Friday, August 30, 2013

Testimony tips

Man, do I love the Book of Mormon.

I have for some time. It is a key element of my testimony of the restored gospel and my understanding of my relationship to my Father in Heaven and to my Redeemer.

As I contemplate teaching seminary this year, I’ve been preparing lessons in advance of our actual start of classes next week. (My goal is to have four weeks of lessons “in the can” – if I can get two and a half more lessons done this weekend, I’ll meet that goal; then I can figure out how to continue to prepare lessons in advance while reviewing lessons just prior to giving them. I feel like I’m on a bit of a tightrope at this point.)

As I’ve reviewed the vision of the Tree of Life, I realize that in a few chapters, we get the basics three times. On my mission, I heard Elder Theodore M. Burton teach us that we should pay attention when the Lord repeats himself in the scriptures, and here I find in the first 15 chapters of the Book of Mormon, three recitations of the Tree of Life vision. (Oh, and repetitions of the vision of the Savior’s role as Redeemer, too!)

It occurs to me that there are plenty of repeat messages in 1 Nephi. Not only do we learn of those visions and of the Savior’s role in God’s plan (and our eternal happiness), but we also have repeated models of how to gain a testimony, or at least of how Nephi gained his. We’re reminded more than once of the value of approaching gospel learning with an open mind and an open heart – a desire to believe. We’re reminded of the Lord’s willingness to answer our prayers (and His disappointment when we believe He won’t answer us). And we’re reminded of the consistency of His message to prophets. Some details might shift slightly (like Nephi’s noticing the filthiness of water that Lehi didn’t pick up), but major story arcs (like the importance of the fruit of the tree) do not change.

As I think about my role as a seminary teacher, I understand that I’m there to open the scriptures to my students and to invite them to feel the spirit as they discover what the scriptures teach about the Savior. I need to get out of the way and allow the scriptures and the spirit to do the teaching and converting. I need to invite, encourage, entice.

The stakes are high for seminary teachers. Lots of studies show that seminary teachers have the opportunity to have significant influence on our youth, and it’s no surprise. Seminary teachers get 50 minutes a day, five days a week, with regular attenders. It would be easy to use that time as a platform to promote my views, or even to set myself up as some great guy. But the last thing I need is to generate a group of Paul-ites. Hopefully what I can do is to offer my students a place where they can safely explore spiritual questions and seek spiritual answers. Hopefully I can help them to feel safe enough to trust what the spirit whispers to their minds and hearts.

In our recent seminary fireside, I mentioned to the students and their parents that as seminary teachers we can offer activities. We can entertain them. We can review scripture mastery verses and play games. But they need to actually read the book. They need to seek the testimony. And if they’re willing to do that, the rewards can be great.

I don’t think I’ll spend my whole year blogging about seminary. But I might share a little from time to time. In the meantime, I extend the same invitation to you: if you read the book, if you open your heart and your mind, if you ask, the Lord can provide you the same great blessings He promises my seminary students.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Spiritual Sudoku

I recently worked my first Sudoku puzzle. If you’re not familiar, Sudoku puzzles have nine rows of nine digits each, organized into nine 3 x 3 squares. Each digit from 1-9 appears in each row, each column and each 3x3 square only once. The puzzle gives you a certain number of “known” digits to start, and you fill in the rest, using the given digits and subsequent “found” digits to determine placement of the remaining digits until the puzzle is complete.

(For a simple puzzle or two, you can go to lots of websites, including here.)

My first puzzle was very painful. It took me lots of trial and error to finally arrive at the correct solution. After some time, however, I’ve learned to look at the puzzles somewhat differently. I’m getting better at seeing the relationship of rows and columns and squares, and looking at all three simultaneously to discover which digit is missing from a particular sequence.

Of course the first puzzles are easier to solve. They have more digits given at the outset, so it’s a little easier to figure out what digits are missing and where they should fit. The harder puzzles have fewer digits, require closer observation and reasoning. Some of the puzzles I’ve done by making an educated guess and trying out a theory to see if it works, and when it fails I’ve had to unravel what I’ve done and try again.

Just like life.

In the early days of my testimony, I was concentrated on one row or one column, finding digits to fill in gaps and feeling pretty good about my progress. As I’ve matured spiritually and intellectually, I’ve come to see nuances I did not notice before. I don’t fault others for my lack of nuance. It wasn’t that I wasn’t taught about four first vision accounts, but that I first had to wrestle with the concept of the first vision before I could worry about different accounts. It wasn’t a question of peep stones in a hat versus “reading” the plates, but first the whole idea of divine “translation” regardless of the method.

As I have grown up in my spiritual understanding, I’ve also gotten a different sense over time about the relative importance of details compared with story arcs. When I concentrated on just one line or column, getting the right digit was easy, but it was also more important. When I’m looking at the whole puzzle, it’s more like fitting a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Yes, the detail (the digit) is important, but what really matters is how the whole puzzle looks, not just one row or column. In my testimony, a particular fact or detail is still important, but as a part of a whole.

As a result, I can view a volume of scripture like the Book of Mormon in a variety of ways. First and foremost it is what it says it is: a testimony of Jesus Christ. (Even before we printed that on the cover it was clear from the title page and from most of 1 Nephi that’s what it was.) It’s no surprise to me that the record begins with a spiritual account rather than a historical one. (Never mind what Mormon’s plates did; I can only examine what I have in the final product.) The spiritual witness trumps the historicity of the book. (I don’t doubt the historicity, by the way; I do not read the book as totally allegorical, but I also am less concerned with examing finer points of geography and history and comparing them to the archeological record.)

Another thing that is true for me about the Sudoku puzzles is that I can look at the same collection of digits and see different things at different times. In one review, I can’t figure out how to put the digits together, and the next time I work my way through the puzzle I suddenly see something I hadn’t before, and the next part of the solution appears. That’s true for my testimony, as well.

I’ve had significant moments in my development of testimony where items I’ve held on the shelf for years have suddenly found resolution. Sometimes it’s because of new information that I learn, or a new way of looking at old information. Other times it’s simply (like it’s really simple!) a spiritual confirmation that I had previously lacked. For me it often comes when I am not looking for it, but always when I am looking. That is, often long-awaited answers come in the normal course of my spiritual development, while I’m on the path, trying to move closer to my Father in Heaven. I don’t remember their ever coming when I’ve been defiant or angry or out to prove someone wrong.

I’ve written before that I’m on a faith journey, and it is far from over. I am not one of those who will lightly say that all is well. As good as things are (and many, many things in my spiritual life are very good), all is not well. I have plenty of concerns for myself and for people I love. I still have plenty of unanswered questions. Some, I suspect, will not be answered until I get to attend Advance Gospel Principles in the next life. Some will undoubtedly be resolved in my normal course of study and prayer. But the presence of questions does not prevent my moving forward along my path, mostly because I remember the tender mercies of the past; I remember answers I have received, some dramatic and some not so much, but answers all the same.

Monday, August 19, 2013

On Being One

In yesterday’s High Priest group meeting, one of our members led us in a discussion of Chapter 16 in our Lorenzo Snow manual.

Much of our discussion focused on how we could encourage our ward family to be “one” and how we could “one” in our families at home. We talked about ideas like socializing as a ward, going to the temple together, and other activities that would encourage us to spend time together as ward. The implicit suggestion was that if we spend time together, we will know one another better, and therefore we will get along better.

Generally, I think those are great ideas. When our ward boundaries changed during my term of service as bishop, we ended up in a new ward that had half its members from our old ward and half from another ward. My counselors and I worked with the ward council to figure out ways to get members to cross the road (literally and metaphorically) that had been the border between the two wards in order to help people get to know one another in the hopes that once they did, the members’ normal inclinations toward love and service would kick in. (By the way, it worked. I think it took about a year for the transition to be complete.)

As we talked about being one in our families, I had a little bit of a brain sprinkle (not quite enough for a brain storm). I reflected on kids I’d known in my youth whose parents had divorced. Several of these kids had very strong feelings about who was the “good” parent and who was the “bad” one. Those families had a serious lack of unity. I then thought about our political process in the United States; it’s based on an adversarial relationship between parties and relies on that tension to drive us to the best political solutions through debate and compromise. In both of these situations (broken families and our political system), there is a lack of unity. And I think it is because we do not unify ourselves well around a person.

In an adversarial marriage, parents may try to court and win favor of their children to win them to one side or the other in the marriage disputes. Certainly political parties attempt to rally support for their candidate, and sometimes political loyalists may give even grudging support, but there is almost never universal support for a candidate or a position.

When the Savior prayed for unity among His followers, he sought that His disciples would be one as He and His Father are One – unified in gospel purpose, understanding and spirit.

We may mistakenly believe that being unified means we always agree. A unified ward council may still have vigorous discussion, and even disagreement, on the way to a decision. We do not line up behind the bishop simply because he is the bishop. But when the bishop speaks with inspiration, a unified ward council will know it and will stand behind him, because he stands behind the Lord.

Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians about husbands and wives is just as much about a husband’s need to follow the Savior as a wife’s need to follow her husband. The wife is not uniting under her husband, but she and her husband are uniting under Christ.

I suppose the Primary gets it right again. We will be one when we really are Trying to Be Like Jesus.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On reading a new copy of the Book of Mormon

I don’t know how many times I’ve read the Book of Mormon. I imagine (conservatively) that we’ve read it at least a dozen times as a family (taking into account years when our children were willing participants in family scripture study and some years when surly teenagers drove our “daily reading” to be a verse long). And I’ve read it at least every four years as part of the Sunday School curriculum. And I taught Book of Mormon in seminary over 25 years ago. And in Institute within the last ten years. And I’ve read it on my own, apart from all those assignments, as well.

In any case, I’ve read it lots of times. And in lots of ways. Over a decade ago, I set out to read it over a weekend (and succeeded). Other times, I’ve labored through a few pages a day or a chapter a day. I’ve read paper copies and electronic copies. I love marking as I read, and part of the sport of reading the same copy more than once is trying to figure out what I was thinking when I wrote a particular note in the margins, and seeing what verses moved me (or didn’t) in a given reading.

I remember hearing when I was at BYU years ago that President Kimball used to read and mark paper copies of the Book of Mormon and then give them to his grandchildren as gifts. I have no way of verifying that story, but it would be cool to see what he thought was important for one reading or another.

I mentioned in a recent post that I’m teaching Book of Mormon in seminary this year, and I think I’ll read the book four times this year, somewhat simultaneously. I’m reading now, preparing for the new school year (which starts in a couple of weeks). I won’t finish by the time the year starts, but I’ll continue my early morning reading pace during the school year and finish my “base” reading part-way through the year. Each Sunday I’m preparing a week’s worth of seminary lessons, and I re-read to prepare those lessons. I’m several weeks into the year and hope to keep about a month ahead of my class in those preparations. (I have no idea if I’ll succeed; one Sunday it took me far longer to prepare just one lesson, let alone four, so we’ll see…)

As I teach, I’ll need to review the chapter I’m teaching the day before I teach as I review my pre-prepared lesson plan and make adjustments.

And we’ll be starting another round of the Book of Mormon in our family scripture reading; we’ll read about a chapter a day, probably, and we probably won’t finish the Book of Mormon during the school year because we often miss family reading on weekends, and sometimes the timing requires us to read just a part of a chapter, either because we chat about what we read, or we get started too late. (This year leaving on time is more important since I’m teaching seminary and can’t be late.)

It will be a blast to do these multiple readings, to immerse myself into this great book.

I’m working from a new cheap paper-back copy of the Book of Mormon. It was unmarked when I started. I just began Jacob yesterday, and there are plenty of notes, underscores, scripture chains, cross references, questions and highlights already. There is something exciting about a new book of scripture, not yet marked at all. Of course I like my familiar markings, but this is my second time to start “fresh” in a few years (the last was when I started doing family scripture reading on my Kindle version). I like the fact that I have a clean slate, independent of old lessons and thoughts. It allows me to make new connections, particularly as I prepare to teach a group of seminary students. I am praying for help to notice things that will be important and relevant to them and to their growing testimonies.

When’s the last time you read a “fresh” copy of the Book of Mormon? Did you learn anything new? I’d be interested in your experience.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I’m back.

I’ve been on a self-imposed hiatus. There was some vacation time, some minor surgery, adjusting to my new seminary calling, and some other things going on.

Life does that, of course. It jumps up and surprises us in a variety of ways and sometimes it takes us a little bit of time to find our balance again.


There are two images that come to mind. One is of a teeter-totter balancing on a fulcrum. We try to keep the right side and the left side even so that it stays in balance. As weight is added to one side, we need to add it to the other, and the same as weight is taken away. This is a really difficult and tedious process that requires us to monitor two things at once (instead of just one), to measure not only each action, but its consequences.

The other is a bicycle on a wire. The rims of the wheels of the bicycle fit over the wire, and there is a substantial counterweight under the bicycle. The counterweight is heavy enough to give the bicycle stability on the wire, even if the lateral pressure is inconsistent.

If I had to choose, I’d prefer the balance of the bicycle to the balance of the teeter-totter. The counterweight is what makes all the difference.

As I’ve thought about the past few weeks, I’ve appreciated the counterweight of the gospel in my life. It has provided me stability. It has centered me when I needed it the most. And that is, for me, one of the greatest blessings of the gospel in my life.

My last few weeks have not been burdensome. The vacation was terrific. The surgery and subsequent recovery were necessary and uneventful (meaning it all went as planned). The new calling to teach seminary, while overwhelming, is spectacular.

Owing largely to the seminary calling, I’ve begun a new study of the Book of Mormon. Taking a cue from our new mission president, who happened to pop into our seminary in-service meeting a few weeks ago, I bought a new paper copy of the Book of Mormon to study for this year. As I read 1 Nephi 1:20 (one of my favorite verses in the Book of Mormon long before Elder Bednar made it famous), I was touched again by the talk of tender mercies.

Moroni 10:3 also talks about God’s mercy to His children. In Nephi, we’re promised to read of the Lord’s tender mercies to those who believe in Him. In Moroni, we’re counseled to remember how merciful God has been to the children of men from the time of Adam. I’ve been noting tender mercies in my reading of the Book of Mormon, and how Nephi and Lehi both use them regularly in their teaching.

Those tender mercies in my life – the ones I recognize in my own life and in God’s relationship with man from the beginning – are the counterbalance in my life; they help keep me centered. They keep me balanced.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A flood of seminary

I am returning to teach seminary again in the fall.  (I’d posted before that I was helping the final quarter of last year’s class.)  I’ve got to say that I’m very excited and quite overwhelmed.

Seminary is a little like Scouting.  You could spend your entire life training!  (Those of you who have served in Scouting know that the BSA has an awesome ability to train, train, train!  And the training is quite good and valuable, but it is time consuming!)  Seminary is no different.  In addition to the inservice meetings (we had our big summer meeting already) there are monthly inservice meetings.  And there are online resources.  And there are a jazillion websites where other seminary teachers have posted their terrific ideas.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

And I’m there.

As I’ve been preparing to teach this fall, a few thoughts have resonated with me:

First, a reminder from the CES administrator who was responsible for me the first time I taught seminary nearly 30 years ago.  He taught us regularly that we teach the scriptures.  We do not teach from the scriptures or about the scriptures, but we teach the scriptures.  That’s good news for me since I love the scriptures.

The latest counsel from CES is very similar:  “We teach students the doctrines and principles of the gospel as found in the scriptures and the words of the prophets” (Gospel Teaching and Learning, p. x).

Second, I love the Book of Mormon.  That’s our text this year, and I couldn’t be more excited.  The Book of Mormon practically teaches itself.  It has been such an influential book in my own conversion to Jesus Christ and His gospel, and I yearn to share that with my students. 

At a recent family reunion there were several of us who either have recently or will soon teach seminary, we talked about logistics and planning, lesson preparation, scripture study, making connections, teaching doctrines, leading discussions.  It was awesome to think about this great work of helping our youth to understand and rely on the Atonement of Jesus Christ and to prepare to return home one day.

My own seminary experience was spotty.  I began with early morning seminary, but demographics and travel patterns in my ward made it so that we moved to home study seminary in my second year.  I stayed diligent in home study for two and a half years, but fizzled out at the end and never finished.  I regret that I could not continue attending an early morning class, as I really enjoyed it.  I regret that I did not have the discipline to finish home study (despite the heroic efforts of my teacher who gave me every possible chance to catch up).

When I was bishop speaking at those beginning of the school year seminary firesides, I would tell the youth I fell in love with my wife because she was a seminary graduate.  That’s probably not the only reason, but my wife’s commitment to the gospel was surely influenced by her participation in seminary, and her faith was certainly attractive to me.

As I spend the rest of the summer cramming scripture study, scripture masteries, lesson plans and teacher training all into my very human brain, I will rely on the Lord to guide my efforts and qualify me for the work He’s called me to do.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Testimony and Faith Journeys

As I think about my membership in the LDS church (nearly 37 years now), I realize that I have been on quite a path. Although there are times when I have felt completely secure in my relationship with God and in my trust in my church, I also realize that there are times when I have felt far more vulnerable than I would have liked.

I reflect on this subject this week because of the NYT article making the rounds.  I should point out that there are some excellent responses to this article, including this one at BCC  and this one at BYU Studies.

What occurred to me, however, is that just like Brother Mattsson, featured in the NTY article, each of us is on a faith journey. (The idea isn’t completely my own. I was spurred to this thought by this article written by a friend some time ago and shared with me this week.)

In some ways it is appropriate that I ponder my faith journey during the same week we celebrate a journey of another sort by Mormon pioneers who made their way to the Intermountain West where they could (for a time at least) be free of the persecution they had known in Kirtland, Missouri and Nauvoo. The pioneers, of course, traveled a path of physical, emotional and (I imagine, at least) spiritual hardship, as they physically tested their commitment to the gospel and the prophet Brigham. Their sacrifice was tangible and in many cases terrible, leaving possessions, family members either behind or along the way. Families were separated by circumstance, by service in the Mormon Battalion and in some cases by death.

I am a convert to the church; although I have American pioneers in my heritage, I do not have Mormon pioneers. My pioneer ancestors went to the Pacific Northwest primarily for economic reasons, and while they worked hard to go, they did not suffer the persecution of the Mormon pioneers. My wife’s ancestors, on the other hand, included Mormon pioneers, some of whom suffered greatly in their journey. My wife reflected early in our marriage that she did not think she could have endured the trials of her Mormon pioneer ancestors.

Harold B. Lee is often quoted as saying that in our day we will likely face different tests of our faith from those of the pioneers. While they faced physical challenges, we will face challenges of sophistication. In addition to challenges of sophistication (and some may include the issues highlighted in the NYT article in that mix), I think we have other trials of our faith that may well be common to other generations. That has certainly been my experience.

My challenges of sophistication – that is a scholarly set of questions that I had not encountered in seminary and Sunday School – came early in my career at BYU, when I had a roommate who invited me to address a series of questions he’d learned from his father who was in the process of leaving the church. That experience was critical in my development of a stronger testimony of the gospel. During that year I learned how I could approach questions of our history (and I enjoyed the resources of BYU’s library and one particularly helpful faculty member to do it; I don’t know how I could have done that far from BYU in the pre-internet age). And I had a number of other spiritual experiences unrelated to those questions that reinforced the testimony I brought with me to BYU. That combination helped me through a period that could otherwise have significantly challenged my faith. I learned not only answers to many questions, but also HOW to answer questions in the future (and how to wait when answers were not immediately available).

But those are not the only challenges to my faith. Part of my faith journey includes other trials of faith that come up in everyone’s life: sought-after blessings that may have been slow to appear, children who chose different paths and so on. Life is simply not easy. When what we perceive to be righteous desires are slow to be realized, it can challenge us – at least it has challenged me. Knowing that no success can compensate for failure in the home gives me pause when I know that my home is not perfect. Learning to pray to understand God’s will rather than to present Him a list of my wishes is a lesson that took me decades to learn. In these trials, I suppose perhaps I have kinship with those Mormon pioneers who may not have consciously signed up for the journey they ultimately took.

I think about testimony meetings, where we’re invited to share briefly what we know or believe and how we’ve come to know it. Of course those testimonies are often point-in-time snapshots along our life’s journey of faith, a journey that is often complex and even uncertain. As for me, I am now experiencing mine one day at a time, grateful for where I am today.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A series on Addiction Recovery

I was out last week at a family reunion, so did not post. While I was gone, Real Intent ran a great series on Addiction Recovery that is worth a look, even if you aren’t directly affected by addiction. There were four posts. (Ok, so I wrote two of them….)

A series at Real Intent on Addiction Recovery and the church’s 12-step program:

Addiction Recovery for Real Life

ARP and me

Addiction and Recovery Questions

Relapse, Repentance and Redemption

I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mission Call Madness

A recent Salt Lake Tribune opinion piece about Bountiful HS grads who “announced” their mission calls as part of their graduation ceremony got me thinking about the mission call madness presently underway in Mormon culture.

Don’t get me wrong: a mission call is a big deal. And it’s awesome that so many young men and women are willing and able to serve.

But can I say I’m troubled by the increasing attention being paid to the opening of the call?

A thousand years ago when I received my mission call, it didn’t occur to me to wait to open it until my family and friends and neighbors could all be assembled to share in “my missionary moment.” I opened it at the mailbox (my girlfriend was there and she watched me open it; no, she didn’t “wait,” and yes, we did get married). And then I went inside and shared it with my mom. I don’t know if I called my dad at work or we waited until he got home to tell him. And then I probably called my brother and sisters. Others I informed by letter. (This was long before emails and Facebook.)

I remember a young man who was in my priest’s quorum when I was a bishop. He had matriculated to BYU, and received his call there. For the opening of his call, he’d arranged to Skype with his folks at home and had a room full of friends in Utah. He opened his call with the roomful of friends, only to realize he’d forgotten to link in to his home, so they agreed to re-stage the opening once the Skype connection was established for the benefit of the young man’s mother. (This story makes me think of that scene in Broadcast News when William Hurt re-films a news story in order to produce a tear in his news coverage.)

One doesn’t have to go far to find cinematic records of the opening of mission calls. Will these become the wedding videos of the latest generation?

Let’s think about the letter itself: a call to serve, a call issued by prophets, signed by a prophet, to serve the Lord in preaching his gospel. Most callings are extended privately, quietly, preceded by prayer in the best circumstances. But the mission call has become another rite of passage ripe for video post-production with music, subtitles and graphics, just like a wedding reception.

But shouldn’t we celebrate these callings? Shouldn’t we fete these young men and women who are so willing to serve? Shouldn’t we remember these great moments in their lives?

Sure. Celebrate them at home however you like. Open the call together. Congratulate the missionary and his or her parents. Share in the excitement at an exotic location or the relief at not having to learn a foreign language (or soothe the disappointment at a call to a different place than hoped). Share the results with family and friends.

But let’s remember: the significance of missionary service is not the call. It’s the work that follows the call. What’s impressive about a young person’s serving is not the call itself. It’s what that young person does before and after the call comes, the preparation and then the mission itself.

I’m all for celebrating missionary service. I’m all for hearing young missionaries speak before and after their missions (as long as those sacrament talks are appropriate for worship services). But just as we received counsel some time ago to curtail what was becoming sacrament meetings hijacked to fete the departing missionary, it seems we ought to lighten up in our over-the-top celebrations to open an envelope.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Spiritual Mentors

The kernel of the idea for this post came from a comment over at Real Intent. In response to a discussion about asking the right questions, commenter Brenda wrote, “In conversation with a spiritual mentor I was asked to…”

I was intrigued with the idea of a spiritual mentor and began to reflect about my own life and to wonder if I had spiritual mentors, and if those mentors would even know who they were.

I have never had a formal mentor in any setting. At work I’ve had a few people that I call on occasionally for advice on career development matters, so I feel like they mentor me, but we don’t have a formal relationship around that mentoring. Similarly, at church I have not consciously entered into a formal mentoring relationship with anyone, though there are those I have looked to for guidance and counsel on spiritual things. Those have included over the years:

1. Ecclesiastical leaders – I’ve counseled with bishops and stake presidents, particularly in relation to my callings or when I’ve had specific questions (usually about my family) for which I wanted their counsel and advice.
2. Family members – I have gone to my parents when they were alive and to my siblings for advice on specific matters. My father and my father-in-law were particularly valuable sounding boards when they were still alive.
3. Friends – once in a while I’ve felt close enough with someone – usually someone with whom I’ve served – to ask for advice on a spiritual matter. It may have been a gospel question or a particular decision I’m trying to make an with which I’m struggling to get an answer.
4. My spouse – I value my wife’s view very highly. She is thoughtful and actively seeks the Lord’s influence in her life; she actively seeks the guidance of the spirit as a parent and in her callings. I will talk to her about questions I have or thoughts I’m considering to get her point of view.

Interestingly, missing from my spiritual mentors list are home teachers. I’ve never felt that closeness, and I’ve always felt my home teachers are for my family, not for me alone. That’s probably not completely reasonable thinking on my part, especially thinking back on the quality of my home teachers (excellent!) and their dedication (also excellent!) over time.

I’ve thought about why I haven’t had specific spiritual mentors, and I can think of a few reasons, some cultural and some more doctrinal:

1. We value self-reliance. For as long as I can remember we’ve taught self-reliance in the church. We teach Moroni 10 and D&C 6, 8 and 9 – we can get our answers to prayer, our own revelation. We were actively taught for a number of years in our area to “get off the bishop’s worry list,” which most of us translated as being spiritually self-reliant. While I agree it’s good for the bishop to have fewer people on his worry list, it’s probably not accurate to think in terms of spiritual self-reliance since we all are reliant upon the Savior and his atoning sacrifice for our redemption.
2. There’s no calling of mentor. In the church we are happy to sustain people in the positions to which they have been called. We answer assignments from priesthood leaders because we sustain them. We prepare for Sunday School class because we sustain the teacher. We sing in the choir because we sustain the choir director. If someone is called to lead us, we follow. But rarely do we follow someone who is not called to lead us. We don’t appoint ourselves over others, and we don’t appoint others over ourselves. As I mentioned above, a home- or visiting-teacher might naturally fit in a mentoring role, but I’ve never had that experience, either as a home teacher or a home teachee.
3. We’re all alike. Because we are a lay church, we accept that we’re more or less all the same. Some of us are called to lead the rest of us from time to time, but otherwise we’re pretty similar. There are obvious differences: new members may feel less prepared than more seasoned ones. Members returning to activity after a long time away may feel more like new members. But except for temporary differences in callings, we’re all pretty much cut from the same cloth, so we don’t naturally assume that we can be mentored by someone else or that we could mentor someone else.
4. Those who do have more experience or wisdom (read: who are older) are also busy. There are some wise folks in our wards, people who have been around the block, who have been where we are at one point of another. But often they are the busy ones, either serving in high-pressure callings or having high-pressure situations at home. So we’re reluctant to reach out and seek their mentoring wisdom. Or maybe we’re just embarrassed to ask for help and we use their potential busy-ness as an excuse.

That said, I think there’s potential value in mentors in the church. Certainly for new members or members in transition (think Young Women moving into Relief Society or Young Men moving into the Elders Quorum), a mentor fills that role of Friend that President Hinckley said we all need. But even more established members can benefit from a listening ear, an understanding heart and wise experience.

Sometimes we draw that wisdom and counsel out of general circumstances to apply to our specific situations. We apply the teachings of a conference talk or a Relief Society lesson to our own lives.

But sometimes it would be nice to have that relationship that a mentor could provide – a regular sounding board as we navigate unknown waters, a voice of experience as we face new things, an alternate point of view as we evaluate options.

Of course there are some risks. A mentor cannot and should not take the place of personal revelation. Nor should the mentor replace the inspired counsel of a loving priesthood leader who has keys and responsibility. (I heard that second idea reinforced in recent seminary teacher training I attended. We were reminded that seminary teachers are not to replace bishops in the lives of their students, but should point students to their priesthood leaders. I’m aware that the professionals at LDS Family Services are trained to do the same.)

Have you had spiritual mentors in your life?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Revisiting electronic scriptures

Some time ago, MMM did a great post on electronic vs paper scriptures and I joined in the discussion, as well. I’ve had some subsequent thoughts, particularly after the recent Leadership Broadcast on missionary work in which Elder Perry announced a significant increase in electronic media use by missionaries in the future.

The topic came up in a seminary teacher’s training meeting I attended last weekend, and our CES coordinator indicated that there is no policy on electronic scripture use in the seminary classroom. It’s up to individual teachers to decide how to use them (or whether to use them at all).

Here are some thoughts that came up in the discussion we had, and some of my own thoughts, as well:

  1. Most young people in the United States are going to encounter electronic scriptures at one time or another. And they will learn how to use them whether we teach them how in church or not. They are just smart that way. Those scriptures may be on a Kindle or a smart phone or an iPad or a laptop, but they’re going to run into them. They may use them for personal study, in church (because the electronic gadget is easier to carry than the scripture block), in family study or somewhere else. But most will learn at least how to access the scriptures. 
  2. There is value in teaching young people the best way to use the tools at their disposal. Although they may stumble upon the features of whatever scripture app they have, there’s some value in showing them all it can do. I don’t know that seminary is the place to do that. Maybe it’s better taught at home in FHE or in Sunday School or somewhere else. 
  3. Young people will sometime need to learn how to use their electronic devices for scripture study without being distracted by other things on the electronic device. There’s little doubt that initially they will be tempted to do all sorts of things with a hand-held device: text, play games, surf the net, etc., when they should be reading the scriptures. In that way they are no different from me! And part of that maturing process is learning to control the urge to surf when they should be studying. In the end, it will be tough to force someone to learn that lesson, and yet they will still need to learn. 
  4. Even though missionaries will use electronic media, there is still a place for paper scriptures. Some may be “old school” enough to want to study from them for the same reason some of the oldsters I know want to: the feel of paper on skin is important to them; marking them is easy; seeing the notes made while marking is easy; seeing where a verse is on the page is important in remembering it, its context and its placement in the book. (Just because calculators are ubiquitous, we still teach kids to add, after all!) 
  5. Even if missionaries use electronic tools, they’re still likely to teach from paper scriptures. I imagine we’ll still be giving away paper copies of the Book of Mormon for years to come, and there’s some value in a missionary’s knowing his or her way around it. Even if missionaries have some version of an iPad with videos and other media for teaching, it’s easy to imagine they’ll also use paper scriptures when teaching. And missionaries who serve in outlying areas without easy high-speed connections or without easy re-charging facilities will benefit from paper “back-up” scriptures.
We had some teachers in the four-stake training that have their kids use electronic scriptures regularly. And we have others who have them check them at the door. The class I team taught this past quarter was all paper (except me; I taught with my electronic version).
We have a new mission president in our mission and he is a former CES employee. He was finishing a zone conference in the same building as our training, and at the request of our coordinator, the new mission president stopped by with his wife to say hello. He had time for one question, and a sister asked about electronic vs. paper scriptures. His answer was interesting. It was off-the-cuff, so I doubt he was trying to make or state firm policy, but here’s what he said:
Yes, missionaries will have some electronic tools in the future – some device loaded with videos and other media for use in teaching. But he assumed they would still use their paper scriptures when teaching the lessons.
He also shared that at the mission president’s seminar he’d just left the final speaker was Elder Hales, who recommended that all 173 mission presidents and their wives buy a new set of scriptures for use on their missions. This is not the first I’ve heard of a general authority giving that advice. He said he still brought with him his old beloved scriptures (and since he’s a CES employee, I assume they’ve been well used in teaching for quite some time), but that he and his wife each have a new set, following apostolic counsel. His wife pointed out that Elder Hales was not the only one who spoke of the value of getting new scriptures in their training.
In the youth Sunday School class I taught last Sunday (the day after my seminary training), some of the youth used electronic devices and some used paper scriptures, and some had both. As it happened, I had them use their hand-held devices to look up some definitions for our lesson, and we talked about features of the paper and the electronic scriptures as part of our lesson. It’s easy for me to be ambivalent in Sunday School since I am not their regular teacher.
Our ward’s seminary has a tradition of paper scriptures, and I don’t think I’ll do anything to change that. As for me, I think I’ll buy a new paper Book of Mormon for lesson preparation this year.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Let's talk about sex

We had an awesome 5th Sunday lesson yesterday.  Our bishop taught us about teaching our children about sex.

Well, in fairness, he led with the law of chastity.  He observed that some of our youth could not adequately describe the law of chastity in a temple recommend interview.  (And he acknowledged that especially the younger youth could well be uncomfortable being asked to do so.)

He cited an awesome talk from Elder Ballard from the October2009 General Conference Priesthood Session  in which he said,

I am especially concerned that we communicate openly and clearly with our sons about sexual matters. Your sons are growing up in a world that openly embraces and flaunts early, casual, and thoughtless promiscuity. Your sons simply cannot avoid the blatant sexual imagery, messages, and enticements that are all around them. Fathers and Church leaders need to have open and frequent discussions that teach and clarify how young men of the priesthood handle this issue. Be positive about how wonderful and beautiful physical intimacy can be when it happens within the bounds the Lord has set, including temple covenants and commitments of eternal marriage. Studies show that the biggest deterrent to casual sexual activity is a wholesome attitude that connects such personal relationships with genuine commitment and mature love. Fathers, if you have not had this “big talk” with your sons, please do so, and do it soon.

Our bishop naturally extended this discussion to include mothers and daughters and fathers and daughters and mothers and sons, as well as others who may have influence in a young person’s life. 

In the ensuring discussion, we agreed that we need to start early, that one “big talk” is not enough, and that our children will be taught even if we choose not to do it, so it’s wise for parents to get their story in front of their kids early and often.

Our bishop referred us to A Parent’s Guide, available at , which offers excellent age-appropriate developmental information and teaching recommendations.  I first read A Parent’s Guide twenty years ago (it’s been around for nearly thirty), and we’ve referred to it many times in our parenting journey. 

Another incredible resource he pointed us to was completely new to me.  Nearly hidden away at the Mormon Channel is a series of videos about how and why to teach our children these things.  It’s called Family Conversations: Talking About Healthy Sexuality, and you can find the videos here.  The videos are moderated by a professional at LDS Family Services, and the two respondents are an LDS family therapist and a BYU professor.

And by the way, despite my post’s title, it’s about much more than sex.  It’s about intimacy, covenants, the Plan of Salvation, The Family: A Proclamation, our covenant relationship to our Father in Heaven and more.

And that’s the point.  This particular video (click here) was especially poignant to me.  In it we learn that studies show that when we teach our children about healthy sexuality, we help to protect them from abuse and from pornography.  And we also learn that our kids want the straight scoop, not just veiled metaphors in tired and worn out object lessons.

I’ve been a dad for 32 years, and I think we’ve done pretty well a lot of the time on this front.  But not always.  And I’m still learning.  And I’m thrilled by the resources that are available to us today.

(By the way, our awesome bishop also shared information about the church’s websites for addiction recovery, overcoming pornography and dealing with same-sex attraction.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Big Meeting

Like many others, I watched the leadership training broadcast yesterday afternoon, and like some I watched it at home. (No one but me got the comfort of my General Conference La-Z-Boy seat.)

I did not have huge expectations of great new innovations in the missionary program of the church. (It’s easy to say that after the fact, of course!) I was a little amused by some predictions of what would be announced at the meeting, or what people hoped would be announced.

In the end, the key messages of this meeting were not a lot different from similar meetings in the past: Missionary Work is one part of the work of Salvation. It is not the only part or the most important part, and it cannot be separated from the other parts. Do it. Do it now. And do lots of it. And don’t limit your efforts to finding new people to teach; work on re-finding those sheep who have been lost. And work on getting them all to the temple.

Oh, and we have lots more missionaries. And they’ll do some things a little differently as time goes on, making use of more modern equipment.

But You (meaning Me): get out of that La-Z-Boy and get to work.

It comes as no surprise that the message doesn’t change much. One Eternal Round and all that. And it comes as no surprise that there are some innovations (lower entry ages, electronic media, chapel tours).

What I also found wonderful was just watching Elder Holland conduct the meeting, watching him interact personally with the video “guests” from outside Provo, and having him share his testimony of this incredible work. Seeing that enormous missionary choir was really impressive. I felt sorry for those mission presidents and their wives, and I wondered how many sessions they had already sat through that day and how overwhelmed they might be as they drink from the firehose.

I remember first learning really about the “Unified Effort” when I was a bishop in South America. Our mission president was in our ward, and he taught us well the value of the ward council in helping people to stay active once baptized. We had two ward councils a month to keep track of our 75+/year converts. It was really impressive to see the whole ward council pull together to help these new converts stay active in the gospel (and that ward council was pretty successful at it, too).

The same theme was repeated when I was a bishop in the US when President Hinckley gave his famous “double the number of baptisms” fireside. But the principles were the same. Every new convert needs a friend, a responsibility and to be nurtured by the good word of God. That message certainly has not changed.

I’ve participated in various church councils since I served as a Deacon’s Quorum president over 40 years ago. I learned then what I know now: we almost never need a “new” program to do the work. We need to do the work. Yes, there will be minor shifts in focus from time to time. New tools may be available to aid us in the effort. But in the end, the work of salvation is one-on-one, face-to-face. An old Sting song years ago proclaimed, “Men go crazy in congregations; they only get better one by one.” (Not that I take all my gospel teaching from rock stars, mind you.)

So why such a big meeting to preach a message that has been preached before? I can think of several reasons:

  1. We need to be taught and re-taught. If we got things right the first time around, there would be no need for repentance. And President Packer (bless him!) taught us again in this meeting, we all need repentance. 
  2. There are new people hearing this message for the first time. All those fresh-faced missionaries in the Marriott Center are new to this work. They didn’t see Elder Packer teach the 3-fold mission of the church in the 1980’s, nor hear the brethren teach the unified effort in the 1990s. And they’re not the only ones. Many members of ward and stake councils -- especially in growing areas of the church -- are new to this part of the work, and they are hearing this for the first time.  
  3. There is value in hearing renewed testimony of eternal things. If it were not so, why would we have General Conference twice a year? Why would we have fast & testimony meeting once a month? Each time we hear truth, we have an opportunity for the spirit to touch our hearts.
I for one was glad to hear the messages of the apostles who spoke, to hear of successes in various parts of the vineyard, and be made to squirm just a bit in my La-Z-Boy.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"We're just like you."

We had a special stake conference this past weekend. Four general authorities (including an apostle, one of the presidents of the Seventy, another member of the Seventy and a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric) were in our state for a Priesthood Leadership Council on Saturday (a meeting with stake presidencies, bishops and perhaps other priesthood leaders from across the state), and then they fanned out over four stakes for special stake conferences on Sunday.

Our visitor was Bishop Davies, second counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. I didn’t know anything about him before he spoke to us. It turns out that for the decade prior to his call to serve in the Presiding Bishopric, he worked finding land for all those temples the church is building. And he had some cool stories to tell us about his interactions with President Hinckley on the site in Paris, and with the mayor of Philadelphia regarding the site there.

But those stories are not the point of this post. Instead it’s two other things that struck me.

First, he mentioned that in his role in the Presiding Bishopric he meets with the First Presidency every week. For last meeting before coming to our conference, President Eyring and President Uchtdorf were absent, and they met just with President Monson. Bishop Davies observed that he often reminds himself that it is a privilege that the vast majority of Latter-day Saints will never know: meeting the prophet face-to-face. I was heartened by his acknowledgement of that fact.

I’ve never met President Monson, though I have shaken hands with President Eyring and President Uchtdorf, both long before they served in the First Presidency (and perhaps before their call to the Quorum of the Twelve). And I’ve shaken hands with a couple of other apostles in my life, in connection with meetings where they spoke and shook hands with many people. I have no doubt they have no recollection of me, even though I remember the circumstances of each of those meetings clearly.

The other thing Bishop Davies said that touched me was really tender. He was speaking about his own family and told of a family member who had become distant from the church despite years of activity and parental teaching. He spoke of his love for this member of his family, and his acceptance of the circumstances. And he said something like, “So you see, even general authorities have similar struggles to yours. We’re just like you.”

And, though it’s true that he’s not like me because he meets weekly with the Lord’s prophet, I believe he is more like me that I would have imagined. And I’m grateful to learn from his example.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Provider, Protector and Plumber

Yesterday was an awesome Father’s Day. I had calls and wishes from all my kids, a lovely dinner orchestrated by my lovely wife (including a steak my 16-year old son grilled for me and cupcakes from my 12-year old daughter) and lovely gifts.

After dinner, before cupcakes and gifts, I was on the phone with my oldest son who lives in a different city. I could hear something going on in the background at home, but was trying to enjoy my time with my oldest on the phone. But I heard hushed concern speaking, sloshing of water, unhappy sighs. Finally I ended my call with my son and wandered back to the powder room to find my lovely wife and my 16-year old trying to plunge the toilet.


Let me say that this has been a problem toilet for some time. It was the nexus of the great Thanksgiving Plumbing Disaster of 2010, when an over-use of the kitchen garbage disposal resulted in a clog that forced the house’s entire outflow to come back through this particular toilet, resulting in TWO trips by emergency plumbers over the Thanksgiving weekend (one on Saturday, one on Sunday), and resulted in the explosion (yes, explosion) of the powder room toilet when the snake used by the first plumber ended up going the wrong way through an octopus of a plumbing connection while trying to clear the clog. (It was the second plumber who discovered that it was just a clog from over-use of the disposal; we were so happy we would NOT have to have the backyard dug up to replace outdoor sewer lines we were almost giddy. There’s some great psychological / sales lesson there somewhere.)

As a result of that excitement, we replaced the toilet in the powder room with a new one from Home Depot. And new in our community meant low-flow. And since I did it myself, it meant I bought the cheapest one.

We have a low-flow toilet in the main bath upstairs. It works great. It never clogs. Not so with the one in the powder room. It clogs if you look at it funny, which people must do often. And since it’s an elongated bowl, no plunger fits properly. So clearing clogs is a challenge.

Which brings us to yesterday.


I entered after my lovely wife and son both tried their hands at the less-than-effective plunger. I took my turn and we determined we needed to use the snake. Which meant first that we had to find the snake. Which meant I had to dig through the cabinet in the garage.

Even using the snake is no picnic. It’s a manual hand-crank type which is only moderately useful, but useful enough. Alternate the snake and the plunger enough times and the clog eventually clears. As it did yesterday. On Father’s Day. Between an awesome dinner and an awesome dessert.

So, not only did I get to be treated to an awesome meal with gifts, but I was also allowed to feel useful. Who could ask for anything more?


Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Boomerang, My Father, and Me

When I was 11 or 12, my father and I embarked on a project to build a boomerang.

I’m not sure why we did this thing. Perhaps Dad just wanted us to share an experience. Perhaps it was to try to have a “project” going when his father came to visit. (Grandma had died and Grandpa had stopped his woodcarving hobby after her death; perhaps Dad was trying to rekindle that interest.) Whatever the reason, I was thrilled.

I loved spending time with my dad. He worked what seemed to me a lot of hours. He traveled quite a bit, and he was on the high council in our stake and advised a different ward from ours so he was almost never in church with us. So the chance to build a boomerang was way cool.

My first boomerang had been a gift from Dad, brought back from a business trip to Australia (and looked a lot like the one in this photo). I’d never tried to throw it, just because it was cool. (And heavy. I was surprised how heavy it was. It was probably about two feet long, and my scrawny 10-year old frame was not up to throwing it.) The plan was we’d build one we could throw together.

We headed off to the Carnegie Library in Oakland, east of downtown Pittsburgh, next to the Carnegie Museum and near the University of Pittsburgh. I was pretty much in awe that Dad knew how to find plans for a boomerang in the magazines in the library and photocopy them for our use. (No internet then, of course; that “trip” would be accomplished with a few mouse clicks today.)

Armed with our plan we headed to the lumber yard in Coraopolis, down the hill from our home, to buy the wood – pine – and glue.

Like all projects Dad did, this would be a test of patience. This was not a one-day event. There would be gluing, clamping, cutting, sanding, filing. We created a three-layer laminated piece of wood from which we cut the basic shape, and then had to file the “wings” properly so it would spin and return to us.

In reality, I have no idea how much of the project Dad let me do. Some of it, to be sure. And I don’t remember how many weeks of Saturdays we worked on it, but I’m sure it was quite a few.

I remember the day we finally took it out of the vice on Dad’s old workbench at the back of the garage and he suggested we go give it a try. We walked the quarter mile up our road to the local elementary school. We stood on a hill above the playground and he let me have the first throw. I had no idea what I was doing and I tried throwing it like a Frisbee. It sank like a stone to the playground below, and I ran and retrieved it.

Dad took the next turn. He held it high above his head, holding it like a torch in his hand. He heaved it forward with a grunt and I watch in awe as it leveled out and spun through the air, first away from us and then returning, just the way it was designed to do.

Dad was awesome. I was amazed. We had done it.

Dad was pretty pleased, too. I have no idea if he wondered whether it would work, but he never expressed any doubt that it would.

Since we were on top of the hill, I scampered down to retrieve the returned boomerang and brought it back to my dad. “Throw it again!”

He obliged. He held it up like a torch and heaved it forward. This time, though, it spun forward, end over end, spinning straight into the ground of the playground below with a loud crack. One end stuck in the ground and the other snapped off. In one shot, the boomerang was in two useless pieces.

Dad walked slowly down the hill, sighed, and pulled the wedge of wood out of the ground. We walked home quietly. We didn’t talk about what happened. I didn’t fuss about not getting a chance to throw again. He didn’t fuss about weeks of work broken in one poor throw. We simply carried the pieces home and returned to our lives.

But that memory still lives on with me over four decades later.

Thanks, Dad. And happy Father’s Day.

Monday, June 10, 2013

35 Years Later -- Memories of the revelation on the priesthood

Saturday was the 35th anniversary of the announcement of extension of priesthood blessings to all worthy male members of the church, that is the lifting of the priesthood ban. This item from LDS Living highlights some of the implications and is worth a read.

It often happens that we remember where we were when certain big things happen in our lives. I remember where I was when I heard this news. I was a missionary serving in Worms, Germany. Our branch president lived in Mannheim and we had just knocked on his door. His 20-something daughter answered the door, saw us and excitedly said, “The Blacks can have the priesthood!” I stood in the hallway outside their apartment, stunned.

As it happened, the branch president had gone to a leadership meeting with the stake leaders where he heard the news.

Years later as I read accounts of the process that President Kimball followed in receiving and then sharing that revelation, I wept at the care and love he showed. I was aware that President McKay had sought similar revelation years earlier and did not receive it; still he also did his best to exercise care and love within the bounds that he felt surrounded him.

In October 2011, after the announcement of new temples in South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo prompted this blog post from me, which I reprint here because of its relationship to the lifting of the priesthood ban.

New African Temples and Me
I know that several new temples were announced in conference, and as interesting as good fishing in Wyoming sounds to me (btw, interesting is that word your mother taught you to use when you couldn’t think of a nice one), it was the two new African temples that caught my attention.
I have never been to Africa, but my parents lived in Lagos, Nigeria while I was on my mission in the late 1970’s. During those years President Kimball announced the revelation on the extension of the priesthood to all worthy men of the church.

I have in my missionary journal a letter from my mother in which she writes:

Yesterday, Sunday, August 20, 1978 marked a day of history.

On Friday, Brother Merrill Bateman [then a BYU professor] and Edwin Q. Cannon, first counselor in the International Mission presidency arrived in Lagos. They visited us, Brother Miller, a Brother Miller-Aganemi who became a member of the church while doing graduate work in Utah. He is a native Nigerian and is, of course, black. Yesterday [we] held a REAL meeting. [My folks had been meeting just the two of them each week, with Brother Miller joining them a time or two a month.] Sacrament was observed, testimonies and one calling and setting-apart. And this is the “first.” Your Dad was called to be Nigerian Group Leader, to locate those Nigerian men who were baptized during their educational periods in the U.S. and have since returned to this country. These men will now have the opportunity to realize the priesthood.

I would never have imagined that my convert parents would be on the cutting edge of the history of the church. To be sure, they were on the edge. Two senior missionary couples later came to Nigeria and Ghana and did the heavy lifting regarding the initial growth of the church there. They visited with my folks from time to time, but the real work was far from Lagos. But decades later temples came to Ghana and to Nigeria.

I’ve been interested in the development of the church in Africa since my parents were there. An additional temple in South Africa is a great thing. And a temple in the Democratic Republic of Congo is awesome to me. More blessings closer to more people. The Johannesburg South Africa Temple is 350 miles from Durban, and over 2,000 miles from Kinshasa.

I look forward to more African temples in the future.

BTW, you can read my latest post at Real Intent, "Becoming Father," here.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Best Kept Secret

In the last months of my mission, my companion’s brother was travelling through Europe on business and got permission to take my companion and me to lunch. As we visited over pizza, he observed that one of the church’s best kept secrets is what a mission is really like.

I’ve reflected on that reality over the three-plus decades since my mission. This week, my niece, whose brother is leaving the MTC this week for his own mission, pointed me to an article that captures some of the secrets beautifully. You can read it here.  Betsy VanDenBerge gets it just right as she contrasts real mission life with the caricatures we sometimes encounter. She busts a few popular myths, including:

1. It’s all about converting

2. It’s an insular bubble protected from the world

3. Missions foster intolerance
Indeed, she points out what missionaries learn, including the fact that they don’t convert anyone.

Of course there are other mysteries of mission life, including how hard it really is. And one reason it’s an unspoken secret is not that anyone is trying to hide the truth, but rather that experience is the only way to learn it. I will never know the pain of childbirth, even though I’ve observed my wife give birth seven times. Why? I’ve not experienced it. Similarly, I would never have known the pain of mission growth had I not lived through it.

That’s not to say missions are miserable. Quite the contrary, I still speak of my mission with almost a romantic enthusiasm, highlighting the miracles I witnessed (including real live miracles of healing), the conversions I saw (including my own), and the growth I felt in myself over those two years. To say the experience was transformational for me is to master the obvious.

To say I left a boy and came home a man is far too simple, however accurate the description may be from 50,000 feet up. The growth was in the day-to-day journey, negotiating my relationship with companions, mission leaders, church members and non-members, both interested in the church and not. And it was in my negotiating with my own sense of who I was and what I was doing – a vision that was in constant flux during my term of service.

I did not come home an expert in the country where I served, nor was I fully fluent in my mission language (though I’m sure I told myself I was; in truth I was pretty good at church German and had shed most of the most offensive parts of my American accent by the time I came home). I was not a gospel scholar nor a master of the scriptures, though I had developed a pretty clear sense of testimony and could teach the missionary lessons with confidence. I was not the hardest working or highest baptizing missionary in my mission. (Actually I have no idea if I was; my mission didn’t publish any kind of statistics, but I assume I wasn’t.) I was probably a pretty average missionary – far more effective at the end than at the beginning. By the time I came home I had a pretty clear sense of what I was doing as a missionary and how to do it. I felt comfortable in my nametag and my missionary suit, and I knew that I loved the gospel and the church, and I loved teaching.

My mission president taught us that the first soul we’d bring to God (see D&C 18:15) would be our own.  I think that was true for me, and I think my mission experience had a great deal to do with that process.

As I write now to young friends and relatives who are serving missions, I often reflect on my own experiences. I share probably more than these young missionaries want to read – after all, the learning is in the doing – but I hope that by sharing my experiences I can offer some perspective on theirs. Their feedback tells me sometimes I get it right. (And they’re kind enough to say nothing when I don’t.)

Monday, June 3, 2013

Experience coaches vs. helicopter parenting

Last week’s Wall Street Journal featured this story on parents’ serving as “exposure coaches” for their children who suffer from anxiety.

Basically, therapists work with kids who suffer from anxiety to expose them in a controlled way to the very thing that concerns them. Parents are enlisted in the battle and serve as exposure coaches to help their kids grow accustomed to those things that produce anxiety.

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but think about helicopter parents and how their role seems to be the exact opposite.

Helicopter parents are those who seem to want to make everything right for their kids. Exposure coaches have the goal of making their kids right for what life throws at them. Put me down for #2, please.

When I was a kid, if I complained to my mom about something one of my friends did, her standard response was (and I can see her standing at the stove, stirring whatever was in the pot for dinner as she said it), “You’ve got to fight your own battles.”

Who knew that response would be one of the best gifts she ever gave me.

I was the youngest of four kids and I had awesome siblings who treated me well. I tell my own kids I don’t remember being picked on by my siblings (and I don’t). But I also remember growing up reasonably confident that I could do what I set my mind to. It wasn’t that I always succeeded. And it certainly wasn’t that my parents intervened on my behalf; if they ever did, I didn’t know about it. In fact, I’m sure my folks from time to time wondered how I would do some things I set out to do. But they let me do it.

I remember some school assignments that were awesome. And some were awful. And I got the grades for both efforts. I remember succeeding in some social circumstances and failing in others. Some successes and failures I shared with my parents and some I didn’t.

If I asked for help, I got it. If I didn’t ask for help, I got space.

It was a formula that worked for me growing up.

Now I know that the kids in the WSJ article suffer from significant anxiety, and there are lots of reasons for anxiety, most beyond the influence of helicopter parenting. But at the same time I have to wonder if training parents as exposure coaches is one way we can correct misguided efforts of helicopter parents.

Helicopter parents – those who intervene at every step to ensure their children have the best experience – have failed to learn that what we think is helpful is not always helpful. While it may be helpful to offer to call and make a doctor’s appointment for a spouse who has too much to do, it may not be helpful to do that for a teenage child who needs to learn to call and make her own appointments. While it may seem helpful to offer to type a paper for an overburdened student, it may be more helpful for that student to learn to budget his time better next time – a lesson he might best learn by stumbling once along the way.

When we teach our youth about agency and accountability, we typically say that we can choose how we act, but we don’t get to choose the consequences. That is, we take the consequences that come with the choices we make. A helicopter parent who obscures the consequences does no good for the child.

A friend regularly repeats this mantra: Never do for a child what he can or should be able to do for himself. Good advice. In fact, Great Advice!

In recovery circles, families with addicted loved ones learn a lot about enabling a person’s addictions – taking steps to soften the consequences of the addiction. That enabling might be as benign as regular reminders to wake up on time for work or nagging a person to get certain things done. But it can be as serious as covering up an addict’s or an alcoholic’s misdeeds to avoid legal or other troubles. Those enabling behaviors are often symptomatic of a co-dependent person, one who depends on others for his or her own happiness.

But that enabling behavior is common in our society, not just among families with addiction. It’s also deeply rooted in helicopter parents whose happiness is dependent upon the success of their children.

In the end, our goal as parents is to have kids who can grow up and be healthy, happy and successful without us. Helping our children toward that healthy independence requires that they learn skills on their own, that they learn to fight their own battles, that they learn to do the things that they should do for themselves.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

My conversion story

Encouraged by MMM’s 2nd Annual Hug a Convert Day, I am sharing my own conversion story.

I was the first of my family attend any event at our area’s LDS church. I was in third grade and a new kid up the block who happened to be in my class at school invited me to the Primary Halloween party. The only stipulation (you know what’s coming): no masks.

I showed up on at my friend’s house the Thursday afternoon of the party and waited on the back porch while his mother put the finishing touches on his awesome pirate costume (complete with a beard drawn on with eyebrow pencil and a bandana). As I waited, I reflected on my own stupid store-bought troll costume (without a mask). He was very cool. I was a dork. So I did what many self-respecting third graders do: I ran home, deciding not to go to the party.

To my good fortune, my friend was not stopped in his effort to invite me and within a month or two, I was attending Primary every Thursday afternoon with him and his brothers and sisters. Soon one of his sisters invited my older sister to go along, too. By February of the next year, our whole family was invited to their home for a Family Home Evening.

My mother, good southern girl that she was, knew she had to return the favor of an invitation to our home, but she elected only to invite my friend’s parents, not the entire family (including nine kids); they ate in the dining room (something we only did on holidays). And at the end of the meal, my friend’s parents invited my parents to hear the missionary discussions.

(This was not my parents’ first introduction to missionaries. On a couple of other occasions we had missionaries at our doorstep who did not, for whatever reason, return when invited to do so. We lived far from the church and assumed that’s why, so in retrospect, we were glad to have our friends move in up the street to introduce us to the church.)

I remember sitting on the living room floor listening to the missionaries – usually our two young elders, but once in a while they brought a stake missionary with them. I have bit and pieces of memories of flannel board displays from the various lessons (there were six in those days). I remember my baptismal interview, sitting in my bedroom with the district leader and answering and asking questions.

Only later did I realize that the baptism of a complete family of six was pretty special. My parents were well loved in our little branch, and both received callings right away. My sister and I continued to attend Primary and my other sister and brother attended MIA and early morning seminary. (Church was about a half-hour drive away and we made that trip every day at least once, often twice!) One of my father’s first assignments was making a food chest for the scout troop and I enjoyed watching him build it in our garage. My mother taught the three-year olds in Junior Sunday School and we’d help her cut out her pictures for her flannel board stories on Saturday night as we watched TV.

My friend’s father was our home teacher and he came like clockwork. We had those things President Hinckley taught years later we should have: friends, responsibilities and nurturing in the good word of God.

Less than a year after our baptism, we had special permission from Elder Benson of the Twelve to travel to the Salt Lake Temple and be sealed as a family. (Our anniversary would be in September, but an August trip allowed us to make the 1,800 mile trip each way before school started.)

I have memories of scenes in the temple – in the children’s waiting area, in the hallway en route to the sealing room, and in the sealing room itself. I remember kneeling there with my parents.

Participating as the missionaries taught our family, feeling the spirit the night of our baptism and confirmation, and feeling what I did in the temple as we were sealed provided a significant foundation for my personal conversion. Even as I passed through periods of apathy in my teenage years, I could not let go of what I had experienced, and a youth conference experience just before my senior year in high school reawakened and reestablished spiritual connections that had grown dim. By my freshman year at BYU, I was firmly on a path of growing testimony as I received my patriarchal blessing and prepared to serve a mission.

I have sought to relive my conversion experience by inviting others as my third-grade classmate invited me. Sadly, I haven’t been able to replicate the experience of my youth. But I am forever grateful for my friend who did not stop inviting me and for his parents who also invited us and for my own parents who were open to that invitation.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wow, it's here early!

See that button over there to the right?  It looks just like this:

If you click on it, you'll go to the blog of my awesome blogging pal Middle-aged Mormon Man where he's celebrating the Second International Hug a Convert Day with terrific conversion stories.

Go there.  Go today.  Go tomorrow.  Go all week, because he promises to be sharing these inpiring stories all week.

(To go there, click the button over there to the right.  You can click the one above all you want, but because I'm lame, I don't know how to link it to his blog.  Click the one up there on the right.)

I will participate in this week of sharing on Thursday by sharing my own conversion story here at A Latter-day Voice.  (Yep, I'm a convert.  Feel free to hug me, virtually.)

Before I let you go there and soak in the conversion story goodness, let me echo some themes of MMM's whole point.  Being a convert to the church is not easy.  It is wonderful, awesome, cool, yes.  But it's also hard.

I love these verses of scripture from Matthew because they do such a terrific job of pointing out the challenge a new convert to the church faces:

When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none.

Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it‍ empty, swept, and garnished.

Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state‍ of that man is worse than the first. Even so shall it be also unto this wicked generation.
When a new convert feels the influence of the Holy Ghost, prepares himself and is baptized, he is clean, swept and garnished.  When, shortly after baptism, old temptations return, they often come not alone, but with reinforcements. 

So hug those converts.  And hold them close to you.  They are precious.

And thanks, MMM.