Unlike my five-month-old daughter (who we’ve christened the “Lord Drooler”), my mouth gets dry pretty easily. It’s always dry in the mornings, even after brushing my teeth. Sometimes because I brush my teeth. For whatever reason, just about every toothpaste on the planet sucks all the wetness out of my mouth. Not just for that one moment, but for a good portion of the morning. Even when I drink water.
This morning it was double dry—Fast Sunday. No eating or drinking to get the mouth lubricated.
I’m at church. The sacrament is being passed. I take the bread. I start to chew it. Chewing bread isn’t a pleasant experience with a dry mouth. Bread—nature’s sponge—soaks up what little saliva is there. It’s a while before I can swallow it. And even when I swallow the bread, it doesn’t go all the way down. I have to swallow multiple times, and even then I feel like there’s a few crumbs stuck in the back of my throat.
This happens quite a lot. Especially on Fast Sunday, and especially when sacrament meeting starts at 9. But I don’t mind. I don’t worry about it too much at all. Why? Because I know the water is coming.
Trust me, very little tastes as good as water when you need it. It can be the most satisfying sensation you experience in life. In this case it provides needed moisture in my mouth and washes the remaining bread all the way down. I’m suddenly refreshed and nourished. It’s a wonderful feeling.
The symbolism of this experience strikes me (and when we’re dealing with this kind of thing we always need to be looking for subtext and deeper meaning, because it’s most certainly not coincidence). It brings to mind the dual roles of the Savior, and thus the sacrament itself.
To me, the bread symbolizes a chastisement. A call for needed correction. Essentially, the repentance process. Humility, meekness, and a willingness to accept a temporary judgment of our soul. That kind of thing is (literally, in this case) tough to swallow. It’s not pleasant, but it’s also absolutely necessary for us to grow. To feed us nutritionally. Without bread—or the Bread of Life—we will perish, for we will never grow.
Then we have the water. You’ve heard the Mary Poppins song “A Spoonful of Sugar”? Of course you have. It’s kind of like that. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It’s the love that Christ offers us in addition to the chastisement. It’s the tender mercies, the encirclement in the arms of His love that we’re blessed with in response to our repentance. That warm love, that happiness, washes down the preceding tough love. It, too, is absolutely necessary for our spiritual sustenance.
It’s summed up in D&C 58:4:
For after much tribulation come the blessings.
It’s as simple as that. God never sends punishment or chastisement or even severe tribulation without an accompanying blessing.
D&C 121:43 echoes this even more specifically, describing how leaders should deal with those beneath them:
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy.
Then there’s Neal A. Maxwell, my namesake:
…when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon.
I’d recommend reading/watching that whole talk. (An example of Elder Maxwell’s beautiful and meaningful wordplay: “We should, of course, learn from our mistakes, but without forever studying the instant replays as if these were the game of life itself.”) Read or watch it especially if you feel inadequate or too flawed for the trials and responsibilities you’re facing. His message is that even the great prophets and leaders of the Book of Mormon were imperfect, and their imperfections are even written about in the sacred record.
Elder Maxwell again:
Brothers and sisters, the scriptures are like a developmental display window through which we can see gradual growth—along with this vital lesson: it is direction first, then velocity! Enoch’s unique people were improved “in process of time.” (Moses 7:21.) Jesus “received not of the fulness at first, but received grace for grace” (D&C 93:12) and even He grew and “increased in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52).
The middle of this perfecting process is seen in D&C Section 58. God is addressing the responsibilities of Martin Harris and W.W. Phelps. He lays out what Martin Harris is to do in verses 35-37, and then in 38 the Lord declares that “other directions concerning my servant Martin Harris shall be given him of the Spirit, that he may receive his inheritance as seemeth him good.”
What comfort that would be to have the Lord Himself tell you about what you will inherit! And that the Lord trusts you to take care of those responsibilities how you deem fit. (Earlier in the section is the famous verse about being anxiously engaged in a good cause, and doing many things of our own free will.) What trust and love the Savior is showing Martin Harris.
Then comes the next verse, 39: “And let him repent of his sins, for he seeketh the praise of the world.”
But…the Savior is trusting a man who needs to repent with sacred responsibilities and even leeway to solve those problems as he sees fit?
W.W. Phelps is next. He also is appointed to a specific office, and he also is to receive his inheritance in the land. And he, too, is then given chastisement: “And also he hath need to repent.”
Again. Interesting. He believes in us. He has confidence in mortals. How frequently the Lord not only works with imperfect people, but how often he also blesses them! Even when they—when we—are ridden with imperfection and pride and sin, He gives us both stewardship and blessings, and at least a modicum of trust.
This shows that God is working with us at each and every stage of our development. And He proffers that grace in a constant beckoning finger:
Verse 42 of that same section: “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.”
What mercy. What love. We don’t need to be afraid of approaching the Lord when we’ve done something wrong. When even an active part of our natures is that wicked something. When we are not as meek as we should be (like Phelps) or even when we seek the praise of the world (like Harris), the Lord still considers us worth working with. Our natures can still be fallen when we approach God in prayer and duty. We can be called to a holy calling and be imperfect. God can assign us a task, warn us about our sinful natures, and bless us, all in the same breath.
And when we are faced in the right direction—which is what repentance accomplishes—He no longer cares about our previous imperfections. He doesn’t even remember they existed. They don’t matter anymore. God seeks to bless us, always. Even if all we’re doing is turning around to face Him—to look to God and live.
So remember the dual nature of the sacrament. The bread of chastisement and tribulation, and the water of love and mercy. We get both. In fact, both are essential—and both together are a perfect symbol of God’s never-ending love for us.
And that’s what the sacrament is all about, Charlie Brown.