21 August 2013

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Church Callings - A Bishop's Gift to Give

Several months ago, I was asked by the a member of my ward's bishopric whether or not my wife and I would be available and interested to be a Ma and Pa for this summer's pioneer trek (a short re-enactment of the 19th Century Mormon Pioneer journey west from Illinois to Salt Lake City) should we be called to do that.  I told him that we always make ourselves available for anything the church asks us to do and that such a calling would be difficult but very rewarding.  I told him that I believed in the inspired calling of our stake president and trusted that if the Lord inspired him to call us, then the Lord would help my wife and me to make our schedules work out.

He pressed gently and indicated that if we would check our availability and assert our interest beforehand, the call would likely be issued.  I told him that I saw the church working in the opposite direction; we will be interested and available should our stake president receive inspiration that it should be us.

Now, that was probably a bit pedantic and unhelpful of me (a weakness I have), but I was slightly miffed because I didn't want to receive an "inspired" calling having indicated beforehand that I would "show up".  I interpreted his request as an invitation to me to aspire to a calling, which is typically frowned upon in the Mormon church, and I reacted poorly.  Though I reiterated our conviction that we would happily fulfill any calling extended to us, I declined to volunteer.  Even though this calling was something that I have always wanted and dreamed of doing, I couldn't bring myself to engage the process in the reverse.  Ultimately, we were not called to serve as a Ma and Pa, and I was left to wonder whether it was because I was a bit too strident in my comments to this brother about "how the Church works."

If you fast-forward a few months, you'll find me listening to a talk by Seth Payne today regarding Pastoral Apologetics.  Many of the points in his talk struck a chord with me as I have a special place in my heart for LDS who are struggling with their faith, especially due to intellectual or historical issues.  In the Q&A section after he finished, though, the question was asked (paraphrasing here):  "I currently find participation in the LDS Church exhausting.  Is there a way for me to tone it down, but still remain active and simply enjoy  worshiping our Savior?"

Seth Payne emphatically replied "absolutely!", and I agree with him--we take the load that we can and we rely on the Lord for the rest.  However, I was uncomfortable with one of the strategies for implementation he mentioned.  Basically, he encouraged this member to sit down with his bishop and explain to him what callings, level of participation, etc., he was comfortable with and go from there.

This again felt backwards to me.  Granted, I've never been a bishop, and I've never felt Church service to be exhausting beyond the Lord's capacity to help, though I have had a number of heavy callings.  I haven't yet had the challenge of feeling like the Lord isn't giving me sufficient strength to do His will.  (full disclosure:  I'm not a mom.)  These reasons definitely contribute to my backwards view of Seth Payne's suggestion.

However, I have had experiences where I needed to heavily rely on the Lord to make things work.  I've offered rocks, and He has touched them to make them light up.  He has always qualified my efforts to accomplish His designs, at least as far as I can tell.  This has given me a testimony that I can trust the bishop when he issues me a calling, and that I don't need to forewarn the bishop of some callings that I "won't do" or "can't do".

(Of course, this is probably why I'm currently the scoutmaster. :)  The saying goes that the scoutmaster is the one who wouldn't say "no").

It appears to me Seth Payne's suggestion also goes a bit against the teachings of the Church.  (I understand that there are members of the Church who advocate an a la carte or cultural-only approach to the teachings of the Brethren, but I do not.)  In 1 Nephi 3:5-7 we read about a request that Lehi issued to his sons to go back to Jerusalem to retrieve some family records.  Some of his sons complain.  He explains to them that it is the Lord that has asked them and that their father is just the messenger.  Nephi, the protagonist, states that because it came from the Lord, the Lord will make a way for them to accomplish it.  This is a particularly famous passage of scripture in Mormonism and is typically used to help folks when challenging callings or admonitions come from Church leaders.

Additionally there is our current prophet, Thomas S. Monson, who is often heard saying "whom the Lord calls, the Lord qualifies" and "do your duty, that is best, leave unto the Lord the rest."  In John 15:16 it states "ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you" and J. Reuben Clark reminds us that callings in the Church are things that a member "neither seeks nor declines".  (emphasis mine on all)  There is a substantial mountain of references that when we make the covenant of baptism, we put the Lord in the driver's seat.  When we make that covenant in the Mormon church, we declare that we trust that our bishop is the Lord's representative for our ward.

I'm not advocating blind obedience.  The Lord doesn't want a people that won't think and decide for themselves.  I am advocating that there is no need to engage in a preemptive strike against our local bishop.  If we believe the truth claims of the Church, then we can trust our bishop and keep our hands off the Ark.

What the Lord wants is a people who He can bless through serving one another.  When my bishop issues me a calling, I feel as Nephi wrote that I know the Lord will open a way to accomplish what the bishop has asked me to do.  (I suppose if I ever don't feel that way when receiving a calling, my bishop and I will have a deeper conversation.)  This is exciting because through these callings, I see the Lord's hand making a way, much like the Israelites saw the Lord's hand as he pushed away the waters of the Red Sea.  I look forward to any calling because it invokes Nephi's promise and is a path to seeing the hand of the Lord in my life.  To boot, I get to change other people's lives for the better, even if it is in the boring way of keeping the bishop's calendar intact.  :)  Why would I preemptively constrain the Lord with regards to the kinds of blessings I would like to have? Frankly, I might have done that when I was a teenager ("Is it gonna be haaaaard? Do I haaaave tooooo?"), but no longer as an adult.

Of course, it's not that simple.  Aside from needing to be able to trust the bishop and have a testimony that he is God's called servant for my ward, one still needs to decide what is "ark-steading" behavior and what is just being a helpful person.

To use an analogy, I hate (HATE) telling people what I want for my birthday, for Christmas, etc.  When a relative asks me what I want for my birthday, I'm flattered that they thought of me, and I tell them, of course, that they don't have to get me anything.  Inside, I'd really love a gift, but I want it to be a bit more thoughtful than just handing them a wishlist.  Last year, I actually did suggest to my sister that I wanted a book called "Mini Weapons of Mass Destruction" to give me some activity ideas for scouts.  I felt some serious guilt after the fact, especially when I opened the gift and found exactly what I'd asked for.

To use another analogy, I hate the idea of political campaigning for oneself.  This is, of course, the precise way that it is done, but in my ideal (read: imaginary and probably impossible) world, others would advocate for you and campaign on your behalf, not you yourself; the reluctant leader and all that.

Now, I feel a great amount of love from a thoughtful gift and from a genuine other campaigning for me (this did happen once).  I feel a great amount of love from the Lord when I receive a calling in His church.  But, when you add up all that I've said, it actually creates a bit of internal tension when I'm "between" callings.  I don't readily offer suggestions to where I might like to serve.  When asked, "where do your interests lie," I have an incredibly difficult time answering with anything other than "wherever the Lord calls me, I'll be happy to serve."  Of course, there are places where I would love to serve, and on my more selfish days, I pray to be able to serve in those capacities, but like the thoughtful gift, I'd ultimately prefer it come from the bishop after he has consulted with the Lord.

If I were on the other side of the desk, though, I might very well consider asking members about their interests, past callings, and maybe even desired callings to be part of "studying it out in my mind".  Bishoprics look for clues all the time to excavate what might be a person's inclinations; why not just straight up ask them? And if that's okay, why not the member just turn the table and save the bishopric the trouble of asking?  Maybe it would be better for me to be a bit more helpful.

In any other volunteer organization, folks are invited to contribute wherever they are passionate about the cause.  It would be a lot of fun to self-indulge in the areas of church service that are most interesting to me.  If I had my way, I'd be a full-time seminary teacher or maybe a preacher, if our church had those.  If the church worked like other volunteer organizations, I'd probably pick things that lined up with those sensibilities.

But, that's not the way the church works.  The church works and has worked with the Lord, though his appointed servants, giving us the challenges and growth opportunities that we need in order to be able to live His commandments and be the people He needs us to be.  Callings come best through the mind and heart of a loving bishop who knows me and the Lord well.  In the absence of either, I'd still prefer to give my bishop the reigns, even if it means I end up in a calling that I'm not too excited about.  It's their gift to give, and it's the thought that counts.

27 June 2013

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I Can't, I'm Mormon

Back when the Gateway Mall had just opened, my sister and I were strolling along the upper level when we saw a fellow coming towards us in the opposite direction.  I don't remember if Kimmie noticed or not, but a smirk found its way onto my face as I read the all-caps white writing on his black shirt:

I CAN'T, I'M MORMON

If you live in Utah, where there are lots of Mormons, and still more folks that talk about Mormons, you might have also seen the shirt, and perhaps a similar smirk stole across your face as the kernel of truth struck you as is the nature of these kinds of jokes.

And it is just a joke...right?

Actually, Latter-Day Saints have high expectations for themselves, myself included.  We don't drink addictive teas, coffee, or alcohol.  We don't smoke.  Many eat only a little meat.  We don't have sex before marriage.  We don't have sex with anyone other than our spouse after marriage.  There are several "don't"s that accompany the faithful Latter-Day Saint which are no longer part what was once the average American's way of life.  

With all that we are asked to do, there are times that we might be inclined to phrase our desire to take higher ground in the form of the above's jocular resignation, but really, the more ideal tone is one that is found in this story about King Louis XVII:

Many years ago I heard the story of the son of King Louis XVI of France. King Louis had been taken from his throne and imprisoned. His young son, the prince, was taken by those who dethroned the king. They thought that inasmuch as the king’s son was heir to the throne, if they could destroy him morally, he would never realize the great and grand destiny that life had bestowed upon him.
They took him to a community far away, and there they exposed the lad to every filthy and vile thing that life could offer. They exposed him to foods the richness of which would quickly make him a slave to appetite. They used vile language around him constantly. They exposed him to lewd and lusting women. They exposed him to dishonor and distrust. He was surrounded 24 hours a day by everything that could drag the soul of a man as low as one could slip. For over six months he had this treatment—but not once did the young lad buckle under pressure. Finally, after intensive temptation, they questioned him. Why had he not submitted himself to these things—why had he not partaken? These things would provide pleasure, satisfy his lusts, and were desirable; they were all his. The boy said, “I cannot do what you ask for I was born to be a king.”
King Louis XVI was humbled and empowered by his call to higher ground.  To him, it was infused with divine purpose, one that was destined to help other people and make the world a better place.  Does "I can't, I'm Mormon" come off the tongue a little differently when thought of in that light?

The story here of King Louis has always been inspiring to me; however, the other day, I heard a phrase while I was watching "Hungry for Change" which caught my attention, too.  One of the nutritionists was saying that when we are on a diet, we see some food that we would like and we say "I'd like to eat that, but I can't, I'm on a diet."  He said that we are defeating ourselves psychologically when we say it that way.  Instead, he said, we should say "I could eat that, but I don't want to."

I think this is a better approach both as a way to discipline ourselves to the high hopes that the Lord has for us as well as a way to explain it to others not of our faith.

In fact, it lines up nicely with what Steven Covey taught in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People when he said that we should never use the word "can't" lest we be blaming our choices on circumstance.  Instead, we should use proactive phrases like "I prefer".  "Being Mormon, I prefer to abstain from alcohol" instead of "Being Mormon, I can't drink alcohol" is a much more powerful commentary on our own exercise of free agency and makes our true identity as a child of Royal lineage much more self-evident.

Speaking from my own life, this perspective has helped me.  I like to work.  A lot.  The pleasure I get out of work has in the past made drinking coffee a temptation of pragmatism.  Happily, I've always kept my covenant with God in this regard.  I could go down to a nearby Starbucks at any time, get some coffee, and God would not keep me from doing so.  In fact, He would still have the exact same amount of infinite love for me either way.  God intends something better for me, though, and I prefer to follow Him instead of indulging my carnal (read: untrue) nature.

But, what if I genuinely prefer the thing that God commands me to abstain from? A co-worker of mine brought to light this aspect recently when he invited me to have go have a drink with him by asking me if I liked beer.  I was a bit caught off-guard by the question since it is typically phrased closer to "Do you drink beer?", "Does your religion let you drink beer?", etc.  I, in fact, have never tasted beer, so I guess I technically don't know if my five senses would like it or not.  Still, I answered "no" because that seemed to be the closest in alignment with my co-workers intentions.  What if I did like beer, though? How would I answer the question then?

Of course I didn't want to contradict my co-worker then and there, but in all reality liking beer or not really has nothing to do with it.  Liking, even craving something should not be the dictator for our actions.  In the end, it's what God wants, not what I want, and such dedication reveals things about our eternal nature and its strength over the carnal.

Recently, Joshua Johansen gave a great talk about his experience with same-sex attraction; Joshua experiences same-sex attraction, but he explains that he also likes chocolate cake.  Briefly summarized, he chooses not to have the chocolate cake because he knows it is bad for him, and he likewise chooses not to indulge in his attraction to those of his same gender because he also knows it is bad for him.  Indeed, whether he likes it or not gets only a meager say when it comes following the higher ground the Lord has asked him to take.  Joshua has decided that he is a child of God, and this is the prevailing source of his identity.

In the LDS canon of scripture, Lehi, a father in the narrative, teaches to his children that "the Lord gave unto man that he should act for himself" (2 Nephi 2:16).  It also teaches that we are to "[put] off the natural man" (Mosiah 3:19).  In the Bible, Psalms 82:6 teaches "Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High."  I put these teachings together to mean that the blessing of putting off the natural man is to be able to act according to one's true nature.  In this process, we find out who we truly are, even children of a King.

It's been sometimes painful but rewarding to teach this principle to my children.  There is a song on the radio by Train that my children love to listen to.  It has a good beat and my kids know a lot of the words.  What has escaped the notice of my kids is that there is a swear word in the song.  I suppose that there are folks out there who are not bothered by mild language in a song, but I am.  It was interesting in hindsight the level of courage it took for me to turn the radio to a different station when that song came on next.  My children asked me what I was doing--"Grayden likes that song!" they said--and I explained my thinking.

Now that the bridge is crossed, though, my children ask to have the station changed on their own when that particular song comes on; they are learning that one does not need to be subject to everything that everyone else would choose to present to them and that there are discernibly higher roads that one can take.  It's not that they can't listen to that song.  Instead, they choose to not listen, even though they like listening to it.  (Side note:  I realize that my kids' world is largely what I am presenting to them; they are currently choosing to not listen more because Dad said it was not okay and less because of the principle.  They will grow past that, though.)

What I believe God is trying to teach me, and what I try to teach my children is that a lifetime of such choices reveals your true identity to you and others.  If we as Latter-Day Saints "cannot" do something it is because we so strongly identify with our love for God and with the promises that He has made to us that we cannot imagine ourselves in any other light.  Really, we could go see that movie or try that cigar or what have you, but we don't want to.  Our true nature is the "polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty" that is revealed by God chipping away at the "rough stone rolling", and I believe most Latter-Day Saints see that as a welcome exchange.

The world would have each of us be content with mediocrity that is focused on the here and now.  Even better, it would have each of us be content with whatever diet it offers to us.  I believe that God has something much greater planned for us in the hereafter that is dependent on us denying our carnal nature in order to discover our true nature.  So, yes I could, I just don't want to.

26 June 2013

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A Sermon from a 6-year-old (and an 8-year-old (and their dad))

My 6-year-old son stood and went to the pulpit to read a couple of verses from the scriptures to several dozen listeners.  We had bookmarked the verses so he could open the scriptures right to the page.  While I have shown my children a few times how to find scriptures given a book, chapter, and verse, it takes a while for something that complicated to stick in the head of a 1st grader.  He opened the scriptures to the bookmark and paused.

I was already nervous for him and became more so when his initial pause extended into what seemed a delay.  I wanted him to accomplish this himself, but more than once in those brief seconds, my muscles contracted to pull me up from my chair and go see if he needed any help.

No, stop, my mind said, he can do it.

Excluding my leg muscles, all 150 or so of us waited patiently for about 30 seconds when finally my son began by saying:

"And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face.  I will be on your right hand and on your left..."

Zac continued to recite until the end of the verse, and I was filled with pride for my son having accomplished something that many grown men and women are unwilling to do.

I gave him a hug as he sat down.  Now it was my 8-year-old's turn.

If I was nervous for Zac, I was even more nervous for Remi.  Remi is a bit harder on himself and has a tendency to succumb to stage fright because of it.  That Remi would be at the piano was a bit of a tender mercy since he would not have to see anyone's faces.

Silently as he began to sit at the piano bench, I wondered if he remembered the stage fright that had overcome his dad when playing at the very same piano just a few months prior.  I knew the song backwards and forwards, but my anxiety got the best of me in the middle of the song and my hands temporarily froze over the keys during a difficult part.  Even for an adult, it was a devastating moment.

Would the same happen to Remi?

He began playing his piece, Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam, first with his right hand.  He had practiced over 100 times on our electronic piano at home, and it sounded gorgeous on the beautiful grand piano on which he played now.

Again, I was relieved.  This son was going to be okay, too.

But now, it was my turn.  As Remi approached the end of the first verse, I stood.  In accordance with Zac's verse, I stood behind the piano bench and wrapped my right and left hands around my son to begin playing an improvised accompaniment on the low and high keys.  After a small intro, my son began playing his second verse, and the duet began.

Now was the real proving ground.  I had completely frozen at the same piano just months before.  If I did so now when playing with my son, I would be humiliated forever.

Don't mess this up, Josh.

What Remi and I had practiced was that my improvisation would steadily get more and more complex as the song progressed.  I was never the melody, so I instructed Remi to play loudly while I would play quietly to make sure that the congregation would continue to hear the underlying message.

And so it was.  The son's simple tune was enhanced and beautified through the practiced efforts of a loving father.  My son was protected on the right and on the left, and the outcome was one that had been worth our every effort.

About 3 seconds to the end, the last page fell off the piano.  All the same anxiety shot through me again.  Remi had just played his last note, and I had this flourish at the end I was supposed to do.  I closed my eyes and literally punched through the last few notes.  It was done, and it had come out beautifully.

My son stood from the bench, I gave him a hug, and we sat down in our seats.

The rest of the meeting progressed as planned with speakers that the bishopric had chosen.  I was on cloud 9:  My two sons had just performed in front of over 150 people, and those people had been uplifted for a brief moment by a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old sharing a message about our relationship with our Savior Jesus Christ.

These are the moments that I go to church for:  The palpable glimpses into Heaven that are manifested when  we genuinely try to act as Jesus would act, when we are working together as families and a congregation in our journey back Home.  We don't hit that note every time, but when we do, it's worth it.