The LDS Sunday School General President posted this short article at LDS.org (in the Church News section). Here is his observation about LDS classroom discussion: [W]e hear of many inspired classroom discussions. Occasionally, however, we hear of discussions that are open and lively, but at the conclusion there has been little, if any, doctrinal focus or emphasis. In essence, there have been some therapeutic conversations or a sharing of experiences, but little connection to doctrine.
I’m grateful for the invitation and excited to participate here at Times & Seasons. The following is a talk I gave in our recent Stake General Priesthood meeting as the newly called Stake Sunday School President. While many of the ideas below were conceived independently, I was heavily influenced by some of Ben Spackman’s writings (especially the quotes) when it came to their final form. Big thanks to him. I’ve been asked to speak tonight on improving gospel instruction in the home and at church. So much time could be dedicated to analyzing the best teaching methods and the how-to of engaging gospel lessons. However, I will forgo these particulars partially due to time constraints, but mainly because they don’t really get to the heart of the matter. There are plenty of resources provided by the Church that can assist us in improving the mechanics of our teaching. Manuals like Teaching, No Greater Call or Preach My Gospel as well as Leadership and Teaching tutorials…
The Teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith lesson 17 covers “Sealing Power and Temple Blessings,” the ordinances restored through the priesthood which lead to our salvation, for salvation in the eternal kingdom is dependent on sealing, both to parents, to spouse and to children. The following poems addresses the role of sealing in our understanding of priesthood and of salvation.
Lesson 31 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual covers the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which consist mainly of short statements meant to help guide our behavior. But its pretty easy to make these statements seem contradictory. We all agree that “pride goeth before destruction,” but what if it is pride in our work or in doing our best? And what do we say to parents who have “trained up a child in the way he should go” when that child does depart from the way? It is precisely these contradictions that the following poem addresses.
What benefit do we get from the temple? Old Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #30 covers two renewals of the temple in ancient Israel; that of Hezekaih and that of his great grandson, Josiah. It also gives the example of Hezekiah’s fending off the Assyrians with the help of the angel of the Lord following his cleansing of the temple. This apparently comes because of his righteousness. Could it be the indirect result of cleansing the temple? Does the temple lend us strength? The following sonnet sees strength in the temple, comparing its outward appearance with the inward strength it gives us:
There are at least two potential problems when there is a leadership transition—the transition plan or procedure isn’t always known ahead of time, and those involved don’t always follow the plan or procedures. Mormonism’s initial experience with transition didn’t go well—I suspect for both reasons—and the transitions elsewhere in the scriptures often seem unexpected also. For example, the transition from Elijah to Elisha described in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #29 is unexpected by the Israelites, who search for Elijah for three days after Elisha succeeds him. It is, of course, Mormonism’s difficult initial transition, following the death of Joseph Smith, that led to the following poem.
Parenting sometimes seems like a Mormon obsession. We believe it has a significant effect on the success of children both in this life and in the life to come, so it is often the subject of Mormon sermons and lessons, such as chapter 16 of the Joseph Fielding Smith manual. We often find inspiration for how to handle parenting issues in Mormon teachings about the nature of our Heavenly Father and our relationship to him. Mormons assume and rely on the idea that our relationship to our Heavenly Father is similar to our relationship with our earthly parents. This assumption is found throughout our literature and often in our sermons. And it is found in the following poem.
The story of Elijah listening for the voice of the Lord (1 Kings 19:9-13) is frequently used by Mormons to describe the manner we can receive revelation. Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #28 includes that story, along with others discussing Elijah’s acts as prophet, but focusing on his listening to the Lord to accomplish those acts. While it is undeniably important for a prophet like Elijah to listen to the still small voice, in latter days Mormons emphasize that all people should receive revelation, an idea that is found in the following poem.
I am so thankful that we are gently backing away from a literal understanding of scripture.
While the marriage practiced in the Church and taught in chapter 15 of the Joseph Fielding Smith manual is different than that taught and practiced outside of the Temple and the Church, still the underlying commitment to marriage and many of the promises made are very similar. Even after the Church under Joseph Smith introduced celestial marriage in the 1840s, the protestant views of marriage common in the U.S. still resonated for Mormons (as they do today) In fact, the following non-Mormon poem about marriage was published in the Nauvoo Mormon newspaper The Wasp on the last day of April of 1844, more than 3 weeks after the Prophet Joseph Smith had delivered the King Follett Sermon, which discusses the doctrine of eternity and eternal life. And somehow it seems almost Mormon.
It seems likely that today we (in most western democracies) aren’t influenced by leaders the same way that the children of Israel were by their kings (at least as described in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson #27). I suspect that all else being equal, democracy reduces the influence of individual leaders. Still, the example of the influence of their rulers, for good or evil, is instructive today. And the following poem highlights the qualifications of leaders and how their influence is felt by those that they lead.
Do you ever read the bits of scripture that are excluded from our Sunday School lesson manuals? If you are only looking up certain passages, it is as though the rest of the text doesn’t exist.
The restoration of priesthood keys is a vital part of LDS teachings, something that is emphasized repeatedly in lesson manuals, such as chapter 11 in the current Joseph Fielding Smith manual. It is also one of the most emphasized elements of the lessons taught by LDS missionaries. So it is no surprise to find the restoration of priesthood keys as a central element in the following poem, composed by a young LDS missionary in 1922.
As the Children of Israel entered the promised land, they also faced a change of leadership, with all that entails. As Moses doesn’t cross the Jordan, Joshua is called to lead the Israelites, cross the Jordan and subjugate the territory promised. Lesson 18 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual portrays this time as a time when the Children of Israel re-commit themselves to serving the Lord behind a new leader. Following the death of Joseph Smith, the nascent Mormon people also had to face a change in leadership, and (although in a somewhat different manner) cross a river behind that leader on their way into a new land. Their similarity to the ancient Israelites was not lost on them, and influenced the following poem.
Approaching the promised land has to influence leaders to remind their followers of how they should act when they enter the long-sought utopia. The goal is to live as God would have them live, covenanting to live in righteousness and harmony. In the case of Moses, as described in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 17, he gives instructions to the Israelites to help them remember their covenants. He urges them to obey the commandments and remember God and to be mindful of the rock of their salvation. While the experiences of the Mormon pioneers are similar to those of the Israelites, I’m not aware of any discourse by Brigham Young that matches this exactly. There is, however, a poem by Parley P. Pratt that touches on the same concept.
The story of Balaam, as discussed in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 16, is about a prophet’s struggle with obedience and the requirements of political leaders. As portrayed in the Bible, Balaam follows the commandments of the Lord, but he attempts to get gain by currying favor with a political leader needed. I think this issue of obedience is fascinating, something that, if we all think about it, we also face. We all have employers, friends, and others who try to influence us, sometimes against what we know the Lord would have us do. Our response is sometimes to merely appear to be a Saint, as the following poem describes.
Lesson 10 of the Joseph Fielding Smith manual discusses our search for truth, citing many of the prophet’s statements on how we are to obtain knowledge of the truth and on the value of truth in our lives. President Smith teaches that truth is something we should seek and value—ideas that can be found in the following poem.
As the Mormon pioneers began their westward trek, they already saw themselves on an exodus similar to that of ancient Israel leaving Egypt for the promised land. And they faced some of the same difficulties that Israel faced—such as those outlined in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 15: complaints, backbiting, uncertain knowledge of the land they were going to, and even a promised land populated by another people. The poem below, written near the beginning of the Mormon trek, urges the Saints in England to promptly take part in the trek, despite its dangers and the misgivings of many Church members.
I think that we often think of witnesses as something outside of the event, added to fill a particular need or satisfy the desires of the world. But I wonder if this perception might not be incorrect, if witnesses are not, in fact, an important part of the process of communicating truth. A testimony is, after all, what a witness provides, and, at least in the church, it is hard to imagine communicating truth without testimony. In the fourth D&C Gospel Doctrine lesson witnesses to the Book of Mormon are an important part of the story of the scripture’s preparation. And the following poem provides, I think, an idea of the role of the witness, along with a lot about one of the three witnesses, David Whitmer.
Are commandments also spiritual fare? When Moses received the law on Sinai, was he spiritually fed? Were the children of Israel? Lesson #14 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual discusses Israel’s trek across the Sinai, their partaking of manna from heaven, which we interpret today as a symbol of the spiritual feast that our Heavenly Father provides for us. But when we read or talk about the commandments, we sometimes don’t talk about them as spiritual food—instead seeing them as temporal duties to be performed. But, the miracle of their delivery to Moses is a spiritual story, and I think the following poem describes what should be seen as a spiritual feast.
The story of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt is one of the iconic stories of western religious culture. And that story has descended to Mormonism, showing up, of course, in lesson #13 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual. And we Mormons basically see the story in the same way as other Christians—an oppressed people is led by the hand of God out of opression and into a promised land. But the story has gained other cultural meanings for Mormonism. Best known is naming Brigham Young as the American Moses, and the Mormon pioneer trek as a new exodus to a promised land. But that isn’t the first association. In the following, Parley P. Pratt sees a future comparison to the promised return of Israel’s 10 tribes.
Today, we Mormons see the “coincidence of names” between Joseph of Egypt, Joseph the son of Lehi and Joseph Smith as anything but a coincidence. They shared names allow us to make connections between the three cases, adding to our understanding of their histories. And Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 12 allows us to revisit some of the parallels, such as Joseph’s separation from Israel, and eventual reunion, as well as his visionary nature. Elder Orson F. Whitney, who served as an Apostle from 1906 to 1931, recognized this connection, and included it in his epic poem Elias in the following extract.
The purpose of the Church as an organization is sometimes ignored by Church members, who take its presence as given. While we know we are supposed to have a Church, we don’t often think about why the organization is needed. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith manual, chapter 8, examines the purpose and the future of the Church through the statements of Smith. Of course, looking at the reason for a Church is nothing new. Early Mormons struggled with aspects of this, since many of them were influenced by the congregationalist models of other restorationist churches, in which local pastors are selected by the deacons of each congregation, and were against the traditional model of the Church of England. The following poem shows some of these tensions and gives a broad vision of what the role of the Church is.
[I’m sorry that I’m a bit behind in getting these posted. I’m hoping to do one each night for the next 3 nights to get caught up.] Temptation is a constant. We all struggle with temptation to do that which we should not, and often these temptations involve significant sin or things that could lead to significant sin. Worse, as Joseph’s story indicates, even when we have acted properly, we can be seen as a sinner or in error, and treated accordingly. Sometimes this is because others are mistaken, and other times it is because those who judge have different values from ours. The following poem claims that, even though others mistakenly found Joseph guilty, he still won the approval of the Lord.
The marriage process in Abraham’s family (covered in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 10) is very different that the common experience in the Church today (at least in North America). Arranged marriages, polygamy, dowries and working for a wife are all discussed in the source chapters in Genesis, while the marriages are still eternal, evidently the same way that marriages in LDS Temples today are eternal. But while there are clear differences, there are also similarities in how these marriages work. Isaac and Rebekah, as well as Jacob and his wives, work together to make the union productive and to raise their children. The couples toil together, and apparently grow together over decades. This kind of work is described in the following poem.
Given how much we talk about Joseph Smith in lessons such as lesson 7 of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith manual used in Priesthood and Relief Society meetings, you might think I would run out of poetry about him. That isn’t likely to happen. Smith is also a common subject of Mormon poetry — but nowhere near as common a subject as Christ. As the prophet who introduced the current dispensation, restoring the gospel to the earth, according to what we teach, Joseph Smith’s role and the restoration he initiated and shepherded is vital to the world today, a foundational element of both Mormon theology and culture. The following poem makes the connection between this event and Mormon culture and history.
Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice Isaac is one of the most difficult to understand episodes in the Bible, and it is also a regular subject of LDS lessons, such as Lesson 9 of the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual. Despite its troubling nature, this event is seen as a clear type of Christ’s sacrifice, and it is often portrayed as an ideal of the righteous sacrifice we should ourselves be willing to make. Both of these views of Abraham’s dilemna appear in LDS poetry, and the latter view—that we too are expected to sacrifice for sake of the gospel—is expressed in the following extract from a poem by Eliza R. Snow:
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is found in the material covered in the Old Testament Gospel Doctrine manual, lesson 8, is one of the more bleak stories in the bible. Its depressing to think that a city cannot be saved from its own wickedness, and that there was not one person there who was innocent enough to merit its salvation. Regardless of what their sins were (lets not go into that), the destruction of an entire city is heartbreaking. I think the following poem captures some of the pathos and the meaning that can be found in the Sodom and Gomorrah story, and many other, similar stories in the bible.
If doctrines can have ideological parents, then the doctrine of the gathering is clearly descended from the Abrahamic covenant, the same that is discussed in Old Testament Gospel Doctrine lesson 7. Throughout the scriptures, when the Lord talks of “gathering” his people, he is refering to Israel, the descendants of Abraham. The covenant speaks of giving his people a promised land—the place where his people will be gathered to. Indeed, the gathering is simply a part of how the Lord’s covenant with Abraham is fulfilled. I think that many of the elements of the Abrahamic covenant are found in the following poem, although it seems to primarily discuss the gathering.
When we cover the sacrament in our lessons, the focus is usually on the doctrines behind the ordinance. In lesson 6 of the Teachings of Joseph Fielding Smith manual those doctrines are found in remembering the atonement and in the covenant made at baptism and renewed by the sacrament. However, I think there is a bit more to the role of the sacrament and sacrament meetings than these doctrines—social meanings that might be found in the following two poems.