Thursday, October 28, 2010

Iron Rod and Liahona as Symbols of Saints

In 1967 (the year I was baptized), Richard D. Poll delivered a sermon in the Palo Alto ward in which he coined the terms Iron Rod Saint and Liahona Saint. The sermon was reprinted in Dialogue and the Saints' Herald, and was also later published in the essay anthology A Thoughtful Faith (1986, Philip Barlow, ed.). What follows is the third of a few entries on the iron rod, the liahona, and impressions about Brother Poll's essay.

Poll's essay does a great service by giving voice to a difference which exists among faithful Latter-day Saints. Critical to Brother Poll's view is that both types of Saints are faithful, contributing members; one is not meant to be seen as better than the other. This notion that we can be different and still be faithful is reinforced for me in the writings of Paul:

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:4-10).

Of course the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants also teach of the diversity of spiritual gifts.

Paul continues, however, and makes the point again with a different metaphor:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

The point is, the church is made up by many types of members, and together we strengthen and love one another. We are not, necessarily, meant to be the same.

I'd like to look at the symbols Poll chose to mark his two groups, the iron rod and the liahona.

I recognize that often for illustrative purposes we take existing elements and relate them to whatever point we are trying to make. Elder Packer spoke of the Savior's teaching that something was "like unto" something else. So I understand that the terms, while not a perfect fit to their symbols, can still have value.

Brother Poll suggests for the Iron Rod Saint that the way, though not easy, is clear. I agree he is correct, as far as the iron rod reaches. But in Lehi's dream, even those who arrived at the tree were lured away. So although the way is clear, the Iron Rod is not sufficient to guarantee safety, only safety along the way. Now Brother Poll may have accurately described members' view of the Iron Rod, but I don't think it accurately describes the rod in our lives. Clinging to the word of God will, in fact, allow us to feel God's love in our life, to know His condescension as Nephi describes. But even once we know that love, we are at risk of forgetting it, being ashamed of it, or simply wandering away through our own negligence. The answer is not going back to the path to hold on to the rod. It is to stay at the tree!

In writing this, I don't suggest Brother Poll is incorrect to characterize some members in the way he does, but to suggest those members who believe that holding onto the iron rod is all they need to do may not understand the nuance of Lehi's dream.

Brother Poll characterizes the liahona as a compass which functions differently depending on the circumstances of the user. My reading is that when the user was faithful and diligent, the compass functioned; when he was not, it did not. It is not as if it gave one answer to one and a different answer to another. Further, Brother Poll suggests that it pointed the way, but did not mark a clear path. Fair enough, but when followed it provided enough information to guide its faithful and diligent user to the desired end. If the compass was not infallible, as Brother Poll writes, it is not because of the compass.

As I stated in my first part of this series, I view the iron rod and the liahona as two manifestations of the same thing. As we heed God's teachings, as we are faithful and diligent, we draw nearer to Him, to His direction in our lives. As we follow His direction, we, in turn will be drawn ever closer to Him. As we ignore his teachings, we either let go of the iron rod, or we suffer loss of connection with the liahona, and we are left to wander on our own. But the atoning sacrifice of the Savior helps to restore the connection, to place us back on the path.

Well, Brother Poll selected the labels he did, and those labels served if nothing else to generate discussion. My view is that the labels work to a point, but if we reduce our understanding of those scriptural symbols to the labels, then we will misunderstand the scriptural symbols. But if we use those symbols to foster understanding and acceptance of one another, then perhaps they will have served well.

Next: Reaction to the Labels

Monday, October 25, 2010

Iron Rod Saints & Liahona Saints

In 1967 (the year I was baptized), Richard D. Poll delivered a sermon in the Palo Alto ward in which he coined the terms Iron Rod Saint and Liahona Saint. The sermon was reprinted in Dialogue and the Saints' Herald, and was also later published in the essay anthology A Thoughtful Faith (1986, Philip Barlow, ed.). What follows is second of a few entries on the iron rod, the liahona, and impressions about Brother Poll's essay.

In Brother Poll's sermon, he coins the terms Iron Rod Saints and Liahona Saints. His words:

The Iron Rod was the Word of God. To the person with his hand on the rod, each step of the journey to the tree of life was plainly defined; he had only to hold on as he moved forward. In Lehi's dream the way was not easy, but it was clear.

The Liahona, in contrast, was a compass. It pointed to the destination but did not fully mark the path; indeed, the clarity of its directions varied with the circumstances of the user. For Lehi's family the sacred instrument was a reminder of their temporal and eternal goals, but it was no infallible delineator of their course….

The Iron Rod Saint does not look for questions but for answers, and in the gospel – as he understands it – he finds or is confident that he can find the answer to every important question. The Liahona Saint, on the other hand, is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers; he finds in the gospel – as he understands it – answers to enough important questions so that he can function purposefully without answers to the rest ("What the Church Means to People Like Me," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Winter 1967): 107-17).

Brother Poll's sermon / article then does quite a wonderful job of describing two types of faithful Latter-day Saints. He self-identifies with the second, and speaks of the blessings the church has to offer someone like him.

I first encountered his essay reprinted in A Thoughtful Faith. It's the first essay in a collection which touches on the growth of testimony beyond simple knowledge to sophisticated faith. (Simple and sophisticated are my words, not those of the essayists. I recognize that both are somewhat charged words, but I use them here with positive intent: while it is true that a simple testimony may be for some sufficient to sustain faith, life in a complicated world requires for some a more sophisticated approach. Poll's essay makes clear that there is room for both in the church.)

Brother Poll paints two types of saints as quoted above. In a subsequent entry, I'll discuss his terms. But here I'll simply state that I don't believe it is a binary state – one may not be either Iron Rod or Liahona. I find myself identifying with both, and at different times in my life I have felt closer to and found more comfort in one position or the other. (I should note that my observation is hardly earth-shattering; Poll himself discusses the matter in his follow-up essay, cited below.)

I acknowledge that Brother Poll gave voice to a circumstance that is not unique and is, in fact, quite compelling. He presented a follow-up essay in 1982 by which time over 1,500 reprints of his original Dialogue article had "found their way into circulation…. The sermon has been reprinted in Sunstone and its argument figures porimnently in the conclusion of Arrington and Bitton's The Mormon Experience" ("Liahona and Iron Rod Revisited," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, June 1983, p. 70).

Note -- I've included links to the Dialogue articles, but please check out Dialogue's website here.

Next: Iron Rod and Liahona as Symbols of Saints

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Iron Rod and the Liahona

In 1967 (the year I was baptized), Richard D. Poll delivered a sermon in the Palo Alto ward in which he coined the terms Iron Rod Saint and Liahona Saint. The sermon was reprinted in Dialogue and the Saints' Herald, and was also later published in the essay anthology A Thoughtful Faith (1986, Philip Barlow, ed.). What follows is one of a few entries on the iron rod, the liahona, and impressions about Brother Poll's essay.

In this month's general conference, I heard two references to the iron rod. I don't know if it was mentioned more than usual, but it was enough that I took notice and went back and counted. Sister Wixom and Sister Cook both spoke of it. And there were no references to the liahona that I noticed.

The mention of the iron rod got me thinking enough that we had a family night on the two this week. We know the iron rod comes from Lehi's vision of the Tree of Life. It is a means of conveying people safely from their starting point through the mist of darkness and along the river of filty water to the Tree of Life where they may partake of the fruit of the tree – the love of God. Nephi learns that the iron rod is the word of God.

In the dream, despite the physical stability and safety of a rod of iron, some still let go of the rod and wander in the mist of darkness or are tempted away by those in the great and spacious building. The faithful needed to do something in order to take advantage of the iron rod – they needed to take hold and continue holding on. If the iron rod is the word of God, it would suggest that we need to take hold of the word (study it, follow it, live it) and keep holding on (endure to the end).

It is interesting to me, however, that once they arrived at the tree and tasted of the fruit, some still fell away mostly because they had, as Lehi recounts, been led away by those of the world in the great and spacious building. Even when we taste the fruit of the love of God we must be watchful, presumably continuing to study, follow and live the word of God and endure to the end.

The liahona -- a two- spindled compass with changing writing -- is different. (It occurred to me as I taught my family about the liahona this past week that cell phones today also have directional indicators and writing that changes regularly.) The liahona appears under mystical circumstances to lead Lehi's family further on their journey in the wilderness, and it operates by the faith and diligence of those who use it. There is, in my reading, no indication that the behavior that typifies holding onto the rod of iron is any different from the behavior that allows the liahona to work.

For me, the iron rod and the liahona are two separate images that teach similar lessons, namely that our arrival at the blessings of God's love come through following His word.

Next: Iron Rod Saints and Liahona Saints

Monday, October 18, 2010

Talk tips from the Seventy

As I've been listening to conference again during my daily commute, I've been impressed by the talks of many of the Seventy. I really enjoy General Conference as a rule, and like many, I have some speakers I typically like more than others.

Through the years I've had more than one opportunity to be the person who selected themes for Sacrament Meetings, and for years I followed the common model to invite people to start with a conference talk in preparing their own. (In fairness, I assigned a topic with a conference talk as a reference, not a talk as topic.)

There are great apostolic talks that I still remember through the years. In October 2000, Elder Hales gave what I still consider to be The Talk on Baptism. Elder Oaks gave a talk on the sacrament in April 1985 that teaches clear truths about taking the name of Christ upon ourselves . Elder Holland's "None Were With Him" provided eloquent comfort for all who stand alone at one time or another in their lives.

Those apostolic sermons are impressive and teach us a great deal. But I think the talks of the Seventy are great models for us as we prepare our own talks. Typically they are shorter – about 10 minutes in length. (Even the apostles speak only for about 15 minutes these days, with members of the First Presidency only taking a little longer.) Often they are focused on one theme, idea or concept. They often include scriptural foundation, teaching of the modern prophets and personal experience to illustrate the point.

For instance, from this conference:

Elder Gong's talk about temple mirrors, family history and temple covenants drew on his own Chinese ancestry, his mother's convert experience, and his own reflections on his family.

Elder Kearon's talk to young men in the priesthood session (and its message easily adapted to all members) spoke of his own boyhood error of disobeying his parents out of laziness and rebellion and the positive scriptural example of the Anti Nephi-Lehis who had buried their weapons of war and rebellion.

Elder Oceda told a story of a father who learned a lesson of humilty after behaving badly with his family regarding family scripture reading.

Elder Jensen's personal story of seeking his testimony as a missionary led to a discussion of the role of the Holy Ghost and his personal story of the loss of a grandson while Elder and Sister Jenser were serving out of the country reinforced his quoted teaching of President Monson regarding the Holy Ghost's role as comforter.

Elder Lawrence used his own experience – as well as Alma's -- to teach about parenting teenagers.

Elder Malm used the object lesson of a hollow tree in Gothenburg, Sweden as a contrast to the healthy path of accepting the blessings of the atonement in our lives through obedience to commandments and the sustaining influence of the spirit.

Elder Mazzagardi's account of his interview with his granddaughter while walking around a lake prior to her baptism allowed him to teach us the dangers of the influence of the adversary.

Elder Arnold's story of his wife's "stupid cow" will help us to remember the value of fences to protect us in our lives.

As I think about future assignments to speak, I'll remember these examples of teaching from personal experience, from the scriptures and from the words of the living prophets.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lessons on parenting

Sometimes themes emerge in my life. Recently several areas of my life have converged to teach me a couple of lessons on parenting.

I have seven children, and just the youngest two are at home. One is a teenager and the other is right on the cusp of that turbulent period. You'd think by now I'd have this parenting of teenagers down, but one lesson I learned long ago is that each one is different and it takes some time to learn the individual approach required.

In conference I heard two talks that hit me in the eyes as a father. First (in the order it impressed me, not the order given) was Elder Lawrence's talk on courageous parenting. In it he suggested that parents who have misgivings about their children's choices should express those misgivings. But it was the subtlety of a story he told that really impressed me:

Years ago our 17-year-old son wanted to go on a weekend trip with his friends, who were all good boys. He asked for permission to go. I wanted to say yes, but for some reason I felt uncomfortable about the trip. I shared my feelings with my wife, who was very supportive. “We need to listen to that warning voice,” she said.

Of course, our son was disappointed and asked why we didn’t want him to go. I answered honestly that I didn’t know why. “I just don’t feel good about it,” I explained, “and I love you too much to ignore these feelings inside.” I was quite surprised when he said, “That’s OK, Dad. I understand.”
What impressed me is that he expressed his concern for his son without a rule, without citing a higher authority (or demanding deference to himself as the authority). He simply told his son that he didn't feel good about the decision.

The second conference talk that hit me was Elder Uceda's in the priesthood session, in which he told of a father who demanded compliance with his plan for family scripture study. The father, after his daughter ran from the room, did two things that were impressive to me. First, he prayed, acknowledging to the Lord his error in the way he spoke to his child. Then he humbly apologized to the child. It may seem too much a coincidence that the child was also ready to apologize and seek her father's forgiveness, but I'm not at all surprised by that. The father was humble enough in his apology to accept his daughter's reading about the natural man as applying to him when the daughter intended it for herself.

That prayerful humility is powerful.

The third lesson came from Sister Sylvia Allred, First Counselor in the General Relief Society presidency. She spoke at an Interfaith event sponsored by my company last week about strengthening families. After reviewing the pressure on families' time in recent years (citing a time-diary study from the University of Michigan using data from 1981 and 1997) she reiterated (without explicitly saying so) the lessons of Elder Oaks' "good, better, best" principle of priority setting in the use of scare family time. And, among other things, she urged the audience (which included people of many faiths) to have dinner with their families. That simple act of eating together would, she said, contribute to family unity, allow for conversation, and help improve family diets.

Having missed dinner at home a few times in the past two weeks, I know that I have missed that interaction with my children.

Listening for the promptings of the spirit, prayerfully and humbly seeking reconciliation when needed, and spending quality time together – what great and simple lessons for parents, especially for me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

My profile at

So, I've added a picture of myself at the right. (It's a little scary, isn't it? I might have to work to get it smaller…) If you click on the photo you'll go to my profile at

I thought for some time before completing a profile. I was helped in my decision by reading about others' profiles, and their answers to frequently asked questions on a few other blogs. I decided that I wanted to participate in the conversation there.

Will anyone actually see my profile? I don't know. (I suppose you will, if you click on my picture.) I don't know how many profiles they have at, but it seems like they have plenty. And unless someone really wants to search for old white men from North America (you can search by gender, age, nationality and key words), I doubt mine will pop very often.

As I responded to FAQs, I selected a few, and tried to give short answers (to one I gave a one-word answer; I couldn't be briefer than that!). I chose short answers because I suspected that people reading would not want to wade through my words.
I also was honest. I responded to the question: "What have you done successfully to shield your family from unwanted influences?" In my response I was clear that I had in fact not fully "succeeded," that some of my children made choices different from the ones I would have made for them. But I also stressed that I respect their agency and we still love them and embrace them in our family.

So, have a look if you like. And create your own, if you like. And feel free to give me feedback on mine.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Temple Memories -- Washington DC

Fourth in a series of Temple Memories, inspired by the new Temples booklet which came as the October Ensign.

I was in high school when the Washington DC Temple was dedicated. Along with other primary children, I'd contributed change to help fund its building. I did not attend the dedication itself because of school conflicts, but I went within the year on my only trip to do baptisms for the dead.

My sisters and I made the five-hour drive with a family group sheet that included our grandparents as parents. We had misunderstood the policy and believed that we could bring that family group record to the temple and do the baptisms without having the names cleared first. I think it hurt the poor sister in the baptistery to tell us we couldn't do the baptisms than it hurt us. She did mention, however, that there was another group coming to do baptisms, and perhaps we could join them. We did join them.

I don't remember anything about the group, but I do remember the experience of being baptized multiple times, and of the repeated confirmations. The temple worker who performed the confirmations spoke very quickly as he said the prayer and read the names. On just one of the names he stumbled, and the whole process was over almost before it began. As I stood up to leave he told me that he wondered if when he stumbled on a name if it meant that person was not ready to accept the baptism and confirmation that had just been performed. I didn't answer him and thought to myself that maybe he'd just stumbled on the name because sometimes that happens. But I allowed for the fact that I didn't have any evidence either way, so perhaps he could be right.

I returned to the Washington DC Temple almost ten years later. Living again in Pittsburgh for graduate school brought us back to that temple district. Attending was not simple, since it meant sorting out child care, overnight arrangements and paying for the trip (we were hungry grad students, after all!). Fortunately my wife had an aunt in the area who was a great help on some of our trips.

On one occasion, in response to an invitation from our bishop, we prepared for a ward temple trip. The idea was that every ward member should somehow participate – preparing names, attending sessions, doing baptisms, or providing other service to allow others to participate. He encouraged me to invite my parents, who had since moved from that ward, to come with us.

I prepared names for my father's aunts and uncles and their parents and submitted them. On our day in the temple, baptisms were performed, we and other ward members did endowment work, and then at the end of the day, my parents, my sister, my wife and I found ourselves in a small sealing room where we sealed those aunts and uncles to their parents. Aside from my own sealing to my parents and my sealing to my wife, it was one of the choicest experiences I've had in the temple. My father, who knew these aunts and uncles when he was a boy, said he imagined his aunt Ethyl in the room embracing each of her siblings after his or her sealing to their parents. Through the experience we felt such a closeness to my father's grandmother Annie that we chose that name for our oldest daughter. And that tie to her has propelled us to do more research and more temple work on her line since.

On that day in the temple, my heart was turned not only to my "fathers" – the ancestors whose work we did, but also to my own father who was there in the room with me. I felt a spiritual closeness to him that new to me, and it was quite a gift in my life. Though he was ever faithful since his conversion to the gospel, he did not speak easily about spiritual things, but his sharing his vision of his Aunt Ethyl in that sacred place was a treasure.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Provo Endowment

This is third of a series of posts on my own temple experiences, inspired by the new Temples booklet issued in place of the October Ensign. The prior posts are here and here.

Like most young men who serve missions, I received my endowment shortly before entering the MTC. In my case, it was the day before. I was endowed in the Provo Utah Temple, and accompanying me that day was my college freshman roommate, who was also receiving his endowment, and who was also entering the MTC the next day (though we didn't go to the same mission).

I suppose I would have preferred to go to the temple with my folks, but my dad was working out of the country and could not make a trip home before I left to go to the Washington DC Temple. And it did not bother me in any way that he could not.

As my friend and I walked from our motel to the temple that morning, we encountered a truck that was cleaning the sidewalk outside the Marriott Center on BYU's campus. I assumed the driver saw us and would let us pass, but my friend thought he would spray us with water, which he did! I was about to get mad when my friend laughed it off and said that sort of thing always happened on one's first trip to the temple. (Indeed I've since heard far more significant stories of hardship associated with that first trip.) By the time we arrived at the door to the temple, we were dry.

If the kind folks at the Provo Temple were concerned about our arriving without escorts, they didn't say anything about it. I did notice that they took great care not to lose us, and I suppose our big "Own Endowment" tags pinned to our shirts helped with that.

My bishop had done a pretty good job of preparing me for that first visit. Without giving too much detail, he helped me be aware of what would happen and in what order so that I was not surprised at any step of the way. I don't know if he gave me the advice or not, but somewhere along the way I decided that there was no way I was going to remember everything, so I decided just to let it wash over me and I tried to capture feelings and images rather than specific points along the way. I figured I'd be back again a few times over the next two months. That strategy worked for me, and I have recommended it to other first time attenders I have known.

The spirit of the temple was amazing to me. I was reminded repeatedly of how I had felt in the Salt Lake Temple nine years (almost to the day) earlier. I certainly came away with plenty of questions, and without an experienced escort, I had no one to ask, but that didn't trouble me, either. I do remember the kindness of two sisters who worked in the temple and seemed to keep their eyes on my friend and me throughout our day. They made sure we were on the right escalator and headed into the right room, and they whispered gentle instruction to us about where we could and could not talk and what we could or could not discuss.

Of course during my stay at the MTC, I did get to return each week, so in the course of that time I had nine visits to the temple in as many weeks. I appreciated a meeting with the temple president the first day I attended as a missionary in which we could ask any question we wanted. I was too timid to ask my questions, but some of them were asked by others, and his answers satisfied me at the time.

My impressions as a boy had been confirmed. The temple was a place of peace, a place of happiness, and now a place of learning and of service. And I still found myself wanting to return.