Incense on the Altar

Incense on the Altar

R.S. Ghio

 

Slightly burnt cookies quietly deposited on a doorstep

Acrid sweat earned in lifting a brother

Residue of a thousand cigarettes lingering nervously at the back of the chapel

Fetid cloud of diapers, Cheerios and recess enveloping a harried mother

Antiseptic air in a hospital room during a prayer of faith

Sweet savour to the Lord.

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What Do You See?

What Do You See?

R.S. Ghio


What do you see when you look at me?

Jew?

Gentile?

Heretic?

What do you see when you look at me?

Man?

Woman?

Abomination?

What do you see when you look at me?

My heart?

My skin?

My scars?

What do you see when you look at me?

Wanderer?

Foreigner?

Enemy?

What do you see when you look at me?

Neighbor?

Burden?

Untouchable?

What do you see when you look at me?

Begger?

Thief?

Pariah?

Brother…

Sister…

What do you see?

 

 

 

Requiem to a Mustache

My continuing series of whisker poetry.  You might want to get a tissue.

Requiem to a Mustache

Oh mustache, my mustache
Why did we part?
You were off of my face
But still in my heart

In a moment of weakness
I shaved my poor face
You went down the drain
With naught left in your place

Oh mustache, my mustache
It made me look young
By my lip got so chilly
And nothing sheltered my tongue

Mustache, dearest mustache
Without you I lack
A thick, manly fur patch
Unless someone looks at my back

Oh mustache, sweet mustache
I’m so glad you returned
I won’t leave you there lonely
I just might grow sideburns.

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!”