Focus on what you DO know

I had a short conversation with a new friend a couple of days ago who expressed to me that while he liked several aspects of my faith, there were just a couple of teachings he couldn’t accept. After we spoke, I realized that he and I aren’t so different, because I too know of Christian doctrines I’m not yet willing to accept. They’re not the same doubts he has, but they are doubts for sure. In fact, as far as I can tell, this is a universally common part of Christian discipleship: we like much of what the Savior teaches, but we need increased faith if we, like Peter, are going to follow Him out onto the water and believe ALL of it.

Following Christ is scary!
In many ways, I feel like the rich young man, who when the Master said “keep the commandments” responded “All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?” Jesus said to him, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

(Side note: This has been happening to me a lot lately — when I read the scriptures, I identify more with the villain than with the hero. Is that normal?)

Before sharing what I think should be done about this, I want to pause and acknowledge the validity of these fears. When Peter was trying to walk out on the water to meet Jesus, I can totally see why he was scared! It was late at night. They were far from the shore. I’m not sure Peter even knew how to swim. And he wasn’t completely sure it was Jesus who invited him out. And when the wind started to pick up too, it all became too much for Peter, and he began to sink.

What I’m trying to say is: if you feel fear in your heart about the idea of more fully accepting Christ in your life, you are not alone. You might worry what others will say. You might worry about what pleasures you’ll have to give up. You might worry about how much work it will take. You might worry that it all turns out to be a lie and you have wasted your life. You might worry that you will fail. These are NORMAL FEARS, and they wouldn’t be called fears if they weren’t scary. And the truth is: they may never fully go away, at least not in this lifetime, but it has been my experience that in time they can and do fade. I love the words of Jeffrey R. Holland who said “Honestly acknowledge your questions and your concerns, but first and forever fan the flame of your faith, because all things are possible to them that believe.”

What I DO believe
So yes, I have fears. I have doubts. There are teachings of Jesus I am definitely not ready to accept and may not be ready to accept for a long time. But I’m okay with that, primarily because the sweetness and the peace that comes to me because of what I DO believe has been so strong for me that it justifies enduring some discomfort while my fears get sorted out.

In that spirit, I want to share with you a few things things I DO know for certain:

1. There is a God, and He loves us. I feel Him in the beauty of nature, in the power of a storm, and in the tenderness of a baby’s face. I have never seen Him with my eyes, but on sacred occasions I have certainly felt his presence, and I would bet my life that he’s there for us.

2. Jesus Christ showed us the perfect way to live. That way includes putting God’s will before our own, seeing the value in every soul, returning love for hate, and serving others. He is THE model to follow, and the only perfect being to ever walk the earth.

3. Relationships can stay with us beyond the grave. Again, I have not witnessed this with my own eyes, but I do feel from the depth of my soul that we will be with those we love again after we die.

4. One of the reasons we’re here is to build character. Life is full of challenges, some of them small, and others unfathomably painful. My heart aches when I or those I love are called to endure challenges, but I do believe that in the end “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (DC 122:7)

These are beautiful beliefs, and they have brought significant peace and guidance to me in my journey. I have other beliefs too, and I’m adding to them every day. If this pattern keeps up, and I believe it will, I can see how it just might be possible — with eternity on our side — to someday receive the peace and rest Jesus has promised us.

With much love,

What does God expect from mothers and fathers?

There are a lot of things God wants from mothers and fathers, but today I want to share six principles of Christ-centered parenting that have meant the most to me:

1. Appreciate each family member’s unique divine gifts
One of the reasons I know there’s a God is that I can see glimpses of divinity somewhere in the personality of each person I meet. This is especially true of my children. I have never met a little girl who can give a bigger, more heartfelt hug than Charlotte. I have never met someone with a more perfect balance of obedience and creativity than Madelyn. I have never met a 2 year old with more interest in construction equipment than Parker. The more I get to know someone — anyone — the more I am amazed at the totally unique gifts and attributes they possess.

When it comes to being good mothers and fathers, I believe God wants us to really know each member of our family. We need to know what our children are good at and what they will struggle with. We also need to know ourselves — what are we really good at (and need to be sure to pass on to our children), and where do we struggle (and need to find other ways to make sure our children learn those values)?

If you look closely, there’s a beautiful truth here: there are no perfect parents in the general sense, but with a little effort you can be the perfect parent for your child by getting to know his/her needs and interacting with them accordingly.

2. Practice patience and forbearance
Fortunately, God doesn’t show us everything we’re doing wrong all at once. If He did, we’d be overwhelmed to the point of giving up. Instead, he’s extremely patient with us and doesn’t show us our weakness until we’re ready to improve. In like manner, parents should strive to teach their children “line upon line.” Parents who are impatient with or overly critical of their children risk damaging their confidence & self esteem (younger children) and creating rebellion (older children). This is much easier said than done and we all fall short, but I believe God wants us to be extremely patient with our kids.

As a practical strategy for guiding children, my wife and I have found success using something Linda & Richard Eyre call the “5 facet review.” Basically, we dedicate one date night each month to reviewing each of our children spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally and socially. As we conduct our review, we divide up “homework” assignments, such as “Parker is struggling with feeling loved. Your job is to do one thing with JUST him each week this month.” This helps us to focus on supporting and building our kids up one “brick” at a time.

3. Lead by example
In a recent re-reading of the New Testament, I was struck by just how much service Christ did. He of course taught some powerful sermons along the way, but his life was literally full of service to others. I find this particularly interesting because Alma 7:13 points out “The Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh” In other words, Christ could have learned about everything we were going through via the Spirit, but he chose instead to “roll up his sleeves” so to speak and live among us in order to actually experience it.

Likewise, parenting is a contact sport. It’s not about theories and thoughts. It’s not about ideas and instructions. It’s about literally getting in there and working with our kids to show them love and nurturing. It’s about late nights, early mornings, messes, kissing owies, shedding tears and sharing joys. I believe that God expects us to lead by example, modeling good behavior in all things for our children.

4. Practice open communication
I have learned that there are 5 levels of communication, ranging from level 1 (very topical — the weather, sports, news, etc.) to level 5, which is where we share our deepest and innermost feelings, hopes and fears. In my experience, too many of our family interactions happen at levels 1-3 and not enough happen at levels 4-5. We assume that our loved ones know how we feel about them, but we should never assume. We should tell them. When we hold back sharing feelings of vulnerability, we miss out on an opportunity to grow closer. It takes a lot of practice, especially for men who have often been socialized to keep their feelings to themselves, but the rewards are immense.

One of my favorite times to express these kinds of feelings is during family prayer. When Christ prayed among the Nephites, they recorded that “no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for us unto the Father.” (3 Nephi 17:17) In like manner, we can do a lot of good for our relationships by praying for our families aloud in their presence.

Another great time for marital communication is during what my wife and I call our “weekly tactical.” Each Sunday night, we sit down to discuss the general state of our family, our marriage, our involvement in the community and our week ahead. During this process, we make specific plans to help move us towards our goals.

5. Pace yourself
Mosiah 27:27 teaches “it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.” Leading our families is a marathon, not a sprint, and in a marathon it’s essential to pace yourself and seek appropriate sources of fuel. As I study the life of the Savior, I notice that he frequently took little breaks to meditate and be with his father. I believe this is what he meant when he said “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit.” (John 15:5) When we seek to maintain our spiritual health, we plug ourselves into the very power that will sustain us through the monumental effort of leading our families.

I have found too though that it isn’t just about spiritual learning. Parenting books, seminars and even just good conversations with our spouse or role model can inspire us and give us the strength to carry on. We need to not be too hard about ourselves when we make mistakes. Learning to be good parents is part of the process for us, too, and God is in control of the outcomes.

6. Lead in partnership with God
As a parent, it’s really easy to give in to the temptation to believe that I have to do it all myself. “If I don’t raise these kids right, who will? If I mess them up, it will be totally my fault.” This kind of thinking can be discouraging, but it’s simply not true. Yes, God gave us these kids to raise, but he doesn’t expect us to do entirely it by ourselves. For me, an essential part of leading our families in the Lord’s way is to learn which part of the parenting job is ours and which part is the Lord’s.

One of my favorite parenting scriptures is found in Moses 1:39, which reads “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” In this scripture, we learn that God is full-time, completely consumed in raising His children. It’s not a side project. It’s not something he throws in after a long day of creating galaxies. It’s literally the entire object of his efforts, and he’s extremely good at it. So the next time you feel inadequate as a parent, just remember that the ruler of the Universe — the same guy who created the solar system and parted the red sea — is on your side.

A little introspection..
How are you doing? As a mother or father, what does God expect of you? Here are a few questions for us to consider together:

  • What are the faults & flaws that I am ignoring in myself that will hurt my ability to lead by example?
  • What strengths do I have that I need to be sure to pass on to my family?
  • Do I truly know each family member? How can I get to know them better? How can I adjust my behavior according to their needs?
  • How can I discipline my children in a way that maximizes the likelihood of that discipline being received?
  • What things will the future version of me thank the present version of me for having done with regard to my family?
  • Do I take time for myself to meditate, pray, learn and develop as a family leader?
  • Am I sharing the responsibility of leading a family with God? Am I trying to do it all myself, or on the other extreme, am I dumping it all on him?
  • Do I fully trust Him to do the part that corresponds to Him?

I believe that leading our families is one of the most important things we’ll ever do. Families are of utmost importance in God’s plan for his children. I believe we’re doing better than we think we’re doing, but if we’ve failed to lead our families the way we should have in the past, then let’s start today. It’s never too late for the Atonement of Christ to have effect in our lives. The Spirit will guide us to success if we seek it.  

Dealing with stress & overwhelm

Dealing with stress & overwhelm has been a constant part of my adult life. As far as I can tell, almost everyone deals with this issue on some level, so today I want to talk about it.

I’m talking about mental exhaustion — like when you’ve been studying for hours and feel like you can’t fit one more thing into your brain. Or when you’ve just made so many decisions in a day and had so many demands on your time that you can’t seem to get your brain to keep working.

I’m talking about physical exhaustion — like when you were up with kids all night, then you had to get up early in order to get all of your work done before the day ran out. Then you stayed up late working on some project, and you had to do it all again the next day, the day after that, and for the seventeen weeks that followed.

I’m talking about emotional exhaustion — like when you had to help a friend or family member through an intense issue while trying to simultaneously keep your own insecurity, fear and self-doubt in check.

If it were just one or two of these issues, you could probably deal with it. Heck, you could probably handle four or five. But what about those times when you’ve had to deal with like.. twenty of them? At the same time? And when they keep popping up day after day, week after week, it kinda starts to get to you… you know?

For the faithful and conscientious, I don’t think stress and overwhelm are inescapable. However, I do believe we can get better at minimizing and managing it. Here’s the “recipe” I follow any time I feel these feelings starting to set in:

1. Take care of yourself. Get a grip.
It’s a little counterintuitive, but my FIRST step when I realize I’m feeling overwhelmed is to take care of myself. I’ve just learned that when I’m in that dark place I’m no good to anyone. By trying to force myself to “plow through”, I usually end up doing more damage than good to myself and others. So I like to take at least a small step back — take a power nap, get some exercise, leave work early.. whatever it takes. For more serious bouts, I may need to take a 3-day weekend or plan a fun (but simple!) outing with my family. One thing that never fails to rejuvenate me is to work on my relationship with God. That means reading the scriptures, praying, performing some quiet Christian service, singing a hymn or meditating.

As in all things, our example here is the Savior. In reading about His ministry lately, I was impressed as I noticed how often he rested. Surely if anyone was busy it was Jesus — he had a lot to accomplish in just 3 years. But even so, even He was careful to build in periods of rest and renewal. Another thing that impressed me was how he never felt sorry for himself. Even in the very act of being crucified, he looked outward at his mother and performed service by asking his disciples to care for her after he was gone.

2. Set inspired priorities (with patience!)
One of my favorite quotes is from Anne Morrow Lindbergh who said “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” There are a lot of worthy places to spend our time! But there’s a basic math problem that results when you add up all of the time it would take to do it and compare it to the number of hours in a day. Like it or not, we HAVE to prioritize, and that means saying “no” to certain things.

Once I’ve got my mind right (#1), I go to work somewhat ruthlessly to set some priorities. I carefully look at each “role” or “responsibility” in my life and decide what needs to be scaled back, changed, delegated or outright dropped. When I’m done, I take a look at the total time needed to accomplish everything and if it’s still more than I have hours in the day, I go back and cut again. The goal here is to cut my schedule down to “I could handle this pretty sustainably forever” rather than “I could only get all of this done if I had a really good day, super human strength and nothing went wrong.”

In the scriptures, the Lord taught us “Do not run faster or labor more than you have strength and means provided.” Similarly, Elder Neal A. Maxwell taught, “Unwisely, we often write checks against our time accounts as we never would dare do, comparably, against our bank accounts. Sometimes we make so many commitments that they become like the vines in the allegory of Jacob, threatening to “overcome the roots,” including the “roots” of family relationships, friendships, and relationships with God.”

3. Re-set expectations
Once you’ve made the tough decisions (#2), it’s time to implement them. Start with the most pressing/biggest cuts and work your way down. What I’ve found at step #3 is that it’s pretty much never as bad as you would think. People don’t depend on us as much as we think they do. I think in many cases they’ve already been watching us and expecting the news, so bringing it up just opens up an opportunity to collaborate on a solution.

4. Ask for help
If God had wanted you to get through life alone, he would’ve put you on an earth all by yourself. What seems hard to you is easy to someone else, so let them share your burden! It can be hard to ask, but just think about how you feel when someone really needs your help — willing, right? For each of the remaining tasks/responsibilities on your plate after #2, ask yourself “who do I know that would be awesome at solving this problem?” then enlist their help.

As you think about who to ask for help, don’t forget Heavenly Father. He’s the ruler and creator of the entire universe. His knowledge, wisdom and power span from eternity to eternity — and he’s your dad! There is literally nothing you can do that will make him stop loving you, but he will not come into your life until you ask him to. Say a heartfelt prayer, then watch for His hand in your life.

5. Be diligent
Once you’ve taken care of your own mental health, set priorities, re-set expectations and asked for help, it’s time to take a breath, square your shoulders and go to work. Rather than bursting onto the scene, I recommend taking a “shifted gear” approach — slower perhaps, but also stronger. As you begin each day, focus on keeping your head down and accomplishing as much as you can, as opposed to worrying about whether it was “enough” or thinking about everything else that needs to be done.

I’ve been following this “prescription” for a couple of years now, and while I would never say that my stress and overwhelm has gone away, it has definitely helped. When I’m in that dark place, it always feels like there’s nothing that will work, but when I force myself to start down these steps, the clouds invariably start to clear.

What do you do to deal with stress and overwhelm?

Developing patience: A great key to happiness

As a young man, I was pretty impatient. Even worse, I was proud of my impatience. I remember hearing people talk about patience, but when they did I always thought to myself, “I’m too ambitious for that. Patience is a word that lazy people use to justify themselves.”

Boy was I wrong.

I’m writing today to extol the heavenly virtue of patience and to tell you of the profound effect that discovering it has had (and continues to have) on my life.

As usual, I credit my wife here, because she has been telling me I was wrong about this for as long as I’ve known her. Early in our marriage I remember her telling me over and over, “Being patient isn’t about slowing down or expecting less — it’s about not getting upset and losing your mind when things don’t go the way you want.” It has taken all this time for me to find out that she was right.

At work, I started to notice the impact that my impatience had on my coworkers. I noticed that when I got upset with people or expressed frustration, I usually got short-term results, but at a high long-term cost. I noticed coworkers starting to withdraw from me or tell me only those things I wanted to hear, which was in fact the exact opposite of what I really wanted from them. I also noticed how impatience tempted me to cut corners and to be less honest with others.

One day while reading the bible I began to notice just how patient the Savior was. He never tolerated sin (not even a little), but he was always patient and willing to forgive. He told the woman taken in adultery “go, and sin no more.” He let his disciples ask him silly questions. He didn’t get angry and destroy his persecutors for mocking him, even though he could have very easily have done so. Ultimately, in the very act of being crucified, he prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It occurs to me that if anyone had a right to be impatient, it was the Savior — the only perfect person to ever walk the earth. But he wasn’t, because patience is a divine attribute.

With all of these experiences present, I began to realize that I needed to change.

Developing patience
This has been a journey for me, and I definitely don’t have all the answers. But here are a few tactics that have helped me to develop patience:

1. Focus on the big picture. For me, patience comes from looking beyond what’s right in front of me. For example, rather than seeing my children simply as little people who can’t control themselves, I try to think of how they’ll grow up someday and do amazing things. Instead of seeing my team at work as inexperienced and error-prone, I try to focus on our potential. Look for the hand of God in your life and you’ll see him gently developing it.

2. Empathize. Put yourself in others’ shoes. I have come to believe that for the most part, others behave exactly the way we would behave if we had their same circumstances. When working together, people are rarely out to get you — there’s almost always some other reason they’re not meeting your expectations. Try to imagine “if I had that much pressure going on at home” or “if I had just gone through what that person went through” or “if I only had as much training as that person had, I would probably act exactly the same way.”

3. Live and observe. Pay attention and you’ll notice that things always have a way of working out. After living a few decades on this earth, I’ve learned to stay calm when things go wrong because I’ve seen how similar issues played out before.

4. Practice. Once you’re aware of the concept of impatience, you’ll start noticing when you’re feeling it. Once you acknowledge the feeling, it becomes easier to manage. The next time you feel impatient, take a deep breath, search for perspective, rack your brain for an empathetic experience and try to keep your patience for just a little longer than last time.

5. Pray. I know of no better way to develop patience than to pray for it. I like to pray right at the moment when I feel my impatience surging — “Lord, help me love these children. Help me have patience. I was once in their shoes, and I acted exactly the same way. They just don’t know any better. Their souls are precious to you and to me.” As I pray, I can feel the Lord giving me perspective, empathy and love, which are essential ingredients in patience.

I’m grateful that an appreciation of this virtue has come into my life. I want to be more patient. I want to be able to endure trials and frustrations without losing my head. I don’t want to let impatience interrupt my peace. I believe that as I cultivate this heavenly virtue, I’ll be happier.

Elder Richard L. Evans summed it up well when he said, “There seems to be little evidence that the Creator of the universe was ever in a hurry. Everywhere, on this bounteous and beautiful earth, and to the farthest reaches of the firmament, there is evidence of patient purpose and planning and working and waiting.”

Why do you appreciate patience? What have you done to develop it?

What the New Year can teach us about Jesus Christ

At this time of year, when everyone’s busy reviewing the past and making resolutions for the future, I am reminded that to me one of the most beautiful concepts in Christianity is the idea of a “fresh start.”

Jesus wants us to start over
Throughout his ministry, Jesus consistently emphasized the need for starting over. “Except a man be born again,” he taught, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Baptism, the central ordinance of Christianity, is a symbol of the death and burial of our old self, and the birth of our new life.

Aside from many scriptural examples, we are also taught by nature. Every time the sun rises, we’re reminded that we have a new opportunity to live differently than we did the day before. Each spring, we see the cold death of winter give way to beautiful new life and abundance. And yes, I believe the revolution of the earth around the sun once a year — otherwise known as a New Year — is another example of this eternal truth.

None of this means that Christ doesn’t love us exactly the way we are — he does. Even if we never changed, he would love us just the same. But he invites us to change because he knows we’ll be happier if we do, and he has provided us with a lot of help for getting there.

What this means to me
To me, the idea of becoming a little better every day with help and guidance from God is central to the purpose of life. I like to begin each day with a prayer to discuss with God exactly how I will serve him that day. At night, I check in to report my progress. Even more central to my spiritual development is my weekly participation in the ordinance of the Sacrament, or Lord’s Supper. For Christians, this is the opportunity we get each week to evaluate the path our lives are taking, commit to changing where change is needed, and receive forgiveness for the previous week’s indiscretions as we “begin anew” in the week to come.

Following that line of thinking, the New Year is another opportunity to evaluate progress on an even wider perspective. On this time horizon, I tend to allow my goals to be a little more vague and abstract — more like the “theme” of my personal development for the year. For example, my annual goals this year include:

In Ezekiel 11:19, we are taught that God wants to help us by “putting a new spirit in us” and “taking the stony heart out of our flesh” to replace it with a heart of flesh instead. I am fully aware of all the pain and damage caused to me and others by my “stony heart,” and I pray that over time I can be the recipient of this miracle mentioned by Ezekiel.

How you can start over
The first step to starting over is to step back and get some perspective. The larger the change, the more perspective you need. On a daily basis, you don’t need much more than a little bit of thoughtfulness. On a weekly basis, you might want to set aside a few minutes to ponder or meditate before you start setting goals. I like to make my annual plans after I’ve had at least a few days of vacation (preferably more), such as at the end of the Christmas/New Year break. The key is to find a time when you are relaxed and refreshed.

Once your plan has been made, it’s critical that you check in on your goal periodically and make course corrections as needed. When I’m making my daily plans, I’m checking them against my weekly objectives. When I’m setting weekly objectives, I’m basing them on my monthly goals. Weekly and monthly goals are based on annual “themes.”

Finally, if you haven’t yet been baptized, I invite you to consider it. Most people think baptism is for people who are reaching the end of their faith journey, but in fact the opposite is true. Baptism is the gate that opens to the pathway of Christ. It creates a covenant relationship between Him and us, and prepares us to receive the Holy Ghost, or baptism of fire, to help us on our journey.

God’s plan is perfect. He loves us just the way we are, but he invites us to change so we can be even happier and more blessed than we are now. To help us, he has given us time, a mortal world in which to gain experience, guidance through his spirit, and help and support through other people, for which I am eternally grateful.

Someone I really look up to once said “I don’t need to see a mountain move, because I have seen things change in my own heart and in the hearts of others that I never thought were possible.” I share that feeling, and I’m thankful for the small and simple changes I have made in my life that, in the course of time, have made mountains of difference in my character, soul and happiness.