The Miracle Equation

I’ve always struggled with the question of “What can I feel good about?”  The scriptures consistently condemn pride as a grievous sin and extol humility as a key attribute of a Christlike character.  But I have been blessed to see miracles in my life and the lives of others, and I have been fortunate enough to play a small role in some of those miracles.  When that happens, am I offending the Lord by noticing or taking joy in whatever contribution I made?

The Book of Mormon provides a wonderfully clear answer to this question in the 26th chapter of Alma.  Ammon and his brothers have been reunited after their missionary journeys, and Ammon is talking about the success they have enjoyed.  He celebrates that they have “been made instruments in the hands of God” in bringing about the miraculous conversion of thousands of Lamanites. (V. 3).   As Ammon rejoices over their success, Aaron cautions him to tap the brakes, as he fears that Ammon’s joy is “carrying thee away to boasting.”  (V. 10).

Ammon’s response not only addresses whether it is acceptable to feel good about our accomplishments, but it also provides a formula for success:  A Miracle Equation.

Ammon makes clear that his celebration is limited with respect to his own efforts.  He is willing to take credit for two things only.  First, for “showing up.”  As he reminds his brethren, none of these miracles would have occurred if they had not “come up out of the land of Zarahemla.”  Simply put, Ammon gives himself props for being where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there.

The second thing Ammon is willing to take some credit for is working hard.  He and his brothers “did thrust in the sickle” and “reap with [their] might,” laboring “all the day long.”  (V. 5).  Ammon understood that hard work was a prerequisite for the specific miracles they had experienced, and he took  joy in the fact that he and his brethren rolled up their sleeves and did what was required.

So Ammon is comfortable taking some satisfaction for things that were within his control and agency.  But he also recognizes that without divine help, his individual efforts would fall far short of miraculous results.  He acknowledges:  “I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things.”  (V.12).  Ammon does not suggest that he was the difference-maker; rather, he knows that without the enabling power of God (what we might properly refer to as “grace”) there would have been no miracle.  But when God’s strength was added to Ammon’s mortal efforts, “Yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.”  (v. 12).

This then, is the Miracle Equation:

(Showing up + Hard work) + God’s strength and grace = Miracles.

Is it really that simple?  I think it is, especially because the “hard work” in the formula necessarily includes exercising faith and repenting so that we can be fit receptacles for the system upgrade that comes through the power of God.

This also allows us to feel good about fulfilling our part of the equation.  We all have our agency as to where we are going to be and what we are going to do.  If we make choices consistent with what is expected of a disciple of Christ, we should feel good about and rejoice in those good decisions.  Living the gospel isn’t always easy, and often there will be no one to pat us on the back but ourselves.  It is perfectly acceptable to look in the mirror and say, “Not bad, dude.”  Where we get into trouble is when we discount the divine and think that we are bringing about miracles from our own efforts.  Pride occurs only when we take God’s grace out of the equation.


Rethinking the “Golden Contact”

Prospectors in the middle of the 18th century were lured to California with enticing descriptions of gold nuggets as big as their fists lying open on the ground, ready to be picked up as easily as rocks or pine cones.  To their dismay, these prospectors learned that gold was much more difficult to come by, and had to be sifted carefully out of riverbeds or extracted from deep in the earth.  Simply put, there was a lot of dirt between them and the gold.

In the Church, we often hear stories of missionaries who run into “golden contacts.”  That phrase can mean several things, but often it is used synonymously with “dry Mormon.”  It refers to a person who already looks, talks, and acts like a member of the Church, but just hasn’t joined yet.  Missionaries pray for the opportunity to run into such contacts, as the path to baptism often is short and smooth.

But what really makes a contact “golden?”  My daughter, currently serving a full-time mission in Rome, Italy, recently described to me her efforts in teaching a homeless women who feels a strong attraction to the Church, but whose life is complicated by a number of personal issues.  Her life, as my daughter described it, is a “mess.”  Still, my daughter is thrilled by the opportunity to teach her and by the hope of what this woman might become.

I am grateful that my daughter is having this experience, because I think that it highlights what is wrong with our conception of the “golden contact.”  In terms of missionary work, should our success be measured by the number of baptisms, or by how far people are lifted as a result of their contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ?  I believe that the people in the deepest holes need the longest ladders, and the atonement of Christ is the longest ladder of all.

I suspect that the most golden of contacts are, like real gold, concealed from view until we have rolled up our sleeves and invested the time in digging, searching, and washing to separate them from the earth surrounding them.  When brought to the light, such people are seen for the treasures that they really are.  Sure, the “dry Mormons” need the gospel too, and when they join the Church it is cause for celebration.  But at the same time, such people might not appreciate fully what the gospel offers them, because they already are in pretty good shape.

Some of the best members of the Church that I know have been “unearthed” from the darker recesses of the ground.  I have been inspired by members who, when the gospel came into their lives, looked nothing like gold.  They stubbed out their marijuana joints as the missionaries came to the door.  The were addicted to alcohol or serious drugs.  They were working their way back into society following prison.  Their lives were upside-down because of a lapses in their moral judgment.

And then they were rescued.

A late patriarch of the stake in which I live used to say that the sweetest smell in a sacrament meeting was that of tobacco, because it meant that someone was there who needed to be.  I think there is a great deal of truth in that.  The ideal candidate for membership in the Church is anyone who needs the saving power of the atonement.  That only includes everyone.  The most golden of contacts might have sleeve tattoos or nose piercings or bear the distinctive odor of dope.  As disciples of Christ, we should appreciate the “easy” conversions, but treasure the opportunities to bring light to those sitting in the greatest darkness.

There is gold in everyone, if we are willing to dig enough to find it.

Living After the Manner of Happiness

After describing at length the curses that had come upon his brothers’ families because of their disobedience to God’s commandments, the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi contrasts the lives of his own people with one sentence: “And it came to pass that we lived after the manner of happiness.” (2 Ne. 5:27).

The longer I live, the more I come to realize how perfectly practical God’s commandments are. He does not issue directives to us out of whim or capriciousness. Instead, knowing the pathway to happiness, He provides us with detailed directions as to how to keep our wheels on the road. Contrary to the concept of God propounded by many, His intent is not that we deny ourselves of the good things of life and austerely worship Him. Yes, He expects obedience, but His commandments are designed to bring us joy.

Living “after the manner of happiness” means living in harmony with God, with our fellow man, and with our internal moral compass. It does not suggest a life of comfort, and we should not delude ourselves into believing that if we are faithful we will become immune from hardship. But when such trials inevitably come, our sufferings will not be compounded by feelings of guilt and anxiety, feeling that we have brought such difficulties upon ourselves through disobedience. Nor will we face such hardships alone, because our obedience to the laws of happiness will have led us to the companionship of loving family members and loyal friends who will come to our rescue. Most importantly, we will be blessed with the comforting presence of the Holy Ghost, who will sustain us, ease our pain, and enhance our capacity to endure.

Tears and trials are essential aspects of our earthly existence. We cannot escape them. But even though opposition and discomfort are a part of our Heavenly Father’s plan, He has given us instructions that will help to ensure that our tears are limited to those that are naturally incident to mortality, and that we do not have to learn through direct experience that “wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10).

So many of life’s hardships are self-inflicted. Lousy behavior leads to a lousy life. Living after the manner of happiness is a matter of deciding that we no longer wish to suffer the consequences of bad decisions. It means trusting that our loving Father in Heaven has our best interests in mind, and that He is pointing the way to a joyful and abundant life.

That path will have its rainy spots, uphill climbs, and mists of darkness. But we are promised that there will be more good days than bad, and that at the end of the journey our happiness will be magnified exponentially when, surrounded by our loved ones, we partake of the of the fruit of the tree of life, “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.” (1 Ne. 8:10).

What Does it Mean to “Pray Always?”

Much to the dismay of my family, all of whom are pretty well sick of Dad talking about “mindfulness,” I’m intrigued by Buddhism and probably read far too much about it for a guy who still has some hair and isn’t likely to wear orange robes any time soon.  That said, one of the reasons Buddhism attracts my attention is that I find it often sheds an interesting light on aspects of Christianity that I find difficult to understand.

As an example, one of the commandments given by the Lord is to “pray always.”  Sometimes this is expressed by the counsel to “always carry a prayer in your heart,” which never has helped me much (particularly as I suspect that someone just substituted “prayer” for “song”).  Given that I have a real difficulty doing any two things at once–with the exception of watching TV and eating ice cream–I’ve been at a loss to understand what is expected of me.  Am I supposed to always have a prayer running through the back of my head or, even worse, walk around mumbling a quiet prayer like some schizophrenic guy living under a bridge?  (No offense intended to people with mental disorders.  Most of my friends are crazy).

Part of the problem is how we think and talk about prayer.  As a missionary, I taught the “steps” of prayer to those investigating the Church.  Each of the four steps (addressing our Father in Heaven, thanking Him for our blessings, asking for what we need, and closing in the name of Jesus Christ) address only one side of what is supposed to be a communicative process between us and God.  It suggests that at “Amen,” we hop up from our knees and go to work, or bed, or continue on with whatever other activity is next.

Unfortunately, this exclusive focus on prayer as a petition (and the good manners of saying “thank you” before hitting your list of needs in earnest) reduces prayer to something akin to a letter to Santa:  We offer up our wish list, and then wait to see what shows up under the tree.  True prayer has to include listening, both prior to making our petitions (so we see more clearly what is in our best interest to seek) and following our petitions (so that we open ourselves to whatever inspiration or promptings come our way).  On balance, if one of those aspects of prayer is more important than the other, it has to be the listening.

I’m currently reading a book with the engaging title, “How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness,” by Jan Chozen Bays, M.D.  She deals directly with this question of what it means to live a life of “continuous prayer,” and she compares it to the practice of mindfulness (meditation) in Buddhism.  She observes:

True prayer is not petitioning, it is listening.  Deep listening.  When we listen deeply, we find that even the “sound” of our own thoughts is disruptive, even annoying.  Letting go of thoughts, we enter a more profound inner stillness and receptivity. If this open silence can be held at our core, as our core, then we are no longer confused by trying to sort out and choose among our myriad competing inner voices.  Our attention is no longer caught up in the emotional tangle within.  It is directed outward.  We are looking for the Divine in all appearances, listening to the Divine in all sounds, brushed by the Divine in all touches. . . . This is a life lived in faith, faith in the One Mind, a life of continuous prayer.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the incense:  I think there is some truth here.  If we think of the contemplative, listening aspect of prayer, then the notion of always having a prayer in our hearts makes considerably more sense and is much less likely to have people avoiding sitting next to us on the bus.  It would mean that we are living our lives in such a way that we are listening for God’s message for us in all aspects of our lives, rather than describing  (or complaining about) our lives to Him and telling Him what we think is important and what He needs to do about it.  Focusing on the listening part of prayer is a way of helping us to see things as He does, which so happens to be things as they really are.

Joseph Smith said that all truth belongs to Mormonism, and I take that observation seriously.  There is much that people of other faiths can teach us, not for the purpose of adopting what they believe, but so that we can have a different and perhaps deeper perspective of our own faith.  When it comes to praying “always,” I think that we could do worse than having a little Zen insight.  So put on your sandals, find yourself a lotus flower, and open your eyes to the Divine.  The Light of Christ lights all things, so we should be able to see that light everywhere.

Our Accuser and our Advocate

I recently came across a treasure at the bookstore. A massive coffee-table (in deference to the Word of Wisdom: Postum-table) treatment of the major stories of the Bible. It contains photographs, historical background, maps and other great information. Fortunately, it was not priced by the pound, so I could afford it.

While flipping through it in the store, I came across a small comment addressing the words “Satan” and “Devil.” The editors noted that both terms are derived from words that mean “adversary” or “accuser.” That brought me to a halt.

As an attorney, I’ve always paid particular attention to the legal analogies used by the Savior in teaching the gospel. He and others refer to His role as a mediator, someone who bridges the gap between God and His children, who have become adversaries as a result of disobedience. In my experience, a mediator is a third-party neutral, a person who represents the interests of neither party, but is there to restore peace where there was conflict. His effectiveness lies in his ability to stand outside the dispute, never taking sides.

Other times, the scriptures focus on Christ’s role as judge in the great and final judgment that will determine the direction, or lack thereof, of our eternal progression. You do not need a law degree to understand what a judge does. He hears the case against you, and decides (or supervises a jury as they decide) whether you are guilty or innocent. If you are guilty (and in the case of sin, who isn’t?), he pronounces the judgment against you. Like the mediator, the best judge is impartial, applying law to the facts and announcing the result. He is there not to help you, but to measure you.

But there is a third courtroom analogy used to describe the Savior. He uses it Himself in a revelation to Joseph Smith in which he declares: “Lift up your hearts and be glad, for I am in your midst, and am your advocate with the Father.” (D&C 29:5). The apostle John used the same example when he wrote that if we have sinned, we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2:1).

The role of the advocate is one I understand quite well, because I take it up on a daily basis. Your advocate is more than a cheerleader or a representative. An advocate takes up your position and argues it as his own. He takes up your cause, pleads your case, and seeks to sway the hearts and minds of the judge and jury on your behalf. In a criminal case, he is all that stands between you and punishment, and he is sworn to do so, even if he has doubts of your innocence.

It is a powerful image, made more powerful when we consider that Satan’s very title includes the role of “accuser.” Many Christian faiths put a heavy focus on the “just” or “angry” God who looks upon our sins, proclaims our guilt, and casts us into a fiery pit for eternity if we fail to do His will. He often sounds much more like an in-law than our own father.

I think this image of God mixes up the players. Our accuser in the final judgment will be Satan, our adversary. He will point to the moments in our lives in which he successfully steered us into dangerous and forbidden paths and joyfully decry our failings. He will contend that our deeds have made us his.

Once his case is made, then our Advocate arises. He “appear[s] in the presence of God for us.” (Heb. 9:24). If we have given our best, and still fallen short, He still will argue our case. However, the winning argument will have nothing to do with our own behavior, because the truth is that, after all, we did fail. We did not live up to the standard set by Christ himself. Instead, He will point to the wounds in His hands, feet and side, and will plead that–for His sake–we be forgiven. By His sufferings, he has justly claimed us, and he will claim His right to bring us home.

His will be the most compelling case, in fact the only argument. that can be made on our behalf.

And it will carry the day.



Adam, Where Art Thou?

Going through the temple recently, I was struck by something in the story of Adam and Eve that never had caught my attention before.  Following Eve’s partaking of the forbidden fruit, and Adam following suit shortly thereafter, both of them become aware of their nakedness and hide from the presence of the Lord.  God searches for them and calls out for Adam, asking “Where art thou?”  (Genesis 3:9).

With the understanding that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is symbolic of all of mankind’s separation from God as result of sin, what caught my attention was who moved out on whom.  In all of our lives there are times when we become acutely aware of the distance between us and the Lord, whether as a result of transgressing His laws or through the spiritual atrophy that results from being too apathetic in our devotion.  At such times it is easy to feel abandoned, to believe that God has withdrawn from us and left us alone as a punishment for our sins.  Too often we forget that the Lord hasn’t moved.  We have.

When Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they ran and hid.  But the Lord still sought them out, asking where they had gone.  I think that this same thing happens with each of us when we distance ourselves from deity through disobedience, doubt or even despair.  We find ourselves lost and alone, but that doesn’t mean that the Lord has given up the search.  No matter where we have hidden ourselves, He still calls out for us and provides a way home.  In the case of Adam and Eve, despite the fact that they were cast out of the Garden, they were not expelled from the love of God.  Through the ministration of angels and the promised atonement of Christ, the Lord followed them right out into the wilderness.

Recently I became personally aware of how the Lord continues to search for us long after anyone else would have given up the chase. I was assigned to home teach an elderly couple who had been faithful and devoted members of the Church for many years, but then due to a number of old and unresolved grievances withdrew themselves from active participation in the Church.  By the time I met them, they had not been to Church in years.

Not long after I was assigned to them, both my senior companion and I began to feel a pressing need to invite them back to Church.  The prompting would not go away, and so each month we extended invitations to them to come back.  Each was refused, sometimes with no small amount of irritation.  But with each declined invitation, the prompting to invite again was more powerful.  My companion and I both wondered aloud at why this seemed so urgent.

After several months of invitations, the husband became seriously ill, and his condition worsened with alarming speed.  Shortly thereafter, his family called us to the hospital to administer him one last time before he passed to the other side.  As we left his room and returned to the car, I could not get out of my mind how the Lord had not forgotten about this brother.  Few people in our ward would have known him if they had seen him, but the Shepherd remembered his face and He strove to the end to bring him back to the fold.

That impression has stayed with me and has provided me with considerable hope.  I understand better now than I used to that the Lord never throws in the towel on any of us.  Even to the last of our days He calls out to us:  “Where art thou?”  Like Adam, we need to own up to our mistakes and our fears and answer the voice in the Garden.