Tuesday, November 25, 2008

On Gratitude

Two days shy of Thanksgiving, I thought it appropriate to share a few thoughts on gratitude.

Years ago, my mother tried to explain her concept of faith in the following way (she used the Mormon term "testimony" in the original):

The idea of [faith] once seemed complicated to me and now seems much simpler. Sometimes, it seems as simple as gratitude--the ability to acknowledge divine purpose and order in all creation with a full and thankful heart--the joy of being alive, running, swimming, seeing, hearing, loving--the joy of seashells and stones, of colored fruit from the brown earth--rainbows in the air.

On another occasion, she said it this way: "The Lord has provided so much for us. In our abundance, we have become thoughtless--even offensive. ... It seems to me we have two duties: to remember the source of our blessings and to share them."

What got me thinking about gratitude was a documentary Becky and I watched recently called "God Grew Tired of Us" which tells the story of three young men, representatives of the so called "Lost Boys" of Southern Sudan, who fled violent upheaval in their country, endured incredible hardships and depredations along the way, languished for years in a refugee camp, and finally came to America as part of a special program to resettle them.

The take home message for me--apart from the idea that we Americans may have something to learn from these young men, their culture, and the way they care for each other--was gratitude: gratitude for family and friends and community, for a roof over my head, and clothes on my back, and food on the table. Clean drinking water. Time to think. Education. Medical care. All the day-to-day miracles that that we take for granted.

I was startled too by how the gratitude these young men felt for the opportunities they were given translated immediately into a desire to do as my mother suggested--to share them. While still in Africa, one started a "Parliament" to help the other boys keep their minds off their empty stomachs. Another started a foundation to build hospitals in his home country, and a third wants to build a school. Great examples: these boys who grew up with so little, deprived of all the things we take for granted.

And so, my Thansgiving prayer is for a deeper sense of gratitude, and appreciation for everyday miracles: wise mothers, the soft light of early dawn, clean water from the tap, a smile from a friend, or the touch of a loved one's hand.

Happy Thanksgiving.

(Photo courtesy of Pat Di Fruscia, available at http://i1.trekearth.com/photos/6638/morning_mist.jpg.)

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Spider

I once read a Japanese folk tale about a wicked man who died without having performed a single act of kindness for anything or anyone except once, when, in the act of deliberately stepping on a spider, he said to himself "Ah, well: Live and let live!" and moved on. When the man died he went--as one might expect--straight to Hell, where he was forced to tread water in a vast lake of fire and brimstone with the rest of the damned.

In his misery he looked up and saw, to his suprise, a tiny strand of spider web slowly descending from the unseen heights above, a gift from the spider whose life he spared. Grasping hold, he found it incredibly strong, and began to pull himself up, thinking to his delight and amazement that he might be able not only to climb out of the lake of fire and brimstone, but possibly pull himself all the way up to Heaven itself.

As others saw him climbing, however, they swam over and began to climb the spider's web too. Angrily the man kicked at them, and, at that, the strand broke and back he fell.

The moral of the story? Don't kick, and leave the spiders alone.

P.S. In Russia they tell a different version of the same story, involving a wicked woman, a poor peasant, and an onion. The moral there? Don't kick, and give onions, because they are much easier to hold on to than a carrot.

(Photo courtesdy of Goshinsky on Flickr; available athttp://www.flickr.com/photos/24685723@N05/2988081733/.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Nature's Temple

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike. John Muir

John Muir often compared the valleys of Yosemite to cathedrals or temples, and I’ve certainly felt that way in the outdoors generally and, in particular, as I’ve explored the desert landscapes of Southern Utah.

I recall a trip to Zion’s National Park a few years ago in early spring. After stopping by the visitor’s center and doing a quick hike to Weeping Rock, I persuaded Becky to give Angel’s Landing a try—one of my all time favorite hikes, but not for the faint of heart. Though Becky was nervous about attempting it with the kids, I was so impressed with their efforts on the Beehive in Acadia National Park that I thought we could pull it off. We decided to go as far as Scout’s Lookout and then make a decision there about whether to go further. To keep the kids engaged (and their minds off their tired legs) we promised Sarah her very own bag of beef jerky and Jordan the rough economic equivalent: four hot wheel cars. It worked. The kids did remarkably well, and less than two hours later we arrived at Scout’s Lookout. It was so easy to that point I was sure we could breeze on up to Angel’s Landing. Neither Jordan nor Sarah had any qualms about gazing over the railing from the lookout, despite an 800-1000 foot drop from that vantage point straight down to the Virgin River.

But our snack break there gave Jordan time to think about the line of chains he could see winding up the sandstone knoll to our left. “It’s so narrow,” he complained. But we said a prayer together and decided to give it a go. The kids did great. Just like the Beehive, Sarah clambered around like a little monkey, seemingly unperturbed. Jordan, on the other hand, struggled, but managed to keep going. We climbed up and around the knoll and then descended towards the last saddle before the final climb. The view of that last steep pitch, however, with vertical cliffs on both sides, did both Jordan and Becky in. Jordan refused to go any further and Becky, fearful for the kids, wasn’t going to push him any further. Sarah, on the other hand, was raring to go. See seemed genuinely disappointed when we decided to turn around. Frankly, I had to agree with Becky. The view of that last ascent is rather fearsome (much more so than I remembered), and it had been a little nerve wracking to get the kids even that far. I would’ve done it with just Sarah, but with Mary on my back I had to agree with Becky that it was wise to turn back.

On the way down, the kids were cute together, laughing and bouncing their voices off the canyon walls. Becky, Jordan, and Sarah eventually moved ahead while Mary and I lagged behind. Soon, she fell fast asleep, and I descended most of the way alone and in silence. It gave me some good time to think, and to soak in the awe-inspiring beauty of that great valley as the afternoon shadows slowly climbed the Eastern walls.

I was struck, first and foremost, by how well the pioneers had named the place: Zion. And I had the thought that the words of the hymn Beautiful Zion, Built Above could have been written to describe this place: Oh Zion, lovely Zion! Beautiful Zion. Zion, city of our God. Truly Zion Canyon is the kind of place where God can dwell, and I half-imagined Him, like Rodin’s Thinker, sitting atop the Great White Throne.

What it is about these desert spaces, about the sheer, red cliffs of Southern Utah, that turn one’s thoughts to God? They seem to strip life and existence down to its essence. In the East, Thoreau had to go to the woods and live alone to “strip life down to its essence.” In Zion, the grandeur of that great sandstone cathedral does it for you. In those spaces one cannot but feel small and insignificant, where the signature of God is writ large across earth and sky. If Joseph Smith had lived in Springdale, he wouldn’t have gone to a grove of trees to pray; he would’ve gone to Angel’s Landing.

(Photo of Angel's Landing--that's it, and the path to it, on the left--courtesy of OneEighteen on Flickr, available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oneeighteen/1616837241/.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Killdeer

July 2, 2006

A few weeks ago, near the duck pond behind my office in Murray, I spied a killdeer, making its odd cry and feigning injury. From experience, I know what that means: nest near by. So, I abandoned my plans for a walk and began looking for the nest, trying to gauge by the direction the killdeer was trying to lead me where her nest might lay. I wandered around in careful circles for twenty minutes or so without luck. I even tried to hide behind a tree and see whether the mother killdeer would return to her nest, but it didn’t work. At last, I gave up and headed back to the office. As I reached the shade of a line of cottonwoods, however, I paused again to see what the mother killdeer would do. This time, she fell for the ruse. She sat down on a barren patch of dirt I’d passed over several times previously, and right there, sure enough, I found her eggs—two beautiful, cream colored eggs with black speckles.

A few days later, there were four perfect eggs, nestled in a little cup of dirt; the next day, two. Then none. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away …

Monday, November 3, 2008

On Doubt . . .

Since one of the beauties of a blog is that I can post whatever I want, you'll excuse me for dusting off a few old journal entries now and then. This sad, sobering one seems to be worth revisiting.

July 14, 2002

After a long, long drive home this afternoon, I planned to write a light-hearted account of my adventures in the haunted woods at the base of Mt. Fuji. (I spent most of the weekend traipsing about those woods taking pictures.) But a sobering email from Becky prompted me to address a far more serious topic: doubt. Not just uncertainty about this or that, but doubt with a capital "D."

My nephew Lindon, Jenny and Joe’s baby boy, has a brain tumor—a big, inoperable one. Barring some miracle of faith and chemotherapy, he will die, and his parents will be left to struggle with the big questions: doubt with a capital "D." It’s strange: I had a lot of time to think this trip, and at one point in my mental meanderings I remember stopping to consider what I would do, how I would feel, if something terrible happened to one of my children, Jordan or little Sarah. I remember thinking: "I don’t know if my faith could handle another blow like that." I came home to discover the just such a blow has been struck, just not at me. But I’m still left with the weighty questions. From a philosophical point of view, it’s no different, is it, just because it’s someone else’s kid? I don’t think so.

What I struggle with is the suffering of the innocent. I have no problem with personal suffering on account of wrongdoing, poor choices, even honest mistakes. Consequences—often in the form of suffering of some kind—teach us, strengthen us, benefit us in often unforeseen ways. Similarly, I have been taught, and have always accepted, that our poor choices may cause others to suffer as well. A drunk driver kills a small child. Tragic, yes, but at least we can ascribe the result to agency. God will not interfere with our wrong choices, even if they have tragic consequences for others. But this leaves unexplained a vast ocean of human suffering that has nothing to do with poor choices. (In truth agency can only explain a portion of the first two categories. If I make a mistake at the wheel, it may scratch the car, or I might be killed—for the same mistake. The uncertainty of the consequence defies the simple explanation that "I had it coming." Same goes for a mistake or bad act that hurts another--agency cannot explain the kind or degree of suffering.)

But the third category is the most troubling, and what prompted my soul searching. Why Lindon? What can explain his suffering? Nothing.

The only answer left is the one I cannot be satisfied with: it’s God’s will, or, put differently, it’s part of "the Plan." But the Plan doesn’t speak to this, except to suggest that we might learn something from his—Lindon’s—suffering. But what is there to learn? What is the wisdom purchased at such great price? Is it to be grateful for what we have, like Job, to thank God when all is taken away from us because we can still draw breath?

So, we’re left grasping at straws: "He’s needed more over there," "The whole point of this life is to get a body, and he did that," or "He will be in a place where there is no suffering and all is peaceful." I hope so, but something about these explanations smacks of administrative convenience: we can’t explain it, so we come up with these things to make ourselves feel better. But I don’t feel better. Not right now. Life is too precious to be given short shrift. I wonder why our little girl was born dead in my arms, and why our friends' baby died, and why Sarah had Down’s Syndrome, and Ben schizophrenia, and why Lindon has cancer. Why oh why must such things be?

I suspect I will never know the answer in this life, and will be left to make do as best I can, convinced—because there is a certain irreduceable sum of answers that I firmly believe—that there must be some explanation that escapes my finite mind. But it’s cold comfort.

. . . .

After some time to reflect I concluded that I can’t let the journal entry end there, as an unmoderated expression of doubt. So what do I believe? It’s a tough question these days, in the face of so much uncertainty, but there is, as I said, a "certain sum of irreduceable answers"—things I know to be true. Here are a few that come to mind:

I believe in love, and by love I mean to encompass both the love I feel for my wife Becky and the kids and "brotherly love" or charity: the pure love of Christ. The love I feel is never that pure, it’s often diluted or tainted by self-interest, but I believe in the ideal, and I’ve felt it enough in the giving and the receiving to be sure of it. I mean selflessness: that enobling quality of concern for others, and a willingness to serve them, help them, sacrifice for them. In this form it is pure and powerful, and it is real. My mother knew and understood this, and exemplified it in many respects. With time I have come to realize that the smug expression—"there is no such thing as a selfless act"—is a lie.

I believe in hope. I know that sound silly, since faith and hope are two sides of the same coin (would I say "I believe in belief?"), but what I mean is this: I believe in the power of hope. It has a redemptive quality to it, almost in the nature of a self-fulfilling prophecy: in hoping that the world is fundamentally good, we seek to make the world a better place, and it becomes—if not "good"—then at least better. That benefit is real. What’s more, there’s a tangible personal benefit as well. It doesn’t surprise me at all when studies come out saying that people of faith live longer or happier lives. It rings true, because I’ve felt it in my own life. When the Spirit attests that something is right or true or good, it feels good, and I know I am better for the experience.

Lastly, I believe in beauty, and by that I mean the spark of recognition I feel when I see something beautiful, whether it be an act of simple service, the face of a loved one, or a rainbow caught in a waterfall. These things are beautiful to me, and my reaction to them is real.

That’s a short list, I know, and there are more, but those are the truths that spring immediately to mind. From these truths I draw comfort and strength—even when the doubts seem overwhelming.