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.

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