Monday, August 29, 2011

Old Friends Made New Again

We had a delightful surprise last week. The son of good friends we knew in college (and my dear wife knew in high school) is beginning grad school at a university near us, and so son and his wife and baby, AND their parents (our old friends) spent nearly a week with us while son and his family were finding a place to live and getting settled.

Old friends are remarkable. When we got together it was like we'd lived next door to one another instead of having decades between us and our last visit. We found we still share many interests in common, and we've even had preferred TV shows, books and movies in common after all these years.

And it's not like our paths have been similar. I'm a career corporate guy and my wife is a SAHM; our friends are fiercely entrepreneurial, carpe diem kinds of folks. Yes, we've all stayed active in the church, but even our church experience has been unique because of where we've lived.

But still, the things that make us friends, the shared history (even if long ago) and the ties of love and friendship still endure all these years later.

It's made me reflect on why some friendships last (like this one) and others seem to fade as our circles of shared interest or activity migrate away from one another. To be sure some friendships fade because the bonds were never in place; they may have been driven by a shared activity or geography but never deepened enough to withstand distance and time apart. Others may fade because one or the other person changes enough to strain the common bonds -- a change in political views or religious practice may make the relationship too uncomfortable for one or the other.

I yearn for close friendships. Seeing our old friends this week, and staying up late into the night each night despite the need to get up for work the next morning, reminded me of the happiness of shared experience, shared trust, shared love and support. The bond we have with these friends is unique for us. Though we have other friends, I don't know that our other friendships will ever stand the test of time and space that this one does.

How fortunate to have these friends to bless our lives.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Open Your Heart -- or Surviving the Youth Sunday School Class

I taught my son’s Sunday School class this week. It was The Dreaded Fourteen And Fifteen Year-Old Class. And I survived. In fact, it was pretty cool. I was bishop to many of these kids when they were baptized; maybe that’s why they went easy on me.

Of course we use the same manual and same scripture blocks in the youth classes as in Gospel Doctrine. I prepared but didn’t quite know what to expect. I probably over-prepared. (Ok, I certainly over prepared, but I was glad I did.) When I teach a youth class, I like to have lots of arrows in the quiver just in case I need them.

The lesson this week was on Paul’s second missionary journey. We looked at the maps of his journeys, and we had the kids draw a world map on the board so we could talk about to what “world” the apostles were carrying the gospel. We reminded them of the story of Saul / Paul (and they loved playing dumb about it…). We then talked specifically about how Paul had to listen to the spirit to know where to go on his journey, and that the spirit constrained him from going some places, and led him to others.

Then we read in Acts 16:14 about Lydia: “And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (emphasis mine).

We stuck on this idea of opening one’s heart for most of the lesson. We probably used that phrase “open heart” about three dozen times. We talked about what it meant to have a closed heart and an open heart. We compared the closed heart feeling to how the class members felt about their little siblings who had messed with their stuff or their rooms or told on them. We suggested the closed heart was in a box under the bed, in a safe, or in a Swiss bank account (all their ideas). We talked about how an open heart might feel different from that and how. And we talked about how they might open their hearts to spiritual things.

I remember being 15. It was like I was on the dark side of the moon, out of radio contact with spiritual things. Even though as a younger kid I was really tuned into what I thought was the spirit, at 15, I was aloof, and trying my best to be a little rebellious. I see the same thing in my own son, and I’ve seen it before. Part of my goal as a dad, as a bishop and as a friend to some of these kids, has been to do what I can to keep the gravitational pull of the spirit strong enough so that when they return from the dark side of the moon, they’ll be swept up in it and feel it again.

So we didn’t talk about Thessalonians. And we didn’t talk about Paul’s different missionary companions. And we didn’t talk about signs of the second coming. Frankly, most of the lesson was left on the cutting room floor, except for this idea of opening our hearts to the spirit.

By the time it was done, I felt pretty good about myself. Until I got home later and my son reported that I hadn’t done too bad. “Thanks,” I said. “What was the point of the lesson?”

He thought for a while. “Well, I drew a map of the world.”

Me: “Yeah…”

Son: “And we talked about Paul.”

Me: “Yeah…”

Son: “What?”

Me: “What about the point? That I said about three dozen times?”

Son: “What?”

Me: (moving my hands in an opening gesture)

Son: “What?”

Me: (still gesturing) “Open….”

Son: “Oh, open, uh, open…”

Me: “Open…your…”

Son: “Oh, yeah. Open your heart.”

Radio silence? You bet. (Sigh.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Mission Moments: Unexpected Meetings

My nephew is serving his mission in Arizona where several of my wife’s siblings (and therefore his aunts and uncles) live. He is presenting living and working close to all of them, and they see him on the street pretty often. He is, by all accounts, an outstanding missionary, and there’s no evidence that his occasional brushes with his extended family are distracting in any way. Reading recently of their sightings of said missionary made me think of the very few times I bumped into people I knew from home while I was on my mission.

I served in Germany over three decades ago. When I went, I assumed I would be in a completely different world from friends and family I left behind. (My brother had served in Kentucky, and was never more than a day’s drive from our home his whole mission.)

To my surprise I did see people I knew from before my mission a few times. The first was most startling. My companion and I were changing trains in Mainz, trying to make a quick connection to get back to our city of Bad Kreuznach. We were running for our next train when I heard someone call my first and last name. A female someone.

I’d been out more than a year and no one had used my first name except in letters, so just the hearing of it startled me. I did not recognize the voice, but stopped and began to look around. A few feet away on the platform was a girl I’d gone to high school with. We had been good friends and had many friends in common. She was not a member of the church, but she knew I was, and probably knew that I was a missionary. As we chatted briefly (we missed our connecting train, of course), she introduced my companion and me to her male friend who was with her. The two of them were distributing Bibles for their Christian group, and had been in Europe for a while.

After a few minutes, we shook hands (I was a missionary, after all, and in Germany everyone shook hands) and went our separate ways. The chance meeting was no big deal to my companion, except for the great coincidence; nor was it a big deal for me. I think my reaction was helped by the fact that I was well into my second year; I don’t know if I would have been more distracted by such a meeting earlier in my mission.

Within weeks of that experience, I had another chance meeting. I had just put my companion on a train to go on an exchange, and I was waiting for my temporary companion to arrive. Since I had an hour to wait, I decided to walk home. As I was leaving the station, a young man showed up at my side and called me by my first name. Turns out he was a kid I’d gone to church with in my youth. He was the only member in his family and had slipped into inactivity, and was in Bad Kreuznach to visit his brother who was in the US Army. We chatted until I got to my apartment.

The last one came a few weeks later, when my stake president and his wife dropped by my apartment on a P-Day. They were in Germany visiting their daughter whose husband was stationed at a base not too far from where I was assigned. When the bell rang, and we let them up, I was surprised to see them, and even more surprised when she gave me a big hug, saying, “I probably shouldn’t do this, but I promised your mother I would!” I didn’t mind. And I’m sure my mother wouldn’t have minded, either. They stayed just a few minutes.

These chance meetings, each quite brief, were actually blessings to me. They helped me to see even more clearly how much I was on my mission. They were little blips, pleasant moments, but not distractions. I knew what I was there to do, and I was happy to be about the work I was doing.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Real Elder Price and the Mormon Boys

For your own good, please go read Margaret Blair Young's wonderful series on Mormon missionaries in Africa at Meridian Magazine. The fourth article in the four-part series is here. You can link the other tree from the fourth, and it's well worth the trip.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Make Your Bed...

I took the day off work today because it's my son's birthday and some of our adult children are in town to help celebrate. So this morning my wife and I had the opportunity to make our bed together. (Usually we follow the "last one out" rule -- the last one out of the bed makes it. On my work days, my wife is usually last one out, unless she can't sleep. On sleep-in days, I am usually the last one out.)

As we tugged at the sheet and bedspread to get them even, we laughed as we pulled them out of one another's hands until they were finally aligned. It would have been just as easy to be annoyed at the other's tugging, but we had a common goal, and we were well rested enough to laugh rather than scowl.

A valuable lesson in marriage: common goals and a propensity to laugh rather than scowl can make all the difference.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lessons from my Garden: Poison Ivy

Not only is poison ivy a pernicious weed, but it’s, well, poisonous.

My most memorable experience with poison ivy came at a church service project when I was in grad school. The stake center I attended just outside Pittsburgh had been remodeled with a new addition, and members were helping with the landscaping. Part of that process was the clearing of a hillside of weeds and brush in preparation for planting of some ground cover.

I worked without gloves, and, apparently, most of what I pulled were poison ivy vines. Within twenty four hours, the welts on my hands were red and itchy. I did the only thing I knew to do: I coated them with Calamine lotion, hoping to sooth the itching a bit. A doctor friend at church noticed my hands and phoned in a prescription for me for something that would reduce the swelling. It still took some time, but eventually the welts faded, the dryness and itchiness passed and my hands returned to normal.

When I wrote about vines a couple of weeks ago, I talked about how difficult they are to remove completely. When they are poison ivy, not only are they difficult to remove, but they can be annoying – and even dangerous in the extreme.

When I seek to protect my home from evil, I need to be careful. Sometimes that evil can be dangerous to me, even as I try to eliminate it.

When I now try to eliminate poison ivy from my tree stands, I dress to protect myself with long sleeves and gloves. I consciously avoid touching anything with the gloves I use, and I work slowly to avoid coming into contact with the poison ivy vines.

Similarly, when we seek to protect our home from evil, we can suit up in the “whole armor of God:” Truth, righteousness, faith, salvation and prayer (see Ephesians 6).

Paul reminds us: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Ephesians 6:12). Dramatic? Yep. Worth listening to? You bet.

As we consider what to allow into our home, Paul’s cautionary words are a good reminder. Is that new hip TV show worth what it might bring along? Is that music (or its lyrics) suitable for all ears? Are those images that are a mouse click away acceptable? The slope is remarkably slippery if we have one foot in Zion and one in Babylon (yeah, I mixed those metaphors, but you get my meaning).

My mission president told a story he heard from Sterling Sill (a former Assistant to the Twelve, then member of the First Quorum of Seventy). When Elder Sill was a young man, he served in the military and had seen a pinup poster of whoever was on pinup posters in his day. Decades later, as a general authority of the church and in the temple, the image of that poster flashed into his mind, uninvited, unintended and unwanted. Once the image, the lyrics or the content enter our brain, they are stored and cataloged to be retrieved, sometimes when we least expect it.

Even when I am well covered, sometimes the poison ivy’s fluid finds a patch of skin. But it’s far less likely to happen if I am careful, deliberate and prepared. In the same way, when I wear the whole armor of God, I’m far more likely to be protected spiritually.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Supporting Sinners

Elder Clayton Christensen, then an area authority seventy, taught us in a stake conference a few years ago that maxim that the church is not a resort for the perfect, but a hospital for sinners. He said if we didn’t smell tobacco in our sacrament meeting, then we probably weren’t working hard enough to reach out to others (either in missionary work or reactivation).

King Benjamin taught a similar principle: our obedience to God’s commandments does not put him in our debt, ever. We are always in His debt; we are nothing; without the atonement, we are worthless (see Mosiah 4).

In our zeal to protect our home and family from evil (which we should do), how do we hate sin and love sinners? How can we judge (being sinners ourselves)? Mosiah 4 speaks of sharing our substance with those in need; does that extent to our sharing our love with fellow sinners who are also seeking a path home? I believe it does.

I remember when someone shared his love with me. I was a new Sunday School president just about the time Sunday School presidents were becoming less relevant. We had no more opening exercises. And soon teacher inservice would be phased out, as well. Being the young return missionary I was, I thought I knew all there was to know, and I resisted the efforts of my stake Sunday School president to support and train me. My rebellious attitude must have been obvious to him, but he was unflappable. Each time he visited our ward, he put his arm around me and told me how much he loved me, and told me how pleased he was with what I was doing.

Despite my pride, his love was genuine (and disarming). It was impossible for me to ignore it. And I remember it thirty years later.

It is easy for us to find fault with others, to find reasons not to relate, not to engage. But that’s not what the Savior taught us, is it?

But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,

Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.

Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.

And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same.

And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.

But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil (Luke 6:27-35).

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A lesson Richard taught me

In 1998, we moved back to the US from Venezuela, where I’d been working for three and a half years. During our time there, we had collected a lot of books – church books, children’s books, reference books and others. It has been this way in each of our overseas assignments: each trip back to the US included an expensive trip to the bookstore since we could not get English reading material in our host country. (In Japan, we could buy English books, but they were very, very expensive, so we tried very hard to stay out of the English bookshop in Hiroshima.)

As we were preparing to move, I wondered about moving all those books home. Logistically it was no issue: the company was moving us and there was certainly room in our shipping container. But I thought about the church members we’d come to know there. We attended a local ward and new some new members and others who had been members for most of their lives. Quite a few read English and others were anxious to learn. Leaving behind a library of books would be a blessing to our new friends.

So we determined to give away most of our books. I took them to church one weeknight in the trunk of my car, and we invited anyone who was interested to take what interested them. I had underestimated their enthusiasm. One long-time member who had not traveled outside Venezuela practically caressed the paperback volumes of the History of the Church. Her husband was in the stake presidency and they were both great students of church history and the scriptures. (Every talk I heard him give included at least one great story from the Old Testament.)

Youth were excited to have novels in English with which they could practice, and mothers were happy to have picture books for their children.

In the end, all the books were taken. I’m sure some were soon forgotten, but others, I hope, were well used.

I doubt it would have occurred to me to offer them had it not been for Richard Ellsworth. Richard was a professor of English at BYU, and a cousin to my mother-in-law. He passed away recently, and Margaret Blair Young’s touching recollections over at BCC caused me to reflect on him this week. I took just one class from Richard – a 19th century American lit class – toward the end of my English degree. But I also had the good fortune, with my wife, to visit him and his wife in their home.

I remember sometime during our semester together, Richard counseled our class not to keep all our college textbooks. He said as English majors, most of what we had was literature anyway, and it would easily be found in the library, so we need not schlep boxes of books across the country between graduate school and teaching appointments. I admit I was a little surprised. I would have expected a lit professor to treasure the books, but of course what he treasured was the literature itself.

I still love to hold a book in my hand. I have not made the leap to Kindle- and iWhatever-fueled electronic reading (except for blogs and emails, which I still do from my laptop). In our community we have a great library, and we are regular patrons (which just about keeps up with my 11-year-old daughter’s 10-book-a-week habit). We still buy some books that we know we want to have for reference.

But, as Richard taught me: it’s the literature, not the books.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Two quotations from yesterday’s sacrament meeting that I thought were cool

The first from a young woman, age 15, who was baptized a few months ago. She was the first in her family to be baptized, and was followed by her mom a few weeks later. The young woman was speaking about standards and the value of living them. Her quotation: “Peer pressure is for losers.”

The second was in a great talk about tithing by a long time member of the church. She spoke of her family’s own struggle with church contributions years earlier – no miracle promotion, no pot of money to replace the contributions made; instead her husband lost his job! But here’s the quotation she used:

“Things cheaply purchased are seldom appreciated. Attitudes which cause us to look for bargains in some areas of life will carry over into more important things” (F. Burton Howard, “On Giving And Getting,” New Era, October 1985).

Her point was that the blessings of paying tithing or making other contributions in the church do not come cheaply; it does not pay for us to seek bargain blessings.

Yesterday was a good day to be in sacrament meeting.