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

The Speed of the Right

I was watching one of my favorite movies the other night – The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – wherein a main character  expresses his belief that, “Everything will be alright in the end…so if it is not alright, it is not yet the end.” Similar sayings are thrown out all the time at church, “Faith in God includes faith in His timing,” or “This too shall pass.”

As I am not naturally inclined towards faith or optimism, when i hear quotes like this I often think, “Yeah, well there’s a nice little saying that’s impossible to argue with.”

The Faithful Optimist: Oh you have problems? Oh you’re not getting answers? Oh praying and reading your scriptures and going to church aren’t providing the blessings you’ve always been told they would? Well…endure to the end! You just have to wait.

The Realistic (Pessimistic) Person with Problems: I have waited and I keep trying, I just haven’t seen or felt any indication that God exists, let alone felt God’s support in my life.

The Faithful Optimist: God’s timing sometimes requires a lot of waiting…you know the saying, “They never said it would be easy, they only said it would be worth it.”

Discussion over. Realistic (Pessimistic) Persons with Problems can never win this argument! The only way a conclusion can be drawn about what is good, right and true is if the answer or result the Faithful Optimist expects comes. If it doesn’t, then the conclusion is that more waiting is required. If you already claim to know what answer or result will come, if you don’t believe there is even the possibility that problems won’t be resolved or answers won’t come, then really at heart you’re already a Faithful Optimist, not a Realistic (Pessimistic) Person with Problems.

So I wonder if there are Persistent People Who Wait, the Realistic (Pessimistic) Persons with Problems who aren’t overtaken by their problems and pessimism but keep patience and hope alive….if these people exist and if they wait, and wait, and wait….all the way to their deathbeds and then finally think, “All this time I thought I was just waiting but now I’m out of time. Apparently everything I was ever told wasn’t true. Belief in God’s timing and waiting and enduring was really just blind faith and ignorant optimism. Things don’t work out, God doesn’t exist!”

And when I carry out that train of thought to that extreme I suppose there could even be a whole lot of Really Persistent People Who Wait, along with the Faithful Optimists, who maintain hope and belief right up till they die, only to stay very dead and never realize their dreams of eternal life.

Well…so what? Were those people worse off because they believed things would work out? I don’t think so. Maybe it could be argued that their’s is just a case of simple people living in the bliss of ignorance – but is bliss so bad? Especially compared with an alternative like “life sucks and then you die?”

I have recently joined the ranks of the Faithful Optimists (well, am in the process of slowly learning how these people think) and as irritating as I find it, I really can’t see any downside to this philosophy. I believe things will work out, that hard things accrue to my benefit. This belief helps motivate me to keep trying and to seek the Lord’s help. It is what allows me to appreciate progress that is made and believe continued progress and positive days are ahead. Really it gives me hope.

Even on the days where I wonder, where I discount the positive and the good, where I start comparing the years of misery to more recent, mere months of contentment, I can’t help but recognize the rationality of hope and optimism.

Be that prayer again repeated,
Ne’er despairing, though defeated
Pains, nor toils, nor trials heeding, 
And in heav’n’s good time succeeding.
God Speed the right. God speed the right. 

 

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.

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.

.

Choosing without seeing the path

I am trying to figure out the whole “answers to prayers” thing. Not the type of answers involving help or comfort in difficult situations, but more along the lines of guidance or direction when making big decisions.

It’s not been something I have worried too much about previously – I think that generally it doesn’t matter too much (in the grand, eternal scheme of things) what I choose. Even with the seemingly big decisions I’ve made up to this point, I’m not sure there was a “right” or “wrong” decision, though it’s completely possible that one choice was part of a more direct path to progress and happiness, while the other was more circuitous with a lot of unnecessary unpleasantness along the way. But, at least so far, the biggish decisions I’ve made have worked out alright in the end. I don’t look back at any of them and wish I’d made a different choice because I wouldn’t have learned what I’ve learned and wouldn’t be where I am now.

However….

I recognize that there are some decisions which are significant enough that the decision-maker would require, or at least really, really, really appreciate some affirmation of the direction in which they are leaning. Sometimes, when two roads diverge in a yellow wood, or anywhere else, if you’re really going to take the one less traveled by, or if you couldn’t care less which road is most traveled, but you think the road you choose will make all the difference, you want some reassurance that all that difference will be the positive sort.

As part of the decision-making process I have thoughts come into my head, sometimes as a result of connections to other thoughts, sometimes without any clear trigger. In my spiritual immaturity, I have yet to figure out how to distinguish my own thoughts from those which might be the result of the guidance of the spirit and inspiration from God.

I’ve been taught that things which are a good cometh of God. Maybe my “good” ideas, whatever they may be, aren’t just a result of my own cleverness and problem-solving skills, but they actually are a result of guidance and inspiration. That’s great for situations where the “good” choice can be fairly easily identified. But what about good, better, or best options? What if both roads could lead to continual goodness and love and service?

When all the thoughts and options bouncing around in one’s head are good ones, to some degree, that’s when it seems really difficult to figure out what guidance is being provided. There’s always a wonder – was that thought just mine or was that significant somehow? Did I just impose this feeling on that thought because it’s what I want to feel? Am I trying to convince myself that I’m making the right decision for the right reasons when really I just want to make it for selfish or stupid reasons? Does it matter what the reasons are if the result is a good one? But what if both results, to do or not to do, are good ones? Was hearing that comment from that person just now simply a coincidence? Is this thing just on my mind and now I hear about it everywhere? Am I creating a self-fulfilling prophecy so that I have external validation of something I want?

If I were to hear all this, as an external observer, I would roll my eyes at the indecisiveness – just pick one! Everything works out in the end. But I know that there are some decisions where waiting till things work out in the end just doesn’t seem good enough, or might even seem fairly terrifying. A lot of crappy stuff can happen before one arrives at the “end” where things work out.

Of course I know that if, when faced with a difficult decision, the best option was always clear, the degree to which free will plays a role would be greatly diminished.

Know this, that ev’ry soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.

He’ll call, persuade, direct aright,
And bless with wisdom, love and light,
In nameless ways be good and kind,
But never force the human mind.

Agency in the face of opposition or confusion is required or there would be no good or bad choices to benefit or suffer from. And then there’s that faith thing again…acting on hope for things (inspiration, guidance, and direction included) which are not seen. I had thought the big, big decisions typically came as a result of a little motivation-via-revelation, but maybe even the big decisions, those that seem so big even taking one step without at least some degree of inspiration feels like taking a truly blind, flying leap across a giant chasm…maybe those decisions just require chasm-size faith.

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

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.

“Wrong Things”

I read a great letter from a friend in the MTC today, who said:

I was pretty worried about my future companion/trainer earlier this week and was praying that everything would work out. And my prayer was answered. I just had an overwhelming peaceful feeling and thought, “Of course everything will work out. Don’t you remember that Heavenly Father has his hand in everything. He knows you and will not just forget about you.” Whoever my trainer is, I am exciting to see what the Lord has in store for me. Isn’t that a beautiful blessing of this gospel! As long as we are obedient and doing our best, we don’t need to worry that “the wrong thing” will happen. I’m so grateful! 

I love this because I don’t generally feel very guided in my decision making, but I do have faith that if I’m doing my best and on the path things will work out. Becca phrases it much better, saying “the wrong thing” won’t happen. Important and insightful that she didn’t say “hard things” or “bad things” wouldn’t happen, because they inevitably do of course. I think “wrong” as she’s using it refers to happenings that cause unnecessary suffering, and in that sense I have experienced many “wrong things” as a result of my own poor choices. But, I’m grateful that even if “wrong things” happen, it’s never too late to change course, and I believe things do work out in the end.

Fast-Sunday Shocker

Today I did not wake up in time to attend my Ward at 9am (said as if this is the exception rather than the rule, which, of course, it isn’t). So, I went to my parents’ Ward at 1pm, not feeling anything other than pleased with myself for going to church. About 10 minutes into the testimony portion of the meeting, and hearing several people touch on things I had been thinking about, my heart started pounding – as is often described by testimony bearers – and it was pounding so hard it was physically uncomfortable.

I really wouldn’t have wanted to get up with my parents sitting there, they don’t really know my situation and I don’t like talking about it around them, but I got up anyway. And here is a completely ridiculous, unnecessarily long play-by-play:

I started by apologizing for taking up time since I’m not technically a member of that Ward, and saying that no one could be as surprised as I was, except maybe my parents. After the conversation the night before at the cabin with my aunt and uncle, and lots of mulling previously, I talked about three major impediments to faith that seem to affect people my age, and maybe others, but especially me.
  1. First is the instant access to information, which makes faith really hard as we are so used to getting answers immediately.
  2. Second is the focus on authenticity – not faking it till you feel it, but living in a completely authentic way based solely on how you feel. But of course faith requires stepping outside what might feel “authentic”.
  3. Third is a resistance to authority and being told what is right. Along with authenticity, not being receptive to hearing what we should feel or think from others and never being obedient for obedience’ sake.
Then I mentioned three things that I’ve found have formed my foundation of faith, such as it is at this point.
  1. Hymns – I’ve always been able to feel the spirit with church music and that has been a faith builder for me. So I believe in the spirit and the power of music to bring it and confirm the truth of the words being sung.
  2. Funerals – One man who bore his testimony before me talked about how people in the church have a sense of peace at funerals because they know it’s only a temporary separation. (A woman in the Ward died yesterday and I feel a little bit bad about not saying anything about it, especially since a lot of the meeting had people talking about her.) I said how after going to funerals I realized that I absolutely believe I will see people who have passed away again, and that I believe in the plan of salvation.
  3. The thing that kept me connected through rough years, and the most motivating of the three, is the fact that all the people I love and respect most in the world believe in the gospel and participate in the church. So, I realized I can’t help but believe because of how much I respect them.

I wrapped up by talking about how my faith is building, very slowly, line upon line from those basic things, and that I’m grateful for the way that works. I’m also grateful that it CAN work that way, and that I don’t have to jump in to everything at once.

At one point I looked back at my dad, and I’m not sure when this was – if it was when I half turned while I made the remark about my parents being surprised, or if it was when I looked back while referring to a funeral comment the second counselor had made, but my dad was definitely very teary. And when I sat back down I could tell that he had been crying, or maybe he still was. I would like to take credit and say that I was just really bringing the spiritual heat, but I’m guessing it was mostly a result of his relief that I am not an atheist or agnostic after all.

Lots of people made nice comments – my mom said, “That was very nice – very intellectual.” She definitely meant it as a compliment, but I think I’m generally thought of as being too intellectual. It is a source of frustration for me that I go into brain mode and get cutoff from my feelings. My dad said it was really great and said,”I learned.” I responded by saying that was the whole reason I did it – because I was trying to teach him something and it was the only way I could get him to listen, which made him laugh.

A coworker/important friend/previous YW leader with me said she was very proud of me, and hugged me, and was looking at me in this different way, which made me uncomfortable. I sort of edged away and told her to stop looking at me like that – handling compliments with grace as usual. One of my more endearing qualities. Another woman also said she had never “thought through things that in-depth” before – another intellectual type comment, but very nice. It seems I always get that when I speak. I remember in my first talk in that Ward, maybe age 15, I said that the very first verse of the Book of Mormon contained a “plethora of principles,” trying to make the point that there is no shortage of learning to be had from the scriptures. (I thought it was a good idea to use the thesaurus to amp up my talks). Boy did I get comments about that – people talking about needing a dictionary, etc. I think I used the term “cornucopia” in a talk once too, with similar reactions for years after. My former YW President also made a comment about how surprised she was, “Where did that come from?!” Not in a very negative way, she just knows my history, sort of, and I’m not generally thought of as the testimony bearing type.

Afterwards my friend asked me if I was coming to Sunday School and I of course said no, that I hadn’t even been in a church building for a month and that I had way exceeded my spiritual quota for the day. So after the meeting I went back to my parents’ house to start my laundry where they were all getting ready to leave for Lake Powell. I hung out with them until they left but when I didn’t have anything to do I ended up going BACK to church for Relief Society. A seriously strange day.

It’s kind of a relief and I’m mostly pleased with it – but seriously, where did that come from?