Designed for Covenant Relationships | Jenet Jacob Erickson | 2022 – powered by Happy Scribe
Brothers and sisters, students, family, friends, I am deeply be humble to stand here. I know that I stand on holy ground during a devotional hour that has been sacred throughout the history of this university. Messages delivered from this very place by beloved leaders, professors, colleagues have shaped my life to this day. I remember exactly where I sat during some of those significant messages starting 30 years ago. I’m so grateful for the prayers of students.
I love you and for many who have provided so much support in coming here today. My sincere prayer is that the continuation of the sacred gift of enlightenment that has blessed this place for decades might continue to be with us today. Studying family has taken me into the deepest, most dependent, vulnerable and profound relationships of our lives and to a powerful truth, though our culture may tell us otherwise. We are not designed for self actualized, pleasure seeking autonomy. We are deeply relational beings, designed not for independence, but for radical dependence and connection.
Marriage and family life provides a powerful context for us to experience this truth, but it is not just a means to an end. Familial love and belonging is the end. When I began studying, I marveled as I learned that the foundational role of marriage in binding together man and woman the powers of procreation and sacred, vulnerable new life. I came to see what University of Virginia professor Bradford Wilcox meant when he concluded that no other institution reliably connects to parents and their money, talent and time to create the secure and stable environment with nurturing caregivers that children depend upon that marriage does. I observed how a healthy marriage benefits men and women, increasing their happiness, mental and physical health, sense of stability and investment in the future.
I also witnessed the significant influence of children, reflecting Harvard sociologist Carl Zimmerman’s conclusion that it is a society’s orientation to the nurturing of children that defines the peak of that civilization’s, creativity and progress. It was his colleague Petreim Sorokin who concluded that the cultivation of love and the task of educating children stimulate married persons to release and develop their best creative impulses. That conclusion gives insight into Catherine Eden’s groundbreaking study of the lives of poor women in inner city Philadelphia, where, in a world of poverty, abuse, drug use, incarceration and relational trauma, with marriage far out of reach, single mothers felt rescued by their babies, who brought them stability, a place in the world and a purpose to give their lives for. In her later work, she found the same influence of children on single fathers. I have marveled learning about the complementarity of mothers and fathers in shaping children’s development.
Mothers are primed to establish a bond through which the emotional communication that is essential for development can occur. Her infant is also primed to bond with her, already knowing her smell, her voice, her face. This remarkable relationship appears to shape the foundations of identity, sense of wellbeing and emotional understanding. In a complementary way, a father’s relationship appears to shape relational capacity, achievement, understanding of boundaries and emotion management. A father’s closeness to his daughters offers them a deep experience of what protective male feels like that love that is strengthening in her capacity for wise sexual decisions.
His closeness to his sons offers an experience of masculinity that is protective and nurturing, not driven by aggression, physical strength or sexual proclivities. I learned painfully what happens when men and women and sexual union and children are broken apart. Perhaps the truth is no more poignantly captured than, in the words of Elder Holland from this very place the sexual union of man and woman is or certainly was ordained to be a symbol of total union. Union of their hearts, their hopes, their lives, their love, their family, their future, their everything. We have seen the disruptive psychological effects of bonding sexually sharing, part without the whole, then severing what was meant to be a total obligation.
We witness the pain from nonrelational sexual involvement as others become objects for sexual satisfaction. We see what that has done to the sexualization of women and the languishing of men and we see what that has meant to children. Sexual union is designed to create and symbolize a union strong enough that a child’s heart can rely upon it. Its fragmentation from marriage has caused a dramatic increase in the number of children born to unmarried parents though many of these children manage to grow up without serious problems. We also know from hundreds of studies that, on average children born to unmarried parents face increased risk in every developmental domain.
Making the choice to end a marital relationship that is abusive can be courageous and a beneficial decision taking children out of a destructive environment. But in general, division and eventual divorce also mean increased risk including an experience of inner division and sometimes even exile for a child. Children are, after all, the embodiment of their parents union. For a child there is a longing for the original intactness of their being the loving union of the mother and father from whom they come. My wonderful husband’s parents divorced when he was six.
He still poignantly describes the moment when his mother asked michael, who do you want to live with? His six year old heart couldn’t respond. He grew up without religious faith but had deep feelings for Christmas because on that day his parents would come back together, eat breakfast and open presents and he would feel a wholeness again.
Witnessing the potential for joy and pain in these foundational relationships has confirmed for me that we are deeply relational beings. Our individual agency enos us with the responsibility and privilege of becoming beings who can experience the deepest forms of connection. We are not designed to be autonomous, selfactualized individuals. In the exquisite language of the first great commandment. We are each a heart, soul, mind, strength, complex, designed for love we come into this earth looking for and dependent on others, wired to respond and recognize coming most alive.
When we are in relationships of dependence and trust, every infant’s primary task is to search out a face, the face that gazes back at them, on whom they fix their eyes. It is in connecting with another that we begin to know who we are. That same infant will someday care for their aging parents. I saw my dad do this. We’ll never forget him spoonfeeding his 96 year old motherinlaw in a profound act of care and dependence.
It is in loving and being loved that we are most fully and distinctively ourselves. This is what we are made for. You have likely heard of the epidemic of loneliness, increase in mental health challenges and decrease in flourishing among adolescents and young adults. Individualism work ism a decreased marriage rate, diminished community engagement, less religiosity and social media all seem to have played a role with the deepest loneliness stemming from disruption and disorder in family life. A culture focused on radical individualism has left us hungry for, as Emmanuel Levinos powerfully wrote, I am not an eye unto myself, but an eye standing before the other.
The presence of the other calls forth my response, making me at once a responsible being, calling me to attend, to listen, to serve. In fact, the autonomous, expressive, individualistic ideals shaping our culture has blinded us to the fact that the end purpose of agency is not the power to choose. It is freedom. The kind of freedom described powerfully by Dietrich Bohnhofer freedom to be for the other, as our redeemer was so majestically. For us, home is the CenterPlace where that responsibility and freedom plays out, where love, devotion, sacrifice create bonds through which we can be most seen, known and loved.
When Surgeon General Vivik Murphy declared an epidemic of loneliness, he described it as feeling homeless. In his words, to be at home is to be known. Our cultural thriving depends on developing and experiencing that relational moral capacity. That is why families matter so much. But as much as we yearn for this, it is not an easy process.
It means intimacy with all of its attendant fear of selfexposure being seen and known in all that we are and all that we are not. It means responsibility and profound trustworthiness so that others will be safe in our care. In our selfishness and fear of exposure, we struggle to experience the deep connections we yearn for, as Andy Crouch describes. Soon enough, even in relatively healthy homes, we begin to experience episodes of others anger, rejection and shame. We also discover that it is not just the other who can be absent or angry.
We too, desire to hide and escape. We learn amazingly early how to rupture a relationship. I did not become a mother until I was almost 35. Having studied motherhood for a decade, I yearned for a baby, and the experience of rapturous love in nurturing another soul. But I found out quickly how inadequate and sometimes false my love could be.
I found out that I could use our little ones to validate myself. Wanting them to be and do so I could feel safe and validated in my leaving my career to nurture them. Like a powerful mirror. They exposed me to many weaknesses. Having a PhD in family science made my weaknesses seem even more pathetic.
Sometimes I wondered if the other children we had yearned for had run when they witnessed my struggles as a mother. It has been both enlightening and painful to see in myself our very human way of relating to others, seeking validation, selfishness, self protection, blinding me from actually being able to see who they are, what they truly need and what purity of love in doing what is best for them would look like. I have come to realize that when my way of relating to my husband or children or any other is to use them for my own validation, to hide or separate, to compare or compete, to position myself as somehow better or worse, I am trapped. Unable to be truly free. To see, to know, to love, to be for the other brothers.
And I rejoice that the whole work of the plan of salvation, culminating in the great atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, is to enable each of us to become beings of love in the deepest form of connection with others. This is what the prophet Joseph saw in the vision described in Doctrine of 76. The celestial sphere is a place of profound intimacy where we will see as we are seen and know as we are known, having received of his fullness and of his grace. This teaches us that all commandments every revealed truth by prophets of God, keys of priests and authority, the precious truths of the proclamation on the family, all of it is to guide us in the ways of God that we might become beings of love. For as was so beautifully sung by that quartet this morning, God is love.
Righteousness is never an end in itself. It is a way of being that allows me to know and see in purity and in doing so, to love. This is no cheap form of love, not just warm affirmation to make myself and others feel good. This is the quality of pure love, free of any design for self protection or self validation, offering that which is truly needed for the right reason to help others become good. How do we become that?
Experiencing such purity in relationship surely means being deeply grounded in who we are claiming the truth about our relational divine nature. This is the truth President Nelson offered us last May when he asked So who are you? And then answered first and foremost, you are a child of God. You are a child of the covenant. You are a disciple of Jesus Christ.
As my colleague Joseph Spencer insightfully noted to me recently, these are not descriptions of an autonomous identity. These are relationships that define our being. The divine nature of our heavenly parents is carried in the composition of our spiritual bodies.
Their bond of love is at the core of our beings eternal. Father and mother, sister and brother. These are not simply titles, they are a material reality. President Worthy testified of this from this place two months ago when he said because we are his children, he will love us even if we choose not to love him. Then, quoting Paul neither death nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I treasure the powerful words of Catholic theologian and priest Henry Newan being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence. These words should reverberate in every corner of our being, for we can offer that gift of belovedness only insofar as we have claimed it for ourselves. He continues the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity or power, but self rejection. Self rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us each the Beloved. Brothers and sisters, all sin is in some form a rejection of this relationship with God.
It is no wonder that it hurts. As the Islamic Golden Sufi Louel and von Lee describes powerfully, if we follow the path of any pain, any psychological wounding, it will lead us to this one primal pain. The pain of separation. Sins committed against us, as well as sins that we commit, are a separation from the truth of our divine being. In Adam Miller’s words, sin is my rejection of God’s original offer of grace and partnership.
It’s me trying desperately to cobble together through any means necessary idolatry, vanity, theft, adultery, violence, deceit. Some bundle of things that more closely matches what I wanted than what God gave. It’s me wanting to win more than to love. It’s me choosing the hollow isolation of fantasies over the shared difficulty of God’s reality. Or as friend Alan Hansen describes in his work as psychologists and presidents of a student’s sake, sin is wounded souls trying to find our own way to manage pain apart from God.
But it is temporary and leaves us empty, as President Nelson just recently described, cut off from true Relationship I have learned through painful and joyful experience that when the love of God is the foundation for my identity, I no longer need to pressure, coerce, judge or extract validation from others in order to feel sufficient myself. I no longer need to prove myself worthy of God’s love, continually judging what I or others deserve. I am free. Free to learn how to offer goodness, how to offer what is truly needed out of love. Surely this is why President Worthin pled with us at the beginning of this semester, don’t be part of what would surely be the most tragic of all stories of unrequited love.
By refusing to feel the transformative, soul changing love that God and Christ offer you, please let Him love you.
The most powerful expression of God’s love is his offer to be in covenant relationship with us. As my colleague Harris Mealstein, who has spent his life studying the Abrahamic covenant, keeps telling me, god yearns to be in deep binding relationship with us. He is our waymaker who is always making a way to life with Him. The Red Sea, the Cross, the rending of the veil, all of them cut through so he might be with us. He cuts through every sin, every storm, every sea, every story, the whole way through for us to be with us.
In his becoming at one with us, he opens the way for us to become at one with Him. No wonder the transcendent promise of our first covenant is that we might always have his spirit to be with us. If there is anything studying family has taught me, it is that development emerges from within strong relationships. That is true for the beginning of our mortal experience, when as infants, our first task is to establish a bond of deep emotional communication through which we can experience the love and responsiveness that builds our right brain, regulates our emotions, and establishes our sense of identity and belonging. In a parallel yet infinitely more profound way, covenant with the Lord Jesus Christ offers us the relationship through which our souls can grow, experience Him and become beings who can see and know and love as he does, for we have experienced it in Him.
As President Nelson taught us last month, through covenants we create a relationship with God that allows Him to bless and change us. If we allow Him to prevail over all other things, that covenant will lead us closer and closer to Him. He will be the most powerful influence in our lives. Our achievementbased selfreliant culture may have taught us that we use the atonement of Jesus Christ to achieve a private, individual perfection, that those who are most righteous use the atonement of Jesus Christ least in that frame. As Adam Miller notes, a covenant relationship with Christ will always look like a crutch that must be outgrown in order to achieve real perfection.
But our covenant relationship with Jesus Christ is not the means to another end. It is the end. In Sister Browning’s powerful Witness from General Conference friends, Jesus Christ is both the purpose of our focus and the intent of our destination. The Savior invites us to see our lives through Him in order to see more of Him in our lives. His covenant relationship with us is the truest intimacy.
It is the experience of being loved perfectly by a being who we know sees all that we are responsible for. In all our weakness and all our sins and reflects it back to us in the light of his purity, expands our agency and offers us a better way through his redeeming love. It is from within the intimacy of our relationship with Him that we learn the path of intimacy, of pure love for others. But in our pride, we want to put trust in our behaviors rather than in our relationship with Him. Believing we can somehow save ourselves, we’re tempted to hide from our nothingness.
As William COTZ Poignantly writes, we fade in perfection even though the entire enterprise is a joke. His covenant relationship with us means a different way of living. It requires the frightening joy of bearing our souls with all of our inadequacies. The masks come off and the walls fall down. In our honest willingness to show Him who we are, all of what we have done, our motives and attitudes and desires, he covers us in tenderness and mercy.
In that sacred relationship with Him, we find healing and freedom. Freedom to be for Him and for all others. That is why Alan Hanson tells the members of his stake our redeemer says come, come.
Stop running from your nuttiness. Bring all of your frailties and mistakes and sicknesses of the soul and allow me to embrace you. Come. We fear that our pain and loss is a mark of accusation from God. That our being single, never married, divorced infertile, struggling in our marriage, having suffered abuse, wrestling with questions of gender, sexuality or any other seeming difference from the ideal, marks us as less worthy, second tier, not belonging.
Instead, he says, come, share it all with me, for I am with you. I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy savior. Thou wast precious in my sight and I have loved Thee. Fear not. I am with thee.
He answers the pain and loss that is woven into the fabric of our moral experience, which is true for all of us, with the purest form of love covenant, entering it into it with us, and in doing so, changing its quality, carving out caverns for his healing love. As the Hebrew word for sacrifice, Korban, means, he draws closer, sharing our pain in the most profound form of intimacy, and in the process, he renders it redemptive within the intimacy of his healing, guiding, purifying, strengthening, covenant relationship. We learn that in our families, with our children, in our ministering relationships, in all of our relationships, perfection is not possible. Intimacy is. In fact, intimacy with Christ is perfection.
We find that our perfectionism, our fearing and hiding from our nothingness, weaknesses and sin and suffering only interferes with intimacy, blocking our ability to receive his love and to see, know and love others. Like the apostle Peter, we might fear allowing the Lord to see and wash our muddy feet. But as Moroni continually teaches, the only kind of perfection is perfection. In Christ yea come unto christ and be perfected in him. Love God with all your might, mind and strength, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.
And so we hear the great apostle Peter plead, lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
Christian writer Timothy J. Keller once wrote to be loved but not known is comforting, but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. Brothers and sisters, this is the love God is calling us into.
We are deeply relational beings designed for love and connection with God and with one another. Though our families feel a sacred role in the development and experience of this love, this is not where such love begins and ends. As my friend and colleague Ty Manfield powerfully teaches, we have been called into relationship with our eternal family, the one we are all part of, that we might experience the Lord’s covenant, healing, belonging and redemption together in Him. I treasure the women and men in my life who have extended love and service, refusing to be constrained by a false belief that they were not part of the sacred work of family because they were single, divorced or childless. They felt the call of heavenly parents and have offered their all to bring their fellow brothers and sisters into the power of their love.
That is what we are doing when we stand in the place of eternal brothers and sisters receiving ordinances and making covenants in their behalf. That is what we are doing when we open our hearts to receive mission calls, not knowing where or how we may be called, just knowing that we yearn to bless our eternal brothers and sisters with the opportunity for covenant relationship with our Redeemer. That is why in our wards and stakes, we seek to listen, to know, to love and strengthen one another in our covenant relationship of Christ. For we without them cannot be made perfect, neither can they without us be made perfect. We are an eternal family.
Our Redeemer stands before us offering the most sacred prayer ever recorded that they all may be one. As Thou, Father, art in me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us, I in them and Thou in Me, that they may be perfect. In 1 may we seek and experience this promise together with Him in our families and in our eternal family, sealed together in relationships of divine love and belonging in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ. Christ.