Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Talking about temples

Jeanne and i were both asked to speak in sacrament meeting during our first month in our current ward (though we spoke on different Sundays).

Nope, no pressure!

Anyway, just for the fun of it, here’s the text of my speech. One reason i wanted to post it—beyond the fact that this is a blog and therefore why not?—is that i got an interesting reaction to it.

After i spoke, a lot of people said that it was interesting (some even said it was good!) to hear such a deep sacrament meeting speech. Deep? And here i’d thought i’d kept it intensely surface, really.

So i’m inviting readers to offer their takes on why this thing would have been perceived as deep by multiple listeners. So, then, on to the text (note that some names have been elided):


Before I fully begin, I should say that I’m also coming off the cold that’s been going around, and it really messed with my vocal cords. This affects this moment in two important ways: first of all, what you’re hearing isn’t my normal speaking voice, but rather something a bit lower-pitched than what normally emerges from my mouth; and second, I’ve been having moments where my voice cuts out and I have to regroup for a moment, though I’m hoping I don’t face that while I’m up here.

Anyway, with that as more information than you cared to get, I’ll introduce myself for those of you who don’t know me—and I’ve been in the ward less than a month, so that’s probably most of you. My name is David Bowie. Jeanne, my wife, spoke in sacrament meeting just three weeks ago, so y’all are seeing a lot of our family pretty quickly.

When Brother H… asked Jeanne and me to speak, he gave us two tasks: One was to speak on particular gospel-related topics, and the other was to introduce our family a bit. Jeanne introduced us pretty well when she spoke, so I’ll just offer a quick recap: I’m a linguist at the university here, Jeanne’s a transportation engineer, and we have four daughters ages two through ten. We plan to be up here for a while, too—the position I’ve got at the university is a permanent one.

So. My assigned topic comes from an address that David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles gave at the most recent general conference of the church. He spoke on the centrality of temples to the mission of the church, and so that will, naturally enough, be my general topic for today. However, my rhetorical training is traditional enough that I like to have a specific text that I use as a theme, and so I start with a verse from the Book of Mormon Elder Bednar used near the beginning of his address. It’s actually most often used in the context of missionary work—that makes sense, since it’s from the story cycle about the four sons of King Mosiah, who all turned down kingship in favor of preaching the gospel to the Lamanites, where they had quite a bit of success. The previous speaker mentioned the way the story begins, but in the 26th chapter of the Book of Alma the end of the story cycle approaches, and one of them sums up what they’ve done and says to his brothers, “Behold, the field was ripe, and blessed are ye, for ye did thrust in the sickle, and did reap with your might, yea, all the day long did ye labor; and behold the number of your sheaves! And they shall be gathered into the garners, that they are not wasted.”

The imagery there is fairly common in the scriptures—the ripe field ready to be harvested is the world, those wielding the sickle are those sent out to preach the word to the world, and the sheaves are those who accept the word. This is pretty straightforward missionary stuff, right? We who have accepted the gospel of Jesus Christ are commanded to go to the rest of the world and preach the word to those who have not yet accepted it.

Well, sure. Like I said, though, Elder Bednar spoke about service in the temples of the church, not missionary work. That’s kind of weird, really—I have to admit that when I read that part of his address, after it was clear that he was talking about temple work, I experienced a mild moment of mental whiplash.

Anyway—rather than beat the oddity of this into the ground, I’ll deliver a bit more setup, and then return to this seemingly misplaced scriptural text. So, then, here’s an abrupt shift in focus, introduced by a question: What is it that we do in our temples, anyway?

This is a useful question to ask, even for those of us with a great deal of experience in the church—and if I’m going to be standing up here talking about temple work for the next however-many minutes it’s worth explaining a bit. I haven’t lived here long enough to come even remotely close to knowing which of you out there are members of this church and which of you aren’t, or which of you may be relatively new to the church, but I figure that given the demographics of this church it’s likely that there are some out there who are visiting today and unfamiliar with this church and the concept of temple work, or those who may have experience with this church but not so much with the work that goes on in the temples. So here’s definitions.

First of all, I should point out a distinction between the temples of the church and its meetinghouses. Both are ecclesiastically dedicated spaces, and the purpose of both is focused on the performance of what most branches of Christianity call sacraments, but that in this church we generally call ordinances. There are lots of different ordinances performed in meetinghouses and temples, and there’s a lot of overlap between the two locations—things such as baptisms, confirmations, and marriages can be performed in both, for example. However, there’s are some important differences between those ordinances as performed in meetinghouses and in temples—and I’ll be talking about those differences in just a few minutes.

There are also church meetings held in both sorts of buildings, though the meetings held in the meetinghouses are held more regularly and with a wider audience than those held in the temples (and that’s reflected in the actual term meetinghouse, I suppose).

In addition, there are some ordinances that are only performed in temples. Of these, the one that gets the most attention is the one called the endowment, which was described by John A. Widtsoe, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles early in the twentieth century, as a “survey and expounding of the gospel plan…one of the most effective methods of refreshing the memory concerning the entire structure of the gospel”. As part of this ordinance one makes promises to—here quoting James E. Talmage, another apostle of about a century ago—one makes promises “to observe the law of strict virtue and chastity, to be charitable, benevolent, tolerant and pure; to devote both talent and material means to the spread of truth and the uplifting of the [human] race; to maintain devotion to the cause of truth; and to seek in every way to contribute to the great preparation that the earth may be made ready to receive…Jesus Christ.”

As an aside, that’s really the purpose of this whole religion thing anyway, isn’t it?—trying to do good so as to further the designs that God has for this world. It’s just kind of cool to have that formalized in some way.

Anyway. Another difference between temples and meetinghouses would be the requirements for entrance. To enter one of the church’s meetinghouses and be present at the meetings and ordinances that are held there, the only requirement is desire—that is, if you desire to enter, you can find a meetinghouse and enter it to observe or participate as applicable. (One is requested to be polite while there, as well, but I chalk that up to simply being a reasonable human being, rather than being a formal requirement for entry.)

With temples, though, it’s different—along with the desire to enter the temple, there are a number of other requirements for entry, in partial fulfillment of the command in the book of Doctrine and Covenants to “not suffer any unclean thing to come into it, that it be not defiled”. Some of these requirements for entry relate to religious belief, and others relate to religious practice. So, to offer just two examples, to enter the temple one must profess belief in the role of Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer, and one must also practice honesty in one’s dealings with others.

Of course, the line between belief and practice is a fuzzy one, but I’ve long thought that it’s interesting that for temple attendance it’s not enough to simply profess belief, nor is it enough to simply act in a way that’s consonant with ecclesiastical law. Many people profess to find some sort of irreconcilable difference between the content of the epistles of James and Paul that we have in the New Testament, where James tells us that faith without works is dead while Paul tells us we can only be justified by faith and not by works. If the requirements for temple attendance are divinely inspired and are intended to teach us somewhat of how we should be ordering our lives—and I do believe that that’s the case—then we’re being taught that any argument over whether faith or works is primary is missing the mark, since they’re actually interconnected in one great whole, and we shouldn’t be focusing on one while we minimize the other.

If all of these requirements for entry are met, though, one can be issued what’s called a temple recommend, which allows entry into the church’s temples for a period of time. This means that it takes time and effort to enter into a temple, and this sort of barrier—for lack of a better word—this sort of barrier to entrance into the temples of the church has one obvious effect, in that fewer people are qualified to enter temples than to enter meetinghouses. However, this doesn’t mean that holding a temple recommend and entering the temples of the church is intended to be limited to some sort of elite club—as Howard W. Hunter said many times during his brief tenure as the ordained prophet and president of the church, “It would please the Lord for every adult member to be worthy of—and to carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it.”

Keep that quote in mind—I’ll return to it in a bit.

So what is it about the temples of the church and what happens there that requires not just desire but correct belief and practice for entry, while at the same time all are encouraged to meet those requirements so that they can enter?

There are, actually, many different correct answers to this question. The one i’d offer here, though, is that the ordinances that are performed in the temples of the church are qualitatively different than those performed outside of the temple, and they are different in ways that it seems reasonable that God can require some degree of devoutness on the part of those who participate in them. In particular, the ordinances performed in the temple allow service to others to be rendered in ways that can’t be done elsewhere, because God has designated temples as places where we can perform ordinances on the behalf of those who have died, and who therefore don’t have the power to participate in those ordinances directly themselves. As I said earlier, ordinances such as baptism, confirmation, and marriage can all occur in a meetinghouse like the one we’re in as well as in a temple, but these ordinances are of a different sort in the temple.

Any of you can receive baptism and confirmation in a meetinghouse (or anywhere else that is authorized by someone having the authority to do so, in fact). However, there are a huge number of people who died without ever having the opportunity to accept baptism or confirmation—and those who enter the temple have the opportunity to stand in the place of those people who have died, so that even the the dead can receive the blessings God has promised that are attendant upon receiving baptism and confirmation.

The ordinance of marriage is slightly more nuanced, but the basic framework is the same: A couple can be married in a meetinghouse or anywhere else a suitable authority permits, but a marriage can only be ratified as valid for eternity in a temple. However, a large number of people have died without having the opportunity to have their marriages sealed for eternity, so those who enter the temple have the opportunity to stand in the place of those who have died so that even the dead can receive the blessings that God has promised that are attendant upon receiving a sealing of their marriage for eternity.

And what are these blessings that God has promised? There are several, but among them is a pretty big one: Accepting these ordinances opens the door to salvation and exaltation in the kingdom of God, “which is the greatest of all the gifts of God”. Rather amazing, really.

And it is at this point that the scriptural text I started with suddenly makes sense: “Behold, the field was ripe, and blessed are ye, for ye did thrust in the sickle, and did reap with your might, yea, all the day long did ye labor; and behold the number of your sheaves! And they shall be gathered into the garners, that they are not wasted.”

Yes, this applies to those who share the gospel with those around them—but it also applies to those who serve in the temples so that others can receive salvation. By serving on behalf of those who can’t participate in the ordinances of salvation themselves, we are laboring to gather sheaves—that is, souls—into the kingdom of God.

This is—and this is probably obvious—this is a good thing to be a part of. And this is why we have been encouraged to give ourselves the opportunity to serve in the temple. Once again quoting Howard W. Hunter: “It would please the Lord for every adult member to be worthy of—and to carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it.”

Up to this point I’ve tried to keep my remarks fairly general, so that they could inform anyone who might be out there, regardless of their background (or lack of background) in the church. However, since President Hunter addressed these remarks to the adult members of the church, I think it’s worth stressing their importance to that group.

I don’t know how many of the adult members of the church out there today have ever attended the temple, nor do I know how many continue to carry current temple recommends, or who regularly make use of them to attend the temple that the church has here in Anchorage, or any of the temples elsewhere. For all I know, every adult in this ward holds a current temple recommend and uses it regularly. However, I also know enough of the statistics on those statuses and behaviors churchwide, as well as enough about human nature, to know that that’s unlikely.

Near the close of the address that I’ve used as a springboard for my speaking to you all here today, Elder Bednar addresses four groups directly. One of these is the children and youth of the church, and he encouraged them to continue to grow in the gospel and serve in the temple when they have the opportunity. Another group he addressed was those who hold temple recommends and use them by regularly serving in the temple, and he commended their service.

The other two groups, though, are more interesting. One is those adult members of the church who, for whatever reason, have not yet gone to the temple to serve there. With Elder Bednar, I urge those of you in this situation to move toward receiving a temple recommend so that you can receive the joy that comes with service in the temple. Some of the things you need to do may take time, but it is worth it.

Finally, Elder Bednar addressed those who have attended the temple previously, and who have held or even currently hold a temple recommend, but for whatever reason have not served in the temple for a while, even though they have the means and opportunity. For this group, the prescription is the same as it is for the preceding group: Find what it is in your own belief or practice that is holding you back from assisting in the work of God that service in the temple is part of, and make the changes that are necessary for your situation.

And normally one would expect some sort of pat wrap-up at this point, but I think that calls to action are actually a good place to stop—so I’ll close here, as is traditional, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

Heather the Mama Duk said...

I didn't see it as deep, but typical David. They don't know you yet, so it comes across as deep I suppose. I mean you actually talked about real stuff instead of the typical "go to the temple."