My sacrament talk delivered on 4-24-22:
Repentance: Hebrew word teshuvah: “turning,” or reorientation
Greek word metanoia: conversion, transformation
These notions of repentance are different from saying sorry and trying to stop sinning.
Conversion is sometimes spoken of in terms of rebirth:
Alma 5:14 And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?
John 3:3 Jesus answered him, Truly, truly, I say to you, if a person is not born from on high, that person is not able to see the kingdom of God.
What does it mean that we can’t see the kingdom of God? Why are we unable to perceive it? Is it possible to be diligent in checking all the boxes with our church attendance, and still be unable to see the kingdom?
If we are not experiencing conversion and rebirth, what will we see at church?
- Things that bother us
- Things we wish were different
- Things to criticize
When we’re in the process of conversion, we see
- People to love,
- Communion with God,
- Opportunities to grow
Sister Camille Johnson of the General Primary Presidency gave a conference talk last October that has impacted me greatly. She began her talk with a series of questions:
- What kind of personal narrative are you writing for your life?
- Is the path you describe in your story straight?
- Does your story end where it began, at your heavenly home?
- Is there an exemplar in your story—and is it the Savior Jesus Christ?
Sister Johnson then said:
I testify that the Savior is “the author and finisher of our faith.” Will you invite Him to be the author and finisher of your story?
He knows the beginning from the end. He was the Creator of heaven and earth. He wants us to return home to Him and our Heavenly Father. He has everything invested in us and wants us to succeed.
What do you suppose keeps us from turning our stories over to Him?
When Sister Johnson talks about our story, she is talking about our life story. And anyone who reads big stories knows that big stories are made up of a lot of little stories and narratives.
Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor wrote down some of her personal prayers, and they were compiled into a book. One of her prayers has a statement that I think is really powerful. She prayed:
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon…I do not know You God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.
An eclipse happens when something is preventing us from seeing some amount of the light of the sun, either directly or reflected on the moon or on our surroundings. Flannery O’Connor says that for her, this something is her own self.
What does she mean by a “self” that functions like an eclipse and prevents us from seeing God’s light?
It’s our narratives, the stories that we tell ourselves. And a lot of our stories are given to us by our popular culture and entertainment. Our movies and music and literature offer us narratives about what is fair and unfair; what is right and wrong; what happiness is; what life should look like; how our relationships should work; how we should feel about things, and so forth. Some of these narratives from our culture are true, and some are false, and some are a combination of both. Some of them are emotionally satisfying but wrong, and they can poison our relationships with God, with His church, with the gospel, and with the people around us. (see this presentation on worldview)
Over the years, I have had friends at work who study and practice Buddhism. Buddhism isn’t necessarily a faith, in the way we think about faith; it’s more a belief system. Some Buddhists call it a “science of the mind.”
One of my favorite principles I’ve learned from Buddhism is an idea they call the “second arrow.” The idea is that life is going to give us unexpected adversity, like being stuck by an arrow at random. We can pull that arrow out and work to heal our wound, but sometimes instead of seeking healing, we tell ourselves stories and narratives about the arrow; how it’s unfair, or nobody else around me got hit with that arrow, so I must be doing something wrong to become a target, or I can’t feel better until I get revenge, or any number of other narratives about the arrow that don’t actually help with healing.
Buddhists call these narratives the “second arrow,” and the idea is that when I am hurting from an arrow wound, I can respond to the problem by telling myself stories that prolong and increase my hurt, to the point where it’s like I have stuck another arrow into myself.
I often tell people that my mission was amazingly hard. I loved my mission, but as a missionary I was eager to be done. For many years after my mission, I regularly had what many returned missionaries call “the dream,” which is where we dream that we are back on the mission and we wake up distraught because the mission isn’t where we want to be.
But in recent years, I have come to the realization that much of why my mission was hard, had to do with the stories I told myself as a missionary about how each day was supposed to go. And when things didn’t go according to my expectations, I told myself stories about how I must not be a very good missionary, or there was something wrong with this or that other person, or the system was bad, or whatever. I responded to adversity on my mission by sticking myself with a lot of “second arrows.”
Sister Johnson talks about why we are sometimes reluctant to allow God to author our narratives and stories:
Perhaps it is because we don’t have the faith to accept the answer we might receive. Perhaps it is because the natural man or woman in us is resistant to turning things completely over to the Lord and trusting Him entirely. Maybe that is why we choose to stick with the narrative we have written for ourselves, a comfortable version of our story unedited by the Master Author. We don’t want to ask a question and get an answer that doesn’t fit neatly into the story we are writing for ourselves.
In recent years, I have sought to allow the Lord to author my stories, and to edit my stories. I am a writer, and I can say from experience that the editing process is really hard. It’s a painful process to write, and then see something I’ve written come back from an editor with lots of corrections and suggestions and changes. It’s hard to not take that personally, and people who do take the editing process personally, and become offended, make the writing process much more difficult than it needs to be. Some people refuse to allow any editing of their writing, and the result is that their writing never reaches its potential.
Allowing the Lord to tell the story of my mission experience has been transformational. Instead of asking questions about why this or that experience was so hard or unfair, I am asking different questions about my mission: How were you using me to reach other people? What were you trying to teach me and those around me with these experiences? And over time, many insights have come to me. I still feel that my mission was hard, but I also understand that some of what made it hard was the stories I told myself. I no longer have the scary recurring dream that I am back on my mission. I only wish I could go back in time and tell my missionary self to pay more attention to the stories I was telling myself day after day, and do more listening for the voice of the Lord to tell me the real story of my experiences.
Think of all the challenging things that we experience in a life of faith: difficult things that we learn from prophets; difficult situations that happen at church; challenges in our families as we try to live gospel; personal failures, and more. And think of the kinds of stories that we tend to tell about those things: stories of our victimhood and other people’s wrongness, or stories of hopelessness that we’ll never be good enough, that we’ll never fit in, and so forth.
What if we surrendered our stories to the Lord for revision and editing?
What if I were to ask the Lord for His stories about my hard experiences? I might pray Lord, I’m not interested in clinging to my own stories and narratives. How can I understand this situation better, through a lens of grace and charity? How do You see the people involved? How do You understand this difficult principle I’ve been taught? What am I not seeing, that You want me to see? How can I open my eyes to see more? How can I open my heart and mind to receive Your stories about my experiences? I’m willing to be patient and listen, and live in a way that I can be receptive.
This process of allowing the Lord to author and revise and edit our stories is a big part of what we call repentance and conversion.
I’ve learned from hard personal experience that this process of conversion is a lifelong effort with ups and downs. Sometimes it’s accompanied by powerful experiences, but mostly it’s a process of daily seeking the Spirit. A major factor in conversion is surrounding ourselves with people who are also seeking conversion: people who are living the gifts of the Spirit and who can help point us to Christ. One of the clearest signs that we are experiencing conversion is that we love being in the company of people who have the Spirit.
Years ago I experienced a period of time where I was really wrestling with some hard questions about the gospel and the scriptures. The Bible in particular has a lot of difficult brain teasers, and one of them was really challenging me. It was a hard question that felt to me like a show-stopper, and it was affecting me spiritually. I felt stuck. I fasted and asked God for an answer, and had a very specific prompting that I needed to start doing volunteer work in the community. That was not the answer I envisioned; in fact, I didn’t think it was helpful at all for the question I was asking.
But I signed up for a volunteer day with Habitat for Humanity, and I went and worked on a house for a needy family in town. After that experience I just felt better, in my soul. And the hard question that I had was still there, but I had a little more emotional space that allowed me to think about it a little more creatively. It was only one of many gospel questions I’ve had, and I realized from this experience and others that followed, that I need to explore hard questions with God’s heart and mind instead of a fearful tornado of my own thoughts and feelings.
That and other similar experiences led me to a new story about facing challenging questions in my faith. My new story is that if I walk with the Lord through my questions and concerns, I have nothing to fear. I will be given whatever I need “in process of time.”
Finally, one of the most impactful passages of scripture for me in recent years has been the temptations of Christ. In the desert, Christ spent a long time in communion with the Father, in fasting and prayer. During that time, Satan came to him and told him that he need to turn a stone into bread to satisfy his hunger; that he should jump off the temple so that everyone would see him be rescued by angels; and that he could gain power over all the kingdoms of the world by giving his loyalty to Satan.
Satan was offering a story; the story was that the Savior needed to satisfy His appetites; that He needed more recognition, validation and affirmation; and that He needed more power and control.
Jesus was able to reject this story because he had been receiving His story directly from the Father, in fasting communion there in the desert. And one of the clearest signs that we are experiencing conversion – accepting God’s story – is that we feel less need to satisfy our appetites; we feel less need for recognition, validation, and affirmation; and we feel more trust in God, instead of craving control. In fact, a good indicator of our conversion is that we feel less needy in general, more and more content, more grateful for what God offers us.
I want to reiterate that letting go of our stories can be hard, because sometimes we use them to comfort and reassure ourselves. But that process of letting the Lord author our stories is what enables our conversion; in the words of Jesus, this enables us to “see the kingdom of God.” Allowing Christ to revise and author our stories is part of the healing process of His atonement.