I was sitting in one of the many “bonus” meetings we get as faithful Latter-day Saints a few weeks ago. The theme was on that uniquely Mormon turn of phrase: “anxiously engaged in a good cause.” As I sat there listening with half my mind to the series of speakers that were lined up for the event, I used the other half of my attention to dwell on all the things that I would rather be doing at that moment. But the last speaker (the president of our far-out-of-the-Wasatch-front midwestern stake), used his time to talk about the importance of being present in our meetings. We live in an age of ubiquitous distraction. Most of us carry around hand-held devices that can instantly connect us to much of humanity’s accumulated wisdom, the best of its talents, and the most frivolous of its diversions (I’m talking to you, Candy Crush…).
Probably because it seemed as if he was speaking directly to me in that moment, his words struck me, and made me ponder why it is so easy to slip into inattention at church. As I thought about it, I realized that sometimes I have used “easy disengagement” (as opposed to “anxious engagement”) as a coping mechanism in the church-y part of my life. It is sometimes simply easier to switch off than it is to really engage with the things that we hear at church. Especially when they grate against our political sensibilities or we find ourselves out of the majority in some interpretation of the scriptures or we think we’ve heard the talk/lesson/testimony a hundred times before, it can often be easier to mentally check out.
A closer look at phraseology
As I thought more about the phrase that was the subject of the meeting, it became increasingly strange to me. Why would the Lord (or Joseph or some combination of the two) choose “anxious” as the modifier here? Anxious has an almost entirely negative connotation. It is derived from a Latin verb that means “to choke” or maybe “to strangle.” Very odd word choice indeed.
“Engage” is another interesting word. To me it carries a connotation of giving oneself completely over to something else. We speak of military engagements that are literally life-or-death struggles. People become “engaged” to be married. In (increasingly rare) manual transmission vehicles, we “engage” the clutch (which moves the gears into the drive shaft).
All of this made me think of Rick Jepson’s fantastic Sunstone article, “Godwrestling.” I was in the military for several years, and a part of the training involved some limited grappling. During our exercises, we would alternatively apply chokes to our colleagues and serve as dummies for others to learn. There is little in this world that brings a bigger sense of unease than having one’s air or blood supply to the brain cut off.
Think about what it means to “engage the clutch” in an automobile. Something incredibly violent is happening under the hood of the car. The drive shaft is spinning at hundreds or thousands of revolutions per minute while the gears are engaged. For anyone who has learned to drive a manual transmission, the results are not always smooth. Gears grind, engines stall, and cars come to shuddering halts. But without engaging the clutch and getting the gears to mesh, no forward progress is made.
While I am by no means perfect in this regard and I often find myself slipping into inattention through either laziness or just plain exhaustion at the prospect of rehashing the same old points, my experience at church has been tremendously enriched by a willingness to actually engage with the subject material. This often (although not necessarily) means airing some private doubt or concern about the general interpretation of a scripture in Sunday School, or exposing some vulnerability in my third hour meeting, or going a little off the beaten path when I am given the opportunity to speak in Church, but it is so much better than quiet, passive resentment from the back row.
Wrestling with doctrines and teachings that sometimes feel as if they are choking us is, as Jepson puts it, a form of prayer, and it can be the most meaningful and transformative kind of devotion we experience. After all, if you’ve got to be at church for three hours every week and who knows how many extracurricular meetings in addition, you might as well actually be there; blood, tears, sweat, and all.
 In modern usage, “anxiously” is a little more ambiguous than “anxious.” We often say that people are “anxiously awaiting” something good. A brief perusal of the Corpus of Historical American English (http://corpus.byu.edu/coha/) gave me the impression that this more positive usage was a little more unusual in the mid 1800s.
 I was first introduced to this piece in Dan Wotherspoon’s discussion with the author here.
 It is very possible that I have some key part of how a car works wrong. My entire education on the subject came from skimming this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K53cPGRE1Kk)