Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoughts on the Prodigal Son and His Brother

I've been fascinated with the story of the prodigal son for many years. You know it: one son asks for his share of his inheritance up front, goes out and fritters it away, and finally comes home to beg for work from his father rather than living with pigs. Upon his arrival, he's greeted by a jubilant father who throws a big party in honor of his return. The other brother who stayed home resents his father's fawning over the returned brother.

I guess it was in high school I started thinking about this story in earnest, considering the joy that came to father when the prodigal returned, and the relief that the prodigal must have felt when he was welcomed home. I assumed it was a pretty straight up story of repentance and redemption, and a cautionary tale to would-be judgemental brothers.

It was during college that I realized there might be an issue with the justice in the story: if the prodigal had already spent his inheritance, what was there for him, beside his father's joy? Was he then left only to work as a laborer? Did he have no more reward because he had squandered what was there? Was this a zero sum game: only so much inheritance to go around, and he had already spent his? If so, a cautionary tale to would-be prodigals: don't waste it now because you might not get it back.

Recently a friend got me thinking differently about the story, and helped me to see that it's not only about one brother or the other. It is also about both brothers. In the story I am the prodigal, for I do waste my gifts from time to time. And when I repent the Lord does welcome me home. I don't know how the economy of inheritance plays out, but I know that the atonement applies to me when I stray and then make an honest effort to return.

But in the story I am also the brother who stayed behind. He could not enter the feast because of the resentment he carried. If I want to enter that feast, I must be fully ready to forgive all who have wronged me (or who I've thought have wronged me, anyway). Indeed, I must be more like the father (what else is new?) and welcome the returning prodigals in my life with open arms and celebration. And I've got to overcome the feeling of injustice in the brother who stayed home.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sustaining my Wife

There's been a discussion of sustaining over at the By Common Consent blog, and its ramifications on church government. Though interesting to me, my most recent experience is more personal, and demonstrates the great opportunity that the act of sustaining someone to a calling has given me through the years, namely the chance to receive a confirming witness of the divinity of a particular call.

My wife was sustained to a new calling in our stake conference last Sunday. I had been there as the stake president issued the call. She and I had spoken in hushed tones over the two weeks between her receiving the call and being sustained. She told me of plans to meet with the women she'd serve with after they'd been sustained. I knew in all of this that she was well prepared and well suited to the calling she'd received, and I was glad for her to have this opportunity to serve and to bless others. I'd also had plenty of opportunities to feel the spirit as it related to her call. But I sensed this was her calling, and I didn't really need that spiritual witness.

Well it did come as her name was called in stake conference together with the other women with whom she'll serve, and as I raised my hand to sustain them. And that witness was sweet and gentle and clear. We weren't seated together at that moment (I was singing in the choir, and she was accompanying the choir on the piano), but she later reported she'd felt the same witness.

This isn't the first time that my act of sustaining -- which to me is a covenant to sustain -- has been supported by a spiritual witness. It has happened (sometimes) as I've sustained general authorities in general conference (even when the conference I'm participating in was half a world and and a week away from the original broadcast). It has happened as I've sustained my own counselors in a bishopric. It has happened as I've sustained my own local leaders as they've been called.

There may be many reasons for the sustaining vote in our meetings. One of them for me is the chance to feel again that spiritual witness that callings do come from the Lord.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Teaching the Restoration

I went out with the missionaries in my ward last week, and we taught a discussion on the restoration.

I love teaching that particular lesson. I always have. To me there is great power in the testimony of Joseph Smith regarding his experience in the grove and the restoration of the gospel.

I confess that my earliest testimony of the church was not focused on the restoration. It was focused (perhaps as it should be!) on the Savior as He is revealed in the Book of Mormon. And yes, I heard all those quips about how if you accept the Book of Mormon you must accept Joseph Smith as a prophet. Except that I didn't. Not because I actively did not believe his story. It just wasn't relevant to me (or at least as relevant as my Book of Mormon experience).

I joined the church with my family at nearly age 9. A year later we were in the Salt Lake Temple being sealed. Those two ordinance experiences were huge for me. I felt something when I was baptized, and I really felt something in the sealing room of the temple. I knew in my heart, with no intellectual understanding, that I was in a place that was good.

I was a pretty normal apathetic teen early on. I was not particularly rebellious and had pretty good friends, so I didn't get into trouble. And I went to church and was comfortable talking with adults, so I got along very well there. But my first brush with my own testimony, I think, besides those deep feelings in the baptismal font and the temple, came when my sister, who had just come home from being in the Hill Cumorah pageant, shared some thoughts about the Book of Mormon with me, and particularly her feelings about the Savior's visit to the Nephites.

The baptismal font/temple feeling came back as she spoke to me. And I began to notice it more in certain church meetings and when I read the Book of Mormon myself. Just before my senior year, I attended a youth conference (one of those I went to because my mom asked me to, not because I wanted to go) where I was particularly touched by a guest speaker in a priesthood meeting, and it was impossible for me to describe to anyone else at the time why it was so important to me (and when I tried, it seemed to cheapen the experience).

So I had this growing testimony of the Book of Mormon and of the Savior and of the church, but I was still nowhere as far as Joseph was concerned. Again, it's not that I did not believe he was a prophet. But having that testimony that he was just didn't seem that important to me at the time.

As a freshman at BYU I grew in my gospel maturity as I began to study more on my own, particularly with a friend whose dad had challenged the church for years. In the process of researching questions for myself, I came to a clear testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith, too. And so by the time I went on my mission the next year, I could with confidence testify about the events of the restoration. It would be years before I felt fully firm in my testimony as I continued to have some unanswered questions, but I grew to love the simple restoration story we taught as missionaries.

And I still enjoy it. And as I listened to one of the elders recite Joseph's words in our discussion last night, I felt that baptismal font / temple feeling again – that confirming witness of the restoration.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Story of Job

I attended a musical performance at my stake center last weekend, a musical performace (the program called it a "concertized musical") about the life of Job. The choir who performed was an all-volunteer choir called the Michigan Concert Choir (they are mostly, but not all, members of the church), and they performed quite well. The piece was written by a member of our stake (who said this had been in the works for twenty years!). It was certainly ambitious.

And it caused me to reflect on Job, which was the whole point.

Job, as you know, was successful – he had a large family, lands and wealth. The devil complains that of course Job praises God when things go well, but let's see how he does when things don't go so well. And he loses his children, his wealth, and his health. And still he praises God. He does not, as Satan would have him do, curse God and die.

I remember years ago reading a commentary on Job that wondered if the story really happened or if it was parable of sorts. The author suggested she could not believe in a God that would allow Job to be tested in the way he was just to prove a point. At the time I was almost swayed by her argument. Now I think it's ironic.

The whole point of Job's story (at least a point of Job's story) is for us to learn to take God on God's terms, to praise God come what may (or as Elder Wirthlin's mother taught him: "Come what may, and love it!"). For someone then to suggest that he or she "cannot accept a God who…" misses the plot completely.

I've known adversity in my life, but not Job's adversity. In fact, when I measure my life against the lives of many I know, I've been awfully fortunate. Just as Job's friends could not rightly claim his unrighteousness brought on his trials, I cannot claim that my good fortune is somehow a blessing for something I've done, except to be born into a family that valued education and gave me that opportunity so I could become well employed. I certainly acknowledge the Lord's blessings in my life, but I don't claim that I have done anything outstanding to be worthy of them.

Nor do I feel that the sadness that I've known comes directly from my own unrighteousness, either. I'm not perfect, so I suppose I am unrighteous. But I don't believe adversity works that way. (And Job didn't either).

In the end, of course, Job passes his test. He continues to praise God through his adversity, and all that was his is restored to him again. (Some worry about the replacement of his dead children, but if we look from a gospel perspective, we can assume those children who died are his in the eternities, as well.) As a metaphor for our earthly existence, we know that if we stay close to God and do as He has taught us that we can be with him again, and what we enjoyed in the premortal existence (that is, His presence) will also be restored to us.

One of my favorite verses from Job (spoken in the midst of his affliction, not after his deliverance) has found its way into many musical settings (though was spoken in the piece we saw the other night): "For I know that my redeemer liveth….In my flesh shall I see God" (Job 25:19-20). May we remember Job's testimony and take comfort in it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Taking Inventory

When I came home from my mission years ago, my first Sunday was ward conference, and my dad, who was on the high council, was one of the speakers. Dad had served on the high council for years and, frankly, as a youth I found his talks rather boring. But having experienced the same transformation that Mark Twain did, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much my dad had learned while I was away on my mission.

It was the late 1970's, and my folks had lived in Lagos, Nigeria during my mission in Germany; Dad's employment took him there, and they were able to witness the opening of West Africa to missionary work after the 1978 revelation on the priesthood.

My folks had joined the church in the late 1960's – I was nearly nine and was the youngest of four kids. My dad saw the church, among other things, as a means of protecting us kids against the changing mores in American society at the time. He and mom served faithfully in a series of callings since joining the church, and Dad landed on the high council within a few years of baptism, soon after our stake was formed.

In his talk in ward conference, my dad spoke about personal inventories. The topic was interesting to me as I was quite familiar with companionship inventories from my mission. During their time in Africa, my parents were the church. There was one other brother who would join them for a small sacrament meeting in their home a couple of times a month, but mostly it was Mom and Dad, holding a tiny worship service in their home in Lagos. After the two senior missionary couples came (after the 1978 revelation) to begin missionary work in West Africe, my parents had occasion visits from them, though the couples' primary work was outside Lagos in other parts of Nigeria and in Ghana. Mom and Dad were part of the International Mission at the time. And apparently, the time away from church structure gave them plenty of time to think about their membership, their commitment, their testimonies, and how they chose to live the gospel.

In his talk, Dad suggested that since God does not change, it's up to us to find Him and to orient our lives around him. This was a theme of Dad's membership. He was never one to place demands on God; he was uncomfortable with verses like D&C 82:10 that suggest that our obedience allows us to lay claim to blessings, and instead favored the King Benjamin view that God blesses us in His own way whenever we do right without our asking for it. In fact, one of Dad's reasons for leaving his protestant faith in the late 1960's was their annual meeting to decide what would be true for the next year.

So Dad's suggestion to do an occasional personal inventory made great sense to me. It's a chance for us to think about where God wants us to be and where we are, and to sort out how to close the gap. It's a chance to identify what we're doing right and wrong. And it's a chance for us to make course corrections where required.

The occasional inventory allows us to grow, too. It recognizes that our understanding of what is required of us may change over time – not that the requirements change, but that a new season in life might allow (or drive) a change in our focus. Dad, for instance, became a much more regular temple attender when a temple was close enough to get to in a day's drive, and when his travel schedule for work allowed him to be in one place for longer than a few weeks.

I'm a fan of the inventory, too. It seems to me that a personal inventory allows us greater access to the blessings of the Atonement, as it presents to us a case for change in our lives. In my mind, a good inventory is not simply a listing of what we perceive to be our deficiencies, but rather an account of strengths and weaknesses – what we'd like to do more of as well as things we see that we must change.

Have you had experience with a personal inventory?

Monday, May 17, 2010

A recommendation

I rarely do this (perhaps this is the first time), but I hope you'll take my invitation to read Margaret Young's post at By Common Consent entitled Bishop Desmond Tutu and Moral Authority. It is a lovely gift.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bargaining with God

It was the early 1990's. I was living in Hiroshima, Japan and traveling to Seoul, Korea on business. About halfway through the one hour flight I was sure I was having a heart attack. I couldn't be having a heart attack, I thought – I was in my early 30's. But pressure around my heart was building and the pain was incredible. Which arm is supposed to go numb? I couldn't remember, and neither hand was tingling. Or maybe they were. I wasn't at my most rational.

As my pulse raced and my breathing became shallower, I began to bargain with God. Heavenly Father, let me land safely and I'll do anything. Anything. I was willing to promise whatever I had to in order to be saved from a heart attack on a Korean airliner far from everything I knew and loved.

The pain subsided. I could breathe again. My heart rate returned to normal. There was a feeling like bruising behind my sternum. But by the time I deplaned, I was, as far as I could tell, fine. I was to be in Korea just overnight, and I'd be back home in Hiroshima the next evening for dinner. I finished the trip without incident, and without ever finding out what caused the pain in my chest.

A couple of weeks later I had a repeat experience. I was waiting to go into a meeting after lunch. Same chest pain. Same racing heartbeat. Same panic. I began to think about what I'd done that day. I realized I had eaten a Japanese lunch and I had eaten some horseradish – something I never have liked, but which I'd eaten by mistake. Then I thought back to that Korean Air flight to Seoul. Had there been horseradish in the sauce on the sandwich I had on the plane? Probably. I then avoided horseradish and avoided another repeat performance.

I described my pain to my dad and he said he had the same thing – a hiatal hernia. As we discussed it, I realized this is what had happened to me, and it must have been somehow brought on by the horseradish. (I had horseradish again several years later back in the US – it was in a sauce at a restaurant – and I had the same reaction.)

Well, the health history is to illustrate a point larger than my weak constitution. In my first moment of distress, I prayed. And I prayed specifically to be delivered from what I perceived to be danger. And I bargained with the Lord.

While I am a fan of prayer, and a fan of covenants in which we make commitments to the Lord, in this case my prayer of desperation, however laudable on the one hand (for instance, at least I thought to pray, and I did have faith that God could deliver me if He wanted to), was probably misguided. Not because the source of the pain was a temporary allergic reaction, but because I was trying to tempt God by bargaining my own righteousness for my relief.

I should have been willing to give my righteousness anyway (and, by the way, I think I am doing that, even in my own imperfect way). King Benjamin (Mosiah 2) reminds us that when we obey a commandment, we're instantly blessed, so it's not like we have some bank account full of "obediences" that we can draw on when it's convenient to do so. No, the point is that we are not ever in a position to bargain with God.

It's true, God tells us He's bound when we do what he says (D&C 82:10), and it's true that there are blessings associated with obedience (D&C 130:20-21), but we don't ever get to set the terms. King Benjamin reminds us that we are not in a position of power in our relationship to God.

Here are some lessons I take away from this and other experiences I've had in connection with these principles:

1. I don't get to set the terms of my relationship with God. He's in charge, and it's up to me to find Him. (He knows where I am already, and the scriptures teach that his hand is always stretched out to me.)
2. I don't get to pick my blessings. He has already decided what blessings are associated with obedience, and it's up to Him to sort that out. It's not like going to the prize booth at Chuck E. Cheese with my game tickets and getting to pick the blessings I want.
3. I do better when I seek to find His will for me, rather than giving Him my shopping list of what I want.
4. He really does bless me, and it is good for me to recognize His hand in my life.

In that regard, my prayers about my "heart attack" were answered. I did land safely. And over time I came to an understanding of the cause of my pain and I learned to avoid it. I suppose that all might have happened just the same way if I had not prayed. But I'm still glad I prayed on that airplane. Just as my children learned to walk by stumbling a few times, so do I.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Great Expectations

Here's a joke: How do you raise perfect children in two steps?

Step One: Find a perfect child.

Step Two: Pick him up.

My mother would remind that we rear children, we do not raise them (we raise livestock or crops), though my latest dictionary doesn't draw such a firm line between the two.

Here's a roadblock in child rearing: expectations.

Have you ever said any of the following? "I expect my kids to treat me with respect." "I expect my kids to do well in school." "I expect my kids to be good workers." "I expect my kids to go to seminary." And on and on.

(By the way, I've said all these things. And I may have meant what I said, or I may have meant "I hope my kids….", but I doubt I said – especially to them – "I hope…")

My experience is that when I set an expectation, and then my free-agent child fails to meet my expectation, I'm disappointed, upset, and maybe even mad. And quite often my poor kid has no idea what has upset me.

I know parents who have their kids' life mapped out for them. And they're surprised when a kid wants to zig where the plan says zag.

You've no doubt seen at least one of those teen coming of age movies where the kid wants to grow up to do just about anything but what the parent wants him to do. And you end up rooting for the kid and thinking, "What dumb parents." But if you're like me, you may still have expectations.

As I get older, I find it's easier and kinder to drop the expectations. It doesn't mean I drop my standards, or even my hopes and dreams. And it doesn't mean I don't work with my kids to excel in whatever it is they're doing. And to set their own goals. And to find their own mountains to climb (instead of the ones I've carefully selected for them). After all, my hopes and dreams are mine, not theirs.

It's a lesson hard won. My oldest came home years ago with an eyebrow piercing. We had talked about it before it happened. He asked. We said no. He did it anyway. Fortunately (from my perspective) the thing got infected and so he had to take it out. One of his brothers decided he wanted blue hair. After the eyebrow ring, blue hair seemed very temporary (on the hair, that is – not on the bathroom walls where he splashed the hair dye). And it was. After a few years, occasional blue went to black, then finally back to his natural red.

Even though I learned tolerance on cosmetic issues, I also had to learn tolerance on academic, social and spiritual ones, too. In the end, here's what I've learned: my kids have their own life to live. I can offer guidance. I can offer support. I can be a sounding board. I can even try to squeeze my opinion in (except maybe when the boys are 15…). But I can't expect a certain outcome. It's just not mine to control.

In the end (and we're nowhere near the end!), things have a way of sorting themselves out. The redhead even finally repainted the bathroom with the blue hair dye on the wall. Years later. But he did it.

Because he wanted to, not because we expected him to.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Are there nuts in my family tree?

Mormons are big fans of family history research. As a church we've invested great resources in genealogical research. Our family history centers are in stake centers and other church buildings around the globe, making our vast resources of microfilmed and microfiched records available for researchers in and outside the church.

The church is in the process of launching New Family Search ( around the world – an online computer resource for church members for tracking family history, and (even more importantly) easily allowing people to link their research with research that others have done to avoid duplicate work.

For church members, one reason for family history research is to allow for saving ordinances of the gospel to be performed in LDS temples. There deceased family members can receive physical ordinances like baptism and confirmation by proxy. We believe that those who died without the opportunity to hear the gospel in this life will have that opportunity in the Spirit World, where Christ preached to the spirits between his death and resurrection (see 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 15).

Old Testament prophet Malachi (see Malachi 3) promised that hearts of the children would turn to their fathers, and hearts of the fathers would turn to their children. I have felt that turning in my own life as I've dabbled in family history work and as I've taken names of my ancestors to the temple. In fact, it happened again the other night.

As I was checking family records and comparing them to the online records in New Family Search, I realized that certain work for my uncle – one of my father's brothers -- had not been completed. I left the temple holding that blue card with my uncle's name on it, and suddenly also felt close to my father who passed away two years ago, and I wondered if the two of them have already met in the spirit world, and if my father, a convert to the church when he was in his 40's, has taught him the gospel.

Our doctrine teaches us that the fact that we perform ordinances in temples for our deceased relatives does not compel them to accept those ordinances. They will hear the gospel and choose whether to accept it. So while I complete ordinances for my uncle, his decision will determine whether those ordinances will be effective for him. But by our providing the ordinances, he then has the opportunity to choose.

Family history research is more than just connecting me to my uncle. It's also the excitement of discovering names of relatives generations back from Norwegian church records now available online. It's discovering familiar immigrant names on ships' manifests. It's connecting names from one census to another. It's making those connections through time to sort out our heritage, and to learn about those who came before us.

My own genealogy has its challenges. One line goes to Pennsylvania in the 1830s and 1840s. That's a notoriously difficult place to find records, as our family's fruitless (so far) search has confirmed. But another line traces clearly to the American Revolution and earlier to France. My wife's brother's wife discovered a common link between her family and mine – not blood relatives, but families who travelled together west to Washington State to homestead that frontier when it was new.

Family history is daunting to some, and confusing to many. It doesn't help that when we get "training" in family history, we often get training on how to use a specific computer program instead of actual research. But for me, the first step is interest. The second is to start where I am, wherever that is.

Some say their work is "all done." I don’t know what that means. My mother-in-law works as a missionary at the church's Genealogy Library in Salt Lake City. She's worked her own lines (Mormon pioneers, many from the British Isles) and her husband's (from Sweden), and she has binders full of the results of her research, but she's never proclaimed it finished.

I go in fits and starts – I'll work a few weeks and then get busy with other things, and then spend a few weeks again many months later. Recently, I'm discovering that genealogists far more diligent than I am have completed work that applies to my family history, too. On the other hand, there is a certain thrill at finding a name after combing records (online, in the microfilm reader, or in dusty old books) for hours or days.

Family history is one of those pursuits where the journey is as exciting as reaching the goal.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Feeling the Spirit

Yesterday our bishop conducted a joint priesthood / Relief Society lesson. At the end he indicated that anyone who had come fasting and was in tune felt the spirit in our meeting.

I'm not one to take the words of my bishop lightly, but as he said that, I was slightly taken aback and thought, "I did?" I had come to the meeting fasting. And I was with him every step of the way in his presentation. But I hadn't (until he said it) really recognized the "burning" witness that I often identify as feeling the spirit.

In that instant, I had some choices: I could have assumed my bishop was wrong. I could have assumed that I was not as in tune as I had thought. Or I could have thought that maybe I felt the Spirit in a way that I hadn't previously identified. All three raced through my mind, and I settled on the third and began to think about the idea that maybe I had felt the spirit in a different way.

I've known for a long time that the spirit speaks to me in different ways sometimes. My knowledge comes from my own experience, coupled with what I've read in the scriptures. Over the years (I've been a member for over forty years – baptized at nearly nine years old), I've felt lots of things that I've identified with the Spirit, and some I've rejected over time and others I've held on to. So it's no surprise to me that I might feel the spirit in a new way.

Here are some ways I've felt the influence of the spirit:

I have felt a burning in the bosom, a warm stirring in my heart.

I have felt clarity of mind regarding particular questions.

I've felt a heart-pounding push to action – to bear my testimony, to speak to someone.

I've had thoughts and words come into my head that I know are not "mine", as when giving a blessing or sometimes when speaking or teaching.

For me, sometimes the influence of the Spirit is also accompanied by an emotional response. I've frankly worked hard to try and separate the emotional from the spiritual, since I also feel emotional responses when I watch movies and see pictures of puppies. (I'm a sensitive guy; what can I say?) So I try to think about an emotional response to spiritual things and to sense if there is more than just emotion there.

In yesterday's meeting, I did feel a noticeable peace as the bishop spoke. And it's a little surprising that I did. He spoke about a subject that is very emotional for me, namely the activity rate of youth in the church, and how we can help young men and women to choose to be active in the church. Because of my own family's experience, I have some bruises on that front, though those bruises have been healing over time as I take a longer and more sanguine view.

But it occurred to me in pondering the bishop's words that perhaps it was the Spirit that comforted me and allowed me to hear the bishop's message, to sense his urgency, and to think about what I could do with his message – for the children who are still in my home and others in our ward – without being weighed down by self pity about choices others of my children had already made years ago.

The bishop didn't deliver any silver bullets for youth activity in his remarks. This problem, like the poor, will always be with us. But feeling the Spirit comfort me while my bishop delivered a message that has been working on him for weeks and weeks (he could not wait for the fifth Sunday, he said, and he preferred to deliver it while the ward was fasting) reminds me that answers are not necessarily universal solutions but individual ones that may move us to touch just one life at a time.

In this case, at least one of those lives so touched was mine