Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward, Cincinnati Ohio East Stake, Sunday 18 July 2010
I have 517 friends on Facebook—which is more than my two oldest children: Soren has 339 and Hillary just barely trails behind me at 507. (To their credit, they both had graduated from college before Facebook was the rage.) But I don’t have as many friends as my wife with her 636, nor my missionary daughter Stella who barely beats out her mother at 642. And then there is Nat who is in a whole other realm with his 1457 friends.
When I think about all those friends and my interactions with them, I can put them into three categories or groups: 1) family and close friends, 2) acquaintances and 3) contacts. With my family and close friends, I use Facebook to regularly communicate and to keep current on their lives. With my acquaintances, I generally communicate in response to a certain event in their life or mine, such as stake youth choir practice or planning and organizing the evening programs for Trek. And finally, my communication with my contacts is completely random.
We started using Facebook as a way to find out what Nat and Stella were really doing in their lives—which at that point was a lot more than we managed to get out phone conversations. We find out what new things our grandson is learning when Hillary and Jake post the latest see-what-Cormac-is-doing video on their page. We have re-established communication with close friends we had made in some of the places we had previously lived—or who lived here in Cincinnati and have since moved away. Where it involves this group of family and close friends, I have to unfortunately admit that my communication is pretty passive and one way: them to me. Facebook is a way for me to find out what is going on in their lives—but I don’t use it to actively communicate with them what is going on in my own. Part of the reason for this one-way communication is preference: I almost always prefer face-to-face or telephone contact when talking with someone about what is really going on or is really important in my life. I am also quite hesitant to be so open when it concerns my inner life—who I really am. With that kind of deep and personal information, I am much more private and I reserve the right to control who gets that kind of information and how and when they get it..
I have found that especially with the youth, using Facebook to communicate information that I need my acquaintances to know is very effective. And though I am not consistent, I do enjoy finding out who has a birthday today and then writing a brief message on their wall. With this group of friends, I am much more active. I do not hesitate to push information to them and get confirmation back from them that they have received the information and are acting on it. With this same group of friends, I also receive important information that I need to act on: eagle projects, graduation parties, concerts and plays.
My interactions with those in my group of contacts is purely random. Generally it is triggered by a random event—or at least one that was not on my radar. One of my first Facebook friends was Blair Goates, who is my age and was in my ward when I was growing up. I had last talked to him shortly after I was married—and that was thirty-three years ago. We had been fairly close growing up, but over time lost contact because he had not been to any of the high school reunions I had attended, and I was never sure what had happened to him. During that initial contact, we exchanged a few messages with each other, but haven’t communicated since, except for a brief exchange when I found out his mother had died. Yesterday I received a friend request from a Wendy Brooks. When I get a friend request from someone I do not immediately recognize, my first reaction is always “Who is Wendy Brooks and why is she friending me?” (As an aside: while writing that last sentence I was reminded how Facebook has expanded our vocabulary. Microsoft Word puts a red squiggly line under the word “friending” because it doesn’t recognize it as a legitimate term with a very precise meaning.) Anyway, when I get these random invitations, I do have enough curiosity to at least go to their page and see if I really do know them. In this case, knowing that Wendy lived in Lehi, UT still didn’t help, and none of her other biographical information helped either. I will next look at who her friends are in hopes that that will help me find the proper context of our association. Well, Wendy had just joined Facebook forty minutes earlier, so she didn’t have enough friends for me to discover the context. So I then looked at her picture more closely and performed my own mental reverse morphing of her image, stripping off almost 40 years on life. When I did, I immediately recognized her as Wendy Bigler Brooks—one of my friends from high school. I noticed she was still online, so I opened up a chat with her, and we exchanged a few greetings and pleasantries. At the same time, I noticed that another friend, also from high school, was active, so I opened up a chat with her, found out she was still in Seattle and had 13 grandchildren. It was completely random. And I probably won’t have a conversation with either of them until our next high school reunion in three years.
If Jesus were on Facebook, what would my status be with Him? Which category of friends would He fall into? Would he be family and close friend, acquaintance or contact? Now I know what you are all thinking, because I am thinking it myself: of course He would be my friend and I would think of Him different from all my other friends. He would be in a category all to Himself. I’d always have a chat open with Him. I’d always be checking His status or writing on His wall. He did, after all, say “You are my friends” didn’t He? But what did he mean? Somehow, I don’t think that He meant that we would be BFFs. My friend Sue used to say that she thought it sacrilegious to think of Jesus as a friend—I suspect because she wanted and expected something more from Him. She revered Him and had a very different relationship with Him. I hope I do, too.
The one thing that all three categories of friends that I have on Facebook have in common is that they help me maintain my connection with people. But unfortunately, it is just that—a connection. I really am the quintessential Facebooker: my connection to all my friends is pretty self-centered. I don’t necessarily mean selfish, but the connection is focused on me. I take what I need from my friends when it is convenient for me. It doesn’t matter whether I check my wall and messages every day, multiple times during the day or even if I don’t look for a week. I only really have to do it when I choose to. Similarly, actively sending a message or writing on someone’s wall is done at my convenience. I don’t do it unless it is something I feel important and that it is something that I feel I need to communicate. And in a few cases, when I want to know whether they have received the message, I ask them to reply and let me know that they have. But again, it is focused on me: what is important to me and what I want to have happen.
I don’t think that Jesus had in mind a self-centered Facebook style of connection when He said that I was his friend. That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with having a connection. It is important to connect with people. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It is not enough. Instead of just a connection He wants me to have a relationship with Him. And I don’t mean being “in a relationship” with him.
So how is a relationship different than a connection? Because there is a certain self-centeredness to a connection, I generally approach a connection with an attitude of quid pro quo: I will do something for you if you do something for me. I will write on your wall but never say anything that will embarrass you as long as you do not embarrass me when you write on mine. I will post information that can possibly be of use to you with the understanding that you will do the same for me. I will scratch your back if you agree to scratch mine. In a connection, there is an unstated but implied contract. Connections have a certain terrestrial feeling about them: good people doing good things for and with other people. Isn’t that would we want? Yes, we do. It is desired and it is necessary. But it isn’t enough; it is not sufficient.
So what is the “more” that transforms a connection into a relationship? For starters, it is not self-centered. It isn’t about just me. But it isn’t the opposite either: it isn’t about just the other person either. It is about us. It is two-way, with an appropriate balance of give and take between the two parties.
Okay, so if the transformative “more” means having achieved—or at least to be working on—a two-way, give and take balance, what does it really mean to have a relationship with Christ? I understand how I can give to Him and take from Him, and I can understand how He gives to me. But how does He receive from me? If a relationship is mutually beneficial, how am I benefitting Christ? And for that matter, how do I really give Him anything? He has everything. He is a god. What difference does my giving make to Him?
After spending many years and a lot of energy trying to figure out how I really have a relationship with Christ, I think that I have decided that I really don’t—at least not directly. But I can indirectly: indirectly through my relationships with other people. At first, I thought that an indirect relationship with Christ meant that I just needed to treat everyone as if he or she were Christ. In my mind, I thought it meant doing some sort of virtual substitution, pretending that the other person was Christ—and then acting as if I were relating to Christ instead of the other person. But I have finally learned that I was substituting the wrong person in the relationship. In an interesting way, my relationship with Christ is a function of substituting Christ for me in the relationship. When I relate to another person the way Christ would relate to him or her, then my relationship with Christ is strengthened. In a surprising way, it really is about me. But it is not the self-centered me manifest in my mere connection with someone else. But it is about me in how I related to another person. It is about how well I feel, think and act in my relationships with other people.
When I first read the Preach My Gospel manual six years ago, I immediately knew it was inspired. But when I finished chapter 6, called ”Christlike Attributes” I really knew it was inspired. It confirmed for me my belief that the most important thing we can do in this life, and I bear testimony of it, is to become more like Christ. I loved the challenge given a few years ago to not only believe in Christ, but to believe Christ. However, I would like to propose that we need to take the phrase one step further: to be Christ. I am sure there are those who would find that suggestion blasphemous. Yes, I agree that I can never become the Savior. None of us can. He alone has done for us what no one else could have done.
But when it comes to my relationships with other people and the way I comport myself in the world, my objective is to be as much like Christ as I possibly can. And I must add a very crucial aspect to my being like Christ: I need to let myself be more like Christ. I need to open myself up to Him, to His world and His creations. I need to allow Him to act through me as I relate to my brothers and sisters as we sojourn together on earth.
So in my efforts to acquire the Christlike attributes of faith, hope, charity, virtue, knowledge, patience, humility, diligence and obedience mentioned in Preach My Gospel, it is not sufficient to acquire them just so that I can say that I am better because I now have them in my possession. It’s not about acquiring them like I do money in my bank account. They don’t represent a currency that I can trade with God or others for blessings or favors. There is no quid pro quo here. Rather, it is about acquiring these traits so that I can benefit other people, so that I can feel, think and act as Christ would act if He were in my situation relating to this particular person at this point in time.
Let’s take patience. It is one thing for me to learn how to be patient. It is whole different story to be patient. Having Christlike patient does not only mean that I have successfully learned how to deal with and endure anything that comes my way. That kind of patience is easy because I am able to do it on my terms and my timeline. Patience does not mean merely enduring. It has no boundaries, constraints or limits on time. It means continuing to be patient when someone isn’t making the progress or the changes I think he or she should be making. Do I merely passively endure such a situation, or am I actively engaged with them to such an extent that even if they never change and never make any effort to become what I know they are capable of becoming, I still continue in a loving relationship with them?
These Christlike attitudes do not just apply to my relationships with other people. They also apply to my relationship with the church and its programs. Do I merely participate in family history and temple work because I know that they are things that I should do, and that Christ would do them if He were here? Do these activities merely connect me with my ancestors or do they allow me to establish a relationship with them or improve my relationships with those in my living family? Are these activities things I merely do and am passively engaged in? Do I treat them as acquired traits? Do I wear them as a badge of honor just as I could be tempted to do with the Christlike attributes in Preach My Gospel? Or do I let them make me a better person? Do I use them to help me treat others more like Christ would? Does my family history research produce little more than a list of names that I perform temple ordinances for? Or do I learn something about each person and try to really understand and appreciate him or her? Is the history of my great-father just an interesting story, or am I better person because I have allowed his life to touch me in some significant way? Have I allowed my understanding of his life make me more likely and able to relate to people who, like him, seem so different from me? Do I go to the temple merely because I have covenanted that I would and because it is probably something Jesus would do if he were here? Or do I go searching for ways that I can be a better person and to be more like Christ? When I go, have I open enough to learn whatever the Lord wants me to learn and to receive inspiration on how to better treat those around me?
Of all the Christlike attributes I want to develop, I think that the most important is His desire, willingness and ability to follow the will of His Father. It is so hard for me to set aside my own desires, appetites and passions. It is so hard for me to set aside my self-centeredness, even when my intentions are praiseworthy. It is so hard for me to reach for more than mere connections with God, Jesus and other people. But I know when I can, when I let myself be more Christlike, then I am a better person and a better instrument in God’s hands. Then I am a true friend to Jesus and His brothers and sisters.
That we may all be such friends, with and for Christ, is my prayer, in his holy name. Amen.