Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Conception

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Morning Session from the April 1973 Conference.
As I've been doing the reading for this General Conference Odyssey, sometimes one talk will strike me particularly in its entirety; more often a paragraph or two will set my mind to pondering a certain theme. This week it was the juxtaposition of two paragraphs from two different talks that made me think about something in a new way. Here is the first paragraph, which comes from President Kimball's talk about families:
Shakespeare said, “No profit comes where there is no pleasure taken.” You can’t do very well that which you don’t enjoy doing. If we don’t get great pleasure out of our families, we should repent, because we are doing something wrong. If the work of the Lord seems burdensome and makes us weary, or if we don’t get exhilaration and uplift out of that part of the work of the world that life has given us to do, then we should repent. We need some more powerful satisfactions from life.
As I read that paragraph, I thought about how it might be misconstrued or criticized. I've heard many people talk about how when they are discouraged or depressed, the feeling that they ought to be happy, they ought to be enjoying themselves and feeling gratitude for their blessings—just makes the depression MORE overwhelming. Now they feel like, not only are they sad and depressed, but they are SINNING by being sad and depressed. And I can imagine someone reading this paragraph and thinking exactly that. "Repent?! For not getting 'exhilaration' and pleasure out of my difficult life? That's crazy!"

But yet, I find great wisdom in this counsel. I can't say how anyone else ought to manage their thoughts about it, but for me, it's empowering to think of ways I might take this to heart. How might I "repent" for not enjoying various mundane tasks? How might I turn those tasks into things that DO "exhilarate" and "uplift" me? 

It was with these questions on my mind that I read this paragraph, from Elder Sterling W. Sill's talk:
The Lord organized the whole program in the beginning with a father who procreates, provides, and loves and directs, and a mother who conceives and bears and nurtures and feeds and trains. The Lord could have organized it otherwise but chose to have a unit with responsibility and purposeful associations where children train and discipline each other and come to love, honor, and appreciate each other. The family is the great plan of life as conceived and organized by our Father in heaven.
The two uses of "conceive" here made the word suddenly stick out to me in a different way. I'm familiar with the Proclamation on the Family language where it describes a mother's charge to be responsible for the "nurture of her children," but I like the use of "conceive" as being part of that responsibility. Of course we hear that word all the time in the scriptures—this or that woman "conceived, and bore a son"—so I usually think of conception as related to birth. But of course, to conceive is also to imagine, to plan, to envision and believe. It is in this sense that the family and the great plan of life were "conceived and organized" by Heavenly Father.

And so it struck me with great force that part of my role as a mother can be to "conceive" things for our family. I can plan, I can envision. I can look at the ideals I'm wishing for and then DO something toward bringing them about. Of course I don't think a mother should do this alone! Of course her husband and children ought to be contributing and fulfilling their roles as well. But when I think in these terms of the instruction to "take pleasure" from family life, I see it as a commandment even one person, alone, could strive to fulfill. Even if circumstances seem to conspire against it—even if other family members are reluctant or oblivious or difficult—I love the idea that I could personally take responsibility for "conceiving" ways to make life happier, more beautiful, more joyful, more fun!

Obviously what that happier, more beautiful life looks like will change from family to family. There are deep personal applications I can think of that I wouldn't want to share here, but for example, on some levels our choice to homeschool has been that for me. It is a plan I "conceived" before I knew it would actually work, but the simultaneous removal of certain day-to-day annoyances and the addition of day-to-day pleasures has combined to make it a good choice for our family right now. And, of course, there are also mundane, even silly ways I've found to make life a little more pleasant. Things like: it used to drive me crazy how the kids would leave their dirty socks by their shoes in the entryway, and even when I sent them to the laundry basket, the socks would never make it all the way to their rooms but instead lie scattered along points intermediate. I finally put another laundry basket right next to the shoe hallway, just for socks, and the problem (mostly) disappeared. It seems like nothing but it caused a fairly big change in personal satisfaction (and the removal of personal annoyance!). 

Or how I hate putting the heavy casserole dishes away in the drawer below the stove, so I've permanently assigned that job to Sam or Abe. Or how I superglued the silverware holder to the dish drainer because every time it fell off I felt like screaming at someone.

Sure, I realize that all my petty annoyances are lame and reveal deep character flaws. Sometimes when I'm really frustrated about something I imagine myself saying it, aloud, to one of my pioneer ancestors.
"I hate it how I have to button this dress to get it to stay on the hanger." 
"I'm mad because my week calendar comes up by default instead of my month calendar." 
"I am frustrated because the peanut butter is hard to stir." 
"These oven mitts make it really hard to grab the edges of the bread pan." 
"I'm annoyed that the car air conditioning keeps making my hair tickle my face."
There is nothing like the horror and embarrassment I feel, imagining these little tête-à-têtes, to give me a little perspective! So, of course, I realize that much of this "pleasure" I'm supposed to take in family life will come automatically as I improve myself and make myself more patient, less selfish, etc. BUT, I also don't see anything wrong with "conceiving" of plans and ideas to make things go a little more smoothly along the way!

I'm sure every mother has such examples. Shelves she has contrived to fit a difficult and messy space. Routines, born of necessity, that override potential tantrums before they occur. Shortcuts that make meal preparation or laundry bearable. But it's a new idea to me, to think of this inventiveness as being part of our divine role. I love the thought that we women, like Heavenly Father but on a smaller and more temporal scale, can use our intellect and our ingenuity to conceive of a "plan of happiness" for our own families!

And even more, I love the idea that it need not only be on a temporal scale! I love the idea that a mother's plan, a mother's conception, brings not just her children's bodies to life, but also their spirits! I do take "powerful satisfaction" in the fact that the plans I envision and conceive can "exhilarate and uplift" my family's, and my own, day-to-day life. What an absorbing and fulfilling challenge—and one that, I imagine, will teach me a lot about Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father as I try to meet it.

Other posts in this series:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Seeking desire

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Priesthood Session from the April 1973 Conference.
I talked about desire last week and now I'm going to talk about it again. I guess it's because I think a lot about this subject, so I'm extra sensitive to it when it gets mentioned! And President Romney has desire as a central theme of his talk, "Magnifying One's Calling in the Priesthood." He talks about the importance of desire—desire as a strong motivating force to help you do good and magnify your calling (and when I read "calling," I think of much more than current church calling—mostly my vocation as a mother and role as a disciple of Christ). He quotes this scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants: "And by their desires and their works you shall know them." (D&C 18:38—emphasis is President Romney's.)

It's all very well, and I DO have good desires as a "strong motivating force" in my life. To do as God wills. To submit to him. But I always talk myself into complicating things with "But is that really ALL I desire?"

The trouble is just that things are so mixed. I feel like none of my motivations are ever as whole and as pure as I'd like them to be. Yes! Of course I want to be good because I love God. I do, and I feel I am speaking totally honestly when I say so. But I also want to be good so that people will like me. And because I want heavenly rewards. I could say this about everything! When I give a talk or perform on the piano or write an essay, I try so desperately not to do it for the wrong reasons. "I want to do well so I can please Thee, and bring Thy spirit, and not for any recognition of my own!" I plead in my prayers. I don't WANT to want the praise of others. But I do, or part of me does. I want people to be impressed. In parenting it's the same. I know it doesn't matter what others think of my kids. I know my kids' personalities and talents are largely not my doing anyway, positive or negative! I know the only thing that matters about how I teach them and raise them, and even about how many of them I have, is whether or not those things fulfill Heavenly Father's wishes for me! And yet, even knowing this, and desiring to do it, I still DO want to feel praised and validated. I still do want to have people like my kids, and me, and not disapprove of my choices. I desire the children's welfare, truly, but I also desire to be right when I argue with them. I desire to learn and grow, but I also desire life to be easy and comfortable. And it frustrates me. I wish I could say, with total honesty, that my desires are pure! That my deepest, most true desire is to serve God. I WANT that to be true, but I don't know how I'd even KNOW if it were true, because my desires are often cloudy even to myself. Sometimes I'll ask myself, "But WHY are you acting this way? WHY does this scare/bother/anger you so much?" And I don't know. I sometimes don't even know.

In this talk, President Romney calls people out for "aspiring" to leadership positions. He says this isn't a righteous desire. And I know that. Goodness knows I don't want to hold important positions. They scare me! But even there I can't be sure my desires are pure, because just as we shouldn't aspire to positions because we want to be important—it seems to me we shouldn't aspire NOT to hold positions because we think it sounds hard and we would hate to have to put in so much time and effort. And yet that's basically what I'm doing.

It's not that I don't have desires to do good for its own sake. I do, and I feel like these parts of myself are deep and real. It's just that that isn't ALL there is to me. I've talked about this a lot and it's because I continue to wonder HOW to be purified. How to become wholly…well, holy!

Well, it's a great and thorny problem, and I know I can't expect to solve it in a day. But there are, I think, a few hints in the talk:
We should demonstrate that desire by living the gospel and diligently performing whatever service we are called upon to render. 
Nor is an effective desire a mere wish. It is not impassive; it is a motivating conviction which moves one to action. 
[I pray] that the Lord will help each of us…to acquire such a powerful motivating desire that we will…be led to magnify our callings in the priesthood.
And I even peeked ahead to the next session and found these words in another talk:
Live to be worthy of the companionship of the Holy Ghost. If you have its spiritual influence, it will bring conviction into your hearts. It will build testimony and create in you a desire to love the Lord. 
We should seek the desire, through righteous living, to once again dwell with [God].
So even though I still feel like a mass of contradicting desires, there are a few things I learned:
  • You can change your desires, and should seek good ones (pray for them?)
  • The Holy Ghost helps us create and maintain good desires (and eliminate bad, I assume)
  • God will help the good desires get stronger: "Let this desire work in you."
  • True desires motivate action--and I assume the action then reinforces the desire. So what I DO becomes what I WANT to do.
And I think maybe that last point is the most important thing I got from this talk. That the performance of a righteous action is the beginning of a cycle: action precedes desire which then precedes action. One can start, presumably, anywhere in that cycle—with either desire (nurturing the good desires that we already have, even if they are mixed with other less good desires) OR, if we can't find any good desires for that thing in ourselves at all, we can just start with the good action and trust the desire will follow.

So, to choose an example at random, if one is called to be a Cub Scout leader when one does not much DESIRE to be a Cub Scout leader, one could:
1. Call upon that part of oneself that DOES want to do it. This is the part that said yes to the calling. The part that loves God and is trying to trust Him and believe that He gives us challenges for our good. Focus on that part. Speak positively of the opportunity (again drawing, truthfully, on the good desires one has).
2. In addition to the above, one could also just start ACTING in the calling, trying to magnify it to the best of one's ability. One could attend meetings, and plan activities, and so forth, trusting in God that while the day-to-day desire to do these things was quite weak, the faithful doing of them anyway would at some point have an effect on desire, strengthening it.

Seems like good, practical advice from President Romney!

(UPDATE: Here's another talk that deals with this subject, and gives great counsel. It's by Elder Maxwell.)

Other posts in this series:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Expanding symmetry

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Because my life consists primarily of teaching children these days—both formally and informally—I'm often trying to distill concepts into their essence; to find elementary crumbs of meaning and then examine them to see if they hold true as they expand. I've noticed that, surprisingly, many simple concepts become more complicated as we delve into them; that the most basic questions can suddenly become baffling with a little more knowledge—things like how electric current travels, or what makes up the character of light. With more intense study, the pattern continues—additional knowledge answers some questions and simultaneously brings up others! I'm not advanced enough in scientific matters to see many iterations of this pattern firsthand, but I've seen it in my gospel study. There's an expanding symmetry to it, like fractals. Simple truths take on greater meaning and spring into elaborate detail as we "zoom in" or "zoom out"—and then they can become clear and simple again—and then again more complicated. We can find truth and clarity and simplicity at many different levels, but the elegance and complexity is there too, making up the very fabric of those simple truths. 

"We know that little children can learn spiritual truths," Elder Packer says, and proves his point by addressing the children themselves in his talk. And unlike many who say they are speaking to children, he actually talks in a way a child could understand! That's a difficult thing to do—most people are either condescending and sickly-sweet, or they mistake simplicity of vocabulary for simplicity of ideas—and I gained an even greater admiration for Elder Packer, seeing that he could do it so well. It's a side to him I didn't know about. He shares a profound spiritual experience he had at age 6 or 7, and I kept thinking as I read it, "I must remember how much children can learn and feel! I must not underestimate their capacity!"

In the Chicago airport a couple months ago, Sam and I got into a conversation with an earnest girl who belonged to a Baptist church. She learned that Sam taught at BYU, and that started her off. She was making a heroic effort to be civil and I admired her for it, but you could see her heart was just racing at the chance to confront a real live Mormon. She kept asking questions prefaced by "and I'm totally not trying to be confrontational or anything, but I'm really just wondering if you actually believe ________ doctrine?" [you save yourself by works, Christ's salvation isn't free, etc]

She was chiefly talking to Sam and I felt like I'd just make things worse by shoving my oar in, so I mostly just listened, but it made me think about how important (and difficult!) it is to establish common ground within the vast range of definitions and understandings for a single word like "salvation." The sweet girl kept jumping in, when Sam started to talk about how we are all saved by Christ's grace and mercy, and the ordinances of the church allow us to progress toward becoming like him—with "But I'm saved already, by the grace of Jesus!" Well, yes…maybe…depending on what you mean by "saved"! It just seemed like a silly thing to get hung up on: at what precise point one is "saved" and whether or not one is being good with hope of reward or not—but that's because from my perspective, the quest to become like God is the most important thing, and the journey toward him requires that I grow, obey, experience, suffer, and love. As Elder Maxwell says, "How can you and I really expect to glide naively through life, as if to say, “Lord, give me experience, but not grief, not sorrow, not pain, not opposition, not betrayal, and certainly not to be forsaken. Keep from me, Lord, all those experiences which made Thee what Thou art! Then let me come and dwell with Thee and fully share Thy joy!”

Anyway, as we ended our conversation at the airport with this girl, my primary emotion was of gratitude, that I have been taught the simple truths of the gospel. There is much to them I don't understand, because I'm still a child myself in so many ways, but I sense the Lord's loving hand in the way he has sent scriptures and prophets to help unfold them. I am simultaneously comforted by their simplicity, and challenged by their depth. Whether my "salvation" begins at birth because I am His child and all mankind will be resurrected—or if it's when I am baptized because that constitutes "entering in at the gate"—or if it's when I truly "accept" Him in my heart—or if it's when my calling and election is made sure, whatever that means—I don't know, but it doesn't particularly trouble me. I just want to, at some point, become like God! That simple truth—that such a thing is possible!—is a gift our Baptist friend didn't seem to yet possess.

Elder Packer's whole talk is elegant in its simplicity. He speaks clearly of death as a separation, and says (quite beautifully, I think),
 "Death is a separation and is according to the plan. If the plan ended there, it would be too bad, because we came to obtain a body and it would be lost…
Little children, our Heavenly Father knew that we would need help. So, in the plan, he provided for someone to come into the world and help us. 
This was Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is a spirit child as all of us are; but also, Jesus was his Only Begotten Son on the earth. I speak very reverently of him. And he it was, my little friends, who made it possible for us to overcome death and get things put back the way they should be. 
You are learning about him in Sunday School, in Primary, and in family home evening. It is very important that you remember him and learn all you can about what he did.
He overcame the mortal death for us. Through the atonement, he made it possible for our spirit and body to be one again. Because of him we will be resurrected. He made it possible for us to be resurrected, for the spirit and the body to be put back together. That is what the resurrection is. That is a gift from him. And all men will receive it. That is why he is called our Savior, our Redeemer."
This much, our Baptist friend seemed to know. But then Elder Packer continues, 
"There is another separation that you need to think about--not the separation of the body from the spirit; rather, a separation from our Heavenly Father.
If we remain separated from him and can’t get back to his presence, then it would be as though we were spiritually dead. And that would not be good. This separation is like a second death, a spiritual death. 
…We must find a way to keep ourselves clean, spiritually clean, so that we will not be separated from our Heavenly Father and may return to where he is when we leave this earth life. 
We are sure you will overcome mortal death. You will be resurrected because of what Christ did for us. Whether or not you overcome the spiritual death--that separation from the presence of our Heavenly Father--will depend a great deal upon you.
This is just what I wished I could have said to our Baptist friend at the airport. It's so perfectly, beautifully simple. What ultimately happens to us, our salvation or exaltation or position in heaven or whatever name you wish to give it—it will depend a great deal on us! Not because, by our own power, we can do anything. Not because we are deserving or self-sufficient. Of course we need a Savior! Of course all is lost without him! But it will depend a great deal on us because we will, ultimately, get that which we most fundamentally desire. "[We] shall return again to [our] own place, to enjoy that which [we] are willing to receive…"

I think this post captures that truth very well. Of course we have conflicting desires at times, and sometimes we wish weakly for something while not being willing to actually sacrifice for it, but the fundamental truth about agency is that we WILL seek that which our heart most longs for. And we WILL obtain that which we seek.

Elder Packer concludes, and I could feel his love as I read it, 
"There will be times when you will make mistakes (and all of us make mistakes). There will be times when you will wonder if you can live the way he taught we should live. When you are tested, when you are disappointed, or ashamed, or when you are sad, remember [Jesus Christ] and pray to your Heavenly Father in his name. 
Some men will say that he did not come to earth. But he did. Some will say that he is not the Son of God. But he is. Some will say that he has no servants upon the face of the earth. But he has. For he lives. I know that he lives."
And that is the beauty of the gospel. I keep using the word "beautiful" and I mean it very literally—I find these truths, like snowflakes or tree branches, orderly and designed and beautiful. Distance and closeness, trust and blessing. There is a depth to them, as they spread and recur like fractals, where they both transcend and underlie the realities of mortal life. And ultimately, like a child, I hold on to this: God loves me, and I reach Him when I love Him back.

Other posts in this series:

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Fresh as a Daisy

We sure love our fields of daisies here, the very daisies Daisy was named for. And we've been taking these pictures for a long time now! My little flower girls seem to get nicer every year. :)
We count Junie as a flower too, of course. Her obligatory juniper tree pictures usually happen while we're hiking! :)
Aaaand…there's nothing wrong with a Marigold in among the daisies, is there?
Catching dandelion fluff
And blowing it!
Free!
Junie found a feather
Gold-ish flowers for a Goldie
She seemed to feel very bold and independent off by herself in the flower field.
But she did come back eventually!
Junie counting for hide-and-seek
Where's Daisy?
Everyone did lots of dancing, of course
When we came home, these hulking boys were waiting for us on the porch swing.
Come back soon, June!