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Archive for January 2007

Fools Die for Want of Wisdom

I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in.
(1 Kings 3:7)

I held my daughter in my arms in the quiet darkness before her bedtime. My wife and I sang lullabies to soothe away the excitements and frustrations of the day. We mostly drew our lullabies from the Children’s Songbook, a collection of simple songs with gospel themes for children. With love in my heart, I softly sang songs with words like this:

I know my Father lives and loves me too.
The Spirit whispers this to me and tells me it is true,
And tells me it is true.

He sent me here to earth, by faith to live his plan.
The Spirit whispers this to me and tells me that I can,
And tells me that I can.
(I Know My Father Lives, Children’s Songbook, p. 5)

This scene was repeated almost every night of my daughters’ lives as we put them to bed.

When my daughters were born, their helplessness called out to me to protect them and provide for them. Their dependence on me inspired me to live up to their needs. Here in my arms were two wonderful children who needed their Daddy to be kind, loving, strong, capable, wise, and honest, to guide them in navigating their way on the unpredictable waters of life. Their arrival to this world set in motion something deep within me.

Their vulnerability slowly focused my attention on something that I had ignored for a long time. As I sang to them about Heavenly Father, I began to remember my long-suppressed doubts about His existence. By assuming the façade of certainty, I was lying to these innocents who would take my word as God’s truth for the first few years of their life. I was imprinting on their minds a falsehood: that I knew that God lived. I believed that that God existed, but to say that I was sure about it was a lie. My daughters’ absolute innocence brought this into sharp focus. I could not continue to abuse their trust in me with such a fundamental betrayal, making a mockery of their dependence.

I resolved in my mind to do whatever it took to receive a firm witness of the truth. I turned to the scriptures for help in learning how to gain faith in God, to a scripture that Mormon missionaries often share with those they meet:

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
(Moroni 10:3–5)

This passage provides a formula whereby we are told that we can receive a witness from the Holy Spirit of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. As I read this scripture again, the phrase “having faith in Christ” made me ponder. I didn’t have a firm faith in Christ. Perhaps my lack of faith was why I had always failed to receive a convincing witness, I reasoned.

Then it dawned on me. Moroni was asking me to exercise faith in order to gain a witness. I was seeking a witness in order to make my faith more sure. I was being asked to pull myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps.

In searching the scriptures for an answer to my dilemma, I found little to help me. Everywhere that I turned, the scripture writers assumed that I had faith in God. Only a few passages spoke even remotely to the godless. The truth of God’s existence was self-evident for them. But it was not for me.

One group of passages imply that faith is a gift of God. “For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom;… To another faith by the same Spirit;…” (1 Corinthians 9:9, Moroni 10:11) I mused that I could wait for God to grant me this gift of faith, but what would I tell my daughters in the meantime? I was uncomfortable with saying the truth: that I thought that God lived and loved us, but that I wasn’t sure about it. I held faith up as a virtue. Admitting my doubt made me feel weak and unworthy. Also, if faith is a gift of the Spirit, and I needed faith to receive the Spirit, I might be left with the same bootstrapping issue.

The scriptures also say that the creation denotes a Creator. (Psalm 19:1, Alma 30:44) When Alma argues against Korihor’s atheism by saying “all things denote there is a God”, it always felt like a weak argument to me. When I look out over the beauty, complexity, and wonder of creation, I could see a good reason to think that someone put it there. It seemed a gigantic leap to further say I should believe specifically in the God of the Hebrews based on this same evidence.

The only reasonable recourse that I could find to get me out of this rut was the experiment upon the word as described in Alma 32:26–27:

Now, as I said concerning faith—that it was not a perfect knowledge—even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge. But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.

This idea that faith could grow out of a desire to believe gave me some hope. John 7:17 also supported this idea of experimenting by doing God’s will. My hope was tempered by the realization that I had been doing this experiment for most of my life, and it had proven inconclusive so far.

One final scripture influenced the future course of my life. In D&C 88:118, we are told to study out of the best books to overcome faithlessness. It made me think back on my experience with Yoga. Perhaps I could find more answers outside of the Church, more gospel truths to help me find God.

Several influences came together to direct my path. Among those influences was the Chassidic Jewish man who introduced me to Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical path. The mystic’s search for an experience of God offered me some hope. Perhaps there was something valuable in mysticism that could help me grow within Mormonism. The Jewish flavor of Kabbalah was too exotic for me, so I looked for something with a more familiar flavor. Perhaps there were other Mormons who had more experience with mysticism, who could help me discern truth from error and integrate mysticism within the framework of Mormonism. I found exactly what I needed: Mormon+Mystic.


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Be Still

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the plan of salvation. It embraces all of the laws, principles, doctrines, rites, ordinances, acts, powers, authorities, and keys necessary to save and exalt men in the highest heaven hereafter.
(Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, pp. 331–32)

I felt a bit sheepish as I took my seat on the mat. Let’s just say that my Y chromosomes were feeling dangerously outnumbered, and I hoped that my oversize, faded blue jeans would make a good substitute for the yoga pants everyone else was wearing. Who forgot to send me the memo? At this moment, I wasn’t sure that signing up for a yoga class on campus had been the best way to fill out my schedule.

The I-look-like-a-dork meter in my head was pegged as the instructor guided us to assume positions that civilized grown-ups simply don’t do. But I was trying to force myself to do new things and risk looking like the dork that I am. I resolved to ignore my dangerously high levels of dorkiness and push ahead. Besides, what could I do to escape? Excuse myself because I had left my oven on at home? Act as if I had just seen a long lost friend outside the window? Fake a sudden bout of diarrhea? No, I was in this class for the duration.

At the end of the class, the instructor had us lay down on the mat—in a pose named Savasana—and close our eyes. She told us to watch our breath. Inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale… inhale… exhale… She told us to watch our own thoughts, observing them as they arose, letting them go without holding on to them, quieting our thoughts. She told us about the crazy man in our head that never rested, always frenetically doing something, like a squirrel on speed (my metaphor not hers). She told us not to worry if we had a hard time silencing our thoughts. When thoughts arose, we should see them, observe them, and gently let them slip away without judgment or frustration. Silently I let go of concerns about my past and worries about the future. I existed in nothing except the eternal now.

We ended every class that way, quietly observing our breath and our thoughts. That class changed my life.

My shyness had only deepened as I got older. In a room full of friends, I could feel utterly alone. I abhorred large groups and socially uncertain situations. I hear that some people feel energized by being around others, that these people don’t feel completely alive when they’re by themselves. If that’s true, I was the opposite. Socializing left me physically drained. I never felt at home around others, only within the confines of my own head. If I had seen a psychiatrist at this point in my life, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had been medicated for social anxiety disorder.

This simple meditation that I learned in my yoga class changed all that. Through this simple exercise, the fog in my mind began to clear. I stepped outside of my frenzied mind. I gained perspective. I broke the reactive cycle whereby I was at the mercy of my fear-inducing circumstances. I realized that fear was the root of many problems in my life. Through meditation, I nurtured my ability to choose my reactions.

My upbringing had fostered a fearful awareness of how others perceived me. Meditation gave me inner calm. I realized how dysfunctional the working of my mind had become. The effects of the audience that had been built for me brick by brick came into my conscience awareness for the first time. I saw how the audience worked against me, how the fear kept me isolated from a larger world. I decided that ideally the opinion of everyone else shouldn’t matter to me. I campaigned from that point on to kick the public out of my audience: everyone except God. Oh, and I kept Satan’s minions in my audience too just so I could keep an eye on them. Ignoring them could prove dangerous.

Without this inner change which reduced the role of fear in how I faced the world, I doubt that I would have been married to my beautiful wife and had my wonderful children. I imagine that I would be still be stuck within myself to this day, tossed about by fear, unable to bear the social interaction necessary to meet my future wife. I gained strength to live God’s commandments through a surprising source: the wisdom of an ancient mystic tradition from the East.

I learned from this experience that there were valuable tools outside of the Mormon church which helped me to live its teachings. The teachings of the Church itself were not sufficient to help me live according to its standards. My struggles had not ceased despite all of the doctrine that I had learned in the Church. The Church laid claim to all the truths necessary to save me in the Kingdom of God, and I had found very important truths outside the Church which seemed necessary for my salvation.

This caused me to rethink my simplistic world view. These truths found in a university yoga class must be, in some sense, part of the gospel of Jesus Christ, part of God’s plan for me. I opened my heart to worthwhile truths found outside of the narrow confines of the Church’s canonized teachings.


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Eye of the Storm

I discovered the work of Hugh Nibely in my fourteenth year. Specifically, I found Lehi in the Desert and An Approach to the Book of Mormon. In these books, the author examines the evidence in favor of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Hugh Nibley’s authoritative voice and scholarly methods began to melt the harshness of my skepticism. I began to think that perhaps believing in the Book of Mormon wasn’t so irrational after all.

As I let down my guard, I began to feel a new hope. Perhaps, I thought, this is the beginning of a testimony. Perhaps I am not defective or irredeemably unclean after all. These feelings of happiness might be the Holy Spirit beginning to work in me. Maybe I’ll find out what everyone has been talking about all along, and I’ll be able to rejoin the community of the faithful.

This hope came as a tremendous relief. I resolved to continue my study and become worthy of the witness of the Holy Spirit. I knew that I had to confess my sins in order to repent of them.

My heart pounded as I waited to see the Bishop. Though the thought of laying my sins before this man caused me great anguish. I was admitted into his office and sat down. My mind raced, conjuring scenes of the Bishop denouncing me, casting me out of his office, and excommunicating me. My desperation to gain a witness of the Holy Spirit overcame my reluctance to admit to someone things that I had never told anyone.

Contrary to my worst imaginings, the Bishop seemed quite unsurprised when I spilled the beans. He counseled with me and set up a schedule of regular meetings where he would help guide me through the process of repentance. We would read through The Miracle of Forgiveness together and I would report on my progress.

I left the Bishop’s office that day extremely relieved that I seemed to be on the right track again. I believed that it was only a matter of time, with the Bishop’s help, before I would gain my wish of being able to testify with conviction with the other members of the Church.

As the years went on, I continued to see a succession of Bishops on a regular basis. Somehow I expected them to give me an official pronouncement that I was forgiven, but that never materialized. As I read my scriptures and prayed, I felt at peace that I was doing the right thing. I never felt that I could honestly say that “I know that the gospel is true” (meaning that Mormonism is true) like so many others. I never felt that heart-pounding need to stand up in Fast and Testimony Meeting and tell everyone who would listen that I loved God and knew that Joseph Smith was his Prophet.

Even though it was taking longer to receive a convincing witness of the Spirit than I had originally hoped, the peace that I felt about the teachings was enough for me. I believed that if I continued to prove myself faithful, that my doubts would be taken away over time. I didn’t expect a transcendent, mystical experience of God (though I wouldn’t have complained), but would be satisfied if some day I would no longer be plagued by doubts.

That is how I continued to live as a faithful Mormon despite harboring doubts about God. I advanced in the Priesthood, received my ritual Endowment in the beautiful Las Vegas Temple, served two years as a missionary in the New York Rochester Mission (formerly the Cumorah Mission, affectionately the NYRM to those who served there), married my wonderful wife in the same temple, and began to raise a Mormon family.

I tried to live worthy of the Spirit and tried on many occasions to receive the promised assurances of Moroni 10:3–7 and Alma 32:26–43. I never perceived any answer to my prayers that I could distinguish from my everyday emotions. There was no burning bosom, transcendent light, or feelings of profound peace. There was certainly no still small voice or vision of Jesus on the right hand of God. The feelings that I felt were similar to the pleasure that I felt when contemplating a newly opened rose blossom or viewing a glorious sunset. The best way that I can describe my feelings for the gospel was that I felt attracted to “[t]he sublimity of the ideas[,]… the scope for action[,] the continued duration for completion[,]… [and] the rewards for faithfulness”. (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 1:252–53)

Over time, how I perceived my doubts changed. I saw them as a chronic but benign obstacle in my effort to endure to the end. I believed in Mormonism, but if I wasn’t the most convinced of members, that was just something that I should work on – nothing to distract me from my focus on returning to live with God. The things that I did not doubt kept me going. I did not intend to deceive anyone by living faithful to the teachings of my mother church, nor did I believe that I was doing so. I just wanted to stay on the path to Eternal Life and continued in my hope that my doubts would be slowly removed. By ignoring my doubts, I believed that I was doing the right thing.


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Who told thee that thou wast naked?

“…mountains and rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb…”
(Revelation 6:16)

I stopped going to Church at twelve. I had just received the Aaronic Priesthood, but I soon stopped going. I don’t know anymore exactly why I chose that one particular Sunday, but I just decided to stay home. My parents, to their credit, figured that I was old enough to make my own decisions about such things.

I can think of lots of reasons that made me stop attending church meetings. I didn’t feel accepted by my peers at church. I hated the chore of sitting still through all those meetings where I never learned much of anything new. I wanted to do other things with my time. I liked rebelling against my parents ideals. Those were some of the reasons.

More importantly, I wasn’t sure about what I was being taught. I didn’t have the same conviction as the other members of the congregation. My doubts made me defective in a community of believers. Faith is the first principle and virtue of the Church. I couldn’t even get past the first step.

I think most importantly, I began to be ashamed in earnest. Mormonism had strict standards of behavior. The list of things to do to get yourself to the Celestial Kingdom seemed endless (though I doubt we have 613 rules to live by). Being human and a young boy just emerging into puberty, I found it impossible to live up to those standards. I believed in Mormonism just enough to take its standards to heart and see my own unworthiness.

I knew that Jesus was supposed to have made an atonement for my sins so that I didn’t need to feel guilty anymore. Somehow, this idea didn’t comfort me. I also knew that to be cleansed of sin, I needed to feel the Holy Spirit and be born again. (John 3:5–6, Moses 6:59, Mosiah 27:24–31, Alma 7:14–16) To feel the Spirit, I needed to clean up my act and be worthy of its presence. (Helaman 4:24) I needed to forsake my sins and confess them. (Mosiah 4:10, Doctrine and Covenants 58:43)

“This progress toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through that perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us.”
(Spencer W. Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 208)

While I was away from the Church, I tried really hard to give up my sins. I really wanted to be free of the guilt that I felt. I desperately wanted to overcome my sinful nature and rejoin the community of the faithful. I failed and failed and failed again no matter how hard I tried and no matter how hard I prayed for God’s help. I was confused about how much God expected me to do and how much He was willing to help. Was I supposed to get myself back to a place where God would be willing to forgive me, or would God help me back as long as I had enough faith in Him? How would I gain enough faith to take either of these paths?

It seemed that the standards of the Church were designed to keep me in a state of perpetual failure. Perhaps my constant failure was meant to draw me nearer to God. Instead, it made me want to stay away from the Church. Shame and self-loathing festered and burned inside me. My shame drove me to more sin. Going to church in this vulnerable period of my life only served to remind me of my failures.


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The Watchers

I had a very palpable sense of being watched. Barely below the level of consciousness, this awareness colored my experiences and choices. Spies were everywhere. Sometimes I saw them, but mostly I never caught a glance of my watchers. They were too skilled at evading detection. There was no place so remote, no corner so dark, no moment so private that I could escape their watchful eyes. They monitored and noted for future reference my every thought, every word, every action.

I had always been told that God would watch over me and protect me. His all-seeing eye also watched and judged every action. His angels wrote down everything that I did. Lucifer, the fallen angel, and his demonic hordes studied my every action, looking for weaknesses, scheming how to exploit holes in my discipline, howling in satisfied laughter when I screwed up and told a lie or thought too specifically about that cute brunette in my class. Deceased grandparents would check in on me from time to time to make sure I was doing well and that I wasn’t embarrassing the family. My future children would also visit from time to time to see how their Dad was shaping up. People who weren’t members of the Mormon church were watching me to judge the merits of the Church’s teachings. If I wasn’t a good example by avoiding the very appearance of evil, they would not join the Church. They would suffer and I would be held accountable by God for how my actions led them astray. My little brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces watched me and mimicked what they saw. I would be held accountable if they mimicked the bad that I did. My peers watched me, judged me deciding if I was smart or stupid, handsome or ugly, fun or boring, strong or vulnerable, cool or embarrassing.

I had an unseen audience made up of these different groups for everything that I did by the time I hit that wall of awkward early adolescence. I suspect that like most people at this age, my ego was very fragile. It was terribly hungry and easily wounded. Every choice that I made was filtered through what I imagined would be the reaction of this motley mob. Every silly mistake or shameful action subjected me to the judgment and derision (as I imagined it) of this mob of onlookers. My life became a performance for the benefit of my audience. Their jeers struck at my tender ego. Their cheers gave me temporary reprieve. I could never find a private moment away from them.

For those who crave the spotlight, being the focus of this watchful presence may not have been such a problem. My natural shyness, introversion, and desire to please, however, turned this audience into a constant stress. I lived in a world of mild, simmering paranoia too ubiquitous to notice consciously but which nevertheless dragged on me, pulled on me, threatened to drown me without my awareness that anything was amiss.


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