A Dispensation When All Truth Shall Be Known

This is the “Dispensation of the Fulness of Times.” An epoch in which all that God has ever revealed, is revealed, and all that He will yet reveal, He is in the process of revealing. In other words, it is a time when all truth shall be known, all secrets told.

As we have seen over these last few years, this is not about God’s doctrine alone. Think on it.

The sexual abuse scandal of the Catholic Church.

The true hearts of those self-proclaimed Christians (so many of them Evangelicals, and too many of them Latter-day Saints) who have enthusiastically given their minds and souls to the nakedly wicked Donald Trump.

The #MeToo movement revealing the dramatic extent of the unchecked lust and misogyny of men in power that has been swept under the rug for so long.

Hypocrisy is being revealed. New knowledge is being given to us. God’s supposed faithful are being tested and purged as the wheat and the tares. We are learning who we are, who our neighbors and leaders are, and in being granted that knowledge, we are given a choice:

Will we save our own souls and insist on consequences for lack of honor and integrity and morality?

Or will we continue to tolerate and follow and celebrate these figures, and ignore or embrace or even imitate their behavior?

We cannot be saved in ignorance. Therefore, God is, with His mighty arm, taking away from us that ignorance.

Advertisements

We Are Still Pioneers (Sacrament Talk)


We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments—these moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known—we count these moments as our proudest achievements. But we’ve lost all that. Or perhaps we’ve just forgotten that we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us.

In Christopher Nolan’s science fiction film Interstellar, a blight afflicting all the world’s crops heralds the end of the world. The primary characters of the film decide to launch off into space to find another planet for humanity’s next home. They know very little about what they will find out there, and many on Earth are convinced it is a waste of time and money, but a special few are daring enough to venture into the unknown.

I want to talk briefly about one of the prominent, recurring images in the film: dust. The same dust we wipe off our surfaces, the same dust we get caked in when working outside. In the world of the film, the entire planet has been blanketed in clouds of dust and dry storms straight out of The Grapes of Wrath. Dirt clouds periodically roll over the countryside, forcing everyone indoors. Dust invades their houses, their fields, and even their bodies, so pervasively that multitudes have died and there isn’t much hope for the rest. Dust has essentially taken over the world—and the denizens of earth have accepted it, and seek to survive as long as they possibly can in it, rather than look for a way of rising above it.

Our main character, Cooper, is shown a possible way for humanity to survive, through space travel. But in this world, children are taught that the moon landing of 1969 was an elaborate fraud, conducted as an opiate for the masses to make them think space travel was possible back in the 20th century when really, it wasn’t. After hearing that his children are being taught this institutional complacency, Cooper laments (now, listen with your spiritual ears), “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are…. We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Could there be a greater encapsulation of the latter days? While all mankind are fighting over things both temporal and temporary, while so many of us are squabbling over our fragile fortunes and our empires of dirt, while the televisions we willingly turn on scream into our homes about the horribleness of your political enemies, the true answer to life’s mysteries lies outside all that blinding dust, literally in the heavens themselves.

What is that answer? What is the true war at work today? What is the purpose of this mortal life?

It is this: progress. Self-improvement. The pioneering of our individual souls, leaving behind the dust of the earth. And that’s what I want to talk about on this Pioneer Day sacrament meeting.

I confess to be a man driven largely by nostalgia. I will often reach back into the years, hoping to grasp the joy and memories hidden there and feel today as I felt then. I remember how times were, the company of friends, family at Christmas, the pleasures of childhood. Especially summer days, biking to a pizza place or mini golf with friends or playing basketball in the backyard. I miss the effect video games and movies had on me, how I could be enraptured for so much time, when I didn’t have duties and responsibilities weighing on me, pestering me, tapping me on the shoulder to remind me of the hard work that needs to be done, and will need to be done for the rest of my life. I want life to be what it once was. I want life to stay the same.

As blinded by nostalgia as I am, I only recently began to accept that there will be no year in my life that was anything like the year before that. The number one reason for that is Dagny, who is two and a half. Every single year will be different from the last. She will be talking more, doing more, learning more. I will have to keep up with her growth for the rest of her life, including the change in my own habits and behaviors to match the change in her needs and desires. Add in the self-evident truth that we are knee-deep in the last days, and I must face the facts: life will never be the same again, not even for two years in a row.

But I’ve come to realize that this is not a defect of this world. Rather, it is a feature, precisely how the Lord designed mortality to be. The reason for this has everything to do with what we are celebrating this weekend: Pioneer Day.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks in a talk from 1997 said, “We have studied the lives and accomplishments of our pioneers, early and modern. … Now after all [this], it is appropriate to ask ourselves, “Therefore, what?” Are these pioneer celebrations academic, merely increasing our fund of experiences and knowledge? Or will they have a profound impact on how we live our lives?

“It is not enough to study or reenact the accomplishments of our pioneers. We need to identify the great, eternal principles they applied to achieve all they achieved for our benefit and then apply those principles to the challenges of our day.”

The pioneers and indeed all the early saints of the restored Church lived extremely difficult lives. You’d think joining the church is hard enough, committing your mind to new doctrine, submitting your physical body to new rules of behavior, shifting your priorities to higher, spiritual matters that can seem so abstract. But so many of these fresh converts—and new members of the church can probably relate—were also hated for their choice to accept the gospel. Abandoned by friends, disowned by family, forced to flee homelands, and persecuted to the point of physical violence, being driven out of the homes they built with their own two hands, often just whenever they started feeling comfortable where they were. It’s important to note that the Lord never let them feel safe for very long, even in the cities they built brick by brick, even around the temples they sacrificed so much blood, sweat, and tears to construct. The spurs of hell were perpetually allowed to stab them in the sides.

But…what happens when horses are spurred? They move forward. They move faster than they did before. They press on, swifter and more driven.

God doesn’t always motivate us with sharpness. But, brothers and sisters, the Lord will never let us get too comfortable where we are, because the entire point of this mortality is that we move forward. That we move faster than we did before. That we press on, more driven towards a higher place. And if we’re not already doing that on our own, He might dig a spur into our side to get us moving. And thus we become pioneers.

The trek of today’s pioneers is not a physical journey, but a spiritual one. The purpose of mortality, after all, is to change—for us to become like God, with immortality and eternal life. That is His work, and so it is also ours. We, brothers and sisters, are pioneers of the soul.

Elder Oaks said, “As for life-threatening obstacles, the wolves that prowled around pioneer settlements were no more dangerous to their children than the drug dealers or pornographers who threaten our children. Similarly, the early pioneers’ physical hunger posed no greater threat to their well-being than the spiritual hunger experienced by many in our day. The children of earlier pioneers were required to do incredibly hard physical work to survive their environment. That was no greater challenge than many of our young people now face from the absence of hard work, which results in spiritually corrosive challenges to discipline, responsibility, and self-worth. Jesus taught: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).”

The war of the latter days is not physical, nor political. There is no temporal or political victory, none, that can make up for the loss of a soul. Christ said this explicitly: it profits a man nothing to give his soul, even for the whole world. But Satan distracts us from the real fight, the real struggle, with all these temporal squabblings over empires of dust. “We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” Brothers and sisters, if we truly forget who we really are, and the pioneers we are meant to be, then the devil wins.

And so we must keep our eyes open for the real enemy, the one that can destroy our soul. And while we keep watch for our spiritual enemy, we must also fix our gaze squarely on our celestial path, and keep our hands busy with the work and glory of God: the improvement of our soul, the journey of our eternal progression.

I myself can’t tell you where that is or where it starts. I can’t tell you what to change, which direction you need to go. That’s between you and your Savior. He is our beacon. When setting out for the Rocky Mountains, the pioneers of the early church had only the scarcest of reports to go on. Yet they packed up their belongings and risked their lives in a journey of two thousand miles by foot to get to their Zion. Anything could be and was waiting for them out there. Disease, starvation, animal attacks, life-threatening weather. They faced opposition and trials every single day of their journey, with no idea when it would be done or really what to expect when they got there. The only thing they knew was that their church was led by the Savior himself, and they trusted Him. He was their beacon, and so He is ours today, like a runway lit up at night.

Elder Oaks said, “The foremost quality of our pioneers was faith. With faith in God, they did what every pioneer does—they stepped forward into the unknown: a new religion, a new land, a new way of doing things. With faith in their leaders and in one another, they stood fast against formidable opposition. When their leader said, “This is the right place,” they trusted, and they stayed. When other leaders said, “Do it this way,” they followed in faith.”

They had their leaders and so do we today. Already President Nelson is blazing new paths in the church, and we’ve all seen that over the last few months. It’s incredible to watch, isn’t it? It’s safe to say we’ve all seen the mantle pass from President Monson, and we can all see that it’s Christ leading our prophet to these new programs, policies, and preachings.

We also have the temple. David O. McKay said that the ordinances of the temple represent “the step-by-step ascent into the eternal presence.” The plan of salvation is the pattern of godly growth, from intelligences to spirits to souls to gods to eternal lives. The pathway of our pioneering.

There is a statue outside the brand new Provo City Center Temple that crystallizes this idea. The image is simple, but so profound. A mother is crouched behind a child, who is taking her first steps in the direction of her father. He has his arms stretched out, as if to assure her he can catch her if she falls, but also to beckon her toward him. What an encapsulation of the temple experience! The temple is the place where, in a spiritual sense, we take our first steps toward eternal life, towards the beckoning, comforting arms of our Savior and our Heavenly Father.

It is not a new path to them. But it is for us. It is for our souls.

And that’s why, when we decide to let go of old habits, past comforts, emotional crutches, it can be terrifying, like taking a step into a darkened hallway. Indeed, the pioneer’s life is not always a comfortable one, nor will it always feel like a safe one. That is because the stakes are enormous. We are meant to one day live as gods—and that is, to say the least, brand new territory for us! And it is a far greater journey than even the trek from Nauvoo to the mountains of Deseret. And because of the greatness of that journey, there are going to be horrible obstacles and pitfalls, trials and tests that afflict every soul who dares to press on. Some of those include physical or emotional suffering. It can also include spiritual failings, and the dark cloud Satan has successfully cast around the world, the blindfold he has wrapped around so many pairs of eyes. This includes lethargy, complacency, apathy. We can too often be afflicted by the desire for an easier path, even if it means floundering in spiritual mediocrity.

Like those parents helping a child take her first steps, today God is trying to make more of us than we already are. If we protest against our trials too much, or reject His shaping Hand, or kick against the pricks, or—like the people in Interstellar—insist on staying where we are and not moving at all, we will inevitably drift in the opposite direction. There is no middle ground in God’s kingdom, no place for the lukewarm. If you don’t let God guide you forward, you are letting Satan pull you backward. While we may not technically be harming anyone, living an inactive but inoffensive life, we are still squandering our great and mighty potential, and that itself is an offense to God, as we see in the parable of the talents.

We also see this lesson in the aftermath of Joseph Smith’s death. This period was a moment when God separated the wheat from the tares. The saints were offered a choice in whom to follow next. Some followed one apostate, others followed another. Increasing persecution compelled Brigham Young to lead the faithful saints west. What happened to the saints that stayed in Nauvoo the whole time? They were left behind while the real growth was happening elsewhere. So many who did not have the faith to stick with Brigham after Joseph died, fell away. They became part of the Reorganized Church and “dwindled in unbelief.” Those who rejected the imperative to blaze new paths ended up withering away, becoming one with the dust of the earth, their names remaining unwritten in the history books.

Brothers and sisters, the dust of the earth is given to us as a foundation. It is not meant for us to dwell in permanently, but as solid ground to plant our feet and take our first steps toward a beckoning Father. It is after taking those first steps that we learn how to spiritually break Earth’s gravity and set out on our eternal journey, to explore the endless expanse of the universe’s possibilities. Without a little pain, without some discomfort, and without God’s occasional distance like a father beckoning a child on, we’d never even want to take those first steps away from where we started, never want to reach upwards with aspiration, never want to make the unknown known.

The function of a loving Father is not just to make sure we’re all comfortable where we sit. It’s to draw us on and raise us to be just like Him! God gives us spurs in life because He wants to drive us forward.

What reason would you and I have to grow, to change and develop, if suffering or persecution of some sort did not necessitate it? What reason is there to pioneer new trails if we have no problems where we’re currently squatting?

Think about it: what happens when an object does not move for a long period of time? What happens to a person who is not engaged in life and work?

They gather dust.

Remember Lehi’s pleas to his rebellious sons on his deathbed: “Awake! and arise from the dust. Arise from the dust, my sons, and be men.”

The scriptures tell us that man was formed from the dust of the earth. Very well, science tell us something similar. Makes us sound kinda low, doesn’t it? It humbles us. But there’s something we don’t often think about in connection to that fact, and that is this: every speck of dust that comprises our mortal, physical bodies ultimately came from space, from the stars, from interstellar dust itself.

It’s so easy to forget all of that. It’s so easy to forget who we truly are. Our true identity, like our destiny, has been lost among the clouds of dust, when we should be looking to the clouds above.

Gordon B. Hinckley wrote, “‘Mormonism’ is a religion of refinement. It reasons that every man has within him God-possibilities, that salvation is essentially development. It argues that every man is potentially a great man. And through an inspired system, it offers the most extensive facilities in all the world for every man to discover himself and his possibilities, to so live that he can stand on the summit of his life and look back upon a trail of accomplishment and not a slough of wasted energies. Very few at most, and perhaps none of us will ever carve immortal names in the roll call of the great of the earth. Maybe none of us will achieve outside the narrow pale of our immediate surroundings. But this much is certain: happy will be the man or woman who has tapped some hidden resource and given it voice. To such a character will come the sweet satisfying feeling of strengthening powers, of having done something that has made life a little nobler. God has generously blessed us all with talent…Catch the silent thrill of growth!”

Make no mistake, brothers and sisters: we are still pioneers. Our spiritual forebears fought for their physical survival. In our time we are fighting for our spiritual survival. And eternally speaking, we are all fighting for not just survival, but transcendence–or, in other words, EXALTATION–necessitated by the dust storms of these last days of this earth. God wants more than anything for us to be constantly forging through the cosmic wilderness, discovering untold territories in ourselves, taking our first steps into spaces we’ve never before been, into spheres and kingdoms we thought we never could attain.

Sadly for people like me who don’t care for too much adventure in their lives, there is no room for excessive nostalgia in God’s kingdom. God wants us elsewhere than we were a year ago. God wants us to excel, and to accelerate. God wants a church of pioneers.

You might have noticed that through this entire talk, I haven’t referenced any concrete actions you should take on your path of self-improvement. That’s because I’m not up here to preach. I’m not up to tell you which of your habits and behaviors you need to change. I certainly know what mine are, and I think you know yours just as well. I am up here to light a fire—to inspire that desire to aim higher, to break your old barriers, and to reach for the stars. I am here to remind you that you and all of us are still pioneers, and that we’ve barely begun, and that our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny—yours and mine—our eternal destiny lies above us.

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

A Challenge: Live a Perfect Week

Fibonacci
Sunday Challenge for you all (including me): if you are struggling with anything (whether it’s temporal or spiritual, mental or emotional), consider trying to live a perfect week. Not perfect in respect to good things happening to you, but perfect before God. Fast from all your worldly needs and desires and especially all those things that would offend the Spirit (especially media: TV shows, movies, video games), even a tiny bit. Have that never-ceasing prayer in your heart and “always remember Him,” that you can have the Holy Ghost with you at all times.
I attempted this a couple weeks ago, and even though I ended up bungling it all by week’s end, it was still an incredibly valuable experience. I was struggling with a few things and it gave me much needed perspective. I found how much I emotionally rely on worldly things, including and especially the media mentioned above, and how much farther I really have to go towards that ultimate goal of soul-completion.
Above all it reminded me that the gospel and Atonement and the Spirit are all very real things. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. I believe you’ll find that it’s more possible than you might think.
(Thanks to Chris Heimerdinger, who first suggested this in one of his books, “Gadiantons and the Silver Sword.”)

Bearers of Heavenly Moonlight

A family member suggested to me a couple of weeks ago to take the time to read the talks from the most recent Priesthood session of General Conference. No cause, no particular reason for the suggestion at that time, not that I could tell. But still, it seemed good advice. I read one of the talks, was moved by it, but then put the Ensign down.

Last night, I had something of a breakdown. A few things I was heavily invested in did not pay off as I hoped they would. My fragile brain broke and went a lot of places I didn’t want it to go. When this happens—as someone with bipolar disorder, this does happen from time to time—I feel I’m in what I call a “black cloud,” where my brain chemistry gets off balance and I see every goal in my life as a failure, every situation with despair, every desire as wicked and unworthy on my part, every sin or transgression as putting me too far out of the reach of the Savior. It feels like I am in a cloud of darkness, unable to see any light at all and indeed literally impossible to feel the Spirit or God’s love. Usually I am able to work through it, and pass out the other side. It’s not always in my control and what dispels the cloud is always different, something I can’t predict but that God inevitably has waiting for me. When it’s gone, everything feels normal again and I wonder what on earth I was thinking. It’s like if you’ve suddenly noticed that you’ve been clenching your teeth hard for several minutes, and then you open your jaw and everything feels right again and you wonder why you were ever clenching your teeth that hard. It’s a scary feeling but it feels so liberating and peaceful when that immense pressure is lifted and your brain works normally again.

And I did reach that point last night. I did find peace again and the darkness was dispelled.

Today in the aftermath of the previous night’s breakdown, I was feeling a little aimless. The Ensign happened to be opened to President Uchtdorf’s message in that priesthood session, exactly what had been referred to me by that family member. The title of that talk was, “Bearers of Heavenly Light.” As someone who had just passed through a cloud of emotional and spiritual darkness, this meant something to me.

Especially when it got to this passage:

During my flights as an airline captain across our planet earth, I was always fascinated by the beauty and perfection of God’s creation. I found especially captivating the relationship between the earth and the sun. I consider it a profound object lesson of how darkness and light exist.

As we all know, within every 24 hours night turns to day and day turns to night.

So, then, what is night?

Night is nothing more than a shadow.

Even in the darkest of nights, the sun does not cease to radiate its light. It continues to shine as bright as ever. But half of the earth is in darkness.

The absence of light causes darkness.

I love this analogy. I always have. It’s not even really an analogy, but a deep and profound truth, the kind that works across many layers of the universe’s creation, a celestial, cosmological pattern. When it is nighttime and we are in darkness, it is not permanent. No matter the trial He calls us to go through, no matter the pain and loneliness, the sunlight of God’s love is always there, even if it is hidden from us for a time. And inevitably the earth will turn, a new day will come, and the light will shine in our faces and in our hearts again. And note—it comes from the heavens, from the celestial body itself.

But Elder Uchtdorf neglects to include an essential element of this analogy, this pattern. An element both material and symbolic: the symbol of moonlight.

When it is in the darkest part of night, the deepest and farthest away from heaven’s light, our hope and our faith need not be blind. We need not merely trust that sometime the darkness will end. We have physical proof that the sun still shines! The moon, that other celestial body, proves it. When you see the moon, you see the sun. For the light projecting from that lunar surface is not projecting at all, but reflecting. The moon is a mirror of God’s light and love, proof of His presence when He cannot be there with us directly. When through fiery trials our pathway may lie, we still have emblems of His love, knowledge that though He may not be right here, He is still near, and He has not left us alone. I used this symbol prominently in a story I wrote many years ago.

But it hit me personally in a very real way a long time ago, when I was dealing with bipolar disorder without the the help of medication. It was the middle of the night, and I was driving aimlessly wracked with despair. Playing in the CD player was a mix of orchestrated Final Fantasy music. At a crucial moment, a particular song came on: “You’re Not Alone,” a track played in Final Fantasy IX towards the end, when the main character has just learned a devastating truth about his origins and, after a lifetime of going out of his way to help other people, feels totally alone. This music plays while, one by one, his friends and party members rejoin him as he fights a sequence of terrible battles. A moment comes in the orchestrated version of this song that feels like a climax, around the 3:15 mark. Please listen so you can hear and hopefully feel what I’m talking about!

As I was saying, this song came on while I was driving, while I was crying and praying over the steering wheel. And as I said, I already held this symbol of moonlight in my heart from a novel I had finished recently. In yet another story I was working on, I always envisioned a scene with the above music playing. And at that 3:15 climax, one character declares to another character also suffering in a pit of despair, “Solihim Metagon! YOU ARE NOT ALONE!”

That point in the music came right as I was turning a corner. Right as the trees opened up, revealing a cloudless starry sky—and a full moon beaming down on me.

Of course I drove the rest of the way home in sobs. That was something like ten years ago. The bipolar still gets me. Not as bad as it used to, thank goodness. But that black cloud still creeps over my light from time to time, convinces me the nighttime is forever.

But even in nighttime, there is moonlight.

One of the three major symbols of my book The Hero Doctrine is, along with sword and shield, the “mirror.” The moon, as a reflector of the sun’s light, is a kind of mirror in its own right. In that book I ask the reader to become a “mirror of God.”

Elder Uchtdorf, though speaking to priesthood holders in this address, really asks the same of us:

As a bearer of God’s priesthood and as a disciple of Jesus Christ, you are a bearer of light. Keep doing the things that will nurture His divine light. “Hold up your light”13 and “let [it] shine before men”—not so that they will see and admire you, but “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”14

My dear brothers, you are instruments in the hands of the Lord with the purpose of bringing light and healing to the souls of Heavenly Father’s children. Perhaps you do not feel qualified to heal those who are spiritually ill—certainly not any more than a post office employee is qualified to help with arthritis. Maybe you face spiritual challenges of your own. Nevertheless, the Lord has called you. He has given you authority and responsibility to reach out to those in need. He has endowed you with His sacred priesthood power to bring light into the darkness and uplift and bless God’s children. God has restored His Church and His precious gospel, “which healeth the wounded soul.”15 He has prepared the path to spiritual wellness, to find healing from stagnation and move toward vibrant spiritual health.

In being mirrors of God and bearers of heavenly moonlight, we can be there for others when they are struggling. We can be there for someone to talk to, someone who will just listen to the pains and trials and temptations of others when they are in their nighttime.

Whose life can you light up today? Who needs to feel the love of God through you? Whom can you help come unto Christ so that their affliction, whether it be physical or emotional and spiritual, can be healed?

The moon, whenever it shines, is in a position where it can see the sun. When we are able to bask in sunlight, we are commanded, not by me or even Elder Uchtdorf but by Christ, the creator of the celestial bodies Himself, to reflect that light to those in the dark.

Therefore, hold up your light that it may shine unto the world. Behold I am the light which ye shall hold up—that which ye have seen me do. (3 Nephi 18:24)

“Satan’s Angle” – Deleted excerpt from “The Hero Doctrine”

[The following is a brief passage from my book The Hero Doctrine that didn’t make the final cut. In the context of the book it is meant to contrast some of Satan’s goals and methods of achieving those goals to Heavenly Father’s. It is not comprehensive by any means—the novel I am working on now, Sea of Chaos, will be closer to that—but I think it is still insightful. After this passage is a short poem I wrote on Lucifer’s perspective that, alas, did not get far the in the Mormon Lit Blitz last year.]

Hero_Doctrine_Official

“…Satan …sought to destroy the agency of man…to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.” (Moses 4:3-4)

Satan, our common enemy, also works with particular methods, and they have only been refined over the thousands of years this war has been waged. It will be a worthwhile thing to briefly go over a few of those methods Satan uses to counter the work of our Father in Heaven, for only in knowing the strategies of the enemy can we hope to avoid his attacks.

Satan’s primary objective is to reverse the process of growth towards godhood, and distort those truths that govern eternity. Satan wants us to see this world and this life as having little meaning or purpose other than living for one’s self. Above all Satan seeks to deprive us of our agency, and thus deprive us of our potential to become like Heavenly Father.

To do this he has convinced many in the world that we are animals, bundles of fleshy matter that possess no agency, slaves to passion and impulse, living by instincts and desires alone. If he tricks us into seeing ourselves only as animals, we take from ourselves our own agency, claiming we are simply “born this way” and there’s simply nothing we can do about it but indulge. This kind of thinking burns the bridge between us and God, leaving us seemingly willingly stranded on the island of a lower kingdom.

In the plan he presented to the grand council in heaven, Lucifer would take consequences away, hence destroying the foundation of the world: cause and consequence, choice and accountability. He also tries to erase guilt from our collective culture, the primary way by which God lets us know we’ve done something wrong.

In many religious cultures, Satan has preached the poison that God is actually a spirit without a body, a being closer to Satan himself, all to lower God to his own level, and to persuade us to hate our bodies as something evil and sinful. He also has denigrated the holy act of having children, and turned our society away from the most sacred of duties—caring for a brand new life, giving a baby love and food and protection, producing and raising and molding an entirely new soul. The ideal of parenthood as the greatest of goods and children as the most precious of assets is fading, crumbling, and treated lightly, even crudely. Parents these days are expected to merely stand by and let the child decide everything for themselves, and be who and what they’re born as, rather than teach these children who and what they may become.

Children are commonly seen as an inconvenience rather than a blessing, and their termination in the womb is a casual, everyday thing, a normalized way of sidestepping responsibility for the choice that created the developing child in the first place. Bear in mind, in terminating a developing embryo or fetus, one also terminates the consequences of that original procreative choice, thus finding another channel to eradicate agency. It is ironic that to be “pro-choice” one must support an action that extinguishes the consequence of previously made choices.

And so instead of heeding the most important of callings, people are convinced that whatever work they do outside the home has the most bearing on society. As if every single worker out there in the world is as irreplaceable as a loving father or mother!

I’ll admit, this paradigm fills me with genuine outrage. Why is the desire to create life and foster its development — the very measure of our creation — so looked down upon by the world? Why is it considered a lesser calling? Satan is quashing that divinely-inherited instinct to create human beings with the far lower desire to create a business; he is crushing true creation in the eyes of the world, destroying, in people’s minds, God’s own work and glory. The institutions of marriage and family are falling away, dissolving into an amorphous, undefined state in which they can mean anything and everything a person wants them to mean.

This, in turn, erodes conceptions of God. Elder Quentin L. Cook taught that “Efforts to distort and destroy the family are designed to keep the Father’s children from feeling His love drawing them back home to Him. Abusive male authority figures, out-of-wedlock births, unwanted children, and other social challenges of our day make it harder for those who suffer them to comprehend, hope for, and have faith in a righteous, loving, and caring Father. Just as the Father seeks to help us know Him, the adversary uses every means possible to come between the Father and us. Fortunately, there is no power, sin, or condition that can keep us from the love of the Father. Because God loved us first, we can come to know Him and love Him.”

 

THE GOD THAT NEVER WAS

The first thing he saw was God.

He saw the majestic sweep of His arm,
How it bid mountains bow, and winds still,
How it arranged atoms and framed stars,
How it curled to cradle his brothers and sisters.

He saw all this and hungered for it.

At the grand council he put forth his plan:
Anoint him, and embrace simplicity, mercy, and ease.
Redemption for all no matter their path.
And he, he would be their beloved god.

But Father’s arm held him back.

A god must be free to fall, He said.
So let them know the world entire,
To walk past the angels one day on their own feet,
Or to venture down forbidden paths—like you.

Rejected! His plan of ease and mercy!

Spurned by the lights he tried to bring forth,
He walked his own path down to the deep.
Followed by angels of his own,
He plotted a chaos he could command.

To hell with simplicity.

The children wanted knowledge?
Then he’d deliver them God’s flame of glory,
Stolen from the great Soulsmith’s forge—
Fire meant for purging, a furnace meant for refining—

And burn them with it.

For when we sin (for the thousandth time) and feel the need to pull away from our Savior:

You mess up and feel the need to be apart from God via prayer for a while. You aren’t worthy of speaking to God. Why would God listen to you when you’re covered in spiritual slime? You might regret it now, after the fact, but you made that choice consciously, knowingly. You’re still the same person you were when you made your mistake and you can’t change the past! You could have sought God then, but you didn’t. You’re trying to have it both ways: a relationship with God and the pleasures of the sin.

How dare you.

From Ardeth Greene Kapp:

It is often in the valleys with our afflictions that we are truly humbled and better prepared to remember the gift of eternal life for which he paid the price—those times when we feel least worthy, least comfortable about carrying his holy name, and have a keener sense of our imperfections, those moments when flesh is weak and our spirits suffer disappointment for our errors and our sins. We might feel a sense of withdrawal, a pulling away, a feeling of needing to set aside for a time at least that divine relationship with the Savior until we are more worthy. But at that very moment, even in our unworthiness, the offer is again given to us to accept the great gift of the Atonement—even before we change. When we feel the need to pull away, let us reach out to him. Instead of feeling the need to resist, let us submit to his will. Let us bend our will as well as our knees in humble supplication.

This is my message to myself:

How dare you? You have it wrong. How dare you—not for in sin seeking for God, but for speaking for God. How dare you pre-empt the message of His Spirit with self-hatred! He is not angry with you, ready to dole out his wrath, but crying with you for your pain. It is because of that pain, that regret, that ache of frustration for a change that seems so impossible to reach, that you are still worthy to call on His name, and to bathe in the warm and cleansing waters of the Atonement.

There is only one true sin in this world and it is pride. All the rest are merely bumps and bruises for your soul on your path to salvation and exaltation. If you have pride, and refuse to look in the direction of that brazen serpent (to which the path leads), then you are living in sin. But if you are looking in the right direction, and remain humble even as you stumble and trip and fall, and as you try to right yourself and make sincere attempts to step only in the holy places—in other words, if you are repenting of your mistakes, you are worthy before Him, because that is what the Atonement is for.

We are commanded to keep ourselves spotless before the world. But this does not mean we never get them dirty—-but that we continually wash ourselves through repentance and humility.

Christ has many names, but my favorite is Mercy. The hand of Mercy reaches out, still.

The God Who Weeps over Jess Mariano

God weeps. You wouldn’t think the high-school-diploma-lacking “bad boy” of Gilmore Girls (as apparently you females affectionately and annoyingly refer to him) could teach you about that, or about anything, really, but recently Jess Mariano inadvertently did so.

(If you haven’t yet seen Gilmore Girls, consider it strongly! Though perhaps don’t expect regular theological parables.)

I used to hate Jess. I hated how much Rory found herself attracted to him. I was always a Dean guy (Season 4’s ending did away with that) because he was the type of person I thought I was most like. Not his handsomeness or anything (Dean’s way above my league), but how devoted he was to Rory, how he never took her for granted and served her selflessly. But then she came to take him for granted! She ignored the articles of his affection and instead fell for the guy who was a jerk, who taunted Dean for his cuckish devotion and just pestered Rory with his rebellious presence until she finally gave in and broke Dean’s heart. 

I still hate that particular aspect of Jess. I hate that obnoxious guys get girls. So unfair.

But—over the years, my reading of the story has changed. Matured might be a better word. 

In the show, we understand Jess’s angry attitude a little bit at first. He’s been sent against his will to live with his uncle Luke by his flaky single mother. He never knew his father, who left the two of them shortly after Jess’s birth. The town he’s been sent to live in represents everything that he hates. Nobody understands him, at least in his mind, and he has almost no control over his own life.

But his anger and rebellious attitude rapidly overstays its welcome. He secretly stops going to school every day so he can earn more money at his hourly wage job, explicitly breaking Luke’s rule for him (trying to get him to graduate high school). He’s a jerk to every adult whose path he crosses, even and especially the ones who try to be nice to him. He rejects every helping hand offered and resents Luke for seeking his long-term welfare over his short-term comfort. And he’s an obnoxious jerk to both Dean and Rory as he seeks to steal her away.

He doesn’t have to do any of this. He could be in pain and still make good choices. He doesn’t.

But his arc takes him to a place where I find myself in deepest sympathy. Empathy, actually. A place where I finally understand him.

It took me a few watches, but I finally got just how important Rory was to Jess. She was the only good thing in his life, the only ray of light. Everyone was else was telling him what to do, ignoring his pain, never allowing him to breathe. Rory was the one thing he wanted that he got.

Though he skips school frequently, he remains under the delusion that he can still catch up and graduate at the normal time. He’s a whip smart guy who is reading constantly, even as he hates the structure school boxes him into. But he’s told he’s not graduating. He has to take senior year over again. Worst of all, this means he can’t go to Senior Prom with Rory.

You really have to be paying attention to the show to see just how humiliating this is for Jess, how much pain it causes. It’s written more in what he doesn’t say to her, what he doesn’t do, than what he does.

Having never received proper parenting, he never learned healthy emotional expression. He bottles up his pain, his frustration, and can’t bring himself to tell any of it to Rory, nor to Luke. Though it’s never made explicit, he clearly feels that he’s failed Rory, he’s failed Luke, and he’s failed himself.

At this time, the deadbeat father he never knew shows up in town. He visits Luke’s diner where Jess works, and almost leaves again without saying a word to Jess out of his own fear and embarrassment. They end up having a single moment together in which Jess knows the man is his father before his father flees the scene. Jess is left stranded emotionally, almost gasping.

Shortly thereafter, Jess flees the town too. He flees Rory without telling her he’s leaving, Luke without graduating high school, and takes a bus across the country where his father lives. His lousy father has no idea what to do with him, and doesn’t even want Jess staying in his place for the night. Even when Jess finally reveals his vulnerability and begs his father for a place to crash for the night, his father is reluctant.

Jess has nothing. Absolutely nothing. And after this we don’t see him again in the show for a long, long time.

In Terryl and Fiona Givens’s book, The God Who Weeps, they write that the main reason God cries tears over His children—exemplified in the Book of Moses when Enoch witnesses God’s tears—is for the pain we feel as a consequence of sin. The natural results we garner when we act against God’s commandments. He weeps for our pain, and especially our unnecessary pain, even though it is completely our own fault.

The idea is intriguing, but not exactly fair. Shouldn’t He be more tearful over the pain of His righteous people? Isn’t the pain that comes from unrighteous choices not only completely deserved, but the whole point of this earth?

But Gilmore Girls has helped me appreciate this idea better. Through Jess I feel like I’ve caught a slice of the eternal perspective

So much of Jess’s pain was self-inflicted. He could have tried to humble himself and graduate high school. He could have apologized to Luke for his attitude once in a while. He could have been honest with Rory, or even respected her and Dean’s relationship and treated her better from the start. He could have worked hard within the structure he was placed and found success long-term and gone to the prom with Rory in the short-term. Maybe he could have married her someday, too. As viewers of the whole show, including the reunion episodes that came out recently, can attest, he never gets over his feelings for Rory, even as she moves on after he leaves.

He could have avoided all that. He chose not to. He deserves his pain, right?

Maybe. But I have come to feel so sad for him, to feel real heartbreak for him. Almost to the point of crying, myself.

Sea of Chaos – Opening

phu-quoc-gray-ocean(image taken from https://abruptdeparture.wordpress.com/)

The city was a sea of gray. The sooted streets of slate diminished by disrepair and the surrounding waters a dismal, drowning taupe in their reflection of the constant clouds. The snow-like powders that went into greasy pipes and the cigarettes that blackened lungs. The silver knives stained from daily use, and the guns a frigid, polished shine. The seagulls picking trash with more discrimination than orphans and ravens feasting on the corpses without prejudice. The hollowed, steel blue buildings darkened by ash, and the fog a hungry ghost, enveloping all of it like a death shroud.

The forces themselves were night and day, a towering mass of neon black versus a quiet whisper’s worth of white, but the people, the heaving waves of people—they themselves, and they alone, were gray.

Roc was one water droplet amongst so many. His little doings, his quest for daily bread, splashed and foamed and got tossed around as one with all the others. We might call him a little one, about eight years old. But there were no true little ones in Oshana, and neither did the city track the years. He and they only knew the local astronomy—day and night, cool and cold, a time to scavenge and a time to hide. He matured as fast as anyone else: immediately, because he had to.

And yet he was different. For his little waterdrop kept crashing down nearer and nearer to the shore. The moon still pulled him back through the lubricated grains of soft, soaked sand, but so also did it let him taste the drier, harder grains. Though he knew that taste had never touched his tongue that he could remember, a deepness inside ached for it like homesickness.

This day dawned in clouds, as it always did. Roc poked his head out from between the bursting garbage sacks that were his fortress and flipped his head both ways down the alley. The stench of urine that was ingrained in cement and brick had performed its duty again: no threats laid in either direction. No hungry bullies to break his thumbs, no drugged-up ranters on a rave, no darkers out for blood.

Like a sparrow he hopped out of the trash and over to the alley’s end. A blast of wind hit his face and he ducked back. The wind died down and he made his way out and over to the city’s edge to perform his morning ritual. He ducked beneath a broken set of concrete stairs once attached to a nearby crumbling structure and stared through the gaps.

The sight of the Bridge never ceased to amaze him. The titanic structure of cement and steel arched over the unsettled sea and disappeared into a wall of fog. Roc assumed, from the painted lanes on the dried tar, that cars were once meant to cross it. But as far as Roc knew, neither cars nor anything else had made that journey since ancient times. Not even the cars of the Rose or the Namers. Nor even the Sea itself.

A hundred yards down, the lanes wrapped around a towering lighthouse rising out of the fog. Once as white as its light, the beacon’s bricks had been charred and stained by a mix of pollutions. Its duty of illumination had turned dark. These days Roc had only ever seen it used to spot people trying to leave the city by boat. But it held no fear for him, like it did for so many other kids. He was more afraid of what might lie beyond that wall of whiteness than what was here in the city.

The armed men who stood guard at the Bridge’s entrance—people called them the Sentinels—well, they didn’t scare him either. The Sentinels were silent men, nameless and still, like a legion of chess pieces, or rows of gravestones. He understood what they did, but not why, and that mystery was part of the gravity that drew Roc here every morning. Nothing about their manner ever gave away their reasoning. Roc had never even heard them talk. They hefted their big guns casually, almost lazily, as if waiting for something to do.

No one had tried today. Not yet, anyway.

Roc leaned out to lick the dew off the rusted metal rail and suck air in through his nose. Condensation produced the cleanest water he’d ever tasted outside the saloons, and the sea’s salt purged the urine from his nostrils.

Drawing back, Roc saw him. He was here again. The other observer, the one across the street. The rough-cheeked, black-haired man with the eyepatch and the motorcycle and the dark jacket. Roc had seen him here many times, but not every day, and considered him a deeper mystery than the guards. Especially those gloves on his hands. Even Roc, as little and obscure as he was, knew gloves were illegal. The man must have been either powerful or fearless. Roc guessed just fearless. But the fearless in Oshana either died quickly or became powerful.

Either way, a good person for a friend, Roc thought. And even though they’d never spoken, that’s how Roc thought of him. Maybe not a friend, but an ally. Maybe not an ally, but a protector.

Something about the idea was comforting. It just felt right—or close to right.

Today, more than any day before, the man’s left-eyed gaze on the Bridge seemed to go far beyond the cement and steel. Deep into the fog, into places and feelings Roc was blind to.

Then they heard footsteps and a racked whimpering. Both heads turned.

A teenaged girl wrapped in rags was shuffling down the middle of the street. She clutched a threadbare shawl around her neck. Cotton, with more holes than cloth. Probably provided only the illusion of warmth. The fog had buried the slip-slip of her footsteps and her bloodied, ragged breathing until she was nearly parallel with Roc. This close he could see the snot running down the shivering cheeks, dripping even into her lips. She passed through the two observers like they were open gates.

Roc’s heart beat a little faster. He knew what was about to happen. She was nearing the real gates. There was no defined line to cross, only the dried puddles of brownish-red stain that stretched across the intersecting streets. Once in a spate of hard thinking, Roc had figured that this vague area created a space of uncertainty that attracted the runners. If you were trying to cross, but hoping for the best, you would never know the exact moment. Maybe you’d even feel a little hope. The Sentinels weren’t going to do it! Not this time! This time you were special, and you were the only one who’d get past, the one who’d get to see lie beyond the Bridge, and inside the world of fog.

And of course that would be the last spark of electricity that surged through your brain, because then your brains would be spilled out onto the ground.

At the last second Roc turned away, and looked up at his friend’s lightly bearded face across the street. The mouth he saw was open but empty, like it was trying and failing to muster words. The shoulders below it were tense as if about to lunge. The man did not.

The successive cracks rang out and Roc’s whole body jolted, like it always did (because you never knew just when). He looked just in time to see the girl perforated with bullets. Her scream died pitifully as she collapsed. Blood pooled around her and added a new layer to the shapeless stains.

Roc looked to his friend again. The mouth had closed, but the jaw was quivering as three of the Sentinels ventured out to retrieve the girl’s body. One raised his gun on the eyepatch while the other two dragged the girl’s body by the arms over to the water’s edge. They lifted her over the short concrete barrier and dropped her fifty feet into the drink. Roc heard a splash. They resumed their post without speaking.

How many skeletons must lie sleeping on that sea floor, Roc thought.

On the other side, that one eye was so fixated on the girl’s burial that the man did not hear Roc approach from the side—the first time the boy had ever worked up his courage to do so. Today he needed to know why this man did it. Why he watched, like Roc did.

Roc could have explained that he watched because there were things you could do that made you stop moving, that made blood come out of your skin. And that if you followed those rules, you could keep moving, and keep your skin together.

But Roc did not explain. Could not.

“Why?” he said to the man.

The man answered, and yet in such a manner that Roc wasn’t sure if he’d been noticed at all.

“I need to see myself,” the man said in a hollow voice that shocked Roc for its mildness. “I need to know myself.”

Roc was close enough to really see the man’s remaining eye—a shining sea-blue of an eye that stood out all the more against the blackness of his hair, beard, and jacket—and see how its beacon-like light was directed inward. Roc was close enough to see tears trickle out of that eye, and down into the wilderness of his unshaven cheeks. Roc was close enough to tug on that jacket if he wanted, to get him to look down at the child who had wanted safety and security and companionship all his life but never even knew the words to describe it.

“The city is clothed in its own nakedness,” the man whispered.

But it didn’t help Roc, for, despite being mere inches away, Roc was still not close enough to understand.

My new e-book: When Once They Had Voices (stories from my JRPG “Voiceless”)

bannervoiceless.jpg

This past year I’ve been working on a different sort of project than my usual novels: a video game. Specifically, a JRPG (what is essentially a story-based game). My friend and colleague Kyle Bryant is doing the programming and most of the work to actually bring the game to life (and a shout out to Greg Bayles for our character art and Gordon Goesch for his contributions to the RPG mechanics), but the world and story and characters are my own.

Voiceless is inspired by the silent protagonists of the original Final Fantasy game. I take the idea of these silent, chosen heroes and make it concrete. Their silence is not just a function of the gameplay (allowing the player to insert him- or herself into their role), but a real and deep story question: why are they silent? Why keep their lips sealed? Is it a curse? Is it by choice? Some sort of vow of silence? There’s a big answer behind that, and I hope you play the game when it comes out to find out just what it is.

Kyle mentioned something in a phone call much earlier in the year when talking about how hard it can be to make your indie JRPG stand out from a big pack. It was something to the effect of, “People like short stories.”

That struck me. It thrilled me, actually. I could do something that I already knew how to do, something that could actually help sales of the game and maybe allow me to even create something substantial and artistic in the process. So I happily took on that project. Now, several months later, the short stories are done.

At the time I’d already sketched out some of the backstories of these characters, stories meant to be revealed as the player goes through sidequests towards the end of the game. But composing them as full, legitimate short stories in an anthology allowed me to dig in far deeper, to make their tales something literary. And so besides the many perspectives on a world at war against a demonic uprising, I wanted to tell each story from a slightly different literary angle. Among these tales you’ll see not just short stories, but also an epic ballad, a curator’s description of an artist’s paintings, and a cryptic poem of pure expression by the most mysterious of them (whom you will not know until you play the game).

And now it’s on Amazon for just $2.99: When Once They Had Voices: A Prelude Anthology to Voiceless

The description from Amazon:

You don’t really know someone until you’ve heard their voice. They come in different forms, for different reasons, with different volumes, but all cry out for one sole reason: to be heard.

A ballad written by a chubby young boy with a speech impediment. A series of paintings that tell the story of a bastard child conceived in horror and muted by an inner rage. The chime of a young healer’s bell that puts her on a path to retrieve her voice from the demon that stole her beloved away. These and others are the stories of those who fought through darkness and despair to give voice to their souls—voices that were eventually taken away from them…and if returned, may prove the destruction of their world.

This anthology provides a companion backstory to Voiceless, an upcoming JRPG from Four Ends Games. Only by playing Voiceless and reading these stories can you discover the ultimate secrets of these silent protagonists and know the true depths of their loss. Cast your mind back to theses tales as you play the rest of the story in Voiceless and ensure their sacrifice was not in vain.

Check out Kyle’s developer website for more info on the game’s progress.

Why We Write Fiction

harrypotterkingscross.jpg

Novelists are con men (and women). We write stories to trick people. The goal of the trick is make the reader think that what they’re reading, what the novelist is writing, matters. This of course applies to films and video games and even visual artists. What these people are doing, myself included, is show you a world that doesn’t actually exist except inside your head, and trying to get you to invest some part of yourself into that world, whether that’s some of your time, your emotions, or even your soul.

Some readers are more susceptible to this trickery than others. They devour anything they can get their hands on. They hunger for new worlds and new friends and to see evil defeated (perhaps unsatisfied with Good’s progress in the real world).

Some writers are more talented at tricking than others. They can get even the most reluctant reader to flip through pages and forget the real world for a time while forcing you to care about theirs. They are founts of creation, designing worlds that their readers naturally immerse themselves in, birthing characters that can be more real than a stranger on the street, and offer peace to a troubled soul through good’s triumph over evil, or if not, showing the reader truth and beauty despite evil continuing to exist even in their pretended world.

Sometimes we forget that these worlds are fake. But nonetheless, can’t we agree that these fake things can have powerful effects on reality? That’s the magic of fiction, whether in books, films, games, whatever.

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

So it is a trick. It is happening inside your head. But it can be no less real than anything else in your life if it goes on to affect that life.

So what’s my point?

Fiction writers: if you’re going to make your readers/players/viewers care deeply about something that is no real, make it matter in reality, too. The creation of worlds is an immensely powerful tool, and with that power comes great responsibility. So don’t waste it, or misuse it. Use your power wisely and for that aforementioned Good’s sake. You can change people with your stories, so change them for the better.