Monday, July 30, 2012

On covenant making

Early in my patriarchal blessing, mention is made of the many covenants I had made prior to my blessing. When I received this blessing at age 18 (as a BYU freshman), I was taken aback by the words as I heard them the first time.

My instant thought (which caused me to stop listening for a moment) was, “I have?”

Over the years I’ve had the chance to study my blessing repeatedly. And I have pondered on that particular sentence. As I have considered it, I realized that the Lord (through the patriarch) must have had a broader definition of covenants than I did.

We teach our children that a covenant is an agreement we make with God, and that it is often accompanied by an ordinance. For instance, when we are baptized, we make promises associated with obedience, taking the Lord’s name upon us, caring for one another, and so on. But in a broader context, we may make many covenants with the Lord.

I remember my brother mentioned to me several years ago something he learned in LDS leader training at the Philmont scout ranch. He was taught (by whom I can no longer remember) that one of the values of the scouting program in the lives of young men is that it can teach them about covenant making and keeping, as they work through requirements for a particular rank or merit badge. They agree to do something and then must follow through with the doing. We can learn a similar pattern in our temple worship where covenant making precedes learning new knowledge.

I wrote recently about the Anti-Nephi-Lehi’s and their covenant to bury the weapons of their rebellion. Actually their covenant was to repent of their murderous ways, and the token of that covenant was the burying of the weapons. By burying the weapons, they placed a fence between themselves and the covenant they desired to keep.

Someone learning about the church may covenant to keep the Word of Wisdom before he is actually baptized. A young person (or an older person!) may make a personal covenant with the Lord to avoid certain kinds of movies or websites. A person may make a covenant with the Lord to study the Book of Mormon in hopes of gaining a testimony of that scripture and the truth it contains. We may make covenants as we strive to overcome the natural man, as we study the scriptures and the spirit whispers ways in which we can draw nearer to God, as we listen to prophetic counsel in General Conference and redirect our lives.

I remember as bishop when a member of my ward came to me. It was clear he had something on his mind, and I was a little nervous, since he was acting as if he were about to confess serious sin. He did want to confess and to commit to do better. But his “sin” was not grave; it did not threaten his membership status in any way. But he felt a conversation with his bishop would help him to make a real commitment to change. He did not make a covenant with me, his bishop, but he did tell me of his commitment to the Lord to behave differently.

One of my commenters on my post about the Anti-Nephi-Lehis pointed out that many members make individual covenants that others may never know anything about, and I believe this is true. I believe that when we honor our baptismal covenant by mourning with those that mourn, sharing one another’s burdens and comforting those that stand in need of comfort, we can help one another to honor covenants each has made, even personal covenants along a personal path to our Father in Heaven.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Saving Marriage -- Part I

A story:

Once upon a time there were two people who fell in love and got married.

As it happened, they met at work. He was an engineering from the “home office” to check on equipment for a heavy construction job the company was doing. She was the secretary in the boss’ office. He asked her to “take a letter” to the boss, detailing all the mistakes he was making with the maintenance of the equipment. And then he asked her to a movie.

When he picked her up, her father answered the door. The father also happened to the be the boss – the recipient of the letter from the young engineer who’d come to check the job site.

That’s a story that got told in our family from time to time. “He” was my father and “she” was my mother. (Her father and my dad obviously worked out their differences.)

Remembering how a romance began is important to keeping it alive. And we’ve done the same thing in our marriage. For years I’ve told the story of how my lovely wife and I met the first Friday of our freshman year at BYU, introduced by my roommate. (As it happens, I realized not long ago that it was, in fact, a Saturday, not a Friday.) And I love to tell stories of that first year at BYU together. It is, for me, more than just an exercise in waxing nostalgic. It is also linked to that Nephite (and Hebrew) practice of remembering where we came from and how we got to where we are today.

When I was in a position to counsel couples, I would often ask them how they met or when they first fell in love. I was a bishop, not a marriage counselor (and I knew I was not the latter; I didn’t hesitate to recommend professional help for some couples), but I believed then as I do now that remembering the romance we once felt helps us to keep it alive years later.

It is one way I believe that couples can keep a spark in their marriage, and maybe even rekindle one where it has faded.

What are ways that you remember the best times of your marriage?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Missionary Letters

Plenty has changed in the Latter-day history of missionary work, but one thing has not changed: Missionaries love to get mail!
I’ve written on this subject before (here) and it’s one of my most-Google-searched posts. Now that I have a daughter who is serving and I’m writing to her often, it seems like a good time for an update:

I remember serving in Germany over three decades ago, and a day with a letter (ANY letter!) was brighter. It rarely mattered to me what the letter said – just having it in the mailbox when I got home meant something to me. I was fortunate that the folks who did write to me (mostly my mom and dad and siblings – oh, and the young woman who would become my wife) wrote great letters – news about what was happening in their lives, favorite scriptures, words of encouragement. But I did know a few missionaries who got awful letters, so it’s worth talking about what to write.

The New Era thought it was important to talk about, too. You can read a 2007 article on the subject here.

Here are things I liked reading about as a missionary:

1. Real life – what’s going on in the lives of the people I care about. My parents lived in Lagos, Nigeria during my mission, so my mom always had a great story of discover or adventure. My wife-to-be (I don’t really know what to call her; we had no commitment to one another when I left, so she wasn’t really even my girlfriend, though I think we both hoped from the beginning that things would work out, and fortunately (for me, anyway) they did) wrote about her schooling or work, and about the friends we had in common, and about her family. She ended up spending six months during my mission on study abroad in Austria, so she often had interesting adventures to report, too.

2. Inspiration and encouragement – one of my sisters liked to send me quotations from famous German composers about the divine inspiration they felt contributed to their work. It was cool to read those quotations while serving in their homeland. My brother, who had also served a mission, occasionally sent me ideas for scripture study or district meetings. I like to share my own mission experiences in my letters to missionaries.

3. Questions about me – I liked that letter-writers were interested in what I was doing. I never got so many letters that I could not answer them. The only letter I sent every week was to my parents. My girlfriend and I wrote about every two weeks, which allowed us to respond to one another’s letters rather than having to force a letter each week. And all the other letters were infrequent enough that I could respond to questions. I will often ask missionaries questions in my letters, but I also tell them I don’t really expect an answer. Lots of missionaries now have weekly letters posted to blogs or Facebook so their friends can keep up with what’s going on.

4. Testimony – it was helpful to me to have letter writers share their faith and testimonies, either based on their study of the scriptures or their own experience.

Here are some other observations:

1. Short letters are ok, too. Letters need not be long epistles. In fact, most missionaries don’t have time to dwell on long letters, and family emails that are long will rob a missionary from writing time. A thoughtful card might be as helpful to a missionary as a long doctrinal discourse.

2. Some subject matter is better avoided. A long standing joke with my wife is my reaction (which has expanded in the repeated telling of the story) when she told me in a letter that she had gone out with a friend of mine – an RM from my dorm. She never ever mentioned dating anyone again after that. I remember visiting another companionship’s apartment when one of the elders got a letter from a young woman who recounted in great detail (I know because he insisted on reading it to us) a pool party she’d attended with their mutual friends. As he read the letter out loud, the Spirit fled from the room and he was completely unfocused for quite some time.

3. Dear John letters stink, but like removal of a band-aid, they are better done quickly. An elder in one apartment we shared suspected for weeks that his girlfriend was dropping him. Her weekly letters stopped abruptly. For several weeks he complained about her silence. Finally he got word that she had, in fact, decided to end their relationship. How much more of a blessing it would have been to get that letter earlier on.

4. Packages are always a welcome surprise! But the New Era article reminds readers to check potential customs costs. In some countries packages are not practical. (A mission president who served in South America said they told families who were sending new shoes to missionaries to send each shoe in a separate package to reduce the risk of theft.) One of my sisters sent a spectacular package my first Christmas, filled with my favorite goodies. It was a lot of work for her to put the package together, and shipping it wasn’t cheap for her, either. Unfortunately, the day before it arrived, they had repainted the lobby of our walk-up apartment and taken down the mailboxes. When they put up new mailboxes, it took us a day to get our name on the box. In that city, if your name wasn’t on the box, they marked your mail as undeliverable and returned it. She got that large Christmas package back around Valentine’s Day. (Of course that wasn’t her fault, but it illustrates one of many possible complications with package shipments.)

Here’s my advice: write to your favorite missionary! Even a postcard or a note of encouragement will be welcome. One of my daughters wrote to her missionary friends every few months – often enough to stay in touch, but not so often to have it be an onerous task.

Feel free to share your thoughts about what, how and how often to write.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Full disclosure

Thanks to the article in Bloomberg (see Jeff Lindsey’s great discussion of the cover and article here), a number of bloggers have started talking about transparency, disclosure, and general information about how tithing funds are used. (I’m not na├»ve enough to think this began with the Bloomberg article or even the City Creek mall in Salt Lake City, but those things tend to be lightning rods for these questions.)

I am a finance professional. I understand the value of an audit, the importance of reporting transparency, and the need to be accountable to ones shareholders, stakeholders and taxing authorities. In the large company that employs me, we go to great lengths to be sufficiently transparent in our financial dealings to honor laws not only in the US, but in the many countries in which we operate around the world.

I will say this, though: we don’t tell everyone everything. We report enough to be transparent according to applicable statute, but no more. We do have corporate secrets that we keep in order not to tip our hand to our competitors, just as every other business does. Corporate financial statements give enough detail to satisfy requirements, but not so much as to allow someone to draw a straight line to confidential information on specific costs of operation or specific pricing policies within the company (not that others don’t try – in my business, there are plenty of analysts who also examine our financial statements and other public data in order to predict our future profits, and I know we do the same with our competitors in an effort to tease out their cost advantages so we can think about how to compete.)

All of that is interesting, but irrelevant.

What is relevant for me, as I think about tithing funds and the church’s stewardship over them is this (and, yes, I’m going to appeal to authority here, and I realize that for some such an appeal is a retreat from the field of battle, but so be it):

Tithing is a commandment of God. Abraham paid tithing to Melchizedek (Alma 13:15; Hebrews 7:1,6). Malachi taught about tithing (Malachi 3:8). And in modern revelation, the Lord renews the call for a tithing of his people (D&C 64:23; 119:3).

The church eloquently discussed the use of these sacred funds in a recent press release:

Tithing funds are used to support five key areas of activity:
• Providing buildings or places of worship for members around the world. We have thousands of such buildings and continue to open more, sometimes several in a week.
• Providing education programs, including support for our universities and our seminary and institute programs.
• Supporting the Church’s worldwide missionary program.
• Building and operating nearly 140 temples around the world and the administration of the world’s largest family history program.
• Supporting the Church’s welfare programs and humanitarian aid, which serve people around the world — both members of the Church as well as those who are not members.

Each April in conference, there’s a report of the audit department which confirms the use of church funds, overseen by the Council on the Disposition of Tithes, as directed by Section 120 of the Doctrine & Covenants, consistent with the church’s mission and that proper reporting and safeguards are in place to protect the assets of the church.

In the end, the tithing I contribute ceases to be my concern when I contribute it. I contribute it freely, not just because I altruistically support the key five areas of activity listed above, but because I seek the blessings associated with paying my tithing. It is part of my honoring the covenants I have made, covenants I certify that I am keeping when I renew my temple recommend every two years, and when I partake of the sacrament each week.

I have read recently that some see a sinister motive in requiring members to be full tithe payers to attend the temple. I have to scratch my head at that suggestion. The sacred covenants I enter into in the temple are completely consistent with the requirement that I be a full tithe payer. Of course, so is baptism.

So I’m trying to sort out what full disclosure it is that people are seeking. Are they anxious to scrutinize how much the church spends building and maintaining chapels and temples around the world? Do they want a vote on whether the church will continue to support three BYU campuses? Do they wish to examine the extent to which general church funds help support missionaries around the world or family history centers?

For me, my paying of tithing and other offerings is linked to covenants I have made with God, not with the church. I recognize that the church is His instrument, and so I pay my tithing to the church. I have a personal witness of the blessings of paying tithing in my own life, and I’ve observed similar blessings in the lives of those who are close to me.

As for accountability regarding the use of those funds, I’m happy to leave that in the Lord’s hands. If He is capable of blessing me as He has for paying my tithing, He’s quite capable of instructing those charged with the use of those funds, as well. And he’s capable of holding them accountable for what they do with those funds.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Anti-Nephi-Lehis as Peacemakers?

In a Gospel Doctrine class the other Sunday our instructor led a great discussion about the choice by the Anti-Nephi-Lehis to bury their weapons of rebellion. We discussed what our modern-day weapons of rebellion might be, and we discussed the value of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis’ act of burying their weapons. It was a really good lesson, and I left with lots to think about.

Including this: Our instructor suggested that one of the qualities of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis was that they were peacemakers. I took exception to that idea in the class (and I still do). Another class member jumped in to focus on the individual peace that must have led the Anti-Nephi-Lehis to their choice to bury their weapons as token of their covenant with God. Not wanting to derail the lesson, I let it go.

But what ran through my mind was this (despite my own anti-war pre-disposition): by burying their weapons of rebellion, they also buried their weapons of self-defense, as they then almost immediately (in the account, anyway) demonstrated. The Lamanites soon fell upon them and slaughtered over 1,000 as the Anti-Nephi-Lehis bowed on the ground and called upon God. Whatever else they did, they did not create peace.

I thought how today we might not encourage such devoted behavior, opting instead for a more pragmatic approach, sort of a hate-the-sin-and-retain-your-weapon compromise. But the Anti-Nephi-Lehis were more committed than that. They were ready to give their lives as a token of the covenant they had made to repent of who they had been.

The real cost of that covenant became more clear in subsequent chapters as the Nephites welcomed them into the Land of Jershon, renamed them the people of Ammon, and then sent armies to defend them. What follows next is an account of a huge and bitter battle between the Nephites and Lamanites (more non-peace). Perhaps the battle would have come without the people of Ammon, but the Nephite armies did defend them. And losses on both sides were huge.

Two lessons for me:

1. What is the token of my covenants with God? How much am I really willing to bury the weapons of my rebellion? And what cost am I willing to incur?

2. Am I willing to support others who bury the weapons of their rebellion? At what cost am I willing to protect my brothers and sisters in the gospel who are choosing to honor the covenants that they have made?

For me the second lesson brings new meaning to the Savior’s injunction that I should not judge. It is not my place to determine whether another person has overestimated what he must do to honor a covenant. Indeed, it is my place to love and support him or her as part of my faith community (and perhaps to learn faith from him or her, as well).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Preparing our children to serve missions

I can guess what you're thinking. "This guy just put his first missionary in the MTC and already he's an expert?? Who does he think he is?!

As a matter of fact, I’ve always been leery of the title of this post. I’ve been nervous when someone purports to teach it in a class or to give a talk about it. But in the last few days I’ve realized that I’d been thinking about it all wrong.

I assumed the topic “Preparing our children to serve missions” meant “How to get your children to serve missions,” something at which I have not really succeeded (my first missionary – and my fifth child – entered the MTC last week).

But looking back, I hope that we have helped to prepare our daughter to serve. And I think we’ve prepared each of our children in similar ways, even though some have elected not to serve. In the end, if our children serve, we want them to succeed as missionaries. To me that means a few things:

1. They need to know the doctrine that they teach. We need to teach the gospel in our homes, first and foremost. Of course the standard memes of family scripture study and family home evening apply. But also our children benefit from seeing us, their parents, live the gospel – that is not only making good choices, but also repenting when we don’t. At the end of the day the Good News of the gospel is the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, powerful enough to rescue us from sin. Our children would do well to see that atonement in action in our lives (and their own).

2. They need to be independent of us. Children who depend upon helicopter parents to meet their every need will be like those seagulls that become dependent on fishing boats to survive. Children who are allowed to grow and do things for themselves (even when it’s easier for us to do it for them) learn how to live their own lives. In our home, children learn to wash dishes, do laundry, clean bathrooms, cook and other practical skills. That’s all thanks to their patient mother who is willing to let them take longer to do something than she could do herself. And to allow them to figure out what they’re going to wear if they haven’t done laundry in time to have that certain article of clothing when they “need” it.

3. They need to suffer heartache and to feel joy. They will surely do both on their mission – either because the work goes especially poorly or well, or because of relationships with a particular companion or agreement/disagreement with mission leaders. Our children need to learn to cope with setbacks and they need to learn how to accept success when it comes, too. This idea is linked to #2 in that parents need to foster independence, but it’s much deeper than just learning how to do chores.

4. They need to learn to pray and to receive answers. I don’t believe that a pre-mission young person will have the same testimony as a returned missionary. Too much happens in the mission field to influence one’s spiritual growth. But departing missionaries are well-served if they have learned to take questions to the Lord and to get answers, or at least sufficient faith to move forward. There will be plenty of icky days in the mission field when things go poorly that they will need to rely on the Lord to help them get through it. My recollection of mission life is that the heartache I felt there was deeper and the adversity stronger than I had experienced before. I needed to know I could trust the Lord to lift me up when I needed it the most.

5. There’s value in being able to get along with lots of different kinds of people. My observation is that shy missionaries are often frustrated. I don’t exactly know how to teach a child not to be shy, but giving a child some specific behaviors to use in shy moments can surely help ease the anxiety. Shy missionaries (or know-it-all self-righteous ones) may not only feel limited in their ability to contact and teach new people, but will also feel the sting of not accomplishing what they came to do. (I’m pretty sure about this one – I started my mission shy and self-righteous…)

Of course there’s nothing on my list that cannot be overcome by a willing and faithful missionary who enjoys the blessings of the Holy Ghost. But how much better to have developed these qualities before entering the mission field?

Are there other things we should do for our children to prepare them to serve?

(I note that the things I’ve listed will serve anyone well, not just missionaries.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Dropping our kids

As parents we spend our whole lives dropping our kids – we drop them off at a sitter’s home. We drop them off at Grandma’s house. We drop them at a friend’s house. We drop them off at their first day of school. We watch them roll into a surgical ward to have tubes put in their ears. We watch them go to the dentist for extractions before braces. We send them off to college.

And we send them on missions.

Thanks to other bloggers, I was aware of how this past Thursday would work. I’d pull up to the curb and the MTC liposuction machine would remove my daughter and her luggage from my car with surgical skill and send me on my way.

The fact that I knew what would happen does not mean I was prepared for it to happen.

We were told in the information she received with her call that we should say our goodbyes before arriving at the MTC. (I’ll point out that the family in the minivan in front of my rental car had obviously not followed that counsel. Their younger sons were super-glued to their older brother who was trying to start his mission. Sweet kids.)

And we began saying goodbye several days earlier. My daughter and I left for Utah on Tuesday. We had a goodbye breakfast of waffles (her choice, made by Dad…) and during our family prayer, I – who had been very stoic through all of the preparations – could barely eek the words out while fighting back the tears. Mom drove us to the airport and Mom and daughter had a tearful goodbye as she left us on the curb.

Once we arrived in Salt Lake, we began a short tour of selected family and friends, and each time, there were goodbyes. Some were more emotional than others. Some were warm embraces and some just handshakes (she had been set apart, after all). By Wednesday night, we’d seen them all. Thursday morning (Thursday, by the way, because of the holiday on Wednesday, the normal intake day at the MTC), we woke early to attend a session together at the Mount Timpanogas temple. (What a lovely temple, by the way – it was my first time there, and the folks who work there were very kind, and the temple itself is large and quite lovely. I think most of our “small” temple could fit in the celestial room of that large one!) There we happened to bump into a couple from our home ward. Another impromptu goodbye.

We did an errand at Deseret Book and grabbed some lunch at In-N-Out Burger (“My last meal,” she said!). We saw five or six other departing missionaries with their families there. (The elders were pretty easy to spot – one 19 year-old in a suit surrounded by adoring family members; my daughter was less conspicuous in her Sister Missionary clothes.)

We drove to the LDS chapel just north-east of the MTC. In the parking lot, I took a photo of my daughter pointing to the MTC in the distance (no time for pictures at the MTC itself, and there’s no longer a sign on the street, apparently because too many people stepped into the street to take pictures of it; I’m sure I would have done the same thing if I could!). We had been on the phone with Mom and the other kids at home. Our time came and we said goodbye, took a deep breath and drove the short distance to the entrance.

We were quickly waved inside, greeted by what appeared to be a senior missionary who gave us a yellow sticky to put on our windshield, and then waved into place by young elders ready to move us along. The elder who greeted us (well, greeted my daughter; it was as if I wasn’t there) asked if she had any keys or cellphone she needed to give me (nope, we’d done that already) and if she had her immunization record handy (yes, she did), and away she went. Another nameless elder (he had a nametag, but I wasn’t reading them very well…) waved at me and said, “She’s in good hands, sir. Have a great day.”

I got in my car and slowly moved away from the curb, drove down the driveway past quite a few numbered poles, thinking they really have this down to a science. I ended up in the lot next to the BYU laundry, and then I realized how well prepared they really were. The signpost included an I-15 sign with an arrow pointing to the right, reminding me that I had no place there where my daughter was.

Of course, she is in good hands. And I don’t mean hands of MTC elders or administrators or teachers. I mean the hands of Him who called her to serve. And for that I’m grateful.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The role of rest

Kelowna, BC
Last week I took a real vacation, something I haven’t done for some time – a get-on-a-plane-and-go-far-away-just-to-relax vacation. My lovely wife and our youngest daughter headed to the Pacific Northwest where we took in breath-taking scenery and visited with family members. I did not take my work laptop on the trip, so I wasn’t even tempted to check my email. I did not blog. We visited, hiked, ate at cool restaurants (including the one where one of my sons works), slept in a bit, read, played games and generally relaxed. I still tried to honor my diet, and to exercise each day, and I came away from the week pretty close to where I started it, weight-wise, so that was all good, too. I got close to eight hours of sleep a night, something I almost never do in a normal work week.

What has this got to do with the point of my blog, which is to share my Mormon experience? Only this: there’s value in rest.

The Sabbath as a day of rest is a regular part of my religious experience. I avoid working on Sunday (and am fortunate to work in a profession that does not require it); I also avoid other activities on Sunday that detract from the spirit of that day for me. We encourage our children not to do homework on Sunday (though in the end we know they will have to learn their own lessons in that regard). It’s not that my Sunday is a day of inactivity: we do go to church, often have choir practice, and sometimes welcome home teachers into our home (I try not to home teach on Sunday unless one of my families prefers that we visit that day). We try to spend time together as a family, especially on Sunday evening which is family game night at our home.

That day of rest is a valuable part of my week, just as this past week’s vacation was valuable in helping me to rejuvenate myself a bit. Although I was always just as happy for President Kimball’s advice that napping is an appropriate Sabbath activity as the next member of my priesthood quorum, I acknowledge that the rest the Sabbath provides is far more than physical. The spiritual rest from the work of my world is as valuable as the nap.

Yes, we have to cope with the kids on Sunday. When we had lots of little Bedlamites running around, Sundays were a real challenge; we tried not to rely too heavily on those Living Scripture videos, but our kids knew those stories very, very well... But as our kids have grown older, we’ve all worked into the Sunday patterns that work pretty well for us. Having afternoon church helps us with our kids at their present ages (where sleeping in is preferred to midday naps; I know younger families would prefer it the other way around).

We still have a big meal on Sunday – not one that requires lots of fussy preparation, but one that is something to share with one another, another reason to gather around the table, and then to linger there a little longer than we normally would on a weeknight. And the preparation and cleanup are family affairs, too.

Many years ago, when our oldest son played basketball in a tournament on a Sunday, I mentioned to another parent there that we normally didn’t like to do that sort of thing on Sunday. She asked what we did instead. I was not really prepared for her question, and I mumbled something about family time. (She, who attended the tournament with her husband and all her kids, while I was there with Son #1 only…)

I would answer that question differently today. I’d say, “Sunday is an important day for us. It’s a day we can attend church together and then spend the day together as a family. We try to do things on Sunday that are more restful and peaceful than other days. We try to run around less and simply to have peaceful time together.”

I hope your Sundays are peaceful.