Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

The Zen Of Moving Chairs

Posted by Shawn L on February 11, 2008

ZenAs a young missionary in the MTC, I expended a lot of energy worrying about the relative strength of my testimony. I was raised in the Church, my whole family (at that time, at least) was fully active, and I was excited finally to be heading out to Guatemala to serve. But I was troubled because I felt as though something was missing. For me, the issue was not whether I had a testimony, but whether it was sufficiently buttressed with spiritual experiences. Hoping to see tangible fruit borne of Moroni’s promise, I nightly prayed fervently for a sign — something physical, something remarkable — to cement my testimony, to give me the ability to state, without hesitation, that “I know the Book of Mormon is true.” I honestly believed that, if I prayed hard enough, it was simply a matter of time. I knelt in the dark for long periods after I had finished, just waiting.

And after nine weeks of this . . . nothing happened. Well, not “nothing” — my testimony did grow and I felt closer to the Lord than I ever had. But I still felt let down — why didn’t I merit a life-altering, veil-thinning sort of experience? Isn’t that my entitlement as a faithful seeker? In the many years since I left the MTC, I have often pondered the question, what do we do when we don’t receive the spiritual confirmation for which we are earnestly searching? For me, the answer has come from an unexpected, and positively mundane, source.

Ours is a religion fueled by fantastic supernatural narratives. I’m not talking about garden-variety “burning in the bosom” experiences. I mean heaven-opening, mountain-moving events: God and Christ appearing to Joseph in the Sacred Grove; Christ and Old Testament prophets appearing to Joseph and Sidney in the Kirtland Temple; etc. Perhaps even more amazing is that we Mormons have the audacity to believe that such experiences are not limited to a select few, but are within the realm of possibility for us “regular” members, too. (Terryl Givens refers to this doctrinal notion as “dialogic revelation“).

I have come across many folks in the Church who have had such experiences. For example, the wife of one of my best pals tells of the night when she saw the spirit of her deceased grandfather at the crib of her newborn son. The experience was so powerful that she, a non-member at the time, came to be baptized and brought her husband back into full activity. Others have had similar experiences; a dream confirming the veracity of the Book of Mormon, for example. I imagine that some of you may have had such an experience (or at least know someone who has).

Not me. Again, don’t get me wrong, I have felt the presence of the Spirit in my life (depending the ebbs and flows of my own diligence), but never in the show-stopping way many others seem to. To be honest, this has troubled me since I first faced this issue as a young missionary. Am I not worthy of such an answer? Is this even an appropriate inquiry, or am I simply seeking signs?

In the absence of direct revelation, I have had to turn elsewhere for an answer. President McKay, who also wrestled with this issue as a young missionary, taught that spiritual confirmation comes “as a natural sequence to the performance of duty.” Or, as I read it, quit waiting for God talk back and get to work. When I first came across this nugget a few years back, it made perfect sense. Every Sunday, I am presented with service opportunities in the form of the dreaded pass-around sign-up sheet: “Babysitters needed for Homemaking,” “5 Elders needed to move the Jones family on Saturday morning.” To be honest, I used to look upon such tasks with dread. I have since shifted my perspective.

Beginning with my calling long ago as Elders Quorum President (a job from which I was mercifully released after 3.5 years), I have tried to get involved with as many of these non-noteworthy assignments as possible. In doing so, I have moved thousands of chairs, vacuumed acres worth of chapel carpet, and hefted dozens of very, very heavy armoires up very narrow stairwells (and, in the process, scraped layers of skin off every conceivable part of my body).

The payoff has far outweighed the accompanying aches and pains. When I serve alongside my fellow quorum members — whether we are collecting items for an auction to raise money for the youth or taking down tables after a Ward social — I have a unique opportunity to communicate with them in a non-Sunday environment. We’re not in our suits and ties, we’re not chasing after our rowdy kids, and we don’t have our “Sunday face” on. We might talk about what happened during last week’s lesson, but we are more likely to talk about politics or sports or any number of things that we simply don’t have the time to chat about while rushing from Sacrament meeting to our separate classes. In doing so, we really, truly get to know one another.

Both anciently and then again through Joseph Smith, Christ commanded us, his disciples, to “strengthen thy brethren.” In most instances, as I serve, I am the strengthened, rather than the strengther. And in this role, I have heard, albeit in a much softer voice, the answer I have been looking for. Serving alongside other dedicated priesthood holders of all stripes — liberal, conservative, some more faithful than others — confirms for me the validity of my beliefs. Put another way: mine is a testimony that, more often than not, is carried on the shoulders of long-suffering priesthood brethren, rather than upon the wings of angels. I’m perfectly OK with that — I don’t need a vision, I wear the worker’s seal with pride.

So, do I still hold out hope that, like President McKay, my prayers eventually will bring spiritual fireworks? Of course. But in the meantime, you won’t find on my knees simply waiting around for the answer. I’ll be with my brothers, hauling yet another load of chairs to the Stake Center, with a big grin on my face and a generous dollop of the Spirit in my heart.

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8 Responses to “The Zen Of Moving Chairs”

  1. […] Bosom:The Zen Of Moving Chairs: In the absence of direct revelation, I have had to turn elsewhere for an answer. President McKay, […]

  2. JB said

    Great post and I couldn’t agree more. What you mentioned made me think of a quote by President Hinckley that I heard while on my mission that, if I remember correctly, he was told by his father: “Forget yourself and go to work.” It’s a great principle and one I try to live (though fall short very often) in my life.

  3. BHodges said

    Fantastic post. Great personal essay.

  4. BHodges said

    You might like Bushman’s book Believing History, which has an essay that speaks similarly, of not experiencing a throne theophany or something, but of recognizing the voice of God by doing everyday duties.

  5. Kent said

    Shawn, your experience is almost exactly the same as my own. It is funny that I have prayed for such an anchoring experience recently too (I’m 32). I was asked to give a talk in sacrament meeting which led me to review my missionary journal where I actually did have a 97% unique “other” experience with the Spirit which fell from heaven and literally filled me to bursting while a member of the Seventy was teaching us. We actually knew the words he was about to speak before he said them and all of us missionaries just looked at each other in awe. I wrote in my journal that I would never again doubt the restoration, Joseph Smith, Christ, etc.

    What I realized from this experience is how relatively unimportant it has been in providing that anchor in my life (to the point where I had actually forgotten about it and its potency). Ultimately I found that my testimony has been built on the service and love I have experienced in the living of the gospel. Thanks for your perspective Shawn!

  6. Shawn L said

    Kent — intersting thoughts. Another way of looking at things is that by continuing to ask for a big show-stopper of a spiritual experience, I am (i) being selfish, and (ii) not giving enough credence to/giving God enough thanks for the many small miracles around me all the time.

  7. Marc L said

    Great post.

    It’s interesting how spiritual fireworks work. As the husband of the wife you mentioned in your post (seeing her dead great-grandfather), I have the unique opportunity to be the half of the marriage that didn’t get the spiritual fireworks.

    After all, it wasn’t I who saw the gathered spirits in white, circling our newborn son’s crib. I was simply “the husband.” Over the years I was wholly jealous of her entire experience. Wasn’t I the one that sat up many nights telling her about the intricacies of the plan of salvation? Wasn’t I the one who had worked hard to resist temptation as a traveling musician on the road? Surely I had some great Award waiting for me. Wasn’t I the one who had spent hours on my knees in supplication that I would know- with a surety- that the Book Of Mormon was true? Finally, wasn’t I the one who was the convert; who had made the direct and conscious choice to join the church, amidst all kinds of familial objections? Didn’t I deserve some spiritual fireworks?

    Yet here I was, simply another bystander to a “Grand Spiritual Event.” Heck, my wife didn’t even believe in this stuff before we met. She thought Mormon missionaries were students from the local Catholic school. She had a hard time believing Jesus had been a real man and had even lived. Why was she getting “E-ticket” spiritual ride?

    In the years hence, I’ve learned that being the recipient of these spiritual fireworks (this seems to have become a catch-phrase for me; thanks Shawn) carries its own burden. It requires the recipient to constantly affirm and examine what they’ve experienced. It requires them to relive it and re-evaluate it- to examine whether they now need to embark on building the ark or some other such endeavour.

    Meanwhile, I- like Shawn- just go about my duties being the even-keeled reminder of the basics. “Yes, honey, I really do think Joseph saw that vision in the grove…” “Yes, I really do think the Word of Wisdom is true…” etc. As we have learned in various teachings, even those who have these deep spiritual experiences aren’t just simply along for the ride, having been convinced of every gospel truth by virtue of their spiritual fireworks. No, they struggle too, just as much as we (who have had no such experience) do.

    So I’m no longer jealous. I don’t want to see some crazy spirit above my bed. That would bring the burden of always having to re-evaluate the truth of it. That would bring questions and searches for deeper meaning. Questions like, “Why did I see this?” “What does it mean?” “Do I have to do something special with my life now?” “Do I get into more trouble than somebody else, if I slip and do something I’m not supposed to do?”

    I’m fine with not seeing all that stuff. I just read my scriptures, I try to understand it all, I try to have faith and I try to be the best person I can. I go about the seemingly boring tasks of doing my lessons, trying to see my home teaching families and being a good father. In an odd way, I spiritually “hold down the fort” while my wife is off conversing with those beyond the veil. I’m ok with that.

  8. Shawn L said

    Marc: I agree on all points. I hope you don’t my co-opting your wife’s spiritual experience as blog fodder. I, too, have come to a peace with my spritual status.

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