
As brothers and sisters in the gospel, we set ourselves in a divine family, all sealed as links in one great chain. Part of the way this occurs is the experience of living in a community where everyone is aspiring toward the same core ideals. In Mosiah 18, Alma describes the process of change: repentance, redemption, and faith; and then he talks about the obligations that we have to each other as participants in this gospel: “Are ye desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people? Are ye willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light? willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort?” That attempt to empathize and help each other through suffering is a key part of being a covenant people, and one that can change our natures (Mosiah 18:7-10). I think the ward structure excels at pushing us to do this, and I have been changed by this sharing of burdens as I have served and been served by members of the different wards I’ve lived in. As a visiting teacher and as a member of the ward council, I’ve had the chance to really get to know people I wouldn’t ever have, and I’ve learned from their experiences and been able to serve them, too. I’ve been amazed at the unity I’ve felt, even with people who are very different from me. It’s an experience of putting our faith into practice that can be transformative.
But it’s difficult, to try to help other people genuinely for their own sake, not some perverted selfish reasoning. Often I see in my own motives a desire to be seen as a giver of alms or a desire to reap the blessing. It requires true charity, a real connection with other people, as they are, not as we imagine them to be. Even when they are very different from me, even when I don’t understand or agree with them. Like Rachel Naomi Remen says, we can only serve what we are profoundly connected to. We have to learn that all suffering is like our suffering, that all joy is like our joy. 1 Corinthians 13 is a favorite passage of mine, and I love these verses: “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.” We live in a fallen world, all is vanity, and there is little we can rely on with certainty. “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:8-12). But this impulse toward charity—that is guiding and true.
hope for a better world
I’ve also seen the Gospel change my life as a means of providing hope. I’ve been called a pessimist before—I’m pretty sure I’m a realist, actually—but I see so many things that are wrong in this world. Injustice and unfairness all around. We are all so cruel to each other. Like it says in Moses, we are “without affection and hate our own blood” (Moses 7:33). Even our best efforts and intentions seem woefully inadequate. Left to ourselves, I don’t see a way out. There are many good people, here and elsewhere, trying their best, but I don’t see how we can overcome it all.
For me, this is a heavy question, without readily apparent answers. But the Gospel does offer a way forward, even in the midst of this open question, and I have found this to be transformative: A belief in a God who knows the world intimately and cares for us all. Not removed or distant from this struggle of humanity, but right in the center of it. That’s what I see in the incarnation of Christ—“the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).
Chieko Okazaki, beloved first counselor in the General Relief Society presidency, said this: “I don’t believe that faith means God will remove all tragedies from our path or solve all of our problems for us. I believe it means that he will be with us, suffering with us and grieving with us and working with us as we deal with our own tragedies and work our way through our problems.” The belief that God is deeply involved in our suffering provides me hope and fortitude in the face of difficult times.
This is Immanuel, “God with us,” and the song for Advent says it well:
“O come, Desire of the nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid every strife and quarrel cease
and fill the world with heaven’s peace.”
That’s the transformative hope offered by the gospel: “Whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.” (Ether 12:4) Here, finally, is something that can make an anchor to our souls, as fickle as they are, so we can finally be made sure, steadfast, doers of good works.
The gospel can change lives, but there’s always this element of agency. We have to choose to let it change us. Change requires a lot of humility. An acknowledgement that we have been wrong and want to be different. I think most of us resist change. I see this in myself: I resist challenges to my own views, I resist insinuations that my actions may be incorrect. I become defensive of the state of things in my life as they are. And allowing the Gospel to change my life seems to require a deliberate allowing on my part. I have to unlearn things I thought I knew, and it’s painful and stretching. But the promise of a world transformed is worth this suspension of my own comfort, so I keep trying.
I want to close with something from the poet Christian Wiman. He says, “There is a sense in which love’s truth is proved by its end, by what it becomes in us, and what we, by virtue of love, become.” The gospel, this process of understanding and internalizing divine love, shows us how to transcend our own murky selfishness and that is beautiful and a cause for rejoicing. This is the good news of the gospel: that we can be changed!
Chieko Okazaki. Aloha. 1995. p.119
Rachel Naomi Remen. “Helping, Fixing, Serving.” http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/honors/docs/communityengagement/HelpingFixingServing.pdf
Christian Wiman. “By Love We Are Led to God.” http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news-events/harvard-divinity-bulletin/articles/by-love-we-are-led-to-god