Election day recommended reading

Two scriptures and a quote that bring me peace and perspective . 

Doctrine and Covenants 134:1, 5, 6

We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.  5 We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments... 6 We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; 

2 Timothy 1:7

For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:

"No misfortune is so bad that whining about it won't make it worse."

 

I don't believe God is surprised, afraid, or shaken by current earthly events. We don't need to be surprised, afraid, or shaken either.

...

Dig deeper:

Ensign Article about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign. That’s right, Joseph ran for President.  

The Church’s official statement on politics 

Dallin H. Oaks on Religion in Public Life 

Ezra Taft Benson on The LDS Church and Politics 

Jean Bethke lshtain (Scholar of Religion and Political Philosophy at the University of Chicago)  on Democracy at the Century’s End 

Walking on Water

"Walking on Water" by Mark Mabry. www.reflectionsofChrist.org

"Walking on Water" by Mark Mabry. www.reflectionsofChrist.org

I’ve been pondering one of the most famous accounts in the new Testament: When Christ and Peter walk on the water (Matt 14:22-33). In a moment of enviable confidence, Peter steps from the boat and walks towards the Savior. Soon distracted by the storm, wind and waves, fear displaces his faith and he begins to sink until he cries out and Christ takes him by the hand.

"Was this a win or a loss for Peter?" I asked my seminary students while recently studying the account.

They vacillated. “A little of both?” They hesitantly replied.

“This is a win!” I almost shout. At least that's how I see it. What were the other Apostles doing? Peter, perpetually made to look the fool for daring to say and do what all the other apostles were probably thinking, is a winner just for stepping from the boat; for believing that if Jesus can do the impossible, he can help Peter do the same!

Standing their in front of those young people awash in the modern world, I’m struck with how profoundly true it is that just by trying to live the gospel in the latter days, these kids are walking on water. Every person born to earth has stepped from the boat, especially every person striving to live the gospel while wading through such waves of sin and disbelief and leaning against such strong winds of temptation.

Trying to live the gospel is walking on water! Being distracted by the storm and beginning to sink is not a question of if but when. We all drown, except for a Savior willing and able to reach out and catch us when we cry out.

Such a powerful lesson. The Lord was there for him, just as He is there for you and for me. He reached out His hand and drew Peter to Him and to safety.

I have needed the Savior and the rescue of His hand so many times. I need Him now as never before, as does each of you. I have felt confident at times leaping over the side of the boat, figuratively speaking, into unfamiliar places, only to realize that I could not do it alone.
— Elder Ronald A. Rasband, April 2016

Walk the stormy sea. Stay focused on Christ. When the winds and the waves threaten everything, take his hand. There is no other way!

On Life and Death

The sting of death should be swallowed up in the hopes of glory.
— Alma 22:14

Two Sundays ago, in the middle of a sacrament meeting choir number, I got a text from my Mom with news that was unsurprising yet devastating. My Grandpa Rupp had passed away. Grandpa was 88. He lived a long, full life, including raising nine children, serving as scoutmaster for fifty(!) years, and working in the Jordan River Temple for thirty years. Just a few days prior he had been hunting in the mountains with my Dad, and on that bright Sunday morning he walked outside to get the morning paper, laid down in the grass of his front yard and slipped away. Having waited anxiously for a decade since Grandma died in 2006, his sudden passing was for him I’m sure a welcome blessing.

So why was I instantly in tears? I sat there, shielding my face, my ego taking comfort in the thought that the ward members would probably think I must really be feeling the Spirit during the choir number. (As if that would be a more manly reason to be bawling on the stand.) I was genuinely happy for Grandpa, and I had expected when this news for some ten years. I was left to wonder why it hurt so much.

The funeral was in Salt Lake City. We had two days to get things in order before we loaded up the family and made the long drive, arriving in Salt Lake in time for the viewing. I was so anxious to catch up with extended family, many of whom I rarely see anymore and all of whom I count as dear friends. The night was filled with joyful conversations, catching up and remembering our experiences with the great man who was the common bond of everyone in attendance.

The next morning felt more solemn. I handed out tissues during the family viewing, prayer, and closing of the casket. The funeral began. I felt pride as I walked into the chapel with my family.  Four of Grandpa’s eight sons and his only daughter were slated to speak.  The stories, the memories, the doctrine— I was again a sobbing mess; especially when my Dad, the second-to-oldest son, gave the closing talk. I hurt for my Dad. I tried to imagine what he must be feeling. I felt compelled yet powerless to provide any comfort. I glimpsed myself in him as he spoke, one day standing at the pulpit upon his inevitable death. All these thoughts and feelings tore at my heart and mind. I wasn’t overly embarrassed by my tears this time. After all, my two brothers (and most of the family around me) were doing the same thing.

I couldn’t help but wonder again, “what am I feeling right now?” I wrote in my notebook: “I’m not sad. I’m humbled. And sorry. And inspired.” Apparently those three are a lethal combination for a fellow who doesn’t typically show a lot of emotion. I was humbled by the profound impact one well-lived life can have on so many, sorry for the smallness I so often exhibit in my own life, and inspired to be better.

...

I didn’t intend for this to be a post about crying when my Grandpa died. So what did I intend? I suppose I just wanted to join the masses (everyone on earth who lives long enough and loves anyone at all) who have learned that coping with death is complicated, confusing, and indescribable. Death is liberating and yet damning, joyous yet heartbreaking. I’m not sure any other experience is so universal and yet so universally faced with such complete inadequacy.  It’s not enough to say with prophet Alma, that death is an “awful monster.” Death is, after all, an important part of God’s plan. Who wants mortality to never end, especially in an ever declining physical body? Surely one of the ironically sweetest moments of the Savior’s life was when he "gave up the ghost" and returned to his Father.

And yet we have these crushing consequences: the severed relationships. The absence of personality, story, and influence. The separation of the body and the spirit. I’ve been largely spared from the heartache death can bring. I’ve lost only two grandparents and never dealt with the tragic or untimely death of a loved one so I’m hardly an authority on the subject, but Grandpa Rupp was one of the most influential people in my life, and even though our interactions had been few in recent nears, his departure left a dull ache, an uneasiness, as if the devil was chopping away at the trunk of our family tree and we could feel it in our branches. The consequences of death are almost too much to bear if they are permanent. As Malachi described, when the children and the fathers are separated they are like stubble, having neither root nor branch.

That’s why I love believing in the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.. It hurts to know that I won’t see Grandpa for a while. It hurts to know that I’ve been a largely absent grandson since moving to Arizona ten years ago. It hurts to know that one of my greatest heroes doesn’t exist on earth anymore. But I honestly feel peace in my heart that this all is temporary, that he is reunited with his wife, that he is free from the shackles of old age, and that I will know him again in a place and state that likely trumps any of our mortal interactions, as special as they may have been.

Because I believe this about everyone past, present, and future, my life has meaning and everyone around me has intrinsic purpose and value. There is reason to work and to play, to learn and to love, to hope and to try. There is reason to live.

The tyranny of feigned omniscience and the liberation in admitting, "I don't know."

This is how it can feel to admit you don't know something. 

This is how it can feel to admit you don't know something. 

Those  who know me personally know that one of my weaknesses is being a know-it-all. I like having all the answers, and I struggle to admit when I’m wrong. I think somewhere under this weakness is a strength-- I have an insatiable curiosity and I love to learn-- but the aversion to being or looking ignorant is simply a manifestation of pride that’s plagued me for decades. As a parent, teacher, and leader I have many opportunities to fight the know-it-all demon. I get asked a lot of questions, and it is so tempting to have all the answers. The people around me, especially my wife and family, deal patiently with such an annoying trait!

I’ve recently noticed the same tendency in my young daughter. She’s bright and she likes to learn, but when she’s proven wrong, she’ll say some preposterous things to wriggle around it. She’ll often fight tooth and nail for some trivial thing that is plainly false. She often refuses to believe me or my wife on topics she knows nothing about. If she uses the wrong word for something and you correct her, she jus renames it to what she had said it was. ("Well, I call it cheddar cake," or whatever.) I find myself often saying, “Gracie, it’s okay to be wrong,” or, “It’s okay not to know something.” I want so much for her to be free from the burden of believing she has to know everything and always be right.

You see, I’ve learned two powerful truths while fighting this weakness. First is what I call "the tyranny of feigned omniscience." I do not (and presumably into the eternities will not) know everything. Thus, acting like I do results in a special sort of slavery to pretense. Keeping up the appearance that you know everything and have all the answers becomes a heavy (and impossible) burden to bear. On the other hand, I’ve also learned the liberation in admitting when I don't know something. To simply say, “I don’t know” brings a surprising dose of peace and joy!

Especially in response to doctrinal questions, “I don’t know” can be one of the most powerful answers of all. There are many things we don’t know. Here are a few classic examples of unanswerable questions I often hear from the youth:

  • Why is coffee against the word of wisdom?
  • How did God create the earth?
  • Was Jesus married?
  • Will the Holy Ghost ever get a body?
  • What if Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the fruit?
  • What’s the deal with the dinosaurs?

I don’t think it’s wrong to ask or ponder questions like these. Questions should always be welcome. But if we’re in a position of authority, whether as a parent, teacher, or leader, or when we're sharing the gospel, there's safety in admitting we don't know. Whenever we speculate or teach as truth something that has not been officially revealed, we are guilty of what Nephi called setting “themselves up for a light unto the world” (2 Nephi 26:29). We become the source of knowledge and information rather than the word of God. And we may be wrong.

Every time we admit our ignorance, we reinforce the truth that God knows all and that we simply don’t. (See Isaiah 55:8-9) Admitting we don’t know is a valuable reminder of our dependance on God. In fact, I’ve noticed that the Holy Ghost witnesses of our ignorance just as much as he does any other truth. On the other hand, he does not back me up when I speculate.

Conjuring answers to personal questions that shape the course of individual lives may be even more risky. Questions such as:

  • Why is this happening to me at this time in my life?
  • Where should i go to college?
  • Why is my family member making such poor decisions?
  • Who should I marry?

While parents and church leaders have stewardship to counsel individuals, I try to be careful about answering these kind of questions. Sometimes "I don't know" is the best response. Adding, “But I know who does!" Isn't a bad idea.

Even God, who does know everything, often lets people figure things out for themselves. (For example, study the story of the Brother of Jared and the Jaredite barges in Ether 2-3)

One of my favorite rules in the Church Handbook is that a bishop should never counsel a ward member to get a divorce. At first I thought this policy was because divorce is wrong. But I've since come to believe that it's really because such a profound decision needs to be made solely by the couple. They have to own it. This is one of many times when the right answer is an honest "I don't know."

I once had a student stay back after class one day. This great young man, who was an exceptional baseball player, told me that he was being scouted by Major League Baseball teams. He was expected to be a high draft pick. Scouts and managers had told him that if he served a mission, he would forfeit the fame, fortune, and satisfaction he had worked so hard to achieve. They said if he left for two years, he'd never play at that high level. He asked me what he should do.

I didn't just blow him off; we talked about the pros and cons of both sides, and we talked about a few things that should be factors in his decision. But I knew in my heart that the answer to his question was not mine to know or mine to give. It was his and his alone. "I don't know, but I know who does."

If like me you find it hard to be wrong or ignorant, may I recommend finding the liberation in admitting, "I don't know." It feel surprisingly great. I believe God intends for us to ultimately learn all there is to know, but he cannot teach us if we already think we know everything. Like Nephi, we have to be able to confess, “I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). Ironically, accepting our ignorance is the first step to overcoming ignorance. 

Noteworthy: Malcolm Gladwell on God (and Mormons)

If you keep up with popular modern books, you’ve probably heard of Malcolm Gladwell.  After being a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years, Gladwell has written anumber of bestselling books (such as Blink and The Tipping Point) that explore the implications of social psychology and research. I listened to a recent podcast* interview with Gladwell where he made a couple of interesting comments:

On Belief in God

 Interviewer: "What is something you believe that other people think is crazy?”

 Gladwell: "I believe in the existence of things outside my own direct physical experience. I don’t see why that’s controversial; why people believe we can only believe in things that you have conventional explanations for and that you can see and touch. That strikes me as being… why would you limit yourself like that? In a kind of purely rational way, I believe theres stuff out there that can’t be properly explained. Why wouldn’t there be?"

Some in modern society dismiss faith with condescending terms such as “magic thinking” and “mental gymnastics” but I’m with Gladwell. We may find that the dose of rationality that lead us out of dark-age superstition turns to poison if we continue to enthrone physical observation as the only viable source of truth. Given that we haven’t even observed everything on earth, let alone a single complete pocket of the universe, that seems hasty.  I'm told the burden of proof lies on people of faith. But despite all our learning, the unknown still far outweighs the known, so why do we act so smug and smart? I don't think this demands a belief in God, but the possibility shouldn't be dismissed too cavalierly.

On Mormon Missions

Later, Gladwell talked about regretting that he didn’t spend time outside of the country when he was younger. He recommended everyone spend some time experiencing the world. “It’s always my advice to young people, particularly young people of privilege, to just leave. go away. you can’t stay in the cocoon your whole life. It’ll limit you in ways you cannot even begin to understand at this point."

 “There are two religious groups who take a lot of heat but for whom I have enormous respect, the Mennonites and the Mormons, who have an institutionalized practice of sending people to other cultures. 'The mission.' People who go on those missions come back transformed, not just spiritually…"

Although I didn’t leave the country, Chicago was definitely outside my “cocoon.” I find myself frequently trying to express to young people just how valuable my mission has become to me. I’m convinced there’s a reason young men and women are called to serve at a time when most 18-26 year olds are entirely focused on themselves, and it’s not because 18-26 year old young men and women are the hardest working, smartest, most spiritual teachers in the church!

Simply put, I saw and experienced things about the world and myself that could be had in almost no other way.

A couple weeks ago I sat in a high council room to participate in the setting-apart of a departing missionary. I watched this young man’s father, with tears flowing from his eyes, tell his son: “When I joined the church and left on my mission, my father told me I was wasting my time. Son, I know you’re not wasting your time."

Amen.

 

 

* The Interview was on the Podcast The Tim Ferris Show. On the podcast, millennial self-help author Tim Ferris interviews experts in various fields for insight into their habits and processes. I can't fully recommend the podcast; the quality really depends on who he's interviewing and some I've had to turn a few off for bad language, but some of them have been pretty insightful.

Don't Forget to Sharpen Your Saw

 

This is a shameless plug for having fun. Good, clean fun. Or as The Family: A Proclamation to the World calls it, "wholesome recreational activities.”  This important principle appears in the Proclamation at the end of a long list of principles upon which “successful marriages and families are established and maintained”: Faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, and wholesome recreational activities.

After a whirlwind summer punctuated by holidays, church camps, and a family trip, I’ve been pondering the the role of recreation in our family. I love that Church leaders put recreational activities on this list of essentials. What can I say? I like to have fun. I often find myself pondering the boundaries and definition of wholesome recreation as I consider how to spend my time. I’m convinced that recreation is important, but it can be hard to know just what (and how much) is appropriate.

Part 1: Recreation is good...

Recreation is not emphasized in the word of God. The scriptures are basically mum on the subject, with just a few verses merely alluding to it. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Mosiah 4:27, and Doctrine and Covenants 59:18-20 could be used to argue in favor of recreation, but I can't find it or any synonyms such as leisure, fun, play, or relaxation encouraged directly. I'm sure Christ knew when and how to have fun, but lesiure time is only tenuously referenced in New Testament accounts of weddings, feasts, and the occasional nap in the back of a boat. (The best place to look for wholesome recreation is probably Church history. Those early Mormons, including Joseph Smith, knew how to work hard and play hard.)

In General Conference, we reminded of the other principles of successful families far more often than recreation, and when recreation is mentioned it is almost always warning against excessive or unwholesome activities. There are a couple gems though:

Having spoken in praise of labor, I must also add a kind word for leisure. Just as honest toil gives rest its sweetness, wholesome recreation is the friend and steadying companion of work. Music, literature, art, dance, drama, athletics—all can provide entertainment to enrich one’s life and further consecrate it. Ironically, it sometimes takes hard work to find wholesome leisure.
— Elder D. Todd Christofferson, October 2010
Keeping one’s mind occupied with constructive, useful things on a constant basis prevents Satan from having success in idle minds. Good music, art, literature, recreation, and other worthy pastimes can help establish proper patterns in one’s mind and conduct.
— Elder Marvin J. Ashton, October 1990
Rest and physical exercise are essential, and a walk in the fresh air can refresh the spirit. Wholesome recreation is part of our religion, and a change of pace is necessary, and even its anticipation can lift the spirit.
— President Ezra Taft Benson, October 1974

Maybe recreation wasn’t emphasized historically because free time and leisure activities were limited. I’m not sure. I wonder if the relative silence on the subject today is because people in general don’t need a lot of extra encouragement to take a break, play, or go on vacation. (By the way, I think there are those, especially within the Church, who actually do need extra encouragement to take a break, play, or go on vacation.) the aseticism inherent in most world religions seems at constant risk of being taken to extremes where wholesome, appropriate recreation is rejected as sinful or ungodly.  (I don't want to nitpick certain religions, but there are plenty of examples in the history of Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. See here for a recent example.) 

It’s safe to say this is contrary to the nature of happiness. Our church buildings have basketball courts, missionaries have preparation day, and general authorities have a month off each summer. We know God rested on the seventh day. I wonder if he took time to do something fun on the sixth!

Need some secular motivation? Science backs up the value of recreation, too. A small sample of examples:

The American Institute of Stress (sounds like a fun place to work) estimates that workplace stress costs the US economy $300 billion in lost productivity annually.

The NPR podcast Hidden Brain recently highlighted some interesting scientific findings about the value of vacations:

"Vacations, especially those that take one into the grandeur of nature, can induce a transcendent feeling of awe. And a sense of awe, researchers found, can increase ethical decision making and generosity.” (learn more here.) 

"A good vacation leaves most of us feeling, well, good. Maybe even better than good. But how long does that vacation high last? Researchers in Germany tracked a group of school teachers. They found the teachers had higher levels of engagement at work and lower burnout rates after their vacations. However, the positive effects were all but gone a month later. The takeaway may be that we may need to get away from it all just a little more often.” (learn more here.)

My mission president Paul Norton used to always say, “You have to sharpen your saw,” meaning that if you never take a break from work, your effort will actually become less and less effective as you "dull" over time, like a saw that never stops cutting long enough to be sharpened and therefore becomes less and less efficient.

 I’ve found this to be true daily, weekly, and yearly. In my efforts as a husband, father, teacher, and bishop, I benefit from periodic respite. Think of the word for a moment: re-creation. The dictionary says very simply that recreation is "activity done for enjoyment when one is not working” but if you look at the Latin root, recreare meant to "create again" or “ renew”.  The word evolved in Middle English to denote "mental or spiritual consolation." If you’ve ever come back from a weekend getaway (or even a nice lunch break) feeling motivated and productive, it’s because in a sense, you’ve been “re-created.” Refreshed, reset, revitalized. A new you.

Part 2: Except when it's wrong.

Most references to recreation in General Conference are warnings about excessive or inappropriate recreation. Considering what we hear from the prophets on the topic, the word “wholesome” is key and unwholesome recreation is a more common problem than people failing to have fun. I’ll share two prophetic teachings on the subject that have been especially meaningful to me. The first is about recreation that can be physically risky. As someone who’s long enjoyed what many see as “thrill seeking” activities, this teaching from President James E. Faust has been a great guide:

Some of you may think that you will discover your strengths and abilities by living on the edge. Perhaps you also think it is a way to find your identity or manliness. Your identity, however, cannot be found from thrill seeking, such as intentionally and unnecessarily exposing your life or your soul to any kind of danger, physical or moral. There will always be enough risks that will come to you naturally without your having to seek them out. Your strength and identity will come from honoring your priesthood, developing your talents, and serving the Lord. Each of you will have to work very hard to qualify for your eternal potential. It will not be easy. Finding your true identity will tax your ability far beyond climbing a dangerous cliff or speeding in a car or on a motorcycle. It will require all of your strength, stamina, intelligence, and courage.
— President James E. Faust, October 1995

The second is in reference to spiritually risky recreation, and this one has helped me with even more decisions. In his hallmark talk Good, Better, Best Elder Dallin H. Oaks said very simply, "Some young people are amusing themselves to death—spiritual death.” it's tempting to spend too much time in recreation, build our lives around our favorite recreation, or to get caught up in unwholesome activities. Each of these are spiritually damaging.

I don’t pretend to have the perfect schedule or a comprehensive list of wholesome activities. Much like keeping the Sabbath day holy, these are personal questions with personal answers and suppose we'll never get more than few fundamental specifics from the Church. But I know for myself, for example, that there’s a big difference between watching a questionable movie versus reading a quality book. There’s a big difference between mindlessly scrolling through social media and playing my guitar. If Satan can get us to spend our free time in unwholesome recreation, that is a great victory for him, especially in the family setting if we’re fooled into thinking we’re doing worthwhile activities together. There’s a big difference between all of us sitting in the living room staring at different screens and all of us going on a bike ride, playing a game, or dancing together.

A few questions that help us consider how to spend our time:

  • Does the activity reduce stress and anxiety, or increase them?
  • Does the activity foster and improve relationships?
  • Does the activity improve physical health?
  • Does the activity have educational value, whether intellectually or experientially?
  • Does the activity help me learn or develop a talent?
  • Does the activity allow me to enjoy and appreciate God’s creations?
  • Does the activity have the potential to drive away the spirit?
  • Does the activity take up too much time?
  • Does the activity require me to miss something that i know is essential?

It can take time and effort to find and enjoy recreation with family (money doesn't hurt either, although lack of money is no excuse for shoddy recreation). I’ve found for myself and my family that wholesome recreation is worth the effort required. I’ve further found that the Holy Ghost will always confirm and validate the value of worthy recreation and warn us when our recreation is excessive or inappropriate. Ironically, excessive or poor recreation leads to decreased pleasure, satisfaction, and self worth. The devil Screwtape in CS Lewis' famous Screwtape Letters writes of pleasure: 

"All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula." 

Seeking and following promptings regarding recreation has led to great blessings like deepened relationships, improved health, fond memories, important life lessons, increased vision, widened perspective, and greater gratitude. I struggle to express how grateful I am to live in a time, place, and circumstance that affords me periodic recreation. Some of my most cherished experiences with family and friends are thanks to wholesome recreational activities. Along with work, service, and daily devotion, these experiences help define who we become over time. 

Perhaps I could conclude the way my Dad ended every letter during my mission:

Be good and have fun!

Thanks Dad, for Keeping me on the Path

If you’ve been alive long enough, you’ve probably had the jarring experience of suddenly sounding or acting just like one of you parents. It’s especially ironic when you find yourself doing exactly what you had vowed you would never do when you grew up. I've had a number of these "Whoa, that was just like Dad" moments. I had another on a recent family trip. 

We spent Memorial Day weekend in Southwestern Colorado with my Mom, brother Ty, and my brother Dave and his family. Sunday afternoon, after a pristine morning at the Silverton Branch and a breathtaking mountain drive to the village of Ouray, a few of us decided to go for a short hike before dinner. We started up a dirt road into the mountains adjacent to our rental. Before too long, the babies were spent and most of the group turned back. My brother Ty and I, along with my four-year-old son Jonah, decided to press on  little longer.

Not too far into the forest the road turned into a trail traversing the mountainside through stands of pines and aspens. I tossed Jonah on my shoulders we hiked, enjoying good coversation and the beautiful scenery along with way. After about a mile and a half, evening was coming on and it was time to get back for dinner. At the same time, the trail had sort of vanished into the forest.

The obvious choice was to turn around and head back on the way we had come. It was the quickest and easiest way back and we were probably late for dinner already. But of course going back the way we came was boring, and we thought there was another way back. We had come to the edge of a canyon we knew had a road running along side a river that would also lead back to our condo. We couldn’t see the river or road from our vantage, but we had a contour map on a phone and we could see that if we went down the mountain a couple hundred yards into the canyon, we would come to the road. The bushwhack through the forest in front of us would be rough. There was a lot of deadfall crisscrossing the mountainside. It looked challenging but doable, and after some deliberation we headed towards the canyon floor to satisfy our curiosity and wanderlust.

After a few minutes of climbing over, under, and around multiple downed trees, which was not easy with a toddler on my shoulders, we came to a steep incline that appeared to descend to the canyon floor. From the top of the incline we could glimpse the river, the road, and even a bridge. Perfect. The distance between ourselves and the road was steep, but grassy and clear of deadfall. The way back to the trail was rough and inconvenient, so we decided to push on. 

I very carefully held my son and started making my way down the incline behind my brother. It was slippery. We went slowly, knowing one wrong step could lead to both of us tumbling down the hill. Soon we caught up with Ty perched on the steep hillside looking downward. 

We could now see the road, the river, and the bridge very clearly. And we had a problem. The river was not small. It was wide and fast moving. There would be no rock-hopping across. The bridge didn’t span the river either, it crossed a small fork on the other side. And perhaps most damning to our journey, we were standing above an almost sheer cliff dropping straight to the river. We were stuck.

What had looked like a sure bet from our earlier viewpoint had turned out to be a complete impossibility. The hill we had just come down, while not particularly long, was too steep and slippery for me to climb without using my hands. How could I hope to hold my son while climbing out? Knowing now that a wrong step would have us tumbling not just down a steep hill but possibly off a cliff into a raging river, I began some pretty serious internal prayer. Here I was standing on that edge with my little boy, who was still as cheerful as ever enjoying this adventure with his dad in complete trust, and I wasn't sure I could get him out of there safely. 

Then it happened “This is just like the situations I tease Dad about!” I thought. Don’t misunderstand. My Dad wasn’t abnormally prone to putting my life in danger. But as happens over the course of a lifetime, there were mishaps, like my first time at raging waters when I fell off the tube at the end of the slide and he landed on top of me and fished me out of the pool by my ankle. Or the time he was helping me get my fishing line unstuck from a tree and he clubbed me in the head with a small tree trunk, or my first deer hunt when he told me to sit and wait and he walked off only to shoot the biggest deer of his life moments later and I went home empty handed. Even worse, I’ve never let him live these moments down, jokingly blaming my shortcomings on the trauma induced by these blunders, as if I was sure that I would never make a mistake with my kids (incidentally, this was proven completely false about three months into fatherhood when I lifted my daughter toward the sky all filled with love and joy only to run her head right into the ceiling fan of our living room.)

My prayers were answered. We made it up the steep embankment, through the deadfall to the trail, and back to the condo (unfortunately late for dinner!). As we slowly made our way up the hill, searching for safe places to put my feet and branches to hang onto, I realized that how foolish I had been. At one point, holding all our weight on a small sapling jutting from the hillside, I had the distinct feeling that I had no business bringing one of God’s little sons into such a risky situation. 

I reflected on the lesson learned, one that I should’ve known from countless past experiences: stay on the path. I thought more about living the gospel in modern society, I was struck by just how logical and enticing it can seem to leave the path, and yet how dangerous it can be. We had a map. We knew about the river and the road. We weren’t lost. We even got to a point where we could see the river, road, and bridge. But we couldn’t see everything, and the few things we didn’t see clearly were the very things that crippled us. We had no idea that the edge of the river was a cliff. The map couldn’t us how big and fast the river was, and our very eyes deceived us; the bridge didn’t even cross the river. 

Of course he wasn’t mistake free, (why do children expect perfection from their parents anyway?) but one key way my dad never erred was in keeping us on the path that mattered. I don’t think I know anyone (except my Mom) who is so relentlessly committed to doing what is right. We were never forced or coerced; in fact, I enjoyed more freedom than many, especially as a teen. But Dad made crystal clear his commitment to God and his Kingdom, and he expected the same commitment from us. 

I’m learning now just how hard it can be to maintain such levels of commitment day in and day out. This kind of parenting demands endurance, devotion, and sacrifice. By the most basic definition, being a “father” is quite easy. A father is a male parent. One who “begets" another. The act of begetting, especially for men, is not particularly challenging. But deeper definitions reveal that true fathers, those who to me actually deserve the title of father, do much more than supply the biological means for originating life: 

  1. Father: (noun) a man who exercises paternal care over other persons; paternal protector or provider:
  2. Father: (verb) to perform the tasks or duties of a male parent; act paternally: to assume as one's own; take the responsibility of.

The Family: A Proclamation to the World, solidifies the role of fathers in God's eternal plan. Here are a few samples:

Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other and for their children. Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.

By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families.

We warn that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God.

True fathers sacrifice. Consider our Heavenly Father: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…" (John 3:16). Consider HIs son Jesus Christ, also known throughout the scriptures as Father, "Yea, even so he shall be led, crucified, and slain, the flesh becoming subject even unto death, the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father" (Mosiah 15:27). These sacred examples show that a father, far more than providing existence, is essentially a man who gives of himself for the sake of his children. 

Ironically, children do not recognize most sacrifices made by devoted parents until they become parents themselves. Everything a good father hopes to provide, a roof overhead, dinner on the table, a voice of reason in the midst of turmoil, comes to be expected; even demanded. I was no different. As a fledgling father myself, I’m just beginning to appreciate the sacrifices my own Father made for me and my siblings. It began, impressive enough when he sold his beloved Jeep to help pay for the birth of my oldest sister. The sacrifice continued as he worked tirelessly through graduate school in New York, providing for his family not just in the moment but establishing the conditions necessary to raise his family in comfortable, safe circumstances that would eventually put the world at their fingertips.

Along the way, he has given his life for ours. How often my little legs and cold feet must’ve slowed him down and turned him home early when he took me hunting. Only now do I realize what it patience it takes to play Legos with your little boy, but he played Legos with me. I never thanked him for coaching my basketball team in junior high or patiently teaching me how to landscape so I could make money throughout high school. Even as an adult, I failed to appreciate his service to me as my YSA bishop at Utah State. 

Perhaps most valuable and thankless is the tapestry of wisdom, woven from a lifetime of careful decisions and keen observation, that he has shared over the years. I must’ve given him more than one ulcer when that wisdom fell on deaf ears. In every bit of council Dad invited me to walk the safe path of faith and obedience. Sometimes that path seemed simplistic or boring. Sometimes I thought I saw other viable pathways that would provide a more enjoyable journey and still get me where I wanted to go. In word and deed, he never led me astray. I have seen since that leaving the gospel path is a recipe for eventual sorrow and regret. Life is littered with deadfall, slippery slopes, cliffs, and raging rivers. The gospel trail, while rigorous in its own right, is the only safe way to navigate the challenges of life.

I’m so grateful for parents who carefully walk that path. Kudos to the true fathers everywhere, so perfectly imperfect, who try to help their little clan find safety, success, and salvation. Fatherhood is sacrifice, and sacrifice brings blessings. Devoted fathers are blessed to become bit by bit more like our Eternal Father and His Son, both so worthy of the title of Father. I can only hope to learn to give the way my Father has given for me, and to guide my children on the path that he has so well worn into the ground stretching on before me. 

....

I didn't fit these into my post, but here are a couple of my favorite things on the topic of fathers. The first is an explanation of how Christ is Father as stated many times in the scriptures. The second is Elder Christofferson, who opened my eyes to the sad caricature of fathers permeating modern society (namely that we are all bumbling oafs) and who has taught so well the true divinity and importance of fatherhood.

The Father and the Son, A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from Improvement Era, Aug. 1916, 934–42

Fathers, D. Todd Christofferson

Let us be Men, D. Todd Christofferson

 

 

The Tip of the Iceberg

If you are naturally gifted with kindness, consideration, and charity, you might want to skip this one. But if (like me) you have to work at it, then saddle up!

I went to Hobby Lobby the other day to pick up some supplies for a seminary lesson. I felt a little out of place; there weren't many grown men in white shirts and ties shopping for their next craft project. My discomfort increased at check-out when I couldn’t work the credit card machine. On my third attempt, the nice young lady helping me at the register pushed the wrong button and had to get a manager to reset everything. As we stood there waiting, I realized a few women had lined up behind me. I turned with a smile and said,

“Sorry ladies, you might want to go to another register. You got in line behind a rookie and it looks like it’s going to be a minute.”

When I said they were behind a rookie, I was talking about myself. I use “rookie!” as a bit of an expletive when I make a mistake, and I am definitely a Hobby Lobby rookie. (Apparently I was supposed to push X for credit instead of debit.) Anyway, when I turned back to the young clerk, she began to apologize profusely:

“I’m so sorry. I just started last Saturday. I’m just learning.”

“Oh No!" I burst back. “I was talking about myself when I said rookie! I’m the one who doesn’t know what’s going on!” But as coworkers crowded around and the wait for the manager dragged on, it felt like a failed attempt to take back a cruel comment.

It was an unfortunate misunderstanding, but I hate to hurt someone’s feelings, especially by accident. This little blunder got me thinking as I drove away just how often we interact with people while knowing very little about their circumstances. I thought of icebergs and the popular fact that most of an iceberg is underwater and out of sight. Like icebergs, most of a person’s identity is hidden. We can’t see their upbringing, past decisions, or past experiences. We can’t see their strength or weakness, their pains, sorrows, hopes, or dreams. Most of everything that makes them who they are in the moment of interaction is hidden from our view, even with people we presume to know well. "In the quiet heart is hidden, sorrow that the eye can't see,” says the hymn. Because of our relative ignorance of one another, there's a natural tendency to overlay our own perspective (built from years of unique experiences) upon others. It's easy to project our own strengths, weaknesses, and experiences on others and therefore have unrealistic or even innappropriate expectations. We mistakenly assume people should know, understand, or do the things we know, understand, and do. 

In the ten years since I started teaching seminary, I’ve had profound reminders that I’m only seeing "the tip of the iceberg” with the people around me. Early on in my career I treated most of my students as if they were raised in circumstances similar to mine. I expected them to understand and act as I would’ve. I learned quickly that this isn’t the case. For example, when you find out on the last day of school that a young lady has struggled with depression and self-harm for years, you quickly revisit all your attempts to get her to get off her phone and study the scriptures.

I don’t mean to say everyone is floating around on a heap of depressing baggage, but I’ve learned time and time again that my ignorance (or filling in the gaps with my assumptions) is harmful. I become a useless or even damaging instrument for the Lord when I make such assumptions. 

Since serving as Bishop, I have had the sacred privilege of glimpsing "below the surface" of many individuals who have sought the Savior with my help. I’ve learned that at any given moment, the people around us (often appearing perfectly fine on the surface) are experiencing a vast array of challenges in their minds and hearts stemming from decisions and circumstances stretching back sometimes for decades. A crumbling marriage. A father losing his faith. Financial burdens. A painful disease.

These steady reminders motivate me to be more kind, thoughtful, and understanding, especially in a society where these attributes are vanishing from so many venues. Sometimes I read comment threads on the internet (Facebook, Youtube, NPR.org, it doesn’t really matter where) and my heart just hurts at how assumptive, inconsiderate, and rigid we can be with each other. We can be so quick to defend ourselves and condemn others!

I’m talking to myself first and foremost, but couldn’t we just be a little nicer? A little less assuming? More quick to forgive and to justify rather than judge others? So much of the Savior’s teachings revolved around our personal interactions, and modern prophets echo His plea, “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise" (Luke 6:31).  In a powerful April 2006 priesthood talk, President Gordon B. Hinckley wondered: 

Why do any of us have to be so mean and unkind to others? Why can’t all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon. When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following: Stop it! It’s that simple. We simply have to stop judging others and replace judgmental thoughts and feelings with a heart full of love for God and His children.

A pessimist would conclude that we should all just stay home so we can avoid accidentally popping anyone’s bubble. I fear in some ways our society is heading in that direction with our fixation on political correctness. But so much of political correctness is egocentric. Rather than retreat into our safe places, the Savior has a better way:

"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 16:25). For some, this is a gift. For me, this is a goal. I’ve found (as much as I’ve been able), when I lose myself in the concerns of others, a number of positive results occur:

  • I assume less and give the benefits of the doubt more
  • I am more patient and kind
  • The spirit of discernment allows me to glimpse “below the surface” to see how I might be of service
  • Individuals seek my help and confide in me when appropriate
  • I more consistently remember that God is the only one who sees the whole iceberg

Think about that for a second. God is the only one who sees the whole iceberg. As the world and the Kingdom continue to drift from each other, this truth will become increasingly important. We might not be a be able to stem the tide of snap judgments or the “my way or the highway” attitude permeating our culture, but we don’t have to embrace it either. We can choose to be thoughtful, kind, unassuming, and prone to forgive. We can choose to treat others the way we hope the Savior treats us. Might we suffer for this? Sure. But if we do we're in good company. After all, He who taught, "The merciful shall obtain mercy," was spit upon, scourged, and crucified for his kindness. 

Water, Blood, and Spirit: The Powerful Connection Between Childbirth and the Atonement of Christ

Last October, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland delivered the consummate quote on motherhood, sure to find its way onto Mother’s Day handouts for years to come: "No love in mortality comes closer to approximating the pure love of Jesus Christ than the selfless love a devoted mother has for her child.” Throughout the scriptures, the Lord uses the example of motherly love to help illustrate his perfect love for each of us. To the prophet Isaiah he said, "Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yeah, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee" (Isaiah 49:15).  Later, in the book of Hosea, Christ likens himself to a mother bear defending her cubs. (Hosea 13:8). Many times he compared himself to a mother hen pleading, “How oft will I gather you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings."

Powerful as it may be, the likeness between mothers and Christ does not end with the tenacious love they both demonstrate. In the same talk, Elder Holland connected the act of childbirth with the Atonement by pointing out the common language describing both.

“Prophesying of the Savior’s Atonement, Isaiah wrote, “He hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” A majestic latter-day vision emphasized that “[Jesus] came into the world … to bear the sins of the world.” Both ancient and modern scripture testify that “he redeemed them, and bore them, and carried them all the days of old.” A favorite hymn pleads with us to “hear your great Deliv’rer’s voice!”

Bear, borne, carry, deliver. These are powerful, heartening messianic words. They convey help and hope for safe movement from where we are to where we need to be—but cannot get without assistance. These words also connote burden, struggle, and fatigue—words most appropriate in describing the mission of Him who, at unspeakable cost, lifts us up when we have fallen, carries us forward when strength is gone, delivers us safely home when safety seems far beyond our reach...

But can you hear in this language another arena of human endeavor in which we use words like bear and borne, carry and lift, labor and deliver? As Jesus said to John while in the very act of Atonement, so He says to us all, “Behold thy mother!”

These similarities between childbirth and the Atonement are not happenstance. In the meridian of time, a hesitant Pharisee named Nicodemus sought Jesus under the cover of night, seeking to be taught by the Master (see John 3:5). 

"Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God,” the Savior taught Nicodemus.

Nicodemus niavely responded, "Can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?"

Jesus patiently replied, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."

We know water is referencing baptism, and the spirit is the gift of the Holy Ghost. But the Savior is also making a direct connection between the physical birth required for entrance into mortality and the spiritual rebirth required for entrance into the Kingdom of God. Many centuries earlier, when father Adam asked the Lord why we must be baptized, the Lord taught the sacred connection between physical birth and spiritual rebirth:

That by reason of transgression cometh the fall, which fall bringeth death, and inasmuch as ye were born into the world by water, and blood, and the spirit, which I have made, and so became of dust a living soul, even so ye must be born again into the kingdom of heaven, of water, and of the Spirit, and be cleansed by blood, even the blood of mine Only Begotten;
— Moses 6:59

I trust I don’t need to review the physical details. We can’t remember our own, but for anyone who has seen and experienced the miracle of birth, the words "water, blood, and spirit” likely conjure vivid feelings and memories.

I find it profound and beautiful how the Lord equates spiritual rebirth via his Atonement with physical birth via our mothers. With further reflection, these two births become parallel pillars of the plan of salvation. We typically give spiritual rebirth all the attention, and rightfully so. Physical birth is past and done. But rewinding to the premortal life, physical birth was the next essential step. Entering into mortality is just as important as baptism, marriage, death, and even resurrection.

Motherhood and childbirth are sacred, essential elements of God's plan. Without physical birth allowing God’s children to enter mortality, the Atonement not only doesn’t matter but doesn’t even exist. How fitting that Eve, the mother of all living, made the initial decision to partake of the fruit and later reflected, 

“Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.”
— Moses 5:11

Physical birth is an essential part of the plan and serves as a vivid precursor to and symbol of the second birth. If childbirth is a symbol of the Atonement, then women are symbols of Christ, and the sacred capacity to bring children into the world deserves our utmost respect and honor. Little wonder sexual sin is so grevious. Little wonder the Lord's Church works relentlessly to defend the sanctity of parenthood and family. Little wonder that from Eden all the way to modern politics, Satan works so hard to debase womanhood and procreation. 

As I think of my daughters growing older and deciding how to live and who to be, I can't think of much I'd rather have them know, deep in their hearts, than just how special they are to their Heavenly Father and HIs plan. I hope each of my children see sooner than I did that their mother really is the greatest example of Christlike love they will likely encounter in their lives. 

Praiseworthy: leadingLDS.com

One of my goals on the blog is to share good stuff that I run into, both in and out of the Church. If you're interested in improving as a leader, may I recommend the website leadingLDS.com. The site provides articles, lesson helps, and interviews all focused on sharing ideas and practices for leaders in the Church. Topics range from management and productivity to agenda design; from home teaching strategies to memorizing names. There is a lot of great material, both practical and spiritual.

My favorite feature is the podcast. The man behind the site, Kurt Francom, produces a regular podcast of his interviews with various leaders and experts on relevant topics. I've heard a lot of good ideas and received many personal impressions for my calling while listening. I recommend it. At the risk of blatant self promotion, I recently did an interview with Kurt for the podcast. If you'd like to hear me say "um" a lot and hear some of my guiding leadership principles along the way, you can give it a listen! Check it out @ www.leadingLDS.com

7 Things Gospel Teachers Should Give Their Students

We must revitalize and reenthrone superior teaching in the Church—at home, from the pulpit, in our administrative meetings, and surely in the classroom.
— Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

This is the second of a two-part post on teaching. You can read the first post, focused on teaching preparation, here.

Like it or not, being a Mormon means being a teacher. it may be less formal (visiting teaching) or more formal (Gospel Doctrine teacher), but for dedicated members, opportunities to teach are never far away. Most church members find themselves willing but apprehensive about teaching. I fell in love with teaching as a missionary and thought I was pretty confident in front of people, but the first time I got in front of a seminary class I was almost paralyzed with fear. After about a decade of teaching, I’ll soon pass 10,000 hours in the seminary classroom. After all this time, teaching well is still a quest every single day, so trust me when I say I have great respect for all teachers in the Church. I know what it demands of the heart and mind. Most get very little practice or training. Kudos to anyone willing to stand up and open their mouths.

In the spirit of sharing, I’ve noticed there are a few really simple things that teachers in the Church could do for their students that would make a big difference without a lot of extra effort. Many of them simply require us to break away from some of the rigid traditions that tend to have a firm grip on teaching in the church. I wouldn't try to do all of these in your lesson next Sunday, just see if one grabs your attention and give it a shot next time. Most of these skills can be found in the manuals Teaching no Greater Call and the Gospel Teaching and Learning Handbook. I highly recommend both.

Give students a choice

This is a valuable guiding principle in all that I do as a teacher.  President James E. Faust taught, “Our agency, given us through the plan of our Father, is the great alternative to Satan’s plan of force.”  People love making choices and bristle at being told what to do, even in the smallest ways. I try to integrate small choices into class wherever possible. For example: try providing three scriptures or quotes on a subject. Invite students to choose one to read and be ready to share their thoughts. Or, list three or four questions at once and invite students to answer any one they would like. You can also provide very simple choices, like Inviting students to write their thoughts in the margins of their scriptures or in the notes app on their phone. Tell the class to be ready to share a personal experience or a testimony, whichever they’d prefer. One caution: don’t provide too many options. You don’t want to paralyze the indecisive or have the class run wild! Two, three, or four options usually works well.

Give students time to ponder

After asking a question and getting silence in response, teachers often feel uncomfortable and bail the class out. This is especially common when teaching youth. Assuming you’ve asked a good question that the class understands, give them some time to ponder and organize their thoughts into a comment. Pause a little longer and someone will usually speak up. For some deeper questions, I tell the class that they have some time to think and invite them to be ready because I will ask for two or three people to share their thoughts.

My favorite example of this is in Alma 18, when Ammon asked King Lamoni what he could do for him and Lamoni sat there for an hour without answering. (I haven’t tried waiting quite that long yet, but Ammon obviously wasn’t afraid of silence!) Years ago, Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a talk on spiritual gifts in which he said, "By pondering, we give the Spirit an opportunity to impress and direct. Pondering is a powerful link between the heart and the mind. As we read the scriptures, our hearts and minds are touched. If we use the gift to ponder, we can take these eternal truths and realize how we can incorporate them into our daily actions.” Further, Elder Holland taught, “An unrushed atmosphere is absolutely essential if you are to have the Spirit of the Lord present in your class.” 

Give students time to read and write

We often equate participation with talking, but it’s important to remember that it’s not essential for someone to be talking at every given moment of class. Not all scriptures need to be read out loud. Not all questions need to be answered out loud. Giving people quiet time to read, ponder, and record impressions can be great ways to bring variety into the class and invite the Holy Ghost to teach individuals. Give students five minutes to read a group of verses, or give them five minutes to ponder a group of questions. If the Holy Ghost is active during these reverent moments, students will sometimes have thoughts and impressions that are too personal to share with the class. Multiple prophets have taught the importance of writing these impressions down. Elder Richard G. Scott often championed the practice of recording spiritual impressions. "Inspiration carefully recorded shows God that His communications are sacred to us. Recording will also enhance our ability to recall revelation.” Don’t hesitate to give students some quiet time to record their impressions. This is often missing in Church classes. Giving students time to ponder, read, and write on their own gives the teacher a break, adds variety to class, and most importantly invites the Spirit to teach individuals.

Give students your ear

If you want to have meaningful discussions, its essential that you listen to the comments being made. I don’t just mean hear the comments, but really listen. This seems obvious, but when you’re nervous and stressed about teaching, it’s easy to be thinking about what you’re going to say next. Once you start to really listen to comments you can work on asking follow up questions and redirecting comments and questions to the class. This often deepens the discussion and widens the participation. Teachers often wonder how they will know what questions to ask when following up or redirecting. But if you’re relaxed, sincerely interested, and really listening to what the class is saying, follow up questions will naturally come.

Elder Holland has said, “If we listen with love, we won’t need to wonder what to say. It will be given to us … by the Spirit.” Sister Rosemary Wixom said, "When we listen, we see into the hearts of those around us." Sometimes we’re nervous about pushing students with follow up questions. I’ve found it can be helpful to be open about what you’re trying to do: “Great comment. I’d like to try to go a little deeper if that’s okay. Could you tell us why you feel that way? How you came to know that? What you decided to do because of your experience?” Forewarning people of what you’re going to ask, especially if it’s hard, can help ease some of the nerves that comes with sharing personal feelings in groups of people.

Give students something to look for

This practice is very simple but it makes a big difference. Never let the class read a verse, listen to a quote, or watch a video without giving them a task. We have a bad habit of reading scriptures first and then asking questions afterwards, which almost always requires people to go back and read the verse again. Giving people a task ahead of time gives them a reason to read, listen, or watch, and streamlines the learnings process. Here are some examples:

  • “Read verses 1-4, looking for anything that would strengthen your faith during a trial."
  • “As you listen to this quote, pay attention to what President Eyring says about the importance of the Holy Ghost."
  • “While watching this Mormon Message, notice how it makes you feel about forgiveness."

Give Students something to look at

Tying what students are hearing to something they can see increases learning dramatically. For example, when you ask the class to turn to a scripture, always write the reference on the blackboard. When some inevitably ask “What was the scripture again?” just point to the board. This simple habit alone has a surprisingly positive effect on class. Deeper examples include object lessons that illustrate principles, and showing pictures to go along with stories or imagery in the scriptures. For example, Isaiah’s writings are full of imagery. A single photo can illuminate an entire chapter. Draw on the vast amount of videos the church has produced. There are videos on almost every single topic, and they can really help students understand, feel, and apply the truths you are teaching. From Google images to Youtube to the Gospel Library app, there have never been so many visual resources available. One caution: Make sure the visuals always supplement the truth being taught rather than being the focus of the lesson or serving as time-killers. Sorry if your building has slow wifi and one old TV...

Consider the impact of the "visuals” the Lord uses in these teaching moments. In each example, imagine the difference if all he had done was speak rather than show.

- Moses 1
- 3 Nephi 11
- Ether 3
- Jeremiah 18

Give students personality

Most of us are not interesting enough to stand in front of a class and talk about ourselves for an hour without mutiny. But students really appreciate a periodic glimpse into your testimony, your experiences, your story, and your sense of humor. (You have one of those, right?!) Where relevant, let the class get a glimpse into your heart. Be open and honest. Follow the Spirit, he’ll let you know what and how much to share. Watch out for getting too personal, talking about others without permission, and sharing past mistakes. These will often drive away the Spirit (not to mention make everyone feel awkward!). But a class where the teacher never gives a glimpse into themselves lacks a little power. I dare you to find a talk by President Monson where he doesn’t tell a personal story. Everyone loves a good story, an appropriate joke, and a brief heart felt testimony.

Bonus tip: Give students a break! 

Help eradicate some of these not-so-effective teaching traditions. I'm sure you've dealt with a few of them here or there!

  1. Thinking that “teaching” means reading the manual to a group of people for an hour.
  2. "Winging it" under the guise of “going by the Spirit."
  3. Asking questions with obvious answers. "Is it good or bad to break the commandments?" The worst of these are yes/no questions. "Should we read the Book of Mormon?"
  4.  Playing “guess what I’m thinking” with the class (this is when a teacher asks a vague question with multiple potential answers but only wants the specific answer they are thinking of.) "What's the most important doctrine to remember?" 
  5. Using all the time to identify the principle or doctrine and taking no time to talk about why it matters or what we should do as a result.
  6. Only sharing formal, lengthy testimonies at the end of class rather than briefly testifying throughout.
  7. Only asking for volunteers and never calling on specific people. (This is part of why we often have the "same-ten-people” problem.)
  8. Failing to learn the names and get to know those we teach.
  9. Being too timid to correct a wrong comment or to challenge people to truly think deeply or make meaningful change.
  10. Focusing more on our lesson than on the experience of the people in front of us.

As always, thanks for reading! Got some other simple teaching tips? Share in the comments.

The God of Hope

In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord repeatedly says His word is “sharper than a two-edged sword.” This simile is never more apt than when a seemingly random verse of scripture speaks directly to your heart in a time of need. This happened to me recently with Romans 15:13:

Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.

In these encounters, timing is key. I’d like to think I’ve read this verse before; maybe multiple times. And hope from God is certainly not a new concept. But because of a recent experiences, it was revelatory. Long familiar truths, when we need them most, can strike with such power and brilliance that it seems they must’ve been placed in the scriptures just yesterday, just for us to stumble upon.

The backstory: I was recently talking to a friend; a wonderful and successful individual who made a series of mistakes that have now jeopardized the most important things in his life. My heart broke when he said he had no hope that life could be salvaged. I felt the Spirit as I testified of the hope I felt and plead with him to lean on mine as he sought hope himself. But in the end it felt so inadequate. How sad the thought of anyone, ever, feeling hopeless!

It was with these thoughts of hope swirling in my heart and mind that a seminary student shared Romans 15:13 at the beginning of class the next day. The God of Hope! The scriptures are full of names and titles for God, but right there, right then, he was, above all else, The God of Hope. I thought in that moment, "The God of Hope is exactly who my friend needs. God is always exactly who we all need!"

....

I went to LDS.org feeling like I was the first one to notice that Paul called God The God of Hope. As is always the case when I think I’ve found something new, I found one of the Lord's chosen vessels has been there already. Know someone in need of hope? Try sharing Romans 15:13 and one of these talks on the subject. (May I personally recommend any of the three by Neal A. Maxwell?)

Russell M. Nelson, A More Excellent Hope, BYU Speeches Jan. 8, 1995

Henry B. Eyring, A Priceless Heritage of Hope, April 2014

Dieter F. Achtdorf, The Infinite Power of Hope, November 2008

Julie B. Beck, There is Hope Smiling Brightly Before Us, April 2003

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Plow in Hope, April 2001

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Hope Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, October 1998

Chieko Okazaki, Raised in Hope, October 1996

Neal A. Maxwell, Brightness of Hope, November 1994

 

Thanks for reading!

Must Read: Michael Otterson on "Boundary Maintenance" in Mormonism

Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.     © Photo courtesy of UVU. All rights reserved.

Michael Otterson, managing director of Public Affairs for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. © Photo courtesy of UVU. All rights reserved.

Michael Otterson, the managing director of Public Affairs for the Church, recently spoke at an academic conference titled, “Mormonism and the Art of Boundary Maintenance,” to scholars and journalists at Utah Valley University in Orem. I’ve long been impressed by Otterson and his remarks here are no exception. I’d go so far as to say this is a must read for every Church member who considers themselves invested at all in the Church and its place in the modern world. The 50-minute talk touches on interfaith, race, immigration, gender, and LGBT issues. It’s long and completely worth it. You can read or watch the full talk or highlights here. Some of my personal highlights are below.

...

"If we could transport ourselves back to the mid-1800s, we would find in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a faith that seemed to the Christian world to do nothing but push boundaries. A literally physical God, separate in substance from His Son, Jesus Christ. The Apostasy. Restoration of the priesthood. New scripture. Heavenly parents. Temples. Redemption for the dead. Building Zion. Ours has never been a faith to feel confined or constrained in its declaration of doctrine or its commitment to spreading that message through more than a million missionaries who, since the Church’s humble founding in that little log cabin in Fayette, have been sent across the world.

Yet boundaries clearly do exist, and they must. I don’t see boundaries in the same way as some commentators, who believe that the Church today is simply battening down the hatches, rigidly resisting any change that seems progressive. That is an odd criticism of a church that believes in modern revelation through apostles and prophets, which in itself implies the ability to change or adapt—at least in organizational and structural terms. Rather, I acknowledge the right of leaders to establish boundaries for doctrine and behavior..."

….

"Some critics accuse Church leaders of deliberately painting a false picture of Church history and doctrine, all the time knowing that they were deceiving Church members. The imposed boundary, they say, was complete orthodoxy with no exploration allowed. Every historical story was painted with faith-promoting care regardless of any nuances or contradictory facts. It was as if the writers of Church curriculum were the literary equivalent of Arnold Friberg’s paintings—just a little too perfect, with a dash of exaggeration. And it was all done deliberately to deceive.

You would expect me as a Church spokesman to reject those claims, and I do. But I want to go further and reject it wholly, utterly, and irrevocably because I simply do not believe it and it does not square with my personal experience about how Church leaders think and act and what motivates them."

….

"In reality the vast majority of members learn gospel doctrine at home when they are growing up, or in seminary and in the three-hour block. While many also read beyond curriculum-based lessons, most are more likely to seek inspirational or motivational works by favored writers than delve into the complexities of Church history and doctrine. Church leaders, and those charged with developing and writing curriculum for lessons in church, were writing in order to motivate and inspire. Teachers wanted their youth and adult classes to leave at the end of the lesson fortified and motivated to tackle another week outside of church. The three-hour block was never intended to be a course deep in Church history and doctrine. Students interested in those subjects could always find scholarly works if they wanted.

With the advent of the Internet and the arrival of a generation that is wired 24/7, that no longer suffices and even seems superficial. Members now Google terms and topics on their smartphones while they are sitting in class. I do that myself. But the realization by Church leaders that they needed to substantially strengthen and deepen Church curriculum and introduce better resource materials was a natural evolution as audience needs, interests, and study habits changed. Responding gradually to these changing needs is a very long way from betrayal."
….

"How does this principle-based, often delicate act of balancing competing interests come into play with our own members? During the 2012 election campaign, we repeatedly told journalists who tried to shoehorn the Church into the right wing of electoral politics that the Church was a big tent. That is certainly true. I have said elsewhere that we in Utah sometimes have a myopic view of Church members and their political ideology. If you truly understand the diversity of the global LDS membership, you will know that we have members living under a multitude of political regimes. We live under a dizzying array of political structures and rules—Vietnam and Venezuela, Canada and Cuba, Scandinavia and Swaziland, China and the Congo.

A few months ago I received a Facebook message from a nephew of mine living in Sydney, Australia, a fully active member of the Church, a returned missionary and parent. He happened to listen on the web to an address I gave at the FairMormon conference last year and wrote the following: “It seems that in the U.S. many members are concerned with ‘issues’ that members here don’t even give a thought or care about.”

I mention that because I think it raises an important point. We criticize politicians and the media for being inside the “Washington Bubble,” for always seeing the world through the narrow lens of their own professional or vocational biases. All of us are susceptible to that—including me, of course. LGBT rights are enormously important to LGBT members, to their families, to many members, and most assuredly to Church leaders as well. But this is not the only issue of importance facing Church leaders, and in some countries it isn’t an issue at all. This isn’t to suggest that this is right or wrong. I simply ask you, if you are in your own bubble or echo chamber, to recognize that the issues we are sometimes fixated on along the Wasatch Front or even in the United States are not necessarily important to our members in East Africa or Central Asia."

….

"Winner-take-all scenarios are regularly pursued in the culture wars across the country by both sides. That is unfortunate. Some state legislatures seem intent on making religious freedom so broad that it simply sounds like a license to discriminate on any grounds. Some LGBT advocates take an equally uncompromising position on the other side. We believe there is a better way. I have described what the Church has been advocating for years—urging mutual respect, balancing the competing rights of people within a pluralistic society."

….

"The point is that there is a cornerstone. There are boundaries, both of behavior and of doctrine. There are commandments. There is obedience. Believing this as I do doesn’t rob me of my agency or of my opinions. Rather it compels me constantly to evaluate my own behavior against that standard, knowing that ultimately I will be accountable to God for where I draw those boundaries for myself. President Dieter Uchtdorf closed the Sunday morning session of general conference just over a week ago by calling obedience “steps of faith.” He acknowledged that obedience is “not a popular word these days.” But he closed with this: “We come to see obedience not as a punishment but as a liberating path to our divine destiny. … Eventually, the priceless, eternal spirit of the heavenly being within us is revealed, and a radiance of goodness becomes our nature.”

Are You Ready for General Conference?!

The First Presidency at the General Women's meeting.

I love General Conference! Last fall I did five days of General Conference prep on the blog. Thought I'd link to those again in case they might help anyone prepare. I know that the Church is lead by Christ through his servants, and I know when I approach General Conference seeking to learn by faith the Holy Ghost tailors a message just for me. 

The Greatest Event in History

flowers
The greatest events of history are those that affect the greatest number of people for the longest periods. By this standard, no event could be more important to individuals or nations than the resurrection of the Master.

The literal resurrection of every soul who has lived and died on earth is a certainty, and surely one should make careful preparation for this event. A glorious resurrection should be the goal of every man and woman, for resurrection will be a reality.
— President Ezra Taft Benson

I love the doctrine of the resurrection. This sacred blessing of the Atonement often takes a backseat to the Savior's power to forgive our sins, but remove resurrection from the Plan of Salvation and all would be lost. Being universal and free for all humanity makes it no less profound. While I haven’t dealt with particularly devastating health problems nor been uniquely impacted by the cruelty of death, resurrection is an anchor of hope in my daily life. Believing that life continues after death is becoming less and less popular, while the challenges facing modern man make this belief as relevant and comforting as ever.

I have not physically witnessed the resurrected Lord, but I believe the testimonies of those who have. There are many, both ancient and modern. I believe that I will one day meet my Savior, having been raised from the grave by His power to be judged of Him according to my works. I am trying to live each day true to these facts. These are bold claims—that our existence continues beyond this life and that our actions in this life determine our eternity. If these are true, and I believe they are, we must respond accordingly! I cannot think of any better way to live than believing that every single life, past, present and future, has eternal worth.

...

Dig deeper.

Elder Ballard on Teaching Youth in the 21st Century

Elder M. Russell Ballard recently spoke at the annual "Evening With a General Authority" broadcast, initially delivered last month to all employees and volunteers within the Church Education System. If by chance you haven't seen it I highly recommend it, especially if you have anything to do with the young people of the Church.

The Seminary and Institute programs of the Church have shown a relentless commitment to prophetic priorities and constant improvement. Since I started teaching ten years ago, we have been repeatedly tasked with helping students be better prepared and more truly converted to the Gospel while they are young. We see the Lord hastening his work through developments such as the mission age change, more rigorous graduation requirements for Seminary and Institute, new doctrinal foundation courses in Institute, and the upcoming "Doctrinal Mastery" program announced by Elder Ballard in this talk.

To cope with the increasing spiritual opposition in the world, the Lord is asking the youth to do and become more than ever before. They are up to the task! Elder Ballard's talk is just one of many prophetic invitations to better prepare the youth to carry the Kingdom into the latter-days, but it gives a powerful glimpse into what the youth are facing and what the prophets are asking teachers, leaders, and parents to do.

Check it out!

You can watch or read the talk here.

Seven Things Worth Doing in Your New Calling

A few weeks ago a good friend of ours was called to be relief society president in her ward. I was genuinely flattered when she asked for advice from my perspective as a bishop. I thought about it for a few days in hopes of providing a worthy and response, then I passed on seven things that I think are worth remembering in any church calling, so I thought I’d share them here.

1. Act for yourself. Be ready and willing to take direction, but take ownership of the calling and the revelation you have a right to receive. You will have many of promptings regarding what ought to happen. Follow them. A wise bishop (or whoever directly oversees your calling) would rather "pull your reins" than prod you along, meaning they’d rather slow you down and make corrections if necessary than always tell you what to do.

D&C 58:26-28
26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
29 But he that doeth not anything until he is commanded, and receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned.

2. Learn your duty. It’s a shame that we are often poor at training each other in the Church when we get new callings, but we have the power and responsibility to learn our duty and do it. Too often people spend years in callings without ever really learning what they’re supposed to do. Between the scriptures, the handbooks, and vast online resources, there is no excuse for not knowing what’s expected.

D&C 107:99 Wherefore, now let every man learn his duty, and to act in the office in which he is appointed, in all diligence.

3. Be creative. We have a tendency with callings to do what has always been done. The handbook is your safety net, know it well and follow it. But you have a ton of room to be creative. I’m consistently impressed but the amount of autonomy the Lord provides in our callings. I’m not sure who said it first, but I believe it: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Consider the creativity of the Brother of Jared as he prepared to make his journey to the promised land (Ether 2-3).

4. Take problems to their source. If you have needs or concerns with your relationship with the bishop (or whoever directly oversees your calling), tell him or her. It doesn’t help to complain to other people about problems that your leader has direct control over. If any president in the ward has a concern with something I am (or not) doing, I expect them to come to me quickly and directly so we can resolve the issue. Same thing applies if you have concerns with someone you oversee. Take problems to the source.

D&C 42:88-89 And if thy brother or sister offend thee, thou shalt take him or her between him or her and thee alone.

5. Focus on serving individuals. The gospel is ultimately about the salvation of individuals. Ministering will bless you and your associates with the spiritual experiences that keep you motivated during other tedious responsibilities. Review any portion of the Savior’s ministry in the New Testament or Third Nephi to see how fundamental it is to focus on helping individuals and families.

6. Measure success by your best effort, not by the choices others make. We have to respect their agency and can’t take their decisions upon ourselves. I love the following excerpt from Preach my Gospel and I think it applies generally to all callings:

Avoid comparing yourself to other missionaries and measuring the outward results of your efforts against theirs. Remember that people have agency to choose whether to accept your message. Your responsibility is to teach clearly and powerfully so they can make a correct choice. Some may not accept your message even when they have received a spiritual witness that it is true. You will be saddened because you love them and desire their salvation. You should not, however, become discouraged; discouragement will weaken your faith. If you lower your expectations, your effectiveness will decrease, your desire will weaken, and you will have greater difficulty following the Spirit.

You can know you have been a successful missionary when you:

  • Feel the Spirit testify to people through you.
  • Love people and desire their salvation.
  • Obey with exactness.
  • Live so that you can receive and know how to follow the Spirit, who will show you where to go, what to do, and what to say.
  • Develop Christlike attributes.
  • Work effectively every day, do your very best to bring souls to Christ, and seek earnestly to learn and improve.
  • Help build up the Church (the ward) wherever you are assigned to work.
  • Warn people of the consequences of sin. Invite them to make and keep commitments.
  • Teach and serve other missionaries.
  • Go about doing good and serving people at every opportunity, whether or not they accept your message.

When you have done your very best, you may still experience disappointments, but you will not be disappointed in yourself. You can feel certain that the Lord is pleased when you feel the Spirit working through you.

7. Enjoy it. Show your family your willingness to serve and the joy your service brings. For example, I never say “I have to go to a meeting.” I always say, “I’m going to learn” or “I’m going to help people.” It helps me remember what I’m really doing, and helps my children see what I’m really doing and that I’m glad to be doing it. Don’t complain about being in the service of the Lord. Elder Jeffery R. Holland said it well, "Nothing is so bad that complaining about it won’t make it worse."

Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along,
Do your duty with a heart full of song,
We all have work; let no one shirk.
Put your shoulder to the wheel.
— Hymn #252

What advice would you add to the list? Share in the comments!