Sunday Sermon: The Spirit Abides

d5651f961e6f3c93b4292c0cf150e715I gave this talk today in my ward in the D.C. Metro area.

When I joined the church in 2002, I came into this faith backwards. I was raised in a gently agnostic home by good parents in a melting pot of the west—San Francisco. Yes, you can be agnostic and value home life, children, your community, and country. My parents did a fine job raising conscientious, moral children—while they may not have believed, they tried to allow room in the margins of our lives for their children to discover their own beliefs.

When I approached the missionaries I was already a wife and mother, and had been church shopping for quite some time. I had visited dozens of churches of different denominations, some Christian, others not. When I found the missionaries and asked to be baptized (yes, I am that person) as a Mormon, I wasn’t even sure I believed in Jesus, but I had received a searingly powerful witness that God was real—that was it. That was all I had. That witness was my mustard seed, holding the tiny bits of faith I had collected over my lifetime.

One of the gifts I was given by God, even before my baptism, was feeling the burning and the whispering of the Spirit—in fact, I had felt it all my life, in different moments and times, but hadn’t the spiritual vocabulary to give it a name.

When I waded down into the warm, blue tiled font to waiting hands who lovingly recited the simple, beautiful prayer of baptism, what I recall vividly is the feeling of rising up out of the warm water, anew. It was fleeting, but it was a moment of perfection. The perfection lay not in me, but around me—for the very briefest of moments, in what I can only call the light of Christ. I knew there would never be perfection in the mortal veil, but I was granted a glimpse of the potential; of what might be, through the grace of God.

One of the things I found perplexing as a new member—and to some extent, still do—was the language at church around the Spirit. Frequently, I hear people talk about how the Spirit will flee, or cannot be present in the face of anger or other unpleasant human emotional responses.

This seems to be almost like a pet notion, a litmus test for the person who was talking; whatever a particular person finds distasteful or unsavory could be labeled offensive to the Spirit. This fear can be used to subtly draw lines around our pre-conceived notions of who is and who is not worthy of the Spirit.

I want to call out that notion.

The Spirit of God, a unique member of the godhead with God the Father and his son Jesus Christ, whose mission and purpose is to comfort the World, is not something fragile that humans can break. The Spirit of God is the truth, and the truth cannot be broken.

The Spirit I know is not afraid of the dark. The Spirit I know is not afraid of the darkness and pain that can be found in the world, and the spirit that I know is unfazed by the complex human fears and frailties that can hide inside of each of us. The spirit I know doesn’t hide from human sorrow, fury, failing, or pain.

The Spirit I know walked next to me, whispered to me in the times of my life when I was most lost, and in the company of people some Mormons might use as cautionary tales. The Spirit rested his peace on me when I cried and cursed God and doubted His existence. The Spirit was there in the dark with me, and the Spirit is there for every person seeing truth. How could it be any other way?

One of the things coming into my faith this way taught me was that there was nothing I could do to change that light. It exists, steady and calm and eternal, outside of the fallen world. Just as the grace of Christ is a gift without end and without qualification, so too is the light of the Spirit that brings us back to Him.

I could choose to look away. I could curse and cry and rage—and sometimes I did—but the Spirit never turned away, the Spirit never flinched. If there was a turning away, it was always my own faltering. It was through testing this, much like a child, that I finally learned to trust God.

That trust is what enabled me to have the oil in my lamp to find my footing and gingerly move towards Christ. There were pools of light whispering directly to my heart that God knew and loved me and was aware of my human struggle and pain, even among his lost sheep—maybe even specially among his lost sheep.

Jesus wants each and every one of us to return to him and his Father. It doesn’t matter where we find ourselves, or what mistakes we might have made. He loves us. He grants his light without reservation, if we are willing to look.

Faith requires grace-filled choices of us; it’s difficult to look up when we are at our lowest, in some of the most difficult and painfully challenging moments of our lives. But if we do, He is there. We must remember and hold onto the glimpses of light we’ve been given, even when we feel the weakest and most besieged.

It’s a herculean effort, and sometimes we break. But the Lord knows us; even when we have trouble finding His hand, it’s there.

Mormons are taught from the cradle that the Lord not only loves each of us, but that we are uniquely valued and known deeply and personally to God.  We are unique. We are valued. We are invited to come as we are and lay our offering—however meager—at the table of the Savior.

As I look back over the years since my baptism, I can see patterns and wisdom that were lost to me when I was too close. There is no doubt our own agency and the agency of others can bring agonizing pain and hollowing sorrow—but like glaciers, and sometimes just as slowly, depending on our hearts—that glacial carving creates a collection place; and internal reservoir for compassion, reverence and love in ways nothing else could. It is refining in its finest form..

We sometimes imagine we are fragile creatures—and can we project that fragility onto the Spirit of God. We want to see the end from the beginning. And yet, it is only through testing and trial that we learn we are resilient, flexible, and strong like the sap-filled bought of spring. God knows this—even as we doubt and cling to our fears.

While I am sure Spirit can happily dwell in peaceful homes where kind words are uttered and appetites are moderate, I testify that the Spirit can just as easily illuminate the divine even for people who have never yet considered Jesus their savior, and whose edges were (and maybe still are) as ragged and rough-hewn as mine.

The light of Christ is for everyone. Everyone. It is not the place of any human to erect boundaries around where the light of Christ may shine. Black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, citizen or refugee, Mormon or not, the light of Jesus Christ is for everyone. For God so loved the WORLD (not the U.S., not Mormons, not the righteous, not the faithful, not only those in a knee-length skirt or white shirt and tie, but THE WORLD) that he gave his only begotten son.

We sometimes like to imagine that a person who sins differently that we do doesn’t deserve the light, or that we should take punitive actions to make sure a particular sin is somehow amplified. WE do not get to make those decisions. Even when the woman taken in adultery was brought before the Savior, he cast no stone. We do not know what he wrote in the dust as he knelt in contemplation before the woman and the angry crowd, but I imagine it was each and every one of our names.

Allow me to say it again: The Light of Christ is for EVERYONE.

The Lord knows what we need, and sometimes a heart, like a tiny seed buried in the earth, has to break open for the magnificent potential within to grow—to push out of darkness, where all mustard seeds sprout, and force its way up, through a seeming miracle, towards the light of Christ.

Every peron’s journey to God is their own, but our collective faith is stronger and richer for the unique contributions each of us bring to the board of the Savior. Now a Mormon for almost fifteen years, I smile and move on when people whisper about things from which the Spirit will flee. In the hearty and ravaged lands where God sent His Spirit to find me and bring me home, that light was, and always will be, unwavering.

Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Wow, thank you for this. I will save it in my little file of things worth keeping.

  2. This is beautiful, Tracy, Thank you.

  3. Yes, it’s beautiful on many levels, Tracy; thank you.

    It would be lovely as a personal essay alone, but I appreciate it especially as a talk in church, an actual sermon with a point and a purpose. Instead of the usual “book report” where a speaker has looked up quotations on the topic de jour, you teach as someone with experience, not mere book larnin’. Thank you, thank you.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    (Standing ovation.) Did anyone in the congregation get the vapors?

  5. People were very kind and receptive. If I offended anyone, they didn’t make it known to me.

    Ardis, that means a lot to me. Thank you.

  6. Love this. Thank you so much Tracy for writing this and speaking this. I absolutely agree that it is a pet notion of many members to label unpleasant things as Not Of The Spirit. But I’m so glad that that’s not true, that the Spirit of God really is for everyone.

    I’m glad many more people have been invited to ponder this truth.

  7. Hope Wiltfong says:

    Love this, and agree fully.

  8. Tiberius says:

    +1 this. Some of my most piercing, calming moments with the spirit have been in my angry “where art thou!” moments or when I’ve been neck deep in sin with no idea how to get out. My lived experience of how the spirit operates is so contrary to the whole “you have to do X,Y, and Z exactly right or else the spirit will flee” sentiment that is so often preached in Mormon missions and congregations.

  9. Very welcome. Thank you. My own journey is very much different than typical over-the-pulpit teaching. So far as I can tell, the differences are not related to faithfulness or righteousness (so maybe I’m not the prime-est audience for this talk), but sufficiently different that it is easy to feel like a stranger in a familiar place.

  10. Carolyn says:

    Wow. This is incredible. Thank you.

  11. Christopher Jones says:

    I sometimes find myself annoyed that Mormons refer to their weekly sermonettes as “talks.” But if I’m being honest, most of what is said over the pulpit probably does not qualify as a “sermon,” and the “talk” descriptor is probably best.

    But this? This is a sermon. This is expounding the scriptures and exhorting the church in the best and fullest possible sense.

    Thank you for this beautiful sermon, Tracy.

  12. Jason K. says:

    Thank you, Tracy. Like Ardis, I love this as a sermon, and I wish that I heard more like it.

  13. Kristine N says:

    Thank you Tracy. I recognize the truth here. The times I have felt the spirit most strongly are the times I have been sad and angry and railing against God for testing me so severely. The Lord would be an unloving father if he did not comfort us in our deepest, darkest struggles. Thank you for the reminder.

  14. Applause.

  15. Beautiful words and message, Tracy. Thank you for sharing this. I love it.

  16. Thank you for sharing. After a long Sunday it was a great read. Had I been in your ward with you today I would have let out a loud amen. Growing up my father used to teach us that the Spirit would never leave us and would always be present. We just don’t always listen or hear and thus don’t always recognize the “manifestations.”

  17. Aaron B says:

    What everyone else said. Simply lovely.

  18. Chadwick says:

    Thank you for sharing this; I feel uplifted.

  19. Marivene says:

    love this.

  20. Rachel Whipple says:

    Amen. Thank you, Tracy, for sharing this talk. It is a message of love and hope and a subtle rebuke grounded in scripture: key elements of a good sermon.

  21. your food allergy is fake says:

    These are remarkable observations. Reading this, one feels the weight of authority lent by Tracy’s own experiences. And my experiences and intuition would agree. However, I am bothered a bit by D&C 1:33, and would love to hear Tracy and others’ interpretation.

  22. Tiberius says:

    I think this hinges on popular Mormon beliefs about works versus grace versus what (IMHO) is warranted with scripture, experience, words of prophets, etc. The idea that you have to be obedient with exactness (in other words, perfect) to qualify for the spirit is a clear works-based theology that doesn’t accept the atonement. However, not making efforts to accept the atonement (however one identifies it in their proto-belief, mustard seed stage) is a simple agentic decision; and I have no problem believing that people who are not making the effort will not have the spirit. If somebody systematically cheats old people out of their retirement and has no compunction about it, I doubt she’ll be getting a lot of warm fuzzies.

    It’s interesting that D&C 1:3 footnotes D&C 121:37. Intent is everything; in the “where art thou?” moments we are sill groping, however clumsily, for more light, and our personal ambition is the last thing on our minds. Certainly nobody can accuse us of being complacent. Compare that to somebody who is trying to “gratify their pride, or exercise control of compulsion” who doesn’t think there’s a problem and is making no moves to change.

  23. Regarding D&C 1 (verse 33 and others), I read this whole section as essentially a charge to missionaries and leaders/preachers (“And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days. And they shall go forth and none shall stay them, for I the Lord have commanded them.” v. 5-6)
    From that point of view, verse 33 (“And he that repents not, from him shall be taken even the light which he has received; for my Spirit shall not always strive with man, saith the Lord of Hosts.”) reads as “if you don’t do the work and don’t repent, you will be sent home.”
    Now it is true that there are popular Mormon teachings that equate magnifying one’s calling with personal righteousness and closeness to the Spirit. But that is not a necessary move. It doesn’t feel right to me. The personal journey seems to have a much longer arc, one that encompasses all people and all the depths and heights and complexity of mortality.

  24. I really cannot weigh in on what the correct (if any) translation of that scripture is–that’s not my specialty nor my gift. What I know is things have been wrong and/or misinterpreted in the scriptures for millennia, and I do not read them literally. Nor do I believe we were meant to.

    My personal experience is where I base my testimony, where I base my faith, and where I base my knowledge of the light of God. What God has shown me is more real than any theological summersault that a line of scripture *insofar as it is translated correctly* can tell me.

  25. Leonard R says:

    Just want to add my thank you and amen.

  26. Amen to what Ardis and others have said. Great sermon. Thank you for posting it here for our benefit as well.

  27. Jami La Moure says:

    So beautiful and so true. Thank you, Tracy.

  28. momba2012 says:

    When you are refering to the Spirit of Christ are you meaning the Holy Ghost? It’s confusing. Can anyone clarify?

  29. momba2012 says:

    Oops…referring

  30. To me, they are the same.

  31. This is fantastic, and we need more talks like this. Loud, pulpit talks; forceful “I was lost but now am found” talks. We are too ready to equate discomfort with unrighteousness. We need to be ready to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; to be uncomfortable ourselves, to sup more often with prostitutes and tax collectors and learn to see ourselves in them.

  32. Cody Hatch says:

    Thank you for sharing this. It is beautiful.

  33. Thank you for this. I will keep a copy of it for “brush up” reading.

  34. I agree with you and perhaps it’s just terminology that is mistakenly used by the members you’ve heard speak of the Spirit fleeing. The Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost (which is bestowed upon every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) are not the same. When we engage in behavior that is contrary to the teachings of Christ, the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost may still be around us, but we may have lost our ability to feel, sense and listen to the promptings from them. I believe that’s what most people mean when they say the Spirit flees when we sin. We can put ourselves in situations where we do not want to hear.

  35. You can parse it out that way, certainly. But you engage (we all engage) in behavior every day that is contrary to Jesus’s teachings. Every. Day. We don’t stop and give the beggar our cloak. We don’t give up our last morsel of food. We don’t offer our homes to the homeless man. We falter in our faith. We are imperfect. Every. Day.

    Where do you draw the line where you are entitled to the Holy Ghost but someone else is not? That’s the entire point of my talk.

    What I am saying is that when I was in place where Mormons would claim the Spirit should flee, that he was there for me. He went there, and he found me. By some Mormon claims, I shouldn’t have bene able to see or recognize his presence, yet there it was, and there I was, and there I saw.

    I meant it when I said that no one can or should put fences around where the Spirit, the Light, the Holy Ghost, whatever you need to call hime, can go/shine/help. If those fences make you feel safe, that’s fine for you, but I testify that my experience with the Spirit/Holy Ghost was far deeper, far more earthly, and far more willing to walk the broken road with me.

  36. Just an echo — my experience is like Tracy M’s (and Tracy’s OP/sermon). There is no line in the sand, no distance too far, for me and for some of my very closest friends.

    My own refinement would be that there does seem to be a constrained “Mormon” world within which a certain level of right behavior and a certain level of in-line by-the-book inspiration and a certain level of testimony all hang together. It feels to me more like wearing blinders and choosing in advance to reject anything that doesn’t fit the mold, than like a free and joyous experience with the Spirit/Holy Ghost/G_d. But that’s about my rocky journey, not to dictate for anyone else.

  37. For Tracy M. — The thing I love most about these posts are the unique perspectives many have on various subjects. Each and every one of us has the need and the social responsibility to share their perspective. While I agree with some of what Tracy M. states I am convinced that there are times where the Lord is “grieved” and the Spirit does shrink. When I say shrink I truly mean it withdraws and leaves the offending party to their own devices. There are many examples but one comment already brings out D&C 1: 33; and there are others. See D&C 121: 34 – 40 where the Lord is firm in saying “Amen” to their supposed authority; and even when one’s heart appears to be “right” we find in 1 Chronicles 13: 9, 10 where God does not condone even a “righteous” breakaway from His will; even Martin Harris’s experience with being one of the Three Witnesses and how the Heavenly vision was withheld was due in part to what Martin called his sin regarding the “lost manuscripts”. There are many others but what I love abouit Tracy M.’s talk is the idea that we should never judge another and especially their relationship with their Lord and their God. While there are definite things that will “grieve” the Holy Spirit…..not a single one of us is in a position to judge another and Tracy M. brings that out excellently.

  38. Of course there is human behavior that dulls our sensitivity and keeps us from feeling the Spirit/HG/LofC. But I submit that turning-away is and always will be ours. I’m not going to list my sins, but a Mormon would have no problem saying I had no right to the Spirit. Yet I am testifying to you, that when I cried, when I looked up, the Spirit/HG/LofC was *right there* with me. As I said before, the failing was mine, not God’s. He sent his spirt to find me–as he does and will to every last person. He’s promised us that.

    If anyone needs to place constraints on that for God, I submit that says more about that person than it does about the love of God.

  39. FWIW, I’ve come to see Martin Harris’s experience as Martin failing initially, to have the faith to believe that he had been forgiven.

    And the irony about the notion that the Spirit is so easily offended is that, when combined with the sometimes prevalent idea that taking offense is inherently a moral failing, it seems to hold humans to a higher standard that God.

    I wouldn’t put limits on the Holy Ghost by saying that the Holy Ghost can never choose to be offended or withdraw, but I also don’t believe that the Holy Ghost is a shrinking violet that gets the vapors and needs to go rest. And if I’m to believe the scriptures and my own experience, the Holy Ghost is usually offended more by cruelty and abuse of authority–things like unrighteous dominion–than he is by breaches of ritual purity–things like somebody saying a swear word or ingesting a forbidden substance.

  40. I, nor anyone with spiritual logic, would put contstraints on God. His Mercy and Grace are freewill gifts that each of us are benefactors of. Your comment is telling – “…when I looked up…” is an act on your part to correct your path and make it conforming to the God you serve. When any one of us takes the path of turning away from our God we are telling Him that our path is better than His path. God never fails in His work and that is to Exalt you and I and those of His children who are willing to pay the price of Discipleship. If we willingly or stubbornly pit our will against His will then He most assuredly will pull back and withdraw. That is not a constraint I’m putting on God but it is a consequence of my willful and premeditated disobedience to His will. God would never close off a path of returning Grace and Mercy as we strive to do His will…though we might fail many times; we are still facing toward our God and not away from Him in our desires to become the being He sees in us. God has perfect love…we do not. And none have the right to judge another in their path.

  41. I agree with what you are saying. You are the first person besides me to express this. Yes, the phrase can be used to judge and sounds rather holy. I think it’s one of those old motivational, shame-based sayings that actually is not very accurate–akin to “don’t drive faster than your guardian angels can fly” as though the angels have a speed limit. I think the scriptures do express that the Holy Ghost may depart from someone, yet that seems to be because of a person’s repeated choice to not listen. I have been in some very unholy places physically or spiritually where I was still comforted or guided. When a person sins I thought the Spirit could not be there for a while, yet by Grace now I know I can pray and ask for comfort, guidance, or forgiveness immediately after recognizing sin. Grace covers a lot–I cannot make myself worthy to feel the Spirit–only Christ can–through his Spirit!

  42. It sounds to me, as I read through these comments that everyone is basically saying the same thing. The spirit of Christ lights everything and everyone in the world. The only way it becomes dull is if the person turns away from it either on purpose or from lack of understanding. If you all recall, the Savior Himself came to Saul on the road to Damascus to reclaim him from the havoc Saul was doing to the Saints. An angel appeared to Alma the Younger to reclaim him, even though he was a very wicked and adulterous man. God goes about gathering His children wherever they are or from whatever dark places they may be in, when He sees that their hearts are seeking. Even though their actions don’t show it.

  43. I’m not going to list my sins, but a Mormon would have no problem saying I had no right to the Spirit.

    Not this Mormon. Seems to me that the Spirit goes away when we drive him away, but that is a deliberate act on our part. When we open our hearts to let him in, there he is. Otherwise, I would never have been baptized; there would be no converts. The Spirit strives with us; it can never be so easy as “once we sin, the Spirit deserts us.” That’s a gross oversimplification.

    I think it’s easier to prooftext the writings of modern prophets than it is to prooftext Scripture, and that’s saying a lot.

  44. I hope it was ok but I had to share this to Facebook! It is the most precious and probably most valuable thing I have read in years… This was just what I needed to hear this morning which is 4AM on Friday the last day of June 2017! I am drinking coffee and about to go medicate and resuper the five been yards that we harvested this week. I hope you got the comment on another post introducing myself! If you didn’t I will try again later with the intro to me! Thank you for writing this….

  45. Insightful and well-said.