Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cincinnati Young Single Adult Branch Branch Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 9 June 2013 as Branch President
Let me begin by asking a very simple question: “Why are you here?”
If you are like me—who is someone trained in asking clarifying questions—I would immediately ask in return (at least in my own mind) “Where are we talking about?” The “here” in the question is really vague. But being “vague,” it can open realms of possibilities for us. For some of us, “here” is very specific, i.e. in the Cincinnati YSA Branch sacrament meeting at 5505 Bosworth Place, Norwood OH at 1:30 PM on June 9, 2013. If that is the case for you, then I ask you “Why are you here in this particularly sacrament meeting?” For others, the “here” may not be a specific sacrament meeting, but more generalized, as in “Why do you go to sacrament meeting?” which is a slight variation on the original question. Or you could be thinking “Why am I in Cincinnati at all?” or even “Why am I here on the earth?” I think it is wonderful that such a simple question can cause us to think about a whole lot of different things, i.e. can cause us to find purpose in the specific events of our lives or the general situations or conditions that we find ourselves in.
Today I’d like to focus on the “here” of the Cincinnati YSA Branch. “Why are you in the Cincinnati YSA Branch?” “What is your purpose in participating with us?” “Why are you here?”
The Handbook of Instructions, which is the official guide given to church leaders to help them as they administer and execute the mission of the church, suggests four general reasons for singles wards and branches: gain leadership experience, draw near to the Lord, strengthen testimonies, and learn to take responsibility for one’s spiritual, social and temporal self. In addition to these, for young single adult units, it specifically adds three more: fellowship and activation; provide opportunities for service, gospel learning and social interaction; support in fulfilling personal goals. And finally, it adds that finding a marriage partner is a “central purpose” of YSA activities. Mind you, it does not say that marriage is the only purpose, nor is it the primary one.
What could be more primary than marriage? Well, for one, our relationship with the Savior. For me, the primary purpose of the Cincinnati YSA Branch is for all of us to Come Unto Christ—and to come together. I am afraid that too many of us treat Coming Unto Christ as an individual pursuit. We think that if we just pray enough, read our scriptures enough, feel the spirit enough, we will Come Unto Him. I would like to suggest that though praying, studying and following the spirit are necessary, they are not sufficient. They lay a foundation upon which we can build a relationship with Him. But once we lay the foundation, how do we then actually build it?
I would like to testify that the only way to establish a relationship with the Savior, the only way to come to know Him and become like him is through others. In fact, not only do we come to Him through others, the only real way we learn about Him, who He really is and what He has done for us, is through others. And we do this through service. This is what I think King Benjamin meant: the only way to serve—and know—God is to serve—and know—our fellow beings.
A few years ago, on our way home from a temple trip to Columbus, we stopped to eat at a restaurant. After being seated at our table, we were greeted by a cheerful, good looking young man who informed us the his name was Anthony, that he would be our server, and that he would take care of us. After we finished our meal and he left us the check, I took a poll of those around the table, to make sure that my assessment of his performance was valid. Though all admitted they he wasn’t a straight 6:00 thumbs down, he was somewhere in the vicinity of 4:30. Were we being too critical? He was, after all pleasant and competent. He didn’t spill anything. We didn’t feel rushed and spent about the amount of time we expected. So what was missing?
Anthony knew the actions he needed to perform, and he did them fairly well, but they were pretty superficial. Like the Priest and Levite of the parable of the Good Samaritan, he wasn’t engaged. He knew his duty and executed his responsibilities in a fairly perfunctory, though pleasant manner. But like the Priest and Levite, he kept to the “other side.”
Just what is this “other side”? In the story of the Good Samaritan, we know that the Priest and Levite are on the same road as the robbed traveler, so the “other side” has nothing to do with geography or space. Instead, the Priest and Levite had created an artificial otherness for the man in need. They pretended that they had nothing in common with him. He was not one of them nor were they one of him. They did not realize or at least were unwilling to accept that they could have also been robbed. The “other side” for them was mental and emotional. They chose to block out the unpleasantness of the situation of the robbed traveler.
Interestingly, the priest, when confronted with the situation, simply passed by. Possibly his artificial otherness was so ingrained in his character that his automatic response system just kicked in and he didn’t even have to think about it. He probably wasn’t even aware there was a situation. However, the Levite at least “came and looked on.” But he still chose the ”other side” when he realized that the situation might require some engagement on his part.
In contrast, the Samaritan, also walking the same path, journeying along the same road of life, did not merely “look on” as the Levite had done, but “came where he was.” And in the coming to where he was, he then “saw him” and “had compassion on him.” In other words, his place and the place of the robbed man were one and the same. He did not create some artificial reality where he lived in a different place and time than someone else along the journey.
The fact that we are travelers on the same road means that sometimes we may need to step down into the gutter in order to come to those who are in need. Service is not about comfort. It will, more often than we are comfortable with, mean that we need to go into places, physically and emotionally, that are not easy, that demand we step out of our comfort zone. Service is not about convenience. It is not about writing down in my planner that I will provide service on every other Tuesdays between 2:30 and 3:00.
Jesus knew who He was. He knew that He was the Way, the Truth and the Life. Yet it was never about Him. His only motivation in life was to follow the will of His Father. And in a very instructive way, He understood that the realization of the will of His Father always involved other people, always involved His Father’s children. There was no monastic disengagement of life involved in the process. Again, King Benjamin’s injunction on service, teaches us that the only way to serve God is to serve our fellow beings.
We all know that there are various ways to serve our fellow beings, all depending upon our motivation.
A telestial based service is motivated by “what’s in it for me?” At first blush, most of us understand that this is not really service at all. Yet there are many subtle manifestations of this type of service because the true motivation is often masked. For example, most of us, when asked why we serve, will respond “because it makes me feel good.” Yes, it does. But that alone is not enough. Lots of things make me feel good. The problem is that the emphasis is on the “me”; it is on my feelings. And that is not what service is about. If I’m only after good feelings, then I really am just motivated by a “what’s in it for me” attitude. And then what generally happens, is that “my feeling good” becomes more important than that outcome or even need of the service.
For example, when we went to Delaware for my brother-in-law’s funeral, all seven of his daughters were there without their own children. They kept getting calls from well-intentioned people who wanted to bring over food or clean the house, or do something. One niece, with a slight amount of frustration in her voice said, “the problem is that we already have the Relief Society here: we are seven women who do not have enough to do.” Fortunately, in this case, the well-intentioned recognized the situation, and held back their own need to serve.
But how often do we “render service” simply because it either makes us feel good or we think it is the right thing to do, without real regard for the needs of the recipient? If we are serving simply to fulfill our own internal need, then our motivation needs some adjustment. Or maybe we just simply need to be as truthful as my friend Allison Larsen once was. One evening, she gave me a dozen eggs. “But Allison,” I told her, “I don’t need a dozen eggs.” “But,” she said, “I need to give you a dozen eggs.” In an interesting switch of roles, she recognized my need to render her service by accepting her gift.
A terrestrial based service is motivated by the quid pro quo of mutual consent. We all agree to do something for each other. I’ll serve you if you’ll serve me. Think of it as a sort of capitalistic market where we all have different services and goods that we offer, trade or sell. We recognize what we are good at, what our gifts are and we find those who need or want our services. In general this works; in fact, it works quite well. However, the problem is that it is still essentially “me” based. I know what I am good at, and I either spend my effort perfecting what I like to do or finding those who appreciate and accept it. I also know what I need and seek out those who can provide it. As a consequence, my community tends to be limited to those who operate within my well defined boundaries, who fit my understanding and perception of the world and its needs.
In contrast, a celestial based service, like that of the Savior and the Good Samaritan, is motivated by “what does the other person need from me?” It is important to note that this is not the same motivation as “what good can I do for another person?” The distinction may be subtle, but it is significant. Yes, “what good can I do for another person?” is oriented towards another person and not towards me and my needs. But in the “what good can I do?” who defines what the “good” is? What generally happens, is that I look at the situation of the other person, I determine what their needs are and I then render service to meet those needs. Now don’t get me wrong. This is a much better motivation than the “what’s in it for me?” But unfortunately, it is still focused on “me” and my perceptions and my understanding.
Knowing what the other person truly needs means putting ourselves in the other person’s place, and looking at the situation from their perspective and then rendering the type of service appropriate to the situation. The Good Samaritan did not just say “Oh, you have been robbed, and since being robbed means that somebody took your money, I’ll serve you by giving you some money.” No. He assessed the situation, got engaged and, as the text tells us “went to him, and bound up his wounds, . . . and set him on his beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.” This is true selfless service, i.e. service without the self of “me” focused on the self of an other.
I still remember the first time Sacrament Meeting was not simply something I went to every Sunday with my mother. I was in eighth grade, and Julie Cannon, who was two years older than me gave a talk that” woke me up” that made me realize that I really could learn something in what had been up to that point in my life, just boring meetings to be endured every Sunday. She also made me realize that the scriptures could teach me how I needed to change if I were open to them. To this day, now fifty years later, I still think of her when I hear or read “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I suspect that up to that point in my life, I had operated on the Big is Better and More Important plan. Big house, big car, lots of money, power and might, the one-ups-manship of early teens, with our google-plex understanding of the solutions to the world’s problems. Julie’s talk was the first time I let something disrupt that complacency. What occurred to me, was that what really mattered, was the way that I treated other people.
Anthony’s problem was that we had nothing to do with his service. It was just his job, just a set of tasks that he had to execute. He had to inform us that he would take care of us, because otherwise we would not have known by his level of engagement. For this type of selfish, telestial “what’s in it for me” kind of service, I simply just feel sorry.
However, I am optimistic about terrestrial “let’s agree to help each other” service, because it can at least make the world a pleasant place to live.
I am even more hopeful and moved when I see and experience the celestial “what can I do to help make you successful” kind of service that every now and then does take place.
And that’s what I would like to invite you to experience while you are here with us in the YSA branch. It’s not about ”Is this a fun place for me?” or even “Do I have any friends here?” Rather, “I am here because I want to strengthen my relationship with the Savior by serving others.” And yes, we do want it to be a fun and pleasant place to be. We are not a bunch of monks. But it is fun and pleasant because we are all watching out for and serving each other.
Service is not just a series of events or actions that I perform, it is a disposition, an approach and an engagement to life, and more important, to others in my life. If I allow him to, the Holy Ghost will not only tell me whom I should serve, but how and when and why. He will help me look beyond my own perceptions, he will help me understand the needs of others from their own perspective, and he will help me know how to render that service so that it truly meets their needs and does not simply make me feel good.
Only then, only by serving others, can I truly come to know the Savior and Come Unto Him.