Category: sunday talk

Sunday Talk: Spiritual Momentum

I gave a talk in church for the first time in over two years yesterday. (Quite a far cry from when I was giving them every month.) Topic? Spiritual momentum. Here’s the full text:

There are two main approaches to getting into a pool or a lake. The first, of course, is to throw caution to the wind and jump in without thinking twice. It’s a sudden shock to the system, but after a few seconds the shock wears off, and you’re swimming in comfort without any concerns soon after. The second is to edge into the water inch by inch, knowing full well that it’s cold, and thus more than a little reluctant to face the temperature change too quickly. With this approach, it usually takes a time of constant discomfort as each new inch reminds another part of your body that the water really isn’t as warm as you’d like.

Both approaches ultimately lead to the same spot. The water temperature isn’t magically colder with the fast approach, and all that the second approach ultimately gives you is a longer phase of discomfort. It might even persuade you at some point that you didn’t want to swim after all, and so you head back to dry land and assure yourself you didn’t really want to get wet in the first place.

I have done both over the years, and despite the fact that experience has taught me the first approach is almost always the better one, each new time I’m faced with getting into a pool, I’m right back at the mindset of “it’s going to be too cold, so wouldn’t it be better to ease my way in, instead?” It’s one circumstance where experience hasn’t done too much to persuade me to let go of my natural inclination to avoid being cold and wet at all costs, despite the fact that I enjoy swimming once I’m in the pool.

When Tomas headed off to the MTC, I wasn’t sure how things were going to go. It’s one thing to think about going on a mission, and quite another to actually be doing it full time. Would he decide it just wasn’t for him? Would he constantly question the decision to go in the first place? As a father, I always overthink things, and I didn’t hear from him for a full week before I knew if things were going well or going poorly. It turned out they were going far better than I had even hoped. Each week we talk to him, he’s happy and in good spirits. He’s enjoying his time at the MTC, even though he’s anxious to get out into the field. This despite the fact that I know he shared my worries about what the MTC would be like ahead of time.

As I’ve talked with him and seen how he’s handled things, I think one key reason for his attitude was his willingness to jump into a mission and not look back. To fully commit himself. I see the same principle at work elsewhere. When I’m really set on a goal and put my whole effort behind it, I’m much more likely to reach that goal, especially if I sustain that effort for a long period of time. Back when I was looking for a job, I decided I would treat the search like a job itself. So I spent 40 hours each week looking through listings and tailoring my applications to each opening. It took more than 50 applications to finally get a position, and I’m not sure what I would have done if I hadn’t worked so hard at it. Diving right in gave me the initial momentum I needed to carry me through to the end of the goal.

But effort isn’t easy, and sustained effort is harder still. What can we do to start that momentum and, more importantly, keep it going? President Nelson went over five overarching principles in his talk last month: get on the covenant path, repent daily, learn about God, seek and expect miracles, and end conflict in your personal life. Each one of these is, of course, an excellent suggestion, but it’s one thing to hear someone give guidance, and another to actually know how to apply that guidance in my day to day life. I feel like sometimes I hear excellent advice in general conference, but when it comes time for me to follow it, I get lost.

For example, seeking miracles is an area where I am definitely weak. I struggle to set aside my inner skeptic and really believe God plays an active role in the day to day events of my life. My natural inclination is to think that most things happen the way they happen because of the actions of people around me, and that the real miracles take place when God acts through people. But that’s not what President Nelson says in his talk. 

“Moroni assured us that “God has not ceased to be a God of miracles.” Every book of scripture demonstrates how willing the Lord is to intervene in the lives of those who believe in Him. He parted the Red Sea for Moses, helped Nephi retrieve the brass plates, and restored His Church through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Each of these miracles took time and may not have been exactly what those individuals originally requested from the Lord. In the same way, the Lord will bless you with miracles if you believe in Him, “doubting nothing.” Do the spiritual work to seek miracles. Prayerfully ask God to help you exercise that kind of faith. I promise that you can experience for yourself that Jesus Christ “giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.” Few things will accelerate your spiritual momentum more than realizing the Lord is helping you to move a mountain in your life.”

I’m not saying I don’t believe in miracles. I’m just saying I struggle to believe I will see miracles in my personal life. They’re something other people experience, not me. I know those two thoughts conflict with each other, and I’m trying to do better at increasing my faith, but it’s something that’s taking time. For example, I’ve been struggling for the last while to stay on top of everything I’ve got going on at home. I feel like I’m being pulled in too many directions at once, and that I’m never going to get on top of my to do list. Tuesday evening was particularly discouraging. Of course, I saw that there was snow in the forecast, and a small part of me thought how great it would be if I got a snow day to focus on catching up on all those odds and ends, but I didn’t think about praying for one to happen. It would snow or it wouldn’t. A snow day for me might be a horrible day for someone else. Who was I to ask for something that might cause problems for other people?

And then I woke up Wednesday morning to find out the university had indeed been canceled. I spent the day cleaning my garage, working on writing, and catching my breath in a much needed break, despite the fact that not much snow actually materialized. It would be easy to call that a miracle, and it certainly felt miraculous, but I still have a hard time viewing it that way. Why would God send a snowstorm to western Maine just for me?

On my mission, I taught many refugees from Sierra Leone and Ghana. I was impressed with how easily they seemed to be able to see the hand of God in their lives. They would talk about people being blessed as if it was so matter of fact, and there was no need to add disclaimers or explanations. I remember thinking at the time like God is able to work miracles among a people only proportionally to the amount of faith that people is willing to have in Him. I wondered then, and I still do, if my tendency to put so much trust in science and logic has an adverse effect on my ability to see miracles in my life.

As I’ve thought about it, it seems some of my difficulty stems from the fact that I want to keep thinking of miracles as only global events, when in actuality so many of them have always been intensely personal. Lazarus rising from the dead didn’t really make a difference to anyone but his friends and family, and I’m sure there could be any number of scientific explanations offered for it. Alma the Younger’s encounter with the angel changed his life, and Christ feeding the 5,000 didn’t suddenly cause the rest of the world to develop a new agricultural system. Ultimately, I need to increase my faith and confidence in God’s ability to intercede in my life in a way that doesn’t negatively affect everyone around me. It seems silly to doubt that once I phrase it that way, but I still need to work on it nonetheless. 

So I will work on seeking and expecting miracles, and I believe doing that will help increase my spiritual momentum. What else can I do?

If you’re looking to increase momentum, you’ve got two options. First, you can push harder, and keep that pressure constant. Yes, it takes effort to get something moving at first, but once it’s going, that effort gets dramatically less. On the other hand, you can also work on reducing the friction beneath the object, making it easier to move it in the first place. Too often, I think I revert to the brute force method to get momentum going. If I don’t have it yet, I just need to try harder.

I’ve had the most success, however, when I take the time to try and get my life in a spot where that momentum is easier to build. If I want to get something new done, I  look for habits to cut down on, or schedules to change. I believe when someone says they don’t have time for something, what they’re really saying is they don’t believe that something has a high enough priority for them to make time for it. Sometimes that’s true. If you’ve got to work two jobs to make ends meet, and you’ve got family and church obligations, there’s a good chance you have to pick and choose where you’re going to put your effort. But often, it’s easier to just say “I’m too busy,” and go back to what you’d rather be doing.

Then again, friction isn’t always a bad thing. I used to take a walk every day when I was at work. That went very well until winter came, and I was walking around after a storm. I hit a patch of black ice and fell flat on my back, breaking my elbow. I could have used some friction that day, and without something to push against, it’s impossible to get any momentum at all. In many ways, then, getting momentum is all about focusing on friction. Adding the right kind and reducing the wrong. Bad friction would be things like poor sleeping habits, a bad diet, addictions, rocky finances, or poor time management. Good friction would be positive habits, supportive friends, a healthy environment, and living the Gospel in your everyday life. That kind of friction grounds you and gives you the support you need to be able to move forward.

But none of that is the sort of thing that you do once and then never have to worry about again. If I’m being honest, I don’t believe any one experience, generally speaking, can make or break your entire life. If you miss a day of church, chances are you’re not going to find yourself in a gutter, confused and alone the next day. Likewise, if you generally don’t go to church, attending one week won’t likely result in you suddenly getting a halo that follows you around every day. But while those individual events don’t make a huge difference one way or the other on their own, they mean everything when they team up. 

I write a journal every day. Why? Because I know from experience that if I skip a day, then I start skipping two, and then it’s down to once a week, and then I just stop writing a journal. At the same time, however, many of my journal entries aren’t exactly page turners. Much of life boils down to me doing the same general thing day after day, and there’s only so many ways you can make that interesting on the printed page before you just start writing things like, “Went to work today. Not much different.” And if that’s all my journal ever was, then I don’t think I’d have the willpower to keep writing it.

However, there are some days when I write much, much more. Days when I’ve done a lot or am facing something particularly troubling that I’d like to work out in my mind. Days when writing a journal actually helps me a great deal, or at the least helps me remember things I don’t want to forget. I suppose I could tell myself that I would always write a journal entry for those days, and then not worry about the days when nothing happens, but I know that for me, the only way I’m going to write on the important days is if I’ve been writing on every day before that day as well.

Looking back at all those journal pages, it seems to me that  the difference between feeling like I’ve got momentum and feeling like I’m stuck in a rut typically comes down to a few key experiences. More than that, it comes down to which experiences I choose to focus on. In a football game, a team could play well the entire time, yet mess up on a single play at the end of the half and feel like they’re not doing well at all when they go into the locker room. In my life, if I focus on the positive things that are happening, I’m much more likely to feel like things are trending in the right direction.

And there are always positive and negative things happening to me. Personal interactions, events at work, highs and lows of family life. There have been times that I have felt particularly down, and it’s not difficult to look around at what’s happening and find all sorts of thing to feel down about. That said, it’s a struggle for me during those down times to try and change my view through sheer willpower alone. I think a lot of that has to do with momentum as well. As I look at more negative things, I dig myself deeper and deeper. I don’t get out of that hole with a simple goal to be more positive. It takes effort to start focusing on the good, day after day. That helps reduce the friction in my life, giving me the ability to start gaining momentum.

But sometimes momentum can be a very bad thing. When I got to the Frankfurt airport as a missionary, I was trying to make my way to the train station with all my many bags in tow. Instead of taking the elevator, I decided I could manage the escalator just fine. A big, tall escalator down to the bottom floor. I got on, juggling bags, but confident it would all work out. And it did, until gravity started working on my largest bag, and it slipped right out of my hand, thundering end over end, all the way to the bottom. It’s a miracle no one was on the escalator below me, because they could have been seriously injured or killed. That bag was as big as a nine year old, and with the amount of momentum it had behind it, it would have been a force to be reckoned with.

The longer I thought about the topic of spiritual momentum, the more complicated it seemed to become. There’s good momentum and bad momentum, good friction and bad friction. How in the world am I supposed to remember which is which and what to focus on?

Like most things in life, the answer to that question can be found in MarioKart. Denisa reminded me that it might be possible some people in the audience aren’t familiar with MarioKart, and even though I was skeptical, I agreed it would probably be a good idea to give a brief overview of it. It’s a racing game at heart. First person to make it three laps around the track wins. But instead of straight up driving skill, the game throws in the ability for other people to try to mess you up. Throw banana peels in front of you to make you skid out. Shoot you with heat seeking turtle shells. Steal items with boomerangs. The usual. I’ve been playing it since it first came out on the Super Nintendo, and while there was a time when I was at peak Mario Kart ability, that time has long since passed, as I’ve been overtaken by Tomas.

In any case, to successfully navigate the chaos of the course, it’s important to use your gas pedal and your brakes to steer your way to the finish line. Sometimes you need to speed up. Sometimes you need to slow down. When you do each can make all the difference. And yes, I suppose I could have just said “being successful in life is like driving a car,” but that would have been much more boring.

The thing is, when you’re starting out on Mario Kart, it can all feel very bewildering. Managing steering and braking and avoiding obstacles can seem next to impossible. But once you’ve been doing it for a while, it all becomes second nature. You have a goal in mind, and you use the tools at hand to reach it. The same applies to spiritual momentum. As we practice knowing when to dig in and when to ease up, what to add more of and what to add less, we become better and better at reaching salvation. God has provided a guide for all of this, of course. If we follow the promptings of the Spirit, we can know in every situation what the best course of action for us will be. It might be different for different people in the same spot, but that’s okay. 

Ultimately, my experience has been that as I try to do better, God meets me more than half way. Trying to improve in any one area leads to gains in unexpected places and gives me enough momentum to get to the next area I need to work on.

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.

An Limit on Interesting: My Approach to Writing a Good Gospel Talk

I’m speaking in Bangor this weekend. Another 20 minute talk, this time on the subject of “Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles.” At this point, this is the thirteenth talk I’ve prepared as a High Councilor. In some ways, it’s getting easier to churn them out month after month. In other ways, it’s getting more difficult, as I’m beginning to feel like I’m repeating myself. Like the good examples I’ve got on tap are running dry, since I try not to repeat myself. Is that is then? Have my 40 years of experience run out after only 4 hours total oration?

I think I still have plenty of talks left in me, but it certainly takes a different approach sometime to get them out.

These days, I write my talks the week before I give them. I know from experience that 20 minutes translates into 4,000 words on the page, so I try to write 1,000 words/day the week I’m going to give a talk. Of course, that’s in addition to the time I spend blogging, and the 1,000 words I write of fiction. I’ll admit my brain gets pretty burned out from writing when I tack on the Sacrament meeting talks like I am this week. But then again, I’ve also found that if I take the time to think things through, 1,000 words goes pretty quickly.

The first step I take is to read over the topic I’ve been assigned. This week’s is a bit on the light side, as it isn’t that long, and what’s there is mostly dominated by a couple of stories. If there’s more “meat” to the subject, there’s more room for me to bring my own experiences to bear. But I’ve written talks based on no more than a single scripture. I can handle talks centered around a general concept like “Spiritual Muscles.”

As I read through the topic, I take notes about thoughts it inspires in me, trying to think of specific stories whenever possible. I think we’re hardwired to think and learn through stories, and I always try to have at least three or four specific stories in each of my talks. They’re more interesting to listen to, they often provide a chance to inject some humor, and they stick with an audience better than a laundry list of doctrinal points. My goal in giving a talk isn’t to wow people with my scriptural kung fu. It’s to help them understand the topic in a relatable way that will hopefully help them in their daily lives. (Easier with some topics than others.)

Honestly, if it were all about making it easy for me, I would revert back to the approach I took on my mission. I’d still look for the specific stories to share and the overarching thoughts the topic inspired, but I’d write those down in a series of bullet points on a notecard. I’d go to the pulpit with that single notecard, and give the talk based off that. I’ve never had trouble telling stories and filling time. And there’s a fair chance my talks would be more engaging if I were to go back to that. There’s a lot to be said for eye contact and spontaneous explanations.

But instead, I keep writing my talks out. Why? For one thing, I feel like I typically have a lot to say, and it matters to me that it’s said in as good a way as possible. I’m a good speaker. I’m a better writer. I also like being able to have a record of what I said, not to mention the ability to give another talk at the drop of a hat. I mean, I now have 13 talks that I can use whenever I need one (though I can’t remember what stories I told where, which is part of the problem).

Anyway. I take those core stories and I intersperse them with quotes from the talk that’s the source material, as well as plenty of commentary of my own to explain why I chose the stories and how they apply. Add in some scriptures and some outside references from other talks and sources, and it’s really not too bad to have the whole 4,000 words taken care of.

Of course, sometimes it’s more stubborn than other times. For that, I need to do some brainstorming about the talk and the subject. In an ideal world, I wish I could have the whole thing memorized, which would let me give it in a much more accessible way, but . . . what can I say. My dedication to the whole process isn’t quite up to memorizing a 20 minute talk each month.

In any case, I’ve got about 3,000 words done for this week’s, and I’m beginning to need to go into brainstorming mode. Too bad I can’t use this post. That would be over 700 words right there. Wish me luck.


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Why I Believe: Abiding in God

This month’s talk was a tricky one for me to write. I had a lot of different ideas in my head, and getting them down in words proved difficult. I was literally tweaking it minutes before I had to drive to church. (In Brewer, this time.) And then once I was in the meeting, I needed to trim it from the 20 minutes I had prepared down to about 15 minutes. Despite all that, I’m quite happy with how the talk turned out. It allowed me to organize some thoughts I’d been having for the last several weeks:

  • Do I believe God punishes people for their actions? In other words, does God smite people?
  • How can I believe in God when it might just be confirmation bias at work?

Pretty weighty material, even for 20 minutes. The whole thing’s 4,000 words long, and I’m presenting the unedited version here, so enough preamble. Here’s the talk:


Before I get into my talk this morning, brothers and sisters, I want to apologize. This month’s topic (a talk by Sister Marriott this past general conference on Abiding in God) has proved a tricky one for me to navigate. I’ve had a number of thoughts on the topic that have taken me in a number of directions. I hope the final product helps some of you. I will say that writing it has helped me organize some different thoughts that have been careening around my head for the past few weeks, so I suppose even if none of you end up getting it, it helped me, and that’s something. Here we go.

I’ve been reading in the Book of Mormon lately. I’m back at the beginning, with Nephi dealing with his brothers and their seeming inability to remember anything for more than five seconds. It feels like angels are coming down every other day to threaten to smite them with the wrath of God. Each time, they cower and admit God was right and they were wrong, but it doesn’t take too long before they’ve forgotten that lesson once again and need to learn it all over.

In fact, that seems to be an overarching theme of the Book of Mormon and scripture in general. It’s played out with the Nephites and the Lamanites on a grand scale, with entire peoples forgetting God and lifting themselves up in pride, only to be brought low months or years later, forced to humble themselves as they once again seek for God’s help. We call it the Pride Cycle, and it happens as regularly as the seasons. Life is good, and people begin to think it’s because of just how awesome they are. And then life stops being so good, and they turn to God for help until life gets good again. Why can’t they just stay good all the time? Why can’t they abide in God?

We complain sometimes that church talks and lessons are all similar. That the answers to a Gospel question almost always boil down to studying the scriptures, listening to church leaders, praying, fasting, and keeping the commandments. But the more I read the scriptures and study the lives of those who have gone on before me, the more I am persuaded that the reason those answers keep coming up again and again and again is that we have yet to really learn and believe those lessons.

When we read books, it’s natural for us to identify with the person telling the story. The point of view character. It’s natural to relate to Nephi and to view his brothers as nothing more than antagonists.

However, I don’t think those brothers were included in the Book of Mormon so we could have a laugh at their expense. So we could feel better about ourselves because at least we’re not doing foolish things moments after being instructed by God’s messengers not to do those exact same foolish things. I think they’re in the Book of Mormon because they’re us. They’re me, at least. Maybe I shouldn’t speak for you. Maybe you’re all Sams, and I’m the only Lemuel. But there have been times when I’ve sat through a lovely, uplifting talk on being kind, only to find myself yelling at my kids a few minutes later.

In the middle of all of this drama between Nephi and his brothers, something else cropped up in my mind. It came to a head in 1 Nephi 17:22: Laman and Lemuel are complaining, as usual. They’re objecting for having to leave Jerusalem in the first place. They say to Nephi, “we know that the people who were in the land of Jerusalem were a righteous people; for they kept the statutes and judgments of the Lord, and all his commandments, according to the law of Moses; wherefore, we know that they are a righteous people; and our father hath judged them, and hath led us away because we would hearken unto his words; yea, and our brother is like unto him.”

Basically, they question the whole idea that God would destroy Jerusalem. Which led me to wonder: do I do the same thing today?

There is little doubt in my mind that the amount of evil in the world is increasing. I have but to look at the events at Sandy Hook and Parkland to see how common decency and love of our fellow man is diminishing. If I want further confirmation, I can look at our politicians, and the political debates that stem from their actions. I include my own words and debates in that castigation.

But through it all, I have always somehow maintained a belief that we will be punished for our own sins. There’s the second Article of Faith, after all. We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Coupled with that, there are plenty of examples in the scriptures where good things happen to bad people. The Egyptians flourished while the Jews were enslaved. Psalms 73 focuses entirely on this. “3 For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 4 For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. 5 They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men.” And we know as well that often bad things will happen to the best of people. Abel was murdered. John the Baptist was beheaded. Joseph Smith was martyred.

In the aftermath of disasters, both natural and manmade, there are still people who stand up to decry the actions of the people afflicted by those disasters. People who will claim the victims brought it on themselves because they were wicked. That’s always been a mentality I have rejected, but reading those words in the Book of Mormon a few weeks ago suddenly threw all of that certainty into the air.

Nephi and Lehi clearly believed it was the evil actions of the citizens of Jerusalem that led to the city’s destruction. Fire and brimstone rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. It was the hard heartedness of the Children of Israel that kept them wandering in the wilderness for forty years. We have no qualms saying that and analyzing how we can be less hard hearted, but when it comes time to look at our own society, do we apply the same measuring stick?

As a species, humanity is remarkably susceptible to apophenia, a tendency to look for patterns, even when no patterns exist. We see this happen when people see a face in a piece of burnt toast, or when a gambler believes a table has gotten “hot.” People look for omens or believe they can tell the future from the lines on their palm.

A relative of this phenomenon is called confirmation bias. My first exposure to the concept was on my mission. I was on splits with Elder Dodge, and we were teaching a couple of new members. They were friends, and we were over at their apartment when one of them looked at the clock. “It’s 12:34!” she exclaimed, and her friend groaned and said, “Always!” We asked what they were talking about, and they told us that they always look at the clock when it’s 12:34. Without fail.

Elder Dodge sighed and shook his head. He was a very level-headed missionary. Not one to put up with any nonsense. “That’s not it at all,” he said. “You only pay attention to the times you look at the clock and it’s 12:34. All the other times you check, you don’t remember.”

They remained skeptical, but I began to look for evidence of this in myself. Twenty years later, I can state with confidence this happens all the time. It’s all too easy to start out with a hypothesis and then look around for evidence that supports it, ignoring the things that would undermine it. I see it happen in politics, science, the workplace, and more.

The other week I was sitting in an academic lecture on filmmaking, and religion came up in the course of the talk. The speaker alleged that all too often, that “voice of God” religious people hear and follow is nothing more than their own interior voice telling them to do the things they’d like to do anyway. Religion, in this light, becomes an excuse. A mind trick people use to magically justify whatever they want to do. Answers to prayer, in this light, become nothing more than confirmation bias at work. How can you abide in God when the very basis of your faith is in question?

In some cases, I have no doubt this is what’s at work with a person’s purported faith. People can use any number of excuses to justify their actions. But to attribute all of religion to confirmation bias overlooks an enormous elephant in the room: the existence or non-existence of God. If God doesn’t exist, then all religion is no more than a sham. But if He does exist–if there is a being of higher power than us, and He takes an active role in our lives–then suddenly the window is opened for at least some religion to have merit.

So to me, the first question must be: does God exist? Back when I was a missionary, we were taught to build on common beliefs when discussion the Gospel with those not of our faith. The first discussion at the time started with, “Most people believe in a supreme being.” Except in former East Germany, this wasn’t true. Most of the people I met and talked to on the street did not believe in God. They didn’t see a need for Him, and thought Him nothing more than a story made up to get other people to fall in line. The opiate of the masses.

When we tried to teach these people about Christ, repentance, and the Atonement, we had little success. First we had to establish the need for God.

Philosophers have struggled for years with big thoughts. Big questions. Rene Descartes tried to ascertain what things we can know with certainty. Cogito Ergo Sum. I think, therefore I am. He recognized that simply being able to doubt your own existence proved you existed in the first place, for only things that exist can have feelings like doubt. But once you went outside the simple question of “Do I exist?”, proving things beyond doubt becomes more more difficult. We experience the world through our senses. Sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell. And each of those can be deceived.

This is readily apparent in today’s society, where even video evidence of something happening is no longer unassailable. Videos can be faked. Pictures can be doctored. Memories can be deceived. We like to try to use evidence to prove things one way or the other, but the fact is that even the most concrete of experiences can be doubted over time. It’s the Laman and Lemuel principle, alive and well. Something is proven one moment and forgotten the next. This is one of the reasons, I believe, that God doesn’t have us rely on tangible evidences of His existence. Instead, He invites us to do something far simpler: Ask.

Prayer is one of the most powerful evidences we can receive. I have had numerous experiences with it, and I know my prayers have been answered. Not in the generic “good things ended up happening” or “it all worked out” sort of way that might be easily swayed by confirmation bias. But in “I received answers I didn’t know to questions I didn’t understand.” Even then, someone might suggest it was nothing more than my subconscious at work. But I personally have had inspiration. Glimpses into the future that ended up being completely accurate.

To me, the truth and reality of prayer is more often to be found when the answers ask us to do things we’d rather not do, as opposed to just stick with the comfortable, well-worn path. In her talk Sister Marriott noted that “Sacrifice of our personal agendas is required to make room for the eternal plans of God.” And later, “It is now, with our mortal limitations, that the Father asks us to love when loving is most difficult, to serve when serving is inconvenient, to forgive when forgiving is soul stretching.”

As I’ve looked at religion, studying out its history and its impact on various cultures and societies, I’ve seen plenty of reasons for some to dismiss it as an excuse. Too often, I see people shop around for a religion that’s most comfortable to them. As if they were born and raised with the right set of values, and the true religion would confirm their preconceived ideals. To me, this is nothing more than humanity trying to define who God is and what He wants, and it separates God from the question of religion entirely. We can’t abide in God as we would have Him be. We must abide in Him as he is.

Again, if God doesn’t exist, then religion is nothing more than a sham. If He does exist, then true religion would be to find the way we can best understand Him. Who He is, what He wants of us, and how we can rise to His expectations. I do not believe that one faith has a monopoly on truth. Rather, I believe God does His best to ensure as many of His children can come to return to live with Him as possible, and that He puts each of us in a situation where that is most likely to happen. I believe an atheist who strives to do her best to make good decisions and moral choices has just as good a chance of being saved as someone who has been raised in the church and gifted with a wealth of knowledge about God.

Sister Marriott quoted Bruce R. McConkie, who said, “We are duty-bound to learn all that God has revealed about himself.” Joseph Smith, in his Lectures on Faith, described the different aspects of God. He is all knowing, all powerful, just, and merciful. He passes judgement, and He will not lie. He will reveal Himself to us through revelation and prayer as we humbly seek to know more of Him. To those that seek harder, more will be revealed.

In my experience, religion stretches me. Challenges me to be more than I am now. But it’s one thing to say that, and another to give some specific examples. I’m not going to stand up here and list all the things I do wrong, but I can talk about a few.

I am not, by nature, a social creature. Leaving my friends and family for two years to go and serve a mission in Germany was not a comfortable sensation. And yet when I think of the ways that experience changed me, I am amazed. And I’m not simply talking about the spiritual attributes fostered in that time: compassion, understanding, humility. Things I learned on my mission made me a better leader. I developed a better ability to read people and understand what they wanted and what motivated them. I became a better person in practically every way, because I was stretched and forced out of my comfort zone time and time again.

Another example: my religion challenged me to get married, even when I didn’t really want to. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was terrified I’d end up doing the same. I was not eager to jump into marriage, but I knew it was something I should do. Thankfully, when I met someone as wonderful as Denisa, the decision became that much simpler.

Likewise, my religion stretched my abilities as a parent. I always wanted to be a father. That was never a question, and Denisa and I held off having children until we felt we were ready. But what was very much up in the air was the number of children we wanted. Granted, I look around the church and see some families out there with six children or more, so I’m sure some of you might roll your eyes a little when I say I was completely happy with two children and unsure if I really wanted a third. Denisa and I wavered back and forth on it for months at least. When we received an answer to our prayers–confirmation that we should have another child–it was clearly not a case of me just finding a simple excuse to do something I wanted to do anyway.

And yet I’m so grateful that we did have a third. She’s brought so much extra joy into our lives, though it hasn’t always been easy. There were times when she was a baby that I felt stretched to the limit. It was difficult for me, mentally more than anything. I’m not even sure I can describe why. The thought of providing for my now larger family weighed heavily on me. I got stressed much more easily, and everything seemed more difficult.

I’ve adjusted now, but that remains one of my most faith-trying experiences. Receiving an undeniable answer to a prayer, following it, and then struggling in the aftermath.

If the answers I get to prayer are nothing more than the voice in my head telling me to do what I want to do, then I have a very self-destructive voice in my head. I’d much rather have one that says I should eat more pizza, play more video games, and spend more money on my Magic the Gathering collection.

You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “It’s not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you.” Likewise, just because confirmation bias exists doesn’t mean patterns do not exist. Let’s say, then, that confirmation bias and the reality of God are two different hypotheses that explain the existence of religion. And like any good hypothesis, they can each be tested and examined in turn. As our faith and understanding of God increase and our experiences deepen, the odds of the confirmation bias hypothesis being the true explanation diminishes, despite what the Lamans and Lemuels of the world would have us think.

I understand why an atheist would be inclined to discount prayer as a reliable indicator for God’s presence. After all, there’s no way God can lose out in the analysis. If prayers are answered, then it’s because God exists and loves us. If prayers go unanswered, it’s because we were asking for something that wasn’t right for us. It would be just as simple to say those answers (or lack thereof) were things that were going to happen anyway.

This leads me back to my earlier question. If you’ve forgotten it by now, I can’t blame you. Here’s a refresher. In the scriptures, we read about God judging a people as a whole and punishing that people all at once. Destroying cities and nations because of wickedness or unbelief. Does He do the same thing today? Are the calamities that befall us God trying to get us to remember Him? What about in our personal lives? Does God still smite?

I believe the answer is, “It depends.” Nephi explains to us the reason God continued to punish Laman and Lemuel. 1 Nephi 18:20: “There was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts.” I believe God sends us challenges to try to get us to return to live with Him. To humble us and force us to recognize we can’t do this on our own.

Of course, I also believe that typically, humanity takes care of most of the smiting on our own. We fight each other and bicker over things that don’t matter. We fail to prepare for disasters. But I remember in the aftermath of 9/11, there were some who said it was God punishing our country for our evils. The same sentiment has been repeated after other catastrophes. Earthquakes and tsunamis.

Certainly the God of the Old Testament seems like a God who would go in for a good smiting. Sodom and Gomorrah come to mind, as do the armies of Pharaoh. A God who is so insistent on commandments being obeyed that he would turn Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, just for a backward glance, is a God who is not messing around. That sounds like a God who would dole out cancer or ebola at the drop of a hat.

And yet we don’t believe He does that today. Do we? I don’t. My stepmother just died of cancer less than a year ago. She was a lovely woman, and didn’t deserve what happened to her at the end of her life, just as plenty of people in the news seem to live charmed lives, despite the wicked, evil things they do and say. It’s easy when bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good. It’s when the two don’t match up that it all starts to fall apart.

Or does it?

As I’ve thought about this the last few weeks, the conclusion I’ve come to is fairly tame. I don’t know how things operated in the Old Testament. I didn’t live then. But I do know how things operate around me in the present. Bad and good things happen to everyone, regardless of the lives they lead. That’s part of life. You can try to find some sort of pattern between them, but I think that by and large, the pattern we find will be steeped in confirmation bias.

Our responses to those incidents, however, depend very much upon the individual. Sister Marriott said, “When we give our heart to the Father and the Son, we change our world—even if circumstances around us do not change. We draw closer to Heavenly Father and feel His tender acceptance of our efforts to be true disciples of Christ. Our discernment, confidence, and faith increase.”

The amount of faith we have in God allows Him to work in our lives, more or less. Because faith is an active principle. It inspires us not just to feel, but to do. It changes who we are and how we behave. Bad things will happen. Good things will happen. But it’s easy to handle the good things, but difficult to handle the bad. Faith in God allows us to better handle the bad, and it prompts us to take those bad experiences and turn closer to God for help and comfort.

I believe in God and abide in my faith not because prayer has always encouraged me to do what I wanted to do anyway, but because it’s helped me do the things I didn’t want to do, and when I’ve followed those promptings, I’ve been blessed. I believe in God not because I have seen Him, but because I have felt His love and guidance, even when I feel like everything else has abandoned me. It’s the very opposite of confirmation bias.

It’s one thing to see a pattern and expect it to continue based on past results. But once you’re putting your entire future on the hope that pattern will continue, things get much more serious. Taking that unknown step, hoping there will be support when you get there, is what faith is all about. It’s something that has to be experienced to be believed, and no amount of skepticism or study can make up for that.

I testify that God does live and loves us. That faith in Him and following his guidance does not insulate us from trials and tribulations, because we were sent to this Earth for the express purpose of experiencing those trials. But our faith will help us through those tribulations better than anything else can. As we abide in Him, He will abide with us.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Sunday Talk: Linguistics and Covenants

Another month, another sermon. This time I ended up wanting to just talk religion, but linguistics kept butting in, so I eventually just ran with it. Interestingly, several people came up to me afterward to talk about how much they loved linguistics and how happy they were that I spoke so much on the topic. In any case, here’s my talk this month:


Often when we get a speaking assignment, it comes in the form of an entire talk. Speaking from experience, it’s usually quite easy to find twenty minutes of speaking material lying around in another person’s twenty minute talk. It’s kind of like walking down the beach looking for seashells. They’re all there, and all you need to do is pick the ones you like the most.

I’ve been given other speaking topics before, of course. The hardest one I can remember being given was a fragment of a single verse from scripture: D&C 64:23. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” If you know me, you know I’m not heavily invested into fire and brimstone motivation, so coming up with fifteen or twenty minutes around that concept took a few bobs and weaves.

For this month, the stake presidency gave us a single sentence from President Nelson. At first, I thought that wasn’t going to be too big of a problem. A sentence is more than a fragment, after all. Then I read the sentence. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

Now, I read that sentence on paper, where it’s usually easier to understand something. Even then, I had to read it a few times to try and figure out exactly what was being said. I got the general gist of it, but once I tried to restate it into my own words, I discovered it wasn’t as easy to do as it would at first seem.

Somehow, in my search to make sense of this sentence, I ended up tying it to two overarching themes. In college, I double majored in Linguistics and English. Both majors ended up informing my remarks today.

First, allow me to wave my language nerd flag for a moment. President Nelson’s sentence is a little complex, and I think some interesting things rise to the surface when we parse it apart. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

What, exactly, is the subject of that sentence? As a quick refresher, for any of you who might have blocked all memory of diagramming sentences from your mind, subjects are the active things in a sentence. They’re the things that get things done. In the sentence “I ate all the brownies,” I’m the subject. I’m the guy eating all the brownies.

In President Nelson’s sentence, what is it? Is it covenants? Keeping the covenants? I’ll read it one more time. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

The subject is “your commitment.” And what’s the verb? The thing that gets done? In my first example, the verb is “ate.” I was the one doing all the eating, and eating was what was getting done. In President Nelson’s sentence, the verb is “will open.” Our commitment will open–will open what? What’s the object? In my example, the object was the brownies. Brownies were getting eaten. In President Nelson’s sentence, it’s “the door.” “The door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available.”

So to restate that sentence simply, “Your commitment will open the door to blessings.”

When I first read the sentence, I thought it was simply saying that the covenants we make are the things that bring us blessings. But in this case, it’s the commitment we show to the Savior that bring us those blessings. We just happen to show that commitment by making and keeping covenants. Is there a difference?

As long as I’ve already outed myself as a card-carying word nerd, I might as well stick with it for a while longer. I’m going to turn to a couple of definitions to bring clarity to that. First of all, let’s look at the word “covenant.” It comes to us from Latin’s convenire, which means “to convene,” through Old French’s covenire, which means “to agree.” In Latin, it’s a mashup of “con” (together) and “venire” (come). Ultimately, it traces its roots back to the proto Indo European root *gwa-, which meant “to go” or “come.” Words that share this root include (believe it or not) acrobat, adventure, convent, coven, event, intervene, invent, juggernaut, revenue, souvenir, and welcome.

But the word wasn’t used in the scriptural sense until later translations of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word was berith, which is the ordinary term for contract or alliance. In Greek, it was diatheke, which meant “disposition by will,” or “testament.” In Old Latin, it was almost always translated as “testamentum,” where we now have “testament.” It wasn’t until later on that translators began using the word “covenant.”

Why go into all this detail? Because language is flexible. It can mean one thing today and a different thing tomorrow. It’s basically a way to transmit thought, and if we’d like to understand the thoughts someone was having when they wrote something hundreds of years ago, it can be illuminating to see where those thoughts originated, and what those words meant at the time.

Does it change your understanding of the Old and New Testament to know that they could have been translated the Old and New Covenant, instead? Does it change how you approach making and keeping covenants to think of them as living testaments to your devotion to God? It does for me.

Translating words from one language into another allows error to creep into a message, like a long game of telephone, centuries in the making. When I was on my mission in Germany, I saw this firsthand. One day I was trying to help a fifth grader with her math homework. She had a series of word problems that were proving tricky for her, but when I said I could help with those word problems, she got very offended. It turns out that the phrase “word problem” in German means something fairly different. I hadn’t said I’d help her with her math problems. I’d told her I’d help fix her speech impediment.

Another example. A few months earlier, I’d just finished a delicious homemade dinner a member family had prepared for us. Rouladen, kloesse, rotkohl–the works. And the mother of the family had generously asked if I wanted some more. I said no thank you, and she looked at me like I’d just spit in her face. My companion whispered to me, “You said Nein bitte. Say Nein danke. To my untrained ear, bitte and danke were two ways of being polite. Niceties that didn’t have much to differentiate the two words. But saying Nein danke in German means, “No thank you, that was delicious.” Saying Nein bitte essentially means “That was terrible, please don’t give me anymore.” At least, that’s what I walked away understanding.

Words have meaning. They have power.

I’m not done with the linguistics lesson, however. Language is a pretty remarkable thing. It can convey an almost limitless array of thoughts, but it’s not just limited to that use. It can also accomplish things in and of itself. If a priest says to two people standing in front of him in a church, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” those words have done something. Before he spoke them, the two people were single. Afterward, they’re married. Speaking caused something to happen. Words like that are referred to by linguists as speech acts.

When we make covenants, we essentially are completing a speech act. We are baptized. Receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Married. The words make it happen, which makes me think of John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

But of course, from my earlier discussion, we can now recognize that concept being conveyed there wasn’t our modern definition of “word,” but rather the Greek definition of logos, which doesn’t just mean word, but can also refer to discourse or reason. It was used in Psalms 33:6–“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.”

There’s an entire talk to be written about that topic, but I’ll limit myself today to simply observe that words are important to God. They are binding and powerful in a way we only partly understand, it seems. Speech acts change our lives, but they are ultimately only as powerful as our commitment to them. One of the first commandments was to not take the name of God in vain. Why is that?

In 1929, Edward Sapir, a linguist at the University of Chicago, posited that a language can alter the way its speakers perceive reality. This concept was further refined by Benjamin Lee Whorf at Yale, and today the concept is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Hypothesis, because it hasn’t been definitively proven, but it’s still something which has affected modern society to a great extent, and judging by the commandments God has given us, it’s something He also believes we should consider.

Let me give an example to make this clearer. In English, it has long been accepted that if a speaker wants to refer to someone generically, the proper way to do this is to use the masculine pronoun. The scriptures use the gender-neutral “he” often. When Christ says He will make His apostles fishers of men, we are to understand He’s not just referring to men, but to all people. But several decades ago, the concept of a gender neutral “he” was challenged, with some arguing that by always using “he” or “him,” women are subtly repressed, with their opinions and needs taking a back seat to the masculine. Thus, you’ll often hear people use “he or she” or “him or her” these days instead of the gender neutral masculine.

There is a fair bit of debate in some circles about this concept, with some decrying it as overblown political correctness. Having looked at the studies and thought it through on my own, I believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has merit. If we continually talk about something in a certain way, our views on that thing can and will change. If society does it as a whole, that can’t help but affect society as well.

Another example. I imagine many of you were required to read Homer in school at some point. The Odyssey, or the Illiad. Homer’s always talking about the ocean in his epic poems, and a phrase he will usually use is “the wine-dark sea.” Did you know one word he never uses to describe the ocean? Blue doesn’t appear in Ancient Greek at all. In fact, it’s not present in a number of ancient languages, from Icelandic to ancient Chinese. It doesn’t appear as a color until Egyptian.

Colors seem to be differentiated over time in a culture. White and black are the two basic colors, and they’re recognized first. Then comes red, followed by yellow and green. But in a fascinating experiment, it appears that not having a word for a color affects a person’s ability to see that color in the first place.

The Himba tribe in Namibia still has no word for blue, and they could not distinguish between shades of blue and shades of green. Speakers were presented with a circle of colored squares. When each square was green except for one blue one, they had difficulty identifying the one different square. When presented with squares that were many different shades of green, however, they had no trouble spotting the differences. Their language has many words for different shades of green.

Language is so often taken for granted, and speaking as a trained linguist, it is very often misunderstood. It’s something we learn without being taught, and often those are the things we question the least. We just assume something is the way it is, because that’s the way it’s always been. The concept of changing something that fundamental can seem foreign or threatening. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenged.

Thankfully, when it comes to religion, we do have a way to circumvent language: revelation. When Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, and later on when he worked on his translation of the Bible, he was not relying on linguistic study, language classes, and in-depth analyses of a text. He received inspiration from God. When translation work is done to bring the Book of Mormon to a new language these days, I’ve seen first hand the amount of thought and prayer that goes into it. This is anything but Google Translate.

Likewise, as we hear talks in General Conference, we can be entitled to the same revelation and inspiration. Often in my experience, what is being said ends up taking a back seat to what is being understood. I have had plenty of experience going into a meeting and getting one thing out of it, while the person sitting next to me seems to have heard something entirely different. I don’t believe this is the fault of the speaker. I think it’s a strength of revelation. We can be provided with tailor made help to assist us with our personal struggles.

So sometimes language is transcended by the Spirit. And while I could dwell longer on the specifics of President Nelson’s sentence, there comes a time when I need to move forward and actually discuss how to implement his advice. Some of you probably think that time was about ten minutes ago, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a good linguistics lecture.

President Nelson advises us to commit to following the Savior by making and keeping covenants. As we do so, we will be blessed. I think we can all get behind the need for blessings, so while I could look at what blessings we might receive, I’d rather focus on how to commit.

First off, how do you know if you’re truly committed? Satan would like us to focus on our shortcomings. He’d like us to point out the hypocrisy in others. And there are times when I get really frustrated with some of the sentiments expressed by fellow adherents of my faith. I hear people say sexist, racist, homophobic, terrible things, and it makes me angry and disappointed. How can these supposed righteous followers of Jesus Christ espouse such hateful ideas? I try to remind myself that my own views in other areas may be similarly infuriating to others. We are all growing and learning at different rates, and if we always choose to focus on others’ shortcomings, we will never be able to make the progress we need to attain salvation.

I’m reminded of two LDS politicians: Mitt Romney and Harry Reid. Mitt Romney, of course, is a prominent Republican who ran for President. Harry Reid was the Democrat Senate Majority Leader for 8 years. I have heard members criticize both politicians for the public stands they have taken over the years on a variety of issues. Yet both can be 100% committed to the covenants they have made while having diametrically opposed viewpoints.

It’s one thing to say “I am committed,” but it’s another to show that commitment by our actions. In the church, we often talk about the way faith and works combine together to help us return to live with God. We believe being saved involves more than simply saying a set of words, though at times I feel we focus too heavily on the works and not enough on the faith, thinking perhaps that if salvation costs $20, it’s up to us to come up with $19.50, and Christ will cover the last two quarters. I tend to think it’s the opposite. One of us might be able to scrape together fifty cents, and another might only manage a nickel or two, but in the grand scheme of things, we all need so much more than that to be saved, and Christ gifts us with that balance.

A few years ago, I was helping my son clean his room. It’s always easier for me to clean someone else’s mess. I’m not emotionally attached to other people’s clutter the same way I am to my own. I opened his lower drawer and began hauling out random pieces of paper that had been jammed in there over the years, tossing them into the recycling bin one by one. He stopped me, frantic. “Don’t throw those away. Those are important to me!”

I paused and looked at the papers. They were creased and tattered. I looked back at my son and arched an eyebrow. “Are they really important? If they are, why have they been crammed in the bottom of your drawer all this time?” They might have been important, but they certainly weren’t important enough. Not important enough to treat with care and respect. Not important enough to make sure they stayed straight and clean.

We all do this with important things in our lives. What is the condition of various important things to us? Our relationships. Our faith. Our word? The best way I know of to tell what’s important to a person is to watch how they spend their time.

Time is finite. We all have the same amount each day. A rich person has the same 24 hours as a poor person, though perhaps he or she might be forced to spend more of that time to make ends meet. But almost everyone in America has a fair bit of free time. Time they spend watching football or playing video games or going to church or reading books or playing games with their family.

Think about your time. How is it spent? In writing, we talk about the “show don’t tell” principle. Recently, I was helping some friends with their college application essays. Writing about yourself is always a tricky situation, especially when you’re trying to impress someone. There’s something about saying “I’m an awesome person, and you really ought to accept me into your university” that just doesn’t come across too well.

There’s a reason for that, however. It’s because you’re just telling someone that you’re awesome. If you can somehow show them that instead, they will reach the conclusion on their own, which is always much stronger.

If I say “I love my children,” you have to take my word for it. If I describe the things I do with and for my children–the hours spent helping them with their homework or reading to them each evening, the trips we go on together, and the activities we do every day–then an outsider might observe that I love my children. I don’t just say I do, I do. If, on the other hand, I were to say I love them, but spend no time with them, constantly ignore them or berate them, and complain any time one of them needed help, then it wouldn’t really matter what I said. My actions would show the reality.

Sometimes, we may honestly believe we think something, but if we take a close look at our actions, and how we spend our time, I’ve found the reality always comes to the surface.

Another way to look at your commitment to covenants is to ask yourself how different your life is because of the covenants you have made. If they aren’t making a significant impact, perhaps you aren’t as committed to them as you think you are. In my experience, commitment to the Gospel chafes now and then. It makes me do something I’d rather not do, or be someone I’d prefer not to be. This isn’t because it’s restricting and oppressive. It’s because the natural man is an enemy to God, and our covenants are there to help us overcome the natural man.

In my natural state, I would prefer to be on a sofa, eating brownie sundaes by the bucketful while I binge watch Netflix. That’s the baseline I’m starting from. So since I’m here in Rockland this morning, awake before 10am, I can at least say that for today, my covenants are making a significant impact on my life. We’ll see how I do this afternoon.

One of the reasons keeping covenants can be so difficult is that there is often a significant delay between our actions and our rewards. I don’t mean eternal rewards. I mean direct benefits we receive here and now in the real world. I don’t believe God’s plan of happiness means that we’ll be miserable in this life so we can finally be happy once we die. I believe it’s here to make us happy now. Today. Tomorrow. But sometimes the route to lasting happiness can be a thorny one.

We live in a society that has come to expect immediate answers. If you have a headache, you take a pill and it goes away. Having difficulty losing some weight? There are countless programs out there that promise quick, easy results. This even extends to our gaming habits. Having difficulty with a level on Candy Crush? Nothing a few dollars won’t fix for you.

But quick answers are seldom lasting solutions. They’re bandaids that get us through the here and now without doing anything to address the problems at the root of each difficulty. They’re payday loans to get out of debt today, which only make our debts worse tomorrow.

God doesn’t work that way. He has no interest in solving an issue for a minute or a day or even a year. His perspective is eternal. CS Lewis described this in his book Mere Christianity: “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.”

It’s been a long talk, brothers and sisters. Ranging from the nooks and crannies of linguistic theory to discussions on time management. I couldn’t blame you if things have gotten a little muddied in the last nineteen minutes. Allow me to sum up.

President Nelson said a quote you might have memorized by now: “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

It’s our commitment to follow the Savior that opens the door to spiritual blessings for us. We show that commitment not just by making covenants, but by keeping them. Keeping them may be uncomfortable. In fact, it probably should be uncomfortable, because by keeping them, we are becoming better people. Bringing order to disorder is something that requires work. Planting a garden today seems like back breaking labor for no reward, especially when you could just run to the store and pick up a few tomatoes whenever you want. But over time, the benefits become clear.

I’ve seen this principle at work in my life. The Gospel is not always easy. It’s usually not. But I can directly trace each and every blessing I have received back to the covenants I have made and kept. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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