Tuesday, April 25, 2006 Observation:
In teaching our gospel doctrine class last Sunday I was as intrigued as ever with the dismal report of 10 of the 12 men chosen to enter and assess the productivity of the Land of Canaan and the nature of its inhabitants prior to the Israelites crossing into and possessing this land promised them of the Lord. To Moses and their fellow Israelites they reported: "... We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel... saying... And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers..." [Numbers 13: 31-33] [emphasis added]
Because their Israelite brothers and sisters believed their pessimistic words regarding their being "... as grasshoppers..." compared to the giants in the land, they lost their faith and confidence in themselves and in Jehovah and were forced to stumble through the wilderness for 40 years until that unbelieving generation passed away. Only Joshua and Caleb understood the profound truth delivered by Joshua to Israel: "... rebel not ye against the LORD, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us...and the LORD is with us: fear them not." [Numbers 14: 3] [emphasis added]
I suspect there have been times in most of our lives when we have felt like grasshoppers, and in feeling so have forfeited great blessings that could have been ours, even as that unbelieving generation of Israelites gave up their right to enter the Promised Land because of a lack of faith in Jehovah and in themselves.
Let me share with you a "grasshopper" story from my past from which I learned a valuable lesson. I hope you won't think badly of me because of it. My cheeks still burn with embarrassment when I recall it years later. I finished my full-time mission to Central America in May of 1961. For the last six months of my mission I was working very closely with our mission president, Victor C. Hancock. He was a visionary man and to make a long story short he instituted in our mission what would be a precursor to the MTC centers that are now found all over the world. I was privileged to work very closely with him in developing a program to assist newly arrived missionaries from the United States to jump-start their adjustment and effectiveness with regard to missionary work. The program consisted of intense language study, gospel study, and then working with outstanding Elders in Guatemala City. I know it sounds like a no-brainer now, but then, when there was not even an MTC in Provo, it was a very revolutionary idea.
We felt the program was extremely successful and when the new missionaries eventually left Guatemala City for other parts of Central America they were much more comfortable and successful than had ever been the case prior to that time. The last month and a half of my mission President Hancock assigned me and a junior companion, Dennis Morril, who incidentally would become my son John's mission president in Guatemala many years later, to visit all of the countries in Central America, hold workshops with the missionaries in the major cities, and then work with each set of Elders as we traveled from Costa Rica, to Nicaragua, to Honduras, El Salvador, and finally back to Guatemala. The tour was very successful and President Hancock was thrilled with what we had done.
The day after finishing the tour I boarded a plane to fly home having completed a little over a 2 1/2 year mission. I had in my possession a letter of introduction President Hancock had written to President Henry D. Moyle, second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church and responsible for missionary work in Latin America. I was to go to the church office building, present my letter of introduction, and explain to who ever would listen, the important program we had implemented in the Central American Mission.
Well, I stepped off the airplane in Salt Lake City in all my post missionary glory and into the arms of my loving family. My suit was a rag; my shoes were totally worn out; my white shirt was frayed at the collar -- you get the picture. Not mentioning to my parents my assignment from President Hancock, on our way out of town we passed by Temple Square and the church office building; imposing structures. I thought to myself that no general authority or anyone in the church office building would pay any attention to the likes of me. Feeling very much like a "grasshopper" compared to those celestial beings occupying the church office building, I never fulfilled my last assignment from President Hancock. I still have his letter of introduction to President Moyle and each time I read it my face turns a cheery red.
What blessings did I lose because of feeling like a "grasshopper" and not having sufficient faith in myself and the Lord to perform a very important mission? I will never know, but would like to report that over the years I think I have finally conquered the "grasshopper syndrome". Were I to have let this single event become a pattern in my life the results would have been disastrous.
Fear can be a debilitating thing in all our lives. It is usually indicative of an absence of faith. Elder Holland once said that perhaps the most frequently broken commandment of all is to disregard the Savior's admonition: "... Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." [John 14: 27] In the perilous times in which we live, with Iraq and Al Qaeda, threatened terrorist attacks, high gas prices, pornography on the Internet, and etc. and etc. it is easy to break the Lord's admonition to not let our hearts be troubled neither to be afraid. In these times, and really in all the times in which God's children have lived upon this earth, it has required great faith and trust in Him to not be troubled or afraid.
President Hinckley, insightfully and truthfully said on one occasion: "Who among us can say that he or she has not felt fear? I know of no one who has been entirely spared. Some, of course, experience fear to a greater degree than do others. Some are able to rise above it quickly, but others are trapped and pulled down by it and even driven to defeat. We suffer from the fear of ridicule, the fear of failure, the fear of loneliness, the fear of ignorance. Some fear the present, some the future...Let us recognize that fear comes not of God, but rather that this gnawing, destructive element comes from the adversary of truth and righteousness. Fear is the antithesis of faith. It is corrosive in its effects, even deadly." [Faith: The Essence of True Religion, 13]
Knowing who we really are none of us need ever feel like "grasshoppers".
Friday, April 7, 2006
I have observed two very sobering events transpire the last couple of weeks. Last week Jo Anne and I attended the funeral of Wendy, the young wife of Rick Varner. Rick and my two oldest children, Mike and JoLene, were very good friends all through their high school years and beyond. Rick and his wife, Wendy, married a little bit later than some; she was 28 and Rick 33 when they fell in love and were married in the temple. Wendy was a remarkable person in many ways. She had a degree in finance from the University of Alabama and was an outstanding tennis player who taught tennis lessons for some prestigious tennis schools in Southern California. They had three children during the first few years of their marriage and Wendy's greatest fulfillment in life became that of full-time mom. And then suddenly Wendy began to have trouble with cancer. For the last 3 1/2 years of her life she was in a constant battle with the cancer that finally caused her passing away at age 38. I know her death at such a young age has caused my children some serious reflection. When we are young we don't often think about death and though we know that we will eventually experience it we most often assume it will come at a much later time in life. Of course, asking why death came to such a young, vibrant wife and mother who was so vital to the joy and success of her husband and children is a very bad question with no good answer.
Just this week we also learned that a good friend of ours, Dave Jones, a colleague in CES in Southern California for many years, passed away while exercising at a gym with his wife and son. Dave was a number of years younger than me. He was a great athlete in his day and we played many basketball games together in Long Beach when I could still shoot three-pointers. He was a great teacher and priesthood leader who exerted an influence for good on numberless lives during his lifetime. His death, coming so quickly and unexpectedly, was also very sobering news to us. Why did he pass away so unexpectedly and at such a relatively young age?
I do not intend this to be a morbid observation about death. Death simply will come to all of us when it will, and most likely not according to our will. I guess the reality of our mortal situation is that life at best is very fragile and can be taken in an instant. James, very truthfully and beautifully, put it this way: "Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." [James 4: 14]
I am maybe a little more sensitive to the truthfulness of what James said because of living on life support for 17 years. Many have heard me describe my life as "living on the edge". I have had numerous near-death experiences and have escaped from each one with a feeling of joy that I am still alive. Even though with our faith, death should be nothing to fear, still and all, I believe the Lord has placed within each one of us the desire to cling to mortality as long as we possibly can. I think it is not bad to realize that we are all "living on the edge". Knowing that life is like a vapor that can quickly vanish away should motivate us to make the best out of each day and to take nothing for granted.
An author I have enjoyed reading over the years is James Michener. His historical novels have entertained thousands of people for many decades. I was reading an interview that was conducted by the Academy of Success a number of years ago in which Michener was reflecting upon a revelatory and life changing experience he had as a young man that instilled within him the vision necessary to achieve the success he had in life as an author. "And it was as clear to me as if a voice were telling me to do this: "This is the choosing up point, kiddo -- from here on." I had no idea that life was as short as it is. That concept comes very late in any human life, I think. I thought life was immeasurable, extensive to the horizon and beyond. But I did know that my capacities were not unlimited. I had only so much to spend, and let's do it in a big way. And I think that was all the difference." [James Michener]
As I am growing older I can say with Michener, "I had no idea that life was as short as it is." How providential it would be to have the wisdom to understand that life is not "immeasurable" at a much younger age. Hopefully however, if we are fortunate as Michener was at a young age, to just understand and internalize the fact that our "... capacities [are] not unlimited..." and because of it we must be more selective and wise in the use of our time and energy, we would be most blessed.
As I have become more conscious of my frail mortality I have also become more cognizant of the way I use my time and capacities that I have remaining to me. I find that I am increasingly more selective in what I choose to read for example. I have found that everything that is available for me to read comes in at a far second-place to the scriptures. Of course there is still a place for Turner classic movies, Lakers basketball, Dodgers baseball, and BYU football in life. However, I have a spirit brooding over me that impresses me that I must be about preparing for the "final exam", and to keep me off balance, I don't know when that exam will be administered. None of us do!