Tasting the Gospel Again for the ‘Very First Time’

Special thanks to my friend, M. Catherine Thomas, for inviting me to include this essay in the appendix of her new book, “The God Seed: Probing the Mystery of Spiritual Development.” Since her book, “Light in the Wilderness,” Cathy has been a pioneer in exploring the profound insights that arise in dialogue between mindfulness and Mormonism. I would encourage you to check out either book – you won’t be disappointed!

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Tasting the Gospel Again for the ‘Very First Time’

The Facebook note from my friend arrived with a jolt: “this is as good a time as any to let you know that my wife and I left the church a couple of years ago.”

This individual had left a deep impression on me during our college years at BYU, with his unique combination of love, playfulness and inquisitiveness. After seeing multiple loved ones step away from the Church over the last decade, I understood there were complex and unique reasons behind the decision. What I didn’t understand was why such sensitive and beautiful souls were walking away from something I loved – including some of my favorite people in the world.

In many cases these individuals had spent years in the Church – with a real familiarity of the scriptures and prolonged experience in various callings and in the temple itself. And yet over time, for different reasons, their experiences in the Church no longer seemed to move or inspire them anymore.

Why?

Attempts to understand why people leave the Church commonly highlight some kind of deficiency either within individuals or in the institution itself (the former typically voiced by active members – and the latter by former members).

And there we sometimes lock horns – caught in a paralysis of competing stories and experiences – with nothing less than salvation at stake! No wonder it can get a little intense.

What if there was a way to make sense of the experience of those struggling with the Church without having to place so much blame on presumed institutional or individual deficiencies? What if there was something else going on?

Fallen world, 21st century edition. And of course, we know very well that there’s a whole wide world of ‘other things’ going on – especially within a cultural atmosphere that continues to change at a dizzying pace.  Compared to just twenty years ago, human beings are eating different foods, ingesting more media, sleeping less, hurrying more, connecting less and isolating more. Additionally, in numerous ways, we have been socialized to be less patient, more driven and more focused on getting what we want.

Could any of this be influencing how we experience the message of Jesus and life as His disciples? In what ways might this surrounding cultural milieu be interacting with our own gospel practices – and perhaps changing our experience of them?

 The gospel as a to-do list. One thing everyone seems to agree on – both the critics and the believers – is the central place within the Church culture of “our lengthy gospel ‘to do’ list,'” as Elder Bednar recently called it.[1]

For believing members, this list is mentioned with a knowing grin – and sometimes, maybe a grimace. For those who leave, however, THE LIST sometimes comes up as part of justifying their decision to step away: ‘ it was just too much, and not worth it in the end..’  Different evaluations aside, one thing is clear:  THE LIST has come to be taken for granted by most people as an inevitable feature of the gospel and the life of a disciple.

In a recent conference address, President Uchtdorf recounted a fictional story of a Mormon couple who was asked by a curious man what the Church required of its members. This couple explained “about Church callings, home and visiting teaching, full-time missions, weekly family home evenings, temple work, welfare and humanitarian service and assignments to teach.”  “Also,” the couple continued, “every six months our Church members spend a weekend attending or watching 10 hours of general conference.”

“What about your weekly church services?” the individual asked – “How long are they?”

“Three hours, every Sunday!”

“Oh, my,” the man said.

The couple went on, “We haven’t even mentioned family history, youth camps, devotionals, scripture study, leadership training, youth activities, early-morning seminary, maintaining Church buildings, and of course there is the Lord’s law of health, the monthly fast to help the poor, and tithing.”

The man said, “Now I’m confused. Why would anyone want to join such a church?”

President Uchtdorf went on to describe the abiding joy that millions of Saints have found in yielding and consecrating their hearts to God through these kinds of activities. He then returned to the lingering question: “One might ask, if the gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?” [2]

In a world getting faster and more impatient, it’s hard not to see the THE LIST as posing some unique problems for any disciple.[3] Among other things, it can be easy to over-focus on our efforts alone, to feel burdened and when things get busy, to simply go through the motions. After all, the focus of a check-list is getting things done – with less attention to how that happens. Got your scriptures done?  How about your home-teaching? Did you say your prayers?

It’s possible, in other words, to do a lot of things – while still feeling a bit empty.

In addition to the many other reasons often involved in decisions to step away from the Church, could it also be that our (culturally accepted way of framing the gospel as) THE LIST of required to-do’s can inadvertently prompt overwhelm, fatigue and stress – even among the faithful?

If so, are there any other options besides simply walking away? What if the life of a disciple wasn’t experienced as a check-list of doings?  Might there be a way of questioning some of our inherited “language of practice”[4] – and considering, instead, a language that better fits what Christ once called the “abundant life”[5] of the disciple?

These kinds of questions may make some nervous. Yet in a Church that began with sincere questions, perhaps we ought to fear less as additional questions arise.  What’s more, no experience happens outside of the filters of language and interpretation – and that includes prayer, scriptures and temple worship. As Terryl Givens recently said:

Our ideas of what it means to be saints, to worship God, to live the life of discipleship are shaped by myriad factors conscious and unconscious. Forms of address, rhetorical habits, music, instrumentation, the language of prayer, modes of engaging the sacred, etiquette and interaction and how we express love, these and a million other constituents of the religious life are not eternal verities or immutable truths but shifting modes of pursuing and living truth.[6]

What would it look like to try on some fresh “rhetorical habits” or creative language for our spiritual practices – especially those that potentially defuse some of the stress many of us feel?[7] What would that look like anyway?

Meet the Buddhists. The first day I spent time with individuals from the contemplative traditions[8], my reaction was immediate and visceral: “wow – I can’t believe how calm and peaceful these people are.” Sporting bumper-stickers that said “what would Buddha do,” these people seemed to have found something that many of my friends and family back home still struggled to maintain: abiding calm and peace.

I’m not talking about the sitting-back-on-the-sofa version of calm. There was plenty of sitting, for sure, but in a particular way that helped them bring a unique quality of attention to bear in their lives. This sitting was also done in silence and stillness – without judgment and with a remarkable level of commitment and intention.  They called this sitting a “practice” – “mindful practice,” to be exact. It was something they prioritized every day – anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. And on a regular basis, they would “practice” for much longer periods – going stretches of a week or ten days “practicing” this combination of deliberate silence and stillness for days on end.

When these people spoke of “the practice,” they did so with a reverence and gratitude for what the stillness and silence had brought into their lives. Despite the seriousness of their commitment, there was a surprising absence of stress or worry about it the experience. There didn’t seem to be a lot of guilt involved – and virtually no pressure. That didn’t mean they always “felt” like practicing; but it did mean their relationship to this practice was personal and intimate – understood and accepted by the community as something they returned to over and over and over – out of intrinsic need.

If asked a question about any detail of “practice,” they relished a chance to explore with someone else the particulars of how you sit, why you sit, challenges that arise, etc. It was clear that practice was a lifetime craft to these people – one that was treasured for the rich insight and peace it bestowed on their lives. Rather than some kind of ritual they had to do every day, this practice felt entirely relevant in the way it prepared them to experience all the rest of their lives from a deeper, more authentic place. Indeed, they came to see their whole life as “practice” in a sense.[9]

Mindfully Mormon. I was so intrigued by what I saw that I decided to try out a bit more stillness and silence in my own life. On a regular basis, I began making time for mindful practice[10] adjoining my prayer and scriptures in the morning. Almost immediately, I began to sense and connect with a deeper reservoir of peace right in my own soul.

Sure enough, though, I found my mind starting to put sitting practice on THE LIST around which I had long been conditioned to frame my life. Rather than appreciate the practice for helping me move beyond the “doing mode of mind,”[11] it ironically began to feel like just ‘one more thing’ on my check-list.

Then something happened.  I was sitting in Church one day, listening to the speaker – and my mind wandered. As that happened, I thought about my sitting practice where I was learning to notice when my attention would wander and then  to gently escort my mind back to an anchor point – usually my breath.

Today, though, I guided my mind back to the speaker. And I listened some more…till my attention wandered again. Then it hit me:  Look at all of the opportunities there were to “practice” stillness, silence and attentiveness in the Church! From a weekly Sabbath break to daily pauses for personal and family worship to longer reprieves in the temple – the Lord had “built in” to His Kingdom plenty of “stopping time.” In each case, members of the Church have an opportunity to  let go of all the doing and be still – bringing focus back (and back again and again) to a single anchor point:  the speaker, the words on the page, the family member, the ordinance. The Lord Himself.

Over time, as we “practice” this in a particular way, there is a chance that other things begin to happen in our minds and hearts as well. Insight. Purification. Enlightenment.

As we allow the Almighty a little space to work in us, surprise!  He does.

None of this, however, is likely to happen if we’re grudgingly following THE LIST to “go to Church (again!)” or “get my scriptures done.” Why?  Because the “mind doesn’t like to be forced”[12] – and when we attempt it (or think that God requires as much), why would be surprised when nothing much comes of it?

If our hearts and minds are not available to God – they’re simply not available.

What would it mean to make the implicit mindfulness of the gospel more explicit – beginning to talk about Church activities not as ‘all these things to do’ – but instead, as sacred “practices” that we pursue “on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, as if our lives depend on them.”[13]In what ways might this change how we experience these gospel practices:

  • What would it feel like to kneel before God not simply to say more words – but also, to rest in His presence for a moment in stillness and silence?
  • What would it be like to sit down as a family not to “get a chapter done in the Book of Mormon” – but instead, to use the text as an anchor to focus and facilitate an ongoing dialogue about God’s hand in our lives?
  • What would it be like to go to the temple not to “do a session” – but instead to stop doing – and to enjoy being in the haven of God’s home for a couple of hours?

None of these depictions, of course, are foreign to how prayer, scriptures or the temple are taught by ancient or modern prophets. References to a spacious, broad, heart-full approach to all these practices are laced throughout scriptures and conference addresses.

Somewhere along the way, however, the larger American culture of rush and efficiency has persuaded us to adopt THE LIST as the organizing framework for these practices. And that list becomes our master – rather than the gentle Lord Himself.

Is it time to re-instate His authority and intimacy in our lives – recognizing that these gospel practices are ‘made for man – and not man for the practices.’  In what ways could we insist that these sacred practices become avenues to more deliberately direct our focus our lives towards the Lord Himself?

Among other things, maybe we would discover that the seeming “number” of these activities begins to dissolve before our very eyes. Just as we’ve been observing the “illusory boundary line” between missionary work and temple/family history work dissolving in recent years – what other dichotomous illusions might we give up?  Are scriptures and prayer really separate “tasks” – or could they, instead, be different aspects of personal worship and communing with God? What about sacrament meeting, family prayer and study and general conference? Rather than ‘all these different meetings’ – what if we saw them as essentially the same thing:  worshipping and communing with God in different ways together? And instead of seeing home/visiting teaching, callings, missions, temple work, welfare service as ‘all these different things we need to do,’ what if we insisted on seeing them, once again, as essentially the same thing: diverse ways of ministering together as part of a loving community?

You get the picture. Maybe it’s time to retire THE LIST – hanging it in the rafters of the stadium and begin instead to relish the hidden unity of life as a disciple. All sacred practices thus become simplified to one: Embracing His will. Or in other words – loving Him and loving others. To paraphrase Jesus, ‘that’s pretty much the whole point. All the other details and practices of the gospel are just reflections of that.’[14] Does this sound like something to guilt ourselves about – or perhaps a life-long craft to treasure and enjoy?

What could this shift mean for current members of the Church – especially those who are getting a little tired? How about those who have stepped away?    

In the very first mindfulness practice of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, we invite participants to spend 10 minutes eating a raisin. After taking some time to explore the outside features, the heft, shape, color and smell, they slowly bring the raisin to the mouth and let it sit on the tongue before taking a bite.

At the end of the raisin exercise, without fail someone says, “that was the best raisin I’ve ever tasted! I never would have expected that…”

We then ask the class, “What if we could bring the same quality of attention to all of our lives?” If the experience of eating a raisin can be transformed by a new quality of attention, what could happen with our experience of marriage, the Church or our God?

Hastening the work by slowing down. I, for one, want to find out. Getting to that point is not a simple mental trick, by the way.  Instead, like playing the piano and learning a sport, it takes consistent practice – as Cathy has elaborated well in this lovely book you’ve been reading. In fact, from a mindfulness perspective, without setting aside time for “formal practice,” it is less likely that all the other informal applications discussed above would ever happen.[15]

If your experience is anything like my own, making time for this practice of silence and stillness will not be easy – not in the world we all live in. That’s one reason Jon Kabat-Zinn calls mindfulness practice the “hardest work in the world.”[16]

Make no mistake, however: it is worth it.  It is worth every minute you give to the practice. Take it from C.S. Lewis, who advocates a similar approach after suggesting that “The real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it”:

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning.  All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals.  And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.  And so on, all day.  Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind. We can only do it for moments at first.  But from those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system:  because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.”[17]

As we make time for God to reach us in our stillness and silence, the gospel might just come to feel new – including to those who have stepped away. Like the Corn Flakes commercial of years ago, we might just “taste it again for the very first time.” And perhaps this time, it will actually taste Mmmm good!

[1] David A. Bednar, “Missionary work, family history work and temple work,” Ensign (2014, October), 33.

[2] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, join with us,” Ensign (2013, October).

[3] Maybe in an earlier, more tranquil time – without internet, cell phones, and the adoration of efficiency – framing the gospel as a set of doings was easier to process. The problems highlighted here (and addressed by mindfulness) do seem uniquely pressing in the current age.

[4] There is more and more attention to “language of practice” in a variety of contexts and fields – especially as a way to improve the “fit” between what we actually do and how we talk about it. See Hess, J. Z. (2005). Scientists in the swamp: Narrowing the language-practice gap in community psychology. Special issue “Community Psychology and Science,” American Journal of Community Psychology. 35(3-4), 239-252.

[5] John 10:10

[6] Terryl Givens, “The Worldwide Church: The Global Reach of Mormonism,” BYU Church History Symposium (2014). Retrieved September 12, 2014 from: https://rsc.byu.edu/symposia/churchhistory/2014

[7] For anyone following the prophets and auxiliary leaders, they will know this is something they are already consistently doing – with new insights and ways to approach and think about spiritual practice emerging in virtually any talk.

[8] My own experiences in the contemplative traditions come primarily from conferences and trainings as a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction teacher – sponsored by the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts.

[9] As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Ultimately, the practice of mindfulness becomes nothing less than the practice of life itself.” In Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990).

[10] I prefer this term due to the many stereotypes evoked by “meditation.”  Unlike practices that aim to “clear the mind” or “shut out thoughts,” the type of Vipassana or insight meditation I practice is focused not on getting to a new state – but instead, on being more present to where and how we already are.

[11] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990).

[12] Mark Williams and colleagues, The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness (New York:  The Guilford Press, 2007).

[13] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990).

[14] Matthew 22:40

[15] The patterns in our body and mind have a momentum that is remarkably intense – which explains why they typically cannot be overcome through sheer will-power or one dramatic insight. As detailed in Kabat-Zinn’s book referenced above, consistent practice over time can begin to change the “stuckness” of the body’s common reactivity and hyper-arousal, to the point that deep calm can begin to infuse all of our life experiences.

[16] Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc, 1990), xxxvii.

[17] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (London: Harper Collins, 1952/2001), 198-199.

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