“Love Never Faileth”

Do you ever read the signs in front of Christian churches as you drive past? You can find hilarious collections of these spiritual messages online.

Here are some of my favorites:

HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS, TEXT WHILE DRIVING IF YOU WANT TO MEET HIM.

I WAS ADDICTED TO THE HOKEY­POKEY THEN I TURNED MYSELF AROUND

CHURCH PARKING ONLY. VIOLATORS WILL BE BAPTIZED.

One beautiful summer morning, I was was cheered by a sign in front of the Lutheran church on 9800 South. They had switched the words from a familiar Christian children’s song to “Jesus K​nows​ Me, This I L​ove”​.

Why does a simple transposition of the words “love” and “know” make such a difference to me? The original version, “Jesus loves me, this I know”, is tried and true. It is one of the fundamental aspects of my faith. But as comforting as this phrase can be, it doesn’t tell me h​ow ​Jesus loves me. My problem‐solving brain wants to understand the mechanics of this experience. So when I walked past that church marquee, just before the sun cleared the Wasatch Mountains, I was deeply affected by the message. Yes! Jesus really knows me, that is how His love works! And it feels so good to be known.

In a world where distortion is the norm, where the word reality is too often preceded by the word “virtual”, how joyful it is to know that the Lord sees us as our a​uthentic​selves. He doesn’t rely on our facebook profile, or our resume, or the perfect image on our family christmas card. To use Jacob’s words from the Book of Mormon, God sees us as we really are, our weaknesses as well as our divine potential.

So as I thought this week about Paul’s sermon on charity ‐‐ and the original greek word he used was agape ‐‐ which means divine love: God’s love for His children and His children’s love for God, also referred to by modern prophets as The Pure Love of Christ. it occurred to me that if charity means love, and Jesus loves me by truly knowing me, then if I am to follow his example, I need to love people by knowing them.

“A new Commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you….By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples; if ye have love one to another.”

That, as Jesus said is THE way we prove our discipleship to him. Not, by our devotion to prophesy, not by our knowledge of God’s mysteries, not our willingness to feed the poor, not even our faith in God himself is more important. Let me paraphrase Paul another way. You may read your scriptures daily and listen to every general conference, you may know where Kolob is, you may give 90% of your income to your local food pantry, you may have a personal testimony that God can literally move a mountain. But if you are not practicing love you are ‐‐ well the word that Paul used was pretty severe ‐‐ you are nothing. Ouch.

But hey, we Mormons are friendly folk, we love everyone, right? We’re cheerful, we serve in the church, we make casseroles, we rake leaves in the widow’s yard, we help out in the schools. We’re polite to others, we smile, we’re nice. Isn’t that love?

When Shipley and I were dating he was not a member of the church.

Only after he was baptized and we were engaged did he tell me that in those first couple months of our relationship he was very wary to take any loving words I might say to him too seriously. His assessment of LDS girls up to that time was that if they told you they loved you it was nothing to get excited about. All that Christian brotherly love stuff….Mormons love everybody,​it doesn’t mean anything, he thought.

So even though this isn’t a talk about romance, it does illustrate the point that a vague love for all mankind in the abstract doesn’t get you very far. C.S Lewis fans will remember that in T​he Screwtape Letters,​the devil encourages his student, a junior devil, to try to keep those he’s tempting to love others in a vague “spiritual” way. Pray for their souls, not for their rheumatism. If you keep humans practicing what they think is love in a way so far removed from the real thing, the devil argues, at a certain point that they will no longer be able to tell the difference. The devil boasts,

“I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment’s notice from impassioned prayer for a wife’s or son’s “soul”, to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.”

This is an extreme example, but Lewis’s fictitious devil has some truth to tell. The real work of loving people means accepting them in all their quirky, sometimes very difficult imperfection. It means loving people who are different from you. And from our closest family members to the someone on the other side of the world, everyone is different from everyone else.

Twenty years ago in my ward in Massachusetts a young man I didn’t know started coming to church. He had long hair, usually wore jeans, and smelled of cigarette smoke. Looking back, it was incredible how that smell of smoke almost neurologically triggered a judgement in my mind. He must have problems, I assumed. Problems I didn’t want me or my family to get involved in. Now I didn’t actively say anything mean to him ‐‐ I am a nice Mormon after all ‐‐ but maybe even worse was the way I simply wrote him off. I assumed he was completely irrelevant. I didn’t go up and welcome him to church or introduce myself, I just noticed that he was quietly in attendance for a few months and then he was gone. I was a busy mom after all, trying to raise five kids into productive human beings.

This story does not have a happy ending. I never saw him again, never learned his story. In retrospect I think, wow, it must have taken some courage for this young man to come to a place where everyone was dressed differently from him, a place where he was a stranger. Paul wrote that in Christ’s church we are no more strangers. I failed miserably in my responsibility to support this divine principle.

Why is it so easy for judgement to get in our way when it comes to loving other people? I think we come by it honestly. I’m no anthropologist, but it seems to me that we evolved with a natural fear of the individual who doesn’t fit into the tribe. This served us well when we were hunter‐gatherers, we needed to make snap judgements about whether someone was friend or foe; if they looked or acted different it probably wasn’t worth the risk to drop your guard. But just as the craving for salt, sugar, and fat that kept us alive on the savannah no longer serves us in an environment of plenty, this fear of The Other, particularly in a world where there are weapons of mass destruction, is less useful. But although it may be part of our genetic makeup to not get along, and Satan loves to use this impulse to keep us strangers from each other; the Good News of Jesus Christ is that we can move beyond fear.

And what do I mean by judging anyway? When Jesus tells us over and over in the scriptures not to judge, is he telling us that there is no right and wrong? Of course not, but he is teaching us that w​e​have no right to judge another because we are all sinners and we will n​ever ​have all the information necessary for such an undertaking. Only God knows the contents of the human heart, only God sees the private struggles that others never do. You’re probably all familiar with President Uchtdorf’s conference talk but I’m going to quote it here. We should memorize it and say it aloud every morning before breakfast:

We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children. God is our Father. We are His children. We are all brothers and sisters. I don’t know exactly how to articulate this point of not judging others with sufficient eloquence, passion, and persuasion to make it stick. I can quote scripture, I can try to expound doctrine, and I will even quote a bumper sticker I recently saw. It was attached to the back of a car whose driver appeared to be a little rough around the edges, but the words on the sticker taught an insightful lesson. It read, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.”
(Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy” LDS General Conference April 2012)

So in preparation for this talk, I thought if I am going to preach that really knowing someone and not judging them is how to practice the Pure Love of Christ, I better find an opportunity to do that. Who in the ward, despite the fact that they may be very different from me, could I get to know better? Now I’m naturally an introvert, kind of shy, and not very brave, so I wanted to find someone I knew was basically nice and not very scary. I called up Sally and Jack Davidson [not their real name] and asked if I could come over for a chat yesterday and they very graciously agreed.

When you walk up to the Davidson’s door there’s one of those signs that says “There’s nothing here worth dying for” and an outline of a human figure with shots through it. As most of us know, the Second Amendment is very important to Jack; he teaches a concealed carry class. So right there, we’ve got some differences. If you walked into my house you’d see signs supporting LGBT rights and Bernie Sanders for President.

We sat down and I learned that unlike Shipley and I , who have been in the ward for “only” 5 years, Sally and Jack have been in their home for 33 years. They have four kids who all live relatively close and just love time with their grandchildren. I envy them in that, my grandkids are in San Francisco. Sally has been at her job in medical billing for 22 years. She likes it because it’s always changing. We talked about the huge evolution in technology that Jack witnessed during his career in what used to be called the telephone industry, from switchboards to wireless. They told me the funny story of their courtship (once he got off his mission Jack was something of a speed dater at BYU before anyone had heard of the term). Jack, getting teary now, shared with me how much he loves his Temple Square security mission. I asked if I could see his gun collection ‐‐ I’d never seen a real gun that wasn’t in a policeman’s holster. He kindly brought them out and showed me how to hold one; I was surprised at how heavy they were. I wanted to know what motivated him to support gun rights and gun safety. He talked about his values: he cares about people feeling secure in their homes and their families being protected, he trains people to be smart and use their firearms responsibly. Then I saw another side of Jack and Sally ‐‐ her beautiful collection of figurines she inherited from her mother and Jack’s oil paintings ‐‐ he is a self taught artist. It was a lovely visit. And again ‐‐ Sally (Jack is at Temple square today) thanks for being my guinea pig.

These kind of interactions are important to me because they get me a little closer to the kind of unconditional love the Savior blesses us with. If I had just moved into the ward it would be easy to characterize Jack as That Gun Guy that I wanted to stay away from. My talk with Jack and Sally didn’t change my views on gun laws and gun violence, but it reminded me of the values that the Munsons and the Davidsons share, even though we may express them in different ways. To know them is to love them.

Our life in a ward gives us all kinds of opportunities to get to know each other. What we need to remind ourselves is that the less afraid we are of differences, the less difference will divide us. Satan wants us divided.

At the Saturday meeting in Stake Conference a couple weeks ago President Robbins used the words from the Beatles’ song “All You Need is Love” to open his talk. So with that precedent: the gospel explained through the pop music industry, I’m going to go even edgier than John Lennon and conclude with a story about the talented and tragic life of singer/ songwriter Amy Winehouse.

I didn’t know much about her until I saw the documentary that was released last year. She was a working‐class girl from London who caught fans and music critics by storm with her rich alto voice that blended rhythm and blues, pop, and jazz in a stunning way; on top of that she could craft gorgeous melodies with thoughtful, (if dark) lyrics. In the film we see thirteen‐ year‐old Amy in home videos grow into the incredibly gifted and incredibly troubled young woman that rose to stardom. As the years go by, painful family relationships, addiction, and eating disorders consume her. She has a giant nest of tangled black hair, lots of black eyeliner, enormous hoop earrings, skimpy clothes, and usually tottered on spike heels. Let’s just think for a minute ‐‐ how would we react if someone dressed like that walked into church? I hope, knowing what I know now, I would go up and introduce myself.

Despite Grammy awards, a string of hits, things get worse and worse for Amy. You see her incoherent on stage in front of thousands of fans.

Then the mood of the film changes significantly. Amy was asked by her idol, the eighty‐five‐year‐old, incredibly distinguished Tony Bennett, to record a duet with him for an upcoming album. The session at Abbey Road Studios is very moving. With no screaming fans, no paparazzi, you see the talented young woman that has been hiding underneath all that pain and sorrow. Her piled high black hair no longer distracts but sets off her striking face. A simple cashmere sweater gives her a serious sort of beauty. What you see at this moment in the film is Amy through the eyes of Tony Bennett who, virtuouso that he is, looked beyond the troubled celebrity, heard her remarkable gift and asked her to share it with him. Winehouse was quite overwhelmed by the whole experience until he put her at ease. Said Tony Bennett:

“She was very nervous to perform, but I said, ‘You know, it sounds like you’re influenced by Dinah Washington.’ And all of the sudden, her whole life changed. She said, ‘How did you know that Dinah Washington is my goddess?’ She did some Dinah Washington licks, and from that moment on, she just relaxed. And it came out wonderful. She was like, ‘Tony understands me, you know?'”

There you have it. That human connection. I don’t pretend to know the details of Amy Winehouse’s life, but what I saw in that moment on film was the power of love changing a person, if only for an hour.

Loving and serving our fellow human beings is deeply satisfying because if it is truly unconditional we expect nothing in return. Acts of love sometimes come at important turning points and make all the difference in someone’s life, but we have to be reconciled to the fact that this love Paul speaks of may come with no immediate reward. Perhaps we are just helping someone, for a few moments, know that they are not alone in their suffering.

The duet with Tony Bennett, “Body and Soul”, was the last recording Amy Winehouse made before she died of alcohol poisoning.

Henri Nouwen, a Catholic Priest and theologian wrote:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

The Savior is our model. The Atonement was the ultimate act of empathy. He has felt everything we feel, and is with us when we feel most alone. It is my prayer that we can be instruments in His hands: try to feel as others feel, and see all our brothers and sisters, in and out of the church, through His eyes. I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

 

Sacrament Meeting Talk, Pinehurst Ward, Sandy Utah February 28, 20016
Erika P. Munson