Delivered by Michael in a sacrament meeting of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Cincinnati Young Single Adult Branch Conference, Cincinnati Ohio North Stake, Sunday 11 November 2012 as Branch President
A young lad was once happily skipping home through a forest. Suddenly a wolf appeared from behind the bushes. The lad knew that if he tried to run away, the wolf would quickly outrun him. So instead, he said to the Wolf: “I know, dear friend, that you are going to kill me. But before I die I would ask you one favor. Please play a tune for me so I can dance.” The wolf thought it was a strange request but agreed and started to play a tune. While he was piping, some dogs heard the sounds of the pipe and began chasing the wolf. Running now for his life, the wolf said to the lad “This is just what I deserve; how could I have pretended to be a piper when I am only a butcher!”
Last week when she was trying to get ready to drive to Virginia to spend a week with our grandson, I asked Nancy what I could do to help her, she said with her characteristic candor “Don’t talk to me.”
So what do the wolf and my wife have in common? Not much, except that they both have an issue with being distracted. But whereas the wolf’s distraction got him into trouble, Nancy was well aware that she cannot multi-task and that when she needs to get something done, talking with someone is only going to distract her.
We all face distractions. When our oldest son was in high school, he was trying to complete an AP Physics assignment to build a catapult and accurately predict how far the launched balls would go. He got very frustrated when the actual results did not match his calculations. He basically allowed the theory to distract him from the outcomes.
And just as we have social distractions, and academic distractions, and political distractions, we all face gospel distractions. I have found myself moved by Elder Holland’s recent calls to discipleship. When Elder Holland reminds us that we cannot check our religion at the door, when he reminds us that Jesus is expecting us, as He did Peter, to feed his sheep, to be His emissaries—he is calling us to discipleship. And in the moment, we shout ”Yes” and raise our hands to be counted in and counted on.
But then we become distracted.
As I have thought about it, there are at least six ways that distractions work to keep us from attaining our end goal. Conflicting emotions distract us. Differences in abilities or interests distract us. We are distracted when we allow something to draw our attention away from our goal. Being confused or perplexed can be distracting, as can simple diversions or amusements. And finally, strife and dissention always are distractions. Some of these may be appear to be less harmful than others. But ultimately, the consequences of each is the same: keeping us from achieving true discipleship.
Among the many issues they had, Laman and Lemuel had a misguided sense of right and wrong. Yes, it was generally the right of the oldest son to assume the position of leader in the tribe, and yes it was a bit presumptuous for a younger brother to tell his older brothers what to do. It was also their right to inherit their father’s wealth and to live a life of relative comfort and ease. It was not rational—let alone right—to leave it all behind and choose to wander in the wilderness.
The point is that they let their sense of right and wrong—in terms of sibling hierarchy and inheritance and birthright—act as a distraction. The consequences of their misguided sense of right and wrong was conflict and that conflict kept them and most of their progeny from becoming true disciples of Christ.
As we have all experienced during the last 500 days of relentless campaigning, conflict—especially when willful and fabricated—is a major kind of distraction. It sucks our energy, making it very challenging to focus on the most important issues and concerns at hand.
Unfortunately, in a gospel setting, a similar misguided or at least misapplied sense of right and wrong can cause conflict. Some of us hold too rigidly to our own sense of how things should be done—or we hold too firmly to a sense of what is right for me. We allow ourselves to be caught up in the business of our own world, and if we don’t see immediate value in something such as a church program or meeting or lesson or activity, then we won’t engage or participate. Or we do so reluctantly. Sometimes we are mature enough to not externalize the conflict and keep it within ourselves. Yet even when it is only internal, it still acts as a distraction. It keeps us from being true and consecrated disciples of Jesus Christ.
Divergent Considerations or Interests
Elder Holland’s recent conjecturing about the apostle Peter casts new light on his denial of the Savior. I had always assumed that Peter denied because he feared for his own safety: if he admitted to knowing Christ, then he feared he would be killed, too.
However, if as Elder Holland intimates, Peter was wanting to give it all up, wanting to go back to his former life, then Peter’s greatest fear—his greatest distraction—was that he simply did not want to be different than anyone else. He did not want to stand out in the crowd. He simply wanted to be a fisherman. In his denial he was saying, “No I am not like Him—I am like you. I am one of you. There is nothing strange or unusual about me.” His distracted denial was caused by his own desires and interests that were different from those set before him by the very Savior of the world, who was trying to call him out of the world to be a witness, to be an example, to be different.
While in kindergarten, just before my sixth birthday, my father died. Four months later when school was out, my mother moved us back to her home town in Idaho. It was very different than Florida, not just in geography, but in culture. In Florida, we were in a very small branch. Now our new home included a huge ward—many huge wards and stakes in a small community. There were lots of extended family members and church members that made us feel welcome and tried to help integrate us into our new community. I felt relatively comfortable. But I still felt very different. And I felt different because I did not have a father and everyone else did. I was the only one I knew who lived in a single parent household.
The difference was very apparent to me when I turned eight and everyone else’s dad baptized them. I was baptized by my grandpa. Now I loved my grandpa; he was so good to me. But he wasn’t my dad.
The most crippling effect of not having a father happened a few months later at my first pinewood derby. When handed the kit, I took it home not really knowing what to do with it. Over the next few weeks, I managed to construct a car and excitedly took it to the derby. In an air of anticipation, I awaited my first heat and when it came my turn, I placed my car at the top of the track and ran like every other boy had done to the end to catch it when it came zooming down. However, not only did mine not zoom when the release levers dropped, it didn’t even move. It just sat there. I didn’t know then what I was feeling, but it was the worst thing I had ever felt in my life: utter and complete humiliation in front of a whole room of peers and parents. I felt like I was the only one who had failed. I felt conspicuously different, but didn’t know what to do about it. I just knew that I never wanted to feel that different again. I wanted to be like the other boys, but I knew I wasn’t. And for the next thirty years, I allowed my sense of feeling different to act as a distraction. Even when I was married and was able to be a father to my own children, I still never felt like I fit in. I was always active in and committed to the church, but never felt fully engaged. As a consequence, I never felt like a true disciple. These other, divergent thoughts of feeling different were a distraction to me. My not wanting to be different yet feeling different was an on-going distraction that I could not let go of. Until . . . finally one day, after years of praying and trying, when I boarded a plane in Cincinnati where I had just been on a job interview and knew I was going to get a job and move my family there, I just decided to let it go. Or rather, through the grace of God, it was taken away from me and I did not resist.
Draw Attention Away
One of the ways Lucifer tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden was to focus on the future. She would not die, she would become like the gods, she would know good from evil. He did his best to keep her from thinking about the immediate consequences of her actions. He distracted her away from the here and now of her predicament, drawing her attention toward something distant and in the future. It wasn’t an “eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die” temptation that got her. He tried to distract her with the promise of something distant and out there, to be realized at a later point in time.
In a likewise unusual way, the future hope of peace and celestial rest that the gospel promises sometimes acts a distraction for being true disciples in the here and now. Because of these promises we often think of the gospel as being something entirely absent of conflicts and challenges. Concomitantly, we often feel that we can live the gospel and be a disciple only when there are no conflicts or challenges. Unfortunately, we can allow those promises and hopes to draw us away from the blessings and beauties of being a disciple right now, amidst the toils and strives of life. The discipline of discipleship is required in our response here and now to basketball games, pierced and tattooed body parts and rainbow-colored hair, and drug-infested apartments without a place for neglected children to sleep.
Confusion and Perplexity
I can relate to Oliver Cowdery. Like him I would have been curious about Joseph Smith and recognized fairly quickly that he was a man of God. I, too, think I would have wanted to be around him and to help him in the great work the Lord had given him. And like him, after watching and being moved by the process of translating the Book of Mormon, I would have wanted to have the experience for myself. I think I would have felt like I was probably ready to give it a try. And like Oliver, my thinking and wanting wouldn’t have been enough because whether I wanted to admit it or not, I would not have really been ready.
Like Oliver, we are all pretty good at focusing on outward change, on the outward manifestations of discipleship. I come to church every week. I pay my tithing. I am kind to my neighbor. I have a temple recommend and I use it. When in reality, these outward manifestations distract us into thinking that we are real disciples, that we are experiencing a real change of heart, real growth. In an unexpected way, these feelings about our readiness confuse and even muddle our thinking. And then when the wake-up call comes—and it always does in one form or another—we stop, we look around and we are perplexed. Why is this happening to me, we ask? How did I get where I am? For some of us it may come in the form of losing a job or a loved one. For others, we find that we buckled under pressure, made a big mistake and find ourselves facing consequences of actions that we never imagined that we were capable of performing. And what we eventually discover once we are able to admit it, is that our outward activity, our outward manifestations of doing good, were really distractions that kept us from looking inward into our hearts, inward into our souls, inward into our very nature which is where, ultimately, discipleship must happen.
Diversion and Amusement
In his moment of hunger and weakness, the mess of porridge was nothing more than a diversion for Esau. It was a momentary distraction. And because it was only a mess of porridge, he probably didn’t think that there would be any long term consequences from such a seeming harmless amusement. But ultimately, the long term consequences of this distraction were the same as if he had committed some egregious sin.
All of us find ourselves involved in self-centered behaviors. Like Esau, we try to justify our actions by saying that they really don’t harm anyone else. But generally, even though we don’t think that our actions harm anyone else directly, indirectly they can cause harm if for no other reason than the lost opportunity that ensues. When I am focused on myself, I don’t tend to do kind things for other people; I don’t often look for or create opportunities to bless the life of someone else. Someone may be in real need and my self-centeredness distracts me away from that need.
We often think of self-centeredness as a mere diversion, mere temporary amusement or gratification. But there is an insidiousness in that “mere-ness”. The hallmark of Christian discipleship is kindness and the way we treat other people. Any time we engage in self-centered behavior, it is not merely a diversion, but it rocks the very core, the very foundation of what being Christ centered is about. It doesn’t matter whether it is temporary or not. Something as simple as mess of porridge actually does negate the blessings and promises of the covenant.
Division Through Strife or Dissension
One of the saddest stories in our Mormon history is that of the Mountain Meadows massacre. Even though not all the saints who immigrated to Utah in the 19th Century had directly experienced the persecutions in Missouri or Illinois, the brutality and denigration from those experiences were part of the collective consciousness of the saints. The stories were vivid and alive; and the persecutions were a real part of the heritage and one of the driving forces behind the long journey across the plains. So when Brigham Young sent a group to colonize southern Utah, they undoubtedly carried those stories with them. When they came upon a non-Mormon pioneer group from Missouri who claimed to have driven the Mormons out, the Mormon colonizers, distracted from their own discipleship, allowed former strife and dissension to take over their emotions and they murdered the Missourians.
The story that the Mormon colonizers had of the early church persecutions had only two sets of characters in it: us vs. them. So when the “us” of the small group of colonizing saints met up with a “them” of the pioneers from Missouri, the party lines were drawn. No one can condone the actions of the “us” in killing the “them” of the “enemy”. However, we should try to understand what caused the atrocities and make sure we learn what we need to so that such a distraction never happens to us.
All of us draw boxes around ourselves and others. In the boxes, we include traits and motivations for ourselves and others. For the Mormon colonizers, the “Us” box was made up of people who wanted to live their religion in peace and safety, absent of persecution. In contrast, the “Them” box was made up of evil people who were out to destroy them and make the world an awful place to live. They were godless and the minions of Satan. The “Us” needed to protect themselves from the “Them” before the “Them” destroyed the them of the “Us.”
Lest we be too quick to cast judgment upon the Mormon colonizers and the boxes they created, we should ask are we any different today. Unfortunately, I heard a lot of the same rhetoric in the last year and a half of campaigning with too strong words like “enemy”, “destroy”, “crush”. I fear that we have not made a lot of progress in the last century and a half.
But beyond politics, how often have the boxes we have created for ourselves and others caused if not all-out strife and dissension, at least a false distinction between us and them. How often have we used those boxes as barriers that limit our relationships with another human being, distracting us from our real goal of Christian discipleship. Sometimes it is no more than a box that says something as simple, though still very limiting, as “I am not good at establishing relationships with others,” or “even though he or she is friendly, he or she will never be my friend.” Sometimes it’s a box that is nothing more than a persona we have chosen for ourselves, “I’m a in-your-face kind of person” or “I am shy and quiet.” The most important truth about boxes is that we have drawn them ourselves and we have the power and right to re-draw them according to how we want the future and the here and now to be. We are in control.
From these examples from the scriptures and our own lives, we have seen that there are many kinds of distractions that hold us back from becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ. Whether they are distractions of conflicting emotions caused by a misguided sense of right and wrong, distractions of feeling different, distractions that draw our attention away from living a full and rich life here and now, distractions from outward appearances that make us believe we are disciples when we are not yet, distractions that seem only to be innocuous diversions of self-centeredness, or unfortunate distractions from what we believe to be immutable boxes drawn around ourselves and others, all are just that: distractions. They keep us from achieving our end goal, our whole purpose of existence which is to become true disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.
May we first recognize the distractions that distract us. May we them accept that they are not permanent. That they are distractions suggests that they are not the real thing–that they are counterfeit. May we all believe that we have the power to be un-distracted. And finally, may we all through the grace of God, remove the distractions and allow ourselves to be the sons and daughters of god, the disciples of Christ that He means and wants for us to be.