Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Turning Flaws Into Art: Recognizing the Hand of Lord in Our Lives

During a trip to Taiwan in September, my wife and I visited the National Palace Museum in Taipei and saw one of the world's great works of art, the Jadeite Cabbage. An unknown Chinese artist apparently in the nineteenth century took a highly flawed piece of jade with uneven color, blotches, cracks and veins, and used those flaws as part of the design. The white stone became the stalk of a cabbage and the darker green regions became the leaves and a couple of magnificent insects. Cracks became delicate veins on the stalks. In the end, the work was far more beautiful and lifelike than if it had been made from flawless uniform jade. It was almost as if the jade had been designed to be a cabbage, but this was really the result of the hand of the master making the most of imperfect raw materials. What a fitting analogy for how the Lord deals with our flaws, if we'll let Him sculpt us. I was pleased to see that the Oct. 2014 Ensign has a brief article making this point (Ellen C. Jensen, "The Jadeite Cabbage").

This sculpture is the highlight of Taiwan's National Palace Museum, which contains much of the most precious art that once was in the Forbidden City in Beijing, brought to Taiwan by Chiang Kai Shek. For most visitors it is the leading attraction of that splendid museum.

There are many ways the Lord can turn our flaws into something better and even help us find good or do good in the midst of the chaos we create, when we repent and turn to Him. Sometimes the craftsmanship is so fine that we might mistake our flaws for virtues or even our sins for things there were somehow "meant to be."

On my mission, there was an outstanding elder who broke a bone while playing basketball. Our mission had a specific rule against basketball, probably because there had been so many injuries like the one that put this enthusiastic elder in the hospital for a number of weeks. While there, though, he didn't cease from sharing the Gospel, and gave some Books of Mormon to the staff, including one nurse who seemed interested in the message. Later, in a testimony meeting, that Elder shared his belief that his whole experience there in the hospital might have been divinely arranged in order to reach that nurse and maybe some others. I can understand the feeling, and in a sense, he's right--but had he kept the mission rules a little more strictly, he would not have had that injury. So was it God's will that he break a mission rule in order to reach the nurse? That might not be the right way to look at his situation. Rather, wherever we end up, there is always good to be done, and as we seek the Lord, the experiences, even our failures, will seem tailored and meaningful.

Just don't confuse a good tailor for a great physique. God is a master tailor and can craft things to fit us perfectly, even when we are in pretty bad shape.

Frankly, we are all off course, somewhere other than where we would have been had we lived perfect lives. Yet wherever we are, the Gospel tends to help us experience miracles, blessings, comfort, and meaning that makes it seems like this error-ridden path was designed and tailored for us, even intended for us all along. Alma the Younger's story would have been much different and perhaps much less interesting and less helpful to us today had he not been a rebel. The good that he was able to do after repenting does not justify the harm he did before, and surely as a mature prophet he wished that he had never departed from God in the first place, but we can praise God that such a flawed rebel was able to become such a powerful tool for good. Do not doubt the good that God can do with you now and the mess you may have already created in your life. Follow Alma's example and do all you can to let God guide you with His hand, and you will find beauty and surprise in the end.

We must repent and move forward with hope rather than beat ourselves up over the permanent departure from the imaginary state of what would have been ideal. The unwed mother, the divorced couple, the missionary sent home for some foolish error, the driver whose mistake creates tragedy--all these may be painful departures from the ideal, and yet the Lord can be there for each of these parties and bring them through the pain to find new meaning and blessings that are uniquely crafted for who and where they are.

I think there is a better way to understand what happened to the missionary brought down by basketball and what happens to all of us when we fall in some way but seek God's guidance. It's not that all our departures from God's paths were actually secret shortcuts that we were destined to follow according to God's will. Rather, God's hand guides us to experience growth, do good, and  find paths forward no matter what ditch we've driven into, no matter how deep in the mud of some no-man's land we managed to wander into. Like the GPS that continually revises the suggested route after our errors in driving, God keeps working with us to bring us forward, if we'll accept guidance from His hand.

The journey we take and the destinations we encounter may be much different that they might have been, but He is there to guide again and again and again, and along the way, we will have miracles. As we work our way back to the main road, there may be stragglers we can use a lift. Miracles, love, service, healing--these things never cease if we are willing to let God work with us. Yes, they may be designed and tailored for us, allowing us to be in the right place at the right time, even after we've wandered leagues from where we were really "supposed" to be all along.

In one sense, to recognize the hand of the Lord in all things (Doctrine & Covenants 59:21) might be to see that His hand is always there in our lives, pointing, beckoning, holding, helping, pulling, lifting, blessing, and crafting beauty out of the flawed raw material that we are. When we see the beauty and the good that come from such flaws, let us not admire the flaws, but the Craftsman.


Orbiting Kolob said...

A rule against playing basketball? How petty and controlling. Just another reason I'm not a member.

Jeff, if you're interested in literature about how God can bring people "through the pain to find new meaning and blessings," I wholeheartedly recommend Mary Rowlandson's Puritan colonial-era classic, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson.

Rowlandson's short book is harrowing, fast-paced, emotionally raw, and deeply moving. IMHO it provides an excellent springboard for exploring the issues you address in this post.

C T said...

Just for that mission, OK. There is absolutely no church rule against basketball. Most of our chapels have basketball courts. :)
Each mission president can set his own rules when needed, and sometimes LDS basketball can get quite rough.

flying fig said...

"A rule against playing basketball"
Yet another "rule" in the long list of ever confusing LDS legalism. Is this an "official" rule or is it merely the opinion of a GA? Does it even matter what a GA says anymore if it's not canonized as "Official Doctrine"? Can we EVER get a straight answer and are we even allowed to ask the question or does that somehow make me "anti"?

Ryan said...

That one doesn't come from a GA. In the church generally, basketball is allowed. In fact, stakes often have organized basketball tournaments. In my mission we had such a tournament as well. That particular rule would have come from the mission president, and would only have applied to the missionaries serving in that mission during that particular president's tenure. I imagine it came arose when other missionaries suffered injuries similar to the one Jeff describes, and the president was trying to protect the physical well-being of his missionaries while they were with him. But whatever the case, there is no indication that GA's were involved in that rule at all.

flying fig said...

Aside from the question of how and why mission presidents come up with these various rules (such as an elder not being allowed to leave the mission boundary, even on days off), I was speaking in more of a general sense. There's this long list of do's and don't's LDS follow that apparently have no basis in doctrine at all. Some seem to be based on old tradition, some come from some Bishop's or other GA's opinion. How are you to know when you're being obedient to Christ and when you're just being weighed down by worthless legalism?

Ryan said...

I think that's a valid question. My guide is more or less the following: If it's in the scriptures, I follow it. If it's not in canonized scripture but is formally endorsed by all 15 of the Brethren, I follow it. If it comes from any one leader who has stewardship over me (at any level of the church), and it is consistent with scripture as far as I can tell, I follow it. If it comes from any leader who has stewardship over me, but it is not necessarily consistent with scripture (but not inconsistent either), I generally follow it unless I have a good reason not to. In that case, I typically take time to "study it out." Usually it does no harm to follow such counsel, so I tend to err on the side of supporting those who I've sustained. If I see some harm that it might do, and there is no scriptural basis for it, that is when I really start to push back. Maybe my system is imperfect, but then, so am I. But it generally helps me, and I've been pretty happy following it.

Ryan said...

Oh, and if the given counsel is, as far as I can tell, inconsistent with scripture, I generally feel obligated to reject it, unless it is clearly set forth as new revelation- ie all 15 of the Brethren formally endorse it and it has been presented to the church for sustaining vote.

flying fig said...

Thanks for the response, Ryan. That's quite the layer of hierarchy handing stuff down. It seems, especially with the missionaries that every minute of your day is scheduled out for you and filled with an amazing amount of rules from how long you need to pray, how long to study, what time to be out of the house, how far you're allowed to travel and what time you're allowed to return to your living quarters each evening. Is this what Jesus really had in mind for the great commission? I guess if you've been raised in the Church it might seem normal to have your life mapped out with advancements and awards like the Boy Scouts, but I can't help but see the endless layer of rules as a man made system of asceticism similar to what Paul described in Colossians 2:20–23

Jeff Lindsay said...

Sorry you're offended by a rule to protect the health of young people. Perhaps you'd be even more shocked by the rules we have at Scout Camps, including non-LDS Scout Camps, where strict rules can apply to adult leaders as well. E.g., I can't just go hop in the water and swim without passing a test and following other strict rules. A mission is like a two-year Scout Camp, where the mission president feels a great responsibility to send his young men and young women back to their families safe and sound.

There are a variety of rules to protect missionaries, some church-wide and some unique to each mission. If a mission president wants to keep missionaries out of high risk areas and find some sports high risk also, many of us parents are more than happy to have someone there watching over our kids and working to keep them safe. In our mission at the time, our president felt some contact sports had been a problem. Given the challenges we had of health care in a foreign country (that's another story), I can't disagree with his call.

There are many settings in life where rules are quite valuable in protecting people in new, difficult, or intense situations. Whether it's a field trip of high school students, boot camp for Marines, or a group of employees on a highly-structured business trip to a foreign land, or visitors touring a factory, there may be a need for special rules regarding what people can do and how they do it, especially when they are there for a purpose and may be representing someone else where the stake are high, not just a casual vacation. A mission is that way. There are rules, many of which are genuinely needed, and some of which can be overboard or debatable, but that's life.

Meanwhile, basketball is pretty universal across the Church, though not necessarily during a mission, so there's plenty of time for our young people before and after to experience all the physical injuries, hostility, and anger that this noble sport can bring.

OK, so maybe I got a bad attitude from my excessive experience with Church ball as a young man, who saw that it was an easy activity to offer when nothing had been planned.

Orbiting Kolob said...

Looking back on my own experiences as a young man, I think basketball was basically a way to get us out of our parents' hair for awhile and let us one-up each other on the court rather than at the dinner table.

I would agree, though, that at least some rules are less about protecting people than about developing a habit of obedience and self-denial, or about creating opportunities for the exercise of moral choice (see Fruit, Forbidden).

flying fig said...

I agree, while many of the rules are there to protect the missionaries, there are so many of them created as a means of worthless, religious self denial (twice a year phone call lasting no more than 30-40 min), giving the appearance of "holiness" (maintaining white shirt and tie even during extraneous work) and creating a pattern of obedience to man made law (banning music that contains a non-spiritual beat or tempo, requiring the use of the filtered LDS email service only, requiring you to go to sleep at the same time as your companion)

bearyb said...

Flying Fig,

I don't know how many 18 or 19 year-old young men you've been around, but most of them need a pretty rigorously structured environment if they are going to get anything done at all. It's the best chance they've got of doing what they set out to do, and some still don't make it.

Yes, rules are more strict during mission life than at any other time, but they've only got two short years to do it, and it requires a focus and direction not necessarily needed at other times (though I would certainly be better off if I had maintained some of that structure throughout my life).

I would think that most missionaries in the field appreciate the guidance the rules give them, after they get used to them. In fact, one of our greatest challenges is coping with returning missionaries that suddenly feel like they have "nothing to do," or that the pace of daily life is so much slower and non-structured that they feel lost.

If you have never been exposed to actual mission life, it is difficult to accurately describe or adequately explain, though I'm sure there are other situations that are similar.

The "worthless self denial" you mention is part of keeping the focus on the purpose of your time wherever you happen to be serving. Distractions come way too easily, and there is more than enough to keep a person busy and occupied with the task at hand without filling it with other things. Many of these things "denied" are simply put on hold, to be enjoyed or engaged in at a later time.

By the way, there are no "days off." There are a few hours one day a week where you are supposed to take care of personal stuff, but the rest of that day is - back to work!

bearyb said...

flying fig,

One more thing, if you don't mind.

Did you get anything at all out of the original post besides finding something to pick at or argue about? Did anything resonate with you about the subject matter or validity of the comparison between the Jadeite Cabbage and the struggle we have trying to see the good that can come of our imperfect efforts and lives?

flying fig said...

I absolutely see the point of the post. The message of Christ was a revolutionary message of hope and redemption to messed up, flawed people. But what also made His message so revolutionary was the idea of grace. That redemption wasn't gained through keeping laws and man-made rules. Christ said it was a matter of the heart. No longer were we bound to legal do's and don'ts. He said the greatest and ALL ENCOMPASSING commandment was to love God with all your heart and to do to others as yourself. Not an easy task by any means, but a SIMPLE one!
Sure there are legitimate rules to keep young people safe and orderly which is great. But we don't stop there, do we? Pretty soon the rules start applying to salvation as well. We Humans have a tendency to continually add to and complicate the commandment of Christ mentioned above in order to be saved until we have a religious hierarchy with layer upon layer of rules and righteous acts that Jesus exposed as garbage, filthy rags.

And the religious hierarchy only works by taking kids at a very young age and creating a habit of obedience to their man-made rules. All of a sudden we're told how long to pray, what to wear, what to eat and not eat, what days to work and days to rest. Doing everything we can to earn salvation and appear righteous and holy. This is not the message Christ was preaching.

bearyb said...

flying fig,

I can appreciate your perspective on man-made rules, and we should be wary of them and their claims.

I would point out though that while Christ did reduce the 10 Commandments to just those two simple ones, He also said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." By example, He showed us that there were more than just those two that we should concern ourselves with (baptism being one of the most obvious).

There are also the implications of the Abrahamic Covenant to consider, as well as the tithing thing and the purposes of temples.

One thing I always try to keep in mind is that God's commandments are always given in our best interests, since His work and glory are to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

Also, there is the logistical matter of organizing and keeping the Kingdom of God on earth in order, especially since it is occupied by flawed mortals. Among other things this requires clarity of purpose, delegation of authority, willing obedience, voluntary service, and, sometimes, disciplinary action.

Hence, "rules" are needed.

bearyb said...

flying fig,

I did a quick search of the word "earn" in the scriptures. Want to guess how many hits it found? None.

Then I did a search on the word "work." That returned 55 pages of scriptural references, plus many more pages of references to other things.

In other words, there is no reference to how we might "earn" salvation. But we are admonished to "work out our salvation..."

Are we not to be judged by our works, as well as our intentions (as you mentioned that Christ looks upon the heart)?

And one of the reasons why I am so glad to have prophets and apostles on the earth is precisely because man does tend to "muddy the waters" and create unnecessary complexity with respect to what he claims are true and essential laws.

flying fig said...

Abrahamic Covenant...tithing...and the purposes of temples"

Hebrews tells us the old covenant is obsolete. The package of laws that commanded tithes to be given to the Levites is obsolete. Tithing is never commanded under the new covenant the NT. Paul teaches that an offering must be done willingly, not from compulsion or given grudgingly (2COR 9:5,7). but LDS theology demands full tithing in order to enter the temple.
Christians need to give, to share their resources with others. The old covenant required simple percentages. The new covenant has no set percentages. Instead, it requires more soul-searching, more selfless love for others, more faith, more voluntary sacrifice and less compulsion. It tests our values, and where our hearts are.

flying fig said...

"work out our salvation..."

This is speaking of the process of growing to be more like Christ.(sanctification) The context of that verse is confirmed when Paul explains further in the next chapter of Philippians. He describes himself as “straining” and “pressing on” toward the goal of Christlikeness

We are judged by our works as an evidence of faith after salvation, not as means to.

Orbiting Kolob said...

Jeff, I've been thinking about how your analogy in this post squares with the notion of agency. The beauty of the Jadeite Cabbage owes to the decisions and actions of the sculptor, not to those of the jade. A piece of jade has no agency.

But people people differ from pieces of jade in that we do have agency. We are crafted, but we also craft ourselves.

How does LDS theology deal with this complication? Your advice strikes me as typical: "do all you can to let God guide you with His hand." Let God be the agent! In the story of your life, let God be the subject of the sentences and relegate yourself to the category of direct object.

Agency here seems to reside wholly in the initial decision, voluntarily undertaken as a free agent, to give ourselves over to God. After that, our every important decision has in a sense already been made (What do I do? Follow the Commandments!), and we become more like a lump of jade than a human being.

Except, of course, for the Adversary, or the World, or whatever term you want for the forces that continually lead us to doubt our faith, to reconsider the truth of the Church, to question our earlier commitments, and so on. You can look at these forces as satanic (as the Church so annoyingly tends to do), but you can also look at them as a continually flowing fount of opportunities for re-opening a space for the exercise of agency. A kind of ongoing Fortunate Fall, if you will.

To put it another way: the serpent is always in the garden. And thank goodness for that, for it means we can always be as human as Adam and Eve, the world always before us, where to choose.