Category: religion

What’s Your Basic Religious Knowledge Like?

A friend posted a link to this Pew Research quiz focused on general religious knowledge. It’s a selection of questions taken from their broader survey that they administered to Americans to see how well they understood the basic tenets of many world religions. The results were released yesterday.

For reference, I scored a 14/15 on the quiz. My one miss was on a Buddhism question, which doesn’t really surprise me, since it’s not a religion I know that much about at all. (Although even then, I had it narrowed down to one of two possible answers. I picked the wrong one.) I didn’t think the questions themselves were particularly difficult at all. It was all surface level stuff. Things anyone even glancingly familiar with a religion should be aware of.

And Americans as a whole flunked it with flying colors.

We could generally get above a 50% when the questions were focused on Christianity, but once the survey edged into Judaism or Islam or Hinduism and the like, then good luck. On the whole, people answered 14/32 questions correctly. The people who did the best? Jews, followed closely by agnostics and atheists.

The Jewish success rate makes sense, as they would naturally tend to do better on the questions around Judaism, and just living in America often steeps you in Christianity enough to be able to answer those questions fairly reliably, I would imagine. For agnostics and atheists to do so well, however, seems to indicate to me they’re not casually dismissing religion. They’re reading into it. Studying it. Striving at least to understand it in a way many people who profess faith don’t.

None of this was really that surprising to me, even if it was discouraging. My two years as a missionary in former East Germany confirmed these results. Many people I spoke with didn’t understand their own faith’s religious tenets, let alone those of other beliefs. And often it was the agnostics and the atheists who had a much more complete picture.

Pew notes that college education generally accounted for more correct answers, which at least gives me some hope. (Though it also probably implies that the more education you have, the more likely you are to be an atheist or an agnostic.) It’s important to note that Jews, atheists, and agnostics still outperformed their peers, even when education level was taken out of the equation.

I’m not sure what to say other than that this was something I found interesting, and thought you would find interesting too. I personally would prefer an informed populace to one that just blindly believes what their parents believed. I would always tell people on my mission that I was there to inform and clarify the tenets of my religion to people who didn’t understand them. I think once you can understand a person, you have a much better shot at not dismissing them from a label or a preconceived notion that’s often wrong.


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Sunday Talk: On Reverence

When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed its meeting schedule, it offered five basic reasons. Among them, the first two stand out:

1. Help every Latter-day Saint home become a place where family members love to be, where they can enrich their lives and find mutual love, support, appreciation, and encouragement;

2. Emphasize home-centered Sabbath activities;

They stand out even more when I add that these were the reasons given for the schedule switch that occurred in 1980, not the one that happened at the beginning of this year. Prior to 1980, the church schedule was about as clear as mud, speaking as someone who isn’t old enough to remember anything about it. Primary happened at 4pm on a weekday, unless it was summer, in which case it was at 10am instead. Unless it was August, in which case it just didn’t happen at all. Relief Society was on a weekday at 10am for eight months of the year. Sunday meetings started off with Priesthood in the morning, followed by a break long enough to let the men go home and get their families and come back for Sunday School (one for adults and one for children, with the Sacrament administered in both). Sacrament meeting happened last.

With all that driving and schedule switching, is it any wonder the other reasons provided for the change were to free up time, reduce travel, and conserve energy? But the two primary reasons still stand out for their stated goal of making Latter-day Saint homes more enriching, loving, and Gospel-centered. Compare that goal from 1980 to the goals listed by the Church when we went to a two hour block in January:

“Deepening conversion to Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ and strengthening faith in Them.  Strengthening individuals and families through home-centered, Church-supported curriculum that contributes to joyful gospel living.  Honoring the Sabbath day, with a focus on the ordinance of the sacrament. Helping all of Heavenly Father’s children on both sides of the veil through missionary work and receiving ordinances and covenants and the blessings of the temple.”

Almost 40 years later, and we’re still trying to make our homes more Gospel centered and our meetings more spiritual. While I’m personally a big fan of the change to a two hour block, I also don’t believe it will automatically lead to the stated goals given by church leaders for the change.

For one thing, the switch to a home-based Gospel learning program that was supposed to happen in January might have ended up much like the rest of the New Year’s resolutions that came about at the same time. The gyms are never busier than the beginning of January, and I imagine a much higher percentage of Latter-day Saint homes were gospel centric on Sunday, January 6th than on Sunday, July 7th. This trend will likely only continue.

Making true change to your life takes hard work and consistent effort, but that’s also what it will take to make our experiences in Sacrament meeting itself an impactful one. This past week during a stake self-reliance committee meeting, we discussed what it takes to make yourself spiritually self reliant. A lot of the time, we focus on the temporal aspects of self-reliance. Having enough savings to provide for yourself and your family, for example. But being emotionally and spiritually self-reliant are equally important.

Spiritual self-reliance, we decided, meant having a testimony strong enough to withstand challenges to it as they arise. One that isn’t dependent on someone else’s beliefs. How do you develop it? By going to church, reading your scriptures, praying, and fasting. By doing the things the church asks you to do, not because you’ve been asked, but because you get to the point where you truly believe those basic building blocks are essential.

It’s easy to forget the reasons we do things. Case in point: I work at a university, a place where all the students theoretically come to learn the things they’ll need to know in order to get a good job once the graduate. But speaking from experience as a recovering college student, it can be very easy to forget that over the course of your college career. There are so many other things that affect you in the short term that keeping the long term in mind is difficult. You’ve got a job, a social life, and a good GPA to keep in check. Why take a hard major when an easier one will still let you graduate? But behind that decision of which major to declare lies a bigger one: what career do you want? Because it’s off in the distance, it’s easy to ignore. And yet without that bigger picture, all the short term difficulties can end up being nothing more than four years of spinning your wheels and accumulating debt.

Education is a wonderful thing, but college is not an end in and of itself. Simply getting a degree does not unlock the wonders of the universe for you.

Likewise, sitting through two hours of church does not automatically make you a more spiritual person. Theoretically, I suppose it might be better than staying at home for two hours. Perhaps some of the talks and lessons will rub off on you in passing, but it’s going to be hard rowing for it to have an impact if you’re not at least making an effort.

I’m not typically a preachy person. I don’t like telling other people to do things, since there’s so much I need to improve in myself. It’s usually easier to use myself as an example. I’ve made enough mistakes over the course of my life that it doesn’t take me too long to come up with a bad decision I’ve made to help illustrated What Not To Do. So I’ll volunteer myself as a case study in being distracted at church.

True story. I used to do crossword at church. Right in the middle of Sacrament meeting, whenever I’d get bored, I’d whip out the current Sunday School manual, where my handy crossword was waiting for me, and then I’d pretend to be studying up for the coming lesson, all the while trying to figure out a seven letter word that starts with R and means “verify the addition of.” (It’s “retotal.” Just in case you were going to think about that now instead of my talk. I’m on to you.)

Denisa was, needless to say, not a big fan of this propensity of mine, and I’m happy to report that I abandoned the habit well before we moved to Farmington. I still do the crossword every day. I just wait until I’m home from church to do it. Honest. But as I look back at my actions, I find a few areas that stick out to me to discuss some valuable life lessons.

First off, I find it interesting I felt the need to hide the crossword in a church manual. As if the appearance of being churchy was still important to me, even though I had no real desire to participate in the actual church activity itself. To me, this indicates I knew that what I was doing was wrong. Just as wrong as the pharisees Christ spoke out against for their hypocritical ways.

Second, I look at the way I justified my actions. The talks were boring, I’d say to myself. If the talks weren’t boring, I wouldn’t need to distract myself with a crossword. I’d argue that doing a crossword took almost no real mental power at all, and that I needed something to keep my mind from wandering. I wasn’t slacking. I was multitasking. While I’ve put my crosswords-in-church days behind me now, something else has come up that’s way more tempting and convenient for a technology loving multitasker: my phone.

With my trusty smartphone by my side, there’s almost no question or task that’s outside my reach. Better still, I can do whatever I want while still using the same device everyone else is using to read the lesson and their scriptures. It’s brilliant! (Though a quick aside: speaking from experience, it’s much easier to tell what someone’s actually doing with their phone than the phone user would like to believe. Let’s face it: reading the scriptures or the lesson generally doesn’t involve madly slashing at the phone screen with your thumb, or using both thumbs to enter in text, and then chuckling to yourself as you read the funny message your friend texted back.) 

I’m almost sure none of you came to church today expecting to hear a sermon against multitasking, but I’ve got a microphone and a pulpit here, and I’ve got some strong feelings on the subject, so that’s what you’re going to get. And I say this as a person who really struggles with an almost constant desire to multitask. To do two or three things at the same time, so that I can be as hyper efficient as possible. After all, there are only so many minutes in the day. Doesn’t it make sense to use your time as effectively as possible?

Except multitasking does not exist. Not in the way I wish it did, at least. When we multitask, the research has consistently shown we actually lose efficiency. It takes about fifteen minutes to reorient yourself on a primary task after you’ve been distracted by a secondary one. In our effort to do two things at the same time, we actually just rapidly do something called task switching, changing our focus from one thing to another, back and forth. Our brain is a television. Only one station can play on it at the same time. Sure, there’s picture-in-picture technology, but even then, you can only watch one show.

When I was about ten, I was a certifiable reading addict. I devoured books. Ten or twelve a week, and I wanted to be able to read even more. So finally I tried a new approach. I read one book while I listened to a different audio book at the same time. I was multitasking at its finest. Except as you no doubt can guess, I remembered almost nothing of what I read or listened to. You’d think I would have learned my lesson then. You’d think wrong.

In general, I’ve found I’m most tempted to multitask when I feel like I’m doing something that doesn’t really demand all of my attention. Something that’s boring, perhaps. Or tedious. When I’m in the middle of a deep conversation, or when I’m about to watch a movie I love, or when I’m trying to understand a hard to fathom concept, I don’t think I’ve ever thought to myself, “Now would be a good time to check Facebook.” Because deep down inside, I know how poorly the results are with multitasking. When I want to be sure to not miss a thing, I do one thing at a time.

Multitaskers also aren’t fooling anyone. Sure, we may try to couch our second task in some sort of shiny veneer the way I put my crossword into a church manual, but it’s easy for people who are trying to interact with you to tell when you’re not giving them your full attention. It reminds me in some ways of the freshmen I used to teach at BYU. They’d turn in papers that were triple spaced, or with one and a half inch margins, or with size thirteen font, no doubt hoping they’d pull a fast one on me. It never worked. When you spend your days looking at paper after paper, anything even slightly different immediately sticks out to you. Likewise, when you’re teaching a lesson or speaking in church, it’s quite easy to know when people aren’t paying attention. Again, this is coming from someone who has both multitasked someone else and been multitasked by someone else. 

But multitasking isn’t just a rude thing to do. According to several scientific studies, multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%, increases the time it takes to do a task by a third, reduces our overall attention span, and actually makes it more likely that you’ll experience anxiety and depression. I’m not kidding. In a study done by the University of Sussex, they found people who consistently multitask make their bodies weaker to emotional illness. There’s just no reason to do it.

How do we fight against this? An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests two simple things. First, shut out distractions. If you’re at work, this might mean closing your office door. If you’re at church, it might mean putting your phone away and committing to keeping it put away. We each tend to know the things that distract us most easily. Avoid them. The article’s other suggestion is just as straightforward: instead of trying to split your attention into as many parts as possible, throw all of it into one effort at a time. It will pay off in the long run.

So why does all of this matter? Of all the talks given this past General Conference, the one that made the biggest impression on me was given by Elder Holland, who spoke of the importance of restoring reverence into our meetings. Specifically into Sacrament meeting, which he called “the most sacred hour of our week.” He said, “Beloved friends, as we unite across the globe each week in what we hope is an increasingly sacred acknowledgment of Christ’s majestic atoning gift to all humankind, may we bring to the sacramental altar “more tears for his sorrows [and] more pain at his grief.” And then, as we reflect, pray, and covenant anew, may we take from that sacred moment “more patience in suff’ring, … more praise for relief.”

How can we make our Sacrament meeting experiences more like the portrait Elder Holland paints in his talk? So much of it comes down to one word. Reverence.

When I think back over my years of church attendance, the time when I think I’ve seen Peak Reverence would have to be during my days at the Jerusalem Center when I was doing study abroad with BYU. The chapel there has one enormous window at the front of it, so when you’re sitting there in sacrament meeting, you’re staring out over the old city. You can see the Dome of the Rock, where Abraham offered Isaac up as an offering. See some of the building where the Last Supper took place. Speaking from experience, it’s certainly easier to think about the Savior and His sacrifice for us when you’re looking right at the spot where it all happened.

Of course, there were other advantages that branch had. For one thing, it had no primary or nursery. There was no crying. No arguing. During the Sacrament, it was absolutely silent. This was an attitude that was further encouraged by the fact that the room itself felt different. Special. The Branch President arranged for student soloists to perform before each Sacrament Meeting as people walked in, so before you even arrived, the room had a serene feeling to it. Even when it was empty, I remember speaking in hushed voices there. It just wasn’t a place you wanted to be noisy. If you had something you really wanted to talk about, you’d take it outside.

I think some of that special feeling gets lost when you’re in a place for too long. When you’re too familiar with it. There are many people at church who I only really see once a week, and it’s my one real chance to catch up with them. If one or two people do that quietly, that’s one thing, but once the entire ward starts to catch up at the start of meetings or just after the meeting ends, it quickly balloons out of proportion. In many ways, it’s like the broken window theory in police enforcement. The concept that visible signs of civil disorder (like a broken window in a store front or on a car) lead to further civil disorder that escalates out of control. If someone sees an abandoned house with one window broken, it becomes likelier someone will feel like chucking a stone through one of the other windows, or perhaps spray painting the exterior, a process that continues until the entire building is ruined.

Certainly I’ve seen instances where the noise in a chapel gets to be so loud the organist feels the need to up the volume on their instrument, which in turn makes people want to talk louder so they can hear each other. That stand off between the organist and the congregation reminds me of another lesson I learned on reverence.

My grandfather was the organist for the Tabernacle Choir for 27 years. When he finished, he served a mission in Jerusalem, working with my grandmother to establish a music program at the Jerusalem Center. I was always amazed at how well he could play the organ. I played bassoon when I was growing up, and I had it out with me one year when I was visiting him. He offered to accompany me on a song I’d been practicing for months. “Are you sure?” I asked him. “It’s pretty hard.” “I’ll do my best,” he said, then proceeded to sight read the entire thing perfectly, making me realize just what a huge skill gap there was between us.

After he had retired, he was called as the organist in his local congregation. He would faithfully come each Sunday and play amazing compositions, improvisations, and arrangements of hymns, sometimes ones he’d come up with personally. But the thing about prelude music is most church members have been trained to basically ignore it. It’s like elevator music, but for church. Here was a man playing songs many non-members would pay money to hear in a concert hall, and no one in the congregation paid them any attention. 

When he passed away, he wrote a short paragraph that he asked be read before his funeral service began. It said, “Sacred prelude music does not serve as background music for conversation. Its purpose is to enhance the listener’s worship experience through music. Bob was often distracted and annoyed when he played sacred prelude music during his lifetime. Despite his careful practice of appropriate music, needless conversation usually occurred. This thoughtless act unfortunately intruded upon the reverent contemplation and rededication that each individual should have experienced as they focused their thoughts on the following worship service. As the organist plays the organ prelude today, Bob asked that those in attendance refrain from conversing while seated in this sacred chapel.”

He had a similar feeling about postlude music. To him, they should be bookends to an uplifting and edifying Sacrament service. In an ideal world, they would be. I remember when Elder Bednar came to speak to us in Bangor a while ago. How prepared we all were for that meeting. How we approached it with an expectation of revelation. How quiet it was in the chapel both before and after. It was an incredibly spiritual experience for me. Why wouldn’t I want that every week? There is no reason Sacrament meeting can’t be like that, and I believe that’s the bar we should aim for.

What we need to do, then, is to break it down into its fundamentals to see why it was impactful and ask ourselves how we can transition our local meetings to reflect that.

What comes to mind first? Well, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ was the main speaker. Duh, right? It would be easy to attribute all of the spirit of that meeting to that one essential difference, but I think that wouldn’t capture the whole picture. Elder Bednar spoke with the Spirit, and it’s the Spirit that made such an impact on each of the audience members. We are entitled to that same Spirit each week. Yes, some of that is on the speaker. They need to be fully prepared and take the time to ensure their talk is inspired. But much of it is on the listener, as well. I came to Elder Bednar’s meeting fully expectant to receive revelation. I had prepared myself in advance. I treated it as something special. If I took the same approach to Sacrament meeting each week, I can’t help but think my experience would improve, regardless of the supposed quality of the speaker or the lessons offered later.

Whenever I attend the temple, I look forward to the quiet that’s there. Before sessions, I enjoy sitting in peace and opening myself up to the Spirit. We live in a loud world. There are so many things out there vying for our attention. Yes, every now and then the Spirit might bop us over the head when we’re just not listening at all, but typically the only way we’re going to actually receive revelation is when we quiet our minds to the point that the still small voice can be heard. It would be lovely if that environment were fostered before and after every Sacrament meeting. Not just for a minute or two, but an almost permanent basis in the chapel. A place where anyone could come and have that peace, any time.

Ironically, I feel I’m often more inclined to be reverent in someone else’s place of worship than I am in my own. For example, when I visit cathedrals in Europe, I try to be quiet and respectful. Some of that’s because other people are doing the same thing. Why? Because people have been taught over time that it’s not a place for loud laughter and casual conversation.

Of course, our meeting houses are used for much more than just Sacramental services. We have concerts in them. Parties and socials. We play basketball and hold tournaments. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and perhaps this tendency has made it so we’re more likely to treat our buildings more casually than is beneficial. 

In describing our Sunday services, Elder Holland says, “When the sacred hour comes to present our sacrificial gift to the Lord, we do have our own sins and shortcomings to resolve; that’s why we’re there. But we might be more successful in such contrition if we are mindful of the other broken hearts and sorrowing spirits that surround us. Seated not far away are some who may have wept—outwardly or inwardly—through the entire sacramental hymn and the prayers of those priests. Might we silently take note of that and offer our little crust of comfort and our tiny cup of compassion—might we dedicate it to them? or to the weeping, struggling member who is not in the service and, except for some redemptive ministering on our part, won’t be there next week either? or to our brothers and sisters who are not members of the Church at all but are our brothers and sisters? There is no shortage of suffering in this world, inside the Church and out, so look in any direction and you will find someone whose pain seems too heavy to bear and whose heartache seems never to end. One way to “always remember him” would be to join the Great Physician in His never-ending task of lifting the load from those who are burdened and relieving the pain of those who are distraught.”

I personally am trying to make my Sundays more Christ-centered and my meetings more meaningful. It hasn’t been easy, and I keep regressing, but I’ve seen the way I feel when I take the time to make space for more reverence in my life. May we each continue to become more spiritually self reliant. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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.


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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.


Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

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