Friday, February 06, 2015

Lessons I Learned From My Stake Patriarch Father

Dad was far from a perfect man. But it felt right to most of those that knew him when he was called to be a stake patriarch when he was in his mid-50s, even if it was the first time I had ever seen Dad intimidated by a church calling. Dad didn't talk much about his regular spiritual and visionary experiences, but everyone that knew him was aware that he had a special kind of contact with heaven. It just kind of exuded from him.

Over the next couple of decades Dad gave about 750 patriarchal blessings. Since everything was done on paper in those days and our family was transitioning to the computer era, I built software that let Mom use word processing to produce a patriarchal blessing document that looked sufficiently official to be acceptable to the Church.

The blessing process
Despite Dad's expansive capacities with the English language (including a working vocabulary greater than most English PhDs), he always felt self conscious about the fact that English was not his native language. He often felt tongue tied when voicing a blessing, finding himself incapable of adequately expressing in English the impressions he was receiving from the Holy Spirit.

As a side note, I think that often happens even with those that are very fluent with the language. Human language in our telestial sphere is not always up to the task of expressing celestial thought. It can be like trying to depict a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space.

Blessing recipients would sometimes express concern that they thought that some of the wording on the printed document differed from what they remembered Dad saying when the blessing was voiced. Dad would then explain that a stake patriarch is entitled to as much inspiration when developing the document as he is when speaking the words of the blessing.

The process went something like this. Dad used a voice recorder when giving each patriarchal blessing. Mom would then listen to the recording and transcribe what she heard into a word processing document. We tried voice recognition software, but at that time it was insufficiently mature to do a very good job. Besides, Dad's charming German accent — think Pres. Dieter F. Uchtdorf — gave the software fits.

Mom would then print the document for Dad to review. Dad would make changes with a pen or pencil. Mom would transcribe the changes in the word processor and reprint the document for Dad's review.

Although Dad was a genius at electrical engineering, he never had any interest in learning how to use a PC. That was Mom's world. So Dad only worked with the printed version rather than the computer screen. The revision process would usually go through two rounds before Dad was satisfied. The final document would then be printed, signed, and delivered to the recipient. A copy would be sent to Church headquarters.

Dad once heard someone suggest that the wording of a patriarchal blessing would be exactly the same regardless of which patriarch gave the blessing. Dad retorted that this was poppycock. Very rarely did the Spirit present precise wording to his mind. One stake patriarch has explained, "When he places his hands on your head to give you a blessing, Heavenly Father, through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, gives the patriarch ideas, concepts, and sometimes even specific words for you. The patriarch then includes those concepts and ideas in your blessing."

Interpreting patriarchal blessings
Sometimes Dad made fairly major revisions to a blessing. But he explained that by the time the document was finished, the wording was as close to what the Spirit had communicated as Dad could humanly make it. Dad was very painstaking about this, although, he knew that his final wording was only adequate and that the recipient would need heaven's help to interpret the blessing.

Pres. Thomas S. Monson has said, "Length and language do not a patriarchal blessing make. It is the Spirit that conveys the true meaning." In True to the Faith we are told in essence that no one other than the recipient, with the help of divine inspiration should interpret a patriarchal blessing. Pres. James E. Faust told this story about understanding patriarchal blessings:
"This was well illustrated in my father’s patriarchal blessing. He was told in his blessing that he would be blessed with “many beautiful daughters.” He and my mother became the parents of five sons. No daughters were born to them, but they treated the wives of their sons as daughters. Some years ago when we had a family gathering, I saw my father’s daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters moving about, tending to the food and ministering to the young children and the elderly, and the realization came to me that Father’s blessing literally had been fulfilled. He has indeed many beautiful daughters. The patriarch who gave my father his blessing had spiritual vision to see beyond this life. The dividing line between time and eternity disappeared."
In other words, we should study our patriarchal blessing the same way we should study our scriptures. Understanding scriptures and patriarchal blessings takes serious work — study, pondering, and prayer. We are to "treasure in [our] heart" the precious words of personal scripture in our patriarchal blessing and live to be worthy to receive the blessings promised. But we cannot expect the scant words of the blessing to convey the full meaning intended. That must come over time as we repeatedly seek personal revelation on the matter.

Years ago I found that I had become lax in reviewing my patriarchal blessing. Although I was quite familiar with it, a long time had gone by since I had last read it. I don't have a photographic memory. I can memorize, but it takes work and regular review. My blessing covers about one side of a legal size sheet of paper. The patriarch that gave my blessing was a lawyer, so I thought it was funny that the blessing came on a legal size sheet of paper.

I had replicated my blessing in a size that fit inside my scriptures. But I still found that I didn't review it very often. So I took to memorizing it. It helped that I was already familiar with the wording. Over the space of a few weeks I was able to get it down pretty solid. For years I have repeated it to myself at least weekly, often while showering, because that is otherwise a kind of mindless task. This has greatly expanded my understanding of my patriarchal blessing. I feel like I often garner new insights from my blessing as I walk through new phases of life.

The results of patriarchal blessings
Over the years that Dad was giving patriarchal blessings I often had opportunities to see blessing documents in process. I was Mom's main tech support guy, so I frequently helped her when something didn't go quite right. Sometimes I made Dad's revisions for Mom. On a few occasions I transcribed blessings. I saw some profound counsel and promises of marvelous blessings during these processes. Sometimes the fulfillment of these blessings has come to my knowledge.

A dental hygienist recently told me that Dad had given her blessing. She described the fulfillment of certain blessings that are probably too sacred to share here. A man once told us how Dad had used certain words in describing the man's future wife that the youth thought applied to his girlfriend at the time. But the printed blessing used different wording that very accurately described the woman he ended up marrying years later.

My own patriarchal blessing is chock full of fine counsel, divine information, and promised blessings. It would be inappropriate to share precise examples here, but I can say that several very specifically worded promises have been very literally fulfilled. This makes me confident that if I am faithful the remaining promises will be fulfilled in the Lord's due time.

Dedication to the calling
The calling of stake patriarch was one Dad took seriously. In the early days Dad gave blessings in the living room. But after a couple of us had grown and moved out, Dad knocked out the wall between the living room and the adjacent bedroom. He installed beautiful French doors and walled up the bedroom's former doorway to make a very dignified office in which to give blessings. Ever the handyman — a trait that bypassed me — Dad did all of the work himself.

Mom took Dad's calling seriously as well. During my young adult years, Mom loved getting her expanding family together for Sunday afternoon meals. It was a phase when children were getting married and grandchildren were being born. Many of us still lived close enough to visit frequently. We'd hang out together for hours after Sunday dinner.

But as more and more people came to Dad for patriarchal blessings, he frequently found it best to give blessings on Sundays. It was a sacrifice for Mom to tell us that her Sunday gatherings had to come to an end. She wouldn't get to see her expanding progeny as often as she would have liked. But she did this to support Dad's calling.

An interesting insight into Dad's dedication to his calling came when he was once asked if he ever felt personally unprepared to give a blessing. "Yes," he replied. But he explained that the gospel held all of the answers to this conundrum. Through the grace of Christ, following sincere repentance, prayer, and pondering, he could deliver the blessing despite his personal failings. After all, as explained by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, "Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with."

I doubt that many of those that came to Dad for a patriarchal blessing had any idea how much personal preparation, scripture study, prayer, and even fasting he put into their blessings. He often had never met recipients before they showed up at his door. Yet as he laid his hands on their heads he knew what the Spirit was telling him about them.

Recipients also probably had no idea how demanding this was on Dad. These powerful experiences sometimes drained him physically. There were Sundays when Dad had three blessing appointments. He would always be physically exhausted after the final appointment of the day. But he was willing to pay that price.

Preparing to receive a patriarchal blessing
Dad said that it makes the patriarch's job much easier when a blessing recipient is sufficiently mature and spiritually prepared to receive a blessing. He said that it could make the difference between revelation flowing in such abundance that it is difficult to receive it all or being akin to "pulling each word out of heaven with a pair of pliers."

Once a young man that was clearly unprepared for the experience showed up for a patriarchal blessing. Dad was frustrated. Stake patriarchs have no control over which candidates bishops recommend for a blessing.

Following a long chat with the boy about where he was spiritually and what he ought to be doing to improve that situation, Dad sent the boy home without giving him a blessing. He then called the boy's bishop to ask why he had recommended the boy for a blessing. The bishop said that he knew that the young man was on shaky spiritual ground, but he felt that the boy ought to visit Dad.

Dad was quite pleased when the boy returned much better prepared after having worked closely with the bishop for some months. Dad even attended the young man's missionary farewell a few months later.

Are patriarchal blessings necessary?
Interestingly, Dad never received a patriarchal blessing himself. He was in his mid-20s by the time he joined the Church. Before long he was married and raising a family. The thought of seeking a patriarchal blessing never occurred to him.

By the time Dad was called to be a stake patriarch he was sufficiently in touch with heaven and was far enough along in his life that he saw no benefit from receiving a blessing at that point. Church materials suggest that "Every worthy, baptized member is entitled to and should receive a patriarchal blessing...." But Dad once explained that a patriarchal blessing is an added benefit and a tender mercy, not a required saving or exalting ordinance.

A patriarch stops giving blessings
When stake boundaries were realigned and Dad found himself in a new stake, he was inactivated from giving patriarchal blessings until a new calling was approved by Quorum of the Twelve. When Mom and Dad left to serve a mission in Dad's native Germany (also where Mom served her mission as a young lady), Dad was again inactivated from giving patriarchal blessings, although, he retained the office of patriarch until the end of his life.

Patriarchs (even those not actively giving blessings) can give patriarchal blessings to direct descendants, regardless of whether they are members of the same stake or not. Pres. Boyd K. Packer has explained:
"A patriarch may give patriarchal blessings to his own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who come recommended by their bishop.
"When we receive requests for exceptions, for one to receive a blessing from an uncle or some favorite family friend, we invite them to follow the order and receive their blessing from the patriarch in their own stake."
Dad gave only one patriarchal blessing after returning from Germany. That blessing was given to my oldest son, the only direct descendant other than my youngest brother that ever received such a blessing under Dad's hands. Even then Dad took nearly two months to ponder and pray about the matter before giving the blessing.

I think Dad was starting to notice the effects of aging on his cognitive faculties and was concerned that he wouldn't be able to do a good enough job on the blessing. I didn't see a problem, given that the recipient is to gain personal revelation to discern the full meaning of the blessing. Besides, after reading the blessing, I thought Dad did a fine job.

Some lessons I have learned
During his tenure as a stake patriarch I saw Dad honor the calling with tremendous respect. Although he knew that patriarchal blessings were optional, he treated the calling with gravity. He regularly made personal sacrifices to fulfill this calling, even altering the configuration of his house to better facilitate the blessing process. He continuously threw himself into gospel study, prayer, fasting and pondering to prepare himself to give blessings. Mom supported Dad every step of the way, making her own sacrifices to help him fulfill this calling well.

Perhaps the thing that I learned most from Dad's years of giving patriarchal blessings is that he really did receive revelation from heaven for those he blessed. I saw how Dad prepared to receive that revelation and I saw the results of the revelation he received. Some may scoff at the whole practice of patriarchal blessings. But the honest in heart can know for themselves the divinity inherent in those blessings.

I had imperfect but choice parents. I will ever be grateful for the marvelous lessons I learned from both Dad and Mom through the way they worked to fulfill Dad's calling as a stake patriarch. Their example has helped me cherish my own patriarchal blessing, to treasure up its words in my heart, and to be open to inspiration about the fulfillment of its promised blessings. I continue to be truly blessed by the personal scripture the Lord has given me in the form of my patriarchal blessing.

1 comment:

Ben Johnson said...

Great stuff. I've always been fascinated by patriarchs. Very old testament. I'm grateful Joseph Smith restored this office. Thanks for the post.