Sunday, February 15, 2015

Loving Our Differences

I haven't had much time to blog lately but I did have the opportunity to write a talk for church so I'm sharing that here. It gave me a lot to think about...and to work on. 

God made us all different. If He had wanted us all to be the same, He very easily could have created us to be so. Instead, He created each of us to be precious and unique individuals.

Elder Wirthlin gave a talk once that spoke about the differences we all have, and how we are all valuable because of them, not in spite of them. He said:" Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.

Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole…" 

Heavenly Father also gave us enough in common that we should be able to relate to and have compassion for one another. There's not a soul alive who hasn't felt hunger, pain, fear, or disappointment. Conversely, we all have experienced some form of love and joy in our lives. You would think that with these shared emotions that we'd have an easier time putting ourselves in someone else's shoes and trying to understand why they act the way they do. But we don't. We're basically self-centered, self-righteous creatures. We are fallen mortals, and that gets in the way of recognizing and appreciating that we're all in the same boat, that our differences are what make this life interesting and worthwhile. Just like in an orchestra, we need each of our different personalities, talents, and even weaknesses to make this life the rich symphony it's meant to be.

Have you ever thought of the fact that we NEED other people with their weaknesses? Wouldn't life be better if we were all perfect? On the surface it would seem that way, but if we were all perfect there would be no need for love, compassion, service, forgiveness, or any of the other qualities that help us grow into who we need to be. We need the broken around us to remind us of our own imperfection. And the moment we start judging someone else for not being enough- for not being smart enough, not being pretty enough, faithful enough, or strong enough, talented enough, or "with it" enough…in that moment we show our own lack. We show that we aren't enough. We aren't compassionate enough, understanding enough, patient enough, or loving enough.

We should be united and pulling together for a great common cause, especially here at church. There should be no gossiping, back-biting, criticizing, and judging. This is where we all come together as imperfect beings to learn how to become better human beings. We can't do that when we're focused on what other people need to work on, how others need to change, or how others need to be. Before we ever open our mouths to comment about someone else's shortcomings, we should stop and take an honest assessment of ourselves. I don't know of anyone who is perfected enough already to be able to say that they have nothing left to work on. And if you aren't done with the process of perfection, you have no need to worry about where someone else is in the process.

David and I read a book called "The Lord Looketh on the Heart" and the most profound section was one where the authors explain a game they play in their family, which I think would be helpful in most families. It's called "What's Their Secret?" and the rules are simple. 1. When you meet  or see someone who is doing something that causes you to react in a negative way, stop and ask yourself, "What's their secret?" 2. Once you have asked the question, then make a list of possible answers. It's possible that none of the answers will be the real answer, but they may stop you from making a quick, unfair, or wrong judgment.

They go on to demonstrate how this "game" can work: One festive Christmas morning the author and his family piled into their car to make the 100 mile trip to Grandma's house. The highway was busy and they passed several gift-laden cars full of college students making their way home and other families driving down the road, obviously anticipating their family get-togethers. The radio filled their van with Christmas carols. Their singing faded as they noticed the blue and red flashing lights of two highway patrol cars several hundred yards ahead. They said a silent prayer that the happiness of Christmas wouldn't be ruined by tragedy. As they approached, they were relieved to see an old, rusty car in front of the patrol cars, fully intact. They noticed a disheveled  man at the front of the car, where he stood by the officers. His head was down, and one officer was writing on his ticket pad. It didn't take them long to put two and two together as they saw an open beer can next to a case of beer on the hood of the car.
At first, they were thoroughly disgusted. Imagine, driving drunk on Christmas Day. They wondered what kind of man would put other lives in peril on a holiday. That question still hung in the air as they began to ask "What's his secret? Why would someone be alone on Christmas Day? Why would he be drinking?"
The sad choices of possible answers to those questions changed their thoughts of anger and disgust to ones of sympathy and compassion. They didn't have the chance to ask the man why he was pulled over that Christmas afternoon. They just thought of the possibilities. They concluded that his drunk driving was wrong, but their reaction changed from one of condemnation and judgment to one of charity and understanding. Seldom is a life changed by harsh judgment or condemnation, but charity and understanding can become a life-changing habit.

What if, next time we catch ourselves jumping to conclusions about something we see someone doing, we stop and take the time to play this game? Imagine how much more compassion we could show to them if we stopped and tried to understand what might possibly make them act that way, or why they made that particular choice. Isn't this the kind of mercy we all hope others will extend to us?

Patricia Holland has said "Isn't it sometimes discouraging to see just how easily the adversary uses such earthly issues as vanity and worry, envy and pettiness to distract us from our divine mission and the unity we could enjoy in the Church? We all get discouraged and distracted-- caught up in the thick of thin things-- no matter how good we are. But do we have time, energy, or emotion to waste on what dress to wear or whose living room is the loveliest? We have real things to think about, things of the kingdom of God. We need to drink more deeply and be filled more fully for the work that lies ahead of us."

When we're busy pointing out others' imperfections, we're not focused on the things of God. We're not focused on being united and in doing the work of the Lord. We lose sight of the purpose of this life, which is to learn and grow. We can't be as effective in the kingdom of God if we're focused more on tearing down than on building up those around us. And really, when we're looking around us and comparing others to the standard of ourselves, aren't we placing ourselves above the only true standard: That of Jesus Christ? If we spent more time comparing ourselves to the standard of Jesus Christ, and humbly acknowledge how short we fall of that ideal, we might be more inclined to work on the stumbling blocks in our own life rather than worrying about the shortcomings of someone else. The Lord has said "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." It seems to me that if Jesus Christ Himself has told us that the two greatest commandments are to love God and love others, it must be pretty important for us to do so. We often find that when we follow the first great commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, that it becomes easier to follow the command to love others.

We can very easily know how close we are to God by how compassionate we are towards others. Is our first inclination to judge, to condemn, to tear down? Or is it to try to understand, to be merciful, to give someone the chance to be imperfect but loved anyways?

We can't become who we need to become without God's grace in our life. And we can't really experience that grace if we aren't willing to extend it to others. The command to forgive others is just the tip of the iceberg. To err is human, to forgive is divine. But to love is the culmination of everything that Jesus ever taught.

In President Hinckley's book "Standing For Something," he says the following: "Each of us is human, subject to the problems that afflict humans. We should not tolerate laziness, dishonesty, or betrayal. But neither should we condemn others for such apparent lapses. Instead, we can reach out to help them carry the burdens of sickness and financial difficulty, and even the weaknesses and shortcomings with which they are grappling. None of us needs someone who only points out our areas of weakness and the ways in which we have fallen short. We need someone who encourages us to go forward, to try again, to reach a little higher this time. Excellence is difficult to achieve in a vacuum." 

Often the need we feel to criticize others comes from an emptiness within ourselves. It's not so much a reflection of that other person's lack, as it is an example of our own. C.S. Lewis has said "We are born helpless. As soon are we are fully conscious we discover loneliness… Our whole being by its very nature is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for Him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose."

It's this longing for God that we often mistake for a desire to have the things around us perfect. We crave God's perfection in our life, but instead of turning to Him and drawing closer to His perfection, we often turn away and focus on the imperfections of others in a feeble attempt to make our own imperfections seem less severe. We attempt to make ourselves feel better through tactics that are guaranteed to only make us feel worse. Heavenly Father wants us to share in His love, His grace, and his glory. He needs us to look up to Him, not sideways at the people around us. It's only when we draw closer to God that we can come closer to creating a heaven on earth. We must look to Him to see how to model our homes, our relationships, and our lives.

President Hinckley encouraged us to rise above ourselves. He said "Let us bind up the wounds- oh, the many wounds that have been caused by cutting words, by stubbornly cultivated grievances, by scheming plans to "get even" with those who may have wronged us. We all have a little of this spirit of revenge in us. Fortunately, we all also have the power to rise above it. "

He went on to say that the willingness to forgive is a sign of spiritual and emotional maturity- one of the greatest virtues to which we should all aspire. To quote him again: "We have need of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. The whole world has need of them, for they are the essence of goodness. We need these qualities in homes where tiny molehills of misunderstanding grow into mountains of argument, and where parents and children sometimes hang on to an old grievance for years and even a lifetime. We need them among neighbors whose insignificant differences lead to undying bitterness. We need them among business associates who quarrel and refuse to compromise or forgive when, in most instances, a willingness to sit down together, exercise compassion, and speak quietly one to another could resolve the matter to the blessing of all. Too often, too many people spend their days blaming others, nurturing grudges, and planning retribution."

Imagine if Jesus had treated others the way we often treat each other. The woman caught in adultery likely would have been stoned, Matthew would have been shunned as a despicable tax collector, the sinners would have been left to suffer. But that's not how He was or is. And it's His example that we are told to follow. We can take comfort in the knowledge that our Savior loves every one of us, and wants us to be happy. He wants us to be united in good purposes, and one of those purposes is helping each other grow in love and testimony. He wants us to reach out to those who we might naturally avoid or who annoy us, or who aren't like us. It's only when we realize that every single man, woman, and child on this earth has divine potential and unlimited value that we begin to understand how and why Jesus lived and died for all of us.

The question is: how can we move past the pettiness and mortal inclination to criticize and compare ourselves with others? Patricia Holland again has some wise words of advice: she say's "Seek to position yourself prayerfully in some solitude and serenity to receive the mind of God. Stop what you are so frantically doing. Shut the door, turn out all earthly lights, set aside all earthly sights. Position yourself calmly and quietly in humble serenity until your prayer flows naturally and lovingly. When you feel God's presence, when you feel he is with you, you will be filled with a wonderful strength that will allow you to do anything in righteousness.

Thus filled and strengthened, we can return to the battle, to some inevitable noise and commotion and yes, even some drudgery. But we do it more happily, more hopefully, more optimistically because we have communed with God and been filled in those quiet moments with his joy, his charity, and his compassion, and we bear something of his light as we return. And because we are filled and strong, we can be a source of light, life, and love for others.
When we connect with God, then we will connect with others honestly and compassionately. When we pay the price to see God, we become aware of how closely connected we are to each other."

The closer we are to God, the more we are able to see what He sees in others. We're able to appreciate how each of us contributes to this world and how we are all in this life together.
Sheri Dew pointed out that "we live in a connected world. Today, in every country of the world, men and women, boys and girls, ride subways and jeepneys and bicycles with cell phones in hand, many of them sophisticated enough to send and receive calls, text messages, email, and downloads any hour of the day or night. We want to be connected and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to be so."

The questions she then poses is one we should all ask ourselves. "Do we make even a fraction as much effort  at connecting and staying connected with the heavens-- with immersing ourselves in the word of God and experiencing for ourselves its power, with seeking to learn the language of revelation and how to hear the voice of the Lord? The ultimate connection is conversing with our Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, through the ministering of the Holy Ghost. And that connection comes as a result of diligently, earnestly, steadily seeking, the reward for which is great." 

How many hours do we spend playing games on our phones, tablets, or computers? Do we come close to giving a tithe of that time to the Lord? Who can say that they give even 10% of their free time in devotion to God? It's a sad statement about our society that most people can quote sports stats, tell you all about the latest episode of a TV show, or brag about what level of a game they're on, but they often don't know the most basic scripture stories, can't tell you what Jesus taught, and don't understand why the golden rule is even important any more.

"One of the greatest challenges we face in our hurried, self-centered lives is to follow the counsel of the Savior… to take the time and make the effort to care for others, to develop and exercise the one quality that would enable us to change the lives of others-what the scriptures call charity."

Charity, or the pure love of Christ, is something that we can all be blessed with. It's this love that will enable us to look on others with more kindness, compassion, and mercy. It's love that will help us to let hurtful comments pass without taking offense, or help us forgive when others have hurt us. Love will help us bind up the seen and unseen wounds of those around us, and love will be what enables us to see the beauty and greatness in our differences.

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