Saturday, August 2, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: When Ordinances Become "Communal" and Their Real Power Is Manifest

Last Sunday was the final week to discuss "Ordinances and Covenants", so I borrowed a copy of the Church Handbook of Instructions, Book 2 - intending to highlight some of the ordinances we hadn't discussed previously and the general policies surrounding performing ordinances. (Section 20) It didn't go fully according to my plan; it turned out to be a much better discussion than I could have imagined.

I started by revisiting the foundational concepts we had discussed in the first lesson this month:

1) Ordinances are actions we perform to convey a specific meaning or message. They are symbolic and have NO power whatsoever except what we give to them. For example, if baptism was about immersion in water only, we could have people jump into a pool and call it baptism - or we could eat some cake and drink some fruit punch in the cultural hall and call it the sacrament.

2) Covenants are the actual meaning of the ordinances - meaning the power and purpose of ordinances is wrapped up in what they motivate us to promise to do and then actually do. Again, without covenants, there is no power whatsoever in ordinances - since it's not performing them that is the key but rather what we choose to become as a result of participating in them.

I then explained what I had in mind, held up the handbook and asked how many of them knew that the handbook was available to all of them online. I shouldn't have been surprised due to their ages, but most of them (whose parents almost all have prominent callings in the ward) didn't know there was a handbook that contained the official church policies and general counsel. Due to that, I took a few minutes to read through the section titles and go through how to access the handbooks online - step-by-step, so they could do so anytime the wanted.

From 20.1 (General Instructions), I showed them the part about saving ordinances needing authorization from the person who holds the keys to the performance of that ordinance (the person who is authorized to control, direct and oversee it), then we read the general format of all ordinances:

1. It should be performed in the name of Jesus Christ.
2. It should be performed by the authority of the priesthood.
3. It should be performed with any necessary procedures, such as using specified words or using consecrated oil.
4. It should be authorized by the presiding authority who holds the proper keys (normally the bishop or stake president), if necessary according to the instructions in this chapter.

I modeled what something like a baby blessing would sound like if only the minimum requirements were included ("Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the priesthood, I give his child the name of Jane Doe" - perhaps with an additional, "and bless her with everything you desire to give her. Amen.") - and stressed that such a blessing would be every bit as meaningful as one that lasted for 15 minutes. We discussed the danger of allowing blessings to become about us and our oratory skills. I told them about my varying experiences with blessings - how I have participated in hundreds of blessings throughout my life, with only a handful where I can say, without doubt, that I spoke revelation directly from God. I explained that even though I couldn't say that about the other hundreds, I was glad I had participated in them in order to experience the overpowering ones.

We talked about what kind of ordinances require exact wording (e.g., baptism, the sacrament, temple ordinances, etc.) and which ones don't (e.g., all blessings, confirmation after baptism, etc.). We talked about what is necessary for someone in one ward or branch to perform an ordinance in a different location (approval from the leader in that other location) and how that decision might be made (a letter from the other Bishop, a phone call, an active temple recommend - although that last one might not be accurate, if someone had sinned egregiously after receiving it, etc.). We then read 20.1.3 about that situation, and I pointed out the use of "should" - as opposed to "must". I told them we would revisit that issue at the end of the lesson.

From 20.1.1 (Participation in Ordinances and Blessings) and 20.1.2 (Worthiness to Participate in an Ordinance or Blessing), we talked about ordinances that require a current temple recommend and the Melchizedek Priesthood (primarily the "saving ordinances") and the difference between being the voice in an ordinance (representing the church leadership) and simply participating (less strict standards, with more discretion given to the local leader). We also discussed how baptism does NOT require either the Melchizedek Priesthood or a current temple recommend, even though it is considered a saving ordinance - which means there are a LOT of fathers who may perform that ordinance for their children who might assume they can't. I told them that I hope when they are leaders of any kind that they are mindful of such situations and allow fathers to do so as much as possible.

I mentioned that, as I read the handbook, I am struck by how many policies and how much counsel HAD to have been the result of members doing really stupid things. I mentioned how much smaller the current version is than in the past, but, even now, I envision the leadership sitting down to discuss the handbook and saying:

You're kidding me! They did WHAT?! Ah, crap, now we're going to have to write a policy and give counsel about that. :roll:

At this point, the lesson took a different turn than I had expected. We read the following:

Those who participate are usually limited to a few, including priesthood leaders, close family members, and close associates such as home teachers. Inviting large numbers of family, friends, and leaders to assist in an ordinance or blessing is discouraged. When too many participate, it can become cumbersome and detract from the spirit of the ordinance. Those who perform an ordinance and those who preside are the only ones required. Others provide support and sustain the spokesman.

I asked the students why the policy is usually to limit those who participate in ordinances to "a few" people. They were a bit stumped by that, so I asked them what would happen if a large family, with lots of adult relatives (like mine), wanted to have all of those people (say 35) help bless a baby. (I used an extreme to make the point obvious.) I gave them a visual illustration of how each person would have to stand in order for all of them to reach the baby - and we spent a few minutes laughing at the possibilities. When we had stopped laughing, I pointed out that what had just happened in our classroom (laughing at the visual image) is precisely why the policy is in place - along with the desire to not have ordinances become a contest to see who has "the most righteous" posterity / family or create concern about overlooking anyone and having people be upset that they weren't asked to participate.

Somehow, that discussion led to a different discussion about what happens when an entire congregation becomes invested in an ordinance and it becomes more than an individual experience and more of a true community (group unity) event. I shared the gist of one of my favorite blog posts ever, "Ninety One Words" - about a young man with a severe stutter being asked to say the sacrament prayer. I described how, by the end of the prayer, the entire congregation was mouthing the words silently - praying for the young man to have or receive the strength he needed to get through it. I explained how the sacrament had never meant more to that congregation, since they were united in support of someone else and were inspired to consider the words themselves more carefully and deeply than had happened previously in their lives. (Please read the post. It is stunning.)

The story really touched the students, and one of them shared an experience he had witnessed in his previous ward, prior to moving to our ward. He said the missionaries had been referred to and started teaching a man who was in the hospital being treated for the effects of being severely overweight - somewhere over 500 pounds. He accepted the message and asked to be baptized, but he couldn't fit in the church's font - so the Bishop arranged to perform the ordinance at a pool in the community. About a dozen or so people got into the pool, and someone said the baptismal prayer at the edge of the pool next to the man. After the prayer, people outside the pool used a fireman's tarp (the kind that is used to catch people who jump from burning buildings) to lower the man into the pool, where the people in the pool took the tarp and allowed it to sink to the bottom so the man could be immersed - then lifted the man back out of the pool and set him and the tarp back on the edge of the pool.

We talked about how it is moments like those experiences when what too often becomes little more than rote, autopilot actions suddenly take on real, deep meaning - when necessary exceptions almost force us to see the ordinances as they are intended to be - when we become truly invested in them and realize how much they mean to those who see and feel the power of the symbolism and are determined to participate no matter the difficulty.

We were almost out of time at that point, so I simply mentioned how important it is to read the handbook carefully and notice the choice of words, especially those like "should", "must", "can", "might", "encouraged", "discouraged", "forbidden", etc. I told them that I personally read everything with an eye to the most charitable, inclusive application possible - that I would rather err on the side of inclusion and charity than on the side of exclusion and judgment. I shared the story told here (without sharing the name of the site, obviously) about someone being denied the opportunity to have his baby blessed during sacrament meeting because he wasn't a member at the time - and I pointed out that there is nothing in the handbook that says a non-member can have a baby blessed, but there also is nothing in it that says it can't be done. I told them that I believe it our Christian duty to make our decisions based on what we feel would be the best for the people involved - what we would want if it was us making the request, as long as such a request was not explicitly forbidden in the handbook. I told them that they all probably will be leaders of some sort in the Church at some point in their lives and that I hope they will read and apply the handbook policies and counsel as expansively as they can - to make as many ordinances as "communal" as possible.

There was a spirit during the last part of the lesson that I couldn't have anticipated, and I am grateful it went differently than I had planned.

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