Monday, September 16, 2013

"Be Still, My Soul"

The following is a formalized version of my recent sacrament talk.

Possessing what one economist calls the "tragic vision of the human condition"[1] (meaning I typically see the world through trade-offs rather than full-blown solutions), I tend to be a bit more cynical than I probably should be. Yet, despite this cynicism, I am fairly optimistic about the future of peace by means of human progress. But why? This may seem like a rather hopeless and irrational optimism (President Monson once called world peace "a lofty goal"),[2] especially when one looks back at some of the horrors of the 20th century: World War I & II, Korea, Vietnam, both Iraq Wars, and our most recent military entanglements to just name a few. However, when one surveys the literature on trends in global violence and armed conflict over the centuries, it is surprising to find that they are actually going down.

From Pinker, WSJ, 2011

While many reasons for this decline have been proposed--from Enlightenment values to more efficient peacekeeping efforts--one of the most powerful explanations is the interdependence created by global trade and the economic development it brings about.[3] Conflict is reduced when nations are more open with each other. A nation that was once considered an enemy or potential threat is now seen as a partner or even a friend (at least to some degree). "Friendship," according to Joseph Smith, "is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism."[4] It also seems to be the path to peace. And while most nations engaged in peaceful transactions merely tolerate each other, it's a start. Many siblings (especially those close in age) first tolerate each other as they mature and learn to truly love each other. Many of the quarrels between siblings are the same ones between nations. My wife still remembers finding her Britney Spears CD in her sister's purse, covered in chewed bubblegum. Nations would call this the theft and destruction of precious resources.

However, "peace" in the scriptures is not simply the opposite of war (sometimes war is used in the Old Testament as a form of divine judgment). Nor does it seem to be anything that can be granted by this fallen world. As the Savior said to His apostles, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you" (John 14:27). Peace of this nature comes from Christ Himself. Raymond Brown, one of the most prestigious scholars of the Gospel of John, explained,

The peace of which Jesus speaks has nothing to do with the absence of warfare (indeed it will come only after the world has been conquered: xvi 33), nor with an end to psychological tension, nor with a sentimental feeling of well-being...[T]he peace of Jesus is a gift that pertains to man's salvation...In Johannine language "peace," "truth," "light," "life," and "joy" are figurative terms reflecting different facets of the great gift that Jesus has brought from the Father to men. "'Peace' is my gift to you" is another way of saying "I give them eternal life" (x 28).[5]

This is what Elder Cook recognized as "the doctrinal difference between universal or world peace and personal peace."[6] The Hebrew shalom is translated as "peace" and, as is typical, carries a much more comprehensive meaning than its English counterpart. As one scholar notes, "The Hebrew word for derived from a root denoting wholeness or completeness, and its frame of reference throughout Jewish literature is bound up with the notion of...perfection. Its significance is thus not limited to the political domain-to the absence of war and enmity-or to the social-to the absence of quarrel and strife. It ranges over several spheres and can refer in different contexts to bounteous physical conditions, to a moral value, and, ultimately, to a cosmic principle and divine attribute. In the Bible, the word shalom is most commonly used to refer to a state of affairs, one of well-being, tranquility, prosperity, and security, circumstances unblemished by any sort of defect. Shalom is a blessing, a manifestation of divine grace."[7] According to the Talmudic Sages, peace was "the ultimate purpose of the whole Torah," "the essence of the prophetic tiding...and of redemption," as well as the name of the Holy One, Israel, and the Messiah.[8] Shalom possesses moral attributes, which are rooted in God's character, within a covenantal framework. It is in part a relationship that is both God-to-man and man-to-man. It is, in a sense, Zion: a community at-one. And while this peace can be experienced in the here-and-now, it will ultimately bloom into a fuller establishment of God's salvation and kingdom.[9] In other words, shalom is the creation as God intended it to be.

Elder Cook taught, "Peace is not just safety or lack of war, violence, conflict, and contention. Peace comes from knowing that the Savior knows who we are and knows that we have faith in Him, love Him, and keep His commandments, even and especially amid life’s devastating trials and tragedies."[10] One of the most potent examples of this to me is the visitation of the Savior in 3 Nephi. After violent upheavals and destruction throughout the land followed by days in utter darkness, the resurrected Lord appears to a remnant of His people. The darkness has been dispersed. The destruction has ceased. Here, the long-awaited Messiah stands before them; the epitome of their hope in the flesh. He blesses their children. He puts their minds and hearts at ease. He heals the conflict between two families, two nations. He teaches them. He prays with and for them. He condemns contention and divisions and promotes unity. And, in one of the more moving passages, He stays with them simply because they wanted Him to. He heals their sick because His "bowels [were] filled with compassion..." (3 Nephi 17:6). This was a Being who knew pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; who had taken on the pains and sicknesses and infirmities of His people. And He had tasted the bitterness of death (see Alma 7:11-12). Yet, He had overcome. "He is," as the late Truman Madsen put it, "the revelation of the Father, not because "two natures" are combined but because He is now exactly like the Father in nature. He is the revelation of man, not because he has condescended to act like one but because He has now become what man may become."[11] Jesus showed His people "the highest possible order of existence"--one of love, compassion, and harmony--and they entered into a state of shalom for the next 200 years.[12]

In both Christ's Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and Sermon at the Temple in 3 Nephi, He states, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:9; cf. 3 Nephi 12:9). Notice the similarities of His teaching and the blessings toward the end of the same chapters: "Love your enemies [who else do we really make peace with?], bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven...Be ye therefore perfect [remember shalom's connection to perfection], even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Matt. 5:44-45, 48; cf. 3 Nephi 12:44-45, 48). A wholeness of person, a wholeness of life is achieved when we learn to love not merely our friends, but our enemies as well. Joseph Smith taught, "A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race."[13] "Perfect love casteth out fear" (1 John 4:18); the fear that stifles peace. It is when we fill our life with the Savior's love--both by receiving it and channeling it--that we begin to experience the peace that the gospel can bring.

This is a hard goal. Near impossible, it seems. Is peace only found once we learn to love perfectly? Thankfully, the answer is 'no' according to President Uchtdorf:

Isn’t it wonderful to know that we don’t have to be perfect to experience the blessings and gifts of our Heavenly Father? We don’t have to wait to cross the finish line to receive God’s blessings. In fact, the heavens begin to part and the blessings of heaven begin to distill upon us with the very first steps we take toward the light. The perfect place to begin is exactly where you are right now. It doesn’t matter how unqualified you may think you are or how far behind others you may feel. The very moment you begin to seek your Heavenly Father, in that moment, the hope of His light will begin to awaken, enliven, and ennoble your soul. The darkness may not dissipate all at once, but as surely as night always gives way to dawn, the light will come.[14]

The above is instructive. I often fear that many of us interpret what seems to be a lack of peace as unrighteousness on our part. The stresses and pains of the world weigh us down and we add an extra load of guilt because we interpret the weight as a lack of faith. Living the gospel does not necessarily bring an overwhelming sense of peace felt at all times that blocks any experience of pain and suffering. This can hardly be the case as long as we live in a fallen world. President Uchtdorf notes that the gospel "teaches us the things we must know, do, and be to walk in His light, following the footsteps of His Beloved Son, our Savior."[15] If we are to follow the Savior, we should look at what He experienced. Jesus had more certainty, more discipline, and more perfection than any of us. He lived His life in a way that brought peace and love to others. Yet, He wept for Jerusalem. He wept for His friends. He prayed that the cup might pass. He knows exactly what it is like to have peace interrupted by the evils of the world. As we follow His footsteps, our experience will be similar. In my own experience, living the gospel provides moments and glimpses of real, authentic peace. But that is all they are: glimpses. Until the time when the Savior "shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain" (Rev. 21:4), peace in the fullest sense cannot be realized. But those brief moments can fuel our hope and enlarge our faith. It can provide us with renewed strength to face a world that is full of anguish and sorrow and inspire us to bring beauty and joy to it. "Could you gaze into heaven five minutes," taught Joseph Smith, "you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject."[16] For me, one of my favorite descriptions of this kind of experience is found in Jim Butcher's urban fantasy novel Summer Knight. Harry Dresden, Chicago PI and professional wizard, brings his wounded friend to one of the Summer Queens, a magical being with healing powers and the employer of Dresden's friend. Upon arrival, Dresden is told that, of the two, he is the most "grievously wounded." Baffled, Dresden objects, but the Summer Queen insists: "You need to heal, wizard. Let me help you."

…Her palm pressed a bit closer to me, and somewhere inside me a dam broke open. Emotions welled up like a riotous rainbow. Scarlet rage, indigo fear, pale blue sadness, aching yellow loneliness, putrid green guilt. The tide flooded through me, coursed over me like a bolt of lightning, searing and painful and beautiful all at once. And after the tide receded, a deep, quiet stillness followed. A sensation of warmth suffused me, gently easing away my aches and bruises. It spread over my skin, like sunlight on a lazy afternoon outside, and with the warmth my cares began to evaporate. My fear vanished, and I began to relax muscles I hadn’t realized were stretched tight as the warmth spread. I floated in warmth for a time, the release from pain an ecstasy in itself…The pain began to return to my body, thoughts, and heart, like some quiet and odious tide washing in garbage from a polluted sea. I heard myself make a small sound of protest.

[She] looked down at me, her eyes concerned. “Worse even than I suspected. You didn’t even realize how much pain you were in, did you?”

My chest heaved and I let out a quiet sob. The warmth faded entirely, and the sheer weight of the difficulties I had to face pressed down on me, suffocating me…Real tears formed, making my vision blur. I mopped at my face with my hands, struggling to think clearly. 

..."Forget it," I said, my voice weak. "I've got a job to do."[17]

This has been my experience. A brief moment of real peace and then the weight of the world returns. Yet, each time it does, it feels a little lighter. And I know "I've got a job to do."  

Mormon culture, for all the things I love about it, has an unfortunate tendency to create an unhealthy amount of pressure and shame regarding our current spiritual status. A kind of spiritual "keeping up with the Joneses." This can potentially damage our relationship with God and others and hinder our ability to love, ridding us of peace. But as a friend of mine wrote

The reality is this: if we are sincere in our quest to be disciples of God, we will lose a taste for things that are not Celestial. It’s unnecessary and unhelpful to lash ourselves into a frenzy to try and vault to perfection in one leap. We lack the sensitivity to even know what that means. It would be like trying to waltz without proprioception: futile, grotesque, and ultimately expressing a lack of faith and a lack of humility. We are telling God: “You are not working in me fast enough.” ...I firmly believe in patiently accepting God’s influence as, through the slow process of lived experience, He makes me into something better than I can imagine for myself.
May we choose to start now. May we receive those moments of peace and may we love others enough to bring those moments to them.

Be still, my soul: The hour is hast'ning on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

- Dave Douglas (feat. Aoife O'Donovan), "Be Still My Soul," Be Still (Greenleaf, 2012)

1. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, Revised Edition (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 27.

2. Thomas Monson, "The Path to Peace," General Conference, April 1994.

3. For information on the decline of wars and violence, see the essays in Cato Unbound – The Great Peace: Why is Armed Conflict on the Wane? (Feb. 2011); Azar Gat, "Is War Declining--and Why?" Journal of Peace Research 50:2 (2012); Steven Pinker, “Violence Vanquished,” The Wall Street Journal (Sept. 24, 2011); Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Natures: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011); Joshua Goldstein, "Think Again: War," Foreign Policy (Sept/Oct 2011); Goldstein, Pinker, "War Really Is Going Out of Style," The New York Times (Dec. 17, 2011). For information specifically on the impact of global trade on peace, see Indra De Soysa, Hanne Fjelde, “Is the Hidden Hand an Iron Fist? Capitalism & Civil Peace, 1970-2005,” Journal of Peace Research 47:3 (2010); Indra De Soysa, “The Capitalist Civil Peace: Some Theory and Empirical Evidence,” in High-Value Natural Resources and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding, ed. P. Lujala, S.A. Rustad (London: Earthscan, 2011); Erik Gartzke, “The Capitalist Peace,” American Journal of Political Science 51:1 (2007); Michael Strong, “Peace Through Access to Entrepreneurial Capitalism for All,” Journal of Business Ethics 89 (2009); Jong-Wha Lee, Ju Hyun Pyun, “Does Trade Integration Contribute to Peace?” Asian Development Bank Working Paper, Series on Regional Economic Integration 24 (Jan. 2009); Jong-Wha Lee, Ju Hyun Pyun, “Globalisation Promotes Peace,” (March 21, 2009);  Edward Stringham, “Commerce, Markets, and Peace: Richard Cobden’s Enduring Lessons,” The Independent Review 9:1 (2004); Erich Weede, “The Diffusion of Prosperity and Peace by Globalization,” The Independent Review 9:2 (2004);  Edward Peter Stringham, John Levendis, “The Relationship Between Economic Freedom and Homicide,” Economic Freedom of the World: 2010 Annual Report, ed. James D. Gwartney, Joshua C. hall, Robert Lawson (Fraser Institute, 2010).

4. Quoted in Don Bradley, "'The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism': Joseph Smith's Unfinished Reformation," Sunstone (April 2006): 33.

5. Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible – The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI) (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 653.

6. Quentin L. Cook, "Personal Peace: The Reward of Righteous Living," General Conference, April 2013.

7. Aviezar Ravitzky, "Peace," 20th Century Jewish Religious Thought: Original Essays on Critical Concepts, Movements, and Beliefs, ed. Authur Cohen, Paul Mendes-Flohr (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), 685.

8. Ibid., 686.

9. See Willard M. Swartley, Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), Ch. 2.

10. Cook, 2013. 

11. Truman G. Madsen, "Joseph Smith and the Sources of Love" in his Four Essays on Love (Provo, UT: Communications Workshop, 1971), 11.

12. Ibid. 

13. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Provo: Deseret Book, 1938), 174.

14. Dieter Uchtdorf, "The Hope of God's Light," General Conference, April 2013. 

15. Ibid.

16. TPJS, 324.

17. Jim Butcher, Summer Knight (New York: ROC, 2002), 168-169.

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