Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pure Testiomny

I was chatting with a coworker at work last week who was pretty nervous about giving a talk in church.  The topic was pure testimony.  This particular coworker is a fairly new convert to the Church.  She has also just recently been through the temple.  She said she wanted to give her pure testimony in the talk, which was short and simple and didn't really sound like the phrases and things she often heard in church.  She was nervous that she would be judged, looked down upon, and subtly criticized for "not doing it right", or "not saying the right things" in her talk.  Since everyone's testimony she's heard at church seemed very similar, she felt like her's would be seen as too different.  I told her that difference would likely be a very good thing for any who were listening.  New converts bring a great fresh feeling to testimony meetings.  

Since becoming a member she commented that there has been a great deal of pressure from a few sources to say certain phrases, and use certain vocabulary words in order to fit into her new LDS religion and lifestyle.  Her testimony seemed to now need to fit a pre-determined mold with specific elements in order to be correct.  She felt comfortable enough to share that there was a difference between how she felt she was expected to speak and talk and how she felt prompted by the Spirit to speak.  The testimony being the main example.  This was creating an internal uneasiness and a lot of anxiety.

She told me about a time soon after being baptized when she was asked to give her testimony but did not especially feel prompted to do so at that time.  This was awkward and very uncomfortable for her.  She said she didn't want to be judged for saying how she really felt, but didn't know how to say it due to the social pressure to share her testimony.  I couldn't blame her.  When a testimony is something you feel pressured to give, rather than the Spirit directing it, it can be difficult.  It can become empty words without the Spirit's confirming presence.   

This all got me thinking about the nature of the Spirit, vs social pressures and traditions that develop within any organization.  You can't control the Spirit, and you can't monopolize it, and you can't set up your agenda and then force it to comply.  Speaking by the Spirit may require much more flexibility than a predominant social culture typically embraces.  The scriptures allow for it, and modern teachings support it, but there still seems to be a great deal of sameness in modern LDS speech. Least that is just one observation.  

In the church there are lots of traditions.  There are habituated ways of speaking, and common phrases that become so common we may feel a hesitancy to do anything else.  It can easily become so repetitious that it becomes vain.  I felt for this new convert and her dilemma with speaking and sharing her testimony.  She had an answer to prayer which brought her into the church, and upon entering the church has found some traditions and cultural views which didn't necessarily agree with with what brought her to the church in the first place.

We both concluded that the social pressures, or church culture should never overtake what we feel the Holy Ghost prompting us to say and do, no matter how different from tradition we may appear.  Fitting into a social mold wasn't what being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ was about.  It's about something so much better.  It's about recognizing truth, accepting ordinances, and joining with a body of believers who are striving to live the truth and become better. 

I think by the end of the conversation we both had a better outlook on things.  Every place has it's traditions and social culture.  Some things matter, while other things really don't matter at all.  What really matters is how we live, how we treat each other, and what we do with the Gospel.  The truth is what matters.  How, or if we respond to the Holy Spirit matters.  What we think of Christ matters.  Pure testimony comes from and through the Spirit.  It's sincere, it edifies and can be felt when it's prompted to be given.  Simply repeating an expected outline of phrases and words to fit in, or to fit the time frame of the printed program just isn't the same.  That too can be felt.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What we show by the uplifted hand

We went to church in Maui Hawaii today.  There were two newly baptized converts confirmed in sacrament meeting.  Afterwards the bishop stood from the podium and invited all those who "would show their support to the two who had just been confirmed, to show it by the uplifted hand".  And then there was traditional pause for the audience to respond by raising a hand. 

This was a packed sacrament meeting and we had to sit in the cultural hall which was behind the usual full room of pews.  From the looks of it there were many many tourists in attendance.  What struck me was how few people raised their hands in support of the newly baptized and confirmed members.  Hardly anyone did from the entire cultural hall.  And the hall was packed all the way to the very back wall.

As the bishop was extending the invitation I noticed my own hesitancy to raise my hand as well.  I sat for a minute tying to figure out why, and the only reason that came to mind was "I'm not a member of this ward". That reason however only made me question further. The thought crossed my mind: "Can you not support a new member of the church unless you live in their ward?

The bishop had asked for a raised hand from those who would support them, nothing more, nothing less.  After my internal debate I raised my hand because I supported those two searching for, and finding truth that is confirmed by the Holy Ghost.  This is what the missionaries invite new converts to experience, and hopefully such an experience is what brings them into the church.  That is why I'm a member of the church even though I was raised in the church.  I thought it appropriate for those two new members to see member support, even though they have never seen me, and will probably never see me again.  They are part of the body of believers, and my geographic ward boundaries should not prevent me from raising my hand to support them and welcome them into the fold.  I think it's important they know and see that they have brothers and sisters from many walks of life, and from many different places who joined the church because they too received an answer to prayer from God.  To me, that is one of the reasons we meet together in the first place.     

In this context my home "ward boundaries" didn't matter.  I was sad that more people didn't raise their hand.  I wish more had.  Many of the back section of the audience seemed to be wondering if they should or shouldn't.   From what I understand there is a tradition that if you're not a member of that ward, you don't participate in that ward's business.  To some degree it may be true, but in another sense, it blinds us.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Learner's Chant

Of all the things I've heard come out of a Hawaiians mouth the past 3 days, the chants have been my favorite.  In addition to the sunrise chant, there was another chant as we left the harbor on the way to our snorkeling excursion.  More after the pics.

They explained that this chant (which was in Hawaiian) was a particular form of song or hymn as it could be called that a student would sing as they embarked on any kind of journey.  It was intended to be sung to the Gods and master teacher with a tone of humility and in a spirit of teachableness.  The student would initiate the chant and the teacher upon hearing the tone and willingness of the students to learn would respond with an acknowledgement verse and then the teaching/learning would begin.   I loved that idea.  What a great way to think of a hymn.  A song offering our willingness to the creator to learn and be taught by His Spirit.  As they say, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. 

This is so far from the mindset nowadays of, "attend as little of class as possible, do the least amount of work for the best grade, and largely blame the teacher if little learning takes place"...etc...etc. 

In our culture we pay schools and universities to teach us the learning or philosophies that mankind has acquired.  Usually the students matriculate with the end goal of making more money.  Hearing this chant today reminded me the mindset wasn't always like that, nor does it need to be.  The goal of learning used to be to learn, and be taught by the Gods, mother nature, and/or an Elder of the community who had spent a lifetime learning from life and the laws that govern it.  Now, being educated is more often linked with potentially higher income, rather than actually gaining light and knowledge from God, the Master Teacher.  The love of money can so easily betray learning. The chant reminded me of true learning, which requires a true student, and a relationship between the two initiated by a willingness to be taught.

I thank the Hawaiians for the "learner chant" or Student's chant I heard today.  It's rekindled within me the desire to learn, not just from schools or universities, but also from God, from nature.  It reminded me of new ways to think of hymns.  I want to always be one willing to be taught, I know so little that it shouldn't be that difficult.  I think I will ponder these ideas next time I sing a hymn.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Dead or Alive

D&C 29: 40-41
Wherefore, it came to pass that the devil tempted Adam, and he partook of the forbidden fruit and transgressed the commandment, wherein he became subject to the will of the devil, because he yielded unto temptation.  41 Wherefore, I, the Lord God, caused that he should be cast out from the Garden of Eden, from my presence, because of his transgression, wherein he became spiritually dead, which is the first death, even that same death which is the last death, which is spiritual, which shall be pronounced upon the wicked when I shall say: Depart, ye cursed. 

Some interesting things pop as as I read this scripture.  Namely vs 41 that says it's possible to be mortally alive, as in your physiology functioning actively, and being coherent (to one degree or another), yet be spiritually dead at the same time.  So a person can be "dead" yet "alive".  Or "alive", and yet "dead".  

This is from the Guide to the Scriptures on "Spiritual death was introduced into the world by the fall of Adam (Moses 6:48). Mortals with evil thoughts, words, and works are spiritually dead while still alive on earth (1 Tim. 5:6). Through the atonement of Jesus Christ and by obedience to the principles and ordinances of the gospel, men and women can become clean from sin and overcome spiritual death." -end quote.

Is it possible there is spiritual death all around?  Are we asleep?  Is it pride that withholds the realizations of our state?  A doctor may call someone alive, but from a different point of view, that may not be the full picture. 

This concept goes back to the Garden of Eden.  Where Adam fell.  This of course has a striking connection to each of us individually, but I'm not going to go into that.  The point is when Adam fell, he became spiritually dead, D&C 29:40–41, 44.  We all now live in a fallen world.  All of us need to address this spiritual reality at some point in our own mortality. According to the scripture, God sends angels declaring repentance and redemption so the dead may become reanimated.

All of us need repentance and redemption.  So according to the scripture all of us need to be ministered to at some point by (an) Angel(s) who declare such things. Mosiah 2:40 speaks to all who have transgressed, young and old, and invites an "awaking".   So apparently we're asleep.  Repentance then has to do with waking up (Alma 5:7). But we're not compelled (Alma 42:27).  Everyone gets to choose. 

We are each invited to be reborn, and become alive again through Christ Jesus and the Atonement.  To then be both alive, and alive, so to speak.  Until that time, it would make sense that a person is has a body that functions yet is "asleep", to use a scriptural term.  Hence all the scriptures teachings to "awaken" and "arise".  Two separate things.   I don't think they are talking about getting out of bed in the morning.  Although that's probably one interesting way to think about it.  It's kinda interesting that waking up from a deep sleep when you don't want to be woken up can be unpleasant for all parties involved.  No one likes that.  What in interesting correlation.  Food for thought.    

As I'm writing this I got to thinking about last post about how a "living" prophet is more important to us than a "dead" prophet.  Now this is could get really interesting in the context of this post.  But again, topic for another day. 

This is from the Gospel of Philip (from The Nag Hammadi Library): "A gentile does not die, never having been alive so as to die. One who has believed in truth is alive, but this person is at risk of dying just by being alive."

So how do you tell if a person is spiritually dead or alive?  How do you tell if YOU are spiritually dead or alive? Personal evaluation is what deserves first priority.  How does one awaken to a reality one may not be aware of?  If you're awake you probably know the answer to that question.  But can someone wake up if they are convinced they are not asleep? Ether 8:24 speaks of awakening to our "awful situation".  This I think was meant for us. 

Well...... now I may have probed way too deep down the rabbit hole for most readers but.... what an interesting direction this Gospel of Jesus Christ can offer us.  "Awake and arise" indeed.

Scripture study

I support scripture study.  I have one memory of an actual scripture study by a church leader.  It was by Elder Todd Christofferson when I was a missionary in Paraguay.  Strangely, I don't recall many other instances of church leaders doing a scripture study with an audience. We like talks, we love touching stories, but scripture studies are less common than fuzzy stories it seems.  Large scale teaching methods by the church oddly do not include much scripture reading or study.  We more talk about them.  Or take some isolated verse and then use it to back up the point WE are attempting to make.          

I think an old fashioned scripture study would be enjoyable in General Conference, or any group setting.  Anyone agree?  Maybe where the speaker begins with one scripture, and spends the entirety of the talk on the words, doctrine, phrases, of perhaps just one verse of scripture.  Using the scripture and it's words to teach the principles, rather than teaching a principle, doctrine, or idea and then using various scriptures as support or evidence for their chosen topic.  Perhaps this is done to a small degree, but not as directly as I'm talking about.  What if we had a weekly "scripture study with an apostle" broadcast?  We have the "Music and the Spoken word".  I personally would be excited for a "Scripture study, and the Written Word".   

Lots of approaches can be beneficial, but I see hardly any plain scripture study.  I suppose the thinking is that scripture study is for smaller settings like Seminary, Sunday school, or Institute.  But very few of us get to hear any of the General Authorities in such settings.  Even in those settings the outline has sometimes large segments of scripture or entire books lumped into one lesson which again has it's own agenda to get through.  I for one think it would be very very interesting and enjoyable to see maybe two or three from the Quorum of the 12 at conference do an actual scripture study in front of everyone.  Ask us to open our scriptures right then and there, and show how one can read the scriptures with the Spirit, finding depth, and joy in them.  Identifying the light that exists in the scriptures themselves. I don't recall ever having been invited to open my scriptures in such settings.

I wonder what the response would be if there were a particular segment of the conference sessions designated to this.  Imagine a 2 hour block of speakers reading one or two verses word by word, carefully, pausing to talk, discuss, and learn.  Maybe the Saturday afternoon session.  Living prophets opening up the scriptures to us with a direct scripture study session.....what a great thing that would be.

Studying the words and phrases and historical context of the scripture itself could never be a bad thing.  Citing scriptures that simply relate to a chosen topic is good, but what if we did it the other way around once in a while?  Taking the scripture as the guide.  It's kind of the same as current trends, but also very different.  I think this could show how exciting and life giving the Book of Mormon and God's word really can be.

Sequence and Timing

In some scriptures we're commanded not to partake of something, or not do something, and in another part we're commanded TO partake of that same thing, or TO do the thing.  But when we get the timing wrong, it messes all sorts of things up.  The sequence wasn't something to be passed over.

In the Word of Wisdom, we're supposed to consume fruit "In it's season"  I think that refers to more than just apples and pears.  It's to recognize the things God asks and when he asks them.  When there is a sequence to be followed and we disregard it and prefer our own sequence of things.... or want to do something out of seasons we create trouble.   Joseph Smith said "That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another."  He goes on to cite examples of people acting under revelation, and being reliant on God rather than pre defined rigid rules.  (Page 256 of Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.)

There are many sequences in plain sight in the scriptures, but I often miss them.  On this note one author says this about drawing near the Lord and sequences: "Having the veil open to you is like seeking to open something kept shut by a combination lock.  To an uninformed observer watching the lock being opened, they may conclude what is needed is spinning the dial back and forth a few times and the lock disengages.  However no amount of turning the dials on the combination lock will open it until you have the right sequence and the right numbers.  So it is here.  Unless you have the right sequence and the right information, it is not possible to have the veil open."  (The Second Comforter p. 20).

The path the authors of scripture has taken to find the Lord is one they are frequently writing about and sharing to us if we have eyes to see.  That is one reason I think the scriptures are so valuable.  The authors are among those upon earth who have seen God, conversed with angels, and have personally encountered the fullness of the Gospel.  Their words are direct, and testimony is not vague.  The book of Mormon in the first 8 verses has Lehi encountering God and telling us about it.  Even in those short 7 verses prior, there is a sequence.  How valuable Holy Writ is!

There are a couple foundational sequences:  "Repent, and be baptized" comes to mind.  Belief should also probably be part of that foundation sequence. If you don't believe, than you'll have no motivation for repentance or baptism.  So, like Alma teaches with the seed of faith in chaper 32, if we can no more than desire to believe, even if we only desire it, we can plant the seed of belief that there actually is a God, and that He is good, and He will respond to you if you seek Him.  We can let that desire work within us and see what natural sequence follows.

When Adam and Eve partook of the fruit it could be said that it was "out of season".   Had they not eaten I wonder if the Lord would have returned at some point and given them further instructions, which would have included to eat the fruit.  The out come would have been different.  However the Lord in his foreknowledge made ample provision.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Parable of the Spring

Legend held that high in a sacred mountain there was a spring. This spring gave forth pure, life-giving water to all who partook. Direct contact with the spring, as well as the water from it, was deeply treasured by the members of the community. It signified many important things to them about their relationship to their creator.

Many would take trips to enjoy, and be refreshed by this spring's life giving water. It had a taste unlike any other. It even had a fragrance which some said had the aroma of the skies. They knew by experience it was pure. The effects were clear and calming and left one with peace.  All were invited to come and partake of this living water for themselves.

Years went by and the nearby community went from its humble beginnings to a towering, prosperous city. Soon economically minded individuals were engaged in business expansion. Seeing as drinking water was necessary for the people, they began to invest and research ways to provide it more efficiently, and in a way that was to the residents' liking. Spring water after all could be a booming business. The spring could also provide profit and jobs for the community.

It was said that if this water could be packaged, controlled, and overseen by a corporation they could ensure that everyone had access to it, near and far. They could also ensure, oversee, and manage it. After all, purity, strength and composition were necessary regulations that would have to be put in place and overseen.  And so it happened.  Efficiencies were seen quickly.  With the convenience of drinking from bottles, people no longer had to concern themselves with the actual spring or the a potentially laborious trek up the mountain. Controls and regulation were imposed in the name of safety and risk management.  The effect was surely believed to improve the citizen’s lives. Some of the residents were pleased pleased because it assured them they possessed something valuable and consumed something they could trust. They could also now wait for their water to be delivered right to their door, and even get delivery confirmation.

There came a time when a city conference meeting was held and the new direction for city water was put to a vote. Many were divided over the issue but eventually a vote in favor passed. The water rights were given to a growing organization.  The community could now rely on those who had the 'right' to be in charge of the spring and its water.

Those who oversaw and packaged and delivered the water in consumer bottles were chosen for their business savvy and skills rather than their knowledge of, or experience at the spring. Such experience weren't deemed necessary for their positions.  Respect, honor, and devotion towards the water company increased throughout the culture as it grew. In the eyes of some they became a suitable substitute to what the spring provided. The actual name of the spring still appeared on the bottle label which helped everyone's minds be at ease.  The business that collected, bottled and distributed the water became a formidable power in the city.  The label claim carried a degree of authority and perceived authenticity.  Over time the citizens would increasingly tolerate or even praise any developments offered by the water bottling company.

In time the actual spring itself was forgotten, and its true value was referenced, but directly experienced less and less. With new advertising and marketing strategies new flavors of "vitamin water" with artificial sweeteners came to the stores to meet demand for social change.

As generations who had been to the spring passed, presumptions and traditions replaced the truth about the Spring and it's water. Traditions were strong in the community. Many presumed only a few actually partook directly from the spring, or were even allowed to.  It was "reserved" after all some people would say.  Others agreed that to visit the spring was not for the general population, and nothing further should even be considered. Some thought the new flavors and added minerals signified progress and adaptation for the growing city.  The bottled water at one point was even taught to be the same as a personal experience to and at the spring.

A few of the residents of the city still knew of the hike to the spring where they could enjoy this God-sent life giver. This surely need to be protected, so the company who bottled the water aspired to taken ownership of the mountain, and thus the spring.  The mountain and the land soon became viewed by the people as private property and notions of secrecy surrounding it emerged. There were few that made the individual journey to find the spring for themselves, although it still was, and always had been legally accessible. Some in powerful positions of influence taught that the bottled version of the water was just as good, if not better.  And that it was too risky and unnecessary to go beyond what was delivered to them. Since the effects of the pure water were not measured and regulated it was thought to be potentially dangerous.

Law in this community required ingredients to be listed on all consumer products. However ingredients and their associated meanings became clouded in language the common citizen did not understand. Although the definitions of the ingredients slowly changed over time, the actual words used on the bottle label did not.  The label vocabulary describing their water put many at ease because it sounded official and original.  The adoration and reverence that at one time surrounded the spring were slowly being transferred to the institution packaging and distributing the water, or even the bottle itself.  Many would develop sincere beliefs about what they thought was true of the water they drank from bottles.  Strong emotion helped many feel reassured of the truth of their beliefs.  For a time it seemed the truth was left behind and emotion served as its alternative.   For many, there were simply more pressing matters to concern themselves with than their drinking water which appeared to be perfectly fine.

As business goes, newer and more popular ways of supplying needs became the focus of organizational expansion. Other brands joined in the market of selling bottled water.  In this particular city, recycled water was much easier to come by than spring water. True it may contain trace amounts of strange chemicals, or flushed pharmaceuticals, but they were in such small amounts that it was presumed and believed that it wouldn't affect the mind or body. The corporation sought the insight of experts who concluded that the human body needed water, but not necessarily directly from the spring. Experts were again brought in to study the various outlets, soil composition, human physiology, behavior, and public opinions.

One searcher had discovered that the plastic bottle the spring water was packaged in was subtly contaminating the water.  The processes involved in the packaging effort both removed elements, and mingled in foreign elements which caused chemical changes in the body.  Man made cleansing and purifying processes were unable to purify the water.  But since everyone in the community was drinking it, no one was noticing the subtle effects and trends. It became increasingly impure and different from it's origin.  One business executive said that to focus on such small things, or trace amounts of danger, was to strain at a gnat, and that the focus should be the vision of building, expanding, and offering their water to the world. Other trustees agreed and said that the origin of all water was God, so little changes here or there didn't matter a great deal because after all, they were doing such a grand work delivering the water.

The bottled water had value; it did contain some residue of original foundation elements. Some would occasionally notice however that what they consumed had a bit of an impure taste, but they were sometimes afraid to explore it and find out the whole story. Those who voiced discoveries such as the bottle contamination were often mistreated or viewed as outcasts. Out of fear, many ignored the information their senses provided. Man's interference had led to in inevitable contaminates in the water.

One day in the early fall a young man who knew of this legend was caught in a rainstorm and paused from where he was headed to stand beneath a tree.  He inhaled to enjoy the aroma of such clean air and was suddenly struck with an unmistakable impression to venture towards the mountains in the distance. Straightway he left his previous endeavors and went towards the dark fog clouded figures. After a little while he remembered how he loved the rain, and thought it a blessing from the heavens. It watered both the flowers and the weeds. As he looked heavenward a drop of rain landed in his mouth. Although small and simple, he noticed a hint of something.  It was a taste strangely familiar to him. There was a faint yet clear recognition but he wasn't sure from where. He pondered and thought he heard something coming from the mountain.

A few days later he noticed his thirst going unquenched. Something had altered his taste and the bottled water he drank now puzzled him. He looked at the label and saw the original small print by the founder identifying the water had come from a spring high in the mountains. He had heard stories of this spring, as well as the legend about some old community that vaguely resembled his own.  He again thought he heard something.  He decided he needed to learn for himself the truth about this spring, and why he hungered and thirsted as he did.

The young man set out, the wind being his guide. He found the way. When he returned from the mountain he would return a different person. It took the man some time to find the spring. There were many peaks and valleys, one which was called death's shadow.  But at length he found the spring, saw its beauty, felt its purity, and tasted of its goodness. He received what it offered, and knew his life would never be the same. The experience was unlike anything he had ever considered. Life began anew.

The spring water had a cleansing effect, which affected his residence. Although he wanted to, the experience he had was one he was not able to share with many people. The rigorous hike and the required passages required everything of the person hiking, so this was not for the unprepared, or disinterested.  He concluded that this treasure was worth any price. He later noted how the spring had provided a living component inside of him, it became part of him, and he part of it. They became one.  When he returned to the city he noticed there in the sacred writings was a description of what he struggled to put into words

As the man adjusted again into his everyday life he noticed members of his community held tight to beliefs and traditions that were tied to sentiment and emotion about the spring water delivered to them in plastic bottles.  In other circles people would often testify of this water's purity, claiming to know of its perfection, their view was bolstered by the ongoing success of the water company. Great love and adoration was expressed towards those who delivered this life necessity.  Many felt great loyalty and pride at the growing success of the spring water company. This provided assurance that things were well and emotions ran proud. The more it was distributed, the more the sense of overall well being grew.

The impurities, and lacking components had altered many people's orientation, and was subtly affecting their hearing as well as eyesight.  His concern deepened but a warmth inside him led him to pray in behalf of those among whom he lived and loved.

While the young man acknowledged and was grateful for what remained of the original elements of the packaged water, in his heart he treasured the spring and its direct effect on him above all else. It filled him, and gave him rest. He also treasured the rare moments when a few close friends and he could speak of and share in the joy and blessings of the spring. Without water, human life could not survive. He began to see more clearly the grace and mercy of the creator in all that transpired to him and around him - both in what puzzled him, and in what fulfilled him.

Many years came and went, and the man grew old and passed away rejoicing in that which awaited him. His cheerful attitude and talk of hope got him the title "Grandpa Hope" by his posterity.  He left a record for them, in a very non assuming and humble book.

Generations passed and only a residue of understanding remained in the community of the sacred spring.  Many truths were not preserved and thus did not endure.  There came a time when a terrible disaster occurred in that part of the land. The city was left desolate. A few remnants remained who huddled together and due to the water source near the old city decide to resettle there.  They knew of the spring, and treasured it.  They lived in peace with one another.  Their children grew and were taught the truth.  Other communities of like minded believers joined them, and together they honored their creator by obeying His teachings.  They became one.  It was because of the Spring that they found life.  

(Picture by Bierstadt, Albert)