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.
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.