“The little warm concrete faith in my hand”

Two hands on sunsut.

Overwhelmed by all
but underwhelmed by myself.

How do stress and wonder blend so cleanly
inside the same small minutes
every single day?

It’s enough force to crack the soul
like continental plates, grinding like my teeth.

So I go courting the Spirit
trying to make the magic moments
that already are:
the paradox of conscious effort.

But maybe that conflict is good,
to highlight the steady solids by contrast,
because in a corner of this epic drama
I feel the little warm concrete faith in my hand.

Advertisements

Testifying of Testimonies

The book of Mosiah starts with a testimony of three important things, and a wonderful observation about the nature of faith.

In Mosiah 1:3-5, King Benjamin refers to his family’s copy of the Hebrew scriptures, and he teaches his children about how crucial the scriptures are in preserving spiritual culture.  In the next verse, he says:

O my sons, I would that ye should remember that these sayings are true,

and also that these records are true.

And behold, also the plates of Nephi, which contain the records and the sayings of our fathers from the time they left Jerusalem until now, and they are true;

and we can know of their surety because we have them before our eyes.  (Mosiah 1:6)

Here, Benjamin testifies of the truth of three things: his own teachings to his children, the ancient scriptures, and the collected teachings of recent prophets.

Continue reading

A Universal Mission Statement

For believers or skeptics, atheists or theists of all stripes, might this function as a call to arms that everybody could support?

Discern the nature of reality as accurately as possible and, as far as any facts have practical applications, bring ourselves into alignment with them and exercise them habitually.  

Sure, that’s just a draft, but I think it gets at the point clearly: we all just want to learn things that are true, and act on them accordingly, to the benefit of ourselves and the larger world, whether those things are secular or spiritual, artistic or scientific, or all of the above.

Sacrament Talk: Pioneer Faith Yesterday, Today, And Tomorrow

I had the privilege again today of speaking in another ward’s sacrament meeting, on the topic of “faith of our fathers.”  I tried to take a slightly different approach to the subject, mostly trying to connect it to the Savior, scripture, and basic gospel doctrines.  I think it turned out pretty well:

**********

This is the time of year when we build inspiration and faith by focusing on the great lives of our pioneer ancestors.  Whether or not we have great grandparents who pulled handcarts across the plains, whether we were born into the church or were baptized yesterday, as Latter-day Saints, we all get to draw from this great well of pioneer devotion and sacrifice to fill our hearts. 

This is not the only dispensation where pioneer stories have been helpful in strengthening the Saints.  In Alma chapter 5 in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma gives a great talk where he does the same thing.  First he introduces himself and explains that he’s there to speak to them with authority from previous leaders, like any visiting authority in the church today.  Then Alma reminds them of the hardships faced by those previous generations who had founded their church, starting in verse 5:

I say unto you, they were in captivity, and again the Lord did deliver them out of bondage by the power of his word; and we were brought into this land, and here we began to establish the church of God throughout this land also.

Continue reading

Politically Unprepared Mormon Virgins

The LDS Church has made another statement about illegal immigration, emphasizing their disapproval of “mass expulsion,” among other things.  I saw a news story yesterday about it and how, apparently, Church headquarters is being inundated by calls from conservative church members who are outraged by what they see as a betrayal of their principles. 

I won’t rehash what I’ve said about this before, but here’s a scripture-based illustration of my point:

In my neck of the woods, our Sunday School lesson next week will be about Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins.  In this story, ten women were going to meet their bridegroom.  Five had prepared, and five hadn’t.  When the surprise announcement was made that the hour for the wedding was at hand, the prepared five got to go in, but the other five were left with no groom but regret. 

The interpretation of this parable for Latter-day Saints has always been pretty standard: it’s meant to teach us about preparing for the Second Coming.  Since all ten women had clearly accepted the invitation to go to the wedding, they all represent members of the Lord’s church.  The sobering warning in the parable is that only about half of us–even half of those who are at least nominally on board with the Church–might be ready for the rewards we want when the final day comes. 

There are plenty of reasons why those five virgins (and many more Latter-day Saints) might be slack in their preparation for the Lord’s return, but in light of the blowback over the Church’s recent political stances, I wonder if some of those virgins might represent good people who let their faith be compromised by being offended by the Church’s positions on gay marriage and illegal immigration.

Why Atheists Should Respect the Idea of “One True Church”

I read something recently where someone railed against the idea of any church claiming to be “true,” because it could only lead to pride and persecution.  I’m sure such has been the case at times, where some person or group has let their claims to truth give them license to alienate or oppress those on the outside of their vision, and this is awfully unfortunate.  But that’s hardly evidence that such always leads to violence, or that the claim is always untrue.  Actually, this is one religious claim that the most stridently secular among us should genuinely respect. 

A few years ago, I posted a message on a bulletin board for atheists that, if they were so inclined, they could consider the Book of Mormon as something they’d been missing but should be interested in–a physical artifact whose very nature could substantiate the existence of God.  That started a decent dialogue, but when some readers got the point that I was implying that religious claims were even capable of being literally, empirically accurate, they reacted with mockery.  That claim sounded like a fresh bit of arrogance, I suppose, but, once again, they should have seized upon it.

First of all, every religion’s depiction of reality can’t be accurate, because so many of them are contradictory.  So either none of them are, or one of them is.  Some combination of aspects of various faiths could conceivably be true, but unless multiple religions are exactly the same, only one could be purely, fully true.  The fact that any church makes such a claim–and there are few today which do–shouldn’t be an invitation to ridicule, but a recognition that even in religion, reason rules. 

If the popular conception of religion is that it’s merely a cultural tradition, or a product of wishful thinking, etc., I’d think that those who don’t find it valid (and who hold those critical assumptions about the origin of belief) would welcome a claim that not only is such not so, but that the seemingly supernatural claims of religion can be investigated, tested, and either authenticated or disproved. 

Finally! an atheist might shout.  A chance to definitively debunk this nonsense.  Which is exactly the opportunity the Book of Mormon offers the would-be skeptic.  At the same time, it provides the hard-headed devotee of reason an approach to religion that is as far from mystical as possible: a long, dense, sober text that begs to be scrutinized, studied, compared, researched, and analyzed until a verdict can be reached.  The text itself explains a method of experimenting on its truth claims that will yield consistent, reproducible results. 

The intellectually honest atheist should respect the exclusive truth claims of the LDS church because they are logically consistent, and because this is one religion that is ready to put up or shut up.

I Give Another Morningside At Seminary

As this last school year drew near to a close, I figured I just wouldn’t be invited back to speak at the seminary for the high school where I work, even though I’d spoken there the year before, but with only a few weeks left, a couple of young men I know on the student council came and asked me to give another address at the end of May. 

I’d known since right after my first morningside what I’d speak on if I were brought back: living by gospel standards.  Below are the notes I used for my talk a month and a half ago.

  • Review message from last year about Book of Mormon.
  • Share Alma 30:34 & 36:24 about leaders serving to share their joy–and that’s why I’m here (but don’t tell anyone else I care about your happiness–I’ll deny it!).
  • Living by Church standards must be based on our own faith and testimony–anything else won’t last.  Priority–develop a testimony.
  • A lot of people don’t live standards or go to church because they’ve been offended.  Reference Elder Bednar’s talk on offense–don’t deprive yourself of blessings because of someone else.
  • Even if you are active, you must always keep up with prayer and scripture study, or you’ll burn out, like an athlete who ignores diet and exercise.  You can fake it for a while, but you’ll end up angry, hurt, and failing.
  • Call a volunteer to read the parable of the kite:

While Brother Pinegar served as president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, as you can imagine, we often talked to the missionaries about the feelings of happiness and peace that accompany courageous obedience to true principles. We talked of the influence of the Holy Ghost that comes to those who are obedient. We encouraged the missionaries to make obedience their quest. I enjoyed telling them the story of the little boy who went to the park with his father to fly a kite.

The boy was very young. It was his first experience with kite flying. His father helped him, and after several attempts the kite was in the air. The boy ran and let out more string, and soon the kite was flying high. The little boy was so excited; the kite was beautiful. Eventually there was no more string left to allow the kite to go higher. The boy said to his father, “Daddy, let’s cut the string and let the kite go; I want to see it go higher and higher.”

His father said, “Son, the kite won’t go higher if we cut the string.”

“Yes, it will,” responded the little boy. “The string is holding the kite down; I can feel it.” The father handed a pocketknife to his son. The boy cut the string. In a matter of seconds the kite was out of control. It darted here and there and finally landed in a broken heap. That was difficult for the boy to understand. He felt certain the string was holding the kite down.

The commandments and laws of God are like the kite string. They lead us and guide us upward. Obedience to these laws gives us peace, hope, and direction.

  • Show my notebooks of church meeting notes and share my summary of President Monson’s talk from Priesthood Session of General Conference last month (ask if anyone remembers what it was about). 
  • My thoughts about standards: BAD LANGUAGE: addictive, as they can see from their peers–try going without it for one day!  Tell them about “no swear club.”  IMMODEST CLOTHES: like bad language, makes us less godly, more like animals.  WORLDLY MEDIA: “It’s just a song/movie, etc.!” you say.  Then let it go.  PORN: not just “bad kids,” or boys, who need help.  Go see bishop asap or it will hurt life–faith, relationships, will steal from every area of life.  Bishop will think more of you, not less, if you go. 
  • Show them my copy of For the Strength of Youth from my wallet, challenge them to keep one also.
  • Close with the miracle of the sod cutter: Last Saturday I was doing yard work for someone with a sod cutter, a huge machine like a cross between a lawn mower and a rototiller on steroids.  After the yard was half removed, it quit.  I pulled the cord several times and the motor wouldn’t turn over.  I inspected it and tried several more times.  Nothing.  I let it sit for about ten minutes as I cleared away the dirt I’d piled up so far, then pulled the cord several more times.  It was still dead.  I took off my hat and prayed in the driveway, asking for the sod cutter to start because this work would help people in need and, since the sod cutter was a rental, needed to be done right now.  I closed the prayer and pulled the cord again.  It started on the first try, smoothly, and didn’t have any problems for the rest of the morning.
  • Testimony: we’re not sent here to see how much we can get away with, we’re here to enjoy the best blessings prepared for us. 

The Book Of Mormon and the Heart On the Window

A couple of weeks ago my wife and I watched the suspense movie Flight Plan.  It’s pretty good, but what really stuck with me was the turning point for the main character.  [WARNING: spoilers follow]

Jodie Foster plays a distraught widow flying with her sad young daughter and her husband’s body from Europe back to the US, when she wakes up mid-flight to find her daughter apparently kidnapped.  The kidnappers have planned it to look to everyone else like the daughter was never there and the mother is crazy with grief.  The plan is so devastating that after being restrained and made to listen to a psychiatrist, Foster’s character seems to begin to believe herself that she only imagined that her daughter was really there. 

But just as she’s about to abandon herself to despair, she leans over, almost sobbing, and breathes on the cold little window.  That’s when she sees it: the heart that her daughter had drawn on the window after fogging it up with her breath right after boarding.  The kidnappers hadn’t known about it and therefore couldn’t erase it.  This was one solid evidence that couldn’t be ignored, couldn’t be explained away.  It’s a proof that awakens her from the slough of despond and, ironically, considering what everybody else aboard thinks of her, strengthens her sanity.  It instantly reassures the mother and revives her will to fight.  Needless to say, from there she launches an ingenious solo investigation that leads to the kidnappers being punished and her daughter being rescued. 

For me, in real life, that heart on the window is the Book of Mormon.  The world is full of spiritual conspirators of all stripes who would love to convince us that we’re crazy for believing in Jesus Christ, even going so far as trying to remove any arguments for Him from our culture, history, and public lives.  Like those poor souls who were lost in the mist of darkness in Lehi’s dream (1 Nephi 8:23), many of us do become swayed by the massive tide of majority opinion whispering in our ears that we’ve been deluded

But when we’re being assaulted for our belief, and especially when we’re tempted to give in and give up, we can always lean over and see that perfect, beautiful, crystal clear little heart on the window, left there by the One in whom we place our faith, and on whom we center our lives.  The Book of Mormon is a solid physical evidence that God is not only there, but knows us and loves us, and is helping us find our way back to Him. 

And just like that valiant mother in Flight Plan, when we’ve had our spirits lifted and filled by that blessed gift, we can go back out and fight the evil with twice the power we had before, we can endure in the face of any opposition, and we can win the goal of our contest: a reunion with the beloved family member who left us that precious gift in the first place. 

[image source]

Sunday Afternoons With Bach

I’ve listened to several works of classical music this summer that are new to me, but I don’t think I’ve liked any of them more than I have these two pieces by Bach, his St. Matthew Passion and Mass in B Minor.  They’re quite long and I’ve only heard each once, so I can’t write about them in any meaningful detail; all I can say is that I like how they sound.

What’s struck me the most about them is their pervasive, ubiquitous piety.  These two major works by one of music’s great masters are also artifacts of pure faith, resonating with reverence in every note.  Like his contemporary Handel’s Messiah (a couple of individual pieces from which are familiar to everybody), both of these are suffused with the sublime and elevate praise to that refined plane of existence known as art.  Truly moving.  In fact, the first time I listened to St. Matthew Passion, one of my main impressions was, I should listen to this on Sunday afternoons

I’ve also learned this summer what  a great classical music tool YouTube can be.  Not just private interpretations, but frequently entire concerts, in full orchestra, are archived there, in versions of exquisitely professional quality.  Not only that, but longer works such as these two are usually available for viewing on a playlist, where the bite-sized clips apparently required by YouTube can be strung together in a continuous order for nearly seamless enjoyment.  Press “play all” and enjoy your night at the symphony, or your pleasant Sabbath afternoon.

Inactive Husbands

My experience ministering at church has shown me that there is one large demographic whose quiet sense of loss in their community is rarely understood by those around them: women with inactive husbands. 

There are certainly men who go to church but whose wives are unsupportive, but that’s relatively rare.  Far more common are women who strive to get to church as much as possible, often taking kids with them, but whose husbands refuse to get up and come along.  I’m not talking about women with non-Mormon husbands–those women knew what they were getting into when they got married–or even women whose husbands have never been very involved in church. 

What still shocks and discourages me is just how many men become inactive after marriage and then put their wives in an impossible position: these men may think that they’re not making their wives choose between them and church, but these poor women are still living in a gray twilight zone, trying to trudge along the thorny path of discipleship but doing so without a partner with whom to share her burden, unlike most of her friends at church.  Her husband may think that his non-involvement is purely neutral, doing no harm, but that doesn’t help when the kids ask why they have to go to church and Dad doesn’t. 

Continue reading

The “Gift” Of Faith

One of my favorite colleagues in education was an agnostic science teacher with whom I whiled away more than a few lunch periods commiserating about all our sundry complaints.  Particularly at the school where we worked together, we had both noticed that the population had a strong, seemingly built-in sense of fatalism, wholly internalized, woven into the fabric of their DNA.  Far too many kids would come into our classes at the end of a summer already convinced that they couldn’t learn, that they would never want to learn, that work of any kind just wasn’t important.  Their philosophy was one of paralyzing nihilism, a mix of predestination and hedonism, I thought.  They were absolutely sure that their intelligence, talents, and abilities were all immutable, a fixed, inherent quantity that they couldn’t improve or develop even if they wanted to, so why bother?  My friend and I lamented our failure to convince them that they were far more powerful than they were giving themselves credit for. 

During one of our conversations about religion, though, he short-circuited my attempts to get him to analyze his own agnostic assumptions when he asserted that I simply had the “gift of faith,” a thing which he said he respected, but just didn’t have.  I don’t think any amount of banging my head against the wall ever got him to see the irony. 

Continue reading