Covenant Context

The Church says “no” to sex outside of marriage.  I was 36 before we got married! Does that mean I was oppressed, that I should have exercised my right to go after any passions I felt or express myself sexually anytime I wanted even though I wasn’t married yet?

That’s what I heard someone say today, and I laughed because I was 35 before I got married (finally).

It’s a good example, though, of the subtle twist of beguiling, a train of thought like that.

Because a “right” is a legal issue.

So yes, anyone has the “right” to do what they choose, as the long as the law provides for it.

As a Deaf person, as a mental health professional advocating for those I serve, and as a mother of brown-skinned children, “rights” and the history of “rights” happens to be something I think about a lot, and something I have to fight for way more often than you would think in 2015.

In history, there have been times when the legal rights of groups of people were oppressed, where some people got freedoms and rights and privileges that were denied to others.

That’s because laws are made by people, and people are sometimes cruel.

In history, there have been times when bad activity is legal, and even times when good activities were illegal.

That’s because laws are made by people, and people are sometimes wrong.

In history, there have been times when silly things were legal or illegal, and reading some of those old laws can be pretty funny sometimes.

That’s because laws are made by people, and the voice of the people sways to and fro, changing with the times, attempting to compromise ways to meet the needs expressed by the majority.

Sometimes the majority expresses a need on behalf of the minority, and sometimes they do not.

Whether they do or not, the majority wins the vote.

That’s because laws are made by people.

The terms of a covenant, however, are set by God.

Someone who denies God, or is not interested in God, or who is not willing to live by the principles of God is not a person who is going to be able to make and keep sacred covenants.

Covenants are for the people of God, and intended for the sole purpose of setting them apart as a peculiar (meaning specifically unique) people different from the rest of the world (1 Peter 1:29).

Covenants do not excuse us from living in the world.  Covenants do not excuse us from serving those who share this world with us.  Covenants do not excuse us from kindness, from generosity, or from love.

Covenants, in fact, call us to surrender our whole being – even our passions – until we are stripped completely of ourselves so that we can be wholly God’s, which actually makes us more completely our true self than otherwise… and only because it makes us more accurately ourselves, somehow, filled up by serving others and loving well the children of God, rather than emptying ourselves out by chasing after the emptiness of self-absorption.

That’s consecration, to pour yourself out so that others can live.

That’s what the Savior did, and it’s His example of loving others that we follow.

Do we have the “right” to do as we choose, as provided by the law?  Of course.

But if we choose to enter into covenants with God, then we are choosing God’s law also.

When I lived by myself, I had few rules for when I did laundry or dishes or swept the floor.  I lived by myself, and didn’t make too many messes, so anything was a quick cleanup and could wait.   Even when I got married, the mess doubled with having two people, but we could pretty well keep things clean and tidy and picked up without it being too stressful.  We did chores when we wanted, took turns helping out, and enjoyed flowing to our own schedule as it unfolded.

When we entered into a contract with DHS to be foster parents, these rules changed.  We made agreements for keeping our house clean, for keeping laundry done, for keeping up with the dishes.  Workers showed up at our house when it was convenient for them, and our schedule was invaded by child appointments and school buses and lessons.  We were required to attend court hearings, to buy new clothes for kids we had never met, and spend our leisure time playing with little ones we might never see again.

It was not the easy life we had before, but it was what we had agreed to abide by.

It was not about us, though.  It was about the children.

Because we kept our part of the deal, DHS also did their part in ringing the doorbell with children on the front step.  A simple contract changed our lives forever.  Nothing has ever been so hard as that fostering contract, but nothing has ever blessed our lives so much.

A covenant is a contract.

Heavenly Father sets the terms of the contract, and we agree to abide by them.

If we keep our end of the deal, He is bound to keep His also, and we receive more blessings than we even recognize.

If we do not keep our end of the deal, He is no longer bound to bless us in those ways.  He loves us still, and waits for us, and has already provided the atonement as promised, but we are missing out on so much more that He has to offer – the fullness of the gospel, as its called.

If we do not enter into those covenants, we are not bound by them.

But if we do enter into those covenants, then we are bound by them.

My “rights” – to use the legal term – have changed, because I am under covenant, even though the world around me swirls with many other “freedoms” of which I have already surrendered.

When we get foster children, they often come from lives of chaos.  Sometimes there is pain they carry, so heavy their smiles are gone.  Sometimes they still have their smiles, because they don’t realize yet how injured they have been.  Sometimes they still have their smiles, because they no longer care about injury – to themselves or to those around them.

But when they get here, their lives change.  This is a safe place, we say, and the few rules we have are protective to keep this a safe place. It may feel oppressive to them, or even harsh.  But this is what we know they need, even before they understand why it is happening this way.  We know they need regular meals, which also means they need to brush their teeth.  They need to get up for school, and go to school, and participate in school, which means they also need to go to bed on time.  They need clothes that are warm enough this winter, even if they have never before worn coats and so feel smothered by them. They need socks and tennis shoes to be safe on the playground and in the school, even if they have only ever before worn flip-flops.

When I got baptized, that was the beginning of my covenant making, and it changed everything.

I didn’t understand it then, and sometimes it is really hard.

I remember gaining my testimony of family, and how hard that was, but see clearly what blessings of family I have now.

I remember gaining my testimony of the holy Sabbath, and how oppressive it felt not to work on Sundays, but see clearly now how good and nourishing and beautiful these days of rest are for me and my family.

I remember gaining my testimony of marriage, which I thought I would never have, with divorced parents and no interest in boys and only bad dating experiences.  But without submitting to that principle before I understood it fully, without acting faith to try it out and see if it was true, I never would have found Nathan, who has made me gloriously happy.  Truly.

I am in process now, ever too slowly but fighting for it and moving forward at least, of gaining my testimony of motherhood.  Having children does not make you a mother.  Living by principles that practice motherhood make you a mother, and for me that means working less and taking a season out of many projects to be with my sick baby, to teach my preschoolers to read, and to be present for shaping and playing with my first graders.

Covenants change everything.

Learning to keep covenants take time, and practice, and fortitude.

Life is never the same after covenant making, and covenant keeping changes the rules.

Covenant keeping changes the law, regardless of what those around you do.

Nathan and I have made a covenant not to eat sugar.  For us, sugar is a sin.  We felt prompted to make this covenant after being taught by our nutritionist, learning from the oncologist, and studying the Word of Wisdom.  For us, in our context, Heavenly Father has said that no sugar is part of the terms of our covenants to following Him.

We do not hate people who eat sugar.  We do not judge them.  We may sometimes be jealous, because we are still so very weak, but we are working on that. We have many friends who eat sugar.

But we cannot eat sugar.

We cannot eat sugar simply because we promised not to eat sugar.

Heavenly Father told us, that for us, it is not good.  It is not right.

It’s that simple.

Do we have the “right” to eat sugar, to legally go to the store and buy sugar in any form?

Of course we do.

But we promised not to, because Heavenly Father said so.

Because He said so.

In the spiritual realm and the world itself, their are laws and principles at work whether we are aware of them or not, whether we “believe” in them or not, whether we “accept” them or not.

Like gravity, for example.

Or the Law of the Harvest.

But if you want to actually learn about those laws and principles, you have to study them and try them out and think about them and practice them.  Alma said (chapter 32):

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.

27 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.

32 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

34 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.

35 O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?

36 Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.

We have to try it out, he says, and learn what is true and right and good, and do that.

We cannot waste time or energy shaming others for their sins, when we have so many of our own.

That’s not the plan.

The plan is happiness.

The plan of happiness is about working together to help each other get home.

We need each other.

The adversary loves to distract us by focusing on one sin or another, to trick us into licking our wounds, to sneak up on us with illusions of our right-ness so that we try to compel others.

But that’s not the plan.  Compelling is never the plan.  Cruelty is never the plan.

The Savior never-ever shamed.

The Savior invited.

The invitation was always to covenant making.

He was not shy about right and wrong, especially because He understood the laws and principles we are still trying out in acts of faith.

Even when confronting wrong behaviors, He did not condemn because He saw people.

When talking about my earlier blog in which I was wrestling with principles of repentance because of an early morning scripture reading and the President Packer comment in conference, Nathan said some interesting things.  He said that while consequences always have to play out and we don’t always get rescued from them, and it may take time and work for us to change our behaviors, it does not take any additional time or energy for the atonement to cover our sins.

They are already paid.

We don’t need to shout out the behaviors or choices of others or ourselves, and lose our voices screaming the cost of it all.

Because it’s already paid.

We can’t disappoint God, Nathan says, because he already knows us perfectly.

That hurt my brain a little when he said that, and I am still thinking about it.

It means, though, that I can’t even really be disappointed in myself, because what I thought was disappointment is really an opportunity to see myself more clearly and more accurately.

C.S. Lewis said that because God knows all (which is not the same as causing all), our experience of the present moment is like God’s experience of the past, present, and future all at once.  The more we live in the present, rather than lost in the past or worried about the future, the more accurately we will learn to see ourselves the way God see us.

It might help us see others that way, too, so that we see them as their Father sees them.

When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a handbook update this week, or rather the handbook update was preemptively leaked to the media, social media went nuts. I wanted to reply sooner, but had a purple baby in my arms.

The handbook update was direction to bishops on how to handle the children of same-sex marriages.

So let’s clarify what’s happened here, before we get all worked up.

The doctrine of the Church has not changed, as the Family Proclamation states so clearly:

The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. Happiness in family life is most likely to be achieved when founded upon the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities. By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation. Extended families should lend support when needed.

When I got baptized six years ago, I did not know how I would ever squeeze into that box, but I was willing to act in faith, and ever so slowly He has melted me and shaped me and I have found myself in some kind of tesseract, where I squeezed myself into a space I thought far too small, and yet have found the expanse of worlds without end.

What has changed this week is policy, which tells church leaders how to handle specific situations.  These situations happen because of different countries around the world having different laws, because of cultural issues, and because of questions bishops have about applying doctrine to a fallen world full of people who are still trying.

Specifically, this most recent update stated that children of same sex couples cannot receive naming blessings or be baptized until they are adults.

There have been a lot of myths (this blog post says nine, to be exact) in the social media uproar, many of them coming from places of hurt or confusion.

Elder Christofferson released a video clarifying in effort to address some of the confusion.

Others tried to bring healing to the hurt.  This guy wrote about others he knew who already fell under the same policy, such as his friend who was a child of a polygamous family, and one was a Muslim in a Muslim country, and neither of them could convert until they were adults and had interviewed with a General Authority.  When this lady wrote about her experience growing up with lesbian moms and her wanting to convert to the church and having to wait, it reminded me so much of the experience of my parents’ divorce.  This gay member of the church wrote about the struggle of facing what this means for him personally, to face what he already knew, even that it means to remain faithful to his testimony he cannot marry another man or have children with him.  His shock was real, and his grief sincere, and his testimony bold and true.

I am not a scientist to argue genetics or what makes people gay or what is going on culturally.

I am a mental health professional, and I know what my field of study says, and what those controversies are, and what has been helpful to some, and what has caused harm to many.

I was a foster mother, and during those years we had had at least four children who identified as gay or struggled with gender issues in some way, including a three year old who was convinced he was a girl.

None of those were here long enough for me to learn why they were like that, or what had happened to them, or what made them up, or even how best to help them or care for them well.

I only listened.  I only loved them.

I know I do not know all the answers.

But I know what it’s like to be a little girl who wants to go to church when your mother doesn’t want to, and the contention it causes, and the divisive spirit it brings, and how those battles sully the peace the Savior so wants to bring to all of us.

I know what it’s like to have children asking to be baptized, but because their adoptions are not yet final they have to wait, because we must follow what is the law.

I know what it’s like to think rules are oppressive, until I was set free by covenant keeping.

One time we were taking a family picture at an event with some friends, and the kids got all worked up because in the picture a friend was holding a coffee from Starbucks.  How the kids knew that was coffee is beyond me, other than they lived somewhere else half their lives.  They were very worried about this person, and anxious to teach them to make “good choices.”  We had to talk with them, ever so carefully, about how we have promised not to drink coffee, but that doesn’t mean other people have promised the same. There are many reasons for us, who want to make covenants, not to drink coffee when that is a specific thing we have promised, but mostly because He said so.

Because He is my Father.

After talking with Nathan and praying all weekend and listening to regional conference today, what I am reminded is that this is not about children being rejected.  It’s not even about sex, or sin.  It’s about family, and preserving family, and protecting family.

And for that, for the ordained family, we must not and cannot apologize.

What is the one thing that I do know?

I know that the Savior loved people, and served them as a messenger from His Father.

What else do I think?  My honest opinion?

Off the books but on the record, here is my honest opinion:

I think that what they keep saying in conference is true, as far as the stuff about the church and the world growing more and more distinct and separate.  On a spiritual level, we cannot become a peculiar people, set apart, if we are not apart from the rest.  It’s a necessity, and it will cause many to struggle, I think.  On a temporal level, it will make us less and less understood by the world, and we will have to work harder and harder to connect with and understand them.  This, however, is a necessary skill if we are to be angels descending with messages, yes?  Jacob’s ladder?  The very theme of our own temple in Oklahoma City?

But if we are to be angels, then we are to be ministering.

I also think our message begins now.

We are called to testify of Jesus Christ, and of this great plan of happiness.

I think that instead of shaming people, we could invite them to understand covenants.

I think that instead of isolating from each other, we could recognize the work of the adversary.

It is always a beguiling, which is always a subtle twisting of truth.

And it happens too much in the world, distorting both our vision of ourselves and our vision of each other, until we no longer see clearly, regardless of genetics.

We need each other, and we need to be kind.

Even to ourselves.

Relief Society can help us turn away from the world:

for its express purpose is to help sisters and their families come unto Christ. In that spirit… We no longer have the luxury of spending our energy on anything that does not lead us and our families to Christ. That is the litmus test for Relief Society, as well as for our lives. In the days ahead, a casual commitment to Christ will not carry us through.

They said that in 1999.  I wish I had known that then, or lived it better, because it would have saved me a great deal of heartache.  But I do know it now, and am responsible for living it.

Because that’s covenant-keeping, even when I am not good at it yet.

Ezekiel said that we may still have a long way to go, but if we are pointed toward God then we are facing all the way toward God.  That’s all that matters.  Likewise, we may think we have made a lot of progress and are ever so holy, but if we turn from God then we are turned all the way from God.

I know that Heavenly Father is real.  I know that He loves me.  I know that he knows me.

I know that His Son, my Savior, is real.  I know that He interceded for me in that garden, died for me on that cross, and advocates for me now.  I know that He will come back again, and that He will reign as King, and that the more I can practice following His example now the easier that transition will be then!

I know that the Holy Spirit helps me do just that, correcting me and guiding me ever so gently, and offering such real and deep comfort.

I know that God has always used prophets, and that prophets have been restored, and that Thomas S Monson is our prophet today.

I know that the priesthood has also been restored, and that its power and blessings are real.

I know that the Book of Mormon is a true account of Lehi’s family as they left Jerusalem, and that it testifies of the Savior, and that it has helped me better understand the Bible by explaining so many pieces.

I know that Joseph Smith was ever much as human as me, with as many adventures and stumblings and learnings and even more afflictions than what I have endured, even paying the price of his life for his testimony.

I know that temples are the house of God, and am so grateful we have one so near, and that the blessings found there are what have rescued, saved, and created my family.

I know it is true, and I know this church is true, even when policies are adjusted, and when I get fired released from my calling, and when all my blessings keep saying that hard things will keep happening because it’s how I can progress, but in this progression is rejoicing because it’s what gets me home.

I know I want to go home, when I am done with my work on the earth.

I know all these things are true, and I say them boldly in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

So I must press forward in faith, and love in truth and righteousness.  That’s what I think.

About Emily

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009. I serve as a Chaplain, and work as a counselor. I got bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, but will always love sign language. I choose books over television, and organics over processed. Nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing - except maybe running, when in the solo mood. I would rather be outside than anywhere else, especially at the river riding my bike or kayaking. PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and currently doing a post-doc in Jewish Studies and an MDiv in Pastoral Counseling. The best thing about Emily World is that it's always an adventure, even if (not so) grammatically precise. The only thing better than writing is being married to a writer. Nathan Christensen and I were married in the Oklahoma City temple on 13 October 2012, and have since fostered more than eighty-five children. We have adopted the six who stayed, and are totally and completely and helplessly in love with our family. Nathan writes musical theater, including "Broadcast" (a musical history of the radio) and an adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver". He served his mission in South Korea, has taught song-writing in New York City public schools, and worked as a theater critic for a Tucson newspaper. This is not an official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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