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 lds.org , 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.)