Immeasurable Moments of Service

Some counsel that I gave my missionary daughter tonight that I thought might be of value to others.

Missionary service is too often evaluated solely by the “measurables.”  Missionaries report the number of hours spent proselytizing, hours spent in service, the number of discussions taught or the number of baptismal commitments made.  All of those things are centrally important to missionary work, and we measure them for good reasons.

But I think it is the little stuff that makes an even bigger difference.

Sure, the big stuff–the amazing conversions, facing down persecution, baptisms, families going to the temple–is what floats to the surface.  It is measurable, memorable, and is what everyone wants to hear about in your homecoming talk.    But the real value of a dedicated missionary–or any dedicated disciple–is found in the immeasurable moments of service that might never be recorded by anyone.  It’s what people will see and remember about you, even if they never talk to you.

It’s in the impression that you make in the few seconds before a door is slammed.

It’s the child who sees your service and thinks, “I want to be like that.”

It’s the young man who looks at you and realizes that you are the type of person he would strive to be worthy of, and so he changes his behavior so that he will be ready when someone like you comes along.

It’s the person in the corner of the chapel that is touched by your testimony and is strengthened enough to hold on to her own testimony for one more day.

It is in the balm of your smile that eases the heartache of a passer-by.

It’s the meaningless gesture that means the world to someone else.

In my family, all of this Mormonism stuff got started not with a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, but because my father remembered his dad saying in passing that he had met a couple of Mormons and liked them.  I won’t pretend that our family has changed the world, but I like to think that a fair amount of good has come as the result of that fleeting impression left by someone who had no idea what he was doing.

Obviously, it is hard  to prepare for such moments, but not impossible.  The trick is to ensure at the beginning of each day, we are prepared spiritually in such a way that we can continue adding up those millions of unmeasured moments.  Don’t worry about the “doing.”  Worry about the worthiness.  If that is in place, the moments will take care of themselves.

I firmly believe that the most frequent and important service we provide to others will be invisible to us.  It will come as a natural consequence of living quiet lives of devoted discipleship.  It will not be dramatic in the moment, but it will have immeasurable and eternal consequences.



Do Twitter #Prayers Help?

File this under the category of “Ricky Gervais is a twit.” A twittering twit of a tweeter, that is.

The comedic actor and outspoken atheist, is taking shots at the folks in Twitterworld who are adding “#PrayForOklahoma” to their Tweets (a word that no one can say without sounding either like a two-year old or Mel Blanc). According to Gervais, prayers are insufficient gestures, and people instead should “do something,” like donate to the Red Cross. (For consistency’s sake, he should say the “Red Perpendicular Intersection,” but atheists have enough problems without me picking on them.) The snarky little man is getting some publicity, so good for him.

I think, however, he raises an interesting point. Virtually every day I see someone expressing “prayers” on somebody’s behalf on Twitter or Facebook. (And I’m not talking about the sophomoric memes soliciting endorsements of “1 like = 1 prayer.” That just seems goofy to me. As if God is in Heaven fist-bumping Michael the Archangel and yelling “I got 400,000 “likes” today!). Much like the longstanding tradition of telling someone who has lost a friend or family member “My thoughts and prayers are with you,” and then never thinking or praying about that person afterward, do such expressions really “count” as prayers? More importantly, do they do any good?

First, I have to admit that I agree with Gervais on one thing: Prayer accompanied by action is much preferable to prayer alone. If the guy at the table next to me is choking on his Junior Bacon Cheeseburger, he is much better off with me getting out of my chair to give him the Heimlich maneuver (developed as a result of someone choking on sauerkraut and a bratwurst) as opposed to me falling to my knees and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. He’d be sure to give me some dirty looks when I got to the part about walking through the valley of the shadow of death.

That said, I believe in the power of prayer. More specifically, I believe that prayer standing alone, had real power, both in spiritual and practical terms.

From a spiritual perspective, I believe prayers are heard and answered. I don’t claim to know the process by which that happens. I don’t believe that God will torture us if we don’t pray (“Lord, please don’t let that fall on me…”). I don’t believe that God bargains over blessings (“I swear, Lord, if my wife doesn’t wake up when I come home, I’ll never drink again….”). But I do believe that a loving Father in Heaven hears the petitions of His children and will answer them when it is appropriate and in our best interest to do so. I have had too many experiences with prayer to deny that. And I believe that collective prayers have an effect as well. When I was recovering from my automobile accident last year, I felt the prayers offered on my behalf by hundreds of people, most of whom did not know me. I suspect that our healing would have been much more difficult without those prayers.

From a practical standpoint, I think that praying on someone’s behalf makes us more mindful of other people, more sensitive to their needs, and more willing to find ways to help. In short, I believe that when we pray for someone, we are more likely to become the source of the answered prayer. It is easy to forget the suffering of others. But when we hold that suffering in our hearts and heads long enough to make it the subject of prayer, our love towards those for whom we are praying increases, as does our willingness to extend meaningful service. As with many things, I believe that we are commanded to pray not because God likes hearing us beg, but because prayer does something positive for us and for those around us. God is, in my view, the perfect pragmatist.

Another value to expressions of prayers is the effect that such expressions have on the hearts of those for whom we pray. When I hear that people are praying for me, I know that they are pulling for me, too. It gives me strength and hope to know that I am not forgotten and that other people are invested in my well-being. When I heard that people across the country stopped and prayed for me and my daughters at the time of our accident, that meant the world to me. Those people were in a position where all they could do for me is pray. And they did all that they could do. That energized me, comforted me, and buoyed me up with hope.

I don’t think God has a Twitter account (although I’m dying to know who He would follow). But I do think that He knows our hearts, and that when we express a prayer on behalf of someone, He notices. I think that He hears our petitions. And I think that He inspires us with impressions as to how we can help. Prayer draws us closer not only to God, but to each other, and because of that, I think that every #prayer counts for something.

“Ten Billion Trillion Years” of Misery?

Trying in vain to find a radio station that music that doesn’t nauseate me, I stumbled across a religious sermon.  I sometimes stop on these stations, and not just to make fun of the epic Southern accents.  Occasionally, I pick up an insight that I think is helpful, or a metaphor that I want to plagiarise for a future lesson.

Other times, however, I find I’ve walked in on a theological nightmare.  This was one of those days.

The topic of the sermon was “Hell,” which I have found is a favorite topic of people who are convinced they aren’t going there.  As best I could discern in the few minutes I could stomach, the pastor’s purpose was to provide a graphic description of Hell and convince the listeners of its stark and frightening reality.

When I tuned in, he was focused on the eternal aspect of damnation.  He spoke of the “sinner” (which he defined later as anyone who did not accept Christ as their personal savior) suffering “unspeakable” pain, not only physical but emotional, and realizing after “ten billion trillion years that it is never going to get better.”  He then said that if we do not believe in such a reality, then we do not know Jesus Christ.

Christ the sadist?  No, I don’t know that guy.

Let’s think this through a bit.  First, let’s consider what we know about Christ.  Granted, the New Testament gives us more information about His teachings than His personality, but we get enough insight to have a working understanding of what He was like.  We know that He was loving, compassionate, and patient.  We know that He spent his entire ministry relieving suffering, whether through healing physical ailments or providing spiritual relief.  We know that His most violent act was tossing over a few tables and chasing money changers out of the temple (and who hasn’t wanted to turn over furniture at a bank at least once in their lives?).

We know that He refused to condemn an adulteress who had no idea who He was, much less having accepted Him as her personal Savior.

We know that at the moment of His greatest betrayal, He reached out and healed the severed ear of one of those arresting Him.  Someone who did not know Him, much less worship Him.

We know that while hanging on a cross in unspeakable agony, He spoke words of comfort to a thief.  Someone who did not know Him, much less worship Him.

We know that in his final moments in mortality, He asked for forgiveness of those who had crucified Him.  Many of whom did know Him, but rejected Him.

Let’s contrast that with the Jesus offered by the radio evangelist.  That Jesus considers the lowest sin in life the failure to accept him as a personal savior…even if you have never heard his name.  That Jesus marks as our crowning achievement the spoken acceptance of him as our savior…even if we do not act in accordance with his commandments.  He is on the supreme ego trip, because what is most important is what we think of him, not we do.

More important, that Jesus looks down at a child starving in Ethiopia in cold condemnation.  This child will have his mortal suffering compounded by a “billion trillion years” of sadistic torture.  This child will be treated on the same level with Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin…and Gandhi.  That Jesus decrees that the overwhelming majority of his creations will spend a few difficult decades on Earth, followed by an eternity of infinite agony.  And he is cool with it.

That Jesus doesn’t get his “h’s” capitalized on my blog.

The ministry of Christ was, at its sacred core, a ministry of love, compassion, and hope.  He instructed His disciples to judge no one, rather than to sit back and gleefully describe the future sufferings of their brothers and sisters.   Christ is the Creator, not a destroyer.  His is the Redeemer, not an executioner.  He is the embodiment of mercy, not a merciless God.

Do I believe that those who knowingly rebel against the commandments of God will have to endure some kind of consequence for their actions?  Absolutely.  Unfortunately, I am also one of those people, as every day I do things that are inconsistent with my professed discipleship.  Do I presume to know the nature of such consequences, or do I have the audacity to decide who will be punished and how?  Absolutely not.

But when I hear descriptions of a literal Hell in which all nonbelievers are subjected to perpetual torture, I have to respond that I know of no such place.  I do not believe that Dante’s imagination is doctrinal.  I believe that there will be consequences for what we do in life, but I also believe that our Judge is perfectly able to balance justice and mercy.  Only He is able to perfectly understand our hearts, minds and actions, and because He knows me perfectly, I have hope that He will treat me fairly when this life is over.

Without such hope, Christ would have little to offer us.