Sunday musings 09-14-08

Recently I heard a sacrament meeting talk where the speaker addressed the subject of family history and temple work.† This person expressed her utmost conviction that we made promises in the premortal world to those who would not receive the gospel in mortality — primarily our biological ancestry — that we would find their names and act as proxies in performing the necessary temple work for them.† Could we imagine that we would be met with tears of disappointment when we meet them in the spirit world, that we broke our promise by not doing their work?

When I heard this my body tensed up and my mind went into overdrive; this doctrine was obviously not contained in the scriptures.† I quickly whipped out my scripture journal and recaptured her exact quote as best I could, labeling it “more quasi-doctrine, again on the subject of family history/temple work.”† (No, this is not the first time the doctrine of guilt has been invoked to motivate us to do our family history.)† I was doubly frustrated by the fact that this speaker was a seasoned member of the Church, meaning that this was no innocent rookie mistake.† I thought this person should have known better than to invent a covenantal relationship with our forebears that had no basis in the revealed word.

As I sat in my seat stewing away at all this (the speaker made this statement the theme of her talk, so the idea of “broken promises” was mentioned a few more times), I had a sudden epiphany of understanding.† I remembered that prior to this the speaker had mentioned Moroni’s first visit to Joseph Smith on the night of September 21, 1823.† Moroni quoted the now-familiar verses from Malachi 4:5–6, but modified as follows:

Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.

And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming. (JS-H 1:38–39, later codified as D&C 2; substantive differences italicized.)

The speaker read these verses before proceeding with her faulty statement, but (as far as I could remember) did not say that her understanding of the scripture led her to the forthcoming conclusion.† However, it became clear to me that how one interpreted “promises” in those verses could cause him or her to say that “the promises made to the fathers” came from the children — in other words, us.

The tension in my body immediately relaxed.† Yes, the speaker was still incorrect — the “promises” refer to the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, and the “promiser” is the Lord, not other members of the human family.† But I could more easily see where the speaker was coming from.† I began to feel charity for her in her error.

This position is where the Lord wants us to approach others if correction is needed.† In an article for The Religious Educator several years ago, Robert L. Millett and Lloyd D. Newell (the voice of “Music and the Spoken Word”) distinguished between reproofs that “save souls” and those that “save face.”† They invite us to ask the following questions whenever we feel that a reproof may be necessary:

  1. Is the reproof motivated by love?
  2. Is the reproof necessary?
  3. Is showing love after the reproof natural and easy?
  4. Do teaching moments occur during the expression of love?
  5. Is the reproof person-centered (“save soul”) or reprover-centered (“save face”)?
  6. Is the bond of love strengthened between individuals?

I also remembered the fact that our Church meetings are largely what we make of them.† Sometimes we (and I admit I have also fallen into this trap occasionally) come away from a meeting grumbling that Brother So-and-So ruined his lesson by not being sufficiently prepared to teach it, or that Sister Such-and-Such should have kept her mouth closed instead of making such a tactless and offensive remark.† An anecdote from the life of President Henry B. Eyring illustrates the folly of making ourselves passive participants in meetings, where our experience is entirely dependent on the quality of our speakers, teachers, and leaders.

Years ago I was sitting in a sacrament meeting with my father, whose name is the same as my own, Henry Eyring. He seemed to be enjoying what I thought was a terrible talk. I watched my father, and to my amazement, his face was beaming as the speaker droned on. I kept stealing looks back at him, and sure enough, through the whole thing he had this beatific smile.

Our home was near enough to the ward that we walked home. I remember walking with my father on the shoulder of the road that wasn’t paved. I kicked a stone ahead of me as I plotted what I would do next. I finally got up enough courage to ask him what he thought of the meeting. He said it was wonderful.

Now I really had a problem. My father had a wonderful sense of humor, but you didn’t want to push it too far. I was puzzled. I was trying to summon up enough courage to ask him how I could have such a different opinion of that meeting and that speaker.

Like all good fathers, he must have read my mind because he started to laugh. He said: “Hal, let me tell you something. Since I was a very young man, I have taught myself to do something in a church meeting. When the speaker begins, I listen carefully and ask myself what it is he is trying to say. Then once I think I know what he is trying to accomplish, I give myself a sermon on that subject.” He let that sink in for a moment as we walked along. Then, with that special self-deprecating chuckle of his, he said, “Hal, since then I have never been to a bad meeting.” (“Listen Together,” CES Fireside for Young Adults, 4 Sept 1988.)

This story has stayed with me for over eight years, and I continually check myself to make sure I’m not falling into the trap of passivity in my meetings, of being overly sensitive to every doctrinal gaffe and breach of Church policy that others commit.† That’s one reason I carry a scripture journal: whenever I feel myself getting bored or frustrated with the current line of discussion in a lesson, for example, I whip it out and focus my study on those verses or ideas to which I would have given emphasis were I the one teaching.† The act of writing down my feelings at their most intense (read: least charitable) has a wonderful calming effect upon me.† I may still disagree with what’s being spoken, but I’m able to be much more objective about it.

Here’s something else from then-Elder Eyring that always pricks me in the heart:

Finally, a word to those of us who are served by those who are newly called. Our opportunity and our obligation is the same as theirs. We are to watch and strengthen. And each of us has almost endless chances to do it. Every meeting you attend, every class, every activity will have someone doing something that to them is at the limit of their capacities, or maybe a little beyond. Most of us carry into those situations the attitudes we learn in the world, where we may be quick to notice inferior service. It is too easy to think, In the Lord’s true Church, our standard of performance should be higher than that.

There is more than one way to help the Lord lift them to that standard. One is to express or show our displeasure. I’ve been the beneficiary of another way, the better way. I’ve sensed when I was not doing very well when I was speaking or teaching or leading in a meeting. Most people can tell when they are failing. I have been able to tell when I have been not doing well, and I’ve looked out and seen someone in the audience apparently not paying attention to me, with eyes closed. I’ve learned not to be irritated. And then they’ve opened their eyes and smiled at me, with a look of encouragement that was unmistakable. It was a look that said as clearly as if they had spoken to me: I know the Lord will help you and lift you up. I’m praying for you. I’ve been in settings where many people listening to me were doing that. And I was lifted beyond what I knew were my abilities, or at least what I had thought my abilities were. You could serve that way when you see people struggling in their service. It will take a lot of praying, but you could watch and you could strengthen, even when your only call in the Church at that moment is to be a follower of Jesus Christ and your only tools are to pray and smile and encourage.† (“Watch Over and Strengthen,” Ensign, May 2000, accessed online.)

Elder Eyring does not question the fact that we all need to raise our performance to a higher standard.† We are a church comprised of volunteers, so it should be expected that as amateurs we will “learn by doing” and make plenty of mistakes along the way.† And those mistakes will hardly be of a malicious nature, just errors committed by good people trying to do things the way they think best.† The burden of responsibility for the quality of our meetings, however, is as much upon us as it is upon those who take center stage.† Will we correct these volunteers as professionals, or will we correct them as fellow volunteers, loving and encouraging along the way, recognizing our own flaws and biases as well, praying that the Lord will lift both us and them to that higher level?

“I see where you’re coming from on that phrase ‘promises made to the fathers.’† My understanding is that those promises, as representative of the Abrahamic covenant, were extended by the Lord, not you and I.† What do you think?”

I wish I were more familiar with the following hymn.† It’s a good reminder for me, and summarizes well the lessons re-learned today:

Should you feel inclined to censure
Faults you may in others view,
Ask your own heart, ere you venture,
If you have not failings, too.
Let not friendly vows be broken;
Rather strive a friend to gain.
Many words in anger spoken
Find their passage home again.

Do not, then, in idle pleasure
Trifle with a brotherís fame;
Guard it as a valued treasure,
Sacred as your own good name.
Do not form opinions blindly;
Hastiness to trouble tends;
Those of whom we thought unkindly
Oft become our warmest friends.

3 Responses to “Sunday musings 09-14-08”

  1. I too, had just such an occasion last night. We had a Stake Priesthood Meeting, and our Stake President was the concluding speaker. For background, let me add that he and I home teach each other, and the topic of “plain speaking” has come up on more than one occasion, particularly from me. I have opined several times that we in the Church are very good at beating around the bush when it comes to “sensitive” topics. I dearly love General Priesthood Meeting where the Bretheren speak plainly, specifically and directly to what priesthood holders should and should not be doing. For my efforts and remonstrations, he calls me Teancum as he knows that I would act as he did to defeat evil. Anyway, last night he addressed plainly and directly the topics of earrings, tatoos and appropriate dress. He related how some in the Stake have shown up for Temple recommend interviews in “hawaiian shirts, shorts and flip-flops. He added that it was a lack of respect, and that those same people would be shocked if they showed up for an interview and he was dressed that way, conducting Stake business. We have had an influx of students moving into the ward, young families in medical and dental school who can’t seem to go anywhere but in t-shirts shorts and flipflops, as though they were going to the beach. Seems that most are coming from Utah………hmmmmm. Anyway, after the meeting ended, I walked up to the Stake Pres. and told him that there was hope for him yet. Of course, I had a smile on my face and added that this needs to happen to let the members know that there are standards and it is done out of love and concern, not in the severe taskmaster mode. He laughed, and we had a good exchange. He told me to keep my spear sharp and be ready……………..

    I feel that unless that standards are reinforced, folks will test the limits. If nothing is said, then the person will conclude that nothing was wrong with what was worn, done, said or taught and keep doing what is not appropriate. Of course, it MUST be done with love and concern for their welfare. Calling them out by name in front of others just doesn’t seem quite right.

  2. Problems with inappropriate attire are epidemic throughout the Church, not just in Utah. I’ve seen just as many young adults wear casual clothes and flip-flops to Church meetings in Utah as I did in South Africa and here in Atlanta. It’s something the Brethren have continually addressed.

    In the spirit of this post (and others of its type that have immediately preceded it), I’d like to urge a bit of caution regarding making generalizations of members based on geographical area, or assigning attitudes and practices we find unfavorable to a particular area. I am admittedly a little self-serving in this, as my wife was a life-long Utahn until just over a year ago, and I think she is the greatest person I have ever known.

    Mathematically, it makes sense that a greater number of “bad apples” in the Church in the United States come from Utah, Arizona, California, and Idaho. Recent census figures estimate that up to 88% of Utah County is LDS. Provo’s population is a little over 115,000, which translates to approximately 101,200 Church members.

    If we assume that forty percent of Church members are full tithe payers (a reasonable estimate, though perhaps a bit on the high end), and define “bad apples” as those who fail to pay a full tithe (a harsh test for sure, but just for the sake of argument), then Provo has about 40,480 “good” members and 60,720 “bad” ones. That’s more than the entire LDS population of the Denver area (60,000)!

    Of course there are “good” members who are slack in other areas, like wearing casual clothes to Church interviews, improperly keeping the Sabbath, wearing multiple earrings in their ears, driving too fast on the freeway . . . oops, that’s me right there. :) These behaviors are neither taught from the pulpit nor winked at by our leaders, whether in Utah or anywhere else. But odds are if you encounter a “lax Mormon” he or she is more likely to be from an area with a stronger concentration of Mormons than from, say, Walla Walla.

    But coupled with that weakness is significant strength as well. By the end of next year there will be 13 temples in Utah. We all know that the decision to build a temple is never undertaken lightly by the Brethren. There are a few dozen factors that come into play, one of the least of which is the number of documented Church members living in the area. If one wants to conclude that several hundred thousand Church members are lying to their ward and stake leaders about their worthiness to hold a temple recommend (1.8 million members live in Utah), or that hundreds of bishoprics and stake presidencies are overlooking or ignoring worthiness issues to give recommends to as many people as possible, or that the presiding Brethren care only about building up Zion in Utah at the expense of the rest of the worldwide Church . . . well, others are welcome to it. But it won’t be me. That way madness lies.

  3. I bring up the prior residence as an oddity…. I would expect folks from the coastal areas or Pacific Islanders to be in such attire. Utah isn’t known for its beaches, even if it does have the Great Salt Lake.

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