Many Sparrows

Thoughts on Latter-Day Saint faith in the twenty-first century.

And it came to pass that we lived after the manner of happiness. 2 Nephi 5:27

We read this and we think that Nephi was having an easy time of life for about thirty years. We're wrong of course. In that thirty years they made swords to protect themselves from attackers. They were still having illnesses, they were still living a mortal life.

What does it mean to live in the manner of happiness?

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NOTE: During the COVID-19 Pandemic families have been invited to have sacrament meeting in our homes, with just our immediate family. This is done under the direction of the Bishop, with worthy priesthood holders officiating in the home. We don't actually print up programs and whatnot for our home sacrament meeting, but this is what it would look like if we did. There, I just explained the joke to death.

Conducting: Brother Dickson The Elder Pianist: Sister Dickson Chorister: Sister Dickson the Younger

Opening Hymn: Chosen by Sister Dickson Opening Prayer: Brother Dickson II

Sacrament Hymn: Chosen by Sister Dickson

Sacrament: Blessed by Brother Dickson the Elder Passed by Brother Dickson the Deacon

Testimonies

Closing Hymn: Chosen by Sister Dickson Closing Prayer: Brother Dickson the Second Youngest

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we get the story of Philip and Nathanael. Philip comes to his friend and tells him that

We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. John 1:45

Nathanael's response, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” sounds like the Chandler Bing of the New Testament. “Could this man BE any more Nazarene?”

Christ, who knows Nathanael perfectly, saw through his ironic persona and identified him immediately:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! John 1:47

In whom there is no guile! Oh. Wow. What a compliment! What high praise!

Nathanael, impressed perhaps by the Savior's ability to see to the heart, abandons his witty cynicism and confesses:

Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. John 1:49

I have loved this story since I was a child, not only because my name is Nathanial, not only because I have a bent toward the sarcastic, but because I would love to be called “Nathanial, in whom there is no guile!”

Think for a moment: What if Nathanael had stayed under that fig tree? What if he had let his dismissive attitude stop him from following Philip?

This is the danger of sarcasm, of cynicism. Sarcasm feels like a way to deal with a world that is hard, that is trying to hurt us. In reality, cynicism and sarcasm are a form of guile in which we are lying to ourselves about the world around us, and in so doing, cut ourselves off.

In shielding ourselves from disappointments and distresses, what do we miss out on? The answer, it seems, is everything.

C.S. Lewis knew this. Said he:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell. from 'The Four Loves' emphasis added

Shakespeare knew this. Hamlet remarked that Denmark was a terrible prison, and his friends disagreed. Hamlet conceded the point:

Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. (Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2)

Hamlet was ready to admit that Denmark could be a prison for him, but not for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They were in the same country, standing right next to each other. But to him it was the worst dungeon in all the world, while to them it was...well, perhaps he wasn't ready or willing to consider what it was to them.

It's easy to dislike things. It's a “safe” position, intellectually. Everything on this earth is imperfect, so we can mock anything. We could ask “Can there any good thing come out of NBC/Marvel/Apple/Google/Novels/Comics/Your Favorite State to Dump On/Your favorite country to dump on?”

What does it get us? What good does it do us?

Hamlet was fictional, and Shakespeare built Hamlet's prison around him. But how many people are living in a prison they built themselves? How many people have made it impossible for themselves to find joy in anything, because they've become so adept at heaping scorn on everything?

C.S. Lewis and Shakespeare were both talking about the same thing:

Anhedonia: inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. (Oxford Dictionary of English)

What's the solution?

I would suggest that there are two qualities we could foster in ourselves that would help:

  1. Humility
  2. Sincerity

And they are tightly connected.

Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child... Matthew 18:4

My youngest child is amazed and delighted by everything. Why not? The world is pretty amazing! From her perspective the world is mountains and the moon and unicorns! She can shout “Alexa, play 'happy people'” and her favorite song comes on instantly! And there's brothers to play with and dinner to eat and milk to drink and a trampoline to jump on and a plush dragon to snuggle and how could all these things exist in a world and you still call it a “prison”?

There are many people who don't have these nice things and we as adults need to be mindful that we are doing what we can to improve their situation. But does my ennui over the plight of someone I've never met improve that person's life? I would suggest that it is easier to enact positive change from a place of positivity, a place of child-like, Nathanael-like guilelessness.

So we need to become as a little child. If we see something that is interesting or impressive we need to say that it's impressive or interesting. We need to start from the position that the world around us is impressive, then work to make it more impressive for everyone.

Also, people are impressive. My youngest may be shy around people she hasn't met yet, but she's not afraid of them. We are teaching our children to be careful, not to follow strangers, not to get into vehicles without letting parents know, not to be foolish. But we aren't teaching them to fear everyone.

Most people are good. We know this, subconsciously. If we actually thought everyone else on earth was terrible we would never go outside. On some level we have accepted this, or else we have shut down completely. And our internal sense is right! Statistically, this is the safest time to be alive in recorded history. Whenever your childhood was, be it ten years ago or thirty, there was more violent crime then than there is now.

Yes we have urgent problems. Yes there are things we need to fix in our society. I'm not ignoring nor downplaying these things.

But it's okay for us to be grateful for the blessing of being alive right now. We can shed the ineffective armor of sarcasm and be honestly, humbly open to the blessings that surround us even as we seek to improve the world further.

And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee... Luke 12:16-20

This parable has taken on new meaning for me lately. For a long time this parable has hung around in my mind for two reasons:

  • It's a good reminder that everything we have is temporary, so don't get too attached to material stuff.
  • It has a person talking to their own soul. That's the kind of thing I always find amusing.

I've always felt a little sorry for the rich man in this story. He didn't really do anything wrong. He has worked hard (presumably. I've always thought of him as a moderately prosperous farmer, not a slum lord or whatever), and now he wants to sit back and enjoy the literal fruits of his labors. But instead he dies. And gets called a fool in the process.

In early December 2019, I was looking forward to a luxurious two week holiday break from work. I had worked hard all year. I had graduated with an MBA. And now I was looking at my two weeks of free time and I said to my soul, “Soul, thou hast worked hard, so for two weeks, take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”

Instead my son went into Diabetic Ketoacidosis, which was a surprise to us because we didn't know he was diabetic. As I watched my son gasp, nearly comatose, unable to speak clearly, stand up unaided, or even feed himself, it felt like my soul was being required of me that night. My wise wife asked some diabetic friends to test him, and we got him to the hospital. He is Type 1 diabetic, but he's handling it with incredible grace.

And now I understand this parable on a different level. The rich man in the parable wasn't called a fool for collecting goods, or even planning on a bigger barn. He was a fool because he was relying on his wealth to bring him peace.

And so was I.

I was planning on somehow extracting peace from my time away from the office. I had designed a future by myself, without thinking about what God had planned for me. I couldn't have known that my son's pancreas was at the end of its useful lifespan, but instead of being grateful for each day I was putting my stock in tomorrow, in my stored up vacation days.

The Myth of the New Normal

In the early days (well, we're still in the early days) I started thinking about how we would re-center on a new normal with my son's condition. Things will never be the same as they used to be, but for a while I was planning on, indeed putting stock in, things getting to a new place of equilibrium.

But is that even a real goal?

The movie Ratatouille has the following line:

Change is nature, the part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.

And, when I wrote that down, a few days before Christmas, It really resonated with me. I told myself, “Self, you get to decide when things change, and how they change.”

Thou fool.

There is much that is in our control, but not all. Many changes will come, regardless of my decisions. I can seek all day long for a “new normal”, or a sense of equilibrium, but what good does that do? If a disruption of my day throws me out of alignment, because there is no more normal, what good is it anyway?

So if a “new normal” isn't the goal, what is my goal?

I've been thinking about that and writing little notes to myself in my pocket notebook. Here's the best I've come up with.

Faith is being okay with change. Either God will change us, or we will stagnate. Change will be scary, but it still has to happen.

For me, this is the best answer to my desire for normality. Normality in this context means stagnation. It means I'm not growing. God has a better plan for me than I have for myself, and it's up to me to let Him be in charge.

Al Carraway has had similar thoughts recently, it seems. In her article Why Trusting God is Hard she speculates on why it's hard to give our life to a perfect God who loves us perfectly:

...it could mean uncharted, unmarked, unwanted paths. Giving it to God means an unexpected outcome. It could mean giving up comfort or passions. It’s hard because we don’t know where any of it will lead us.

So what's the answer? What is the perfect, pithy thing that will fix all of this?

I don't know. Here's what's helped me, though:

  • Don't be afraid to lean on people who love you. We have had so much love poured out upon us from people around us, both inside the church and out.
  • Take it easy on yourself and accept that some days you're not okay.

And finally, Verse Two of Be Still, My Soul:

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake To guide the future as He has the past. Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake; All now mysterious shall be bright at last. Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be Still, My Soul in the Lutheran Hymnal

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear... —1st John 4:18

But how? What don't I understand about the relationship between God and myself that makes me so prone to fear sometimes?

I'm afraid of so many things. For six months after we moved into our house I would lay awake at night, worrying about everything. What if the house burned down and I couldn't get my kids out? What if someone broke in? What if the floor gave way and my bed landed on my kids? What if what if what if what if what if what if????

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...And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.

And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.

And it came to pass that so great was their faith and their patience that the voice of the Lord came unto them again, saying: Be of good comfort, for on the morrow I will deliver you out of bondage. Mosiah 14:14-16

This struck me today. God was going to help Alma and his people out of their captivity anyway. They had been through many hard things, and they could surely endure one more day of having burdens lashed upon their backs.

But God loves us more than that. They called out to Him and He lightened their burdens such that they “[could not] feel them upon [their] backs”. Just because of His love for them.

And I was struck, when I read this, by how rare it is for me to ask for that kind of help. I think I get stuck in the mindset that God is only interested in hearing about “big” problems, and expects me to fix the little stuff myself.

Which, of course, is in direct contradiction to the oft repeated advice to ask and knock.

Not only does God want us to

cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.

But also to

Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.

Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.

But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness. Alma 34:23-26

I don't have flocks or fields, but I do have a job. Same basic thing. If God cares about someone's field of wheat or flock of sheep, surely He cares about my repository of code.

Or, more accurately, if He cares about the farmer or the shepherd, surely He also cares about the programmer. The wheat, sheep, and code are immaterial, but His children are vital.

Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. Matthew 7:1-2

A pattern in scripture is the relationship between commandment and blessing. And this particular commandment is crystal clear.

The commandment is to not judge others. The blessing is that you won't be judged.

Simple!

Then, just in case we don't quite get it, the Lord amplifies it for us. However we judge others, that is the judgement that will be applied to us.

How do I want to be judged, when my time comes? Very leniently. I am fully aware of all my failings and shortcomings as a person, and I would very much like as much forgiveness as possible. So all I have to do is be forgiving of everyone around me.

I should love everyone, accept them no matter what, help them in any way I can...oh, wait, these are the Christlike attributes that are listed as the rest of Matthew Chapter 7. If I can do this—if I can see everyone else in the best possible light and recognize that every person around me is a child of God—I'm just living the second great commandment to “love my neighbor as myself”. Somehow all the commandments seem to lead back to that.

As simple as this commandment is in theory, it's still difficult in practice. Not that I'm a hugely judgemental misanthrope, but when I'm tired or frustrated or just not coping it's easy to try and blame people around me for my problems. Wrong, but easy. So I'm trying to apply this “Judge not” mindset even in those moments. I'm trying to love everyone even when I'm having a hard time loving myself.

And, failing that, I'm trying to get myself to a quiet place, away from others, until I'm in a better mood and able to be nice. Yes, I put myself in time out.

Talking to a friend a few days ago about some administrative changes in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I made the statement that has become the title of this post. For some reason that phrase stuck with me, and I've been thinking about it ever since. This post has almost nothing to do with the conversation we were having. Somehow it morphed into my thoughts on how to handle my faith.

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But I love some of his writing:

The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet: they break forth into singing. Isaiah 14:7

I've been reading the Bible and the Book of Mormon over and over again for most of my life, and while there are definitely parts of Isaiah's words that I just don't understand at all, there are also parts and passages that resonate with me, and many passages that give a bright and hopeful view of what life with God will be like:

They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. Isaiah 11:9

So even if I don't understand all the things Isaiah said about Calno and Carchemish and other wars in Jerusalem, I can still find joy in the spirit of his words, and the poetry.

Recently our Bishop challenged us to listen to the talks from April General Conference before October General Conference.

For a brief moment I thought “Hey, I'm already done!”

About six months ago I decided to clean up my act a bit. Spend less time listening to pointless podcasts, watching worthless shows, and the like. So I replaced some of my podcasts with General Conference. I replaced some Netflix favorites with reading the Ensign.

During that time I read the entire April General Conference on Gospel Library, and I listened to it via my favorite podcast app. (Yes of course they make General Conference available as a podcast!) And I found that I got different things out of it when I experienced it in different ways. Listening to a talk, you get the speaker's emotion and cadence, the emphases they put on various words. Reading the talk you get a slower, more timeless experience, where you can stop and ponder passages simply. You can spend time making notes and linking various passages to other scriptures. Both ways are good, and using one doesn't negate the other.

But back to the Bishop's challenge. I could have said “I've already read and listened to the entire thing!” Instead I said “Hey, we get to listen to it again!”

So our family is listening to a talk a night. We should be done with April conference by the middle of this week, a few days before October Conference.

And I've learned new things this time as well. There isn't a point where we are done learning the gospel. One of the things that I noticed during this latest pass through the conference:

First, the words of Christ can help us “increase [our] spiritual capacity to receive revelation” (Russell M. Nelson, “Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2018, 96) quoted by Elder Takashi Wada Of the Seventy

Even if I've already read the New Testament cover to cover, even if I've read the Book of Mormon multiple times, even if I can quote a talk by heart, the words of Christ and His prophets can still open my mind and increase my capacity to receive personalized revelation.

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