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I gave the following talk in my ward today.
Occasionally I try and ponder the words and phrases we commonly use to emphasize their meaning and rescue them from their casual familiarity. For example, I was recently teaching my children about the microwave in our kitchen. I paused a moment when I realized that to some extent, the word explained itself: the devices use electromagnetic waves with short (“micro”) wavelengths to heat our food. This became a teaching opportunity.
A similar experience occurred on my mission, when we were introduced to a deaf, 10-year-old Cuban girl living a small Honduran pueblo, where I was serving. She was interested in learning, but we didn’t know sign language. My companion and I procured a book to learn Spanish sign language, and I spent the next week poring over its contents. At our next appointment this young girl was amazed by my ability to communicate; I had very quickly learned what otherwise would have taken months—something I attribute to whatever the equivalent of “gift of tongues” for hands would be.
As my companion and I began to teach her, we brought up the subject of baptism. She explained, in sign language, that she had already been baptized as a child. But something odd stood out to me, a sign language newbie. There was a sign for baptism, and then there was a separate sign for sprinkling water on an infant’s head—the Catholic method of baptizing a new baby. I asked this young girl to do the sign for baptism again, and she complied by holding her fists out with thumbs extended upward, turning them both 90 degrees at the same time, and then returning them to the upright position. The sign for baptism itself implied immersion. This became a teaching opportunity.
Today I’ll be speaking about keeping the Sabbath day holy, but in doing so I want to rescue the term from its casual familiarity. We speak often in the Church about faith, prayer, repentance, the sacrament, and other principles and ordinances, but sometimes I worry that we grow so used to them that they become monotonous and almost without meaning. So to start, let’s discuss what we mean by keeping the Sabbath day holy.
The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew shabbath, meaning day of rest. From the creation of the world through today, God’s followers have been counseled to abstain from the rest of the week’s work in order to worship Him. Since Christ’s resurrection occurred on a Sunday, His disciples have observed that day as the Sabbath. When Moses reminded the children of Israel of the Sabbath’s importance, he related one of the Ten Commandments that said it should be “kept holy” (Exodus 20:8) or “sanctif[ied]” (Deut. 5:12). What does it mean, exactly, to sanctify the Sabbath, or keep it holy?
Both of these terms reference being set apart—think of our holy temples being a refuge from the rest of the world. Keeping the Sabbath day holy therefore means treating it different from the other six days of the week, and more specifically, doing things that improve our relationship to God. For this reason, Christ taught that “The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27)—because it is designed and recommended for our physical and spiritual benefit. Like other commandments, this is not a burdensome mandate from a cruel God looking to prevent us from having fun, but rather a condition that, if obeyed, will lead to spiritual fulfillment, love, and personal growth.
Twenty years ago when he introduced the Proclamation on the family to the world, President Gordon B. Hinckley prefaced it with an explanation as to why he and other church leaders felt it was needed. “With so much of sophistry that is passed off as truth,” he said, “with so much of deception concerning standards and values, with so much of allurement and enticement to take on the slow stain of the world, we have felt to warn and forewarn.” And then he read the proclamation. This idea of Latter-day Saints taking on the “slow stain of the world” had been on President Hinckley’s mind for some time; months before, he taught in a regional conference that we Mormons have a “tendency to take on the ways of the world. We don’t adopt them immediately, but we slowly take them on, unfortunately,” he continued.
Do you think he was wrong? And if not, what do you suppose is an antidote to this slow stain? President Hinckley offered his suggestion, when he followed up his observation with this desire: “I wish I had the power to convert this whole Church to the observance of the Sabbath.” I’m reminded of a quote from Neal A. Maxwell who once taught, “The ways of the world receive constant reinforcement—should not the ways of heaven?”
That, in a nutshell, is what Sunday should be about. Take a brief mental inventory of your life from Monday through Saturday. It’s filled with work, errands, education, raising a family, chores, entertainment, and all sorts of other things. But it’s also bombarded with messages and messengers that are at odds with the “ways of heaven.” Did you know that the average American spends around three hours of each day watching TV? And an extra three hours on their mobile devices? Think about that for a moment—it’s staggering! Six hours each day, on average, passively consuming media prepared for you by individuals who aren’t concerned with your spiritual welfare, intellectual development, emotional health, or family relationships. They want you to click and watch. They want ad revenue. They infuse their images and posts and graphics and programs with content that’s directly at odds with the standards we Latter-day Saints believe in.
Elder Maxwell was right—the way of the world receive constant reinforcement. Today, the Sabbath day, is an opportunity to reinforce God’s ways, if for nothing else than to strengthen and prepare us for the rest of the week.
This fortification of our “armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11-18) is one of the reasons you and I are here today, at church, participating in this meeting and the two that will follow. Daily battle causes our armor to become chinked, dented, and dulled. We need a fix-me-up. As Elder Holland once wrote, “the Church is not a monastery for the isolation of perfect people. It is more like a hospital provided for those who wish to get well.” Some of us have experienced significant trials over the past few days and are here today seeking support and comfort. Others have made some bad decisions or unfortunate mistakes, and are pondering how they can repent and move forward. Some have a fork in the road and need guidance to figure out which path to take. And undoubtedly there are some here today who have had a great week and look forward to more spiritual nourishment, to continue their pursuit of happiness. We all have different things going on that have led us here, but fundamentally we’re all here for the same reasons—to worship Jesus Christ.
To be honest, on some occasions I’ve actually questioned whether that’s true. Throughout my life I’ve been in some sacrament meetings or church classes where Jesus wasn’t mentioned a single time. People are generally eager to talk about their opinions and personal experiences—and while these can be important and helpful, we can (and perhaps should) talk about them outside of church if they’re not directly related to the Savior’s atonement or God’s plan of happiness. We’re all familiar with testimony travelogues or tangents in class that take up precious time. I believe that these important meetings should be focused on our Savior—we’re members of His church, worshiping Him in a chapel dedicated to God. We just promised to always remember Him in taking the sacrament, and it’s His gospel we are here to study and apply.
The Lord has indicated that “It is expedient that the church meet together often” (D&C 20:75) and that “when [we] are assembled together [we] shall instruct and edify each other” (D&C 43:8). Our meetings are to be conducted by leaders who are “led by the Holy Ghost” (D&C 20:45). These meetings are, by way of commandment (3 Ne. 18:22), open to the public—all are invited to come and learn of Christ and worship with us.
I recall as a missionary sometimes being nervous about bringing investigators to church, as it seemed to be “hit and miss” as to how things would go. Often times, the investigator would latch onto something that was said or done by a member, implication the entire gospel because of the actions of a single, imperfect individual. It raises an important question: are we, as disciples of Christ, thinking, saying, and doing the things that would reflect positively upon Him?
I often ponder what our meetings would be like if the Savior were actually here with us. Consider that for a moment—how would you be acting right now if Jesus Christ were sitting next to the Bishop on the stand? Perhaps there would be a few less mobile devices being used. Maybe more toddlers would be under control. I doubt anybody would be dozing off. Passing the sacrament would suddenly take on far more meaning for the young men, who would clearly understand the significance and spiritual meaning of the bread and water they pass out to us. Whatever you’re thinking right now about how this meeting would be like with the Savior present? That’s exactly what we should be striving for regardless. Easier said than done, right?
What’s important, of course, is that we try. Church meetings aren’t meant to be casual. We’re not supposed to “endure to the end,” in the impatient sense of the term, in order to be able to go home and eat and get on with our day. These meetings are supposed to have meaning. We should be walking away uplifted and edified—better for coming than had we stayed home.
I recognize that that’s not always the case. But as I’ve talked about this specific issue with many individuals, I’m left with the impression that many members of the Church perceive the three hour block as a passive experience that should uplift, educate, and inspire them, without them having to do anything about it. For these people, it’s all take, and no give. It’s like virgins with trimmed lamps who expect the oil to magically appear and automatically refill whenever depleted.
Now, I’m as guilty as anybody when talking about the importance of preparing for Church, and using our meetings as an opportunity to serve and uplift others, instead of waiting to be served and uplifted by others. My nature is to be introverted and focused on the task at hand, rather than thinking about and talking to others. But as I ponder what the ideal is—what would please the Savior if he were sitting on the stand observing Brother Boyack in the congregation—I see plenty of room for improvement, as I’m sure you do for yourselves.
Let me try to explain this from a different angle. The word church is a translation of the Greek ekkl?sia, which is better translated to mean gathering or assembly. Church isn’t just about the building itself, or the formal meetings that take place in it. It’s about you and I, meeting together to fellowship and commune and worship together. The gospel itself is a communitarian endeavor, and not an individual one. You can study the gospel all you want at home, in isolation, without having to deal with anybody else—but you won’t be able to live it. A Priesthood holder, for example, is unable to bless himself. He is empowered to serve others, and must be served by others. We need one another, and that’s what coming to church is all about. Each of us has something to contribute. As the Apostle Paul taught:
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
For the body is not one member, but many.
If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not [part] of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not [part] of the body; is it therefore not of the body?
But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.
But now are they many members, yet but one body.
And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.
Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary. (1 Cor. 12:12-16, 18, 20-22)
Whether you’re old or young, male or female, born in the covenant or a recent convert, gay, straight, black, white, introverted, extroverted, a scriptorian or an ignoramus, there is a place for you here—you are a member in the body of Christ. We have need of you. But each member should contribute, just as each part of our body serves a purpose. This means coming to church not just to attend, but to participate. Think of what that means for you. Perhaps it means serving in your calling with a little more zeal, or simply giving the sacrament speakers your undivided attention. It probably means volunteering once in a while to say a prayer or answer a question, rather than evading the teacher’s eyes after he or she asks for help. It also means setting up chairs, cleaning up after ourselves, saying hi to a visitor, substituting in a class when necessary, asking the Bishop if there’s anything we can do to help, and visiting in the hallways not just with our friends, but the friendless. This church isn’t meant to be a top-down, authoritarian, monolithic entity. In my mind, it’s a bottom-up, organic, diverse group of individuals learning the gospel of Jesus Christ, loving one another, and seeking after Zion. Being here at church—and more importantly, doing what the Savior would want us to do while here—is essential.
Last week, I drove from Salt Lake City to Lehi, through some moderately busy rush hour and construction traffic, without really paying any attention. The trip was a familiar and routine one, from the state Capitol in Salt Lake City, where I often work, to my home. As the trip ended, my conscious mind became aware of what had happened, and I marveled that I had safely navigated such a lengthy distance at high speeds without being actively focused. I call this “driving on autopilot,” and it happens to me more frequently than it probably should, as I find myself thinking about all sorts of things while driving a route that I’m familiar with. I don’t advise doing this, especially since it reduces your ability to quickly respond to a dangerous situation on the road.
Several months ago while driving on “autopilot,” I nearly avoided an accident when my subconscious mind recognized that the person in the lane next to me was too close to my car, and caused my conscious mind to react and avoid contact with the other vehicle. This near-miss sent adrenaline coursing through my veins, overriding any desire or natural tendency to shift back into autopilot for the remainder of the drive. I was alert and attentive, and fully engaged in the task at hand. I was a better driver.
And in reality, the excuse for my auto-piloting is false; no two trips are the same. Sure, the origin and destination may be, but the rest of the experience includes thousands of variables unique to that drive—different drivers around me, different road conditions, different amount of sleep I had the night before, different thoughts running through my head, etc. It’s a false security to claim that because I’m heading to a familiar place, that I’m safe to tune out and let my subconscious mind take over.
I suggest that the same holds true for our spirituality and coming to church each Sunday as part of keeping this day holy. Sometimes it might feel like week after week, church meetings become monotonous and repetitive, neither interesting nor inspiring. But each week is different. You’re different. You’ve had experiences, good and bad, that merit pondering, repentance, or repetition. There are new people attending this assembly—members of the body of Christ whose purpose you can help discover. Perhaps there are people absent who you can think about, and reach out to, letting them know they were missed.
It’s a false security to claim that because church is familiar, that it’s safe to tune out and go through the motions. Lest we forget, Satan “rage[s] in the hearts of the children of men, and stir[s] them up to anger against that which is good. And others [he] pacif[ies], and lull[s] away into carnal security, [so] they  say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell” (2 Ne. 28:20-21). We are in the midst of a war that commenced in the pre-mortal realm. Can we succeed in defending against an enemy we don’t understand or pay attention to? If we treat lightly the weekly renewal that church meetings can provide, and the spiritual fortification that keeping the entire Sabbath day holy can offer, how will we fare in the succeeding days when we are incrementally exposed to Satan’s rage and pacification through work colleagues, friends, classmates, and every form of media? Are we here today, at church, actively looking to restore and fortify our armor of God, as we head out into the battlefield during the remainder of the week? Do we even know that the battle is happening?
For at least two decades, the leaders we sustain as prophets and seers have been especially concerned “with so much of deception concerning standards and values, with so much of allurement and enticement to take on the slow stain of the world.” The Proclamation on the family, as noted earlier, was introduced to help combat this trend. But keeping the Sabbath day holy is also a method to consistently combat the infectious “ways of the world.” We’ve each been commanded by God to “go to the house of prayer and offer up thy sacraments upon my holy day” in order to “more fully keep thyself unspotted from the world” (D&C 59:9).
Meeting together today is only one aspect of keeping the Sabbath day holy, but it’s an important one. We renew our baptismal covenant by taking the sacrament, and re-commit ourselves as disciples of Christ to keep His commandments. Through song and instruction, we worship Jesus Christ and publicly declare our allegiance to him. We study the gospel, discuss its application in our lives, and fellowship together to support and serve one another. It’s important that each of us is here in church each week, but it’s more important that the church is in each of us—that instead of being a passive three hours, it’s a participatory experience that empowers us to become better Christians, better spouses, better parents, and better people.