Friday, August 27, 2010

More on Gospel Teaching

Continuing on with a discussion from earlier in the week, I want to go back to D&C 88, starting with verse 119, where we read the oft-quoted passage, "Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God," which can easily be applied to our teaching in the church by replacing the word "house" (which itself can apply to our homes and the temple, among other things) with "class."

Other teachings in the next few verse also have clear applicability to formal teaching settings. Verse 122, for example: "Appoint among yourselves a teacher, and let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen unto his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every man may have an equal privilege." Sounds like a good piece of class management theory.

Similarly, verse 120 has good advice about focusing the teaching by keeping an objective in mind: "That your incomings may be in the name of the Lord; that your outgoings may be in the name of the Lord; that all your salutations may be in the name of the Lord." By opening and closing with prayer we frame the learning experience with the proper context and purpose.

But less obvious lessons are also found in these verses. For example, in verse 121 we are told to "cease from all your light speeches, from all laughter, from all your lustful desires, from all your pride and light-mindedness, and from all your wicked doings." I will have more on this later, but the importance of establishing a learning environment that is conducive to being taught by the spirit is an important part of good teaching. This can be as simple as how the room is arranged or more profound, like the demeanor you have as a teacher and your relationship with the members of your class.

But I believe the most important thing we can know about gospel teaching comes from verse 123, where we read, "See that ye love one another; cease to be covetous; learn to impart one to another as the gospel requires." Caring for those you teach and knowing them individually is, in my opinion, the most crucial thing a teacher can do. Knowing the personalities and needs of our class members allows us to not just teach a lesson, but to teach a person.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

On Mormon Guilt

Here's another talk. I swear someday I'll write something original.

My wife has some of the best experiences around. In comparison my life and stories are dull and uninteresting. As such I’m appropriating one of her stories for this talk.

Carolyn was at work a couple years ago when two of her co-workers came into her office and as seems to happen often to her, they started discussing something completely non-work related. The two women started discussing their upbringings. One of them was raised Catholic and the other Jewish. As if this was a bad joke the conversation became a debate. Now this was not a doctrinal debate but a debate about which was worse, Catholic or Jewish guilt. As the pair left Carolyn’s office she overheard one of them ask the other “do you think there’s such a thing as Mormon guilt?”

I bring this up because in my conversations with friends who have left the Church this is a recurring theme. They bring up the idea that our meetings are depressing and that they feel like we as a people lay the guilt on a pretty thick. I personally don’t understand this. The expectation is only that we be perfect in dress, job, family, calling, home teaching, meeting attendance, missionary work, the commandments, and genealogy. Also there’s the whole class of “fun things” we can’t do because “we’re Mormon”. That’s not too much to ask right? I certainly have never fallen short of this, ask my home teaching families….well maybe not this month.

In his first talk after being called into the 1st quorum of the 70, Elder Neal A. Maxwell gave in my mind the quintessential talk on “Mormon Guilt”. He addressed his remarks to “those who carry their own load and more; not to those lulled into false security, but to those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short[1].”

Who are these falsely insecure? Basically all of us who ever experience that moment of disquiet coming from the buffetings of Satan. Any of us who feel that we not only don’t, but can never match up to the perfection of the ideal Mormon, whoever that is. As Elder Maxwell said: [there are many of us who], “would not chastise a neighbor for his frailties [but] have a field day with our own. Some of us stand before no more harsh a judge than ourselves, a judge who stubbornly refuses to admit much happy evidence and who cares nothing for due process[2].” In another place he said that “many times our perpetual self-condemnation is like setting up a mental video that never stops. Over again, it replays the painful past as we sink lower into despair.”

How can we reconcile this with what the scriptures teach us? Look at 2 Nephi 2:25. “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.”

This, next to Benjamin’s famous quote on service, is perhaps the most quoted verse in the Book of Mormon. Yet this verse does not guarantee us joy. I think that Lehi was trying to tell us the exact opposite. The language here is conditional. The first clause “Adam fell that men might be” teaches clearly that the existence of Mankind was contingent upon Adam’s fall. We know this very well. The second clause is equally important though. Men are that they might have joy. Might have joy? Why not just guarantee joy or command us to be joyful? Perhaps “Adam fell that men might be; and men are to have a good laugh and always be happy”. The problem is that our joy is contingent upon another condition. What is that? Well I’m not going to tell you yet because I still have more time to fill.

There are circumstances in life where right choices can lead to sadness and heartbreak. Making good choices might, cost us friends, jobs, and for many converting to the gospel even family. There are a plethora of scriptural examples of men and women who though they lived right, still struggled with this part of the human condition. I could list many of them but I want to look at two cases that we don’t usually include in the lens of guilt and sorrow.

In 1 Nephi 8, Lehi famously sees a vision of the tree of life. Now there’s a lot of reason for this being important, not least that the tree of life did play a part in the earliest forms of temple worship. To Lehi, a man now exiled from his home, in a culture that said the true temple was the one in Jerusalem, I imagine this vision would have been a cause of great joy.

In any event we know the story. Lehi is in a waste, calling upon God he beholds a tree who’s “fruit was desirable to make one happy.[3] He goes up, picks the fruit, eats it, and finding joy in the fruit he calls his family to join him and rejoice in the fruit of the tree. For Lehi the burden of guilt and sorrow lies in his inability to bring his eldest sons to experience the salutatory grace, for that’s really what it is, of the fruit of the tree.

Nephi’s vision is similar but differs in a substantive way. Desiring to know what his father beheld Nephi prayed to “behold the things which [his] father saw[4].” The Spirit came to him in the form of a man and showed him the tree and placed before Nephi in v.10 a choice, “What desirest thou?”

Here is I think a cross-roads in Nephi’s life and a great lesson for all of us (See Grant Hardy’s “Understanding the Book of Mormon: A Reader's Guide” for a more thorough analysis of this). Nephi could have asked to experience the vision of the tree. To, like his father, partake of the fruit and feel the joy his father felt. Instead Nephi asks, “To know the interpretation thereof.[5]

At this point in the story, the Spirit leaves Nephi and an angel comes. I’m guessing there’s a great meaning in this, which I don’t fully understand. Nephi sees the tree and learns that it was a “representation of the love of God.[6] Indeed Nephi sees the meaning of all the parts of his father’s vision. Yet, I believe in some ways this was a burden.

Lehi tasted the fruit of the tree and partook and rejoiced in the redemptive love of his God. Nephi saw in vision that the fruit of the love of God was the atonement of the Son of God. While this is great knowledge and important for us all, He saw the children of Israel, the people that his father had tried to save through preaching, crucify the Son of God.

But the vision didn’t end there, he saw in vision his own descendents destroyed by the descendents of his brothers. He saw all his progeny reject the gospel that he held so dear. While the sadness that must have accompanied this was tempered by the vision of the restoration of the gospel and the building up of the kingdom in the last day, I cannot imagine that the burden was any less great. Indeed he tells us as much in the last chapter of 2 Nephi, where he says that he “prays continually for them by day, and mine eyes water my pillow by night, because of them”.

Both Nephi and Lehi carried a burden, one that many of us carry, the burden of having lost family and friends who at one time rejoiced in the fruit of the gospel. Nephi carried the burden of knowing that despite all his preaching there were countless descendents of his who would never respond to the sweet fruit that his father knew so well, just as we have so many friends who will not respond to the message of the gospel. This is the burden of Mormon Guilt, where despite doing everything we’re supposed to we’ve still somehow failed.

In the end both Lehi and Nephi bore burdens that those of us suffering under the weight of Mormon Guilt would understand. They tried their best and yet fell short of the standard that is human nature to set for oneself. The standard where we expect absolute perfection in everything we do and absolute perfection. We, like Lehi and Nephi, take upon ourselves guilt for things over which we truly cannot control.

Yet despite the sadness that Nephi experienced, he did not entirely despair. Look at the exultant language of 2 Nephi 25:26.

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.

Nephi found joy in Christ. This was one of the last lessons his father taught him. Let’s go back to that famous couplet in chapter 2 of 2 Nephi.

25Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

26 And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. (2 Nephi 2:25-6)

The Messiah coming is the condition of joy. Only in and through the redemptive power of the atonement can men truly find the joy the Lord intends for us in this creation. Ezra Taft Benson said: “Only the gospel will unite men of all races and nationalities in peace. Only the gospel will bring joy, happiness, and salvation to the human family.” In the end only atonement brings the relief from our shortcomings those self-perceived failures we all have, and will lift away the burden of “Mormon Guilt”.

[1] Neal A. Maxwell, Friday Morning October 1976, LDS General Conference.

[2] Ibid.

[3] 1 Nephi 8:10

[4] 1 Nephi 11:3

[5] 1 Nephi 11:10-11

[6] 1 Nephi 11:25

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Special Musical Post

In sacrament meeting Sunday we sang as our opening hymn #85, "How Firm a Foundation," which is one of my favorite hymns. But every time we sing this hymn in a meeting I am disappointed that we only sing the first three verses, when, in reality, the best stuff is found in the four additional verses listed on the second page. Today I want to explore these verses a bit.

First, however, I want to look at Isaiah 43:1-2. Here the Lord speaks to his people, saying "Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee." These words of comfort and hope are echoed then in the words of the hymn.

Let's start with verse 4: "When through the deep waters I call thee to go, the rivers of sorrow shall not thee o'erflow, for I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless, and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress." The imagery of the water, reminiscent of Lehi's dream and the river of filthiness, is powerful. We often feel in this life like we are drowning, over our heads in the things we face.

But there is also a connection to the symbolism of baptism here, an image that comes up again in the next verse of the hymn. Here we read, "When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply, the flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine."

Here the idea of baptism continues with the baptism of fire, which burns away the old self, leaving a renewed one. And the promise again is that of Isaiah, that the flame shall not kindle upon us. We are not drowned by the water, nor consumed by the fire, but renewed by each.

The next verse of the hymn speaks of enduring faithfully to the end: "E'en down to old age, my people shall prove my sov'reign, eternal, unchangeable love; and then, when gray hair shall their temples adorn, like lambs shall they still in my bosom be borne." Few other passages in prose or poetry speak such comfort and peace to me as this promise.

Finally, we come to the last verse: "The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose I will not, no cannot, desert to his foes; That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I'll never, no never, no never forsake."

A note on pronouns. This hymn employs the first person frequently to serve as voice for the Savior, with the second person "you" referring to each of us. But I find a shift in this verse, as the "I" becomes faithful disciples and the third person referring to both Deity and one's fellow saints.

I am reminded here of the emphasis we hear at every priesthood meeting to rescue. In my mind, the idea of leaning on the Savior for repose applies to all who have made sacred covenants, and even when the world would crush them with sin, despair, and hopelessness, we are called on to succor, to never abandon.

The line "I will not, no cannot, desert" speaks to me, both as a priesthood leader and as a parent. No matter what those I love may do, my obligation is to serve and, if possible, help save.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On Gospel Teaching

For the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about gospel teaching, particularly in the context of class settings at church. I think our ward is in a good place when it comes to our teachers: we have called some excellent teachers over the past year or so, and most organizations are fully staffed and have good teachers in key positions.

It is with this backdrop that I am thinking about the move from emergencies (getting people called and committed to their teaching) to progress (helping good teachers learn from each other). I am especially interested in focusing on how we can teach the gospel more effectively by inviting the spirit to guide us as we prepare lessons and teach in our classes.

To this end, I have been looking over some of the church materials related to improving gospel teaching, including Teaching, No Greater Call and the Teaching Guidebook. Both are solid--if unexciting--resources that highlight the important principles of effective teaching. And from them I have found some valuable ideas for helping each of us become better as teachers.

In reading through these materials, I was taken to D&C section 88, a juggernaut of a section that covers a range of topics and provides us with several key teachings on the subject of teaching the gospel. I begin with verses 77 and 78: "teach one another the doctrine of the kingdom. Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God."

I'm interested here in the adverbs. (And, as long as we're on the topic, aren't adverbs great? It may be because I just read some Bill Bryson--the master of adverbs, but I'm feeling especially fond of adverbs these days.) The first that I notice is "diligently," which is how we ought to approach the calling to teach. We need to prepare diligently so that we can be ready to respond to the needs of our class members, often by ditching what we have prepared when acted on by the spirit to improvise.

The second--and, admittedly, tougher--adverb here is "perfectly," which, in this verse, describes how we are to be instructed. Kind of a tall order, if you ask me. Even on my best days as an educator, when things come together well and I'm firing on all cylinders, I don't think I'd describe my teaching as perfect. I'm always looking to do something better, to improve on that one rough part of the lesson.

But then I think about the footnote to Matthew 5:48, where the Greek origin for "perfect" is noted as meaning "complete, finished, fully developed." So, rather than viewing my teaching according to the standard of being flawless--which it will never be--I should think about completeness. If I have helped my students accomplish a meaningful objective, to understand and commit to live a gospel principle more fully, then I can view that teaching situation as being perfect in some sense.

Another meaningful passage from this section comes a few pages (seriously--this is a long section) later, starting in verse 118: "And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith."

Again, we see the adverb "diligently" used here to describe how we are to seek wisdom. But more than that is the source of the wisdom--"the best books." This is the sort of verse used by English majors at BYU to justify why we are reading literature instead of earning an MBA or going to law school, and we'd get kind of smug about how we were adhering to scripture in deconstructing Heart of Darkness or Faulkner's novels.

But, in the context of gospel teaching, the best sources we have to work with are clearly the scriptures. I am a strong believer that the best lessons draw heavily from the scriptures, that reading and analyzing even a few verses is among the most valuable things we can do in our teaching. In addition to focusing on the doctrine and inviting the spirit into the lesson (all admirable goals), this also models for class members the importance of reading, studying, and reflecting on scriptures. This is an especially important element of teaching children and youth.

One final thought in closing, by way of exploring this final point in more depth. Last Monday Evan had the assignment to do the Family Home Evening lesson, so he and I looked over the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet and chose a topic for his lesson. He opted for the topic of family, so we went to 1 Nephi chapter 8, verses 8-12.

As we read through this passage, we discussed how Lehi's first impulse after tasting of the fruit was to share it with his family. Using this as a point of departure, we discussed the symbolism of the tree, which has both roots stretching down and branches extending out, like a family, and how the fruits of a happy family are joy and the love of God. In just a few minutes of reading and discussing, we were able to dig deeply into an important doctrine (eternal families) and explore how the Book of Mormon gives us insight into that doctrine. I then had the chance to bear testimony to my children of the importance of the sealing power that allows our family to continue through the eternities, and how knowing that gives me a greater perspective in dealing with the trials and sorrows of life.

Friday, August 20, 2010

2 Nephi Chapter 11

I'm finding that most of my personally meaningful insights into the scriptures these days come not from my personal scripture study, but from our family reading of the Book of Mormon. Part of this may be a factor of the time of day; we're reading together in the evening, and the quiet of reflection after the kids are in bed is perhaps better for me that the hecticness of reading on my own while commuting to work and then being thrust into the office and classroom.

Regardless of its cause, I'm enjoying what I see in 2 Nephi. Last Friday night the kids and I read 2 Nephi chapter 11, where Nephi repeats four times a phrase that impressed me: "my soul delighteth." Those three words seem to encapsulate much of what I think is crucial in our spiritual journey, the fact that we can find joy in the reality of the atonement and the promises it brings to each of us and to our families.

The second iteration of this phrase, found in verse 5, is to me the most significant, as the covenants of the Lord are at the core of the gospel, and understanding those covenants is the fundamental element of our conversion and spiritual growth.

In the context of this verse, this idea is especially poignant, as Nephi declares that his soul delights in God's grace, justice, power, and mercy, and "in the great and eternal plan of deliverance from death."

Obviously I am going to highlight this as further support for the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon (note, for example, how Nephi sews mercy and deliverance together once more), but the connection between what Nephi says here and what his younger brother taught a few chapters earlier is also important. Nephi had taught this idea, but he is also learning from Jacob's testimony and building on that.

The message of constantly learning and developing a deeper testimony is meaningful to me, as I find myself learning from my children at the same time that they learn from me and Summer.

Monday, August 16, 2010

2 Nephi chapter 9, Part II

Continuing on with our discussion of 2 Nephi chapter 9, let us now go to verses 10-13, where Jacob lays out very clearly the purpose and nature of the atonement, an explanation that forms the foundation for later Book of Mormon teachings regarding the atonement. Here Jacob explores the need for and effects of the atonement of Christ.

The first key to these verses is Jacob's distinction between physical and spiritual death, what he refers to as "the death of the body, and also the death of the spirit." This serves as a useful model for what Jacob goes on to teach about the atonement, and I think this is the earliest reference in the Book of Mormon to this important distinction.

But what I find really powerful in this passage is how Jacob's explanation of the atonement mirrors what Nephi says in what I have previously referred to as the thesis statement of the Book of Mormon. Looking back at 1 Nephi 1:20, we see the emphasis on God delivering the chosen because of their faith, the idea that we are promised freedom as we exercise faith in Christ.

This concept is repeated throughout these verses, where we find these words: escape, deliverance, deliver, and captive. Building on Nephi's discussion of his own deliverance from death and the liberation of the children of Israel from Egypt, Jacob here gives us the most important freedom of all--freedom from our own mortality and frailty.

Knowing that the resurrection will repair all the inequities and pains of mortal life gives us the perspective to focus on eternal things. And knowing that we can be forgiven for our sins through the atonement gives us hope enough to overcome the sorrows of our own mistakes.

This dual redemption is crucial to LDS theology, and this multi-layered conceptualization of salvation is, to me at least, the most plain and precious of the truths restored through the Book of Mormon.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

2 Nephi 9, Part I

For the past few days, our family scripture study has had us working our way through 2 Nephi chapter 9, one of the fundamental passages of our theology, and I have been impressed by several points as I have read. In particular, Jacob's treatment of the atonement is both impressive and profound.

But before continuing on to explore Jacob's discussion of the infinite atonement that restores us through the resurrection (and if you think I'm going to connect verses 10 and 11 to 1 Nephi 1:20, well, then you know me pretty well...), I would like to touch on someting I mentioned at the close of sacrament meeting on Sunday.

It comes from verse 5, where Jacob tells his people, "I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came." This is a common rhetorical device, akin to the phrase "in fact," which is often used to introduce an opinion rather than a fact. It consists of telling someone they know something they might not actually know, or might not realize they know. It's effective because it shows a high level of respect for your audience, a consideration of how they are on the same plane as you, while simultaneously convincing them unknowingly that your opinion is really a universal fact.

What Jacob accomplishes in this line is to bear his testimony and awaken his listeners to their own testimony. By joining the speaker and the audience, Jacob is able to emphasize the common humanity, the joint inheritance as fallen mankind, and their shared need for the atonement he will go on to explicate.

In this I find a model for what we do as we teach the gospel, whether in a missionary setting, in a church class, or in our own homes. We know the truth of the gospel, and something of that truth dwells in each person's heart. As we remind others of what they know--but may not know they know--we join with them, communing soul to soul.

In so doing, we invite the spirit to join in our testimony. We know something to be true, and by asserting that, we help others recognize (a word that itself comes from Latin roots meaning "to know again") truth and the spiritual manifestation of truth.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On Spiritual Gifts---A Talk

Here's a talk I gave a couple years ago. I just stumbled on it cleaning the computer and was surprised how insightful I can sometimes be (Carolyn must have wrote it for me):

I. Introduction
Let me start with my mea culpa. I am not a reverent person. I know this takes many of you by surprise. My dulcet tones and softspokenness are legendary. But the reality is that I have the attention span of a squirrel who got into your neighbor’s coffee rinds. I don’t sit still during church or work or home, I’m constantly inattentive (ask my wife) and when I do pay attention I too often am over-analyzing the message being delivered.

My inattentiveness is coupled with a great dislike of anything that makes me uncomfortable. People crying for example, I don’t know how to react to that, I think you should only cry at funerals and if you win a sporting event. Unfortunately sometimes these two great flaws in my personality come together at church where I myself drifting off into the nether world of my imagination only to be brought back to earth by hearing someone tell of a dream, vision, or other spiritual experience.

Devoid of the context of the experience I find myself lost and a bit uncomfortable because I have forgotten the greatest advice the Lord has given us regarding our spiritual experiences. That we should
Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer; wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation. (D&C 63:64)
With the faults in my personality I find I often do not know how to react to stories of great spiritual experiences and of spiritual gifts being received. Worse and I think this is a failing for many of us, I don’t always know how to share my own experiences and so I keep my experiences, and the spiritual gifts the Lord has given me close to my chest.

Yet they are there for each of us who receives the gospel and the redeeming power of the atonement into our life. Said Orson Pratt of the matter:
Whenever the Holy Ghost takes up its residence in a person, it not only cleanses, sanctifies, and purifies him, in proportion as he yields himself to its influence, but also imparts to him some gift, intended for the benefit of himself and others. No one who has been born of the Spirit, and who remains sufficiently faithful, is left destitute of a spiritual gift. (Orson Pratt, Masterful Discourses, 539)
If we were to parse this statement there are layers of insight we could glean, but let’s focus on these words regarding the effect of the Holy Ghost on us “in proportion as he yields himself to its influence…imparts to him some gift…for the benefit of himself and others.”

II. Testimony as Revelation
Now obviously that proportion must begin with faith. Most of us know Alma 32 and the idea of faith as a seed growing within us. I think it’s interesting that the story of King Lamoni’s father shows us that faith starts with a desire, but that’s another talk entirely.

Yet once faith has grown within us, and we have followed the counsel to read the scriptures, and we have knelt in humble prayer, the Lord has promised us that he will confirm the truth unto us by the gift of the Holy Ghost. Millions have done this and the truth has been manifest to them. The way iin which the Lord speaks to them, it is important to note, differs greatly from person to person. Yet how many of us appreciate this almost ineffable experience (though we don’t use that term in the church) for what it really is.
No man can be saved unless and until he receives revelation. Revelation is the rock foundation upon which true religion and personal salvation rest…This revelation is called a testimony of the gospel. But a testimony is only the beginning of revelation. The recipient has just begun to drink at the fountain of revealed truth. He has but opened the door to an immeasurably great storehouse of spiritual knowledge. (Bruce R. McConkie, The Rock of Salvation, October 1969)
That moment of insight when we know the truthfulness of the gospel, the Book of Mormon, and the prophets of God is revelation. It is the first of the spiritual gifts given to men and women everywhere. And as Bruce R. McConkie states, it is but the opening of the door to an immeasurably great storehouse.

Indeed the scriptures are rife with examples of these spiritual gifts. 1 Corinthians 12, Moroni 10, D & C 46, and A of F 7, all contain lists of gifts available to those who are baptized and yield themselves to the influence of the Holy Ghost. What’s included in these lists? Well you all know the biggies: tongues, prophecy, revelations, visions, dreams, healing, mighty miracles, etc. these and many more are given to the Saints as the scripture says
9… for the benefit of those who love me and keep all my commandments, and him that seeketh so to do; that all may be benefited that seek or that ask of me, that ask and not for a sign that they may consume it upon their lusts.
10 And again, verily I say unto you, I would that ye should always remember, and always retain in your minds what those gifts are, that are given unto the church.
11 For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.
12 To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby.
Paul echoed this sentiment in his chapter on Spritual Gifts when he stated:
12 For as the body [meaning the church] is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.
14 For the body is not one member, but many.
Each of us has gifts given to us at baptism some enumerated in our patriarchal blessings some that we come to know overtime in our lives. Personally I count my lack of fear in giving talks as one of mine with which the Lord blessed me. But holding onto our gifts without using them for the benefit of others robs us of many blessings. As one commentator put it:
The genius of this system of divine distribution of gifts is that all of us are in a position to be instructed, blessed, and edified by others. None of us can enjoy a fullness of the outpourings of the Spirit in isolation of the body of the Saints. (McConkie, Millet, The Holy Ghost, 54)
III. Accessing the Power of Heaven
Now let’s be frank, sometimes the scriptural accounts of the manifestations of spiritual gifts or even the accounts of Joseph in the early days of the Church seem incredible and outside our reach. LeGrand Richards mentioned this in a talk many years ago.
A statement reached us…a few days ago from one of our educators who…made this statement: “I don’t know whether it would be proper for us to teach our young people to read Leaves from My Journal, by Wilford Woodruff, for fear they might expect similar spiritual experiences, and be disappointed.”

I wonder if there are really very many Latter-day Saints who would be afraid to promise unto the youth of Zion the spiritual gifts and blessings that God, the Eternal Father Himself, has promised.

We cannot offer our young people the Bible as the word of God, or the standard Church works, and believe only a small portion of that which is written therein.

You brethren do not need to be afraid to promise your children or the youth of Zion that the blessings and gifts of the Holy Ghost will be theirs if they will live for them. You do not have to fulfill these promises. God, the Eternal Father, who made them, will fulfill them. (LeGrand Richards, The Promise unto the Children October 1943)
What a spectacular promise and it is all dependent upon us living for them. Like so many other things in the gospel, the gifts of the Spirit depend on the faithfulness of the one receiving. Does this mean simple and exact obedience to the commandments should qualify us for any and all spiritual gifts? I don’t think so. Listen to what Orson Pratt said on the matter.
I have thought the reason why we have not enjoyed these gifts more fully is, because we have not sought for them as diligently as we ought. I speak for one, I have not sought as diligently as I might have done…I have been blessed with some revelations and prophecies, and with dreams of things that have come to pass; but as to seeing things as a seer, and beholding heavenly things in open vision, I have not attained to these things. And who is to blame for this? Not the Lord; not brother Joseph—they are not to blame. And so it is with the promises made to you in your confirmations and endowments, and by the patriarchs, in your patriarchal blessings; we do not live up to our privileges as saints of God and elders of Israel; for though we receive many blessings that are promised to us, we do not receive them in their fullness, because we do not seek for them as diligently and faithfully as we should. (Orson Pratt, A Church of Order, May 1878)
We should seek for these blessings, especially those to which we have already been promised in our temples and our patriarchal blessings. Further as we live the covenants we have made to consecrate ourselves and our talents and gifts to the Church and kingdom we will bring blessings of our spiritual gifts to those who might not have the same. The D&C makes quite clear how important this service and interaction is in the first two gifts it lists in section 46.
13 To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.
14 To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
Without the first the second would be lost in this case.

IV. Culmination of gifts
In consort with one another in the body of the church and in the lives of all the Saints, the gifts of the spirit can and should have a perfecting effect. With them, those that heal can heal, those that can teach the word of knowledge with power can do so, those that are blessed with a listening heart can listen and help bare the burdens of their fellow saints.

Ultimately all gifts of the spirit lead to that day when the veil is burst and our salvation is assured, by revelation and that we shall as Bruce R. McConkie says “have the personage of Jesus Christ to attend us or to appear to us from time to time, and until even he will manifest the Father unto us.”

He continued with this statement:
I know man can commune with his Maker, can petition the throne of grace and receive answers to his prayers because I have done so.

I know man can receive revelations, because I have received them. God has spoken to me, not for the guidance of the Church, not for your benefit, but for mine. The same thing has or can or should happen in the life of every member of his kingdom. (Bruce R. McConkie, The Rock of Salvation, October 1969)
This revelation, beginning with testimony, which he speaks of, should happen to every member of the Church. I know it’s happened to me, and it can happen to all of us. We just need to be more direct. We need to ask not just for nebulous help but specific blessings. We need to recognize the diversity of spiritual gifts that have already been granted us, and we need to follow the example the Savior gave us in referring to the light of the gospel. Like that light, we should not put the light of the gifts which we have been given under a bushel, but use it to illuminate the lives of our fellow saints.

For me, my gifts are not of visions and dreams, but the Lord has blessed me richly with a knowledge of the gospel and has allowed me to cull insights from places that many wouldn’t think to look. But as great as that blessing is in my life, it is the testimony based on revelation that succors me. It is those moments of pure insight brought by the Holy Ghost which leads me (and led me here). And it is the promise of section 93:1 that if I am faithful in all these things, I may see His face and know that He is, which drives me to my ultimate goal of exaltation.

Monday, August 9, 2010

More Old Testament Fun

This kind of feels like cheating, as the insight comes from our bishop, who shared it with us as the spiritual thought in ward welfare committee meeting yesterday. As some background, the assignment for the spiritual thought actually belonged to an organization that was not represented at the meeting (not naming names...), but Bishop Garrett was enthusiastic to share this with us. I'm glad he did, and I am impressed with the insight gained from these verses.

We read Numbers 20:1-13, which recounts an experience had by Moses and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Most of us are familiar with Moses striking the rock, after which water flowed from the rock, and the analogy of the Savior as living water, typified by this experience, is strong in our theology, explored as it is by Nephi.

But I don't know if I had ever read this account of the episode, which is also retold earlier. Several things stood out to me as we read the verses, included the people's lamentation in verse 5 that they had left slavery, but at least there they had food and water, whereas in the desert they had it rough. Being willing to trade freedom for relative prosperity is an interesting human weakness, evident in fascism ("the trains ran on time...") and the current recession (immense deficit spending on the individual level nearly toppled the global economy). But that's more of an old-school Roy Rant.

The real point made in our meeting was the command given to Moses in verse 8:"Speak ye unto the rock." We know the rest of the story--that Moses struck the rock and the water came forth. But that's not what he as commanded to do; his task was to speak unto the rock. (In saying this, I am aware of the different account in Exodus, and I can't say which version might be more accurate, and that's kind of beside the point; there's a truth in this account that I think is important.)

I imagine Moses, upon receiving this commandment, being eager to fulfill it. Then, as he talks with the people and explains that their complaints show a lack of faith in the Lord and a lack of gratitude for their deliverance from Egypt, he buckles to the situation. His humanity rears its head and his love for the people made him reconsider.

" the, in front of a people who already think I'm crazy for taking them into the wilderness. Really? Maybe I'll just hit the rock and at least get their attention, punctuating my message. If it works, great, but if not, I won't look completely insane for ,you know, talking to a rock."

The point made was that we can see miraculous things happen (this conversation was specifically in the context of welfare needs) as people are blessed through the efforts of the ward. But the warning is there: the Israelites endured years of trials before they arrived at their promised land, and part of avoiding those sufferings comes through paying close heed to the directions of the Lord. When we work with families in need and ask them to do something, we need to make sure they do it. When we are counseled to develop a three-month plan to get a family back on their feet, we need to stick to that plan and help them become self-reliant. If God says talk to the rock, don't just hit it with a stick.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Walking to Church

With Summer and the kids gone last weekend, I walked to church Sunday morning, and since I'm addicted to my iPod shuffle, I decided to give a listen while I walked to 20 minutes (by the way--hurray for the intersection of Sage & Unser opening up, sidewalks and all!). But, rather than jam to Bon Jovi or Guns 'N Roses, as is my wont, I loaded the playlist with addresses from April's General Conference. And, being lazy, I left those tracks on for a few more days, so I got to listen to 5 hours of conference over the space of several days.

In doing so, I noticed some interesting themes, the first of which was the emphasis by President Eyring on the new Duty to God program, which I blogged about a few weeks back. In hearing the pattern of learn-act-share several times, I began to reflect on how this corresponds to our lives. While the categories I am going to outline are fluid, they provide a nice model.

Let's start by seeing youth as a time for learning, which is pretty evident by the amount of time children and adolescents spend in school, primary, youth classes and activities, seminary, and the like. This also explains why it is so important that we instill in our children the desire to be curious, to ask questions, and to think critically.

As we come to know more, we begin to serve. Certainly missionary service fits here, marking in many ways a coming-of-age for young people in the church, moving from receiving instruction to sharing what they know. We raise children the same way, teaching and serving, acting, in essence, on what we have been learning all along.

And the, as we amass a life of experience serving, we share those experiences, both in formal settings (I'm thinking of the first counselor in our stake presidency, whose addresses are always based on telling stories from his life of serving others) and casual moments. For parents, this is that exciting time when your children make the transition to adulthood and the act of parenting is less about teaching them things they don't know than it is about sharing with them tings they haven't yet done.

Again, it's not a fixed set of eras, but rather general categories. And knowing that I am squarely in the serving period of my life should inspire me to do more to bless the lives of others. And knowing how my children are going to learn to serve by watching me should also alter how I live my life.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Moroni, Pahoran and erroneous revelation

Dave recently mentioned the exchange between Pahoran and Moroni at the end of the book of Alma. This is one of the more interesting exchanges in the Book of Mormon. Helaman, two chapters earlier, indicates that he's not receiving the support he would like. This sets Moroni on the greatest angry rant in scripture.

Chapter 60 of the Book of Alma is entirely devoted to this rant. With barely an introduction Moroni calls Pahoran under condemnation. Placing the deaths of his fallen soldiers squarely on the shoulders of the government, Moroni blames their greed and apathy (one could argue that this isn't too far from our current situation but I digress). The anger throughout is palpable,

22 Yea, will ye sit in idleness while ye are surrounded with thousands of those, yea, and tens of thousands, who do also sit in idleness, while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? 23Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things?
Moroni is clearly building here. He has fought kingmen and potential despots his whole career and now he has developed the idea that Pahoran is yet another in a long line for him to take down.
27And I will come unto you, and if there be any among you that has a desire for freedom, yea, if there be even a spark of freedom remaining, behold I will stir up insurrections among you, even until those who have desires to usurp power and authority shall become extinct.
Interestingly here is yet another paradox in the character of Moroni. He threatens the legitimate government with the very sort usurpation of authority through insurrections that he accuses them of.

Now this is all interesting as another example of the humanity found in the Book of Mormon text but it is verse 33 that is most interesting:
Behold, the Lord saith unto me: If those whom ye have appointed your governors do not repent of their sins and, ye shall go up to battle against them.
This revelation however seems to be contradicted almost immediately. In the next chapter we learn that Pahoran, who was appointed governor by the people, has been deposed and fled to the land of Gideon.

Now one could easily read this to say that the Lord was commanding Moroni against the usurping governors he just misinterpreted the command. I don't think that's the case however. The term "appointed" is the key here. In no way could the usurpers have been appointed democratically according to Pahoran's account.

I would suggest an alternate interpretation that happens to all of us from time to time. Moroni was passionate about the corruption of the government. From the record he seems to have felt the death of every soldier under his command acutely. Undoubtedly he like Helaman had wondered at the absence of extended support from the central authorities.

Faced with the suggestion from Helaman, the son of a prophet and Church leader, he leaped to the most obvious conclusion. This conclusion, placed the blame squarely on Washington, er Zarahemla. Moroni is here placed in a difficult situation. He has for his entire career opposed those who have tried to overthrow the government. Now feeling his government overthrown, he sees the need to do that which he has opposed so vigorously his whole life. Yet without a special dispensation from the Lord, Moroni would be no better than any other revolutionary in Nephite society. So in his passion and haste he finds the words he desires from the Lord spoken to his heart.

Now I might be wrong and the Lord might have been referring to the other governors as I mentioned early. However I think it is the disposition of many of us, when we desire something with a great intensity, to convince ourselves that the will of the Lord is for us to have it. This in fact is one of the great lessons of life, learning to differentiate between the Spirit and our own desires. I think this passage in Alma 60 is simply one example of where someone mistook self for Spirit. It is a great lesson to us all and something hidden deep within the otherwise dry war chapters of the Book of Mormon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fast & Testimony, Part 2

As I mentioned yesterday, testimony meeting was a powerful spiritual experience. This is a follow-up to that, based on my reflections on what was said and felt. As the meeting progressed, I was touched by the sincerity, depth, and power of the testimonies born by children, youth, and adults, and as I listened to these testimonies, I was reminded of Acts chapter 2. And, if I had felt that we had the time, I would have shared the following thoughts at the conclusion of the meeting. As we were already 10 minutes over the meeting time, I declined to editorialize. But I am convinced that I need to share a few thoughts. To that end, here is what I was going to say at the conclusion of fat and testimony meeting yesterday.

Growing up and studying the New Testament, I often wondered what it would have felt like to be there on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Ghost descended on the assemblage. It felt like this [yesterday's meeting]. It was the great rushing of the Spirit that has entered into our hearts as we have heard each other's witnesses of the gospel.

And, as with that ancient group of saints, we may ask the question, "what shall we do?" When we feel the Spirit like this, we feel the impulse to act, but we don't always know what to do. How can we each maintain the sense of spiritual fulfillment we have felt today? Like Peter, our priesthood leaders give us a clear, simple, timely response to this pleading: "Repent and be baptized."

Most of us have been baptized already, so for us it is simply a matter of repenting, daily, continually. We have been lifted higher by the testimonies we have heard today, and the only way to keep that feeling in our lives is to change where we need to change, to pray more fervently, to study the scriptures more seriously, to serve others more selflessly.

There are among us those who are not members of the Church, and to you the invitation is what Peter said, to make your own repentance more complete by accepting the ordinances of the gospel and making the baptismal covenant, which invites the Holy Ghost to be with you as you have felt it today.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fast & Testimony

We had a great testimony meeting today, and it was my privilege to conduct, so I was able to bear my testimony prior to hearing from the members of the ward. In my remarks I referred to a scripture that was shared in our PEC meeting this morning. The connection between this and some of my earlier blog entries here was powerful to me.

The scripture comes from Alma 60, a section of the Book of Mormon that I typically skim quickly; I find the war chapters slow and boring. But the message that was shared this morning was impressive. Beginning in verse 21, we read: "Do ye suppose that the Lord will still deliver us, while we sit upon our thrones and do not make use of the means which the Lord has provided for us?" The first counselor in the Elders Quorum, who shared this with us, asked that we listen as if this were being addressed to us individually as home teachers, which pricks the conscience of inconsistent home teachers like myself.

Verse 22 continues: "will ye sit in idleness while ye are surrounded with thousands of those, yea, and tens of thousands, who do also sit in idleness, while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding?"

Now, our ward is big (1000+ members, generally ~200 in sacrament meeting), but we don't measure in the tens of thousands. But our ward covers a large section of the city, home to easily tens of thousands of children of God to whom we are to preach the gospel. It's certainly not a time for idleness.

But this isn't just a feel-bad-for-not-doing-your-home-teaching message. I back up to verse 20, which ends with this question: "? Have ye forgotten the many times we have been delivered out of the hands of our enemies?"

This, of course, takes me back to my most recent entry on 1 Nephi 1:20 and the idea of deliverance. Clearly, Moroni is taking us back to this theme of deliverance in his epistle to Pahoran. And clearly, we see in his words a testimony of the many times and ways in which his people had been saved in the past.

But as we apply this message to the spiritual duty of home teaching, we can focus this idea on our need to be spiritually delivered, to be saved from our sins and our weaknesses.

And in this I find a model for how we can serve the Lord. Like Moroni, we should be rallying our troops; it is the role of priesthood leaders to inspire those whom they serve to action.

Like Pahoran, we should not be upset when we are called to repentance, even when we are not in the wrong. Instead, we should be grateful for the commitment of those with whom we serve.

And like the Nephites, we should gather around the standard of truth, bearing witness of what we know and acting on that knowledge. Luckily for us, we don't need to dress in the war attire depicted in the Arnold Frieberg painting of Moroni and the Standard of Liberty.