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The Changing of the Guard
Priesthood: An Insider's View
Classes for Heroes
|Issue 10 / September 1995||Hatrack River Publications|
I work in a nursing home. This nursing home is in the heart of the mountains of Zion. There are lots of Mormon folk here, so it turns out that many of the staff and most of the residents of the nursing home are LDS. Church services on Sunday are not non-denominational; they are LDS services. And there is Relief Society every Tuesday. The full-time missionaries come in one day a week to conduct a scripture study class. You would think that coming to work is just like coming to church; it's still part of the community of Saints. Well, in some small ways that's true; there are several people I work with who are not ashamed to discuss matters of a spiritual nature away from church. Sadly, though, that is not the norm.
When I started working in this facility, more than seven years ago, I was a nurse's aide for just over two years. Then, for nearly five years I was in charge of transporting residence to and from doctors' appointments and other activities. It was during this phase of my employment that I one day discovered how D&C 6:12 could apply directly to my life. The Lord is speaking to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery about the sacredness of gifts given by God: "Make not thy gift known unto any save it be those who are of thy faith. Trifle not with sacred things."
One could argue that the phrase "of thy faith" refers to members of the Church, and in a general sense that might be true, but there are non-LDS people who believe in the gifts of tongues, healings and so forth. They are of that faith, though they are not of our church.
One of the residents whom I drove around was a young, deaf man; quite frail and suffering from a severe kidney problem. On top of that he was diabetic and I don't remember what else. I drove him to and from dialysis three times a week. Shortly after he came into our facility, his stake president came to visit him and give him a blessing. In the blessing, the stake president told this young man to get his life in order for he would not be long upon the earth. The stake president explicitly told this young man that Heavenly Father was going to be calling him home, and soon.
A co-worker of mine -- a nominal Mormon apparently -- was disgusted by the stake president's behavior. My co-worker's exact words were, "I don't care if he is a stake president, you should never tell anyone that they're going to die. Tell him that in a blessing? That's ridiculous." I knew instantly that I too would be ridiculed if I suggested that it was the Spirit directing the stake president to utter such a claim. So, I didn't. I merely shrugged. Now some, I'm sure, will say that I was ashamed of the gospel, afraid to declare the truth, let my light so shine and so forth. I've considered that, and I don't think that it is the case. I think I was reacting to the counsel I received while on my mission from Elder Jacob de Jager.
Indonesia was a tough mission. Nearly all the people were of Islam, we were not allowed to proselyte, and many of those who asked to be taught asked to be taught in English. For some, it was a symbol of status to have white people visit them in their homes periodically. Elder de Jager told us that we, as missionaries, were in Indonesia to gather the sheep. And there were sheep, many of them; Indonesians who became true Saints. But there were also many goats. And we were not to waste our time with the goats. Some day those goat might become sheep, but they would be herded by other missionaries -- leave the goats alone.
My co-worker was a goat.
Everything about his manner, his attitude, told me that he was not interested in hearing the truth. He was only interested in declaring the truth as he saw it, and as others should see it along with him. My little shrug made it obvious to him that I disagreed with his take on the situation, but that I was also unwilling to contend with him about it.
It was understood between us that we were not of the same faith. And there was no fighting about it.
Several months later the young man died. And my co-worker never recanted. His faith was not changed. Mine was strengthened.
Several months after all this happened, it was discovered that my sister had a tumor in her brain. I got a few days off work and flew to San Diego to be with her and the rest of my family when she had the tumor removed. All went well.
Within weeks we found out that there was another tumor -- inoperable -- and that it was malignant and of a type that is extremely rare. A type that has never let anyone live. Needless to say we were all quite worried and frightened. And a little anxious to hear what the Spirit would have to say on Renae's behalf.
Of course, living in Utah -- so far from the focus of all our prayers and fastings -- was very difficult for me. I wanted to be there and hear first hand all the updates on Renae's condition.
I wanted to be able to comfort her at times of emotional distress. I wanted to feel part of the family. Part of the community that dealt specifically with Renae's problem.
Many around me understood the frustration I felt and did their best to lift my spirits. A few of my co-workers were rather concerned and asked about Renae often, including the individual mentioned earlier. I kept them all updated on developments as I learned of them. There was one thing, however, that I did not share with the person "not of my faith."
At the time all of this happened, Renae was living just a few blocks from our parents' house, in the same ward of which my father was bishop. Though he was afraid to give biased blessings, Dad did give Renae some blessings, and in one told Renae that the cancer would not kill her, despite the 12 to 22 months the doctors had given her. In another blessing, Dad told her that she would be healed because of the prayers of her mother. One night my mother had a dream in which she saw Renae, older, children grown, walking with a cane. All of us in the community of believers, the community of faith in healings and miracles, were encouraged, if not outright assured that Renae would be the first known person to survive this cancer.
And when my friend at work asked about Renae, I told him that she was undergoing radiation treatments, and then chemo, and then more chemo; that her hair had all fallen out; that her right side was pretty much incapacitated; that she was receiving assistance above and beyond the call of duty from our other sister, Carrie, and from Mom and Dad and the Relief Society and other friends and family; that we were all doing our best to pull together. His response was to shake his head and ask, "Who's going to take the children when she dies." I responded, "If it comes to that, Lynne and I are very willing. But it hasn't been discussed, because we're hoping that it doesn't come to that. I don't think it will." At this, my friend shook his head and sighed as if to say, "You poor deluded soul."
Well, it has been eighteen months since Renae was first diagnosed. Seventeen since the operation. Sixteen since she was told she had twenty-two to live at the most. And it has been one month since she was told that the cancer cells are no longer viable and the still-existing tumor is shrinking. This is not remission, but it is more than any of her doctors are expected. One of them said, "I don't know what you've done, but keep it up." Renae knows. Mom, Dad and Carrie know. I know. Lynne knows. Many others know and rejoice with us, and thank God for his intervention. But there are many who don't know. Many who can't or chose not to appreciate the faith that allows us to believe that the power of the priesthood is alive and well and living in Renae.
Won't it be a fine day when miracles like this are so commonplace that we can tell anyone we meet, "Hey, my sister was healed of cancer today," and they will know and understand and believe as we do? Won't it be a fine day when we can share our gifts freely? Won't that be a fine community?
I look forward to it.
The process both times was quiet, dignified -- almost tedious. In the space of less than a year, first Howard W. Hunter, then after him Gordon B. Hinckley was sustained as prophet and president of the Church. I've heard that some were put off by the uneventfulness of the transition. Those who were, longed, perhaps, for more of the excitement and uncertainty the secular world offers when new leaders emerge. Yet the true news here is that there was so little news -- no poll-taking, no shouting, no campaigning, no violence. Neither was there struggle for power, nor speculation about whose faction was ahead at a given moment -- only a calm, loving, spirit-blessed passing of the mantle from one prophet to the next.
It didn't start out that way historically. Just over 150 years ago the prophet Joseph Smith was murdered in Carthage Jail. Much debate, strife and confusion ensued over who would be his successor. One faction believed the presidency should always pass down to Joseph's most direct descendant. Others, among them Sydney Rigdon and James Strang, claimed that Joseph Smith had chosen him to assume the office after the Prophet's death. Some members even thought elections should be held. Due partially to the controversy, no new prophet was sustained for the next three years. Brigham Young, as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, took the reigns and guided the Saints to their final refuge in the Great Basin. But even though the Church as yet had no First Presidency, the Lord had already provided the answer to the succession problem.
As I grew up in the church, I learned that the prophet was selected by the full quorum of apostles through revelation and inspiration. I had a mental picture of the casting of lots much the same as when Judas Iscariot's replacement was chosen by the original apostles, resulting in a unanimous decision. Later, as a missionary, I taught that God directed the calling of a new prophet when the previous one passed on.
Yet I was never quite comfortable with the idea that it was always the man currently holding the same church position -- the president of the Quorum of the Twelve -- who was selected to become the next prophet. It sounded no more special than waiting in line to take one's turn -- nothing more than what we teach little kids. Where was the revelation in that?
It wasn't until after years of education, both secular and spiritual, that I finally understood how inspired the Church's system of succession really is. By revelation (D&C 107), God has said that the twelve apostles as a quorum are equal in authority to the First Presidency. This means that when the Presidency dissolves upon the death of the prophet, the Quorum of the Twelve becomes the governing body of the Church, with the president of that quorum in charge. Bureaucratic as it may sound, it works.
Ever since 1847, when Brigham became the second president of the church in this dispensation, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve has always become the next prophet. Were it ever necessary God could, theoretically, choose someone else instead. But because the system works so well, it hasn't been necessary. This is in stark contrast to how things work elsewhere.
The secular world has tried many schemes for passing power and authority from one person to the next. Anciently, the strongest warrior or the one who commanded the loyalty of the largest number of fighters became the supreme leader. As feudalism developed, the right to rule passed customarily from father to oldest son. Today, dictators sometimes designate a successor (who often never gets into office -- or survives only briefly if he does), but usually succession is decided by vicious power struggles which last until all but one contender are vanquished -- or dead.
In a democracy, candidates campaign to increase their popularity until they have enough votes to win. In churches other than ours, leaders are sometimes elected, sometimes simply hired, or -- as is the case with the Catholic Church -- selected amid intense political maneuverings from among the ranks of the elite by a small group of high-level leaders.
Unfortunately, none of these methods works very well. Kingdoms have historically had problems passing power along. Oldest sons might be weak rulers and ruin the kingdom, or jealous younger sons may plot to have their older brothers removed. In the case of a dictatorship, the problems are obvious -- much grief and anguish comes to a nation whose leaders grasp power through factional conflict. In the Book of Mormon, Ether tells many depressing tales of power passed on through conspiracy and assassination.
The failings of our own democratic system are obvious. Churchill once observed that democracy is the worst of all possible governments, except for all the others. In the American system we see the political, moral, and ethical compromises that a politician must make to get elected.
Finally, the inner turmoil of a number of mainstream Christian denominations shows us the dangers that result through the politicization of the leader-selection process.
In my studies, I've learned of the back-stabbing (often literal), infighting, power brokering, poisonings (both literal and figurative), hate, and jealousy that occurred in past ages in Rome, Medieval Europe, and the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires. Things are still often done the same way in many areas of the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and even to some degree in our own contemporary American politics. What a contrast to the orderly, gentle, even thankfully boring system for passing along the presiding office of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints! By the very nature of that process no usurper can wrest power from the legitimate leader, nor can tricky political intrigues help one candidate gain advantage over others. Certainly, no leader can be selected through a popularity contest.
Still, peaceful as it is, can such a system as the Church's truly be inspired? Indeed, it can! After all, the Twelve Apostles actually don't select the President of the Church. They act only as a final failsafe. They do not seek to know who the prophet will be, but only to know whether the Lord confirms to each of them that the president of their quorum truly is meant to become the prophet. By the time the apostles become involved, the selection process has already finished, and God was the one who managed it. Through revelation he controls who is selected as an apostle in the first place, and when they are selected, establishing the sequence of seniority. Then, through his control of the natural processes of life -- accident, aging, illness, death -- he determines which apostle ultimately becomes president of the quorum. There are literally thousands of points at which God can influence the development and progression of the apostle who will one day succeed to the presidency of the church. And it is a process over which no one but God could possibly preside -- he manages all the checks and balances. I have heard even skeptics note with surprise how it seems that just the right person always pops up to lead the Church through whatever trials or challenges it faces during a given period.
Once I understood, I was astonished at how inspired the process really must be. Those of us who paid attention noticed how calm and smooth the passage was from President Benson to President Hunter to President Hinckley. In a world in which corrupted power is the norm, where upheaval and strife go hand in hand with changes in leadership, such a gentle transition is as welcome as escaping into cool shade from under a blistering sun.
I enjoyed Carol Bickmore's article in Vigor #9 about the perceived and sometimes real subjugation of women in the Mormon culture. I agree with most of her article. With regards to the statement about the Church not letting women have the priesthood, her response, "That shouldn't be a problem for us. Who cares what the world thinks?" is not a satisfactory answer for me. As a stay-at-home mother of four girls, I would like to address the issue of the priesthood as an insider.
I never thought about being a priesthood insider when I was growing up. As a child the concept, mothers have the babies and fathers have the priesthood, was something I accepted. The priesthood was a sort of consolation prize for not being able to bear children. I now believe that neither having children nor having the priesthood is a gender specific role except in a strictly technical sense. The importance of male influence in the rearing of children can not be understated. The greatest chance a child has to grow up with a strong value system and a healthy self-esteem, is with a father and mother working together with and for that child. (Of course single parents can and have reared good children also but it's much more difficult.) The attributes associated with priesthood power as laid out in the Doctrine and Covenants in section 121, such as gentleness, meekness, and charity, are viewed by the world as feminine traits. Conversely, male attributes such as self-promotion, intimidation, and ambition which are associated with worldly power, are the very traits which make "the heavens withdraw themselves" (D&C 121:37) and negate priesthood authority. When I was discussing the priesthood with my father, in preparation for a lesson I had to teach, he said,
"my wife is the best part of my priesthood." When I pressed him to elaborate, he said that only with my mother does he feel like a whole and complete person, his truest and best self and only then can he exercise a fullness of the priesthood. I have heard several church leaders pay tribute to their wives as spiritual leaders and confidants. (This does not mean that single priesthood holders can't use their powers in extraordinary ways or that all married men are automatically better at using their priesthood.) As a child in a strong LDS home, I felt blessed and included in the priesthood of that home.
I feel like a priesthood outsider when I am around people who don't understand their priesthood. For instance, I was attending a missionary preparation class in our stake. I was the only sister in the class and I was completely ignored by the teacher. The teacher started by stating that the mission field was a war zone and that Satan takes no prisoners. "Be glad you have the priesthood," he said, "it is your greatest weapon and your only protection." He then began to recount the experiences of Parley P. Pratt in England, not the missionary experiences, just the ones about exorcising demons. The prospective elders left with puffed out chests. I left the class feeling worthless and desolate because I didn't have the priesthood. Clearly the teacher, who was a young newly returned missionary, didn't understand the nature of priesthood power. Heavenly Father loves his daughters every bit as much as he loves his sons. God's blessings extend to all who seek them. He will leave no child desolate because of its gender or for any other reason.
In the temple I truly felt (and feel) like a priesthood insider. In the preparatory phase, beautiful blessings and promises were given to me by the hands of women. Later I made covenants and received instruction identical to those my gospel brothers receive. I have the same responsibilities and could be under the same condemnation that any priesthood holder would be if I didn't keep my covenants.
I do not need to officially hold a priesthood office to have a priesthood calling. I believe any church calling that is extended to me by a priesthood leader using divine inspiration and where I am set apart by a priesthood blessing, is a priesthood calling. As a Relief Society president, I have sat in ward councils along side priesthood brethren, I have given my opinions and I have been listened to. I will be held accountable for my stewardships, just as my husband is. I participate in the priesthood when I hold Family Home Evening, partake of the sacrament, ask for and receive blessings from my father, home teachers, bishops and my husband. The precepts and promises in Doctrine and Covenants section 121 apply to me as well as to my husband. My answer to the world's question about the priesthood is, there is no need for me to seek for something I already have. Unfortunately the world is caught up in what looks fair on paper and they won't understand my answer.
-- Adrienne L. de Jager
As the veil shimmers and clears . . .
Is it? Can it be? My noble friend! How many years since last I saw you! And yet how few . . . You must pardon me; the veil lifts slowly. The returning memories are a bit heady as I see how short mortality really was. Ah, but you know all about that, don't you?
How well I recall now your valiance, your unbreakable spirit, your quick mind. I had known and admired you for eternities; I guess you must have known that, the way I puppy-dogged your heels. But our destinies joined only in the great strife of the Primeval War.
I think we were all prepared to endorse the Plan until he stepped forth, Lucifer, the shining one. Few there were who were not awestruck in his presence. His virtues were legendary: his self-possession and discipline, his industry, his brilliance. He stood among the chiefest angels then, surely destined for prophethood on earth and an angelic ministry in the eternities.
At first we believed he was part of the presentation. He spoke so soothingly, with such authority. We had been hearing why a Savior would be required and had just learned the awful price of the Plan. Consternation was at its peak at the very moment when Lucifer stepped in.
And how tempting his little amendment! Nothing left in mortality to fear: no need for our dear eldest brother's suffering, none to be lost, after all! We could achieve our bodies and still be together, all of us, just as it had always been! And such a small price: credit to the author of the solution, the guardian angel who would lead us and bring us safely home, the great, wise, loving Lucifer, prince of God.
When God said, "I will send the first," Lucifer's indignation seemed almost justified. Not a few continued to interrupt the council, as if we spiritual infants knew better than Father, as if our solidarity might compel him. How immature it now seems! And yet, as Lucifer's backing began to swell, I found myself among the wavering.
I do not like to think how close I came to rejecting my estate. I would hope I would have been faithful in any case. But in honesty, I cannot say which road I might have taken had it not been, my dearfriend, for you.
You stepped forward in that growing cacophony to confront the deceiver. Others he shamed and confounded, but not you. For like him, you were a questioner. Unlike him, your heart was pure.
With every word you spoke, I felt the deceit lift from my eyes. I saw the seducer's plan for what it was: a selfish device to keep us helpless forever; his glory, our damnation. Nor was I the only one to take courage at your voice. As you spoke, I saw others begin to drift from his side.
In mortality, laboring under the veil, I imagined the War in Heaven as a conflict of arms and troops, but I see now that it was a labor of love and persuasion, the first great missionary work. Our only arms were truth and love and intelligence against deceit and bitterness and darkness.
I will never forget, in that rising confusion, the feeling of excitement when you, the noble hero now allied with Michael, turned to me and asked if I would join you. That instant clinched my resolve, and I declared that I would. "Then save them," you said, pointing me this way and plunging that. I watched you rally and convince and encourage, and I trembled. How could I, so slow of thought and tongue, match your brilliance?
But I took courage from your faith in me and from your example, and opened my mouth. I even mimicked you, just a bit, just to get started. And to my surprise and delight, they listened.
I feared the battle would never end. Never had I known such mental and spiritual exhaustion. But as others fell back to rest, you forged on, never faltering, and I determined that I would match your endurance. And in the end, you and I were among the panting handful still calling after the fading self-exiles.
How tall you stood, how glorious your countenance! Amidst the sorrow of the great loss, yet not a few were saved because you endured and I, in spite of myself, with you. Truly we grew that day, did we not? Our first glorious taste of progression.
I knew, of course, that you would be held in reserve for those critical latter days; how could it be otherwise? But me? I cannot begin to express my elation when I learned that our mortal probations would overlap. Inseparable in heaven, on earth not divided! True, your mortal circumstances were to be more difficult than most, but you of all spirits would surely overcome. With you on earth to bolster and inspire me, I feared not a whit for the trials ahead.
But, my friend, what is this? My eyes clear; I perceive that you are bound. How can this be? You -- glorious marshal of the heavenly host, noble savior of spirit thousands, tireless questioner and seeker of intelligence! Have you honored one estate, only to spurn the second?
The veil lifts -- and I wish its return. For I see all clearly. That you do not reproach me only weightens my grief. Our mortal probation is before me. I see us, my friend, together on Earth, as I longed. I see the difficult road that was yours to tread. And I see what would prove the decisive turn down a path whence you would never entirely return.
1994. December 18. The day I threw you out of deacon's quorum. For disrupting my lesson.
At the ward level, which is where the life of the Church actually happens, there is not as much difference between the roles of men and women as some critics of the Church would have us believe.
There are men and women teaching classes in every age group. There are classes where men teach men, where women teach women, and where men and women teach mixed groups. Men and women serve in clerical callings, as clerks or secretaries. And men and women preside, again sometimes over organizations of their own sex, as with priesthood quorums, Relief Society, and Young Women, and sometimes over mixed organizations, as with the bishopric, the Sunday school presidency, and the Primary presidency.
Still, this doesn't mean that men and women do these jobs the same way. Oh, administrative and clerical callings don't differ all that much. But, when it comes to teaching single-sex classes, men and women are separated by an almost impenetrable wall.
Women Prepare. Men Wing It.
A teacher in Young Women or the Relief Society would be embarrassed to show up without some kind of decoration, visual aid, or handout. Lessons must show clear signs of elaborate preparation, or there will be profuse apologies.
But a man teaching an Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood quorum would be just as embarrassed to show signs of too much preparation. And it isn't just the feminine sorts of decorations that are forbidden -- the tablecloths, the flowers. No, men are surprised if there's anything written on the chalkboard in advance, shocked if there's a picture.
When men are teaching men, the teacher must show an attitude of carelessness. At first glance it might seem like humility: The man can't let himself appear to be putting on the dog. But it's really a perverse kind of pride, as if one is saying, "Preparation, shmeparation. I can teach any subject just by winging it."
Winging it! The grand universal style of male teaching!
When a woman shows a video to her class, it is the centerpiece of a carefully prepared lesson. She has watched it several times in advance. When a man shows a video, it's instead of a lesson. He has heard it's pretty good. But everyone in the quorum secretly assumes that showing a video means the teacher is taking the day off.
Of course there are women who wing it and men who prepare. But those exceptions are rare and members of their classes are all faintly embarrassed even after they get used to the oddness of their teacher. There's something faintly unmanly about having visual aids or obvious signs of preparation beyond reading through the manual. We men are even suspicious of the teachers who type up scripture references on slips of paper.
And there's something a bit dubious about a woman who breezes in to teach without a single visible sign of elaborate preparation. Doesn't she care about her calling? The only time a woman can get away with this sort of thing is when she's filling in as an emergency substitute.
Men almost always teach as if they found out about their calling only that morning.
Subject Matter Also Differs by Gender.
But there's something different in the subject matter, too, something much more important than these mere stylistic differences, especially in the lessons offered to the Aaronic priesthood and the Young Women. For decades now I've heard feminists complain that teenage boys are taught the gospel and steered toward leadership and missions, while teenage girls are prepared to marry in the temple and have babies. The complaint seems to be that girls are getting steered into second-class citizenship.
I have the opposite view. As I work my way through the Aaronic priesthood manuals, teaching my young men, I am struck again and again by the weakness, the near uselessness of what we offer our adolescent males.
Oh, please understand me, the lesson subjects are some of the most vital issues in human life. Honesty, chastity, courage, all the virtues are represented.
The trouble is that the lessons are all offered without regard to the nature of the young men being taught.
Adolescence is the age of grand passion and high purpose. While young men still know little, they feel as if they've learned everything already. It's time to do, to act, to plunge into life. They put on identities like masks; they often travel in packs, following whoever offers the most interesting suggestion. Priesthood lessons, with their preceptual, theoretical bent, are like the drone of an air conditioning unit, with the one major difference that air conditioning units are cool.
Some adults make the mistake of thinking that the way to reach these kids is to pander to them, to try to be one of them, to be a "buddy." The result is almost always pathetic, and rarely is it teaching. Boys don't want their adult male teachers to get down and be boys with them.
On the contrary, what boys want is to be men. They are keenly aware of the division between what men do and what they are doing. What men do is real. Real jobs. Real money. Real homes and families. While what boys do is fake. Even when they have jobs, they aren't "real" jobs and they certainly don't make "real money." There's no career in grocery store checking and bagging, and they know it.
It's my belief that much of the cause of misbehavior by adolescent males is caused by their keen awareness that they are not part of anything real. School is a fake, a pen where they are contained and driven to perform generally meaningless tasks for rewards consisting entirely of letter grades that mean almost nothing. And when they come to church, they get instructions about virtues they need to develop. But for what?
They Need a Cause
If there's one thing that all young men hunger for, it's a cause. A noble, lofty purpose, larger than themselves, in which their contribution will be real and powerful. If there's anything I've learned from the surprisingly strong readership my novel Ender's Game consistently finds among teenage boys, it's that they hunger for the role my character Ender Wiggin had thrust upon him.
They want the burden of responsibility. They want to change the world. They want to be heroes.
Yes, I said it's responsibility that they want. I can hear parents saying, "If they want responsibility so badly, why can't they remember to take out the garbage? Wear their headgear at night? Fill the gas tank of the car when it gets low?"
I said they wanted responsibility, not that they were good at it.
Besides, what they want is heroic responsibility. Risk, not tedium, is the powerful essence of their dreams. It's no accident that we send young men off to war. Men my age go into combat with grim regret. Men my son's age do it with terrified brilliance. Don't ask teenagers to dig a trench unless there are bullets flying overhead.
That's what those blood-soaked videogames are all about. That's what the strut and pose and brag with the cigaret in the mouth and the beer in the hand is all about. That's why the car goes too fast and the bicycle helmet keeps getting forgotten. Teenage boys want to be, not just men, but the boldest and bravest of men, the strongest and wisest. They feel greatness surging in them.
Greatness ... and where are they spending these years of nascent glory? In classrooms. Learning theory that seems utterly disconnected from anything they want to do with their lives.
What Can We Do About It?
Too often, we adults who lead young men treat these passions and drives as the enemy, something to be suppressed and contained until they finally outgrow them (though some of us never do!). And in a sense that is our job. If we can just keep them from killing themselves with cars, booze, drugs, or crime, we feel like we've accomplished something. And we have. As long as they're still alive, there's hope.
But their drive to greatness can also be the most powerful tool we have in helping bind them to our civilization -- to Church, to family, to community.
When my son first found the anti-Mormons in the Ethics and Religion forum on America Online, I warned him that arguing with these people was a waste of time. But still he signed on and engaged in verbal combat with them, struggling to answer their attacks. At first he would ask me how to deal with this or that issue; after a while, he simply reported to me on the answers he had found for himself. And I finally stopped reminding him of the uselessness of arguing with the Church's critics. "Dad," he said, "I know I'll never change their minds. But if someone doesn't answer them, then non-Mormons who read those postings will think that there are no answers."
Over the years, his role has changed -- he is not only answering the anti-Mormons, he's also doing his best to provide an antidote to the Mormons who "defend" the Church with remarks that are either doctrinally suspect or embarrassingly dumb. It's a cause for him, and it takes place in the real world -- even if it does take place in a "virtual" environment. Nobody in those forums dismisses him as "just a kid." He is taken as an equal there. He is a true defender of the faith.
This experience has done more to cement his ties to the Church and the gospel than anything he's learned in lessons at church. Not that the lessons weren't important -- it's just that until he had to defend it, the gospel never had so much urgency.
And I finally remembered my own experience at East Junior High in Mesa, Arizona, back in the mid-60s. A couple of Baptist teachers had started holding informal discussions after school with Mormon kids, challenging Mormon beliefs with what I know now were standard anti-Mormon canards. A couple of the kids I hung out with heard about these sessions and one of them urged me to come.
I still remember how exhilarating it was to engage with these men. The playing field was suddenly even. They weren't teachers now, they were simply anti-Mormons trying to burn down my theological house. And I engaged them as an equal, the way Geoffrey does now, not deferring to them in any way, but exposing their reasoning as faulty and their accounts of Mormon history and doctrine as false. It did not matter whether I "won" -- again, there was no hope of changing their minds. My performance was entirely for my fellow Mormon students, to show that these guys were not possessed of any great secret information or wisdom. My genial scorn for them was as important as my actual arguments.
I wonder now, looking back, whether in fact my answers to them were pathetic and ill-informed. But at the time it seemed to me -- and of course this is how I remember it -- that I was a dragonslayer. I was a hero in the eyes of my fellow students. I had been chosen as a champion, and I faced the foe and did not flinch. I was Beowulf, and I tore the arm off the monster.
Those few hours in a classroom after school did more for me than all my lessons in all my classes at church during those years. Indeed, the church program was far more often negative than positive in my life. I have keen memories of Sunday school teachers making fun of me -- "Of course Brother Card always knows the answer" -- and of excruciating humiliations at Mutual, where the program seemed to be basketball and my refusal to play was treated like apostasy. I dropped out of Mutual by age fifteen and never returned until I had an adult calling that brought me back. If my only experience had been the Church program, I would have been one of those young men whose loss is one of the tragedies of the Church. But annoying and painful as the Church program was for me, I could never turn my back on the gospel. After all, inside me there was still that heroic defender of the faith. I had plunged into combat for the gospel. My commitment was unshakable.
How Can Heroism Be Part of the Program?
So what am I proposing? That we form our Young Men into brigades that we take out into Bible-bashing bouts with the enemy? Hardly. The moment we made such a thing into a program it would become false and ineffective.
But we can take our lessons about virtues and standards, and put them into a context that makes them heroic. Of all the lessons I heard as a teenager, the one that stuck in my mind was the story of a man -- perhaps a General Authority, but I honestly don't remember who it was, and it doesn't matter -- who said that when he was a boy, his father took him aside and told him, "I have never tasted alcohol or tobacco, tea or coffee in my life. Promise me that when your own children are the age you are now, you'll be able to truthfully say the same thing to them."
That really stuck in my mind. Why? I think now that it was because it was one of the few times in all those lessons that I was forced to envision myself as a father someday, facing my own child, and declaring myself to him or her. It really did help me in the years to come, because from then on, when temptation came, I was not just a reckless, extravagant boy; I was also a father talking to his future child, saying, "I never did that. I could have, but I chose not to."
There was something heroic about that. Church standards were no longer a matter of adults setting boundaries on my life against my will. They had become a matter between myself and my future children. They were a gift I would be giving to them. That was a cause that transcended myself and the moment I lived in.
Obviously, that particular lesson doesn't have that same effect on everyone. But the principle can and should be used over and over again. Where are the lessons about fatherhood in the Aaronic priesthood manual? When you think about it, the teen years are the best time to teach the principles of righteous fatherhood to the men of the Church. While problems can be remedied during adult years, the time to help boys improve on the image of fatherhood they get from their own dads is during adolescence, the very time when they are most disposed to be critical and resentful of their fathers' failings -- and before they've already made mistakes with their own children.
Some might think that lessons on the specifics of fatherhood (and, I must add, husbandhood) might seem irrelevant to teenage boys. But you should see how they perk up and pay attention when I start talking about the practical day-to-day business of fatherhood. Talk about chastity in the context of staying worthy for the temple or a mission (as a "rule," in other words), and their eyes glaze over. But when you say to them, "Someday you're going to be a father. You're going to have daughters. Young men just like you are going to want to take your daughter out in their cars. And you're going to know exactly what those young men desire. You're going to know where they want to put their hands. And you're going to want to kill them all" -- you should see the thoughtful look they get on their faces.
Talk to them about disciplining their future children, and they perk up. No longer are they just thinking about how annoying and repressive their own parents are. Instead, when I taught a lesson about how and when to discipline their children, they put themselves in the adult role, analyzing what discipline was for.
It's about civilization, I said. You don't want to send your kids out into the world with food on their faces and a tendency to go to the bathroom in their pants. You have to civilize them, prepare them to get along with other people, to live by the rules of society. The question is how you do it. We discussed physical violence and how ineffective and unnecessary it was -- though physical force was often required with younger children, as when you snatch them up to keep them from running into the street -- or onto the podium during sacrament meeting! We discussed how you need to speak to your children clearly and sometimes very forcefully -- but you never needed to lose control and scream at them, or call them names or say terrible things that can never be unsaid. "The secret to good discipline," I said, "is to make sure you're under control first." We concluded that children can be reasoned with much younger than many adults think; that many rules can be negotiated; that rules must be consistent and fair.
Throughout that lesson on discipline, no one ever brought up their own fathers or discussed how discipline was handled in their own families. But of course that was going through their minds. Yet instead of simply criticizing their own parents, they were analyzing their parents' choices. They might well have concluded that some of the things their parents did were mistakes -- but they were putting themselves in their parents' shoes, imagining themselves in the parental role. They had to think about the purpose of discipline.
What was the result of that lesson? I can't begin to guess how it will affect their lives in the future. But I do know that they were riveted throughout the discussion. Wise-cracking and digressions were almost non-existent. Far from thinking that the lesson was irrelevant because none of them were fathers, the lesson was far more relevant to them because in this lesson I was seeing them as adults, with real responsibilities. Of course the lesson might have a salutary effect on their relationship with their own parents; with luck it will also help them as parents when the time comes. But one effect I know the lesson had right then, right there, was that each was seeing himself as a creator of a family. It was a powerful role in a cause greater than himself.
The same effect happened in the lesson on creating family traditions with their future wives -- working out compromises on how to handle different Christmas and Thanksgiving traditions. A lesson on listening to their wives and children and offering comfort before counsel. A lesson on watching over their children's education. Lessons on preparing and practicing now to do household repairs as a husband and father. (How many desultory lessons on cooking have been framed as "something you'll need to do on your mission"? When I taught it, I told them they would need to learn how to cook at least a dozen different meals as preparation for marriage and fatherhood. "Do you really want your kids to think that when your wife is in the hospital or on a trip, you are so incompetent that the Relief Society has to bring you food or you have to eat every meal at McDonald's?")
In fact, many of the lessons I've taught on Sundays and for midweek activity nights really began as lessons on virtues or skills I wanted the boys to develop now. But I find that time after time, it is not until I frame the lesson as something they'll need to know as men that I get their full attention, their active participation.
The Church Is the Greatest Cause
If I get these results from enlisting these boys in the cause of their future marriage and family, how much greater can the results be when the cause we enlist them in is the cause of Christ as embodied in his Church?
Our bishop is a remarkable man who really does spend as much time as possible with the youth of our ward. When we take bike trips, there he is, leading the way. But just as important as the amount of attention he pays to the youth is the kind of attention he pays -- the trust and respect he has for them. For instance, when someone in the ward needs help moving, our bishop is as likely to call on the Aaronic as the Melchizedek priesthood. Boys who probably grumble when required to take out the garbage in their own homes work steadily, energetically, cheerfully helping a family move their worldly possessions into or out of a U-Haul. Why? Because they can see that they're doing a real job -- and they're doing it right along with adult men. They are carrying the same size boxes and furniture as the bishop, the Young Men's president, the elders quorum leaders. There is no difference among us. They would be ashamed to slack off or goof around when men are watching them do a man's job. And when they shrug off the thanks they get, you can see the pride they take in knowing they've done something real.
When I was a boy, Scouting was all right for the first couple of years. But the interest level fades quickly for many, perhaps most boys. Eat one lousy hamburger cooked in foil over a campfire, and you don't need to repeat the experience very often. In most wards, that's when basketball takes over -- but I doubt it will come as a very great surprise to anyone when I point out that many boys never liked basketball and many others come to hate it after it becomes the primary activity of the Young Men's program. Why? Because unless they happen to be really good at it, they know basketball is just a game and has nothing whatever to do with their hunger for heroism. They will never be the hero of the team, and so "team spirit" is another name for spending your adolescence as an also-ran. This is unbearable to teenage boys. They will inevitably gravitate to the activity where they can be the hero, and basketball ain't it for most of them, most of the time.
We desperately need an alternative. And I don't mean a single one-size-fits-all program; the leaders who know the boys have to be resourceful in response to the needs of their particular group, and there needs to be a good balance between exhilarating fun and meaningful service. There needs to be variety.
We need to have the courage to ignore the groaning whenever a non-basketball activity is proposed. I wish we never again heard the stupid statement, "But if we don't have basketball, we'll lose a lot of these boys." My friends, if the only way you can hold them in the Church is basketball, you aren't holding them in the Church at all. You've already lost them.
On the contrary, basketball drives out of church activity at least as many boys as it retains -- I know, I was one of the vanished ones.
How do we hold them? The answer begins by noticing the basic flaw in that question. The question shouldn't be how to hold them. The question should be, "How do we use them?" In other words, what real purpose can we organize these young men to accomplish? Nobody in the Church has more vigor in the gospel than they do, when they believe in their cause. We keep grooming them in their stalls, and all the time they're dying to get out and gallop, and could carry us anywhere if we would only guide them.
In my teens, when Primary was still taught on a midweek afternoon, I was called as a Primary teacher. It was a real calling -- I was doing the same task that adults were doing. I may not have been going to Mutual, but I was absolutely faithful in my Primary assignment.
Alas, we can't call teenagers as Primary teachers anymore. But we can take a long, hard look at the mission of the Church in the world and find real work that might capture the imagination of these young men.
Community service can't become a regular program for our youth, for many reasons, including the problem of tedious repetitiveness, inappropriate leaders, and the fact that the world is generally even more ignorant than the Church about treating teenagers as full participants in a cause.
"Missions" for the Last Days
Sometimes I wonder if the best replacement for Scouting for teachers and priests might not be a program modeled on Brigham Young's pioneer missions. He called groups of pioneers as missionaries to develop important aspects of the Deseret economy. I loved reading in Leonard Arrington's Great Basin Kingdom about groups of families who were sent on missions to mine coal and iron, to grow cotton and grapes; about one businessman who was called as a ragpicker, to collect old cloth to help make the paper for the Deseret News.
This summer we visited Joseph Smith's birthplace near Sharon, Vermont. One of the things that most impressed my 17-year-old son was the rocking chair that young Joseph made with his own hands. "He was my age," Geoffrey said. And I knew he was measuring himself, trying to decide if, at the same age, he had done anything real, anything that would last like that chair.
Wouldn't it be marvelous if, once every two or three years, a ward's (not a stake's) Aaronic priesthood were called on a "mission" to learn a skill that might be needed in the last days, if there were ever a time of a breakdown in the social order. For instance, what if there were a time when trucks no longer brought Nikes and Reeboks to shoestores in the mall? If the Prophet called a group of young men to become competent cobblers, providing them with practical manuals, they might very well respond with vigor and excitement, taking pride in learning a handicraft with the idea that someday they may be called upon to use this skill for the good of the Church, in the cause of building up Zion.
Iron smelting, blacksmithing, farming particular crops, leather tanning, weaving, spinning, house framing, plumbing, wiring, electricity generation, radio, practical chemistry, roadbuilding, lumbering, mining, beekeeping, software development, papermaking, bookbinding, printing, wheelwrightry, coopering, windowmaking, draping, clothdyeing, plastering, wallboarding, irrigation design and construction -- as a lifetime hobby or career, these tasks would have only limited appeal.
But as a mission for the Church, lasting only a certain amount of time -- six months, for instance -- with a purpose that is part of the Church's vision of preparedness for whatever happens in the world at large, I believe that such activities could have a powerful effect on the young men in any ward.
After all, the Aaronic priesthood is charged with the temporal welfare of the Church. We act now as if that responsibility disappeared when the Aaronic priesthood devolved upon youths instead of adults. Instead, bishops should look upon their Young Men as the vibrant resource they are. When you can't get the elders quorum to do a service project because the men all have jobs and responsibilities and can't spare the time, it's time to remember the group that does have time. There's no job they can't do, if you train them first. You don't have to wait for a call from the Prophet to be able to tell them that the Lord needs their help, to do good for one who is in need.
A Man's Job
A few weeks ago, a food truck needed unloading at the bishop's storehouse. Every ward in the area was supposed to come up with men to help unload. At one in the afternoon, however, the men were all at work. But it was summer, school was out, and so our bishop asked the Young Men to fulfil the assignment.
One adult showed up from another ward. Otherwise, apart from the regular staff at the storehouse, the entire group that showed up consisted of young men from our ward, and their leaders -- including, of course, our bishop.
The truck was delayed. So we spent some time training the boys in working the forklift and the manual flat-puller. We also had time to go grab something to eat and to goof around in the storehouse. The boys climbed the steel frames on which the wooden flats of food and other supplies were stacked. They were just kids having a great time.
At three o'clock the truck finally arrived, and almost at once the batteries in the forklift died. There was a ton of frozen meat on the truck -- it had to be unloaded, forklift or no forklift. It happened that we were planning an activity at the local water park at four p.m., and were supposed to meet the rest of our young men at that time. No way could we do the job without the forklift and finish in time for the activity.
And the work was hard, without the machinery. All we had were handtrucks and our arms and backs and legs. The regular staff worked steadily, but no more so than our young men. There was no goofing off, either. The boys who had been climbing around were now working with intensity and intelligence -- they didn't just unload stuff, they learned the system and put things where they belonged.
Some had to leave before the job was finished -- there were family plans that couldn't be changed when the truck came two hours late. But those who could, stayed. We unloaded everything. We were an hour late getting to the water park. I didn't hear a single word of complaint.
It was a man's job. And it was done by men. Young men, but men all the same.
During an activity that is real, not makework, the boys draw together, feeling themselves to be involved in a good cause that transcends their individual preferences. They take pride in doing well, separately and together. When the project is finished, they look back on work well done; and they are far closer to each other than team sports ever made them.
This same thing could be accomplished by training young men in the kinds of physical skills and crafts that once were needed to build up Zion in the desert mountains, and which might be needed again to serve the Kingdom of God somewhere in the world. We don't have to wait for a program from Salt Lake City. There are local crafts and traditions, individuals in our wards and stakes who can teach.
What's lacking is the connection between the labor and the cause. But that's only because we adults have not made that connection -- in true manly style, we're so busy winging it that we rarely look beyond the lesson in the manual, the activity for next Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday night.
What about the local emergency preparedness plan? In most wards, the adult quorums make a few halfhearted stabs at it. But what if the Young Men were given the responsibility of developing the plan and carrying it out? Hurricanes in the southeast, tornadoes in the heartland, floods and brushfires, riots and strikes, earthquakes and epidemics -- one can easily imagine teams of boys on mountain bikes or cross-country skis, riding from house to house all over the ward in the aftermath of a storm when phonelines are down, finding out who needs help. One can imagine them hauling away rubble, learning how to dig for buried victims. Or organizing the collection and delivery of safe food and water.
Lessons that Last Forever
Years later, in the white-collar jobs that most of them will have, they will remember having learned and done well at an apprenticeship in a hands-on trade, or participation in a serious and well-rehearsed emergency plan. And the Church as a whole will benefit, for there may well come a time when we may all be deeply grateful for a large pool of men who learned such skills in their youth and still know how to use hand tools to make a chair, or how to find and use natural sources of pigment for dyes or ink, or how to signal a helicopter where to land for a rescue.
Regardless of whether a massive rethinking of the Church's program for youth ever comes to be at the general level of the Church, the fact remains that leaders of young Mormon men can, right now, frame their programs so that the boys are enlisted in a great cause -- the cause of their future fatherhood, the cause of the future of the Church, the cause of heroic effort in doing good. The program must be so varied that boys with different talents and interests will have a chance to shine in front of their peers -- but it is vital to remember that these young men can see through sham and pretense. This is not about "building self-esteem," since real self-esteem is only built through real accomplishment, with an emphasis on the real.
In a way, the Young Women already have this program, though I don't think it goes far enough. Their lessons are already geared toward their future role in their families and the Church, though the practical development of skills that used to be at the heart of the YWMIA has thinned out considerably over the past few decades.
When feminism decided that the differentiation between men's and women's work had to end, it's so ironic that they chose the worst possible course: They took women out of the home and put them to work for money and career advancement. The opposite course was what was needed: America desperately needed to get men out of the office and back into the home. Career needed to be de-emphasized for men; instead, it was over-emphasized for women. And while the prophets never ceased decrying what was happening in the world, the Saints went ahead and followed the worldly trends, to our great cost.
And when we look at the difference between what women are taught and what men are taught, I hear people taking the worldly line all the time. "Women are taught how to serve their families, while men are taught the gospel," and the implication is clear: Women are being shortchanged.
But the contrary is the truth: Men are being desperately cheated by not being taught in their youth to be husbands and fathers; by not being enlisted in real, immediate service; by not being trained in all things with an eye to building up the kingdom of God. Sit young men down and throw rules and precepts at them, and you'll accomplish little; but get them up and set them to men's work, or teach them how to fulfil adult roles in a great cause, and they'll run farther and faster than you ever dreamed possible. Because these boys are all heroes at heart, waiting only the occasion to show what they're made of.
-- Orson Scott Card
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