The Good News of THIS Moment?

Relax“This moment is new and fresh – different than all other moments that have ever come before…” Jon Kabat-Zinn 

We often speak approvingly in the Church of those individuals who are “unwavering,” “steadfast,” and “unflagging”…holding up these people who don’t appear to show weariness of doing good, who don’t shrink, and don’t seem to ever fall. These are the people we often speak of wanting to be like!

And no wonder – wouldn’t it be great to be so steady, so constant – and trustworthy?  That’s certainly a yearning of my own heart.

But what about times when we’re not this way?  What can be said of those unfortunate moments (all over the place) where there is wavering, stumbling and falling?

The Best News.  My own experience is that those are the very moments where the ‘good news’ really comes on line as something that matters.

As Paul wrote, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us….Just at the right time, when we were yet without strength (utterly helpless, powerless, weak), Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:8/ 5:6)

Yet again, when we Mormons talk about the gospel and its “good news,”  we sometimes tend to weave together long answers that reference pre-mortality, receiving bodies, falling, atonement, resurrection, eternal families, celestial glory, etc.

In receipt of the overflowing cornucopia of gospel truth, can you blame us for sometimes getting lost in the weeds?

I suppose it doesn’t matter much if we get a little lost in the weeds on a pleasure hike.  But for someone truly lost to their core, hurting and desperate – a little weed wandering might just be a lethal moment…

In my own periods of profound lost-ness, where I felt most vulnerable, this was precisely the moment when His reach felt most tangible.

Especially when I cried out, “This is not who I am…this is not who I want to be…I want to be yours!” 

In those moments, as I reached for Him, I always felt His reach back at me.  In that at-onement or “embrace,” arises a newness and freshness unlike any other – and beyond any joy of my life.

No therapy, no drug, no relationship, no movie, no accomplishment could bring the same relief, deliverance, remission:

New, fresh.  In this moment.

Isn’t that the truly good news?  That tomorrow doesn’t have to be like today – that this moment doesn’t have to be like the last one?

That has now become my favorite way to describe THE good newsSimply put, this can be a new moment.    

 As we say in the mindfulness of breathing practice in our Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) classes, “each in-breath, a new beginning…each out-breath, a complete letting go.”

Good news…moment by moment.  While those extraordinary moments of communion have a particular brilliance to them, mindfulness practice begins to show anyone who gives themselves to it something equally exciting:  that virtually every moment can have a similar kind of brilliance.

In our MBSR class, we begin to deliberately venture in that direction by eating a single raisin.  Yuck.  A raisin?

Yes.  And on purpose!  (Chocolate doesn’t work quite so well).  You can try the exercise here if you’d like.

Five minutes into the raisin, wild new realizations, sensations and observations have arisen – about something that, till that moment, had merited no particular attention.

The experience of fully saturating your attention in that moment, changes that moment.  Except for the hard-core raisin haters, people leave sensing, “wow – a raisin has never tasted so good.”

If that’s true about a gnarly raisin moment – what about all the other moments of our day?

No matter what is happening – no matter anything else around you – just stop. Breathe.  And see if you can feel the newness.As one of my teachers, Lynn Koerbel, puts it, “you have never breathed this breath before…”

Jesus and This Moment.  The connection between the “new moment” of contemplative and Christian traditions was galvanized for me one day when coming across a clip from the latest young adult Christian “Passion conference” in Houston.

Although I don’t typically resonate with everything that happens in these kinds of conferences, these excerpts of a brief sermonette by an African American woman spoke to me deeply.

Trust me – it’s worth a listen!  Click here – watching starting at :45 till 2:00.  Then again, from 3:49 till approximately 6:40.  The transcription of these excerpts follow:

Today is a new day. A fresh start…a blank canvass….

Yesterday is gone.  What’s done is done.  But today, my friends, is something new!

You…can begin again.  Right here.  Right now:  God can make all things new. That’s not hype – nor a trite promise.

Because in this place, we place zero confidence in human flesh.  Yet, we hold forth Jesus.  And in his name we can begin again…

Do not dwell on the past.  See I am doing a new thing. 

Don’t look back.  Fix…your gaze…on Jesus.  He will lead us on from here.

It’s not important where you come from. What matters is that Jesus will meet you here and you can begin again.

This is what the prophet says – God’s messenger to his people.  Don’t be afraid. I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name.  You are mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you.  When you’re in rough waters, you won’t go down…because I AM GOD – your personal God.  The Holy of Israel.  Your Savior.  So don’t be afraid.  I am with you.

This is what God says – the God who builds a road right through the ocean, who carves a path through pounding waves…forget about what’s happened.  Don’t keep going over old history. Be alert.  Be present.  I’m about to do something brand new.  It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?!  There it is…I’m making a road through the desert.  Rivers through the badlands.  Maybe you’ve been in the lost lands – the dried up lands.

Good news:  God knows your name.  He knows the very number of the seat you’re sitting in, or the place you’re standing.  Nothing is hidden from him…yet he is great enough and kind enough to erase your sin.  He is strong enough to cause dried up hearts to beat again.  There is no stain or blight, no shame or scar, no mess or guilt that Jesus cannot repair.  There is no sin that has not been covered at the cross. For God has said, “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and remembers your sin no more.”  And the prophets spoke, “though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow!”…Welcome to a new day. Welcome to a fresh start!

What was it like listening to that for you?  I wish I could hear you speak…For me, it said something powerful:  This is a new moment.  It really is!

And more than that:  this moment is not ‘new’ – just because….The freshness of this new moment is not just a fact of the universe.  It is possible because of Christ.

If not for what He did, each new moment would be constrained and enslaved by what happened before it (this is how behavioral psychology often talks, incidentally – with our experiences dictated by our past). As Amulek puts it:

“For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9)

According to this teaching (and my experience), it is only because of Christ that we can move – fresh – into a wholly new, completely distinct moment.  Amulek elaborates on exactly this point – in perhaps the most hopeful verse in all of scripture:

“Yea, I would that ye would come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold, now is the time and the day of your salvation; and therefore, if ye will repent and harden not your hearts, immediately shall the great plan of redemption be brought about unto you. For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34: 31)

Notice – he could have said, “come forth and harden not your hearts any longer; for behold this month (or this year, or this week) is the time of your salvation…” He didn’t!  He said NOW.

No matter what has come before, no matter how awful or confused or lost we might feel now…the good news is this:  this can be a new moment. 

Can I hear a Hallelujah, anyone?!

Satan’s Plan of Salvation

One of the unique teachings of the Church of Jesus Chris is the notion of a meaningful existence that took place before we came to this earth – a time of growth, a time of learning…and a time of war.

The “war in heaven” described in the Book of Revelation (12:7) was ultimately a clash of ideas.  The children of God had “grown up” as much as they could living with their Heavenly Parents – and like the 20-something playing video games in the basement, it was time to learn what could only be learned after “moving out” and leaving home.

As we did so, we surely anticipated this life would be challenging – and not as comfortable as “Home.”   I believe that we foresaw some of the agony and despair we would have to face – especially in our own crushing falls and personal bondages. The dangers we would be facing were real – and we knew it.

John describes a pre-mortal vision of a search conducted throughout heaven for someone capable of intervening to open the way for God’s children (metaphorically described as “loosing” a sealed book). During a moment when no one had yet been found, John describes himself weeping “much.”  The prospect of moving forward without help was too much.

God, however, was not worried – all along working to ensure that a Savior would be provided – a literal Super-hero of sorts to help us endure and overcome in this life- so as to return Home.  To fill that role, Father had someone in mind.

Someone else also had that role in mind – proposing himself as the much-anticipated Savior.  In the way we often tell the story, however, Lucifer stepped up in the grand Council of God’s children and proposed another plan – an alternative scheme that would (a) take away human agency and enslave the children of God and (b) ultimately bring him all the glory and power.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, “if that’s how Satan’s plan was described, how in the world did he convince a ‘third of the hosts of heaven‘ to follow him?”:  “Hey – come join the cause!  Lose your freedom – enter slavery and give all your power to Lucifer!”

It doesn’t make sense. And, of course, that’s not how Lucifer described his ideas – since that wouldn’t have swayed anyone. So how exactly did this pre-mortal politician make his proposal?  What exactly did he say to convince so many to follow him?

I obviously do not know the answer to this question – but I can’t resist my own studied guess.  My wife and I just finished an impressive, fictionalized account of the premortal life called “the Brothers,” written by author Chris Stewart.  The most striking scene of the book for me is a grand political rally Satan holds to animate and unite his followers. With music blaring and flags flying, Lucifer stirs up the crowd into a fever-pitched excitement – condemning the “power-hungry” status quo leaders and offering a very different kind of path to “salvation.”

Borrowing that back-drop, please indulge my own rendition of his “stump speech”:

“Brothers and Sisters…I salute you. I’m so touched.  I really am.  Look at you!  The beauty.  The love.  The sweetness.  It means so much to me…it really does.

None of us want to be here today – standing where we are.  None of us would have wanted things to happen the way they have – given how much we loved Father and all our family.

No – this is a dark day.  A sad day.  But it’s also a hopeful day – one full of new possibilities.

Throwing off the chains that bind the minds and hearts of the rest of our brothers and sisters, we stand here today to embark on a new path, as a new people.  This takes guts.  And bravery – indeed, true courage.

You saw how it happened.  You saw how carefully and lovingly I presented these ideas to the Council – a path of salvation with much less pain and so much more help.  A pathway of salvation for EVERYONE – rather than just for those select few who God happens to love. For all of your souls, you saw how I plead and even offered my own life as a show of my passion for the truth.

And yet how did they respond? Not only did they reject  us – they tried to shut down the discussion and threatened to kick us out!! Can you say, “power-trip?” [Shouts, laughter]

Since then, what has happened, dear brothers and sisters?  Intimidation. Attempts to silence us.  Smear campaigns.  Chipping away our freedom of speech – and putting into question the preservation of the very life we love so much.

And so we stand here today for a reason, Brothers and Sisters.  A solemn and awful reality draws us together – with hearts pained at what we MUST do.

When people are pushed too far, there is only one recourse:  rebellion.

They will regret their rejection.  They will regret not joining us – as we move forward in a Plan for All.  In one way or another, I tell you we WILL HAVE our mortal bodies and the freedoms we deserve. And best of all, I can still redeem you.

As long as you believe in me and keep my commandments, I can save you all.  You need to trust me in that.  You’ve followed me this far – and I need you to keep the faith.

“But wait,” some have asked – “the Enemy claims he will save people as well.”  Do you know what that means, my people?  It means people will have to feel pain and suffer.  It means they will be asked to face awful, excruciating  experiences – and then somehow, the thinking goes – through this suffering, ‘one day, eventually – after they’ve learned things and made choices’ yada, yada – Jehovah will step in and save the day.  Sound good to you?  “Sit there and suffer for awhile and then I’ll give you relief.” How brutish – and how uncaring…

I on the other hand – the rightful and true Savior – promise to provide immediate relief.  While Jehovah sits by the side yawning, I’ll be right there showing you and telling you what to do.  I won’t let you wonder or be uncertain or have to think for yourselves. And as soon as you feel any pain or discomfort, I will give you relief – in a thousand flavors.  Drink something.  Eat something.  Watch something.  Make your body do something.  In ALL the glorious ways your bodies are able, I will give you sweet relief and freedom from the pain you will face.

How does this sound?  Let me say again:  I am the one willing to save you – from incredible pain! Who wants to suffer??  [No!!]

Me too.  I’m the one who actually CARES about you – and how much you would be hurting. And it doesn’t stop there.  Who wants to avoid all the things that bring pleasure?  [No!!]

I’m going to MAXIMIZE your pleasure – in ways that are beyond your wildest fantasies. In every way you can imagine.  While Father worries and frets about keeping you away from the many pleasures of life…not me.  All your wildest dreams will come true. How does that sound? [Huge crazy cheering].

Yes – I thought you’d feel that way.  Me too.  More pain.  Less pleasure.  More help. Need I say more?”

That probably does the trick.  In fact, whatever was exactly said, it apparently did the trick for millions and millions of God’s children who chose to ultimately turn away from God’s plan (and embrace another).  Rather than seduced by “slavery” and “losing agency,” my point here is that surely they were duped by something else – another kind of “salvation” from pain and another plausible gateway towards pleasure, power and “freedom.”

And with the same seductive campaign, Satan continues to broadcast his grand “plan of salvation” to our hearts today:  “Feel some pain?  NO NEED.  I’ve got something that will make that go away NOW.  No need to even think about it – or feel it.  Just do this.  Or take this.  Or experience this.  And you will feel relief.”

And we buy it!  Obsessed with whatever we can do to feel good now or to avoid pain now – we are duped to pour all our energy into that which can give us immediate, current pleasure – or at least, temporary numbing of our pain.  Then and now, this offer of  “salvation” from our pain is so hard to turn down.

What Satan didn’t (and doesn’t) tell us, of course, is the full list of side-effects…especially long-term.  As it turns out, the plan presented as “maximizing our pleasure” – doesn’t feel all that good later on. [It’s especially interesting, in this context, that two of the main “causes of suffering” the Buddha taught were avoiding/pushing away what we don’t want – and grasping/craving what we don’t have…two practices forming the HEART of what I’m calling here, “Satan’s plan of salvation”].

And what about that “other plan” – the one that asks us to (mindfully) accept a need for painful experiences and going through struggles – as well as focusing on something besides maximizing our pain?

Well, it turns out that this plan brings MORE pleasure than we can imagine (yes, eventually) – and more immediately, an underlying peace of life for those who embrace it fully.  Like eating our vegetables and exercising, practices that can feel challenging, “boring” and even unpleasant in the moment (such as prayer, worship, service) – ultimately lead us to feel pretty good over time.  As we yield our hearts completely to Them, Christ and the Father work in us to bring to pass a kind of joy and peace indescribable:  a different kind of payoff – and one that cannot be matched.

Bottom line:  While the fight between “slavery and freedom” is real, at least rhetorically speaking, what we’re looking at (now and then) are competing plans of salvation – two ways of finding relief, two ways of attempting to escape the heartbreak of the world and two pathways towards “our wildest dreams.”  Behind these pathways, are two different individuals still offering to be our Savior.  And like the Father Himself, we face the same question in our lives today:  Who will we choose?

The Gospel is not a Fancy Algorithm

The message of the gospel of Jesus is, in its essence, supremely simple.  At the same time, there is a nuance and richness to a fuller understanding that can come to feel fairly complex.  Sometimes, in our attempts to help others navigate and make sense of this larger, deeper picture, we end up using short-hand heuristics and catchy equations.  For instance:

  • Living the Word of Wisdom = Health
  • Obeying Exactly = Happiness
  • Paying Tithing = Financial Security

By drawing mathematical connections between something we do and something we get, these Sunday School algorithms aim, with good intention, at reinforcing motivation towards right conduct.  And sometimes they do just that.

Other times, however, they don’t.

It starts perhaps, when someone exerts personal effort into doing something right, while keeping their eye steadfastly on the promised output.  If this blessed output always followed the right action, of course, then there may be no problem at all.

But it doesn’t.  It simply doesn’t…at least not always.  Everyone can point to a different example…The man who takes good care of his body and is crippled with cancer…The poor widow paying her last money as tithing, without food showing up on her doorstep.  The neighbor woman who earnestly follows Jesus…and lives with chronic depression.

Needless to say, the full complexities of life often fail to fit inside these tidy, two-variable equations.  In the absence of regular, substantial fudging, the algorithms simply don’t map onto reality very well–at least not for many of us.

And that includes Jesus.  Unlike virtually every other individual who ever lived, Jesus never deviated from obeying the Father and “keeping his commandments” (2 Nephi 31:7).  If happiness were proportional to our right actions, then you might expect Jesus would have lived the happiest life ever.  But as all Christians know, the exact opposite happened.  In the last week of His life, Jesus experienced the deepest, most intense and infinitely excruciating pain ever known to man or God.  And while he surely also experienced happiness throughout his life, Isaiah described him generally as a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Other translations convey a “man of suffering” or a “man of pain” who is “familiar with suffering” and “acquainted with deepest grief,” “with disease” and “with sickness” [see World English Bible; Young’s Literal Translation; New Living Translation (2007) New International Version (1984) respectively]

This is not to deny that Christ surely also experienced happiness–especially now.  But it is to say that the algorithms don’t quite capture His Jesus’ mortal experience.  So what about the rest of us?  Aren’t there many people or situations where these equations do apply?  Well, sure…you bet.

Some have misinterpreted this essay as a critique  on the idea that obedience leads to blessings or that God keeps His promises.  Please do not misunderstand.  The issue here is not whether God keeps His promises (I also believe this!)–but rather, how exactly do we language and describe this wonderful fact.   Distilled algorithms are surely only one, unique way of attempting to do so that I’m arguing have some fundamental problems.

To wit, I would propose there is one bigger problem with leaning on bare mathematical models in our teaching of the gospel of Christ–a problem that spans all situations.  Namely, no matter how well or for how many these equations seem to apply, they inevitably create an expectation that what we do is the primary reason we end up receiving health, happiness and blessings overall.  Is that what we want to convey in our teaching?

To be sure, personal effort, desire and passion are wonderful parts of the gospel picture—and deserve to be acknowledged and appreciated.  The problem arises when a sense of automatic correlation develops between our action and a particular outcome:  ‘Going on a mission means you will feel the greatest high of your life…and if you follow the plan of happiness, you will be happy now!’

In each case, our attention is directed towards our own action, and our own obedience…as the primary source of happiness, health and prosperity:  ‘If I just do all these things–with exactness–everything else will turn out.  I can count on that, right?’

If we take away the mentions of God, it all starts to sound a bit like positive psychology sermons or Zig Zigler motivational speeches.  And while God can still remain relevant when we use gospel equations, almost inevitably, they leave Him as more of a middle man–responsible for making sure we get what we want (as long as we do just what He asks).  He becomes the vehicle for our dreams—effectively functioning as a sort of a vending machine:  give him what He wants, and He’ll give us what we want.

And on the opposite end, what about those who aren’t obeying and following Him right now?  Well, it only makes sense from this vantage point that they don’t get the blessings, right?  ‘Sorry, man–you’re on your own.’

And of course, this isn’t His message: “When Jesus heard it, He saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17).

What the algorithms miss is neither more nor less than the heart of the gospel—namely, that Jesus made a way possible for people who didn’t do everything right…people who struggled…even for a few who screwed up big time:  “For when we were yet without strength” Paul said, “in due time Christ died for the ungodly…while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 6, 8)

‘But what about all my good works…what about my obedience…isn’t that how I’m going to be happy?’

No.  It’s really not.  Let’s stop pretending here:  “And were it not for the interposition of their all-wise Creator,” as Mosiah once emphasized, “they must unavoidably remain in bondage until now” (Mosiah 29:19).  “I say unto you,” Benjamin underscored, “that if ye should serve him who has created you….if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants” (Mosiah 2:21).

The good news of Jesus Christ is that He actually came to save us….to save us because on our own, we simply could not do it: “There must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish” said Amulek.  “Yeah, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made” (Alma 34:9)

The good news, then, is that in spite of our own weakness, personal failings and complete incapacity…He can still pull something off!  Like a phenomenal quarterback who miraculously helps his football team come back from a hopeless deficit, Christ comes through for everyone playing on his team: “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:13).

[Even that verse, ironically, often gets condensed in our teaching–to say something like simply:  “BE OF GOOD CHEER!”  That little part about him ‘Jesus overcoming the world?’  We can get into it if we need…but in the meanwhile, just remember to be of good cheer!]

Like the algorithms described earlier, these kind of bumper-sticker statements reflect the same fatal flaw:  an absence of God Himself.  While He is acknowledged at some point along the way (“of course, Jesus is the best example of this”…”Jesus makes this possible”), that is often a side-note to a larger discussion focused on how this action relates to this outcome.  In the meanwhile, God is a bystander, a delivery guy, a cheer-leader.

But not a Savior.

This gospel message is not a story problem, and Jesus is no bystander.  Instead, He is the reason for health, the explanation for happiness, and the source of security:  The rock, the light, the life, the way, the truth, the power, the hope of the world.  If that’s true, then let’s talk about Him that way!