Monday, June 25, 2012

Teaching in FHE

We have a long-standing rule in our home. Lessons in Family Home Evening may not last longer than 10 minutes.

Actually it’s not so much a rule as just the way things are. But we articulated it several years ago when Elder Perry mentioned in a stake conference that his children’s FHE lessons were a minute or two long because that’s all their kids would sit still for. (Elder Bednar promulgated a similar notion in his famous “He’s breathing my air!” talk. And Elder Holland enshrined the flexibility of FHE forever in his reference to Belamites.)

We have seven children who range in age from 11-31. As a result of that wide spread of ages we’ve had to be pretty flexible in our approach to Home Evening lessons. Interestingly, it’s not the littlest kids we’ve had a hard time keeping engaged, it’s the surly teenagers. Some have just been bored at anything that doesn’t come out of an electronic device. Others have resisted FHE because of various stages of testimony doubt. But we’ve been fortunate. Most of our kids, most of the time, have been willing to be at least civil for a ten minute lesson.

That’s not to say our Family Home Evenings are limited to ten minutes. We try to keep the family in “home evening” mode from dinner through family prayer. In addition to the lesson, we sing, we play a game, we have a treat (still the all-time favorite part of FHE, especially for the person who gets to pick the treat!), and we have our weekly calendaring session.

When we teach, of course we mix up who teaches (we have one of those FHE charts with moveable pieces for each of us; with fewer kids at home now than then, we simply skip some of the assignments on the chart – now the person on lesson also conducts, and we don’t do a spotlight anymore (though during his senior year, one of our sons loved that assignment – he would always spotlight some organism he was learning about in his environmental biology class)).

When my 11-year old daughter teaches, she likes to use PowerPoint or a favorite Mormon Messages video. (I will often still help her prepare her lessons.) I like to use videos, too, including excerpts of conference talks. My son favors basing his lessons on an article from one of the church magazines (often the same article he’s used for our home teaching lessons…go figure). My wife and I both like to have the kids digging in their scriptures. That said, most lessons are short and to the point. There’s discussion involving everyone. And we try to reinforce whatever the teacher of the evening is trying to teach.

After April conference, my wife and I reviewed together which talks had messages we thought our family ought to hear again, and we often refer back to that list of talks when we teach. And recently in my personal prayers I’ve felt a strong pull to teach doctrine to my kids rather than behavior.

My own experience has taught me that regular family home evening is not a guarantee that our children will choose the way we would like them to all the time. But I do believe that it has helped our family stay close together. I treasure that time together with my wife and children.

In fact, I treasure that family time so much that we actually have three family nights a week most weeks. Of course we have traditional Family Home Evening on Mondays. But Sunday night (when there is not a youth fireside) is also family time – we play board games between dinner and bedtime. And so is Friday night, when we always have pizza (almost always homemade) and a movie. (Nope: Friday is NOT date night for my lovely wife and me; that’s Saturday.) Even when I was bishop, or when I have been my busiest at work, I did my very best to keep those times available for my family and me to be together.

What works in your FHE?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

32 Years of Heaven

My lovely wife and I celebrated 32 years of wedded bliss yesterday. Well, most of the 32 years was bliss, anyway. Well, some of the time, anyway – interspersed with diaper changes, sick kids, money troubles, grad school, stress from career building, family moves, births of seven children, death of parents, teenage squabbles, home improvement disasters, personal foibles, frustrations and forgiveness.

The fact is I have no idea what a perfect marriage is. Is it one in which there’s never a raised voice? Never a disagreement? Or is it one in which there are disagreements that, once resolved, drive deeper harmony and understanding? Is it one without money trouble, health problems, teenage surliness, non-sleeping toddlers? Or is it one in which all those things exist and somehow Mom and Dad sleepwalk their way through it together?

On a talk tape that circulated through my mission, Hartman Rector tells of meeting a cabbie in a large North American city. As a prelude to asking the golden questions, he asked the cabbie if he were married, and the cabbie said yes. Elder Rector asked if the cabbie loved his wife, and the cabbie said yes. Elder Rector asked why, and the cabbie said, “Because of what we’ve been through together.”

That message is firmly planted in my brain, especially after what my lovely wife and I have been through together. Our shared experiences, good and bad, have made our union what it is. I remember sitting together on a clear night in Valencia, Venezuela, thinking how cool it was to be in this exotic place with the woman I love. And I remember sitting in the ER with my four year old daughter as she had her broken arm set, thinking how fortunate I was to have my lovely wife share that experience, too.

I can say without reservation that I do love my wife more today than ever – certainly more than the day I married her, because when I married her we had not yet been on this long roller coaster of life.

I recall looking with my bride into those “eternal mirrors” in the sealing room of the Logan Temple, unable at the time to conceive what one week of married life would be like. Had we foreseen what was to come, who knows what we might have done differently. Maybe we would have waited longer to have children. Maybe we would have made different educational choices. Maybe, maybe, maybe. In the end, it doesn’t matter much what we might have done. We did what we did and we are where we are.

Ok, so maybe not every moment of the last 32 years has seemed like heaven. Unless heaven is going to work every day at a job that isn’t necessarily my favorite, but which is by all standards a great job, and one which I’m extremely fortunate to have. Unless heaven is living with the reality that half my kids disagree with me on the things that are most important to me in my life, and yet they are still willing to sit around my dining table when they are home. Unless heaven includes surgeries and pregnancies and illness and recoveries. Unless heaven includes seasonal bouts with depression, or at least discontent, and seasons of happiness and even joy. Unless heaven includes wondering how to pay all the bills some months and the recognition of God’s hand in our resources over time.

I wouldn’t trade those 32 years with anyone. Because I’ve shared them with my best friend.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tales from the Dark Side (of the moon, that is)

I wrote a while back about how teenagers (boys, especially) seem to go to the dark side of the moon during their adolescence. And by the dark side of the moon, I mean out of radio contact. And by out of radio contact, I mean they simply aren’t connecting with the things we parents think they need to connect with.

Sometimes the dark side of the moon and lack of radio contact means they don’t want to associate with parents and siblings (leave me alone!). Or they don’t want to live in a social society (leave me alone, and stay out of my room!). Or they know better than their parents (you just don’t get it!).

While out of radio contact, they will often question and challenge family norms and mores. They may challenge house rules and they may reject the faith of their fathers. (As Latter-day Saints we are sometimes pleased and even impressed when a young person does this and joins the church; we are horrified when one of our own does it and leaves.)

Parents, of course, wonder how to reach kids when they are out of radio contact. And I wish I could tell you how to do it. I can’t. But I can share some things I learned along the way. Last time I wrote about the need to fill our kids’ well so that when they are out of touch with us, they will still have some of “us” in reserve.

Here are three more ideas:

1. Use other voices (that is the voices of others, not becoming Mel Blanc, though if a Bugs Bunny impersonation gets their attention, go for it!). We rely on our friends, the parents of our kids’ friends, to reinforce lessons we teach our kids. This is true for our LDS and non-LDS friends. Of course as kids grow older and become more independent, it’s increasingly difficult to keep track of friends and their parents. We rely on church leaders and teachers to help. Studies the church has done have shown that seminary teachers have consistently scored at the top of the list of key influencers for those who have served missions. And we hope that good friends (in and out of the church) will also be a voice of reason for our kids. (Of course this last one is the most challenging, since our kids’ friends are all similar ages and may be in their own period of radio silence.)
2. We have also found that talking to the kids constantly helps. And listening. Whenever they want. I remember ten or eleven years ago when our youngest was an infant and our oldest kids were older teens. The baby would nurse and go to bed and then the older kids would suddenly want to talk to their mom into the wee hours of the morning. Frankly, I don’t know how my lovely wife survived those years of teenage boys and babies. But her constant willingness to talk and to listen (even when she hated what she heard) was a huge factor in our kids’ staying connected even as they separated from some of the things that were most important to us.
My oldest daughter went through a phase in which she did not talk to her mother. Sometimes for days. And my lovely wife would not know why. Sometimes I would come home from work and get the assignment to figure out why the cone of silence had descended and excluded my lovely wife. Fortunately, that period was very short for our daughter.

3. That experience points out another tool in our toolbox, namely that we both have roles to play. I don’t know if it’s Freudian or normal or if we’re victims of stereotyping, but the boys always had a better relationship with their mom in those years, and the girls have gone through periods of time in which they seem more willing to talk to me. We are very lucky to have both of us around to share the task of parenting, and sometimes one of us can do what the other can’t.
It took some time for me to learn that it was more important to me for my kids to want to be at my dining room table than on the bench next to me in sacrament meeting, but that has made a huge difference in how we related to our kids, especially those who have not followed us in church activity. (I’ve blogged about that here and here.)

Happy to hear your thoughts about how to communicate with those who are in radio silence.

UPDATE:  Ardis has posted a second installment on Vanguard Scouting.  The first section of the post does a nice job of explaining some of the signs of movement to the dark side of the moon.  You can find her post here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The other mission

I’ve written recently about how happy we are that one of our daughters has chosen to serve a full time mission. It is exciting news and it’s an exciting time as we (and by we I mean my lovely wife) help to get her ready to leave in a couple of weeks.

At the same time I’ve reflected on another daughter who chose not to serve a full-time mission. Her decision was not taken lightly. She had many friends who served and she worked at the MTC in a support function, so she had plenty of thoughts about missions and missionaries at that time. But as she prayerfully considered whether to serve, she felt it wasn’t the right thing for her to do.

Of course there is nothing wrong with her thinking, either. Instead she finished her degree at BYU, and during those last years there served in a Relief Society presidency in her ward. After graduation she began working for a magazine in Northeastern Pennsylvania. She attends a very small ward of the church (what would probably be a branch if it were a new unit), and presently she serves as the Young Women’s president.

Because of who she is, my daughter throws herself completely into her service. She is working hard to shepherd the few young women in her charge, to learn how to be an auxiliary president (actually, she’s really good at it), to live by example as she works to complete the Young Women Personal Progress program (again; she did it when she was a young woman, too), to support her bishop and other members of the ward council, to attend the temple whenever she can (whether as a leader on a youth trip, or for her own temple service), all on top of doing her best at her job and trying to live a gospel-centered life.

While she did not serve a full-time mission, there is no doubt she is serving as hard now as she would be if she had. Having lived in these small units before, I know the value of having young energetic people move in to liven things up, bring new perspective, and just maybe reach one or two people who otherwise wouldn’t have been reached. As her parents, we know (because she tells us) how hard she works in her calling, and how much physical, spiritual and emotional energy she invests in the young women she serves. And we are pleased that she is so willing to serve; surely it would be easier to sit back and enjoy her chosen forms of recreation rather than working so hard. We are grateful that she recognizes that blessings don’t necessarily flow from the easy path, but rather from the path of service.

I’m reminded of my parents who never served a mission. They were in their 30’s when our family joined the church. By the time they were old enough to serve a senior mission together, they were serving so much in their stake that perhaps going on a mission would have provided a rest! In one stake, Dad served on the high council and was responsible for all the family history centers in the stake, and Mom was the director of one of those centers. When they retired again, Dad quickly because branch president in his rural unit of the church (and for a while he served simultaneously as branch president and branch mission leader). Mom served in a variety of callings during those years, too. Coincidentally I served with a brother several years later who was a bishop in my parents’ stake at the time Dad was branch president; he thought my parents were a senior missionary couple! Although they never served a full time mission, their service was as valuable as any senior couple’s would have been.

Elder Uchtdorf taught us several years ago to lift where we stand. Yes, some will be called to distant shores to preach and lift and serve. And others will serve quietly at home. My lovely wife and I are of an age where we’ve begun to look forward to a senior mission or two or three. We dream of serving in a temple or in family history or in some exotic location. Whether and how we serve will certainly be influenced by our own preparations, financially, physically and spiritually. But it may also be influenced by local needs wherever we live at the time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

More things I avoid when I teach

I’ve posted a few times about gospel teaching, and a recent post (here) listed a few things I avoid when I teach. Here are a few more:

1. Lectures – I will not lecture a class. Or at least almost never will I mean to lecture a class. To me, a gospel class is all about the discussion, because I think participants learn by participating. The Doctrine and Covenants cites the value in class discussion, too:

Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege (D&C 88:122).

If I form a comment in my mind and make that comment, I will have thought more actively about that particular item than if I weren’t commenting. (There’s a corollary in youth classes, namely that the youth will simply not pay attention in a small group setting to a lecture; they will comment, if only to their neighbor, and a wise teach needs to figure out how to accept those comments and weave them into the lesson.) Having said this, I acknowledge that once in a while someone may have a lecture approach that works for a particular lesson, but I would view that as the exception and not the rule.

2. Too many outside sources / stuff – I am not a fan of manual-reading in the classroom. I don’t like sitting in lessons where all the questions come out of the manual and the teacher’s goal seems to be to get from question to question rather than actually leading a discussion or teaching. That said, I’m also not really interested in someone else’s research project as a part of my Sunday School class. I do like hearing teachers bring their own experience and research into a discussion, but I don’t want that extra-curricular material to be the whole basis of the lesson. I’ve been in wards that are more conservative than I am on this topic. One gospel doctrine teacher we had a number of years ago quoted every week from some supplementary text. I never knew what it was, but she quoted it like it was scripture, and several members of the class were pretty nervous about it, wondering about the use of unauthorized material in the class. It didn’t bother me much, because it was not her whole lesson, and she did most of teaching in the scriptures. For me, outside material needs to be linked clearly to the scriptures being taught that day.

3. Gospel hobbies – Similar to #2, I’m not a fan of gospel hobby lessons. Years ago when my wife was called as a Teachings of the Prophets teacher in Relief Society, the RS president specifically invited her to use more of the quotations from the prophet we were studying that year (I can’t remember which it was). Her reason: teachers had been reading lesson material and then going off and planning elaborate lessons around a theme or two they liked without ever returning to the actual words of the prophets (but they had nice centerpieces, I’m sure). They ended up teaching the subjects they liked instead of the words of the prophet, and the RS president wasn’t wild about it. (My wife, BTW, was a reluctant teacher; she didn’t like being in front of the class, but she was faithful to the request from her RS president and generated a lot of discussion around the words of the prophet.) So on the one hand, we ought to teach the lesson of the day, not just what we like. On the other hand, we shouldn’t teach the same lesson every week. We had colorful characters in some of the units I served in on my mission who taught essentially the same lesson (with the same moralizing admonitions) every time they taught. Our correlated materials should help protect us from that sort of teaching.

4. Only scratching the surface – This is a toughie because our survey gospel doctrine courses rarely allow us the opportunity to dig deeply into a particular subject without giving over to outside sources and/or gospel hobbies. But I struggle in Sunday School classes in which a teacher glosses over material in order to get through it. I am encouraged, however, by regular counsel to teachers which reminds us to pray about the lesson material and our classes and to select the concepts and parts of the lesson that are most relevant to our class. When I teach a youth class, I try to teach one or two key ideas, and when I end the lesson, I typically have a “if you leave here with only one thought” moment at the end of the lesson in which I try one last time to push home my key thought. And even in an adult class, I find it’s better (and more interesting) to focus on a few things rather than to do everything the manual gives me. If I’m really listening to my class and to the spirit, sometimes the thing I think we’ll dig deep on is not what we actually focus on in the class. Sometimes a comment or a question leads us down a path I had not anticipated, but one that meets the needs of class members nonetheless.

Well, that’s my list (for now). Feel free to share your list of things you avoid when teaching.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A new endowment on the twin-tracked roller coaster of my life

Last weekend was delightful. My daughter was endowed, her next step in preparing to enter the MTC in just about a month.

Last weekend was awful. My 15-year-old son announced (again) that he no longer wants to attend church, that he does not believe.

I remember a year and a half ago when my oldest daughter was endowed. En route to the temple we learned another of our children was in the middle of a situation that we could neither prevent nor mitigate, but that has resulted in significant issues for him and for our family.

I remember the day of my own endowment. I went alone to the Provo Temple (well, not really alone; I was with my freshman roommate from BYU; we were both entering the MTC in a day or two). My parents were half a world away living in Nigeria (where my dad was on a foreign assignment for work). It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that he might have actually wanted to be with me on that special day, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I might have wanted to be with him, either. But upon reflection, I realize that conditions were not ideal.

I remember the week our family was sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. It was just under a year from our baptism, and we drove the 1,800 miles to Salt Lake straight through. As we arrived in “the valley,” there were no roses blooming beneath our feet, and there seemed to be little love in that old blue station wagon; exhaustion fed bickering and sniping in the car.

They say that when someone goes to the temple that the adversary does what he can to disrupt the day. And I suppose that is true, though I suspect the adversary plants the seeds of destruction early and cares for them over time, rather than just trying to fowl things up on the big day. (That said, I have read a history of the Logan Temple, written for its centennial, which reported that early settlers of Cache Valley sai that they did better at getting to the temple if they didn’t announce their plans out loud. If they announced their plans, farm machinery seemed to break or cattle got out of pens and prevented attendance on the intended day. If they simply laid down their tools and went, they seemed to get there more easily.)

I don’t know why my life seems to be on diverging tracks of a roller coaster some days. Except for this: there must needs be opposition in all things. And the Savior has already descended below everything that I might endure in my life. It seems there needs to be that equal and opposite force in our lives. And the adversity of this life works for my experience.

And I know this: the peace that I feel in the temple –- from that first visit before I was 10, to my own endowment, to attending with my daughters for their endowments –- is real. And it is at the heart of my testimony of the gospel, come what may.

For some, the Book of Mormon is the keystone of testimony. If the Book of Mormon is true, they say, then Joseph was a prophet and the church is true. That is not my calculus, but I understand how some people make that connection.

For me, the calculus is similar, but different. The temple represents, according to President Hunter, the supreme mortal experience:

Let us truly be a temple-attending and a temple-loving people. We should hasten to the temple as frequently, yet prudently, as our personal circumstances allow. We should go not only for our kindred dead but also for the personal blessing of temple worship, for the sanctity and safety that are within those hallowed and consecrated walls. As we attend the temple, we learn more richly and deeply the purpose of life and the significance of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us make the temple, with temple worship and temple covenants and temple marriage, our ultimate earthly goal and the supreme mortal experience (“A Temple Motivated People,” Ensign, February 1995).
Elsewhere, he taught that the temple is the great symbol of our membership in the church.

I have had enough spiritual experiences there to know for myself of the divine influence of that ritual. I have shared some of those experiences with a select few people in my life. Some I have shared with no one. But because of what I have felt and experienced in the temple, I can comfortably speak of knowing its divine roots and impact.

Like President Hunter, I wish that all members – especially my children -- might find the peace of the temple that I have found, and yet I know not everyone will (not even everyone who attends the temple will). And so I also hope that in His grand design, the Lord can sort this out in the eternities. And that hope is borne by my faith that He will.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The lie that leads to disobedience

Elder Packer is famous for teaching that we change behavior more by teaching doctrine than by teaching behavior (see here, here, and here).

For instance, he said,

The study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior. Preoccupation with unworthy behavior can lead to unworthy behavior. That is why we stress so forcefully the study of the doctrines of the gospel (from the second link above).

This thinking is closely aligned with what President Benson taught:

The Lord works from the inside out. The world works from the outside in. The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature (“Born of God,” Ensign, November 1985).

I’ve often puzzled over that idea, but I had some thoughts on it this past weekend that allowed it to make sense. Here’s the way I worked my way through it:

1. Bad behavior begins with a lie, or (more charitably), a misunderstanding.

2. The misunderstanding leads to a distorted view – or a hidden truth -- of God

3. The hidden truth results in unnecessary fear and negative thoughts

4. That fear leads to improper behavior and stress resulting from the cognitive dissonance between doing what is wrong and knowing (through the light of Christ) what is right

5. That dissonance is covered by addictive behaviors or other self-destructive behavior

Two examples, the first of which is scriptural and the second of which is personal.

First, consider the Lamanites in the Book of Mormon. At many times in their history they engaged in bad behavior. While it would be logical to focus on the behavior and try to change it, that is not the root of the problem. The root is the basic lie that underlies the behavior. The tradition of their fathers was that Lehi led them away from their inheritance and Nephi subjected Laman & Lemuel to Nephi’s rule, effectively stealing the birthright.

That basic lie (taught in the tradition of their fathers) led to a fundamental misunderstanding of God: he was harsh and punishing rather than loving and supportive. Eventually a false god replaced the true God in their lives.

The fundamental lack of understanding of God led them away from covenants and into behavior contrary to the gospel, robbing them of blessings they might otherwise enjoy. The lack of joy enhanced the need in the Lamanites to control the Nephites and their lands, to right the wrongs supposedly done to them, and perpetuated a spiral of sin and moving away from the true God.

In those cases where Lamanites rose above their nature and above the traditions of their fathers it is when the fundamental lie was overcome and the truth about God was taught to them (think Ammon and King Lamoni).

Now, a personal example: The lie that I struggle with often is that I know better than God what is good for me. Sometimes I do not trust the power of the atonement in my own life, and I feel like efforts to improve (even though I may see the need to improve) will not bear fruit.

This lie that I tell myself and believe diminishes my faith because it obscures the true power of the atonement in my life; it effectively limits (in my mind) the power of God to help me and His love for me.

As a result, when I'm trusting this lie, obedience is more difficult for me. On the one hand, I fear the punishment that will come with lack of obedience, or I fear that others in my circle won’t care about me because I’m not as good as I should be. On the other hand, because I know what is best for me, I can pick and choose how to obey.

Unfortunately, disobedience to what the spirit has taught me (and what I recognize as true when not under the cloud of this lie) leads to the dissonance in me that comes when I know right and do wrong. And my means of coping with that dissonance is more wrong: it leads in me to bursts of anger, efforts to control others’ outcomes, and disappointments at false expectations that I have built in myself.

While it’s easy enough for me to spot my own bad behavior and to tell myself to stop it, stopping the behavior is not the issue. The issue is getting to the lie and rooting it out. And the way to do that is by learning pure truth: doctrine.