Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Feeling" the Spirit

Elder Packer taught a group of new mission presidents:

The voice of the Spirit is described in the scriptures as being neither loud nor harsh, not a voice of thunder, neither a voice of great tumultuous noise, but rather as still and small, of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it can pierce even the very soul and cause the heart to burn. The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting ("How Does The Spirit Speak To Us?", New Era, Feb 2010, from an address to new mission presidents from June 1991).

In the same address he said:

When we experience a spiritual communication, we are wont to say within ourselves, “This is it. Now I understand.”

In these two quotations, it is interesting that Elder Packer does not talk about emotional feelings. I have had plenty of times in my life when I’ve felt the influence of the spirit. And sometimes I have also felt great emotion. It took me some time to realize the difference for me.

I get emotional about a lot of things. I weep at movies. My kids joke that I cry often in church. When I used to travel more, I’d weep at the AT&T commercials they showed on my international flights (and I’d want to call my kids right then). Knowing that I weep easily, I have had to learn to avoid assuming that tears meant spirit.

Elder Packer’s second quotation above is the key for me. “Now I understand.”

I can point to specific times in my life when I have been able to say this. Marking my experience at those times, I’ve come to understand how the spirit speaks to me. Here is one of those experiences:

During my freshman year at BYU, I came to know some of the issues surrounding the prophet Joseph Smith. I had a roommate whose dad was not a friend of the church, and my roommate and I spent a lot of time talking about his concerns. I had by then had enough of my own experience to accept Joseph’s first vision and the Book of Mormon as true. But I was fuzzy on pretty much everything else. As I studied that year, I got more and more concerned about my own testimony.

As the time to put in my missionary papers drew near, I knew I wanted to serve. I resolved, consciously, to put my concerns about Joseph on a shelf, trusting my conviction about the first vision and the Book of Mormon. When I attended the temple for the first time, and subsequently during my time in the LTM (shortly before its re-birth as the MTC), I felt peace there. When I came to the temple for my own endowment, I felt the same peace I’d felt as a child at our family’s sealing.

After my mission, I continued to consider my concerns about the prophet Joseph and the things I could not piece together. I still felt unsettled, but continued onward, trusting what I knew to be true and hoping for resolution of the rest.

Some fifteen years after my mission I was teaching church history and the Doctrine and Covenants in Gospel Doctrine. As I was preparing for a regular class one week, I was prayerfully considering whatever sections were the subject matter. As I did so, it was as if a tumbler turned in my brain and pieces I had previously not understood fell into place. Without completely being able to explain what happened, I came away with more understanding – spiritual understanding – of Joseph’s role in the restoration. My testimony of God, of Jesus Christ and of the church was strengthened. And since then, that testimony has been reinforced from time to time with further understanding as I have sought it.

This particular moment of enlightenment was not emotional. It was not a booming trumpet that proclaimed the truth. I did not feel a rushing of wind. I did not see a vision. I simply understood what I had not understood moments before.

Update: Please see my second entry in this series, "Once more, with feeling"

Monday, December 26, 2011


In Germany we called the day after Christmas “second holiday.” In the British Empire it’s known as Boxing Day. For me, it’s one of my favorite days of the holiday season.

I’m fortunate to work for a US company that shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s, and so I always have that week off work (unless I’m working at an overseas affiliate in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as I’ve done twice before – then I use vacation days).

As much as I love getting ready for Christmas (and despite whatever I’ve said to my lovely wife on Christmas Eve, I really do love getting ready for Christmas), I also love the relaxation that comes after the Big Day, too. We can calmly visit, play with the Christmas gifts (or read or watch them), eat left overs (from the Swedish Smorgasbord on Christmas Eve and the Christmas ham dinner and whatever cookies we may not have given away). Really sweet.

Our Christmas Day was delightful. We had a plan, since we had 10 am church added to our Christmas mix, and our kids were very supportive and helpful, allowing my wife to get to church plenty early to play the prelude. Our sacrament meeting was superb for several reasons:

1. Our deacons normally pass with eight young men and this week (perhaps anticipating a lighter attendance), they passed with only six, and we had a much larger than normal attendance, so the sacrament portion of the meeting took nearly twice as long as normal. That was really nice from my point of view, since it’s the point of the meeting, and it was cool to take the sacrament on Christmas Day.

2. We sang eight congregational hymns. All but the sacrament hymns were Christmas carols, and even the sacrament hymn was God Loved Us So He Sent His Son, so it also nodded to the Savior’s birth. Both our ward organists played, which was also cool.

3. Our bishopric were the speakers – each for five minutes or less. Lots of scriptures and tight testimonies. The spirit was terrific and their messages were really meaningful to me. They speak very rarely in our ward, and I’m glad when they do.

We opened “Santa” presents early in the day, then had our traditional breakfast (more of the smorgasbord from the night before) before going to church. We opened the rest of presents after church, while Skyping with our kids who were in the Pacific Northwest instead of at home. Amazing that we could be “together” that way.

I’m grateful for a holiday that brings me to focus on the Savior and on my family in the way that Christmas does. I know theoretically I could do this any day of the year, but there is something about Christmas that makes it special.

I always hit that moment in the days before Christmas where I’m sure that we will either not get everything done or that something will not be enough. And I’m always happy when I’m wrong. And this year, thank goodness, I was wrong again.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Free Gift! Salvation

We were reading 2 Nephi 2 in our family scripture reading tonight. This is the famous “opposition in all things” and “men are free to choose” chapter. But my favorite verses come earlier in the chapter. Lehi speaks to Jacob, who as a young man has already had his own vision of the Savior, and says,

And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh; for the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free (v. 4).

He states that the law does not justify anyone (in fact, the law cuts people off from God). But:

Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.

Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered (v. 6-7).

The ends of the law are only met through the redemption of Jesus Christ, the Savior. And to drive the point home:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise (v. 8).

From here, Lehi then expounds (now famously) on opposition – that the punishment brought by the law is required for the joy that may also come, and that those opposing forces are required in order for each to exist. Men are, after all, that they might have joy.

And the path to joy? Through Jesus Christ, of course:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit (v. 27-28).

Here’s where the concept of free begins to be developed in an interesting way. Salvation is free – that is, it is available to all. But men are also free, precisely because the Savior has made them so through his redeeming sacrifice. And, according to Lehi, men are wise to choose to follow the Savior.

Salvation: a free gift. As I ponder the Savior’s birth this week, I’ll surely also ponder this great gift.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christ is still in Christmas here...

I have read for years about communities that are systematically excluding Christ from Christmas, with ever-increasing commercialization of the holiday, removal of religious symbols, and (in some cases) mixing of religious and secular symbols. (Here's a recent story.)

I’m happy to report that in my little town of Plymouth, Michigan, we still have a nativity scene in Kellogg Park, the “town square” in the heart of downtown. The park is also filled with Christmas trees sponsored by neighborhood businesses and organizations and decorated for the season. In addition to the crèche, there are also statues of three wise men riding camels that are moved closer and closer to the crèche until they are at the stable on Christmas. (The park also sports a large lighted menorah, and Santa has a house there, too, where he greets the children who come to see him.)

Not only is the crèche in the town square, but there are crèches that adorn the lawns of many of the churches in town, and the neighborhood yards, as well. (One of our neighbors used to have a sign in lights in their front yard, “Happy Birthday Jesus!”)

We attended holiday orchestra and choir concerts for my kids where we heard songs of the season, including religious songs (something that many districts won’t allow).

I’ve long believed that my family’s religious training is my responsibility. We pray at home, and I don’t particularly want my kids to pray in school. Our home has (my 11-year old daughter just counted them) 41 crèches. My wife’s piano students all see the three prints of the Savior we have in our living room. (A few years ago, the dad of one of those students – not LDS – defended us as Christian to one of his friends who claimed we weren’t, in part because of those prints.)

But I’m happy to live in a community where there is tolerance and acceptance of religious belief. We have many strong Catholic and Protestant congregations in our community and most of our non-LDS friends are active in one (which makes for tough missionary work, but great neighbors).

What about where you live? Do you see signs of Christ in Christmas?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A heap of guilt with a side of shame?

One of the lessons participants in certain 12-step support groups learn is about the difference between guilt and shame. This is particularly helpful for co-dependents who may seek help through Al-Anon or Families Anonymous, or the church’s Family Support Group (a companion program to the Addiction Recovery Program, still in pilot stages in selected locations). As co-dependents let go of things that don't belong to them, they hopefully also learn to release guilt they have falsely carried related to their loved one's lives. Overcoming shame (for the co-dependent and for the addicted loved one) may be more difficult.

Alma teaches Corianton about the proper place for guilt:

And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.

O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility (Alma 42:29-30, emphasis mine).

Guilt can be a positive force in our lives, if, as Alma teaches, we allow it to bring us to repentance.

Consider Enos’ experience:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away (Enos 1:4-6, emphasis mine).
His guilt was swept away! Awesome. And just right. That is precisely the point of the atonement (one point, anyway). Through the blessing of the atonement we have the opportunity to turn from our sins and change and be better than we were. Our guilt can be swept away.

Shame, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. If guilt is that feeling that motivates us to change – that Godly sorrow that moves us to repent and to call on the Savior’s love and mercy to rescue us, shame is that deceitful web of the adversary that would have us believe that there is no hope for someone like us, that since we’ve sinned, no one could love us, especially God. (Of course the fact is that God has already loved us; His Son has already paid the price of our sin long before we committed it!)

Shame may keep us from seeking repentance because we believe we are unredeemable, or the pain or embarrassment (for us or for those we love) of repenting will be too great.

It is easy to leap from shame to pride – to suggest that somehow shame is our fault. I would recommend against that. Pride is pride and shame is shame; they are not the same. There are some whose pride may prevent their repentance, but that is not shame. Shame is often externally imposed, perhaps even unwittingly (in my generation, many were reared in shaming homes: “You should know better than that. How could you do such a thing? We don’t do that in our family!”).

Well-meaning church teachers might also instill shame when they teach (even unthinkingly) that certain sins are so serious they are virtually unredeemable, even though that is clearly not true. President Packer taught in the most recent conference:

You may in time of trouble think that you are not worth saving because you have made mistakes, big or little, and you think you are now lost. That is never true! Only repentance can heal what hurts. But repentance can heal what hurts, no matter what it is ("Counsel to Youth," October 2011 General Conference, emphasis mine).

Guilt focuses on what we have or have not done. Shame focuses often on who we are.

When we care for one another by bearing one another’s burdens, comforting those who stand in need of comfort and mourning with those that mourn, ideally we are easing a burden, not adding to it with shame. (A nice discussion of this thought, with reference to Job and his "friends" here.)

The good news – that is, The Good News – is that the atonement can help us in both cases. Not only did the Savior bear the pain of all our sins, but he bore all our pain so that, as Alma taught, “he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).

It is helpful for me to remember the story of the father with incomplete faith as recorded in Mark. The father approached Jesus, pleading with him to heal his son who was beset with a deaf and dumb spirit. The Savior teaches him, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (9:23). The father instantly confesses his belief, but then adds (perhaps sensing that the Lord already knows that his faith is weak), “help thou mine unbelief” (v. 24). The Savior does not chide him, nor does he refuse to help. Instead, he casts out the spirit and restores the boy to health.

It is helpful to remember that the Savior was willing to bless this boy and his imperfect father. And I believe he is willing to bless me. Even though I make mistakes that cause me guilt, they need not bring me shame.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The whisperings of the spirit

One of the reasons I can say I have a testimony of the gospel is because of what happened in my temple recommend interview yesterday.

As our bishop’s counselor reviewed those standard questions with me (questions I still have memorized from my own decade of giving temple recommend interviews) I had what is still for me a remarkable experience, even though it’s happened before.

As he asked me the first three questions – about my testimony of God, the Eternal Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, about the atonement of Jesus Christ and about the restoration of the gospel – I felt a distinct change in my own heart as I affirmed my testimony and the spirit, in turn, reaffirmed it.

It was not an emotional thing. It was not earth shattering. But it was enough to remind me, and I’m grateful for that.

I remember the first time I really realized the power of those first three questions. I was bishop in our ward in Venezuela, and our mission president was a member of our ward. He asked me to give him a temple recommend interview. As he and I met in his apartment and he answered simply and affirmatively those basic questions of testimony, the spirit in the room was palpable. That particular interview continues as one of the great spiritual milestones of my life.

I can’t count the number of temple recommend interviews I’ve given, and not all of them are spiritual feasts. Most of them, in fact, were routine – pleasant enough, but routine nonetheless. And, frankly, most of my own recommend interviews have also been rather routine. I would say the spiritual experience I had yesterday is probably the exception rather than the rule. That may be because I’m not as sensitive as I should be, and it may just be that that’s the way it is.

My interview yesterday was not dramatic – I didn’t even mention what I felt to the counselor doing the interview. And I didn’t have the same experience when I later met with our stake president’s counselor for my second interview. But it was still significant to me because I noticed what happened, without my expecting, intending or even hoping it would. It was a small spiritual gift for me, one which I was grateful to receive.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is this a prayer or a talk?

Like many I enjoyed the music and talks and the short film in the First Presidency Christmas devotional Sunday evening. We watched via the internet in our family room, which was great because I couldn’t go to church that day since I’m recovering from surgery.

I had a bit of a struggle at the beginning, however. I shouldn’t have. I know I shouldn’t have. But I did. I know I’m not perfect, and Sunday night was just one more example of that.

It was Brother Beck’s opening prayer cum talk.

I’m old enough to remember Elder McConkie’s counsel on the length of prayers. Here are two quotations from Mormon Doctrine (I know it’s out of fashion, but these guidelines still stick in my head). The first is from Elder McConkie:

Certain proprieties attend the offering of all prayers. Public prayers, in particular, should be short and ordinarily should contain no expressions except those which pertain to the needs and circumstances surrounding the particular meeting then involved. They are not sermons or occasions to disclose the oratorical or linguistic abilities of the one acting as mouth. (2nd ed., p. 582).

In the second, Elder McConkie quotes Francis M. Lyman who was president of the Quorum of the Twleve:

It is not necessary to offer very long and tedious prayers, either at opening or closing. It is not only not pleasing to the Lord for us to use excess of words, but also it is not pleasing to the Latter-day Saints. Two minutes will open any kind of meeting, and a half minute will close it (Improvement Era, 50:214, 245; quoted in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 583).

I don’t know where or when I first encountered these guidelines, but I confess that it’s now sometimes hard to listen to a prayer without measuring it against these. And I did it on Sunday night.

I had to consciously tell myself to knock it off. And it was hard to do. And so the opening prayer wasn’t as meaningful to me as it could have been.

And, by the way, that’s my fault, not Brother Beck’s.

A friend, jmb275, posted a great item over at Wheat & Tares yesterday on reigning in the analyst. And that’s something I need to work on. There are times – and I think during a prayer is one of them – when it’s a time for devotion, worship, and feeling the spirit, not analysis of the speaker’s motivation, education or erudition.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I'm feeling a little Christmas...

Now that Thanksgiving is safely behind us (and I LOVE Thanksgiving, by the way), and Black Friday is over (and I HATE Black Friday), and Cyber Monday is past (I'm abivalent about Cyber Monday since I sort of ignored it)...

Our lights are up outside; our tree is up inside. Our collection of Nativity scenes are spread all around the house. Christmas carols are playing on the family CD player (much to my curmudgeonly 15-year-old's dismay).

Here's a little video to get you in the spirit:

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Can we have the priesthood without the church?

In my post on Monday, I suggested that the church is what allows us to have the ordinances of salvation. Commenter Michael suggested with a finer point that the priesthood allows those ordinances, not the church organization.

For me the two – the priesthood and the church -- are inextricably linked. Here’s why:

It’s true the priesthood came first, with the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood in May 1829 (see D&C 13) and the Melchizedek Priesthood following in the same year (confirmed in D&C 27:12).

Section 84 reaffirms that the priesthood is the means by which ordinances are performed and have validity:

And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live (D&C 84:19-22).
I understand “this” in the final line of those verses to refer to the power of godliness, which is derived from the authority of the priesthood used in performing the ordinances of the priesthood.

Those verses alone would suggest that Michael may be right: the priesthood is all that is required, not the church itself.

But D&C 20 makes clear that the priesthood is a part of the church:

No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church (v. 65, emphasis mine).

And so is the ordinance of baptism:

And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism—All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church (v. 37, emphasis mine).
And so is the sacrament:

It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus (v. 75, emphasis mine).
The Lord not only revealed these organizational matters, but also the name of the church:

For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (D&C 115:4, emphasis mine).
Of course this pattern is not new. We read similarly in the Book of Mormon about the establishment of the church and its ordinances in the time of Alma and the naming of the church as well.

Elder Oaks reaffirmed the relationship between the priesthood and the church in his talk in the October 2010 conference:

During His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ conferred the authority of the priesthood that bears His name and He established a church that also bears His name. In this last dispensation, His priesthood authority was restored and His Church was reestablished through heavenly ministrations to the Prophet Joseph Smith. This restored priesthood and this reestablished Church are at the heart of the priesthood line (“Two Lines of Communication,” emphasis mine).
I accept that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encompasses the restored priesthood of God, restored and revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith and that that priesthood authority and power are present in the church today. I have personally benefitted from that priesthood power, both in the ordinances of the gospel and the organization of the church and the blessings each has brought into my life.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pure Religion: Does it require a church?

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).

I admit that for most of my adult life, I’d paraphrase the first half of this scripture and leave the second half out. As we discussed it yesterday in Sunday School, however, I realized the problems such an approach causes: One can visit the fatherless and widows and relieve their suffering without a church.

Is that what James really means?

We developed a list of things “religion” is – primarily a system of belief or faith. Our instructor moved on before it occurred to me that religion is also the performance of ordinances.

The key is in the second half of the verse: keeping oneself unspotted from the world. The simple answer is that we should keep the commandments to keep ourselves unspotted. And yet we all sin. We all have need of repentance. And we all have need of the sacrament as part of that process of ritualized cleansing.

Without the church, without the priesthood, there is no sacrament. Nor are there other saving ordinances of the gospel. And without those, we cannot be unspotted from the world. Indeed, having the church and the temple as an occasional place of refuge is a great blessing in the second half of Peter’s description of pure religion. And, if we heed prophetic counsel, it can also be an enabler in the first half.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Grateful Heart

A sign hangs on our kitchen which has a quotation from George Herbert: "Thou that has given us so much, give us one more thing, a grateful heart."

Herbert was a Welsh-born English poet, orator and cleric. He served a stint in Parliment during the reign of King James, but returned to the ministry after King James' death.

I was surprised and happy to find the poem from which the quotation was lifted (and apparently altered). The final stanza is offset just as Herbert had it done when the poem was originally published:

by George Herbert (1593- 1633)

Thou that hast giv'n so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.
See how thy beggar works on thee
By art.

He makes thy gifts occasion more,
And says, If he in this be crossed,
All thou hast giv'n him heretofore
Is lost.

But thou didst reckon, when at first
Thy word our hearts and hands did crave,
What it would come to at the worst
To save.

Perpetual knockings at thy door,
Tears sullying thy transparent rooms,
Gift upon gift, much would have more,
And comes.

This not withstanding, thou wenst on,
And didst allow us all our noise:
Nay thou hast made a sigh and groan
Thy joys.

Not that thou hast not still above
Much better tunes, than groans can make;
But that these country-airs thy love
Did take.

Wherefore I cry, and cry again;
And in no quiet canst thou be,
Till I a thankful heart obtain
Of thee:

Not thankful, when it pleaseth me;
As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be
Thy praise.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Atonement Blessings: Give Peace A Chance

I am grateful for the atonement. Why? Because of what I have come to learn through my own experience with the atonement. The thoughts for this post grew out of discussions my wife and I have had about the atonement as she prepared a talk for this past weekend’s stake conference on the same subject. (Her talk was outstanding, by the way!)

Perhaps the first blessing of the atonement (though maybe not the first one I realized in my own life) is the free gift of resurrection. Through the Savior’s resurrection, we all overcome the physical death that comes to us because of the fall.

The first blessing I realized from the atonement, however, is the gift of repentance – the opportunity to right a wrong. I can think of times when my parents taught me this principle when I was a small child, before I really needed repentance (though we didn’t know that at the time; we didn’t leave our protestant congregation for the LDS church until I was nearly nine). I learned as small child the power of apologizing and trying to correct a mistake. As my wife points out in her talk, the value of repentance is that it helps us get in a place to feel the influence of the Holy Ghost.

And for many years, I believed repentance was the key to the blessings of the atonement in our lives. As a bishop some years ago I watched the atonement come alive for more than one person who sought to return to the Lord’s path. And as a father, I’ve enjoyed the healing balm of the atonement as I’ve recognized and corrected errors in my own parenting.

But in the last five years or so, I’ve come to understand another benefit of the atonement, namely that I can forgive someone else. I had always assumed the atonement was so I could seek the Lord’s forgiveness. But now I believe it is just as important for me to forgive. And I can only do that effectively because of the atonement.

In Alma 7 we read of the power of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities (v. 11-12).
Because the Lord has taken upon himself the pains and afflictions and infirmities of every kind (including mine!), I can freely forgive. I can do so without expectation of retribution or recompense. I can allow societal and legal consequences to fall where they may, but I do not need to exact my pound of flesh from one who hurts me because the Savior has made me whole. The atonement has offered me the healing balm I need.

One of the key products of forgiveness for me is peace, because when I forgive, I can leave behind the anger and resentment that I otherwise carry around with me. The act of “letting it go” lightens my burden (by laying it at the Savior’s feet).

My wife concluded her talk with this verse from John. It is, for me, the gift of the atonement most available to me in this life:

Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid (John 14:27).

That's a peace I'd like to give a chance.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Unbridled Optimism

When I was studying literature and theatre history back in my BYU days (when we rode dinosaurs to class and dirt was new), the prevailing thought was that there would never be a great LDS tragedy. The reason: the atonement is essentially a message of joy and reconciliation, and tragedy is not part of The Plan.

That may be, but it still seems there are plenty of folks in and out of the church who struggle, who do not see hope, or who simply prefer to tear down rather than build up. Optimism, they say from a jaded perspective, is naive; it ignores the pain and suffering of the world; criticism makes us stronger.

My son taught family night last night, and his lesson came from Gordon B. Hinckley’s Standing For Something (thanks to my lovely wife’s arm twisting – er, encouragement).

My son started with the quotation from the beginning of Chapter Nine ("Optimism in the Face of Cynicism"):

My plea is that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that as we go through life, we “accentuate the positive.” I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still our voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment and endorse virtue and effort (p.99).

Perhaps because my son is 15, and perhaps because I am his father, my son tends to favor cynicism, so his choice of this topic was ironic and delightful. It’s frankly a topic my lovely wife addresses regularly in our home. And she, I must say, is a pretty great example of seeing the positive without living in a sugar-coated world.

When I think about President Hinckley, it’s hard not to think of his unbounded optimism. He spoke often about the positive things of the world in which we live, the brightness of the future of the church, and hope for those who love the Lord.

I’m not surprised by his optimism, either. He was a prophet. He more than anyone understood the way this game of life will end. He understood better than most who would win, and he was aligned with the winning side.

Optimism does not require our ignoring suffering. But what it allows us to do is to have hope in the face of suffering. The savior’s atonement allows us relief from our personal suffering, knowing the Lord knows what we feel and experience. And as we bear one another’s burdens and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, as we care for the poor and needy, as we live our lives filled with the pure love of Christ, we can be conduits of hope for others.

I do not believe President Hinckley’s optimism was based in naiveté, but rather grew out of his prophetic mantel. And I’m happy to try to reflect it in my own life, as well.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"Important, But Not Essential"

I had an interesting phone call this week. I was a participant in the latest Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life poll. The caller identified herself as being a part of the Pew Research group, assured me it was not a sales call, and confirmed I was the youngest adult male over 18 in the house.

She asked a number of sets of questions. First were questions on specific political figures. I was to rate each one on a four point scale, and she asked about Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. (Only Sarah Palin got the lowest mark from me.)

She asked about my religious affiliation and when I selected Mormon from her list, she then confirmed that I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (her list included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ and “another Mormon group”).

She asked a series of questions in which I had to choose the statement I agreed most with (the toughest of those was a question on abortion because there was no nuance in the statements). She asked a group of questions about things that were extremely important, somewhat important, not very important and not at all important, including having children, being married, and having a high paying job.

She asked about whether I thought Mormons (or other religious groups) were targets of discrimination. And she asked whether I thought Mormonism was similar (very similar, somewhat similar, not very similar, not at all similar) to Judaism, Catholicism, Evangelical Christianity and Islam. She asked if I held a current temple recommend and confirmed my age and income level.

But most interesting to me was the section from which this post’s title comes. She asked some specific doctrinal and behavioral questions and asked for each item if I thought the item was essential, important but not essential, not very important, or not at all important. The items included believing that Joseph Smith was a prophet and translated the Book of Mormon, caring for the poor and needy, believing that Jesus was resurrected, abstaining from coffee, abstaining from alcohol, not attending R-rated movies, among others.

As she worked through her list, I did a quick calculus in my mind to sort out what parts of my beliefs are essential and what parts are important but not essential. I created a quick forced-ranking, and I acknowledged that just because I have a testimony of the truthfulness of a particular thing, it does not necessarily mean that thing is essential.

In the end, for me at the moment, there were few essentials: acceptance of Christ’s mission and keeping his commandments. Everything else was important but not essential. Even as I worked that through in my mind (in the few seconds we stayed in this section), I realized that although logic would suggest an acceptance of Joseph’s role as a prophet would make my keeping the commandments revealed through him easier, it was not essential in my rubric of the essential things’ being acceptance of Christ’s mission and keeping his commandments.

I will continue to think about what is essential and what is important, but not essential. I’d be interested in knowing what you would put on each list.

Monday, November 7, 2011

From weakness strength

My present church assignment is to work in the Addiction Recovery Program as a group leader. The Addiction Recovery Program, and its companion the Family Support Group (not yet available everywhere), are there to assist those struggling with addiction and also to assist their loved ones. They are twelve-step approaches to help one -- either an addict or a loved one -- learn to enter recovery.

I’m not new to twelve step programs; I actively participated in another 12-step program before working with ARP (and I still participate there). One of the things we do in a 12-step program is to acknowledge our own powerlessness over addiction and over the lives of others. In accepting our own powerlessness, we also admit our own weakness.

We spend a lot of time in addiction recovery talking about weakness, and one of the steps of recovery is to prepare to have God to remove our character weaknesses; the next is to ask God to remove our shortcomings.

What I’ve wondered about over the last while is the difference between our weakness and our weaknesses.

Often when people (including me, like here) paraphrase the weakness scriptures (2 Nephi 33:4, Jacob 4:7, Ether 12:27, to note a few) they say God will make our weaknesses into strength. But Ether 12:27 reads:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.
This verse talks about weakness, not weaknesses. In fact, all of the verses in the topical guide on this subject use the collective noun weakness, not the plural noun weaknesses.

It makes me wonder just what that weakness is. I think about what King Benjamin taught:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father (Mosiah 3:19).
I wonder if our weakness is our natural-ness –- the fact that by our nature we are not submissive; by our nature we do not yield to the enticings of the spirit. Any individual weaknesses I have stem from this overarching weakness, namely that I am natural.

In both Ether and Mosiah we read the remedy: we must come unto Christ. We must humble ourselves. We must yield to the enticings of the Spirit. We must accept the blessings of the atonement in our lives. We must have faith. We must submit.

In those acts of submission, those acts of humility before God, those moments of faith we become strong. We receive the power of the atonement in our lives and become prepared to yield to the enticings of the spirit.

As we, through the grace of Jesus Christ and his atoning sacrifice, conquer our weakness as humans, God will help us conquer our weaknesses through the blessings of the atonement.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's a Small(er) World After All

The bloggernacle, the world of LDS blogging, became just a little smaller for me yesterday.

I had lunch with jmb275, a perma at Wheat & Tares. It was nice to put a name and face with a blogger id. Thanks to jmb for the suggestion we meet.

It happened that I mentioned Ann Arbor, Michigan in a comment on a post at W&T a while ago, and jmb asked if I lived there. Turns out I live east of Ann Arbor and he is just west. We met for lunch at a sandwich place and learned a little bit about one another. I learned, for instance, that although I complained about the cold weather on my mission in Germany, I had nothing on jmb who served his mission in Russia (yikes). And I learned a bit more about Wheat & Tares.

Of course the blogging community is huge, and even the LDS blogging community is unwieldy for me. I’ve identified a few blogs (some listed on the blog roll to the right of and below this post -- scroll down past the archive if you're dying to see it) that I like. Some are subject- or point of view-specific, authored by one person, like Keepapitchinin or Middle-aged Mormon Man.

Others are “group” blogs that feature multiple authors and many themes and ideas. Wheat & Tares is one of those. It has a fairly diverse group of regular bloggers who are linked by their connection to the LDS community. Some would be change agents in the church; some seem to like to stir up discussion; some blog from specific personal experience.

Frankly, I’m not wild about every voice at W&T or at the other group blogs I follow, but I like the fact that there are a variety of voices from which I can choose. Even the voices I don’t agree with provide me a different point of view, and perhaps a window into how others in my faith community may feel. Understanding those divergent points of view, I believe, puts me in a better position to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

And sometimes they move me to think differently than I have before.

jmb mentioned to me that he didn’t blog for others but more for himself. I suspect a lot of us blog for therapy to some extent. I believe there are others who blog in order to convince others of a point of view (otherwise, how could there be all those political debates?), but my observation is that most of us are not swayed by an opposing argument no matter how well reasoned. Instead we tend to look for self-confirming evidence of opinions we bring with us. I’m no different, I suppose.

What does move me, however, particularly when I read a point of view I had not considered, is when that new point of view acknowledges what I may already know and feel, and adds a new dimension to my experience. Often (usually) it is not an admonition that I must change my thinking (I don’t want to be told how to think any more than the next guy), but an account of someone else’s faith journey that differs from my own can be compelling and deserves my respect.

Anyway, it was great to meet jmb. At least for a while, I’ll likely read his posts and comments a little differently since he is no longer completely anonymous to me.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Good news and bad news: Who are you again?

The good news is I was praying for my son last night in our family prayer. The bad news is I couldn’t remember his name.

Those readers without children (or with only one) may find this hard to believe, but even if you grew up with siblings in your family, you might remember that your parents got your name wrong from time to time.

It would have been less embarrassing to me if the son whose name I forgot had not been kneeling right next to me. And if he weren’t the only son left at home.

His comment after the amen: “Well, at least you went through the names in order.” (I could have added, “At least I didn’t confuse you with one of your sisters.”)

My favorite experience with name-blur was the night I came home from my mission. It’s important to note that I have one brother, David, and he is seven years older than me. All the way home from the airport, my mother was calling me by my brother’s name. I was still getting used to the fact that I had a first name at all, so I wasn’t bothered by it. Dad found it very funny.

As we were sitting down to dinner, Dad was still ribbing Mom about calling me by my brother’s name, and then he turned to me and said, “David, will you say the blessing?”

There’s some lesson there about stones and glass houses.

The good news is, I know God knows my sons and me (and my wife and daughters, too). I can only assume that since he’s perfect, he doesn’t mix up their names as often as I do.

But I’d rather have him call me the wrong name than not call me at all.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Any day without a kidney stone is a great day

Monday was a great day this week. Because I didn’t have a kidney stone on Monday.

Of course, there are many, many days I don’t have a kidney stone. But Monday was especially sweet.


Because Sunday I had a kidney stone. And Monday I didn’t.

Sunday: Pain. Monday: No pain.

Sunday: Wondering if I should go to the ER. Monday: Not worried about the ER.

Sunday: More pain. Monday: No pain.

Sunday: Lots of ibuprofen. Monday: No ibuprofen needed, thanks.

Sunday: Eight glasses of water in two hours without any, er, relief. Monday: Water (and relief) when I wanted it.

Sunday: Grumpy dad. Monday: Dad's back at work so no one at home can see if he's grumpy.

Sunday: Worrying if this is ever going to end (even though I know it will). Monday: No worrying. (Being happy.)

This was my third kidney stone in nearly 15 years. Fortunately, I know it when it happens thanks to a patient doctor’s instruction (and corroborating evidence on WebMD and the Mayo Clinic website) the first time around. I had no fever or nausea, so there was no need to go to the hospital. Just lots of fluids and waiting. I know that I’m luckier than some who have a much tougher time of it.

Lehi had it right when he said

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my first-born in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility (2 Nephi 2:11).
All those things I wrote about Monday were also true on Tuesday. But Monday was something special because it was juxtaposed to the misery of Sunday. The way things are can be defined by what they are not. Comparing and contrasting is the way we see things, the way we learn things, the way things show up in life.

Yes, any day without a kidney stone is a great day. But the next day after the kidney stone passes is especially sweet.

Monday, October 24, 2011

"I know the scriptures are true"

Yesterday was, by attendance counts, the most popular sacrament meeting of the year in our ward: the Primary Program.

I have always loved the Primary, ever since, as a child, I attended Primary with my Mormon friend Kerry. It was the first LDS church meeting anyone in my family attended. I first taught in Primary before my mission, when it was still meeting during the week. Through the years I’ve gotten to visit as a bishopric member and substitute in lots of classes (usually my own kids’), and even take a few weeks subbing as the Primary music leader, one of my favorite things to do.

Our ward’s Primary presidency did a few really cool things with our program this year. Of course it was a blend of songs and short spoken parts from all the kids in the Primary.

I’m not quite sure how they did it, but somehow all the words that the Primary children spoke were their own. I don’t know if the Primary leaders took notes during the year and recorded thoughts and then pieced them together, or if they asked specific kids their feelings about particular themes. But every child who spoke spoke his or her own words.

The other thing they did was that classes did not march to the podium together. Instead, ages were mixed on the stand, so that 10- and 11-year olds helped 3- and 4- year olds get to the stand, climb up and speak (well, most of those little ones had no trouble speaking once they heard how cool their voices were over the microphone…). More often than not, it was older children helping younger children, not teachers or presidency members doing so. My 11-year old daughter (an age at which being in a Primary program could seem a little childish) was thrilled to help some of the younger children.

Of course the kids sang beautifully (and more than just in a Professor Harold Hill Think System kind of way). We have a large Primary, so even longer songs, where some clearly didn’t know the second verse, had plenty of support. The ward choir joined with the older Primary kids to sing “How Will They Know,” one of my favorite Primary songs. Our super-talented Primary music folks did a great job keeping the energy up in the singing, and the children followed their music leader like a choir. (The fourth verse of “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” was particularly dramatic.)

By the end of the program, there was quite a sweet spirit in the room; I also knew from that witness that the scriptures are true.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Something you probably won’t hear in General Conference: "Be the coffee"

An object lesson I heard in a stress reduction class I attended with my lovely wife yesterday evening:

There are three pots of boiling water. One pot of boiling water has carrots in it. One has eggs. The third has coffee grounds.

After a period of boiling, what has happened?

The carrot, which started out straight and strong has become soft.

The egg appears the same on the outside, but the inside has become hardened.

The coffee grounds have not changed, but instead have changed the water.

If the boiling water is adversity, which do we want to be? Do we want to be the carrot that weakens its resolve in the face of adversity? Or the egg, that hardens its heart? Or do we want to be the coffee which changes the boiling water into something useful?
Of course the story works – like so many object lessons – if you don’t think about it too hard. Yes, we could change the coffee to herbal tea to make it more palatable to a Mormon sensibility. And we could argue that maybe we need to be more flexible in adversity so that cooked carrot may be a good thing. And we could argue that a firm cooked egg is more useful (and durable) than a raw one.

The fact is, in any case, that adversity will change us. It will draw things out of us that we did not know we had in us – good and bad. And it’s likely it will come to all of us. And it just might (if we let it) make us better.

Monday, October 17, 2011

"God must not think too much of you..."

I was listening to a Mormon Identities podcast from the Mormon Channel in which Richard and Linda Eyre were the guests. I’ve read a few of the Eyres’ books over the years and almost passed on this particular podcast, but I’m glad I didn’t, if only for this story that Richard Eyre told.

The Eyres and host Eric Huntsman were discussing the fact that our kids come to us not as a lump of clay just for us to mold, but that they bring genetic elements and (according to our LDS belief) they also bring something of who they were in the premortal existence. As Linda Eyre said, they come as who they are.

This principle is important when we think about those families who have apparently perfect children and parents who seem to take credit for their children’s perfection. Richard told this story:

We were in a Sunday School class once where we were visiting. No one knew us. And it was on parenting. And, uh, there was one guy there who, bless his heart, he just was a know-it-all. You know, he had all the answers and he just kept bragging, and he’d say, “Well the way we did it with my son the valedictorian and the quarterback…” and then he’d give some thing, you know. This happened maybe ten times during the class, and you just got the impression that all his kids were perfect and he was perfect and blah, blah, blah, and I knew it was bothering people.

And then, at the very end of the class a little fellow who hadn’t said a word got called on and he stood up and addressed this guy that had all the answers. I’ll never forget what he said, Eric. He said, “Excuse me, sir, but God must not have thought too much of you, sending you all those easy kids.”

I loved this story. It reminded me that as parents we do have a role to teach and guide our children as best we can. But in the end, our children will make choices and they own those choices, their parents do not.

Years ago I read an article in which Martin Sheen was telling how he had at the time intervened in his son Charlie’s life. At the time (this was years ago, not the most recent binge of Charlie Sheen weirdness), Martin did something to move Charlie toward recovery from his addictions. Charlie subsequently said his father had saved his life. Martin corrected that thought: He said he did not save his son. Charlie saved himself. Charlie owned his recovery.

I believe that we should neither take responsibility for our children’s mistakes, nor credit for their successes. Of course we can mourn with them when they fail. And we can celebrate with them when they succeed. But it is their failure and their success, not ours as parents.

To be sure, environment is an important element in rearing our children – both the environment of our home and the world in which we live.

Elder Packer has said:

The measure of our success as parents, however, will not rest solely on how our children turn out. That judgment would be just only if we could raise our families in a perfectly moral environment, and that now is not possible.

It is not uncommon for responsible parents to lose one of their children, for a time, to influences over which they have no control. They agonize over rebellious sons or daughters. They are puzzled over why they are so helpless when they have tried so hard to do what they should (Ensign, May 1992, p 68).

He goes on to speak of the power of the sealing ordinance eternally to help our children find their way home.

I believe this concept serves as a comfort and a warning to parents.

If we acknowledge that our children are each unique spirit children of loving heavenly parents, then part of our role as parents is to understand them for who they are (something the Eyres also advocate). And part of our role is to influence them in ways they will understand. And to provide alternatives to the evil influences of the world.

If, however, we seek to force our children into our mold of what we believe they should be, ignoring who they are to begin with, then we are, in my view, violating the principles of Doctrine & Covenants 121:

…when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved… (D&C 84:37).
When, on the other hand, we succeed at recognizing who our children are, when we influence them with love and kindness, teaching them well, even if they take paths divergent from ours, we may know the blessings of Section 121:

…thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (v.48, emphasis added).

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Sign -- From Heaven?

Well, at least from a local Presbyterian church I passed last night:

"If you can't think of anything to be thankful for, check your pulse."

I have one, and I'm thankful. :-)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Stratford Ontario, Scripture Memorization and Me

My wife and I have a nearly annual habit now of heading east to Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The festival runs from April through October and this year included a dozen plays, including four Shakespeare plays several musicals and some smaller works. We saw two plays: Twelfth Night and Camelot (Shakespeare wrote the first, not the second).

Twelfth Night was of particular interest to me since the last time I saw it was with my daughter in Taipei. She had bought us tickets for a visiting company’s performance. The sales clerk assured her it would be in English, since there would be Mandarin subtitles. Well, the touring company was from Russia, and the performance was in Russian. We don’t speak Russian, so we relied on our best recollection of the story as we watched what amounted to a ballet of Twelfth Night. (By the way: a spectacular ballet; the performance was delightful even though we couldn’t understand the words.)

So this time I was excited to actually hear the words, too! And we were not disappointed. Stratford’s productions have always been top notch. They are innovative and engaging; performances are by top actors in North America (Brian Dennehy was a featured guest this year, though his performance as Toby Belch was great, it was not the highlight of Twelfth Night).

What is fascinating in Shakespeare, however, is the text. The words are delicious to hear and they combine to tell complete and complex stories that entertain, instruct and move an audience (but first and foremost entertain!).

I studied Theatre History in my college days, and have learned my share of roles. Memorizing a part is challenging, but also exciting as actor and character form a bond through the text. Memorizing Shakespeare is more challenging because each word carries such importance (every playwright would believe his words carry importance, and many do, but none like Shakespeare’s).

So as I watched these great actors perform great theatre, I thought also of Elder Scott and his counsel to us to memorize scriptures. Just as a play or poetry takes on new meaning when spoken out loud, so do the scriptures. Just as a character’s words come to life in the mouth of an actor, so can scriptures come to life in our mouths as we memorize and give voice to them.

Elder Scott said:

Great power can come from memorizing scriptures. To memorize a scripture is to forge a new friendship. It is like discovering a new individual who can help in time of need, give inspiration and comfort, and be a source of motivation for needed change.

I’m memorizing seminary scripture mastery verses with my son this year. We practice them on the way to seminary in the car each morning. And I find the words coming back to me through the day. At least a part of my head is filling with divine direction and heavenly teaching. And those words come to me in quiet moments reminding me of who I am and who my Father is.

I can only hope it’s happening for my son, too.

Friday, October 7, 2011

New African Temples and Me

I know that several new temples were announced in conference, and as interesting as good fishing in Wyoming sounds to me (btw, interesting is that word your mother taught you to use when you couldn’t think of a nice one), it was the two new African temples that caught my attention.

I have never been to Africa, but my parents lived in Lagos, Nigeria while I was on my mission in the late 1970’s. During those years President Kimball announced the revelation on the extension of the priesthood to all worthy men of the church.

I have in my missionary journal a letter from my mother in which she writes:

Yesterday, Sunday, August 20, 1978 marked a day of history.

On Friday, Brother Merrill Bateman [then a BYU professor] and Edwin Q. Cannon, first counselor in the International Mission presidency arrived in Lagos. They visited us, Brother Miller, a Brother Miller-Aganemi who became a member of the church while doing graduate work in Utah. He is a native Nigerian and is, of course, black. Yesterday [we] held a REAL meeting. [My folks had been meeting just the two of them each week, with Brother Miller joining them a time or two a month.] Sacrament was observed, testimonies and one calling and setting-apart. And this is the “first.” Your Dad was called to be Nigerian Group Leader, to locate those Nigerian men who were baptized during their educational periods in the U.S. and have since returned to this country. These men will now have the opportunity to realize the priesthood.

I would never have imagined that my convert parents would be on the cutting edge of the history of the church. To be sure, they were on the edge. Two senior missionary couples later came to Nigeria and Ghana and did the heavy lifting regarding the initial growth of the church there. They visited with my folks from time to time, but the real work was far from Lagos. But decades later temples came to Ghana and to Nigeria.

I’ve been interested in the development of the church in Africa since my parents were there. An additional temple in South Africa is a great thing. And a temple in the Democratic Republic of Congo is awesome to me. More blessings closer to more people. The Johannesburg South Africa Temple is 350 miles from Durban, and over 2,000 miles from Kinshasa.

I look forward to more African temples in the future.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Thanks, Sister Dalton, for your counsel to fathers

First, Sister Dalton, thanks! We don’t often have sisters in conference speak directly to fathers. I know my daughters are not my possession. But I know they are my daughters, on loan from our Father in Heaven, and I’d like to do what I can to help them find their way home again.

Thanks for continuing to think about how our daughters can find their way home, and how we can help them succeed in developing into the women we hope that they will be: strong, faithful and virtuous, confident that God loves them and confident in His plan for their happiness.

Thanks for reminding me to love my wife. I always like getting a challenge that is easy to meet.

And thanks for challenging me to model virtue in my own life, confirming that it is not just a value for young women, but also for their fathers.

I’m happy to report I have never had to go looking for any of my daughters because they didn’t come home on time. (Of course, the youngest is only 11, so I suppose there’s still time for me to have that experience!) ;-)

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Awesome Elder Hales

I was surprised when I saw Elder Hales at conference. I live far from SLC and was not aware of the seriousness of his continuing health concerns, so when I saw him at conference, I was really shocked by how he looked.

Elder Hales is the only living apostle I've ever met personally. When I lived in Venezuela, I was his driver when he and his wife came for a regional conference. Since that brief chance to get to know him a little, I've paid close attention when he's spoken in conference. And I've found he's given some of the most straightforward talks on key gospel principles over the years.

His talk Sunday morning was delightful, and it was a great personal blessing for me to be able to hear him speak.

Two quotations from his talk struck me in particular, but for different reasons. The first:

Too often we pray to have patience but we want it right now.

This is a consistent message of his for some time now. He has talked before about his own health concerns and how he's even wondered if he has learned enough from them. And, of course, I'm one of those who so prays.

The second:

To all the Marys and Marthas, to all the good Samaritans who minister to the sick, succor the weak and care for the mentally and physically infirm, I feel the gratitude of a loving Heavenly Father and His blessed son. In your daily Christ-like ministry you are willing to wait upon the Lord and you are doing our Heavenly Father’s will. His assurance to you is clear: Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me. He knows your sacrifices and your sorrows. He hears your prayers. His peace and rest will be yours.

This quotation was my balm in Gilead for this conference, and if I had heard nothing else, this would have been feast enough. It is that sweet apostolic comfort that few can give and reassures me to my core.

Bless you, Elder Hales.

Update Oct 10, 2010: Here's a link to an item at LDS Newsroom on Elder Hales' recovery.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

How Can You Beat TV Church?

TV Church. That’s what a friend of mine calls conference weekend.

I love conference, and I really look forward to its coming around each Fall and Spring. We have for quite a number of years participated at home via the internet. We don’t get cable (and none of our local cable stations carry conference anyway), and we can’t use a dish because our home’s trees don’t allow a clear line of sight to the satellite (without a VERY tall tower which I’m unwilling to have built). So I’m thrilled that the church has dramatically improved the availability of video feeds of conference through the computer.

We used to go to the stake center in our family’s pre-internet days (yes, children, there was a time when not every home had a computer with a high-speed connection). I can remember spending conference weekend in the “children’s” room with kids playing on the floor while we watched the small TV at the front of the room. (I remember sneaking out of that room into the cultural hall for the solemn assembly sustaining of President Benson.)

The internet has been especially helpful when we lived in Asia recently. “Conference weekend” is a week later there, since the live broadcasts are in the middle of the night. Sessions were available at our stake center in Mandarin and English, though we watched most of them at home, thrilled to have figured out how to use our TV as a monitor for our daughter’s laptop. (Yes, we can be taught…)

This was all a marked improvement over our experience in Japan years ago, when we'd received videos of conference weeks later and circulate them among the English speaking members of our ward. By the time we got to Venezuela, we had someone in Utah record the English sessions for us, since only Spanish tapes came to the stake, but we convinced our stake president to allow us to watch a session of conference in lieu of Sunday School and Priesthood; there was a real power in our ward's being able to watch conference together.

My wife and I tend to be note takers during conference. I do it out of habit – for years I had one assignment or another that required me to be able to recall what happened at conference (either planning speaking assignments or preparing conference quizzes for seminary or institute or priesthood lessons). My wife (again) has a calling where she participates in determining which talks will be used for the Teaching For Our Times lessons.

Now I tend to take note of my impressions during the talks more than the subject matter of the talks. I note talks I’ll want to go back and read or listen to first when they’re available. (I also load the talks onto my I-Pod as fast as I can so I can listen to them en route to work shortly after they are televised; hearing them a second time allows me to get new nuances I’d missed the first time around.)

I try hard to go into conference with a clean slate of expectations for the meeting. Of course I pray about issues that are important to me and listen for counsel on those subjects. But I try not to guess what the speaker will say before he or she says it. Sometimes I’m surprised; sometimes I’m comforted; sometimes I’m gently prodded to improve (sometimes by my son who hears a talk he thinks I need to pay specific attention to: a number of years ago when Elder Oaks told fathers what their children wanted most for dinner was for their fathers to be home, my son leaned over to me and said, “He’s right, Dad”).

Our children are getting too old for conference bingo, though I think we may implement a little game our sister-in-law uses. She sets out bowls of various goodies with a word attached to each one. When the word is mentioned in a talk or song, the goodies are available to those who hear it. (He who hath ears to hear, let him munch!) That might be enough to keep my 15-year old awake for a session or two.

I hope you’ll fire up your La-Z-Boy and enjoy some TV Church of your own this weekend.

You can tune in at Live sessions are Saturday and Sunday at 10 and 2 MDT in the US (UTC +6).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Heard in sacrament meeting: "I love coffee!" (Twice!!)

I love my ward. We had a terrific sacrament meeting on Sunday.

Our first speaker was a new member (less than a year) who talked about his conversion story and his experience reading the Book of Mormon. He said years ago a friend gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon, and he tried to read it, but he could not understand it. In the last year, however, something changed. As he was taking the missionary lessons (after he wandered into an LDS chapel), he not only was able to read the Book of Mormon and understand it, but he couldn’t put it down. He read late into the night and within days had finished the book and had a testimony that it was true.

I was reminded of the Parley Pratt story from his autobiography:

“I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep” (Quoted in “The Extraordinary Life of Parley P. Pratt,” Ensign, April 2007).

Our good brother then pointed out that as he read, he kept himself awake with a cup of coffee. He said, “I love coffee.” He acknowledged that learning to live the Word of Wisdom was a challenge. If only for his talk last Sunday, I’m glad he’s made the effort.

The next speaker was sister who joined the church at about age 20 – 30 years ago. She began her talk by acknowledging that she also loves coffee, and that before she came into contact with the church, she did many of the things common among the youth in the European country of her origin, including drinking coffee. She then reassured the first brother that he would be fine.

I was reminded of what Clayton Christensen taught us a few years ago in some leadership training, that if we don’t smell some tobacco in our sacrament meeting, we’re falling short, suggesting that it is good for us to have in our midst those who are striving to be better than they are today, and that associating only with those who have “arrived” at righteousness (if such a thing were possible) would shortchange us.

I’m grateful for those who are willing to associate with me, despite my striving to improve, and I’m grateful for those around me who show me how to improve.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Happy (Re-)Birthday To Me

Tomorrow is my other birthday, my born-again birthday, the anniversary of my baptism 44 years ago. I was 11 days shy of my ninth birthday when my parents, my siblings and I were baptized. I have some clear memories of that event and some not-so-clear ones.

In our branch's building (now a stake center), the baptismal font was in the hallway outside the cultural hall. I think our baptismal service was held in the chapel (because I think I remember being confirmed there).

At the time, I had no idea how unusual it must have been to have a baptism of an entire family of six. We were introduced to the gospel by a family up the street. I went to school with one of their nine children, and he invited me to a Primary Halloween activity. (I chickened out on the activity when I realized my store-bought costume sans mask looked completely dorky next to his uber-cool pirate get up.) Fortunately for us, my friend invited me again, and I became a regular Primary attender. His sister invited my sister, and eventually his folks invited the six of us to join the 11 of them for a family night.

My mother, to be polite, invited the parents only to a quiet dinner at our home. They ate in the dining room (we kids were banished), and Brother and Sister S. invited my parents to hear the missionary lessons. My parents accepted. (Twice before my folks had been tracted out, but the missionaries did not return either time; we were far from any chapel, and maybe the elders didn’t have enough miles on their car to make the long trip to see us a second time.)

Over the next few months we took the lessons from Elder Kelly and Elder Gledhill (and once in a while a stake missionary or another full time elder on a split). Those were the flannel board discussion days; the lesson I remember was one in which Christ is show as the cornerstone with apostles, prophets, etc. added on. The flannel board display was contructed so that when the cornerstone was removed, the rest of the pieces fell off the board, as well.

I smile when I think about what the missionaries must have thought when – after several months of lessons -- my folks told them we were going away on vacation, driving from Pittsburgh to Idaho to see my dad’s parents and that we would call when we got back. They must have thought they had lost us forever. (I would have thought that as a missionary, for sure.) But we read the Book of Mormon in the car across the country.

We did return, and plans were made for the baptism. I remember practicing how to hold onto Elder Kelly and how to plug my nose at the same time. I remember asking the missionary in my baptismal interview what the O in David O. McKay stood for (he didn’t know; he said it probably didn’t stand for anything). I remember our baptismal night, though I don’t really remember standing in the water and actually being baptized, though I remember blue tile in the baptismal font (was it really blue?) and the excitement in the dressing room as each baptism was performed. I have a vague memory of being confirmed – surrounded by men with their hands on my wet hair.

As a boy I was thrilled to have been baptized. I loved being a member of the church then, and I do now. I had what I considered then (and still do) to be significant spiritual witnesses of gospel truth. I spoke freely about our family’s baptism with people I knew. Our family began immediately to be involved; Dad helped with scouts and became an assistant clerk; Mom taught Junior Sunday School. We prepared to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple (which we were about ten and a half months later, with special permission to go early).

Happy (re-)birthday to me.

Monday, September 19, 2011

42 Questions To Virtue

Sister Mary N. Cook of the general Young Women’s presidency visited our ward two Sundays ago. She happened to be in our area for training and stopped in our ward before returning to Salt Lake, and she
gave quite a lovely talk on Virtue in our sacrament meeting.

She highlighted what’s in the new Young Women’s value in the YW Personal Progress program, and she mentioned an activity that seemed pretty cool. The third activity recommends:

“Read Alma chapter 5. Make a list of the questions Alma asks. Answer the questions for yourself….”

This is a really cool exercise. I love Alma 5; it’s one of my favorite chapters of the Book of Mormon to teach.

As Sister Cook talked about this exercise, she mentioned 42 questions. I’d never looked at the chapter in this way, so I went and counted them. All 42 of them.

Two interesting things about the exercise:

1. The value project is about temple worthiness
2. None of the 42 questions is specifically about sexual purity

Young Women are invited to list the questions and answer them, and then to make a list (based on the questions) of ways in which they need to be worthy to go to the temple.

There are some interesting questions. I won’t list all of them here (count them yourself!), but here are some that stand out to me in terms of thinking about temple worthiness and virture:

Have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? (v. 6)

There’s a series of questions on the history, and it reminds me of Moroni’s preamble to his promise, that as we ponder the Book of Mormon, we should also ponder “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” (Moroni 10:3). These questions also remind me of the “testimony” questions at the outset of the temple recommend interview.

And now I ask of you on what conditions are they saved? (v. 10)

There are some doctrinal questions about salvation and atonement that are deep and moving. How much easier for young women (and any of us) to strive for virtue when we understand the doctrine.

Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? (v. 14)

This core question of the change of heart is at the center of a lot of teaching around this chapter. And it’s a critical question for a young person: if you haven’t experienced the change, how can you do it? And if you have, how can you retain it? (Of course King Benjamin spent some time on retaining a remission of our sins, and Alma will teach a similar lesson.)

Do ye exercise faith in the redemption of him who created you? (v. 15)

Verse 15 starts a series of performance related questions – are we exercising faith, keeping commandments and covenants? Some of these questions will be more near to a young woman’s experience than others. I imagine most young women will not feel warm and fuzzy about questions like: “How will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness?” (v. 22) But intermingled with those hard questions is a great deal of discussion of pure and white garments, signifying one who has lived worthily and taken advantage of the blessings of the atonement.

I say unto you, can ye look up to God at that day with a pure heart and clean hands? I say unto you, can you look up, having the image of God engraven upon your countenances? (v. 19)

Ok, two for the price of one here. The pure heart and clean hands is what worthiness is all about, and it’s what virtue is all about. And how to get there is implied in the second question. When we so live that we reflect the Lord in our lives, we are approaching virtue.

Behold, are ye stripped of pride? (v. 28) …of envy? (v. 29)

President Benson’s landmark address comes to my mind, but likely not to the minds of young women who were not even glimmers in their parents’ eyes when he gave that talk. But what parent wouldn’t be thrilled to have a daughter free of pride and envy?

Do ye not suppose that I know of these things myself? And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? (v. 45)

More great lessons on how to learn truth from the spirit. Alma’s inference is If I can do it, so can you. You can do what I did: fast and pray for many days.

And there’s more! (Not that I want to sound like a Sham-wow info-mercial…) Alma teaches the atonement. He teaches us to give up costly apparel, to care for the poor, not to punk our enemies (it’s in there – extra points for anyone who can identify the verse).

42 questions to virtue. Very cool.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

God: Good; Me: Bad? No!

I listened to a Mormon Channel Conversations podcast yesterday featuring Rodney K. Smith, former president of Southern Virginia University. I’d recommend the interview to anyone: Brother Smith is a legal scholar and educator and an experienced academic administrator. He articulated a unique vision for SVU that I had not previously appreciated, and his own conversion story was great to hear.

That said, Brother Smith mentioned a concept in relation to his own life and to one of the guiding principles for SVU that stuck in my craw. It’s not an uncommon idea, and it’s frankly one I have espoused in my life before. Basically, he said that when something good happens, he thanks God; when something bad happens, he blames himself. He calls it accountability. I used to call it humility.

Now I call it unhealthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I started this post speaking highly of Brother Smith. I do not intend to attack him or his ideas here, and I suspect I’ve drawn more meaning out of his two-second comment than it deserves. This post is about my idea, one that I myself used to espouse, not about Brother Smith. He simply reminded me.

We should be accountable for our failures and our successes. It’s healthy to examine what went wrong and what we have power to change in the future. But it’s equally healthy to examine what we did right that led to success so that we might repeat it.

Attributing all success to God and all failure to us robs us of a part of the blessing of the atonement, namely the power to improve.

Don’t get me wrong (again): We should praise God. We should thank him for every blessing in our lives. Without Him, His plan of happiness, the atoning sacrifice of His son, we would be nothing. As King Benjamin teaches, we are beggars, and we are regularly blessed, even in ways we do not see. We owe our Father in Heaven a debt of gratitude, and we should offer thanks continually. The very fact that we can improve is by the grace of God and through the atonement of our Savior.

Still, when I stay up late working on a project for my employer and deliver more than is required I want my employer to reward my efforts. I don’t go to work for the fun of it; I go to be compensated so that I can support my family (and I’m very fortunate – even blessed! – to have the job I do). So when I succeed at work, I also want the commensurate rewards. Do I also thank God for facilitating that success? Of course I do: He gave me opportunity in my life to learn; He gave me intellect; He gave me health. But I used those God-given gifts to the advantage of my employer. And so I want my employer to reward me (and I believe God does, too).

Attributing all success to God and all failure to ourselves is not humility. And it’s not accountability.

Accountability is reporting on my stewardship – good and bad. When the ruler gave various talents to his servants (see Matthew 25), they then accounted for their efforts – one returning ten for five, one four for two, and one returning only his original talent. Each of those servants was held accountable; two were rewarded and one was not.

Focusing only on my failures is false humility, and it is unhealthy. If I see myself as one who only fails, how can I enjoy the blessing of the atonement in my life? The Savior suffered that we might live. Failing to accept that gift suggests that it has no value to me.

In twelve step programs, participants engage in a fearless written moral inventory, including their weaknesses and their strengths. Most veteran 12-steppers understand the value of remembering our strengths as we engage in self-examination. There is something of value in each of us, something worth saving, worth building upon. If we seek to be like Christ, then we must also find his qualities in us, however weak, however small, so that those qualities may grow. As we see them grow in us, we recognize that the atonement is working for us and on us; we value the Savior’s gift.

Let me conclude with the words of Elder Uchdorf from the Priesthood session of conference in October 2010. He was speaking about pride, as a postscript to President Benson’s landmark address on that subject just over two decades earlier:

I also remember one interesting side effect of President Benson’s influential talk. For a while it almost became taboo among Church members to say that they were “proud” of their children or their country or that they took “pride” in their work. The very word pride seemed to become an outcast in our vocabulary.

In the scriptures we find plenty of examples of good and righteous people who rejoice in righteousness and at the same time glory in the goodness of God. Our Heavenly Father Himself introduced His Beloved Son with the words “in whom I am well pleased.”

Alma gloried in the thought that he might “be an instrument in the hands of God.” The Apostle Paul gloried in the faithfulness of members of the Church. The great missionary Ammon gloried in the success he and his brothers had experienced as missionaries.

I believe there is a difference between being proud of certain things and being prideful.

I do, too. I believe we can feel good about our successes. We can thank God for our blessings, but still recognize the value of what we, as His children, can do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Are Men Biologically Adapted To Nurturing?

We know that The Family: A Proclamation teaches that fathers are to preside, provide and protect, and that mothers are to nurture, and that they are to support one another in these roles. We’ve heard a number of talks in recent conferences that seem to suggest (or directly state) that mothers are more in tune with the tasks of nurturing than men.

That may be, and I do not intend in any way to refute the Proclamation, but there’s a new study published in The Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences, and reported by the New York Times that would suggest that fathers also are biologically adapting to a more nurturing role.

Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Northwestern University and co-author of the study said,

This should be viewed as, "Oh, it’s great, women aren’t the only ones biologically adapted to be parents."

Humans give birth to incredibly dependent infants. Historically, the idea that men were out clubbing large animals and women were staying behind with babies has been largely discredited. The only way mothers could have higly needy offspring ever couple of years is if they were getting help.

The study, which tested men before and after becoming fathers involved over 600 men in the Cebu province of the Philippines:

Testosterone was measured when the men were 21 and single, and again nearly five years later. Although testosterone naturally decreases with age, men who became fathers showed much greater declines, more than double that of childless men.

And men who spent more than three hours a day caring for children -- playing, feeding, bathing, toileting, reading or dressing them – had the lowest testosterone.

Researchers view the drop in testosterone as a positive thing for families, hormonally encouraging men to be more faithful to their families than straying.

“This is part of the guy being invested in the marriage,” said Carol Worthman, an anthropologist at Emory University who also was not involved in the study. Lower testosterone, she said, is the father’s way of saying, “’I’m here, I’m not looking around, I’m really toning things down so I can have good relationship.’”

So, it would seem there is some biological evidence that a father’s role extends beyond conception, and that the father is biologically tuned to participate in the nurture of his children.