Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Refining Thoughts

On the way home from Mimi's today (we went over to see the twins--so cute!), we had the windows rolled down, music blaring, sun shining, and Kylie all smiles as she waved her head in the wind and tried to boogie as much as possible (its tricky when you're strapped into a toddler seat). Cut from a good cloth, that one. :)

But I got distracted. That's not why I'm here. I was actually going to post my talk from Sacrament Meeting last Sunday. I've had a few people request a copy of it, and thought that directing people here from now on might be a bit easier than sending emails.

I was asked to speak on “The Power of Refining Our Thoughts”. That’s a big and tricky subject for me, and thankfully the Bishopric, in giving me my speaking assignment, directed me to a talk by Bishop H. David Burton from last October’s General Conference, entitled “Let Virtue Garnish thy Thoughts”.

I have to admit that I don’t think I’ve ever had such a hard time getting started with a talk before—trying to figure out what to say and where to go with the subject. A love of words is one of the gifts that the Lord has blessed me with, and putting words on paper has never been very difficult for me. So as I struggled to figure out what to say, I started to doubt myself and waver a bit in the faith that I could accomplish successfully the task that had been given to me. I didn’t know where to start. Gratefully, in the midst of my insecurities and doubts, I had a moment of clarity where the thought came to me, start there: words and doubts.

The phrase “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts” comes from a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants and was actually the theme for the youth a few years ago when I was serving in the the YW program. We talked a lot about the importance of being aware of and in control of our thoughts, as our thoughts become words, our words become actions, our actions become our habits and our habits become our character. We talked a lot about what kinds of things our thoughts should focus and on some things they probably shouldn’t, and that’s a great start. But as I thought more about the word “garnish” in that scripture, I thought it was important not to stop there with a list of good things to think about and bad things to think about.

When we use the word garnish, for most of us it brings to mind images of a nice dinner plate with a few sprigs of parsley around the edges—a bit a decoration. And virtue does indeed beautify our thoughts in many ways. But “garnish” actually come from a root that means to warn or guard. In this scripture, the Lord essentially commands us to ensure that virtue beautifies and guards our thoughts. Its not just about what we think, but rather how we think.

For example, as I struggled to get started on my talk, there was nothing inherently wrong with
what I was thinking about and in fact, I was thinking about very good things. But I was thinking about them in a manner that was doubtful and lacking faith. When we are not careful about guarding the manner in which we think, it is easy for the temptations of the world and the works of the adversary to slip into our minds. One of Satan’s most effective tools is to deepen our doubts. Doubting thoughts about good subjects are often what keep us from doing that which will make us happiest. In fact, it is often those doubts that lead us to take action in self-destructive ways when we do not instead take immediate action to change the course of our thoughts. Virtue is not a list of subjects, it is state of being. The Lord gave us minds and He expects us to use them, but to use them in a responsible and righteous way. He has told us get to know Him and His doctrines—to ask for ourselves if they are true.

Too often, we use that exhortation as an excuse to act as petulant, rebellious teenagers trying to prove our parents wrong, rather than as the Lord intended: asking questions in a faithful, obedient manner; asking not to undermine the Lord’s will and doctrine, but rather asking questions in order to understand.

In his talk, Bishop Burton said, “Virtuous traits form the foundation of a Christian life and are the outward manifestation of the inner man. The spelling in English of many individual virtues concludes with the letters ity: integrity, humility, charity, spirituality, accountability, civility, fidelity, and the list goes on and on”.

As I have pondered what to say, three particular virtues and how they influence the way we think kept coming back to me, and I’d like to briefly address each one.

The first is humility. It matters very little how much study we do or how much Gospel knowledge we gain, how much time we spend thinking about things of eternal importance, if our thoughts about such things are not marked by humility. When we are prideful in our thinking, pondering Gospel subjects almost always becomes an exercise in self-justification, rather than self-improvement. If you find yourself spending much of your time quoting the scriptures and the prophets in order to point out what others around you need to change, rather than applying those messages to yourself and your own behavior, it is time to cleanse your mind and realign your thoughts. So many of us spend so much time trying to keep our homes clean—scrubbing floors and filing papers and throwing out the clutter; doing all we can to beautify with paint and flowers and decorations, in order to create a beautiful space where the Spirit can linger, and we absolutely should do those things. But how many of us put that same effort into organizing, cleansing and beautifying our thoughts in order to invite the Spirit there? If it is difficult to feel the spirit in a messy, unclean home, how much harder must it be for the Spirit to dwell in a mind that is muddled and prideful. We must have the humility to take the time to sort our thoughts, to dust off the good stuff and throw out that clutter. For me, that often means sitting down with a notebook and pen. For you, it may mean a long walk or drive by yourself, or a good conversation with your spouse. Whatever the method, we must have the humility to recognize and let go of thoughts that are holding us back or hurting those we love.

Next, I wish to address selflessness. If you’ll excuse the personal chatter, I think I can best illustrate the benefits of this trait through a couple of personal experiences. The first happened when I was a youth, about 16 or 17. As many teenagers do, I struggled with a lot of insecurity and self-consciousness. I worried often that other people were saying unkind things about me, or at least thinking them. I worried that people were judging my appearance or my personality harshly. Finally, it occurred to me how deeply arrogant and selfish--and ultimately unfair to those around me--my insecurities were. Not only was I assuming that people were constantly thinking and talking about
me, but I was also assuming that they were unkind enough that all the things they were thinking or saying about me were negative. I was thinking so much about myself and assuming the worst about everyone else. I realized at that moment the utter ridiculousness of my self-consciousness and was able to let go of most of it and found myself free to think much more about others, to observe other more closely and consequently serve them better, because I wasn’t thinking about myself all the time.

The next experience happened much more recently. I’d been running on very little sleep for a few weeks. I had been sick, my kids had been sick and there had been a lot going on. I was exhausted and just wanted a break. I sat down at the computer to read and kind of swatted my little kids away, complaining that I just wanted five minutes to myself. I sat down to read a blog that I enjoy, and was caught very off guard as I read this poem:

I saw a young mother with eyes full of laughter
And five little shadows came following after.
Wherever she moved, they were always right there--
Holding onto her skirts, hanging onto her chair,
Before her, behind her--an adhesive pair.

"Don't you ever get weary as day after day
Your five little tagalongs get in your way?"

She smiled as she shook her pretty young head,
And I'll always remember the words that she said:
"Its good to have shadows that run when you run,
That laugh when you're happy and hum when you hum--
For you only have shadows
When your life's filled with sun."

I was deeply humbled as I was reminded of this perspective on child-rearing and realized the terrible selfishness of my thinking. For weeks I had thought about almost nothing but my children (certainly very good things to think about), yet I had been thinking of them as burdens to be carried or trials to be endured, rather than as precious blessings to be treasured and enjoyed. My children’s behavior didn’t change. We didn’t all magically become healthy. There were still pages of “to-do” lists to tackle. All that changed was how I was thinking, and that changed everything. I stopped selfishly worrying about my tiredness, my lack of “free time”, the things I thought I wanted to do. Instead, I thought about how I could better teach my children and how I could better serve them. The Spirit in our home changed dramatically.

It is often difficult to be honest with ourselves about our own selfishness. But there’s an easy way to check yourself: if you hurt or upset someone, whether intentionally or not, does it upset you because you care about them and don’t want to cause undue pain or stress to another, or does it upset you because you don’t want negative feelings directed at you? Do other people matter to you because of what they can do for and how their feelings affect your life, or do they matter to you simply because they are children of the same Father, your brother or sister, and therefore deserving of your love and service? Answering that question honestly is sometimes difficult and painful, but absolutely necessary for refining our thoughts.

Lastly, I’d like to talk about hope. As I said before, doubtful thoughts and cynical thoughts are some of the most destructive powers in life. Yet we make so many mistakes. We watch people we love make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones and sometimes the same ones over and over and we start to lose a bit of hope—we start to wonder if anything or anyone can really ever change. There are so many trials in this life, and so many over which we have so little control that it can be extraordinarily challenging at times to maintain hopeful thoughts.

Our Father sent us here knowing it would be hard and that we would make mistakes, so he provided an Atonement. Whatever hardships we face, or sins we commit, or ways that we see loved ones falter, we must always, always,
always keep at the forefront of our thoughts the fact that the Atonement is real, that it is infinite and it is eternal. The Savior stepped forward with selflessness and humility and said, “Here am I, send me”, and then again, "Not my will, but Thine," and so gave us all hope. He prayed, He suffered and He came off conquerer. We must view ourselves, those around us and the circumstances in which we may find ourselves, through that fact and the hope that it provides. Thoughts of doubt and cynicism lead us to make mistakes in our own lives and to judge the character and fate of those around us unfairly and incompletely. The Plan of Salvation shows us so clearly what a loving, patient and tremendously merciful Father we have. The happiest people on earth are the people that remember that always. The Savior commanded us to “be of good cheer”. He knew how hard life is, but He also knew that in His life and Atonement he bore the possibility and means of cultivating a cheerful temperament. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” He said, “but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.” In Proverbs it says, “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is He.” Those who have a light in their eyes and a smile on their faces are those who have a solid testimony in their hearts of the Atonement and think through the prism of that truth. Those who find the most joy in this life don’t just think about hopeful things, they think about all things in a hopeful way. They follow the admonition of the Lord in the Doctrine and Covenants to “Look unto me in every thought. Doubt not, fear not.”

Just as the Lord has blessed us with wonderful bodies that we can use to run, play, build things, comfort others and create new life, He has also endowed us with marvelous powers of mind that enable us to explore all kinds of fascinating subjects, to connect to one another, and yes, sometimes even to create something new. And so we are just as accountable to Him for what we do with the miraculous powers of our minds as we are for what we do with the miraculous capacities of our mortal bodies.

Bishop Burton said, “We need to stand tall and be firmly fixed in perpetuating Christlike virtues in our everyday lives.” Who we are, how we treat others, and what we accomplish is all determined by how we think. I bear my testimony that as we strive to refine our thoughts and become more Christlike, the Lord does add more light and truth to our understanding, increasing our capacities. I am certain that as we strive to think in a more virtuous manner, He will fulfill his promise that, in the end, we will be able to stand even in His presence with great confidence. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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