Church talk, again

So, it turns out when you’re in a ward with only 65 regular attendees in sacrament meeting, you have to speak more often than usual. Here’s the talk I gave today:
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9 years ago tomorrow, at precisely 9:29 pm, I was stepping out of an apartment building after making a visit to a friend. I was a missionary and the mission rules were that you needed to be home by 9:30pm. Although we were running a few minutes late we were headed home and didn’t expect to miss the curfew by more than a couple of minutes.
1 minute later at 9:30 almost to the second, the largest torrential downpour that I have ever witnessed began almost instantly and without any warning. It was the most amazing rain storm that I’ve ever been in. Within 10 seconds or so, my companion and I were soaked completely through. It was as if I had jumped into a swimming pool.
We walked the rest of the way home sloshing through the rivers of water that gushed through the streets. We arrived home dripping wet and struggled to peel layers of wet clothing off in order to change into warmer, dryer clothes.
Now, I don’t believe God directed that rainstorm specifically at us in order to teach us a lesson about obedience. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but draw a connection between our being tardy by several minutes and my soaking clothes hanging on the drying rack as I prepared to go to bed that night. it gave me an opportunity to think about obedience. If I had been exactly obedient that night I could have been spared an hour’s worth of drying off from the storm.
Doctrine and Covenants 130:20-21 reads:
“There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated – And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
The scriptures are clear: there are no shortcuts to heaven. Only by adhering to the principles and standards of the gospel can we receive the full blessings that God wants to bestow upon us.
On Thursday evening I went with a few others from the ward to see the White Sox play the Cleveland Indians. I couldn’t help but notice that Clark leaned over regularly to help Koiwah understand just what in the world was going on out there. She’s a newcomer to the baseball world and was understandably curious to figure out how the game is played.
Think about a time that you’ve had to teach somebody a new game. Where do you start? I have a brother who gets so excited to impart his wisdom about how a game works that he immediately starts to mix strategy in with rules and basic protocol. As you might imagine, the listener usually listens politely and then turns to someone else for a more basic explanation. In order to understand a game, we have to first understand the rules that govern play. This is why Clark’s explanations to Koiwah consisted of the difference between a ball and a strike. Maybe some day she’ll appreciate the intricacies of a sacrifice bunt, but that may take a few more games.
Circumstances which we find ourselves in throughout our daily lives are no different than a White Sox game or a hand of cards in this respect. There are rules that govern any situation and the only way to be successful in life is to thoroughly understand and follow the rules.
Do you all know what Calvinball is? The whimsical game of ad hoc rules that Calvin plays with his pet tiger is as unpredictable as it is frustrating for poor Calvin, who seems always to be one step behind Hobbes in creating new and favorable rules. It is supremely difficult to win a game when the definition of “winning” is subject to change.
Fortunately, we don’t have to live our lives like Calvin playing Calvinball. We are endowed with the capability and the necessary assistance to learn the rules of life. We have been given scriptures to teach us from the history of our forebearers. The Lord has called prophets and apostles to teach us the rules as they apply in our day. And the basic principles of life do not change at the whim of some fantastical tiger.
So, we know where to go to find the rules. But, how do we ensure that the commandments produce the desired effect in our lives? This is a bit like the difference between rules and strategy. Two baseball players can be entirely within the rules but make completely different decisions in a given situation.
Elder Oaks spoke several years ago about “The Challenge to Become” in which he taught that merely following the commandments, or living within the rules, is not enough to guarantee that we will succeed. There is a right and a wrong way to live the commandments. He said:
“It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”
He continues with a useful parable:
“A wealthy father knew that if he were to bestow his wealth upon a child who had not yet developed the needed wisdom and stature, the inheritance would probably be wasted. The father said to his child:
“All that I have I desire to give you—not only my wealth, but also my position and standing among men. That which I have I can easily give you, but that which I am you must obtain for yourself. You will qualify for your inheritance by learning what I have learned and by living as I have lived. I will give you the laws and principles by which I have acquired my wisdom and stature. Follow my example, mastering as I have mastered, and you will become as I am, and all that I have will be yours.”
Imagine what the first day of culinary school must be like. Do you think it starts with an in-depth discussion of the flavor balance achieved by combining papaya with cinnamon? I suspect it probably starts somewhere much more basic, like how to read a recipe, how to hold a knife, and what the names are for the different kitchen instruments. To become a great chef requires mastery of these most basic elements.
In my adult life I’ve never been much of a TV watcher. Back when I had cable television, the only channel I could claim to watch regularly was Food Network. Every night featured a culinary battle of master chefs tasked with using obscure ingredients to produce a complete meal. It was fascinating to see these brilliant artists concoct fish egg ice cream or mint and broccoli soup.
What strikes me is that there is no way to accomplish this task by following a standard recipe. Each chef had to draw from years of training and experience to know how to incorporate the mystery ingredient into their meal. Much like Elder Oaks’ describes in spiritual terms, these chefs had moved beyond obedience to static rules and had internalized gastronomic principles that they relied on in moments where no explicit rules existed.
I love the commandments because they are generally so straightforward. Did you lie or didn’t you? Did you steal from your neighbor or not? The vast majority of our actions can be easily categorized as righteous or wicked. I believe that it is through strict adherence to the rules of the gospel that we learn the principles that enable us to become more like Heavenly Father. I may not understand what is so important about abstaining from tea, but I know that by obeying this seemingly small commandment I am preparing myself for moments when right and wrong are not as clear.
Can you imagine a situation in which you are faced with a decision that pits two commandments against each other? For instance, it’s Monday evening and you’re planning to spend time holding family home evening when the phone rings and a family you home teach is in need of assistance. We’ve been instructed to faithfully observe Monday evening as a time to be with our families, but we’re also expected to fulfill our church duties and care for those in need.
I don’t mean to imply that there is a correct answer to this conundrum. Indeed, that’s exactly the point. The last time I checked, Moroni didn’t include a story in the Book of Mormon about a family home evening interrupted by a home teaching assignment. Like an Iron Chef, we are often faced with situations for which there is little or no explicit guidance on which way is the right way to act. If we haven’t prepared ourselves by living according to gospel principles when the correct path was obvious and the stakes were low, we will not have accumulated the necessary experience to settle on a proper course of action when things aren’t so clear.
There is no more blunt example of this than Nephi’s slaying of Laban in the opening pages of the Book of Mormon. Elder Holland describes the situation:
“How much is hanging in the balance as Nephi stands over the drunken and adversarial Laban I cannot say, but it is a very great deal indeed.
The only problem is that we know this, but Nephi does not. And regardless of how much is at stake, how can he do this thing? He is a good person, perhaps even a well-educated person. He has been taught from the very summit of Sinai “Thou shalt not kill.” And he has made gospel covenants.”
The key to Nephi’s part in this whole story is the role of the Spirit in directing him to do God’s will. If Nephi had not been living in complete harmony with the principles of the gospel when he stumbled across a drunken Laban, he could never have had that spiritual guidance. It took a lifetime of obedience and spiritual mastery to arrive at a decision that seemed to run contrary to the most basic of moral teachings.
I know that I referred earlier to the rules of life as if they were a single comprehensive list of dos and don’ts. I have to admit some artistic license with that characterization. In fact, King Benjamin sums things up quite nicely. Recall that these are the final words of his canonical speech to his people:
“And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them.”
There is not enough paper in the world to compile a list of how to act in every situation. For this reason it is imperative that we ensure that our obedience leads to more than checking off items on a list. Elder Oaks again teaches:
“The gospel of Jesus Christ is the plan by which we can become what children of God are supposed to become. This spotless and perfected state will result from a steady succession of covenants, ordinances, and actions, an accumulation of right choices, and from continuing repentance.”
It is only through obedience to the commandments that we can bring about the “mighty change” of heart required of all true followers of Jesus Christ.
There is also safety and comfort to be found in keeping the commandments. As a missionary on that stormy night, I should have been dry and warm inside my apartment by the time the rain came. Because of a minor lapse, I was caught in a storm that I didn’t see coming.
Now that the weather is getting nice, Emeline and I often go on walks to enjoy our lovely neighborhood. Last week we were taking a short constitutional and saw from across the street another young couple with their small daughter. The little girl was clearly excited to be outside and bolted at every chance she got. Her parents had to remind her repeatedly not to enter the street without them because there might be a car coming.
I’m sure the little girl was young enough that she simply could not fathom the possibility of a car bearing down on the intersection, the driver unable to see her in time to stop. Fortunately, the parents were vigilant and the traffic light. The girl remained safe from harm.
How many times have we been asked to follow a particular word of counsel without fully understanding why it really matters? It is often a relatively small matter that we are asked to observe, and yet it is easy to brush it off, thinking, “I know most people need to hear it, but I’m already beyond that so it’s ok for me to make an exception.” We could save the world a lot of trouble and heartache if in those moments we might stop to consider whether we, like the little girl darting into the road, might not be as aware as we think we are.
President Benson identified pride as the principal problem facing the church. It takes a serious exertion of humility to submit ourselves to rules for which we see no immediate or obvious benefit. When we exercise this humility in the smallest things, we are preparing ourselves to be humble in the grand things. Indeed, sometimes the grand sacrifices are nothing more than an accumulation of smaller moments.
God has called prophets and apostles in our day to warn us of dangers of which we are probably not fully aware. Obedience to their counsel will not guarantee freedom from pain or difficulty, but it will catalyze the metamorphosis from the natural man to the man of God.
I know that there is safety in the commandments. I know that it is only through submitting ourselves to the rules that God has set that we can ever hope to become more like Him. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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