5 Takeaways from the Excommunication of a General Authority

News came down this week that Elder James Hamula of the Seventy has been released and excommunicated.  Although this isn’t unprecedented, it’s only the second such excommunication to occur in my lifetime, and it probably has created a little consternation for some folks.  Here are my thoughts on what we can take away from this event.

The Rules Apply to Everybody

You never want to see anyone get into a situation where they lose their standing in the Church.  It’s tragic, whatever the circumstances.  But it is nice to know that the General Authorities of the Church are subject to the same standards of conduct as the rest of it.  This is what we want to see if there is some kind of serious transgression or apostasy, isn’t it?  Far better than looking the other way.

Every Thirty Years Ain’t So Bad

I would love it if we never had a General Authority get into this kind of situation.  But it is reassuring that it is rare, with the last time being nearly 30 years ago.  Given how many men and women serve in priesthood and auxiliary positions in the Church, the situation is inevitable.  Heck, in the early days of the Church, it seems like it was a monthly occurrence.  They managed to survive it then.  We can handle it now.

Let’s Not Freak Out

The excommunication of a General Authority hardly spells the end of the Church.  We don’t–or shouldn’t–expect our leaders to be infallible or without sin.  Only one person has met that standard.  People make mistakes.  Sometimes those are big mistakes.  We have procedures in place for when that happens.  If another person’s weakness shakes your testimony, you are in for a wild ride.  People will always disappoint.

Let’s Also Not Judge

“I wonder what he did.”  Let’s not speculate about the reason for the disciplinary action, nor make judgments about someone who messed up.  We’ve all tripped, and none of us wants our dirty laundry aired for the world.  We should pray for him and his family just as we should pray for all who are struggling.  We shouldn’t treat this as a car wreck, slowing down to see if there are any bodies.  Let’s have some decency and withhold our judgment.

Let’s Take This as a Warning

I sat in a meeting of high priests once, and the topic of the class was a particular type of transgression.  The teacher started with, “While I’m sure this is not an issue for any of us…”  Really?  If a General Authority can be excommunicated, what makes any of us think that we have crossed some imaginary line where our testimony is unshakeable, our will resolute, and our capacity to fail eliminated?  This should be a call to vigilance for all of us.  If you are still ticking, the adversary isn’t done with you yet.

The Perfect Priesthood Holder

Came across this today.  Something I wrote several years ago and forgot about.

The Perfect Priesthood Holder

The perfect Priesthood holder
Wasn’t much to look at.
Long hair and a scraggly beard. 
Dirty feet shoved into dirtier sandals.

Poor as the dirt on his clothes,
He pretended to nothing more.
He drew no attention to himself
But pointed every eye to God.

The perfect Priesthood holder
Was all about the little guy
The one too lame, too slow
To catch the angel on troubled water

Unimpressed with money
Less so with those who held it.
In a crowd, the face he saw
Was the one that needed him most.

The perfect Priesthood holder
Never worried about acting the part
Cared nothing for who was watching him
But gave all for those he was watching over

The perfect Priesthood holder
Preferred to do right
Rather than to make the right
Impression.

Seven Suggestions to Avoid Awful Gospel Teaching

I haven’t offended anyone in a while, but this should take care of that.

Thus begins the rant.

After another rough round of Sunday meetings (solid enough Sacrament talks followed by…the rest), I have to call it as I see it:  The quality of teaching in the Church is getting progressively awful.  And before I get called arrogant or hypocritical (or worse), I fully admit to having contributed to some of the bad teaching in the Church, despite my best efforts to the contrary.  And I understand that no teacher is going to have a perfect record of enthralling classes.  But for crying out loud, we can do better than this.

Part of the problem is our resources.  As the Church has tried to focus more on “Teaching in the Savior’s Way,” with a greater emphasis on teaching by the Spirit and encouraging students to take responsibility for teaching, our course materials have gotten far less user friendly.  We’ve gone from strictly formatted lessons (like the priesthood manuals of the 70s and 80s that were heavy on content and almost idiot-proof for teachers), to open-ended collections of scriptures and General Conference talks, with some well-produced videos kicked in to help the process.  I personally worry that we have over-corrected, too often resulting in classes that are poorly prepared, unstructured, and undecipherable.

I think we can do better.  I know that the General Authorities certainly expect better of us, which is why they have introduced teacher councils in order to help teachers learn how to approach their classes and work through challenges.  If more than a handful of Sunday School presidents actually hold such meetings, that will certainly help.  But many teachers are still struggling–many with good intentions but limited training and guidance; others out of sheer laziness–to provide a meaningful 40 minutes in their classes.

I’ve taught for a long time in the Church.  Sometimes well, often poorly.  But years of experience have taught me at least a few things that I have found helpful.  I’d like to share seven of them, in the hopes that someday soon I can stop faking going to the bathroom just to escape a lesson.

(1)  Prepare

I mean, like, PREPARE.  In all-caps.  Not read the lesson on way to Church or during Sacrament meeting.  Not scanning through a lesson you have taught before to remember the highlights.  I mean serious, prayerful, intense preparation.  Learn the principles you are supposed to teach before you try to teach them.  Teaching by the Spirit is significantly different from winging it, and everyone in the classroom can distinguish between the two.  Everyone is busy, but at least make an effort.  You might go home bragging to the family about how you channeled LeGrand Richards and taught the entire lesson off the cuff, but your students are going home thinking about how you mailed it in.  I’m not going to pretend I haven’t done it, so you can be honest about it too.

(2)  Spare us your wacky gospel interpretations and theories.

Many teachers, like the ancient Nephites, are always searching for “some new thing” to teach.  But we don’t need teachers who present us with edgy, unusual, or flat-out false doctrine.  We need teachers who teach core doctrine well.  As my current Stake President has said, “The Gospel is true.  You don’t need to make it weird.”

(3)  Ask meaningful and thoughtful questions.

Teachers frequently make two mistakes with questions.  The first is to ask leading questions (those that imply the answer), so that students are encouraged to say the “right” thing, and the class keeps moving along in the direction the teacher planned.  The other is to ask obscure questions, then keep shooting down answers until one ESP-enabled student hits upon the correct response, frustrating everyone else in the process.  Questions should be specific (we’ll talk about “anyone have a comment on that?” in a second), open ended, and encourage actual thought.  Good questions invite maximum participation, and that’s when some of the best learning takes place.

(4)  Use the scriptures.  Don’t just talk about them.

I know I’m being unreasonable.  But if you are teaching out of the New Testament, it might be a good idea to actually open your Bible once or twice during the lesson.  In my view, one of the real problems in the Church today is a high degree of scriptural illiteracy.  People don’t read the scriptures, usually because they don’t understand them.  Teachers are the firewall against that encroaching culture of ignorance.  Students should learn in Sunday School and other classes how to read and understand the scriptures so that they can have meaningful spiritual experiences independent of our meetings.  The entire Book of Mormon might as well have been sealed for as often as we open it.

(5)  Stop letting “helpful” students hijack your lesson.

We all know it’s coming.  Before the end of the lesson, certain people are going to raise their hands and share insights and stories that were probably fine the first 12 times they shared them but are losing a little of their steam.  Or someone is going to try to take the class in the direction they would have chosen if they were the teacher.  Or a member of the class is going to share a loooooooong and uncomfortably personal story that has us all looking for razor blades and warm bathwater before it is done.  Teachers have to exercise a little scene control in their classes, redirect the focus of the class in a positive direction, and sometimes just tell people we need to move along.  I got hijacked by a near confessional early in a lesson recently, and it took me the rest of the class to get the wheels back on.  It was my fault.  I needed to find a polite way to tell the student to pipe down.  And if that failed, perhaps a less polite way.

(6)  But also listen to your students.

I don’t generally make long comments in class, if I say anything at all.  But if I do say something, I really appreciate it when the teacher starts reading her manual, checking his watch, or continuing along after the comment as if it never had been made.  While you don’t want your class taken over by an over-sharer, you also want to be open and inviting to comments and contributions that will help make your job easier.

(7)  “Read and comment” isn’t teaching.  It’s killing time.

Now let’s talk about priesthood and Relief Society meetings.  The “Teaching of the Prophets” series of manuals are great resources for gospel learning.  They are of marginal use as teaching resources.  The reason for that is that many (Most?  Every flipping one?) of the lessons quickly devolve into reading a long section of the manual followed by the insightful inquiry, “Does anyone have a comment on that?”  What the teacher really means is something closer to, “I didn’t prepare, and we’ve got another 20 minutes before we can pray and escape.  For the love of Eliza R. Snow, can somebody kill ten minutes or so?”  I can read the manual in the lobby.  I frequently have.  Or I can check my Facebook or text my family to see if any of my daughters are willing to feign menstrual cramps so that we can blow this joint.  Please, pretty please, can we stop this madness?  Teach a lesson, using quotes from the manual as resources and reference points, but don’t make us read the whole thing out loud.  Even if it were Harry Potter we were reading, that would still be a beating.

Seriously, if we really do have the restored gospel of Jesus Christ (which we do) and living prophets to guide us in our understanding of the scriptures (ditto that), we should have the most engaging, interesting, and inspiring lessons anyone could hope for.  (Note that I didn’t say “entertaining.”  I don’t think that church meetings need to be variety shows in order to be meaningful.)  Our three hour block of meeting should be elevating, not enervating.

We can do a lot better.  Let’s start by doing a little better and seeing where that takes us.

Testimony Meeting: Not the Time for Coming Out…Or a Lot of Other Things

The Church is getting a lot of flack in the press over a stake presidency member’s decision to cut the mic during a 12-year old’s “testimony,” in which she declared that she is gay (while her parents rolled tape on the entire affair).  I guess I would understand the controversy if it really were a matter of silencing a member’s declaration that he or she is gay.  But I think that the hullabaloo over the incident misses the point of what a Testimony meeting is for.

For those who aren’t members of the Church, a quick explanation.  On the first Sunday of each month, our regular “Sacrament meeting” (think of it as mass, or Sunday services, or whatever makes sense for your frame of reference) is designated as a “Testimony” meeting.  Members are encouraged to fast prior to the meeting, and during the meeting they  are invited to share their testimonies of the gospel.

Contrary to popular opinion within the Church, a Testimony meeting is not “open mic night for Mormons.”  Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for what constitutes a “testimony,” the presiding priesthood holder at the meeting (usually the bishop, but in this case a stake presidency member was present) has the discretion to ask someone to step down if what they are sharing is not consistent with the purpose of the meeting.

That discretion is rarely used, but I have seen it happen a few times.  A person might be asked to step down if he begins confessing a serious sin (bishops in single adult wards have to sit on the edge of their seat for that possibility, I understand), airing a personal gripe against another member, taking up too much time, espousing false doctrine or sentiments contrary to the Church’s doctrine, that kind of stuff.  Like I said, it’s rare, but it happens.

I wasn’t there for the meeting in question, so I can’t opine as to whether if I were  presiding in the meeting I would have terminated the testimony.  But the circumstances strongly suggest that the girl and/or her parents were making some kind of manifesto (having prepared for this in advance and deciding to record it, in violation of Church policy), and under those circumstances it wouldn’t be unreasonable to terminate it.  I would like to think that if I were talking about my heterosexual orientation, practices, or preferences, I’d be asked to sit down, too.  No one needs to hear how stirring I though Wonder Woman was.  That’s just not what the meeting is for.  On the other hand, if she had expressed this during a Sunday School class or some other forum where it might be more appropriate for discussion, then I don’t think anyone should ask her to pipe down.  Indeed, I’ve been in Church meetings where individuals disclosed they are gay, and while not everyone in the room was comfortable with it, no one was stopping them from talking or asking them to leave.

You have to feel for the guy who made the decision.  If he lets her talk, he’ll have members complaining to him; if he doesn’t, then he gets this kind of fallout.  If I’m him, I take a fake bathroom break and let someone else make the call.  Running for the hills is always an option.

Frankly, I think that someone coming out in a Testimony meeting should be the least of our concerns.  There is a long list of other people that I think should be invited to return to their seats, including:

  • Anyone who comes to the stand with prepared remarks or a scripture they want to share.  Usually these folks haven’t been invited to speak for a while, and they are looking for a chance to make up for lost time.  No sermons, please.
  • Anyone who starts crying before their first word comes out.  If you are going to talk like a dolphin for the entire testimony, none of us is going to be able to understand you.  First Xanax, then your testimony.
  • Anyone dragging up their two-year-old and whispering in the kid’s ear every word he or she says.  I’ve never cared for ventriloquist acts, especially when I can see your lips moving.  Teach the kids in Primary how to give their testimonies, then bring them to the Big Show when they are ready.
  • Anyone who has traveled to a Church historical site in the last 30 days.  None of us need another 20 minute travelog rehashing a trip to Nauvoo.  Yes, I’m sure it was meaningful for you.  You can tell me all about it on Facebook.  Where I can ignore you.
  • Anyone who has written a poem for their testimony.  Actually, strike that objection.  I’ve only seen it happen once, and it was funny enough to make the entire meeting worth it.  I’m all for beatnik testimonies.
  • Anyone who has given a testimony in more than two consecutive months.  We love you.  We’re glad you are so enthused about your testimony.  But, really, there is only so much of you that we can stand.  Let someone else have some time.  Or allow there to be a silent gap in time.  Our texts aren’t going to check themselves.
  • Anyone who has recently returned from Girl’s Camp, Scout Camp, Youth Conference, or Especially for Youth.  It’s great that you love your friends.  Feel free to cut out the middle man and tell them directly.
  • Anyone who gets up at five minutes after the hour.  The testimony will inevitably begin with “the Spirit has been telling me to get up for the entire meeting.”  That may be true, but the rest of us shouldn’t pay the price for your procrastination.  We’ve got singing, praying, and a trip to the bathroom in our immediate future, and you are holding up the show.

I think a coming out party would probably liven up most Testimony meetings, but it just isn’t the right forum for it.  Or for much else outside of heartfelt expressions about the gospel.  I’m not overly concerned about this girl having the mic cut.  I just wish she had more company.

When the Youth of Zion Falter

LDS Youth

The past week brought a new experience for me:  My first girl’s camp.  My wife has been attending for countless years with our unending parade of daughters, but this was the first year that I was invited to attend under the safely vague title of “Priesthood Leader.”  Apparently that is Mormon speak for “someone who gives blessings, takes out the garbage, and makes sure there is fresh water for everyone.”  In other words, I was one of four Camp Dads.

I wasn’t particularly excited at the prospect of going.  Nature is overrated, and I’ve reached my zenith of “roughing it” when I lose the remote control.  But unlike my abbreviated experience in Boy Scouts, this was more like a cheap hotel with a REALLY big yard.  Most of my time was spent in air conditioning reading a book.  Kind of like the other 361 days of the year.

Surprisingly, I had a good time.  On a personal level, I made new friends, laughed a lot, successfully negotiated a hike up a hill (a bucket list item after dying a couple of times), and wound up the experience dressed in a tutu lip syncing to “Dude (Looks Like a Lady).”  (The Stake President has seen the video, and I still have my temple recommend, so don’t judge).  From a broader perspective, I was able to see what a group of committed adult leaders can do to provide meaningful social, educational and spiritual experience to 12-17 year-old girls.  Not all of it was up my alley–Dante never imagined anything as horrible as camp songs–but most of the girls seemed to find it an enjoyable and uplifting experience.

Near the end of the week I was given an opportunity to share a short message with the girls from my own ward.  I asked five of them to stand up.  I told the group that I had been hearing all week about how much the girls loved each other, loved the gospel, and generally were just up to their eyeballs in Mormonism.

“But in six years,” I told them, “when all of you have graduated from high school, four of these five young women will no longer be active in the Church.  Take a good look at them.  Which four are you ready to lose?”

It was a somber moment.  More somber, in my mind, because I was understating the truth.  About 10% of young single adults are active.  Regardless, my point was that if the girls hope to stay active in the Church, they need to get to nurturing their testimonies right now, because  if they wait until later, they might already have exited the building…or, to be more symbolically accurate, have entered the great and spacious building.

I think that most Church leaders who are being honest with themselves recognize that the youth of Zion are faltering.  That realization is reflected in program changes (such as diminishing the role of Boy Scouts, which I see as a move to “less tents, more testimony”), curriculum changes, the emphasis on graduating from seminary and institute, the lowering of the minimum age for full-time missionary service and so forth.  Still, somewhere between the last years of high school and graduation from college, our youth are wandering into strange paths, with many of them unlikely to return.

Knowing that, I looked at the girls camp experience and was reminded of the lament of the Lord of the vineyard in Jacob 5:  “What more could I have done for my vineyard?”  I do not believe that the Church has failed in terms of effort.  We have some wonderful programs in place to help youth progress from step to step in the gospel in preparation for missionary service and receiving temple ordinances.  But something is amiss.

In part, the Church is suffering from the broader societal trends running against religious identification and participation.  I think that exposure to misinformation or information without context through the internet also contributes to this, but I suspect that is more of a problem for older members of the Church rather than the youth.  The current young people have been raised in a time of considerably more transparency and frank honesty from the Church than I was, so they are less likely to  run up against something that the Church hasn’t already addressed.

My suspicion is that the problem is one of conversion and spirituality.  My non-scientific sense of things from having taught youth for decades is that “I am a Mormon” doesn’t mean for some young people what we would hope it would mean.  Identifying as a member of the Church isn’t translating into being spiritual sons and daughters of God and disciples of Christ.  Social identification as a Church member simply does not have the same lasting hold on the heart as does devotion and discipleship to the Master.

Chirst

This isn’t something that we don’t already know.  The Lord has warned us repeatedly about the kinds of foundations on which we build our testimonies.  The only firm and sure foundation is faith in Jesus Christ.  He is perfect; every other option is flawed.  We cannot build our testimony upon the notion of “I know the Church is true.”  Aside from that statement being a grammatical mess, the “truthfulness” of the Church–meaning that the Church holds authority from God to minister among mankind and perform saving ordinances–is several steps farther along in the testimony construction project.  We start with having a testimony of the divine and living Christ and developing an understanding and appreciation of His atonement for us.  On that foundation we lay other essential doctrinal principles:  The restoration of the Gospel; the Book of Mormon; continuing revelation; essential ordinances; the temple; and on and on.

All of that, however, has to be firmly planted on the foundation of Christ.  In my experience, that is what I hear too little of from our youth.  Their testimonies too often neglect the reality of Jesus Christ and what He means for them personally.  Their faith seems centered on something other than their conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our elder brother, and the author and finisher of our salvation.  I believe that if Christ meant more to our youth, the chance of them faltering would be diminished.  At that point, “Church” would be more than just a place to go; rather, it would be place you go to find Christ.  The Sacrament would become an essential and personal ordinance, a Holy Communion, rather than the name of a meeting.  The Holy Ghost would be a companion rather than a concept.

Membership in a Church is something you do.  Discipleship to Christ is something you are.  Releasing one’s hold on the iron rod should be more than quitting a club.  It needs to represent leaving the family and fellowship of Christ.

How do we move our youth towards deeper spiritual conversion?  While the Church is moving in that direction, parents cannot expect Church leadership and youth teachers to do the heavy lifting.  Such conversion most often will happen, if it happens at all, as the result of what is done in the home.  What specifically we do in order to foster such conversion, I am not sure, but I can think of at least a place to start.

We adults in the Church need to provide better models of what a testimony means, both in terms of uttered testimonies and the testimonies reflected in our lives.  We need to speak more of Christ, teach more of Christ, and rejoice more in Christ.  Our spoken testimonies need to be more Christ-centered, rather than starting with the standard testimonial trifecta of “I know the Church is true.  I know the Book of Mormon is true.  I know that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet of God.”  All of those things are essential to our testimonies, but we cannot omit the central truth of Christ’s reality, divinity, and redemptive role in our lives.  If our own testimonies are insufficiently Christ-centered, then we need to engage in immediate and effective foundation repair.

In addition, we need to be more open in our informal discussions about our devotion to the Savior.   Our youth should be able to clearly see that Church membership is part of, but not the essence of, our testimony of Christ.  The promise of the prophet Nephi is that if we believe in Christ, we will believe in “these words,” meaning the Book of Mormon, as a direct result of that testimony. (2 Ne. 33:10).  Too often we try to reverse the process.  We cannot afford to do so.  We have to start where the original apostles started:  “We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” (John 6:69).

We do so many great things with our youth, but we have to be cautious that great things do not take the place of necessary things.  Prudence dictates that if we see cracks in our walls or ceilings, or if we notice that the doors in and out of the Church aren’t opening or closing as they should, then we check to see whether we have a foundation problem.  I do not believe that we need new revelation or that the Church is fundamentally or fatally flawed.  What I do believe is that we would be helped individually and collectively by adjusting our emphasis a little to ensure that our foundation rests on the Rock of our Redeemer.  Only then will we be able to answer the question of shall the youth of Zion will falter with the hymn’s resolute response:  “No!”

Why (Spare) Me?

A good friend, reflecting upon my multiple scrapes with the Reaper, speculated that the only reason I am still alive is that Heaven doesn’t want me and Hell is afraid I’ll take over the place.  I’m not sure I can argue that point.  But I have found that as I have experienced one near-miss after another, the question that plagues me is less “why me” in terms of my struggles and more “why me” in terms of my survival.

The last twenty-four hours have given me stark reminders of my two closest calls with the Big Sleep.  Yesterday, a friend passed away after an unexplained illness.  I had visited him (or more properly, his wife) in ICU, and he was in much the same situation as I was in 2015:  In a coma, body swollen from fluids, intubated, and tubes running all over the place.  As sick as he was, he wasn’t as sick as I had been (three conditions with a 1% survival each…you statisticians can do the math), and I had even flatlined a couple of times and still came home.  I thought his chances would be pretty good.  They weren’t.

This morning, I noticed that a long stretch of I-20 near my home was closed due to a fatality resulting from a teenager trying to run across the freeway.  It was within a few hundred yards of where I collided with three eighteen wheelers in 2012.  The freeway was closed, camera crews were out, flashing lights everywhere.  It looked very much like the pictures from my accident.  My daughters and I survived that mess, when we had no business doing so.

There have been other serious health scares over the last 5 years, yet on Monday I was walking/running a 5K (a lot more walking than running, but still pretty good for a zombie), and here I am still polluting cyberspace with my blog.  During that same time, I’ve lost a few friends and a father in law, I’ve watched families endure hardships of cancer and other serious health conditions, and I’ve spent some nights hanging out in the waiting room of ICUs, just as others hung out in support of me.  I’ve long since abandoned self-pity and wallowing in my own hardships, and instead look at where I am and wonder why I have been spared.

I don’t know the answer to that.  A friend who was injured in the Vietnam War told me that after he survived a life-threatening wound, he wrote on a card, “The Lord gave me another day.  Why?”  He carries that with him until this day.  I don’t think he has been able to pencil in an anwer yet.

Most people’s reaction to my continued residence above ground have said some version of “The Lord still has a mission for you.”  If that’s the case, I think He must be sorely disappointed.  I think I’ve been considerably less useful after my accident and coma.  A traumatic brain injury I suffered in the wreck has not been debilitating, but it has compromised some things and made me an irritable, grumpy, “get those kids off my lawn” kind of guy.  And the whole Lazarus act has left me with a few nagging health issues.  I’m getting along fine, but I suspect I was more useful before all of that went down.

And the friends I’ve lost?  No false humility here:  They were more likely to do good things than I am.  Better people.  Better servants.  They’d both get picked way before me in a pickup game of celestial softball.  I’m a right fielder on that team:  Limited skills, but if the ball only comes my way every couple of innings, I won’t screw things up too badly.  (Maybe I should stick with this analogy and assume that they were called up to the majors while I’m left scuffling in triple-A).

All of us struggle with finding meaning in life.  I think that struggle is amplified when experiences make our lives seem more fragile.  Such experiences leave whispers in our ears telling us that if we have a purpose, we better find it quickly, because our tomorrows aren’t guaranteed.

I’ve had to reconcile myself to the realization that if there was a Purpose to me being spared (the capital-P kind of Purpose, like the reason Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider), I’m unlikely to know what it is until it gets here, and forcing the issue probably will just frustrate me.  So I focus more on the lower-case purposes for which I might have been spared.  That involves the people right in front of me.  If I can be encouraging or comforting, if I can lighten a load through humor, if i can use my bonus hours by being present for others, that is probably enough for me.  I think a lot of accumulated good can be done by just being a little kinder, a little more available, a little more helpful to the people with whom I am blessed to share mortality.

Either Heaven or Hell is going to have to put up with me eventually.   Until that time, I’ll worry less about why I am here and just try to make my little piece of the planet a bit more pleasant.

As long as everyone stays off my lawn.

If Thou Wilt

If Thou Wilt

R.S. Ghio

Through lesioned lips the leper cries

If thou wilt, Lord, cleanse these sores

He willed

He healed

The pleading soul was plagued no more.

 

With tearful eyes, the sufferer cries

Spirit groaning from weight of woe

I will

To heal

But how to aid, I do not know.

 

I cannot cool the trial’s flame

No healing touch at my command

To help

To heal

Are powers held in abler Hands.

 

Yet what I have, so much I’ll give

My feeble comfort through journey’s end

My will

Be healed

No miracle.  Just a friend.

The Divine Nature and Role of Women

My Sacrament talk today.

 

The Divine Nature and Role of Women

During my decades as a member of the Church, I have regularly heard complaints from voices both outside and inside the Church to the effect that the Church is essentially a male-oriented, sexist organization in which women are second class citizens.  Perhaps it is the result of the internet, but such voices seem louder and more frequent as time passes.  At the same time, I have heard and witnessed things within the Church that have the unfortunate effect of giving weight to those complaints.  On this day when we honor our mothers, I would like to talk more generally about honoring the divine nature and role of women in the Church.

Some years ago, during  Priesthood opening exercises in this ward, a new elder to the ward stood to address the brethren.  He and his companion had been transferred in that week to replace two sisters who previously had served in the ward.  He announced that now that there were elders in the ward, real missionary work could begin.  There was a smattering of laughter, but not from my pew.

Now, I was quite fond of the sisters who had been serving previous to this elder.  At the same time, my daughter Francesca was serving as a full time missionary in Rome.  In addition, my own experience in the mission field was that the sister missionaries regularly outperformed the elders in terms of hard work, dedication, and obedience.  So following Church that day, I approached this elder to share with him some of my views.  It was a spirited discussion, and there may or may not have been some pushing involved.  I did not know at the time that he was an ex-Marine who could kill me with a paperclip.  I would have considered that information useful.

I share that story so that you will understand that this is an issue that I take very seriously.  I am married to a faithful woman, we have raised five daughters in the Church, and we’ve virtually adopted more than a few more on top of that, and I assure you that none of them are second class citizens in the kingdom of God.   I am proud of their faith.  I am amazed at their courage.  I am humbled by their faithfulness.  Each of them is a better person than I am, and the notion that I am more important in God’s eyes than them because of my gender is absurd and offensive to me.

We speak in the Church of the Three Pillars of Eternity, in reference to the three most important events in the world’s history:  The Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement.  It is important, I think, to note the central role that women played in each of those events.

With respect to the Creation, within the very first verses of the scriptures, the divine nature and potential of women is spelled out.  We are told in the 27th verse of the first chapter of Genesis that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  This establishes, without question, that women, like men, are created in the image of God and share in His divinity.

The divine nature of women always has been a fundamental doctrine of this Church.  At the risk of wading in the deeper end of the doctrinal pool, Elder Erastus Snow taught that “There can be no God except He is composed of the man and woman united, and there is not in all the eternities that exist, nor ever will be, a God in any other way…There never was a God, and there never will be in all [the] eternities, except they are made of these two component parts:  a man and a woman, the male and the female.”   This remarkable quote suggests, consistent with Genesis, that our Father in Heaven could not hold the position he holds but for the companionship of a faithful woman.  Standing alone, He could not be God.  The implications of such a notion are far-reaching, but for our purposes today, we will leave it at this:  Women and men both are divine, but neither is fully divine without the other.

President Gordon B Hinckley, while serving as a counselor in the First Presidency, pointed out that the very order of creation itself suggests that women are not only made in the image of God, but are in fact the culminating achievement of the Creation.  He said:

“In the sequence of events as set forth in the scripture, God first created the earth, and the earth was without form, and void. He then separated the light from the darkness, and the waters from the land. Then came the creation of vegetation of all kinds…Then followed the creation of animal life in the sea and upon the land.

Having looked over all of this, He declared it to be good. He then created man in His own likeness and image. Then as His final creation, the crowning of His glorious work, He created woman. I like to regard Eve as His masterpiece after all that had gone before, the final work before He rested from His labors.

I do not regard her as being in second place to Adam. She was placed at his side as an helpmeet. They were together in the Garden, they were expelled together, and they labored together in the world into which they were driven.”

With respect to the second pillar of eternity, the Fall, Eve played the central role.  Although other Christian denominations denigrate the Mother of All Living for partaking of the forbidden fruit, in the restored gospel we understand her to have made a conscious decision for the good of posterity and the perpetuation of the Plan of Salvation.

Elder Russell M. Nelson said this of Eve: “We and all mankind are forever blessed because of Eve’s great courage and wisdom. By partaking of the fruit first, she did what needed to be done. Adam was wise enough to do likewise.”

Finally, as to the Atonement, we remember that Christ was prepared for his sacrifice and death by being anointed at the hands of a faithful woman, while the men in the room not only failed to understand the sacred act but expressed their ignorance by denigrating her service.  Days later, was it an accident that the resurrected Christ would first appear to righteous women, before even appearing to his own apostles?  And we would do well to note that while many of those apostles were hesitant to believe in the resurrection, and one openly doubted, there is a complete absence in the scriptures of any evidence of equivocation from the sisters in these scenes.

Given this doctrinal snapshot of the role of women in the key events of the eternities, I would like to address a few things to the men and women who are here today.

First, to my fellow brethren.  President Uchtdorf has said, “I pray that we as priesthood holders—as husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, and friends of these choice women—may see them as the Lord sees them, as daughters of God with limitless potential to influence the world for good.”

If the Church is criticized for being degrading to women, too often it may be because of things that have been said by men who believe that Priesthood ordination confers upon them an elevated status in the Church.  Too often in our services, councils and families, this ugly and doctrinally infirm belief creeps its way in to our thinking.  Brethren, need we be reminded that in order to serve in Church leadership, we require ordination to the Priesthood, but the women do not.  For men to attend the temple, we must be ordained to the Priesthood.   Women do not.  To perform ordinances in the temple, we must hold the priesthood.   Women do not.  We must be ordained to the Priesthood to serve as full-time missionaries.  Women do not.   We cannot sit on ward councils without the Priesthood.  Women can.  Certainly the case could be made that if either gender is inherently spiritually infirm, it is us, not them, because we require an additional endowment of authority to serve in capacities where women do not.

In addition, Priesthood holders need to have a more perfect understanding of the call to “preside,” which is not a license for despotism in the Church or in the home.  When we begin to exercise unrighteous dominion (and I would suggest that “dominion,” by its very nature is unrighteous) we are told that there is an immediate cessation of our priesthood authority.  “Amen” to the authority of such a man, is the way Lord expresses this in the Doctrine and Covenants.  The light of our priesthood is immediately extinguished in the very moment we seek to use it to illuminate our own egos at the expense of the daughters of God.

What then are we to make of such scriptural moments as Adam being commanded to “rule” over Eve and his posterity?  President Hinckley helps us with this.  He said:

“I regrettably recognize that some men have used this through centuries of time as justification for abusing and demeaning women. But I am confident also that in so doing they have demeaned themselves and offended the Father of us all, who, I am confident, loves His daughters just as He loves His sons.

I sat with President David O. McKay on one occasion when he talked about that statement in Genesis. His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke of despotic husbands and stated that they would have to make an accounting of their evil actions when they stand to be judged by the Lord. He indicated that the very essence of the spirit of the gospel demands that any governance in the home must be done only in righteousness.

My own interpretation of that sentence is that the husband shall have a governing responsibility to provide for, to protect, to strengthen and shield the wife. Any man who belittles or abuses or terrorizes, or who rules in unrighteousness, will deserve and, I believe, receive the reprimand of a just God who is the Eternal Father of both His sons and daughters.”

(Emphasis added).

That is strong language, and justifiably so.  In my view, if any man in the Church expresses a sexist sentiment or says anything to marginalize, minimize or mock the role of women, such a statement is contrary to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ and should be given no weight or consideration.  Sisters, Brother Ghio says that you properly may call the person who says such a thing an infidel and a Philistine and, if you are so inclined, you may tell him to put a sock in it.

Sisters, a word with you.  At the risk of mansplaining, please never let anyone make you feel that your position in the gospel of Jesus Christ is compromised by your gender.  It is not.  There is no blessing that will be denied you because of your sex.  President Dieter F. Uctdorf has stated:

“The lives of women in the Church are a powerful witness that spiritual gifts, promises, and blessings of the Lord are given to all those who qualify, “that all may be benefited.”  The doctrines of the restored gospel create a wonderful and “unique feminine identity that encourages women to develop their abilities” as true and literal daughters of God.

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Because their potential for good is so great and their gifts so diverse, women may find themselves in roles that vary with their circumstances in life. Some women, in fact, must fill many roles simultaneously. For this reason, Latter-day Saint women are encouraged to acquire an education and training that will qualify them both for homemaking and raising a righteous family and for earning a living outside the home if the occasion requires.”

Sisters, the Lord has not limited you, so please do not limit yourselves.

Along these lines, and consistent with President Uchtdorf’s message, I have something to say to the young women here today.  You have opportunities and obligations to do as much as you can to enrich your lives and maximize your talents.  Part of that is obtaining an education.  If you are told to go to college so that you can have the opportunity to meet the right man and get married, you are being given poor counsel.  You should further your education for the purposes of education itself, to make yourself a more complete person, to expand your intellect, deepen your understanding, maximize your talents, and prepare yourself to serve more ably both in and outside your home.  In other words, you should get a degree for exactly the same reasons that men do. If you are fortunate enough to find an eternal companion in the process, so much the better.  But it is a tangential blessing, not the goal

I am blessed to teach institute each week.  When I cannot be there, I usually reach out not to a fellow Priesthood holder, but to Sister Cannon from Grand Prairie First Ward to teach for me.  Why do I do that?  Because Sister Cannon is one of the most well-read people I know, and I suspect that she has forgotten more about the gospel than I will ever learn. I know that when she teaches, the students will be blessed to hear sound doctrine.  The Lord can do amazing things through educated, skilled sisters who lean on no one else for their spiritual strength.  There are countless such women in the Church, and we have an embarrassing abundance of such women in this ward.  To mention any is to neglect far more, but look to such women who are doing so much both inside and outside their homes to bless the lives of God’s children, and follow their lead.

Sisters, you are essential to our salvation.  As put succinctly by President Heber J. Grant, “Without the devotion and absolute testimony of the living God in the hearts of our mothers, this Church would die.”

I am blessed to have had my spiritual life nurtured by honorable and faithful women.  I have a mother who taught me to pray.  A wife who taught me compassion and how to serve.  Countless women who have instructed me in the gospel and have demonstrated to me what it means to live a celestial life in a telestial world.  For their service and example, I am thankful. And to their central role in carrying out the divine work that is the Plan of Salvation, I testify.

Ode to a Mustache

For those of us who just can’t abide looking like a General Authority….

Dedicated to Bobbie Bailey, who appreciates mustaches better than anyone I’ve ever known.

Ode to a Mustache

Oh mustache, my mustache

I’ve known you so long

I’ll write you this poem

Because I can’t write a song

 

I know some folks hate you

But you’ve done them no harm

You’ve just saved food for later

And kept my lip warm

 

When I married my sweetheart

My mustache was there

She’d love me without money

But not without facial hair

 

Though sometimes I’ve shaved you

You never asked why

You knew you’d be back

Because:  Magnum P.I.

 

Oh mustache, my mustache

We go together so well

If there are no mustaches in Heaven

I guess I’ll wear you in Hell