Saturday, November 15, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon - Or the Natural Man

This week, my husband and I took our kids to the dollar movie theater and watched How to Train Your Dragon 2.  My aunt had treated us to the film when it first came out so this was our second time seeing it. I had also seen the first movie a few times as my kids loved it and we purchased it. Because of this, I was quite surprised it took me so long for the following symbolism to hit me, but it wasn't until walking out of the theater this last time that my eyes were opened to some pretty profound symbolism hiding in this little kids film.  I guess I should warn you this likening post assumes you've already seen the movie so if you haven't... I'll try to write in such a way that reading it will hopefully only enhance your experience when you watch the movie. 

How to Train Your Dragon, Option 1: 
Fight it!

If you remember the first movie, the citizen's of the Viking city of Berk were often running into trouble with the dragons that would often visit their land to feed on their sheep and in the process would destroy buildings and sometimes harm their people in their wild raids, using each of their many unique abilities in self-defense against those attacking them.  After seven generations of the Vikings trying this approach, no progress was made with this option - unless you count the often upgraded and rebuilt buildings replaced after old ones were burned or destroyed during the violent conflicts :-). 

How to Train Your Dragon, Option 2: 
Force it!

In the second movie, the conqueror, Drago Bludvist, is amassing a dragon army. His approach to dragons is to force them into submission through the force of his will, violence or pain. He doesn't love the dragons, but uses them to rule over others - not caring if the dragons or others suffer pain or die in the process. In the city of Berk, many years before Hiccup is born, Drago met in council with the leaders of the city and said in essence, "I can control the dragons that harm you, let me be your leader and you'll never have to worry about harm from dragons again." This seemed so absurd, the leaders of the city laughed in his face. Drago retaliated by sicking his dragons on the group, and burning them alive. Only Stoick the Vast, who would be chief of the Vikings, survived. 

How to Train Your Dragon, Option 3: 
Train it!

By the end of the first movie, Hiccup, the slight-of-build yet inventive and adventurous son of the massive Viking chief, Stoick, finds out by accident that dragons aren't inherently evil. Instead, he learns that when befriended and loved, the dragons can become fiercely loyal, protective, and loving friends. Together, Hiccup and Toothless (his dragon), bring peace to Berk in the first movie and teach the members of his city to learn the great benefits of training their dragons, not fighting them. 

In the second movie, where the world is now a much bigger place when able to fly upon the backs of dragons, Hiccup and Toothless, are more loyal and in tune with each other than ever. They experience great trials, but also great joy. They travel to lands they never would have reached alone (Toothless can't fly without Hiccup whose inventions are needed to compensate for injury to his tail). On these journeys, they both come to discover in deep ways who they are, the strength they have, and what their purpose and power is in building and leading in their kingdom. 

How to Train your... Natural Man

If you haven't guessed, the symbolism I saw the other day in this movie is in the three ways I see the world has tried to approach training what is often called in the scriptures the "natural man" or the natural woman. 

Option 1

The first approach to the natural man is the gut reaction to fight against it. We experience what the untrained and wild potential of the natural self can do and the destruction it can cause when untamed and we are enraged. Curiously, when using this option, there are few (though there are those) who fight against their self. More commonly, we distract ourselves from our own dragons' destruction by focusing on fighting against other people's untamed dragons. Then we blind our eyes and numb ourselves to the guilt we feel for the fires we've lit and the cities we've destroyed with things as simple as entertainment or as complicated as addictive substances - all the while dwelling in ruins and spending our time rebuilding instead of progressing.

Option 2

The second approach recorded over and over throughout history is to call that natural self inherently evil. To rely on other mortals ever-willing to tell us they will protect us from our natural tendencies because they have them under foot (like Drago symbolizes when he puts a dragon under his foot in the movie). In milder ways, this option presents itself in the belief that children would never want to learn unless forced, or that people would naturally want to hurt each other, steal, plunder etc. if not forced to be good. And I guess they have all the efforts of those trying option 1 to prove their point. 

Option 3

But, as I continue to find, it is the third alternative we need to seek. That is the alternative Hiccup finds in the movie. And it is the one that we can find when we come unto Christ with a prayer similar to this one uttered by the people of King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon:
And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state... And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified; for we believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who created heaven and earth, and all things; who shall come down among the children of men. (Mosiah 4:2)

A wonderful description of what option 3 looks like is found in the Q&A on the companion DVD to the book, For Times of Trouble by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

Audience Question: It seems one of life's most difficult challenges is really becoming the kind of person who has the traits like patience and charity; someone who has overcome the natural man's tendencies toward anger etc. I'm just wondering what you think I can be doing daily to actively try to acquire these [character] traits and how I might begin to see my progress?  

Elder Holland: What a sweet question with all the right motive and all the right theology. You mention the natural man or the natural woman. I think my answer would come in how I define who a natural man or a natural woman is... We do not see people as born inherently evil, we do not see people as despicable, so for us, I think “natural man” doesn’t mean inherently evil and really troublesome and a bad [person]. For me, the “natural man” means something like: natural resources. It’s kind of like a river. And until we shape it and until we disciplined it; until we kind of maybe dam it a little bit where it needs to be [dammed], or encourage it a little bit there where it might be a little more free flowing—but it is working with a wonderful resource and a potentially powerful and beautiful and terrifically constructive thing—that, for me, is what it means to deal with the natural man or the natural woman. 
So, do that with yourself.  Don't be too hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up. Don't think you're worse than you are. Don't think you're evil. Don't think every day, every hour of your life you're falling short because you are not. You've got this natural capability and you're supposed to shape it the way we tame rivers and timbers and the other natural [elements of this world].  
... In this natural resource God has given you, it means something about your zest. It means something about your zeal. It means something about your desire to accomplish a lot, and do more and be more. So just don't be too hard on yourself and surely don't be hard on other people... but see it more positively.  If you can see it constructively, then I think the quest day in and day out—and it will be a quest, you’ll have to work on this, or these or other kinds of things like anger etc. all of our lives— but find the virtue that is lurking in there somewhere. Channel it, restrict and restrain the damaging part or the bad parts; the destructive parts that wouldn’t bless people, and then steer that natural gift into a wonderful and very attractive aspect of a Latter-day Saint's life.  
I think of people who are naturally happy.  Well, you could be obnoxious about that, or you could be offensive, so you guard against the excess of that and you guard against light-mindedness and you guard against silliness, But you surely don't criticize yourself or berate yourself for the good part of that: that when you're happy you can make a whole room happy. When you’re happy you can make a whole family happy, or a ward happy etc. if we do this right.  
So I am the eternal optimist. The glass isn’t just half-full with me, the glass is so full it is rolling down the hill and over and through the woods to grandmother's house. I would always encourage you even as you work on serious, truly challenging personality traits or natural inclinations you have, to see the good in yourself, see the potential good in the discipline of it. Work on the discipline part and then find that what was—like is recorded in the book of Ether (12:27)—what was a weakness and may have been given to us as a weakness, is there to be turned into a strength and will become a strength. The very thing you thought was a limitation lo and behold someday you’re wonderfully, constructively victorious in that category. I just would encourage you to be positive about it while you work on problems.

In other words, we will find the most purpose, power, and progress if we choose the option 3 Elder Holland describes. As I explored in my last post, there is a great and wise purpose for this natural world and natural self I am continually learning more about. 

As the doctrine of the LDS faith teaches (as I understand it), the atonement of Christ was our Savior going through the required process to be intimately aware and familiar with each of us. His atonement wasn't just to "pay for our sins." It was to make him our Savior for every aspect and consequence of this natural world - so that he can help us train our "dragon" and progress and become like our Father in Heaven. Because of Christ willingly submitting to that process, He knows how to succor us in times of trial and trouble. Because of his at-one-ment with us,  we can choose to come unto Christ and he has the power to heal us and help us.

If we choose him, he will "show unto [us our] weakness. [He] give[s] unto men weakness that they may be humble [the purpose of this natural world and the natural self is to teach us to depend on Christ]; and [his] grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before [him]; for if they humble themselves before [him], and have faith in [him], then will [he] make weak things become strong unto them" (Ether 12:27).

And let us not forget: part of that atonement was what he suffered on the cross, but he didn't just die for us. He rose again. And was given the knowledge and power to raise us all. In fact, the doctrine in the scriptures is that all those who chose to come to this mortal world - no matter if they choose faith in Christ while here or not - will be reunited with their natural man - their dragon - and gain immortality. Immortality being different than Eternal life (the kind of life God lives).

So. We are meant to keep our dragons - these mortal bodies and the natural self that comes with it. They will follow us, like it or not. What is ours to decide is:

How will we train our dragon? 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Words That Move Me: Julian of Norwich

Julian of Norwich
I am only half-way through the "Showings of Divine Love" by Julian of Norwich, but I can't hold back the floodgates of my gratitude any longer. They must spill on these pages. 

You simply (yet slowly and deeply) must feast upon her words to feel this yourself! To only read her words, and surely to never feast upon them, for me, would be like never having feasted upon the gospel of John or the book of Mosiah. One would be just as lacking in their understanding of Christ's love and power to redeem and purify without those books as without Julian's words. Yes, I just compared her words to scripture. I feel like being that bold. 

Sitting down to try and put my feelings into words I want so much that ability that God has - and that so many have witnessed they have experienced - where in a moment, volumes of thought and language are conveyed in a single word or moment and they are able to comprehend and understand deeply and broadly more than a computer can download on the most powerful internet connection we have available. Oh! The barrier of language is such a wall I long to have down! Until then, here is one likening I have nothing more than words and images as tools to relate, hoping it will assuage that bursting feeling.

The "Othello Principle"

When I married, my husband's family introduced me to a game called Othello. 

The materials are simple: A square game board filled with square indents and round game pieces that are black on one side and white on the other. 

The rules are simple: place one round piece on the board each turn with your color facing up in any open square that would surround the opposite color. Then turn over all the opposite colored circles that you have surrounded. The player with the most of their color at the end, wins.

I have always thought of this game as symbolic of a principle spoken of in many places in scripture:

Isaiah 51:3,

For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.
Revelation 21:6

And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son [or daughter].

3 Nephi 9:17-22

And as many as have received me, to them have I given to become the sons [and daughters] of God; and even so will I to as many as shall believe on my name, for behold, by me redemption cometh... I am the light and the life of the world. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away…and ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart [broken like a horse is broken-in, yielding, submissive to God's will and tutoring]…Behold I have come unto the world to bring redemption unto the world, to save the world from sin. 

I love the picture that is painted in these verses of black being turned to white through the power of Christ and his atonement [grace]. There is also this comforting feeling when reading those words about Christ as the Alpha and Omega - Christ having the first piece and the last piece in this game of life - that he has us surrounded. Like the symbolic cloak a benefactor in Old Testament times would drape around the one he means to protect. 

I feel the same principle when I read these words of Julian of Norwich:

For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed. Yea, and more homely: for all these may waste and wear away, but the Goodness of God is ever whole; and more near to us, without any likeness; for truly our Lover desireth that our soul cleave to Him with all its might, and that we be evermore cleaving to His Goodness. For of all things that heart may think, this pleaseth most God, and soonest speedeth [the soul]. For our soul is so specially loved of Him that is highest, that it overpasseth the knowing of all creatures: that is to say, there is no creature that is made that may [fully] know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly our Maker loveth us... For our natural Will is to have God, and the Good Will of God is to have us; and we may never cease from willing nor from longing till we have Him in fullness of joy: and then may we no more desire... And I, beholding all this by His grace, saw that the Love of Him was so strong which He hath to our soul that willingly He chose it with great desire, and mildly He suffered it with well-pleasing. For the soul that beholdeth it thus, when it is touched by grace, it shall verily see that the pains of Christ’s Passion pass all pains: [all pains] that is to say, which shall be turned into everlasting, o’erpassing joys by the virtue of Christ’s Passion. 

~ Julian of Norwich (2014-06-03). The Showings of Divine Love (Kindle Locations 139-148, 477-480). Wilder Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
Yet, unlike the game of Othello, we are not game pieces. We have individual wills or agency. So does God. And with his agency, I find that He,

...chooses no power over
A man's agency.
His power is Love.
Is love,
The greatest power.
The Force stronger then gravity,
That chooses not to force.

(From, Beyond Walls)

 Julian speaks of what she learned about the dual aspects of our agency, feeling the pull of both when witnessing the extent of Christ's suffering,

I answered inwardly with all the might of my soul, and said: Nay; I may not: for Thou art my Heaven... Thus was I learned to choose Jesus to my Heaven, whom I saw only in pain at that time... And this hath ever been a comfort to me, that I chose Jesus to my Heaven, by His grace, in all this time of Passion and sorrow; and that hath been a learning to me that I should evermore do so: choose only Jesus to my Heaven in weal and woe...
And these be [of our] two parts: the one outward, the other inward. The outward part is our deadly flesh-hood, which is now in pain and woe, and shall be, in this life: whereof I felt much in this time...The inward part is an high, blissful life, which is all in peace and in love: and this was more inwardly felt; and this part is [that] in which mightily, wisely and with steadfast will I chose Jesus to my Heaven. And in this I saw verily that the inward part is master and sovereign to the outward, and doth not charge itself with, nor take heed to, the will of that: but all the intent and will is set to be oned unto our Lord Jesus.
~ Julian of Norwich (2014-06-03). The Showings of Divine Love (Kindle Locations 451-463). Wilder Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 
A similar idea was described by Brigham Young in this way,
In the first place the spirit is pure, and under the special control and influence of the Lord, but the body is of the earth, and is subject to the power of the Devil, and is under the mighty influence of that fallen nature that is of the earth. If the spirit yields to the body, the Devil then has power to overcome the body and spirit of that man, and he loses both...When you are tempted, buffeted, and step out of the way inadvertently... and wish to yield to it, then stop and let the spirit, which God has put into your tabernacles, take the lead. If you do that, I will promise that you will overcome all evil, and obtain eternal lives.  (Discourses of Brigham Young, Chapter VI)
I was recently asked what I would say to someone who doesn't believe in God anymore because they can't believe that an all-powerful God would not use his power to stop such suffering of innocent children and others. I don't remember exactly the words that came to mind, but the "Othello principle" was part of it. I wish I would have had these words to add to that part:

And here saw I verily that if He shewed now [to] us His Blissful Cheer, there is no pain in earth or in other place that should aggrieve us; but all things should be to us joy and bliss. But because He sheweth to us time of His Passion, as He bare it in this life, and His Cross, therefore we are in distress and travail, with Him, as our frailty asketh. And the cause why He suffereth [it to be so,] is for [that] He will of His goodness make us the higher with Him in His bliss; and for this little pain that we suffer here, we shall have an high endless knowing in God which we could never have without that. And the harder our pains have been with Him in His Cross, the more shall our worship be with Him in His Kingdom. 
~ Julian of Norwich (2014-06-03). The Showings of Divine Love (Kindle Locations 492-497). Wilder Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

But there is yet one more reason I have since learned from reading near-death accounts, of all things. 

I've often been curious to read such accounts after listening to a CD by Brent L. Top called, "What's on the Other Side." In this book he quotes Joseph Smith saying,
All men know that they must die. And it is important that we should understand the reasons and causes of our exposure to the vicissitudes of life and of death, and the designs and purposes of God in our coming into the world, our sufferings here, and our departure hence. . . . It is but reasonable to suppose that God would reveal something in reference to the matter, and it is a subject we ought to study more than any other. We ought to study it day and night, for the world is ignorant in reference to their true condition and relation. If we have any claim on our Heavenly Father for anything, it is for knowledge on this important -subject.
Brent L. Top (2012-09-14). What's on the  Other Side?: What the Gospel Teaches Us about the Spirit World (Kindle Locations 129-135). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition. 

In perusing different accounts over the years, there was always something I couldn't get to add up. First, I would read teachings like this: “It is my judgment that any man or woman can do more to conform to the laws of God in one year in this life than they could do in ten years when they are dead." (Melvin J. Ballard, “The Three Degrees of Glory,” 1922). 

Then I would read, 

“I believe we shall be freed, in the next world, in a great measure, from these narrow, contracted methods of thinking. Instead of thinking in one channel, and following up one certain course of reasoning to find a certain truth, knowledge will rush in from all quarters; it will come in like the light which flows from the sun, penetrating every part, informing the spirit, and giving understanding concerning ten thousand things at the same time; and the mind will be capable of receiving and retaining all.” (Orson Pratt, in Journal of Discourses, 2:246)

How can both be true I would often wonder. Maybe Orson Pratt was mistaken in his "belief." But then all the accounts I read testify of the truth of that statement. This one among them,

I perform what might be a variation of the life review that others have reported upon returning to the physical from near-death experiences. No deliberation is involved, meaning that I don’t settle in and say, “Ok, bring it on.” It’s more of a casual drift into reflection, the way we tend to drift into sleep with images smoothly flowing through. And whereas in a sense my life flashed before my eyes, it is not a flash so much as a deep and multi-layered, instantaneous yet leisurely wander through life. I simultaneously perceive layers of emotional, mental, and physical experience with underlying connections and patterns and progressions, as well as the links between all of those....The process of review is not analytical since it isn’t linear or evaluative in a way that we might understand from within a physical consciousness. The experiences are absorbed through all levels of comprehension and perception at once. The senses of perception feel as if they are expansions of the physical senses we use on earth though more closely connected to each other. If I hear a sound, it is much richer than anything imagined in physical experience. At the same time that I hear the sound, I am also able to taste that sound, to feel it, and to perceive it visually. So in some way, a single sense is all senses, each informing the other. The physical senses that we use could be likened to a thin and isolated strand within a thick cable while the expanded senses would each be as large as the whole cable with each braided into the other sensory cables so that any input immediately flows through all cables. 
Sudman, Natalie (2012-04-16). Application of Impossible Things - My Near Death Experience in Iraq (Kindle Locations 1148-1155). Ozark Mountain Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

Then why? Why would Elder Ballard possibly conclude that we can do more in one year in mortality than we can in ten years with those kinds of abilities!?!  It just didn't make sense. Then this week, understanding struck me: "do more" was the key. What was it we could do more of? I realized all the awesome abilities and increased capacities described in the spirit realm might be the very reason we need the handicaps of this life to progress. 

After all, how well would I be able to learn patience or submissiveness, in a spirit realm, if as many describe, and one woman in particular puts it:

...discussions proceeded among the various groups and within the whole of the Gathering. This may seem impossible considering there were thousands present, but it was not. No overlaps occurred, no interruptions took place, no misunderstandings formed, and disagreements were respectfully and thoughtfully engaged and resolved. All communication was accomplished through thought. 
Sudman, Natalie (2012-04-16). Application of Impossible Things - My Near Death Experience in Iraq (Kindle Locations 216-218). Ozark Mountain Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

There wouldn't be many opportunities to learn patience with things working so smoothly. 

How hard would it be to learn, in the spirit realm, to forgive someone who truly had hurt me, if with such expanded abilities, we could undoubtedly understand easily their true intent - language not being a barrier there. In fact, there would be little to have to forgive each other for in such a place, knowing the great potential of each, feeling their love in every fiber as described when spirit's embrace etc. Many even speak of the common way we honor each person's use of agency in the spirit realm, even when that use of agency goes contrary to what we feel is in harmony with the Light of Christ. We aren't resentful. 

Greg Olsen, "Forgiven"
So, if a loving Heavenly Father wanted us to progress, wouldn't a world where we didn't always understand each other, where everything took so much effort to learn and comprehend, where cultural traditions put us all above or below each other, where the temptations of the flesh when allowed to control our actions caused so much pain and suffering to others (and ourselves) - wouldn't that be the perfect place to learn such divine qualities as patience, submissiveness, humility (dependence on the Lord), to be longsuffering in affliction, to be forgiving and every other divine attribute? Without this mortal world to learn such things, it would be like trying to teach a fish about water. What a wise Father. 

From another angle, spending our time to be the best mathematician, musician, engineer, entrepreneur, dancer, writer - whatever - is only going to serve the purpose of this mortal life if it serves the purpose of teaching us those divine character attributes or qualities in our interactions and relationships with each other. So, I ask myself, how am I doing? At those important things? Those things that we won't learn in an instant on the other side (because wow, I'm sure all that other stuff will take seconds to regain out of this world)? Forget the rat race. I have a whole new perspective on why we are here.

In this view, I would find it hard to believe in a God who took away all suffering. A God who is said to always have our best at heart, but then takes away all opportunities for us to learn those essential qualities - the reasons for this mortality. Put another way,

If God chooses to teach us the things we most need to learn because he loves us, and if he seeks to tame our souls and gentle us in the way we most need to be tamed and most need to be gentled, it follows that he will customize the challenges he gives us and individualize them so that we will be prepared for life in a better world by his refusal to take us out of this world, even though we are not of it. In the eternal ecology of things we must pray, therefore, not that things be taken from us, but that God's will be accomplished through us. What, therefore, may seem now to be mere unconnected pieces of tile will someday, when we look back, take form and pattern, and we will realize that God was making a mosaic. For there is in each of our lives this kind of divine design, this pattern, this purpose that is in the process of becoming, which is continually before the Lord but which for us, looking forward, is sometimes perplexing. 
~ Neal A. Maxwell, "But for a Small Moment," BYU Devotional, 1974.

That is the kind of design that speaks to me of divinity at the helm.

And we must not forget: the God who is willing to let innocent children suffer, is willing because he willingly agreed to take those pains upon himself - to enact that spiritual math where their joy and glory will not equal their suffering, but exceed it!

If we choose what he freely offers, we can know, too, the feeling that "the cause why He suffereth [it to be so,] is for [that] He will of His goodness make us the higher with Him in His bliss; and for this little pain that we suffer here, we shall have an high endless knowing in God which we could never have without that." 

It has been my experience that our Savior does not save all of that relief and joy for the next life. 

It begins its crescendo in this life as soon as we choose Christ and grows with each additional moment of "weal and woe" where we choose "Jesus to our heaven."