An Old Dude Manifesto

I know you folks at the gym were enjoying a giggle at the sweatband on the scrawny middle aged dude who is only there to ride a bike.  I knew it looked goofy when I put it on.  It made my bald spot show.  But, the thing is, I sweat a LOT, and it sometimes drips on my book when I’m on the recumbent bike.  I hate that way more than I worry about how I look.  So I go with what works.

That’s what us older dudes do.

All of my life I’ve had a hard time understanding the eccentric old person.  For the first half of my life (and least I hope it was only half) I’ve worried about trying to encourage other people to respect me and like me.  I figured everyone else starts off the same way.  So what comes over a guy that makes him turn in the skinny jeans and opt for polyester shorts and long white socks?  To wake up with wacky hair, look in the mirror, and decide “I can go with that.”  To basically tell the world to go jump in a lake?

Over the last year, I finally get it.

You see, I know you are proud of your guns and abs.  And I’m honest enough to admit, you look terrific.  My “abs,” to the extent they can be called that, are marked up with a half dozen scars where doctors have taken out organs that are supposed to be pretty useful.  No, I don’t do sit ups.  But I get up…every morning, without all of my original parts.  You do that, and I’ll tip my hat to you then.

And all of those weights you can bench press.  Zowie.  Time was that I was a strong guy, too.  Much stronger than my size.  Then I was run over by an eighteen wheeler.  Fifteen broken bones and a punctured lung.  To paraphrase Yoda, “When crushed you are, so good you will look not.”  Have a truck dropped on you, and then let’s see what you’ve got.

This time last year, you were probably doing what you are doing now.  You were here at the gym, lifting heavy things, flexing for girls, and staring at yourself in the mirror.  This time last year, I was getting over a coma and being dead–twice–and was about to go another round of trying to check the big ticket on an operating table.  I spent a lot of time looking in the mirror after that, too.  I saw a wraith.  So, yeah, the stairs up to the second floor where the bikes are take me a little longer than they should.  But I came back from the freaking DEAD.  Scoreboard.

When do you stop caring what other people think?  When you finally realize that you are playing with house money.  When you wake up to the fact that your days on this blue marble are numbered.  When you’ve faced some big fights that you didn’t pick and are still here in spite of it.  When you finally get it that “happy” trumps “cool,” but only all of the time.  When some of what you thought was important is taken away from you, and you have to find joy with what is left.  When life hits you square in the mouth, and you stand up and say, “Was that all you’ve got?”

My process probably was accelerated by outside events.  But I’m not alone.  That skinny octogenarian in the white t-shirt and the blue-veined legs marching on the treadmill?  Chances are, he’s seen more than you have imagined, endured more than you could handle right now, and he probably has more grit than you can hope for at your age.  He likely has overcome more before breakfast than you will face in the coming year.  And if he looks goofy, deal with it.  He’s comfortable and he doesn’t give a frog’s fat fanny what you think about it.

I’m playing Galaga with bonus lives right now.  So I’ll read what I want to read and listen to the music I want to listen to.  I’ll speak my mind when I feel like it, and if it shocks someone in the room, I’ll be blissfully unconcerned.  I’ll wear what I want to wear.  If I don’t want to go someplace, I’ll tell you that.  And I’ll wear a terrycloth headband so that I don’t sweat on my books.

At the same time, I’ll enjoy all of the other privileges that come with not being twenty anymore.  I’ll love my wife deeply and be completely devoted to her.  She’s getting older, too, and with each year is that much better than some skinny little kid with too much makeup and implants.  I’ll tell people I love them and not worry if it is cool or manly.  I’ll hug the people that matter.  I’ll take pride in my faith, even if others aren’t on board with it.  I’ll stop during a 5K walk and take a picture of a woodpecker.  Because woodpeckers.

I will find joy in a breath.

I will explore the universe by holding my sweetheart’s hand.

I will play the back nine with a joy that I was too scared to embrace during the first 9 holes.

And, even though it is likely in vain, I will urge you to live a fuller life now, before it is too late.

The Third Death and the Atonement

As a missionary, explaining how the Atonement worked to investigators (the three that I taught in two years) was deceptively easy.  Following the discussions of the Atonement found in the Book of Mormon, we would explain that the Atonement is the means of overcoming two deaths:  physical death and spiritual death.  Physical death is a separation of the spirit and the body, and through the resurrection, Christ brings those two together again, never to be divided.  Spiritual death is the separation of us from God, which Christ overcame through His suffering, bringing us together again, never to be divided.

The concepts of physical and spiritual death, and how the Atonement defeats both of them, is scripturally and doctrinally sound.  The reality of these aspects of the Atonement sits at the heart of what we believe as Latter-day Saints.  But I believe that the conversation shouldn’t end there when we discuss the saving power of the Atonement.  There is a third death from which Christ redeems us.

The third death is despair.  It may be defined as the separation of our hearts from hope.

I have known something of this third death.  Despair has a destructive capacity unlike anything else I have experienced.  It consumes us from the inside and so poisons our minds that we actually seek our own destruction.  I have attended more funerals for suicides than I thought I ever would (I anticipated something like “zero”).  I have talked with one of despair’s victims in the very moment he considered taking his own life.  I desperately invoked the power of hope, endeavoring with no small degree of panic to inject some dim light into the darkness.

We learn in the seventh chapter of Alma that one of principle reasons that the Plan of Salvation required Jehovah to descend to mortality as Jesus was so  that He could experience the sufferings that all of us feel as part of our own mortal sojourns.  Alma explained that the Spirit “knoweth all things,” meaning that the Spirit can observe, understand, and sympathize with our plight, but Christ actually experienced all things “according to the flesh,” meaning that He knows perfectly our trials and therefore can perfectly empathize and perfectly succor us.

“Succor” is a fancy Latin-type word that means “the lifesaver thrown to someone drowning in despair.”  The Savior demonstrated repeatedly during His ministry that He has power over the storms in our lives.  Calming the tempest and walking on troubled waters are impressive miracles, but their utility is limited.  The real miracle is His ability to calm the tortured tempests of our souls, and to teach us to walk calmly when all around us is madness.

The scriptures are replete with references to the Savior’s ability to overcome the third death.  The first two words announcing the coming of the Christ child, as spoken to the shepherds, were “Fear not.”  Christ was seen in vision by Isaiah as the Prince of Peace.  He promised peace and comfort to his followers.  He said the the Holy Ghost would come as a Comforter, and that He, Christ, would be another Comforter.  Paul referred to our Father in Heaven as the God of all Comfort.

Enduring mortality well requires striving, and our adversary understands that.  He knows that if he can get us to give up, he will win.  Thus he spreads the gospel of despair.  He exploits every addiction, every heartache, every personal disappointment.  He seeks to drive wedges into every crack in our dreams and aspirations, hammering at them relentlessly until he has created a chasm between us and the hope promised through the Atonement.

As with the other two deaths, we cannot overcome the third without the intervention of Christ’s grace.  Fortunately, the promise of such grace is undimmed.  Every time Satan whispers in one ear “You can’t,” the Savior whispers in the other, “But WE can.”  When we are taunted with “You aren’t good enough,” our elder brother answers, “With my help, you are.”  To the nefarious threat of “There is no way out of the darkness,” the Redeemer responds, “I am the Way.  I am the Light.”

Our Heavenly Father’s Plan is a Plan of Happiness.  It is the means by which we defeat death, sin, and despair.  It is the blueprint for joy here and now.  As we invite Christ to take a more prominent place in our lives, His very presence drives out despair.  We are redeemed from fear and hopelessness.  We are restored to the companionship of hope, and as with the other two aspects of the Atonement, that reconciliation can be forever.

I Believe

I recently had a discussion with young man wrestling his way through some testimony issues.  As we talked through some of his questions and frustrations, one of the things he mentioned was experiencing feelings of inadequacy during fast and testimony meetings when one person after another stood before the congregation and ticked off all of the things they “knew.”  “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet.”  “I know that Christ lives.”  “I know the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”  This sincere young man felt that either he wasn’t getting the spiritual confirmations everyone else is getting, or these members are overstating the strength of their testimonies.

As I thought about this, I realized that he has a point.  I cannot remember the last time I heard someone couch their testimony in terms of what they “believe,” as opposed to what they “know.”  For me, much of my testimony is based upon beliefs, not iron-clad knowledge.  Like most people, I have not enjoyed dramatic spiritual manifestations that would justify bold announcements of what I know.  But I tend to state my testimony in the same “I know” terms.

Perhaps it is just a matter of social convention.  When primary children are being taught how to give their testimonies, we tend to teach them to use “know speak” instead of “believe speak.”  So we have three-year old Sunbeams testifying that they know the Book of Mormon is true, even though they can’t read the front cover of the book, and knowing that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet when they might not be able to pick him out of a police lineup.  We learn early on to use that language, and we stick with it.

It might also be a pride thing.  If ten people before me have announced what they know, do I look like my testimony is lacking if I say that I believe?  Are people going to think that I’m hedging my bets?

There is scriptural authority for using either term.  Alma speaks of testing our beliefs with the metaphor of planting a seed.  When we act upon our beliefs and see positive results, in Alma’s view, we have a knowledge of truth, because we have seen its results.  From that standpoint, many of us really do “know.”  We’ve seen the positive effect on our lives from living the commandments, and having put gospel to a test we “know” that it is true.

On the other hand, we have the testimony of Peter, who was asked by the Savior in the sixth chapter of John whether the Twelve would leave him as did many other disciples.  Peter answered with “We believe and are sure that thou art the Christ.”  This is a slightly nuanced approach.  It says that even though there may be things in the gospel that are unsettling to us, our belief is sufficiently strong to make us “sure” that the gospel message is true.  It reminds me of Nephi saying that he doesn’t know all things, but he does know enough to persist on the gospel path.

I think that the virtue of belief needs some rehabilitating in the Church.  The truth of it is that when we speak of knowledge with reference to our testimonies, we typically are referring to our level of confidence in what we believe.  We believe so strongly, we feel comfortable labeling our convictions as knowledge.  We believe, and are sure.  It may be more helpful to those new in the faith or momentarily struggling in their testimonies, to hear that we remain faithful because of what we believe.

The wonderful hymn, “I Believe in Christ,” is a powerful example of a moving testimony based upon belief.  As an apostle, a special witness of Christ, Elder Bruce R. McConkie certainly would have been justified in using “know speak.”  I am quite sure that his testimony was far more developed than anything I can hope to enjoy in the near future.  But the repeated expression of “I Believe” not only is poetic, it is also honest and hopeful. And the strength of the testimony suffers nothing by being expressed in terms of belief.

I don’t believe in “rules” for testimonies, as do some people in the Church.  Bearing a testimony is not a performance, nor does it need to confirm with rigid requirements as to content.  So if someone wants to talk about what they “know,” I assume that they are using the word in the Alma “seed” sense and not the Joseph Smith “grove” sense, and I am fine with that.  And if someone tells me what they believe, I welcome them into the fellowship of those of us who have found that belief is sufficient to weather the storms that cross our paths.

And for those who don’t know that they’ll ever know, I suggest that–for now–you give belief a chance.

 

Bashing the General Authorities: Can You Pass That Test?

Over the past week or so, I have had the pleasure (using the word in the original Greek sense of “Why did I do this to myself?”) of reading scores of comments regarding my post on “Yeah, but” discipleship.  Many of you were very kind, which I appreciate.  Heck, I appreciate anyone thinking it is worth sacrificing ten minutes of their lives to read anything from the likes of me.  But there were others (some of which I approved for posting; many of which I didn’t on grounds of extreme nastiness) that left me stunned.  I had no idea that there was that much hostility directed by purported members of the Church towards our General Authorities.  Honestly, there are bullies in high school that beat me up weekly that I bear lighter grudges against.

I’m reminded of my favorite scene from Hill Street Blues.  This probably isn’t the most appropriate example to use for a religious-themed post, but it has been on my mind all evening. Detective Belker (my favorite character) is working undercover at a butcher shop.  An elderly lady comes in demanding a fresh chicken.  He pulls out a whole chicken, which she picks up, spreads the drumsticks, and takes a mighty sniff of the cavity.  She throws it back at him, grumbling “This chicken isn’t fresh.”  She goes through two or three more chickens in the same way, reaching the same conclusion.  Frustrated, Belker scowls at her, and asks “Lady, could YOU pass that test?”

I have had the same reaction to some of the comments I have read about the General Authorities, as I have been accused of espousing blind obedience to misguided, corporate, out of touch, old men.  Now, I have had my moments in which I have been overzealous in my criticism of local or general authorities over some pet issue.  Most recently, I had complete apoplexy when “ponderize” became confused with “merchandize.”  But eventually, in all of these cases I’ve ultimately decided to give my leaders a break and not allow my brief trip into grousing turn into a ride on a bullet train to apostasy.

Here’s why.

Sometimes, I say stupid things.  But only when I’m awake.  I’ve been known to make entirely inappropriate comments in church.  I’ve taught doctrines that I later understood to be incorrect.  I’ve challenged people for offenses that they did not intend to give.  And maybe once I offered to beat up a bishopric member.  I regret lots of stuff that comes out of my mouth or that gets banged out on my keyboard.  I’m grateful for the principal of repentance, which allows my words to be recorded on white boards with dry erase pens, rather than engraved on brass plates.  So I don’t hold people to every word that comes out of their mouths.  I couldn’t pass that test.

Sometimes, I have a hard time understanding the scriptures.  Aside from the crazy stuff that pops up in the scriptures (that whole talking donkey thing in the Old Testament remains a head scratcher), even relatively simple stuff like the Gospels can be fairly perplexing.  I’m sure that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were wonderful guys.  They just weren’t the best writers.  And don’t even get me started on Paul.  But sometimes the very words of Christ appear to be recollected sayings all jammed together that can be interpreted in any number of ways.  I think the scriptures are supposed to have some wiggle room, so that we can liken them to our own lives.  There are times when I think I have a clear understanding of things, only to find contradictions upon closer inspection.  So I don’t expect anyone to be able to explain the scriptures perfectly.  I couldn’t pass that test.

Sometimes, I confuse my own emotions for spiritual promptings.  I can get worked up about things, and sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing between strong emotions and promptings from the Spirit.  I frequently tell my  children and students about the direct revelation I had when I was 13 about a girl at school that I was to marry (conveniently, she was the prettiest girl in the eighth grade).  My revelation was “confirmed ” about 8 years later, when I returned from my mission and discovered that she had joined the Church.  I was just about to share my revelation with her when she introduced me to her fiance.  Oops.  False prophet.  Moses would have stoned me for sure.  But that doesn’t mean that the Lord never has or never will reveal things to me.  So I don’t assume that because a person says something I don’t like, or that I think is foolish, that I can discount anything else that they say.  I couldn’t pass that test.

Sometimes, my prejudices get the better of me.  We all have our prejudices.  It is one of the coping mechanisms our brain uses in order to not have to think about everything we see.  We use visual cues to jump to conclusions that sometimes are accurate, but more often are not.  Those prejudices color our views, no matter who we are.  We are all the product of our culture, our society, our traditions, and that stuff seeps in no matter how educated, progressive, or enlightened we think we are.  So I don’t condemn people for reflecting the notions of their times or backgrounds.  I couldn’t pass that test.

I don’t expect church leaders to be perfect.  I couldn’t pass that test either.

So why bother following our priesthood leaders anyway?

Because the Lord has always chosen to work through the weak things of the earth, and He expects us to be sufficiently humble to trust Him in His choices.  It isn’t about putting blind faith in our leaders.  It is about trusting that the Lord knows what He is doing.  If we believe that He is behind the Church, then we have to believe that He has an understanding of who He calls to lead it.  He knows their weaknesses better than we think we do, and He has determined that He can work with the material He has chosen.

None of us is immune from feeling at times that we know the way better than those placed in positions of authority over us.  I’m no more inclined to unquestioned obedience than anyone else. But I don’t assume that because I can find fault with a general conference talk, or a press release, or something my stake president says to me, that I am justified in questioning their calling from the Lord.

Sure, Noah got drunk.  Moses took credit for a miracle and was a bit of a mushmouth.  Aaron built that golden idol.  Jonah ran from his mission call.  Peter didn’t have enough faith to walk on water (no surprise for a guy named after a rock) and denied Christ three times.  He and Paul fought like cats and dogs over doctrine.  Joseph Smith could be arrogant and rude.  Brigham Young had some patently goofy doctrinal ideas, and Ezra Taft Benson was a John Bircher.  But in each of these cases, the Lord found a way to work with each of them, and in every instance, things ultimately worked out okay.

I trust that the Lord is behind the selection of our leaders.  If you don’t, that is your right.  Not quite sure why you would be a member of a Church that teaches that, but whatever floats your boat.  I also trust that He is fully capable of correcting His chosen leaders, and that He doesn’t need my help to do so.  I trust that we are still working under our Father in Heaven’s plan, and that He hasn’t suddenly found Himself on a runaway train.

If I have a disagreement, I’ll express it.  But I’ll be respectful in doing so, and if I don’t get my way, I hope that I have sufficient humility to reserve judgment and wait on the Lord.  If I’m right, then things are going to work out my way eventually.  If I’m wrong, then I deserved to be ignored.

What I’m not going to do is hold my leaders to standards I cannot meet.  I’ll work on getting myself straightened out before I reach out to balance the ark.

 

 

 

“Yeah, but” Discipleship

Salt LakeIn recent months, the Church has issued statements on three issues of public concern.  The first dealt with Syrian refugees, the second with handling same-sex marriages involving Church members, and the third with the occupation of a federal building in Oregon by an armed militia composed partially or totally by members of the Church.

In each case, the Church’s statements were unambiguous.  And in each case, some Church members were rubbed the wrong way by what our leadership had to say.  I’ve spent some time (more than the situation merited) reading comments online from purported members of the Church regarding all three of these statements (one a letter, one a change in the Church handbook, and one a press release), and I’m surprised at the level of “Yeah, but” discipleship that those responses reflect.

The Church says to love and support the refugees.  “Yeah, but, I think Muslims are all terrorists, and I can’t support this invasion of America.  The Church leaders are being naive.”

The Church reaffirms that same-sex marriage is inconsistent with Church doctrine and puts rules in place for handling children of such marriages.  “Yeah, but, I think Church is behind the times on this.  I think people have a right to marry who they want.  The Church leaders are being homophobic.  And this isn’t consistent with how I think the atonement works.”

The Church unequivocally states that an armed takeover of a federal building is contrary to revealed scripture and inconsistent with Church teachings.  “Yeah, but, I only need to support Constitutional governments, and I don’t think that the federal government is complying with its own laws.  Besides, the federal government was nasty to the Church in the 1800s, so they should be supportive of what these patriots are doing.  The Church leaders don’t understand their own scriptures.”

There is nothing new about “Yeah, but” discipleship.  All of us engage in it at some level or another.  “Yeah, I’m supposed to love my neighbor, but that guy is such a jerk!”  “Yeah, I’m supposed to pay my tithing, but I’m broke.”  “Yeah, I’m not supposed to cheat on my wife, but this is only pornography.”

Or, my personal weakness:  “Yeah, I’m supposed to go to high priests, but those meetings drain my soul like a dementor’s kiss.”

All of us doing it, however, doesn’t make it right, and “Yeah, but” discipleship is a particularly dangerous form of doctrinal diversion.  It amounts to a rejection of core elements of what makes us Latter-day Saints.

First, it demonstrates a distorted view of our relationship with God.  The Plan of Salvation is our Heavenly Father’s gameplan by which we have the best (and only) opportunity to become like Him.  The rules of the mortality game are well-established by our Father, but our arrogance and pride elevate our self-image to the point that we believe we know a better way.  We are wiser, more modern, more progressive, more compassionate, more “whatever” than our Father in Heaven, and consequently we demand that He conform to our expectations of Him.  It is the equivalent of Christ entering the room and us demanding to see his driver’s license.  But our progression in this life is determined by our following the path that the Father has set out for us, not by blazing new trails based upon our limited view of the landscape.

Second, it rejects what we teach about priesthood authority and acting within the scope of our stewardship.  Too First presidencymany well-intentioned members of the Church believe that they have had more relevant revelation on certain topics that the established priesthood leadership.  They invoke overused hypotheticals (what if the prophet claimed to have a revelation that you should jump off a cliff/kill your neighbor/marry a monkey?) and conclude that not only should we seek personal confirmation of what priesthood leadership tells us, but if we don’t get such confirmation, we need to convince our leaders of the error of their ways.  Church leaders are too old, too white, too stodgy, too bald, and too male in order to really know what they are talking about.  I, on the other hand, am educated, enlightened, and good looking.  Therefore, I know the way.  Such is not the “wisdom and order” that our Father in Heaven has established for His church.  While asking questions, even challenging questions, is wholly appropriate, imposing our own answers on the Church is not.

One of the interesting things about “Yeah, but” discipleship is that expressions of its dogma are almost always followed with the word, “I.”  It becomes, “Yeah, but. I” discipleship.  I think differently.  I don’t agree.  I have had more relevant experiences.  I understand the scriptures better.  It is an unequivocal announcement of our own pride, in which our views, thoughts, and opinions are placed higher than the expressed word of the Lord.  It is a declaration that we have written and intend to follow our own preferred plans of happiness and expect to get the same result (or better) than we will get from the Plan set forth by an all-knowing and all-loving Father in Heaven.

GethsemaneNo mortal ever has been faced with a more difficult celestial chore than  Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  If ever there were a time for “Yeah, but” discipleship, this was it.  “Yeah, but there has to be another way!”  Instead, our Savior demonstrated perfectly how to respond to difficult directives:  “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me:  nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”  Even the Great I AM placed His will second to that of the Father.  If Christ was unwilling to overwrite God’s instructions, we should be far more hesitant to do so.

12 Days of Gratitude: My God

Dear God,

I’ll admit:  I didn’t see this one coming.  It wasn’t that I didn’t think I would have serious trials again.  But I wasn’t expecting to be in harm’s way again while I was still recovering from the last go-round.  Little faster than I would have anticipated.  And a lot more intense.  But here I am on Christmas morning, one that I had no business seeing, pondering my inventory of afflictions and blessings.

The afflictions are easy to count.  Since this time last year, I’ve had antibiotic-resistant pneumonia, in both lungs.  The pancreatitis took my major organs off line.  Did that dying thing.  The monster cyst.  That crazy nose bleed during the summer (blood coming out of my eye sockets was a nice touch, by the way).  The operation that went wrong.  The aneurysm.  My numb leg.  11 scars on my torso.  Numerous scars on my hands and arms from all of the IVs.  Considerably less hair than I started the year with, and a greater portion of it grey.

Yeah, I’ve aged about a decade this year.  Been rode hard, and I see it when I look in the mirror.  I feel it, but only when I move, sit, or lay down.

The blessings?  Those are harder to count.  They always are.  While afflictions pout, yell and gesticulate for attention like a petulant three-year old, blessings have a way of creeping up next to you quietly, doing little if anything to announce their presence.  You have to look to find them, and who wants to go to all of that work when you have the bratty problems of your life right in front of you?

But I have learned that the blessings are there.  I’ve written about several of them over the last twelve days.  So much for which I have to be grateful.  But one blessing I’ve said little about, and it’s one of the greatest that you have given me this year.  It was a message hidden behind all of these other blessings, one that I needed to hear, and that I have paid so little attention to over the years.  It was a simple, whispered assurance of a truth that I have rarely believed:

I matter.

I have felt more than a little like Ebenezer Scrooge as I have gone through this process of fading and recovering.  I have had the opportunity to be reminded of some of the good things I have done in the past that have helped other people, and I have been given a glimpse of how things would be without me.  I have seen that despite all of my faults and failures–and they are legion–the blessing of life has not been completely wasted on me.  I’ve been able to do enough with my life that I would be missed if I were gone.

I have not always felt that way.  There have been a few times in my life when depression has taken me down dark paths that could have led to scary results.  I felt more than once that few would mourn my passing, and that some might be better off as a result of it.  The scariest of those demons were slain some time ago, but I still question my relevance.

You showed me something different this year.  I’ve seen, or at least heard of, the scores of people who visited me or my family in the hospital, who stood at the wall with my wife, and who prayed for my survival and welfare.  I’ve had people offer help because, according to them, they felt some sort of obligation to me or my family as a result of mostly forgotten small acts of service that we had done for them.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m not saying we deserved the kind of help that we received.  No one does.  But the things said by those giving us help reminded me that I along the line I had done enough to bind me with people in the way that only service can bind you together.  You have showed me that little things add up, and that we all need each other.  Every little act of service given to me has made a difference and has irrevocably changed how I see the people who offered them.  If their service makes a difference, then so can mine.  I’ve mattered to good people.  I’ve sometimes been a helper.

On top of that, I have seen the genuine and heartfelt relief expressed by friends (old and new) when they find out that I was able to cheat death and find a path to recovery.  I cannot and will not doubt the sincerity of those expressions.  More than ever before, I had an appreciation that if I weren’t here, that loss would be felt by others.  It imposes on me an obligation to validate their expressions of relief by ensuring that my preservation serves a purpose.  I matter, and I need to make sure that I find ways to continue to matter.

Then you gave me the final assurance of my value:  You saved me.  I have no idea why I have been preserved through multiple threats to my survival.  I am clueless as to why so many people, including countless people who are much better than me and make a bigger difference than I ever have, are taken back to you under less severe circumstances.  I cannot pretend to explain why you have performed one miracle after another to keep me here.  I just know that you have.  For whatever reason, I was worth the rescue, several times over.  I matter to you.

Thank you for that repeated whispered message.  And thank you for the message that echoes behind it:

We all matter.

Everyone is worth a rescue.  Everyone is worth the effort of service.  Everyone means something to you, and therefore should mean something to me.  If the likes is worth a miracle, then everyone is.  This journey of life is a struggle, sometimes a mighty one.  Understanding that we matter, that everyone matters, means that it is always worth stopping to offer a kind word, a lifting hand, or a supportive shoulder.  We need to believe and have faith that our little contributions make a difference, that our feeble strength can be magnified through your grace in such a manner that it moves people in lasting ways.   We need to remember that we matter, and we should cultivate sufficient compassion that everyone matters to us.

Thank you, God, for the miracles.  Thank you for the rescue.  Thank you for the reminder.

 

12 Days of Gratitude: My Wife

Over the last several days, I have written about the past nine months of my medical issues as if it were my story.  In truth, I own very little of this story.  For large parts of it–indeed, for the worst parts of it–I was either unconscious or not fully aware of what was going on around me.  I did not have to bear the burdens of making potentially life-altering medical decisions, informing friends and family of my condition, watching the progression of my condition, feeling the hope of recovery squashed by another reversal.  I didn’t have to worry, because I didn’t know I was supposed to.

I wasn’t the one who prayed that if her spouse was going to die, it would happen quickly.

All of those burdens, the heaviest and hardest loads, rested on my remarkable wife.

There is absolutely no way that a blog post adequately can express the depth of my debt to Esther, nor would it be IMG_0823appropriate for me to express here the degree to which I love her.  2015 has been a horror story for her.  Not only did she have to support me during my ordeal, but at the same time her father was in hospice care, working out the final weeks of his time on earth.  The shadow of death has hovered over Esther almost without interruption this year, which is more than anyone should have to experience.  By the end of the year, her own health would suffer, and she would have to have surgery for a painful sinus condition.  Throw on top of that financial worries, concerns about the security of her job, and family issues that tugged at her heart.  I am sure that if she could have selective amnesia, she would throw 2015 on the ash heap of the forgotten.

unnamed[4]While I slept, she fought.  She fought for me to get proper treatment.  She fought to stay by my side, knowing that my fear of hospitals and my claustrophobia would lead to a panic attack when I woke up intubated and tied to my bed.  She fought for a private room, because it would be the only way that she could stay with me.  She fought exhaustion and worry.  She fought fear.  She fought a dozen enemies, any one of which I probably would have run from.  Ultimately, however, the biggest foe was despair, both for her and for me.  She fought that one, too.  And beat the crap out of it.

Memo to the Angel of Death:  Do not mess with the Mexican mama.  She will pull out a chancla and beat you back to Hell where you came from.

The weeks and months following my initial release from the hospital were hard for both of us.  I lost weight every day, just as her dad was doing next door.  Esther was watching both of the men in her life slowly disappear, and there was not much of anything she could do about it.  She tried everything, but I just continued to waste away.  It would be some four months before we sorted out the problem and addressed it, through another round of surgeries and scrapes with death.

During that time, Esther stayed home from work.  She was not going to leave me home alone, even if it meant that “home” might be a refrigerator box under a bridge by the time the year was done.  For weeks on end, we did little more than sit on the couch together, watching virtually every movie and program available on Netflix.  (We were reduced to Lone Ranger reruns before I finally felt well enough to get back to work).  This was hardly the romantic marriage we envisioned 25 years ago.  (We spent our silver anniversary in ICU.  I know how to show a girl a good time).  If I had the energy to kiss her, I was doing well for the day.  Instead, we just….sat there.

And it was enough.

It reminded me of how much I love this woman, and how valuable her presence is to me.  After all of these years, we IMG_0812can sit in a room together without a thing to do, and it is enough.  I suspect this is the kind of love that few people are blessed enough to experience, and for that I am sorry.  Because I was able to lose everything this year and still be wealthy.  My wife loves me.  She endured.  She stayed.

And, as always, she healed me.

I thank God that I have her.

Tomorrow:  My God

12 Days of Gratitude: The Bishop

Mormon bishops are an oddity.  They are often compared to parish priest or a local minister, but the analogy falls apart quickly.  Mormon bishops are not professional clergy.  The do not apply for their position to preside over a congregation, and unless someone is completely out of his mind, they don’t campaign for it.  They balance the demands of their callings with their own jobs or careers and family.  They receive minimal and mostly informal training for their position, which they will only hold for five years or so before moving on to some other responsibility.  It is a position free of pay, and frequently free of thanks.

In exchange for their efforts, they get to listen to and counsel repenting members of the Church, enduring through a litany of sins and predicaments that they most likely would prefer to know nothing of.  They attend leadership meetings, ward councils, committees, and a parade of other meetings that would drive lesser men to drink.  And, when families face catastrophes, they step into the breach and help to put things back together.

The last thing I wanted to do this year was to place another burden on my bishop’s shoulders.  Bishop Jason Parr has been dealing with his own tragedy, having lost a young son in a car accident recently.  He had more than enough on his plate without worrying about the Ghios.  But one night as I lay in the hospital, in walked Bishop Parr, with his ubiquitous smile.

I wish I remembered more of that visit, but I wasn’t operating on the same level of reality as other folks.  But I do remember two aspects of the conversation.  The first dealt with my own despondency, and the natural question of “Why does this stuff keep happening to me?”  He smiled even more broadly as he completely dodged the question.  “I usually refer those kinds of questions to you or your blog.”  Thanks a lot.  But it was his gentle way of reminding me that I already knew the answer (or lack thereof) to that question and needed to point my mental faculties in a different direction.  Jason and I have been friends for a lot of years, and he can get away with that kind of thing.

My second concern was more direct.  “Jason, my family’s going to be in real trouble here.”  His smile dropped for just a moment, then returned.  “No, you’re not.”  He assured me.  He told me that people already were lining up to help us, including an online funding effort.  He made himself very clear:  My family would be taken care of, and there was no expiration date for that help.

It’s humbling to take help from anyone, but particularly from the Church.  I’ve only had to do this once before (after my auto accident), and I did not like it.  So I immediately started talking about how soon I could get back to work.  The bishop would hear none of it.  He told me, in so many words, to shut up and get better.

Somehow the bishop knew better than we did how bad things actually would get.  I had plenty of false starts and false hopes over the months, with various financial mirages appearing, only to dissolve in the face of one more diagnosis or procedure.  I tried to give Bishop Parr a cutoff date for help, but he stopped me.  “I don’t want you doing anything to slow your recover because you are worried about finances.  So what we’re going to do is this:  I’ll tell you when you don’t need help any more.”  Within days of that conversation, more bad new hit on the health front, and I would have been absolutely despondent had it not been for Bishop Parr’s prophetic promise.

And it wasn’t just financial help, although that relieved me from some of the most serious worry.  There were the brief interviews in his office, as he checked on my progress and listened to my frustrations.  He didn’t make me suffer through feel-good platitudes or empty promises.  He was comforting, but realistic.  I think that his own experience with tragedy make him a better comforter.  He knows that there are some things that you just have to wait your way through, and there is no magic salve to make it feel better.

I’ve drawn heavily from Bishop Parr’s example of endurance and his unyielding faith.  I don’t know that I can measure up to it, nor could I ever help him to the extent that he has helped my family.  But I do know that in his dealings with me, he has demonstrated a Christ-like compassion and the mantle of priesthood power and authority.  I trust him because I know he trusts God.  I listen to him because I know he listens to God.  And I am grateful that in this time of hardship for me and mine, the mantle of the bishopric has been his faithful shoulders.

Tomorrow:  My Wife