Thursday, June 30, 2011

After Inventory, What?

On Monday, I posted about the value of a personal inventory.

Once we’ve done the inventory, then what? On the surface it seems pretty simple: repent where we need to. Once we recognize our sins, we can feel remorse, seek forgiveness, restore what has been lost and never repeat the sin.

But the inventory is about more than sin. It’s also about what we’re doing right in our lives. And it’s about identifying weaknesses that may be different from sin.

Twelve-steppers will move next to confession: telling God and another person about the inventory they’ve done. For me, telling someone else (in the church’s Addiction Recovery Program, a bishop is also included if needed) has a curative effect. It takes the weaknesses that are buried inside of us and puts them on the table, so to speak. We share the burden. Someone can comfort us, mourn with us, help to bear our burden.

The Savior counsels us to share our burdens with him:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
That passage of scripture actually shows what’s next for twelve-steppers (and the rest of us if we’re wise): after we share the burdens, then we take up the Lord’s yoke. We put ourselves in a position to have him remove our weaknesses.

More on that in my next post.

But as for that sharing of our inventory: it’s not as scary as it seems. I have done a personal inventory and shared it with my wife. She was not surprised by anything on my list. She had been living with me for over 25 years and knew me pretty well. In fact, my list had some positives and some negatives. And, bless her heart, she added another positive item to my list that I had left off.

But the power of sharing the list gave me courage to seek to turn weaknesses into strengths.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A post worth reading

I normally post only twice a week, but every once in a while something pushes me to post more often.

This week, Ardis Parshall at Keepapitchinin relates a remarkable experience she had teaching the Gospel of John in her Gospel Doctrine class. I encourage you to read it. It was the subject of our family scripture study yesterday morning just after I read it. Enjoy.

(And thanks, Ardis.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fiery Serpents or Closed For Inventory

My first Sunday home from my mission was ward conference, and my dad was a high councilor at the time. He happened to speak that Sunday in sacrament meeting about the importance of personal inventory. His perspective was interesting. He had recently come home from a long term (about the time of my mission) assignment in Nigeria for his work. While they lived there, my parents had sacrament meeting with just the two of them, plus one other fellow about every other week.

That time was a chance for my folks to think about their relationship with the church, absent church buildings and friends and missionaries and all the trappings of our normal church experience. It gave them a chance to do their own personal inventory.

Participants in 12-step programs are encouraged to do a fearless moral inventory. It’s a critical part to their recovery from addiction or co-dependence. In the 12-step process, the inventory follows the humbling steps of admitting one’s powerlessness, and admitting God’s power in our lives and submitting to His will.

That the inventory is fearless does not mean it is without fear. Everyone I’ve talked to who has undertaken a “Step 4” in a recovery program has done so with some fear. But fearless means in spite of fear, not without fear.

A friend compared that inventory with the fiery serpents. The children of Israel were beset with fiery serpents. Moses put one on his staff and told the children of Israel that they needed to look at the serpent and be saved from their poison.

When we do our inventory, we look at our fiery serpents. We examine what it is in our life that does us harm. We examine our own weakness and our own sin (those aren’t the same, by the way – subject of another post to come). Rarely can we do this once and be done. We (and Ogres) are like onions. We will get so deep in our self-examination in one round and come back another day for more.

The inventory is that first “R” of repentance we learned in Primary: Recognition. It’s that chance for us to stand up against the sign at the roller coaster to see if we measure up: are we tall enough to ride?

What the inventory isn’t is a chance for self-loathing and self-blame. It’s not about how bad we are, but rather about where we are. When Matilda – that voice in my car that gives me turn by turn directions – plots my route, first she has to find out where I am. The personal inventory helps me figure out where I am.

And where I am is a great place to start.

Read my next installment, After Inventory, What? here.

Update: I'm of course not the first to talk about inventories. As Stephen mentions in his comment below, he posted on the same subject at Wheat & Tares in April. I should have referenced his post in my OP, as it was in part the inspiration for mine.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

31 years of highlights...

My lovely wife and I celebrated our 31st wedding anniversary this week. We've been on the road for a number of reasons -- a nephew's missionary farewell talk, a daughter's having moved into her own place on her own for the first time, and a conference we're attending in Boston. So as part of our trip, we spent our anniversary at a lovely inn in NE Pennsylvania.

As we sat on the porch of the English arts and crafts inn, we enjoyed a delightful gourmet dinner while overlooking the beautiful English garden. And I mentioned that I'd been wondering what we could consider the "highlights" of each of our 31 years together.

So as we ate our meal, we went year by year and reminisced about the best things from each year. Of course we remembered our wedding itself, the birth of our seven children, high school graduations, college graduations (including our own!), family moves, and special family vacations. But we also remembered small everyday things that have made our life what it is. Some details we had a hard time placing in a specific year, especially the nine years we stayed in one place (it seems easier to anchor memories around the moves!), but we did the best we could.

We couldn't avoid also remembering a few bumps in the road, some of which we've made it through, and others we're still working on.

But it was wonderful to sit on that porch enjoying a couple of hours' reflection on the very best of times with my best friend and sweetheart.

I know that not everyone is as fortunate as I have been, and I can't begin to calculate why I have been blessed with the remarkable marriage I have. But I know I have been blessed, and I'm grateful for it.

And I look forward to the next 31 years, and the next, and the next...

Monday, June 20, 2011

Helicopters: Bad; Thanks, Dad: Good

A quote from my daughter, who has recently moved on her own for the first time (previously she’s either lived at home or in college apartments with roommates):

“I don’t like asking other people for help, except you.”

I’m flattered, of course (I guess), that my daughter wants my help. And she’s half-joking, because she did actually get someone else to do the thing she said I could do when I came to visit.

But there is a broader point: part of the independence we hope our kids will learn is building their own systems of support apart from their parents. It’s not that parents don’t want to help (we do!), but we also know our kids will not always have us to rely on.

If the helicopter parents of the world had their way, their children would never have to do anything for themselves. Bad, bad idea.

I know my wife was a little proud inside when our oldest complained that he was the only one among his freshman roommates who knew how to clean a bathroom. She was proud, of course, that he could do it. (Whether the others couldn’t do it or just didn’t isn’t clear.)

Another son quickly became the prime chef in his community of young adults when they realized what a great cook he was. (Thanks again, Mom!)

I know we watched with nervousness when another son moved out right after high school, refusing our help, except to cosign his first lease. Yes, he had bumps along the way. He had to kick out that deadbeat roommate. (Did we warn him or did we bite our tongues? It doesn’t matter; had we warned him he would have ignored us, but in the end he learned the lesson he needed to learn.)

Part of a kid’s job growing up is to separate from his parents, to become independent. I know few parents who, at a child’s 18th birthday, write them off forever, but we do want our kids to need us less and less.

My wife grew up in a family of 12 kids. There just wasn’t much time for helicoptering in that home. My own mom had a favorite mantra when I was a kid: “Fight your own battles.” I don’t remember her ever intervening, even when I was a high school sophomore and my “fighting my own battles” ticked off certain students at my high school who broke into my locker and stole everything – textbooks, notebooks, my winter coat. She did not stop me, nor did she rescue me (well, she did buy me a new coat). Thanks, mom.

To be sure, there are some scary moments when we allow our kids to make their own choices, fight their own battles, blaze their own trails. They sometimes make choices we think are dumb (and maybe even dangerous). I’m not advocating that parents allow their children to live recklessly, but that they allow their children to enjoy the dignity of the consequences of their choices.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Relying on grace, like Peter

A thought occurred to me on Sunday.

I was considering Peter (one of my very favorite characters in the scriptures). In Matthew we read about his attempt to walk on the water:

And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.

And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus.

But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. (Matthew 14:28-30)

I have always read this story as a failure of Peter’s faith (and the Lord in the next verse, after he saves Peter, makes that observation: “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?”).

But here is my thought:

Peter did have faith. He had faith to climb out of that boat. He had faith to walk on the water. He had faith to follow the Savior (even when he didn’t understand, which was often).

But Peter also had weakness. He faltered on the water. Perhaps he was distracted. Perhaps he doubted. Perhaps he did not have enough faith to continue walking.

And when he faltered, he called out for the Lord to save him. And Jesus did save him. The Savior’s grace saved him.

When I falter, when I lack faith, when I am in a moment of my weakness, I hope I will have the faith of Peter and rely on the grace of the Lord to lift me out of my stormy sea.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Listening to a prophet today

A comment at another blog a week or so ago got me to thinking. The discussion was about modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom and the present (lack of) focus on the counsel to eat meat sparingly. The commenter observed that the general authorities today don’t seem to be too worried about that particular item (based on her observation of their behavior). She said, “If they start emphasizing it, I’ll worry about it. Until then, I’ve got plenty to worry about.”

That’s a practical approach for many things. It does not say (in the specific example) that the meat issue is not important, but it doesn’t seem top-of-mind for the brethren today. It suggests instead that there are other matters that seem more urgent. I hear a speaker recently talk about going through the general conference talks and finding direct counsel he felt he should consider. He said as he read with that thought in mind, he quickly developed a list of things that were important for him to focus on (including his own personal scripture study, his own contributions to the general missionary fund, and others), based on what was taught in general conference.

It occurs to me that the leaders of the church will emphasize particular doctrines or teachings or practices at one time that may not be emphasized at another time. For instance:

In the early- and mid-20th century, there was plenty of discussion about which hand to use in taking the sacrament. Today’s handbooks and recent general conference talks are silent on the matter. Either everyone should remember the teachings from nearly 100 years ago (an interesting requirement for a church that has such growth from converts around the world), or it’s not top of mind for the folks who worry about what things we ought to worry about. I don’t suggest that it was wrong to focus on this matter years ago. But there simply isn’t the same focus on it today.

These days there is plenty of talk about tattoos and the number of earrings our youth should wear. President Hinckley felt strongly enough to address those matters in a General YW meeting and in subsequent general conference addresses and the standard has been reinforced in For The Strength Of Youth, so for now that’s important. But in fifty years will it be? Maybe. Maybe not.

Since I sustain the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators, I feel safe in looking to them for guidance on issues of my day.

This position doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to study my scriptures, study church history and to align my behavior with the Lord’s expectations. Of course I need to honor my covenants, keep the commandments, and listen for personal promptings along the way. Looking to church leadership for guidance seems prudent to me because I sustain the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators.

But what I don’t need to do is look for areas where I believe my neighbors or my local ward council members or even the general leadership of the church are deficient (or divergent from the path I think is right).

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On whether all roads lead to Rome

While I was on my mission (back when we rode dinosaurs to appointments), my last companion somehow got invited to present a paper at a local university in Saarbrücken during a symposium on religion. There were other papers to be presented on a variety of topics, but his was entitled “Alle Wege Führen Nicht Nach Rom” (Not All Roads Lead to Rome).

His point, as one might imagine an LDS missionary’s point would be, was that there was only one way back to Heavenly Father, namely through the authorized ordinances of the restored priesthood. He did a credible job presenting; his non-native German was wonderful, and he was well received by the small crowd at the lecture. (We were actually working in a different city; he’d been transferred after he’d committed to present, so he got permission to go back.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve had some different thoughts on the matter. While I agree with my companion that the saving ordinances of the restored priesthood are required for exaltation, how we get to those ordinances may be on very different paths.

I have for several years participated in 12-step programs. Part of the concept of most such groups is the acceptance of a Higher Power whose attributes are not specified except to note that the power higher than ourselves can restore us to sanity. The lack of specificity allows people of diverse beliefs to share the benefits of the 12 steps without reference to a particular religion. Many participants I know are Christian, so they have a similar (though perhaps not equal) concept of God to mine. But others do not worship God as we understand him, and still they are able to find a place on the spiritual journey of the steps. I should add that some who come to one of  my 12-Step groups without religion take some time to sort out how to get past the idea of a Higher Power, but many eventually do, finding their higher power in nature or in the group itself or some other way. (The church’s Addiction Recovery Program is different in this point, as one might expect. There, one openly acknowledges Christ’s role in allowing us to change, and rather than restoring us to sanity, he restores us to spiritual health.)

I quietly worried about this Higher Power model for my first while in my non-LDS 12-step program. Should I not confess Jesus Christ as my savior? The answer is yes, but the traditions of the program I attend prohibit the discussion of specific religions. In the end, here is how I sorted it out:

  •  I can believe as I do, but “check my belief at the door” when participating in discussions of a Higher Power in order to allow the group to function as it does. In so doing, I can contribute to the greatest recovery for the greatest number (another part of the organization’s traditions) by avoiding polarizing discussions of religion that have little bearing on the other elements of the program. I do this already in many other aspects of my life. I do not discuss religion at length in the workplace. Nor do I discuss my faith with my doctor or mailman or plumber.

  • I can also acknowledge God’s power to reveal Himself to people when He and they are ready. It occurred to me that if others in recovery accept a Higher Power to allow their progress on the spiritual journey of recovery, they will also find God eventually. As they work the steps, they will apply the lessons and blessings of the atonement to their lives, and in that process, God will speak to their hearts in His way and His time. And eventually He will help them to be prepared to take another step and learn about saving ordinances of the gospel. I can respect that God’s timeline is not mine, and I can strive to see if I have a place on His timeline, and I can be patient if I don’t.

  • I can share my faith quietly and privately as moved by the Spirit (or invited by others) to do so, just as I can with my co-workers, my doctor, my mailman or my plumber. In the meantime, I can recognize that God has far greater power than I do in the sharing of His word. In recognizing that, I don’t seek to avoid my responsibility to share the gospel, but I recognize that since it’s His work, I can seek to understand His plan for me and act upon that.

Gospel truth is gospel truth. If someone learns truth in an LDS sacrament meeting or in self-study of the Bible or in the hands of a Buddhist monk or at the tables of recovery, it is still truth. In time, a person can learn enough truth to begin to want the ordinances of the priesthood. The paths to that point may be quite diverse. And that’s ok.


Monday, June 6, 2011

On the language of testimony

I love the ward I live in. It’s a rather mature suburban ward in the Midwestern United States. There’s a mix of local members – some second- or third-generation, some converts – and transplants from elsewhere because of large companies who hire people from top grad schools (including BYU). Though employment used to be dominated by one or two companies in the ward, it doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

I’d say the ward is quite conservative politically. I cringe every so often at something I hear in a hallway conversation or at a table at a ward activity, but we don’t preach politics from the pulpit or in the classroom as far as I can tell. Though our ward is economically diverse, it skews to higher end of the income scale in our stake. And it’s clearly a “teach from the manual” ward – a point driven by our stake president (who resides in the ward) and those who serve with him. (“Teach from the manual” does not necessarily mean “Ready, Aim, Read” however.)

After reading recently about the language people use in their testimonies and how testimony meetings work in some places, I thought I’d pay closer attention to yesterday’s meeting in our ward. I’d say it was a typical testimony meeting. We had about a half hour for testimonies after the bishop’s counselor bore a very short testimony to get things rolling. In addition to the counselor we heard from:

Seven adult women
Five adult men
One 11-year old primary boy
One young woman

Of those fourteen, I think I’ve heard from no more than three of them in the last three months (maybe only two).

By my count, ten of them used the words “I know”, six of them included expressions of gratitude, one used the word “testify” (rather than “know”) and one “witness”.

But as I listened I found those specific words were far less important than the experiences people shared – not so much the “what” but the “how” of their testimonies. I remember serving in bishoprics in the past in which we began Fast and Testimony Meeting by reminding those attending that a testimony is a brief expression of what we’ve come to know and how we have come to know it.

In our meeting yesterday, we heard (among other things) about gaining strength from the Lord in times of trial, comfort from knowledge of the Lord and His gospel, that sometimes the “hedges of safety” in our lives are removed so that we can grow in faith, a tender experience of a sister who performed the vicarious sealing of her mother to the mother’s parents, and more than one expressed gratitude for parents who had joined the church thus giving the member testifying the blessings of the gospel.

I found I was touched in most cases by the experiences my brothers and sisters shared, particularly those experiences that resonated with my own – I have felt the Lord’s presence in my life in times of trial; I’ve known the comfort that a witness of the Lord brings; I have felt the vulnerability of the lack of “hedges of safety”; I’ve enjoyed the blessing of participating in sealings for loved ones who have passed on; I’m grateful for my parents’ choice to join the church when I was a child.

These were all sincere expressions of personal experience, even the Primary boy’s testimony. Although there was some common phraseology, these were not cookie-cutter testimonies.

I was fortunate to be there to hear them.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Don't we (already) have an app for that?

We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, namely apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth. (Articles of Faith 1:6)
Most people who have been around the church for a while get a pretty clear view of how things work. The global organization is pretty centrally run – First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, Seventies. Locally we have stake presidents and high councils, and bishops in our wards.

At the retail level, in the wards and branches, the heavy lifting is done in the day-to-day work of priesthood quorums and Relief Society. Quorums help folks move, cut lawns and trim trees for widows, visit and bless the sick. The Relief Society sends in meals, helps families in crisis manage home duties, and does its own work of visiting the sick and needy.

Some of this work comes by assignment in a ward council or priesthood executive committee meeting. Some is arranged by presidencies who see needs and fill them. Some is simply performed quietly by visiting teachers and home teachers who see needs and meet them. And some is done by caring neighbors who don’t wait for an assignment to be actively engaged in a good cause.

Still, in nearly every council of the church I’ve participated in at the ward and stake level, we’ve taken up the question of how to reach The One, how to rescue One Who Has Gone Astray, how to reach out to Youth In Need, how to build testimony where it is weak and how to lift up those hands that hang down. Sometimes I’ve led those discussions.

From time to time there will be a new program of choosing some number of families for a quorum or group to consider prayerfully for reactivation, priesthood advancement or temple preparation. Once in a while auxiliary and quorum leaders will be asked to identify in presidency meetings those who need extra attention and concern. And all of that is good. One doesn’t have to spend much time in President Monson’s recent biography to remember the value of reaching for The One.

What’s interesting to me, however, is that President Monson’s example is not in the creation of a new program. It’s in his personal efforts to reach out to The One. His visits to hospitals. His calling on his widows. His personal interviews. His hallway and sidewalk conversations.

Many times as I’ve sat in those ward and stake meetings, I’ve thought, “Isn’t this what home teachers are for?” (In fairness, I should as often have thought, “Isn’t this what visiting teachers are for?” but I didn’t for two reasons: first, I’m not a woman, so my thoughts don’t automatically go to visiting teaching, and second, in every unit of the church I’ve lived in, the visiting teachers ran circles around the home teachers, so -- right or wrong -- I automatically assigned deficiencies to home teaching.)

How much work of rescuing could be done by home teachers if they would just do it? And how much is being done? Probably a lot, over a long period of time.

Two examples:

1. A brother I know came back to church a few years ago after having been away nearly 30 years. His home teacher had visited him faithfully for years (like 5-10 years), and when he finally decided it was time to come back, he knew where to come because he knew his home teacher.

2. Another brother was my 20-something son’s home teacher. This particular son hasn’t been to church in nearly 10 years. This brother home taught him for a couple of years after my son moved out of our house on his own. My son moved from our town three or four years ago, but every time my son is in town, this brother arranges to have lunch with him. He’s still shepherding him, even years after his home teaching assignment ended.
I served a few years ago in a bishopric with a counselor who would regularly bring us back to what the Lord has given us instead of trying to reinvent the wheel: “Couldn’t the home teachers do that?” “Couldn’t we do that in ward council instead of having a special meeting?” “Does Brother Smith already have a connection to someone in the ward with whom he’s comfortable? Wouldn’t that be a good place to start?”

It wasn’t that this counselor was trying to squash innovation. He was happy to be guided by the spirit to do new things. But as often as not, the spirit guided him to use the tools the Lord had already given us.