Friday, November 18, 2016

Thoughts on “I Will Bring the Light of the Gospel into My Home” from General Women’s Session of October 2016 conference


Sister Jean B. Bingham’stalk “I Will Bring the Light of the Gospel into My Home” was an interesting talk because it had a number of principles relating to charity and judgment in it that seemed rather loosely connected, but which seemed at first glance to be unrelated to the title. But ultimately, I think at the end of this analysis, it will be shown that they do relate.  (I will quote her words in blue.)

She started out talking very briefly about acts of charity to meet needs of refugees and how true charity leads to building hope, faith, and greater love.  The first paragraph might seem like a throwaway, but the statement about the results of true charity is a profound one.  It’s an upward spiral.

She quotes Moroni’s words about charity from Moroni 10:21: “Except ye have charity ye can in nowise be saved in the kingdom of God,” and points out that charity is an essential characteristic in the celestial kingdom.  I like that she puts a positive spin on the way Moroni says it.  Moroni’s way of saying it is a warning. Sister Bingham’s way beckons higher.  I think both ways of saying it are necessary, since they each can speak to a certain spiritual condition.

By this time, it seems that the theme of her talk is going to be charity. But she focuses in a particular aspect of charity:

One of the most significant ways we can develop and demonstrate love for our neighbor is through being generous in our thoughts and words. Some years ago a cherished friend noted, “The greatest form of charity may be to withhold judgment.”4 That is still true today.

This is a fabulous subject for a conference talk.  How often are we advised to not judge others? Pretty often it seems. And yet, sometimes it is hard to know how to refrain from judgment in a healthy way so as to do others and ourselves the most good.   As soon as we learn what the rules are in life, we automatically notice who seems to be keeping the rules and who isn’t.  As soon as we learn what is considered “normal,” we start to notice what and who seems to be not normal.  So what do we do?  We point things out.  We judge.

Recently, as three-year-old Alyssa watched a movie with her siblings, she remarked with a puzzled expression, “Mom, that chicken is weird!”

Her mother looked at the screen and responded with a smile, “Honey, that is a peacock.”

Like that unknowing three-year-old, we sometimes look at others with an incomplete or inaccurate understanding.

Alyssa, a three-year-old, clearly already learned to recognize what a chicken looks like.  So when she sees a peacock for the first time, she compares it to the animal she already knows.  (But heavens! What is that chicken doing with that crazy tail and all that color!  What a weird chicken!) But as soon as she knows that it is a different kind of bird, all of a sudden, the peacock becomes its own kind of normal that is different from a chicken’s normal.

One of the things that is fascinating about this story is that it is a positive illustration of how categorization can help us understand and accept different types of normal. Usually we hear about how categorization as a limiting practice (and it can be when we put someone in a little box).  But used charitably, categorization is a tool to help us understand someone better and form appropriate expectations based on our knowledge.  If we know the peacock is definitely not a chicken, we know better than to expect the female peacock to lay eggs for us or for the male peacock to wake us up in the morning with a certain kind of crowing. Instead, we will know we can expect beautiful feathers and an exotic kind of screaming. 

Now, understanding birds is one thing. But understanding human beings is quite another thing altogether.  There are so many differences possible that we are simply staggered by the infinite variety.  Family background, age, birth order, gender, education, religion, socio-economic status, disabilities, sickness, weakness, talents, careers, interests, nationality, culture, political leanings, and mixes of any two kinds of things, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—and at the bottom of all of that, raw personality and divinity.

Is it any wonder that we look at others with an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of who they are? (And that’s just assuming that we’ve been given facts and not defamation!) You can’t know everything about someone all at once when you first meet them. It takes time to get to know people.  We simply must accept that we will be revising our idea of what others are like quite often. 

No, that’s not a chicken. It’s a peacock.  Who loves to read. And is an introvert. But works as a nurse in a NICU. Who switched majors from computer science, but who still programs apps in her spare time.  Who was the first one to graduate from college in her family. And she has three children. And a weakness for piña colada anything.  And driving scares the heck out of her because of a bad accident, so she drives really slow.

We may focus on the differences and perceived flaws in those around us whereas our Heavenly Father sees His children, created in His eternal image, with magnificent and glorious potential.

Perceived flaws or glorious potential?  That sounds like a different version of the old question, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?”  Sometime the flaw is a flaw. Sometimes the flaw is a lack of development.   Sometimes the flaw just needs a new context to reveal it is a glorious talent. (“That’s not a software bug, that’s a feature!”) 

Sometimes our lack of life experience makes us ignorant of certain human conditions and our ignorance causes us to judge harshly.

President James E. Faust is remembered to have said, “The older I get, the less judgmental I become.”5

Let’s take an example.  I read about parents getting judged harshly for not “controlling their children.” I don’t have children, but I was the oldest of seven kids.  Because of that, I have a high tolerance for kid chaos, and I’m about 98% approving of parents I see in difficult situations.  But I imagine if I didn’t have the family background I do, I might wonder why parents let their kids get away with ____. 

But I imagine there are probably other things I judge because I don’t have the experience of being in that situation. 

When we see our own imperfections more clearly, we are less inclined to view others “through a glass, darkly.” We want to use the light of the gospel to see others as the Savior does—with compassion, hope, and charity. The day will come when we will have a complete understanding of others’ hearts and will be grateful to have mercy extended to us—just as we extend charitable thoughts and words to others during this life.

I thought this was interesting.  In some talks we are told we need to stop focusing so much on our weaknesses, and think instead about our blessings.  Here, Sister Bingham points out that awareness of our own imperfections causes us to be more compassionate towards others.  I also notice that it keeps me humble and reaching for the Lord. This is the healthy way that awareness of our imperfections can help us and others.

Some years ago, I went canoeing with a group of young women. The deep blue lakes surrounded by green, thickly forested hills and rocky cliffs were breathtakingly beautiful. The water sparkled on our paddles as we dipped them into the clear water, and the sun shone warmly while we moved smoothly across the lake.

However, clouds soon darkened the sky, and a stiff wind began to blow. To make any progress at all, we had to dig deeply into the water, paddling without pausing between strokes. After a few grueling hours of backbreaking work, we finally turned the corner on the large lake and discovered to our amazement and delight that the wind was blowing in the direction we wanted to go.

Quickly, we took advantage of this gift. We pulled out a small tarp and tied two of its corners to paddle handles and the other corners to my husband’s feet, which he stretched out over the gunwales of the canoe. The wind billowed the improvised sail, and we were off!

When the young women in the other canoes saw how we moved along the water with ease, they quickly improvised sails of their own. Our hearts were light with laughter and relief, grateful for the respite from the challenges of the day.

How like that glorious wind can be the sincere compliment of a friend, the cheerful greeting of a parent, the approving nod of a sibling, or the helpful smile of a co-worker or classmate, all supplying fresh “wind in our sails” as we battle the challenges of life! President Thomas S. Monson put it this way: “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails. For maximum happiness, peace, and contentment, may we choose a positive attitude.”7

I gain a bunch of different lessons from the above story and its commentary.

First, there is the obvious lesson that compliments, approval, smiles, and encouragement is like the helpful wind that can supply us with fresh strength in our challenges.  How wonderful that encouragement is when we’re going through a rough patch!  I have noticed that when I am praised, it makes me want to do more of what I was praised for.  (And I also make sure I record those experiences, which is like catching wind in a bottle to re-use it whenever I’m in the doldrums.)

Second, not only are we blessed by that encouraging wind, we can be that wind for others. The more we know about what someone is facing, the more precise and powerful our praise and encouragement can be.

Third, would any one of us want to be the opposing wind, the wind that wears down others’ strength, that pushes them back?  No!

After this story about canoeing, I read her quote of President Monson “We can’t direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails,” and I was confused and thought it was inappropriately placed.  But then I realized that it actually was a very brief way of addressing the situation when we might face opposing winds. 

We don’t have control over what others say or do to us, so it is true we can’t direct that wind, but we do have control over how set our own sails or attitude.  I know just enough about sailing to know that it is possible for a sailboat to make progress against an opposing wind simply by skillfully setting the sails in a certain way.   The course becomes a zig-zag (called ‘tacking’; look it up), but progress can still be made.  Likewise, choosing a positive attitude in the midst of social opposition can help us find and learn from buried truths in others negativity.  It can teach humility and turning to the Lord for approval.

Words have surprising power, both to build up and to tear down. We can all probably remember negative words that brought us low and other words spoken with love that made our spirits soar. Choosing to say only that which is positive about—and to—others lifts and strengthens those around us and helps others follow in the Savior’s way.

Notice that not only is Sister Bingham encouraging us to say positive things to others (to their face), but also about others (when they are not around.)

How does this help others follow in the Savior’s way? I think this is about being a good example. We need models for how to interact with difficult people and how to derail the gossip train.

As a young Primary girl, I worked diligently to cross-stitch a simple saying which read, “I will bring the light of the gospel into my home.” One weekday afternoon as we girls pulled our needles up and down through the fabric, our teacher told us the story of a girl who lived on a hill on one side of a valley. Each late afternoon she noticed on the hill on the opposite side of the valley a house that had shining, golden windows. Her own home was small and somewhat shabby, and the girl dreamed of living in that beautiful house with windows of gold.

One day the girl was given permission to ride her bike across the valley. She eagerly rode until she reached the house with the golden windows that she had admired for so long. But when she dismounted from her bike, she saw that the house was abandoned and dilapidated, with tall weeds in the yard and windows that were plain and dirty. Sadly, the girl turned her face toward home. To her surprise, she saw a house with shining, golden windows on the hill across the valley and soon realized it was her very own home!8

Sometimes, like this young girl, we look at what others might have or be and feel we are less in comparison. We become focused on the Pinterest or Instagram versions of life or caught up in our school’s or workplace’s preoccupation with competition. However, when we take a moment to “count [our] many blessings,”9 we see with a truer perspective and recognize the goodness of God to all of His children.

The story of the girl who was drawn to the gleaming gold windows of the house across the valley is a useful parable. It highlights things we tend to do that prevent us from enjoying and appreciating the blessings and happiness we have in our own circumstances.

Let’s take this story apart and see what lessons we can find in it.

First, I notice the girl was attracted by the golden windows of a house across the valley.  She was attracted by something shiny and sparkly. We are often attracted by the shiny and sparkly parts of other peoples’ lives.  We need to think about whether that gold and sparkle is real or not. Is it lasting?  Are we attracted by how it looks, or is it the reality and how things really are that draw us?  The Pinterest and Instagram versions of people’s lives are just like those golden windows from across the valley. They show the best, the brightest, the brilliant, the exciting, the triumphant, all the best parts of a person’s life. It’s collected, edited, and glorified content. Of course it is going to gleam like gold. Especially from a distance.  (Heck, not only are there going to be golden windows, but there will be rainbows and unicorns grazing in the front yard.)

This teaches us it isn’t smart to compare the foam and cream of other people’s lives to the day-to-day realities of our own. It is an unfair comparison.  No one’s life is foam and cream 100% of the time.  Or, if you want a sports’ analogy, don’t compare other people’s game highlight footage to your raw game. 

A second point about the story gives a bit of a twist to this. The girl in the story discovered that when she visited the house that so attracted her from across the valley, not only were the windows not golden, but they were plain and dirty. And the house was abandoned and neglected.

Someone wants to lure us from our homes with illusions of golden windows. It’s Satan. Satan would like us eat our hearts out for yearning for those golden-windowed houses across the valley.  Even worse, he’d like us to trade our houses for those abandoned, neglected houses that look so shiny from a distance. If he can get us there, where we discover just how paltry the attraction really was, then he will of course torment us with what we left behind.

So, in terms of raw principles, this story teaches us we need to be really careful about making comparisons between ourselves and others. We have a tendency to make comparisons between the wrong things, and to admire features that, if examined closely, might prove illusory.

Let’s play around a little more with this story about the golden windows.  Suppose the girl went across the valley and discovered the house’s windows were indeed golden. Suppose the windows had to be painted with gold paint every week and that left no time or money for anything else. Would she still want to live there?  

Or suppose the house’s golden windows were the only beauty the house’s occupants could muster in their difficult life of disease and weakness?

My husband pointed out that this story spoke to him about the importance of counting our blessings. To his mind, the girl should have looked around her own home to see what was beautiful about her own circumstances. It’s a valid point.  Do we have the strength of mind to count our blessings when the house across the valley flashes golden windows at us?

When I was a teen, I used see interviews of famous people in magazines and I used to envy those people and wish I could someday be that famous. I thought that if someone wrote a magazine article about me, that would mean that I had become a worthwhile person.  Over time, I realized several truths: 1) Magazines always had to be putting out something, so they would interview anyone thought sufficiently interesting. 2) Famous people often have publicists whose job it is to keep them in the pubic eye so they can get attention for some recent music/art/movie/book/charitable cause/performance product and make more money.    To me, magazine interviews were a kind of golden window that turned out to be illusory.  (Thankfully, I didn’t have to become famous to figure this out.) What sort of thing have turned out to be golden windows to you?

Social media isn’t the only environment where we can get golden window syndrome. Sister Bingham also points out we can get caught up in school and work competition too. What do you think are the illusory golden windows in those environments?   What is the reality that we should stay focused on in those situations?

In terms of bringing the light of the gospel into our homes, I think it is important for us to be able to not just detect the illusory golden windows across the valley for ourselves, but also to help our children and others detect them as well.  Advertising in particular is all about flashing golden windows at us.

Whether we are 8 or 108, we can bring the light of the gospel into our own environment, be it a high-rise apartment in Manhattan, a stilt house in Malaysia, or a yurt in Mongolia. We can determine to look for the good in others and in the circumstances around us. Young and not-so-young women everywhere can demonstrate charity as they choose to use words that build confidence and faith in others.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland told of a young man who was the brunt of his peers’ teasing during his school years. Some years later he moved away, joined the military, received an education, and became active in the Church. This period of his life was marked with wonderfully successful experiences.

After several years he returned to his hometown. However, the people refused to acknowledge his growth and improvement. To them, he was still just old “so-and-so,” and they treated him that way. Eventually, this good man faded away to a shadow of his former successful self without being able to use his marvelously developed talents to bless those who derided and rejected him once again.10 What a loss, both for him and the community!

Every time I’ve heard this story, it just makes me feel sick inside. It makes me want to ask the young man why he returned to his hometown at all. Perhaps he hoped to show them how far he had come, but the people refused to see it.  Jesus Himself noted the phenomenon when He observed that a prophet is never accepted in his own country. 

As for the people who refused to acknowledge the young man growth, all they knew of him was what he was like during at most the first 18 years of his life.  And yet, a person isn’t even fully developed as a person when they leave high school. People still have so much life over which to learn and grow. There is no telling what they could become.

Notice that it says the young man “faded away to a shadow of his former successful self without being able to use his marvelously developed talents to bless…”  The young man was prevented from showing what he could do because no one would let him. They wouldn’t give him the chance to even try.

Is there a difference between withholding chances from others because they can’t do it and withholding chances because we don’t think they can do it?  How do we know they can or can’t do something?

So one way we can withhold judgment is by giving people chances to demonstrate their skills and improvement.

I personally am thankful for callings I’ve been given when I knew nothing about it and I was given the opportunity to learn and practice new skills. I’m thankful for those who believed I could do it.  I hope I can give other people those kinds of opportunities as well.

The Apostle Peter taught, “Above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.”11 Fervent charity, meaning “wholehearted,” is demonstrated by forgetting the mistakes and stumblings of another rather than harboring grudges or reminding ourselves and others of imperfections in the past.

Our obligation and privilege is to embrace improvement in everyone as we strive to become more like our Savior, Jesus Christ. What a thrill it is to see light in the eyes of someone who has come to understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ and is making real changes in his or her life! Missionaries who have experienced the joy of seeing a convert enter the waters of baptism and then enter the doors of the temple are witnesses of the blessing of allowing—and encouraging—others to change. Members who welcome converts who might have been considered unlikely candidates for the kingdom find great satisfaction in helping them feel the love of the Lord. The great beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the reality of eternal progression—we are not only allowed to change for the better but also encouraged, and even commanded, to continue in the pursuit of improvement and, ultimately, perfection.

Clearly new converts need our encouragement as they are changing. But in a way, we’re all converts, so we need that too.

If we’re allowed and expected to change, there will be and should be a lot of growing pains. When I try new things when playing the organ, I start making odd mistakes in other parts of my playing because I’m diverting brain-cycles to the new area.  I have also observed in my life that some times I’ve made mistakes at things I’m ordinarily good at because I’m trying to improve another area of my life.  Growth is stressful and it takes a while to get a handle on it. 

President Thomas S. Monson counseled: “In a hundred small ways, all of you wear the mantle of charity. … Rather than being judgmental [or] critical of [one] another, may we have the pure love of Christ for our fellow travelers in this journey through life.

I have to observe at this point that this makes me think of times when I hear someone at church say, “Please bear with me.” That represents a time when they know some might judge or criticize them for the way they are doing things.  It’s a time when we can choose to exercise forbearance and long-suffering instead of judgmental.

May we recognize that each one is doing her [or his] best to deal with the challenges which come [her or his] way, and may we strive to do our best to help out.”12

When people deal with challenges, it is called “coping.” Everybody copes, and some ways are more healthy than others.  But if people cope in unhealthy ways, it is usually because they haven’t learned any better.  And if people are acting out, it may be a sign their coping isn’t working very well and they need help.  Just saying, “You look like you’re having a hard time,” can be validating and a relief.  And offering to help, even better.

Charity, in positive terms, is patient, kind, and content. Charity puts others first, is humble, exercises self-control, looks for good in others, and rejoices when someone does well.13
As sisters (and brothers) in Zion, will we commit to “all work together … to do whatsoever is gentle and human, to cheer and to bless in [the Savior’s] name”?14 Can we, with love and high hopes, look for and embrace the beauties in others, allowing and encouraging progress? Can we rejoice in the accomplishments of others while continuing to work toward our own improvement?

Yes, we can bring the light of the gospel into our homes, schools, and workplaces if we look for and share positive things about others and let the less-than-perfect fade away. What gratitude fills my heart when I think of the repentance that our Savior, Jesus Christ, has made possible for all of us who have inevitably sinned in this imperfect and sometimes difficult world!

So how does looking for and sharing positive things about others bring the light of the gospel into our homes, schools, and workplaces?

I think that when we consider how dark and polarized the world is becoming, our example of positive interactions will do a lot more to attract others to the gospel than it has previously.  People look for light and love, and we want them to find it among us.

I bear my witness that as we follow His perfect example, we can receive the gift of charity, which will bring us great joy in this life and the promised blessing of eternal life with our Father in Heaven. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.


Suggestions for Teaching:

How does Allysa’s first encounter with a peacock illustrate bringing the gospel to our homes by withholding judgment?  In what ways was judgment withheld in this story?

In what way did President Faust consider that his growing older helped him becoming less judgmental? Does aging automatically do this, or is it something in addition?

Bring small pieces of paper and hand out pencils to all class members. In connection with the story of the women using the wind to sail to their destination, encourage your class to think of someone they know of who is having a hard time in life and write a note to that person conveying a sincere, compliment, approval, and encouragement.  Challenge them to send the note when they get home from church.

Ask your class to think of some recent interpersonal opposition they have faced.  Ask them to reflect on what might be useful and helpful from that experience. How can they use that to grow and progress?

When is it appropriate to withhold judgment toward children we’re raising? In what situations have you tried to do this and it has had a good result?

When is it appropriate to withhold judgment versus expressing disapproval?

How many ways of withholding judgment or judging righteously can you find in this talk?