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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Next Row of Grass

Yesterday, a discussion in our Sunday school class raised some thought-provoking questions that seemed worthy of posting.

The topic was simple enough at face value:

 What does it mean to “mourn with those that mourn?”

 The context was derived from the 18th chapter of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon.
And it came to pass after many days there were a goodly number gathered together at the place of Mormon, to hear the words of Alma. Yea, all were gathered together that believed on his word, to hear him. And he did teach them, and did preach unto them repentance, and redemption, and faith on the Lord. And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life— Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
This sermon highlighted several important elements of the gospel as seen from the LDS perspective:

 1. We feel joy when we are filled with spirit of the Lord

 2. Being filled with the spirit of the Lord naturally sparks within us a desire to serve our fellow brothers and sisters.

3. We should not be hesitant to take covenants upon ourselves that will solidify our commitment to endure in faith until the end of our mortal probation.

 In this vein, “mourning with those that mourn” is a simple concept.

 It means that, whenever the situation merits, we abandon selfish interests and make ourselves available to comfort those who are going through hard times. We become a friend to those who have heads that hang down. We serve those who are in the midst of trials.

 But…..there is always another principle somewhere to balance things out and keep us on the road of temperance.

 So here is my question:

  Is there a point in our service to others where we can cross the line and hinder the Lord’s work?

In order to understand this question from the perspective of the LDS faith, there are two important terms to consider:

 The first term is the Priesthood, or the power of God delegated to man. The Doctrine and Covenants outline the requirements for using this power:
That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile.
The priesthood, in a nutshell, means furthering the Lords causes in the way He would have us do it, based on principles of righteousness. An important element of this is learning to follow the Lord’s will (and not our own) in ministering to others.

 The second term pertinent to this topic is Priestcraft. Priestcraft, in a nutshell, describes mankind’s attempt to abuse or imitate the priesthood for selfish interests. From Dallin H. Oaks:
"The Book of Mormon illustrates this same principle in its definition of priestcraft, the sin committed by those who preach the gospel to gain personal advantage rather than to further the work of the Lord: “Priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion.” (2 Ne. 26:29; see also Alma 1:16.) Priestcraft is not a sin that is committed solely on the basis of our desires because it involves acts. Those acts become sinful only when they are done with the wrong desire, to get gain or praise. The sin is in the desire, not in the act."
Priestcraft is committed when we, for our own selfish desires, set ourselves up as a light for others to follow. Our desire is not to lead people to Christ, but is to establish our own following in which we “undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness.”

 The difference between the two mindsets is pretty obvious, and explains a quirky wall-hanging I once observed in a craft shop that said:

  Rules of the House 
  1.  No whining
  2.  No shining

When I read the sign, I immediately thought of Matthew 5:14
Ye are the alight of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
What, then, does “no shining” mean?

 The scriptures answer the question:
Take heed that ye do not your balms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
Even if we are not seeking to promote our own interests, the concept of Priesthood vs. Priestcraft still presents us with a very real dilemma. Where does our will and our heart fit into the plan of salvation? If we are sent to earth to do God’s will (and not our own), what does this scripture, found in the Doctrine and Covenants, mean:
For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward. Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
Obviously, there is a middle ground in our ministry that must be reached.

 On one hand, we don’t want to become so zealous in our service that we take attention away from Christ and His purposes. (I know….even as I write it, I ask myself: is that possible?)

 On the other hand, we don’t want to become so businesslike and impersonal in our ministry that others can’t feel our love. There is nothing more obnoxious than going through a serious trial and having a person devoid of empathy show up to “do their duty.”

 Here is where it gets kind of complicated.

 During the yesterday’s discussion, I brought up an instance where Katherine and I had been helped by a member of our ward during a particularly difficult time, which I share with Katherine’s permission:

 In September of 2007, Katherine and I went through a miscarriage. We announced the pregnancy early, and, as a result, the miscarriage became common knowledge throughout the ward quickly. Having seen this happen to numerous other people, we were both amazed at how painful the experience turned out to be.

 Several family members immediately reached out to help.

 Then, the Sunday after the miscarriage, a member of our ward approached Katherine and spoke with her after sacrament meeting. This ward member did not know us well, but had experienced several miscarriages of her own. She did not try to make everything better by minimizing Katherine's pain. She did not say” call me if you need anything” Sitting there in that pew, she simply held Katherine’s and wept with her.

 These tears of empathy were the balm of Gilead we needed to get through that day.

 I shared this story as part of the Sunday school discussion to highlight an important aspect of mourning with those that mourn.

 On one hand, we are all capable of helping others in times of trial. In some instances (and I do think there are times when it is not appropriate to get too close), we can reach out in a behind-the-scenes way.

 We can bring dinner, cut the grass, or help out in countless other ways.

 In other instances, we may find ourselves, as did the sister mentioned above, in the role of a specialist.

 Having endured similar problems herself, this sister was able to reach a depth of empathy that was simply not possible for those who have not so suffered. Her response was natural and free-flowing, and was based on “love unfeigned”.

 The spirit of what happened during their brief exchange addresses an important part of overcoming obstacles:

 When hardships come, I think that many of us have a tendency to curl up in a ball.

 It’s kind of a natural spiritual reaction…..like the physical reaction of getting punched in the stomach.

 In those times, it can be difficult to feel the spirit.

 Curling up in a ball is the spiritual equivalent of hardening the heart. Since the Lord’s spirit will not force itself upon us, we have to be actively engaged in the process of our own healing. The first step on this road is to simply soften our hearts.

 I can tell you from this experience that empathy from another person goes a long way in facilitating this process.

To be sure, the Lord does the final act of healing in a way that we cannot hope to imitate, but I like to think we each have an important role in helping the Lord to accomplish his work.

 For example, I once went through a serious bout of clinical depression. At the time, I did not know whether or not I would make it through the darkness. At a critical moment, one of my sisters visited me and told me that if I would just hang on and keep fighting, God would use this experience to empower me to help others.

Her words proved prophetic.

 As a result of that experience, I am able to pick up depression very quickly in people who are suffering. I am able to empathize with their particular struggles on a level that would have been impossible otherwise, and my response to their suffering is intensely personal and completely natural. When I am conversing with someone who is struggling with depression, the word “duty’ doesn’t come to mind. A more appropriate description would be “mission”, because attraction toward that type of suffering is like a magnetic force for those who have been through it.

 After I shard this particular story with the class, a brother sitting a few rows up raised his hand and said he had been thinking a lot about this point of view.

His thinking had led him to the conclusion that, since Christ had suffered all things and could empathize with us on a very deep level, our job should be to simply keep the spirit with us, show up, and sort of “get out of the way” of the healing process.

In the case of those who are called to minister in leadership positions (where the level of experience cannot possibly meet the needs of several hundred members), I am in complete agreement. Many men and women who have served in such a capacity report that they have been able to feel sympathies far beyond their own natural abilities while counciling with members who have serious problems. This ability to empathize is a gift of the spirit that comes with the mantle of the calling.  

When it comes to our everyday efforts to minister to each other,  I also agree that we should keep the spirit of the Lord with us as much as possible. Yet, I was troubled by the implications of this particular take on service, and left the class wondering about the role of my own sympathies and feelings in ministering to others.

 In reaching out to others as “specialists” who have endured particular hardships, are we, in a weird sort of way, committing a form of priestcraft?

 Are we overstepping our bounds and placing ourselves between the Lord and his work?

 Are we drawing attention to ourselves rather than pointing the way to Christ?

 If so, where does that line of thinking stop?

 Am I allowed to have a personal bond with my children, or is that a form of priestcraft?

 Is my love for my wife idol worship?

 These questions may seem silly, but the implications of this well-meaning epilogue to my Sunday school story were disturbing to me.

 When we got home from church, my daughter, Kendall, put in a random DVD that proved to be a good fit for my dilemma. The DVD was a compilation of episodes from a popular TV series that portrayed the exploits of ministering angels in everyday situations. In this particular segment, the ministering angel had been commissioned by a superior officer to perform a certain line of duties for a family under the guise of a nanny. In doing so, the ministering angel uncovered a serious problem in the life of a child. The problem so touched her heart that she stepped in and in tried to bring the dilemma to resolution. In doing so, her efforts served to inflame the situation and actually made it worse. The ministering angel was sharply rebuked - both  by the boy's father and by her commanding superior in the heavenly realm. In a moment of anguish, she fell to her knees, and, through her sobs, asked this important question:

 “God, why did you give me a heart if you didn’t want me to use it?

 The ministering angel then frankly admitted her efforts had created a mess, and asked God to forgive her and, more importantly, to help the little boy.

 The situation was resolved in a way that made two things clear:

 1. God was the one who actually solved the problem by softening hearts and creating circumstances conducive to healing

 2. The ministering angel, despite creating a seemingly chaotic mess, had inadvertently demonstrated the measure of  love that was needed to activate the forces of heaven on behalf of this little boy.

 Though this episode was a bit cheesy, I wiped away a tear at the end of the segment. As a person who is cursed with a strong will, I have long struggled to understand my place in God’s universe. I have enviously watched others who, with seemingly no effort, go with the flow of life without the impairment of strong opinion or self-will. I think there must be a certain amount of selflessness and spiritual maturity in such people that I may never realize. Though I frequent the realm of the spiritually remedial, I am thankful that there is a merciful God. He is patient beyond measure with my particular disposition and weaknesses. More often than not, I end up being that obnoxious kid who always wants to have his hand in something….who thinks his plastic toy lawn mower actually cuts a part of the lawn.

 Deep inside, I know I am not the one who does the mowing, but I like to think that I am somehow helping just the same.

 For me, there is no worse hell than being made to feel useless, and I will admit to feeling a lot of that over the past few years.

 Perhaps the Lord can make use of all of us, no matter our disposition.

 To be sure, we all have a slightly different angle on the gospel.

Some of us approach it from an analytical standpoint. If you think about it, we live in a time where scientific data observations prove what the Lord has known all along:  that living gospel principles makes good sense.

No need for warm-fuzzies or touchy-feelies.....let's just move forward.

I respect that paradigm.

At the same time, I acknowledge others who approach the gospel from a different mindset.

For me, facts and common sense as a stand-alone have a sterility that doesn't quite feel right. I came to the Throne seeking something more than just a sensible path through the eternities.

My angle is summed up perfectly in the question:

 “Why did you give me a heart if you didn’t want me to use it?

Sometimes I get the feeling that some of our more practical brothers and sisters see involvement of the heart or emotions in the line of duty as a sign of weakness or spiritual immaturity.

I worried about that all the way home.

Thanks, Kendall,  for cutting on the TV when we got home from church.

I still have a few questions about how it all  fits together, but I also have a little more understanding about how the Lord weighs in on matters of the heart. The struggles of a fictional ministering angel led me to seek out a passage that might just help me move on to the next row of grassy reality:

"And now abideth faith,

hope,

charity,

these three;

but the greatest of these is charity."