Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Christ-Centered Life

As a youth, I first gained a desire to make the gospel of Jesus Christ an integral part of all I did while reading in the Book of Mormon. I have a vivid memory of reading the words of Nephi, who instructs us “that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Ne. 32:9). This commandment astonished me! I could think of many activities in which I engaged on a daily basis that did not begin with a prayer offered in Christ’s name and whose intended purpose had nothing to do with the welfare of my soul. In a burst of youthful zeal, I decided to repent and alter my habits so that my life better conformed to Nephi’s description of Christ-centered consecrated living.
At the time, I spent an hour or more on most days playing basketball, and it was my great ambition to make the junior varsity team as a freshman. To this end, I shot at least one hundred free throws every day, working to improve in this significant aspect of the game. After reading Nephi’s counsel, I decided that each free throw I shot would be prefaced by a brief subvocal prayer, offered “in the name of Christ.” Teammates, watching me shoot free throws during summer league games, began to notice my lips moving and asked me what I was saying; whether because of embarrassment or modesty, I declined to share the nature of my muttered prayer with them. My performance at the free throw line did improve over the course of that summer, but I am reluctant to attribute that success to divine intervention and wonder, to this day, what our Father in Heaven thought of my well-intentioned but poorly executed attempt to insert Christ into the center of my adolescent life. (Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I also wonder whether the prayer I offered before shooting free throws had more to do with the example of Karl Malone, whose muttering before free throws attracted substantial media attention during the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals, than with Nephi or Jesus Christ.)
The Spirit prompted me in my youth to modify my behaviors so that I could live a more Christ-centered life, but my execution of those desires was poor. Today, I wish to reflect on alternative strategies that you and I can pursue to realize this righteous desire more successfully. The idea of centering our lives around Christ carries with it important implications that I’ll try to illustrate using several metaphors: First) To live a Christ-centered life is to live a life without pet sins, without intentionally cultivated and thoughtfully justified indulgences of appetite. A Christ-centered life is one that seeks to imitate the Master in every respect, without seeking exceptions to the commandments. Second) To live a Christ-centered life is to forsake some good options in life for the best activities and practices. Placing Christ at the center of our decisions necessarily places constraints on our future behavior. Third) These constraints always liberate and empower. To live a Christ-centered life is to draw on the enabling power of Christ’s atonement with increased frequency and urgency in our lives, to be magnified by and through his grace.
Over the course of the last month, as Alana and I have begun the process of searching for a home in Fort Collins, Colorado, we’ve evaluated a number of houses that were built in the 1970s. Most of these homes, our realtor pointed out, were not built with central air conditioning units; to purchase such a home would mean relying on a window AC unit to cool individual rooms. In at least one case, the absence of a central air conditioning unit was an important factor that led us to remove a potential future home from consideration. We wanted to be able to enjoy every room in our new home all year long instead of retreating to the comfort of a single room during the sweltering summer months.
Spiritually speaking, we ought to seek for lives and homes in which the peace of Christ is a pervasive influence, not confined to church attendance on Sunday or the singular room that houses our family scripture study. In other words, you and I should make the acquisition of spiritual central air a priority; in our Father’s house are many mansions, but I bet that every one of them comes with spiritual central air! In preparation for that move U-Haul can’t possibly help with, ask yourselves: Are there rooms in my earthly home from which the spirit absents itself on a regular basis, whether because of the media associated with that room or contention that takes place inside it? Have I given up a Christ-centered life and spiritual central air for a natural-man cave? No one would buy a house with central air conditioning and then spend summer in the attic, sweating things out; neither should we spend family home evening, personal scripture study time, and the Sabbath in placing Christ at the center of our lives, only to abandon that peace for hours in a sweltering, spiritual attic, viewing unwholesome media or bickering with family members in a sauna of self-indulgence. Just as a home cooled by central air is made comfortable throughout, a Christ-centered life is one wholly devoted to the cause of the Master, without exception. There is no room in a Christ-centered life for pet sins or knowing disobedience.
For those who commit themselves to living a Christ-centered life, there can be no safe or acceptable deviation from our Master’s standards. Years ago, most playgrounds included a flat disk known as a roundabout or merry-go-round. Children would push it around and around, building up speed, then jump onto its surface and hold on for dear life, clinging desperately in an attempt to counteract the centrifugal force pulling them off the disk. This struggle to stay aboard the revolving roundabout was tremendous fun, but through experience with the merry-go-round, I also learned an important lesson. If I could just get to the center of that flat disk, I no longer needed to cling to the available handholds to maintain my balance. At the exact center of the roundabout I could sit or stand and get dizzy without having to worry about losing my balance or falling off. But the moment I lost my focus and stepped even a foot off-center, centrifugal force pulled me with increasing strength to and eventually off the disk’s edges. The same principle applies to our efforts in living a Christ-centered life. As long as we keep the Savior at the center of our lives and stand with him, we will remain protected from the perils of sin. But any intentional deviation from that refuge in the center of our spiritual roundabout courts danger and makes the prospect of re-centering our lives in Christ’s teachings and example increasingly difficult.
I love the Divine Comedy of Dante, at least in part because the poem itself is centered in Christ. Dante structured his poem in three-line stanzas of eleven syllables each, so that every stanza—every group of three lines—included thirty-three syllables. This metrical precision was meant to remind the reader of the Trinity—the Godhead—and of Christ’s age—thirty-three—at his death, when he wrought the Atonement. In this way, every one of Dante’s fourteen thousand poetic lines testify of Jesus. A Christ-centered poem cannot make do with occasional references to the Master any more than a Christ-centered life is characterized by sporadic acts of discipleship.
The Christ-centered life is given over to gospel living completely, without withholding any portion of our wills. A home with spiritual central air does not harbor secret saunas of sin or natural-man caves, and a disciple who hopes to maintain balance on life’s roundabout cannot afford to venture a single step off-center. Our lives, like Dante’s poem, must be given wholly to the Master’s service, carefully modeled after Jesus Christ’s life and teachings.
Placing Christ at the center of our lives necessarily forecloses some good options in favor of better and best practices. Allow me to illustrate with an example: In recent days I have joined several family members in the world of online Scrabble, a game in which participants take turns building words that overlap, either horizontally or vertically. An effective way to score points in this game is to play two words side-by-side. If the first player spells AWE, A-W-E, the second player might spell the word SET, S-E-T, immediately underneath, creating the words AS, A-S; WE, W-E, and ET, E-T. Thus, the first word played—which must be laid in the board’s exact center—determines the shape of subsequent play. Laying down the word CHRIST, C-H-R-I-S-T, on the first play of the game would open up exciting play opportunities but would also necessarily preclude the type of overlapping play that I’ve described, because there are no two-letter words that begin or end with the letter C. Instead, players might seek to lay down a “bingo”—an eight letter word that ends in “s.” This high scoring strategy is even more rewarding than the side-by-side play described earlier. In Scrabble terms, placing CHRIST at the center of the board sacrifices future “good” playing possibilities even as it opens up better and best opportunities.
To live a Christ-centered life likewise sacrifices good uses of our time and resources to facilitate better and best activities. Around the globe and in increasing numbers, young men and women are temporarily forgoing education—a good use of their time—in order to pursue that which is best: consecrated full-time service as an official representative of Jesus Christ. Many of us have already served such missions, but I am sure that the Lord would be pleased if you and I prayerfully prepared for additional years of consecrated service, whether in our own homes as Church Service missionaries, like Brother Fields, or while living abroad, like Sister Cantwell, Brother and Sister Jesperson, and so many more of you. Such preparations for that which is best might necessitate the present sacrifice of good purchases and activities.
Such sacrifices were often made by our Master and exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ. I love these verses from the gospel of John: “Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple” (John 8:1-2). While it was still “early” in the morning, Jesus had already visited the Mount of Olives—where I suspect he spent time in private prayer, as he did on other solitary visits to the mountains—and paid a visit to his Father’s house. In this particular example, the Savior rose early, sacrificing sleep, in order to prepare himself spiritually for the demands that would be made by those whom he served throughout the day. As we consider how best to modify and improve present practices in search of a Christ-centered life, consider these admonitions from the eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated” (88:124). As a further promise to those who obey this commandment, the Lord promises: “He that seeketh me early shall find me” (88:83). Perhaps the next step in our collective quest for a Christ-centered life might be a commitment to forgo late-night fun so that we can better use the early portions of our days, in prayer, temple service, and other activities.
After performing his early morning devotions, the Savior spent his days in serving the poor, sick, and afflicted. Our efforts to live Christ-centered lives must likewise revolve around a desire to bless and meet the needs of others. In deciding how best to begin and extend this service, I have profited from the words of C. S. Lewis, who wrote: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditures on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” Placing Christ at the center of our lives necessarily prevents us from elevating other pursuits to that place of priority. Just as “No man can serve two masters,” no life can have two centers; “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Thus, to choose Christ as the central influence on and model for our lives is also to reject other influences that seek to displace Him.
When we make that commitment and place Christ at the center of our lives, we become empowered, through his grace, to do and become more than we ever could on our own. Even a very young child knows that she should begin a game of tic-tac-toe by marking the center square. This is a position of power that allows a player four different opportunities to win; no other option offers more than three opportunities for victory. The same principle—that controlling the center empowers and expands your options—holds true in the more complex game of chess. The power of any given piece is magnified when it is placed in the center of a chess board. From its position at the beginning of a chess game, when all of the pieces are lined up along the board’s edges, a knight or horse can only move to three of the board’s sixty-four squares, and one of those is already occupied by another piece! But from one of the board’s central squares, a knight can attack eight other positions; placing this piece at the game’s center more than doubles its power. Of course, in chess terms, the Savior is not a mere knight but the queen—the most important piece of the game and our lives. At the beginning of a chess match the queen is immobile, trapped by other pieces; she cannot move at all, in any direction. However, if you can position your other pieces in a way that allows your queen to occupy a central square, she can move in eight different directions and attack up to twenty-seven different squares, almost half of the board. Placing a queen at the center of a chess board empowers a player in the same way that placing Jesus Christ at the center of our lives can empower each one of us.
As we obey the commandments and receive the gift of God’s grace, the enabling power of the Atonement will magnify our capacities in both temporal and spiritual endeavors, sometimes in ways that we cannot fully comprehend. To the Philippians Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” and I believe him (4:13)! I believe that by faith, ancient prophets who lived Christ-centered lives were enabled to perform miracles. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, Alma and Amulek caused a prison to crumble. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, Daniel survived a night in the lion’s den. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, Moses parted the Red Sea. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, the brother of Jared moved mountains. I believe that as we make Jesus Christ the center of our lives, we will also work and bear witness to miracles.
Now, most of you don’t need mountains moved. Perhaps you need more hours in the day, more money in the bank, more brains in your head—or the capacity to make the hours, dollars, and brains you already have stretch further. Consider this promise, made by the late President James E. Faust: “The mechanic will be able to turn out more and better products in six days than in seven. The doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, the scientist will accomplish more by trying to rest on the Sabbath than if he tries to utilize every day of the week for his professional work. I would counsel all students, if they can, to arrange their schedules so that they do not study on the Sabbath. If students and other seekers after truth will do this, their minds will be quickened and the infinite Spirit will lead them to the verities they wish to learn. This is because God has hallowed his day and blessed it as a perpetual covenant of faithfulness.” As we make the Lord Jesus Christ the center of our lives by weekly honoring the day on which he rose from the tomb and by keeping the other commandments he has given us, we will be blessed, magnified, and empowered in all of our righteous endeavors: this is the solemn promise of prophets and apostles, to which I add my own testimony and experiential witness.
Now, in closing, let me speak of practical matters. In Roman times, the pagan prophets would make prophecies based on the flight patterns of birds. After marking out a north-south axis and an east-west axis on the ground in a pattern known as a templum, these prophets would observe birds which landed on the grid. The position of those birds, relative to the central point at which the north-south and east-west axes crossed, became the basis for pagan prophecy. Today, we do not believe in this practice, but it still represents an appropriate model for our own efforts to stay centered on the gospel and person of Jesus Christ. Instead of the Roman templum, when we wish information about our relative position to the Savior who stands at the center of our lives, we can visit holy temples and take our eternal bearings. Regular visits to these houses of worship and covenantal refuges will provide perspective on the progress we have made toward integrating gospel principles into the center, the core, of our beings.
Outside temple walls, because we are fallen, mortal human beings, the task of patterning our lives after the perfect example provided by Jesus Christ can seem overwhelming. It would be far easier to center our lives around football or Pinterest or skiing or food! But the ease of accomplishment cannot justify altering our aim. In the game of darts, throwers do not aim for the outer rings just because they are easier to hit; rather, their attention remains focused on the central bullseye. To aim at another target would constitute “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14). And speaking of darts, I must confess: I’ve never successfully thrown a bullseye. Notwithstanding this dismal record, I still enjoy playing darts and throwing at the target’s center—I find joy in the attempt, not the outcome.
Brothers and sisters, as we earnestly strive to live Christ-centered lives, we will find joy in the journey, even though we may not perform our part to perfection. As Lehi explained, “men are that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), and the Master himself taught that he came so “that [we] might have life, and that [we] might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). That joy and abundance can be ours if we will only place Christ at the center of our lives.

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