Friday, December 6, 2013

The Talk I'm Giving this Sunday (Wish me Luck)

In my church we don't have paid clergy, and every week two or three people are asked to speak in our main meeting.  I've been asked to speak this Sunday, and this is what I've prepared.  It seemed like it would be a pretty good blog post, so I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone.  Hope it all makes sense.

Good afternoon.  I can't tell you how grateful I am to have the opportunity to speak to you and to be standing with so many people who believe as I do. For today's talk I'll be pulling from three speeches that have greatly helped me find comfort and happiness in my life.  "Come, Join with Us" by Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "Lord, I Believe" by Jeffery R. Holland, and one that might never have been spoken from an LDS pulpit until now: "This is Water" by David Foster Wallace, a professor and novelist.

I'll actually start with paraphrasing a little story he told.

There are these two guys sitting in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness.  One is religious, the other's an Atheist, and they start arguing about the existence of God with a special intensity that comes after a certain level of inebriation.  Finally, the Atheist gets frustrated and says, "Look, man, it's not like I haven't tried the whole God, and prayer thing.  In fact, just a few weeks ago I was stuck in that terrible blizzard and I couldn't see a thing, so I dropped to my knees and cried out, 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost and alone in this blizzard and I'm going to die if you don't help me.'"  At this, the religious guy says, "Well, there you go, you must believe now, because here you are, alive."  The Atheist just scoffed, "No, man, God didn't save me.  There was a group of passing Eskimos who happened to be walking by and found me, and helped me get back to camp."

It's really easy for a big group of believers like us to laugh at this Atheist.  It seems obvious in our minds why the group of Eskimos happened upon the Atheist in the blizzard, but I'd like to discuss today the idea of belief, where it comes from, and posit to you the idea that the Atheist really isn't so much different than you or I.

Faith is described in Hebrews as, "...the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  So, faith is something that comes from things hoped for, not necessarily thing known.  But what is the substance Paul speaks of?

I think Alma lets us know when he lays out how to develop faith, " 27 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.

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge."

So, first we choose to believe, then we work as if what we believe is true, and see what comes of it.  The work is the substance.  The work is the evidence.  The work is faith.  Our acting on our beliefs is what faith is, but when I was told to "talk on whatever you want" (a decision the Bishopric may regret after hearing my talk) I didn't choose to talk about faith, I chose to talk about its predecessor:  belief.  Because I think understanding that principle has helped me come so much closer to God, closer to the church, and helped me understand those not of our faith.

The best way I know to illustrate this principle is by telling you a few vignettes of how I came to believe.

When I was young, I went to church every Sunday.  On one particular Sunday, when I was ten or so, my teacher gave a lesson on the atonement of Jesus Christ.  I don't remember what they said, or even who they were, but I remember thinking, "Jesus, who could have stopped it, chose to die for me."  Even talking about it today gives me a feeling like nothing else dose.  It's a rush of emotion, a shortness of breath, a gratitude.  I remember going home in tears and explaining what happened to my parents, who showed me some of their favorite hymns about the atonement, and shared with me that they had similar feelings.  It was my first remembered experience with believing.  I believed, that day, that Jesus chose to die for me.  It's a feeling I'v never gotten rid of.

When I was fourteen, or so, I felt something similar to one of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes:  
"I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go."  I was supposed to get a cavity filled, was in the waiting room, and felt I had nowhere else to turn.  So I begged God that I wouldn't have to get my cavity filled.  As it turns out, my name was supposed to be on the calendar, I mean, my mom set the appointment, but my name was not there, and they were packed.  I didn't get my cavity filled that day, or the next time we went in and I prayed.  The third time, I didn't pray, and got it filled.  I believed that God answered my prayer, not once, but twice.

In my teenage years, I won't say I 'fell away', but the whole God and Jesus thing just didn't appeal to me.  I still went to church and I never really stopped 'believing', but, let's just say the 'substance for my hope' wasn't very compelling.  At this time I also suffered some pretty serious depression.  I honestly thought no one loved, or cared about me.  It was at this time that I went to get my patriarchal blessing.  Patriarch Peay put his hands on my head and the first thing he told me was that God was aware of me and that He loved me.  I felt a warmth surround me.  An unseen pair of arms, and I sobbed in the Patriarch's living room.  In that moment, I believed in God.  It seemed obvious to me that He was there.  How else would the Patriarch know to say that, let alone how would I feel arms around me, but not see them?

I wish I could say I turned that belief into action, but if I did, I'd be lying.  I went through the rest of high school believing God existed, but not really acting on it, not until I turned 19 and finally started thinking seriously about going on a mission.  I wasn't sure if I wanted to go.  If I'm being honest, I didn't see a difference between our church and other Christian churches.  Why would we spend two years talking to Christians about our church?  Why would God want me to go?  So, I prayed about it. I mean, if God can get me out of dental work, He should be able to let me know if He wants me to go on a mission, right?  And there came a strong thought to my mind:  You know it's right to go.  So, go.  In my opinion, a thought that never would have come to my mind.  So, I went, and I found out why our church is different.

I have lots of stories like this, but, if you'll indulge me, I'd like to tell you about just one more.  A couple of years ago my incredible wife gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.  I was a father.  And, as I held our baby in my arms, and looked into her great big eyes, I felt as if I was looking into the face of God.  There was a warmth, and a joy, and a gratitude that was very much out of the ordinary.  She had her own personality, and curiosity from the moment she came into this world.  I believed, in that moment, more than in any other, that we lived before we came here.

Like I said, I've had many other experiences that have led me to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Doctrine of the LDS church, but I do only have so much time.  These experiences, and the fact that I can't seem to keep my mouth shut, led me to get into a great many arguments on the internet with Atheists.  I knew what I was saying was true.  I'd had experiences, that proved, at least to me, that they were true, and if those Atheists would just take Alma's advice and experiment then they'd believe too.  I did this for years, until I finally started listening instead of talking.

And that's when I found "This is Water".  David Foster Wallace laid out, with the story I told in the beginning and others how belief is a choice.  That the reason why people of different denominations can't seem to get along is that they are absolutely certain that the way they see the world is the right way and everyone else is completely blind.  That the big choice we can make in life is what to believe in.  Now, considering I'd read Hebrews and Alma many times, I probably should have already known this, but I didn't.  Paul and Alma had already explained to me that what I believed in could only be seen through the actions of others who believed in it, that they were things I hoped for, and that it was my choice to not 'cast them out by my unbelief'.  It was my choice to believe, and that proving God to anyone was futile, because our belief was a choice.  We choose to assign meaning to our experiences.

For example.  Maybe I only felt those things when I was ten because that's what I was supposed to believe.  Maybe true or not, once we think about someone giving up something amazing for us we feel a sense of love and gratitude.  Maybe "You know it's right to go.  So, go."  Is something I would think to myself.  And, I know this is going to shake some of you, maybe there was just a scheduling mix up twice in a row at the dentist because they were in the middle of training someone and she's the one who made the appointments.  You know, maybe the Eskimos would have passed by that guy whether he prayed or not.

This idea stuck with me and made me wonder if I could stay in the church.  I know that's shocking, but this was my logic:  if I don't really know.  If I can't really know, then how can I keep doing this?  How can I give ten percent to an organization that I don't know is God's?  How can I raise my girl with a set of doctrines that I can't prove?  As President Uchtodorf said, "Some struggle with unanswered questions about things that have been done or said in the past. We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of Church history—along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable, and divine events—there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question."  Only, my question wasn't about something that happened, it was about the whole thing.  Was any of it true?  Was there any way I could know?

For several months I listened to "This is Water" over and over again, I finally, really heard something else he'd said, " the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you...Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out."

I didn't "know" the church was God's, but there were things I did know.  I knew that when I went to church, when I followed the doctrines, when I believed, I was slowly becoming the man I hoped to be. Brielle's family is probably tired of hearing about him, but I want to be like my Great Grandpa Paul.  He was giving, loving, hard working, community minded, and kind.  And, he was almost completely deaf by the time he died, but in his later years he kept going to church, and one Sunday someone asked him what the talks in church were about that day.  He said he didn't know, he couldn't hear.  Then why do you go, the person asked.  He answered, because that's where my family is, and where my family is is where I want to be.  I may not know, but like him, with my family, moving in a direction to be the man I want to be, is where I want to be, and this church does that for me.

That wasn't the end of my journey though, because, like my mouth, I can't seem to get my mind to quit going either.  And I heard so many people say in Fast and Testimony meeting that they "knew".  They "knew" so many things that I couldn't say that I knew.  Did I belong in an organization with so many who "knew"?  It was literally a few weeks after thinking this that I heard Elder Holland speak in General Conference.  "I said I was speaking to the young. I still am. A 14-year-old boy recently said to me a little hesitantly, “Brother Holland, I can’t say yet that I know the Church is true, but I believe it is.” I hugged that boy until his eyes bulged out. I told him with all the fervor of my soul that belief is a precious word, an even more precious act, and he need never apologize for “only believing.” I told him that Christ Himself said, “Be not afraid, only believe,” a phrase which, by the way, carried young Gordon B. Hinckley into the mission field. I told this boy that belief was always the first step toward conviction and that the definitive articles of our collective faith forcefully reiterate the phrase “We believe.” And I told him how very proud I was of him for the honesty of his quest."

It was okay that I didn't know.  I believed, and not only was belief enough, it was a precious thing.  People had done great things because they believed, and I could too.  I belonged in this church even if I did not know.  And I believe that I always will belong, so long as it keeps helping me become the man that I would like to be, and even more importantly, the man I believe God wants me to be.

Now, I'm a big believer in the "so what" of talks.  Meaning, I've given you a bunch of scriptures, quotes, and my own ramblings to glue them together, but so what?  What am I hoping to really convey?  If someone were to ask me, "What should I get out of your talk?"  What would I tell them?

If you're someone who hasn't had these questions,  please don't think that my questioning came from the devil, because I can tell you that my resolve to follow the teachings of the Savior is stronger than it has ever been, because I questioned.  Because I realized that I cannot prove my belief to myself or anyone else, and that means that no amount of evidence against the church will keep me from living in this way, because it is so good for me and my family.  I'm not saying you need to start questioning, just that it helped me.

If you're like me, know that you're not alone.  I can't say that I know either, and, at least according to Elder Holland, that's okay.  You and I, we belong here in this church.  Like I told a friend who, after finding out his wife was pregnant, was thinking about maybe getting back into the church, but wasn't sure if he really believed:  True or not, the gospel teaches a good lifestyle.  Doesn't it help a family to stay away from drinking and drugs?  Doesn't it help a family to take one day out of the week and spend that day almost entirely together?  Doesn't it help a family to believe their relationships last longer than just this life?  Doesn't it help a father to believe that the effects of his parenting will last long after this life?  110% true or not, it's a good place for us to be.

And for all of us believers, I hoped that my journey through doubt will help us see those of different beliefs with a little more understanding.  As President Uchtdorf said, "One might ask, “If the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?”

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations."

I wasn't offended, or sinful, or lazy, but questioning.  I sincerely wanted to know what I should do, and there are thousands like me.  Some come to my same conclusion, and some come to others.  My own journey has led me to listen to their stories.  All of them were good people doing what they felt was right, and I couldn't help but respect that.

Which is what made this quote from President Uchtdorf stand out so much to me: "In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth. It may break our hearts when their journey takes them away from the Church we love and the truth we have found, but we honor their right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves."

I believe there is a God.  I believe that He watches over and loves us.  I believe families are ordained of God, my evidence for that comes mostly from my wife, whose faith is so much stronger than mine, but has been so very christlike and patient with me and my questions.  I believe this church was created by God, mostly because whenever I follow its teachings I get closer to being the man I hope to one day be.  I believe that Jesus is our friend and savior.  Whenever I say it, whenever I think about it, I get a feeling that I simply cannot deny.

And it's in His name that I leave this with you.  Amen.