Monday, January 30, 2012


I’ve watched the Republican primary battles with great interest. I follow presidential politics closely each cycle, and have been doubly intrigued to have prominent LDS candidates in the hunt. It has been interesting, of course, to see how the press and other candidates deal with Romney’s LDS faith.

This article which appeared in today’s Detroit Free Press (my local paper) caught my attention:

Mitt Romney's run for president spurs interest in Mormon faith

It’s a pretty favorable story – as most stories on the church are in the Free Press. There’s a sidebar in the paper that also comments on Romney’s father’s faith and its role in his political career:

Mormon faith helped George Romney decide to run for governor of Michigan

It’s inevitable that the church will turn up in conversations about Romney. I think at the face-to-face level with friends, most church members are happy to help clarify issues of facts around the church’s beliefs, as the Free Press article illustrates.

Personally, most of the non-member associates I have don’t make a big deal (to me, anyway) of Romney’s religion. Many of them see Romney the way the media portrays him -- as the defacto nominee who will win that nomination because of his business background and his superior campaign organization. The relative lack of concern about his faith may be a result of his father’s already having had a high-profile political career here, but I think it’s more likely that most people around here just don’t care.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Daddy Danger

Norbert over at BCC posted a really thought-provoking post on Tuesday around the question, “What is the greatest threat to your family?” Without transcribing his post (please go read it; it’s really quite good), I’ll cut to the chase:

Norbert suspects that his instructor meant to ask What is the greatest threat to THE family, but in response to the question asked, he determined that he – the dad -- was the greatest threat.

Many commenters (myself included) identified with his perspective. I am a little conflicted on this topic, though, and wanted to explore it a bit more.

Certainly the reality of Section 121 holds for fathers perhaps more than in any other circumstance:

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion (v. 39).
For me, unrighteous dominion in the home is most insidious precisely because it is so easy to get there from here. Men are taught by the church to preside. Parents are taught to teach their children. There is an implied message that parents can be evaluated by how their kids behave. And so it is exceptionally easy for Dad to compel behavior in the name of “reproving betimes with sharpness.”

The other reason unrighteous dominion is so insidious is because the stakes are so high. The Proverbs teach “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6). By golly, as a dad I want to ensure those kids are trained up right! But in doing so, I risk violating the terms of Section 121. In my zeal to have my kids “turn out right” I can easily do more harm than good.

There are some other complicating factors:

1. Many men (and maybe women, too, I suppose) really like the notion of control. I am one of those men. I am uncomfortable with uncertainty. Especially as a young father, I knew what a “happy family” looked like, and I was going to have one if it killed us.

2. Humans have an inborn “fight or flight” reflex that shows at the sign of conflict. Part of overcoming the natural man, I suppose, is overcoming this particular impulse. But those of us who lean toward the “fight” side of that pairing can be pretty tough to live with (and even dangerous in extreme circumstances).

3. Children are not highly predictable beings. Because they are constantly growing and learning, each day can be a new adventure for parents. For a dad who detests uncertainty, that can be particularly trying.
Section 121 actually offers a remedy, as well:

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (v. 41-42).

Of course as a parent, we sometimes need to offer correction. It’s part of our job, but even that requires the proper approach according to Section 121:

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death (v. 43-44).

I’ve written about this before, but the sharpness of this verse, as taught by Theodore M. Burton, is the sharpness of a clear photograph, not the sharpness of a caustic acid. So we can offer clear correction, but that correction needs to be enveloped in enough love that our children know that our faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

There’s another thought that bears mentioning here. Our children have their agency. They will make bad choices. It is part of their earth-experience to do so. A friend of mine suggested that we should pray for our children to make their bad choices while they still live at home so that we are there to help teach them.

At some point, we are not responsible for the choices our children make – certainly by the time they are adults, but some might argue after age eight. We are responsible, as parents, to help our children feel the consequences of those choices so that they can learn right from wrong. In the end, however, our children will make their own choices.

I’ve been a parent for over 30 years, and my youngest child is 11, so we have a number of years to go before all our kids are out of the house. (We’ll never stop parenting, we’ve discovered, but the “away” parenting is very different from the day-to-day retail parenting of minor children.)

I’ve had some really great moments as a dad. And I’ve had some really bad ones. I can really understand Norbert’s suggestion that a father may be the biggest threat to his own family. Even a good, well-meaning father can make mistakes.

The good news is that the atonement extends to fathers, too. We can seek the forgiveness of our children if needed. We can repent. We can improve. We can take parenting classes. We can study. We can seek the help of a professional therapist if needed. We can listen to the counsel of our spouse. We can enjoy the guidance of the Holy Ghost.

As we approach the right behaviors in teaching our children, according to Section 121, there is a remarkable blessing available:

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever (v. 46).
A good friend taught me that in his view, the greatest way that promise can be fulfilled is if our children (our everlasting dominion) come to us without compulsory means – that is that they want to be with us now and in the eternities.

Monday, January 23, 2012

More apostolic counsel some might have missed...

Last week I blogged about apostolic counsel regarding beards. I must say, there were lots of hits to that post – it rose to one of my top ten posts in two days, and over the weekend it hit the top five. This one might not be so interesting. But I thought I’d note some other apostolic counsel that might have gone unnoticed.

Elder Scott spoke about temple worship in 2009. His talk is here.

In his talk, Elder Scott lists ten things we can do to improve our temple worship.

Number six on his list:

Remove your watch when you enter a house of the Lord.

Now, I attend the temple pretty regularly. And lots of people I see haven’t removed their watches. I’ve not heard anyone repeat Elder Scott’s counsel in any meetings. But I try to remember to take off my watch when I’m in the temple. Why? Because that bit of counsel is really helpful to me. It helps to center me on the moment that I am in the temple. I’m less tempted to think into the future to the next three things on my day’s agenda. And the act of removing my watch is a physical reminder of the timelessness of the work I do in the temple.

Do I believe that the removal of my watch when entering the temple is a commandment?


Why not? An apostle said it in conference.

If it were a commandment, as I suggested in my last post, I suspect it would have been discussed more in conference and in policy documents from the church.

Is it good counsel?

You bet. I try to follow it, and it helps me to feel more “present” in the temple, just as Elder Scott said it would.

What about all those people wearing watches in the temple session?

What about them? They are not my responsibility. Maybe they didn’t pick up on Elder Scott’s counsel. Maybe they just forgot this time around to remove their watch. Maybe for some reason they need to wear a watch. In reality, it doesn’t make any difference at all to my temple worship unless I worry about it. Which I don’t.

I don’t think someone who wears a watch in the temple is making a grave error. Maybe for him or her the counsel isn’t as important because a watch is not a distraction as it is for me.

By the way, here’s Elder Scott’s complete list. There’s some really good stuff here:

Understand the doctrine related to temple ordinances, especially the significance of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

While participating in temple ordinances, consider your relationship to Jesus Christ and His relationship to our Heavenly Father. This simple act will lead to greater understanding of the supernal nature of the temple ordinances.

Always prayerfully express gratitude for the incomparable blessings that flow from temple ordinances. Live each day so as to give evidence to Father in Heaven and His Beloved Son of how very much those blessings mean to you.

Schedule regular visits to the temple.

Leave sufficient time to be unhurried within the temple walls.

Rotate activities so that you can participate in all of the ordinances of the temple.

Remove your watch when you enter a house of the Lord.

Listen carefully to the presentation of each element of the ordinance with an open mind and heart.

Be mindful of the individual for whom you are performing the vicarious ordinance. At times pray that he or she will recognize the vital importance of the ordinances and be worthy or prepare to be worthy to benefit from them.

Recognize that much of the majesty of the sealing ordinance cannot be understood and remembered with one live experience. Substantial subsequent vicarious work permits one to understand much more of what is communicated in the live ordinances.

Realize that a sealing ordinance is not enduring until after it is sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise. Both individuals must be worthy and want the sealing to be eternal.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apostolic counsel on beards

I really enjoyed reading a blog at my blogging-friend Middle-Aged Mormon Man's site the other day. The link is here. (Go ahead. It’s a quick read.)

MMM deals with two subjects: dress and grooming. And he got me thinking because he explained at least one of the reasons why he does not have a beard. He posted this quotation from a talk by Elder Russell M. Nelson:

To bear the priesthood means you have a personal responsibility to magnify your calling. Let each opportunity to serve help to develop your power in the priesthood. In your personal grooming, follow the example of the living prophets. Doing so gives silent expression that you truly comprehend the importance of “the Holy Priesthood, after the Order of the Son of God.” Russell M. Nelson, October Conference, 2003.
He listed some other reasons, but they don’t matter to me at all.

I have from time to time reflected on why I have a beard. I’ve worn a beard off and on (several years on, several years off) since grad school over 25 years ago. And when anyone has asked me why I have a beard, my answer (thought, not always spoken) is, “Why not?”

I’ve only been asked to shave my beard once in all those years, and that was a few years ago when I was called to serve as an ordinance worker in the Taipei Taiwan Temple. I happily shaved. (As I told a young friend who thought it unfair that I had to shave, I would have gladly shaved my head to work in the temple.)

I’ve worn my beard while serving as a bishop (twice). The first time was in Latin America and I had a beard at the time of my call. It never occurred to me to ask if I could keep the beard. I just kept it. And no one said anything about it – not my stake president, not the area authority seventy who lived in our stake, not even Elder Hales, whom I chauffeured during his visit for a regional conference.

The second time was in the US, and I specifically asked my stake president at the time he extended the call. He said it was my choice. There was another bishop serving in our stake at that time who also had a full beard.

No one at work has ever asked me to shave, either. I’ve had a beard while working far from our home office in foreign assignments and also while working in the world headquarters of our Fortune 10 company.

My family likes my beard (although my youngest daughter doesn’t like it when I’m growing a new one; it’s too scratchy). My wife likes my beard, but has never pressured me to keep it.

I have no issue recognizing that in certain callings (for instance, temple service and full time missionary work) the church asks men to shave. That is the church’s prerogative, and I feel no need to justify that choice or to have an explanation. But except for Elder Nelson’s counsel as quoted by MMM, and the specific guidelines for temple workers and full time missionaries, I have seen nothing official that suggests a restriction on beards for men. (Yeah, I went to BYU, so I know they also have restrictive grooming standards, but BYU is not the church.)

And since reading MMM’s blog the other day, I’ve looked. Searching the last ten years’ worth of conference addresses and church magazines, I found lots of discussions about dress and grooming. The “dress” part is almost always around modesty for women (with a perfunctory nod toward men, also) and proper attire for blessing and passing the sacrament for young men (white shirts and ties preferred, but not required). And the grooming comments, also directed primarily at the youth, are summarized by the words “neat and clean.”

So what to do with Elder Nelson’s counsel? I could:

1. Ignore it, assuming this is one man’s opinion.

2. Interpret it as a dictum against beards and shave mine in obedience to the counsel of an apostle.

3. Assume I am following it. After all, I do look to the Brethren for guidance in my dress and grooming: I wear white shirts and ties (if not always a suit; sometimes I wear a sport coat and dress slacks) to church. My hair and beard are neatly trimmed and are quite conservative in their appearance.

Some background on how I feel about this sort of thing:

1. I dig obedience. Nephi was obedient and was blessed. Joshua was obedient and blessed. (Those are the two prophets I’m reading about right now as I’m reading for Sunday School and trying to keep up with my son’s Old Testament reading for seminary.) And I do sustain the apostles and first presidency as prophets, seers and revelators, so I’m anxious to be obedient. To obey is better than to sacrifice (see 1 Samuel 15). Blessings are predicated upon obedience (see D&C 130).

2. My mission president taught us an interesting lesson from his experience. Although of German descent, he lived in Idaho prior to his call as a mission president. He used to drive to Salt Lake for conference, and then home again. He liked to drive fast. In one particular conference, President Kimball reminded people in his concluding remarks to obey all traffic laws on the way home, and my mission president was crushed. The 55 mph speed limit was in force in those days on interstates, and he felt compelled to drive that speed because President Kimball asked him to. (Don’t start a discussion about why he wouldn’t obey traffic laws without the prophet’s specific request; that’s not the point.) So, obeying prophetic direction is a good thing.

3. Also on my mission I heard Elder Theodore M. Burton speak. He was a Seventy and was the Area Administrator (a predecessor to area presidents) for the area that included our mission. He taught a valuable principle for scripture study: the most important lessons are repeated in the scriptures. It’s more reliable, he taught us, to focus on doctrine that is found in multiple passages than in one half of one obscure verse. The most important truths are taught regularly.

4. I believe that we can often receive counsel specific to our situation and our circumstance in conference. The revelation that comes through the Holy Ghost may or may not be directly related to the message we’re hearing. President Eyring visited our stake and talked about this once. He said he’s learned not to disagree with someone who thanks him for speaking on a specific subject that the listener needed to hear, even if he did not specifically address that topic. He said he’s learned that sometimes the spirit will augment what he says so that a listener may get the message he or she needs. Similarly, I’ve noticed for myself that some messages in conference bear more weight based on my needs or questions at a particular time.
So with that background, what do I do?

1. Apparently when Elder Nelson made this particular comment it didn’t strike me enough to make an impression – at least not the impression that I shouldn’t have a beard. Many conference messages do strike me, by the way. I take notes in conference and I note specifically messages of importance to me.

2. It seems a no-beard reading of Elder Nelson’s comment has not been corroborated specifically in other conference addresses. I’ve heard no one else speak in those terms in other conference addresses, in other leadership meetings, or even in our post conference discussions of Elder Nelson’s talk.

3. I do not like the notion that whether I wear a beard or a white shirt (or whether a sister wears a particular style of dress) is a tacit indicator of my righteousness. And I don’t think Elder Nelson would be happy with that idea, either. (Elder Nelson has given plenty of talks suggesting that all of God’s children can qualify for his blessings, and plenty of the Brethren have reminded us that we should be accepting of diversity among us, encouraging all to come unto Christ.) I do my best to honor my covenants and to keep the commandments. I frankly wouldn’t enjoy looking at my fellow saints and wondering why they do or don’t shave or wear the same clothing as I do or have some number of piercings or tattoos. That said, I completely agree that we ought to dress and groom carefully for church to honor God (not to show off – remember those nasty Zoramites?).

As for me and my beard, what will I do? I don’t know. Probably nothing for now. But I’ll keep thinking about it. And you can bet if my wife or my bishop or my stake president asks me to shave it, I will.

PS: As I did some research for this post, I found a number of commenters on other related posts who claimed that President Hinckley taught "some years ago" that all priesthood holders should be clean shaven. If someone can provide me an accurate reference for that quote, maybe I'll provide a prize!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the faithless Laman and Lemuel

I remember when I taught gospel doctrine in my freshman year at BYU, I had a team teacher who used to say she thought old Laman and Lemuel got a bad rap. She imagined from time to time that it might not have been easy to have Nephi as a brother. And it was his record we were reading, after all.

I used to roll my eyes when she’d say these things as we prepared our lessons. And I’d hope she wouldn’t say them while we were teaching.

So it surprised me a little this past week in Sunday School as I felt a twinge of sadness for Laman and Lemuel. Our discussion was around their lack of faith, like that was their Chief Character Flaw. I’m not sure anyone meant the discussion to sound as it did, but from where I sat it sounded like “if they just had more faith, they would have been more like Nephi and less like, well, you know.” Less like themselves.

I don’t mean to defend Laman and Lemuel. They had their agency just as Nephi did. But as the parent of seven kids, I can tell you the notion that Laman and Lemuel and Nephi and Sam all had the same parents plays differently in my head. I know that I parented my first few kids very differently from how I’ve parented the last ones. My first kids taught me valuable lessons as a father, and my younger kids are the beneficiaries of those lessons. My father was the same way. I –- the youngest in my family -- benefited greatly from the sometimes challenging relationship that my older brother had with my dad. (I should point out that my older brother and my dad are both great men, and that they love one another completely. But my brother was my dad’s first teenager. Any of you who have had a first teenager understand. Those who haven’t, just wait.)

Laman and Lemuel were older when they left Jerusalem. They may have had a better –- or at least different -- understanding of what they were leaving behind than young Nephi. At least some of Nephi’s formative spiritual experiences came as his family traveled in the wilderness, when he was at an age that those experiences could shape him. His brothers did not have those experiences at that age. And so their experience was not the same as Nephi’s.

I don’t seek to absolve Laman and Lemuel from their poor choices. Of course one can go to the Lord in prayer at any age and learn His will. But consider how many general authorities talk freely about really coming to their testimonies while serving on a mission. Is there something about that experience at that time of life that affords a certain set of experiences? I think my own experience would suggest that there is. A young man who does not serve a mission will not have the same experiences. He can still gain a testimony and strengthen it, but it will not be the same experience. Similarly, it may be that Nephi’s older brothers did not have the same experiences as Nephi at least in part because of their age.

I don’t know about Lehi’s family, but I know that my younger children were born into a far more prosperous family than my oldest ones. My oldest three came while we were still in school. They had a dad who was preoccupied with school and working and all the stress that comes with poverty-line living. And then they lost their dad to establishing his career. My youngest children have had a completely different experience. (My younger children might point out that their parents are a lot older than their older siblings' parents, so the differences cut both ways.)

Nephi is right when he asks his brothers if they have sought the Lord’s help in understanding their father’s dream. We all can go to God for help and understanding. But there are lots of reasons Laman and Lemuel might not make that choice, might not have the faith, to seek divine assistance.

It is convenient to put black hats on Laman and Lemuel and white hats on Nephi and Sam and to simplify the good-guy / bad-guy myth of the Book of Mormon. But the record itself reminds us that even that story is nuanced: Sariah loved all her sons; Laman and Lemuel did follow their father into the wilderness; even Nephi examined his own personal flaws, recognizing that he was not perfect; and some generations of Lamanites were more righteous than their Nephite brethren.

We benefit, I believe, by remembering – particularly as we apply the Book of Mormon to ourselves – that the story is not a simple one, just as our lives are not simple.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What I taught about GAS...and how nobody died

Last Sunday I taught Lesson One from the new Teachings of the Prophet manual. As I was preparing for the lesson, I determined to use parts of the overview of President Smith’s life included in the manual, since I assumed many of the high priests in our group are like me and don’t know a whole lot about President Smith. Furthermore, there’s plenty from the historical sketch that illustrates that President Smith practiced what he preached in Lesson One, namely living the gospel instead of being a member in name only.

I was also aware of some research about President Smith’s life that was not included in the biographical material. During the week of my preparation, J. Stapely over at By Common Consent provided more detail in that regard by linking an outstanding article in the Journal of Mormon History (J.’s post at BCC is here; the article is here, starting on page 120). In that article, BYU Rel. Ed. Professor Mary Jane Woodger presents compelling evidence from President Smith’s own journals that in addition to whatever physical maladies he may have had, President Smith also likely suffered from depression and anxiety disorders.

Prior to reading the article in JMH, I had decided not to mention what I’d heard about President Smith’s mental illness, but after reading the article, I felt like I should include it in my lesson. I can't say for sure I was inspired to do so, but I certainly could have been, and maybe I was. Of course, then I wondered about the balance of introducing material from outside the manual in my teaching compared with whatever benefit might accrue from sharing the information. I'm aware of the counsel to use the manuals and official sources in our lessons. And I'm also aware that the teacher, in the end, is the one called to teach.

Let’s be clear: the lesson I taught was from the manual. We read and discussed scriptures. We read passages of President Smith’s words. We illustrated them with examples from his life which were included in Lesson One and in the historical introduction in the manual. I did not teach a lesson on mental illness; I did not advocate for the rights of the mentally ill; I did not offer diagnostic or treatment recommendations (nor could I; I’m not qualified to do so).

What I did, however, is I pointed out, as J. did in his post, that there is considerable evidence from President Smith’s own journals that he likely suffered from depression and anxiety issues, and that those were likely a large part of his reason for his recuperative period mentioned in the historical overview. I also observed that it was unlikely that there would be any contemporary (to President Smith) diagnosis since the study of mental health at the turn of the 20th century was insufficiently developed to offer such a diagnosis. I added that perhaps this knowledge might comfort some who either wrestle with mental illness themselves or who have family members or close friends who do. I suggested that there is value in understanding that any illness need not be taken as an indictment of our worthiness or fitness for service to the Lord, as evidenced by the fact that President Smith served significantly and faithfully despite his illnesses, whatever they were. (We pointed out that he was not alone in serving while suffering with health challenges.)

There was, frankly, no discussion of the point. A few heads nodded. No one wondered why I had introduced this information that was not part of the manual (I identified it as such, by the way, since I suspect a fair number of our group would not have read the historical summary). (Oh, and no one died.) I think I was completely consistent with the instruction given to teachers at the end of Lesson One:

To help us teach from the scriptures and the words of latter-day prophets, the Church has produced lesson manuals and other materials. There is little need for commentaries or other reference material (quoted from Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching [1999], 52).

It would have been interesting to go into more detail about his illness, but that was not the purpose of our lesson. The lesson was to talk about how we can live the gospel and not be members in name only, and I was happy to have ample material to illustrate that President Smith was a great example of that principle that he taught.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Slow Sunday: The impact of the fast

As my wife and I discussed who we might include in our fast this past weekend, we were a little surprised at the length of the list of family members who have particular needs, ranging from children with employment concerns to extended family members with serious diagnoses. It caused me to reflect on our practice of fasting.

The law of the fast is well explained in Isaiah 58:

Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday: And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not (v. 5-11).

This description comes in answer to the question why the Lord does not recognize the fast of the Israelites (and smite their enemies), and the answer is that they are fasting wrong.

Our practice is to fast when we seek specific guidance (a newly called president might fast for inspiration in recommending counselors) or specific blessings (as in fasting for the health of someone who is sick, or for one’s own employment). I remember being taught as a child that fasting would be easier if I were fasting for something (when we used to say, only half-joking, that it would be better called "Slow Sunday" instead of Fast Sunday).

I’ll admit it: fasting has never come easily to me, natural man that I am, but I have learned to do it. I really learned to fast on my mission, where – contrary to standard policy, but with permission – our mission president urged us to fast once a week. He often reminded us, however, that the weekly fast was unique for our mission, and that when we returned home, he would recommend we make use of the monthly fast day. He also taught us that it was appropriate to fast for multiple concerns in one fast.

I thought about that teaching as I considered my list of people I was including in my fast yesterday.

The blessings promised by the Lord through Isaiah include personal blessings of health and prosperity (contingent upon our caring for the poor), but also that the Lord will answer our call. That is my hope and prayer as I consider those I love for whom I fasted yesterday. I am also aware that they will make their own choices and that blessings they receive are also contingent upon their faith.

I do not pretend to understand the cosmic accounting that measures my faith and the faith of others together with the Lord’s will. But I am grateful for his promise in Isaiah, and for the opportunity to lend my faith in their behalf.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Happy Kings Day!

Sometimes known as Epiphany or Theophany, January 6 is a traditional holiday on which is celebrated the manifestation of the Son of God in the human form of Jesus Christ. Many Christians commemorate the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. Hence the term Kings Day (or Three Kings Day).

Of course growing up I’d never heard of Kings Day. It was not part of our family celebration when I was a child (and my parents were active in the Presbyterian Church), and our conversion to Mormonism did nothing to bring the holiday alive.

I’ve really only had two brushes with the holiday (except, perhaps, for my enjoyment of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which is said to be from a story told on the eve of this holiday).

The first was in Germany on my mission. It was customary in some families for children to find bags of cookies or other treats hung on their door, presumably left by the visiting kings, just as they had done for the Savior. In others, eating of a special cake or plundering the goodies from the Christmas tree are common (though in my house this starts on Christmas morning!). My companion and I returned home from working on this day and found a bag of cookies on our door, left by a member family who lived not far from us.

The power of this act of kindness cannot be overstated. I had been in Germany less than two months and my companion and I did not get along well (largely, I think, because of my stubbornness at what I thought a “good” missionary should do and my lack of compassion toward a companion who had had a very different mission experience from my vision). We had enjoyed a last-minute invitation to an older couple’s home for Christmas dinner where neither they nor we quite knew what to do to make ourselves comfortable. (The families we knew best were either traveling or otherwise occupied.) I had been unable to reach my parents by phone on Christmas because of limited phone connections and their travel schedule (they were on a brief visit to my brother’s for the holiday before returning to Nigeria where my father was working at the time). Poor me.

The memory of this small act of kindness of a few cookies in a bag still stirs me.

My second experience was in Venezuela when my family and I lived there for my work. We had a certain mountain village we liked to visit. As we were driving there on a particular January 6 (I had forgotten completely that it was Epiphany), we were suddenly faced with three speeding horses with riders dressed in colorful robes that charged toward us, and then around us on both sides of our car. Only then did I notice the people lining the street watching the horsemen, and it was only some distance up the road that I sorted out that they represented the kings, and that we had inadvertently driven into a celebration of the kings.

(To this day I wonder if I missed a road block, but it would not surprise me if I didn’t; traffic in Venezuela was often a bit uncontrolled.)

It was kind of exciting to have them zoom past us, hooves clacking against the cobblestone street, and to see the whoosh of color run by. I wonder if the Magi who visited the Savior were slow and methodical in their journey or if they felt the urgency of the players who passed us in Maracay.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Once more, with feeling

In my last post, I spoke about the separation of spiritual experience and emotion. Today I’d like to talk about the combination of the two.

I quoted Elder Packer in the last post in which he described how the Holy Ghost communicates with us: it whispers; it speaks understanding. In his description there was nothing to suggest that spiritual communication was also emotional.

Doctrine & Covenants 6 bears this idea out, speaking of Oliver’s experience with his testimony of the prophet Joseph and his work:

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, blessed art thou for what thou hast done; for thou hast inquired of me, and behold, as often as thou hast inquired thou hast received instruction of my Spirit. If it had not been so, thou wouldst not have come to the place where thou art at this time.

Behold, thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth (Sec 6:14-15).

And also later the Lord reminds Oliver:

Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God (v. 23)?
That said, in Doctrine & Covenants 8, the Lord tells Oliver Cowdrey that the spirit speaks to mind and heart:

“Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (v 2).

And the Lord’s instruction to Oliver confirm that spiritual confirmation may come at least near the heart:

But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right (D&C 9:8).

Alma also hints at the heart as receiver of spiritual communication when he teaches the Zoramites:

Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me (32:8).

It’s easy for me to see why some equate emotional response with a burning in the bosom. Except for me, that’s not the way it happens.

I can tell when a movie (or an AT&T commercial) is going to make me tear up. I know where the feeling starts and how the tears will come. Sometimes I have similar reactions in sacrament meeting, especially if someone relates an experience with which I can easily empathize. That tearing up, for me, is not the spirit bearing witness.

Other times, however, I will feel the burning in the bosom – the confirming witness that truth is being taught – and then, in response to that stimulus, I may have an emotional response, as well. Emotion, for me, comes after the spirit.

That is my experience, and it took me some time to sort all of this out for myself.

There’s another component of this process that is important to me. When teaching the Zoramites, Alma also says:

Yea, he that truly humbleth himself, and repenteth of his sins, and endureth to the end, the same shall be blessed (32:15).
Alma’s talking about the fact that the Zoramites’ humble condition makes them able to feel spiritual promptings. The role of humility in our being able to feel the spirit is significant in my experience. I’m not in anyone else’s skin, so I can’t speak for others. But for me, I need to be in a position to receive the witness. That may be because I’ve been studying something out for some time. It may be because I’ve fasted and prayed. It may be because I’m (finally) willing to follow the Lord’s will instead of trying to dictate to Him what I hope His will will be.

An experience:

Late in my high school years, I came home from a month’s foreign exchange experience in Europe to find my mother had signed me up for youth conference. I was not excited to go, but agreed to attend because my mother wanted me to (she almost never played the “mom” card, so it was impossible for me to say no to her). Conference was ok. There were classes and dances, and the normal stuff from a 1970’s youth conference.

Of course we didn’t sleep much. We ate dorm food. We had a dance until late into the evening on Saturday and met on Sunday morning (early, without breakfast) for a priesthood meeting (the girls were in a young women’s meeting), followed by a testimony meeting.

Like all the other boys, I was tired going into that priesthood meeting. It was a little hard to stay awake. Our visitor from Salt Lake (I don’t remember who he was) was an entertaining speaker though, and at least he kept me awake.

As he taught, I became increasingly interested in listening to him. He taught about the pre-mortal existence, the fall of Adam, and the plan of redemption. It was a message that touched my heart. I was not emotionally charged by what he said, but I felt that swelling in my breast that Alma described. I knew in my head and in my heart what he was saying was true. I knew more then – that day – than I ever had before that God loved me, that Jesus Christ had atoned for my sins, and that I could enjoy the power of his redeeming love in my life.

When I reflect on that experience now, I am often a little weepy. Not because the tears are a sign of the spirit’s confirmation, but because of the significance of the event for me in my life and the changes it prompted me to make in my thinking and in my plans, and the course it drove me to choose. It was a tender moment, and, yes, even a tender mercy in my life.

I’m grateful for the Lord’s speaking to my heart and my mind that day and many times since.