12 Days of Gratitude: The Comforters

I believe (probably to my own condemnation) that the measure of a person’s Christianity is found in how he or she responds to those in trouble.  I think that the Lord’s injunction to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those in need of comfort is nothing short of the path of discipleship.  It is not without significance that the one title shared by all three members of the Godhead (aside from “God”) is “Comforter.”  The Holy Ghost is known as the Comforter; Christ referred to himself as “another Comforter;” and the apostle Paul designated our Father in Heaven as the “God of all comfort.”  Godliness, in its simplest form, is lifting up those who have fallen.

By that measure, I have spent most of this year surrounded by some of the most godly people I have ever known.

I was in little need of comfort during the initial days after I collapsed in Dallas.  During my coma, I was entirely unaware of what was happening around me.  When I finally woke up, I was so impressively stoned that I was even less aware.  But for my wife, the situation was much different.  Esther and I do everything together, and we have throughout our 25 years of marriage.  When we are apart, we both feel utterly alone.  If you are blessed enough to have found someone that you can love as much as my wife and I love each other, you pay a price of pain in your companion’s absence.  I say without hesitation that I do not know how to be happy without her, and she has consistently shown that the same is true for her when I am away.  And this time, it looked like I was going to be alone for good.

And so came the comforters.  Esther would not leave my side during my hospital stay.  During my nearly three week stay in the hospital, she went as far from me as the cafeteria.  Once.  Outside of that, she was rooted at my side, knowing that if I woke up and did not see her by me, it would be more than I could bear.  When she was not allowed in my room, she took up residency in the waiting room, refusing to leave even when they called the cops on her.  (If you have a Mexican wife, you understand.  The Man may have a taser and a Glock, but they don’t match the firepower of the chancla).  But even as she refused to leave me alone, our family and friends refused to leave her alone with her fears.

I won’t try to name names of all those who were there to help her maintain her sanity.  I did not see it myself, so I know that someone would be missed, and almost all of those of whom I am aware demanded that we not disclose their generosity to others.  But our friends decided early on that there would be a regular priesthood presence with her, and they kept that promise.  Even people that we did not know well brought food, blankets, even a cot for my sweetheart to sleep on.  Near strangers sat with her for hours on end, not doing anything more dramatic than blessing her with their presence.  They quietly lifted part of her burden and offered hope that things would get better.  They blessed her and prayed with her.  They  laughed and cried with her.   They brought money to help her tend to her needs at the hospital (the final dollar of which was spent on our last day there).  They sustained her during the most difficult days of her life, and I am so thankful that they were there.  Each of them was a light shining in darkness.  And the light was good.

And they just kept coming.  Once I was awake(ish), wonderful friends brought us Easter dinner, which was eaten around my hospital bed (not by me, as I was restricted to salt-, fat- and sugar-free hospital food, the culinary equivalent of water boarding).  Another friend brought clippers to give me a much-needed buzz cut, because perpetual bedhead depressed me.  A dear friend tried to smuggle in burritos, an abortive attempt to rescue me.  My wall in ICU was covered with loving messages from my seminary students.  A wonderful young man sang me my favorite hymn while I was comatose, to which my body could not respond, but I am sure my soul gladly did.  After my discharge, our angel of a chiropractor came on a weekend to our home to relieve Esther’s tension with a much-needed adjustment.  And when we were facing financial ruin, people rallied behind us, including one celestial family that replaced one of Esther’s paychecks.  Another dear sister yelled at us weekly for us not giving her our complete grocery list.

It is hard for me to write about this.  My memory of those weeks and months is wobbly, but the countless comforting hands that lifted our family (and continue to lift us) still bring tears to my eyes.  It is a humbling thing to be completely dependent on the kindness of others.  But such dependence has been our lot for longer than I would ever have thought.

In our baptismal and Sacrament covenants in the Church, we agree to take upon us the name of Christ.  To me, that means much more than merely being called “Christians.”  It means that we take His image in our countenances.  When others see us, they see Him, because we are where He would be, acting as He would act, speaking as He would speak, and comforting as He would comfort.  I am blessed to have so many friends who demonstrate just such a discipleship.  You do not have to look very hard to see Christ in them.

Tomorrow:  Daughters, Born and Borrowed

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I Believe in Christ…So Come What May

Every now and again, a line from a hymn will strike me even though I have heard it a thousand times before.  This is a fairly rare occurrence, probably because we usually sing our music so slowly that by the time you get to the end of a phrase, the beginning of that phrase is difficult to remember.  It’s hard to get much out of music if you are playing your 45s at 33 speed (for those of you too young to understand that analogy, there used to be these things called “records”….)

But today was one of those days.  I wasn’t singing along this morning, because my iPad was locked up on an update, and I have refused Hymnalto use a hymnal since my wife found a booger on one back in 2010.  So I was listening for a change, while the congregation was singing “I Believe in Christ.”  For a bit, I was distracted, because the meeting already was running 15 minutes over, and for some reason we were going to sing all four verses.  (Actually, that song has eight verses, carefully disguised as four, because ain’t nobody got time for an eight-verse hymn.  We don’t, for example, sing all of the verses of “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” unless a speaker didn’t show up or the teachers forgot to bring the sacrament bread).

Anywhoo, the chances of me skipping Sunday School were looking pretty good regardless, so I wasn’t feeling too anxious about the long meeting.  I just sat back and listened to the congregation sing.  And in the middle of the hymn, one line actually stood up and demanded my attention:  “I believe in Christ/So come what may.”

I’m not exactly sure why this line lodged itself in my head.  I think it has something to do with the fact that, in order to write for this and my other blog, I read a fair number of news reports about Mormonism, many of which are as unfair as they are critical.  On top of that, my blog posts themselves sometimes expose me to more direct criticism.  Just this morning an angry former member of the Church who had “finally found Christ” (his words) demonstrated his superior spirituality by repeatedly calling me a “liar” and telling me to stop writing “crap” to defend Mormons.  For the record, I don’t tell any lies in my posts, but that second criticism is sufficiently subjective that I probably can’t deny it.  In any event, the fact is that I get a pretty steady diet of criticism of my faith.

ChristusAs I have said before, one’s faith in Christ is, ultimately, a choice.  The case for or against the divinity of Christ will not be closed in this life, and therefore at some point we choose either to believe that He (upper case “H”) was the Son of God or he (lower case “h”) was delusional or a fraud.  Whichever choice we make comes with consequences, and we can hardly claim to have made any choice at all if we have to reevaluate our position every time we face a new consequence.

Having chosen to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the literal Son of God, that He atoned for the sins of the world, and was resurrected from the dead is not without consequences.  The same is true with the decision to believe that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ and was directed through revelation to translate the Book of Mormon and restore the same church that Christ established when He was on the earth.   What are those consequences?  What was the “come what may” to which Elder McConkie referred in the hymn he wrote?  I can think of a few:

There is the uncertainty in times of trouble, when you feel perhaps no one, not even Christ, hears your anguished cries.

There is the frustration of being mocked by arrogant critics who insist that no rational person would believe as you do.

There are the nagging doubts caused by questions that you cannot answer and might not be able to answer during this life.

There is the difficulty of abandoning the less savory aspects of your character in order to harmonize more closely to the example of your Master.

There are the feelings of self denial as you sacrifice things you want now in the hopes of receiving something better much farther down the road.

There is the loss of family or friends who cannot abide your faith, or with whom you cannot safely abide while sustaining and nurturing your commitment to Christ.

Choosing to embrace and exercise faith is not an inconsequential decision.  If one’s faith is sincere, it means changing what you think, how you feel, and the way that you see the world.   It means adopting not just a world view, but a universal of view of the origins and meaning of life and the nature and purpose of the afterlife.  It can, and should, change everything.

While it is important to continue to study, to search, and to explore in order to enrich, nurture and deepen your faith, that does not mean that every time we encounter some new theory, new “fact,” or new idea, we reexamine our decision to believe.  To do so would mean that our testimonies would be forever tentative.  They would never take us anywhere, and instead we would just continue circling the board, hoping that if we land on Boardwalk, the atheists haven’t built a hotel there that is going to clean out our spiritual banks.

For those of you too young to understand that analogy, there used to be this game…

 

 

 

Is God for Real?

This short message was sent to me recently by a friend who is going though a temporary crisis of faith:  “God is real…right?”  While I’ve written before about why I believe in God, this question actually took me in a different direction:  God is for real…Right?

For quite some time now, I have scratched my head a bit trying to reconcile the Lord’s comforting assurance of “My burden is light,” with what appears to be a host of real and sometimes heavy burdens of discipleship.  More than once I have tried to implement the “checklist” approach to salvation.  I’ve written down all of the stuff I’m supposed to be doing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis and then check them off as I go.  I can proudly present my completed list to Peter at the pearly gates (as a kid I thought they were the “Golden Gates” and I could never figure out what St. Peter was doing in San Francisco) and exchange it for my celestial hall pass.

Trouble is, the checklist is a bit long, even if you write small.  Just taking some of the more common things that we are encouraged to do in the church, we would have something like this as the starter list:

Pray personally three times a day; prayer twice a day with your family; pray twice a day with your spouse; read the scriptures for 30 minutes personally; read the scriptures with your family; read the scriptures with your spouse (honey, you’re going to have to just count once as “family,” because I’ve got to get to work); write in your journal daily; Church services Sunday and once during the week for youth night; get my kids (and myself, thanks to my newest calling) to seminary every morning; work on my genealogy; do my home teaching; watch the kids so that my wife can do her visiting teaching; visit my home teaching families a few extra times because the monthly visit is the bare minimum for slackers; go to the temple monthly; go again, because once is for slackers; date night with my wife every week; Family Home Evening once a week; talk to a nonmember about the gospel; rotate my food storage; prepare a family budget; and visit the sick and afflicted (oh, and the widows and orphans.  Can’t forget the orphans).

On top of that, I’m supposed to be active in my community, keep physically fit because my body is a temple, perform whatever calling I have with energy and devotion (devotion I’ll give you; energy is in short supply around here), develop my talents, and spend time with each of my kids individually.

Would you like fries with that?

Is God for real?  I mean, He’s got eternity to do all of this stuff, and the added advantage of being all-powerful.  As for me, I’ve got bills to pay, and I need to remember to pick up my blood pressure medication because all of this “abundant living” is about to put me in my grave.  I’m starting to see the upside in atheism.  After all, that TV isn’t going to watch itself.

Fortunately, I think God is for real, and I don’t believe that he expects or wants us to live a life of checklist discipleship.  After all, we are counseled in the Book of Mormon that it is not requisite that we run faster than we have strength.  The items on the checklist aren’t intended to be a “do this or bring your summer clothes to the afterlife” proposition.  Rather, they are tools to help us along the way to becoming more Christlike, and we don’t have to use all of them all of the time.  If we propose to drive a nail, we don’t unload the tool box and have at it with everything in sight (“Gimme that torque wrench and a power drill, Johnny!”).  Instead, we pick up tools necessary to do the job, and keep the rest in the toolbox for later.

All of us go through seasons in life.  Prayer will be more meaningful to us at some times than others.  The scriptures will play more important roles for us on some days than others.  We will have times when temple attendance is spotty because of family obligations, finances or illness.  We might never get in a great habit of journaling, or we might be our family’s historian.  My brother is a legendary genealogist; I’ve never figured it out.

I think the trick is to prayerfully consider which tools we need for the job at hand.  We cannot do everything, but we can do something, and the Lord will help us to know what that something is.  Sometimes, that “something” may be nothing, because it is okay to take a breather.  Whatever it is, I believe that the best policy is for us to worry less about the things undone, and more about discovering the divine in the thing we are doing right now.

That’s what the Savior did.  He gave undivided attention to what needed to be done right now, right in front of Him.  I think that a big part of His perfection was due to His ability to do exactly that.  Christ wasn’t just real; he was for real.  And that’s the kind of God I can understand.