Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Expanding symmetry

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Because my life consists primarily of teaching children these days—both formally and informally—I'm often trying to distill concepts into their essence; to find elementary crumbs of meaning and then examine them to see if they hold true as they expand. I've noticed that, surprisingly, many simple concepts become more complicated as we delve into them; that the most basic questions can suddenly become baffling with a little more knowledge—things like how electric current travels, or what makes up the character of light. With more intense study, the pattern continues—additional knowledge answers some questions and simultaneously brings up others! I'm not advanced enough in scientific matters to see many iterations of this pattern firsthand, but I've seen it in my gospel study. There's an expanding symmetry to it, like fractals. Simple truths take on greater meaning and spring into elaborate detail as we "zoom in" or "zoom out"—and then they can become clear and simple again—and then again more complicated. We can find truth and clarity and simplicity at many different levels, but the elegance and complexity is there too, making up the very fabric of those simple truths. 

"We know that little children can learn spiritual truths," Elder Packer says, and proves his point by addressing the children themselves in his talk. And unlike many who say they are speaking to children, he actually talks in a way a child could understand! That's a difficult thing to do—most people are either condescending and sickly-sweet, or they mistake simplicity of vocabulary for simplicity of ideas—and I gained an even greater admiration for Elder Packer, seeing that he could do it so well. It's a side to him I didn't know about. He shares a profound spiritual experience he had at age 6 or 7, and I kept thinking as I read it, "I must remember how much children can learn and feel! I must not underestimate their capacity!"

In the Chicago airport a couple months ago, Sam and I got into a conversation with an earnest girl who belonged to a Baptist church. She learned that Sam taught at BYU, and that started her off. She was making a heroic effort to be civil and I admired her for it, but you could see her heart was just racing at the chance to confront a real live Mormon. She kept asking questions prefaced by "and I'm totally not trying to be confrontational or anything, but I'm really just wondering if you actually believe ________ doctrine?" [you save yourself by works, Christ's salvation isn't free, etc]

She was chiefly talking to Sam and I felt like I'd just make things worse by shoving my oar in, so I mostly just listened, but it made me think about how important (and difficult!) it is to establish common ground within the vast range of definitions and understandings for a single word like "salvation." The sweet girl kept jumping in, when Sam started to talk about how we are all saved by Christ's grace and mercy, and the ordinances of the church allow us to progress toward becoming like him—with "But I'm saved already, by the grace of Jesus!" Well, yes…maybe…depending on what you mean by "saved"! It just seemed like a silly thing to get hung up on: at what precise point one is "saved" and whether or not one is being good with hope of reward or not—but that's because from my perspective, the quest to become like God is the most important thing, and the journey toward him requires that I grow, obey, experience, suffer, and love. As Elder Maxwell says, "How can you and I really expect to glide naively through life, as if to say, “Lord, give me experience, but not grief, not sorrow, not pain, not opposition, not betrayal, and certainly not to be forsaken. Keep from me, Lord, all those experiences which made Thee what Thou art! Then let me come and dwell with Thee and fully share Thy joy!”

Anyway, as we ended our conversation at the airport with this girl, my primary emotion was of gratitude, that I have been taught the simple truths of the gospel. There is much to them I don't understand, because I'm still a child myself in so many ways, but I sense the Lord's loving hand in the way he has sent scriptures and prophets to help unfold them. I am simultaneously comforted by their simplicity, and challenged by their depth. Whether my "salvation" begins at birth because I am His child and all mankind will be resurrected—or if it's when I am baptized because that constitutes "entering in at the gate"—or if it's when I truly "accept" Him in my heart—or if it's when my calling and election is made sure, whatever that means—I don't know, but it doesn't particularly trouble me. I just want to, at some point, become like God! That simple truth—that such a thing is possible!—is a gift our Baptist friend didn't seem to yet possess.

Elder Packer's whole talk is elegant in its simplicity. He speaks clearly of death as a separation, and says (quite beautifully, I think),
 "Death is a separation and is according to the plan. If the plan ended there, it would be too bad, because we came to obtain a body and it would be lost…
Little children, our Heavenly Father knew that we would need help. So, in the plan, he provided for someone to come into the world and help us. 
This was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is a spirit child as all of us are; but also, Jesus was his Only Begotten Son on the earth. I speak very reverently of him. And he it was, my little friends, who made it possible for us to overcome death and get things put back the way they should be. 
You are learning about him in Sunday School, in Primary, and in family home evening. It is very important that you remember him and learn all you can about what he did.
He overcame the mortal death for us. Through the atonement, he made it possible for our spirit and body to be one again. Because of him we will be resurrected. He made it possible for us to be resurrected, for the spirit and the body to be put back together. That is what the resurrection is. That is a gift from him. And all men will receive it. That is why he is called our Savior, our Redeemer."
This much, our Baptist friend seemed to know. But then Elder Packer continues, 
"There is another separation that you need to think about--not the separation of the body from the spirit; rather, a separation from our Heavenly Father.
If we remain separated from him and can’t get back to his presence, then it would be as though we were spiritually dead. And that would not be good. This separation is like a second death, a spiritual death. 
…We must find a way to keep ourselves clean, spiritually clean, so that we will not be separated from our Heavenly Father and may return to where he is when we leave this earth life. 
We are sure you will overcome mortal death. You will be resurrected because of what Christ did for us. Whether or not you overcome the spiritual death--that separation from the presence of our Heavenly Father--will depend a great deal upon you.
This is just what I wished I could have said to our Baptist friend at the airport. It's so perfectly, beautifully simple. What ultimately happens to us, our salvation or exaltation or position in heaven or whatever name you wish to give it—it will depend a great deal on us! Not because, by our own power, we can do anything. Not because we are deserving or self-sufficient. Of course we need a Savior! Of course all is lost without him! But it will depend a great deal on us because we will, ultimately, get that which we most fundamentally desire. "[We] shall return again to [our] own place, to enjoy that which [we] are willing to receive…"

I think this post captures that truth very well. Of course we have conflicting desires at times, and sometimes we wish weakly for something while not being willing to actually sacrifice for it, but the fundamental truth about agency is that we WILL seek that which our heart most longs for. And we WILL obtain that which we seek.

Elder Packer concludes, and I could feel his love as I read it, 
"There will be times when you will make mistakes (and all of us make mistakes). There will be times when you will wonder if you can live the way he taught we should live. When you are tested, when you are disappointed, or ashamed, or when you are sad, remember [Jesus Christ] and pray to your Heavenly Father in his name. 
Some men will say that he did not come to earth. But he did. Some will say that he is not the Son of God. But he is. Some will say that he has no servants upon the face of the earth. But he has. For he lives. I know that he lives."
And that is the beauty of the gospel. I keep using the word "beautiful" and I mean it very literally—I find these truths, like snowflakes or tree branches, orderly and designed and beautiful. Distance and closeness, trust and blessing. There is a depth to them, as they spread and recur like fractals, where they both transcend and underlie the realities of mortal life. And ultimately, like a child, I hold on to this: God loves me, and I reach Him when I love Him back.

Other posts in this series:

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