In the world

One of the sayings that I heard a lot when I joined the Church was that as Latter-day Saints we are called ‘to be in the world, but not of the world’. It established an identity for us as disciples of Christ that suggested that we are different, as Peter describes us, we are a ‘peculiar people’ (1 Peter 2:9). But, the call to be in the world, but not of it, is not found in the scriptures. Rather, it is based on a prayer the Saviour offers for his disciples the night before his arrest. The Gospel of John records the words of the Saviour:

“I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.” (John 17:15–17).

The Lord prays to his Father in Heaven, not that we are taken out of the world but we are kept from the evil that is therein. He states, immediately following this, that his disciples are already ‘not of this world’. What does this mean for us as Latter-day disciples of the Saviour?

I have often had a problem with the caricature of us versus the world; in a way that the world becomes a synonym for everything that is wrong and that we should only be interested in things of the Gospel and people who are members of the Church. If we view our life and encounters with those in the world as a battle we will often entrench ourselves in ways that are unbecoming a disciple of Christ in that we become judgemental and dismissive of everything that we do not find in the Church. It causes us to hide from the things of the world. Patrick Mason has described this approach as ‘A Fortress Church’ based on Churches he observed in Romania. These were Churches designed for battles and sieges; people were able to hunker down in them and their view of the outside was through slit windows through which arrows could be shot. Patrick describes the Fortress Church:

It just seems to me a metaphor for what, in a lot of ways, we had constructed in recent decades, a place of safety, a place of refuge, but a place with pretty high walls dividing us from the world. We use that phrase all the time, the world, and the world is almost always referred to with derision as a negative thing. That it’s something to be protected against. That’s fine. It provides safety.  

Viscri Fortified Church - Castles and Fortresses in Transylvania, Romania.  Romania UNESCO World Heritage Sites

It is important that we are on our guard against the evils of the world; but by and large the evil is not people. The dangers are temptations that draw us away from Christ. We all face opposition, and there are bad things, but as disciples of Christ we are called to keep ourselves from the evil. The apostle John suggests that we:

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” (1 Jn. 2:15–17.)

Our call to be in the world is not a negative thing; rather it is an opportunity to transform the world around us as we live out our discipleship of the Saviour. Patrick Mason continues his reflection on the Fortress Church, the them and us approach to life:

But there are costs to that as well, and one of the costs is you become quiet. You become irrelevant. The world passes you by… There are times where it’s absolutely necessary to raise the drawbridge, to circle the wagons. We do have a history of very real persecution as a people, but you can’t leave the drawbridge raised forever. At some point, if you want to, it seems to me that clearly, we’re called as Christians to have an influence in the world, to not only flee Babylon, but then also transform the world, to be light and salt and yeast to transform the world.

My experience is that the vast majority of the people that I meet in ‘the world’ are good people. They are trying to live their lives in the best way that they can. They are not my opponent on some kind of cosmic battle between good and evil; rather they are fellow children of God on the path to exaltation. Through these relationships we can more fully influence the world around us for good.

Why have I shared this with you? Sometimes our discipleship can be something that we take on and off. Maybe we’re not living in a fortress Church, but the persona we wear in certain situations belies our discipleship. Maybe we subscribe to the Clark Kent model of discipleship. What do I mean by this? As disciples of Christ it is possible that we hide ourselves behind a clothing and life of normality- we don’t do anything ostensibly wrong, rather that we keep the most important aspect of our identity back. 

Let me use a somewhat silly example; I think that something many of you will know about me is that as well as supporting Macclesfield, I am also a Southampton fan. Even though I lived in North Manchester I chose as a child to support Southampton- I have few regrets in life, but this is one of them. Living in Manchester throughout my life I haven’t really had opportunity to watch them live. I remember as an 11 year old visiting my grandparents in Portsmouth and as a surprise they bought tickets for the Portsmouth/Southampton game. My grandad shared before the game that we would be sitting in the Portsmouth end- as an aside Southampton and Portsmouth fans do not like each other. I left my hat and my shirt at home and blended in with the fans around me. I knew that identifying myself as a Southampton fan would cause issues regardless of my age. I remember an amazing save from the Southampton goalkeeper, while I didn’t groan like the people around me, I also didn’t cheer- I stood stoically with my hands in my pockets. I was hiding my feelings. So far so good. Then Southampton scored- again I stood stoically- my grandad hadn’t got the memo though- and grabbed me and started cheering and shouting- “this is amazing James- come on- you need to celebrate’. We got some very angry looks from people around us. Although we won 3-0 it was one of the most uncomfortable 90 minutes of my life because I couldn’t show who I really was, and I had to hide my true feelings. The analogy with discipleship only goes so far; yes- we can great in being able to express who we are- but I’m not sure how much influence I could have had on the Portsmouth fans.

Returning to Clark Kent- we can see aspects of our lives as compartmentalised- that the Gospel is something we exhibit in certain situations. There is an interesting story in the book of Acts about Ananias and Sapphire. At this point in Church history, the early members of the Christian community were living the law of consecration, where all things were held in common. We read:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God (Acts 5:1-4).

Ananias and Sapphira were condemned before the Lord because they held something back. How does this relate to us? I think that whenever we hold a part of us back from the Lord then we are not fully living our discipleship. In contrast to Ananias and Sapphira this isn’t a material possession, but is every aspect of our life. I have mentioned many times that our call to discipleship is not a part time luxury, but an every moment of every day covenant with the Lord. We stand as a witness of him at all times and in places. But what does this mean? I think it’s easy to see how this affects our lives at Church and in the service that we render within our Church community; I think it’s a bit more woolly when we consider our lives outside that- how can we live every aspect of our lives without holding anything back from the Lord? In so doing, how can we be seen to be a light to the world, or the salt of the earth?

If I consider my own circumstances. I think everyone here knows that I am a Professor of Religious Education. This is something that I worked incredibly hard for; I had to study for a long time at University – most of that time alongside my work as a school teacher. Once I began teaching in University I had to publish books and present my work in different places. One of the guiding principles in all of this has been the need to always strive to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in all that I do. Elder Neal A. Maxwell has talked about this in his talk, Discipleship and Scholarship:

Recently my wife took a friend to hear a presentation by a Latter-day Saint of outstanding talent. The friend who has born considerable grief and disappointment in her life, truly appreciated the presentation. Then she said simply, “I hope he is as good a person as he seems.” It is a shame, isn’t it that such reserve even needs to be felt. But we “have learned by sad experience that our spiritual applause is sometimes given to the undeserving. I hasten to add from all I know of the foregoing case the applause is fully justified. Whatever our particular fields of scholarship the real test is individual discipleship, not scholarship but how good it is when these two can company together, blending meekness with brightness and articulateness with righteousness.

It is imperative that we are more than disciples in name, but also in deed. To do we are required to submit to the will of our Heavenly Father. We are promised by the Saviour that if we “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,… all these things shall be added unto you” (3 Nephi 13:33). Often we place our own concerns before the Lord, but in this way we re reversing the nature of discipleship. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ who happens to be a University Professor, rather than a University Professor who happens to be a disciple. Elder Maxwell phrases it this way when he suggests that scholars:

…become more of a link and bridge between revealed truth and the world of scholarship. The LDS scholar has his citizenship in the kingdom but carries his passport into the professional world not the other way around.

Whatever our jobs or roles in the world we can utilise this same imagery. We are nurses, shop workers, and carers who carry our passports into the professional world. We are first and foremost in a relationship with Christ, and this enables us to be better in our chosen careers, because we are not pretending to be something we’re not. We are living a fully cohesive and consecrated life. As we live our faith, our colleagues are able to see the influence of Christ in our lives and we are able to help others feel of His love. We do this, by Gospel living just becoming a natural part of who we are and how we act. What this means in your career and in your relationships in ‘the world’ will be very personal. I was once asked about how my faith affected me as a teacher. I am very clear that as a teacher it is inappropriate to preach to students, there are boundaries that I have established so as not to overstep the mark. In response to the question I considered a passage from Howard W. Hunter which echoed the teaching of Jesus to “Come, follow me” (Luke 18: 22):

I would invite all members of the Church to live with ever more attention to the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially the love and hope and compassion He displayed. I pray that we might treat each other with more kindness, more courtesy, more humility and patience and forgiveness (Hunter, 1994, p. 14).

If I explore what lies behind this invitation I am led to the experiences of the life of Jesus; whether it is him being moved with compassion to raise the son of the Widow of Nain, when he blessed the little children, or when he bore the pains and humiliation of the cross with grace and love for all people. This teaching builds on the belief that every person is a child of God. As such, I should treat every person or every child in my classroom in the way that Jesus would. He would not turn any away because of the way that they looked (the woman anointing his feet with oil), what they have done in the past (the woman caught in adultery), or how they treated him (he died for all of humanity even those who nailed him to the cross). Am I fulfilling the command to “strengthen [everyone] in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings” (D&C  108:7).  I must build up every child whom I teach in every aspect of my dealings with them, I must not lose patience when they stretch it to breaking point, I must offer time and understanding.

Sometimes, however, the holding back isn’t the faith aspect in the way that we live and show our faith in the work that we do; rather it is the withholding of our skills in the service of the Lord.  We have skills and abilities that we have perhaps developed in the world that can be put to work in the kingdom of God. How can we more effectively love God and love our neighbour with the talents, skills and abilities that the Lord has given us.

In living a consecrated life as a disciple it does not mean that we are free from opposition. In my career I have not been without criticism from both sides of the fence- so to speak. From those outside of the Church, my membership in the Church has often been raised and I was rejected from my first choice University because of my faith, and I think at one point it stopped me from receiving a promotion. From within, my choice to teach about the religions of the world and some of the associated ethical issues has caused some to raise their eyebrows and consider whether I am truly living my religion. We have to live our lives in harmony with the Holy Ghost to know the Lord’s will for us; but always know that the service we render is first and foremost in our families, then in the kingdom and then in the world. We cannot change our citizenship to the world, with occasional visits to the Lord’s kingdom.

Returning to the imagery of being in the world; we are able to exemplify the Lord’s way of living as we become involved in the world while avoiding its evils. We should not fall into the trap, however, of thinking that our relationship with the world and those in the world is a one way street; rather it is a reciprocal relationship where we can learn more about ourselves and what it is to be a disciple in our relationships with others. I talk a lot about inter-faith dialogue and how I have learned, for example, more about what it is to fast in dialogue with Muslim friends than within my own studies. I have become a better Latter-day Saint because of my involvement with people of other faiths. However, we should always be open to learn from people of all faiths and none, in whatever situation that we find ourselves. In so doing, we can become better disciples and more able to live our faith. 

While we shun evil this does not mean that we become judgemental about the way that others live their lives. The Saviour himself showed love and compassion to those who were living in a way contrary to his Gospel. As he hung on the cross he prayed that his Father would forgive those who nailed him there. The Saviour reached out to all of those people who were considered to be on the margins of society; we should be open to loving and learning from every person with whom we come into contact. I was once on a panel discussing young adult issues; one question was asked about whether a person should always accept a date if asked. One YSA explained that she felt you should, because even if it wouldn’t go anywhere she was of the opinion that she can learn something from everyone she meets. I would ask the question, what are people learning when they talk to us? Do they gain a positive impression of Christ, or do they see the vitriol and intolerance that seems to be so much in evidence in our society? The Saviour did not turn any away; what he condemned more than anything was hypocrisy. It is interesting to me that sometimes, when people are condemning that which they see to be wrong, they fall into bitterness, anger and judgemental and inappropriate language- they are meeting one sin with another rather than reaching out with Christlike love.

There are numerous examples from my life of where I have learned much just by spending time with someone, or with a group of people. These experiences have helped me understand more about Christ’s love. When I was a teacher I remember being visited by a group of students who were concerned about casual homophobia within the school. At this point nearly twenty years ago, I have to admit that society and I were not very engaged with this issue. I found great value in listening to these students who were explaining the negative impact it was having and, what we as a school could do to address the underlying issues. Along with another member of staff, and these students, I was able to lead some training for staff, and assemblies for students, to establish a culture of safety and belonging within the school for all staff and students. By listening to these students and their experiences, I was able to understand more, and in turn become more Christlike as I strove to extend my love. 

There is evil in the world; but there is also much to celebrate and embrace. We should not be hiding ourselves away but developing a reciprocal relationship which will enable us to more fully live our lives as disciples of Christ and for our positive influence to be felt throughout the world.

I am grateful for all of the lessons I learn from all of my interactions with people. We should embrace the opportunities that life brings to express our discipleship. I want everyone to know I am a disciple of Christ, and as Is strive so to be I will be able to find life in greater abundance.  


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s