I spoke in church on Sunday– my first talk since coming out as Mormon, so I figured I’d post it here. Enjoy:
We like covenants in this church: we get baptized, we partake of the sacrament, we receive endowments. There is a lot of ceremony and mystique surrounding these covenants: submerging ourselves in a baptismal font, passing the tray of bread a certain way, and preparing for months before you enter the temple. These ceremonies are essential and sacred so they fill us with a certain feeling of sanctity– or sometimes they don’t. Covenants alone do nothing unless we absorb them into our being and carve our identity around them.
(For my non-Mormon friends: a covenant is a promise made with God, and in addition to our regular Sunday church services, we occasionally worship at temples.)
When I got baptized, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And I’m not talking about when I was eight; I got baptized a year and a half ago so, theoretically I knew what I was doing. Friends would ask me how I felt immediately after and my response was something along the lines of: “Wet. Cold. Why? How am I supposed to feel?”
No one had a good answer for that. Most often people would reply that their baptism experience was similar. So sometimes we feel a sacred peace during these moments, and sometimes we don’t because we can’t fully appreciate their significance. We’re not exactly sure why we’re fulfilling these ordinances. I’ve taken all the classes so I know all of the textbook answers to that question. Baptism is essential for our salvation. But why is baptism necessary for our salvation? Because Jesus mandated it. Why did he mandate it? Why was it necessary for him, a perfect being, to be baptized himself?
You don’t have to dig very deep to discover we have no idea what we are doing. In my book, that’s a good thing. I’d never trust someone who claimed to have all of the answers unless they went by the name of Jesus or Heavenly Father.
So why do we do these things that we don’t quite understand? Luckily, there is a simple answer to that question: because Jesus said it was a good idea. I’d just about stick beans up my nose if Jesus told me it was a good idea. I’d have to be sure it was Jesus, but I’d do it. And I’m not a naturally obedient person.
It goes like this: good things happen when we do what Heavenly Father says. This is not a coincidence. He tells us to do a thing ONLY because it will lead to our happiness. The catch is that occasionally we have to grow and become better people in the process.
Covenants are frequently described as two-way promises. If you do this, then Heavenly Father will do that. You fulfill your end of the bargain, and he upholds his. Personally, I am not a big fan of this explanation. It makes me think of desperate parents bribing their kids in a last ditch lunge for sanity. Pleeeeease, two-year-old child, please sit on the toilet instead of peeing all over the living room carpet again, because I will literally die if I have to do another load of laundry. I am so desperate that I will give you three M&Ms– THREE– if you do this.
My daughter is two, in case you’re wondering.
“Desperate” is never a word that describes Heavenly Father and thinking of covenants as a two-way street is a mistake. A covenant is no more a two-sided promise than gravity is a two-sided promise. Both are consistent, irrevocable laws that describe how the world works and provide us with consistency and comfort should we use them wisely. Gravity doesn’t “reward” us for keeping both feet planted on the ground, nor does it “punish” us for cliff jumping. It simply exists, and then we reap the natural consequences of our actions under such conditions.
A covenant is a one-way street. Take a guess at which direction that street is heading.
Heavenly Father gives us a set of guidelines in a chaotic world, his way of warning us that gravity exists and describing it to us in detail– a gift– and then the natural outcome of following those guidelines is physical happiness and eternal life– gifts number two and three. Then we either accept or reject these gifts. And yet we like to think of covenants as “give and take.” Noooot exactly. More like our birthday three times in a row. What do we fool ourselves into thinking we can offer a perfect being? He loves us and every covenant he commands, every word he utters, and every thought he thinks issues from that unyielding and unlimited love.
Covenants are the parents who call the cops on their kid that has been dabbling in drugs. Yes, they occasionally lead us to difficult and uncomfortable situations because of our extreme short-sightedness, but it’s for the best. It is possible to achieve happiness without them– it’s just much, much harder. I’ve got twenty-two years of covenant-free living under my belt, so take my word for it. What could at face-value appear to be a cumbersome obligation (serving Heavenly Father to the end), turns out to be life-giving instruction.
Hopefully you all know what specific covenants we make, but I actually didn’t for a long time. Since joining the church my M.O. has been to say “yes” whenever someone tells me what the next step is– and if I encounter any emotional resistance within myself, to pray and learn more until I can say “yes.” I had already dedicated my life to trying to become a better person, so when I learned about Christ, that included following all of his instruction. Because of this, I lumped all of these things into one category: following the word of wisdom, getting baptized, paying a tithing, attending church. I say this not because I want a pat on the back, but because the primary goal of our lives is to become Christlike, to become loving, and covenants are simply pillars in our lives that allow us to better fulfill that purpose.
Those specific covenants are during: baptism, priesthood (where applicable), endowments and sealings. We have some kind of idea about what each means, and I don’t personally have enough knowledge or insight to add to that understanding, so I’m not going to try. Instead I’m going describe some benefits of making and upholding covenants overall.
Now that I’ve just described how covenants are like instructions or guidelines, I’m going to describe how they are much more than that. When undergoing these ordinances, we are declaring to the world, our family and friends, and, most notably, to Heavenly Father that we are dedicating the rest our lives and all of our time and energy to serving Him. Kind of a bold move in a world whose favorite explanation for decision-making is, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” It again might seem like we are making these promises for Heavenly Father. After all, we are making them to him. But we are the ones who benefit from these commitments, not our perfect creator.
The first benefit is accountability. For some reason we are just much more likely to do a thing if we say it outloud. It’s harder to weasel out rationalizations for gossiping about our relief society sisters when we are publicly reminded every Sunday of our vow to “take upon [us] the name of His son, Jesus Christ, and always remember him” (D&C 20:77). This, by the way, is a principle that holds true for any kind of behavior. When we describe an undesirable behavior outloud, we are less likely to repeat it. Hence the need for constant prayer and repentance throughout the week to help us uphold our covenants. In times that we struggle with prayer, it can be even more powerful to share our shortcomings with wise friends or mentors and restate our commitment to living the gospel. Thankfully, the other half of the sacrament allows us to be spiritually cleansed as we partake of the savior’s sacrifice weekly.
Another benefit of covenants is that they allow us to cultivate obedience. I was raised by Indian parents, so I get kind of a acrid taste in my mouth when I hear the word “obedience.” Not a big fan. But when we are obedient to flawless beings that have only our happiness and growth in mind, obedience becomes a beautiful thing. Like I said, since I’ve been a member, I’ve only half understood why I’m doing the things I’m doing. It doesn’t mean I go in blind, but rather with a fuzzy notion that a particular ordinance will further my spiritual development. My understanding builds slowly, continuing beyond that particular moment, but by large much of the growth I enjoy is in my increased capacity to trust.
Case in point: six months after I joined the church, a friend of mine came over in the middle of my first New York summer and began playfully griping about the modesty standards of the church. I looked at her blankly and she said, “You haven’t heard people make fun of Mormons for their magical underwear?” Er…no. At this point I was getting concerned. My friend, bless her heart, gave me a brief overview of all the reasons someone would never, ever want to wear garments– or that’s what it sounded like to me. My first thought was, wow, the heat intolerance of all my Mormon friends makes so much more sense now. My second thought was: oh dear.
(We Mormons wear sacred garments underneath our regular clothes to remind us of our covenants.)
In my head I came up with a list of options. I could A) leave the church, B) stay in the church but never go through the temple, C) go through the temple but immediately declare that I don’t like it and conveniently forget about garments, D) mostly wear the garments but wear revealing workout clothes to the gym (preferably Lululemon), or E) go all the way. I idly entertained these options for about a month, knowing full well that I never do grey areas and I’m just not stupid enough to turn away from truth once I’ve found it.
I decided to obey. Every decision I’d made to center my life on Christ had unfolded a myriad of blessings, so I stuck with that. Obey. I’m grateful that my friend was so sloppy and honest with me rather than acting like a used car salesman for the temple, because it allowed me really ponder this question and decide that, yes, being faithful and following Christ is infinitely more important to me than fashion. Without Christ, I have no life. He is my entire purpose, so why on earth would I care about anything as silly as clothes?
I decided my wardrobe could use a little downsizing and donated my immodest clothing, about 80% of what I owned, a full year before I actually went through the temple. I didn’t want to have any lingering doubts or frustrations when the time came. I received my endowment a couple weeks ago and I enjoyed myself. It was peaceful and helped recenter. But the real benefit of the temple was, for me, that moment one year ago when I decided that no material concern will ever challenge my faith.
Each time I obey, Heavenly Father’s love is confirmed to me in a multitude of ways. My world then becomes a softer, safer place as I more fully absorb Christ’s love. I, in turn, become more capable of passing that love onto others, of fulfilling my covenants, and better enjoying their benefits. Obedience catalyzes this nice positive feedback loop.
The most obvious benefit of keeping covenants is happiness. It is not possible to make these covenants, to mean and live them, and still be unhappy. The first covenant we make during baptism is that we will have “a determination to serve Him to the end” (D&C 20:37). If we cleave to that one alone, we can’t really go astray.
Finally, we benefit in our increased commitment to live righteously.
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man would have dreamt would have come his way. Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.”
— W. H. Murray
The Scottish Himalayan Expedition, 1951
The formal and sombre nature of covenants can make them seem intimidating or unattainable, but in purpose and execution they are simple, powerful tools that answer the question, “What should I do?” in any given situation. Basically, good things happen when we make and keep them. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.