What Grows out of Neglect?

https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/red-tulips-760411?lang=eng

I was out for a walk early this morning and noticed a neglected patch of lawn surrounding a home tucked into a cul de sac. It was crew-cut short, dry and brown. Many weeds were thriving in this suburban wasteland.

Weeds are opportunistic. They are non-edible. Some are deceptively attractive. Others will sting you if you get too close. Such plants are the fruits of neglect.

And what of the neglected child? An ignored friend? A spouse held in silent contempt? An idle testimony? Where there’s neglect, good things do not grow, and what good that remains begins to wither.

But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out. (Alma 32:38.)

My mother had multiple sclerosis. She was a saintly woman and a loving mother, but physically unavailable. I don’t, for example, remember her ever cooking a meal for us.

In many ways I raised myself. I didn’t do a very good job. There were some emotions such as confidence and belonging that didn’t take full root until I got into a more stable family situation as an adult.

Weeds of doubt grow where no better plants are planted, watered, and nurtured. Friends wander when undernourished. Spouses have dibs on the best of your attention, and if they don’t get it, contention will grow. Children wither without the sunlight of their parents’ love and care.

If you have weeds in your garden, don’t neglect them. Find them, pull them up by the roots, and heave them onto the compost pile. Then let better things grow in their place.

But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. (Alma 32:41.)

My Wife, the Chaplain

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One day in 2015, my wife refused to leave the celestial room of the Salt Lake temple until she got an answer to a particular prayer. As she says, she “stomped her foot” and refused to move until she was clear on what her new direction should be. She got a very clear message of love and support that day, but not a compass point to walk towards.

The nest was empty, and she felt she was ready to launch in a new direction. She was persistent and she eventually got the answer she was looking for.

“You go on. You set one foot in front of the other, and if a thin voice cries out, somewhere behind you, you pretend not to hear, and keep going.” —Geraldine Brooks

About four months later (two years ago this month), she was sitting at her desk at home. The message she had gotten at the temple was taped to her computer screen. She was thinking about the message when a clear voice said to her, “Look into chaplain school.”

Well, that’s what she did. With gusto. Within weeks she was accepted and enrolled in a 2,100-hour Clinical Pastoral Education program, eventually becoming a board-certified professional chaplain.

Yesterday was a first. As a chaplain, she can legally perform marriages, and she performed her first marriage of a young couple. She was well prepared. The ceremony was beautiful. And so was she!

“A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” —Ruth Bell Graham

I am very proud of her accomplishment. She followed her heart and didn’t give up. She now works as a hospice chaplain, administering comfort to the dying and grieved. She is setting an example for our three daughters, stretching her limits and breaking down barriers. When most people at our age are ready to ride into the sunset, she galloped into the sunrise. She is truly a remarkable woman. I love her so much, and I am still busting buttons over what she has done. Hurray and bravo, [endearing nickname deleted]!!

“I’ve Got the Mommy Power”

A fellow quorum member told this story in a meeting recently.

He was visiting his grandchildren and took them for a long walk. They became a little agitated when they realized that they weren’t in familiar territory. Then his five-year-old granddaughter spoke up.

“You know what my dad told me?” she asked.

“What’s that?” asked the grandfather.

“I’ve got the mommy power.”

The grandfather smiled. “What’s the mommy power?” he asked.

“It’s when things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, but you still know that everything is going to be all right.”

I’ve witnessed the mommy power, haven’t you? I love it. I am in awe of it. I am grateful for it.

I’ll go so far to say that the mommy power is one thing—if not the very thing—that holds the universe together.

Smartphones and Social Media vs. Real Human Contact

LDS Media Library

Over the last few years, I’ve had a bit of a falling out with social media, and lately, I have been wrestling with the emotions I experience with any form of virtual interaction. There’s a taint of artificiality. The delay between messages. Feeling compelled to respond in a certain way. I wrestled with the all too common topics, which can be rather negative; and portrayals, which can be flattering but disingenuous. I also am on my guard about privacy and safety.

I’m also giving too much attention to my smartphone. I read “Love Interruptus” in the August 2016 issue of Psychology Today about how one husband called his wife’s smartphone her “other husband,” and about technoference, the “everyday intrusions or interruptions in couple interactions . . . that occur due to technology.” All this has gotten me thinking.

I am not saying this is the experience everyone is having with social media, or that it’s inherently bad. It isn’t. But I am sensitive to even low doses of negativity, and I tend to shield my spirit from its toxic effects. I also value attention given without distraction. I greatly value it.

After a moment of visual revulsion on Instagram this summer, and considering my tendency toward electronic “doodling,”  I took a five-week break from social media (except one work-related Facebook group) so I could get some clear perspective on what I have been feeling. I don’t want to totally give up on my smartphone or social media; I just don’t want it to take so much real estate in my brain, or to distract me from what’s more important.

One thing that’s important is giving people around me the honor, respect, and attention they deserve. Exquisite, thoughtful respect is what they deserve. That respectful attention is Christlike love in action, and I’m not giving enough of it, or allowing myself to receive enough of it.

So I’ve made a decision to turn off my smartphone and keep it out of sight from other people, as much as possible. To leave it in the car when I go into a restaurant or a store or meeting, especially if I’m with my wife or a family member, or even with friends and colleagues. I have plenty of time to myself, when I can pay attention to my phone—people, real, in-person people, deserve better.

I also want my posts to be less trivial and aggrandizing. I want them to be things I would say to a real person, eye to eye, in their presence, in an unvarnished way.

I’ll need more than luck to change. I’ll stay accountable to you and report my successes and failures here. Thank you for understanding: You mean more to me than your Facebook post. I’ll try to prove that. You’re welcome to call me out if I don’t. Please, by all means, do. I need more friends like that.

Update: Sunday, September 18, 2016

How did I do this past week on my technoference goals? I made progress, but it did not go as well as I hoped. I had some successes in keeping my phone tucked away, but not all the time and not to my satisfaction. Checking my phone, even sans notifications, is a reflexive habit. I’ve realized that I need to adjust my approach. I need to read my scriptures on the train, for example, in the presence of others. So I am refining my goals. I need to try a few things first as I develop my personal phone etiquette (PPE). I’ll report back soon.

Update: Sunday, October 15, 2016

How am I doing on my smartphone goals? I have been doing better in some areas, and not so good in others. I have only improved slightly. I usually leave my phone in the car now when I go to dinner with my wife or run some errands with her. That way, I can be more focused on her. I have been doing a little better in meetings. But in other areas, I have fallen down. I am going to focus on keeping my phone put away when (1) I am in a personal conversation with someone; (2) I am in a meeting. When I am tempted to look at my phone in these situations, I plan to turn to mindfulness as an alternative. We’ll see. I am discovering that I am weaker than I thought I was. 😔

A Family Home Evening Habit

Joseph F. Smith. Courtesy LDS Media Library.

Before we got married, my wife and I made a commitment to each other that we would hold family home evening regularly. We made a point to start holding it before we had children so we would be in the habit when they arrived. Our youngest left home to serve a mission almost two weeks ago. The nest is officially empty. Now what?

We have been married for 35 years, 4 months, and 14 days. But by some miracle, we’ve stayed in the FHE habit. We didn’t hold it every Monday night, but we held it regularly and often. More often than not, we held it weekly.

We had family night tonight, just my wife and me. We sang, “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” We talked about our goals for 2015 and discussed a pro/con list my wife complied about a potential purchase. We closed by reading a few verses from Matthew chapter 2.

Family night has helped us, all of us in our family, stay close to the Spirit of the Lord. When you get together as a family, talk openly about your testimony, study scripture, pray, share spiritual experiences, admit to your failings, offer up your hopes, dreams, aspirations, and disappointments, and allow yourself to be a little vulnerable, it helps form connections and glues your family together.

Joseph F. Smith, together with the First Presidency, issued this statement almost 100 years ago: 

We advise and urge the inauguration of a “Home Evening” throughout the Church, at which time fathers and mothers may gather their boys and girls about them in the home and teach them the word of the Lord. They may thus learn more fully the needs and requirements of their families; at the same time familiarizing themselves and their children more thoroughly with the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This “Home Evening” should be devoted to prayer, singing hymns, songs, instrumental music, scripture-reading, family topics and specific instruction on the principles of the Gospel, and on the ethical problems of life, as well as the duties and obligations of children to parents, the home, the Church, society and the Nation. For the smaller children appropriate recitations, songs, stories and games may be introduced. Light refreshments of such a nature as may be largely prepared in the home might be served.

Formality and stiffness should be studiously avoided, and all the family should participate in the exercises.

These gatherings will furnish opportunities for mutual confidence between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, as well as give opportunity for words of warning, counsel and advice by parents to their boys and girls. They will provide opportunity for the boys and girls to honor father and mother, and to show their appreciation of the blessings of home so that the promise of the Lord to them may be literally fulfilled and their lives be prolonged and made happy. …

If the Saints obey this counsel, we promise that great blessings will result. Love at home and obedience to parents will increase. Faith will be developed in the hearts of the youth of Israel, and they will gain power to combat the evil influences and temptations which beset them” (“Home Evening,” Improvement Era, June 1915, 733–34, as quoted in Presidents of the Church Student Manual, (2012), 94–111).

Joseph F. Smith was a prophet. What he said was completely true. The promised blessings have been realized in our family. It was worth every drop of effort. I am deeply grateful. Finally, as the Savior said, there is an unimpeachable way to learn the truth—live it:

Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. (John 7:16–17.)

What Is Marriage’s Worst Enemy?

Courtesy LDS Media Library

What is marriage’s worst enemy, if you could name just one thing? I’ve been thinking about this for several years. I am offering my opinion here, but I think it is the natural man, the proud, lazy, self-enamored, stubborn man or woman.

When you were courting your spouse, didn’t you put on your best self to win him or her over? Weren’t you kind, patient, vulnerable, fun, and full of love? Didn’t you care a little more about your appearance, your manners, your vocabulary? Weren’t you more ready with an apology, more appreciative of the little things, more selective in your activities, more willing to submit to the plans and wishes of your beloved? (That’s not the natural man.)

What happened?

When did courting start to fade and, in some cases, disappear? When did you let the natural man out of his little cage? When did you start to blame, to harbor resentment, to fail to express genuine gratitude, to hurl invectives, to follow your darker impulses? You know what I am talking about, don’t you? Complaining, grousing, mocking, yelling, belittling, lying—the list is long and tiresome.

The natural, grumpy, defensive, self-centered, Gollum-esque attributes don’t belong in your marriage nor in mine. Yes, I know you’re tired, stressed, disappointed, and confused. So am I. Maybe you’re depressed, let down, disillusioned? I’ve been there. Does it give you a logical reason, a right, to lash out and go on the attack? I submit that it does not.

What price will you pay to keep your spouse forever? There is only one price. Everything.

If you are not willing to give everything in that holy exchange, including your natural, indulgent self, for your spouse, do you have the power to keep him or her? I really don’t think so.

The fulfillment of sacred promises made in a marriage ceremony will come after we live those promises, or after we give our very best efforts trying to live them. We all need grace to live them. It takes many tries.

I am not saying you have to endure control or manipulation, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse or criminal behavior or repeated infidelity or decades of relapses to hold your marriage together. You may feel inspired to make great personal sacrifices to keep your relationship intact, but it can’t all be one sided. It takes a partnership.

You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. We can, like Christ, be judged and attacked emotionally, spiritually, or physically, and suffer it because of our love and longsuffering (see 1 Nephi 19:9). But there is a limit to what you can do for another person. No one on earth can tell you exactly where that limit is. You have to rely on divine guidance to know that.

Keep courting. Be respectful. Be honest but kind. Stop being so defensive. Don’t waste energy defending your opinions. Be open to ways you can be a better wife or husband. Be willing to improve. Recognize sooner when you are wrong. Be supportive of each other. Believe in each other.

You are a partner with God and your spouse. When you are married, you hold a key for your wife or husband that no one else can hold. That key can unlock a happy, rich, sanctified life for a loved one, or it can lock someone out of the life we were all intended to live. You can’t really turn that key and open the door to mutual happiness unless you are willing to subject your natural man to constant discipline and correction.

What price are you willing to pay to keep your spouse? What’s one thing, one habit, one behavior, you can set aside this week to make your marriage a happier one? (I already know what I need to work on this week.)

What Makes Love Last? 8 Virtues That Make Love Last

True principles will never let you down. Here are a few that will help hold your relationships together.

Nothing erodes love like dishonesty. Is what you’re hiding more important than your relationship? If not, stop hiding it or it will be the only thing you have left. You can’t be honest with others without first being honest with yourself.

Respect always builds others; it never tears them down. Lasting love is impossible without respect. You can give respect as a free gift. Respect begets respect.

Trust is the only enduring currency in all relationships. Without trust, relationships simply cannot last. Honesty and respect create a foundation for trust. Sexual honesty and purity—keeping it between you and your spouse only—is a fortress that protects love and family.

You don’t have to always be right. Be sorry when you need to be sorry, say you’re sorry and mean it. The ability to admit you’re wrong builds trust. A genuine apology helps draw two people closer together. But don’t use “sorry” tritely.

If you don’t forgive, you’ll live in a self-made prison. Forgive yourself. It’ll make it easier to forgive others. Resentment means that you have some forgiving to do. Forgiveness sets you free.

If you have issues, clean them up, for your sake and for the sake of those you love. If you have an addiction or a long-term emotional hang up, you need help. Get it. Have the courage to seek therapy and support. You’ll be a lot less lonely if you do.

You’ve got to have fun with each other. Relax, lighten up, use your imagination, and try something new. Fun renews life. It renews everything.

“Love is being stupid together.” —Paul Valery 

If you dream, you can hope. If you hope, you can find tomorrow. Share your dreams with each other. Create your dreams together.

How Relationships Erode

Courtesy LDS Media Library

I’ve thought about this for years. I’ve seen relationships fall apart. I’ve also seen them hold together. Here’s what I think is behind the erosion of a lot of relationships. Relaxing standards.

When you’re courting, your standards are high. Your behavior is the best it’s ever been. You hold your tongue. You’re polite and generous. You’re energetic and respectful.

Then you get married. You are playing house with a real spouse! You are Ken and Barbie. It’s an adventure. You are ridiculous together. Every day is a day of discovery.

Then things start to trend down. You are tired. You have school or work or both at the same time. Then children come—those little energy sucking cuties. Callings require hours away from home. You come home exhausted and grumped out. You lower your standards.

You don’t watch your words closely. Things fly out of your mouth and cut your spouse like a knife. You’re disrespectful and sometimes downright mean. Some days, you’re so tired, you ignore personal hygiene and you stink. You burp and have gas without apology. You let your wife open her own doors. You sleep longer than you should. You hide out in your room to read. You watch too much schmaltzy television and drink too much diet Coke. You have 47 reasons why you don’t exercise or eat right. You cherish bad habits and defend them. You lazily, unconsciously, and predictably lower your standards.

You sing a song that goes like this (my apologies to Veggie Tales):

We are the Mormons who don’t do anything,
We are grumpy and forget to pray,
And when you ask us to do anything,
We just tell you,
“Call the Relief Society President.” 

And then you wonder, “What’s wrong with my wife?” Or you murmur, “My husband is a slob.” You complain to your friends about your spousal unit and circle the drain. Your relationships suffer or may feel doomed.

Wake up! Start with you. Yeah, you. Set your sites high again. Be a gentleman. Act like a lady. Turn off the electronic vampires. Open a car door for someone. Buy flowers. Say, “Excuse me.” Stop drinking 64-ounce sodas. Take a shower regularly. Keep your mouth closed and listen. If you need to burp, handle it as if you were at a job interview or sitting in sacrament meeting. Ask for forgiveness. Stop defending and justifying your actions and think about how you can make your spouse feel more loved and needed and appreciated. Start working out every other day. Clean up after yourself. Set time limits. Raise your standards. Do something better than you’ve been doing it.

If you want things to get better, you have to get better. —Kirk Duncan 

Stop blaming and shaming and raging. Start acting on your best instincts. We all depend on grace—the grace of God and the grace of our better halves—to get through life. Show Those in heaven and those on earth that you appreciate them, that your are willing to change, that your are willing to set aside lazy habits and do things better. It will make a huge difference in your relationships.

You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be better.

Yes, you can expect unconditional love no matter your condition. But people might actually want to be with you if you are more kind, dignified, tasteful, respectful, disciplined, energetic, hopeful, and helpful.

Don’t ever say, “That’s just the way I am.” You are far better than that, far greater than you imagine. Your potential is infinite, your possibilities, endless. I’m serious.

If you want things to change, you have to change. Just take one step up.

Today is a great day to start.

Protect the Queen!

Queen Cristi and King Mike

Over the last three days, Cristi and I attended a marriage class and had a lot of fun. It had a royalty theme. It was a little beyond my comfort zone which is probably a good thing. I’ve learned that my comfort zone is not equal to my growth zone.

One random theme: the leader would yell out the question, “Kings, what do we do!” Then we men would jump wildly to our feet and scream at the top of our lungs, “Protect the queen!”

After observing this fervent, boyish behavior, my wife grabbed my arm several times and said, “Oh! I just love that!” Then she’d kiss me like it was the coolest thing she’d ever seen me do.

Really? After 35 years of marriage, I am just now figuring this warrior-prince thing out? 

I’ve always known that my wife likes to feel secure and protected but I did not know that she loves feverish displays of masculine energy in her cause.

Actually, we have been talking about this for a few months—reinventing violence, that is. Not violence in the destructive, harmful sense, but constructive violence, if there is such a thing. Wait, there is. Think of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple (see Matthew 21:12–13) or captain Moroni championing the the cause of freedom (see Alma 46:13–23).

Think of standing up to your full stature in the fearless defense of truth. Think of defending your home from intrusion, not from burglars and kidnappers, but from spiritual wolves in every form. Over the past few days, I’ve realized that 150 years ago, I might have stood against wolves and bears and rattlesnakes and hostiles to protect my family. Now I must defend them against the unseen enemies that enter our homes—domiciles and bodies—over invisible airwaves, through thoughts, and dark emotions. The battlefield has changed but the war is just as real and the stakes are as high as they’ve ever been.

If I stand for freedom, I stand against sin, the doorway to separation and slavery. If I stand against sin, I must stand against evil in all it’s forms—inane social media, cheap-shot television, immodesty, pornography, spiritual neglect, doubt, faithlessness, disobedience, sarcasm, ingratitude, disrespect, disloyalty—the full spectrum is enemy to all I hold dear.

I protect my wife and loved ones, not just through physical means but spiritual. Prayer and fasting and sacrifice and repentance and faith and relentless work and providing a living and holding the line. Standing up for what is right and true and standing tall against “the prince of the power of the air” (see Ephesians 2:2).

Is not God a protector? If I am not a protector, whose son am I?

Cristi will be seeing more feverish displays of masculine energy in the near future. I now know she loves it. 

P.S. Those swords were heavy! I really want one now.

How Men Save Women

Courtesy LDS Media Library

Yesterday, I was headed home for lunch when I came upon an unexpected scene. I was the third or fourth person to arrive. A young woman had collapsed at the street corner. A man in running clothes was kneeling beside her, his right arm cradling her head from the concrete. His arm was covered with blood as was her face. He was speaking gently to her, though at first she looked unconscious. He seemed to be pleading with her to wake up, to come back.

I cannot erase the scene from my mind. It was not the blood. It was the tenderness of a stranger.

In my last post, I talked about how women save men. Now I want to talk about how men save women. It goes both ways you know. It has to.

Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman; but all things of God. (1 Corinthians 11:11–12.)

First, I want to talk about how my wife saves me every day. She doesn’t have to try. All she has to do is be who she is — wise and insightful, caring, thoughtful, compassionate, kind, and patient. Obedient. Nurturing and ministering. Loving. Committed. And funny. Hilarious, really. And beautiful.

We have been married for 35 years and it just keeps getting better and better.

When we see each other after work, we hold each other and kiss each other like we were newlyweds. Our constant displays of affection used to embarrass our children, but not so much now that they are older.

My wife needs me and I need her. Yes, if she suddenly died, I know I could survive and live on. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what that would be like. From a practical, earthly point of view, I could limp along. But I need her, like the day needs the sun. If I lost her, I don’t know if I could remarry.

When we met, I was 17 and she was 15. We were married four years later, after my mission. I knew if I hadn’t gone on a mission and served faithfully there, she never would have been interested in me. That’s certainly not why I went on a mission but it’s one reason I’m glad I did.

My wife is the reason I get up in the morning and try again. We never stop talking, talking, talking. We sit close in church meetings, often holding hands. There is nothing I’d rather do than spend time with her. She is my sunlight.

And this is how I save her. I love and cherish her more than anything in this world, and I prove it to her, imperfectly, every day. I do things for her. Not things that she can’t do but things that she doesn’t want to do. She doesn’t have to be everything and do everything, because we are partners. She can rely on me to be prayerful, honest, forgiving, and kind. I will make the phone calls she doesn’t want to make. She knows she can ask for a priesthood blessing any hour of the day. God’s priesthood is hers for the asking. I love to serve her. I love that she needs me and wants me.

These ideas may seem old fashioned to some readers. They certainly are old fashioned. But they lead to old-fashioned happiness—the kind that lasts. 

Yes, we have the best things life has to offer. We don’t have as much money as we once had or as much as we’d like. We are not sure how we are going to afford to serve a mission together quite yet. We are together, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. We complete each other. We’ll figure it out.

I think this is how the Lord meant things to be for couples. I know it doesn’t always work this way, but does that mean it shouldn’t work out this way? In spite of my failures and sins, I strive for the ideal, for what heaven looks like and what I know it will be.

Even though we have done well in love, it doesn’t mean that life and love aren’t fragile. I am aware everyday that foolish choices, by either of us, could lead to disaster. But what holds us together is the commandments. They kept us safe before we were married and gave us a sturdy foundation. They have never failed us and they never will. We may fail them, but they cannot fail us.

The other day, my wife signed us up for an art class, an evening class at the local high school. Together we will draw and paint and mold and explore. It will be yet another adventure. They never end.

Back to the tender scene at the street corner. An ambulance and a fire truck came. The girl awakened and, when I left, she seemed okay. But what about the man with the blood on his arm? What about him? Did he finish his run? Could he? I don’t know. But what I do know is that for a few minutes early one Monday afternoon, he tenderly held and protected a stranger. He did what came naturally to him.

I wish I could be more like him. I wish all men would be more like him.

Shortly before our last baby was born, we went into see the nurse midwife, Stephanie. I was feeling a little down about how useless I would feel to my wife in the delivery room. I told Stephanie how I felt and she said something that changed my life.

“Imagine how she would feel if you were not there.”

Being there, just really being there, counts for a lot in life. It makes a huge difference in the lives of others. You can save someone just by being you.

P.S. A friend of mine wrote an inspiring and thought-provoking piece on the divine nature of men. I’ve never seen or heard it explained quite like she does. I highly recommend reading it.