Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 19 November 2005 as Bishop
Even though it was only thirty minutes from my house, I only remember going to the temple twice when I was a youth. The first time was when I was a fairly new deacon. I don’t remember being in the font, but I do remember waiting for my turn to be baptized, sitting on a bench which was on the same level as the oxen statues holding up the font. What I remember most about it, was feeling something that I had never felt anywhere in my life. I knew I was in a sacred space, and I knew that there was a real connection between heaven and earth in that space. And I knew that somehow I was involved and could participate in that connection.
Nancy and I began our marriage in what has now become our typical way of finding our own unconventional way of doing the same thing that lots of other people do. We got married at night, and drove together—and alone—the 60 minutes from her house to the temple. Now, there’s not much you can do on a Los Angeles freeway at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon, stuck in traffic. But I don’t remember much about the ride anyway. In fact, I don’t remember much about the temple. I can still picture the endowment room. But I don’t remember getting from the celestial room to the sealing room. In fact, I don’t remember anything about the sealing room at all, except one brief moment just before we walked in; I cannot picture who was there or where anyone sat. I don’t remember a thing President Lillywhite said, nor even the words to the sealing ordinance. But what I do remember is feeling un-worldly, as if I were pure spirit with no sensory perception—which is why I have little recollection of that moment. Though not part of the gray matter of my brain, the whole experience is instead seared in my spirit. I knew that I had been bound to another person and she had been bound to me and together we were bound to God. I felt pure truth, goodness and light. I felt something I had never felt before in my life, something that my senses and mortal faculties could not capture or record.
I think that each of us has a couple of rock solid testimonies of principles of the gospel or the restoration of the church that act as the glue to our entire testimony and commitment to this work. The nature and blessing of temple ordinances is one of those for me. Many of you have heard me share the story of my first spiritual experience as a five year old when I learned that my father had died, having a immediate knowledge and understanding that he was only gone from us for a while, that he was with God. I suspect that my testimony of temples began a year later when our family knelt together, with my father’s brother as proxy, and were sealed to each other. That experience in Idaho Falls only confirmed and completed what I had experienced a year earlier in Sanford, Florida.
As I have matured in age and understanding, I have come to appreciate the blessings of the temple in ways that I did not always expect. And many of those ways have to do with the here and now, and not necessarily the then and there of immortality that often is seen as the focus of temple worship.
For one thing, unlike any other enterprise in which I participate, across the whole spectrum of my life—church, work, community, family, friends—the temple teaches and reminds me that the perspective of this earthly life, is not the only one that is important. The temple teaches us that we are not completely confined by and to the exigencies of mortality that consume us, for it sets our mortal story in the context of a more expansive eternal saga. It metaphorically equips us with the eternal glasses which allow us to see with our spiritual eyes. I’ve always had in mind something akin to the special spectacles in the movie National Treasure which allowed the wearers to see what could not be see with the natural eyes. That’s how I think of what the temple does for me. It teaches me to know and respect the eternal perspective I gain when I use my spiritual eyes.
For most of my life, I thought that the eternal spectacles of the temple were something I put on outside the temple, only when I needed a different and sharper perspective of the events of my life. What I have discovered, however, is that I need to be wearing the spectacles when I go into and even think about the temple. What I mean, is that I have to consciously look through my spiritual eyes when I am in the temple in order to learn and understand and appreciate the blessings the temple has to offer me. When I go into or think about the temple with my worldly eyes, it all seems to me to be pretty silly. It doesn’t have much impact on the projects I am responsible for at work. It doesn’t put food on the table or pay the bills. It seems unnecessarily long and repetitive, and not very efficient in its use of everyone’s time. My list of ways to streamline the experience is probably not much different than yours. But then again, all of this is what I see when I don’t have on my eternal spectacles, when I see only with my worldly eyes. But when I take the time to use my other set of eyes, then I have a whole different perspective.
One of the blessings of this skill of knowing when and how to use my other set of eyes, is that I can do it with many other instances in my life. When life is too fast, and I am so busy that I cannot think straight, and I feel weighed down by family and work, and then there are these fourteen hundred church programs and expectations of things that I am supposed to do and places I am supposed to be, such that I want to scream or check out—when I am able to switch which pair of glasses I am wearing, and start to see things differently, then I see things that I did not see before and understand things in ways that I did not before. It doesn’t mean that the muck of mortality has somehow magically disappeared; instead, it means that the new perspective helps me frame my mortal experiences in a different way, giving me a power and ability to, if not succeed, at least endure.
I used to think that because it taught me how to see with my spiritual eyes, the temple gave me a leg up on others because I had more answers to life’s questions than they did. And it really gave me the advantage because I at least knew what the important questions of life were. However, in the past few years, I have learned that at least as important as the questions I ask or the answers that I know, is that fact that I am questioned. Now, what do I mean by this?
Let’s consider first how we even get to go to the temple. The process requires that we go to a priesthood leader for a recommend, that is, for an authorized statement of our worthiness to attend the temple. And what is the basis of that determination of worthiness? It is determined by the leader asking a standard set of questions and us giving an expected set of answers. One of the reasons a dear friend of mine refuses to go through the process anymore is because he says that he already knows the answers to the questions, and he doesn’t understand why there needs to be a gatekeeper who decides who gets to go and who doesn’t. He misses the point on two counts: he focuses on the questioning and on the answers. In my mind, what really matters is that somebody is asking me important questions, and I am given the opportunity to answer.
I hope that I will have the opportunity to meet with each of you in the next month for tithing settlement. Do you want to know something very important about tithing settlement this year? Well, . . . I am going to ask you the same question I asked last year and the year before, and the year before that. From a worldly perspective, it’s going to be pretty boring and silly. It’s going to consume time that I already don’t have enough of in my busy schedule—and you probably don’t either. Now, would you like to know something else about tithing settlement this year? Whether or not you are a full tithe payer is going to have exactly the same impact on my own personal growth and worthiness this year as it did last year—which is none at all.
So why do we inflict this pain and silliness upon ourselves? Why do we, as our son Nathanael complained to his second grade teacher, always get asked questions that we already know the answers to? Isn’t there a better way? I know full well the answer and God and the priesthood leader know full well the answer I am going to give. I wouldn’t be there in the first place if we all didn’t already know what the outcome was going to be. So, what’s the deal?
Well, here’s the deal as I see it. I for one have come to realize that there is something significant about the process of being asked a question directly and giving a direct response. Some would like to call it accountability. I am okay with that, but with a slight adjustment. Accountability generally seems to be from the perspective of the asker, of the decision maker. As the gatekeeper, I am holding you accountable, and therefore I am going to ask you some questions to make sure you are doing what I think you should be doing, and to determine whether I am going to let you through my gate. But that’s not what I think this process about. Instead, I am giving you an opportunity to be accountable to yourself—and to God. You know what you should be doing, and I am only here to give you the opportunity to measure yourself against what you know to be right. It’s subtle, but it is a very different perspective.
But, as my friend would say, why then can’t I simply interview myself and sign my own recommend? Why do I need a priesthood leader present? First, I believe that there is something very significant about hearing the words spoken out loud, and giving an audible, clear and simple response. There seems to be something tangible about the spoken word, as if in the speaking, it takes on a life of its own. I don’t think it was accidental that God spoke and the world was created.
Secondly, I think there is also some significant truth to the eternal principle of witnesses. When I sign my own recommend after being asked the questions, I attest or witness that, yes, I have given truthful answers; but I also witness that I take responsibility for those answers and will hold myself to them. When I sign a temple recommend, as a priesthood leader, I witness to God that the individual in front of me has held him or herself accountable and has, yes, made a self-determination that he or she is worthy to participate in temple ordinances. I also witness that I have given him or her the opportunity to hold him or herself accountable.
So far, I have described a couple of the ways the temple has blessed my life as it teaches me how to see with my spiritual eyes, and how it gives me plenty of opportunities to be questioned and give my responses. In addition, my life is blessed when I make covenants in the temple.
In the temple, I make a covenant of consecration. I covenant to give of myself, my gifts and talents, as well as all my resources of time, money and energy. For most of my life, I have thought of the three specified targets of my consecration—the Kingdom of God, the Church, and Zion—as synonyms of each other. But the last time I really listened to the words, the last time I allowed myself to be questioned by the covenant I was making, I was struck by the phrase “for the establishment of Zion.” It occurred to me that though they are related, that maybe they represent three different domains or target areas of my consecration.
I think of the Kingdom of God as the Way of God, His truths and teachings, what He stands for. Am I champion of His cause? Do I conform myself to His way of doing things? Do I choose His will over mine? Am I His servant and He my master? To me, the Kingdom of God is all encompassing, the big picture. Am I committed to it?
Where the Kingdom of God is cosmic in nature, the Church is global, of this world. It represents the formalization of God’s way on the earth. It encompasses the teachings of the prophets, the scriptures, as well as the institutions and programs of the organized church. The covenant asks me whether I am committed to the ecclesiastical entity of the church as the practical implementation of God’s way in the same way that I am to the concept of God itself. It requires a little more engagement from me because it is here, it is real, it is tangible, and not just a nice idea.
But now, what about this thing called Zion? And what does it mean for me to covenant myself to its establishment? I think that the first thing we need to understand about Zion is its scope. If the Kingdom of God is cosmic, and the Church is global, then Zion is the localization of God’s Way. It is my ward and my neighborhood. It comprehends the individuals of the earth that I interact with on a daily basis. So, whatever it is that I am consecrating, and whatever it is that I am establishing, it is not just to some grand idea, or to some earthly institution or tradition or culture, but it is also to my village, to my kin, to my people.
For me, one of the most disturbing passages in all literature comes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward where he describes a medical doctor and his wife:
“The Rusanovs loved the People, their great People. They served the People and were ready to give their lives for the People. But as the years went by they found themselves less and less able to tolerate actual human beings, those obstinate creatures who were always resistant, refusing to do what they were told.”
It is disturbing—not just because I am saddened that someone really feels that way about another human being—but because it asks me a haunting question: Do I feel that way, too, about actual human beings?
Zion, whatever it is, comprehends those actual human beings that I live with, that I go to church with, whose children—of course—make more of a fuss than mine ever did, that I stand with in line at the grocery store, who don’t make it easy for me to home or visit teach when my schedule is already quite full, that speed up so that I cannot merge into their lane, that have big trees on their property whose leaves happen to fall into my yard. They are the people, and I am one of them, common sojourners in our passage through mortality. We are brothers and sisters.
Okay, so now that I know who is included, what is this thing called Zion? What is it we are trying to establish? Well, there are the obvious examples of Enoch and the Nephites after Christ’s visit to the Americas. What little we know about those societies is that they took care of each other. They are described as being of one mind and heart. Christ teaches us that oneness of purpose, that the oneness of the body does not mean that everyone and everything is the same. I imagine that in Zion there still is a lot of diversity, and the people have learned to let their differences unite them rather than divide them. I actually believe that diversity and differences make us more charitable, which then makes us more one and unified.
Zion is the state of accepting, celebrating, encouraging, and strengthening each other in our differences, so that we act as and are a unified body. The diversity includes not only gifts and talents and capabilities, but also the diversity that comes from our being at different places and stages in the journey of life. Zion is the act of nurturing whoever is in our midst, from whatever walk of life they come or phase of life they are in, and helping them grow, reach their potential, knowing that they are accepted as a contributing member of the village—not because of what they know or what they do, but because of who they are. Zion is the absence of self-deception. It is built upon the principles of celestial interpersonal relationships.
We’re not talking about the touchy feely stuff of hugging each other around the camp fire and singing kum-ba-ya. We are talking about the tough struggles of daily life, finding ourselves in situations with people we didn’t choose to be with or probably wouldn’t choose to be our friends, but working hard and consistently and continually to nurture and facilitate and accept each other. This is where “establishment” comes into play. Zion is real; it’s really hard, but it’s really possible.
So now that we know who Zion involves and what it entails, what does it mean to “establish” it? Establish means to build, to form, and to make stable or permanent. Zion, by its nature, is elusive, meaning that there have been lots of attempts over the centuries, but not a whole lot of success. It is hard to grab hold of. It’s not very plentiful. We need to remember, however, that before we can make it permanent, we first have to make it.
Establish suggests a making that is more involved and more engaged that merely building or constructing. Establish suggests to me that I have some skin in the game, that I have some ownership and therefore some responsibility for the success or failure of the endeavor. I’m not just a worker bee doing what I am told to do. I am not merely commanded or compelled. I am anxiously engaged. I seek out opportunities for good and giving and I do not ask for permission to do good or wait to be directed. I know the direction, not because I have set it for myself, but because I have absorbed it into who I am, what I do and what I know.
I am as anxiously engaged in the whole as I am in the parts. I am anxiously engaged with all members of the community of the village. When I work, I work for the good of the community. When I vote, I vote for what is good for the whole community and not just for me. When I see that someone needs something done, I know that I don’t have to do it myself, but I can work with the community to make sure it gets done. I don’t just watch out for those I have been assigned to watch out for. I watch out for everyone and everything.
My skin in the game and my ownership is a function of giving what I have to give, whatever it is. I don’t assume ownership where it is not mine, but I feel responsibility to accept, appreciate and facilitate others’ ownership of their responsibilities. I do not dictate or push. I walk along side, help, guide and teach. I share, contribute and work with, not instead of or in spite of another.
When I am an engaged in establishment, I do not hold back. My contributions are measured by my abilities and the intents of my heart, not how they measure up against what someone else does, or the gifts they have. I recognize that others may not understand or appreciate the value of what I give, but I do not let that manipulate my appreciation or celebration of them. On the other hand, I don’t simply give what is easy for me to give because it is a natural talent. I am willing to stretch, to extend myself, to allow myself to grow and progress into something better than what I am today. I rejoice in my possibilities for change and development, for doing better what I did well yesterday. I feel safe and create a safe environment for all around me.
In short, in making a covenant of consecration for the establishment of Zion, I promise to give and continue to give to my community, to build and stabilize all efforts—my own and those of others—to create a Zion, to create harmony, to create a safe and accepting environment where all can prosper and grow. I promise to look beyond myself and look out for others. And most of all, I promise to work, to stabilize, to ask and be asked whether what I am doing is building that unity. I promise to respond to all situations that arise in my community in a way that builds and stabilizes.
As a covenanted and covenanting member of the community seeking to establish Zion, I agree to question and be questioned. I agree to see beyond the immediacy of the world, to look at people and situations with my spiritual eyes.
For these opportunities and blessings, that stem from and are formed by my experiences with temples, I am forever grateful. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.