Did This One with My Eyes Closed

 

Picture1

Dear Will:

I hope you will not think me especially loutish when I admit that sometimes I have a hard time staying awake at the ballet. And at the symphony. And pretty much in any meeting that involves sitting and listening passively. As long as I stay locked into the subject at hand, I’m fine. But should my mind wander, even briefly, I turn into Captain Nod, that sag-eyed, bobble-headed drooper at the back of the conference room (or at the front of the chapel). Years ago I started taking notes during church services simply to keep myself from fading. It works. Most of the time.

I don’t buy tickets in the orchestra section hoping to get in a good nap, mind you. It’s just that sometimes the body takes over no matter what efforts the mind might undertake to remain in control—especially if the room is dark and stuffy and the guy with the pointer is a little (how shall I put this?) soporific. In desperate moments I’ll occasionally stand and walk around during someone else’s presentation in order fend off an eye-fluttering face-plant, but sometimes even that doesn’t work: I once nodded off while standing in a dimly-lit conference room in Bordeaux when jetlag, PowerPoint, and a languid Frenchman teamed up to carry me off to Monde Somnolent in spite of my best efforts to remain alerte—which I believe is French for not keeling over mid-snore. (It could be worse: I have a friend who has been known to doze off during a one-on-one conversation . . . in the middle of his own sentence. We keep such friends around so that we can feel better about ourselves. It works. Most of the time.)

It takes only one snorer during Act II of Sleeping Beauty (a moment of irony lost on no one at the ballet) to know that you are not alone in your inability to stay awake on command. Even so, I find my greatest reassurance in scripture: No doubt you’ll recall that even Peter, James, and John—Jesus’s most trusted friends—could not keep their eyes open on what was the Most Important Night in the History of the World. As Jesus prayed the most sacred of prayers—to which they had been invited as especial witnesses—His senior apostles, in spite of themselves, drifted off to sleep. Disappointed though He must have been, Jesus showed that He understood well the limitations of the mortals around Him when He said: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41).

The compassion and love Jesus showed in that moment shows that that He gets me. He understands that sometimes my shortcomings are too much for even my very best intentions. The flesh is weak. When elsewhere He promises that his “grace is sufficient,” He means that He’s got my back, that He can make up for all of the lapses that really matter—and then some.

That’s why I take particular solace from this verse of scripture: “The Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind” (D&C 64:34). Flawless execution would be an unreasonable standard. But willingness and effort? That I can do. It might not get me through those adagios that seem always to show up in the second movement, yet it fills me with enough hope to get me through this life and into the next.

But just in case: If you could wake me for the resurrection, I would really appreciate it.

PW

 

Illustration: Pat Bagley

Advertisements

How to Figure Out What to Do

Dear Will:

Of my grandfather, it was once said: “Lloyd Taggart is never in doubt. Often wrong, but never in doubt.” In all the ways that my grandfather was an exceptional man, this reputed certainty may have been what made him most exceptional. I believe that, as we look down the dimly-lit road of life, most of us are anything but certain. Especially in those moments when a choice seems most consequential, how many of us have cried out (to anyone that might listen): “Just tell me what I should do!”

Well, at the risk of over-promising, I think I can help you get an answer to that plea. But first: a story.

Saul’s Story
Saul was a hardcore Hebrew. “A Hebrew’s Hebrew,” he called himself (Philippians 3:5). “Zealous toward God,” he was a Pharisee of the first order (Acts 22:3). Which meant that he knew that he was right—pretty much all the time. He knew the scriptures cold, and he kept the law with a zealot’s precision. With a guy like Saul, there could be no wiggle room.

So when people started talking about Jesus as if he were God on earth—come back from the dead, if you could believe it—Saul would have been outraged. That was the kind of heresy the law wouldn’t tolerate. And the consequences of such blasphemy were spelled out clearly by the prophets of old.

Thus when Stephen came around spouting that Jesus nonsense, claiming even to have seen God with the crucified Jesus standing by his side, Saul was there for the stoning—consenting to his death, complicit with those who cast the stones (Acts 8:1).

Thereafter he went about Judea and Samaria, making havoc among the so-called Christians, entering into their houses, committing both men and women to prison for their heretical lies. He breathed out threatenings and slaughter toward Jesus’s disciples, forcing them to scatter throughout the land.

Like I said: He was hardcore—and the Christians were feeling the effects of his righteous indignation. No doubt empowered by his success, he didn’t wait around for his next assignment. That wasn’t Saul’s style. Instead he went personally to the High Priest and asked for authorization to travel to Damascus, to root out the Christians there and to haul them off to prison. Of course, the High Priest was quick to give his consent.

Thus with authorization in hand, Saul headed off, fired up and determined, certain that he was doing his duty as a faithful man of God. But somewhere along that road to Damascus, Saul was surrounded by a blinding light, so powerful (or so surprising) that it knocked him to the earth. More surprising still was what happened next: From the midst of that light, Saul heard a voice saying: “Saul. Saul! Why persecutest thou me?” Saul must have found the query perplexing. “Who art thou, Lord?” he wondered out loud. And then came the stupefying, incomprehensible reply: “I am Jesus” (Acts 9:1-5). 

Two Horrifying Discoveries
Let’s leave Saul there for a moment—on his knees, unable to see—and consider what must have been going through his head. “JESUS? Jesus of Nazareth? The convicted and executed heretic? Speaking somehow to me?”

In that instant, Saul must have made two horrifying discoveries: First, that not only had he been wrong, he had been 180-degrees wrong. It was hardly possible to be more wrong. What he had believed and proclaimed to be true was, in fact, false, and what he had criminalized as false had, in fact, been true all along.

Second, if that were true, then it meant that Saul, the righteous Pharisee of Tarsus, was perhaps the vilest of sinners. He had instigated the persecution of the faithful, thrown many in prison, had them put to death. It’s hard to imagine someone doing anything worse.

Saul was astonished. He knelt there, trembling at the realization of what he had just learned about both Jesus and himself. You’ll recall that Alma described what it might be like to be in Saul’s position—kneeling before God with a full realization of our sinfulness. He imagined that then “we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence” (Alma 12:14). It’s easy to imagine Saul feeling all of that and worse.

But in spite of his overwhelming shame—or perhaps because of it—Saul did something extraordinary—something that changed the course of Christianity forever. Stealing himself for a life of penitent service, he said simply: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6).

Eight Essential Words
If you get nothing else from this story, I want you to take away these eight essential words: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” They lie at the very heart of what Bruce R. McConkie has called the “single verse of scripture [which] has had a greater impact and a more reaching effect upon mankind than any other simple sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:246–47). He was referring, of course, to James 1:5-6: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. . . .”

Let me tell you how I interpret this scripture, and why I think Saul of Tarsus is its embodiment.

If Any of You Lack Wisdom . . .
James begins in verse five by describing our condition and, he hopes, our motivation when we turn to God for guidance. He says, “If any of you lack wisdom. . . .” Notice that he doesn’t say: “If any of you lack knowledge.”

It has been said that “wisdom is applied knowledge.” Put another way: Wisdom is knowledge converted into action. Thus the injunction by James comes with the implicit expectation that what we learn from prayer will require us to do something. This is what Elder David A. Bednar has called “the necessity to not only express but to do, the dual obligation to both plead and to perform, the requirement to communicate and to act” (“Ask in Faith,” Ensign, May 2008).

Put more simply: When we ask God for wisdom, we are, essentially, asking for something to do. And when we are truly determined to follow through, we are demonstrating the sort of faith James mentions later in verse 6.

So how do you ask for wisdom? You say: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

That Giveth To All Men Liberally . . .
To understand what comes next in this verse requires me to tell you what it was like to eat breakfast at my house when I was growing up. I am one of seven children born to my parents in a 10-year span. (Feel free to pause here to be horrified on my mother’s behalf.) That’s nine mouths around the breakfast table, which meant that if we had bacon, you were lucky to get a couple of slices at most.

But when we would drive to visit family in Wyoming, we would typically stop in Las Vegas for breakfast at the house of my Uncle Lloyd (named for his father, to whom I introduced you earlier). He always served his homemade sourdough pancakes—which we loathed—but along with the pancakes he would bring out a platter heaped with bacon. There must have been three pounds easy. For me and my siblings, it was a regular bacon-palooza.

I think that when James says that God “giveth to all men liberally,” he is saying that God gives out wisdom like Uncle Lloyd gave out bacon. In other words, when we ask, He will not be looking for excuses to withhold wisdom, but rather He will be looking for every opportunity to grant us the wisdom we desire.

In this, James echoes the words of the Sermon on the Mount:

 7 Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:
 8 For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.
 9 Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?
 10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?
 11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Acts 7:7-11)

Jesus is speaking very plainly here. “Ask and ye shall receive,” He says. But remember: What James says we should ask for is wisdom. When we ask for other things, perhaps God might be more restrained. But wisdom? He gives that out liberally.

And Upbraideth Not . . .
Which brings us to the next part of verse five. If you’re anything like the rest of us, you have, at best, a vague idea of what upbraid means. It is not, as you might expect, the world’s most elaborate comb-over. Upbraid means to find fault with or reproach severely. When your father sternly tells you that you’re not putting enough effort into your homework—and he takes away your cell phone until your grades improve—you know you’ve just been upbraided.

Why does James even bring this up here? Because he knows that many of us stop praying when we feel unworthy. He knows that feelings of inadequacy will often undermine our faith. When James says that God “upbraideth not,” he is speaking to all of us who have ever fallen into the trap of thinking like Laman and Lemuel. Remember that they didn’t even bother praying for wisdom, for they were convinced that “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:9). Either that or they knew in advance that they weren’t going to follow through.

In other words, if you yearn to know what God thinks you should do, worthiness is unlikely to be the reason you don’t get an answer. 

And It Shall Be Given Him
This is why the story of Saul is so effective in helping us understand the meaning of these verses in James. Saul had made horrible choices, had done unspeakable things to others. If anyone was eligible for some serious upbraiding, it was Saul. But did that prevent him from asking (or from getting an answer)? Not at all. Even in the face of unprecedented “unworthiness,” Saul went ahead and uttered the great, eight-word prayer for wisdom: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus is a reminder to all of us that if we really want wisdom from God, He will give it to us—generously—provided we ask in faith. And that’s no matter what regrettable choices may have compromised our past. Now perhaps you’re thinking: “It’s not that simple. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. Not for me anyway.”

Well, I can’t comment on your particular case, but what I can do is share these words from President Henry B. Eyring. Perhaps you’ll find, as I did, both comfort and insight in his description of how he prays for wisdom:

I’ve had experiences . . . of absolute assurance that I heard the voice of God. Absolute. It hasn’t happened very often. But I’ll tell you this. Every time it’s ever happened, of the times it’s happened, I was quiet inside. I really reached the point where I said, “I’ve got a choice to make here. I have to do something. I’m not wise enough. I give up. I’ll do whatever You want. Tell me.”

. . . The times I’ve really heard have been when I was really—I just had a feeling of complete quiet inside. And saying, “I give up. I just want what You want.”

And then I could hear it. And I realized that if I had been noisy in terms of my own thinking, then I couldn’t have. But yet there’s a kind of coming to a point where you say, “Father, Thy will be done. I’ll do what You want. I can’t go without You.” And then you get an answer. (“Face to Face with President Eyring and Elder Holland,” March 4, 2017)

Eight words: Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? Eight words: I give up. I’ll do whatever You want. Eight simple words.

Do you want someone to tell you what you should do? Pray those words and be open to whatever the answer might be. Pray those words with the determination to follow through. Pray those words—and truly mean it—and the promise from James will be fulfilled.

It was true for Saul. It has been true for me. And it will be true for you too.

PW

What Paradise Sounds Like

spring-park-sunlight-forest

Dear Will:

I believe that when called upon to sing in a large group of people most of us pretty much just mumble through so as not to draw attention to ourselves. Listen the next time a bunch of co-workers crowd into a conference room to sing “Happy Birthday,” for example. Without fail the version that warbles forth will be horrible, and that partly comes from the fact that most of us can’t sing a lick.

At least at church you’ve got the organ there to drown most of us out. But even so, generally speaking you can hardly hear the person singing next to you (we’re shy that way). As a consequence, I can blurt out my version of “Onward, Christian Soldiers” along with the rest of the troops and nary a footman will notice my contribution—nor I theirs. At least, that seems to be the plan.

Several weeks back, however, I was droning my way through the designated hymn when something stopped me short. From behind me I heard a truly beautiful sound, a woman whose angelic voice was so transcendent that I just had to stop to listen. She wasn’t being showy—she simply had been trained as most of us have not, and it was glorious. Suddenly, the rote incantation of Hymn No. Whatever was transformed into a moment of richness and worship, the Spirit speaking clearly to me through her.

That memory came back to me recently during my morning commute as I was listening to The Writer’s Almanac, a daily podcast hosted by Garrison Keillor of A Prairie Home Companion fame. Keillor shared a poem that captures what I felt that day in church; it expresses what I never could about the power and truth conveyed by beautiful, sacred music performed with love and faith:

Music
By Anne Porter
from Living Things. © Zoland Books, 2006.

When I was a child
I once sat sobbing on the floor
Beside my mother’s piano
As she played and sang
For there was in her singing
A shy yet solemn glory
My smallness could not hold

And when I was asked
Why I was crying
I had no words for it
I only shook my head
And went on crying

Why is it that music
At its most beautiful
Opens a wound in us
An ache a desolation
Deep as a homesickness
For some far-off
And half-forgotten country

I’ve never understood
Why this is so

But there’s an ancient legend
From the other side of the world
That gives away the secret
Of this mysterious sorrow

For centuries on centuries
We have been wandering
But we were made for Paradise
As deer for the forest

And when music comes to us
With its heavenly beauty
It brings us desolation
For when we hear it
We half remember
That lost native country

We dimly remember the fields
Their fragrant windswept clover
The birdsongs in the orchards
The wild white violets in the moss
By the transparent streams

And shining at the heart of it
Is the longed-for beauty
Of the One who waits for us
Who will always wait for us
In those radiant meadows

Yet also came to live with us
And wanders where we wander.

I can’t read that thoughtful poem without also recalling a familiar scripture, which summarizes how He feels about worshipful music: “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me” (D&C 25:12).

To which I say: Amen.

PW