Saturday, January 31, 2009

Spiritual Alms in Practice: The Littlest Gestures Can Change Lives

I ran across a wonderful post on Blog Segullah (a literary masterpiece of a blog) that immediately brought to mind the concept of spiritual alms that has been the focus of my contemplation this month. In lieu of a long-winded examination of something that I've examined enough already, I thought I would link to the post and, along with the post from the 17th, let it speak for itself about the astounding power of simple, spiritual alms.

Please take the time to read the linked post. It puts everything I've been saying this month into the proper focus.

The Ugliest Girl in the World - "Blue" (Blog Segullah)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Pure Hilarity!!

I just found one of the funniest blogs I've ever seen. It's now on my blog roll.

My Religious Blog: The Substandard Works of a Utah-Mormon

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Creeping Mormonism (into Protestantism)

I know people who have omitted the “'til death do us part” clause from their wedding ceremonies for three very different reasons:

1) They believed that their marriage would last past death, despite the official creeds of their religion. (Quite a few fit this category.)

2) They had a degree of religious commitment and didn’t want to make a promise “before God” they might not be able to keep. (Only a couple fit here.)

3) They simply didn’t think about it - or, if they did, didn’t like the wording. (The vast majority fit this category.)

I think it is fascinating how much of Mormon theology is beginning to creep into the beliefs of many Protestants. When I traveled the rural backroads of OH, PA and WV a few years ago on a regular basis, I often listened to the local religious radio programming (since I didn’t want to hear about the cost of each and every imaginable grain and vegetable), and I would hear some version of a Restored Gospel principle (including Family Home Evening) at least monthly - from ministers who regularly spent time bashing Mormonism openly on air.

I loved the irony.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Tribute to President Hinckley

President Hinckley passed away on this date last year. The following is what I wrote in tribute then:

My children really don’t know any other Prophet - not even my oldest in college. My daughters cried when I told them the news.

Along with Pres. Kimball, he was the most gentle, humble, kind man of great authority whom I have ever known. I absolutely LOVED the sparkle in his eyes and voice - that subtle and sweet sense of humor.

From Marlin K. Jensen:

“His keen intellect and thirst to understand how everything works resulted in a storehouse of knowledge that will be nearly irreplaceable,” said Elder Marlin Jensen, the church’s official historian. “I believe he was a true prophet but it didn’t hurt that he was a genius, too.”

AMEN!

I also have been touched by how much he has focused on marriage - begging the brethren of the Church to love and serve and never disappoint their wives - since Marjorie passed away three years ago. His tribute to her in General Conference was one of the sweetest things I have ever heard in my life.

He was such a gentleman - in every sense of the word.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Temple Prophet & the Church President

In the temple recommend interview, one of the questions distinguishes between “the Prophet” and the other prophets, seers and revelators. Many members don’t realize that the first is capitalized, while the other is not. However, Thomas S. Monson was not sustained by the membership at large as the “Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” - but rather as the “President of the Church . . .” and "a prophet, seer and revelator".

The temple recommend interview draws attention to the fact that he is the presiding Prophet and needs to be supported by the temple attending members as such, but the unique requirement (along with the "generic" prophet, seer and revelator) for the general membership is only support of his role as President.

That’s a truly interesting distinction, imo.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Personal Thanks for the Alms

This will be a slightly unique post for me, but, in the spirit of this month's resolution, I think it needs to be said.

I scheduled this resolution essentially in December 2007,when I first started my current resolution. At that time, I had no way of knowing how appropriate it would be this month. At that point, I was happily employed - and I thought my employment would last for quite some time. However, I realized toward the end of last summer that I needed to leave that job, so I began looking for something else. At the end of October I accepted a job about which I was excited - one that I ended up enjoying very much.

I lost that job two months later - between Christmas and New Year's Day, and I still don't understand fully why it happened. I think I understand better now than I did at the time, but the official reasons I was given still don't make any sense to me. That, however, is not the purpose of this post.

Mama and I have been overwhelmed by the support we have received from friends and family. It has been immediate and generous and deeply appreciated. It has been anonymous where possible, but even when coming from family as a result of our telling them about our situation, it has been as good as anonymous in spirit. We have received BOTH temporal and spiritual alms this month of a magnitude that is astounding to us.

Our oldest son has turned in his papers to serve a mission, and our second son might choose to leave this summer or fall. Our dear bishop has informed us that they will be able to serve no matter our ability to contribute due to offers by numerous people in our ward and stake (and friends who have moved from our ward) to help. I don't know who most of them are, but I owe them a public thanks for their private concern and care.

The outpouring of love has been wonderful most of all for my eternal companion. Simply knowing that she is loved so deeply and widely by so many people has alleviated much of the despair she felt when I told her about my job loss. I will never be able to thank enough those who have been such a needed cushion for her in this difficult time. God bless you, one and all.

I have a few employment possibilities right now (Thanks, Tim and Andrew, though you probably will never read this.), and even that is relevant to this post - since each of them was generated by a friend who took the initiative to inform me of an opening that fit my background and experience.

Truly, I have been the recipient of alms this month, and I simply want to acknowledge openly my gratitude for that which has been given in secret.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Blogging as a Supplemental Activity

I connect with people here (and on other personal and group blogs) in different ways than I connect with people at church. I connect intellectually on blogs more often than at church, but I usually connect at a deeper emotional level at church than I do on blogs. On blogs, when someone says something that I consider to be ridiculous, it is too easy to dismiss the person, while at church I have a much easier time “suffering the fool(ish statement)” - since I generally have had other interactions of a positive nature with that person. Each connection is real, but the connections at Church probably are the ones that have the most chance of becoming broader and deeper connections on multiple levels, if for no reason other than there is little chance of me ever putting a face and voice and broad personality to most of you with whom I converse here and on other blogs.

As much as I enjoy the interaction, I simply can't connect on as many levels on blogs as I do at church. For that reason, I hope those who frequent the Bloggernacle don't use it as a substitute for church - that they recognize the fellowship that is more tangible among the saints in person and not feel justified in the relative isolation of the Bloggernacle. I hope they supplement their church experience with these blogs, not vice versa.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Expanding the "Chosen People" of the Lord

In all dispensations, the “Chosen People” have had to face a time when the promises of their fathers were extended beyond those familial ties and given to others that previously had been denied a place at the table of the chosen patriarch. That necessitated moving past the former paradigm of restricted family access to a new paradigm that focused on a broader family. Doing so in the early Church caused great disputations (from the “House of Israel” to include uncircumcised Gentiles in the "Body of Christ"). This tension was evident even earlier in Jesus’ ministry, when He told the Jews that God could raise up children unto Abraham from the rocks - that it wasn’t their literal lineage that would save them.

Ultimately, the most unifying familial designation available to us is summed up in a simple Primary song: “I am a child of God.”

Just to chew on: If we were to begin a modern focus on the “House of Abraham” (instead of the House of Israel), the familial tension that currently exists between Mormonism and Islam would disappear doctrinally. If we were to begin a modern focus on simply the “House of the Living God,” the familial tension that currently exists between Mormonism and Hinduism or Buddhism or any other -ism would disappear doctrinally.

(I absolutely love the doctrine of familial adoption. I really do. I think it is incredibly powerful and uplifting. I also will not advocate for a change in the way we express that adoption. I am totally serious when I say that there might be an actual power that has been given by God to the House of Israel; there might be an actual power in the recorded birthright descent that is important to the gathering of a people who are adopted into that lineage. There might be a valid reason to keep the current focus on the House of Israel. If the prophets never change our focus in this regard, I will not complain or be disappointed. I will accept it completely. I simply am open to a different adoptive phraseology if it ever comes time to “adopt” it.)

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Giving Spiritual Alms: A Profound Experience

After my post last Saturday, asking about Spiritual Alms, someone I respect very much sent me a private e-mail with the following experience. It is truly profound, so I thought I should share it as a separate post rather than just as a comment on last week's post:
----------------------------------------
About a dozen years ago, a student working for me came to my office and asked if she could talk to me. When I told her she certainly could, she added that it wasn't about work, but was personal.

She was an excellent employee; a returned missionary; a gifted poet who could churn out vivid poetry about as fast as kids nowadays can text each other; and a senior.

She reminded me that the previous April she had moved to another apartment and thus to another ward. She'd been the Relief Society president in her former ward.

She commented that she'd now been in her new ward some seven months - and hadn't even been asked to serve as a visiting teacher yet. She hastened to add that she didn't need to be president or anything, but that since almost all of the women in her new ward were freshmen or sophomores, she felt she could contribute something to the ward.

And that brought her to the question she wanted to ask me: "Do you think it would be wrong for me to say something to my bishop about it?"

I remember leaning forward in my chair, ready to say that it wouldn't be at all wrong, especially if she told him the way she'd told me - in full humility.

But the Spirit stopped me before I could even open my mouth, saying that I was to tell her what He wanted her to hear.

So I told her that there would be nothing wrong with her discussing it with her bishop, especially if she did so as she'd mentioned it to me. But then I added, "But let me share with you another option, and you can decide which you want to do.

"When you were Relief Society president in your former ward, what were you thinking about each week as you arrived for meetings?"

She looked a little perplexed, not having considered that thought before. So I added, "Let me take a guess. I've been in presidencies before, so I'd guess that as you came into the room you were probably looking around to be sure the day's teacher was there; the music people were there; the person in charge of getting the tablecloth over the table or desk or podium in the room so it looked more like RS than a classroom; the person responsible for the flowers; and so on."

She grinned and agreed.

As prompted, I then added: "Let me make you this promise. If just before you leave for meetings each Sunday, you kneel down by your bed, alone, and ask Father to help you discern who NEEDS you that day, there will never be a single Sunday on which at least one person won't need you. And often it will be several different people. Sometimes the "need" will only be for a smile or handshake, but sometimes they will need a visit - or a series of visits. I promise you that if you do this, you will find it as fulfilling as was your mission."

I repeated again that it wouldn't be wrong to talk with her bishop.

She said nothing more about it until the next April.

She came to my office again and said she didn't want to move without telling me what had happened.

She paused meaningfully and then added, with great emotion, "I had no idea there were so many with needs. You were right; there has never been a single Sunday on which at least one person didn't need me, and almost always it was several. Some needed just a little encouragement, but some needed many visits."

She paused again and then added, "It has been even better than my mission!"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Rethinking Missionary Motivation

On my mission my favorite AP was an amazing missionary. He worked hard, laid the foundation in new areas and was transferred just prior to seeing the fruits of his labors - inevitably. His entire mission, I think he actually baptized one person he taught - and that was at the end of his mission, as an AP. He didn't get frustrated because he didn't get "credit" for the people he taught who were baptized by other missionaries. He was happy simply to be involved in the process - no matter how long it took.


I believe if everyone took that outlook (including leaders and regular members) regardless of the length of time conversions took for each person, the work would flourish and retention would not be a major issue.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Monday, January 12, 2009

Rethinking Missionary Focus

The missionaries in our mission have been given fascinating instructions in the past year. They have been told to quit emphasizing the total number of contacts and discussions (a disproportionate percentage of which have been first discussions) and start focusing on being better teachers of the Gospel - even if that means teaching fewer lessons. In fact, they were told that they should expect a decrease in total discussions. They aren’t tracking first discussions any more but rather those things that indicate progress - those who allow the missionaries to return, those who read the Book of Mormon, those who attend church, etc.

I love the new directive.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Request for Help: Spiritual Alms

This is going to be short, but, due to unexpected events outside my control last week, I am not in a position to give alms right now in the way that I had anticipated when I made my resolution for this month. As a result, I have been struck this week by the idea of giving spiritual alms - and how to do that "in secret". I don't have an answer yet, and I don't want to fall back on an easy answer, so right now I simply am asking for input from those who read this.

What think ye? How might I (and you) share of our abundance spiritually but do so in a way that is consistent with the admonition to give our alms in secret and not for the praise of man?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Impossible Is Possible

Due to my mother’s condition and their relative poverty, my parents always assumed they would be unable to serve as a senior missionary couple. After talking for a long time about how they might be able to do so, my parents turned in papers to serve a mission at Cove Fort - something that my mother “could do” without much stress and that was possible with their limited budget. They had discussed it with their bishop, who explained my mother’s special circumstances and their financial situation in his endorsement. In everyone’s mind, it was a done deal.

They were called to South Carolina, to be active proselyting missionaries. They were speechless and very concerned, but they decided to accept the call - knowing they couldn’t afford it and not sure how my mom would handle it.

They left home on a five day drive. Three days later, while they still were two days from the mission, an elderly sister called the Mission President and told him that she had felt an incredibly strong impression to donate her house, free of charge, to the Church for use by the Mission for any senior couple who might need it. She would move in with her daughter and son-in-law for however long the house was needed. My parents lived in that house for 10 months, which allowed them to serve the entire 18 month mission on the money they had available.

My mother’s health issues subsided while they served and only surfaced again after they returned home. They made deep and lasting friendships, and they wouldn’t change it for the world.

God's hand operates all around us - not always in such visible and undeniable ways as my parents' mission, but powerfully, nonetheless. The thing that strikes me most deeply about my parents' experience is that they had no idea how they would be able to do what they had been called to do. It literally was impossible without the direct and active participation of the Lord, and it took them stepping out into the darkness and committing to do something they knew they couldn't do for it to happen. They literally had to drive over a thousand miles from home on an impossible mission before the solution to their situation was revealed - before it became possible.

Often, it is important to approach senior missions as my parents did - researching the options and applying for a specific assignment. However, the “factory mill” of mission callings that many members imagine (filling slots with whoever submits papers at the time) isn’t the case. I have no idea who made the decision to ignore my parents’ and their bishop’s carefully considered and articulated plans, but my parents and I will bless them eternally for being prompted to do so.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Monday, January 5, 2009

Creative Ordinance Administration

I have a slightly different take on the sacrament prayer and the baptismal requirements than what I have seen in most wards and branches I have attended. In each case, I accept fully the idea that the words have been given by revelation and should be repeated verbatim (and that a baptism must include full and simultaneous immersion to keep the symbolism intact), but I believe the administrative form is almost completely adaptable. I believe we should do anything within reason to ensure that the ordinance need be done only once (or only one additional time when a mistake is made) - and can be done by each and every worthy Priesthood holder.

If that means one Priest places a hand on the shoulder of the kneeling Priest and squeezes the shoulder of the one saying the prayer if a mistake is made (so that the one voicing the prayer can correct immediately and not need to repeat the entire prayer) - or multiple brethren stand in the baptismal font to help immerse an unusually heavy person - or someone “coaches” an illiterate Priesthood holder (or one who simply cannot memorize the prayers for some reason) one small phrase at a time - or the person being baptized sits on the floor of the font while someone holds down her legs to keep her feet from coming out of the water - or a mute Priest signs the prayer with hands above his head while the members in the congregation (all having been taught the prayers in sign language) keep their eyes open and watch the prayer being "said" (or another Priesthood holder verbalizes the prayer as the mute Priest signs) - or someone signs the prayer for a deaf member in the congregation - or any other method of ensuring that every worthy Priesthood holder feels confident that he could administer the ordinances as designed, then so be it.

If, for whatever reason, the baptismal ordinance needs to be repeated, I believe the presiding Priesthood authority should explain the need to the observers PRIOR to the repeated performance - and take whatever additional steps are necessary to ensure that one more time will be enough, again explaining what is being done and why. (In my opinion, a third attempt is a failure of leadership.) I also believe any time the sacrament prayer is repeated, the person conducting should explain immediately following the completion of the administration of the ordinance. In each and every case I have observed that the explanation has been presented properly, the Spirit was stronger than it had been initially.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Do Not Your Alms Before Men

Matthew 6:1-4 says:

1) Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
2) Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
3) But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:
4) That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

First, as a foundation, it is important to note that "alms" are donations to the poor. Therefore, this passage is not talking about good deeds, in general (works or fruits), but rather explicitly providing monetary help or goods to the poor in order to alleviate their poverty.

As I contemplated this passage, I was struck by two aspects in particular:

1) There is an assumption that alms will be given. There is no "if" involved in this passage; rather, the phrasing implies that it simply is something that will be done. That, in and of itself, is a profound point.

2) The following sentence is fascinating.

They have their reward.

The thought that hit me is that when we do things for the "glory of men" (and when our actions are noticed and praised), we have the very thing that motivated our actions in the first place - "the glory of men". We act and are rewarded for that action - by man, but not by God, because man was our intended benefactor in the first place.

Another thought that hit me is that we are rewarded for the good that we do - regardless of the motivation. Even in the case mentioned in this passage, where we are acting for the glory of men, "(We) have (our) reward." It just doesn't come from God.

So, in a hierarchy of actions, not acting at all will bring no reward whatsoever; acting for worldly recognition will bring a worldly reward; acting without recognition will bring a heavenly reward.

The question, it appears to me, is:

If "we have our reward" that will be given "openly" for alms done in secret, what exactly is that reward? What is it that our Heavenly Father gives?

I have some initial ideas, but I will think about it throughout the week and write about it next Saturday.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolution - 2009

Just as I did last year, I am instituting only one New Year's Resolution again in 2009 - a variation on my 2008 resolution I described in the New Year's Resolution post at the beginning of last year.

As I said in that post, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus' penultimate sermon (what I consider to be the blueprint to perfection) and will be my focus again this year. Moving from Matthew 5 to the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, there are some things listed in chapters 6 & 7 which I feel I don't need to make focal points in a resolution. However, I still will blog about them - as I focus on obtaining the characteristics where I feel I still need to improve the most. Those things are listed below in parentheses (following the actual resolution).

The following is the plan for this year:

January: Search for ways to help others without recognition, blogging about the general concept - not about the specific examples. - Matthew 6:1-4
February: Pray more fervently, daily. - Matthew 6:5-13
March: Forgive more fully and immediately. - Matthew 6:14-15
April: Fast more fervently, weekly during this month. - Matthew 6:16-18
May: Judge less often. - Matthew 7:1-5 (Lay up for yourself treasures in heaven. - Matthew 6:19-23)
June: Ask God more for specific desires. - Matthew 7:7-8
July: Treat others how I want to be treated. - Matthew 7:9-12 (Beware of false prophets. - Matthew 7:15-16)
August: Bring forth good fruits through a stronger connection to the Vine. - Matthew 7:17-20
September: Seek for and do the will of the Father. - Matthew 7:21-23
October: Refocus on the Beatitudes. - Matthew 7:24-27
November: Refocus on prayer and fasting. - Matthew 7:24-27
December: Refocus on serving others. - Matthew 7:24-27