Tag Archives: Self-Improvement

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Hymn #216: We Are Sowing

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Behold, there went out a sower to sow:

And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up.

And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth:

But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away.

And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit.

And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear. (Mark 4:3-9)

The parable of the sower is an easy one to understand, even if only because the Savior himself laid the symbolism bare shortly after teaching it. The seed is the word of God, which is given to all of the world. Some do not receive it, others receive it but with no depth, and some receive it only to be overcome with adversity and difficulties. But others receive it gladly, and bring forth good works and faith. Simple enough.

Who is the sower?

It’s easy enough to think that the Savior Himself is the Sower, as He’s the One telling the story and is the source of the gospel light. But as we sing in this hymn, we are the sowers, called to spread the word daily to all we meet. “We are sowing, daily sowing countless seeds of good and ill,” we sing at the start of the hymn, and it’s worth considering that despite our intentions and our constant scattering of the seeds, not all of those seeds are good. We want to be good examples, and we want others to see us and be inspired to draw unto their Savior. The sad truth, though, is that all of our actions are seeds. We can just as easily sow a good seed with a kind deed as we can a bad one with an unkind deed. We are daily, hourly, and moment by moment sowing. If you’ve been baptized, you’ve taken upon yourself the name of Christ, and as such, you are always sowing seeds in His name.

That’s a lot to take in, once you think about it. Spreading His gospel in His name is a daunting task, especially when you consider the magnitude of that calling. All of the sheaves must be gathered in, not just the ones that are especially ripe or especially close to the silo. There’s an awful lot of work to do. Fortunately, we aren’t asked to do it alone. In fact, we’re only asked to do a relatively small portion of the work. If you read through the lyrics of this hymn, you’ll notice that while we do an awful lot of sowing, we don’t cultivate the crops, plow the fields, uproot the weeds, or gather in the sheaves. We just sow. Our job is to spread the seed far and wide, let it fall where it may. Stony ground? That’s fine. Amid thorns? Sure, sow away. Good ground? Of course, put it there, too. We are asked to cover the earth in seed. The Savior will take responsibility for nurturing those tender plants, helping them to grow in whatsoever ground they may find themselves. We are to sow, and we do not do so alone. We have the companionship of “[He] who knowest all our weakness.” He walks the fields with us, helping us to scatter seed far and wide, until the whole earth is “filled with mellow, ripened ears, filled with fruit of life eternal.” We don’t judge any plot of land to be better or worse. We don’t tell our Gardener where He should plant His crops. We simply sow them, far and wide, here and there, as He asks us, and we leave the cultivation of the crops in His hands.

Image credit: “Wheat field / Weizenfeld II,” flickr user Christian Schnettelker (http://manoftaste.de)

Hymn #226: Improve the Shining Moments

Improve the shining moments;
Don’t let them pass you by.
Work while the sun is radiant;
Work, for the night draws nigh.
We cannot bid the sunbeams
To lengthen out their stay,
Nor can we ask the shadow
To ever stay away.

Well. This is awkward. Of course I would write about a hymn vilifying procrastination after having slacked at my regular posting responsibility for a month or more.  Of course. (see 1 Nephi 16:2)

When I hear this hymn, I can’t help thinking of Alice misquoting Isaac Watts while trying to sort herself out in Wonderland. His poem–which is remarkably similar in theme and phrasing to Brother Baird’s hymn–reads thusly:

 How doth the little busy Bee / Improve each shining Hour / And gather Honey all the day  / From every opening Flower!

The subsequent stanzas explain that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop and express a desire to give a positive account for each day’s work at the Day of Judgement.

Worthy sentiments, no?

It is good to busy ourselves in the Lord’s work. It is even good to busy ourselves in our own work, provided our work is honest and our motives are good. We shouldn’t procrastinate our efforts or our repentance, and should use the time we’re given wisely. After all, as Amulek teaches us, “This life is the time for men [and women] to prepare to meet God; yea, behold the day of this life is the day for men [and women] to perform their labors.” (Alma 34:32)

But I think there are other, more immediate benefits to improving the shining moments as well. In verse three we sing:

As wintertime doth follow
The pleasant summer days,
So may our joys all vanish
And pass far from our gaze.
Then should we not endeavor
Each day some point to gain,
That we may here be useful
And ev’ry wrong disdain?

Since we’re talking about “shining” moments, I assume these are the days when all is well. Because there are days when all is not so well. We face challenges, stresses, doubts, and losses, and the moments don’t shine quite so brightly.

These not-so-shiny moments are when we can rely on the points we’ve gained during the good times. For example:

  • If read our scriptures diligently in our spare time, we will have words of peace and wisdom to rely on when we need answers to prayers….and we will be in the habit of turning to our scriptures regularly even when our schedules are especially tight.
  • If we pay our tithing faithfully when our bank accounts are full, the Lord will continue to bless us when they are emptier than we’d like…and it will be easier to continue paying because we will be in the habit of doing so.
  • If we strengthen our testimony in Jesus Christ right now, we will be able to draw near to Him when we need succor…and we will be in the habit of standing on His sure foundation no matter what may come in the future (see Helaman 5:12).

Yes, improving the shinning moments will prepare us to stand blameless before God, but it will also make each day of mortality that much easier. It’s the little things we do today that help us endure to the end. As the fourth verse says:

Improve each shining moment.
In this you are secure,
For promptness bringeth safety
And blessings rich and pure.
Let prudence guide your actions;
Be honest in your heart;
And God will love and bless you
And help to you impart.

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Hymn #307: In Our Lovely Deseret

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In our lovely Deseret,
Where the Saints of God have met,
There’s a multitude of children all around.
They are generous and brave;
They have precious souls to save;
They must listen and obey the gospel’s sound.

For a long time, I had a sharply negative association with this hymn. I thought of it as you might, as the brainwashing hymn. It has a cloyingly catchy tune, and the “hark! hark! hark!” chorus lends itself to easy mocking (we always pretended to be seals, clapping our hands and barking to the music), and the second verse feels a little too on the nose with its specifics about the Word of Wisdom. We’d sing it at the start of meetings for comedic value, certainly, but never more seriously than that. It was a joke, and nothing more.

That’s my daughter up there at the top of the post. Everything changes when you’re no longer singing about a “multitude of children,” but about your child.

It’s easy to see this as a brainwashing hymn telling children how they must live their lives, but I prefer to think of it as instructional. Children come into the world pure and innocent, not knowing how to do, well, anything. If you’ve ever spent time around a child of virtually any age, you’ll understand as I’ve come to over the last year just how little children actually know. I’ve spent the better part of a year teaching my daughter which things she puts in her mouth are food and which aren’t. You might be teaching a child when it’s appropriate to be loud and playful and when it’s better to be quiet and still. You might be helping a child learn to share, to ride a bike, to sing, or any of a number of things. And every time you come across something that this child can’t do, you may be astonished. “What do you mean you don’t know how to whistle?” you may catch yourself thinking. “Doesn’t everyone know how to whistle?”

Everyone knows how to whistle, or fly a kite, or throw a frisbee that first has been shown how to do those things. Those who have gone before are responsible to teach those who come after how to do things. Why should the gospel be any different? Children need to understand the gospel, the same as you and I do. An instructional hymn, particularly one with a catchy tune that is easy to learn, can aid in their understanding. The next time the child is tempted to be mean, the lyrics, “They should always be polite, and treat ev’rybody right, and in every place be affable and kind” may come into his or her head, causing an unkind thought or action to be forgotten. When laying down to sleep after a long day, the lyrics, “They must not forget to pray, night and morning ev’ry day, for the Lord to keep them safe from ev’ry ill” may present themselves as a reminder to offer a prayer of their own. And yes, when a child finds him or herself tempted with a cigarette or anything else similar, this tune and the words “tea and coffee and tobacco they despise” may come to mind.

We are responsible for teaching our children to love the Lord and to obey His law. We can do that by reading the scriptures with them, praying with them, having talks with them, and yes, we can do so through music. Primary songs like “I Am a Child of God” and “Families Can Be Together Forever” are just as didactic as this hymn is, and for good reason. We want these tunes stuck in their heads. We want them thinking about the Lord and His gospel constantly. We want these principles to never be far from their hearts.

And why is that? To put it simply, it is because “they have precious souls to save.” You can read that as the children needing to grow up strong in the gospel so they can go and rescue others. It’s true. We need to be strong in the faith so that we can help others along the path. But I think it’s just as appropriate to interpret that phrase as referring to the children’s own souls. Their souls are precious, and they need saving, just as ours do. They are our responsibility, and now that I’ve held one of those precious souls in my arms, I’m determined to use any means necessary to save it, including a song I was only too happy to dismiss as cloying and jingoistic.

Hark! Hark! Hark! ’tis children’s music–
Children’s voices, oh, how sweet,
When in innocence and love,
Like the angels up above,
They with happy hearts and cheerful faces meet.

 

Hymn #131: More Holiness Give Me

Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am. (3 Nephi 27:27)

This is the commandment, and the goal each of us is striving for. We are to become perfect, even as our Savior is perfect. It’s impossible, of course, which is why the Savior sacrificed himself for us in order to pay for our misdeeds. We do our best to follow his law and keep his commandments, but when we stumble, His sacrifice makes it possible for us to return home.

That’s an incredible thing for Him to have taken upon Himself, and it’s something we feel acutely, I’m sure. We are to be like Him, One who loved His brothers and sisters so dearly that he was willing to sacrifice Himself for us all. No big deal, right? Just become like that and you’re set.

It’s a daunting task, and one that none of us is equal to. So we plead with the Father, begging Him to at least help us along that path. Even if we can’t be perfected all at once, at least let us take a single step toward that goal. Help me to overcome this one sin, we pray. Help me to make at least this aspect of my life perfect so I can move on to tackle another area. Help me to be more patient. Help me to be a little kinder. Help me to be more willing to serve.

We’ve all offered prayers like this, and they probably sound a little like today’s hymn. “More holiness give me,” we ask. We’re trying our best, honestly, but we’re just not quire there. We aren’t asking for everything right now, but at the moment, we need just a little more “patience in suff’ring,” or “joy in his service.”

There’s a lot to ask about, and there’s a lot we ask in this hymn. We plead for patience, for faith, prayerfulness, gratitude, hope, meekness, and strength, to name just a few. By the third verse, it starts to feel repetitive and even demanding. Every line starts with “more,” and it begins to feel like a child asking for more, more, more. Maybe we feel a little guilty asking for so much. Perhaps we could do without the patience today, Lord, if only we could feel “more longing for home.” Maybe today all that is needed is “more tears for his sorrows,” or “more sense of his care.” Just a little will do today. We don’t mean to ask for so much.

Then again, perhaps we’re right to ask so much of Him, and maybe it would do us well to ask for even more. He is so, so willing to give to us, if only we’ll ask. “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you,” He once told us. “Seek me diligently and ye shall find me.” When we ask, He will answer. Even the least of us will give to each other when asked; how much more so will He, the Lord of all, be willing to give to us if we will but ask?

So we ask, even when it feels like too much. We ask for “hope in his word” and “meekness in trial.” We ask for so, so much, because we have been asked to do so, so much. We are tasked with becoming like Him in every aspect of our lives, and so we pray for improvement in every aspect as well. We pray, as the last two lines so simply state, to be “more blessed and holy– more, Savior, like thee.”

And He, He who asked us to be more like Him, is ready and waiting to grant that request, if we will be ask.

Hymn #233: Nay, Speak No Ill

Nay, Speak No Ill has a simple message, perhaps best summarized by this passage from the third verse:

Then speak no ill, but lenient be
To others’ failings as your own.
If you’re the first a fault to see,
Be not the first to make it known,

It’s all too easy to find fault in others; a single flaw often stands out more prominently than 99 virtues. Finding fault in others often serves to build our own ego, as “surely I would never do that.” We compare our  own strengths with another’s weakness, building ourselves up and tearing others down.

This, of course, is in exact opposition to the Christ-like ideals we strive for. Certainly Christ was aware of the faults in those around him—he made that abundantly clear from time to time. But his primary concern was never to tear others down, but rather to encourage and strengthen the virtues he saw in others. To the woman taken in adultery, Christ said “Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.”

As I read this hymn, I was reminded of something Joseph Smith taught:

The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. (Source)

So yes, let us speak no ill. When we see flaws in others, let’s remember our own imperfection and weakness. Instead of tearing down our brothers and sisters, let’s build them up.

Hymn #276: Come Away to the Sunday School

After I had my first baby, church suddenly got really hard. I spent much of the three-hour block nursing my tiny daughter in the mothers’ lounge, bouncing her in the halls, and changing diapers in the bathroom. My husband helped out as much as he could–we took turns attending classes and fulfilling our respective callings–but Sundays were no longer the peaceful spiritual days they had once been. I’m sure our experience is not unique; anyone who has spent a Sabbath wrangling children knows it’s not really a day of rest.

And so when I read the first verse of this hymn, I laughed out loud.

When the rosy light of morning
Softly beams above the hill,
And the birds, sweet heav’nly songsters,
Ev’ry dell with music fill,
Fresh from slumber we awaken;
Sunshine chases clouds away.
Nature breathes her sweetest fragrance
On the holy Sabbath day.

It sounds so idyllic…and so dramatically different from what my Sundays feel like.

During that first year of new parenthood especially, I spent a lot of time resenting anyone who (as far as I could tell) had no reason to be wandering the halls instead of attending Sunday School. There I was, stuck with a crying baby and in desperate need of a solid dose of gospel doctrine and adult interaction, and those ungrateful people were skipping class just because they could! How dare they! I could not understand how something that felt so important to me was so unappreciated by others. I seethed at church and cried at home.

In my defense, I was really really tired.

Since that time we’ve added another baby to our family. Church is still hard. I miss Sunday School more often than not. I imagine things will only continue in that vein for several more years at least. But my attitude toward church–and the people who wander the halls–has changed.

For a good and glorious purpose
Thus we meet each Sabbath day,
Each one striving for salvation
Thru the Lord’s appointed way.
Earnest toil will be rewarded;
Zealous hearts need not repine.
God will not withhold his blessings
From the eager, seeking mind.

“The Lord’s appointed way” for us to “strive for salvation” includes gathering together on the Sabbath and partaking of the sacrament. The way our meetings have been structured has changed over the years, but the purpose is the same: to renew covenants and strengthen testimonies. If you’re present for the bread and water, you’ve got the former pretty well covered. The latter isn’t always as structured, though. Sometimes it happens in Sunday School. Sometimes it happens in the mothers’ lounge. Sometimes it happens as you do laps around the building or chat with a friend in the foyer or read your scriptures in the back of class.

What I’m saying is, we all have our reasons for attending or not attending our classes. If our hearts are in the right place–we are earnestly toiling and eagerly seeking to learn and feel the spirit–God will reward our efforts. As a new mother, my heart was zealous in desiring to feel the spirit, but I spent more time repining than seeking God’s blessings in ways that worked with my current circumstances. When I stopped complaining and started making the best of a tough situation, my Sabbath experiences improved.

Let us then press boldly onward,
Prove ourselves as soldiers true.
He will lead us; he will guide us.
Come, there’s work for all to do,
Never tiring, never doubting,
Boldly struggling to the end.
In the world, tho foes assail us,
God will surely be our friend.

I’ve learned to “press boldly onward” and stop doubting that my weekly struggle is worth it. My toddler’s favorite song now is “I Am a Child of God.” My baby is learning to fold her arms when we pray. We’re doing the best we can to teach our girls that God is their friend. Our family is stronger because Sabbath worship–whatever it looks like from week to week–is important to us.

That said, I still look forward to the day when I can attend Sunday School uninterrupted. If you have that opportunity, enjoy it. Take advantage of it. Put away the Angry Birds and Facebook for an hour and really listen to what your teacher has prepared for you.

Then away, haste away!
Come away to the Sunday School!
Then away, do not delay!
Come away to the Sunday School!

God will lead and guide you, protect you from worldly foes that would tear you down, and will not withhold his blessings when you are in need. That’s the testimony I have gained from not attending Sunday School. Amen.

Hymn #235: Should You Feel Inclined to Censure

If you listen to this hymn and find that it feels familiar, it’s because the tune is “Lower Lights,” which, but for two changed notes, is identical to the tune from the much-beloved “Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.” (We’re not writing about that one until August. Hopefully you can last that long.)

This hymn is about fault-finding and sniping, something that plagues us not just as Latter-day Saints, not just as Christians, not just as anything, but as human beings. We have what seems to be an infinite capacity to be petty. We look for occasions to point out the mote in others’ eyes. We tear others down, either in an effort to build ourselves up or simply to be spiteful and cruel.

King Benjamin, a prophet-king in the Book of Mormon, described this state as the “natural man.” We are, left to our own devices, unkind to others. We puff ourselves up to make ourselves feel important while stepping on others. We look out for ourselves. It’s human nature, and there’s a temptation to shrug it off with the excuse that it’s simply who we are.

We can be more, of course, and the point of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to help us transcend that state through the Atonement. We can become “as a child,” as Benjamin puts it, “submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love.” It involves active effort on our parts, though. We choose to follow the Savior, and we reaffirm that choice countless times each day as we’re given opportunities to slip back to being the natural man. Often, we find ourselves on the brink of doing something that we know we shouldn’t do and have the choice to either correct our action or plow on ahead.

This hymn is about that moment of decision. Do we feel the need to chastise someone about something trivial? “Ask your own heart,” we sing, “if you have not failings, too.” We pause and consider the beam in our own eye. We count the cost of what we’re about to say. More often than not, we stand to lose much more than we gain by being right in an argument, or by correcting someone’s action we deem to be wrong. The first verse cautions us against being so quick to judge:

Let not friendly vows be broken;
Rather strive a friend to gain.
Many words in anger spoken
Find their passage home again.

Simply put, we will find kindness returned with kindness, and pettiness returned with pettiness. In situations like these, it’s easy to create, if not an enemy, at least hurt feelings. Instead, we can take the opportunity to be kind and potentially gain a friend. The second verse makes this clear as we sing, “those of whom we thought unkindly oft become our warmest friends.”

So we take the time to be kind. We choose to withhold criticism and judgment and instead offer praise. We do unto others as we would have them do unto us:

Do not then, in idle pleasure
Trifle with a brother’s fame;
Guard it as a valued treasure,
Sacred as your own good name.

We choose to be like the Savior, following His commandment to “love one another, as I have loved you.” It’s a choice we make over and over each day, and each time, we get the chance to draw incrementally closer to the Savior or incrementally further from Him. It’s up to us to choose.

Hymn #99: Nearer, Dear Savior, to Thee

Nearer, dear Savior, to thee,
Nearer, nearer to thee–
Ever I’m striving to be
Nearer, yet nearer to thee!

A few years ago, I sat next to a new father on a flight to California. He was feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility fatherhood brings. He worried he did not know how to raise a child to be a good, moral person. With so many perils and distractions in the world today, how could he teach his son to know what was right? How could he even know what was right himself?

We were flying out of Salt Lake City, so I wasn’t surprised when he asked if I was a Mormon. I replied that I was, indeed. He then asked me something I’ve considered numerous times since:

What are the principles that guide your religion? What tenets does your religion provide?

My initial inclination was to share the Articles of Faith; I’ve heard of similar situations since I was in Primary, and that always seemed to be the appropriate response. I started down that path, but quickly saw that these were not the answers he was looking for. He didn’t want to know how my religion was different from other religions, and he didn’t really want to know what I believed—he wanted to know how my religion guides my life.

I wasn’t sure how to give him a succinct answer at the time. There is so much we are counseled to do, so much that we believe. How should I shrink it down into one or two guiding principles? Is service the key? Charity? Scripture study? Prayer? Family Home Evening?

Honestly, I don’t think I gave him a very useful answer. I bounced between a few topics, hoping to find one that resonated with him, but I never really struck the right chord. It bothered me; I felt like I should have a solid answer to a question as fundamental as this one.

As I’ve considered this topic since, I would now give a different answer:

My religion teaches me to be like Jesus Christ. I study his life and his teachings, and I try to do what he would do. I try to live so that every day I am a little closer to Him.

When I read the words to this hymn, this conversation I had years ago kept coming to mind. Fully half the lines in each verse are some variation of the phrase “Nearer, dear Savior, to thee.” There is something important to this topic, one we should not pass over lightly.

What does it mean to be near to the Savior? Perhaps it means that we quickly and consistently turn to him, and rely on him in times of need. When temptations arise, when frustration, disappointment, or tragedy come upon us, do we turn away from the Savior and rely on our own strength? Or do we choose to draw nearer to him, seeking his peace and comfort?

Perhaps, nearness to the Savior refers to our emulation of him, however imperfect. Do we do what he would do? When others observe our actions and behavior, do they see an approximation of Christ to some degree? Do we try to do what he would do? Do we think what he would think? Are we, as the Primary song suggests, “following in his ways?”

Maybe nearness to the Savior is about our relationship with Christ. The scriptures refer to him as our Savior, our father, our teacher, our guide, our brother, our King, our friend, and numerous other titles. As you consider your own relationship with Jesus Christ, what words or titles come to mind? Are you comfortable calling him your friend? Do any of these titles seem out of reach?

The verses of this hymn suggest all of these interpretations. We can draw near to the Savior in a variety of ways, and they’re all important. This isn’t a buffet; it’s a wide-ranging invitation that covers every facet of our lives.

The chorus of each verse is a simple two-line refrain:

Take, oh, take, and cherish me,
Nearer, dear Savior, to thee.

When I read prophetic accounts of meetings with the Savior, I’m struck by how often they mention the power of his embrace. Jesus Christ loves us, powerfully and completely, and he invites us to come unto him—”Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you.” (D&C 88:63.) He wants to lift us and warm us and strengthen us and empower us. He wants to heal our wounds and take away our sorrows. He wants to give us everything he has, and wants us to become like he is.

He loves us. He loves you. Accept his invitation. Each day, nearer, yet nearer, to Him.