Friday, February 15, 2008

Teaching and Inspiration

I'm still serving as 2nd counselor in our Stake Sunday School presidency, and I still have no idea what it is we do for a living. I'm not trying to be ironic about it. I'm merely pointing out that after nearly two years, the face of the Sunday School has changed to where our positions seem to matter less than perhaps they once did.

We had been a presidency only for about six months when the Church announced that they were doing away with the position of Teacher Improvement Coordinator (or TIC). This stymied us — and me, in particular — because my special assignment in the presidency was to "train the trainers," so to speak. When that position was retired, I was left with occasional visits to wards on Sunday, and our semi-annual Auxilliary Training meetings.

I bring this up, incidentally, because of something Mrs. Woody has experienced lately. At the turn of every year we receive new manuals (we call them "books" now) for Priesthood and Relief Society. Since we're both using the same book in our 2nd and 3rd week instruction, it's been fascinating to me how differently the two organizations approach a given topic. I'm not just referring to the stereotypical difference between Priesthood (read it, discuss it, deep-six it) versus Relief Society (doilies, graphics, object lessons) either. Mrs. Woody and I both teach 3rd hour on the same schedule. (This is my moonlighting job because it comes from the quorum.) Our approaches to any given topic tend to be vastly different, because we both understand our intended audiences and what will help them learn the main objectives of those lessons. We constantly bounce ideas off of each other, and we even occasionally use the same material, but our lessons are always quite different in execution.

In the front of each manual (or book) we find counsel from the brethren not to stray from the material presented in that manual. There are valid reasons for this counsel, primary of which is that these manuals are prepared under inspiration and give us valuable guidance regarding the topic at hand. My stake Sunday School boss takes the view that nothing should ever be presented in a class that isn't found in the manual. He has been in classes where a teacher may completely ignore the manual and take their material from, say, some book McConkie wrote forty years ago. He has asked us to pass this counsel along to the wards we visit, and we have done so.

At the same time, I find myself in a quandry as an instructor. I have never been able to stick completely with the manual. I have always taken the position that, as an instructor, I am also allowed a certain amount of inspiration in preparing my lessons. So long as I am careful to use materials that support what is presented in the manual, I feel that this is acceptable. Mrs. Woody has a similar view, and her style includes the use of stories that help illustrate the quotes she focuses on in her lessons.

When we received the Joseph Smith book this year, Mrs. Woody was determined to try it the way she felt the manual wanted her to. In other words, she was going to try to stick to the manual and not use the stories that have been such a huge part of her lesson plan. She has had two lessons so far this year, and has felt as if she weren't reaching her class the way she wanted. We discussed this after our first lesson in January and decided that it might have been one of those occasions where someone needed to hear that lesson, even if we ourselves didn't feel terrific about it. This past Sunday, though, she still didn't feel quite right about her lesson and we discussed it again.

Drawing on my long experience as an instructor in the Church, and perhaps despite the counsel I've received from my Sunday School president, I told Mrs. Woody about my views on personal inspiration in the preparation of our lessons. I told her that, as her husband, I supported her decisions to teach by the Spirit and take those lessons whereever he seemed to point her. She appreciated that advice and felt that this was in line with her own thoughts and feelings.

Her inspiration in all of this is our new President and Prophet of the Church, President Monson. Mrs. Woody found a quote by Orson Scott Card describing precisely why President Monson's reputation as a storyteller is a good thing for the Church. Key quote:
We have learned to expect that a talk by President Monson will include many stories about real people. I've heard some of my intellectual friends complain that it's all fluff — but that is only because they don't understand that the stories are the deep and important doctrines[.]

That's why Christ taught using stories.
There's so much more to Card's explanation, and I heartily recommend you read the entire thing. This quote, however, was exactly the vindication (or justification, if you prefer) that Mrs. Woody needed. If our living Prophet of the Lord uses stories in his teaching, and is, in fact, only mirroring the Lord's earthly ministry, why shouldn't she be able to continue to use stories to illustrate her lessons?

One thing I've learned about the Church over the years: Rigidity has its place, particularly where saving ordinances are concerned. There can be no wavering when administering the sacrament, for example. The baptismal prayer is so essential to our individual salvation that we say it, word for word, as it was dictated by the Lord to his servants on earth.

But nearly everything else has some wiggle room built into it. I have known a man in my life who was able to serve in the temple, even though he had a Word of Wisdom problem. Clearly he had worked that out between himself, his bishop, and the Lord. I have heard just about every interpretation possible of what the phrase "love thy neighbor as thyself" means, and they are probably all correct as they pertain to the progression and understanding of the individuals involved. I myself have made mistakes in my instruction over the years — again, based on my level of progression and understanding at the time — and have never been called for "false doctrine." I have been corrected, certainly, but the people who heard me probably realized that it was never my intention to deliberately lead my class astray.

One of the problems the Israelites had throughout the years in which they labored under Mosaic law was their increasingly rigid interpretation of that law. Had they restricted themselves to observance of the law and an understanding of the intent of that law, they would perhaps never have had organizations such as the Pharisees leading them astray.

So Mrs. Woody will prepare her next lesson under the direction of the Spirit and allow herself to find just the right material that will support the topic. My money says she'll probably find a story or two. (For the record, she has never used a doily in her lessons since I've known her.) She will likely feel better about her lesson, and the sisters will respond as they have in the past. They will give her the attention that says "that's a wonderful story, and, you know, it reminds me of something that happened to me..."

Which thing is, I believe, very pleasing to the Lord.

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