Category: religion

Who Are You Related To?

As I mentioned on Facebook, I was down in Worcester, MA yesterday to hear President M. Russell Ballard and Elder D. Todd Christofferson (two current member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) speak in the DCU Center. There were about 12,000 other people there. Tomas and DC got to sit on the fourth row, and Denisa and I were much farther back with MC. It was a great meeting. Elder Christofferson spoke of the need to involve God in our lives through daily prayer. I especially liked his observation that the things which seem of little consequence and things that are most important in our lives often end up being the same things. (After all, the way I see it, breathing is a fairly trivial thing we all do day in and day out. We take it for granted and don’t give it much attention, but when we’re suddenly unable to breathe, we realize quickly just how important it is to us . . . )

President Ballard talked about recognizing the hand of the Lord in your life. Acknowledging those times when He has helped you or guided you in miraculous ways. He told the story of John Howland, a passenger on the Mayflower. He was swept out to sea in the middle of the voyage, but he was able to grab onto a rope that was trailing in the water behind the ship and was hauled back on board. His survival has turned out to be key to much of American history, since he’s a direct ancestor of people including FDR, George Bush, Emerson, Longfellow, Joseph Smith, and 2 million others. It would be easy to dismiss Howland’s rescue as good luck. You can also view it as the hand of providence intervening in his life. How you choose to see it certainly depends on your personal views and outlook, but that’s probably a post for a different time.

President Ballard encouraged members of the audience to pray for the country and its leaders, a sentiment I can certainly get behind. (Indeed, I already wrote an entire blog post about it.) But it occurred to me in the meeting, what happens when people are all praying for the country, but hoping for different outcomes? When faithful Democrats and Republicans all think God wants two entirely different directions for the nation to go? For that, I believe it comes down to us bringing our own wills more in line with God’s. In an ideal world, as we all pray for the same thing (a bright future for the nation, the world, and all its inhabitants), hopefully we will begin to come together more and more, until our wills overlap in multiple places, and we begin to find ways to bring about the things we are all praying for. (If we choose instead to pray for detailed specifics, like “that Trump will leave office” or “that the Democrats will stop being idiots”, I don’t think the odds are high that such overlaps will ever occur. But then again, such prayers presuppose that we understand the will of God better than our neighbors. For prayer to really be effective, I’ve found humility is often a key ingredient. There’s little humility in partisan prayers. Again, probably a topic for a different blog post.)

As I was talking with Tomas after the meeting, we kept coming back to the story of John Howland. I told Tomas I knew we had ancestors on the Mayflower, but I couldn’t right then remember who. We decided it would be a good experience to discover more about our ancestors and look for stories like Howland’s: stories where we might think about where the hand of God interceded in their lives to make it possible for us to be here today.

Thankfully, we live in 2019, and there’s technology developed to help us out in these situations. (Assuming your family history is fairly robust, which mine is, to say the least, thanks to many generations of faithful genealogy-obsessed Latter-day Saint ancestors.)

If you go to relativefinder.org and log in with your familysearch.org account, it will look up your lineage and compare it to many different people’s, from presidents to movie stars to athletes to you name it. It’s through this tool that I now know Neil Armstrong is my 13th cousin once removed. Mark Twain is my 5th cousin 6 times removed. (I knew there was a reason I was so interested in studying Huck Finn for my thesis . . . ) Ben Franklin is my 2nd cousin 10 times removed. Muhammad Ali is my 14th cousin 1 time removed.

Too distant? William Bradford of the Mayflower is my 11th great grandfather. (And 8 other Mayflower passengers are my many great grandparents.) Of course, family history is only as reliable as the data you put into it. According to this tool, Henry VIII is my 14th great grandfather, but when I took the time to trace back exactly how that conclusion was come to, the results were sketchy to say the least. It also claims Grand Sachem Wyandanch, alliance-chief of the Montaukett Indians, is my 13th great grandfather. It would be awesome if it were true, but once again, the actual documentation is tenuous to say the least.

But that William Bradford connection is accurate. I traced his posterity down to Leonard Hill, a resident of Peterborough, New Hampshire (about 50 miles away from Worcester, where I went to the meeting yesterday). He and his wife Sally Forbush met early Latter-day Saint missionaries and joined the church in 1843. They were ostracized from their families and headed west. They both ended up dying on the eventual trek to Utah after the Saints were forced out of Illinois.

In any case, I’m out of time for today. It was a thought-provoking meeting, and maybe some of these tools would be interesting to you, as well. Not sure how much family history you have to have done to get results, but I will say that actually doing the research is fairly addictive once you start. (Or is that just for librarians?)

New Church Calling: Stake Executive Secretary

If you’ve followed my blog for some time, you’re already aware of the periodic “callings” issued to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Our local and area congregations are run as lay ministries, meaning all the leaders are volunteers. We believe we’re called through revelation to fill different positions, from ward librarians to Sunday School teachers to nursery leaders and more. These callings aren’t permanent. They typically change every few years. In my twelve years in the Farmington Ward in Maine, I’ve been a Gospel Doctrine teacher, Ward Mission Leader, Elders Quorum President (and Counselor, and Secretary), Deacons Quorum Advisor, Teaching Training Facilitator, and High Councillor. I might be forgetting a few. They rack up, over time.

The church is quite specific about what each calling is responsible for, and we do our best to understand those callings and meet the duties, whatever they may be. You don’t lobby for a calling, however. There’s no application process. No one asks you what you’d like to do. Church leaders pray about open callings, then select who they feel prompted to select. (Which opens up another calling, because that person was doing something before they got the new calling, and so the cycle continues.) (For the record: Gospel Doctrine teacher was great, but being the Ward Librarian would be absolutely peachy. Just in case any church leaders are wondering somewhere down the road . . . 🙂

Anyway. For the last two years and change, I’ve been on the High Council. Sunday, I started a new calling as Stake Executive Secretary. What does this mean? Latter-day Saints are arranged at the local level into Wards or Branches (a smaller-sized congregation). A collection of Wards and Branches make up a Stake. I live in the Farmington Ward of the Bangor Maine Stake, which consists of twelve Wards or Branches, spanning most of the northern half of Maine. (The very top of Maine actually is part of the Saint John New Brunswick Stake, so I guess you’d need a passport to serve in the stake up there?)

There is a Stake Presidency in charge of supervising the various training and direction of all those different units. It has a President and two Counselors. It also has a Stake Clerk (in charge of records for the presidency, essentially), and a Stake Executive Secretary (in charge of scheduling for the presidency, arranging for agendas, etc.) The latter is what I’ll be up to now.

What does this mean on a practical level for me? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a new calling for me. I’ve never been an executive secretary at a Stake or Ward level before. I have a general idea of what they do, since I’ve interacted with people who were serving in that calling over the years, but it’s one thing to have a vague idea, and another to actually be in the calling. I know I’ll be attending Stake Presidency meeting each week (typically via teleconference, thankfully), arranging interviews for the Stake President and his counselors, working out the logistics for stake meetings, training ward executive secretaries, and things along those lines. I won’t be speaking in churches across the stake each month any more, so I should be in my home ward more often, which will be nice.

It’s a change up, and there will be a learning curve involved, but I do believe these callings are inspired, and thus I believe whatever is heading my way through this calling is something that’s divinely inspired. That goes a long way to help deal with whatever stressful things may arise.

In any case, I enjoyed my time on the High Council. I got to know many more people across the stake, and I actually enjoyed speaking quite a bit. (Though there were definitely weeks when I wished I didn’t have to write a 4,000 word talk that week . . .) I look forward to this new calling and whatever lies in store for me there. In the meantime, if you need to arrange an interview with a member of the Stake Presidency, I’m your huckleberry.

Sheep, The Gospel, and You

For our topic this month, the stake presidency asked us to use Elder Gerrit W. Gong’s general conference address, Good Shepherd, Lamb of God. It’s a wonderful speech, all about the many ways our Savior provides for us. He says, “At this Easter season, we celebrate the Good Shepherd, who is also the Lamb of God. Of all His divine titles, no others are more tender or telling. We learn much from our Savior’s references to Himself as the Good Shepherd and from prophetic testimonies of Him as the Lamb of God. These roles and symbols are powerfully complementary—who better to succor each precious lamb than the Good Shepherd, and who better to be our Good Shepherd than the Lamb of God?”

We’re almost always given topics in this manner. We’ve got a whole talk to draw on, and we’re let loose to present the message as we see fit. Usually when I approach writing my talk each month, I read over the talk and jot down ideas and passages that stand out to me. Almost always, when I get to the end of the talk, all I have to do is look back over what I noted, and I’ve already got the makings of what I want to say.

Not this time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like the talk. As I said, it’s wonderful, and I definitely recommend you give it another read through when you can. It’s just that so much of what Elder Gong said seemed like I couldn’t bring anything of myself to the topic. Not that I didn’t agree with it, but rather that if I were to really base my talk on his, I would end up doing the dreaded “He said it better than I could, so I’m going to read the whole thing to you” approach. I don’t think that’s my role as a high councilor. If the goal was to recreate the talk as best as we could, then there’s this lovely thing called the internet, where his talk is available to watch even as I speak. It would be a simple enough matter just to throw it up on a projector so we could all watch it once more together.

So quoting extensively from the talk doesn’t really feel right to me. When I get stumped, I pray about what to focus on. This time, that prayer gave me one word. Sheep. So here we go, brothers and sisters. Twenty minutes, all about sheep. Wish me luck.

I know the typical image that comes to mind when we talk about sheep in the Gospel. The Lord’s flock. The Good Shepherd. I don’t know why, but it wasn’t until I was writing this talk that I realized the disconnect between the way I think about sheep in Gospel terms and the way I observe them in reality.

Growing up, my family had a cabin in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. We would go up there each summer and go hiking, fishing, and swimming. The area has many things in its favor. Cool evenings even in the summer, beautiful vistas, and fresh air. But it also has plenty of sheep. Sheep that left dung all over the fields. Sheep that milled about in the road, confused by the simplest of things. The sheep I have met in real life are not animals I really want that much to do with. Mary can keep her little lamb. I’m more of a dog person, myself. In geek culture, if you want to disparage someone, you say they’re a sheep, willing to do what anyone else tells them to do.

Let’s face it. These days, if someone’s running a PR campaign for sheep, they’re doing a pretty miserable job. If someone says “sheep,” I think “obstinate, stupid, and easily confused.” Unless someone says “sheep” in church, in which case my mind translates that as “follower of God.” Which some in the world might argue means essentially the same thing.

But that contrast between definitions is a disconnect, and one of the things I love doing most, academically speaking, is exploring areas like that. Places where things don’t quite match up. So how does the idyllic Gospel view of sheep line up with my modern day experiences?

The time I hear us discuss sheep the most in church is when they get lost. Helping lost sheep back into the fold is an analogy that’s used frequently. The other day, we were discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Elder’s Quorum class. And as we discussed the ways in which we can look out for our neighbors, one question kept coming back to me: how should we handle a neighbor who doesn’t want to be looked out for? What do you do for a lost sheep who likes the pasture it ends up in, even if it’s not the pasture you feel would be best for it?

Having held various leadership callings in the church over the years, I know we all spend a lot of our time worrying about what we can do for those who are less active, or those who are new members in the church. I have spent hours in discussions about how to help people who haven’t necessarily ever expressed a desire for help. I’ve also spent hours trying to come up with ways to help people who ignored help when it was first offered, then only came back for help when the situation became more than they could handle, due mainly to the fact that they ignored the initial help and advice. How do those cases relate to the story of the lost sheep? How can we best meet others’ needs in these sorts of situations?

As I’ve thought about it, it feels like each of these situations call for different approaches. Ideally, we should be sure everyone knows they’re welcome at church. Knows that we’re here waiting for them, ready to accept them and help them. People who have left the church or are less active should know where and how to come back, but we should never get to the point where our obsession over them returning becomes an obstacle to that return. Where we just won’t leave them alone. Some sheep just want to jump flocks. They don’t need us there to constantly remind them we think they’re making the wrong choice. That’s not going to do anyone any good at all.

For those people who ignore earlier help and advice, only to turn around and come back for help later on when the situation is even worse, I try to view it from my interactions with patrons as an academic librarian. Each semester, I give instruction to many students about how to efficiently find information through our catalog and databases. I go through the intricacies of where to find books in Maine, and the differences between a keyword and a subject search. But perhaps the biggest point I try to emphasize is how important it is that they give themselves plenty of time when they’re doing research. To end up with the best paper possible, you need to give yourself access to the best research you can get your hands on. Often that research isn’t available in our library at the click of a mouse. You have to request it from somewhere else, and it takes time, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, for that information to arrive, depending on where it originates and in what form. There is no possible way for me to make a book in California get mailed to Maine any power. Yes, I’m the library director, but my powers stop well before the US Postal Service.

I emphasize the need to give yourself plenty of time because I have seen the other side of that equation all too often. The student who rushes into the library, frantic because their paper is due in a few days (or, once, a few hours) and they still haven’t started their research. At that time, there is little I can do. I can show them full-text databases. I can point out the books that are in our building, but they have limited their options by their own choices, and there’s nothing I can do to bring some of those options back.

When a person makes decisions, those decisions have consequences we can’t shield them from. Sometimes that results in very hard feelings. I’ve stood through more than a few instances of students telling me just what they thought of my library and my services. I understand that things can get emotional in the heat of the moment, but I’ve never let those interactions change the overall mission of the library. It’s a simple matter for me to separate those individual instances from the overall direction our services are heading.

That’s not always as easy to distinguish when eternal salvation is at stake. At those times, I think of the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:

1 aThen shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten bvirgins, which took their clamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

2 And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

3 They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

4 But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

5 While the bridegroom tarried, they all aslumbered and bslept.

6 And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the abridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

7 Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their alamps.

8 And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps aare gone out.

9 But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

10 And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were aready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was bshut.

11 Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

12 But he answered and said, aVerily I say unto you, I bknow you not.

13 aWatch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

Using this as our guiding star, it would be an easy enough matter to dust our hands off and ignore any and all wandering sheep. They should have thought of that before they started wandering, right? It’s important, however, not to set all your belief in any one of these parables. For one thing, Christ gave a series of them one after the other, saying in each “the kingdom of heaven is like.” Like ten virgins. Like a man giving out talents. Like a field of wheat and tares. Like a mustard seed. Like a beautiful pearl. The kingdom of heaven is only like each of these, because it is greater than each of them. It the sum of them all gathered together, with each parable describing only a part of that sum.

When I was in elementary school, my class did a skit of the story of the Blind Men and the elephant. A group of blind men go up to an elephant, an animal none of them have ever encountered before. Each feels a different part of the beast. Its ear. Its tusk. Its leg. Its tail. And afterward, they argue about what an elephant is like. Thin and ropy. Smooth and straight. Flat and flappy. Never realizing that they each only had experienced a piece of the elephant.

Do we ever get so bogged down in trying to debate what the Gospel is and isn’t, when what we fail to understand is that it’s possible the entirety of the Gospel is just beyond our understanding? I think there’s a reason Christ spoke in parables. Not because he had a penchant for the poetic, but because it really was the only way to try to get his audience of mortal minds to understand even some of what he was trying to convey to them

So aren’t I doing the same thing as I try to pick apart what exactly a lost sheep is and how best to handle it? Yes and no. It would be a mistake to casually dismiss a person because of their past. To give them a Gospel equivalent of an “I told you so” when they try to sincerely repent. But at the same time, the more I come to understand my role in the Gospel and my role as a parent, the more I see how important it is that we each learn from consequences, because often that’s the only way we can have hope of really understanding a principle.

I came from a pretty cushy upbringing. Whenever I had a problem, I had parents willing to bail me out of most of them, despite the fact that I don’t think I fully appreciated just what they were doing for me. When I moved to college, however, some of that changed. I was living in Deseret Towers at BYU, and this was back in the days of modems that chirped and whistled whenever you wanted to go online. I’d just set up my new computer (bought by my parents) and plugged the modem into the wall jack in my room. When I went to connect, however, it whistled and chirped for a moment, and then it went dead. No amount of futzing with the computer or modem could bring it back to life. Those noises were annoying and all, but speaking from experience, annoying chirpy noises were much better than no noises at all

I went to campus IT, and I discovered the system in my dorm needed an adapter for modems to work. If you hooked it up to the wall without an adapter, it would fry the modem after just a few seconds. A new modem was fifty dollars. No problem. I called my mom up and explained the problem to her, detailing just how unjust it was that no one had told me about this modem adaptor thing ahead of time, and how much it was going to cost to buy a new modem.

“That’s terrible,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

What she didn’t say, however, was “I’ll buy a new modem and send it to you right away.” I remember being taken aback by the lack of an offer to help. In that one moment, I suddenly realized how much she’d been covering for me before, and how it would be a fair bit different without that parental insurance program in the future. Now, let me be clear. It’s not that she suddenly stopped helping me. In fact, my parents continued to help me for decades to come and still stand ready to pitch in during tough times. But there was a definite shift in approach with that modem purchase. They were forcing me to become more independent, and it was impactful enough that I still remember the lesson, almost 23 years later to the day.

When I first started learning math, the teacher didn’t hold me accountable for calculus. When I go to a middle school orchestra performance, I don’t expect to hear the same caliber of musician as I do when I go to a performance in New York City. In the same fashion, we can’t expect every lost sheep to have the same wherewithal to recognize it’s lost and in need of help that we might have in the same situation. But I ask myself, what would I want someone to do if I were lost, or if my children were lost? Where would I want them to draw the line between being too pushy and not helping enough?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not sure what the answer is, honestly. In some situations, one approach might be too much. In others, that same approach might not be enough. I don’t think it’s a dilemma that can be easily answered with a “What would Jesus do?” response, either. I believe many people have an ideal answer in their head when that comes up, and Jesus, naturally, would always choose the ideal. Wouldn’t He? Each response would be the perfect one.

But sometimes, Jesus wasn’t all hugs and forgiveness. Sometimes He was scourging money changers in the temple and overturning tables. We have a very limited knowledge of Christ’s actual life, all of it consisting primarily of four accounts of his three year ministry. I’m not trying to dismiss the Bible at all, but we have almost no record of what Christ was like during the first thirty years of his life. How He behaved at parties. How He handled friendships. What happened when He got sick. What I mean is that in the vast majority of instances where people like to trot out the “What would Jesus do?” question, I’m not entirely sure what the right answer is.

Consequences are an integral part of our experience here on earth. If you touch a hot pan, there is no one who can take that pain away from you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be helped. Someone can bandage the wound. Someone could tell you not to touch the pan ahead of time. But I think we can all agree that the person who comes up to you just after you’ve experienced a traumatic event and says, “See? That’s why you don’t touch hot pans” doesn’t suddenly rocket up to the top of your Favorite Person in the World list. “I told you so” doesn’t become any more helpful days, months, or years after the fact.

In the Parable of the Ten Virgins, the wise virgins don’t take time to tell the others what they ought to have done. “We’ve been telling you since noon you need to get oil for your lamps. This is why you always need to be keeping your lamps ready.” Instead, they offered them advice on where they might go to get oil and left it at that. In his book, Faith Precedes the Miracle, President Kimball wrote, “Attendance at sacrament meetings adds oil to our lamps, drop by drop over the years. Fasting, family prayer, home teaching, control of bodily appetites, preaching the gospel, studying the scriptures—each act of dedication and obedience is a drop added to our store. Deeds of kindness, payment of offerings and tithes, chaste thoughts and actions, marriage in the covenant for eternity—these, too, contribute importantly to the oil with which we can at midnight refuel our exhausted lamps.”

So how does that tie into the Good Shepherd and His lost sheep? Well, for one thing, I cannot make the decision for how someone else needs to follow the Gospel. We each have our own lamp, and it can only be filled by our own actions. I can fast for someone else, but I can’t fast instead of someone else, if that makes sense. I can pay tithing for me, but I can’t pay tithing for you. In the same vein, the mistakes you think I’m making might not be mistakes at all. I’m not saying I live a perfect life, but I know there have been multiple times over the years when someone has told me (or told someone behind my back) that they think the choices I have made have fallen short of Gospel standards.

To them, I was a lost sheep in need of saving. So let me say from experience that not all those who wander are lost. When people came to tell me they thought I was wrong, it didn’t matter how well-intentioned those thoughts were. Often, they came across as judgmental and short-sighted. How many of the people that we discuss how to help would be upset to know we thought they needed help in the first place? Should we be helping those who don’t want that help?

In some cases, the answer is no. In others, the answer is yes. Case in point. Often when someone comes and asks us if we need help, we automatically will say no, even if we’re desperately in need of help. Why is that? Linguistically, it’s because we know most of those offers of help aren’t real offers. They’re phrases of speech we use to move through our day. In America, we’ll regularly ask someone how they’re doing, when all we mean is “hello.” In Germany, if you ask someone how they’re doing, they’ll look at you funny, and then, if they’re feeling chatty, they’ll proceed to tell you exactly how their doing, right down to their last sniffle.

If you ever want to make for an awkward interaction, take someone up on one of their offers of help they give right before they’re leaving a party, for example. We’ve all been there. You’re seeing people out the door, and someone says, “Are you sure you don’t need any help cleaning up?” The response we’re trained to give in this interaction is, “No. We’re fine. Thanks for coming.” If you were instead to say, “Now that you mention it, the bathroom really could use a good scouring,” I almost guarantee you’ll get some funny looks, followed by a “Gee, look at the time” before they duck out the door. That’s not because they’re uncaring or ungenuine. It’s because the offer of help wasn’t intended as a real offer. It was just a social nicety.

When you see someone in need, they’ll typically decline any help you verbally offer, especially if you say something like “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” That’s not going to be interpreted by most people as a sincere offer. If you really want to know if they need help, you might spend some time thinking of ways you could help them, and offer that, instead. “I’d love to make you a meal,” you could say. “What day would be best for me to bring it over?” Of course, the problem with offers like these is that they can sometimes be interpreted as insults. If you offer to help clean someone’s house, they might interpret that as you telling them their house is too messy. It’s the verbal equivalent of going up to a woman and asking when the baby’s due. Pro tip: don’t do that.

A different approach might be to be as honest and open with them as possible. “I can tell you’ve got a lot on your plate,” you might say. “I’d love to do what I can to help, and I’ve got some time next week. What can I do?” By breaking out of the typical linguistic mold of “is there anything you need?”, you can engage in a real discussion.

Fact. I’m about as far removed from shepherding as you’re likely to get. True, I suppose you could find some people in a large city who’ve only read about sheep and never actually seen one, but I’m not that far from that point. If I’m able to use my limited sheep knowledge to realize that sheep are sometimes obstinate and sometimes downright idiotic, I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to think Christ would have been aware of those same traits back when He was walking the roads of the Holy Land.

But as I’ve thought it through now, I don’t think there was a disconnect for Him when He first made the comparison. That’s only developed after the fact, as more and more people consume His words separately from their day to day meanings. In other words, when He said His followers were like sheep, might He have meant that we too could sometimes be obstinate and sometimes downright idiotic? That we are often too easily led astray and wind up in the brambles somewhere, bleating for help?

At some point in time, all of us are lost. In fact, all of us are lost at this moment. We’re constantly sinning and falling short of the commandments of God. May we keep that in mind as we try to answer the call of the Good Shepherd and help those around us do the same. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Seminary Teacher

The time has come for another year of early morning seminary. Those who were with me last year will remember I was running the seminary car pool some of the time, bringing teens to seminary at 6 in the morning, using that captive time to enlighten their musical tastes with all manner of wonderful song selections.

Well . . . I’ve got bad news for those of you who were fans of the morning reviews each day. I’ve been forced to discontinue the practice. Not because of any protest, but rather because there’s no longer a logical way for me to keep the car pool going.

Denisa’s been called as the seminary teacher, and so that means seminary is now at my house each morning at 6:15. And while I loved the car pool, I didn’t love it to the point that I’m going to drive around and start picking kids up so I can bring them back to my house. There’s a limit to what I’ll do for good music, it appears.

What does having seminary at our house mean? For Denisa, it means in addition to the 3.5 college courses she’s teaching this semester, she’ll also be teaching a 50 minute class Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday to seven 14-18 year olds. This year the focus starts out on the Old Testament for a bit, shifts to some of the New Testament, and then in January moves over to the Book of Mormon. In Utah and other places with a large Latter-day Saint population, Seminary is often an actual class students take during their school day. Teachers are paid. Out here in Maine, it’s a volunteer assignment. (Ponder that oxymoron for a while, but not too long.)

I’ll be leaving home a bit later than I usually do for work, so that I can be there while Seminary is going. This morning, that meant I woke up earlier, had breakfast, and then worked on my writing first thing in the morning. Actually it was quite lovely to be all done with writing so soon. If I can stick to that schedule, that could be great. On the other hand, it also means that my lovely “caught up on sleep” feeling from a few days ago last all of . . . one morning. Such is life. We’ll be trying to alter our schedules to accommodate the early mornings.

In any case, if you notice Denisa, me, or Tomas looking a little bleary eyed over the next while, now you know why. Wish all of us (and especially Denisa) luck!

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Sunday Talk: On Understanding

This past General Conference, Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “Our purpose as we seek to learn and to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ must be to increase faith in God and in His divine plan of happiness and in Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice and to achieve lasting conversion. Such increased faith and conversion will help us make and keep covenants with God, thus strengthening our desire to follow Jesus and producing a genuine spiritual transformation in us—in other words, transforming us into a new creature, as taught by the Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Corinthians.4 This transformation will bring us a more happy, productive, and healthy life and help us to maintain an eternal perspective.”

He proceeds to go into great detail about the various ways we can learn and teach other people. Parents teaching children. Members learning from others by example. Overcoming instances where what is taught is rejected or ignored. As a professional librarian, I can relate, and I have more than a little to say on the subject of teaching and learning. 

A case in point: academic librarians deal primarily with a thing we call “information literacy.” It’s our goal to help students get to the point where they can find, evaluate, and use information effectively in their lives. I spend a good chunk of time at work finding research for other people. I’ve done it so often and in so many different disciplines by now that it’s second nature to me. I can figure out keywords on the fly and jam them together in the right way to find just about anything. When people come to the desk asking for help, however, I can’t just breeze through the search the same way I would if I were doing it on my own. Simply finding them the information they need isn’t as useful as teaching them how to find it on their own–not if I want to make them information literate. To do that, I have to go through the same search basics every time. Not because the students are slow learners, but because it’s a new experience for each new student.

One of the reasons I’ve gotten so good at searching is because I’ve taught the basics to other people so many times. I’ve used all sorts of different search topics and stumbled through the different databases, learning from experience which are useful in which instances. Before you can teach someone, it’s best to know the material thoroughly. They’ll still ask you questions you don’t know the answer to, however, no matter how well prepared you are. It’s okay to admit when you don’t know the answer right away. We’re human. No one is omniscient, no matter how much some people would like you to believe that.

In the church, I think we sometimes would like to know more than we actually do. We don’t just believe something. We know it. And while there are certainly instances in the gospel that we can know, there are other areas where I think we try to take this principle too far. I know prayer works, because I’ve used it and seen its effects. I know God exists, because I’ve prayed to Him, felt His love, and seen His hand at work in my life and the lives of others. I believe the Book of Mormon is true and that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I believe we are led by a prophet today. I believe in Christ. I know following the Word of Wisdom has helped me live a healthier life. I know following church teachings has enriched my life.

When I’m teaching students, I’m open with the things I don’t know, because I’m confident I have the tools I need to be able to fund the answers, and I want them to have that same confidence. In church, my goal is the same. Do I know the answers to all of life’s questions? Definitely not. I know we like to claim that we have such a great understanding of where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going, but I would argue that our understanding, while perhaps relatively more robust compared to some other religions, is still quite shallow. We know where we’re going? Okay. Where, exactly? What will it look like? What will we do there, precisely? Where will we live? How will our days be filled? Will there even be days to fill, or will time be irrelevant? As soon as we get into specifics, the certainty of our knowledge starts to crumble. That doesn’t bother me, however, because I feel like I’m spiritually literate. I have the tools I need to find the answers to the things I need to know, as I need to know them. There’s no need for me to know the exact daily routine of the afterlife. I need to focus on the here and now–on the traits in myself I need to improve to become more Christlike.

I didn’t become information literate or spiritually literate overnight, however. It took time and effort to do both, filled with false starts and frustrations at times.

I’ve been working on doing family history research for my wife’s side of the family. She’s from Slovakia, and the records there have all been digitized. With a couple of clicks of the mouse, you can be up to your eyeballs in marriage records from the 17 and 1800s. But not only are those marriage records in cursive that’s sometimes hard to decipher, they’re also in Hungarian, German, Czech, Slovak, or Latin. Worse still, the names change based on the language of the record. What might be Gyrogy in a birth record is Gjrj in the marriage record. Jan could be Johan or Johannis. Last names change spellings, and sometimes nicknames are used instead of last names. When I first looked at those documents, I thought there was no chance I’d ever be able to understand them. However, with practice and familiarity, just about anything can be dealt with.

First, you have to recognize that the records follow patterns. Marriage records tend to stick together, and they’re organized by year. So just because something was in Hungarian and now it’s in Slovak doesn’t mean it’s changed topics. The names of the husband and wife are still in the same places, for example. Figure out the pattern, and you can figure out the page. That holds true in other areas of life as well. With information, if you get to know the ins and outs of one database, you can use that knowledge when you move onto a new one, looking for the underlying structure that helps you know how to navigate something that might seem bewildering at first. Spiritually, we learn line upon line, precept upon precept. Work to improve yourself in one area, and it’s my experience that you’ll find the things you learned here will transfer over when it comes time to learn something new. If nothing else, you’ll know that you can do hard things.

But there are still times when we’ve identified the language, know what sort of record it is we’re looking at, but still can’t make heads or tails of the handwriting. Is that a t or an l? Is that an ink blot, or were they dotting an i at some point? At times like this, I wish I had the original scribe next to me to ask questions–or at least someone who’s familiar with the handwriting.

This reminds me of the story from the New Testament that Elder Soares referred to in his talk.

26 And the aangel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert.

27 And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to aworship,

28 Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.

29 Then the aSpirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.

30 And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest?

31 And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him.

32 The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a alamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth:

33 In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth.

34 And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man?

35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him aJesus.

In this excerpt from the New Testament, the eunuch illustrates one of the quickest, most effective ways of learning: turning to someone else for guidance. Of course, this only works if we’re willing to actually listen to the person we’re turning to. How many of us have had people volunteer information when we’re not looking for it? Or we’ve ignored good information because we thought we knew better?

A few months ago, I was convinced my Prius was having battery issues. When I tried to start the car, it sputtered and stopped, and it was only after letting it rest for a while that it managed to start up at last. Confused and concerned, I did what any self-respecting man of modern thinking would do: I turned to the internet. After a couple of hours of research, I was convinced the car battery was on its last legs, and I made an appointment with my mechanic to confirm my suspicions.

This mechanic and I have had a long work relationship. I’d been taking my cars to him ever since I moved to Maine twelve years ago, and I trusted his opinion. He wasn’t someone who would tell me something was wrong with my car just so he could make some money on an unneeded “repair.” When I described the difficulty I’d been having, he frowned. “Sounds like your battery was drained too much one time, but it’s gotten over it. Did that happen at all?”

Actually, it had. One of my kids had helpfully left the door open overnight, and when I’d gotten to the car in the morning, the light had been on. But the car had still started up, and I didn’t think that explained the new problems. Still, my mechanic was reluctant to look at the issue. “Just drive it for a while, and if it keeps happening, we can take a look.” That wasn’t enough for me. My mind was filled with images of me being stranded in some remote parking lot, and so I insisted he take a look. I’d done all that research, after all. I was practically an expert on the nuances of the electrical system in a Prius by this point. He took the car and checked the battery. It was fine. All my research was wrong, which makes sense, since I’d garnered my knowledge over the course of a couple of hours online, and he had forty years of experience working on cars to base his opinion around.

We follow the same pattern with so many things these days. Medical symptoms. Parenting approaches. Life hacks. It seems there’s always someone online ready and waiting to tell you the answers to all your questions, especially if you’re willing to subscribe to his YouTube channel. And I don’t mean to disparage these resources. They can be invaluable in the right situations, but a five minute YouTube instructional video simply can’t replace a medical degree or a mechanic’s apprenticeship.

So the next question I have is, “Do we do the same thing with our Gospel dilemmas?” In the episode from the Bible, the Ethiopian read something he didn’t understand. He recognized it was beyond his ability to parse out on his own, and that he needed someone to help him make the connections. What would it have been like if, instead of turning to Philip, he had Google or Reddit available as a resource at the time?

To fully understand the implications of that question, it’s helpful to know how Google and other information resources online function. And this is coming from a trained information professional. I’m not just presenting you with stuff I searched out online as I prepared for this talk. Google has a bunch of automated computer programs that go out searching freely available information online. They’re called spiders, and they crawl the web looking for all the latest web pages. When they find a page, they make a copy of that page and store it on Google’s massive servers scattered across the world. 15 of them at last count. Each server storage facility is anywhere from 200,000 square feet to around 1,000,000 square feet in size, every foot packed with servers.

What sets a good search engine apart from a bad one comes down to one thing: algorithms. When you type in a phrase into the search box, Google runs that search on all its millions of servers, looking for where that phrase has appeared on other websites. Just dumping that results list in front of you wouldn’t be very useful, however. Instead, Google runs the results through a series of algorithms to decide what you’re actually looking for, and then it returns what it believes you really want, in ranked order, with the most likely result at the top. 

How does it determine what information is worthwhile and what isn’t? Typically it comes down to the principle of popularity. The more popular a web page is–the more people link to it and visit it regularly–the more likely that page is something useful. Other elements come into play as well (how often the search term appears on the page and where), but at the core of the matter, a Google search results list is a popularity contest.

Of course, knowing what the general population finds useful is only half the story, really. To return even more “accurate” results, Google tries to know as much as much as possible about the person doing the search, not just what’s being searched. What do they like to search for usually? What results do they click on? What political beliefs do they have? Where do they live? Do they have children? Do they like to travel? It uses as much of this information as it can get, and it feeds it all into that same algorithm. So you might think that if two people searched the same phrase that Google would return an identical list of results, you’d be wrong. If Google knows its me, its results will be tailored to me. If I do a search anonymously in Maine and another person does the same search anonymously in California, the results still might be different, because Google knows I’m in Maine and the other person’s in California.

Why does this matter? It matters because people don’t actually look through much of a Google results page. They look at the top three hits, and if what they’re looking for isn’t there, they try a new search. This is further complicated by the fact that Google sells ad space to companies, so often those top few hits has a couple of ads thrown in as well. So your search for medical symptoms ends up connecting you with drug companies that treat those symptoms.

But back to our friend, the confused Ethiopian. If he were to do his search today on Google, passing up Philip’s offer to help him understand, he would instead be connected to the most popular pages on the religious topic he’s focused on. If he were to search out a topic focused on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there’s a fair chance the most popular pages are far from the most uplifting ones. This matters in so many ways, because we as a society are training ourselves to turn to the internet for answers. We need to be able to tell the source of the results lists so we can discern between truth and error. Google won’t do that for us. For that, we have the Spirit. This isn’t to say that we can’t or shouldn’t use the resources available to us when we’re trying to find answers to questions that we have, but rather that we should be cautious and cognizant of the ways those resources might try to influence us. Don’t forget that there’s far less difference between Google and a used car salesman than Google would have us believe. We wouldn’t go to a used car salesman to ask what sort of car we should buy, and if we did, we’d be sure to take what he said with a whole box of salt.

So what’s the best way for us to come to understand the Gospel? For me, I learned over time, through the example of my family and friends. The biggest key has always been prayer, the scriptures, and the words of modern day prophets. My testimony and understanding of the Gospel has increased as I’ve prayed about its truthfulness and applied its teachings in my daily life. In my experience, the Gospel is not difficult. There are no trick questions. God isn’t trying to trip us up with confusing commandments.

Yet sometimes I encounter people within the church who espouse a different approach. They’ll delve into the nooks and crannies of speeches and papers written by past church leaders. I can understand the appeal, feeling like there’s some hidden truth waiting for those members who are diligent enough to go looking for it. And indeed, Paul speaks in 1st Corinthians about the need to first be fed with the equivalent of doctrinal milk before you’re ready to graduate to meat. In General Conference, Elder Quentin L. Cook addressed this train of thought, referring to it as a modern day equivalent of “looking beyond the mark.” In the Book of Mormon, Jacob speaks of the stiffneckedness of the people. “they despised the words of plainness, and killed the prophets, and sought for things that they could not understand. Wherefore, because of their blindness, which blindness came by looking beyond the mark, they must needs fall.”

Elder Cook states, “While there are many examples of looking beyond the mark,25 a significant one in our day is extremism. Gospel extremism is when one elevates any gospel principle above other equally important principles and takes a position that is beyond or contrary to the teachings of Church leaders. One example is when one advocates for additions, changes, or primary emphasis to one part of the Word of Wisdom. Another is expensive preparation for end-of-days scenarios. In both examples, others are encouraged to accept private interpretations. “If we turn a health law or any other principle into a form of religious fanaticism, we are looking beyond the mark.”26

Speaking of important doctrine, the Lord has declared, “Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me.”27 When we elevate any principle in a way that lessens our commitment to other equally important principles or take a position contrary to or which exceeds teachings of Church leaders, we are looking beyond the mark.”

There’s a reason the same principles are stressed time and time again by the speakers in General Conference. It’s because while they might seem easy to learn, they’re obviously incredibly hard to understand to the point that we actually follow them fully in our lives. I don’t believe God is squirreling away nuggets of truth, hiding them for those few members willing to go on a DaVinci Code level quest to find the Real Answers. When we are judged, it will not be by whether we knew where Adam-ondi-Ahman was or where exactly the Nephites lived. It will be on our understanding and application of gospel principles. Faith. Repentance. Charity.

When Denisa and I decided to have children, we quickly realized we had no clue what we were doing. Yes, each of us had somehow successfully been raised to adulthood, but neither of us really had any idea how it had happened, especially in those first few years. There’s a limit to a good memory, after all. To try and get a handle on how we should approach this new task, we turned to our friends and family. Not just anyone, however. We took a step back and thought about those couples we knew who had children we admired. We wanted to have children that would be like those examples, and so we asked those couples for tips and guidance on how to raise good kids. Their advice has worked well for us over the years.

We can follow that same pattern in the Gospel. When you face a trial or trouble that you haven’t handled before, look for people who might have faced it already and came through it well. I know there’s a strong vein of good old fashioned New England independence running through many of you, but this isn’t something you need to get through on your own. Just as you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t, at least) turn to Google to to diagnose a medical problem, you don’t need to use a search engine to get answers to spiritual dilemmas. Find those people you respect and admire and relate to, and talk to them. Ask for advice. That advice can’t replace the promptings of the Spirit, but it can often guide us to answers we wouldn’t have found on our own. God works through people, and each of us often needs a Philip to enlighten our understanding.

Perhaps one of the best parts of this approach? It strengthens everyone involved. I know I learn more when I teach someone else than when I taught myself or learned something the first time. You don’t need to feel like you’re bothering someone. How many people could have saved themselves hours or years of struggle if they just would have asked for help in the first place? I’m so grateful Denisa and I asked for advice when we began to be parents, just as I’m grateful we asked for help when we bought a house, bought a car, picked a career, and did so many other challenging things. If I was reliant on just learning by the mistakes I personally made, I would be lightyears behind where I am now. It’s so much easier and less messy to let yourself take the short cut and learn from others.

Proverbs 3:5 aTrust in the Lord with all thine bheart; and lean not unto thine cown dunderstanding.”

2 Nephi 32:3 aAngels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you,bfeast upon the cwords of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will dtell you all things what ye should do.

4 Wherefore, now after I have spoken these words, if ye cannot understand them it will be because ye aask not, neither do ye knock; wherefore, ye are not brought into the light, but must perish in the dark.

I bear my testimony that as we ask our Heavenly Father for help and understanding, we shall receive it. Sometimes it will be through the Spirit and revelation. Sometimes it will come to us through the conversations and love of others. But we don’t have to do it alone. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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