Sunday, February 7, 2016

Grace is an Open Door

"The parental relationship is supposed to be built upon unconditional love—a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of meritocracy and is the closest humans come to grace." (David Brooks)

God is so generous with His grace that it sometimes seems radically out of balance with our good works.

On January 31, 2016, I woke up in the wee hours of the morning as my wife (39 weeks pregnant) got out of bed. When I reached out to grab her hand and ask if she is OK (she just needed some water), a voice spoke to my heart with a message as random as it was clear: "Don't reject the gift of grace I will give you."

True to His word, God has spoiled us with gift after graceful gift this past week. But I don't understand why because I know I don't deserve them (my wife, on the other hand…). As David Brooks says above, God's love is so deep and His mercy overflowing that it surpasses the stale meritocratic logic of our world.

Blessed by Grace

At 3:30 a.m. the next morning, my wife woke me up again--this time to say she was in labor. We made our way in the 20-degree early morning Utah darkness to the hospital, where she gave birth 14 hours later to our third daughter, whose middle name we made Grace. And what a pure, priceless gift she is.

Other gifts came from dozens of angels among us. These include:

  • Nurses and doctors (mostly women) who blessed us with their tender care and skill. It's a blessing to have medical professionals who listen with their heart.
  • Our Christian neighbors and family members who brought us dinner for five consecutive evenings after we returned home from the hospital.
  • My parents and siblings. My Mom watched our two older girls from Sunday night to Wednesday morning so I could be in the hospital with my wife. My sisters Angie and Ginger drove my Mom to our home (a two-hour roundtrip drive) on Sunday night so she could be here. And my Dad made the same drive Wednesday morning after work to pick up my Mom. On Tuesday afternoon we received an unexpected long-distance delivery from my always-charitable sister Nikki (who lives in New York)--a delicious fruit bouquet full of bright yellows (pineapple), oranges (cantaloupe), greens (honey dew) and reds (strawberry).

The prayers of friends and family cover this birth experience like a warm blanket on a cold winter night (going from two kids to three feels frigid at times). A week before our labor, a neighbor from our congregation prayed for us in our home. He asked God to bless the doctors and nurses to perform their duties with the utmost skill. And in our Sunday School class the day before my wife gave birth, a 14-year-old girl prayed that all would go well with our labor. And we know more prayers, both silent and spoken, were said in our behalf. All these supplications may seem small things to those who voiced them, but they filled (and continue to fill) our souls with inconceivable comfort.

A popular Christian song says, "God put a million, million doors in the world / For his love to walk through / One of those doors is you." One of God's chief forms of love is His boundless grace.

I'm grateful that so many wide-open doors of love and grace surround us.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Earthly Realities

Only hours removed from heaven,
your eyes are shut as if in intense remembering.
Your ruddy, serene, sleepy face scrunches briefly into worry,
punctuated by puppy-like whimpers.

What would I see if I could peer into
the movie screen of your mind?

Perhaps these started as glorious pre-mortal dreams—
fresh and warm memories of
thrilling celestial playgrounds,
laughter-filled discussions with grandmas and grandpas,
all-you-could-eat heavenly buffets,
ineffably warm embraces of Heavenly Parents—

All suddenly snuffed out
by wintry reminders of
what is coming—
the cold realities
of mortality.

Ah, but there I see you crack a half smile!
I'm glad you've remembered the other half—
Adam and Eve fell so you can live,
and you are here to know
tremendous joy.

Samuel B. Hislop

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Being There—Now

I remember the counsel of a dear brother in Christ.
'Pay attention,' he said, 'to the stages of life.
Each is a blur, and before you know it,
your little ones
will be gone.'

By the grace of God, his words stick to my heart
like my 3-year-old sometimes clings,
to me.

Our children are 6, 3 and in the womb.
Even in their youngest years, I feel
an urgency to be present—
to hug,
to play,
to tickle,
to laugh,
to cry.

Parenting cauterizes the soul from the curse of selfishness,
tattooing patterns of selflessness 
onto our Divine Image.

This is the high price of celestial sweetness—
we feed, we clothe, we bathe, we teach;
we sleep, sometimes,
we worry, frequently,
but we rejoice, always.

Samuel B. Hislop

Sunday, December 6, 2015

In Failing to be Another, I'm Learning to be Me

"Why do we feel damaged when somebody else is blessed?"

I once heard Elder Jeffrey R. Holland ask this as he expounded upon the New Testament parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). He called this a "fundamental question that we ought to work through in our life before it’s over."

I'm over 30, yet I still struggle to answer Elder Holland's question. I'm one of the weakest creatures of God's creation. He hasn't blessed with me with extraordinary physical or intellectual gifts, so I've spent much of my life envious of others endowed with more talent, more money, more success. I've repeatedly failed to be them, forgetting that there's a divine, unique me.

Fortunately, failures bring us nearer to truth by a process of elimination. My inability to be what others are brings me closer to learning who I am and what I can offer the world.

Scripture and the words of religious leaders also help.

To wit, I take great comfort from Alma in the Book of Mormon. Even as a spiritual leader, he was slightly off center in his wish to preach repentance to the entire world. He recognized sin in his desire to do it all, and came to the humbling understanding that he wasn't the only resource God has to accomplish His divine project. "I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me," Alma says (Alma 29:3).

Another spiritual leader, Paul, teaches that the church is like a body, and reminds us that "the body is not one member, but many" (1 Corinthians 12:11). And in the Doctrine and Covenants, Jesus teaches the liberating doctrine that "to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God" (D&C 46:11, emphasis added).

I'm reading Not in God's Name: Confronting Religious Violence, an outstanding new book from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I treasure his wisdomespecially his exegesis of the book of Genesis, which contains these two insights:

Peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else. (p. 139)

There is no need to want someone else's blessing. We each have our own. (p. 170)

I've spent too much of my life thrashing about in attempts to be what other people are and to have what they have, all the while not trusting God's promise that I have something special to offer and forgetting His teaching that I need to be content with that offering.

And so I move forward, seeking to be the me God wants me to be. Recent experience shows me that few things bring more peace to my soul than to see my true self in the divine mirror.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Economy of Heaven: 'Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread'

Mormons excel at what one writer calls the "the sacrament of helping other people move." In our nearly nine years of marriage, my wife and I have moved six times. In each instance we've had strong hands from our local congregation (as well as our extended families) lighten our moving load.

Our most recent move was this summer, into our first home. We knew our parents and siblings wouldn't be able to provide all the help we would need for a quick move, so we announced our plans at Church so members could schedule time to help us.

When the morning of the move came, only two people from our congregation (in addition to my parents, brother and sister-in-law) came to help. This bothered me. How could it be, I wondered, that only two of the hundreds of people in our congregation had time to help us move furniture and boxes?

As the day unfolded, however, I could clearly see how God was blessing us with what we needed on that day. My brother and I unloaded the truck quicker than I expected and we finished by early afternoon. My parents brought us pizza and soda soon afterward (timely sustenance and refreshment), and both they and my wife's parents provided key help in many other ways.

As the blessings of the day became more apparent, a portion of the Lord's prayer repeatedly came to my mind: "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11, emphasis added).

I learned something of the economy of Heaven that day—namely, that God will always bless us with what we need, but not always with what we want. Perhaps He won't send the whole congregation when two faithful neighbors are enough to help get the job done.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Finding My Place in Christ's World

Sometimes God answers the unasked question.

This spring, as my wife and I began the labyrinthine process of buying a home, I started to re-read the Book of Mormon (I'd been focused on the other portions of the Mormon canon the past three years and was hungry to re-engage with this sacred text).

I hadn't finished the book's third chapter before the Holy Ghost taught me with undeniable clarity that my focus on material things was misguided.

You see, I wanted to buy a big-screen television (60 or 70 inches wide) for our new home. We've never had a TV larger than 12 or 15 inches during our 8.5 years of marriage, so the purchase of a new home seemed an appropriate time for a TV upgrade.

When I came to the account of Nephi, Laman, Lemuel and Sam trying to obtain the brass plates from Laban, verse 26 of chapter 3 spoke directly to my spirit:

And it came to pass that we did flee before the servants of Laban, and we were obliged to leave behind our property, and it fell into the hands of Laban.
Those italicized words were the message. They couldn't achieve their objective (obtaining the brass plates, or scriptures) without letting go of their possessions. Applying this verse to myself, I can't achieve my objectives (being a husband to my wife and passing on the tradition of faith in Christ to my children) without relinquishing my desires for the shiny things of this world. 

We have been in our home for five months, and 1 Nephi 3:26 continues to guide me. Sometimes I wander into the trap of thinking our home isn't big enough for our growing family or isn't good enough when compared to the elegant homes of our neighbors. I know these thoughts are absurd (and no doubt cultivated in the rich materialist soil of American culture), but such are the temptations we confront in this world.

I like the way C.S. Lewis says it in The Screwtape Letters: "Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is 'finding his place in it,' while really it is finding its place in him" (p. 132). 

May we all find our place in Christ's kingdom. This will take more than casual searching, however, because He tells us His dominion is "not of this world" (John 18:36). 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Power of God's Word in My Life

Rabbi Sacks
The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has said, “we’re not just bodies, but also minds; not just physical beings, but also spiritual beings.” This is an axiomatic truth for Latter-day Saints and connects well to a subject I’ve thought about recently — namely, the spiritual nourishment available to us through the scriptures during our individual spiritual journeys back to God. Because we are both physical and spiritual beings, we need both physical and spiritual sustenance. 

A scene from John Bunyan's book, The Pilgrim's Progress, illustrates this truth quite well. Bunyan’s book is a poignant allegory about a man named Christian who has answered God's call to leave the sinful world behind and journey to the what is known as the "Celestial City." Toward the beginning of the journey, a messenger gives Christian a scroll (symbolic of the scriptures) designed to give him comfort and refreshment as he reads it along the way. Unfortunately, at one point on the journey, an exhausted Christian, still somewhat a spiritual novice, unwisely falls asleep under a large tree. A messenger chastises him for his sloth and Christian hastily continues the journey. But he forgets the scroll, which fell out of his hand during his rest. 

After he travels some distance from that tree, Christian reaches into his pocket for his scroll, but it's not there. "Then was Christian in great distress, and knew not what to do," Bunyan writes, "for he wanted that which used to relieve him, and that which should have been his Pass into the Celestial City. Here therefore he began to be much perplexed, and knew not what to do.” Christian soon remembers the spot where he fell asleep, and he then falls down on his knees to ask forgiveness from God for his foolish action.

He soon finds the scroll, and Bunyan describes the scene this way: "Who can tell how joyful this man was, when he had gotten his roll again? For this Scroll was the assurance of his life, and acceptance at the desired Haven. Therefore he laid it up in his bosom, gave thanks to God for directing his eye to the place where it lay, and with joy and tears betook himself again to his Journey."

I like this story because I can relate to it. Like Christian, I’m on a journey to the Celestial City. Like Christian, I sometimes find myself exhausted, asleep, and losing my grip on spiritual things. But also like Christian, I can say with certainty that the scroll, the scriptures, comfort me, refresh me and guide me. But the scriptures can’t guide us if we don’t find time to read them. 

Carving Out Study Time

Continuing that thought, Elder Tad R. Callister has spoken of the important role daily scripture study played throughout his three-decades long law career. He describes arriving early to work, where his Dad and brother (who also worked at the law firm) would be studying the scriptures for the first half hour. And so, seeing their example, he studied the scriptures as well. But he notes that the temptation would often come to cut short his scripture study so he could get to that day’s work more quickly.

He says, “[I would] see all the piles of legal file theres, and I remember many mornings [I would] say, ‘I’ve got to get to those files, they’re going to be on me today. I’ve got those phone calls.’ And then the little impression would come, ’No, stick with the scriptures.’ And somehow,” Elder Callister says, "the 34 years of law practice came and went, and I got to all of the files and I got to all of the phone calls, but I also had had the privilege of studying the scriptures.” 

He then adds this valuable insight: "The Lord’s a good compensator. If you spend time in the scriptures, He will compensate and help you in all of the other decisions in life you have to make, whether it’s the business world or your family or your spiritual calling.” 

A Few Personal Experiences

Let me provide two illustrations of how the scriptures have guided and compensated me on my journey.

The first example comes from October 2003, when I was in the Provo MTC learning the Russian language to prepare for a mission in Donetsk, Ukraine. While some others in my MTC group seemed to learn the language with enviable ease, I struggled mightily during my 12-week MTC stay — I was convinced that I was the furthest behind, the least able, the weakest link in my MTC district. Fortunately, the MTC teachers gave us time each day to step away from the intense language study to have personal scripture study in English, and this became a shady refuge for my weak mind from the scorching complexity of the Russian language. Like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory, I could go to my scroll, the scriptures, and be comforted and refreshed in the midst of another long day at the MTC. And gratefully, the habit of daily scripture study has blessed my life in similar ways ever since.

The second example comes from a morning in November 2005, shortly after returning from Ukraine. I was sitting at my parents' kitchen table in Logan, Utah, reading Mosiah chapter 4. I distinctly remember how the words of King Benjamin in verse 29 sunk deep into my heart: "if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish. And now, O man, remember, and perish not." 

Rarely has a scripture touched my heart so tenderly and powerfully as it did at that time. I experienced an unmistakable feeling of admonishment from the Holy Ghost about the paramount importance of spiritual caution along the joyful yet dangerous path of mortality. This was a key message for me to receive at the tender time of transition from full-time missionary to full-time adult, consisting of college, marriage, parenthood, graduate school and full-time employment — experiences collectively so demanding and exhausting at times that there’s little energy left for spiritual things. (I would add as a side note: No wonder Peter, James and John struggled to stay awake in the garden with the Savior. Life is challenging and demanding — especially for followers of Jesus, who asks us to give all our might, mind and strength. The spirit is almost always willing, but the flesh is often weak.)

I’m grateful for these and many other burning witnesses I’ve received during routine daily scripture studies over the years. As Bunyan wrote, they are "the assurance of [my] life.” Some of these experiences have been surprisingly strong and clear; most are subtle, gentle almost imperceptible nudges from God that comfort and enlighten me. But whether strong or subtle, all these experiences teach me that the word of God truly is "sharper than a two-edged sword,” a personal Urim and Thumim providing light and truth to our spirits. I testify that "every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” has unique power. But to tap into that power, we must carve out quiet time in our busy lives, open the books (or the apps) and study.