Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Feeling" the Spirit

Elder Packer taught a group of new mission presidents:

The voice of the Spirit is described in the scriptures as being neither loud nor harsh, not a voice of thunder, neither a voice of great tumultuous noise, but rather as still and small, of perfect mildness, as if it had been a whisper, and it can pierce even the very soul and cause the heart to burn. The Spirit does not get our attention by shouting ("How Does The Spirit Speak To Us?", New Era, Feb 2010, from an address to new mission presidents from June 1991).

In the same address he said:

When we experience a spiritual communication, we are wont to say within ourselves, “This is it. Now I understand.”

In these two quotations, it is interesting that Elder Packer does not talk about emotional feelings. I have had plenty of times in my life when I’ve felt the influence of the spirit. And sometimes I have also felt great emotion. It took me some time to realize the difference for me.

I get emotional about a lot of things. I weep at movies. My kids joke that I cry often in church. When I used to travel more, I’d weep at the AT&T commercials they showed on my international flights (and I’d want to call my kids right then). Knowing that I weep easily, I have had to learn to avoid assuming that tears meant spirit.

Elder Packer’s second quotation above is the key for me. “Now I understand.”

I can point to specific times in my life when I have been able to say this. Marking my experience at those times, I’ve come to understand how the spirit speaks to me. Here is one of those experiences:

During my freshman year at BYU, I came to know some of the issues surrounding the prophet Joseph Smith. I had a roommate whose dad was not a friend of the church, and my roommate and I spent a lot of time talking about his concerns. I had by then had enough of my own experience to accept Joseph’s first vision and the Book of Mormon as true. But I was fuzzy on pretty much everything else. As I studied that year, I got more and more concerned about my own testimony.

As the time to put in my missionary papers drew near, I knew I wanted to serve. I resolved, consciously, to put my concerns about Joseph on a shelf, trusting my conviction about the first vision and the Book of Mormon. When I attended the temple for the first time, and subsequently during my time in the LTM (shortly before its re-birth as the MTC), I felt peace there. When I came to the temple for my own endowment, I felt the same peace I’d felt as a child at our family’s sealing.

After my mission, I continued to consider my concerns about the prophet Joseph and the things I could not piece together. I still felt unsettled, but continued onward, trusting what I knew to be true and hoping for resolution of the rest.

Some fifteen years after my mission I was teaching church history and the Doctrine and Covenants in Gospel Doctrine. As I was preparing for a regular class one week, I was prayerfully considering whatever sections were the subject matter. As I did so, it was as if a tumbler turned in my brain and pieces I had previously not understood fell into place. Without completely being able to explain what happened, I came away with more understanding – spiritual understanding – of Joseph’s role in the restoration. My testimony of God, of Jesus Christ and of the church was strengthened. And since then, that testimony has been reinforced from time to time with further understanding as I have sought it.

This particular moment of enlightenment was not emotional. It was not a booming trumpet that proclaimed the truth. I did not feel a rushing of wind. I did not see a vision. I simply understood what I had not understood moments before.

Update: Please see my second entry in this series, "Once more, with feeling"

Monday, December 26, 2011


In Germany we called the day after Christmas “second holiday.” In the British Empire it’s known as Boxing Day. For me, it’s one of my favorite days of the holiday season.

I’m fortunate to work for a US company that shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s, and so I always have that week off work (unless I’m working at an overseas affiliate in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas as I’ve done twice before – then I use vacation days).

As much as I love getting ready for Christmas (and despite whatever I’ve said to my lovely wife on Christmas Eve, I really do love getting ready for Christmas), I also love the relaxation that comes after the Big Day, too. We can calmly visit, play with the Christmas gifts (or read or watch them), eat left overs (from the Swedish Smorgasbord on Christmas Eve and the Christmas ham dinner and whatever cookies we may not have given away). Really sweet.

Our Christmas Day was delightful. We had a plan, since we had 10 am church added to our Christmas mix, and our kids were very supportive and helpful, allowing my wife to get to church plenty early to play the prelude. Our sacrament meeting was superb for several reasons:

1. Our deacons normally pass with eight young men and this week (perhaps anticipating a lighter attendance), they passed with only six, and we had a much larger than normal attendance, so the sacrament portion of the meeting took nearly twice as long as normal. That was really nice from my point of view, since it’s the point of the meeting, and it was cool to take the sacrament on Christmas Day.

2. We sang eight congregational hymns. All but the sacrament hymns were Christmas carols, and even the sacrament hymn was God Loved Us So He Sent His Son, so it also nodded to the Savior’s birth. Both our ward organists played, which was also cool.

3. Our bishopric were the speakers – each for five minutes or less. Lots of scriptures and tight testimonies. The spirit was terrific and their messages were really meaningful to me. They speak very rarely in our ward, and I’m glad when they do.

We opened “Santa” presents early in the day, then had our traditional breakfast (more of the smorgasbord from the night before) before going to church. We opened the rest of presents after church, while Skyping with our kids who were in the Pacific Northwest instead of at home. Amazing that we could be “together” that way.

I’m grateful for a holiday that brings me to focus on the Savior and on my family in the way that Christmas does. I know theoretically I could do this any day of the year, but there is something about Christmas that makes it special.

I always hit that moment in the days before Christmas where I’m sure that we will either not get everything done or that something will not be enough. And I’m always happy when I’m wrong. And this year, thank goodness, I was wrong again.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Free Gift! Salvation

We were reading 2 Nephi 2 in our family scripture reading tonight. This is the famous “opposition in all things” and “men are free to choose” chapter. But my favorite verses come earlier in the chapter. Lehi speaks to Jacob, who as a young man has already had his own vision of the Savior, and says,

And thou hast beheld in thy youth his glory; wherefore, thou art blessed even as they unto whom he shall minister in the flesh; for the Spirit is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. And the way is prepared from the fall of man, and salvation is free (v. 4).

He states that the law does not justify anyone (in fact, the law cuts people off from God). But:

Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.

Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered (v. 6-7).

The ends of the law are only met through the redemption of Jesus Christ, the Savior. And to drive the point home:

Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise (v. 8).

From here, Lehi then expounds (now famously) on opposition – that the punishment brought by the law is required for the joy that may also come, and that those opposing forces are required in order for each to exist. Men are, after all, that they might have joy.

And the path to joy? Through Jesus Christ, of course:

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit (v. 27-28).

Here’s where the concept of free begins to be developed in an interesting way. Salvation is free – that is, it is available to all. But men are also free, precisely because the Savior has made them so through his redeeming sacrifice. And, according to Lehi, men are wise to choose to follow the Savior.

Salvation: a free gift. As I ponder the Savior’s birth this week, I’ll surely also ponder this great gift.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christ is still in Christmas here...

I have read for years about communities that are systematically excluding Christ from Christmas, with ever-increasing commercialization of the holiday, removal of religious symbols, and (in some cases) mixing of religious and secular symbols. (Here's a recent story.)

I’m happy to report that in my little town of Plymouth, Michigan, we still have a nativity scene in Kellogg Park, the “town square” in the heart of downtown. The park is also filled with Christmas trees sponsored by neighborhood businesses and organizations and decorated for the season. In addition to the crèche, there are also statues of three wise men riding camels that are moved closer and closer to the crèche until they are at the stable on Christmas. (The park also sports a large lighted menorah, and Santa has a house there, too, where he greets the children who come to see him.)

Not only is the crèche in the town square, but there are crèches that adorn the lawns of many of the churches in town, and the neighborhood yards, as well. (One of our neighbors used to have a sign in lights in their front yard, “Happy Birthday Jesus!”)

We attended holiday orchestra and choir concerts for my kids where we heard songs of the season, including religious songs (something that many districts won’t allow).

I’ve long believed that my family’s religious training is my responsibility. We pray at home, and I don’t particularly want my kids to pray in school. Our home has (my 11-year old daughter just counted them) 41 crèches. My wife’s piano students all see the three prints of the Savior we have in our living room. (A few years ago, the dad of one of those students – not LDS – defended us as Christian to one of his friends who claimed we weren’t, in part because of those prints.)

But I’m happy to live in a community where there is tolerance and acceptance of religious belief. We have many strong Catholic and Protestant congregations in our community and most of our non-LDS friends are active in one (which makes for tough missionary work, but great neighbors).

What about where you live? Do you see signs of Christ in Christmas?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A heap of guilt with a side of shame?

One of the lessons participants in certain 12-step support groups learn is about the difference between guilt and shame. This is particularly helpful for co-dependents who may seek help through Al-Anon or Families Anonymous, or the church’s Family Support Group (a companion program to the Addiction Recovery Program, still in pilot stages in selected locations). As co-dependents let go of things that don't belong to them, they hopefully also learn to release guilt they have falsely carried related to their loved one's lives. Overcoming shame (for the co-dependent and for the addicted loved one) may be more difficult.

Alma teaches Corianton about the proper place for guilt:

And now, my son, I desire that ye should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down unto repentance.

O my son, I desire that ye should deny the justice of God no more. Do not endeavor to excuse yourself in the least point because of your sins, by denying the justice of God; but do you let the justice of God, and his mercy, and his long-suffering have full sway in your heart; and let it bring you down to the dust in humility (Alma 42:29-30, emphasis mine).

Guilt can be a positive force in our lives, if, as Alma teaches, we allow it to bring us to repentance.

Consider Enos’ experience:

And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.

And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away (Enos 1:4-6, emphasis mine).
His guilt was swept away! Awesome. And just right. That is precisely the point of the atonement (one point, anyway). Through the blessing of the atonement we have the opportunity to turn from our sins and change and be better than we were. Our guilt can be swept away.

Shame, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. If guilt is that feeling that motivates us to change – that Godly sorrow that moves us to repent and to call on the Savior’s love and mercy to rescue us, shame is that deceitful web of the adversary that would have us believe that there is no hope for someone like us, that since we’ve sinned, no one could love us, especially God. (Of course the fact is that God has already loved us; His Son has already paid the price of our sin long before we committed it!)

Shame may keep us from seeking repentance because we believe we are unredeemable, or the pain or embarrassment (for us or for those we love) of repenting will be too great.

It is easy to leap from shame to pride – to suggest that somehow shame is our fault. I would recommend against that. Pride is pride and shame is shame; they are not the same. There are some whose pride may prevent their repentance, but that is not shame. Shame is often externally imposed, perhaps even unwittingly (in my generation, many were reared in shaming homes: “You should know better than that. How could you do such a thing? We don’t do that in our family!”).

Well-meaning church teachers might also instill shame when they teach (even unthinkingly) that certain sins are so serious they are virtually unredeemable, even though that is clearly not true. President Packer taught in the most recent conference:

You may in time of trouble think that you are not worth saving because you have made mistakes, big or little, and you think you are now lost. That is never true! Only repentance can heal what hurts. But repentance can heal what hurts, no matter what it is ("Counsel to Youth," October 2011 General Conference, emphasis mine).

Guilt focuses on what we have or have not done. Shame focuses often on who we are.

When we care for one another by bearing one another’s burdens, comforting those who stand in need of comfort and mourning with those that mourn, ideally we are easing a burden, not adding to it with shame. (A nice discussion of this thought, with reference to Job and his "friends" here.)

The good news – that is, The Good News – is that the atonement can help us in both cases. Not only did the Savior bear the pain of all our sins, but he bore all our pain so that, as Alma taught, “he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).

It is helpful for me to remember the story of the father with incomplete faith as recorded in Mark. The father approached Jesus, pleading with him to heal his son who was beset with a deaf and dumb spirit. The Savior teaches him, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth” (9:23). The father instantly confesses his belief, but then adds (perhaps sensing that the Lord already knows that his faith is weak), “help thou mine unbelief” (v. 24). The Savior does not chide him, nor does he refuse to help. Instead, he casts out the spirit and restores the boy to health.

It is helpful to remember that the Savior was willing to bless this boy and his imperfect father. And I believe he is willing to bless me. Even though I make mistakes that cause me guilt, they need not bring me shame.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The whisperings of the spirit

One of the reasons I can say I have a testimony of the gospel is because of what happened in my temple recommend interview yesterday.

As our bishop’s counselor reviewed those standard questions with me (questions I still have memorized from my own decade of giving temple recommend interviews) I had what is still for me a remarkable experience, even though it’s happened before.

As he asked me the first three questions – about my testimony of God, the Eternal Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, about the atonement of Jesus Christ and about the restoration of the gospel – I felt a distinct change in my own heart as I affirmed my testimony and the spirit, in turn, reaffirmed it.

It was not an emotional thing. It was not earth shattering. But it was enough to remind me, and I’m grateful for that.

I remember the first time I really realized the power of those first three questions. I was bishop in our ward in Venezuela, and our mission president was a member of our ward. He asked me to give him a temple recommend interview. As he and I met in his apartment and he answered simply and affirmatively those basic questions of testimony, the spirit in the room was palpable. That particular interview continues as one of the great spiritual milestones of my life.

I can’t count the number of temple recommend interviews I’ve given, and not all of them are spiritual feasts. Most of them, in fact, were routine – pleasant enough, but routine nonetheless. And, frankly, most of my own recommend interviews have also been rather routine. I would say the spiritual experience I had yesterday is probably the exception rather than the rule. That may be because I’m not as sensitive as I should be, and it may just be that that’s the way it is.

My interview yesterday was not dramatic – I didn’t even mention what I felt to the counselor doing the interview. And I didn’t have the same experience when I later met with our stake president’s counselor for my second interview. But it was still significant to me because I noticed what happened, without my expecting, intending or even hoping it would. It was a small spiritual gift for me, one which I was grateful to receive.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Is this a prayer or a talk?

Like many I enjoyed the music and talks and the short film in the First Presidency Christmas devotional Sunday evening. We watched via the internet in our family room, which was great because I couldn’t go to church that day since I’m recovering from surgery.

I had a bit of a struggle at the beginning, however. I shouldn’t have. I know I shouldn’t have. But I did. I know I’m not perfect, and Sunday night was just one more example of that.

It was Brother Beck’s opening prayer cum talk.

I’m old enough to remember Elder McConkie’s counsel on the length of prayers. Here are two quotations from Mormon Doctrine (I know it’s out of fashion, but these guidelines still stick in my head). The first is from Elder McConkie:

Certain proprieties attend the offering of all prayers. Public prayers, in particular, should be short and ordinarily should contain no expressions except those which pertain to the needs and circumstances surrounding the particular meeting then involved. They are not sermons or occasions to disclose the oratorical or linguistic abilities of the one acting as mouth. (2nd ed., p. 582).

In the second, Elder McConkie quotes Francis M. Lyman who was president of the Quorum of the Twleve:

It is not necessary to offer very long and tedious prayers, either at opening or closing. It is not only not pleasing to the Lord for us to use excess of words, but also it is not pleasing to the Latter-day Saints. Two minutes will open any kind of meeting, and a half minute will close it (Improvement Era, 50:214, 245; quoted in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd ed., p. 583).

I don’t know where or when I first encountered these guidelines, but I confess that it’s now sometimes hard to listen to a prayer without measuring it against these. And I did it on Sunday night.

I had to consciously tell myself to knock it off. And it was hard to do. And so the opening prayer wasn’t as meaningful to me as it could have been.

And, by the way, that’s my fault, not Brother Beck’s.

A friend, jmb275, posted a great item over at Wheat & Tares yesterday on reigning in the analyst. And that’s something I need to work on. There are times – and I think during a prayer is one of them – when it’s a time for devotion, worship, and feeling the spirit, not analysis of the speaker’s motivation, education or erudition.

Monday, December 5, 2011

I'm feeling a little Christmas...

Now that Thanksgiving is safely behind us (and I LOVE Thanksgiving, by the way), and Black Friday is over (and I HATE Black Friday), and Cyber Monday is past (I'm abivalent about Cyber Monday since I sort of ignored it)...

Our lights are up outside; our tree is up inside. Our collection of Nativity scenes are spread all around the house. Christmas carols are playing on the family CD player (much to my curmudgeonly 15-year-old's dismay).

Here's a little video to get you in the spirit:

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Can we have the priesthood without the church?

In my post on Monday, I suggested that the church is what allows us to have the ordinances of salvation. Commenter Michael suggested with a finer point that the priesthood allows those ordinances, not the church organization.

For me the two – the priesthood and the church -- are inextricably linked. Here’s why:

It’s true the priesthood came first, with the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood in May 1829 (see D&C 13) and the Melchizedek Priesthood following in the same year (confirmed in D&C 27:12).

Section 84 reaffirms that the priesthood is the means by which ordinances are performed and have validity:

And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest. And without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; For without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live (D&C 84:19-22).
I understand “this” in the final line of those verses to refer to the power of godliness, which is derived from the authority of the priesthood used in performing the ordinances of the priesthood.

Those verses alone would suggest that Michael may be right: the priesthood is all that is required, not the church itself.

But D&C 20 makes clear that the priesthood is a part of the church:

No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church (v. 65, emphasis mine).

And so is the ordinance of baptism:

And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism—All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church (v. 37, emphasis mine).
And so is the sacrament:

It is expedient that the church meet together often to partake of bread and wine in the remembrance of the Lord Jesus (v. 75, emphasis mine).
The Lord not only revealed these organizational matters, but also the name of the church:

For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (D&C 115:4, emphasis mine).
Of course this pattern is not new. We read similarly in the Book of Mormon about the establishment of the church and its ordinances in the time of Alma and the naming of the church as well.

Elder Oaks reaffirmed the relationship between the priesthood and the church in his talk in the October 2010 conference:

During His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ conferred the authority of the priesthood that bears His name and He established a church that also bears His name. In this last dispensation, His priesthood authority was restored and His Church was reestablished through heavenly ministrations to the Prophet Joseph Smith. This restored priesthood and this reestablished Church are at the heart of the priesthood line (“Two Lines of Communication,” emphasis mine).
I accept that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encompasses the restored priesthood of God, restored and revealed through the prophet Joseph Smith and that that priesthood authority and power are present in the church today. I have personally benefitted from that priesthood power, both in the ordinances of the gospel and the organization of the church and the blessings each has brought into my life.