Monday, February 27, 2012

The day I lied to my bishop

I was reading a thread on a bishop’s power of discernment over at BCC and it made me think about my own experience lying to my bishop. I really wrestled with whether and how to share this experience, but ultimately I've decided to go ahead.

I was a boy (well, we’d call me a “young man,” but I was a boy), and I had never done baptisms for the dead because we lived so far from a temple. But I had the chance to go and do some family names. In my interview with the bishop, he asked me a direct question and I answered in a way I knew was untruthful. (Don't fret over which question. It really doesn't matter as you'll see...)

The experience is forever seared into my brain, perhaps because of the painful burning I felt as soon as I did it. This was NOT a warm and fuzzy feeling. This was a scorching flame that started in my heart and went to the top of my head the soles of my feet.

If he discerned anything unusual about my response, he said nothing.

As I recall, that interview was on a Sunday. By midweek, my conscience had gotten the better of me. Like the Telltale Heart, it called out to me, and finally on an evening during the week I was meeting with the bishop again (this time in his home; if memory serves, he was sick, but still agreed to see me because I said it was urgent).

After I confessed my lie (and told the truth about the answer to the question he’d asked) he was much more concerned about the lie than what I had lied about. He was kind and gentle. He never suggested to me that he had suspected I had lied. He taught me. He assured me of his and the Lord’s love for me. And he let me keep the recommend that he had given me.

That experience had a great influence on me when I served as a bishop decades later. I will ever remember the compassion my good bishop showed, and his concern for my integrity. Although he allowed me to keep the recommend, I carried that difficult experience over my head like a cloud until he and I had a pre-mission interview several years later. I had always feared that he remembered the incident and somehow thought less of me because of it. After my mission interview, I was certain that was not the case. (He did remember the incident, but he did not think less of me.)

That good bishop was one of three or four models I looked to when I served as a bishop (twice). He was a young bishop with a very young family. At the time I had no idea the sacrifice he and his family made to serve us as he did. He had an undying devotion to the Lord and to the youth of his ward. Many of the lessons of priesthood service I learned under his care.

It should come as no surprise to my regular readers that I assume most bishops do their very best to serve in often challenging circumstances. I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to have this bishop in my life when I did.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Love, marriage, children, and a gift

Anyone who has parented more than a few years will know what I’m feeling today.

First, let me remind you that I’ve been a parent for over thirty years. My lovely wife and I have seven children who have all gone through various stages of awesomeness and not-so-awesomeness, just as I have. (My wife has never gone through a phase of non-awesomeness, at least not since I’ve known her.)

Today I received a lovely gift from my daughter – she’s number five of seven, and she’s somewhere in the middle of her BYU experience. (She needs so many credit hours to finish her program, it doesn’t make sense to speak in terms of sophomore and junior – I think according to those guidelines she’ll be a senior for two or three years…)

For one of her education classes, she produced a five-minute audio documentary about my lovely wife and me. In it she quotes from my personal history (she had someone read the passage), and she managed to get my lovely wife on tape, talking about us and our 31+ year marriage. The quality of the mini documentary is actually pretty good – the story is compelling and it’s well-told. She lets my lovely wife and me speak for our marriage, and she adds only a bit of her own commentary along the way.

This little audio file is a great gift for several reasons:
1. I’m pleased that she (and our other children) values the marriage that their mother and I share. Each one of the kids who’s beyond surly-teenagerhood has expressed a desire to have what we have – a happy marriage in which both partners value, honor and trust one another.
2. I’m pleased that she read my personal history and remembered what I had said about her mother. One of the key reasons I wrote my history was so that my children would know about the people and ideas that are most important to me. At the top of that list is their mother.
3. I’m kind of happy that she thinks enough of what we have to share it with others. Our marriage has not been Disney-perfect by any means. But we are more in love today than the day we married, that’s for sure. (I remember a religion instructor I had at BYU years ago who pointed out that love was not defined by flowers and gifts during the engagement period. It was defined by a husband’s willingness to clean up after his wife vomits in the toilet for the tenth or twentieth or thirtieth straight day of her pregnancy, and her willingness to bear children, knowing that it would mean days of vomiting into the toilet.) As my wife told my daughter, we have come to understand forgiveness and the blessings of the atonement in our marriage as in other areas of our lives.
By the way, here’s the passage from my history that my daughter quoted in her documentary:
The most remarkable thing about [my wife], and the reason I knew I was in love with her, was that I just felt so good around her. I not only felt good, like a good feeling, but I felt good, like being a better person, just because she was around me. I wanted to be good for her. I joked later as a bishop when talking to the youth that I married [her] because she was a seminary graduate. While that's probably not the linear thought pattern I had, it was sort of true. She was so good, and I wanted to be good to keep up with her.
May I always live up to that desire.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Loaning my will to God

We sang one of my all-time favorite hymns in sacrament meeting yesterday, “God Loved Us So He Sent His Son.” As often happens, however, we did not sing my favorite verse, since it’s printed at the bottom of the hymn, outside the music. Verse four reads:

In word and deed he doth require
My will to his, like son to sire,
Be made to bend, and I, as son,
Learn conduct from the Holy One.

When still a fresh new apostle, President Packer made this comment in an address at BYU:

Perhaps the greatest discovery of my life, without question the greatest commitment, came when finally I had the confidence in God that I would loan or yield my agency to him – without compulsion or pressure, without any duress, as a single individual alone, by myself, no counterfeiting, nothing expected other than the privilege. In a sense, speaking figuratively, to take one’s agency, that precious gift which the scriptures make plain is essential to life itself, and say, ‘I will do as you direct,’ is afterward to learn that in so doing you possess it all the more” (Obedience, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [December 7, 1971], 4, quoted in A Guide to Addiction Recovery and Healing, p. 13).
As I discussed this concept of turning our will or agency over to God with some friends last week, some expressed their difficulty in doing so. One said, however, he finally had come to terms with the idea, knowing that he could at any time take it back again. Knowing that he still had a choice, he knew he had not lost his agency, but given his compliance with the Lord’s will freely, as Elder Packer describes.

It occurred to me that we lend our agency out all the time. We may lend it to a spouse or friend as we compromise for the sake of the relationship. We give it to the state who issues our driver’s license as we agree to obey traffic laws. Some of us may give our agency (even unwittingly) to addictions or bad habits.

Another friend told me once, “why wouldn’t you want God to direct your life?” Great question.

I can see times in my life where this principle has been easier than others. It’s easy to pray for God’s will when I’m pretty sure His will is moving in the same direction as mine. It’s much tougher to seek His will when I’ve been praying for a specific outcome for some time without clear results, and it finally occurs to me that He might want something different than I do, or that He might have another timetable.

When dealing with a concern with one of my children, I can remember praying for months for resolution – my resolution, that is: Take this burden; Heal him; Save him. The Lord was fully prepared to save my child (of course the Savior had already done so!), but not in the way I dictated, nor in the time I expected. I found I finally had to let go and allow God to work in His ways (which are not my ways).

King Benjamin reminds us that in order to put off the natural man, we can rely only on the atonement of Jesus Christ and become “as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

My experience is that King Benjamin is right. Time has demonstrated to me that my God is merciful and kind. Father (in Heaven) knows best.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"I'm doing the best I can!"

When our family lived in Taiwan a few years ago, my wife and I were restricted service ordinance workers when our English ward attended the temple. It was my first (and only) opportunity to serve in the temple as an ordinance worker, and I really enjoyed the experience. I would gladly serve again if the opportunity presented itself.

One of the bits of training we received was on “correcting” temple patrons. We were taught basically not to do it, with a couple of very specific and limited exceptions. Instead, we were told we should assume that each patron is doing the best he or she can.

It made sense, really. People who come to the temple are already declared by their bishops and stake presidents worthy to come to the temple. They are faithful members of the church who are there to serve. Many come to the temple at pretty great sacrifice of time and sometimes distance. In our ward, some members who attended did so instead of working, so they sacrificed income in order to participate.

Knowing that these folks really were trying to do what is right in most areas of their lives made it easy to assume that they were also doing their best in the temple.

I mentioned this idea in a comment on another blog last week and someone responded what a great thing it would be if we assumed this in all our interactions – that the other person is doing the best he or she can. I say Hooray for that idea!

What would be gained from such an approach? Would we treat others with more or less charity if we assumed they are doing the best they can do? More, I suspect. Would we be more supportive of positive changes we see? I suspect so, especially when compared with the alternative, namely finding the next flaw for someone to work on.

It’s caused me to reflect on people who have helped me to succeed. The ones who have done it best are not the drill sergeants of my life. They are the cheerleaders. My father almost never offered direct criticism of something I did. He did compliment me a lot. And I don’t think it was my stunning awesomeness that drove his behavior. I think he learned that a dad can draw more flies with honey than vinegar (despite the fact that I could probably have used a vinegar bath from time to time).

Shortly after I was married, I was called as a Sunday School president of my Provo ward. This was the time that Sunday School presidents were becoming pretty irrelevant as far as I was concerned. Opening exercises had been done away with. And during my tenure, monthly in-service meetings were done away with, too. I found our stake “training” meetings to be dull and uninspiring. And if I had a hard time figuring out how I could be relevant, imagine how hard it was to figure out how the stake Sunday School president was relevant. Yet our stake SS president would visit our ward, put his arm around me and tell me how much he loved me, and how much he appreciated what we were doing in our ward’s Sunday School. He talked about the quality of teaching in our ward, and how we met the needs of our newlywed / nearly dead diversity (ok, he didn’t call them nearly dead…). Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I actually liked it when he came, and I always had one more idea of something we could do to improve teaching in our ward.

Our bishop now regularly talks about the good things our ward is doing. We do have an awesome ward, by the way. But I have been bishop in this ward. I know that bishop doesn’t sleep well many nights. I’m sure he worries about the youth, the underemployed, the poor, the disaffected, and probably his own family. But he doesn’t lecture us. He doesn’t give us his top three things we ought to be doing. He thanks us for our service and accepts that we are doing the best we can.

What are the risks of such an approach? Few. Once in a while we’re in a position where we need to offer instruction or correction. Parents, teachers, youth leaders, bishops all might need to do it sometimes. But instruction can certainly be given with the attitude that people are doing their best. Correction may be a little trickier, but even correction need not be given in anger or with contention. Think D&C 121 – when we reprove betimes with sharpness, we do it with the clarity of a photograph, not the cutting edge of a knife. And we surround that clarity with love.

The only other time that we might try to justify a different approach is when offering a cautionary tale to our children -- that is pointing out someone else’s mistake in the hope that our children won’t replicate it. I think this is our greatest chance to assume the best in others. Even if there was a mistake, we can teach the mistake and its consequence without condemning the person involved.

The Savior’s injunction not to judge applies. Even our “righteous judgment” ought to be limited to actions, not people, remembering that whatever judgment we use will also be reserved for us. I, for one, hope the judgment applied to me assumes I’m doing the best I can.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My experience as the father of non-believers (Part Two, in which the atonement works)

In my last post on this subject, I described my emotional response to the choice of some of my children to leave the church. And I postulated that my emotional response might have led (at least some of) my kids who left to question my love for them.

Of course I did love them, and it was out of my love for them that I felt the distress I did. And it was my misguided understanding of how to show that love that I likely confused them.

When I was a boy, I had a covered wagon lamp kit, which I decided to assemble myself one evening. I put the wagon together, and then I put the lamp fixture and cord on the wagon. At some point, I realized I had not strung the cord through the hole in the bottom of the covered wagon. I decided the easiest way to remedy this situation was to cut the cord, string it through the hole, and then re-tape the wire. So I took my wire cutters and cut the cord.

Oh, did I mention it was plugged in? As I cut the cord, the lights went out. We lived in an old house with fuses (not circuit breakers) and we probably only had one or two fuses at that. So a lot of the house went dark. I sat in the darkness, not quite sure what had happened. My father came downstairs to check the fuse box and asked me what had happened. When I told him, he (in an astonishingly calm way, now that I think about it) taught me about electricity and told me I had shorted out the system. He also pointed out that I was lucky I didn’t get shocked. (The wire cutters, thankfully, had insulated handles.)

He then explained something that has always stuck with me. He said that when people grab a live wire, they can’t let go because the electricity causes their muscles to contract, tightening their grip on the wire. That’s why, he explained, that electricians who don’t know if a wire is live, might touch it first with the back of their hand, so if their hand closes, it won’t be on the wire.

When my children began to leave the church, I tightened my grip, as if I were clutching a live wire. And I could not let go.

Until, that is, the Savior finally helped me.

A year or two after my oldest son left home to go to college (and about three years since he’d last been to church), I was serving as bishop. I had interviewed a couple who was working on the repentance process, and it was our final meeting as they and I had all received a witness that they had done what the Lord wanted them to do, and they could return to full fellowship.

The brother observed that that day happened to be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On my way home from church that night, I contemplated the blessings of the atonement. I reflected on a letter I’d written my son year or two earlier in which I’d written about how much he needed the atonement in his life. On that night, the Lord taught me in no uncertain terms that it was I who needed the atonement in my life.

I had never felt more like Nephi in 2 Nephi 4 before that night. I had laid out to me very clearly where I had acted out of pride and anger as a father, and where I needed to repent.

Thus began a long process in which I discovered the power of the atonement to heal me. Over time, I learned to accept my children’s choices for what they were – their exercise of God-given agency over which I had no control. Over time I came to have faith that if and when God needed them to return, He would oversee that change in them, not me. I developed greater faith in the power of the sealing ordinance, and greater understanding of the Lord’s mercy as it related to my weakness.

The change in me was not overnight. In fact, it has been about a decade since that realization, and God’s not done with me yet.

During the process, a good friend spoke in our sacrament meeting. She reminded us that there will be no wards and stakes in heaven, only families. In that moment, it occurred to me that I needed to do what it took so that my children (all of my children) could be comfortable in my family, even if they were not comfortable next to me on a bench in sacrament meeting.

I will add that my standards have not changed. I still live by them, and the minor children who live in my home still live by them. But I recognize that my children – those at home and away – choose how they will live; I cannot dictate those choices for them.

As I mentioned in a comment on the previous post, I had a stake president who counseled me during those turbulent years in our monthly stewardship interviews. He reminded me regularly that eternity is a long time. I’m grateful for that, because I may need a long time to get it right

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Pretty much as I expected (feared)...

First of all, let me just say I’m following apostolic counsel in this post. A number of years ago, Elder Eyring told a story about walking home from church with his dad. Young Hal had been bored in Sacrament Meeting, and his dad thought the meeting was great. Then Dad explained to Young Hal that if he listened to a talk that wasn’t up to snuff, he’d simply imagine how he would have given the talk instead, and he’d get more out of the meeting.

This past Sunday, we did the GAS Lesson #3. It was fast Sunday, but we have Ward Conference next week, so our group leadership decided to do the GAS lesson as their “presidency” lesson.

I had been slated to teach this lesson before we all realized there was a conflict with Ward Conference. And I was looking forward to it, too. President Smith’s words all point to a common theme: We believe in Christ; the Bible testifies of Him; the Book of Mormon testifies of Him; Joseph Smith testified of Him. And we can testify of Him in our words and deeds.

In our group, the discussion quickly descended into a “Why don’t they think we are Christians?” session. To me, that was a lost opportunity.

It was telling to me that the word Christian did not appear in the GAS lesson material. There were plenty of references to the Savior, but none to that particular label. And that, to me, was a signal of where the discussion could go (instead of where it actually went).

I understand the desire to complain a bit about the treatment we get from “the world,” especially here in the mission field. I understand that some of that talk may be inevitable, especially in an environment with a prominent Mormon presidential candidate drawing fire from evangelical Christians and sometimes candidates who appeal to them. And it was interesting to hear of personal experiences people in our group had confronting the issue with their friends and associates. (Our HPGL told of his wife’s experience: she participates in a Bible study at a local protestant church. On one particular week, another woman kept insisting that the HPGL’s wife did not believe in Christ. Finally the protestant woman was so upset that she left, and the HPGL’s wife stayed at the Bible study.)

I was glad that another member of the group mentioned our opportunity to demonstrate our faith in Christ by the way we lead our lives. (His question: If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?)

It reminded me of a post from blogger Middle-Aged Mormon Man in which he puts a great perspective on the question of the label of Christian. You can find it here. (Go ahead, click on the link!)

I would have preferred spending more time affirming our faith in Christ and discussing how we could show it, rather than defending our faith in Christ to an opposition that was not even present.

Monday, February 6, 2012

My experience as the father of a non-believer

Recently there have been a number of news stories (and subsequent blog posts) about those who are leaving the LDS church. In the normal course of departure stories is sometimes an account of the negative reception the exiting member receives from family, friends and fellow congregants.

I have written before about the fact that some of my children have chosen to leave the church. (Actually “leaving the church” suggests action on their part: in truth they have simply stopped participating and do not self-identify as church members, but as far as I know, they have taken no official action with regard to their membership.)

In this post, I wanted to explore my feelings as the family member who stayed. My intent is to record behavior, not to justify it.

My children who left the church did so in their teen years, each about the same age. I have other extended family members who have left as adults, and my experience with them was quite different than with my children. My plan here is to tell my story, not my children’s; they can tell their own when and where they see fit.

When faced with my first child who began to walk away from the church, I felt like I was drowning in the ocean. I was that victim of a sunken ocean liner and had neither a life raft nor a life preserver. I became completely disoriented in the cold, relentless, churning sea as I realized that my child was slipping away.

Some of my feelings were engendered by my own testimony: I had a firm testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and the need for its saving ordinances. I had faith in Jesus Christ; I believed the restoration story; and I earnestly sought the blessings of an eternal family for myself and for my children. My departing child threw that in my face: he – by his actions and his apathy – made clear that what was important to me was not important to him. I feared for him, and for myself.

Secondarily, I felt blame. Surely his choice to walk away was related to something I had done wrong. After all, we had family home evening, family prayer, scripture study; he went to seminary and Sunday meetings (until he stopped). No Success Can Compensate For Failure In The Home. I had obviously failed in the home. I had screwed up the most important role I would ever fill.

Finally, I also felt embarrassment. I must point out that this was completely self-induced. No one ever said anything to me at church that would have led me to believe that someone judged me or my wife for my son’s decisions. In fact, they were sympathetic to us and loving toward him always. (I suppose it’s possible that someone spoke behind my back, but if they did, I don’t know anything about it.)

In this storm of feelings, I am certain that I sent crazy messages to my son. I am well aware that I tried to control his behavior long after he had made his choice. That desire for control is perhaps my greatest human weakness. It is my instinctive response when faced with anxiety or uncertainty, and it has taken me years to recognize it and to improve. I never ever stopped loving my son, but I did stop liking him for a while. And in that period, it might have been hard for him to know of my love.

At the point when I finally let go, he stopped attending church all together. And he became increasingly difficult to live with. He was approaching the end of his high school years, and I concluded that it was all part of his adolescent rebellion, and perhaps one day he would return. My sense was that he was no more comfortable with us than I was with him. He did not like our rules for the house, let alone what he saw as our slavish attachment to church values which he rejected.

I am sympathetic to those who leave the church and feel they are treated poorly by active church members in and out of their family. It shouldn’t be that way. We ought to love one another more, regardless of where we are on the continuum of testimony. But I also understand the panic that parents in particular feel when a child walks away from what the parent feels is really the very best thing for him.

I’ve had more than one child walk away. Each of them went through a period of time where they felt discomfort as they walked away regardless of how I responded. (For instance, I was much better with #3 than with #1 – much more supportive and kind.) It sometimes took years for them to realize that I really did still love them despite their choice to go a different way, regardless of what I said or did.

I cannot explain this completely. Perhaps one day I’ll get enough courage to invite one of them to write about their experience. I don’t know if they felt some guilt (imposed by a lifetime of standards and practices) as they left, or if they felt the discomfort of the Light of Christ or the Holy Ghost warning them not to walk away, or if they simply felt the anger of teenage anger and applied it to this choice among others.

In time, we have found common ground. My home is a place each of my kids likes to return to. My dinner table is a place where they are welcome, and they (now) know it. There are certain things we do not discuss, sometimes by unspoken agreement, and I’m willing to live with that. One of my sons says that his mother and I are “enough church” for him. I’m ok with that, because that’s where he is in his life. Those Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi remind me repeatedly of the attitude of my own Heavenly parents, and it is one I try to adopt in my family, as well: my arms are "outstretched still.”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lehi's calling and election? I'm not so sure.

Well, let me explain.

I don’t doubt that Lehi entered into the rest of the Lord. He was a prophet who served well and blessed his children by providing them exodus into a promised land; he taught of Jesus Christ, his mission and his ultimate sacrifice.

I was reading an article in Meridian Magazine this week by Bruce Satterfield on 2 Nephi 1-2. As it happens, this same article appears to have also been printed earlier – it was uploaded in 2009 to Free Republic . In the article, Brother Satterfield writes:

To his sons, Lehi said:

Hear the words of a trembling parent, whose limbs ye must soon lay down in the cold and silent grave, from whence no traveler can return; a few more days and I go the way of all the earth. But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love (2 Ne. 1:14-15; emphasis added).

Knowing that one’s soul has been redeemed from hell is scripturally referred to as having one’s “calling and election” made sure (see 2 Peter 1:10).

His article then has a footnote with a broken link, but the 2009 version of the article has actual footnotes. The note reads:

For proper, authoritative treatments of this doctrine [of having one’s calling and election made sure] see Marion G. Romney, “The Light of Christ,” Ensign, May 1977, pp. 43-45; Marion G. Romeny, “Calling and Election Made Sure,” Conference Report, October 1965, pp.20-23; Roy W. Doxey, “Accepted of the Lord: The Doctrine of Making Your Calling and Election Sure,” Ensign, July 1976, pp. 50-53.
I checked the references. None make reference to Lehi’s statement in 2 Nephi.

Nor does the Gospel Doctrine manual make reference to Lehi’s having his calling and election made sure.

My issue with what Brother Satterfield wrote is in his commentary about verses 14 & 15: “Knowing that one’s soul has been redeemed from hell is scripturally referred to as having one’s “calling and election” made sure.”

The reference in 2 Peter does mention having one’s calling and election made sure, but in verse 11, Peter speaks of entrance to the Kingdom of the Lord, not being rescued from hell.

For Lehi, I think there are probably two possible meanings of “hell.” One is what is described in Doctrine & Covenants 76, where we read that those who are consigned to the Telestial Kingdom are those “who are thrust down to hell” (v. 84) because they rejected the gospel of Jesus Christ and committed all sorts of crime on earth. They are withheld from resurrection until the end of the millennium, but ultimately are resurrected and given their reward (the glory of which “surpasses all understanding” (v. 89).

The second might be what Section 76:32 (among other references) says is reserved for sons of perdition – a fate that is not reversed by the Savior’s resurrection. Those who are there suffer the second death (v. 37), and are subject to the wrath of Satan. The end of their punishment is not revealed (v.45-46).

When I have read Lehi’s words in the past, I have assumed that he meant that the Savior’s resurrection rescued him from the second death, the separation of our body and spirit at the end of this mortal life.

And while I do not doubt that Lehi could have had his calling and election made sure, I don’t believe verse 15 is proof that he did.