Today, we went through Elder Oaks' talk from General Conference in 2010 titled, "Two Lines of Communication".
For this summary, I'm going to highlight sentences from the talk that we discussed as we read the talk:
"We must use both the personal line and the priesthood line in proper balance . . . All should understand and be guided by both of these essential lines of communication."
I reminded them of how often in the past two months we have talked about exactly this principle - that balance means finding a point in the middle of extremes that works for us and allows us to live according to the dictates of our own consciences. I mentioned that Elder Oaks repeats this basic charge (to be balanced) throughout the talk and never, not once, stresses one line of communication over the other. Rather, what he does is lay out the pros and cons of each - or, more accurately, of relying too much on either.
"In the personal line, we pray directly to our Heavenly Father, and He answers us by the channels he has established, without any mortal intermediary."
I mentioned that this is a refutation of the old Catholic teaching that the Priest served as an intermediary between God and humanity - that this is what we discussed when we talked about "The Priesthood" and "the priesthood" in a previous lesson.
"The direct, personal line of communication to our Heavenly Father is based on worthiness"
I asked them what this means, in practical terms. Before any of them could answer, I asked them who is most worthy of communicating with Heavenly Father: each of us in the room, attending church or a homeless guy begging for money on the street or someone who used to be a member of the Church but had become inactive (or even started attending another church). After a few answers, two of them said, essentially, "You haven't given us enough information about the other people to know how worthy they are." I agreed, and we read Alma 41:5, which begins with:
"The one raised to happiness according to his desires of happiness, or good according to his desires of good"
I asked what it takes to receive answers to prayers, and one of the students immediate answered, "Praying." That got chuckles, but everyone agreed.
We talked about "worthiness" being defined best, in the context of communicating with God, as "proper condition of the heart" and "willingness to ask, listen and accept" - rather than adherence to a checklist of do's and don'ts. It is measured more in terms of doing the best you can to follow what you believe. However, it also is influenced by actions that inhibit one's ability to hear - and the best example of this might be addictions that alter one's ability to see and feel clearly and/or act upon belief, knowledge and desires.
I asked them if they could think of a prominent example of someone who received communication from God without appearing to be worthy of it. Alma, the Younger, was mentioned immediately, but I pointed out that his father, the Prophet, had been praying continually for him - so some people could say that his communication really was a result of his father's worthiness. We then talked about Saul, of Tarsus, and his vision.
I told them to think about Saul and tell me who, in generic terms (as in what type of person), a "Saul" would be now - whom we might compare to Saul based on our own time and circumstances. Someone mentioned a person who leaves the LDS Church and then fights against it (an apostate in the clearest sense of the word), but I pointed out that Saul never had been a Christian in the first place. I told them that perhaps the best example would be a preacher who condemned and persecuted Mormons - a classic, traditional anti-Mormon agitator (like a man I know in Idaho who has made it his ministry's mission to lead members out of the LDS Church). I asked them why God would communicate directly with Saul, given how we would tend to call him an evil man if he lived in our time and persecuted us the way he did the early Christians.
We talked about the description of people who inherit the Celestial Kingdom - those who are "valiant" in their testimonies. Saul certainly was valiant and passionate and dedicated - and he was exactly that way after his conversion. Even though his actions prior to his conversion were not "worthwhile" in our eyes, he was "worthy" to receive communication from God. I emphasized that we can't dismiss other people's "revelations" and communications with God, simply because their actions aren't what we would consider to be worthy for us.
"On this personal line of communication with the Lord, our belief and practice is similar to . . . Christians (who believe in) . . . the principle Martin Luther espoused that is now known as 'the priesthood of all believers'."
I reminded them of the same conversation we had when talking about Priesthood and priesthood.
"The personal line is of paramount importance in personal decisions and in the governance of the family . . . the priesthood line, which operates principally to govern heavenly communications on Church matters"
We talked again, as we had in a previous lesson, about a church leader who confuses these "spheres of responsibility" (as one student phrased it) and tries to tell someone that s/he has received revelation for that person outside the realm of "church matters". I asked the students what they would say if a church leader walked up to them and said, "I have received a revelation that you should marry (a particular person)." They all agreed with one young man who said, "I wouldn't say it to the person, but I would think he was nuts." I told them that is a perfect, albeit extreme, example of what Elder Oaks said in the quote above - that each line of communication has its place and sphere and that neither should cross into the other.
"Some seek to have their priesthood leaders make personal decisions for them, decisions they should make for themselves through the personal line."
I told them about a member I know online who argues all the time with people almost solely by quoting former church leaders who agree with him. He ignores those that express different opinions and almost never includes original thoughts of his own. I like the man and try not to argue with him, but I am saddened by that type of "quote fighting" - since it says, at the core, that he wants church leaders to do his thinking for him and, therefore, has surrendered his own right to receive answers from God directly. I also mentioned that church leaders over time have disagreed about a lot of things, so it is impossible to rely on them ("mortal intermediaries", as Elder Oaks called them) to answer questions unanimously outside their callings as people who strive to use the priesthood line to "govern heavenly communications on Church matters".
Since we were starting to run out of time, I summarized the section on the priesthood line by telling them that Elder Oaks did the exact same thing in that section that he had in the section about the personal line: explain its place (the Church), its history (ancient to present) in the emphasis on "authoritative ordinances (sacraments)", the danger of underestimating its importance (at the extreme, rejection of "organized religion"), the tendency of some members to over-emphasize it and devalue the personal line, the need to not be "solely dependent on one priesthood leader or teacher for our personal testimony" to avoid being "forever vulnerable to disillusionment by the actions of that person" (and I mentioned that Prophets and apostles are included in that statement).
We read the paragraph about Joseph not being able to translate when he was upset and how he had to calm down, pray and apologize to Emma before he was able to translate again.
I asked everyone if they could draw something that represents, for them, the concept of two lines of divine communication - using a circle to represent each of them as an individual. One person drew two waves going through the circle that intersected occasionally within the circle. Another person drew a circle for God and a line between him and God, then another circle to the left of the line for the Church and lines going from God to the Church to him - ending up being a triangle. Another drawing was of multiple circles of increasing size (looking like a shooting target), the smallest being herself and each larger circle being a family, then the Church, then the community, then the world, then God - with the personal line of communication going out to family and then jumping ("tesseracting" - for those who had read "A Wrinkle in Time" or seen the new Superman movie) straight to God and skipping the other circles.
One of the students asked where the prophet fit into the drawing of multiple circles, and we ended up agreeing that he fits exactly where each one of them fits - with the only difference being how far out into the circles his line extends before jumping to God. I mentioned that the problems arise when someone confuses how far out the personal lines go and how far in the priesthood line goes.
I ended the lesson by explaining, once again, why I believe this concept of finding a balance that works individually is so important that it would come up again and again in our lessons - and I used "The Family: A Proclamation to the World" as a concrete example. One of the talks in Sacrament Meeting had included a reference to it, and the speaker had said that she believe it was for the membership more than those who are not members. I told them that I admire and respect that person greatly but that I disagreed with that statement. I said I believe it is directed primarily to "the world" - and that I have worked in my professional life in enough places that need some of the central messages badly - that some of those concepts literally would change the world if enough people really believed them. I talked about the paragraph about parental responsibilities - how there is a general statement about "primary responsibilities" that constitutes general guidelines for all (the priesthood line) but also a clear statement that puts the responsibility to figure out how to be "equal partners" based on "individual circumstances" that allow each couple to "adapt" individually (personal lines). I told them that such a balance (general outlines and personal adaptation) is what I read in Elder Oaks' talk - honoring and valuing each, but crafting a personal combination that is our own.