Tuesday, March 21, 2017

We have only seen the beginning

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session from the October 1975 Conference.
I've been thinking about missions and missionaries lately. I don't know if it's my developing understanding of all the things missions are besides just teaching discussions and baptizing people—the frustrating down time, the wondering what to do next, the necessity of serving so many people who are weird and unlikeable and needy, the fundamental and discouraging disagreements with companions or leaders about how the work should proceed—because I've never been on a mission myself, I guess I'm only recently starting to think about those aspects. And maybe it's also because I'm starting to have friends with children on missions, and I'm beginning to see them from a parent's point of view. How much you want your children to hold to their faith, whatever happens, and not let discouragement overcome them—and at the same time realizing how little you can DO about it, because it's something they themselves must choose to do.

I've talked to a few missionaries lately who didn't participate in any baptisms at all on their missions. And I've realized it's not so unusual. These missionaries have talked about finding other joys and blessings on their missions, other ways to measure God's hand in their lives, and other pathways to maintain their optimism. And I thought about how much faith it sometimes takes to believe, as I've talked about before, not only that God will at some time in the future guide and bless us—but that he is doing so NOW despite the "local cloud cover" that blocks our vision of it.

In this same vein, Elder James E. Faust describes his own mission, one that must have been tremendously discouraging. He said,
As I stood last week on this site where this [new church building] will stand, I recalled how difficult and unpromising the future of the Church appeared in South America thirty-six years ago. In all of our mission we had only three baptisms in one year, despite the conscientious labors of over seventy missionaries. We did not have the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, or the Book of Mormon translated into Portuguese. We held our meetings in rooms that were small and unfit for the lofty message we were trying to teach. We often had to sweep out these rooms before meeting to remove the empty bottles and trash from the revelry of the night before. It was always difficult and often discouraging.
But then he describes the growing of the gospel in South America. The increase in members, leaders, buildings. And most amazing of all, the building of a temple—outside of North America! Elder Faust was not the only apostle to express amazement at this evidence of the miraculous blossoming of God's kingdom. Reading their words, I could just feel their immense surprise and joy that such a thing was even possible. And, of course, that was only a portion of the joy felt by the South American members themselves:
I remembered being told by one of our great South American stake presidents that when he comes to general conference in Salt Lake, he and his wife will have to decide which two of their five children they will bring to be sealed to them in the Salt Lake Temple. It takes forty-three soles to make one dollar. Now their plans have changed. They are planning to take all five children to the first temple in South America.
It adds another layer of meaning to all this, of course, reading about it forty years later. To us it seems almost old-fashioned, that delight in a temple outside North America—why, of course we have temples all over the world! I'm so used to that fact I forget to be amazed by it. But seeing how Elder Faust felt at the thought of even one other nation being blessed by a temple's presence reminds me that this is how our vision grows. We may feel overwhelmed by the odds against us. When things look bleak, we start to doubt first our own ability to follow God, and then perhaps even His presence there leading us. But all along, He is steadily doing His work, steadily sending His miracles, until those who have kept up hope—those who have kept trying to assist in God's work even though they couldn't see it making any difference—suddenly SEE what has been going on before their very eyes all along. And then they must exclaim, as Elder Faust does repeatedly:
Having seen it all from close range, I cannot doubt that this is the work of God…
How can anyone who has seen what I have deny that this is the work of God?…
Contemplating all of this I could not doubt that this is the work of God upon the earth…
Having seen what I have seen in South America, I cannot deny that this is the work of God.
And as this surety grows in us, instead of looking ahead and seeing storm clouds and bleakness and uncertainty, we can see what Elder Faust saw as he looked ahead:
In my mind’s eye I could see young couples clean and pure, hand in hand, and with smiles on their faces, many with brown skins handsomely contrasting their white clothing, who will come to this sacred spot to be married under the power of the holy priesthood of God for time and for all eternity. It was easy to imagine the great joy of whole families who will come to that spot to be sealed and bound together under the same authority into an eternal family association through their worthiness… 
Here will come the children, full of the mirth and excitement of youth, to perform the sacred ordinances of vicarious baptism for those who have not had that opportunity in their lifetime. It was easy to imagine the pleasure of those coming to be baptized and the great joy of those who have waited so long for this saving ordinance in their eternal journey… 
How does the work of God go there now? Problems—there are many; challenges—they are great, but the progress is almost unbelievable. What I have said about South America can be said of many other parts of the whole world. This is a great worldwide Church, and so far we have only seen the beginning.
I love that vision, and I hope it's what a discouraged missionary can learn, with the help of God's Spirit, to see. It's what I hope I can learn to see when things look bleak. The growth of God's kingdom. His goodness and love. Our joy in the souls, however, few, we manage to affect for good. And most of all, the triumphant rolling forth of the Father's plan, blessing and saving all His children, in every way they will accept, forever and ever. Because I'm pretty sure that even forty years after Elder Faust said these words—compared to the glory that is coming, so far we have only seen the beginning.


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Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Let them hear something better occasionally

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session from the October 1975 Conference.
The other night Sam and I were at a concert listening to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. I love that piece so much, and I know every note of it. I've listened to it and played sections of it in orchestras and watched ballets set to it. It's such a powerful piece of music! And suddenly I discovered I was crying, off and on, thinking about how far off (in ability as well as time!) the days seemed when I thought I was going to do great, beautiful, important things with my music—or my writing—or surely something that would bring me into famous circles of people, gathering acclaim and impressing everyone I met. I was laughing at myself between the tears, because I'm SO happy. So happy and content with my life. And I know most of my grand visions for myself were products of a large dose of the (probably overblown) self-confidence my parents' love and my fortunate circumstances bequeathed to me! But sometimes I can't help just a bit of…surprise? bemusement? at the place I find myself, all these years and children later. Even though I'm so grateful to be here.

Anyway, it made me think about what surprises my life may still hold, and about my own children—what futures they are envisioning for themselves, and how those futures may diverge from their reality. It made me wonder what great things they'll do, and if those things will…seem great to them? Or only to me, as I watch and love them? It made me wonder if I'm giving them enough chances to excel in things they could be good at. Or if that even matters. There are always so many questions to ask yourself as a parent, aren't there?

Well…now to the talk. Throughout this General Conference Odyssey, I have loved reading talks from General Authorities I've never heard of. I'm glad I'm getting to know some new voices. But also…goodness, I love President Hinckley! Reading his talk in this session was like hearing from an old friend. The talk is called "Opposing Evil," and begins in his characteristic tone, weaving together signs of the times and calling on church members to have a "new beginning" in opposing evil. He talks about living a virtuous life and urges each Latter-day Saint to "control his words that he speak only that which is uplifting and leads to growth." (I love that reminder.)

Then he comes to another "point of beginning":
A better tomorrow begins with the training of a better generation. This places upon parents the responsibility to do a more effective work in the rearing of children.
I wrote in my notes by this passage, "Good intentions aren't enough." I think I was noticing that phrase "a more effective work," and thinking about how being effective at something requires more than just desire: it requires work and planning and strategy and practice. Being a good parent takes the same sort of effort that being a good…anything…takes, I suppose! Or more.

President Hinckley goes on a bit about this "training of a better generation," talking about how we should raise our children to read and have a taste for the great works of literature, good magazines, "a good family newspaper," good theater, good music, and so forth. It's all good advice and I was nodding along, but at the same time thinking about how few of the things my older children read and listen to would fall into the category of "great works." I don't think their choices of entertainment are AWFUL, and they are pretty conscientious about avoiding the really bad things but…great music and great literature? Hmm. I don't think the latest YA dystopian novel quite fits in that category.

And of course, I don't know that my OWN entertainment choices always fall into that category either, but I have at least had a taste for the "classics" cultivated in me by my own parents. And I'm not sure I'm doing as well with my own children. For example, during that same concert I realized, with a shock of regret, that I almost never play any of the classical music I love for the kids. There's always so much other noise and chatter around that I can't bear to add something else to it. They have their own piano practicing, and I guess they hear me practice for a musical number or something occasionally, but I don't know if great music surrounds them like it did me when I was young. And I don't know that great literature does either. (Not to mention the lack of a "good newspaper"—which is something I don't actually believe exists anymore; haha!) And it made me wonder if I'm doing enough to do that "more effective work" in the rearing of MY children!

But then, just as I was starting to wonder how I could possibly find the time and energy to do more "exposing" of my children to great literature and great music and great theater and all the rest, and wondering if they'd even LIKE it if I DID do that (because you know, they are becoming their own people so rapidly…with their own very definite tastes…), President Hinckley said (in his very President Hinckley-ish way):
Let there be music in the home. If you have teenagers who have their own recordings, you will be prone to describe the sound as something other than music. Let them hear something better occasionally. Expose them to it. It will speak for itself. More of appreciation will come than you may think. It may not be spoken, but it will be felt, and its influence will become increasingly manifest as the years pass.
And suddenly I felt better. Because I do, and I will, expose my children to the things I love. Not as often as I'd like, maybe. And not so skillfully that they will always love those same things themselves, immediately. But it's not an act—my love of music, my love of good writing, my love of the scriptures—my love of the gospel most of all. Those things are deep, true parts of myself. And I know I need to consciously let them come out—to do an "effective work" of parenting as President Hinckley says—but I can also hope and trust that they are unconsciously coming out as well.

And hopefully, even though I pretty much always feel frantic and busy and like I must be forgetting something important, my children will catch those glimpses of "something better occasionally." With music. With books. With our imperfect efforts at meaningful family home evening and scripture reading and everything else. And most comforting of all, as we let our genuine likes and loves and talents seep out of us even in small ways, I think any parent can trust that President Hinckley's promise—the reassurance that "more of appreciation will come than you may think"—will be fulfilled in all those aspects of life where our children will benefit most.

Other posts in this series:

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

The great causative force

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Afternoon Session from the October 1975 Conference.

In his talk "A Prophet's Faith," Elder A. Theodore Tuttle made an intriguing classification of faith into two types:
I believe there are basically two kinds of faith. The kind of which I have spoken—faith that God lives and rules in the heavens—sustains us in life’s challenges. It enables us to endure without yielding, and bear the trials common to us all. This faith has characterized the lives of this people all through their history. It is a great legacy to inherit and to bequeath. 
There is another kind of faith: more powerful, less known, infrequently observed. This faith in God compounds our ability to accomplish our righteous desires. It is the creative, and generative kind of faith. This is the faith save for the exercise of which things would not happen. This is the great causative force in human lives. This is the faith that moves mountains.
I've read this over and over and I'm still not completely sure I understand the difference between these two types of faith he's talking about. I THINK maybe he means that the first kind of faith is a more internal faith; something we feel within ourselves that helps us endure trials and believe in God no matter what comes. (But isn't this faith, also, a "causative force" that causes us to remain faithful?)

And then maybe he is saying that the second type of faith reaches outside of ourselves to affect others as well. Again—I'm not sure I get his full meaning. But I always love to learn more about faith, and I think this is so interesting. I think he means that when we take the quiet, internal knowledge given us in the first type of faith—and act on it, speak of it, bring it into all aspects of our life—it then compounds and becomes even more powerful. He connects this second type to the working of miracles:
The scriptures teach that certain powers of heaven are governed by the faith of mortal men. The Lord’s ability to help us succeed is limited only by our faith in him. “For if there be no faith among the children of men God can do no miracle among them; wherefore, he showed not himself [unto them] until after their faith.
“Neither at any time hath any wrought miracles until after their faith; wherefore they first believed in the Son of God.” (Ether 12:12, 18.)… 
We can cause righteous desires to come to pass, for in the words of our Master, “According to your faith be it unto you.” (Matt. 9:29.)  
Again, I'm a little confused, because to me it seems that the first type of faith causes miracles too—but maybe they are quieter, internal miracles—no less miraculous for being within us—but less obvious AS miracles, maybe? And less…spreadable?

To illustrate this second, "causative" faith, Elder Tuttle uses the example of when President Kimball called on the church for more missionaries:
In the last eighteen months, I’ve watched this kind of faith cause things to happen. It began with a prophet. He spoke. His words put spiritual forces into action that heretofore had been dormant. People acted. They repented. They changed. Events changed… 
A prophet not only prophesies of things that will happen. A prophet, by the exercise of faith, causes things to happen.
This made me think about how our faith can affect other people. It's a common question, I think—since agency is so important, and we know we can't "pray away" other people's right to choose how they will act, then how DO our prayers influence those we love and care about? And the example Elder Tuttle uses here almost makes me grasp something about that. Maybe it's that when our faith (the first type) grows to become so strong and clear that we speak of it naturally and openly and frequently—and others can SEE it working in our lives, shining out of us—then it becomes the second type of faith—which somehow causes those around us to feel hopeful enough or brave enough to gain a desire THEMSELVES—not a compulsion—but just a desire that truly comes from within their own spirits—to ALSO act and change?

Elder Tuttle continues:
Eighteen months ago one man expressed his faith that missionary work could be improved, become more efficient, and more productive. At that time it seemed impossible. Immediately, however, his counselors joined their faith with his faith and it was trebled. Then the Twelve joined with them and Church leaders and many members have compounded that faith again and again. Faith called forth faith and a mighty work moves forward.
Again, I'm trying to understand this how this might work. I can see how the strong faith of the prophet inspires and changes those around him. He's SO full of faith that others think, "Well, if HE thinks we can do it, surely we CAN!" which causes them to really believe it can—and the conviction spreads. (And, it occurs to me, part of the prophet's faith that things will all work out comes from his belief that the SAVIOR thinks so. So the faith has really been spread from Jesus Christ Himself.)

I don't know exactly how "moving mountains" or those bigger physical miracles fit in, but I tried to think of how this "causative force" might work in a family. If I let my quiet faith grow, and my children see how much I trust God and how firmly I believe that God will help them in their lives (even if they don't yet believe that for themselves)—perhaps in time my faith will actually become "causative" for them, in that they will think, "My mother seems sure of this. And she's been sure for so long…maybe she's right? Maybe God does love me and I can change?" It seems like even a child just having that thought might be enough to qualify as a "particle of faith"—and God will honor it—and it will lead to a swelling and growth of their own faith as well.

Or I could imagine this happening when hearing someone bear testimony. Sometimes I've heard people talk about how it makes them feel bad when they hear other people's testimonies as "too sure," because it makes them worry about weak their own faith is. "Oh, that person KNOWS WITHOUT A DOUBT that Joseph Smith was a prophet?" they think. "Well…I don't know that. What's wrong with me?" But again, I'm imagining that in the right circumstances, there could be a "causative" faith that happens there. As the listener thinks, "Wow, he sounds so sure…I wish I were that sure!"—isn't that feeling "a desire to believe"? And according to Alma, that's enough! That's enough to start the process of developing such faith for oneself.

I imagine that the circumstances must be right, of course. The person expressing conviction must be sincere and not manipulative. The initial "display of faith" must be a natural upwelling of that person's conviction, and not an attempt to show off. And I suppose that when the observer's heart isn't yet ready, he might misinterpret ANY overt display of faith as an attempt to show off. But I still think the spiritual power, the causative power, would be there, for anyone just ready enough to have a hopeful, wishful thought about their own faith.

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