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God’s Costly Love

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Photo courtesy of Emric Delton, 2015

The following talk was delivered by Fiona Givens at the devotional of the 2015 Affirmation Annual Conference in Provo, Utah, on Sunday, September 20, 2015

Beloved of our Mother, beloved of our Father, beloved of our Christ. It is such a privilege for Terryl and myself to be with you this morning. We are so grateful for the invitation to join struggling disciples, as we wend our way back to our divine family.

“Of all errors,” Edward Beecher said, “none are so fundamental and so wide reaching in their evil tendencies and results as errors with respect to the nature of God.” In Lectures on Faith we read, “Let us here observe that three things are necessary for any rational and intelligent being to exercise faith in God unto life. First, the idea that he actually exists.” It is funny that we as Mormons, many of us in this room, are probably struggling with that very question. Does he exist? And is he the God of the Old Testament? Is he the God of Judges? Is he the God who is so brilliantly portrayed in the musical Les Miserables, where Javert, stymied and stunned by the gift of grace of offered him by Jean Val Jean, worships a God who was wrathful and vengeful and demanded of us every last centime for every error that we had made.  Or is he the God of Jean Valjean, merciful, long-suffering, patient, full of love? When Javert commits suicide he kills the God of wrath, and anger, and impatience, because “the two Gods be two contraries,” as Julian of Norwich said, “and they cannot coexist.”

In the Book of Mormon we read that many plain and precious things have been removed from the biblical text. In the first vision Joseph stipulates that God said that many things are an abomination. The creeds are an abomination. That is a really harsh word. But I’m not sure about you, but this really disquiets me — “abomination.” To what creeds is God referring? He was not, interestingly enough, referring to the Catholic creeds, although many Mormons have wanted that to be so. He is actually referring to the Westminster confessions, the 39 articles of the Church of England. God is without body, parts or passions. The lack of them that is attributed to him, that is the abomination.

Edward Beecher, that beautiful Congregationalist minister, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was probably the most brilliant member of the Beecher family, and yet very few of us, perhaps none of us, have heard of him. He wrote two amazing tomes, Conflict of Ages and Concord of Ages, 600-page tomes on preexistence and on the God of vulnerability. He says the denial of God’s passion is the great radical fundamental mode of destroying his reigning power and of  enthroning Satan in his stead. Not only is this the doctrine of God’s love, the center of his power, but it is also the center of his greatness and glory. It is obvious that Joseph attempted to correct the Biblical errors he found. But it was a Herculean task for which he had neither the time nor the energy nor the ability. It is therefore to the restoration Scriptures we must turn to find the central attributes of God, his core attribute.

Jacob 5 is 77 verses long. It is one of the longest chapters in the book of Mormon. It can be summarized in three verses. God is concerned about his olive grove. He labors in his olive grove. He grieves.  And yet this message is so incredibly important, as if to overcompensate for the dearth of divine feeling in the New Testament, it is repeated throughout 77 verses. Written by the prophet Zenos, who is never mentioned in the biblical record, this chapter is undoubtedly the longest treatment in scripture of the divine attribute, God’s costly love. He visits the olive grove frequency to work there. He nourishes each tree in order to preserve it. “For it grieveth me that I should lose this tree.” The word “preserve” or “save” is repeated 20 times. The word “nourish,” 22 times. “Grieve” is repeated eight times. And in verse 41 the Lord collapses under the weight of his grief and anxiety for his individual trees. “And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard wept.” It is important to recognize, I think, that the Lord is not concerned for the olive grove as a whole, but for each individual tree. “It grieveth me that I should lose this tree.” He spends as much time nursing the individual trees in the nethermost part of the vineyard with the hopeless, the helpless, the marginalized, the despised, as he does among the other trees who, while struggling to survive, are making progress. The Lord spends an incredible amount of effort and emotional energy on each single tree in the olive grove. The analogy is plain. Each one of us is a tree in that olive grove which the Lord ceaselessly tends and cares for, nourishing us in ways that in our quiet moments, amidst the pain and marginalization, and loneliness, we can sometimes see the divine hand working gently and persistently in our lives, in meekness, in kindness, and in love unfeigned.

Probably the most stunning evidence of the personal cost to God for his love for each of us is to be found in Moses 7. Again we are dealing with a prophet who is barely mentioned in the Christian canon. In the ascension narrative related in Moses 7, Enoch has successfully shepherded his flock home to the divine family. He was probably expecting accolades, a welcome home Zion party. But when he does encounter God, his world is completely upended.  Rather than being greeted as Enoch had clearly anticipated by a rejoicing, jubilant God, he is confronted by a God harrowed with grief. So shocked is Enoch by the depth of God’s pain that he asks not once but three times, “How is it thou canst grieve, seeing that thou art holy and from eternity to all eternity?” Three times. Not the question why, but how. I was a good seminary student. I went to institute. I was never taught that God so loved his children that the would weep for their loneliness, their harrowed lives, each one of us. And God answers Enoch, “Wherefore should not the Heavens weep, seeing that these, my other children, not so fortunate to be a part of your party, should continue to suffer?”

Who in this room has not loved? And who in this room has not lost? Sigmund Freud says that never are we so defenseless against suffering than when we love. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that eminent, beautifully minded German theologian stipulated that this, God’s vulnerable love is his power, to draw all mankind towards him.

In our Mormon tradition, we worship a God who chose to love us, and by so doing he made himself vulnerable to our suffering. Julian of Norwich, that beautiful 14th-century English mystic declared, “For I saw full truly that wrath hath no place in God, for wrath and friendship be two contraries.” The LDS worship a God who chose to love us, and thereby made himself vulnerable to our anguish, to our loss, to our grief, to our feeling of divine abandonment, to feelings of despair and discouragement. If this has been our experience, and in this room it certainly has, it might surprise us to know that Mother Theresa of Calcutta walked for decades in the same wilderness we may now inhabit. “Since 1949 or 50,” she writes, “this terrible sense of loss, this untold darkness, this loneliness, this continual longing for God which gives me that pain deep down in my heart, the darkness is such that I really do not see, neither with my mind nor with my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. There is no God in me. When the pain of longing is so great, I just long and long for God, and then it is I feel that he does not want me. He is not there. God does not want me. Sometimes I just hear my own heart cry out, my God. And nothing comes. The torture and pain I cannot explain.” She wrote this in 1949. And with that pain and in that suffering she continued to walk the walk of the good among the helpless, the hopeless, the despised, bringing love and light into countless lives, and now shines as a beacon to us of God-like love and compassion.

In Concord of Ages the godly writer Edward Beecher describes earth life in terms of sanctification through suffering. The pre-mortal conflict, he suggests, was not a battle between good and evil, between force and choice, but between pleasure and pain. And I’m going to repeat Terryl’s quote. He stole it from me actually. “From pleasure of course there was no temptation to revolt. But from a discipline of suffering, such as they needed to fit them to be the founders of the universe with God, they could be tempted to revolt.” In the garden of Eden, Eve was confronted with the same choice, to remain within the safety and security of Eden, or to enter mortality, with its attendant suffering and death. According to which words, Elder Widtsoe said, “When in doubt, as hard choices we face, we must all inevitably choose.” And he said “Each must choose that which concerns the good of others. That is the higher law. Eve chose the higher law.” And Elder Widtsoe says that was the choice she made in Eden. At great cost to herself, and with unbelievable courage, she opened the portal for mankind to progress to become like God. For it is only after ingesting the fruit that God declared in Genesis 3, verse 2 that “they have become as one of us,” implying that the entrance to mortality is an ascent toward godliness rather than a fall away from our divine parents. There is something essential for the schooling of the soul that is apparently only to be found in suffering. In her ode to joy, Eve, following the couple’s departure from Eden, exclaims, “Were it not for our transgression we never should have known good and evil.” This is a curious thing for which to be grateful. But it appears that the only way to experience the joy of our redemption is to have knowledge of both good and evil. It is in experiencing both that we come to recognize the preciousness of the atonement.

The restoration scriptures also suggest that we have perhaps been misconstruing the words “evil” and “sin.”  In a conversation with the Lord recorded in Moses 6, at verses 52 to 55, Adam is assured that his transgression in the garden has been forgiven. “Hence came the saying abroad among the people that the son of God hath atoned for original guilt, that the sins of the parents cannot be all answered upon the heads of the children.” There is no original sin. There is no original guilt. But then in the following verse we read something quite extraordinary. He says, “They, the children of God, are whole from the foundation of the world.” We are whole from the foundation of the world. Thereupon follows a quite remarkable appendage. “And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying, inasmuch as the children are conceived in sin…” OK, wait a minute. Is God just saying that he’s really Catholic? What is going on here? I am not sure about you, but that is really disconcerting. First of all, there is no original guilt, there is no original sin. We are whole from the foundation of the world. And now we are conceived in sin? Whoa. What does he mean by this? It’s sobering. And then in verse 53 we get the last line. “For they must taste the bitter in order to prize the good.” So we collapse then, “guilt,” “whole” and “bitter.” It is in the parallel wording of good and evil in Eve’s ode to joy with the words good and bitter in verse 55, that give us a deeper understanding what evil and sin really mean. Evil and sin are pain and suffering. It is only by tasting, ingesting, experiencing the bitter that we are able to prize the good. The love of our Heavenly Mother, the love of our Heavenly Father, the love of Jesus the Christ, that they have for each and every one of us. For God is not a respecter of persons.  They love each of the children wholly and entirely. The scriptural record appears to be saying that our path to god-likeness is always threatened by the toxins that are native to our mortal habitat. The almost incessant heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

But God has not left us alone to travel the darkness. I have a beloved friend, a theologian by the name of Jacob Rennaker, and he talks of participatory atonement. We as Mormons have made particular covenants at our baptism. In Mosiah 18 they are delineated. The first one is to bear each other’s burdens. Now I’m very visual person, and when Christ says pick up your cross and follow me, I see him out before us dragging his cross. And we’re all spread out behind him carrying our own. There isn’t a single person in this room not carrying a cross. We’re all carrying crosses. As we enter the waters of baptism, we covenant to bear each other’s burdens. Picture that with me. You are struggling along under the weight of your cross, and your friend besides you, or perhaps somebody completely unknown, collapses under the weight of his or her cross. As you bend down to help that person with the burden, of necessity you must touch that cross. It is only then that you understand the nature and the depth of the pain that person is carrying. Platitudes fail. It does not help to say, “Read your scriptures more often. Attend all three services, as boring as they might be, every Sunday.” It is only then when we touch the pain that we are in a position to be able to mourn. To be able to enter that second covenant. To mourn with that person. It is only then that we can truly comfort. That we can be good friends, like Job’s great friends, for an entire week, before they ceased to be good friends and became dreadful friends. They sat with him a week and said nothing at all. Only then, when we understand the pain, can we offer words of comfort that reach deeply. And only then can we take upon ourselves the name of Christ.

In the film The Four Feathers, some of you may know it. Heath Ledger was in it. I had a crush on him for a while. I’m a serial crusher. I’m now on to Christian Bale. Two characters, the lieutenant Harry Faversham and the man who gave up everything, Abu Fatma, to help him with his journey. And at the end of the film Harry turns to Abu and says, “Why? Why did you go through so much? Why did you not just leave me in the desert to die? Your life would’ve been so much happier.” And Abu said, “Because God put you in my path.” God has put each and every one of us in each other’s paths. It is our responsibility. We are each other’s keeper, to love to nourish, to cherish.

The other thing I would like to finish with is our paths are often lonely, even with friends. We experience loneliness. There’s this beautiful scripture in psalms that encourages us to draw cistern water from our own cisterns. We need our own holy places, out of the holy things that nourish our lives. For example, the scriptures may be able to provide a wonderful text, but it is interesting that in D&C section 91 the Lord says, “And are you also studying the apocrypha? Because there are many true things therein.” And it is actually transmitted correctly, something the Book of Mormon actually does not say about the biblical text. And then in section 90 the Lord says study all nations, kindreds, tongues and people. Joseph said if you want to become a true Mormon, a good Mormon, study every faith tradition. Truth is out there. We are not the only repository of truth.  Joseph never said that. Truth is to be found in all sorts of places. Most definitely in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling is a prophetess. She is part of my canon. So is The Hunger Games. There’s a lot of truth in that. I love Virginia Woolf. I love Oscar Wilde. Oh my gosh, that brilliant man! Every thing that he writes is brilliant.  And his religious writings, which are covered in children’s literature, are stunningly beautiful, in his knowledge of Christ’s love and his atonement. My favorite band is Metallica. I have Radioactive as my ringtone. I find Macklemore’s The Heist really pertinent with profound truths. I love French rap. I love Vaughn Williams… Now these are my things. This is music that Terryl does not share with me particularly. But what I’m trying to say, beloved brothers and sisters, is if we fill our hearts with those things, the music, the literature, the good books, not scriptures… Those, yes, but whenever the Lord talks about good books, he’s not talking about the scriptures. You fill your lives with beautiful, uplifting music. I do want to remind us that arguably the greatest religious music of our time was written in the heart of the apostasy, where you will find much truth and much beauty.

I would like to leave this with you because this is my absolutely favorite quote of all time. And it actually is in the Scriptures. It is part of the biblical text. It’s in Romans. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” I so testify in his holy name. Amen.

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