This started out as a short “What I Wish I’d Said In Church” post, but I found I had more to say about it than I thought, and it quickly morphed into an actual post.
Our lesson in Relief Society last Sunday, from the Lorenzo Snow manual, was about temples, and our teacher did a great job presenting the blessings of the temple and talking about the peace that could be found within its walls. Some of the women shared beautiful and tender feelings and experiences, and I was touched by how deeply the temple had touched their lives and healed their hearts.
Though I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with temple ordinances (a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere), I still find the temple beautiful and holy, and I’ve come to understand its importance in binding us together as a community and as children of God. A question in the middle of the lesson helped me crystallize some thoughts I’ve had these past few years. A class member, who joined the church a few years ago, asked a question posed by her mother (who is of another faith), “What happens to those of us not sealed in this eternal family relationship you care so much about? What’s the alternative? Where do we go?”
I’ve actually thought a lot about this, because in some ways, I think the Mormon focus on eternal families is a solution in search of a problem. We make a big deal about living with your family together forever, forgetting that kids grow up and have families and kids of their own, that presumably they want to be together forever with, except that their kids grow up, and so on. So how do we imagine it will work, exactly? Do we imagine a really long dinner table with our whole family, back to Adam, sitting at the same table, and yelling back to Methuselah to “pass the peas!”? A giant game of Monopoly? After a while, the whole construct gets hard to wrap your mind around.
I think of members of other Christian denominations who believe that they are good people and that their family members are good people, and that they and their family members are going to heaven, and I don’t think that they imagine that they will be separated from their families, who live in the same place (heaven) that they do. So I don’t see “eternal families” in the “families can be together forever” sense as a really big unique selling point of Mormonism. I think there must be something deeper, some other purpose for this emphasis.
I’m impressed by Joseph Smith’s focus on sacralizing relationships, and his sense that we as people, as communities, need to be bound together, that we need to create welding links between parent and child that will ultimately bind us to God. There’s a good argument to be made that one of his big reasons for polygamy is to fulfill this mission of sealing people together in bonds of connectedness that would tie them together in this life and in the next.
In the end, I see sealing in families as a statement of intention. Most of our ordinances are outward declarations of an inward commitment—baptism is a statement that we intend to stand as witnesses of God and bear the burdens of those around us; the sacrament is a statement that we intend to always remember Christ; and sealings are a statement that we intend to create a marriage—or a family—that is tied together by bonds of love and devotion to God. I think that a sealing signals our intent, but doesn’t on its own create the bond (any more than the baptismal font creates the disciple)—we do that, through our daily actions, by the way we treat each other.
Furthermore, I think God honors relationships of many kinds. D&C 130 tells us that “the same sociality that exists among us here will exist among us [in heaven], only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” And, in my case anyway, the sociality I enjoy on earth doesn’t consist solely of my family members—I also enjoy the company of friends and neighbors and coworkers and mentors, people I love who enrich my life and strengthen my faith in God.
Which I guess leads me to what I really think about sealings: I don’t think it’s accurate to say “you need to be sealed to someone to get into heaven.” I think it’s more accurate to say: it won’t be heaven unless we are there with those we love. It isn’t that a sealing is required for salvation, but that salvation consists of building eternal bonds with the people we love. And sealings are one way we signal the importance of those eternal connections, a way we invite God into the relationships that form the backbone of our mortal existence.
I add a caveat at the end here, of course, because of the damage I’ve seen a particular understanding of our sealing doctrine do in the lives of people who are horrified by the idea of being with their family members a moment longer, let alone for eternity. When we teach, we should remember victims of abuse, incest, and violence, divorced members escaped from a horrible ex-spouse who trampled on their dignity, those with family members who are cruel and unkind, who betrayed their trust, our brothers and sisters for whom the good news of the gospel looks like a nightmare. I know people who live in fear that God will force them to live forever with an abusive spouse or parent, because, after all, they’re sealed to him/her. If you are in this camp, my simple testimony is: God is not a jerk. Nephi said it more eloquently: “I know that God loveth his children, nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things.” The tenet of my faith is more simple: any God worth worshipping is not a jerk. God won’t give us a platter of horrors and call it “heaven.” As Jesus said—even earthly parents know how to give good gifts to their children. We don’t give our kids rocks and snakes when they ask for fish and bread, and neither will God. Amen.