Wednesday, June 30, 2010

To listen

My wife reminds me from time to time that my job is not always to fix things. Sometimes it's to listen.

I thought of that reminder when I read "We come over, and sit" by Aaron R. at Mormon Matters yesterday.

Sometimes when we visit our bishop, we do so seeking counsel, seeking The Answer to our question, and sometimes the bishop can deliver. After all, he has certain gifts and authority by virtue of his calling. Often a wise bishop will, however, just listen.

It took some effort on my part to learn to listen when I was a bishop. Not that I could not listen when someone spoke. I even did well at reflective listening, that is repeating back what someone had said to me to confirm my understanding. But I was, initially at least, subject to my own distaste for silence. I felt a need to fill the gaps in a conversation, and sometimes I'd fill them with my own voice.

My first time as bishop I served in South America, speaking Spanish (not my native language, and not my mission language, either). My stake president counseled that a bishop should spend less than 30% of an interview talking, and the rest of the time he should be praying for inspiration so that when he spoke what he said would be useful. That was good counsel. And it was necessary for me, except my prayer was often that I would understand and be understood.

Fortunately the members of my ward were patient and understanding with me. They helped me with my Spanish skills. They patiently repeated themselves if I did not understand, and were noticeably relieved when they finally felt I did understand.

During another assignment as bishop I had a friend who had a significant issue. The issue doesn't matter. We talked about it a number of times. On one occasion he asked me on the phone if I were speaking as his friend or his bishop. Without thinking about the question or about him, I answered that I spoke as his bishop. As I hung up the phone I knew I had not said the right thing. I finished some other business at the church and then drove the half hour to his home where I found him sullen and not very willing to visit.

We sat in his living room in silence for some time. Finally I said, "I am your friend, too, you know. And I care about what happens to you." More silence. And then he finally began to speak. To share what he was feeling. To share his fears and concerns. To tell his side of the story. He spoke and I listened for about an hour. I had little to offer him except a listening ear. In the end, not much changed, except he knew I had listened to him. And I had learned an important lesson.

When I got home later that day, I found an email, written by him between my phone call and my visit. It said, "A friend would have listened. A friend would have cared about how I felt." And he was right.

As I think back on this experience, I am grateful for the spiritual nudge to go and see him. And to listen.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Building on the Rock

Helaman 5:12 tells us to “remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God that ye must build your foundation” in order to withstand the buffetings of Satan.

The word remember holds particular significance to me. In Alma 5 Alma the Younger counsels his people to remember the captivity of their fathers, and he recounts his father’s change of heart in the face of Abinadi, and the Lord’s saving those people from their oppressors. He encourages the people to remember their own conversion. Surely one way to build upon the rock of Christ is to remember. Another is to – as Alma did – heed the words of God’s prophet.

Alma asks the people to remember their own conversion and asks if the people have the image of Christ in their countenances – do they look like Christ because of what they do? Another way to build on the rock of Christ is to act as He did.

There’s a great story told at least three times in the scriptures – first in Numbers 21 – of the fiery serpents which afflict the Israelites. Moses is told to lift one on his staff, and if the people would look, they’d be healed. 1 Nephi 17:41 tells us some did not look because of the simpleness of the way. Doing the simple things God asks us to do through His prophet is another way to build upon the rock of Christ.

The sacrament prayers are also about remembering. We eat the bread in remembrance of the body of Christ and drink the water in remembrance of His blood. In the prayer on the bread we’re reminded that we certify that we are willing to take His name upon us, that we will remember His always, and keep his commandments.

Elder Oaks years ago spoke of the sacrament and suggested that when we are baptized we begin to take Christ’s name upon us, but we do not completely do it until we have entered into temple covenants. Preparing for and attending the temple are ways we build upon the rock of Christ.

Again, we remember Him, and as we remember Him it becomes easier to keep his commandments.

Here is something else I know about the rock of Christ: The Savior lives. He loves us. His rock does not move. His arms are outstretched waiting for us to come home to Him. We may make choices that move us away from Him, but he waits patiently for us, having already suffered for our sins, having already atoned for us. All we need to do is come to Him and build on His rock.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Spiritual Milestones

As I think about my spiritual development, there are some key milestones I still rely on to strengthen my faith. These are moments that I can go back to and remember what I felt, what I learned, what I experienced that informed my faith and continues to contribute to it today. These are places of safety for me when I need to retrench; they are places of courage when I learn something new; they provide comfort when I need a reminder that God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

Avid journal writer Spencer W. Kimball encouraged church members to write journals to remember times of spiritual blessing and strength. Scriptures are full of accounts of remembering God's mercies from times past, often invoking the names of Moses or Abraham as a means of remembering the Lord's work through them.

A gift we try to give our children is the opportunity to cultivate these spiritual experiences for themselves, and in the end, we must each develop our own. I cannot lend you mine, nor can I borrow yours. And while more than one person may share an experience, it may be a spiritual milestone to one and not another. (Think about Nephi and Laman and Lemuel and their responses to various heavenly interventions.)

Some of mine are associated with ordinances – my baptism, my sealing to my parents, my baptizing my children – and some with miracles – the healing of a missionary companion, for instance. Others are more subtle – the shaking of an apostle's hand following a conference, or the long awaited answer to a specific spiritual question.

Although I do understand how they come – the spirit bears witness at a particular time in a particular way -- I don't fully understand why they come, but I am grateful that they do.

Monday, June 21, 2010

What a father wants

Yesterday was a delightful father's day. I heard kind wishes from all my children and was treated to lovely meals and gifts. And I had a chance to think about my own dad who died a few years ago.

As I think about my dad, I try to imagine what he would want from me. Especially at the end of his life, gifts had little meaning. He was aging, and spent his last years in a nursing home where he had little room for things, and his aging mind, sadly, also had little room for things, either.

As I thought about honoring him, I've concluded that what I can continue to offer him is what I hope my children will continue to offer me: the honor of good lives well lived with kindness and compassion toward others.

I've written before that some of my children are walking paths I would not have chosen for them. They have found more comfort outside the faith of their childhood than in it, and that makes me sad when I dwell on it, only because my feelings about that faith are so strong. But over time I'm happy to feel the ties that bind me to my children are stronger than those of disappointment. Because even in their separate paths they are honorable and honest. They are kind and generous – toward one another and toward others. They are loyal friends and ready to lend a helping hand where they can.

I had a brief conversation with one of my sons (an ongoing philosophical conversation) about what constitutes a family, and about the need for the marriage covenant. He has many friends who come from single parent homes, and does not want to dishonor them by suggesting that the home of their origin is something less than his where his parents were (and still are!) married.

This is my son who has always loved to spar with me; when he was thirteen I could not say it was light outside without his disagreeing. So I know better than to try to convince him. He is right, of course: his friends do come from families, many of them very loving and good, even if they are not traditional.

But I still maintain that the model has not changed: a married father and mother working together to provide for, protect and nurture the children that come to their home. That other solutions also have worked does not negate the value of the basic model. That not all "traditional" families work also does not negate the value of the ideal.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World teaches the model. Divine scripture teaches the model. And wise people do their best to emulate the model.

What this father wants? What my father wanted: for my children to be happy, successful, and safe in families of their own one day.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Teaching the Gospel

There has been considerable chatter on LDS blogs these days about teaching at church. The commentaries seem to talk about two key issues:

1. The "simple" lessons in the Gospel Principles manual used in Relief Society and Priesthood
2. The recommendation not to supplement provided lesson material with other outside resources

Personally, I'm a little surprised at the backlash against the Gospel Principles manual. I suppose there are those who think they've progressed beyond the basics of the gospel, but I'm reminded it was while pondering the atonement that Joseph F. Smith had the revelation which now is Section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

While the manual is rather simple, and in fact downright slim in some instances, the subjects are rich for discussion on many levels.

As for not supplementing our lessons with many outside materials, I agree we should teach from the church manuals. But as a rule, good teachers should be guided by the spirit to include applicable scriptures, personal experiences and other suitable materials in their lessons. In his oft-quoted conference talk, Elder Oaks said, "A gospel teacher is called to teach the subject specified from the inspired materials provided." Continuing, with specific reference to the Teachings of the Prophet manuals used in previous years, he said, "The best thing a teacher can do with Teachings: Joseph Smith is to select and quote from the words of the Prophet on principles specially suited to the needs of class members and then direct a class discussion on how to apply those principles in the circumstances of their lives" ("Good, Better, Best," General Conference, October 2007).

Russell Osguthorpe, general president of the Sunday School addressed the matter of gospel teaching in an interview with the Church News in January of this year. He described a gospel doctrine class he attended in which the teacher had the manual open before her, but rarely referred to it. Instead, she led a discussion of the major points of the lesson with the class.

I am not a fan of the "ready, aim, read" method of teaching that seems to seep into my high priest's group. Whatever the manual, we seem to start at the beginning, read a segment, and then chat about it, and then read the next one, and so on. While that's an ok way of covering the material, it's not an ideal to lead discussion or to teach in my view.

In a talk in General Conference in October 2009, Brother Osguthorpe listed some key questions gospel teachers ought to ask themselves:

1. As a teacher, do I view myself as a messenger from God?
2. Do I prepare and then teach in ways that can help save lives?
3. Do I focus on a key doctrine of the Restoration?
4. Can those I teach feel the love I have for them and for my Heavenly Father and the Savior?
5. When inspiration comes, do I close the manual and open their eyes and their ears and their hearts to the glory of God?
6. Do I invite them to do the work that God has for them to do?
7. Do I express so much confidence in them that they find the invitation hard to refuse?
8. Do I help them recognize promised blessings that come from living the doctrine I am teaching?

I believe the counsel to "stick to the manual" is less about directing the flow of the lesson than the general subject matter. Of course we ought to teach the course of study we've been assigned. But we must do so with the spirit so that we can inspire others (or invite the spirit to inspire others) as Brother Osguthorpe suggests.

Indeed, even our personal study can (and arguably should) exceed what the manual covers. Consider Elder Perry's memory of his mother's preparation to teach:

"Mother was a great teacher who was diligent and thorough in her preparation. I have distinct memories of the days preceding her lessons. The dining room table would be covered with reference materials and the notes she was preparing for her lesson. There was so much material prepared that I’m sure only a small portion of it was ever used during the class, but I’m just as sure that none of her preparation was ever wasted. How can I be sure about this? As I flipped through the pages of her notebooks, it was as if I were hearing my mother teach me one more time. Again, there was too much in her notebooks on any single topic to ever share in a single class session, but what she didn’t use in her class she used to teach her children" ("Mothers Teaching Children in the Home," April 2010 General Conference).

It seems to me a great teacher will have plenty in his mind and heart to share, and then be sensitive to the spirit's guidance as he teaches, recognizing the needs of his students, the subject of the lesson, the experience of his class, and his time constraints.

While some may be disappointed that Sunday School, Relief Society and Priesthood are not places for treatises on the history of ancient Judaism or endless debate on gospel hobbies, hopefully they can be compensated by well prepared and well presented lessons that draw upon the scriptures, invite the spirit, and teach the gospel.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Seeking input

I've been asked to teach a class at a stake youth conference on how to live a Christ-centered life. I'd be interested in your thoughts, especially object lessons that are effective.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Whom do I trust?

"We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, namely apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists and so forth." (Articles of Faith 1:6)

Faithful Latter-day Saints sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers and revelators. As such, we strive to follow these men when they lead us in their ecclesiastical capacity, believing that they speak for the Lord in guiding His church.

That said, we know they are not infallible, and we know from history that sometimes they are wrong, or their decisions are reversed by later church administrations.

One wonders then, what am I to do when I hear a prophet speak? How do I know he speaks for the Lord? How do I reconcile what someone else said that was apparently not speaking for the Lord (because it has been shown to be incorrect or it has been changed by later prophets)?

I respect that this question is not an easy one for many people. It may cause some to look at each pronouncement from the brethren wondering if it is also wrong or temporary. Others take a different approach, choosing to focus on the words of today's prophets without considering historical issues, thereby avoiding the conflict.

For years mine was the latter approach, largely out of my own lack of awareness of church history. More recently I've read more (and there's been more to read). But I still am comfortable taking the approach of trusting today's prophets when they speak.

I can do this for several reasons.

First, my testimony has come in stages in my life. I suppose my first testimony was of the Savior, that He lives and loves me. And that probably pre-dates my joining the church with my family when I was a child, and has grown over time. My second testimony was a general sense that the church is true, and it came quite early in my life (around age 10), largely because of feelings I had when I was baptized and then later when I was sealed to my parents.

Later I gained a specific testimony of the Book of Mormon, and of the restoration of the church. My testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet has come also in bits and pieces along the way. The truth of the Book of Mormon contributed to it. The peace that I feel in the temple contributes to it. My own experiences with priesthood blessings contribute to it. And my study over the years has contributed, as well.

As for the present prophets (the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve), my testimony is strengthened as I raise my hand to sustain them, as I hear their words in conferences and read them, as well, and mostly as I follow their counsel. It comes as the Spirit bears witness to me in quiet moments of prayer and contemplation.

Second, when I have followed their counsel in the past, I have felt the Lord's blessing in my life. There are specific decisions I've made based on specific counsel from the prophets over time. Those choices have not led me astray and in fact have worked to my benefit.

That I sustain them does not mean that I understand or even accept every word each of them says. There are some issues that I still sort through over time. But still I can accept them as inspired men, called of God to do the work they do. And I am confident that as I follow their counsel I will be blessed. And if there are some questions I have about what one or another of them teaches, I can put that on the shelf for the time being. My experience has taught me that those things resolve themselves in time.

I am grateful we live in a time of prophets.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Why do we obey? Another view...

I used to drive over the speed limit almost everywhere I went. An occasional speeding ticket was the price I paid for being able to drive as fast as I wanted. A few years ago, though, I got a couple of speeding tickets on local roads in my community within a week. The fines were not small, and points were tallying up against my license. I decided I needed to slow down. I obeyed the speed limits out of fear.

Now that I'm older (and perhaps even wiser) I also obey the speed limits in my town out of concern for my neighbors. I don't want someone racing down my residential street so fast that a child is hurt, and I certainly don't want to be the speeder who hurts someone.

What about the laws of God? Are we obedient to commandments because we fear punishment, or because we seek blessings? Or because we love God?

The Savior taught that there are really two Big Commandments:
1. Love God.
2. Love your fellowman.

All the other commandments ("the law and the prophets") hang on these two. Even the Ten Commandments can be easily fit into these two broad heading as can other things we're asked to do by the Lord.

Outsiders observe that Mormons have a lot of rules to keep. We often don't talk about it that way inside the church, instead suggesting that the commandments that seem restrictive free us to take advantage of spiritual (and sometimes physical) blessings as a result.

But do we keep those commandments so we can enjoy the blessings? Is that the right motivation? Do we keep them because we fear being without the blessings? Or are we trying to fit in to our Mormon culture?

My own experience is that my obedience is along a continuum. I may start obeying because I want to test a principle, or because I trust the person who teaches me (like my parents). As I obey, I see the blessings for doing so, and I want those blessings to continue. And over time, my love for God increases as I obey Him. And as my love increases, I want to obey Him more.

Conversely, when I'm tempted to do something I shouldn't I may reflect first on the possible lost blessings that would result from disobedience. But my example should be the Savior who resisted temptation out of devotion to His father (see Matthew 4).

In the end, the New Testament reminds us we are not saved by the law. At least as important as strict adherence is our attitude when we obey.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On Repenting

The second principle of the gospel, according to the Articles of Faith, is repentance.

Why does repentance naturally follow faith, and particularly, faith in Jesus Christ?

For me it is because as my faith in Christ grows, the more I realize I am not like Him, and the more I want to be like him. If you hold up your right hand, fingers up and palm out, then you can match your left hand to your left, palm to palm. They fit pretty well.

If your right hand represents the Savior and the left hand represents you, then what we hope for is that our right and left hands are together. But in reality, the more I learn about the Savior and about myself, the more I realize there is a distance between my hands. Repentance allows me to close that distance, even if in small increments.

Of course, the whole process of repentance is only possible through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Without His atoning sacrifice, it would be impossible.

Another example: the Book of Mormon includes Lehi's vision of the the Tree of Life, in which people can grasp the iron rod and follow it through the mist of darkness toward the tree whose fruit represents the love of God. If we are walking along that path, holding on to the rod, and we let go of the rod in the mist of darkness, we may stray from the path.

Upon finding ourselves away from where we want to be, what are our options? First, we might stop. We might call out for help. In the end, we will try to turn around and return to the rod. Repentance allows us a similar chance, to turn around and return to Christ's path in our lives. When we feel that we've strayed from the path we ought to be on, we stop what we're doing long enough to sort out where we are.

We may look for help – from a loved one, a home teacher, a friend or a bishop, and certainly from the Lord. But in the end, we need to turn ourselves around and return to the Savior's path, where we find comfort, peace and safety.

The Lord taught that He requires of us a broken heart and a contrite spirit. It is when our hearts are broken and our spirits are contrite that we are receptive to those promptings to move from where we are to where He wants us to be. It is when we are best able to hear the whisperings of the spirit coaxing us to draw nearer to Him, and confirming to us when we do so. It is when we want to draw near to Him, not just so we can tick off another box on our list of spiritual "to-do's," but because we want to be near Him.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Might I Be Wrong?

I've been reading C. Terry Warner's book Bonds That Make Us Free (again!). I first came to this book when a friend's son went through a wilderness program in Arizona and the parents all got a copy of Warner's book. I read it then (about ten years ago) and I've read it a few times since. With each reading I collect more tools, more understanding.

I won't summarize the book; I couldn't do it justice. But I want to share a thought that came to me while reading.

In a chapter I read recently, Warner suggests that one step toward healing a relationship is to ask ourselves if we might be wrong. I could think instantly about how this works. I thought about spats I've had with my wife. In our particular dynamic over the years we've developed a rather well-rehearsed bit of Kabuki theatre. She raises a point of view. I disagree in a way that is shaper than it needs to be, sending a message not only that I think she's wrong, but that she also interprets as meaning I think her point of view is dumb. She retreats. I win the "battle" but do so in a way that leaves me feeling icky.

At some point, my icky feeling prompts me to rethink my position and hers, and I inevitably ask myself if maybe I was wrong. (Cynical children might respond here, "Dad, of course you are wrong!") Asking the question opens me to reconsider what she has said and to reflect on how she might be right, and I can come to an understanding of her point of view, even if I don't fully subscribe to it. And then I can approach her again, apologize for my poor treatment of her and her ideas, and we can have a calm conversation in which our ideas share equal footing, equal encouragement and we can finally reach consensus.

The good news is that this Kabuki does not play itself out as often as it once did because with practice, my initial responses are less sharp – that central question comes to me much faster than it once did. And when the Kabuki theatre does happen, the time from offense to repair is faster because I'm learning what I need to do.

The question of whether I might be wrong is a valuable one for me – in my relationship with my wife, with my children, my co-workers and friends. It is a step toward humility and charity. And peace.

Peace, I'm learning, is way more valuable to me that being right.