Monthly Archives

May 2008

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Self-Mastery


I have received permission to share the following interchange. I share it with the hope that it might stir some thinking and sharing.

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Dear Wally,

Here’s another notion we have in the Church that troubles me – Self Mastery. I suppose, like many things, it may be a matter of semantics. But I think that Self Mastery, like Self Esteem, is highly over-rated.

Week after week we have people show up at 12 Steps who want to get control of their lives. They seem to work on the premise that there are two choices; either get control of your life or lose control of it. The notion that what we really need and ultimately, what is required, is to give control of it to God. That third option is rarely addressed by anyone but me in these meetings. Even the missionaries called to provide the program repeatedly teach as though there were only the two options. I’ve approached them about it and by now, if you were to ask them, they’d say there were three options, but their words often betray the fact that they haven’t really internalized the third option.

I will not deny that taking control may be a precursor to giving control, just as attempting to keep the commandments is a precursor to surrendering our lives to God. Once we finally discover the impossibility of it, we must either surrender to Satan or surrender to God. It comes down to that every time in my opinion. Maybe, like you said the other day , this is just a concept that can’t be taught by anyone else but the Holy Ghost. Maybe it is just something a person must attain unto in the course of living and struggling. Maybe it’s like receiving your Calling and Election, something that just can’t be conveyed in a merit badge system that is explicable enough to
share from the pulpit.

We don’t seem to want to learn what Orson F. Whitney tried to teach us when he ansered William Ernest Henly’s Invictus with a poem of his own. What do you think?

Thanks,
Candleman

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Dear Candleman,

Your note made me think about C.S. Lewis who described himself as the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. He felt that he was draggedkicking and fighting to Truth.

That is also like Alma or Paul or . . . .

So I am not sure I would concede that we must conquer ourselves so we canthen turn ourselves over to God. That idea might be a concession to falsedoctrine–kinda like we must first get rich so we can really contribute tothe kingdom. What must happen is for us to recognize our total dependence onGod. Total. Dependence. What we turn over to Him will always be imperfect.The quality of our offering is not the question. The totality of our
offering is the issue.

I love how Ammon said it: Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength Iam weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God,for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles
we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever.

I think that Satan always wants us to stir a little silliness into theTruth. I think that self-mastery–as commonly understood and taught–is adistraction. A better description is the Lord’s (He has a way with words!!)delivered through beloved Joseph:

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that liein our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to seethe salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.

We do the little that we can. But the hinge point is to stand still with the utmost assurance. Then and only then will we see the power of God manifest–in our lives and in the world around us.

Blessings to you,
Wally

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The Magic Moment


Reflecting with an old friend this morning, he asked the question: When did you change? When did everything become different?

My mind hopped around my life history looking for that one moment. When did it happen?

There was my mission when I caught fire. That fire changed me.

There was and is Nancy, so gently and totally transformative. She continues to change me in subtle ways.

There was the time when I finished Les Miserables and felt overwhelmed with a mixture of compassion and goodness. I wanted to be a better man.

There was the time when I counseled a woman with a life in shambles. As God sent a message of love for her, I realized that He loved me. I stopped resisting His love.

There was that time when everything seemed to fall apart. I realized that I couldn’t make my life what it needed to be. I turned to Him more earnestly than ever.

It is hard for me to assess how much my believing ancestors and dear parents have changed me. They are the water in which I have always swum.

There was Stephen Robinson’s book that opened my heart to new vistas of the atonement of Jesus Christ. That book continues to bless me.

Of course there are the books of scripture. What would I be without them?

There have been thousands of flashes of insight along the way. Which is the definitive experience?

After some reflection I realized that the question doesn’t fit my experience. While it is true that some transformative moments are bigger than others, I cannot find a single magical moment. All the pieces of life’s puzzle must fit together. No piece makes sense independent of its context. Even a big piece needs all the other pieces in order to fit, to make sense, to add meaning.

And the One who assembles the puzzle of our lives knows exactly when to put each piece in place.

For behold, thus saith the Lord God: I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little; and blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom; for unto him that receiveth I will give more; and from them that shall say, We have enough, from them shall be taken away even that which they have. (2 Nephi 28:30)

Thank you, Father, for giving precisely what I needed exactly when I needed it. And for doing the same for each and every one of Your children.

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What Do I Have to Offer?


Recently a beloved missionary called to ask us a troubled question. “Why am I so weak and imperfect? All the people love Sister So-and-so. I’ll never be like her. I just want to give up.”

The instinctive response is to argue, “But you are so good at such and such. You have so many talents!” We may even stoop to faulting the praised one as if making the competition poorer might make her feel better.
But there is no right way to do a wrong thing. There is no right answer to a wrong question. When the question is, “How can I respect myself when there are others so much better than I?” the answer is not, “You are better than you think you are.”

We can learn a better model from God’s example of dealing with His children. Enoch, after being told to prophesy unto the people, objected in a way very similar to the missionary who called us:

. . . he bowed himself to the earth, before the Lord, and spake before the Lord, saying: Why is it that I have found favor in thy sight, and am but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant? (Moses 6:31).

If we were to contemporize Enoch’s language, it might sound like, “O Father, how can you use me? I am a nobody. The people hate me and I have no ability at speaking. How can you possibly use me?”

How did the Lord respond to such self-abnegation? Did He offer praise, encouragement, or contradiction? His answer is a pattern for responding to discouragement.

And the Lord said unto Enoch: Go forth and do as I have commanded thee, and no man shall pierce thee. Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance, for all flesh is in my hands, and I will do as seemeth me good (Moses 6:32).

In the mouth of a supportive, mortal parent, the message might be, “Go ahead and do what you are able. I will protect and guide you. You do what you are able and I will make up the difference.”

In dealing with Enoch’s self-doubt, God did not offer platitudes or palliatives. He told him to have the faith to move forward. He even gave Enoch the words to say. “Say unto this people: Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who made you” (Moses 6:33). Surely God was teaching Enoch even as he was using him to deliver a message to the people.

Two steps in the process of reassuring the hesitant are even clearer in the experience of Moses. Moses offers an ideal test case since his identity had been shattered and remade in such dramatically different ways. He was revered as the son of Pharaoh with all the princely privileges and honors. Then he was seen as a slave-Israelite and criminal on Egypt’s “Ten Most Wanted” list.

So he fled to Midian to start over. In a mountaintop interview with God, Moses got the message of his true identity. God introduced himself to Moses with grandiloquence. “Behold, I am the Lord God Almighty, and Endless is my name; for I am without beginning of days or end of years; and is not this endless?” (Moses 1:3). God did not use such boldness to impress Moses; he used it to set the stage for Moses’ most important discovery: “And, behold, thou art my son” (Moses 1:4). Moses learned that he had a role more important even than a prince in Egypt. He was a son of God.

God also showed Moses the workmanship of His hands. He beheld the entire history of the world and every inhabitant. God had a specific instructional objective in showing His creation to Moses: “And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son” (Moses 1:6). Think of the power of those two messages: “You are a son of God. He has a work for you to do.”

The two messages we offer to those who are discouraged and overwhelmed relate to relationship and mission: 1. We love you. We do not love you because you are better at this or that than so and so. We love you because you are you, because you are a unique creation of your Heavenly Fathder. 2. You are able to do an important part of God’s work. With heavenly help, you can do a work that He has designated just for you.

Ammon, with characteristic exuberance, expressed the attitude of a true servant:

Yea, I know that I am nothing; as to my strength I am weak; therefore I will not boast of myself, but I will boast of my God, for in his strength I can do all things; yea, behold, many mighty miracles we have wrought in this land, for which we will praise his name forever (Alma 26:12).

Lasting comfort does not come from comparison but from “relying wholly upon the merits of him who is mighty to save” (2 Nephi 31:20). We may be tempted to ask ourselves, “Could I do what Moses did?” The more interesting question is, “Could Moses do what Moses did?” The answer is a resounding “No!” Only God can do miracles. But we can be His messengers or helpers. Just as God used meek Moses to do a vital work, He can use us.

Our job is not to impress people, move mountains, convert people, or change the course of history. Our job is simply to do His will. As Jesus, the perfect servant of God, observed:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).

When Satan assails us with self-doubt, the right answer is, “I am a child of God. I trust him to use me to bless His children.” Life becomes more meaningful as “one joyfully, voluntarily, and quietly submits one’s whole life to God’s will” (Alice T. Clark, Humility, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Volume 2).

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Regret


Somewhere along the line I started regretting many circumstances and choices of my life. I was sorry that I had been raised in Emigration Canyon where I missed out on the normal social life that my peers enjoyed at the high school 11 miles away. I regretted choosing physics as my college major and teaching high school for a dozen years before discovering my true love of developing family programs. I grieved that I was not more dignified like my model physics professor, Jae R. Ballif.

I don’t remember what it was that finally pierced my theme of regret. At some point I asked myself if those circumstances and choices might be a blessing rather than a burden. Phew! As soon as I turned from grieving to appreciating, my mood changed.

The heavenly view of things

Living in Emigration Canyon may have stunted my social development, but it gave me glorious opportunities to learn lessons of peace and joy from Mother Nature. We created a raft, a rope swing, and a treehouse. We had pet dogs, skunks, and squirrels. We climbed, explored, and rejoiced. I suppose God knew that I needed all these experiences first and foremost. Social development could wait.

I cannot say that I use my physics training very often. But I am glad for what I learned about the world around us and the laws that govern this universe. Physics provides me what Einstein called “a cosmic awe of the universe.”

The years I spent teaching high school can be framed as distraction and delay or a glorious preparation for my life’s work. It taught me vital lessons about teaching. I am sure now that it was a blessing.

I don’t have Jae Ballif’s dignity, but, in my 30’s, I finally realized that I have different gifts. I have exuberance. I will never be him. He will never be me.

None of this is really about luck; it’s about faith. I believe that God perfectly designs our lives to get us from where we were in our pre-earth lives to where we yearn to be.

The Master Teacher

Consider God to be a classroom teacher. He provides exactly the lesson we need at exactly the right time. It is true that we may refuse to learn. We may break our pencils and put our heads on our earthly-classroom desks. We may resist His teaching and inviting. But He is a perfect Teacher. He knows how to motivate reluctant students. He is even willing to wait patiently when we are stubborn and contrary. While we will learn far more when we are willing students, God knows how to accomplish His work. He will teach us and bless us as much as we are willing to receive.

It is worth noting that His goal is not to force us to be like Him. His goal is to help us become all we are willing to become. And God is gloriously able to do that work.

“For he will give unto the faithful line upon line, precept upon precept; and I will try you and prove you herewith” (D&C 98:12). He is determined to get us through mortal graduation fully developed–having filled the measures of our creation.

So I have begun to think that all regrets show a lack of faith in God. He knows how to do His work. He knows how to save His children. I should be grateful for everything He places in my life.

“And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious” (D&C 78:19, emphasis added).

We should not presume that we know our needs better than He does. We should receive all things with thankfulness.

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Re-scripting Negative Parent-Child Interactions


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Sometimes we parents make stupid pronouncements. For example, one morning I was teaching a parenting class and a mother told about a blow-up with her daughter the previous evening. She had made a special meal for her daughter to eat while she studied. Apparently the daughter was not in a good mood. When Mom delivered the meal, the daughter scorned: “I don’t want to eat that junk!” Mother was instantly indignant. “Is that the gratitude I get for trying to be helpful? Maybe you can be grounded for a week!” And she stomped back to the kitchen feeling both hurt and guilty. She knew that her daughter had behaved badly. But she also knew that she had over-reacted.

The mother asked me what she should do. She did not want to make threats and then fail to deliver. She knew that could undermine her credibility. She is right. One of the greatest problems in parenting is that parents give directives that they do not enforce. Children learn to ignore our directives until we become angry. Only then do they know that we’re serious.

Yet the best way to teach the daughter to repent is to be a good model of repenting. I suggested that the mother approach her daughter when she got home from school. When they are relaxed, she could say: “I want to talk with you about something. Last night I was very hurt when I prepared a treat that I thought you would enjoy and you seemed unappreciative. I reacted in ways that aren’t right. I’m sorry. I wonder if we could start over again. I would like to recreate our interaction last night.”

I asked if the mother thought that approach would work. The mother heaved a sigh of relief. “I have felt so bad about my reaction. If I say what you suggested, I know that my daughter will immediately apologize for her thoughtless reaction. I can apologize for my over-reaction. Our relationship will be healed.”

I call that re-scripting. We can go back to bad times and re-write them when we are peaceful. While I believe that reasonable rules should be consistently and promptly enforced, I also believe that unreasonable pronouncements should be revised with humility and kindness.

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Traffic as the Test of Christian Character


The shortest route to work from my home takes me along Arkansas Highway 5—which carries a lot of traffic. The traffic moves well until the highway approaches an overpass. At that point the right lane goes to a freeway entrance that leads away from town and the left lane goes over the freeway to the entrance that leads toward town. Most of the morning traffic goes over the overpass.

Every morning most of us dutiful citizens wait in line in the slow-moving left lane waiting for our turn to go over the overpass. Every morning many marauders take the relatively empty right lane and shoot past the blocks of patient drivers and cut into line at the front of the left lane.

This behavior energizes the natural man in my soul. I fume. Is their time more precious than anyone else’s? Are they more important than the rest of us? I often wish the thoughtless drivers could be given an extended timeout—maybe one minute for each person who was slowed by their thoughtlessness. I would like them to be punished for not playing well with others.

Stages of spiritual development

Driving is a magnificent test of our Christian character. We are generally quite anonymous, we have lots of power, and we are fully goal-directed. If anything will demonstrate our spiritual maturity, I suppose that driving will.

The scriptures do not provide a full theory of driving as a test of Christian character. Despite that fact, let’s see if we can identify three stages.

The barbarians

Barbarians have the nasty habit of taking what they want. They do not care about rules or courtesy; they are focused on themselves and their needs. It seems that many of us become barbaric when we drive.

Stop signs and traffic lights are treated like weak suggestions from babbling parents. Speed limits are only suggestions for people less capable than we.

For years I used to allow myself nine miles per hour over the speed limit. My logic was that you weren’t likely to get a ticket unless you were driving at least 10 miles per hour over the limit. Such logic does not speak well of my moral development. With time I cut back my allowance to five miles per hour. Now, after decades of driving, I finally asked myself why it was all right to break the speed limit at all. I finally go the speed limit.  I make a complete stop at stop signs. And I try not to run red lights. (Maybe I will fully conquer this one in the spirit world.)

Having largely conquered simple obedience, I now struggle with a different challenge.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees were miserable in their slavish obedience and they wanted everyone to be as miserable as they. So they pounded people with the law. They judged, condemned, and belittled those who did not follow the laws with exactitude—or anyone who didn’t follow the law the way they understood it. As a result, they exemplified self-righteousness. They became poster boys for artificial righteousness.

I suppose that’s where I have been with my personal obedience and steady annoyance with other drivers. I am a driving Pharisee. I obey the law and I am condescending toward those who do not.

I have tried giving end-runners and bad drivers the benefit of the doubt. My aging Grandpa didn’t realize he was substantially exceeding the speed limit. Maybe that young woman was late to a critical appointment. I remember when I was a frisky driver. Despite these efforts at compassion, I still find myself irritated with those who take traffic privilege while disregarding laws and other drivers.

I do not have scientific data to support my observations about state contrasts, I only have our experience. When we lived in Alabama, we were surprised at the way drivers let other cars into lines. They exemplified sharing and taking turns. We experienced the same wonderful phenomenon in many communities of Alabama during the six years we lived there. Yet, every time we returned to Utah, it seemed that a Utahn would rather die in a fiery crash than give way in a line of traffic. The gospel may change hearts—but only until we get behind the wheel of a car. Then we become ruthless Pharisees.

Have you ever deliberately block a speeder who was trying to pass you? Have you ever gloated when someone else got a ticket? Have you ever refused to let a car into traffic?

Charity faileth in traffic.

Charitable driving: Saintly and sensible

The Lord’s counsel to His disciples may apply to driving: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Our challenge is to drive sensibly while carrying our Christian goodness to the task.

Even if others around us are viewing the speed limits as mere suggestions, we can follow the laws of the land and drive safely. We can be considerate and helpful to other drivers along the way. If someone is trying to merge into traffic, we can be the ones who allow them to pull in ahead of us. We can govern our thoughts and remain charitable and peaceful even while others are less considerate in their driving habits.

Jesus was probably not thinking of the modern freeway when He gave His challenging command; yet it certainly applies to our driving: ”Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Traffic provides regular opportunities to apply this counsel.

When the Lord counsels against anger, He warns that, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22). Yikes! Hell may be packed with a lot of angry drivers!

Why does this matter? 

So how does driving relate to our spiritual maturity?

We are asked the challenging question in Alma 5:14: “And now behold, I ask of you, my brethren of the church, have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your heart?”

I suspect that if we have truly experienced a mighty change in our hearts, we would not compartmentalize our commitment to following the Savior’s example. We understand that our simple, hour-to-hour acts reveal our character as much as our big decisions. Perhaps the way we treat fellow drivers is more revealing of our spiritual development than the earnestness with which we bear our testimonies. Our driving is not as important as our service and faithfulness but it is a measure of our spiritual development.

When Jesus requested that we “love one another, for by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another,” He did not provide an exception for those who cut in front of us in traffic or otherwise irritate us throughout our day.

I look forward to the day when I can gladly help other drivers along the way while obeying the law consistently myself. In the mean time, I am taking a different route to work so I don’t “get tempted above what I am able to resist.”

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Many thanks to Barbara for her insightful additions to this article.

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The Lure and Lore of Self-Esteem


As I studied education at BYU, King Benjamin seemed more and more outlandish to me. He dwelt on our carnal state, being less than the dust of the earth, our nothingness, and our worthless and fallen state. I felt that King Benjamin showed a curious misunderstanding of human nature and self-esteem.

As a newlywed glowing with the doctrine of fundamental worth, I resolved to help my sweet partner, Nancy, remedy her glaring deficiency in self-esteem. As life rolled on I should have been alert to obvious inconsistencies in my beliefs. The core article of faith in the doctrine of self-esteem is that you cannot love anyone until you love yourself. Yet Nancy reached out to struggling immigrants and the illiterate poor with compassion and resolve. She served two stints as Relief Society president with ministries that were remarkable in their sweet inclusiveness. Nancy is simply the best mortal Christian I have ever known.

Almost three decades have passed since that time at BYU when I judged King Benjamin by a foolish human fad. I have repented. In fact, as I recently finished a term as a BYU bishop, I realized that I had quoted King Benjamin’s once-spurned observations dozens of times in sacred interviews. (So, you now believe that we are worthless?) And there has been a total reversal in our marriage; the young groom who was once trying to improve his wife’s self-regard is now trying to learn from her self-forgetfulness.

As a sidelight, self-esteem has suffered miserably at the hands of research. As early as 1983 Susan Harter observed that the idea of raising self-esteem in order to improve performance is mistaken. It is wiser to get children doing good things and let the self-esteem follow.

The most deadly blow to the self-esteem movement was probably landed by its most ardent supporters. In the 1980s a group of true believers declared a state of esteem in California. Millions of dollars were directed to improving the self-appraisal of Californians. Fortunately the leaders of the movement gathered research data. The conclusion of the study was that “the associations between self-esteem and its expected consequences are mixed, insignificant, or absent” (Mecca, Smelser, & Vasconcellos, 1989). The experiment in social improvement was a bust. High self-esteem is as likely to be related to problem behavior as model behavior.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. God has never recommended self-esteem. Some have tortured the ancient commandment to love neighbors as self to mean that we must love ourselves. The context for the commandment might be more consistent with a recommendation that if the ancient children of Israel, who were so absorbed in their own needs, would turn their attention at least as much to their neighbors, they would be better off.

But Jesus has given a transcendent commandment: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). It is worth noting that the commandment to love as He has loved is wedged between His washing of the apostles’ feet and His infinite and eternal sacrifice in our behalf.
God recommends self-forgetfulness and discipleship rather than self-celebration and self-improvement.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any [man] will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it (Matthew 16:24–25).

If we cultivate a Christ-like mind, we ultimately gain the “confidence [that waxes] strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45). That is very different from self-confidence. It is a serene peace that God is in charge and that He knows how to accomplish His perfect purposes.

Father’s plan for growth is different from the human plan for growth. Rather than enlarge our management, rally our genius, and exercise our strength (as recommended by Korihor), we focus our faith, submit our wills, and beseech heaven for divine power. That is the relentless message of the Book of Mormon.

Somehow in my youthful (and presumptuous) study of King Benjamin, I had missed the context for our nothingness. “For behold, if the knowledge of the goodness of God at this time has awakened you to a sense of your nothingness, and your worthless and fallen state—” (Mosiah 4:5). It is not our absolute nothingness but our total dependence that King Benjamin stressed. The realization of our dependence opens the way for the vital plea: “And they had viewed themselves in their own carnal state, even less than the dust of the earth. And they all cried aloud with one voice, saying: O have mercy, and apply the atoning blood of Christ that we may receive forgiveness of our sins, and our hearts may be purified;” (Mosiah 4:2).
Ammon marveled in a Redeemer who redeemed such undeserving souls as we: “Who could have supposed that our God would have been so merciful as to have snatched us from our awful, sinful, and polluted state?” (Alma 26:17).

King Benjamin promised that if we follow his counsel we “shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of [our] sins” (Mosiah 4:12). We cannot save ourselves; we must be rescued by the Lord’s divine goodness. King Benjamin was right all along.

References

Mecca, A. M., Smelser, N. J., & Vasconcellos, J. (1989). The social importance of self-esteem. Berkeley: University of California Press.