Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Plan of Salvation remix....

This past week, a friend of mine sent me a letter asking some questions and expressing some doubts about God.  She was hoping I could offer some answers that would address some of those questions.  I wrote this to her, but I think the questions she asked are the same ones everybody asks.  She gave me permission to share it with the public, so here ya go.  

Ok. First things first. I apologize for the length. lol

Secondly, I will not tell you what to do.  So no, I won't tell you to do things you're already doing or just 'stay in the church because it's true.'  I do believe in interpersonal advice and counsel, but I do not believe in interpersonal commandments.  I hope you'll understand what I mean when when I say this, but despite the imagery of some of our teaching, I don't think we are all on some straight path, clinging to one simple rod with one simple destination.  I think the principle behind the imagery is sound, but I don't think it's an 'en masse' kind of movement.  It can't be.  We all experience things differently, express things differently, and learn things differently.  So while each of us clinging to the word of God will bring about individual salvation, you will not be able to gauge your own proximity to truth by looking at other people.  Ever.  I don't see your path, I don't know your path, and until I have access to omniscience, I simply don't have the capacity to tell you what's right for you.  Me telling you what to do to in order to follow that path is a guess at best, and misleading at worst.

That being said, I have memories of my own path that seem similar to the situation you've described to me.  I'll tell you how I progressed through it, but you'll have to decide for yourself it that's the direction you should go.  So maybe think of any advice I offer here as an informed guess.  You pray about it.  You figure out what parts resonate of truth to you.  I can't teach you truth, but the Spirit can.  So listen to that voice if it tells you anything different from mine.

Haha so we've got some big topics to discuss here. With the gospel, I've learned that the things that really matter often seem ambiguous because they are so BIG, and while we Westerners would love for them to fit in neat, little boxes that we can fit perfectly into our experiences, I don't think that's how things of eternity work. They don't fit into anything. Not time. Not space. Not even mortality. They're more comprehensive than any temporal language could describe, bigger than any mortal framework could hold, and more expansive than any theoretical box could store. It's why scriptures are never read the same way over time even though the words never change. I think that's why were constantly being reminded that things are learned 'line upon line, precept on precept.' Because it's really the only way to even begin digesting something like that, slow as that kind of learning process may be.

It probably doesn't help either that the Lord is constantly reforming our perceptions and showing us that our previous understandings were just immature child-like drawings of a reality we still can't wrap our heads fully around. Some may look at that, get discouraged, and give up on trying. They say it's impossible to ever understand and therefore not worth a lifetime of work that will never get you there. They seek for something more quantifiable and rational. Something they can master and check off their list. Well, as one who craves quantifiable and rational, I understand those desires. We want to feel wise, competent, and capable in the lives we lead. I think it's the hunger of wanting to become like God, (all powerful and all knowing) and as with most hunger, there's a sense of urgency. Basically....we want exaltation and omniscience, and we want it now.

To explain this, I'm going to use an analogy to describe how I personally see this life.  Basically, it's the Plan of Salvation according to a nerd. Hopefully, I'll be able to keep this analogy within the bounds of truth, but remember, I am imperfect and will probably come up short somewhere in my explanation. Anyway, I see each of us all as students in a gigantic classroom. Each of us has an intricate and powerful machine called 'eternity' in front of us, and we're all here to learn how it works so that one day, we can use this machine to create gigantic metaphorical classrooms of our own. 'Eternity' functions when all eternal laws (ie. physics, marriage, math, agency, etc) are understood and are being used properly. If the user of 'eternity' doesn't perfectly understand or obey the eternal law, then the machine will crash, and the type and violence of the crash depends on the severity and type of law overlooked/disobeyed.

God has provided the classroom with a textbook of instruction, a teachers assistant (prophet), set up a schooling schedule (church) and an open lab/study hall at His house (temple). He has informed us that He is available 24/7 via prayer to answer any questions we may have, but that we do have to trust His teaching methods via something called 'faith.' Because God knew destruction is often part of the learning process, and that mortal beings find it difficult to grasp eternal law, He selected his first born Son as assistant professor, and taught him a way to prevent any permanent damage that may arise from our shortcomings as students.

In the classroom, everybody is at a different point of exploring 'eternity.' There are some students who are really smart and totally seem to understand the lessons being given. They can recite theory with power and conviction, and totally just 'get it.' But their understanding isn't perfect, and often when they are using the machine, it kind of blows up on them. This is not surprising to God because he knows many, if not all others in the room, are probably going to blow up their machines at some point. Christ is in the room, waiting to help them out and get them going again, but some of those really smart kids-- in their pride--decide the problem is with the machines design or a faulty textbook, not themselves or their understanding. Some quit because they either don't think the machine is fixable, or are too embarrassed to admit they need repairs. But there are a few who, though embarrassed and confused, humble themselves enough to ask for help because they are determined to learn how 'eternity' works. The Lord lovingly attends to them, heals any wounds the explosion may have caused, and tries to teach them how to avoid making that same mistake. Then, with a little more instruction...He encourages them to try again.

Meanwhile, there's a student who gave up on 'eternity' before it was even handed out because he wanted the glory of teaching others how to use his own machine. But his machine could not create, and God knew it, so He rejected it. In his bitterness, Lucifer rejected his opportunity to receive his own 'eternity' and convinced several others to do the same. Instead, he decided to spend his time meandering through the classroom, trying to confuse the other students and finding great humor and enjoyment when someone else's 'eternity' blew up. He basks in the destruction the explosion causes and the doubt in 'eternity' it inspires. He goes around creating more doubt by telling people that he totally had eternity working, and it didn't do anything, so it's not worth their time. He exacerbates the insecurities and despair felt by those who struggle, and discourages them from believing they can still figure 'eternity' out.

Realizing that mortal students are easily distracted by their appetites, he also distracts many with indulgences like an 'all you can eat' lunchroom and 'all you can sleep' nap time. There's a spa, a game room, and countless other pleasures available to the students for when they need a study break (after all, God wants his students to have joy, and balance is required for effective learning) and Lucifer encourages the overuse and dependance on those comforts as a way of keeping students out of the classroom.  Distraction quickly becomes one of his most effective tools.

The humble and determined group is the one he has to work the hardest on. The tricks that work so easily on others don't seem to work on them. When they're stumped, they ask questions.  When things explode they just get things repaired. So, he learns a new trick. It's called 99% truth. He starts teaching the students the correct theory, (after all, he is an expert), but changes it just enough as to cause really effective, but slow, corrosive problems. These students start to feel adept, competent, and secure in their habits, but over time, the 'eternity' they thought they understood starts to fall apart. Many lose faith over this, and give up hope of ever figuring 'eternity' out.

The Lord is, of course, there to repair the machine if asked, and more than happy to correct the imperfect truth that was taught, but the work of rooting out that 1% from their habits can be grueling, and requires meticulous determination. That discourages some, and they decide they are incapable of ever succeeding at the task at hand.

Meanwhile, there is another dynamic to this classroom. Every time a machine blows up or breaks down, there's collateral damage. The really big explosions often severely injure those in close proximity. The innocent bystanders, some making great progress on their machines, are startled, injured, or even maimed in the process. For some it may just be a crack in their concentration. For others, it's traumatic, and they find themselves seeking the constant comfort and presence of the Lord in order to continue working at all. Those who react this way, not only enjoy the presence of the Savior, but also find it much easier to ask questions and get instruction with him in such close proximity. They quickly find themselves figuring out 'eternity' much faster than they ever had before, almost grateful that the initial injurious explosion occurred.

Unfortunately, there are also those who, in their suffering or from watching others suffer, blame the Lord for not stopping the explosion from occurring, and rather than be healed or have hope, wear or publicize the injuries as a method of promoting fear and convincing others that they're next. The Lord tries to comfort those students and teach them how they can be healed, but they are not interested. They've decided that this is an unsafe work environment and if anybody desires happiness, then they need to give up on this model of 'eternity' and make their own. They try to use every explosion and injury as an example of how the Lord is not who He says He is. They scream "If He was really all powerful, why wouldn't He protect us?" or "if He truly loved us, He would protect us." He tries to remind them that He would only protect them from eternal death, not temporal damage, but they drown out His voice with their indignation.

Others, discouraged and distraught by the chaos around them, hear the cries, and start to doubt His existence because of all the ill they see. Soon enough, large portions of the classroom stop calling upon Christ and start doing their own thing. There is no method to it, so the same problems of explosions and collateral damage occur. But this time they have no one to blame it on but themselves, so they look around, and decide to blame it on the society they're in. They spend the rest of their earthly time trying to organize and prevent all of the explosions from happening. But without an understanding of 'eternity' all of their well intentioned attempts are futile. They just create new and interesting kinds of explosions that have effects they never could have dreamed of. The Lord waits patiently for them to realize the futility of these efforts, ever ready to repair the increasingly destroyed and mutilated machines. Some of the other students see their efforts, and--feeling like they may be able to help--attempt to introduce others to the textbook. Some are grateful for the clarity and instruction, and others balk at the stringent demands of the laws described. The student tries to show them by deed that the textbook does work, but as with all students, they come up short in understanding, and when their machine explodes during the peer teaching, many take it as another confirmation that the textbook is wrong.

As if all of this doesn't sound complicated and chaotic enough, there's one more thing to keep in mind. The Lord is omniscient. When time and space do not bind perception, one can know who's machine is going to explode, when, and why. With that knowledge, the Lord organizes his classroom.

Bringing this back to my own life and experience with 'eternity.' I do not, and will not doubt that the people in my life have been strategically placed there. I have a solid and strong testimony that the Lord knew which of my peers would be able to teach me the most about 'eternity' at any given time. He also knew which of my peers I might be able to assist most effectively. This is probably where I've felt the most blessed in my life. I may not be the best student, but I feel like I've been blessed with really good peers (yourself included), and while individual members will get stuck on something from time to time, they are all pretty determined, humble, faithful, and in tune with God (both those in our church and out).

One other big thing about these associations: The Lord knew which explosions I would be able to handle, and which would injure me in just the right way as to promote a better, more thorough and memorable understanding. Yes, I do believe that every injury from every indirect explosion (meaning, the consequence of someone else's actions) or mistake is strategically meant to become an opportunity. It's an opportunity to learn something more about 'eternity.' To become more capable than you ever could have managed, having gone unscathed. Whether it's accidentally deleting an entire letter to a friend (yes...this is version #2 and nothing like the first), losing your ability to walk because someone was a careless driver, or enduring sexual abuse from an unstable family member (one of the most damaging explosions if you ask me). Every explosion, of all sizes and shapes, is an opportunity for growth and improvement that extends beyond our previous capabilities. Some will have longer, more involved healing times. But even that process can be a refining one. Long story short, I think we need to accept that the equation below, though popular, is some very bad math.

Injuries = suffering = misery = bad (avoid at all costs)

I'm not saying we shouldn't try to alleviate the suffering of others, or that we should seek out suffering, nor that suffering might somehow turn into a pleasant experience. I do believe suffering is inevitable and awful to endure, but is one of the most effective ways to teach love to selfish beings (and as we know love is a very big and very powerful eternal law). I don't think any human would ever be able to prevent all suffering. I also don't believe any God ever would. I think the reason He does not protect us from one another's explosions is because the open proximity, connection, and communication with your peers is necessary to ever really learn about love. Therefore, it's necessary to ever really learn anything about 'eternity.' I think there's a reason He creates circumstances that can result in suffering, and I believe those circumstances are intelligently designed to put us on the fast track to deeper, more truthful, understandings of 'eternity.' Whether that be a hurricane, an election, or unexpected death, the Lord is wise, and knows how to get the greatest investment out of our choices (good and bad), without interfering with our agency.

And to put our agency in the context of the classroom, the reason He cannot choose for us, is because we are the one's trying to figure out 'eternity,' not Him. While I'm sure He would get a lot of appreciation if He just did it for everyone, He also wouldn't produce very capable students. And I'm pretty sure the whole point of the classroom was to develop the latter.

And this brings me to your last question. The 'true' church. Continuing with the classroom analogy, There’s only one textbook written by the Lord himself, and it’s called the gospel. Just to prevent confusion, the gospel, is not the church, or any church. The gospel is the ultimate embodiment of all truth. It’s a perfectly accurate but infinitely dense textbook, written in the language of the Spirit, and can only be understood and communicated to students by the Spirit. Many students are still struggling to learn the language, and therefore constantly struggle to understand the textbook.

Because of this, the Lord organized a school to help us practice the language, discuss the textbook, learn it’s instructions, and make goals (covenants/promises) to apply those lessons. He’s instructed certain students to write scriptures in their own language that can be utilized as a reference guide, and to this day is providing more reference materials as needed. He’s enlisted a few of his students as teachers assistants to not only write the reference materials, but to also help teach various sections of the classroom. He calls them prophets, and though they are still figuring out how eternity works themselves, the Lord endows them with a power that allows them to help guide the group while teaching what they know thus far.

Other students are called on to lead, support, and serve smaller groups of peers, so that the curriculum can be effectively assimilated across the large classroom. Of course, because these peers are still learning, the Lord encourages all of his students to come to him so he can answer any questions or help clarify any difficult problems. Though filled with imperfect and fallible human beings, the organization continues to improve, and though it’s members still struggle with some rather debilitating aspects of humanity, the school as a whole is still moving forward and teaching/learning more and more truth.

Meanwhile, some people haven't found out about this group yet, and others have just found it easier to understand some of the other peer written books better. I think different churches have different strengths, and that God uses these to teach his immeasurably diverse classroom. Their doctrines emphasize things differently, and because we each have our own learning styles, I don’t doubt that some people will learn truth better in, say, a Baptist church, or perhaps just doing self-study. The great thing is, the Lord knows where each of those individuals are in their understanding and just how much they can learn/teach in each group. The important thing is for us, as individuals, to work and progress in what we find to be true, so that God can direct us toward whatever path teaches us (and others) the most truth.

For instance, I once heard a devout man proclaim that he knew God wanted him to be Jewish. I felt a confirmation that he was right. And likewise, I felt the confirmation that God wanted me to be Mormon. I personally have no doubt that having that kind of relationship with God is going to be more fruitful than joining any particular church for any other reason. This is why people who investigate the LDS faith are told to study it out, pray about it, and decide if they feel like it’s the right place for them to be. Those prayers may not always be in the affirmative, but for many they are. Just like in the case of that Jewish man, I do think certain people are better placed in certain faiths. I’m pretty sure Mother Theresa was put on a Catholic path on purpose, or that C. S. Lewis would be better utilized in an Anglican group (though his writings do unwittingly support/promote a lot of Mormon doctrine). I have no doubt that both of those individuals had (and have) a fantastic understanding of the gospel because they searched, studied, worked, and prayed earnestly for that truth.

When I say the LDS Church is true, I’m not saying other churches are false. I’m saying that the whole purpose of our church is to teach eternal truths. I see the LDS Church as a school organized by God, meant to teach and distribute whatever degree of truth we are ready to learn. Because of our doctrine on personal and continuing revelation, every student is charged to search, ponder, and pray for truth themselves, and then teach it to others. After all, if you learned something about how eternity worked, wouldn’t you want to share it with others? That’s why Mormon’s are so gung-ho about missionary work. Ultimately, more and more truth will come to light as more people work to understand and obey eternal laws. And since all truth is good, the more truth we understand, the better off we are (and the more truth we want to learn).

That progression towards truth is why I choose to attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It constantly encourages the use of these TA’s, reference materials, my own prayers/studies, and ultimately, the textbook. I know the gospel is true, just like I know that I exist, and nobody could ever convince me otherwise. When I say I believe my church to be true, I’m saying it harbors, seeks, and teaches truth, not that it has a monopoly on truth. Rather, there is a lot of truth that can be learned from other sources—including other churches. That’s why members of the LDS Church are taught to learn from “the best books,” (D&C 88:118). That could be the Bible, Locke’s Two Treatises, or the Baghavad Gita—basically, we should be studying books that teach truth and ultimately enhances our understanding of the gospel. God has been revealing the gospel to men since they first lived on Earth, and considering the infinite size of the gospel and therefore truth, I think it would be arrogant and silly to claim any one church has a perfect understanding or claim on it.

Also, because of the different communication styles, I think the more you learn about any religion (basically, the more peer groups you attend), the better you'll understand The Gospel. The more you understand The Gospel, the more you'll be able to teach that understanding in the Church. Just remember, all truth supports and promotes faith. It's a good way to gauge if what you're learning is actually truth, or just that irksome peer trying to cause an explosion. At least, it's a gauge I like to use and have had lots of positive experiences with.

Similarly, I have also found that the more truth you find, the more peace you have. If you haven’t noticed, our modern world is obsessed with fear, controversy, and contradiction. The more truth I learn, the less I find myself troubled by any of those things. As you learn by faith, you start to see how science is not at odds with God, how two seemingly contradictory things can actually be complimentary, or how most religions are essentially saying the same thing, just in a different way. If you ask me, it adds richness to my testimony that God really knows what he’s doing. That no matter how good we are at mucking things up, he’s even better at recycling the muck into purposes that can lead to learning and progression.

So while you’re trying to figure out who God is to you, what path to pursue, or perhaps how you feel about all of this, remember, as your peer, I'm more than happy to help in any way I can. We’re both in school to learn, so the more we learn together, the better off we’ll both be. Life is practice, not a performance. Certain lessons may be disasters and involve some painful experiences, but because I love you, and because I have faith in Jesus Christ, I'm more than happy to endure whatever injuries may be sustained.  I know that we can be healed, hard lessons can be learned, and everlasting joy can be found.

In short, I think 'eternity' is something to be excited and curious about, even if it's burdensome, and I'm psyched to see where my peers are going.  Hopefully, as you examine your current understanding of 'eternity,' this letter will help you figure out where you're getting stumped. I can already tell you, I needed to write this, and have no doubt that you felt impressed to come to me for a reason far beyond any respect you may have for me. I needed to get this written in order to focus my attention on some very vital personal mistakes I've been overlooking in the last week or so. Like I said, He's good...and WAY smarter than me. Thank you for coming to me. Thank you for being brave enough to admit you're struggling and thereby pulling me out of my self absorbed, narrow focus. You've probably just saved me from one BIG explosion that would have been very difficult to recover from. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have no doubt you'll figure this out, and in the meantime, I'll keep praying for you so that Christ stays close.

Much love from your peer, friend, and sister,