Sunday, February 9, 2014

What is Grace?

A couple of months ago I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting (the main Mormon Sunday worship meeting). Since we have a lay congregation--where nobody is paid for their church service, we all take turns giving talks to add to our meeting of worship. It's a great way to learn more and allows every member an opportunity to develop speaking skills, and more importantly helps us develop our knowledge and testimony of the gospel.

Anyhow, I'd never thought of posting a talk I'd given before, but since I'm sure many friends and strangers are curious about what Mormon theology and beliefs are, and since my topic was on one of the most fundamental beliefs we have (on the atonement of Christ and more specifically grace); I decided to share it with you. I do want to point out that I do not directly speak for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A lot of my talk was taken from the most recent general conference (a meeting that all Mormons look forward to twice a year where we get to hear from our prophet and other leaders). I'll provide links to where I got the quotes so you can look into other scripture and talks if you'd like...

I was asked to discuss the atonement today and to specifically focus on how Christ's atonement allows us to overcome much more than just sin. I will be speaking about grace. I hope I can do so with the help of the Holy Ghost so we can all be edified and uplifted (Doctrine & Covenants 50:22).

I don't know about you, but back in my youth I spent many hours envisioning what my future life would look like. Some of these dreams included seeing myself as a powerful missionary confidently preaching the gospel. I also would dream of my future marriage along with the white picket fence, a blissful life, and of course an amazing husband. When I saw myself as a mother I pictured myself cuddling and playing with little ones.

Of course, I was aware that all of these dreams would come with challenges. I knew babies cried and being a mom was hard work. I knew my spouse and I would have differences, and that we may even have a disagreement, or argue from time to time. I would have told you I was up for the spills and messes that would need to be cleaned. And I also would have agreed that missionary work would be just that work, but I was up for it. Thankfully, I was right in thinking that I'd be up for all the work that came with being a missionary, wife, and mother, but now understand that one can never truly be ready for, or understand just how difficult all these roles are until you're in midst of it.

It wasn't until reality hit, and when I was in the thick of things that I'd realize life is so much harder than I'd anticipated in my perfect dream world. Why? Because you and I are all imperfect. We can't truly be our best at anything if we go at it alone. No, we all need the grace of God.

So what exactly is grace? In the Bible Dictionary it says, "Grace is a divine means of help or strength given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ...individuals receive strength and assistance...that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means." Why? Because it's a divine assistance. The dictionary goes on to say, "Grace is the enabling lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expanded their best efforts."

The last part of the definition points out where we differ in our definition of grace from many other Christian denominations. Many other Christians believe that accepting Jesus Christ as your savior is all you really need to be saved. We believe that there is more required than just faith alone.
In order to obtain grace we must make and keep covenants (including those made at baptism and ultimately in the temple). We also understand since we are imperfect we need to continue to repent and try to do better, or that we need to endure to the end.

Brad Wilcox gave a great illustration of how grace works in the September issue of the Ensign this year, where he compared grace with piano lessons. Think about it, when a mother decides to allow her child to take piano lessons she pays for them knowing that her child won't be paying her back with money. Instead, the mother and her child usually come up with a different payment plan. The mom pays for the lessons and in return the child devotes part of his/her time to practicing the piano.

Parents often find piano lessons to be a good investment because they have the foresight to see future benefits. They understand that the lessons will not only help them to develop a new talent, but also understand learning to play the piano will allow their child to make a contribution to society later on. Such parents also see that the lessons will help their son or daughter develop as a person.

There seems to come a time when the child taking piano lessons realizes that learning the piano isn't as easy, or as fun as they'd imagined. They may begin to tire of all the practicing required to develop such a skill. This usually happens when they see how much work and effort is necessary in learning the piano. This is when it's challenging for the child to see all the benefits their parents can foresee.

Likewise, many of us struggle understanding why God has asked us to do something whether that be following certain commandments, being asked to fulfill and magnify a certain calling, or whatever else. We need to remember that we also don't have His foresight and knowledge. Sometimes we may feel we're asked to be a one-man-band that's required to balance a heavy load. We're here on earth in part to become like our Heavenly Father. That means we have a lot of "lessons" and "practicing" to do. We're asked to learn how to be good mothers and fathers while balancing work, school, our own personal development, Church callings and responsibilities, home/visiting teaching, and taking care of household duties etc. It's a heavy load! Yet, with grace we're promised divine strength and I can testify when we remember that we can't do it alone and when we turn to Christ we can receive that divine grace and strength.

We often forget that we're not perfect yet. We have the tendency to have what my husband and I like to call, "The Happily Ever After Syndrome." We forget that those white picket fence dreams often aren't realistic. And when reality crushes our dreams, or the life we'd envisioned for ourselves, it can be depressing and we can be very hard on ourselves.

However, if we think about the piano analogy, we'd all agree that the average parent is aware that their son or daughter won't be playing in Carnegie Hall within a year or two of starting lessons. Instead, they expect their new pianist will hit a lot of wrong notes. When their child's timing is off, his/her mother doesn't think their child isn't worthy to keep practicing and trying. No, instead she'll encourage her child to continue to keep trying.

Elder Ucthdorf pointed out that we also "need to avoid feeling so burdened with our failures and shortcomings that we begin to think we will never be able to succeed. No one likes to fail. We want to be champions without effort and discipline and without making mistakes." Success without effort, discipline, and mistakes along the way is impossible. While perfection should be our ultimate goal, we need to be content as we're moving in the right direction.

Heavenly Father doesn't mind our weaknesses as much as we may think. Elder Scott said, "When the Lord speaks of weaknesses it is always with mercy." We should rejoice as we master each new piano piece that had been difficult to play when we first began. There aren't just two options: 1. Perfection or: 2. Give up. Really our only option is to keep trying, keep practicing, and to continue to invite the Lord to help make up where we lack. As Elder Ucthdorf stated, "Destiny is not determined by how many times we stumble, but by the number of times we rise up, dust ourselves off, and move forward."

Playing those flat notes, or seeing our imperfections can be uncomfortable, but is necessary so we can be humble. In Jacob 4:7 we read that God shows us our weaknesses that we may know that it is by His grace that we have the power to do these things.

These imperfections and weaknesses aren't always just sins, or temptations we struggle with. For some it may include emotional weaknesses. I can personally attest like Elder Holland, that "We may feel like we are a broken vessel." Anxiety, clinical depression are a couple of examples of such weaknesses. People who suffer from such trials will find hope as "We...remember the vessel is in the hands of the Divine Potter."

There was a time when I felt like I was in my own deep dark abyss of depression when it was all that I could do to put one foot in front of the other. I felt ashamed and worthless, but because I still had a testimony of the gospel, I knew I should continue to read my scriptures and pray. It was all I could do to read a verse and say a route memorized prayer. At that time that was "my best effort." Looking back now I can see that those actions enabled me to keep pressing forward and while I felt broken, I can now see I wasn't alone. My life was in the Potter's hands.

It was a time in my life when I felt gutted, much like the Provo tabernacle was after the fire had devastated it's interior. Yet, as Sister Reeves mentioned, we know that had the fire not occurred, we might not have had the beautiful Provo temple today. The Lord had more in mind for that tabernacle. He foresaw it becoming a sacred and beautiful temple. Likewise, He had (and still has) more in mind for me and for you. That dark period of time was God's way of refining and sanctifying me.

Elder Funk described this process somewhat when he said, "Think of the good that comes from broken things: Soil is broken to plant wheat. Wheat is broken to make bread. Bread is broken to become the emblems of the sacrament. When one who is repentant partakes of the sacrament with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, he/she becomes whole."

So, whatever it is you're struggling with and whatever has you feeling inadequate keep placing your life in the Master's hands so He can refine you. I can testify that as broken as we may feel, as we turn to God and give Him all we can--even if all we have to give isn't much, we will in time see that He is refining us and making us whole. I testify that with God all things are possible and that "Nothing can keep us from the love of God which is Jesus our Lord." As Elder Nelson said, "There is only one way. True change—permanent change—can come only through the healing, cleansing, and enabling power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ." We only need to turn to Him and his grace shall enable and strengthen us.

Brothers and Sisters, I don't completely understand how the atonement works, but I can testify that I do know it's real. I know that because Christ suffered for us in Gethsemane He suffered every pain and trial we've had to bear. That is how He perfectly knows how to "succor us according to our infirmities" whatever those trials and infirmities may be. He knows because He too endured our individual sufferings. The atonement helps us overcome so much more than sin. It helps us to become whole. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

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