Saturday, March 29, 2008

Reflections on Meekness: Being Gentler With the Ones We Love

This has been an interesting month, being focused on becoming more meek. I have faced plenty of opportunities to be more gentle, and I have been struck by the following things:

1) Being "gentle" applies to every interpersonal relationship and activity in our lives. As I've mentioned with the other characteristics of perfection, it has become apparent to me that we don't become meek by what we do (acting meekly); we become meek by how we think and feel (which then motivates our actions). I know that might seem like semantics, but it has been an enlightening insight for me.

2) As I said in my initial meekness post, I am naturally kind and generous, but I am not as naturally gentle. Two out of three does not "wholeness" make. If I want to be more meek **than many people**, two out of three might suffice; if I want to be more meek **as I progress toward perfect meekness**, two out of three won't get me there. I need to work on the 1/3 I don't possess naturally.

3) It is much easier for me to be gentle outside my home and my interactions with my children than it is with my daily frustrations at home. Likewise, it is much easier to be gentle with strangers than it is to be gentle in situations where I am interacting with those I love and where I am invested emotionally to a deeper degree. That fascinates me, since it appears to be counter-intuitive. You would think I would be gentler with the ones I love the most, but the opposite is true. Why is that?

4) Two things have struck me this month - relative to both my biological family and my on-line family (those people I have come to love and admire in my blogging spheres).

a) I am more protective of those I love, and the deeper that love is the more strong my protective instincts are. Therefore, I tend to "defend" them more instinctively - which means to act more quickly and reflexively - which means with less pre-thought and consideration and control. In these instances, I allow myself to be acted upon (to respond reactively) more often than when I have time consciously to think about and "choose" my actions (to respond proactively). Iow, when I feel that someone I love and/or admire greatly is being attacked or unfairly accused, I tend to fall back on whatever my "natural" reaction is - which tends not to be as gentle as I want it to be.

b) I have higher expectations of those I love and admire. I want them to be better - to grow - to progress - to be more Christlike. When some stranger does or says something insensitive or mean or even terrible, I don't like it - but I am not invested emotionally as deeply in that person as I am in someone whom I know far better and have served directly. Therefore, I am more able to respond in a gentle fashion - since my expectations were lower at the time. I have found myself on many occasions this month, as I blog at various locations, being able to "step back" and reword my initial comments - often with the explicit statement "as gently as I can say this". That has been encouraging to me.

It is much harder, however, when the insensitive, mean or even terrible thing that is said or done comes from a family member or someone on a blog whom I love and/or admire. My natural reaction is to be disappointed and, by extension, hurt by such words or actions; hence, my natural response is to deflect that disappointment and hurt back to the source - and that is not a naturally gentle action.

I have never understood very well the axiom, "You only hurt the ones you love." I always have thought it was completely wrong and nonsensical, since I know -and know of - plenty of people who hurt those they don't love - often in terrible ways. I think I understand it better at the end of this month.

I think this is more of a terrestrial law, while what I understood previously is more of a telestial law. At the telestial level, people hurt people - with little distinction between those they love and those they don't love. At the terrestrial level, people have learned to not judge and react toward those they don't know; hence, they only hurt those they know - and those they love are those they know the best. (They are the only ones who care about you enough to be hurt by your actions; they are the only ones about whom you care enough to react in a hurtful way.)

At the celestial level, people stop judging those they know and love; they stop projecting their own expectations onto others completely and simply accept them as they are; they respond gently and lovingly because they stop holding others to a false standard those others simply can't live. It seems like such a paradox, since our ultimate focus should be to help others learn and grow, but that service can be given without expectation and pressure and disapproval and condemnation; it can be given gently and with love.

Remember, "reproving betimes with sharpness" has many possible translations, but the one that fits what I believe to be the best model means "telling (a person) that s/he has done wrong immediately but in a manner focused solely on what is wrong" - and it is followed by "when moved upon by the Holy Ghost". I dare say that most of the "reproving" we do, if we have progressed to at least a terrestrial level of meekness, is not done under the prompting of the Holy Ghost - and it probably is not done with a strait and narrow focus solely on the wrong. The insight to determine exactly the wrong that caused the reaction probably is difficult (or impossible) to gain without the guidance of the Holy Ghost, since we still see through our own glasses darkly.

I have been much more aware of my non-gentle reactions this month - both when I have succeeded in quelling them and when I have not done so. It has been interesting to be more aware of a non-gentle reaction that I still was unable to stop even as I was aware of it - and to look back and try to determine if that inability to stop was due to weakness or the prompting of the Holy Ghost. At different times, it has been both. I have a ways to go before I can be wholly, completely finished and developed in meekness, but I have appreciated the opportunity to recognize a weakness I wasn't aware of fully and learn more about what I need to do to make this weak thing become strong.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

It is Finished: Death on Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday is the ultimate celebration of life - the glorious victory over death and Hell - the rising from the tomb and ushering in of unimaginable joy. I love speaking in church on Easter - having the opportunity to highlight the life, death and resurrection of our Savior and Redeemer, since the spirit is so strong and powerful and affirming on such a transcendent day. I spoke today in our little branch - and it was the hardest, most emotionally difficult talk I have ever prepared. You see, our branch died today.

How do you convey to a small group of friends - people who have bonded in a way that is almost impossible in a typical large ward - that their small house of spiritual refuge (the place that they have come to bless each Fast and Testimony meeting as their anchor in the storms of life) will be locked and unavailable next week? How do you tell them that their dedication and sincere effort and sacrifice appear to have been offered for naught? Most wrenchingly, how do you do so on Easter Sunday - a day when they should leave church rejoicing in the grace and condescension of God?

Even more to the point, how do you do this when you can't do so openly? How do you address an Easter talk in Sacrament Meeting knowing that they will be weeping for a different reason in just over an hour - knowing that the joy and hope and love you pray they feel as they listen to your message will be replaced by pain and sorrow and disbelief and real, deep grief as they learn that their congregation (established only three years ago amid great joy and hope) is being dissolved? How do you preach of life and eternal happiness when you will help officiate that same day at the funeral they can't possibly anticipate? How do you kill an entire congregation on the day set aside to celebrate new life?

By all objective measurements, Jesus of Nazareth was an abject failure. His mortal ministry lasted three short years. The hopes of a nation (nay, of God's own Chosen People) had been recorded for centuries, trumpeting a future arrival in the following words:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)

Only thirty-three years earlier, the angel had appeared and proclaimed:

"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)

Immediately following this announcement, the heavenly multitude exclaimed:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14)

Prophets extolled the importance of His birth and life; they stressed the deliverance He would bring. He would justify the brutality of their former oppression by establishing peace and mercy and power. He would reclaim their rightful place in the kingdom of their God, humbling once and for all those who had reviled and scourged and persecuted them as they awaited their great day of glory. They still wait, nearly two thousand years later, since Jesus of Nazareth failed to fulfill their expectations so utterly and completely. Easter Sunday did not bring them joy and peace and deliverance; it brought them only more oppression and misery and separation and death.

What then of Easter Sunday - of a sealed tomb and a sobbing, despondent discipleship? Amid their continuing pain and terrible turmoil, amid the persecution and upheaval that would not end, how could they possibly find peace and joy and hope? They found it in the following pronouncement - one of the simplest, most concise statements in all of recorded history:

"He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. " (Matthew 28:6)

All of us are born to die. All of us live this life knowing it will end. Every person who has ever lived - every organization that has ever been established - every group that has ever met - every family that has ever existed - everything that has ever been created has begun with an inevitable end in store. However, through the birth and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, all of us can look forward with hope and joy and love and longing to that day when it shall be said of us, as it was of Him, "[They] are not here; for [they are] risen."

Just as Jesus' ministry was too short for many to understand it as a glorious success, and just as the results of that ministry were too seemingly inconsequential for many to recognize their eternal significance, our own growth and success and efforts often are too short and seemingly inconsequential to recognize as the glorious successes they truly are. We celebrate Easter today not just to honor the resurrection of our King, but also to pay our humble respect to the grace that transfers his victory to us - that allows us to see and understand and feel gratitude for the successes embedded in our own apparent failures. We celebrate Easter today to celebrate not just the risen Lord, but also to honor the death and suffering that had to be offered in order for the resurrection to occur. As a friend wrote, "Christ was suffering servant as well as glorious victor, that, like the sinners the rest of us are, he had to die (and apparently fail) before he could be resurrected (and ultimately succeed)." Today, on Easter, we celebrate life and a newness of glory, but we also celebrate death and the ending of one ministry for the beginning of another.

What can we take on this Easter Sunday from the first Easter Sunday so long ago? As we honor and praise and worship our Lord's victory over death, how can we "liken [even this thing] unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning?" (1 Nephi 19:23)

In all we do - in all our efforts and associations and organizations - may we recognize and accept that our meager efforts to become like Him are undertaken with failure as the inevitable end - but that the growth we experience in our mortal efforts and associations is all He requires. May we focus on the joy of the journey and accept the unexpected detours and heartache along the way, willing to say as He said, "Not my will, but thine, be done." (Luke 22:42) May we live so that we too may be able to say, as we draw our final breath, "It is finished. (John 19:30) Into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

May we realize that our efforts, no matter the objective outcome, are not offered and accomplished in vain - they are not viewed by our Lord as failures. Rather, let us look forward to that great and glorious day when we shall hear those gentle, soothing words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord." (Matthew 25:21)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Perfection: Becoming as Little Children

I wish people would focus on the "process" of perfection and stop talking about the "condition" of perfection.

Based on the original meaning in Matthew, I wish "Be ye therefore perfect" was translated in our own modern vernacular as, "Become ye therefore perfected." I like "become perfected" much more than "be perfect" - since it doesn't carry the same mis-perceptions about being mistake-free in the here and now.

Envision a sculptor laboring for years over his "masterpiece" - perfecting it carefully, smoothing over flaws in the initial creative process, altering it by chipping away the rough edges or redoing the blurred and faded colors. Such a product wouldn't be "imperfect" due to "mistakes"; it would be imperfect simply because it is not completed / finished / wholly developed - because there still is work to do and changes to make until it is what its creator meant it to be when he first started molding the original lump of clay. Any marring caused by exposure to the wind or rain or hardness of the material itself would be "fixed" by extra attention and detail and softening of the material itself - making it more malleable in the hands of the sculptor.

How do we become perfected by our own Master Sculptor? First and foremost, by trusting that sculptor to never stop sculpting - to grasp that hope and never let go; next by striving to recognize flaws (areas in need of alteration) - and turning those defects toward Him, to receive His attention and the needed alterations; third, by becoming softer and more malleable - more able to internalize the characteristics of perfection (those articulated in the Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount) that ALL denote a degree of softness and openness rather than "a hardening of resolve". This process can be seen as coming alive in the hands of the sculptor - consciously choosing to reduce our natural rigidity and allow ourselves to be molded into what He envisioned when He condescended to create us as His children.

With this vision, we could stop beating ourselves up over things in our past that we simply cannot change and focus on identifying those flaws that caused the pain of our past. We could stop trying to fix ourselves through the sheer force of our will and focus on following His blueprint for spiritual growth that will fix our flaws. We could develop a softer heart to accept and internalize His will for us, rather than develop a harder resolve to do what we think we should do.

It truly is one of mortality's greatest ironies that babies and young children often heal much more quickly and suffer far less serious injury than adults, and it is related directly to their lack of rigidity and being less hardened and "set" in their condition. Children change constantly, but those closest to them - who see them every day - often see those changes less clearly than those who only see the children every month or year. Perhaps being as little children means more than just being open to vocal correction - as it often is perceived. Perhaps it means being open to "alteration" and "growth" - being more malleable and able and willing to be molded and changed - to continue to grow and become something different every day and week and month and year. Perhaps it means being willing to accept the slow and incremental growth inherent in the process of alteration (the possible), rather than demanding a condition before it is complete and being frustrated with the inability to achieve the impossible.

Please, think of this difference (an on-going process vs. a mistake-free condition) before you use the word "perfect" in a spiritual sense.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Revisiting Perfection and the Atonement

In my last post, I mentioned my frustration over certain song lyrics and how they influence how we view Jesus and His perfection. I realized there is more I want to add to that post, so here it is:

I use the song lyrics simply to illustrate the tendency for people to deny, in practical terms, His humanity - His mortal half. I also use them to highlight the way that "perfection" is interpreted now as opposed to in the scriptures themselves.

Just to consider: There is a difference between "sin" and "transgression". One is a willful choice; one is a mistake made in ignorance or without real choice. The latter "transgression" is MUCH broader than most people realize.

As an example of something pretty serious but done in ignorance, think of a child born in a home where terrorism is taught as a way of life. Great rewards are promised for suicide death in the name of God. If that young boy grows up and carries out a suicide bombing that kills people, is his action a "sin" or a "transgression"? How can we really know for sure - seeing only the result and not what caused it? If he were mentally disabled, we would understand and allow for an exception. How can we be sure exactly what constitutes "mental disability" in God's eyes?

Another example - a very emotional one: We are commanded to abstain from sex with anyone who is not our spouse. In the case of rape, there is a sin (the one who rapes) AND there is a transgression (the breaking of the law by what is done to he one who is raped). The victim does not sin, even though the commandment truly is broken - since sex outside of marriage has occurred. The Atonement covers that "technical violation", since it was not done intentionally or willfully. Therefore, the victim remains "clean" in the eyes of God.

Now, turn to the example of Jesus. We know he was subject to the Fall because of his mother's fallen status. This means that He inherited from her the ability to "sin", but it also means He inherited from her the same type of weaknesses and inclinations and tendencies to "transgress" as we do from our mortal parents. ***This means that he had to go through the process of overcoming His "natural man" exactly like we do, while never "sinning".***

Have you ever considered that Jesus was acting in His role as Redeemer not just for everyone else, but also for Himself? Lest I be called a heretic, remember, I also believe He never "sinned" - acted in opposition to what He understood and knew. I'm just saying that we are not held accountable for our transgressions; the Atonement paid for them. Therefore, I believe, the Atonement also paid for His transgressions, as well - those "innocent" mistakes He made as a child and as He was learning and growing from grace to grace. He probably was a more naturally obedient child than most, but I think it's instructive that, like other prophets, He was not accepted "in His own country" - by those who watched Him grow up as just a normal child in their eyes.

When He condescended to come to earth, He agreed to do so in a way that put Him in subjection to the Fall - so He could experience EVERY aspect of mortality that we do. I believe that in doing so there had to be a way provided for *all* of us to be freed from the effects of the Fall - including He who condescended to become as one of us - in every way other than succumbing to actual sin.

In the end, I return to how "perfection" was applied under the Law of Moses (and in Lucifer's plan) - never making a mistake and following everything with exactness, generally at threat of punishment. I then look at Matthew 5:48 and see that Jesus defined it as "complete, finished, fully developed" - covering lots of mistakes by allowing for repentance and focusing on spiritual growth toward an eventual completion of character. If we understand this difference, I believe it can change and empower the way we look at Jesus - and our children and our friends and our fellow saints and our leaders - AND OURSELVES, making us much more able to "have joy" in this life and in the life to come.

***We need to quit using "perfect" the way the world uses it and start using it the way that our Savior and Redeemer did.***

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Jesus Wouldn't Do

I have been participating in a discussion on another blog. This is what hit me as a result. It doesn't apply directly to meekness, but it certainly applies to what I have been writing since December.

A commenter said: "Not doing anything Jesus wouldn’t do is seriously, way totally hard."

Largely because of my musings about perfection and my New Year's Resolution, I replied with the following (edited to add some things that hit me after I commented):

What if “what Jesus wouldn’t do” is way different than most of us imagine? What if what Ashley is discussing forces us to re-examine our assumptions (many that have descended through a cultural prism that we classify as corrupted over time) about what His “mortal perfection” means? I agree it still is very hard and unattainable all at once, but even the Bible says Jesus grew "from grace to grace" and "in favor with God and man".

I think we buy into the incorrect traditions of our fathers too much with regard to many topics, and how we view “what Jesus wouldn’t do” is one of them. There is something profoundly disturbing about the idea that “little Lord Jesus no crying he makes” and "He never got vexed when the game went wrong" - and it is related directly to our too common acceptance of totally unrealistic expectations, especially for far too many women I know.

To recap, the real meaning of "perfect" is "complete, finished, fully developed". The last thing Jesus said, just before He died on the cross, was, "It is finished." According to Matthew 5:48, He might have said, instead, "I am now perfect." He grew from grace to grace, line-upon-line until he FINALLY could claim, right before he died, "It is finished." Why do we suppose we need to short-circuit the process of growth He experienced and be *now* what He was only at the end?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Meek --> (Gentle = Forgiving = Benevolent)

As I mentioned in my last post, "meek" is defined as "gentle, forgiving, benevolent" - with benevolent defined as "kindly generous". Initially, I saw these as three distinct aspects of meekness, but today it hit me that they simply are different ways to say the same thing.

I was participating in a discussion thread on Times & Seasons that was getting fairly polarized, particularly between a couple of commenters. I identified immediately with one of those commenters, and I was about to respond to something the other one said - something with which I disagreed. Suddenly, it hit me - right out of the blue:

I could be "gentle" in my response, by softening what I felt like saying; I could be "forgiving" in my response, by not taking his comments personally - which would lead me to be less harsh and more gentle in my response and softening what I felt like saying; I could be "benevolent" (kindly generous) in my response, by pausing before I responded and really thinking about if there was something of value in his comments - something I could compliment or from which I could learn - which would cause me to be less harsh and more gentle and soften what I felt like saying. Any one of these initial efforts would lead automatically to the other two - making my response, if I chose to pursue it in that manner, more gentle, forgiving and benevolent - making me more meek in my response.

What hit me tonight is that meekness is not an action; it is a way of seeing things - a viewpoint - a perspective - an outlook - an attitude. We don't act meekly; we are meek. Iow, actions don't bring meekness; meekness inspires actions.

So far, I have experienced spiritual poverty, mourning with those who mourn (and comforting those who stand in need of comfort) and meekness all as characteristics that "bring forth fruits meet for repentance" that changes how I act - NOT as the result of my actions.

I think we need to stop trying so hard to DO and focus instead on BECOMING. The "do" will happen as a direct result - only it will be His fruits rather than our works. Rather than asking, "What would Jesus do?", perhaps we should be asking, "Who has Jesus asked me to become?" Maybe learning that difference is what my resolution truly is about.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Blessed are the Meek

My resolution for this month is to become more meek.

My initial epiphany as I contemplated this today is that this is one area where I am more naturally strong than being poor in spirit (humble) - even though most people who know me might not believe so. Meekness is too often confused with humility, but it is not being humble; that is being poor in spirit. Meekness is defined in the original Greek as "gentle, forgiving, or benevolent".

Mama will tell you that I am naturally forgiving and benevolent. My favorite definition for benevolent is the last one from the link just provided:

intending or showing kindness;
2. showing or motivated by sympathy and understanding and generosity;
3. generous in providing aid to others
4. generous in assistance to the poor

So, being meek is NOT being humble; rather, it is being gentle, forgiving and kindly generous. My challenge this month will be to continue to be forgiving and generous, but I will need to look for opportunities to be gentle - probably most notably in my words and the control of my tongue. (I also will need to focus on how I respond to my children.) I have a naturally sarcastic sense of humor; I am a natural tease; often I have crossed the line between harmless banter and cutting comments. I never mean them to be hurtful, but I am not always gentle, so this will be of particular importance this month.

As an aside, I hope I will not have to practice being forgiving to a much larger degree than normal - since I do not pray for opportunities to be in a situation where I need to forgive. I don't feel right about praying that others do things that require forgiveness simply to learn to do it better, so I can't bring myself to ask for more opportunities to forgive. Perhaps an acceptable alternative is to pray for the ability to see where forgiveness is required and the ability simply to do so more quickly and immediately.