In my church it is common practice to begin meetings with a ‘spiritual thought.’ These are typically a verse or two shared from the scriptures, or a clip from a recent talk by a General Authority, a faith promoting story, a short poem, etc. I’ve never liked this practice. It’s always come across as shallow to me. When the responsibility would come to me, I would often find myself struggling to find something unique to share at the very last minute. In my experience it was never very faith promoting.
After being a Bishop for a few years I decided I wanted to shake the practice up. I asked all the leaders in our congregation to start every meeting by asking their participants to share personal spiritual experiences, not just nice thoughts about the gospel. This was incredibly awkward for most involved – at least initially. First, people kept wanting to revert back to the old method, sharing a thought about or by someone else. Asking people to share a personal experience is much harder. It takes thought, preparation, but most importantly it requires the speaker to have a relationship with God such that they are actually having spiritual experiences.
Growing up in the gospel I missed the lessons on personal revelation. As a youth I could never claim to have had a ‘spiritual experience.’ That probably was due to my lifestyle, lack of faith, and simply not being ready for it. Whatever the reason, I had heard about the Spirit touching people, but I’d never felt it myself.
In our faith, we believe that God can communicate with all of us, individually. Help you throughout your day, help you accomplish your goals and dreams, keep you safe and help you help others. My first experience with the Spirit was when I was 18. I had been praying for some time to know that God was real, that he cared about me personally, that the Book of Mormon was true. I prayed for weeks and received nothing that I could claim as an answer. I finally humbled myself and became truly sincere in my desires, not simply wanting to know just to know. I really wanted to know that God was real. My answer only came when I was fully committed to following God’s will, no matter where it led me.
For me it came as an overwhelming feeling. A feeling like I’d never had before and truly so strong I haven’t experienced anything quite like it since. It was a ‘burning in my bosom,’ but more than that – I knew. I knew He was answering my prayer. I knew, all at once, that He cared for me. He provided His son and a plan for me to return to live with him again. He provided the scriptures to help me find my way home to him. He loved me. And since then, I’ve been trying to hold true to my promise to follow Him in all He has asked.
But that was the BIG one. That was being born again. I didn’t expect people at the beginning of a weekly presidency meeting to share their conversion story. All I was hoping for was the small stuff. In reality, the Spirit talks to us all the time. Until I was 18 I hadn’t ever recognized it. Looking back now I benefited from it’s influence probably every day, but didn’t put it together until much later. My hope, in asking our members to share spiritual experiences, was to start doing what I missed as a youth – teach our members that the Spirit can guide you daily – you just have to listen.
A day doesn’t go by when I’m not prodded to call a particular person, stop to help someone on the road, send someone a note, or say something specific to someone. And I strive to act upon the promptings I receive. I’d like to say that I’m valiant enough to act upon every one, but I’m not. I’m often too scared to say the things I know I should say. I try though, and I believe I’m getting better at listening for those promptings and acting upon them.
What about most people though? Are they like I was, before I turned 18 – never having had an experience they could pin to the Spirit? My guess is most would say they fall into that category. As a Bishop we are asked specifically to focus on the youth program in the church. Make sure they are coming closer to God and building a relationship with him. I believe that’s why I was prompted to ask our leaders to share spiritual experiences, not spiritual thoughts. I want our youth to understand that others around them are having spiritual experiences. Others are being prompted, helped, comforted, and lead. I want our youth to hear the stories of their leaders, yes, but mostly I want our youth to hear their friends talk about how they were prompted to do something, speak to someone, strengthened to stop a bad habit, etc. If Jill hears Susie talk about an experience like that, I imagine Jill thinking to herself, ‘If Susie can feel the Spirit, I wonder if I can too?’ Instilling a desire within them to try and be a person who feels the spirit – that’s success in my book.
OK, with all that pre-story you are now prepared to hear why I started this blog post in the first place.
As a Bishop I meet with the 16-18 year old young men every Sunday. I help teach their lessons, and participate in their activities on a regular basis. I’m actively engaged with this group. And we start each class on Sunday asking if anyone has had a spiritual experience they would like to share. In the beginning this went over pretty poorly. Like driving South on Highway 5, just before you get to Kettleman City – everyone held their breath. We would often sit there for a few minutes, looking at each other. We have a pretty big group too, upwards of ten 16-18 year olds at any time. We also have 3 leaders in that meeting, me, the Young Men’s President and the Advisor of the Priest Quorum. So, it can be a pretty full room. And still… we would sit.
Ultimately if none of the youth had anything to say, one of the leaders would jump in. But this only happened a couple of times. Soon one or two of the guys would slowly raise their hand and share. You could tell they were wondering if what they experienced would qualify as a spiritual experience. Feeling prompted to have a gospel discussion with a friend, not playing sports on Sunday, help they received on tests. With our encouragement they learned that there were many times they felt the Spirit in their lives. And that leads me to what happened last Sunday.
We started our meeting and after making some assignments (who would take the Sacrament to one of the widows who was feeling ill, who would help with the chairs in the Primary, and who was assigned to bring brownies to our next meeting) we asked the question: Has anyone had a spiritual experience they would like to share?
After a few seconds a hand went up, he shared that the spirit had been prompting him to talk to a friend about the gospel and he didn’t think he should avoid the prompting any longer.
Another hand went up, he shared that a friend had asked him about his feelings on the purpose of life. He felt moved to share his understanding of the plan of salvation.
Another hand went up, he spoke of just last night, how it was the last performance of the school musical. The lead had lost her voice and he prayed that she might be comforted, but he spoke of how HE was comforted and the musical was able to go on because she had gotten her voice back just in time.
The last hand went up, he shared a story that happened this last week. His gym class was running the mile and all students had to run it under a certain time, or fail the class. He spoke of how he helped another student make it the last two laps and qualify, and how he felt the spirit witness to him that what he had done was right.
WOW! Four of our youth sharing their personal spiritual experiences in one day! I was ecstatic. Who needed a lesson? If we could take the whole time talking about how each of them felt moved by the Spirit, THEY would do all the teaching. And that would be a perfect day.
Later that afternoon I went to Bishop’s Youth Committee meeting, where yet another youth had the opportunity to share a personal spiritual experience. She spoke about how she had the opportunity to recently meet one of the Apostles. She spoke of the hug he gave her, and the comforting words he spoke to her. How the Spirit confirmed to her that he was called of God as a special witness of Christ. How grateful she was for that experience.
What a day. I’m writing this to say how grateful I am that I followed that initial prompting to have our people share their personal experiences. I know I’ve been blessed by it. It’s taken a few years, but it’s finally paying off.