Thursday, March 24, 2011

Happiness and commandments

What follows is a wonderful guest post by my friend Krista Richardson. Its a sermon she gave last month in her ward. I really like it for several reasons. This talk is beautifully written and reflects the wonderful creative way she has of dealing with her topic. Also, I don't know if Krista is all that familiar with the work of Abraham Heschel but I am reminded of of what Heschel said about commandments. He wrote that commandment are a "call to creativity" telling us that its up to us to find the ways to inhabit our religious practice that allows us to find the nobility and holiness that is made possible in them. I think Krista is is giving us a similar message. Read it, ponder, Enjoy.

There’s an old argument about the nature of human beings—a very old argument--about whether we are born moral, with the tools to choose between good and evil, or whether we’re at the mercy of our circumstances--whether we are capable of cultivating peace within ourselves, and by extension happiness, or whether we need a leader who will force us to keep order. (Locke vs. Hobbes, Christ vs. Lucifer)

It’s obvious which side our Savior invites us to join, and I’m happy to say that happiness is the birthright not just of those born into a free society, but to every child of God.

Nephi tells us that we’re created for joy. Joseph Smith likewise said that “happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping the commandments of God.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith [1976], 255–56).

In Moses 5 we read Adam’s prophesy that he would have joy in this life and see God in the flesh.

(And in that day Adam blessed God and was afilled, and began to bprophesy concerning all the families of the earth, saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my ctransgression my deyes are opened, and in this life I shall have ejoy, and again in the fflesh I shall see God.)

Joy is a gift that, through the Atonement, we can think of in terms of the lives we’re living now, not just as a promised future reward.

James E. Faust gave a talk ten years ago in which he refers to happiness as an innate quality. It’s already there; we just need to access it. He warns us against thinking of it as, “a package that we can just open up and consume. Nobody is ever happy 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Rather than thinking in terms of a day, we perhaps need to snatch happiness in little pieces.”
What is it that taps into our innate core of happiness? We call them gospel principles, but someone unfamiliar with our terminology might say, doing good to our fellow man; living in tune with God: welcoming his influence to become a part of our daily experience, and ultimately to shape who we are.

Like any of the gospel principles that make it possible, happiness can become a habit. Principles only really become practice when we embrace them, and make them a part of us.

There’s a poet, Louise Gluck, whose poem, “Celestial Music” I read many years ago. And of all the other lines I’ve read and forgotten, I remember these:

“I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
On earth she’s unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.”

The two friends walk down a road together talking about how it is possible that sadness and light can exist in the world, and how her friend’s faith makes her see beauty everywhere.

She continues:

“In my dreams, my friend reproaches me. We're walking
On the same road, except it's winter now;
She's telling me that when you love the world you hear celestial music:”
Just as Elder Faust says we can “snatch happiness” in bursts, I think it’s possible to order it a la carte. In other words, we can test principles of holiness by being honest, kind, helpful and forgiving, and experience the good results. But that’s not a perfect system. There is opposition in the world, and fairness isn’t to be relied on.

So if we only do good in hope of the reward, or if we rely on others for our happiness, we’ll be disappointed. Brigham Young asked, “Do you think that people will obey the truth because it is true, unless they love it? No, they will not” (in Journal of Discourses, 7:55).

So how do we grow to love what’s right? I suppose by trust and hope—in other words, by beginning with faith, the first principle of our gospel.

Have you noticed that, by taking the Spirit on us, we see the world differently? We see more good. We feel inspired by ideas for improving our lot and the lives of others. We can bear up under enormous loads of fear, tragedy, and doubt. Even through the darkness we can experience transcendent beauty, hope, and joy, and we can live worthy lives. If we endure to the end in this way, we can become like god.

We know from Moses that, in our current state, we can’t even stand in the presence of God without withering. We have to be transfigured by grace. Even now, in our fallen state, living gospel principles can change us too, until we are more than the sum of our good and bad choices, but have become, as Paul says, a “new creature.”

That’s what I would like to be. I am longing to reconcile what I am with what I could be. When I reflect on myself—which I do alarmingly often the older I get—I find that this is my greatest source of frustration: that I am not what I could be.
As much as I long to change my whole being, I am still at that stage of ordering happiness a la carte, sometimes just coasting along. I read Solomon’s words in Proverbs 3, and felt inspired:

My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments:

For length of days, and along life, and bpeace, shall they add to thee.
Let not mercy and atruth forsake thee: bbind them about thy neck; write them upon the ctable of thine dheart.
These thoughts of transformation took me back to memories of a painting class I once took. The teacher showed us a painting by Henri Matisse, called “The Green Stripe.” It’s a portrait of the artist’s wife and right down the center of her face is a line of green paint.

Well, my eyesight has never been the same. For the rest of the semester I couldn’t paint anything without seeing all of these unexpected colors in the subjects. When I talked with people I would be looking at the purple and green and grey in their faces. I wasn’t seeing green stripes, but I was seeing that there are a lot more colors inside skin tone than I ever had imagined.
If we can see gospel principles for what they are—the stuff of happy lives—they can illuminate our vision. They change the way we see everything.

I asked some friends of mine who are established artists in various fields, from painting to poetry to filmmaking to music, if they could corroborate that experience of having their sight changed by their artistic training and practice.
One artist, a painter and photographer, told me how looking through a lens had changed her perception of “the way light comes in through a window—bursting or falling lightly.” She sees beauty in the cement peeling on her studio walls, or “the blooms left by an ink spill.”

We talk about pure intelligence flowing through us and I imagine it as a current of water—we just have to step in its path to feel it. I have felt this way when reading the scriptures. I’m sure you can relate with the experience of looking at the words, but not really seeing them. Instead of the particular message on the page your mind can feel flooded with inspiration: in my experience, it might come as specific and urgent ideas about someone I should call, some project I should start, or some service I should offer.

I think that’s a wonderful thing. I think the gospel can open up to us that way: when we endeavor to live by it, we step into its current and it can sweep us forward if we let it.

A filmmaker I asked described his understanding of his artistic vision this way: “it’s the emotional resonance of a filmic image that counts most.” Finding that poetic image “is about observation. It uses the stuff of everyday life as its source material but in being closely observed, and becoming an image, daily life is transformed; it becomes unique, takes on a sense of wonder, and its emotional content is brought forth.”

For the artist, “the experience of daily life, then, is to move through the world seeking out the wonder manifest in … transformative opportunities; and to use it in satisfying ways.”
If we look at the first principles and ordinances, as defined by our 4th article of faith, it’s easy to see that each of them is an opportunity designed to transform us.

FAITH: is a transformative opportunity.

My brother has a poster in his office that says, “I WANT TO BELIEVE.” There’s a picture of a flying saucer hovering above it.
I feel that way sometimes. I always wince a little at the poem I quoted earlier, because I feel myself in the position of the women who, with all she knows, literally talks to God. The implications of the poet or the sympathetic reader seems to be, how utterly deluded that woman is.

In the text of my graduate thesis on poetry of spirituality, I confessed that I had a personal stake in uncovering poetic worship in contemporary poetry. Historically poetry has deep roots in devotion and worship, but modern poetry more often takes on themes of doubt. I wanted to uncover, amidst all the doubt, some devotion, or some faithful grappling with spiritual themes. I wanted to know others felt the same way I did. I wanted backup.
I am happy to say that I did find some, although in all my hope and optimism about finding a community of believers in literature, I also had to face up to the fact that faith sometimes asks for our willingness to stand alone. It could even mean that sometimes we will appear naïve, or weak to others or even to ourselves. Otherwise, faith could become just a symbol of some lovely, but archaic idea.

As part of a routine class exercise I once brought in a poem one day by an ancient poet. It referred to the practice of sending a departed loved one out to sea on a funeral boat, to meet his creator, and the words were really powerful from a purely artistic point of view. There was quiet for a minute while people appreciated the poem, and then another student in the program said that he found belief really lovely, and that he wished he could have real faith in a god. He implied that, at some point, you can learn too much to believe anymore--that if you can’t return to a state of blissful ignorance, you can’t have faith.
And that’s what I think is really miraculous about faith. It can and must exist in the presence of knowledge. And even when lost, it can be restored. I know this because I have felt my own faith renewed over and over again; and sometimes this feels unexpected, but usually not. I’ve come to rely on the return of faith: when I ask for it—when I seek it out, I have always found that the Spirit of God testifies freely of the existence of good, the power of righteousness and the reward of coming to him.
I want to believe. I choose to believe. And in this way I feel that my faith in the mystery, beyond what I know, really can transform me into a creature of greater depth: a person for whom there is always something to learn and discover—even, maybe, into a person who is able to face unpleasantness with hope.

Why is faith not stupid? Because it’s informed. God does not ask us to believe without testing, and he wants us to learn all we can. “Prove all things,” he invites us through Paul.

Why is faith not naïve? Because it relies on works to fulfill its purpose. Because it seeks to do, not just to be.
Why is faith not weak? Because it has the power to transform us into greater, more powerful beings. It can lead us to action. How have the great civil rights leaders of our time made such strides if not for faith, and the belief in mankind’s innate right to happiness?

Indeed, how else has any great evil been overcome, but by the belief that goodness can and must win?
During the second World War the Polish poet, Zbigniew Herbert, was a known dissenter who resisted the Nazi invasion of Poland and was later—after years of exile in France—celebrated in his own country for speaking out against the Nazis. In a poem called, “The Power of Taste,” he very modestly says,

“It did not take any great character
our refusal dissent and persistence
we had a scrap of necessary courage
but essentially it was a matter of taste”

It was who he was, with his taste for goodness and humanity, that made him act against evil—not any single act of courage-- although I’m sure that was there too.

That kind of integrity, which defines a person more than the sum of his or her actions, is the best result of living gospel principles. It creates a home for joy. A heart that is converted, a changed heart, signifies the new creature that Paul teaches about in his 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”
The gospel reconciles man to God, and these principles, faith and repentance first among them, are the bridge to him.
This 5th chapter means so much to me. I know so much less now than I did in my twenties, when I was so self-assured. I feel a steady decline in wisdom and knowledge every year. That’s probably not true and I realize it’s probably not true, and yet it feels true.

I’ve struggled and felt separation from Heavenly Father. I have needed that bridge back to him.

The moment you finally realize that being yourself means being imperfect can be either humbling or fully disabling. But Paul’s words make it possible for me to imagine a better self, “not made of hands,” but made “eternal in the heavens,”

“For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven.”

When I think of joyful living, of living with faith, of having hope in things unseen, I think of the great capacity of our imaginations. Our Creator made us creative like he is. He gave us the scriptures to foretell what “could be,” and in our imaginations we can carry that vision forward.

The human imagination is powerful. It helps us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to foresee consequences and dangers, and to picture people—including ourselves—as our best possible selves. And so we can imagine a perfect world: lives untouched by addiction, injury, hatred or fear. Where death is always followed by life. Where beauty overwhelms ugliness, and where we can be forgiven and find a bridge back to God.

REPENTANCE: is a transformative opportunity. Repentance is about embracing humility to see, as Moses did, that we are nothing alone. Repentance is a willingness to change for the better, and begins with a longing to be more than we are.
My painter friend described her creative process as “responsive.”

“I do something to the canvas, then continue to work on it until I’ve resolved the mess I’ve made. Even when I start with an idea of how I want the piece to turn out, I work responsively, altering the plan, ruining it as much as I am creating it. The finished piece rarely turns out like the original image in my mind. My training has allowed me to take the ruined parts and turn them into something I find very beautiful.”

I like that as a model for repentance. When does life turn out the way we expect it to? Our imaginations, goals, and commitments set us on our way. But something goes wrong. It’s not what we pictured. We have to transform, or be lost. Repentance is one of the surest ways back to our innate happiness.

BAPTISM is another transformative opportunity. Among other things, baptism is a willingness to join and declare our discipleship. I confess: I am not by nature a joiner. I am a loner.

And so I thank Heavenly Father for the organization that brings me together with people. As a child you don’t think much about how different you are from your friends: you think of what you share. As an adult I feel my difference more keenly and it’s easy to put people into compartments and to put up barriers that block relationships from developing. My approach to friendship making has often been to wait for it: to let others come to me, or let circumstances bring me together with people. It’s kind of like being in a ship on the ocean, waiting for another ship to bump up next to me: maybe it’ll happen and maybe it won’t!
This church discourages that kind of passivity. I’ve welcomed that and through my effort, and the efforts of others, I’ve been blessed with fantastic transformative friendships, and a feeling of belonging that outshines membership in any club.
HAVING THE HOLY GHOST: is a transformative experience.

I confess that I don’t just feel ‘that feeling’ (that we call the Spirit) when I’m thinking or talking about my religious faith. I feel it everywhere, in all the places where good inspires men and women to do god-like things.

I feel it when I sit in a classroom and another person stands up to teach me something.

I feel it in the painful recognition that not all of God’s children have what they need to physically survive in this beautiful but unforgiving world: because I have felt the Spirit with me in my time of need, I know that God is there too. And he is forgiving.
This way of seeing the world as an interconnected family of peoples and destinies, that gift from Heavenly Father, feels profoundly human to me and I know that he extends it to every one of his children, without exception.

This is a big topic—much bigger than I am—and I can only testify to you that these gospel principles do bring happiness. I wouldn’t call it an unmitigated happiness. I think that when we finally learn to live in complete harmony with our principles, and have complete integrity, we can experience that joy because of Christ’s Atonement. In the meantime, we suffer the dissonance between what we want to be and what we really are: imperfect creatures.

Here is an area I can speak to personally because I feel this pain regularly. Sometimes it feels like I could fall into complete despair and be disabled from pushing forward. My faith wavers. My desire gets clouded. My courage falters.

And then, there it is in front of me: that greatest gospel principle, the Atonement.

It is the ultimate transformative experience. When we enter into a partnership with Jesus Christ, taking on his grace to compensate for our shortcomings even as he takes on our sins, we may feel that joy he promises.

In closing I want to bear testimony that faith and repentance and the Atonement will always be the principles we reach for, because they apply to every situation.

How can I teach my children who they are, where they come from, and what is expected of them? Prayers, scripture study, honesty, love

When my children suffer from painful illnesses, and I alone can give comfort, how do I make it through? Hope, kindness, sacrifice, longsuffering, prayer

When family members go through bouts of deep depression and can’t find their own way back to happiness? Endurance, love, forgiveness, humility, prayer

How do we make it through difficult parts of our relationships, marriages or family life, when it’s very hard to understand one another? Honesty, charity, forgiveness, love

These principles are practical. And they do bring happiness, although sometimes I think happiness equals the strength to make it through another 10 minutes. Until we become that new person inside and out, we keep practicing, not with the hope of a reward or the expectation that everything will work out the way we picture, but because acts of goodness and virtue are their own reward.

I will close with the words of Christ at the last supper, just after he has bent to wash his disciples’ feet: “And if ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”