Saturday, February 27, 2010

On Giving and Receiving Correction

I served in a position in the church where I was under the direct supervision of our stake president. I had for years admired our stake president, even long before he had that calling. He was humble and kind. He knew adversity in his life and he also knew the joy of doing things the Lord's way.

When he was my "file" leader, from time to time he had to correct me. That was part of what I expected as he trained and led me, and I'm fortunate that he saw it as his responsibility, as well. I remember on one occasion in particular, he asked to speak with me after a meeting I'd conducted. He thanked me for what I had said in that meeting, and then very clearly pointed out where I'd gone afoul of specific instructions he'd given in a recent training meeting. And yet, he did it with such love that I was happy to hear his feedback, even though I was embarrassed that he had to give it to me. But, sensing that reaction in me, he also put me at ease and let me know that he loved me (and I knew he did).

It was, as far as I can tell, a near perfect execution of D&C 121:43 ("Reproving betimes with sharpness…"): his correction came immediately after the meeting where I had made a mistake, his instructions were very clear and fact-based (no emotions), and he showed a great deal of love before and after his correction, both in our conversation and in his actions long after the meeting.

In our lives we are sometimes in a position to offer correction to others. Perhaps, as in the case of my stake president, it is because of our leadership calling. Perhaps it's because we're parents. I think my stake president's example is instructive in a variety of situations.

There are times when we might want to offer correction and it's not our place to do so. We may be critical of something someone else is doing. We may know a better way. We may be certain that they are out of touch with the latest direction / counsel / fashion / trend. What to do then? I suppose one possibility is to invoke the lessons of steadying the ark (2 Samuel 6:6-7). Uzzah put forth his hand to steady the ark when he thought it might fall. He was not called to do so, and he was struck dead. On the opposite end of the continuum is to offer our opinions freely to all who will listen.

I try (but do not always succeed) to err on the side of caution when it comes to offering correction, particularly in a church setting. We're all volunteers, after all, and we're all trying to do our best. But I think of my experience with my stake president: I was grateful for his correction, and I needed it, too. I can think of times when my concern for how someone might respond kept me from offering correction when it was due. In so doing, perhaps I feared man more than God.

In my family, I probably could be more gentle, and I am now more gentle than I used to be. I had a friend with whom I served who suggested that some of us were "old sarges" when it came to correcting our children. His view was sarges were probably good for boot camp, but not for scout leaders or fathers. Some of my kids probably thought I was an old sarge, and they'd probably agree with my friend, as I do.

When it comes to offering correction when it's none of my business, I need to overcome the urge to gossip. My wife is quite good at gently reminding me (mostly by her example) to keep my mouth shut.

Have you had a particularly positive experience receiving or giving correction?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why do we obey?

I remember as a child reading scripture stories with my father. We read from an old book of Bible stories (I think there were two: one for the Old Testament and one for the New) with wonderful illustrations for each story. The book had been my father's father's as a child, I think. (Or so I thought at the time; the book was too old to me to have just been my father's.)

I don't recall any specific story or picture now so many years later, but my memory is of fantastic, almost scary pictures, depicting an "angry" God of the Old Testament. Whether right or wrong, that sense of an angry God shaped my thinking about the God of the Old Testament for years to come. The movie The Ten Commandments added to that image for me as a child, painted the Old Testament God as powerful and willing to destroy the wicked to save His chosen people. In fact, now I don't believe that view.

When I was on my mission, I read the Old Testament for the first time. I was frankly surprised to read as much about the love of God as I did in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Yes, there are other stories that seem to paint a picture of an angry God: Sodom and Gommorah in which Abraham bargains not to have a city destroyed; Job in which God allows Job to suffer; Joseph's being cast into prison even after making the right choice and running from Potiphar's wife; and stories of non-believers being, as a friend of mine in college used to say, "zapped." But those first two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor, are also clear.

In the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, a different picture of God emerged for me. First, influenced by Joseph's experience in the sacred grove, I understood the difference between God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ – that they were two distinct beings. Further I came to understand that Jesus Christ is the Jehovah of the Old Testament. And taking the New Testament and the Book of Mormon together, I came to understand Him as a loving God, as is His Father.

In John, the Savior teaches, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (14:15). That there are blessings for obedience to the Lord's commandments is clear, and that lesson is taught in each volume of scripture. While the unschooled children of Israel may have been taught to fear God, and obeyed against the risk of apparent punishment, the higher law teaches us that we obey out of the motivation of the first great commandment, that we love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength.

We live in an economic world which rewards hard work and ingenuity; discipline leads us to success in school and success in the world around us. We look to titans of industry as our role models for economic advancement. And it is not without precedent for religious people also to assume that our good works will yield blessings (and also its converse, that an absence of righteousness may yield misfortune).

Careful observation of the world, however, makes clear that righteousness alone is not the determining factor in garnering the riches of this world. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Plenty of unrighteous people make plenty of money, and plenty of righteous people don't.

Some may say that we obey in order to receive a better reward in the next life. While our obedience may lead to more blessings, King Benjamin taught that as soon as we obey the Lord blesses us. Now the Savior did teach that we should lay up treasures in Heaven, not on earth, but again, those Heavenly treasures, though the result of our obedience to His law, should not be our motivation.

Having said that, we're all on a path. And we're all at different places on that path. One of us may be content to obey out love with no thought of other benefit. Another might need some evidence of the wisdom of obedience first, and, after living the law may then develop the more pure love of God (John 7:14 suggests this is possible).

I remember sitting in a discussion in an elders quorum years and years ago. I had just finished my freshman year of college, and I had all the wisdom of a kid who had been ordained for about five months. In the quorum, they were talking about how to encourage more home teaching, and there were many practical ideas, such as encouraging home teaching companions (especially adults and youth paired together) to share an ice cream cone after doing their visits. Thinking back, it was a great suggestion. Not only would it provide a pleasant cap to an evening of visits, but it might encourage an informal relationship between junior and senior companions that could benefit the junior companion in the long run. Well, at the time, filled with idealism and a fair amount of self righteousness, I suggested that we shouldn't need ice cream to reward us for a job well done, that we ought to be motivated by our love for the Lord.

I was right on one level, of course. Our motivation for obedience should be our love for the Lord. But our other motivation should be that second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves. And in showing love to our neighbor, we might also eat an ice cream cone or two.

Why do you obey?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I've been sick -- and what it's taught me about the atonement

I've been sick – a Lesson in the Atonement

It's been a bad week. A recurring sickness caught up with me again this week. When it comes, it's a few days of fever and chills, infection and soreness. There are trips to the doctor for injections of antibiotics as well as plenty of ibuprofen and oral antibiotics. And bed rest. And in the first day or two the inevitable feeling that I will never ever get well.

Of course I do get well. I have every time I have one of these bouts. Some have been worse than others (two hospitalizations for IV antibiotics in twenty five years; and one particularly unpleasant trip to an urgent care center a few years ago), and some better, meaning they pass by more quickly. But every time I get sick with one of these, I go through at least a little while where I assume I will not get better. Not ever.

I can't quite explain my reaction. In my head I know that antibiotics and bed rest will do the trick. But something in my fever-rattled brain doesn't believe it.

I think that straying from the straight and narrow has a similar effect. Those of us who try to do what is right, try to make good choices, try to live the gospel know that the atonement is there for all of us. We know (as someone in church today said) the atonement has already happened – it's not some future event that might happen. It's already taken place. So in our heads we know that forgiveness is possible and we can find our way back.

We know if we stray from the path, there are things to be done. First, stop. Second, turn around (that is, repent) and get back on the path.

Why then, is coming back to the path such a challenge? I think it's because of a few things. An object in motion tends to stay in motion. So once we've strayed it's hard to stop and turn around. Sometimes it feels like we're an ocean liner trying to turn around. But even more I think it's the adversary's plan compared with the Savior's.

The Savior tells us what we should and should not do in order to be happy (those commandments). The adversary, Satan, tells us that the commandments are silly and they restrict our freedom. When we break a commandment, the Savior still loves us (and that love is what prompted His ultimate sacrifice), and provides us a way to return. Satan (the great liar), however, tells us we are beyond forgiveness, we are what we are, and we can't change.

A friend says the Lord's plan is to bind us so we can be free (bind us by covenants and commandments), while Satan's plan is to free us so we can be bound (that is, he "allows" us to do whatever he wants, and thereby binds us to our sin, and even addictions).

In the end, our hearts need to believe that the atonement will work for us to try. I've been fortunate to be able to point to examples in my own life and in others' lives where the atonement has made a difference, where change has been possible, where improvement comes. The atonement is a startling gift to me sometimes. I really do stand all amazed at the love the Savior has shown us by his singular sacrifice.

But I also know to enjoy its blessings we must stop and turn to Him, we must forsake our sin and return to His path, the one He prescribed for us. And when we do, our hearts are light, for His burden is light, just as He promised.

- Paul

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Help Thou Mine Unbelief -- the Question of Faith

I remember a Sunday School teacher from my youth who confided that although we probably shouldn't have favorite general authorities, she suspected that at least one reason to have so many is that different leaders speak differently and appeal to us in different ways. She said she did have favorites. And so do I.

One of my favorites had long been Elder Faust. His own self-deprecating stories were as endearing as they were instructive. And he touched specific subjects that seemed to touch my heart at just the right time.

One was a landmark talk to me: Lord, I Believe; Help Thou Mine Unbelief. In it he broaches a subject that at the time was dear to me because of how I was serving in the church at the time, in a capacity to counsel others who seemed to lack faith.

But the talk also spoke to my own sense of inadequacy. The story from which his title comes is from Mark 9. A father brings his son first to Jesus' disciples, then finally to Jesus for healing. Jesus tells the father, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (v. 23-24).

I can so identify with this father, who wanted his son to be healed, even if he did not understand how it should happen. That he replies "straightway" says to me that he wants to answer correctly so that the Lord will bless his son, even though he may still have doubts. Then the honest and humble plea: "Help thou mine unbelief."

There's a thread over at Mormon Matters on priesthood blessings, and some great discussion about the faith of priesthood holders who perform the blessings and those who receive them. I'm touched with the honesty of good worthy men who admit that they do not know everything there is to know, and who may not understand their own faith in these matters. And I empathize with them.

I have been fortunate in my life to have been blessed with faith. I believe it has come to me as a gift, and I do not know why I have it and others do not. A very close friend from my college days took a path very different from my own because of his faith. We walked part of our path together; we read similar things, asked similar questions, prayed similar prayers (often together) yet his heart took him one way and mine took me another. I have written about the fact that some of my children have chosen other paths than the one I am on. Some of those children were quite earnest in their seeking at one point in their lives.

I have great respect for those who develop faith and act on it and see it grow in their lives. But I also have great respect –- in fact maybe more -- for those whose faith is smaller, who do not have what they would consider remarkable experiences, and still move forward, putting one foot in front of the other as they walk the straight and narrow path.

I've commented before that we have different spiritual gifts. As a result, I hope that we are sensitive to the fact that we will not all have the same spiritual experiences. And hopefully knowing that our spiritual experiences are unique and precious, we will protect them and display them with care, sharing them when prompted to do so, but in a way to strengthen and lift others, not to boast.

Further I would suggest that when we encounter another whose faith is not as strong, we dare not assume why that is. The discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 or Doctrine and Covenants 42 does not include a worthiness clause. We should not assume that father in Mark needed help with his unbelief because he was lazy or unworthy. That father had already carried his son first to the Lord's disciples and then, very publicly, to the Lord Himself. He clearly was willing to do something to gain the blessing he sought for his son.

That the Lord can help our unbelief is a great comfort to me, knowing there have been times in my life when I have felt unequal to the task I faced, and hoping and believing, even with imperfect faith, that the Lord could make up the difference between what I could offer and what was required.

- Paul

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Nod to Valentine's Day: True Love

In a nod to the season, a comment on True Love:

I don't have a huge data sample but I've been fortunate to observe what I think is "true love".

I don't have to look much farther than my own marriage, but I see it in others' marriages, too, so I don't think I'm alone in what I'm about to write.

My lovely wife and I have been married almost 30 years (this coming June). That statistic is pretty cool, but not terribly unusual among my circle of friends (many of whom are not LDS). And there are lots of reasons for people to stay together through thick and thin, but the biggest reason we do, I think, is that we love each other.

When my wife and I were dating (we met at age 17 and started dating, saw one another every day from the time we met through our freshman year at BYU, wrote (but not every week) through my mission, and married when I came home. I had known her for about three weeks when I started to feel like she was "the one" for me. (In fairness, my lovely wife, more conservative than I was, took longer to be convinced. And even so, we didn't ever discuss long term commitments before my mission – not that we said we wouldn't, it just didn't come up.)

How did I know? Well, aside from just having a great time whenever she was around, I think it was that she made me want to be better than I would have been without her. I guess that might sound kind of sappy in a 1940's Hollywood Love Story kind of way, but it's true. (I used to joke with youth when I was in a position to do so that I married my wife because she was a seminary graduate. Though that wasn't strictly my thought process, the principle was right. I knew she was good and kind and she had graduated seminary (and I hadn't; maybe that's why she took longer to decide whether to take a chance on me…). I could tell that she was going where I wanted to go, and fortunately she let me come along with her.)

When my son got married last year, we sat in the kitchen of his bride's parents the day before the wedding, and I was telling the bride's dad that one of the reasons we were so happy about this wedding is that our son is just a better person when he's around his bride. Her dad looked at me and said, "We were just talking yesterday and observed the same thing about B."

So with my sample of two, I've counseled my other kids to look for someone who makes them better than they are. And someone for whom they do the same thing.

- Paul

PS: Feb 14 is also Chinese New Year. Xin nian kuai le!)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Science and Religion – Can't we just all get along?


I had a friend a few years ago who suggested that he needed empirical evidence for anything he was to believe. Further, he suggested, science had, by then (I think this was the late 1980's) pretty much discovered everything there was to know.

So, my friend was a little short-sighted on both counts, I think. Clearly new things have been discovered since the late 1980's (Hubble telescope, Mars rovers, laser eye surgery, dismissal of Pluto as a planet...). And there are surely still things to be discovered. But he did highlight dramatically a tendency in humans: we think we know it all.

Which brings me to his second bit of shortsightedness, namely the need for empirical evidence for everything. I live differently. In some aspects of my life, I live by faith. Now, I like my gravity as much as the next guy. And I like the regularity with which the electricity in my house works. But I have to take on faith that my teenager will come home on time the first time he takes the car on his own. And I exercise faith in a whole range of religious pursuits.

I don't see a conflict with empirical evidence on the one hand and faith on the other. In some cases, one leads to another (the more often my teenager comes home on time, the more I trust him). In other cases the link may not be as strong. But I still rely on both.


My eighth grader came home a few months ago talking in favor of creation science (aka Intelligent Design) – that odd interpretation of scientific events that supports a six-day creation timeline and a 6,000 year old earth. Apparently he has a couple of friends at school who are evangelical Christians and they were sharing all they knew about creation science and why it makes so much more sense than Darwin.

I was dumbfounded. And I wasn't. When I was in ninth grade, we learned about Darwin and evolution in biology. My gut reaction was to oppose it. No one at home had told me to, but I lived in a conservative town with lots of religious folks, and there was plenty of chatter among my classmates and in the media opposing the idea of evolution, especially the evolution of man.

So I understood the idea that a kid who hasn't been around the block yet might resist the idea of evolution, especially if he has religious friends who show him an alternative. He and I argued creation science (he in favor, I opposed), but there's not a lot you can do to reason with an eighth grader, especially when you're just the dumb dad.


Another blog
cited a bit of work in a science class at BYU-I which asked students to respond to questions about the age of the earth and the King Follett address by Joseph Smith. I don't know any more about the science class than that it included these questions and apparently included at least some discussion of Joseph Smith's doctrinal teaching in a science class.

That seemed odd to me, as my view is that science class is for science and religion class is for religion. Now I suppose it's possible this class was a survey of religious topics in science, but the blogger referred to it as his "online science class at BYU-I."

Tying it all together: I'm a big fan of religion in general, and huge fan of Mormonism, specifically. I'm an active, practicing Mormon and I sustain my church leaders (and have served myself in leadership positions).

I'm also a fan of science. I admire those who work their whole lives to make sense of our world from a scientific point of view. I'm a little in awe of them because I did not have the discipline as a young man to master those subjects (though had I had the discipline, I suspect I could have). I'm grateful for the practical advances and continuing discovery in science.

I don't believe that the scientific world and the religious world are mutually exclusive, nor do I believe they are necessarily in conflict with one another, even if the methods of observation may differ between the two. I acknowledge that there are plenty of scientists who do not believe in God, but there are plenty of non-scientists who don't believe in God either.

But I am frustrated by the desire of some to superimpose religious teaching on top of scientific discovery. I mean those who would teach Intelligent Design in the classroom. And I mean those who mix religious doctrine with science in the university classroom. (Note, I am not criticizing the BYU-I curriculum; I don't know enough about it to know why those two subjects were mixed in the online course of the blogger. Nor am I suggesting that a science course may not also discuss ethical or even spiritual things, as long as it labels them as such.)

I do not believe that religion needs to defend itself in the face of science or that it needs to rewrite science to suit itself. Doing so smacks of the acts of the church at the time of Galileo. At the same time, assuming we have the final word on many scientific subjects is also naïve. But until we disprove the assumptions we have, assumptions that offer credible scientific explanations, we ought not to pretend they are wrong.

I am grateful for great scientists who are also believers who have helped to bridge the gap. I appreciate that there may be some who study science and lose faith in the process, but I'm also aware that there are others who study science and have their faith strengthened.

My teenagers helped me long ago realize that I don't know everything (that is why we have them – teenagers – isn't it?), so I'm not overly troubled by scientific discovery that does not immediately confirm revealed truth. I can allow those two schools of thought to exist in my brain for now. In my own case, as I grew up a bit from my ninth-grade self, I realized that my slavish devotion to a literal six day period of creation was misguided: it did not reflect the teachings of my church or a correct understanding of scripture, and it was inconsistent with modern revelation. And as I've grown older still, I've come to realize that members of the Quorum of the Twelve themselves (including distinguished scientists) discussed (and even disagreed on) evolutionary theory.

To be sure there will be plenty of ethical issues with advances in science, but that is nothing new. And as a society we'll take those as they come, and hopefully those ethical decisions will be informed by eternal truths where possible. But let us not decry or ignore science because we fear it, or even worse because we lack the faith to embrace it.

- Paul

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Reading Backwards

A while ago (I can't remember exactly when, but several years ago, anyway), I was ready to start another reading of the Book of Mormon. I determined to read it backwards.

Well, I couldn't read it completely backwards, so I started at the last chapter of Moroni, and read Chapter 10, then Chapter 9, and so on, until I finally arrived at 1 Nephi 1.

It was an interesting experience.

I came to the idea because a friend of mine had encouraged me to read it in the order in which it had been translated, presumably with 1 Nephi through Omni (the small plates) coming after the large plates (because of the lost 116 pages' covering similar ground). That reading was interesting, as well. (My friend, who had become disaffected with the church felt reading it in that order would demonstrate some developments about the treatment of the godhead had "evolved" in the translation of the book, implying that Joseph's view had changed throughout the work. I didn't reach the same conclusion as my friend.)

So, reading it "out of order" one way, I was intrigued to try a different approach. I also reasoned that by reading the chapters in reverse order, I might see each in a new light, rather than in the same narrative as when I read front-to-back. To be sure there were days when I still glossed through the narrative of the particular chapters I read. And there were days when I had to think harder to connect the narrative dots since I was taking things out of order. But there were also days when I focused more clearly, particularly in 3 Nephi during the chapters of the Savior's visit to the Nephites, and during my study of Jacob 5 and the allegory of the olive trees, and as I read Lehi's blessings to his children in 2 Nephi. Reading each chapter for itself allowed me to focus more on that chapter's experience or teaching or doctrine.

For me reading the Book of Mormon is not about great revelations of new truth each time. It is often reminding myself of what I've found before, or seeing connections between one discussion and another. A favorite activity when I read is to note something I'd written in the margins during a prior reading, and to try to sort out what I was thinking about then that might have prompted the note. Some are self-evident (like a subject marker such as baptism or the Holy Ghost, but others are less clear, like questions I might have asked at one time that don't seem like such questions anymore).

One of my favorite parts of scripture study now that I am older and have read (and studied, though I don't see those two as exactly the same) enough to be more familiar is to make connections from one passage to another that I previously had not made, either from my own memory, from comments of a speaker or teacher, from conversations with my family, just from the footnotes, or from supplemental resources. It's the ones that come out of my own memory that are most exciting to me, because it leads me to believe that I really am getting something out of the scriptures. But I'm grateful for all those interconnections that help me to weave my tapestry of understanding.

- Paul

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I'm a missionary, too?

Let's be clear from the start. I love the missionaries, and I'm grateful for what they do. My parents and siblings and I joined the church so many years ago after missionaries taught us. We had them in our home regularly, and my older brother and sister and I all served missions.

And I loved my mission, too. I served in Germany in the late 1970's, and yes, Germany was a tough place to serve, but like so many missionaries, I found it (because it was my mission) the best mission in the church (for me).

And I really like the concept of member missionary work. After all, those missionaries who taught us when I was a kid came after my friend invited me to Primary, and his family invited our family to FHE, and then his parents invited my parents to have the missionaries over. Our family's conversion was pretty directly the result of pretty amazing member missionary work.

So you'd think that I'd be out there spreading the gospel like a sprinkler spreads water, right?

Aye, there's the rub.

I've thought a lot about my own personal reluctance to open my mouth. Sorting this out is important to me because I do want to share the Good News I have found with others: I would like to help others find the happiness I have found in the church. So here's a list of why I'm often reluctant:

1. Many of my friends are deeply religious and active in their church already. I know that some might think this would be cause for believing the friends would make great church members. But I know how I feel about my church, and I know I'm not interested in moving elsewhere. So I'm reluctant to rock the boat with these friends.

2. My closest friends are already in the church. This is not as true as it once was, as I have consciously trying to build a network of friends outside the church. It's not that hard where I live, since I live in the Midwest where the concentration of church members isn't so great. But still it required my taking time away from other church social events in order to develop some relationships with my neighbors and parents of my kids' friends.

3. I am not a perfect example. I know this seems like a cop-out, since, after all, who is perfect anyway? But there was a time when we definitely would not have been comfortable having people taught in our home. Some of our kids at the time were making choices that seemed to drive the spirit away. Those things have calmed down a bit, so maybe this is one to be revisited.

4. I don't want to cast my pearls before swine. Now I'm not calling my friends swine, but I don't want to put my testimony, which is very precious to me, out on a table only to have someone whack it with a hammer. So I'm protective about how much I say and to whom (and even the circumstances of our conversation).

Of course, I'm also nervous, I fear rejection, and sometimes I just don't know what to say. But I overcame those feelings on my mission; I assume I could find a way to overcome them now.

So why talk about this? Because despite all of those things, I really do want to share the gospel. So here's what I do:

1. I do try to live the gospel. I'm not perfect, but I'm aspiring to be better than I am. (I have a friend who suggests that if we can avoid embarrassing the church by our behavior, that's a step in the right direction.)

2. I look for ways to invite people to things. I can invite someone to a special event (a talk, a baptism, a church activity) without a deep doctrinal discussion or a commitment to baptism. Interestingly while on a long business trip last month, I invited two different colleagues to church. And they both went, but not to mine – they each found their own denomination's meetings. At least they went somewhere, right?

3. Talk more freely about my church participation. This is actually a huge step for me. In the past I never mentioned church attendance or activities when I talked about my weekend, even though at the time I probably spent 10-12 hours at church on Sunday. Somewhere along the way I figured it was ok to talk about what I did. That wasn't a doctrinal discussion, but it sent a message that I was a church going guy.

It's interesting to me the opportunities these simple steps have given me to share, or at least acknowledge, the gospel. For instance, a former boss noticed that I don't swear at work, making me kind of unusual in my office. And there's the whole not drinking alcohol or coffee that leads to questions. Even then, however, I rarely dump the whole cart over; usually I give just enough information to answer the specific query, and if the person wants to ask more, he can.

As I invite and talk about my church participation, at least more people become aware of the church and my membership in it. I suppose theoretically, once that door is open, someone might come back and ask some questions. (Elder Clayton Christensen, an area seventy, wrote about this practice in an Ensign article a number of years ago.)

In fact that happened to me a few years ago. I was working with a person at my alma mater (not BYU) regarding recruiting for my company. We were setting up a room for a presentation and chatting about a range of shared interests that we had previously discovered. During the course of the conversation, I happened to mention my calling in the church at that time, and we chatted politely about what it was like to serve that way, and moved on. Later my friend came to me with specific questions about the church, and particularly the Book of Mormon. Over the course of several months, during which time we saw one another only sporadically, I shared with her a Book of Mormon and ultimately invited her to hear the missionary lessons. She said no, but was very gracious about it; she seemed to feel as if she were declining a precious gift I had offered her, but for her the timing was not right.

It turns out that experience was very positive and encouraging to me, even if it's end was different than I had hoped. Not so encouraging that I still don't have those concerns listed above, but encouraging enough for me to continue to open the door in conversations to see if my acquaintances will step in or not.

Happy to hear your thoughts.

- Paul

Thursday, February 4, 2010

More intructions for teachers

Russell T. Osguthorpe, General Sunday School president of the LDS Church, in a recent interview in the Church News talked about teaching and confirmed what I've been doing for years: Study the lesson, pray for inspiration, and teach by the spirit. What a concept! (This post is a follow up to an earlier post on this blog.)

There's been a fair amount of discussion recently about reminders regarding teaching in the church. I've reasoned for some time that "teaching from the manual" does not mean "ready, aim, read", but gives a teacher a lot of latitude in how to prepare and teach a lesson.

Like most people, I'm not wild about going into a class and having the class read together the entire lesson manual. That's not teaching, that's reading. Now I'm not the first to recognize that not all teachers are created equal, and for some, reading is the best we're going to get. And I'll try to be supportive and sustain those teachers, too, when I'm in their classes. But I much prefer someone who has carefully prepared a lesson around what the manual has to offer: studied the scriptures, read the manual, researched other pertinent talks or articles from church magazines, and perhaps, if it's appropriate, even included certain historical details and other commentary.

Brother Osguthorpe's recommendations allow for significant variance between a class of experienced adults and, say, young teenagers. And I say hooray, because I hope no one is trying to teach my 13 year old son the same way I'm being taught. (One of us is likely to be really bored, otherwise.)

And he allows for class discussion. To me, class discussion is discussion around the topic of the lesson, not hi-jacking the lesson time with a pet gospel question or issue. But discussion may reveal parts of the day's subject matter that require deeper examination, and a good teacher could agree to come back to those another week. The example he cites in his article is a class in which the teacher referred to her manual sparingly, and led a discussion consistent with the lesson, and who, at the end of the lesson, thanks the class for teaching one another.

I hope teachers will take Brother Osguthorpe's comments to heart and prepare well to teach in a manner that suits their class members and tailor lessons to their audiences. In fact, his whole focus is on improving teaching in the church and how that can be done. And I say, hooray! If we do improve teaching, our classes can be rich and rewarding discussions.

I will observe that I've been visiting a ward while traveling on business this past month. One of our teachers in particular did a super job of what Brother Osguthorpe recommends – preparing well and leading a discussion around the material. Class members were readily engaged, doctrine was taught and clarified, some questions were put off until later, and a red herring or two were thrown out in the discussion, but generally the class kept itself to the subjects at hand and was well taught. It was a pleasure to be in such a class.

I hope I can do as well the next time I teach (which will be in my Gospel Principles class this Sunday – yikes!).

- Paul

Monday, February 1, 2010

What do you do when your ward doesn't work?

First, a point of clarification: I don't intend to gripe, nor do I want to encourage griping.

But sometimes things don't go the way we'd like them to in our wards and branches. Maybe there's that member who gushes the same testimony each fast day. Maybe our home teachers haven't come in a year and a half. Maybe we wish the scouting program worked better for our kids. Maybe we worry that we need to talk with the bishop but we worry that he doesn't have enough time. Maybe we tire of poorly prepared and delivered lessons. Maybe… Well, you get the idea.

I think how we respond to these situations has a lot to do with how we feel in a particular ward. If we are constantly noticing the things that upset us, if we always have a better idea than those in charge, I suspect we're less likely to feel comfortable in the ward. On the other hand, it can be challenging to face the same issues week after week and ignore our own feelings.

I have an acquaintance who attends church in an inner city ward in a large US mid-western city. That ward is fortunate to have lots of converts. But that brings challenges as those new converts are invited to give talks or teach or serve in other ways. Often the opportunity to serve comes before lots of church experience, so sometimes non-LDS doctrine gets taught in sacrament meeting or in Primary. Sometimes people show up late and the order of speakers in sacrament meeting has to change on the fly. My friend is ok with all of that, saying that if we're going to be a missionary church we need to roll with the punches, and the fact that we have those issues is a great blessing because it means we have new members, and those new members will learn in time.

My own experience is that I need to be careful about how I share my views about what goes on at church around my kids. If they perceive that I complain, they complain. If they perceive that I'm judgmental, they are, too. If I find a more charitable way, they seem to, also. I'm sure they'll have plenty of examples of complainers in life, so I'd like to teach them a better way.

But having the more charitable attitude is helpful to me, too. When I have served in leadership positions in the past, I've been very grateful for the charity of members who looked past my flaws and saw my good intentions instead. And I was grateful for those who came and spoke frankly about concerns they had; sometimes I was unaware and needed feedback, and sometimes I was able to offer them new perspective that helped them understand differently than they had before.

I have an acquaintance who often uses the expression, "Assume positive intent." I think that's a good motto when it comes to fellow church servants. The church is remarkable in that one day you could be serving as bishop or Relief Society president and the next you can be leading the singing in Primary, or just the reverse. We fully expect people to rise to the callings they receive, and we believe that God will help them to do just that.

And faithful Latter-day Saints believe people serve because God has called them to do so. Griping about what so-and-so does as bishop seems to many to be taking God's role in the calling of so-and-so lightly. It is one of the wonders of the church in my mind that my normal good friend one day may be my bishop or quorum leader the next. And while he's still my good friend, I need to show him proper respect (and faith), too. Doing so helps me as much as it helps him.

And, of course, if there's egregious behavior, there are remedies. We can always appeal to presiding authority if we need to. I have done that in the past, having written about a particular situation to my stake president. In my letter I explained my concern, and I invited him to correct me if he needed to. He didn't contact me, so I assume he handled the matter. He mentioned the letter in an interview a year later, but only in passing, and we never discussed the matter after that.

In the end, it's probably not too pleasant to go to church where we feel uncomfortable. We ought to be refreshed and uplifted in church. For me, that process is easier when I approach others there with charity.