Friday, March 28, 2014

Always Remember

Researchers increasingly believe that will power is a limited resource and that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll on us. Will power seems to be like a muscle that can increase in strength with proper use but with overuse can become fatigued. This theory makes sense as I well know that when a plate of fresh, soft, cinnamon crusted snicker doodles is placed in front of me it will take only a matter of minutes before I am overcome and inhale said plate of yumminess. The time it takes to indulge is even shorter if I have been eating vegetables all day.

With Mormonism and Christianity in general, there is a long laundry list of behaviors and items that require the use of will power. The Lord asks us to overcome our “natural man”. Our natural man seems to be the guy who lives in us who wants to party, carouse, and abuse everything in sight. He is like an out of control frat boy who is swinging from the chandelier, swigging a bottle of Absolute, and saying “how you doing?” to every cute thing that walks by. He thinks only of the here-and-now and how much fun he can have in this moment with no thought of the future. If it feels good let’s go, right now. Living a Christ-like life necessitates the ability to smack Bucky down and set our sites on the long term, the really eternal long term.

This fight against our natural man is tough and the casualties of the battle are all around us. Pornography addiction, drug and alcohol addiction, affairs, child abuse, overeating, gossip, unkindness, the list goes on and on. Pretty much everyone on planet earth is involved in the conflict and having different amounts of success. 

Since we know that God isn’t the type of Father who just shoves His children out the door with no protection, what has he given us to aid in this epic fight?

The last couple of years some interesting research has been done by evolutionary psychologists trying to understand why “mankind created religion?” Obviously, I disagree with their premise that man created religion but their findings are really amazing. 

Researchers ran a series of experiments that were similar to this: Test subjects were invited to unscramble a short sentence. Half of the people were given a neutral phrase such as “the train goes fast” and the other half we given a sentence with a subtle religious reminder. Words such as bible, divine, and spirit were used with that group. The subjects were then moved to another room where they were asked to drink as many paper cups full of an orange juice and vinegar mixture as they could. This mixture generally causes a gag reflex and is patently gross. 

What the researchers found was that across the board the group who had received the reminders of religion and God were able to drink at least twice as many cups of this disgusting stuff. It didn’t matter if the test subject was an atheist, agnostic, or deeply religious. Those who were reminded of God had more will power to complete an unpleasant task than those who didn’t. This test was completed on hundreds of people.

The conclusion drawn from this group of psychologists was that religion must have been developed so that man could promote self-control which is necessary for us to survive as a species. With all due respect that seems like a pretty complicated way to achieve that goal.

What I submit is that one of the many powerful gifts that a loving creator gave to his children is a deeply rooted psychological tool that helps us to do what he has asked. We all seem to have it even if we are unaware and so the call in the scriptures to “remember” becomes all that more poignant. It isn’t just an exercise in obedience, God is giving us the key to self-mastery if we will but do! 

This week during Sacrament Meeting my six year old was being unusually reverent. This anomaly allowed me to reflect a little on the words of the prayers that were being offered by my two older sons, who served as the Priests blessing the bread and water. (By the way that was a sweet and proud moment.) Both prayers use the language “always remember Him” that His spirit may be with us. Why is this so important that it is repeated in ritual every week and exhorted over and over again in the scriptures? It may be that there is an eternal law at work and that remembrance activates the process in our psyche that allows us to overcome the temptations in our life.

Elder Terence M. Vinson gave this short story in the last conference.
A young boy was trying to smooth out the dirt area behind his house so he could play there with his cars. There was a large rock obstructing his work. The boy pushed and pulled with all his might, but no matter how hard he tried, the rock wouldn’t budge. His father watched for a while, then came to his son and said, “You need to use all your strength to move a rock this large.” The boy responded, “I have used all my strength!” His father corrected him: “No you haven’t. You haven’t had my help yet!” They then bent down together and moved the rock easily.
Remembrance seems to be a way to activate this God-given gift and enlist His strength. Science is beginning to catch up to what prophets have known since the beginning.   

Helaman 5:12 And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

So when your natural man is beating you about the head with your favorite temptation you can remember by reading your scriptures, saying a prayer, singing a hymn, repeating a favorite psalm, attending the temple, keeping your covenants or whatever it is that helps you to think about Him. The Lord has given us all the tools we need to do what He asks, all we have to do is have faith and use them. And in those times when our natural man wins a round we can get up and try again. With the Lord's help that muscle of will power will get stronger and stronger until that bright day when we overcome all things.



Friday, February 28, 2014

The Roadrunner

I hit a roadrunner today...

...and that sucks because I love roadrunners, they remind me of my grandma. She loved to watch them at her home in Arizona as they zipped through the field that was adjacent to her little white home. With the smell of orange blossoms on the morning breeze she would sit on her porch and make note of their comings and goings, of the lizards they caught for breakfast, and of which couples were raising chicks that year. 

She was a lot like a roadrunner herself. Fast and sharp and yet somehow fragile, and so every time I see one I feel her nearby which is amazing, because I miss her with an ache that never really goes away.

Today as my little commuter raced down the winding country road towards work I was not thinking about grandma or roadrunners at all. I was deep in thought about something which I thought was of paramount import. The music was up and I was zooming (yes zooming, think the Jetson's car noise) and completely engrossed in my own ponderings. The outside world was merely something to be minimally observed just so that I could maneuver my way safely to my goal.

It was somewhere in the middle of this self-absorption that the lovely little roadrunner darted in front of my car. I was going too fast to even brake and watched in horror as it disappeared under my bumper. When I glanced out the rear view mirror all I saw was a cloud of brown and black feathers suspended in the air. 

“Oh! I’m so sorry.” I voiced to the universe, but it did no good. I had killed that beautiful creature simply by barreling along, I had a goal to reach and little roadrunner had simply gotten in the way.

The situation brought two ideas to my consciousness. The first was that no matter how sorry I felt about hitting the roadrunner there was absolutely nothing I could do to bring it back. I had not set out to injure him but nonetheless he was now fertilizing the landscape because of me. The second idea was just as upsetting, I wondered in the past how many other creatures I had run over on my way without realizing. 

The fact of the matter is that even with our best intentions we are going to harm others as we make our way through life. Sometimes this comes because of selfishness and other times because we are unaware of the impact we are having on people and the natural world around us. Unfortunately, that does not negate the fact that we are indeed doing harm.

This of course is why we need the atonement through which a loving and magnificent Savior paid the entire price for all of our selfishness and the unintentional harm we create. He didn't just pay part of it, He paid all of it and Him asking us to do things like repent, be kind, and improve ourselves has no effect whatsoever on that payment. We don't have the ability to make payment for the dumb things we do. So why then does He ask us to do anything at all?

Consider the following analogy given by Brad Wilcox in a speech at BYU in 2011.
"Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher...Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.
 If the child sees Mom’s requirement of practice as being too overbearing (“Gosh, Mom, why do I need to practice? None of the other kids have to practice! I’m just going to be a professional baseball player anyway!”), perhaps it is because he doesn't yet see with mom’s eyes. He doesn't see how much better his life could be if he would choose to live on a higher plane."
This understanding leads to two scriptures that initially seem to be in opposition of one another.
Matthew 11:28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest
Ether 12:27 And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. 
I always used to wonder how can the rest promised in Matthew equate with the Lord showing me my weaknesses? Being shown my weaknesses is one of my least favorite things on earth. Just another item to beat myself over the head with. Reason number 2042 on my list of why I'm not good enough; doesn't sound like rest to me.

Once we see that the Savior pointing out our weaknesses is not done to show how short we are falling on paying our debt but an act of love which will lead us to a better life the shame goes out of it. I can know that I am a worthwhile person with flaws who God loves and that He sees the endless potential I have. He does not want me to beat myself up, instead He wants me to humble myself and become a little more like Him with each realization of weakness and the course correction that results. That is part of the rest that is promised.

Just living with our sins and weaknesses is draining but being made aware and them and with His help improving on those weaknesses gives us peace. Even when it takes a really long time to overcome those things that hang us up, and even when we mess the same things up over and over again, we can know that we are doing what He has asked and there is rest for our souls in that knowledge. We will also find that as we try we build spiritual muscles and become more loving and humble. We find through experience that we can trust that at some point He really will make all our weaknesses into strengths.
With the roadrunner this morning I was shown a weakness, a weakness in which I rush though life without paying enough attention to those around me be they birds or people. My goals are worthwhile but not more important than the impact I am having as I move toward them. I was shown that I can be more aware, slow down, and try to tread more carefully on my path. I can save the next roadrunner, I can pay attention to my teenage son when he tells me about the latest video game, I can be more patient with my co-workers, I can stop and be a listening ear to a friend in need. And while there is a great possibility that I have not seen the last roadrunner or armadillo or skunk disappear beneath my bumper I can do better at avoiding that possibility and eventually, with the Lord's help become perfect in that, and that gives me rest.


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