Category: religion

What I Believe and Why

I was asked to present on my religion today in a public forum at my university (11:45am-1:00pm in Roberts 023). I’ll be joined by other staff and faculty, each of us presenting about our faiths. It includes Christianity, Judaism, Paganism, and Islam. It should be a really interesting discussion, and I’m very curious to see how it will play out.

Because I know many of you won’t be able to make it (and because it always helps me to think things through ahead of time), I thought I’d write down some of my answers to the questions we’ll be addressing. The stated goal of the meeting is as follows:

Panelists will tell us about their religious path, what they commonly wish people knew about their religion, and when they have been particularly aware of their religious identities at UMF or in Maine.

It’s followed by time for questions, and who knows where that might lead. Here are the prompts I’ve gotten, and my responses:

How did you come to follow your religious tradition?

I was born into the faith. My parents both come from families that can trace their roots back to the very beginnings of the church. When you read about Mormon pioneers making their way west, those were my ancestors. I grew up in the faith, going to church every week for three hours. At the same time, we’re encouraged to develop our own testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel. I read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it, and I felt I received spiritual confirmation it was true.

That was taken to a completely different level, however, when I went on my mission. I served in former East Germany for two years, from 1997-1999. I’d always planned on going on a mission, but when I actually went, it was a bit of a shock. I still remember the first night in the Missionary Training Center. For me, “going on a mission” had been a lot like “happily ever after.” I never really thought much about what the nuts and bolts of it would look like.

My first night as a missionary, the realities all set in. I’d be away from my family for two years. I’d only talk to them on the phone four times total. (Christmas and Mother’s Day) I wouldn’t watch movies or read novels. I wouldn’t listen to regular music. I’d be going up to strangers every day to talk about religion.

Anyone who knows me now knows I like to think things through, and I don’t generally do things “just because.” I was the same then. I realized it was one thing to feel good about a religion, but if I was going to really dedicate my life for two years to this gospel, I needed more of a confirmation than that. I needed to be really sure.

The next nine weeks were, thankfully, filled with opportunities to help me find out for myself. Lots of studying the scriptures. Lots of personal prayers. I had some very powerful experiences that bolstered my faith to the point that I was really standing on my own, rather than on what my parents and teachers had taught me. That experience only deepened during my time as a missionary, hearing day in and day out from almost everyone I talked to about how I was wrong. East Germans had lived under state-sponsored atheism for decades. I had many opportunities to hear pretty much every argument against religion in general and mine in particular.

But I also had many experiences that proved basic things to me. God exists, and He hears and answers prayers, not just in an abstract “I felt good” way, but sometimes quite literally. I can pray for guidance, and when I follow the promptings I receive, things will work out. That certainty I developed on my mission has gone on to bless my life countless times.

What is the biggest misconception about your religion?

There are a number that often get brought up. I’d say the largest is that we’re not Christian. This is a touchy subject for many, because there are definitely some Christian denominations who argue against us. Even though our name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” some argue the Jesus Christ we believe in isn’t the same Christ other Christians believe in.

We believe we’re the restored church of Christ. That He came back to the earth to restore the same church He founded when he first lived. That there was an apostasy from that original church, and so a restoration was necessary. We believe Christ restored that church through the prophet, Joseph Smith. We believe Christ still leads this church through modern revelation and a living prophet.

So sometimes the “who is Christian” topic can get pretty thorny. But we believe, as do other Christians, that Christ was and is the Son of God. That He died for our sins and was resurrected. We believe in following the Ten Commandments and in loving our neighbors as ourselves. We believe the Bible to be the word of God, but we also believe translation errors have crept into it over the years. We believe in the Book of Mormon, an account written by prophets in the ancient Americas, detailing their interactions with Christ as well.

With all this talk of modern prophets and revelation, many also believe we’re a cult of a sect, that we’re all brainwashed. I explain that like this: we believe God has always had a pattern for speaking to His children. He does it individually through prayer, and to a people as a whole through prophets, from Noah to Moses to John the Baptist and on to Peter or Paul after Christ’s death. It’s easier, however, to believe in past prophets than it is to believe in current ones. Again, there’s plenty of precedent for this, historically.

Many of our critics believe in past prophets, but don’t believe in current ones. We believe the need for God to communicate to prophets today is just as important as it was 2,000 or 4,000 years ago. God loves all His children, and He wants them all to be happy.

It’s a complicated topic, and the answers can get pretty complex as well. I guess I’ll just leave it at that for now.

When were you most aware of your religious identity at UMF?

I’d say it was definitely back when Proposition 8 was working its way through California. This was the law that banned gay marriage back in 2008. I had been at UMF for only a year, and UMF, as most of you know, prides itself on being LGBTQ friendly. Meanwhile, my religion was taking a very public stand against Proposition 8, getting members to campaign against it. Raising funds to get it passed. That stance was not popular at all here on campus.

Most of the people I spoke with were upset about the law. At the time, most of the people also weren’t really aware I was a Latter-day Saint. It led to some fairly awkward conversations where I ended up speaking far less than I usually do. A big part of that was due to the fact that I was uncomfortable with my church’s stance. I didn’t want to speak publicly against the church, and I also didn’t want to speak in favor of Proposition 8.

Since that time, I’ve written this blog, and you can look back at the postings I’ve made and see the way my views on gay marriage have evolved over time. (11+ years of writing will do that for you, at least.) There are still members of my faith today who are 100% opposed to gay marriage or anything like it. There are other people who have left the church over its stance. I find myself (as usual) in the middle somewhere. I personally believe people should be able to marry who they want, and I vote accordingly. I believe the church’s stance is evolving as well. Revelation often looks clean cut in retrospect, but the process itself is much messier than we’d like to believe.

Again, a complicated answer for a complicated question.

How has your religious practice/faith informed your time here at UMF?

My faith informs my life on a daily basis. It is ingrained in who I am and how I act. I pray and read the scriptures daily. I pray for guidance in the choices I make, both personally and professionally. This doesn’t mean I run my library like a church building. I am a staunch advocate of patron rights, including things like an unfiltered internet, no censorship of materials, and presenting as wide a range of thoughts and beliefs in the collection as possible.

But how to interact with people? How to have difficult conversations? My faith informs all of that. I believe faith is here to help us today, not at some distant point in the future after we’re dead. And my experience confirms that.

Faith isn’t abstract for me. It’s a very real, very tangible thing. And I suppose that’s where I’ll leave that answer for now.

Thanks for reading!

On the Term “Mormon”

Since the beginning of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many people have referred to its followers as “Mormons.” This is mainly due to the fact we believe the Book of Mormon to be scripture, in addition to the Bible. Recently, our current prophet, Russell M. Nelson, has instructed members of the church to move away from the term, asking us to refer to ourselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or simply as Latter-day Saints. On the blog, I’ve always just used the same word most non-members used to describe us: Mormon. I’m not going to do that anymore, and I wanted to establish why.

First off, an explanation of the word, for those of you who might not know what it means: Mormon was the name of a prophet who lived in ancient Americas. He was one of the last of his people, and he edited a collection of sacred writings: about 1,000 years’ worth of histories that had been written by other prophets before him. This included a record of a visit by Jesus Christ to the Americas, after his resurrection. Just as the ancient Jewish prophets kept a record of their lives and the history of their people, so did this group in the Americas. This edited compilation was finished off by Mormon’s son, Moroni, who hid it in a hole in a hillside before he died. That same Moroni appeared as a resurrected being to Joseph Smith, showing him where the compilation (written on golden plates) was hidden. Joseph obtained the plates and translated them with the help of God.

From the beginning of the church, it appears non-members referred to its members as Mormons and its tenets as Mormonism. That actual name of the church, given through revelation, was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (“Church of Jesus Christ,” because we believe it is Christ’s church restored on the earth, and “Latter-day Saints” to distinguish it from the earlier Saints when Christ first lived on the earth. We believe it’s the same church that existed back then, just now with members who live in the latter-days.) But by and large, “Mormon” was an epithet. It wasn’t used by non-members favorably. I’m rereading a new history of the church that was just published, and it’s fascinating (and more than a little horrifying) to see just what those early members struggled through. It explains much of how the church grew into the cultural institution it is today.

The church has had an on again/off again relation to the word ever since. Sometimes it’s tried to distance itself from the term, but recently it had embraced it again, even coming out with several ad campaigns that used it. “I’m a Mormon,” was one, and the movie “Meet the Mormons” was another. Basically, the church was trying to show its members are (for the most part) fairly normal people. Who knows if it worked or not. But even when the term was on the outs, it was still used by members. You only have to look at the long-standing “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” to see that.

Except this time, even that’s changing. “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir” has just been officially changed to “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.” When the church takes steps like that, you know it’s not messing around with this anymore.

When I first heard of the switch, I’ll admit I did a bit of a mental eye roll. Trying to force people to saying the full name of the church goes against what language likes to do. “I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” takes 16 syllables, after all. “I’m a Mormon” takes four. Wasn’t this just going to be another flash in the pan? We’d try it again, and be back to using the term again in a year or two.

But as I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t necessarily true. After all, the Seventh Day Adventists (six syllables) have been using that long term for as long as I’ve heard of them. It’s not like people have started abbreviating it to SDAs or anything like that. “Latter-day Saints” is just five syllables.

President Nelson gave a wonderful talk this weekend focused on why the name change is important. First, he said the official name was given through revelation to Joseph Smith, and so it’s important to follow that. But second, he stressed how using “Mormon” distances the church from its focus on Christ, a sentiment I agree with.

In a few weeks, I’ll be giving a public talk to my campus about what members of the Church believe and why. I’ll be joined by four others, who will be discussing their own religions. In the announcement that went out, the religions were listed as “Judaism, Islam, Paganism, Christianity, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” While I appreciate the thought and attention that went into making sure not to refer to us as Mormonism, I still couldn’t help feeling a little slighted. (Undoubtedly unintentionally.) Whether Latter-day Saints are “Christian” or not is a sensitive subject. We believe we most definitely are, as the teachings of Christ are foundational to our beliefs. Many other Christians believe we are not, mainly because many of our beliefs about Christ are different. (We believe God and Christ are two separate beings, for example. We believe Christ appeared to the people in the Americas. We believe he appeared to Joseph Smith and restored His church.) So many have said that while we say we believe in Christ, we actually believe in something we just happen to call Christ.

If the church had been stressing its full name for all its history, would this association between it and Jesus Christ be more clear? I have to think it would be.

Many erroneously believe we worship Mormon or Joseph Smith. In reality, those two men are simply prophets, the same (to us) as Isaiah or Daniel or Noah. Christians don’t worship Noah or John the Baptist. They revere them, yes, but the focus is always on Christ.

In the end, I believe people should be called what they want to be called. I think it makes sense for the church to make this request, and I hope it’s adhered to. (Likewise, I would hope members of the church would be respectful of calling other people what they wish to be called. Be that he, her, they, gay, lesbian, or anything else people request. That’s what nice, respectful people do. Treat people how those people wish to be treated. It runs both ways. When people goof up and call us Mormon, I’d like to think they’d apologize and correct themselves. The same thing I do when I make a mistake and call someone by a name they choose not to be called.)

If you have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. Thanks for reading!

Is God’s Love Conditional?

I don’t typically get upset at church. Uplifted? Edified? Bored? Sure. But it’s rare that something is said in a church meeting that gets me really riled. And yet for the past two weeks, in two separate congregations, the same thought has been expressed (in different words), and it immediately drew a very sharp reaction from me, mainly because it’s so antithetical to everything I believe about religion.

Last Sunday, it was basically the idea that once we have sinned, God never quite loves us the same way He used to. We have permanently changed our relationship to God. This is the same tired analogy of repentance, which likens us each to a fresh, clean board. When we sin, we drive a nail into that board, and when we repent, we remove the nail. But the hole the nail made is forever part of who and what we are now.

I objected (fairly loudly) when this came up in Sunday School last week. Repentance allows us to be forgiven and our sins to be forgotten. I provided scriptural evidence of this. (D&C 58:42 “Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more,” for example.) But the person who was arguing against this wouldn’t budge.

Then yesterday, a similar argument was made in the middle of priesthood class. God’s love is conditional, according to this line of thought. He loves us more the more we do the things He has asked us to do. Thus, He loves a righteous person more than He loves a sinner.

Once again, I disagreed vehemently. This time, I didn’t let the issue drop (until we ran out of time and class was over). God loves all of us unconditionally. We may choose to separate ourselves from that love by our actions and our beliefs, but that love is still there, waiting for us to return to Him and accept it once again.

But the teacher doubled down on his statement. He reiterated: God’s love is conditional, and this is something President David O. McKay was very specific about.

I left the meeting in a fair bit of a huff, and I was certainly going to go do some research to prove that statement wrong. So when I got home, the first thing I did was rush to the internet to do some research. The first statement I came across wasn’t from President McKay. It was from President Nelson, given about fifteen years ago:

While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional.

Even more recently, Elder Christofferson spoke about God’s love, citing President Nelson’s remarks and continuing,

One of the terms we hear often today is that God’s love is “unconditional.” While in one sense that is true, the descriptor unconditional appears nowhere in scripture. Rather, His love is described in scripture as “great and wonderful love,” “perfect love,” “redeeming love,” and “everlasting love.” These are better terms because the word unconditional can convey mistaken impressions about divine love, such as, God tolerates and excuses anything we do because His love is unconditional, or God makes no demands upon us because His love is unconditional, or all are saved in the heavenly kingdom of God because His love is unconditional.

Those two statements took a fair bit of wind out of my sails, replacing them with confusion. At first glance, it appears I was completely off base. Was the teacher in that priesthood lesson right, after all? Does God play favorites? He loves those who obey him more than those who do not?

Those quotes I just gave might be flashy, and they might generate a fair bit of support for the “Conditional Love” side of things, but as I read the articles they come from more closely (see here and here), I saw that they simply said in different words what I had been arguing in the first place.

See this quote from Elder Nelson:

Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. Divine love is infinite and universal. The Savior loves both saints and sinners. The Apostle John affirmed, “We love him, because he first loved us.” And Nephi, upon seeing in vision the Lord’s mortal ministry, declared: “The world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men.” We know the expansiveness of the Redeemer’s love because He died that all who die might live again.

Or this one from Elder Christofferson:

God will always love us, but He cannot save us in our sins.

As I read the talks, it appeared Elder Nelson and Elder Christofferson were conflating the love God has for us with the blessings He would like to give us. In order to avoid giving anyone the impression that people can do whatever they want and still be blessed the same as anyone else, they stated that God’s love is dependent on our obedience to His commandments.

But you don’t base doctrine on sound bytes. You need to take quotes in their context to truly understand them. Otherwise, church talks would only need to be about one minute long.

I’ll restate my own take on this: I believe God’s love for us is always there, no matter what we do. We may choose to turn away from that love, and when we do, we place a limit on the blessings God might have given us, but we are the cause of those blessings being withheld, not some sort of cosmic favoritism. If we would just turn back to God, He will always be there, loving us just as much as ever.

Perhaps some of you are wondering what the big deal is. After all, isn’t the end result the same? Keep the commandments and be blessed. Don’t keep them, and don’t be blessed?

To me, it all comes down to John 13:34: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

We are commanded to love each other in the same way Christ loves us. If you begin to believe that love is conditional, you allow yourself the leeway to love people more or less based on your own personal preferences or moral code. It becomes much easier to dismiss people as “sinners” unworthy of your love and care and consideration, and I believe that’s antithetical to the entire message of the Gospel.

Worse yet, we are also commanded to “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If our love for others is conditional, then our love for ourselves becomes conditional as well. Our own self worth can be destroyed based on decisions or mistakes we’ve made. Again, this goes against every teaching I’ve ever read or studied in the Gospel.

I don’t mean we can go out and do whatever we want and not feel bad about it. Rather, complete repentance is always possible. Sure, you can start diving into the doctrinal deep end about Sons of Perdition or what have you, but to keep things simple: you can never screw up so much that you are out of the range of God’s love. You can always come back.

I’ve seen “religious” people in the news who judge others based on their skin, orientation, beliefs, gender, or any other reason. I’ve seen children shunned from their families. Made to feel worthless. I believe a fair bit of this stems from the thought that we can love people based on their behaviors and actions, which in turn is supported by the “God’s love is conditional” mentality.

I think there’s a balance there between remembering we are held accountable for our actions, and remembering God always will love us. The talks by Elder Christofferson and President Nelson swing to one side of that balance, and my argument swings to the other, though I think if you read both in their entirety, you’ll see we’re all actually making the same argument.

God does not love me more than He loves you, no matter what you or I might have done.

I’ll just leave this post with my personal favorite scripture, which perhaps also shows why this line of reasoning is important to me. Romans 8:35-39:

35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

36 As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

37 Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.

38 For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

39 Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Sunday Talk: Teaching in the Home

Another month, another talk. This month’s topic was Elder Devin G. Durrant’s talk “Teaching in the Home.” Here’s the full text of what I said to the Belfast Branch yesterday in church.

When I hear the phrase “teaching in the home,” my first instinct is to think of the times I’ve purposefully taught my kids something one on one. Whether it’s discussing their homework habits or discussing the gospel during Family Home Evening. I’d call this the “Leave It to Beaver” approach, but something tells me that reference won’t work for nearly as many people as I’d like. Instead, let’s just say it’s the traditional method. Parents have the knowledge, and the kids all gather round to figure things out in an easy to understand format.

As an adult, I’m sure that’s how many of us wish it would happen. Some of us might even fool ourselves into believing it actually works like that. And many times, I think it does. I’ve helped my son through several of his math classes that way, and it’s how I spent time helping my daughter bolster her reading skills. But when I think back on my time growing up and what I learned from my parents, I can only come up with a handful of times where it was me sitting there with them purposefully instructing me in some area.

It’s not that we didn’t have those opportunities. I remember having Family Home Evening sporadically. Often it was on Sundays, since our family schedule was too chaotic to reliably have Monday evenings free. We’d have a lesson on some gospel aspect, but I remember almost none of those occasions. Sorry Mom and Dad.

In his talk this past general conference, Brother Devin G. Durrant, First Counselor in the General Sunday School Presidency, titled his remarks,“Teaching in the Home: A Joyful and Sacred Responsibility.” The moment he identified his topic, I had a fair idea of what areas he would touch on. Family Home Evening. Scripture Study. Family Prayer. And indeed he addressed each in turn, starting by saying “Let’s begin with family home evening, which was a high priority in the faith-filled home where I was raised. I don’t remember specific lessons taught at family home evening, but I do remember that we never missed a week. I knew what was important to my parents.”

My children won’t be able to say we never missed a week of Family Home Evening, but I hope they’ll be able to confidently state they knew what was important to my wife and me. President Hinckley counseled, “If you have any doubt about the virtue of family home evening, try it. Gather your children about you, teach them, bear testimony to them, read the scriptures together and have a good time together.”

That’s great advice. Advice I’m doing well in some areas and where I could improve in others. Sometimes I feel like my talks are intended mainly to help others, but now and then it feels like I’m working through them primarily to help myself, this time in particular. I can’t say my family has been following the conventional mode of Gospel teaching in the home. Instead, we’ve stutter stepped through a lot of false starts and short lived efforts. As I wrote this talk, I wanted to explore that more fully. Why have I never fully embraced the “read scriptures and pray every day as a family” program of the church?

Some of it might come from the way I was raised. We learn by example, and while I was born in the church and raised by righteous parents, scripture study and family prayer weren’t the cornerstones of our upbringing. Instead, the lessons I really remember are the ones that were immediately applicable. Things taught in the moment.

This makes sense to me, speaking as a college librarian. I’m often asked to teach students how to use the library to find research materials. From experience, the times when the students have actual projects they’re working on are much better environments for learning than the times when I’m just teaching them so they know how to do it at some point in the future.

When I was growing up, driving was the same way. I never really paid any attention to how I got where I was going. I was too busy burying my nose in a book or a Gameboy game to really bother with simple things like directions. This has come back to bite me later in life. Even though I lived there for five years of school and multiple summers and vacations thereafter, I’m still notoriously bad at finding my way around my hometown in Pennsylvania. This doesn’t matter as much now that we have Google Maps, but prior to the advent of the GPS, Denisa and I were traveling home from Europe one year. Our plane had been delayed, and we arrived at Newark airport around ten at night. A taxi service picked us up at the airport to take us to my parent’s house, where the plan was to visit for a few more days.

The one trick? Our driver, a very nice man from Haiti, assumed I knew where I was going. The hour and a half drive took more like three as I squinted at the street signs and did my best to try to remember which of them led home. It was a long evening. One I obviously still remember. And it illustrates the difference between being taught something ahead of time and learning it right when you need it. I’d been told how to get home in advance, but I’d never really had to do it in practice. Not from Newark Airport, at least. Unfortunately, since I was jet-lagged and exhausted, I still don’t really know how to make that trip. Think of how much better it would have gone if I’d paid attention to how to get home ahead of time.

Of course, the trick is that often we don’t know what we need to know before we need to know it. Just ask the students who sit through my library lectures. I know for a fact they’ll all need to know the things I’m teaching them, but they are far from convinced, and so they sit there, slumped over in their chairs and wishing I’d stop talking as soon as possible, no matter how much I try to spice up the lesson.

So to best be able to teach our children, it helps to know what we want to teach, and then look for areas to teach those principles in a way that’s immediately useful. At a time when they can understand why what we’re saying will help them here and now. To succeed in that, I’ve found it mostly comes down to making time for your children when they need it. Helping them with homework when they’re struggling. Listening to their worries after school and actually paying attention to any subtext that might be there without brushing it off.

Then again, we don’t always teach for the here and now. Sometimes we’re prepping our children for things that won’t come up for years to come. There are ways to handle that as well, though often that means using the saying “repetition is the mother of all learning” as our guiding light.

“Plow the ground all the way to the fence.” I heard that phrase so. Many. times growing up. It seemed like every job was simply an excuse for my dad to sit me down after I was finished with it and show me all the places I hadn’t done everything I was supposed to do. This was in Eastern Pennsylvania, and one of my least favorite chores was yard work. Especially raking. Some of this might have to do with the fact that I once raked up a live three foot long snake, and nothing quite erases the shock and terror you feel when you’re out grudgingly raking up leaves and you send a huge snake hurtling through the air straight to your face.

But again, this was Eastern Pennsylvania, and our property was covered with oak trees. They’re beautiful things, but they put out more leaves than they have any right to, and I still swear to this day that when the time comes to drop those leaves, they multiply somehow on the way down. The constant wind on our property didn’t make matters any easier. You could go around and clear off every single one of those leaves, and five minutes later there’d be a whole army back to replace them.

And yet I was still told to “plow the ground all the way to the fence.” Dad had grown up on a farm. The phrase comes from the tendency of some people to turn a plow early, skipping the parts right by the fence, which are often the hardest to get to. When you’re trying to get as much of a crop as possible and every bit counts, skipping the parts by the fence shouldn’t be an option, but people still do it, because it’s hard. Dad wanted me to complete a job I started.

If you were to ask my wife today about whether or not that lesson stuck with me, I tend to think she’d say I still don’t quite understand the definition of a “clean room.” Then again, if you were to ask my children, I think they’d say that, while they prefer my definition to my wife’s, they still think I’m expecting too much. Let’s be honest, though. If my dad had been focused on training me to become the neatest person in the world and a first class leaf raker, he failed quite spectacularly. But it wasn’t really about raking leaves.

I’m a very goal-oriented person these days. I write fantasy novels in my spare time. I’ve published three of them, have a fourth coming out next year, and I’m currently working on the first draft of my eighteenth book. That’s not something I could have done if I hadn’t learned how to plow the ground all the way to the fence. Starting a novel is a fairly simple process, but when you get about a third of the way into it, that lovely beginning that seemed so easy at first suddenly becomes much more difficult. It’s very tempting to abandon that project to jump over to a different one that is far more appealing. That’s when you need to tuck your head down and keep plowing. Likewise, I followed that advice as I finished my undergraduate degree and went on to finish two additional graduate programs. I’ve learned that if I want to get something done, I can do it with hard work and persistence.

But we never had a “hard work and persistence” Family Home Evening. It was more of a Family Home Life lesson. Lessons in that vein aren’t taught in an afternoon. They’re taught over time, through example. I might have first encountered them while raking leaves, but they were confirmed and reinforced as I watched my teacher practice what he preached as he worked long hours day after day to make sure jobs were completed.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson counseled: “We have many avenues for teaching the … rising generation, and we should devote our best thinking and effort to taking full advantage of them. Above all, we must continue to encourage and help parents be better and more consistent teachers … especially by example.”

I’ve heard some in the church wonder how we can keep the rising generation close to the Gospel. There seems to have been quite a few areas where the church has been buffeted lately from outside influences, from the question of gay marriage to women’s rights and beyond. The way some in the church have responded to those influences has left some of the younger members confused and bewildered. I have sat in meetings and read articles that debate why this is happening and what can be done to stop it. Often the proposed solutions involve new programs strengthening existing ones.

In the end, I believe the best solution is to be found in the same source the Church has emphasized for so long: the family. In a family, parents can teach children how to be compassionate followers of Jesus Christ, first with each other, and then with others. I actually think sometimes it’s much more difficult to be understanding, patient, and kind to our immediate family members, compared to people we see less frequently. It’s easier to snap at people who are stuck with us whether they like it or not. Easier for the natural man to rear his ugly head. For the Id to reign supreme. If you can learn how to be respectful to your family, you’re a long way down the road to being respectful to others.

In an ideal situation, all the Gospel principles are taught in a family environment. Children learn about love, mercy, paying tithing, praying for guidance, the Word of Wisdom, healthy living, fasting, and more as they watch their parents apply all those principles day in and day out. They learn how to balance being in the world but not of it, and how to put the theory of the Gospel to work every day.

At the same time, I recognize that this ideal family environment doesn’t exist for all members. In my mind, many of the church auxiliaries (Primary, Young Mens, or Young Womens, for example) exist to help bolster members in these more tenuous environments. Those groups play important functions in the lives of many, but it’s important to remember they are a means to an end, and not the end in and of itself.

What does this mean? It means having a successful Young Men’s program doesn’t mean our Young Men will succeed. Having a thriving Primary with tons of activities doesn’t always equate to children growing up strong in the Gospel. I think each of us knows these things in theory, but when it’s our calling and our responsibility, we sometimes become so laser focused on succeeding and magnifying things that we lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’m reminded of an art project I saw during my freshman year at BYU. I came across one of my friends in the lobby of the Morris Center, standing by a photocopy machine, with sheets of paper scattered around her. The sheets were covered in nonsensical pictures. Giant blurry things that didn’t look like anything at all other than perhaps ink blots.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Art,” she said, as if it were obvious. And when I asked for clarification, she explained that she’d started with a picture from a book, and she was copying it a hundred times on as big of a magnification as the copier would allow, logging the results in order. I studied them, interested. She probably could have stopped after five or six times, honestly. At that point, the picture had already lost all meaning. Everything from then on was just copying abstractions, turning them into slightly different abstractions.

Do our callings ever become like that? Do we ever focus so hard on doing the best for ourselves that we lose track of why we’re supposed to be doing the job in the first place? Remember, brothers and sisters, that there’s a limit to effective magnification. Bigger is certainly not always better, and sometimes restraint is the best choice you can make. Plow the ground all the way to the fence, but stop plowing before you kill your horse.

What does this mean in practice? It means that sometimes we need to let other families’ agency take precedence over our desire to have a successful calling or program. Again I turn to an example I encountered growing up. My family lived about a half hour away from the ward building. Both my parents worked, and my older brother and I both had jobs as well. That was in addition to marching band, jazz band, dixie band, drama, county band, district band, and the school newspaper, to say nothing of our social lives. Navigating our schedule was a trip into dangerous waters.

That did not deter my ward leaders from trying to remind us often how important it was for us to attend our weekly youth meetings. If I could have gotten frequent flyer miles for all the guilt trips I was sent on growing up over the years over that one topic, I’d have racked up quite the stash. My family and I had looked at what we could do and what we couldn’t. We’d come to a decision, and that decision was hardly ever respected. Perhaps I wasn’t privy to all the discussions and facets of that pressure, but I know it has affected my views of Scouting and the youth program of the church to this day.

Those members might have felt they were magnifying their callings, .I’m sure they were acting out of concern and love for me and my siblings. But those magnification settings had been set far too high. They hurt much more than they helped.

I compare that to another teacher I had growing up. Same ward. He was my teachers advisor, as I recall. He taught us every week. They were mostly interesting lessons. He didn’t do really anything outside of class for us, though he took an interest in our lives and what we were doing. He also remembered my birthday one year, making the big trek out to our house to deliver me a birthday present. He didn’t need to do that. It was a simple, kind gesture, and I still remember it all these years later. It made me feel noticed and loved. The magnification there was just right for me.

What’s the right amount for every situation? That’s going to depend on the specifics. Magnification is a lot like eyeglass prescriptions in that way. Each person needs individual attention, or it doesn’t work nearly as well. Thankfully, we have the Spirit to help us navigate through that minefield. That, and open, honest communication with all the parties involved will do wonders. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but simply asking what someone prefers or how they can be helped is often the best first step to providing that tailor made magnification.

But what does all of this have to do with my original topic? In case you’ve forgotten what it is, I started off on a discussion of effective teaching in the home, and now I’ve somehow wandered into a tangent on how to magnify your church calling.

Except it’s not a tangent. Not really. Because the same tailor made approach also applies to parenting, something I’m reminded of on almost a daily basis as my wife and I do our best to raise our kids. The approach that worked wonders with one of them falls flat on its face with another. Teaching and parenting require individual attention. Sometimes it feels to me as if each child is his or her own airplane, and to figure out how to get that airplane to fly, you need to learn a whole new control scheme.

If there is one piece of advice that’s held true for each of my children (beyond following spiritual promptings), it’s the importance of keeping an open, honest flow of communication present. Of putting relationships before lessons. It’s impossible to teach someone who won’t listen, and it’s hard to listen to someone who does nothing but nag. And so I’ve learned to do different things with different kids, depending on what they prefer.

Then again, this doesn’t have to be that complex, either. We can always improve our performance, even on the basic, simple answers. And when I take a look at how I’m doing on those basics, I can get depressed quite quickly.

My family holds Family Home Evening most weeks. We almost always do “Family Business,” where we break down the week for each family member, making sure we’re all on the same page about our schedules and what we have going on. We sometimes have a lesson. We sometimes discuss items that are coming up in our family that need better attention or need to be changed. This has included things like chores, behavior, and bedtimes. We occasionally have treats or activities.

Family prayer is another area where we often fall short. We pray together over meals and at Family Home Evening, but that’s about it. We don’t measure up on scripture study, either. I’ve come up with some scripture study programs and challenges over the years, but they never seem to stick.

So basically, I feel like I’m doing a decent job at teaching by example, and failing to one degree or another in each of the other major teaching areas Brother Durrant touches on in his talk. It’s tempting to throw my hands up in despair and just stop trying. I can’t match up to even the basic ideals. Why bother anymore?

We must remember that perfection is a process. We grow line upon line, as guided by the Spirit. If I want to improve the teaching we’re doing in the home, I can pray to Heavenly Father and ask for guidance and assistance. I know that guidance will come. Sometimes it comes by soft promptings to choose one path over another. Sometimes it comes by being assigned to speak on a subject in Sacrament Meeting. But it always comes if we will listen.

My wife and I have already had a few discussions on how we can improve. Revitalize Family Home Evening. Restart family scripture study. Reinforce family prayer. A big key to success in enduring to the end is always continuing to pick yourself up and try again, confident that next time you’ll do better.

I’m not sure which of these efforts will work better this time, or if any of them will. What I do know is that as we pray and ask God for guidance and help, we will be successful. This is something that became very apparent on my mission. It didn’t take long for me to realize there were many more talented people out there who could be sharing the Gospel every day. People with life experiences and knowledge to answer any question with doctrine. But they weren’t the people out there each day. I was. As I turned to God and asked Him to help me accomplish the task in front of me, I was able to do so much more than I could have on my own.

That promise and that aid doesn’t stop in the mission field. It’s there waiting for us every day, and all we have to do is ask for it, and then make sure we listen to find out what’s next for us to do. I always try to keep in mind that as we strive to do our best, God makes up the difference between what we can do and what’s necessary.

I’ve already said I want to do better with scripture study and family prayer, but I don’t feel too bad about the fact that I haven’t been doing them better until now. Why not? Because I know I’ve been praying and asking God for help and guidance as I’ve raised my children, and the answers I’ve received and followed have not been to stress scripture study and family prayer more. Instead, they’ve been smaller things. Reading with my daughter every night to bolster her confidence. Helping my son with his algebra homework, no matter how tired I am.

I’ve been following the Spirit, and that sometimes leads us to answers that aren’t the cookie cutter Sunday School ones. Not that those aren’t important. They are. But the biggest guiding principle should always be the Spirit. Teaching children can be one of the toughest jobs we get in life, but we don’t have to do it alone. I bear testimony of this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Early Morning Seminary

Tomas is now in 9th grade. While most of you no doubt recognize that for the fact that he’s now officially in high school, some of you will also realize it means he’s now started early morning seminary. For those of you who don’t know what that is, Latter-day Saints high schoolers outside of Utah (and maybe some other states in the west with large Latter-day Saint populations?) go to a church class each morning before school starts.

For Tomas, that means he’s up at 5:30 and out the door by 5:50. (We’re taking turns with a carpool to get him and other students there.) Class starts at 6:20 and ends in time for him to make it over to school before classes there begin.

What do they study? It changes based on the year. One year they focus on the Old Testament. The next year it’s the New Testament, then The Book of Mormon, and finally Church History. Then it starts over, so over the course of four years, each student gets the whole package.

What does Tomas think about it? Well, this morning I believe his direct quote was, “Why do they start this so early?” which I can’t help but ask as well. When there are so many studies coming out that say teenagers need more sleep, suggesting schools should start later in the day, it’s a bummer that it starts to early each day. On the other hand, I also believe it’s a good thing for kids to be thinking and learning about religion. (Though I suppose that’s a topic for another time, and one which a fair number of you might disagree with.)

When I was in high school, I didn’t do early morning seminary. I did home study, which meant I met with a teacher once a week to go over the material, and then it was self-guided during the weeks. In practice (and being completely honest here) it meant that I crammed in the entire year’s worth of study in the last few weeks of the year. Definitely less effective. (Manuals had fill-in-the-blank pages to show you were doing the work. It didn’t take a genius to figure out you could fill those blanks much faster if you just skimmed . . .)

Our school district has school start an hour later each Wednesday, which means we just have seminary Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. We also cancel fairly liberally in case of bad weather (thankfully). But this is going to be a long term commitment for us. Tomas, DC, and MC will never overlap years, so we’ll be doing this for the next 8 years straight, followed by a year off, and then it’ll be MC’s turn.

In practice, I got up at 5:55 each morning before this. Now I’ll get up a half hour earlier or so. My plan is to come over to work after I drop Tomas and the others off, and use that half hour to get writing done first thing in the morning. I think it’ll be very doable, even if I loathe getting up so early. (But then again, I hated getting up at 5:55. So it’s not like my feelings are changing much.) I’m not sure what I’ll do on Wednesdays. I typically do better with a sleep schedule if I can do the same time every day.

In any case, wish us luck, and if you see Tomas looking a little bleary eyed the next while, you’ll know why.

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