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A Spiritual Litmus Test

By Linda Hoffman Kimball

Adorable “snack cakes” from Hungry Happenings

“Most people don’t come to church looking merely for a few new gospel facts or to see old friends, though all of that is important. They come seeking a spiritual experience. They want peace. They want their faith fortified and their hope renewed. They want, in short, to be nourished by the good word of God, to be strengthened by the powers of heaven.” Jeffrey R. Holland, April 1998 General Conference, A Teacher Come from God.

I wish there were a litmus test – or one of those fancy chemical sprays used in CSI – that could determine when the Spirit is really present in our meetings.

It’s such a delicate balance. Last Sunday’s Lorenzo Snow Relief Society lesson included passages reminding us that we have to bring the Spirit with us to our sacrament meetings. One reading of this could be, “Bored in a meeting? It’s your own fault.” Another take could be “Search for the pearls of wisdom, regardless of the grammar, unstructured rambling, and limited preparation of the speakers who aren’t professional orators after all.” Or less cynically, “You get out what you put in.”

At the same time, Elder Holland reminds us:
“Are we really nurturing our[selves] and our new members in a way that will sustain them when the stresses of life appear? Or are we giving them a kind of theological Twinkie—spiritually empty calories? President John Taylor once called such teaching ‘fried froth,’ the kind of thing you could eat all day and yet finish feeling totally unsatisfied.” (Holland, A Teacher Come from God)

Recently in our ward a very young newly married couple spoke. Most of the congregation (but not us) knew the man and were excited to hear from the new bride. Eloquence wasn’t a strong suit for either of them, but candor and enthusiasm were. After the meeting, our visiting family members who had been chasing a toddler through the halls during the meeting, commented that they “didn’t get much out of those talks.” (Honestly, how much can struggling parents of frisky or fussy toddlers expect to get out of our sacrament meetings?)

My response was something on this order, “Mormon sacrament meetings provide an energetic work out every Sunday for all those qualities we want to develop – empathy, forgiveness, compassion, tolerance, forbearance….” That’s my personal interpretation of President Snow’s council to come for the meaning and not a dog and pony show (my words, not his).

I myself like a little dog and a little pony. I’m not talking incense or fancy head adornments. Music sung or performed especially well is a delight. Well-prepared talks without guilt-mongering, that include scriptures and gender-blind examples of goodness inspire me. Maybe an occasional brass instrument. These things lift me up. Is that too much to ask?

The blessing, passing and taking of the sacrament is in a class all its own and will be as sacred and meaningful as I am willing and able to make it.

When my husband was a bishop, a graphic designer ward member (Rick Rawlins) worked with him to design a ward bulletin that immediately set a spiritual tone. Rick designed a simple graphic – a sun-like symbol that looked a lot like the window at the front of the chapel – on the front page. On the inside was a selected scripture on the left and a spare outline of the day’s meeting with the words to the sacrament prayers printed and commanding the most significant visual (and theological) space right in the center. It was an offering and moved and reminded me every week of why we were meeting.

On Easter one year each bulletin had in it a handmade bookmark with the cover’s simple graphic printed on an actual square of “balm of Gilead,” a wood sliced thin as paper, and trailing an iridescent ribbon. It was an alleluia in tangible form.

Word got back to us that one ward member was concerned about the programs because they didn’t look “Mormon” enough. Good grief.

President Kimball, giving yin to President Snow’s yang, had this request:

“Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. … I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or a meeting, and … then return home having been largely [uninspired]. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time … of stress, temptation, or crisis [in their life]. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous work to get members to come to Church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.” (from Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], p. 524)

How do you walk this balance? What have you done yourself or seen done in your ward (or others’) to enhance the Sunday worship experience?

About Linda Hoffman Kimball

Linda Hoffman Kimball is an artist, writer, photographer, and poet who grew up as a faithful Christian near Chicago, & joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1971 while at Wellesley College near Boston. Early on she assumed that all Latter-day Saints were articulate, inquisitive, faithful, and socially engaged since her role models in the University wards in Cambridge, MA., were. Her husband says she is “fluent, but not native” in Mormon-ese. She is a founding member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.

14 thoughts on “A Spiritual Litmus Test”

  1. I'm still knee-deep in the toddler phase of my life, although I do have 2 kids over the age of eight, so there is hope in sight! Something I've found beneficial is limiting the "stuff" that we bring to Sacrament meeting. I used to take along a ton of activities, snacks and "quiet" toys in order to survive the hour. (one hour! it's not *that* long…)

    Now that the kids get blank paper, Friend magazines, and those scripture readers, our Sacrament meeting experience is much more peaceful and the older ones actually listen to what's being said from time to time! They still complain of boredom, but I expect more of them than I used to and they generally rise to the occasion.

    All of this helps me to focus during Sacrament meeting and actually feel the Spirit from time to time.

    In the end, for me, it's all about my attitude and preparation. If I come to church expecting to be fed Spiritually and learn, I will. It may be a single moment, or it may be that that every meeting feels tailor made for me; it all depends on my needs and desires, really.

  2. I love this post! I have a friend who faithfully reads scriptures about patience during testimony meeting – it is the only way she makes it through.

    I agree that we should beef up our teaching and I am with you in admiration of a little pony and brass.

    Perhaps if speakers and teachers were reminded of the importance of the phrase, "I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ…," it would make a difference. If you are standing in for Christ, really thinking of what you would say in his name, would your talk/lesson be the same?

  3. When I was in the music program at BYU, one of my professors, who had been a bishop, told us how he did things in his ward with regards to music. He had themes for the meetings worked out about six months in advance. He then gave those themes to the organist, choir director, and music director and insisted that they select hymns that went along with the themes. They were given plenty of time to prepare and practice. He also required the organist to submit the titles of the pieces s/he would be playing for prelude music so that those titles could be printed in the bulletin. I thought that was brilliant! No more flipping through the hymnbook on Sunday morning playing whatever… It also helped the congregation to focus on the prelude music–they could open their hymnals to the particular hymn being used and follow along with the words.

    I think that the music is mostly where it's at for me, and most of the time the music in our ward is very uninspiring. I want to hear well-prepared musical selections that integrate with the theme of the meeting. I think that the organist and music director can have such an impact on the singing experience of the congregation by careful selection of the hymns, good preparation, and the two of them having a good working relationship. But it absolutely starts with an aware and commited bishopric. We have a wonderful bishopric in many ways, but they really do not have a vision of what could be happening with the music, of what is possible.

  4. I feel the spirit most readily through the hymns….especially the ones that are also sung in General Conference….in other words, the well loved ones. There is a reason some of the hymns are not popular and well known. They all have a place in our hymn books for a reason, but not necessarily to be sung in Sacrament Meeting.

    On another note, I've never noticed that quote by Pres Kimball. I like that!

  5. eljee, sounds like you had Dr. Bush, too? 🙂

    I love the gamut of Sunday experiences, but not all of them feed my soul. What feeds my soul is similar: beautiful music, beautiful words without guilt involved, people sharing their inner struggles and how they've found peace or not. I appreciate heartfelt searching questions and answers. I don't appreciate political statements. Our ward does a really good job overall.

  6. Kerri, yep, Dr. Bush. (P.S. I've checked out your blog–you and I were at BYU at the same time.)

    Grandma Honey, it's interesting how we're all so different. I get bored out of my skull singing the same hymns all the time. We never sing my favorites because they're the ones few people know.

  7. My real name is Lisa. I was good friends with Laurisa, and we were roommates for awhile. I was an organ major. Got my bachelor's in '95 and my master's in '98.

  8. I think about this all the time. I teach GD and have for a few years and although I love preparing and love teaching it, I'm fully aware that I'm one kind of voice and one kind of teacher and it may not be what some people need. Add to that all my own failings: I once walked right out of my slip in front of the class, last month I taught with a migraine and could barely open my eyes or move, and last Sunday I had to grip the podium all through because I, suddenly and out of the blue, began having anxiety attacks over the weekend. I'm quite sure that if my arm suddenly fell off in class they wouldn't be surprised. But they are kind and we soldier on, and I go home and pour out my soul to the Lord asking for there to have been something someone needed. It's a weekly test to try to share something worthwhile for them. Thank the Lord in heaven that I love them fiercely and they seem to love me just as fiercely in return, and it must work.

  9. Can I give a strongly felt but quiet, "amen." I would hate to hurt the feelings of someone who prepared with the best of intentions and still missed the mark, but I've had desperate Sundays where I left empty. Recently a woman encouraged us from the pulpit to "obey until you can't anymore." The point being that we can always obey. My point, we can't, that's why we need Christ. There was a RS lesson on Joseph Smith that consisted of teacher showing us a picture book and apologizing that she wasn't good with doctrine. Yet a recent convert friend taught RS last month and did a great job. It doesn't have to be complicated or eloquent – talk about the truth, care about your class (involve them), and do everything possible to invite the spirit. And the no guilt thing. Guilt is too powerful for anyone but God to use to urge us to repentance.

  10. I also had a class from Dr. Bush, lived in his ward, and was even called as an organist in his ward (no pressure). While I personally agree with his views as they were expressed above, I feel that bar was likely set beyond the reach of any leader who was untrained musically.

    I think it falls just as much on the ward music chairman's shoulders as on those of the bishopric. A tenacious WMC would go a long way toward helping the bishopric get music where it should be in Sacrament Meeting. Planning out Sacrament Meetings that far in advance is a time-intensive undertaking at many levels.

  11. I do very much agree with you on that one, Matt. (About Dr. Bush's bar being too high for most people.) I also agree that a great ward music chairman can do so much… but they can't go beyond the bounds set by the bishopric. Therefore, it is so nice when the bishopric has the vision first. I've seen good things derailed if not outright outlawed by bishoprics who didn't understand why they might be important or helpful.

  12. I would love to see the church program designed by the graphic designer. If you have a digital copy, could you email it to me? benandpaulaatgmaildotcom

  13. Matt and Lisa (hi! It's so fun to reconnect! I see Laurisa a few times a year and still adore her!), I wouldn't do well with that kind of pressure, but it would help me improve, I'm sure.

    There is a happy medium between no planning and the kind of planning that creates anxiety. I find that when I teach, I'm happiest with the results when I plan fairly well and have been prayerful enough about the topic that I feel like the Spirit participates in the lesson. Not enough preparation and the Spirit has a harder time working through me, and I've seen examples of having every word planned in a lesson so that there is no flexibility for the class to move in the direction that the Spirit dictates. In fact, I have had more success erring on the side of less preparation, but that may be the procrastinator in me.


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