Monday, May 23, 2016

The songs I cannot sing

In the LDS ward where I grew up we frequently sang There Is Sunshine in My Soul Today. I guess it was a favorite of whoever selected the hymns for sacrament meeting. The lyrics of the second verse are indelibly imprinted on my mind:
There is music in my soul today,
A carol to my King,
And Jesus listening can hear
The songs I cannot sing.
As a child I thought this referred to a lack of musical talent, because we certainly had people in our congregation that 'sang' loudly, although, they could not really sing.
One time I complained to my mother about the singing of two older widows in our ward that often sat beside each other. It is no exaggeration to say that when they sang together it sounded like the strains of two alley cats keeping the neighborhood awake at night. Mom explained that in their younger years these sisters had each had a lovely voice and that, although age had taken its toll on those voices, their singing still sounded beautiful to the Lord.

From this experience I came to see the verse about "The songs I cannot sing" as meaning that Jesus finds our singing to be beautiful, even if it doesn't sound that way to the natural ear. A variation of this was mentioned by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in the October 1994 general conference.
I had been invited to speak at the Great Basin LDS Deaf Conference, hosted by the Salt Lake Valley (Deaf) Ward of the Salt Lake Park Stake. Over three hundred deaf brothers and sisters were in attendance. The members of the stake presidency and I were almost the only adults in the congregation who could hear and who attempted to sing audibly. The rest of that large assembly sang with their hands. Hardly a lip moved, and hardly a sound was heard except the organ and four faint voices from the stand. In the audience, all hands moved in unison with the leader as the audience signed “The Spirit of God like a fire is burning!” (Hymns, 1985, no. 2). As we sang together, the Spirit of the Lord descended upon us, and we were made ready for prayer. Our sacred music is a powerful preparation for prayer and gospel teaching.
Indeed, Jesus could hear the songs that the hearing impaired saints could not sing vocally. And so could anyone that was in tune with the Holy Spirit.

As a young adult I came to comprehend that there was a deeper meaning to the phrase, "The songs I cannot sing." If you've ever attended a temple dedication you've heard a choir sing Evan Stephens' Hosanna Anthem followed by the congregation joining the choir for at least some verses of The Spirit of God.

Although I think that the lyrics of Stephens' anthem present a valuable message, I'm not very fond of the music. It seems like an overwrought effort to capture every conceivable range of romantic era musical gymnastics. But that day when we began singing The Spirit of God with the choir, I had such a powerful spiritual experience that I was completely overcome. Although I literally could not sing the words with my mouth, I was singing them with my spirit in a much more profound way than I had ever sung a hymn before. I knew that the Lord could hear the words my natural voice could not sing.

I thought about this experience yesterday in sacrament meeting as the congregation sang Behold the Great Redeemer Die. There are 28 hymns in our current LDS hymnal that are dedicated to the sacrament (although, some others can be used too). If you attend sacrament meeting weekly you are exposed to most of the sacrament hymns with regularity. I have sung this hymn many times throughout my life. But yesterday I was so overcome with what the Holy Spirit was communicating to me that I could not voice the second or third verse. I finally sang part of the fourth verse with a quavering voice.

Some chalk this kind of thing up to simple emotionalism. I admit that some religious people conflate emotionalism with spiritual rapture. But it's not that at all. Deeply experiencing communion with the Holy Spirit can at times cause an emotional response. But not always. And it certainly has never worked the other way around for me; sentimentality has not brought the Spirit. But explaining a spiritual experience to someone that has never had such an experience is like the proverbial attempt to explain saltiness to someone that has never tasted salt.

Even when we can sing the words of a hymn clearly, our spirits can at times sing strains that could never be voiced by any human mouth. And in return, the ears of our spirit hear heavenly choirs singing melodies beyond natural human comprehension. Sacred music is really just a framework for this kind of singing to occur. When it does occur, Jesus hears the songs we cannot sing.

This kind of thing can happen when we listen to sacred music. But I believe that it is much more likely to happen when we actively participate in sacred music. This is why Elder Oaks in the previously cited October 1994 general conference talk chided church members that "have become neglectful in ... the singing of our hymns." It is why he invited us "to keep singing that we may draw ever closer to him who has inspired sacred music and commanded that it be used to worship him."

I want more opportunities for my Savior to hear the songs I physically cannot sing, not fewer. So I do my best to sing sacred music when the opportunity arises. Though my vocal abilities deteriorate as is the way of this world, yet will I strive to sing praises to my God. Though my natural hearing diminish, yet will I strive to hear heavenly choruses with my spiritual ears.

The Lord equates sacred singing with prayer (see D&C 25:12). Sacred singing has brought me such spiritual joy that I hope that I will regularly be found in this kind of prayer until my last breath.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Making the temple a sacred space

I recently came home to find my old tattered and yellowed temple recommend sitting on the counter. Upon inquiry, I found that a family that lives a block and a half away had found it in the debris at the base of their back fence while doing spring yard work.

My mind was immediately pulled back to the day my recommend went missing late last November. Until that time my practice had been to remove my recommend from my wallet and put it in my shirt pocket prior to heading to the temple. This served the purpose of making sure that I didn't arrive at the temple without a recommend.

This practice also put the recommend in the same shirt I would be wearing while serving in the temple. Years ago a member of a temple presidency suggested to me that it would be a good idea to keep my recommend on my person while worshiping in the temple (when possible) for identification purposes. That advice came shortly after a patron had passed away in the temple, causing officials to awkwardly scramble to discover the deceased man's identity. I'm sure that possible death isn't the only reason it might be a good idea to keep some identification with you.

That fateful day last November featured gale force winds blowing out of canyons to the east of us. This kind of thing strikes our neighborhood with some regularity, including this past weekend. That day as my wife, my recently endowed son, and I prepared to leave for the temple, I noted that the garbage can had blown over. I righted the can before climbing into the car.

Upon arriving at the temple I discovered that my recommend was no longer in my shirt pocket. It quickly dawned on me that it must have slipped out while I was dealing with the garbage bin. Given the force of the winds, I figured that the recommend was halfway to Nevada by then. I urged my wife and son to enter the temple without me, saying that I would return to pick them up later.

My wife gave me the firm message that we are an eternal family and that we accordingly would only enter the temple together that day. She and my son waited while I discussed the matter with a temple worker. The worker collected my bishop's contact information and asked us to wait. A few minutes later he returned and authorized me to enter the temple with my family members. So we were able to worship together in the temple that day.

I didn't bother trying to find the recommend that was gone with the wind. Where would I look for such a small piece of paper? Two days later I was able to arrange for a temple recommend interview with a member of my bishopric. As luck would have it, an unexpected opportunity arose that same day to have an interview with a member of my stake presidency. So I had a newly authorized recommend scarcely 48 hours after my old recommend had blown away.

Losing my recommend has caused me to change my former practice of putting my recommend in my shirt pocket prior to leaving for the temple. I now check my wallet prior to leaving for the temple to ensure that my recommend is indeed where I expect it to be. After passing the recommend desk at the temple I put my recommend in my shirt pocket until I change clothes following the session, at which point I return my recommend to my wallet. At least, that's how it works when everything goes well.

On a side note, I used to keep my recommend in my temple bag along with my temple clothes. Once when I was on a business trip, an unanticipated opportunity to attend a nearby temple arose. I was eager to go, only to realize that my recommend was at home in my temple bag. That's when I started carrying it in my wallet.

Seeing the beat up recommend on the counter has caused me to reflect a bit on its loss. My first feeling upon realizing that my recommend was missing at the temple that day was alarm. Once I got over the initial shock, I felt regret, frustration, and concern about being separated from my family members. That lasted only a few minutes until I found that it would be alright.

Pondering the matter further, I realized that part of the disappointment I felt when I thought I wouldn't be able to enter the temple that day was the knowledge that I would miss out on the peace and serenity I regularly experience while worshiping in the temple. This is a difficult (if not impossible) thing to describe to others. I can and do find tranquility and spiritual connection in many settings. But what I experience in the temple is unique.

In the April 2003 general conference, Dennis B. Neuenschwander, then of the Presidency of the Seventy gave a talk titled Holy Place, Sacred Space. I have found myself returning to this talk with some regularity. Elder Neuenschwander says, "Our ability to seek, recognize, and reverence the holy above the profane, and the sacred above the secular, defines our spirituality."

Humans have sought sacred and holy spaces since before recorded history. Every religion (and nearly every nonreligious philosophy) has its holy places. People do not equally experience these places as sacred. Elder Neuenschwander explains that "The faith and reverence associated with [holy places] and the respect we have for what transpires or has transpired in them make them holy."

Elder Neuenschwander makes it clear that we must commit more than just reverence to experience the sacred. "There can be no sacredness without personal sacrifice. Sacrifice sanctifies the sacred." What might we sacrifice? Among other things, "We sacrifice time in search for our ancestors and time to attend to our temple responsibilities. We also strive to live the highest standards of personal worthiness, which qualify us to enter the sacred space of this most holy place."

What would you sacrifice to have a sacred moment with God in His holy house? A friend of mine likes to say that your visit to the temple can be one of the holiest moments of your life. Or it can be no more sacred than a trip to Burger King. It's really up to you. If you're not having a sacred experience in a place that others consider holy, just realize that it's you, not them.

Sometimes we inadvertently do things that detract from the sacred nature of places we believe to be holy. I have noted that wedding parties waiting outside temple doors sometimes break into boisterous cheering when a newly wed couple exits the temple doors. While rejoicing can be sacred, some celebrants exhibit behavior that is more at home in a sports arena, being so loud that their clamor penetrates the walls of the sacred edifice, disturbing worshipers.

It has been said that familiarity breeds contempt. This can even be true of temple workers, who sometimes treat their activities in the temple with less reverence than that holy place should warrant.

While my personal experience of temple holiness varies (mostly due to me rather than external circumstances), some of my life's most sacred moments have occurred in holy temples. My wife and I still cherish the moment when I proposed to her in the celestial room of the Ogden Temple. (Having served a mission, she was previously endowed.) Months later we knelt across a sacred altar in the temple and were sealed together for time and all eternity.

A few years later as we struggled with infertility, I gained a clear understanding while fasting and praying in the temple that we would have four boys and a girl born to us. We eventually did. I watched tears roll down the cheeks of my stoic German father as he was sealed to his deceased parents, for whom Mom and I acted as proxies. After the ordinance, my visionary father told me that his parents had been present during the ordinance.

On three occasions I have welcomed a newly endowed child of mine into the celestial room of a temple. I once sat in a temple session and prayed to have the oppressive darkness I was experiencing during a period of depression and unemployment lifted. My Savior immediately took that burden away and filled me with incredible light. The darkness did not return.

On one occasion as I sat in the baptistery chapel of the temple with my then 12-year-old daughter. I felt a marvelous sacred spirit as I watched patrons being baptized on behalf of their kindred dead. I realized that my daughter was feeling this too when she leaned her head onto my shoulder at the perfect moment, causing me to experience one of the greatest joys a daddy can have.

I have, of course, had many more sacred experiences than these in the temple. So many that I can't count them, although, I have recorded a number of them in my journals. The temple is a holy place because many people work and sacrifice to make it a sacred space. It is a place to experience greater contact with the divine. But only if you choose it. Choose wisely.