A recent Sacrament Meeting Talk – Conversion and The Ship of Theseus

One of the things that does separate us from other Church’s is the fact that we don’t have the same person giving a sermon each week. Most members are usually given an opportunity to speak in Sacrament Meeting. As bishop, I usually speak 4-6 times a year. A few of those are “big” talks. These are usually at Ward Conference, January (giving kind of a “State of the Ward” address), and September (an anniversary of my call). The rest of smaller ones at Easter, Christmas, or another holiday.

Well, I’ve just passed 5 years as bishop, so it was about that time to give another talk. This is basically what I shared:

Have you ever heard of Theseus[1]? In Greek legends, he was a founder of Athens. His name comes from the Greek word for “institution”. He brought the people together and settled them. Theseus was very brave, and conquered many beasts and foes. At one point, he slayed a Minotaur on the island of Crete. After arriving safely back in Athens, his ship became a kind of monument. It was left at the harbour to be used during a festival. You can imagine that over time, various parts of the ship needed replacing. The shape and form of the ship didn’t change, but the individual parts did. This gave rise to the “Ship of Theseus Paradox”. The Greek historian Plutarch recorded it this way:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.[2]

In other words, is an object that has had its individual parts replaced, but maintained its original form, still the same object? Philosophers through history and different cultures have used this and similar questions to talk about identity. I like this particular story as it parallels nicely with the way we discuss our conversion to the gospel. As we learn and grow in the gospel, as we overcome our weaknesses and bad habits, as we replace the bad, rotten boards of our ship, we do change. There are those who would say that by giving up certain things (gambling, swearing, Word of Wisdom vices), we are different; definitely not the same. There are those who say that as we replace our rotten boards, we are just fixing up what is there to begin with. Our condition is just returning to that which God wants us to have. Regardless of how you look at it, this process can be quite painful. We recently took apart an old dog kennel in our bag yard. There was a small fenced in area that had a doghouse sitting on a wooden platform. Some of the platform wood was so rotten that you almost fell through as you walked on them. Some of the wood was rotten from end to end and right through the wood. It was easy to lift off the base. Some of the wood was rotten on one end, but still relatively solid on the other end. Obviously the rotten wood was easy to pry up or break off, but the solid wood required more effort. In some cases, when the solid wood was nailed into a solid base with a 6 inch nail, it required a lot of effort.

Again, you can see the similarity here with our own conversion. Some of our bad habits are easy to get rid of, but some of them seem to have taken root and just won’t come out. I’d like to take some time to talk about a few of the things that can damage our boards. These may not all apply to you. Our age, our time in the Church, and just our general life experience will dictate which boards are most damaged. Regardless of what needs fixing up, it is imperative that we do it now, and don’t delay. If we do this, our ship will continue to sail. If we don’t do this in time, we may not complete our journey, and may even sink.

Obedience. Sometimes we hear that word and we think we’re going to hear someone try to guilt us into following our leaders. That is not what obedience is about. If you are obeying a commandment or principle because you have to, you probably aren’t being obedient. Disobedience is what causes the decay in many of our boards. Obedience is about using our will and freely choosing to follow God’s will. Many people come up with many excuses as to why their way is better than God’s way. On the way home from the temple on Thursday night we were talking about the students coming back to university, and some of the activities they have during their first week. I commented on how there are those who claim that following the commandments causes them to lose their freedom. In particular, we were talking about how some students leave home for school and then with their new-found freedom drink to excess. The consequences of their so-called freedom could be not remembering what happened that night, charges for something that they did that they might not even remember doing, physical pain, or in extreme circumstances, even death. Obviously real freedom comes from following the commandments. Our Heavenly Father loves us. He has given us commandments, that when followed will bring us peace. Contrast the student I just mentioned with another student. This other student chooses to abstain from alcohol. There are no hangovers, no drinking and driving, no worries about what was done or said to whom. That’s freedom!

It is clear that engaging in addictive behaviour will eventually cause us to lose our freedom. Drugs, alcohol, gambling, and pornography can all bring us down. It is no surprise that our prophets and apostles have warned us about these things. The other day I read a headline from The Church News that said “If it’s on the Prophet’s mind, it matters[3].” My first thought was that seemed a bit strong. Can’t the prophet just talk and it’s just him taking? As I thought about it more, I came to agree with it. Thomas S. Monson is the prophet, seer and revelator, and is the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys[4]. As I say to the youth in our interviews, President Monson is “the Man”! Of course what is on his mind, or what he speaks to us about, matters. Whether by President Monson, President Hinckley, or prophets before them, among other things, we have been encouraged to serve others, warned of the distraction of the Internet, reminded to not let opportunities pass us by, told in no uncertain terms that a member of the Church must not be racist, and warned about the evil, addictive problem of pornography. Are these things important? Absolutely! We need to be obedient to the words of the prophets. Our obedience shouldn’t be a result of pressure. We shouldn’t blindly follow. We are obedient because we love the Lord, we have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel, and we have faith that obedience will bring the promised blessings. Remember these two verses from the Doctrine and Covenants:

What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.[5]

I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.[6]

The Lord speaks through his servants, and when we follow, we are blessed. On the other hand, when we do not follow, we have no promise.

I testify that obedience does bring blessings. As we turn away from our bad habits, and align ourselves more with the Lord, His servants and His church, we are able to replace those bad boards with stronger ones.

Another cause of decay in our boards is judgment. Matthew quotes the Saviour in saying “Judge not, that ye be not judged.[7]” Joseph Smith revealed that it should really be “Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged.[8]” It seems clear to me what the spirit of this counsel is. Don’t judge something or someone unnecessarily, especially without knowing all of the details. However, we rarely do know all the details, so to me, we still have to be careful with how we judge. Unfortunately, there are those who think since they do or think something, everyone should. Life just isn’t like that. Often, judgment is defined as looking down on someone. That is the problem. Jesus Christ, our perfect example, didn’t just look down on us and comment there was no way we could make it back. He literally came down[9]. He condescended and came to our rescue. He taught, He healed, and He lifted. Always remember that. Our righteous judgment should lead us to better things and to bring us closer together, not to divide us.

Another part of judgment that can cause decay in our boards is how we choose to spend our time. Elder Oaks said it well when he said this:

Some of our most important choices concern family activities. Many breadwinners worry that their occupations leave too little time for their families. There is no easy formula for that contest of priorities. However, I have never known of a man who looked back on his working life and said, “I just didn’t spend enough time with my job.”

In choosing how we spend time as a family, we should be careful not to exhaust our available time on things that are merely good and leave little time for that which is better or best. A friend took his young family on a series of summer vacation trips, including visits to memorable historic sites. At the end of the summer he asked his teenage son which of these good summer activities he enjoyed most. The father learned from the reply, and so did those he told of it. “The thing I liked best this summer,” the boy replied, “was the night you and I laid on the lawn and looked at the stars and talked.” Super family activities may be good for children, but they are not always better than one-on-one time with a loving parent.

The amount of children-and-parent time absorbed in the good activities of private lessons, team sports, and other school and club activities also needs to be carefully regulated. Otherwise, children will be overscheduled, and parents will be frazzled and frustrated. Parents should act to preserve time for family prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, and the other precious togetherness and individual one-on-one time that binds a family together and fixes children’s values on things of eternal worth. Parents should teach gospel priorities through what they do with their children.

Family experts have warned against what they call “the overscheduling of children.” In the last generation children are far busier and families spend far less time together. Among many measures of this disturbing trend are the reports that structured sports time has doubled, but children’s free time has declined by 12 hours per week, and unstructured outdoor activities have fallen by 50 percent.

The number of those who report that their “whole family usually eats dinner together” has declined 33 percent. This is most concerning because the time a family spends together “eating meals at home [is] the strongest predictor of children’s academic achievement and psychological adjustment.” Family mealtimes have also been shown to be a strong bulwark against children’s smoking, drinking, or using drugs. There is inspired wisdom in this advice to parents: What your children really want for dinner is you.

President Gordon B. Hinckley has pleaded that we “work at our responsibility as parents as if everything in life counted on it, because in fact everything in life does count on it.”[10]

That is a long quote, but I couldn’t think of a better way to say it, and couldn’t decide what to leave out. Do the things that matter most with your children. Do the things that will strengthen them and keep the family together. Sports are great, but they shouldn’t take the children away from Church activities. I plead with you to choose activities that will keep your children close to the Church. This is where there is peace and safety. Along with the teachings in the home, this is where they learn standards and values. They will associate with other kids their age who have the same values. They will bear testimony to one another. They will feel the Spirit together, and they will look after one another. Returning to the Ship of Theseus analogy, there are many things we can do which might make the outside of the ship look nice. A coat of paint, a sealant, or other such things can cover up a lot. But if the wood is rotting, it will continue to rot. Don’t just choose things that seem to make your kids happy for the time being. Choose things that will bring lasting value to them and your family.

The final cause of decay I’d like to speak about today is a lack of love. Of course, love underlies all that we do. But I’d like to speak specifically about how we do things. There was a time before we moved to St Catharines where I was the YM President and Lisa was the YW President. We were young, only a few years older than some of the Priests and Laurels, and had no children of our own, so it was quite convenient for us to serve together. Unfortunately, it was not a positive experience for either of us. The group of youth that we had was much different than what we have here. They certainly weren’t bad kids, but there were some strong personalities and attitudes to work with, and many of the families seemed to just be happy that their kids went to Church. There didn’t seem to be other expectations, or at least this is how I felt at the time. We tried to teach them things, but I was sure they weren’t listening. It was terribly frustrating, and was actually kind of a relief to move, as that got us released from our callings. Many times I’ve looked back on that calling and wondered what went wrong. It seems clear to me now that what was wrong was me. They way I was looking at them was wrong. I came to learn that love actually comes in two parts. You do things with love, and you do things because of love. They might be similar, but they are not the same. Let me explain…

When I say that things need to be done with love, I am referring to our outward expressions. This is probably fairly easy for most people. As you speak to people, you are polite. You try to teach people in a way that they will listen. I had a missionary companion who was very good at this. He asked all the right questions (according to the missionary guide, anyway), and tried to commit investigators to certain things at certain times. Unfortunately, he didn’t seem sincere. He seemed almost phony. He was doing things because a book told him what he was supposed to do. In a way, that’s what I was doing with the youth. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I love the Lord, and I love the Church, and I sustain my leaders, therefore I loved the youth. The same goes for my missionary companion. He loved the Lord and his mission, therefore he loved the investigators. Well, love just doesn’t happen. Just because you are trying to do what’s right, doesn’t mean that love is present. In hindsight, the love was only on the surface. I wasn’t really doing things because of the love in my heart. That is where we find true charity. When we are serving in our callings, we shouldn’t just serve in a loving way. Showing a smile and doing what we are supposed to do probably isn’t enough. We really need to have love for others. That is when others feel it. Have you ever been with someone who just radiates love? It’s not just in what they say or how they look; you can really feel that is who they are. I look back with regret on that calling. Thankfully, we didn’t do any damage. In the end, most of the YM went on missions, and there have been temple marriages. I am, however, very grateful for the lesson I learned. This is by means to say that I am a wonderful example of love. I still have much work to do. We’ve all heard the words of Paul in his letter to the believers in Corinth, but it is worth repeating:

though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.[11]

These are only a few of the things that can damage our ship. Just as a ship can have hundreds, or thousands of pieces, we too have many things that can distract us from our purpose and lead us off God’s path. We need to be diligent in caring for these things. Through regular inspection, we can find the defects and replace broken pieces. In the end, I do think we are the same, but new. We are born again as true believers. We are finally becoming the people that God wants us to be. We can be clean and pure and worthy to return to live with Heavenly Father in the Celestial Kingdom.

Once we are on this path, and are safely following it, there is still lots of work to do. You see, it’s not just our own ship that needs work. Everyone around us has the same sorts of problems. As we are busy replacing boards of our own, we have to remember that others are in need as well. The Saviour said to Peter:

But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.[12]

There are those around us who do not have the strength to pull out that stubborn board on their own. When we see them struggling, we need to be there to help. Just as Paul said that feeding the poor without charity is worthless, so it is with us. If we are so busy fixing our own ships that those around us are sinking, it profiteth us nothing. This is why we have wards and stakes in the Church. This sense of community is very important. We are all brothers and sisters, and can’t do this alone.

I testify that as we become converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and truly live his teachings, we will become new people. Paul said that old things are passed away and all things are become new[13]. As we walk in this newness of life[14], only then are we able to return to live with Heavenly Father. I know this to be true, and testify of it in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

[1] The main information on Theseus and the Ship of Theseus Paradox was from
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theseus – Retrieved 20090912.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus – Retrieved 20090912.
Other helpful information was found on
http://www.productiveflourishing.com/the-ship-of-theseus-and-personal-identity/ – Retrieved 20090912.
http://faculty.washington.edu/smcohen/320/theseus.html – Retrieved 20090912.

[2] Plutarch. “Theseus”. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/theseus.html – Retrieved 20090912.

[3] http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/57803/If-Its-On-the-Prophets-Mind-It-Matters.html – Retrieved 20090912

[4] From a current question in the temple recommend interview (as of September 2009)

[5] D&C 1: 38

[6] D&C 82: 10

[7] Matthew 7: 1-2

[8] JST Matthew 7: 1-2

[9] Abraham 3: 24

[10] Dallin H. Oaks, “Good, Better, Best,” Ensign, Nov 2007, 104-8

[11] 1 Corinthians 13: 2-8, 13

[12] Luke 22: 32

[13] 2 Corinthians 5: 17

[14] Romans 6:4

Published by Graham

Former YM President, EQ President, Bishop, and Stake Institute Teacher. Now back to being the YM President. Happily married to Lisa, with 3 beautiful children.

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