“Yeah, but” Discipleship

Salt LakeIn recent months, the Church has issued statements on three issues of public concern.  The first dealt with Syrian refugees, the second with handling same-sex marriages involving Church members, and the third with the occupation of a federal building in Oregon by an armed militia composed partially or totally by members of the Church.

In each case, the Church’s statements were unambiguous.  And in each case, some Church members were rubbed the wrong way by what our leadership had to say.  I’ve spent some time (more than the situation merited) reading comments online from purported members of the Church regarding all three of these statements (one a letter, one a change in the Church handbook, and one a press release), and I’m surprised at the level of “Yeah, but” discipleship that those responses reflect.

The Church says to love and support the refugees.  “Yeah, but, I think Muslims are all terrorists, and I can’t support this invasion of America.  The Church leaders are being naive.”

The Church reaffirms that same-sex marriage is inconsistent with Church doctrine and puts rules in place for handling children of such marriages.  “Yeah, but, I think Church is behind the times on this.  I think people have a right to marry who they want.  The Church leaders are being homophobic.  And this isn’t consistent with how I think the atonement works.”

The Church unequivocally states that an armed takeover of a federal building is contrary to revealed scripture and inconsistent with Church teachings.  “Yeah, but, I only need to support Constitutional governments, and I don’t think that the federal government is complying with its own laws.  Besides, the federal government was nasty to the Church in the 1800s, so they should be supportive of what these patriots are doing.  The Church leaders don’t understand their own scriptures.”

There is nothing new about “Yeah, but” discipleship.  All of us engage in it at some level or another.  “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but that guy is such a jerk!”  “Yeah, I’m supposed to pay my tithing, but I’m broke.”  “Yeah, I’m not supposed to cheat on my wife, but this is only pornography.”

Or, my personal weakness:  “Yeah, I’m supposed to go to high priests, but those meetings drain my soul like a dementor’s kiss.”

All of us doing it, however, doesn’t make it right, and “Yeah, but” discipleship is a particularly dangerous form of doctrinal diversion.  It amounts to a rejection of core elements of what makes us Latter-day Saints.

First, it demonstrates a distorted view of our relationship with God.  The Plan of Salvation is our Heavenly Father’s gameplan by which we have the best (and only) opportunity to become like Him.  The rules of the mortality game are well-established by our Father, but our arrogance and pride elevate our self-image to the point that we believe we know a better way.  We are wiser, more modern, more progressive, more compassionate, more “whatever” than our Father in Heaven, and consequently we demand that He conform to our expectations of Him.  It is the equivalent of Christ entering the room and us demanding to see his driver’s license.  But our progression in this life is determined by our following the path that the Father has set out for us, not by blazing new trails based upon our limited view of the landscape.

Second, it rejects what we teach about priesthood authority and acting within the scope of our stewardship.  Too First presidencymany well-intentioned members of the Church believe that they have had more relevant revelation on certain topics that the established priesthood leadership.  They invoke overused hypotheticals (what if the prophet claimed to have a revelation that you should jump off a cliff/kill your neighbor/marry a monkey?) and conclude that not only should we seek personal confirmation of what priesthood leadership tells us, but if we don’t get such confirmation, we need to convince our leaders of the error of their ways.  Church leaders are too old, too white, too stodgy, too bald, and too male in order to really know what they are talking about.  I, on the other hand, am educated, enlightened, and good looking.  Therefore, I know the way.  Such is not the “wisdom and order” that our Father in Heaven has established for His church.  While asking questions, even challenging questions, is wholly appropriate, imposing our own answers on the Church is not.

One of the interesting things about “Yeah, but” discipleship is that expressions of its dogma are almost always followed with the word, “I.”  It becomes, “Yeah, but. I” discipleship.  I think differently.  I don’t agree.  I have had more relevant experiences.  I understand the scriptures better.  It is an unequivocal announcement of our own pride, in which our views, thoughts, and opinions are placed higher than the expressed word of the Lord.  It is a declaration that we have written and intend to follow our own preferred plans of happiness and expect to get the same result (or better) than we will get from the Plan set forth by an all-knowing and all-loving Father in Heaven.

GethsemaneNo mortal ever has been faced with a more difficult celestial chore than  Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If ever there were a time for “Yeah, but” discipleship, this was it.  “Yeah, but there has to be another way!”  Instead, our Savior demonstrated perfectly how to respond to difficult directives:  “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me:  nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”  Even the Great I AM placed His will second to that of the Father.  If Christ was unwilling to overwrite God’s instructions, we should be far more hesitant to do so.

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12 Days of Gratitude: My Priesthood Brethren

priesthood-blessing-608881-wallpaperI recall, years ago, being asked to go with a friend in a response to a call for a priesthood blessing.  The adult son of a member of our ward had been involved in an accident at home and had suffered extensive third-degree burns.  We were asked to “administer” to him, which in Mormon parlance means that two priesthood holders anoint him with consecrated oil and, in the name of Christ, lay their hands on his head and pronounce a blessing as moved upon by the Spirit.  Usually one person anoints, and the other person gives voice for the blessing.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when the circumstances are serious, I would rather do just about anything than be the person giving the blessing.  Although no one pretends that they are speaking as dictated to by God, you still don’t want to say something stupid.  You don’t want to announce that a person is going to be healed, and then they die.  Nor do you want to destroy hope through a pessimistic blessing, only to have the person dance out of the hospital a day later.  You do your best to follow the promptings of the Spirit, but my first prompting usually is:  “Let the other guy do it.”

On that occasion, we asked the family who they wanted to do what.  I started edging backwards and avoiding eye contact.  They asked me to give the blessing anyway.  Great.  I really liked the guy, so I wanted to bless him that he would be fine.  On the other hand, those burns were really impressive.  Maybe I should just slur my words so no one knows what I said and hightail it out of there. (A similar strategy helped on the Bar exam.  When I came to a question I wasn’t sure about, I fell back on the “write sloppy” approach.  Worked just fine).

Decorum won out over panic, so I stayed and gave the blessing.  I have no recollection at all what I said, but it must have been hopeful, because there were no dirty looks afterwards.  And the guy did, in fact, completely recover.  I am thankful that the Spirit showed up and took the situation over before Robin blew it completely.

So I can’t imagine what was going through the heads of two of my dearest friends when they were called to Parkland to administer to me.  Both of them had been through this fairly recently with me, when my subcompact car was further subcompacted in a collision with three semi trucks.  But things were a little less scary then.  I was a bloody mess, but I was out of the woods relatively early:  Broken, but not dying.

This time, as one of these good friends told me later, “It really looked like you weren’t going to make it.”  He already had a pretty good history of giving blessings to people and having them die later.  I have teased him about it unmercifully.  When Tony Brigmon walks through the door to give you a blessing, call your lawyer quick to make sure your affairs are in order.  I’m sure he thought there was a very good chance that this would be the last blessing I ever got.

My closest friend, Carlos Munoz, also was there.  Back when I was in my car accident, he had made it to the hospital before the ambulance did.  That’s just how he rolls.  Master of Time and Space, and Servant to No Speed Limit.  He had more on his mind than just the blessing.  I was on a gurney in my new suit, and Esther asked him to help her take my pants off.  “If I let them cut his new suit, he’s going to kill me,” she said.  “If he wakes up and finds me taking off his pants, he is going to do worse to me,” he responded.  Priorities, people.

This wasn’t going to be my last blessing.  There were going to be several more in the coming months, as fears and physical problems would continue to mount.  I would feel the hands of the people I respect most in the world resting on my head as my friends and brethren would exercise their faith on my behalf.  And it would not end there.  They were there to administer to my wife and children, providing sustaining strength to them as they suffered much more than I.

My family believes in priesthood blessings.  They have been a source of divine aid and miraculous recovery many times in my family.  I never felt closer to the Lord than when my father gave me a blessing.  My daughters will wake me up at two in the morning to ask me to administer to them.  We take seriously the power of prayers of faith, especially when exercised in the context of a priesthood blessing.

(I learned just this week that a circle of faithful female friends also stood around my bed and prayed at one point.  Although women in our church do not “hold” the priesthood, their faith certainly works through the priesthood in a similar way.  The priesthood is God’s power exercised on earth, and whether invoked through a priesthood blessing or through a prayer of faith, God responds in the same way.  I wish that I could have been awake for that prayer.  I know those women.  You will not find greater faith anywhere).

One of the things I like about being a Mormon is that when we are in harm’s way, we don’t call upon a minister or pastor and hope that he will have the time to come and pray on our behalf.  In the LDS Church, the priesthood is held by all worthy male adults.  When trials or tragedies arise, you can call upon your own father (or, in this case, his substitute in my life, James Bratton), your brother, your adopted brothers, your home teachers, or your friends.

We often say that because the priesthood is the same, it doesn’t matter who blesses you, whether it is the President of the Church or a Primary teacher.  But, to me, it makes all the difference who is there.  When I was seriously ill at 12 years of age with the swine flu, I didn’t want President Kimball to administer to me.  I wanted Dad.   If I had been asked who I wanted there while I was in a coma,  the list would have included Tony and Carlos.  These are men who know me, and are among the closest friends I have had in life.  I know their hearts.  I trust them in a way that I would not trust a local minister whose ministry was his livelihood.

The hands on my head were familiar ones.  I have seen them lift and bless other people.  I have seen them work for the benefit of the less fortunate.  I have seen them clasped with the hands of those they love.  I know the works of those hands, and while anyone can use the priesthood on my behalf, the familiarity of those hands fortifies my faith and shortens the distance between me and the Master.

For all of those good brethren who have exercised their faith on my behalf this year, I thank you for your devotion and worthy efforts to do what is right.  I thank you for the love that has called you out at all hours of the day and night.  I thank you for the patience to listen to a broken man, reduced to tears, who needed to lean on your shoulders, because mine had lost all strength.

Thank you for invoking the powers of heaven for me and my family, and for standing as bulwarks between us and despair.

Tomorrow:  The Helpers

I Believe in Christ…So Come What May

Every now and again, a line from a hymn will strike me even though I have heard it a thousand times before.  This is a fairly rare occurrence, probably because we usually sing our music so slowly that by the time you get to the end of a phrase, the beginning of that phrase is difficult to remember.  It’s hard to get much out of music if you are playing your 45s at 33 speed (for those of you too young to understand that analogy, there used to be these things called “records”….)

But today was one of those days.  I wasn’t singing along this morning, because my iPad was locked up on an update, and I have refused Hymnalto use a hymnal since my wife found a booger on one back in 2010.  So I was listening for a change, while the congregation was singing “I Believe in Christ.”  For a bit, I was distracted, because the meeting already was running 15 minutes over, and for some reason we were going to sing all four verses.  (Actually, that song has eight verses, carefully disguised as four, because ain’t nobody got time for an eight-verse hymn.  We don’t, for example, sing all of the verses of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” unless a speaker didn’t show up or the teachers forgot to bring the sacrament bread).

Anywhoo, the chances of me skipping Sunday School were looking pretty good regardless, so I wasn’t feeling too anxious about the long meeting.  I just sat back and listened to the congregation sing.  And in the middle of the hymn, one line actually stood up and demanded my attention:  “I believe in Christ/So come what may.”

I’m not exactly sure why this line lodged itself in my head.  I think it has something to do with the fact that, in order to write for this and my other blog, I read a fair number of news reports about Mormonism, many of which are as unfair as they are critical.  On top of that, my blog posts themselves sometimes expose me to more direct criticism.  Just this morning an angry former member of the Church who had “finally found Christ” (his words) demonstrated his superior spirituality by repeatedly calling me a “liar” and telling me to stop writing “crap” to defend Mormons.  For the record, I don’t tell any lies in my posts, but that second criticism is sufficiently subjective that I probably can’t deny it.  In any event, the fact is that I get a pretty steady diet of criticism of my faith.

ChristusAs I have said before, one’s faith in Christ is, ultimately, a choice.  The case for or against the divinity of Christ will not be closed in this life, and therefore at some point we choose either to believe that He (upper case “H”) was the Son of God or he (lower case “h”) was delusional or a fraud.  Whichever choice we make comes with consequences, and we can hardly claim to have made any choice at all if we have to reevaluate our position every time we face a new consequence.

Having chosen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the literal Son of God, that He atoned for the sins of the world, and was resurrected from the dead is not without consequences.  The same is true with the decision to believe that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and was directed through revelation to translate the Book of Mormon and restore the same church that Christ established when He was on the earth.   What are those consequences?  What was the “come what may” to which Elder McConkie referred in the hymn he wrote?  I can think of a few:

There is the uncertainty in times of trouble, when you feel perhaps no one, not even Christ, hears your anguished cries.

There is the frustration of being mocked by arrogant critics who insist that no rational person would believe as you do.

There are the nagging doubts caused by questions that you cannot answer and might not be able to answer during this life.

There is the difficulty of abandoning the less savory aspects of your character in order to harmonize more closely to the example of your Master.

There are the feelings of self denial as you sacrifice things you want now in the hopes of receiving something better much farther down the road.

There is the loss of family or friends who cannot abide your faith, or with whom you cannot safely abide while sustaining and nurturing your commitment to Christ.

Choosing to embrace and exercise faith is not an inconsequential decision.  If one’s faith is sincere, it means changing what you think, how you feel, and the way that you see the world.   It means adopting not just a world view, but a universal of view of the origins and meaning of life and the nature and purpose of the afterlife.  It can, and should, change everything.

While it is important to continue to study, to search, and to explore in order to enrich, nurture and deepen your faith, that does not mean that every time we encounter some new theory, new “fact,” or new idea, we reexamine our decision to believe.  To do so would mean that our testimonies would be forever tentative.  They would never take us anywhere, and instead we would just continue circling the board, hoping that if we land on Boardwalk, the atheists haven’t built a hotel there that is going to clean out our spiritual banks.

For those of you too young to understand that analogy, there used to be this game…

 

 

 

Reporting on Mormonism: Here We Go Again

I sometimes think it must actually cause reporters physical pain to approach stories about the LDS Church objectively.  For the life of me, I can’t come up with any other reason that causes reporting on Mormonism to be so slanted.

Today’s example is a June 23 article in the Washington Post entitled “Founder of Mormon women’s movement excommunicated by all-male church council.”

The gist of the story is that the big bad Mormon men are silencing women’s voices and kicking out feminists by the dozens.  I can live with someone having and expressing that opinion.  But that’s exactly what it is:  An opinion dressed up as news reporting.

After framing this as a traditional civil rights issue by noting that Kate Kelly is a “human rights attorney” (strictly speaking, so am I), the author summarizes her story as follows: “Experts on Mormon history say Kelly, 33, who was convicted on the charge of apostasy for her public organizing with Ordain Women, is part of a wave of some of the highest-profile excommunications in decades.”  What is this “wave” of excommunications about which the reader should be so concerned?  Well, we finally discover in the last paragraph that the wave is barely a ripple:  The article cites one other person (who doesn’t get more ink in the story because he is a man and therefore doesn’t fit the whole persecution theme) who has been called before a disciplinary council but regarding whom no decision has been made.  In other words, it is a wave of one.

Farther along in the article, we get this remarkable sentence:  “Flake and regular Mormons agreed that the excommunication would likely chill public conversations around the topic of women’s ordination in Mormonism, a faith group that many Americans still associate with the word “cult.”  The Flake referred to is a historian who focuses on issues regarding the LDS Church and women (and, as near as I can tell from her biography, is LDS herself).   Who are the “regular Mormons” the author is talking about?  Once again, it is a party of one.  Aside from one other “historian,” she quotes one blogger sympathetic to Ordain Women who is critical of the decision to excommunicate Kelly.  Naturally, from that one voice we can conclude that 15 million other Mormons agree that this is going to “chill conversations.”  The scores of blogs I have read by LDS women who have no problem at all with Kelly’s excommunication?   Ignored completely.  Apparently Google doesn’t operate on an equal-opportunity basis at the Post.  (For what it is worth, I find it curious that the blogger who is quoted complains that he is being “silenced” as well.  So silenced that he gave an interview to the Washington Post.)

The second part of that sentence is more absurd.  Why the ubiquitous reference to Mormonism being a cult?  First, the statement is absolutely incorrect.  If one bothers to click on the link the author provides, the result is a Pew study following the Mitt Romney campaign regarding attitudes towards Mormons.  Among the many results of that study was a word-association question that demonstrated that 5% of the respondents said that they associate Mormons with the word “cult.”  The Post author generously describes this 5% as “many” Americans.  Interestingly, according to a Fox News poll, eight percent of Americans believe that Elvis is still alive.  So what this really tells us is that between 5 and 8 percent of Americans are complete knuckleheads.

The reference to Mormonism as a cult is merely a way to signal to the reader what he or she should conclude from the rest of the article:  That Mormons are a bunch of misogynist cult members keeping their women-folk barefoot and pregnant.  It’s a stereotype, and an unfair one at that.  But it demonstrates that this isn’t just a news story.  It’s a story with a purpose, and that purpose is to persuade the reader that there is something nefarious going on in Salt Lake City.

I really do try to take articles like these with a grain of Utah’s best salt, but there is only so much manipulation you can stomach.  The press desperately wants the Kelly excommunication to be a huge story that they can leverage to expose Mormonism as whatever-it-is-that-non-Mormons-think-we-are.  I get that.  But when you put an article like this under the light of scrutiny, you have to who it is that is running the scam.

Sacred Moments with the Sacrament

Since being involved in a serious motor vehicle accident a couple of years back, I rarely if ever associate the word “flashback” with anything positive.

Until last Sunday.sacrament

In our Priesthood lesson, we were discussing the Sacrament (the Mormon word used for what other Christians typically call the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Communion).  Someone in the class mentioned his experience in taking the Sacrament to someone who was homebound and what it meant to him and to the person he had served.  (I’ve done the same thing more than once, but my most memorable experience was seeing an elderly sister start to pass out, only to realize that the young priest I was with was standing on her oxygen tube).

When he mentioned this, I immediately remembered something from the weeks following the wreck that had completely escaped my memory.  I recalled that when my family was stuck at home, each Sunday the Aaronic Priesthood holders (often a pretty big group of them) would show up at my house to administer the Sacrament.  My wife has since reminded me that they were invariably brought by the Deacon’s quorum adviser, who happens to be my best friend.  As I sat in class, I was struck with what I will call a “spiritual memory.”  I don’t remember the specifics of what happened, but I remember very well how I felt when they were there.

It was a sacred moment for me and my family, as well as for the non-Mormons who seemed to be around each Sunday.  It was a reminder of how important it is to renew our baptismal covenants each week; so important, in fact, that if we cannot get to church ourselves to do it, the Lord will send His servants to us.  I was on the verge of tears in class when this memory rushed back to me so powerfully.

This brought to mind other sacred memories of the Sacrament.  I remember an elderly brother in our ward who was terminally ill and in a wheelchair.  Despite significant health issues, more often than not he was at church on Sunday, even if only long enough to take the Sacrament and go home.  I learned that in order to come to church, this brother had to forego taking his pain medications, and he only failed to attend when the pain was unbearable.  When I witnessed his sacrifice each week and understood what he endured in order to be there, it made the Sacrament more meaningful to me and to others who knew what he was experiencing.

I remembered several years ago seeing a new priest stumbling repeatedly through the sacramental prayer, unable to get through the blessing on the bread without making mistakes and having to start over.  I watched as our bishop patiently encouraged him to try again and, finally, got up from his seat, knelt down next to the young man, and helped him through.  I was so impressed with the example of Christlike love and patience demonstrated by this bishop.  He reflected in his actions an important principle of discipleship:  Just when we think we’ve screwed up beyond repair, the Lord comes to our aid and ushers us through the difficulties.

I’ll freely admit that I do not think about such moments enough.  Too often the Sacrament is just a thing I do on Sundays, with little thought for its importance.   That needs to change.  If I have a hard time imagining the sufferings of the Savior, then at the very least I can reflect upon what I have seen with my own eyes:  The service of young men bringing the Sacrament to me when I could barely stand; a faithful man willing to endure significant pain in exchange for the privilege of partaking of the emblems of Christ’s own suffering, and a bishop kneeling with Christlike love to help a young priest do something he was unable to do on his own.

Rethinking the “Golden Contact”

Prospectors in the middle of the 18th century were lured to California with enticing descriptions of gold nuggets as big as their fists lying open on the ground, ready to be picked up as easily as rocks or pine cones.  To their dismay, these prospectors learned that gold was much more difficult to come by, and had to be sifted carefully out of riverbeds or extracted from deep in the earth.  Simply put, there was a lot of dirt between them and the gold.

In the Church, we often hear stories of missionaries who run into “golden contacts.”  That phrase can mean several things, but often it is used synonymously with “dry Mormon.”  It refers to a person who already looks, talks, and acts like a member of the Church, but just hasn’t joined yet.  Missionaries pray for the opportunity to run into such contacts, as the path to baptism often is short and smooth.

But what really makes a contact “golden?”  My daughter, currently serving a full-time mission in Rome, Italy, recently described to me her efforts in teaching a homeless women who feels a strong attraction to the Church, but whose life is complicated by a number of personal issues.  Her life, as my daughter described it, is a “mess.”  Still, my daughter is thrilled by the opportunity to teach her and by the hope of what this woman might become.

I am grateful that my daughter is having this experience, because I think that it highlights what is wrong with our conception of the “golden contact.”  In terms of missionary work, should our success be measured by the number of baptisms, or by how far people are lifted as a result of their contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ?  I believe that the people in the deepest holes need the longest ladders, and the atonement of Christ is the longest ladder of all.

I suspect that the most golden of contacts are, like real gold, concealed from view until we have rolled up our sleeves and invested the time in digging, searching, and washing to separate them from the earth surrounding them.  When brought to the light, such people are seen for the treasures that they really are.  Sure, the “dry Mormons” need the gospel too, and when they join the Church it is cause for celebration.  But at the same time, such people might not appreciate fully what the gospel offers them, because they already are in pretty good shape.

Some of the best members of the Church that I know have been “unearthed” from the darker recesses of the ground.  I have been inspired by members who, when the gospel came into their lives, looked nothing like gold.  They stubbed out their marijuana joints as the missionaries came to the door.  The were addicted to alcohol or serious drugs.  They were working their way back into society following prison.  Their lives were upside-down because of a lapses in their moral judgment.

And then they were rescued.

A late patriarch of the stake in which I live used to say that the sweetest smell in a sacrament meeting was that of tobacco, because it meant that someone was there who needed to be.  I think there is a great deal of truth in that.  The ideal candidate for membership in the Church is anyone who needs the saving power of the atonement.  That only includes everyone.  The most golden of contacts might have sleeve tattoos or nose piercings or bear the distinctive odor of dope.  As disciples of Christ, we should appreciate the “easy” conversions, but treasure the opportunities to bring light to those sitting in the greatest darkness.

There is gold in everyone, if we are willing to dig enough to find it.

Is God for Real?

This short message was sent to me recently by a friend who is going though a temporary crisis of faith:  “God is real…right?”  While I’ve written before about why I believe in God, this question actually took me in a different direction:  God is for real…Right?

For quite some time now, I have scratched my head a bit trying to reconcile the Lord’s comforting assurance of “My burden is light,” with what appears to be a host of real and sometimes heavy burdens of discipleship.  More than once I have tried to implement the “checklist” approach to salvation.  I’ve written down all of the stuff I’m supposed to be doing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis and then check them off as I go.  I can proudly present my completed list to Peter at the pearly gates (as a kid I thought they were the “Golden Gates” and I could never figure out what St. Peter was doing in San Francisco) and exchange it for my celestial hall pass.

Trouble is, the checklist is a bit long, even if you write small.  Just taking some of the more common things that we are encouraged to do in the church, we would have something like this as the starter list:

Pray personally three times a day; prayer twice a day with your family; pray twice a day with your spouse; read the scriptures for 30 minutes personally; read the scriptures with your family; read the scriptures with your spouse (honey, you’re going to have to just count once as “family,” because I’ve got to get to work); write in your journal daily; Church services Sunday and once during the week for youth night; get my kids (and myself, thanks to my newest calling) to seminary every morning; work on my genealogy; do my home teaching; watch the kids so that my wife can do her visiting teaching; visit my home teaching families a few extra times because the monthly visit is the bare minimum for slackers; go to the temple monthly; go again, because once is for slackers; date night with my wife every week; Family Home Evening once a week; talk to a nonmember about the gospel; rotate my food storage; prepare a family budget; and visit the sick and afflicted (oh, and the widows and orphans.  Can’t forget the orphans).

On top of that, I’m supposed to be active in my community, keep physically fit because my body is a temple, perform whatever calling I have with energy and devotion (devotion I’ll give you; energy is in short supply around here), develop my talents, and spend time with each of my kids individually.

Would you like fries with that?

Is God for real?  I mean, He’s got eternity to do all of this stuff, and the added advantage of being all-powerful.  As for me, I’ve got bills to pay, and I need to remember to pick up my blood pressure medication because all of this “abundant living” is about to put me in my grave.  I’m starting to see the upside in atheism.  After all, that TV isn’t going to watch itself.

Fortunately, I think God is for real, and I don’t believe that he expects or wants us to live a life of checklist discipleship.  After all, we are counseled in the Book of Mormon that it is not requisite that we run faster than we have strength.  The items on the checklist aren’t intended to be a “do this or bring your summer clothes to the afterlife” proposition.  Rather, they are tools to help us along the way to becoming more Christlike, and we don’t have to use all of them all of the time.  If we propose to drive a nail, we don’t unload the tool box and have at it with everything in sight (“Gimme that torque wrench and a power drill, Johnny!”).  Instead, we pick up tools necessary to do the job, and keep the rest in the toolbox for later.

All of us go through seasons in life.  Prayer will be more meaningful to us at some times than others.  The scriptures will play more important roles for us on some days than others.  We will have times when temple attendance is spotty because of family obligations, finances or illness.  We might never get in a great habit of journaling, or we might be our family’s historian.  My brother is a legendary genealogist; I’ve never figured it out.

I think the trick is to prayerfully consider which tools we need for the job at hand.  We cannot do everything, but we can do something, and the Lord will help us to know what that something is.  Sometimes, that “something” may be nothing, because it is okay to take a breather.  Whatever it is, I believe that the best policy is for us to worry less about the things undone, and more about discovering the divine in the thing we are doing right now.

That’s what the Savior did.  He gave undivided attention to what needed to be done right now, right in front of Him.  I think that a big part of His perfection was due to His ability to do exactly that.  Christ wasn’t just real; he was for real.  And that’s the kind of God I can understand.

Living After the Manner of Happiness

After describing at length the curses that had come upon his brothers’ families because of their disobedience to God’s commandments, the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi contrasts the lives of his own people with one sentence: “And it came to pass that we lived after the manner of happiness.” (2 Ne. 5:27).

The longer I live, the more I come to realize how perfectly practical God’s commandments are. He does not issue directives to us out of whim or capriciousness. Instead, knowing the pathway to happiness, He provides us with detailed directions as to how to keep our wheels on the road. Contrary to the concept of God propounded by many, His intent is not that we deny ourselves of the good things of life and austerely worship Him. Yes, He expects obedience, but His commandments are designed to bring us joy.

Living “after the manner of happiness” means living in harmony with God, with our fellow man, and with our internal moral compass. It does not suggest a life of comfort, and we should not delude ourselves into believing that if we are faithful we will become immune from hardship. But when such trials inevitably come, our sufferings will not be compounded by feelings of guilt and anxiety, feeling that we have brought such difficulties upon ourselves through disobedience. Nor will we face such hardships alone, because our obedience to the laws of happiness will have led us to the companionship of loving family members and loyal friends who will come to our rescue. Most importantly, we will be blessed with the comforting presence of the Holy Ghost, who will sustain us, ease our pain, and enhance our capacity to endure.

Tears and trials are essential aspects of our earthly existence. We cannot escape them. But even though opposition and discomfort are a part of our Heavenly Father’s plan, He has given us instructions that will help to ensure that our tears are limited to those that are naturally incident to mortality, and that we do not have to learn through direct experience that “wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10).

So many of life’s hardships are self-inflicted. Lousy behavior leads to a lousy life. Living after the manner of happiness is a matter of deciding that we no longer wish to suffer the consequences of bad decisions. It means trusting that our loving Father in Heaven has our best interests in mind, and that He is pointing the way to a joyful and abundant life.

That path will have its rainy spots, uphill climbs, and mists of darkness. But we are promised that there will be more good days than bad, and that at the end of the journey our happiness will be magnified exponentially when, surrounded by our loved ones, we partake of the of the fruit of the tree of life, “whose fruit was desirable to make one happy.” (1 Ne. 8:10).

Returning with Honor

A little over 100 years ago, a farmer and former cavalry officer gathered together what money he had and boarded a steamliner in Genoa, Italy, destined for Ellis Island.  His ultimate goal was the San Francisco Bay Area, where he would join his brother working as a farm laborer.  Over the years that followed, he would earn enough by the sweat of his brow to send for his wife and child, and then to buy a parcel of land in the rich delta farmland in Stockton, California.  His version of the American dream was coming true.

Giuseppe Ghio (what an awesome name…it glistens with olive oil) was my great grandfather.  He planted deep roots in America, particularly in Stockton.   Another three generation of Ghios would be born there, ending with me.  His son, William (cool Italian names were abandoned pretty quickly), would continue to operate the family’s cherry orchard along with his brothers.

William passed away of a heart attack before he turned 40, leaving behind a wife and 10-year old son, Robert.  William’s death was a traumatic event for the entire family, still eliciting tears a half century later when anyone mentioned his name.  Something about the reaction of the local priest to the death, I never learned what, embittered young Robert against the Catholic church, a sour taste in his mouth that never would leave.  He was raised primarily by his uncles and would eventually sell his interest in the ranch to his father’s brothers and leave farming behind.

Robert was the first in his direct family line to get a college education, at Stockton’s University of the Pacific.  He would use that degree work his way towards a management position with a regional fruit cannery.  He would spend his entire professional life with the cannery, with a short interruption during which he tried to go into business for himself.  He eventually would be killed in a tragic accident at the cannery at the age of 61.  As with his own father, years later people would quietly say he was the best man they ever knew.

My dad shocked the family when he married a divorced woman with two children of her own.  It would create a divide between him and his family and further alienate him from the Catholic church.  But Dad was a stubborn guy, and he wasn’t about to be told by anyone how to live his life.   The strained relationship with his family would never completely heal, and he would never completely care.

Nine months later I showed up.  (By this time, the naming of children had become hopelessly wheels off, with me landing the moniker of “Robin.”  Dad excused it by saying that I was named after the pitcher, Robin Roberts…seriously, Dad, with all of the tough-guy baseball names out there, you had to go with “Robin?”  I was condemned to endless fights through elementary school).  By that time, Dad was pretty well severed from whatever culture and traditions that Giuseppe brought with him from Italy.  His wife was a Texan.  I was baptized a Lutheran.  Dad was on his way to forgetting Italian (except the swear words) and I would never progress beyond “menu Italian.”  About all that was left of his Italian culture was “figasa” (focaccia), the traditional bread that Dad baked for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  That much he passed down to me.  Besides that and a real affinity for “The Godfather,” you wouldn’t have known that I was Italian at all.

OK, the nose gave me away.  But you get my point.

When I was seven, Mormon missionaries knocked on our door.  My mother was home and had a hard time getting rid of them.  She asked them to come back that night, trusting that Dad would give them an unceremonious boot off of the doorstep.  To her surprise, Dad let the missionaries in that night.  His principle reason was that he remembered his own father saying nice things about Mormons once when he was a little boy.

Shortly thereafter, my family was baptized into the LDS Church, beginning a new cultural and religious tradition.  The next year my dad would baptize his mother and then me, when I had turned eight.  My brother would leave about a year later to serve a full-time mission for the Church, setting an example that I was determined to follow.  I did so a decade later.

When I came home, I married a Mexican-American girl (for the record, she was then and remains now COMPLETELY smokin’) who also joined the LDS Church.  We’ve had five daughters who each have been very dedicated to the gospel in their early years.

With all of those girls, one would assume that I might be the last Ghio to serve a mission (since the family name will die out with me).  But a curious thing happened when I was giving the “name and blessing” to my oldest daughter shortly after her birth.  As I held that sweet baby in my arms, I was surprised to hear myself announce that she would serve a mission.  No idea where that came from.  I had changed her diaper several times and was well-aware that she was a girl.  At that time very few young women served full-time missions for the Church.

Fast-forward 15 years when my oldest is sitting under the hands of the local Patriarch and is blessed again to serve a full-time mission.  A few more years, and she is at BYU, and suddenly is bit by the genealogy bug, in particular with a desire to search out her Italian ancestors.  Something drew her in that direction, but we thought nothing of it more than as a cool interest.  But she was frustrated by her inability to access and read Italian documents.

Then October 2012.  My oldest was coming close to getting engaged to be married, and I was quietly wondering what had happened to the impressions that both the Patriarch and I had received about her serving a mission (if you are going to blow a prophecy, however, at least you are keeping good company if the Patriarch does so, too).  Then in General Conference, President Thomas S. Monson announces that young women can serve missions at age 19 instead of 21.  My daughter, at 20, makes the decision there and then:  She was going to serve.

A month later, our family was gathered in Provo for Thanksgiving, anxiously awaiting the arrival of a mission call.  It arrived the day after Thanksgiving, and my sweet young warrior opened the envelope to learn her destination.

Rome.

I was stunned.  It took some time for it to sink in with me.

After a century, a Ghio was heading home.

And she was taking with her the most important thing that the family had acquired in America:  A testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.  A new set of family traditions and a new religious culture.  A fifth-generation American and a fourth-generation Mormon.  She returns with honor.

Tomorrow, my daughter leaves the MTC and boards a plane for Rome.  Ghios on both sides of the veil have anticipated this for a long time.  I feel blessed to be able to see our family come full-circle and to have been able to play some part in the process.

And I am glad that my wife and I gave her a cool Italian name.

Serve honorably, Francesca.