Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Imperfect Sacrifice

I've been having long, rambling conversations with a friend lately about…oh, everything really, but we've been circling around familiar topics: how can we learn to be hopeful and grateful through times of difficulty? How can any of us ever get past all the mistakes we make and the heartaches we cause? Both of us have such great desires to serve God and to do the right thing…but in so many situations, we just don't know…exactly what the right thing IS!

To give an almost laughably small example: I feel very blessed to live close to a temple, so I try to go often to show my gratitude to Heavenly Father. Even though my total time commitment isn't nearly as big as some people's, there are still lots of things that have to go right for me to feel like I'm having the ideal experience: the baby and children need to be fed so I know they won't need me while I'm gone, and I have to go at a time when I don't have to rush home afterwards, and I need to be alert and rested so I won't fall asleep, and I need to get there early enough that I can sit quietly and meditate for awhile, and I need to go with questions or seeking revelation so that I can find answers there.

The trouble is that all these factors almost never converge. There usually IS something to rush home for. I usually DO feel flustered and hurried when I arrive. I usually DO get sleepy the moment I sit down and the lights dim. And—anticipating these problems and knowing how much each will diminish my temple experience”—I often say to myself, "It shows such disrespect to go racing in five minutes before the session starts. I should go tomorrow when I've planned ahead better." Or, "I can't go when I'm so tired; I always feel so ungrateful when I nod off. I'm not offering much of a sacrifice to God if I'm not even able to stay alert."

Then one day I was telling this to Sam, and he said something like, "Maybe falling asleep and feeling bad about it, and going anyway, IS your sacrifice."

I thought about it all that week, and then all that month. I'm still thinking about it. I thought of lots of ways it could be mis-applied ("Feeling guilty because I skipped church for the football game IS my sacrifice!") and lots of ways it might lead me to celebrate my own laziness ("Having people judge me for my kids' uncombed hair IS my sacrifice!")…but…I still couldn't shake the feeling that there is something true about it. 
In my head I started calling this idea "The Imperfect Sacrifice." And suddenly I started seeing examples of it everywhere. Where I had been saying disgustedly to myself, "How lame of me to get mad at all the kids right before church! I hate going into sacrament meeting feeling flustered and guilty!" or "I'm not supposed to just read the scriptures, I'm supposed to study them! But I got up too late and now it'll be five minutes with kids interrupting every three seconds, or nothing."
—now I was thinking, "Well, today going into sacrament meeting while stressed out IS my sacrifice." "Carrying the baby in and out as he fusses, and getting nothing out of the Sunday School lesson, IS my sacrifice." "Reading the scriptures while distracted IS my sacrifice. An imperfect one! But one I can give all the same."

When I was in high school I knew someone that used to say, sighing dramatically, "I know I just need to stop being such a perfectionist…I do everything TOO WELL and it's draining me dry!" And that is NOT where I'm going with this. I'm not looking for someone to say, "Oh, you do so much…give yourself some credit! You're super just the way you are!" I don't want to be "easier on myself;" I have too much improvement needed! Anyway, in many areas, I'm selfish enough not to even want to do a particularly good job on something, so it's no sacrifice when I don't. In other areas, I haven't even learned how to do a good job, so an imperfect effort is basically all I've got. 
But, because I love the gospel and I love the Lord, there are areas where I want so badly to give a willing sacrifice; one worthy of my love for Jesus Christ. In my family. In my calling. Times I just would like to know, "I gave it my best. I did everything required and the situation, while hard, was beautiful in its difficulty. I sacrificed and that sacrifice was my gift to God." 

Unfortunately for that starry-eyed desire, so often my life is NOT beautiful in its difficulty. Sure it's difficult—but for stupid, messy, lame reasons that would not make a good Mormon Message. All I want is to give these lovely unblemished sacrifices to the Lord, but then even my hard things end up being self-imposed and avoidable and hard to find any sort of noble storyline in. Suffering bravely through cancer seems like a great sacrifice to offer to God. Suffering because you're grumpy about having only one of your two ovens working…not so much.

But…but…knowing I have so much to improve on, knowing I should keep trying to find the ideal, I STILL am coming to think there is value in seeing these poor, bedraggled little sufferings of mine (Rushing out of the temple without any time to sit and ponder! Feeling heartsick because of an argument I started myself! Sending my kids off grudgingly to the service project when I could have used them to weed my own yard!) as sacrifices too. Imperfect ones. Ones that I really hope become more noble with time. But they're what I have, so I give them, and I shouldn't hold them back just because they could be better.
As I was talking about this with my friend, I had to admit that I couldn't really find the idea of "the imperfect sacrifice" in the scriptures. After all, the Israelites were supposed to offer up perfect, "unblemished" lambs to God, prefiguring the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But then I found this from Elder Holland:
All first born sons, in all of Israel, were [theoretically supposed to be] dedicated to the service of the Lord, including Levitical service in the temple itself. [But] it was not practical for every first born son to be presented there, let alone to render service there. Nevertheless, the eldest son in a family was still claimed as the lord’s own in a special way and had to be formally exempted from his requirement by the pain of an offering, or a redemption….The standard offering on behalf of such a child was a yearling lamb and a pigeon, or a turtle dove. But in cases of severe poverty, the Law of Moses allowed the substitution of a second dove, in place of the more expensive lamb. Mary and Joseph presented [Jesus] to his true father [in the temple] with an offering of two pigeons; two turtle doves.
He was talking about how poor Mary and Joseph were, and how they couldn't even afford the "standard offering" on behalf of baby Jesus. But it strikes me as significant. There was the lamb, the "true" offering; a sacrifice which when given was full of symbolism and beauty. But in the absence of that offering, a lesser offering would do. Or to put it in even simpler terms: something was better than nothing. A sacrifice, however small and embarrassing and incomplete, was still worth giving. And God would count it to them as righteousness.

And it makes me think that maybe the silly, self-caused things that make our stories less-than-elevated…really are PART OF the sacrifice we offer up toward God when we follow him. That me going to the temple, and frantically sucking on the discreet mints in the pocket of my temple dress and then falling asleep anyway, is somehow better than nothing. And me wanting to wait and only go when I can not be distracted and be perfectly alert and feel the Angels in my presence—well, it's sort of selfish, in a funny way. I don't know if that makes sense. I'm not advocating for shedding all ideals!! It IS better to go to the temple when you're not in a rush, and you get there early, and sit nicely in the chapel pondering. That is better. It's better to pray a heartfelt, sincere prayer than a 30-second sleepy one. But when I think, "I can't pray a quick, half-asleep prayer! How disrespectful! That makes it seem like I don't value God!"—and so I'm tempted not to pray at all—maybe sacrificing that "ideal experience" is part of what I have to be willing to do, if I really want to give everything to God.
Here's something else I read along those same lines, by Bruce C. Hafen:
The people in 3 Nephi 17 had survived destruction, doubt, and darkness just to get to the temple with Jesus. After listening to Him for hours in wonder, they grew too weary to comprehend Him. As He prepared to leave, they tearfully looked at Him with such total desire that He stayed and blessed their afflicted ones and their children. They didn’t even understand Him, but they wanted to be with Him more than they wanted any other thing. So He stayed. Their almost was enough.
I wonder if it's the same principle of "We would be willing to do some great thing for God, but many are not quite so anxious to do some of [the] basics"—or the scripture that says, "He hath no form nor comeliness…no beauty that man should desire him." Maybe that's true in some ways about our own "stories" of faith and sacrifice too. Don't misunderstand me: I love reading stories of people who dreamed of the missionaries and found them, people who read the Book of Mormon in one night and got baptized the next day. I feel such admiration for stories of hardened sinners, people who have fought against God, and then had a change of heart and against all odds and opposition changed their lives and become converted. I'm so inspired when I hear about the great things people do for the Lord. They seem like such lovely sacrifices, and ones I would be proud to have made. But what about the person that was born in the church but just sort of stumbled along being semi-active for awhile, and then doing better for awhile, and then sort of getting lazy and losing interest, and then finally deciding to commit, and slowly transforming herself into a faithful, but unremarkable, church member that no one ever hears of? That story has no particular "beauty that we should desire it"—no one dreams of being that person—but to God? I'm guessing it's as beautiful as all the others. It's a hard thing to see with your OWN experiences (and maybe it's better that way) but I think I can truly discern that kind of beauty in the "ordinary" experiences of others.
And maybe it's wishful thinking or the self-justification I always have to watch out for, but I just wonder if it's true: that the very temple trip I'm feeling so lame about ("I can't believe I fell asleep, again, and I didn't even hear half of the proceedings, and I kept wondering what time it was, and now I'm going to rush home and immediately lose any of the peace I felt there by being late to the kids' piano lesson, and this all could have been avoided if I just had woken up with my alarm instead of lazily turning it off twice"—) maybe, that very temple trip IS beautiful and sacrificial and important to God, because it was hard for me, and He knows that, and I did it anyway. And later, looking back on this life, I will see my life more clearly and say, "Those times pacing the hall during church with a baby, wishing I was home in bed; and those times I read the scriptures in 30-second bursts between interruptions and ended with a frustrated sigh and failure to even remember one word of what I'd read—those were holy times, consecrated by their ordinariness, sanctified by the fact that —though I wished I was doing more—I was still doing something."

(Or, then again…maybe not. Maybe I really will be as exasperated with myself later as I am now, and be thinking, "What on earth. Couldn't you have just gone to bed earlier, for Pete's sake?") :)

6 comments:

  1. Read your post over on Cranial Hiccups and then followed the link over here . . . I'm glad I did. This is a thought-provoking post.

    Thanks. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! Glad to have you here. :)

      Delete
  2. I like reading a post and thinking, "Oh! That's ME they're talking about! I'm that friend!" I have loved this idea so much and thought about it often. I mostly love just . . . I don't know . . . I guess, just realizing that a lot of what we give here will be shrouded in messy, non-elevated mortalness; and that it doesn't mean there is less beauty and eternality in what we are doing. And, funny thing, your thoughts in our emails actually have me working on a similarly themed post that I just haven't quite managed to pull together yet! Soon maybe. Also, loved that Hafen quote. It made me think of how all day lately I feel I am offering these little prayers that don't ever quite express things right and are maybe too frantic or something. This made me feel like maybe they are still accepted because they are what I can give in my weak little way. Isn't their some scripture about the Holy Ghost making intersession for us in our prayers . . . something about groanings the heart can't utter or something. Anywho, thanks for your lovely ideas that always inspire my own further ponderings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, indeed, you ARE that friend! :) I'm so glad. I do apologize that you always end up having to hear me talk about stuff over and over and over and over, though…! And I just read that scripture you're talking about. Somewhere in the NT…maybe one of Paul's epistles? Anyway, yes. Such a good one.

      Delete
  3. Every post I read on your blog I find myself nodding along in great appreciation that someone else "gets it". You are so good at expressing the feelings and thoughts that go on in my head. This is another one, you're amazing!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Oh, I can so relate to all of this! Of course, I do feel so much better for having tried in the end but, man, the talking myself into doing it knowing it will be "less than" is still hard.

    Can I just say I love that you and Nancy both shared these posts on the same day, each referencing your conversation? I love that we (I) get to see the workings of it through both of your eyes and reap the benefits of hearing wisdom from both of you.

    ReplyDelete