This post is based on a sacrament meeting talk that I gave a few months ago that I have felt prompted to share on here:
One of the most dramatic stories in the Book of Mormon involves the four hundred and fifty individuals who follow Alma the Elder after he is converted by Abinadi’s powerful testimony of the Savior. Alma and his people came from a society that was riven by deep inequality, materialism, sexual transgression, and pride. And yet, when they gathered together at the waters of Mormon, Alma and the other fledgling converts were able to form a society where the people “[had] their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.”
How were they able to do so?
We also live in a society that is riven by deep inequality, materialism, sexual transgression, and pride. We too have made similar covenants to serve each other “in unity and in love.” And yet we too often we fall short of that ideal. In our church community, in our families, and in our own relationship with God, we are often divided by contention and pride.
Today, I would like to talk about the ways that Alma ensured that his people would be “knit together in unity and in love one towards another” and how we can do likewise.
To start, I want to quickly list ten things that Alma and his people did in order to maintain that kind of unity. I will then return to discuss in greater detail some of those that stood out to me
- The people made sacred covenants and relied on God’s covenantal promises (Baptism in Mosiah 18; Story of Mosiah 23)
- The people were devoted to serving one another. (Mosiah 18: 8-9)
- The people taught each other (Mosiah 18:25)
- The people sacrificed for one another (Mosiah 18:27-29)
- The people were led by inspired leaders and unified in their understanding of doctrine (Mosiah 18: 18-20)
- The people honored the sabbath day together (Mosiah 18:23)
- The people avoided contention and Pride
- Mosiah 23:7 – “Ye shall not esteem one flesh above another, or one man shall not think himself above another”
- Mosiah 23:15 – “Thus did Alma teach his people, that every man should love his neighbor as himself, that there should be no contention among them.”
- Mosiah 27: 3-4 And there was a strict command throughout all the churches that there should be no persecutions among them, that there should be an equality among all men; That they should let no pride nor haughtiness disturb their peace; that every man should esteem his neighbor as himself, laboring with their own hands for their support.
- Alma 1: 30 And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were a thirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.
8) They were grateful
- Mosiah 25:10- And again, when they thought of the immediate goodness of God, and his power in delivering Alma and his brethren out of the hands of the Lamanites and of bondage, they did raise their voices and give thanks to God.
- Mosiah 26 And they did admonish their brethren; and they were also admonished, every one by the word of God, according to his sins, or to the sins which he had committed, being commanded of God to pray without ceasing, and to give thanks in all things.
9) They had a missionary spirit
- Mosiah 25:11 And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of their sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls.
- Mosiah 28:3 Now they were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not abear that any human soul should perish; yea, even the very thoughts that any soul should endure endless torment did cause them to quake and tremble.
10) The people forgave one another
Mosiah 26: 30-31 -Yea, and as often as my people repent will I forgive them their trespasses against me. And ye shall also forgive one another your trespasses; for verily I say unto you, he that forgiveth not his neighbor’s trespasses when he says that he repents, the same hath brought himself under condemnation
I want to highlight a few of these aspects in particular
First, the people of came together to love and serve each other regardless of where they came from.
Even though I suspect that the members of the Alma’s church came from different backgrounds and life experiences and had different viewpoints, they were able to be unified because by their common faith in Christ and his Atonement.
This must have hard enough while Alma and his people were refugees fleeing from King Noah’s court, but it must have been even more difficult to maintain once his people were joined to the people of Mosiah and experienced prosperity.
Our church community is also a diverse collection of individuals with different cultures, life experiences, traditions and levels of testimony. Elder Soares just this past conference compared this process to the joining of two mighty and distinct rivers:
“As these new friends merge into this new and unfamiliar river, they may feel a little lost at first. These new friends find themselves blending into a river with unique origins, temperatures, and chemical compositions—a river that has its own traditions, culture, and vocabulary. This new life in Christ may seem overwhelming for them…
It is easy to see why they may feel like they don’t belong. In such situations, they may ask themselves, “Is there a place for me here? Do I fit into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Does the Church need me? Will I find new friends willing to help and support me?”
My dear friends, in such moments, those of us who are at different points in the long journey of discipleship must extend a warm hand of fellowship to our new friends, accept them where they are, and help, love, and include them in our lives. All of these new friends are precious sons and daughters of God. We cannot afford to lose even one of them because, like the Amazon River that depends on tributaries feeding it, we need them just as much as they need us, to become a mighty force for good in the world.”
Just as Elder Soares explained, the people of Alma understood that we need everyone in the church. We need the young and old. We need the experienced member and the new member. We need the married and the unmarried We need the person struggling with doubts. We need people from wherever they come in the world. We need our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. We need everyone.
As Elder Uchtdorf has reminded us, “The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, “Your testimony must be this tall to enter.”
The Church is not just for perfect people, but it is for all to “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him.” The Church is for people like you and me. The Church is a place of welcoming and nurturing, not of separating or criticizing. It is a place where we reach out to encourage, uplift, and sustain one another as we pursue our individual search for divine truth.”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson similarly put this point powerfully in a Church video entitled Is There a Place for Me? He said:
I don’t believe I’ve ever met anybody who didn’t want to belong to something that made them feel worthwhile, that made them feel that they had value
When people wonder, “Is there a place for me?” it may be any number of things behind that. And now they ask themselves, “Do I fit? Do I belong here? Do they really need me?”And I want to say emphatically, “Yes.”
I think of the metaphor of Paul, which I love very much, about the Church is the body of Christ. And he says we’re baptized into that body, and he says it’s one body. Many members, but one body.
I understand people’s feelings at times that they may not be needed. And sometimes others are guilty of saying, “We don’t need this person. We don’t need that person. We’re fine as we are.” Neither one is true. That’s not the Christian way. That’s not the way Christ sees us. He sees all of us with infinite worth, and whatever our condition at the moment may be, the body of Christ is there to sustain each member.
And it breaks my heart if someone comes and is very vulnerable and says, “I want to try it, I want to be here,” and then get a cold shoulder or a lack of interest. And that’s tragic. It really is tragic. We have to be better than that.
Elder Christofferson speaks in that video in light of a rich personal experience with the subject of welcoming those who are different to come into the fold. Elder Christofferson’s brother Tom is gay and he left the Church when he was a young man. Elder Christofferson’s family loved Tom and Tom’s partner and fully included them in their family circle. In time, Tom missed what in his words he described as the “feeling of higher purpose, or a greater meaning of .. life beyond enjoyment” that came from involvement in the Church. Tom met with the Bishop of his local ward in New Canaan, Connecticut to see if he would be welcome to attend church with his partner. The Bishop and the ward welcomed them with open arms and included them in every way possible. Eventually, Tom made the difficult decision to prepare once more to enter the waters of baptism, including ending the relationship with his long term partner in order to qualify for his sacred ordinances. While many of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters may never make the courageous yet painful decisions that Tom made, we can nevertheless follow the example of Tom’s family and ward who loved him unconditionally for years until he experienced a miraculous change of heart. Just like Tom’s ward and Alma’s church community, we should welcome all to be with us regardless of where they are on their faith journey and we should show genuine christlike love and compassion for all.
Second, Alma and his people covenanted in the waters of Mormon to “bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light,” to “mourn with those that mourn” and to “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” That kind of ministering is not cheap and facile. It does not involve simply saying hello to each other in passing. It involves truly getting to know, love, and serve those around us. I have always loved Mormon’s description of the members of the church of his day “meeting together oft … to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls.”
When they came together to worship, they came to be spiritually fed. Speaking of the welfare of their souls implies to me that they were genuine and they were willing to acknowledge their weaknesses and doubts.
Too often, when we come to church we feel that we must put on appearances. We are afraid to really “speak concerning the welfare of [our] souls. How much richer would our church experiences me if we modelled our interactions with one another after these communities in the Book of Mormon? If we acknowledged or weaknesses, imperfections, doubts, and strivings to be better.
Third, Alma and his people avoided contention and pride
They did this because of the great love that they had for each other.
“Thus did Alma teach his people, that every man should love his neighbor as himself, that there should be no contention among them.”
They ensured that neither “pride nor haughtiness” would disturb the zion community that they were building.
Sometimes we think about contention as something that is caused by those who may not agree with the Church or some of its doctrines or teachings, but as President Oaks reminds us, ““The Savior did not limit His warning against contention to those who were not keeping the commandment about baptism. He forbade contention by anyone. Even those who keep the commandments must not stir up the hearts of men to contend with anger.”
Indeed, I think it is often those of us who are most fully living the commandments of God that must be especially vigilant to guard against haughtiness or a sense of superiority.
As President Oaks explained: [W]hen trying to keep all the commandments, some fall short by continually acting in a way that fails to show love toward those whom they consider to be breaking gospel laws. At the most serious level, some even withhold love and relationships from members of their own families and friends.
To balance our commitments to love and law we must continually show love even as we continually honor and keep the commandments. We must strive to preserve precious relationships and at the same time not compromise our responsibilities to be obedient to and supportive of gospel law.
I first joined the Church when I was in college. One of the things that most strongly attracted me to it was the feeling of community and love that I immediately experienced. I was welcomed and embraced with open arms despite my rough edges. Yet, at times I experienced harsh judgment or condemnation as I tried to reconcile my past worldview with the doctrines of the Church. I have seen how that same kind of criticism and condemnation has driven people away from activity and from the Church altogether.
Similarly, as a young parent I have felt judged and condemned at times for having rowdy and rambunctious children at Church. A few years ago, my wife and I for a time felt so unwelcome with our children that we briefly discussed skipping meetings or alternating our schedules to avoid that contention. Fortunately, a few especially patient and welcoming members embraced our children and really changed the experience for us. I have been really heartened by our experiences in this ward and the small touches such as coloring books and crayons at stake conference go along way into helping us feel welcome and appreciated.
When we feel inclined to condemn or criticize our brothers and sisters, we need to ask ourselves if we are doing so out of a sincere desire to love. We must also be especially cautious to not assume that we understand the Gospel perfectly, or that we know the circumstances, trials, and challenges that others face. Like the Savior’s disciples at the last supper, we must ask ourselves “Lord is it I?”
As President Gordon B. Hinckley explained, “… We must work harder to build mutual respect, an attitude of forbearance, with tolerance one for another regardless of the doctrines and philosophies which we may espouse. Concerning these you and I may disagree. But we can do so with respect and civility” (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley , 661, 665).
Might I offer one contemporary example. This past conference, President Nelson urged members of the Church in no uncertain words to use the full name of the Church whenever possible and to reduce our usage of the term Mormon. But President Nelson emphasized that we must “be courteous and patient in our efforts to correct these errors.” It would be very unfortunate if we took President Nelson’s inspired guidance as a justification for harshly judging and policing those who for various reasons continue to use the term Mormon. This likewise should be the model for how we offer correction more generally.
In a CES devotional, Elder Holland spoke of an experience he had seeing a young woman with piercings and rainbow dyed hair come to Church:
“That leads me to the woman with the rainbow hair and the many splendored rings. However one would respond to that young woman, the rule forever is that it has to reflect our religious beliefs and our gospel commitments. Therefore, how we respond in any situation has to make things better, not worse. We can’t act or react in such a way that we are guilty of a greater offense than, in this case, she is. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have opinions, that we don’t have standards, that we somehow completely disregard divinely mandated “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in life. But it does mean we have to live those standards and defend those “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” in a righteous way to the best of our ability, the way the Savior lived and defended them. And He always did what should have been done to make the situation better—from teaching the truth, to forgiving sinners, to cleansing the temple. It is no small gift to know how to do such things in the right way!
So, with our new acquaintance of the unusual dress and grooming code, we start, above all, by remembering she is a daughter of God and of eternal worth. We start by remembering that she is someone’s daughter here on earth as well and could, under other circumstances, be my daughter. We start by being grateful that she is at a Church activity, not avoiding one. In short, we try to be at our best in this situation in a desire to help her be at her best. We keep praying silently: What is the right thing to do here? And what is the right thing to say? What ultimately will make this situation and her better? Asking these questions and really trying to do what the Savior would do is what I think He meant when He said, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment.”
Just this past conference, Elder Uchtdorf admonished all to “Come, help us build and strengthen a culture of healing, kindness, and mercy toward all of God’s children. …”
He emphasized that “this is the kind of gospel culture we desire to cultivate throughout the Church of Jesus Christ. We seek to strengthen the Church as a place where we forgive one another. Where we resist the temptation to find fault, gossip, and bring others down. Where, instead of pointing out flaws, we lift up and help each other to become the best we can be.”
That is the example that Alma and his people set for us, and it is my testimony that as we strive to love each other, serve one another, and minister with open hearts, we will become a Zion people with “one heart and one mind.”