Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lessons Learned about Being Poor in Spirit

First, an umbrella comment:

It is amazing what happens when you really focus on something for an extended period of time. I am nowhere close to being completely poor in spirit, as witnessed by the number of times I edited a comment on some of the blogs I frequent, but I am much better than I was at the beginning of the month, as witnessed by the number of times I edited a comment on some of the blogs I frequent. Concentrating on being more poor in spirit had a very real and recognizable impact on my life this month. In many ways, I hate to change my focus, but I know my New Year's Resolution was inspired - and I am looking forward to what I will learn next month about mourning with those who mourn.

1) It is interesting what happens when you stop and think about what you are about to say and ask, "Is this a humble way to say this? Am I seeing both sides? Do I understand what the other person really is saying - not just what I automatically assume s/he is saying?"

2) Being poor in spirit does NOT mean never chastising someone for what they have said or done; it does NOT mean never correcting someone when they are wrong. However, it DOES mean not doing so in ALL cases when someone is wrong in what they say or do. It involves carefully weighing the options and offering a comment that is not personal, or emotional, or hyperbolic - that is not directed at a person but rather what that person said or did.

3) I like myself better when I am focusing consciously on humility.

4) I really, really, really like this New Year's Resolution so far.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pres. Hinckley Died Tonight

My children really don’t know any other Prophet - not even my oldest in college. My daughters cried when I told them the news, and it has hit me MUCH harder than I thought it would.

Along with Pres. Kimball, he was the most gentle, humble, kind man of great authority whom I have ever known. I absolutely LOVED the sparkle in his eyes and voice - that subtle and sweet sense of humor. Truly, I thank God for this Prophet.

From Marlin K. Jensen:

“His keen intellect and thirst to understand how everything works resulted in a storehouse of knowledge that will be nearly irreplaceable,” said Elder Marlin Jensen, the church’s official historian. “I believe he was a true prophet but it didn’t hurt that he was a genius, too.”


I can't stop thinking about his admonition:

"Do a little more. Be a little better."

Doesn't that say it all?

I also have been touched by how much he has focused on marriage - begging the brethren of the Church to love and serve and never disappoint their wives - since Marjorie passed away three years ago. His tribute to her in General Conference was one of the sweetest things I have ever heard in my life. I cried listening to him that day, and I cried tonight remembering it. I especially was touched by the following:

"My children and I were at her bedside as she slipped peacefully into eternity. As I held her hand and saw mortal life drain from her fingers, I confess I was overcome. Before I married her, she had been the girl of my dreams, to use the words of a song then popular. She was my dear companion for more than two-thirds of a century, my equal before the Lord, really my superior. And now in my old age, she has again become the girl of my dreams."

I am glad he sees her no longer just in his dreams.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"A Fresh View" of Repentance

The Bible Dictionary defines "repentance" as: "a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world". That is absolutely fascinating - and it is this fresh view that is part of being poor in spirit.

Being poor in spirit is, essentially, recognizing one's dependence on God and turning to Him in true humility - knowing that He provides not what we deserve but what He desires to give as a reward for our effort. "Perfection" is defined as being "complete, whole, fully developed". Therefore, being "imperfect" means being "incomplete, part, partially developed" - being, to some degree, an unfinished, "natural (wo)man". This leads to an interesting meaning of repentance that is radically different than what was taught in ancient Israel (the Law of Moses perspective), with its emphasis on works.

The "classic" definition of repentance can be summarized in the following way: "feel sorry for your mistakes and stop making them". It is, in a very real way, a process of surgery - attempting to cut out and discard the "bad" from within us, so that we will stop making mistakes. This can be incredibly destructive for three reasons: first, it can confuse "sin" (things we choose to do, knowing we should not) with "transgression" (mistakes or violations of a law that are not intentional actions) - which means that people can spend enormous time and energy beating themselves up about and trying to rid themselves of weaknesses that often are beyond their control without outside help - things that have been paid for already by the Atonement; second, it assumes that we are competent surgeons (which deserves an entire thread all by itself); and third, it takes one's focus away from the powerful nature of true repentance (the changing of one's mind and view which changes one's very nature) - a process that is outlined clearly in the life and words of Jesus.

I need to step back at this point and emphasize a critical point: Repentance IS a process of change that involves ridding ourselves of those tendencies that keep us from being Christ-like. It DOES include gaining control over those things that cause our transgressions. However, it does NOT need to be a guilt-inducing, depression-causing, overwhelming chore. That happens when repentance is viewed as the companion to the type of perfection that I described previously - when repentance comes to mean eliminating mistakes and walking completely in lock-step with a detailed list of do's and dont's without ever stumbling. Let me emphasize again that "repentance" means changing one's VIEW about God, oneself and the world. It means SEEING the process differently - I would argue in the empowering way taught by Jesus Himself in the Sermon on the Mount.

To illustrate what I mean, consider again that the admonition in Matthew 5:48 to be perfect means to be whole, complete and fully developed, but also consider that it comes at the end of a chapter that lists specific attributes and actions - and the admonition itself begins with the word "therefore". What does this mean? It means "because of what has come before" - or "through what has come before". In that light, Matthew 5:48 says:

"Be ye (through what I have said so far) complete, whole, fully developed, even as your Father which is in heaven is complete, whole, fully developed."

This changes the entire meaning of repentance - since it says that reconciling to God is a process of acquiring the characteristics listed by Jesus as leading to perfection - adding them to your character - NOT cutting out pieces of yourself and assuming the holes will be filled somehow. It means repentance is the process of closing the gap between what we are naturally (incomplete, part, partially developed) and what He has commanded us to become (complete, whole, fully developed). It is a process of addition (becoming more) - not subtraction (becoming less). It is a process of acquisition, not elimination.

Think of a bucket full of liquid that is, to some degree, impure. The goal is to make the liquid in the bucket pure. You could attempt to do so by identifying the impurities and trying to remove them with just the use of your hands while not removing the pure liquid - or you could allow an expert chemist to add pure liquid to your bucket that would isolate the impurities and force them to spill from the bucket - replaced by the liquid that was added. Each is an effort to change the composition within the bucket, but the first is destined to produce frustration and heartache, while the other heals and fills and never depletes.

[FireTag made a comment (12/3/11) that I really like, and I am inserting it here to add clarity and meaning to the post:

"The analogy of the chemist struck me as a little odd. Adding liquid would DILUTE the impurity, not remove it. Would this be like those who try to do more and more good works to cover up the impurity within, yet never deal with the faults at all?

A chemist would use some process that did separate the purity from the impurity. So is seeing ourselves differently an inherently impurity separating process?"]

To make this practical:

If you struggle with a temper that manifests itself through yelling at your kids, you can try to "overcome" this tendency in one of two ways. You can take the classic approach and exert tremendous effort to recognize when you are about to lose it and, in that moment, exert even more effort to control that tendency by suppressing it - assuming that if you suppress it often enough you will gain total control over it. The problem is that the temper has not been eliminated; it simply has been suppressed, which means it still is there. When that effort to suppress fails and the temper flares again, you feel like a failure, since your effort couldn't stop the outburst.

On the other hand, with a different VIEW, you can look more deeply than just at the manifestation (your temper) and focus on the cure (becoming poor in spirit) in ALL aspects of your life. You can focus on the character trait that Jesus has identified as part of becoming perfect (in this case, poor in spirit) and allow Him to help you rid yourself of the underlying cause of the action. You repent by giving Him your burden (a temper) and agreeing to carry his yoke instead (walking humbly with Him). You repent by giving Him your heart and letting Him change your actions. You repent by forgetting about what you want to do and accepting what He wants you to do. You repent by ceasing to try to lessen who you are (eliminate part of yourself) and allowing Him to increase who you are (adding perfecting characteristics). In short, you repent by "losing (your view of) yourself" and "finding (His view of) yourself".

This changing of your view probably will not be immediate, but it is worth any effort. For myself, I have chosen to tackle this process in a very simple but systematic way (described here), but each person needs to take the first steps in whatever way makes sense individually.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Salvation in This Life

The following is something that struck me this month as I have been pondering being poor in spirit. I have believed the central principle for some time, but the specific aspect of salvation as it applies to this life is something I have not put into words previously:

Those who crucified Jesus did so because they could not accept Him as the one who had paid (Jehovah) and would pay (Jesus) for their sins. They said, in essence, "We don't need you. We are children of Abraham. We are fine. We'll do it on our own."

We decry deathbed repentance, particularly for those who consciously choose to procrastinate repentance until the end - to do what they want to do until they are facing death and the possibility of judgment. At the same time, too many members view grace, faith and works as follows:

I must do everything I possibly can do; I must give my all; I must wear out myself trying to do what He has asked me to do - THEN He will accept my effort and help me do more.

That might not be the exact same mentality as "deathbed" repentance, but it is at least "hospital bed" repentance. In very real terms, it is saying, "I will let you know when I need you," which really is the same mentality as the one who procrastinates the request for help until his deathbed. It also means that I will not receive the help He can give AS I struggle - which means I will not experience His freedom and joy until my frustration nearly (or completely) breaks me. Yes, I will then be blessed, but I will have missed SO much in the meantime.

Hillary Weeks has a song entitled "Unwritten". The central message is, in my own words:

"As I review the pages of the book of my life, I am grateful for what I read (what I have experienced), but I am most grateful for what has remained unwritten - those things from which the grace of God has shielded me - those things I have not had to experience - those things from which I have been saved **in this life**."

Jesus, as the Christ, saved us from the effects of our actions in the next life, but Jesus, as the exemplary man, showed us a way to be saved from much of the effect of our fallen existence in this life. In a very real way, not accepting what He paid so dearly to provide until we have exhausted ourselves is no different than not accepting that His offer was ever made in the first place, since they both tell Him to get lost until we get a handle on it on our own. That's worth pondering all by itself.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Paradox of Spiritual Debt

Debt is an interesting thing. On one hand, it allows us to acquire things we don't have but need. On the other hand, it allows us to acquire things we don't need but want. On one hand, our needs are bought and paid for - fully and completely - with no regard for our ability to reimburse our benefactor. On the other hand, our wants are purchased on credit - financed with an interest rate that is impossible to repay. On both hands, spiritual debt has a significant impact on how we see ourselves and the world around us. This paradox (debt as a provider of both the necessary and unnecessary - as natural and chosen - as freeing and enslaving) has a fascinating impact on spiritual poverty.

Debt is defined as owing for something that is possessed now (conditionally) but will be paid for later - or lost if payment is not made. It occurs when someone who has insufficient money to purchase something borrows from one who has sufficient money to make the purchase - and generally includes an agreement to pay interest for that purchase. This means that the "buyer" ends up paying more - often substantially more - for the item purchased than the original, cash cost.

What are the spiritual implications of this situation?

Being "poor in spirit" commonly is defined as being humble - recognizing our inability to make adequate payments to "purchase" our salvation. It includes having to turn to one (Jesus) who possesses enough to make up the difference of what we cannot pay - combining with our own infinitesimally small contribution to satisfy an infinite price. In this way, we recognize that we are unavoidably indebted to God - that we incurred a debt when we accepted Jehovah's offer in the pre-existence to be our Savior and Redeemer - both titles that describe our "inherent" spiritual debt. What we often fail to understand is that no matter how much spiritual capital we possess - even if we are prophets and visionaries and seers and orators extraordinaire - our contribution added to His contribution equals not one penny more than the spiritual capital of a serial killer added to His contribution. It is not our contribution that makes the payment complete - that "redeems" our debt; it is the combining of ours with His.

There is one interesting twist to this formula - and it is in this twist that the paradox of spiritual debt arises - the irrational numbers of grace appear.

We are told very clearly that all that is required is all that we are able to give. The exact phrase is: "We are saved by grace, after all we can do." I have employed a common linguistic tactic to highlight the meaning of this sentence, as such: "(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved." This stresses that our own efforts will never be enough - that no matter what we do, we still need His grace. However, it also says that we are required to give our all - that nothing less will suffice.

This is where debt enters the pictures. We are told to realize that we can add nothing to the grace of God that will earn our salvation; we also are told, however, that we cannot subtract from our offering without affecting the results of that grace.

What is the point of this distinction? Going back to the financial analysis, worldly debt forces us to give money to someone who is already rich (and getting richer from the payments of the poor) - which means that we are unable to give that money to those who need it - to our fellow poor. It means that we lengthen the course of our poverty and put our agency (in how we use our resources) in the hands of people who only extend the credit that binds our potential to do good specifically in order to raise themselves above us and keep us bound as long and as tightly as possible. Rather than being poor voluntarily in order to alleviate destitution in others, we are poor by the explicit intentions of those who are dedicated to encouraging destitution. In summary, debt makes us complicit in the separation and polarization of mankind - in furthering the disunity of our fellow (wo)man.

Spiritually, there are two kinds of debt. The first is that which cannot be avoided by anyone as a simple and natural consequence of the Fall. This type of debt is what the Atonement covers without reservation and without condition. (our inherited tempers, our addictive tendencies, our insecurities, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, etc.) This is the debt that we must recognize in order to see our natural - and equal - poverty and petition the Almighty for the application of His grace. Redeeming this debt frees us to focus on taking our limited resources and providing them for the work of that Redeemer - sharing our spiritual capacities with fellow debtors - helping them recognize their own purchased state, so they also can share their spiritual capital with their fellow debtors - repeated ad infinitum in an ever-increasing and widening circle of influence and moving a community toward the unity that defines Zion. It is a state of communal sharing of what has been redeemed - what naturally is owed to the Redeemer, but which is placed by Him in His infinite, communal account from which all may draw. It manifests itself in a spirit of sharing - of caring for others enough to forgo individual wants in the pursuit of collective needs.

The second kind of spiritual debt is that which can be avoided - that which we acquire through the conscious choices we make - that which subtracts from our all and keeps us from offering that all to Him. Such debt can be redeemed, but it requires our repentance - the changing of our hearts and the elimination of those choices that cause us to incur those debts. This type of debt puts us in bondage to one who exacts interest - to whom we can end up paying over and over and over again, with no end of payments in sight and with no access to a communal account from which we can draw for support. This eventually leaves us spiritually destitute - unable to provide even the basic spiritual necessities for ourselves and our loved ones and, just as importantly, unable to participate in God's work and glory of raising and empowering and enabling and ennobling His children. Rather than being partakers in the combined distribution of His grace, we become unable to focus on Him and His will and become consumed in our own misery and deprivation. It manifests itself in an attempt spiritually to "keep up with the Joneses" - to be more spiritual than others - to become proud and condescending and dismissive and judgmental.

Thus, we are told to recognize our unavoidable spiritual poverty - in fact, to become poor in spirit - but we are commanded just as forcefully to avoid spiritual destitution - by avoiding choices that consume our spiritual capital and bind us to he who is interested only in gaining power and glory through our enslavement. We are to recognize our natural, involuntary indebtedness to participate in His work and glory while simultaneously avoiding intentional, voluntary spiritual debt that keeps us from being able to do so.

Understanding this difference is what leads one to "sing the song of redeeming love" - and this difference is what keeps the spiritually poor from spiritual destitution.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Thoughts on Spiritual Poverty

First, I have to state right up front that I'm not sure this post will end up being totally coherent. I have decided to work through it as I type, rather than draft and redraft and edit until it is "polished" and perfect (complete, whole, fully developed) - since I want input from everyone on something that just hit me today. In this post, I'm going to try to lay out what hit me initially about poverty - then turn it over to everyone for additional input, clarification and fine tuning before I address the epiphany that followed these thoughts. I really am not sure where it will go, but I am curious and want to see where it leads.

As I was pondering the phrase "poor in spirit" today, it hit me pretty hard that, in our modern society, we so marginalize and disdain poverty that we probably miss much of the meaning embedded in the phrase "poor in spirit" as a **desirable** trait. Therefore, I started thinking about the implications of poverty - what it means not as defined in the dictionary, but rather in practical terms. Iow, what does it mean to **BE** poor?

1) Poverty is the lack of ability to purchase things. It implies an awareness of things desired that are beyond one's ability to have or do - since recognition of poverty is a real part of the effects of poverty. (From the time I was eleven, my parents raised eight children on an elementary school janitor's salary. Technically, we were poor, but we kids didn't realize it until we were in high school. We *were* poor, but we didn't *feel* poor - since we really didn't want things beyond our parents' ability to provide until we reached an age where we started wanting things we really didn't need.) It also means that if there are things that truly are necessary but out of one's price range, one must rely on another person to provide it.

2) Poverty, in and of itself, is only a "bad" thing if it keeps someone from obtaining things that they truly need. For example, not having cable TV (or TV at all) is inconvenient in our time, but it certainly is hard to argue that TV is truly a need - unless emergency notifications are provided via TV and in no other way. As long as basic necessities can be met, poverty is not "evil" by any stretch of the word.

3) Poverty forces one to prioritize - to determine what things are necessary, desirable or luxurious. It forces the luxuries and desires to be placed in their proper perspective - as not essential to life and self-worth. In a very real way, it eliminates non-essential distractions and irrelevancies from life by forcing the poor to do what they need to do rather than what they want to do.

These are only a few things poverty is and does. Now, take these descriptions of poverty and re-focus them on the spiritual. What does that create?

1) Spiritual poverty is the lack of ability to acquire spiritual things. It implies an awareness of things desired that are beyond one's ability to have or do - since recognition of poverty is a real part of the effects of poverty. It also means that if there are spiritual things that truly are necessary but out of one's spiritual price range, one must rely on another person to provide them.

So, in this regard, being "poor in spirit" means recognizing one's inability to "buy, earn, deserve, purchase" spiritual blessings - that, without the intervention of another, rich benefactor, one is "damned" (stopped) in his ability to grow spiritually. It means recognizing and turning to Him who is able to provide the spiritual capital she lacks. Without spiritual poverty, one would never recognize his need for help - so he would never ask for it - so he would rarely receive it - so he would not grow spiritually.

2) Spiritual poverty, in and of itself, is only a "bad" thing if it keeps someone from obtaining spiritual things that they truly need. For example, not having access to spiritual communications to all is inconvenient in our time, but it certainly is hard to argue that universal communication is truly a need. As long as basic personal (including emergency) communications can be received, spiritual poverty is not evil in any stretch of the word.

3) Spiritual poverty forces one to prioritize - to determine what things are spiritually necessary, desirable or luxurious. (what is best, better, good) It forces luxuries and desires to be placed in their proper perspective - as not essential to spiritual life and self-worth. In a very real way, it eliminates non-essential distractions and irrelevancies from ones' spiritual life - by focusing the spiritually poor on what they need to do rather than what they want to do.

In summary, being poor in spirit allows a person to recognize the need for a Redeemer (someone to buy and free them from the chains of their poor and lowly state), supplicate that Redeemer to pay for what they cannot obtain on their own, and prioritize spiritual purchases instead of those things that will not advance spirituality. It allows one to simplify life, recognize distractions and eliminate impediments to spiritual growth.

Being "rich in spirit", otoh, eliminates all those needs that lead to such wonderful blessings and, in a very real sense, limits blessings to what can be accomplished and obtained on one's own in this life and the next. Spiritual richness leads one to believe he needs no help - no "redeemer" - no prioritization, since he believes he can have it all. If we are spiritually wealthy, we are unable to act upon and magnify the Gifts of the Spirit that are given to us (or acquire new ones) - since searching for and acknowledging spiritual gifts that come from God requires admission that we need those gifts. That constitutes at least a small degree of spiritual poverty. Spiritual richness leaves one alone, isolated from the yoke that lightens burdens and provides spiritual rest. People with spiritual wealth "have their reward" - as opposed to the Lord's reward.

Again, I hope that makes sense. My next post will try to explain an epiphany I had about credit as it relates to this interpretation of poverty - usually translated as humility.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Year's Resolution

I need to focus all the time on things like personal and family scripture study and prayer, regular and meaningful Family Home Evening and temple attendance with Mama, but this year I am instituting only one New Year's Resolution. It deals directly with my last post on the true meaning of "perfection" as commanded in Matthew 5:48.

As I said in that post, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus' penultimate sermon - what I consider to be the blueprint to perfection. Matthew 6 & 7 are part of the blueprint, but I am going to focus on Matthew 5 this year.

In this chapter, I count 12 character traits applicable to me and within my control that I believe, when fully internalized, make someone perfect. In my opinion, everything else in scripture
revolves around these traits. Therefore, I am planning on focusing my efforts this year on those 12 traits - emphasizing one per month in successive order - thinking about it and looking for ways to acquire it and not worrying about any other traits during that month.

The following is the plan:

January: Become more poor in spirit.
February: Look for ways to mourn with those who mourn - then mourn with them.
March: Become more meek.
April: Hunger and thirst more after righteousness.
May: Become more merciful.
June: Become more pure in heart.
July: Become more of a peacemaker.
August: Control my anger better.
September: Become more chaste in thought and deed.
October: Keep my promises more diligently; make them a simple "Yes" or "No".
November: Give more freely and do not revile as quickly.
December: Love those who revile me; seek situations of interaction with those who will do so.

I am planning currently to repeat the first seven traits each year until I feel impressed to stop. I intend to change the last five each year to other traits found in the scriptures. I have come to believe that if I focus on becoming more "perfect" (complete, whole, fully developed), my actions will begin to take care of themselves - that as I replace my natural tendencies with those demanded by the Savior, that internal change will alter my very nature and allow me to do more naturally what He would have me do.

In the spirit of my resolution for this month, I would like to ask any who read this to share whatever they feel inspired to share about becoming more poor in spirit. There are no parameters or suggestions for this request. I would like to partake of and learn whatever anyone has to share.

I'm sure I will blog about other things, as well, but my main focus this month on this blog will be what I learn about becoming poor in spirit.