Category: mormon

Sunday Talking: Getting, Giving, and Keeping a Testimony

It’s been a while since I was asked to speak in church. That was corrected yesterday, when I spoke for 20 minutes to the Bangor congregation. As usual, here are my remarks from the day. I was given this talk by President Thomas S Monson to use for the basis.

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In his final general conference remarks, President Monson noted “We live in a time of great trouble and wickedness. A strong testimony of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and of His gospel will help see us through to safety.”

What does a testimony look like? I think sometimes we like to add trappings to the things we say and do, hoping perhaps to impress people with our scintillating thoughts and observations. But at its core, a testimony doesn’t need to be anything deep or profound. It’s a statement of our beliefs, with perhaps an explanation of why we believe them.

Nothing brings this home faster than when you lose your ability to add all the trimmings and flourishes you might be used to using when bearing your testimony. If you ask any missionary who’s been forced to preach in a new language, I almost guarantee they’ll talk of how much they relied on their core testimony for at least the first few months. Simple heartfelt statements can mean so much more than fancy multisyllabic observations on everyday life.

Then again, I used to dread testimony meeting on my mission. Not because I was worried about getting up to bear my own, but because I never knew what I could expect for my investigators. True story. One Sunday in Leipzig, Germany I had an investigator finally show up for a church service and, naturally, it was Testimony meeting. He spoke only English, and I translated the meeting for him as it unfolded. One member got up and spoke for literally fifteen minutes about his trip to Greece, with hardly any mention of the Gospel or his beliefs to be found anywhere. Early on in my mission, that might have left me in despair. But I’d been out for almost a year at that point, and I’d learned a thing or two. When you’re the one providing the translation, you have a fair bit of leeway in how you interpret what’s spoken. Let’s just say that while the member went into great detail about Grecian ruins and beaches, somehow in the translation process he ended up talking about Joseph Smith’s first vision and the other basics of the first discussion.

So let’s talk about testimonies. I think there are three basic questions to ask around the subject. How do you get one? How do you give one? And how do you keep one? If any of us can master those three elements, we should be set for whatever troubles lie ahead.

I’ve heard people make a big deal out of knowing things instead of just believing them. I can understand why they want to make the distinction. In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Alma describes how faith can mature over time, starting as nothing more than the desire to believe and ultimately culminating in a perfect knowledge. I can’t speak for everyone. Perhaps there are many people out there who truly have reached that perfect knowledge of all things stage. But personally, I have a long way to go before I’m even in the same zip code as a perfect knowledge. I’m kind of grateful for that, actually. Once you’ve got a perfect knowledge of things, there’s a whole lot more you’re responsible for.

As I’ve watched my children over the years, I’ve seen them always want the same thing: to be grown up. I wanted the same thing when I was younger. Grownups got to do all the fun things. They got to stay up late, drive cars, watch whatever they wanted on television, and eat as much dessert as they felt like. What wasn’t to like? My grandparents had a cabin in the mountains of Utah, and the extended family would go up there for all the holidays. In the basement of the cabin was an object that was the central envy of all the kids. The bumper pool table. An eight sided octagon that could provide hours of entertainment. The catch? You had to be twelve years old to use it.

I wanted to be twelve so badly, but actually becoming twelve takes years of hard work and effort.

In the same manner, I would love to have a perfect knowledge of the Gospel. To understand it so well that it all made sense. To never have my faith shaken. But the path Alma describes takes years for most people to navigate. Likely more than their lifetime.

It would be easier, perhaps, to just tell people “I know” the Gospel is true, but for me, it wouldn’t be accurate. I believe it, and I make sure to keep that distinction in mind. Why?

I read an article this week in LDS Living on how you can navigate a crisis of faith. Not because I was going through one personally at the moment, but I have in the past, and I’ve seen friends and family struggle with the same. I’m always up for getting extra advice ahead of time when and where I can. The article starts off as follows:

“For many people who undergo a faith crisis of profound propor­tions, their whole world comes crashing down because that world had been built on the truthfulness of the Church and the structure that the Church provided in their lives. Given that they spent years testifying, “I know the Church is true,” and given that they now no longer believe that declaration, they call into question everything they ever knew.”

Having faith is often a struggle, mainly because there seem to be so many different things that can crop up to test that faith. You know what else I struggle with? Brownies. If you’ve heard me speak before, you’ll know that brownies and I get along far too well. Add a bit of ice cream and a gratuitous banana or two, and I can’t seem to resist them.

Actually, I have a problem with sugar in general. A year or two ago, I came to a startling realization. I was addicted to sugar. This seemed like a ridiculous concept at first. Addicts were people who compulsively consumed their weakness, continually going back to it, even to their own detriment. They were people who couldn’t physically stop their actions. Sure, I had sugar now and then, but addicted?

Then I thought of how often I ate sugar. An ice cream sundae every night. Snickers bars for snacks throughout the day. Baked goods as often as I could get them. (A definite perk to working in the library field.) And the continual trouble I had with my weight. Could it all come down to sugar?

The nail in the coffin for me was how much I rejected the idea of giving up sugar the moment I had the thought. Not because I thought it was a bad idea, but because I thought it would be very, very hard. In the end, I didn’t like the thought that I was so hooked on anything, so I made the commitment to go without sugar for six weeks. It was difficult. I was cranky, particularly for the first two weeks, but in the end, I got through it.

These days I have reintroduced sugar into my diet, but I swear off it from time to time, just to keep that addiction in check. One thing I’ve learned about myself in the process, however. I am very good at following rules I set for myself, right up until I break the first one.

No sugar? I can do it. As long as I defend the fortifications around that commitment, I can stay true to my decision. But the moment I ease off? When I decide to sneak a few chocolate chips? It’s as if I let the enemy right through my barricades. Next thing you know, I’m back to eating brownies by the mouthful.

I believe this principle extends beyond sugar and brownies. I’ve seen it at work in testimonies as well. We build our fortifications around seemingly random lines. “I know” can be a fortification for some. They cling to that knowledge, insisting its existence, even when it might get wobbly. But because the fortifications are focused around that “knowledge vs. belief” point, if the knowledge gets too shaky, suddenly there’s a breach, and the enemy can do some real damage.

So I’m not one to pile sandbags around things that aren’t a certainty for me. Again, maybe it’s different for you. I can only speak for myself. One spot where I have many years of fortifications built up is in the same concepts discussed by Alma earlier in that chapter.

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

29 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.

30 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now, behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.

31 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own alikeness.

32 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.

33 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.

34 And now, behold, is your aknowledge bperfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your cfaith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your dmind doth begin to expand.

I know the gospel is good. I know its teachings have brought me happiness as I have followed them. There are parts of the gospel I don’t understand. Reasons for actions that don’t make sense to me. I have built my fortifications accordingly. I acknowledge those gaps, but my testimony does not rest on their explanation.

So how do you give a testimony? Is there a right way or a wrong way? Is it just sort of a monthly open mic in the chapel? Over my years as a member, I’ve seen any number of testimonies given. I’ve seen some that have been incredibly flowery and complex. I’ve seen some that have been nothing more than a few sentences. I’ve seen people bring props up. I’ve seen people come to the stand to simply ask if someone in the ward might mow their lawn. I’ve seen people stand to thank their family for something in particular. I’ve seen people come up to call the rest of the ward to repentance for perceived slights.

In other words, yes. There is a right and a wrong way to bear a testimony. It’s not an open invitation to address the ward or get the word out about an issue close to your heart. It’s not the chance to give the talk you wish the Bishopric would assign you. It’s an opportunity to publically share what you believe and why.

First, let me say that if you only get up and say what you believe, that’s fine. For many, speaking in public can be frightening, and holding onto an idea once you’re staring out at a hundred other faces can be almost impossible. Sharing what you believe publically strengthens your belief. But I do think most testimonies that only list off beliefs are a missed opportunity for both the bearer and the audience.

One of my friends from high school decided to attend a Mormon service one Sunday. I’d invited her to come and find out for herself what it was like, but I hadn’t counted on her going by herself. I’d wanted to accompany her and explain what was happening.

As luck would have it, she went on the first Sunday in a month, and so she attended a Fast and Testimony meeting. In the end, she left confused and unimpressed. She told me that once the singing and Sacrament were over, she’d heard from one of the men up front, who talked about what he believed and why. That part was interesting to her. But from there, she said it was a series of people getting up to talk about what was happening in their lives. They expressed thanks for their families and their jobs. They’d tell long stories that didn’t really seem to connect with anything having to do with religion. Almost all of them would get around to listing off the things they believed, but they would leave it at that.

I’m not trying to say these testimonies were misguided or inappropriate. I wasn’t there, after all, so it would be impossible for me to offer an opinion. But I do know that for my friend, an outsider to the religion, they were missing an essential piece. Why. Why did all those people believe what they did? What experiences had they been through that led them to those beliefs?

I believe the Book of Mormon is true. That statement is a testimony in its most basic form. Me saying it might do something for me, but it’s less likely to do something for people hearing it, because they can’t connect with it. But it also is quite close to just simply stating an opinion. It would be like me saying I believe Batman is the best superhero of all time. Hey–you could even add in the word “know” in that statement. I know Batman is the best superhero of all time. If I dropped that sentence in the middle of a conversation with some of my fellow comic book nerds, they would demand an explanation, no matter how self-evident I might think the statement to be.

I’m an academic librarian by trade, and I teach many students how to find information and incorporate that information into a research paper. Often when I’m introducing the topic to freshmen, I’ll compare a research paper to building a house. You can build a house out of whatever you want. The three little pigs proved that well enough. When you do research, you collate materials you want to build with. It’s up to you which you choose. You can just use the first materials you happen to come across that more or less fit the bill of what you need, or you can take time examining those materials, selecting just the right ones to ensure the final structure is as sound as possible.

In the end, you write a research paper to present your ideas and arguments to others. If you’ve done your job right, then you make a compelling case. You’re believable.

Sooner or later, we will all come into contact with people who will doubt what we believe. In my experience, we’ll also come into contact with events and thoughts that will make us doubt our beliefs. In those times of trouble, it is not enough to simply state “I believe the church is true.” Knowing why we believe what we believe is even more important.

As President Monson noted, “It is essential for you to have your own testimony in these difficult times, for the testimonies of others will carry you only so far. However, once obtained, a testimony needs to be kept vital and alive through continued obedience to the commandments of God and through daily prayer and scripture study.”

We receive a testimony by putting the Gospel into action. Someone could come to me right now and try to argue the church’s teachings have harmed me. Such an argument would be easy for me to dismiss. I know they have helped me, because I have countless firsthand experiences with the blessings the Gospel has brought me. I’ve had discussions with friends about the power of prayer, and whether it can be effective or not. Again, this is an area where I feel I can say I know prayer works. I’ve done it so often and received answers and support in response that it’s no longer in question.

I’ve discussed how we get and share a testimony. So how do we keep one?

I believe the Book of Mormon is true. I’m frankly too skeptical by nature to be willing to upgrade that to a certain “know” still, even after almost forty years of experience with it. That said, our testimonies don’t have to answer every objection that might arise. In a General Conference address in 1975, President Ezra Taft Benson, then the President of the Quorum of the Twelve, noted, “We are not obligated to answer every objection. Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand. “And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye,” said Nephi, “for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things.” (2 Ne. 33:11.) Every man must judge for himself, knowing God will hold him accountable.”

Sooner or later, it is true that the reason all of us believe is because we have made a choice. We have placed our trust in feelings, which is something many in the world view with skepticism today. This is something that has never quite made sense to me, however. There are many different things in the world where we must rely on feelings, love being the first and foremost.

When I was dating, I chose who to date not by listing off a series of facts. I chose by feelings. When I asked Denisa to marry me, it wasn’t because it made logical sense. In fact, up until then, I’d been terrified of marriage. My parents had divorced when I was young, and that left a lasting impression on me. I had always said I wanted to know a girl for at least a year before I even thought about proposing. And then I wanted a long engagement.

Don’t tell my kids, please, but I proposed to Denisa less than two months after our first date. We eloped to the Manti Temple less than four months later.

None of that would have made sense to the part of me that demands logic and sound reasoning. But it’s been the single best decision I’ve ever made, and I’ll happily defend it to anyone who might try to argue the point. But I don’t think anyone would. Isn’t that curious? Society is fine when we follow our feelings in love, but when we extend that guidance to other areas of our life, our motivations may come under fire.

A testimony is something that develops over time, typically. It’s an accumulation of experiences. Answers to prayers. Reading scriptures. Receiving guidances from the Holy Ghost. Discovering over time what happens when you obey the commandments and what happens when you don’t.

In the twentieth chapter of Matthew, Jesus gives the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard:

1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.

2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard.

3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,

4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.

5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.

6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle?

7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive.

8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny.

10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.

11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,

12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.

13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?

14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.

15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?

16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.

It’s a parable that has stumped me for a while, because it’s never made a whole lot of sense to me. I’ve read various talks and explanations by apostles and prophets, but I could never quite get over the unjust feeling of it all. Some of the laborers had gone the whole day, working for twelve hours, and they were paid the exact same as the ones who had just worked one? Where are labor laws when you need them?

But this week, in the middle of a spiritual thought during one of the meetings I attend, something occurred to me. This parable only seems unjust if you assume the laboring is like any other job. Something difficult and to be endured, so that at the end of the day you can get a reward. But Christ was describing the kingdom of heaven and what membership in that kingdom is like.

Remember, God’s plan for us is a plan of happiness. The Gospel is here to help us deal with the struggles of life and be happier. In the parable, it occurred to me that the ones who labored the entire day had been blessed by being in the kingdom that entire time. They had its guidance and reassurance. Its support and assistance. The ones who came in at the eleventh hour had to struggle the entire day without that same help.

The labor isn’t the hard stuff you have to endure in the Gospel. The labor is the reward. The laws and ordinances bless us, even while they may feel burdensome from time to time. We don’t endure to the end so that once this life is over, we can all go and do the things we wish we could have done the whole time we were living. It’s not like at the end of all this, we get to kick back with a glass of wine and a nice cigar while we do nothing but eat chocolate pudding and binge watch Netflix for the rest of eternity.

We’ll continue doing the things the Gospel teaches us here. Raising families. Keeping the Commandments. Preaching the Gospel. Bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

Remember my three questions? How do you get, give, and keep a testimony? Two of them have the same answer. You get and keep a lasting testimony by actively living the Gospel. It’s the only way I know how. You give a testimony by telling other people your beliefs, ideally explaining the reason you have those beliefs. The experiences you’ve gone through that led you to them.

I pray all of us can keep our testimonies if we have them, get one if we don’t, and share them with others when we do. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

What Modern Day Revelation Looks Like

When some hear about revelation, I imagine they picture God speaking down from above. Maybe there’s a cloud involved. There might be a burning bush or two. The LDS (Mormon) church recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the removal of the racial ban on the priesthood. Add to this the many other laundry list of issues church members would like clarity or even change on. Bring up women’s roles in the church and same-sex marriage, and you can quickly become embroiled in any number of debates. For that matter, you can get into even worse trouble if you start talking about whether watching the Super Bowl is okay or if Mountain Dew is on the approved list of beverages.

This post isn’t about any of that.

Instead, it’s a reaction to a piece I came across yesterday about the way the Word of Wisdom has developed over the years in the Mormon religion. The new book I’m working on is a western(!), and I’m having Mormon missionaries play a role in it. I wanted to see what their attitudes toward liquor would have been. I knew the Word of Wisdom was initially viewed more as a bit of helpful advice than an actual commandment, and I didn’t know when it finally solidified into the code we have today.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered just how full of twists that path was.

For those of you who don’t click through to the links I give you (and I know that you are many, judging by my statistics), let me highlight a few points:

  • One of the items in the Word of Wisdom to get the most focus at first was that members should abstain from eating meat. In 1898, when the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve discussed the Word of Wisdom, both the Prophet (Wilford Woodruff) and President of the Quorum of the Twelve (Lorenzo Snow) said it should be followed as a commandment, and that members should “refrain from eating meat except in dire necessity.”
  • Numerous high ranking church members drank coffee, tea, and alcohol into the 1900s.
  • Wine was still used for the Sacrament by members of the Twelve up until 1906.
  • The Prohibition push had an enormous effect on the teachings surrounding alcohol. Teachings that last to this day.
  • In 1930, the Apostle John Widstoe published a tract saying the Word of Wisdom included a ban on refined flours.

I don’t bring this up to say we should all start going out and becoming gluten-free vegetarians (though I’m sure there are some who might look at that advice and interpret it that way), but rather to observe that a church that believes it grows “line upon line, precept upon precept” will have this twisting evolution of its doctrine as an inevitable side effect.

Growing up in the church, it’s easy to assume the Way Things Are has always been the Way Things Are. And the church does, indeed, encourage that line of thinking. We’re taught to believe in revelation, and we’re taught that commandments come by way of revelation. We’re taught we can receive revelation ourselves, but we often don’t make the connection that the way we receive personal revelation (through thought, prayer, inspiration, and debate with other people until we arrive at a decision) often will mirror the way church leaders receive revelation.

Again, I’m not saying God never takes a direct hand in the course of events. I believe He does, but I believe that when that happens, it’s the exception, not the rule.

Look at the path to the present day Word of Wisdom interpretation. At no time in the course of that law was it fine to get drunk or get so hooked on caffeine that you can’t quit it. It was always there to add temperance and mindfulness to what members were putting in their bodies. The exact interpretation evolved as understanding evolved.

Mirror that with the way the church finally ended up removing the priesthood ban, a much more sensitive area. Compare that with the way the church has handled other issues in the past, and how it will inevitably handle issues in the future. The takeaway for me is that it’s a process. That things that seem iron clad in the way they’re taught might not actually be that iron clad in the long run. That doesn’t mean it’s up to me to interpret all of them the way I’d like. There’s enough written by church leaders over the years to justify just about anything you want to justify.

In the end, I believe in following the teachings of the church today, but I keep in mind that those teachings have changed in the past and they will change in the future. I don’t know how they will change, but that flexibility gives me enough space to have a testimony that can take some punches, and I’m really grateful for that.

Book of Mormon Challenge

We had the Sister Missionaries over for dinner last night, and as part of their message to us, they had prepared an activity. They’d taken random pages from the Book of Mormon and printed them out. They then asked us to each take a page and highlight anywhere it mentioned God or Jesus Christ. This reminded me of an exercise I’d read about last year, where a BYU professor and some of his students set up displays in London, Sydney, Chicago, Cape Town and Las Vegas. At the displays, they handed strangers who came by a random page from the Book of Mormon (though all 531 pages were used over the course of the activity) and asked them to read it and say what they thought about it.

It’s an interesting experiment (though from my experience as a missionary, I have to wonder just how many of those readings went poorly. It would be fun to see a “blooper” real of the people who didn’t like the study at all . . .)

The Sisters told us they had heard only 5 or so pages of the Book of Mormon don’t have a reference to Christ or God on them. They’re thinking of approaching it systematically to see if that’s true. I think it’s a neat idea, and it wouldn’t take long to get it done, assuming 531 people each feel like reading a page. So part of me felt like linking to a pdf scan of the whole book and crowdsourcing the question, but I thought that was kind of restricting. Why not play to my strengths. We’ve got the internet available, and I’m a librarian . . . I was pretty sure I’d be able to answer the question by citing someone else.

A bit of digging later, and I found BYU Professor Charles Tate’s analysis of the Book of Mormon:

“Only 30 of the 531 pages contain no specific name reference to Deity. Furthermore, many of those 30 pages make references to God without using names.”

So there you go. I’m not sure which pages don’t reference God or Christ, but there are 30 of them. (Still a fun activity, Sisters!) (On a side note, my searching also led me to this resource, which seems to be a pretty comprehensive study guide for the book, though it’s not an official church resource.)

I would have to say that the most impactful experience I’ve ever had with the Book of Mormon was on my mission. It was probably around . . . May of 1997. My mission president challenged all the missionaries to read the entire Book of Mormon in one day. Not collectively (as in, each of you read three different pages on the same day or something like that), but individually. I woke up at 6:30am and immediately began reading. I picked a fresh copy, and I circled the verses that stood out to me for any reason, though I didn’t take time to make detailed notes or anything like that. (Reading 531 pages of anything in a single day takes time, you know.) As I recall, I finished around 8:00pm. It took something like 14 hours for me to finish.

It’s an experience that has stayed with me ever since. I can’t say I’ve ever approached the Book of Mormon from a fresh perspective. I’ve been raised to view it as scripture, and it’s inevitable that will have colored my perception of it. At the same time, I’ve also done a fair bit of study of literature, both in my English Masters program and as an author. One way or the other, the Book of Mormon came from somewhere. Somebody wrote it. Speaking as an author, the thought of trying to write it in around 65 days of actual writing (85 calendar days total from start to finish) makes me want to run some place and hide. When I read the whole thing at once and thought about all the information that’s packed in there, and the need for internal consistency, calendar systems, money systems, political systems, religious teachings, etc . . . it boggles the mind.

The Book has brought a lot of comfort and guidance to my life, and it’s one of the cornerstones of my testimony in Christ and God.

So thanks, Sisters, for a fun activity, and I’ll just say for anyone local, if you’re at all interested in talking to missionaries about any of this, the two we have at the moment (Sister Strohl and Sister Shields) are top notch. (Speaking as someone who’s been around my fair share of missionaries.)

Changing Church Policy vs. Church Culture

I was very pleased to see the LDS church revise their interview policy so quickly to address the issues the recent sexual abuse story raised. The Deseret News had a good article today outlining the changes. A few highlights:

“When a member of a stake presidency or bishopric or another assigned leader meets with a child, youth, or woman, he or she should ask a parent or another adult to be in an adjoining room, foyer, or hall. If the person being interviewed desires, another adult may be invited to participate in the interview. Leaders should avoid all circumstances that could be misunderstood.”

Is this foolproof? No. But it’s an important first step. It gives members the option to have someone with the in an interview. A person of their choice, which is an important distinction.

“Members should never be encouraged to remain in a home or situation that is abusive or unsafe.”

While this one seems like a no-brainer, I actually see it as a pretty big step. As the Deseret News article points out, up until now Bishops were never supposed to counsel couples to divorce. While I suppose this still doesn’t necessarily mean a Bishop will suggest a couple divorce, he can now suggest the abused partner get out of that house or situation.

“When adults are teaching children or youth in Church settings, at least two responsible adults should be present. The two adults could be two men, two women, or a married couple. Where it may not be practical to have at least two adults in a classroom, leaders should consider combining classes.”

I could be wrong on this one, but up until now, my understanding had been this only applied to men teaching children in church. With this change, it appears all children and youth classes need to be team taught, though there is a bit of wiggle room left in the wording. (I would imagine that mainly applies to congregations that are so small it’s difficult to combine classes.)

So these are some important changes, and it’s great to see the speed the Church is (finally) taking to address this. Of course, changing church policy is relatively easy. Changing church culture is the trickier task.

Some of that will be addressed as stakes and wards follow the guidance of this document and discuss the changes together in councils. But my experience has been members can be very resistant to changes that go against The Way Things Have Always Been Done. Sometimes this means church leaders might just ignore this directive. Sometimes it means church members might resist having to change. (“We really need two adults in all youth and children classes? Why? Are you saying I’m going to molest them? This doesn’t apply to me.”)

I imagine some of the difficulty will come in actually believing women who come forward. As the MTC President example shows, people can be in important positions in the church and present themselves as fine upstanding men. But even fine upstanding men on the outside can turn out to be creeps on the inside.

So. Rule of thumb. If someone comes to you (whether or not you’re a church leader) and says she or he is in an abusive relationship, don’t tell them they aren’t. If someone describes something that shows they’re in an abusive relationship, don’t tell them they aren’t. As the policy notes:

Often a report of abuse will come to a trusted teacher or adviser. Members of stake and ward councils should help leaders, teachers, and members take proper steps in preventing and responding to abuse, including reporting the abuse to appropriate civil authorities.

Members need to be taught to recognize abuse so they can identify it when they see it happen in Home Teaching or Visiting Teaching visits. Really, the church is set up in a way that should make abuse difficult to hide (though sadly, not impossible). These changes should hopefully help prevent it even more.

But it will take more than a simple meeting to make the changes. They’ll have to be reiterated and checked up on. This isn’t a quick fix, but if it’s implemented consistently across the entire membership, it could be a very good change.

What do you think? See anything I’m overlooking?
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Sunday Talk: Linguistics and Covenants

Another month, another sermon. This time I ended up wanting to just talk religion, but linguistics kept butting in, so I eventually just ran with it. Interestingly, several people came up to me afterward to talk about how much they loved linguistics and how happy they were that I spoke so much on the topic. In any case, here’s my talk this month:

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Often when we get a speaking assignment, it comes in the form of an entire talk. Speaking from experience, it’s usually quite easy to find twenty minutes of speaking material lying around in another person’s twenty minute talk. It’s kind of like walking down the beach looking for seashells. They’re all there, and all you need to do is pick the ones you like the most.

I’ve been given other speaking topics before, of course. The hardest one I can remember being given was a fragment of a single verse from scripture: D&C 64:23. “He that is tithed shall not be burned at his coming.” If you know me, you know I’m not heavily invested into fire and brimstone motivation, so coming up with fifteen or twenty minutes around that concept took a few bobs and weaves.

For this month, the stake presidency gave us a single sentence from President Nelson. At first, I thought that wasn’t going to be too big of a problem. A sentence is more than a fragment, after all. Then I read the sentence. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

Now, I read that sentence on paper, where it’s usually easier to understand something. Even then, I had to read it a few times to try and figure out exactly what was being said. I got the general gist of it, but once I tried to restate it into my own words, I discovered it wasn’t as easy to do as it would at first seem.

Somehow, in my search to make sense of this sentence, I ended up tying it to two overarching themes. In college, I double majored in Linguistics and English. Both majors ended up informing my remarks today.

First, allow me to wave my language nerd flag for a moment. President Nelson’s sentence is a little complex, and I think some interesting things rise to the surface when we parse it apart. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

What, exactly, is the subject of that sentence? As a quick refresher, for any of you who might have blocked all memory of diagramming sentences from your mind, subjects are the active things in a sentence. They’re the things that get things done. In the sentence “I ate all the brownies,” I’m the subject. I’m the guy eating all the brownies.

In President Nelson’s sentence, what is it? Is it covenants? Keeping the covenants? I’ll read it one more time. “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

The subject is “your commitment.” And what’s the verb? The thing that gets done? In my first example, the verb is “ate.” I was the one doing all the eating, and eating was what was getting done. In President Nelson’s sentence, the verb is “will open.” Our commitment will open–will open what? What’s the object? In my example, the object was the brownies. Brownies were getting eaten. In President Nelson’s sentence, it’s “the door.” “The door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available.”

So to restate that sentence simply, “Your commitment will open the door to blessings.”

When I first read the sentence, I thought it was simply saying that the covenants we make are the things that bring us blessings. But in this case, it’s the commitment we show to the Savior that bring us those blessings. We just happen to show that commitment by making and keeping covenants. Is there a difference?

As long as I’ve already outed myself as a card-carying word nerd, I might as well stick with it for a while longer. I’m going to turn to a couple of definitions to bring clarity to that. First of all, let’s look at the word “covenant.” It comes to us from Latin’s convenire, which means “to convene,” through Old French’s covenire, which means “to agree.” In Latin, it’s a mashup of “con” (together) and “venire” (come). Ultimately, it traces its roots back to the proto Indo European root *gwa-, which meant “to go” or “come.” Words that share this root include (believe it or not) acrobat, adventure, convent, coven, event, intervene, invent, juggernaut, revenue, souvenir, and welcome.

But the word wasn’t used in the scriptural sense until later translations of the Bible. In Hebrew, the word was berith, which is the ordinary term for contract or alliance. In Greek, it was diatheke, which meant “disposition by will,” or “testament.” In Old Latin, it was almost always translated as “testamentum,” where we now have “testament.” It wasn’t until later on that translators began using the word “covenant.”

Why go into all this detail? Because language is flexible. It can mean one thing today and a different thing tomorrow. It’s basically a way to transmit thought, and if we’d like to understand the thoughts someone was having when they wrote something hundreds of years ago, it can be illuminating to see where those thoughts originated, and what those words meant at the time.

Does it change your understanding of the Old and New Testament to know that they could have been translated the Old and New Covenant, instead? Does it change how you approach making and keeping covenants to think of them as living testaments to your devotion to God? It does for me.

Translating words from one language into another allows error to creep into a message, like a long game of telephone, centuries in the making. When I was on my mission in Germany, I saw this firsthand. One day I was trying to help a fifth grader with her math homework. She had a series of word problems that were proving tricky for her, but when I said I could help with those word problems, she got very offended. It turns out that the phrase “word problem” in German means something fairly different. I hadn’t said I’d help her with her math problems. I’d told her I’d help fix her speech impediment.

Another example. A few months earlier, I’d just finished a delicious homemade dinner a member family had prepared for us. Rouladen, kloesse, rotkohl–the works. And the mother of the family had generously asked if I wanted some more. I said no thank you, and she looked at me like I’d just spit in her face. My companion whispered to me, “You said Nein bitte. Say Nein danke. To my untrained ear, bitte and danke were two ways of being polite. Niceties that didn’t have much to differentiate the two words. But saying Nein danke in German means, “No thank you, that was delicious.” Saying Nein bitte essentially means “That was terrible, please don’t give me anymore.” At least, that’s what I walked away understanding.

Words have meaning. They have power.

I’m not done with the linguistics lesson, however. Language is a pretty remarkable thing. It can convey an almost limitless array of thoughts, but it’s not just limited to that use. It can also accomplish things in and of itself. If a priest says to two people standing in front of him in a church, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” those words have done something. Before he spoke them, the two people were single. Afterward, they’re married. Speaking caused something to happen. Words like that are referred to by linguists as speech acts.

When we make covenants, we essentially are completing a speech act. We are baptized. Receive the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Married. The words make it happen, which makes me think of John 1:1. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

But of course, from my earlier discussion, we can now recognize that concept being conveyed there wasn’t our modern definition of “word,” but rather the Greek definition of logos, which doesn’t just mean word, but can also refer to discourse or reason. It was used in Psalms 33:6–“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.”

There’s an entire talk to be written about that topic, but I’ll limit myself today to simply observe that words are important to God. They are binding and powerful in a way we only partly understand, it seems. Speech acts change our lives, but they are ultimately only as powerful as our commitment to them. One of the first commandments was to not take the name of God in vain. Why is that?

In 1929, Edward Sapir, a linguist at the University of Chicago, posited that a language can alter the way its speakers perceive reality. This concept was further refined by Benjamin Lee Whorf at Yale, and today the concept is known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Hypothesis, because it hasn’t been definitively proven, but it’s still something which has affected modern society to a great extent, and judging by the commandments God has given us, it’s something He also believes we should consider.

Let me give an example to make this clearer. In English, it has long been accepted that if a speaker wants to refer to someone generically, the proper way to do this is to use the masculine pronoun. The scriptures use the gender-neutral “he” often. When Christ says He will make His apostles fishers of men, we are to understand He’s not just referring to men, but to all people. But several decades ago, the concept of a gender neutral “he” was challenged, with some arguing that by always using “he” or “him,” women are subtly repressed, with their opinions and needs taking a back seat to the masculine. Thus, you’ll often hear people use “he or she” or “him or her” these days instead of the gender neutral masculine.

There is a fair bit of debate in some circles about this concept, with some decrying it as overblown political correctness. Having looked at the studies and thought it through on my own, I believe the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has merit. If we continually talk about something in a certain way, our views on that thing can and will change. If society does it as a whole, that can’t help but affect society as well.

Another example. I imagine many of you were required to read Homer in school at some point. The Odyssey, or the Illiad. Homer’s always talking about the ocean in his epic poems, and a phrase he will usually use is “the wine-dark sea.” Did you know one word he never uses to describe the ocean? Blue doesn’t appear in Ancient Greek at all. In fact, it’s not present in a number of ancient languages, from Icelandic to ancient Chinese. It doesn’t appear as a color until Egyptian.

Colors seem to be differentiated over time in a culture. White and black are the two basic colors, and they’re recognized first. Then comes red, followed by yellow and green. But in a fascinating experiment, it appears that not having a word for a color affects a person’s ability to see that color in the first place.

The Himba tribe in Namibia still has no word for blue, and they could not distinguish between shades of blue and shades of green. Speakers were presented with a circle of colored squares. When each square was green except for one blue one, they had difficulty identifying the one different square. When presented with squares that were many different shades of green, however, they had no trouble spotting the differences. Their language has many words for different shades of green.

Language is so often taken for granted, and speaking as a trained linguist, it is very often misunderstood. It’s something we learn without being taught, and often those are the things we question the least. We just assume something is the way it is, because that’s the way it’s always been. The concept of changing something that fundamental can seem foreign or threatening. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenged.

Thankfully, when it comes to religion, we do have a way to circumvent language: revelation. When Joseph Smith was translating the Book of Mormon, and later on when he worked on his translation of the Bible, he was not relying on linguistic study, language classes, and in-depth analyses of a text. He received inspiration from God. When translation work is done to bring the Book of Mormon to a new language these days, I’ve seen first hand the amount of thought and prayer that goes into it. This is anything but Google Translate.

Likewise, as we hear talks in General Conference, we can be entitled to the same revelation and inspiration. Often in my experience, what is being said ends up taking a back seat to what is being understood. I have had plenty of experience going into a meeting and getting one thing out of it, while the person sitting next to me seems to have heard something entirely different. I don’t believe this is the fault of the speaker. I think it’s a strength of revelation. We can be provided with tailor made help to assist us with our personal struggles.

So sometimes language is transcended by the Spirit. And while I could dwell longer on the specifics of President Nelson’s sentence, there comes a time when I need to move forward and actually discuss how to implement his advice. Some of you probably think that time was about ten minutes ago, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for a good linguistics lecture.

President Nelson advises us to commit to following the Savior by making and keeping covenants. As we do so, we will be blessed. I think we can all get behind the need for blessings, so while I could look at what blessings we might receive, I’d rather focus on how to commit.

First off, how do you know if you’re truly committed? Satan would like us to focus on our shortcomings. He’d like us to point out the hypocrisy in others. And there are times when I get really frustrated with some of the sentiments expressed by fellow adherents of my faith. I hear people say sexist, racist, homophobic, terrible things, and it makes me angry and disappointed. How can these supposed righteous followers of Jesus Christ espouse such hateful ideas? I try to remind myself that my own views in other areas may be similarly infuriating to others. We are all growing and learning at different rates, and if we always choose to focus on others’ shortcomings, we will never be able to make the progress we need to attain salvation.

I’m reminded of two LDS politicians: Mitt Romney and Harry Reid. Mitt Romney, of course, is a prominent Republican who ran for President. Harry Reid was the Democrat Senate Majority Leader for 8 years. I have heard members criticize both politicians for the public stands they have taken over the years on a variety of issues. Yet both can be 100% committed to the covenants they have made while having diametrically opposed viewpoints.

It’s one thing to say “I am committed,” but it’s another to show that commitment by our actions. In the church, we often talk about the way faith and works combine together to help us return to live with God. We believe being saved involves more than simply saying a set of words, though at times I feel we focus too heavily on the works and not enough on the faith, thinking perhaps that if salvation costs $20, it’s up to us to come up with $19.50, and Christ will cover the last two quarters. I tend to think it’s the opposite. One of us might be able to scrape together fifty cents, and another might only manage a nickel or two, but in the grand scheme of things, we all need so much more than that to be saved, and Christ gifts us with that balance.

A few years ago, I was helping my son clean his room. It’s always easier for me to clean someone else’s mess. I’m not emotionally attached to other people’s clutter the same way I am to my own. I opened his lower drawer and began hauling out random pieces of paper that had been jammed in there over the years, tossing them into the recycling bin one by one. He stopped me, frantic. “Don’t throw those away. Those are important to me!”

I paused and looked at the papers. They were creased and tattered. I looked back at my son and arched an eyebrow. “Are they really important? If they are, why have they been crammed in the bottom of your drawer all this time?” They might have been important, but they certainly weren’t important enough. Not important enough to treat with care and respect. Not important enough to make sure they stayed straight and clean.

We all do this with important things in our lives. What is the condition of various important things to us? Our relationships. Our faith. Our word? The best way I know of to tell what’s important to a person is to watch how they spend their time.

Time is finite. We all have the same amount each day. A rich person has the same 24 hours as a poor person, though perhaps he or she might be forced to spend more of that time to make ends meet. But almost everyone in America has a fair bit of free time. Time they spend watching football or playing video games or going to church or reading books or playing games with their family.

Think about your time. How is it spent? In writing, we talk about the “show don’t tell” principle. Recently, I was helping some friends with their college application essays. Writing about yourself is always a tricky situation, especially when you’re trying to impress someone. There’s something about saying “I’m an awesome person, and you really ought to accept me into your university” that just doesn’t come across too well.

There’s a reason for that, however. It’s because you’re just telling someone that you’re awesome. If you can somehow show them that instead, they will reach the conclusion on their own, which is always much stronger.

If I say “I love my children,” you have to take my word for it. If I describe the things I do with and for my children–the hours spent helping them with their homework or reading to them each evening, the trips we go on together, and the activities we do every day–then an outsider might observe that I love my children. I don’t just say I do, I do. If, on the other hand, I were to say I love them, but spend no time with them, constantly ignore them or berate them, and complain any time one of them needed help, then it wouldn’t really matter what I said. My actions would show the reality.

Sometimes, we may honestly believe we think something, but if we take a close look at our actions, and how we spend our time, I’ve found the reality always comes to the surface.

Another way to look at your commitment to covenants is to ask yourself how different your life is because of the covenants you have made. If they aren’t making a significant impact, perhaps you aren’t as committed to them as you think you are. In my experience, commitment to the Gospel chafes now and then. It makes me do something I’d rather not do, or be someone I’d prefer not to be. This isn’t because it’s restricting and oppressive. It’s because the natural man is an enemy to God, and our covenants are there to help us overcome the natural man.

In my natural state, I would prefer to be on a sofa, eating brownie sundaes by the bucketful while I binge watch Netflix. That’s the baseline I’m starting from. So since I’m here in Rockland this morning, awake before 10am, I can at least say that for today, my covenants are making a significant impact on my life. We’ll see how I do this afternoon.

One of the reasons keeping covenants can be so difficult is that there is often a significant delay between our actions and our rewards. I don’t mean eternal rewards. I mean direct benefits we receive here and now in the real world. I don’t believe God’s plan of happiness means that we’ll be miserable in this life so we can finally be happy once we die. I believe it’s here to make us happy now. Today. Tomorrow. But sometimes the route to lasting happiness can be a thorny one.

We live in a society that has come to expect immediate answers. If you have a headache, you take a pill and it goes away. Having difficulty losing some weight? There are countless programs out there that promise quick, easy results. This even extends to our gaming habits. Having difficulty with a level on Candy Crush? Nothing a few dollars won’t fix for you.

But quick answers are seldom lasting solutions. They’re bandaids that get us through the here and now without doing anything to address the problems at the root of each difficulty. They’re payday loans to get out of debt today, which only make our debts worse tomorrow.

God doesn’t work that way. He has no interest in solving an issue for a minute or a day or even a year. His perspective is eternal. CS Lewis described this in his book Mere Christianity: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

It’s been a long talk, brothers and sisters. Ranging from the nooks and crannies of linguistic theory to discussions on time management. I couldn’t blame you if things have gotten a little muddied in the last nineteen minutes. Allow me to sum up.

President Nelson said a quote you might have memorized by now: “Your commitment to follow the Savior by making covenants with Him and then keeping those covenants will open the door to every spiritual blessing and privilege available to men, women, and children everywhere.”

It’s our commitment to follow the Savior that opens the door to spiritual blessings for us. We show that commitment not just by making covenants, but by keeping them. Keeping them may be uncomfortable. In fact, it probably should be uncomfortable, because by keeping them, we are becoming better people. Bringing order to disorder is something that requires work. Planting a garden today seems like back breaking labor for no reward, especially when you could just run to the store and pick up a few tomatoes whenever you want. But over time, the benefits become clear.

I’ve seen this principle at work in my life. The Gospel is not always easy. It’s usually not. But I can directly trace each and every blessing I have received back to the covenants I have made and kept. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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