Monday, May 7, 2012

Thoughts on “The Race of Life” (President Monson, April 2012)

Here are my thoughts on President Monson’s most recent conference talk “The Race of Life,” given in April 2012 conference, thoughts gathered after having read through it over and over.  President Monson's words are in green, mine in black.

My beloved brothers and sisters, this morning I wish to speak to you of eternal truths—those truths which will enrich our lives and see us safely home.
Everywhere people are in a hurry. Jet-powered aircraft speed their precious human cargo across broad continents and vast oceans so that business meetings might be attended, obligations met, vacations enjoyed, or families visited. Roadways everywhere—including freeways, thruways, and motorways—carry millions of automobiles, occupied by more millions of people, in a seemingly endless stream and for a multitude of reasons as we rush about the business of each day.
In this fast-paced life, do we ever pause for moments of meditation—even thoughts of timeless truths?

That last sentence is one excellent bit of counsel we need today—to stop every so often and meditate on the big questions of life, like “Where did we come from?” “Why are we here?” and “Where are we going?” because it will give us the break we need to see clearly where our priorities should be.

Let me explain with a personal example as an analogy.  I do a lot of stuff on the computer these days—email, writing, researching questions, blogging, learning from videos, browsing the web, reading and updating social websites, etc., that sometimes I can get so sucked into what I’m doing that I get imprisoned by things less important.  I’ll find myself so absorbed by a blog I am reading that I can’t escape.  It begins to seem like the most important thing to do at that moment.  And then the phone rings.  I get up and answer it.  By the time the call is over, I find proper perspective has returned, and what I was doing on the computer is finally seen in its proper perspective as a trifling matter.  What changed?  Just getting away from it for a tiny amount of time helped.  I’ve found that even just standing up and walking away from the computer for as little as 20 seconds can help restore me to a proper perspective about what is important for me to do.

This is what I think is part of President Monson’s counsel for us.  We are being encouraged to “step away from hectic life,” to pause to meditate on the big questions for a little while so that we can achieve clarity about what really matters.  Life is undeniably fast and complex, and the faster and more complex it gets, the more we NEED clarity on our priorities.  We are being counseled to choose to use some of our time and thought pondering the big questions.

When compared to eternal verities, most of the questions and concerns of daily living are really rather trivial. What should we have for dinner? What color should we paint the living room? Should we sign Johnny up for soccer? These questions and countless others like them lose their significance when times of crisis arise, when loved ones are hurt or injured, when sickness enters the house of good health, when life’s candle dims and darkness threatens. Our thoughts become focused, and we are easily able to determine what is really important and what is merely trivial.

Another way pondering the big questions can help us is when we are confronted with problems that are driving us crazy.  Pondering the big questions can show us the true scale of our problems and how they fit into the eternal trajectory of our soul.  It shows us whether a problem is negatively affecting our celestial trajectory or whether our wobbles and bumps will ultimately resolve themselves as we progress.

Notice his metaphor “when life’s candle dims and darkness threatens.”  Do you suppose that refers to aging or to depression?

I recently visited with a woman who has been battling a life-threatening disease for over two years. She indicated that prior to her illness, her days were filled with activities such as cleaning her house to perfection and filling it with beautiful furnishings. She visited her hairdresser twice a week and spent money and time each month adding to her wardrobe. Her grandchildren were invited to visit infrequently, for she was always concerned that what she considered her precious possessions might be broken or otherwise ruined by tiny and careless hands.
And then she received the shocking news that her mortal life was in jeopardy and that she might have very limited time left here. She said that at the moment she heard the doctor’s diagnosis, she knew immediately that she would spend whatever time she had remaining with her family and friends and with the gospel at the center of her life, for these represented what was most precious to her.

Notice that President Monson is not judging this woman.  This whole story was told to him by her.  She acknowledged her own errors of priority, and President Monson merely shares the lessons she learned with us (kindly withholding her name) so that we can be instructed by her story.

Also, notice that the woman had been battling her disease for TWO YEARS now.  Those two years have probably been both painful AND joyful.  Though they have been difficult, she’s had those two years now of living with friends, family, and the gospel at the center of her life. 

Such moments of clarity come to all of us at one time or another, although not always through so dramatic a circumstance. We see clearly what it is that really matters in our lives and how we should be living.

I suppose we are being encouraged to seek these moments of clarity and to change what we are doing if necessary.  Do we need a life-threatening illness to bring us to this state, or might we enjoy a greater life if we make our own small “moments of truth”?

If friends and family matter more than possessions, how might we give them greater priority in our lives?  More get-togethers?  More talking?  More activities with each other?

Said the Savior:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:
“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”1

(I thought it was totally neat that this scripture was quoted, especially after having blogged about it myself not too long before.  It made me feel like I was in tune and prepared for President Monson’s message.) 

But anyway..  remember, President Monson’s talk is titled “The Race of Life.” Looking at the above quotation of Christ’s words, we can see plainly that the race of life is not to see who can get the most toys.  What is it then?  To lay up the most treasure in heaven?  Perhaps.  It’s just that to compete over it is still kind of missing the point..

In our times of deepest reflection or greatest need, the soul of man reaches heavenward, seeking a divine response to life’s greatest questions: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go after we leave this life?

When President Monson started bringing up these questions, I was rather surprised.  I mean, we members of the church have been taught about these questions and the answers quite often.  How are we supposed to ponder these questions when we already have the answers?  It sort of takes the fun out of it. 

Or does it?

Answers to these questions are not discovered within the covers of academia’s textbooks or by checking the Internet. These questions transcend mortality. They embrace eternity.

Maybe these questions and answers aren’t the kind of thing that are meant to be asked once and answered once.  Maybe they are something to be thought about often, just like we can think about our past mortal life, our present course, and our hopes for, say, the next 5 years.

And maybe thinking about these questions and answers will help us make better choices in our lives, choices that could only be made after frequent thinking about those things.

Maybe these questions are so important that we will still be pondering them past mortality into the eternities, into the resurrection.

Where did we come from? This query is inevitably thought, if not spoken, by every human being.
The Apostle Paul told the Athenians on Mars’ Hill that “we are the offspring of God.”2 Since we know that our physical bodies are the offspring of our mortal parents, we must probe for the meaning of Paul’s statement. The Lord has declared that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.”3 Thus it is the spirit which is the offspring of God. The writer of Hebrews refers to Him as “the Father of spirits.”4 The spirits of all men are literally His “begotten sons and daughters.”5
We note that inspired poets have, for our contemplation of this subject, written moving messages and recorded transcendent thoughts. William Wordsworth penned the truth:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!6

I love it when this poem is quoted in conference.  After hearing it again, I decided that I wanted to look it up on the internet to read the whole thing.  I was very much touched by lines 110-120, which I had never read before:

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie       
Thy soul's immensity; 110
Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep 
Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind, 
That, deaf and silent, read'st the eternal deep, 
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—          
Mighty prophet! Seer blest! 115         
On whom those truths do rest, 
Which we are toiling all our lives to find, 
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave; 
Thou, over whom thy Immortality 
Broods like the Day, a master o'er a slave, 120
A presence which is not to be put by;  

Imagine President Monson reading that poem, coming to those lines, applying them to himself.  No wonder, he wishes to remind us of the eternal questions, so he can open our eyes and ears to read and see “the eternal deep,” so that our coming immortality may brood over us like the day, like a presence not to be put away.  (By the way, be sure to read the whole poem, there are thoughts in there about the human condition that you will probably resonate with.)

Parents ponder their responsibility to teach, to inspire, and to provide guidance, direction, and example. And while parents ponder, children—and particularly youth—ask the penetrating question, why are we here? Usually it is spoken silently to the soul and phrased, why am I here?

This question “Why am I here?” helps us see through the trivial distractions and resist getting caught up in them.  Imagine scrolling through Facebook updates and then asking yourself, “Why am I here?”  Does Facebook seem important enough to be the reason why we are here?  Of course not.  And we want to know that our lives add up to something significant.

I find that I ask “Why am I here?” most when I am trying to figure out what plan God has for me.  I know the big picture, but the details are pretty fuzzy. 

Next, President Monson gives us a list of answers to the question “Why am I here?”  I suppose that each of them are to be pondered as carefully as the questions.

How grateful we should be that a wise Creator fashioned an earth and placed us here, with a veil of forgetfulness of our previous existence so that we might experience a time of testing, an opportunity to prove ourselves in order to qualify for all that God has prepared for us to receive.
Clearly, one primary purpose of our existence upon the earth is to obtain a body of flesh and bones. We have also been given the gift of agency. In a thousand ways we are privileged to choose for ourselves. Here we learn from the hard taskmaster of experience. We discern between good and evil. We differentiate as to the bitter and the sweet. We discover that there are consequences attached to our actions.
By obedience to God’s commandments, we can qualify for that “house” spoken of by Jesus when He declared: “In my Father’s house are many mansions. … I go to prepare a place for you … that where I am, there ye may be also.”7
Although we come into mortality “trailing clouds of glory,” life moves relentlessly forward. Youth follows childhood, and maturity comes ever so imperceptibly. From experience we learn the need to reach heavenward for assistance as we make our way along life’s pathway.

That last one was one I had never thought of before—learning by experience that we need Heavenly Father’s help to make it.  Boy, if we haven’t learned that lesson yet, we need to learn it quick!

God, our Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, have marked the way to perfection. They beckon us to follow eternal verities and to become perfect, as They are perfect.8

Next comes a great analogy that goes along with President Monson’s title “The Race of Life.” 

The Apostle Paul likened life to a race. To the Hebrews he urged, “Let us lay aside … the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”9
In our zeal, let us not overlook the sage counsel from Ecclesiastes: “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.”10 Actually, the prize belongs to him or her who endures to the end.
When I reflect on the race of life, I remember another type of race, even from childhood days. My friends and I would take pocketknives in hand and, from the soft wood of a willow tree, fashion small toy boats. With a triangular-shaped cotton sail in place, each would launch his crude craft in the race down the relatively turbulent waters of Utah’s Provo River. We would run along the river’s bank and watch the tiny vessels sometimes bobbing violently in the swift current and at other times sailing serenely as the water deepened.
During a particular race we noted that one boat led all the rest toward the appointed finish line. Suddenly, the current carried it too close to a large whirlpool, and the boat heaved to its side and capsized. Around and around it was carried, unable to make its way back into the main current. At last it came to an uneasy rest amid the flotsam and jetsam that surrounded it, held fast by the tentacles of the grasping green moss.

I think one of the important lessons from this story is that we should not try to be like that one boat that went faster than all the rest.  That can be like trying to do everything at once.  Because the boat was going so fast in the river’s current, it was in special danger.  If we are like that boat and go too fast in the current of life, we may find ourselves unable to tell the difference between racing in the current and racing around in circles stuck in a whirlpool.  When we go too fast, sooner or later we burn out and then come “to an uneasy rest amid the flotsame and jetsam” and then get trapped by inertia.  Instead, we need to be wise in our efforts.  We need to be persistent and consistent.

The toy boats of childhood had no keel for stability, no rudder to provide direction, and no source of power. Inevitably, their destination was downstream—the path of least resistance.

Lesson #2: We’re headed upstream, not downstream. 
Lesson #3: We need stability, direction, and a source of spiritual power in our lives to make any headway against the downstream current, which seems to be speeding up.

Unlike toy boats, we have been provided divine attributes to guide our journey. We enter mortality not to float with the moving currents of life but with the power to think, to reason, and to achieve.

Lesson #4: Our powers of thought, reason, and ability to achieve are to be brought to bear upon our journey.

Our Heavenly Father did not launch us on our eternal voyage without providing the means whereby we could receive from Him guidance to ensure our safe return. I speak of prayer. I speak too of the whisperings from that still, small voice; and I do not overlook the holy scriptures, which contain the word of the Lord and the words of the prophets—provided to us to help us successfully cross the finish line.

Lesson #5: Map and compass have been provided by Heavenly Father.  He cares enough about the results of our race of life to give us the tools to succeed and help us along the way.

At some period in our mortal mission, there appears the faltering step, the wan smile, the pain of sickness—even the fading of summer, the approach of autumn, the chill of winter, and the experience we call death.
Every thoughtful person has asked himself the question best phrased by Job of old: “If a man die, shall he live again?”11 Try as we might to put the question out of our thoughts, it always returns. Death comes to all mankind. It comes to the aged as they walk on faltering feet. Its summons is heard by those who have scarcely reached midway in life’s journey. At times it hushes the laughter of little children.
But what of an existence beyond death? Is death the end of all? Robert Blatchford, in his book God and My Neighbor, attacked with vigor accepted Christian beliefs such as God, Christ, prayer, and particularly immortality. He boldly asserted that death was the end of our existence and that no one could prove otherwise. Then a surprising thing happened. His wall of skepticism suddenly crumbled to dust. He was left exposed and undefended. Slowly he began to feel his way back to the faith he had ridiculed and abandoned. What had caused this profound change in his outlook? His wife died. With a broken heart he went into the room where lay all that was mortal of her. He looked again at the face he loved so well. Coming out, he said to a friend: “It is she, and yet it is not she. Everything is changed. Something that was there before is taken away. She is not the same. What can be gone if it be not the soul?”

I remember a number of years ago having the same sort of experience (not the disbelief part, but the looking at a dead loved one part), looking at my Grandpa Walker as he lay in his coffin.  It was his body, but… it wasn’t him.  He looked different dead than he had alive.  Even with the corpse makeup prettying him up, there was something that made his face him that was gone.  I don’t know if you can really see the difference unless it is someone that you knew really well before.

Later he wrote: “Death is not what some people imagine. It is only like going into another room. In that other room we shall find … the dear women and men and the sweet children we have loved and lost.”12

I really like that idea.  I think it expresses well how a person’s character doesn’t change when they die.  I also like how it expresses how close the spirits of our loved ones may be to us.

My brothers and sisters, we know that death is not the end. This truth has been taught by living prophets throughout the ages. It is also found in our holy scriptures. In the Book of Mormon we read specific and comforting words:
“Now, concerning the state of the soul between death and the resurrection—Behold, it has been made known unto me by an angel, that the spirits of all men, as soon as they are departed from this mortal body, yea, the spirits of all men, whether they be good or evil, are taken home to that God who gave them life.
“And then shall it come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow.”13

Alma’s words to his son about where a soul goes after death become all the more weighty as he reveals that they came to him from an angel of the Lord.  How wonderful that this witness has been preserved for us and passed down!

After the Savior was crucified and His body had lain in the tomb for three days, the spirit again entered. The stone was rolled away, and the resurrected Redeemer walked forth, clothed with an immortal body of flesh and bones.

It struck me while I was reading how significant it was that the stone was rolled away from the door of the tomb.  It made it so that people could see that there wasn’t any body left.  Sure, the unbelievers could still make up their own story as to why Christ’s body wasn’t there, but for believers, it still is a strong witness of the resurrection.

The answer to Job’s question, “If a man die, shall he live again?” came when Mary and others approached the tomb and saw two men in shining garments who spoke to them: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.”14

Is it possible that Job’s question “If a man die, shall he live again?” was about Christ in particular?  Possibly. 

As the result of Christ’s victory over the grave, we shall all be resurrected.

Christ demonstrated His power over death extended not just to His own resurrection, but to giving others power over death too, as I’ve blogged in “All facets of Christ’s power over death.” []

This is the redemption of the soul. Paul wrote: “There are … celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.”15

The answer to the question “where do we go after this life?” takes us not just into the spirit world, but back to our bodies again in the resurrection, and then on into celestial, terrestrial, or telestial glory.  Which of those glories we end up in is totally up to us to decide and depends upon how righteously we live in mortality.

I think the question “where am I going?” can help us realize when we’re heading in the wrong direction.  If we’re honest with ourselves, we know whether we would be pleased or terrified to suddenly have our life end and be brought to judgment. 

It is the celestial glory which we seek. It is in the presence of God we desire to dwell. It is a forever family in which we want membership. Such blessings are earned through a lifetime of striving, seeking, repenting, and finally succeeding.

That’s the ultimate answer we want for the question “where am I going?”  I like that President Monson reminds us that it takes a lifetime of striving, seeking, repenting, and succeeding to make it to that final celestial destination.

Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where do we go after this life? No longer need these universal questions remain unanswered. From the very depths of my soul and in all humility, I testify that those things of which I have spoken are true.
Our Heavenly Father rejoices for those who keep His commandments. He is concerned also for the lost child, the tardy teenager, the wayward youth, the delinquent parent. Tenderly the Master speaks to these and indeed to all: “Come back. Come up. Come in. Come home. Come unto me.”
In one week we will celebrate Easter. Our thoughts will turn to the Savior’s life, His death, and His Resurrection. As His special witness, I testify to you that He lives and that He awaits our triumphant return. That such a return will be ours, I pray humbly in His holy name—even Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Redeemer, amen.

What thoughts do you have about President Monson’s talk?  How is it helping you so far?  How do anticipate that his talk will help you in the next six months?


Carroll said...

Using some of your thoughts to teach my 4th Sunday lesson today!

I can tell that you carefully study cnference talks and that the Lord inspires you. Thanks for the example!