Monday, November 29, 2010

The Power of Testimony

In our recent stake conference, Elder Ringwood of the Seventy spoke about testimony. He suggested that for most of us in the church, the reason we do what we do is our testimony – we attend meetings, we home teach, we give service because of our testimony. I found that interesting because we teach that faith is the motivating principle that moves us to action. And therein I find a relationship between testimony and faith.

In that regard, it matters less, I think, if a person says he knows or believes than what his faith or his testimony moves him to do.

Elder Ringwood asked why we were in the leadership meeting we were attending. His answer: our testimonies drove us to be there. Why do we share the gospel? Our testimony drives us to do it. Why do we attend the temple? The power of our testimony moves us there.

There is a bit of circular logic (and he freely admitted that). Our testimony drives us to pay tithing, and paying tithing increases our testimony of doing it. And that pattern repeats itself in many ways in our church lives, whether with family prayer or personal scripture study or repentance.

It's what I call the overflowing principle. Imagine that you are a bowl. The spirit is the water in a pitcher. As one pours water from the pitcher into the bowl, eventually the water will overflow the sides of the bowl and spill out. The best member missionaries are those who simply can't help it – it just overflows out of them. The happiest members of the church I know are those whose water simply overflows.

Those of us who feel like we’re always scraping the bottom of the bowl for a few more drops of water are likely to feel less fulfilled by "doing our duty." And so we need – for our own survival and comfort – to find ways to fill our bowls.

But when we have those days when our bowls are full and overflowing, it can be astonishing what we can do because we are driven by our faith and testimony.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Give Thanks

Oh Thou, who has given us o much, mercifully grant us one more thing -- a grateful heart. (George Herbert)
That quotation hangs on our kitchen wall above the breakfast table. And I think we are a pretty thankful lot in our house. Our kids have learned to thank others for the kindnesses they perform. We thank one another for preparing dinner, for doing chores.

My ten year old daughter often says prayers that are only thank-you prayers, something that really touches me.

We practiced a long-standing family tradition for Thanksgiving this year. The first Family Night of November, we introduce the Thankful Turkey -- a box with a turkey head and tail, and with a slot in the top. The idea is that we should spend the month writing things we're thankful for, and then we read them at Thanksgiving dinner. We also invite guests who come to dinner to contribute their thanks to the turkey.

There were sixteen of us at dinner this year, including out of town visitors. The thank-yous ran the gamut from the general (six or seven "family" entries) to the very specific (thanks for the Relief Society sisters who provided meals while my wife was recuperating from back surgery this month) and everything in between. It was fun to have everyone take turn drawing a slip from the box and reading it. One of the kids even penned thank-yous from our dog Molly and the cousins' dog Owen who was also visiting for the day!

My thanks are wide ranging, too. For specific blessings such as my wife's progress in her recovery from surgery to my children's success in their endeavors to my own continuing employment to the blessings of the gospel in our lives to a home with heat and protection from the elements to plenty of food to eat to the genuine love I feel for my family.

It's amazing the blessings I enjoy. And it's wonderful to take a few days and concentrate on those instead of the challenges (I enjoy plenty of those, too).

Monday, November 22, 2010

Origin of Testimony

In our stake conference this past weekend, Elder Michael Ringwood of the Seventy spoke in our priesthood leadership meeting about, among other things, testimony.

He recounted his experience in an interview with two apostles (prior to his call as a Seventy, I assume, though he did not say). Much of the interview was mechanical in nature. But at the end, one of the apostles asked Elder Ringwood and his wife, "Tell us about the origin of your testimony."

The ensuing discussion in our leadership meeting got me thinking about the origins of my testimony. I use the plural because for me there have been many formative experiences, and there is not just one from which my testimony evolved. But here are some of the origins that occurred to me:

1. When I was a small child, my non-LDS parents read Bible stories to me and said prayers with me at bedtime. I don't know if we did this every night, but we did it often enough that I remember doing it at a very early age. Knowing that my parents were believers made it easy and natural for me to believe, as well.

2. When I was in third grade, a friend invited me to a Primary activity. That invitation set in motion a series of events that eventually led to our family's hearing the missionary discussions and choosing to be baptized. I suppose it's possible that we might have found some other path to membership, but I will forever be grateful to that young friend for his invitation.

3. I remember the night we were baptized. I remember standing in the water with Elder Kelly. I remember watching as my other family members were baptized. I remember the feeling that filled me on that day.

4. Just under a year later, our family was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. In that sealing room, the feeling of the night of my baptism was there again, and I was coming to understand what it felt like to have the Spirit speak to me in that way.

5. At a youth conference before my senior year in high school I met a new friend who was the son of our new mission president. This kid became a good friend who did nothing unusual but be a great friend to me. At the same conference, I felt the tug of the spirit (again) and found myself recommitting myself to prepare for a mission and make better choices than I had been making. Having the added friendship was a real boost to that effort for me.

6. As a freshman at BYU, my roommate introduced me to questions, particularly of church history, that I had never considered before. As I studied those and resolved some of them, I also had a series of spiritual experiences that involved specific answers to prayer, receiving a patriarchal blessing, continued preparation for a mission, and a renewal of my witness that the Book of Mormon was true.

Those foundational origins for me laid groundwork, but did not set limits on my testimony. Instead they were the footings on which the rest of my testimony has been built over the years. It's only as an adult that I've realized that my experience, while not terribly unusual, is not universal. Some have far more subtle origins, and some more dramatic.

I am grateful for those origins, most of which were quite personal and not really the result of someone else's preaching to me. I certainly was affected by talks I heard and teaching I received, but it was, at best, a catalyst, not a reason for my testimony. My parents provided opportunities for me to learn, but did not push me to do so. Those are lessons I need to keep learning as I find my way as a parent.

What are the origins of your testimony?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Allowing Mourning

As I began to write this post I had a flash of a memory from my undergrad days at BYU. We were in one of my English classes, a survey course, I believe, studying Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning." Our instructor, pointing out the need to understand the words before we could understand the poem, indicated the first time she read this poem she substituted "Morning" for "Mourning." And she wondered how anyone could forbid morning from coming.

In Donne's poem, the speaker tries to sooth his lover's mourning at his leaving by presenting a series of metaphysical images which demonstrate how their being apart is actually good for them.

I think about things I have mourned in my life, and about the scriptural injunction to mourn with those that mourn. Of course I have mourned the death of loved ones – first my grandparents in my youth and then my parents when I was an adult. I was relatively young when my grandparents died. The one I remember the most was my mother's father. I knew him better than the others because he spent half of each year in the same town that we lived in. I must have been about 14 when he died (my brother had recently returned from his mission). When my mother gave me the news, I felt nothing. And I was surprised by that. It seemed odd that I didn't feel anything, but there I was.

A day or two later we gathered in the funeral home for a family viewing before Papa's many friends and business associates would file through to pay their respects. When I saw my grandfather in the casket, tears poured from my eyes. I could not control them, nor did I understand them. It was not as if I wanted him to come back; I knew he wouldn't. But the tears were unrelenting.

My mother kindly moved me to a more private part of the funeral home where I continued to weep. My brother, just home from his mission, came in to try to comfort me. He tried to talk about the Plan of Salvation, about life after death. But in the end, he said sometimes we just need to cry, and asked if I wanted him to stay or be alone. After a while, the tears stopped. I blew my nose, and I was done crying.

I have also mourned other losses besides the death of loved ones. I have mourned the loss of my dream of what some of my children would become as they made choices that were radically different from the ones I would have made for them. (I have since learned that it's unfair of me to suppose that my children will choose the dreams I have selected for them; they must be free to choose their own paths.)

I have mourned the loss of opportunities that I either missed or squandered. For instance I work in a job that many would consider to be terrific, but it is not my first choice of profession and does not bring me joy. And for a long time, I mourned what could have been had I traveled a different path. (And at the same time I've learned that work does not have to bring me joy, even though some days I wish it would.)

I have, from time to time, mourned change in my life. When I have left a calling it often has also meant leaving the association of those with whom I worked in that calling. I have mourned the loss of friends who have moved away, or friends I have left behind when I've moved. I have mourned my own innocence when events out of my control showed me more real life consequences than I ever wanted to see. And I've mourned because of mistakes I've made as a parent and as a husband.

When we mourn with those that mourn, what do we do? Of course we bring funeral potatoes. We send sympathy cards or flowers. We offer to help. Sometimes we just listen. And sometimes, like my brother, we let the mourner just cry.

I remember with clarity one friend who mourned with me. We had moved back to the US from an overseas assignment. I had just been released as bishop. The transition back to life in the US was difficult (more difficult than going overseas, as has always been the case for us). Some of my children were not adjusting well, and all the change caused some emotional earthquakes in our home. A good friend had warned me that my release as bishop would likely be followed by a period of depression, and I ignored him. But within months of our return I was, in fact, in a deep depression – fueled by the release, the move, the upheaval in our home.

I finally reached out to a friend who patiently listened as I talked. He read as I wrote. He said very little, really, except to say by what he did that he was there for me, ready to listen and ready to do, if something needed to be done. He encouraged me to visit with the bishop, which I did, but that was not particularly helpful to me. Certainly not as helpful as the listening ear of my dear friend.

And in time, I healed. The sun began to shine on me again. It took years to sort out the tremors in the family (and some still resonate ten years later), but it took much less time for me to find relief. And having someone mourn with me made all the difference.

And it made me look a little closer sometimes for someone whom I might love a little more, encourage a little more, someone who needs someone to mourn with him.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Repeating the sacrament prayers

Yesterday one of the priests in our ward had to repeat the sacrament prayer. When that happens, I imagine other congregants do as I do – we say a silent prayer that they young man can find his voice and read the prayer correctly to avoid embarrassment.

Few prayers are delivered word for word in the church, but some that are related to ordinances are, including the sacrament prayers.

I remember two specific experiences that have colored my memories. The first was when I was newly called Teachers Quorum president. Right after a meeting (it might have been a morning Sunday School meeting – we had those back then), I was given a stern talking-to by a newly ordained priest who had to repeat the prayer. He hadn't made a mistake – he read the prayer right from the card – except that he read the wrong prayer. As we teachers set up the sacrament, we had not taken care to be sure the right prayer was facing up on the card.

At the time, I thought (but did not say out loud – this guy was a weightlifter and I was certainly not), "You could check the prayer before your start!" But in the intervening years, I thought he was right: I should magnify my calling and perform my duty as best I can; I should do whatever I can to assist others in performing their duties.

When I became a priest, I worked hard to avoid having to repeat the prayer. I practiced it before I gave it the first time. And the priest who "trained" me (the same one who had the inverted card a year before) recommended I start with the prayer on the bread so I wouldn't have a swarm of deacons around the table distracting me. I may have had to repeat a prayer or two as a priest, but I don’t remember having to do so. In my second memory, I was rescued by my companion:

I was in the MTC – well, I think it was still the LTM officially, but we were in the "new" buildings where the MTC is today. Our branch was made of all German-speaking districts and we did the sacrament prayers in German. Sometime during the course of our stay my companion and I were to bless the sacrament. I practiced the prayer for a couple of days ahead of time. And when the time came, I read the prayer slowly and carefully, and started to stand up when my companion whispered, "Amen." In my zeal to get all those complicated German words right, I'd forgotten the last word. I fell back to my knees, said Amen, and stood. My pride was a little bruised, but my companion was kind about it.

There is value in learning exactness in small things like sacrament prayers as it attunes us to exactness in larger things.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Why was it such a great sacrament meeting?

Two Sundays ago we had an awesome sacrament meeting, and I've been trying to figure out what made it so good. I recall I did stay awake for the whole meeting – not sure of the cause and effect there (did I stay awake because it was a great meeting or was it a great meeting because I stayed awake?). All I know is 1 pm sacrament meeting is really tough on me; I never ever took 1 pm classes in college for the same reason.

In any case, going into the meeting I don't remember anything significantly different from other normal weeks. My wife was away doing stake visits associated with her calling, which is not unusual these days. Reverence in the chapel was about normal – a low moan before the meeting, except at the deacons' bench where the chatter is near constant. The hymns were ok; I enjoy singing the hymns and our chorister has a great sense of tempo. My wife is my favorite of our ward's organists, though her new stake calling keeps her away from playing more than we'd both like. But the organist who played is also excellent.

The sacrament itself was not especially different. Our young men generally do a nice job with the sacrament: prayers are understandable when spoken by the priests, and the young men who pass do so with care. They're about as neat and orderly as 12-15 year boys can be.

Our youth speaker was particularly good. Our ward's priests and Laurels, as a rule, do a great job with talks in sacrament meeting. They are typically closer to ten minutes than five, and are carefully prepared and presented. This one, by one of our priests, was on the blessings of the atonement aside from repentance, and it was really quite a nice talk. It displayed a maturing view of the atonement and careful reading of appropriate scriptures and background material. I remember thinking what a great job the young man had done (and I told him so later).

But the talk that really got to me was our second speaker, who happens to be the wife of our bishop's second counselor. She is a young mom, and I don't know her well. Her talk was on the resurrection, and she spoke from the heart using many personal examples of loved ones she has lost and how her testimony of the Savior's resurrection has informed her view of those events at various times in her life.

I think it was the personal nature of her talk that was compelling to me. It caused me to reflect on my own loss of my grandparents in my youth, and my loss of my parents as an adult, and to think about what comfort the Savior's resurrection offered me (more as an adult than as a youth).

But I think the thing that must have made the greatest impact on me was her repeatedly and convincingly bearing testimony of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that means in our lives – that we will be resurrected, that we have hope of seeing our deceased loved ones again, that we can become free from the physical pains of this world. As she bore testimony (and she did it throughout her talk in a number of different ways), the spirit washed like waves over me. About two thirds of the way through her talk she quoted Joseph Smith on the truth that mothers would again see their babies that had died. (This topic was a tender one for Joseph and Emma as so many of their children died so young.) I could not stop the tears from flowing, nor did I want to.

(Although my tears were unstoppable, they were not emotional tears. I know myself well enough now to know the difference in me between emotion-driven tears (I cry at Hallmark commercials, for goodness' sake) and what, for me, are spiritual tears.)

She was followed by a soloist who sang "I Know That My Redeemer Lives." The soloist is a friend of mine, and I know that he does know that, as well as any of us can, anyway. After the wonderful talk, I could not look directly at the soloist as he sang, or those emotional tears would have gotten to me.

The final talk was not so special to me; one of our full time missionaries was assigned to speak on family history work (it seemed an odd choice of assignments to me), but that was ok. I was still in the glow of the second talk; I felt like I'd had my spiritual main course already and the young elder's talk was just the dessert. When the ward choir finished with one of my favorite hymns, "Thy Spirit Lord Hath Stirred Our Souls," I agreed that indeed it had.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Promise

In our family scripture reading we finally got to the end of the Book of Mormon (this time it took us about 15 months). As we read Moroni's promise, we talked about all the steps Moroni wants us to take in order to gain a witness of that great book. It's not the simple, "If you were lucky enough to get this book, ask God if it's true and He'll tell you through the Holy Ghost." Here are the key verses:

Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things (Moroni 10:3-5).

So first, of course, we must read.

And we must remember God's mercy through the ages, from the creation to now. That presupposes that we have some knowledge of God's mercy during that time. We must become acquainted with that mercy (some of which we get from reading the Book of Mormon, of course).

We need to ponder that mercy in connection with our reading of the Book of Mormon. To me this means that I must ask myself how the Book of Mormon is a continuing sign of God's mercy. How does it demonstrate His mercy to me?

Then when we receive these things (the book, an understanding of the mercy?), THEN we ask God in the name of Christ if these things are not true. I was always bugged by that wording as a missionary. Why should I have people ask if it's NOT true? I wonder sometimes if this makes that particular question more of an offhanded one: go ahead and ask if it isn't true, as if that isn't even a possibility.

Ask with a sincere heart. I can only judge that in myself, but a clue of my sincerity comes in the next phrase: with real intent. What do I intend to do with the knowledge I'm about to receive? If I intend to change my life because of it, then it seems I'm sincere. If I have no intention to change, then how real is my intent?

I must have faith in Christ. Faith is, of course, a motivating force in our lives, encouraging us to act according to the object of our faith. In this case, that faith is to be in Jesus Christ – as testified by the Book of Mormon, I assume. With that faith I would look forward to, among other things, the answer that the Book of Mormon IS true.

If I meet all those conditions, then the Holy Ghost will bear witness to me.

In subsequent verses we're taught to deny not the power of God, the revelatory power of the Holy Ghost and the gifts of the spirit which manifest themselves differently to different people. To me, Moroni says: Do not deny that an answer is possible. Have faith that one is possible. It will come.

It has for me.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Face to face with apostles

A post over at Wheat and Tares got me thinking about my personal experiences with apostles. I don't have many – I have met only two, and those both briefly. And I shook hands with a third.

The first was in the early 1990s when we lived in Hiroshima, Japan. Elder Maxwell spoke at a stake conference. After the meeting, we were about to set out home and I mentioned to my wife, I'd really like to go back and meet Elder Maxwell and shake his hand. So we took our five kids back inside where he was greeting members on the stage of the auditorium where we'd met. By the time we got there the line had thinned quite a bit. We had first greeted Elder Bateman who was in the area presidency (and chatted about West Africa – my parents had lived there when Elder Bateman, before his call as a general authority, had come on an exploratory trip before the church sent senior couple missionaries there and had met him in their home in Lagos).

When we got to Elder Maxwell, I was so impressed by his gentle manner and his genuine interest in us. I shook his hand and introduced myself, and, not wanting to take any more time than necessary, tried to pull my hand away so I could introduce my wife and children. But he held onto my hand, looked into my eyes and smiled. It was as if he had said, "You waited to see me; let's just share a moment together." Frankly, I was not all together comfortable, but I did feel his love.

Several years later we lived in Venezuela and Elder Hales visited for a regional conference. Because I work for a car company, I was asked to try to arrange a vehicle to transport Elder Hales, and I selfishly agreed to do so on the condition that I could drive it. So I transported Elder Hales and his wife from the airport, and to and from his meetings and hotel. It was a delightful experience to visit with him. He and his family had lived overseas on work assignments prior to his call as a general authority, and it was interesting to hear his perspective on that experience. He also spoke of a rather serious and mysterious illness he'd contracted on an earlier visit to Latin America, one that landed him in the hospital for some time. And he expressed genuine concern for my family and for the ward in which I was the bishop at the time.

After the Sunday meeting, his flight arrangements did not allow him to stay after the meeting to visit with members, so prior to the meeting, he walked through the crowd in the basketball stadium shaking hands. After the meeting, as we waited in the line of cars leaving the stadium to return him to the airport, he saw a disabled man exiting the arena. He asked if I knew who he was, and I identified him as a member of our ward. Elder Hales got out of the car and walked over to him and visited with him briefly as the motorcade waited. I was touched by his attention to individual members despite the realization that his commercial flight would not wait for him if he were late.

The third – just a handshake -- was with Elder Packer. He spoke at a regional conference in our state. While we watched the Sunday session on a live video feed, I attended the priesthood leadership session in person the day before. I sat just a few rows from the stand as he instructed us for most of the meeting. Much of the time he answered questions from the audience and taught us based on the questions that were asked. I felt that some of his teaching applied specifically to me, and some didn't. As he left the chapel, he shook hands with those of us who were close enough to the aisle to do so.

It was impressive to me to sit at that apostle's feet and receive his instruction and blessing and to feel the spirit bear witness of his message.

These three men were each quite different in their approach. They taught different subjects. Each spoke in his own style. But in each case, I felt a confirming witness of their divine call. My heart was touched by their message. And my life was improved by being in their presence.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Reaction to the Labels Iron Rod and 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 the last of a four entries on the iron rod, the liahona, and impressions about Brother Poll's essay.

Brother Poll's response to his own 1967 article was published in Dialogue in 1983. Brother Poll summarizes one result of his original article, "The article did little, I confess, to make Mormons of the two tendencies feel more accepting of each other. Its most significant contribution. . . was to help make the Liahonas more accepting of themselves" (1983, p. 70).

Poll summarizes some responses he received, including defensive ones from self-declared Iron Rods and sympathetic ones from self-declared Liahonas. He then maintains his characterization and provides more texture to the differences between the two.

In a subsequent article, "Explorations in Mormon Social Character: Beyond the Liahona and Iron Rod", Jeffery Jacob (June 1989) attempts to categorize the social structure of the church even more by expanding on Poll's binary model. And I'm sure that others have also tried to characterize members of the church. (Frankly, I didn't get Jacob's article; it was far more technical that I was ready to try to comprehend.)

The key premise – and to me one of great value -- of Poll's analysis, however, was the faithfulness of both of his groups. They did not differ so much in the what but the how as it related to gospel living. He contends that both groups attend the temple, serve in the church in various positions, and attempt to lead honorable lives. He also notes that members of both groups also fall away.

In the end, if the symbols are to be helpful to us, I believe they are so personally. I can judge where I am on the spectrum, but I need not judge where someone else is. Recognizing that faithful members can be at either end or somewhere in between suggests to me that I can also be accepting of others as they are. It is not mine to judge someone's motives or even his or her actions. Even those called to judge do so within a relatively limited set of circumstances.

As a comment to my first post on this subject, one respondent said, "Creating dichotomies … seems to me more divisive than unifying, which kind of hurts the purpose of the Church." I agree that concentrating on differences is not always helpful, especially when we are trying to be "many members, yet but one body" (1 Corinthians 12:20).