Thanks for Asking

jesus-with-a-child-medium

Dear Will:

It’s true. I’m a Christian. Have been all my life. I think you probably knew that already.

Yeah, but what kind of a Christian are you?

Well, I suppose that by some external measures, someone else might consider me relatively devout. I’m a scripture-reading, services-attending, Sabbath-observing, tithe-paying, prayer-offering Jesus-follower. But we both know that there are plenty of people who do those same sorts of things and yet don’t seem especially Christian, just as there are plenty who do none of those things and seem a lot more Christian than so-called true believers. So I suppose those external measures really don’t tell you much, do they?

Nope. Seriously, what kind of a Christian are you?

Let me try this again. From the time I was a small child, Jesus and His teachings were a central part of my life. Thanks to a devoted mother, I suppose I was swept along by the current of faith that swirled around me. So when I was about eight years old it seemed only natural to own being Christian in some sort of formal way. Although I’m sure I didn’t fully understand it at the time, when I was baptized I was making a public declaration of my Christianity, taking His name upon me in a ceremonial way while committing to follow His teachings and keep Him top-of-mind in everything I do. Inherent in that vow of faith was a pledge to help others, to lift them when they fall, to comfort them when they’re hurting, to mourn with them at times of genuine sorrow. To love others in the fullest sense possible.

More importantly, in choosing that path I accepted a gift that Jesus offers to everyone. In pledging to follow Him, I acknowledged Him as my Savior—one who had willingly taken upon Himself responsibility for my sins and weaknesses. It wasn’t an offloading of my accumulating burden so much as it was a releasing of it, an acquiescence to Him and His desire to take it from me. It wasn’t granted based on personal merit—I  could never earn charity of such magnitude—but rather given freely as an incomprehensible act of love. That free gift—that grace—He offers still, day after day, and as I strive to honor my baptismal promises I accept it from Him again and again and again.

(Sigh.) You’re still not answering the question.

(Sigh.) Do you mean what brand of Christian am I? What denomination do I belong to? Well, for all my life I’ve been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the popular vernacular you’d probably call me a Mormon. Just like the name Christian, Mormon was originally coined as a pejorative, but I don’t really mind it if categorizing me is for some reason helpful to you. Still I fear that in using that label you may mistakenly believe that I worship the prophet Mormon, which would be kind of like accusing a Lutheran of worshiping Martin Luther. If you ask what I prefer, however, I’ll ask you to call me a Christian. As I told you, that’s the name I claimed as my own and have retained since I was a boy.

Fair enough. Now I understand.

Actually, if that’s what you were asking, then I’m afraid that you don’t understand at all. So let me try this one last time: On Sundays, the children sometimes sing a song by Janice Kapp Perry that answers your question better than anything else I can think of. This is the kind of Christian I am:

I’m trying to be like Jesus; I’m following in his ways.
I’m trying to love as he did, in all that I do and say.
At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice,
But I try to listen as the still small voice whispers,
“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

That’s me. Trying, getting it wrong as often as not, and trying again. And trusting in Him that somehow, through His grace, it will all work out. I’m that kind of Christian.

Thanks for asking.

PW

Next Time I’ll Do Better. Honest.

post office

Dear Will:

I think I just committed a federal crime. Pretty sure, anyway. Maybe. But if I admit it to you here, perhaps they’ll go easy on me at trial. (All the same, let’s keep this between us. Thanks, buddy.)

Here’s how it all went down: For Christmas I assembled a present for my daughter Bryn that included all of the items listed in this article from Outside magazine: 11 Things We Bring Backpacking that Cost Less Than $10. The list includes things like cotton balls soaked in Vaseline (DIY fire-starters), trash compactor bags (for water-proofing), and hot sauce packets filched from Taco Bell (for seasoning backcountry dinners). I packed all 11 items into a repurposed REI box and stuck it under the tree (except that I did upgrade her to Del Taco hot sauce because Taco Bell is gross and I love her). The only problem was that she arrived at our home with just a small carry-on and didn’t have room to schlep her trove of new gear on the airplane back to Utah.

Thus a few days after Christmas I was running around—you know, Getting Things Done—feeling all virtuous about my efficiency and productivity when I detoured over the post office to mail Bryn her loot. The clerk droned through the standard litany of questions: “Insurance?” “No thanks.” “Express Mail?” “Nope.” “Any liquids or flammables?” “Um. . . .” Of course I knew that Dr. Bronner’s Organic Liquid Soap would, technically speaking, probably qualify as a liquid. Plus I was pretty sure that the Bic lighter wrapped in Gorilla Tape was almost certainly flammable. But somehow in my zeal to Get Things Done I had not anticipated this inevitable question, and I panicked. “No,” I told him, and just like that my box was skim­ming down the chute, heading to the Beehive State, and I had taken the first step in my journey to, um, San Quentin.

In that very instant I could not believe what I had done. I wasn’t even sure why I had done it. As I drove away, I tried to rationalize my fib by noting that just about everything in that box had been shipped to my home, so it would be fiiiiiiine. Plus, clearly it’s not illegal to mail someone a 4.5 ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s because Amazon had mailed one to me. Right? I mean, right?

But the more I tried to rationalize, the dumber I felt. In a flash I had inadvertently revealed to myself my true character, and it was not a pleasant discovery. I like to think of myself as an honest, upright guy. Mendacity certainly does not align with my Christian values. But when faced with—what? inconvenience? an upcharge maybe? a little awkward embarrassment while dealing with a federal employee?—I opted for the easy lie instead. Even as I write this, knowing that the package arrived without dripping all over the conveyor belt or bursting spontaneously into flames, I am genuinely ashamed.

Of course, lying is all the rage these days. Everybody’s doing it. Maybe I’ve simply become . . . I don’t know . . . part of the Zeitgeist. Maybe. But when I witness the accumulating compost at the feet of our most public officials as they spew an endless stream of falsehoods and disinformation, the stench overwhelms me. Sure, compared to the sort of flimflam that gets tweeted and repeated these days, my postal prevarication really is nothing. But I can’t help but feel as though, in an unthinking moment, I stepped into something putrid and I can’t get it off of my shoe. Whatever that muck is, I want no part of it.

So to the United States Postal Service I say: I’m sorry. And to you and your friends and anyone else who believes that we would all be better off making a renewed commitment to integrity, I hereby make that same commitment. I really do believe in the virtue of veracity, in spite of what I might otherwise show in my weaker moments.

Next time I’m out Getting Things Done, I’ll do better. Honest.

PW

The Grace of Rain

Praying for Rain

Dear Will:

“I woke this morning to the sound of rain.”

That’s how this letter was supposed to begin. The forecast was unambiguous. But when I opened my eyes and listened, I heard no rain. As usual. It seems there is NEVER any rain around here. Just ten days ago we hit 95 degrees, which is what passes for autumn here in Southern California. Our hills go from brown to browner, awaiting the seemingly inevitable wildfires that will finally turn them black. So when the forecast mentions even the possibility of rain, we do our best to hide our skepticism, watching the horizon, hoping, praying for just a little moisture, just this once.

As day began to dawn, I lay in bed, pondering our plight. We generally consider ourselves lucky to live in this desert paradise, where sunshine is the norm. Last Saturday I was hiking in the local hills and it was glorious: just-the-right-kind-of-warm, clear (!) blue skies, a gentle breeze. Elsewhere in the country they talk about bomb cyclones and the polar vortex, so we get no sympathy when we worry about another day of too much sun. Last night it dipped into the 40s here, which (I know) sounds pretty dreamy if you live in, say, Billings, Montana, where it’s not expected to get above 27 today. But it says here that the average November temperature in my town is 74 degrees. So yeah, we’ve got it pretty rough.

People are not likely to be any more sympathetic in Seattle, where they get fewer sunny days than wet days in a typical year. That’s 155 days of annual precipitation for them and around 34 for us, but I’m pretty sure you have to count foggy mornings in June to get to our total to 34. Earlier this year (March 5, to be exact), California was declared drought-free for the first time since December, 2011. That’s 376 weeks of drought—a stretch of truly biblical proportions. So perhaps you’ll understand why we constantly yearn for moisture without actually expecting it to come.

I acknowledge that in these matters we are the product of our own choices: the decision to live in a naturally arid environment, the preference for modern conveniences that contribute to a warming climate, the refusal to make meaningful compromises that might mitigate the consequences of our self-indulgence. It makes me wonder: How can I expect God to step in if I am not myself prepared to step up? Then again, how often do we truly deserve the blessings that He grants us anyway? Hasn’t he told us that hope is one of the three great virtues? Hasn’t he always invited us to trust in Him and in “good things to come”? Isn’t the whole idea of grace that He blesses us in spite of our manifest unworthiness?

And so, with “hope smiling brightly before us,” we pray for things beyond our merit, relying on a loving Father to hear our cries and reward our hope in spite of it all. To help us find a job when we screwed up the last one. To heal us of self-inflicted afflictions. To mend that which we have broken. To send the rain we need but perhaps do not deserve.

As I think about it, I woke this morning only to the promise of rain. And that promise was just enough to light within me a glimmer of hope that it might be so. I finish this short note to you listening to the fulfillment of that promise: pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat. The rain we long for, the rain we need. One more thing to give thanks for today when we say grace.

PW