Category: religion

Sunday Talk: Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles

About a year ago, I decided to finally start doing something about getting in better shape. Not just from a “I shouldn’t weigh as much as I do now” perspective, but from an “actually lift weights and try to alter my physical shape to be less blob-like” stance. And for a while, I did a good job. I’d lift weights each day at lunch, and I could see the improvements. Then my body decided to remind me one day that I’m over 40, and that the days of easily pushing it to the limits are more behind me than I’d like to admit. I injured my shoulder, and I’ve had to dial it back a few notches or five.

But in those six months of weight lifting, something became very clear to me. Weight lifting is not difficult. Well, it’s difficult, but strictly from a repetition and manual labor standpoint. If you see someone with rippling muscles, they either got them with steroids, or they got them through hard work. Lift the same weight over and over enough times, and your muscles get bulkier. It’s a sign of dedication to a single objective, or a sign of repeated experience with a certain task.

In a way, it’s a sign that someone’s found a formula and followed that formula over and over.

Today we have bodybuilding competitions. Men and women who devote an inordinate amount of time to strengthening, toning, and perfecting every individual muscle. And while I can certainly appreciate the discipline required to get to that point, I can’t help but wonder what it all amounts to beyond winning competitions. In fact, in many cases those bodies are toned to a point that I personally no longer find attractive. They’ve taken devotion to an ideal too far, until that ideal is an end in and of itself, instead of an asset.

So what does all of this have to do with the Gospel?

In his talk, “Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles,” Elder Juan Pablo Villar of the Seventy discusses the need to apply the gospel principles we learn in life so that they can grow. If we want to be able to withstand the challenges that inevitably lie in store for each of us in this life, we need to take the time now to strengthen our spiritual muscles, not so we can win some sort of eternal bodybuilding championship, but so that we can stand up when emotional and spiritual burdens are placed upon our shoulders, and continue to move forward.

The other day I was working out in the yard on a project. My six-year-old daughter was with me, eager to help. I needed something from the garage, and I asked her to bring it to me. It probably weighed about ten pounds, and in my focus to get the job done, I forgot about the relative strength of a six-year-old. In a few minutes, I saw her come up to me, huffing and puffing with exertion as she brought me the desired bag. “That was heavy!” she exclaimed. I nodded and assured her it was, then took it with one hand and went back to work.

I remember being in her shoes. Continually amazed at just how capable adults were at getting things done. Whether it was doing a 1,000 piece puzzle, beating me handily at video games, or being able to lift very heavy objects, it always seemed adults had an unfair advantage at everything. But they weren’t born with that advantage. It’s something they came to over time as they practiced and exercised their bodies and their minds.

I had the same experience as a missionary. I remember talking to the Elders and Sisters when I was a young adult, and I was always impressed with how many cool stories and experiences they’d had. One of the big reasons I wanted to go on a mission is that I wanted to have those same sort of cool stories and experiences myself. Of course, when I actually went out on my mission, I discovered the accumulation of those kind of experiences is much more difficult than it first sounds. Like gaining physical strength, spiritual strength comes through hard work.

If you want to get physically strong, there are two basic approaches. The first is to be involved in a job that calls for physical exertion, day in and day out. The closest I’ve come to that is back during my gas meter reading days in Utah. I didn’t have to lift heavy loads, but I was walking miles each day, zig zagging through backyards and around fences. Just by the repeated, daily exercise that was part of my job, I gained a lot of endurance.

Spiritually, this isn’t always possible. I’d compare it to the tough times we go through in life. The challenges that spring up, sometimes seemingly out of nowhere, that test our faith and our commitment to Gospel principles. As we deal with those challenges, our faith can increase, and our spiritual muscles can grow. The only problem with that approach is that it’s also dangerous. When you go from no exertion to too much, over night, your body starts to rebel. I decided to run a 5k one day, pretty much out of nowhere. I looked up how far the distance would be on Google Maps, and I went outside and started jogging. I wasn’t able to jog the whole way–there were plenty of stretches of just plain walking and stumbling involved–but I forced myself to complete it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I felt terrible afterward. I couldn’t breathe. My legs hurt for days from shin splints. I had pushed myself way too hard, too fast. The same thing will happen to our spirits if we haven’t built up the endurance levels to be able to handle trials when they arise.

So how do we do that? With our physical bodies, we accomplish it through regular daily exercise. Push ups. Sit ups. Smaller runs. Yoga. Playing tennis. Anything to get our pulse rate up, build endurance, and get in better physical shape. When it comes to spiritual muscles, we have to use another approach.

I remember when I was growing up in the church, I would sometimes complain that the talks and the lessons were always focused on the same basic principles. I wanted something flashier. Give me a good discussion about the signs of the times, or about the nooks and crannies of the Gospel. Anything but another discussion on prayer. But as I’ve lived longer in the Gospel, I’ve come to see the importance of those repeated lessons and topics. First, they’re repeated because we just haven’t figured out how to do them yet. Remember, we’re to learn line upon line. What’s God supposed to do when His children just can’t get one line down? Repeat it until they do, clearly. I know that I still haven’t mastered any of the basic fundamental building blocks of the Gospel. I try to pray every day, but do I pray each day with real intent, as an active discussion with God? I follow the bare minimum of the Word of Wisdom, avoiding smoking, illegal drugs, coffee, tea, and the like, but do I pay any attention to the rest of it? Do I eat meat sparingly, for example? Do I take the proper care of my body that God would have me do?

We get the same lessons over and over because those are the things we need to focus on to make sure our spiritual muscles are up to the challenges that lie ahead of each of us. Challenges that are tailor made to test us and make us even stronger, if we can come through them. I’ve been through some of those already in my life, and speaking from experience, what’s gotten me to the other side of each of them has never been my knowledge of the signs of the times, or of the intricacies of getting your calling and election made sure. What’s gotten me through has been my faith that God exists. That I can be forgiven of my sins through repentance. That I need to love my neighbor as myself. Knowledge and experience of the Gospel that came through years of daily practice.

Regular exercise is a lifestyle change. It’s not enough to approach it as a diet. When you go on a diet, the assumption is that sooner or later, you will no longer be on a diet. If you want to stop dieting, you have to fundamentally change who you decide you are. For the bulk of my life, I always thought of myself as a large eater. I wasn’t fat–not in my head, at least–but I was . . . husky, let’s say. Big boned. This all came to a point when I got on the scale one morning and discovered I’d officially broken into the area doctors classify as “obese.” For me, that was a bridge too far. It was no longer really possible to excuse my brownie binging and my love of Iceberg Drive-in milkshakes.

But it still took me ten years or so to get my weight down to a point that’s classified as “normal,” at least from a medical BMI standpoint. And it took even longer to get where I am today. And though I’ve worked at this for years, I still have decades of experience living as a husky guy, and I’ve discovered those instincts run deep. When I’m stressed, I turn to food. When I’m at a party, it just doesn’t feel like I’m having a good time unless I’m eating too much. The real difference these days is how I feel after that party. It’s a constant reminder that eating that much junk food makes me feel terrible for the next few days.

And yet I still do it. I’m still trying to change the way I think about myself from “I’m a guy who eats a lot” to “I’m a guy who eats a sensible diet.” Some of it is because I took great pride in my ability to pack in a large pizza at a single sitting. I also love to bake, and it’s just not as much fun to bake when you can inhale all the goodies you baked after you bake them.

Spiritually speaking, we sometimes need to let go of the person we used to be, to embrace the person God would have us become. I grew up an avid video gamer. I still play some games now and then, but there came a point when I realized I couldn’t do all the things I needed to get done. Something had to go, and video games fell by the wayside, even though they’d once been very important to me. You get to a point in your life where you decide you need to jettison things that are no longer mission critical. Thankfully, by the time you reach that point, those things have long since lost their central place in your life, though I will say that sometimes we need to be willing to shift things around in importance. I’m certainly capable of going back to my gaming days. I still have my agency, after all. But I choose not to, because that person is no longer the person I want to be.

But there’s a danger in all of this, as well. We can never get to the point where the exercising of these spiritual muscles be becomes an end in and of itself, instead of an asset. You can dive into the scriptures and become a veritable scriptorial ninja, capable of quoting passages and identifying references at the drop of a hat, but what use is an encyclopedic knowledge of the scriptures, if the scriptorian walks right past the sick and afflicted without a second thought? The Pharisees in the New Testament were masters of scriptural knowledge, and yet Christ said they “outwardly appear[ed] righteous unto men, but within [were] full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” Again, we must change who we really are, not just who we appear to be.

Exercise is not something we can do for other people. That would be awesome, wouldn’t it? If I could just pay someone to exercise for me, I guarantee you I would look a lot better, run further, and be able to eat a whole lot more without putting on weight. But you can’t buy exercise. You can hire someone to train you, but you need to be the one lifting the weights and running the miles. And while you can theoretically be in favor of exercise, you can’t honestly say you are until you’re actively doing it.

This process of change is difficult. I don’t mean to imply it’s something we just choose to do and then sit back and make it happen, as if by magic. It’s something that happens over time, with a lot of hard work. With God’s help, we go through our lives bit by bit, identifying the areas where are our spiritual muscles are weak and developing exercises that will strengthen them.

Remember Ether 12:27–”27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

We have a promise from God that as we work on the things where we are weak, He will help us. I’ve found in my life that the best way to get better at something is to practice. First off, you need to recognize where you are weak, and where you should focus your efforts. Once you’ve done that, ask God for help showing you what to do to become stronger in those areas.

My wife and I have been participating in the Finance Management Self Reliance course through the church. Each week, we get together with a few other members to go over the lesson of the week for two hours. This past week, one of the focuses was on goal setting. I found myself breezing through the lesson, mainly because these days, I consider myself quite adept at setting goals, but it wasn’t always that way. The first time I heard about goals and was encouraged to set them in my life was the Missionary Training Center. I remember thinking it was one of the most useless things to do I could think of. I knew what I wanted to do. Why did I need to set some sort of artificial hoop to jump through to make sure I did it?

And yet today, I set goals for practically everything in my life. How often I want to read the scriptures. How many books I want to read each year. How often I exercise and for how long. Goals have become an integral part of my daily and weekly routine, mainly because I’ve found the advantages they bring. They allow me to set priorities in my life and then work on those priorities effectively and efficiently. I got from where I began–having no real concept of how goals might help me–to where I am now–using them for almost everything I do–by repeated practice and experimentation with them. By applying them in different ways and finding out what works best for me.

I believe if we’re being honest with ourselves, and we’re actively trying to live the Gospel, we already know a few areas where we are weak. The problem is we’d really rather work on other areas of our lives, rather than the weak ones that need the most attention. Remember Luke 18: 18 And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?

19 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God.

20 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.

21 And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.

22 Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.

23 And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.

“Yet lackest thou one thing.” That’s something the Spirit is always ready to tell us, if we’re truly asking and ready to hear. But like the rich young man, the answer isn’t always an easy one. It’s more fun to look around at other people and cherry pick the areas we’re strong and they’re weak, thus justifying how good we are at living the Gospel. It reminds me of a Seinfeld episode a long time ago. Kramer, Seinfeld’s goofy neighbor, keeps bragging to his friends about how he’s started taking Karate lessons. It was hard at first. He was scared, but he reached deep inside himself, found courage, and fought to the point that he began to “dominate the dojo.” His courage then inspires some of his friends to also make tough decisions and take risks.

Of course, that all falls apart when they discover he enrolled in a Karate class for nine year olds.

It’s a funny sequence, and we laugh, but how many of us choose to “dominate the dojo” in areas where we’re already strong, shying away from the areas of our life where “yet lackest thou one thing”? Someone might never have smoked a cigarette in his life, and so it’s easy for him to look around at the people who come to church smelling of nicotine and feel superior. They could go to the Savior and say “All these have I kept from my youth up,” but rest assured, there are areas we all must improve. Where we all need to exercise new spiritual muscles. Christ didn’t tell the young man to stop obeying the commandments. The Gospel is always additive. You learn line upon line, but you need to keep adding those lines, or it’s no use.

But the story of the rich young man doesn’t end there. Verse 24:

24 And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

25 For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.

26 And they that heard it said, Who then can be saved?

27 And he said, The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.

The things which are impossible with men are possible with God. The things we can’t do on our own, we can do with His help. But we need to have our spiritual muscles in fighting condition if we’re going to hope to get them done.

Elder Villar says, “Thanks to the Restoration of the gospel, we can come to understand how our Heavenly Father helps us develop spiritual gifts. It is more likely that He will give us opportunities to develop those gifts rather than just granting them to us without spiritual and physical effort. If we are in tune with His Spirit, we will learn to identify those opportunities and then act upon them.

If we seek more patience, we may find ourselves needing to practice it while waiting for a response. If we want to have more love for our neighbor, we can foster it by sitting next to a new face at church. With faith it is similar: when doubts come to our minds, trusting in the Lord’s promises will be required to move forward. In this way, we are exercising spiritual muscles and developing them into sources of strength in our lives.”

This process is often painful. Uncomfortable. Confusing. In his book, Mere Christianity, CS Lewis has a wonderful way of describing it. “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

God sees me as a palace, and instead of drawing inspiration from that vision and striving to achieve it with his help, I’m stuck insisting I’m nothing more than a cottage or a townhouse. Not because I don’t like palaces, but because it’s so comfortable being cozy. I love the known and the expected. I think I would have made a terrible pioneer. There are times when I start to feel frustrated that each day is exactly like the last, but all it takes is for me to have a bit of an upset in my routine–a week or two of massive hours or intense stress–and I find myself longing for that coziness again.

But we don’t grow when we’re comfortable. Just as muscles don’t grow unless they’re repeatedly stressed, so our spirits don’t grow without challenges. That’s why we came to Earth in the first place. One of the criticisms I hear most often from people who doubt God’s existence is how He could allow so much evil in the world. Why do good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people?

When this life is viewed in isolation, it becomes almost impossible to justifiably answer those questions. But this life isn’t the beginning, middle, and end of the story. It’s a brief Act Two in an infinite three act play. It’s the Fireswamp in The Princess Bride. The cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. Game three of the World Series. If you were to tune into a World Series with no knowledge of the previous two games, would it seem fair to you if one team was already down two games in the series?

The choices we made in the preexistence helped make us who we are today, influencing what sort of challenges we’d need to face to be able to become what God knows we can be. The things He asks us to do and the experiences we go through aren’t mean spirited or capricious. They’re necessary parts of the maturation process.

Brothers and sisters, faith will not stop trials from coming. It will not make life easier. It doesn’t make us immune to sickness or tragedy. But what it does do is make us stronger. It gives us the explanation that provides context to those trials. It fills in the rest of the movie, or the rest of the World Series. That context doesn’t change the trial itself, but for me it makes it so much more endurable. More than that, being spiritually fit lets us more easily get guidance for God to make sure we navigate those trials the right way. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Pray for Trump

I read an article this morning that Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelist Billy Graham, is trying to organize a national “Pray for Trump” day this coming Sunday. According to Graham, Trump is surrounded by enemies and needs divine intervention at this point to protect him and bring him to whatever glorious endgame God must surely have in store for the man.

And I certainly believe there’s an endgame waiting for Trump. On that, Franklin Graham and I definitely agree, even if the temperature of that endgame might be up for debate. I’m also all for praying for the man. After all, the first scripture that came to mind when I read the challenge was Matthew 5:

38 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, An aeye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:
39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not aevil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right bcheekcturn to him the other also.
40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.
41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.
42 aGive to him that asketh thee, and from him that would bborrow of thee turn not thou away.
43 ¶ Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt alove thy bneighbour, and hate thine enemy.
44 But I say unto you, aLove your benemiescbless them that dcurse you, do egood to them that fhate you, and gpray for them which despitefully use you, and hpersecute you;
45 That ye amay be the bchildren of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth crain on the just and on the unjust.
46 For if ye alove them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
47 And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
48 aBe ye therefore bperfect, even as your cFather which is in heaven is dperfect.

There’s a narrative that’s being used by some religious groups that’s deeply disturbing to me, even as I once bought into it. Confession time: I remember in the days after 9/11, I felt that George Bush had been helped by God to win the 2000 election because of what lay in store for the country. That if Al Gore had been president at that time, things would have been much worse. (Go easy on me. I was 23, and in Utah.)

That’s not an idea that I plucked out of the ether. It’s an idea many Republicans believed then, and probably still believe. Within my own faith, we believe the Founding Fathers of America were inspired by God to create a new template of freedoms, and I continue to believe that, although I don’t buy into the almost sainthood status some within my faith would have us bestow on them. The Founding Fathers were still simply men, warts and all.

But sooner or later all this “God put ____________ into office” logic begins to break down. To hear the Republicans, they’d have God helping in some elections and sitting others out. He got Bush into office, but then took a couple of election cycles off, letting Obama (who some Republicans called the anti-Christ, and I am not making that up, sadly), have a turn in the Oval Office. But then He came back to help Trump get in. But while He pulled that stunt off without the help of a national day of prayer to get Trump elected, apparently things are bad enough now that we need to move the prayer needle back to Trump’s favor.

Of course, it’s a dangerous thing to dismiss the role of God in our lives. To toss out the potential for prayer to actually have a real impact on us personally. I remember one of my professors at BYU questioning how mass prayers really were supposed to work. As if God was up in heaven, waiting to pour out blessings or unleash the heavenly host to come to our aid, but He had to wait for the giant Prayer Meter to get to a certain point before He could. And if someone ended up dying, God snapped his fingers in disappointment and said, “Shoot. They were just five prayers shy of me being able to help.”

That sounds ridiculous, and I don’t believe it. Yet I also think there are times when the collective faith of the many opens up avenues not otherwise available. There’s a dissonance in those two ways of thinking, and it’s not a dissonance I’ve totally come to peace with yet. I tend to believe it’s because my understanding is limited to a strict cause/effect way of thinking. But that’s a thinking bounded by a fourth dimension (time) that’s always linear. Always moving from cause to effect. But if a being could be outside that linear restriction, could the effect ever come before the cause? Could it be planned for, not ahead of time, but outside of it?

And now we’ve reached a point I had no idea I was even headed in when I started this simple post about praying for Trump. So before I head further down that rabbit hole, I’m going to back up and leave the topic for another time.

Where was I?

Praying for Trump.

I’m baffled that so many religious people can continue to put so much faith in a man who is so clearly without morals. Who doesn’t just spit on every single one of the ten commandments, but smiles while he does it and assures you he isn’t, even as the spittle’s still wet. This, then, is the tool God is using to keep the country safe?

I don’t doubt God capable of working through even the most rusty and decrepit of tools. His work will eventually be complete, no matter what. But I can’t pray for Trump to continue down the path he’s on. I can’t believe it’s one God looks on favorably.

Will I pray for Trump? Sure. The way the Children of Israel prayed that God would soften Pharaoh’s heart. The way Christ prayed for the men who crucified Him. I will pray for Trump the way Paul exhorted Timothy:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men;
For akings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and bpeaceable clife in all godliness and dhonesty.
For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour;

Here’s hoping it does some good.

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Different Flavors of Sainthood

When Denisa and I were looking at where we wanted to go after BYU, we both agreed we wanted to shoot for the northeast. Maine, if possible, but we’d settle for anywhere north of DC. This was for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was, perhaps ironically to non-Latter-day Saints, we felt that Utah just had too many members of our church.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I have many, many family members in Utah. The vast majority of them, actually. But I’d grown up in the northeast, and I’d always observed a stark difference between the experience I’d had growing up in the church and the way the church functioned in Utah. I wanted my kids to have an experience closer to what I’d had than what I observed living in Provo, Orem, and Lindon.

Of course, now that I’m even older, I’ve come to doubt there’s any such “uniform” experience to be had anywhere. Latter-day Saints like to talk about how universal the church is. How you can go across the world and attend a meeting anywhere else, and you’ll still see the same church functioning. No difference! And at first blush, you’d be right. The ordinances are the same. The way church meetings are put together are the same (at first glance). The beliefs espoused from the pulpit are (often) the same.

But the experience we each have as members of this church can be very, very different. Not just from continent to continent, country to country, or state to state, but even within the same stake or even the same ward. So much of what “the church” consists of depends on the friends you have within it, the way you live it, the way others around you expect it to be lived, etc. For example, within my congregation in Maine, you have people who are quite liberal and people who are very conservative. Surround yourself with all of one group or the other, and the sort of conversations you’d have about “the church” and the direction it’s going might be very different.

Yet I still believe the overall sentiment of my earlier opinion (that I wanted to get away from so many church members) was the right one for me. There’s a certain amount of groupthink that begins to emerge when too many people share the same assumed beliefs. Here in Maine, I might have a very different take on some church practices than my neighbor, but we get along, because neither of us assumes what the other believes, and we each give the other the room necessary to live within those belief discrepancies.

Is this making any sense? Maybe some specifics will clarify what I’m talking about.

I could use any hot button topic as an example. Abortion. Gay marriage. Women’s role in the church. But as soon as I trot one of those out, it’ll warp the conversation away from my central point, so let’s use something much simpler, instead. We could use playing cards, or R-rated movies, or caffeinated soda. (To non-members: yes, these each inspire long debates among Latter-day Saints, depending on the crowd.) I’m feeling dangerous today, so I’ll go straight to R-rated movies.

There are many members who believe it is wrong to view R-rated movies. They cite President Benson’s talk in General Conference in 1986, where he admonished young men to specifically not go to R-rated movies. They cite the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which advises youth to avoid movies that depict good as evil and evil as good.

Long time readers of my blog will have no doubt observed that I watch many movies, many of which are rated R. And I’ve been criticized for the choice at times. (I do, in fact, have standards for what I will and won’t watch. My standards allow for artistic license and quality, though. I also believe some movies aren’t appropriate for people based on age. But I won’t get into the nitty gritty.) But I have only been given a hard time about the choice when I lived in Utah. Not since moving to Maine. There are definitely some who have disagreed with my choice (in fact, there have also been occasions when I’ve been criticized for watching PG-13 movies), but there’s no critical mass of members believing the exact same thing, and so it doesn’t feel nearly as oppressive to me.

Now imagine that same debate, but with one of the previous hot button topics I listed.

But again, I don’t know if that’s been my experience because “that’s how it is in Utah” or because “that’s how I experienced it in Utah.” I’ve brought up issues in the past that have elicited very different opinions. One good example is a post I wrote about how women are treated in the church. I had a number of women object, saying they had never experienced what I was describing some of my friends had gone through and what I had observed. That was eye opening to me. I didn’t doubt they hadn’t experienced it (or at least noticed it), but nor did I doubt my own experiences and the accounts of my friends.

Same church. Different realities. All dependent on what each person had lived or observed.

I continue to feel that the church culture in Utah is too homogenized, but I haven’t lived there in 12 years. I base that opinion on my past experiences, my observations of news items coming out of the state, and my interactions with people who still live there. So I recognize that I could be wrong. But I prefer living in a place that’s more of a melting pot. Where I come into contact with beliefs that are extraordinarily different from my own. One thing I don’t like about my corner of Maine is the uniform whiteness of the area. I’d love there to be more diversity of race and religion. But no place is perfect.

I’m not sure what else I have to say about the topic. Basically, it’s an observation about how different church members can be, despite the general outward appearance of uniformity. I don’t believe any one flavor of church member is necessarily superior to another, but I do believe they all should be respectful of each other, realizing we’re all on our own path to perfection, and that includes people not of our faith.

And I suppose that’s all I have to say about that for now.

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Sunday Talk: Now Is the Time

I was up in Lincoln on Sunday, where I gave the following talk. It ended up using my post on Notre Dame as a launching point to discuss broader issues, so don’t turn away just because you’ve read the first bit already. I think it turned out quite well. One of my better talks; they don’t all come together as nicely as this one did.

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About 13 years ago, Denisa woke me up from a nap. Her face was white. Shocked. “The Cabin burned down,” she told me. I had no way to really process what she was saying. Ever since I could remember, my family had a cabin up in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. It was very much a communal affair. It belonged to my grandparents, and the entire family would head there en masse for holidays and vacations. Growing up, some of my happiest memories are spending a week each summer with my cousins up at that cabin, watching movies, playing games, going fishing, and just having a blast.

When I was in college, I was only about an hour away from the cabin. (Much closer than I’d been when I lived in Pennsylvania.) Denisa and I would go up regularly, but again it was almost always with family. My grandparents. My cousins. My aunts and uncles. Going to the Cabin on your own just felt . . . wrong. Like an amusement park where none of the rides are running. Year after year, the Cabin never really changed. It had always been there, and it always would be.

Until it wasn’t.

We never figured out exactly what happened. The nearest guess is my grandfather had left some rags in a bucket on the front porch. He’d been applying some stain with them, and he left them outside when he drove off. They must have spontaneously combusted in the sunlight. That initial fire caught the stairs on fire, and the cabin, being a cabin, was quickly engulfed. It was all gone. The film collection. The family pictures. The embodiment of all those years of fun.

I still sometimes think about it. Think about what it would have been like if I’d been there when those rags combusted. How big of a window did we have to stop the fire from happening? I think about the different rooms and things inside them that I loved, each of them burning, one after another. It’s incredibly sad to me. Yes, we rebuilt the Cabin, and when we did we said we’d make it “even better than before.” It’s a beautiful new building, but it’ll never be better than the original for me. The original was my childhood. It was Star Wars: A New Hope. The new one is the prequels. (Well, maybe it’s Rogue One. Let’s not get carried away here.)

It’s probably natural that one of my first thoughts when I watched Notre Dame burn on television was of the Cabin and all those nightmares around it. I’d been to Notre Dame twice, once in high school on a marching band trip, and once a few years ago with my family. I’m a bit of a cathedral junkie. Any city I go to in Europe, I have to seek them out, just to appreciate the sort of effort and craft that went into them. Seeing the aftermath is heartbreaking, though I’m so glad the entire building wasn’t lost. Hearing Macron say they’ll rebuild it “better than ever” definitely reminds me of my family’s goals after the fire, along with the inevitable conclusion that it can’t be better than the original, because the original was the original. There’s no need to be “better,” though we say it to try and comfort ourselves. To feel like there wasn’t a loss. That we’ll make things right again.

Even though we can’t.

When a loss happens in our life, whether it’s something physical like a building or emotional like a friendship, that loss leaves marks on us. The bigger the loss, the bigger the marks. It doesn’t mean we’ll never be happy again, or things won’t ever be right, but it does mean they’ll always be different. I think it’s important to recognize that and to give yourself time to process it.

The other thing I was reminded of in those flames was watching the Twin Towers burn on 9/11. The comparison is inevitable for me, since that event had such an impact on me as well. Here I was again, watching footage of a place I knew. A world icon in flames.

I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, so many people didn’t know quite how to respond to it. I was certainly one of those people. It was too big for my mind to really wrap around it. I was in college at the time, and I went to classes the next day. The professor chose to use the event as a lecture topic. I’m sure he was trying to deal with it, just as I was, and perhaps his efforts helped some. All I know is that for me, they were the exact wrong approach. He was discussing the symbolism of the Twin Towers. Picking apart why the terrorists had chosen those buildings. What it all meant.

I went back to my apartment and dropped his class that afternoon. I had no desire right then to use that tragedy as a discussion topic. That was a city I knew and loved. A city I’d grown up with. I had friends who had been around the World Trade Center that day. Family members who were close enough that I was worried if they were okay, and relieved to find out they were. I can talk about the events now, of course. I’ve had the time I needed to process it all. But I still remember the anger I felt sitting in class that day as the professor blithely used all of what had happened as a way to discuss something so trivial (to me that day) as Flaneur literature.

In the aftermath of Notre Dame, I’ve seen some of the same things happening. I saw articles written just hours later talking about how we all could use that loss to understand other things more acutely. How we were supposed to feel or think or cope. I couldn’t bring myself to read those articles, because to me, it would be as if Denisa had woken me from my nap that day thirteen years ago and said, “The Cabin burned down. We need to remember how much it inspired us, and how its loss will bring us to new heights in the future.”

When I encounter loss, I don’t need explanation or justification. I need time to let myself be sad. I don’t need people telling me “Cathedrals have burned down before” or “It was only a building” or “It could have been so much worse” or “There are so many other things in the world to be sad about.” I need people to be quiet. There will be time for all that self-reflection and philosophy later. But it’s okay to be sad for a while. To feel for what’s gone. To recognize that things will never be the same.

A tree grows organically. It encounters trials throughout its life. Wind storms. Ice storms. High winds. They affect what the tree looks like. How it twists and what limbs thrive. At the end of all those storms, it still looks like a tree, but it’s a different tree than it would have been without the storms. It might be stronger. It might be weaker. But it’s inevitably different.

This is all a prelude to set the stage that explains how I felt when I read the assigned topic for this month’s high council talks. Elder Jack N. Gerard spoke last October of the importance of doing important things now. Not tomorrow or the day after.

If someone comes back from Paris, there’s a few touristy things you’re almost required by law to do. I think toward the top of everyone’s list would be going up the Eiffel Tower and going to Notre Dame. They’re two of the activities I did on my first trip to Paris, back in high school. And when Denisa and I took our family to the city about five years ago, we went all over the place. We saw the Louvre. We strolled through the city. We went to outdoor parks and palaces. But while we visited the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, we never went up, and we never went in.

In hindsight, these seems like a serious mistake, especially in light of the fact that the cathedral will never be able to be visited the same way again. And now that it’s been a while since the trip, I find myself wondering why in the world we would have traveled halfway around the world, only to stop just shy of actually experiencing everything we’d planned on seeing. As I’ve reflected on this and talked it over with Denisa, I came up with a few reasons.

First off, we were very busy. I know that seems like a silly excuse now, but I’m not kidding when I say we were really going at breakneck speed through the city those three days. We had so much we wanted to do and see, we never thought about prioritizing for the things we assumed we’d do no matter what. If you ask New Yorkers to raise their hand if they’ve been to the Statue of Liberty, chances are a slew of people will keep their hands down. Why don’t people go to see the iconic landmarks right in their backyards? I think a lot of it is for the same reason. You always just sort of assume you’ll get around to it, and so you let other things bump it down the priority list. It’s not that we didn’t visit either the tower or the cathedral, but in both cases when we went, the lines were long. Longer than we decided at the time was worth trying to fight with three tired kids.

But I can’t pass it all off on being unlucky with line length. You’re able to reserve a spot at the Eiffel Tower months in advance. I forgot to do it ahead of time, assuming there would be plenty of spots open when we walked up to it. There weren’t. And our apartment was literally less than a hundred yards from the cathedral. We passed by it many times when there were lines that weren’t too bad. But we just kept bumping it back until the last minute, and by then of course it was too late.

Separated from the actual trip now by time and space, it’s easy for me to look at it all and break it down into fundamentals. We’d traveled halfway across the world and spent thousands of dollars to get our family to the city in the first place. What was another half hour of waiting in line and whatever donation it would have cost to visit the cathedral? We’d done everything, but we’d stopped just short of the desired goal, letting ourselves get distracted by other interests.

In my spare time, I write novels. I’m three quarters of the way through the first draft of my eighteenth right now. But I didn’t learn how to write a book all at once. One of the first steps in my writing career happened in high school, when I was introduced to the five paragraph essay.

It’s not an earth shattering concept. When you’re given a writing prompt, you use a pre-specified format to answer it. Five paragraphs. One for an introduction, where you briefly mention three arguments you’re going to use to prove your point. Then you have one paragraph per argument (given in the same order you first introduced them), and you finish everything off with a final paragraph devoted to a conclusion.

There’s a lot to be learned from that basic formula. First and foremost is the importance of being able to have a single goal and break that goal into smaller pieces, all related to that same goal. The introduction of your essay lays out the roadmap you’re going to follow to reach your final destination: proving your argument. But at no point in time does any one of those smaller goals supplant your overarching objective.

I see this principle at work in my life all the time. For example, I work at the University of Maine at Farmington. Students head to college for a variety of reasons. For some, it seems to be an extension of high school, simply the next step in the “things everybody does” roadmap of life. And so they spend their time “going to college.” Playing games. Sleeping through classes. The only real objective is to eventually be able to graduate, and some even begin to select coursework and majors to make that goal simpler. But if all you do is get a degree without a plan for how to apply that degree, then you’ve only saddled yourself with mounds of debt.

The ones who tend to succeed in life are the ones who remember college is only a means to an end. You go to college because you want to get a job. That goal might be because you want to support a family, be financially independent, or you just have always dreamed of becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. All of those are excellent goals, but you have to remember that graduating from college is just a step along the way to those goals. It’s a paragraph supporting your thesis.

I’ve been using a lot of writing and education analogies, so let me switch things up to try and connect to some of the rest of you. In sports, teams have an overarching goal: win the Superbowl or the World Series. In order to achieve that goal, several steps have to be met along the way. Individual games are important, but not the only important thing. Often a team will hold back its best players or spell them out because they realize that short term benefits can come at the expense of those long term goals.

In the Book of Mormon, Lehi’s family had a goal when they left Jerusalem. They wanted to be protected and to live a happy life. But there were some significant challenges to that goal. Jerusalem is in the middle of a largely barren wilderness, full of dangers and an environment inhospitable to life. To help them navigate that wilderness, they were given the Liahona, a “round ball of curious workmanship” that directed them which way to go in their journeys. It worked as long as Lehi’s family was righteous, and stopped working when they weren’t. But it would have been a mistake for the family if they ever started simply focusing on getting the Liahona to work, like trying to keep a television in working order, but never watching any programs on it.

Elder Gerard said, “We live in a world of information overload, dominated by ever-increasing distractions that make it more and more difficult to sort through the commotion of this life and focus on things of eternal worth. Our daily lives are bombarded with attention-grabbing headlines, served up by rapidly changing technologies. Unless we take the time to reflect, we may not realize the impact of this fast-paced environment on our daily lives and the choices we make. We may find our lives consumed with bursts of information packaged in memes, videos, and glaring headlines. Although interesting and entertaining, most of these have little to do with our eternal progress, and yet they shape the way we view our mortal experience.”

Satan would like nothing more than for us to lose sight of the overarching goal we each should have: obtaining eternal life. And to get us to forget that goal, he’ll try just about anything. One of his best substitutions is to get us to focus all our efforts on a sub goal instead of the main goal. To focus on the college, not the career. The single game, not the Superbowl. The Liahona, not the destination. When it’s phrased like that, you might think it’s preposterous. Who would do something like that when it comes to eternal life? This isn’t just visiting Notre Dame. It’s my salvation on the line.

And yet I have to fight against it all the time. Case in point. I have a job. It’s vital to the success of my family. We need money to be able to have a place to stay, food to eat, and clothes to wear. But sometimes it’s too tempting to let the needs of my job overpower the needs of my family. To become so focused on doing the things my employer wants me to get done that it all comes at the expense of the reason I’m working in the first place. This isn’t to say there aren’t times that you have to bear down and get a bunch of extra work done in order to meet deadlines, but rather that it’s important to remember that job is a means to the end, and not the end itself.

Another example. One of the reasons Denisa and I got married was to have a family. But we’ve both tried very hard to keep the focus of our marriage centered on each other without shifting that focus solely to our children. Why? Because I don’t want there to come a day when my last child moves out of the house and I look at this woman I’m married to and wonder why in the world we’re still together, now that the kids are gone. We share a common goal for now of raising our three children and launching them off into the world to lead successful lives of their own, but that’s still just a single paragraph in the overarching essay that is our marriage. It doesn’t trump our relationship to each other, nor should it.

An example from church: it can be so easy sometimes to slip into a mindset where the current calling we have is the most important calling in the church. Where everything else exists to make sure that our calling can prosper, whether that’s being the Scout leader, Primary President, or Elders Quroum President. Activities run by those callings take on extra meaning. After all, “Adam fell that men might be, and men are, that they might have a successful ward barbecue.”

I love how much church leaders have been emphasizing a shift to a home-centered church. A reminder that much of the structure of the church exists to help strengthen families and help families help each other come closer to Christ. We should remind ourselves that church activities are there to support the thesis of a strong family. Some people will use those activities to meet that goal. Some won’t. And that’s okay.

Several years ago, President Oaks gave a talk he called “Good, Better, Best.” He referred to it again this past General Conference. In it, he said, “Just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives.” He continued, “As we consider various choices, we should remember that it is not enough that something is good. Other choices are better, and still others are best. Even though a particular choice is more costly, its far greater value may make it the best choice of all.”

If you read the entirety of his talk, I think the message behind it is spot on. But I feel like often we end up remembering nothing more than that “Good, Better, Best” maxim, and sometimes, the “best” is the enemy of the “good.” In other words, in our effort to achieve nothing but the best, we can end up getting nothing done at all. For example, my wife is one of the best cleaners I know. If there’s a messy room somewhere in the world, and you want that room to be cleaned thoroughly to the point that it’s spotless, then I would put Denisa in charge of the operations. She finds areas of a room that are still dirty that my brain can’t even comprehend. If you want the best cleaning job you can get, turn to her.

There are many times that I have no chance of cleaning my house to Denisa standards, and it’s easy at times to feel like since I can’t clean it the best I could clean it, I might as well not even bother cleaning it at all. The same phenomenon happens when I’m writing. I’ll be trying to make my way through a chapter, and my internal editor will sit there taking pot shots at everything I’ve written, pointing out the flaws and the weaknesses. It’s tempting to just stop writing altogether, or to stop myself from moving forward to instead work on crafting the best sentences I can, each and every time.

Experience has taught me, however, that if I focus on just writing the best sentences, I never actually finish a book. Not a good book, not a better book, and certainly not the best book. I’ve also learned that telling Denisa I didn’t clean the house at all because I knew I didn’t have time to clean it to her standard isn’t going to get me far in the “Husband excuses” department.

I think most people can recognize my mistakes in those specific examples, but I worry we lose sight of that principle in our discussion of “good/better/best” decisions in our life. The problem is we each have this ideal person in our head. The person who goes through life only ever making the best decisions, and those best decisions are always straightforward. They spend their time making dinner for the needy, visiting the sick, doing service for their neighbors, keeping their house in perfect order, providing for all their family’s needs, becoming well-rounded individuals, and always making award winning meals that are the envy of the town.

But that ideal person in our head has none of the problems and challenges we face every day. He doesn’t get tired or over stressed. She doesn’t wake up with a full slate of obligations: errands to run, kids to help with school work, and church callings to fulfill. That ideal person faces a series of completely isolated decisions and can ask themself what the best choice is in each of those instances. And then we compare each of our much more complicated decisions with those ideals. Is it any wonder we find ourselves continually wanting?

Sometimes the best decision is to sit at home and watch Netflix. Sometimes it’s to read your scriptures. The “best” decision is going to vary for each person and each situation. I don’t mean for this talk to feel like it’s an overwhelming challenge, just as I don’t believe God wants us to feel like there’s no hope for us to ever do everything right.

President Nelson taught, “If we are to have any hope of sifting through the myriad of voices and the philosophies of men that attack truth, we must learn to receive revelation.” We must learn to rely on the Spirit of Truth, which “the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him.” And we need to recognize that revelation can and will tell different people to do different things in similar situations. Sometimes it doesn’t always make sense, but someone else’s directions don’t need to make sense to us. They’re not for us.

As the saying goes, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. I can’t go back to Notre Dame. I can’t go back to my family’s Cabin. Not the way they were. But I can choose to try to avoid those situations in the future. On this past trip to visit my wife’s family in Europe, we took the kids to Krakow. And one evening, we went for a walk through the city, enjoying the nightlife and the ambiance of an Eastern European city in the dark. Toward the end of it, I pulled the kids over to the side of the main square and told them to stand there and just appreciate it. Really live in the moment. Acknowledge it for what it is.

It’s a mental trick I’ve used in other situations as well. Sometimes when I’m feeling overwhelmed by a busy household full of kids and all the duties that go along with them, I try to picture myself in the future, looking back at this time in my life. I pretend I’m able to let that future me time travel back to where I am now. Believe it or not, that typically helps me appreciate what I have in the present and cope with it all quite a bit better.

May we all strive to find out what God would have us focus on, and then put all our efforts on following through with those goals. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Latter-day Saint Missions Shortened to 18 Months*

Leading up to general conference this year, I’d heard plenty of rumors. There have been quite a few significant changes recently, so it’s no wonder people are buzzing with ideas about what else might change. This time around, I was hearing talk that the length of time young people serve on missions was going to change. Men were going to just serve 18 months. Or women were going to start serving 24 months. Or it was going to be up to the individual, regardless of gender, to serve 12, 18, or 24 months.

Or. Or. Or.

Conference came. Conference went. Mission lengths did not change, if you noticed.

However . . .

I learned through some research something older members might be well aware of, but which was new to me. The church DID make a big announcement in a leadership conference, shortening the length of missions for young men from 24 months to 18 months.

It’s just that they did it back in 1982.

In speaking for the First Presidency, President Gordon B. Hinckley said that “much consideration has been given to the term of service for young men in the mission field. Costs of maintaining missionaries have risen dramatically. Many of our families face extremely heavy economic pressures. The problem is aggravated by the fact that more and more young men are being called from lands outside the United States and Canada, many of them from lands where rates of inflation have been extremely high and have taken a serious toll in the real incomes of people.”

He added that in a number of areas young men are subject to “regulations which preclude extended absence from school or apprenticeship programs”; likewise, military requirements in some countries prohibit two-year absences to fill missions.

“It is hoped,” said President Hinckley, “that improved training will better qualify [the missionaries] to work more productively when they arrive in the field. It is likewise anticipated that this shortened term will make it possible for many to go who cannot go under present circumstances. This will extend the opportunity for missionary service to an enlarged body of our young men.”


But then, in a letter from the First Presidency in 1985, the change was changed back:

The First Presidency’s November 1984 letter emphasized that those pressures are still a matter of concern. But because of the earlier six-month reduction in the length of missionary service, the letter continued, “many missionaries have felt that at the conclusion of their missions they have had to go home at a time when they had developed the greatest capability to do the work.

“Particularly is this true of those who have learned a language.
“We feel this change will enhance our ability to proclaim the gospel to all the world, especially in areas where missionaries learn a second language. It will also give missionaries greater opportunity for increased spiritual growth and development.”

The First Presidency urged local priesthood leaders to “be sensitive to family resources,” and, where necessary, see that assistance is made available to families. “We hope no worthy young person will be overlooked for this most important Church service because of concern for financing a mission.”

Will the length change again? Who knows. Different times call for different approaches. If you read church history, you’ll find a lot of what ended up being cemented in stone around church practice started out as various people trying different approaches to solve problems.

If you’re familiar with Latter-day Saint doctrine, you’ll know the story of the Brother of Jared, who was tasked with coming up with a way to light ships for a long journey. Ships that had no windows. His idea ended up being to have God touch white rocks, which would then shine brightly for the journey.

I find the story inspirational. God, who was fully aware of everything from electricity, battery packs, nuclear fission or fusion, ended up going along with the “bright rocks” idea. Not because it was the best or perfect solution, but because it’s what His child had come up with, and He could make it work. How much of what happens in the church happens because God follows this same principle?

Food for thought,

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