Category: religion

Latter-day Saint Missions Shortened to 18 Months*

Leading up to general conference this year, I’d heard plenty of rumors. There have been quite a few significant changes recently, so it’s no wonder people are buzzing with ideas about what else might change. This time around, I was hearing talk that the length of time young people serve on missions was going to change. Men were going to just serve 18 months. Or women were going to start serving 24 months. Or it was going to be up to the individual, regardless of gender, to serve 12, 18, or 24 months.

Or. Or. Or.

Conference came. Conference went. Mission lengths did not change, if you noticed.

However . . .

I learned through some research something older members might be well aware of, but which was new to me. The church DID make a big announcement in a leadership conference, shortening the length of missions for young men from 24 months to 18 months.

It’s just that they did it back in 1982.

In speaking for the First Presidency, President Gordon B. Hinckley said that “much consideration has been given to the term of service for young men in the mission field. Costs of maintaining missionaries have risen dramatically. Many of our families face extremely heavy economic pressures. The problem is aggravated by the fact that more and more young men are being called from lands outside the United States and Canada, many of them from lands where rates of inflation have been extremely high and have taken a serious toll in the real incomes of people.”

He added that in a number of areas young men are subject to “regulations which preclude extended absence from school or apprenticeship programs”; likewise, military requirements in some countries prohibit two-year absences to fill missions.

“It is hoped,” said President Hinckley, “that improved training will better qualify [the missionaries] to work more productively when they arrive in the field. It is likewise anticipated that this shortened term will make it possible for many to go who cannot go under present circumstances. This will extend the opportunity for missionary service to an enlarged body of our young men.”


But then, in a letter from the First Presidency in 1985, the change was changed back:

The First Presidency’s November 1984 letter emphasized that those pressures are still a matter of concern. But because of the earlier six-month reduction in the length of missionary service, the letter continued, “many missionaries have felt that at the conclusion of their missions they have had to go home at a time when they had developed the greatest capability to do the work.

“Particularly is this true of those who have learned a language.
“We feel this change will enhance our ability to proclaim the gospel to all the world, especially in areas where missionaries learn a second language. It will also give missionaries greater opportunity for increased spiritual growth and development.”

The First Presidency urged local priesthood leaders to “be sensitive to family resources,” and, where necessary, see that assistance is made available to families. “We hope no worthy young person will be overlooked for this most important Church service because of concern for financing a mission.”

Will the length change again? Who knows. Different times call for different approaches. If you read church history, you’ll find a lot of what ended up being cemented in stone around church practice started out as various people trying different approaches to solve problems.

If you’re familiar with Latter-day Saint doctrine, you’ll know the story of the Brother of Jared, who was tasked with coming up with a way to light ships for a long journey. Ships that had no windows. His idea ended up being to have God touch white rocks, which would then shine brightly for the journey.

I find the story inspirational. God, who was fully aware of everything from electricity, battery packs, nuclear fission or fusion, ended up going along with the “bright rocks” idea. Not because it was the best or perfect solution, but because it’s what His child had come up with, and He could make it work. How much of what happens in the church happens because God follows this same principle?

Food for thought,

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve been posting my book ICHABOD in installments, as well as chapters from UTOPIA. Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking the MEMORY THIEF Amazon link on the right of the page. That will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Latter-day Saint Name Change: Five Months Later

Back in October, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a public request: to have people stop using the term “Mormon” to refer to them. (See my post from back then for more information.) Five months into the switch, how are things going? Considering the church just announced it’s finally changing its web and social media presences as well, it seemed like a good time for me to revisit the topic.

First, the new changes. Gone are the mormon.org and lds.org sites, replaced by churchofjesuschrist.org and comeuntochrist.org. Mormonnewsroom.org is now newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org. More changes will follow, just as these changes have followed other significant ones (like changing “Mormon Tabernacle Choir” to “The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.” As I said before, it’s clear to me the church is not messing around with this change. It’s gone into it headfirst, holding nothing back, really.

So how has it gone, practically speaking?

I still find myself slipping up and referring to myself as “Mormon” or “LDS” now and then, but for the most part I’ve made the transition to referring to myself as a “Latter-day Saint” instead, eschewing the acronym, as requested. I’ve seen the term “Mormon” continue to be used in most news stories from official outlets even. I imagine it will take time and continued effort to get the change to really take root.

Interestingly to me, one of the strongest sources of opposition I’ve heard has come from church members themselves. I’ve heard quite a few members say they don’t see what’s wrong with continuing to use the term “Mormon,” objecting that language doesn’t work that way, or citing the numerous times the church has tried to switch its name in the past. I certainly understand the arguments, but at the same time, I think we’ve come to a point in society where people (for the most part) try to respect other people and use terminology a particular group requests. If we’re trying to use the right pronouns, for example, how hard is it to switch something like a slang term for a religion?

But perhaps that’s what’s caused some of the bristling in some of the cases: a sense that this is part of a general movement of switching how we use language elsewhere. If that’s the case, I’d hope people would change their mind. I continue to believe all people should be allowed to be called by whatever name or pronoun they wish. My mom had a kid in her school growing up who went by “Wild Thing.” Everyone called him that as his name, though I’m sure it wasn’t the one his parents gave him. So what? If that makes a person happy, what does it cost you to do it? A friend of mine in college decided she wanted to go by “Delia” as her name. I flubbed it a couple of times, but then it was just second nature. (In fact, I can no longer remember what her “real” name was.)

Anyway, from a linguistics perspective, it’s been an interesting journey so far. I’ve enjoyed observing how people navigate the switch, but I continue to hope the switch will ultimately be made. When I first heard about it, I was squarely in the “why does this matter?” camp, but the more I think about it and the justifications for it, the more in favor of it I am.

Sunday Talk: Believe, Love, Do

I spoke this Sunday in Belfast, though I had to give a really truncated version of this talk, since I was crunched on time during the meeting. Not too happy with how the live version ended up, so I’m at least somewhat relieved to be able to post the full text of my prepared remarks here. I tried to take a more practical approach this time, discussing how I personally apply Gospel principles to be happier in my life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Weltschmerz, literally translated “World pain,” is used in German to describe a feeling of world-weariness and melancholy. It was specifically coined in the 1800s to refer to the sadness of people who feel the world will never meet its potential due to the abundance of pain and evil in the world. It was a concept that was embraced at first by Romantic period authors like Byron, Blake, and Wilde, though it also came to be mocked as well, as people criticized the complaint, saying that people who bemoaned weltschmerz were just being overly sensitive.

In many ways, that’s a contrast that continues today in many different realms. We hear Weltschmerz expressed when people bear their testimonies and talk of how evil the world has become, is becoming, or has always been. It extends beyond the general complaint of the state of the world and transforms into smaller complaints. Kircheschmerz, or church-pain, would be the feeling of being overcome by the awful state of the church. Politikerschmerz, or political-pain, would be the feeling of being overcome by the awful state of politics. Patriotenschmerz, or patriots-pain, is the feeling the rest of the country has when they look at their future prospects for Super Bowl victories.

In the end, perhaps the worst element of any of these schmerzes is the temptation they bring with them to feel helpless. To feel like no matter what you do, this terrible state of being will continue. While that might be amusing enough to think of when people outside New England are grousing about the Patriots, it’s potentially much more toxic when it’s about things that matter from an eternal perspective. (Sorry, Patriots fans. Super Bowl victories just don’t quite rate up there.)

Satan would love nothing better than for us to throw in the towel and feel helpless about any number of things in the world. He knows that nothing has quite the same success rate as getting people to not bother to even try to solve a problem. Even if the odds of success are slim, they’re still better than doing nothing.

In his talk this past October, Elder Uchtdorf offers three actions we can take to combat the feelings of hopelessness that threaten to overwhelm us at times. “There is a solution to the emptiness, vanity, and Weltschmerz of life. There is a solution to even the deepest hopelessness and discouragement you might feel. This hope is found in the transformative power of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the Savior’s redemptive power to heal us of our soul-sickness. “I am come,” Jesus declared, “that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.”

We achieve that abundant life not by focusing on our own needs or on our own achievements but by becoming true disciples of Jesus Christ—by following in His ways and engaging in His work. We find the abundant life by forgetting ourselves and engaging in the great cause of Christ. And what is the cause of Christ? It is to believe in Him, love as He loved, and do as He did.”

So what does that look like in practice? Sometimes I feel like general conference talks and talks in church as a whole dwell on abstract ideas and teachings, leaving the personal application to the individual. Today, I’d like to talk about the times Elder Uchtdorf’s concept of believing, loving, and doing have brought me greater happiness in life and helped me develop a better relationship with God.

First, there have been times in my life I have chosen to believe. We live in a world where skepticism abounds. People clamor for proof, while at the same time undercutting practically any method we have to prove anything. Photographic evidence is easily disbelieved because Photoshopping is an easy enough task. Videos can be doctored with an app. Experts are brought in to discuss how memories can be manipulated. The scientific method is called into question, even when massive amounts of data is there to back it up.

These days, if you want a reason to disbelieve something, you can pick any one you want. But the same applies to belief, it seems. Relativism abounds. I can believe what I want, and you can believe what you want, as long as my beliefs don’t harm you, and your beliefs don’t harm me. And one of the most difficult things about this argument is how benign it seems on the surface. Who wouldn’t agree with something as simple as that?

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. There’s a fair bit of groupthink at play in the world today as well. Groupthink, if you’re not familiar with the term, is the tendency of people who belong to a group to end up encouraging each other to believe a certain way while at the same time discouraging others from believing anything that contradicts that belief.

Pick any “hot button” topic that’s being debated today, and you’ll see these arguments raging on both sides of the debate. Accusations of group think. Claims of faulty science. Personal attacks. It gets to the point that you’d think there’s no real way of ever determining what’s true. We’ll call it Glaubenschmerz. Belief pain. And you might be tempted to think it’s a recent phenomenon.

But then you read in Joseph Smith History. “My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.

10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?

11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.

12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”

These wars of words have happened before, and they will happen again. I try to keep in mind one simple principle. It doesn’t just matter that you believe. It matters what you believe in. Some would have you think the Gospel is just another instance of groupthink. That the promptings of the Spirit are nothing more than chemicals being released into your brain. You can talk to people who will spin your head in circles with their arguments, but in the end, they cannot escape one simple truth.


Either God exists, or He does not. Like Joseph Smith, I have prayed. I didn’t see a vision in response to that prayer, but it was answered nonetheless. One time that sticks out in my memory happened while I was in the Missionary Training Center. I’d decided to spend the next two years of my life focused only on sharing the Gospel, and I found myself questioning whether that was the sort of thing I was cut out for. I was particularly doubtful that someone like me–someone who liked to have fun and has a hard time sometimes keeping things serious–could ever do something so somber, all day, every day.

I felt overwhelmed and unfit for the task at hand. And one evening, I spent a long time praying, asking God what I’d need to do to change about myself to get through those two years. The answer I got surprised me. I felt an overpowering sensation of love and acceptance. That I hadn’t been called despite my personality, but rather because of it. I wasn’t to go to Germany to be the best cookie cutter missionary I could be, as similar to everyone else as possible, but to be the best missionary I could be. Unique and singular. At the same time, I felt a clear impression that God knew who I was better than I knew myself. That He knew me before I came to earth, and that the person I am now and the intelligence I was then were one and the same. That experience with prayer was a high point during my time at the MTC, and it’s stayed with me since then.

Sometimes in the church we try to use logic and facts to convince others of the truth of our faith. If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith had to be a prophet. And we scour the book to find evidences of its truthfulness. Chiasmus. Word use. Translation quirks. It’s an understandable desire: we don’t just want to believe. We want to know. And there are plenty of times that knowledge feels tantalizingly close. If we could just reason things through a little differently, or if only our knowledge were a bit more complete in a few areas. But the sword of logic cuts both ways, and the more we grow to depend on those arguments, the more susceptible we are to the counterarguments those who are against the church may raise. There are plenty of them to be found.

As President Benson said, “Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand.” For me, the wall of my faith rests on the answers to prayers like the one I received in the MTC. I choose to believe even when my faith is questioned, because I have had enough experience with prayer to be able to state without doubt, I know God lives, and I know He loves us. I know prayer works, just as I know I love my wife and children. It isn’t based on logic or reason. It’s more than that.

Second, there have been times in my life I have chosen to love. This isn’t something that comes as easily for me. I’m good at loving those I’m already close to, but to be blunt, I have problems being compassionate to strangers on an individual basis. My mind jumps too quickly to what choices they might have made in their lives that cause them problems today. To how I would have done things differently, or how everyone needs to learn from their mistakes.

Of course, when it comes time to explain my own problems and those of my friends, it’s easy to see nuances and complexities. How terribly tangled life can be, and how inevitable some of those mistakes proved. It’s much the same as with bad drivers on the road. Everyone swears their surrounded by people with the driving skill of a poorly trained chimpanzee, but no one’s willing to admit they make more than a few mistakes of their own when their behind the wheel.

Elder Uchtdorf states, “The scriptures reveal that the more we love God and His children, the happier we become. The love Jesus spoke about, however, isn’t a gift-card, throwaway, move-on-to-other-things love. It isn’t a love that is spoken of and then forgotten. It is not a “let me know if there is anything I can do” sort of love. The love God speaks of is the kind that enters our hearts when we awake in the morning, stays with us throughout the day, and swells in our hearts as we give voice to our prayers of gratitude at evening’s end.

This is the inexpressible love Heavenly Father has for us.

It is this endless compassion that allows us to more clearly see others for who they are. Through the lens of pure love, we see immortal beings of infinite potential and worth and beloved sons and daughters of Almighty God.

Once we see through that lens, we cannot discount, disregard, or discriminate against anyone.”

I’m trying to get more of that love. To be able to see individuals without discounting or disregarding their troubles. In the meantime, one area where I have chosen to love is when it comes to discrimination. Whether it’s for race, religion, political persuasion, gender, sexuality, or any other reason, I try to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. I struggle on an individual level to see past a single person’s life choices, but I’d like to think I do better when it comes time to making decisions and expressing positions on laws and the treatment of people as a whole. I’d like to think many in my religion follow suit, though I am disappointed at times in that hope. That’s when I remind myself how many in this church do so much better than I do at loving on an individual level.

We all have strengths and weaknesses we need to overcome, and I hope and pray we all continue to strive to do so.

Third, there have been times in my life I have chosen to do. There have been plenty of times I’ve gotten discouraged over the years, for a variety of different reasons. Feeling like I have too much to do, or feeling like I have to little to really engage with. Troubles with my kids at school, problems with coworkers, news on a national level, disagreements over church activities. While the cause of the discouragement has changed in so many different ways, the result (in me at least) is often uniform: when I get discouraged, I start feeling like it might be better just to stop trying. It seems like nothing I could possibly do could make a difference, so why should I bother doing anything at all?

Of course, this is antithetical to the Gospel and to common sense. Doing nothing is the only way to guarantee nothing will be done. But it’s one thing to have a handy saying like that, but it’s another to find ways to actually put it into practice. With that in mind, here are a couple of real-world ways I motivate myself to get going when I’m tempted to stay still. Maybe they could help some of you in similar situations.

First, it’s helpful for me to set overarching goals of things I want to achieve. These days, it often feels like I have a goal for everything. How many times I want to floss each month. When I want to write in my journal. How long I want to read my scriptures each day. How many words I want to write of my current novel each day. But I don’t come to these goals randomly. I look at my life and decide what’s important. Where I want to be focusing my time. And then I make goals that help me meet this big priorities.

This wasn’t always the case. I managed to coast through nineteen years of life goal free, until one day I was challenged in the MTC to set some personal goals. At the time, I thought it was silly. I’d gotten by just fine without goals for so long, why should I change things up? They had a quote that helped put it in context for me. In 1970, Thomas S. Monson said, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is measured and reported, the rate of improvement accelerates.”

For me, setting goals is a way of measuring the hard-to-measure. For example, I like to write. When I was starting out in college, I knew I wanted to write novels, but I had no idea how to actually finish one. In the end, I broke it down to a daily goal of 500 words. These days, I’ve upped that to 1,000, and I’ve managed to finish 17 books that way. Two are professionally published, and a third is under contract as well.

Second, so much of actually doing something comes down to starting. When you sit down to write a new story, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of an empty page with a blinking cursor. When I know I have a new project I need to start, whether it’s a home renovation, a new endeavor at work, or a family goal, I often find myself caught at the beginning, feeling like I’ll never be able finish something so monumental. But if I can just start doing something connected to the job–anything small, even–then that’s enough to get me over that initial speed bump, and I’m off and running.

With writing, that usually means I stop worrying about what to write and just start writing about anything, instead. I’ll start filling the page up with brainstorming, or with paragraphs all about how frustrating it is to not be able to think about what to write about. And as the page fills up with text, suddenly it’s no longer that intimidating. Somehow in the process of doing, it all becomes easier.

With bigger jobs, sometimes it takes more than the usual approach. Whenever I’m in panic mode, I’ll turn to lists. My kids can vouch for how often they’ll see me take out a scrap of paper and jot down the things I need to get done on a Saturday. I will write down literally everything I can think of to do, from chores around the house to simple things like eating breakfast, brushing my teeth, or taking a shower. I take all the anxiety around how overwhelmed I feel, and I put it down on paper where I can see it, number it, and visualize it easily. Once that’s done, I just start getting things off the list. Who knew eating breakfast can make you feel so successful? But just like with the empty page filling with words, something about seeing those items getting crossed off motivates me to move on to the harder tasks.

The last approach I use to get myself into gear is something I really only trot out when I’m finding myself struggling with a problem on a long term basis. I’ll have tried lists. Tried goals. Tried just trying to begin. But when none of that is proving effective, I’ll make my goals and my struggle public.

Throughout my life, I have struggled with my weight. Not as much as some, but certainly to the point that I was unhappy with how I looked, and how it was affecting my health. When I crossed the line into being officially obese, I went on a diet to get back to simply “overweight,” but I still stayed ensconced there for many years. At the same time, one of my favorite ways to reduce stress has always been eating and baking. I love making brownies almost as much as I love eating them. Other people have their coffee or their daily run. I had my evening ice cream. It didn’t take a genius to guess my weight problem and my eating habit might be connected somehow.

It seems obvious now, but at the time, I was also trying lots of different things to feel better. I started exercising regularly and taking a multivitamin. Sometimes we’re really attached to the low hanging fruit, and so we’ll try to pick all the harder to reach thing first, just so we can hold on to our favorites. But one morning a couple of years ago, the thought came to me as clear as revelation: I needed to give up sugar, and if I did, I would feel better.

This was not a piece of divine inspiration I wanted to pay any attention to. In fact, I really wanted it to be wrong. But at the same time, I’ve had enough practice with inspiration to recognize when something has real power behind it. I felt strongly that for me, sugar was holding me back. When I told my wife my new goal–to stop eating processed sugar for at least a month and a half–she thought I might be going crazy. Not because she thought it was a bad idea, but because it was so out of character for me, and it wasn’t something I’d ever discussed with anyone before.

I knew I was going to need more help than that, however. One of the reasons the whole idea stuck with me so much was the simple fact that the first thought I had after I came up with the goal was “I could never do that. That’s too hard.” The next thought was, how ridiculous is that? I’m stronger than sugar.”

So to make it more likely that I’d actually follow through with my new goal, I made it as public as possible. I wrote about it on Facebook. I blogged about it. I told all my friends. I made it so that everyone who knew me knew this was an important goal for me. At that point, suddenly everywhere I went, people were asking me about it. Encouraging me to keep at it. The first week or two were pretty rough, but I got through them with the help of my friends and family.

Elder Uchtdorf notes, “In the Savior’s work, it is often by small and simple means that “great things [are] brought to pass.”

We know that it requires repetitive practice to become good at anything. Whether it’s playing the clarinet, kicking a ball into a net, repairing a car, or even flying an airplane, it is through practicing that we may become better and better.

The organization our Savior created on earth—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—helps us to do just that. It offers a place to practice living the way He taught and blessing others the way He did.”

Satan would have us all be discouraged. Overwhelmed by Weltschmerz and the other pains of the world. When we’re focused only on our problems and not on potential solutions, it’s just as if we never tried any solutions at all. I try to remember that we didn’t come to this world to solve all the problems and figure it all out before we die. We came to struggle and to learn and to grow. When I’m faced with tough times and discouraging news or an overwhelming workload, I try to keep that in mind, even though sometimes that’s more difficult than others.

If we put Elder Uchtdorf’s advice to work, there’s a formula to deal with those difficulties. Believe. Love. Do. As Christ said in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” I’ve tried to offer you some of the approaches I’ve used to put the Believe, Love, Do advice to work. Some of them might not work as well for you. Some of them might not work at all. But I know that as we turn to God and ask Him how best to handle our problems, we will receive an answer. It might not always make sense in the middle of the moment, but when I’ve followed those answers, they have never led me down the wrong path. I bear testimony of this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Learning to Serve

I spoke in Waterville yesterday. This month the topic was on service. I focused on a question I’ve had around service for quite some time: when is it appropriate, and inappropriate, to serve? I know the easy answer is “you should never turn down an opportunity to serve.” But there are times when you just don’t have time, or the request is manipulative. For me, it’s a complex question, and I’m not sure I really reached an answer, but I tried. I was happy with how the talk turned out.

Here’s the full text from yesterday:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When it comes to service, perhaps the single best known contribution I made to the discussion in the Farmington ward was to create the infamous Ward Moving Project Contract when I was the Elders Quorum President. This would have been about nine years ago. I’d already been living in the ward for a few years before I received that calling, and I’d been in the presidency for a year or so during that time. Over the course of my time in the presidency, I had seen a pattern develop for most service projects the Elders Quorum was asked to perform.

The approach to service has changed a fair bit in between then and now, but at the time, the Elders Quorum was often looked at as the go-to muscle to do any job a member of the ward wanted help with. Whether it was wood projects, cleaning out a house, or moving someone into or out of the ward, we were always just a phone call away. Let me state right away that I have nothing against helping members out in times of need. There have certainly been times I have been in a real bind, and church members have shown up to provide me with some much needed assistance.

And yet as I went to some of those service projects, I observed a few troubling trends that some–not all–of the projects involved. First of all, they were often last minute affairs, called at the spur of the moment, even though they were projects that could have been anticipated long in advance. Hardly anyone finds out they need to move less than a week before that move needs to take place, for example, and it’s not as if the fact that anyone running a wood stove will need firewood to stay warm over the winter should come as a shock to anyone. Members of the Elders Quorum can be busy with their regular lives. It was difficult to throw together a project at the last minute and have it be well organized and attended.

Additionally, I would see some of the people we were serving take little care for actually participating in the project themselves. Able bodied men and boys sitting inside while the quorum was outside hauling wood. Or we’d arrive to a moving project to find nothing boxed and ready to go. I don’t want to cast aspersions on any one project in particular. I’m sure there could be extenuating circumstances for any one of them. But taken as a whole, they presented a worrisome trend.

Enter the Ward Moving Project Contract. Because I’m a bit of an electronic packrat, I still have a copy hanging out in my email. Some of the elements of the document were very practical. It asked people to identify the size of the home being moved, as well as any specialty items (like pianos or washing machines). But it also had some pretty strict guidelines, asking people to give at least two weeks’ notice for a move, provide water for anyone during the move, box everything before the project began, and obtain all necessary moving trucks and equipment ahead of time. One of its last bullets noted, “Any deviation from these guidelines must be discussed in advance and approved by the Elders Quorum President. If these guidelines are not suitable, we encourage the family to find alternate means to move themselves. If these guidelines are violated, we will leave.”

I played for keeps with that contract. Let’s just say It didn’t exactly go over well with everyone who saw it. The most oft repeated criticism of it was that it was big on commitments and light on Christlike service. After all, Christ didn’t make the ten lepers sign a waiver before He healed them, and no long disclaimer was handed out before the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

Yet this is an issue that continues to resound with me. Where is the line between unselfish service and borderline indentured servitude? Some of the difficulty stems from the fact that different church members can have very different ideas about when it’s appropriate to ask for help from other members, and when it isn’t. I’ve heard some complain (back when we were still doing the home teaching program) that their home teachers wouldn’t come for all their requests. But then I heard requests for service ranging from yard work to roof shoveling to house cleaning–basically things that many people consider actual jobs. Believe me, I understand that it’s cheaper if you can get a church member or a missionary to come do something for free instead of hiring it done, but is it appropriate?

The answer to that question is going to vary from member to member, which is fine, I suppose, until it isn’t. Until a member who thinks it’s appropriate to ask for help clearing their property of poison ivy asks someone who thinks that’s a step too far. Either the member who’s been asked will refuse, leaving the requestor feeling spurned, or they’ll agree, and resent the extra unnecessary help they’re giving.

Obviously, a large part of this predicament can be avoided by both parties being understanding and Christlike in their dealings with each other. But beyond that, I have always been taught there’s a hierarchy in the way we ask for help solving a problem. First, we should all strive to be self-sufficient. If there’s something we can solve on our own, we should do so. Second, we should turn to our family for assistance. If there remains a task we can’t handle, then it’s appropriate to turn to the church. True, that hierarchy is generally used when someone’s looking for financial assistance from the church, but I think it applies to other types of assistance as well.

For me, one of the best acts of service I’ve ever received in the church occurred when I wasn’t even in the state. I was down in Boston, as I recall, when my wife called me, frantic. The basement was flooding. The sump pump had failed, and water was pouring in from the crawl space. I was far away, unable to assess the situation. I suggested she call our home teachers, and they came within the half hour. The cleaned the sump pump, got things working again, and a crisis was avoided.

Another example that comes to mind are the times I’ve called friends and home teachers to come give a blessing to me or a family member. I’ve been so grateful for people who are willing to step in and help me when I’ve had no way of helping myself.

As I’ve thought about service, then, I’ve looked at these examples to try and find what made them feel different from the times when my own efforts have felt unnecessary or unappreciated. First off, they involved emergencies. These were times when I needed help right then, and I had no idea I’d need help ahead of time. Second, they were things I was unable to do on my own, whether because I lacked the knowledge or experience or because I wasn’t physically present to pitch in. Third, they were times the person involved contributed with no thought or hope of recompense. They were just being nice to be nice. More on that in a moment.

My wife and I have been trying to instill a strong work ethic in our children, and that’s a task that’s proven much more difficult than I would have hoped. I don’t think it’s because my children are particularly rebellious or lazy. I actually think they’re pretty great. But rather, I think we all have a need to overcome the natural man, and the natural man in my house seems to have a real taste for long sessions of Fortnite games and My Little Pony marathons.

Over the years, we’ve tried various programs and approaches to household chores. We’ve had goal sheets, sticker charts, rewards, penalties, Family Home Evening discussions, and more. In the end, the thing that’s worked the best for us has been the development of the Chore Chart, a grid we print off each week that has various chore assignments that change from week to week. Video games and screen time aren’t unlocked each day until those chores are finished.

It’s worked for the most part, as each of our three children have faced the grim reality that my wife and I aren’t kidding about getting those chores done. But one area where it’s failed has been in the building of any sort of a sense of family unity and service around the home. Instead, I see my children often check off the stuff they have to do and completely ignore anything that isn’t on their slate that week. In my ideal world, we’d all be pitching in for each other as everyone’s needs and responsibilities change from week to week.

When I was halfway through my undergraduate degree, I learned firsthand a simple principle: when I choose to do something, I have a whole lot more fun doing it than when I am forced to do it by outside influences. In school, this meant I would try to get ahead of my homework and reading by at least a few days, so I was no longer doing it because I had to do it, but because I wanted to get it done. I know that might not seem like an insignificant difference to many of you, but it made all the difference in the world to me. Suddenly, how I spent my time was up to me. Yes, I could sit around and play video games if I wanted. No professor would have gotten mad at me or been disappointed. I was ahead of my obligations, after all. But I could also spend some time to stay ahead of the curve and keep that feeling of being on top of things with me. It’s a heady sensation, if you’ve never had it before. One that’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to recapture as my obligations multiply over the years.

The same principle applies to service, I think. When you do something because you’ve chosen to do it, it’s much less likely to feel like a burden or an imposition. Go grudgingly, and chances are you’ll resent what you’re asked to do.

In the seventh chapter of Moroni, Mormon talks about the importance of intentions and their relation to our actions.

6 For behold, God hath said a man being aevil cannot do that which is good; for if he boffereth a gift, or cprayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real dintent it profiteth him nothing.

7 For behold, it is not counted unto him for righteousness.

8 For behold, if a man being aevil giveth a gift, he doeth it bgrudgingly; wherefore it is counted unto him the same as if he had retained the gift; wherefore he is counted evil before God.

9 And likewise also is it counted evil unto a man, if he shall pray and not with areal intent of heart; yea, and it profiteth him nothing, for God receiveth none such.

Cristina B. Franco, Second Counselor in the Primary General Presidency, put it like this: “it will not matter if we sat in the comfy seats or if we struggled to get through the meeting on a rusty folding chair in the back row. It won’t even matter if we, of necessity, stepped into a foyer to comfort a crying baby. What will matter is that we came with a desire to serve, that we noticed those to whom we minister and greeted them joyfully, and that we introduced ourselves to those sharing our row of folding chairs—reaching out with friendship even though we aren’t assigned to minister to them. And it will certainly matter that we do all that we do with the special ingredient of service coupled with love and sacrifice. In the end, it’s the motivation we do our service that matters.”

So there we have it. All we need to make sure we are approaching service right is to be joyful about it. We need to be authentically good. Fantastic. Wait a minute. How do we do that?

Back in July, I injured my shoulder playing tennis. It’s been bugging me ever since. Not a severe pain most of the time, but enough to remind me it’s there. A constant discomfort marked now and then by more intense pain. I debated going to get it looked at, but as the months went by and it didn’t improve, I finally decided enough was enough. It turns out the injury was more serious than I was trying to pretend (surprise surprise), and I’ve been going to physical therapy now for the past few months.

What I wanted to get out of physical therapy was simple. A few key exercises I could do every day that would magically make my shoulder feel better. But after the initial exam, the therapist told me one of the things I really needed to improve was my posture. It turns out my shoulders are rolled way too far forward. The muscles that are supposed to be there keeping everything tight and in place aren’t developed enough. Because of that, whenever I move, I’m exacerbating the problem. This is something a younger body was able to get away with, but as my body gets older, it isn’t as resilient as it used to be.

My therapist showed me where my shoulders were supposed to be, manhandling them back into a painful position. I stared at him, thinking he had to be joking. “How in the world am I supposed to keep them there all the time?” I asked.

He told me those muscles are actually indefatigable, a fun word to say which means they aren’t ever supposed to get tired. They’re built for long term endurance. Except mine have been on a permanent vacation. “You get them into shape the same way you train for a marathon,” he told me. “Bit by bit over time, with concerted effort and attention. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, it’ll eventually improve.”

I think that’s the same way we become authentically good. It’s not something that’s going to happen in a day. We won’t be asked to perform service and magically find ourselves excited and ready to help. “19 For the anatural bman is an cenemy to God, and has been from the dfall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he eyields to the enticings of the fHoly Spirit, and gputteth off the hnatural man and becometh a isaint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a jchild, ksubmissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.”

Satan’s goal is for us to skip that process. For us to think about it and decide it’s just too hard. He’d much rather we slouched through life instead of standing tall and doing what God has asked. To persuade us away from the right path, he puts up as many false obstacles as he can. He’d have us think of service strictly as the most uncomfortable, unwanted activities we can imagine. But I think that most of us actually do far more service than we’re aware.

First of all, remember that service to your friends and family counts just as much as service to strangers. Not if you’re just doing it so that your friends and family will do things for you, but if you’re generally trying to help someone other than yourself, congratulations. You’re serving.

President Dallin H. Oaks taught: “Our Savior gave Himself in unselfish service. He taught that each of us should follow Him by denying ourselves of selfish interests in order to serve others. A familiar example of losing ourselves in the service of others … is the sacrifice parents make for their children. Mothers suffer pain and loss of personal priorities and comforts to bear and rear each child. Fathers adjust their lives and priorities to support a family… We also rejoice in those who care for disabled family members and aged parents. None of this service asks, what’s in it for me? All of it requires setting aside personal convenience for unselfish service. …[And] all of this illustrates the eternal principle that we are happier and more fulfilled when we act and serve for what we give, not for what we get. Our Savior teaches us to follow Him by making the sacrifices necessary to lose ourselves in unselfish service to others.”

For whatever reason, service to family can sometimes feel like baseline service. It’s taken for granted as something we’re supposed to do anyway, perhaps, and so it doesn’t count as real service. And yet it should very much count all the time. Unselfish service doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Much of the initial phases of learning to serve joyfully and unselfishly are learned through service in the home. Being part of a family provides us with so many opportunities to forget ourselves and help others.

In some ways, I worry the chore chart my wife and I made for our children is teaching the value of hard work, but at the expense of selfless service. After all, a family can’t function if every person in it is only worried about the things he or she has to get done each day. There will be times I’m busier than everyone else, and times that everyone else is busier than I am. I should pitch in to help where I can instead of simply stopping at the boundaries of what’s been assigned to me.

I’m still not quite certain how to go about helping that trait to grow in my family, and it’s caused me to reflect on how I’ve helped it grow in myself. We all have weaknesses, and I think that’s still one area I need to work on personally. I’ve found the best way to become better at anything is through practice, and so I’m trying to take more time to do nice things for others in my family without being asked. Ideally, I do it without being acknowledged, either–and that’s a tricky spot for me.

It’s not just that I don’t like feeling like I’m not appreciated. When I clean the bathroom or do the dishes for one of my kids, I want them to recognize that I pitched in and helped out. I want my children to realize they had responsibilities and someone helped them  After all, step one is realizing they have obligations of their own to fulfill.

As I wrote this talk, I came to a greater understanding of the way I learned how to serve others. It happens in stages. The first stage is recognizing you have things you need to do for yourself. Things you want to improve. Goals you want to meet. Until you can start wanting to improve yourself, moving on to the next step is impossible.

Sister Franco notes a problem with this of course. “We live in a selfish world where people constantly ask, “What’s in it for me?” instead of asking, “Whom can I help today?” or “How can I better serve the Lord in my calling?” or “Am I giving my all to the Lord?” But I think it’s important to realize that even developing just a love of yourself is still a way to develop and understand love. If you stop there, you’ve done almost no one but yourself any good, though.

The next step is to recognize that the love you feel for yourself is something others feel for themselves as well. That we all have our own goals and desires, and that the odds of us reaching those goals are slim as long as we’re on our own. It’s easiest to recognize this in people you already care for or regularly interact with. “Perhaps,” you say to yourself, “if I were to help my mother with that chore, she’d be more likely to want to help me get the thing I want.” It’s still mostly a selfish desire, but you are at least beginning to move your attention elsewhere, if only to get the things you want more quickly.

But once that realization that other people have desires and goals moves from being “this is a way I can manipulate people into helping and liking me” and over to a “what would it feel like if someone were to help me without being asked?” we can really begin to progress. Often that transition only occurs when we see the example of other people. In my experience, sometimes it takes multiple instances before someone begins to actually sit up and take notice. That happens with many things, like when you learn a new word for the first time, and you swear no one has ever used that word in front of you before. Except from the moment you learn it, you discover multiple people using the word around you from then on.

I have to remind myself that my children are learning line upon line, just as I am. At times it might feel important to point out to them that I did something nice for them without being asked, but the more I think about it, the more I worry that sets the exact wrong example I’m trying to portray. The moment you bring up the fact that you did something nice for them, you can no longer really say you were doing it for no other reason than to be nice. Because you clearly were doing it to teach them a lesson. And after all, if that’s really why I was doing it, then could I truly say I was doing it for no reason?

It’s a paradox, I suppose. Perhaps the best solution is to tuck my head down and serve where I can. Sister Franco asks, “Are we sacrificing of our time and talents so the rising generation can learn to love the Lord and keep His commandments? Are we ministering both to those around us and to those we are assigned with care and with diligence—sacrificing time and energy that could be used in other ways? Are we living the two great commandments—to love God and to love His children? Often that love is manifest as service.”

Up until now, I’ve often worried about overextending myself. King Benjamin notes that everything should be “done in wisdom and aorder; for it is not requisite that a man should run bfaster than he has strength.” That’s a phrase I’ve found myself using a lot over the years, and I definitely still believe it. But I’m also beginning to think perhaps focusing on that one principle too much closes me off from the chance to develop in other ways.

Sooner or later, we all need to forget ourselves and serve others. I clearly do not have that process figured out yet. I know how it can and should work in a family, even if I haven’t been able to master even that. I’m uncertain how it ultimately can work in a community, a ward, or a stake, but I’m working on becoming better.

One last thought I’d like to share on the subject comes from CS Lewis. In his book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis writes from the point of view of a demon trying to tempt a man to be evil and fall away from God. That demon observes, “Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury…. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him.   It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-a -tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.”

I know this is one of my weaknesses. I schedule my days and weeks out to what some might say is an absurd degree. When something crops up that spoils that schedule, it can really throw me for a loop. Requests for unselfish service are often the culprit. I need to do a better job releasing the concept that my time is my own. Perhaps some of you can relate.

Wherever you might find yourself on that path, I encourage you to strive to keep moving. Love God, and love His children, and do things for others that they cannot or have not yet done for themselves. I believe that as we do this, we come closer to becoming what God knows we can become, and we can ultimately find joy in unselfish service.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Sunday Talk: A Season of Hope

Our church has a tendency to promote perfectionism. It’s no wonder. Christ told us to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” And to make sure we have a proper understanding of all the many different facets perfection holds, we are reminded of them week after week. Pray. Read your scriptures. Think pure thoughts. Be charitable. Don’t lie. Honor thy father and thy mother. Come to church. Magnify your calling. Minister to others. Go to the temple regularly. Do your family history. I could go on, but you get the point.

Fact. If I were to focus on one item on that laundry list of goals, I might have a shot at getting pretty good at it by the time this life is through with me. I don’t know if I’d be able to claim perfection in that one aspect, but perhaps I’d come close. The thought of becoming perfect as a whole leaves me panicked. But isn’t that what the Savior commanded us to do?

In my preparation for this talk, I came across another one given just over a year ago–one that had somehow fallen off my radar. I’m almost sure I heard it when it was first given by Elder Holland last October, but I couldn’t remember it when I read it again. It’s entitled “Be Ye Therefore Perfect–Eventually,” and I highly recommend it to any of you who might be feeling overwhelmed by the Gospel. Read it in its entirety. It’s a wonderful message that says so much of what I was feeling as I was approaching my own talk.

Of particular note is this passage. “Jesus did not intend His sermon on this subject to be a verbal hammer for battering us about our shortcomings. No, I believe He intended it to be a tribute to who and what God the Eternal Father is and what we can achieve with Him in eternity. In any case, I am grateful to know that in spite of my imperfections, at least God is perfect—that at least He is, for example, able to love His enemies, because too often, due to the “natural man” and woman in us, you and I are sometimes that enemy. How grateful I am that at least God can bless those who despitefully use Him because, without wanting or intending to do so, we all despitefully use Him sometimes. I am grateful that God is merciful and a peacemaker because I need mercy and the world needs peace. Of course, all we say of the Father’s virtues we also say of His Only Begotten Son, who lived and died unto the same perfection.”

Again, a big part of me was tempted to just stand up and read Elder Holland’s talk verbatim over the pulpit, even though it wasn’t the talk I was assigned to speak on today. I might have let it pass me by when it was first given, but it’s cemented in my memory now. Please go back and read it if you need reassurance. It’s one thing to have me stand up here and deliver a message, but to have one of the Quorum of the Twelve give a talk like that during general conference deserves not to be forgotten.

When I am overwhelmed, I often go into what I call “decision lock.” Faced with so many tasks and so much to do, I mentally go into the fetal position and sit around doing nothing instead. I might watch movies or play video games or simply stare out the window, all the while berating myself inwardly for everything I’m unable to get done.

This is antithetical to the Gospel. God doesn’t want us so depressed we give up. He wants us simply to try. Try, and He will make up the difference. That’s the amazing thing about the Atonement. President Nelson said, “You who may be momentarily disheartened, remember, life is not meant to be easy. Trials must be borne and grief endured along the way. As you remember that ‘with God nothing shall be impossible,’ know that He is your Father. You are a son or daughter created in His image, entitled through your worthiness to receive revelation to help with your righteous endeavors.”

“With God, nothing shall be impossible.” To me, that’s one of the most heartening messages I can hear. I remember on my mission feeling overwhelmed at times. So often we’d hear we were supposed to follow the Spirit in making decisions about what we were to do and when, but I worried I would do the wrong thing. What if I got the wrong message? What if I messed up and interpreted the promptings the wrong way?

If there’s one thing I learned during those two years, it’s that as long as your heart is in the right place and you’re really trying to do the right thing, God will take that energy and turn it into something positive. This doesn’t mean that you won’t put your foot in your mouth sometimes, or that you won’t have to backtrack occasionally, but if you’ve got a worthy goal and you pray for guidance on how to reach it, God will help you get there, or else He’ll get you to some place even better.

The other day my daughter was trying to write a letter. She’s five, and she had come up with this idea all on her own. I was busy doing something else at the moment, but she stayed at the kitchen table for at least an hour, asking Alexa the spelling of various words. (At some point in the past, one of my kids had taught her that Alexa will spell anything for you, and that you can just say “Alexa, repeat” to get her to say it again. And again. And again.) In any case, she was definitely showing more than a fair share of persistence.

I let her be, focused on the other things I had to get done. But when I passed through the kitchen after a while, I found her at the table, now reduced to tears. When I asked her what the matter was, she said, “I can’t do it, Dad. It’s just too hard.” Once it finally penetrated my thick skull that this was something important to her, I sat down and helped her through the project until she was happy with it.

I don’t mean to say that “With Dad, nothing is impossible,” but when it comes to writing letters, I’m pretty confident in my abilities.

As I’ve thought back on that experience, there are a couple of things I learn from it. First off, my daughter had a resource available to her the whole time that would have accomplished her task quickly and easily. (This is, of course, assuming that I was actually paying attention enough to know she really needed help when she asked me. Thankfully, we can be assured to know our Heavenly Father is always paying attention. He’s never going to absent mindedly grunt at us and hope we just wander away, though He has been known now and then to say “We’ll see” when one of His children ask him a question.)

Second, there are certainly times when the tasks I’ve chosen to tackle are far less relevant and important, in the grand scheme of things, than I might wish. I remember when I was about six or seven, my Uncle Randy came to stay with my family for a few days. He was the absolute coolest, mainly because he got up early with me and watched Saturday morning cartoons. He was the first actual adult to ever do that, and I was amazed. Afterward, I asked him why other adults didn’t do the same thing. They had all the time they wanted, why were they letting those cartoons slip past them week after week?

“Sometimes they forget,” is what he told me at the time. “It just doesn’t seem as important to them, maybe.”

I vowed then and there that I would never forget how important Saturday morning cartoons are, and yet here I am, letting countless cartoon watching opportunities slip through my fingers like so many grains of sand. Six-year-old me would be very disappointed, but the takeaway I get from that memory is that sometimes what can seem so important at one stage of our lives transforms over time until we see it for something else. When we go to God, frantic with impatience that we be helped with this or that challenge right this minute, how many of those challenges are actually just as important as Saturday morning cartoons?

As we get closer and closer to Christmas, my thoughts are increasingly drawn to the season and the meaning behind it. To me, one of the central messages of Christmas is hope. Hope that we can be forgiven of our sins and return to live with a loving Heavenly Father. That child lying in a manger is the epitome of hope in many ways, a promise yet to be fulfilled. There were years of experiences yet to be endured. Yes, we all immediately think of the obvious one that waited for Christ in Gethsemane and on the cross, but don’t forget the smaller ones so similar to those we go through ourselves each day. Making friends. Navigating your first job. Even puberty. I don’t know what a perfect adolescent life looks like, but let’s take a look at a slice of life from when He was twelve years old. It’s described in Luke 2.

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.

42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast.

43 And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it.

44 But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance.

45 And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him.

46 And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions.

47 And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.

48 And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.

49 And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

50 And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them.

51 And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

We give a lot of leeway for that “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business” statement, but I know that if I was on a trip when my son was twelve and he wandered away from the group, and it took me four days of scouring the city to find him, I’d be more than a little irate when I finally had him in tow again. Relieved, yes, but upset? Undoubtedly.

What I mean to say is I don’t think I have a full understanding of what a perfect, sinless life looks like, because if someone described that behavior to me and asked if their son had made a few mistakes in that example, I’m pretty sure I could rattle off a couple off the top of my head. I’m not trying to say Christ didn’t lead a sinless life, but rather that we typically think of Him only in his fully grown, mature state. He goes from the babe in a manger to the savior of all mankind with no stop in the middle, most of the time.

But the middle is where all of us find ourselves day in, day out, the entirety of our lives. Remember, for Jesus to increase in wisdom and stature, logic dictates He must not have been perfectly wise when he was a teenager. Somehow, He got through it, and He did it with the same tools you and I have available. Prayer. Fasting. Persistence.

He didn’t give up.

We do ourselves no favors when we simply picture the Savior in His exalted, glorified state. We lose the opportunity to relate to Him on a much more personal level. When my daughter looks at me and my ability to write, I think she has a hard time picturing me struggling to hold a crayon myself at one point.

Elder Bednar said, “There is no physical pain, no spiritual wound, no anguish of soul or heartache, no infirmity or weakness you or I ever confront in mortality that the Savior did not experience first. In a moment of weakness we may cry out, ‘No one knows what it is like. No one understands.’ But the Son of God perfectly knows and understands, for He has felt and borne our individual burdens.”

In Elder Eyring’s talk, Try Try Try, he focuses on the importance of picking ourselves up and trying again. Of persisting, even when things seem bleakest. To me, the reason we can try try again is because we have hope.

So how do we develop hope? For that, we can turn to Mormon:

“For I judge that ye have faith in Christ because of your meekness; for if ye have not faith in him then ye are not fit to be numbered among the people of his church.

“And again, my beloved brethren, I would speak unto you concerning hope. How is it that ye can attain unto faith, save ye shall have hope?

“And what is it that ye shall hope for? Behold I say unto you that ye shall have hope through the atonement of Christ and the power of his resurrection, to be raised unto life eternal, and this because of your faith in him according to the promise.

“Wherefore, if a man have faith he must needs have hope; for without faith there cannot be any hope.

“And again, behold I say unto you that he cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart.

“If so, his faith and hope is vain, for none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart; and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confesses by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing; wherefore he must needs have charity.”

Faith, Hope, and Charity are three legs of a stool, each of them connected to each other. To improve in one, we can focus on improving any of them. The best way I can think of to illustrate this is to show how it’s worked in my own life. As I strengthen my faith, I am naturally drawn to be more obedient to the Gospel, which teaches us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. This encourages me to strengthen the feelings of charity I have. As I am more faithful and more full of love toward others, my hope in salvation increases in turn. I live a more confident life, more secure in the knowledge that the course I am living is in line with God’s course for me.

That process is a cycle. If I focus instead on increasing the charity I feel toward others, it still increases my hope. Hope in humanity. Hope for the future. This in turn inspires me to more accurately see the influence of God in the world, which in turn increases my faith. President Eyring said, “The Lord has opportunities near you to feel and to share His love. You can pray with confidence for the Lord to lead you to love someone for Him. He answers the prayers of meek volunteers like you. You will feel the love of God for you and for the person you serve for Him. As you help children of God in their troubles, your own troubles will seem lighter. Your faith and your hope will be strengthened.”

As we help others, we help ourselves develop faith, hope, and charity. Have you ever wondered why the family is the basic building block of the church? Perhaps one of the best benefits of a family is having people to help and assist–serve–close to hand, all the time. To force ourselves to forget ourselves and help others. But because families are so constant, it can be easy to start to take them for granted. Often families are the easiest people to lose our temper with, to speak  our mind even when we might be better served staying silent, and to treat abominably. You can get a lot of practice doing the things God wants you to perfect, just by spending time with your family, which is another reason why we’re asked first to try solving a problem on our own and then with the help of our family before we turn to the Church for assistance. I know sometimes we dismiss service done around the home as nothing more than self interest, but I would actually argue some of the most important service we can do in our lives takes place there as opposed to a church building, a wood project, or a soup kitchen.

But the family equation doesn’t only work the one way. As we are helping our family, our family is helping us. The decision to have a third child was not an easy one for my wife and me to make. Many things in life have come easy for me, but I couldn’t seem to reach a clear answer for this question. My biggest concern was that I would overextend myself. That I would get to a point where I just wasn’t able to give the amount of love and attention to each of my children that I felt they deserved.

This is a question that has different answers for every couple. I’m sure there are some in the audience who might be tempted to roll their eyes at someone debating whether they could handle a third child or not, as they themselves look at their football team’s worth of offspring. I only ask that you remember we all have different strengths, and I have long known that handling a large number of children would be a stretch for me.

In the end, after some rather miraculous answers to prayer, we pushed forward and had a third child, five years ago. That’s where the happily ever after is supposed to kick into the story. The answer is given, the child arrives, and it’s all smooth sailing from then on. In this case, however, the road was not so easy for me. That first year and a half were a struggle. There were many times that I felt overwhelmed. I was pushed in so many ways beyond my comfort zone. I was very grateful through all of that time that I had prayed about that decision ahead of time, and that I could fall back on the revelation I had received that it was the right course of action.

These days, of course, I wouldn’t trade my third child for the world. She’s a blessing to our lives and brings so much joy into it. But I think it’s important to remember there were perhaps more reasons to add her to our family than to simply bring another child into the world. I needed those experiences to grow in the areas God knew I was weak. It’s hard to remember that when you’re in the middle of a trial, of course. Sometimes you just have to tuck your head down and keep moving, putting all your faith in the hope that it will turn out for the best.

Christmas combines faith, hope, and charity into one united whole. Our love for others, our hope for the future, and our faith in salvation. And the best thing of all? To do better in any of these areas, all we really have to do is try. To do nothing more than want to do better and start taking steps–any steps–to do so.

As much as I love this time of year, the holidays can also make me insanely stressed. There are so many things going on at the same time. And yet year after year, I somehow look back at each December once I’m at the end of it, and it always turns out to be one of my favorite months. In some ways, I think that’s precisely because it’s difficult for me to get through, since the reason it’s difficult is I’m thinking more and more of others during that month than I am of myself.

How to bring my family closer together. How to celebrate the fun but remember the Savior. How to bring a spark of excitement and joy to the eyes of my children. It’s the same principle that makes me generally dread going to service projects before hand, and yet thoroughly enjoy myself once I’m there and afterward, when I’m headed home.

Not all of us are blessed with supportive families by birth, but I believe we can create a family around us. My closest family relations by blood are eight and a half hours away from us, down in Philadelphia. Yet when I moved to Maine, I found myself taken in and accepted by friends. I’ve built a support network around me, both inside and outside of the church, and I try to support them all the way they in turn support me.

President Eyring said, “When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.” Often it’s easy for us to look around at other people’s problems and wonder why they struggle so hard. If only our test were like their test, wouldn’t life be so much simpler? Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re all feeling that way. That we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that God has designed this test to be challenging for each of us. Life is a tailor made experience, not to be easy, but to be difficult. We grow stronger by facing resistance. Let us try, then, to help each other on this path.

CS Lewis said in The Weight of Glory, ““It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

At this Christmas time, I hope we all can look to the example of Christ and have hope for the future. May that hope blossom into faith and charity is my prayer for each of us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

%d bloggers like this: