Thursday, March 29, 2012

I *heart* conference!

I’m totally geeked for this weekend. I really enjoy General Conference. I watch all the sessions, take notes, sing along with the hymns (even some of the choir numbers, much to my teenager’s dismay), participate in the sustainings, all from the comfort of my La-Z-Boy recliner in my family room. And this year, we don’t even have to do a cumbersome PC-to-TV hookup because our new Roku box gives us access to BYU-TV.

My 11-year old daughter gave a great family night last week about how to get the most out of conference. (Ok, it was awesome. I helped.) She based it on a great article in the New Era and some ideas from The Friend. I’m happy she’s reading those magazines, and I was thrilled that she chose her lesson material from what she read.

We put together a little PowerPoint slide show (she really likes teaching from PowerPoint – we’ve done lessons this way about temples, olive trees and lots of other stuff).

One of the suggestions she pulled from the New Era was that we ought to come to conference with questions. I’ve never consciously done that before, but I’m trying it this year. No, I’m not going to tell you my questions; you’ll have to come up with your own. I certainly have gotten answers to questions from conference before, but that was more random. This year, I’m bringing a question or two with me to see if there is some specific counsel for me in the talks. (I’ll let you know how it goes.)

Another suggestion my daughter recommended: don’t get so caught up in the “games” (Conference Bingo is our favorite!) that you lose track of what’s being said. Since my youngest is 11, we’re moving out of the keep-them-entertained-every-minute mode of conference, which is kind of cool. Of course we’ve had nearly two decades of teenagers (so far), so we’re still in the keep-them-awake mode. But we try not to be drill sergeants about it. (No, I’m not offering space for a rebuttal by my teenager; you’ll have to take my word for it.)

I should point out that my teenager also taught a conference preparation lesson this week in FHE. (He admitted that he didn't remember his sister had taught one the week before, but it was all good.) He included this cool video:

I hope you enjoy conference this weekend as much as I will!

Monday, March 26, 2012

I'm sitting on my hands for a while

I had a very brief but instructive interaction with my lovely wife yesterday after church. She did not attend our ward; her calling took her to another unit of our stake, and then instead of coming to join me in our Sunday School (as she often does), she went home to be with our daughter who was home with a really icky cold.

So I was telling my wife about our Gospel Doctrine class. I really like our teacher: he’s well-prepared and asks good questions. He draws on his own experience and draws a lot of discussion out of the class. Yesterday he taught about Jacob 5, one of my favorite chapters of the Book of Mormon. And by favorite, I mean I have a lot of my own ideas about what’s most important in that chapter.

As I described the lesson to my wife, I expressed regret that he hadn’t touched on a couple of points I wish he had. My wife (rightly, I might add, since she was putting the finishing touches on dinner and we were all tired and hungry because we’d been fasting) pretty much told me she didn’t want to hear me complain about the Gospel Doctrine teacher.

I was taken aback. I hadn’t thought I was complaining. And I don’t really think I meant to complain. But complaining is what my wife heard.

I began to think about my behavior in that class (and others). I tend to sit near the front. I read my lessons ahead of time. And I comment frequently. I began to wonder how I sound to other members of the classes I attend. I began to wonder if just because a thought pops into my head I ought to share it with the class.

The title of this post ought to give you a clue as to where I’m coming out on that question.

Don’t get me wrong – as a teacher in a class, I love to have class participation. I even welcome a provocative comment from time to time to engage class members. But I don’t generally appreciate a class member who wants to teach my lesson for me from the third or fourth row.

So I’m going to try an experiment for a while (and next week will be easy since they don’t ask for a lot of audience participation at General Conference – at least not from people sitting in my family room…). I’m going to say less in class. I’m going to ask myself what contribution I’m making to the lesson and to the other members of the class. And I’m going to strive to have that participation be measured and meaningful.

We’ll see how it goes.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Preparing to speak -- a post script

I blogged last week about how I prepare to speak.

This past Sunday I attended a youth fireside in our stake (the organizer is my home teacher and he invited my wife and me to attend with our kids). One of the speakers is one of my favorite sisters in our stake. She’s a former stake YW president, a former seminary teacher and an all-around great teacher.

She began her talk by telling us that she was a compulsive planner and how she prepared her talk (pretty much as I described my preparation). What she said next surprised me, but I got it completely.

She said that morning as she was praying, the very strong impression she had was that she should throw out her prepared remarks and bear her testimony and listen for inspiration as she spoke. She then said she even tried to print out a copy of her talk, “just as a back-up plan,” but the printer wouldn’t connect to her computer.

And then she spoke beautifully and from the heart.

The point: we can prepare all we want. And we should prepare. A lot.

But in the end, if we listen, the Lord will tell us what to say when it’s time to say it.

(And, by the way, I still believe that’s more likely to happen if we are very well prepared than if we are not prepared.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Where's the mark?

I have to hand it to the correlation committee. This year the linkage between the Sunday School lessons and the George Albert Smith lessons is pretty awesome. Several weeks this year I’ve been really touched by how well the two lessons fit together. Yesterday was a great case in point, especially given the season we’re in.

As I read for each lesson during the week (and I am one of those who actually reads the lessons ahead of time, even if I’m not teaching), I found this familiar verse in Jacob:

But behold, the Jews were a stiffnecked people; and they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall; for God hath taken away his plainness from them, and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble (Jacob 4:14, emphasis mine).

Jacob teaches that one reason the Jews lost the plain and precious truths is because they did not want to hear those things. They preferred instead the things which they could not understand. They were blind because they looked beyond the mark.

We read this verse in family scripture reading recently, and I asked my daughter what happens if she aims her new-at-Christmas bow and arrow above her target. Her response: the arrows go over the target. (Fortunately, she did not say, "Duh, Dad...")

Then I read this passage in the GAS manual:

There are those among us … who have been blinded by the philosophies and foolishness of men. There are those who reject the advice and counsel of the man that God has placed at the head of this Church. …

People who haven’t very much information suddenly come along with a bright idea, and they suggest “this is the way” or “that is the way,” and although it is in conflict with the advice of the Lord some are persuaded to try it. The Lord has given safe advice and appointed the President of his Church to interpret that advice. If we ignore what he advises, as the President of the Church, we may discover that we have made a serious mistake.

President Smith and Jacob are well-aligned.

Soon General Conference will be upon us again, and I, for one, will be looking for my mark from our living prophets. I invite you to do the same.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

How I prepare to speak

Recently I posted on how I teach lessons in church. I thought I'd write about talk preparation, too, since the two are quite different for me. I tend to teach a lesson from an outline, but I'm much more formal in my talk preparations. I'm reminded of two stories I've heard:

One (from his biography) is that Elder Maxwell used to write draft after draft of his conference talks, working to get them right. The other is that I heard (I can't remember where) is that Elder Nelson memorizes his conference talks. I can't tell if that is true (I don't know enough about the placement of the telepromters in the conference center to be sure), but it wouldn't surprise me. Both these examples stress for me the care which these brethren give their conference speaking assignments, and they encourage me to give care to my speaking assignments, too.

I have to say that we get some really good talks in our ward’s sacrament meeting. I don’t think our bishopric gives any specific instruction beyond the assignment of a conference talk for reference. And to be sure we get a few of the “I’m assigned to talk about Elder So-and-so’s talk from last conference” talks. But generally, the talks we hear are a great blend of scripture, doctrine, gospel principle and gospel practice, including elements of the referenced conference talks and personal anecdotes from the speaker.

Our youth speakers are also really great. I remember years ago one of my older sons used to congratulate himself if he spoke for two minutes. Most of our youth talks are 5 – 7 minutes with pretty fair development of their topics. Youth topics tend to lean toward For The Strength Of Youth, Duty To God, Young Women’s Personal Progress Values and True To The Faith topics. But most of the youth seem to have mastered the ability to combine scriptures, quotations of general authorities and their own experience. They draw heavily on their seminary scripture mastery verses as appropriate, as well.

I know there are some who do not like to speak in sacrament meeting. I know this because I’m married to one of them. When I was in a position to assign speakers for sacrament meeting, I purposely shielded my lovely wife mostly to save us both from her pre-talk nervousness. (That said, my wife is also a great speaker; she prepares carefully and prayerfully, and, although nervous, she does a great job. Most recently she spoke in our Stake Conference general session a couple of months ago and was awesome. But that doesn’t mean she liked it.)

I enjoy speaking just as I enjoy teaching. So I’m happy when an assignment comes my way. I prefer to have two weeks (at least) to prepare, though our present ward’s pattern seems to be a week or less. Personally I think longer is better.

If I have a topic or a conference talk, I start there. I’ll read the talk a few times. I have a file of my father’s old high council talks (he was a high councilor for over 20 years and many of his talks and supporting material are organized by subject matter in a file he gave me late in his life). I often consult those. (I would rarely directly use one of my father’s talks because he and I have very different speaking styles, but reading his talks can give me some great ideas.)

I like to give myself a number of days to “cook” on the ideas for my talk. I’ll make a few notes, keep reading the conference talk, look for related scriptures and think of my own life experience as it relates to the talk.

In my view, an idea talk has a number of key elements:

1. Doctrinal foundation
2. Scriptural anchors
3. Teachings of the living prophets
4. Personal experience
5. Personal testimony

As I think about my subject, I’ll try and group my thoughts and material into those five categories. The doctrinal foundations hopefully reveal themselves in the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets. My personal experience and testimony hopefully help bring relevance to the talk and hopefully make it interesting to listen to.

I like to write my talks word-for-word. (I type them; if I wrote them by hand, no one, including me, would be able to read them.) I write my talks out because I like to play with the language as I write. I like to make use of alliteration, parallel-language lists,simile & methaphor, and sometimes even rhyme to highlight a thought. By writing it out, I can do my best in the creation of the message and crafting of the words. (Not all of those devices make it past the drafting stages; the point of the talk, after all, is not to demonstrate my verbal skills but to bear witness of gospel truth.)

Ideally, I’ll have written a draft or two (or three) a week before I’m to give the talk. I then spend the next week memorizing the talk. Yep, memorizing. I do not memorize scriptures or quotations – those I will always read for two reasons: First, I don’t want to goof up a quotation or a scripture. Second, demonstrating that I am reading those portions sets them apart from the rest of my talk, the part that’s mine. I want everyone to be completely clear when I’m speaking for myself.

When I memorize, it gives me a chance to check the timing and to continue to play with the language of the talk. I try first to commit the flow of the talk to memory, and then the actual words. I practice my talk three or four times a day (often on my long commute to work) the week before I speak.

When I actually deliver the talk, I take only my printed talk to the podium. No scriptures, no other computer printouts or books or magazines. Just my printed talk. My goal is to speak to the audience maintaining eye contact except when I’m reading a scripture or quoting someone. I will often deviate from my memorized text. When I do it’s because I have more or less time than I expected, or because I feel prompted to leave a story out or to put a new one in. (I usually over prepare to minimize what is brand new when I speak, but sometimes there’s new stuff.)

I’m a firm believer that inspiration can strike any time, but that’s just as likely (even more likely) to come during my preparation as during my delivery. If the brethren can prepare their talks in advance for General Conference, I can certainly do the same for sacrament meeting.

Update: Just in case you're looking for more on this topic, I blogged about 18 months ago on things I've learned about giving talks from the Seventy in General Conference, here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What I wish I had said in my GAS lesson yesterday

I taught priesthood yesterday. That’s not such a big deal, except that I completely forgot I was teaching. I also spoke in sacrament meeting, and had concentrated on my talk this past week. On Friday, I wondered if I was teaching or not, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t. Well, Sunday just before class, the group secretary handed out new lesson schedules, and there was my name next to this week’s lesson.

The good news: I had gotten my wires crossed and carefuly read the lesson a couple of weeks earlier, forgetting that it was “teaching for our times” lesson, so I had some ideas. And on Friday, I read through the lesson again, just in case.

I said a silent prayer as our group leader conducted a bit of business, and I quickly looked over my highlighted passages in my Kindle Fire (I didn’t have my paper book, which I prefer on days I teach). The lesson was #5 about the blessings of the restored priesthood, a subject near and dear to my heart. Looking at the questions at the end of the lesson, I found where I wanted to begin and where I wanted to end, so with a little faith and some bravado, I stood to teach.

We started with D&C 84:21, which makes clear that the blessing of the priesthood is in priesthood ordinances. We spoke a bit about those ordinances required for exaltation (baptism, confirmation, priesthood ordination, temple endowment, temple sealing). And we read several passages from the manual about President Smith’s love of the priesthood, the blessings of ordinances, and his sensitivity not to offend others, but to be clear that the proper authority to perform priesthood ordinances rests in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

We turned to blessings of the priesthood, and read D&C 84:33-38, what has often been referred to as The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood. We pointed out specific blessings to faithful priesthood holders (sanctification, renewing of their bodies, membership among the seed of Abraham and the elect of God – see verses 33-34).

In the next few verses come the Great Blessing, namely All That The Father Hath (v. 38). I asked the group who can receive that particular blessing. A visitor said (without my calling on him) “men only.” I ignored his comment and walked through the logic of verses 36-38:

For he that receiveth my servants receiveth me; And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; And he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him.
Who receives the Lord’s servants? Anyone who receives priesthood ordinances.

What is the path to exaltation? The saving ordinances of the gospel.

Who receives the Great Blessing from verse 38? Anyone who receives all of the saving ordinances.

Our visitor then said, “Well, I see where you’re going with this, but….”

I don’t know what his real concern was. I sensed a resistance in him (my impression was driven by his first “men only” comment, I suppose) to think that these verses applied to anyone outside the priesthood club.

I didn’t have time to pursue it. I wish I had the time. It would have been interesting to unpack his concern and examine it more closely, and to see if we could reason together to understand it. But we were at the end of our class time.

What I really wish I had done (and had I been better prepared, maybe I would have) is followed my discussion with this quotation from President Smith from near the end of the lesson:

The authority of our Heavenly Father is upon the earth for the blessing of mankind, not to make those who receive that authority arrogant, but to make them humble; not to make those who have received special privileges feel that they are greater than others, but to make us humble in our souls, prayerful in our hearts, and considerate of all men in all that we do, and thus exemplify by upright lives that which our Heavenly Father desires us to teach.
By citing that quotation, I don’t mean to suggest that our visitor was arrogant. I don’t think he was. But This quotation, taken with the rest of President Smith’s words from the lesson, make clear that President Smith saw the blessing of the restored priesthood in the service that the priesthood requires, not in the mere holding of it.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The next step

In recovery circles, one often hears the slogans “One day at a time” and “One step at a time.” Those slogans recognize that for an addict, an alcoholic or a co-dependent, change is neither instantaneous nor permanent.

Of course that’s true for all of us. We take the sacrament each week because we simply cannot keep our baptismal covenant perfectly. We need to repent as we go along.

There’s another less-used slogan in recovery circles that says “Take the next step.” That slogan may refer to moving from one of the twelve steps to the next one. But more often it is about identifying the right next thing to do.

An anecdote: I have this vague recollection of sometime in grade school when a teacher told us that we cannot add three numbers at the same time. I was a bright kid, and have been argumentative since I could walk, so I bristled at the notion that I could not add three numbers at once. I could clearly look at 1+3+4 and know that they equal 8. My teacher’s point, of course, was that my brain actually did it in two steps: 1+3=4, and 4+4=8. Even if I did those calculations very quickly, I still only added two numbers at once.

Just as I cannot add three numbers at once, but must add the first two, then add the third to the result, so I can only take the next step in my life, whatever that is. And the most important thing to my spiritual development is my next step.

Hence, the value of the slogan, “Take the next step.”

Yes, I can fix my eye on the long term goal. I can look to the horizon to see where I am going. But in the end, the only way I get to my end is one step at a time. And my most important step is my next one.

I’ve long held that if we think of our journey back to Heavenly Father as a long path, we’re probably all on different spots on the path. Brother X may be ahead of me, and Brother Y may be behind me, but I am where I am. I can’t judge my progress relative to others, because for me, the only thing for me to worry about is my next step.

Similarly, I can’t judge my fellow path-walkers based on my progress. Brother X who is ahead of me may be having just as great a struggle with his next step as I am. Just because he’s ahead of me on the path does not mean his road is easier than mine. And Brother Y who is behind me needs to concentrate on his next step, not mine. I may offer Brother X the security of knowing someone is behind him to support him if he stumbles, and I may offer Brother Y a hand as he steps forward, but for my progress, my next step is my concern.

Especially since we are a missionary church, it should not surprise us that we are scattered all over the path. Some may hear a talk about family scripture study and find it inspirational and uplifting and encouraging because it matches well with their next step. Others may hear it and dismiss it because they aren’t there yet. Both responses may be completely appropriate.

Acknowledging we are at different places on the path does not excuse sin, nor does it eliminate the need for standards of worthiness. But it may help us to view one another with compassion as we move along our way.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A lost key and an answer to prayer (but not the one you might expect)

This weekend was a tense on for my dear wife.

First, some background: My wife does not like to do things in front of other people. She does not like to teach or speak or perform. She really doesn’t like it when people focus their attention on her. (When I say “really doesn’t like” it’s only because my lovely wife doesn’t like to use the word hate.) And yet, this weekend she had two events that were pretty stress-inducing. (And by stress inducing, I mean, sleep-depriving, stomach-churning anxiety.)

On Friday, she had to perform in her piano masters class. Yep. She doesn’t like to perform, but she’s in a piano masters class. She’s upgrading her credentials as a piano teacher, and the performance class is part of the training. Oh, did I mention she’s also one of our ward organists, and a really good one, at that? (Just because she gets anxious performing in front of others doesn’t mean she doesn’t do it.)

On Saturday she had to present at a stake Relief Society leadership meeting. She’s a counselor in the stake RS presidency and had to speak in the “larger” group and in her smaller group with “her” counselors from around the stake. She knows all these sisters because as a presidency they visit the wards in the stake several times a year. But the stake president was going to be there, too. And she was really nervous about speaking in front of him. (I should point out that our stake president is wonderful; he's our former home teacher, our former bishop, and his kids take piano lessons from my wife. But he's The Stake President.)

Saturday morning we also had some complicated car gymnastics common to families with more than one person in them. Daughter had to be at a babysitting class at nine. Dad had to be at church at nine. Mom had to be at church at nine. Daughter is 11, so either Mom or Dad had to drive her. The plan was that Mom would drop off daughter and get to church a few minutes late, but in more than enough time for her leadership meeting at 10.

Then Mom lost her car key. (And, no, we don’t have a spare; someone lost that one months ago.)

(Ok, here’s where one might expect we all gathered in prayer and then someone got up and walked right to the key. But I told you already, it’s not the answer you’d expect.)

We all looked for the key. We retraced steps. We checked coat pockets. We looked in the trash. We ran out of time. Finally we (and I must say, we were all pretty level headed through all of this -- another miracle, but that’s a story for another day) decided we’d all go together in my car.

We managed to get daughter to her class on time. My lovely wife and I then drove to the church. On the way, she expressed her concern about speaking in front of the stake president. She even said, “It’s silly, I know. It shouldn’t matter to me what he thinks.”

I thought for a moment and then said, “You know, he didn’t call you. The Lord did.”

She said, “You’re right. And He already knows all my weaknesses. And He still called me.”

It was a ten-second exchange. And yet, it helped my lovely wife’s anxiety slip away.

We were both late for our 9:00 commitments, but it was ok. There were hiccups in the presentation at the leadership meeting (AV and computer equipment didn’t work the way it was supposed to), but it was ok.

After the leadership meeting, we renewed the search for the key. Finally my wife found it. In the pocket of the coat she’d worn the day before. It was a different coat than she had worn every other day this past week, and she’d forgotten that she wore it until after her leadership meeting.

My wife told our son that she believed her losing the key was an answer to prayer. She had prayed that she could calm down and do what the Lord wanted her to do in her leadership meeting. Our conversation in the car helped her to do that. Had she not lost the key, we would have travelled to church in separate cars, and we would not have had the conversation we did.

Thanks for those tender mercies.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

How I teach (correlated or non-)

Here are some principles I use when I teach. I think that I’m a fair teacher (so people tell me), and I think most who attend my lessons would believe I’m in line with the correlated lessons:

1. The lesson manual is not scripture – while our lesson materials may be inspired, they aren’t scripture, and they do not deserve to be revered as such. Scripture is scripture. The lesson manual is a guide for me, and often helps me sort out the direction for a particular lesson. Sometimes the manual has stories or explanations that are useful for the lesson I teach, and I use them. But I do not assume that because it’s in the manual, I need to say it. [1]

2. We really teach scripture, not lessons. The text of the scripture is more important to me in my lessons than the manual. This principle was drilled into me by my CES coordinator when I taught seminary years ago. He urged us to rely on the scripture, particularly when teaching the Book of Mormon. I will study a scripture block multiple times (three, four, five?) while preparing to teach it. I’ll look up cross references, including my own. I’ll ask myself questions about the passages that I might not in my normal personal reading. And I’ll try to find answers to those questions as I prepare.

3. As a teacher, I’m entitled to inspiration if I am prayerful and if I listen. That can allow me to tailor a lesson to a particular class. (When I taught the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi this past week to my son’s class of 15-year olds, I assume it was a very different lesson than the one they had in the “adult” class – at least I hope so!)

4. Regardless of what I teach, I tend to teach from my experience: what I’ve read, seen, heard, and felt as I’ve studied the scriptures. I’ve been around for a few decades, and we’ve lived in a lot of places, so I tend to have some stories to tell, and I tell them freely.

5. I’m happy to include commentary from other church sources as it occurs to me. For this week’s lesson on Isaiah, I consulted my old Institute manuals on the Old Testament to remind myself of the kings around during Isaiah’s ministry, for instance. I don’t exclude anything from my preparation phase of the lesson. That said, I’m not an Old Testament scholar. I don’t read every FAIR or FARMS article. And I don’t feel a need to in order to teach a Sunday School lesson.

6. I tend to over-prepare. I have (especially when I’m teaching youth) one or two things that I know I want to hit, and then lots else in reserve in case we have time to fill. When teaching adults, I do a similar thing, but I’m less strict about the one or two message idea. (With adults, I tend to offer a few things, figuring different class members may latch on to one or another.) I try to think about questions, discussion, ideas, scripture blocks, stories that will reinforce my main themes.

7. When I teach, I use notes to guide me, but use the manual very sparingly (and then only if there’s a quotation to read). (In priesthood I use the manual more because I do want to quote the words of the prophet we’re studying, but again for selected quotations, not for front-to-back reading.) What actually comes out of my mouth usually follows the outline I have, but I watch the clock carefully to be sure I have time to end on my terms, and I adjust in the middle as necessary, sometimes leaving out entire sections of the lesson. I try NEVER to run over. Period.

8. It’s not unusual for me to go “off script” in a classroom discussion with a story or personal experience. When I do this, I try to be deliberate, listening for promptings that it’s right to do it. My goal is to have whatever happens point to my one or two (or more) key points in the lesson.

9. I like to be in the scriptures. We try to read as much scripture as seems comfortable for the group. I’m not interested in reading the whole class period, but I want to teach the scriptures, not just teach about them. When I tell a story from the scriptures, I like to mix paraphrase and quoting, being clear where I quote. If I ask someone to read a longer block of scriptures, I’ll often interrupt to make a point or two along the way.

10. As much as I like to hear myself talk, I know not everyone (anyone?) shares my enthusiasm. So I try to foster class participation, either by inviting others to read or to comment / discuss. But I am also not particularly interested in discussion for discussion’s sake. I’d like to be sure the discussion is moving in a helpful direction, and I will try gently to move it that way if needed. If I’m really successful, I’ll find myself referring to class members’ comments later in the lesson while summarizing or making a point.

What works for you when teaching? What do the best teachers you know do?

[1] The Teachings of the Prophets manuals present a bit of a conundrum in this regard. They are mostly the words of the prophets and therefore deserve extra attention. I do try to quote from them liberally when teaching from them. The same is true for Teaching For Our Times lessons based on conference talks. In the case of both of these, I do not believe it’s appropriate to teach a lesson on the “theme” of the assigned lesson and ignore the prophet’s words.