Bailing Water Together

Dear Will:

The other day I had lunch with a friend of mine. She is a wonderful woman who once went to church on a regular basis but somewhere along the way got out of the habit. Not at all unusual, in other words. When I invited her to come to our meetings one of these Sundays, she told me that she couldn’t. Wouldn’t feel right, she said. I’d feel like a hypocrite, she said.

That feeling—that somehow she would be out of place—is, I’m sure a common one. We Mormons, for good and bad, have very public standards to which we claim to adhere. Of course, we all—and I mean all—have a tendency to wander from those standards in not-so-public ways. It’s called being human. And it’s that very recognition of our humanity that gave substance and purpose to the ministry of Jesus Christ. His Atonement provided the means for us humans to rise above our shortcomings. It’s why he died.

And it’s also why we go to church. We need to be reminded of Him and strengthened by Him, and as a general rule it’s best to do that with others who need Him as much as we do.

Still there is a certain self-consciousness that comes when we think that those around us are somehow “aware” of our foibles and bad habits. I am reminded of a piece written by Robert Kirby, a Mormon humorist and newspaper columnist. He was talking about smoking, but he could have been talking about any of the other things that might make us feel somehow out of place:

It’s too bad that other “sins” don’t smell as strongly as tobacco. Christians probably wouldn’t be so smug if they did. Smoking might even become the relatively minor problem that it is if intolerance and arrogance simply smelled like a dead cat.

How about being selfish? What if being stingy and mean smelled like, oh, say, the dump? Or, better yet, raw sewage? How’d you like to sit next to someone in Church with a chain-stingy habit?

What if impure thoughts smelled like you had a three-week-old carp hanging around your neck? You could, I suppose, tell your wife that the smell came from being with your friends instead of your own impure thoughts. And if gullibility smelled like garlic or a wet dog, you’d know immediately if she believed you.

Even sniffing these smells could get you in trouble. It could lead to passing judgment on others. Things could get really confusing if being judgmental smelled like spoiled milk. The smokers would be laughing at us.

The best we can hope for is that God has a better nose than we do.

Lest we forget, Jesus himself said that we should only criticize others when we ourselves are beyond reproach. Otherwise, we should keep in mind that we’re all pretty much in the same boat, awkwardly pulling at the oars and pausing from time to time to bail water. I guess in that sense, Sundays are a good time to help one another bail.


“Why Should I Ask God?”

Dear Will:

My wife Dana and I have been grappling with a difficult decision in recent weeks, one which for years to come will have a rather powerful impact on Luke (our eldest)—and on our whole family for that matter. Because Dana and I are both smart enough to know how little we really know, it seemed like a good idea to us to make the decision a subject of fasting and prayer to see if maybe we could get God’s help in sorting it all out. He knows what’s best for us, we figure, and so why not try to get Him to tell us?

Thus resolved, we invited Luke to join us in our quest for spiritual insight, assuming that he would do so without much prodding. But this was another of those times in which a teenager zigged just when Mom and Dad figured he would zag. “I already know what I think I should do, so why should I ask God?” he explained. “Even if he gives me a different answer, I’m going to do what I want anyway.”

His honesty was refreshing even if his attitude was not. Try as we might, we were unable to persuade him that it would be helpful to know ahead of time if he were about to embark on the wrong course of action. As all of this was taking place, I was reminded of a time when I was—get this—about his age, a time when I did not want to ask God for guidance for fear that, once informed, I would be held accountable for whatever He told me. I was familiar enough with the implications of religious living, and I was not yet prepared to commit. So while I wish Luke had a little less hubris, I have a hunch I know where he got it. (Don’t you just hate that?)

I don’t believe that Luke is particularly unique in this regard. The world is full of people who live strictly by their own counsel—we all do from time to time, I suppose. Likewise, our history books are rife with those who have risen and fallen based almost solely on their own cunning. But what I hope for Luke—and anyone else similarly inclined—is that the day will come when he feels the need for help from One wiser and more powerful than he, and that when that moment arrives he will know where to turn and do so with appropriate humility.

Fortunately, as our family struggles onward, help is on its way. This weekend the Church will be holding its semi-annual General Conference, and we’ll have the chance to hear from our prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley.  It’s the next best thing to hearing from God Himself, but I’m hoping that my son might pay attention since it will be coming to him through the TV screen. In my view, it’s a chance for him to get an answer to questions he has not yet been willing to ask.

Who knows if it will really work that way for him. I can tell you this, though. It often works that way for me, which is why General Conference weekend is always one of my favorites. If nothing else, maybe it will provide me some insight on how to be a better father. God knows I need that. Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of questions which I have not yet asked for which God, through his servants, has already prepared an answer. Now the only remaining question: When He tells me—as surely He will—what am I going to do about it?


Two Swarthy Things

Dear Will:

Tomorrow is my son Seth’s 5th birthday. He has declared that to celebrate this big event we must go to Ruby’s for dinner. Ruby’s is his favorite restaurant for two appropriately 5-year-old reasons: 1) they serve macaroni & cheese; and 2) every kid’s meal comes with a toy. Inasmuch as his other favorite place is McDonald’s, I think Ruby’s is a fine choice.

The real birthday celebration took place last Saturday when Seth and 10 of his pals gathered for the Pirate Party of the Century. As usual, my wife Dana was in charge, which guaranteed two things: 1) the affair would be over-planned, the loot bags overflowing; and 2) the kids would have a deliriously good time. Because of the theme, I had to stop shaving for a week (don’t you love those rare occasions when sloth becomes virtuous?) and sport a do-rag for 3 hours on a Saturday afternoon. We planned to hold the big bash at the Atlantis Play Center in Garden Grove, a public park which includes, among other things, a slide that looks like a dragon and a pretend sailing ship—the perfect place to fire the imaginations of our little buccaneers.

Provided, that is, that it didn’t rain.

Well, as luck would have it, it did rain, which meant two things: 1) anyone going down the dragon slide was going to end up with a wet bum (yes, there were some tears shed over that little blast of reality); and 2) we had the place literally to ourselves. We were able to stay dry for the most part thanks to the protection of a pavilion which was abandoned to our benefit by another group less hearty than ours. Fortunately, the rain was never really heavy, so when we did venture out into the park (for the obligatory treasure hunt, for example) the kids held up pretty well. Considering the disaster that might have been ours had it really poured, we were pretty lucky—smug even that what we ended up with acres of essentially private park.

What fun it was to see the delight in those children. Dana outfitted each one with a pirate hat, a hook (of course), an eye patch, a cutlass, a bandana with the jolly roger, and just for good measure, a stuffed parrot. They even got fake mustaches. Very scary indeed. Had you seen our swarthy crew (at least, I think that they were swarthy—what’s that mean, anyway?) you would have turned over your gold doubloons on the spot, especially had they let loose with a terrifying “Aaaaar!” (which they did, I should mention, with great frequency). Once they were fully decked out, two things were certain: 1) no buried treasure in the park was safe; and 2) most of those fake mustaches would be in the trash before the day was over.

Needless to say, we’re glad it’s over, and pleased to see that Seth was so pleased. I share this with you for two reasons: 1) I thought it was fun to tell about; and 2) because I knew you’d be disappointed if I didn’t end this letter with two reasons.

How are things with you? Drop me a note some time. I’d love to hear from you.