Many Sparrows

Thoughts on Latter-Day Saint faith in the twenty-first century.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Matthew 18:20

One of the main features of life as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is gathering with your fellow church members. This isn't exclusive to our faith, of course; most faiths gather together on a regular basis.

There are many good reasons for this. Spiritually, there's the reason given in the quote from the Bible above. When we gather Christ has promised to send His spirit to be with us. Additionally, when we gather we get to know each other better, and we can build lifelong bonds, find help when we need it, and also help others in their need.

Intellectually, I agree with and understand all of this. There's just one little problem.

I'm more introvert than extrovert, and there are weeks where Sunday morning just isn't a “be with people” time for me. It's not that I fear the people in my congregation (or “ward” in the parlance of our Church); far from it. I've lived in this ward for almost ten years; I know, trust, and love these people. It's not them, it's me. When I'm feeling a need for alone time being with anyone is a problem.

But I still go to church.

Over the years I've gone through all sorts of phases, and I've learned all sorts of ways to handle my own introversion.

Ironically, one of the most powerful ones was turning my focus out away from myself to the others in the ward. As one of the modern apostles said:

...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?

— Elder Jeffrey R. Holland Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: Behold the Lamb of God emphasis added

When I come to church I need to focus less on myself and more on those around me. My wife is far better at this than I am. More than once she has stood up in the middle of a meeting to go put her arm around someone who needed love in that moment. The signs she sees are opaque to me, but I'm trying to learn.

I know this seems counter intuitive: overcome my introvert tendencies by focusing on other people, but so far it's the only thing that has worked.

I've been thinking about a metaphor for gospel living, which in this case I'm using in the sense of “making things like gospel study a part of daily life.” There's a common problem that people have with creating a spiritual aspect of their life, and it goes something like this:

  1. I see people who really have their lives together.Who are deeply spiritual. I want to be like them!
  2. When hard times come, I try harder to be deeply spiritual.
  3. My immediate problems aren't immediately solved.
  4. I decide I'm not good enough and despair a little bit. I tried being good for three whole days and it didn't change everything!
  5. Repeat.

Intellectually, of course, I know that real change takes time, that thinking I can suddenly be problem-free is folly.

So I've been thinking about a better way to understand how the acquisition of spirituality helps a person. I think it works more like building a sea wall, hence the title. Here's what I mean:

The purpose of a sea wall is to protect the ships in the harbor. The wall has to be strong enough and high enough to prevent large waves from making it into the harbor. But you have to start the construction of the wall deep under the water. When you first start laying the foundations of the sea wall it provides almost no protection at all. But you can't start building it at the top, that's not how construction works. So for the first little while after you start building your sea wall you still have to deal with the storms, seemingly unprotected.

After a while the sea wall is big enough that it starts providing some protection against big rollers. The large, deep waves break against the sea wall, even though it's still entirely underwater. While your spiritual progress is still mostly invisible, you are starting to internally see the benefits.

As the sea wall begins to appear above the waves it becomes obvious to anyone why it helps. Many waves still rise above it and crash over it, but it's clear that it's tempering their fury.

Eventually the sea wall is high enough to block just about everything. But even now all is not done. The sea wall still requires maintenance and frequent repairs to continue to provide the protection for which it was built.

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father... Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

Matthew 10:29,31 KJV

This is Christ talking to his followers, and I love the imagery here. If God notices the fall of a single sparrow, he definitely knows what's going on with each of us. I also love the very gentle humor in this verse. Being measured in sparrows is unexpected, and feels affectionate. Christ knows and loves and values us. Any time I'm feeling down I can remember that I'm not worthless, I'm worth many sparrows!

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