One of the most controversial and contentious doctrines in Christendom has always been the balance between faith and works. Are we saved through the grace of Christ or through our own diligent adherence to God's commandments?
One of the reasons I cherish The Book of Mormon is that it clarifies and expands the teachings of the Bible, particularly on this subject.
I know we aren't supposed to have favorite doctrines and gospel hobby-horses and I try not to, but I have to confess that I love the doctrine of Grace. I treasure this wonderful fruit of the Restoration in my own life.
Because it is something I feel so strongly about, I suppose it makes sense that I see echoes and glimmers in everything I do.
Including last week at school.
Last week, I was required to submit my student's grades for the first interim (which is private-school verbiage for mid-terms). The bulk of the grades I give to my chorus classes are based on their behavior in class. I reason that not all of them can control how well they sing, or how good their voices are--but they can be attentive and engaged in class.
This is surprisingly difficult for some students. They find it almost impossible to a) choose not to sit by their friends and b) not to talk when they are by their friends.
A number of my more outgoing 8th grade students struggled during the first few weeks of school--finding the temptation to socialize overwhelming. And so, they lost point after point, day by day.
When I tallied up their grades, I knew they--and especially their parents--would be unhappy with the grades they had earned. Especially since they are now in the process of applying for high school and getting good grades is of paramount importance.
Their behavior has improved recently, and if I was to do my grades in two more weeks, they would be in much better territory.
But, alas, grades are due when they are due.
However, because these students had improved--and were getting closer, I decided to make a deal with them.
I told them what they had earned and then explained that I would grade them today based on where they were headed--IF they continued on the same upward trajectory. I warned them that if they regressed, then their final grade would revert accordingly. In very simply terms, isn't that really what the Atonement does for us?
I felt good about doing that. I did have some students who have not made any efforts to improve, and they earned grades that reflect that inertia.
I know it's a small example--a couple of mid-terms grades for a couple of kids. But it made me happy to be able to pass grace and mercy forward a little bit.
The night before I left on my mission (which, for those who may not know is something that young men and women do in the Mormon church. Between the ages of 19-25, you leave your home and family for 2 years and go teach the gospel of Jesus Christ), there was a terrific thunderstorm. I stood out on my front porch and watched the lightning flash over the Great Salt Lake. It was a stunning display of nature's power and I remember feeling quite awed by it. I believe I sang a few verses of "How Great Thou Art" to the accompaniment of the rolling thunder as the Lord's power was displayed.
I know everyone in the world LOVES that song, and so, being the contrarian I am, I'm reluctant to say that I love it, too. But I do. Actually, I don't really like the whole song that much, but I love the line, "Then sings my soul." That is a wonderful lyric and it expresses perfectly a feeling that comes over me from time to time--a feeling of peace and well-being, a feeling of a full measure of joy that goes beyond simply being happy and infuses every bit of my soul.
One of the unique teachings of the Church is that the soul is not a synonym for the spirit, but that the soul is the spirit and the body combined. I like that idea for many reasons, but one of which is that it is different from the idea that the body is evil and needs to be loathed and mistrusted.
I love that idea because it is often through my physical senses that my spirit is taken to the heights that lead my soul to sing.
I'm sitting in the crisp, cool evening--an evening that is all you would want a September evening to be. I'm watching the sunset over the trees in the forest that abut my backyard. I'm watching my children play, accompanied by the birds singing good night and the crickets and frogs just starting their conversations.
I think of where we lived ten years ago--in a tiny apartment on a dirty, smelly street in Brooklyn. The walls of our apartment were thin and we could hear our neighbors alternating between fights and parties. I rode the bus and train for hours and hours a day to work and then to school.
It was a lot of work to get here--and it is a lot of work to stay where we are. But the Lord is good. The crickets sound crisper and the stars in the sky gleam brighter because we had to work so hard and wait so long to have a house of our own. The fact that it's small doesn't seem burdensome, it just feels good to have our own home.
My soul is singing tonight, as moved by the peace and tranquility of a sunset as I was by the tumultuous storm so many years ago. I had no idea when I left home to go on a mission, what a difficult adventure my life would be. I had no idea the storms that would crash around me. We have not been spared our trials and difficulties, and there were moments when I cried out and asked why the Lord had forsaken me.
But I also had no idea how beautiful the calm of a fall evening would be. And that is reason for my soul to sing.
If you live in Nashville and are reading this, I want to tell you about something kind of cool. Gladys Knight is coming to Nashville with an Grammy-award winning gospel choir she conducts. The program they do is mostly choral, but she does some singing and talking, too. I've seen video clips and it looks pretty darned cool.
Gladys Knight joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka Mormons) several years ago. Coming from her gospel background, she found our worship services, especially the music, to be a little....bland. So, she took it up with the President of the Church and he said, "Well, Gladys, why don't you do something about it?"
So, she put together what is apparently a high-octane performance of gospel music. The choir sings, she sings, and tells her story about how she joined the Church.
It sounds kind of cool, and I'm excited to go. Tickets are free, but they are going fast. If you are interested in going, send me an email and I can get you some tickets. The dates are Saturday, October 16th at 7:00 (bad time if you are in Fiddler on the Roof) and Sunday, October 17th at 4:30 and 7:30 pm. My email is: braden at bradenbell.com or just click here
Don't be shy!
Wow!!! So, who knew that a few gentle thoughts expressed about camping would strike such a nerve. I think I got more comments about that than I have ever had on any post before. That was sort of fun. Maybe next week, I'll write something about Harry Reid or Twilight just to see if I can break 30!
This morning, I woke up very early (5:40) and exercised for 30 minutes. How cool is that? I feel really good, too. No doubt I was capable of this amazing feet because all of the character building I got from eating Mexican food on Saturday night, which was the reward I gave myself for enduring camping.
So, you are all anxious to hear about how the camping went, right? Of course right. (What play is that from?)
To start out with, it was beautiful weather--gorgeous, in fact. That was nice. One of the guys there asked me if didn't have to admit that it was fun being together with the guys. To which I replied, "Yes, but we can do this at Steak and Shake, too." Another happy camper pointed out that the post-campout nap feels so incredible. To which I observed, "Yes, but the reason it feels good is because you are exhausted from a really crummy night's sleep."
The other thing I noticed is that all the heavy-duty campers have all these gadgets and gizmos that enable them to have all the conveniences of home--cool mattresses and nifty lights and so on. This begs the question--if you are excited to be in nature, why do you feel compelled to spend money to buy as many things to help you feel at home as possible?Riddle me that.
Anyway, Meredith came and met me after work on Friday. She had a car laden with equipment and sons. We switched cars and took off. Meredith to blissful quiet and comfort of our home, me to the excitement of camping! Woo-hoo!
Now, let me interject something at this point. The entire and only reason I consented to this event was that I wanted to be a good dad (especially since I don't anticipate Social Security will exist when I retire, so I'll need a place to live in my dotage). My three sons (one had to go to a school thing, leaving three) all wanted to go. The younger two were just excited about camping and Mere assured me that they would have a wonderful time romping around, free and happy like little ponies, running to and fro with their friends (she didn't phrase it quite like that). My teenager was looking forward to a repeat of last year's intense game of capture the flag.
We drove about an hour and go there about 7:30. The boys got out and ran around. About 20 minutes later, my 3 year old came up and told me he was tired and wanted to go to bed. So much for romping. I went and got him in the tent, all snug and comfy, then stayed with him while he fell asleep.
When he was asleep, I emerged from the tent. There was my 8 year old. He, too, was tired and ready for bed. So, I put him in bed and went to bed, too. So much for romping.
And, since there were not many other teenagers (their fathers being too smart to fall for the "they'll have so much fun" line, I guess), there was no--wait for it--capture the flag!
Happily, my good friend let us stay in his tent because I forgot to mention another thing I hate about camping. You set up the tent, then you sleep in it, the you pack it up, then you go home and set it up again to let it dry off and air out, and then you pack it up again. In other words, for one night's sleep you set it up twice and take it down twice. That is an efficiency rate that would make even an employee at the DMV blush.
So, we stayed in his tent so he is the one who had to do all the setting up and taking down twice. He also made a wonderful breakfast the next morning.
Then we went home. And I took a nap, which did, I admit, feel good. However, my naps always feel good anyway, so I'm not convinced.
That night, I sat out on my deck. I looked out the beautiful woods, with the sun setting above the trees. I inhaled the sweet air and basked in the evening cool. I felt close to God and was filled gratitude for living in such a beautiful place. I typed as much on my Facebook status, which was possible because of electricity and wi-fi. Then I walked inside. And enjoyed Mexican food. And life was good. Inside and out.
All right, everyone. You want "authentic?" Boy are you going to get it today! Before you read any farther into my grumpy, petty, trivial rant, take a moment and think about something. Think about the fairly routine thing in your life you have to do that you just HATE. The thing that shouldn't bother you as badly as it does, the thing that everyone else does without complaint, or even likes, but you can't stand. The thing that, for whatever reason, you can't abide. The thing that ties your insides up in knots while marinating you in a steady stream of anxiety, resentment, and frustration. You hate this activity/task and you know that your hatred is not rational--but nevertheless, you hate it.
I know some people who feel this way about washing windows. Others who feel this way about babysitting, or cleaning their desk or doing the monthly sales report. The list is long and varied, I'm sure. Let me tell you about mine.
I hate to camp.
I don't dislike it. I hate it.
I hate it with a fervid, burning passion that is as great as the level of irrationality involved. I know I shouldn't hate it, but I do. I know it's silly to hate it so badly. I know it makes me into a sort of caricature. But I still hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it!!!!
The thing is, it's not that I hate bugs are am scared of bear attacks or something. There's no reason for my hatred of camping. It's just something that is a part of me--so there's not way of addressing it. I hate everything about camping--it's a perfect gestalt of misery in which the hellish whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. I hate camping like I love my wife--a zillion little things and experiences all add up to something I feel deeply in multiple dimensions: emotionally, physically, spiritually, etc.
So, the solution is simple, right? Don't go camping.
Hah! Good one. You must not know much about Mormons.
See, Catholics have seven sacraments (I think that's right--it's been a while since I took world history. If I'm off on that, I apologize). Mormons have sacraments too, except we call them ordinances and consider them essential for salvation. Baptism, the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, Marriage...oh, and Camping.
I'm not sure what it is about Mormons and camping. See, one of our foundational books of scripture, The Book of Mormon
, tells about a family that was warned to flee Jerusalem in 600 B.C. right before it was destroyed. They went and wandered in the wilderness and the narrator of the record says, "My father dwelt in a tent."
Here's the thing, though. It wasn't a good thing. They were fleeing for their lives and they almost starved and there was a lot of family problems. It wasn't like they went camping for fun. I also want to point out that "My father dwelt in a tent" and "Go and do thou likewise"
are not in the same chapter, book or even volume!
And of course, our other foundational book of scripture is the Bible and that tells about the delightful 40 year camping trip Moses and the Israelites went on. Yes, it was better than slavery and death in Egypt, but it wasn't exactly fun.
More recently, the Church was founded in 1830. Shortly thereafter Mormons left up-state New York and gathered in Ohio where they were beaten and persecuted, so they fled to Missouri. Where they were beaten and persecuted and it was actually legal to kill them. So they fled to Illinois and built a city. After several years, they were hated and persecuted again and walked to Salt Lake, literally walked, camping along the way.
Here is my question. Did we, as a church, not get enough of camping on the march from New York to Ohio? Ok, still want more? Fine. How about the journey from Ohio to Missouri? No, more? Serious? Ok, how about from Missouri to Illinois? Ok, that was fairly short really, just a trip across a frozen river. How about we camp from Illinois to Utah?
I note that never in the history of the Church is there an account of any Church leader saying, "Hey folks, camping is a great thing! Forget about building another city. How about we just stay in these swell tents?" Nope. They built homes and cities. I don't think they liked camping.
My pioneer ancestors were forced to camp far more than they wanted to and they handled that sacrifice with grace and dignity. I hope, should some terrible combination of circumstances force me to do the same that I would have the same degree of fortitude and courage.
But, that doesn't mean I have to like doing it voluntarily. For fun. You see, never in the recorded history of God's dealing with his people has camping been a good thing. Nope. It's been a way to survive when bad things happen. That's why I feel it's better to honor our ancestors by NOT camping. It's what they would have done if those stupid mobs hadn't chased them out of their comfortable homes. Doing voluntarily what was forced on them just seems wrong.
Sadly, I am the only one in the Church who feels this way. And so, Mormons camp. Scout camp. Girl's camp. Handcart Treks. Father's and Son camps. Ward camps...it goes on and on.
In all seriousness, I love the Church. I believe the doctrines and teachings and so the cultural practice of camping is a small price to pay for the eternal blessings of being a member.
Here's the thing that really gets me, though. We all have to do things we don't like and I get that. So I'll be obedient, I'll be a good soldier and go camping. I'll be there. But I won't enjoy it. And for darned sure, I won't rhapsodize about how great it is and talk about camping in almost spiritual terms.
I hate listening to people talk about how they feel closer to God and so forth. You know what? That's fine. I believe you. More power to you. Camp all you want. But don't drag me along. I don't feel closer to God when I camp. In fact, I feel farther because I hate camping so much. I feel closer to God when I listen to beautiful music or read my scriptures. When I work in my garden or play with my children. I don't impose that on you though--I don't make you all come work in my garden or listen to the Vivaldi Gloria simply because I feel closer to the Lord.
This is probably what bugs me most. It's sort of lame that you get to do the things you like and would do anyway and get to say it makes you feel closer to the Lord and it builds character and so on. That's a crock. If you love camping, then it doesn't build character.
Let's just be honest. I love Mexican food. I'd eat it 24/7 if I could. If I were to say it builds character, I'd be lying. It doesn't. I just like it. Doing something you like is not character building--it's fun. That's why you do it.
So, tonight, I'm going camping. Someone told my sons about a father and son camp we're having. So, my choice was to be a terrible dad or go and do my duty and try to help them have a good time. I'm going. And I'm not going to complain or murmur. I'll put on a smile. But I'll be miserable. I won't feel closer to the Lord. But I guess it will build my character.
Saturday night, though, I'm getting Mexican food and listening to Vivaldi.
One of my favorite thoughts is found in a chapter of scripture unique to Mormons. This verse is a revelation given by God to Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of the faith. I find the insight into human nature and relationships to be compelling, even outside of the context of the church. In fact, the insights are so compelling and profound, that I feel they are evidence of Joseph's prophetic authenticity in that I don't believe an uneducated charlatan could have made this up--but I digress.
The entire chapter is full of insights into human nature and leadership--righteous and unrighteous and bears studying. However, here are the most important words: "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 love unfeigned; by kindness and pure knowledge...without hypocrisy and without guile. Rebuking betimes with sharpness (note: that means clarity, focus, not harshness) when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth an increase of love toward him whom thou has reproved...(D&C 121: 41-43
The chapter also gives an idea of the opposite form of leadership, which is to compel and force, and warns us that exercising compulsion or domination upon the souls of humans in any degree of unrighteousness is a serious sin.
As a teacher and director, I have tried (note: tried is the key word here. Attempted, endeavored--not necessar to base my system of discipline and motivation on these principles, even though this revelation was given specifically in the context of ecclesiastical leadership, the principles are universal, I believe. Especially when working with children, which is what I do.
So, I try to build everything around motivating and encouraging as opposed to enforcing and punishing.
Consequently, I don't often get really mad at the kids.
Yesterday was different. It has been a frustrating week in that they have been doing sloppy work at play practice. I don't mind honest mistakes, but detest sloppiness and laziness. My efforts to motivate in a positive way seem to be largely (though not universally) ignored and my attempts at being kind and gentle have been interpreted as a license to relax, socialize and generally do anything but the work that needs to be done.
Yesterday, it came to a head. I didn't lose my temper, but when the whole group of nearly 60 kids was goofing off on-stage, I spoke to them very directly, with much more heat, energy, and volume than they normally hear from me.
It surprised them, and got their attention--and they did very good work for the rest of rehearsal.
By being sloppy and presumptuous when I am gentle and loving, but doing good work when I am stern and strict, they are giving me incentive to continue to be that way. If I were not committed to the other approach, it would be almost impossible to refrain from veering to the enforced/punishment model. I don't want to do that, and I won't.
But I thought it was interesting, this small microcosmic moment. It is human nature to want loving, gentle authority figures--but it is also human nature to ignore that and to pay attention to the harsher, stricter leaders. And that poses an interesting dilemma. In my opinion, it completely explains the difference in tone in the Old Testament vs. the New--God did what it took to keep His unruly children focused and on-task. Could it be that He begins with gentle reminders and then, as they are ignored, goes to stricter, more stern methods?
Well, it was a busy weekend, so I'm not going to do a post today. Instead, I thought I'd give some cleaning tips. Hah! Just kidding. I'm not really going to do that. But it was a busy weekend.
No, I am doing a post today. It's something I've been thinking about for a long time now--something I noticed in my recent re-reading of the New Testament. In my opinion the implications of these few verses are stunning and profound.
Many people are familiar with the story of the young man who came to Jesus and said, "Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"
Jesus of course answered that he should keep the commandments--honoring his parents, refraining from adultery, dishonesty and so forth.
The young man replied that he had done all these things since his youth.
Then, the scripture says, "And Jesus, beholding him loved him..." That's important to note. Jesus's response to this young man's obedience was one of love and appreciation.
So what did Jesus do? Compliment him? Commend him? Promise him eternal life?
None of the above. He challenged him. "One thing thou lackest. Go they way and sell whatsoever thou hast and give to the poor..." (Mark 10:21).
The implications of this phrase are, as I said profound. Possibly revolutionary for teachers, parents, church leaders. Here was someone who had done good work. Instead of cheering him, Jesus challenged him to do better work and gave him what I call a threshold commandment--a personalized challenge that pushed him up to the very threshold of his faith.
Sadly, the young man was not ready to step through the threshold, unlike some of the others Jesus encountered who were able to stretch to that threshold (see here, for example).
But that's not the point. The point is that we live in a culture where we have compliment inflation. Everything that is average or mediocre is good. Everything that is good is great. Everything that's great is amazing. And so on.
And yes, I like compliments as much as anyone. But Jesus, who loves us more deeply and dearly than anyone did give compliments willy-nilly. He was honest--and he challenged those he loved.
I've learned with my voice students that I cannot compliment them into singing well. I cannot help them get over bad habits and develop good ones by praising them. I have learned that my writing group cannot help me polish my manuscript by telling me how awesome I am. They have to point out the flaws and challenge me.
And so it is with us spiritually. If we want to grow, we have to be challenged and pushed. We have to be stretched.
Don't get me wrong, I love to get a good compliment. And I think it's important to encourage and support But the key is to understand that this challenging is actually an expression of God's love.
I was in a church meeting the other night where our stake president (senior local leader, over about nine congregations) made an earnest plea to leave politics outside the walls of the church.
That got me thinking. My church has a strict policy of political neutrality. In fact, every time there is an election, the Church issues a letter which is read in Sunday meetings reaffirming this political neutrality
. I like this line from the First Presidency (a group of men we consider to be prophets): "Principles compatible with the gospel can be found in various political parties
I think it's pretty cool to belong to a church that has room enough for both Mitt Romney and Harry Reid.
Because I have lived in a variety of places, and because my career has taken me to some interesting places, I have a lot of friends across the political spectrum. I know and love staunch, solid conservatives as well as liberals with the bleedingest of hearts.
To a person, all my friends have the best of intentions. They pursue their political views because they sincerely believe that those views are right (whatever the metric they use to determine "right").
I've been thinking about the idea that principles compatible with the gospel are found in both parties. How can this be true, given that two parties are so vastly different?
I have a thought on this, and I think it comes down the fundamental values on which specific policies are built. If I had to identify one trait that my liberal friends have in common it would be empathy and love. These people genuinely care for others and they have a sincere desire to help the downtrodden and poor. This desire informs their policy preferences.
Across the aisle, my conservative friends also share some bedrock values. One of the most important fundamentals to these folks is freedom. They believe that God gave humanity freedom--that the right to act and choose is integral to God's plan for His children. Consequently, they favor policies which they see as congruent with this aim. (I'd say that there is a second value for conservatives, and that has to do with preserving traditional values because they genuinely believe they are right.)
Here's my point. We are in what promises to be a raucous election year. And that's as it should be. We have big decisions to make in this country about big challenges. Vigorous debate is a good thing. But, it concerns me when I hear people--on either side of the political spectrum--talking about opponents as if they are mean-spirited/evil/stupid/bigoted/whatever is counter-productive.
I have strong political views, myself. I get that. And I think we should all advocate vigorously for what we think is best. But let's do it with the presumption of good faith--that those on the other side might also be acting according to their best lights, for all the best reasons.
Life is good. I'm sitting on my front porch on a bench my father-in-law gave us. I'm typing this on a laptop my work allows me to use via wireless internet, courtesy of a router my friend is loaning us. I'm drinking diet Dr. Pepper caffeine free that a thoughtful friend gave me for my birthday. All this under a blue sky on clear the Lord gave me.
I feel a spirit of abundance, of bounty and peace in my life. But this feeling is not linked to my bank account, nor does it grow from a lack of troubles and stress. To the contrary.
It might shock you to find out that middle school drama and music teachers are not quite as highly paid as some other professions (although, my employer is very generous). It might further shock you to know that having five kids makes it hard to get by some times. We're not in danger of starving or of being homeless, but some of the niceties and assumptions of most middle class families are usually beyond our reach.
I'm not complaining--in fact, I think it's actually been a net positive for us. Yes, I feel bad telling my daughter we can't afford a cell phone when all her friends have them. Yes, I wish we could give our kids braces and possibly even their own rooms. But we can't. And they'll be fine.
You see, we're on the Lilies of the Field/Fowls of the Air plan. I work as hard as I can and we do the best we can with what we have--and then the Lord provides the rest.
It's actually a great plan. Obviously, it doesn't replace personal effort. It magnifies it. It's the temporal expression of the spiritual truth, We are saved by grace after all we can do.
Being a Lily of the Field means that if you are patient and calm, if you work hard, you will have the things you need, and, even some of the things you don't need, but really want.
For example, we're all pretty darned excited because we got high speed last week. Hitherto, we've been doing dial-up because that's what we could afford. On a computer that was about ten years old, also what we could afford.
Then our computer died. Just stopped. We wore that pore thing out. A little bonus for a job Mere did allowed us to get a new (but modest) one. Now, my son is doing an online physics class (just what I would have done in high school if the internet had been invented back then!!!!) and we had to get the high speed stuff. We were blessed to find a great deal, which costs us very little. Then, a friend let me use his wireless router, which was super nice. So, here we are in the digital age.
Yes, we're a long way behind everyone, but it hasn't really hurt us or caused any lasting problems. In fact, to the contrary, it might be that we are so excited at finally getting it that it's more fun than it would have been otherwise.
We have what we want and we're happy with it. That is part of being a Lily of the Field.