Monday, June 30, 2008

A Wonderful Thought

My friend Stephen Marsh made a statement on another blog tonight that is beautiful and profound. I want to post it here without further commentary - as one of the most concise summaries of faith I have heard in my entire life:

"(In the end) all we can hope for is for God to bring us home."

Monday, June 23, 2008

Bright Night of My Soul

My friend, Andrew, wrote a beautiful and moving post recently - "Dark Night of the Soul". In reading that post and the subsequent comments, I had an epiphany about my own experience with certainty and doubt. I have been thinking about how to explain the difference between my experience and Andrew's - and, even more interesting, the similar result from such different experiences. I will not try to summarize Andrew's post here; that would not do it proper justice. What I will post here is the epiphany that struck me as I read it and the comments about it.

I have not experienced the "dark night" Andrew describes. I have never awakened one morning feeling lost and abandoned. I have wondered often about that - about why it seemed to have "clicked" so early and completely for me - about why I could have been so "certain" of the Restored Gospel at such a young age. The epiphany I mentioned above concerns the "details" of the Gospel and the "nature" of my testimony - that I have understood and recognized from my early youth.

1) I read the Book of Mormon for the first time in First Grade as part of a reading project at school. (I chose to read it; the other kids were reading Dr. Seuss, The Berenstain Bears, etc.)
By the time I was seven, I had read the Book of Mormon and fallen in love with the way it made me feel - not the doctrine in it, per se, but the way it opened my mind and heart to some incredible feelings and impressions. I am not a "visual learner", and I don't "see" what I read in the classic sense of being able to envision it in colorful detail. I "got" the words, but more importantly I "got" the "speaking from the dust" aspect - and that was more important than the words for me.

More importantly, I recognized places where it DIDN'T say what others believed it said. Even at that age, I was a parser - and I remember thinking that lots of people in my life, including many adults and leaders, didn't really understand some of the things I was reading in the way that they actually were written. I read passages and thought, "I can understand why people think it says ________________, but it just doesn't say that."

That was a foundational recognition for me - that faithful people could read the same words and understand them differently.

2) Growing up, I remember distinctly the words and example of my father. He taught me so many lessons, but the ones that came back to me as I read Andrew's post were the ones that dealt with certainty - the ones that taught me what I could and couldn't know. My dad is not a philosopher; he hated school and struggled there; in many ways, he is average Joe Mormon; he was and is, however, incredibly insightful and brilliant in his own way. Many of my strongest "understandings" of the Gospel were shaped by what he said and how he lived, particularly when it comes to the issue of certainty and doubt.

I have no idea how many times I heard him say, "I don't know", or, "That sounds good, but we just don't know for sure," or, "I'm not sure that's how I see it," etc.

3) As early as I can remember, I have understood the Gospel to be the core, fundamental, foundational principles of God. I have understood our perspectives to be what "we see through a glass, darkly" - our best attempt to make out the details within the general outline we have been given. I have understood the focus of this life to be the process of becoming like God - of taking our fallen nature and repenting, by changing that fallen nature into an exalted ("raised") nature. I have understood that there can be certainty in that process - in the type of faith that motivates us to act in order to change (repent), to accept baptism as the symbol of that effort and to strive to be connected to God through a spiritual line (the Holy Ghost) through the grace of God, but I also have understood that everything else is just details. I have understood that there is certainty in the ideal - in the ultimate end - in the foundation principles, but I also have understood that everything we see and believe and extrapolate and conjecture and assume is subject to "further light and knowledge" - that even with more light and knowledge, we still see through our glasses, darkly.

My eiphany is that I am comfortable living in my own "dark night" that is similar in practical result as Andrew's (one that is not cut off from God but simply cut off from certainty about the details) but that came about quite differently than his did for him. I have lived there for as long as I can remember. I have never believed in the certainty that he describes prior to his own dark night, so I have never felt abandoned by its loss. My "dark night" appears "light" to me, because I have never believed I see things clearly and completely. I just see them as clearly as I am capable of seeing them - which I understand and accept as darkly. I have never been shaken by doubt of detail, because my testimony has never been founded on certainty of detail. There are things I feel completely comfortable saying I "know" for myself, but I have never felt like anyone else had to "know" anything with certainty to enjoy the fruits of the Restoration.

I return to the scripture I mentioned above - I Cor. 13:9-13. In full text, it reads:

9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

I believe I know in part, and I believe our prophets prophecy in part. I believe that will change someday, but I have no idea when that will be. There was a time, prior to my first reading of the Book of Mormon, when I thought as a child - that everything was black and white and I could know it all; I put away that belief at a very early age. I believe I see through my own glass, darkly and, therefore, only in part; I believe someday I will know fully.

Verse 8 is the bridge between the characteristics of charity and the outlook charity provides. It says:

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

Given this perspective, I live now with faith and hope that I will understand and know more fully on an on-going basis as my future unfolds. The greatest thing I can do in the here and now, however, is to be charitable - to obtain the characteristics in 1 Cor. 13:4-7 and allow them to grow within me and change me into the type of person who can accept both my own perceptual limitations and wherever others are in their own spiritual maturation process.

I am certain of many things, but those things are principles - not details. Radical changes in policy and even "doctrine" don't shake me, since I have never based my testimony on those things. I believe firmly and deeply in the PRINCIPLE of ongoing-revelation and charity exercised in how I view others - that what I believe now differs from what I believed as a youth and young adult - that what I believe now differs from what I will believe in the future. I believe that the charity God gave me as a youth will not fail me, even as prophecies and tongues and knowledge fail all around me. In my youth, this was an unconsciously proactive embrace of the core concept embedded in the dark night; in my adulthood, it is a light shining in darkness. I like to think of it as the extended Bright Night of My Soul.

Friday, June 20, 2008

A Chapel Entrance Plaque

I was in Middletown yesterday and had a chance to be in the church there. On the wall directly above the entrance to the chapel, there is a small plaque. It says:

"Peace - Be Still."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Higher Way of Seeing God

I was struck by something the other day that I have been considering ever since. It is not profound, but the combination of a very common scripture (and then one more) and the effort to understand and become more pure in heart has put something into a little different perspective for me.

The Book of Mormon includes the following statement from Alma, the High Priest, to Korihor, the professed atheist :

"The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator." (Alma 30:44)

Alma lays out both a scientific and mathematical argument in this verse - speaking of the complexity of the creation and its intricate, "regular" operation as proof that God exists. In essence, he says, "This could not be without a God to make it be."

This seems simple to many people - that the creation itself, seen as encompassing all of which we are aware, testifies of a Supreme Creator. How is it NOT self-apparent to all? Why can some people look around - or even study the intricacies of molecular biology and string theory and quantum physics and other astounding modern discoveries - and NOT see that it simply can't be the result of random mutation from an origin that still is unfathomable to scientists? Why can these people not understand this, even when many of them are very good, moral people? We haven't even scratched the surface of it all, and yet some can't recognize it as a sign of a creator. WHY?

"For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father."

What struck me is that there is an element of "they shall see God" in one's ability to recognize the hand of God in His creations, but that ability is contingent on "yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit" - to having a heart purified by that Holy Spirit. What just hit me this instant, and is changing how this post evolves as I type, is that it is relatively easy - with even a small and comparatively weak connection to the Spirit - to see the grandeur of the universal creation and be humbled into a recognition of God in that creation. It is more difficult to rise above the natural man and see God in His most inspiring creation - His children.

From both a religious and evolutionary perspective, we are the height of creation - but we also carry within us its depth. We are god and devil in very practical terms, and, while it is easy for nearly everyone to see the fallen man (the chasm that separates us from God), it is very hard for many to recognize the embryonic child within that fallen man (the tie that will be bound in heaven). It is easy to see the caterpillar, but it is very difficult to see the butterfly within that caterpillar when it still is a caterpillar.

One of the most amazing things that happens when our hearts are purified by the power of the Holy Ghost is that, to some degree or another, we glimpse the inner butterflies around us while they still are limited by their caterpillar exteriors - and, in glimpsing those butterflies, we suddenly, in a very real and powerful way, begin to see God.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Happy Anniversary, My Beloved Mi-chan

There is a beautiful anniversary tribute at the following link:

To My Wife

I met my wife 26 years ago today - June 14, 1982. I was 16; she was 15. I felt that she was my "split-apart" within two days of meeting her - and that was something I never expected or believed could happen. It was exactly like re-establishing a relationship with a best friend you haven't seen for years. I knew within a week that I would marry her - no doubts whatsoever. Once she turned 16, I never dated anyone else. We were engaged prior to my mission and her senior year in high school - and I mean a real engagement with an actual engagement ring. We married less than 2 months after I returned from Japan - 21 1/2 years ago.

We have never fought - truly fought; we have never yelled at each other; we have disagreed and had to work through disappointment and hurt feelings, but there hasn't been one moment in the last 21 years when I questioned whether or not we would be together forever - whether or not I wanted to stay with her. Not once, since that would mean losing half of who I am.

Literally, she is the half that makes me whole - the heaven I also aspire to achieve.

I posted something months ago - one of the first posts on my then new blog. If you want to read the entire thing, here is the link. (Sleep is Over-Rated) The most relevant paragraph for this thread is the following:

Eternal marriage and family mean just a little more to me at this moment, since I have caught a tiny glimpse of isolated immortality, living as half the whole she and I are meant to be. If I can’t handle each night we are apart, I can’t fathom living endlessly without her – feeling alone in a vast cosmos – sleeping in a great and spacious hotel – forever, fitfully alone. I want to live on with my arm around her – in a universe surrounded by our children – even if that means I only get a little edge of it as my own and never get enough sleep.

Monday, June 9, 2008

More Thoughts on Repentance

Further thoughts on "A Fresh View" of Repentance: (Please read the original post if you don't remember the basic foundational premise.)
  • This approach focuses specifically on acquiring the characteristics outlined by Jesus (and the apostles and prophets) as the means of changing our nature. I know Christian theologians have spoken of this in general terms, but the “practical motivation” for Mormons is literally the growth necessary to become like God. It’s not “simply” an emulative process of praise; it’s a developmental process of receiving His true glory.

    Based on my own study and discussions with Protestant friends over the years, I suspect many of them (and especially their ministers) would find this approach blasphemous - since it says there is a way for our own decisions and actions to play a large part in transforming us into gods. My response is that such an approach is totally consistent with the Bible admonitions and is, in fact, the central message of the Bible, but they don’t see it that way - at all.

    I DO AGREE, however, that the terminology I use sounds quite familiar to Protestants - more so than to many Mormons who were raised with the “steps of repentance”. I don’t disagree at all with the idea behind the steps approach; I simply believe that most of those steps happen almost simultaneously - so focusing on them one-by-one sometimes ends up feeling artificial and forced - and that it usually makes the process much, much longer than it needs to be in order to reach the final “step”. The “rethinking” part really is just focusing on the classic “last step” right from the start - **being PROACTIVE in the process of change rather than REACTIVE to the occurrence of sin**. I believe developing the characteristics of godhood will eliminate future sin from our lives in ways that reactively working through a 12-step program simply can’t do.

    In other words, “repentance” in this approach means change of NATURE, not just change of ACTION - and that really is a “fresh view” (as worded in the Bible Dictionary).

  • Let me make this clear: I should reword the post to make it clear that there is a place for the “steps” version of repentance - particularly when we are discussing sins that have inflicted real harm on others and that have become habitualized. If someone truly is like an alcoholic (addict) and needs the more structured “program”, I cannot deny the power of a 12-step program. Those who are not like alcoholics (addicts) in this regard, however, generally feel out of place in such meetings, where public confession and sponsorship are so critical.

  • “In a general sense, I don’t think anyone can ever fully repent in this life (”total transformation”).” [comment by a friend of mine]

    I used to think so, but I’m not so sure anymore. I wish I had started this process in my childhood, since that would have given me multiple decades to work on it in this manner. I have a LONG way to go, but I can say honestly that I believe I have progressed more in this regard in the last 5 months than in the 10-15 years prior to this year. It is amazing what happens when you really focus on one characteristic intensely - even if it is only for a month at a time, like it has been in my resolution. I really look forward to continuing this effort.

    I am beginning to view repentance on a characteristic-by-characteristic basis - that, with real prayer, study and sincere effort, I really can become perfectly (completely and wholly) poor in spirit, and meek, and merciful, etc. Perhaps I will never reach “total perfection” (”full repentance”) in this life, but I am less sure it is impossible than I was last year. Can I ever become “mistake-free”? I doubt it, but that’s not the pure definition of “perfect” in the first place, since the Atonement covers our transgressions wrought by the Fall - along with the mistakes caused by it.

    I’m beginning to believe that Matthew 5:48 is more than just a nice platitude - a worthy goal for which to strive. I’m beginning to wonder if it really is an attainable commandment.

** I think the "traditional version" shouldn't be the default we teach for all from the earliest years of their lives. As I've said, I have no problem with the "details" of that approach; my post is more about realizing that we can "repent" (change) in a very real and empowering way even when we aren't out there committing egregious sins - IF we redefine repentance to what it says in our scriptures - "change" from the "natural man" to the "Christ-like man" that is described in the Sermon on the Mount (and other places). Suppression says, essentially, that I will be a more controlled version of me; replacement says, essentially, that I will become someone new. That should be the default we teach, with the "steps version" reserved for those who need that type of checklist to follow.

Let me give you a sales analogy:

When I was a sales manager, one of the most difficult challenges I faced when training salespeople was getting them to move past the strict formula of identifying the steps of the sales cycle (the traditional pipeline progression that moved a prospect along an established line from 10% to 100%) to the point where they could realize that many people are ready to jump straight to 40-60% after the first meeting - and 100% very quickly after that. They were ready to make an immediate change, and it was OK to go ahead and have them "forsake their previous mistakes" by changing their actions immediately - rather than have to force them step-by-step through the "classic", generalized sales cycle. I have seen more sales lost in a normally long sales cycle by salespeople who moved too slowly and cautiously than by just about any other pattern. The key is NOT to force them to square one then through each and every step, but rather to identify where they actually are and move them forward to change from there.

(There is a missionary analogy in there, but I will skip it here.)

Likewise, most school districts that didn't buy from us chose to do that NOT because they didn't have the financial ability but rather because they didn't have the political ability to focus on identified best practices and make the instructional and spending changes necessary to implement what we were selling. Rather, they were stuck in the mire of trying to change their results while continuing to perform the same activities - by applying more pressure on their teachers and administrators to do what they already were doing better. They were trying to suppress the problem within their current system, rather than building an environment more conducive to learning - especially by applying new technologies and teaching methods that would have eliminated multiple educational problems simultaneously.

I know this is not a perfect analogy, but it highlights the same basic point: That suppression rarely works long-term for things that have not reached the level of deeply embedded addictions (where suppression might be the only option), and the constant need for suppression often brings resignation and giving up on one's self - especially when each occurrence is seen as "sin" or "failure".

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Purity of Heart

Matthew 5:8: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."

Being "pure in heart" is an interesting concept, since it includes not only an attribute (purity) but also a "location" (the heart).

Moroni 9:6 says:

"O then ye unbelieving, turn ye unto the Lord; cry mightily unto the Father in the name of Jesus, that perhaps ye may be found spotless, PURE, fair, and white, having been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, at that great and last day." (It is worth pointing out here that each of those adjectives appear to be synonyms - that "white" does not denote an actual color, but rather the "absence" of stain.)

In all the scriptural passages I have found, purity deals exclusively with a condition of spotlessness - or cleanliness - or lack of stain. Initially, that seems easy to understand, as it appears at first blush to say nothing more than "sinlessness" - since sins generally are understood to be spiritual stains. However, nothing I read as I perused the Topical Guide and the scriptures listed there led me to look at it that way. The verse does NOT say, "Blessed are the pure - in every way imaginable." It says, "Blessed are the pure - in heart."

So what? Why does that matter?

It matters because of what the "heart" appears to mean. As I read the passages dealing with our hearts, a thought struck me.

Our physical hearts and brains are the source of our physical life. People are considered medically dead when one of two things happens: either their heart stops beating or their brainwaves cease. The brain controls the nerves that allow us to process information and to feel pain - the manifestation of threats to our bodies. On the other hand, our hearts control the flow of blood throughout our bodies, and it is our blood that keeps the rest of our bodies from decaying, rotting, becoming tainted and "impure" - or that spreads infection and disease and eventual death. A healthy brain keeps us "engaged" in life and, through the recognition of pain, able to feel things that threaten our health; a healthy heart keeps us able to function at the best of our capabilities, without the draining result of impurities.

Ever since I can remember, I have equated our heart in these passages simply to our spirit and being pure in spirit as repenting and keeping our spirits clean. It just seemed to make sense, but as I have thought about it for this resolution, I wonder if that is all there is to being "pure in heart". I think perhaps it is, but how do we gain this purity? Is it just a case of eliminating stains from our spirits by exertion of our will? I wonder, perhaps, if being pure in heart means something more. I wonder if it is tied directly to the fresh view of repentance discussed here.

What is the equivalent of blood in our soul? What is it that can course through us and keep us pure - or taint us and make us rot spiritually? I think it might be a connection (or lack thereof) to the Spirit of God manifest to us through the Holy Ghost - "spirit" in a way, but not just OUR individual spirits that joined our mortal bodies to create our unique souls. I read the allegories and visions in our scriptures that constantly describe fruit (the Tree of Life, the allegory of the vineyard, the True Vine, "by their fruits shall ye know them", etc.), and I see the similarity between "blood" and "sap". Just as sap does not keep any tree pure or alive or vital when it is removed from the tree, blood also does not provide purity when it is removed from the body. It can be stored and injected when necessary, but, while it sits isolated from the body, it does no good.

Our spirits, likewise, do us no good if they are isolated from the Holy Ghost. We are taught that the Holy Ghost is a cleanser (e.g., Moroni 6:4) - a purifier. In this context, it appears that we cannot purify ourselves; that we must be purified by regular exposure to the Holy Ghost. (I think this reinforces the alternate view of repentance I described in an earlier post - "A Fresh View of Repentance".) Also, it is when our hearts are connected to the true vine that they are able to bring forth fruit meet for repentance (John 14:1-5; Alma 13:13) - which leads to baptism, which leads to receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, which leads to the companionship of the Holy Ghost, which leads to an infusion of the Spirit of God, which leads to an enlivening connection to God, which leads to "doing the will of God", which leads to becoming like God, which leads to seeing God - not only eventually in the next life, but in ourselves as we become more like Him.

In the end, as I John 3:2 states:

"Beloved, now are we the sons [and daughters] of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is." Being connected to God through the Holy Ghost will allow us to do more than see Him "in all that is around us;" it literally will allow us to see Him "as He is".

So, in summary, becoming pure in heart means being connected to the cleansing power of the Holy Ghost - and the result of that purity is the ability to see God's will for us and literally, in one way or another and in this life or another, see God as He is. The key, as stated at the beginning of this post, is to pray diligently to be cleansed and hearken (hear and follow) unto the promptings of the Holy Ghost at all times - to repent by becoming more and more like Him as we go through life.

My next post will deal with learning to recognize those promptings in order to experience the cleansing that leads to the purity that allows us to see God.