Understanding General Authorities’ Themes

By: Stephen Marsh
July 6, 2012

If you ever pay attention to the body of talks given by General Authorities over time, you will note that General Authorities tend to have themes. Some themes are shared between multiple authorities, while others are associated with (and come to define) specific General Authorities.

For example, Thomas S. Monson had his personal theme set by caring for widows and being assigned to write a monthly letter to more than a score of military men serving in the Korean War from his ward. Not only was he called to serve in a bishopric in his early twenties (for which he sacrificed a military commission to serve), but he was then called as a bishop at age 22 and called as a General Authority (an apostle) at 36, even though he had not served a mission.

…and thus, that created a secondary theme for him. It is no surprise, given all of these experiences, that he dwells often on small miracles, small kindnesses, constant enduring and care.

While many people often focus on Boyd K. Packer’s seeming harsh positions, Packer’s talks often detail experiences in which he was wrong. Nevertheless, as he obeyed what those with more knowledge told him to do (rather than doing what he thought was better), he would look back later and realize that he was wrong and they were right. From his Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council:

One of the early lessons was also my first lesson in correlation. The seminaries were sponsoring speech contests. They were very successful — much better than similar contests sponsored by the Mutual Improvement Association. It was an ideal gospel-centered activity for seminaries. They were succeeding beautifully under able teachers who could assist even the shy students. We were instructed to discontinue them!

There was something of an uprising among the teachers. They accused Superintendent Curtis of the Young Men and President Reeder of the Young Women of being responsible. Perhaps they were. The teachers wanted Brother Tuttle and me to plead their cause before the Brethren. The logic was all on our side. Nevertheless we remembered the counsel of Brother Lee, and really, just out of obedience, we declined.

Later I could see that the seminaries served then only a very small part of our youth; the MIA, all of them. A B-minus program reaching most of the youth would, in the aggregate, bring better results than an A-plus program which reached relatively few. It wasn’t until many years later, when some other problems arose, that I could see that those contests, even though they were gospel centered, pulled the teachers into an activity-oriented mind-set and away from the less exciting responsibility of teaching the Old and New Testaments to teenagers. Finally I could see that the very success of the program was an enemy.

Other lessons followed, some of them hard ones. I was asked to write an article for the Improvement Era. It was returned with the request that I change some words. I smarted! The replacement words didn’t convey exactly what I was trying to say. I balked a bit, and was told that Richard L. Evans, then of the Seventy and magazine editor, had asked that the changes be made. I remembered Brother Lee’s counsel. I had to submit. Now, though that article is piled under thirty-five years of paper, I’m glad, very glad, that if someone digs it out, I was “invited” to change it.

After one of my first general conference talks, I received a call from Joseph Anderson. In a very polite way he said that President McKay and his counselors suggested that I add one word to the text of my talk. Would I mind doing that? Actually the word was in my text, I just failed to read it at the pulpit. A most embarrassing lesson — the First Presidency! It was easier when Elder Evans corrected my work; even easier when one of my associates was kind enough to do it.

Only last Friday while putting together some things for a presentation, I read part of it to some brethren from BYU. I noticed they looked at one another at one place in my reading, and I stopped and asked if there was a problem. Finally one of them suggested that I not use a certain scripture that I had included even though it said exactly what I wanted to convey. How dare they suppose that a member of the Twelve didn’t know his scriptures! I simply said, “What do you suggest?” He said, “Better find another scripture,” and he pointed out that if I put that verse back in context, it was really talking about another subject. Others had used it as I proposed to use it, but it was not really correct. I was very glad to make a change.

That obviously colors the predominant message we see from him of listening to authority.

These are just a couple of themes specific to particular General Authorities, but for shared themes, consider the theme “do not inhale.”  As I wrote on this theme and others in my Understanding General Authorities series, you can pull the general message of do not inhale from any talk from President Uchtdorf, but the fact is that other church leaders have stressed the importance of not inhaling the respect and attention that came with prestigious positions.

Today, I’d like to address two themes that seem to be building in the number of times they are mentioned.

The first, I hope everyone has noticed: it was addressed most recently by President Uchtdorf: “just stop it.”

Stop It, Dieter F. Uchtdorf

I have addressed that at length on my personal blog.

The other theme is more interesting, since I think of it as the Carol Lynn Pearson theme. The one from “My Turn on Earth.”

The world turns ’round like a merry go round
It lets some off and it takes some on
Some horses are high and some horses are low
Some turns are short and some turns are long

That is, there is more to do than you can ever do.

It is interesting to hear, over and over again, General Authorities talking about how they discovered the limits of what they could do.  How there were always more good things than they had time, money or attention to take care of or be involved in.

It is true. Consider, would it not be a blessing to have the national debt of the United States reduced? Assume the largest estimate you have heard of the Church’s net assets and its income and savings. Now multiply it by ten. How much could you reduce the national debt of the United States by? Enough to justify completely consuming the Church? Probably not.

The problem is that there are lots of good things out there.  Humane Societies, Cancer Prevention Drives, Blood Banks, and more.  All of them deserve some attention (the world would be a poorer place if we cancelled all the art galleries and museums to spend the money on HIV prevention and cures — and vice versa, if we cancelled all the efforts to eradicate AIDS to spend it on the arts).

Life consists of limits.  It is, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges of life.  It is one that requires and deserves a great deal of consideration.

So, how do you deal with limits?  With limits to your time, your attention, your interest and your assets?  If  you have children what do you teach them?  What do you show them?  How much do you show them?

What have  you chosen to make important, a lot or a little?

Who do you make important?  What do  you give up for them?  How much of your anger are you willing to sacrifice (how much of the “just stop it”) to make life around you a little more joyous for everyone you meet?  How do random acts of kindness fit in your life?

I’d love your thoughts on when you first discovered limits (for me, it was realizing that even at five books a day, I would not make much of a dent in a library of several million books.  If I did nothing else it would take me a hundred years to read them all), and how it has affected your perspectives and your thoughts.

What did you learn from conference that is still with you now that it is July and we are about half way to the next conference?

[My thanks to Andrew for help in editing and revising.  All the mistakes are mine, all the clarity is his].

31 Responses to Understanding General Authorities’ Themes

  1. Howard on July 6, 2012 at 5:59 AM

    If you don’t mind I will reorder some things you while hopefully retaining your meaning: Consider, would it not be a blessing to have the national debt of the United States reduced? The problem is that there are lots of good things out there. Humane Societies, Cancer Prevention Drives, Blood Banks, and more. All of them deserve some attention…Enough to justify completely consuming the Church? No of course not, the church’s financial resources are finite so we have to prioritize. What have you chosen to make important, a lot or a little? The Spirit prompts me to fight for the lives of those on the bottom that they might have meaningful second estate experiences to support their eternity. If the church quadrupled the amount it spends on humanitarian aid it would still be less that 10% of it’s cash flow, hardly consuming or liquidating it, simply a tithe of it’s income and it would materially support the fourth of the stated four-fold mission! I am also inspired to fight for a bigger tent. The gospel began exclusive but over time it has been expanded to include every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Do we teach it in English only expecting those who want it to learn that language and embrace it from that frame of reference? No! Of course not we teach it in native languages to the extent possible making it easier for those cultures and sub-cultures to embrace it. So shall we only teach the gospel in it’s current pharisaical form? Not according to the Spirit! We need to distill the gospel from 180 years of pharisaical contamination of men so that it can also be embraced by those who love it’s purity. I am inspired to fight for women and gays that their participation might grow to be equal with that of men. I am inspired to draw attention to enlightenment because that is God’s way, that is how God communicated with Joseph and that is how many can transcend their material and pharisaical preoccupation to efficiently and directly spiritually connect with God as opposed to the incidental by product method of faithfully living pharisaical rules in demonstration of simple obedience and sacrifice until he notices.

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  2. Stephen Marsh on July 6, 2012 at 6:23 AM

    The Spirit prompts me

    That is important. I believe that we are all prompted, and that what prompts us and where we are prompted to go is often different.

    I think it important to appreciate the differences that each person’s path might lead them in.

    Years ago I was struck by a judge who felt it was just wrong to spend money on a humane society for animals when there were other ways the money could be spent.

    At the time I spent a lot of time doing pro bono work for women who were being abused and time supporting a child advocacy center.

    But I came to appreciate that the world is complex.

    I’ve also watched groups overcommit, and fail and fold as a result.

    Generally, you can track investment of Church resources to individuals and groups in the Church doing sustained good over time and as their network spreads out, it gains support.

    One problem is the huge amount of white noise created by every group that wants money and support. The way that the Church seems to cut through that is to have people who spend their time being involved.

    I know that in many countries, once it gets established that there will be no bribes and no pay-offs, less than 20% of the funds the Church is trying to commit are able to be committed to projects (the approval rate by un-bribed local governments drops to about one in 5 projects).

    Just improving the success rate in Africa for approval of projects we are willing to fund will multiply Church spending there by a factor of 500%.

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  3. Stephen Marsh on July 6, 2012 at 6:29 AM

    The biggest problem is that people are not willing to become [p]rophets and to do completely what that takes.

    http://www.wheatandtares.org/2010/10/28/on-being-heard-revisited/

    It looks like you are trying very hard. But to be heard, to make a difference, takes those steps. Most just do not do it.

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  4. John Mansfield on July 6, 2012 at 7:01 AM

    I suppose my first experience with the thought of limits was after moving to Baltimore, the first time I had lived in a city with a couple centuries of living behind it. The thought while driving across downtown one day was “How long would it take to build a city like this from scratch?” And the answer was “Like this city? As long as it took to build this one.” Constructing a city takes workers, who are living lives in the meantime that must be sustained and enjoyed, and money, which is only generated so fast and must continue being generated by the things we build. One could imagine several billion dollars being applied over a few years to raise from the dust a hundred thousand buildings (homes, schools, stores, industrial shops, office space) and wonder how big a construction crew could be assembled and how long it would take for one set of concrete foundations to cure before pouring the next batch, but that’s not how cities are created. They couldn’t be.

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  5. NewlyHousewife on July 6, 2012 at 7:25 AM

    My mom and dad were never ones to go beyond what they could handle in church callings, and when I was a teen my mom kept me in the loop when she asked to be released from her calling (first or second counselor in the ward RS presidency). So I think in a way I’ve been taught my entire life about limits, but it wasn’t until I was in college and truly experienced having more than I could handle in regards to class credit that the lesson clicked for me.

    Right now I’m just focusing on the “being in the ward, but not of the ward” mentality as the second I have a calling that deals with knowing what people are up to I tend to get sucked in.

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  6. Bonnie on July 6, 2012 at 8:22 AM

    LOVE these ideas, Stephen. I find that they are interrelated, this choice to limit and this tendency for all of us to develop themes.

    I first embraced limitation when I was busy with a seven little kids, homeschooling, and up to my eyebrows working for a state PAC. I was stressed out and I didn’t like it. I believe it was reading Andrew Weil’s Eight Weeks to Optimum Health where I was dumbfounded to find myself doing everything he suggested except one: a news fast. The thought was beyond irresponsible to me, but I did not feel as healthy as I should considering all I was doing toward that end and I wanted to feel healthy. So I made a tremendous leap of faith and I quit reading or listening to the news. At first I was as nervous as any addict, but I soon came to understand that the world wouldn’t come to a screeching halt if I wasn’t there to read about its woes and stupidities. I also discovered, wonder of wonders, that stress is profoundly debilitating. In the last decade I’ve found ways to take my stress temperature and chill out, and I would never go back to those busy, busy days of worrying about the fate of the universe. That’s God’s job.

    In limiting, however, I find that I’m led through specific life lessons, much as you describe the General Authorities, and I’m much more aware of themes. There are things that I bring up over and over (for instance, that the most benefit from an exercise comes when we are fully extended) but it’s because my life has led me through those experiences in a cycle. I think it’s because we each have something different to contribute to the general conversation and God is interested in growing specialists.

    You didn’t ask, but my favorite themes are “to act and not to be acted upon” (Bednar) and “let’s look at this scripture a different way” (Holland). Nice post.

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  7. Jon on July 6, 2012 at 8:23 AM

    Trying to be a micropeneur is teaching me limits, sometimes it is better to outsource things on O-Desk.

    About listening and obeying without questioning the higher ups. Scary attitude.

    http://mormanity.blogspot.com/2012/07/anonymous-comments-still-allowed-but.html

    Just remember, the invasion of privacy is totally for your own good, so be grateful.

    It’s still hard for me to believe. Is this the attitude that is fostered by just obeying your leaders?

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  8. Bonnie on July 6, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    The quotes given for Packer on listening (not obeying, that remained his choice) to counsel from leaders were examples of gentle guidance offered humbly and by the spirit and which resulted in better things. Would you really stand and hold an argument with someone who humbly proffered counsel for your welfare? I am so grateful that when I speak kindly and for their welfare, my kids usually listen at least long enough to consider. The unwillingness to even listen, harping on freedom and autonomy and independence, seems very juvenile to me.

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  9. Jon on July 6, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    @Bonnie,

    I’m assuming you were making the comment towards me. I agree, it is important to listen. It is also important to question. There is nothing wrong with asking why. In the talk quoted by Packer he said:

    The teachers wanted Brother Tuttle and me to plead their cause before the Brethren. The logic was all on our side. Nevertheless we remembered the counsel of Brother Lee, and really, just out of obedience, we declined.

    I have no problem listening and weighing people’s thoughts. I do have a problem with just obeying and not asking why. Why couldn’t Packer at least have asked why and responded to the teachers on why the change was made? Instead they did blind obedience. Yes, that’s right, blind.

    Would you really stand and hold an argument with someone who humbly proffered counsel for your welfare?

    Yes, I would ask why.

    my kids usually listen at least long enough to consider.

    Yes, that’s my point, listen and if they have any questions ask why. I would hope that my children would not just obey for the purpose of obeying, I would prefer that they think and ask why if they can’t figure it out themselves why I am asking for something. The only time I want blind obedience from them is if they are in danger and then I would be yelling so they would know the urgency of my request and not hesitate. Otherwise I will not be yelling but talking and rationally explaining why.

    The unwillingness to even listen, harping on freedom and autonomy and independence, seems very juvenile to me.

    You are reading more into what I said. It seems juvenile to put words in someone else’s mouth. Oh, wait, calling someone juvenile (AKA, calling names) seems juvenile also. I guess we’re both juvenile’s. Ad hominen attacks aren’t good for reasoned discussion.

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  10. annegb on July 6, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    I like the quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh that Elder Maxwell used: “My hands cannot meet the needs of all those to whom my heart responds.” I hope I got that right.

    I have to lean on the Lord; I pray and tell Him what I feel I need to do and ask Him to guide me. He always does. I forget, though. That’s when I get overwhelmed.

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  11. Bonnie on July 6, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    annegb – THANK YOU! I could not for the life of me remember who said that and that quote has been going around in my head since I read this post. I looked it up and it’s this word-for-word: “My Life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.” Oh, thank you. The OCD was starting to kick in and I was feeling nervous.

    Jon, now who’s putting words (or worse, intents) in someone else’s mouth? Nothing was said about listening without questioning in Packer’s quote, and that is not the counsel we are ever given. I simply added the clarification, and you chose to feel called juvenile. I said that the tendency to resist counsel before considering is juvenile. If that’s not what you were doing, why would you feel attacked?

    Trust me. If I were inclined to an ad hominem attack, it would be good, with mangled bodies and blood everywhere. I’m not.

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  12. Jon on July 6, 2012 at 10:14 AM

    @Bonnie,

    I know Packer didn’t explicitly say that it wasn’t OK to question, but it is implied in his speech. The implication is strong enough that it is an omission that shouldn’t have been overlooked. Yes, he could have omitted it for purposes of brevity. But I have been in the church long enough to feel that that isn’t true. Decrees are made with no logical explanation. Yes, it is true that that is not always the case, but it happens frequently enough and encouraged among the members that it is pernicious.

    How often have a heard that we should wait for the brethren to act without thinking for ourselves? Even though I would hope that the brethren wouldn’t believe it and the scriptures speak against it. But if this is true then shouldn’t we remove the song “Follow the Prophet” from our children’s hymn books? Yes, the idea that we should listen to true prophets and follow council that leads to true salvation in this life and the next is important. But songs and sentiments that teach that we should do as our leaders say and not question and never go against said council is a wicked doctrine and even implied meanings should be removed. Especially since members hang on every word that leaders say.

    Yes, you didn’t call me juvenile, but you did imply it, which is bad enough. It was a sentence that should have been left out if you didn’t want it implied.

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  13. Bonnie on July 6, 2012 at 10:17 AM

    Jon. Truly. Have an ice cream cone. And I’m implying nothing about your feelings about the dairy industry in that suggestion.

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  14. Jon on July 6, 2012 at 10:37 AM

    @Bonnie,

    Now you calling me fat? :) Truly. Our words are important. That is what I’m saying. Yes, I know in blog comments section we shouldn’t expect perfection (well, we shouldn’t ever expect perfection) but we should still choose our words carefully. I know I’m not perfect with writing comments, but I try to accept when I’m wrong and say I’m wrong when I’m called out on it. That’s all I ask for.

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  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 6, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    Packer does state the BYU profs were appropriate in challenging him. FYI. And he was grateful they did.

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  16. Jon on July 6, 2012 at 11:10 AM

    You’re right Stephen. Thanks for pointing that out. I think I overreact when I see anything that even implies it is not OK to question just because of so many “faithful” mormons I talk to that don’t accept that it is OK to question or even to act without express permission from their LDS leaders. It’s terribly frustrating trying to have a logical conversation when the default of others is, “Well the church says X so that is what I’m going to do without question.” I get that reaction sometimes even when without a general authority saying it. Can people not think for themselves? That is what I get frustrated at. In the beginning of the talk by Packer that is what the implication was, but yes, it was modified, to a certain extent towards the end of the quotation, but on a minor issue. It would have been nice to have more qualified speech at the beginning.

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  17. Cowboy on July 6, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Bearing in mind of course that Packer see’s himself as someone who should be obeyed, his comments aren’t all that inspiring.

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  18. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 6, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    Cowboy, you miss that he has been clear that even as an apostle he needs correction from people who know more than he does. How about you — how did you learn you had limits.

    Bonnie, thanks.

    Jon, I understand.

    Annegb, that was perfect.

    JM, that is a great example.

    NHousewife, good point.

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  19. ji on July 6, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    I greatly appreciate President Packer’s humanity and his teachings. I am unaware of him ever commanding anyone to do anything. Rather, he teaches correct principles in a spirit of brotherly love and mindful of his duty. President Uchtdorf is much more prone to give commandments (such as Stop It). But each has his own background and style, and we benefit from this diversity.

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  20. ji on July 6, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    I learned a while back that I could do a lot for a few, or a little for many, but I couldn’t do everything for everyone. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion. But I remember being in a meeting with President Hinckley several years ago where he said something like, “Some people say if you can’t do something for everyone, you shouldn’t do it for anyone — some spirit of fairness, I suppose — but I like to think that if you can’t do something for everyone, do it for whomever you can.” He was talking about BYU and how the Church cannot provide a college education for all members, but the general theme of the message is more far-reaching, for me. These are my words as my recollection of the thought he expressed.

    Some people are good member missionaries. Some of them would make lousy Scoutmasters. When each person does his or her best according to talents given by the Lord and callings given by the Lord’s servants, the work of the Lord moves forward. It is not necessary for anyone to do everything.

    So in my own personal life and ministry, I recognize that I have limits and I do not usually feel any guilt when I am unable to go to a moving work/service project, for example. I’m doing what I need to do, and those others are doing what they need to do.

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  21. Howard on July 6, 2012 at 12:53 PM

    he teaches correct principles in a spirit of brotherly love and mindful of his duty. I hope you’re not referring to Boyd’s misguided counsel regarding little factories and the reversible nature of same sex attraction Those seem more like examples of being wrong, even insensitive.

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  22. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 6, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    Ji — thanks.

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  23. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 6, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    Howard, stay on topic please.

    You might want to share how you balance between family, causes, and which causes.

    Or about charities that consume other charities or their budgets. You have probably seen a lot of that.

    Or about doing for people rather than to them. Or serving from love rather than guilt or avoidance.

    Let’s bring this back on track.

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  24. Howard on July 6, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    Interesting Stephen, my comment ties to the title and body of the OP and directly addresses Ji’s comment that you apparently liked. What’s wrong with it?

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  25. Andrew S on July 6, 2012 at 2:12 PM

    re 21, 24,

    Howard,

    This post is *not* about your thoughts on President Packer’s words on homosexuality and masturbation. I’m not Stephen, but that comment is off-topic even to me.

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  26. Howard on July 6, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    Andrew,
    I strongly disagree that #21 was off topic. It was not about my thoughts on homosexuality and masturbation, I was addressing Packers wrongness as does the OP and Packer himself and I was also addressing the assertions made in 19. But I will yield to moderation.

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  27. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 6, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Howard, why not answer one of my questions. That would bring you back on topic and plays to one of your strong suits.

    You have committed yourself heart and soul to helping people in the economic underclass in the United States. How do you deal with your own limits, the endless demands and find personal balance?

    I only asked the questions because it seems like you have a lot to offer.

    Themes, especially limits and how you show love and respond to limits yet accomplish things.

    I would like to hear more about you. I can get criticism about Packer anywhere.

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  28. Howard on July 6, 2012 at 5:53 PM

    Stephen wrote: How do you deal with your own limits, the endless demands and find personal balance? The journey through what some call enlightenment takes you through a philosophical examination, deconstruction and demolition of the concepts of the material world and your own ego. Reducing your ego and internal noise makes it much easier to hear the Spirit. You are then taught to walk in the Spirit over a period of years and once your lessons are completed the Spirit knows you need to eat and sleep and time for loving relationships and he makes accommodations for them. So today balancing is a non issue, but until then you might not do any of this for extended periods of time. The training is not what TBMs would expect or call charitable. It is often difficult, even harsh and it is never without stress which is used to accelerate learning and retention. Guilt becomes a concept lost to the past. Anger, fear, disgust, lust, jealously, selfishness and possessiveness are greatly reduced no longer requiring willpower to manage. Selling your stuff and following Him is just the beginning of letting go of this temporally necessary mortal plane movie set that absorbs so much of our attention with it’s diversions and entertainments. Our spiritual connection is inversely related to our attachment to and involvement with the material world. It is just necessary illusion, an illustration that is helpful in learning stepping stone lessons useful in eternal life but we take it far too seriously. I once lived an upper middle class lifestyle. I owned a home on a lake, fancy cars, boats, airplanes and vacation homes. No more. I just inherited the use of a car and the use of a house. In the past I would have been preoccupied with making them nicer or buying something better. The car is 10 years old but has low mileage, the house is 38 years old and has never been redecorated! But I’m grateful for the use of them. I value organization and cleanliness so I cleaned and serviced the car and cleaned a bedroom for my use, the rest will be done as time allows but it is not high priority. When you are lead by the Spirit opportunities to do His work find their way to you like a magnet and unfold in front of you as you walk His path and that is my priority today and every day.

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  29. Stephen Marsh on July 6, 2012 at 8:57 PM

    Thanks Howard. And thanks for http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOo2QxJJKvs

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  30. Howard on July 6, 2012 at 9:15 PM

    You’re welcome Stephen.

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  31. Bryan Hinton on July 11, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    Thanks Stephen for your insightful comments. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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