Steve Donegan is a retired U.S. Army warrant officer. He joined the Army and made this prophetic statement during his initial training: The Army will either make me an alcoholic or a Christian. Luckily, he chose the latter. His Army career took him into many locations in Europe, to Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and around the United States. Steve served with the lead Army unit into Iraq during Operation Desert Storm (2d Armored Cavalry Regiment – yes, the same unit—without the “Armored” part—that came to Utah for the “Utah War”). In each location he served as a teacher at many levels, counselors in many presidencies, and a student at the feet of many who knew/know more than him. With his eternal companion they have three children on each side of the veil, and they have provided nine grandchildren.

Enter Steve…

I suppose like many sacrament meeting talks, this ought to start with definitions. From the online Merriam-Webster dictionary we find:

  • Perception: A mental image, or awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation.
  • Apperception: the process of understanding something perceived in terms of previous experience.

Elder Boyd K. Packer introduced me to apperceptions in his book, Teach Ye Diligently, and its study has made a huge difference in the way I teach, both formally and informally.

Helping Our Students “See”

I once had an educator tell me, “Perception is reality to the one perceiving it.” Think about that for a moment. It doesn’t really matter that the house next door is painted green if you see it as black. From you, that house will be described as black. Maybe you’ve only seen it when it’s dark outside, or you’ve only seen the shady side of the house, it doesn’t matter why: it’s black. It’s only when someone invites you to see the house from the other side that you begin to realize you have never really “seen” the house at all, it is really the most wonderful shade of green.

So it is with our Savior, our prophet, your stake president, your bishop, your (fill in the blank) the list goes on (it includes non-leaders, not-yet-baptized persons [non-members], everyone). When we’ve locked ourselves into a single perception of anyone that person, no matter what they say or do, is known exactly how we’ve perceived them. And that single, simple thing can be wonderful or disastrous.

Just two examples, if I may.

Think about your member missionary efforts. How often have you found someone who, no matter what you said, no matter what “proof” you could provide, wouldn’t change their stance on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? This is due to their perception of the Church and its teachings/doctrines/philosophies being “skewed.” This can happen due to a plethora of reasons, any one or multiples of them, keeping the person you’re speaking with from being able to get past their “reality.”

Conversely, I remember being walked down a hallway to my new classroom in a new ward (this was to be my first calling in a civilian ward after retiring from the US Army). I was going to teach the youth in that class about the Old Testament. As a counselor in the bishopric walked me down to the room, he gave me the lowdown on all the participating class members. I remember, too vividly, being regaled in stories of the bad choices each of the teenagers in that class had made in the past. Luckily for the class, and for me especially, the Holy Ghost chimed in as we entered the room and said, “Forget the past, you’re being called to assist in shaping their future.” What a great group! The youth participated in reading, in asking questions, in answering questions, and made one “hardened” war veteran very astonished at how they accepted the challenges thrown at them by their youthful associates and a deteriorating world. I remember thinking upon my release, “this world, their world, is going to be a very different place thanks to them.”

The same thing happens when people think about Jesus Christ. Was he a man? A god-man? A god? A God? A separate part of the Holy Trinity? The only part of the Holy Trinity? A great teacher? A marvelous empath? A wonderful pastor? A very egotistical maniac? All these hinges on just one thing: how you perceive him. Sad, but true.

There’s a wonderful little piece within the book, The Understudy (Jack Weyland, Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1985), wherein the main character, a non-member is asked to play Jesus Christ in a production being filmed by the Church. The character talks about his burgeoning relationship with Jesus. Here’s what he says:

When I first began to learn about Jesus, I would discover a trait of his and use that to describe him in my mind. For instance, when I first read the parables, I came away thinking, okay, Jesus was a master teacher. We can leave it at that or we can go deeper. We can stay on the surface for an entire lifetime. “Jesus? Oh yes, I know about him. He was a master teacher.” We can leave it at that or we can go deeper. Because I wanted so much to make him come alive on the screen, I went deeper. What I found is that there are layers to our understanding of him. And when we first reach the next deeper level, we say, oh yes, now I know what he is really like. Again, we can leave it at that or we can go deeper. But we never come to the end of him, we never make a true measure of the man, because he is like a sky with no horizon. As wonderful as you can imagine him to be, he is a thousand times more wonderful. [pgs. 73-74]

“A thousand times more wonderful.”  How would the organization that is the Church, or the part of the Church you work with, be if everyone felt that way?

Personal Life Experiences That Change our View of Christ

Part of my own perception of Jesus Christ changed the day I realized all the movies presenting war scenes happening after David’s time gave the wrong impression about how spiritual wars are fought. Even in Desert Shield, which I participated in, the commanders sat a few miles behind their troops and controlled their part of the battle from back there. Not our Savior. Not our King. Not our Commander-in-chief. No, he fights for us like the kings of old: from the front. Whatever our battle, no matter its size, Jesus Christ is always out front. He always meets the enemy head-on and ready.

Did you notice? I just threw in my segue to apperceptions by using one. I took the physical war picture and assisted my readers to see it in a spiritual dimension. How cool is that? And that’s all an apperception is. But, of course, it’s not quite that easy, taking us back to the perception part of this article.

But, the ever-present “but”, when an apperception is used, the person using it must be totally aware and sure of how the minds it’s being sent to will receive it: what is their perception of the story-picture they’ve been provided? It’s pretty easy to use something well known as war movies to paint the picture, but what of littler things; mustard seeds (Matt 13:31 and 17:20), bird poop in cakes (a story of a seminary class that, I’ll admit, I can’t find an official reference to), turning off the lights in a room with no windows (Matt 8:12 and Alma 40:13), and pictures of Bedouin tents (especially used for 3 Nep 22:2).

What if a person you’re trying to reach hasn’t seen a tiny mustard seed or a full-grown mustard plant? What if a person hasn’t had a discussion about the worth of souls? What if a person is afraid of the dark? What if a person hasn’t spent any time putting up or sleeping in a Bedouin tent? If any of those apperceptions are used, you may lose those people with no experience with the physical item. So what do you do?

The gospel is for everyone, but no two people are exactly alike. Look for ways to understand the backgrounds, interests, talents, and needs of the people you teach. Ask questions, listen carefully, and observe what learners say and do in different situations. If you are teaching youth or children, ask their parents for insights. Above all, pray for the understanding that only the Spirit can give. The more you understand those you teach, the better you can help them see how the gospel applies to their individual lives [Focus on People, Not Lessons, Teaching in the Savior’s Way, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, electronic edition].

So, we see from this the Church’s stance is: “pray for the understanding that only the Spirit can give.” Not helpful? Depends on your, yes, I’m going to say it, perception.

If you think, for even just a moment, you are “just a (insert your word here)” and the Holy Ghost isn’t going to communicate things to you about those within the sound of your voice (or actions), I beg you to please blow the dust off your set of printed scriptures and read them. In them you will find salvation (Exodus 14:13, is just one place of many), the Savior of mankind (1 Nep 13:40, again, just one example), a Father who knew you before you were physically born (Job 38:7 is a popular verse for this example), a Comforter/Testifier/ Guide who won’t scream at you, but will speak softly in a way predetermined for you to hear (see the enlightening information in the Bible Dictionary, under “Holy Ghost” as a start). To paraphrase my mother: “Start acting as a child!” A child of the most wonderful, loving Heavenly Parents a child could ever ask for.

So, to return to the title of this article, how do perceptions and apperceptions affect members? If you walk into a room of members and start throwing out apperceptions about how cows give white milk while eating green grass (see “Cows,” Elder Robert E. Wells,) you might want to ensure everyone in the room even knows white milk comes from cows (I have friends who think eggs are dairy because that’s where they find them in the grocery store). You might even want to ensure all of them know cows don’t just eat brown hay or feed, they eat grass. Exasperating, but true.

Prepare Ourselves to Be a Guide

If you get up in the morning and during your prayers you ask to see how simple the gospel (Good News) is, you’ll notice a change in your perceptions. You’ll begin to see Jesus’ parables to the people of his day spoken to the situations they found themselves in and you’ll see your teaching (formal and informal) take the shape of parables using the situations your audience find themselves in. The more available we can make the message of plan of happiness to our members, the better equipped they will be to carry it to their own places in this world.

The message, the Good News, the teachings of Jesus Christ, are simple. But the message can be hidden, and that’s a shame.

Try not to frustrate others by using words, phrases, or stories your audience cannot relate to or understand. Try to remember to use everyday occurrences to show the message(s) you’re trying to convey.

Try to think about the room full of very human people you’re speaking to, who have a basket full of their own issues, problems, questions, challenges, ugh-moments, and try only to “prime the pump” with your story(s) to allow their perceptions/apperceptions to come out (they’ll surprise you with the way they’ve seen the Lord work in their lives!)

Conclusion

The phrase you’ve heard is true: there are no atheists in foxholes – just very energetic Christians. As the Church hymnbook instructs us to sing “We are all enlisted till the conflict is o’er,” (Hymn 250) “With energy”, so too should we add energy to our beliefs. “Add” here means to add depth to our perceptions about the diverseness of the Lord’s work on our behalf – we will begin to enlarge our understanding of the plan of salvation and can better help others do the same. While the Lord’s work is simple (see the last half of Micah 6:8), it is a complex-simple that takes everyone and everything into account. We miss the point of that complex-simplicity if we don’t seek to understand that complex-simplicity and help our brothers and sisters do the same with their perceptions and apperceptions.

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