Thursday, June 5, 2014

Thoughts on "Love--the Essence of the Gospel," President Monson’s April 2014 talk

Here are my thoughts on President Monson’s April 2014 conference talk “Love—the Essence of the Gospel.”  (Green text is President Monson, black text is me.)

 My beloved brothers and sisters, when our Savior ministered among men, He was asked by the inquiring lawyer, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”

Matthew records that Jesus responded:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

“This is the first and great commandment.

“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

Mark concludes the account with the Savior’s statement: “There is none other commandment greater than these.”

Just think of all the theological arguments that have been ended or prevented because Jesus made that statement!  I am so appreciative of that.

It also strikes me that with certain civic debates we have these days over the acceptance or toleration of certain kinds of love, it is useful to remember that if the commandment to love God came first in everyone’s lives, a lot of trouble could be prevented.

It also seems to me that the love God has for us is not just manifested in the Atonement of Christ and so many blessings, but also in the commandments He gives us.  He wants to save us from unnecessary pain and so many commandments help us avoid that kind of pain.

We cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey. Likewise, we cannot fully love our fellowmen if we do not love God, the Father of us all.

There’s a profound statement for you.  It fairly demands to be unpacked.

“We cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey.” – It is too easy to make love into an abstract concept and rhapsodize about it while ignoring the practical demands it makes on us day to day, hour to hour and sometimes minute to minute.  For example, this may end up being a fabulous blog post, but if I can’t go out and put the principles into action, then I don’t really love God as much as I would like to think I do.

“Likewise, we cannot fully love our fellowmen if we do not love God, the Father of us all.” – Loving God is best recognized by Him when we keep His commandments, and there are a lot of commandments that help regulate the way we treat each other, and even create boundaries for how love is to be expressed, to make a difference between love and lust, or between love and friendship, or between parental or fraternal or romantic love.  Other commandments help us build our character so that we can love in a rounded way, more perfectly. 

The Apostle John tells us, “This commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” We are all spirit children of our Heavenly Father and, as such, are brothers and sisters. As we keep this truth in mind, loving all of God’s children will become easier.

I know for me, thinking of someone as a brother or sister instantly gives me a deeper sense of interest in their wellbeing and makes me willing to do more for them than I would for someone I just thought of as a stranger. 

Actually, love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar. His life was a legacy of love. The sick He healed; the downtrodden He lifted; the sinner He saved. At the end the angry mob took His life. And yet there rings from Golgotha’s hill the words: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”—a crowning expression in mortality of compassion and love.

That request to bestow forgiveness is a lovely manifestation of Christ’s willingness to give love, even if it was one-sided.  Anyone who has ever felt unrequited love knows how painful that can be.

This makes me think that maybe I should read through accounts of Christ’s life again to see how everything He did and taught was a manifestation of love.

There are many attributes which are manifestations of love, such as kindness, patience, selflessness, understanding, and forgiveness. In all our associations, these and other such attributes will help make evident the love in our hearts.

This list President Monson mentions shows me that love can be manifested in different ways according to the needs of the moment.

Usually our love will be shown in our day-to-day interactions one with another.

We can’t go looking for the one heroic moment of manifesting love.  (I confess I tend to do this..) It’s the little moments all around us.  Which means every day gives as many opportunities to show love as we have interactions with other people.  Every relationship is a chance to show love!

All important will be our ability to recognize someone’s need and then to respond.

Aha!  Showing love requires a certain amount of discernment and requires exercising agency to act and not be acted upon (as Elder Bednar would probably put it).

I have always cherished the sentiment expressed in the short poem:

I have wept in the night
For the shortness of sight
That to somebody’s need made me blind;
But I never have yet
Felt a tinge of regret
For being a little too kind.5

The sentiment of this poem is interesting because it implies that if we don’t develop the discernment quickly, we will develop it later and then look back on the past with regret on the opportunities we missed because we just didn’t understand them at the time. 

I recently was made aware of a touching example of loving kindness—one that had unforeseen results. The year was 1933, when because of the Great Depression, employment opportunities were scarce. The location was the eastern part of the United States. Arlene Biesecker had just graduated from high school. After a lengthy search for employment, she was finally able to obtain work at a clothing mill as a seamstress. The mill workers were paid only for each of the correctly completed pieces they sewed together daily. The more pieces they produced, the more they were paid.

One day shortly after starting at the mill, Arlene was faced with a procedure that had her confused and frustrated. She sat at her sewing machine trying to unpick her unsuccessful attempt to complete the piece on which she was working. There seemed to be no one to help her, for all of the other seamstresses were hurrying to complete as many pieces as they could. Arlene felt helpless and hopeless. Quietly, she began to cry.

Across from Arlene sat Bernice Rock. She was older and more experienced as a seamstress. Observing Arlene’s distress, Bernice left her own work and went to Arlene’s side, kindly giving her instruction and help. She stayed until Arlene gained confidence and was able to successfully complete the piece. Bernice then went back to her own machine, having missed the opportunity to complete as many pieces as she could have, had she not helped.

With this one act of loving kindness, Bernice and Arlene became lifelong friends. Each eventually married and had children. Sometime in the 1950s, Bernice, who was a member of the Church, gave Arlene and her family a copy of the Book of Mormon. In 1960, Arlene and her husband and children were baptized members of the Church. Later they were sealed in a holy temple of God.

As a result of the compassion shown by Bernice as she went out of her way to help one whom she didn’t know but who was in distress and needed assistance, countless individuals, both living and dead, now enjoy the saving ordinances of the gospel.

So how many ways did Bernice show love to Arlene?  Can we recognize all the different ways?
--She gave her instruction when she was stuck.
--She stayed until Arlene gained confidence, giving watchcare.
--She sacrificed the opportunity to complete as many pieces as she could have in order to help.  (sacrifice)
--She built a long friendship that lasted over a lifetime.
--She gave Arlene a copy of the Book of Mormon—sharing spiritual nourishment.

In a way, the help Bernice gave Arlene with sewing was a prelude to the spiritual salvation she shared with her through her gift of the Book of Mormon.

It is neat to see that the love Bernice showed had such a long reach and affected so many generations, through missionary work and then through temple work. 

Will every incident of our giving love be so effectual?  Likely not.  But regardless of the effect the potential is there, so we must take the chances that come to us.

Every day of our lives we are given opportunities to show love and kindness to those around us. Said President Spencer W. Kimball: “We must remember that those mortals we meet in parking lots, offices, elevators, and elsewhere are that portion of mankind God has given us to love and to serve. It will do us little good to speak of the general brotherhood of mankind if we cannot regard those who are all around us as our brothers and sisters.”

I like this.  Even transitory meetings can be given significance with an effort to show love.

Watching as a store employee rings up our purchases is one type of transitory meeting that may not seem to be important, but can become an opportunity to show love and kindness.  I like to look at the store employee and see what I can notice about them. 

Often, I may notice that the store employee serving me has something interesting or pretty about their clothing or accessories, so I will compliment them on it.  (I surmise that they have to find small ways of expressing their individuality when the store requires them to wear a uniform.)  When I compliment them, they may tell me about it or simply thank me, but I can always see that it brightens their day. 

When there are a lot of people in line (like for a major holiday) it can be pretty obvious the check-out person is tired, so I ask them sympathetically if their shift is almost over.  This becomes an opportunity for them to tell me a little about how things are going with them.  I can see that they appreciate this attention and enjoy having a conversation with them about it, even though it is necessarily brief.   As I leave, I encourage them to hang in there and I wish them a pleasant day.

I think one of the best times to use love and kindness is when I have to complain to customer service about something.  I figure those poor customer service people probably have people yelling or at the least bad-attituding at them all day long, so I try to be extra nice to them.  When they have to give me bad news about company policy, I can see them mentally bracing themselves for an explosion, so I take it gracefully and then try to negotiate with them toward a different solution.  It’s all about calmness, patience, and gratitude here.

What other transitory situations have you been in where you have made an effort to express kindness and love?

Often our opportunities to show our love come unexpectedly.

Opportunities that are expected can be mentally prepared for, but unexpected opportunities are a bit harder because they often interfere with our plans.  They can be inconvenient.  They can be costly.  And yet, they are some of the best tests of our character because they reveal to us what kind of person we really are.

An example of such an [unexpected] opportunity appeared in a newspaper article in October 1981. So impressed was I with the love and compassion related therein that I have kept the clipping in my files for over 30 years.

How neat that this story will be remembered so much longer by so many more people because President Monson saved it and shared it with us.   This makes me think that maybe if we run across inspiring modern day examples of showing love they are worth saving and sharing. 

I suppose that the more inconvenient and costly an opportunity to show love is, the more worthy it is of being repeated in general conference.  God honors those who honor him, after all.

The article indicates that an Alaska Airlines nonstop flight from Anchorage, Alaska, to Seattle, Washington—a flight carrying 150 passengers—was diverted to a remote Alaskan town in order to transport a gravely injured child. The two-year-old boy had severed an artery in his arm when he fell on a piece of glass while playing near his home. The town was 450 miles (725 km) south of Anchorage and was certainly not on the flight path. However, medics at the scene had sent out a frantic request for help, and so the flight was diverted to pick up the child and take him to Seattle so that he could be treated in a hospital.

When the flight touched down near the remote town, medics informed the pilot that the boy was bleeding so badly he could not survive the flight to Seattle. A decision was made to fly another 200 miles (320 km) out of the way to Juneau, Alaska, the nearest city with a hospital.

After transporting the boy to Juneau, the flight headed for Seattle, now hours behind schedule. Not one passenger complained, even though most of them would miss appointments and connecting flights. In fact, as the minutes and hours ticked by, they took up a collection, raising a considerable sum for the boy and his family.

As the flight was about to land in Seattle, the passengers broke into a cheer when the pilot announced that he had received word by radio that the boy was going to be all right.

Can you put yourself in the position of the passengers and imagine how you would have reacted if you found out your flight was going to be diverted like this?  (Keep in mind, this is before the day of cell phones, so there was no way to notify people waiting at the airport, except by the arrival or departure screens..)

Or imagine your were the pilot or the medics in the small town.  How would you have responded?

What different ways was love manifested in this story?
--The medics were trying to help the little boy and sent out a call to help, even though there was a small chance that it would be responded to.
--The pilots took compassion on the boy when they heard the call for help, and they diverted their nonstop flight to pick him up.
--The pilots diverted their flight again to find a closer hospital in order to save the boy.
--The passengers put the wellbeing of the injured boy above their own convenience and schedules.
--The passengers didn’t complain about two fight path diversions.
--The passengers took up a collection to help pay for the boy’s medical care, having compassion not just on the boy, but on the boy’s parents who would have to pay for expensive treatment.
--The pilot announced the progress of the boy’s treatment so the passengers could know their patience and compassion had made a difference.
--The passengers cheered the news the boy would recover, celebrating the success of the medical personal and the relief of the parents.

To my mind come the words of the scripture: “Charity is the pure love of Christ, … and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.”

Suddenly it strikes me that the pronouncement “it shall be well with him” in this scripture constitutes a huge divine understatement.  Why so understated?  Probably this is a case where eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of man the things that God will bestow upon those who have cultivated charity.

Brothers and sisters, some of our greatest opportunities to demonstrate our love will be within the walls of our own homes.

Family is truly a laboratory for learning and practicing love, such as developing the skills for responding to needs appropriately, even when the needs might be expressed inappropriately..  I’ll bet everyone reading this could write an essay about all the different types of love family life teaches and all the different kinds of situations that come up that require love and kindness.

Love should be the very heart of family life, and yet sometimes it is not. There can be too much impatience, too much arguing, too many fights, too many tears. Lamented President Gordon B. Hinckley: “Why is it that the [ones] we love [most] become so frequently the targets of our harsh words? Why is it that [we] sometimes speak as if with daggers that cut to the quick?” The answers to these questions may be different for each of us, and yet the bottom line is that the reasons do not matter. If we would keep the commandment to love one another, we must treat each other with kindness and respect.

I still appreciate how when I was a teen my dad would instruct me, “Lower your voice,” when I would get perturbed and start to raise it in an argument with him.  He kept his voice level and calm, so his instructions and example helped me learn to keep my voice level and calm.  How many fights that has saved me from starting or intensifying!  I realize now that skill is yet another way to show love, appropriate for times of disagreement.

Of course there will be times when discipline needs to be meted out. Let us remember, however, the counsel found in the Doctrine and Covenants—namely, that when it is necessary for us to reprove another, we afterward show forth an increase of love.

This also makes me think of something said once about how we shouldn’t reprove beyond our ability to bind up wounds afterwards.  It probably would also help us if we planned what we will do to show an increase of love at the same time that we plan out our reproving words.  

I sometimes find myself gauging mentally if I have the ability to show an increase of love to the extent that I want to reprove.  Usually that leads to me tempering my reproof substantially.. or even saying nothing..   The times I have made mistakes at this, something usually happens afterward to show me that I was way out of line.

What reproofs do you find yourself having to give most often?  Too whom?  How do you do it with kindness and respect, and what do you do to show an increase of love afterward?

I would hope that we would strive always to be considerate and to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings and circumstances of those around us.

The root of the word “considerate” is “consider.”  To me, considering others means to think about what things are like for them and what they might be going through, and to give them the same kind of leeway that I would give myself if I were in their position.

Let us not demean or belittle. Rather, let us be compassionate and encouraging. We must be careful that we do not destroy another person’s confidence through careless words or actions.

Forgiveness should go hand in hand with love. In our families, as well as with our friends, there can be hurt feelings and disagreements. Again, it doesn’t really matter how small the issue was. It cannot and should not be left to canker, to fester, and ultimately to destroy. Blame keeps wounds open. Only forgiveness heals.

It took me a while to learn that blame wasn’t good.  For me, blame disguised itself as trying to find the root of the problem when there was trouble.  (“This was caused by this.. which was caused by this.. which was caused by YOU!!  You did this!”)   What do you do to avoid blaming while still addressing a problem?

A lovely lady who has since passed away visited with me one day and unexpectedly recounted some regrets. She spoke of an incident which had taken place many years earlier and involved a neighboring farmer, once a good friend but with whom she and her husband had disagreed on multiple occasions. One day the farmer asked if he could take a shortcut across her property to reach his own acreage. At this point she paused in her narrative to me and, with a tremor in her voice, said, “Brother Monson, I didn’t let him cross our property then or ever but required him to take the long way around on foot to reach his property. I was wrong, and I regret it. He’s gone now, but oh, I wish I could say to him, ‘I’m so sorry.’ How I wish I had a second chance to be kind.”

As I listened to her, there came to my mind the doleful observation of John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” Brothers and sisters, as we treat others with love and kind consideration, we will avoid such regrets.

This is an interesting story because it actually touches on the legal issues of right of way and easement.  (Disclosure: I am not a lawyer.)  Right of way is in England and Wales and describes the right to travel unhindered and access a route regardless of land ownership.  Easement is in the United States (I think) and it is the right to use and/or enter the real property of another person without possessing it.  Easements are part of common law.  They can be created in different ways, one of which is called “implied easement” when there is no deed specifying it, but an established custom of a landowner allowing access.

When the woman initially prevented the neighboring farmer from crossing her land to get to his own, she was probably most concerned that her consent would have created an implied easement of some sort.  Also, we can see from the story that the farmer had once been a friend, but had become an adversary in a number of disagreements.  The women may have worried that the trend of deterioration in their relationship would only continue and if she gave him an inch, sooner or later he would legally take a mile.  Can we really blame her for wanting to prevent a possible future legal battle over an easement? 

And yet, this same woman, near the end of her life looked back over the past with a very different perspective.  At the end, she wasn’t focusing on defending her rights from perceived encroachment, she was concerned about her relationship with the farmer.  She saw it as a missed opportunity to be kind.  Maybe with the distance of years from the request and the disagreements, she saw that the issues they had disagreed over were trivial.  Maybe she decided she had made an unwarranted assumption and the farmer might not have ever taken advantage of any access she granted him.

So I guess the message here is we shouldn’t let our fight to maintain our rights get in the way of our ability to be kind and give people the benefit of the doubt, even if it is an enemy.  This story tells us that the long term spiritual consequences of making a mistake in this type of thing are regret, and that we can avoid those regrets if we always use love and kindness.

You would think that this story only shows a negative example, but it also shows two positive examples.  1) The woman shared her experience with President Monson, along with the lesson she learned from it.  Stories of experience can be a gift of love.  2) President Monson shared the woman’s experience with us, allowing us to gain the same lesson, yet he also protected her memory by withholding her name.  Protecting people from possible ridicule is a way of showing love.

Love is expressed in many recognizable ways: a smile, a wave, a kind comment, a compliment. Other expressions may be more subtle, such as showing interest in another’s activities, teaching a principle with kindness and patience, visiting one who is ill or homebound. These words and actions and many others can communicate love.

All of these are small and simple things, which makes them possible for everybody to do.  They also don’t cost any money. 

Dale Carnegie, a well-known American author and lecturer, believed that each person has within himself or herself the “power to increase the sum total of [the] world’s happiness … by giving a few words of sincere appreciation to someone who is lonely or discouraged.”

I love the idea of being able to increase the sum total of the world’s happiness just with a few words.  (Heck, that’s practically the goal of good writers..)

Said he, “Perhaps you will forget tomorrow the kind words you say today, but the recipient may cherish them over a lifetime.”

One of the things I’ve learned to do is to keep some blank cards in my desk to make it extra convenient to send notes of appreciation when I’m feeling particularly grateful for a particular person’s impact on my life..  (Strike while the iron is hot, as they say..)

I also cherish all the kind words people say to me.  I record them in my journal.  I also have an email folder for nice emails people send me.  Reading through those gives me a great pick-me-up on days I feel like I’m a nobody and everything I do is pointless and ineffective.  Those kind words remind me that I have had a positive impact somewhere.  They represent people whose sum total of happiness I have increased in some way.

May we begin now, this very day, to express love to all of God’s children, whether they be our family members, our friends, mere acquaintances, or total strangers. As we arise each morning, let us determine to respond with love and kindness to whatever might come our way.

Notice that deciding to respond with love and kindness is something we have to commit to each morning.  That says to me it is a habit that can be formed, if we can just remember..  (Maybe I need a sign on my bathroom mirror..)

Beyond comprehension, my brothers and sisters, is the love of God for us. Because of this love, He sent His Son, who loved us enough to give His life for us, that we might have eternal life. As we come to understand this incomparable gift, our hearts will be filled with love for our Eternal Father, for our Savior, and for all mankind. That such may be so is my earnest prayer in the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Teaching Suggestions for this talk
--Count how many ways of showing love President Monson mentions in his talk.  Challenge your class members to do the same.

--Share this quote with your class.
“Actually, love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar. His life was a legacy of love.”
Choose a story from the life of Jesus Christ and discuss how he showed love in that story.  Challenge your class to try reading the four gospels looking for all the ways Jesus showed love.

--Tell the stories in President Monson’s talk and ask your class to identify all the different ways love and kindness was shown.

--Create case studies of different situations or problems faced in day-to-day living by you or those you teach.   Have class members read these case studies and comment on the best way to approach these problems in a loving and kind way.

--Ask your class members if they have anything they do that helps them respond in love and kindness when they are under lots of pressure.

--Consider making a handout with the following quote on it for those you teach to put in a prominent place near their bed-- “As we arise each morning, let us determine to respond with love and kindness to whatever might come our way.”

--Ask your class members to think of a person they know whom they really appreciate at this moment; it can be anyone.  Ask them to think about why they appreciate this person, and then challenge them to write an appreciative note to this person and send it.


Noel Jensen said...

Thanks for sharing your insights!

Michaela Stephens said...

You're welcome!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! I'm teaching this lesson on Sunday for RS and have been a little stuck. Mostly because this lesson is probably just for me this week :) Thanks for taking to time to respond to Monson's talk. It really highlighted some areas I think would make me and others in the room look introspectively and keep this lesson "real" sort of speak. :)

adriennep said...

I am so grateful to you for taking the time to write out your thoughts and share them here. I teach Relief Society, and I am assigned to teach the conference talks. Sometimes the hardest part of teaching is coming up with high-quality questions that will spawn valuable discussions. I have been a little stuck on this one and when I stumbled across this, I felt saved. In fact, to be honest, I have had an awful few weeks and my spiritual well from which I could draw for preparing a lesson feels downright empty. Your expanding and expounding, and your suggestions for teaching, are an answer to prayer. encourage readers to express their gratitude to someone, and I feel it's most appropriate to let you know I'm grateful for your help and insight.

Michaela Stephens said...

Anonymous and adriennep, I'm so glad this has helped you. Good luck with your lessons!

Heather Lloyd said...

I, too, appreciate what you have said here. I have gone over this talk many times (I'm teaching it this Sunday, of course) and you brought up some excellent points I haven't thought of. Thank you!