Friday, March 28, 2008

The Law Of The Harvest- We Reap What We Sow (March Madness II)

We are in the midst of March Madness -- one of my favorite times of the year. BYU was eliminated in the first round again which is very comforting to me because it is a sure sign that the second coming is not near at hand. If they ever make it past the first round we should begin doing some serious preparation for the end of the world.

I am so glad that I love UCLA basketball as much as BYU basketball. I am very impressed with this year's UCLA team under the direction of their great coach, Ben Howland. Once again, this year's team is built on the principle and foundation of a solid, fundamental, in-your-face, hard-nosed, lunch bucket and hardhat, blue-collar defense that wins games when the offense falters. They have won 34 games this year and have only lost three, largely because of their disciplined approach and mastery of the fundamentals of good defense.

However, this UCLA team also has a 19-year-old center by the name of Kevin Love, whom I enjoy watching as much as any young player I have ever observed over the many years of my life. He is 6'10" tall with a burly build, but is not particularly athletic, doesn't jump really high, and isn't extremely fleet of foot. Why I like to watch him, and why he is so good as a freshman, is that he has mastered the fundamentals of basketball to such a high degree that he has turned playing center into an art form. Sportscasters and commentators rave about his hands and the ability he has to throw a laser like chest pass the length of the court right into the hands of one of his teammates for an easy layup. However, he does everything well from blocking shots, passing the ball, playing strong defense, shooting from inside and outside and simply outsmarting and outplaying bigger, faster, and more athletic big men. If UCLA does make it to the final four again this year it will be because of their understanding and implementation of the fundamentals of defense and their great young center, Kevin Love.

You know I have a frenzied mind, but as I watch this UCLA team I think of the words of Matthew Arnold, the great author and literary critic of 19th-century England. He said on one occasion, "All art earns freedom through discipline!" How true that is in the world of sports as well as in almost every other discipline or aspect of life you can think of.

I learned this lesson as a young 17-year-old freshman at BYU about a hundred years ago. I received a music scholarship from BYU on the strength of my clarinet and piano playing. I modestly admit I was the best clarinet player in White Pine County, Nevada -- much better than the other two. I tried out for the concert band at BYU and was awarded the 23rd chair in a clarinet section of 24 clarinetists. First chair was the best and 24th the worst so you can see where I fit in. I was devastated. My self-esteem was at an all-time low and after a few weeks in the 23rd position I was ready to quit the band and music. Thankfully my parents wouldn't hear of it and offered to help me pay for private lessons with Professor Ralph Laycock, the conductor of the concert band and symphony.

Ralph Laycock was the greatest musician I ever knew personally or have known throughout my lifetime. He had a doctorate in conducting from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and was a master of all of the major wind instruments -- trumpet, French horn, oboe, flute, and especially the clarinet.
I approached him with great trepidation to see if he would agree to teach the likes of me -- I wasn't feeling particularly good about my musical abilities as you can imagine. He was an imposing figure -- 6'4" tall, a hulk of a man with bushy black hair and eyebrows, and eyes that could burn right into your soul. Much to my amazement he agreed to take me on and so one autumn afternoon I stumbled into his office for my first lesson. He had me take my clarinet out of its case and assemble it which I did with shaking hands. He then asked me to play something and as I commenced to blow a few notes he grabbed the clarinet and almost my teeth along with it, out of my mouth and hands, and staring at me said, "Jack, you don't know how to play the clarinet!" My already fragile self-esteem was totally shattered and plummeted to an all-time low. I wondered if any of Ralph Laycock's students had ever committed suicide. "But," he said, "I think you have some promise and if you will do what I tell you to do you might just learn how to play the clarinet."
Thus began an adventure in learning the fundamentals of clarinet playing from a master. He took all my music away, showed me how to correctly hold the mouthpiece in my mouth and hold the instrument properly in my hands. For the next several weeks I was to stand in front of a full-length mirror looking at my mouth and hands, making sure I was doing everything correctly, and just play whole notes, all the while trying to produce that beautiful clarinet sound I had never been able to produce up to that time in my career. As I began to achieve some success my practice time increased until I was spending eventually four to six hours a day preparing myself to meet with Professor Laycock each week. He taught me that practice doesn't make perfect, but only perfect practice makes perfect! By the end of my sophomore year, thanks to the insistence of a great teacher that I master the fundamentals of clarinet playing through discipline and hard work, I was playing second chair. I could never quite do as well as Bill Washburn who played first chair. I attributed it to the fact that he had a superior clarinet -- a Selma, which was the Rolls-Royce of clarinets, while I only had a Conn, at best a Yugo or maybe a Chevy. As I left on my mission I was able to play by memory Mozart's Concerto for Clarinet.

I love music, but as the years have passed by, the lesson I learned from Ralph Laycock regarding mastering the fundamentals and perfectly practicing them while exercising discipline and hard work, has been invaluable in every aspect of my life.

Does this principle apply, for example, to living the Gospel? I know it does! We must master the fundamentals of personal prayer, scripture study, controlling our passions and appetites, and seeking to put off the "natural man" through discipline and seeking to have charity.

It really is just another way of looking at the eternal "Law of the Harvest." Ultimately in life we reap what we sow. If we master the fundamentals of any worthy discipline, and also seek to master the basic fundamentals of life that every human being has to deal with daily -- for example, getting out of bed, working hard, being clean and organized, and trying to keep our bodies fit and healthy, life will surely become for us an "art" and we will have "earned freedom through discipline" and mastering the fundamentals.

My friend, Jim Ritchie, said it this way in quoting J. Paul Getty's formula for success: "Get up early, work hard, and discover oil!" If we do so, at least the getting up early part and the working hard part, we will discover our own kind of oil; hopefully the kind the five wise virgins had in their lamps as they anxiously awaited the opportunity to come into the presence of the "Bridegroom."

Thank you, Ben Howland and Kevin Love, for reminding me of some significant and timeless truths.


Friday, March 14, 2008

Sacrifice Our Sins and Our Will To Know God

March 14, 2008, Observation

A number of years ago I was talking to a young teenager and asking him what he had been reading recently. He said that most of his spare time had been spent in reading "canonized scripture." I was amazed at his answer. I can almost guarantee that if someone had asked me or someone from my generation what we were spending our time reading at that young age, our answer likely would not have been "canonized scripture."

My good friend, Bishop Brian Ritter, sent me an e-mail the other day informing me that his oldest son, Danny, had just received his mission call to the Dominican Republic. In a recent conversation he asked Danny how many times he had read the Book of Mormon. Danny replied that he had only read it five times. You would have received a far different response to the same question from me and most of my generation at that age.

I can remember my embarrassment when I went to the old Mission home in Salt Lake City for a week prior to going to Central America to serve a 2 1/2 year mission. I would try to sit in a corner so no one could see me prying the pages of my scriptures apart which were stuck together by the gold edging -- evidence that the books had never been read. It was only in my first assignment in the Mayan Indian village of Totonicapan, located in the high mountains of Guatemala, that I finally discovered the beauty and power of "canonized scripture." Totonicapan was the coldest place in the mission. I will never forget one early morning at 5 a.m. in November of 1958, dressed in pajamas, suit, sweater, overcoat, and a hat, trying to capture what heat I could from a vintage 1957 electric space heater, reading the Sermon on the Mount out of Matthew for the first time in my life. I was absolutely amazed and overwhelmed by the elegant beauty and power of what I was reading that morning. I could scarcely believe that the Scriptures contained such marvelous, understandable, and applicable teachings. That morning I fell in love with "canonized scripture" and that love affair has persisted for the last 50 years of my life.

The Scriptures are wonderful in that they never change, but we do. They are the "standard" we can use to measure all of or thoughts and actions. Because of experiences we are having in life, challenges, or specific needs we are feeling at any given time, we can read scriptures we have read for years and yet discover new truths and eternal principles we have never noticed before.

I discovered a new insight last week that is significant to me, in a chapter in the Book of Mormon I have read hundreds of times I am sure. It is an Alma chapter 22 where Aaron teaches the great king of the Lamanites, Lamoni's father, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The great king had been prepared to be taught the Gospel because of an encounter he had with Ammon, Aaron's brother. He readily received Aaron into his presence and was eager to be taught the Gospel of Jesus Christ. After Aaron had taught him about the Atonement and the Plan of Happiness we read the following: Alma 22:15 "... the king said: aWhat shall I do that I may have this eternal life of which thou hast spoken? ... Behold, said he, I will give up dall that I possess, yea, I will forsake my kingdom, that I may receive this great joy." And then the insight came that I had never noticed before. Giving up all that he possessed and even forsaking his kingdom was not enough. That kind of sacrifice would not bring him the joy of eternal life. Aaron said to the king: "... If thou desirest this thing, if thou wilt abow down before God, yea, if thou wilt repent of all thy sins, and will bow down before God, and call on his name in faith, believing that ye shall receive, then shalt thou receive the bhope which thou desirest." [Alma 22:16] And then the great king offered, not his wealth or his kingdom, but his heart as he "... did prostrate himself upon the earth, and cried mightily saying: 18 O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day I'll...." [Alma 22:17-18]
Giving away his wealth, his kingdom, and his status in society would not win for him the gift of eternal life. It would only come to him as he was willing to give his heart and soul to God and give away all of his sins. This account reminded me of Elder Maxwell's comments regarding the only true sacrifice any of us can ever make to "come to know God."

"Our personal possessions and our material blessings are really not ours, so what we sometimes regard as a sacrifice was given to us, anyway. President Young understood this: "How long have we got to live before we find out that we have nothing to consecrate to the Lord—that all belongs to the Father in heaven; that these mountains are His; the valleys, the timber, the water, the soil; in fine, the earth and its fulness?" (Neal A. Maxwell, That Ye May Believe, 1-7)

He also beautifully reiterated this great truth when he wrote: "The submission of one's will is placing on God's altar the only uniquely personal thing one has to place there. The many other things we "give" are actually the things He has already given or loaned to us. (If Thou Endure It Well, p. 54)
I am grateful to have had this truth leap out at me from the pages of Scripture read many times, but only now registering with me. Everything we have does belong to God except our agency, and when we freely lay it on the altar by giving of our time and strict obedience to the will of the Father then this is an acceptable sacrifice.

Let's keep searching the Scriptures and in doing so we will continually discover hidden treasures of truth that will bless our lives as nothing else can.