My bishop growing up was great. A soft-spoken genius of a man, he would impart all kinds of spiritual wisdom on you and then begin to tell you a story about how he got so sick on his mission he was “spewing out of both ends, if you know what I mean.” All of this, of course, with a twinkle in his eye, and a smile on his face. Whenever I think of bishops, I think of this particular bishop because he influenced so much of my teenage years growing up.
Our bishop gave a standards night one fireside that one could never forget. Even though we had all gathered in the chapel, sitting in our pews, instead of standing at the pulpit he paced about in front of us, microphone in hand, imparting witty story after witty story about standards. He didn’t pull the punches about sex, and he even described a moment when, while chaperoning a church-sponsored dance, he caught “the sweet, sweet scent of Mary J.” He was real, he was raw, and he was funny. After the fireside, word of his version of standards night spread throughout the ward and land. There was immense pressure to give an encore performance for those who didn’t make it the first time. So he obliged to have another standards night the next month or so after.
That night, he was met with a packed house. This time, he chose the more intimate setting of the Relief Society Room. We all sat forward in our chairs, eager to laugh at another round of jokes about sex and drugs and modesty from our bishop (of all people). Instead, this wonderful man declared, “I want to talk about virtue today.”
“Yes!” I was thinking. “More stories about dating and sex!” But I was soon to be surprised and disappointed.
“What is virtue?” He posed the question to the group of youth. No one said anything. Even I, the gospel nerd, didn’t have a clear cut answer to this question. What exactly was virtue? How would you define it? Could you even define it?
Our bishop’s answer surprised me even further. He pulled out a picture of the universe.
“This is virtue.”
I sat there, blinking. Puzzled. Space? Galaxies? What does that have to do with virtue at all? Where were the borderline ribald jokes? The winks and nudges?
“This is virtue.”
The picture of the universe as replaced with various pictures of the Creation. Beautiful, yes. Breathtaking even, for some of them. But again, what does this have to do with virtue?
I don’t remember the rest of the talk. I just sat there, stewing in my seat, disappointed and confused. I thought standards night was about rules and regulations, ways to feel smug and reassured that you’re doing the right thing, and most importantly, an opportunity for our cool, hip bishop to entertain us with jokes that resonated with real teenager issues. But instead, I got nature slides and a rather nebulous, incredibly confusing talk about virtue, whatever that meant.
I later told my father (who attended with me) how disappointed I was with the fireside. I didn’t feel like I learned anything at all, and most importantly, where were the jokes? My father sharply rebuked me. “That was the best standards night I’ve ever been to,” he said, implying a silent, You’ll understand when you’re older. Trust me.
Since then, I’ve pondered upon that fireside many a time, and only now do I finally begin to understand. We are the slaves of our own socialization, culture, and upbringing. And whether you love it or hate it, our American Puritan backgrounds have made us terrified of the power of sex. Because of this, many of our standards nights revolve around these issues – when to date, how to date appropriately, how to cover your bodies so that you don’t arouse your opposite sex friends, no pornography, no petting and necking (whatever that meant). Or, we’d talk about hard-hitting teen issues, like drug abuse or gang violence, or even video games, texting, or proper Sunday dress (no flip-flops, ties are mandatory, don’t wear baggy pants, tuck in your shirt).
But very little of this has to do with the power of virtue.
The Doctrine and Covenants reveals a more cosmic, awe-inspiring interpretation of virtue. “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God and the doctrines of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45-46, emphasis added). Virtue begins the chain of events which eventually leads to the immortality and exaltation of man, God’s core premise of starting all of this. Virtue is the power of God, the power of Creation itself.
Yes, I suppose sex has something to do with creation, but when you read the traits of virtue listed in the previous verses of section 121, you meet some incredible adjectives – persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge, lack of hypocrisy or guile, showing an increase of love toward him who we’ve reproved, faithfulness strong than the cords of death, charity towards all men and to the household of faith. The preceding verses warn against unrighteous dominion, of forceful compulsion, of delusions of grandeur, of hiding wickedness, of pride and gratifying of vain ambitions. All of these add up to the traits of not someone who keeps her skirts below the knee or a man who never dates exclusively. All of them add up to the character of Christ Himself, the source of all good.
So what is standards night? What is virtue? Is it simply just chastity? Prudent socialization with the opposite gender? Covering our nakedness? If we emphasize these points, we miss the mark.
Standards night is about priesthood. It’s about God’s character and power. It’s about creation. It’s about knowledge and confidence and a full understanding of our relationship with Father. It’s about empowering our youth with a sense that they are not simply just hormonal flesh bags that need to be contained and caged like wild, ravenous creatures. And it’s certainly not about building up a thick, thorny hedge about the law to keep our children corralled inside so that the only outlet they might have for honest communication is through jokes and innuendo. It’s about instilling within them the quiet knowledge of respect and confidence that they are destined for great things, and great people need not stoop to such petty and dangerous tactics for a fleeting sense of control in their lives.
That’s what standards night should be all about.