This Stuff Sticks with You

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Dear Will:

About a week ago we returned from a two-week trip to South America. My wife, Dana, and I spent several days exploring Buenos Aires before flying to Posadas, in northern Argentina, where our son Seth was concluding his two-year missionary assignment for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was, as you might imagine, an emotional reunion.

Over the next 10 days, we covered a lot of ground. We spent a couple of days at Iguazú Falls which . . . I can’t even . . . it’s just . . . I don’t know . . . there aren’t words. Google it and assume that you still have no idea how magnificent and stupefyingly spectacular it all is. My jaw dropped so hard and so often that I was afraid it would become unhinged and I would be forced to spend the rest of the trip storing my chin in my shirt pocket. It was like that.

From there we went to Peru for a pilgrimage to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. So cool. The two-week adventure concluded in Lima with dinner at Central, one of the top ten restaurants on the planet (for good reason). I don’t expect to EVER have another meal like it, in part because I’ll still be paying this one off well into my 90s. But inasmuch as travel is about making forever-memories, Central was all that and then some.

So yeah, it was all pretty great. But for all of the exotic wonder of our various stops along the way, it was all shrug-worthy anti-climax compared to the first evening we spent together with Seth. Once we had loaded his few remaining possessions into the back of our rented Fiat (he had already given the good stuff away), he took us to a tiny neighborhood they call Kilómetro 18, about a 25-minute bus-ride outside of Eldorado where Seth concluded his missionary service.

The roads of 18 are all red clay, the homes simple and functional but not much more. Seth had already told us about how he loved the place, and it was easy to understand why. Everywhere we walked we heard people calling for “Elder Wockeen”; they chased him down in the streets, implored him to visit their homes. THEY LOVED HIM. And it was obvious that he loved them back. When we gathered that evening in the home of the Familia Baez for a simple asado, there must have been 20 or so members of their little community of faith there. Given their limited circumstances, the spread was impressively bounteous (I recommend the fried mandioca), a generous gift which humbled us to be sure.

That evening will stay with me a long time. In fact, I would trade the night at Central, with all of its culinary flair, for another seat at the table of the Familia Baez—no question. The experience at Central I paid for, but as I celebrated that asado with Juan Carlos and Natalia, with Rafa and Daiana and Charly and the others, I felt awash in the pure love of Christ. That sort of feast cannot be bought.

Asado 18

Seth’s shoes (or what’s left of them, anyway) are still stained red by the clay on the streets of 18, and I think that’s fitting. When Jesus sent His disciples out to share The Word with the world, He told them that if, for some reason, a town rejected them, they should shake off the dust from their feet as a testimony against those people (Matthew 10:14). What I saw in Seth, in contrast, was the opposite effect: that when kind and loving people embrace a servant of God and his message, you CAN’T shake them off. What happens there sticks to you, perhaps forever, the discoloration on your worn-out shoes a lovely reminder of where you’ve been, who you’ve met, and how it all changed you. Those shoes are a token of selfless service, a priceless treasure made holy by days spent walking on sacred ground.

PW

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