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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Spiritual Soils: An Exploratory and Remedial Post on the Sluggish Spirit

WARNING! This post is very very long, but I mostly wrote this out so I could organize my thoughts. If you'd rather skim, I've provided section headings so that you can easily navigate through the sea that is my humbled conscience.

THE BACKSTORY
So. Yet again. It's been a while. I can't think of any other word describing the reason behind my lack of fastidiousness except "Sluggishness." I've felt very lethargic in my spiritual pursuits for a while. It could be all the energy I put into my job, the house, my marriage (the last might sound silly, but invariably, every Sunday, I'd much rather go on a walk/nap/watch a movie with Stephen than read scriptures and write blogs about it). However, I think I've been looking on the wrong side of these areas and turning them into distractions rather than cultivators; anything can nurture one's testimony if it is designed to keep one focused on Christ.

Occasionally, I have felt the Spirit tug at my heart and whisper to me of better things, but I am usually too hectic/tired/uninterested to reach it. I have managed to read through this April's General Conference talks and take notes on them in the mornings, but, until now, I've let the inspiration float past me. So, today I am taking from all of these talks the message God so clearly wanted to pierce my heart when I watched Conference the first time, and I am breaking them down into a diagnosis and solution for my sluggish soul.

The talk that really got me thinking was Dallin H. Oaks's talk, "The Parable of the Sower." In it, he analyzes Christ's parable of the sower who sowed seeds in different types of soil and breaks down the various stages we are in as disciples of Christ. I realized that if I was not careful, my testimony could dry up into the stony soil and shrink past my grasp. If any of you feel similarly close to drying your well, or in other words, if you feel distanced from Heavenly Father, hopefully these sources can touch you like they have me.

TYPES OF SOIL
Stony Ground, No Root:
This was the most apparent soil I saw in myself, because when we do not nourish our testimonies, our spiritual soil hardens and we cannot truly have place for the Spirit in our hearts. One particular habit I've been falling into is not consistently/meaningfully reading my scriptures or saying my prayers. I've been able to read and pray for a short period of time, and then one tired night, it resets and I have a hard time making the experience meaningful again. This is one of the most basic pitfalls into which we can fall because communicating with the Lord through prayer and scriptures is our spiritual food. Dallin H. Oaks goes on to say, “Spiritual food is necessary for spiritual survival, especially in a world that is moving away from belief in God and the absolutes of right and wrong [...] we must increase our exposure to spiritual truth in order to strengthen our faith and stay rooted in the gospel.”

Isn't that interesting? Elder Oaks emphasizes the importance of these basic lines of communication so that we may "survive in a world that is moving away from belief in... absolutes of right and wrong." As I slacked in my scriptures/prayers, I totally saw this mindset taking root in me. It is so easy to dismiss the reality of Satan when the world can make life seem so relative. But we must recognize the need to choose the right, including the fact that there is a wrong, and someone is tempting us to choose wrong all the time. If we do not recognize an enemy, we will not guard against him.

It is also important to not let the gospel become old or tired to us. As soon as it is, that is a red flag that something is not right in our practices. I realize this as soon as I shift my priorities and refocus on the Savior. It is then that I feel happier, lighter, more joyful and capable of the tasks ahead of me. Dieter F. Uchtdorf said
Dear brothers and sisters, living the gospel faithfully is not a burden. It is a joyful rehearsal--a preparation for inheriting the grand glory of the eternities. We seek to obey our Heavenly Father because our spirits will become more attuned to spiritual things. Vistas are opened that we never knew existed. Enlightenment and understanding come to us when we do the will of the Father. (Dieter F. Uchtdorf)
How beautifully put! It is when we are wrapped in the gospel that our "souls [do] expand, and [we can] sing redeeming love" (Alma 5:9). Gérald Caussé was another speaker who particularly touched me during Conference. His talk was called, "Is It Still Wonderful to You?" Read it in its entirety because he gives great advice for how to keep this amazing gospel beautiful and rich in our lives. In the talk, he discusses the idea of marveling at the gospel:
For us, as Latter-day Saints, wonders [...] occur in our individual lives. They include our own personal conversion, the answers we receive to our prayers, and the tender blessings God showers upon us daily.To marvel at the wonders of the gospel is a sign of faith. It is to recognize the hand of the Lord in our lives and in everything around us. Our amazement also produces spiritual strength. It gives us the energy to remain anchored in our faith and to engage ourselves in the work of salvation.But let us beware. Our ability to marvel is fragile. Over the long term, such things as casual commandment keeping, apathy, or even weariness may set in and make us insensitive to even the most remarkable signs and miracles of the gospel. (Gérald Caussé)

We must be diligent in making this gospel wonderful! For it IS wonderful! One of the most basic things we know from this gospel is that there is an all-knowing, all-powerful Being who not only loves us, but believes in us and knows that we can be a key part in helping Him bring His children home. When we see the gospel through those lenses, we will pay attention to the Spirit and look for promptings from the Holy Ghost everyday, "then we will be living abundantly and not just existing" (Neal A. Maxwell).


Elder Oaks explains another interesting effect of having no roots:
Another potential destroyer of spiritual roots [...] is the keyhole view of the gospel or the Church. This limited view focuses on a particular doctrine or practice or perceived deficiency in a leader and ignores the grand panorama of the gospel plan and the personal and communal fruits of its harvest. [...] to be securely rooted in the gospel, we must be moderate and measured in criticism and seek always for the broader view of the majestic work of God.
I am blessed to have not had any qualms I couldn't resolve with statements/movements/ideals expressed by our church and its leaders, but I know many who struggle with these things. We must not become fixed on one idea and forget all else we've felt when following God's teachings. I know this gospel brings me peace, joy, and happiness. I feel that confirmed every time I live its teachings. As one friend put it, if we were to understand everything in our gospel, we would be God. But we are not God, and "[His] thoughts are not [our] thoughts, neither are [our] ways [His] ways [...] For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [His] ways higher than [our] ways, and [His] thoughts than [our] thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Thorns: The Cares of This World and Deceitfulness of Riches
This leads me to the next type of soil, which is full of thorns. The cares of this life can easily distract us from the weightier matters. Elder Oaks breaks down this state into a couple categories. One of the thorns he describes is the "cares of this life":
We are overcome by the “cares … of this life” when we are paralyzed by fear of the future, which hinders our going forward in faith, trusting in God and His promises. [...][Hugh Nibley] was asked in an interview whether world conditions and our duty to spread the gospel made it desirable to seek some way to “be accommodating of the world in what we do in the Church.”His reply: “That’s been the whole story of the Church, hasn’t it? You have to be willing to offend here, you have to be willing to take the risk. That’s where the faith comes in. … Our commitment is supposed to be a test, it’s supposed to be hard, it’s supposed to be impractical in the terms of this world.”
This continues the discussion earlier by what we are willing to be offended. Instead, however, Elder Oaks responds to the fear we may have when faced with others' offense, or mockery, or mislabeling of our purest intentions. Wilford W. Andersen addresses this concern as well in his wonderful talk, "The Music of the Gospel."
There are those who ridicule members of the Church for the things we do. That is understandable. Those who dance often appear strange or awkward or, to use a scriptural term, “peculiar” (1 Peter 2:9) to those who cannot hear the music [...] If our children learn the dance steps without learning to hear and to feel the beautiful music of the gospel, they will over time become uncomfortable with the dance and will either quit dancing or, almost as bad, keep dancing only because of the pressure they feel from others who are dancing around them.
The gospel can be difficult to live in these times when it seems so old fashioned or biased or silly or bigoted. That is why we need to Spirit of the gospel filling our hearts and our children's hearts, so that we feel the true nature of what we're living.

In addition to describing the "cares of this life," Elder Oaks also describes the "pleasures of this life":
The most subtle thorns to choke out the effect of the gospel word in our lives are the worldly forces that Jesus called the “cares and riches and pleasures of this life” [...] Savoring the things of men means putting the cares of this world ahead of the things of God in our actions, our priorities, and our thinking. [...]We surrender to the “pleasures of this life” (1) when we are addicted, which impairs God’s precious gift of agency; (2) when we are beguiled by trivial distractions, which draw us away from things of eternal importance; and (3) when we have an entitlement mentality, which impairs the personal growth necessary to qualify us for our eternal destiny.

Trivial distractions. That's the one that caught my eye. I mentioned previously about my bad habit of not reading my scriptures or saying my prayers very meaningfully. I can tell you one of the greatest contributors to that habit: technology. I'm embarrassed to admit it. Stephen will testify how often I say any of the following phrases: "We need to put away our phones and focus on each other!" "Why are we giving social media platforms to kids who's brains haven't fully developed?!" "I wish we could raise our family deep in the hills of Ireland with no connection to the outside world!"

And yet...

First thing I do when I wake up: turn off my alarm. I then proceed to check my email, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, and sometimes Facebook. So after about 20 minutes of mindless browsing, I'm exhausted. Melanin production in my eyes has halted, early morning resolve has worn off, and I am now just hungry and thinking about a bowl of cereal (or eggs if I'm not that lazy yet). (: But the point is that the time I normally devote to scripture study has entirely evaporated! I already know I'm too tired to meaningfully study at night, so I am unconsciously robbing myself of time with my Savior every day when I wake up, and what have I done about that...? Nothing! Because with my work schedule, I need my email! And with my writing/acting career, I need an online presence in my Instagram and Twitter accounts! And with our home remodeling, I need my Pinspiration! There is always an excuse, but when you break it down, I'm wasting time that could be used to strengthening my spirit.

In response to this specific problem, José A Teixeira said
It is refreshing to put aside our electronic devices for a while and instead turn the pages of the scriptures or take time to converse with family and friends. Especially on the Lord’s day, experience the peace of participating in a sacrament meeting without the constant urge to see if you have a new message or a new post.
The habit of setting aside your mobile device for a time will enrich and broaden your view of life, for life is not confined to a four-inch (10-cm) screen.
So if this is a particularly tempting distraction for you, too, I beg you to put your phone down and reawaken the spiritual nerves that have been deadening in front of your screen. It may not sound as fun as seeing what the Rock is doing on Instagram (it's mostly just ads for "Ballers" now anyway), but I guarantee that once you get into the swing of it, the Spirit will fill your heart and you will feel much more enlivened and empowered.

Fell into Good Ground and Brought Forth Fruit
This is the last kind of soil Elder Oaks describes. It is the optimal soil that cultivates our testimonies and allows the Spirit of the Lord to enter into our lives and help us become our best selves. Elder Oaks describes the soil even further:

Jesus explained that “the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). We have the seed of the gospel word. It is up to each of us to set the priorities and to do the things that make our soil good and our harvest plentiful. We must seek to be firmly rooted and converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Colossians 2:6–7).
Sounds wonderful, doesn't it? That's our goal, constantly. It seems far to me, but it is more manageable of a journey when I break down the how of achieving this lifestyle.


HOW CAN WE HAVE GOOD GROUND?
Again, I'll start with some advice from Elder Oaks, who lays it out pretty straightforwardly:
We achieve this conversion by praying, by scripture reading, by serving, and by regularly partaking of the sacrament to always have His Spirit to be with us. We must also seek that mighty change of heart (see Alma 5:12–14) that replaces evil desires and selfish concerns with the love of God and the desire to serve Him and His children.
For my personal journey, I realize that I need to consciously practice three habits...

1. Study
This is the nourishment we must base all other discipleship upon. Without praying and reading the words of our Savior, we are merely guessing our path.

Gérald Caussé returns on this topic (I told you, his talk is excellent):
Never tire of discovering or rediscovering the truths of the gospel. The writer Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” [...]
We should hunger and thirst every day after spiritual knowledge. This personal practice is founded on study, meditation, and prayer. Sometimes we might be tempted to think, “I don’t need to study the scriptures today; I’ve read them all before” or “I don’t need to go to church today; there’s nothing new there.” 
But the gospel is a fountain of knowledge that never runs dry. There is always something new to learn and feel each Sunday, in every meeting, and in every verse of scripture. In faith we hold to the promise that if we “seek, … [we] shall find.
The scriptures are essential to our daily discipleship. Specifically the Book of Mormon. When we read the Book of Mormon, we can feel. We can feel comfort, love, testimony, charity, hope, faith, clarity, and assurance. These are all fruits and gifts of the Spirit. When we read the Book of Mormon, we can learn. We can learn the character of Christ, His relationship with us, how to be obedient, history repeating, and answers to our own trials.

We must also realize in our studies that the Book of Mormon is not a book to be read over and over again. It is a conduit that the Lord uses to communicate with us. It is meant to be used to receive revelation. Thus, when we read everyday (usually studying with a question helps), we can receive specific instructions from our omniscient Heavenly Father to enable us to be more like Him.

Gérald Caussé poses the delightfully soul searching question, "Do you remember the first time you read a verse of scripture and felt as if the Lord was speaking to you personally? Can you recall the first time you felt the sweet influence of the Holy Ghost come over you, perhaps before you even realized it was the Holy Ghost? Weren’t these sacred, special moments?" They can still occur again and again if we study faithfully and pray with real intent.

2. Sort and Resolve
This is the part that requires desire. And a plan. This is what brought me here on my little blog to write this all out. I've realized that I need to take more time to think about my Savior. I need those quiet moments to really assess where I am in my discipleship and to realign any habits forming. This time I used to make every week allowed me to assess my habits and make goals to improve the bad ones and strengthen the good ones. I need to get back into that habit so that I can keep my testimony strong and feel the Spirit of my Savior every day in my life. As President Monson expounded on, I must "ponder the path of [my] feet" ("Ponder the Path of Thy Feet").

Wilford W. Andersen simplifies this concept. He says, “We know how to do it. We must walk the same path that we walked when we first heard the heavenly strains of gospel music. We exercise faith in Christ, repent, and take the sacrament; we feel more strongly the influence of the Holy Ghost; and the music of the gospel begins to play again in our lives.” As John 15:4 says, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me." I can't become who I want to be without the Savior deeply entrenched in me.

We can entrench the Savior in our lives when we seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Again, Elder Caussé offers pearls of wisdom:
I invite you to seek and cherish the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Most wonders of the gospel cannot be perceived by our natural senses. They are the things that the “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, … the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” 
When we have the Spirit with us, our spiritual senses are sharpened and our memory is kindled so we cannot forget the miracles and signs we have witnessed. That may be why, knowing Jesus was about to leave them, His Nephite disciples prayed fervently “for that which they most desired; and they desired that the Holy Ghost should be given unto them.” 
Although they had seen the Savior with their own eyes and had touched His wounds with their own hands, they knew that their testimonies might dwindle without being constantly renewed by the power of the Spirit of God. My brothers and sisters, never do anything to risk the loss of this precious and marvelous gift--the companionship of the Holy Ghost. Seek it through fervent prayer and righteous living.

When we have the Holy Ghost with us, we are more likely to seek after righteous things because they entice us more than those things that would pull us away from our Savior. And, what's more, the Holy Ghost can give us guidance tailored to our personal circumstances. We can receive specific instructions as to how to become like our Savior from where we are. Rafael E. Pino said,  “The Lord knows what He wants to accomplish with each one of us. He knows the kind of reform He wants to achieve in our lives, and we do not have the right to counsel Him. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.”

One last attempt to drive this "Sort and Resolve" thing home before it becomes the rotting corpse of a beaten horse is the step by step instructions given in a talk by Jorge F. Zeballos:

1. LEARN YOUR DUTY. Having the desire to do what is right is not enough if we do not make sure to understand what our Father expects from us and wants us to do.  Nephi teaches us that “the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.” Then he adds that “the Holy Ghost … will show unto you all things what ye should do.” Thus, the sources that allow us to learn our duty are the words of Christ that we receive through ancient and modern prophets and the personal revelation that we receive through the Holy Ghost.
2. MAKE THE DECISION. Whether we have learned about the Restoration of the gospel, a particular commandment, the duties associated with serving in a calling, or the covenants we make in the temple, the choice is ours whether or not we act according to that new knowledge. 
3. ACT ACCORDINGLY. The path that we have chosen to walk is narrow. Along the way are challenges that will require our faith in Jesus Christ and our best efforts to stay on the path and press forward. We need to repent and be obedient and patient, even if we do not understand all the circumstances that surround us. We must forgive others and live in accordance with what we have learned and with the choices we have made. 
4. WILLINGLY ACCEPT THE FATHER’S WILL. Discipleship requires us not only to learn our duty, make correct decisions, and act in accordance with them, but also essential is our developing the willingness and the ability to accept God’s will, even if it does not match our righteous desires or preferences.

So the gist of it: sort out a plan, and then resolve to do it!

3. Serve
I've included this in my personal plan because I often forget to include it in my life priorities. As Patricia T. Holland noticed, “[Lucifer] knows that to truly find ourselves we must lose ourselves, so he begins to block our increased efforts to love—to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves.”

I always push service to the end of my to-do list because I assume that taking care of my own discipleship is the most important point of action. And, while it is, I think I often forget that service can aid in my discipleship while also aiding others' journeys as well.


This is a time in my life where I am not particularly focused on other people. Throughout college, I was conditioned to believe that now is a time to think about myself while I am pursuing my life's work. However, as M. Russell Ballard counseled this Conference, “Do not shift your focus from serving others to focusing exclusively on school, work, or social activities. Instead, balance your life with spiritual experiences that remind and prepare you for continued, daily ministering to others.”

It is a balance. Sure, I need to write sketches and keep up with my hectic filming schedule. It's my job. But if I have time to browse Instagram, I have time to write a card to a ward member, or make food for a friend, or babysit.

I know that as I put others' needs before my own, the Lord will bless me with an increased love for my brothers and sisters as well as for Him. Dieter F. Uchtdorf so beautifully described the Savior's appraisal of service when he said
[I]f Jesus Christ were to sit down with us and ask for an accounting of our stewardship, I am not sure He would focus much on programs and statistics. What the Savior would want to know is the condition of our heart. He would want to know how we love and minister to those in our care, how we show our love to our spouse and family, and how we lighten their daily load. And the Savior would want to know how you and I grow closer to Him and to our Heavenly Father.
Woof! That's my plan. That's what I'm hoping to put into action. Sometimes I feel like I am close to this lifestyle, but most of the time I feel very distant. The key is to not get down on ourselves. Thus, I find it important to offer words of encouragement...

WORDS OF ENCOURAGEMENT
Rather than muddy these great declarations of love and support, I'm going to just copy and paste them. Let your heart be open to whatever the Spirit wants to pierce you.

“Though we live in a failing world, we have not been sent here to fail” (Neal A. Maxwell). 
“We must be patient with ourselves as we overcome weaknesses and remember to rejoice over all that is good in us” (Patricia T. Holland). 
“One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the joy of trying again, for no failure ever need be final” (Thomas S. Monson).
Some may say, “But I have so far to go to become like those you describe.” The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that the desires of our hearts can be transformed and our motives can be educated and refined. When we are baptized into the true fold of God, we begin the process of becoming new creatures (see 2 Corinthians 5:17; Mosiah 27:26). Each time we renew the covenant of baptism by partaking of the sacrament, we are one step closer to that ultimate goal. [...] In that covenant, we find the grace that enables us to serve God and keep His commandments, including loving God with all our hearts and loving our neighbors as ourselves. (Michael T. Ringwood)
Whether your testimony is thriving and healthy or your activity in the Church more closely resembles a Potemkin village, the good news is that you can build on whatever strength you have. Here in the Church of Jesus Christ you can mature spiritually and draw closer to the Savior by applying gospel principles day by day.With patience and persistence, even the smallest act of discipleship or the tiniest ember of belief can become a blazing bonfire of a consecrated life. In fact, that’s how most bonfires begin--as a simple spark.So if you feel small and weak, please simply come unto Christ, who makes weak things strong. The weakest among us, through God’s grace, can become spiritually strong, because God “is no respecter of persons.” He is our “faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf)
PARTING THOUGHTS
The Savior atoned for our sins, weaknesses, and stupid mistakes. He suffered so that he might succor us. Do you know what it means to succor? It not only means to give us aid, but a life sustaining aid, the way a mother suckles her child. The Savior will stay with us every step of the way. He is invested in us, even when we may not be invested in Him. I promise, when you take that first step to open your heart to Him, He will run to meet you (Luke 15:20-24).

Don't be dragged away from our Heavenly Father by stupid distractions, or by harrowing fears and criticisms. Don't be sluggish. Communicate with God in meaningful ways and make a plan of action to draw closer to Him and you will feel your soul expand. You will feel enlivened and enlightened in a way you forgot was possible, but that is the fruits of this gospel. I know it is true.