I was sitting in church today thinking about what I would say if I had to speak. Two reasons for this: it was ward conference and our stake president has a strong habit of calling people out to share testimony without warning. Second, my mission president counseled me to always be preparing for my next talk because then I would always have something to say.
The day before we hosted a regional activity. We invited young single adults from Pennsylvania all the way to Iowa. It took hours of preparation and decorating, cooking and cleaning. I had arranged the location rental and so was responsible for keeping things clean and orderly. It also meant I was there from 9 am door opening until the gate closed at 11 pm. Such activities regularly exhaust me, and I ultimately go home at the end of the dance alone, wondering if it vale la pena. Did it matter? Was it worth it?
Rolling out of bed 7 hours later with a campfire raspy voice and very not anxious for early morning bishopric meetings the thoughts persisted. We moved on with business: reaching out to the lost, the lonely, the forgotten. What efforts can I hold back when contemplating the souls of humanity?
And so I sat listening to the opening hymn, “I Stand all Amazed.” A good song, nice harmonies. We wound our way through the first two verses as I contemplated the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have felt so insufficient as I battle through a Ph’D program, attempt to keep my calling together, tackled ministering opportunities assigned and otherwise, and progressively worsening cycles of social ineptitude. I am not enough, not for any of those roles. A poor friend, a lousy suitor, a mediocre TA and student, an often-unwelcome counselor and confidant. Yes, “confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me” makes sense. Why me? I understand why he loves everyone else. When I serve them I love them too. I see them struggling to find their light, to grow against odds, to overcome their challenges. But in me I see my weakness: the social missteps, the calls I let go to voicemail, the hidden defeats AND the good things that I might have done if I tried a little harder. I see my years of watching my peers move on in adulthood while I seem stuck figuring it out.
But that wasn’t the line that tipped me this time, the one that stole my breath and moisten my eyes: That was further down, “I will praise and adore at the mercy seat, until at the glorified throne I kneel at his feet.”
The mercy seat.
Suddenly I was watching the sunset over a golden dome in an ancient city of sandstone. I held in my hand a talk printed on A4 paper. It was an in-house devotional by Elder Holland where he explained what the mercy seat was. Deep in the Old Testament God of fire and brimstone was the most sacred place in all of Israel. A place they fought tooth and nail to protect, their temple. The place where God spoke to them and judged them. It was inside the holiest of holy temple rooms where the arc of the covenant sat. Presiding over that golden box protected by two angels was a space where the presence of God would speak to the high priest, the mercy seat.
The place from which God talks to Israel is mercy. The most sacred place in that ancient world of fire and brimstone and JUSTICE, was mercy. Justice makes clear that we… that I… am an imperfect broken shell of a man. I’ll never do enough service, plan enough dances, or wash enough dishes to earn the grace of God. It isn’t earned. It’s given. His forgiveness and acceptance is because of his mercy. And when Christ descended from his throne divine it wasn’t as an absolute monarch inclining his head or extending a scepter of forgiveness. For him to claim the mercy seat cost him Gethsemane. It scarred him through the resurrection. It engraved us into his hands. This was the all-powerful monarch crawling into the kitchen with us after the glamorous party to take on the burnt gravy pots and questionable leftovers. Taking on the shadows and demons within our doubts and fears. Standing with us in shame, defeat, exhaustion, and moving us to try again.
You know what the heart of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is? It’s the mercy seat. It’s the sacrifice of divine blood to make it so we would have time to try again. To progress. To learn and to grow. To stumble and to fall. To stand up and keep smiling. That’s why I do it. Even as so many of my peers choose other paths of greater ease or sophistication I continue to kneel in praise of his mercy. Because I want to love him too. I want to become as he wants me to be. And each stumbling step forward draws me closer to understanding how precious that mercy really is.