Friday, February 17, 2006

Tender Mercies

It really wasn't remarkable, as miracles go.

I had been in Mexico five months and it was Thanksgiving. My friend, serving in Switzerland, had just sent me a letter: sometimes, in the morning, I have to close my blinds while I study or else I end up spending the whole morning staring at the scenery. When I received his letter, I pulled the shades to the side of my window and looked out at a cinderblock wall festooned with garish graffiti--a moment later, a donkey brayed as it wandered by. Switzerland this is not, I thought.

Later that day, Elder Haslam and I walked to the barrio of Bosques del Lago. We crested a hill and looked out on an endless valley where row upon row of monotonous cinderblock houses created a kind of dreary grid. Women with dark and calloused skin sweated in the afternoon sun as they washed and rinsed on stone washboards behind their small homes. Each in succession said gracias, pero soy Catolico, pues, creyente (thanks, but I'm Catholic, well, I was raised Catholic, anyway). We spent the day canvassing a whole quadrant of mini-blocks and found no success.

At the end of the day, we returned home with little enthusiasm. We were a bit excited, though, because Elder Haslam was going to call home that night--not because of the holiday, but because he needed new glasses and the President told him to call and ask his parents to deposit money.

Upon arriving at our apartment, he dialed home and his face lit up as he briefly talked with his mother for the first time since mother's day. They spoke only briefly. When I could tell Elder Haslam was wrapping up his conversation, I asked if I could speak with his mom. I did not know Elder Haslam before our time together and I had never communicated with his mother; somehow, though, mine seemed a natural request.

Hello, Sister Haslam.

Hello, Elder Johnson.

I really like serving with your son, he's a wonderful Elder.

Thank you, Elder.

Within me, warmth began to swell and I suddenly realized I was no longer thinking as I spoke--it was as if I was listening to someone else speak with my voice.

Sister Haslam, would you do me a favor?

Sure, Elder.

Will you call my mom
(I gave the number) and tell her I love her. Tell her I miss her but I am happy here in Mexico. Tell her we are having success and we even have a baptism planned for this Saturday. Tell her I love her, will you do that?

Certainly, Elder, I'll call her right now.

With that, the conversation ended and I quickly forgot the experience until I received a letter from my mother a couple of weeks later (written, mind you, the day after my conversation with Sister Haslam):

Dear Tyler,

Yesterday I was having a particularly hard day. I miss you so much and, when I started to think about it, I realized your brother will be leaving pretty soon on his mission. I know you are both doing what you are supposed to be doing, but it is just so hard sometimes. Then, I started to think of how you will soon leave for college and one day you will marry and probably move away. When I thought about all that, it made me very sad. It was just one of those days when everything seemed gray and drab. Sometime last night, I was crying when your dad answered the phone. He handed me the receiver and it was Sister Haslam, the mother of one of your companions. She said she had just spoken to you and you had asked her to tell me you loved me. I told her what a hard day it had been and we both cried over the phone, even thouh we have never met. I could feel your love from Mexico. I thought you would want to know.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

His Image In [Their] Countenance

Perdon? That's how I responded to Sonya's tortured admission of guilt; roughly translated: I'm sorry, what was that?

Sonya lived with her husband Pedro and their three children in a small but tidy apartment in Tulancingo, a far-off suberb of the never-ending Mexico City. We first met her son as we knocked other doors in his apartment building. He ran up and down the stairs, back and forth, passing us four times. Finally, I stopped him:

Hey, go ask your mom if she wants to hear a religious discussion. He nodded and scampered back up the stairs.

My companion elbowed me: Nice technique, Elder--contacting eight year olds.

We kept knocking.

A couple minutes later, here came Carlos: Mom says come up.

I elbowed my companion back and we ascended the stairs again. It was Christmas time so we sang Silent Night and talked about Christ's birth. Sonya cradled her son in her arms and looked sadly into the distance as we sang. She wanted us to come back and meet her husband that night.

We did. He was cordial but cool. Over the next few weeks we taught their little family the Gospel. When we learned about repentance, Sonya's eyes lit up. As she read the Book of Mormon a change came over her countenance. Each day when we arrived she grabbed the book, clutched it to her chest, and referred to it--with carino--as mi librito (my little book).

Pedro didn't change. He was known, at work and at home, as a rough character. A ward member told us how harsh he could be as a supervisor and his wife told stories of his expectations of perfection--especially when they first married. Back then, if she made a mistake he would clam up for days, the silence was to teach her not to make mistakes in the future. He became a bit more kind as we taught him, but his demeanor retained a stony sheen.

Still, he and his family decided to be baptized. My companion and I were so excited. We had been making special sacrifices that month, hoping for miracles, and this was one. An entire family baptized--we could so easily imagine returning to Mexico for the sealing.

By a strange trick of transfers, I ended up being assigned to interview Sonya and Pedro for their baptism. That morning, we walked with high steps and beaming smiles to their apartment. I would interview Sonya that morning and Pedro in the evening. I sat down with Sonya and we began the interview:

Do you believe in God the Father and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost?

Si, si creo (yes, yes I believe).

Do you believe

and so the interview continued without a hitch. As we neared the end of the interview, we both found ourselves smiling and weeping--we knew we were witnessing a miracle.

Despite her joy, however, Sonya fidgeted with the edge of the bedspread as we worked our way through the interview. Finally, as I asked the penultimate question, her gaze dropped to the floor:

Is there are serious transgression in your past about which you feel we should speak before I recommend you for baptism? Specifically, have you ever...

she began, with obvious pain and embarrasment, there is something I need to tell you. Well, about ten years ago, let's see, when we were first married, well, Pedro was very mean to me. I often couldn't feel love in our home. And so, well, I wasn't faithful.

What do you mean, Sonya?

I those years.

I stared, mouth agape, and felt the wind rush from my stomach. I stammered: what? how? you did?

Elder, do I need to tell my husband? I know I can't start this new life if I am lying to my husband. But if I tell him, he'll want a divorce and then everything will be ruined. What can I do? Elder, I want to start a new life, but I can't, not with these sins hidden from my husband? What should I do?

All my wisdom, let alone the words to articulate it, immediately fled. I just looked at her. I fingered the scriptures absently and kept looking at Sonya, whose eyes were rimmed with tears.

Finally, I said, Sonya, I just don't know. I need to talk to my President. I'll call him tonight. Don't do anything until I come and talk to you tomorrow. Just wait. Please.

I felt sick. My companion and I quickly said goodbye and I explained the siuation to him as we walked down the stairs. We spent the rest of the say wandering about like zombies--our dreams for this family scattering like ashes in the breeze.

That night I called the President. I explained the circumstances: President, what should I do?

He sighed his contemplative sigh and was silent for a long while. Then: Elder, I don't know, I'll call the area president and call you back.

Thirty minutes later, the President called. I was not one to question my president, and he was not one to question the area President, but neither of us felt very confident about the conversation which ended: So I tell her she doesn't need to tell him?

Yes, Elder, the President says the Atonement will wash away her sins--they will no longer exist. It was appropriate that she confess this to her Priesthood leader, but as the sins will no longer exist, there is no need to tell her husband.

Ok, President.
But it didn't really feel ok. No one believes more strongly in the power of the Atonement than I do, but I could not reconcile the idea of making Sonya take those sins to the grave with her. What would happen in Pedro found out later? If she felt she needed to tell him, who was I to tell her not to?

I slept little that night; the hours passed slowly but 10:00 AM came quickly.

My companion and I sat down with Sonya. Even then, pulling our chairs under us to sit down, I didn't know what I would say. I prayed desperately within: please tell me what to do. No insipiration seemed to come.

With anxious eyes, Sonya blurted out: Elders, I told him.

For the second time in as many days, I felt the wind rush out of my lungs.

You what? I knew I might have told her to do the same, but I couldn't believe she had already gathered the courage. We stared at her for what seemed like five minutes. Finally, she went on: He said we are beginning new lives in Christ Jesus, and the things we did before do not matter. He said those things will be washed away, we will be clean. We are starting over.

Again, I sat gaping, but this time I felt joy welling up inside me like rushing water. I looked at my companion, looked at Sonya, jumped out of my chair, ran around the table, and grabbed her in a bear hug.

We wept.

Days later, we met with her family and much of the ward at the baptismal font. Pedro asked that I baptize him. I will never forget the light that shone from his face, as if his countenance reflected the glow from an unseen and gentle sun. He smiled as I raised him from the water.

A mighty change, indeed.

Perhaps, in the end, I did not understand the Atonement so well as I had thought; Christ's power was much greater than I had ever supposed.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A People of Sorrow and Acquainted with Grief

While teaching in the MTC, I realized I could not let "my" missionaries enter the field without telling them the truth: a mission is a difficult, taxing, and often harsh experience. Oh, there are miracles a plenty, to be sure, but most days are long, most doors are slammed, and many people are rude. I made a point of looking each of my Elders and Sisters in the eye and saying this may be the hardest thing you will ever do. I knew I taught truth, at least during that lesson, because I learned from what I taught. I articulated feelings through which I had never thought.

Further reflection, however, led me to ask why? Of course, if you have read Elder Holland's Missionaries and the Atonement, you know he atriculates both the questions and the answer better than I ever could. Still, I've spent many hours pondering sorrow, and I hope I have learned a couple of things.

Perhaps most importantly, sorrow is often proportional to spirituality. Yes, that's right, directly proportional. Consider the following examples:

  • Joseph Smith was, as Richard Bushman has wisely dubbed him, a "prophet of sorrow." Consider Joseph's trajectory: born in poverty, called to bear a mantle which nearly suffocated him, rejected and misunderstood at almost every turn, and finally killed for his integrity (whatever flaws Joseph possesed, and those flaws are real, his integrity remained firm). Joseph was, as he said, wont to swim in deep waters. Considering the betrayal, persecution, and rejection that haunted him at nearly every turn, I am hardly surprised when I read his beautiful, steely cry from Liberty Jail: "O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?"
  • C.S. Lewis, the converted atheist and preeminent Christian apologist of the twentieth century, was devastated to find God had apparently abandoned him in Lewis' moment of greatest need. Using the same strong words with which he had, for so long, explained away "the problem of pain," Lewis wrote, following his wife's death: "Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. If you remember yourself and turn to Him [when you are happy] with gratitude and praise, you will be--or so it feels--welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence."
  • Ammon and his companions, perhaps the greatest missionaries of whom we have record, found rejection, temptation, and affliction at almost every turn. For every discussion with a Lamoni, there were many nights spent in prison--languighing and waiting for deliverance. As a student of the Book of Mormon, I am often so eager to bolster my faith I skip straight to the "inspiring" parts of Ammon and Co.'s story. In so doing, however, I neglect to acknolwedge, "Now these are the circumstances which attended them in their journeyings, for they had many afflictions; they did suffer much, both in body and in mind, such as hunger, thirst and fatigue, and also much labor in the spirit."
Sorrow, it seems, will constantly accompany those who seek Christ. I at first thought this absurd; Lehi, after all, is clear: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have hoy." How can sadness inescapably dwell with Christ's disciples if He promises joy to those who follow Him--indeed, if joy is the very reason for our creation and existence? I realized, however, joy and sorrow are not related as are light and darkness. The latter pair are, by definition, mutually exclusive; they cannot both occupy the same space simultaneously and as one advances the other must retreat. Such is not the case, though, with joy and sorrow.

Instead, joy and sorrow are forever sealed together; just as "neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord," joy cannot be complete without sorrow, or sorrow without joy, in Christ. All things must exist in opposition, as Lehi explains, and so joy finds meaning in sorrow. Furthermore, as we trek through life, we find meaning in each of these only as we experience the other.

Sorrow, I believe, is holy.

Consider the last time you attended a funeral for someone who lived a full and faithful life. The sorrow you felt was, no doubt, both real and deep. Joy, however, infused you sadness with hope. Your joy may have sprung from memories of the past or from hope for future reunions. Your joy was real, but it was made so by the impinging sorrow. Joy and sadness are inseperable. Often, indeed, our ability to feel one increases our ability to feel the other.

This analysis leaves many questions unanswered, however. Most acutely: what of sorrow not infused with such obvious hope--what, for instance, of a funeral for a beloved and wicked man. What about rape? Incest? Murder? Hatred? Abduction? War? The missing? The dead? The estranged? The hopeless? Comfort may abound at the funeral of a saint, but what of the craven criminal who dies alone in the street?

The first answer is: I don't know. What I do know, however, is that "the keeper of the gate is the holy one of Israel, and he employeth no servant there." In other words, every man will eventually face the Savior for judgement. I believe quite strongly that meeting will surprise many of us--many of the most confident will, for the first time, recognize glaring problems and many of the most humble and fearful will find much greater compassion than expected. When it is all over, though, each of us will receive, as Elder Maxwell has pointed out, "according to his desire."

One final thought. I have glaringly ommitted the Savior from the list above; I have done so, however, because the arc of his life teaches special lessons concerning the promises of the Lord to those who find themselves beset by trials and hopelessness they cannot easily overcome. No scene, ever, evokes pathos like the Savior kneeling in Gethsemane. A poem depicts the scene:

He kneels alone, His friends asleep, the weight is bearing down.
His blood is seeping out like wine, He claws the barren ground.
He groans beneath the world's weight, His shoulders weary grow--
but love sustains Him through the night, compassion downward flows.

Most terribly, the Savior found himself without His Father's help. An angel came to bear him up, but the Father had to turn from Him--to be infinite, the Atonement apparently had to include what felt like the betrayal of the Savior's constant companion and friend: His Father. From later in the same poem:

They crown His brow with thorns and hang His frame upon the cross.
In disbelief disciples watch and count salvation's cost.
His Father hides his face and cries. Christ's pain is like a knife
thrust deep inside His Father's heart--God mourns the sacrifice.

Do we wonder that the Savior, sensing the suffering about to engulf Him, pleaded "Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me?" Do we realize what he taught about submissiveness when he concluded his anguish with faith: "nevertheless, not my will but thine?" Do we remember, in our moments of suffering, the anguish of the Savior?

More importantly, however, do we, in those most difficult moments, remember that the Savior's story did not end in Gethsemane? Nor did it end on Calvary, in the empty tomb, or even among the hosts "awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world." No. So far as we have record, the Savior's ministry in the meridian of time ended in the land of Bountiful, among the Nephites.

When sorrow descends like night upon me, I like to read 3 Nephi 17. There, I find the Savior weeping with joy. I find him blessing, healing, and discovering himself filled with compassion. I like this chapter because it reminds me that, for the faithful, Gethsemane is real but not final. One day, those who keep their covenants will find themselves safe in the arms of Jesus and the Father, surrounded by compassion and healing. The arc of the disciple's journey will have begun in Eden, and it will pass through Gethsemane, but it will end in Bountiful--a land of endless joy and sorrow.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Abolition of Want

Want is infinite. That, anyway, is the American economic dogma. The first lesson I learned in Econ 110 was that want is like the receding horizon--ride faster, push harder, and wear out your life in its pursuit and, in the end, it does not matter. Strangely, want does not diminish with achievement or acquistion. I want a car. I get the car. Now, however, I find I want speakers for the car. When the speakers are installed, I need new paint--red, perhaps. By the time my vehicle is outfitted as I originally designed, I am busy seeking next year's model.

Likewise, if want is at all proportional to wealth, it is directly so. We might suspect the opposite. If our desires could be satiated then we would imagine a world where the poor wanted more and the rich were content to have much. Instead, want circumscribes me as a circle of increasing size: the bigger it grows, the more I can see from the periphery. And, of course, I usually want what I can see. Sadly, then, as our acquisitions pile up we find our hunger grows proportionately.

There is something American about this restlessness. Indeed, Tocqueville observed our insatiable desire two-hundred years ago:

"Fortune awaits them everywhere, but not hapiness. The desire of prosperity has become an ardent and restless passion in their minds, which grows by what it feeds on.... Emigration was at first necessary to them; and it soon becomes a sort of game of chance, which they pursue for the emotions it excites as much as for the gain it procures."

That is us. We relish not so much the acquisition as the excitement of the pursuit, the thrill of the game of chance, the perpetual emigration--we like the horizon to continue to withdraw before us.

Then again, do we relish the pursuit? Do we even enjoy it? Particularly when we mistake material wealth for the object and design of our existence, it seems we trick ourselves into thinking hapiness really does lie in the acquisition of something. We believe if we obtain more of this, or the latest of that, or the most impressive of those, we will surely be happy. Unavoidably, however, acquistion brings not hapiness, but emptiness--like drinking from a mirage. Despite the sand in our mouths, however, we set off through the desert toward the next apparent oasis, perpetually convinced of the reality of the water that awaits.

How do I escape this wearying, dry, and draining monotony? Perhaps the secret of abolishing want is the discovery that want only ends within. That is what Jacob taught:

"And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good--to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted."

Redirection, not abolishment, is the final goal. We ought not do away with our want, but we must want different things. We learn in Ether:

"Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God."

In Christ our want turns two directions: outward and upward. On the one hand, we seek a better world here by doing the things Jacob describes. On the other, we seek exaltation as we ascend toward holier spheres.

Hugh Nibley described one way to see things as they really are. He asked us to imagine a man who is diagnosed with a terminal disease--as it turns out, this man has only a few weeks to live. Imagine the way this man would live his life. In a flash, his priorities would realign: the important would pale and the secondary would become vital. A few weeks later, however, the man returns to the doctor and is told the original diagnosis was wrong, he is going to be just fine. The reality never changed, but the man's world-view is forever altered.

We needn't face any such bleak prognosis to lift our eyes above the smog of pressing concerns. Alma taught those who "have...spiritually been born of God...look forward with an eye of faith...and [view] this corruption raised in incorruption." By seeking God, by seeking grace, by doing all and recognizing our reliance on grace regardless, our gaze rises and turns outward and we find ouselves, as Elder Maxwell once observed (quoting G.K. Chesterton), "under freer skies, in a street full of splendid strangers."

As we climb the anscendant path, we find oases scattered along the trail. These fountains, though, give living, sparkling, crystal water which refreshes us and prepares us for the ascents ahead. In the end, we find want has given way to hope, jealousy to contentment, and lust to love.

In the end, the difference between follwing Christ and following Mammon is not the intensity of our motivation, but the hapiness we find in the journey.