Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lessons From My Garden: Water

Since I live in the Midwest, we get some rain during the summer. But we still run sprinklers in the lawn and flower beds to keep things looking good.

Some of the plants in my flower bed thrive and not so much. There are a few that seem particularly dependent upon water and are planted just at the edge of the range of the sprinklers. Those plants always look less robust than the others: the leaves wrinkle, they don’t bloom as well, and they are smaller than those that seem to be better watered.

As far as I can tell, the dirt is pretty much the same. They all get the same dose of Miracle Gro every few weeks. The big difference in their care is the water.

When I think about my own gospel experience, I sometimes ask myself how close I am to the water. If I feel my enthusiasm flag, if I find myself hypercritical of my friends at church, if I find myself complaining about being asked to serve or to attend a meeting, I have learned to ask how close I am to the water.

Unlike my plants, I can move closer if I need to (or want to). I can read the scriptures more. I can pay more attention to my prayers. I can open the door and invite the Savior into my life. I can give more freely of myself. All of those things help me to drink more freely of the living water of the gospel (See John 4).

One of my favorite promises is in Isaiah 58, a great chapter on the law of the fast. If we draw near to the Lord (by properly fasting and caring for the poor in this chapter), we are promised, “And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (Isaiah 58:11).

That’s something I – and the plants in my garden – would like.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Early Church

We moved to early church this week.

It happened because some boundaries were moved in wards in our stake, and now our building has two wards instead of three. Before the change, meeting blocks started at 9, 11 and 1. We were in the 11:00 time slot, which is perfect if you have teenagers (and pretty awful if you have little kids). Since we are out of the toddler stage, we loved 11 am church.

But now we’re at 9 am. (Yawn.)

My 14-year old son summed it up when a week ago last Saturday he said, “Well, tomorrow is our last day of normal church.”

And not only did we need to be at church for sacrament meeting at 9, but we had a choir practice at 8:30 since we were singing for pioneer day. (Double yawn.)

Of course, we woke up to chirps from our electric alarm clocks, climbed out of our soft beds and into warm showers. We enjoyed a breakfast of Pillsbury Pop-n-Fresh cinnamon rolls, sliced fresh fruit and boiled eggs. We dressed in our nice Sunday clothes and drove the 10 minutes to church in our air conditioned car.

A century and a half ago our pioneer forefathers (my wife has Mormon pioneers in her family; mine are just good ol’ American pioneers who embarked on the Oregon Trail) may have woken to the sound of chirping birds at sunrise, crawled out of their bedrolls on hard ground, built fires to cook whatever it is they could scrape together (or hunt, or pull out of their meager supplies, if they had any that day). They likely put on the same dusty clothes they’d worn the day before (assuming they’d taken them off to sleep the night before). And, if they weren't observing the Sabbath, they'd begin their daily 20-mile hike.

Maybe early church isn’t so bad, after all.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Youth Conference was Awesome!"

That was my son’s Facebook status a few weeks ago after he returned from a couple of days in Kirtland. It’s the kind of thing that makes the heart of a parent of a mid-teen soar, especially when for a long time that mid-teen seemed to find something to complain about with everything he did, especially at church.

I don’t know exactly what made his youth conference awesome. (I do know he was really impressed by the bathrooms at the Morely Farm – very high-tech ones in a trailer, but with wood floors and MoTab music piped in…) In any case, I’m glad that the conference was awesome enough for him to note it.

There’s that saying that 90% of life is just showing up. I don’t think that’s really true, but I do think it may be true for teenagers. Getting them to the right place at the right time is crucial to the development of testimony, values and character (hopefully those three intersect well).

The summer before my senior year, I was away from home when my mom signed me up for youth conference. When I came home, I complained just a little, but my mom played the “Do it for me” card (one she played only very rarely in my life). I went. And it was awesome, and for more than just the bathrooms (frankly I don’t remember the bathrooms!). I made a new friend at that conference that significantly influenced a couple of key future decisions in my life, like going to BYU and going on a mission. I felt the spirit in that conference like I hadn’t in several years, and had a testimony rekindled. That conference – and the keynote speaker in particular (someone from Salt Lake whose name I no longer remember) – contributed significantly to who I am today.

By the way, I love Kirtland. If you haven’t been, it’s well worth the trip from wherever you are. Apparently, even the bathrooms are awesome.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lessons From My Garden: Virginia Creeper

I am not a great gardener. In fact, I’m not even really a very good gardener. But I do enjoy working in my yard, and particularly in the flower beds that adorn my front yard. As I plant and weed and mulch and fertilize, I have a chance to think about things, and often about the lessons gardening can teach me.

Today’s lesson:

Vines are impossible to pull out from the root.

Our home is surrounded by beautiful tall trees, and in the tree stands is a mixture of English ivy, pachysandra and trillium (the last is a native wildflower in Michigan, and it’s protected by state law; I’m thrilled to have some growing in my woods). Unfortunately, we also have another vine, uninvited: Virginia creeper.

The Virginia creeper is an invasive species not native to our area, likely introduced (according to a ranger at a local park) by homeowners who were trying to provide quick groundcover (like those who planted my English ivy, which is also not native to our area). The Virginia creeper grows fast and stands taller than the ivy I want, and shades it so it does not thrive.

Unfortunately, the Virginia creeper is almost impossible to remove. Even if I am successful at getting a vine in my hands, quickly I discover it’s wrapped around the English ivy vines; pulling out one means pulling out the other. So at best I can pull up only part of the vine.

Most years I keep ahead of the vines pretty well. This year I was late to my weeding of the tree stand on the north side of our house, and I discovered (well, my lovely wife pointed it out to me) that the Virginia creeper had crossed the path and begun to climb the house, Jumanji-style. In fact, it had wrapped itself around a basement window, climbed under our siding at one place, and climbed the wall toward the roof in another. And I also discovered a couple of vines that had worked themselves under the corner molding of our siding and climbed the entire distance to our roof in the dark, seeking the light at the top. Left unattended, the vines could have done some real damage.

Here are some lessons the Virginia creeper teaches me:

1. Although it is a “benign” plant, it can be destructive if it’s growing where it shouldn’t. There may be “good” things that if they are done to excess or are in the wrong priority in my life, they can be harmful to me or to my family.

2. Because it grows taller than the English ivy that is meant to be there, the Virginia creeper can stunt the growth of the desired ivy. Like the tops of the trees that became too strong for their roots in the Allegory of the Olive Tree (see Jacob 5:37), the Virginia creeper can upset the balance in my tree stand. I need to preserve proper balance to nurture the things I want to grow in my life.

3. Pulling the creeper out by the roots is nearly impossible because of the length of the vines, and the fact that it is intertwined with the desired ivy. I cannot remove evil from the world. I can’t even remove it from my family’s view. I can do my best to keep it at bay; I can teach my children how to avoid it, I can try to keep it from my house. But I must be constantly aware of its potential influence.

4. Finally, there are some who might argue that I should let the Virginia creeper flourish. They may say that it is as reasonable to grow it as to grow the other non-native species I have in my tree stand. But I am the gardener here, and I get to decide what should be there and what shouldn’t. Similarly, my Father in Heaven is the gardener in my life, and he gets to choose what is right and what is not. It’s not up to me to decide what is evil, but to look to Him and His prophets, ancient and modern, to help me understand.

Friday, July 15, 2011

I Need A Hero (or do I?)

My 14-year old son has taken a liking for movies about unlikely heroes. With the help of his Clear-Play DVD player and Netflix, he’s watched Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda. In both, unlikely heroes surface to do something they would not have assumed they could do beforehand.

In sacrament meeting last week, one of the speakers talked about Ester and her being in the right place at the right time to serve her people in a heroic way.

I think stories of accidental heroes appeal to us because they reflect on the innate goodness of someone to do the right thing, and that the right thing may have a significant impact. (I’d be tempted to quote 1 Nephi 16:29 in which we read, “And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things,” except that I’ve always been struck by the irony of that statement. The liahona may have been small in size, but certain not in technology or impact!)

I don’t know if my son wonders if he will be an unlikely hero someday, but he does like to be the one to buck the system in his teenage version of righteous indignation (just like his father, some might say). It’s striking to me that according to the book (I’ve never seen the movie) Oskar Schindler seemed to be an unremarkable man before and after his work to save Jews from the Holocaust. Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hotel manager and hero in Hotel Rwanda seems to have done the only thing he could at the moment – to save the lives of over 1,000 people in his war-torn city.

My mother told her own story of heroism, though she never couched it in those terms. One morning she set out to do her visiting teaching and came to the home of one of the sisters on her list. The door was open, and the woman was passed out on the kitchen floor. My mother entered the house and called an ambulance, and probably saved the sister’s life (the sister certainly credited Mom with that). My mother would say all she did was what anyone would have done. And she points out she was only doing her visiting teaching, not responding to some remarkable prompting to go on that particular day.

Bertolt Brecht did not accept larger than life heroes, and did not write them into his plays. In Galileo, the title character is presented as decidedly human. One of my favorite moments in the play is when Galileo explains to a student that a scientist proves nothing is true. In fact, he says, the scientist creates a hypothesis and then does all he can to prove it wrong. Only in failure to prove himself wrong does he believe he has found truth. This anti-hero succeeds in failure.

The Savior’s teaching about the first being last and the last being first, the leader being the servant, and the unlearned being wise suggests that the prideful view of hero-as-pinnacle is probably not the celestial view. Indeed the Savior’s most heroic act was one no mortal witnessed (as those closest to him slept).

Perhaps it is not good for us to try to be heroic, but to be, as President Hinckley taught, the best we can be. If we do, it is likely that along the way we may be heroic to someone, as my mother was, and maybe to many.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Power of Worrying

There’s plenty to worry about in the world. Macro events, micro events. Global warming, unusual weather patterns, natural disasters, war. Family concerns. What the kids are up to. Will one's job last? Will one finish school? Will one get accepted into school? And on and on.

All of these things (and more!) can disturb our peace of mind.

The question is, does worrying do any good?

Not for me.

Part of the point of the gospel is to bring us peace. Consider the Savior’s words to Peter and the apostles prior to the Lord’s atoning sacrifice. Just after he prophecies that Peter will deny him three times, the Savior says, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me” (John 14:1). Later in the same chapter he says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (verse 27).

Don’t worry. (Resist the urge to hum like Bobby McFerrin.)

Telling someone not to worry is a little like telling someone not to think about an elephant. The first thing that comes to mind is the elephant. The best ways not to think of an elephant is to think actively about other things. In John 14, the Lord reminds his apostles of the many mansions in his father’s house. He does the same thing in Doctrine and Covenants 98. Think about those mansions in heaaven.

Taking the long view seems standard counsel for those who suffer privations in this world. And it works for me.

I often write about my experience with the 12 steps of recovery. The first three steps are commonly summarized in this triplet: “I can’t. God can. I think I’ll let him.” Those first steps are all about what’s in my power to control and what isn’t. For the alcoholic or addict, the addiction is not in his control. For the loved one of an addict, the addiction (or any person) is not in his control.

A friend of mine recommended once that I ask myself a question when I begin to worry: “Whose problem is this?” If it’s mine, then I can worry about it only enough to do something about it. If it’s not mine, then I ought to stop worrying about it and focus on things I can do.

One way for me to stop worrying about things that aren’t mine is to focus, as my friend recommended, on my own knitting. Another is, as the Savior taught, to take the long view. Sometimes I do an exercise that walks me to the most awful possible conclusion of a particular concern. Then I take a deep breath and tell myself (out loud), “And that’s ok.” And it is. In the long run, the eternal scheme of things, I can accept much more now than I used to.

But if I had to rely on myself alone, I doubt I could do it. I also require the grace of the atonement to calm my troubled heart. My faith lifts and supports me when I need it most.

In the end, Emma Lou Thayne’s text describes my experience. The last two verses of “Where Can I Turn For Peace”:

Where, when my aching grows,
Where, when I languish,
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand?
He, only One.

He answers privately,
Reaches my reaching
In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.
Gentle the peace he finds for my beseeching.
Constant he is and kind,
Love without end. (Hymns, 129)

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Turning Weakness Into Strength

Ten days ago I wrote about personal inventories, and a week ago, I wrote about sharing those inventories.

An inventory will likely include at least three things: some strengths (what we’re good at), some weaknesses (what we’re not so good at), and maybe some sins (what we’ve done wrong).

There is for me a key difference between weakness and sin. To me, a weakness is a lack of strength. It is an area where I may not have a natural talent, or where I may struggle with a particular temptation. A sin, on the other hand, is action taken by me to transgress God’s law. My sin may grow out of weakness. But it may also grow out of strength if my pride (a weakness) leads me to overestimate my strength.

Scriptures teach us that the redemptive nature of the atonement can save us from sin if we repent, and it can help us turn our weakness to strength. If I identify physical weakness, I might engage in a program of exercise and physical training to overcome that weakness. I may be more successful if I engage the help of a guide who understands the science of exercise. My personal efforts may lead directly to my overcoming my weakness.

Heber J. Grant is famous for overcoming his weakness in baseball and handwriting. Persistence and exercise helped him.

When I struggled with my response to stress in my life, a professional therapist helped me work a series of exercises that allowed me to have better control over my response to that stress, contributing to an improvement in my relationship with my wife and children.

Our trials may reveal weaknesses. In Ether we read:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them (Ether 12:27).
In addition to whatever we may do by ourselves, the power of the atonement can also help us to overcome our weaknesses. That change may not come on our timetable, and we may not be able to control the outcome of that change. But it can come.

In the twelve-step program, the next step after sharing our inventory is preparing to have God remove our weaknesses, and then asking him to do so. Those steps make me think of Lamoni’s father who was willing to give away all his sins to know God (Alma 22:18). I think of preparing ourselves to have God remove our weaknesses like a visit to a chiropractor: the chiropractor aligns the spine for optimal performance; we align ourselves to God’s will for our optimal performance.

In the case of sin, we can repent. In the case of weakness, it’s not really repentance we need, but grace. In the case of our strengths, it’s humility. All three come to us through the atonement.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom Isn't Free

Freedom isn't free!
Freedom isn't free!
You gotta pay the price
You gotta sacrifice
For your liberty.

So said the song on my father's Up With People album when I was a kid.

I used to hum that tune all the time, and this year it's come back to me. Maybe it's because my wife and I were in Boston last weekend and did the Freedom Walk, visiting those pre-revolutionary sites and reminding ourselves of that city's great history (before sampling absolutely AWESOME cannoli from Mike's Pastry in the north end).

I am one of those people the polar opposites of politics derides: I'm a moderate. I am as likely to vote my party as not; I'm one of those swing voters presidential candidates love to court. I'm a big fan of the political process, but not a big fan of politics. I vote in nearly every election, and have even when we've lived overseas. I watch political conventions (of both parties) and debates.

I appreciate that part of the strength of our union is also what strains it: the taking of sides, arguing of position, debate of views -- all those help to refine our direction.

I'm grateful for family members, friends and others who serve in our military. I'm grateful for the rule of law.

I have no Mormon pioneers in my genealogy; my parents were converts to the church long after wagon trains headed west. But we have plenty of American pioneers -- some who settled Virginia in the 1600s, some who settled the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s. While many of our immigrants came before this was a nation, others came in the great waves of immigration in the late nineteenth century.

When I was in high school, I spent a summer as an exchange student in Germany. Before I left, my father told me he suspected I'd find a lot of wonderful things in Germany -- and many might even seem much better than the US. He cautioned me, however, not to judge my home country too harshly. His counsel was wise (and maybe not even needed -- I was in the summer before my senior year and probably less aware of the world than he gave me credit for).

I later served my mission in Germany, and then have lived with my family in Latin America and twice in Asia. Each time, as happy as I was to be where I was, I've been happier to come home.