Delivered by Michael in the sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Montgomery Ward Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 25 September 2004 as Bishop
Some of you do not know that our son Nathanael, who graduated from high school last spring, spent ten weeks this past summer in a bus, traveling around the US competing with a drum and bugle corps. This was something that he and a couple of his buddies from high school had planned to do for a long time. I suspect that he did it because he wanted to experience something a little more demanding than his high school band career had offered. He wanted to be in a group that took what it did seriously, that had the same drive for excellence that he did.
Nancy and I made it a point to go to every competition we could that were within reasonable driving distance—as much to see Nat and keep contact with him, as to watch the performances. The competitions were like three hours of football game halftime shows without the distraction of the game itself getting in the way. We were impressed by the caliber of all the groups, particularly those at the top of the pack. The coordination between the brass, the drum line and the color guard were impressive. And the precision was awe-inspiring.
Imagine 200 instrumentalists on a football field, with 48 color guard members, all throwing their swords or guns up into the air, each to the same height, spinning exactly the same speed and number of rotations, in synchronized rhythm so that they are caught, one by one, in successive beats of the music; and when the final one is caught, the entire brass ensemble playing a single, a loud, beautiful, perfectly in tune chord The description may not sound impressive, but to actually see and hear something like that it is awesome.
Not only were the formations and patterns impressive, the kids all marched with the same length of step or stride, and the same style. The exactness combined with the choreography provided a satisfying experience for the audience and, I suppose, for the kids themselves.
When the summer eventually came to an end, I think that Nat was a little surprised by what he finally learned from the experience, and how ready he was for it to be over. He will tell you that it was because the bus finally became too cramped and confining; he will tell you that it was because of the food—which for the food snob that he is, not unlike the rest of his Harward family, is really a big deal; he will tell you that it was because the corps administrators did not use the same degree of excellence in managing the group as they expected from the performers. All of this added up to make it one of those “I’m-glad-I-had-the-opportunity-but-once-is-enough-thank-you” experiences. Plus it has given him lots of fodder for lots of interesting stories for the rest of his life.
In my mind, however, I think that the most important thing Nat learned had to do with excellence and perfection. Toward the very end of the season, in one of his late night, twice a week phone calls, he confessed that he realized that the perfection of precision and exactness required to be the very best drum and bugle corps—to be a world champion—was really not worth it. To be the very best meant that you did nothing else. He watched kids that started drumming and practicing from the moment they got up in the morning, who did not stop until they went to bed. He felt pressure to do the same. He never had time to read, never had time to chill out, never had time to think, never had time to just live. In fact, I think he realized that that kind of precision and exactness, though impressive for performance, really are counterfeits for the performance of a perfect life.
This is a significant revelation for a Harward and a Mormon, who take seriously the injunction to “be ye therefore perfect.” One thing I appreciate about our church is that we don’t pussyfoot around this issue: we preach it and act on it. The idea that we really can, someday, become perfect like our Father in Heaven is perfect, is at the core of who we are and what we do. Even though we all work out our perfection in various ways and following various timetables and schedules, I find that there are two general responses to this, the Lord’s commandment to be perfect.
The first response is seen in those of us who really don’t believe it. We do not realize the power of knowing we are sons and daughters of God, nor do we realize or accept that that actually means that we can become like Him, and that He knows what we are capable of, and will do everything He can to help us achieve that perfection. We tell ourselves that we are not good enough, that we are not talented, that it is too hard.
Another variation to this response is that we seek to blame someone or something else for our imperfection. We didn’t have the same opportunity someone else had. Someone did something unfair to us. Something stood in our way. It’s amazing how easy it is to find a reason, craft a rationalization, or make up an excuse. The end result is always the same, though: we simple do not or choose not to believe that we can be perfect.
The second general response is seen in those who believe that they can achieve perfection if they just try hard enough, or just do one more thing, or just practice that routine one more time. We find this all the time in the monomaniacal devotion to excellence seen in drum corps, gymnastics or basketball teams, chief executive officers, concert pianists, chess masters, authors, actors, editors in chief, and on and on. I hope that there is nothing wrong with reaching for the stars. But what I sense is wrong, is reaching at the cost of many, if not most, other things in life.
Lest those of us who are not monomaniacal think that our balanced striving for excellence makes us better because we do appreciate and realize that there is more to life, when we take a closer look at ourselves, we find that the only difference between our drive to achieve excellence and perfection and that of the monomaniac is the single-mindedness. Rather than seek perfection in one area of my life, I seek it in every area of my life. Sure, I laugh off my hopes of actually achieving perfection, and I certainly recognize that I have a long way to go, and admit that I make lots of mistakes along the way. But you know what, when all is said and done, I still believe that I actually can achieve perfection. And I keep trying, and working and hoping. Rather than experiencing stress in one area of life, I have now managed to feel stressed about every area of my life. Ah, yes, there are benefits to a balanced life!
Clearly there is a continuum of responses to the Lord’s command to be perfect, with complete abdication on the one extreme and absolute obsession on the other—and lots of places to land in between. And if you are like me, you find yourself at different points along this continuum depending upon your day to day circumstances, or the particular stage of life that you happen to be in. It is interesting to me that even though the two extremes and even every distinct point in between appear to be very different responses, they are all have one fundamental thing in common: a failure to understand the full scope, power and gift of the atonement.
Most of us generally focus on only one aspect of the atonement: Christ’s suffering and payment for our sins. Elder Packer’s parable of the debtor and creditor teach us the correct principles of expiation and reconciliation between God and man that Christ makes possible. However, I suspect that most of you are like me: I have an academic understanding of what Elder Packer teaches; it makes sense; but I am not sure how it really works, and frankly I am not really sure how it directly applies to me. Maybe I’m just deceiving myself, and I hope that I am not being too blasphemous, but I don’t think I’ve ever done anything bad enough to warrant the amount of suffering Christ went through.
Though I don’t want to focus on this aspect of the atonement, I do want to share what I think is an important element of the suffering that Christ experienced. The scriptures speak of what He did as an infinite atonement. It is global and efficacious across the board to all those who repent and come unto Him. A parable like the one Elder Packer uses is good in teaching us fundamental principles. However, we have to be careful in extending the quantitative metaphor of debit, credit and of payment further than we should. I used to imagine the sins of the world all collected in some cosmic dumpster that Christ carries on His shoulders. And every time I or anyone else sins, we add a few more stones and make it heavier and harder for Him to bear. I used to think that I directly caused Him to suffer, that I made it worse for Him. And the corollary, that I lessened and relieved His burden each time I chose to do good rather than sin, is just as pernicious. I have come to understand that there really is no quantitative aspect of what He did. He bore the sins of the world collectively, as a single, excruciating and compassionate act of love for each of us individually.
The aspect of the atonement that I want to focus on, however, is one that addresses and applies more directly to each of us, wherever we fall on the continuum of perfection. Christ taught the Nephites: “Be perfect even as I, or you Father who is in heaven is perfect.” (3 Nephi 12:48) I used to think that that meant that they both had tried hard enough, and had worked at it long enough that they finally reached perfection. So, following their example, if I just tried hard enough and worked long enough, I too could reach that same perfection.
However, Moroni understood it a little differently—and as I have come to learn, a little more accurately. He invites us to “come unto Christ and be perfected in Him.” (Moroni 10:32) It is important to note that he does not invite us to work as hard as Christ or God have so that we, too, can be just as perfect as They are. He’s not talking about the exactness and precision of a drum and bugle corps or a Michael Phelps. He invites us to be perfect in Him.
In his glorious vision of the celestial Kingdom, Joseph Smith describes all of the good qualities of those who will abide eternally with the Father. It is likewise important to note that he does not describe the exactness and precision of their actions, of their lives and how hard they worked to get where they got. He simply describes them as righteous people who were “made perfect through Jesus.” (D&C 76:69)
So if this perfection is not something we reach through exactness and precision, through duplication of effort, through working just a little bit harder, what is it? What does it mean to be perfected in and through Him.
For one thing, it means that He takes a very active role in the process. He is not simply a coach encouraging us to keep going, or telling us how to improve our inward two and a half somersault with triple twist ending with a clean entry into the pool. He does not shout plays from the sidelines, or give hand signals from the dugout.
He is like a good coach in that He expects us to do our very best. He teaches—and shows—us how to give all that we have. But He also knows, as Bruce Hafen taught us in the last General Conference, that our best, our all, is not enough. He knows that it will never be enough. Each of us would be better to finally figure this out about ourselves as well: that no matter how good we are, no matter how much our best is, no matter how great our all, it simply is just never enough. The inverse is just as true: it does not matter to Him how good our best and our all are; He just wants it to be our best, to be our all. If the very best we can do is spin our sword a bunch of times in the air, rather than exactly twenty-three, and catch it a half of a beat after the final chord, then that is good enough for Him.
But it doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t just passively watch from the sidelines; he actively participates when we let him. More than a coach, He jumps off the ten meter platform with us, turns and twists our bodies as we fall through the air, straightens us out on entry, and holds back the water from causing an annoying and esthetically unpleasing splash as we enter the pool. He doesn’t just ask us to give our best or our all. For “after all we can do,” He then steps in and transforms our not enough into the enough of perfection—not because of our exactness and precision, but in and through His grace. This liberating grace that Nephi understood, is made possible through the atonement, and not solely the atonement of the Garden of Gethsemane, but the atonement of the perfect life of Jesus Christ.
How is this grace liberating? Most of us think of the eternal liberation it provides, giving us the opportunity to live again with our Father in Heaven. But I also think that there is a real and tangible liberation that we can experience in this life once we accept the grace of Christ.
As an example, consider the interaction between perfection and obedience. It is interesting to note that our understanding of obedience coincides with our understanding of perfection and the atonement. Generally, an abdication of perfection is accompanied by an absence of obedience. Why obey when I can’t be perfect anyway? At the other end of the spectrum, most of us equate the exactness and precision of perfection with obedience. Just as we mistakenly believe that if we work hard enough, we can become just like Christ, we believe that the more obedient we are—that if we could just be obedient enough—the more we become perfect like Christ.
While this is true to a degree, we must be careful to not let obedience become an end in itself. Obedience is not a virtue. It is a means of teaching us discipline. It makes us disciples who have accepted the grace of God. When we accept the grace of God, obedience is less something that we measure, acquire or accumulate than it is way of responding to God’s revelation and presence in our lives. It is not an object that we can possess and add to our eternal bank account and redeem at the judgment seat. It ceases to be an insignia that we wear on our uniforms, and becomes more the fabric of who we are. In the end, the perfection I ultimately attain is less a function my exactness and precision in obeying the teachings of the prophets than in the state of my heart, transformed by the grace of God and aligned with His word revealed through his anointed servants. If I am flawless in my obedience to the prophets, and my heart is not changed, I have missed the mark; I have not become perfected in and through Christ.
The liberation comes from the burden of having to measure and quantify the exactness and precision of my obedience. It is not the liberation of no longer needing to be obedient. Neither is it the liberation that comes from completely disregarding the words of the prophets, nor rationalizing them into an interpretation that is consistent with my own understanding, desires or life style.
Another example of the tangible liberation offered by the atonement in this life, is the direct impact on my interaction with other people that an accurate understanding of the atonement has. Over the years, I have noticed a direct correlation between one’s expectation of exactness and precision in others and the expectations one has in oneself. I am currently working on a project with a very capable woman. She is very methodical, is very careful, is very exact and is very precise. She has high expectations of herself, has a certain amount of pride in her ability to deliver, and has similar expectations of others.
However, she is so obsessed with a perfection defined by exactness and precision, that she has a tendency to become defensive whenever anyone disagrees with her, or points out that she has not completely or accurately understood something. It’s not that she has to be right all the time and is therefore closed to other’s ideas. But it takes a lot of energy to get her to make adjustments to her thinking, and she can only make the adjustments to her exactness and precision in her own terms.
She also expects the same exactness and precision in others. She never fails to remind me that she has already told me something before, or that I did not fulfill her request in the expected time, or that I did not do x or y or z exactly or precisely as outlined. I can only put up with her because I hear her say things that I have heard myself say to my children: “I thought I told you . . . .” “You did not listen carefully to what I said.” “Let me tell you again what I told you last week. . . .“ Not only is it not pleasant, a lot of energy is expended mitigating the contention she causes.
In contrast, the functional team I work on has more of a collaborative approach to accomplishing our goals. We accept the fact that no one is perfect and that no one has all the information or tools that they need to be successful, so we share and help each other out all the time. No matter what the problem is, we get together and discuss several possible options and choose one everyone is comfortable with, even though we all know that it has flaws. There is a certain grace that exists in this kind of environment. No one is expected to be perfect and have all the answers; but everyone is a contributor and feels free to offer opinions and points of view. It is a very liberating environment to work in.
Whether in our family, our church or our community interactions, once we accept and understand the grace offered through the atonement, we cease quantifying the exactness and precision of one’s contribution or abilities, of one’s level of perfection and I find that I am less prone to get angry at someone else’s driving and more prone to observe that they need to change lanes and am liberated by my choosing to let them in, rather than having it forced on me. I am less prone to get upset with the harried clerk in the checkout lane, and more prone to observe that she has been there for over two hours without a break. I am less prone to criticize when anyone forgets to do something they promised or neglects to fulfill their responsibility, and am more prone to give them the benefit of the doubt and jump in and help them.
In a very real way, the atonement of Christ and the grace that it offers, liberates me from the vicissitudes and tyranny of a perfection based on exactness and precision of not only my own actions, but those of others. It teaches me the discipline that I need to accept the best, the all of myself and of another, and live and work in an safe environment where I can grow and learn and become perfect in and through Christ. That we may do this in our families and in our church community is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ.