Thursday, September 30, 2010

Salt Lake Sealing

I was just about 8 weeks from my 10th birthday when we drove to Salt Lake to be sealed. We had been members of the church less than a year, but our mission president had petitioned for us to go early. Only many years later did I see the letter from Elder Ezra Taft Benson to our mission president granting the permission that we go early.

We were baptized in September, but went to the temple in August because that's when Dad could get a week away and when my siblings and I wouldn't have school conflicts. We drove out and back pulling our six-man travel trailer behind the station wagon. My parents drove nearly straight through from Pittsburgh, and as an adult now I can only imagine how fatiguing the trip must have been.

We stayed at a KOA campground just north of Point of the Mountain, and on Tuesday morning we all drove together to the temple. My older brother, two older sisters and I were ushered in to a waiting area while my parents went through their endowment session. I don't remember much, except that we were dressed in white while we waited, and we were entertained by another much younger boy (a toddler, I think) while he waited for his parents, too.

When the time finally came, a sister walked us to our sealing room. I have no idea the route we took, since it was my first of only three times in the Salt Lake Temple (and the other two would be as an adult for weddings). I remember lots of chandeliers, a large staircase, and the sealing room itself. It was a small oval-shaped room with just a few chairs and of course mirrors in gold-painted frames hanging opposite one another.

My parents were in the room as was our branch president and his wife and probably another witness and the sealer of course, though I don't remember that.

What I do remember is kneeling around the altar with my parents. I have no idea if they had already been sealed or if we witnessed that (I assume we did not witness it), but I do remember the six of us around the altar together. And I remember the free flowing tears following the sealing itself. We looked at one another in the "eternal" mirrors, we hugged and cried.

I can't pretend that I understood everything then that I do now about the sealing (nor can I pretend I understand everything about the sealing now!), but I do know how I felt: The temple was a place of peace, of happiness, and a place where I wanted to return. Even at that young age, I attributed the peace that I felt to the influence of the spirit, and that experience kneeling around the altar with my parents has been and continues to be a key landmark in my path to testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and His restored church.

I am grateful that my own children have been born in the covenant, owing to my wife's and my having been sealed at the time of our marriage, but I sometimes wish they could have had the powerful spiritual experience I did as a young boy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I love to see the temple

My new Ensign arrived yesterday. That is, my substitute for the Ensign. The church has updated and republished its Temples booklet and sent it to all Ensign and Liahona subscribers. I like the new edition.

The reasons given for the reprint? The old version was out of stock in various languages, the old version excluded many of the new temples, and (of course) the old version didn't include a message from our present prophet, President Monson.

I enjoyed leafing through last night to see the temple photos. Personally, I would have enjoyed more large-format photos of temples rather than of people illustrating various articles, but I was pleased to see so many temples represented throughout the magazine.

I also enjoyed seeing detail shots from some of the temples featured. The interior murals from the Manhattan New York Temple were a surprise to me. Very cool.

I live in Southeast Michigan where we have the Detroit Michigan Temple, dedicated in October 1999. Having a temple so close (we're about 45 minutes away) is an incredible blessing. I grew up in Pittsburgh, and our family drove to the nearest temple to be sealed in 1968 – Salt Lake City. When the Washington, DC temple was dedicated in the 1970's we counted ourselves about as lucky as we could be.

I've spent time at BYU in the shadow of the Provo Utah Temple, and during my years there I had periods of taking good advantage of that resource and years in which I was distracted by other things. After grad school in Pittsburgh, we moved to Michigan and the Chicago Illinois Temple was the closest – about as long a drive as Washington was from Pittsburgh, unless there was a traffic issue in Chicago (and when wasn't there?). The Toronto Ontario Temple shortened our commute, and was personally delightful for me because my wife and I were able to sing in the choir for one of the dedicatory sessions.

When "our" temple was announced in Michigan we could hardly believe it. We did not grow up here and do not have the same sense of history that some do in this area (though we've now called Michigan home for over 20 years), but we know that the foundations for the Detroit Michigan Temple were laid by many saints working over many years to build the church here.

The Detroit Temple sits on Woodward Avenue. At the groundbreaking, the Bloomfield Hills stake president suggested it was likely Joseph Smith had passed the site of the temple, as Woodward Avenue is likely the road that Stephen Mack (Joseph's uncle) had paid to build between his farm in Pontiac and the city of Detroit.

At the dedication of the Detroit Temple, I sat in the stake center next door with our children who attended while my wife played the organ for the choir in the celestial room. (I gave up my seat -- available to me as spouse of the organist -- in the celestial room to be with our kids.) My wife remembers hearing President Hinckley talk about his lovely wife while she sat on the front row. Since my wife was at the organ, she had a clear view of Sister Hinckley during the president's tender remarks. It was quite a moving experience.

The new Temples magazine includes an edited version of President Hunter's article on our being a temple-going people. It's one of my favorites as President Hunter taught repeatedly that we are a temple-motivated, temple-loving, temple-attending people. He encouraged us to hold a recommend even when we were not close enough to attend a temple regularly.

I'll write about some of my temple experiences over the next few posts. I've laid some of the groundwork here, but for me temple worship is uniquely private, personal and sacred. Like so many spiritual things, common physical experiences do not always yield the same spiritual result. But for me, the temple has been a place of peace, of comfort, of testimony, of learning, of growth.

The new Temple magazine will be available for viewing at, though it wasn't yet there when I checked this morning.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On obtaining faith

I have written before about my inability to explain why two people can share similar experiences and emerge with different spiritual results -- why one develops faith and another turns away. My recent study of faith doesn't directly answer that question, but it does give some clues for obtaining faith.

Last week I posted an object lesson on faith, one that I used in my lesson to my high priest's group last Sunday. In the course of that lesson preparation, I also reread the Lectures on Faith. I had first read the lectures in the MTC when I was interested in how faith worked. (My poor MTC companion was worried at my "extracurricular" reading at the time, fearing that I had honed in too closely on one topic, but I wasn't worried, and it turned out to be an illuminating time for me.)

The Lectures on Faith used to be included with the Doctrine and Covenants, appearing before the revelations in editions from 1835-1921. They were removed because they are not revelations to the church, and they have not been canonized. There is evidence that Joseph had assistance from other brethren in their preparation. But the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants included an introductory letter signed by the First Presidency (Joseph Smith, Jr., Oliver Cowdrey, Sidney Rigdon and F.G. Williams) in which the lectures are described "as delivered before a Theological class in this place [Kirtland, Ohio], and in consequence of their embracing the important doctrine of salvation…." (quoted in Lectures on Faith, Publisher's Preface, 1985).

In the third lecture we read of
three things [which] are necessary in order that any rational and intelligent being may exercise faith in God unto life and salvation. First, the idea that he actually exists. Secondly, a correct idea of his character, perfection, and attributes. Thirdly, an actual knowledge that the course of life which he is pursuing is according to his will. For without an acquaintance with these three important facts, the faith of every rational being must be imperfect and unproductive… (Lecture 3:2-5).

It is interesting to me that the lectures teach that we must have knowledge in order to have faith, namely knowledge that the course we are pursuing is consistent with God's will. The Savior teaches in John that it is by living the gospel that we gain that knowledge (John 7:17). Clearly, some iterative process is required.

The sixth lecture includes the famous quotation: "…a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation…" (v. 7). The verse continues:
…from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things. It was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God.
Verse 8 continues,
It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they, in like manner, offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.
It would seem, therefore, that the gift of faith cited in Alma 32 is not a gift cheaply given. It is won at a price of great sacrifice – even of all earthly things.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A memory of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur was this past weekend.

I think about it each fall, not because I celebrate the Jewish Day of Atonement.

But I do remember the day with fondness.

Years ago when I was serving as bishop, I had been meeting with a couple over a series of visits. In our last session together, the brother observed that it was Yom Kippur. He was grateful that the Day of Atonement reminded him to enjoy the blessings of the atonement in his life.

As I drove home from that interview, I thought about my son. At the time, I was unhappy with him and his choices. Two years earlier (almost to the day, as it turned out), I had written a self-righteous letter encouraging him to take advantage of the atonement in his life.

On this particular night, I got home and found that letter, reread it, and then wrote a new one. In the new letter I apologized for the first. And I acknowledged that it was I who needed to seek the blessings of the atonement.

Yes, I was his father. Yes, I wanted what was best for him. But brow-beating him into submission was the wrong way for me to invite him to come unto Christ. And, looking back on key events in our shared lives, I realized that I’d done more than my share of brow-beating, albeit subtly at times.

That was years ago. I’m pleased to report that my son is a forgiving man, and that we enjoy a wonderful relationship. I have my son and the atonement to thank for that, because through the atonement I am able to change. And I’m grateful for Yom Kippur to remind me.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Musings on Faith

I'm teaching the High Priests on Sunday about faith, and so I'm musing a bit.

An object lesson:

If you want light in a room, what do you do? Turn on the light.

Why? Because for years, in fact many times a day, we get light be flipping a wall switch. We learned early in life that flipping that switch made a light come on.

What happens if the light doesn't come on? Do we stop flipping wall switches? No. In fact, usually if the light doesn't come on, we try the switch two or three more times, just to be sure! And then we begin to check the elements of the circuit: we change the light bulb. We check the connection of the wires to the light fixture and the switch. We may even swap out the switch.

But we do not give up flipping the wall switches. Why? Because we have faith in the flipping of the wall switch. That action has worked so well for us in the past we "know" it should work. Of course we do not know it works each time, but we've seen it enough to "know" that it should work.

We may even have studied enough to know how it works. Our knowledge of physics reinforces our own experience and confirms what we "know" to be true: the flipping of a light switch turns on the light.

Our faith in the Savior can be similar. Many of us have already had a variety of experiences that have built our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We have read His words, lived his teachings, received priesthood ordinances, given service in His name, and likely felt the spirit somewhere along the way. So we have faith in Him and His teachings.

We may even have learned other historical or scientific evidence that underpins our testimony.

If we encounter a bump in our spiritual road, it might be like flipping that switch and not getting any light. Just as we don't give up on flipping light switches, we also don't give up our faith in the Savior. Instead, we look at our bump in the road and seek understanding. Sometimes it comes quickly and sometimes it doesn't. But if we are wise, we continue to flip those spiritual light switches. We continue to study, to pray, to participate in ordinances, to continue to serve, in short, to exercise our faith. And we check our own spiritual circuitry to be sure our connection is what it should be.

And in His time, we find resolution. It may come in the form of a specific answer. Or it may simply come as peace.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"I have a secret"

Several years ago, a friend was on his way out of the church. Not the building, but The Church. He and I spoke a few times about his split with the religion of his childhood (and the religion of his wife and children). It was not an easy choice to leave, and, although I asked him more than once, he was careful not to share with me his specific concerns that had finally pushed him over the edge.

I gathered that they were historical issues. And he told me that he didn't want to discuss them because he didn't want to be responsible for someone else's falling away. But he assured me they were Big Things, Things he had discussed with his own father (a still-active Latter-day Saint even after talking with my friend), Things that he could no longer reconcile.

I admired his desire to protect me from what he knew (though I, perhaps with too much pride, didn't think his concern was warranted). But at the same time I saw in him a typical pattern which I'd seen among others who have left:

1. I have learned something no one else really knows or understands (or if they do, they're in denial).

2. If they knew what I know, they would make the same choice I am making: to leave.

I've seen this pattern in close friends, acquaintances, and family members. In reducing it to simple steps I don't also mean to minimize the difficulty such realizations cause those who have them. Leaving the church can be painful, and my observation is that many who leave only do so when the pain of leaving is less than the pain of staying.

But that's not my point today.

My point is that as members of the church, we often assume the same two steps when we explain our faith:

1. I have a testimony of something that is not commonly known.

2. If others knew what I know, they also would also have a testimony, just as I do.

I suppose it's normal for us to assume that everyone else, when faced with the same data we have, would make the same choices. In reality, I think life is more complicated. First, we don't share completely common experiences. So even if the same facts are in evidence, we will respond to them differently because of our unique life experience. Second (and perhaps related to the first), we will simply interpret the same "facts" differently. We have different gifts of the spirit, so one man's "knowing" may be another's "believing." And a third may not have that sense of knowing or believing.

That being said, I still believe the quickest path to conversion is through reading and hearing testimony borne, and feeling the confirming witness of the Holy Ghost. When that happens, someone who is able to hear (in the way the Savior said, "he who hath ears to hear, let him hear") will both hear and feel that testimony. But just as not everyone heard the Savior when he taught, not everyone will hear those who testify today.

I don't know why things are this way, and this issue is near the top of the questions I'll ask when we get to ask any question we want in the next life (and I hope we do!). But I do know because I have observed the content of this post in real life, it gives me reason to be less judgmental of others' choices – I really can't know what they know, even if I walk a mile in their shoes. The best I can do is choose the best I can for myself based on what I know, and try and teach my children my experience.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A reading list

Recently I've done a lot more reading in church history, thanks in part to recommendations I've gotten from other blogs (Common Consent ran a post a while back on the top five best books on church history). Since my freshman year at BYU, I've been fascinated by church history, warts and all. Over time I've carried a few of those "in the box on the shelf in the closet of my mind" questions, mostly about historical matters. And, I'm happy to say, in the intervening years, enough of those have found resolution that I don't get too excited by them anymore.

There are a few books I've read in the last few years that have been particularly meaningful to me:

1. Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball by Edward L. Kimball – my brother gave me this book as a gift, and when I opened it, I sat on the dining room floor and read for several hours. I was particularly moved by the chapter on the revelation regarding priesthood blessings. That particular chapter was meaningful to me because I was on my mission at the time, and my parents were living in West Africa (Dad was there for his work) when the first missionary couples came to preach the gospel. But I was also impressed by the insights into the personal characteristics of this man who was the prophet during many of the most formative years of my youth.

2. Rough Stone Rolling by Richard L. Bushman Ok, I've had this book for some time and have read it more than once. I used it as a supplemental text when teaching about Joseph Smith in a stake institute class a number of years ago. It was refreshing to read Bushman's frank discussion of that very human prophet, Joseph Smith. I still go back to it for specific topics, and will put it back in the queue for re-reading soon. Bushman is easy for me to read: he's engaging and matter of fact in his portrayal, and he takes a specific point of view that we must assume that Joseph believed what he said he believed. He does not shy away from difficult questions (such as Joseph's experience with polygamy), nor does he sensationalize them. While others have found this book to be a stumbling block to testimony, my reaction was just the opposite.

3. David O. McKay and Rise of Modern Mormonism by Gregory A. Prince and Wm Robert Wright -- David. O. McKay was the prophet when I joined the church with my family in 1967. I remember asking the interviewing missionary (smart nearly-nine-year-old that I was) what the "O" stood for (he didn't know). This work, the product of a treasure trove of documentation preserved by President McKay's personal secretary (who was also Wright's aunt) provides a remarkable view into the workings of the senior counsels of the church during President McKay's tenure as an apostle and prophet. I'm not always thrilled with their characterization or attribution of motive to other players in the story (the authors make judgments about Wilkinson, Benson and McConkie that are popular in today's blogs, but could just as well have allowed the facts to speaks for themselves), but the light they shine on President McKay is delightful in its clarity and paints a wonderful picture of the development of a world-wide church. As in all the works, I had as much interest in the footnotes as in the main text, and I had a hard time following the footnote trail of attribution in the chapter on the priesthood, but that confusion did not damage the reading of the work for me. The book is as much a history of the church in the McKay years as it is a biography of the remarkable man who so looked the part in which he was cast.

4. Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard – This book appeared in 2008, and I read it as soon as I could get it. I had read Juanita Brooks' treatment of the subject as a BYU freshman in 1976 – my first exposure to "problems" in Mormon history. I found the authors' attention to detail and their sensitivity to multiple sides of the story to be impressive. I enjoyed the footnotes as much as the actual text, and appreciated the candor of the authors (and the access they were given to the available records). I look forward to more of this kind of careful, open history.

5. The Mormon Experience by Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton. I'm just reading this one now. The first edition was published near the end of my mission and I missed it completely. The second edition, which I'm reading, has been a great survey. It's a little odd reading as the "current state" of the church a 30+ year-old view, but there is an epilog in the second edition which catches up on some key matters. Even so, the general treatment of history is fairly open. I had thought about reading this one and had passed on it for some time, but then through comments on another blog Ardis Parschall (Ardis' Keepapitchinin blog is on my blog list in the side bar) turned me on to Bitton's essay which had been presented at FAIR entitled "I Don't Have A Testimony of the History of the Church", and decided I wanted to read more of Bitton. I'm glad I have.

There is remarkable value in knowing who we are. I'm grateful to these authors for their contribution to that effort. And I'd be happy for your recommendations for further reading

Monday, September 6, 2010

On spiritual self-sufficiency

We had a lesson in our High Priest Group this past Sunday about the welfare program of the church, and part of that discussion centered on the concept of spiritual self-sufficiency. I was intrigued by the discussion and made some notes during it to include here.

The idea in the welfare program is that we strive for self-sufficiency spiritually and temporally. And the reasons are clear: each member ought to have a strong testimony and be temporally strong enough to withstand the blows of life as they come. In so doing, they can be contributors in the Lord’s kingdom.

As it related to spiritual self-sufficiency, there were a few key points of interest in the discussion:

1. One brother suggested the start of spiritual self-sufficiency is a testimony of the gospel. Fair enough – if we have a testimony, we are more likely to participate and contribute spiritually and temporally. Further, we’re more likely to be in a position to teach our families and help them to do the same.

2. Another suggested that spiritual self-sufficiency grows out of (and is evidenced by) living consistently, meaning living according to our covenants and keeping the commandments because we choose to each day, rather than because our children or spouses or bishops are watching.

3. Another suggested that our spiritual self-sufficiency, ironically perhaps, is dependent upon our humility. If we are not humble, we are less likely to feel the promptings of the spirit, and if we do not feel those promptings, we will not follow them.

4. Our instructor then reminded us of Mosiah 4:16-20, in which King Benjamin reminds us that we are all beggars. Our instructor then suggested that the phrase spiritual self-sufficiency is a bit of a problem in and of itself, because we can never be completely self-sufficient: we are constantly begging for the Savior’s mercy, and without His grace we would never have access to the atonement.

This was a great discussion for me. Often I find myself thinking I know what there is to know on a subject, or that I’m squared away testimony-wise on a particular point of doctrine or history. Sometimes that feeling allows me to check out a little bit, rather than recognizing regularly my need for spiritual nourishment, my need for the Master’s mercy, and my constant dependence on His atonement for my spiritual survival.

Better to check back in and to realize that while I strive for spiritual self-sufficiency, I cannot do it alone.