Keep Yourself Unspotted From the World

Annually, our church has what they call “Standards Night”. The leadership in the region, encompassing multiple congregations, invites the youth in the area together to have a discussion on navigating life’s difficulties while maintaining high standards of Christian living. The discussion mostly focuses on avoiding sexual related temptations, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and staying away from bad language and inappropriate material through the various media channels coming at us these days. Last Sunday, part of the discussion centered on a phrase that put me in a wrestle – “keeping ourselves unspotted from the world”.

Before I dive into that, let me say I have no idea how to teach teenagers spiritual lessons. I’m not doing a great job of it with my own children. I’m on my own individual spiritual journey, gaining insights, learning lessons, but I’ve had decades now of wrestle, starting at a young age. My life resides in a completely different context than them – born as I was into childhood poverty, raised by an autistic mother in a crumbling house without air conditioning in the Yuma desert. They have no idea what I went through, why I am where I am, why I’m concerned with what I’m concerned with, how I came to the insights I have. It’s really difficult communicating any of this to them. They are on their own journey and need to learn their own lessons on their own mostly from scratch.

Their context is just different. They are overwhelmed with a school system that is far more demanding than mine, with parents desperate they receive opportunities that alluded me. They have advantages I didn’t have, but disadvantages as well. I leaned hard on God in my difficulties. A difficult childhood deepened my faith, loyalty and devotion to the church who nurtured it.

My children’s paths are different. Difficult in many ways, but not obvious in ways that will lead them into the same type of spiritual conviction mine did. I’m not sure they will continue down the religious path they were born into. Will they find another path? Will they do what so many of their peers will likely do and opt out of religion altogether? This choice will  be theirs. I want them to have a spiritual life. I have no idea how all of this will turn out.

Given all of that, I understand the point of Standards Night and I understand the need for the church to distill the gospel down in ways that young minds can hold onto as they navigate a complex world. And I desperately depend on the church to provide a structure of spirituality fine-tuned for young minds. There’s institutional wisdom in the church far better than my own. I depend on it.

This post is not meant to criticize or push against the messages contained at standards night, just an opportunity to dig into one idea that came up. Just what does it mean to be “unspotted from the world”. Doing a search of the scriptures I found just two references to this phrase:

James 1: 27

Pure areligion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To bvisit the cfatherless and dwidows in their eafflictionand to keep himself funspotted from gthe hworld.

Doctrine and Covenants 59:9

And that thou mayest more fully keep thyself aunspotted from the world, thou shalt go to the house of bprayer and offer up thy csacraments upon my dholy day;

There’s not a lot of specificity in either verse, but I do like the context. First in James, pure religion requires us to take on the burdens of the most vulnerable – the fatherless, the widows, those in affliction, the poor, the sick, the dying, those in prison, really all of us because we are all vulnerable and in affliction. Is there some connection between orienting our lives in service for others and remaining unspotted from the world?

There must be.

We need to avoid habits and behaviors that puts us in an inward, selfish orientation. In my church, we often conflate being spotted with sexual sin. In this view, we become spotted if we look at pornography, or engage in heavy make-out sessions with someone we just met, etc. We clean ourselves from these spots as we confess and forsake our sexual mistakes. There’s something to this. Sexual desire can be handled selfishly but it can also be an essential expression of deep intimate love with a committed partner.

But I’m wondering if an over-emphasis on avoiding sexual sin (or drug use or alcohol or whatever) can be counterproductive as well, in all the same ways an over-emphasis on following God’s laws led the New Testament Jews astray. Being too devoted to our own personal righteousness feels like spots to me. It makes us self-obsessed and inward focused, keeping us from the pure religion James describes.

Doctrine Covenants 59:9 adds another wrinkle. To remain unspotted we need to “go to the house of prayer and offer up sacraments”. There’s something sanctifying in regular ritual. Attending our church meetings with an open heart and a willing mind, united in humble prayer with others nearby, committing ourselves to each other in holy, sacred sacrament.

We need to come to prayer each Sunday and then to commit ourselves to take on the afflictions of others through the week, avoiding distractions and addictions that keep us in our heads.

Perhaps we find cleanliness in pure, selfless connection. We become spotted in isolation or as we use others for our own self interests.

I think this is a message I can communicate to my children. Spirituality comes through pure religion, selfless service, sacred communion in rituals, regular meditative prayer. None of this is easy. It’s a journey. Perhaps, we are born spotted and we spend a lifetime learning how to free ourselves of these selfish impulses so that we can finally live within the pure religion James describes.

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Sunday School Lesson: 1 Corinthians 1-13

1 Corinthians 13:

1 Corinthians chapter 13 reads like poetry. This small nugget of a chapters is the most beautiful, provocative chapters in the entire cannon.

First of all, in the opening three verses, Paul becomes more and more provocative. Even I am the most eloquent, even if I have the tongue of an angel, it means nothing if I’m not filled with love. Makes sense. There are a lot of smooth talkers out there.

He goes further in verse two. Say I’m filled with the gift of prophecy and I have all knowledge and understand all mysteries. Yeah, nothing if I’m not full of love. But wait, even if I have all faith and all power, so much so that I can command the mountains to move. Nada, without love, it’s meaningless. Verse three ups the stakes still further. Say, I give up everything, everything I have to the poor. Say, even if I give my body to be burned. Still… meaningless without love.

There is literally nothing I can do that matters. No commandment I can keep, no sacrifice I can make, no gift I can bestow, no talent I can acquire that can make up for the lack of love. Love has to be at the root of all we do. Love is at the heart of religion if it’s to mean anything at all.

What type of love is Paul describing here, then? He breaks it down, in rapid succession:

Love suffers long, we are patient with ourselves, with others, with the world that is often exasperating.

Love is kind. With love, we have no envy, we celebrate and appreciate the gifts and accomplishments of others.

With love, we don’t elevate ourselves over others. Love operates within proper context (is not unseemly), love recognizes it’s not about us. We aren’t easily triggered by others when we operate within a loving context. We don’t think ill of another. We rejoice in truth. We believe, we hope, we endure.

Paul concludes this chapter the way he begins. We just cannot know everything. We know so little. We are fools. We see through the glass darkly. Prophecies fail, our words eventually cease, we’ll never know enough. But no matter, we can always love, no matter where we find ourselves, in our limitations, we can always love, the greatest of all.

1 Corinthians 12:

Chapter 12 is almost as important as 13, almost as provocative. Paul makes the case that we need each other. We can find unity in diversity. We all have different spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same spirit. Some of us doubt, some of us wrestle, some of us are wise, some of us are good with words, some of us have a believing heart, but we’re all essential in the body of Christ.

“The body is not one member, but many.”

Paul makes this point even clearer, those members of our congregation who are the most marginal, our weakest members, we elevate and honor them above all. “And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness.”

1 Corinthians 1-11:

Paul is writing this letter from Ephesus during his third mission. He’s received word that the church community he created during his earlier missions are running into trouble. Paul spent a long time in Corinth.

In this letter, he addresses specific problems, answers specific questions. Apparently Corinth was rife with divisions. People got caught up in elevating certain leaders over others – some factions for Paul, others for Apollos, some for Peter. There were the long running concerns about circumcision. Many converts struggled with idolatry. One of the chapters focused on sexual concerns. Paul wrote about marriage. Some of these chapters sit well within the context of the time.

But I love the bits about the wisdom of the world, that it is foolish. We are all children struggling to drink milk. We need to be one and united in our differences. I love Paul’s descriptions of the way apostles interact. With Jews, Paul is a Jew. With the weak, he’s weak, with the Greek, he’s Greek, and so on. So much of what we obsess with doesn’t matter. We have our idiosyncrasies. We come to church in our own context. Some of us are democrats, others republicans. Some are more educated, others less so.

But we all come, trying to develop agape, God’s love, universal, unconditional, often unrequited. We all come, in unity, as fools, limited, in weakness, but with a desire to serve and learn with each other.

This is the gospel of Christ.