My Remarkable, Irresistible Pen Pals

Dear Will:

Every Monday my inbox fills with letters from around the world. They come at me from all directions: from Arizona, Utah, Georgia and the Dakotas; from Ecuador, Argentina, and Brazil; from Scotland, Germany, Italy—even Russia. No wonder I love Mondays.

All of these letters are written by talented, charming, twenty-ish “kids” I have known for years. Several of them I have watched grow up since infancy. They are young men and women full of high aspirations and unlimited potential, people who will no doubt make their marks in a variety of professions and in a variety of ways. They will marry well and raise kids that you and I will consider irresistible. Their futures are brighter than most, in part because of the light they radiate.

My pen pals include many of my former students, some close family friends, nephews and nieces, and a few all-of-the-aboves. Each of them is living far from home, for the most part cut off from social media and popular culture, limited to only occasional, distant contact with family and friends. They subsist on hardly anything and don’t get paid a dime for their efforts. Willingly they have offered to go wherever and do what they can to help those around them. For as much as two years they have volunteered to put their personal lives on hold and dedicate their daily 24 to others.

It’s remarkable.

At times my far-flung friends face challenges and discouragement, no doubt with pangs of homesickness thrown in. Their letters describe weird viruses and a curious variety of problems with their toes. They learn to eat things you and I might not recognize as food. They describe bitter cold in some places and incomprehensible heat in others. As I read from week to week, I can see them wearing out their bodies and souls (and soles), lifting up the downtrodden and forgotten, embracing the lonely and unloved, bringing smiles to the sad and hope to the hopeless. In word and deed, they embody Jesus’s useful rule of thumb: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

They all are missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yes. The ones you see around town with their white shirts and bicycle helmets. The ones who a time or two may have arrived unannounced on your doorstep. What you may not know is that they are also the ones who’ll help the elderly couple move their antediluvian armoire, who’ll bake goodies for the shut-in, who’ll lay sod with the over-extended family in their neglected backyard. They’re the ones who make friends on subways and sing songs in public parks. ALWAYS with a smile, I might add, especially when no one else is smiling. They are the ones who also teach anyone who will listen about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Missionaries do all of that and more.

And when another week of selflessness has come to an end, when they have exhausted themselves riding bikes up and down the hills of Orange or slogging through the muddy backroads of Paraguay, they sit down in a public library or a far-off cyber-cafe and tap out sentences like this one: “I love the mission. There’s no place I’d rather be. There’s no better job than teaching the Gospel. I’m enjoying everything here.”

No matter where “here” is. They are indeed remarkable. And irresistible. No wonder people welcome them into their homes. If you haven’t recently, you should, if only to see how they fill a room with light.

PW

This Is Who They Are

Volunteers Park Here

Dear Will:

Let me tell you about the people I go to church with. This story is typical:

Several years ago I was vacationing with Dana on the California coast when I received a desperate email from a friend who lives in Silverado Canyon. Wildfires had been followed by rains which inevitably led to flooding and mudslides. Many homes had filled with muck, and people were desperate. She said: “I know the Mormons sometimes help out in situations like this. Do you think anyone from your church would be willing to help us?”

There I was, hundreds of miles away and in no position to lend a hand. What was I to do? Well, I made just one phone call . . . and dozens showed up to help. Most of those volunteers didn’t know me, and I’m pretty sure that none of them knew her. And yet they turned out in force—with gloves and shovels and the pure love of Christ.

This is who they are. This is what they do.

They are quick to welcome a stranger, eager to expand their circles, kind and loving and generous, willing to set aside their own needs to respond to someone else’s. They show up and stay late and do the dirty work. They take the late-night phone calls. When others are suffering, they mourn with them, comfort them, and take on as much of their burden as their willing shoulders can bare (Mosiah 18:8-9). They run and run and run and run to raise money for their friends and their life-affirming causes. They volunteer at the schools and coach the teams. They love and teach and nurture our children. They bake the brownies—so many brownies! They visit the sick and the elderly week after week after week. I have seen that their loaves and fishes are always available to share. They are among the very best people I know.

This is what happens when anyone tries to become like Jesus—when ordinary people choose to make the teachings of Christ the by-laws by which they govern their daily activities. These are the fruits that grow from the gospel tree.

I think of the time when Bryn was about to move to New Zealand. We spoke to the Broederlows, whom we hardly knew, who in turn called their friends the Brunts, whom we knew not at all, and in about the amount of time that it has taken me to type this sentence the Brunts decided to pick her up at the Wellington airport and put her up in their home. Within days of her arrival, Peter and Leoni Brunt were begging Bryn to stay with them indefinitely—rent-free.

Who does that?

Ordinary followers of the Master do this sort of thing every day. As Christians we are not asked to be extraordinary people. We are simply asked to live each day as if we truly believe and embrace the gospel we preach on Sundays. To be not just hearers of the word, but doers also (James 1:22). To be like Nephi, who when asked to do a hard thing said: “I will go” (1 Nephi 3:7). To be like Isaiah, who echoed the words of the Savior when he said: “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8). To make a difference in whatever small way we can.

Of course they have their issues. But in spite of those issues, they seek day after day to be the answer to someone else’s prayers. They continue to light the world in small and simple ways. Like Peter and John, they may not have much, but they give “such as they have” (Acts 3:6). As I see them share the love of Christ with others, they cause me to feel His love as well. They consistently let their light shine in such a way that my world—our world—is brighter because they are in it.

PW

No Wonder I’m So Cranky

Traffic Jam

Dear Will:

Forgive me if I sound a little cranky. I AM cranky.

I work in Playa Vista, a newish, high-end enclave on the west side of Los Angeles. Look it up. All kinds of ad agencies, tech giants, and other trend-setting companies have set up shop there, leading some to refer to it as Silicon Beach. Sounds pretty cool, right? And it would be . . . if not for the fact that Playa Vista sits 47 horrifying miles from my home in Orange County.

What that means from a practical standpoint is that unless you come and go in the middle of the night, when you live in Orange and work in Playa Vista you can pretty much count on a miserable commute. I wish I were exaggerating when I tell you that the final 15 miles of my drive can take 60 minutes or more. I’m not. Surely, you say to yourself, it would be faster to take another route; but trust me when I say this: I’ve taken them all, and none of them work. Ever. It’s simple math: Too many vehicles + not enough road = 405.

Allow me to illustrate: Put all 53 members of the Los Angeles Rams in a single, standard-issue hot tub. With their pads on. Now swim across. For two hours. That’s what my commute is like.

My original solution to all of this was to purchase a used Honda Civic that runs on compressed natural gas. I knew a CNG Civic would be an inconvenience, but its ultra-low emissions would qualify me to drive in the carpool lane, shaving valuable time and more-valuable aggravation in the process. With white HOV stickers slapped on the Civic’s haunches, I could (sort of) forget about my drive, and just settle into a good podcast. (Or three.)

But on January 1, 2019, the California Legislature canceled the magical decals that gave me and 200,000 other low-emission drivers carpool-lane privileges. And so for two months now I’ve been diverted into the scrum with the rest of you. I have been defrocked, demoted, cast out of the court and tossed into the courtyard. It has been awful—awfuller even—now that 200,000 carpool-lane refugees have made traffic in all of the other lanes worse than ever. One morning it took me two-and-a-half hours to reach the office. That’s 150 butt-numbing, soul-sapping minutes. One way.

So yes, I’m cranky. I now sit to the right of the express lane, watching longingly as car after car cruises past in the left-hand lane, new stickers gleaming. Except for that one car there. The one with all of the people in it. What is that? An actual carpool? Who do those people think they are?

Imagine that. A high-occupancy vehicle in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane. I’m reminded that the point of an HOV lane is to have fewer cars on the road, not to provide first-class passage to anti-social elitists like me. Somehow we have allowed a lane designed to create community to be a reward for those aspiring to increased isolation. How did that happen?

And so I sit here, feeling put upon while knowing that, except for maybe 199,999 other similarly put-upon Californians, no one is going to feel sorry for me. Fair enough. Because even as I make that observation, I must also confess—a bit sheepishly—that I have never seriously considered earning access to the HOV lane by adding a little HO to my V. Here I am, a guy who goes to church on Sundays and talks about gathering together, bearing one another’s burdens, being of one heart and one mind. Community. Family. You and us—not me. And yet I have chosen to spend three or four hours each day in my own little isolation pod, cut off from everyone around me. Flying solo . . . or crawling, I guess.

Hmmm. No wonder I’m so cranky.

PW