What I Wrote Then. How I’m Doing Now.

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Dear Will:

In less than a month my son Seth will finish his service as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s been nearly two years since he began devoting all day, every day to the people of Argentina and Paraguay. An all-consuming focus on things of God is transformative—I can’t express to you how proud I am of his choice to tithe His life in this way.

All this has me reflecting on my own missionary service in Uruguay almost (can it be?) 40 years ago. When my two years came to an end, I set down “my resolutions, goals, and personal standards” in my journal. I thought I’d look back and see how I’m doing. Here’s what I wrote on August 1, 1981:

  1. Time Is Everything: Organize it. Use it all and use it well. Keep sleeping to a minimum. Set and maintain time priorities. “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” How you use your time is the key to success. (I’m about half as productive as my wife, so I’d give myself a 5 or 6 here.)
  2. Set Weekly Goals: And meet them. You must keep progressing. If you don’t lose sight of where you want to go you’ll eventually get there. Each week you should progress spiritually, physically, intellectually, and socially (Luke 2:52). Remember, your goal is perfection. Magnify yourself. (Yeah, I stopped doing this a long time ago. You can probably tell.)
  3. Keep Yourself Spiritually in Tune: Read the scriptures daily. Pray always. Stay active in church. Remember your covenants. Attend the temple regularly. (I think I’m a solid 9 here. Or maybe 8.)
  4. Serve: Love is the key. Touch lives. Make people feel special and know that they are. (I try. Usually.)
  5. Magnify All of Your Callings: Magnify means make it bigger. Always go the extra mile. Do more than is asked or expected. Remember #4. (For the most part, I do my best.)
  6. Do the Missionary Work: Look for opportunities. Make opportunities. Be bold but not overbearing (Alma 38:12). Practice what you’ve been preaching to the members for two years. (Not so good. Maybe a 2 or 3 on this one. Elder Peter Watkins would be very disappointed. So would Seth.)
  7. Don’t Lose Your Spanish: You should not misuse a gift from God. Practice it. Read it. Bless other people by your ability. (Except for reading Spanish, I do look for opportunities to hablar. We’re going to Argentina to pick up Seth in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know how I do. Vamos a ver.)
  8. Do What the Prophet Says: And do it now. God knows what’s best for you. Don’t make exceptions. All of the commandments are for you. (Ugh. I make exceptions for myself all the time. I’d have to give myself a 6 or 7 on this one.)
  9. You Are the Light of the World: You’re different. You should be. Others should recognize it, and recognize it as something positive. Remember who you are and why you are that way. (I have no idea on this one. You tell me.)
  10. Fellowship: If somebody is new, welcome them, befriend them, and make them feel at home. If somebody is missing, notice, and let them know that you’ve noticed. Give people a reason to want to go to church and stay there. (Trying. Always. Even in this very letter.)

Well, that review was painful. And in about a month I’ll be living with a guy filled with the same fire and lofty ideals. I’m really going to have to step up my game. . . . Isn’t it great?

PW

It Takes a Whole Lot of Faith to Be an Atheist

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Dear Will:

Apparently, however-many billions of years ago, some sort of singular event, currently unexplained by our understanding of astrophysics, caused the universe to begin expanding rapidly. The exact cause no one really knows. But that this Big Bang happened is not really in dispute. Emanating from this “singularity,” eventually clumps of matter took their places in the cosmos, including one orb that settled, fortuitously, in rotation around our sun, close enough to keep us warm but not so close (or so far away) to make the place uninhabitable. Not that there was anything there to inhabit it, mind you, but it was a start.

From there the random good fortune continued. Atoms became molecules, hydrogen and oxygen somehow began combining to form H2O, essential for the formation of life. How did it happen? Natural forces combined with a whole lot of luck, apparently.

By chance (millions and millions of years later, perhaps) single-cell organisms appeared(!), and completely on their own, they began combining or splitting, or splitting and combining—in any case, they began spontaneously forming more complex organisms. I’ll skip over the boring parts here, but through more natural forces and random bits of randomness eventually we went from protozoa to pollywogs to people, with millions of variations of plants and creatures also forming, cell by cell, along the way. Each iteration and permutation came about by accident, it seems, with the best mutations sticking around and the not-so-great ones never really getting a foothold. And now, billions of years later, you have, by pure chance really, the redwoods and the bougainvillea, the guppy and the humpback whale, cheetahs and gazelles and the blue-footed booby, not to mention the dodo and the diplodocus, the earthworm and the bark beetle, and whatever is the latest craziness they have going on over there on Galapagos Island. Oh, and the duckbilled platypus. Can’t forget the platypus.

That detour from pollywog to person could not have been very straightforward. Think of all of the random wrong turns and dead-ends we must have headed down before we could ever arrive at, say, Mike Trout or Misty Copeland. For instance, it would have been theoretically possible—perhaps even easier from a purely developmental standpoint—to randomly generate one eye rather than two. No question. But two is better, so fortunately for us it all worked out. Solely dependent on natural forces and infinite randomness, we also ended up with two feet loaded with all kinds of handy metatarsals. We’ve got eight yards of intestines (two kinds!), a pancreas and a spleen, and only one fairly useless gall bladder. And hemoglobin! Somehow the randomizer even came up with hemoglobin, usually in just the right proportion to everything else. Not bad considering that it all had to happen more or less by chance.

But that’s really only half the story. In order for all of that serendipity to work out for you (including the hemoglobin), you’re going to need to end up eventually with two versions of homo sapiens, with mostly the same parts but several totally different ones, also developed by random chance, but also with such marvelous complementarity that combined in just the right way you can churn out others just like them on an almost annual basis. That’s two different but complementary models, simultaneously produced following synchronized, billion-year development. Preposterous? Perhaps. But given enough time and random good fortune it could happen. Because apparently it did.

I must emphasize here that I’m no astrophysicist, geneticist or nuclear biologist, so some might (rightly) quibble with how I laid things out here. I’m quick to admit that I may have been overly reductive, perhaps misrepresenting or oversimplifying the basic theory in some of the particulars. But I believe this is the gist of what we are supposed to believe about how we got here today: Start with an untriggered event in the cosmos, wait around through billions of years and quadrillions of random microbiological mutations and eventually you’ll find yourself reading this letter from me.

Or you can believe in God.

Or, to be more precise, you can believe in God and just about all of that other stuff as well. In the singularity. In the combining of molecules and the natural selection of species. In the self-evident reality of evolutionary principles and the age of the ever-expanding universe. The choice is not between science or God, it’s between a belief in the power and inevitability of chaotic happenstance, on the one hand, or a belief in a Creator helping to steer toward a desired outcome, on the other. You may believe that everything you see (and your ability to see it) is the result of billions and billions of unplanned, spontaneous deviations, or you can believe that God had a hand in it. But be honest: Which of those requires a greater leap of faith?

To see what I mean, you may wish to try this simple experiment. Go down to your nearest maternity ward and find your way to the side of a mother with her newborn. Look at that exhausted, joyful woman, more beautiful in that moment than perhaps she has ever been in her life. Look at how she stares at her little one. Now look at the babe—its tiny knuckled fingers, the fleshy excess on the palm that gives the thumb its perfect movement, the wrinkled ears, the nib of a nose, the round, wondering, miraculous eyes. Look how it suckles, still nurtured and sustained by its life-giving mother. Now listen to the voice inside your own head.

Which phrase comes most readily to mind: “Wow, that was lucky,” or “Oh, my God”?

PW

[NOTE: Several people have objected to my original characterization of the evolution of genders, which, given my lack of credentials, should surprise no one. Subsequently, I have updated this post in an effort to reduce that apparent misrepresentation. To truly understand prevailing evolutionary theory, however, I urge you to turn to a more reputable and better informed source than I.]

 

Photo: Hacat Culture Cells, Light Micrograph by Dr Torsten Wittmann

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