Sunday, April 30, 2017

O That I Were An Angel

Me Blustering on my Trumpet
I have graduated from Ammon this week and been reading in Alma 29. I read it a year ago and wrote out some thoughts before, but this time I felt like I was rediscovering it, so went through and changed some of my notes from before. It starts out in verse 1:
"O that I were an angel, and could have the wish of mine heart, that I might go forth and speak with the trump of God, with a voice to shake the earth, and cry repentance unto every people! Yea, I would declare unto every soul, as with a voice of thunder, repentance and the plan of redemption, that they should repent and come unto our God, that there might not be sorrow upon all the face of the earth."

Like I talked about in my last post about Ammon, I have been troubled by this gospel sharing stuff in my life, so The Book of Mormon is on a roll here. What is my role in other people's lives, and how am I supposed to help them in the gospel? Are not members of the Church supposed to "wear out our lives" preaching repentance? Are we not our brother's keeper? What are we supposed to do, how far are we supposed to go in our efforts? Is there a limit to how far to push? When do we live and let live? What is the formula?

So Alma's story is terribly unfair. He went around like a rotten twerp trying to mess up the church his Father worked so hard to establish. And then what happened? He got the elite angel treatment to get him back on the straight and narrow. And then he was High Priest and prophet. Yes, it was a "harrowing" experience he had to go through first, and of course he had to repent and try and undo the damage he had done. But he had the miracle, the angel, the divine intervention that saved his soul.

In that poignant verse, I feel and can relate to his frustration. "O that I were an angel!" an angel like the multitude of angels that have saved me in my life. So often I see where I have ended up, based on divine interventions and miraculous displays from my own angels: parents and leaders and teachers and friends I didn't deserve, and I shrink at the injustice of it. I see others who keep on sinning and approaching misery and I think "Why not intervene for them? And if you won't send an angel, then for heaven's sake let me go be that angel to smarten these people up! They would have to repent with my thundering voice. It worked for me!"

Verse 3:
"Nevertheless I do sin in my wish; for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted me."
SIN? Sin sin sin sin sin! Well, there's another one. But why on earth would it be a sin to wish to cry repentance! Well it's not, except for how you do it. What are my motives for sharing the gospel? When I am honest with myself, I have to admit that often for me, pride is a major motivator, and I hate that. Sometimes I do things because I want to feel like I am good enough somehow. Sometimes I want my own glory.

So my methods sound a bit like Satan's plan. My own glory, plus incorporating Satan's idea of coercion and force as a means to an end. Geez Louise. But on the other hand, just imagine if Satan's sophistry, urging, and manipulative argument were used for good! We'd have Zion well established in no time. 

Remember Gandalf? "Don't tempt me Frodo! Understand that I would use this Ring from a desire to do good, but through me it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine." (Haha, LOTR references are da best.) Like Gandalf once considered, as Frodo held out Sauron's ring of power, what if I could use a voice of thunder and coercion to do good! What a happy, righteous world I could make with Satan's tools!

Alma continues,

"I ought not to harrow up in my desires the firm decree of a just God, for I know that he granteth unto men according to their desire, whether it be unto death or unto life; yea I know that he allotteth unto men, yea he decreeth unto them the decrees which are unalterable, according to their wills, whether they be unto salvation or unto destruction."

God's ways are different. Alma acknowledges this frustrating and marvelous truth:  God gives us what we want. "He granteth unto men according to their desires" whether unto life or death. No righteous man, not even the prophet Alma, can meddle with that.

How is that for models of parenting:  "You want it? You want to eat that stick of butter that will make you throw up later? Are you sure? OK, here you go kids!"

Well not really like that, I guess. It does say for "him that knoweth good and evil," he lets us have it. For example, I don't ask Lucia whether she would like a diaper change or not. 

But here on earth, each of us have, in a sense grown up enough in heaven and we have all moved out of Mom and Dad's house and we are making our own choices and following our own desires. If I am a grown man and choose to play video games all day instead of get a job, for example, Dad can try and persuade me to be responsible and grow up, send messengers, awesome CEOs to the house with intriguing job opportunities to tempt me out of unemployment, but he can't force me. I am my own man, now. Yes, God gave me my body, this earth, my stuff, but in a remarkable manifestation of love and respect, he gives me the chance to choose what to do with it. Use it, abuse it, waste it, or invest in it for eternal reward, it's up to me. He respects my right to choose in this exciting new world of agency and choices.

So why did Alma get an angel? I guess we are told actually:  because of the prayers of his righteous parents and other church members. Prayer matters. Quite often it is all we can do. He hears our pleadings for our wayward friends, siblings, children, parents. So going back to Alma and my question. What do I do for someone who is making a wrong choice? Well, there's prayer. Is that all? Well, if I have stewardship over someone either as a parent, a family member, or friend, I guess I can try to teach them, share with them my experience and testimony. How? Well, certainly not with the thundering trumpeting voice of an angel, maybe because the voice of an angel coming through me, a struggling sinner, would sound like a self-righteous, hypocritical whine. Less like a trumpet and more like a squeaky bagpipe full of hot air.

So going back to my original question:  how does someone as imperfect as me teach the gospel? What is the solution? How far do I go? What is the formula?

The formula is love. It has only ever been love. Perfect love is the only intervention. Only Christ has that ability because only he loves perfectly, but he gives us some of his love when we ask for it. Then He gives us opportunities to serve and develop that charity by reaching out to each other. Not with our own motives or agendas. But with His love and in his way. It happens, not as often as it should, but when it does, it is a miracle. Like when a home teacher who, with love unfeigned, serves a family and invites them back. Or a mother who never stops praying every night, for years, that one day her child will return to the gospel path. Or when someone forgives a terrible betrayal of trust. Or a friend who continues to love and support and be there for someone, in spite of their wrong choices.

Act and teach and persuade with as much love as you feel, and if you need more, pray for more of it, and Christ will give it to you. If you are not doing it out of love, stop doing what you are doing and pray for some. Pray with "all energy of soul, that you might be filled with that love." It is that part for me that takes great effort, "all energy of soul" and incredible selflessness and patience to obtain, which I usually don't have on hand. Sometimes it's too hard and I end up blustering at people to get their act together, sometimes just in my head. That's not helpful. I know it's not. It is love, only love, that can permanently change people's hearts, and when we have it, we can be guided to know what to do by the gentle, still small voice of the Holy Ghost.

In conclusion:  in my desire to do good, it is perfect love that makes miracles. And unfortunately for me, it is there that I have my work cut out for me.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Quiet Ammon

Alma 17-20

I have been reading those chapters this week. They tell the story of Ammon. Ammon the missionary, the arm-chopping, service-oriented, falling-to-the-ground-unconscious-with-joy guy. It is quite a bizarre story, really, but with some great lessons.

I have always felt a lot of anxiety about missionary work. I love the gospel a lot. It has absolutely changed my life. I want to share it. I am excited about the truths I am discovering and how they change my life and give me hope. I would be a poop if I didn't try to share it somehow.

But how do I share it? Well, surprisingly, one of the things I learned in these chapters is to just be quiet.

When when I left on my mission, Dad gave me a Father's blessing and told me to study Ammon. I always remembered that. In past readings, I took it to mean that the key part of missionary work is service and love, which it absolutely is.  Before Ammon even opened his mouth about the gospel, he offered to be Lamoni's servant, and he served with enthusiasm.
"Surely there has not been any servant among all my servants that has been so faithful as this man; for he doth remember all my commandments to execute them."
Executed all his commandments indeed, and then executed a bunch of people too. Oh, Ammon. What a guy.

And maybe Ammon might have been a sneaky twerp at first and just wanted to serve him to convert him. I don't really know. But doesn't love come after serving someone anyway? Maybe we all kind of fake it at first. When we first get that Home or Visiting teaching assignment do we really love those people on a slip of paper? Some might, but I don't usually. Does that mean we sit around and wait for that love before we serve/visit them? No. When we really serve someone, after time that love grows and it gets real. We learn in later chapters that the love that Ammon developed for the King was so strong and real, to the point where he would risk death defending Lamoni from his Father who tried to kill him on the road. Then it says that the King of the Lamanites, Lamoni's father was so moved by Ammon because he saw that love, and ended up being converted also.
"And when he saw that Ammon had no desire to destroy him, and when he also saw the great love he had for his son Lamoni, he was astonished exceedingly..."
Love. Service. Miracles. Good stuff there, and something I am fumbling with and working on. As always, without charity we are nothing but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.

However, what impressed me this time reading these chapters was how Ammon also knew how to be quiet. After cutting off the arms and being a hero, saving his flocks, and then remembering to prepare Lamoni's horses as an impressive bonus, he asked,
"What wilt thou that I should do for thee, O king? And the king answered him not for the space of an hour."
An hour is a long time to just sit there staring at each other. It would be awkward. I don't like that kind of silence. I can't help but think that if I were Ammon, I would be rattling off some lesson or principle or testimony after five minutes of an awkward pause. I am there to convert the Lamanites! Let's get this party started! Why didn't Ammon do that? Why did he wait for so long?

Well, first maybe he let Lamoni sort out his thoughts. If you have shared or served or done something for someone, let them think about it on their own. People should not be told what to think. Maybe people need time to come to their own conclusions. Have faith that the Spirit can work on them in the Lord's time. Secondly, I'm sure Ammon wasn't just staring and thinking about his hangnail in that hour. He probably prayed that the Lord would do his thing. And he probably prayed hard that he would have the spirit to know what to say.  In that "hour" or month or year period of time, maybe we can just be quiet and pray: pray for the right words, and pray that God will go ahead of us to prepare hearts with the Holy Ghost, which is something we can never do alone. Ultimately, this is not our work. Christ is the Good Shepherd. It's his job to look after his sheep. At best, we are mediocre shepherds, and that's only if we do our best.

Another point is that Ammon's acts did the talking in this instance. He chopped off arms and saved the day, and then was humble enough to do a simple act of service like preparing the horses for the King. Let our actions speak. Talk is cheap. Oh, how I need that lesson sometimes.

In the words of President Uchtdorf:
"You and I may speak most eloquently of spiritual things. We may impress people with our keen intellectual interpretation of religious topics. We may rhapsodize about religion and "dream of [our] mansion above." But if our faith does not change the way we live--if our beliefs do not influence our daily decision--our religion is vain." (He will Place You on His Shoulders and Carry You Home, April 2016)
I remember Grandpa Matkin, specifically with parenting but it goes broader than that too, saying, "There are only three ways to teach the gospel. The first is example. The second is example. If that doesn't work, then try example." Nicely put.

After that awkward hour, King Lamoni was finally ready to listen, and Ammon "being filled with the Spirit of God" was ready to teach. That was when the miracle of conversion happened. In Joseph Smith's words, "he that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together" (D&C 50:22).

That doesn't happen with eager little interjections at any hint of interest, pouncing like a crouching cheetah, with words like "I know exactly the answer!" and other zealous words. Even if you are right, seldom will you go away edified and rejoicing together that way. Yes, this is something I am terrible at doing. You have all probably been victim to this, for which I apologize. My blog post itself might fit this category. Again, sorry.

So based on the story here is my summary for how to share the gospel.
The Ammon Missionary Method
1. Prepare through prayer and fasting and scripture study. (Oh, that is in the backstory I didn't mention. Alma 17:3 Kind of important.)
2. Serve! Develop love!
3. Live the gospel in such a way that people notice your mad skills at cutting off arms (or some other related activity.)
4. Be Quiet. At least an hour. Let God do his thing, preparing both you and the individual.
5. Teach according to "the spirit of prophesy." Not with your own words or clever understanding of the gospel, but with the Holy Ghost.
Basically, my lesson to myself, which may be different from your lesson, is to quit skipping ahead to step 5. Steps 1-4 allow the Lord to be more fully involved in the process. It invites the Holy Ghost. For me, I need to learn to be quiet.

Does this mean I will be quiet and end my scripture study blog posts? Oh, probably not, but one can always hope.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Little Stones that Shine

I had a hard week--nothing terrible, just weary and a few things didn't work out the way I wanted them to. As we all do, I guess, I wondered yet again why things don't seem to work out. I have nothing if not good intentions, but I usually come up short in the end. So last Friday as I lay pondering my apparent failures and lackluster attempts at life, I thought about the Brother of Jared and his journey to the promised land in dark suffocating barges. I re-read the story this weekend, focusing on Ether 2-3. Read it.

First off, who on earth would get get in those little pitch dark, suffocating, "tight like unto a dish" barges, with no steering, no air, and only hope they would get blown across the ocean to the right spot in a new land thousands of miles away, and manage to crawl out alive?

And yet here we. As spirits we willingly boarded our frail, darkened, suffocating, mortal vessels, and came to earth to receive a body and be tested. We somehow had enough faith that the Lord would steer us home to the promised land, across the overwhelming ocean of a fallen world, and back to God. It's a trope that shows up more than a few times in the scriptures. I can picture and identify well with the Brother of Jared staring hard at those little barges on the beach, gazing out at the endless ocean horizon, seeing the crashing waves, and probably feeling a fair bit of panic: 

Ether 2:18-19
And it came to pass that the brother of Jared cried unto the Lord, saying:  O Lord, I have performed the work which thou hast commanded me, and I have made the barges according as thou hast directed me. And behold, O Lord, in them there is no light; whither shall we steer? And also we shall perish, for in them we cannot breathe, save it is the air which is in them; therefore we shall perish.
In other words, "Um, Lord? These barges you designed? There is no light, no way to steer, and no air. We are all going to die."

Of course, the Lord provided the answer for the steering and for the air. First, I'll blow you where I want you to go. Second, go cut a breathing hole in the top and bottom of your "tight like a dish" barges, and just seal it up if the ocean pours in on your head, quick, before it sinks you. (Not all that comforting, but sure.)

Then comes the Brother of Jared's piercing question that has resonated with me so much this week.

Ether 2:22
"O Lord, wilt thou suffer that we shall cross this great water in darkness?"
There are many times when I feel like I am sailing in the dark. The Lord's response brought me great comfort, and then a challenge:

Ether 2:23-25
What will ye that I should do that ye may have light in your vessels? For behold, ye cannot have windows, for they will be dashed in pieces; neither shall ye take fire with you, for ye shall not go by the light of fire.
 For behold, ye shall be as a whale in the midst of the sea; for the mountain waves shall dash upon you. Nevertheless, I will bring you up again out of the depths of the sea; for the winds have gone forth out of my mouth, and also the rains and the floods have I sent forth.
And behold I prepare you against these things; for ye cannot cross this great deep save I prepare you against the waves of the sea, and the winds which have gone forth, and the floods which shall come. Therefore what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea? 
Whatever "mountain waves shall dash upon [me] and whatever depths of the sea swallow me up, the Lord has "prepared me against these things." Because of the Lord, I can be "as a whale in the midst of the sea." I can make it through hard times. Because of the atonement and resurrection, we all can pass through the gulf of death and sin and arrive on the shores of the promised land, eternal life. Because of Christ, I am "prepared against theses things."

But when it comes to lighting, there is this challenge: "What do you want me to do?" He puts some of that responsibility on us.

We know the story. The Brother of Jared gets to work making clear white stones out of molten rock. This must have involved no small effort to melt down and refine rock until it was clear glass. Incredible heat, pressure, and time to make these sixteen little stones. Then he took these stones that still did not give off any light by themselves, made the trip to climb the mountain, and asked:
O Lord, thou hast said that we must be encompassed about by the floods. Now behold, O Lord, and do not be angry with thy servant because of his weakness before thee; for we know that thou art holy and dwellest in the heavens, and that we are unworthy before thee; because of the fall our natures have become evil continually; nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires.
Behold, O Lord, thou hast smitten us because of our iniquity, and hast driven us forth, and for these many years we have been in the wilderness; nevertheless, thou hast been merciful unto us. O Lord, look upon me in pity, and turn away thine anger from this thy people, and suffer not that they shall go forth across this raging deep in darkness; but behold these things which I have molten out of the rock.
 And I know, O Lord, that thou hast all power, and can do whatsoever thou wilt for the benefit of man; therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea.
Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men.
And then the Lord puts forth his finger, touches those lackluster rocks, and makes them shine.

I love that dialogue and the faith to ask the Lord to touch his lackluster rocks and make them shine. As I consider my little stones of effort as a Dad, as a husband, as a missionary, as a friend, as a brother, in my church callings; as I think about all the things I try to do on my own and the many ways things don't work out, all my good intentions that sit there like rocks in the dark, I am reminded how important it is that we to go back to the Savior and ask him in faith to put forth his finger and bless our attempts. In the words of the sacrament hymn, "Bless our efforts day by day." (Hymn 170 God Our Father, Hear Us Pray

And like the Brother of Jared said, I also have found that more often than not, the miracles and light of Christ shines in great power in ways that "look small unto the understanding of men." It is by small and simple things, not grand manifestations, that God does his work.

Christ is the light of the world. He is the only one who can help us cross the deep not in darkness, but in light. There is significant temple imagery in this story that is worth pointing out. As we make the effort to attend the temple, ascending the mountain so to speak, in our own way we can present to God our little stones of discipleship and ask the Lord to make them shine. He is willing to put forth his hand to accept our offering, and like Moses we can descend back to the world with our countenances illuminated, and our daily work ready to shine with his light. As we serve each other and keep our covenants, our daily efforts that may be dull and lackluster can shine if we remember to rely on Christ. His light, through us, can illuminate the way for those that we share space with on our voyage in our terrifying little barges of mortality.

I was reminded studying this profound little story this weekend how much I need to stop making my stones shine on my own. I was reminded how I need to increase my faith in the Savior, turn to him with my efforts, and let him stretch forth his hand, letting him shine his light and do his work through me.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Noah revisited

Noah’s story has some similarities to today.

Genesis 6:11-12:
“The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.”
The world we live in is a corrupt place, but it is not quite as bad as Noah’s day. There is much good. Zion is being built, and it is gathering goodness, and that goodness is growing both inside and outside the church. What exciting, wonderful things are happening! But anyone can see that the flood of worldliness and wickedness is also rising at an alarming pace.

Genesis 6:18:
“But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee.”
Like Noah, God has established his covenant with me, and with each one of us who is baptized. There is a reason the flood is often referred to as a baptism of the earth. Our own baptismal covenant by water ushers us into the ark. The ark? Yes, because the ark is a great metaphor for the Church.

The ark was a common symbol used often to represent the church in ancient Christianity. Sometimes they would actually build their churches to resemble ships. In many churches, people still call the main chapel area the “nave” which is the Latin word for ship. Noah's ark was a common painting in early Christian churches and religious structures in the first several centuries after Jesus’ death. The idea is that the church is like the ark. You board the ship, quite literally at least once a week, to stay above the rising flood of worldliness and sin, or else you drown.

Since the restoration, Brigham Young brought the boat symbol back to the Church when he talked about “The Old Ship Zion":
“We are in the midst of the ocean. A storm comes on, and, as sailors say, she labors very hard. ‘I am not going to stay here,’ says one; ‘I don’t believe this is the “Ship Zion.”’ ‘But we are in the midst of the ocean!’ ‘I don’t care, I am not going to stay here.’ Off goes the coat, and he jumps overboard. Will he not be drowned? Yes. So with those who leave this Church. It is the ‘Old Ship Zion,’ let us stay in it.” (As quoted by Elder M. Russell Ballard in Stay in the Boat and Hold On!)
The ship is solid. It is a true ship. It is guided by our captain, Jesus Christ. Just like when the apostles went sailing with Christ and they thought they would perish in the storm, and wondered why on earth their Master seems to be just sleeping, we collectively face stormy waves and wonder why it is such a rough voyage. It is helpful to reread the words of the hymn “Master the Tempest is Raging” in that context. The church, founded by Christ and bearing his name, is unsinkable. “No waters can swallow the ship where lies / The Master of ocean and earth and skies.” (Sorry I pounded this song on the piano too loud when growing up, Hayley!)

Of course, we can leap off the ship whenever we want. Lots of people seem to be doing fine floating around attached to little buoys of truth, and staying afloat without the fancy schmancy ship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But leaving the ship will result in some kind of spiritual drowning. You just get waterlogged with worldly philosophies, and when the waves get big enough, anyone’s lungs may eventually choke with the incorrect doctrine and sinful practices that engulf them. Most importantly, leaving the ship of Christ means spiritual death because you are separating yourself from the only captain, Jesus Christ who can sail you safely home. Keeping our covenants by staying aboard binds us to him.

It is possible to not always see eye to eye with fellow members of the ship’s crew. If you disagree with God’s first mate or a member of his crew, either the apostles or your bishop or your Relief Society president, fine. But stay aboard, have faith, wait it out, work it out with God with humility and prayer, and for heaven’s sake don’t go leaping into the wild blue deep over it. (Again, see Elder Ballard’s talk Stayin the Boat and Hold On! 

For more reasons on why the Church matters and why we can’t just sail to heaven alone on our little rafts of personal understanding, Elder Christofferson offers some great breakdown here: “Why the Church?” 

What role did the ark/church play in Noah’s journey? Was it just an aimless vessel, floating around until the flood dried up? We read the ark had a specific destination. For Noah, the ark sailed out through the worldly flood and landed itself on top of old Mount Ararat.

Genesis 8:4:
"And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat."
To me, that is significant. This is where Joseph Smith’s restored truths get so exciting to me. Just like the ark guided Noah and his family to a mountain where he offered sacrifices and made covenants with God, the church brings us to the temple. Just like the ark started with the baptism of the earth, we start with our own baptism, the ticket that gets us on board, and then we get to ride out the storms of our lives, staying aboard the ship, until we get to the temple and make more covenants. Then, like Noah's family, we descend from that mount and build a godly society, multiplying and replenishing however we can, and remembering the covenants we have made.

In the gospel, family is a key part of both our church and temple experience.

Genesis 7:7-9:
"And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth,there went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah."
It gets almost painfully repetitious in the verses in Genesis. Male and female, all the animals, all the people, two by two.

The Church is an organization with the goal of creating eternal families. “Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God.” I believe that. I believe that is true, because I believe it is the pattern of God—my Heavenly Father as well as my Heavenly Mother—to have an eternal family. God want us to enjoy the same blessings they have got. Family is not easy, as we can all attest, and even God himself weeps and pains over us, but it is also wonderful and beautiful when it centers on love. I also believe firmly that Jesus Christ and his gospel is the only way to make our families eternal, and he has given those keys and the sealing power to our current prophet, Thomas S. Monson.

I know a bit about the difficulty this doctrine of family causes for those whose life doesn't fit the mold, having experienced some of the confusion of not fitting the ideal myself. There are many who feel they are alone and single on an ark full of 2 by 2-ers. Obviously not everyone in this church has the ideal situation of a happy, 2 by 2 marriage with children, but the promises of posterity and family are available to any and all who accept the gospel, thanks to the Savior and his atonement and His power to heal. While we board the ark two by two, the Lord always blesses us one by one.

I believe in prophets today. Not because it is easy for me, or because I always like what they have to say, or because it is convenient. I like having a prophet because they make me stretch in painful, wonderful ways, and then after the stretch comes peace, confirmation, and the Holy Ghost. That spirit makes me feel safe in this tumultuous world.

I believe in prophets because their words are like an ark to me that keep me afloat, buoying me up in this flooded world.