Saturday, April 29, 2017

The sacred gift of LIFE

SIXTY???  SIXTY???  How in the world did THAT happen?

Early in the morning on March 1, I watched the clock change from 5:27 to 5:28 a.m. According to my birth certificate, that moment marked precisely 60 years since my mother was not-so-gently relieved of her first phase of caring for me, as she delivered me to the world. (Thank you, Mom, for that moment and for so much more; I miss you.)

I looked in a mirror that morning, poked and prodded in a few places, stretched and bent, and thought carefully about how I felt. Somehow, there wasn't a bit of difference between David at 5:27 and David at 5:28. The clock tick didn't mean a thing. I'm now officially in my sixties; but so what?

But SIXTY! How can that be?? Passing each decade milestone seems to challenge our comprehension. These big numbers always applied to another generation, to old people, and not to me. I am still just a young fellow, full of vigor and energy, with my whole life ahead of me—right? I am NOWHERE NEAR the "senior citizen" phase of life!

Now if I look at the difference of decades instead of years, and try to compare the David at 30 with the David at 60, I might notice a little more variance—in some ways better, in some ways worse. There are more grey hairs, to be sure. There have been achievements and positive milestones, as well as some mistakes and some hard lessons learned between those two Davids. There have been some deep trials and some heart-rending disappointments among the joys and celebrations. But, that is life, right? I guess I'm glad to report that the weight is about the same, and physical conditioning is probably at least as good if not better now than then. There is much more experience and memory to draw upon. And there is a family—aw, the sweetness of a family.

Someone (Pope Paul VI or Nikita Ivanovich Panin, the Internet isn't sure which one) said, "In youth the days are short and the years are long; in old age the years are short and the days long." As the passage of years begins to accelerate, I feel the truth of that observation.

I often ponder on the fact that my own father was granted barely 45 years on this earth. There are so many privileges I have had, that he was not permitted to have:
• baptize and confirm all my children
• ordain my son to the priesthood
• watch children grow and mature into fine adults
• support a son on a mission
• experience the temple with my children
• see my children happily married to wonderful spouses
• experience the growing joy of grandchildren
• have my marriage relationship seasoned and deepened
As I ponder the joy of that list of family-related events, I can't help but be overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of life. I am not just adding years; I am adding joy, constantly, as each day is granted to me. How grateful I am for that continuing blessing, for as long as God will permit it to last!

FAST FORWARD eight weeks after my 60th birthday to this week.  I'm now 60 years and 8 weeks old, and pretty proud that I can still climb mountains and do challenging things. But then, life gets your attention and knocks you back a step.

So before I know it, I'm lying in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm and an NG tube rudely inserted into my stomach, wondering if there is more surgery to come and whether my physically-active lifestyle might be about to change.

Early Tuesday morning of this week I had hiked with some friends at 5:45 a.m. as we often do for an hour of morning exercise. I came home and had breakfast with my sweetie, then showered and got ready for the day. But mid-morning, I started to feel discomfort in my stomach, and it continued to worsen through the morning. My abdomen became firm and then distended, and the discomfort turned painful.  By early afternoon, vomiting had not relieved the pressure, and it became obvious that this was not just an upset stomach.

I called Bonnie and we were soon seeing a doctor; an x-ray indicated a likely obstruction in the small intestine. We were sent off to the hospital, where I was admitted and a CT scan confirmed the diagnosis. The NG tube, as incredibly uncomfortable as it was to insert and maintain, helped to drain fluid and pressure from my stomach and brought some relief. I was left to wait overnight; the bowels often are able to correct the obstruction when the pressure is relieved, so we hoped that would be the case. In the morning, a barium swallow test with a series of x-rays confirmed that there appeared to no longer be an obstruction. In the afternoon, I started drinking and then eating soft foods; by evening I was back at home.

Amazingly, it is likely that this obstruction was related to the abdominal surgery I had in connection with my cancer 29 years ago. It's apparently not unusual for the delicate bowels, having been disturbed, to harbor scar tissue or some other remnant of the disturbance that can eventually result in some kind of blockage.

So now that "this too has passed," I am left to ponder mortality and uncertainty. I have no guarantee of additional years; I have no guarantee of additional DAYS. Not one of us does. Once again, I am reminded how precious life is, and how much every single morning should be considered a sacred gift. I must treasure each moment, find joy in all I do, serve where I can, keep trials in the proper perspective, grow in the love of my treasured family and dear friends, and never forget how blessed I am in God's hands.

Monday, February 29, 2016

RETIRED - or retreaded?? Transitions...

I remember as a young man hearing Elder S. Dilworth Young speak in a general conference address. Due to reorganization and changes in how Seventies were functioning in the Church, he was released from a leadership role in the First Council of Seventy and became a member of the First Quorum of Seventy.
He spoke eloquently about his sense of the joy of service, commenting that the didn't at all feel he was being "retired" (as some had wondered) but instead was being "retreaded" for ongoing service. I've never forgotten his analogy and expression of eagerness to go on working and serving.

[Sidenote: the concept of retreading tires is not as well known as it was in my youth. It refers to the practice of taking an old, worn-out, bald car tire and adding a new layer of rubber tread to give the tire new life and utility.]

Today, I "retired" from my career in the IT department at Brigham Young University. For that matter, after almost 33 years of full-time employment, I'm retiring from that phase of my life. But I hope I'm really just "retreading" myself for better things to come.

I've been a BYU employee for almost 15 years. Like every job, there were ups and downs; but it's been a great institution to be affiliated with, and I've appreciated the things I learned and experienced here. I never planned or aspired to return to BYU as an employee; that just kind of happened on its own. But there have been some real benefits.

Today as I walked around campus, taking care of final details with the employment office and many other groups required to "sign me out," it was a little melancholy. I recalled coming here as a wide-eyed freshman almost 42 years ago (can that be true??). It took me 9 years to finish my undergraduate degree in computer science, given interruptions for a mission, a long internship, international travel experiences, etc.  When I finally had my degree in 1983 I rushed away from campus before the graduation ceremony to take my first job at IBM in Virginia, never dreaming I would be back as an employee. So in a way, I've come "full circle" to end where I began.

I've always hoped to retire early, while I still had energy to "enjoy life" in ways you can't while employed. Bonnie and I have worked for this goal, and have been blessed in many ways along the path. So this is not an end; it's a beginning. "The best is yet to come." I will be "retreading" myself for a variety of activities to fill the time; I will be busier than ever.

It was nice to have a farewell luncheon with some of the folks I've worked most closely with in recent years. It's the people that make any activity worthwhile:

But when it came time to leave, I just picked up the few things still in my office space and slipped quietly out the back door of the building into the parking lot. I have to admit I didn't even look back; I was too busy looking forward, seeing the beautiful view and pondering what the next mountain is to climb (both symbolically and literally!).

It's kind of an uneasy feeling to be doing this. We're not COMPLETELY ready. Bonnie will be working for another year or more while I start getting caught up on projects and interests that I've been postponing for 33 years. Then we'll begin pursuing our shared dreams of service and travel. Do I have 20 good years left? I hope so. But however long the time is, I hope to make the best of every year, every day that I am granted!

Monday, February 15, 2016

CTR - Choose The Right - and more!

The phrase "choose the right" does not appear in the scriptures. It was the title and theme of a hymn written by early LDS member Joseph Townsend about 1890. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the general Primary leaders of the Church adopted the slogan to help teach children. The familiar logo with initials on a shield became iconic, as inexpensive rings were given to each child to help them remember the simple motto. And though simple,  what a glorious and powerful message it is:
Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you.
In the right, the Holy Spirit guides. (Hymns, #239)
In more recent years, it's become popular for older youth and even adults to wear rings and jewelry that use the CTR symbol,  and various styles of the ring (including expensive, higher quality ones) are available to purchase. Many lives have been blessed as the ring or the song have helped remind both youth and adults to make good and wise choices, after seeking the Holy Spirit's guidance.


While I appreciate the CTR acronym and its symbolism in helping remind us to Choose The Right, on one occasion I was led to ponder other possible back-formations of the CTR acronym—what else could those letters stand for, or how else might they be applied? As other phrases came to mind, each brought insights and made me even more grateful and impressed by the power of the CTR symbol. At different times and in different situations, seeing the CTR acronym might be a helpful reminder of one of these other concepts.

In 2005, I had the privilege to speak at a local fireside on the 175th anniversary of the organization of the Church. For a conference of young single adults, we had chosen the theme "Celebrate the Restoration" and someone noticed the CTR connection. It was wonderful to commemorate those events and rejoice in the blessings that the restored Gospel brought to each of our lives. The CTR acronym seemed natural to "borrow" for the conference. We were truly grateful to celebrate on that occasion, recognizing how our lives had been effected and blessed by the events of the latter-day restoration.

Perhaps the hardest, perhaps the most important choice we make is the one to repent. Every time we make that choice, heaven rejoices (see D&C 18:13) and our personal growth leaps ahead. Repentance needs to be a continual, even daily process if we want growth to be a continual and daily process!

This was one of the most obvious links to the CTR acronym. It's a message that we've heard frequently from our leaders as they have tried to help us understand the importance, both of temple service, and our efforts to follow the standard of worthiness established for us. Consider this memorable excerpt from President Hunter:
"It would be the deepest desire of my heart to have every member of the Church be temple worthy. I would hope that every adult member would be worthy of—and carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it."
- Howard W. Hunter, "The Great Symbol of Our Membership," Ensign, Oct. 1994, 5
It's been wonderful to see this emphasis extend even to our youth today, for each of them to be worthy of, and to make frequent use of, a current temple recommend.

The are many situations in our spiritual life when we have the choice about how we will respond to an opportunity. Both of the verbs in this phrase are important. First of all, we must come. We elect to participate in the  opportunity. But then in addition, we must receive. We are active participants, even if only watching and listening. It's up to us to approach each experience with the attitude that we have something to learn, some insight to gain, some way to grow. A CTR message is an invitation to make the most of each opportunity, recognizing the potential that is there even in what may appear to be a mundane or routine event.

One of the most tender yet crucial principles of the gospel is reinforced each week as we partake of the sacrament in our worship services. A critical part of those sacramental covenants is that we "always remember Him" so that we may "always have His spirit to be with" us.

Our "Covenant To Remember" is the critical prerequisite to receiving, and retaining, one of the greatest blessings promised to us. As we "always remember Him" we are able to more fully "keep His commandments which He has given them," and then our lives are blessed immeasurably by that gift of Divine presence.

There are two ways this phrase speaks to my soul.  First of all, while I love and appreciate all the teachings of the prophets, I truly cherish the current, living oracles above all others. Their instructions, warning, and counsel are for my time and my challenges. I'm eager to listen and learn, and know I am blessed as I heed the counsel.

But in addition, I seek for my own inspiration and revelation. I believe I can receive personal guidance directly from God and through the Holy Ghost to bless my life. This revelation is especially cherished, and I love the encouragement to seek for it more actively.

Church leaders have occasionally taught and encouraged about the principle of deciding once to avoid sin or commit to righteous acts. For example, President Kimball encouraged youth in this way:
"Now may I make a recommendation? Develop discipline of self so that, more and more, you do not have to decide and redecide what you will do when you are confronted with the same temptation time and time again. You only need to decide some things once!...
"Likewise, my dear young friends, the positive things you will want to accomplish need only be decided upon once—like going on a mission and living worthily in order to get married in the temple—and then all other decisions related to these goals can fall into line. Otherwise, each consideration is risky, and each equivocation may result in error. There are some things Latter-day Saints do, and other things we just don't do. The sooner you take stands, the taller you will be!"
- Spencer W. Kimball, "President Kimball Speaks Out on Planning Your Life," New Era, Sept. 1981, p. 50
I love this principle. Once the decision is made, if the commitment is strong, "then all other decisions related to these goals can fall into line." President Boyd K. Packer shared his version of the principle:
"I also have come to know the power of truth and of righteousness and of good, and I want to be good. I'm not ashamed to say that—I want to be good. And I've found in my life that it has been critically important that this was established between me and the Lord so that I knew that He knew which way I committed my agency. I went before Him and in essence said, 'I'm not neutral, and You can do with me what You want. If You need my vote, it's there. I don't care what You do with me, and You don't have to take anything from me because I give it to you—everything, all I own, all I am.' And that makes the difference."
  - Boyd K. Packer, "To Those Who Teach in Troubled Times", seminary and institute conference, Summer 1970; see 'That All May Be Edified' p. 272
This is not blind obedience; it's whole-hearted obedience! It's a Commitment To Righteousness that changes every aspect of life.

We are not meant to be alone in this mortal life. We are deeply blessed by family relationships, by friendship that strengthens and elevates, by bearing one another's burdens, by knowing there are others who will help to bear our burdens when we feel tired or inadequate. Those kinds of relationships of love and trust, whether in the family or out of it, don't typically just appear out of nowhere, and they certainly don't remain without some effort. They have to be nurtured and cultivated. It takes time, effort, mutual willingness, and love.

There should be much to be happy about in life. Joseph Smith, in spite of many troubles and tribulations, counseled: 'Brethren, shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory! Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad.' (D&C 128:22.) Not just a little glad — exceedingly glad.

I believe that joy comes when we have the Lord's spirit in our lives, and feel the fullness of the blessings of the Atonement (see, for example, Alma 22:15). In the midst of any situation in life, there is always reason to rejoice! It's only when we lose our eternal perspective that we forget the greatness of His gifts to us, and the ultimate promises of peace and safety as we are "encircled about eternally in the arms of his love" (2 Ne 1:15).

Surely there's not a more valuable reminder that we could wear on a finger or view regularly, than to recall the importance of Christ The Redeemer in our lives. For those of us who have chosen to accept His gospel message and strive to respond to the invitation He issued to "come follow me," He most certainly is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

As we strive to be His disciples by following in that way, we are blessed by His love. We learn to share His yoke, discovering that it is "easy" and that burdens become light (see Matthew 11:28-30). Gradually, as we more fully take His name upon us and learn of Him, we become more like Him. And that is the goal and purpose in life for every Christian.

The author with his CTR headband

"Choose The Right" is a simple and beautiful summary of an important Gospel principle: using agency wisely. If we do that fully and completely, we have nothing to worry about. I love the traditional CTR symbolism as taught to children in the Church.

I'm also grateful for the many ways I have found encouragement and help in other interpretations; these are only a few of what came to my mind. I invite readers to come up with ideas of their own, and share them with me!

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Joy of Sauntering

My calendar informs me that today, June 19, is "World Sauntering Day."  According to Wikipedia, the commemoration on this date goes back to 1979 when it was started in Michigan by an anti-jogger "to encourage people to slow down and appreciate the world around them."

I love the word "saunter" — it conveys a sense of relaxed, unhurried enjoyment. Each of these synonyms has a similarly pleasant feel to it:
  • Stroll
  • Amble
  • Mosey
  • Wander
  • Meander

The word "saunter" always brings to mind the story told about one of my heroes, John Muir (1838-1914), a legendary naturalist, outdoorsman, environmentalist, and philosopher. Muir loved to hike and camp in the Sierras of California. But it's said that he despised the word "hike" because it had too much of a connotation of rushing to a destination. (Imagine how he would feel about the newer practice of "trail running"!) He stated that people should "saunter" in the mountains, and would tell this story in support of his position:
"Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, "A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them."
According to one person who spent time with Muir in the mountains:
John Muir lived up to his doctrine. He was usually the last man to reach camp. He never hurried. He stopped to get acquainted with individual trees along the way. He would hail people passing by and make them get down on hands and knees if necessary to see the beauty of some little bed of almost microscopic flowers. Usually he appeared at camp with some new flowers in his hat and a little piece of fir bough in his buttonhole. (Albert W. Palmer, "The Mountain Trail and Its Message", 1911)

What a marvelous image! Incidentally, most linguists don't support this etymology of the word. Muir may have learned his derivation from an east-coast saunterer who preceded him, Henry David Thoreau, who used very similar language and derivation in his marvelous essay from the 1850's titled Walking. Thoreau warned about imitation saunterers who really had no intention of going to the Holy Land, but just appreciated the charity that their pretense evoked. But an authentic saunterer was a Crusader, and "every walk is a sort of crusade... to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels." The essay on Walking ends with this beautiful phrase:
So we saunter toward the Holy Land, till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light, as warm and serene and golden as on a bankside in autumn.

All too often, on my excursions into the mountains or experiences with nature, I find myself hurrying towards a destination. I have to get to the summit so I can return home and tend to the rest of my duties. However, my "saving grace" is that I love to take photos — both sweeping landscapes and intimate close-ups. That often slows me down. A friend captured this shot of me once, sneaking up on a flower, in the Timpanogos Basin:

So while "peak-bagging" and even trail running have their place, I appreciate this reminder on World Sauntering Day to enjoy the Holy Land that is all around us.

And in a profound way, this is a great lesson for life. We life in complex times when there are many demands and opportunities competing for our attention. We too often try to "cram in" as much as possible, rushing toward ephemeral destinations as if our urgency added value to the journey. Perhaps we need more symbolic or literal "sauntering" as a more prominent portion of life. It's not just the ground around us that is holy; it's not just flowers, birds, animals, landscapes, and sunsets; but it's especially the people. Our lives take on more holiness as we reach out to others, as we develop friendships, as we serve, as we learn together. C. S. Lewis understood this principle:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.... There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Surrounded by so many wonders, who wouldn't appreciate the chance to saunter through such a Holy Land?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Epiphany and Wise Men

Like most Christians, my family continued to perpetrate one of the myths of Christmas during this past season.  We displayed our Nativity Scenes or Creches with the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and assorted animals, and the three "wise men." It's that last part, of course, that doesn't fit.  The Magi of Matthew's Gospel were not present on the night of Jesus' birth along with the adoring shepherds. It's not clear from the record when they came; it may have been a few days later or many months. Some suggest that Herod's order to kill all babies less than 2 years old indicates that the visit of the wise men might have been that much after the birth of Jesus.

The Christian "feast day" of Epiphany traditionally is celebrated 12 days after Christmas, on January 6.  One of the main focuses of this holiday is the commemoration of the arrival of the Magi, representing the manifestation of the Savior to the Gentiles.

Matthew is the only Gospel writer to mention these events.  His record from Matthew 2 gives us some interesting things to ponder.
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
These first two verses tell us at least three critical things about the wise men:
  1. They were men of understanding. They knew of the prophecies. They must have studied, even what was likely the beliefs of a very different culture from their own.
  2. They were observant. They recognized the sign when they saw it, and were able to relate it to their understanding of the prophecy.
  3. They acted once they understood. They didn't just ponder the sign in the heavens; they traveled to be near the scene, to be able to "worship him."
What a wonderful example!  By contrast, Herod and "all Jerusalem" were troubled by the queries of the wise men.  Herod consulted with his "chief priests and scribes" for details; they were at least able to identify Bethlehem as the prophesied location.  But why hadn't they seen the new star?  Why weren't they watching for the signs?  Why weren't they acting on the new knowledge?

The star now leads the wise men directly to the house (not stable) where Mary and her child (not baby) are located.  They rejoice exceedingly, and present their gifts.  Then, as another manifestation of their spiritual sensitivity, they are "warned of God in a dream" not to return to Herod, and depart by another way.

These tender words of Elder Maxwell link each of us to those wise men of long ago:
“No wonder the declaratory focus of the first Christmas was on ‘a Savior is born.’  What greater tidings could there be than those ‘good tiding of great joy’?  No wonder the reverential exclamation praising our planning and loving Father—indeed, ‘Glory to God in the highest’!
“‘Come, let us adore Him,’ Jesus Christ.  The ultimate form of adoration of Him is emulation!  Come, let us glorify God with our daily lives!
“Like the wise men from the east, we too must travel a great distance in order to come unto Christ, the Light of the World.  No matter—He waits for us ‘with open arms’ (Mormon 6:17).  May Christmas cause us deeper contemplation and deeper determination to complete that journey of journeys—in order to experience that resplendent rendezvous.”
- Neal A. Maxwell, "The Christmas Scene" (Bookcraft, 1994), p. 9
We, too, have journeys to travel.  The road is often long and difficult.  But if our understanding is deep enough, if we are observant enough of the signs of God's love for us and his ongoing direction, and if we are willing to act and do our part—then like the wise men of old, we will "rejoice exceedingly" at the realization of that "resplendent rendezvous" we will each experience in returning to the Child of Bethlehem.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Being Part of the Gathering of Saints

On the eve of another General Conference, I've been reflecting on why that experience is so meaningful to me, and in particular, why I don't like things that compete with my participation. I've gotten fussy about my conference time. I am not one who can work in the yard or tinker around the house while listening to conference.  I don't like missing the broadcast, even knowing that the recordings and transcriptions are available for personal review and study almost immediately afterwards.  I feel a personal need to participate "live and in person" with the conference sessions.  The reason why takes a little explaining.  (I also acknowledge that not everyone feels like I do about this—and that's OK! What follows is my approach and my thoughts, and not the only approach or even the right approach.)

I'm not an old man (regardless of what my son says). But I vividly recall some of the experiences of my youth, pre-satellite and pre-cableTV, gathering to a stake center for the Priesthood Session of General Conference. There was no video; just the audio, brought to us over telephone lines and patched into the sound system in the building. The sound quality was inconsistent, and very inadequate for music transmission; but the connection was usually reliable.  In spite of what might seem a limitation by today's standards, I recall some marvelous spiritual experiences in my youth from that setting, hearing the instructions of Church leaders to the assembled priesthood holders.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Judge Righteous Judgment

"Judge not, that ye be not judged." (Matthew 7:1)

This phrase from the Savior's teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is often quoted and discussed.  Joseph Smith refined the thought in his inspired revision of the verse:
"Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment."

This expansion is consistent with the Savior's teachings in other places, particularly John 7:24:
"Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment."
As we try to learn the difference between unrighteous and righteous forms of judgment, that insight is helpful.  Judging "according to the appearance" of an action or incident is often unrighteous.  Similarly, the Lord counseled an ancient prophet, "...the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).  How do we get beyond making judgment based on appearance?  How can we be sure to judge righteously?

Our natural tendency is to make evaluations and decisions based on what we see or perceive in individuals and situations around us.  Often that's a necessary part of how we deal with the world — prioritizing, judging, choosing how to react and interact.  But sometimes, we make mistakes in those judgments that can have serious implications.

I've come to believe that some of the greatest challenges in personal interactions can result from this problem of "hasty judgment."  We hear words or see an action, and quickly assume we understand the history, motivation, or thoughts that led to the action.  We are judging on appearance, not allowing either our reason or the Spirit to lead us to what might be a different story.