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?!

“The Gospel Gets Me What I Want”: Re-thinking Means-End Religion

In the richness of Mormon thought, you find an intricate array of different ideas and convictions.  Perhaps due to this wealth or “cornucopia” (N. Maxwell) of insights – we Latter-day Saints seem especially prone to certain kinds of language: “by applying what we read in our scriptures, multiple blessings can come”;  “if we really want to grow in happiness and knowledge, we need to make sure to pray”; “if you attend the temple, you will receive many blessings.”

For certain, there is truth in each of these statements.  They also, however, reflect an interesting pattern of how we talk about certain actions and our motivations for doing them.

In 1980, the famous psychotherapist Albert Ellis argued at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association that all devout religious beliefs and practices were harmful to mental health (The Case Against Religiosity).   One psychology researcher from Brigham Young University, Allen Bergin, stood up and challenged his claim. That debate sparked a serious of research studies throughout the next decade – culminating in this conclusion to the debate about whether devout religiosity helps or hurts mental health:  Well, it depends!

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, studies confirmed that the answer depends on what kind of religiosity we’re talking about.  As it turns out, those individuals who are internally or “intrinsically” motivated in their religious observance are more mentally healthy, on average, than other Americans. By contrast, those who are externally or “extrinsically” motivated – e.g., driven for the pursuit of some kind of reward – are less mentally healthy than other Americans, on average [see good summary here; simply put, “extrinsically motivated (persons) use (their) religion, whereas the intrinsically motivated live (their) religion” (Allport & Ross, 1967, p. 434)].

What is it about a ‘means-end’ mentality that seems to subvert religion’s potential and power?  Maybe it has something to do with a subtle focus on personal reward as a motivation for action. Maybe it has something to do with how easy it is to give up when these rewards aren’t present.  Or maybe it’s due to neglected internal dynamics that go hand-in-hand with absorption in what-we’re-going-to-get (e.g., happiness? more peace? rewards in heaven).

I’m certainly not knocking anyone for wondering how to find more peace, happiness or treasure in heaven. (There are plenty of things with more dangerous distraction than treasure in heaven!) But the question remains – why do inadvertent consequences seem to arise when these external blessings become our singular focus?

Is it possible that God is getting shoved out of the equation again?  Think about it: “by applying what we read in our scriptures, multiple blessings can come”;  “if we really want to grow in happiness and knowledge, we need to make sure to pray”; “if you attend the temple, you will receive many blessings.”

Where exactly is God in these statements?

In terms of sheer word-count? Nowhere.

Now, of course, technically we know that God is the one who brings us the blessings, right?…He’s also the owner of the temple, the maker of scripture and our dialogue partner in prayer.

So then why not mention that explicitly in our language? This is more than a question of semantics, since the foregoing research suggests that there are concrete consequences for different ways of approaching, experiencing (and languaging) religion.  Like the Mulekites who forgot God without scriptures, we may also forget God when we talk about His scriptures, His temples, and His prophets as parts of a large ‘blessing generator’ plan:  learn the algorithms, apply the lessons, and get the blessings!

All right – enough already…would you stop murmuring, Laman?  Do you have a better phraseology? And I thought this blog was about mindfulness, anyway?

Well, funny you should ask…because mindfulness does raise some profoundly intriguing possibilities. Most broadly, the eastern framework of contemplative traditions provides a striking alternative to the instrumental, techno-centric, means-end norms of Western culture. What happens when we start talking about prayer, scriptures, temples, prophets and the gospel in another framework and language?

I’d like to find out.  In future blog posts, I look forward to exploring a mindful approach to scriptures, to prayer and to the temple.  Is there a way to experience these in a more profoundly personal way – motivated by relationship, communion and love?  I think so.  But enough for now – I think I’ve murmured enough. (:

No More Awkward Missionary Moments

I used to think that if I cared about something (like the gospel) and really wanted others to appreciate it, I needed to focus my energies in always figuring out ways to bring it up more…and with just the right words and in just the right moments.  Always on the look-out for an ‘opening,’ life was a strategy game – played with the passenger next to me on an airplane flight, with friends or a neighbor down the street.

While leading to an occasional nice moment, one thing always troubled me:  nothing seemed to be sticking.  These hard-won moments of sharing were usually met by something supremely polite:  “Hmmm…how interesting.  Thanks for sharing that.  I appreciate it.  Have a great day.”

Little sense of relevance, or why it matters to them.  And no discernible impact.

When I arrived at the University of Illinois’ psychology doctoral program, one thing was clear – this kind of evangelical posturing would not be well received. So I swallowed hard – and started to listen.

For the next two years, I focused on trying to hear out more deeply the experiences and thoughts of my classmates and professors – feminist, gay, lesbian, progressive.  What followed in my life would change me in ways I wouldn’t have imagined…three examples:

(1) At lunch with a feminist classmate, I asked her to help me understand why she was pro-choice.  She went on to share surprising stories, feelings and experiences that had led to her conviction.  My own beliefs were unchanged – but something else had changed.  For the first time, I really had a sense of why she believed as she did.

(2) Walking across the campus with an atheist friend, I decided to ask her why she came to believe what she did.  For the next hour, I heard of her heart-wrenching abuse at the hands of religious elders as a child – and how it had impacted her feelings about religion.

(3) I was assigned as a home-teacher to a “post-Mormon” law student who refused to meet with any Mormon. With nothing to lose, I penned an e-mail to him one day – asking him if he’d be willing to have lunch and just share his story with me sometime.  I assured him that this wasn’t “step 2 in a 5 step process” – but instead reflected genuine interest in hearing him out.  He e-mailed back within a day:  “I believe what you told me…how does Monday work?”

It all started to click:  ‘hey, there’s another way of doing this whole conversation thing…a way not only less awkward – but also more enjoyable and powerful. The post-Mormon lunch meeting, for instance, turned into one of the most heart-felt explorations of the Spirit that I’ve ever had – and not because I was trying to find-a-way-to-make-sure-I-could-tell-this-guy-about-the-Spirit…quite the contrary.  I had given up any agenda – and just asked him to let me get to know him.  And yet in the natural course of that inquiry, things of the heart came up -from both of us…there was no way around it.

So there you have it:  No burden.  No pressure.  No fear …in exchange about the very things we’re supposedly not supposed to discuss in polite conversation!  When we left the meeting, this man and I had each been taught profoundly – by the experience of being together and by the insights and feelings it confirmed.

But is something like that really worth our time?  LDS scholar Robert Millet has been practicing deep, mutual listening with an evangelical pastor in Salt Lake City, Greg Johnson (see Youtube summary of their work).  Some of his colleagues at BYU have raised critiques of this kind of work – isn’t it somewhat of a waste of time, a distraction from what we should be doing?  Why would we spend time hearing others out so deeply when WE’RE the ones they should be listening to, right?

It’s this attitude, of course, that has contributed to “missionary work” feeling like a turn-off to innumerable neighbors and associates around us.  No one likes a ‘know-it-all’…even if that person happens to be right. And perhaps that’s one reason prophets are teaching us a better way.

  • “Get to know your neighbors. Learn about their families, their work, their views. Get together with them, if they are willing, and do so without being pushy and without any ulterior motives. Friendship should never be offered as a means to an end; it can and should be an end unto itself” (Elder Ballard, October 2001, The Doctrine of Inclusion).
  • “Perhaps even more important than speaking is listening….Be genuine. Reach out sincerely. Ask these friends what matters most to them. What do they cherish, and what do they hold dear? And then listen. If the setting is right you might ask what their fears are, what they yearn for” (Elder Holland, April 2001, Witnesses Unto Me).

I, for one, am sold: sold on the idea that I didn’t have to ‘sell’ ideas anymore…fallen hopelessly in love with a better way.  Over the last 5 years, I’ve enjoyed a hundred different dialogues – in small groups and one-on-one – with neighbors, random friends, and seat mates on the airplane.  I’ve published a research article and a book on the subject with Phil Neisser (State University of New York) – featured on NPR’s This American Life the week before the Obama-Romney vote.

What has all this experience taught me?  That I had it exactly upside down at the beginning:  that when I really want others to appreciate something that I care about, I don’t need to focus my energy in figuring out how to bring up just the right words in just the right moment. 

Gone is that burden.  And gone is the burden of finding exactly the ‘right person’ to share the gospel with.  The right person is the person I happen to be with in that moment:  democrat or republican?  religious or not?  gay or straight?

Doesn’t matter.  Because the good news of redemption is for everyone – especially those that seem particularly lost.  Everywhere I turn, there are precious individuals with rich lives, deep pain and almost without exception, a craving for someone else to understand what they are experiencing.  When you offer them that gift, miracles happen….with two people walking away with insights, uplift and “rejoicing together” (D&C 50:22).

And why is that?  I believe it’s because in that moment of mutual openness, God has reached down and taught both those people – and in ways no one else could.   This is the God, after all, who listens attentively to our words anytime we need.  And it is also this same God who sent His Son to experience all hell…so He could understand us perfectly….so He could save us.

As we seek to help God in His work of salvation, maybe we can take a cue from His own efforts with us:  start with listening.  Real listening…of hearts, experiences, dreams and fears.  Ask questions – and listen some more…pretty soon, there will be something you have to say.  You won’t be able to contain yourself…

The God I worship loves listening, loves questions, and loves dialogue.

The “Unsuspected Power” of the Present Moment

(By Jacob Hess)

Among the many facets of mindfulness is one that is equally simple and  difficult: living in the present moment. As his “working definition of mindfulness,” Jon Kabat-Zinn, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts, proposes “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, as if your life depended on it, non-judgmentally.”

As odd as that definition may sound, it is not that far removed from something members of the Church of Jesus Christ have been hearing recently, not from Buddhist neighbors, but from someone much closer to home:

* “This is the day of our opportunity. . . . There is no tomorrow to remember if we don’t do something today” (Monson, 2008a).
* “This is our one and only chance at mortal life—here and now. . . . Opportunities come, and then they are gone.” Continue reading