Cover image via Gospel Media Library. 

There is a bit of a habit we have as Latter-day Saints in the United States. You, no doubt, have observed it dozens, if not hundreds of times. It may not have bothered you. You may have even done it yourself, but it’s something we need to make a deliberate decision to stop.

Brother so and so stands to give a talk, he clears his throat and says,

“Well, when I saw it was Brother Jones calling, I nearly didn’t pick up the phone…”

Sister so and so starts her talk similarly,

“Today is my birthday, I hoped that would be enough to get me out of this.”

“When Brother Smith texted me, I thought about telling him he had the wrong number.”

I’ve even seen that opening from youth speakers as young as 11 years old, not expressed from a place of sincere (and valid) apprehension about public speaking, but read off of their paper because, as far as they have observed, that’s how talks begin.

These openings are met with quiet smirks and polite laughs. Perhaps, the speakers don’t know how else to begin. It is that old familiar ice breaker. But what are we telling the Lord, and each other, by encouraging that declared stance at the beginning of completing an assignment He has given us through his servants?

I have been planning to write this article for a long time. I had thought to write it the week last year that we were studying Jonah; to dive deep (so to speak) in examining the consequences of shirking the Lord’s assignments when it was already on our collective mind for the week.

But the week came and went, and I didn’t know how to write it.

Each Sunday, I would hear introductions like that again, and each Sunday, my husband, knowing this article was in my mind’s queue, would give me a look when we heard them.

I needed to write the article, but pointing out an issue, without offering any kind of gospel insight to ground why it matters, was useless. What story should I tell to illustrate just how much the Lord does not want shirkers?

It wasn’t until we were reading Malachi 1 in a gospel doctrine class, that I realized what the bigger picture really is. Those verses describe how the people had been bringing the worst that they had as an offering to the Lord; bringing their animals that were already lame or of no agricultural use to be given as a sacrifice. The Lord calls them out and says that they are meant to bring their best to him. And in that moment, I felt a gentle, but firm chastisement from the Lord. I realized that it was me that was standing at the pulpit of my divine assignment and saying how I wished it had fallen to someone else. I was focusing on the actions of others, but I was not giving my best for a sacrifice.

Sure, I may not have ever started a talk with a story of how earnestly I tried to avoid being at that pulpit (it’s a trope that has bothered me since I was a teen so even then, I didn’t do it), but I am vocal in social settings and quite shamelessly expressive in my head about how frustrating I find it the Lord asked me to raise children.

Now, don’t mistake me. I adore my two sons. They make me laugh every day and I’m so amazed and impressed at the ways they’re growing and learning. I love them more than I knew I could love. But they demand so much and the path that I was on has had to bend dramatically to wrap around them and sometimes I’m cleaning the same mess up again for the fourth time in a day and think, “was this the best way for me to learn my lessons in mortality?” Like Namman, I look at the prospect of seven baths in the river Jordan and wish the Lord had asked me to do some greater thing.

Watching my sons grow is absolute magic. But I have looked at the requirements involved in facilitating that growth with such begrudging reluctance. So many dishes, so much laundry, so many things I treasured, getting ripped up or thrown out by toddler exploration. You really can’t have nice things.

I remember once sitting at a women’s conference in Alaska and the speaker said that when she first got married, she had enrolled in a series of homemaking courses. I bristled and thought, “I would never do that. It’s not like my greatest aspiration is to be a homemaker.” Then I blinked my eyes and 5 or so years later, my home is a wreck because rather than taking deliberate time to learn the skills, I always just thought of other things as my aspirations and the home as a thing I incidentally should get around to at some point.

Sitting in that gospel doctrine class and thinking about my offerings, I realized just how much I was standing at the proverbial pulpit of motherhood saying, “I thought about texting the Lord back and saying he had the wrong number.”

But the reality is, the Lord can’t have the wrong number because Benjamin has my flare for the dramatic and Sterling has my eyes—they are unmistakably mine. I am the person on this earth who gets the opportunity to be their mother; to be their safe space, their rose-colored lens on this new world, their best friend, their confidant, their unconditionally warm embrace, their everything. No one else can take my place with them, and they deserve a mother who learned to embrace her role with enthusiasm and gratitude, rather than someone who was always watching the clock for when she could get back to working on something else.

I suspect it is a part of everyone’s journey through this mortal wilderness to come to terms with the hand you’re dealt. Not only to experience what the Lord has for you, but to learn how to thrive in your own, particular sets of circumstances and then turn to Him with your whole heart and ask what more He has in store.

It reminds me of a story from young David O. McKay’s missionary service in Scotland. Matthew O. Richardson, in a devotional given at BYU Hawaii, recounted the details this way:

In 1897, David O. McKay was called to serve a mission in Scotland. He was thrilled to return to his “motherland” and had very high expectations of bringing the restored gospel to his kin. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a message about God, Jesus Christ, and a restored church brought about by a boy-prophet. Even when he was able to share his message, he was ridiculed for his “American” accent. To make matters worse, there were some asserting that missionaries didn’t come to Scotland to share a message, but to steal their “bonny lasses” away for plural marriage. Some of you returned-missionaries know all too well what I am talking about.

Feeling a bit sorry for himself, he and his companion went on a diversion for the day (or what we now call a “P-day”) and they went sight-seeing. Well, it appears that this one “diversion day” turned into several days of diversion and touring. And on one of these diversion days, David O. McKay found himself standing at the wall of Stirling Castle taking in the historic sites before him. They left touring the Castle around five o’clock to return to their newly acquired lodgings.

As the two missionaries walked along Back O’ Hill Road, they approached a construction site for new apartments that would be known as the Albany Crescent buildings. From the sidewalk, David O. McKay noticed something unusual about the building. “Over the front door was a stone…something unusual in a residence, and what was still more unusual, I could see from the sidewalk that there was an inscription chiseled in that arch…” McKay recalled: “I was half way up the graveled walk, when there came to my eyesight a striking motto carved in stone– “What e’er Thou Art, Act Well thy Part…’”

President McKay said of this experience:

I said to myself, or the Spirit within me, ‘You are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. More than that, you are here as a representative of the Lord Jesus Christ. You accepted the responsibility as a representative of the Church.’ Then I thought [about] what we had done that forenoon. We had been sightseeing; we had gained historical instruction and information, it is true, and I was thrilled with it. … However, that was not missionary work. … I accepted the message given to me on that stone, and from that moment we tried to do our part as missionaries in Scotland.

This message had a profound effect on President McKay, even after his mission. In fact, for the rest of his life, he was determined to give his very best to any responsibility that fell upon him.

Some Sundays, the responsibility that falls upon us is to give a talk. Rather than declare before God and the congregation that you wish you didn’t have to, perhaps that’s a moment to “act well thy part”. Dig deeply into the scriptures, pray for revelation, find out why the Lord wanted you to study this topic at this time and then present what you found with joyful curiosity and gratitude, even if it makes your nervous to stand up in front of everybody.

But, as I mentioned, I cannot judge those shirking jokes too sharply because I have been standing at the pulpit of motherhood for some time declaring that it was an uncomfortable fit for me. I desperately want to learn what it would mean to act well this part.

I’m willing. (Lord, help thou my unwillingness.) The Lord wants willing servants. That matters to Him. He wants our freely given broken hearts and wholly surrendered contrite spirits. But why? Why does he only want our wills if we will choose to give them? Why would he be willing to lose a third part of the host of heaven to preserve our right to choose for ourselves whether we would follow Him?

My mind always returns to the quote from The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ series of missives between a senior devil and his nephew about the best methods for tempting humans. He tells him,

To us a human is primarily good; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself-creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct. (Letter VIII)

He wants our willingness because of how much we mean to Him. He wants us as family members at His table that aren’t wrestling to get away, but that have arrived ready to partake of the feast that awaits, wholeheartedly. He, as our maker, knows already what choices and pursuits would bring us the greatest joy. But He also knows that being coerced along that path would bring a joy that was empty. He sent us here for our growth and knew that the only real growth we could keep would be the kind we earned through our own repeated decision to endure; our personal determination to engage every fiber of our spiritual muscles to keep getting up and keep turning toward Him.

I suspect we have no idea what would be in store for us if we were to systematically pull down all the remaining resistance we have to the Lord; the pure revelation that could be ours, the power we could have, and the peace. These are gifts that await us, sitting wrapped in beautiful paper under the tree of life, if we would but approach it.

In the end, I suppose the cultural habit we actually need to break is not a habit at all, but a barrier. The barrier that exists between you and the mightiest being the universe, who, incidentally, is anxiously awaiting the chance for you to know Him better, draw a little closer, and benefit from His power.

If we started to truly understand and draw upon the strength of that relationship, the natural man impediments and anxieties that cause you to immediately voice your resistance to giving a talk in Church or me to complain about my difficulties with the responsibilities of motherhood, would very quickly melt away.

What remains would be an ecstatic, spiritually whole, ancient version of ourselves basking in the pure and personal love God has for us, and thrilling at the opportunity for His next assignment.