Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Dawn of Redeeming Grace

[Brief remarks in the Kaysville 18th Ward (LDS) Sacrament meeting on 12/24/17]

One of my earliest Christmas memories is from when I was about four or five years old, living in Oswego, New York. It was Christmas Eve, and after the festivities of the evening were over, I had been sent upstairs to bed. But I was restless, and in the excitement of the evening and what I hoped awaited in the morning, I couldn’t sleep.

After probably only a few minutes in bed, I crept out of my room and back toward the staircase.  At the top of the stairs, through the wooden pillars holding up the bannister, I watched as my Mom and Dad busied themselves around the Christmas tree, apparently wrapping presents and listening to Christmas music on the stereo.

I must not have been a very good spy because my parents caught me quickly. In the aftermath, my mother helped me back to bed and then charged me that if I did not get to sleep, Santa would not be able to stop at our house. 

As I remember it, I took that warning very seriously, as I remember feeling like I had to lay perfectly still on the bed, and not risk moving a muscle or even turning my head!

I think I fell asleep quickly, because the next thing I remember was my mother back in my bedroom, telling me that it was morning, and that Santa Claus had come!  

Now, I could hardly tell you what I gifts I opened that morning, but I have never forgotten that feeling of waking up and sensing that the greatest hopes of my little heart had been fulfilled. That, for me, was a moment of pure joy!

I share that story with you because the way I felt that morning helps remind me, in the smallest degree, of the joy made possible through God's first Christmas gift to each of us: Jesus Christ and His Atonement. 

Alma 7:10-13

10 And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.

11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

The joy I’m talking about this afternoon, for me, is the joy of remembering and feeling that He loves us, that we are His children, and that He cares so much about us that He numbers the very hairs of our heads (Luke 12:7).

It is the joy of feeling that in His care, regardless of circumstance, all good things are possible.

It is also the joy of His calming the recurring storms of forgetful discouragement and doubt that come, when sometimes no good thing feels possible.

For me, in the midst of difficulties, it is the joy of feeling His gentle, reassuring reminders to not be afraid (Mark 6:50). To be at peace (Luke 24:36). To be of good cheer (Matthew 14:27). To trust Him, do my best, and then leave the rest to Him (Joseph B. Worthlin, "Come What May and Love It," October 2008).

It is the joy, brothers and sisters, of feeling His forgiveness for my mistakes, including those I seem to keep making over and over again. 

And it is the joy of feeling His pleasure when I try again (and again) to make even the smallest effort to move toward Him. 

Jesus Christ is my Savior, for everything that that means. And His birth really was the "dawn of redeeming grace" ("Silent Night", words by Joseph Mohr, trans. by John F. Young). For each us. 

I don't seem to remember that as often as I could. But sometimes I do, and sometimes those reminders of Him and His kindness are breathtaking and so much more profound than what I felt on that Christmas morning all those years ago.

It is the hope of my heart that you and I may more often remember Him and feel the joy of His best gifts to us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Of Regrets and Resolutions

[Mmmm . . . . forbidden donut]

"The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now."

I'm a big fan of New Year's resolutions.  Not necessarily because I'm particularly good at keeping them, but because of the hope they offer: the chance start with a clean slate and do better than I did yesterday.  And for me, there is something rather empowering about the start of a new year, though years have taught me to temper my expectations some (at least in terms of the number of resolutions).

This year, I've thought carefully about two resolutions, but part of seeing them through I think will require making them public (and thereby making me accountable to someone other than myself).

So, here they are:

The first is that I'm aiming to do a physique competition in October 2016.  Many know that this was one of my goals for 2015 (and made up a good part of efforts through September of last year).  But, I started cutting a bit too late given how much fat I needed to lose.  Beyond that, I was also dealing with a rather limiting elbow injury (that I'm actually still dealing with), that lead me to abandon my efforts in the fall.

The second is that I intend to go without sugary treats for the entirety of 2016.* 

If you know me at all, this latter goal will be at least as difficult (if not more so) than the first.  I have a strong attachment to sugary treats: donuts, cookies, brownies, ice cream, cereal, Peanut M&M's, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and so on.  I love them.  I also hate them.  As I've noted elsewhere, when I start in on eating them, it's very hard to stop.  And the overconsumption leaves me feeling miserable, if not often downright depressed (and a bit overweight).

So this latter goal, as much as it will help with contest prep, is at least as important to me on an emotional and spiritual level as a physical one.  I want to see what happens to me physically, spiritually, and emotionally as I completely give up sweets.  For a year.

And I expect to document those results here.

Now, given what's happened between September and January (i.e., the repeated and prolonged indulgence), I'm not quite comfortable yet to publicly give up where I'm at physically, much less share any photos.  That may come at some point later on when where I'm at now is sufficiently in the rear view mirror.

As for the ground rules -- what constitutes "sugary treats" -- I can say that it includes everything I mentioned above (donuts, cookies, brownies, ice cream, sugary cereal, candy), and the general test for me is if it's something sugary that I'm inclined to reach for (and potentially over consume) to satisfy my sweet tooth.  That means it also includes gray area items like graham crackers (and animal crackers) and most granola bars (I generally exempt protein bars -- unless and until they become a problem, too), as well as gray area cereals like granola and Honey Bunches of Oats.

Eventually, given my contest prep, I'll work back into regimented carb cycling to cut.  But the baseline for the year will be to avoid sweets entirely.

Of course, by laying out these goals publicly here, I expose myself to the possibility of failing rather publicly.  It's happened before here, and here.  But on the whole, I'm comfortable with the calculated risk. It's one that I've been weighing for weeks now, and I tend to believe I have learned a thing or two from my past failures. 

I look forward to sharing the year's journey with you.

* The irony of sharing this resolution on a blog entitled "The Forbidden Donut" is not lost on me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Reflections on Dad at Christmas Time

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Dad has been gone 11 months now.  And as it's Christmas, his loss stings a bit more than it has for some time.  The sights and sounds remind me so much of him.  There are songs, for example, that I cannot hear without thinking he is just in the other room or within a phone call's reach. There are foods that I expect to evoke some kind of response from him.  And the flood of these sensory reminders makes him feel at once closer and yet more painfully distant.
So, while my memory is still relatively clear, let me briefly record here some of my memories of Dad and Christmas:
We Went to Get a Christmas Tree
My earliest Christmas memory with Dad  is likely when I was 2-3.  I had gone with him and my grandfather to get a Christmas tree.  It's a fuzzy memory, being as far back as it is, but I remember we parked Grandpa's truck in front of a big barn, and then Dad and Grandpa left me in the truck while they went to see about a tree.  Grandpa also happened to leave the keys in the ignition.  This was a new thing for me, and I thought it might be a good idea to turn the ignition and pull down on that lever I'd seen Grandpa pull.  Before I knew it, the truck started and rumbled forward -- helplessly toward that big barn (in my mind, the barn was red, but it could have been white).  I don't know how far away from the truck Dad had gotten, but near to when it looked like the truck would crash into the barn (and possibly go through it), Dad flung open the driver's side door, took control of the truck and brought it to a stop with feet to spare.  I remember nothing about the aftermath of that incident, but I don't think Grandpa ever left me in his vehicle unattended, or at least unattended with the keys in the ignition.
 [This may have been the tree that nearly cost Grandpa a truck (and a barn)]
Peeking Down the Stairs

When I was 4 or 5, there was a Christmas Eve  I remember peeking down from the top of the stairs at our home in Oswego, NY after I had been sent to bed for the evening. Mom and Dad were busily arranging presents under the Christmas tree, and, I think, listening to Christmas music.  It was quite a scene, and I think I wondered if I might catch a glimpse of Santa Claus if I could just wait it out.   But my surveillance operation didn't last long enough; Mom and Dad spotted me and sent me back to my bedroom.  And for some reason, I don't remember making a second effort.
It might have been part the same evening or the next Christmas Eve (it's curious how memories jumble), but I next remember Mom telling me in my room that I had to be absolutely still in my bed or Santa wouldn't come.  I remember looking for Santa out the window on the roof, but after those words from Mom, I froze in place.  Apparently I fell asleep rather quickly, too, because it seemed like only minutes had passed before Mom was back in my room telling me that Santa had come, and did I want to get up and open presents? This would be the last time my parents ever had to wake me on Christmas morning.
A Toy Truck for "A Relative"
I also remember one year finding my way into my parents' bedroom closest one evening at Christmas time and finding a wonderful Tonka truck.  I played with that truck there in my parents' bedroom until Mom came in to put a stop to things.  She then told me that truck was a Christmas present for "a relative", before putting it away and sending me off to bed.  I don't remember thinking anything more about that truck until I opened it up on Christmas morning.  At the time, I thought it was amazing that I had gotten the same truck that Mom was giving to our "relative."
Sitting in Front of the Fire
I have an image of Dad sitting in the living room some evenings, listening to Christmas music on the stereo, with all the lights off in the room except for those glowing from the Christmas tree.
[The Clarks (and Grandma Feickert) singing Christmas Carols, circa 1984]
All I Wanted Was a VCR For Christmas
It's been noted elsewhere, but I learned from Dad the hard way that Santa's existence was a little more complicated than I'd initially been lead to believe.  I think I might have been 11 when I'd schemed a way to get what I really wanted for Christmas -- a VCR. I decided to write Santa a polite but threatening letter that went something like this:
Dear Santa,
I would really like a VCR for Christmas.  If you don't get me one, I won't believe in you anymore. 
That evening, Dad called me into the kitchen, where he sat at one end of the table with my opened letter in hand.  I was furious -- he had opened a letter meant for Santa Claus!  He then rather abruptly told me, "Aaron, there is no Santa Claus.  We are not getting a VCR [times were tough in the Clark home in those years].  And don't say a word of this to your brothers and sisters."  Given how earth shattering those revelations were, it surprises me that I don't remember harboring any ill will or suffering any significant trauma.
[circa 1988] 
Looking back now, it's ironic that the same man who crushed my dreams and couldn't afford a VCR would become known for extending himself so to get his kids all the presents and more on their Christmas list.
Nintendo Trauma
Of course, there was also the year Mom and Dad canceled Christmas (i.e., had Grandma take back the Nintendo that she'd apparently bought for us) after Nathan and I were caught sneaking into the Christmas fudge.  They swore in recent years that there was more to it than just the fudge debacle, but they've never been able to point to what, exactly, it was.  And Nathan and I can't remember being anything other than typical young boys -- heartbroken little boys.

Now that I'm a parent myself, I strongly suspect that Mom didn't really want me to have that Nintendo anyway.  But as she probably won't ever own to it, we'll likely have to wait until the next life to sort this one out.
The Degenshein International Cookie Party
Still in Ilion, I remember fondly Sunday afternoon drives each Christmas season (in that grey and red behemoth of a van of ours) to Frankfort, NY for Joyce Degenshein's International Cookie Party.  Joyce was a member of our church congregation, and would make a dozen or more different kinds of Christmas cookies to taste as we mingled with others and sipped hot chocolate or hot cider.  My favorites were always the Spritz cookies with their white frosting and sprinkles sandwiched between two butter cookies.  Joyce always had an enormous tree that seemed like it filled half her living room, and Dad was always sure to point out (loud enough for all in the apartment to hear it) the placement of her NY Mets ornament on that huge tree.
[circa 1989 -- I think I spy a VCR in the background!]
An Announcement  
One year, when I was 15, my parents announced during our Christmas Eve program (wherein we would sing songs and revisit some of the scriptures related to the Savior's birth) that Mom was pregnant with my youngest brother.  Grandma and Grandpa were there.  That night is one of my most cherished memories, and I remember a feeling of sacredness and reverence about the whole experience. 
Years later, it became something of a tradition for the kids to announce pregnancies on Christmas evening (if the secret could be kept until then).
Gifts and More Gifts
There was a Christmas Eve a year or two later when, having sent the rest of the kids to bed and filled the stockings, Dad took Nathan (my closest sibling in age) and I for a late night drive to his office, which was 20 miles or so away.  There he had us load the van with a cache of presents that he'd been hiding, perhaps even from my mother. 
From that point on, he seemed to become only more obsessed with squirreling away Christmas gifts for people starting very early in the year.  In fact, it became a running joke that Dad would start asking for Christmas Lists in July or August. 
Here's a sample of one such email from August 26, 2014:
Seeing Hobby Lobby is already advertising their Christmas deals, and Smith's has all of their Halloween Candy out for the season, it's probably time to get general Christmas wish lists for the season.  It helps to have a head's up.
And if we hadn't sent him that list by September, he started to get really anxious.  Another part of an email from September 20, 2014:  
Got Christmas wish list from Sarah this past week and something from Alisha, but I would appreciate hearing from others of you as well.
 [This bowling ball is now the stuff of legend in the Clark home, circa 2007]
Always Checking In
As the years passed and Dad became "Grandpa," we found ourselves routinely making the Christmas drive to Layton, UT from Southern California to spend the holidays there.  Dad's excitement manifest itself in many ways, including repeated telephone calls while we were en route.  He would check up on our progress, and always advise us to "drive safe."  An hour or two later, he'd call again.  I can't help but think of those calls now without smiling.
Last to Bed and First Up
Even in recent years, Dad always seemed to be one of the last ones to bed on Christmas Eve, and one of the first ones up on Christmas morning.  I can still see him tiptoeing around the house with excitement while having on the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol in the background (for Dad, that is the definitive movie version).
A Christmas Eve Testimony
This was from last Christmas Eve.  Most of us were huddled around the piano in the living room.  We knew Dad was sick then.  He'd been sick for a few years, but it wasn't until a week or so before last Christmas that anyone had been able to diagnose what had been happening to him.  At the time, he'd been told he may have another 18 months, but there were some treatment options that gave us hope it might be even longer.  Dad seemed at peace and as anxious as he had ever been to celebrate Christmas.
We had little notion at the time he shared this that he would only be with us a few weeks more.  Even if we had known, though, I'm not sure I would've done anything different in how I spent that last Christmas with him.
A Savior is Born
I do believe I will see Dad again.  In fact, I'd say I know it.  That it could be otherwise doesn't even seem possible.  But it still feels like such a long way away, and that distance makes me sad.
I believe that Jesus Christ made possible that eventual reunion and so much more.  He really is my Savior.  And there really is cause for celebration this season.  Dad knew that.  That has a lot to do with why he loved Christmas so much.  And that's part of why I feel a particular ache for his company right now.
This year, it has seemed remarkable to me that as often as Christmas season comes, there always seems to be a feeling of renewal in remembering Jesus Christ.  Those sacred hymns we sing year after year continue to evoke feelings of reverence and awe.  But this year, that reverence and awe mix with poignant feelings of celebration and loss.  At least for now, I hope that never changes.
Merry Christmas! 

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Keep Trying (a Guest Post)

Remarks given by Michelle in our Sacrament meeting on November 22, 2015:

Two Truths and a Lie

I’d like to introduce myself by playing a little game with you. Some of you may be familiar with this game.  It’s called, “Two Truths and a Lie.”  For those of you who don’t know how to play, here’s how it works:  I’m going to make 3 statements about myself, 2 of which are true, and one of which is a lie.  It is then up to you to discern which of the 3 is the lie. 

Here we go:

1.      I once helped police solve a crime.

2.      I have never broken a bone.

3.      I have had the chicken pox 4 times.

Now, decide in your mind which is the lie.  Ready for the answer? 

If you thought that me helping police to solve a crime is the lie, you were wrong.  It is true, and yes, there is a story behind it, but, in the interest of time, I’m going to leave you in suspense on that one.  If you want to hear it, you’ll have to chat with me later.

If you thought that I was lying when I said I’ve never broken a bone, you were right.  It is a lie.  I broke my ankle when I was 17, which means, that yes, #3 is true. I DID have the chicken pox 4 times as a child. 

Now, I’m not the only one who likes to play “Two Truths and a Lie.”  In fact, I know someone who is an absolute master at it.  He is particularly adept at crafting the lie.  He’s so good, in fact, there is not a single person who plays with him, that does not, at one time or another, and to varying degrees, fall for his lies.  You may have guessed, I am referring to the Father of All Lies, our adversary, Satan.

A Different Perspective

The topic I was given is “The Softer Addiction in Habits that Prevent Progress.”  Now, if I had been given this topic even a couple of years ago, I think I would have, at least initially, reacted with some anxiety.  Words like “addiction,” “habits,” and “preventing progress,” carry a lot of weight, especially when applied to our behavior.  Indeed, I’m sure I would have approached the topic by ticking off a list my own shortcomings, lamenting not only their number, but how long, and how often I’d repeated some of them.  I’d think of areas in which I’d grown complacent, and in my soul searching would surely have been reminded of how very far from perfection I am, which recognition would have carried with it feelings of guilt and shame.  I would certainly have known that I was an inadequate speaker for the topic.

Now, as I mentioned before, Satan is expert at feeding us lies.  One of his favorite tactics, is planting in our minds thoughts of despair and discouragement, meant to halt our progress and create distance between us and our Heavenly Father.  And it works.  At least, it certainly has with me.

Perhaps some of you can relate.  I suspect as members of the church that most of us, are painfully aware of our weakness and how far from perfection we are.  Likely all of us can tick off a list of shortcomings that plague us, some of which we may have struggled with for a significant length of time, perhaps even all of our lives.  And, like me, many of you may also feel inadequate, or discouraged, or perhaps even unworthy.

But, over the last few years, the Lord has taught me a different perspective - one counter to Satan’s message of shame and despair - that has changed how I view my own habits, weaknesses, and struggles.  And it is through that lens that I would like to share with you today “Two Truths and a Lie” I’ve learned regarding “habits that prevent progression.” 

My message today is particularly intended for those of us who, like me, from time to time, when considering our weakness, find ourselves discouraged, disheartened, or even despairing.  I pray that it will be a message of hope, and through the Spirit, you might be able to see yourself through the Lord eyes.

Truth #1:  Habits and Weakness are a Part of God’s Plan for Our Spiritual Development. 

I think we can agree that our God is a God of high expectations.  In the gospel, we are taught the ideal.  Apart from a rather lengthy list of “thou shalts,” and “thou shalt nots,” the Lord further instructs us, “…what manner of men ought ye to be?  Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27), and even commands us to “Be ye therefore perfect…” (Matthew 5:48).

That is a daunting standard, and certainly one, that without clear perspective, could induce perpetual feelings of inadequacy.

In an October 1976 conference address entitled, “Notwithstanding My Weakness,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell explains:

Now may I speak, not to the slackers in the Kingdom, but to those who carry their own load and more; not to those lulled into false security, but to those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short.

Earlier disciples who heard Jesus preach some exacting doctrines were also anxious and said, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26.)

The first thing to be said of this feeling of inadequacy is that it is normal. There is no way the Church can honestly describe where we must yet go and what we must yet do without creating a sense of immense distance.

This distance is certainly not lost on the Lord, which is why the bulk of his teachings provide us with further perspective.

Basic gospel doctrine teaches us that we are immortal beings, and that our time on earth is meant to be a time of testing, and training.  Opposition is a necessary part of that training, which opposition includes challenges, temptations, and weakness.

We further understand that our God is a God of mercy, who has graven us upon His very palms (see 1 Nephi 21:16), that life’s challenges are not meant merely as punishment, but rather, function as essential tools to lead us to him, and shape us into glorious, perfect beings.  In the scriptures, He reminds us, “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble” (Ether 12:27), that in our weakness, “[we shall] be made strong” (Ether 12:37), indeed that the “very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after [us]…that all these things shall give [us] experience, and shall be for [our] good” (D&C 122:7). 

Have you ever seen those Iron Chef-style cooking shows, where the contestants are given an unknown ingredient, or combination of ingredients, and they have limited amount of time to create something spectacular to wow the often harsh and discerning judges?  I’m always amazed by what the top chefs are able to create under such pressure, especially given what seems, to me, like such an impossible combination of ingredients.  Perhaps even more impressive than their ability to concoct incredible dishes, is their flexibility.  So often, you watch and something goes wrong – something doesn’t set, or they drop a pan, or something burns, and you figure they’re out.  They’ve failed.  They won’t be able to recover from that.  Yet, the best chefs always adapt, and despite the opposition, still manage to create something wonderful.

I think the Lord is like that master chef when it comes to His involvement in our lives and habits.  It doesn’t matter what He’s given, He knows what to do with it.  Sometimes – MANY times – things go wrong; through our agency, or that of others, things don’t turn out like we’d planned, we make mistakes, or sometimes we even have to start over.  But like top chefs, the Lord doesn’t throw everything out and walk away, but, rather, He adapts, showing us, maybe, what to add and what to take away, what requires more, or less cooking time, etc. to the recipe just right. 

In that sense, I would submit that there is NO ingredient - no habit, no weakness, or no addiction that can truly keep us from progressing. There is nothing the Lord cannot use for our gain, to shape us and mold us, with one caveat:  we have to keep trying. 

The Lie: Trying Isn’t Enough 

And this is where the LIE comes in.

I may regret this, but I’m going to do something I swore I’d never do:  I’m going to reference Star Wars in a sacrament meeting talk.

You may remember the scene in the Empire Strikes Back, where Luke has met with Yoda to try and learn how to use the force, and it’s really hard.  At one point he’s trying to raise his sunken ship out of the swamp, but he isn’t having much luck.  He’s getting is frustrated, Yoda is frustrated.  Yoda gives Luke some sage advice, to which Luke responds, “Alright, I’ll give it a try.”  Yoda rather abruptly and sternly corrects him, saying, “No.  Try not. Do. Or do not.  There is no try.”

Now, I hate to say it, but Master Yoda got it wrong.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Yoda.  He’s just not very good at 2 Truths and a Lie, because the lie is that trying isn’t enough:  there is no try.

Satan would have us mistakenly believe that we are not good enough until we have become – until we have reached the goal, kicked the habit, or what have you.

But this is contrary to the nature of God, at least the God I know.

Remember, he reminds us, “I will be merciful unto your weakness” (D&C 38:14).  He requires us to forgive “…until 70 times 7” (D&C 98:40) because that’s what He would do, and that’s what He does do for us.  And He tells us repeatedly in the scriptures to keep going, to endure, to press forward (see 2 Nephi 31:20), to “continue as [we] commenced” (D&C 9:5), to remember, to “be not weary” (D&C 64:33).   To try.

I had an experience last week that reminded me of this.  In my home, I often struggle being patient with my children.  We’d had a few difficult days at home and one morning, as I was trying to get everyone out the door amid meltdowns and bickering, I was losing it.  Frustrated, I texted Aaron, “Dealing with the chaos day after day is exhausting!” 

I sent the text and I looked down at it, and immediately had the thought, “Heavenly Father never feels exhausted with you.”  That revelation stopped me in my tracks.  In that moment, I thought about how often I’ve repeated the same mistakes, how often I’ve gone to the Lord (or failed to go to Him) having a meltdown, and how child-like I was in my relationship with Him.  

It was a powerful teaching moment between me and Lord because, first of all, it was a wonderful, gentle reminder that perhaps I could be a little more patient with my kids.  But it was also confirmation of the very point I’m trying to make:  that with all of us God is infinitely patient; infinitely merciful.  He’s a God of chances.  He is a God of trying, because it is in the trying that we become. 

Truth #2: Heavenly Father is a God of Love

This experience also reminded me of one more lesson, which is my final truth in “Two Truths and a Lie”: That Heavenly Father is a God of love and He uses that love to motivate us.

In the past, I may have walked away from that experience the same as I would have in approaching this topic – with guilt, or shame, feeling like a failure.  But I didn’t.  I left feeling hope.

I recognized that although I feel like I struggle daily with being patient, I am trying.  And so are my kids.  We mess up a lot, but we do a lot of things right.  We haven’t given up and as long as we continue to try, we are right where the Lord wants us to be.

For me, that knowledge is incredibly motivating. 

Look How Far You’ve Come!

Let me share one final story.

I do a bit of running.  About a year and a half ago, I ran a marathon.  When I started training, the furthest I’d run was 6 miles, and at that particular time I could only do about 3.  But I had about 9 months to train, and it was on my bucket list, so I decided to go for it.

Training was challenging.  It required a great deal of time, pushing through occasional soreness, and even some injury. But it was also exciting, particularly when my weekly runs started to extend beyond my 6-mile record.  Every time I’d complete a new, longer distance, I had a ritual of congratulating myself, telling myself, sometimes out loud, “This is further than I’ve ever run before.”

The day I ran 10 miles for the first time, I had an interesting, and somewhat unexpected experience.  I was actually in Layton that day, visiting my in-laws for the holidays.  It was about this time of year, and it was cold and snowy.  Coming from balmy San Diego, I did NOT want to run that day, but I needed to get the miles in, so I did. 

About 2/3 of the way through my run, I was feeling really good and I started thinking about how amazing it was that I was really doing it – I was out in the cold, running TEN miles.  Double digits.  I remember thinking about how I’d started out only able to run 3 miles, and in my mind said, “Wow!  Look how far I’ve come!”

In that moment, God spoke to my heart in my own words.  In a split second, I thought about my life, and I thought about my challenges and my testimony, and how they had changed me, and it was as if He was saying to me, “Wow! Look how far you’ve come!  You’re doing it.  I’m so proud of you.  Keep going.”

As I reflected on that experience, I realized that God didn’t only want to tell me where I needed to improve, but that sometimes, he wanted to show me what I was doing right.

Since that time, I have asked Him many times, “Heavenly Father, please help me to see in myself what you see in me.  Please help me to know what I’m doing that pleases you.  Please show me what I am doing right.”  And He has because He loves me, and that love keeps me trusting and trying.

You Are Enough

Brothers and sisters, let me close with what I know to be true:  God has a plan for us, and that although that plan includes challenges and weaknesses, we need not despair.  Our Heavenly Father loves us, and can help us feel of that love, even as we try and fail, and try and fail again.

If you are not there, I urge you not to give up.  Don’t let your discouragement lull you into complacency and distance you from your Heavenly Father.  Keep pressing forward, even if you’re only taking baby steps, trusting that with each step, God is molding you into who He wants you to be – and that, for Him, is enough.  You are enough.

I love Him.  I know He loves me.  I am grateful for that love because it is through that love that He is shaping me into the best version of myself I can be.  I like the person I am today so much better than who I was because of my challenges - because those struggles have taught me to know Him, and trust in Him in ways I never had before.  I’m at that 10-mile mark in my life, knowing even though I have a long way to run, I have run farther than I ever have before because of Him, and I trust that He will continue to help me until I cross the finish line, as I know He will for all of us.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On Addiction (to Donuts and Other Things)

Remarks I gave in a Sacrament meeting (worship service) on November 29, 2015:

Back in early September I was asked to spend a few minutes talking about addiction, specifically as it relate to the "vices of the flesh."  That topic has been rolling around in my head ever since then, particularly as it relates to the troubles associated with pornography.  And I've had some inklings where to go with these remarks today, but honestly I've wrestled and wrestled with this.  Addiction just is not a warm and cuddly subject.  And particularly as it relates to pornography, drugs, and other harmful things, it can be a stigmatizing one.  But as I've wrestled with this subject, I have been drawn back again and again toward sharing some personal experiences that perhaps may be helpful to some who face challenges associated with addiction -- whatever form that may take.  I'm honestly a little nervous about this.  For one, I don't know you very well.  And I don’t want to overshare.  But also, what I'm about to talk about is not something in the past tense -- it's something I still struggle with, and that I will probably deal with the rest of my life.

So I will try to be as delicate as possible, but I also want to be direct.  I think it will probably be ok. 

The Struggle is Real

Brothers and Sisters, I really, really struggle with sugar.  I have dealt with this a long time now -- probably all of my adult life.  I don't think it's necessary to get into all the details, but I can tell you that when I start eating sugary treats, it's very hard for me to not have a lot of them.  And I mean a lot.  So much that I usually end up feeling pretty miserable.  And because it tastes so good, I have a rather dysfunctional emotional connection with sugar such that, even though it usually leaves me feeling miserable, I feel a strong pull to reach for it (a lot of it), particularly in times of high stress, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

[Now, before I proceed any further I need to make this disclaimer:  I don't want anyone to misunderstand me and come away from this meeting thinking or saying -- "Well, Brother Clark thinks we shouldn't eat chocolate chip cookies.  Or Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Or the cinnamon rolls that will be served at the Neighborhood Christmas Party this Friday."  I want to be clear that whatever I may say today, I'm not saying that.  In talking about my own sugar addiction, and some of the insights I've learned in dealing with this over the years, I am not trying to give any counsel one way or another on what you personally should eat or not eat.  We all struggle with different things.  I happen to struggle with sugar.  You may well not.  In fact, I hope you don't because I want you to be able to have a cinnamon roll or two this Friday.

So, with that disclaimer, let me share a few insights I've learned in my years of dealing with a sugar addiction.  And you listen, see if there might not be some application to some of the things you, or your friends and loved ones may struggle with.

Small Mistakes Lead to Big Ones; Small Victories Lead to Big Ones

First, brothers and sisters, it has been my experience that small mistakes with sugar tend to lead to big ones; by contrast, small victories enable big ones.  What I mean by this is that, except in rare instances of self-control, I cannot seem to indulge in a donut in the morning or a cookie in the afternoon and not have it throw me off for the rest of the day (often even the rest of the week). 

Let me describe how that usually happens: In a day that's otherwise going well, I decide that just one donut or one cookie should be harmless (besides, I probably worked out in the morning, and I probably had oatmeal for breakfast -- so I should be good).  So I eat the donut or cookie, and it tastes good.  It triggers the pleasure center in my brain, and my brain sends me the message -- You want more of this.  And so usually with very little thought, I will reach for another.  Besides, I've already had one, and there's not much difference between one and two.    And then there's not much difference between two and three, and three and four, and so on for however far it goes until the treats run out or they don't taste good anymore. 

But, say, by the time I'm at four or five cookies, it's no longer just a small indulgence.  And at that point, other thoughts and feelings start to work their way in: feelings of guilt and shame.  Now, this is the point where one might logically expect to stop -- that these feelings of guilt or shame would be the warning or trigger to tell me "enough is enough." 

But that's not usually how it works for me.  As I mentioned a few moments ago, I've got a kind of emotional attachment to sugar.  And because of that, those feelings of guilt and shame paradoxically make me want to eat more sugar -- ironically now to try to deal with the shame and guilt that came from indulging in the first place.  It's a downward spiral that very often leaves me feeling trapped -- trapped and feeling like, at least in the short term, the best answer might just be one or two more cookies. 

By contrast, if I pass up that cookie or donut early the day, there's an effect, too.  It's not quite as pronounced, or as quickly evident, but it is there.  It's something like a small boost of self-confidence, that brings with it subtle good feelings.  And I find that the early victory makes it just a little bit easier to resist what temptations may come later in the day.  And a whole day's good efforts bring with it the self-confidence and good feelings (that to me are most noticeable in the early morning the next day) that make it all the easier to make the same courageous choices the next day, and so on.   

That is why, at least for me, it is so important that I avoid that otherwise seemingly innocuous cookie or donut.

C.S. Lewis eloquently expressed the point as follows:

"Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or a bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible."

- Mere Christianity, p. 117

More practically expressed, I found the same point expressed a few months ago in an ad for a brand of nicotine gum in a 7-11: "Every victory counts."

Every victory does count.

I Can't Have it in the House

The second insight is correlated to the first: if I bring sugary treats into the house, I will eat them. 

Over the years, I have come to realize a few less than ideal truths about myself.  One of them is that, almost without exception, if I have sugary treats in the house, I will eat them.  I cannot tell you how many times I have come across a sale for a particular treat, and especially if I've been doing well, I have deluded myself into thinking that I'll be ok if I just buy the treat and put it away (in the cupboard or pantry) until the right time.

But again, that just doesn't seem to be how things work with me.  Almost inevitably, no matter how on point my eating and exercise have been, within a day or two, my resolve breaks down, and I've opened and eaten the treat that I was saving for a "special occasion."  Something about having the temptation so close and accessible seems to leave me especially vulnerable at the first sign of weakness (and it's interesting just how much the treat will prey on my thoughts throughout the day if I know it's somewhere in the house).

On this point, there seems to be support in the scriptural account of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.  As most of you know, Joseph had been betrayed by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt.  Potiphar was an officer of the Pharaoh, and took on Joseph as one of his servants.  Potiphar was so impressed with Joseph that he made Joseph the overseer of his house.

Potiphar's wife also took a particular interest in Joseph -- she propositioned Joseph to break the law of chastity with her.  Joseph refused.  But the scriptures say that Potiphar's wife persisted "day by day" in her request [Gen. 39:10].  One day, when Joseph was in Potiphar's house while Potiphar wasn't there, Potiphar's wife came to Joseph and grabbed his garment, and repeated her demand.

The scriptures note that Joseph, in response, "left his garment in her hand, and fled, and got him out." [Gen. 39:12].

Sometimes, brothers and sister, just saying "No, thank you" isn't enough.  Sometimes, like Joseph, the only way I know that I can safely avoid temptation is to run from it or to get away from it -- literally or figuratively.  To keep it close by eventually means to give in to it.

Addiction Blocks the Holy Ghost

The third insight, brothers and sisters, is that I have found that one of the most detrimental effects of addiction is that it blocks the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.

In my case, no one would dispute that eating sugary treats -- particularly in the quantities that I'm inclined to consume them -- is physically unhealthy.  It leads to weight gain, yes, but also just leaves me feeling so sluggish and crummy. And it saps me of any desire to be productive. In fact, I usually find I just want to crawl into bed and hide.

What I've learned in conjunction with this, though, is that when I eat too many treats, I make it so difficult to feel the whisperings of the Holy Ghost.  In fact, often I've eaten so much that I can't feel much of anything -- except a kind of numbness and physical discomfort. 

Over the years it's become clear to me that this -- not the physical effects (though the two are connected) -- is the most profound tragedy of my indiscretions.  Because when I can't feel the Holy Ghost, the world feels so much darker.  And as vulnerable as my addiction leaves me, it makes it so much harder for God to reach me (or at least to be able to feel that He is reaching out to me) -- to feel those whisperings of love, comfort, hope, and encouragement that He sends.  I end up feeling so alone.  But it's not because He has abandoned me; it's because I've put myself in a place where I can't feel him.

I have found, brothers and sisters, that the commands given by the Lord, particularly with respect to what we do with our bodies and physical appetites -- whether through the Word of Wisdom or the Law of Chastity -- are far more than simply to do items on a "lengthy gospel checklist" (David A. Bednar, October 2010, "Receive the Holy Ghost").  No, they seem to be primarily designed to help us feel and keep the companionship of the Holy Ghost -- with which all good things seem possible.

There is Danger in Delay

A fourth insight, brothers and sisters, concerns the subtle danger of procrastination. 

For my part, when I am in the throes of regularly eating too much sugar -- throes that can stretch on for weeks or months at a time -- part of the reason that I stay stuck so long is that I only ever tend to feel a day away from making needed change. 

What this means is that each day I find a way to rationalize putting off good eating habits today with the alluring thought that I will make the needed improvements "tomorrow."  "Tomorrow" -- when I will somehow be stronger, circumstances will surely be more favorable, or the treats will be out of the house (because I plan to eat them all today).  There are any number of reasons why "tomorrow" seems so alluring.  Which is why I have sometimes been stuck for weeks or months at a time: I always figure I can (and will) change "tomorrow."

The fallacy in my thinking, of course, is to fail to appreciate that once I get to "tomorrow" it will be "today."  And once I get there, the difficulties and temptations are almost never any different than they are right now (or than they were yesterday, or last week, or last month when I similarly chose to delay) -- except in this: by choosing indulgence today, I have further weakened my resolve and self-confidence to be able to have the strength to choose differently tomorrow.

And beyond choosing to remain stuck "just for today," I further perpetuate the unhappiness I described just a few moments ago.  

Given my experience, it seems appropriate that President Kimball once observed “One of the most serious human defects in all ages is procrastination.”  He defined it as “an unwillingness to accept personal responsibility now” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 48; emphasis in original).

President Eyring also shared this powerful insight that rings true to me:

"The truth is that today is always a better day to repent than any tomorrow. First, sin has its debilitating effects on us. The very faith we need to repent is weakened by delay. The choice to continue in sin diminishes our faith and lessens our right to claim the Holy Ghost as our companion and comforter.  And second, even should we be forgiven at some later time, the Lord cannot restore the good effects our repentance today might have had on those we love and are to serve."  ("Do Not Delay," October 1999).

President Uchtdorf expressed much the same thought a bit more cheerfully: "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The second best time is now." (Ensign, "The Best Time to Plant a Tree," January 2014).

Let me share with you, too, my own testimony that "today" (or "now" as President Kimball put it) will always be better than "tomorrow."  I don’t know what that might mean for you and the challenges you face.  But I know that God does, and I suspect you do, too.  It may mean fasting and earnest prayer.  It may also mean reaching out to the bishop.  Today.  Or finally opening up about your struggles with a spouse, a trusted friend, or a loved one.  It may mean finally calling to make an appointment with a professional counselor (and I will readily admit to you that I have seen a counselor about my sugar addiction -- it has been so helpful!).  I can promise you that, hard as it may be, in making the courageous choice to begin today, you plant seeds of happiness and joy that will sprout, grow, and bear fruit in the days and weeks that follow -- fruit that will not be possible to harvest then in you do not make the choice to plant those seeds today.  And also please remember, as hard as it may make things today, our good choices increase at compound interest.  That means that making good choices today will likely make it easier for you to be able to make good choices tomorrow.

He is Cheering For You

For my final thought, I want to begin with a story, the image of which resonates deeply with me:

A few years ago good friend of mine once told of her husband – an accomplished pianist -- coming home from a rehearsal for a Christmas concert and noting that his ears hurt from some of the performances he had to endure.  She then mentioned a girl who played a violin solo for one of the pieces (which apparently was one of the sources of pain) and how, during the performance, my friend watched the girl’s father – who is also a very accomplished musician – as he watched the girl and hung on her every note.  My friend could tell the father was rooting for his daughter’s success, watching intently as the girl played the hard parts, and hoping she’d hit the notes just right in those points.  She then observed that God watches over us in much the same way, with the same intensity, rooting for us and cheering us on, and just as cognizant of where the “hard parts” are in our lives as we face them.

Brothers and sisters, there is a Savior, Jesus Christ.  He has all power.  He knows us perfectly.  He also loves us perfectly.  And his Atonement has made possible our salvation and happiness.  He also knows perfectly how to succor us -- how to help us get unstuck sometimes, and how to avoid getting stuck in the first place. 

I can also testify of His infinite patience.

I cannot tell you how many times I have pled with God for help that day to overcome my difficulties with sugar, only to sometime later in the day effectively say, "Actually, never mind.  I really want a cookie."  And then by day’s end find myself kneeling before Him once more, feeling miserable, and trying to figure out what on earth to say to Him now.

Now, there are consequences for sin.  But in such humiliating moments, I have never felt from Him a smug "I told you so" or a frustrated "How many times are we going to go through this Aaron?" or a biting "Why should I help you -- clearly you think you know better?" -- reactions that I might be inclined toward if my child approached me in similar circumstances.

I have sensed a willingness to help me try again, and as Michelle mentioned last week, an anxiousness to help me make the best of whatever circumstances I bring to Him. 

And, undeserved as it may be, I at times sensed His pleasure, no matter how many times I have fallen down, when I try, once more, to turn to Him in earnestness.

Let me conclude with this extended thought from Elder Allen D. Haynie in his talk in this most recent conference:

Although avoidance of sin is the preferred pattern in life, as far as the efficacy of the Atonement of Jesus Christ is concerned, it matters not what sins we have committed or how deep we have sunk into that proverbial pit. It matters not that we are ashamed or embarrassed because of the sins that, as the prophet Nephi said, “so easily beset” us. It matters not that once upon a time we traded our birthright for a mess of pottage.

What does matter is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, suffered “pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind” so “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people.” What does matter is that He was willing to condescend, to come to this earth and descend “below all things” and suffer “more powerful contradictions than any man” ever could. What does matter is that Christ is pleading our case before the Father, “saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; … wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.” That is what really matters and what should give all of us renewed hope and a determination to try one more time, because He has not forgotten us.

I testify that the Savior will never turn away from us when we humbly seek Him in order to repent; will never consider us to be a lost cause; will never say, “Oh no, not you again”; will never reject us because of a failure to understand how hard it is to avoid sin. He understands it all perfectly, including the sense of sorrow, shame, and frustration that is the inevitable consequence of sin.

Brothers and sisters, if you feel discouraged or wonder if you can ever get out of the spiritual hole that you have dug, please remember who stands “betwixt [us] and justice,” who is “filled with compassion towards the children of men,” and who has taken upon Himself our iniquities and transgressions and “satisfied the demands of justice.” In other words, as Nephi did in his moment of self-doubt, simply remember “in whom [you] have trusted,” even Jesus Christ, and then repent and experience yet again “a perfect brightness of hope."  
“Remember in Whom We Have Trusted,” October 2015 (internal citations omitted).
Brothers and sisters -- there is hope.  I know that no matter how deep the hole we have dug ourselves into, we cannot sink too far beyond His reach.  And no matter how many times we've fallen into it, He stands watch with us.  And He always, always stands ready to help the moment we make any movement toward Him.

I say this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.