Friday, November 27, 2009

I'm Grateful for the Wilderness

In fairy tales, the wilderness is a frightening place where characters either run for refuge or are order to fulfill a mission, face a great challenge, meet someone instrumental, or learn an important skill. The wilderness is an instrument of change.

The same is true in scripture, both ancient and modern. Consider:

Our first parents were cast out of the Garden of Eden to a wilderness...the lone and dreary world. Without that step into the great unknown, the world would never have been populated. We would not exist. Adam said, "Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.
And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient." (Moses 5:10-11)

Moses led the children of Israel out of captivity...and spent the next forty years circling the promised land, in the wilderness. It was in the wilderness that they witnessed the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, built a golden calf for idol worship, and received the Ten Commandments.

Lehi was warned in a dream to leave behind his riches, his possessions and his remarkable real estate and journey into the wilderness with his family. The entire Book of Mormon begins with this crucial story of one family's journey into the wilderness.

Mormon pioneers were cast out of their homes and farmland and driven into the wilderness, crossing thousands of miles on the plains before arriving in the Salt Lake Valley.

John the baptist was raised in the wilderness. Living in the wild was somehow essential to his preparation as a baptist and an elias, one who ushers in.

Christ spent 40 days praying and fasting in the wilderness, and ultimately retired to the wilderness, the Garden of Gethsemane, to talk to God and atone for our sins.

This year our oldest son spent two months in the wilderness. It was a much-needed instrument of change. The beating down of the earth's elements seem to soften his heart in ways nothing else had succeeded.

At some point every one of us, just like fairy tale characters as well as prophets and patriarchs, will have to pass through a personal wilderness. Perhaps several, both literal and figurative. These wildernesses are frightening places, full of unknowns, full of danger...but often harboring wise leaders, helpful guides...and always effecting change.

This year my gratitude for the wilderness is profound. I am grateful for the progress our son made there, for the peace and reflection that comes to me when I escape there myself, and most especially for the wilderness Christ was willing to enter in our behalf. I am acutely aware of the fear that comes as we leave our personal comfort zones to embark on a journey. I am in awe of the peace that is offered, often in the very face of life-threatening danger. I am humbled to my knees at the wilderness Jesus bore for each of us. And I rejoice in the miracle and power of change.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Catch and Release

Today I felt a burden lifted. I’m not sure if it was the drag of October...suddenly turned November. Or if it was the fact that I was released from my calling today. But there was tangible lightness. I felt lifted, renewed. Connected. Happy, even. Just as I was being released.

Catch and release. A practice of mercy. Throwing fish back in the stream. To save them. In the church it is Call and release. But I still think there is some initial pain, some mercy, and a stream moving us toward our destination.

This has been, in many ways, my most difficult calling. Even though I’d done it before, in a previous ward. The work itself wasn’t difficult. But this time around I felt like a fish out of water most of the time. Never quite sure where I fit, what contributions I was making.

I spent too much time in this calling feeling angry. I had so many wrestles of the heart. I felt controlled. Often manipulated. Redundant. Resentful. I felt like an appendage. Whatever I did was often already done before I got to it. And more often redone as soon as I was finished. The frustration was running high. I felt like my wings were clipped.

At the same time I felt guilty. I felt guilty for feeling angry, of course. Guilty for not ever really taking off, not spreading my wings. For somehow allowing my wings to be clipped. I also felt spent. I did not have the energy to continue to fill the empty well that stood before me, more like a sieve, desperate for approval. But I realize that approval wasn’t mine to give. It was only His.

In some ways I didn’t realize how oppressive all those emotions weighing on me had become...until today, as they were lifted.

My patriarchal blessing tells me to “accept with a glad heart each call”. It also says that when I “serve to the very best of [my] ability the Lord will honor [me]”, and I will “find great joy in His service”. I have always used those phrases from my patriarchal blessing as a sort of barometer for my church service...if I wasn’t finding great joy, I must not be serving to the very best of my ability. Maybe I needed to work harder. Or work deeper. Something.

But this time around I could never seem to find that something. I never felt like I hit the ground running. I never knew quite what to do, let alone how to improve. Couldn’t figure out why I was unhappy so much of the time. I loved being with the children, preparing sharing times, teaching them, greeting them, singing with them. And I especially loved painting a mural of the sacred grove to beautify the room where they meet. But this emotional drag, this was foreign territory for me. I usually love my callings. Love serving. Love going the extra mile. I was definitely out of my element.

As we held our final presidency meeting this past week, I thought about my dad. I remember on the morning he was released as bishop, he called us together for family prayer, and offered up our collective service to the Lord, acknowledged all the labor and sacrifice, and offered it to God as his and our response to the call to serve. I remember the powerful feeling that followed, as we felt that the Lord had indeed found our offering “acceptable” and poured out his spirit to let us know.

Somewhat guiltily, I wondered if I could have such an experience in this calling. If I could actually offer the Lord my service as second counselor in the primary presidency as the best I could give, and if He would find MY offering acceptable. Sheepishly, I decided not to ask.

And yet, today I felt good. I didn’t feel inclined to hang my head. Or shrink in defeat. I felt honored. Appreciated. Eager to serve. Lifted up.

So maybe what I had to offer--even if it was very different from what I have been able to offer at other times, in other places, in other circumstances--maybe what I had to give this time around was somehow, miraculously, enough. Perhaps even very good.

I looked back on my setting apart. Remembered how I had questioned (like never before) the inspiration behind this calling, and sought confirmation. When the bishop laid his hands on my head, he told me that I was expected to open the scriptures with the children, and teach powerful truths from their pages. Beyond that, I was promised that each time I bore testimony...of the scriptures, the Restoration, the Savior...those I loved and cared for at home would be blessed. That was my witness. The Lord knew my heart.

I thought about the way I used the scriptures in every sharing time...Telling the story of the Brother of Jared. Showing how the Book of Mormon, the Old Testament, and the New Testament all started with the story of a single family. Teaching the way prophets used tools (and made the ones they didn’t have) to build towering structures -- and strong families. I know I did my part. I also thought about the particular crucible our family has crossed through over the past three years, and can only conclude that the Lord kept his promise.

I have regrets. I wish we had focused more on ministering and less on ad-ministering. I wish we had visited the children more often in their homes, made more of an effort to reach out to the less active families. I wish I had been more submissive and served more joyfully, offered less resistance.

But today I am hoping, praying, that the good somehow outweighed all those regrets. And that somehow this odd mix of frustration and fractious feelings and sharing and service and soul-searching was somehow, without my even being aware of it, the best I had to give.

And now I am back in the stream, floating for awhile, until the next catch.


When I was set apart for my next calling, the Lord very graciously and specifically told me how well I'd done in this calling, and that my service was deeply appreciated.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

We'll Sing And We'll Shout

When a friend came to visit us on Sunday he started talking about perspective. He said that Heavenly Father is always trying to broaden and enlarge our us the whole picture of before the world was created and after we die and the far reaches of eternity, and Satan is always trying to narrow out perspective, making us think the only thing that matters is what we want right now, and making our problems seem insurmountable. As he was talking, I imagined a piece of string being stretched out flat for eternal perspective, and then Satan pulling up the center of it for where we are now, so all we can see is a big impossible hill to climb, and nothing on the other side. You can pull it straight again...and it goes much farther than you may have ever imagined. (It's also straight. And narrow.)

This friend of ours has spent years and years counseling people, listening to their problems...and their perspective. And all those years of observing other people's lives and struggles have jelled into a singular point of view that makes so much sense to me: God always wants to broaden our perspective. He wants us to have the big picture. To inform our choices. When Jesus joined the two men on the road to Emmaus the first thing he did (after asking them a couple of questions and finding out how sad they were) was to open up the scriptures and expand their understanding, starting clear back at the beginning.

At the same time, Satan and his demons strive to narrow our perspective. Just like that piece of string, he tries to turn our mountains into molehills, our successes into ego-feeding exaggerations, and our failures into a bottomless abyss. He would have us believe that this life is all there is. That we came from nothing. And we'll return to nothing. It is so disheartening how often he succeeds.

In modern times, God and his prophets continue that broadening, that expansion, by granting us an understanding of who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed. This larger view of where we are in the grand eternal scheme of things puts everything in a more realistic perspective. Our self worth, connected to Him, remains stable.

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe that we are children of God, his spirit offspring, and that we existed long before we came to earth. We lived with Him as spirits before we were born.

So now we're here, and it's all about learning, and faith, and Christ, and turning our weaknesses into strengths. We are sent to families, and we form families of our own, hoping that someday these families will be together forever in an unbreakable chain.

And after we die we continue to spirits. There have been times when I've felt the presence of loved ones who have passed away, and I know this is true. We will someday be resurrected and assigned a glorious (or not-so-glorious) place in God's kingdom, according to how much progress we made here on earth. Our perspective is, at its very core, eternal.

We all have our short-sighted days. Times when we're irritable, or crippled with self-doubt...that's when we've lost that perspective. We also have those days when we feel overbrimming with joy, connected to everyone, to the universe, to the Lord. Unspeakable love. That's the result of that broadened perspective.

The temple is one of God's most powerful tools for broadening our perspective. Yesterday we attended a temple dedication. Yet another holy edifice dedicated to the Lord. His house. At the end we sang The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning and when I got to this line, I was so choked up with emotion I couldn't sing: "The Lord is extending the saints' understanding..." That's it. That's what he does. That broadening. Expanding. Eternal perspective. It was happening at that very moment. We were singing about it. And I was feeling it. I wept.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

How Firm a Foundation, Hymn #85

I have always loved the 25th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants. I love all that rich, specific counsel, and I love knowing that it was given to a woman. I like to think it was also counsel given to me. I particularly love verse 12, where it says that "the song of the righteous is a prayer". I believe that with all my heart, and have experienced many such prayers through music.

But today I had an experience where the song was the answer.
Let me backtrack a little.

This weekend I have struggled with some very raw emotion. I have felt sad, angry, discouraged, disheartened, unloved, and generally uncomfortable in my own skin. This morning as I tried to dissect some of these emotions, I went to my great Thinking Place -- the shower. And while I stood there under the water I began drafting an "I feel" statement, trying to put some of those emotions into words. The word I came up with that most nearly described what I was feeling was dismayed. "I feel extremely dismayed..." which is odd, because I don't often use that word. I also felt like the rug had been yanked right out from under me and I had nowhere to stand.

I had to kind of drag myself through my morning rituals this morning, in between moments of sobbing and whimpering. Then I dragged myself through church, wiping away occasional inexplicable tears that surfaced. Then I sat down on a chair in primary and just did my best to hold it all together.

Hailey Smith, our chorister, did a hilarious improv routine as Professor Smith, cousin to Sister Smith, a professor of primary music who was there visiting from England to observe our children. It was a treat, and it felt good to laugh for a minute. The children sang out beautifully. And when they sang How Firm a Foundation I joined in heartily. On the second verse, the words touched me so deeply I could no longer sing and just wiped away the tears:
Fear not, I am with thee; oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid.
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.
I felt at that moment as though God himself was speaking directly to me through those lyrics.
And I sat up a little straighter and took the message to heart. Not only do we speak to God through our singing, but He speaks to us.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The 8th Article of Faith: The Word of *GOD*

From a talk given 4/26/09

The 8th Article of Faith

I find it interesting that the 8th Article of Faith comes with a caveat: “ far as it is translated correctly.”

To illustrate how easily a simple error can happen, I want to tell you about my Aunt Becky. She was up early one Christmas morning, preparing a special recipe, and discovered she was out of whole cloves. She called her friend across town to see if she could borrow some. The conversation went something like this:

Do you have any whole cloves at your house?

Yes, I think so. Do you need them today?

Yes, for Christmas. And the stores are all closed.

Okay, I’ll look around and see what I’ve got, and leave them in a bag on your porch.

My aunt later went out to check her porch, and her friend had left her a large grocery bag, rather than the small package she was expecting. On inspecting the contents, it turned out her friend had not brought any whole cloves, but instead left her a bag of old clothes. Clearly, something was lost in the translation!

It becomes obvious that, over thousands of years, in hundreds of languages, translation is bound to produce errors, and some of them major.

Prof. George Handley recently spoke at BYU on “The Risk in Scripture Reading.” (I don’t ordinarily think of scripture reading as risky behavior. But he says the risk is of misinterpreting, of getting it wrong.) He says, ”The possibilities and combinations are as innumerable as the human population itself.”

He then submits the Book of Mormon as the perfect solution to these varied (and hence, risky) approaches to scripture: “The Book of Mormon collapses this binary opposition. It is a book of scripture that offers transcendent understanding in response to individual belief.” I agree that having the Book of Mormon as both a great clarifier and a second witness makes the 8th Article of Faith especially significant. It is no accident that these two books are mentioned together, in the same verse. It means so much more than “having two”. It means having truth.

It’s typical to hear a child -- or even an adult -- rattle off the 8th Article of Faith like this:
(Pause. Breathe.) wealsobelievetheBookofMormontobethewordofGod.
But when it’s said that way, the emphasis is where the pause is...”as far as it is translated correctly.”

The phrase that I would most like to focus on is this: The Bible and the Book of Mormon are the word of God. That should never be rattled off lightly, but rather, spoken with reverence and awe: The word of *GOD* (that Supreme Being, all-knowing, all-powerful, Creator of the Universe.) God’s own words. Right here. For us.

I would like to share some times when I’ve heard and felt the literal word of God come into my life through the scriptures.

As a teenager,
I was deeply hurt by someone I was dating (it happens to the best of us), and found deep solace in the book of Jacob. When he described “feelings that were exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God,” I felt he was speaking directly to me. He knew my heart. In the very next chapter were these comforting words:
1 Look unto God with firmness of mind, and pray unto him with exceeding faith, and he will console you in your afflictions...
2 O all ye that are pure in heart, lift up your heads and receive the pleasing word of God, and feast upon his love; for ye may, if your minds are firm, forever. (Jacob 2:7, 3:1-2)

As a college student,
a friend came home from his mission eager to show me what he had learned in the 24th chapter of Luke. He’d have me read a verse, then ask what was happening.
So what’s happening here?
They’re walking down that road?
Okay, next verse. Now what happened?
They’re talking about Christ.
Good. What happens next?
Christ draws near....(etc.)
He said, “Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever read?”
I looked again. “Well, yeah, it’s cool that he comes to them right when they’re talking about him, and they don’t even know it. And I like the part where they burn inside and realize it was Him.”
“Look at it again”, he said. “When you break it down to simple subject-and-verb basics, this chapter becomes an exact outline of the steps to gaining a testimony. This is how it works.”
I looked again, tried to see what he was showing me, and suddenly saw with new eyes. Just like in those verses: “There eyes were holden, that they should not know him.” And then in verse 27 it says the first thing he did was open up the scriptures, and teach them about Him: “he cexpounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. Suddenly this verse took on a rich meaning I’d missed before, and every verse came alive, pointing out how we come to know the Savior, and how that knowledge is manifest in our lives.
That basic subject-and-verb, what I like to call the bare bones, or Skeleton, of Luke 24:13-53 becomes an outline of the steps required for each of us to obtain a testimony. And patterns like that show up all over the scriptures when you stop and look for them. I have never studied the scriptures the same way since that day.

Before my mission,
a friend gave me a copy of Richard Anderson’s book, Understanding Paul. Learning some of that historical background, understanding different social factions such as the Gnostics, discovering the ancient derivations of some key words from Greek and Hebrew, gave me a much deeper and richer appreciation for the Pauline epistles, and for the Savior himself. I suddenly felt as Paul wrote, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” I was hungry for more. I literally felt like in the scriptures “we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor.2:16) I fell in love with the New Testament and couldn’t wait to share the Savior’s voice with the people I was about to teach.

As a missionary,
the scriptures, and especially the Book of Mormon, often supplied answers to investigators’ questions I never could have answered so profoundly or succinctly on my own. Jeff and I were both in the California Arcadia mission, Spanish-speaking. Because of the socio-economic factors in that segment of the population, one of the biggest stumbling blocks for our investigators was (believe it or not) marriage. Mothers could actually make significantly more money on welfare if they remained single than they could if they were married. So many were resistant to take that important step toward baptism. I taught one couple, Gretel and Gustavo Martinez, in that situation. They were from Nicaragua, and they had the most adorable little boys, Gustavito and Armandito. I used to, as Nephi said, “pray...for them by day, and...water my pillow by night” (2 Ne. 33:3) because I was so sad to think these little boys could never be sealed to their parents, because they hadn’t been married or baptized. One morning I woke up and was led straight to D&C 49:15: “Marriage is ordained of God.” I knew exactly the next principle we had to teach them.

As a young bride,
I was called to be relief society president in our student ward, and was concerned that so many of the young women were not participating in Sunday School because they were intimidated by all the returned misisonaries. Our SS curriculum that year was the Old Testament, and I started an Old Testament discussion group based on the SS reading schedule to give these young girls more familiarity with this wonderful book. During this time I became pregnant with our oldest son, Joshua. I was very, very sick and Jeff would often come home from school and find me asleep on the bathroom floor. At the same time, I was self-employed and trying to keep a fledgling business afloat. I was feeling completely overwhelmed. I will never forget when our next discussion was in Exodus 4, about Moses describing his weakness and inadequacy to the Lord:
10 ¶ And Moses said unto the Lord, O my Lord, I am not eloquent, but I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.
14 And the Lord said, Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, behold, he cometh forth to meet thee: and when he seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart.
Suddenly it struck me that just as the Lord provided someone to help Moses in his moment of self-doubt, I didn’t have to do it all by myself either. I felt like He was giving me the wisdom and the permission to hire someone to help me.

As a Gospel Doctrine teacher,
I started a practice I still continue. I buy a new set of scriptures every four years, so I can get a fresh read, hear what the Lord is saying to me NOW, at this point in time. I buy the cheap paperbacks so I can mark them up to my heart’s content. Even after several trips through the standard works, the first time I taught Sunday School, I discovered so many things that I’d never noticed or felt or understood before. And I uncovered layers of richness I might have missed had I not had the opportunity to teach.

I particularly remember studying the story of the Brother of Jared. I was away on vacation, and struggling with insomnia, was reading in the wee hours of the morning. I remember being suddenly so struck with the power, the symbols, the metaphors, the sheer beauty of that story, and just sat there with tears streaming down my face as I read. I already had a strong testimony of the Book of Mormon, but for some reason the Lord had spoken its truthfulness to me again as I read about and pondered the Brother of Jared.

My second time teaching Book of Mormon in Gospel Doctrine, I chose to approach the year as “Book of Mormon Therapy”, the idea that there were many problems in our lives we could find answers to, solutions for, and even minor soul-repair in the scriptures. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. A new family moved into the area, and the wife set about carving out a niche for herself by breaking up other friendships. She became quite divisive as she weaseled her way into friendships, and she had singled out two of my closest friends, trying to get closer to them by talking about me behind my back. I had a hard time having any kind feelings at all for this woman, and my heart was hardening toward her. But as I read the Book of Mormon I realized the one who perhaps most needed this “Book of Mormon therapy” was me. Over several months of intense study, I rediscovered that one of the strongest overarching themes of the Book of Mormon was love, and that it was impossible to sincerely study without being touched by that love and radiating it outward. This woman eventually became a friend, and my heart had been softened and changed by the word of God.

And now, serving in the primary,
I’ve found it a great gift to be able to share my love of the scriptures with children. We had a sharing time on the Witnesses of Christ in the Book of Mormon, and as I wrote the script and called on various speakers, I was amazed at how many there are. I had the privilege of telling the story of the Brother of Jared to the children and feel that spirit fill the room. Last week we reenacted Christ’s visit in Third Nephi, and again was touched by the words of Christ spoken by guest readers. Our theme for the year is Family, and I was also amazed to discover a strong pattern throughout the Bible and the Book of Mormon of families who journey into the wilderness in search of a new home, and find closeness and protection from God in the process.

Our family is undergoing a similar journey ourselves right now. Our oldest son is in the wilderness, both literally and metaphorically, as he figures a few things out, and he seems to have already found a stronger connection to God. During this time I’m seeking comfort, guidance and hope by reading about families in the scriptures who have struggled with youth who stray from the path. I’m learning from Adam and Eve, Lehi and Sariah, Alma and Alma the Younger...and later his son Corianton.

I often feel like we’re living out these stories ourselves...
• when I hear Jeff talk to Josh: “exhorting [him] with all the feeling of a tender parent” and sounding for all the world like Father Lehi.
• when I feel like we’re witnessing a turnaround not quite as dramatic Alma the Younger, but still amazing
• when I am prompted to do or say something in particular, “not knowing beforehand the way I should go”

And I felt a special kinship with God himself when I read how the “heavens wept” when one of His sons was cast out.

I had an interesting experience this past week. I had the opportunity to meet in person several people I have only known online, through my blog. Several of these blog friends are professional writers, and came to Provo for a writers’ conference. I was really looking forward to meeting these people because in some ways I know them better than the people I know in “real life”: We take time to laugh and cry over each other's posts. We encourage each other. We seek (and gain) understanding. Sometimes we offer advice. (I probably give too much). We often share deep spiritual experiences. We come to know a side of each other that the rest of the world probably misses. Completely. I found it amazing that these virtual strangers, some from as far away as Poland and Canada, can know my heart so well; have already become my very real friends. All through reading each others’ words.

I hope it will be this way someday when we meet the Savior and return to live with our Father in Heaven...That we will feel no more bonded then than we already are now through reading His words in the scriptures: “That when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (Moroni 7:48)

I know the Bible and the Book of Mormon and all our standard works are the word of God. I know He has spoken to me personally through their pages. I hope we can all drink more deeply, seek more earnestly, and never take for granted the incredible power of his words when we allow them into our lives.