Friday, August 30, 2013

Testimony tips

Man, do I love the Book of Mormon.

I have for some time. It is a key element of my testimony of the restored gospel and my understanding of my relationship to my Father in Heaven and to my Redeemer.

As I contemplate teaching seminary this year, I’ve been preparing lessons in advance of our actual start of classes next week. (My goal is to have four weeks of lessons “in the can” – if I can get two and a half more lessons done this weekend, I’ll meet that goal; then I can figure out how to continue to prepare lessons in advance while reviewing lessons just prior to giving them. I feel like I’m on a bit of a tightrope at this point.)

As I’ve reviewed the vision of the Tree of Life, I realize that in a few chapters, we get the basics three times. On my mission, I heard Elder Theodore M. Burton teach us that we should pay attention when the Lord repeats himself in the scriptures, and here I find in the first 15 chapters of the Book of Mormon, three recitations of the Tree of Life vision. (Oh, and repetitions of the vision of the Savior’s role as Redeemer, too!)

It occurs to me that there are plenty of repeat messages in 1 Nephi. Not only do we learn of those visions and of the Savior’s role in God’s plan (and our eternal happiness), but we also have repeated models of how to gain a testimony, or at least of how Nephi gained his. We’re reminded more than once of the value of approaching gospel learning with an open mind and an open heart – a desire to believe. We’re reminded of the Lord’s willingness to answer our prayers (and His disappointment when we believe He won’t answer us). And we’re reminded of the consistency of His message to prophets. Some details might shift slightly (like Nephi’s noticing the filthiness of water that Lehi didn’t pick up), but major story arcs (like the importance of the fruit of the tree) do not change.

As I think about my role as a seminary teacher, I understand that I’m there to open the scriptures to my students and to invite them to feel the spirit as they discover what the scriptures teach about the Savior. I need to get out of the way and allow the scriptures and the spirit to do the teaching and converting. I need to invite, encourage, entice.

The stakes are high for seminary teachers. Lots of studies show that seminary teachers have the opportunity to have significant influence on our youth, and it’s no surprise. Seminary teachers get 50 minutes a day, five days a week, with regular attenders. It would be easy to use that time as a platform to promote my views, or even to set myself up as some great guy. But the last thing I need is to generate a group of Paul-ites. Hopefully what I can do is to offer my students a place where they can safely explore spiritual questions and seek spiritual answers. Hopefully I can help them to feel safe enough to trust what the spirit whispers to their minds and hearts.

In our recent seminary fireside, I mentioned to the students and their parents that as seminary teachers we can offer activities. We can entertain them. We can review scripture mastery verses and play games. But they need to actually read the book. They need to seek the testimony. And if they’re willing to do that, the rewards can be great.

I don’t think I’ll spend my whole year blogging about seminary. But I might share a little from time to time. In the meantime, I extend the same invitation to you: if you read the book, if you open your heart and your mind, if you ask, the Lord can provide you the same great blessings He promises my seminary students.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Spiritual Sudoku

I recently worked my first Sudoku puzzle. If you’re not familiar, Sudoku puzzles have nine rows of nine digits each, organized into nine 3 x 3 squares. Each digit from 1-9 appears in each row, each column and each 3x3 square only once. The puzzle gives you a certain number of “known” digits to start, and you fill in the rest, using the given digits and subsequent “found” digits to determine placement of the remaining digits until the puzzle is complete.

(For a simple puzzle or two, you can go to lots of websites, including here.)

My first puzzle was very painful. It took me lots of trial and error to finally arrive at the correct solution. After some time, however, I’ve learned to look at the puzzles somewhat differently. I’m getting better at seeing the relationship of rows and columns and squares, and looking at all three simultaneously to discover which digit is missing from a particular sequence.

Of course the first puzzles are easier to solve. They have more digits given at the outset, so it’s a little easier to figure out what digits are missing and where they should fit. The harder puzzles have fewer digits, require closer observation and reasoning. Some of the puzzles I’ve done by making an educated guess and trying out a theory to see if it works, and when it fails I’ve had to unravel what I’ve done and try again.

Just like life.

In the early days of my testimony, I was concentrated on one row or one column, finding digits to fill in gaps and feeling pretty good about my progress. As I’ve matured spiritually and intellectually, I’ve come to see nuances I did not notice before. I don’t fault others for my lack of nuance. It wasn’t that I wasn’t taught about four first vision accounts, but that I first had to wrestle with the concept of the first vision before I could worry about different accounts. It wasn’t a question of peep stones in a hat versus “reading” the plates, but first the whole idea of divine “translation” regardless of the method.

As I have grown up in my spiritual understanding, I’ve also gotten a different sense over time about the relative importance of details compared with story arcs. When I concentrated on just one line or column, getting the right digit was easy, but it was also more important. When I’m looking at the whole puzzle, it’s more like fitting a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Yes, the detail (the digit) is important, but what really matters is how the whole puzzle looks, not just one row or column. In my testimony, a particular fact or detail is still important, but as a part of a whole.

As a result, I can view a volume of scripture like the Book of Mormon in a variety of ways. First and foremost it is what it says it is: a testimony of Jesus Christ. (Even before we printed that on the cover it was clear from the title page and from most of 1 Nephi that’s what it was.) It’s no surprise to me that the record begins with a spiritual account rather than a historical one. (Never mind what Mormon’s plates did; I can only examine what I have in the final product.) The spiritual witness trumps the historicity of the book. (I don’t doubt the historicity, by the way; I do not read the book as totally allegorical, but I also am less concerned with examing finer points of geography and history and comparing them to the archeological record.)

Another thing that is true for me about the Sudoku puzzles is that I can look at the same collection of digits and see different things at different times. In one review, I can’t figure out how to put the digits together, and the next time I work my way through the puzzle I suddenly see something I hadn’t before, and the next part of the solution appears. That’s true for my testimony, as well.

I’ve had significant moments in my development of testimony where items I’ve held on the shelf for years have suddenly found resolution. Sometimes it’s because of new information that I learn, or a new way of looking at old information. Other times it’s simply (like it’s really simple!) a spiritual confirmation that I had previously lacked. For me it often comes when I am not looking for it, but always when I am looking. That is, often long-awaited answers come in the normal course of my spiritual development, while I’m on the path, trying to move closer to my Father in Heaven. I don’t remember their ever coming when I’ve been defiant or angry or out to prove someone wrong.

I’ve written before that I’m on a faith journey, and it is far from over. I am not one of those who will lightly say that all is well. As good as things are (and many, many things in my spiritual life are very good), all is not well. I have plenty of concerns for myself and for people I love. I still have plenty of unanswered questions. Some, I suspect, will not be answered until I get to attend Advance Gospel Principles in the next life. Some will undoubtedly be resolved in my normal course of study and prayer. But the presence of questions does not prevent my moving forward along my path, mostly because I remember the tender mercies of the past; I remember answers I have received, some dramatic and some not so much, but answers all the same.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On Being One

In yesterday’s High Priest group meeting, one of our members led us in a discussion of Chapter 16 in our Lorenzo Snow manual.

Much of our discussion focused on how we could encourage our ward family to be “one” and how we could “one” in our families at home. We talked about ideas like socializing as a ward, going to the temple together, and other activities that would encourage us to spend time together as ward. The implicit suggestion was that if we spend time together, we will know one another better, and therefore we will get along better.

Generally, I think those are great ideas. When our ward boundaries changed during my term of service as bishop, we ended up in a new ward that had half its members from our old ward and half from another ward. My counselors and I worked with the ward council to figure out ways to get members to cross the road (literally and metaphorically) that had been the border between the two wards in order to help people get to know one another in the hopes that once they did, the members’ normal inclinations toward love and service would kick in. (By the way, it worked. I think it took about a year for the transition to be complete.)

As we talked about being one in our families, I had a little bit of a brain sprinkle (not quite enough for a brain storm). I reflected on kids I’d known in my youth whose parents had divorced. Several of these kids had very strong feelings about who was the “good” parent and who was the “bad” one. Those families had a serious lack of unity. I then thought about our political process in the United States; it’s based on an adversarial relationship between parties and relies on that tension to drive us to the best political solutions through debate and compromise. In both of these situations (broken families and our political system), there is a lack of unity. And I think it is because we do not unify ourselves well around a person.

In an adversarial marriage, parents may try to court and win favor of their children to win them to one side or the other in the marriage disputes. Certainly political parties attempt to rally support for their candidate, and sometimes political loyalists may give even grudging support, but there is almost never universal support for a candidate or a position.

When the Savior prayed for unity among His followers, he sought that His disciples would be one as He and His Father are One – unified in gospel purpose, understanding and spirit.

We may mistakenly believe that being unified means we always agree. A unified ward council may still have vigorous discussion, and even disagreement, on the way to a decision. We do not line up behind the bishop simply because he is the bishop. But when the bishop speaks with inspiration, a unified ward council will know it and will stand behind him, because he stands behind the Lord.

Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians about husbands and wives is just as much about a husband’s need to follow the Savior as a wife’s need to follow her husband. The wife is not uniting under her husband, but she and her husband are uniting under Christ.

I suppose the Primary gets it right again. We will be one when we really are Trying to Be Like Jesus.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On reading a new copy of the Book of Mormon

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the Book of Mormon. I imagine (conservatively) that we’ve read it at least a dozen times as a family (taking into account years when our children were willing participants in family scripture study and some years when surly teenagers drove our “daily reading” to be a verse long). And I’ve read it at least every four years as part of the Sunday School curriculum. And I taught Book of Mormon in seminary over 25 years ago. And in Institute within the last ten years. And I’ve read it on my own, apart from all those assignments, as well.

In any case, I’ve read it lots of times. And in lots of ways. Over a decade ago, I set out to read it over a weekend (and succeeded). Other times, I’ve labored through a few pages a day or a chapter a day. I’ve read paper copies and electronic copies. I love marking as I read, and part of the sport of reading the same copy more than once is trying to figure out what I was thinking when I wrote a particular note in the margins, and seeing what verses moved me (or didn’t) in a given reading.

I remember hearing when I was at BYU years ago that President Kimball used to read and mark paper copies of the Book of Mormon and then give them to his grandchildren as gifts. I have no way of verifying that story, but it would be cool to see what he thought was important for one reading or another.

I mentioned in a recent post that I’m teaching Book of Mormon in seminary this year, and I think I’ll read the book four times this year, somewhat simultaneously. I’m reading now, preparing for the new school year (which starts in a couple of weeks). I won’t finish by the time the year starts, but I’ll continue my early morning reading pace during the school year and finish my “base” reading part-way through the year. Each Sunday I’m preparing a week’s worth of seminary lessons, and I re-read to prepare those lessons. I’m several weeks into the year and hope to keep about a month ahead of my class in those preparations. (I have no idea if I’ll succeed; one Sunday it took me far longer to prepare just one lesson, let alone four, so we’ll see…)

As I teach, I’ll need to review the chapter I’m teaching the day before I teach as I review my pre-prepared lesson plan and make adjustments.

And we’ll be starting another round of the Book of Mormon in our family scripture reading; we’ll read about a chapter a day, probably, and we probably won’t finish the Book of Mormon during the school year because we often miss family reading on weekends, and sometimes the timing requires us to read just a part of a chapter, either because we chat about what we read, or we get started too late. (This year leaving on time is more important since I’m teaching seminary and can’t be late.)

It will be a blast to do these multiple readings, to immerse myself into this great book.

I’m working from a new cheap paper-back copy of the Book of Mormon. It was unmarked when I started. I just began Jacob yesterday, and there are plenty of notes, underscores, scripture chains, cross references, questions and highlights already. There is something exciting about a new book of scripture, not yet marked at all. Of course I like my familiar markings, but this is my second time to start “fresh” in a few years (the last was when I started doing family scripture reading on my Kindle version). I like the fact that I have a clean slate, independent of old lessons and thoughts. It allows me to make new connections, particularly as I prepare to teach a group of seminary students. I am praying for help to notice things that will be important and relevant to them and to their growing testimonies.

When’s the last time you read a “fresh” copy of the Book of Mormon? Did you learn anything new? I’d be interested in your experience.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I’m back.

I’ve been on a self-imposed hiatus. There was some vacation time, some minor surgery, adjusting to my new seminary calling, and some other things going on.

Life does that, of course. It jumps up and surprises us in a variety of ways and sometimes it takes us a little bit of time to find our balance again.


There are two images that come to mind. One is of a teeter-totter balancing on a fulcrum. We try to keep the right side and the left side even so that it stays in balance. As weight is added to one side, we need to add it to the other, and the same as weight is taken away. This is a really difficult and tedious process that requires us to monitor two things at once (instead of just one), to measure not only each action, but its consequences.

The other is a bicycle on a wire. The rims of the wheels of the bicycle fit over the wire, and there is a substantial counterweight under the bicycle. The counterweight is heavy enough to give the bicycle stability on the wire, even if the lateral pressure is inconsistent.

If I had to choose, I’d prefer the balance of the bicycle to the balance of the teeter-totter. The counterweight is what makes all the difference.

As I’ve thought about the past few weeks, I’ve appreciated the counterweight of the gospel in my life. It has provided me stability. It has centered me when I needed it the most. And that is, for me, one of the greatest blessings of the gospel in my life.

My last few weeks have not been burdensome. The vacation was terrific. The surgery and subsequent recovery were necessary and uneventful (meaning it all went as planned). The new calling to teach seminary, while overwhelming, is spectacular.

Owing largely to the seminary calling, I’ve begun a new study of the Book of Mormon. Taking a cue from our new mission president, who happened to pop into our seminary in-service meeting a few weeks ago, I bought a new paper copy of the Book of Mormon to study for this year. As I read 1 Nephi 1:20 (one of my favorite verses in the Book of Mormon long before Elder Bednar made it famous), I was touched again by the talk of tender mercies.

Moroni 10:3 also talks about God’s mercy to His children. In Nephi, we’re promised to read of the Lord’s tender mercies to those who believe in Him. In Moroni, we’re counseled to remember how merciful God has been to the children of men from the time of Adam. I’ve been noting tender mercies in my reading of the Book of Mormon, and how Nephi and Lehi both use them regularly in their teaching.

Those tender mercies in my life – the ones I recognize in my own life and in God’s relationship with man from the beginning – are the counterbalance in my life; they help keep me centered. They keep me balanced.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A flood of seminary

I am returning to teach seminary again in the fall.  (I’d posted before that I was helping the final quarter of last year’s class.)  I’ve got to say that I’m very excited and quite overwhelmed.

Seminary is a little like Scouting.  You could spend your entire life training!  (Those of you who have served in Scouting know that the BSA has an awesome ability to train, train, train!  And the training is quite good and valuable, but it is time consuming!)  Seminary is no different.  In addition to the inservice meetings (we had our big summer meeting already) there are monthly inservice meetings.  And there are online resources.  And there are a jazillion websites where other seminary teachers have posted their terrific ideas.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

And I’m there.

As I’ve been preparing to teach this fall, a few thoughts have resonated with me:

First, a reminder from the CES administrator who was responsible for me the first time I taught seminary nearly 30 years ago.  He taught us regularly that we teach the scriptures.  We do not teach from the scriptures or about the scriptures, but we teach the scriptures.  That’s good news for me since I love the scriptures.

The latest counsel from CES is very similar:  “We teach students the doctrines and principles of the gospel as found in the scriptures and the words of the prophets” (Gospel Teaching and Learning, p. x).

Second, I love the Book of Mormon.  That’s our text this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.  The Book of Mormon practically teaches itself.  It has been such an influential book in my own conversion to Jesus Christ and His gospel, and I yearn to share that with my students. 

At a recent family reunion there were several of us who either have recently or will soon teach seminary, we talked about logistics and planning, lesson preparation, scripture study, making connections, teaching doctrines, leading discussions.  It was awesome to think about this great work of helping our youth to understand and rely on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and to prepare to return home one day.

My own seminary experience was spotty.  I began with early morning seminary, but demographics and travel patterns in my ward made it so that we moved to home study seminary in my second year.  I stayed diligent in home study for two and a half years, but fizzled out at the end and never finished.  I regret that I could not continue attending an early morning class, as I really enjoyed it.  I regret that I did not have the discipline to finish home study (despite the heroic efforts of my teacher who gave me every possible chance to catch up).

When I was bishop speaking at those beginning of the school year seminary firesides, I would tell the youth I fell in love with my wife because she was a seminary graduate.  That’s probably not the only reason, but my wife’s commitment to the gospel was surely influenced by her participation in seminary, and her faith was certainly attractive to me.

As I spend the rest of the summer cramming scripture study, scripture masteries, lesson plans and teacher training all into my very human brain, I will rely on the Lord to guide my efforts and qualify me for the work He’s called me to do.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Testimony and Faith Journeys

As I think about my membership in the LDS church (nearly 37 years now), I realize that I have been on quite a path. Although there are times when I have felt completely secure in my relationship with God and in my trust in my church, I also realize that there are times when I have felt far more vulnerable than I would have liked.

I reflect on this subject this week because of the NYT article making the rounds.  I should point out that there are some excellent responses to this article, including this one at BCC  and this one at BYU Studies.

What occurred to me, however, is that just like Brother Mattsson, featured in the NTY article, each of us is on a faith journey. (The idea isn’t completely my own. I was spurred to this thought by this article written by a friend some time ago and shared with me this week.)

In some ways it is appropriate that I ponder my faith journey during the same week we celebrate a journey of another sort by Mormon pioneers who made their way to the Intermountain West where they could (for a time at least) be free of the persecution they had known in Kirtland, Missouri and Nauvoo. The pioneers, of course, traveled a path of physical, emotional and (I imagine, at least) spiritual hardship, as they physically tested their commitment to the gospel and the prophet Brigham. Their sacrifice was tangible and in many cases terrible, leaving possessions, family members either behind or along the way. Families were separated by circumstance, by service in the Mormon Battalion and in some cases by death.

I am a convert to the church; although I have American pioneers in my heritage, I do not have Mormon pioneers. My pioneer ancestors went to the Pacific Northwest primarily for economic reasons, and while they worked hard to go, they did not suffer the persecution of the Mormon pioneers. My wife’s ancestors, on the other hand, included Mormon pioneers, some of whom suffered greatly in their journey. My wife reflected early in our marriage that she did not think she could have endured the trials of her Mormon pioneer ancestors.

Harold B. Lee is often quoted as saying that in our day we will likely face different tests of our faith from those of the pioneers. While they faced physical challenges, we will face challenges of sophistication. In addition to challenges of sophistication (and some may include the issues highlighted in the NYT article in that mix), I think we have other trials of our faith that may well be common to other generations. That has certainly been my experience.

My challenges of sophistication – that is a scholarly set of questions that I had not encountered in seminary and Sunday School – came early in my career at BYU, when I had a roommate who invited me to address a series of questions he’d learned from his father who was in the process of leaving the church. That experience was critical in my development of a stronger testimony of the gospel. During that year I learned how I could approach questions of our history (and I enjoyed the resources of BYU’s library and one particularly helpful faculty member to do it; I don’t know how I could have done that far from BYU in the pre-internet age). And I had a number of other spiritual experiences unrelated to those questions that reinforced the testimony I brought with me to BYU. That combination helped me through a period that could otherwise have significantly challenged my faith. I learned not only answers to many questions, but also HOW to answer questions in the future (and how to wait when answers were not immediately available).

But those are not the only challenges to my faith. Part of my faith journey includes other trials of faith that come up in everyone’s life: sought-after blessings that may have been slow to appear, children who chose different paths and so on. Life is simply not easy. When what we perceive to be righteous desires are slow to be realized, it can challenge us – at least it has challenged me. Knowing that no success can compensate for failure in the home gives me pause when I know that my home is not perfect. Learning to pray to understand God’s will rather than to present Him a list of my wishes is a lesson that took me decades to learn. In these trials, I suppose perhaps I have kinship with those Mormon pioneers who may not have consciously signed up for the journey they ultimately took.

I think about testimony meetings, where we’re invited to share briefly what we know or believe and how we’ve come to know it. Of course those testimonies are often point-in-time snapshots along our life’s journey of faith, a journey that is often complex and even uncertain. As for me, I am now experiencing mine one day at a time, grateful for where I am today.