Friday, December 31, 2010

It is resolved

My father was born on New Year's Day. I associate my memories of New Years with him because of his birthday, but also because of New Years Resolutions. I can remember trying to write down resolutions – goals for the year – at his urging when I was a kid. And now, even though my father has been gone for several years, I still think of him and resolutions when New Year's Day comes around.

Dad was a firm believer in self-improvement. He was well-read, not because of his formal training (he was an exceptionally average engineering student in college, but he had a fine career including professional recognition in his field), but because he enjoyed learning. There were many family dinners during which one of us kids was sent looking for the encyclopedia to prove (or disprove) some point of discussion at the table.

Dad sought to instill in us a desire to reach higher, to do more than we thought we could do. His example, together with my mother's, seemed to suggest we really could do anything we set our minds to. I remember talking to him as I graduated high school about what I would study at college. I was a little worried to suggest that I would study theatre, thinking it would be too artsy for his very practical view of life. He surprised me when he thought for a moment and said, "Whatever you study, if you're the best you'll always work."

Dad loved New Year's resolutions, and he encouraged us to write them. Goals for the year. Short statements of what we would seek to improve or build upon in the new year. Chart a course. Lay out a roadmap. Make a plan.

I spent many years of my life as a compulsive planner. Before we married, I wrote budget after budget demonstrating that we could not afford to marry while my wife said, "Let's see – we live separately now for more than it would cost us to get married and live together. What's not to work?" I planned my children's futures. I planned my own career (many times as I kept changing horse mid-stream during college).

Several years ago circumstances combined to help me take a shorter term view, to focus less on the future and more on today, to live in the moment, even one day at a time. And in the intervening years, I've been learning to balance prudent long-term thinking against the value of living today for today.

So not all my resolutions will be for a year. Some will be for a day. And I'll make them each day. And some will help me strike that balance between one day at a time and prudent long-term thinking. But they'll still remind me of my dad.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A first visit to the temple

Last week I received an early Christmas gift as my daughter received her endowment. She is not getting married and she is not going on a mission. She just decided it was time for her to take this step in her life. Fortunately her bishop and her stake president agreed.

She is not my first child, but she is the first of my children to go through the temple. It was a delightful experience to be there with her on that remarkable day. It was not an easy day, and it made me think of two or three other difficult days I've been in the temple.

When our family was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple, it was after driving nearly non-stop from Pittsburgh, PA, to Salt Lake City. My parents were exhausted as we looked for the KOA campground near Point of the Mountain, and to listen to us in the car that evening, one would never have guessed we wanted to be together for another ten minutes let alone for eternity. (In fairness, I assume we won't be stuck in a 1964 Buick station wagon for eternity.) Yet we were sealed the next day, and it was a singularly spiritual event.

On my own endowment day, as I've blogged here, I was sprayed by a truck cleaning the sidewalk as I walked to the Provo Temple. But the sun dried me off and I survived.

On my wife's endowment day, we had missed the information that I also should arrive early at the temple (I knew I had to be in the session, of course) and got a frantic phone call from her saying that I needed to be at the temple RIGHT NOW. I made it in time enough.

And there was plenty of external excitement on the day my daughter was endowed, but we rode those waves all the way to the temple door, and stepped gently into the peaceful arms of the spirit of temple worship.

Going to the temple was not, for my daughter, a quick choice. It was a lifetime of choices that led to her being there that day, and I am grateful for those choices in her life and to those who helped her make them. Yes, her mother and I had some positive influence on her, but we do not take credit for her choices; they are hers alone. But we are proud of her (in that acceptable post-Benson/Uchtdorf sort of way).

It was very cool for me to sit through the session and see it with new eyes, wondering how she saw what I saw. And it is wonderful that she is planning to go back again tomorrow.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My second mission Christmas

It's important that it was the second Christmas of my mission.

The first had not gone so well at all. The first Christmas I'd been in Germany just over a month in a very difficult companionship (and I'd only realized later that I shared the blame for that). The families we knew best were all away for the holiday and finally the branch president and his wife invited us for Christmas dinner. I couldn't reach my parents by phone because no circuits were open and by the time I got through a few days later they weren't at my brother's home any longer.

Poor me. It wasn't a great Christmas.

But the second Christmas was almost magical.

I'd been on my mission over a year and felt more comfortable with myself as a missionary. While my companion leading up to Christmas would never be my best friend, we got along ok and we worked hard together. I was planning a Christmas surprise for him when we got word of his transfer, so I left his gift in his suitcase and he discovered it as he packed.

My new companion, a German, was spectacular. He was relaxed as he entered our companionship four days before Christmas, was calm about the slowness of the work over the holiday, and was quick to engage the members of both the German and American serviceman's branches we worked with. We grew to have an outstanding companionship and we enjoyed working together.

We spent Christmas Eve with our landlady, a widow who lived in one apartment in the house while we had the top floor. She was always kind to us, but Christmas Eve was delightful. We had bought a small tree and decorated it to surprise her and she made a great fuss over our gift. We feasted on hard breads and cheese and meat, sang Christmas songs and shared the Christmas story in her comfortable and well-furnished apartment. Her husband has been a rubber chemist and had a long career with the famous tire makers and his pension left her quite comfortable. She was grateful to have us in the house because we shoveled the snow in the winter, the only demand she made of us besides our very low rent we paid. (When two of the four of us left the apartment a few months later, she cut the rent in half.)

We also benefited from the kindness of members. The American branch had collected food for several weeks before the holiday and we assumed it was for some needy family. We were astonished when it was delivered to our apartment – three boxes of great US-Px food that we hadn't seen since we'd left the States. And on Christmas morning, a gift from the German members arrived on our doorstep, providing us ham and other Christmas meats. (We did no shopping in January thanks to the windfall!)

We spent Christmas Day in the home of the American branch president, and December 26 (Zweiter Fiertag, or Second Holiday in German) with the German branch president and his family.

We were warm, well fed and well loved that Christmas. This Christmas as I have some, but not all of my children at home, I am glad to know that they also are all warm, they will be well fed and they are well loved.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Slow down, turn off distractions, and feel the spirit of the season

I had planned to post a series of Christmas memories this week, and I may still get to that. But I need to blog about our sacrament meeting yesterday.

Our bishopric had chosen to do a First Presidency Fireside-style meeting – each member of the bishopric spoke, surrounded by special music by the choir, a men's group, Primary children and some instrumental numbers, as well as congregational singing.

I sang in our two choir numbers and in the men's number. The choir, which has normally sung Hymnplicity arrangements of hymns this year, sang pieces that were different – first Christmas Allelulia, and then the John Rutter arrangement of the Wexford Carol. The Wexford Carol, in particular, was pretty cool to sing. I enjoy John Rutter, though he's challenging for me to sing. I was introduced to him by a ward choir director years ago who attended a choral workshop with him in England quite some time ago. Her excitement about his work was infectious.

The men's group – nine men all together – sang an a capella version of Rise Up Shepherds which went very nicely. There's something about the blending of men's voices that is very cool.

Our Primary chorister is awesome. She was not at all rushed as she arranged the Junior Primary kids and passed out little tiny bells on tongue depressors for them to use during their version of Christmas Bells, and then the Senior Primary sang Come Little Children with some parts and a violin accompaniment.

We had a young man play Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring on his string bass, and the sister who played violin with the Primary also played a violin solo arrangement of Still, Still, Still. I could listen to this violinist all day.

Even the organ was more daring for the day with more brass in the closing hymn and the addition of the 32' bass in the final chorus of Joy To the World.

My observation of these musical sacrament meeting programs is that the spoken word sometimes gets trumped by the music, but that was not the case yesterday. Our bishop's first counselor spoke about the importance of Handel's Messiah in his family as he was growing up, and he quoted from Elder Condie's article in December's Ensign. He then spoke of the Savior's birth and the blessing it was.

The second counselor spoke about the shepherds, and particularly about the fitting irony that they went from being shepherds to seeking their shepherd.

And our good bishop, who is a dear friend, encouraged us to do three things this season:

1. Slow down
2. Turn off distractions
3. Seek and feel the spirit of the season

I was impressed by the care with which the bishopric's messages were prepared and presented. Our bishop is not naturally an outstanding public speaker, something he readily admits. But it never ceases to amaze me the spirit he conveys when he teaches as bishop. He and his counselors had clearly devoted a great deal of effort to their preparation just as the musicians who performed had done. And the result was terrific.

It was a wonderful meeting. And a great beginning to this Christmas week.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gifts of the Spirit - the Gospel Principles Discussion in my HP Group

I did it again in our last high priest group meeting. I made a comment that drew odd looks from my fellow group members.

We were reading in the Gospel Principles manual, Chapter 22 in which some of the gifts of the spirit are enumerated and discussed. I had taught this lesson earlier this year in the Gospel Essentials class and had appreciated the simple discussion of the gifts in that forum. But I was just a little bothered in our high priest group that we were rarely stepping beyond the words on the page as we read.

Finally when we read, "Every person can have a testimony through the whisperings of the Holy Spirit," under the heading The Gift of Knowing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, I decided to speak.

I've written here repeatedly about my understanding that we don't all have each gift of the spirit, and I believe that in my own experience I have sometimes felt one gift when I needed and then another at a different time.

I suggested that while it's true we may all have some testimony of the Savior, those testimonies may not look the same. The answer one person gets to the promise in Moroni 10:4 may come differently than it does for someone else. Some will more easily say they know; others will believe.

I assumed I'd get broad agreement, particularly since D&C 46:11-12 says, "For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby,” and the lesson manual quoted those verses on the next page.

I was surprised, however, that some suggested that I was wrong. One brother suggested that this particular gift was a requirement for all. Others suggested that all could get the same answer equally. I suppose that in theory God could choose to do that if He wants to, but my experience is that it does not happen that way. And it's ok that it doesn't.

The Gospel Principles manual continues: "To develop our gifts, we must find out which gifts we have…. We should seek after the best gifts." I agree that there is value in understanding what gifts we have, and petitioning the Lord for those we need. And for recognizing them when they come, even if only temporarily in response to a particular need.

Monday, December 13, 2010

On witnesses

Toward the end of my mission, Elder Theodore M. Burton, then a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and the equivalent of our Area President (they had a different name then – executive administrator, I think) taught us in a zone conference. Among other things, he suggested that as we study the scriptures we would do well to focus on things the Lord says more than once. He argued that there is less value in hanging onto half a verse of meaning rather than look at messages the Lord repeats.

That is advice that has influenced me in the 30+ years since I heard that message. I was stuck as I read the December Ensign last week because I kept seeing examples of that principle.

In "Three Stars" John B. Rowe cites D&C 6:28 which makes the point: “In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established." That same point is made in Deuteronomy 19:15 and 2 Corinthians 31:1.

In "Modern Day Fiery Serpents" David Smith recounts the story of the children of Israel who had been bitten by fiery serpents and would be rescued by looking upon the serpent lifted up by Moses. That story is told in Numbers 21, Alma 33, 1 Nephi 17 and 2 Nephi 25. It's a great example of Elder Burton's suggestion that important things are repeated throughout the scriptures.

In the same issue of the Ensign, Elder Hamula refers to another example: Moroni's appearance to Joseph Smith (which we can read about in Joseph Smith History) – three visits in one night and another the next day in which Moroni's message does not change. Core to that message is his quoting of the prophet Malachi, as retold in D&C Section 2. Here, as in the other examples, the message is so important it is repeated by prophets of different dispensations, and it is chronologically the first entry in the Doctrine and Covenants (after the later-revealed preface).

As I study the gospel, I am drawn to messages that are repeated in multiple sources more than I am to portions of verses that stand alone.

Friday, December 10, 2010

On turning one

I posted my first entry on this blog a year ago today. I had no idea what to expect. I started my blog for a number of reasons. First, I was driven to write, and blogging allows me to do that. Second, in an article in the October 2009 issue of the Ensign encouraged us to participate in the online dialog about the church.

I said I would blog about my own experience in and with the church, and I've tried to stay true to that mission. A few of my posts have strayed slightly, but in most of them I try to look at my own experiences and what they have taught me.

I've been surprised at the response. Since I started blogging, there have been well over 5,000 views of my blog. My most-viewed entry was coincidentally posted on my birthday, October 4, 2010, about my experience receiving my endowment in the Provo temple before my mission. I think that one got so many views because it was cited in a Mormon Times review of recent blog posts.

I've been recently surprised when people I know tell me they've been reading my blog. It pleases me to know that someone finds it interesting. I suppose if I were more controversial or hit more "hot" topics I might generate more comments, but for now I'm ok with where we are.

Looking back, here are a five of my favorite entries:

Face to Face With Apostles in which I talk about three very brief personal interactions I've had with members of the Quorum of the Twelve

Salt Lake Sealing in which I talk about my experience as a child being sealed to my parents

A Memory of Yom Kippur in which I chronicle a vivid memory of the atonement's becoming real for me

Might I Be Wrong? in which I share a question that is one of the most helpful in my relationships with others

Adam and Eve As Co-Parents in which I discuss the value of moms and dads working together as parents

Thanks for reading!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Perhaps one of you will reach them

A friend bore her testimony in church yesterday and it really rang true to me. She told of attending a gospel music concert a few weeks ago. One of the singers at that concert bore witness of Christ and encouraged all in the audience to continue to spread the good news. The singer spoke of members of her family who needed the message but that she could not reach. She said, perhaps one of you will reach them.

I think about times in my life when help has come to me when I've needed it most. While sometimes that help has come from those closest to me, often it has come from someone else – a scout leader, a friend, even a stranger. When I was in high school, I know my mother prayed for me to stay true to the church, but it was a remarkable friend I met just before my senior year that helped me renew my resolve to stay active and prepare to serve a mission. When I served in a calling I didn't particularly like, a stake leader with a sincere and open heart loved me enough to help me learn to succeed. When I suffered a deep depression at a time of major upheaval in our family, I know my wife prayed for my relief, but it was a trusted friend who was able to listen and help guide me through that period. And yesterday, when I carried a particular need with me to Fast and Testimony Meeting, it was the testimony of a friend that spoke peace to my soul.

I have loved ones in my life with acute needs, but needs I cannot fill. And I pray that there will be others in their lives who will do what I cannot. I'm reminded of Elder Uchtdorf's talk about our being Christ's hands, blessing others through our lives. I have faith that those people will exist for my loved ones, and that I will be that person for someone else.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What Counts?

Sister Beck, in the recent Worldwide Leadership Training, said:

"What counts for the Lord? Is it going to be the meetings? Is it going to be the numbers? […] Or is it going to be the caring?"

As I've thought about this comment, I've reflected on the role of statistics – or the role of what I keep track of -- in my church life. On my mission, statistics were a big deal – how many proselyting hours, how many discussions – though they were less of an issue to my mission president than to his predecessor, who reportedly regularly made transfer decisions based on statistical performance.

An as a leader in the ward, I've often focused on statistics – home teaching, attendance figures, and other measures of activity.

That said, I am not a 100% person. I'm not a 100% home teacher. I'm not sure I've ever been. But I do know and see the families assigned to me who will let me come. I could probably see them more often; I certainly could minister better.

I'm not 100% at scripture reading, meaning I don't read every day. But we read most days in a week as a family (it was much easier during our seminary sabbatical last year when we could read in the mornings; now that I have another child in early morning seminary we're back to reading before bed, which is always more challenging). And I do know the scriptures, and I am in them often, and learning them more.

I can track my tithing faithfulness; I can measure my performance against the key worthiness elements of the Word of Wisdom. But more importantly, I can see blessings for paying tithing and I feel the nudge toward (and the blessings of) the non-worthiness elements of the Word of Wisdom.

I'm glad we no longer collect statistics on temple attendance. I can remember we used to do it in all sorts of ways. The temple has always seemed to me the ultimate in private worship and service. Nevertheless I do have a goal for my own temple attendance, and, more importantly, I can feel when I haven't been in while – I can tell that something is missing in my life.

Bishop Edgley visited our stake quite a number of years ago. In a priesthood leadership session, he put up some statistics on two stakes – one with a very high activity rate as measured by sacrament meeting attendance, temple worthiness (number of endowed members who held recommends), percent of age-appropriate Melchizedek priesthood holders, and so on, and one that was far less active. He then asked us to guess where these stakes were. As it happens, they were both our stake, split statistically between active and less active members. He taught us about the need to minister to the active and less active. He then taught us something that has stuck with me: The Lord does not use statistics since he can read our hearts. But we use them as indicators of where we might look for improvement in ourselves.

I doubt – Sister Beck's comment notwithstanding – that there will be a retreat from the collecting and reporting of statistics, nor do I believe there needs to be. But I hope Sister Beck's comment, like Bishop Edgley's from years ago, will remind us of the proper perspective: in the end, each of us needs to do the best we can. Each of us needs to take the next step, whatever it is. And to the extent we can minister to one another and help one another to take those steps, that's a good thing.