Note: This piece is a slightly edited version of a speech the author delivered on Sunday February 12, 2017 to the formal worship service of The Bay Ward (San Francisco) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
My wife Diana and I moved to San Francisco nearly four years ago. And, then last May, just as we were getting to know everyone, the ward was reorganized and we started over. So, here’s a thumbnail introduction, a re-introduction to some: Diana and I met in New York City 34 years ago. Then, just as we got married we moved to Boston, where we lived until relocating here. We are the parents of four children—our youngest Bailey is a graduate student in England, you will hear more from her in just a minute; our eldest daughter Kirsten is a an opera singer in New York City; eldest son Spencer, his wife and daughter live there as well; and youngest son Stuart, wife and two granddaughters live in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Diana was raised, more or less, in Marin County then moved east for college. I was born and raised in Salt Lake City before moving east shortly after college. We consider ourselves New Englanders, Bostonians in particular, but have thoroughly enjoyed living here in the city.
Consider this fair warning. Beware of emails from Brandon Hightower. At 3:03p.m. on Wednesday February 1, 2017 Brandon inquired virtually:
“I hope you're having a good week! [I figured my luck was about to change] Would you be willing to speak in church on Sunday, Feb. 12? If so, I'll follow up with the topic.
Five minutes later I responded by email: “Depends on the topic. Ha ha. Yes, I am free”
Knowing he had a live one on the hook, Brandon was back to me by 3:24: “Great, seeing as how we are near Valentine's Day, the theme for the month is Love. The broad topic/prompt for you follows: God loves us individually and we can experience his love in unique and personal ways. How can we learn to recognize the love God has for us? How have you felt God’s love in your own life?
Per Brother Hightower’s instructions, I will read the positioning scripture he suggested. It comes from the Doctrine and Covenants, a book Mormons regard as scripture. This one can be found in the 88th Chapter, 63rd verse:
"Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
As we are advised to correlate the scriptures whenever possible, I note that this verse written in 1833 is sort of a latter-day rewrite of one found in James, the oft-quoted verse that is said to have provoked the young boy Joseph Smith to kneel in prayer in a grove of trees, and seek answers to the questions that trouble young and old to this very day. We tend to focus only on James 1:5. Most can quote it by heart:
"If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
Chances are no one could recite from memory verses 6 through 8 which contain pivotal, nuanced preparatory instructions:
"But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed.For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways."
I was encouraged to convey how God loves us individually, how we can we learn to recognize the love God has for us, and how I have felt God’s love in my own life?
In short, and given the caveats in James, this assignment was especially challenging and problematic to someone like me. I was trained to triangulate all things. Throughout my career, I have carefully considered each side to every argument.
In short, I am a professional waverer. I waver regularly about practically everything.
A friend once observed that I habitually, chronically see the shades of gray in every certainty. He needled: “Given sufficient time you would construct a compelling argument that 2 plus 2 does indeed equal 5.”
There is one exception.
I am absolutely certain that the lives we lead here on earth will be more complete and fulfilling if we follow the simply complex gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ, as recorded in Mark, the 12th Chapter verses 37 through 40:
"Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
“Oh boy, that’s your favorite topic dad,” our daughter Bailey advised in a FaceTime conversation from England. I think I saw her eyes roll backwards in their sockets.
“So, of course you’ll talk about how it’s important learn to love others by walking in their shoes, understanding their perspective on the world.”
“Exactly,” I said, confidently. Smugly.
I saw her yawn. A big yawn.
Suddenly she brightened. “Wait, wait I’ve got it. This will wake them up. Explain to them, and me, how you can come to love Donald Trump by walking in his moccasins”
“I can’t afford Guccis,” I demurred.
“You get my point, right?”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” I knew I was trapped. Understanding how the other guy views the world and why he acts the way he does is always very challenging. While I really don’t want to love Donald Trump, the Lord instructs me do it anyway. That is the essence of the gospel.”
“So?” she challenged.
“I’ll get back to you in a few years.”
This morning she texted a photo of a message board in front of a Protestant church in Canada that advises: “If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table not a higher fence.”
It provided the theme and title for my talk today: “To build a longer table…”
In increasingly serious ways I have wrestled intensely with what it would take to love all. It began in 6th grade, when I was compelled to memorize an historic poem that remains etched nearly verbatim in my brain to this day:
Abou Ben Adhem
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
"What writest thou?"—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
"And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.
The poetic message lines-up neatly with Christ’s messages. We should all want to be counted by those who love their fellow men. We all pledge to feed His sheep. We all pledge to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Do it well, with fervor and commitment and the rest of the details will fall into place.
A few years ago, the church made a very substantial contribution to feed and provide housing for homeless gay youth in Salt Lake City. Presumably, some of these young people were members of faithful Latter-day Saint families. Presumably, some of them were on the streets because they had been disowned by their own families.
Is it possible that members of our church, of any church, a mom or a dad fully attuned to Jesus Christ could justify disowning any son or daughter? For any reason?
The late Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley taught and I paraphrase: Hold on to your children. Never let them go. Keep up the contact. They are yours. Save the children. Too many suffer and weep. God bless us to be mindful of them, to lift them and guide them as they walk in dangerous paths, to pray for them, to bless them, to love them, to keep them secure until they can run with strength of their own.
Love one another
Let’s begin right now.
Mormons are known for their firm handshakes. Let’s take it one step further. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Introduce yourself. Shake their hand. Then get to know them a little better during the Linger Longer gathering in the cultural hall that follows this meeting.
Over the next month, sometime soon, make it a point to invite the person you shook hands with to dine with you in your home, or picnic with you in a public park. Whatever! Get together. And together you can help build that longer table.
If you do, they and you will come to feel more involved with each other, members of the same family, real insiders in the church family, vital cogs in Christ’s kingdom.
And, you will sense the joy that comes from living the gospel of Jesus Christ. Feeding his sheep. Loving your neighbor as you do yourself. Strengthening the ward family. The list of good results is quite endless.
In John 21, we hear the resurrected Christ instructing Peter (and the other apostles dining with them) three times:
15 So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.
16 He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
17 He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him, Feed my sheep.
Without equivocation or caveat, he teaches us if we really love him, we will feed his sheep. Anything less, everything else is just lip service.
He gets right down to it in the fourth chapter of Mosiah in The Book of Mormon, which correspond precisely with similar verses in the bible. In the 19th verse he reminds us pointedly:
19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
The ultimate dope slap comes in the 21st verse:
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.
Substance is not limited to money and food. Substance includes our eyes, arms, legs, brains and sweat. And, in short, our willingness to build a longer table.
Throughout the scriptures we are instructed that we are obligated to forgive and love one another; leave judgments to HIM. It is what we promise Christ. It is our way of thanking him for his atoning sacrifice.
And, so I hereby pledge to work hard on my significant issues with President Trump. It will take a few years. Perhaps a lifetime. Who knows?
To the extent we heed the instruction from Christ to love and serve one another, our lives in the here and now will be more complete and fulfilling as will the lives of those we touch. Together we can build a longer table.