Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Five Songs That Brought Me Closer to Christ in 2014

A couple months ago I posted a status update on Facebook requesting links to your favorite inspirational/spiritual/religious music. Y'all gave me some wonderful suggestions. I thought I'd reciprocate with a short post about five songs that brought me closer to Christ in 2014 - think of it as my little Christmas gift to you. Oh, and once you've had a listen, go support these fine artists by purchasing their music. I can't speak for full albums (with the exception of "Where My Heart Belongs" and "Christmas Portrait" - both fantastic albums), but you won't be disappointed in these songs:

(1) "Just Look Up" by Gladys Knight. From Where My Heart Belongs.

Best line: Just look up and know that he hears you / Just look up and know that he cares.

Gospel and R&B and pop legend Gladys Knight released her most heartfelt album in years with "Where My Heart Belongs", which hit shelves in September. With so many great songs (look up "Need You Love You", "Life", and "Midst of the Rain") it was difficult to choose just one for this list. What sets "Just Look Up" apart from the others is the prominent theme of hope relayed in Knight's earnest interpretation of the lyrics. When she sings "God's delay is not denial / In his time all things will be reconciled", you really believe her. And in a year when my heart has struggled to find patience and understanding in God's will for me, "Just Look Up" is just what I needed.

(2) "Something in the Water" by Carrie Underwood. From Greatest Hits: Decade #1.

Best line: Trust in someone bigger than me / Ever since the day that I believed I am changed / And now I'm stronger.

Some have criticized Underwood for overdoing it on this ballad about baptism. I don't understand the criticism, because I think her strong vocals are exactly what make these breathtaking lyrics so special. This is a song about change, hope, and (amazing) grace, and Underwood's voice is the perfect vehicle for the message. Also, anyone who can steal airtime from the relentless "bro country" boys deserves to be featured here. Bonus points for the gospel choir.

(3) "We All Need Saving" by Jon McLaughlin. From OK Now.

Best line: I don't know why it has to be this way / And I don't know the cure / But please believe someone else has felt this before.

McLaughlin's gentle voice lends strength to this beautiful song with unmistakable references to Christ's Atonement. Here he is encouraging a lover to "lean on someone else" because "we all need saving sometimes." Whether or not you're in a romantic relationship, you can view these lyrics through the lens of Jesus' love - a love he earned when he suffered for all of our pains, sorrows, and afflictions. McLaughlin reminded me that I've never been someplace Christ hasn't been before. That's comforting.

(4) "Christ Is Born" by Carpenters. From Christmas Portrait.

Best line: He is born / let us adore him / Christ the Lord / King of Kings.

Had "Christ Is Born" been written a couple hundred years earlier it would be considered a classic alongside the likes of "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night." The simple but memorable melody (penned in part by Ray Charles) is repeated over four verses, the first three sung tenderly and the last, from which the line above is retrieved, passionately. Karen Carpenter is backed by an orchestra and angelic choir, but the veteran singer didn't need those supports to get the beautiful message across. She treats this pastoral setting with deliberate care, affording the listener an unforgettable view of the Savior's storied birth.

(5) "Where Can I Turn for Peace?" by Mormon Tabernacle Choir. From This Is The Christ.

Best line: Constant he is and kind / Love without end.

Emma Lou Thayne, the writer of this beloved LDS hymn, passed away just a few weeks ago. You ought to read her obituary; you'll gain an appreciation for Thayne's life and work. My favorite interpretation of "Where" belongs to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Years ago I learned that the word "exquisite" means intensely felt or finely detailed. There's no better word for Mack Wilberg's convincing arrangement, which utilizes strings in all the right places to capture the intricate pain of Gethsemane. An allusion to another popular LDS hymn - "Lord, I Would Follow Thee" - reminds the listener to "take up his cross daily" and follow the Savior, who promises to make our burdens light and give us rest.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Priesthood Groups


“How can each of us become such a significant influence? We must be sure to sincerely love those we want to help in righteousness so they can begin to develop confidence in God’s love. For so many in the world, the first challenge in accepting the gospel is to develop faith in a Father in Heaven, who loves them perfectly. It is easier to develop that faith when they have friends or family members who love them in a similar way.
“Giving them confidence in your love can help them develop faith in God’s love. Then through your loving, thoughtful communication, their lives will be blessed by your sharing lessons you have learned, experiences you have had, and principles you have followed to find solutions to your own struggles. Show your sincere interest in their well-being; then share your testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“Remember, loving them is the powerful foundation for influencing those you want to help. The influence of my Grandmother Whittle and my wife, Jeanene, would have been negligible had I not first known that they loved me and wanted me to have the best in life.
“As a companion to that love, trust them. In some cases it may seem difficult to trust, but find some way to trust them. The children of Father in Heaven can do amazing things when they feel trusted. Every child of God in mortality chose the Savior’s plan. Trust that given the opportunity, they will do so again” (Richard G. Scott, “‘I Have Given You an Example,’” Ensign, May 2014, 33-34 (paragraphs 10-11, 16-17)).

·        2 Nephi 1:15
·        John 13:34-35
·        Moses 6:31-36
·         “At the end of a particularly tiring day toward the end of my first week as a General Authority, my briefcase was overloaded and my mind was preoccupied with the question, ‘How can I possibly do this?’ I left the office of the Seventy and entered the elevator of the Church Administration Building. As the elevator descended, my head was down and I stared blankly at the floor. The door opened and someone entered, but I didn’t look up. As the door closed, I heard someone ask, ‘What are you looking at down there?’ I recognized that voice—it was President Thomas S. Monson. I quickly looked up and responded, ‘Oh, nothing.’ (I’m sure that clever response inspired confidence in my abilities!) But he had seen my subdued countenance and my heavy briefcase. He smiled and lovingly suggested, while pointing heavenward, ‘It is better to look up!’ As we traveled down one more level, he cheerfully explained that he was on his way to the temple. When he bid me farewell, his parting glance spoke again to my heart, ‘Now, remember, it is better to look up’ (Carl B. Cook, “It Is Better to Look Up,” Ensign, November 2011, 33 (paragraphs 1-4)).
God’s purpose is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” That is fundamental to all we do. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in things that we find fascinating or become so consumed by mundane responsibilities that we lose sight of God’s objectives. As you consistently focus your life on the most basic principles, you will gain an understanding of what you are to do, and you will produce more fruit for the Lord and more happiness for yourself.

When you focus your life on the basic principles of the plan of salvation, you will better concentrate on sharing what you know because you understand the eternal importance of the ordinances of the gospel. You will share what you know in a way that encourages your friends to want to be strengthened spiritually. You will help your loved ones want to commit to obey all of His commandments and take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ.

Share principles that help those you love to press forward along the path to eternal life. Remember, we all grow line upon line. You have followed that same pattern in your understanding of the gospel. Keep your sharing of the gospel simple.

There is no doctrine more fundamental to our work than the Atonement of Jesus Christ. At every appropriate opportunity, testify of the Savior and of the power of His Atoning sacrifice. Use scriptures that teach of Him and why He is the perfect pattern for everyone in life. You will need to study diligently. Do not become so absorbed with trivial things that you miss learning the doctrine and teachings of the Lord. With a solid, personal doctrinal foundation, you will be a powerful source for sharing vital truths with others who desperately need them. (Richard G. Scott, “‘I Have Given You an Example,’” Ensign, May 2014, 34-35 (paragraphs 13-14, 18, 21)).

·        D&C 18:10-16
·        Alma 26:11-16
·        Psalm 46:10
·        “It is true intelligence for a man to take a subject that is mysterious and great in itself, and to unfold and simplify it so that a child can understand it” (John Taylor in Preach My Gospel, 182).

Remember that the conversion of individuals is only part of the work. Always seek to strengthen families. Teach with a vision of the importance of families being sealed in the temple. With some families it may take years. This was the case with my parents. Many years after I was baptized, my father was baptized, and later my family was sealed in the temple. My father served as a sealer in the temple, and my mother served there with him. When you have the vision of the sealing ordinances of the temple, you will help build the kingdom of God on earth.

Your personal testimony of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is a powerful tool. Accompanying resources are prayer, the Book of Mormon and the other scriptures, and your commitment to priesthood ordinances. All of these will facilitate the direction of the Spirit, which is so crucially important for you to rely upon.
To be effective and to do as Christ has done, concentrate on this basic principle of the gospel: the Atonement of Jesus Christ makes possible our becoming more like our Father in Heaven so that we can live together eternally in our family units.

There is no doctrine more fundamental to our work than the Atonement of Jesus Christ. At every appropriate opportunity, testify of the Savior and of the power of His Atoning sacrifice. Use scriptures that teach of Him and why He is the perfect pattern for everyone in life. You will need to study diligently. Do not become so absorbed with trivial things that you miss learning the doctrine and teachings of the Lord. With a solid, personal doctrinal foundation, you will be a powerful source for sharing vital truths with others who desperately need them. (Richard G. Scott, “‘I Have Given You an Example,’” Ensign, May 2014, 34-35 (paragraphs 15, 19-21)).

·        Luke 22:39-46
·        John 8:3-11
·        D&C 19:13-19
·         “I know Heavenly Father loves each of His children perfectly, individually, and constantly. I know that…we have an essential part in the plan of happiness. Our best effort is all He requires from us, and each of us is needed in building up the kingdom. The Atonement is real. Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer. I testify that if we are faithful and endure to the end, we will receive all of Heavenly Father’s blessings, even eternal life and exaltation” (Silvia H. Allred, “Steadfast and Immovable,” Ensign, November 2010, 118 (last paragraph)).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Why I Watched - and Loved - "Meet the Mormons"

            By now you’ve probably heard the buzz surrounding Meet the Mormons, a documentary-style flick produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Critical reviews were universally negative, punctuated with unflattering descriptors like “shallow”, “sugar-coated”, and “propaganda.” On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie has a solid 0% freshness rating.

            But audiences are telling a different story. Fully 91 percent who have seen the film liked it. We’re not talking small numbers here; Meet the Mormons grossed over $2.5 million in its opening weekend, making it the 11th-highest grossing movie in the nation (net proceeds are donated to the Church’s longtime humanitarian partner, the American Red Cross). Sold-out shows were reported in places like New York City, Miami, Dallas, and Detroit.
            Which tells me critics are missing the mark. Reviewers suggested the film is too glossy, but audiences are saying it feels authentic. Critics complained the subjects of the documentary are handpicked to prove a point, unrealistic, even too photogenic, but audiences say they felt they could relate with the kick boxer and the coach, the bishop and the Candy Bomber, the humanitarian and the single mom.
            That’s where I come in. I’m a Mormon. I've lived the faith my entire life. I've met Mormons of all “shapes, colors, and sizes,” to borrow a line from the movie. There are average Mormons, to be sure, the same way there are average Catholics, average Baptists, and average atheists. But you won’t find average Mormons in this movie.
And why would you? I challenge you to find a converted Mormon who strikes you as average. It won’t happen because it can’t happen. Mormonism is designed to mold men and women into the sons and daughters of God the faith boldly proclaims they are. Converted Mormons learn to access a relationship with Jesus Christ that is deep, rich, and meaningful. It’s a relationship built on an understanding that we can change our attitudes and behaviors as often as we want to and as often as we seek our Savior’s help.
Converted Mormons learn to trust the Lord. They learn to stretch themselves. They fight to be a little better today than they were yesterday because they understand that happiness is found in becoming your best self. They serve because they've been gifted love and compassion from that same God who first showered love and compassion on them.
Converted Mormons are not average, and this not a movie about average Mormons. It’s a movie about believers. It’s a movie about ordinary people who nevertheless have accomplished extraordinary things because they were "converted unto the Lord.” You’ll find the same thing in Catholicism (Father Flanagan), Judaism (Eva Kor), and Islam (Latifa Nabizada), among a host of other faiths. Simple people accomplish great things when they live the vibrant tenets of their respective faiths.
I loved Meet the Mormons because I trust the participants are sincere, though I’ve only met one of them (Gail Halvorsen, the original Candy Bomber). I trust they’re sincere because I know hundreds of converted Mormons just like them: farmers, bankers, mission presidents, and moms; ordinary people who have lived incredible lives of consecrated service. Meet the Mormons reminded me of something I've long known but often struggled to live by: I want to be a good person.      
If, in 78 minutes, a film can motivate me to do better and love others more completely, I’m calling that a success story.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Trouble with Noise

My friend and I pulled weeds in the garden in the morning. We watered our plants and erected some new tethers for the flailing peas. Then we made pancakes in the kitchen while listening to Julie London and Nat King Cole. It was serene.

The prior day's conversation with a roommate flashed through my mind--mutual frustration over loud, antagonistic sentiment surrounding the day's controversial issue. We heard it from friends and teachers. It was talked about in the stores. It was blasted across the internet with characteristic rage. It was everything work in the garden and jazz in the kitchen were not; it was hostile.

Unfortunately, it wasn't unusual. It was consistent with today's gaudy, self-aggrandizing culture. In this, an era of rollicking music, finger-pointing politics, boisterous newsfeeds, and pervasive individualism it was wholly expectable.

But none of that came to mind as I talked with my roommate. All I could think was that it was noisy...and I was getting a headache.

Popular music rumbles with synthesizers, bass, and even animal sounds. Katy Perry roars louder than a lion. Dierks Bentley gets drunk on a plane. Imagine Dragons screams about radioactive stuff. Sia swings from chandeliers (though I happen to like this last song).

Politics is no less attention-whoring. Choose Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh on the right or Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow on the left; the common denominator is a penchant for attention-grabbing antics and shallow debate.

Haven't had enough? Scroll through your Facebook newsfeed: today's "it" topic is Kate Kelly's excommunication. Yesterday it was Bowe Bergdahl, and before that "Frozen" conspiracy theories. Throngs flood Facebook and Twitter with crass status updates, stereotypical memes, and links to vapid blog posts.

Can you hear yourself think over all the screaming?

The trouble with noise is that loud voices drown out sensible ones. Thoughtful minds rarely need to yell to get their point across. You won't see good ideas staring you down in all caps, and they aren't interested in competing with trending topics for likes and shares.

The truth is right where you left it, in the eaves, on the sidelines, waiting to be discovered but unwilling to fight with divas and drama kings for the stage. If you really want the truth you've got to go find it. It won't come to you over the airwaves, on the television screen, or in the latest hullaballoo on Twitter. It might come to you in academic journals, histories, or quiet moments when you meditate and talk to God.

There is place for noise in our world, but have we become so attuned to it that we've forgotten the sound of silence?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

11 Books You Should Read in 2014

Reading has long been one of my favorite pastimes, but it is difficult to find time to read for pleasure when I am smothered by a stack of required textbooks and essays. I set a goal to read 15 books in 2013. I fell a little short, but no bother: I'm in the middle of D.Q. McInerny's promising Being Logical, and I will soon pick up Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Here, then, are 11 books I read in 2013 which you should peruse this new year. And if you've read something great, please leave a commentI love suggestions.

(1) Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky's gripping classic considers the meaninglessness of responsibility in a culture in the clutches of nihilism. Who is to blame for the brutal murder of two hapless women in St. Petersburg? Is it communism? Is it Russia? Is it Raskolnikov, the story's sorry protagonist? Crime and Punishment is an exhausting journey through the muddled mind of a man betrayed by his actions and encouraged by a complacent culture.

(2) Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would, Chad Thompson
Many Christians aren't living up to Christ's injunction to love all men, including gay men and lesbian women. That's the conclusion Thompson reaches in this important book. National trends seem to indicate increasing polarization between Christians and gays. Somewhere in the middle is the love and light of Christ, often withheld from or rebuffed by one or both groups. As followers of Christ, Christians should be at the forefront in offering love, understanding, and empathy to homosexuals. 

(3) The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis
The chilling conversations between Screwtape and nephew Wormwood, both devils enlisted in the service of Satan, will make you think twice before deliberately engaging in sin. Petty gossip isn't all that petty and white lies are actually pretty colorful, we discover, as Lewis challenges the casual Christian to think about the meaning of his or her deliberate actions. In an increasingly immoral world we have to choose sides. Complacency is victory for the devil and his minions.

(4) 13 for Luck, Agatha Christie
This delightful collection of short stories from the undisputed Queen of Crime is sure to please. Revel in the genius of Hercule Poirot as he solves "The Market Basing Mystery." Wonder at the wisdom of Jane Marple in "The Blue Geranium." And don't be surprised when Inspector Evans uncovers an "Accident." Classic Christie, through and through.

(5) Night, Elie Wiesel
Words are insufficient to describe the story Wiesel himself said couldn't be told in words. His haunting narrative will hardly seem incomplete, thoughin barely 100 pages he explicates the atrocities and agonies of Nazi prison camps. Why does he do it? Silence aids the enemy. Integrity demands that fallen Jews are not forgotten.

(6) Time and Psychological Explanation, Brent Slife
Western culture takes for granted its assumption of a world defined by linear time. How might we treat each other differently if we rejected this assumption? In what other ways might one interpret the world? Slife's masterpiece is an important alternative voice in a field and culture dominated by deterministic thinking.

(7) Following Christ, Stephen Robinson
The invitation to follow Christ is an invitation to have a meaningful relationship with Christ. Robinson illustrates this central theme of Christianity through a series of engaging parables. Atonement is not merely some historical event we turn to in times of crisis. Rather, Atonement is the active, vibrant love of a Savior who understands. He loves, He heals, He cares, and He forgives in the here and now. 

(8) Quiet, Susan Cain
Introverts often feel alone in a culture obsessed with "the extrovert ideal." Susan Cain demystifies the supposed superiority of extroversion by showing how other cultures view introverts. Extroverts and introverts, Cain argues, should build on each other's strengths, and both personality types should be nurtured and appreciated. Show some love for the introverts in your life: give them Quiet.

(9) The Double Helix, James Watson
The famed scientist who, along with a group of colleagues, discovered DNA is equal parts humorous, scientific, and carefree in The Double Helix. For non-chemists like me it will be hard to hurdle through the technical humdrum, but Watson's conclusions are worth the abbreviated wait. His camp's sheer joy upon discovering DNA is matched only by the well-deserved posthumous nod to Rosalind Franklin, who died before the others were awarded Nobel Prizes. 

(10) Sophie's World, Jostein Gaarder
Sophie's whimsical journey through the history of philosophy is a welcome introduction to a discipline rarely studied and even less rarely understood. It's been said, "You can either do it well or you can do it poorly, but you can't not do philosophy." Here, Gaarder does it well.

(11) Turning Freud Upside Down, Jackson, Fischer and Dant
The problem with Freud and most of his contemporary cohorts is they don't account for human agency. Most people feel their choices imply responsibility. Most people believe they are guided or at least created by a higher power. Modern psychology rejects these assumptions and postulates instead a world defined by necessary determinism. The title is an allusion to Isaiah's prophecy that the restoration of the gospel would turn upside down conventional thought. This essential volume demonstrates that to be the case.