Monday, July 20, 2015

The Haunting Quest for Happiness

A few days ago, I received a note from a good friend, who said, “This happiness thing is haunting me, tracking me and beating me upside the head.” I was reminded of my own quest for happiness. About six months after we moved to Illinois, I fell into a funk, and for the past 5 years or so I have embarked on an on again, off again quest to learn how to be consistently happy. We are all but commanded to be happy, and I felt I was failing at that. I have not, as yet, succeeded in becoming consistently happy, but I have learned a great deal in the process of reaching toward my goal.

I grew up hearing about what members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints call the Plan of Salvation. I can draw the missionary diagram of the pre-earth life, the veil of forgetfulness, mortal life, death and the kingdoms of glory. This is, after all, God’s grand plan for us, the one that answers the universal questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going after this life? It has only been in recent years that I hear the plan referred to more frequently as the “Plan of Happiness.” For me, that brings a rather different perspective.

The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi condensed the plan beautifully into a simple sentence. In 2 Nephi 2:25, we read his words. “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” There it is, the purpose of life! God prepared his glorious plan and put everything in motion–continues to guide the details–so that we might have joy. That is awesome!

And yet, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? God allows wars and debilitating physical and mental illness, addictions, abuse, job loss, money worries, family strife and a host of other ills. Not all of these come as the result of our bad choices. Is the plan flawed? Was Lehi misinformed? Are we failing, or have we somehow disappointed God so that He turns His back in disgust?

The God I know does not make promises or pronouncements lightly, and He does not ever give up on His children. So…no, the plan is perfect and real. God does intend for us to have joy. Maybe, then, I need to better understand the plan and what God means by the phrase “men are that they might have joy.”

I was reminded of a key part of the plan when I went to the movies with my daughter this week. It is remarkable what nuggets of truth one can find in a Disney movie! We watched Inside Out and gained a rather charming lesson that joy and sadness work hand in hand and actually complement each other. Lehi describes it this way in earlier in 2 Nephi chapter 2:

“For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.”

Yes, God allows death and destruction and other terrible things. Even Satan, with all of his opposition, is part of the plan of happiness. In day to day terms, depression is NOT failure, and I do not need to be happy every day in order to live a joyful life. In fact, the sad days deepen my understanding and appreciation of the joy.

An Ensign article from a few years ago reminds me of a second key element of the plan. Marcus Nash tells us that:

“In order to have joy, you need to understand that, as a child of your Heavenly Father, you inherited divine traits and spiritual needs—and just like a fish needs water, you need the gospel and the companionship of the Holy Ghost to be truly, deeply happy.”

I have realized, these last few years, that the two things that affect my happiness more than anything else are my relationship with God and my relationship with my family. Feeling the Spirit and focusing on my family give me an anchor and a peace that lifts my soul. Conversely, when I neglect my prayers and spiritual study, when I make choices that inhibit my ability to feel the influence of the Holy Ghost, or when we have conflict in the family, my happiness ebbs.

I have learned other lessons during my time here in Illinois that contribute in one way or another to my understanding of the plan of happiness. Here are a few of those:

  • I have learned the vital importance of basic pleasantries. I am amazed at what effect a simple smile can have or how uplifting it can be to ask someone how they are and actually listen to the answer. 
  • I have learned how important it is not to define ourselves or others by a single characteristic. No one needs to be known primarily as the person with anxiety, the addict, the person with a weight problem or the person who doesn’t go to church much. Each of us has so much more to offer than a body type or a condition or something we struggle with. Most often it is we who limit ourselves by these labels.
  • In relation to the above: everyone has something to offer, some way they shine. Our annoying qualities or habits do not cancel out our ability to do good. Look for the gems that those around you have to offer. Look for the things they can teach you.
  • When I make an effort to express genuine gratitude to God and to those around me, it brings joy.
  • Forgiveness is essential and opens the doors to relationships that enrich our lives. This is true in marriage, true in friendships and true in our service. My husband, my children, and many of you in the ward have taught me this principle by forgiving me, even when that has been difficult for you to do. Thank you.
  • The faith gained is worth the trials that built it. We cannot be afraid of adversity. When we are doing our best to follow the truths and commandments we’ve been given—even if we are far from perfect—we can trust that the Lord’s blessings will be there when we need them.
  • Be bold when inspired to be bold, and be silent when inspired to be silent.
  • Valuable friendships come in many flavors. Some last a lifetime, and some last only a few hours or a few days. The duration of the friendship or the time you spend together does not necessarily indicate the importance of that friendship in your life.

And finally, happiness is a spiritual gift worth seeking. I was struck, while reading the Book of Mormon, by the experiences of Ammon, one of the sons of Mosiah. You will remember Ammon as the missionary who gained favor with King Lamoni by cutting off the arms of those who came to steal the king’s sheep. On more than one occasion, Ammon was so overcome by joy that he fainted. I sensed that his joy was a spiritual gift and a significant factor in Ammon’s success as a missionary. The things he said and did uplifted those around him. He loved the people he served, and he loved to serve God. This joy was evident to the people, and they responded to it. We learn in Alma 27:18 that Ammon’s joy is “a joy which none receiveth save it be the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness.” That would suggest that Ammon worked hard to be joyful, even in difficult circumstances. That would also suggest that I, too, should continue to seek to live a joyful life, and that I need to remember that happiness, like faith and like marriage, needs continual nurturing.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

We Have Liftoff: Blog to Book!

I retain a nostalgia for the sight of a solid book on a shelf, the feel of paper in my hands. It's a lovely thing! In a nod to that nostalgia, and in an effort to compile my musings into some more organized fashion, I have compiled the last five years of this blog into a book, now available on Amazon.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Holding the Pose

I do yoga on Saturdays. To say that I look forward to my Saturday ritual with great excitement might be overstating it a bit. More accurately, I procrastinate. I find clothes that need folding or messes that need straightening. News begs to be read and bathrooms beg to be scrubbed. I love the way I feel when I finish a yoga workout. I am less enthusiastic about the workout itself.

One cannot hurry yoga. Breathing must flow steady and slow, down to the bottom of the lungs. Breathe into the pose. Inhale. Exhale. Again. And again. All the while, my bad shoulder shakes underneath me in side plank. My thigh screams after several minutes of holding various warrior poses. My mind wanders to the next event on my schedule or the child who has climbed to the top of my worry list for the day. "You must reach equanimity," my instructor reminds me. "Calm your mind. Approach tension and allow it to release."

Brilliant idea. Find the tension. Breathe into it. Focus my vision. Allow my mind to calm, my face to relax. Sometimes I actually achieve a measure of equanimity. I flow from one pose into another, and it feels natural. I feel my spine realign itself as I open into side triangle pose, sternum and face reaching toward the ceiling. Ah!

And then, I reach a pose like upward bow pose, a pose that requires me to hold a back bend, surrendering my head and shoulders to gravity. For some reason, the bow pose makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. On days when equanimity proves elusive, the pose almost frightens me a little, although I doubt I could pinpoint the root cause of the fear. Failure, perhaps? Certainly not bodily harm, as extricating myself from the pose is an easy task. Something about relinquishing control of my head and neck makes my breath quicken and my heart rate increase. Pride comes to my aid, and I complete the pose once, twice, three times in the course of today's workout, refusing to give in. My muscles are up to the task. My back is flexible enough. Only my brain balks at the exercise. So I count my breaths, focus on a spot on the back wall and try not to think about the fear.

Life feels a little like bow pose sometimes. There is nothing inherently dangerous about my life. We enjoy good health. We pay our bills. Our cars run most of the time. The kids generally make good decisions and live exemplary lives. And yet, occasionally I have a day like today when I wake up feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty of life. We continue to take steps in the dark, not yet sure of the right path for our family. People I love struggle with problems I cannot solve. I find myself needing to surrender control to the choices of others, to the will of God, to the vagaries of life.

"Live in the present," I tell myself. "Breathe in and out. Relax into life."

Because here's the secret. Yoga isn't about becoming more flexible. It isn't about finishing the workout and moving on. It isn't about being stronger and twistier than the girl on the next mat. Yoga is all about the pose, about finding calm in tension and focus in distraction. And life isn't really about knowing where I will live next year and what mission will give my life purpose and direction. Life, like yoga, is all about the pose. I take stock of where I am right now, stretching what needs to be stretched, finding center, and breathing through the movement from one phase into the next. When I feel the fear rise, I acknowledge the tension. I approach it, taking what steps I can, and then I focus my vision, count my breaths and surrender, all the while searching for equanimity.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Martha's Memory

(I almost never write fiction and have no confidence in that genre, but a recent writing group assignment resulted in the following attempt.)

"Martha and Mary" by Nathan Greene
It is spring again. In years past, I would fill my days watching over the barley harvest and preparing for our Passover feast. This afternoon, I sit by the window as a gentle rain washes over my small garden. When the sun returns tomorrow, I will harvest the peas and tend to the grape vines and fig trees that grace the far corner. Today, I listen to the rain and gaze out over the valley. A mother carries her son past my window, singing softly to him as she makes her way to market.

A memory tickles the back of my mind, and I see myself on that same road, skipping to market hand in hand with a chortling toddler. Mother had matzah to make for the Passover. The house smelled of warm bread, and Lazarus was in fine form already, snatching piles of dough and reaching his chubby hands too close to the fire. Mother laughed and pushed us outdoors. “Off you go,” she said. Try as we might, none of us could find it in our hearts to lecture the laughing boy. With his infectious grin and ready hugs, Lazarus simply left joy in his wake. And so we skipped off down the road to look at the lambs waiting to be purchased for the feast. They bleated behind the gate, oblivious to their starring role in the events of the week.

While Lazarus played with the lambs, I sat on a rock, feeling the sun warm my cheeks. I sensed movement to my left and opened my eyes to see a boy duck around the corner of the enclosure. I knew everyone in Bethany, but this was a stranger, a tall, lanky boy wearing a traveling cloak. Though I lived within walking distance of Jerusalem, we rarely ventured far from our village. Particularly during feast time, Mother worried for our safety among the strangers in the city. I longed to know about far-off Egypt, Rome or Greece. Even Hebron or Galilee sounded exotic to my eleven- year old imagination.

“Where do you come from?” I called, a little surprised at my own boldness.

A face peered around the corner of the stall. Dark eyes sparkled over a sharp nose, and a thin hand pushed a strand of black hair back from the face of a boy probably two years older than I. He seemed pleased to have someone to talk with.

“You looked so peaceful, with your face turned up to the sun,” he said. “I did not wish to frighten you.”

Truthfully, the boy had startled me, but my desire to hear about his travels overcame any shyness. “You look as if you have traveled some distance,” I said. “Where do you call home?”

“Father and I came from Kerioth for the Passover. He has business with friends in the village tonight, but tomorrow we go to Jerusalem.”

I handed the boy a bit of bread, and we chewed in silence for a while, listening to the bleating of the lambs and watching Lazarus throw pebbles into the ditch.

“I love the city during feast time,” the boy reflected, almost to himself.

“I have never seen Jerusalem during Passover, actually,” I admitted. “Mother and Father worry about all of the people. Or maybe they are afraid I will sneak off with a caravan. What is it like?”

The boy proceeded to tell me about the markets, the people from as far away as Ethiopia. He described the noise of the doves in the courtyard of the temple, waiting to be sacrificed. Inns were crowded with pilgrims and merchants. Tradesmen like his father made more profit during Passover than at any other time of the year. My own father had told me about the crowds in the city, of course, but as the boy talked, the music and the prayers, the smells of exotic food and the cries of the beggars came alive. I closed my eyes to imagine the scene.

“You love it, do you not?” I said. It was not a question, really. I could tell by his voice that he could hardly wait to enter the city again. “Tell me your favorite part. Tell me a story.”

The look on his face changed. I worried for a minute that I had said something wrong, but then he spoke quietly, almost reverently. “It was last year,” he began. “It was my first trip to Jerusalem, and Father took me to the temple just before we left town with the other merchants. I listened to the men discussing scripture, arguing about laws and prophecies, comparing the notes of the famous rabbis. I was surprised to see a boy among the men. He was about my age, but when he spoke, the men nodded as if he had said something wise. I walked closer, standing just on the edge of the crowd. An old man, clearly a respected teacher, asked the boy a question. I do not even remember the question or the answer, but I remember the boy’s voice. His voice was not particularly deep, nor did he speak loudly. But somehow, when he spoke, I just had to listen. He knew what he was saying was true, without apology, without doubt. I study the prophecies a great deal, and my father says I know more than most of the men in our synagogue, but this boy…when he spoke, it was as if the prophet Isaiah himself stood in front of me. Suddenly, I understood things I never even imagined before.”

The traveler stopped there, as if embarrassed about his excitement. “Did you speak to him?” I asked.

“No. I just stood there. I was too amazed to open my mouth. But he looked up once, looked straight at me. His eyes were as old as Abraham, and I thought maybe he could see right into my thoughts. He gave a little nod, as if he knew me, as if he knew something in my heart that even I did not know. Then it was time to leave. I will never forget that. I keep thinking someday I will see him again, and I think of all the questions I want to ask.”

Just then, Lazarus threw his arms around my neck, and the spell was broken. The boy stood up, brushing crumbs off his cloak. “I should get back to the market,” he said. “Father will wonder where I have run off to.” And with that, he was gone.

I have thought many times over the years about that afternoon. I do not often call out to strangers, and I realized after he left that I never even asked his name, but the look on his face as he told of his experience in the temple stuck with me. Never in my wildest imaginings did I dream that one day I would once again meet not only the boy from Kerioth but also the remarkable boy from the temple.
Years later, Lazarus ran into my garden one afternoon, his face alive with the excitement of discovery. He was still my laughing boy, but older now, with a young family of his own. “Martha,” he panted.  “Come with me. The grapes can wait, but this cannot!”

Years had passed, but I had never learned to resist the enthusiasm of my favorite brother. I washed my hands in the fountain and followed him to the hillside. A crowd had gathered there, and a man sat in their midst, teaching. He spoke of ordinary things, of planting and harvesting, grains and birds. But the ordinary took on new meaning for me that day. I stood toward the back for a time, but before long I joined Lazarus and our sister Mary at the man’s feet. He challenged us to love even our enemies, and as I sat there in the spell of his voice, I thought I could love even the Romans if he asked me to. He spoke simply, with a power greater than his voice, greater than the words themselves or the challenge they presented. He spoke with authority and with love, with an immense love that I felt envelop all of us on that hillside.

As he spoke, I noticed his companions nearby, sitting in groups of two or three and asking questions from time to time. One man in particular caught my eye. He seemed familiar, like a face from a long distant memory. I thought perhaps he had visited with my father in his shop or worked in the fields during harvest, although his thin hands were not the hands of a laborer. He, too, listened intently to the teacher, pushing his fingers through his black hair from time to time when a point of the discussion particularly engaged him. I had almost located him in my memory when the discussion came to a close and Mary’s voice at my side interrupted my thoughts.

“Jesus,” she said. “We would be honored if you and your friends would take a meal with us.”

The teacher looked at us then and smiled. That evening was the first of many that he dined with us, sometimes in the company of his disciples and sometimes on his own, a weary traveler seeking quiet refuge from the crowds that always seemed to follow him. In time, I remembered his companion as the Passover traveler of my youthful memory. Once, I heard him retell the story of the boy in the temple. Jesus watched him quietly as he spoke, his eyes almost sad. “Judas,” he asked. “Have you found what you were seeking?” Neither man spoke for a minute, and soon the conversation turned to other topics.

For some reason, I never told Judas that I remembered him. If he ever connected me with the young girl of Bethany and her laughing baby brother, he never mentioned it. I had many occasions to see him over the next couple of years, and I began to understand the sadness in Jesus’ eyes as he listened to Judas speak. The sparkle in the eyes and the fire of testimony that had so animated Judas in the beginning began to fade over time. He moved more and more away from the group discussions, preferring to occupy his hours with the administrative affairs of the disciples. Once a dynamic speaker who could capture an audience with his fervor and intellect, he gradually spoke less and less and seemed troubled when Jesus began to talk openly about his calling as the Messiah. Occasionally, I would see Jesus and Judas walking on the hillside together, talking earnestly.

The last time I saw Judas was in Bethany, just days before the awful Friday of the crucifixion. I served dinner and listened as the men spoke. There was a heaviness in the air, like the gloom before a thunderstorm. Jesus himself seemed grieved by a silent sorrow, and he taught with more intensity, as if anxious that we would remember every word. We did not understand when he spoke of his own death, not until later. But we felt his love, and we, too, grieved, without understanding why. As dinner closed, Mary entered the room, weeping. She approached Jesus, and he nodded, almost imperceptibly. She brought out a container of spikenard and worked it gently into his feet, massaging each callous. As she worked quietly, Judas spoke up from the corner of the room.

“How can you allow this, Jesus? Surely it would be better to sell that precious ointment and use the money for the poor?” His eyes, as he looked scornfully at my sister, had finally lost the last vestige of wonder that sparkled in them when we first met. Jesus rebuked him gently, but firmly. He had lessons still to teach us, and Judas had his own part to play in the drama that unfolded over the next week.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Building a Healthy Soul

(The following is the text of a talk I gave a couple of weeks ago. It isn't as polished as I would like, but the concepts are something I have pondered a great deal over the years.)

Join me on a walk in a lovely garden, the Garden of Eden to be precise. You remember the story: God creates a beautiful garden and places Adam in the garden. He gives Adam a commandment. Genesis 2:15-17 describes that commandment:

15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

Commandment given, God creates Eve, and the first couple go merrily on their way, enjoying their innocence and the beauties around them. Satan tempts Eve, who eats of the forbidden fruit and shares the fruit with Adam. And thus the plan of salvation is born. Adam and Eve become mortal, subject to both physical and spiritual death. They know good from evil and can now experience both sorrow and joy. For the first time, they have agency, because they have both opposition and knowledge. They bear children, and God provides a Savior so that Adam and Eve and their posterity can have the opportunity to once again live with God.

I find it interesting that God uses a commandment that is essentially physical (a commandment about what to eat) to introduce His plan of salvation for the entire universe. Not only is the first commandment a physical commandment, but the consequences involve a mix of the physical and spiritual. I have thought about this a great deal. We tend to consider the spiritual as more Godlike than the physical, as if our bodies hold us back and limit us in some way, but I doubt that the Lord sees it that way at all.

One of my favorite scriptures illuminates for me how God feels about the relationship of our physical bodies and our spirits. In Doctrine & Covenants 88:15, we read “And the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” To me, that means that our eternal soul requires both the spirit and the body, that both components are critical. Additional scriptures bear that out. Daniel refuses to eat the king’s rich food, and he is blessed with great wisdom. The Savior fasts for a long period to prepare Himself to begin His ministry, and so forth.

Back to Adam and Eve. Do you remember the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit? Adam and Eve became mortal, of course, and they had to leave the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:17, God says something curious to Adam. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake.” For thy sake! As if the thorns and weeds were a blessing! But they were, just as Eve’s pain and sorrow in childbearing were a blessing. Somehow, those physical challenges were critical for Adam and Eve and for us in our quest to become like God. They help us to grow and learn, and they help us to understand God and what it means to be godlike.

Think about it from an exercise perspective. Unless I literally rip my muscles, I will not grow stronger. And in order to build that muscle, I have to push against something. I have to have opposition. God created the physical and spiritual experiences to run in tandem.

How Does That Apply to Me?

My patriarchal blessing includes a phrase that I return to again and again. In my blessing, God counsels me that as I keep my body in good condition, I will be more responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. That promise is not unique to me. Think of the Word of Wisdom, our famous code of health. We are commanded regarding what to eat and what not to eat, and then God spells out the promises.  We will receive health, we will run and not be weary…and in verse 19, we learn that we will “find wisdom and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures.” I think God cares a great deal about what we do with our bodies, as well as with our spirits. He even refers to our bodies as temples, and if you have ever had the chance to visit one of our LDS temples, you know how beautiful they are and what care is taken to keep them beautiful and pure.

In his October 2014 General Conference talk, Elder Jörg Klebingat outlines six tools to help us reach the point where we can approach the throne of God with confidence. I find it instructive that the first two suggestions he gives us are rather bold directives to take responsibility for our own spiritual well-being and to take responsibility for our own physical well-being. “Stop justifying and stop making excuses,” he says, reminding us that Heavenly Father knows each of our circumstances perfectly.

Elder Klebingat continues, “Feeding the spirit while neglecting the body, which is a temple, usually leads to spiritual dissonance and lowered self-esteem.” I think we can safely say that the reverse is true, as well. If we focus on our physical health and neglect our spirits, we will also suffer. But if we feed and exercise both body and spirit, then our potential is great.

What Have I Learned about Spiritual Things from Physical Experiences?

I learn that I can endure and that if I push myself, I can grow stronger.  I have started to run more over the last couple of years. I am not a great runner, but I find that I quite enjoy it. Sometimes, though, it is difficult to take those first steps or to keep going after a few tough miles on not quite enough sleep. When the wind chill is -15, I struggle to put on my shoes and open my front door. But I can tell you that the exhilaration I feel after running a 10K in that kind of cold is amazing! I feel like superwoman. So then, when faced with something in life that is pushes me to my limits, I tell myself, “If I can run 6 miles in sub zero weather, I can absolutely meet this challenge I am facing now.”

I learn that opposition is necessary. I want nicely sculpted arms, and I want to be strong enough so that I do not need to call my husband every time I need to move something heavy. But I will never build that muscle definition unless I push heavy weight. The same thing is true in my spiritual life. Brad and I have been through some years in our marriage that took us near to the breaking point. We dealt with some heavy opposition, and because of that, we grew closer together. We learned a great deal about God and about faith. I have had experiences that brought me to my knees again and again, and I would not trade them for anything. The apostle Paul learned a similar lesson. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he tells about a thorn in the flesh that he had to endure and what he learned from that:

7 And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.

I learn that I need to exercise every day. Intense, but sporadic, exercise does little to increase my strength or endurance. By the same token, we need to read scriptures every day, pray every day, go to church every week, and so forth. Elder Klebingat says that we need to “apply the atonement of Christ daily.”

I learn that I have to take care of myself with nutrition and rest. The scriptures remind us not to run faster than we have strength. In both physical and spiritual pursuits, we need to pace ourselves. A couple of years ago, I made the astonishing discovery that I like to run, so I fairly quickly built up to five mile runs. Predictably, I developed tendonitis, and I had to pull way back for a time. I learned that I need to build up my mileage slowly and let my body adjust. By the same token, if we try to live all of the commandments perfectly all at once, go to the temple three times a week, make fresh bread for everyone in the ward and read scriptures for hours each day, we will quickly burn out.

I learn that I have to obey certain laws to get certain results.  If I eat more calories than I burn, I will gain fat. If I eat too much sugar, I will feel sluggish. On the other hand, if I eat healthy foods and get adequate rest, I will have energy and think more clearly. Likewise, in D&C 130: 20-21, we learn that when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

But, Wow, It’s Hard!

The reality is, we are going to fall a lot. We’re going to fall out of the habit of reading scriptures, or we are going to eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in one sitting. We are going to deal with addictions or struggle with our callings. We are going to have crises of faith and physical ailments that stop us in our tracks. Heavenly Father knows that. Elder D. Todd Christofferson said the following in the October 2014 General Conference:

“I am under no illusion that this can be achieved by our own efforts alone without [the Savior’s] very substantial and constant help. ‘We know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.’ And we do not need to achieve some minimum level of capacity or goodness before God will help—divine aid can be ours every hour of every day, no matter where we are in the path of obedience. But I know that beyond desiring His help, we must exert ourselves, repent, and choose God for Him to be able to act in our lives consistent with justice and moral agency. My plea is simply to take responsibility and go to work so that there is something for God to help us with.”

That is our challenge, to go to work so that God has something to work with. Take the next step. That may involve reading a verse of scripture a day or walking around the block, or it may involve getting the help you need to overcome an addiction. Do something, take a step down the road to a healthy soul.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Control Freak on a Tightrope

My husband stayed home from work today. I love my husband, truly I do. But today I needed the house to myself. I needed the inside of my brain uncluttered, without the rest of the world crowding in. I intended to exercise myself into a good, stinky sweat, then shower and settle down at the computer with a lovely pot of herb tea and write. I intended to ignore both phone and email, rebel against my incredibly annoying "to do" list and try to pull something profound out of my head. Ta da! In a week of appointments and work and children home on holiday, today was the one day that offered a clean slate and an empty house.

Sigh. Did I mention that I love my husband?

Did I also mention that I'm currently suffering from a temporary case of writer's block, seasoned with a dash of ongoing limbo and served up on a dish of winter that stubbornly refuses to give way to spring in quite the timeframe I had hoped? And there you have the crux of the matter, if I am to give way to perfect honesty. I have run smack against a bit of life I cannot control, and I find myself thoroughly cross with the situation.

It's a bit of a tightrope, this tension between control and delicious surprise. On one side of the wire, I plot my life hour by hour on a calendar, depend on my grocery app and keep a detailed "to do" list, sorted by priority and date. As backup, I refer to two white boards in my kitchen: one for those things I really, really need to remember in case I forget to look at my task list and the other for chores the children need to accomplish before any fun ensues. I assume the overflowing junk drawers (not one, but two) in the kitchen help to offset the rigidity of the white boards.

On the other side of the wire bubbles an insistent need to escape the list app, pull out of routine and allow myself the luxury of the unknown, the unplanned. Sometimes I long to hang on to the boat and ride the waves, ready to gasp in delight at the breathtaking view around the bend. I find that the best moments usually lurk outside of my orchestration. But to surrender to another conductor requires a trust that I find difficult to muster with any frequency. So I long for order and crave random and find myself attempting to balance between the two.

When Nick Wallenda crossed the Grand Canyon on a tightrope 1500 feet above the canyon floor, he held a 30-foot-long, 43-pound flexible pole in his hands. The heavy pole held his center of gravity toward the safety of the steel cable and kept him from leaning dangerously far in either direction.

And me? I have that husband (whom I love), four wonderful children (whom I also love), and a dog (which I tolerate). They require meals at regular intervals and rides according to schedule. We have a comfortable routine of morning prayer and bedtime hugs. And when the routine leans threateningly toward monotony, I can count on the unexpected to pull me back to center. The dog will vomit on the carpet just before company arrives. Snowmen will require building after a spring storm. Impromptu chats with a teenage son will last for hours. Calls for service will shatter my schedule. And sometimes, on a quiet winter day when I had other plans, my husband will stay home from work.

Monday, January 12, 2015

When the Cup Does Not Pass

"We became acquainted with (God) in our extremities"
Like many LDS children, I began each school year armed with a priesthood blessing of counsel and comfort from my father. Invariably, that blessing promised me "learning experiences" during the course of the year. I soon realized that those experiences generally came accompanied by an uncomfortable amount of pain and frustration. 

True to Dad's inspiration, I have had many opportunities over the years to learn through trials. Those difficult periods have taught me bits of empathy and a degree of humility. Scriptures have come alive as they suddenly felt more applicable than ever before. I understand more about unconditional love now, about the blessings of suffering, the purifying role of sacrifice, the freedom of forgiving and seeking forgiveness. I rarely seek for learning experiences, but I do appreciate them (sometimes through gritted teeth). I appreciate that the process of feeling stretched to the point of breaking makes me stronger and allows me to see the hand of God and the compassion of others in my life. I love the epiphany moments, even if they come in the pit. After all, a light shines brighter in a dark cellar than in the light of noonday.

But what about those times when we hit bottom and keep going, or when we hit bottom repeatedly without the hoped for relief, without the brilliant light of understanding? Christians of all faiths (my own included) love to quote 1 Corinthians 10:13 and point out that God will not give us more than we can handle.  I agree that God is faithful, that He will provide a way to escape temptation. I have less confidence saying that God will never allow us to be submitted to a trial beyond our own capacity to "handle it."

Purging Experiences

And so we arrive at what I see as the difference between learning experiences and purging experiences, experiences that help us to become new creatures. Sometimes, the bottom keeps dropping. Sometimes, the relief and the insight fail to come. Sometimes, we cannot handle the pain or find the answers. The trial continues unrelenting, and we feel our spirits crush under the pressure. We stand before God, naked and head bowed, and say, "I can go no further. This is all I have to offer." And He gently hands us the bitter cup. It feels cruel, like a cosmic joke at our expense. We may feel abandoned. But I think if only we could see the love in God's eyes as He extends the cup, we might begin to change our perspective..

Long ago, Elder James E. Faust gave a talk about the refiner's fire. In the talk, he used the example of the Martin handcart company, an ill-fated company of Mormon pioneers that ran into harsh conditions crossing the plains. Fully one quarter of the members of the company perished on the way West, and all endured great suffering. And yet, not one of that company abandoned the faith. As one survivor said years later:

"Everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities. ...

“‘Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.’”

Elder Faust explained: "Here then is a great truth. In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. In this way the divine image can be mirrored from the soul. It is part of the purging toll exacted of some to become acquainted with God. In the agonies of life, we seem to listen better to the faint, godly whisperings of the Divine Shepherd."

President Harold B. Lee said something similar: "There is a refining process that comes through suffering, I think, that we can’t experience any other way than by suffering. … We draw closer to Him who gave His life that man might be. We feel a kinship that we have never felt before. … He suffered more than we can ever imagine. But to the extent that we have suffered, somehow it seems to have the effect of drawing us closer to the divine, helps to purify our souls, and helps to purge out the things that are not pleasing in the sight of the Lord. ... We must be refined. We must be tested in order to prove the strength and power that are in us."

Purging Helps Us to Transform

I have noticed lately that these purging experiences seem to occur most often in conjunction with a commitment to a new phase of discipleship. One friend recommitted to her faith after several years apart and almost immediately experienced debilitating health problems. Another finally relinquished an addiction of decades and found unexpected trials that rocked his confidence. Positive transformation does not always immediately result in blessings. Occasionally, a purging accompanies such a transformation. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.

First, as we become new people, we must necessarily shed our former lives, slough off the trappings of the people we used to be. As Elder Faust suggested above, the refiner's fire melts away the dross, and we experience a rebirth.

Second, at times we doubt our own transformation. Have we truly repented? Are we strong enough to hold to this new commitment we have made? Will our conversion stick? Abraham made a covenant with the Lord that would shape the world for generations to come. God promised that he would be a father of many nations. And then God asked Abraham to sacrifice the miracle son, the very posterity He had promised. Elder Hugh B. Brown said of that sacrifice that God knew perfectly well that Abraham would sacrifice anything He asked, but that "Abraham needed to learn something about Abraham." Likewise, when we come through these purging experiences, having made the sacrifice asked of us, we, like Abraham, can know that our transformation is real, that we are truly committed to God. We need that confidence that comes with knowing ourselves.

Is There No Other Way?

My husband posed an intriguing question as we discussed these purging experiences recently. "Is there no positive way to become a new person? Why does this refining process always have to be painful and negative?" I pondered that question for some time. The refining process seems to work best through pain that brings us literally and figuratively to our knees, that forces us to acknowledge our nothingness before the Lord. I thought about why that is, about what the refiner's fire accomplishes in us. The process seems to accomplish several key purposes:

  • We come to recognize our complete dependence on God. We feel a great need.
  • We accept God's will unconditionally.
  • We relinquish everything that gets between us and God: every sin, every wish, every bit of our own agenda.
  • The Spirit burns within us. (This is where the true purging occurs.)
  • We see things from an eternal perspective.
  • We are willing to sacrifice whatever God asks of us.
  • Our prayers become true communication.
President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the process of revelation, and as I listened to his words, I was struck with how closely that experience of a prophet desiring revelation resembled the experience of a person going through transformation. The counsel President Kimball gave in the context of seeking critical revelation seems to apply here. He said:

"Do you want guidance? Have you prayed to the Lord for inspiration? Do you want to do right or do you want to do what you want to do whether or not it is right? Do you want to do what is best for you in the long run or what seems more desirable for the moment? Have you prayed? How much have you prayed? How did you pray? Have you prayed as did the Savior of the world in Gethsemane or did you ask for what you want regardless of its being proper? Do you say in your prayers: “Thy will be done”? Did you say, “Heavenly Father, if you will inspire and impress me with the right, I will do that right”? Or, did you pray, “Give me what I want or I will take it anyway”? Did you say: “Father in Heaven, I love you, I believe in you, I know you are omniscient. I am honest. I am sincerely desirous of doing right. I know you can see the end from the beginning. You can see the future. You can discern if under this situation I present, I will have peace or turmoil, happiness or sorrow, success or failure. Tell me, please, loved Heavenly Father, and I promise to do what you tell me to do.” Have you prayed that way? Don’t you think it might be wise? Are you courageous enough to pray that prayer?"

In short, are we courageous enough to truly stand naked before God and acknowledge that we are nothing without Him? Can we give it all up in order to become what God has designed for us to become?

Thorns That Heal

The ancient Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10) that he had begged the Lord to remove. "For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me," he said. God did not remove the thorn. Whether that thorn represented a physical malady, an addiction from which Paul craved to be healed, an enemy who refused to back down, or some other trial, we do not know. But we do know that Paul eventually accepted the thorn as a part of his mortal experience, as a gift from God to help him to be strong.

If we accept it, God will offer deliverance through our refiner's fire. We may not find the trial removed. In fact, the fire itself may become our deliverance if we can develop the ability to trust God enough to hand our trials over to Him.

James E. Faust said, "Out of the refiner’s fire can come a glorious deliverance. It can be a noble and lasting rebirth. The price to become acquainted with God will have been paid. There can come a sacred peace. There will be a reawakening of dormant, inner resources. A comfortable cloak of righteousness will be drawn around us to protect us and to keep us warm spiritually. Self-pity will vanish as our blessings are counted."


  • April 1979 General Conference, Elder James E. Faust, "The Refiner's Fire"
  • Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee, Chapter 21: "Striving for Perfection"
  • Power from Abrahamic Tests, by Truman G. Madsen, Meridian Magazine,
  • Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball,Chapter 22: Revelation: “A Continuous Melody and a Thunderous Appeal”