Our Christmas tree has got a lot of ornaments on it this year. It is borderline absurd, but it is full of nostalgia and I love it. I have tacky ornaments I made in kindergarten, mixed together with the delicate glass ornaments that we got for our wedding 14 years ago. There is a creepy Santa ornament from who knows where. We have a glass bulb that says "Adrien" on it, even though we have no idea who Adrien is. There are 'First Christmas" ornaments for each of our children, and then there are the special and carefully chosen ornaments of our kids from their aunt and uncle each year. There are even just random items that our kids thought to stick a hook on and hang it on the tree. It is all quite messy and very lovely. The lights manage to shine brightly through all the ornaments, and I can still feel the spirit of Christmas when I sit quietly taking it all in from the couch in the darkness.
But I have to admit, with all those ornaments, it can be hard to see the Christmas tree underneath all those decorations.
Looking Beyond the Ornaments
When I was growing up, I remember being taught quite forcefully, "No matter what happens, no matter what trials or questions you might have, you always go to church." It was a good lesson, but I laughed just a bit to myself this year when the pandemic hit, and I was suddenly commanded by the prophet to stop going to church.
I wonder if, with all the well-meaning rigor of trying to point me in the right direction, the focus was too much on the church and not enough on the Savior whose church it is—a little too much ornament and not enough tree.
The truth is, I love church. I always have. I love the gathering, the rituals, the forced tittering that goes out over the congregation when the same old icebreaker jokes re-emerge at the beginning of a talk. I miss the awkward conversations in the foyers and the crying babies being taken out by their parents. I miss the smiley grandpa ushers at the doors. I miss the rustle of green hymn books. I miss the teenage boy slip-ups over the sacrament prayers and the too-long primary presentations, and that one blessed member who always gets up and bears their quirky testimony. I miss the full pews and the last-minute clanking of metal chairs in the back as more people trickle in. I miss the smiling, mask-less faces. I miss the pulpit kleenex box and the scratchy walls in the hallway and the basketball hoops hanging over the congregation at the back. And oh how I miss the singing!
It filled my soul up.
But, as it turns out, all of that stuff was just ornaments on the tree.
During the past several months, there have been times when, trying to reconstruct my weekly worship, I almost felt spiritually orphaned. Home church was wonderful enough, and of course I loved gathering for the sacrament in my living room with my kids, and being able to participate more intimately in the emblems of the Lord's Supper. But I admit that I felt just a little bit lost without the traditions, the social side of church, and unwritten parts of my worship that have grown up with me right alongside my own hardwood testimony of Christ.
I never realized how much I would miss "rubbing shoulders with such good brothers and sisters."
But I think the time away was well spent, because it forced me to focus on something even more important than church—my own personal relationship with Christ.
All that stuff I have been missing you might call the form of the gospel. The ritual, the physical church building, and all the outward expressions of my faith that were expressed therein. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vessel, a carrier of the message of Jesus Christ, and a very good one, I believe. But I think sometimes I have confused the form with the substance of my Christian faith. I wonder if I have sometimes been guilty of over-emphasizing the church over the Christ. It has been a hard lesson for me to learn.
Form vs Substance
It is very easy to talk about the form of our faith. It is the statistics. It is the number of operational temples, the growing number of wards and branches, the number of missionaries, the callings, the policies, the formal and informal liturgy, the callings, the people in the pews—all the outward expressions of our worship. They are measurable. We can talk all day long about the dollars spent (or not spent) on humanitarian aide, or the growing (or dropping) activity rates, the subject matter of conference talks, the policies, the programs, and even the most sacred and necessary parts of the gospel and why they are important. But it is much harder, impossible even, to measure the substance.
What is the substance?
The substance is Jesus Christ, a very real resurrected being who lives today to change our hearts and our behavior with his everlasting love and grace. It is hard to measure the substance of Christ, because it is manifest in so many immeasurable ways, like an increase of love for a neighbor, a strengthened family bond, the unexpected forgiveness of an enemy, a changed heart, or the redemption of a sinner.
Both the form and the substance are necessary—you can't have the substance of your faith without having some kind of container to carry it in—but focusing on the form rather than on the substance can be spiritually damaging. Nephi taught:
"And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words [the form], believe in Christ [the substance.] And if ye shall believe in Christ, ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good. And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day." (2 Nephi 33:10-11)
Nephi's method asks us to put our belief squarely on the substance, on Jesus Christ. If you don't believe in the Church right now, believe in Christ. If you really don't know how you feel right now about this messy church, for whatever reason (many of which may be well justified) well then, try just believing in Christ. Peel back the layers of ornaments and get a glimpse of the tree. Examine the substance, putting aside all the ornaments that may have overcrowded Him. Talk to Him. Listen to His Spirit. Faith in Christ will lead anyone to the path we need to follow Him in, in whatever form that may look like. Focusing on Christ leads us to make surprising changes, and take both the most wayward sinner and ardent believer to some unexpected places.
Basing our testimony on the form can be terribly limiting, because the form does not have any power in itself to save a soul or change a heart. The church's function is only to carry the substance of Christ's body and blood shed for us. The church is the imperfect vessel for the perfect Christ, and it must change, shift, mature, grow, recant, and make mistakes according to the times it is in, the inperfect leaders appointed, and the general sins and blindspots of a generation at any given moment. Having a testimony of the church without qualifying it with our belief in Christ will never end well, because the church is in a process of refinement as much as we ourselves are. Sometimes it leaks. Sometimes it has to change course and adjust the sails. But ultimately, if you want to know if this church works in its mission to bring you to Christ, you have to focus on Christ, not the vessel. In the storm, the disciples didn't turn to the boat to save them. They turned to the Savior who was sleeping in it down below.
Sometimes I think we care more about keeping up with appearances with the form of our worship than we do about the substance of our worship. We often tell those that struggle to keep white-knuckling it, to always go to church, "fake it 'til you make it," as if we are looking to the church itself for our salvation. While I have learned for myself that the ordinances of the church are a necessary step to bring a person to Christ, and that our willingness to engage in the programs of the church can be essential to our spiritual growth, maybe the topic of church should not be the focus when we feel like a loved one is drifting away. Telling someone to believe in the Church and then, hopefully, somewhere along the line they will end up believing in Christ, is exactly backwards to the method Nephi recommends.
If we make Christ the focus of all our invitations, rather than the Church, I believe He will better shepherd our loved ones back to the covenant path, in whatever way that looks like for His children, and He will do it in His way and in His time. Instead of inviting to church, we should invite to Christ, starting with ourselves.
Over the past few years, our prophet has decreased church by an hour, then cancelled it altogether for most of this year. He has retired and simplified the programs. He has slowly (or not so slowly!) removed more and more of the bells and whistles of our worship, and repeatedly asked us to focus on Christ. President Nelson has emphasized the sacrament, asking us to re-examine the tokens of Christ's body and blood that we take into our bodies every week (which is a beautiful interplay between the form and substance of our worship.) He is consistently reinforcing the foundation we need in order to survive spiritually in this unstable world. That foundation is always Christ, not the church.
I will be the first to admit that this pandemic has been hard on me. I miss very much being able to participate unrestrained in the traditions and weird, wonderful culture that represents my spiritual heritage. I would love a good and awkward ward Christmas party right about now. I ache for the routines and rituals that gave me much needed support for my faith. Having it all stripped back to the absolute basics has felt like lion claws in my spiritual hide. But I think it has been good for me. Even after this pandemic is over, I can't imagine the church ever going back to where it was. This gives me a fair amount of anxiety, but also hope. We have grown out of a shell, in a sense, and I think we are getting ready to move into the next one. I look forward to witnessing that change.
We really have changed in 2020, and so has the world. Removing the many ornaments that have been accumulating for 200 years on the branches of this tree has been hard, but necessary.
I will continue to commit myself to the form of this church by keeping my covenants, but I am also grateful for this year that has taught me where I really need to place my focus: on the tree of life, on the evergreen branches of my Savior's grace, and on the only true substance of my faith.