Category: sunday talk

Sunday Talk: On Faith (and Exercise)

As promised, here’s the talk I gave on Sunday. Or would have given, had I had time to give it. I ended up with only about 5 minutes to speak, and the talk was planned for 15, so I ended up tossing most of it out the window and just winging it. Kind of sad, because I was quite happy with the talk the way I wrote it, but I think all still turned out okay.

It’s a bit chattier than my normal talk “voice,” which is chattier than my normal blog voice. So . . . yeah. Anyway–here you go.

On Faith (and Exercise)

Good morning, brothers and sisters. When Brother Danala called me Wednesday to ask if I’d be willing to give a talk, I was surprised at how cheerfully I accepted. Some of this probably has to do with the fact that it’s been a while since I last gave a talk, and I’d already had a logjam of ideas kicking around in my head for what I wanted to talk about. Assuming the topic played nice, of course. And when Brother Danala told me the topic, everything fit into place. It was a single word, and he said I could pretty much go anywhere with it that I wanted to. Free rein. Oh yeah.

To introduce my topic to you, allow me to read a few scriptures. D&C 44:2—“And it shall come to pass, that inasmuch as they are faithful, and exercise faith in me, I will pour out my Spirit upon them in the day that they assemble themselves together.”

1 Nephi 7:12—“Yea, and how is it that ye have forgotten that the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him? Wherefore, let us be faithful to him.”

Moroni 7:25—“Wherefore, by the ministering of angels, and by every word which proceeded forth out of the mouth of God, men began to exercise faith in Christ; and thus by faith, they did lay hold upon every good thing; and thus it was until the coming of Christ.”

As I’m sure you’ve all guessed by now, my topic today is exercise.

This should come as no surprise to anyone following my blog or watching my feed on Twitter or Facebook. A few weeks ago, I was in bed. Home from church. Sick again. And suddenly I had the thought, “You really ought to start dieting and exercising. Then you might not get sick as much.” I accepted it as divine revelation (because honestly, I just don’t have those kinds of thoughts occur to me naturally.) So I’ve started dieting, and I’ve even started exercising a half hour each day. Most days.

And while I don’t think I’ve been doing it quite long enough to really draw any long term conclusions from it, I think I can safely say that first, exercise is much less fun that I wish it would be. I do not look forward to exercise. Second, exercise is typically even worse when I’m doing it than I thought it would be before I started. I can’t wait to be done. But third, I typically feel great after I’m done exercising. I’m not sure yet why this is. It’s possible my body really likes exercise. However, I’m also sure that if I started pounding my thumb with a hammer over and over, I’d feel great as soon as I stopped doing that, too.

So. Exercise. It’s an interesting word to pair with faith, and when I came across those scriptures on exercising faith, I immediately wondered why it would be phrased like that. Remember, in my current mindset, exercise is a necessary evil. How would it have anything to do with faith?

So to find out more about that, I did what any self-respecting author librarian would do: I turned to the dictionary. Not just your standard Funkin Wagnalls, either. No—I went to the granddaddy of all dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary. The OED. 21 volumes of word definition goodness. And go figure—there are an awful lot of definitions for exercise. It’s a verb that means (among other things) “to put into action,” “to work,” “to make practical use of,” “to train by practice,” “to drill,” “to celebrate,” “to fulfill,” or to—you know—exercise. Jumping jacks. That sort of thing. It’s also a noun that means (among other things) “the state of being in active operation,” “recreative employment,” “an act of private worship,” “an act of public worship,” “habitual occupation,” “disciplinary suffering,” “task prescribed for the sake of attaining proficiency,” or—you know—the act of exercising. Exertion of the muscles, limbs, and bodily powers—specifically to improve health.

I could take some time to focus on each one of these definitions and find a connection between it and our faith, but I’ll just pick a few highlights. I don’t think I’m alone in getting bored at church sometimes. In fact, statistically speaking, I’d be willing to guess about half of you are bored, asleep, or checking your smartphones right this second. Why in the world do we need to come to church each week? Three hours? What’s up with that? I could read the lessons at home. Maybe watch a general conference talk or two. Come in once a month for a dose of Sacrament, and then be just fine the rest of the time.

But we’re supposed to exercise faith. To train by practice or drill. And if you’ve ever trained by practice, you know that there can be a lot of repetition before you master something. Playing an instrument, you play scales. You play the same song over and over and over until you have it mastered. And even then, you keep playing, because you realize that if you stop practicing, you’ll forget it. That skill will fade away. Likewise, you can be the world’s best sprinter, but if you stop practicing every day and start scarfing down pork rinds and Mountain Dew, it won’t be long before you’re just another couch potato.

Exercise faith. That means physically do things that require faith. Read the scriptures. Go to church. Pray. Live the gospel. Not because it’s going to be a different experience each time you do it, but because only by doing those fundamentals can you hope to be prepared for the times in your life when faith isn’t just nice, it’s a necessity.

We exercise our armies in times of peace so that they’re ready for times of war, because we recognized that times of war will come. Spiritually speaking, Satan would have us either believe that times of spiritual crisis will never pop up, or that we’re already sufficiently prepared to deal with them. 2 Nephi 2:20 For behold, at that day shall he rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.

21 And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.

22 And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.

If you’re not actively exercising your faith, you’re sitting on the spiritual couch with your pork rinds and Mountain Dew. And when you find yourself needing to run a sprint, it’ll be much too late for any exercise.

Another definition. To celebrate. I really liked that one, because it reminded me that while I might view normal exercise as a chore, exercising faith is ideally supposed to be a pleasurable experience. At least some of the time. And it is in many ways. I do my best to involve God in the big and little decisions of my life. I recognize that sometimes decisions are inconsequential. It really might not matter if I drive to Bangor through Waterville or Newport. But it also might. I might get in an accident, or get stuck in a traffic jam and miss something I was supposed to do. Or I might get there early and miss meeting someone who was going to walk by a few minutes later.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we go around praying over every little decision. Should I eat Lucky Charms this morning or Count Chocula? Rather, I’m suggesting that exercising faith means trying to leave oneself open to spiritual promptings at all times. Living in a way that you’ll be able to recognize those promptings when they come. Praying over the big decisions certainly. I believe there is a best possible choice to many decisions. Where to move. What job to take. By exercising my faith, I believe that I have a way to know which choice will be best for me. Maybe not make things the easiest, but present me with the experiences I need to become the best Bryce I can be. Without that faith, I have no idea how I’d go through life.

Another definition. Disciplinary suffering. I just talked about how great faith can make your life. Let’s talk a bit about the suffering. Compared to some of my non-Mormon friends, I think I’ve got plenty of that going on. Ten percent of my income, gone. Hours of my Sunday, poof. Do you realize that the non-believers get essentially two Saturdays each week? Twice the amount of Saturdays? The concept boggles my mind. Church callings eat up time. Take you away from your family. There’s a whole long list of things you can’t do. Can’t smoke, can’t drink, can’t sleep around, can’t lie, can’t cheat, can’t drink coffee. Can’t do a whole lot of the things pop culture says I should be able to, all because I’m exercising faith.

But we don’t exercise faith because we’re masochistic. We do it because we understand you have to have the disciplinary suffering so you can have the celebration. While it’s true that I miss out on much of what the rest of the world might deem important, it’s also true that every single thing in my life that’s most valuable to me—that brings me the most joy—can be traced back to my exercising faith. My marriage. My children. The comfort I feel in times of trouble. It’s all connected. I miss out on the things pop culture says are important and great, but I also miss out on the consequences that accompany them. I’ve never had a hangover, for example.

Because I know that sometimes author librarians can get too bogged down in academia, I also took a peek at Merriam-Webster to see what he had down for the definition. He went with the really basic “anything requiring physical effort.” And I really like that definition in terms of this topic. Exercising faith requires physical effort. It requires action. You don’t exercise faith by sitting back and thinking about faith all day. You need to be doing something, or your faith isn’t going to do you much good.

We exercise faith by coming to church every week. By praying each day. By reading the scriptures. All those good Sunday School answers. But I believe it’s just as important to exercise faith by living it. Applying the Gospel in our lives. Being kind to others. Forgiving. Being generous. Honest. Caring. It’s a package deal. Our goal is to be well-rounded followers of Christ.

One of the things I learned while writing this talk is that, while we’re often attracted to the stories of the extraordinary as it relates to faith, none of these would be possible without the day to day exercise of faith necessary to make it strong. To make it living.

Today is selection Sunday. For the next few weeks, we’ll be able to watch college basketball teams compete for a national championship. Hundreds of young men and women will be able to show off the fruits of years and years of consistent exercise. Practicing foul shots. Learning strategy. Watching video tape. Here’s a newsflash for you: I am not competing in this year’s tournament. I’ll be doing my typical brackets, of course. But you won’t see me on the court.

I’ve played basketball a bit. I’m familiar with the rules. But I haven’t practiced the sport to the degree necessary to excel at, as any Howatt who’s played against me can no doubt attest to.

If faith is something that must be exercised, then it stands to reason that those who exercise it more frequently will be able to see its effects more distinctly in their lives. This is confirmed when you look at some of the members in our church who exercise their faith most often: the missionaries.

A story comes to mind that happened to me in Leipzig, Germany. I was serving with Reed Nielsen at the time—who incidentally went on to marry Eva Williamson, who grew up in this ward, I believe. We were tracting, going from one apartment complex to another, and having little in the way of success. Typical for Germany.

It was late, we needed to catch a streetcar home, and it was going to come in about five minutes. I was tired. Sick of rejection. And yet I saw another apartment building, and the door was screaming for someone to knock on it. Not literally, but I felt very strongly that if I knocked on that door, we’d find someone to teach.

So I did what any missionary worth his salt would do. Told Elder Nielsen, and the two of us went over to the door. You don’t actually knock on doors in Germany. Not in cities, at least. You ring door buzzers and make your pitch from downstairs to someone you can’t even see. If you’re lucky, someone lets you in, and then you knock on the rest of the doors personally. It’s much easier to reject someone you don’t even have to look at than it is to do it when they’re standing right in front of you.

In any case, this door was different. It opened up for us. Someone hadn’t locked it. (Let me stress that going in the building wasn’t illegal. We were allowed to do it. It’s just the buildings were normally locked.) Either way, I took this as a very good sign. This building was the one. Someone was waiting for us right then. We just had to knock and they’d be all excited to meet us.

We trudged to the top of the complex and worked our way down. At each door, I was more and more confident that we’d be let in. It just felt so right—a feeling I rarely got doing doors. But the doors went by, and only two or three even had anyone home. The rest didn’t answer. We got to the last door, and this was it. I could already picture the story in my mind, “And at the last door to the building, they let us in, and it was wonderful.”

No one was there.

We left the building, dejected. I just didn’t understand. It had been so obvious. We were supposed to tract that building. We were going to find someone if we did. For sure. But we didn’t.

We’d missed our streetcar, so we had to wait for the next one. We sat at the stop, fairly depressed. No one was even on the street. No one at the stop to talk to. Just us and our failure. The next streetcar pulled up. It stopped with a door right in front of us. The door opened, and there sitting in the car—directly in front of me—was one of the few members in the city. He was talking to a friend of his about the gospel, and he’d been having trouble explaining it all to him.

We found someone to teach. Just not in the building. But if we hadn’t gone to that one more building, we never would have found that person to teach. That’s what exercising faith is all about to me. Experiences like those prove to me it is real. And that’s not the only time something like that has happened to me, on a mission or off. Exercising faith is real. It really does work.

So why don’t we all just pattern our lives after the lives of missionaries? If the purpose of this life is to get as much faith as possible, wouldn’t it make sense to sell everything off and completely devote ourselves to God? We could start the Farmington Monastery. The Woodstacking Friars. Our Lady of Casserole Dishes.

But God doesn’t ask us to separate ourselves from the world. We’re supposed to live in it, but not of it. John 15:19 “If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” As much as I love missionaries, they are about as far removed from living in the world as possible. No monthly bills to worry about. No jobs. No family duties. They’re able to devote themselves wholly to their faith. We can’t.

How does that make sense? We’re supposed to develop faith. Exercise it. And often in this religion at least, it seems we tend to believe that if something’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. So shouldn’t we all strive to become spiritual giants? Work on exercising our faith until we’re ready for an ESPN2-esque spiritual body building competition?

I think it’s because that’s not what God wants from us. We’re supposed to be well rounded. This isn’t as easy to see when you look at stories from ancient religious history. John the Baptist. Moses. Noah. Nephi. Abinadi. Because they’re so far removed from us in many ways, it’s easier to picture them as being wholly devoted to faith faith and nothing but faith all day long. But if we look at some of the church leaders from the recent past, we start being able to see people living their lives while living the gospel.

An endurance runner might be able to go for miles and miles without stopping for a rest, but if he’s suddenly put into a weightlifting competition, there’s no way he’d win. Likewise, a weightlifter might not make it to the end of a marathon. Specialization brings intense mastery of a single skill, but it’s at the expense of so much else.

I believe our primary goal is to learn how to exercise practical faith. Faith in our everyday lives, because that’s precisely where we need the most help. Faith is here to help us, not to help God. God doesn’t need any help. But us? We need all the help we can get. I know I do, at least. Just look at the world around us. Political turmoil. Mass shootings. War abroad. Dogs and cats. Living together. Mass hysteria. It’s no wonder that people question the existence of God. How could an all-powerful, all-knowing being let this sort of thing happen?

Of course, we know the answer to that. He lets it happen because he gives us our free agency. Humanity makes most of that happen. And for the things we don’t cause on our own—say earthquakes or tornadoes—we also know that we aren’t here on this earth to have it comfy and cozy. We’re here to be challenged. To learn. To grow. To exercise our faith.

I remember when I was on my mission, I was very focused on finding out how to get more faith. How to make it stronger. I’m not saying I’m an expert at it today by any means, but I do think I have a handle on the basics. You get more faith the same way you get any acquired skill. You practice. You exercise. And the more you do that, the stronger your faith becomes.

So the next time you’re sitting there bored in church, or bemoaning another activity, or generally feeling worn out by living the gospel, remember—it’s all exercise. None of that effort is wasted, and it will all be worth it when the day comes that you suddenly need your faith for much more than Wednesday night activities. I know this from experience, and I leave you my testimony of the power and reality of faith, and do it in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Sunday Talk: Personal Accountability and Stewardship

This past Sunday, I spoke in church. As I am wont to do, I like to get more mileage out of these talks–this one took a long time for me to finish, so why not have it as a blog post? So for all of you who have always wondered what my views on personal accountability, stewardship, and salvation are–wonder no more. Here ya go:

For the past several months, my mind keeps coming back to the relationship between personal accountability and stewardship. We’re told we’re responsible for our own salvation, but we’re also told we need to do everything we can to help other people be saved, too. There have been times I feel like I’m failing at my calling and duty as an Elders Quorum President when members under my stewardship are becoming less active in the Gospel.

Just this past week at Stake Conference, Elder Ellis referred to the Parable of the Talents, found in Matthew 25. The basics of this one are simple. A man entrusts three different stewards with varying amounts of money. The steward entrusted with five talents makes an additional five talents. The one entrusted with three makes another three. But the one entrusted with one does nothing with it, for fear of losing it. When it comes time for a reckoning, the one who was fearful is chastened, while the ones who invested their talents and increased them are rewarded.

We are taught by our leaders that we are supposed to magnify our callings. That we are to do them well. To follow the promptings of the Spirit and do what God would have us do. What we forget—what I forget, at least—is that doing what the Spirit tells us to do will not always result in a perfect ward, quorum, or family. Free agency prevents that happening. If we do our best to contact our home or visiting teaching families, and yet the meetings constantly fall through, or they decline our visits, does that make us worse stewards?

On the surface, it would seem to. After all, in the parable, the stewards who were given their talents and invested them both doubled their money. They were successful. So if we don’t have something tangible at the end of the day to show how hard we worked, doesn’t that mean we have been poor stewards? After all, the one man who hadn’t increased the initial investment was told by his lord, Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strawed:

 27 Thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the exchangers, and then at my coming I should have received mine own with usury.

 28 Take therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him which hath ten talents.

 29 For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

 30 And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Isn’t that a bit harsh? I read that, and I worry. If I’m not successful at my calling, it seems like I’m going to be in a lot of trouble when it comes time to report on my efforts.

But I think when I read this parable, I focus too much on the what and not enough on the why. Was the one steward cast out because he hadn’t made enough money, or because he hadn’t even tried? I tend to think it was his lack of effort that the Savior was highlighting in the parable, and that one of the main messages we’re supposed to take away from this story isn’t a “be successful or be damned” moral, but rather a “try and you can’t fail” maxim.

Think of it for a moment. If Christ had wanted to, he could have presented three different scenarios. We all know, after all, that every time you invest money, you’re not always going to double it in a year. But He didn’t put that in the parable. There are essentially two groups of investors. Those who tried, and those who did nothing. The ones who tried, succeeded. Unsurprisingly, the ones who didn’t, didn’t.

Fantastic, right! All I need to do is put forth a little bit of effort, and I’m off the hook. Of course, every time I think that, something—the Spirit—tells me that I’m off in my interpretation. We need to try our hardest, not just put forth a token effort. And God, being God, knows when I’m trying my hardest and when I’m not.

“So why is it,” I’ve wondered from time to time, “that I have to be responsible for both my salvation and the salvation of others, whether those others are in my family, the ward, or the community?” Because at times I feel that what I really need to find is a good scriptural basis for letting other people take care of themselves. I want a doctrinal excuse for not having to worry about my fellow man, because sometimes, it seems like my fellow man really doesn’t want any help.

If you serve in any callings in this church, it won’t be long before you’re confronted with the responsibility of helping someone who doesn’t want any help. I remember on my mission in East Germany, I had this opportunity many times. Most people we talked to resented us being there, and yet I never felt like a failure. It didn’t matter to me that people weren’t lining up to be baptized. Sure, it was disheartening at times. I remember one young man named Eric. He was in his late teens, and he was unemployed. He’d spend his days playing video games and eating Bratwurst, living the German dream. We’d found him when we were street contacting, and he was interested enough to have us come over and teach him the lessons.

Things went fine. More than fine, actually. Eric was committed to being baptized, he was reading the Book of Mormon. Everything was going smoothly, until suddenly it wasn’t anymore. He stopped reading. Stopped even showing up for appointments. And from there it dwindled away to nothing.

But again, I didn’t feel like a failure. I’d done what I was supposed to do—I’d presented the Gospel to Eric, and he’d declined to explore it further. That experience was repeated many times on my mission. Leipzig had about 120 missionaries, and about 60 baptisms per year. East Germany wasn’t very interested in the Gospel, period.

So with all that experience with rejection and helping people who didn’t want help, I had to wonder what was different now. Maybe some of it has to do with the fact that I don’t get whisked away every four or six months, like some sort of roving Mary Poppins. On a mission, wards have a beginning and an end. You show up, work hard, and at the end of your time there, you can see a real effect from your efforts. If someone’s baptized, then that’s it. Mission successful. As a member of a ward, you see things from a different perspective. One of us might be active today and not coming to church a year from now. Other members haven’t come for decades, and suddenly pop back up at church one week. As a missionary, I taught about enduring to the end, as a member, I get to see how that works in real life.

Not that church attendance is the only marker of how well a person is doing spiritually—or even the best marker. Showing up to a building for one, two, or three hours a week doesn’t mean you’re headed for the Celestial Kingdom. I certainly struggle with my own issues, as I’m certain everyone in this room does, too. And that’s the thing. At times, I feel like my struggles are more than I can deal with. How should I be expected to help others deal with their problems when I have trouble handling my own? Why can’t we all just look out for ourselves and forget about everyone else?

In many ways, we seem to be hit from both sides as active church members. We’re told that we are responsible for our actions. We must repent, improve ourselves, and do our best to become more perfect. Matthew 5:  48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. That’s telling us to be perfect. It doesn’t say “be ye perfect, as long as somebody else helps you.” And I don’t think we’re going to be able to get away blaming our imperfections on others when it comes time to be judged at the last day. Can you say, “I would have been nicer to other people, if they had just been nicer to me”?

But at the same time that we’re commanded to be perfect, we also know we’re responsible to help our fellow man. Go after the lost sheep. Bring them back to the fold. Time and time again, President Monson has encouraged us to reach out to those who have fallen away from the Gospel. To lose ourselves in service.

         

And here’s where it breaks down for me sometimes. If I’m responsible for my salvation, how can I also be responsible for someone else’s? Isn’t he responsible for himself, too?

For a while, I’d thought I’d found scriptural backing for this sentiment in the Parable of the 10 Virgins.  Matthew 25:1 Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

 2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

 3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

 4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

 5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

 6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

 7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

 8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

 9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

 10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

 11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

 12 But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

 13 Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Bam! Here it is. Just what I was looking for. You keep track of yourself, and let other people worry about themselves. Just keep your eye on your own oil, and forget everyone else. Right?

Wrong. Because you have the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Matthew 18:  23 ¶Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.

 24 And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.

 25 But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made.

 26 The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

 27 Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.

 28 But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

 29 And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

 30 And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

 31 So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.

 32 Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:

 33 Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?

 34 And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.

 35 So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

So how do these parables gel? Should the virgins have been willing to share their oil, if you’re following the rules of the Unmerciful Servant parable? I thought about that for a while, and I think I came up with an answer. In the parable of the 10 virgins, each only had enough to get them through the night. If one of the virgins had brought a supersize mega value container of oil, I’m confident the Lord would have expected her to share some of that oil with the others. Yes, it wouldn’t have been exactly fair. Yes—she would have been the one with the foresight to bring all the oil, and the others would have been lax in their duty to prepare themselves. But we need to have faith that He whose place it is to judge will judge wisely and well. I certainly hope when the time comes to judge me, the Law of Mercy will be liberally applied. But how can I expect that if I don’t do my best to be merciful to others?

When it comes to other people, it’s far too easy to be a big Law of Justice kind of a guy, mainly because it’s such a great excuse. The temptation is there, of course. Just sit back and help anyone willing to make it easy to help them. But that’s not how God operates, and I for one am very grateful that it isn’t. There are so many times when I don’t make it easy on Him to help me. So many times when I seem like I don’t want any help myself. Does He turn away from me then? He doesn’t. Sometimes I just wish that didn’t mean I had to do the same.

I’ll be honest. I want to be able to judge other people. I feel like I should be able to dismiss someone else’s problems, marking them up to poor judgment, just desserts, and people getting their comeuppance. When it comes time to look at my mistakes, of course, it’s a different story. There are extenuating circumstances for all of the things I do wrong each day.

If there’s anything I’ve learned as a parent of two children, it’s that all of us seem to be born with an inherent desire for life to be fair. If I’m dishing out dessert, sometimes I feel like I really ought to weigh the portions, just to be able to prove that they’re exactly equal in every way. It’s one thing when it’s primary kids, but at times I catch myself doing the same thing. Maybe someone else gets a promotion or a raise. Or else I work hard to do something, then have to turn around and do it for someone else, and they don’t even seem to think it was that big of a deal. It’s hard not to feel disappointed or even cheated at times. Like your hard work and effort ought to result in automatic blessings.

And let’s face it: hard work and effort do bring blessings. Just not always the ones we’re expecting to see or wish we might see. Still, there’s definitely something to be said for our own personal accountability for our salvation.

The fact is that when we will be judged, we’ll be judged according to our own personalized grading rubric, and not our neighbors. God knows what we are capable of. He knows the trials we went through. Who helped us. Who didn’t. Whose offers we accepted. Whose offers we spurned. At times this world seems like a competition, but it’s only a test. A test where the passing grade for one person is a failing grade for another. You can’t tell how you’re doing by looking at your neighbor’s answers. You don’t smoke? Congratulations. Maybe smoking was never really a test for you. I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life, but something tells me I won’t be able to use that as grounds for admittance to the Celestial Kingdom. I’ve never wanted to smoke a cigarette.

The only person who can decide if you’re not doing enough is you. The only person who can decide if you’re doing too much is also you. That stinks, doesn’t it? It means there are people out there who are doing far too much. Spreading themselves far too thin. They need to circle the wagons and cool down a bit. There are others out there who are doing far too little. They’re capable of much more. They need to push themselves further.

The trick is, we can’t tell who is who. Well, maybe if we’ve been given stewardship over a certain group, then we might be able to, mainly through revelation from God. But if one person’s driving a Corvette and the other one’s driving a Camry, comparing how fast they can go from 0 to 60 isn’t quite fair, is it? In Mere Christianity, CS Lewis compares two different people, one a mean tempered Christian, the other a very pleasant atheist. “Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin.  That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works.  The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would  be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s  would be like if he became one . . . To judge the management of a factory, you must consider not only the output but the plant. Considering the plant at Factory A it may be a wonder that it turns out anything  at  all; considering the  first-class outfit  at Factory  B its output, though high, may be a great deal lower than  it ought to be.  No doubt the good manager at Factory A is going to put in new machinery as soon as he can, but that takes time. In the meantime low output does not prove that he is a failure”

Lewis goes on to say, “If you are a nice person-if virtue comes easily to you beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous.  The Devil  was  an archangel once;  his natural  gifts  were  as  far  above  yours as  yours are  above  those of a chimpanzee.

     But if you are a poor  creature-poisoned  by  a wretched upbringing  in some house full of vulgar jealousies . . .-nagged day  in and day  out  by  an  inferiority  complex  that  makes you  snap  at  your best friends-do not despair. He knows all about it. You are one of the poor whom He blessed. He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can. One day (perhaps in another world, but perhaps far sooner than that) he will fling it on the scrap-heap and give you a new one. And then you may astonish us all-not least yourself: for you have learned your driving in a hard school.”

So what’s the solution? I’ve driven all around the block in this talk now. It’s time to actual come to a destination. We’re supposed to help others, we’re supposed to help ourselves. To use Lewis’s terminology, each factory has a limited output, and we need to decide—with God’s help—how that output should be allotted.

As I think about it, it seems to me that we each have been blessed with a certain measure of all manner of things. Take my wife and me, for example. I think she’d be the first to agree that I’m better at computer repair and typing speed, whereas she has me beaten hands down at bread baking and gardening. If the computer needs repairing, I’m the one who steps in to handle it. When bread needs baking, Denisa takes over. Then again, there are going to be times when the computer can’t get repaired right away, or the bread just has to wait. I can see this so easily in my daily life—I just have trouble reminding myself of it when it comes to my church responsibilities. The missionaries are calling to find someone to go with them to an appointment, I have my home teaching to do, a quorum activity to plan, presidency meeting to prepare, the lesson to read for Sunday, and then someone calls me to ask me to give a talk. Oh yeah, and stake conference and a trip to Bangor are in the mix, too.

We’re instructed not to run faster than we have strength, and I think that applies to the church sphere as much as it does to our personal lives.

Maybe one of the best comparisons I thought of while I was working on this talk was likening it to fast offerings. Once a month, we’re to go without food for two meals. We then donate the money that would have been spent on that food, and we’re encouraged to give more, if possible. By sacrificing something, we have something to give. The same goes for church callings. We’re asked to sacrifice something finite—something concrete. Often our time or our talents. It’s up to us to find a way to fit our lives into the time remaining to us.

As we pray and ask God for help, we’ll be shown ways to get the things done which must be done, and we’ll also be able to know what needs doing now and what can wait until later—or not be done at all. There are going to be times someone asks me to do something, and I need to say no. The more I live the Gospel, the more I begin to think knowing when to say no is just as important as knowing when to say yes. Know your capabilities. Share the excess you have with others when you can. And remember—what you can give will be different from what someone else can give. Ours is not to judge the output of everyone else. Just keep doing your best.


And that’s a solution I can live with.

Sunday Talk: Tithing

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and Other Puritan Sermons (Thrift Edition)For all those curious as to what I subjected an entire congregation of 180 people to for 20 minutes, here’s the full text of my talk. It took me long enough to write–at least I can get a blog post out of it, too. NOTE: not all references are given. In my rush, I cut and pasted scripture with abandon. Hopefully God doesn’t bust me for the sloppy citation work.

“He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” D&C 64:23 That’s it. That’s my talk. I’ll give you three guesses which bishopric member gave it to me. I have to admit that I was somewhat taken aback when I read the topic. I don’t consider myself a big fire and brimstone kind of guy, and that verse smells pretty strongly of sulfur. It hasn’t been easy for me to come up with a twenty minute talk based on eleven words of scripture I don’t typically quote on a regular basis, but I’ve tried. Bear with me.

When I got the assignment, I did what I typically do with a scripture: I put it in context. This revelation was given in Kirtland on September 11, 1831 through Joseph Smith, and it’s directed at some of the brethren in Kirtland who were preparing to leave for Missouri the next month. Verses 23 through 25 read:   Behold, now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man, and verily it is a day of sacrifice, and a day for the tithing of my people; for he that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.
 24 For after today cometh the burning—this is speaking after the manner of the Lord—for verily I say, tomorrow all the proud and they that do wickedly shall be as stubble; and I will burn them up, for I am the Lord of Hosts; and I will not spare any that remain in Babylon.
 25 Wherefore, if ye believe me, ye will labor while it is called today.

I’ll be honest. Scriptures like these have never really rubbed me the right way. For me, one of the biggest appeals of the gospel is how inclusive it is. When Joseph Smith went to the woods to pray in 1820, in many ways it was a reaction to the religious furor in his area at the time. The teachings of the day described a very exclusive heaven and an inclusive hell. Choose the wrong church, and you’d be paying for it for eternity. Our religion teaches the opposite: most people will be headed to a heaven of one degree or another. Outer darkness, on the other hand, is a very exclusive club. On the surface, this scripture seems to go against that trend. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” Are we sinners in the hands of an angry debt-collector?

Part of me really doesn’t want to believe in a god who, in order to punish someone who didn’t pay tithing, would resort to mass incineration. The US government doesn’t even do that, regardless of your political persuasion. So when I read verses like the one this talk is based upon, my knee-jerk reaction is to interpret it metaphorically. Surely God wouldn’t literally burn his children. It must mean that those who don’t pay tithing risk the spiritual torment of hell.

That was my plan when I set out to write this talk: to interpret the scripture from a metaphorical stance, distancing it from any literal application. Then I read this quote from President Hinckley in a First Presidency Message in 1982:

“Some years ago one of our brethren spoke of the payment of tithing as “fire insurance”; that statement evoked laughter. Nonetheless, the word of the Lord is clear that those who do not keep the commandments and obey the laws of God shall be burned at the time of his coming. For that shall be a day of judgment and a day of sifting, a day of separating the good from the evil. In my personal opinion no event has occurred in all the history of the earth as dreadful as will be the day of the Second Coming—no event as filled with the destructive forces of nature, as consequential for the nations of the earth, as terrible for the wicked, or as wonderful for the righteous.”

It’s pretty clear that President Hinckley was reading it in a literal light. So much for metaphorical, or at least for a purely metaphorical interpretation. Which led me to ask why. Why would a loving Heavenly Father feel the need to threaten his children with bodily harm unless they do what he tells them to do? Well, after having driven across the country in a Buick with my wife and two children, you might think I’d have a pretty good idea why a loving father would threaten something like that. But more is at play here than simple hard parenting.

One thing I’ve learned as a parent is that nebulous threats don’t add up to a whole lot when you’re dealing with children. You need specific consequences on a specific timetable. If I told my son that if he didn’t clean his room, I’d ground him when he was fourteen, I don’t think a lot of room cleaning would occur until about the week before his fourteenth birthday. Maybe the night before. I also don’t think my son’s unique in that respect. Semester after semester, I sit at the reference desk in Mantor Library and see the same pattern. Things are relatively quiet the first few months. Sure, there are the frequent inquiries about the location of the bathroom, but as far as serious research questions go, we don’t get a whole lot.

Then midterms and finals roll around, and you start seeing a plague of deathbed research papers. Students flock to the library, frantically searching for sources and panicked when they fail. It’s that whole eat drink and be merry principle in action. So if you’re going to make a threat, make sure it’s got a fairly immediate consequence.

Note what the verse says at the beginning: “now it is called today until the coming of the Son of Man.” This phrasing is used elsewhere in the scriptures, as well. D&C 45: 6, for example.
 6 Hearken, O ye people of my church, and ye elders listen together, and hear my voice while it is called today, and harden not your hearts;
In John 9: 4, Christ says,
 4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.

This lays out the concept that each of us lives according to our own timeline. We must work the works we have been sent here to accomplish while we are alive, because after we die, our “today” will be over. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” Yes, on one hand the scripture can be interpreted to mean we will be burned if we haven’t tithed when Christ comes. But on the other hand, Christ comes for each of us when we die. The Second Coming is conveniently distant in many people’s minds. Death, on the other hand, is but a heartbeat away. So, don’t just pay your tithing to avoid getting burned sometime in the future. Pay it to avoid getting burned tomorrow. Or five minutes from now.

There I go again, getting all doom and gloom on you. My apologies. It gets better, I swear.

It’s important to point out that what we understand today as “tithing” isn’t what was referred to in this scripture. The modern law of tithing is based on the revelation given in D&C 119, given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Far West, Missouri, July 8, 1838, almost seven years after the scripture we’ve been discussing. The heading to that section states, “The law of tithing, as understood today, had not been given to the Church previous to this revelation. The term “tithing” in previous revelations had meant not just one-tenth, but all free-will offerings, or contributions, to the Church funds.” So this scripture is not, in fact, referring to the importance of paying your tithing. It’s referring to the importance of making any contribution to the Church. You could interpret this literally–as financial or material contributions–or figuratively–as contributions of time, talents and energy. Both work.

So sacrifice or else. Is that what this scripture is telling us?

As I mentioned before, my family and I drove across the country this summer, stopping at many church history sites along the way. One of the ones that stood out the most to us was the Far West temple site. There’s practically nothing there: just a fenced in lot that has a small monument to the revelations given in Far West (including tithing, by the way), along with the corner stones of the temple that was never built. My children had a good time collecting acorns, but other than that, there wasn’t much to do there. However, the spirit there was very peaceful and memorable. It felt pure to me. Untouched.

When the Saints lived in Far West, it was a rapidly growing frontier city. Today, nothing’s left of it but the countryside. While it impressed me that they had the foresight to begin work on a temple, I also wondered why God would have his people start such a project when he knew full well they wouldn’t be able to finish—that they wouldn’t even come close.

Another place that impressed me was the Kirtland Temple. The first temple built in the latter days, it cost approximately $40,000 to make. In today’s figures that’s close to a million dollars. A million dollar building, constructed by a people who were too poor to build proper housing or own enough land to support their families. People who regularly sent the heads of their households off on missions. People who sacrificed their time and talents to making the temple.

Then there was Liberty Jail, where Joseph and his brother and three other men were forced to stay through the winter, underfed, unheated and alone. They were fed poisoned food and subjected to endless taunts. The ceiling of their prison was six feet tall. One man who was imprisoned with them would walk with a permanent stoop ever after.

And of course there was Nauvoo, a city where the Saints thought they would be safe at last. They put down roots. Built beautiful brick houses. And then stayed in those houses an average of less than ninety days after they were completed before they had to leave once more. Time and time again, God required His chosen people to make sacrifices. They gave up their homes, then turned around and did it again. They built temples, then left them. They buried children and loved ones by the side of the road.

Do you start to see a trend? Time after time, the Saints were driven out, until at long last they were able to settle in the Salt Lake valley. I wondered why. One answer I came up with was this: what would have happened if Joseph Smith went straight to Salt Lake? We wouldn’t be here today, that’s for sure. Life isn’t just about where you end up, because where you ends up completely depends on how you get there. The church wouldn’t have been strong enough to sustain the members on their journey across the Rockies. They needed Nauvoo, Carthage, Liberty, Kirtland.

Sacrifice or burn. Are those our only options? I’d argue that in the end, they are. Perhaps it’s more bluntly phrased than elsewhere in the scriptures, but compare it to this:

15 Therefore I command you to repent—repent, lest I smite you by the rod of my mouth, and by my wrath, and by my anger, and your sufferings be sore—how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not.
 16 For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent;
 17 But if they would not repent they must suffer even as I;
 18 Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—

Or this

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, [thou] that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under [her] wings, and ye would not!

Or this

Choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

In many ways, we belong to an all or nothing church. It’s one of the things that sets us apart these days from other religions. We don’t just ask people to come to church, stay for a half hour or so, then go back home and carry about their business undisturbed. We’re an active religion. Church meetings last three hours. We don’t just listen to a sermon–at times we’re called upon to give the sermon ourselves. We don’t have teachers, we are teachers. We’re an active religion in a day where religion is becoming more and more passive, pressured by common opinion to become swayed by political correctness. True religion shouldn’t work this way. God doesn’t do polls, and He doesn’t care about popular opinion. If it were different, there never would have been that flood.

In his Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith said that “A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.” God doesn’t ask for a few moments of our time and attention. He demands our full heart, might, mind and strength. Because in the end, we’ll either be all his, or all not. We’re asked to sacrifice, because learning to put God’s interests before ours is necessary practice.

Many have questioned how can God be good when there’s so much evil in the world. Why are people allowed to kill other people? Why are there hurricanes and tsunamis and earthquakes? Who let the Holocaust happen? There have been many proposed answers to this question, answers ranging from the need for God’s children to have their free agency, or that it all evens out in the end, when God returns good for good works and evil for evil works. I have another proposed answer: there’s so much evil in the world because there’s supposed to be so much evil.

I know it sounds like I’ve delved back into the fire and brimstone routine, but I haven’t. As Latter-day Saints, we know we all lived before we came to Earth. We were capable of making good decisions and bad decisions. God presented a plan: we’d made all the progress we could make, and in order to take things to the next level, we had to leave God’s presence and come to a place where we could continue learning. The training wheels had to come off. Some didn’t agree with this plan. Lucifer thought training wheels were such a good idea, he wanted to fuse them to all bicycles in existence, then lock the steering wheels in place while he was at it. We disagreed with him.

Every single person here on the planet today is here because he or she signed up for the program. We wanted to come. We knew full well that there were going to be trials and tribulations. In fact, that’s why we were so anxious to get here. We all need our Nauvoos, Carthages, Liberties and Kirtlands. By overcoming those trials, we have opportunities to grow in ways that would be impossible without them. Yes, you can feel bad for someone conned into a bad contract against their will. But when that contract was spelled out line by line, crystal clear, and the person still signs it? The time for bellyaching is over. Don’t complain about the sacrifices we have to make–relish them. I know that’s hard to do when we’re in the middle of the journey, but once we reach our destination, I’m confident we’ll see that it was just those sacrifices that made it possible to arrive where we do. I know, for example, that without the church’s influence in my life, including all the rules and laws and service I’m required to do, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

When I was growing up, my grandmother made a deal with all her grandchildren. If we got married in the temple, and had up to that point always obeyed all church laws, from the Word of Wisdom to the Law of Chastity, she’d pay us $500. For a woman with twenty one grandchildren, that’s quite a sizable commitment. Being my grandmother, she never wasted an opportunity to remind us of her deal. I remember one time my sister Gretel and I were sitting talking with some other members of my extended family, and my sister brought up the fact that some of her friends just didn’t understand why she obeyed so many church rules. My grandmother spoke right up: “You told them about my deal, didn’t you?”

Gretel was silent for a second, then said, “Well, no. I told them about prophets and latter day revelation.”

My grandmother nodded, then said, “Sure, but the $500 helps a lot, too. Doesn’t it?”


I was very grateful for her gift when Denisa and I got married. (Yes, in case you were wondering, I cashed in. You would have, too. Admit it.) But the fact is that I didn’t follow the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity for 500 bucks, just as I don’t pay my tithing as fire insurance. When Christ came to the earth, he taught that the old laws had been replaced by newer, higher laws. No longer were men supposed to live by an eye for an eye, but they were to turn the other cheek. I believe the same goes for God’s laws. We can live them because we’re afraid of the punishments, or we can live them because we want the rewards. And no, avoiding a punishment doesn’t count as a reward in my book.

In this gospel, we learn and grow line upon line, precept upon precept. There’s a spectrum of possibilities between God’s plan of free will and Satan’s plan of slavery. You can make a decision because you’re forced to–because you literally have no other choice. You can make a decision because you want to avoid being hurt–because you’re threatened with dire consequences if you choose otherwise. You can make a decision because you want to be rewarded. But there’s an even higher motivation. You can make a decision because it’s the right thing to do. Because you want to make the right decision. I believe one of the main reasons we’re here on this earth is to learn how to want to make the right decisions.

When you look at the way the church has grown from its inception until today, you’ll see definite trends. Trends away from fire and brimstone and toward charity never faileth. Trends away from promised punishments and toward promised rewards. Trends away from exclusion and toward inclusion. Does that mean the punishments for sin have been lessened? No. They’re still there, but hopefully we as church members no longer need the ever-present threat of eternal torment to get us motivated to do something. Although perhaps if I instituted a “Come to Elders Quorum activities or burn in hell” program, I’d see a bit more attendance. Food for thought.

“He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” In the end, we can look at this scripture both ways. Yes, there is the foretold burning of the wicked that will happen at some point in the future. By making sacrifices and putting the Lord first, we avoid being in the charbroiled section that day, but by paying with a willing heart–by submitting our will to God–we gain the promised blessings. Peace. Love. Joy. In many ways, being forced to live without those rewards would be worse than any physical, passing torment we could endure. A few verses later in the same section my talk comes from, God reminds us of this important truth.

33 Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great.

May we all be not weary in well doing is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Talk on Sunday

Cold Comfort FarmI’m giving a 20 minute talk in church on Sunday. That’s the plan, at least. In practice, it’s proving to be a bit harder to get this talk done than some I’ve done in the past, likely because the topic doesn’t quite mesh up with my typical MO. Wanna know the topic?

“He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.”*

Yeah.

Pay up or burn, baby! Bonus points to any of you out there who can make the connection between the picture for today’s post and the topic. I’ll give you one clue, even: Gandalf.

Anyway, I’ve already put in about five hours on the talk, and I’m about a third of the way there.

Because I didn’t have enough to do already, clearly.

I’ll make sure to post the talk in all its hellfire and damnation, pulpit-pounding glory. Probably on Monday. Unless the congregation kills me first. 🙂 If you want to be there for the performance, come on by. We meet at 9.

(*That’s from Doctrine & Covenants 64:23, in case you were wondering. For you non-Mormons out there, don’t go looking in your Bible for that one. It’s in a collection of modern day revelations.)

Church Talk

I had the chance to speak in church again yesterday. Since I’m still the Ward Mission leader and all, it was on missionary work again. For those of you interested, I’m providing the full text of my talk (entitled “Accountability” behind the cut. For those of you not interested . . . you’ll get nothing today. And like it!

Accountability

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