A Thought About Gospel Teaching and Sacrifice

An idea that came up in our ward’s teacher council: to be effective teachers, we must diligently prepare lessons, but we must also be flexible to the needs of our friends during class and must be willing to let go of all that we prepared as the Spirit directs us. We could spend hours preparing a lesson, and only end up using some of it because it becomes clear that a discussion needs to go in a different direction.

And yet, if we do no preparation, no such inspiration is likely to come. A friend remembered a sacrament meeting where a man started his talk by taking the script he’d written, putting it in his pocket, and saying, “Well, I had one talk prepared, but the Spirit is now leading me to say something else entirely,” and the resulting talk was exactly what people needed to hear. I then remembered a time about 20 years ago, where a speaker decided to improvise the entire talk on the fly in order to illustrate the workings of inspiration; he only stumbled and rambled for a few minutes, confusing himself and the congregation, before closing and sitting down.

It’s almost as if the Spirit says, “I will guide you, but only if you put in the work first.”

And that makes me wonder if good teaching is related to the basic law of sacrifice. If we research and draft and prepare good lessons, we have something that we can then give up as needed, so greater blessings can come. If we do no preparation, we have nothing to sacrifice.

Similarly, like the rich young man in the Savior’s parable, we can create materials and then cling to them in spite of what the obvious needs are around us, like a teacher who checks off every item on their lesson no matter what real world needs come up spontaneously in class, which demand that we give up our plan and serve others, if we really want to help.

The classroom, then, is a microcosm of life, and we are all teachers.

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“The little warm concrete faith in my hand”

Two hands on sunsut.

Overwhelmed by all
but underwhelmed by myself.

How do stress and wonder blend so cleanly
inside the same small minutes
every single day?

It’s enough force to crack the soul
like continental plates, grinding like my teeth.

So I go courting the Spirit
trying to make the magic moments
that already are:
the paradox of conscious effort.

But maybe that conflict is good,
to highlight the steady solids by contrast,
because in a corner of this epic drama
I feel the little warm concrete faith in my hand.

Three Old Poems From Las Vegas

I saw this page in a now-defunct alt-weekly sixteen years ago, and fell in love. I don’t often like new poetry, but I really enjoyed all three of these. I tore out the page and put it up in my classroom. It’s followed me from school to school since. Sometimes I’d refer to it, sometimes students asked about it, usually it just sat among the detritus that teachers collect year after year.

Last summer, I came across it while doing some decluttering, and took these pictures of each poem, and here they are, preserved now in Internet amber.

I like these because they each tell a specific yet oddly relatable slice-of-life story, told in vivid language, but not at all flowery. These are unadorned decorations on small moments, as most of my favorite poems are.

I just Googled the titles and authors–none of these poems are available elsewhere online, it seems (indeed, none of them seems to have been collected at all), though the authors all seem to still be writing, with some professional success. That makes me quite happy.

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The Great Books Podcast

Two months ago, National Review magazine launched a weekly podcast called “The Great Books.” My first thought on hearing about this was, “What does a literature podcast from National Review have to offer the world?”

The answer begins with another question: what would the world want from a National Review literature podcast? An appreciation of classics from a socially and politically conservative viewpoint, I suppose.

But that could be the source of its failure as well: when conservative outlets analyze any media or cultural product entirely through the lens of the right wing, it tends to collapse in on itself in an implosion that leaves no trace of itself. Five minutes later, this empty exercise may as well have not even happened. After all, you never hear explicit left wing preaching on NPR–it’s just assumed that that’s the worldview the audience values, and the reports proceed accordingly.

I’m glad to say that the new NR podcast avoids this danger admirably.

I’ve listened to three episodes so far: those for Macbeth, Paradise Lost, and Agamemnon. Each was superb: an expert on each text is interviewed for about half an hour, plot points are discussed in a delicate way that doesn’t try to avoid spoilers but which is far from a SparkNotes summary, and the greatest focus tends to be on timeless themes.

Conservative ideas are never outright given center stage, but are obliquely integrated usefully and organically into the conversation. For example, in the Agamemnon discussion, a parallel is drawn between Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter, and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. The comparisons and contrasts were genuinely enlightening to both texts, and it was just a minor caveat in the larger discussion, as well as an insight I’d never had on my own.

The discussions are never preachy, in any way, but are loving analyses of cherished classics. That’s it. And it works terrifically. They’re often like mini version of the huge lecture courses I like to get from the library, usually on several CDs at a time, where some professor waxes on about the many facts regarding a text. The big difference here is that the podcasts’ conversation format is much more lively–there’s clearly a script of questions, but there are also clearly spontaneous comments and connections from both interviewer and interviewee.

What could anyone want from a literature podcast by National Review? What more could we want?

“The Great Books” podcast is available to hear online and in a variety of apps, in addition to an option to download episodes. My only complaint is that these podcasts aren’t available on YouTube, which would be even more convenient for me. Maybe it’s because there’s no video component, but still.

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Two Examples of Cultural Whitewashing In Recent Movies

hfNot long ago, I saw this essay pointing out a huge hole in the otherwise excellent Jackie Robinson biopic 42: the total absence of his faith, which was ubiquitous in his real life.

Such changes to how we tell stories about history say more about our time than they do about times in the past.

Two small examples I noticed in movies I’ve recently seen:

Hidden Figures was a fantastic movie. I loved everything about it. Except one tiny detail kept nagging at me.

Not a single person is ever seen smoking.

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Beautiful Biblical Writing

I recently read 2 Kings 8, where a sick king sends a servant (who is secretly plotting to kill the king) to the prophet Elisha to see if he’ll recover, and Elisha tells the jealous servant that illness isn’t the enemy the king really needs to worry about. In verse 11, Elisha stares down the servant with classically stoic Old Testament severity, and the scheming servant breaks down under his guilty conscience, but then Elisha likewise breaks down, weeping over the corruption of humanity.

This sweeping drama reaches its climax in that single, short, simple verse: “And he settled his countenance steadfastly, until he was ashamed: and the man of God wept.”

I’m impressed by all that goes on there–first, the three major emotional peaks: the prophet’s cold scolding, the servant’s shame, and the prophet’s apparent 180 of attitude from scolding to open sadness about the violent weakness of human nature.

But I was also floored by the sparseness of the prose. It echoes with an empty disregard for decoration, sending out its story with the plain directness of folk art. It’s the kind of style that is actually so often affected in modern times by writers trying to look wise or macho. This tiny sentence perfectly illustrates the way that, for example, Hemingway would punch out prose with a lack of clarity for who’s speaking.

I underlined 2 Kings 8:11, not because it’s profoundly doctrinal or because it provides direction for discipleship or because it’s a useful proof text or for any other such reason. I just underlined it because it’s beautiful.

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The Puppy School

In the animal kingdom, the dogs decided to start a school to help the puppies learn to play fetch. All kinds of dogs were teacher dogs, but only the Big Dogs were in charge.

Often, the puppies didn’t do a very good job at playing fetch. Some puppies would only chew on their sticks instead of fetching them, some puppies kept peeing on everything, and some puppies even bit the teacher dogs.

The Big Dogs were worried, because they didn’t want to look bad in front of all the other animals. They knew they had to Do Something.

But they didn’t really know how to solve the puppies’ problems, so they just made the teacher dogs chase their tails.

The teacher dogs did what they were told. See, back when the teacher dogs had been puppies, they had been very well trained. That’s part of why they became teacher dogs themselves.

The Big Dogs even made the teacher dogs write reports on their tail chasing, and the teachers did that, too. The teacher dogs carefully measured and documented their tail chasing.

But somehow all that tail chasing didn’t help the puppies learn to fetch.

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Hiking At Gold Strike Hot Springs

My oldest son took me hiking a couple of weeks ago during his leave after graduating from Marine boot camp. I can’t believe this awesome hike existed around here and I never even knew it was there!

It’s a narrow trail that winds down a desert canyon outside of Boulder City, not far from Hoover Dam. There are frequent big drops along boulders that must be carefully scaled–many have ropes in place to help hikers safely navigate the rocky dips that are too far to jump.

But it’s absolutely worth it. The hike itself is a worthy challenge for experienced and agile hikers, the hot springs along the way are impressive, and the end of the trail–at the edge of the Colorado river–is flat out gorgeous.

We began in the early morning darkness, and the trail was empty–we didn’t see anybody until we started back to the start. It was a fantastic way to spend a morning.

Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

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Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

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40 For 40

In less than three weeks, I’ll turn 40. While many people dread that milestone, I’m looking forward to it! And I want to do something special to celebrate this coming year.

Since my late 20’s, I’ve kept a bucket list and a list of things that bring me joy. After more than a decade, I only regret that I spend so little time engaged with the things on either. With that in mind, I made a combined and condensed list of goals for growth and fun. I’m going to do these 40 things during the year of November 2, 2017-November 1, 2018. You may notice that each goal has something in common.

  1. Read the Book of Mormon cover to cover every 40 days
  2. Do some family history or temple work 40 times
  3. Read 40 articles about the Bible
  4. Talk to 40 people about the Book of Mormon
  5. Study 40 General Conference talks
  6. Make 40 positive contacts with students’ parents
  7. Track my meals and nutrition for 40 straight days
  8. No soda for 40 straight days
  9. No fast food for 40 straight days
  10. No sugary treats for 40 straight days
  11. No social media for 40 straight days
  12. No Netflix for 40 straight days
  13. Don’t buy anything unnecessary for 40 straight days
  14. Drink 40 oz. of water a day for 40 straight days
  15. Run ten miles 40 different times
  16. Do sit ups for 40 straight days
  17. Do 40 pushups in a set
  18. Take 40 relaxing baths
  19. Ride my bike to work 40 times
  20. Learn 40 new Portuguese words each month
  21. Sketch 40 new drawings
  22. Study 40 paintings
  23. Read 40 great books
  24. Listen to 40 new symphonies
  25. Listen to 40 new jazz and blues classics
  26. Listen to 40 great albums from my teenage years
  27. Learn 40 new chess moves
  28. Eat at 40 new places
  29. Do 40 acts of service
  30. Watch 40 classic Simpsons episodes
  31. Watch 40 episodes of The Twilight Zone
  32. Read Calvin & Hobbes comics every day for 40 days
  33. Pray every morning for 40 straight days
  34. Pray every evening for 40 straight days
  35. Give my wife 40 back rubs
  36. Watch 40 classic films with my children
  37. Do 40 fun activities with my children
  38. Don’t say anything negative about anyone for 40 straight days
  39. Write 40 poems
  40. Write in my journal 40 times

Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

General Conference and Choosing the Bigger Life

Late last year, I was preparing for 2017’s New Year’s resolutions. As I surveyed where I was and where I wanted to be, I knew that I wanted to simply get more out of life. I was already happy and satisfied, but I just wanted even more: more happiness, more goals reached, more great experiences, more memories, more health, more spiritual feeling, more deep and rich living with all the wonderful people around me. I decided to approach the new year with a private new motto: “Choose the bigger life.”

This means that whenever I had any choice or opportunity–even in mundane daily activities–I would do whatever would lead to those things, no matter if it took time or energy I didn’t have or want to give. That would lead to the bigger life. And I’ve tried to center my life in the Church more than ever because, more than anything else, that vehicle leads to all of the things I want–it’s our Heavenly Father’s gift to us for realizing the abundant life.

This isn’t the kind of resolution that one keeps “starting right NOW.” It’s a process, and like all such processes, your vision of it grows as you practice. I’ve done a lot more with life this year, but I also realize just how much farther I can and will go.

Nearly twenty years ago, I was sitting in the celestial room of the temple. I didn’t have any particular question or issue on my mind; I was just thinking about my life. In one of the clearest spiritual manifestations I’ve ever had, a concrete idea came into my mind, in a character different from my usual internal monologue. It wasn’t a voice, distinctly, just an outside feeling coming in, and it used a phrase that was pretty common at the time. “It’s time to kick it up a notch,” the thought said. I knew what it meant and have tried to live up to it.

As with this year’s new motto, it’s been a gradual process of fits and starts. Still, it’s made a difference. I really have had a bigger life this year.

What does any of this have to do with General Conference? After all of these talks, I really want to recommit and do even better and even more. I’ve been feeling very tired, stressed, and run down lately. But not now. Now I’m excited, and I want to crystalize that motivation and direct it to the most important things. I want to choose the even bigger life.

Going forward into the final third of 2017, I still have the motto from that resolution in mind. The teachings and stories of General Conference have added fuel to that fire. Looking back on the finished life of Elder Hales, the winding down life of President Monson, and the examples from the life of President Nelson shared by himself and by Elder Andersen have all shown me anew the way to live exactly the kind of passionate, productive life that leads to the biggest life of all, eternal life.

Let’s do this thing.