The Calling of a Teacher

[Given by Chris Juchau in Stake Conference, October 2016.]

Good morning, Brothers and Sisters.  I am grateful that Elder Worthen has invited me to speak this morning. Sister Pugh has spoken to us about becoming more effective teachers in our homes.  I would like to speak on the importance of callings as teachers in the Church.

There are in the Church—whether merely in Church folklore or in reality—certain negative caricatures of different types of teachers.

  • There is the High Priest Group instructor who delves into topics far past the fringes of useful doctrine—perhaps because the basic topics bore him.
  • There is the youth teacher who asks his students to call him by his first name and really just wants to be liked by the youth and seen as one of them.
  • There is the Gospel Doctrine teacher who adopts an academic, tedious, and not very spiritual approach to teaching—as if Sunday School is an exercise in pedagogy rather than an exercise in spiritual learning.
  • There is the brother who underprepares. Or who hurriedly throws something together during Sacrament Meeting.
  • There is the Relief Society teacher who overprepares. Or who puts excessive work into handouts and crafts and table decorations.
  • There is the Nursery teacher who was called to be a Nursery “worker” and views his job as being all about babysitting and not at all about teaching.
  • There is the Elders Quorum instructor who likes to liven things up by playing Devil’s Advocate and asking not just thought-provoking questions, but provocative questions.

I honestly do not know how often any of these situations occurs in our stake.  But I would like us to take a view of the calling of a teacher that is so elevated and grand and clear that none of these types of situations would exist.

Of course, we look to the Savior as the example of a perfect teacher.  Admittedly, sometimes it is easier to say “Follow the Savior’s perfect example” than it is to find actual examples from Him that model the circumstances we face.  We don’t have a specific illustration, for example, of the Savior teaching a class of Mia Maids.  We do, though, have many examples of him teaching and interacting with people, and there are many principles we can derive from those.  To wit:

  • Even when Jesus was just 12 years old and was left behind in Jerusalem, Luke records that He “sat in the midst” of the people He was teaching “both hearing them and asking them questions.” From an early age, the Savior modeled the importance of teaching through discussion and of inviting thought and spiritual prompting through asking (surely) the right kinds of questions.  We, too, can engage those we teach in the learning process.
  • Jesus prepared for teaching by arising early in the morning and praying and by sometimes seeking solitude so He could commune with His Father. We, too, can ponder and pray over the things we’ll teach and the ways we’ll teach them.
  • Jesus didn’t always hand out the answers, but knew that people must discover truths for themselves. To Andrew He extended the invitation, “Come and see.”  To many he extended the invitation, “Come, follow me.”  We can also invite people to take steps that will lead them to their own testimony-building experiences.
  • Jesus bore testimony—of His Father, of Himself, and of other critical realities. To the Samaritan woman at the well, he said, “I that speak unto thee am he.”  We, too, can focus our teaching on the Savior and His mission.  And we can testify of Him as the true source of “living water.”
  • Jesus both sought out individuals and He also followed-up with them. Two of my favorite stories of Jesus are in John 5 and John 9.  In both stories, he heals a man—and then later goes and finds the man again and instructs him further in private.  We, too, can learn to focus on the one, not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom.
  • Jesus lifted and encouraged His students. In the Sermon on the Mount, he comforted His students while teaching them about His Father in the beatitudes.  He said to them, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad:  for great is your reward in Heaven.”  He explained to them that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  After He healed people, He told them that it was their faith which had done it.  We, too, can help build the courage of those we’re called to teach.
  • Jesus taught from the scriptures and focused on pure, simple doctrines. He announced his own mission by quoting Isaiah and bearing testimony of its immediate application.  We, too, can show others how the scriptures can be applied to them right now.
  • Jesus ate with his students. He dined with Matthew, Zacchaeus, Simon, and many others.  We, too, can show caring for our students outside the classroom.
  • Jesus put people above everything but God. He said that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.  He taught children to honor their parents and adults to honor children.  He pointed out the faith of a poor widow who gave two mites.  He took time for people others were ignoring and passing by.  We, too, can make our calling to teach be about people and not only about doctrine.
  • Jesus invited his students to act. He invited Peter to join him on the water.  He invited the woman taken in adultery to sin no more.  He invited many to be of good cheer, to fear not, and to exercise faith.  We, too, can invite our students to exercise faith and act.
  • And, last that I will mention, Jesus invited his students to bear testimony. “Whom say ye that I am?” He asked them.  We, too, can invite our students to share testimony in ways that will strengthen them.

Brothers and Sisters, we need to think in different way about how we teach at Church.  Gone must be the days that teachers think that their job is to fill the air—or otherwise occupy people’s time—for 40 minutes each Sunday.  Let me give you some ideas of new ways we need to approach callings to teach…

Callings to teach should be more about people and less about “teaching.”  After bishopric members extend calls to members to teach, the next words should not be “Here is your lesson manual” or “Here’s where you go online to find your lesson material.”  It should be, “Here is a list of students in your class.  Let’s talk about them for a few minutes.”  Those discussions should be followed by teacher orientation meetings with organization leaders.

For some, the idea of teaching a class brings feelings of fear and trepidation and self-consciousness at the thought of standing in front of a group of students and presenting things to them in ways that will keep their attention.   This comes in part, I think, from a false understanding of what the calling is.  The scriptures teach that “Perfect love casteth out fear.”  I have learned that when I stand to speak in front of an audience and feel nervous, my nervousness dissipates when I look closely at the faces of the people I’m speaking to and ask myself what they are feeling.

The critical question a teacher faces each week is not, “What will I present for 40 minutes this coming Sunday?” but rather:  Who are my students?  How are they doing?  Where are they in their relationship with God?  How can I help strengthen their relationships to God?

Callings to teach should be more about learning and less about “teaching.”   This is a major change!  We must shift our focus from “teaching” per se to “learning.”  Of course, there’s no such thing as teaching without learning, anyway, so if we’re not focused on learning, we’re going to accomplish little but filling space and time.

Once we consider the individuals we’re teaching and their needs, the next question is not, “How will I teach them?” but rather:  “How will they learn this?”  “What experience or experiences could they have in our classroom that will help them learn this principle?”  “How will I engage my students in learning?”

Now I would like to add a caution about engaging students.  Engaging students effectively does not mean forcing them to do things that make them uncomfortable.  There are more than a few members of our church who skip Sunday School or Relief Society classes, for example, because they don’t trust their teacher to not make them answer questions they’re not prepared to answer or to read aloud when that makes them uncomfortable.  Church must be a safe place, particularly for those who feel anxious about some social situations.  There is no virtue in calling on people who don’t volunteer their own outward participation.  This will more often cause them to shrink than turn them into discussion leaders.  Socially, our church culture elevates people who are great public speakers, but we must be equally supportive of those whose participation is mostly inward.

Our main question must be:  “How will my students learn this?” Not, “How will I teach this to my students?”  It’s a critically important difference.

Callings to teach are invitations to enter a training program.  I wish that in our church we had a student teaching program like colleges have for education majors.  It would be great if people could serve as teachers while being under observation and receiving feedback and guidance from seasoned teachers.  Of course, we don’t have that the way a university would.  But.  Ideally a call to teach is taken as an opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher.

Teachers can study the principles of “Teaching in the Savior’s Way.”  Teachers can study “Teaching:  No Greater Call.”  Teachers can practice principles and skills and methods taught in those types of materials.  Teachers can do a little self-evaluation after each class: “What was effective today?  What wasn’t?  What did I learn today about teaching?”  Really brave teachers could invite someone to come watch them teach and provide feedback.  Imagine teachers wanting to become better teachers to the point that they would invite some personal coaching!  (I’m going to do it.)

Learning to be a great teacher is ultra-important for all members of the Church—first because of its importance in our homes; and second because of our responsibilities to share the gospel with others.  All teachers should view the short time they get in teaching callings as an opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher.

Callings to teach are callings to leadership.  We sometimes think incorrectly about leadership callings in the Church.  We appropriately honor, follow, and sometimes even revere, those formally called to lead us.  This is often especially true of living prophets and apostles and also of bishops.

But when the Lord told people during the Sermon on the Mount that they were the salt of the earth and the light of the world, we don’t understand Him to have been speaking to a gathering of formal religious leaders.  We picture that, rather, as a gathering of humble men and women and surely some youth and children.

The very notions of teaching and leading are inseparable; they are almost interchangeable.  There is a good reason why the Church Handbook refers people to Chapter 3 on Leadership when it discusses the calling of Teachers at other places in the Handbook.  Elder Holland quoted President Hinckley in conference—and then repeated it a second time for emphasis.  Pr. Hinckley said:  “Effective teaching is the very essence of leadership in the Church.”

This, by the way, is why you find the stake presidency speaking in your Sacrament Meetings and in Priest Quorums and Relief Society and in 5th Sunday meetings and other places.  We do not wish to shy away from our responsibility to teach.  You cannot imagine how much joy I take from the incredible teaching abilities of Pr. Vernon and Pr. Madsen.

All members of the Church share the purpose of full-time missionaries:  to invite others to come to the Savior and be healed by Him.  All of us are leaders.  All of us are teachers.

Callings to teach are callings to reactivate less-active members.  This is one of the things about calls to teach I am most anxious to change in our stake.  Isn’t it an interesting ritual we go through every Sunday where a roll is passed around Sunday School, marked off, and slid under the door?!  Does anybody have any idea what happens with that and what purpose it serves?  Well, we know what purpose it should serve!

When the Good Shepherd took roll and discovered that 99 of His sheep were present, he didn’t slide the roll back under the gate to the sheepfold and return to his less.  He went after the one who was absent. That was the perfect model of a Priesthood or Relief Society instructor, a Young Men or Young Women’s advisor, a Sunday School or Primary teacher.  That was the perfect model of a Gospel Doctrine teacher.  How many Gospel Doctrine teachers reach out to the absent?  All who don’t need to repent.  You are not called to fill 40 minutes.  You are called to save souls.  This includes—and probably especially so—the souls who are not marked “present” on the roll.

The calling of a teacher is a call to strengthen the less active—the absent.

Lastly, callings to teach are about helping others learn the simple doctrines that will change their lives—not about exploring fringe questions of curiosity and speculation.

I am convinced that many of our members suffer from a lack of understanding of some of the important, basic principles of the Gospel.  For example:

  • What is the significance of “works” in my salvation? Will my works save me?
  • Am I clean before the Lord right now or did I become unclean a few moments after I last took the sacrament and had an angry thought?
  • What is the relationship between faith and agency?
  • Why am I so distressed as a parent when God, the perfect parent, is happy?
  • Does God forgive me if I repeat sins I’ve repented for?
  • How many “R” words actually constitute all the steps of repentance? And what if I miss the sixth R on one of my 37 million sins?
  • How are sins removed at baptism?
  • Exactly what gets sealed to what in the temple?

My concerns on this subject were validated by a talk in General Conference a year ago.  Elder Randall K. Bennett began his talk with these words:

“My heart sank during a recent meeting with wonderful Latter-day Saints. The question was asked, “Who desires to live with Heavenly Father again?” Every hand went up. The next question was “Who has confidence you’ll succeed?” Sadly and surprisingly, most hands went down.” 

Why do we not have more confidence in the Atonement?  As teachers, we need to focus on the most important, basic principles of the gospel that will bless our lives.  Is it good for us to know how to think about multiple accounts of the first vision and seer stones and polygamy in the early days of the Restoration?  I think so.  But it is ultimately a better understanding of faith, repentance, ordinances, the Godhead, the Atonement, and the Plan of Salvation that we need the most.

Brothers and Sisters, I agree with the title of the book, “Teaching:  No Greater Call.”  We are all called to lead and we are all called to teach.  Sometimes we receive formal callings to teach in organizations in the Church.  When we do, let us worry less about teaching and more about people, how they’ll learn, what they need, how we will love and encourage the absent, and how we can become more effective at these things.

I testify that the Spirit of the Lord will inspire us as we seek to approach our callings as teachers in these ways and I do so in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

The Pattern of Priesthood Leadership

[Given by Chris Juchau at the Priesthood Leadership session of Stake Conference, October 2016.]

Good morning, brethren.  Thank you for being here this morning.  My Patriarchal Blessing reminds me to attend faithfully all the meetings at which I am expected.  I have tried to do that and it has blessed my life.  You are in the right place and I join you in looking forward to being taught by Elder Worthen in a few minutes.

Sometimes it seems to me that when women are spoken to in the Church, they are provided comfort and reassurance—whereas men are told to buck up, shape up, and get with the program.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a “healthy” way of approaching life and understanding ourselves, which allows us to see ways in which we need to improve without being discouraged or frustrated (or perhaps demoralized) by it.  It is, I believe, Heavenly Father’s desire that we strive for improvement from a position of security in the assurance that while we are striving, faithful, and observing our covenants, we are acceptable to the Lord in spite of our various needs for improvement.

And I believe that describes the vast majority of the men here this morning—faithful to the Savior, observant of and committed to covenants, and striving to magnify callings at home and in the Church.  It is my testimony that we may do so from a position of confidence and trust in the Lord.

Introduction

I would like to speak to you this morning about what must surely be the very most foundational aspect of effective priesthood leadership:  personal righteousness.  I often shy away from the word “righteous.”  I suppose I confuse it with “self-righteous” sometimes and I often think of the Savior’s comment, “Why callest thou me good?  There is none good but one, that is, God.”  Nevertheless, in our healthy way of striving for improvement, personal righteousness is what we ought to be striving for.

Let me begin by quoting the first paragraph of Chapter 3 from the Church’s Handbook of Instructions (Book 2):

All Church leaders are called to help other people become “true followers of … Jesus Christ.” To do this, leaders first strive to be the Savior’s faithful disciples, living each day so that they can return to live in God’s presence. Then they can help others develop strong testimonies and draw nearer to Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ….

Leaders can best teach others how to be “true followers” by their personal example. This pattern—being a faithful disciple in order to help others become faithful disciples—is the purpose behind every calling in the Church.

This pattern—being a faithful disciple in order to help others become faithful disciples—is the purpose behind every calling in the Church.

I don’t think we talk about that pattern very much.  Perhaps that’s because it seems so obvious.  But I think we would do well to talk and teach about it more explicitly.  When an Elders Quorum presidency, for example, calls a man as a quorum instructor, the discussion accompanying that call could include a discussion of this pattern:  “You are being called, not to teach lessons, but to help others become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ—and to be able to do that effectively, you will need to be a faithful disciple, yourself.  What do you need to do and how can I help?”

Such a discussion would also be appropriate for bishopric members who are training young men to be leaders in Aaronic Priesthood quorum presidency meetings.  And we ought to discuss this pattern in our own presidency meetings.

Let me mention five fundamental areas of personal righteousness we need to all attend to.  I would invite you to take notes and teach these things to those you lead.  All come straight from the Handbook.

We should keep in mind that all men who bear the priesthood are called to lead.  Some may, at the moment, have formal callings of leadership within the Church, but all are called by virtue of the priesthood, itself, to lead others to Christ, beginning with those in our own homes.  Principles of priesthood leadership apply to all priesthood holders.

First, effective leaders must keep the commandments.  This is a broad notion with myriad associated specifics and applications.  All the law and the prophets are summarized in the commands to love God and to love our neighbors.  At the heart of our efforts to keep the commandments should be a conscious striving for expressions of love toward God, toward our families, and toward all people.

To keep the commandments, we must be honest in all aspects of our lives.  We must be faithful to our wives and our children in every way.  We must honor the Sabbath meaningfully.  And, we cannot be “Sunday Mormons” or publicly one way and privately another.  The integrity of our professed devotion must extend to moments both seen and unseen.

An excellent guide for all of us with regard to the commandments is the pamphlet, “For the Strength of Youth.”  In my family, our Family Home Evening lessons are often drawn from “For the Strength of Youth” which is certainly no less applicable to us than to our teenagers.  It is full of good counsel and reminders, which, exactly as its title suggests, will strengthen us as we follow them.

Second, we should study the scriptures and the teachings of latter-day prophets.  Studying the scriptures is, I believe, essential nutrition for our souls.  Dietary nutrition makes for a good analogy.  If I get a steady diet over the course of a week or a month of all the vitamins and nutrients my body needs, I may notice some fairly immediate effect, but the most important effects will be long-term.  Conversely, if I eat a steady diet of junk food and empty calories for a week or a month, I may also notice some fairly immediate effects, but the most important effects of such a sustained diet will be long-term—only they won’t be that long term because I won’t live that long.

Similarly, I can study or not study scriptures and living prophets for a week or so and the short-term effects will be real but probably not staggering.  A steady, consistent diet of God’s word, however—or the absence thereof—has tremendous mid- and long-term effects.

These days I find three other things particularly important about scripture study in addition to consistency.

One is a steady connection to the Book of Mormon.  The purpose of Joseph Smith’s mission and the purpose of the Book of Mormon are to bring us to Christ.  The Book of Mormon does do that.  From my observation, members of the Church who grow skeptical of Joseph Smith, also grow skeptical of the Savior and sometimes lose their connection to Him.  The critical effects of the Book of Mormon are therefore twofold:  it brings us closer to the Savior in a direct way and it brings us closer to the Church, which also strengthens us in our relationship with the Savior.

Another is the importance of studying the words of living prophets.  I recently began reviewing again conference talks that were given 12 and 18 and 24 months ago—and this time preserving in my own electronic document the words and messages from those conferences that particularly touch my spirit and my mind.  Just as we ought not disconnect ourselves from Joseph Smith, we need to stay in touch with living prophets—all of which will help us come to the Savior.

Lastly, I have long believed that we need to be outstanding students of the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  There we learn so much about the Savior, about our Father in Heaven, and about their love for us.

Do you need to study scriptures for two hours every day?  Not in my opinion.  But meaningful time in them each day has critical short- and long-term effects on our spiritual well-being.

Third, to develop our own personal righteousness in order to be effective leaders, we must pray.  Of course, there are prayers, and then there are prayers.  Prayers should be meaningful and they should be bi-directional as much as possible.  Prayers should include enough time to be still and listen to the thoughts and feelings we receive in return.

Prayers are best in my opinion when they are heavy on thanking and light on asking.  We shouldn’t ask for things we’re not willing to do our part for.  And sometimes we should pray for strength to endure challenges more than we pray for our challenges to be removed from us.

Prayers should be more than thanking and asking, though.  They should include worship.  Worship is personal and, in some ways, hard to define, but I believe it has a lot to do with the depth and sincerity of our gratitude and respect and of our recognition of God’s perfection and generosity toward us.  We can feel those things when we pray—and feeling them benefits us.

Fourth, we should fast.  We all know the scripture wherein the Savior taught that some problems are not solved except through prayer and fasting.  Fasting shows devotion, earnestness, and submissiveness.  This is true when we approach Fast Sunday purposefully—and also when we fast for special purposes outside of Fast Sunday.  Fasting can help foster unity for families, wards, and quorums.

As with prayer, we might consider sometimes fasting without tying our fast to a request.  We might fast purely as an expression of gratitude, an expression of humility, and an expression of worship.

Fasting connected to caring for the poor has many beautiful promises attached to it:

Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.  (Isaiah 58:8-9)

Lastly, the Handbook mentions that if we are to lead effectively through our example, through personal righteousness, we should “humble ourselves before the Lord.”  What does that mean?

Nearest I can tell, all significant blessings associated with salvation, other than the resurrection, are tied to our humility. In 2 Nephi we read:

Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.  (2 Nephi 2:7)

I am convinced that, other than our covenants, the one thing that will most enable the Savior to save and exalt us is the achievement of having and maintaining a broken heart and a contrite spirit.  Such a heart reflects faith in the Savior.  Such a heart moves us not to occasional repentance, but to constant repentance.  Such a heart keeps me well within the bounds of my covenants and stops me from trying to test limits of obedience and submissiveness.

When the Savior encountered broken hearts during his earthly ministry, He responded with compassion and mercy.  When he encountered proud or rebellious hearts, he responded with chastisement and justice.  When I am sufficiently self-aware, I see that there is too much pride in my heart.  It is in my moments of legitimate humility that I find myself most at peace with myself and with the Lord—and I find myself in a position of strength because it is His strength I am recognizing.

Conclusion

Brethren, let me say again:  Holding the priesthood, and particularly the Melchizedek Priesthood, is a call to lead—to lead others to the Savior.  The very term “priesthood leadership meeting” seems redundant.  We who have come this morning have each been asked, though, to lead some specific people in some specific ways and our call to leadership is particularly clearly defined right now.

We will be most effective helping others come to the Savior when our own lives are in order, when our spirituality is healthy, and when we are striving for personal righteousness not just in our outward examples but in our very personal private lives.

That we may keep the commandments, study the word of God, pray, fast, humble ourselves, and do all other things that are necessary for our own spiritual strength is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Joy and Repentance

[Given by Chris Juchau at the Saturday evening of Stake Conference, October 2016.]

The Saturday Evening session of Stake Conference always brings together a wonderful group of people.  I am saddened by the absence of those who are not here and I hope that all of us will reach out in appropriate ways especially to those who are not here for no other reason than it just not interesting them.  But I am delighted to be with you tonight.

I once heard it said that spiritual maturity can be measured by the number of contradictions—or apparent contradictions—we are able to reconcile.  Like the fact that I am, as the scriptures say, “less than the dust of the earth” and, at the same time, as the scriptures also teach, a child of God with potential to become like Him.  I don’t know if it’s true that that’s how we should measure spiritual maturity, but it’s an interesting thought.

One of my concerns for the members of our stake is that we don’t reconcile very well the reality of our fallen state and carnal natures with the reality of the Atonement and its impact on us.  We can get too sad and discouraged by our shortcomings, inadequacies, and imperfections and not take enough joy in the blessings of the Atonement, in the promises of our covenants, in the effectiveness of the Plan of Salvation, and in the myriad reasons for us to be joyful and at peace, even during a mortal experience that includes tragedies and great disappointments.

Yesterday I found myself singing along in my car with the Tabernacle Choir.  Not to make light of life’s real tragedies but I often turn to the Tabernacle Choir following a close BYU football loss. I got curious about the song titled “This Is My Father’s World,” which I was singing along with and I googled it when I got to work.  It’s a popular Christian hymn, included in a Methodist Hymnal and, I would imagine, many others.  Let me share with you the last two stanzas:

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad! 

Tonight I would like to speak about a great source of joy and peace that we sometimes think of in unjoyful terms, but it is, in fact—or at least can be—joyful and that is repentance.

What is repentance and what is joyful about it?

I remember learning as a child, both at Church and at home, that repentance is a process with a number of discreet steps or aspects to it which can be specifically named and which all start with the letter R.  How many of these steps or properties are there?  I googled the “R’s of repentance” this week also and found a number of lists:  I found 3 R’s, 4 R’s, 5 R’s, 6 R’s, 7 R’s, and 8 r’s.  I may have found more than that if I’d looked harder, but I got tired of looking after I could find 9 R’s.

In my youthful mind, I saw these as sequential steps.  First I needed to recognize, then I needed to experience remorse, then I need to recommit, and so on…  I would need to go through this process for every sin of commission.  Then I would need to recognize all my sins of omission and do the same.  If I ever completed the steps for a particular sin but then committed the sin again, I would have thereby proven that Step 5, Reform, had not adequately happened after all, and then I would have to start again at Step 1.

Logically, to succeed at all that, I would essentially have to land at a place of perfection—where I never again repeated any sin and had paid at least some price for every sin I had committed.  It almost seems like I wouldn’t even need the Savior in such a scenario, because I would repent myself into becoming just like Him in the end!

While the various R’s of repentance are all more or less present in genuine repentance, I no longer think of repentance in those terms.  Nor do I think that Judgment Day will consist of me standing before the Lord while He reviews a very lengthy list of my debits and a short list of my credits.

When Enos and Alma the Younger received forgiveness of their sins in the Book of Mormon, had they gone through 4 or 6 or 8 discreet steps for every sin in their past?  When Jesus declared forgiveness to the paralyzed man lowered through the roof or to the woman who bathed his feet in her tears and washed his feet with her hair, had those people gone through these steps?

Let me mention something else from my childhood that I now think of differently.  I grew up around a lot Evangelical (or “Born-Again”) Christians who, thankfully, had a large impact on me.  Two of my Jr. High School teachers used to try to convince me that I wasn’t a Christian because Mormons place so much emphasis on “works.”  That introduced me to the whole debate about faith versus works and what saves us and what doesn’t and I learned to look down upon the protestant emphasis on faith and their downplaying of works.  After all, “faith without works is dead,” I learned.  We cannot be saved by faith alone.  Our actions matter.  I might have even thought at one point that our works will save us.

My views on this have matured since my youth. I now believe my protestant friends understood some things better than I did.  Do my works matter?  Of course they do.  I have covenanted to be obedient.  And the Savior said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”  But if my works are going to save me, I’m doomed—even in spite of good efforts—and even if I can remember every step of repentance for every sin I commit.

Faith in Jesus Christ, however, is the first principle of the gospel and to love God is the first commandment.  I believe more than ever today that the good works, the obedience, and the commandment-keeping that matter most are the ones that emerge from sincere faith in the Savior and genuine love for our Father in Heaven.  I believe that our good works and efforts are more of a reflection of the depth of our faith in the Savior who will save us, than they are the things that will save us, themselves.

It is because of the value of our faith and love that Elder Holland’s recent teaching makes most sense to me.  He said, “The great thing about the gospel is we get credit for trying, even if we don’t always succeed.”  Where our works fall short, our faith and love can still qualify and validate our effort.  Six times—in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants—the Lord refers to the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  Because many times the sincerity of our hearts will trump the failures of our efforts.

But back to the question of “What is repentance?”  The LDS Bible Dictionary says “repentance” means “a turning of the heart and will toward God and a renunciation of sin.”  It also alludes to a change of mind and a new view about God and ourselves.

Sin is when we willfully disobey God or fail to act the way we know He wants us to.  Just as righteous actions reveal faith in God and love for God, sin reveals a heart that is not turned toward God, that is not soft toward Him, that is not sufficiently broken and contrite.

Repentance occurs when our hard hearts soften, when they break in a sense, and seek to realign themselves with God—followed by our behavior and/or our valiant, sincere attempts to change our behavior.  As Elder Holland indicated, God is patient with the sincere heart which earnestly strives, even when the desired result is not yet accomplished.  To repent is to turn—our hearts, our wills, our minds, our behaviors.

As I’ve gotten older and learned more, there are three interesting things I’ve come to believe about repentance and forgiveness.

One is that we cannot really repent of just one sin at a time.  We may focus on changing a particular behavior, we might even change one behavior at a time, but repentance includes a broken heart, a contrite spirit, an effort to realign my whole self with God.  Seeking to give God part of my heart while holding back another part doesn’t make the first part very sincere.  Perhaps this is why we remember hearing the Savior declare people’s sins forgiven, as in all of their sins; we don’t hear him saying that just some of their sins are forgiven them.

Another is that God is patient with the serial sinner who keeps on trying.  In Luke he instructed his disciples, “If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.  And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.”  Similarly, I believe that as many times as we sincerely turn our hearts again toward God, He extends forgiveness to us.  Satan will seek to discourage us by tempting us to think that we will not be forgiven and to shrink with discouragement.  The Godhead, however, whisper to us to get up and keep going and they will stay with us while we continue forward.

The third is that I believe God’s forgiveness comes at the speed of a changed heart.  Our attempts to reform our thought and behavior patterns may take a little time even with great effort, but the Lord requires—and judges—the heart even while he allows our behaviors to demonstrate the sincerity of our hearts.

Is there joy in repentance?  Of course!  Enos and Alma experienced joy!

That’s like asking whether it is good to return to a home we love after an absence.   It’s like asking if lost sheep are glad to be found.  It’s like asking if the prodigal son felt the warmth of his father’s embrace.

It might seem strange that a process filled with “godly sorrow” can also be joyful.  But where does the joy come from?

The joy comes from completing the process.  If I made a list of R-words to describe the repentance experience, I would end with “receive,” as in “receive the love and forgiveness of the Lord through faith in Him and His atonement.”  You see, faith and repentance are completely intertwined.  My faith in God motivates me to turn and re-turn my heart to Him again and again.  My faith drives me to repent.  And it is that same faith that allows me to receive the blessings of the Atonement and of forgiveness and of standing clean before the Lord (even now and not just “some day”) because I believe now and trust now in the good news of the Gospel.  Our joy is in the Savior and it is both present and future.

Now one more point before I close…

Some sins are bigger than others and sometimes our sins are particularly egregious, making the repentance experience particularly acute with regards to personal sorrow, even pain.  At the same time, our joy from those experiences can also be particularly specific.  Many people experience a joyful sense of relief when confessing an egregious sin to their bishop.  Joy continues in such circumstances as people progress with behavioral changes and efforts to make restitution.  It culminates when a person exercises faith to believe that they have truly demonstrated a heart changed toward God and that God has responded.

But what about you and most of us most of the time when we are dealing only with myriad personal shortcomings and smaller-ish mistakes?  What about the soul—like most here tonight—who is generally and quite constantly striving to the do the right things and is not rebellious or willfully neglectful toward God?  Do we repent?  And do we experience joy?

My purpose tonight, knowing that I am speaking to many such people, is to invite you to a lifestyle which practices and experiences both a constantly broken and contrite spirit which constantly and over-and-over-again turns itself toward God—and simultaneously experiences the joy of knowing that the Lord accepts your sincerely humble and submissive heart and does, in fact, just as our baptismal covenant with Him indicates, cleanse us through the Holy Ghost, and forgive us of our sins.  I am inviting you to experience both contrition and joy at the same time, which may seem like two contradictory things, but they’re not.  They are more “cause and effect.”

Let us not understand repentance merely as the string of steps we go through when we have done something particularly bad.  Let us live repentance as a lifestyle, with a heart that is constantly contrite, with a consistent love of God; and while we do that, let us enjoy the promise of an ongoing cleansing of our souls by the Holy Ghost and with complete faith and trust that the promises of the Atonement apply to us both now and in our futures.  Let us live joyfully contrite, at least comforted, if not ecstatic about the reality of the Atonement and the reality of its effects on us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

The Sacrament and the Sabbath (in two parts)

[These two talks were both given by Chris Juchau in the same Sacrament Meeting to three wards in September 2016]

[Part 1]

Brothers and Sisters,

This is going to be a little bit unusual, but I would like to take a few minutes to speak to you before the Sacrament is administered today.

I had a missionary companion once who was an excellent teacher.  One of the things he would do is invite the people he was teaching to imagine things with him.  He would say, for example, “Imagine with me for a moment that God really is our Father and that He cares about each of us as His children, including you.  Imagine that He is interested in your successes as well as in your concerns and questions and frustrations.  And imagine that He cares about the outcomes in your life.”  And then he would ask a question like this, “If you imagine God like that, can you also imagine that when you pray to Him, He listens—and not only listens, but will sometimes respond to the things you are talking to Him and asking Him about?”

It was an effective teaching method because it helped people think differently about things in a way they were willing to do.  This morning I would like to ask you to imagine something with me.

Imagine for a moment that you truly and very deeply love the Savior.  (Hopefully that is not something that is difficult to imagine.)  Imagine also that you don’t just love Him, but that you believe—truly believe—the Gospel—that is, 1) that He took upon Himself unimaginable suffering so that the debt we owe to Justice for the sins we’ve committed would, instead, be owed to Him, and 2) that He is willing to forgive those debts if we will remember Him and do our very best to keep His commandments, including His commandment to love one another.

Imagine that because you believe in the reality of His suffering and that His suffering was very personal (meaning that it was not just for everyone—though it certainly was for everyone—but it was also specifically for you because of your—and my—moments of foolishness and weakness and rebellion)… Because you believe that His suffering was personal and that His love for you is equally personal, you are also filled with tremendous gratitude and respect and awe for Him.  Imagine that the gratitude and respect and awe you feel for Him is so great that if He were to walk in this room right now, you would feel humility in a way that is deeper and more profound than you have ever felt it—and that, given the chance to have a moment with Him, you would know nothing to do other than to fall down at His feet and worship Him.

Well, He probably won’t walk into this room right now, but let’s imagine further…

Imagine that in the course of a typically busy week for you, you find out the very stunning news that the Savior is coming to a certain place at a certain time and that you are invited to be there and to meet Him.  In fact, He wants to see you and hopes that you—specifically you—will come.  Further, you learn about the nature and purposes of this event.  These include 1) that you will experience the Savior’s love in a very personal way; 2) that all who come will worship him—not so much through any particular ritual of worship but through pausing to feel the feelings they have for the Savior in their hearts—the gratitude and respect and awe I mentioned earlier—and not just for a fleeting moment, but for a little, sustained while; and 3) each person who comes to this event will be given the opportunity to stand and, with the Savior present, declare their level of personal commitment to Him.  Each will be asked if he or she is willing—and if he or she pledges—to follow him, to remember Him, and to try to do everything that He asks.  Each person will make their declaration publicly to some extent, but the main thing is that the Savior will be there and He will not only focus on you and look into your eyes while you make your declaration, but He will perceive the true, genuine intent of your heart.  And 4) you will not only feel His love, but you will feel His acceptance and you will know that because of Him you are clean and worthy and fully acceptable to Him.  And you will feel His peace.

Imagine lastly, that you know that you can look forward to this event because you know that His love and forgiveness are greater than any sense of shame or embarrassment or guilt you might feel as you approach Him at this place.

The question is:  If you can imagine such an event coming, how do you also imagine you would approach it?

As you realize, this is why we are here today.  We have known throughout our week that a day was coming soon where we would be able to come and meet the Savior.  It’s unlikely that we will meet him here today in a physical sense.  He probably won’t come walking through the door.  But that doesn’t make our meeting Him here today any less genuine.  “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”  If I come here in His name seeking Him, I will find Him.  The Savior said through the prophet Jeremiah:  “Ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.”  He wants us here and hopes that we will come.

When we come to Sacrament Meeting intending to worship, it is very likely that we will feel here His love and His peace.  The words spoken by the speakers in the meeting may or may not contribute to that.  The words and spirit of the hymns we sing will almost certainly contribute to that.  But for the most part, the love and peace we experience won’t be the result of any exterior influence on us other than the Holy Ghost and the Holy Ghost will help us as we are receptive to him and as our hearts are thoughtfully turned to the Savior.

Note that with the exception of the Sacrament, itself, Sacrament Meetings contain almost no symbolism.  Other than the Sacrament, there is no real ritual or ordinance.  Things are generally not spoken from the pulpit as symbolic metaphors or riddles, but rather as plain, simple teachings.

The Sacrament experience, however, is different.  We all know from the time we are little that the sacrament bread represents the body of Christ and that the sacrament water represents his blood.  But the symbolism of the sacrament is with us throughout the entire meeting and there are things to ponder from the moment we enter this sacred room—which is made sacred first and foremost by its inclusion of the sacrament table.  (We do not consider symbolism enough.  Which may be why when some people go to the temple to receive their endowment and have not been well prepared for the experience, they find it so odd and have a hard time connecting to what is presented.)

Consider, though, some questions like these:

  1. Why is the sacrament placed on an elevated surface?
  2. Why is it at the front of the room?
  3. Why are white cloths placed both beneath and above the bread and the water?
  4. Should I consider as I enter a chapel for sacrament meeting that the Savior’s body is present and is being conspicuously presented to me, though covered?
  5. Why are the priests careful to only uncover one—the bread or the water—at a time?
  6. What is a priest? And why do priests lead the administration of the sacrament?
  7. How significant is the symbolism of a priest standing and literally breaking the symbol for the Savior’s body in front of us?
  8. Why does a priest kneel when he prays?
  9. What does the sacrament prayer mean?
  10. What does it mean that the bread and the water are not just blessed but also sanctified?
  11. What does it mean that they are sanctified to my soul and to your soul?
  12. What does it mean to “witness unto” God?
  13. What does it mean to take upon ourselves the name of Christ?
  14. What does it mean to remember Him—and to always remember Him?
  15. What does it mean to keep His commandments and how does that relate to my imperfect state?
  16. What does the promise at the end mean? What is the significance of having His spirit with me?
  17. What does it mean when a deacon receives the sacrament from a priest and presents it to a member of the congregation?
  18. Why should deacons and priests have clean hands and a pure heart?
  19. What does it mean when a member takes a piece of bread in his fingers and puts it into his mouth? What is he doing?  What is he saying?  Is he doing or saying anything of significance at all or is he merely eating a piece of bread?
  20. Similarly, with the water? To what extent are a member’s heart and mind consciously expressing something when she drinks the water?   To what extent is her heart receiving something?
  21. What does it mean when I pass the symbols of the Savior to the person beside me?
  22. To what extent should I consider the presentation of the sacrament to be a reenactment of the Atonement?

You may think of other questions.

Though we gather in a large body and though we participate in the ordinance of the sacrament as a group, each of us takes the bread and water into our hands and mouths individually, separately.  It is intended to be not just an individual or personal experience, but an intimate experience, the intimacy being between ourselves and God.  Each of us has the ability to make this a sacred, intimate experience.

I have told many candidates for receiving their temple endowment that in my own experiences with the endowment ordinance there have been many times where I have felt or learned something and there have been some times when I have not.

Similarly with the sacrament.  I know from experience that I can sit through a sacrament hymn, watch the priests and deacons, take the bread and the water and not experience much of anything at all.  I also know from experience that I can have a very meaningful, worshipful, and affirming experience when I approach the sacrament thoughtfully and consciously.

It is my prayer that we will—today and always—so approach sacrament meeting and the ordinance of the sacrament:  thoughtfully, consciously, worshipfully.  It is my testimony that our Heavenly Father, the Savior, and the Holy Ghost are involved in the ordinance of the sacrament and that receiving them weekly through a sincere renewal of our commitments to them will bless our lives and strengthen us.

I pray that we will approach the sacrament each week with a powerfully strong sense of humility and reverence.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

[Part 2]

Brothers and Sisters,

This is an unusual sacrament meeting today.  I do not recall ever attending a sacrament meeting with just one speaker—let alone having that speaker provide two separate talks.  Part of me wants to apologize for that and part of me does not.  I do not wish to seem self-important in any way today.  On the contrary, I wish to help turn our hearts and minds toward the Savior and toward true worship of Him.

Let me tell you, though, why this happening.

We believe in living prophets.  I believe in living prophets.  I neither worship them nor believe that they are perfect or infallible.  Yet I believe that I should seek more understanding before declaring anything they have done—past or present—to be wrong.  We do not believe in a single living prophet.  Nor do we believe that only one man may receive revelation for the benefit of the entire Church.  What we do believe is that, of the 15 living prophets / ordained apostles among us, one of them has received the responsibility of exercising all the priesthood keys on the earth today and of declaring or defining revelation that applies to the entire Church.

I have experienced over and over again that my life is blessed when I follow the teachings and counsel of these men, which I have not done perfectly, but have done successfully and unsuccessfully enough to know that good things come from following their teachings and bad things come from disregarding their teachings or from taking them lightly.

Do you know what those prophets are very specifically asking us to do today and are you doing it?

Nearly a year and a half ago, those brethren declared to us that upon petitioning the Lord to know what they should do to help build faith and strengthen testimonies of Church members, the answer came back that we should do a better job of keeping the Sabbath Day holy.

Though talks have been given about the Sabbath in General Conference since then and Ensign articles have been published, it has largely fallen to local priesthood leaders—stake presidencies and bishoprics—to help members understand and receive the invitation to elevate both the significance of the Sabbath in our own hearts and minds and to elevate our practices and customs and rituals of observing it.  This applies both to our experience at Church during the three-hour block and also to our experience at home during the Sabbath.

I do not think that we have done enough in this regard in our stake because I don’t think that most of us have responded sufficiently to this invitation.  For the month of September, we decided that the stake presidency would take the place of high councilors in speaking to the wards and that we would try to teach clearly about this topic.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I have ended up with a lot of time in this meeting to try to do so.  I thought it would be good to speak specifically about the sacrament and to do so before we took the sacrament today.

I would now like to say a few things about our observance of the Sabbath during the rest of the day when we are not at church, but usually at home.  I would like to touch on four things…

(1) Saturdays are Important

Everyone in my generation knows the Primary song called “Saturday.”  For some reason, it is not sung very much in Primary these days.  It teaches in simple words that Saturday is an important day because we are planning to observe the Sabbath on the next day and in order to do that effectively, we’re going to have to plan ahead and take care of some specific things on Saturday.  It is about consciousness in our worship.  It’s about acting instead of being acted upon.  It’s about priorities.  It’s about putting God first in our lives.

According to the Bible Dictionary and other sources, our homes and our temples should be similarly sacred.  While this should be true all the time, surely the Sabbath deserves a special effort to make it so.  Our homes should be particularly conducive to worship on Sundays, which means their being clean and orderly with a peaceful atmosphere, probably supported by appropriate music.  Having our homes prepared for the Sabbath takes some effort.  In many families, Saturday chores are common.  We might teach our children the connection between the work we accomplish on Saturdays and the experience we seek on Sundays.

Not just our homes, but we, ourselves, require preparation.  Let me give you an example fresh from my own experience.  Last Saturday night, a week ago, my son and I were invited by a dear friend to attend the BYU-Utah game up at Rice-Eccles Stadium.  I had never before ventured onto such unhallowed ground and thought it was a chance I shouldn’t miss.  I had to get up early the next day, but since the game started at 5:30, I thought it might be OK.  Of course, the game took a very long time and I got to bed later than I’d hoped.  Furthermore, the game was so exciting, I had a hard time shutting off the adrenaline.  After falling asleep sometime after 11:30, I woke up at 2:50 never again to fall asleep before the alarm went off at 4:00.  I think my Sabbath went alright but I can’t say that I put myself in the best position for it.  Contrast that with last night where I DVR’d the game and got a good night’s rest.

The point of that story is not that you’re a sinner if you go to a late-night football game or a saint if you don’t.  But it was an illustrative reminder to me of the value of preparing for the Sabbath.  I would, though, encourage adults and teenagers who are inclined to stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning (or later) to consider the benefits of getting a good night’s rest in time to experience a full and well-prepared-for Sabbath.

(2) Preparation for the Sacrament Begins at Home

My second point is similar; it is that participating in the Sacrament should be considered the most important event of the day and that meaningful participation in the Sacrament begins at home.  In my calling, when I have an appointment with somebody—whether at the church or in their home—it doesn’t work for me to be listening to pop music or sports radio as I drive to the meeting and then hope to immediately turn the Spirit on when I turn the radio off and suddenly be at my best.  Being in the right frame of mind or mood takes a more conscious, thoughtful effort.

None of us would consider going to that meeting with the Savior with no thought for preparation other than to hurriedly throw on some “Sunday” clothes and hustle over there, listening to pop music (or not) on the way over.  Rather, we would be anticipating a spiritual and sacred occasion and we would be asking ourselves often in advance whether we are clean and prepared to be there.

Our Sundays with the Sacrament should be similar.  We should go to bed Saturday night and get up Sunday morning knowing that we have a planned encounter with the Savior and planning to approach it the right way.  We should be ready for church in time to address—and, as necessary, to correct—our frame of mind before we go out to the car or walk to church.  If we have had conflict with a family member, we should address that.  The Savior taught us to “first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”

Many Mormons are social people.  Indeed, we come to Church not merely to be strengthened but to help provide support and strength for others.  It is hard not to come into the Chapel and be social.  For some people, it is exceptionally hard to see when being social might be good but not best.  I’m not prepared to suggest a zero-tolerance policy for sociality in the chapel.  But I do think it is important to get to our seats in time to quietly consider the music, to consider the significance of the presentation in front of us of the body of Christ under a shroud, and to be introspective about our readiness to approach Him and what we will say to Him in our hearts as we take the sacrament.

Obviously, there are some family situations—such as having small children and/or being a single parent—that create large challenges.  And sometimes, in spite of admirable plans and efforts, things just go south on us.  In all such cases, we should just do our best and know that the Lord accepts that.  Most of us most of the time, though, do not have exceptional circumstances and we can prepare at home and come prepared.

(3) Dos and Don’ts and Singleness of Heart (D&C 59:13)

Over the years, a lot of Sunday School lessons have included discussions of do’s and don’ts on the Sabbath.

  • Is it OK to watch TV on Sunday?
  • Is it OK to watch sports on Sunday?
  • Is it OK to take a one-hour nap on Sunday? What about a three-hour nap?
  • Can I buy something on Sunday? What if it is from a vending machine?
  • Can I attend a concert on a Sunday? What if it’s from a non-Mormon Christian rock group?
  • Can I play basketball in a rec league on Sundays? What if I’m just shooting hoops in my driveway?
  • Do I have to wear my church clothes all day?

In the talks and discussions coming from general Church leaders over the last 18 months, there has been an explicit avoidance of “do and don’t” lists.  Instead, principles have been taught and members urged to carefully make thoughtful decisions based on important principles.  Let me mention four such principles.

The first two come from statements made by the Savior during his mortal ministry.  It seems He was forever being criticized for healing people on the Sabbath.  It seems, too, as if He sometimes healed on the Sabbath exactly to make a point to those critics.

On one occasion, Pharisees were criticizing the Lord’s disciples for plucking ears of corn on the Sabbath.  In his confrontation with those Pharisees the Lord taught that “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath.”  Here we understand that people are more important than trivial rules and that the choices we make regarding our Sabbath activities should take into account their impact on people.  Perhaps taking a nap to refresh or renew ourselves could be a good thing.  Perhaps spending too many hours asleep keeps us from doing things to serve others.

On another occasion, the Lord was about to heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in front of critical Pharisees.  He confronted them with a question he used multiple times: “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day?”  On yet another occasion, where he taught of lifting a sheep out of a pit on the Sabbath day he emphatically answered His own question, “It is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days.”  Note here that the Sabbath is not intended to be a day of rest in terms of doing as little as possible.  Rather the Sabbath is a day to rest from our usual activities.  But it is not a day to refrain from doing good.  A person could keep the Sabbath it seems and even be quite busy at it.

Of course, many activities can be justified as being “good.”  As Elder Oaks reminds us, though, we have to make careful judgements about what is good, what is better, and what is best.

The third principle comes from Section 59 of the D&C wherein the Lord states that meals should be prepared with “singleness of heart” and which I think suggests that all Sabbath day activities be done with a “singleness of heart” in the sense of having an eye single to the glory of God.  On the Sabbath especially, we worship God and we express our devotion to him.  His wishes and desires for our Sabbath activities should govern our choices.

Lastly, the Old Testament teaches us in three different places that the Lord intends for the Sabbath day to be a sign between us and God.  Elder Nelson said this in conference a year and a half ago:

“In my much younger years, I studied the work of others who had compiled lists of things to do and things not to do on the Sabbath. It wasn’t until later that I learned from the scriptures that my conduct and my attitude on the Sabbath constituted a sign between me and my Heavenly Father. With that understanding, I no longer needed lists of dos and don’ts. When I had to make a decision whether or not an activity was appropriate for the Sabbath, I simply asked myself, “What sign do I want to give to God?” That question made my choices about the Sabbath day crystal clear.

This is what seems to be the key question that should govern our behaviors on the Sabbath.  What sign or message am I sending to God by picking this choice?  The message from Salt Lake City today is one of concern that we are not sending the right sign, that we are forgoing blessings because of that, and that the invitation to improve in this area, issued 18 months ago, has not been sufficiently responded to.

(4) Keeping Ourselves Unspotted from the World (D&C 59:9)

The final idea I want to touch on today also comes from Section 59.  The Lord makes reference there to our Sabbath experience keeping us “unspotted from the world.”  This concept also seems to be an immediate concern of living prophets.

As I have travelled around the world, I have sometimes encountered people whose dress and outward appearance clearly identifies them as adherents to a particular religion, presumably devout adherents thereof.  I have seen Orthodox Jews, practicing Muslims, Sikhs, Amish, Buddhists, and probably others.  Two weeks ago, Becky had a wonderful and somewhat surreal experience sitting in the new Philadelphia Temple’s Celestial Room during the open house there as she was surrounded by 20 or so Amish people.

Sometimes we see people and suspect they are LDS by a certain look, but that is much more difficult.  Generally, Mormons are not readily identifiable.  However, as the world’s standards continue to erode while the Lord’s standards remain firm, it will be increasingly important that we stay with the Lord and not slide with the world.  That means not only a willingness to be different from the world, but a willingness to be increasingly different from the world and a willingness to appear different.

Regarding the Sabbath, our choices need to constantly be brought back to the Lord, toward a singleness of purpose toward him, and to doing good on the Sabbath.  The world may think it’s fun and cool, for example, to devote one Sabbath every year to worshiping sport on Super Bowl Sunday.  We may justify that as we might justify just about anything by doing that with our family.  But is that the best sign to give the Lord or is there something much better?  We must be anxious to do things—including observing the Sabbath—the Lord’s way, which will increasingly mean appearing differently from the world even if we don’t dress in obviously religious ways.

Conclusion:  What Are We Asking You to Do?  Family Council and Offer a Sign

In conclusion, Brothers and Sisters—and I thank you for indulging me so long today; it’s tedious to hear one speaker speak this much!—I renew an invitation to you.  If you have already done it, I invite you to do it again.

That invitation is to counsel together as a family.  Hold a family council.  Discuss your observance of the Sabbath.  Discuss your preparation for the Sabbath on Saturdays and your preparation for the Sacrament from home on Sunday mornings.  Discuss your family’s choices of activities.  Most importantly discuss the signs that your family are sending to God.  Consider the signs that you, personally, are sending to God, independent of other family members.

And ask yourselves these questions:  Have we responded to the Prophet’s call for us to elevate our observance of the Sabbath?  And, if prophets are today expressing concern that members have not adequately responded to that invitation, should we also be concerned that our response has not been strong enough?

I testify of the love of our Father in Heaven.  I testify of the goodness He shares with us when we humble ourselves before Him and yield our hearts to Him.  I testify of the goodness He shares with us when we keep our covenant to always remember the Savior and to keep His commandments.  I testify that blessings accrue to us for keeping the Sabbath.  I also know that there are even better reasons to properly observe the Sabbath than because we can expect blessings for so doing.

May we take this invitation seriously.  May we respond to the Lord’s prophets on the earth.  That we will is my prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

On Nurturing, Punches in the Mouth, and Unearned Love

[Given by Chris Juchau at the Back-to-School Fireside for Parents August, 2016.]

Tonight I would like to speak on three different topics.  They may or may not seem like they are related, but they all are core to our task and privilege of parenting and so they do share some commonality.

I will use a slide to illustrate each of my three topics.

Topic 1:  Nurturing Your Faith and Testimony

Let me describe for you a simple scenario that I experience frequently.  It’s a Sunday or a weekday evening and in the context of my calling I am meeting with a man or a woman (or both) from our stake.  He or she arrives and I invite him or her into the office and I ask the question, “How is your testimony?  Tell me about your testimony.”  And the person answers in any of a large variety of ways ranging from describing why their testimony feels so solid to acknowledging that their testimony is thin or even non-existent.   And then I ask, “Do you nurture your testimony?”  Which isn’t a very good question to ask because it’s a “yes/no” question, but I ask it anyway—and I never get a straight “yes” or “no.”  Very frequently the answer is comprised of words like these:  “I could do better.”

Now, pretend you’re me. You’ve just asked someone if they prioritize time and energy to nurture their testimony and they answer with “I could do better.”  What does that mean?  How do you interpret that answer?  Of course we can all do better at everything, so it doesn’t really answer the question.

It sounds like an answer driven by some sense of guilt, but it’s still ambiguous.  On the one hand, a person might do nothing or next-to-nothing to nurture his or her testimony and so “I could do better” is just a gentler way of saying “no,” perhaps without wanting to say so so abruptly.  On the other hand, Mormons—and particularly Mormon women, perhaps—are really good at making up reasons to feel guilty when in fact they are doing plenty to nurture their testimony.

bts-1-nurture2

I bring this up, though, because in too many cases it seems evident after some discussion that we really don’t prioritize the nurturing and development of our own faith and testimonies enough.  We are busy Moms and busy Dads and taking time for spirituality is easy to neglect and too many of us are neglecting something that will take its toll on our children.

I’m not sure that it’s true that we have to love ourselves before we can love someone else or that we must learn to forgive ourselves before we can forgive other people.  The scriptures don’t seem to support those ideas very clearly.

But where it comes to nurturing testimony and where we are talking about parenting, I do not believe we can escape the reality that you are going to have to take care of #1, so to speak, if you’re going to be able to help #2 and #3 and… #8.

I have on a few occasions encountered a less-active parent who believes their child will benefit from an upbringing in the Church in spite of their own inactivity and so they facilitate getting their kids to Church but do not back that up through their own practices at home or by their own consistent attendance at church.  How well does that work?!  You can love and forgive a child even while you are in the process of learning about Heavenly Father loving and forgiving you.  But the likelihood of your children ending up with deep spiritual roots in the gospel is pretty low when you are not establishing strong roots, yourself.

Why are faith and testimony so important for both you and your kids?  Let me suggest four reasons:

  1. Salvation. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Way—the only way to overcome the effects of our sins and errors which separate us from a perfect God.  We cannot go the Savior’s way without exercising faith in Him.  Faith in Him is the first principle of the gospel and neither we nor our children will realize a cleansing from our sins without faith in Him.  Your children are much more likely to exercise faith and nurture a testimony if you
  2. Happiness. We believe that the greatest, most genuine happiness—both ultimately in eternity and immediately in the present—are found through the Savior and in realizing His  We learn to see ourselves and others the way He does and we discover our own value and acceptability through Him.  The highest form of happiness is only available to those who truly and deeply receive the Savior.  And your children are much more likely to nurture a testimony and receive the Savior if you do.
  3. Adversity. Faith and testimony provide a firm, resilient foundation during the inevitable storms that come to each of us during our lives (and which do not appear to be meted out equally; some people seem to face more difficult storms than others).  The Savior spoke of having a house built upon a rock.  Helaman spoke of that rock being Christ, himself, and about wind, whirlwinds, hail, and mighty storms that will not “drag” us down to “misery” if we build upon the rock of faith in Christ.  Your children will be better equipped to understand and withstand adversity if they do so from a position of faith, which they’re more likely to develop if you
  4. Family. We believe that the greatest family unity depends upon family members choosing the Savior and receiving the ordinances and observing the covenants made available to us in temples. This is true in eternity where we believe such marriages and families can live in an exalted unified state.  It is also true in a very practical sense right now on the earth.  This is painfully illustrated when two church members marry in the temple under the belief that their spouse will maintain beliefs in Church doctrine and maintain a commitment to commandments and covenants—but then one of those two parties changes their mind post-marriage.  In such a case, the difficulties in the marriage and family can be staggeringly painful and the family may not survive intact.  The promise of strong eternal families is much more likely to be realized for your children if you nurture your own faith and testimony and help them do the same.

So faith and testimony are important.  For your kids, your example is huge.   Your setting a good example, won’t guarantee anything, but it will increase the chances.  Whether you set a good example or a poor example in this regard, it will be noticed!

Now, how do you nurture your testimony?

  1. You speak to God personally through prayer morning and night. You won’t be nurturing anything, though, if you just go through the motions.  You pray meaningfully morning and night.
  2. You seek out and listen to God’s voice daily through scripture reading and through paying careful attention to the words of modern prophets (of which there are 15 on the earth today, not just one).
  3. You make the temple and temple worship part of your life. You do work for the dead and return again and again to learn and to renew covenants.  If the ceremony and ritual of the temple are uncomfortable to you, come see to me or one of my counselors and let’s talk about it.
  4. Lastly, and very importantly, you live the gospel like you’re truly committed to it. Let me give some examples:
    • You maintain high standards for your consumption of media. How serious do our kids think we are about the gospel if they know we watch inappropriate media.  After all, I can still get a temple recommend after watching R-rated movies, so what’s the big deal?!
    • You make family prayer a priority. How serious do our kids think we are when they hear references to family prayer over and over again in church but it doesn’t seem important to their father or mother?
    • You approach modesty as if your body really is sacred and that words of Church leaders matter. How serious do our kids think we are when we wear immodest exercise clothing or swimwear and/or don’t seem very anxious to get back into our garments?
    • You honor the Sabbath in meaningful, noticeable ways. How serious do our kids think we are when our Sabbath consists of three hours of Church followed by hours of football and other things that really have no basis at all in worship?

Some will accuse me of over-emphasizing the letter of the law and being Pharisaical with such examples, but here’s the deal:  1) These are exactly the kind of things that strengthen or weaken our children spiritually.  And, 2) You are not nurturing your testimony if you are not striving to live the gospel in deep and meaningful ways, including observing practices that invite the spirit.  The Savior taught that those who do the will of God find out the truthfulness of his gospel.  Those who go primarily just through the surface-level visible motions are far less likely to be increasing in testimony.

Brothers and Sisters, for your children’s sake, please place a significant priority on nurturing your own faith and testimony.  And do all these things with an attitude of gentleness, love, and affection toward your children that they may know that this is a gospel of love and not come to suspect that it is just a gospel of strict rule-keeping.

Topic 2:  Punched in the Mouth

There is a quote that seems to be attributed to the boxer Mike Tyson, although I’m not sure it originated with him.  He was apparently asked once, just before a fight, about his plan.  And in talking about what he wanted to do and what the other boxer was expected to do, Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Mbts-2-punched2ost Mormon children, during their childhood or during their youth or during their adult years, eventually get punched in the mouth.  Some seem to get punched extremely hard.  Some seem to get punched over and over and over again.  Many here in this room probably know what it is like to be punched in the mouth.

How do we help our children prepare for this?  There is much we can teach them to help them avoid adversity in life and the troubles that will come to them through their own poor decisions.  We can teach them to follow the prophet, to keep the commandments, to stand in holy places, to understand agency and consequences.  And if we teach them these things and they adhere to them, they will, in fact, avoid a lot of trouble.

But it will not exempt them from troubles that come through the poor choices of others or the troubles that are simply inherent in this mortal experience.  It will not exempt them from the very purposes of mortality, which include testing and gaining experience with opposition, temptation, and agency, including others’ agency.  It may not exempt them from abuse at the hands of others or from tragedy through the fault of no one in particular.

Do we teach our children the doctrine of adversity and opposition?  What is the doctrine?  The doctrine is that, for our own benefit, there must be opposition in all things and that that opposition isn’t pretend or hypothetical—it’s real. The doctrine is that we came here to learn under different and more difficult circumstances than existed in the pre-existence.  The doctrine is that a veil exists so that we can make choices and deal with opposition with faith and without a perfect knowledge—and without immediate relief from difficult circumstances every time we ask Heavenly Father to provide the relief we want in the way we want it.

Let me mention three specific types of punches to the mouth that we need to be prepared for and that we need to prepare our children for.  These three things can overlap each other.

First is the broad category of unexpected life-changing challenges, disappointments, and tragedies.  This includes things like loss of a loved one; a sudden physical or mental health challenge, loss of a job, birth of a seriously limited child, abandonment from a parent, betrayal of a spouse, divorce, absence of an acceptable marriage offer, inability to have children, etc.  You could add other things to that list.

Keeping the commandments does not exempt us from difficult things in life—including very painful experiences and tragedies that come to us through no choice of ours. Can bad things happen to good people?  Can horrible things happen to good people?  Yes.  And they do every day.  Might they happen to us?  Yes.  How do we prepare for them?

  • We understand the doctrine of adversity and opposition.
  • We accept that we are not exempt even though we may do many things correctly.
  • We develop faith and testimony.
  • We develop deep, sincere, real humility and submissiveness.
  • We develop a work ethic.

We can soften the pain of life’s inherent unfairness by understanding and accepting the doctrine and by recognizing that, while each of us is special, we are not special in the sense of being exempt.  Then, when extreme hardship or tragedy comes, we turn to the Lord, we place our submissiveness on the altar and our trust in Him, and then we humbly but resolutely and patiently go to work on whatever it is we need to do or endure.  As we know, the Lord is not likely to change or remove even the worst circumstances during the moments that we are on our knees asking Him to change them.  What He will do is enable us to work through or around those things—or sometimes to simply endure them—after we plead with Him and then go about doing our best to resolve or handle the difficulty.

More easily said than done.  But that is what makes such elements of preparation all the more important.

We need to teach these principles to our children.  We also need to model them.

Second is the category that I will refer to as the Absent God.  It sometimes comes immediately upon the heals of the types of challenges, disappointments, and tragedies I just listed.  In some cases, a person turns to God—perhaps repeatedly—but doesn’t feel like He’s listening and then wonders if He’s even there at all.  It can also happen when a person seeks a testimony through a personal spiritual witness but doesn’t feel like that witness has come.  In these types of situations, it seems like God is absent.

He is not absent.  But connecting with Him can seem elusive to the point of generating doubt and disbelief.  When you get punched in the mouth and turn to God and do not immediately find Him or evidence of Him, but you expected to, it can feel like you’ve just been punched in the mouth again and are going down for the count.

What is the doctrine?  The doctrine is that God is our father.  And the doctrine is that He wants us to become like Him, which surely means that we eventually become spiritually and in every way self-reliant and capable, just as He is.  In order to help us do so, there will be moments where he helps us in obvious ways and there will be many moments where He offers His love and emotional support, but allows us to lean into the wind ourselves.  There are simple but profound truths here.  A parent cannot help a child become all that the child can become without allowing the child to experience growth through struggle.

Our daughter, Anne, just went through her first transfer—or six-week period—of her mission in Texas.  She was assigned to a trainer who would not or could not work.  Her trainer was dealing with depression to the point that she could not bring herself to leave their apartment until very late in the afternoon and so Anne became—or at least felt like—a bit of a prisoner in that apartment.  It was very hard for her.  She left the MTC excited and was anxious to be a missionary and to learn how to be a missionary.  Getting up at 6:30 in the morning and having nothing to do for the next 10 hours but read your scriptures, study Preach My Gospel, and practice Spanish verb conjugations, mostly by herself, was hard.  In fact, it was miserable and, perhaps worst of all, she felt a lot of guilt and began feeling very depressed, herself.

As her parents, we were very worried about the situation.  I knew it was taking a toll on her and I felt very tempted to intervene.  I imagined conversations I might have with her mission president.  I thought about calling her.  Texas isn’t so far away I couldn’t have just gone to see her!  Anne would have liked a hug from her Dad and Mom.  She would have appreciated a phone call.  She probably would like to have exchanged texts and letters every day.  Instead she heard from us once or maybe twice each week in a letter or email and she was mostly left to herself to work her way through it.

Meanwhile, she was turning to her Father in Heaven, but he didn’t send any angels to help her and things seemed to get worse and worse before they got better.

What happened, though, is that Anne turned to the Lord and then went to work on loving her companion and developing patience.  To make a long story short, she came to love that companion and she found meaning in their experience together.  She grew in ways that those difficult circumstances encouraged.  Neither her earthly father nor her Heavenly Father intervened to make the problem go away and at moments were or seemed absent.  But these things ended up fostering instead of hindering her growth.

Even the Savior, at the most extreme moment in human history, was left by His Father to struggle through something staggeringly enormous on His own.  Apparently that was necessary.

We must teach our children the purposes of mortality and the meaning of growth and struggle and effort and the ways in which our Father in Heaven will and won’t help us or reveal Himself to us.  We must teach our children also about the ways He communicates with us, which occasionally may involve an intense “burning in the bosom” experience, but most often is more quiet and subtle—sometimes to the point of not even being noticed.

My third category of being punched in the mouth regards those members of the Church who have not been exposed to criticisms and difficult-to-resolve questions in Church history.  And then when they are exposed to them, feel very much punched in the mouth and, in some cases, worse, like they’ve been betrayed by Church leaders they trusted who, they may feel, actually conspired to keep truths from them.  For some members, this picture behind me is a fairly accurate representation of how they feel.  To make matters much worse, some members in those circumstances become suspicious of who to trust and who not to and they develop fears over the response they’ll receive if they confide their fears and concerns and doubts and questions and mistrust and sense of betrayal in church members they should be able to trust and lean on.

So, of course, there are two categories of things we should be doing about this.  The first relates to nurturing our own testimonies.  Moms and Dads need to understand their own faith and how to approach these issues.  It may help to begin with the reality that while the internet can connect you with many disaffected members of the Church, you also have, right here within an arm’s reach, members of the Church who are very familiar with the issues, appreciate the doubts and questions those issues can inspire, and who are yet full of faith and devotion to God and His Church.  We are happy to listen and happy to share and we don’t condemn, accuse, or belittle people who have honest questions.  And you will find us reasonably capable both of us using our brains objectively and approaching spiritual matters spiritually.

Now, do I think that you need to do hundreds of hours of research into each of these issues in order to become secure in your faith and testimony?  No, I don’t.  Faith comes through agency and testimony comes through evidence.  And the fact is that agency can be exercised and evidence can be accumulated independent of exploring criticisms of the Church.  However, there is a problem.  While a person can have a strong, legitimate faith without being expert in Church criticisms, you run a risk as a parent if you cannot be somewhat conversant on these issues and, perhaps, if you cannot say, “Yes, I am familiar with those things but here are my answers and here is why I am not losing my faith and testimony because of things critical, unpleasant, or unknown.”

Some people feel that the Church’s approach to helping members build faith and testimony has amounted to a betrayal because the Church has not made an open discussion or even rebuttal to these issues part of Church curriculum or Sacrament Meeting talks.  Similarly, our children may lose confidence in their parents where they think their parents are unwilling or unable to address a faith-based approach to the issues.

My suggestions tonight are that 1) you become comfortable with your own testimony, 2) that you do so with some familiarity with the issues your children will surely encounter and question in the digital age, and 3) you teach your children a faith-based, thoughtful and honest approach toward spirituality and toward evidence and unknowns.

A couple of years ago, the Church was about to release its essay on Joseph Smith’s polygamy.  While our family culture has always invited awareness and questions and I have talked to my kids about various critical topics and they certainly have known that Joseph Smith was a polygamist, I had never spoken with them in any detail about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and about the particularly difficult-to-understand aspects of it.  I knew, though, that I wanted them to hear about that from me before they heard about it from someone else and began to feel critical of either my “ignorant faith” or of my “withholding information.”  So I gathered them together and we talked about it.

I invite you to understand faith, agency, testimony, evidence, and unknowns and to teach the related principles to your children.

By the way, don’t raise your kids in an overly black-and-white environment.  Not all doctrine is settled; answers to both historical and present questions of “why” are often not readily available; people’s motives are not always known; and faith, by definition, includes uncertainty.  There must be opposition in all things.  Agency matters.  All these things indicate that while God will give us spiritual helps (confirmations, etc.), he is still asking us to live by faith including with matters of uncertainty and things that are not entirely known.

Topic 3:  Consistent Unearned Love

My third and final topic this evening relates to these pictures…

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…both of which focus on the father of the prodigal son. I am particularly fond of the picture on the left.  I think that artist captured very well in the father’s face the anxiousness and concern and focus of a father who loves his son and yearns mightily for his happiness.  I have long believed that the whole point of the Savior telling that story was to teach us not about the son but about the father because he is a representation of Heavenly Father.  We note from this story that the father respected the son’s agency, that he watched for him, and that, at the first sign of his son’s willingness to accept him, the father closed the gap between himself and his son and embraced him.

I wish to emphasize one point.  We must not condition our children to believe that God’s love for them and His acceptance of them is conditioned upon their performance.  On the contrary, we must help them be receptive to the idea that at their very worst moments of life, including moments of extreme personal shame, embarrassment, and disappointment, their Father in Heaven will love them and accept them in His arms.  We will do this by their seeing this type of treatment from us.

When our children do poorly, which, of course, we have all done, whether it is by mistake, poor judgment, or outright rebelliousness, at these moments we need to withhold criticism or any kind of “I told you so!” or “Why didn’t you just listen to me?” or “See!  That’s what I’m talking about!” or “Didn’t I warn you?” or all those kinds of things.  Instead, they need to find us at their worst moments receptive to them, patient and understanding and empathetic.

When we hug our children and lavish praise on them after they do well and then we distance ourselves from them, perhaps by sending them to their rooms, or stopping talking to them or withholding affection from them when they have done poorly in our eyes, then we are conditioning them to believe that this is how God is, which isn’t true.

At each of our worst moments in life we need the Lord and we need the support of those who love us and whom we should be able to trust to have patience with us.  Let us help our children to find safety in us at those tough times just as each of us can find safety in our Heavenly Father and in the Savior at our worst times.  By the way, I believe I can say with complete confidence that there are nine bishops in this stake [now 10] along with myself and my counselors who you can trust to be supportive of you and not judgmental and condemning when you have erred.  All of us are familiar with our own shortcomings and errors.

In Conclusion

So, brothers and sisters, I am suggesting three things tonight:

  1. Make a priority of nurturing your own faith and testimony.
  2. Teach your children how to prepare for and handle adversity.
  3. Help your children discover that your love is not conditioned upon their earning it.

Brothers and Sisters, we have the true gospel.  We don’t know everything, but we know the critical things.  We do know the path to happiness and peace and wholeness.  Parenting is a sacred privilege and it is one of the great schools of mortality.  It is certainly tough.

Do not waste time lamenting your shortcomings.  It’s good to recognize and acknowledge them and to work on them.  But it’s no good to marinade in feelings of inadequacy.  Were all inadequate.  That goes without saying and it’s just the way it is.  I always think of that book, “I’m OK, You’re OK.”  We could write one called, “I’m Inadequate, You’re Inadequate. So What?”

We do have a Father in Heaven.  He will help us in our inadequacies.  He will help us work on or around our shortcomings.  He will be with us and magnify our efforts.  He loves and cares about your children—His children—with a perfect love and enjoys a perspective of seeing the end and not just the present.  The fact that He knows how this ends and is happy must surely tell us something.

God bless you.  You are wonderful.  Whether listening to Becky and me tonight was worthwhile, your coming speaks very highly of your interest in being a great parent.  May the Lord bless you and may you increasingly feel his presence in your life.  In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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