Alogical Path of Testimony

Sometimes the process of coming to believe is talked about as though it were simply a logical argument involving deductions from one initial conclusion, typically relating to the restoration. If I believe the Book of Mormon is truly the word of God then I must also believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, and similar conclusions must also be drawn about other elements of church doctrine. I’ve heard similar things regarding beliefs about the Savior – He can’t just have been a really good moral teacher so you must believe that either He was a crazy person spouting crazy ideas about being the son of God, or that He really IS the son of God, that He is our Savior, that He performed miracles, etc.

I’m not denying the logic of those chains of thought but, at least for me, a belief in the Book of Mormon didn’t come as one of the first tenets of my testimony, nor did that belief, when I did come to it, somehow automatically set off a chain of belief in the rest of church doctrine. And certainly, for me, holding the belief that Christ was not a crazy person did not lead to my testimony of the Atonement.

The other day a friend asked me why missionaries don’t talk about Joseph Smith all that much when they talk about why they’re choosing to serve and what message they want to share. Her thought, based on her previous experience with the church, was that Joseph Smith is key, due to something like the logical testimony chain described above. Belief in the church (any and all of it) starts and ends with a belief in Joseph Smith and his role as a prophet, a restorer of truth, and maybe even a near-perfect man. Probably for her, and for many people, it’s hard to get past some of the less positive aspects of the Joseph Smith story, and church history in general. Without the story of the founder being everything one might hope, how can anything that has followed since be believed?

There are most certainly negative and disappointing stories to be found about early church leaders, and even more current leaders or other elements of the church.  I’ve not spent any time researching any of the baggage that is to be found and even my familiarity with some of the more commonly discussed incidents is very limited. My friend referenced a quote along the lines of, ‘Faith is easiest in the dark,’ her take on it being primarily that faith is much easier when you can’t really see, and my guess is she thinks that I’m just not seeing a lot of things that might dampen my faith.

But I’m not sure what the goal of that pursuit might be. For me it doesn’t feel like it would be about the pursuit of truth, not because I think all the anti-church literature is full of made-up stories and lies, but because I already believe that these things exist. I know there are facts and stories out there that would be faith-shaking (though not necessarily faith-eliminating). LIke most people I struggle with many, many things I am already aware of that I don’t understand, and I’ll continue to struggle to try to figure these things out. But I’m fairly certain I won’t understand everything about which I wonder or have doubts. Life has and will provide me with lots of those so when it comes to the things I’ll spend my time seeking, I’d rather look for things that will be faith-promoting and uplifting.

And thankfully there are things about which I don’t have doubts. I believe my testimony is founded upon the only sure foundation. I explained to my friend that I didn’t think Joseph Smith was the lead message for most missionaries because he isn’t the core of the gospel, and he certainly isn’t the core of my beliefs.

I like the way Paul said it when he wrote to the Corinthians, having heard that they were focusing their faith on him or on other teachers and messengers:

Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? Who then is Paul but a minister by whom ye believed? For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet and an instrument in God’s hands in restoring truth that had been lost and spreading that truth across the earth, but my testimony did not start and does not end with him. My testimony of the gospel did not follow logically from the Joseph Smith story – rather it has come line upon line, in a somewhat unpredictable order, based on my own experience with the principles of the gospel as I’ve come unto Christ. He is the foundation of my beliefs. The change and hope I’ve found, really all the things worth having, are of Him and through Him

Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake

Today I am thinking about fear – for a variety of reasons, some rational and some not, I feel a little like the kid trying to learn to ride a bike without training wheels but keeps getting derailed by looking back to make sure the dad is still holding onto the bike. There is that old saying about faith being the opposite of fear, the two not being able to coexist, and I’m finding that it truly is difficult to maintain a sense of faith when fear is on the brain.

Faith is a little bit new for me still but I’m an old hat with fear. I understand fear, I know what things to be afraid of so I get into panic mode sometimes when I feel like I’m having a down day – down days can quickly spiral into down weeks or months. Or I get a little freaked out when I’m feeling spiritually detached – that can become a years-long drought. For whatever reason, those fears have just been more prominent in my mind and heart of late.

However, I’m grateful that despite the prominence of the fear, I’m not forgetting the rewards I’ve experienced as a result of faith. They are just as real, even if sometimes they seem harder to justify or explain, easier to rationalize, or maybe just harder to remember. Negative experiences tend to maintain a greater degree of vivacity in my memory than do the positive ones, my Sadness brain operator is maybe a little more strong-willed than Joy (Inside Out reference) – one reason I’m trying to record what I think/feel/believe more regularly.

Ultimately I do believe the Lord is on my side. I know He won’t always be holding on to my bike but that it’s important not to panic. I haven’t been in some kind of faith bubble that might burst at any moment. He hasn’t gone anywhere and isn’t going anywhere – He will not leave me or forsake me.

Spirit of Digression

I’ve had a great couple weeks, full of mostly good things and a nice break from my everyday routines. But despite all the positives I’ve definitely noticed a slip in my spiritual momentum, which I attribute to being somewhat overcome by the spirit of digression.

I have a lot of thinking time built into my regular life, time I haven’t necessarily had to set aside but which just exists and is available to me without much effort on my part. I use it to think about things I like and find interesting, which, as of late, have been largely spiritual in nature. Over the last few weeks my built-in thinking time essentially disappeared and my efforts to carve out time or dedicate mental energy to anything spiritual were half-hearted and mostly unsuccessful. When I did manage to carve out time, I spent it on social media or email. A few times I planned to do some thinking before bed but after long days, I would climb in bed and start to drift off – not a state conducive to good thinking.

Generally I didn’t miss my thinking time while I was with family or friends or off enjoying beautiful scenery or doing other things I love. But in retrospect I have been missing the moments of peace and rest, that call me from a world of care

Studying, pondering, praying….I’ve never been great at those things nor have I ever really enjoyed them so I always thought this phrase from Alma 32 was only applicable to the overly-churchy (those who talk a big game) or the next-level spirits (those who might as well just be twinkled right now because we all know where they’re going to end up), and I never expect to be a part of either group. But the surprising absence of spiritual nourishment I’ve felt over the last few weeks truly has helped me recognize the way all the studying, pondering, praying, etc. is delicious to me.

I believe in the benefits of dedicating time to spiritual pursuits and have seen how they truly enlarge my soul and enlighten my understanding.

A = Faith

In my first logic class at BYU I learned about a basic argument form called modus ponens (MP):
1) If A, then B
2) A
Therefore, B

This week I’ve been thinking about lots of B’s…principles I don’t understand, decisions that are intimidating with possibilities and consequences I can’t quite see my way to. But then I keep coming back to my A: Hard things, especially hard things undertaken in faith and obedience, give me experience and will be for my good.

Why do I do the B’s? Why should I do them? Do I believe in the B’s? Well I know I believe in A. Confusion, doubt, risk, humility, obedience, pain, sacrifice – they all accrue to my benefit, even if it takes a long time to gain the perspective necessary to recognize that benefit.

Not everything about the gospel follows simply and logically from A, but A gives me confidence that just about any B will work out in the end. If I leave the B’s to the Lord and focus on my faith in Him, A is enough.

So long thy pow’r hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on

I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead thou me on!

Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.

.

Power of Prayer

My uncle wrote a great post on his blog a few weeks ago describing a time when his terminally ill father was visited by President Monson. In speaking to this man, President Monson explained that he had just been at a meeting with the First Presidency and Quorum of the 12, and that, “as we prayed your name was read aloud and we united our faith in your behalf.”

At first I thought how awe-inspiring and comforting it would be to know that prophets and apostles were praying for you by name. But then I realized that I can’t imagine drawing any greater degree of comfort from prayers on my behalf than I have previously felt knowing that important people in my life have been praying for me.

A few years ago my aunt let me know that my cousin (her daughter, who must have been less than 6 at the time) had mentioned me in their family prayers that night. I didn’t write this down at the time so I’m not sure where I was or what I was doing exactly, but I do know that I was miserable and I probably wasn’t doing much praying. I also know that neither my aunt nor this little cousin had any idea of how I was feeling or what was going on. So I was absolutely amazed that someone was praying for me, without my asking them, without my praying for myself, and even more so that this prayer was said by a child I rarely saw and didn’t know all that well.

The prayer didn’t solve my problems or cheer me right up or even instigate a powerful spiritual experience. But it was a reminder that I was known and remembered, and it was an experience I kept going back to over the years. It was one of the milestones along my circuitous path back to faith that was solid and undeniable, and in that sense mattered a great deal.

I’ve had some great experiences wherein I’ve felt really blessed by the prayers of others recently, both after asking for prayers and maybe even more meaningfully, finding out that prayers were already being said for me without my even needing to ask.

Whether it’s a prophet or small child, I believe prayers said on my behalf mean something and matter if for no other reason than that I feel supported, comforted, and remembered knowing those prayers are happening as I’m working through hard stuff.

Poetry and Piety

The closest I get to being a true appreciator of poetry is when I read, or more often, listen to the words of hymns. So, when I came across this sentence the other day (part of an essay called A Defence of Poetry, by Percy Shelley), I immediately thought of how it applies to hymns:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. 

When Shelley mentions the veil, he is probably not referring to the veil between this life and the next, but for me it’s an apt description of the way hymns help me to connect with the spirit, something I think of as being somewhat other-worldly. Lifting the veil isn’t just about seeing the world with new eyes, but it’s about opening or widening the connection I feel between me and the Lord.

At first the phrase “makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar” seemed wrong. I thought of poetry (hymns) as helps in connecting with ideas or feelings on a deeper level, increasing familiarity. But I think familiar here refers to regular, everyday, background “objects” which have lost any real sense of meaning because they seem so commonplace. The principles I have internalized and the beliefs I have come to as a result of singing/listening to hymns were not new to me, but they were made unfamiliar, extraordinary, and meaningful.

I love what John Wesley (founder of Methodism) said in the preface to a hymnal he and his brother Charles (a prolific hymn writer) put together:

I’ve taken Wesley’s advice in returning to the hymns over and over again as a source of spiritual strength. Through years of spiritual torpor and ambivalence I never stopped loving this music and I’m grateful for the role hymns play in my life as poetic vehicles delivering the spirit, confirming faith and increasing my love for God and man.

For the Least and the Greatest

I’ve been listening to A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief and appreciating how it is packed with great principles centered around the Savior – healing of wounds, selfless sacrifice, the Atonement, bread of life/living waters, a life of service, etc. But today I specifically read the scriptures referenced at the bottom of the hymn – Mosiah 2:17 and Matthew 25:31-40. I’m sure you can recite the verse in Mosiah, but maybe (like me) you aren’t as familiar with Matthew 25.

This specific section of verses is where the Savior gives the parable of the sheep and the goats. The message is much the same as in Mosiah, but as I was reading it today I had a light bulb moment. When I’d thought of serving man as the same as serving God, I think I thought of it mostly in terms of equality and value in all people. Or maybe as instruction that we get just as much credit for helping those around us as we’d get if the Savior stood in front of us needing our help. And that’s a great principle. We should be willing and quick to help anyone, and not be respecters of persons.

But today I read it in a different way. The Savior tells the sheep that they are blessed because they visited, fed, clothed, and took Him in – they are confused and He responds that when they did any of that for anyone, they did it to/for Him. Today the thought came to me that Christ literally meant they provided that comfort and aid for Him when they were serving others. We read that the Savior has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows so, when we help alleviate the suffering of others, we literally alleviate or prevent some of those griefs and sorrows. His load is the sum of all the loads felt by all the people who ever lived on earth, and we can reduce that load through our love and service. I love the directness of this! I’ve always believed in the value of service, and somewhat connected it to serving God in that any good we do pleases God. But I love the idea that we can literally lift some small, small part of Christ’s burden, literally serve Him and serve God by helping our fellow men.

As a side note, something I’m less excited about but which still struck me today was the end of Matthew 25. The Savior turns to address the goats and condemns them, but not for the sins you typically see associated with condemnation in the scriptures. They are condemned for not visiting the sick, not feeding the hungry, etc. And then he says, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” I think it’s interesting that we don’t hear this verse much in comparison to the one given to the sheep. Possibly because this one sets a much higher standard. Sins of omission are so much subtler and harder to catch than those of commission. We always have excuses for sins of omission – I don’t have time to visit that person, or that person doesn’t really need or want my help.

And as evidenced by the goats in the parables, not helping others is sinful and it’s almost doubly bad because not only do we not alleviate some of Christ’s burden, we add our own need for forgiveness and increase the volume of pain Christ experienced through the Atonement.

Anyway, that might be kind of a downer way to end. I’m focusing on the sheep – I believe in the power of service!

Deep Waters

Continuing my hymn-oriented gospel studying….I was reading through How Firm a Foundation yesterday and about some of the history behind it. The song is structured so that the first verse sets up the foundation on which we should build (God’s word) and then the subsequent verses all come from various promises in the bible (third verse – Isaiah 41:10, seventh verse – Hebrews 13:5, etc.). But the one that I spent the most time on was verse four*:

Opposition in all things, the value of trials being greater than that of goldthe refiners fire, glorying in tribulation…I’ve heard all of these phrases over and over of course, but I’m not terribly good at remembering that all these things will give me experience and be for my good in the middle of “these things”. Most people aren’t of course.

The perspective I am gaining on the past, however, is allowing me to appreciate the value of problems that have passed. I was talking with my aunt a few days ago and we both mentioned some of the darkest periods of our lives and how, despite the utter misery we felt, neither of us would go back and change what happened. It is a little bit crazy not to want to avoid life-derailing despair, but for my part I can’t seem to be okay with losing everything I felt and learned.

It’s pretty easy to feel that way when the good experiences seem to be in the present and future and the worst experiences in the past, but I believe that  “to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all, and will deliver me from henceforth.

I wouldn’t consider my experience with Depression sacred or spiritual in any sense as my attempts to find a religious lifeline resulted in anger, frustration, and a feelings of being forgotten or unworthy or even valueless. I can’t really identify what pieces of the experience allowed me to arrive where I am now, but because of it I believe the promise of the fourth verse. I’m grateful for the sanctification I’ve received from my deepest distress.

*Verse four is added as one of those supplemental verses at the bottom of hymns that we never actually sing, despite the fact that most hymns include four verses as the “regulars”, and it’s a shame. This is one of the many changes I would like to propose for the next edition of the hymn book. 

Receiving

As I was doing confirmations at the temple today, for some reason I latched onto the words ‘Receive the Holy Ghost’. On the one hand we talk about receiving the gift of the holy ghost, so the words here are mostly seen as bestowing that gift. But there is a less passive side to receiving and that involves acceptance and utilization of the gift.

Today, because I had been given the gift years ago at my own confirmation, I thought more about my approach to receiving it. In other words, my need to pay attention to, be open to, and listen for the influence of the spirit. For any of that to be possible, dedicating time for listening and contemplating (the process of receiving) is necessary.

The human brain may be able to multi-task and receive lots of information at once, but while multi-tasking I’m not sure the brain can pay as much attention as is required to feel the spirit. However I am convinced that the heart cannot multi-task. It can feel one thing, it is focused on one thing.

Whether it means going to the temple or just putting my phone in airplane mode for ten minutes every day… Oh, may I always listen to receive him hour by hour.

Come

Continuing my reading/studying of hymns….I discovered that more hymns start with the word ‘Come’ than any other word. There are 23 hymns which begin with ‘Come’, and hymns starting with the word ‘God’ are next at 15. I don’t necessarily believe there’s a lot of significance to the first word of a hymn, the people on the church music committee who made the hymn selections had lots of factors they were considering, and I’m sure there were more important spiritual influences at work, or maybe all these ‘Come’ hymns just sounded nice. Who knows. But I do think it’s interesting

The second verse of Come, Follow Me specifically talks about the word ‘Come’ – Come follow me, a simple phrase, yet truth’s sublime, effulgent rays, are in these simple words combined. To urge inspire the human mind.

First of all you’ve got to love any hymn that uses the word ‘effulgent’. Second, to think that sublime rays of truth are contained in a phrase that we hear all the time is interesting. But that’s really what it’s all about. We are constantly coming to Christ, there is never an arrival point, we can’t come far enough…more coming is always required.

References to knocking at doors are used in the scriptures, wherein Christ is the knocker, I stand and knock, and He is seemingly coming to us, as well as references where we are the knockers, knock and it shall be opened unto you. But in either case, a degree of coming to Christ is required of us, whether it’s knocking or coming to open the door.

For my own part, I think I’ve been willing to follow and come to a point, but there are lines I hadn’t crossed. If there’s anything I’ve come to believe over the last few months it is that faith isn’t faith if it’s easy, and if it doesn’t include a little bit of stretching. Continuing to come, despite not knowing or feeling or wholly believing, is what faith looks like for me, and it’s been unbelievably rewarding.