As is common in Mormon congregations, all the members share the responsibility to give the weekly talks (AKA sermons). I am one of the speakers today, and I thought I’d post my talk here.
The topic I was given was baptismal covenants:
When I was about 2/3rd’s of the way through my graduate program, the type of classes I took switched from the traditional classroom model to practical training in our campus clinic. My very first practical class was named “Advanced Counseling Skills” and for this class I was put into a supervision group with 4 of my peers and we were led by one of the program’s PhD candidates.
The very first night of class we took turns going into one of the counseling session rooms where we either played the role of counselor or client while the rest of our group watched over closed-circuit camera to monitor our skills. Once we had all had a chance to rotate through, we met up as a group to discuss our supervisor’s assessment of our skills. To the best of my memory, he opened our discussion with the comment, “Well, I didn’t see anything that scared me.”
That comment didn’t really go over well with my four peers and me. We all looked at him somewhat incredulously and he clarified that he saw potential, but that we had a lot of work to do. We spent the rest of the night discussing his assessment of us; it was emotional, tears were shed. Our supervisor eventually asked why, to us, his assessment of “showing potential” was interpreted as such an insult.
We all had a bit of input, but I remember what I said was that by this point in my graduate career I wanted to be better than “shows potential.” After all, I had been admitted to the program because my admissions packet “showed potential,” I passed my initial courses with an assessment of “showed potential.” I’d been working at this program for over a year and a half, when would I finally move beyond potential? When would someone look at my skills and come back with an assessment of “good,” “great,” or my hope beyond hope, “exceptional!”
My supervisor was gentle, but firm. Our skills were where he expected them to be, and we demonstrated the ability for further improvement, but we were still nascent therapists and were not ready for real clients yet. But we weren’t supposed to be, not at this point, that’s why we were only 2/3rd’s of the way through our program. We still had 1/3 of the program left to go, plus initial state licensing requirements, and to say nothing of ongoing life-long Continuing Education Units.
During my drive home that night I really tried to reevaluate myself and look at myself as a person in progression. To reframe my mind away from looking at myself working towards some state of finality, but rather see myself as an ever improving being. To be aware that I am something that is in constant change and hopefully, by being mindful of this constant state of change, I can at least focus these changes I will always be growing through towards improvement.
I think that this experience I went through serves as a good example for the baptismal covenants we have taken upon ourselves and renewed today by partaking of the sacrament. The covenants, as explained by Alma are so simple, but so profound:
• We are desirous to come into the fold of God and be called his people
• We are willing to bear one another’s burdens that they may be light
• We are willing to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort
• And we will stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places . . . even until death.
The most important part of these covenants is that they do not signal an end point at all, they actually imply that we must be in a state of progression. We do not become perfect with baptism, we promise to do things that will make us better people and if we continue to do them, then the occasional assessments we receive will be “shows potential.” This same assessment that bothered me so much when it came from my supervisor, is just about the best we can do when it comes to our baptismal covenants and our progress towards eternal perfection.
I was 8 when I was baptized and in years since, many of the details of my baptism have faded from my memory, but one thing I remember about my baptism actually happened at church the next day. Between classes I used the restroom, and I remember while washing my hands, looking at myself in the mirror and wondering if I was still perfect. It had been about 14 hours since I’d been baptized. Fortunately most of those hours had been spent asleep, so I couldn’t get in trouble there, and to the best of my ability I hadn’t done anything after my baptism until I went to bed, or that morning while getting ready for church. I hadn’t fought with my brothers or sisters, I hadn’t snuck any snacks from my mom’s stash, or any of the other things that I usually did that got me in trouble. Phew, I was still perfect. Good thing my little 8 year-old self had no idea how short that “perfection” would last or the need for constant repentance that has always been a part of my life since then.
Nephi clarified this point that baptism is just a beginning when he reminded us after discussing Christ’s baptism that, “ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.”
Another aspect of these baptismal covenants is the idea that a sense of community is built into them. We are coming into a fold, we will bear each other’s burdens, we have to find people to mourn with, people to comfort, we have stand as a witness of Christ to others. Baptismal covenants cannot be done very easily in isolation. We have these covenants that remind us personally that we are not perfect, but need to work towards progression, and then these same covenants implore us to group up with a bunch of other people who are not perfect, and we are supposed to help each other out. In addition to that, we’re supposed to represent Christ, in all our imperfect-ness, to those who have not yet come into the fold.
I think this idea that we are to own our imperfections and work on them with a whole bunch of other imperfect people is the essence of the Lord’s commandment that we sacrifice to him a broken heart and a contrite spirit. To properly understand our imperfections we need to let down the shields and barriers we put up between us and other people. We put up these barriers with pride and fear because we don’t want to expose some of our imperfections and vulnerability to others. At the same time, the baptismal covenants require mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that need comfort. If we are in need of mourning or if we are in need of comfort, and we hide that from our fellow saints then we are denying them the opportunity to exercise their covenants. It can be scary to expose ourselves.
When we need to mourn or when we are in need of comfort, we often have to expose our inner most fears and imperfections to those that want to help us. What more, they might not do such a great job being helpful. I think that we ought to do our best to give them the benefit of the doubt that they want to help. I’m reminded of the video that’s been circulating the internet of the husband and wife talking, and the wife has been describing this stress and pain she’s been experiencing and the fear that this stress and pain is causing her. It turns out she’s got a nail stuck in her forehead. The husband wants to take this woman to a doctor and get the nail removed, the wife doesn’t even want to discuss the nail. Sometimes we just cannot get on the same page as those we are trying to help, or if we’re on the receiving end, sometimes our helpers just don’t get it. Try and look beyond the effectiveness of the help offered, and just recognize that someone is there and is trying, in the most imperfect way they know how.
I think the best example I have seen in my life where a group of imperfect people are keeping their baptismal covenants are in the Pornography Addiction Recovery Groups that I attended as part of my internship assignment with LDS Family Services. Here we had, sometimes dozens, of men gathered to discuss their failings, in explicit detail with strangers. And at these meetings, nothing but love, compassion, and support is shared. No judgment, no criticism, no contempt. Just pure charitable love. As one man shared how he is going through a divorce that is entirely their fault, all in the room mourned with him. As another spoke of having to ask his home teacher to baptize his 8 year-old son because he was currently disfellowshiped and couldn’t exercise his priesthood, all in the room comforted him. And these men, when challenged by those outside the church who told them to just leave the church behind, rather than face their addiction, would stand as the mightiest witnesses of Christ and testify of the truth and value of the atonement.
We live in a culture and era where we are encouraged to hide our imperfections and our faults, and if those imperfections and faults are exposed then to deny that they are faults and instead revel in them. Yet the Lord has covenanted with those of us who have been baptized that if we recognize our faults and seek to improve them while genuinely helping others in the process, then we will be blessed with the companionship of the Holy Ghost. That is quite an amazing idea; constant companionship with a member of the Godhead. So let us do what we have promised to do and mourn and comfort, but let us also allow ourselves to be mourned with and comforted in our times of need, so we can extend the opportunity to keep the baptismal covenants to our fellow saints.