Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Simple Story

"Elders, will you come to my house today at ten o'clock?"

"Sure, Hermano Villanueva, what about?"

"Yes, well, you see, ummm, maybe I can tell you when you get here, would that be ok?"

"Ok, we'll be there at ten. See you then," and I hung up the phone.

"Who was that," my companion, Elder Rodriguez, asked.

"Hermano Villanueva, he wants us to come over at ten."

"What for?"

"I don't know, he wouldn't say."


"Yeah, I guess. I mean, it's an appointment, right?"

"Sure, is it your turn or mine to read?"

Brother Villanueva was a rotund giant of a man; speckled facial hair protruded horizontally from his upper lip and chin. He and his wife, who was equally large, mended curtains for a living in a shop made of green, corrugated tin. Though Brother Villanueava seemed to be clipping back the foliage every time we visited him, plants of all hues hung across his entry way like tentacles waiting for careless passers-by. Still, we visited him often because he was the Elder's Quorum President of our somewhat thriving ward in Bosques, just North of Mexico City.

His daughter--round, garrulous, and smiley--kept track of us constantly just to
make sure we staid out of trouble. Finally, Brother Villanueva's
son, Eric, was a tall, broad-shouldered twenty-something who had been
in the process of submitting his mission papers for longer than I had
been in the ward.

At ten, we knocked on the looming, forrest-green door. Brother
Villanueva opened and invited us into his small living room. As he asked us to sit on the over-stuffed couch, his son lurked in the background--prowling the kitchen like a frightened cat--and his wife entered the living room with lemon water. While we sat and sipped our water, Sister Villanueva chatted with us mindlessly
and Brother Villanueva sat, pulled his pants away from his groin, stood, sat and stood again.

Finally, Brother Villanueva walked into his bedroom and came out with
a twenty-something girl following close behind. I looked at her,
assured I did not know her, and then looked at my companion, who
shrugged his shoulders. In an instant, I decided this was Eric's
previously secret girlfriend--we were here to convince Eric that
going on a mission really was that important.

We waited.

After hemming and hawing, finally Brother Villanueva began:

"Elders, I'd like to introduce you...to my son's wife."

I spit water into my glass and looked up in spite of myself.

I tried to cast discrete (yeah, right) glances at the woman's stomach--sure enough, it protruded.

What, precidesly, I wondered, did Brother Villanueva hope we would do?

"Elders, this is Geezel. She and my son are going to have a baby.
And, well, we thought about it and talked to the Bishop and decided
the only thing to do was for them to marry. So, yesterday we went to
the town justice and now it is official--they're husband and wife.
We've explained to Geezel about the Gospel and she would like you to
teach her the discussions. Would that be ok?"

We assented, of course, and began right then with the first of the six

A few days later, we returned for a follow up visit:

"Geezel, did you have a chance to read third Nephi 11 as we discussed?"

"Yes, Elder, I did."

"I'm so glad to hear that, can you tell us a little about your favorite part."

"Well, I think the part I liked best was when Chirst gave Nephi, the
Nephite Prophet, the Priesthood power to baptize so that he could
perform baptisms that would be valid in heaven. I also liked the part
when the people had to listen to the voice three times before they
could understand it and then when they finally heard it it was God the
Father announcing the arrival of His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who
had drunk from the bitter cup..."

"Thank you Geezel, it appears you learned a lot."

The lessons flowed smoothly until we finished with the third. Eric
attended the discussions when he was not working. On Wednesday nights
he met with the Bishop to work through the repentance process. Just a
few weeks after we started teaching Geezel, he took her to Church to
introduce her to the members with whom he had come of age.

Thankfully, the ward accepted Geezel with open arms.

Upon finishing the third discussion, however, we realized our next
meeting would include teaching about the law of chastity. Depsite the
best attempts of all involved, an aura of guilt and shame hung around
Eric like a cloud when he attended Church with Geezel. While he
introduced her as his wife, each introduction seemed to include the
subtext: "this is the reason I can't go on a mission--and, oh yes, she
is in fact pregnant."

The morning we were set to talk about chastity with Geezel, we got on
our knees and prayed: "Father, help us help Geezel to understand the
sanctity of chastity, but help help her to feel uplifted, not guilty."

We need not have worried. Though no miracle hapenned during the discussion, a sweet spirit entered the room and dwelt there like a dove. We compared chastity to a pearl necklace, a gift from a loving Father. We talked about how we should take special care of such a beautiful gift and how, if we smudge the pearls or chip them, we can, through the Atonement, see them become clean again.

The discussion was simple, but it spoke to all of us deeply. Soon thereafter, Geezel was baptized. She and Eric quickly moved past the lingering stigma and she soon bore a baby boy, who I met just before I returned home to Utah after finishing my time in Mexico. Sadly, the timing was not quite right and I had to leave in July. That November, however, Eric, Geezel, and their son were sealed in the Mexico City Temple and, to my knowledge, they continue faithfully in the Church.

In my scriptures I carry a picture of their son--Eric Abinadi Villanueva Dias--a gift they gave me a few days before I came home, on the back it reads:

"Elder Johnson, Always remember us, please. And I will tell me son about you and how special you were in our lives. Every good thing we have comes from the Gospel and from our Heavenly Father. Thank you."


Please looks below to see the post entitled "The Power of the Word." I posted it briefly some time ago, but it quickly disappeared due to an internet problem. I hope you enjoy it, though my words cannot do the experience justice.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

An Easter Hymn

(to be sung to the tune of "As Now We Take The Sacrament")

He kneels alone--His friends asleep--the press is bearing down.
His blood is seeping out like wine, He claws the barren ground.
Beneath the world's weight He moans and seeks another way.
But still He prays: "Thy will be done"--a wayward world to save.

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

But three morns hence a beaming angel rolls away the stone.
Arrayed in white, the Savior leaves the press He trod alone.
Apostles stare in disbelief, then touch His love-scarred hands.
His Father gathers in His arm the Wounded Risen Lamb.

Christ's white-hot love and sacrifice melt my metal heart.
I sense His love and suffering and long to do my part.
I pray that Christ-like I may offer body, heart, and soul
and through His sacrifice come home--pure, perfect, healed and whole.

Monday, April 10, 2006


In an effort to eliminate spam, I have enabled word verification. I hope this will not deter comments. Please alert me if this causes any problems.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Who Hath Sinned?

Note: As many of my entries are optimistic, I want to add a bit of a warning that this entry deals with troubling themes. I hope the questions I pose below, while difficult and somewhat sullen, are worth asking.

On an early summer night in 1998, Kipland Kinkel was in trouble. That morning, officials at Thurston County High School found a pistol in Kip's locker and expelled him immediately. Furious, his father picked Kip up from the polics station. They had never gotten along very well--their relationship strained at best--and, on the way home, a terrible arguments ensued. Kip's father had, over the years, bought Kip a few guns in an attempt to "bond" through target-practice. In retrospect, this step seemed misguided; when he bought the guns, however, Kip's father was meagerly searching for a way--any way--to bond with his ever-more-distant son. As they approached their a-frame home some twenty minutes outside of town, Kip's father informed Kip they had reached then end of the line: Kip was going to have to give up his guns. Shouting and swearing ensued and, when they finally pulled into the driveway, Kip bolted from the car and ran up stairs, incensed.

Just a few minutes later, Kip came half way down the stairs, saw his father standing in the kitchen, and then shot him at point blank range. Both appalled and electrified with his own actions, Kip dragged the body into the bathroom and locked it inside. The phone rang, Kip answered it and found one of his school friends on the other line. They talked for an hour, the friend unaware anything was wrong. After they hung up, Kip paced the floor behind the large, front-room windo--waiting for his mom to arrive. Terrified of the reaction she might have after returning home, Kip fingered his rifle and waited. He loved his mother, they had always been rather close. How, though, would he bare her reaction to seeing her husband dead, shot by her son? Finally, after a few hours, she pulled into the driveway. Still frightened, Kip walked to the top of the stairway from the garage and waited a few more seconds. When his mom appeared on the steps, he said "I love you, mom" and then shot her--five times in the head, once in the heart--at point blank range.

The night passed as some sort of eery nothing time, the moon hovering yellow and wan above the dark, Oregon night. In the morning, Kip strapped a semi-automatic rifle to his waist, put a pistol in his belt, taped a knife to his ankle, and then--too young to drive and clad in a dark trenchcoat--took the keys to his parents' ford explorer and drove to Thurston County High School. At about seven-thirty, he parked a block away from the school and walked past the tennis courts, toward the site of his failed education. Upon arriving, he met an acquaintance in the hall.

Kip: "You better get out of her, something bad is going to happen."

"Something bad? What are you talking about?"

"Just leave."

"Why, what's wrong? Kip, what are you going to do?"


The shot rang through the nearly-empty High School Hall while the student slumped to the floor.

Those who heard it began to call 911. Meanwhile, Kip made his way to the cafeteria. He opened the door, found the room filled with teenagers, heard the babble of students before class, and then opened fire.

48 shots. 24 students hit, 2 dead. The rifle was semi-automatic and Kip fired and fired until he ran out of ammunition (though, even then, he had filled a gym bag and brought it with him so he would have extra). Finally, a group of students rushed him and tackled him. He pulled a pistol and began to fire again, until they wrestled that away, as well.

Soon, the police arrived. Even then, as they led him to the cop car, he stooped down, pulled the knife from his ankle and attacked one of the officers. In the moments following, as he was driven to the police station and incarcerated, other officers drove to his home in the Oregon mountains and found the grisly unimiginable scene he had left there.

In the minutes following, the story lept from station to station across America--strangely familiar as this was merely the last in a string of bizarre, inexplicalbe high school shootings.

And yet, confronted with such stark horror, we cannot help but ask why? Or, more specifically, who is to blame?

Kip, of course, pulled the trigger. Maybe the blame rests squarely on his shoulders. It is difficult, however, to say so with confidence. In the months before the shootings, Kip's journal began to speak, rarely, of "the voices." Kip complained that they would not leave him alone. Likewise, when a psychologist interviewed Kip soon after the shootings, Kip sobbed and sobbed like a child cowering before a monster. He pleaded with the doctor: "I had to do it! I had no other choice!" And then, shouting at the top of his lungs and in apparently sincere agony, "These voices, I can't take these voices, someone make them go away." Staged? Perhaps. But I've heard the recording, and the anguish sound authentic. It is tempting, then, to diagnose Kip with paranoid schizophrenia. To the point, later diagnostic imaging showed literal holes in his brain--a factor which would have predisposed him to the disease.

Does the fault, then, belong with the pathology? Was Kip's shooting the most bizarre and reprehensible example of lives lost to disease? Are his actions comparable, uncomfortable though the idea makes us, to the thrashings of a man with a high fever? Perhaps those who died that day are like victims of HIV or Bird Flu--casualties of a disease spread by a person who could not even understand his own illness.

Or, perhaps, we might blame the parents. They, after all, are dead and cannot protest. Yet, while they seem to have made mistakes along the way, theirs was, in large part, a record of love and trying desperately to connect with a distant son. They raised their children as best they could. Indeed, Kip's older sister turned out beautifully, with a cheer-leading scholarship and a college degree. Both Kip's parents taught in a local high school: his mother known for her caring and his father for his charisma. As Kip distanced himself farther and farther from them, the parents did everything they could--including taking him to a psychologist--to bring Kip back from wherever he had gone. Indeed, in a bitter irony, they even bought him guns to try to reach him, like steel olive branches in a last-ditch effort to make peace. While this seems stupid in retrospect, for parents who wouldn't even buy him GI Joe toys when he was a boy, the purchased guns symbolize the lengths to which they were willing to go to get him back. And this care did not just come at the end. Long before he was born, Kip's parents located their family in a cabin-like (but very modern) home in the mountains because they believed that "the world is too much with us." Perhaps there, in the mountains, their family would escape that corrupting world--perhaps there they could be safe.

But, of course, the world now reaches nearly every nook and cranny, geographically isolated or not. Perhaps, in fact, we ought to blame the world. In another attempt to help their son, Kip's parents believed he might "connect" if they hooked him up to the internet. When he was about twelve, then, they purchased him a computer and set it up in his room. For hours without end, Kip sat entranced by the images dancing on the screen. He lost himself in the many sordid worlds bred by the caustic and soulless facets of capitalism: first pornography, then explosives, then knives, and finally guns--single loading, manual, and semi-automatic. What did he dream while bathed in the green light of his computer screen? What twisted fantasies did he concoct as he let the terrifying strains of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and the like wash over him? Was it the world that killed Kip's soul?

We watched a documentary detailing these events as the coda to our psychiatry block here in medical school. As the final reels rolled past, we--one-hundred and fifty young people who are grappling to find ways to cure disease--watched in speechless horror, astounded by tragedy, helpless before fate. What happenned? Why? Who made the mistakes responsible for this senseless scene of anguish? Who could we have helped? Who could anyone have helped? There was no abusive home, no oppressive, inner-city slum: none of the usual culprits. Instead, there was only a lonely and troubled boy, trying desperately to stay afloat in the turbulent waters of adolescence and a couple of baffled parents doing their best to love the unloveable. What happened? Who sinned?

And, most troubling, if there are no answers: how do we stop it from happenning again.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Hold On!

Please forgive the recent lack of posts. Burglars broke into my apartment a few weeks ago and stole my laptop. Also, I have recently experienced problems with blogger which apparently erased my last post. Please know all should be back to normal soon!

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Power of the Word

That was my summer of irresponsibility--I spent most of it as a ski bum.

My parents didn't want a ski boat, so I mooched off friends whose parents were more willing. I learned to slalom the week after graduating from high school and spent the rest of the summer mastering the art of carving jagged lines into the glassy surfaces of the many lakes near Salt Lake City.

My friends and I built mammoth sand castles and then languished for hours in the sun. My skin turned deep brass and I started donning sunglasses. College, life, and responsibility seemed far away and inconsequential.

In August, life began to creep back up on us. After all, once college began the boys would leave on missions and the girls would begin to marry. Impending adult responsibilities lined up like dominoes and no one wanted to knock the first one down. The magic permeating that summer seemed not long for this world, as if it were a warm mist ready to flee before the dawn.

And so, on August 10th, we headed to Bear Lake for three days of raspberry shakes, skiing the lake, and swimming in the moonlit, translucent water. The days passed: a stream of sunrises, sunsets, bathing suits, and the musky scent of adolescence. Even while still there, we could sense the passing of an era--like watching the final tints of dusk slink away as the sun passes behind the mountains.

As we rode home, we blared the music and drove with the windows down, letting the wind ruffle our hair. Upon arriving at my house, I jumped out of David's car, grabbed my duffel bag, ran in my front door, shouted "hi mom," flung the bag into my room, and plopped myself down in front of the tv.

Five minutes, then the phone rang.


"Hi Ty, it's Rick."





"Rick? What's wrong?"

Even before he resumed speaking, I could hear the tremor in his voice.

"It's Karina." He tried to speak with measured tones, like a Bishop at a funeral.

"What's wrong."

"There was an accident, you better come over."

I shouted something to my mom, bolted out of the house in a daze, and ran around the corner toward Karina's house. Three months earlier my life-long friend had committed suicide and, as I sprinted along my quiet street below the arching oak trees, I fet fear, grief, and helplessness wash over me like a crimson tide. Though I was running, I began to feel tight, like a baloon twisted and contorted, about to burst--the plastic bulging and straining in unnatural ways.

Amidst my heaving breaths as I ran faster, I prayed in gasps: "please Father, no, not again, not so soon."

I let myself into her house after gathering my strength to absorb the impending blow. But when I enetered the living room, Karina was sleeping on the couch, breathing heavily. I looked around, confused. Dr. Condie was standing there, but he wasn't looking at Karina; instead, he stood talking quietly with her parents. Rick was there and a couple of other close friends, but no one was crying as I had envisioned. I was perplexed.

Rick took me into another room and explained Karina had crashed into a man and his wife on a motorcycle. A helicopter had come and taken the couple to LDS hospital. It appeared the man would be ok, but his wife was in critical condition. Karina had gone into hysterics and Dr. Condie gave her sedatives to knock her out, to soften the crushing blow.

Within a couple of hours, word came: the woman had died.

Not long after the grim tidings arrived, Karina awoke in hell, with guilt licking and searing her soul like flames did the skin of Abinadi.

She alternated between numbness and hysteria. Whatever her condition, though, it proved immune to help. For some time, how long I don't know because the hours passed in bleary oblivion, I and a few friends held vigil beside her: consoling, comforting, embracing, stroking, cooing, whispering, assuaging, and, after all, accomplishing nothing.

One night, a few days later, after I felt I had poured out all the love I had to give, she finally fell asleep. I went into to her parents room where her dad--muscular, somber, and wan--sat, wearing only pajama trousers and his garment top. I embraced him and wept, and wept, and wept--"I can't do anything," I cried, "I can't help her, I'm no use."

Night had set in, and it seemd both lightless and interminable.

Heather was another friend. She had not been on the trip but had heard what hapenned. Some days after the accident, she called her grandpa, asked if he could help. And so, on a Saturday, I sat with Karina when the doorbell rang. Her father got up to answer and I heard, raising my eyebrows: "Elder Maxwell?"

The apostle entered through the front door and shook each of our hands, while Karina tried vainly to look excited. Soon, he asked us if he could speak to her alone. We left the room and sat in the back yard--watching through the bay window as Elder Maxwell sat, looked into Karina's eyes, and counselled with her.

After about twenty minutes, he opened the door and asked if we would join him in the house. With Karina's family and friends seated in a circle surrounding him, Elder Maxwell placed his hands on Karina's head and began:

"Karina Smith, In the name of Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Melkizedeck Priesthood I hold..." As always, and as I had heard over the pulpit many, many times, his voice resonated with compassion and intelligence. His diction was packed with substance and his imagery was evocative and kind. The sound of his words was a gentle as a lily and as authoritative as the voice of God.

Indeed, at some point during the blessing his words transcended even themselves and began to glow: holy, luminous, and buoyant. "Karina," Elder Maxwell coaxed, "let the sweet peace of Jesus wash over you as the tide." With that phrase, the thick and sable mist that had gathered around us, choking us, invading our lungs like soot, quivered, dissipated, and finally disappeared.

After he closed, Karina slept. I walked home, letting the still August evening air settle carefully onto my skin. The world slowed in its spinning arc and I felt time pause as I soaked in a breath of divinity.

In the months that followed, Karina found the cruel world still awaited--even after the blessing. Still, some miracle happened that day, deep within an unseen chamber of Karina's heart. Like tectonic plates shifting beneath us, like Enoch commanding moving mountains--the ineffable substance that ebbs and flows within us responded to Neal Maxwell's words.

Then, as now, I have pondered and never fully understood the interplay between our agency, our actions, our words, and the Atonement. What I do understand, though, is that day I was witness to the Atonement working a deep, eternal epiphany through the words of the Lord's annointed.

Not many months later, I left for Mexico, my mission field. My skin had faded back to a chalky, peachy shade and I had abandoned the sunglasses--a relic of my reckless summer. Never, however, in Mexico or since, have I forgotten the sound of Elder Maxwell's voice that afternoon. Indeed:

"No tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we both saw and heard [Elder Maxwell] speak; and no one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls at the time we heard him pray for [her] unto the Father."