[The below is an approximation of a talk I gave in sacrament meeting today. It is only an approximation because I never wrote the text out but spoke from an outline. I was supposed to be the last speaker last week, but the second speaker took the whole time, so the bishop asked me to hold my talk for today, and he strategically scheduled me as the second speaker to assure I’d be able to get my 20 minutes in. I had some modules in reserve in case I needed to stretch, such as a section where I would have talked about LDS humanism and some insights on fasting and keeping the Sabbath holy I gleaned from Jana’s Flunking Sainthood, but I didn’t need those modules so they are not included below.]
When the bishop asked me to speak on “How to Draw Closer to God,” my first thought was that maybe we should all get together and build a really, really high tower. But upon reflection, I realized that that did not work well for the good people of Babel when they tried it, and perhaps I needed to think a little less literally about the assignment.
As you no doubt know, the Prophet Joseph was killed on June 27, 1844. In the last months of his life, he taught two sermons widely acknowledged as the most important of his prophetic career: the King Follett Discourse on April 7th, and the Sermon in the Grove on June 16th, just ten days before his death. In those two sermons collectively, the Prophet articulated his Nauvoo doctrine that men (and in this talk, I’m using the masculine gender inclusively) have the potential to become gods. Brigham Young later would label this idea “eternal progression,” which remains the way we usually speak of it today. And although those two sermons remain the most authoritative articulation of the concept, today in speaking of it we are more likely to invoke the pithy little couplet coined by Lorenzo Snow, “As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become.”
(Many years ago, I was watching the original iteration of Battlestar Galactica, the one with Lorne Green, and there was an episode where a Council of the Twelve intoned something very like that couplet. Only much later did I learn that a producer and creator of the series was a Mormon who liked to slip Mormon ideas into the scripts of the series.)
When I was a young man, I didn’t know what to make of that idea. It seemed awfully presumptuous to me; we’re going to become gods? Really? And it also seemed foreign to Christian thought generally. To be honest about it, I’d say I was embarrassed to some extent by this idea.
I suppose for awhile I “put it on the shelf,” to use Camilla Kimball’s metaphor. But for me the shelf is a temporary expedient, not a permanent solution. Eventually, I want to comprehend what is on my shelf and bring it back down to the kitchen table. So at some point, as with any hard issue in the church, I resolved to go straight at it, turning neither to the left or the right. [I borrowed this language from Bushman, but didn’t mention his name, as it would not have meant anything to the congregation.] So I rolled up my sleeves and went to this big building, with a lot of books in it, called the “library.” (This was before Al Gore invented the internet.) And you know what I found? This idea is not foreign to Christian thought, it is foun-da-tion-al to authentic Christian thought. It is all over the place in the writings of the early church fathers. So much so, in fact, that several of them coined their own pithy little couplets, that we might describe as positively Lorenzo Snow-ian. For example:
Irenaeus in the second century:
God became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.
God became man so that men might become gods.
Gregory of Nazianzus:
Become gods for God’s sake, since God became man for our sake.
Basil the Great:
“Becoming a god” is the highest goal of all.
(That last one isn’t a couplet, but it is pithy, so I threw it in there.)
I learned that there was an entire theological vocabulary describing this concept, such as the Latin-derived terms deification and divinization and the Greek terms theosis, apotheosis and theopoiesis.
About 15 years ago some friends and I were touring a redwood forest in California when in the middle of the forest, in the middle of nowhere we encountered a Greek Orthodox bookstore. We were all bibliophiles, so of course we had to check it out. Inside, I was stunned to find three large shelves of books devoted to this concept, such as this one I picked up, Deification in Christ: The Nature of the Human Person, by Panayiotis Nellas. (Show book.)
Now, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that Mormon eternal progression and Greek Orthodox theosis are exactly the same thing. They are not. The biggest difference is different understandings of the nature of God. In Orthodox thought, God is ontologically other than man, in a completely different category. In LDS thought, God is not a philosophical abstraction, but rather our Father, and we are in some sense “of the same species.” And just as our children have the potential to grow and progress and learn and develop and mature and eventually become like us, so we too in a spiritual sense have the potential to grow and progress and develop and mature until we eventually become like our heavenly parents.
So in the long view, we draw closer to God by becoming like him.
The Sunday School Answers
But that process will take eons of time. We now are in a particular slice of that progression, in which a veil has been placed over our memory of our pre-earth life, and we can only sense the atonement of Jesus Christ, the plan of salvation and our divine potential indirectly, by faith, through a glass darkly. But in this mortal, in this corruption, on this earth, we are often overwhelmed by the mundane concerns of this world. Concerns about the job, a stack of bills to pay; a mountain of laundry awaiting us; the kids need to be fed, bathed and put to bed; what will we do when our parents are too old to live independently? And so forth. So in the short term, pressed by these mundane concerns, how do we draw closer to God in the here and now?
Well, I’ve taught a lot of Sunday School lessons over the years, and I’ve learned that there are certain questions that, if you ask them in class and write the suggested answers on the white board, you will get a very stereotyped set of answers. I call these the “Sunday School Answers.” They include such items as read the scriptures, pray, fast, attend your church meetings, do your home and visiting teaching, pay your tithing, keep the word of wisdom. If I’ve written a list like that on the white board once I’ve written it a hundred times.
And there’s a reason for that. There are a number of questions for which that’s a pretty good set of answers. And they’re a pretty good set of answers for this question as well. Unfortunately, as a list these items have become a cliche and lack the power to move us to action. We need to take each item individually and think about it more deeply.
Let’s take prayer as an example. In Primary and as investigators we learn a very simple four-step process for praying in public. And that’s all well and good. But what about our personal prayers? Are they pro forma, or are they powerful? I like to engage in what I call conversational prayer, in which I just speak with God as though he were sitting next to me and I were speaking with my Father. And I like to do this verbally. I often do this while driving in the car (and luckily I live in the age of bluetooth, so I have not yet been committed…).
I have a friend who read a book about Jewish liturgy, and he told me there was a section on the seven types of Jewish prayer. One was the prayer of complaint. That made an impression on me; when was the last time you complained to God in prayer? I’m not specifically advocating that; what I am advocating is that we share our deepest thoughts and feelings with God in our prayers, from our fondest hopes, dreams and desires to our darkest concerns, worries and fears, and yes, even our complaints, if you have them. Nothing should be off the table. Yes, one can say God already knows these things about us, but he has asked us to be proactive in bringing them to him, as we read in James 4:8: “Draw nigh [near or close] to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” If we take the initiative to draw close to God, he will respond and draw close to us.
I have some additional ideas for how to draw closer to God beyond the Sunday School Answers:
1. Do something creative. Our God is a creator god, El qoneh eth-hashamayim w’eth ha’arets “God, creator of the heavens and of the earth,” and all that in them is. Creation is a divine activity. We all have God-given talents, and we should exercise and hone them, whether we create something beautiful or useful. Sing, draw, write, build, design, repair; do whatever brings you joy, from throwing a pot, to tying a quilt, to working on the car in the driveway on a Saturday afternoon.
2. Experience the natural world. God created this world, and it is glorious and beautiful. It is here for our experience, and we should take advantage of that and explore it. I know for many of you this only applies to the Wasatch mountains–and I was born in Utah, so I understand. But guess what? God also created the midwest. He created Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan–and even Illinois! The next time you have a three-day weekend, get off the couch and go somewhere to experience nature up close and personal.
3. Exercise. My father died of a heart attack the night before our wedding reception. He was 51 years old. I stand before you today at age 53. Nothing is a starker reminder of our own mortality than outliving a parent and being older than the age he achieved in this life. To me at this point, every day is a gift. And although from an eternal perspective it’s immaterial whether I die in 30 years or tomorrow, from my current mortal perspective I’d just as soon it be the 30 years. So I exercise daily and try to eat well. We came to this earth specifically to gain these bodies and learn to use them. They are miraculous, glorious and beautiful. We must take care of them.
4. Music. Few things can affect us spiritually in as powerful a way as can music. In the week leading up to Easter, I made it a point to listen to the St. Matthew’s and St. John’s Passions, both by Bach, and Messiah by Handel, in preparation for my celebration of the resurrection of our Lord. For me, the music that moves me the most spiritually is the sacred art music of the Baroque; for my daughter, it might be the harpist and singer Joanna Newsom; for my wife, it might be The Replacements or Wilco. Find whatever moves you spiritually and make it a part of your life.
5. The Temple. The graduate school of drawing closer to God is the temple, and we are fortunate to have one just down Euclid in Glenview. The temple represents ritualistically the atonement of Jesus Christ. We approach the temple separated from God, estranged. As we conclude the ceremony, we draw near to God, are reconciled, and become once again at one, or “atone.” We embrace, and then once again enter into his presence. The ceremonies of the temple are a way for us in the here and now of this mundane world to grasp, however briefly and ephemerally, the promise of eternal life together with God in the celestial glory.
In 2 Peter 1:4, we read of how we are given exceeding great and precious promises, whereby we might be partakers of the divine nature. That we might so partake, in this mortal realm and in the eternities beyond, is my hope and prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.