Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cincinnati Young Single Adult Branch Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 21 November 2010 as Branch President
Eleven years ago, my family took a spring break skiing trip to Colorado. We couldn’t afford to fly, so instead we bought new tires for the van and made the 20 hour drive each way. Since we would be driving on Sunday, I figured that if we drove a long day on Saturday, we could get up and go to church the next morning and get to Denver by evening. Now to be honest with you, worshiping was not my primary objective for going to church. Since the rest of the trip was going to be pure pleasure, I thought we ought to do something educational and I figured that Salina, Kansas was a great place to have a social experience that we hadn’t had before—and would probably never have again.
Folks were very nice to us as we arrived, and when we sat down in the chapel, the bishop came and introduced himself to us. When I explained that we were just passing through, he asked what every bishop asks a family who is willing to show up unannounced at church: “Have you ever thought about moving to Salina?” I laughed and thought to myself “Yea, for about two seconds.” Even though the format and structure of the meetings were familiar, I felt like a stranger. About half way through the testimonies, I realized that the strangeness was largely my own doing. I was attending not as a participant, but as an observer. Like an anthropologist studying some outback tribe, I had created the distance myself.
I then thought about my own experience with the LDS church community and all the ward families with whom I have been associated. I grew up in the church and have always been involved—been what we Mormons like to call “active” in the church. And for much of my early life, I was just that: actively busy in my participation at church, much like a well-developed habit of balanced nutrition and exercise. But because it was mostly just a habit, I’m not sure how much I really thought about what I was doing. This habit of activity was made permanent when on my way home from my mission, I made a conscious choice that I would always be active in the church. However, a few years later, I realized that that meant that I had to move away from the West. I knew that if I were to stay active in the church, I could not live there. I have nothing against the West; I have dear friends and family who still live there. But I decided that staying active in the church was more important than being geographically close to family.
As I sat there in Salina, I then realized that at some point in graduate school, I started to move beyond this habitually active phase of my church participation. Moving away from the Idaho-Utah environment gave me the opportunity to look at that participation from a new perspective. At the same time, I started to discover some of the real warts on our Mormon faces. There are things about us as a people that aren’t very pretty—and not that we have any more than anyone one else. The fact is: we have them. I did a lot of soul searching and was finally able to make the transition into what I now think of as a second phase of my participation in the church. I started describing this phase as one of committed participation. Despite everything else that came my way, I knew I had a strong testimony of the gospel and I was going to remain committed to the church.
This commitment was put to the test the night of the 1988 Wilmington West Ward Christmas party. Nancy offered to stay home with three month old Stella who was sick—and with Soren, who was being punished by an over-zealous father for committing what at the moment seemed an egregious infraction. So I went to the party with our five year old and two year old. Because the ward was huge and on the verge of being split, over three hundred people were there and I easily got lost in the hustle and bustle of the chaos around me. I seemed to be doing fine—at least until after the tables had been cleared away and I found myself sitting on a chair with one child on each knee facing the stage watching the program. Suddenly, I looked around me at all of these people. It seemed that I was sitting in the midst of strangers. And I had to admit that not only did I feel very alone, I also had to admit that I really didn’t love any them and that these were not my kind of people. In a panic, I gathered up my children and we left. By the time I got them in their car seats and headed home, I was sobbing uncontrollably. The kids sensed that I was emotionally distraught and were quiet the very long twenty minutes home.
During the rest of that night, I wrestled with my earlier decision to stay active in the church. I was having a real crises of participation. What came out of the struggle for me was the beginning of an understanding of what it meant to be committed. It was a commitment based largely on faith, hope and duty. I chose to continue participating because I knew that I was supposed to and that it was the best thing for me and my family. I didn’t necessary always like it, but I came. And I kept coming for the fifteen plus years this phase lasted.
The problem I eventually acknowledged with my “committed participation” was similar to what I discovered in Salina. Though I was present, I was still rather distant; often still an observer rather than a congregant. I filled my callings, performed my duties, and contributed to the success of the ward. And even though my life was full in many aspects—I still had the faith and the hope—I could not say that I derived much joy from my participation in the church.
While reflecting on these things on that comfortably uncomfortable pew in Salina, I realized that back home in Montgomery, in contrast to my previous experiences, I now derived an immense amount of joy from my participation in the church. And so I wondered what had changed. Was it just leaving the East coast after nearly two decades and returning to the Midwest? Was it a new job? A new ward? I’m sure that the change in environment had something to do with it. But I also realized that I had changed, and that I had moved into a new phase of my relationship to the church. To describe this phase, I have coined the phrase “engaged participation.”
Engagement suggests a level of participation that is more than just being there, and even more than being committed. It does not mean taking charge and making things happen the way I want them to happen. For me, the difference between commitment and engagement is not one of level of activity, but of level of acceptance of things as they are. It means being able and willing to work through and with situations beyond our control in order to make things better than they were and to successfully achieve something of greater value. A pregnant woman doesn’t wake up one morning and say, “Okay, today we are going to make the pancreas”; nor does she take control and, thinking only of her own convenience, decide it’s time to give birth and command “cervix, dilate thyself.” These are all events that are basically beyond her control: she allows them to happen, using her resources to make something painful and uncomfortable turn into something marvelous and godlike.
In some very interesting ways, this awareness has shed a whole new light on Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden. She found herself in a situation beyond her making and her control. In as engaged a manner as she could, she mustered all her resources and understanding of the situation and allowed things to happen. It was not easy; in fact it was quite painful. But the result had eternal consequences for good.
Mortality has its warts, just as the church does, and just as you and I do—even though we don’t like to admit it. To me, engagement is more than recognizing and accepting the warts. It’s loving them. But it’s not just making the most of them—it’s making the best of them that we possibly can.
In my more anthropologist-like days, it occurred to me after listening to several years worth of homilies on service, that most of what I was hearing—and yes, saying myself—was ironically pretty self-centered. It was generally focused on what benefits could be derived from rendering service, and almost always was from the perspective of the service provider, with little to no talk about the recipient. It was almost as if the most important thing about service was the rendering. There seemed to be little focus on the actual need or state of the recipient, and often even less concern for the value and appropriateness—let alone the quality—of the service. It didn’t matter whether Sister Smith really needed or even wanted her lawn mowed or whether my son did a good job mowing it or not; but by golly, we sure helped her out and by the way, that should count for home teaching this month.
What I think engagement clearly teaches us about service is that when rendered on the terms of the giver, then it really is not service at all. It is even possible that it can actually cause harm. Immediately after a tornado swept through Montgomery over ten years ago, thousands of people were ready and able to render service. If allowed to serve solely on these willing providers’ terms and needs, more damage could have been caused. We all wanted to give, but in this instance the best service was to give none at all. I remember our stake president saying that that was the hardest thing for him to explain not only to all the well-intentioned people in our stake, but in the region and area as well. And this doing-nothing-is-best is a hard lesson to learn about service, especially since it means that when I do nothing, I can’t personally derive any benefit from it.
I remember a particularly enlightening welfare meeting several years ago. One of the families in our ward was facing some very difficult challenges and not doing a very good job making it through them. In this meeting, we came up with a very good action plan to fix the problems. But at the end of the meeting, the wise bishop stopped us, and threw the plan out because all the tasks and objectives were done for the benefit of the givers, without any real understanding or discussion of what the family needed. I admire him for the courage to teach us that lesson.
Engaged service doesn’t suppose that the recipient always knows what he or she needs, or can always articulate it. I feel like I failed in my own feeble efforts to serve our neighbors, the Wallises, after their house was partially destroyed in a fire several years ago. I went over as soon as I got home from work, and asked Budge what I could do. He said that things were under control and so I went home. However, I learned a great lesson from those who, in contrast to my acquiescence, were engaged enough to just go in and do what needed to be done without needing to ask. The difference was that those who did and could serve were already engaged enough in the Wallises’ lives to recognize and know what needed to be done. They had managed to look beyond their own desire to serve and beyond the recipient’s inability to articulate his or her needs, to the real needs at the time.
Years ago, as an undergraduate, I had a hard time understanding a distinction that the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza was making in a famous phrase of his: “necessary but not sufficient.” However, I think that after all these years of wrestling with it I’m now finally coming to understand what he meant. It seems to apply as we anticipate the transition from studying the Old to the New Testament in our Gospel Doctrine next year, particularly in light of the purpose and value of the Law. The Law, Truth, Doctrine, the Priesthood and the Ordinances are all necessary for our salvation. We cannot do without them. But they are not enough; they are not sufficient. What makes our obedience to the Law, our understanding of the Truth and Doctrine, and our participation in the ordinances of the priesthood sufficient, is the way we treat other people, the acts of service and love. And I think that the acts of service are sufficient only when the server is truly engaged.
What makes an act of service an engaged one is not that we do it or even what we do. It is how we do it—for what intention and for whose benefit. Engagement does not mean that I am passive; it does not mean that I always act in an ad hoc fashion, or by the seat of my pants; it does not mean that I am not well exercised or practiced. Engagement means that I am deliberate and totally involved in the process. It means that I understand what is happening from all angles. It means that I bring to the situation all my talents and abilities. It also means that I am sensitive to the state and needs of the other person, and am capable of rendering the service that they need when they need it. It does not mean that I always completely sacrifice and set aside my own needs. But it does mean that I really, truly understand what the other person needs and I do the best I can, with what I have at my disposal, to provide that.
Shortly before he was supposed to go pick up his date for Prom, my son came home empty handed from the florist. My wife recognized that the failure to process the order was not his fault. She was also empathetic with the teenage female attention to all Prom details. So she ran to Kroger, bought an orchid and made a corsage with what materials and little time she had on hand. Hers was a simple, but engaged act of service.
We all have distractions or reasons for not engaging. Most of them are real. But engagement does not just happen. It most certainly does not happen at our convenience. It may mean that we set aside the way we think things should be, even when we have thought long and hard about them and have come to a different conclusion than someone else. It may mean that we be willing to no longer hold to the way things happened in the past, and not complain or remind ourselves or others of the way things used to be. It will mean that we are open to the way things need to happen and are happening now. For many of us, it will mean coming out of our social comfort zones and initiating a conversation with someone we don’t know. Engagement is not easy, because it almost always requires some amount of change.
We all have a choice to make when it comes to participation and service in the church. We need to assess where we currently are and then deliberately choose to advance to the next phase. If we have been only marginally active, we need to make activity a habit. Once we have achieved consistent activity, we need to become committed to the church and help it grow, even when that requires sacrifices on our part. And once we have demonstrated our commitment, we need to become fully engaged in the church community and family.
I’d like to challenge all of us today to find one way that we can exercise this wonderful principle to become more engaged in one person’s life and to allow one person to become more engaged in ours. What a blessing it is to me to know that we, as brothers and sisters in the gospel, have testimonies of and have accepted the necessary. That we may join together giving life to the sufficient is my prayer, the in name of Jesus Christ.