Divine covenants make strong Christians.
–Elder D. Todd Christofferson, 4 April 2009
One of the recurring themes of this conference–not just Elder Christofferson’s talk, but Elder Oaks, Elder Bednar, and others–was the importance of temple worship. Elder Christofferson begins with a story, of a woman in Chincha, Peru, beset with tragedy–the lost of a home and material possessions in an unusually powerful earthquake–yet firm in faith, composure, perspective, and even a kind of self-mastery ( the absence of which would probably render me hysterically dysfunctional). “I have prayed and I am at peace….We have each other, we have our children, we are sealed in the temple, we have this marvelous Church, and we have the Lord.” Elder Christofferson moves from this salient example into generalizations about the kinds of trials we, as LDS, will likely face in life: personal tragedy and temptation, moral relativism and militant atheism. Importantly, though, the opening story furnishes an example not so much of the hardships that threaten us, but of the “profound power” and “spiritual strength” that so many of the saints experience throughout the world.
The nature of this moral and spiritual power is not clear. But its source is God, and we access it not just through faith, commitment to doctrinal principles, accepting Jesus as our personal Savior, paying tithing, or attending Church but through the covenants we make and keep with Him–covenants we enact and embrace in the waters of baptism and in the temple. They are administered by the priesthood–indeed, they are the very purpose of priesthood. The making and keeping of covenants open conduits through which God’s power gains direct access to us, sanctifying, sustaining, and exalting us, a real, deeply-felt, meaningful power in the face of equally real, and sometimes overwhelming or devastating, power.
This power of God is made manifest through the Holy Ghost/Spirit which we elect to receive through covenant, and which transforms us–as individuals and as a community–into something sacred, literally walling us off from the destructive influence of the world, consecrating and sanctifying us as a people. And as the Holy Spirit is a sanctifying agent, entering our lives and our selves and rendering us sacred, so we, under its divine influence, become agents in the creation of sacred space, ourselves manifesting to others the power of God, His love, and conferring upon them a source of strength. Our bodies filled with the sanctifying influence of God’s Spirit, we become the Body of Christ, members of a sacred community, “powerful instruments for good” in God’s hands.
On the surface, the talk feels a bit old hat, and a lesson on facing adversity would hardly be complete without a token reference to the persecutions of Paul. Yet bringing the story of Paul into his sermon augments the immediacy by closing a textual gap: placing the image of an ancient Apostle not confounded before his worldly enemies alongside an image of a confidant woman whose strength, sense of purpose, and human dignity cannot be vanquished by even the most violent, devastating calamities.
He closes with an unusually focused, almost technical testimony, and his departure here from the standard talking points (Thomas S. Monson is a living prophet, First Vision, etc.) empowers his specific claim: “I testify that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is found the priesthood authority to administer the ordinances by which we can enter into binding covenants with our Heavenly Father in the name of His Son.”
About a year ago, I accepted a calling to serve as an ordinance worker in the Detroit temple. Once a week, I make a 45-minute drive and spend the evening immersed in the sacred space reserved for binding, divine covenants and vicarious service. Mormon intellectuals are often fond of describing how their testimonies are complex and nuanced, how belief in this or that doctrinal proposition or organizational principle are complicated by their heroically complicated worldview (“well, what does it really mean to say he is a prophet?”; “what are we really talking about when we say ‘historicity’ of the Book of Mormon?”; “how can a ‘church’ be true?”). And, of late, various corners of the naccle abound with heated discussion about what kind of Mormon, what kind of belief, what kind of public declarations of faith, what kind of commitment are the right kinds (or the wrong kinds).
I’ll try to steer clear of such trainwreckery here; and while it’s not especially common to close a blog post with a testimony, given the genre mix of this particular little essay, I leave you the following–and note that the region of my faith perhaps least determined by my intellectual life, most mysterious, even a bit mystical, is also the most unambiguous:
Whatever the precise nature of the power that flows from the temple into my life and the life of my family, it is real. If nothing else I can describe it as what is manifestly absent in the times when I am unable to attend. I’m certain of it. The sealing power found in the temple, at the hands of quiet, mild-mannered old men not otherwise encumbered with administrative duties, is real, perhaps the most real power any of us will encounter in mortality. And I genuinely believe, however else one might define his position, office, power, or authority, that President Monson is the only person living with the keys to unlocking that power in the lives of people throughout an otherwise uncertain world.