I remember very well being a young boy, sitting at my mother’s knee, and having her ask me, “Grant, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I can assure you that this was not mentioned.
To the best of my recollection, my highest aspiration at the time was to become a garbage collector. It was not an altruistic selection based on a desire to rid my community of unsightly objects and unpleasant odors. Instead, it stuck me as an unusually fine vocation because it provided one with an opportunity to ride around town while hanging on the back of a truck. Since that time I have adjusted my career objectives somewhat, although there were a few times during some of our move convoluted legislative proceedings this past week when garbage collecting began to glow with renewed appeal.
Over the past months, an especially during the week we have had here together, my mind has wandered often over the topography of my life. I cannot escape its reality because so many of you have pressed your faces within inches of mine to remind me of who I am and where I came from. Graceland College friends have chosen to recall some of the more embarrassing incidents, describing in painful detail certain pranks and escapades in which I participated (serving as chaplain, of course).
I have had tattered photographs from my childhood slipped into my hands by former Sunday school teachers till ready to lecture me on th principles of the gospel. And, of course, my own children have been hovering nearby, anxious to deflate with razor-sharp precision any gaseous, puffed-up sentiments they see in their dad.
I mention all that because it is the framework within which I must understand the bursting fullness of my heart. No words can describe the overwhelming, humbling power of Monday’s ordination service. And from the days that followed, it is impossible to express the sense of support and goodwill transmitted from so many of you to me and to my family. The joy I feel in this beloved community knows no bounds, and the love I have experienced is unspeakable, without measure, and far more than any man has a right to receive.
But such feelings are matched with the other reality in which even through meandering conversations with long-time friends I am reminded of the stark simplicity of my years, the ordinariness of my travels through this adventure we call life, and the clear sense that my own journey is little different from the journey of anyone here in our midst.
You will understand, therefore, why I rest so uneasily with the descriptions we use to describe the responsibility you have entrusted in me. To be called to leadership of any kind, as so many of you would know, causes much reflection and concern. To be called to leadership of a worldwide body of God’s people such as this is truly awe-inspiring and unnerving. But to sit and listen while one is described as “prophet, seer, and revelator” creates within me unimagined turmoil.
You and I need to talk. We need to explore with each other just what it means to us to use such terms in this modern, scientific age, hovering on the brink of the twenty-first century. We need to talk about the past and about the future, about our hopes and dreams, and out highest aspirations. We need to talk about letting go and about holding on. We need to explore together our call to be a family of God’s people, proclaiming Jesus Christ, and building a global community that is joyful, hopeful, loving, and blessed with peace. We need to talk, my friends, about the way we have begun to move from our identity as a people with a prophet to our calling as a prophetic people.
A few months ago, I was snorkeling in a natural aquarium on the island of Rangiroa in French Polynesia. During this brief break (in what was, of course, an otherwise jam-packed schedule of church work on the Islands), I was swimming around observing the many beautiful fish populating the sea in that location. A young boy, about ten years old, swam up alongside me, both of us paddling in place, water up to our necks.
Pointing to me, he asked in a combination of broken English, French, and Tahitian, “Prophete?”, acknowledging his awareness that a church leader was visiting on this small island.
I nodded, ad then he asked, “Sanito?” referring to the name by which the church is known in that area of the world – Eglise Sanito or “Saints Church”.
I pointed to him and asked in perfect French, “You Sanito?”
He smiled broadly and nodded affirmatively, saying “Me good Sanito!” I let him know how pleased I was.
A brief pause followed, and then he suddenly looked downward, pointed into the depths of the water, and said loudly, “SHARK!”
I immediately looked in that direction, a momentary flash of fear passing through my mind, and then the boy planted his hand on the back of my head and shoved my face into the water.
From this experience, I drew four conclusions.
- We leaders of the church are still recognized throughout the world, even if we are wearing a mask, snorkel, and sunblock
- Despite the recignition, many choose not to be unduly awestruck.
- The churhc may be known by many different names, but the deficition of what constitutes a “good Saint” remains subject to interpretation.
- No matter where we are, our reflexive instincts lead us in the direction of believing that we swim in a sea of sharks.
We live in an extraordinarily complex world, assailed on all sides by forces of secularism, ignorance, selfishness, and fear. Many children are raised in families and communities where they quickly learn to distrust, to be afraid, to never know comfort or security or love. In the Western world children are subject to an onslaught of images that graphically depict violence to the point of numbing the mind and heart; that demonstrates a lack of values in relationships, lifestyles, and personal behavior; that demonstrates by word and deed a lack of care for the earth, for each other, or even for oneself, at least in spiritual terms. And each day that passes, many fall victim to the awful hole at the center of the culture’s soul.
In other nations, represented even in this assembly, there are bands of thugs roaming the countryside and urban centers, terrorizing those who are merely trying to complete their day’s activities. Corruption, crime, and urban decay all contribute to a sense that there is no refuge, no safe place, no haven, let alone heaven. Many of our own church members go to bed at night afraid.
There is little value just now in reciting once again the problems of our world. We know that lives are widely devalued in our societies because of certain characteristics of those lives – race, education level, gender, lifestyle, age, and many other things. It will not do us any good this morning to wring our hands in despair over all the problems we could rehearse in graphic detail. This happens to be our age and we see its woes. But we must be mindful that ever age has its distortions of the divine intention for humankind.
The purpose of the church is not to whine about the problems of the world and then to retreat into cloistered halls where we think we shall escape those things. The purpose of the church is to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in the very center of that world, proclaiming a message of love, and hope, living a commitment to shared community and celebrating the good things we have found in Christ Jesus.
The religious world has responded in diverse ways to the harsh realities of our world. Many have sensed the need for a spiritual awakening, one that responds to the deepest yearnings of the human soul to find a connection with the source of all life, to be restored to right relationships with God to be emboldened and enlivened with the Spirit. Within many parts of our culture people are engaged in that spiritual search well outside of the walls of traditional churches, pushing aside the stifling bureaucracies in order to fulfill those individual spiritual needs in new ways.
Definition of Our Church
We are in an era now when many churches are paying the price for being inattentive to those spiritual needs, opting instead for a social organization doing good things, providing support and fellowship and activities, and disguising all of that in a cloak of ritualistic worship and meaningless liturgy. We have ourselves bee guilty of just that same shortcoming at times. When such things occur people slowly begin to realize that the church no longer has the power to speak authoritatively to their lives, and the process of participating in the life of the community of faith becomes more and more obligatory and less and less meaningful.
To respond to that woeful lack of spiritual depth, many have emphasized the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the sole or primary element of significance. And clearly, the bottom like for every Christian is to discover within one’s own life the testimony that the gospel of Jesus takes form within the void, gives purpose to all we do, and speaks to the soulful searching within us. For many, that is the beginning and the and, and there is no more.
It is like the story about two men who died at ripe old ages and went to heaven, discovering it to be a place of rare and unimagined beauty. His eyes filled with tears, one said to the other, “Isn’t it marvelous?” And the other responded “Yes, and to think we’d have gotten here so much sooner if we hadn’t eaten all that oat bran.”
So many people in the religious world today are satisfied with that sense of personal salvation, feeling confident that the only job of the Christian is to get himself or herself right with Jesus – establish that relationship and then celebrate it until you move to the next world. I will respect and honor all who make that choice for their life, acknowledging that there are many, many other choices far less redemptive, far less beneficial. But I also want to declare that it is not enough, for I am aa part of a Christian heritage that began with the soulful, spiritual quest of a young boy who gathered together a people who declared with the testimony of their sacrificial and sometimes martyred lives that the earth is the place of God’s work.
We are the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, inheritors of the Restoration tradition, seeking to create in every age the spirit and forms of community that our Lord sought to establish with his followers, that the founders of our movement sought to establish in the burned-over district of New York, amidst the swirl of communitarian experimentation in nineteenth-century America, and that we now seek to create in traditional congregations, in cell groups, in church plantings, in towns, cities, villages, and tribal centers around the world.
We are the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and we believe that my search and your search for the sacred is just the beginning, not the conclusion of life’s endeavors. We are called not just to seek, but to build communities of seekers, recognizing that our search is deeply enriched by the contributions of all. We have a vision of Zion, a community that has room for every person, a place where the gifts of all are not just valued but essential, where people assemble to sing praises to God and to rejoice in the journey of their lives, and to be empowered to transform the structures of this world, to defy prejudices, to resist violence, to overcome the inhuman efforts to demean and diminish those of God’s children who are different, poor, weak, inarticulate, or unable to defend themselves.
We are the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and we are called to be a prophetic people, filled with the Spirit, rejoicing in the love we have discovered within our community of faith, but pointing to those injustices around our world that prevent even one single human being fulfilling their God-given personhood. We are called to be courageous in our witness, discerning and sensitive in our ministry, creative and vigorous in carrying out our mission to the world.
Last year I had the privilege of visiting the village of Ikot Oku Mfang in Nigeria. In one of the meeting rooms where we gathered there had been posted a vision statement written by the theology class in that village. I took a moment and wrote it down. Here is what it said:
“We believe in God’s promise to wipe away tears from all our eyes, empowering the church to overcome decay and corruption, bringing about spiritual and social wholeness. We believe that with the endowment all the wounded who receive the good news would be liberated to live in a community of joy where we will become our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers, serving humbly, patiently, reconciling with sense of with for peace. We believe that the Restoration church will be universally established with the good news, racism will be eliminated, keeping us one in Christ forever.”
The power of that statement, for me, is in the way it captures the hopeful prayers of those who have suffered for so long and want so desperately to hear the “liberating truths.” But this vision statement is not about relief from suffering. It is about a commitment to end suffering.
We are very different people, as should have been evident in our good-spirited disagreements throughout our legislative sessions this week. We have different priorities, different understandings of the gospel, different experiences upon which we draw, different ways of celebrating and praising and worshipping. We really have just two choices of coping with those differences.
We could try to resolve them by persuading others to be like us. I could try to persuade you to embrace my tastes in music, my theological reflections, my understandings of the world. And you could do the same with me. We could vigorously plug away at each other in an effort to wipe away our differences and achieve consensus over how we think, pray, and worship. To do so would keep us busily engaged for this next millennium.
Our alternative is to embrace our differences and focus not on making us all alike but on creating a sense of shared mission in which the perspectives of all have a rightful place. This requires that we be tolerant and understanding; not that we give up our particular form of expression, but that we allow others to be different from us, recognizing that they might very well reach people we could never touch.
In a sense this is fully consistent with out long-held principles of stewardship, in which we share our gifts for the benefit of the whole body, sending our resources where we ourselves cannot go. In that way we affirm that our lives are actualized when we are giving to others, supporting others, even those we do not fully understand, know about, or agree with. If we do that with our treasure, we also do it with our lives, blessed in community by the many different expressions of God’s grace.
But it is also important that we not allow our commitment to pluralism to lead to sloppy and mindless theology. Now more than ever before it is urgent that we be learners, studying especially the scriptures in order to broaden our understanding of the sacred writings that shape our thought. We must guard against being faddish, grabbing hold of the latest popular religious icon or book title and claiming for it the authority of all time.
Instead, we should seek knowledge from the richness of Christian thought, from respectful dialogue with each other, and in interfaith forums whereby we can explore together the nature of our spiritual journeys. We should not be afraid to sit at the table with those who come from different religious communities. We have much to give. We have much to learn.
Responding to the Call
But make no mistake about it. I want nothing to do with a plain vanilla, one-size-fits-all, generic expression of the Christian faith that has no story, that has no heroes and villains, that has no sacred places, that has no soul.
I am a restorationist. By that I mean that I have embraced as mine the story of this people who struggled to understand God’s call to them. I do not claim it as the only story descriptive of God’s work in the world. I do not claim it as a story that defines from out of history the way God would have us create the future. I do not claim it because of some intellectual argument that it is authoritative. I claim it for just one reason – because it is my story, because it is the place where I have discovered the love of God and where I have sought to live out the meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We must be better than we have ever been. We are called to be a prophetic people, witnessing to the world that this small band of believers is ready to stand up and make a difference. We are called to demonstrate with the powerful witness of our lives that we have unalterable confidence that God is in this work, that the powerful presence of the Spirit, which we have witnessed in such abundance this week, is also present when we return to our homes and families.
It is easy to feel the Spirit when 5,000 voices belt out the words, “Great and marvelous are thy works.” It is not quite so easy when twenty voices haltingly stumble through the hymns that call us to worship each week. But that is the place where we must commit ourselves – to enrich the comings and going of the church, to empower it with worship that touches the soul, to create places of learning and dialogue, to be caregivers and vessels of God’s love. That is the place, those congregations and branches and groups throughout the world, where we finally decide whether we will have a future as God’s people.
It must always be to the future that we point, for God is in the past only through the grace of our memory. God is much too busy with the future to be occupying the past.
In January I visited several of the French Polynesian islands. I was greeted with indescribable warmth and hospitality by the Saints. I was moved on many occasions as I had opportunity to share in several of the churches on Tahiti, Rangiroa, and Tikehau.
During one of those services a young person stood in the congregation and made a statement on behalf of her generation. i asked to take her paper home with me, so that I could recall many times the words she spoke. Let me share a few of them with you, precisely as they were spoken to me in her English tenderings:
“We welcome you our President and happy to meet you in the home of our God which we call it “beautiful Zion” … It is a trip that we never hope it will realize your present between us (she means, we didn’t think you would ever come here to this place.)
We welcome you in our island which we called it “Tiehau.” Tiehau is like a flower that flows in the middle of the ocean. It’s our island which we love because of the beauty of her nature that God gave to us.
We are the young children of the church of Tikehau, which we called it the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and the young of the future. We happy and glad to meet you here on our island which you choose to visit before you’ll become our new prophet.
We heard you are chosen for the years to come. We are asking you to remember us at the time you are ready to be ordained. Don’t forget us in your heart. We are the young of a small atoll away from all. Our belief is in you and happy that God chose you to guide us.
We believe in Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen. Thank you.”
The message from this beautiful young child filled my heart, and my eyes fought back the tears. “Remember us when you are ready to be ordained,” she said. “Don’t forget us in your heart.” I want her to know that I did remember her and her friends as the hands rested on my head. I remembered her and all the children of the church as I looked into the bright and shining faces of the children’s choir last Monday night. Those faces were filled with so much joy and so much hope.
I want so very much to be a part of a church that cherishes them, that provides them a heritage to claim as their own, a story to tell, a mission to live. I want so very much to be a part of a church that prophetically witnesses to the world in which they live and that resists, with every ounce of energy we have, those forces that would crush the joy and snuff out the hope. I want so much to be a part of a prophetic church that provides eyes in the night, guiding each of us through the darkness into the safety of God’s love.