September 2011 Visiting Teaching Message: Strengthening Families by Increasing Spirituality

The “F” word. Few words cause as much passion, angst, anger, joy or otherwise. Yet in the church, we proclaim the “F” word almost constantly as a part of doctrine. It is a loaded gun for good and for bad. It is something we all talk about, we all want and at some time, we all do.  Yes, I am talking about…. Family. Family is a rubbery term at best; even within the church, the definition of family comes in varied terms of a mortal family, an eternal family, a heavenly family, a ward family (wherein the bishop is the father of a ward) and for those in University wards, you may get “assigned” membership in FHE family groups. Even at work or in sports, a branch or a team can be described as a family unit. In consideration of this, you can see why I prefer the mathematical definition of the term “family”: a group of curves whose equations differ from a given equation in the values assigned to constraints in each curve.

In applying this concept to the more common definition of family, I am comfortable in defining family like this: A group of individuals who share values within constraints of a common group. The values are not necessarily perfectly matched but shared- as in a team, the team or the group is the commonality.

We know that the mythical Mormon family has two parents who were RMs, married in the temple and BYU graduates who now have many happy, healthy children who nearly rear themselves. But in reality, the church is more like an Aesopian collection of single parents, mixed member families, divorcees, widows, couples without children, and singles. Because of this, and because mythical ideology of family can be uncomfortable, don’t fall into the trap of teaching this like it is a lesson on how to have a fantasy family. No one has a fantasy family; let that fairy tale die. Instead, I encourage you to apply real-life family ideology to this message.

So what is that? Consider the story of Ruth. This story is usually told with emphasis on Ruth’s devotion to Naomi, but I think there is something more to it.  In summary: Ruth of Moab marries Mahlon. Orpha, also a Moabite marries Chilion. Mahlon and Chilion are the sons of Naomi and Elimelech; they are Israelites. At this time, women cannot own property. With famine in the land, all of the men die. According to the laws of Levirate Marriage, if a married man should die, the dead man’s brother would marry the widow and raise a family to the dead man, meaning all children born in this covenant would be considered sons of the deceased first husband. Most importantly, the firstborn son to this union obtains the birthright and would inherit all the property and rights that should have been the deceased husband’s. The problem with Naomi, Ruth and Orpha is that all of the men are dead; they must marry and bear sons or face poverty.

Naomi is too old or unable to have children, so she tells Ruth and Orpha to return to Moab so they can be remarried and thus be provided for, knowing this would leave herself destitute. Orpha leaves, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi. Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem in order for Ruth to find work.

I think this is important to note- Ruth had absolute strength and sense of spiritual authority and ownership of the family unit she was in at that moment in time; she knew Naomi would starve if left on her own, so Ruth took responsibility to remain with Naomi and find work. I think she believed that it would have been a sin of omission to leave Naomi, and that her righteous action would not only save Naomi, but would be a blessing to her as well.

In the end of the story, Naomi helps Ruth in a ritual that results in Ruth’s marriage to Boaz.  Boaz recognises the situation that Ruth and Naomi are in, and says: “Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day.” It is my understanding in this , that Boaz declared it was Ruth’s chosen responsibility to ensure that her family (Naomi) was not destitute.  This was not Boaz’s responsibility. In some Jewish traditions, the story is seen in multiple layers of spiritual devotion: Ruth providing for Naomi for her survival, then Boaz ensuring Ruth would complete the task, risking his own family lineage and property, in addition to the Ruth’s example of spiritual devotion to Naomi’s religion. In Ruth 4, 13-17:

“So Boaz took Ruth, and she was his wife: and when he went in unto her, the Lord gave her conception, and she bare a son. And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel.  And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age: for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi; and they called his name Obed: he is the father of Jesse, the father of David.”

Biologically, the child is born of Boaz and Ruth, yet it is as though Ruth is a surrogate, because she gives the child to Naomi, and it is declared that “there is a son born to Naomi.” Ruth did more than save Naomi from starvation; she gave Naomi a son, so that Naomi’s family line would continue. Rabbis have been know to use this her story to show that true conversion is not judged by race, birth or ancestry, but by acceptance of God and the mitzvot (commandments). Surrogacy-friendly religious communities use the story as an argument for recognition of children born via a gestational surrogate to be of the spiritual lineage of the intended parents (not the birth mother). I think both interpretations are divine; both reinforce my belief that family is not limited to birth or blood lines.

This is most certainly a very powerful example of spirituality strengthening a family; it is in fact a case where Ruth’s spiritual determination saved and created a family line for Naomi when all seemed lost. I don’t suggest that everyone needs to do something as risky and utterly selfless as facing starvation and carrying a child for someone else. But. Although there was no legal obligation or familial line that connected Ruth and Naomi, they became a family unit and worked together in an exceptionally powerful manner. We can emulate this in our own families. What Ruth did was very non-traditional, yet it is regarded as important enough to be recorded in the Bible and names her in the lineage preceding Christ. The righteous contribution that you make in your own family unit  -no matter what your family unit looks like-   is of spiritual and powerful importance.

We are all in a family right now. Married, single, married and childless, divorced and childless, single parents, adopted parents, adopted children, married with children…. we are all in a family unit of one type or another. Think of it this way: in the premortal existence, we were in our heavenly family. We came to earth and have a birth family. We go to college and have a roommates family. We go on a mission and our companions are family, we have dear friends who are a family, we marry and have a family, we have children and we have a new family… To define beloved friends, companions or roommates as anything less than family is an insult; I personally would not be where I am today without friends who are closer to me than I can imagine any blood line. So, own what type of “F”amily you ARE, and ignore the dream of the perfected family. Visiting teaching message serves spirituality best with a side of reality.

Biting into the message:

Julie B. Beck, Relief Society general president, said: “There has grown in me an overwhelming testimony of the value of daughters of God. … I have felt that there has never been a greater need for increased faith and personal righteousness. There has never been a greater need for strong families and homes.”

Sisters can help create strong homes and families as they act on personal revelation. “The ability to qualify for, receive, and act on personal revelation is the single most important skill that can be acquired in this life,” Sister Beck continued. “Qualifying for the Lord’s Spirit begins with a desire for that Spirit and implies a certain degree of worthiness. Keeping the commandments, repenting, and renewing covenants made at baptism lead to the blessing of always having the Lord’s Spirit with us. Making and keeping temple covenants also adds spiritual strength and power to a woman’s life. Many answers to difficult questions are found by reading the scriptures because the scriptures are an aid to revelation. … Daily prayer is essential to having the Lord’s Spirit with us.”

Prayer is pretty basic, yet essential, so I am glad it is included in this message. I absolutely agree that daily prayer is essential in any form; kneeling, whilst driving, meditating, etc. The problem is, as always, for the rest of the message, Beck is addressing women who she seems to think have time to read scriptures, who enjoy the temple and feel “a certain degree of worthiness”. Most women I know are busy, stressed and have varying degrees of testimony and guilt. So, I like the words of Susan Arrington Hill:

“May I have patience in battle, Lord, and remember to capitalise on the daily portion of my joy. It is right for me…. for now…this life. I gain line upon line, but I am progressing toward my potential. Thank thee. (Exponent II, Winter 1978, p. 7)

Mixed in a with a scripture from the message:

Doctrine and Covenants 19:38 Pray always, and I will pour out my Spirit upon you, and great shall be your blessing—yea, even more than if you should obtain treasures of earth and corruptibleness to the extent thereof.

So, as we strive for our eternal potential, remember prayer and embrace joy. Perfection will wait; this is the time for personal, spiritual, individual progress which should not be measured by anyone but yourself. Back to the message:

We also strengthen our family members spiritually as we help them understand Heavenly Father’s eternal plan. “What can we do to better prepare our children spiritually for their eternal roles?” asked Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Perhaps the most inclusive answer is: Teach them how to live the principles of the gospel.” This teaching comes through daily prayer, scripture study, and family mealtimes as well as weekly family home evening and Church attendance. Elder Ballard explains: “We prepare each day, right now, for eternal life. If we are not preparing for eternal life, we are preparing for something less, perhaps something far less.”

Okay. This is a very limited question as it implies that all of us have children of a pliable age, which therefore disregards empty-nesters, childless couples, singles… in other words, it ignores a huge chunk of the population. So, rather than focusing on the narrow audience of only those with children at home, I suggest applying these ideas in whatever your family is now; i.e. work mates, a husband, friends, ward members, and yes, even adopted or natural born children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, because…

“God has a view of women, who they are, what they do incomparably, and what eternally they will be. Women must seize that vision and embrace it, or they – and the human family with it- will perish.  –Judy Dushku, Exponent II, Summer 1999, p. 5.

Embrace who you and the human family you are in now! You do not need to be perfect or do everything perfectly. But you can own that every effort you make for good is recognised and brings you closer to God. Being a good listener, a hard worker, a reliable friend, and trustworthy confidante, or a mother who is dedicated– are ALL good things; one is not better than another. Don’t belittle any one thing as not enough. Own the goodness in you. You are irreplaceable; which means that you have irreplaceable goodness.

The history section teaches that we are responsible for our own spirituality. So… what works in your family, and what your family looks like may be different and incomprehensible to anyone else. But you can and should still invite the spirit to be present in your family unit as a witness of your own conversion to Christ; you do not need to be traditional or perfect, you only need to be a servant of Christ. It doesn’t matter what your “F”amily looks like; by increasing your own personal righteousness, you will be in a position to serve and protect those around you. In this, your work, home, personal, and family relationships will be strengthened.

In short, embrace your own version of the “F” word, invite the spirit and love it.

How can prayer help me to strengthen my relationships? How can I better understand that Heavenly Father loves me and my atypical and/or imperfect family?


[1] Collins English Dictionary, Sydney, Australia.

Spunky

Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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15 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Wow, Spunky! What a masterful commentary on this message! I LOVE your exegesis of the Ruth and Naomi story. Awesome. If I ever have to teach a lesson on family, I’m going to use that story.

    • spunky says:

      Thanks, Caroline! I think the story could also be comparative to the modern day situation of grandmothers who raise grandchildren as well… the obligation, love and duty Ruth felt is probably similar to the grandmother who cannot adandon a grandchild when for whatever reason the parents are not available. Such a beautiful story on so many levels. I am so glad it is included in the bible 🙂

  2. Laurie says:

    I love your definition of family.

  3. Ultimately, we are one family. We are all children of God. I think it is so easy within church to think of the traditional unit of mom, dad and kids. Yet, we’re consistently commanded, encouraged, to learn how to love our extended family – our neighbors and even our perceived enemies.

    I have five children I’ve given birth to. Yet, I have far more who I loved and cared for in various relationships over the years.

    Daily prayer and keeping a close relationship with the Holy Ghost allows us to see those who need family and teaches us how to love and serve them the way they need to be loved and served. I’m grateful to those who have done the same for me, in adopting me as part of their family when my own was so far away.

    We’re all in this thing called life together.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you, Krisin Millis. I agree. We are all in this together. Thank you for loving and caring for those around you… as someone who has been looked after by a number of non-related “mothers” in my different walks of life, I thank you.

  4. Alisa says:

    Loved your analysis here of Ruth and Naomi’s story. There is so much power here in how you describe family.

    I don’t have anything to add more than saying that I feel enriched.

  5. Corktree says:

    What another absolutely beautiful message Spunky. I just love your interpretation of Ruth and Naomi. It’s one of the few stories of the OT that I have memorized and go back to often for different meanings in my own life as well. Also love that quote by Susan Arrington Hill.

  6. Quimby says:

    You just blow me away, all the time. I’d never considered the Ruth and Naomi story like that before. What a wonderful analysis!

    With family, I often return to my mother’s praise of being a homemaker – That no two homemakers will do it the same way; that some will love making the most beautiful, gourmet meals; some will relish creating a house that looks like it belongs in a magazine; some will create the most beautiful gardens; some will use their skills to sew beautiful clothes; some will focus on keeping an immaculately clean house; etc. etc. – but no one way is *the* right way, that you can focus on what you want to focus on and still be a good homemaker. Family is the same – both in configuration and in interests; but no one family is *the* right way to be; families have that freedom to focus on what they want to focus on, and still be effective, good families.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you so much, Quimby! I love reading your words, and am always so happy when you make comments anywhere…. you always have such honest and powerful insights!!

      I agree that there is no one right way to have a family- heaven knows my family, my house, my hair, my everything… probably looks very wacky to everyone else! And what does their opinion matter? Nada. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  7. April says:

    Such a wonderful explanation of the book of Ruth. I agree that it is important to see beyond basic biology when considering one’s family.

  8. Sam Dauniika says:

    The Lords law on families covers all the family situations and relationships you mentioned. HIS house is a house of order. By all accounts your reasoning sounds feasible but thank goodness through our own personal revelation we can receive counsel from the Lord himself. I have the family you so readily felt you needed to defend. They have already been defended, every situation you mentioned and more, through the Atonment, there is no need for any extra help from you but good thoughts. Concentrate on your you and your own.

  9. Kim Siever says:

    I’m giving a lesson on Ruth this Sunday, and this post has given me a lot if insight. Thanks for writing it!

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