Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Jesus at Harvard, Mormons at Waco?

In reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, I can't help recalling the last occasion when I met Jesus for the first time--the last time I saw Jesus of Nazareth with new eyes, as a foreigner, someone I didn't already recognize. Six months ago I finished reading When Jesus Came to Harvard, in which Harvey Cox characterizes the Christ as a political operative. When Jesus teaches his Sermon on the Mount, Cox argues, it is with one eye on heaven and the other eye on Rome.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus teaches, "for they shall be called the kingdom of God" (Matthew 5:9). These words, Cox argues, "were a direct challenge to the ruling Roman ideology. . . . The empire's main claim to fame and legitimacy was that Rome and Rome alone was the peacemaker. It sustained the pax Romana under the magnanimous auspices of Caesar Augustus, a divine ruler. One of the imperial titles of the divine Augustus was that of 'peace-bringer'" (125). Similarly, Cox charges that another section of the Sermon on the Mount, urging disciples to be "the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14) "was also a calculated mockery of Rome. In his In Catilinam, Cicero describes Rome as 'the light of the whole world.' Jesus takes bold issue with that claim. Now there was to be another light" (132). Cox reminds us that the word parable is a derivative of the Hebrew mashal, often defined as "story" but also "used at times to refer to taunts" (158). Cox's Jesus taunts when he teaches, and his preaching is explicitly political. The Jesus who came to Harvard valued difference and confrontation more than community.

More, even than in his sermons, Cox suggests that Jesus subverted Roman rule with his actions in "a king of roving street theater" used to "shake people up, to smack them on the head" (159). Cox reads Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem as a sort of coup:

"Seen in the light of a typical Roman military extravaganza, Jesus' entry was both a mockery and an insult, and it is impossible to believe that anyone misunderstood it. He was lampooning imperial authority by bouncing into town, not on a prancing horse--the symbol of the warrior--but on a donkey, the peasant's plodding beast of burden. He was not surrounded by armed legions, but by unarmed civilians. . . . who greeted him [with] an unambiguous political title. They called him Son of David, and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne that had been established in that city five hundred years before. They waved royal palms, the equivalent of 'Jesus for King' placards." (214)

This Jesus, the Jesus who came to Harvard for Cox's seminars on moral reasoning, was a political provocateur who undermined the established political order. He was also a complete stranger to me.

When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speak of Jesus and politics, they tell stories that emphasize Christ's compliance with Roman rules and his obedience even to laws he disagreed with--as when he miraculously procured tax monies from the mouth of a fish (Matthew 17:24-27). The Mormon Jesus is a law-abiding citizen who disdains but never flaunts or disregards civil statutes, so Cox came as quite a surprise to me. After all, Mormons "believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12). The Church and its members don't subvert the state, they support it; even when Brigham Young brought the Church to the brink of battle in the Utah War, he did so believing that he was acting lawfully, in compliance with U.S. statutes. And when he received official orders relieving him of his duties as territorial governor, he abdicated his post and ended the conflict peacefully. Or, at least, this is the story that Mormons tell about themselves.

Mormons tell stories about themselves (including at a big screen near you!) which emphasize that which we have in common with the rest of America. We tell stories that highlight our participation in civil society. I think of Mormons as people who are like the general public in most respects.

Except . . . that's not the way that others view Mormons. And that wasn't the way that 19th century Mormons viewed themselves. In an essay comparing the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas (whose standoff with the FBI resulted in a terrible massacre) to 19th century Mormons, Malcolm Gladwell quotes R. Laurence Moore to remind us that in the nineteenth century,

"Americans thought the Mormons were different from them because the Mormons themselves 'said they were different and because their claims, frequently advanced in the most obnoxious way possible, prompted others to agree and to treat them as such.' In order to give his followers a sense of identity and resilience, Joseph Smith 'required them to maintain certain fictions of cultural apartness.'"

This story--about Mormons who wanted to emphasize their difference from other Americans--isn't one that the LDS Church has shared in recent years. (Although it would be good to remember, whenever you hear the line "O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell" in the Mormon hymn "Ye Elders of Israel," that Babylon was code for the United States that Brigham Young left for unincorporated Utah.) As a result, I don't think of Mormons as civic and social rebels throwing their difference in the teeth of others a la Waco anymore than I think of Jesus as a political provocateur. But . . . that may change.

Even as the LDS Church conducts the "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign to emphasize those occupations, hobbies, and character traits its members share with the general population, messages in its semi-annual General Conference have increasingly acknowledged that church members should brace themselves for ideological confrontation in which Mormon difference is again emphasized, not minimized. In October 2013, Elder Robert D. Hales presaged a return to the social conflicts of the 19th century, when Mormon differences outweighed similarities: "In recent decades the Church has largely been spared the terrible misunderstandings and persecutions experienced by the early Saints. It will not always be so. The world is moving away from the Lord faster and farther than ever before." This is language emphasizing difference and predicting conflict--perhaps not the Waco-level conflict recounted by Gladwell, but conflict nonetheless--as a result. And Elder Jeffrey R. Holland only reinforced that message in April 2014, declaring to church members that "you will one day find yourself called upon to defend your faith or perhaps even endure some personal abuse simply because you are a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Public relations campaigns emphasize members' similarities with the general population, but the most recent internal messages to members have identified differences and stressed that those differences must be defended, even at the cost of personal suffering and social stigma.

It would be an overreach to suggest that this internal emphasis on embattled difference spurred Mormon rancher Cliven Bundy to his armed standoff with federal agents, and he is, after all, only one man. But most Seventh-Day Adventists didn't (don't) live in Waco, Texas; it only takes a few individuals with an exaggerated sense of religious difference to touch off the serial misunderstandings that lead to tragedy.

Meeting Jesus again for the first time, in a Harvard philosophy class, meant seeing the Savior as a political provocateur who valued difference and public confrontation rather than the preservation of community and submission to legal authority. I thought I knew who Jesus was; I thought I knew who Mormons were. But now I wonder whether outside observers see the gauntlet of intentional difference or bridge-spanning commonalities when they look at me and at other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What do you see when you see a Mormon?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Rab-shakeh v. Micah, or We're All Fence-Sitters

Rab-shakeh has long been my favorite Old Testament villain. When he shows up outside Jersualem to  threaten Hezekiah, King of Judah, he delivers a delightfully arrogant speech demanding immediate surrender. And because he speaks for the Assyrian army (which has just taken the kingdom of Israel into captivity), everyone knows that he can walk the walk. In fact, Hezekiah's military leaders are so worried that ordinary Jews within earshot of Rab-shakeh will flee to enemy lines that they plead, "Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in the Syrian language; for we understand it: and talk not with us in the Jews' language in the ears of the people that are on the wall" (2 Kgs. 18:26). Rab-shakeh is . . . not the sort of man to honor such a request: "Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?" (2 Kgs. 18:27).

Then, speaking in Hebrew so that all can understand, he offers the average Jew a chance to surrender and receive the protection of Assyria: "Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me, and then eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern: until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey, that ye may live, and not die: and hearken not unto Hezekiah ,when he persuadeth you, saying, The Lord will deliver us" (2 Kgs. 18:31-32). Throw your lot in with the Assyrians, Rab-shakeh promises, and you'll never go hungry again!
But God provides a prophetic counterpoint to the seductive rhetoric of Rab-shakeh. When Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah who preached during the reign of Hezekiah (Micah 1:1), describes the millennium in what is his most famous prophecy, he speaks in response to Rab-shakeh's threats and promises. Micah describes the Second Coming, when the Messiah "shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not life up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree: and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it" (Micah 4:3-4). These promises, that the Messiah will cow imperial bullies like Assyria, that every man will eat of his own vine and fig tree, that no one will cause God's people to fear: these promises are offered in a direct response to Rab-shakeh in language that recalls Rab-shakeh's promises (especially the vine and fig tree).

Recognizing that Micah and Rab-shakeh are contemporaries, that they are making competing promises to the besieged inhabitants of Judah, completely changes the meaning of both accounts for me. The story of Rab-shakeh is not just that of a blaspheming bully who gets his in the end (although he does, along with 184,999 other Assyrians; just see 2 Kgs. 19:35); rather it's the story of those individual Jews on the wall who can hear Rab-shakeh's promise and have to weigh that promise against the promise of Micah. The story of Rab-shakeh, in other words, is a story of choice: do you trust in the immediate (and seemingly inevitable) victory of Rab-shakeh or do you trust in the divine deliverance and peace promised by Micah--who can't even guarantee that you'll still be alive to sit under your vine and fig tree when the Messiah comes?

It's the same choice that we face on a daily basis, albeit in different forms. What do we rely on for peace and prosperity? On worldly wisdom with a proven track record of delivering worldly wealth or on divine promises that admit we probably won't receive our reward until after this life? Rab-shakeh's offer must have seemed compelling, and I think that's why his blasphemous speech was left in the Bible, unredacted, because it's a reminder that no matter how persuasive and urgent a Rab-shakeh's promises may be, only the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob can be depended on to fulfill his promises. Temporal powers fail. Armies--like the Assyrian army--are surprisingly and unpredictably defeated. That's a hard lesson to remember as we--like those Jews--sit on the proverbial wall (fence) and struggle to decide whose side we're on, who to believe.

Just remember: Rab-shakeh's persuasive tongue didn't keep him from the destroying angel, and I imagine that any fence-sitting Jews who threw their lot in with the Assyrians also suffered the consequences. We all sit on the fence every day; the trick is to make sure that we make sure we find our way to the side of Micah and the prophets.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pre-Contact Amerindian Christianities?

As I recently read Eric Andrews's excellent new book, Native Apostles (Harvard UP, 2013), I was struck by his report that Native New England peoples who converted to Christianity identified their new religious beliefs as "a rebirth of spiritual knowledge that the ancestors possessed but had long been forgotten by later generations. An oral tradition taken down in the seventeenth century reminded audiences that far from introducing novel concepts and cosmologies, Christian missionaries were simply picking up where the ancients had left off. . . . Christianity was, according to this narrative, an ancestral Indian religion that needed to be revitalized" (36-37). As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who believes in the Book of Mormon as a largely reliable historical source, this was tremendously exciting, so I checked out Andrews's sources.

Turns out Andrews was relying on the book Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore (UP New England, 1986), by William S. Simmons. The sources that Simmons draws on in compiling his book are accounts of Native Americans converting to Christianity, written by white ministers in the seventeenth century. So: there was more than a little conflict of interest for these Christian missionaries, who naturally wanted to find evidence that Indians were predisposed to accept Christianity or that they were remnants of the lost tribes of Israel and who had considerable interpretive leeway in translating and transcribing Native American oral histories. Nonetheless, a few of these accounts are suggestive for Mormon readers pre-disposed to believe in ancient American Christianities and Book of Mormon prophecy (the following are all from Simmons):

"Fourthly, a fourth and last observation wee took, was the story of an Indian in those parts, telling us of his dream many years since, which he told us of openly before many witnesses when we sate at meat: the dreame is this hee said 'That about two yeers before the English came over into those parts there was a great mortality among the Indians, and one night he could not sleep above half the night, after which hee fell into a dream, in which he did think he saw a great many men come to those parts in cloths, just as the English now are apparelled, and among them there arose up a man all in black, with a thing in his hand which hee now sees was all one English mans book; this black man he said stood upon a higher place then all the rest, and on the one side of him were the English, and on the other a great number of Indians: this man told all the Indians that God was moosquantum or angry with them, and that he would kill them for their sinned, whereupon he said himself stood up, and desired to know of the black man what God would do with him and his Squaw and Papooses, but the black man would not answer him a first time, nor yet a second time, untill he desired the third time, and then he smil'd upon him, and told him that he and his Papooses should be safe, and that God would give unto them Mitcheu, (i.e.) victuals and other good things, and so hee awakened" (66-67).

"These very things which Mr. Eliot [Puritan minister] had taught them as Commandements of God, and concerning God, and the making of the world by one God, that they had heard some old men who were now dead, to say the same things, since whose death there hath been no remembrance or knowledge of them among the Indians untill now they heare of them againe" (67; How ancient are these "old men"?).

"And an Indian said, before the English came, that a white people should come in a great thing of the sea, and their people should be loving to them and receive them; but if they did hurt or wrong the white people, they would be destroyed. And this hath been seen and fulfilled, that when they did wrong the English they never prospered and have been destroyed. So that Indian was a prophet and prophesied truly" (68).

"They had a sixth child (a son) born about the year 1638, which was a a few years before the English first settled on [Martha's] Vineyard. The mother was greatly perplexed with fear that she should lose this child, like the former. . . . musing on the insufficiency of all humane help, she felt it powerfully suggested unto her mind, that there is one Almighty God who is to be pray'd unto: That this God hath created all the things that we see. . . Hereupon this poor blind Pagan resolv'd, that she would seek unto this god for that mercy, and she did accordingly. The issue was, that her child lived. . . . [She] presently concluded, that [English] assemblies were for prayers; and that their prayers were unto that very God, whom she had addressed for the life of her child. She was confirm'd in this, when the gospel was not long after preached by Mr. Mayhew to the Indians there; which gospel she readily, and cheerfully, and heartily embrac'd. And in the confession that she made publickly at her admission into the church, she gave a relation of the preparation for the knowledge of Christ, wherewith God in this wonderful way had favour'd her" (68-69; Shades of Abish?).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Guest Post: The Mercies of Death

A brother monk shared this with me, and I simply had to share it with you. Enjoy!


Even the smallest nudge can bring back the dead. Life tips easily either way, like the light around dusk. Neither death nor rapture, birth nor resurrection are as irreversible or permanent as we sometimes romanticize—this business of living and dying is infinitely more fluid. While it’s true that the smallest flick of a knife can lay open a whole throat, it’s also true a single centigrade of warmth deep in some winter dirt can trigger the vivification of a seed. I have sustained such a multiplicity of deaths already. I see a white cup on a table or the hood of a car covered in wet petals, and then I am startled to realize I have been dead for days. Dead to miracles, small impossibilities. Awakenings and resurrections may happen in an instant—in prayer, in traffic, while washing a plate. They may happen on the road to Damascus or even feeding Cheerios to a toddler in church. We have such rigid definitions of what it means to be converted. Such intractable parameters for what it means to rise from a grave. Every day of my life is filled with sundry births, rebirths, and deaths. It’s just a matter of pushing through the boredom of these daily miracles. A matter of paying attention, of noticing the hand of God, outstretched at the mouth of our tombs.


He whom thou lovest is sick. Jesus appreciated the utility of death, as well as the strange boundaries of life. To Martha he said: “this sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God”—a reaction which reminds me, at least initially, of the fool-philosopher Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, who believed our world to be the best possible of all worlds because there was no other reality to rival it. In the novel, when an earthquake at Lisbon kills 15,000 people, Pangloss believes it to be a perfect event. Surely Christ did not subscribe to this kind of Panglossian fatalism, in which his dying friend Lazarus was reduced to some kind of cosmic tool, to a self-serving testament of Christ’s own divinity. Destined to die for the best possible reasons….

Nietzsche said that “to live is to suffer.” Is this an equation? To suffer, like Lazarus, is to take one’s place in the world and in reality—the same reality in which 15,000 people perish at Lisbon in an earthquake. To suffer is to have also tasted watermelon or fallen in love. Necessarily, to die is to have lived. For there to be a “here” there must be a “there.” In other words, when Christ gently celebrated Lazarus’s sickness, he was affirming life and God and health—a reciprocating system in which death has made all things beautiful and unsurvivable.


When Jesus arrives too late at the tomb of Lazarus, Martha greets him in sorrow and in faith. To Christ she says, “if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now, whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee.” Here, we see Martha petitioning Jesus to pray, to intercede with God on behalf of her dead brother. Of course, in any prayer, we find this kind of symbiosis—a set of relations and parties, a mutualism of necessity, with divine and human in interface. However, I might argue that the true prayer of faith cannot be uttered by the lips of the actual petitioner. The realest, most authentic prayer is offered by some other third party, as by Christ in this chapter or by a priesthood holder empowered with authority and oil. These individuals are catalyst sites of sorts. The unknowability of another person and the unknowable shape and size of their faith allows them to function as an imaginary zone of perfect and exquisite communication. To put it another way: I know the texture of all of my weaknesses—my inability to trust, to speak, to mean what I say. The weight of my own reality is infinitely tangible, as my own imperfect existence is the only existence I can possibly know or experience or testify of. I am painfully aware of the limits of my own faith; however, the spirit of another person is massively and usefully mysterious.

The prayer of another is real prayer because it cannot be totally grasped. In much the same way, love for another is real love. Because a lover is inherently unknowable and specially not you, they contain all possibilities, all potentials.

Before my release from the MTC due to anxiety and depression, I was caught up in a steady and self-destructive downward spiral. My lowest point, after having met with psychotherapists and district presidents, was a place void of faith and fogged with darkness. It was at that moment, at lights-out in a dorm room with five other sleeping missionaries-in-training, that I got on my knees and offered a prayer of intercession for my many intercessors. I recognized to the divine that I knew nothing. That I was utterly lost. I could not intuit, I could not feel, I could not interpret or obtain any meaningful answers to my own prayer. Instead, I said to God—please help those praying for me to know what to do. I knew only one thing—that everyone could have infinitely more faith than I did. True or not, because of inherent unknowability, the people around me were imbued with vast spiritual potential.

Perhaps this is why we attend church and associate in groups and believing bodies—because our connective moments with the divine ultimately occur through and in our neighbors. We experience communion as the Other experiences it. Christ, after all, set this ultimate example of mediation.

Perhaps too this is what Keats meant when he spoke of negative capability. In the eighth edition to A Handbook to Literature, negative capability is defined as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats knew the capability that came from half knowing. He knew the power of uncertainty. And so did Martha. She approaches Christ not as the miraculous son of God, but as a fellow human being, who can give a true and unknowable prayer on her behalf and on behalf of her brother.


Some might characterize the raising of Lazarus from the dead as Christ’s most superhuman miracle. Most likely, this is due to the perceived irreversibility of death and the high stakes emotional weight that accompanies loss of life. However, I see this miracle as perhaps Christ’s most typically, exquisitely human. For one, death preoccupies us on a daily level. Death is perhaps the most normal, tedious presence in our lives—it constantly responds to and answers our living. How strange that we have alienated and defamiliarized ourselves from this most basic human invariability! What part of ourselves have we abandoned by beating paths away from this, our one guaranteed mystery? Our most negative capability?

Then it seems only logical that Christ would deal with death miraculously. It is his most sensible miracle. To quote the Bible Dictionary: “Miracles should not be regarded as deviations from the ordinary course of nature so much as manifestations of divine or spiritual power.” Thus, it is almost as if this miracle has been built into death since the beginning—ordinary and natural. According to this dictionary definition, miracles run beside and compliment the natural, revealing within the normal the divine and the wonderful. The dictionary continues: “the miracles of healing also show how the law of love is to deal with the actual facts of life.” By dealing with the actual fact of life in his treatment of death, Christ was able to demonstrate the fluidity of death—its normalcy and humanity, in alignment with laws of love.

By reclaiming death for us through Lazarus, Christ allows us to access our authentic and complete humanity.

This scene also demonstrates Christ’s emotional humanism. Here, in John 11, we find the short scripture verse: “Jesus wept.” Despite its brevity, this verse is replete with affective import. Evident throughout this chapter is Christ’s deep love for the cast of characters all involved. The Jews exclaim upon seeing Jesus’s tears, “behold how he loved him!” and verse five reminds us that Christ loved Martha dearly as well. Obviously, the Lord knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead—his death was impermanent—and yet, here we find him weeping for his friend, and for the palpable sorrow of Martha and Mary. Is this theater, or does it speak to a most poignant facet of the Prince of Peace. It is in this utterly illogical reaction that we see Christ’s true and perfect function—his ultimate empathy. Here Christ suffers along with Martha and Mary. He suffers needlessly. In other words, he suffers, knowing full well the gratuitous nature of the his sorrow and the sorrow of his friends.

However, this single verse—“Jesus wept”—is Christ in action. A diagram for the function of the atonement. Christ weeps with us always—racked by our transient, absurd, and finite pain.


Nor does Christ accomplish this miracle alone. In verse 39, he asks Martha to take away the stone that covers up Lazarus’s tomb. While menial, to be sure, this is a task Christ could have easily accomplished himself. Why does he ask Martha, physically inferior, to do it for him? No doubt for the same reasons that there exists a church welfare system, a bishopric, a relief society, a weekly meeting of communion. We are meant to minister to each other. We are meant to participate in Christ—in his eternal narrative, in his ongoing miracles. As Paul states in 1 Corinthians  12:12, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” In other words, we operate socially and congregationally as the body of Christ. We participate in daily raisings from the dead. We roll aside the tombstones of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, showing light into dark corners, unwrapping bandages from whole hands, whole faces.

We open the way for Jesus to step to the entrance of our caverns and cry with a loud voice to each of us: “Lazarus, come forth.” 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Missionary's Progress: Week 1

This is an experimental draft of a creative project; please feel free to offer criticisms, suggestions, or questions in the comments.

Week 1

Dear Dad,

            You were right. I’ve only been here a day, but I can already tell that the MTC is going to be amazing. My companion, Elder Hypocrite, is from a little suburb just outside the Celestial City limits called Whited Sepulchre, and I just know that we’re going to be a terrific team. Right after our orientation session, the MTC President called us as district leaders over the other four new elders who bunk in our dorm room as well as two sisters, and Elder Hypocrite has already come up with some fantastic rules that will help us to make the most of our time in the MTC. For instance, we’ve decided as a district that all of us are going to wake up at 6:00 AM instead of 6:30 so that we can all get in an extra half hour of personal study time. And, to make sure that we don’t get distracted by news from home, we’ve decided that we’ll only check our mailbox once a week; Hypocrite’s got the key, so the rest of us won’t have to bear the burden of temptation!

            I’m one of two elders in my district that’s going to Vanity Fair—oh, and one of the sisters will be coming too. The rest of the district is headed overseas to Frivolous. We just had our first class in Frivvlish, and I’m afraid that learning this new language is going to be harder than I anticipated. Maybe some of the Frivvle immigrants that I’m supposed to be teaching will speak English? Well, I’ve got to run. This is just supposed to be a quick note to tell you that I’ve arrived safely and am well. Say hello to everyone in the ward for me, and please ask them to pray that I receive the gift of tongues!

                                                            Elder Christianson

Dear Son,

            How interesting that you and Elder Hypocrite have been made companions. If I remember correctly, on my mission thirty years ago I met a less active member by the name of Talkative who told me he had cousins by the name of Hypocrite. I wonder if they might be related? We never did have much luck in persuading Brother Talkative to come back to church; he always accepted our invitations to pray and read the scriptures, but whenever we followed up with him, he always had an excuse ready to explain why he had been unable to act on those commitments. I never saw him in church, but he seemed to think of himself as an active, fully-invested member of the ward! You should ask Elder Hypocrite if he’s related to the Talkatives; I would love to see if anything’s changed in the last thirty years.

            You’ve heard me say this before, but you’re lucky to have the MTC. When I left on my mission, they strapped on the armor, handed me a sword and sent me on my way. It was touch and go in that first battle with Apollyon! You’ll be much better prepared than I was. Have you started fencing classes yet? And tell me about the other missionaries in your district. Which two will be going with you to Vanity Fair?

            I love you. And trust me: everyone is already praying for you. We all love you.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

"Improve Our Time"

Three and a half years ago, when I first began interviewing for academic jobs, every school that interviewed me wanted to know how I had managed to complete a Masters and a PhD degree in just four years. Back on the job market this past January, all thirteen of the schools that interviewed me wanted to know where I found the time to write as much as I do. In these professional settings, it would have been inappropriate to offer the religious and specifically Mormon understanding of time-use that I believe has allowed me to be especially productive. But since a good friend recently asked me the same question, here's the answer I would have liked to give my interviewers.

The Book of Mormon teaches that this life is "a probationary state, a time to prepare to meet God" (Alma 12:24). Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accordingly view time as a sacred commodity to be used according to specific guidelines given us by deity. Even the very name of the Mormon church carries with it a reminder that time is precious and limited: the phrase "Latter-day Saints" is a reminder that the time of our Savior's return draws nigh and that our personal preparations for that day must be hastened. The ancient prophet Amulek warned that "if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed" (Alma 34:33), and more modern revelation in the Doctrine in Covenants declares, "Thou shalt not idle away thy time" (D&C 60:13). 

In addition to these fairly general imperatives, the Lord has given us specific directives about how best we can use the sacred resource of time. Speaking through Moses, God instructed the children of Israel: "Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates" (Exodus 20:9-10). Attached to this commandment is a promise best explained by the late James E. Faust: "The mechanic will be able to turn out more and better products in six days than in seven. The doctor, the lawyer, the dentist, the scientist will accomplish more by trying to rest on the Sabbath than if he tries to utilize every day of the week for his professional work. I would counsel all students, if they can, to arrange their schedules so that they do not study on the Sabbath. If students and other seekers after truth will do this, their minds will be quickened and the infinite Spirit will lead them to the verities they wish to learn. This is because God has hallowed his day and blessed it as a perpetual covenant of faithfulness." I can personally attest to the truthfulness of this promise. As I have diligently sought to honor the Holy Sabbath, I have seen a corresponding expansion in my ability to do necessary work during the remaining six days of the week.
The Lord has also instructed his servants in the use of time during each specific day. In the Doctrine and Covenants other blessings are made conditional on our use of time: "cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated" (D&C 88:124). Anyone hoping to be more productive in the twenty-four hours allotted to them each day needs those blessings. Of course waking up early in the morning can leave me (and presumably others) feeling groggy. Still, before I begin the day's work, I try to offer a morning prayer modeled after the counsel offered by Elder David A. Bednar: "meaningful morning prayer is an important element in the spiritual creation of each day--and precedes the temporal creation or the actual execution of the day. Just as the temporal creation was linked to and a continuation of the spiritual creation, so meaningful morning and evening prayers are linked to and are a continuation of each other." I find that trying to visualize the various tasks of a given day in prayer, while asking for the Lord to help me accomplish the work associated with my various roles as husband, father, and provider, enables me to work more effectively and with greater clarity of purpose, so that I accomplish more in my limited time than I might otherwise. Then, at night, I try to express gratitude for moments in the day when small instances of divine intervention seemed to facilitate my work.

And speaking of Elder Bednar, I will forever be grateful for counsel he gave me almost six years ago, when I was still a graduate student. I asked him, in effect, how I could best apportion my time so as to be sure that I was doing all that the Lord wanted me to in my calling while still fulfilling my various professional obligations and caring for my family. What I expected was counsel about how best to divide my time. What I received was a story about his own time in graduate school. The moral was that as he tried to do all that the Lord asked him to do during this busy time in his life, Elder Bednar felt an increased capacity to accomplish necessary work in increasingly small amounts of time, such that his wife and colleagues noticed and commented on his visibly increased capacity to do more in less time. As the Lord has commanded us to "improve our time," we should expect his help in working ever more efficiently, confident that "the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he hath commanded them" (1 Nephi 3:7). Sometimes this means accepting assignments or taking advantage of opportunities that demand more time than we currently have available. Consider, for example, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf's reaction to being called as a stake president: "During my interview with him, many thoughts raced through my mind, not the least of which was the unsettling worry that I might not have the time this calling would require. Although I felt humbled and honored by the call, I briefly wondered if I could accept it. . . . There are times when we have to step into the darkness in faith, confident that God will place solid ground beneath our feet once we do. And so I accepted gladly, knowing that God would provide." 

The beautiful Mrs. Monk (I belong to a non-celibate order) often makes fun of me for reading ten books at a time, but I'm quite confident that I read more books this way than if I were to read just one book at a time. Similarly, I'm often writing five or so academic articles at a given time; I'm confident that this apparent overcommitment of time and resources allows me to finish more articles than I would if I worked on just one at a time. And working on five articles at a time means that some day I may find myself capable of working on six at a time--something that would be inconceivable if I worked on just one article at a time. To paraphrase Elder Boyd K. Packer, it is when we walk to the edge of our abilities and commit ourselves to step beyond them that we discover our abilities extend further than we had previously supposed. 

Improving our time is, as the late Spencer W. Kimball explained, a priesthood duty: "Personal improvement on the part of each priesthood holder is expected by our Father in Heaven. We should be growing and we should be developing constantly. . . . Set some serious personal goals in which [you] will seek to improve by selecting certain things that you will accomplish within a specified period of time." Setting goals may not be enough; with those goals must come accountability--the time frame President Kimball speaks of. For individuals who lack the personal discipline to meet internally appointed deadlines, commitment tools like can help increase our motivation. 

I'll close by noting that in this media-saturated age, when it's so easy to get plugged into the internet with a smartphone, many of us may fritter away far more time than we realize in the consumption of media. In 2006, the Census Bureau estimated that Americans spend 65 days watching TV, 41 days listening to the radio, and about a week surfing the internet, reading newspapers, or listening to recorded music. I suspect that time spent on the internet has increased dramatically, more than offsetting any decrease in time spent reading newspapers. All told, Americans spend almost half the year (five months!) either sleeping or consuming media--3,518 of the year's 8,760 hours. I keep these statistics, clipped from a newspaper, in my scriptures, next to the command not to "idle away thy time." While I still spend more time than I probably should keeping tabs on my beloved Boston Celtics, I would wager that my media consumption has dropped every year for the past decade--and that much of what I've accomplished in that timeframe could be attributed to this decline. 

If you've got other time-saving/improving strategies, please share--I (and my friend) will be grateful.