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!

THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE: THOUGHTS ON CHRIST AND DEATH

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.

                                                                        Dad

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 http://www.stickk.com/ 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. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Christ-Centered Life

As a youth, I first gained a desire to make the gospel of Jesus Christ an integral part of all I did while reading in the Book of Mormon. I have a vivid memory of reading the words of Nephi, who instructs us “that ye must not perform any thing unto the Lord save in the first place ye shall pray unto the Father in the name of Christ, that he will consecrate thy performance unto thee, that thy performance may be for the welfare of thy soul” (2 Ne. 32:9). This commandment astonished me! I could think of many activities in which I engaged on a daily basis that did not begin with a prayer offered in Christ’s name and whose intended purpose had nothing to do with the welfare of my soul. In a burst of youthful zeal, I decided to repent and alter my habits so that my life better conformed to Nephi’s description of Christ-centered consecrated living.
At the time, I spent an hour or more on most days playing basketball, and it was my great ambition to make the junior varsity team as a freshman. To this end, I shot at least one hundred free throws every day, working to improve in this significant aspect of the game. After reading Nephi’s counsel, I decided that each free throw I shot would be prefaced by a brief subvocal prayer, offered “in the name of Christ.” Teammates, watching me shoot free throws during summer league games, began to notice my lips moving and asked me what I was saying; whether because of embarrassment or modesty, I declined to share the nature of my muttered prayer with them. My performance at the free throw line did improve over the course of that summer, but I am reluctant to attribute that success to divine intervention and wonder, to this day, what our Father in Heaven thought of my well-intentioned but poorly executed attempt to insert Christ into the center of my adolescent life. (Today, with the benefit of hindsight, I also wonder whether the prayer I offered before shooting free throws had more to do with the example of Karl Malone, whose muttering before free throws attracted substantial media attention during the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals, than with Nephi or Jesus Christ.)
The Spirit prompted me in my youth to modify my behaviors so that I could live a more Christ-centered life, but my execution of those desires was poor. Today, I wish to reflect on alternative strategies that you and I can pursue to realize this righteous desire more successfully. The idea of centering our lives around Christ carries with it important implications that I’ll try to illustrate using several metaphors: First) To live a Christ-centered life is to live a life without pet sins, without intentionally cultivated and thoughtfully justified indulgences of appetite. A Christ-centered life is one that seeks to imitate the Master in every respect, without seeking exceptions to the commandments. Second) To live a Christ-centered life is to forsake some good options in life for the best activities and practices. Placing Christ at the center of our decisions necessarily places constraints on our future behavior. Third) These constraints always liberate and empower. To live a Christ-centered life is to draw on the enabling power of Christ’s atonement with increased frequency and urgency in our lives, to be magnified by and through his grace.
Over the course of the last month, as Alana and I have begun the process of searching for a home in Fort Collins, Colorado, we’ve evaluated a number of houses that were built in the 1970s. Most of these homes, our realtor pointed out, were not built with central air conditioning units; to purchase such a home would mean relying on a window AC unit to cool individual rooms. In at least one case, the absence of a central air conditioning unit was an important factor that led us to remove a potential future home from consideration. We wanted to be able to enjoy every room in our new home all year long instead of retreating to the comfort of a single room during the sweltering summer months.
Spiritually speaking, we ought to seek for lives and homes in which the peace of Christ is a pervasive influence, not confined to church attendance on Sunday or the singular room that houses our family scripture study. In other words, you and I should make the acquisition of spiritual central air a priority; in our Father’s house are many mansions, but I bet that every one of them comes with spiritual central air! In preparation for that move U-Haul can’t possibly help with, ask yourselves: Are there rooms in my earthly home from which the spirit absents itself on a regular basis, whether because of the media associated with that room or contention that takes place inside it? Have I given up a Christ-centered life and spiritual central air for a natural-man cave? No one would buy a house with central air conditioning and then spend summer in the attic, sweating things out; neither should we spend family home evening, personal scripture study time, and the Sabbath in placing Christ at the center of our lives, only to abandon that peace for hours in a sweltering, spiritual attic, viewing unwholesome media or bickering with family members in a sauna of self-indulgence. Just as a home cooled by central air is made comfortable throughout, a Christ-centered life is one wholly devoted to the cause of the Master, without exception. There is no room in a Christ-centered life for pet sins or knowing disobedience.
For those who commit themselves to living a Christ-centered life, there can be no safe or acceptable deviation from our Master’s standards. Years ago, most playgrounds included a flat disk known as a roundabout or merry-go-round. Children would push it around and around, building up speed, then jump onto its surface and hold on for dear life, clinging desperately in an attempt to counteract the centrifugal force pulling them off the disk. This struggle to stay aboard the revolving roundabout was tremendous fun, but through experience with the merry-go-round, I also learned an important lesson. If I could just get to the center of that flat disk, I no longer needed to cling to the available handholds to maintain my balance. At the exact center of the roundabout I could sit or stand and get dizzy without having to worry about losing my balance or falling off. But the moment I lost my focus and stepped even a foot off-center, centrifugal force pulled me with increasing strength to and eventually off the disk’s edges. The same principle applies to our efforts in living a Christ-centered life. As long as we keep the Savior at the center of our lives and stand with him, we will remain protected from the perils of sin. But any intentional deviation from that refuge in the center of our spiritual roundabout courts danger and makes the prospect of re-centering our lives in Christ’s teachings and example increasingly difficult.
I love the Divine Comedy of Dante, at least in part because the poem itself is centered in Christ. Dante structured his poem in three-line stanzas of eleven syllables each, so that every stanza—every group of three lines—included thirty-three syllables. This metrical precision was meant to remind the reader of the Trinity—the Godhead—and of Christ’s age—thirty-three—at his death, when he wrought the Atonement. In this way, every one of Dante’s fourteen thousand poetic lines testify of Jesus. A Christ-centered poem cannot make do with occasional references to the Master any more than a Christ-centered life is characterized by sporadic acts of discipleship.
The Christ-centered life is given over to gospel living completely, without withholding any portion of our wills. A home with spiritual central air does not harbor secret saunas of sin or natural-man caves, and a disciple who hopes to maintain balance on life’s roundabout cannot afford to venture a single step off-center. Our lives, like Dante’s poem, must be given wholly to the Master’s service, carefully modeled after Jesus Christ’s life and teachings.
Placing Christ at the center of our lives necessarily forecloses some good options in favor of better and best practices. Allow me to illustrate with an example: In recent days I have joined several family members in the world of online Scrabble, a game in which participants take turns building words that overlap, either horizontally or vertically. An effective way to score points in this game is to play two words side-by-side. If the first player spells AWE, A-W-E, the second player might spell the word SET, S-E-T, immediately underneath, creating the words AS, A-S; WE, W-E, and ET, E-T. Thus, the first word played—which must be laid in the board’s exact center—determines the shape of subsequent play. Laying down the word CHRIST, C-H-R-I-S-T, on the first play of the game would open up exciting play opportunities but would also necessarily preclude the type of overlapping play that I’ve described, because there are no two-letter words that begin or end with the letter C. Instead, players might seek to lay down a “bingo”—an eight letter word that ends in “s.” This high scoring strategy is even more rewarding than the side-by-side play described earlier. In Scrabble terms, placing CHRIST at the center of the board sacrifices future “good” playing possibilities even as it opens up better and best opportunities.
To live a Christ-centered life likewise sacrifices good uses of our time and resources to facilitate better and best activities. Around the globe and in increasing numbers, young men and women are temporarily forgoing education—a good use of their time—in order to pursue that which is best: consecrated full-time service as an official representative of Jesus Christ. Many of us have already served such missions, but I am sure that the Lord would be pleased if you and I prayerfully prepared for additional years of consecrated service, whether in our own homes as Church Service missionaries, like Brother Fields, or while living abroad, like Sister Cantwell, Brother and Sister Jesperson, and so many more of you. Such preparations for that which is best might necessitate the present sacrifice of good purchases and activities.
Such sacrifices were often made by our Master and exemplar, the Lord Jesus Christ. I love these verses from the gospel of John: “Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the temple” (John 8:1-2). While it was still “early” in the morning, Jesus had already visited the Mount of Olives—where I suspect he spent time in private prayer, as he did on other solitary visits to the mountains—and paid a visit to his Father’s house. In this particular example, the Savior rose early, sacrificing sleep, in order to prepare himself spiritually for the demands that would be made by those whom he served throughout the day. As we consider how best to modify and improve present practices in search of a Christ-centered life, consider these admonitions from the eighty-eighth section of the Doctrine and Covenants: “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” (88:124). As a further promise to those who obey this commandment, the Lord promises: “He that seeketh me early shall find me” (88:83). Perhaps the next step in our collective quest for a Christ-centered life might be a commitment to forgo late-night fun so that we can better use the early portions of our days, in prayer, temple service, and other activities.
After performing his early morning devotions, the Savior spent his days in serving the poor, sick, and afflicted. Our efforts to live Christ-centered lives must likewise revolve around a desire to bless and meet the needs of others. In deciding how best to begin and extend this service, I have profited from the words of C. S. Lewis, who wrote: “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditures on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” Placing Christ at the center of our lives necessarily prevents us from elevating other pursuits to that place of priority. Just as “No man can serve two masters,” no life can have two centers; “Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Thus, to choose Christ as the central influence on and model for our lives is also to reject other influences that seek to displace Him.
When we make that commitment and place Christ at the center of our lives, we become empowered, through his grace, to do and become more than we ever could on our own. Even a very young child knows that she should begin a game of tic-tac-toe by marking the center square. This is a position of power that allows a player four different opportunities to win; no other option offers more than three opportunities for victory. The same principle—that controlling the center empowers and expands your options—holds true in the more complex game of chess. The power of any given piece is magnified when it is placed in the center of a chess board. From its position at the beginning of a chess game, when all of the pieces are lined up along the board’s edges, a knight or horse can only move to three of the board’s sixty-four squares, and one of those is already occupied by another piece! But from one of the board’s central squares, a knight can attack eight other positions; placing this piece at the game’s center more than doubles its power. Of course, in chess terms, the Savior is not a mere knight but the queen—the most important piece of the game and our lives. At the beginning of a chess match the queen is immobile, trapped by other pieces; she cannot move at all, in any direction. However, if you can position your other pieces in a way that allows your queen to occupy a central square, she can move in eight different directions and attack up to twenty-seven different squares, almost half of the board. Placing a queen at the center of a chess board empowers a player in the same way that placing Jesus Christ at the center of our lives can empower each one of us.
As we obey the commandments and receive the gift of God’s grace, the enabling power of the Atonement will magnify our capacities in both temporal and spiritual endeavors, sometimes in ways that we cannot fully comprehend. To the Philippians Paul wrote, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me,” and I believe him (4:13)! I believe that by faith, ancient prophets who lived Christ-centered lives were enabled to perform miracles. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, Alma and Amulek caused a prison to crumble. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, Daniel survived a night in the lion’s den. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, Moses parted the Red Sea. I believe that by faith in Jesus Christ, the brother of Jared moved mountains. I believe that as we make Jesus Christ the center of our lives, we will also work and bear witness to miracles.
Now, most of you don’t need mountains moved. Perhaps you need more hours in the day, more money in the bank, more brains in your head—or the capacity to make the hours, dollars, and brains you already have stretch further. Consider this promise, made by the late President 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.” As we make the Lord Jesus Christ the center of our lives by weekly honoring the day on which he rose from the tomb and by keeping the other commandments he has given us, we will be blessed, magnified, and empowered in all of our righteous endeavors: this is the solemn promise of prophets and apostles, to which I add my own testimony and experiential witness.
Now, in closing, let me speak of practical matters. In Roman times, the pagan prophets would make prophecies based on the flight patterns of birds. After marking out a north-south axis and an east-west axis on the ground in a pattern known as a templum, these prophets would observe birds which landed on the grid. The position of those birds, relative to the central point at which the north-south and east-west axes crossed, became the basis for pagan prophecy. Today, we do not believe in this practice, but it still represents an appropriate model for our own efforts to stay centered on the gospel and person of Jesus Christ. Instead of the Roman templum, when we wish information about our relative position to the Savior who stands at the center of our lives, we can visit holy temples and take our eternal bearings. Regular visits to these houses of worship and covenantal refuges will provide perspective on the progress we have made toward integrating gospel principles into the center, the core, of our beings.
Outside temple walls, because we are fallen, mortal human beings, the task of patterning our lives after the perfect example provided by Jesus Christ can seem overwhelming. It would be far easier to center our lives around football or Pinterest or skiing or food! But the ease of accomplishment cannot justify altering our aim. In the game of darts, throwers do not aim for the outer rings just because they are easier to hit; rather, their attention remains focused on the central bullseye. To aim at another target would constitute “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14). And speaking of darts, I must confess: I’ve never successfully thrown a bullseye. Notwithstanding this dismal record, I still enjoy playing darts and throwing at the target’s center—I find joy in the attempt, not the outcome.
Brothers and sisters, as we earnestly strive to live Christ-centered lives, we will find joy in the journey, even though we may not perform our part to perfection. As Lehi explained, “men are that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), and the Master himself taught that he came so “that [we] might have life, and that [we] might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). That joy and abundance can be ours if we will only place Christ at the center of our lives.