Monday, February 28, 2011

On writing to missionaries

We have two nephews and a niece on missions now, and I try to write to them once a month or so. We also have family friends who have sons on missions, and I try to write to them.

I write to missionaries mostly because almost no one beside my family wrote to me when I was a missionary. As I was leaving on my mission, my folks moved out of the ward of my youth because of an overseas assignment for my father’s work. They lived in Nigeria, away from any unit of the church, so in my home ward I was literally out of sight and out of mind.

I received letters regularly from my mother, somewhat less regularly from my siblings and from my girlfriend (who is now my wife). I received one letter from a member of my home ward. (He was a family friend and also had been called as elders quorum president.)

When I served as bishop I wrote a letter to missionaries serving from our ward once a month. They all got the same letter, but it came regularly.

I have no idea how these letters are received. For all I know these missionaries I write glance at the letters and toss them aside. They almost never respond (I tell them not to – they have more important people to write than me), though most write at least one or two letters back during their missions. And I typically get plenty of news from their missions through their parents who often share selected letters on their own blogs or emails or family letters.

I have one young friend who is serving in Brazil – coming home very soon. His father and I are good friends, though I haven’t spent any time with this missionary since he was about four. It has been awesome to read his letters (forwarded by his dad) and see how his mission has affected him. He expressed to his dad that he was surprised that someone who did not know him would write to him.

My letters aren’t great epistles. I write briefly about my own mission experiences, usually trying to match roughly the recipient’s mission timeline. I share my testimony, and maybe a thought about something I’d recently read in the scriptures or heard in church.

I send almost all my letters using Super easy for me. A brother-in-law recommended it to me when I asked the easiest way to write to his son and I've been hooked ever since. I have also emailed missionaries directly, though I hear they often prefer to get paper letters and save their screen time for more important letters than mine.

What’s your experience? Do you write to missionaries? Did you receive random letters on your mission? How did you respond?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Teaching truth (to our kids)

I had a conversation with a reader on another blog post a couple of weeks ago. He asked about my thoughts on how to prepare our kids for “surprises” in church history. His question caused me to think about how I teach my kids the gospel and how I teach others (for instance now I teach occasionally in the High Priests group, and I share teaching of the Gospel Essentials class; in the past I’ve taught seminary and institute).

When it comes to exposing students (or our kids) to apparent inconsistencies in church history, here are some thoughts:

1. The setting matters. I would deal with this completely differently in an institute class or a High Priests group (where I’m more likely to be open) than in a Gospel Essentials class (where my charge is to teach basic doctrines). That said, I still accept the mandate to “teach from the manual” so I’m not interested in declaring whatever arcane historical things I’ve learned at the expense of the scheduled lesson. (I’ve blogged before about what teaching from the manual means to me, so I won’t belabor that point here.)

2. Age matters. I think whatever we teach our kids, we need to be aware of where they are. Just as the facts-of-life talk can be age appropriate, so can other issues, and I think church history issues are like that.

3. We don't have to know everything. I have had unanswered questions over time. And I think it's ok to admit to our kids or our students that we don't have every answer, and that we are looking. It's especially valuable if we can demonstrate that we have resolved some issues, but have other unresolved ones, suggesting that issue resolution takes time.

3. Encourage questions. I really believe that it's ok to ask questions. But it's also good to wait for answers, and to seek them in reliable places. (I acknowledge that one man's reliable may be another's biased source...)

4. Remember what you know. It's good for us, our students and our kids to remember the things we do know (or feel, or have faith in). For me, the sweet spirit of the temple is what helped me to hang on as I tried to resolve open issues about Joseph Smith, for instance. When we keep moving forward without complete knowledge, I think that's walking by faith, and it's ok.

5. The more we know the more we know what we don't know. Elder Theodore Burton taught me this principle on my mission years ago. As our testimony grows, the border between what we know and what we don't know also grows. And that's ok.

Some of my kids had no interest in talking about these things with me. Carlfred Broderick observed that these issues just don't matter to everyone, and that's ok. I have other family members for whom history issues were highly significant. Not every student will respond the same way, and for that reason, I think we need to be prudent in how we proceed as teachers.

For me, my period of discovery of church history matters began after high school. Having supportive and positive (but not dictatory) voices was helpful to me as I found my own way through it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

"I do not know the meaning of all things."

So said Nephi to the spirit during his vision of the Tree of Life (and more; see 1 Nephi 11). I’ve never been asked anything in a vision, but I certainly could regularly say, “I do not know the meaning of all things.” And I must confess, I’m a little leery of those who seem to (know the meaning of all things, I mean).

I appreciate the humility inherent in Nephi’s statement. I mean, here he’s having a vision, conversing with “the spirit of the Lord”, and it’s not just a run of the mill vision, but it’s about to be one of those broadly scoped visions of epic proportions. It’s pretty easy to imagine that Nephi post-vision was more confident in what he knew than pre-vision, anyway.

I think about times that I have behaved as if I knew more than I did. I suspect there were times on my mission that I was that way. And I don’t mean saying “I know” when I really believed, but I mean falsely believing I had a greater grasp of scripture and culture and language than I did – believing I was more capable than a companion, or capable (on my own) to convince an investigator.

There have been times as a dad when I have assumed I knew more than my kids and didn’t. I regularly demonstrate that I have forgotten much of what I learned in grades 5-9 when approached by my children of those ages through the years. I had a 14-year old son who loved to argue with me and would regularly challenge me to bet him something was true. I always lost. Always. Clearly, I did not know the meaning of all things. (Now, with my present 14-year old, I do not bet. I have come to understand myself far better, at least.)

As I’ve taught seminary and institute sporadically over the years I’ve encouraged my students to ask questions – any questions they may have. And I’ve freely admitted to them that I do not know the meaning of all things. But I’ve invited them to join me on a journey of discovery to find answers if we can. Sometimes they were easy to find, and sometimes we didn’t find the answers we looked for. But hopefully those students will continue on their quest for understanding and meaning.

I do not find weakness in Nephi’s statement, particularly given that he says it to the spirit of the Lord, who probably knew the answer before Nephi said it. Nephi had already demonstrated desire and faith (he called on the Lord for understanding, and he admitted to the spirit that he did believe all that his father had taught). If he knew the meaning of all things, it would hardly have been necessary to seek more.

I further have appreciated when church leaders or teachers I’ve known locally have admitted that they don’t instantly have an answer to a question I pose, but that they will research it and come back to me. There is comfort to me in knowing that these faithful and righteous servants also recognize their limitations. And it’s ok not to know everything.

Similarly, it’s ok for me not to have every private question I carry to the Lord in prayer be resolved instantly. Part of the test of faithfulness is (for me) learning to walk quietly in the darkness, trusting that more will be revealed as I need it. I am ok knitting together a hypothesis when I do not understand. I can say to myself, “I have experienced that X is true. Y is related to X and I don’t fully understand Y, but for now, since I accept X as true, I can also live with Y. I believe in time, the significance of Y will also be revealed.”

Friday, February 18, 2011

On personal history

In 2009, one of my Christmas gifts to my children was my personal history. Mine was modeled after my mother's which she gave us as gifts, too. Both my mother and I wrote our histories when we were each about 50, though mine took a couple of years for editing before I finally gave it away.

When I was much younger, I assumed personal history writing was for the "old" folks. (Of course when I was much younger, I thought 30-year olds were old!) But I'm glad that I wrote my first volume at 50. I was old enough to have made significant choices in my life and seen the impact of those choices, and young enough to remember them!

I'm thinking about this, because I recently re-read my history. As I began, I was struck with a horrible thought, that the whole project had been a little presumptuous in the first place. After all, who was I to think that someone would actually want to read it? And yet I did (and do) enjoy reading my mother's history. And my children and wife have been kind enough to be complimentary of mine.

My process of writing took me quite some time. When I began to write, I went chronologically, and began writing what I could remember. I found the more I wrote, the more came back to me, and often I'd go back and add another story to what I had already written. I also used family letters (which we've written since we were married) as source material, but I really focused on what came to mind while writing. My intent was not to tell every detail of every story, but to get the broad arc of the story of my life with enough details to reveal who I was at various life stages.

In my earliest draft I wrote everything – the good, the bad and the ugly. And that process was highly therapeutic. But as I edited, I made a conscious choice to let this be my story, and not someone else's. So no airing of anyone else's dirty laundry – or clean laundry, for that matter. Where I included others in my narrative I tried to focus on my interaction with them. Of course there are many actors in my life, and I tried to include them fairly and in a way that would not cause them embarrassment of any kind. This is particularly true for my children (and I hope I succeeded; that none of them has resigned from the family is a good sign).

Someday I hope to write a second volume. My mother never did, and I wish she had. But the good news is that when she published her first volume, I was an adult, old enough to know her and have solid memories of her. My youngest children may not be there yet for me. So I suppose I'll have to think about the right timing for Volume Two.

Have your written your own history? Have enjoyed reading others’ personal histories?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sacrament passing

I’ve enjoyed watching the deacons pass the sacrament in our ward. My youngest son is 14 now, so he often does not pass anymore. On a good week, the deacons quorum can do all the passing themselves without help from the teachers’ quorum.

Our deacons are deacon-reverent: they aren’t particularly quiet on the bench, but they are pretty serious about passing efficiently and reverently. Occasionally there’s an issue of whether that half-row of congregants should pass the tray to the other end or pass it back to the deacon, but the boys take those things in stride.

Our deacons are not overly formal. Some wear jackets, all wear white shirts and ties. Some sleeves are rolled up, most shirt-tales are tucked in. And only a few of the shirts look the deacons themselves are doing the ironing. (My son irons his white shirt each week, by the way.) They do line up and wait for the priests to stand before returning to the sacrament table.

We have tall and short deacons; interestingly our newest deacon is a head taller than some of the 13-year olds. And some of the teachers seem to be close to their adult height, so the row of passers at the sacrament table reveals a real diversity of height. Hair also ranges a pretty normal deacon spectrum, from mother-brushed to cow-licked to wake-up-on-Sunday-after-washing-it-Saturday.

These are nice kids. We know most of them pretty well. I used to be bishop to mmany of them (before they were baptized), and they will actually say hello and shake my hand. I am pleased to see them handle the bread and water as they learn their role in providing priesthood service. They know this is not about them. And they know (despite my noticing them from time to time) that they are not there to be noticed.

When a new boy joins the quorum, one patiently teaches him where to stand, when to walk and when to stay. And gently reminds him in hushed tones if needed.

Sister Beck said it well this weekend (or whenever her comments were recorded): “The Lord loves beginners.” I think He does love these boys who serve Him and the rest of us. May they feel His spirit as they do so.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A revelatory experience

Today was the second worldwide training session for Handbook 2, and I'm sure there will be plenty of commentary across the bloggernacle. And the segments from today's training will soon also be online at, according to Elder Nelson (who conducted the meeting).

I had the pleasure of attending with my wife, as we each happen to have callings that got us invited.

Things that moved me:

1. Can I just say that I love Sister Beck? As my wife and I spoke about her on the way home, we agreed she is plain-talking, uplifting, and generally spot-on in just about everything she says. My favorite quote of hers today: "The Lord loves beginners." Thank goodness, I say, because each day I'm a beginner all over again.

2. The video segments from international settings were wonderful. Apart from wondering how they filmed the interactions in Korea and Guatemala and Britain, I was just really impressed. The Guatemalan ward council was particularly impressive to me. It reminded me of ward council meetings I attended in Venezuela, and so I had a great mixture of memory and impressions about the present example.

3. The repeated invitation to seek personal revelation, inspiration, the spirit of revelation, revelatory experiences and so on. I was impressed by the number of invitations, and by the impressions I felt during the broadcast and during our own mini family council on the way home.

4. The opportunity to attend with my wife and to hear what was important to her, namely the discussion of priesthood principles. She appreciated the instruction since, as she said, she doesn't get that instruction as often as she would like.

5. Elder Scott's apostolic witness. My favorite quotation from him: "I know He lives because I know Him." I believe he does.

I was happy to be so well taught.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Our children will not always be happy

When I was a young father, I had a strange expectation. I don’t know why, but I had it in my head that when I corrected my kids, they’d be happy to have me do it.

I had always dreamed of a happy home – Mom and Dad smiling and playing with good natured kids who loved one another and got along. Frankly, I grew up in a really happy home. I got along with my siblings (they were extremely kind to me; I was the youngest), and I got along with my parents. My folks had disagreements, and I know that my dad, in particular, went the rounds with my older brother. I guess by the time I rolled around Dad had either tired himself out or figured better which battles were worth fighting.

But I was not always happy as a child. When I did something wrong, I was punished. I had been sent away from the table or sent to my room, or even gotten a swat on the behind more than once. My parents were measured in their discipline, and I never felt that I was punished out of anger. (Maybe I was, but I don’t remember it that way.)

My mom was around more that my dad, both because he worked and she was at home, but also because he traveled a lot, so she was both Mom and Dad sometimes. And I learned at an early age not to cross Mom. Although punishment was measured, her words could sting sometimes. But she was consistent and I learned the boundaries pretty well. And there were plenty of happy and fun times, too.

Somehow, though, I assumed that my own kids would either always instinctively do what is right, or be glad when I corrected them. And when they weren’t, I was surprised, and often quite defensive, even with a strong willed two-year-old. When that strong willed two-year-old was a surly teen (with a couple of more surly teen siblings at the same time), my expectation hadn’t changed much, but my disappointment continued to brew.

It took some time for me to learn that it’s not my job as a parent to make sure my kids are happy all the time. Sometimes they need to learn hard lessons and it’s better for them to learn them in the safety of my home than in the “real” world. And sometimes I need to let the real world lessons come home to roost.

It’s better for me to help a ten year old learn a hard lesson about responsibility, even if it brings a moment or two of discomfort, than to let her grow into an irresponsible teen or adult, less prepared to accept responsibility for her choices.

The fact is, I cannot make my kids happy. I can be honest with them. I can love them. I can provide them a safe place of shelter and acceptance, but I cannot shield them, nor should I. Of course, to everything there is a season, and I don’t expect the same of an eight-year-old as I would of an eighteen-year-old.

At the same time, I should not be (and do not need to be) the source of their sadness, if they feel it. I can’t take responsibility for the choices they make. I can mourn with them, and I can even offer to share their burdens when I am able. But just because I can’t make something better doesn’t mean I’m the source of their pain.

It’s a lesson that seems so obvious to me now. But it took me years to learn.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On investigation

I heard my stake president speak twice in the last few weeks – once at our ward conference and once at a mission fireside. The talks shared a theme of personal revelation. In both talks he spoke about the need for personal investigation before seeking personal revelation.

In the mission fireside talk he told a story of something that had happened to him that day. He runs a wound clinic at a local hospital and had a patient who had been coming for a long time (later he told me several years) without substantial progress, and they had begun to discuss the possibility of amputating her leg. He had given her the name of a doctor who could tell her all about artificial limbs and what life might be like with one. And she also received names of amputees she could talk to about their experience.

When she returned to the wound clinic, my stake president asked her what she wanted to do. She said she did not know. He asked her if she had spoken to the doctor or to the amputees. She had not. He told her, “Of course you do not know what you want to do. You have not investigated this alternative.”

Looking from the outside, one might assume that she was afraid to make the choice, or perhaps she wanted the doctor to make the choice for her. But he had given her tools to make a decision for herself.

His counsel to the attendees at the fireside was to continue to investigate the church, to study the Book of Mormon, to live the commandments, to explore the blessings of being a member of the Lord’s church. Then, he said, personal revelation can come. Then, Moroni’s promise can be fulfilled.

Hearing him, I reflected on my teenage son about whom I blogged recently. He’s in that same age that Joseph Smith was when Joseph wondered what to do about religion. My son also wonders how to make sense of it all. Joseph’s quest was to find what church to join, to find which was right. My son’s is to discover if God is really there and if he should stay in church (any church). But in both cases, the resolution is made possible by what my stake president taught.

I shared with my son the story our stake president told. And I invited him to continue to investigate. And he is doing that. To his credit, he is not acting out of laziness, but out of a desire to find resolution, and I respect and admire him for that.

As I reflected on my own experience, I realize that my stake president is right. As I investigated, I learned enough to seek and understand personal revelation which contributed to choices I made in my life. And I’m glad I did.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A consecrated life -- an example from the front lines

One of our sacrament meeting talks this past week referenced Elder Christofferson's "A Consecrated Life" (from October 2010 conference). As I listened to the talk in church (our speaker focused on Enoch as an example), I thought of other examples.

The first that sprang to mind was my own father. He was not a perfect man, but he was a good man, an honest man, a hard working man. My father was a convert to the church in his early thirties. He and my mother had four children (I was the youngest) and were doing their best to rear us in a good way. Dad worked professionally as an engineer, and they were active in their Presbyterian church.

When my father heard the gospel, he accepted it as we all did. He had a struggle to give up certain habits that were not consistent with church membership, but he did it. He developed the faith to pay his tithing. And he dedicated himself to service in his new church.

During those years of young and growing children, Dad worked more than he wanted to, was away more than we wanted him to be, and still served faithfully wherever he was called. He was not the most eloquent high council speaker, but he was sincere and devoted to the Lord. My mother often helped him with research for his talks, and I traveled with him on multiple occasions over his years of service. He was diligent in his other assignments, whether shepherding his assigned ward (which he attended every week) or planning a youth conference, establishing family history centers, organizing stake temple trips or whatever else he was asked to do.

He worked hard to provide for us. His traditional thinking firmly rooted him as provider and protector of our family, and provide he did. He also repaired and improved our home, and enjoyed laughing with his kids. At some family nights, when we had all reduced ourselves to giggling uncontrollably after singing many, many hymns (at his insistence), he would finally suggest that we let Heavenly Father in on the joke as we said family prayer.

He taught me mostly by example, rarely by lecture. He encouraged me to believe I could do anything if I worked hard enough, and that I should not assume deficiencies in myself. He warned me the night before my wedding that my new bride should finish her degree or he would be most disappointed.

About the time I left on my mission, my parents moved with Dad's work to West Africa, before the church sent missionaries there. That time away from the mainstream church (my folks held a sacrament meeting in their living room each week for themselves and another expat or two who would attend at times; later, after the revelation on the priesthood, the senior missionary couples would sometimes join them) gave my father a chance to rethink and renew his commitment to living the gospel and serving in the church. Upon his return to the US, he also returned to service on the high council, and I heard him speak in a ward conference the week I came home from my mission.

Even in his most senior years, he served. In retirement he was a branch president in West Virginia, serving many hours each week to meet the needs of his little flock. (He was released after a stroke disabled him for a time.) And years later from his assisted living facility in Michigan, after my mother's death to cancer, he traveled with another member of the high priest group leadership monthly to the Chicago temple to work as an ordinance worker.

I don't know that he was a great scripture scholar. I don't think he considered himself a great teacher. And his approach as often as not was decidedly pragmatic rather than mystical.

But if he had something to give, he gave it. If he could serve, he did. And I would do well to follow his example.

My father passed away three years ago this week.