Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Dipping Your Toes into Family History Work

We should all be doing our family history and temple work, right?

The thought makes many of us choke—isn’t the process convoluted, intimidating, and complicated?

Not anymore!

A decade ago, the process of completing one name, from doing the research to clearing a name with Temple Ready to doing the ordinance work, to confirming the final recording, took two dozen (or so) steps, depending on how you counted them. Completing those steps included several trips to family-history centers, file conversions between programs like PAF and Gedcom, and a lot more.

One problem with the old system was that patrons had to check Temple Ready CDs to see if temple work had already been done. Duplication became a huge problem because the CDs were updated only every few years, so people were regularly duplicating work that had been done since the last edition of CDs.

The face of family history and temple work has—and continues to—change. Thanks to the Internet and the new Family Search (, you can do family history work at home. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection, and a printer.

To start, register at If you already have an LDS account, use that to log in. If you don’t, you’ll be prompted to create one with your membership record number and confirmation date (you can get those from your ward clerk). Choose a username and password. You'll use the same ID and password on all Church sites.

One logged in, search for ancestors you know. You can’t see information about anyone living—parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. So to view your full tree, you’ll need to create placeholders, faux records of relatives who are still living that you'll then connect to dead relatives. This allows you to view your full family tree.

To do so, log in and go to the "Me and My Ancestors" page. With your name in the primary position on a pedigree (it'll be colored beige), you can add individual names, such as a parent. Follow the steps to search for an actual deceased ancestor the person you added is related to and create a relationship there. For example, create a placeholder for your living mother and then connect her as a daughter to her real, deceased, mother. Create as many placeholders as necessary to allow you to see your full tree.

Rest assured that placeholders only show up on your view; you are not altering information on the main site. Once you’ve created placeholders, your family tree will shoot backwards for generations, and you can get to work. This process is called bridging the "living horizon."

Now that you can see your pedigree, you'll see a variety of icons next to names. Using them, you can tell if temple work has been completed (a green check), has work to be done (a yellow arrow), or if there are possible issues (a yield sign with an exclamation mark).

But beware: even with the check mark, don’t assume all is well. Go through each name and line to verify all the information. You might find mistakes and additional work.

The new, user-friendly site will help you. For example, if you find a “duplicate spouses” icon, choose the names to look at, and you’ll get a side-by-side comparison. Any information that's the same between the spouses lights up on both sides of the split screen when you hover over it, such as identical birth or marriage dates. If there is enough to clearly show that these two spouse records are actually the same individual, you can combine the two records.

Do take caution when combining—or splitting—records. That does affect the site itself, not just on your view, although it can be undone later. Before taking such action, be sure the people listed really are (or are not) the same person.

A common duplication error you may find is when a second record is only a temple ordinance record rather than a birth certificate or other event. The temple record will have no other dates, locations, or any other identifying information. If it’s just an ordinance record, chances are pretty good that the work was done for the person whose real record you’re comparing it with, and you can combine them.

In other cases, you’ll need to play detective. For example, in my line, we found two women with the same name who married the same man. Based on birthdates, they appeared to be mother and daughter, which was possible; a woman with a child could have remarried, and after her death, her daughter from a previous marriage perhaps then married her former step-father.

But that wasn't the case. Significant digging—looking at maps, other dates, and other records—unearthed a mistake: on one record, a date was recorded incorrectly. Turns out the two were actually one woman; someone had simply mis-recorded her marriage date as her birth date.

“Cleaning up” your tree this way is your job. Discover who is missing, whose work has yet to be done, whose work has been done multiple times, who is listed several times as different people.
When resolving duplicates, use any information you’ve encountered and add it using the notes feature, giving as many details as you have (census, land, or court records; birth certificates; etc). The more detailed your records, the better—and the more useful for other researchers. Include your e-mail address in your profile so others can contact you.

The new Family Search has so many exciting things happening, and resolving duplicates is just the tip. Dive in and click around; the interface is surprisingly user-friendly. Experiment with the different views, like moving your great-grandmother to the primary position to see her tree, how to reserve names for temple work, and how to print off the PDF with the names for the temple.

The most amazing part is that the temple-ready process has been simplified from several dozen steps to just a handful: a few computer clicks, printing out a paper, and taking it to the temple to get the cards. By the time you get home, there’s a good chance the work you just performed will already be recorded online.

The old site, (without the "new") is undergoing a face lift, and will be merged with the new site in the future. In the meantime, the old site is still a great resource for finding records, such as books in the Family History Library in Salt Lake, city records, and much more.

The Church’s family history student manual tells us that doing this work is both our “privilege and responsibility” (p 2). It can be overwhelming, so start with a few small steps: get your toes wet by familiarizing yourself with the website. Next thing you know, you’ll be discovering your roots and having blessing pouring in from the other side of the veil.

21st Century Literacy: Why Kids Gotta Read

I've had a lot of people ask how I managed to get my kids to be good readers. My experience won't be the same as any other parent's, because every child is different. Each of my four children had a different path toward reading, and we lucked out in that we don't have anyone with dyslexia or similar learning challenge. (Not that we didn't have our challenges, but that's a topic for another time.)

Before sharing parts of our family's literacy journey, I want to establish why reading is so important to begin with, why I did a jig in the hall the first time I caught my son sneaking a book under his covers past bedtime.

I'm an avid reader, so of course as soon as I became a mom, I wanted to pass along my love of books to my children. That desire increased as I studied literacy statistics and learned just how important those skills arefar more important than they were even one generation ago.

Back then, the majority of jobs didn't even require a high school diploma and many jobs required little, if any, skills related to reading and writing. (Common sense, a solid work ethic, and a bit of brawn did the trick.)

In the 1950s, 60% of jobs were unskilled labor.* Today, unskilled labor accounts for only 20% of jobs. But there's a caveat: today, even blue-collar jobs require some level of literacy, and when the workers don't have it, entire industries suffer.

In a survey of the National Association of Manufacturers, 40% said they couldn't implement productivity improvements because their work force didn't have the reading, math, or communication skills the upgrades would require.

The modern world requires that we know how to read and write. Those aren't just a nice skills to have; they're vital for success. Consider that just about every job requires some kind of written communication, whether it's e-mail, reading a memo taped to a wall, or (more likely) something far more involved.

I have several friends (and this includes my husband) who, at times, do more writing at work than their job description implies. This includes stuff like writing reports, proposals, memos, team messages, e-mails (to superiors as well as team members), preparing presentations, and more. Two of my friends who are lawyers spend 12-hour work days, yep, writing.

(Side note: one of those lawyers is such a good writer that he's now the go-to guy at his firm for writing briefs and reports. Pain in the neck on the one hand, but it also means his mortgage will be paid off just before his 40th birthday.)

Aside from benefits like getting, oh, a job, literacy has huge effects on individuals and society.

It's not a surprise that children of mothers with poor literacy skills are likely to have poor literacy skills themselves. We know that parental involvement is big for students.

What we don't always realize is that when such support is lacking at home, it leads to a vicious cycle of poverty: an illiterate teen, possibly living in poverty herself, gets involved in drugs and other risky behavior, drops out of school, has a teen pregnancy, raises the child in poverty . . .

And the cycle continues with the next generation.

But get this: literacy skills even affect things like children's health. Studies have shown that kids with illiterate mothers tend to have poor nutrition, don't get to the doctor when they need to, and don't always get the care they need when they are at the doctor (hard to know what to ask when you don't understand basic health issues). These same children are less likely to ride in car seats or even have smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in the home.

At first some of that didn't make sense to me, until I realized that literacy has fingers in just about every pie of life. How did I learn about toddler nutrition, when to take my kidlets to the doctor, or how to install a car seat?

Oh, yeah. I read about those things. Even knowing what questions to ask of a doctor or pharmacist (or even being able to read a medicine label) is something those with poor literacy skills can't do.

A lot of problems go away when the mother in the home is educated: kids' grades go up, their chances for at-risk behavior drops, their health improves, and more.

Yes, I'm aiming this at moms, because we really do have so much power. (No pressure, right? Oy.) This means that yes, educating a woman is critical, even if she's "just" going to be a stay-at-home mom.

Aside from family-level issues, illiteracy has a huge price tag on the community. Consider a few numbers from 2003:

47% of adult welfare recipients have not graduated from high school.

70% of adult welfare recipients are not literate.

High-school drop-outs are 3X more likely to need public assistance than high-school graduates.

Illiterate adults are 6X times more likely to be hospitalized and are more likely to have heart disease, prostate cancer, and diabetes. (Again, if you can read, you're more likely to know about preventative care, treatments, and more.)

Prison inmates are often illiterate, and after release, they often return to prison. In one study, inmates who receive literacy training had a return rate of 20% instead of the 49% of their fellow inmates who did not receive similar training.

The conclusion of the study was that every dollar spent on education in prison is worth at least two dollars in the future reduction of crime. (You'd think that education would be a no-brainer, but only about 9% of inmates get literacy training.)

You could say I'm a tiny bit passionate about the topic, which is why I got somewhat panicky when my children didn't take to reading like fish to water. I did a lot of asking for advice, digging around, and I put on my detective cap to find some solutions. So far, the efforts have paid off.

*Literacy stats in this post are from the ProLiteracy America Report, 2003

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Getting Kids Psyched About Books

I got lucky with my first child. When he started reading aloud billboards as we drove along the freeway, I had no idea that doing such things at age three wasn't normal. I'd like to take credit for his insane reading skillz (and I can take credit for the things I did to expose him to reading and words and books), but truly, he just came wired ready to soak it up.

He didn't learn much in kindergarten, as he was already reading at a fourth-grade level. Comprehension, inference, and some other accompanying reading skills weren't quite that high, but he could decode like a pro.

While I was pregnant with him, I was finishing my English degree, and I spent literally hours reading aloud as I paced our apartment so I could finish the assignments andnot fall asleep from pregnancy fatigue. He literally heard volumes of classic literature in utero. I can't help but wonder if that helped form some brain connections or something.

(The other kids heard plenty of books read aloud in utero, but those were Dr. Seuss and other kids books. Link? We'll never know.)

Some things we did to expose him (and his siblings) to reading early:
  • Read aloud. A lot. He got several books read to him before every nap, before bed, and at lots of other times.
  • Point out easy words and have him learn them. I started with the classic sight words, although I didn't know that's what they were called. As a toddler, he knew to expect Mom to point to about one word per page for him to read, whether a simple the, you, or car, or something a bit more complicated.
  • Let them help with shopping. Kids love finding "apples" on the list and crossing it out.They enjoy searching for words on labels. Even little kids can learn to identify the signs for the bakery and deli and eventually figure out what the sounds in the letters mean. (The store is another great spot for practicing numbers and easy math.)
  • Cook together and point out ingredients, labels, and instructions.
I had a couple of challenges getting him to actually read. One was that most books on his age level were too easy for him. The first books he really took to, thanks to their humor, were the Captain Underpants books. I know some parents cringe at those (potty humor, intentional misspellings, etc.), but to me, hey, he was reading. Those books hooked him. He read them all so much they fell apart. I got a few comb-bound, but eventually, we had to buy a new set.

Which led to my second challenge with him: He didn't like trying new books. Around 4th or 5th grade, he had two series he loved . . . and read them over and over. And read nothing else. Boys are particularly hard to find books for at that age; it seems like there are far more girl titles for the in-between reading ages than for boys.

Finding new books that sparked his interest took time and effort (including asking just about every mom of boys I could find what their kids liked and spending hours trolling the Internet for ideas), but it was worth it; eventually we broke through the block, and he discovered a bunch of other writers and books.

Child #2 learned to read well, and pretty early, if not as fast as her brother. She was always ahead of her grade on decoding, comprehension, and fluency.

But she hated reading.

Which about killed me. Getting the required 15 or 20 minutes of reading per day for school was pure torture (for both us), especially as she got older. By fourth grade, I could get her to read a stack of picture books, but she refused to try a novel, even an easy chapter book.

I was terrified that she'd never enjoy reading. Aside from the joy that reading can be, I was afraid she'd lose out on the skills literacy provides.

Two things finally solved the problem:
  • We used audio books along with the hard-copy book. So she read the text as she listened to the book. I got this idea from my teacher-writer friend (and critique group member) Lu Ann Staheli. This technique helped take away some of the intimidation factor. After reading a few books this way, she was no longer afraid of chapter books.
  • I noticed that she complained of headaches in her forehead after reading. I remembered that when my dad was young, reading always felt like work because of eye issues. When reading is physically painful, of course you don't enjoy it. A trip to the eye doctor with her confirmed it: while she had 20/20 vision for distance, she had significant astigmatism, which made her eye muscles work extra hard to keep the text in focus. That led to headaches from eye-muscle fatigue, right on her forehead, where her pain was centered. She got reading glasses, and a few days later, I found her curled up on her bed with a novel. I walked away with tears in my eyes.
Child #3 is a perfectionist. When she first started reading, if she couldn't sound out a word the first time around, she fell apart. "I'll never get it! Waaah!" Tears and meltdown.

No amount of explaining that everyone makes mistakes made any difference. We had to back up, go to easier levels that she'd already mastered, and let her have lots of success with those easier books. Then, when she felt ready, we worked up to harder ones.

She didn't like doing that, because she's also an over achiever, and she wanted to be on the higher levels, faster. She eventually managed to jump ahead, but I think it was because of the confidence she developed early on.

When she struggled with the transition to chapter books, I spent time reading aloud with her. I read one page, and she read the next. This helped her get through harder books with support at her side (and reading only half the text). But it also helped me hear what words and concepts she struggled with, so I could help her over some of those hurdles.

This year, her sixth-grade teacher required the students to read 35 books each, in a variety of genres. My daughter's goal is to double that number. I checked with her when there was about 6 weeks left in the school year, and figured she'd make it pretty easily. (And these aren't small books; most are quite thick, in the 300-page range.)

Child #4 falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. She's been surrounded by reading all her life, so it was a natural thing to pick up and strive for. I admit that as the youngest, she got read to least of all the siblings (she got maybe one book at nap time instead of four like her brother), but she got something else: instead of only picture books for bedtime, she heard a lot of novels, since I began reading to everyone at night, and her siblings were past the picture-book stage.

So while I'd still read her picture books, at a pretty young age, she was also listening to much longer, more complex books. She didn't always follow the stories or understand them (and often spent that time on the floor next to us, doodling with paper and crayons), but I really think it's helped in her comprehension, vocabulary, prediction skills, and more.

In fact, I have friends who crack up at her vocabulary because it's so advanced for her age. I think her ability to think, speak, and process at a high level is a direct result of being the youngest and being surrounded by bigger words at a younger age.

Other things we've done:
Participate in library story times for toddlers and preschoolers.

Participate in library summer reading programs.

Have family reading parties.

Nearly always buy something from book orders and the school book fairs. The only rule is that it must be a BOOK, not a toy or game. (This rule is getting harder to keep as book orders veer away from books more and more. Drives me batty.)

The kids are guaranteed to get at least 3 books as gifts during the year: at Christmas, birthdays, and in their Easter baskets. One year, when #3 was a toddler, on seeing her Easter basket, she cried out, "Oh, cool! A book!" Not, "Oh, cool! Candy!" I cheered inside. They save their gift books and treasure them.

They see Mom reading and know that Dad listens to lots of books.

We often talk about books: what we like; what we don't like. Ideas. Recommendations. Predictions. And so much more.

Sometimes we read the same books (like last summer, with the Hunger Games series), which allows for great discussion.

I let them borrow my Kindle. I make this into a very big deal, so they know it's a treat.

Every child is different, and every child will have his or her own challenges (and I'm not touching the category of learning disabilities).

Bottom line:
  • Never, ever give up.
  • Find out what the underlying reason might be for not liking books.
  • Search out the right book (because boredom might be the problem).
  • Make reading FUN and something to look forward to.
  • Make books and reading valuable, something kids can own.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading: Who Can Find the Time?

I tend to be a slow reader, and while reading Whitney nominees and finalists has forced me to speed up, I'm still on the slow side.

I enjoy reading slowly. I like to savor the story, words, images, not rush through them. Even so, I somehow manage to read several dozen books a year. I average 50-60 books, although this year I topped 70, a record.

Two claims I hear from people annoy the bajeebers out of me:
"I don't have time to write," comes in at #1, but a close #2 would be, "I don't have time to read."

First off, you already find time for what's important to you. If exercise is a priority, you make it happen. If it's photography or quilting or even your favorite TV show, you do it (even if it that means setting the TiVo).

No, you can't do everything in life. We all must make choices, even between good things.

For me, reading is part of the job description of a writer. If I don't read, my writing will grow stale.

But I'm also a busy mom of four very active kids.

Catch-22? Not quite.

Here are a few ways I sneak in reading time that you can use too:
1) Read in Snatches.
Reading isn't like exercising, where you really need a good 30 minutes to do any good.

If I get to read for several hours, awesome sauce. It's a luxury I seek out and grab when I can, but if I don't have hours and hours (wait for it . . .), I can still read.

As an English major, I often had enormous reading loads. I chipped away at the mountain by reading at times others might not think to, like walking between classes across campus. (If I read 8 pages here, 5 there, 10 there, and 2 here, that's 35 pages further than I was that morning.)

I finished entire books this way.

Today my snatches look different, but they still exist. I always, always have a book with me (often two). I have a car book for when I'm, say, waiting for kids to come out of piano lessons or when I'm the passenger. My purse book comes out in waiting rooms, in lines like at the post office or pharmacy, and so on. A few pages here and there add up to entire books read.

I also read while I eat. That's supposed to be a big no-no, because supposedly you'll eat more. I usually have a set meal with portions before I sit down to read, so I think I'm okay. Or just blame this one on my mom. I have umpteen memories of her eating (cherries from our tree, grapes from the garden, raisins, whatever) while reading.

(Note: I don't eat at the dinner table. That's a no-no. TV is off, toys and books are put aside. It's family time.)

2) Read Everywhere.
I also learned this from Mom, who might as well have been born with a book in her hand. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of her stirring sauce on the stove while it thickened, wooden spoon in one hand and a book in the other.

She even put books (and please, no grossing out here) in the bathroom, usually ones that are hard to read in long stretches, like complex non-fiction and histories. She'd read a page here and there, and--tada!--eventually, one more book is read, even if it took awhile.

Our previous treadmill had a book holder on it, and I can't tell you how many books I read while exercising. I got a ton of research done that way. Books don't bounce too much as long as you don't go much faster than 4 mph.

3) Read with the Family.
My 70+ books last year included novels I read aloud to the kids and others I read to my husband before bed, something we picked up during Harry Potter and still do some nights. Counting family books, I'm always reading several books at a time.

This last year the kids' schedules got really crazy, so we didn't get through many, but, say, even three books over a year with the kids and that number again many with my husband, is another half dozen books read total for the whole year. That's nothing to sneeze at.

4) Listen to Audio Books.
I have an iPod that has music on it . . . but I almost never listen to anything but books (and the occasional Writing Excuses podcast). I listen to it on longer drives (like to and from critique group or book signings), on the treadmill (my current one doesn't have a book holder), and sometimes while doing household chores. I don't get through tons of books this way, largely because I often pick books that are exceedingly long (Hello, Wheel of Time series . . .), and listening to a book always takes longer than actually reading it does.

But listening to books fills up otherwise empty time when I couldn't be reading anyway. Then I can add a few more titles to my yearly list. Audible is a great place to start.

5) Kindle, Baby!
My Kindle 3 is awesome. It's lightweight and small enough to fit nicely into my purse. I can carry a ton of books on it, so the second I'm done with one, I can begin another. The new one has a faster and clearer page turn, and the e-ink is better than ever. I think both are the reason I read faster with a Kindle.

Other benefits to the Kindle: No need to prop open a book, so you can read hands-free. So I can even read while blow drying my hair--something totally impossible before unless I set up an elaborate page-holding system, but then I'd have to turn off the drier, free a hand, undo the stuff holding the book down, turn a page, and set it back up. Not with the Kindle. Now I can read pretty much anywhere: while chopping vegetables, emptying the dishwasher, walking down the hall at night to check on the kids. (Easy especially with my handy Kindle cover with a built-in night light.)

6) Track Books Read and To Read.
There's something motivating about a check-list. Since my current list is a computer file, it easily serves as both a have read and a to read list. Books I plan to read or am currently reading are all there, but in parentheses. As soon as I've finished a book, it moves to the bottom of the have read section and loses the parentheses.

Just for fun, I also add with the kids or with Rob (that would be the husband). I also make a note if it's a reread. Throughout the year, I keep a running tally, such as "32 books read as of 5/27." Seeing that number go up is a definite motivator.

7) Make It a Party.
Several times a year, I throw a "reading party." My kids love them and don't realize they're a sneaky way for Mom to make them do something good for them. I read aloud from our current novel, maybe a bit from a library book or two for the youngest, and then we have silent reading time. Oh, and the treats in the center of the circle don't hurt.

(For a full explanation of our reading parties, see THIS POST.)

We live in a world where it's increasingly important to have good literacy skills. As far as I'm concerned, writers aren't the only ones who should be reading. Everyone should be reading, whether it's novels, non-fiction, or news.

Read and read regularly, even if you aren't reading dozens of books a year. READ SOMETHING.

My grandmother-in-law died at 92. She was sharp as a tack until her last day, and she read almost as long. She stopped reading literally a couple of days before her death, and only because of weakness. I remember her holding a magnifying glass as she read the newspaper or a novel. She read every day, and I'm convinced that her clear mind and memory are a direct result of the fact that she never, ever stopped feeding her brain.

Children who see their parents read are far more likely to be readers, and literacy is a huge indicator as to who will become successful as an adult. Do it for them at the very least.

As far as I'm concerned, not enjoying reading is like not enjoying chocolate: you're really missing out on a great joy of life!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gifts for the Savior

For years, Oprah has had her Angel Network, which she uses to benefit literally thousands of disadvantaged people around the world. Brad Pitt and wife give more money toward charity than almost any other Hollywood stars. And Bono, arguably the coolest rocker alive, has done more for dying Africans than almost anyone.

Then, well, then there are the rest of us. We live in our houses, scraping butter on our kids’ toast for breakfast, packing school lunches, hoping we didn’t forget anyone’s homework, and goodness, kids, would you please stop fighting?

When the dust clears each school morning, we sit on the couch, our hair a mess, and watch news reports of the rich and famous making real differences in the world.

Realistically, what kind of difference can I make? Can you make? Most of us aren’t swimming in loaded bank accounts. We don’t own three homes, have chauffeurs, or have a few million dollars to throw around to build an orphanage, a well for clean water, a new school for African children. What difference can my measly offering make?

As Christmas draws near, our hearts naturally turn to the Great Shepherd, to the One who gave us the Resurrection as the ultimate free gift, the One who gave us the opportunity to repent through the Atonement and thus gave us the possibility of returning to Him with the gift of Eternal Life. We celebrate those gifts as we celebrate His humble birth, often by giving gifts to one another.

Usually those gifts are of the worldly variety. They’re wrapped in shiny paper and topped with pretty bows, ready for the recipient to tear open and enjoy.

We all know that Christmas is more than that, and most of us strive to find a way to give in other ways. The problem is, too often it's easy to give up before we start, because we don't think we can do anything that matters. We aren’t as rich as Brad Pitt or Oprah. And we certainly aren’t as cool as Bono.

But that’s not the real problem. At times, I've forgotten that Christ wasn’t rich or cool or famous, either. He was a humble, poor servant.

Christ spent time with small children.
I can do that—I have four of my own who yearn for any additional time Mom will give them, especially when I’m running around like a crazed chicken without a head each December. Maybe one of my gifts this year will be to slow down and spend time with them. To hold them. Read to them more. Have a quiet evening playing card games. Talk with them more. Laugh with them.

Christ fed those who had no food.
I have food storage in my basement. It’s not fancy, and if I'm being honest, it's not up to the year supply (yet!), but we do have cans of tuna, soup, vegetables, beans, and many other items. We can spare some, especially for the less-fortunate during this tough economic climate. I can load up a box of food and take it to the food bank. Maybe even with my children.

For that matter, with what little money I do have, I can make a difference in places around the world by donating any amount, no matter how small, on my tithing slip to the Humanitarian Aid fund, the Perpetual Education Fund, or the Temple Patron Fund. Any money I donate will be used to benefit someone, somewhere, who needs it. I will make a difference.

Christ knew when it was time to stop worrying about the minutiae.
Housework, food and all the fancy fixings—all the party stuff we get caught up in during the holiday—are so easy to get pulled into, just like Mary did when Christ visited her and her sister. This December, maybe I’ll skip the vacuuming or sweeping or let the dishes lie in the sink a little longer than normal, and instead sit down with my Book of Mormon for a few extra minutes. That will be a gift to myself— partaking of “that good part,” as Martha did.

Christ knew that any time we serve another, it is the same as serving Him.
“Ye have done it unto me.” So when I’m shopping and everyone around me is tense, a kind smile, a polite word that diffuses tension . . . any of that is really a gift to my Savior. I can give genuine compliments to lift someone’s day. Instead of just thinking that my neighbor’s sweater is beautiful, I can say so to her. I can mail a card to a friend I’m thinking about, drop off a treat to the bishop’s home in acknowledgment of all he does and the sacrifices his family makes for the benefit of the ward. Make a phone call to someone who's been on my mind.

Even doing my visiting teaching—truly doing it by listening and being in tune with the Spirit to know if my sisters need something from me—is a gift to my Savior.

None of these gifts are wrapped in shiny paper or have big, impressive bows. None cost gobs of money. All the same, they impact lives. They can make a difference. They are gifts.

Somehow I think that iPods, DVDs, and fancy clothes aren’t the kinds of things our Savior would have in mind for the best way to celebrate his birth.

Simple gifts of service would be—anything that brings another person’s heart closer to Him. The Savior once asked something: “Feed my sheep.”

That will be my gift.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Forgiveness & Gratitude

Grudges are painfully easy to hold onto and are hard to let go. It’s not until you put down the burden and walk away that you realize just how heavy it was to begin with—and that the person you’ve been so angry with wasn’t being affected by the bitterness you clung to. A cloud descends, blocking out the spirit and making other things—like feeling genuine gratitude during the Thanksgiving season—almost impossible.

I remember all too well a difficult time in high school when a person wounded me deeply. It happened in the spring, and I felt the hurt—and the resulting anger—for the rest of the school year, all of the summer, and into the next school year. For a full six months, every time I thought about the person involved or saw them, even just passing by in the hall, I got a nauseating pit in my stomach. My heart raced, and I had a hard time breathing. I quickly looked away, clenching my books as I escaped down the hall.

Beyond noticing my dirty looks, the other person was likely unaffected by my visceral reaction, but the burden for me was constant. It was like proverbial drinking poison but hoping the other person gets sick. I spent half a year poisoning my spirit. I couldn’t go to school without a sinking pit in my middle. I could think of little else. Eventually, I knew that I couldn’t go on that way; something had to change.

One morning, through intense prayer and sheer willpower, I arrived in the school’s main hall, determined to do something different. When I saw the other person near a staircase, I forced myself to smile pleasantly and say hello.

The shock and confusion on their face was priceless.

But more than that, as I walked away, I felt as if heavy lead scales slipped off my body and clattered to the floor. My shoulders literally felt lighter. Instead of a pit in my stomach, it had butterflies. I took a deep breath. It felt good. My heart raced as it often did after a confrontation, but this time it was the pitter-patter of nerves, not the heavy drum beat of anger and resentment.

In the nearly two decades since that experience, I’ve faced situations far more complex and difficult to handle than a simple high-school peer issue. And if I’m paying attention, whenever I allow anger to take root, I can sense a change, starting on a physical level. My heart rate and breathing are altered. Muscles tensing up. A throbbing headache begins at the base of my neck.

But most importantly, the Spirit withdraws. I lose my compass, my connection with the Lord. I get depressed, anxious, unable to hear answers to prayers.

Learning to forgive has been a gradual lesson, one I’m still learning on a day-by-day basis. I have to continually remind myself not to drink the poison. Not to hurt myself.

Instead, we are taught to turn over the situation to the Lord, for He has borne our burdens already. Forgiving doesn’t excuse the actions of the other person. Instead, forgiveness is a gift that allows the Lord be the one to take care of it, to let us set down the burden, knowing that it’s in good hands.

For me, the most powerful way of letting things go is to find a quiet place, close my eyes, and—as silly as I may feel—verbalize my forgiveness. It’s important for me to hear my own voice saying the words. “I forgive [person] for [action].” The more specific I am, the better—even if I’m forgiving myself for not living up to the level I know I should.

As I forgive and let go of the anger or bitterness, a peace descends over my body almost immediately. The tension in my muscles and my stomach loosens, and I can breathe easier. Forgiveness is healing. I think it is no coincidence that most of the Savior’s physical healings were also accompanied by spiritual one: He stated that the person’s sins were forgiven, and then he healed their infirmity.

To be whole in every way, to feel gratitude and hope and faith—elements that should be our focus in November as well as the rest of the year—we must have the Spirit with us as a constant companion, and harboring anger makes that difficult.

The more I’ve learned about forgiveness, the more I see how critical it is for each of us in working out our salvation. No wonder the Lord commanded us to forgive “seventy times seven.”
I’m still very much a work in progress with this principle, but the more regularly I apply it, the lighter and more vibrant I feel. It’s easier for me to experience joy and peace, to feel the promptings of the Spirit, and to progress as a daughter of God.

We can all tap in to the benefit of this principle by remembering a single concept taught by Nephi with such simplicity: “I did frankly forgive them all that they had done” (1 Nephi 7:21).

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Feasting on the Word

In one of the final scenes of The Last Battle, the last book in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, some dwarfs sit near Aslan, who provides a “glorious feast” for them. The dwarfs, however, firmly believe they’re in a stable. They see and taste only the kinds of things they imagine would be in a stable: hay, water from a donkey’s trough, raw cabbage leaves, a piece of turnip.

In the scriptures, we have a glorious feast provided for us. Do we see and taste little more than damp hay and turnips?

We’ve been commanded to “feast upon the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3), but often we see that commandment as a chore. It’s one more—boring—thing on our never-ending to-do list, perhaps even a burden.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The beginning of a new school year provides a change in pace for the entire family, so it's a great time to also change up how you’ve been reading the scriptures.

Pick one of the ideas below to make your personal scripture reading fresh and new. You’ll feast on more than fancy steak or salmon; and you’ll find gratitude for new treasures found in your very own summer scriptural feast.

Forget Chapter Breaks

The scriptures weren’t originally transcribed with formal verses and chapters. We often forget that, but chapter-by-chapter is usually how we read. While verse and chapter breaks are convenient, sometimes they can get in the way of understanding. One year I read the Book of Mormon differently: each day, I read two pages. After turning a page, I finished the verse or sentence I was on and stopped. When I came to a chapter break mid-page, I kept going, often skipping the chapter headings (which weren't originally part of the scripture text but added for the "new" edition in 1979).

This method brought the events and storyline of the Book of Mormon into sharper focus. I was more aware of how events and feelings connected to one another, doctrine and events that had previously been mentally separated for me by a big chapter break. I found new insights and understanding.

Study a Word or Theme

I learned this one from my mother. Select a doctrine or topic you want to learn more about. Start underlining words relating to it. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how often the theme comes up, in what ways, and how much you learn about it while you’re looking for it. It'll continue to show up later (perhaps even years later), after you've already marked up your scriptures.

During a BYU religion class, my teacher got me fascinated with how the scriptures are filled with covenants, temples, and teachings about them. I took that as my topic. With a green marking pen, I underlined every word that, to me, related to covenants or temples. The list began with the obvious covenant, oath, promise, temple, and priesthood. Soon more words jumped out at me, like house, mountain, anoint, tabernacle, ordinance, and cleanse. I paid closer attention to times the Lord makes promises, marking moments when He made promises to his people or when others promised things to the Lord or to one another. I marked key words such as if . . . shall, I raise my hand, witness, etc.

I'd watched Mom study her scriptures in similar ways with long lists of words. The longer I personally went on this journey, the more words relating to the temple that I found to mark. Seventeen years (and several times through the scriptures) later, I’m still finding new words to add, and I’m continually learning more about this important topic.

Granted, you don’t need to commit to one theme for a decade or two, but picking one or two words to focus on for even a month or more can provide you with a deeper knowledge than you would have had otherwise.

A Footnote Journey

A single footnote can take a single study session to a new level—and into every standard work. Find an interesting word and look up all the references to it. Then look up the references in those verses, and so on. Eventually, you’ll circle back to the same verse you started with, and by that time, you’ll have a greater understanding of the topic.

Once when reading the account in 3 Nephi where the people hear the Father’s voice and it “pierces” them to the very center, I looked up the footnotes by “pierce.” The scripture trail led me to instances where people are impacted powerfully by the Spirit.

I noticed that whenever the people were righteous, the word used was pierce or something similar, indicating that the message went straight to the center of their hearts. But when the wicked felt the Spirit strongly, more painful, violent words associated with it, such as being “cut to the heart” (for example, Mosiah 13:7). In both types of cases, the Spirit is doing the same thing—reaching the heart. But the recipient experienced something different. While the righteous feel the Spirit to their core, the wicked may feel wounded and hurt, for as Nephi said, the wicked “take the truth to be hard” (1 Nephi 16:2). Without reading all of those instances back-to-back in a twenty-minute period, I never would have had that insight.

Mark Those Footnotes

As I mentioned (and explained how to do) in THIS POST, marking the footnotes in the "new" 1979 version of the King James Bible is well worth the time and effort. As I read my scriptures with relevant footnotes already marked for me, I'll catch alternate meanings of words, Joseph Smith Translations that are critical to understanding the text, and more. Read that post for more.

It’s time to partake and be filled with the glorious feast of the scriptures. Don’t let them be merely turnips and dirty water that you nibble on while making a face. Instead, fill up on the delicacies and fine wine found within the pages sitting on your night stand.