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Cover image via LDS.org.
Mom required my siblings and me to weed the flower bed for thirty minutes every weekday morning through summer. Neither my siblings nor I knew much about flowers and weeds. We didn’t understand the importance of removing the roots of weeds. And we didn’t really care about flowers. We didn’t have a vision of what we were trying to accomplish. We were just putting in time. So we pulled up miscellaneous plants. We taunted each other. We dawdled. And we watched the clock for the end of our servitude.
You might say that we weeded daily. But the yard looked no better after we were done. And we thought of yard work as bothersome. To us it was merely a dreaded chore.
Sometimes our spiritual practices suffer from the same spirit of forced labor. We march through prayer, scripture study, Sabbath worship, and family home evening as tired routines we are directed to complete. Some days we might just go through the motions. Other days we might view them as unwelcome intrusions on our busy lives, approaching them with reluctance and resentment. Some practices, like journal keeping, we don’t even attempt.
Sometimes sacred practices do not have the desired power because they are done without spiritual purpose or without sensitivity to the specific needs of the family. They are dead forms. A passage of scripture comes to mind: “for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Simply plowing through the recommended practices without infusing them with spiritual purpose and customized form will not bring us joy or spiritual progress. Nor will that help us obtain a fuller conversion or a higher level of discipleship.
Let’s consider some ways to bring life and joy to some of our spiritual practices.
Family Scripture Study
Often family scripture study feels like a forced march. No forethought is invested in planning the topic or the delivery.
When our children were young, we wanted them to feel engaged by scripture stories. I remember when we were studying the Old Testament and we chose to use an illustrated set of Bible stories rather than simply read the Old Testament text.
Nancy and I would take turns preparing a story. When we gathered before breakfast, one of us told the story to the children, shared the pictures, and invited them to imagine themselves in the story. For quite some time we told stories of Moses.
I remember telling of Moses’ departure leaving the children of Israel never to be seen by them again in mortality. We asked how the people might have felt to lose their leader, friend, and father. Then we started breakfast. I noticed that our son Andy wasn’t eating. When I looked more closely, I discovered that he was quietly weeping. I asked him what was wrong. He sobbed: “I’m going to miss Moses.”
By investing extra energy in making scripture stories come alive for our children, we had made Moses our children’s friend. I realized that we could bring anyone in the rich history of the scriptures to our breakfast table if we invest the scripture-reading ritual with real meaning and feeling.
Even with older children, as we read directly from the scriptures, we can engage them in a meaningful discussion that brings the characters to life and helps them see the application in their own lives.
Of course we will not do this well if we are not excited about the scriptures and the discoveries we ourselves are making through the scriptures. Each of us can customize our personal program of study to energize our experience.
Family Home Evening
Family Home Evening is a famous forum for family frustration. Many parents approach FHE as simply an obligatory weekly event, rather than an opportunity with great purpose. As a result, we may not put a great deal of preparation into the gatherings. We struggle to make them engaging for the children. Smaller children become bored and restless. Older children become uninterested and balk at being required to participate. Or contention breaks out. Parents give up and cut the proceedings short.
I have a dear friend who approaches FHE quite differently. He notices what is happening in the lives of family members. Then when they gather for FHE, he holds discussions about principles that relate to their current challenges (without putting any family members on the spot by singling them out as experiencing the challenge). He invites their ideas about how to apply the gospel to their challenges. It feels like he is seeking the best thinking of every family member to support and uplift each other. It makes a difference in their Family Home Evenings. Everyone looks forward to being together and learning.
Of course the best FHE’s will be led by parents who are sensitive to their children’s needs AND who have loving, growing relationships with God. We can bring our own joy and discoveries to our family gatherings so that we lead our children towards a closer connection with divinity.
As Susan Ertz observed: “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” Do we see the Sabbath as three long hours of sitting through meetings followed by observing a list of “don’ts”? Do we view it as a day wasted since we don’t have to work but we can’t (in good conscience) go golfing?
Or do we view it in terms of renewal, refreshment, and recommitment that prepare us for a new week?
Our attitude toward the Sabbath as much as anything may tell us about our spiritual maturity. Do we relish the opportunity to have a weekly conversation with Jesus during the sacrament? Do we savor sacred music? Do we look for God to speak to us through the talks, testimonies, and lessons? Are we warmed by seeing people we love? Do we cherish time with family? Do we anticipate chances to visit people in need, write old friends, or work on our family story?
A Sabbath filled with purposeful service and connection is a joy. For those who don’t experience that excitement, God makes the invitation to ask Him; He will point us to blessed opportunities for service and joy.
There is another part of Sabbath worship that has become very sacred to our family: sharing our best experiences.
Years ago we learned a lesson that has changed our family. While eating dinner after church, I noticed that our teen daughter Emily was unusually sober. I asked her what was wrong. She haltingly asked: “Today in church we stood and sang ‘I Know that My Redeemer Lives.’ I felt so overwhelmed that I started to cry. Dad, what is wrong with me?”
Wow. I realized that I had not taught Emily to recognize the manifestations of the Spirit. I told her that the Spirit often fills us up and we feel unusual sensations including being overwhelmed with joy. Our poor mortal bodies aren’t quite suited for the divine and sometimes we weep. We reassured Emily that her feeling was cause for rejoicing. God was speaking to her.
That day we began a practice that continues to the present day. Every Sunday at dinner we invite every family member to share their best experience of the day. It might be the singing of a beloved Primary song. Or it could be a fresh insight during a talk or lesson. Or it could be a flood of joy during the sacrament or a hymn. Or it could be simply seeing a beloved fellow saint. God touches and lifts us in unnumbered ways. By sharing our Sabbath joys, we are all thanking God for His unfailing goodness—and we are tuning in to each other’s hearts and joys. This has become a sacred ritual in our family. It has changed our worship and our Sabbaths.
Family prayer is commonly approached as a tiresome obligation. Imagine instead that, after gathering the family, father or mother ask family members about blessings for which they are grateful and concerns they have for themselves or others. Imagine that our family prayers were then filled with gratitude and requests specific and personal to our family. It would change the content of and our attitudes toward family prayer. And it would connect family members with each other’s concerns and joys at the beginning and ending of each day.
There are many reasons we might dread various forms of service—including home and visiting teaching. One reason is simply logistical: We don’t get around to it.
Deirdre Sullivan offers a thoughtful perspective: “My father taught me that… I have to do the right thing when I really don’t feel like it…. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other [person]… In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”
Another reason is that we sometimes feel inadequate—not sure what we should do or how we can help.
A friend described sitting in a ward council meeting discussing a sister who had recently stopped coming to church. Council members wondered why she had stopped attending and what might be done to encourage her return. A number of ideas were suggested yet everyone was unsure how to help. So they didn’t arrive at any decision about how to reach out to her. Even though she had no direct stewardship over the less active sister, my friend left that meeting and immediately drove over to the less active sister’s home. When the door opened, my friend told her, “We miss you. We are less without you.” And the less active sister returned with her to church that same morning.
Sometimes we don’t need to know the perfect thing to do or say. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is to express love, be willing to listen, and be supportive.
Another reason we might neglect service is the perception that it takes time away from our family. But we can spend meaningful time together serving as a family.
A woman I know has a passion for service and wants to instill dedication to service in her children. She researched service projects within her community that she and her children could participate in together. They began taking part in community service projects at least once each month. Then she began inviting other families within her ward to join them. Several families began serving together. Sometimes they have a group Family Home Evening together performing service. The children have fun working alongside their parents and others in the ward. They are excited to contribute. And everyone experiences the joy that comes from serving others.
Recording the Joy
Most of us have attempted to keep journals. And most of us have not lasted more than a few days. Maybe only one day before giving up. Many of us don’t see the purpose of writing about each day. What is there about our ordinary daily experiences that is worth recording? And it is likely that some of us don’t feel we write particularly well.
I think we may have gone about record keeping all wrong. Instead of writing a narrative each day, maybe we should simply list some of the blessings of each day. As we make the simple list, we will start to see the hand of God. President Eyring gave this counsel:
I wrote down a few lines every day for years. I never missed a day no matter how tired I was or how early I would have to start the next day. Before I would write, I would ponder this question: “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?” As I kept at it, something began to happen. As I would cast my mind over the day, I would see evidence of what God had done for one of us that I had not recognized in the busy moments of the day. As that happened, and it happened often, I realized that trying to remember had allowed God to show me what He had done. (Oct. 2007 General Conference)
President Eyring is describing something different from the common idea of a journal. It sounds closer to today’s recommendation from the field of psychology: Record two or things that went well every single day. It will make a significant and enduring difference in your well-being. (See Seligman, Authentic Happiness, 2002)
A core purpose of record keeping is to help us be more mindful of God’s daily gifts to us. We don’t need to write a chapter of scripture every day but we will be lifted with gratitude and joy if we note God’s participation in our lives.
Making the Practices Powerful
These are only a few ways to infuse our common practices with meaning and purpose. There are many other ways that can turn what might be perceived as dreary duties into joyous encounters with the divine.
Today I gladly join Nancy in our garden. Because I now understand the purpose, I embrace the opportunity to rid our flower beds of weeds and plant trees. And I am rewarded by seeing a beautiful yard begin to flourish.
It is our choice whether we view the recommended spiritual practices as obligations drenched in drudgery or embrace them with purposeful joy. We can adapt our approach to these practices infusing them with greater personal meaning. And we will be rewarded by seeing our connection with Heavenly Father flourish.
Joy is not the distant reward for a life of suffering. It is the sure marker of God’s presence in our lives today. Our hearts burn within us as we walk the dusty roads of life—if we recognize Jesus as our traveling companion.
Maybe that is the key: Making Jesus our companion. When our love for Him and His remarkable love for us are energized in our lives, we naturally find joy in opportunities to approach Him, to serve Him, and to teach about Him.
Reflect on your religious rituals. How can each be infused with greater personal meaning, greater sensitivity to the needs of family members, greater joy in His goodness, and more purposeful rejoicing?
Thanks to Barbara Keil for helpful edits and excellent examples.
Friends, may I ask a favor? Recently I shared a link to my new children’s book, God’s Trophies. It features a wonderfully illustrated, joyful story that helps children to learn about gratitude for all of God’s creations and teaches them that they are each God’s most beloved creation. (The book would make an excellent Christmas gift idea for any special children in your life!) If you decide to purchase this book, would you be willing to post a review of the book on Amazon? I would greatly appreciate it! And, if you think your friends might be interested in the book, perhaps you would share the Amazon link with them.