Picasso and Punxatawny Phil: A Mormon’s reflections on Obedience


By: Rachel Youngberg Payne //

I recently addressed a Mormon congregation on the topic of Individuality within Obedience. I’ve been asked to convey those thoughts here.

As Latter Day Saints we believe we have come to this earth to experience a few things. We believe we came to get a body, experience hardships, learn to understand joy. To fulfill the measure of our creation. We believe that our choices pave the way to what will be our eventual reuniting with God.

Perhaps as T.S. Eliot wrote, “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

The experiences we each go through amid this process of discovery are as varied as the stars in the sky. None of us are exactly the same. We believe intentionally so. And though we are many, we are known, and our situations, our struggles are tailor-made for us. We come into this world with varied perspectives and within those perspectives we begin our individual journey to understand our place in it and what it means to be obedient to God.

What is obedience within the structure of the LDS church? What is faithful obedience? For, as we know, or as we have been taught, to serve and obey with an unwilling heart profits us nothing.

How do we develop real intent with our obedience? What does that look like? I see it in the faces of many of the young single adults in the congregation where I worship. I feel it in the way they serve. In who they are. In their developing and hungry spirits. Seekers of truth. I believe it is in no small part due to the way, more than the what of how they live their lives. I think of the story in Matthew 19 of the young man who asked what he lacked to live as Christ would have him live. He was given specific council, and in verse 22 “But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.”

I think the emotional check-in’s of our lives are really important. Really asking and being okay to know the answers to what needs to change in our lives. When we receive instruction-as this young man did-I wonder how we question it, since questioning is a necessary part of growth. The idea makes me think of Moses. When, after being instructed that he was to be the Prophet, the Lord’s very mouthpiece, said in Exodus chapter 4 verse 10; “…O my Lord, I am not eloquent, neither heretofore, nor since thou hast spoken unto thy servant: but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.” I think of the scripture in Malachi in the Old Testament and again in 3rd Nephi of the Book of Mormon, which contains the sentiment; “for he is like a refiner’s fire.” Our obedience is tested.

For a more modern context of the refining process of obedience I think of a film, “Ground Hog Day.” I think of the main character, a man living the same hateful day over and over again, until he came to a place where he served and chose to do the right things, to obey that universal law of God without complaint, without expectation of reward. His initial reaction had been that it was all going to happen again tomorrow, so what was the point of it? I recall a moment during his transformation of perspective where he sits in a diner, experiencing Mozart, perhaps truly for the first time with an expression of transcendence on his face. We can each find this in moments of quiet reflection, when wherever we are is where we are meant to be and we allow ourselves to be immersed in the experience. For the character, it was allowed because the process was required of him. And he obeyed. He was in this reoccurring day to experience and grow. To become.

I think of a quote from a former Apostle, Neal A. Maxwell,

“…Patience is a willingness, in a sense, to watch the unfolding purposes of God with a sense of wonder and awe, rather than pacing up and down within the cell of our circumstance.”

So how do we arrive at that place of patient, faithful obedience? Where we serve, because we want to. Where reward is a byword, an afterthought, an, “oh. I guess that happens.” Where patient endurance is part of the journey.

The journey toward goals where our Godly obedience is most paramount because it is the means by which we are able to go forward with trust and faith because we are living in harmony with the truths we hold dear. With hope, but not expectation. For, if we serve for, or expect reward, what is obedience, really? Is it a freeing opportunity to understand our divine potential, or is it a chain? A means of holding us, rigidly?

When it comes to patience infused obedience, I feel something from my own life may be appropriate. By all rights, I believe I should have already had my Metropolitan opera debut. I went to the right school, met the right people, auditioned, performed and have worked really, really hard. So why am I not there? Why has this blessing been withheld from me? As our Prophet, President Monson has said many times, and I feel I must echo it here, “decisions determine destiny.” I have made choices in being obedient to the spirit that have lead me to a delayed appearance on that stage. I say delayed, because it is still the goal. Though moments of doubt creep in, the important decisions of my life have and continue to shape my destiny. Obedience yields consequences of joy-not of reward. As reward denotes, “earning” or “qualifying”. Statements which, when we understand the Atonement, cannot be earned. Only appreciated and accepted. And as I have always had a strong faith, this trial has uniquely tested me as I learn who and what I am in the context of a much larger world, indeed an entire universe.

As Moses commented after his celestial expedition, “…Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” (Moses 1:10) Few things inspire me with such feelings of awe, humility and pondering the eternal nature of obedience like images of the eternities—the night sky, celestial exploration.

The Big Picture

I recently watched a 3D movie about the Hubble space telescope. Images of nebulae, dying stars and baby solar systems stretch across the screen in colors so vivid and grand that I was invited to ponder as Moses, both my capacity and also my nothingness. For me, these images inspire humility in the best way. As a child I would look up into the night sky and think the stars before me, were all there was. I supposed hundreds of billions was enough. But the Hubble captured something truly remarkable with the image known as “the big picture.” It photographed the darkest point it could find, and magnified it. What was revealed was inspiring: galaxy after galaxy in a huge cosmic web. It causes me to wonder; what are the “big pictures” in our lives? The darknesses that cause us to think we have enough or there isn’t anymore, until we look closer.

There is nothing calm in the construction of a universe. Nothing simple in cosmic obedience. In the building of a world. If there were sound in space, surely it would be very, very loud. And the fruits of that labor is evidenced in the beauty all around us. As I have thought about the cosmos, their construction, even the beauty in death, I have pondered this question about obedience to law. What if the elements designated to a specific order and timing, decided to change? What if an element was just really tired of being itself? What if water-our basic building block- decided it wasn’t going to go through that cycle anymore. It was done. What would happen to our world? I feel the same is true when it comes to obedience to the laws of God. Not the laws of men, not the structure set up by uninspired people, but the laws that I have tested myself either by experience or through the manifestations of the spirit.

James E. Faust former member of the first presidency said on this topic, “Just as order gave life and beauty to the earth when it was dark and void, so it does to us. Obedience helps us develop the full potential our Heavenly Father desires for us in becoming celestial beings worthy someday to live in His presence.” And it isn’t a vacuum of understanding, this obedience to celestial law. We are required to ask, and seek to understand these things. As in the final chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10 vs. 4-5 “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”

Picasso

One of my favorite quotes comes from Pablo Picasso and I think of it in reference to this process of understanding potential in relation to obedience:

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

I wonder how long it will take each of us to be willing to learn the systems by which that kind of precision, that kind of technique is engrained in us enough that we can turn to our own unique perspectives. Sometimes when I go to a modern art museum a comment friends will make is, “I could have done that” (because of the simplicity or the seeming spastic art work in front of them). But my response is always the same, “yes, but you didn’t.” It’s amazing how our artistic pursuits can change the world. But if we don’t learn the basics, if we don’t master the simple, are we open, humble enough to receive the influence of the unique, the truly personal touch and influence we each have the potential of expounding into the world?

How many times did the character in the movie “Ground Hog Day” do it “right” before his true desire was realized? Or for us, before the prayer is answered? I’d venture to say, as long as it took to do those hard, important things without expectation of reward. Watching with awe and wonder, rather than pacing. And what does that mean on a practical level? For me and my hopes it means practicing everyday, as though I were on that stage. Expecting to be there. It means, that our experiences are as varied as the stars in the sky, and if we don’t look up every once in a while, we may miss those moments of darkness that are actually pathways to light, the ultimate light of understanding, that illumination which is only available through true obedience to God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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