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Spiritual Horticulture

This is a generously contributed guest post from Michelle (aka M&M). She also blogs at Prayer of Faith and Blogger of Jared.  Michelle’s motto for life is taken from a Primary song: “I Will Follow God’s plan For Me.” God’s plan for her included a mission, a graduate degree in business (a field not originally on her radar screen), and a career as a business consultant. She is grateful that the plan eventually included marriage and motherhood (three amazing children were born in three crazy years). Her plan has also included undiagnosed chronic illness, which has given her opportunities to deepen her faith and her trust in God. Michelle loves to explore and express her faith and testimony in writing and in song. Thanks Michelle!

The emails were devastating, but not surprising. In the same week, two of my friends informed me they were leaving the Church. They had spent considerable time and energy studying material that cast doubt on the Church’s divine origins. I had spent considerable time and energy conversing with each of them about numerous topics: Church history, science, doctrine. I was saddened as intellectual doubts overtook their faith.

I turned to the scriptures for comfort. They “just fell open” to Alma 32, a well-known chapter on seeds and trees of testimony. Alma’s words soothed me and gave me perspective.

Alma teaches that the roots of testimony are to be found in our hearts, and that we need to choose to give place for faith (see Alma 32:28). Faith is, in large measure, a choice. It requires action.

Faith includes choosing what to do about doubt. I’d never noticed before how Alma acknowledges that unbelief might exist as we grow our testimonies. He warns us of the risk of letting unbelief take over. “Do not cast [the word] out by your unbelief, that ye resist the Spirit of the Lord” (Alma 32:28). We need to do all we can to foster the Spirit in our lives so the roots of faith can grow. Flowers and plants can’t flourish in a garden when rocks litter the soil and weeds are left unchecked. Likewise, the seed of faith needs “good ground” in our hearts in order to take root and to stay rooted in spite of opposition, temptation, and persecution (see Matthew 13:8, 18-23).

I recall a conversation I had years ago with a dear member of my extended family who has struggled with his testimony. Never before had we talked about the gospel, but the Lord blessed us with the chance to really connect. He shared some of his questions and concerns with me. He was trying to make sense of elements of our lifestyle and beliefs that make us unique, like the fact that we don’t drink coffee. It was clear that logically trying to explain these things wouldn’t work. (It rarely does!)

I looked Simon in the eye and gently told him that the questions he had couldn’t be the focus of his quest. These were branches. The Spirit was palpable as I testified of the importance of focusing on roots.

Elder Uchtdorf summed up the roots in a recent General Conference talk.

“Our firm conviction of gospel truth is an anchor in our lives; it is steady and reliable as the North Star. A testimony is very personal and may be a little different for each of us, because everyone is a unique person. However, a testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ will always include these clear and simple truths:

· God lives. He is our loving Father in Heaven, and we are His children.

· Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and the Savior of the world.

· Joseph Smith is the prophet of God through whom the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored in the latter days.

· The Book of Mormon is the word of God.

· President Gordon B. Hinckley, his counselors, and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are the prophets, seers, and revelators in our day.

“As we acquire a deeper knowledge of these truths and of the plan of salvation by the power and the gift of the Holy Ghost, we can come to ‘know the truth of all things’ (Moroni 10:5).” [1]

I challenged Simon to pray, to come to know God better. I invited him to read and ponder the Book of Mormon, for it testifies of Christ and can help a person gain a testimony of Joseph Smith’s divine calling and the truthfulness of the Church. The basic beliefs Elder Uchtdorf outlined are the foundation of everything that defines who we are as Latter-day Saints. We simply can’t focus on isolated elements of our beliefs, history, or lifestyle without going back to the roots.

It’s really all about the roots.

Elder Nelson said this once to people who were impressed with certain programs in the Church:

“You are attracted by various fruits of our faith. They are plentiful and powerful. But you cannot savor this fruit unless you know the tree that produces it. And you cannot understand the tree unless you comprehend its roots. With our religion, you cannot have the fruits without the roots.” [2]

This is true in our individual lives as well. We must focus on the roots of testimony in order to enjoy its fruits. The formula for nourishing our roots is simple. (How easy to consider it too simplistic!) We read our scriptures, pray, attend our meetings, and attend the temple. We live the gospel in our homes and lives. We keep our covenants. As we do these things, the Spirit can come into our lives in a pure and powerful way, and our roots will be strengthened. We will find protection from spiritual thorns, weeds, and scorching sun. We will taste the sweet fruits of the gospel in our lives. We will be more able to learn spiritual truths that can only be learned through the Spirit.

Of course the importance of focusing on roots doesn’t leave us without the option to learn about other things. Much of life consists of gaining knowledge that isn’t directly related to the roots of the gospel. And sometimes we come across information that may create a tension between the mind and the heart, between information and testimony. As I considered this tension, and turned to the scriptures, I found wisdom in Zenos’ allegory of the olive trees (Jacob 5).

First of all, note verse 11:

“And the Lord of the vineyard caused that it should be digged about, and pruned, and nourished, saying unto his servant: It grieveth me that I should lose this tree; wherefore, that perhaps I might preserve the roots thereof that they perish not, that I might preserve them unto myself, I have done this thing.”

The Lord’s response reiterates the importance of protecting the roots. Anything that truly threatens our roots should grieve us. No knowledge is more important than protecting testimony.

That said, Zenos’ allegory teaches what we can do when we come across a “wild branch,” which I define here as information of any sort that is new, different, or even confusing. In the allegory, wild branches had been grafted into the tree, and the Lord of the vineyard waited to see if they flourished and bore fruit.

“And it came to pass that the Lord of the vineyard looked and beheld the tree in the which the wild olive branches had been grafted; and it had sprung forth and begun to bear fruit. And he beheld that it was good; and the fruit thereof was like unto the natural fruit.

“And he said unto the servant: Behold, the branches of the wild tree have taken hold of the moisture of the root thereof, that the root thereof hath brought forth much strength; and because of the much strength of the root thereof the wild branches have brought forth tame fruit” (Jacob 5:17-18).

If we find a “wild branch,” we can consider it and see if it bears good fruit. We can ask ourselves, “Does this ‘take”¦hold of the moisture of the root’ of the basic truths of the restored gospel? Does it respond to living water? Does it cause my testimony to grow and the Spirit to fill my heart?”

A good branch will draw strength from the roots of testimony, not threaten them. We could use Alma’s words here: a branch is good if our “understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and [our] minds”¦begin to expand” (Alma 32:34). If something is true, it will bring light and knowledge. It will bring a swelling heart and an expanded mind. In short, it will strengthen testimony. We can gratefully embrace branches that bear good fruit, for “there is nothing which is good save it comes from the Lord” (Omni 1:25). (See also Moroni 7:12-24.)

What about branches that don’t enhance our testimonies, that don’t connect to the roots, that don’t allow both mind and heart to benefit? We can do as the Lord of the vineyard did and “pluck off the branches that have not brought forth good fruit” (Jacob 5:26). If we don’t, we risk growing “wild fruit” that can threaten our spiritual well-being.

“And the wild fruit of the last had overcome that part of the tree which brought forth good fruit, even that the branch had withered away and died” (Jacob 5:40).

I watched this happen with one of my friends. Rather than cast away the branches that threatened the roots of testimony, she allowed doubt to grow until her faith “withered away and died.” (The other friend, I am happy to report, still had some strength in her roots (see Jacob 5:36, 59). Her faith in the Savior kept her heart open to the Spirit, and she was willing to respond to tender mercies that invited her back to the Church.)

There is a last sobering reminder from this allegory. As we consider branches in our lives, we should beware of pride and of too much focus on branches. Note verse 48. The Lord of the vineyard had cried out, wondering what had corrupted the trees. The servant’s response is a warning to us:

“Is it not the loftiness of thy vineyard—have not the branches thereof overcome the roots which are good? And because the branches have overcome the roots thereof, behold they grew faster than the strength of the roots, taking strength unto themselves. Behold, I say, is not this the cause that the trees of thy vineyard have become corrupted?”

If we find that in our study, we neglect the roots and allow the branches start to “tak[e] strength unto themselves,” we put ourselves in harm’s way. Let us never forget that nourishing the roots was of critical importance to the Lord of the vineyard, and that should be the most important thing to us.

As we keep a focus on our roots, we can stay connected to the Lord, and feel of His strength and love. He is there to nourish us, care for us, strengthen us, and “stretch”¦forth [His] hand”¦all the day long” (Jacob 5:47) to help us and our faith grow. Strong roots keep us rooted in the Savior.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

“I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing (John 15:4-5).

It really is all about the roots.

——

Notes

[1] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Power of a Personal Testimony,” Ensign, Nov 2006, 37”“39

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Roots and Branches,” Ensign, May 2004, 27

22 thoughts on “Spiritual Horticulture”

  1. We've started (again) reading scriptures and praying daily with our children and I'm going to try and adapt part of this for tonight. Thanks for these powerful words!

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  2. Michelle,
    This is a really great post, and a great analogy. I have one question though. Is it ok to have branches of learning that don't enhance both heart and mind (only mind or only heart)? I don't have a great answer, but would be interested in your thoughts.

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  3. Hyrum, Tiffany, I am grateful if anything that has been helpful to me means something for someone else. Thanks for your comments.

    mami,
    I think that is a good question. It seems to me that they are intertwined, but perhaps you have a specific example to throw out. ??

    Perhaps I should add that the way I was using 'heart' here is also representing the spirit. When I have interesting thoughts that thrill my mind, they also affect my spirit in a positive way — all good things, all truth (even things that at first blush seem wholly intellectual or fact-based) come from God, and my spirit (heart) feels that. (Then-Elder Eyring talked about that in a recent Stake Conference talk – he testified that the Spirit knew the complex math formula he studied as an undergrad.)

    On the flip side, it's hard for me to think of something that touches my heart that doesn't bring new thoughts and light to my mind in some way.

    Thoughts? Feelings? I'm willing to be proven wrong. 🙂

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  4. I love this, Michelle. "A good branch will draw strength from the roots of testimony, not threaten them." That is so true.

    I remember that talk by Elder Nelson–you can't have the fruits without the roots. Fruit / roots imagery is so interesting to me. I am definitely guilty of putting too much emphasis on branches, on less-important things, instead of focusing on the core needs of my family. It's always good to reexamine my life and see what branches need to be pruned so that my roots don't lose strength.

    I think that applies to other aspects of my life as well–I want the fruit of writing, a polished essay, but it's hard to take the time to write every day. Or I want the fruit of kind, obedient kids, but I don't always invest the time in it that I need to.

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  5. Emily, excellent thoughts that expand on the analogy beautifully. One of the biggest takeaways from Conference for me was the need for priorities and focusing on what is most important (what you are calling the roots of our lives). I appreciate you giving me more to think about with all of what you have said!

    And mami, I just wanted to add something to my comment above. I guess for me the biggest thing is that I don't believe that something that is pleasing to the mind alone should be given too much weight unless it also reinforces truth as our spirits/hearts have learned them. Think of Korihor, for example. He said the devil came to him and taught him that "There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind" (Al. 30:53, emphasis added). Especially after watching friends of mine (more than have been mentioned here) think themselves out of the Church, I am very wary of anything that focuses on the mind only. I feel like our hearts/spirits (and the Spirit) are a protection against deception. Is it possible that just feelings alone can deceive us, too?

    Emotions can be manipulated, facts can be taught as truth when they are not, but you can't fake light to the mind and heart as easily.

    I'm interested in your thoughts on this. Like I said, I don't pretend to understand it all…this is just where my thoughts and feelings are at this point.

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  6. Michelle,
    Just to be clear, I'm not trying to prove you wrong. Here's an example of what I mean; right now I am reading/studying Immunobiology of Human Milk. I really, really like it. It is feeding my mind–but am I getting something spiritual from it? I guess I could be–but I'm not sure how to concretely explain that side of it, if there is direct spiritual nurturing going on (I'd like to think there is). I can say that this may better enable be to serve others in some of the capacities I serve, and therefore is spiritual.
    If I study Italian, I can learn it with my brain, but my heart? Maybe I just really like it and I will never use it to serve. If some sphere of learning is enjoyable to us in this life and has no direct or direct spiritual link, it is still worth it? Should we discard those kind of branches, the kind that maybe bare no fruit? Or is our enjoyment the fruit itself?
    When we talk about church history and things of that nature (like the stuff your friends let fester and bother them) is it ok to have branches that don't have any kind of fruit (the issues we let sit on a shelf) and not let them strangle us, although they don't bare good fruit? I think too that sometimes we learn things that could challenge our testimonies. That is inevitable in life. I don't think it is bad–or that we necessarily have to cut off those branches. There are things in secular learning that I believe with my mind, but can't completely reconcile with my heart, and things I believe with my heart, but can't reconcile with my mind. For me, this is where my faith comes into play. I guess I can say that difficult things in secular learning (the things I cannot reconcile with my brain and my heart) actually strengthen my faith more by forcing me to rely more wholly on faith while not dismissing facts. Of course I see that this could quickly become a justification to delve into all kinds of secular learning (like literature published by antagonists of the church), which I realize would not bear any kind of good fruit, and so I make conscious decisions not study those things.

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  7. Hmm. I wish I could convince my husband (the college science teacher) to comment. He often talks about how science broadens his appreciation of things spiritual, and of how meaningful it is for him to see different fields of converge and deepen his perspective and understanding. That's not to say every new thing he studies or teaches immediatley has a spiritual application, but the big picture certainly does. I don't think any learning is wasted if we don't see all the potential applications the same day. In a strictly intellectual sphere, that would be like arguing that there is no need for raw science. The realm of inquiry and discovery is needed before we can start looking at applications.

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  8. mami, I had a comment that was almost finished before I headed off to a RS thing, but Angie has given a great response. I'll just add a few of my thoughts.

    I believing studying good things is good for our spirits. (We are told in the scriptures to "seek learning…by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118)). Some of my favorite learning at BYU was in my GE classes. We may not feel spiritually moved by all secular knowledge, but I believe learning truth is something that helps us learn more about God, about His power and creations, and about His purposes. So Italian, immunobiology, organizational behavior (my field, which I LOVED learning about and still do)…so many good things can be found outside the realm of our spiritual, religious learning. And if we give it a chance, I think much of that learning can become a spiritual experience in and of itself. I find the process of learning can be spiritually invigorating in its own right.

    The main point of my post is to be careful not to let worldly philosophies or "facts" threaten or become more dominant or important than testimony or spiritual truths. I put the word facts in quotes because not all that we hear presented as fact really is true fact; much of mortal learning is still a work in progess and/or is influenced by mortal interpretation of facts and/or information.

    I am married to a scientist as well and he has talked about how even in science, there is still a lot that is being figured out and refined. He is always disappointed when people will put more faith in science than in the Spirit. That is the kind of thing that this post was about.

    mami, the concept of putting things on a shelf to me is a good one, and one that I think we probably all use to some degree or another. (Search for the phrase "it mattereth not" in the Book of Mormon — it's ok to have questions that aren't answered that we let go. The key is to know when to let go! 🙂 ) Although any analogy will break down at some point, this seems to me like a variation on the theme of casting out bad branches. Either way, we are removing things from the forefront of our minds that could threaten testimony, and giving priority care and attention to the roots. The key is to protect the roots and keep them strong. How each of us may do that when faced with tension issues between mind and heart probably differs a bit.

    One other thought: I think sometimes our spirit receives a confirmation that something is good and true before we have the capacity to fully understand it intellectually. For example, we can know through the Spirit that the Lord is our Creator, but we don't know HOW He did it all, and we don't know how scientific information fits into that. But we don't need to understand all the whys and hows to know that something is real and true.

    Taking that example to underscore my point from the post, if we were to start looking at scientific information and doubting God's existence because somehow we trust some current data more than faith and the Spirit, then I think that is the time to take action to protect the roots, be it to shelf an idea or to cast it out altogether.

    In the end, I do think spirituality and gaining knowledge and understanding of Truth in its fullness really is a marriage of both mind and heart. I brought the combination out in the post because I didn't want someone misunderstanding me as saying that I think the mind has no place in the process of spirituality, because I don't believe that at all. I think our hearts play a dominant role, but I have found that the two really are intimately intertwined. And I find that the more I let faith guide my thoughts, the more things make sense to my mind (sometimes over quite a bit of time). Again, if we don't cast something out because of unbelief (or because we trust more in men's ideas more than in what we are taught by scriptures, prophets and the Spirit), we can find that faith and knowledge grow.

    Whew. That was a long response. Sorry…. 🙂

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  9. Michelle, thank you for these thoughts on faith. My husband and I have had some conversations about focusing on things that are not the 'roots'(though neither of us called them that!)of the gospel. Your post has given me a different way of looking at things and also addresses something I had been thinking about but had not really voiced aloud. I feel like Heavenly Father has spoken to me through you.

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  10. Thank you so much for such a wonderful post. It was strengthening to me.
    Does your family live in the Canyon View Stake? I loved the conference with (then)Elder Eyring a few weeks ago.

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  11. I've been looking furiously for a copy of a talk given by Elder Holland at BYU back in the late 80s. It really changed a lot for me. Sadly, I haven't found it. He could put this much more eloquently than I.

    The thrust of his speech lay on the foundation that while there might not be "spiritual mathematics" or "spiritual physics", there can be mathematics with the Spirit, or physics, or science, etc. There can be any course of study accompanied by the Spirit for the intent to enrich and uplift the soul and the world.

    I think we all probably spend a lot of our time doing things that could likely be considered as fluff when measured against the yardstick of ecclesiastical importance. But it is how we endeavor in those activities that can be measured spiritually.

    I could be a lotion salesman, and either use my skill and talent to bring the spirit into my life and bless the world or I could use my skill and talent to make everyone's skin creamy smooth. It's all in the undertaking, I think.

    too much talking from me…

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  12. Dave, Karen, once again, I feel grateful if anything that has been meaningful to me (I write in part to record these kinds of things) has been worthwhile for someone else. Thank you for your comment.

    Justine, very well said. My only concern is that you are saying that you are doing too much talking? Yikes. What does that mean about me? 🙂 I love hearing what you have to say. We can glorify God in whatever endeavors we pursue. All things are spiritual to Him and can be to us.

    Let us know if you ever find Elder Holland's talk. 🙂

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  13. Michelle, I like your explanation:

    Taking that example to underscore my point from the post, if we were to start looking at scientific information and doubting God’s existence because somehow we trust some current data more than faith and the Spirit, then I think that is the time to take action to protect the roots, be it to shelf an idea or to cast it out altogether.

    It makes me think of the early Church's angst over Copernicus and Galileo. It seems funny to us now that people felt Christianity could be threatened by the ideas that Earth is round, but we have our own modern day versions of the same thing (say evolution as one example). For me it is possible to put questions on a "faith shelf" and trust that the pieces will come together in a way I can understand eventually, but I think if I didn't have the capacity to do that, I would far rather give up sudying astronomy for a time than to loose all the blessings of the gospel. Roots and branches indeed!

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  14. Angie and Michelle,
    I understand what you are saying. However, for me it works just the opposite sometimes. For example I believe in evolution. When I look at the scientific evidence, I can't not believe in evolution (as much as I understand it). However, I believe that God created man and that we are his children. It is problematic for me that if God used evolution to create man (which appears to be true) then that would mean somewhere long ago someone's parents weren't children of God, because they weren't really human as we are now. I believe in evolution, but also choose to continue to believe that God created us in his own image. There is kind of a spiritual shelf for me. At the same time I don't think the evolution idea is strangling my spiritual branches. It's one of those things I just think I don't understand spiritually, but maybe I will someday. It is true too that some of my lack of understanding on how to reconcile the two ideas could be both spiritual and intellectual in nature.
    On the other hand, I believe Joseph Smith was commanded to practice polygamy, but in my brain it doesn't make any sense. I put this idea on my intellectual shelf. The idea that God asked Joseph to practice it is not strangling my brain cells. I hope someday to understand it with my brain, meager as it is. It has occurred to me that this maybe a lack of spiritual understanding too.
    All of theses ideas could go on the spiritual shelf sometimes, and onto the intellectual shelf at other times, depending on context.
    When I talk about shelves, I don't want to confuse that with pushing these ideas aside to ignore or disregard, hiding them in the back of the closet or sweeping them away like dust under a rug. I put them on a shelf for my best and noblest ideas where they are in full view when I am in the idea room. Sometimes I take them off the shelf and try to put ideas together like pieces of the giant jigsaw puzzle that this life is. I try to make them fit in different places and in different ways, believing that in this life and the next I will build a sensible picture.
    It seems to me that dismissing scientific, historical or other empirical evidence because it is irreconcilable with one’s faith, only proves one’s faith to be ostensible. It perhaps maybe just as dangerous to disregard intellectual reasoning, as it is to disregard spiritual evidences. Faith then becomes the game of dogmatic rhetoric.
    Although not comprehensible by reason alone, I truly believe God works within reason. And as you said Michelle, if it makes sense spiritually, it should also make sense intellectually (thoughts coming to your mind). All things should eventually make sense both logically and spiritually (the key word being eventually).

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  15. mami, sometimes this medium is limited. I can tell I haven't communicated well enough because I didn't mean to imply that a shelf was like sweeping something under the rug. Again, the whole key is to do the things that protect the roots. You have given examples of ways that you can't quite find reconciliation with both brain and heart, but all the while, you keep the flame of faith alive, you are open to the reality that more information (spiritual or otherwise) could (and assuredly will) increase your understanding; you don't focus so much on those things that they dominate your thinking or your spirit. That is, in my mind, consistent with the spirit of this post.

    Incidentally, I think you have picked two examples that I suspect are not uncommon issues/questions. We don't have to dismiss evidence. I never meant to suggest that in such an extreme. Again, I think the the key is not to put so much confidence in data or reason so as to threaten or replace faith or choose worldly information over the spiritual. We must always remember that our knowledge, as wonderful as it is and as blessed as we are to know so much, is limited when compared to God's. I think a key part of this whole process is simple humility.

    If I have understood what you have said, I actually love doing what you talk about. Sometimes, when I go to the temple, for example, I mull over what it might be teaching about the processes of creation (and I think about those things relative to what science teaches at this point). I take intellectual and other thoughts and questions to my spiritual study and worship. I don't make them the FOCUS or stumblingblocks. All in wisdom and order (priority and balance). I think doing this kind of sorting and mulling, all the while letting the Spirit be the main key in seeking understanding and reconciliation, can be a wonderful process if kept in perspective and balance. Could this not be an application of "study it out in your mind"? But again, it's all about how we approach it and what our desires and motives are. Are we willing to accept that we don't know everything and let faith reign? Or do we let what we think we know overshadow faith and choose instead only that which is based in mortal evidence? (Am I being any clearer?)

    Hm. I used that word reconciliation and wonder if yet another facet of the Atonement is bringing all truth together, reconciling the mind and spirit. He reconciles body and spirit, temporal and spiritual. I think that through Him and as we stay focused on Him, the intellectual and the spiritual can and will also come together. He rends the veil of death and the veil of knowledge.

    I love, too, the faith in 'someday.' It's ok not to understand everything now. I, too, believe that 'in this life and the next' we can 'build a sensible picture. I think that will only fully be possible when the veil is rent. Again, it will come down to the Atonement's power, I think.

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  16. Michelle,
    I really think we are often on the same page in all of our conversations on the blogs–it's just so hard over the internet sometimes!

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  17. Interesting post I just read today illustrates the risk of putting too much stock in man's reasoning and data. If you know anyone who has been caught up in the DNA and Book of Mormon debate, this post might be worth a read.

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