Sunday, April 27, 2008

What Satisfies Hunger & Thirst?

As I have considered this month's resolution to hunger and thirst more after righteousness, especially in light of how this applies to our actions, I have been struck once again by the way that our scriptures differentiate between "fruits" and "works". The Old Testament has 23 references to "fruits" and 83 references to "works"; New Testament has 42 references to "fruits" and 107 references to "works"; the Book of Mormon has 9 references to "fruits" and 59 references to "works"; the D&C has 2 references to "fruits" and 34 references to "works". There is an interesting difference in how "fruits" is used in the Old Testament, but there is a common denominator for each of these words in all of our canon, and it is directly relevant to my resolution this month.

In the Old Testament, "fruits" generally is used simply to mean the food that grows from the vine or tree. There are a few instances where there is an allusion to actions, but they are rare. In the rest of our canon, with rare exceptions, "fruits" and "works" both deal explicitly with actions. It is the difference in the actions that is instructive.

The following are a few examples that illustrate this difference:

3 Nephi 27:24 - "Write the works of this people, which shall be, even as hath been written, of that which hath been." (Obviously, referring strictly to actions, regardless of the nature of those actions)

Alma 37:34 - "Teach them to never be weary of good works, but to be meek and lowly in heart; for such shall find rest to their souls." ("Works" needs a qualifier - "good".)

Psalms 107:8 - "Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!" (Again, needing a qualifier - "wonderful".)

John 15:4-5 - "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing." (Fruit is something that is born or brought forth from a tree or vine.)

3 Nephi 14:17 - "Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit." (Again, fruit is the product of the tree, and it is the tree that determines whether the fruit is good or evil.)

It is apparent from these verses, and hundreds of others that I might have quoted, that, while "works" and "fruit" both refer to our actions, one focuses strictly on those actions ("works") and the other focuses primarily on the source of those actions ("fruit"). The distinction is not always made clear when discussing works, but it is explicit in nearly all references to fruit.

My conclusion from this comparison? That "works" are what we do - that what we do is important - that we are judged according to what we do. However, that judgment is NOT simply about what we do, as if we could construct a checklist of Do's and Dont's and be judged as "righteous" based on how well we follow our checklist. Certainly, there are some things that are required of all (baptism, basic adherence to the commandments, etc.), but we will be judged primarily on whether or not our "works" are produced by a real connection to a good tree or vine - whether or not they are the result of the nurture of the Spirit - whether or not they are the works that God desires of each of us individually. That final point is the key, imo.

This means that the full body of my works must be distinguishable from the full body of anyone else's works - that I can't produce gala apples just because someone else produces them - that my apples can be corrupt if God wants me to produce oranges or pears (or pears during one stage of my life, cherries during another and grapes in a later stage). Just as importantly, if I love apples and dislike apricots, I must be willing to learn to produce apricots if He requests it of me.

Works provide exercise, but only divine works (fruits) provide the sustenance that feeds my soul and satisfies my hunger and thirst.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Righteousness: "Being a Good Example" is Not Enough

Years ago, when I was serving as the Ward Mission Leader, it struck me one day that there are members who say the most important thing they can do to share the Gospel is to be a good example. I believe these people are missing something - a fundamental understanding of the world around them that is absolutely critical to sharing the Gospel.

Of course, it is vital to be living the Gospel to the best of our abilities in order to share it. Of course, living the Gospel is of paramount importance - and, if one thing is to be done, living it is better than talking about it. However, the idea that “just being a good example” is enough to “share the Gospel” and attract others to the Church is fundamentally flawed and actually dangerous, since it misses two critical realities of this life.

1) There are numerous people of all religions and denominations who live their lives in accordance with the basic principles of the Gospel - whose lives are examples of true Christian discipleship in every objective measure, even within non-Christian religions. Many of these people are closer to being truly Christ-like than I am. Joining them is important, but it does NOTHING to distinguish us from them - especially if . . .

2) People generally have no idea what religion someone else is unless there are obvious outward signs or that someone tells them. In my area, for example, if I am a wonderful example of Christian discipleship, most others will assume correctly that I am Christian - but not one of them (OK, maybe one or two) will assume I am Mormon. In fact, the vast majority probably will assume I am not Mormon, due to their misconceptions about the Church. So, in a very real and powerful way, my silent example of Christian discipleship actually will reinforce their negative view of Mormonism and harm the Church.

This is one case where “living the Gospel” cannot be divorced from openly proclaiming our membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is important to be a good example, but that example must include “opening our mouths” and including our allegiance to the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot be just another example of spirituality; we actually must share what we have in order to be righteous ("right with God").

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Righteousness" vs. "Spirituality"

As I was contemplating this month's resolution, something struck me quite forcefully - something I had never considered previously. I was struck by the difference between "righteousness" and "spirituality". Since this is a new concept for me, I hope I can articulate it properly and it will be instructive - both for myself and others.

My search of the scriptures was incredibly instructive. (Have I said I love our on-line scriptures with the search option?) "Righteous" had 214 references in our canon; "spiritual" was listed 45 times. That was interesting. However, "righteousness" (the actual result of being righteous) appears in our canon 274 times, while "spirituality" (the actual result of being spiritual) appears a grand total of . . . . . . . 0 times. Nada; not once; zero; nil; never. That alone told me something profound.

When I looked up "spirituality" in the dictionary, the most interesting and comprehensive definition was, "of, relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material". In other words, to "be spiritual" means to be focused on the spirit - and, by extension, away from the body.

"Righteous", on the other hand, is defined as "characterized by or proceeding from accepted standards of morality or justice". In other words, to "be righteous" means to be "right with or living in accordance with proper standards **of action, not thought**" - which implies actions that, of necessity, are accomplished by the soul - the connected and united body and spirit.

The thought that hit me was that there is a real difference between being "spiritual" and being "righteous". There is an even bigger difference between pursuing "spirituality" and striving for "righteousness". If I have to choose between one or the other, I need to choose righteousness as the object of my hunger and thirst. Spirituality can be a motivating factor in pursuing a connection to the Holy Spirit, but it alone cannot produce a perfect (complete and whole) life lived in harmony with God's standards for all His children. Again, we are not commanded to seek spirituality as an end goal - to hunger and thirst after it. Why is that?

In a very real way, "spirituality", alone and isolated, is selfish, inwardly focused, susceptible to gluttony (constant spiritual feeding with no service to burn away spiritual calories), insular, and not inherently active or giving. It is understanding without application; it is the spirit divorced from the body; it is belief without action; in a way, it is like faith without works. Furthermore, if pursued exclusively, it can lead to a hermit-like existence away from the world - like a monk sequestered in a monastery living a life of isolated introspection - doing no bad, but also doing no good - never finding completeness and wholeness.

On the other hand, "righteousness" is selfless, focused on actions, high spiritual energy consuming, service-oriented, producing fruits that can feed one's self and others and bring the Holy Ghost to replenish personal spirituality. "Righteousness" is the physical application of true "spirituality" - the "proof" of real faith - and the difference between the "fruits of the Spirit" and the "works of man". (The last comparison is the topic of my next post.)

No wonder the command is NOT to hunger and thirst after spirituality, but instead to hunger and thirst after righteousness. In fact, what hits me as I type this is that righteousness can be phrased as "being right with God". That is a good way of describing the effect of God's grace - since it is God's grace that allows "being right" to mean being as complete and whole as one can be at any given point on the path that leads eventually to becoming truly complete and whole. One can be "righteous" all along that path, all the while hungering and thirsting after perfect righteousness.

That is a noble pursuit, worthy of our hunger and thirst.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

For What Do I Hunger and Thirst?

I view the purpose of THIS life as becoming like Jesus was in His mortal life - and the purpose of THE NEXT LIFE as becoming like Christ is now in His post-mortal life. Everything else (specific doctrine, intellectual understanding, nuanced discussions of exegesis, whatever) is secondary to that.

The core Josephism to which I cling is: "I teach them correct PRINCIPLES and let them govern themselves." "Principles" is not equivalent to "doctrines" or "intellectual understandings". That's important to me.

When it comes down to it, I base my core principles on three main statements of Jesus:

"Be ye therefore perfect," (Matt. 5:48) - "Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them." (Matt. 7:20) - "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21) -- (basically, the entire Sermon on the Mount, but especially those three verses)

When push comes to shove, I don't give a rat's hairy hindquarters exactly what someone says they believe - only what they DO and what they are BECOMING. If they teach Buddhism or if they claim atheism - I don't care one bit. I really don't, as long as they are doing the will of the Father and becoming perfected - and I believe religious denomination has RELATIVELY LITTLE to do with that pursuit.

To be clear and not misunderstood, I believe STRONGLY in the Restoration of the Gospel (the "Good News") - and that what constitutes the "Good News" is exactly what separates us from other denominations. I have served willingly in a Stake Mission Presidency and as Ward Mission Leader, and I am committed to the principle of sharing the Gospel with those who will listen. I believe deeply in the power of godliness mentioned in JSH 1:19 - and in the description of Christianity at the time as "apostate". However, I also believe (given our deeply embedded theology of grace) that perhaps the only over-riding, absolutely necessary, truly unique reason for the restoration of the CHURCH is to establish once again an organizational institution in which the "ordinance orthodoxy" can be practiced - explicitly so that the Buddhist and atheist can be exalted for their sincere efforts to be "just men made perfect". That is SUCH a more empowering, expansive vision of grace than anything that is taught in Christianity at large that I am baffled by those who claim we don't teach grace.

We teach that man will not be punished for Adam's transgression, and if that belief is to have ANY meaning whatsoever, it HAS to be established on such a principle of shockingly liberal grace. "I Stand All Amazed" is my favorite hymn, and it includes the following words to OPEN the hymn:

"I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me - **confused** at the grace that so **fully** he proffers me."

From my first post on grace here on this blog, I will excerpt the following:

A very insightful friend recently described the process of "taking my yoke upon you" as feeling the purity and power of His sinlessness. I love that construct, but I would add the following: Understanding and truly accepting God's grace occurs when you realize that all of your inherited weaknesses (your temper, your judgmental nature, your fatigue, your lack of self-worth, your never-ending battles with whatever drives you crazy) - everything that keeps you from becoming who you desperately want to become - has been bought and paid for already. He fought that fight for you, and He won. Yes, you were born with things that keep you from being perfect, but He paid for those things - meaning that you truly can take His yoke upon you and walk confidently at His side as a brother or sister with the same eternal potential. It occurs when you realize that, because of the grace that so fully He proffers you, you aren't required to pay for those things; rather, you are freed to pursue those qualities and characteristics you want to acquire to become perfect (whole and complete) - regardless of the tangible outcome of that effort. Understanding this truth makes you free in a very real way. Repentance becomes an exciting, forward looking progression toward wholeness, rather than a depressing, backward-looking, guilt-inducing attempt to beat the bad out of you and never again make any mistakes. Bad habits and painful characteristics will disappear as they are replaced by good ones, not as they are "subdued and repressed by sheer force of will."

I believe an understanding of grace is fully realized when one stops fighting God's grace - when he realizes that all God wants is his willing mind and heart - when he quits worrying about his individual worthiness and starts focusing on his contribution to communal unity - when he simply lays it all at His feet and says, in essence, "I know you understand my weakness; I know you know my struggles and pains; I know you know how I feel about myself; I know you love me and have bought me, anyway. From now on, I will trust your promise and, despite my continuing frustration and my continuing weakness and my continuing failures, I will bounce back each time and continue to grow. I will not despair; I will accept my weakness and imperfection and failure, knowing you don't care, because you love me, anyway. I will get back up each time I am knocked down and continue to walk toward you, until you embrace me and say, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant' - knowing I don't deserve it and being eternally grateful for the grace that so fully you proffered me."

Why do I share that in this context? It is to say that, while I enjoy the intellectual stimulation I find in the Bloggernacle (LDS-focused blogs), it does not define my discipleship. That is defined by my realization that I am no better in God's eyes than any other child, and that, no matter how my brain defines my doctrinal understanding, all he wants is my love and obedience - in order to take my ugly caterpillar and make it the butterfly it can become. He wants me to understand and know him, but He cares much more that I love and obey Him according to what I feel I understand or know - even if I don't yet understand or know Him fully. My "faithful effort" (actions done despite things not seen) is MUCH more important than waiting to act until I see "face-to-face".

I engage in internet conversations specifically to find ways to hone my discipleship - to plumb the depths of others' understanding to find new ways to bring me closer to my Father. I bristle occasionally when others beat on each other, because that is opposed to the outcome for which I yearn - because it is one of the only things, if not THE only thing, that makes our Father weep. (seeing His children reviling and hurting each other)

Jesus said, "Come unto me all ye that labor, and I will give you rest." He didn't say he would give them heartburn or scorn - or intellectual superiority; he promised rest. That's what I long for in the discussions in which I engage - a place of refuge and rest, where I can drink deeply from the cup of perspective and insight - no matter the theological or denominational affiliation of those with whom I converse. I don't want to fight and argue; I want to share and sup. That is the sustenance for which I hunger and thirst - the soothing sips of spirituality that restore and reaffirm my resolve for righteousness. I don't hunger and thirst after insight for itself; I pursue it for the way it will help me live righteously - to be filled with the Holy Ghost - to do the will of my Father - to bring forth fruits meet for repentance - to become therefore perfected (whole and complete).

Everything else is meaningless if it isn't involved in getting there.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

I Thank Thee, O God, For Our Prophets

What an amazing conference. I don't think I've been fed that fully and broadly in any conference. Please share your favorite moments / talks / insights / feelings.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Managing Hunger and Thirst

I fasted Wednesday, and as I was sitting in a networking meeting watching everyone else eat a delicious lunch, my mind wandered to thoughts of diet and eating habits. In the middle of that contemplation, I had an interesting thought related to this month's resolution to hunger and thirst more after righteousness. It really was something I had not considered previously and dealt with proper ways to construct a diet - to "manage" hunger and thirst.

As I said in my last post, feeling hunger and thirst has one, and only one, purpose - to prompt the one who is hungry and thirsty to eat in order to quench that hunger and thirst, thus protecting the body from the damage that inevitably occurs from lack of nourishment. Thus, we feel hunger and thirst when we are in need of physical nourishment and are at risk of physical harm. As I was considering that (what hunger and thirst really are), I was struck by the correlation between how similar a good physical diet and a good spiritual diet are - and how wise the counsel is that we receive from our prophets and apostles.

Nutritionists teach that the absolute best way to construct a diet is to eat small meals throughout the day - as often as every 2-3 hours - a little food each time - just enough to "take the edge off" and satisfy the hunger and thirst that is felt as we burn away the calories (nutritional energy) provided by our food. In other words, the best way to manage food is to eat just enough to make the hunger and thirst go away (to replenish our physical energy), then repeat that process each time hunger and thirst is felt (when that physical energy is used). Obviously, that is not possible for most people in the course of their daily lives, so a good compromise is to eat three times daily - in the morning, around Noon and in the evening.

Other patterns of diet are not as healthy, since they ignore the warnings signs (hunger and thirst) and procrastinate the alleviation of those signs. For example, a "feast and famine" approach is unhealthy, as it does not provide steady nourishment (along with a host of other issues), while extreme diets might produce immediate and dramatic weight loss but rarely are sustainable, since they are incapable of establishing nutritional habits, and often cause problems with organs that are overtaxed by too much and then too little nourishment. Often, once the initial weight loss is achieved, old habits return - creating a yo-yo effect with weight control, which brings its own set of issues and complications (both physical and emotional). The effects of binging and purging are obvious and destructive.

There is one other habit that deserves to be considered: gluttony. Gluttony is partaking in excess, in this case going beyond dietary need and wrecking the proper balance that produces optimum health - and it generally is accompanied by a lack of proper exercise, through which excess calories (nutritional energy) are burned away. When gluttony is practiced to an extreme degree, morbid obesity creates all kinds of health issues. It is an incredibly destructive dietary practice, and it is available only to those who have access to a surplus of food. In a very real way, it is a case of selfishness, since it consumes food unneeded by the consumer and takes that food away from others who actually need it.

It is interesting to compare this to the advice and counsel we have received for feeding ourselves spiritually. The general forms of spiritual nourishment are fasting, prayer, scripture study and pondering/contemplation. The counsel is and always has been to fast at least monthly (and more often whenever necessary), pray at least morning and night and at various other times when appropriate (and keep a prayer in the heart always), read the scriptures at least daily, and ponder/contemplate the things of God always. This creates a situation in which you are fed spiritually continually, where there is some form of spiritual nourishment occurring at the very moment it is needed. There is no feasting and famine - no "extreme diet" - no binging and purging - just a steady stream of nourishment that maintains an optimum state of spiritual health.

There also is no gluttony in this approach, as the constant and daily aspects of spiritual nourishment should be undertaken within the context of our other responsibilities of life. Caring for our families includes time in "occupational" pursuits (outside of or inside the home) and recreational activities; we set aside time for the development of talents; we engage in the service of others; etc. This allows us to "burn away" our excess spiritual energy, tone and strengthen our spirits, and create a properly balanced soul.

I have seen the effects of spiritual gluttony in the lives of some people I love deeply - people I know are good, caring, loving, spiritual individuals. They are good people at heart, but the inordinate amount of time they spend involved in individual spiritual activities reduces the amount of time they have available to spend with family and friends, thus reducing the amount of "spiritual energy and nourishment" they are able to "burn away" to provide spiritual light and heat and nourishment and energy for others. Just as with physical gluttony, it removes spiritual nutrition from others, lessening their opportunity for spiritual nourishment. In some cases, it leads those they love the most to assume that they are not loved as much as the pursuit of spiritual nourishment - creating, in one example I have seen, the impression that dead people (temple work) are more important than live people (family and friends and neighbors).

It is important as we hunger and thirst after righteousness that we do so in a proper manner - feeding our spirits like we should feed our physical bodies - creating real balance in the nourishment of our soul.

My next post will be about the implications of hungering and thirsting after "righteousness" (as opposed to "spirituality") and how that pursuit leads to being filled with the Holy Ghost.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Hunger and Thirst After Righteousness

My resolution for April is to "hunger and thirst more after righteousness."

As I thought about this goal throughout the day, the very first thing that hit me - hard - was how little I think about hunger and thirst. I have experienced relative hunger and thirst in my life (more thirst than hunger), but I have not been desperate for food or drink to the point of concern at any point in my life. I was raised poor, but we never missed meals. My entire life has been just comfortable enough to allow me to be a bit picky - like having the option to choose not to eat or to tell my kids to eat sandwiches or cereal if they don't want to eat what we have prepared. For a few years, I traveled with a company expense account - allowing me to acquire a taste for fine dining in cities across the country. I am somewhat overweight, and part of that simply is because I love food.

In other words, I'm not sure I ever have "hungered and thirsted after" food in a real, powerful, physical sense except as a baby - at least not in my memory. Whenever I feel even a little hungry or thirsty, I am able to satisfy that feeling very quickly and with minimal effort. That was an interesting insight - something I simply haven't contemplated before today.

I wondered how I can learn to hunger and thirst after righteousness when I really don't know what it feels like to hunger and thirst - certainly not in the same way that those who first heard Jesus' original statement would have understood it - certainly not in the same way that others in this day and age understand it. I think a central part of this month's focus for me will include some extended fasting, since that is the only way available for me to experience real, powerful hunger and thirst.

Next, I did the uniquely Mormon thing and considered the Book of Mormon version of the verse in question. 3 Nephi 12:6 repeats Matthew 5:6, with a modified ending. It says:

"And blessed are all they who do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled with the Holy Ghost."

Feeling hunger and thirst has one, and only one, purpose - to prompt the one who is hungry and thirsty to eat in order to quench that hunger and thirst, thus protecting the body from the damage that inevitably occurs from lack of nourishment. Thus, we feel hunger and thirst when we are in need of physical nourishment and are at risk of physical harm. There is a deep irony - an apparent contradiction - in translating that to our spiritual health, since I am not about to pray for a state of spiritual starvation in order to understand and appreciate better being spiritually nourished. Fasting can induce physical hunger and thirst by depriving the body of food and water, but how can I induce spiritual hunger and thirst without depriving my spirit of the influence and presence of the Holy Ghost - something I simply do not want to do?

Perhaps fasting will accomplish this to some degree by helping me see what it feels like truly to be hungry and thirsty, thus emphasizing more clearly and understandably the spiritual condition I want to avoid - by making the "threat" of losing the Spirit more real to me as something I want to avoid at all costs. I'm not quite sure of this lesson, so I will be thinking more about it throughout the month.

I then thought of Alma 32:27, which says:

"But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words."

Maybe my fasting and prayer and pondering will increase my desire to believe and understand, and maybe letting that desire work in me will produce an even greater desire - a true longing similar to what it feels like to hunger and thirst.

Finally, the footnote for "desire" in this verse references being "teachable" - which generally is synonymous with humility - which is an aspect of being poor in spirit. Perhaps, and this thought struck me just now as I was writing this post, it takes a recognition of one's nothingness before God - one's spiritual poverty and inability to feed one's self sufficiently - to truly experience spiritual hunger and thirst as commanded by Jesus. Maybe being poor in spirit and meek are necessary precursors to being filled with the Holy Ghost, since such characteristics are exactly what bring about the willingness to accept and follow His promptings when they come - to be filled with the Holy Ghost by actually partaking of His nourishment when it is offered.

I still plan on fasting often this month, but I think I will be focusing my fast specifically on feeling the sweet and filling nourishment that the Holy Ghost can provide, specifically so that I will desire it more and more - so that I truly will know what it feels like to hunger and thirst after righteousness - to feel true and driving motivation to be "right", "correct", "suitable", "favorable", etc. before God. One way to sharpen hunger and thirst is through deprivation - but it just struck me that another way to do so is to taste something so delicious that the mere memory of that experience makes you hunger and thirst for more.