This is a transcript of a sermon given in the Romford ward, January 8th 2012. I have only just managed to get round to writing it up . Thanks to John Fowles for his help in preparing the transcript.
The Book of Mormon prophet Alma taught, while referring to Church his father had established: “Behold, he [God] changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word”
To convert is to change from one status to another, and gospel conversion consists in the transformation of man from his fallen state to a state of grace. Similarly, the word ‘repentance’ also conveys a sense of turning around or changing course. So the words ‘conversion’ and ‘repentance’ both capture a certain sense in which we need to turn (meaning to change direction) in order to be transformed. In both repentance and conversion we turn to God, but why? Because he calls to us.
Like old friends whose paths cross in the street, he calls to us; and if we hear him we turn around. This recalls many stories from our scriptures. I remember the accounts of Saul walking along the road to Damacus, who, according to Luke, was surrounded by a blinding light and to whom God called ‘Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?’ Paul responds and, turning toward the Lord, is transformed, or converted, through their encounter.
Adam & Eve, after eating the fruit, hide from the Lord when they hear him walking in the garden (God’s call is not always extended vocally but through his presence). Then he calls to them, ‘Where art thou?’ and they respond. They are changed through their subsequent encounter with God.
From these narratives, I would suggest that conversion is the transformation that occurs as we consistently respond to the call of God. If we are to be involved in this process of conversion we need to see and hear God’s call, either through his voice, his presence, through the presence of another, as in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (when ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me), or through their counsel or testimony (To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God… To others it is given to believe on their words’).
Another story also comes to mind. Nephi condemns Laman & Lemuel for being unable to feel God’s words; they could hear God call to them. It is possible to ascribe many reasons for why this might be the case, but I suspect if we think about our own lives that we are also probably guilty of being just as insensitive to God’s call.
It is true that sometimes God’s call is unexpected; that God interrupts our lives. I have experienced that as a young man at University. As I queued to formally enroll in my Business Economics degree I heard God call an unworthy and less-active young man without faith to go on a mission. Certainly, God interrupts.
But it also seems to me that it is very easy for us to become distracted and to therefore miss God’s call. Our lives are over-determined by a variety of pressures. Recently I read in an article entitled ‘The Joy of Quiet‘ from the New York Times (ht: Jacob Baker). According to the author, ‘The average office worker today… enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at his or her desk without interruption.’ This is not unique to office work but to many of our professions which are all influenced by modern technology. It is easy to be distracted.
Mormons teach their children (and their adults for that matter) to pray in a particular way: on our knees, arms folded and head bowed. Although the position is somewhat arbitrary, in many ways, this serves a particular purpose because it is an unusual posture for people in our society. Most people I know do not usually sit in this fashion. As such its novelty serves to demarcate, to separate, to set-apart that time and space for something holy, something other than worldly concerns. However if that becomes a habit in itself, if that posture or practice becomes routine, its power to help us step out of side of the flow of life is diminished.
Maybe you are a little different from me but there are times when I find it difficult to pray and to fast and to read my scriptures. Very often I find myself mechanically moving through a set process without much feeling. Just the other night as I knelt to pray, I felt words coming out of my mouth. Words that we might all recognise as a good prayer for good things, but those words lacked any intensity or significance.
I fear that over time the very practices which are supposed to rupture our daily routines actually become a part of it; and if they do then we will perhaps fail to hear God’s call through those practices. I want to ask the question, therefore, if our prayers, or reading or fasting has become routine, what can we do to bring new life to these practices?
My answer is ‘Change’! Even slight change requires anew our attention. By changing the practice we once again break the monotony and routine of our lives and begin to move into that space where we wait upon the Lord. So what novelty or change might we bring to these spiritual practices and how might that assist us in feeling God’s call to us to change our lives?
I have already mentioned the power of posture in prayer and yet, according to the scriptures, praying on your knees is only one example of the type of posture appropriate for prayer. For example, within the scriptures there are people who pray standing up (sometimes with arms outstretched), sometimes they pray to music, sometimes people pray sitting down, or lying on their bed, and they even pray by prostrating themselves on the floor, like Jesus did in Gethsemane.
Posture is something we can easily change in prayer which also might aide us in breaking the habitual or repetitious elements of our prayer. For example, when we pray with arms raised to heaven we experience prayer differently than when we pray kneeling next to the bed. When I praying sitting I feel more open to God than when I pray on my knees.
Another way to change our prayer practice is through touch. Holding hands with someone as we pray for them makes a difference to the experience of that prayer. At such times, I do not pray with them, using the generic and formal ‘we’, but I pray for them using the expressive ‘I‘. ‘I pray that X will have…’ Could we hold the hand of those who are suffering and struggling as we pray for them? Could we hold the hands of our children, our parents or our spouses as express our love for them through prayer? The temple suggests that touch is an important component of prayer.
Five forms of prayer are often recognised in Christian theology: Gratitude, Worship, Intercession, Petition and Confession. As Mormons we tend to mix these forms of prayer into one unit. Perhaps we could work harder to break these into separate experiences. Monday could be our day for gratitude and Tuesday our day of praise. My experience suggests that Praise is an underutilized way of communicating with God for Latter-day Saints. As I tried this some while ago I found it difficult to praise God, but as I persisted I felt my heart expand in my love for Him. Yet, I only found that voice (and that expansive love) after I compelled myself to engage with God in a different way.
Lastly, one Mormon writer, Adam Miller, has suggested that we listen more in prayer. He suggests we pray for 15mins but using only 2mins for expressing our desires. Instead we ponder, we wait and we listen for God’s call. As I practiced this over the summer months this last year I realised something about myself: I am incredibly selfish. I could not focus my mind on the things of God without becoming distracted for more than a few minutes. God called me to change through this form of prayer; and I am still working on being transformed in this area.
These thoughts on prayer lead me to contemplate our attention to fasting in the Gospel as part of this process of listening for God’s call or feeling his presence. The Bible includes many practices associated with fasting that we currently do not use. In the New Testament, Jesus counseled people to anoint their head as part of their fast.
Certainly our fasting practices as a Church focus on going without food and water for 24 hours, or two meals. However, I believe there is more than one way to fast, especially for those who cannot for one reason or another go without food or water for that period of time. In just the last few weeks I have had a number of conversations with diabetics who cannot fast in that way. Can they still fast? My response has been: Yes. Perhaps these people could go without certain foods for a day or a week, or longer. Perhaps Mormons could adopt a practice similar to Lent, where we give up certain foods for an extended period of time.
Further, the NYT article I mentioned earlier suggested that perhaps an ‘internet fast’, a fast from mobile phones or perhaps even television is something that might help us find that stillness which often precedes hearing God’s voice.
Fasting for another or with another is something that can open our hearts. Today we have been fasting for a member of our stake who has cancer. Although I do not know God’s will concerning his life I do know that by fasting for that family I have felt a greater degree of compassion for them and a desire to respond now, in the present, with the help I can give to lift and bless them. Isaiah indicates that fasting should draw our hearts outward to the poor and the afflicted in our community, but it will only do that as our temporary hunger (need) reminds us of their hunger (need). Surely, if we faithfully fast, we will no longer ‘persist in turning [our] backs upon the poor and the needy, and in withholding [our] substance from them’ (Alma 5:55). And if we only fast for things we need I suspect we have missed one of the primary purposes for the law of the fast.
In a recently published book, entitled ‘Flunking Sainthood’, Jana Riess, a convert to the Church, tried to adopt a series of spiritual practices for a month each. She practiced Ramadan, meditative mindfulness and Christian vegetarianism among others. She found that she failed at almost every single one, hence the title; but she also found that God is pleased with us for trying. Perfectly practicing these activities is not necessary for us to hear God’s voice, rather God values the struggle to live a life where we can hear his call.
She writes: ‘These were practices that were done far from perfectly. In a culture that stresses perfection I have often heard the maxim that good is often the enemy of perfect. In other words when people of faith aim for anything less than godliness we miss the mark. I have learned that perfect is the enemy of good. I may have spent a year flunking sainthood but along the way I have had unexpected epiphanies and wild glimpses of the holy I would never have experiences without these… practices.’
So, we have to ask ourselves the painful question: have we been converted? ‘Have [we] been spiritually born of God? Have [we] received his image in [our] countenances? Have [we] experienced this mighty change in [our] hearts?’ (Alma 5:14). God is truly calling us to be transformed into his image, and as we respond to his voice by turning to him we will be changed. We urgently need to make time to hear his voice and to bring novelty to our spiritual practice (see Alma 5:51). My experience has confirmed that unexpected epiphanies and wild glimpses of the holy will come to us. Further my experience confirms that we will hear God’s call through both God’s presence in our lives and the presence of other people.