Sunday, January 30, 2011

Temple blessing

Sometimes when I visit the temple, I seek a specific blessing – confirmation of a decision I'm considering, help with an issue I'm confronting, or peace for my troubled heart. This past weekend was one of those times. And the blessing came, at least in part.

I went this time with specific questions, looking for guidance and comfort regarding something going on in my life. As I sat in the endowment room prior to the beginning of the session, I reflected on my questions, saying a silent prayer that I might be tuned in to listen for help that might come. In fact, I was so preoccupied with my concerns at one point that others must have thought I had fallen asleep, but I tuned in soon enough.

Part of the endowment session is a prayer, offered normally for those whose names are on the prayer roll of the temple. Patrons may include names on the prayer roll, and members can even phone in names to be included. While the prayers follow a specific pattern, they are not prescribed; their content is up to the person offering them and his inspiration.

The prayer in my session was so specific that it seemed perfectly tailored to the questions I had brought with me to the temple that day. It was unique from other prayers I had heard in that circumstance; I had never heard certain elements of this prayer in such a setting before. As I listened to it, I felt the Lord's love pour on me like the balm of Gilead. There was no voice to answer my specific question, but rather simply the knowledge that the Lord had heard my cry: I knew He was there. (That's what Isaiah 58 promises: that we'll cry and know He is there.)

After that experience, I've had repeated promptings through the weekend (including in the talks and lessons I heard in church the next day, in conversations with my spouse, and during the course of my personal prayers) that have shaped how I think I will respond to my challenges. But the prayer in the temple was a dramatic and significant blessing for me.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I know you have a problem

You've got a problem. I know you have a problem. Your family knows you've got a problem. Everyone seems to know you've got a problem. Everyone, that is, but you.

What does one do in such a situation? How do we help someone who does not want to be helped? In Mosiah we learn that we are to mourn with those that mourn and bear one another's burdens. How do we live that teaching, especially when the person who needs help won't get it?

The issue is that you are likely to come to me for help. But it will be help for problems that you could solve if you'd solve your core problem. But you don't see the core problem. Or you see it and won't do anything about it.

King Benjamin teaches we ought to offer help whenever it is requested without judgment of the person seeking help. Does that mean I give the help I'm asked to give, or I try to solve the root problem?

At least one of the reasons King Benjamin gives for his direction to help everyone without judgment is that we're all beggars. We're all in the same boat (or at least similar boats) and we all need help. And that means I probably have a bigger root problem that someone else sees better than I do, too. Related to that reality is that I may not be in the best position to judge what your real problem is. I can't see into your heart. I'm not a trained professional counselor. I'm not your religious leader. I'm just a parent or a friend, or even just a guy you ask for help.

When we do things for people that they could and should be doing for themselves, we are at risk of enabling behaviors that are not healthy in the long run. People in "Anon" program like Al-Anon or Families Anonymous or the church's Family Support Groups (a companion program to the Addiction Recovery Program, but not yet available everywhere) learn the dangers of enabling alcoholics or addicts, since enabling typically does nothing to encourage change in the addict. (Stopping the enabling is also no guarantee that an addict will seek change, by the way. But, as the slogan goes: If nothing changes, nothing changes.)

Enabling goes beyond cases of addiction. Enabling behaviors could also slow the preparation of young people to enter the adult world. They can hide the true effects of abuse in a family. They can allow a co-worker to work less than he's paid to. And more.

So, how do I decide how to help?

Monday, January 24, 2011

On grace and repentance

In recovery circles, where 12-step programs are practiced, there's an understanding that one cannot do it alone. If one takes the AA approach to recovery, one first faces the reality that no one can, by himself, control the disease of addiction. And one walks through steps that lead one to understand dependence on God for rescue from that same disease.

It's not that there isn't a great deal of work to be done by the person seeking recovery (whether an addict, an alcoholic or a co-dependent loved one of an addict). Surrendering oneself to God is no simple task.

In Step 7 of the church's Addiction Recovery Program (which is based on the 12 steps of AA, but is also infused with more direct links to doctrine and to commentary from apostles and prophets), we read these words:

"Genuine remorse filled our hearts, not only because we had suffered or made others suffer but because we regretted that even in recovery we still could not remove our own shortcomings…. We asked that He would grant us grace, that through Him we might maintain this new way of life" (A Guide to Addiction Recovery and Healing", 41, emphasis mine).

My own experience is that the 12 steps are an elegant application of the atonement in our lives, and lessons from the 12 steps are readily applicable to other efforts at repentance and rebirth. The truth of this particular step is no exception:

All of us who sin (and I think I can safely say that's all of us) cannot overcome that sin alone. It is not enough simply to stop our objectionable behavior (even if we can): we require the mercy and grace of a loving Savior to heal our hearts and our lives.

Herein is God's grace clear, that we have the opportunity to overcome our shortcomings, that He can turn our weaknesses into strengths (see Ether 12:27), that He can lift up the hands that hang down (D&C 81:8). I have seen that grace in my own life, and that is how I know He lives.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

I don't believe -- Part II

In my last post I wrote about my son's declaration that he did not believe in God.

I was touched by the responses that post received, both public and private. I wrote the post because the point of my blog is to write about my experience as a Latter-day Saint. And part of that experience (for me, anyway) is teenagers who question their faith. Most of my kids have done it in one way or another. Some have been gentler about it. Some have been more strident (and less will to talk about it). But it's all part of the mix for me as an LDS parent.

When I started my journey on the road of parenting, I was filled with great expectations. My kids would know that I loved them and they would love me. We'd be a happy family, and we'd live worthy of the blessings of our family's sealing.

Have you noticed that in parenting discussions, it's often the youngest parents who do most of the talking? I was certainly that way. As I've aged (matured? become more battle-worn?) I've learned that there are lots of moving parts in the rearing of a child. There are few easy answers and there are no guaranteed results. In fact, our Father in Heaven's plan is pretty clear about not guaranteeing the outcome. The opportunity is guaranteed, but the outcome is up to each one of us.

It took me a long time to learn that lesson as a dad. My younger children owe my older children a great debt for what the older kids taught me (sometimes patiently, sometimes not so much).

But here's something my kids do know about me. They know I love them. They know that they are welcome at my table. And they know I want them to be happy.

And there are some things I know about them. They love me back. I'm welcome at their table, too. And they respect my faith, even if they do not all embrace it.

If we are all together for the eternities (and I have faith in the covenants I've made that make that possible), I hope we will be comfortable together. We're taught there are no wards or stakes in the Celestial Kingdom, only families. If that's true, then I would like my children to want to be at my table then.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"I don't believe in God."

We were not surprised to hear him say it, but hoped it wouldn’t be so soon. When our son delivered this message, my wife listened calmly and said little. In a follow-up conversation he allowed as how he’s not done thinking about it, yet, and he hasn’t made any final decisions. He is, after all, only 14.

But his best school friend is, like him, a bright scientific thinker, heavily influenced by the popular science minds today. And the friend is also somewhat confused by his family’s church’s teachings about some things.

As we’ve had follow up conversations, here are some things we’ve said:

1. No one can make you believe. In the end, you have to choose for yourself, and live with your choices.

2. At 14, you might not know everything you will learn in your life; there may be still more understanding to come that will influence what you believe.

3. Just as there are a lot of smart people you admire who do not believe, there are also a lot of smart people who do. Think about why people who believe do, and see if there’s anything in there for you.

4. Don’t give up on the wrong God. Just because your protestant friend’s view of the scriptures is hard for you to understand, listen to what your church teaches, and ask God for help. He can answer your prayers.

The good news is that he’s come to this crossroads while he’s still at home with people who love him. And he’s willing to leave the book open for a while. And he’s still talking about how he feels. And his friendships at church are still very important to him.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Making the standards our own

In a recent sacrament meeting someone mentioned the idea of making the standards our own. The context was the 13th article of faith, the new Mutual theme for the year. By making standards our own, the speaker was not suggesting that we each develop our own set, but that we adopt the Lord's standards as ours.

As I thought about making the standards our own, I thought about something Sister Allred mentioned in a Relief Society leadership meeting my wife attended a few months ago. She suggested a better title for For The Strength of Youth (the standards pamphlet) would be For The Strength of You because it has value for all church members, not just the youth. (Our local RS president must have taken this to heart. This month's mid-week RS meeting is one in which our ward's young men and young women presented For The Strength of Youth to the Relief Society.)

In John, 17:7 we read, "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." I think this is all about making the standards our own, taking those qualities outlined in the 13th article of faith, in the Strength of Youth pamphlet, and throughout the scriptures and living them, internalizing them, feeling their blessings in our lives. In this way, I think we follow Alma's admonition to take the countenance of Christ upon ourselves (see Alma 5:14).

This presupposes, of course, that one accepts "the standards" as what the Savior would have us do. When I have taught standards to the youth, I've suggested they are like the sign at the amusement park that says "you must be 'this' tall to ride." They tell us we where we are striving to go in our behavior to be like the Savior, and to enhance our spiritual lives.

And my own John 17:7 experience has been a positive one.

Monday, January 10, 2011

More on friends

In my last post, I talked about the value of good friends for our youth. But the same is true, of course, for adults.

President Hinckley taught his now-famous triplet about what new members need: a friend, a responsibility, and the nurturing of the good word of Christ. In my parents' early days in the church, I think the new friends they made there were exceptionally important. We were fortunate to be introduced to the church by another family, neighbors up the street. So we had friends (one of their children first invited me to Primary) close by at the beginning. And others reached out to my folks, as well, helping them to feel a part of the branch from the outset.

I know for me, my best friend in the world is my wife. And having her with me at church has been critical to many of my choices, including my continuing activity. I know when we have moved to a new ward, she was there with me, and we've made the transition together. When she or I have assignments that take us away from our home ward, I miss being with her in church.

Most of my other church friendships come along with my assignments for service. I become close to other members of the group I'm serving with. And sometimes those friendships change a bit when the assignment does, just because we don't have circumstances that keep us together. But there have been a few lasting friendships – some closer than others – over the years.

When I was in high school and at a critical time for making key decisions about my life in the church and my future, I made a new friend in our ward. His simple friendship (and he really didn't do anything except be nice to me and be willing to hang out, beat me at tennis once in a while, and be a friend) tipped my scale in favor of continued activity and choices that led to a mission and a temple sealing. Could I have gotten there without him? Maybe. Would I have? I don't know. But I know having his friendship was important to me that senior year.

Several years ago in a period of pretty deep depression, I was able to open up to a friend who patiently listened. He didn't offer solutions, but allowed me to talk my way through my own. And his presence in my life that year made a huge difference to me.

For me, these friendships have been almost accidental. They have begun under the assumption that friendship would be agreeable to both of us. In other words, I have had to be open to friendship in order to find it. I could not simply wait for it to be bestowed upon me.

In some moments of reflection, I find myself asking if I'm doing enough to cultivate new friendships. Those new friendships would benefit me, and others, too, perhaps. Perhaps one day I can be a friend who will listen as another stews over doctrine, or puzzles over how to help a child in trouble, or faces big challenges just as others have been such a friend to me.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Friends and Church Activity

In one of our ward councils recently our Young Women's president expressed concern about participation among the youth of our ward.

It's not a new concern, certainly. Anyone who has parented teenagers has worried about how to keep his kids active in church, hoping they'll somehow find that spark of testimony that will propel them to those decisions that will bless their lives in a lasting way.

And most of us who have been there understand that there's no easy answer and there are certainly no guarantees.

A number of years ago, during my service as bishop in a ward that had a fairly large group of young men, we had a summit meeting of sorts with everyone who had anything to do with young men and boys from age 8 – 18. We were concerned about the drop out rate and wondered what (more) we could be doing to stem the tide. (I should point out that we did not discuss young women in this meeting, because we had seven in the ward, all of whom were quite active, but I suspect we could have had a similar discussion about young women and reached similar conclusions.)

We – bishopric, Aaronic priesthood advisers, scout leaders, Primary teachers & leaders, and a few interested parents – gathered for a Saturday morning. We reviewed programs, scriptures and stories of rescues (from the oft-told stories of the rescued handcart pioneers to a dramatic military rescue of a soldier behind enemy lines). We taught ourselves again of the value of these young people and the need to do whatever could be done to reach them.

A sizable portion of our meeting was brainstorming in small groups to generate ideas of what to do next. Everything was on the table from how we organized our scouting activities to assigning adult mentors to rethinking home teaching companionships to the way we collected fast offerings.

My biggest learning from the day was about the value of friends. It seems the kids who did the best had friends at church, and it seems those friendships helped to reinforce positive choices. It wasn't universally true – some kids who seemed to have good friends at church still made poor choices – but particularly for teenagers it seemed critical to have friends who reinforced what the kids had learned at home and at church.

That lesson bore itself out with my own kids over time. Those who had close friendships at church that reinforced the gospel teaching our kids were getting at home stayed truer and tended to make better choices. Those who didn't have those personal connections at church drifted away more easily and found it harder to hang on while waiting for the fire of testimony to ignite.

As I listened to our Young Women's president and to the discussion that followed, I thought about the tough road our kids face. From their parents they see an example of gospel service and the attendant blessings, but there are many other messages they see as well. At some critical times, a parent's voice is not the first one they hear. Or want to hear.

Of course the challenge is how to encourage those friendships. One of the most unnatural acts (especially for kids) is to be "assigned" to make friends.

I welcome your thoughts.

Monday, January 3, 2011

It dulls the pain of days

As testimony fills my heart,
It dulls the pain of days.
For one brief moment, Heaven's view
Appears before my gaze.
("Testimony", Hymns, 137)

A friend quoted this verse in her testimony yesterday in our sacrament meeting and it resonated with me.

Given enough time our hearts heal. That healing may be aided by the support of loving friends and family. And by the help of professional counselors or even medication. But also by the growth of testimony in the Lord Jesus Christ and in His gospel – the good news of His atoning sacrifice and its implications for us in this life and the next.

We spoke about Exaltation in our Gospel Essentials class yesterday. It was a lesson that brought together a year of study of the Lord's Plan for us. That Plan of Redemption, of Happiness, of Salvation is our Father's gift to us, a means of our returning to His presence. And a testimony of that Plan helps my heart to heal. It gives me hope, even in the face of what otherwise might seem like crushing burdens in my life.

In this past two weeks I've had incredible spiritual highs and lows. I've seen the positive effect of great choices that one child has made, and I've also seen at the same time lingering negative effect of the choices of another child. The contrast has been exhausting, frankly. I love both of these children, and I want the best for both of them. And I know that I am powerless in both cases and must simply follow Alma the elder's example and rely on the Lord to sort things out.

For me, testimony dulls the pain of days. I'm grateful for a deep enough spiritual well to sustain me. And that deeper well comes specifically because I've learned more in the last few years about the atonement than I thought I could.