A funny thing happens at the beginning of the year.
Lots of talk about new beginnings, lots of goals set. Gyms are full of overloaded cardio machines and packed zumba classes, 80% of whose patrons won’t last a month. And when someone asks what my resolution is for the new year, I get to say nerdy things like “2560×1440″.
This time of year I see lots of new runners out on the road, or joining us in the gym. I like to cheer them on with a wave and a smile, because I was once starting out just like them. (You see i’ve actually I’ve changed sizes quite a bit in the past couple years). And along the way I’ve learned a painfully obvious truth – the fundamentals of how to get healthier boil down to little more than eating less and moving more.
At a recent gathering with friends, they asked me how I lost all this weight, saying they wished they could do the same. I told them my simple answer – eating less and moving more – and they said “Well, sure everyone knows that…but how did you REALLY lose weight”? And then they’d talk about why their genetics were to blame, or why the new pill or 90 day program they’re on will fix all their problems…and then they’d help themselves to a 3rd slice of cheesecake.
Hey, I said. The answer is simple…as in, not complex. But simple doesn’t mean easy.
The simple answers can be surprisingly difficult to put into practice, especially when we have years of unhelpful behavior to unravel. I think the same thing goes with our attempts to improve spiritual learning, prepare ourselves for sabbath worship, to make our meetings more meaningful, or to receive the messages we need.
I believe everyone here could give a talk on “How to better prepare to receive messages on Sunday”, and the first part of everyone’s talk would probably be full of all the common answers that we already know. Things like:
- Read the lessons and scriptures well before Sunday, noting questions you may have along the way
- Take time to ponder the lesson and your questions during the week, even fasting and praying about them
- Discuss the lessons and scriptures with family members and friends
- Find additional materials online that deepen your understanding, or make you ask new questions
- Show up to church earlier and reverently, instead of last minute and rushed
- Eliminate distractions, like cellphones, tablets, or other worries
- Be an active participant in class by asking probing questions and volunteering answers
Personal, Painful Answers
If i were to go around the room right now and ask each family to come up with at least 1 more item to add to that list – ideas on how to better receive messages…we’d get even better answers…because each family would likely think of something that they themselves need to work on. (Good news folks – the revelation circuits are still online. You don’t need me or any other speaker to tell you what to do. So if you were to ponder what you could do to improve gospel teaching and an idea comes to your mind, run with it and bam, you’re already on a great start to a better walk with Christ.
So then this brings up the obvious question – if we already have the answers, is anything keeping us from implementing them?
‘Behavioral inertia’ is probably the easiest answer – we get stuck in ruts and don’t like to change. We are creatures of habit, and replacing behavior isn’t as simple as changing out a lightbulb. But I’m willing to guess there’s another common answer which is a bit painful and embarrassing to admit -i that sometimes church meetings feel uninspiring and we don’t feel motivation to invest time and energy in them.
Chances are that at least once in your spiritual life you’ve sat through a talk that started off with “I didn’t really prepare” or “I’m not a good speaker”. Maybe you’ve endured shallow classroom lessons with the patience of Job, had a youth leader that just didn’t get it or get you, or watched over a primary class full of delightful little terrors while you agonizingly counted down the seconds before you could release them to their parents. This isn’t a unique experience.
One of our prophets had this to say to leaders:
“Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. The Savior has told us to feed his sheep (see John 21:15-17). I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.” ~ Spencer W. Kimball, “Ministering to the Needs of Members,” Ensign, Nov 1980, 45.
The answer, I believe lies in this axiom: we get what we give, we give what we know, and we know what we want to learn.
Let me repeat that: we get what we give, we give what we know, we know what we want to learn.
Yeah, I’ve been pondering that line for years. (Heard it first in high school marching band and I’m still trying to figure it out.) But here are some things I know about how it can be used to improve what we do on Sundays.
Improving Giving and Getting
First, if you want to improve what you get out of church, you need to improve what you give to the church. And not only what you give, but why.
The most important things you give are going to be intangible, invisible, and (often times) unnoticeable. Those invisible gifts, the side dishes we bring to the Feast of the Lord’s Supper, combine with each other to create a culture, a sort of behavioral fabric that envelopes us all. And it could use some repairing. Sometimes, unfortunately, it wears a bit thin and weak and patchy, and we develop a culture that isn’t helpful or healthy.
Here’s one illustration:
At Christmas time I’d see funny pictures on the internet of neighboring homes – one with an extravagant display of lights, all his trees individually wrapped, every inch of lawn covered in blow ups, with sound-synchronized displays consuming enough jigawatts of electricity to power a time-traveling DeLorean. And at the house next door, some guy pulled out a single string of lights and used it to spell out the word ‘ditto’ with an arrow pointing to the big house.
We need to develop a culture of not just saying ‘ditto’ when it comes to teaching and studying – rehashing the same old tired stories, many of which aren’t even historically accurate. Because we see right through the copy and it doesn’t nourish. And like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of a picture, each additional time we just ‘copy’ whatever lesson or talk was given before us, the copy just loses fidelity and resolution and is a poor blurry imitation of the original.
We need to develop a culture of asking better questions of each other, which will require going above and beyond what is in our normal lesson materials. Humans are far too complex to fit into the pages of a pre-packaged lesson, and chances are if you just stick to the script (as a teacher or student) and do nothing else, you’ll miss out. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to learning, so please be willing to try on other sizes. We need to ask higher-order questions, including the messy ones that don’t have any easy answers.
As the saying goes – “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten”.
It’s easy to feel discouraged about our failures or lack of inspirational meetings and lessons. We’re still learning how to do this – we’re still evolving as a church and as a people…this isn’t our final form. I read an article yesterday that the Dyson company had over 5,000 prototypes before their vacuum was ready for market. As Thomas Edison once quipped: “I have not failed 10,000 time. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work. (source: REFERENCE The World Bank. 1994. World Development Report 1994: Infrastructure for Development. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press…”)
What if human beings were the same? What if we’re still in a prototype form of our religion and culture, trying things out before we find the one that works? I wonder if that’s part of what we mean by saying “We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe He will yet reveal many great and marvelous things…”
If we would evolve our Sabbath worship into a new creature, we need brave humility to admit what hasn’t worked so that we may give room for what will. Here’s an example of why doing that is so important.
Deadwood in the Forest
In upstate New York, there’s a grove of trees that Mormons call ’Sacred’. Well, few decades ago it wasn’t in such good shape. You see, the caretakers back then were very keen to have a ‘perfect little grove’. So anytime a tree withered or died, anytime a branch broke off or leaves fell to the ground, workers would whisk right in, remove the unsightly dead wood, and leave the park gleaming and pristine.
What they didn’t know was that they were slowly killing the grove. Years later, there was hardly any wildlife, the remaining trees were weak and dying, and the soil was weak and fallow.
A new expert came in, took one look and said “This doesn’t look like a real forest! Where are the stumps? Where are the rotten logs? Where is the deadwood?”
The embarrassed caretakers admitted that in their shame, they had removed what they thought were signs of their failure – dead branches. What they didn’t understand was that deadwood was key to the forest’s survival. In a living forest, there is no such things as waste…there is no such things as failure. The laws of nature have evolved over millennia and settled in a perfect balance such that every end, every sickness, every disease, every death (and what humans would view as ‘mistake’) is actually the beginning of something new, something beautiful.
So the new expert had 1 piece of advice: let everything die and and drop where it may.
Within very little time, wildlife had returned to the grove, the trees were more lush and stronger than ever, and the soil rich and fertile. It was finally alive because it knew how to make new beginnings out of old endings, no matter how ugly or embarrassing they were.
I think we’re in the middle of our ’sacred grove is dying’ moment, as a Church. We’re starting to admit to ourselves that some elements of our approach to sharing the Gospel aren’t working. We’ve all heard the statistics about poor retention rates, reconversion stories, and the numbers showing that 2 out of 3 baptized Mormons don’t attend Church. Yup, less than 30% activity rate.
At the same time, we’ve been pulled into an era of greater visibility, transparency, and honesty. We’re not only using the internet to share the gospel with the rest of the world…we’re finally teaching our true history to ourselves. You may be familiar with the new “special essays” the Church has put out. For the first time, probably long over due, we are admitting to the uncomfortable truths of our past on topics such as polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, women, and the nature of Book of Mormon translation. (The website mormonessays.com has up-to-date links to all of them…) The hope is that the stumbling blocks of our past mistakes may be stepping stones of a more Christian future – let the deadwood drop where it may so living truth may spring up not in spite of it, but because of it.
So if you desire to hear better messages on Sunday, to be better prepared to heard God’s word speak to you, perhaps one place to start is examine the “sacred grove” of your own testimony, stumps and dead leaves and all. Find the courage to be vulnerable, to be real, and allow God’s grace to direct you to areas you need to grow.
We Need Everyone
I truly believe that by doing this, He’ll help you. He’ll help everyone, because we NEED everyone, in every shape and size, not just the stereotypical ‘Sunday best’ family. We need people here with long shaggy hair, women in pants suits or people in jeans, kids who don’t behave and babies who cry. I’ve heard it said by one leader ” I love the smell of cigarette smoke in church, because that’s the scent of someone really trying.
We need people who feel like failures but are trying anyway, whose faith is faltering but choose faith anyway, and who feel pressure to be oh so great but can’t find anyway to be even so-so good. We need people who are striving but fall short, serving but sometimes don’t get it all done, barely keeping their head above water but still keeping their eye on he who calms the storm.
We need those who would come to christ claiming “lord I believe!”…and then would also timidly, bravely ask “help thou my unbelief…” and then we need to give them the answers that they seek. if that means going off script, out of the manual, offline and out of class, then so be it! If they come searching for spiritual nourishment, then let us give them the Living Water and the Bread of Life…not a pre-packaged, poorly prepared, rehashed-to-death spiritual twinkie.
Our quest is nothing less than Zion – that mean’s we’re together but not the same, not completely. Our differences are to be celebrated, not squelched. When Jesus invites us to let our light shine, He means it…no matter the color or brightness.
“Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.”
Why We’re Here
So let’s boil it down to the core question: besides taking the sacrament, what IS the point of going to Church?
Honestly? I think it’s to build a community.
It’s to figure out who needs help, who needs to be served. It’s not about 3 hour blocks of meetings. It’s not about you – it’s about everyone else EXCEPT you. It’s about learning principles of Christian living that we hopefully put in to practice during the week as we love those around us more than we love ourselves.
Coming to Church is about giving to Him…by giving to others.
If we come here asking “what’s in it for me?” rather than “What do I have to give, who can I serve, and how can I edify them?”, then we’ve really missed the point.
Don’t worry – you have something within you that everyone else needs. You have the possibility of tapping in to the divine and releasing your inner spark, that glimpse of celestial light.
Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for moonlight festivals of sacred dance and music that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn. They were magnificent of course, because the dancers were pros. But every once in a while, as the legends go, very rarely, something magical would happen – one of these performers would actually become transcendent. I hope you know what I’m talking about, if you’ve seen a performance so other-worldly that there’s no explanation. For these dancers, time would seem to stop and he would no longer appear to be merely human, but would be lit form within and from below and all on fire with divinity.
When this happened back then, people knew it for what it was…they called it by name. They would put their hands together and would start to chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah!” (“God, God, God.)” That’s God, you see. The human had become, for one small moment, divine.
Fascinating historial sidenote, by the way – when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them and the pronunciation changed over the centuries from “Allah, Allah, Allah” to “Olé, Olé, Olé”…which to this day you’ll still hear in bullfights and dances and soccer matches. When a performer has something impossible, magical and wondrous…the crowd still yells “Allah, Allah, Olé, Olé, magnificent, bravo” there it is…a glimpse of God.
Which is great. Because we need that.
Gifts of the Spirit
But how does that jive with our doctrine?
“For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.”
Now it’s easy to look around at others and think that our gift isn’t as necessary…to see the the glorious and bright ones, the musical super stars, the historians, the orators, the teachers, the administrators, the creatives, and to think that our gift isn’t as good.
Perhaps that’s the moral of the parable of the talents… (It wasn’t a gift or skill, it’s a weight, like a pound) The point is whether you have 1 or 5 or 10, you can do something with them and they’re all important.
To be a Christian is to be a joint holder in a communal bank account, where you are asked to give of yourself, to deposit what you can and help those around you. Even if it’s just a widow’s mite, you give what you can.
By some kind of magical compounding or interest of the spirit or like a matching 401k, whatever we bring and offer to Him seems to be magnified, amplified, and multiplied. If we do our best, make a genuine effort at bringing our whole selves to the hillside and all we can muster up is a meager 5 loaves and 2 fishes…somehow the multitudes will still be fed, and the cups will run over.
So, yes, we all want to be inspired. The Latin roots “inspirare” literally means to breathe into. Respiration / perspiration / inspiration are all related. The ancient civilizations believed that gods held creativity, and sometimes they would breathe it in to someone and give them a dose of that elusive genius, letting the Spirit of creativity flow through them. This was literally the Breath of life, the Breath of God. The Hebrews believed that’s how we came: that’s they’re story. God molded clay out of the ground and made a new creation. But this one was different – into it He breathed the Breath of Life, giving him a portion of godliness. Mankind was now literally inspired, and he then went on to help with the creation, which creation continues today.
So if we want to be inspired, we already have the Breath of Life within us. God has already given us all the answers and everything that we need – now we have to do a little bit of “celestial CPR” and share that breath with each other.
If we want better messages on Sunday, if we want to walk more closely with God, if we want Him to help us transcend our own abilities, to see that Olé…then let every one bring their offering, no matter how meager.
Don’t come here asking others to feed you; come here seeking to feed someone else…and you’ll be fed.
Or as the Savior put it, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it.” (Matthew 16:25)
Originally given in Laguna Creek 1st Ward Sacrament Meeting, 1/11/15.