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“If thou art sorrowful” – A homily on trials and tribulations

This is a homily I wrote for Sacrament Meeting this Sunday. It’s the first talk I ever wrote out beforehand (I usually just rely on a constellation of talking points and loose outlines the other times) and got a lot of great responses from it so I thought I’d share it with y’all.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Shultz.

The main reason Peanuts is still one of my absolute favorite comic strips is because of its common theological musings (always in humorous fashion). All credits to Charles Schulz.

Today’s scripture theme comes from Doctrine and Covenants 136:31, “My people must be tried in all things.” Section 136 is my third favorite section, next to 121 and 93, mostly because 136 is a very practical guide to every day life. It is also one of the few sections not given to us through Joseph Smith but through Brigham Young, on January 14, 1847, according to the section heading, at “the Winter Quarters of the Camp of Israel, Omaha Nation, West Bank of Missouri River, near Council Bluffs, Iowa.” At this point in Church history, their beloved prophet Joseph Smith had been brutally assassinated along with his brother Hyrum, the Assistant President of the Church, by a bloodthirsty gang of thugs just two and a half years before this revelation was given. The previous year, persecution had become so intense that the Saints decided the most rational response was to evacuate an entire city and abandon a temple they had sacrificed so much for, a temple that was fully operational for less than three months. At the time of the revelation, a large body of the Church was camped out at Winter Quarters, where their diet consisted mainly of corn bread, salt bacon, a little milk, and occasional meat, usually from any game they could hunt nearby. There were little to no fruits and vegetables. Scurvy, known as “blackleg” during the time (which gets my vote for most terrifying disease name in the 1800s) was rampant, along with tuberculosis and malaria, all horrifying diseases. Hundreds died that winter (see Wikipedia, “Winter Quarters”). Trials and tribulations no doubt were forefront on the Saints’ minds, and it’s understandable to me if at that point some were thinking after hearing the revelation, “Tried in all the things? You’ve got to be kidding me. What did I sign up for?”

Thankfully, we live in very different times and circumstances, yet of all the problems, controversies, and public media battles and scandals, I would venture to guess that the most difficult question the modern-day Latter-day Saint must grapple with is, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The doubt that many experience when grappling with this question stems not from disbelief, as some of the orthodoxy suspect, but from an intense belief in the goodness of God and a selfless love and compassion for all people, a love born from their faith in the promises of the gospel. You will never meet a mean-spirited, uncaring person ask this question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?”, unless that person believes himself to be a “good” person who was wronged.

Part of the anxiety we experience with this question comes from this cognitive dissonance, but much of it also comes from the fact we live in a society devoted to and obsessed with comfort. The existence and even any mention of death, disability, suffering, weakness, and helplessness makes us nervous and want to quickly change the subject or shush the speaker on the grounds that such topics are impolite to talk about — unless, of course, you’re trying to sell a new product. Our government, our economy, and our civic ideologies are based upon rugged individualism, maximized personal freedom to do as we choose, and the conceit that everything good that happens in life is a direct result of our own actions and only our actions with the opposite belief that everything bad that happens in others’ lives is a result of their own personal decisions. But the existence of pain, suffering, setbacks, trials, death, disease, and disability destroy our carefully constructed and clever contrivances. In the end, despite our diet plans, medical advances, scientific breakthroughs, and accumulated GDP, the death rate for humans remains stubbornly at 100%, and large portions of our economy are devoted to either trying to escape this sobering fact, or to forget about it through distractions and temporary indulgences.

Perhaps what makes this question so enduring in its difficulty is because many of the more philosophical answers ring as false or trite in our ears when we are in the midst of suffering and pain, especially when it’s ours. Unsurprisingly, trials and tribulations is one of the most popular topics in the scriptures because trials and tribulations refuse to become simply an abstract idea, no matter how hard our current society tries. While suffering and pain is often distributed disproportionately in our world, every human will experience some form of pain, whether physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, social, or otherwise. This truth — that everyone must feel pain — and, more importantly, the implications of this truth and what we do with this truth forms the foundational bedrock of almost every religion, faith, and philosophy, our religious faith included.

Our Church’s early history is well acquainted with suffering. Joseph Smith’s life could be described as a continuous stream of devastating personal tragedies punctuated with the occasional spiritual triumph. Our people have experienced historical persecution, have lost lives, property, and sacred places because of this persecution. The Book of Mormon, the keystone of our religion, deals with people “whose lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The first prophet-author Nephi, in the very first chapter, says he writes this record to “show unto [us] the tender mercies of the Lord [that] are over all those whom he hath chosen” (1 Nephi 1:20) and the final prophet-author Moroni urges the reader to “remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down unto the time that ye shall receive these things” (Moroni 10:3), yet the contents in between these two statements seem anything but merciful. Nephi witnesses his extended family torn apart by jealousy and fear, becoming the basis of two warring nations. Moroni experiences the ultimate conclusion of this family rivalry as he sees his entire people slaughtered and he is left to eke out an existence wandering alone. Ancient scripture gives us plenty of instances where good people suffer and question out loud, culminating in God Himself being born into the world and experiencing first hand rejection and persecution and even torture and execution as the ancient Roman equivalent of a modern-day terrorist despite preaching a message of radical peace and love, an irony crowned by the ultimate irony that it was the leaders of the religion based upon Him who helped to betray Him.

It is easy for many of us born in amazing, unprecedented prosperity, comfort, and opportunity to forget that while we worship the God of Peace and the God of Love, we also worship the Abandoned God, the Forgotten God, the Rejected God, the Humiliated God, a God who experienced all of this and submitted Himself willingly to these experiences with explicit purpose to love us more fully. We believe in a God who weeps because of the hatred amongst His children. We believe in a God who cries out, “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” We believe in a God who, when He appears in our own personal lives, does not come to us as a powerful person or a wealthy person but as a prisoner, as the poor, as the fatherless and the widow. We admire prophets who’ve begged the Lord to show himself, to stop hiding, to unstay his hand and listen to the cries of his people. Even “patient” Job declares (and if you actually read the Book of Job, you realize that he is anything but patient), “I will not refrain my mouth; I will speak to the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul…My soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than life. I loathe it; I would not live always: let me alone; for my days are vanity” (Job 7:11, 15-16).

All credits to Charles Schulz.

All credits to Charles Schulz.

The most poignant, memorable, and beloved passages of scripture, both ancient and modern, are passages in which the author questions, challenges, or downright begs God for relief, for comfort, for explanations. In these passages are often revealed the frailty of humanity and its reliance on God, but also revealed is God’s unlovable hand in both mercy and justice as well as power. Even for Jesus, one of his last words in His mortal ministry was the opening line of a psalm, a hymn and prayer, “O Lord, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, see also Psalms 22:1). Even silent acts, such as the woman who reaches out in hopes of brushing her fingertips against just the edges of divinity or the woman who, without words, bathes the Savior’s feet in her tears — these images and other similar stories etch the deepest grooves in our memories and our souls.

But what does this all have to do with the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” At the end of the Book of Job, contrary to popular belief, one of Job’s friends actually does get the better of him. We usually hear the narrative with Job as the silent, eternally graceful and patient sufferer while his friends rail against him and accuse him of sin and tell him to curse God and die (only his wife says that). It is true that Eliphaz relies on simplistic, overly moralistic, “Gospel of Prosperity” heuristics to accuse Job of sin because bad things only happen to bad people. Bildad indulges in his Deistic Nihilism and the worthlessness of man. And Zophar spouts tone-deaf, Hallmark-esque, even nonsensical cliches that don’t even relate to Job’s situation at all! For those who have experienced suffering and received well-meaning advice from people, you may recognize some of these archetypes.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date. All credits to Charles Schultz.

This remains my most absolute favorite Peanuts comic strip to date and prompted me to actually closely read the Book of Job, which is now my favorite Old Testament book. All credits to Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown’s baseball playing theological seminary.

But Elihu, youngest of the bunch, finally tells Job, “Look, bro. You’ve spent this entire time justifying your own righteousness in the face of adversity, but you have spent little to no time sincerely justifying the goodness of God.” Elihu ignores the question that Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Job discuss ad nauseum for over 30 chapters: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Instead, he says to Job, “You asked earlier in this conversation, ‘What’s the point of righteousness if you still have bad things happen to you?’ The answer is because righteousness blesses others (see Job 35:1-8, Job 22:2-3). God cannot be unjust, He cannot pervert justice, and He cannot be a respecter of persons. And if you have faith in this God, you stay righteous to the end not because it blesses you but because it blesses others. God will make up for the rest.”

To bring it all back, Doctrine and Covenants 136:31 tells us that “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.” But only three verses before, the Lord tells us, “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.” But “If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication that your soul may be joyful” (D&C 136:28-29), mirroring that beautiful one in The Book of Mormon, “men are that they might have joy.” Even in the midst of suffering, or perhaps even because of it, we must seek out joy in the kindness of others and exercise kindness ourselves and therein see the righteousness of God.

Brothers and sisters, my faith in God is not knowledge or some secret truth I hold. Rather it is a faith born out of hope and desperation. In the face of seemingly infinite sorrow, pain, and suffering, I cling to the promises of the gospel because no other philosophy, economy, ideology, or theology has worked for me — and I’ve tried to find one that does. I have no other choice. Like the Apostle Peter, if the Lord asked me if I, too, shall go like the others, I have no brilliant logical defense or proof or even experienced some majestic, divine manifestation. All I can reply with is, “To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68) — I hope. Because I have no other options.

It is my hope that in face of adversity, whether our own or others, we ignore our instinct to justify our own righteousness but instead justify and demonstrate the righteousness of God. This is not easy. In fact, it is immensely difficult. But it is exactly what we signed up for according to our baptismal covenant, which, if it means anything to us, “commands us to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). It is my hope that in face of pain and suffering, we can pull together as a ward family and as the family of humanity to find joy in kindness from others and showing kindness to those around us.

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Scriptures, the Tarot, and other universal archetypes

I’ve recently been reading a lot about (and collecting) Tarot decks in conjunction with a project that I’ve been working on. The Tarot deck has always fascinated me, even since my childhood, not because I believed that such cards held some kind of mystical clairvoyant power, but mostly because of the archetypes the Major Arcana represented. Concepts such as Judgment, The World, Temperance, The Sun, The Moon, The Emperor, The Fool — they all felt like symbolic poetry, a world of ideas and feelings and connotations packed into a single card with a single image.

In retrospect, my fascination with  Tarot cards most likely stemmed from my strict religious upbringing, especially one such as Mormonism which is still obsessed with the idea of symbolism. We continue to, like many other religions, employ symbolism within our worship, and also within the way we speak about and act out our faith. How could I, a kid raised to automatically ferret out symbolism and derive great joy and satisfaction from decompressing it, resist the rich symbolism of the Tarot?

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

"Okay, I tap The Emperor and sacrifice the Nine of Cups to deal five damage to your Hierophant."

While learning about the symbolism of the Tarot, it was inevitable that I learned a little in how to use them in the traditional sense of fortune telling. So when some friends came over, I offered to do some Tarot readings as a sort of parlor trick. They agreed and said it sounded like fun. I proceeded to lay out spreads for each of my friends. Some of them mirrored their life situations perfectly while others, predictably, did not. All in all, however, I was very surprised to see how invested people get into Tarot readings; they automatically seek out to relate their life to the cards, or extrapolate meanings in the symbolism to apply to their own life.

One friend, who recently got out of a bad relationship, took the Tarot spread’s interpretation to mean that he needed to stop dwelling on the past and look forward with an attitude of healing. My wife, whose spread told her that her life had recently seen massive changes (like a baby perhaps), interpreted it to mean that she needed to look at her situation at different angles rather than trying to fix problems by just trying harder. My spread told me that I needed to be more careful with how I spent my money, and that perhaps my life is not in accordance with the values of modesty and temperance.

We all sat back afterwards, somewhat surprised but satisfied by our readings. As I contemplated this later that night, it struck me at how optimistic and even — dare I say it? — helpful these readings were. I’ll admit that lately, I’ve been a lot more wary about where my money goes. My wife has been a lot more diligent and creative in her approaches to personal problems recently. And our friend who had just left a bad relationship felt almost a sense of relief and a much more positive outlook for the future. None of these things are really bad.

In fact, this is a lot like reading the scriptures.

Now, before every Mormon decides to crucify me for daring to compare the occult like the Tarot with the scriptures, let me explain.

Scriptures are mostly story. They are intensely human stories rich with symbolism and meaning. We often must sit back and work to decompress the sheer amount of knowledge, information, and advice within them. And most importantly, like a good Tarot reading, we extrapolate those symbols and appropriate them for our own, working hard to match them with what is happening in our personal lives. I could read the conversion story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon and derive a completely different interpretation than my father would, and we would most definitely apply them differently in our lives. But when Mormon sat down to write the abridged account of Alma the  Younger, he could not have had all of these things in mind. Yes, the Book of Mormon is for our day thematically, but that’s exactly why it’s so successful as a piece of religious literature — the themes are broad, universal, and archetypal. They are applicable to every situation and station in life.

Like Tarot readings, the person giving the reading does not have to work hard. In a Sunday School class, one simply has to read the story out loud and people will immediately begin to draw connections to their own lives. And often, these lessons are beneficial. The Alma the Younger conversion story tells parents to be patient and trust God. It warns against the personal sorrows and pains of sin, but it also extols the virtues of forgiveness and love. It’s a treatise on the fallen nature of man and the dependency one must develop on God’s grace. It talks about the hurt errant children can inflict on parents. It talks about social consequences in not only ignoring family and religious traditions and customs, but also in actively rebelling and fighting against it. This is not even a comprehensive list of what this simple story can teach.

In fact, both scriptures and Tarot rarely communicate anything new in our lives. Instead, they work with the material that we do have, roiling beneath our conscious thought, and give it some kind of metaphysical form. It allows us to access feelings deep within us, some joyful, others uneasy, and bring them up to the surface to face and examine. Deep down, I knew that I should be more careful with my money, but “finding it in the cards” gave me a little bit more of a kick out the door to actually do it. My wife knew that trying the same old things to solve her perennial problems wouldn’t work; the Tarot interpretation that she created for herself helped her to finally face up to it and act out on it. And my friend, reeling from a personal loss and trying to patch up the wounds he sustained from it, found the reading helpful in fighting back the personal insecurity that can sometimes haze over a good, if not difficult, decision.

Now, I know that there is no actual, real power in the Tarot. I know that the deck has been around forever but it was only in the 19th century when people began creating mystical interpretations of what was once an absurdly complicated card game (like Bridge) to build a way to tell fortunes with it out of whole cloth. I know very keenly the somewhat dubious history of the Tarot, and especially how this Tarot undermines the idea that there can be no good that comes from it. However, the Tarot’s power, I believe, is not because it has some kind of inherent occult-devil power, or because there is power infused within the cards, but because they happen to depict universal themes that speak to everyone in some way. The cards do not tell the future; we tell the future for ourselves, using the symbols provided by the Tarot as prompts.

What is interesting to note about the power of scripture is that they, too, do not have to be “factually true” to have such power. I don’t want to re-open a whole “Is the Book of Mormon historical or not?” debate. In fact, my main point is that such a debate is counter-productive. The mythological figure Mormon (and he is more mythological than historical in our religion), despite his historian status and profession, did not compile the Book of Mormon to provide factual dates and statistics and observations for any kind of academic reason. Rather, he compiled his civilization’s mythos, from its mythical founding father Nephi, to various characters with superhuman abilities. How is Ammon the arm-slayer any different from the heroes of old? Mormon understood that encoded within the genetic material of these myths were powerful human emotions and archetypes that could motivate us to realize what we already know what we must do but were too afraid to face.

Joseph Campbell once wrote, “Whenever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd. When a civilization begins to reinterpret a mythology in this way, the life goes out of it, temples become museums, and the link between the two perspectives is dissolved.” When we argue about whether or not the scriptures are historical, and when we get offended when people point out that there’s not a whole lot of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon’s historicity, we shouldn’t bat an eye. Because historicity only matters if you’ve based your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ on carbon dating and archaeological digs. We derive religious meaning, significance, and utility from accessing instead what Carl Jung called the collective imagination and consciousness of humanity. True efficacy of the scriptures comes not from whether or not it actually happened in the past, but whether or not these stories continue to play out in our everyday lives.

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Design Your Own Mormon Liturgy — Lord’s Prayer and the Magnificat

My wife and I have off and on been following the daily prayers and readings of The Benedictine Handbook, which has a two week long rotation of Psalms, scripture readings, and prayers to recite every morning and every night. We have greatly enjoyed this practice, and it seems to suit our spiritual needs better (we’re just not good at the whole uniquely individualistic American Protestant thing) and so we want to continue it, but with a bit more of a Mormon feel.

So I’ve set out to write my own Mormon liturgy that we could follow, and could use some of the advice and input all y’all might have.

Two of the most striking and famous aspects about Catholic liturgy is the Lord’s Prayer and the Magnificat (also known as the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Both are scriptural recitations (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 1:46-55 respectively), the first a template prayer offered by the Savior in the Gospels, and the other a prayer offered by Mary upon learning of the Incarnation of Jesus. Both are beautiful and rich in spiritual meaning. In the Benedictine tradition, the Lord’s Prayer is recited at every session, both morning and night, and each day’s ending is punctuated at the end with a recitation of the beautiful Magnificat. Over the months, my wife and I have gotten to know and love these two beautiful passages of scripture.

Which got me thinking — when writing a Mormon liturgy, would I use the Lord’s Prayer and the Magnificat? Or are there more “Mormon” versions of such passages? In the Mormon tradition, the Lord’s Prayer is repeated in the Book of Mormon (with some interesting changes), but rarely ever talked about or recited. In fact, when looking up where the Lord’s Prayer might be in the LDS Bible Dictionary entry for “Prayer,” the Lord’s Prayer is not even mentioned, let alone the scripture reference given. It’s often seen as a trapping of the “old Christianity” that we departed from; I’ve even heard (sadly) some Mormons talk about its recitation as a false tradition. Meanwhile, we believe in the Virgin Mary, and she’s one of the few women ever named by name in the Book of Mormon, yet our devotion to the Blessed Mother is quite pitiful compared to both our Catholic and Protestant siblings.

What call would you make when writing a Mormon liturgy? Would you keep the Lord’s Prayer and the Magnificat, paying homage to these two great passages of scripture, or would you choose a more “Mormon-y” scripture to replace them, to keep in stride with our tradition of modern revelation and pouring new wine into new skins?

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Mostly Correlation Friendly Prayer Alternatives

During one memorable Sunday School lesson, the instructor proudly spoke on how our Church discourages “rote and memorized” prayers. He emphasized that we encourage prayers to come from the heart instead, spontaneous and sincere. “Except in important instances, such as in the priesthood ordinances like baptism and the Sacrament, we don’t use memorized prayers.”

“But we do,” one student responded. “’Please bless this food so that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies,’ even when we’re eating ice cream for refreshments.”

“How about ‘Please bless us that we’ll all drive home safely’?” another student said.

“Or ‘Please bless those who are not with us today that they may be with us next week,’ when we don’t even know who they are, or have any intention of encouraging them to come,” said another.

It’s clear that even though the Church does not give out prescribed prayers for every instance of the day and night, we still fall into the trap of rote, memorized prayers that we recite out of habit, but not from the heart. Prayer, at least prayer available in the lowest common denominator of Church culture, just hasn’t been cutting it for me the past few years. I’ll admit, my prayer practice began to fall apart over time, until it was almost non-existent. This isn’t to say I had nothing to discuss with God, nor that I had grown cold and unappreciative of life. My life was actually getting better in every single way. But I didn’t know how to communicate with God sincerely when I found myself saying the same phrases over and over again. I didn’t know how else to communicate.

Of course, receiving the news that we were expecting changed my lazy dynamic. When the kiddo came around, what family traditions of prayer did I want to teach? I didn’t want my child to suffer under the same lackadaisical, stiff, boring prayer traditions I had found myself mired in. I needed to change the routine up while still keeping true to the spirit of what prayer is supposed to be. And so, I began to experiment.

Prayer of Thanksgiving – I picked up this practice during my time in the Missionary Training Center, and I sadly only practiced this sporadically. We often make a lot of demands in our prayers; in fact, I would think that often our demands outweigh our praise and gratitude in our prayers. We always need something to go well – to find a job, maybe for someone to get better, or for just general safety and wellness. We want to be happy, for our friends and family to be protected, for whatever we’re eating to magically become nutritious and nourishing. But often times, we don’t thank enough. I know for me, I make really general blanket statements of thanks – thanks for this food, thanks for this Sabbath, thanks for the opportunity to be with family, or if I’m in a real rush, thanks for all of our blessings, whatever that means.

The adage to count our blessings really does help lift moods and bring appreciation for everything we have. In a prayer of thanksgivings, lay off on the demands for a while. Only thank God in the prayer. And when you do thank him, thank him individually for everything. Thank him for every friend and family member by name. If there’s a particular favorite food you like, thank him for that. Thank him for the sun, the sky, green grass, a song you heard that especially touched you. Sometimes I find myself thanking him for things that I might never have otherwise brought up in prayer – (thus far) mostly proper DNA replication in the body, or maybe for that really great deal in potting soil to start our patio garden. I have no idea if God made Costco give a great deal on potting soil; I have a feeling he actually doesn’t really care about the market price of potting soil (then again, he could?), but I’m grateful for potting soil and I’m grateful for the ability to grow a garden on our patio, so why not? It can’t hurt.

You’ll be surprised how powerful a periodic prayer of thanksgiving can be. Sometimes we feel like God isn’t really looking out for us. And though times certainly get really tough sometimes, I think the vast majority of us still have an incredible lot to be thankful for (especially if you live in the States!).

Meditation – My first encounter with meditation was during a world religions class in high school. My friend Kim sat next to me, still, silent, serene. I, however, couldn’t tame my highly active monkey mind for more than a minute; my mind kept getting distracted by, yes, shiny things, among other distractions. Over the years, I’ve never developed as strong of a meditation practice as I should, but I’ve noticed the benefits whenever I do it.

I know of Mormons – and Christians, for that matter – who get wary around the idea of meditation. Recently, meditation has come to the American cultural spotlight as a mostly Eastern religious practice. However, Western religions also have a strong meditation practice, especially in the all-important monasteries. One of the activities we are told to do with the scriptures – along with praying, pondering, and reading – is meditating. Meditation is simply the practice of sitting down and clearing the mind. Many focus on a mantra, a phrase or word to repeat over and over in order to train the mind to clear out all distractions.

If any word could aptly describe our fast-paced, post-industrial, modern life, it’s “distracting.” We have a million distractions vying for our attention, and it takes a toll. Meditation is a way to step out of those distractions and focus on the divine. Combine meditation with scripture memorization. Pick out a verse that brings comfort, and use that as a mantra. Many people don’t know how to start. Others are embarrassed that when discovered, people will make fun of them. But meditation is easy. Just sit down, try to clear your mind of thoughts, and be still, and know that God is God. If you’re afraid people will make fun of you, literally take the advice Jesus gives – meditate in a closet. Sometimes I’ll lock myself in the bathroom. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon meditation session. Try meditating for just a minute. Then two minutes. Then five. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes, and how often times, how reluctant you’ll feel to leave that peaceful meditative bubble. Sometimes, words are clumsy and fail in communicating to the divine. Wrapping yourself up in the present moment with meditation can help us interact and experience the divine when words don’t seem to come.

One extra benefit from meditation is a new-found ability to forgive myself. It’s nearly impossible to try to clear your head of thoughts, just as it’s impossible to muck through this life unspotted from the world. In meditation, when a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge its presence, then dismiss it and focus on the mantra. It’s unproductive to self-castigate or flagellate yourself for your failure. This practice of self-forgiveness has spilled into other parts of my life, where if I make a mistake, I acknowledge it, then continue on, refusing to dwell on it. Focus on the larger goal and move on. It’s a nice feeling.

Hymns and psalms – a hymn is a prayer to the Lord, as the saying goes. If you don’t feel like praying (and who doesn’t feel like this from time to time), just sing a hymn. If singing isn’t your thing, try reciting a psalm instead. The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry, originally used for singing. When on the Cross, Jesus quoted Psalms. Many Christians memorize their favorite psalm to recite when feeling distressed.

Sometimes, we don’t know what to say. My wife often feels that she doesn’t have any pressing demands, nor is she really bursting and overflowing with gratitude every minute of the day, and so she often prays to simply “check in,” like a college student calling her parents once in a while to make sure they know she’s not dead. But she doesn’t like doing that with God. We’ve decided if we ever feel like we’re shortchanging him, or feel like we’re just simply “checking in” with words, but not with our hearts, we’ll either sing a hymn, or if we’re too tired, recite a psalm. And maybe it’s just years of conditioning from the Church, what, with hymns usually preceding prayer, but sometimes singing hymns just helps you get into that prayer mood.

Change up the time – During the mission, I struggled making the transition from night owl to early riser. The mission schedule is brutal to night owls, with its daily 6:30 in the morning wake up call. Often times, I struggled just to flip over onto my stomach, push myself up, and pray with my face pressed into my pillow. Often times, I’d fall asleep mid-prayer and just lie there, in some kind of twisted, bizarre Child’s Pose, for fifteen minutes or more, sleeping under the guise of prayer.

One of my friends on the mission hated this; I wasn’t the only one who did it. He eventually told me that what I should do is get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then get down on my knees for my morning prayer. God appreciates a clear head and a sincere prayer, not half-mumbled phrases I can’t distinguish from my dreams the night before. I tried it, and it helped a lot. Not only did my prayers make more sense (I remember sometimes praying for help from the bears that are trying to eat me), but I found my prayers to be a little bit more…different. More real. More about what I was about to do, and less about vague generalities (or man-eating bears).

Sometimes all you need is a break from the routine. The general times of praying are in the morning, at night, and before meals. However, praying outside of those times can help break the monotony. Instead of praying right before bed, try meditating a little in the evening. Instead of praying right when you get out of the morning, try praying in the car right before taking off for work. Often times, limiting ourselves to certain times when we must pray makes prayer start to feel like a chore, our predetermined times as some sort of quota. If we want to make prayer spontaneous and sincere, more of a lifestyle rather than a commandment, we must also break free of the idea that prayer should be done at specific times in the day, an idea that quickly becomes a prison. If you don’t pray immediately in the mornings, but pray during lunch for help in the unexpected things you must finish that day, I wonder if God cares much about the time discrepancy.

Hugh Nibley once wrote that “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.” We could also amend that to say “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to say a bad prayer than to get up at nine o’clock to say a good one.” This is a dangerous attitude to have about prayer, one that holds us back from any real spiritual progression.

Prayer, and communion with the divine in general, helps us develop a deeper appreciation not just for what is in store, but also for our lives now. One of the greatest blessings of Mormonism is its celebration not only of the future afterlife, but also the nitty gritty, dirty, dusty, mortal life we live today. True, sincere communication can help us secure a place in the next life, but it can also bring love and joy in the now, despite its difficulties and heartache.

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Stumbling over the scriptures

“To explain, nowadays we have mountains of scriptures by our side, both the text and the commentaries thereof. We study religious literature with weary and dewy eyes to such an extent that our heads are full of ready-made facts seen from various angles, say, from the viewpoint of religion, philosophy, literature, etc. And this manifold knowledge of ours, with reference to the scriptures, fails to enable us to effectively choose what suits us best and in which we can take refuge. The more we study the scriptures the less we know of the essence of religion. As a matter of fact the essence of religion can only be reached by genuine practice alone.”

– Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno, “Mutual Understanding of Each Other’s Religion”

“The best way to obtain truth and wisdom is not to ask from books, but to go to God in prayer, and obtain divine teaching.”

– Joseph Smith

I thought this was an incredible quote from a series of lectures given by Bhikku Buddhadasa Indapanno called Christianity and Buddhism. In it, Bhikku attempts to create a level playing field of dialogue between Christians and Buddhists, as well as just between two different religions in general. In it, he makes this surprising assertion that perhaps scriptures only muddy the waters, rather than lead us to cool, pristine wells of knowledge and faith. He compares it to climbing a tree from the top to bottom — starting with the scriptures first before practice is, to him, simply the opposite way to explore a faith.

In a way, Bhikku has history on his side. Many religions schism because of, among other reasons, differences in scriptural interpretation. In Christianity, Martin Luther’s pronouncement of sola scriptura has led to some of the worst excesses of fetishistic Bible worship, creating an untouchable status with little actual knowledge of how the text came to be. Of course, us Mormons are not innocent either; many times over prominent Mormons would promote false, misleading, or ignorant interpretations of scripture in order to “prove” correlation between two completely different texts. Prooftexting is not just a Mormon phenomenon; I’ve had people try to drag the scriptures into any kind of discussion — biology, politics, economics, etc.

The funny thing is in the beginning of every religion, those scriptures didn’t exist. The early Saints didn’t have Doctrine and Covenants; they were writing it. The original Twelve Apostles didn’t have the New Testament; they were the New Testament — literally! In fact, in almost every religion, the act of writing scripture down usually didn’t happen for years until after the founder’s death — take the history of the Qur’an or Buddha’s teachings. The founding (and the usual explosion of growth) didn’t require the need for scriptures. It’s only after they’ve been written, and each successive generation groans under the ever growing body of scripture and commentary and interpretation, that people begin to drift away and the religion struggles to maintain the holy fire that once burned in their hearts.

But do you personally agree with this statement? On the one hand, prophets in the LDS Church have repeatedly told us that reading out scriptures is incredibly important. However, on the other hand, we also say that the Bible, and even our current open canon, is still a work in progress, and much more new information could be added to the ever-growing corpus of revelation, possibly even nullifying previous statements. Could we grasp onto the scriptures too tightly to cause a stumbling block for us? Obviously, anything done in excess is unhealthy, and surely the scriptures do provide worth when used for rich, meaningful study. But just how useful can they really be?

My mission president once addressed the complaints of some missionaries that studying Preach My Gospel, the missionary manual, every day for at least 30 minutes was too boring and repetitive. He responded by telling the mission that “If you read Preach My Gospel right, you will spend 90% of your time in the scriptures. If you read the scriptures right, you will spend 90% of your time in prayer. I would gladly take ten minutes of earnest prayer over an hour of reading the scriptures.” This statement floored me. As someone who has traditionally seen learning from books and study, the idea that you could learn more by “talking to yourself” in a closet caused me to reel.

In the course of my life, I have relied on the scriptures for a great many things, learning especially; however, recently I’ve found that earnest prayer, the heartfelt song of a psalm, the act of sitting meditation, or the performance of service has helped build my faith more than any scripture could. Like my mission president, I have found ten minutes of earnest prayer to be much more effective than reading the scriptures for knowledge, and I have learned more about God within one minute of genuine service than ten minutes of prayer or an hour of scripture study. As I’ve grown older, I love the scriptures even more than ever. They are beautiful pieces of literature, and both poetry and rhetoric can reach sublime heights. But maybe Bhikkhu is on to something. Maybe the scriptures sometimes get in the way. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes we’re climbing the tree backwards.

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“Divine, Messianic Force”

This is a fascinating video of 10 more obscure Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. Every quote in this clip is powerful and Dr. King’s rhetoric at its best, but it’s quote number 7 is what I really want to talk about:

And don’t let anybody make you think that God chose America as his divine, messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world. God has a way of standing before the nations with judgment, and it seems that I can hear God saying to America, “You’re too arrogant! And if you don’t change your ways, I will rise up and break the backbone of your power, and I’ll place it in the hands of a nation that doesn’t even know my name. Be still and know that I’m God.”

– Martin Luther King Jr., in a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 30, 1967 titled “It’s a Dark Day in Our Nation.”

There’s a fairly popular teaching in our Church that ebbs and flows with the cultural winds on American exceptionalism. It’s the idea that this land is a choice land, blessed above others, a promised land where good people are led and blessed and become prosperous as long as we follow God. Because of this, the United States of America is God’s chosen country for bringing about His work[1], and this, of course, includes the Constitution and the Founding Fathers springing forth from the well of Divine Inspiration. For many Americans, the Restoration and the last dispensation of the latter-days could not happen anywhere else because specifically America is just that awesome with religious freedom and all. Imagine, we say, if the Restoration happened anywhere else before it did? It would have been squashed like a tiny bug by giant, oppressive, narrow-minded governments! It would have never been given the time and ability to flourish like it would have in America! According to this mind view, no new deviations of Christianity ever occurred between the establishment of the Catholic church and 1830 (hint: This is not true; see also Reformation).

Some members see this as problematic as the Church transitions from an American church to a global one, and most non-US members either ignore it or see it as a quixotic American quirk that doesn’t really hold as much importance as principles like agency, the plan of salvation, the family, or saving priesthood ordinances. However, in the US at least, many Mormons fiercely hold on to this cherished ideal almost as much as guns, and especially in dark times such as recession, the fall of our capitalist banks, and the fact that our president is a fundamentalist Christian turned Islamo-Kenyan-non-American terror-bomber-in-chief, this sentiment is experiencing a great deal of popularity currently within the Jell-O Intermountain Corridor.

Martin Luther King, Jr., however, sees a massive problem in this kind of American exceptionalism, and that is arrogance. This sermon was given in the height of the Vietnam War, a time when America truly saw itself as the policeman of the world, stomping the Commies where’er they be found. Of course, hindsight if 20/20 and we saw the ultimate aftermath — a humiliating military defeat tactical withdrawal, and a massive humbling experience for the United States that would last until Ronald Reagan, who gave the US the wonderful gift to feel smug about itself again. For Dr. King, exceptionalist thinking brings about arrogance, and we should never let anyone think that we, for one minute, are some kind of messianic force for good in the global community. It leads to dangerous thinking, and it leads to lost lives.

It was a big problem with the Nephites, too, the previous recipients of God’s double-edged promise regarding the Promised Land known later as ‘Merica. Repeatedly, the Nephites were warned that only when we follow God’s commandments would God continue to let them even exist on this sacred ground. And what was the number one problem with the Nephites?

Pride. We even have a cycle named after them in Mormon terminology.

I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King is right. Maybe the whole exceptionalist thinking, the feeling that we’re living on special land and somehow that in turn makes us special, is incredibly dangerous and we should do away with it all together. Maybe this land really is special. Maybe it really does have some kind of special blessing-inherent property. Maybe the Constitution really is God-inspired, 3/5 included. Maybe even the Founding Fathers, warts and all, were inspired as well. But! Does that make us special, just by association? Just because we won the birth lottery and happened to be born in some specific, man-made, artificial political borders?

I don’t think Dr. King thinks so. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
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[1] This conclusion is not a very solid one. Does the scriptures mean that North America as a continent is blessed? Then what about Canada? Is Canada the chosen land, too? Sadly, this question would cause many American Mormons to hesitate or say no. Then why America? Because we wrote the Constitution?

In addition, most scholars seem to agree that the Book of Mormon stories, if they ever occurred, would have occurred more likely in the Mesoamerican region. So does that mean in all actually we were wrong and Mexico is actually the blessed nation? Many people point towards the fact that many patriarchs declare South Americans descendants or adoptees of the tribe of Mannaseh as spiritual proof that they are Book of Mormon descendants. So…maybe the blessed messianic nation is actually south of the border?

Or maybe the promise of blessings for obedience and destruction for disobedience isn’t necessarily geocentric?

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The Parable of the Refrigerated Leftovers

Editor’s note: This text was recently discovered by a group of digital archaeologists, who believe the text to over 2,500 years old. Scholars date the document to the first half of the twenty-first century as part of a collection of apocryphal stories called The Bloggernacle, belonging to the Latter-day Saint religious movement. Church officials warned that such writings were not considered as canonized scripture, but that the average Saint, when guided by the Spirit, could still discern truths within the collection of stories. Due to the fragile nature of primitive digital data storage in the twenty-first century, scholars were only able to recover a portion of the piece. They believe it to be incomplete, due to the sudden termination of the story. Ellipses indicate missing text. Footnotes are provided for students unfamiliar with the historical and cultural context of this piece.


The Parable of the Refrigerated Leftovers

1. Now it came to pass that on the twenty-sixth montha of my marriage that the Lord did rouse me from my sleep, calling to me.

2. Upon hearing the voice of the Lord, I did arise from my bed, and inquired of the Lord.

3. And the Spirit of the Lord did speak unto me, saying, Is there not an appointed day in the land, yea, a most sacred day, on which thou didst swear to thine wife that thou wouldst clean out thy fridge? Yea, and has not the day long passed, and thine fridgea dost remain spoiled and unclean?

4. And the words of the Lord did pierce my heart, and I did tremble in fear.

5. And the voice of the Lord continued, saying, Didst I not bless thy family with a bountiful harvest, yea, with green beans, and cucumbers, and basil, and lettuce? And dost not the brambles which do afflict thine wife when she travels to thine vehiclea also bring forth wild blackberries, which thou dost pluck even when thou hast not watered nor cared for them?

6. And didst not thy friends bless thee with all manner of squash, and all manner of peppers, and with ears of corn, and leaves of mint, yea, even with tomatoes and peas, which bringeth joy to thine wife?

7. Wherefore shall I place this bounty of which I hast blessed thee, yea, even this most bountiful harvest, when thy fridge dost remain unclean and full of iniquity?

8. Upon hearing this, I did tremble even more exceedingly, and throwing my body upon the floor, I didst cry, Speak, O Lord, for thy servant heareth thy words. I have sinned in the eyes of God, and wilt thou forgive me of my sins?

9. And the voice of the Lord spoke unto me, saying, Arise, my servant, and repent of this wickedness which thou hast committed, and of the fraud which thou didst put upon thy wife by saying, Yea, I shall clean the fridge.

10. I arose, and behold, I did gaze upon the fruits of my labors, for because of mine procrastination, my fridge had thus become most iniquitous, full of all manner of unclean things;

11. Yea, for I didst find a pot full of chicken soup which did feel like gelatina to the touch, yea, of a most odorous quality;

12. And I didst also find a tupperwarea of rotting lettuce, which did ooze forth;

13. And I didst find a tupperware of chicken bonesa, long picked clean by wild animalsb which did roam the wildernessc;

14. Yea, and I didst find soy bean sproutsa, which didst smell of fermented barleyb;

15. And I didst find a most iniquitous tupperware full of bean dipa;

16. But lo, upon the bean dip did rest a cubita of mold, as green as the hills of Seattleb, and I didst almost retch at the sight, yea, I did almost spew forth the contents of my dinner had it not been for the grace of God.

17. In the Lord’s infinite mercy, I did find a pot of currya, which had not yet hardened and did maintain a viscousness of a most unnatural manner;

18. And though a tupperware of wild blackberries was found, lo, I did find them to be miraculously preserved, and I did rejoice in the midst of my sorrow;

19. For I didst realize in my heart that such iniquity found in my fridge did arrive because of my procrastination, and surely I did understand the words of my fathers, when they told me in my youth to never procrastinate the day of my repentance, and yea, I did shed tears for my iniquities.

20. And the Lord said unto me, Thrust the iniquities into the garbage heap, for thou shalt not retain these sins, and cleanse thine vesselsa, yea, even with hot soapb and water, and thou shalt be forgiven and thine wife shall smile upon thee yet again in the morning.c

21. And I did as the Lord commanded, and lo, the vessels did become clean once more, though it took the space of many minutes in order for them to appear anew.

22. And I did thrust the chicken parts into the garbage heap, yea, even the gelatin soup, and the rotting leaves of lettuce, and the fermented bean sprouts, and yea, even the most iniquitous bean dip which a cubit of mold did inhabit, and I did thrust them into the garbage heap, and I did wrap up the garbage and I did cast it out of mine house, for the Lord hath commanded that every man must keepeth his house clean.

23. After I had done these things, the Lord then spoke to me, saying, If thou wilst not prepare the bountiful harvest which I have blessed thee with for storage in thine newly cleaned fridge, surely they shall rot away.

24. And I did hear the words of the Lord, and I did prepare the multitudes of squash, and I didst prepare the ears of corn, and I didst prepare the multitudes of peppers, yea, and I did prepare all of these things, even down to the lowliest pea.

25. I did rejoice in the work, for I then understood the words of my fathers, which did instruct me that the Lord smileth on a clean house, and that if a man doth not keep a clean house, surely he shall suffer the wrath of the Lord, yea, and even the wrath of his wife, which shall surely strip the flesh from his bones until he remaineth as nothing…and the wrath of the wife is great, for surely all men would tremble in the wrath of the wife unless he repent, for dost not the Lord command every husband to listen to his wife? And now I say unto you, how couldst a husband listen to his wife if he doth incur her wrath? I say unto you, nay…Surely the Lord commandeth it.

26. Blessed be the name of the Lord, who doth provide such wondrous items of great power, who doth provide soap and hot water of which I may clean my vessels!

27. Blessed be the name of the Lord, who doth command his children to keep clean their houses, so that their families may be raised in happiness and health!

28. And I did follow all the instructions of the Lord, and I did then retire to my bed, for my hands and bones were weary, and I didst know that I must complete the laundry in the morrow.

29. And the Lord did bless me with a deep sleep…And my wife did answer me, saying, Yea, perhaps the Lord did provide thee with a gospel principle in thine experiences, but verily, verily, I say unto thee, beware of false spirits who do profess to be the Spirit of the Lord which…And she did scoff my words, but did thank me for my diligence despite my foolishness, and peace did reign within my house. [fragment ends]

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1a “twenty-sixth month of my marriage” – It was custom of the time back then to celebrate yearly commemorations of marriage ceremonies.

3a “fridge” ENG frigid – A box which perishable items were placed inside.

5a “vehicle” – Scholars estimate the document to be from the early part of the twenty-first century, which indicates the author most likely owned a combustible car, rather than the fusion car, developed in the latter half of the century.

12a “tupperware” – ENG “tub” + “wear” – Scholars believe this to be a corrupted form of the two English root words “tub” and “wear.” Scholars believe this to be some form of container, most likely to hold liquid items (as suggested by the root “tub”, a large container of water used for bathing). See also TG Rubbermaid.

13a “chicken bones” – The author refers to chicken bones, chicken parts, and chicken soup, which suggests that this text is pre-2075, when the LDS church issued a declaration of the Church prohibiting the consumption of meat, according to Doctrine and Covenants section 89.

13b “animals” – It was customary for Latter-day Saint families to raise animals within the confines of their house. Judging from clues within the text, scholars believe this to be a cat, a primitive ancestor to the modern-day lyger.

13c “wilderness” – ENG “wild” + “nest” – Scholars believe this to be a corrupted form of the two English root words “wild” and “nest,” indicating some form of home (nest) for wild creatures. It was customary for families raising animals within their homes to reserve a portion of the house specifically for the animal. This word has also been used often from 1500 – 1900, indicating an area outside of the city-state wherein wild animals could be found to be captured or hunted. Most likely the 2000-2100 form of the word is derived from this usage.

14a “bean sprouts” – A culinary dish prepared mostly by those Asiatic decent. Though common today, the consumption of bean sprouts during the early twenty-first century was mostly isolated by Asiatic cultures, which strongly indicates that the author is most likely of Asiatic decent, or married into an Asiatic tribe.

14b “fermented barley” – Beer; most likely the author is referring to Doctrine and Covenants 89, which details the LDS health code. The original scripture encourages the usage of barley for making “mild drinks.”

15a “bean dip” – A culinary dish enjoyed by many Latter-day Saints at the time. Scholars believe that the Great Obesity Epidemic of 2043 – 2067 resulted in widespread consumption of this rather unhealthy dish. In 2075, LDS authorities added bean dip to the list of prohibitory items in their health code, the “Word of Wisdom,” but usage of bean dip had already been in decline for several decades.

16a “cubit” – Estimated to be roughly five centimeters.

16b “green hills of Seattle” – Seattle, an ancient city off the coast of the northern Pacific Ocean, was renowned for its evergreen trees. Contemporary epithets to the city included “Emerald City” and “Evergreen City,” referring to its famous trees. Though a temple did reside in the territories known as the Greater Seattle Area, scholars believe that the author originated from this ancient city rather than the verse having any religious significance, as Seattle is not one of the ancient Holy Cities of the Latter-day Saint religion. It is believed that various Latter-day Saints of the Cybernacleblogger sect lived in the area contemporary to the author in the early twenty-first century (most of them were excommunicated for heresy between 2015-2037).

17a “curry” – A culinary dish originating in the Indian sub-continent. This also points towards an Asiatic origin for the author.

20a “vessels” – Scholars believe the author is writing to aforementioned tupperware.

20b “soap” – An ancient clean aid, developed by carefully mixing together caustic lye with fats, mostly animal fats and oils.

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