Tonight, I decided to open to a random page of the Old Testament, and spend time studying whatever chapter I landed in. The initial verses of the chapter startled me: “Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the LORD. Therefore thus saith the LORD God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 23: 1–2, emphasis added). The footnotes in the LDS scriptures add that the term “visited” can be interpreted as “been mindful of.”
The New International Version of the Bible reads this way: “Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: ‘Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:2, emphasis added).
I live in a single’s ward in Provo Utah. I doubt that any other setting on earth provides as many opportunities to teach. There are Sunday School lessons, Priesthood lessons, talks in Sacrament meeting, home teaching messages, spiritual thoughts during home evening or ward prayer. Few people can spend several years in a Provo singles ward without having plenty of opportunities to master the art of teaching. Well… mastering the art may take a lifetime, but we certainly have plenty of opportunities to practice.
I doubt many of us are actively scattering the flock or driving people from Christ. However, have we sometimes neglected to nourish them, to bestow care upon them, or to have been mindful of them? I know I have. I am often guilty of not taking opportunities to teach seriously. I sometimes (unintentionally) treat spiritual thoughts at ward prayer, home evening, and home teaching as more of a ritual than anything else. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been asked to give a spiritual thought, and have simply read a random, semi-relevant scripture, and spoken for one or two minutes about it. Afterwards, neither I or anybody else thinks about the experience again.
I am reminded of a story that Jeffrey R. Holland told during a worldwide leadership training meeting in 2007. He heard the story from President Packer. So this story is third or fourth hand, but I suspect it’s pretty reliable. Either way, it makes the point pretty clear:
I am reminded of a story President Packer told the Quorum of the Twelve some years ago. He talked about a severe winter in Utah when the snow was excessive and had driven the deer herds down very low into some of the valleys. Some of them were trapped by fences and circumstances as they were taken out of their natural habitat, and well-meaning, perfectly responsive, capable agencies tried to respond by feeding those deer to get them through the crisis of the winter. They brought in hay and dumped it everywhere; it was about as good as they could do under the circumstances. Later an immense number of those deer were found dead. The people who handled those animals afterward said that their stomachs were full of hay, but they had starved to death. They had been fed, but they had not been nourished.
Is it possible that every time we haphazardly throw together a home teaching message, or a spiritual thought of some kind, or even a Sacrament meeting talk, we may be feeding people, but not nourishing them? Is it possible that although we may be filling up the 5, 10, or 15 minutes we’ve been assigned, we may not actually be bringing people to Christ? I know that I have been guilty of this, and for this reason, these two verses struck me deeply.
In Jeremiah 23, the Lord gives at least two relevant reasons as to why we might be failing as teachers: (1) we aren’t speaking on His behalf, and (2) we aren’t inviting people to change their lives. I’ve been guilty of both.
First, there have been a number of times when I’ve given a talk in Sacrament meeting that was calculated to awe the audience, rather than nourish the congregation. In those instances, I wasn’t speaking for the Lord, I was speaking for myself. In the words the Lord uses in Jeremiah, failed teachers “speak a vision of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:16). When we don’t take the time to seriously, ponderously ask God what He would have us teach, we will likely end up teaching from our own heart, rather than God’s. We will be among the prophets that the Lord warns about in Jeremiah: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied” (Jeremiah 23:21). In other words, we will be speaking and teaching things that the Lord has not given us to teach.
Second, there are a number of times when I’ve shared a spiritual thought or message (especially when I’m home teaching) that did not include any invitation to live better. In Jeremiah, the Lord says that if the teachers of Israel had asked the Lord what to teach, “then they should have turned [the people] from their evil way, and from the evil of their doings” (Jeremiah 23:22). In other words, when we studiously ask God what we should teach, we will end up inviting people to live their lives differently in some way. Even if we’re home teaching the most righteous, dedicated person in the world, there is nonetheless some way to invite them to deepen their relationship with Christ (even if it is nothing more that an invitation to do an extra act of kindness for someone that week). Most of us, however, have a great many things we can do better in our lives. Preach My Gospel says that good teachers will “warn people of the consequences of sin” and “invite them to make and keep commitments” (Preach My Gospel, page 11). In fact, Preach My Gospel repeatedly emphasizes that good teachers will “invite people to act.”
I’m going to commit to do better. Next time I’m called to speak in Sacrament meeting, I’m going to fast and pray that I can speak what God wants me to speak… even if it’s not as eloquent as something I might come up with on my own. I want to be able to know that I am there on God’s errand, and not my own. Next time I prepare a message for home teaching, I am going to pray and seek guidance from the Spirit as to what they need to hear. In addition, I’m going to center my message on an invitation to come unto Christ. By inviting people to live differently (even if it’s simply to spend more time in the scriptures, or to think about the Atonement of Christ, or to pinpoint a specific habit they feel they need to change), I hope that I can do more than just fill up the time. I hope I can make the time mean something.
Let’s commit to be better at (1) teaching what the Lord wants us to teach, and (2) inviting people to live better lives as a result. Let’s commit to be more “mindful” of those we are teaching, and take more care when preparing our lessons, our talks, and our messages. Let’s commit to nourishing people, rather than simply filling up our time with information. It’ll be fun. =)