An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘gratitude’

Explaining God

“Who made God?” was my first unanswered theological question—at about age five, I think. Since then the list has only grown. Reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand stirred another longtime question—“Is God omnipotent?” Hillenbrand’s extensively researched book relates the saga of an American pilot and bombardier downed in the Pacific during WWII who survived 46 days at sea on a two-man life raft.

Minor miracles occurred—rain fell as water supplies were exhausted. A few birds flew onto the raft to provide food and fish bait. Currents eventually carried them to an island—albeit one populated by the enemy. Of course, their own resourcefulness and will to live played a part in the men’s survival. Naturally, they and their families waiting for word of them prayed fervently for their lives.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of planes crashed into the sea during the war and few crew members were rescued. It’s hard to believe the lost men and their family members prayed less fervently or were less righteous than the small number actually rescued.

Believing God had the power to save all these men but elected to provide miracles for only a handful is tough to reconcile with the doctrine of a loving, merciful God. Religious apologists answer that with an analogy: Mortals can no more understand God’s purposes than dogs can learn calculus.

A different view of God—that he is not omnipotent and cannot alter natural laws works better for many people. From this perspective, God can offer comfort and insights to help mortals cope with factors beyond their—and his—ability to control. A third view is simply that the universe runs without divine intervention.

The second and third views offer less comfort and security than belief in an all-powerful Father who can create miracles to benefit worthy supplicants. The downside to believing in an omnipotent God is that faith is often shattered when fervent prayers go unanswered.

Certainly, we live in a world where unexplained things—both good and evil—occur. Perhaps the wisest course of action is to give thanks for the good, work constructively to overcome the ill, and not worry too much about the source.

Teach Me How to Pray

A friend who teaches the four-year-olds in Primary told me a
recent lesson included the story of a boy whose father was very ill. The boy
prayed to Heavenly Father to make his dad well, and the next day his father was
much better. My friend did not use that story with her class because it is not honest.

George was taught in Primary that Heavenly Father would
answer his prayers if he asked in faith. Eight-year-old George borrowed his
cousin’s new bike without asking. He crashed the bike into a ditch and broke
two spokes. Knowing his cousin would never forgive him for ruining her bike,
little George needed help—so he knelt beside the bike and prayed with all his might
for Heavenly Father to fix it. Unfortunately, his Primary lesson failed to
mention that not all prayers are answered affirmatively. George suffered a loss
of faith when he opened his eyes, beheld the still-broken spokes, and knew he must
take the consequences of his action.

Maybe the best approach for teaching children about prayer
is simply to teach prayers of gratitude—to offer thanks for the wonders and
beauties of the natural world, for the senses to enjoy these blessings, for the
necessities of life, and for the goodness and love of people in their lives.

Most adults overdo prayers of request—effectively turning
God into Santa. Maybe we should teach ourselves as well as our children to
limit asking to requests for the wisdom to recognize and take advantage of
opportunities and the strength to deal constructively with the challenges of life.

Loving Kindness

Loving kindness is a Buddhist term which defines right action on the Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s also the title of a wonderful book by Sharon Salzberg.    The best bumper sticker I’ve seen proclaims, “Loving Kindness if My Religion.” Not a bad motto for people of any denomination.

One of my favorite meditations is to recall all the people who have shown kindness and love to me throughout my life—starting with my parents. The list is lengthy and the memory-walk always leaves me feeling peaceful, grateful, and hopeful that I can pass along the love and kindness I’ve received to others.

Mitch Albom wrote about the five people he hopes to meet in heaven. Because I’ve been remiss in offering thanks in this life, I have scores of people I’d like to thank in heaven.

I have to admit that some of the kindness I’ve received hasn’t been appreciated at the moment. I remember being angry with my dad when I was 12 or 13. I stormed to my grandmother’s house to snitch on my ogre father—forgetting that Grandma was Dad’s mother. Instead of sympathy, which never helps, Grandma told me in no uncertain terms that my dad worked hard to support and care for my brothers and me since my mother died. I needed to be helping, not harassing Dad.

Another act of kindness I didn’t enjoy was Cousin Buffy’s criticism of my junior high taste in clothes. To avoid Buffy’s censure—I tempered my “throwing on whatever is handy” style to a more coordinated approach and avoided ridicule from peers.

A couple of teachers at transition points—9th grade and Freshmen year of college—kindly gave my sloppy first assignments low grades which shocked me, but motivated greater effort.

Kindness comes in many forms.

Talking to God

I found an interesting suggestion for prayer recently. A minister recommends the following four steps:

  • Thanks
  • Gimme—asking for needs and wants
  • Oops—admitting mistakes.
  •  Wow—praise and adoration.

The first two steps are common prayer ingredients, but the third and fourth stirred new thoughts in my mind about talking to God as a parent.

I suspect for most people, “Oops!” for mistakes is more relevant than repentance for transgression. Violating an arbitrary set of rules does not equal sin in my book. Sin is intentionally harming others—I could expand that to intentionally harming any of God’s creations, though I do recognize a hierarchy. As Ken Wilbur says, it’s better to kick a rock than an ape, better to eat a carrot than a cow.

Normal people do not intentionally sin, yet all of us unintentionally cause harm on occasion. We hurt feelings with harsh or critical words—usually to gratify our own egos. We neglect saying kind words or doing kind deeds that might help a person struggling with problems—I’m not talking about failing to offer service beyond the realm of our capability. We all have finite amounts of strength, means, and time. I am talking about acting upon our own self-interest while ignoring or even trampling the needs and rights of others.

Buddhism calls negative behaviors “unskillful” rather than “sinful.” Labeling ourselves as sinners and beating ourselves up is as likely to make us defend our  unskillful actions as to actually improve our behavior. But when we realize we’ve behaved selfishly to any of God’s creations, we owe him an “Oops!”

The fourth step of prayer, “Wow!”,most intrigues me. The minister defined “Wow!” as praise. I have a problem with that. If I were God, I wouldn’t want to be praised. Praise embarrasses me—especially if it’s obligatory. I suspect God is free from the human need for ego food. While gratitude is always appropriate, God undoubtedly knows of his own goodness. But I do like the idea of “Wow!”—expressing excitement and enthusiasm for small miracles of the day—for gold, pink and coral clouds mounding into a perfect sunset, for an unsought flash of insight, for the softness of a child nestled on my lap, for the warmth of an unexpected hug—for friends, family, love, beauty—all that makes life a wondrous experience.

 “Wow!” is more than thanks. “Wow!” is an instantaneous expression of joy for a moment of being. And what better way to please a parent? I delight in an unexpected phone call from a daughter who wants to share the joy of watching her kids coasting on new fallen snow. Or from a son calling to say three frisky goats have just been delivered to his backyard, hopefully to eat his crop of pernicious bamboo. If God is anything like earthly parents, I’m sure he gets a celestial kick when we take joy in the wonders of life, great or small, and direct thanks to the source of all goodness.

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