Sunday, August 30, 2015

Power and Meekness

Several years ago, a Church leader toured a facility that housed a huge hydraulic crushing machine that could reduce old cars into small cubes of metal. At one point in the tour the guide asked the Church leader to remove his watch. The guide handed the watch to the operator of the crushing machine, who placed it in the machine and began adjusting the controls. When the machine was ready, the operator brought top blade crashing down, stopping just a millimeter above the watch. Next the sides slammed together with incredible force, but once again they stopped just short of the crystal. The operator removed the watch from the machine and returned it unscratched.

Much pleased with the demonstration, the Church leader turned to those with him and said, 'We have just witnessed the greatest demonstration of meekness I have ever seen. Meekness is great power under complete control' (The Beatitudes: Pathway to the Savior, Ensign, November 1991).

Most of us associate meekness with humility or turning the other cheek. We understand that meekness involves being submissive and obedient to the gospel and the will of God; yet this is only half of the formula. Meekness is, of necessity, also an attribute of great power. It is not submission out of weakness or humility born of helplessness, but rather a consistent ability to obey God's commandments even and especially when we are able and wanting to choose otherwise.

Meekness is precisely the characteristic that the people of Ammon showed when they buried their weapons of war and allowed the Lamanites to murder them by the thousands. Though they had covenanted with the Lord that they would never again use weapons for bloodshed, they were skilled warriors and had the power to rise up and fight for their lives if they chose. They surely would have been a formidable force and may have conquered. Instead, they submitted themselves to their enemies in order that they might keep the covenant they had made. Their courage and meekness converted more of their enemies than the number of their people that had been murdered.

Just as meekness without power isn't really meekness at all, power alone is equally insufficient. Uncontrolled power becomes self-serving and often leads to tyranny of one's self and toward others. Indeed, 'we have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion' (D&C 121:39). How many of the world's greatest tragedies have been the direct result of men with great power and no moral restraint? How many more personal tragedies have similar themes? And how often has something gone wrong in our own lives because we used our power or influence improperly?

To be of greatest value-- to be meekness-- power must be harnessed by perfect obedience to God. Captain Moroni provides an excellent example of this in the heat of a fierce battle around 73 B.C. Though the opposing Lamanite army was much larger than his own, Moroni had gained the upper hand through preparedness, strategy, and complete trust in prophetic counsel. As the battle progressed, he found himself with the power to completely eliminate the army of the Lamanites that had so often harassed, attacked and murdered his people and the people of Ammon.

Although Moroni was his nation's top military commander, he was only in his mid-twenties when this battle took place. To conquer the enemy almost certainly would've brought a lifetime of individual glory from a grateful nation and resulted in peace between the nations for a generation or more-- to say nothing of the relief from several days of marching and fighting in armor that was hot and heavy.

Despite the chaos and distractions, the ego and the enemy, ultimately Moroni had the integrity to use his power to protect the powerless. When he saw the terror in the eyes of his enemies, he commanded his armies to stop their offensive.

And it came to pass that they did stop and withdrew a pace from them. And Moroni said unto Zerahemnah: Behold, Zerahemnah, that we do not desire to be men of blood. Ye know that ye are in our hands, yet we do not desire to slay you... I command you by all the desires which ye have for life, that ye deliver up your weapons of war unto us, and we will seek not your blood, but we will spare your lives, if ye will go your way and come not again to war against us (Alma 44:1, 6).

Zerahemnah initially refused and the battle continued; but when the Lamanite leader saw his entire army was about to be destroyed, he called out to Moroni for mercy. Again Moroni had the power to inflict his own will. He could have reasoned that Zerahemnah had his chance or that the elimination of his enemy was a blessing to his nation and the people of God. Yet, when Zerahemnah called out for mercy, and knowing the Lord had commanded to kill only in defense, Moroni directed his troops to withdraw a second time. This time the war was ended and the Lamanites were allowed to return to their homes without their weapons if they swore never to go to war again.

The scriptures say that "if all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men" (Alma 48:17). Such was true of Moroni because of his faith in Christ, his perfect understanding and his righteous desires-- his power by virtue of his knowledge and faith and his obedience by virtue of his desire to do God's will-- or in other words, his meekness.

It was people like Moroni and the Ammonites that the Savior referenced when he taught, 'Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth' (Matthew 5:5). Modern revelation teaches us that the earth will become the celestial kingdom (D&C 88:19-20), making the Savior's teaching, in essence, a promise that the meek will be saved in the presence of God where they can progress to become like him-- not as an exception to eternal law to allow for the arbitrary selection of favorite personalities, but rather because natural law demands it.

As in the Parable of the Talents, the Lord has given each of us a measure of his power. We have stewardship for our bodies and are accountable for how we use the power they give us to create or destroy inspiration or deceit, to harm or to heal, to be engaged or idle. We have the power of the priesthood and spiritual gifts that allow us to inspire others, communicate across language barriers, discern truth from error, to teach and to administer and to learn. We have power through association to influence others for good or evil. We even have the power to create life or to end it.

As we exercise our power with control and obedience to the commandments of God, the Lord will strengthen us. President Benson taught, "When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power." Likewise, as the Lord blesses us with power we become capable of even greater obedience, creating an eternal cycle of progression as we become increasingly meek. In this way, to the five talents the Lord has given us can be added five more.

The opposite is also true. President Joseph F. Smith once declared that "obedience is the first law of heaven". If we are not growing in power and our capacity to obey-- if we are burying our talents-- we will not be able to abide the laws of the celestial kingdom. Meekness, then, isn't just a nice attribute to have if you'd like to go far in life, but rather a mandatory prerequisite to inheriting the celestial kingdom and with it all the Father has.

Ultimately, it was the perfect meekness of our Savior on display when he fell on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane, sorrowful "even unto death", and prayed, "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matthew 26:38-39). Then the Supreme Creator of heaven and earth, who could command the elements and heal all wounds, who even had command over death itself, allowed himself to be betrayed and nailed to a cross. It should not be forgotten that, when the time was right, the Savior also obeyed the Father in exercising his power over death as he came forth from the tomb and paved the way for all mankind to live again even as He yet lives.

If we desire to be joint heirs with Christ and with Captain Moroni and the Ammonites in the celestial kingdom, we too must be meek. Though we stand at different places along the path of life and may count a different number of talents to our charge, we can begin to grow in power and obedience as we consciously choose the right in the choices we make each day. As obedience becomes our habit and our quest in life, even and especially in the face of difficult challenges, we will be sufficiently meek, through the Atonement of Christ, to inherit the earth and return to the presence of our God unscratched.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Love and Selfies

We live in the Age of the Selfie. We take pictures of ourselves with friends and landmarks, still in bed, at the gym, at restaurants and even in the bathroom. Social media sees our feet at the beach or by the pool, close ups of our eyes or the weird thing growing on our nose and what we look like with duck lips or too much makeup or after a rough day. Sometimes we even take selfies of ourselves taking selfies. Not even Woody can resist that. It's a phenomenon that can be a lot of fun, allows us to explore our identities, and helps us feel like we belong.

The Age of the Selfie is also part of a much larger movement that we could call the Age of the Self. We are more interested than ever in ourselves and "taking care of number one." There are certainly situations and individual circumstances where more attention to one's self is needed; but too often a preoccupation with ourselves leads us to poor decisions that hinder our progress and can even become destructive.

President Uchtdorf has taught:

Naturally, we all have a desire for recognition, and there is nothing wrong with relaxing and enjoying ourselves. But when seeking the 'gain and praise of the world' is a central part of our motivation, we will miss the redemptive and joyful experiences that come when we give generously of ourselves to the work of the Lord.

Ironically, and tragically, one kind of joyful experience we forfeit when we are preoccupied with ourselves is the opportunity to learn more about who we really are. President Hinckley has stated that "Nobody can live fully and happily who lives only unto himself or herself... It is as we serve, as we take the time to express interest and concern in someone other than ourselves, that we are more likely to gain a glimpse of who we really are and what we can ultimately become" (Standing for Something, 2000).

Christ taught that "Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it." In our own time, "one of the greatest challenges we face in our hurried, self-centered lives is to follow this counsel of the Master, to take the time and make the effort to care for others, to develop and exercise the one quality that would enable us to change the lives of others-- what the scriptures call charity" (Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something, 2000).

When we are focused only on ourselves, we miss out on the joyful experience of giving and receiving real love and acceptance. President Uchtdorf expounded:

Those who wholeheartedly turn their lives over to our Savior and serve God and their fellowman discover a richness and fulness to life that the selfish or egotistic will never experience. The unselfish give of themselves. These may be small gifts of charity that have a grand impact for good: a smile, a handshake, a hug, time spent in listening, a soft word of encouragement, or a gesture of caring. All these acts of kindness can change hearts and lives. When we take advantage of the unlimited opportunities to love and serve our fellowmen, including our spouse and family, our capacity to love God and to serve others will greatly increase.

The opposite is also true: those who are preoccupied with their own image and pleasure find life increasingly void of meaning and their capacity to love God, themselves and others diminishes. Predictably, in most cases, these individuals will respond to the fading vibrancy of life with yet more selfish decisions in attempt to resuscitate their own feelings, further constricting their view and numbing their emotions with each unsatisfying Facebook post, workout, carbohydrate binge or illicit and loveless relationship. In seeking to save their own lives, they will lose it.

This appeared to be what was happening last week with a young teenager in my church congregation that decided to skip the final hour of church to sit on the couch in the lobby and play her tablet because it was more fun. As I sat on the couch across from her, more than a dozen separate individuals approached her and invited her to return to her class. They offered hugs and words of encouragement. They offered a listening ear and open hearts. Each time, the young woman would reject the love she was being shown and complained about those who had "wasted her time" and then also complained that nobody at church seemed to care about her. She could not see the outpouring of love that I had witnessed, even though she had been the intended recipient.

Compare that experience with the story Edith Cavell, a British nurse in World War I. She had trained in London before becoming the matron of a nursing school in Belgium in 1907 and launching that nation's first professional nursing journal in 1910. By the end of 1911, Edith was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools and 13 kindergartens.

When war broke out in 1914, Edith's clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross and she began a relentless effort to treat the wounded. By November 1914, Germany had occupied Belgium. When asked why she treated the German soldiers as well as the British and French, Edith responded simply, "I can't stop while there are lives to be saved."

"Patriotism is not enough," she explained further on another occasion. "I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." Edith began hiding Allied soldiers and helping them escape to the neutral Netherlands. She was arrested in August 1915 after one of the French soldiers betrayed her to the Germans. She had helped more than 200 soldiers escape occupied Belgium and now was sentenced to death by firing squad.

Edith's life of service to others had blessed her own life with a profound love for all people, including those with whom she disagreed. That love became her strength, despite her sentence, and blessed her life with profound peace. Among her last words was a request to the prison chaplain to, "tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country."

Edith Cavell's love for mankind was deeper and more substantive than the excitement and infatuation that might motivate a couple to start dating or even get married. Those emotions are an important beginning-- the fairy tale leading to our happily ever after-- but they're often still about us and how we benefit from a relationship. True love-- the kind that satiates our need to belong and gives us the confidence and strength to face any obstacle-- is cultured over years of putting someone else's needs before our own.

A few days after I was married to my wonderful bride, we went to visit my grandparents in central Utah. My grandpa had performed the temple marriages of all of his grandchildren until a stroke had rendered him unable. My wedding was the first he was not able to attend. Now he laid in his bed in front of me, losing weight and a battle with dementia that sometimes made his home of more than 50 years seem completely foreign to his broken mind.

As I stood at his bedside and spoke with him I wasn't certain whether he remembered me. It was a mostly one-sided conversation as I told him about my studies at the university, how our favorite football teams were doing and my thoughts on politics, gardening, religion, and other topics that we had discussed often over the previous two decades. It was anguishing to see his once active body and keen professor's mind now reduced to staring at the ceiling and trying to make sense of the people and places that seemed to know him so well despite their unfamiliarity.

After talking for several minutes, I began to share with him that I had been married and introduced my wife who had been standing patiently by my side. At this news, my grandpa raised his left hand and proudly pointed with his thumb to the gold wedding ring on his finger. Whatever other chaos or darkness now clouded his memory, it was clear that he still cherished his wife of over 60 years. She had not been just a friend or the mother of his children or a part of his life; she had been his entire life, his reason for going to work and doing the dishes and singing the children to sleep. Now, in his difficult trial, it was his unrelenting love for her that carried him through.

Despite the stroke, the dementia, and failing physical health, Grandpa clung to life and love for more than five years until my grandma passed away in 2008. She had cared for him as best she could, even leaving the quiet country life of the only home she had really known to be closer to the care he needed in a Salt Lake City suburb. After her passing, Grandpa's remaining strength disappeared and he was soon laid to rest next to her and their son who had died of cancer decades earlier.

This is the power of true love. We cannot have it on our own-- not even for ourselves. Though the world tells us to skip or delay family for financial or professional gain, to abort children that may become a burden, to abandon marriages that no longer provide the benefits they once did, and to be constantly "one-upping" our friends and coworkers with the controlled facades of our lives on social media, the Lord through his prophets has taught us that to do so is to forfeit our identities and the love we so desperately need. Selfishness and love, by definition, cannot coexist; for love is the act of putting others needs before our own.

The ultimate act of love and unselfishness was the Atonement of Jesus Christ:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved (John 3:16-17).

This was not a fun or pleasurable experience. It was not the kind of self-glorifying or easy path we might choose for ourselves. Rather, it caused Christ, "the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit-- and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink-- Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men" (D&C 19:18).

The blessings of focusing our lives on others far outweigh the temporary benefits we receive from taking an easy path or doing what "feels good". We can have peace of conscience and confidence of belonging. We can experience the strength and power of love received and given to God, to others and to ourselves. We can have a knowledge of our own potential and the empowerment to achieve it. We can experience countless moments laughing, crying and experiencing the fullness of life.

We only need to take the time to serve those around us. And then, maybe to take a quick selfie with the smiling person who helped us love a little better than we had before.