I love my faith because it doesn’t like comfort zones and constantly invites me to seek excellence in everything. But those are also reasons I struggle with my faith because, thank you very much, I’m quite happy where I’m at.
Such invitations to excellence are ever-present in my Church, which takes seriously Christ’s New Testament injunction to “be ye therefore perfect.” The most recent example came on January 10, 2016, as I watched Russell M. Nelson (a Mormon apostle) speak to Latter-day Saint young adults around the world. This 91-year-old, whose remarkable health and vitality belie his age, spoke with characteristic precision and conviction about humanity’s—and in particular millennials’—divine heritage and limitless potential.
A third of the way through his talk, President Nelson told us to “expect and prepare to accomplish the impossible” in our lives. This idea isn’t new, yet somehow, as we age and open our hearts, God can continue to surprise us. Spiritual messages we’ve heard all our lives can sneak up on us in new forms suddenly visible with the lenses of experience. And then we are, as Pope Francis says, “surprised by reality, by a greater love or a higher standard” (“The Name of God is Mercy,” p. 66).
President Nelson’s invitation is more than words for me because he has spent his life accomplishing impossible things. He is the father of 10 children (including nine daughters—a task so much more impressive to me now that I have three of my own); he was a pioneer in the field of open heart surgery; he speaks several languages with varying degrees of fluency in order to be a more effective surgeon and church leader; he’s maintained his faith even after losing a daughter and his first wife to cancer; and he helped establish The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints throughout Eastern Europe during the Cold War years.
But there’s a second and more personal reason President Nelson’s message resonates with me. In my local congregation I, along with my wife, am asked to do the seemingly impossible every week by teaching a group of shy and mostly mute 14-year-old boys and girls.
That Book is “A Bunch of Gibberish”
For me, Christ’s message is one of those things made for the social media age because its fruitful influence in my life makes me want to share it with others. But not everyone feels this way—including some boys and girls in my class. Most Sundays they seem as interested in the teachings of Jesus as our six-year-old is in broccoli.
“What is this book about?” I ask one day as I hold up a copy of the Old Testament.
The students stare blankly or divert their eyes to the ground. It’s as if I’ve asked them some eye-glazing question about the finer points of algebra. Take a step back, I think to myself. More simplicity.
“Do you know who wrote the book?” I ask.
“Can you tell me something about what the book contains?” I ask.
“Can you tell me anything about this book?” I sigh, but add a smile to avoid a condescending air.
“Hmmm,” one boy grunts.
“I should probably know that, but I’m not sure what to say,” a girl says.
I do the same thing for the other books in the Latter-day Saint canon—the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, the New Testament. They give me the same awkward silence, with the exception of one girl who calls the Old Testament “a bunch of gibberish.”
Sometime near the beginning of this teaching experience, I thought, How hard can this be? I have church teaching experience. And I was once 14, so I can relate to the struggles of adolescence. But my past experience carries me only so far with these boys and girls because both the world and I have changed in dramatic ways in the 17 years since I was their age.
Seeing Through Lenses of Faith
Nearly 80 years ago, a leader in my church said something marvelous yet unbelievable about teenagers like the ones I have in my class.
“The youth of the Church … are eager to learn the gospel, and they want it straight, undiluted,” he said. “You do not have to sneak up behind this spiritually experienced youth and whisper religion in [their] ears; you can come right out, face to face, and talk with [them]. … You can bring these truths to [them] openly.”
That’s a powerful, liberating statement. But I struggle to see the truth of it reflected in my students. If the subject isn’t food, video games, sports scores, boys or babies, they aren’t interested. Yet I accept that church leader’s statement on faith—which is, as a New Testament scripture says, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
So, though I struggle to see, faith is the invitation to look through new lenses—in my situation, to see people not as they are now, but to obtain the vision of what they one day will be. I like to think, as the Christian author C.S. Lewis said, that I teach a class “of possible gods and goddesses,” because it reminds me that “the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship” (from The Weight of Glory).
It’s just as another Christian writer says: “Don’t forget, God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay like this.” (Anne Lamott, “Traveling Mercies,” p. 135)