Saturday, 20 December 2008

Build Faith and Teach Doctrine

So I have decided that this blog will work, dangit! (I think at least a few of you are on board.) So here I go. I am going to do a series of posts hoping it will help generate some discussion here.

One of my visiting teachers is a Laurel adviser in our ward, and she commented on how odd it is to be repeating the Young Women's theme each week. We all agreed that it must be difficult to remember after all this time. It makes me wonder why we don't repeat or at least focus on the Relief Society objectives more often. The first of the official objectives of Relief Society is to "Build faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and teach the doctrines of the kingdom of God."

The year before I was married, I had a great Stake President (read one of his talks here). He said that if (in church) the Atonement wasn't mentioned in a talk or lesson, that talk or lesson wasn't worth giving. Two weeks ago we had our Christmas lesson in Relief Society. I haven't gotten a lot out of church lately, since I am still figuring out how to best handle my daughter at church, and we often leave early or come late to accommodate her naps. So, I was looking forward to the lesson. I was disappointed when the lesson consisted of the teacher listing all the things she loved about Christmas: Christmas music, Christmas lights, Christmas movies, Christmas candy, Christmas sweaters, Christmas shopping, etc. Then we watched a movie of the Christmas special the church did of Walter Cronkite telling the story of when soldiers stopped fighting on Christmas Day during WWI-- a great story, but not exactly what I had in mind for the Relief Society Christmas lesson. I left feeling rather disappointed that not once during the meeting had anyone even mentioned Christ. However, when I looked around the room as I left, the majority of the women were in tears. Clearly, this meeting had touched many hearts.

One thing I find difficult is to engage in Relief Society lessons. I recently moved into a family ward after having been in a BYU married student ward for three years. The dynamic is different, to say the least, but I think my current ward situation is much more realistic. How can we, as teachers and as listeners, help reach every sister to "build faith in Jesus Christ" and learn "the doctrines of the kingdom of God"? What have you done in Relief Society lessons to find Christ and strengthen your testimony when the lesson doesn't seem a ready vehicle to help you do so?


Monica said...

Oh, I can't agree with your former Stake President more! (That was a wonderful talk, by the way). Nothing we do in the church makes any difference whatsoever without the sacrifice of the Savior. The Atonement is at the core of everything we do and believe.

I'm going to relate some things that I have recently learned about lessons, talks, preparation, listening, and life in general. We often hear in the church that as we prepare ourselves, we'll hear what we need to hear and be touched by the Spirit whether we be listening to talks, lessons, or just generally living our day to day lives. I cannot state my testimony of this fact strongly enough. Not only do I know this to be true, but I have come to learn that I can feel the Spirit and be touched in any lesson or listening to any talk when I am close to the Spirit, regardless of the topic. I used to hear promises of this type and make various different excuses as to why is was not true for me, justifying why I would not receive an insight or feel the Spirit in certain lessons or with certain teachers. What I have come to learn, however, is that much of what I get out of church (listening or teaching or talking) is completely reliant upon me and my current spiritual state.

Of course, there are a lot of things that get in our way: children, being overtired, being distracted, being hungry, you get the idea. I've found that the number one thing that gets in my way is me.

For the past several months, I have been engaging myself in the gospel in a whole new way. First, I absolutely have made it a number one priority to read my scriptures every single day. This kind of went out the window after I had Hunter. It's funny how sometimes I convince myself that I'm letting myself "recharge" by watching TV or wasting time on Facebook, and somehow scripture study seems like more of a "have to", a chore. How good is Satan, huh? When he can convince us to let slip the things that will actually recharge us the most like prayer and scripture study in favor of activities that actually (more often than not) deplete us? I have never read my scriptures and then said, well that was a waste of time. Yet, how often do I say that exact thing with these other "recharging" or "relaxing" activities? In fact, I often feel more drained after watching TV than before.

Okay, so I began reading my scriptures every morning (and yes, I believe this is important too - obviously if you are reading at night that's great! Don't stop! I just find that when I read in the morning I can spend the day thinking about what I've read and applying it to my life in a way that is much different than were I to read at night). I also made sure that I was always saying my prayers. At first they were pretty normal prayers - talking about my challenges, asking for help, asking for the Spirit, asking for enough sleep, etc. The more I read and the more I prayed, the closer to the Spirit I felt and my prayers and my reading sessions began to change - I began praying for knowledge, for discernment in my life to know the will of God in what I should do, and I began to pray that the scriptures would really speak to me every day and that I could apply them to my life. I began to pray to be a better example, and I began to pray for others in ways I wouldn't have before (see, the pattern given in Enos really does work). I also began to feel a greater sense of gratitude and love for the scriptures and for the Savior.

Prior to this experience, I had been going through some very difficult experiences that had left me very much in the dark. I had been going to the temple, I wanted God's help, but I began to realize how alone I had let myself become without regular prayer and scripture study. I think we all have times where we let the important things slip. I don't know if we really know how important they are until we are hit with something that we cannot handle on our own. Well, throughout this trial, I became more and more depressed until I really made the effort to do what I needed to do to be near to God. I knew that, really, I was completely unworthy of His help simply by not staying close to the Spirit in the first place. In all reality, we are all unworthy of His help without the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And with all He's suffered for me, how can I go one day without expressing my gratitude for His gift to my Father in Heaven or without calling on the power of His Atonement in my life to heal - not just sin, but any kind of hurt or pain we can experience in this life. Now, I feel like these are all things I knew before - it wasn't new to me. What was new was how I felt about it and how I realized how pride had kept me from feeling the Spirit and guidance of my Father in Heaven at this particular point in my life. That's right, pride. There are so many manifestations of pride that we could have a whole discussion just about that, but that's not what I want to focus on.

It takes some serious effort for us to be attune to what the Lord has to tell us at all times, but I know this is a blessing He will grant to us as we repent and strive to become more like Him and as we keep our communication lines open. Repentance is key to this process. We can't fully experience the Spirit in our lives when we are burdened by sin (and we can't fully appreciate the Savior's sacrifice for us if we don't partake of the healing power of the Atonement). Part of being spiritually in tune is making sure that we are repenting daily of our faults and weaknesses. Often, this includes asking Heavenly Father to show us the things we need to repent of, which may not be readily apparent to us, but nevertheless impact our spirituality.

It took a couple of months at least for me to really get to where I began to feel these changes, and then something amazing happened. All of a sudden I began receiving promptings all the time - things I should do, things I should study, questions I should ask, attributes I get to work on, things I should repent of. Every time I opened the scriptures, I found a new truth, something that I could apply to my life in a new way (often at that very moment or on that very day), things that were relevant to my situation or testimony that I would have never thought of before. Every time I really listened to a talk (remember, I have a toddler, which means I don't always listen as well as I should) or a lesson with a heart open to know God's will, I gained something out of it - even when I previously would have thought that particular lesson wasn't really relevant to the gospel or my life or testimony at that particular moment. I began reading lessons in advance, and the kinds of inspirations I had only increased. Eventually some of these experiences began to trail off, and I realized that I had forgotten some of my scripture study sessions. They also dropped off when I failed to record my feelings, when I ignored a prompting I received, or when I failed to repent. In short, I gained a testimony of what having the Spirit as a constant companion really means, and that the only thing holding me back from having that kind of spiritually full life was me.

One of the things that I learned is that when we have the Spirit, the Lord is going to challenge and prompt us to continue to grow and increase our knowledge, and often this can be uncomfortable and difficult work. I have learned to think of the Savior and what He has sacrificed for me so that I can be like Him, and in those moments I realize how little He asks of us, yet so often we don't even do the simple things that He asks. What we fail to understand is what we are missing. While doing these things takes effort on our part, that effort makes everything easier. As we build habits out of certain behaviors until gradually they are simply a part of who we are, even our initial efforts don't feel like effort at all. Rather, our effort frees and uplifts us. Truly, the Savior's "yoke is easy" and His "burden is light".

I also found that the Spirit challenged me during this time to gain a testimony of things that bothered me and that I didn't quite fully understand, and the Spirit challenged me to stand for truth in ways that were absolutely terrifying to me. When I responded to these promptings, my life was blessed, my day went better, and I learned truth (sometimes old truth in a new way). I learned how to become more like the Savior, as well as how far I currently am from that goal. And every talk, lesson, and scripture study session (sometimes even a talk with a friend) gave me new insight and resolve to do what God would have me do with my life. Miraculously, I always had time and energy to do the other important tasks that needed to be done during those days. I know it was because I set aside time to know my Savior and partake of His Atonement. I now truly know and have experienced how amazing our lives can be when we remain close to God, even when our challenges remain the same.

I know that was very long, and highly personal, but I really felt like I should share it. Thanks for bearing with me. It reminds me of how much more I can do to keep the Spirit with me in my life as a true constant companion.

Courtney said...

Monica-- thank you so much for that comment. I love how you mention a couple times the concept of relearning truth. You don't present a radical or new idea, but one that is hard to implement on a daily basis. It does take hard work and diligence to maintain a constant relationship with God, and I often forget how important it is.
One thing that has been difficult for me, is that, growing up, I never felt like I really knew how to pray. I never really knew what it felt like to feel the spirit. I've made a lot of progress, and I'm definitely still learning, but I think sharing personal stories and examples can help others learn how to really feel close to God. Hearing what has worked for you can truly help others. I think that's one great way we can help sisters in relief society when we are not teaching the lesson. Instead of answering "read the scriptures" or "pray" to a question, we can say "this is how reading the scriptures changed my life." That way our comments are more applicable to a wider audience.
Anyway, this is definitely a concept I need to relearn. So, thank you for the personal nature of your comment.

Joanna said...

Court, I struggle with this as well. The other week our Relief Society lesson went on a major tangent. The topic of the lesson was "Gaining Knowledge of Eternal Truths" from the Joseph Smith manual. Somehow the comments turned to how we have learned to use things like roaches for good purposes--like straping a camera onto their backs and putting them down pipes to find plumbing problems. Random! Nothing to do with the gospel!

It's unfortunate that you can go through a three hour block of church and never hear the atonement of Jesus Christ mentioned. I find that it really does help me to read the Sunday school and Relief Society lessons before church and tie everything back to the atonement and God. When I do this I'm much more able to focus on the Spirit during the lesson and make comments that will also bring everything back to the atonement. It can also help to talk the lessons over with Jake before church.

I'm so glad that we had our stake president so that we could hear his perspective on things. I think his focus on the atonement has effected all of us who were in his stake. Every time that I write a talk or give a lesson I think about his comments of the horizontal and vertical nature of the atonement. Focusing on the atonement is a sure way to feel confirmation by the Spirit and closeness to our Heavenly Father.

Courtney said...

I definitely need to do better at reading the lesson ahead of time! And I think it's good to talk about with (either with a friend or a spouse) before. This can help raise important topics and questions, and then you are more likely to keep your ears open. Preparation is key.