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Devotionals

Fire and Music Under My Feet

My dear sisters and brothers, I am honored to address you and pray the spirit may be with you and me as we spend a few minutes together today. Thanks to Emily for the kind introduction. I’ll talk more about her later. I will only say of her now what Joseph Smith said of Emma: “I would go to hell for such a woman.” ( Joseph Smith, the Prophet, Truman G. Madsen, 1989) She would be worth the journey. Thanks to Mike Belnap and Stacy McCarrey for the music and to all who have made their usual but unseen efforts to make this devotional an uplifting experience; lighting and sound engineers, setup crews, power-point display preparers, secretaries, camera & production crews. These devotionals are a team effort.

In my almost nine years in this community, I have grown to appreciate the Polynesian way of introducing oneself, and I would like to follow it here. I am Daniel Bradshaw, son of Merrill and Janet Bradshaw. My father comes from the Bradshaws of Lancashire, England. His great, great grandfather, John, immigrated to the US when he converted to the gospel in the 1850s. My mother’s family also comes from England and Ireland, and each line has its own story of immigration upon hearing the gospel preached by the early LDS missionaries. I am grateful for this British Isle heritage. I honor the lives of my faithful ancestors and recognize that much of the ease and many of the opportunities I enjoy in my life are a direct result of their faith, and sacrifice. I also wish to recognize the sacrifice of so many saints, labor missionaries, visionaries and community members in the building and maintenance of this unique university, whose labors allow us to meet together today, and whose sacrifices make our spiritual and secular learning possible. What a beautiful thing that we are all bound together by the faith and sacrifice of previous generations! May we be ever mindful of this fact. It is in this spirit, bound by our common gratitude to those who have come before, and by our common debt to God and His Son, that I say: brothers and sisters, Aloha!

I want to start today by asking a simple question: Is the world good or bad? Whatever your immediate thoughts might be, you are bound to quickly recognize that the answer may not be simple. The world, of course, has both good and bad in it, even evil if you prefer that term. What’s more, “the world” is a fuzzy term that can mean a number of different things. But I think you know what I mean. Is the world good or bad? Is it good with bad things in it, or is it bad with good things in it? As Alan Keele recognized in his 1996 BYU Devotional address, this is a bit like asking if a Zebra is black with white stripes or white with black stripes. And does it really matter? Either way, both good and bad are with us daily, and how we perceive them won’t change the way the world is.

 Or will it?

I think this question is an important one for how we perceive the world and how we perceive life itself. Is life a hardship to be born with occasional moments of happiness? Or is it essentially good with some moments of difficulty? Is it a necessary evil to be endured before landing in paradise for eternity, or a beautiful, rich experience designed for our benefit and enjoyment? How we view these questions has a bearing on how we treat others in the world, how we go about learning and experiencing new things, and how we perceive our place in the world as Latter-day Saints.

In our normal discourse, our treatment of the world is not kind. Most often, “the world” is another name for “sin.” Jesus says, “I am not of the world” (John 17:14) and John follows with, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). We are to be  in the world, but not  of the world. It’s a dirty substance we need to avoid.

And yet, we are all here, in the world, surrounded by sin. And some of us aren’t perfect ourselves.

This reminds me of a poem by Frank O’Hara, called “Song.” I think it has something to say about our question.

Song by Frank O’Hara

Is it dirty
does it look dirty
that's what you think of in the city

does it just seem dirty
that's what you think of in the city
you don't refuse to breathe do you

someone comes along with a very bad character
he seems attractive. is he really. yes. very
he's attractive as his character is bad. is it. yes

that's what you think of in the city
run your finger along your no-moss mind
that's not a thought that's soot

and you take a lot of dirt off someone
is the character less bad. no. it improves constantly
you don't refuse to breathe do you

What does this poem say to you? What does it say about the world? Is it dirty? Using the city as a metaphor for the world, I think we would have to say, yes! The city is dirty. The world is dirty. And yet, here we are. You don’t refuse to breathe, do you? This poem beautifully articulates the paradox of living in a dirty world. We all cringe at the grime, yet none of us are above breathing. And, lest any of us think we are squeaky clean, O’Hara asks us to run our finger along our “no-moss” mind, only to find soot! We are dirty! I’m delighted by the down-to-earth way he puts us in our place.

Let me pause here to say, I understand that there are things we don’t want or need in our lives. I take seriously the admonition to “touch not the unclean thing.” If the world we’re talking about is sin, then unquestioningly, we should avoid and shun it. Sin is an empty bag. It looks appealing but yields no bounty. What I am talking about is the world that we more often live in, where people, thoughts, theories, etc., are neither expressly sinful, nor expressly scriptural. This is the land where we are to exercise our best judgment to discern what is good, true, right and what is false, fleeting or deceitful. In this land of agency, we need to decide if it’s dirty, and whether or not to breathe.

The Good World

But we haven’t really answered our question. Is the world good or bad? Well, yes! Both are true, depending on how we see things. But will we choose to see it as primarily bad or good?

To that end, I’d like to invoke an analogy of tree skiing.

When you first look at this picture, what do you see? Trees! Trees everywhere!! How could anyone make it down that mountain without running into a few trees? Tree skiing is a potentially dangerous activity, but I can say from experience, that it can also be incredibly fulfilling. One of the tricks any tree skier has to learn is to focus on the space between the trees. If you focus on the tree itself, you usually end up running right into it. Your skis tend to follow your eyes. Your focus determines where your skis will go. As you continually look to the next space between the trees, you find you are able to make your way down, and the way seems to open up where there seemed to be no way before. As you focus on what artists would call the negative space, you find there is actually a lot of room for skiing and for having a great time while you’re doing it.

Now, tree skiing takes some skill. I probably wouldn’t take my kids down this run here. But as they gain confidence and experience, I might take them down it some day.

Similarly, I think that you as university students are skillful enough to handle some tree skiing. I think that your spiritual maturity and your intellectual acuity have progressed to engage in the fulfilling activity of tree skiing. You are poised to navigate the world of ideas in a safe and enjoyable way.

You may have already recognized a key point of my metaphor: the world is good. Yes, there are lots of trees and plenty of dangers associated with them, but there is also plenty of space between the trees! The opportunity for a fulfilling life awaits you! The world is good!

How can I say this? Let’s start with a very important scripture, which Prof. Ned Williams pointed out to me a while ago:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

If that’s not proof enough for you, I’m not sure what to say. God loves the world. He cares about it deeply. He rejoices in its beauty and weeps when it is abused. This is true whether you think of it as the physical earth, or the people who inhabit it. He loves the world. He wants us, even commands us, to learn about it in every respect. Listen to this list and just try to tell me your major isn’t included in these verses from D&C 88: 78-80,

“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in…all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand; …things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms—That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the…mission with which I have commissioned you.”

This university is a tangible attempt to fulfill this commandment. God loves the world and wants us to share his joy by learning about it. And by learning about it, we are better able to magnify our roles in his kingdom. Did you ever notice that about this scripture? To be sure, we need to be rooted in gospel truths, but this verse plainly states that learning about the world prepares us for our gospel missions. In one interpretation of this phenomenon, there is hard data to back this assertion up. People who receive degrees from LDS institutions of higher learning are far more likely to stay active and contribute to the church for the long term. Their education helps them to stay active in the church. This has been verified by actual research.

But I think there is another, broader interpretation of this phenomenon which is astoundingly far-reaching. Who can calculate the number of conversations that have turned away from ignorance or offense because of a university education? How many would-be enemies of the church have been treated with dignity and respect because they were understood by a dedicated student? How many doors have been opened because LDS members had taken the Lord’s admonition to learn seriously? I sense that if we could gather and view this data, it would be a jaw-dropping experience. The implied effect of learning about the world is that we are better able to understand it, perhaps even invite it in as a friend. Education tends toward understanding, where ignorance tends toward fear and alienation.

My metaphor of tree skiing isn’t really unique. It’s quite like Lehi’s dream and the mists of darkness. Lehi’s dream is probably better because of one important aspect: the rod of iron. Lehi sees that only those who cling to the rod of iron make it through the mists of darkness to partake of the precious fruit (notice the intensity of that word—clinging! With both hands, I presume).

This vision also holds meaning for our discussion today. Have you ever been in thick fog? Or anything close to Lehi’s mists of darkness? I remember one day when I was about 10 years old. I was walking to school in the thickest fog I had ever seen. You couldn’t see more than ten yards ahead. It was magical, but a bit unnerving. Objects or people in the distance first appeared as mysterious, even menacing forms. But as I came closer to them, I began to see them for what they actually were and my fears subsided.

The world, shrouded in mists of darkness, can be a similar experience for us. I’m speaking here about your education, your way of confronting or interfacing with the world. As you come to see new ideas, they may at first be mysterious or menacing, especially if they seem to conflict with your accepted beliefs. But often, as you come closer to them and study them (while still clinging to the rod of iron), you may find they are not so threatening as they first seemed. You may learn as Nephi did, that to be learned is good.

Let’s take a closer look at this oft-quoted phrase.

“To be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.” (2 Nephi 9:29)

This follows a scathing critique of the learned, who suppose they know of themselves. Consequently, this verse is often turned to mean: beware of the learned! Shun worldly learning—it’s just too dangerous to risk!

However, I’ve just quoted the Lord’s admonition for us to be learned. He wants us to be learned. And if we are earnestly striving to do what’s right, to stay close to the Lord, to listen to the Spirit and heed its promptings; in other words, “If we hearken to the counsels of God,” then…“to be learned  is  good!” As long as we humble ourselves before the Lord, then…“to be learned  is  good!” As long as we try to live out our covenants, then…“to be learned  is  good!”

The World is Charged with Glory of God

Furthermore, we’ve established that learning about the world helps us to magnify our gospel mission. I now want to reverse that sentence: learning about the gospel helps us to magnify the world. Which is to say, to see it for what it truly is. Here I quote a Catholic Monk, Thomas Merton:

“Every word that comes from the mouth of God is nourishment that feeds the soul with eternal life . . . By the reading of Scripture I am so renewed that all nature seems renewed around me and with me. The sky seems to be a pure, a cooler blue, the trees a deeper green, light is sharper on the outlines of the forest and the hills and the whole world is charged with the glory of God and I feel fire and music in the earth under my feet.” ( Thomas Merton, Master of Attention by Robert Waldron. Paulist Press, 2008)

Have you ever heard a better explanation of why we need to immerse ourselves in the scriptures? We become more aware of things as they really are. Light is sharper, trees are greener. I will add that I notice a greater measure of patience with my children, more measured reactions to things that don’t go my way, when I study the scriptures. The world, I finally understand, is not set against me. In fact I feel a kinship with the world, my fellow beings, even all creation. I feel fire and music in the earth under my feet. In short, the world is charged with the glory of God. 

“Charged” is a wonderfully peculiar word. In our day, the image of a cell phone immediately comes to mind. Envisioning the world humming, full of electricity, vibrating to capacity with the life of charged particles is a fulfilling image for the way God’s glory infuses the world. But I want to take this image to its source, which is a poem by Gerard Hopkins, who lived in the 19th Century before the advent of electricity. He was likely acquainted with the word in a different context, as Webster’s dictionary tells us:

charge

verb

(1)  :  to place a charge (as of powder) in

(2)  :  to load or fill to capacity

Whether the world is ready to explode with God’s glory, or whether the world is filled to capacity with it, either definition gives wonderful meaning to the word, seen here in Hopkin’s original poem:

THE WORD is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

 

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs––

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

 

This poem is charged with too much meaning for me to share in this setting, but I wanted to point out three things:

 

  1. Hopkins asserts that the world is charged with God’s grandeur. Though man has seared it with trade and is beyond feeling himself, God (through the Holy Ghost) continues to care for the world.
  2. The poem is filled with images of Christ. The crushed oil may signify Christ’s atonement. He is also the rod, which men will not reck (heed).
  3. The meaning of foil is important to me. Gold foil would be familiar to Hopkin. It makes sense with the “shining from shook foil,” but I wonder if Hopkin may have intended a double entendre here. The archaic meaning of foil is “defeat.” Could our defeat be a vehicle for God’s grandeur to “flame out?” In a few minutes, I will tell two stories. The second one will explain what I mean. But I feel like we need to deal with something else first: doubt.

 
Doubt

So far, everything is good. The world is good, and to be learned is good. But what happens when you’re learning about the world, and you confront something that causes you to doubt—doubt your previously held knowledge or assumptions, or even to doubt your testimony? This is a serious question. And it’s bound to happen. As our knowledge expands, it inevitably exposes new areas of ignorance. With any deep learning, we begin to realize how little we know! This may cause us to doubt, but it doesn’t have to.          

“I don’t think that this kind of not-knowing is, in itself, a failure. I think it’s just life. And, as Mormons, we can’t hide from this not-knowing, because, more than anything else, Mormonism is a way of living rather than dodging life. Part of not dodging life is owning this ignorance.” ( Letters to a Young Mormon, Adam S. Miller, Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2014)

If this not-knowing is a problem for your testimony, you may want to rethink your approach. If your faith is built on the water-tight idea that you have all the answers, there’s bound to be a serious leak at some point. A far healthier approach is, as Adam Miller advocates, to own your ignorance. Admit you don’t know. This doesn’t mean to doubt your faith. On the contrary! Owning ignorance allows you to trust in your faith, which is based in belief, not knowing. Just be honest and humble enough to realize your own limitations. This can be liberating, and it need not lead us to doubt.

But if new ideas do cause you to doubt your faith, take care, especially if you find yourself leading with your unbelief, as Elder Holland observes:

“When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming,  hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes. 

When problems come and questions arise, do not start your quest for faith by saying how much you do  not have, leading as it were with your “unbelief.” That is like trying to stuff a turkey through the beak! Let me be clear on this point: I am not asking you to pretend to faith you do not have. I  am asking you to be true to the faith you  do have.”  

I love this man and his faithful counsel: hold fast to the faith you do have. Lead with your belief. When difficult things come in life, say first, “Lord, I believe.” And only then, “help thou mine unbelief.”

However, I would also like to point out that doubt does not have to be a bad thing. It may be a natural part of the learning process. Briefly consider two episodes from the life of Peter.

First, when he asks Christ to bid him walk on the water. He displays extraordinary faith in getting out of the boat and walking on the water, completely trusting in Christ’s power to hold him up. Yet he doubts when he sees the waves boisterous, and as he doubts, he sinks, and is only saved by the Lord grabbing him by the hand. Jesus clearly chastises this kind of doubt: “O ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” The moral of the story? Don’t doubt the Lord’s power.

Second, when Peter has the great vision leading to the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. After seeing a great sheet full of “wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air,” he hears a voice: “Rise, Peter, kill and eat!” This is a strange vision indeed, so it’s no wonder that as the vision leaves him, “Peter doubted in himself what this vision…should mean.” (Acts 10:17) This sort of doubt seems to be okay. Peter is no longer questioning the Lord’s power, but how he should interpret his newfound knowledge. This kind of doubt has the same spirit of inquiry that Mary has as she ponders things in her heart, or that Enoch has when he questions, “how is it thou canst weep?” or that Moses has, when he proclaims, “For this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” In each case, there are doubts about how they should understand some new idea. In Mary’s case, she may have pondered years before understanding came. Yet her faith and patience in spite of her questions are exactly the qualities I would like to advance today. Her patient questioning and pondering is what I imagine Dostoevsky speaks of when he says,

“It is not like a child that I believe in Christ and profess faith in him, but rather, my  hosanna has come through the great  crucible of doubt.” (Fyodor Dostoevsky,  The Unpublished Dostoevsky: Diaris and Notebooks, Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976), 175.

When endured faithfully, leading with belief, clinging to the word of God, our experiences with doubt can actually purify and strengthen our faith.

Now, I want to share with you two stories about drool. Yes, drool.

Story Number One:

This was an idyllic day. I had taken my four-month-old baby, Quinn, out for a stroll one beautiful December day. With my hand on his back to steady him, I sat him on the ground and allowed him to feel the blades of green grass for himself, perhaps for the first time. As he became engrossed with the feel of the lawn, he leaned forward, and a strand of drool stretched from his mouth to the grass, briefly connecting him with this new-found mystery. In that moment, my mind became aware of the sky above us, the wind in the trees, and this strand of drool was a visible symbol of my son’s connection to all of creation, he being a visual manifestation of God’s grace himself. I felt the beauty of creation all around me and my own connection to God through this creation, including my son, Quinn.

 

Story Number Two:

This was a very serious day. I was driving my wife, Emily, to the hospital as quickly and safely as I could. She had had a miscarriage which was hard enough to bear, but now she was in serious trouble, shaking from loss of blood. As I wheeled her into the Emergency Room, she went into shock, filled with panic and a sense of doom. Of course the medical staff tried to calm her down, but only after she had been on an IV for a few minutes and replaced some of her lost fluids did she return to her normal self. I was seriously concerned for her. After a couple of hours, when she had a chance to rest and was looking much better, and after many assurances that she felt well enough to stand, she needed to be helped to the bathroom. She stepped into a wheelchair and I rolled her into the restroom around the corner. I stayed to steady her, which was a good thing, because as she got up, her forehead resting on my shoulder, she fainted. Somehow, I was able to keep her knees from buckling. As her head rested on me, her weight and mine teetering in a delicate balance, I tried to reach for the red emergency cord to signal the hospital staff for help. I couldn’t reach it. Finally, after some careful maneuvering of Emily’s useless limbs, I reached and pulled the cord and waited. There was no response. No bell, no buzzer…nothing. Even after an extremely long minute, no one had come. We were completely alone and Emily’s strength was spent.

I immediately recognized that this was a tangible representation of our struggle for the past few years to have a baby: both of us yearning and praying, pulling on the spiritual emergency cord, hoping that some divine help would come to our aid. There were times when we felt completely alone. I thought of the many nights of tears, of difficult decisions about which medical avenue to pursue next, of the many priesthood blessings that made promises yet unfulfilled.

At this moment, in Emily’s unconscious state, a long string of drool fell from her mouth to the cold tile floor. In this moment that could have easily been filled with panic, I had a moment of reverence for the sacrifice of my wife. She was utterly spent. She had exerted every ounce of physical, mental and spiritual energy in her attempt to follow a prompting from the Spirit that we would have another child. I was awed by her diligence and perseverance, by her faith that stayed strong despite times of doubt, grief, and consternation at why promised blessings refused to come. These thoughts came quickly, powerfully and calmly to me as I stood, paralyzed by my vanishing options. Eventually, I managed to pick her up and carry her back to her room. But it was amazing to me at the time, and still is, that this moment, of all the things it could have been, was a moment that became precious, even sacred to me. It was, surprisingly, charged with God’s grandeur. In what may have been our moment of greatest defeat (remember that meaning of “foil?”), inspiration flamed out, like shining from shook foil.

This trial of our faith continues to flame out in our lives. It continues to enlighten our understanding.

We value and cherish the life of our new child (yes, priesthood promises were eventually fulfilled) more than we ever could before our souls had been stretched and hollowed by the waiting and wanting. In fact, though we still stumble as parents, we cherish all of our children more, as well as our relationship as integral parts of an eternal family.

Our connection to God is tempered by our experience. When nothing seemed to be going our way, we learned more about patience and faithfulness. We felt to say often, “Lord, I believe. Help Thou my unbelief!” And there were times when I appreciated Job’s declaration, “Though God slay me, yet will I trust in him.” We also have a greater capacity for empathy for the trials of others, especially for the pain of miscarriage or infertility which, although not uncommon, often goes unnoticed.

And let me remark at this point, that there are those whose story ends differently than ours does. Some must continue to wait. Some may never have the child they desire. Some may adopt. Others may not. There are as many different stories as there are people who live them, and there are myriad ways to be faithful as we live through our trials. May we be sensitive to the hidden stories of others as we interact with those around us.

So, there you have it: two stories of drool. The story of my boy on the grass symbolizing our connection through God’s creation, the other indicating our connection through life’s harrowing experiences. To me, both stories are a manifestation of a loving father’s attempt to connect with his children, to draw them close, to exalt them, to broaden their faith and experience. And, both stories are a manifestation of “the world.” The world as creation, and the world as our (sometimes difficult) life experience.

I want to end with the Hawaiian myth of Hāloa. Emily and I happened upon this myth on a hike to Waimea Falls a few years ago. Because it was not long after a miscarriage, it spoke to both of us deeply. It is the legend of Taro.

Wākea (Father Heaven) and Ho’ohokukalai (the stars) had a child and named him Hāloa, but he was stillborn. They buried the infant in front of their house and a taro plant grew from it, watered by the mother’s tears. Later, when another child was born, also named Hāloa, he was nourished with the taro plant and grew to be strong, even the principal ancestor of the Hawaiian people, now symbolized by the taro plant.

I know of no better illustration than this story of how our difficult experiences may bloom into life-sustaining nourishment. This is why our son now bears the name Quinn Hāloa Bradshaw, so that we (and eventually he) will remember this special truth.

Sisters, brothers, my message today is simple. This life, this world, is precious. The experience and learning we gain here is invaluable. Since our perceptions matter, I hope you will remember that this world is a manifestation of a caring Father’s love, of his wise purposes, of his desire to share joy with his children not just in the eternities, but here and now. I hope that as you go about your studies this semester, and as you move into life beyond your university experience, that you may remember this important reality: that the world is charged with the glory of God. And that as you seek learning in the gospel and in the world and in your own life experiences, you will feel fire and music in the earth under your feet. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.