The Beast in the Shadow

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This post is something I wrote for a political blog I (infrequently) write. I am posting it here with only slight edits because of the our recent holiday – Thanksgiving – and the juxtaposition with the consumerism of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and all the “holiday shopping.” Today in our secular world, holy-days are little more than vacations from work. While family and giving are generally important, there is a huge focus on money and consumerism and other worldly things. Now, this is not necessarily bad but when our main focus becomes money and stuff, we have lost sight of what really is important, even if that money and stuff ostensibly is for our family. And so, here is my post. It is considerably more economic and political than typical posts on this blog but I feel it is am important topic; additionally, I have kept it as neutral politically and economically as possible. This post has influences from Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion, in which Nibley is very critical of consumerism.

I have very mixed feelings about Black Friday. On one hand I enjoy finding good deals on things. When I can purchase items for significantly less than their actual retail value, I always have a feeling of satisfaction. While I like to buy frivolous things sometimes, I also enjoy finding deals on everyday items – toothpaste, toilet paper, diapers, and so forth. I’m also a believer in many of the tenets of capitalism and consumerism, although I certainly don’t canonize those beliefs. I save money but I also believe that money is more useful when it is spent. Spending money directly on services or goods benefits both buyer and seller. On a macro level, money has to be spent to grow an economy. The old mantra of business – you have to spend money to make money – is true (generally and within the realm of legitimate business operations; there are those who illegally {or even legally} prey on others and unethically profit with little or no effort on their part).

I enjoy finding deals on Black Friday. I also don’t mind doing my part to help businesses become profitable and to stimulate the economy in my own little way; after all, businesses employ people and provide goods and services. All savings without any spending does not help the broader economy. Saving money for retirement, unexpected expenses, expected expenses, and so forth is necessary but saving all your money and spending only the bare minimum might not be in the best interest of the broader economy. That is, unless you do not make enough money to afford any of your wants beyond your basic needs. The problem is that so many of us have our needs and wants mixed up.

Image by hradcanska: http://www.flickr.com/photos/hradcanska/2361030629/

Then there is the other part of me that dislikes the barely suppressed or outright greed that is rampant on Black Friday. Black Friday is the paragon of consumerism, it is when many people openly and gaudily worship at the altars of Mammon by selling their messes of pottage for trinkets and trivialities. Occasionally in the pursuit of such idle pleasures and worldly possessions, a streak of egocentrism with apathy and violence towards the Other is revealed. How abhorrent that some people are so callous that their desire to consume results in the extinguishment of a human life! Yet, all is not gloomy. I witnessed kindness while shopping – people sharing a deal or helping others. Even those who were not Other-focused were patient and civil. The extremes just capture our attention. While violence that is performed by the hands (or feet) of the worshipers of Mammon is relatively rare, it reveals a dark and vicious beast lurking in the shadows of consumerism.

Another disconcerting aspect of Black Friday and the holiday season in general is the commercialization of it. Everything is about spending money and buying the fanciest toys for children, friends, family, and loved ones. Many people go into significant debt during this time of the year. According to one article, “One survey suggests that while 30% of Americans pay off Christmas debt within three months of Christmas, another 25% carry it for over a year” (Source). 25% are paying off Christmas debt until the following Christmas! And some people wonder why the U.S. government has a spending problem. How can we expect fiscal responsibility from Congress when we are not a fiscally-sound people? This whole holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day has become one big spending spree. Much of the original meanings of those holidays has been lost to the constant stream of consumerism (the recent mortgage crisis is also evidence of this).

With all the focus on consuming, it’s no wonder our country also faces an obesity epidemic. The two – irresponsible spending and eating – go hand in hand. We are a country of extremes and impulsivity. The shadow beast of consumerism is greed. It has claws of irresponsibility and fangs of self-centeredness. It preys upon all who stand in its way; in the end, the beast eventually turns on its owner and consumes him. We need to have moderation and responsibility of our personal habits if we hope to tame or slay this beast. We also have to gain control over our personal lives and habits if we expect to have a more fiscally-responsible government. We cannot afford to live beyond our means.

While it is appropriate to go into debt to purchase a house or a modest (and needed) car or to finance an education, we should not go into debt for other reasons. Elder Wirthlin cautioned against going into debt in the April 2004 General Conference:

“I would like to talk about our heavenly debts and earthly debts. The Gospels record that nearly everywhere the Savior went, He was surrounded by multitudes of people. Some hoped that He would heal them; others came to hear Him speak. Others came for practical advice. Toward the end of His mortal ministry, some came to mock and ridicule Him and to clamor for His crucifixion.

“One day a man approached the Savior and asked Him to intervene in a family dispute. ‘Master, speak to my brother,’ he pleaded, ‘that he divide the inheritance with me.’

“The Savior refused to take sides on this issue, but He did teach an important lesson. ‘Beware of covetousness,’ He told him, ‘for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth.’1

“Brothers and sisters, beware of covetousness. It is one of the great afflictions of these latter days. It creates greed and resentment. Often it leads to bondage, heartbreak, and crushing, grinding debt.

“The number of marriages that have been shattered over money issues is staggering. The amount of heartbreak is great. The stress that comes from worry over money has burdened families, caused sickness, depression, and even premature death.”

Elder Wirthlin also quoted Pres. Heber J. Grant: “From my earliest recollections, from the days of Brigham Young until now, I have listened to men standing in the pulpit … urging the people not to run into debt; and I believe that the great majority of all our troubles today is caused through the failure to carry out that counsel.”

Finances strain most people. We shouldn’t allow poor decisions to result in severe strain. To avoid debt, Elder Wirthlin suggested these strategies:

  1. Pay your tithing [I will not discuss this here but this is an absolute must!]
  2. Spend less than you earn
  3. Learn to save
  4. Honor your financial obligations
  5. Teach you children to follow your example

I will not discuss these more right now, Elder Wirthlin covered them well in his talk. I just want to add that we should not only avoid debt but we should also avoid what usually causes debt – greed and pride. I know there are extenuating circumstances – loss of a job, emergencies, and tragedies – but those are more rare than not. When we love money, we worship it instead of God. We should not give home to the shadow beast of greed.

If you are struggling with debt, the Church has many resources available to help you work your way out.

The Innocence of a Child – Part 2

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One of the debts the Savior paid was for little children. Those under the age of accountability – age eight (and older if the mental capacity for accountability is not there) – are freed from the demands of justice by virtue of the Atonement. Jesus suffered in the Garden and on the cross so that little children would be redeemed.

I marvel at the price the Savior paid. The more I think about the Atonement, the more awed I am by it. My pains and sufferings in this life are nothing compared to the Savior’s; yet, my sufferings and pains are everything to Him. He came to earth to pay the price for all our sins and sufferings. He paid in great drops of blood. He paid the measure due justice in His 40 day fast, in His fatigue, in His worry and sorrow; He paid with the lashes He received; Jesus Christ paid the debt as He carried His cross to Calvary until He could walk no more; He paid as He hung and died upon the cross. With His death came the end of His mortal work. He finished all His Father sent Him to do. He was the one true Son.

The Savior paid the debt owed justice. Mercy cannot rob justice. However, Christ did not just pay the debt, He also provides enabling power. The great prophet Enoch taught this principle many years ago:

“That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten; that ye might be sanctified from all sin, and enjoy the words of eternal life in this world, and eternal life in the world to come, even immortal glory; For by the water ye keep the commandment; by the Spirit ye are justified, and by the blood ye are sanctified” (Moses 7:59-60).

We all sin and fall short but the Spirit justifies us. The blood of Christ sanctifies us – we are not only free from blame but also pure and holy and are endowed with power from on high. We are able to act with the knowledge and power of God. We lose the desire for sin and are enabled and enlightened in all aspects of life. The Atonement enables us not only to do good but also be good. It enables us to live godly lives here on earth and prepare to live godly lives in the world to come.

The Atonement is the keystone of the Plan of Salvation. Without the Lord’s sacrifice, all humankind would inevitably be lost. The entire measure of the earth’s creation would be for naught; it would be but dross and refuse. But the Atonement did occur; Jesus did suffer for us. That means it is up to each of us to choose to accept that sacrifice by choosing to make and be faithful to the principles, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel. The Lord stands at the door; we simply need to open the door and let Him in.

There is no man more beloved than Joseph Bitner Wirthlin

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Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin passed away late last night (December 1, 2008). Although I did not know him personally, he always came across as one of the most soft-spoken and gentle people. I never really appreciated his talks until Pres. Merrill Bateman (it could have been Pres. Samuelson, I’m not positive), president of Brigham Young University, stated that once the conference issue of the Ensign was released, he and his wife always read Elder Wirthlin’s talk first. After this I started paying more attention to his talks. They are always amazing and full of charity. His talks are also powerful, which his soft manner and voice belie.

Here are a few recent quotes of his that brought strength and comfort to me.
On adversity:

“But whenever my steps led through seasons of sadness and sorrow, my mother’s words often came back to me: ‘Come what may, and love it.’ How can we love days that are filled with sorrow? We can’t—at least not in the moment. I don’t think my mother was suggesting that we suppress discouragement or deny the reality of pain. I don’t think she was suggesting that we smother unpleasant truths beneath a cloak of pretended happiness. But I do believe that the way we react to adversity can be a major factor in how happy and successful we can be in life. If we approach adversities wisely, our hardest times can be times of greatest growth, which in turn can lead toward times of greatest happiness.” (Source).

On sorrow and trials:

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. With all the pressures and demands on our time and the stress we face each day, it’s little wonder we get tired. Many feel discouraged because they have not measured up to their potential. Others simply feel too weak to contribute. And so, as the flock moves on, gradually, almost imperceptibly, some fall behind. Everyone has felt tired and weary at one time or another. I seem to feel more so now than I did when I was younger. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, even Jesus Christ knew what it meant to be tired. I do not wish to underestimate the weight that members of the Church bear upon their shoulders, nor do I minimize the emotional and spiritual trials they face. These can be heavy and often difficult to bear. I do, however, have a testimony of the renewing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The prophet Isaiah proclaimed that the Lord ‘giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.'” (Source).

On debt:

“This is simple counsel but a powerful secret for financial happiness. All too often a family’s spending is governed more by their yearning than by their earning. They somehow believe that their life will be better if they surround themselves with an abundance of things. All too often all they are left with is avoidable anxiety and distress. Those who live safely within their means know how much money comes in each month, and even though it is difficult, they discipline themselves to spend less than that amount. Credit is so easy to obtain. In fact, it is almost thrust upon us. Those who use credit cards to overspend unwisely should consider eliminating them. It is much better that a plastic credit card should perish than a family dwindle and perish in debt.” (Source).

On kindness:

“Kindness is the essence of greatness and the fundamental characteristic of the noblest men and women I have known. Kindness is a passport that opens doors and fashions friends. It softens hearts and molds relationships that can last lifetimes.” (Source).

On judging others:

“Each one of us will travel a different road during this life. Each progresses at a different rate. Temptations that trouble your brother may not challenge you at all. Strengths that you possess may seem impossible to another. Never look down on those who are less perfect than you. Don’t be upset because someone can’t sew as well as you, can’t throw as well as you, can’t row or hoe as well as you. We are all children of our Heavenly Father. And we are here with the same purpose: to learn to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” (Source).

I hope that we will all take the time to reread some of Elder Wirthlin’s words and live by his teachings. He was a man who exuded kindness and charity. As Elder Holland stated at the October 2008 General Conference, “Within the ranks of the general authorities of the church, there is no man more beloved than Joseph Bitner Wirthlin. We praise him for living the sermons he preaches.” Elder Wirthlin’s words, stories, and love will be missed. I am happy though that he is now reunited with his dear wife.