Saturday, November 9, 2013

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Becoming Like Jesus: Charity

Today was a "bridge" lesson - moving from last month's topic of becoming like Jesus to this month's focus on spiritual and financial self-reliance. We missed a week last month due to General Conference, so I chose to do a combo lesson on the two topics.

I started by asking the students what "self-reliance" means. They looked at me like I'd asked a stupid, obvious question, which was partially true, so I rephrased the question and asked them what "self-reliance" means within the context of the Gospel we teach in the LDS Church - and by telling them that I believe there are important positive and negative aspects of it and ways to define it in Gospel terms. One of the students said it is not having to rely on anyone else - to be able to take care of yourself. I then asked why that might be a problem in the context of the Gospel and the Church. That same student said that there are people who aren't completely self-reliant at times, and there are some people who can't be completely self-reliant - and that if we preach self-reliance as the only good situation, we can end up making them feel ashamed of themselves when they shouldn't be ashamed. (I've driven that point home about a number of things over the last year as I've taught this class - how preaching only a theoretical ideal can be damaging to those not in that situation, especially through no fault of their own, and it's exciting to see the students start to see it without explicit prompting.)

We talked about the extremes: the mentally or physically disabled as an example of someone who can't be self-reliant and the intentional hermit who is completely self-reliant but living a life that is not of any service to others. We talked about how none of us in the room are completely self-reliant (that we all live in the middle somewhere) - from them still living at home and being supported by their parents to me being unemployed and needing fast offering assistance right now. When we finished that discussion, I was ecstatic to hear one of the students say, "So, the ideal really is community self-reliance." I told them we would talk about that more next week.

We then talked about how we really can't be spiritually self-reliant. I asked why that is, and one of them said, "Because we all need the Atonement. We can't become like God without it. We can't do it on our own." I used that as the bridge point to explain that what we had studied last month was how to use the self-reliance we can exercise to access the elements of self-reliance we can't access on our own - to create a condition of mutual-communal-reliance personally with God and then as a group with others.

With that foundation, we turned to 1 Corinthians 13, and I told them that we were going to do with that chapter (for as long as we had today) what we had done with the Beatitudes the previous two weeks (go through it word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase) - and that part of gaining spiritual self-reliance to the greatest extent possible is to study the scriptures carefully and deeply in order to build a personal understanding of them, even if that leads to different insights and perspectives than others - even each other. I told them that we too often read something shallowly and then, thinking we understand it already, never dig deeply and reach a profound understanding of it. Understanding something shallowly usually means understanding what others say about it, which is the exact opposite of spiritual self-reliance.

The following is a summary of what we covered in 1 Corinthians 13:

Verses 1-3: We talked about how the result of not having charity in each verse is the exact opposite of what we naturally assume should be the result of the actions described in each verse. Speaking with the tongues of men and angels ought to produce sounds that are pleasing and enlightening (that are melodious), but doing so without charity actually produces sounds that are distracting and jarring - like a brassy sound or the sound of cymbals clanging indiscriminately throughout a concert. Understanding prophecy and all mysteries and having all knowledge and faith ought to result in becoming someone important and powerful, but doing so without charity actually produces someone who has no lasting worth - who is nothing in the end. Giving everything to the poor and dying as a martyr ought to provide a great reward, but doing so without charity produces no eternal profit. (Think of the passage that says, "They have their reward" - just not God's.)

Verse 4: I used this verse to show the students how commas and semi-colons are used in this chapter - commas linking multiple aspects of the same general characteristic of charity and semi-colons introducing a new characteristic. (This is important, especially, in verse 5.) We talked about what it means to suffer long AND be kind - and how being able to suffer long depends on kindness. We talked about various things that make us suffer, not just temporarily but also for an extended period of time - and how enduring things that others cause in a charitable manner requires not just patience but also kindness. We talked about how easy it is to lash out when someone causes suffering of any kind, but how charity allows us to react kindly. We talked about how charity allows us to avoid envy and, instead, be happy for others and their blessings. We talked about what "vaunting" and being "puffed up" mean: elevating one's self above others and expanding one's self with nothing but empty air. (A student mentioned a puffer fish, and I physically puffed myself up in an arrogant way to make the point visually.) We discussed how charity keeps us from elevating ourselves above others and not getting "full of ourselves".

Verse 5: All of these aspects of charity are linked with commas; there are no semi-colons in the verse. This means that the entire verse really is one combined characteristic - each aspect being built on the previous ones. Behaving "unseemly" means "inappropriately" - and we talked about different situations requiring difference behavior. I asked how they might act inappropriately at school, and one of the students mentioned not following the school's dress code - and he compared how we would dress to go swimming and how we would dress to attend school. I added business meetings and church meetings, and I told them how much I dislike the idea that we need to dress in "Sunday best" for nearly all church-related meetings, no matter their purpose or location. In that light, "unseemly" is much more expansive than we often assume.

We then discussed Paul's statement about not eating meat with those who abstain from meat as an example of not behaving in an unseemly manner - and how we need to be aware of the sensibilities of those with whom we interact and be willing to "suffer long", be kind, not elevate ourselves or puff ourselves up by not following things that are important to others while in their presence - and I said that is why I usually wear a white shirt to church, even though I have no problem wearing different colors (as they have seen occasionally). I also told them that I have a bit of an addictive personality (combined with some extended family psychological issues), and I am grateful I was raised with the concept of the Word of Wisdom - and how others who could have handled a little alcohol in moderation chose to abstain and allowed me to be raised in an environment where I never had to find my own limit, since I can't be sure if I personally could have walked that particular line properly. That also is an example of people not behaving unseemly solely for the benefit / protection of others, since they would not have behaved unseemly regardless due to their ability to handle alcohol in moderation.

We talked about how moderating our behavior in the company of others is part of not "seeking our own" - both in sacrificing "our own" for "others" and also in not limiting ourselves only to those who are most like us (with whom we can "be ourselves" more fully and not be concerned about acting inappropriately). Thus, charity actually allows us to step outside our comfort zones and be productive and loving in those more difficult circumstances. Charity expands our spheres of influence and exposes us to things and people who challenge our natural inclinations, prejudices and biases, then it allows us to grow as a result.

We talked about how easy it is to be provoked (and to provoke) when we are with people who are different than us and how critical it is for growth and expanded understanding to be "not easily provoked". We talked about how easy it is to be provoked in every situation involving multiple people (even just people we love and who love us), much less with people who are different - and why being easily provoked naturally leads us toward "seeking our own" and "behaving unseemly".

We talked about what it means to "think no evil" - and the difference between thinking evil and having a bad thought. We used the example of thinking, "I wish so-and-so was dead," and thinking of ways to kill that person. I mentioned that the thought of wishing someone was dead is not a good thought, but it is different to have the thought and to dwell on it and end up actually thinking evil. We then put the entire verse together, and I showed them how each aspect builds onto the previous one(s) until we have the end results: thinking evil or not thinking evil. Charity is the foundation of avoiding becoming and evil person - and it comes from interacting with people who naturally challenge our charity and acting properly with them.

We ran out of time at that point, so I finished by sharing the following, to tie it all back to the principle of becoming like Jesus and being spiritually self-reliant:

Jesus suffered long, and was kind; Jesus envied not; Jesus vaunted not himself, was not puffed up, did not behave himself unseemly, sought not his own, was not easily provoked, thought no evil.

Developing charity is the most fundamental way to become like Jesus, and it ought to be one of our primary goals in life. We can't do that in a vacuum, and we can't do it by interacting only with those who are most like us and with whom we are comfortable. It will manifest itself in different ways for each of us, and it will be challenging in different ways, but it can't happen in a life of relative ease and comfort. We have to love those we are not inclined naturally to love, and that means interacting with them, being made to suffer but remaining kind, learning not to envy, not elevating ourselves (especially above those of whose choices we do not approve), acting appropriately and lovingly (and, in some cases, sacrificially), not seeking our own benefit or kind, risking provocation and not giving in to it and, ultimately, being able to do so without succumbing to the temptation to think evil (about or of others).

Charity, for the vast majority of us, is a learned, gained characteristic, not a natural gift. In the words of Paul, we need to seek after it - to make it a personal quest. 

I told them that this quest has to be personal - and that the challenges will come from all kinds of sources. For some, it will include their own families and church congregations; for some, it might be in a future marriage; for some of them, it will happen on missions; for all of them, it will happen only as they expand their horizons and leave their comfort zones and begin to love as Jesus loved by living more like Jesus lived.


Anonymous said...

I'm teaching this lesson tomorrow, more or less. Thanks for your insighhts!


Nathan said...

I've been following your blog silently for some time, but there's so much good stuff in this post that I can't keep my gratitude to myself any more. I really appreciate the edification I get from your posts. Thanks for sharing your light with us!

Papa D said...

Thank you, Nathan - and Deb. I really appreciate your kind words.