Little Birds

house_sparrow_1

Photo courtesy of https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/House_Sparrow/id

It was very calm in our yard this morning. Not like yesterday. Yesterday when I took the dogs out, there were dozens of birds out there chirping loudly and making an unholy racket in the Palo Verde and pecan trees. I assumed that our local Cooper’s hawk had caught another pigeon and was eating it on the roof again, and went back inside. A few minutes later, the dogs wanted to go out again, and amidst the avian din they went to the wooden fence and began whining and scratching. As I approached, I could hear a fluttering but could not see where it was coming from. I peeked over the gate, and saw a house sparrow frantically trying to free itself: it’s leg had slipped between the upright slats in the fence and it was trapped upside down. I ran to the door and called Steve to come out, and then gently held the bird while my husband figured out how to free it. I cupped it in my hand for a moment for it to catch its breath, then released it on the nearby brick wall. It quickly flew away, harbouring a slightly bloody leg but apparently none the worse for its harrowing experience.

In some of the Irish parts of Newfoundland it was customary to follow the ancient traditions of Wren Day on St. Stephen’s Day, known by most people today as Boxing Day. In Avondale, Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, the boys would “visit each house in their community on St. Stephen’s Day, chanting [the lyrics to the song The Wren] while carrying an evergreen branch which was decorated with ribbons and feathers.”

The wren, the wren, the king of all birds,

St. Stephen’s Day was caught in the firs,

Although he was little his honour was great,

Rise up, young ladies and give us a treat.

Up with the kettle and down with the pan

A penny or two to bury the wren.

With a pocket full o’money and a cellar full o’beer,

We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

 

Another version can be found here.

In the oldest forms of the Irish, Welsh, French, Spanish, Norse, and English tradition and well into the 20th century, an actual bird was hunted by wrenboys on St. Stephen’s Day. The captured wren was tied to the wrenboy leader’s staff or a net would be put on a pitchfork. It would be sometimes kept alive. There are many theories about where it started and why, but none that I will detail here.

Another avian tradition associated with St. Stephen’s Day was the Christmas Side Hunt, a yearly event where hunters would compete to see who could bring in the highest number of birds and small game. There was no expectation that any of these creatures would be eaten; it was purely for sport.

In 1900, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, who, along with many others, was concerned about declining bird populations, proposed a new holiday tradition, which has come to be known as the Christmas Bird Count. Instead of killing birds and counting them, volunteers survey designated areas for species and numbers. Today, tens of thousands of people participate across North America, and this citizen science is used to determine the health of bird populations and to inform conservation efforts for species at risk.

These are some of the things I was pondering as I helped free the house sparrow from my fence yesterday. And then I remembered an admonition from our church leaders to our primary children long ago, written in song:

1. Don’t kill the little birds,
That sing on bush and tree,
All thro’ the summer days,
Their sweetest melody.
Don’t shoot the little birds!
The earth is God’s estate,
And He provideth food
For small as well as great.
2. Don’t kill the little birds,
Their plumage wings the air,
Their trill at early morn
Makes music ev’rywhere. …
Think of the good they do
In all the orchards ’round;
No hurtful insects thrive
Where robins most abound.
little-birds

Indeed, President Spencer W. Kimball spoke at length about this topic and others in the October 1978 General Conference his talk Fundamental Principles to Ponder and Live:

I read at the priesthood meeting at the last conference the words to the verse of the song years ago, “Don’t Kill the Little Birds,” with which I was familiar when I was a child growing up in Arizona. I found many young boys around my age who, with their flippers and their slings, destroyed many birds.

In Primary and Sunday School we sang the song:

Don’t kill the little birds

That sing on bush and tree,

All thro’ the summer days,

Their sweetest melody.

As I was talking to the young men at that time all over the world, I felt that I should say something more along this line.

I suppose in every country in the world there are beautiful little birds with their beautiful plumage and their attractive songs.

I remember that my predecessor, President Joseph Fielding Smith, was a protector of these feathered and other wild life creatures.

While President Smith at one time was in the Wasatch Mountain Area, he befriended the creatures from the hill and forest. He composed four little verses as follows, and opposite each he drew a little picture. Of the mountain squirrel first, he wrote:

This is little Chopper Squirrel

Up in the mountains high.

He begs us for some grains of corn,

With thanks he says goodbye.

And then the bat was next:

This is little Tommy Bat

Who flies around at night.

He eats the bugs and ‘skeeters’ too,

Which is a thing quite right.

Then he came to the deer:

This is little Bambi Deer

Who comes to the cabin homes.

She licks the salt we feed to her,

And on the mountain roams.

And then the birds:

This, our little feathered friend

Who sings for us all day.

When comes the winter and the cold,

He wisely flies away.

Now, I also would like to add some of my feelings concerning the unnecessary shedding of blood and destruction of life. I think that every soul should be impressed by the sentiments that have been expressed here by the prophets.

And not less with reference to the killing of innocent birds is the wildlife of our country that live upon the vermin that are indeed enemies to the farmer and to mankind. It is not only wicked to destroy them, it is a shame, in my opinion. I think that this principle should extend not only to the bird life but to the life of all animals. For that purpose I read the scripture where the Lord gave us all the animals. Seemingly, he thought it was important that all these animals be on the earth for our use and encouragement.

President Joseph F. Smith said, “When I visited, a few years ago, the Yellowstone National Park, and saw in the streams and the beautiful lakes, birds swimming quite fearless of man, allowing passers-by to approach them as closely almost as tame birds, and apprehending no fear of them, and when I saw droves of beautiful deer [feeding] along the side of the road, as fearless of the presence of men as any domestic animal, it filled my heart with a degree of peace and joy that seemed to be almost a foretaste of that period hoped for when there shall be none to hurt and none to molest in all the land, especially among all the inhabitants of Zion. These same birds, if they were to visit other regions, inhabited by man, would, on account of their tameness, doubtless become more easily a prey to the gunner. The same may be said of those beautiful creatures—the deer and the antelope. If they should wander out of the park, beyond the protection that is established there for these animals, they would become, of course, an easy prey to those who were seeking their lives. I never could see why a man should be imbued with a blood-thirsty desire to kill and destroy animal life. I have known men—and they still exist among us—who enjoy what is, to them, the ‘sport’ of hunting birds and slaying them by the hundreds, and who will come in after a day’s sport, boasting of how many harmless birds they have had the skill to slaughter, and day after day, during the season when it is lawful for men to hunt and kill (the birds having had a season of protection and not apprehending danger) go out by scores or hundreds, and you may hear their guns early in the morning on the day of the opening, as if great armies had met in battle; and the terrible work of slaughtering the innocent birds goes on.

“I do not believe any man should kill animals or birds unless he needs them for food, and then he should not kill innocent little birds that are not intended for food for man. I think it is wicked for men to thirst in their souls to kill almost everything which possesses animal life. It is wrong, and I have been surprised at prominent men whom I have seen whose very souls seemed to be athirst for the shedding of animal blood.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939, pp. 265–66.)

One of the poets stated in this connection:

Take not away the life you cannot give,

For all things have an equal right to live.

—and I might add there also, because God gave it to them, and they were to be used only, as I understand, for food and to supply the needs of men.

Let us be mindful, every day, of the small and simple ways we can show thanks and gratitude to our Heavenly Father for the countless ways He has beautified our world. One little bird may not seem like much, but as another children’s song tells us, His love for us is indicated by His love for even the smallest bird.

1. God sees the little sparrow fall,
it meets his tender view;
if God so loves the little birds,
I know he loves me too.

Refrain:
He loves me too, he loves me too,
I know loves me too;
because he loves the little things,
I know loves me too.

2. He paints the lily of the field,
perfumes each lily bell;
if he so loves the little flow’rs,
I know he loves me well. [Refrain]

3. God made the little birds and flow’rs,
and all things large and small;
he’ll not forget his little ones,
I know he loves them all. [Refrain]

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Insensitive

The expression on your face…told me
Maybe you might have some advice to give
On how to be insensitive

So go the lyrics to one of my favorite (anti-)love songs. An international hit written by Anne Loree, it is featured on Canadian singer-song-writer Jann Arden’s 1994 album Living Under June.

My friend Connie and I were fortunate to be able to hear this song in concert at Acadia University about twenty years ago. Arden was performing on a hot summer night in University Hall on her album tour. I don’t know if Connie recalls this or not, but Arden was a little miffed that instead of buying tickets to her show, a number of people were sitting on the green outside the venue listening to the show, and had an exchange with them from the stage.

Both Arden and this impromptu audience were insensitive – Arden because she parlayed with non-paying guests instead of focusing on her audience, and those onlookers because they were taking advantage of the open windows on a sultry evening to get a free show.

I was thinking about these events lately when I found my Jann Arden songbook. (For those who have not heard the Living Under June album, I strongly suggest you do – it remains one of my favorites of all time.)

I’ve made insensitive comments that cause me to now wonder if people thought I should be the one giving advice about how to be insensitive, as the song describes. Such as a comment I made to my grandmother after she had to have a colostomy bag that I regret to this day. Or as teenager telling a former acquaintance that I thought her child was special needs. Open mouth; insert foot.

And thinking about the insensitivity described in the song and in some comments I have said made me ponder some of the insensitive things that have been said to me.

Comments like…

“It’s great to see you. I just wish there was less of you to see.”

“You shouldn’t even try this yoga pose – it’s only for skinny people.”

“I never would have thought someone like you would know that.”

“I like your shirt but it would look better on someone else.”

“Your singing might sound okay if you took some lessons.”

Or my personal favorite – or perhaps I should say least favourite?: While being prepared for a second surgery the past summer just one week after having a hysterectomy that was devastating because it meant not only that I had cancer but also ended twenty-five years of trying to conceive and carry another child to term, having the pre-op nurse ask, “Are you pregnant?”

Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me is one of the worst lies we tell ourselves. Words hurt. They can wound us to our very soul without the person who is saying them even knowing the impact they have.

People who made those insensitive comments about my weight to me did not know that no diet, weight loss program, exercise regime, or doctor have been able to help me lose weight. For example, when I lived in Ontario I strictly followed a medical weight loss program and exercise program, and gained forty-five pounds in three weeks. When I tried Jenny Craig, all of their consultants were absolutely dumbfounded that I kept gaining weight – they had never seen anything like it. Following one doctor’s advice I kept eating less and less. The last time I saw him he told me that the reason I wasn’t losing weight was because I was eating too much. I said, “I don’t know how much less you want me to eat since all I had yesterday was half a donut hole and a cup of unsweetened herbal tea.” Just last year another doctor and dietitian in Pennsylvania told me I was not eating enough – and following their advice about diet and exercise I gained fifteen pounds in nine days.

My point is this: We never know what struggles people are having. We never know what they have or have not tried to correct their flaws, or what we perceive to be their flaws. Heavenly Father’s plan for us is that we ‘might have joy‘, but that joy is easier to find if we concentrate on being sensitive to the feelings and needs of other’s instead of making their lives harder through insensitive comments. We should be building people up instead of tearing them down. We should be helping them to find joy instead of adding to their misery. We should be their biggest champions instead of one of their (likely) many detractors.

But it goes beyond the old adage”If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” That’s a great start. But if we never say anything nice to others because all we have to say to them is insensitive, they never receive encouragement.

The musical group Simple Plan put it this way:

No, you don’t know what it’s like
When nothing feels all right
You don’t know what it’s like
To be like me
To be hurt
To feel lost
To be left out in the dark
To be kicked when you’re down
To feel like you’ve been pushed around
To be on the edge of breaking down
And no one’s there to save you
No, you don’t know what it’s like
Welcome to my life

No one should feel this way. Instead, let us follow President Ezra Taft Benson’s advice, when he tells us that a person who is kind is sympathetic and gentle with others, is considerate of others’ feelings, is courteous in his or her behavior, and has a helpful nature: “Kindness pardons others’ weaknesses and faults. Kindness is extended to all—to the aged and the young, to animals, to those low of station as well as the high” (Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 47).

Let kindness and sensitivity be our goal to helping ourselves and others find the joy that Heavenly Father has promised we might have.

My Life Is Not a Country Song…or, Happiness Comes As We Live the Gospel More Fully

Adapted from a talk given in the Altoona Ward of the Altoona Pennsylvania Stake

April 24, 2016

Do you ever feel that your life is an old-time country song? One of those ones where the dog died, your spouse left, the rent’s due and you’re broke? One of those ones where someone’s lied, your truck doesn’t work, and all you have left is the shirt on your back? One of those ones where your kids are gone, you got fired from your job, and there just doesn’t seem to be any hope?

Do you ever wonder why bad things keep happening to you even though you are a member of the Church? Even though you have the Gospel in your life? Even though you pay your tithing and you say your prayers and you read your scriptures and you go to all your meetings?

If the Gospel is supposed to bring us happiness, why do all these things keep happening that, face it, don’t make us very happy?

Personally, I have a lot of experience wondering about this exact question.

I grew up in a small community in eastern Canada. By small I mean 9 houses, 34 people, and all of them related to me. My parents always made sure we had food on the table and clothes on our backs and a clean house to live in. They provided my brother and me with music lessons and dance lessons and karate lessons, made sure we were able to attend any clubs or extracurricular activities that we wanted to, joined Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as leaders so they could go with us, went to church just about every Sunday, and did their best to give us every opportunity they could. I was always first in my class, won school awards, and music awards, and scholarships.

I grew up in the Anglican Church, known here in the United States as the Episcopalian Church, went to Sunday School, was a junior leader at church camp. Life was pretty good.

But in May of 1992 I was unmarried and pregnant with my daughter. During a meeting with my priest, it became clear to me that I did not believe some of the central tenets of that faith. I told her that if what she was telling me is what Anglicans believe, then I was not an Anglican.

I had my daughter while at university, and while it was certainly no picnic, it was doable with the help of my parents and brother and several close friends. But I was bereft of that church fellowship that I had enjoyed my entire life, and I missed it dearly. Thus began my search for a new church, one where I believed in all the tenets of its faith.

Over the next eight years I researched every religion I had ever heard of, and many more besides. From other branches of Christianity, to Eastern religions, to New Age spirituality, I looked into them all. One night I saw an ad for a free Book of Mormon on television, and that began my six year investigation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Life was pretty good – I was in a relationship I wanted to be in, had a young daughter, had a career I loved, was able to see my family whenever I wanted and to travel, and I was a rising star in my profession.

Then I was baptized. And my life became a country song.

I split up with my boyfriend, moved into a dump, and got a new job an hour away from home. I met and married a supposedly fine young man but for various reasons six months later we separated because, in true country song fashion, it was all my fault because if I hadn’t married him, no one would have known what he was really like. Two years later our divorce was final, he was excommunicated and I was remarried to a man who I did not love. Don’t worry, he knew that when he married me, because again, in true country song fashion, when he asked me to marry him I told I would but not because I was in love with him because I wasn’t. I developed some health issues, and was off work for seven months as a result, then got another new job and we moved again. This time, HE developed some health issues that resulted in an addiction to multiple prescription medications and 3 and a 1/2 years later, divorce. Over those few years, I hurt my knees and was in a wheelchair, then used a cane for several years. My daughter developed severe allergies to smog, so we moved from the big city that we loved back to the small community where I grew up….

Or…my daughter did, anyway. I had to finish out my teaching contract, and so I moved from our lovely four bedroom home with the meticulously planned and maintained back yard into a bedbug infested boarding house. When my contract was over in June, I was on my way back to my parents’ home, a three or four day drive, when I was in a car accident and again couldn’t work. In October I was cleared to return to teaching, and the only job I could find was in a small community in the far north that had the highest rate of violent crime in Canada, and where all but two of the men had been to jail. The next year I found work back home, and was looking forward to doing the job I loved again. Except, like in those old country songs, it just did not work out.

I met my current husband online a while after that. We had so much in common that it was almost surreal. We met in person on April 2, got engaged on April 6, and were married in June. A perfect, fairy-tale romance, right? A happy ending to the country song that had become my life, right?

Not quite. If you thought things were bad before, in true country song fashion, they were about to get worse.

I was teaching 3 hours from home, and so I had rented a small apartment to stay in during the week. Seven days before we got married there was a sewage flood in the apartment that ruined everything that I had prepared for the wedding – the flowers, the programs, the decorations, the cake ingredients, as well as most of my clothes, books, and other personal effects. Five days before we got married my report card files became corrupted on my computer, and I had to redo 315 report cards. Two days before we got married an emergency came up that had to be taken care of right away, and so we spent the evening doing that instead of finishing the dresses for the two girls, who ended up wearing unfinished dresses in our bridal party. The day before we got married, I spent 6 hours or more in hospital with severe kidney stones, and then had to decorate my wedding cakes that evening, and finish decorating the hall in the morning before we got married in the afternoon, where we discovered that I had lost our wedding rings, so I was married with my mother’s ring and my husband wore my father’s key ring.

On our way back to the US after our wedding we were stopped at the border and weren’t really sure that I was going to make it in. I did for the summer, but it was another three and a half years before I was finally allowed to immigrate, and in that time my daughter left and hasn’t spoken to us in four and a half years, my husband’s ex-wife was forced to move away to live near her family, I had serious medical conditions develop in every major system in my body, my husband had some health issues, my van literally blew up in my driveway, one of our cars was broken into and the other car was stolen, my grandmother died.

We thought for sure that once we were able to live together that things would get better. But the health issues, the car troubles, the job situations…it all continued.

I mean, if this ain’t a hit country song in the making, I don’t know what is!

So what is the purpose of it all? Why have I, and my husband since we are in this marriage thing together, had to go through all of these challenges and setbacks and problems? why all the trials and tribulations? why all the afflictions and adversity? if being obedient to the Gospel is supposed to make us happy?

In the April 2000 General Conference, Colleen Menlove reminded us that “In the Book of Mormon, Lehi explained to his son Jacob that happiness is a result of obedience. He told Jacob that eternal laws have…opportunities for happiness attached to them. When we…obey, we reap the happiness (see 2 Nephi 2:10). Part of what creates happiness is the absence of regret, guilt, and sin.”

And here is where MY country song ends. The old country songs are full of bitter regret, unresolved guilt, and unforgiven sin. And that is NOT MY song.

In my song, my daughter brought me much joy, despite the hardships of raising her, and was in reality a huge blessing in my life, since she is the only natural child I have despite years of trying. My first marriage, ironically enough, cemented my testimony of the sealing ordinances of the temple. My second marriage taught me to be forgiving and selfless in my relationships. My work with all ages of children allowed me to travel all across Canada, the Eastern United States and overseas, and taught me patience and understanding and compassion for the situations that families find themselves in. My numerous health issues allowed my husband and me to spend far more time together during the years we were waiting for immigration than if I had been well, and it gave him many opportunities to serve me and for us to grow more closely together as a result. Problems with the wedding and the cars reminded us that they are just things and not really important in the big picture. And being able to take care of my grandmother for hours every day in the months before she died afforded me the opportunity to bear my testimony to her, and have her declare that perhaps that was what she believed, too.

In 2 Nephi 2:11 we read that “…it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.”

In her talk, Sister Menlove said, “We happily anticipated coming to earth to experience opportunities to grow spiritually…. the opportunity is here and now to obtain happiness that extends beyond our earth life; however, we need to know what it is and where to find it.” We already know what happiness is – remember what she said about happiness being the absence of regret, guilt, and sin? And the Prophet Joseph taught that “happiness is the object and design of our existence” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 255-256).

So the only question left is ‘Where do we find happiness?’ And again, our dear Joseph has the answer. He said happiness “will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 255-256).

Instead of living our lives as country songs, full of regret and guilt and sin, let us resolve to live our lives as the sacred hymns we know and love, hymns such as:

More holiness give me,
More strivings within,
More patience in suff’ring,
More sorrow for sin,
More faith in my Savior,
More sense of his care,
More joy in his service,
More purpose in prayer.

(Hymn #131)

Brothers and Sisters, through personal experience, it is my solemn testimony that as we live the Gospel more fully, we will be able to better handle everything that comes to us in our lives in more and more Christ-like ways, and by doing so we will find greater happiness. And we will, as it says in Alma 27:18, become truly penitent and humble seekers of happiness, seekers of virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and obedience, and free from regret, guilt and sin.

I leave this with you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Powerball vs. Eternal Life

Adapted from a talk given in the Philipsburg Branch of the Altoona Pennsylvania Stake on January 17, 2016.

Like me recently, you were probably overwhelmed by the media and public frenzy over a $1.3 billion Powerball lottery. For days it seemed that this was all everyone was talking about.

At my work, they collected for a Powerball pool, and they were all excited about the possibility of winning. I received a little badgering over not joining the pool. And frankly, there was a slight twinge of temptation there. Maybe even more than a twinge. I admit I did check out the Gospel topics page at LDS.org just to double check the church’s stance on gambling, and learned that the church is against state run lottos. Then I checked out the Powerball website…to learn that it is run by 30 states, so I guess you could say that the Church is reaallly against it.

I’m a convert and even before I joined the Church I didn’t really have much to do with lotteries. But the few times I did play… it seems I had all the luck. I once spent a weekend at an event where break open tickets were being sold as a fundraiser: I won both big prizes and a number of smaller ones. I have played the slots exactly once in my life: I won ten times what I put in. Once when I was in university I really needed new tires but I was literally down to just a couple of bucks. I used my last two dollars to buy a lotto ticket: I won $406 – just enough for the tires and the gas to get to the garage and back.

Elder Randall K. Bennett in his conference talk entitled “Choose Eternal Life” said, “We all have temptations…. It is never too hard or too late to make correct choices.” So though the temptation was there, I declined to join the Powerball pool. When a few of my colleagues were ribbing me about not joining them and one of them said, “What will you do when we all win and quit?”, I responded, “I guess I’ll have my pick of your jobs!”

Spending a couple of dollars on a lotto ticket may not seem like a big deal, but it has been said that it is the small daily decisions that we make that determine who we are. In that sense, every decision is an eternal decision. Elder Bennett said:

Our beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, has taught: “I can’t stress too strongly that decisions determine destiny. You can’t make eternal decisions without eternal consequences.” Each of you…is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents. You do have a divine nature and destiny. During your premortal life you learned to love truth. You made correct eternal choices. You knew that here in mortality, there would be afflictions and adversity, sorrow and suffering, tests and trials to help you grow and progress. You also knew that you could continue making correct choices, repent of incorrect choices, and through the Atonement of Jesus Christ inherit eternal life.

Elder Bruce C. Hafen once said, “We can have eternal life if we want it, but only if there is nothing we want more.”

Aren’t there things that we all want? Money, fame and fortune is what the world tells us is necessary for success, and some non-church LDS companies buy into this formula when they publish such articles as “Top 10 Highest Paid LDS Youtube Stars” or “Richest LDS Entertainers”. The popularity of such so-called news perhaps sheds some light on who we may be becoming as a people. Are we choosing to be indoctrinated into the ways of the world? One way we can measure where we ourselves are headed is to examine how much real news, how many edifying stories and historical moments we are watching versus how much entertainment news, celebrity gossip and reality voyeurism we engage in.

In his book Pathways to Perfection, President Monson tells us the real formula for success. He says:

In this significant preparatory period of life we seek a map to sail uncharted seas, a formula to insure success, a guide to guarantee achievement. Where will we look? How will we seek? To whom will we turn for help? Our decision is vital. Our day of decision is now….

I say: “Turn your hearts and direct your thoughts to him who declared, “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” His word is as an unfailing compass to chart safely a true course through the storms of life. He taught faith, love, charity, and hope. He spoke of devotion, courage, example, and fidelity. His life reflected his teachings.

To you his inviting voice repeats the call, “Come, follow me.” By doing so, [you] will not fall victim to the evil one’s cunning and to temptation’s snare” (p. 251).

Success is turning your hearts and directing your thoughts to Jesus Christ in all that you do, not in winning the lottery. President Monson gives us four steps to follow for success:

  1. Labor to learn.
  2. Strive to serve.
  3. Think to thank.
  4. Pause to pray.

Notice the words that he uses here – labor, strive, think, pause; not just the simple verbs we usually use – learn, serve, thank, pray. The Gospel is an action we take on in our lives, not just a noun. It is something to work at, to put effort into, not just do as a routine part of lives.

First, of laboring to learn, President Monson says:

A half-hearted effort will not suffice. You must labor with all your might…. At stake is eternal life – yours…. Will you be a leader of men and a servant of God? Or will you be a servant of sin and a follower of Satan? Decisions determine destiny. In the quiet of your study, surrounded by books written by the finest minds of men, listen for and hearken to the Master’s invitation: “…learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:29-30)….  Alma, the prophet, could well have been speaking to you when he counseled, “Oh, remember, my son, and learn wisdom…; yea, learn…to keep the commandments of God” (Alma 37:35) (p. 253).

Second, of striving to serve, he quotes Thomas Huxley: “The end of life is not knowledge, but action” and then continues, “When our testimonies are reflected by our service, they shine with unequaled brilliance” (p. 253).

We spent five months overseas last year in Sri Lanka, a country where most people are very poor compared to us. A nice quad costs the same for them as it does for us – about $50 US. To give you an idea of how much this really costs for someone from that country….I spent more on groceries each week than most people make in a month. A friend of ours, for example, makes purses for 10 rupees each – less than 1/10th of a cent. I noticed another friend of ours did not have proper scriptures. She had been saving but every time she was getting close, something came up. For example, at 18 years old she basically became the breadwinner for her family because her father became ill and could not work.

In the meantime, after I was baptized I longed for a set of nice scriptures, and as a sign of renewal after my divorce, I saved and bought myself a beautiful quad. Over the next couple of years I saved and bought myself a complete set of scripture illustration stickers, and spent much time making my scriptures a beautiful book. I sacrificed many things and much time and about $450 to make my scriptures exactly as I wanted them.

But, on one of my last nights in Sri Lanka I approached my friend and gave her my scriptures. She cried in gratitude. What for me was the equivalent of a week or two of work, for her would have been four months salary. And she now has proper scriptures to use on a mission if she so chooses. My sacrifice and service to one person may help her to sacrifice and serve countless others.

Third, of thinking to thank, it really is necessary to ponder what we are thankful for instead of giving automatic ‘thank you’s for everything. We must actually think about the things we are thankful for.

For example, President Monson says:

Do you think to thank your mother and your father who have given you life and who rejoice in your accomplishments? To them no sacrifice is too great, no loneliness too acute if such opens the way for you to enjoy the blessings of life…. A fitting tribute of gratitude was made by a young Latter-day Saint girl attending…high school. The students in her class had been asked to prepare a letter to be written to a great man of their choice…. This young lady…addressed her letter to her father, and in her letter she stated: “I have decided to write this letter to you, Dad, because you are the greatest man that I have ever known. The overwhelming desire of my heart is that I might so live that I will have the privilege of being beside you and mother and other members of the family in the celestial kingdom.” That father has never received a more cherished letter (p. 255).

Finally, of pausing to pray. How do we do this? Seek Heavenly Father’s counsel, advice, guidance for the things we endure every day. Give Him thanks for all we have, even the trials that He sends our way. An old Native American prayer says, “We pray for strength, and you send us trials to make us stronger.”

President Monson says:

Perhaps there has never been a time when we had greater need to pray to that God who has given us life. One cannot help but compare our situation today with conditions at the time of Belshazzar, the king of the Chaldeans.

The prophet Daniel rebuked Belshazzar: “And thou…O Belshazzar, hast not humbled thine heart….But hast lifted up thyself against the Lord of heaven; and they have brought the vessels of his house before thee, and thou, and thy lords, thy wives, and they concubines, have drunk wine in them; and thou hast praised the gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know; and the God in whose hand thy breath is, and whose ways are all they ways, hast thou not glorified.” (Daniel 5:22-23)

He then interpreted the writing on the wall: “God hath numbered they kingdom, and finished it…. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.” (Daniel 5:26-27)

When we are weighed in the balances we will not be found wanting if we make personal prayer a pattern for our lives. When we remember that each of us is is literally a spirit son or daughter of God, we will not find it difficult to approach our Father in heaven (p.p.255-256).

As Elder Hafen reminded us, ultimately this pattern for success will lead us to eternal life, but only if we want it, and only if there is nothing we want more.

Like some other churches, for the past few years our church has come under increasing condemnation for its stance on marriage. It has been criticized from outside and in, by the world and by members who know the doctrine and yet want to change the will of the Lord.

Our beliefs about marriage, about families is clearly defined in the Proclamation on the Family. Some would have you believe that the current controversy is simply a matter of equality for all. It’s not. As a church, we believe firmly that people have the right to choose in almost every aspect of their lives, but we also know the adversary will always find new ways to try to bring about his desires and to pull people away from God.

Here’s an example. We know that the Second Coming will not occur until all of Heavenly Father’s spirit children have had the opportunity to come to this earth and partake of a mortal existence. What better way to stop this from happening than to destroy the spiritual purpose of the family? For more than thirty years this has been the case in China with its one-child policy, a policy widely criticized throughout the world, including in the United States. Sister Sheri Dew, past member of the Young Women General Presidency, in her book Women and the Priesthood, quotes Jonathan V. Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster:

“For more than three decades, Chinese women have been subjected to their country’s brutal one-child policy. Those who try to have more children have been subjected to fines and forced abortions. Their houses have been razed and their husbands fired from their jobs. As a result, Chinese women have a fertility rate of 1.54.”

Now here’s the interesting part:

“Here in America, white, college-educated women – a good proxy for the middle class – have a fertility rate of 1.6. America has its very own one-child policy. And we have chosen it for ourselves. Forget the debt ceiling. Forget the fiscal cliff, the sequestration cliff and the entitlement cliff. Those are all just symptoms. What America really faces is a demographic cliff.”

Sister Dew continues: “It doesn’t take a mathematician to calculate the impact on society of a population that won’t replace itself. Even more serious is the attempted threat to our Heavenly Father’s plan for His children. Mortal life is a prerequisite for eternal life” (p. 140).

Does this mean that we are to have one child after another, year after year? Of course not, though it may. The Family Proclamation and other church materials clearly state that the number of children a couple has should be prayerfully considered by each couple. Such decisions are decisions of eternity. Interestingly, the amount of money one has – or whether or not one has won the lottery – is not a suggested requirement.

The admonition to Adam and Eve – and through them, to us – was to “multiply and replenish the earth.” That commandment has not changed. We can choose to follow that commandment literally, but we can also choose to acknowledge that there are other ways of replenishing than by having children.

Here are some things to think about:

  • To replenish means to fill something that had previously been emptied. We can think of Noah and his family in this sense – they were tasked with beginning the human race anew after the earth had been wiped clean and emptied of life by the Great Flood.
  • To replenish means to make full or complete. If we consider this meaning in a spiritual sense, it means to constantly nourish ourselves with prayer, scripture study, attending meetings, service, and all other things we do to rejuvenate our minds and souls as we serve the Lord and learn of Him.
  • To replenish means to inspire or nourish. The more spiritually filled we are, the more we can inspire and nourish others, through encouragement, friendship, service, missionary work, and countless other ways.

Are we choosing to be engaged in replenishing the earth and its inhabitants, or are we doing the opposite and giving fuel to Satan’s powers?

  • Are we consuming more than our share of the earth’s resources?
  • Are we taking more spiritually from others than we are giving back?
  • Are we draining our families and friends of emotional or financial resources unnecessarily?
  • Are we exhausting our lives in pursuit of worldly things?
  • Are we using up the good will and patience of those around us by demanding that they give to us constantly but doing nothing for them in return?

All of these are eternal choices with eternal consequences.

Elder Bennett tells us:

In reality we have only two eternal choices, each with eternal consequences: choose to follow the Savior of the world and thus choose eternal life with our Heavenly Father or choose to follow the world and thus choose to separate ourselves from Heavenly Father eternally….

In evaluating your choices and their consequences, you might ask yourself:

  • Am I seeking divine direction through daily scripture study, pondering, and prayer, or have I chosen to be so busy or apathetic that I don’t take time to study the words of Christ, ponder them, and converse with my Heavenly Father?
  • Am I choosing to follow the counsel of living prophets of God, or am I following the worldly ways and the opposing opinions of others?
  • Am I seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost daily in what I choose to think about, feel, and do?
  • Am I consistently reaching out to assist, serve, or help rescue others?

….[Your] eternal destiny will not be the result of chance but of choice. It is never too late to begin to choose eternal life!

And even though it may be tempting at times, choosing eternal life does not include playing Powerball.

The Burdens of the World

This was conference weekend, one of the weekends I most look forward to throughout the year. I love hearing the prophetic words of counsel, comfort and commandment expressed over the pulpit by a group of men and women who dedicate their lives to bettering the members of the Church, their families, and themselves.

There have been some notable moments for me over the years. In 2010, for example, Jeffrey R. Holland gave a talk called ‘Safety for the Soul‘ that brought me to tears as the full import of what he was saying registered in my mind. He held aloft the Book of Mormon – the very book that Hyrum read from at his brother’s request, with the page still turned down – that was present in the upper room at Carthage Jail when Joseph and Hyrum were martyred. Many times as members of the church we contemplate the martyrdom of the Prophet of the Restoration, but never before had what this meant been made so explicitly clear. Elder Holland said:

May I refer to a modern “last days” testimony? When Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum started for Carthage to face what they knew would be an imminent martyrdom, Hyrum read…[a] few short verses from the 12th chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon. Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die….

As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?

Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.

The first prophet of this dispensation had burdens innumerable placed upon his shoulders. And yet he held true to the end, bearing witness to his undying belief in the divinity of what he knew to be true.

This morning, we were privileged to witness another powerful moment as our current prophet bore witness – spiritually and physically – to what he knows to be true. As millions of people around the world watched, the burdens borne by our dear and beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, became apparent. As we watched, this man of strong and noble carriage, this man who always stands uprightly – literally and figuratively – slumped, stooped, and stumbled his words. As we watched, this valiant leader bravely carried on, finishing his words of spiritual comfort and support to us, when many of us just wanted so desperately to be able to physically comfort and support him.

https://www.lds.org/general-conference/watch/2015/10?lang=eng&vid=4531161854001&cid=4

The burdens of the world had come crashing down on our beloved prophet, allowing us a small glimpse of what this man has been through since his call to this position in 2008. At that time, he looked physically weighed down in his news conference, as his new mantle of responsibility was placed upon his shoulders. Since then, he has lost his beloved wife and said goodbye to four of his dearest friends in church leadership. The church has been under attack from the usual sources outside the church, but also from within by those who question church leadership, authority, doctrine, procedures, and history. And as if this wasn’t enough, many people fail to realize that our church leadership assumes responsibility for everyone within their geographical area, not just members within their ward or stake boundaries. The weight of the worst of all human behavior and suffering experienced by seven billion people throughout the world rests on his shoulders.

If ever there was a portrait of how strongly Satan is fighting against the plan of salvation, we saw it today.

We cannot take his burdens from him. But we, as members, can help to lighten them a little. We can serve more fully in our wards and communities. We can strengthen our own homes more deeply by following the counsel we have been given to hold family home evening, family prayers, family scriptures. We can support our local leaders more diligently by attending our meetings, offering our help, and using church resources to better fulfill our callings.

And we can pray. We can pray for ourselves, our families, our friends, our wards, our communities, our nations, and our church leadership. I once knew a man who spent several hours every Saturday evening praying for each General Authority by name. While probably not practical for most of us, we can all add general and specific prayers for our beloved prophets and apostles to our daily prayers.

If we truly believe, as did Joseph and Hyrum, that the Book of Mormon is divine scripture…. If we truly believe that Joseph was the Prophet of the Restoration…. If we truly believe that Thomas S. Monson is our living prophet on the earth today…. Then we should all be willing to take upon ourselves some of the burdens in our own sphere of influence in order to lighten the load in even the smallest way for this man who for 52 years has been an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, to offer him some comfort and support as he has done for more than five decades for us.

President Monson, we love you.

Catching a Vision of the Work

Catching a Vision of the Work

Adapted from a talk given in the Altoona Ward of the Altoona Pennsylvania Stake, High Council Sunday, September 20, 2015

Good morning, brothers and sisters. My husband and I have been assigned to talk to you today about a topic that some of you may find uncomfortable. Some of you may find it offensive. Some of you might not like what I have to say. As I prepared for this talk, I felt all these things myself, to be honest: I was uncomfortable; I was offended; I did not like some of the things I was reading. But as I ‘got over myself’, as they say, I was able to use what I learned to examine my own progress in this great work. I pray you will be able to do the same.

So let’s begin.

Let me ask you to honestly answer one question in your mind: Have you caught a vision of the work?

Like me, your first instinct is probably to say, “Of course! I’m here, aren’t I?” But let’s examine exactly what the work is that we are supposed to be “catching a vision of”.

Our Church has actually made it quite simple for us. They have laid out the work of the Church – and by extension, the work of us members – in a simple four-point plan commonly known as ‘the four-fold mission of the Church’ that is designed to bring us closer to Christ: namely, proclaiming the Gospel, perfecting the saints, redeeming the dead, and caring for the poor and needy.

Proclaiming the Gospel immediately brings to mind the work done by our full-time missionaries. As you recall, a few years ago in general conference the announcement was made that the missionary age was being lowered. The response from the young adults among our membership was staggering – some of them even began filling out their missionary papers before that session of conference was finished! Within a few months, the number of missionaries increased by over 30 000, or more than 50%. These young men and women had caught a vision of missionary work. The question is….have you?

Do you work with your ward mission leader to find family, friends, acquaintances to teach? Do you feed the missionaries on a regular basis? Do you invite others to dinner when the missionaries will be there? When you see elders or sisters walking down the street, do you stop and say hello? Do you contribute to the church’s missionary fund? Do you financially support missionaries from your own ward, no matter how small the contribution you are able to make? Do you have mission funds started for your children, your grandchildren… yourself? Do you share the Good News of the Gospel with everyone you know? Do you Like and Share church messages on Facebook and other social media? Do you invite friends and family to ward and stake events? Do you pray for guidance about finding people whose hearts are open to hearing our message? Do you show your love for and commitment to the Gospel by attending your Sunday School classes, and Relief Society and Priesthood meetings so that investigators see your dedication and want what you have?

Have you caught a vision of missionary work?

In 2000 I was teaching kindergarten in a small town in Ontario, Canada. Just before Christmas, one of my parent volunteers dropped an invitation to a Christmas event at her church on my desk. She then began inviting me to Tuesday night dinner with the missionaries, and long story short, I was baptized six months later. I later learned that her family had been praying for someone to teach, and I was it. Sincere prayer, heartfelt invitations, and a vision of missionary work is what ultimately brought me to the church after six years of being an investigator. This sister and her family truly had caught a vision of the work. The Lord has said to each of us, “And thou must open thy mouth at all times, declaring my gospel with the sound of rejoicing” (D&C 28:16). Do you open your mouth at all times, declaring the gospel with the sound of rejoicing?

Perfecting the Saints is one area that many, maybe even most of us, usually sum up by the statement ‘enduring to the end’. If we just do what we are supposed to do, just hang in there, just pray and read and study and go to church…we’ll be okay. However, this is one of the most misunderstood parts of the mission of the church. Perfecting the saints actually refers to the opportunities we have to render service to each other, service that helps us all grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And believe it or not, this does not refer to the service that we perform to non-members, or to most service that we perform during the week. Perfecting the saints refers specifically to the service that is performed each Sunday in our Sacrament meetings and Sunday School classes and Quorums and Auxiliaries. When speaking of the sacrament, the obvious thing that comes to mind are the young men who bless and pass the Sacrament, but the people who give talks and prayers, who prepare and provide the music, who preside over the Sacrament meeting are all performing acts of service that are meant to uplift and spiritually renew each and every one of us.

But it doesn’t stop there. Every teacher who prepares a lesson – be it nursery, primary, young men, young women, Sunday school, Relief Society, Elders Quorum or High Priest Group – every one of those people are giving an act of service to you. Are you accepting their act of service, or are you rejecting it? Are you attending your classes? Are you fostering love towards your teachers? Are you offering them an act of service in return, by participating in discussions, by coming to class prepared and on time, by being an enthusiastic class member, by offering to read and give prayers?

Have you caught a vision of the perfecting of the saints?

In 2002 I was called as the Youth Sunday School teacher in the small branch I was attending. I diligently prepared my lesson each and every week for this group of about fifteen youth. But no matter what I did or how much I prepared, the class was, quite frankly, terrible. I could find no way to reach them, especially one young man who was very angry about a lot things. Even when the branch presidency stepped in and removed him from the class, it left a pall over the rest of us, because we knew that one of us was missing. His brothers stopped coming to class. His friends stopped coming to class. And eventually, I asked to be released.

In that class there was no vision of the work held by anyone, including myself, and I, even though I had won teaching awards in my career, felt like a complete failure.

I was also called as Young Women President in this branch. I honestly did not know why. I had been a single teenage mother. One of my counselors, also a new convert, was going through a terrible divorce and custody battle, and was also responsible for her adult mentally challenged son. My other counselor was a lifelong member who went inactive in her teens and whose current husband was in jail. We were, honestly, a complete mess…probably the most unlikely Young Women’s Presidency in the history of the Church! We had six girls on our list. And yet, we had ten young women attending class on Sundays, and fourteen or more coming out on Tuesday nights. We and our six girls had a vision of what Young Women could be.

Are you like my Sunday School class? Or are you like my Young Women? Do you have a vision of perfecting the saints? Of rendering service to your fellow ward members through your support of their sacrifice and service?

Redeeming the dead refers to temple work, or more specifically, the ordinances that we perform in the temple for our kindred dead. Our church puts a lot of resources towards this part of the four-fold mission of the church, everything from world-wide record collection and storage to digitizing those records to the thousands of family history centers to the tens of thousands of family history consultants to our online genealogy program to our temples themselves. And here in your ward you have some wonderful experts in this field, as evidenced by their contributions to the recent Stake family history day. This is one area that the Church itself is already a world standard, and it is poised to become even more so.

Some of you may not know that not too long ago the Church hired a new manager for FamilySearch, a man with a vision honed by a decade of being in the top echelons of one of the most successful and transformative tech companies in the world. Under his short tenure, since 2013 FamilySearch has seen a 234% increase in its LDS patrons and a 1035% increase among non-members. Record collections on the site have nearly doubled since 2012, and the searchable indexed names have grown from 750 million to 5.2 billion in the past five years. At this year’s BYU Family History Conference, he announced many new and upcoming features on FamilySearch, all designed to make this mission of the church fun, exciting, relevant, and easy for everyone. This man truly has a vision of the work of redeeming the dead.

Do you?

Have you completed your basic four generation chart? Do you even have an LDS Account? Do you regularly set aside time to search for your ancestors, or write down your memories of loved ones who have passed, or keep a personal journal, or attend the temple, or submit names for temple work? Have you completed the Stake indexing challenge?

Do you have a vision of the work of redeeming the dead?

In my home ward today I was sustained as a Family History Consultant. When the call was extended to me last week, I squealed in delight and literally jumped up and down in my chair. The counselor who extended the call laughed and commented that this was a strange reaction – apparently most people are not very excited by being called as a family history consultant. But I was overjoyed. I love family history. Last year I added over 7000 people to my family file, indexed 2000 names, and found 240 relatives for my two best friends. So far this year I have added 3400 more, started three family history books, organized two family name societies and joined several others, and submitted 1400 names to the temple. As I said, I love family history.

I have a vision of family history work. But I didn’t always. I started researching my family when I was about fourteen, and played with it off and on over the next 26 years, and by 2013 had found about 12 000 relatives. Now that number has doubled. But I have regrets – huge regrets – that I did not catch the vision sooner. When I think of all the information, the stories, the pictures, the memories that have been lost with the passing of loved ones, sometimes I just want to cry. So many people in my family tree will just be names and dates to me – they weren’t famous, they weren’t mentioned in newspapers, most of them didn’t have wills or keep journals, their personal effects were scattered or destroyed upon their death.

Are you doing all you can to preserve your personal family history, and to find and preserve the details that remain of your loved ones? Do you attend the temple regularly? Do you submit names for others to do on your behalf? Do you participate in indexing?

Do you have a vision of the work of redeeming the dead?

Caring for the poor and needy is a relatively new addition to the four-fold mission of the church, but that doesn’t mean that this work has not been a focus since the beginning. The Relief Society itself was founded in 1842 to provide relief to those in need and to inspire the priesthood to be diligent in their duties towards the poor and needy. Bishops storehouses have been another feature of this mission of the church almost since the beginning. Many members might think of welfare as a program to help members in temporarily difficult circumstances. But the intent of the Church’s welfare plan is much more vast; it also involves promoting self-reliance as a way of life so that we can minimize our chances of becoming the poor and needy. President Thomas S. Monson has taught that self-reliance—“the ability, commitment, and effort to provide the necessities of life for self and family” – is an essential element of our temporal and spiritual well-being. The church has always taken this mission to heart, including the donation of almost 1.5 billion dollars worth of humanitarian aid overseas. From humanitarian aid to employment resources to the addiction recovery program to the perpetual education fund to the provident living websites and many other projects too numerous to name, the church takes it responsibility to minister to the poor and needy among its members and around the world very seriously. The question is… Do you?

Elder Robert D. Hales has said, “All of us are responsible to provide for ourselves and our families in both temporal and spiritual ways. To provide providently, we must practice the principles of provident living: joyfully living within our means, being content with what we have, avoiding excessive debt, and diligently saving and preparing for rainy-day emergencies.”

Do you participate in any of the church programs or read the resources designed to help those with the specific difficulties you may be having? Do you share with others that these programs are available? Do you volunteer at local charities or community organizations and facilities? Do you contribute to the humanitarian fund or the perpetual education fund of the church? Do you give an honest and generous fast offering? Do you have your own house in order – your food storage, your financial reserve, your education – so that when family members need help, you are ready to help them? Do you do your home teaching and visiting teaching? After all, the purpose of both of these programs is not to ‘give a lesson’, as many of us may think of it, but rather to “watch over the members of the Church” and “establish a relationship of trust…so that the[se] families can call upon [you] in times of need”? Do you want them to call upon you in times of need?

Do you have a vision of the work of caring for the poor and needy?

I know that Bro Rob Givler has a vision of caring for the poor and needy, and that he has done an amazing job volunteering his time at the food bank in Tyrone. How do I know this? Because when a person I met on the street while I was walking my dogs one day found out that I was Mormon, he told me that he knew a wonderful Mormon man who works at the food bank, and then told me about the many good things he had seen Bro Givler do there. Bro Givler’s vision of influencing the poor and needy in the community is evident. Is yours?

Elder O. Vincent Halek of the Seventy gave a talk in General Conference in April 2012 entitled “Having the Vision to Do” He said:

How do we, amidst the challenges of our lives, gain the vision necessary to do those things that will bring us closer to the Savior? Speaking of vision, the book of Proverbs teaches this truth: “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). If we are to prosper rather than perish, we must gain a vision of ourselves as the Savior sees us.

The Savior saw more in those humble fishermen whom He called to follow Him than they initially saw in themselves; He saw a vision of who they could become. He knew of their goodness and potential, and He acted to call them. They were not experienced at first, but as they followed, they saw His example, felt His teachings, and became His disciples….

With that vision these faithful and devoted disciples were able to do hard things as they traveled to preach the gospel and establish the Church after the Savior had departed….

What did He see in Peter, James, and John and the other Apostles that prompted Him to act to invite them to follow Him? Like His vision of them, the Savior has a great vision of who we can become. It will take the same faith and courage the first Apostles had in order for us to refocus on the things that matter most in bringing lasting happiness and great joy….

When we emulate Him and do the things we see Him do, we begin to see a vision of who we can become…. During His ministry among the Nephites, the Savior asked, “What manner of men ought ye to be?” He replied, “Even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). [End quote]

Do you have a vision of who you ought to be?

Brigham Young once said, “We must recognize that excellence and quality are a reflection of how we feel about ourselves and about life and about God. If we don’t care much about these basic things, then such not caring carries over into the work we do, and our work becomes shabby and shoddy.”

So let me ask you again…. And honestly reflect in your mind on all that I have said: Do you have a vision of the work? Are you striving for excellence in your commitment to the four-fold mission of the church, the outline of how we can become more Christlike – to proclaim the Gospel, perfect the Saints, redeem the dead, and care for the poor and needy? Has your work in any of these areas become shabby or shoddy?

I testify to you that if you commit or recommit yourselves to these four things, that your eye will be single to the Glory of God, that you will develop love and enthusiasm for each of these areas, that you will reflect the countenance of Christ in all that you do, and you will regain your vision of who you can become. As you emulate the Savior, you will become like Him. You will be blessed. And you will catch a vision of this great work, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

This I leave with you in the name of our Savior, even Jesus Christ. Amen.

All I Needed

I watched the man sitting quietly by himself at the front of the room, a troubled expression on his face. As church leaders shook hands and met the members, he set himself apart, pondering deeply over something that was on his mind.

The sister playing the prelude music was exhausted from playing for almost an hour, and I offered to play the last ten minutes of prelude music so she would be able to play the opening hymn. The theme of the meeting was missionary work, and I quickly thought of a missionary hymn that I could play to begin with, but as I sat down, a thought came to me: “No, not that one.”

I paused for a moment. Another thought: “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”

I quickly turned to that hymn in the book, and began to improvise….

An octave higher, and slowly.

As written.

Inverted in the right hand – playing in 6ths instead of 3rds.

“Time to stop and play a different hymn,” I thought. And then…”No, keep playing.”

Separating the left hand notes and playing with the bass line rhythm.

Moving the treble an octave higher and adding trills and slides and scales.

“Time to finish,” the thought indicated.

And so I went to the last half of the hymn, and played it simply and reverently and quietly, ending on the dot of 10:00 and playing the last note as the district president began to speak.

He and others had come to our tiny branch for a district conference. Announcements were made, hymns were sung, talks were given, prayers were said.

As I was playing the postlude music – an improvised version of God Be With You Till We Meet Again – I again noticed the man. He was standing nearby, waiting, I assumed, to talk to the people standing behind me chatting as I sat at the piano.

But as I finished playing, I noticed that the person he was waiting for was actually me. He approached, shook my hand, looked me in the eye, smiled broadly, and thanked me for the beautiful music. I told him it was my pleasure. “No,” he responded, “it was all mine. Your beautiful music was just what I needed this morning, and as far as I am concerned, it was all I needed to hear today. It was just wonderful.”

High praise indeed.

And for me, a lesson in being thankful for all things.

There was a two year period in my life where even sitting at a piano made me physically ill because of some things that had happened. I worked long and hard to be able to play again, and part of that included giving up all my old favourites and learning a new skill – improvisation – that had always eluded me, even in a university course where improvising simple melodies over a chord or adding chords to a simple melody was expected. If I had not had that terrible experience, I would not have learned to improvise, and I would not have been able to uplift this man with a simple improvised arrangement of this beautiful hymn.

“[B]e faithful enough and strong enough to give thanks in all things.” –Dallin H. Oaks

A Still Small Voice

Sri Lankan New Year begins in April. According to Sinhalese astrology, the new year begins when the sun moves from Pisces to Aries, and signals the end of the harvest and the beginning of spring. It is also one of two times a year that the sun shines directly over Sri Lanka.

So, on April 18th, the local branch of our church had their New Year’s celebration. Oh, the fun that we had!

One game in particular was a lot of fun. It was basically like having a Mexican pinata…but with clay pots each filled with different things (flour, pebbles, water, etc.) instead of a papier mache animal stuffed with candy and toys.

No one had yet broken a pot. And then it was my turn.

My husband turned to the senior missionary standing beside him about 100 feet away from me, and said, “If anyone can do this, it’s my wife.” He received a skeptical look from the missionary in return. In the meantime, unaware of what was transpiring between the two of them, I was blindfolded, spun in a circle a couple of times, and set in the general direction of where the clay pots were hanging. All around me I could hear dozens of voices chanting and calling in Sinhala, which I don’t speak. I made my way forward in the direction that I thought the pots were in, stick held in both hands, praying that I would not trip.

Suddenly, amidst all the shouted Sinhalese, I heard a tiny high pitched voice say very quietly in perfect English, “Right there, Sister. Hit it right there.” I raised both arms high above my head, took a mighty swing and….crack!!! I broke the first clay pot!

The senior missionary stared wide-eyed at my husband, who shrugged as if to say, “I told you!”

No one has come forward to tell me that they were the one who said those seven words to me.

Sometimes, a still small voice appears when we least expect it, if only we are able to hear it.

All in Favor

I grew up in the Anglican Church. I was christened shortly after I was born. My parents took me to church most Sundays. I attended Sunday School. I was confirmed as a teenager. I went to church camp. I found comfort in the rituals and prayers and hymns, in the time spent with family and friends.

And when I was nineteen, I left the church.

I did not rant against the church.

I did not rail against the church.

I did not make church events uncomfortable for other members.

I did not disrupt church proceedings.

I did not encourage others to leave the church.

I simply discovered, after a lengthy conversation with my minister, that I did not believe one of the tenets of the Anglican faith.

And so I left.

There was no fanfare.

There was no press release.

There were no media outlets waiting to report the breaking news.

Given my experiences with my former church and the experiences of the many converts that I have talked to about this, I do not understand why people who do not believe Latter-Day Saint doctrine remain members of the church.

Given my experiences, I find it disturbing that when a few members of the church decide that they are unhappy with one or two or a dozen points of doctrine, that they publicly rant and rail against it.

Given my experiences, I find it selfish and disrespectful when they decide to make church events uncomfortable for others by conspiring to disrupt church proceedings.

Given my experiences, I find it heartbreaking when they encourage others to do the same through the use of formal and informal media campaigns.

Each April and October, the general church membership is asked to sustain the leaders of the church, from the very top global level to the lowliest unit members. This means that “we stand behind them, pray for them, accept assignments and callings from them, obey their counsel, and refrain from criticizing them.”

When members are asked to refrain from disrupting conference proceedings, but do it anyway…

When members are asked to stop encouraging dissent or teaching false doctrine through public means and refuse…

When members organize demonstrations so as to disrupt a worldwide meeting for millions of people…

They are not sustaining church leadership.

That said, sustaining our leadership does not mean that one has to agree with everything they say or everything they do. There are protocols for airing one’s questions and concerns. Sustaining our leadership does not mean that one has to agree with every point of doctrine. There are protocols for seeking answers and clarification on these matters. Sustaining our leaders does not mean that we blindly follow. Indeed, we are taught to frequently seek personal revelation through study and prayer.

Sustaining our church leaders means more than praying and accepting and obeying. In the October 1946 General Conference, George Albert Smith said, “I hope that you will realize, all of you, that this is a sacred privilege. … It will not be just a symbol but it will be an indication that, with the help of the Lord, you will carry your part of the work.”

While this refers to the engagement in and completion of the work that one is asked to do by church leaders in accepting assignments and callings, it also refers to the way in which one conducts oneself as a member. Sustaining our leaders is not just a privilege – it is a sacred privilege, performed with a godly character, that is not common or profane. It is this part of the sustaining process that has led to several changes in recent years.

When women wanted changes in programs for girls, young women and adult sisters, they wrote letters, talked to church leaders, expressed their concerns. The General Women’s Meeting was born out of this process, and the women’s meeting was officially recognized as part of General Conference, just as the Priesthood Session has been. It also resulted in other changes for the women’s auxiliaries in the church.

When homosexual members sought answers to their questions about their place in the church and in church society, a website was created to answer their questions, and the church was instrumental in working towards anti-discrimination laws in Utah.

When members wanted more transparency regarding church history, a series of historical essays was commissioned to give a fuller, broader understanding of these events.

These are just three examples. There are likely dozens more, including the church’s use of technology, access to family history records, and changes to the missionary age. One can publicly sustain church leaders and still disagree with aspects of the church.

It took me six years of learning about the church before I became a member. And as a member, I have sometimes had questions and concerns with church doctrine, church leaders, church history. But by following the protocols, I have been able to have my concerns addressed.

Which is why when the leaders of the church ask for a sustaining vote, I raise my arm with millions of other members and declare “All in Favor”.

And I pray that those who are opposed can find a way to sustain them, too.

All in a Name

What’s in a name? you might ask yourself sometimes. I know I ask myself that question as I do family history work. You run across stories – written and oral – about how those with this surname are intelligent and those with that surname are stubborn. How this person is ‘just like the Deans’ or that person is ‘just like the Ivanys’.

The topic came up at a family reunion I attended last summer. My first cousins once removed were reminiscing about all those who were not there and all those who had gone before, including my paternal grandfather, Alex Dean. About how mild and gentle he was, how all the Dean men were like that once. At my parents’ 40th anniversary party my father’s youngest sister commented in her toast that my dad was just like their dad – she had never heard my father raise his voice, and she had never heard her father raise his voice.

I am not a Dean. I mean, I am a Dean, but I am not ‘just like the Deans’.

I suppose I’m more like how family lore describes one of my fifth great-grandfathers. Some people say the story is made up, but there is a family legend that says that he almost met his end in the 1800s when he got into an all-too-common argument, and the others, having yet again had enough of his mouth, tied him up and threw him into the bottom of a boat that was then set adrift. By some hope and a prayer, it washed ashore on the last little piece of land between Newfoundland and Ireland, and so that is where he settled and raised about ten or twelve children. Or so the story goes.

While I can possess a little of that hot-headedness, I have learned to control it most of the time. Someone once told me that I had a very quick temper. I told them that actually I have a very long temper – it takes me a long time to get angry but when it goes, it goes.

But this progenitor of mine had another important trait that I also seem to have inherited. Resilience. The ability to take something, no matter how bad it might be, and turn it to something good. The author Brandon Sanderson writes in one of his fantasy books how curses and blessings come in pairs. If temper is my curse, then resilience is my blessing.

In my church, we call each other by the terms Brother and Sister. The local leaders are called Bishops or Presidents, volunteer positions that one does not volunteer for but agree to accept if asked, if that makes sense. Local leaders, depending on the needs of the area and the type of unit they preside over, generally hold these positions for three to five years; area leaders for five to ten years. Instead of calling them Bro. Smith, for example, we call them Bishop Smith or Pres. Smith. Even after they no longer hold the leadership position, it is customary to continue calling them by those terms.

Which brings me to my husband.

Back home, he is known simply by his first name at church. I have watched people walk down the hallway, greeting person after person with ‘Good morning, Brother’, and then they reach my husband and it’s “Good morning, S.” It doesn’t happen when we go to church in Newfoundland or when we visit other congregations in our travels. But it happens in our own congregation and in his former congregation. No judgment here. Just an observation.

Now we find ourselves overseas in a place where he was a local leader many years ago. And here, he is still called President. His name is revered here. He is a legend. The people love him. He is greeted with smiles and cries of ‘Ah! President!”

He’s the same person here as there.

All in a name, I guess.