Sunday Talk: On Reverence

When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed its meeting schedule, it offered five basic reasons. Among them, the first two stand out:

1. Help every Latter-day Saint home become a place where family members love to be, where they can enrich their lives and find mutual love, support, appreciation, and encouragement;

2. Emphasize home-centered Sabbath activities;

They stand out even more when I add that these were the reasons given for the schedule switch that occurred in 1980, not the one that happened at the beginning of this year. Prior to 1980, the church schedule was about as clear as mud, speaking as someone who isn’t old enough to remember anything about it. Primary happened at 4pm on a weekday, unless it was summer, in which case it was at 10am instead. Unless it was August, in which case it just didn’t happen at all. Relief Society was on a weekday at 10am for eight months of the year. Sunday meetings started off with Priesthood in the morning, followed by a break long enough to let the men go home and get their families and come back for Sunday School (one for adults and one for children, with the Sacrament administered in both). Sacrament meeting happened last.

With all that driving and schedule switching, is it any wonder the other reasons provided for the change were to free up time, reduce travel, and conserve energy? But the two primary reasons still stand out for their stated goal of making Latter-day Saint homes more enriching, loving, and Gospel-centered. Compare that goal from 1980 to the goals listed by the Church when we went to a two hour block in January:

“Deepening conversion to Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthening faith in Them.  Strengthening individuals and families through home-centered, Church-supported curriculum that contributes to joyful gospel living.  Honoring the Sabbath day, with a focus on the ordinance of the sacrament. Helping all of Heavenly Father’s children on both sides of the veil through missionary work and receiving ordinances and covenants and the blessings of the temple.”

Almost 40 years later, and we’re still trying to make our homes more Gospel centered and our meetings more spiritual. While I’m personally a big fan of the change to a two hour block, I also don’t believe it will automatically lead to the stated goals given by church leaders for the change.

For one thing, the switch to a home-based Gospel learning program that was supposed to happen in January might have ended up much like the rest of the New Year’s resolutions that came about at the same time. The gyms are never busier than the beginning of January, and I imagine a much higher percentage of Latter-day Saint homes were gospel centric on Sunday, January 6th than on Sunday, July 7th. This trend will likely only continue.

Making true change to your life takes hard work and consistent effort, but that’s also what it will take to make our experiences in Sacrament meeting itself an impactful one. This past week during a stake self-reliance committee meeting, we discussed what it takes to make yourself spiritually self reliant. A lot of the time, we focus on the temporal aspects of self-reliance. Having enough savings to provide for yourself and your family, for example. But being emotionally and spiritually self-reliant are equally important.

Spiritual self-reliance, we decided, meant having a testimony strong enough to withstand challenges to it as they arise. One that isn’t dependent on someone else’s beliefs. How do you develop it? By going to church, reading your scriptures, praying, and fasting. By doing the things the church asks you to do, not because you’ve been asked, but because you get to the point where you truly believe those basic building blocks are essential.

It’s easy to forget the reasons we do things. Case in point: I work at a university, a place where all the students theoretically come to learn the things they’ll need to know in order to get a good job once the graduate. But speaking from experience as a recovering college student, it can be very easy to forget that over the course of your college career. There are so many other things that affect you in the short term that keeping the long term in mind is difficult. You’ve got a job, a social life, and a good GPA to keep in check. Why take a hard major when an easier one will still let you graduate? But behind that decision of which major to declare lies a bigger one: what career do you want? Because it’s off in the distance, it’s easy to ignore. And yet without that bigger picture, all the short term difficulties can end up being nothing more than four years of spinning your wheels and accumulating debt.

Education is a wonderful thing, but college is not an end in and of itself. Simply getting a degree does not unlock the wonders of the universe for you.

Likewise, sitting through two hours of church does not automatically make you a more spiritual person. Theoretically, I suppose it might be better than staying at home for two hours. Perhaps some of the talks and lessons will rub off on you in passing, but it’s going to be hard rowing for it to have an impact if you’re not at least making an effort.

I’m not typically a preachy person. I don’t like telling other people to do things, since there’s so much I need to improve in myself. It’s usually easier to use myself as an example. I’ve made enough mistakes over the course of my life that it doesn’t take me too long to come up with a bad decision I’ve made to help illustrated What Not To Do. So I’ll volunteer myself as a case study in being distracted at church.

True story. I used to do crossword at church. Right in the middle of Sacrament meeting, whenever I’d get bored, I’d whip out the current Sunday School manual, where my handy crossword was waiting for me, and then I’d pretend to be studying up for the coming lesson, all the while trying to figure out a seven letter word that starts with R and means “verify the addition of.” (It’s “retotal.” Just in case you were going to think about that now instead of my talk. I’m on to you.)

Denisa was, needless to say, not a big fan of this propensity of mine, and I’m happy to report that I abandoned the habit well before we moved to Farmington. I still do the crossword every day. I just wait until I’m home from church to do it. Honest. But as I look back at my actions, I find a few areas that stick out to me to discuss some valuable life lessons.

First off, I find it interesting I felt the need to hide the crossword in a church manual. As if the appearance of being churchy was still important to me, even though I had no real desire to participate in the actual church activity itself. To me, this indicates I knew that what I was doing was wrong. Just as wrong as the pharisees Christ spoke out against for their hypocritical ways.

Second, I look at the way I justified my actions. The talks were boring, I’d say to myself. If the talks weren’t boring, I wouldn’t need to distract myself with a crossword. I’d argue that doing a crossword took almost no real mental power at all, and that I needed something to keep my mind from wandering. I wasn’t slacking. I was multitasking. While I’ve put my crosswords-in-church days behind me now, something else has come up that’s way more tempting and convenient for a technology loving multitasker: my phone.

With my trusty smartphone by my side, there’s almost no question or task that’s outside my reach. Better still, I can do whatever I want while still using the same device everyone else is using to read the lesson and their scriptures. It’s brilliant! (Though a quick aside: speaking from experience, it’s much easier to tell what someone’s actually doing with their phone than the phone user would like to believe. Let’s face it: reading the scriptures or the lesson generally doesn’t involve madly slashing at the phone screen with your thumb, or using both thumbs to enter in text, and then chuckling to yourself as you read the funny message your friend texted back.) 

I’m almost sure none of you came to church today expecting to hear a sermon against multitasking, but I’ve got a microphone and a pulpit here, and I’ve got some strong feelings on the subject, so that’s what you’re going to get. And I say this as a person who really struggles with an almost constant desire to multitask. To do two or three things at the same time, so that I can be as hyper efficient as possible. After all, there are only so many minutes in the day. Doesn’t it make sense to use your time as effectively as possible?

Except multitasking does not exist. Not in the way I wish it did, at least. When we multitask, the research has consistently shown we actually lose efficiency. It takes about fifteen minutes to reorient yourself on a primary task after you’ve been distracted by a secondary one. In our effort to do two things at the same time, we actually just rapidly do something called task switching, changing our focus from one thing to another, back and forth. Our brain is a television. Only one station can play on it at the same time. Sure, there’s picture-in-picture technology, but even then, you can only watch one show.

When I was about ten, I was a certifiable reading addict. I devoured books. Ten or twelve a week, and I wanted to be able to read even more. So finally I tried a new approach. I read one book while I listened to a different audio book at the same time. I was multitasking at its finest. Except as you no doubt can guess, I remembered almost nothing of what I read or listened to. You’d think I would have learned my lesson then. You’d think wrong.

In general, I’ve found I’m most tempted to multitask when I feel like I’m doing something that doesn’t really demand all of my attention. Something that’s boring, perhaps. Or tedious. When I’m in the middle of a deep conversation, or when I’m about to watch a movie I love, or when I’m trying to understand a hard to fathom concept, I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself, “Now would be a good time to check Facebook.” Because deep down inside, I know how poorly the results are with multitasking. When I want to be sure to not miss a thing, I do one thing at a time.

Multitaskers also aren’t fooling anyone. Sure, we may try to couch our second task in some sort of shiny veneer the way I put my crossword into a church manual, but it’s easy for people who are trying to interact with you to tell when you’re not giving them your full attention. It reminds me in some ways of the freshmen I used to teach at BYU. They’d turn in papers that were triple spaced, or with one and a half inch margins, or with size thirteen font, no doubt hoping they’d pull a fast one on me. It never worked. When you spend your days looking at paper after paper, anything even slightly different immediately sticks out to you. Likewise, when you’re teaching a lesson or speaking in church, it’s quite easy to know when people aren’t paying attention. Again, this is coming from someone who has both multitasked someone else and been multitasked by someone else. 

But multitasking isn’t just a rude thing to do. According to several scientific studies, multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%, increases the time it takes to do a task by a third, reduces our overall attention span, and actually makes it more likely that you’ll experience anxiety and depression. I’m not kidding. In a study done by the University of Sussex, they found people who consistently multitask make their bodies weaker to emotional illness. There’s just no reason to do it.

How do we fight against this? An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests two simple things. First, shut out distractions. If you’re at work, this might mean closing your office door. If you’re at church, it might mean putting your phone away and committing to keeping it put away. We each tend to know the things that distract us most easily. Avoid them. The article’s other suggestion is just as straightforward: instead of trying to split your attention into as many parts as possible, throw all of it into one effort at a time. It will pay off in the long run.

So why does all of this matter? Of all the talks given this past General Conference, the one that made the biggest impression on me was given by Elder Holland, who spoke of the importance of restoring reverence into our meetings. Specifically into Sacrament meeting, which he called “the most sacred hour of our week.” He said, “Beloved friends, as we unite across the globe each week in what we hope is an increasingly sacred acknowledgment of Christ’s majestic atoning gift to all humankind, may we bring to the sacramental altar “more tears for his sorrows [and] more pain at his grief.” And then, as we reflect, pray, and covenant anew, may we take from that sacred moment “more patience in suff’ring, … more praise for relief.”

How can we make our Sacrament meeting experiences more like the portrait Elder Holland paints in his talk? So much of it comes down to one word. Reverence.

When I think back over my years of church attendance, the time when I think I’ve seen Peak Reverence would have to be during my days at the Jerusalem Center when I was doing study abroad with BYU. The chapel there has one enormous window at the front of it, so when you’re sitting there in sacrament meeting, you’re staring out over the old city. You can see the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham offered Isaac up as an offering. See some of the building where the Last Supper took place. Speaking from experience, it’s certainly easier to think about the Savior and His sacrifice for us when you’re looking right at the spot where it all happened.

Of course, there were other advantages that branch had. For one thing, it had no primary or nursery. There was no crying. No arguing. During the Sacrament, it was absolutely silent. This was an attitude that was further encouraged by the fact that the room itself felt different. Special. The Branch President arranged for student soloists to perform before each Sacrament Meeting as people walked in, so before you even arrived, the room had a serene feeling to it. Even when it was empty, I remember speaking in hushed voices there. It just wasn’t a place you wanted to be noisy. If you had something you really wanted to talk about, you’d take it outside.

I think some of that special feeling gets lost when you’re in a place for too long. When you’re too familiar with it. There are many people at church who I only really see once a week, and it’s my one real chance to catch up with them. If one or two people do that quietly, that’s one thing, but once the entire ward starts to catch up at the start of meetings or just after the meeting ends, it quickly balloons out of proportion. In many ways, it’s like the broken window theory in police enforcement. The concept that visible signs of civil disorder (like a broken window in a store front or on a car) lead to further civil disorder that escalates out of control. If someone sees an abandoned house with one window broken, it becomes likelier someone will feel like chucking a stone through one of the other windows, or perhaps spray painting the exterior, a process that continues until the entire building is ruined.

Certainly I’ve seen instances where the noise in a chapel gets to be so loud the organist feels the need to up the volume on their instrument, which in turn makes people want to talk louder so they can hear each other. That stand off between the organist and the congregation reminds me of another lesson I learned on reverence.

My grandfather was the organist for the Tabernacle Choir for 27 years. When he finished, he served a mission in Jerusalem, working with my grandmother to establish a music program at the Jerusalem Center. I was always amazed at how well he could play the organ. I played bassoon when I was growing up, and I had it out with me one year when I was visiting him. He offered to accompany me on a song I’d been practicing for months. “Are you sure?” I asked him. “It’s pretty hard.” “I’ll do my best,” he said, then proceeded to sight read the entire thing perfectly, making me realize just what a huge skill gap there was between us.

After he had retired, he was called as the organist in his local congregation. He would faithfully come each Sunday and play amazing compositions, improvisations, and arrangements of hymns, sometimes ones he’d come up with personally. But the thing about prelude music is most church members have been trained to basically ignore it. It’s like elevator music, but for church. Here was a man playing songs many non-members would pay money to hear in a concert hall, and no one in the congregation paid them any attention. 

When he passed away, he wrote a short paragraph that he asked be read before his funeral service began. It said, “Sacred prelude music does not serve as background music for conversation. Its purpose is to enhance the listener’s worship experience through music. Bob was often distracted and annoyed when he played sacred prelude music during his lifetime. Despite his careful practice of appropriate music, needless conversation usually occurred. This thoughtless act unfortunately intruded upon the reverent contemplation and rededication that each individual should have experienced as they focused their thoughts on the following worship service. As the organist plays the organ prelude today, Bob asked that those in attendance refrain from conversing while seated in this sacred chapel.”

He had a similar feeling about postlude music. To him, they should be bookends to an uplifting and edifying Sacrament service. In an ideal world, they would be. I remember when Elder Bednar came to speak to us in Bangor a while ago. How prepared we all were for that meeting. How we approached it with an expectation of revelation. How quiet it was in the chapel both before and after. It was an incredibly spiritual experience for me. Why wouldn’t I want that every week? There is no reason Sacrament meeting can’t be like that, and I believe that’s the bar we should aim for.

What we need to do, then, is to break it down into its fundamentals to see why it was impactful and ask ourselves how we can transition our local meetings to reflect that.

What comes to mind first? Well, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ was the main speaker. Duh, right? It would be easy to attribute all of the spirit of that meeting to that one essential difference, but I think that wouldn’t capture the whole picture. Elder Bednar spoke with the Spirit, and it’s the Spirit that made such an impact on each of the audience members. We are entitled to that same Spirit each week. Yes, some of that is on the speaker. They need to be fully prepared and take the time to ensure their talk is inspired. But much of it is on the listener, as well. I came to Elder Bednar’s meeting fully expectant to receive revelation. I had prepared myself in advance. I treated it as something special. If I took the same approach to Sacrament meeting each week, I can’t help but think my experience would improve, regardless of the supposed quality of the speaker or the lessons offered later.

Whenever I attend the temple, I look forward to the quiet that’s there. Before sessions, I enjoy sitting in peace and opening myself up to the Spirit. We live in a loud world. There are so many things out there vying for our attention. Yes, every now and then the Spirit might bop us over the head when we’re just not listening at all, but typically the only way we’re going to actually receive revelation is when we quiet our minds to the point that the still small voice can be heard. It would be lovely if that environment were fostered before and after every Sacrament meeting. Not just for a minute or two, but an almost permanent basis in the chapel. A place where anyone could come and have that peace, any time.

Ironically, I feel I’m often more inclined to be reverent in someone else’s place of worship than I am in my own. For example, when I visit cathedrals in Europe, I try to be quiet and respectful. Some of that’s because other people are doing the same thing. Why? Because people have been taught over time that it’s not a place for loud laughter and casual conversation.

Of course, our meeting houses are used for much more than just Sacramental services. We have concerts in them. Parties and socials. We play basketball and hold tournaments. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and perhaps this tendency has made it so we’re more likely to treat our buildings more casually than is beneficial. 

In describing our Sunday services, Elder Holland says, “When the sacred hour comes to present our sacrificial gift to the Lord, we do have our own sins and shortcomings to resolve; that’s why we’re there. But we might be more successful in such contrition if we are mindful of the other broken hearts and sorrowing spirits that surround us. Seated not far away are some who may have wept—outwardly or inwardly—through the entire sacramental hymn and the prayers of those priests. Might we silently take note of that and offer our little crust of comfort and our tiny cup of compassion—might we dedicate it to them? or to the weeping, struggling member who is not in the service and, except for some redemptive ministering on our part, won’t be there next week either? or to our brothers and sisters who are not members of the Church at all but are our brothers and sisters? There is no shortage of suffering in this world, inside the Church and out, so look in any direction and you will find someone whose pain seems too heavy to bear and whose heartache seems never to end. One way to “always remember him” would be to join the Great Physician in His never-ending task of lifting the load from those who are burdened and relieving the pain of those who are distraught.”

I personally am trying to make my Sundays more Christ-centered and my meetings more meaningful. It hasn’t been easy, and I keep regressing, but I’ve seen the way I feel when I take the time to make space for more reverence in my life. May we each continue to become more spiritually self reliant. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

1 Comment

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