Sunday, August 31, 2014

Eternal Progression - Starting Today

Note to Self: The next time I agree to give a lesson in church, I'm going to try to find out the subject of the lesson I am to give BEFORE the day on which the lesson is to be given. In fact, I STILL don't know what I'm supposed to talk about, even though I'm giving the lesson in about 4 hours. In my defense, I've had a crazy, busy week, but I should have obtained my topic about a week in advance, so the business of said week should not have been an influence on whether I know my topic or not.

But since I don't know my topic, but I know that this is the week in which the instructor teaches from a recent General Conference talk, I'm free to pick one. And the talk I chose to begin studying this morning is What Manner of Men? by Elder (or President?) Donald L. Halstrom of the Presidency of the Seventy.

The reason I chose this talk is that it seemed like a good, basic, Christian message, and because I like that it addresses both the need to change and the reason we can have hope in our ability to change.

Jesus Christ has commanded us to become as He is, to become perfect. This seems like such an impossible task, especially considering all our human habits and weaknesses, that some people are tempted to give up the quest of perfection and basically say, "I'm flawed, I have bad habits, I'm nothing like the Savior, but that's just the way I am. I can't change that."

And it is tempting. I've occasionally thought, "Wouldn't it be easier to quit Mormonism and find a church that accepts people the way they are without expecting them to change?" The trouble with that idea is that I know this church is true. When asked whether they would leave the Savior's company and effectively leave the church, Jesus' disciples answered, "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life." John 6:68 We hear those words at least twice a year, in General Conference, and we share those words with each other at least once a month, in lessons like the one that I'm giving today. And it's those same words that are saying that we need to become perfect, and that we can.

My favorite thing about the concept of eternal progression is the duality of its meaning. Firstly, it's progression to become like God, because God is Eternal, and secondly, it's eternal because we have an eternity to work on it. Becoming perfect isn't really realistic, or even possible - not in one lifetime, anyway. But since we can continue progressing throughout the eternities, we can have hope that we can eventually reach any goal we commit ourselves to pursuing, even perfection.

Fortunately and unfortunately, we're not just talking about the eternities. Elder or President Halstrom also teaches us that we can, and must, make some changes during our mortal life. God doesn't expect us to become perfect right now, but He does expect us to start working on it as soon as possible, and He makes such change possible not by giving us an infinite amount of time to work on it but by giving us His Son to be our Example and our Savior. It's through the power of Jesus' Atonement that we gain the power to change our behavior, and even our very natures, even while we're still human.

Through the power of the Atonement, we can change. Any sins, bad habits, or addictions can be put behind us, making us free to become better, or in other words, more perfect, people. None of us are perfect yet. Many of us may have imperfections that we're not even trying to change right now. But God expects each of us to become perfect eventually, and He wants each of us to start working on that today.

I suppose it was such an imperfection that caused me to procrastinate and forget to ask for the topic of my lesson until it was too late, and I probably ought to begin working against that bad habit of procrastination, starting today. Or perhaps I'll procrastinate kicking the bad habit of procrastination until long after I'm dead, and I'll spend all of eternity saying to myself, "Yeah, I should work on that, but I can do that later." There's a reason God wants us to start working toward perfection now - because if we don't start now, maybe we never will.

This is shaping up to be a pretty good lesson, but perhaps it was meant to be a lesson just for me, because I just got a text from my Elder's Quorum President letting me know what the actual topic of my lesson is. I'd better go start studying it now.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Only God Can Save Me

While riding on a lightrail train a while back, I saw a guy wearing a shirt that I thought read "Only God can save me." As it turned out, the shirt actually said "Only God can judge me." I like my version better.

Saying that "only God can judge me" gives us license to do whatever we want, unrestrained by social conventions, common courtesy, or even basic morality. It is to proudly say that we are unwilling to change our behavior, even if the ability is well within our reach. Pride is a prevalent problem in each person's lives individually and in the world in general (If you don't believe me, ask Ezra Taft Benson), and when we say "only God can judge me," we are pridefully asserting that we refuse to address our vices and that no one has any right to comment on them or complain about them.

Saying that "only God can save me" is to admit that we have vices; vices that only God can remove. It is to humbly say that we are willing to change our natures to more closely match God's, even if the ability escapes us. Sin is a prevalent problem in the world in general and in each person's lives individually, and when we say "only God can save me," we are admitting the truth that only God can save us from ourselves and from the influence of the world.

I'm not sure if there's a T-Shirt that says "Only God Can Save Me." I wouldn't be surprised if there were, especially since I'm sure that one could be made easily. If there were one, and if I had one, I wonder if I'd be brave enough to wear it. It would take a certain amount of guts to tell everyone that "only God can judge me," but it probably takes a comparable amount of courage to say that "only God can save me."

I don't know what it is about sin that makes people want to keep it secret. Is it just embarrassment? Is it the influence of Satan, trying to prevent people from seeking, offering, or accepting help from others? Whatever the reason, many people have at least some internal reluctance to admit that only God can save them, and when their vices do come to light, some people then become defensive, essentially saying that only God can judge them, and maybe not even Him. I want to be a better person than that. I want to be humble enough to admit that I have many problems that I need God's help to solve. And I want to have the courage to reach out to others and remind them that only God has the power to save us, and even then, only if we have the courage to admit that we need saving.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Cards, Karma, and Justice

You know that moment when you're playing UNO and you play a Draw Two card on somebody, and then someone plays a Reverse and the person you played a Draw Two on plays a Draw Two on you, saying "guess when I drew that card"? Some people would call that karma or poetic justice. Some people call it statistically influenced probability (or luck, mingled with a slightly increased likelihood of getting that kind of luck). Some might say that it was destined to happen, while others may say that it only happened because you (and possibly the other guy(s)) made it happen. I don't know the laws of the universe well enough to say exactly why things happened that way, but I do know that there will be a frightening amount of justice on Judgement Day, and it might look an awful lot like karma.

Now, I'm not saying that any bad thing that you do will come back to bite you during the same lifetime, or even the next one, if you believe that there's life after death. I believe that you can repent and have sins taken off of the list of things you need to be punished for before the punishment actually happens, allowing you to avoid punishment altogether. But part of repentance is changing your behavior, which will require at least a few good deeds, so it might be argued that by doing good deeds, you generated enough good karma to counterbalance the bad karma you generated by doing bad things. But once again, I don't know the laws of the universe well enough to say whether karma is really a thing that actually happens or not. I'd guess not, because it's mostly only promoted by non-Christian religions, but it still could be true, especially since it so closely resembles justice, which I know is a true principle. Maybe karma is mostly true, perhaps even entirely true. Like I said, I don't know the rules well enough to say.

However, I do know that for every act, there is going to be an appropriate amount of justice. If we sin and don't repent of that sin, sooner or later we're going to suffer the consequences. On the other hand, whenever we do something good, God blesses us for it, either in this life or the next. That sounds a lot like karma, too. So maybe those Buddhists and Hindus know what they're talking about. After all, both they and Christians have reason to believe that you reap what you sow. [Link: Karma] [Link: Christianity]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Competence

How pathetic is it that I believe that one of the best feelings in the world is that of competence? Yesterday, in math class, we were given a complicated math problem that involved multiplying negative numbers with exponents on them, and I felt good when I eventually came up with the correct answer. As an leader of eleven-year-old Scouts, I sometimes struggle finding ways to keep the boys interested as we try to fulfill Boy Scout requirements, but I recently received a compliment that at least one of the boys thinks I'm funny, so I must be doing something right. And I've always been the kind of person that tinkers on the piano occasionally, and now that I've learned how to sort-of read sheet music, I've been able to learn how to play some hymns correctly, and it's actually sounding pretty good.

I don't mean to toot my own horn here. I'm just trying to illustrate the point that succeeding at things can make people happy. Sometimes things take a lot of practice and hard work, but the resulting feelings of competence and success are totally worth it. If you want to boost your happiness, and you know something that you're good at, go ahead and do that thing, then step back and appreciate the job well done. Alternatively, if you don't know what your talents are yet, develop one. Until this week, I would have told you that I'm not really very good at math, but I'm catching on pretty quickly. Until I became a scout leader, I believed that I served best in a following position and that my leadership skills were sub-par. And before I learned the tricks for finding the right notes on a piano, I could only sound them out one at a time, which sounded pretty lame.

Whatever talents you have or would like to have, it's worth spending a little bit of time and effort developing them. Becoming good at something is exciting and satisfying, as I've been fortunate to experience. Often, you'll need someone to help teach you the tricks, and you'll certainly need to invest some time in practicing the needed skills, but I think you'll find that the results are worth it, especially if you sometimes struggle with your self-worth. I sometimes do, or did, but knowing that I'm competent at some things, and that I can develop competence in areas where I previously had no skill, helps me feel that I have value and potential that I simply couldn't see before. A beautiful painting is obviously beautiful, while a blank canvass, by comparison, seems bland. But beautiful things can be painted on a blank canvass, just as a person without obvious talents can develop talents during their life.

So, find something you're good at or that you'd like to be good at, practice it whenever you get the chance, and then try to appreciate how competent you've become at that thing and see how good that makes you feel. It certainly makes me feel good to know that I have a talent or two that I didn't have before.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The First Two Rs of Choice

I found this on Facebook yesterday. It's pretty powerful.


In a way, this is encouraging. In another way, it's discouraging.

It's encouraging to know that Satan cannot overpower us, that we are strong enough to successfully resist every temptation we face. On the other hand, it's discouraging to think of the times when we could have made the right choice, but we didn't.

This quote came from a talk titled The Three Rs of Choice. The three Rs are the Right of choice, the Responsibility of choice, and the Results of choice. This quote deals with the first two Rs. We have the right to make our own choices, and neither God nor Satan can take that right away from us. But with that right comes responsibility. Because no one can force us to make certain decisions or make decisions for us, we are the only ones who are responsible for every choice we make. Others can pressure us or encourage us, but ultimately, we are the ones that make our decisions, and we are the ones who solely responsible for those decisions.

But because I try to keep this blog mostly positive, I'm going to try to put a positive spin on this. Of course, it's awesome to know that no temptation can overcome us as long as we have a firm resolve. Satan can't make us do anything. We will always have enough strength inside of us to say 'No!' As long as we remember to tap into that strength and to put our foot down, Satan can't move us. That's pretty cool.

Also, taking sole responsibility for your own choices can be a good thing. Suppose you make a good decision. YOU were the one who made that decision. YOU were the one who did that good thing. God may have encouraged you through the influence of His Spirit, and there may or may not have been some positive peer pressure going on at the time, but if I may paraphrase a word or two, "No [encouraging], no pressure, no enticing can overcome [you]" or force you to do anything that you don't choose to do. YOU made the right decision, and you get the full credit for that. There may have been forces pulling for you, but there were also forces working against you, yet neither force had the ability to take the power of choice out of your hands. YOU made the decision, and you made the right decision. So good for you! You did good. You should be proud of yourself. I'm sure God's proud of you.

What I learned from all of this is that we're strong. We're strong enough to make good decisions, no matter what influences are present. With that strength comes the responsibility to use it. We have the power and responsibility to resist temptation every time it appears. But with that responsibility comes credit. When we make good decisions, it's all on us. Yes, God had an influence, and we should be grateful to Him, but we are the ones who make our decisions, and we can be justly proud of ourselves when we make the right ones.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Moving Forward Toward Your Dreams

There's an article featured on LDS.org called Defy Gravity: Go Forward with Faith. It talks about riding a bicycle, and it mentions the wondrous physics of how a bike maintains balance, defying gravity, as long as it keeps moving. This reminded me of an old blog post of mine, Riding the Bicycle, in which I said something similar.

In order to stay afloat amid the storms of life and not sink into despair, we have to keep moving in a positive direction. The good news is that if we can keep moving forward, life won't be able to drag us down so easily. There's a lot to be said for having ambitious (even unrealistic) goals and putting a considerable amount of effort toward achieving them. Even if their lofty goals are never reached, those who try to do the impossible often accomplish more than those who strive for, and achieve, what we might consider a more normal level of success.

Perhaps one of my biggest personal problems is that I'm not very ambitious. Despite the Tangled song's claim that everybody has a dream, I'm not sure that I do. And if I do have a dream, I'm not sure what it is, and I certainly don't know how to pursue it. My biggest problem with the concept of moving forward is that sometimes we don't know which way forward is. Those with dreams and goals can figure out ways to pursue them. They know which way they want to go because they have a guiding star that they can follow.

Theoretically, so do I. I have a desire to become more like Jesus Christ. I guess you could call that a dream. It gives me a whole list of Christlike attributes to develop, and I could easily make a bit of progress toward obtaining those attributes, but what I'm really worried about is real life. I'm in school right now, taking general education classes for a well-rounded education, and English classes because I'm good at them. I don't know what I want to do for a living, or how my skill at English could translate into any kind of job. I don't have any "career goals," like so many other people my age have. They have dreams about what kind of job they want to have, what kind of house they want to live in, and what kind of family they'd like to raise, and I don't.

I know I like helping people. I love making people happy. I actually enjoy cleaning things sometimes. It's something of a pet peeve of mine when I see something out of place in a supermarket, and I get a little bit of personal satisfaction out of putting things back where they belong. All of these traits add up to the possibility of excelling as a courtesy clerk, but that's not really much of a "dream." Nobody dreams of working at a grocery or outlet store, except maybe me. It'd make a great job for me for now, but what about the future? Could I work my way up the ranks in management? I can lead people, but could I learn how to run a store, to make business decisions? I'm not sure. Working at a grocery store would be a great step in the right direction for me, but where could I go from there?

Maybe I should just take life one step at a time, and have faith that God knows how to get me where He knows I should be. It just really stinks to know that He has a perfect plan for my life and I don't have the faintest clue about what that plan is or how to follow it. I'm a terrific follower, if only I could get the directions I need. Without that direction, I'm lost. I can't learn how to move forward toward my dreams simply because I don't have any dreams, so I don't know which way forward is.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Music is Good

This being the first day of school, I'd love to leave as soon as possible to make sure everything is in order and I get to my classes on time, so I'd love to blog about something quick (and probably kind of lame), and get going. In light of that, I'm just going to share a quick message that I've probably shared at least a dozen times before.

I like music, especially upbeat and uplifting music, especially hymns. As far as I can remember, I always have. And I think I'm now beginning to learn why. As I mentioned a few blog posts ago, I like happiness. I like feeling happy and I like making other people feel happy. Happiness is good. Music can make people happy, and I think that's because good music attracts the Spirit. Good music brings us closer to God, and being close to God brings us greater happiness. That's because God wants us to be happy, so the closer we draw to Him, the happier we'll be.

President Boyd K. Packer taught that music has a strong influence on our thoughts. Other Prophets have taught that our thoughts influence our actions and our actions ultimately determine our destiny. Good music can help us have good thoughts, perform righteous actions, and secure a desirable destiny for ourselves. And since these are all things that God wants us to do, He blesses us with happiness as we do them.

You know, for a long time, I thought that the love of music was just a psychological thing. Our brain picks up the patterns in the music and because those patterns are pleasing to the brain, it rewards us by producing whatever chemical represents happiness to our brains, so we listen to music just because it feels good. According to that way of thinking, any spiritual benefits to listening to good music are purely coincidental, or perhaps God created our brains to enjoy music because He knew that music would have that beneficial "side-effect." I'm no psychologist, so I can't really say. What I can say is that I no longer think that we like music just because it "sounds nice." It's not just pleasant patterns stimulating desirable chemical reactions somewhere in the backs of our minds. Now I think that if such reactions do occur, God intended that to happen mostly so we'd listen to music more, so we'd gain the spiritual benefits of music, which may be the entire reason we like music in the first place.

Music is good, and it helps us to be good. Maybe that's why I've always liked it.