Getting It Right, Thirty Years Hence

Dear Will:

I’m sitting on Northwest Airlines flight 150 from Minneapolis to Orange County. I flew in yesterday for some meetings and I’m racing home wishing I weren’t wearing a starched shirt and wool slacks. I’ve always been more of a blue jeans kind of guy—especially when I travel.

This was one of those quick and dirty business trips which tend to give business travel the bad reputation it deserves. Too much time in airports. Too much time in a hotel room. Way too much time in meetings. And just about no time out and about to make you feel like you’ve actually been somewhere. Even so, this was one of the best trips I’ve taken in a long, long time.

Here’s why: This morning I hooked up with Mark H., who in high school was one of my very best friends. By our calculation, we haven’t seen each other in 24 years. Now that can be kind of a dicey proposition, seeing someone you once knew but no longer really know. The question is always whether there will be anything of substance on which to base a conversation. Will the two of you spend a few happy minutes reminiscing about high school hijinks and then lapse into awkwardness? (“It’s sooo good to see you.” (awkward pause) “ You look great!” (awkward pause) “It’s sooo good to see you.”)  Or will you be able to bridge the years and reconnect on some level much more meaningful—like real friends do.

Well, Mark and I really connected. It was two hours discussing the things that matter most, sharing the worries of fatherhood, the challenges of career deviations, even the evolution of our faith.  (That’s not a minor point, by the way. You see, Mark is a Lutheran pastor.) It gave me much to ponder, much to discuss with my wife when I get home, and great motivation to return to Minneapolis at the next hint of a meeting. It was more than I could have hoped for in a long-delayed reunion with a friend.

One of the things we recalled with a smile was an awkward evening in our youth when we had a testy disagreement about religion. Since Mark is the son of a preacher, it was inevitable even in high school that the two of us would talk about our beliefs. In all other circumstances we were appropriately respectful. But on this particular evening I grossly misrepresented my church’s teachings (because I did not yet understand them), and in response he said some outrageous things about the eternal consequences of my misguided faith. I have thought about that night many times since because I was such a poor spokesman of our church. When I mentioned it to him today, however, he apologized not only for the things he had said, but also for misrepresenting his own faith. We got a good laugh out of our limited understanding as teenagers—especially when we discovered today—some 30 years hence—that our beliefs concerning that particular point of doctrine are essentially the same.

What I believe, and he believes, can best be expressed by this phrase from the Book of Mormon: It is by grace we are saved, after all that we can do (see 2 Nephi 25:23). The idea is that we express faith through action, even while knowing that no amount of action will ever allow us to “earn” the love Christ freely gave us through his Atonement. It is the contradiction of Christianity: That we must give our very best even while knowing that our best is woefully insufficient—and that somehow his love will overcome that insufficiency. What a thrill it was to talk about such important things with a friend whom I had not seen in such a long time.

It was good to see him, and he did look great, by the way. But that subject never came up.

PW

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.

PW

Sufficient Even for Monster Dad

Dear Will:

It is another typical night in the Watkins house. I have stuff I need to do, and my youngest kids are carrying on in their bedroom, refusing to go to sleep. As I get increasingly annoyed, I also have the increasing inclination to holler at them.

Unfortunately, I’m the sort who all too easily follows such inclinations.  As a result, when the house finally goes quiet I feel like the worst father in the world, and my little ones drift off to sleep with Monster Dad as the final image of their day. It happens pretty often around here. And it always makes me feel awful. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I promise myself (and my kids) “no more yelling.”  Within a few days I’m back at it, unable to overcome my weaknesses in spite of the best intentions.

Such moments of fallibility often make me think of Simon Peter, a man who all too often failed to make good on his good intentions.  One story about him has seemed particularly relevant to me of late, which of course means that I’m going to foist it upon you as well.

On one occasion, Peter and his fishing partners had worked through the night without catching so much as a minnow. As they cleaned their nets, no doubt frustrated with their failure, Jesus approached. “Launch out into the deep,” Jesus suggested, “and let down your nets for a draught.”

The results were staggering. Literally. The scripture tells us that when they let down their net “they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them.  And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink” (Luke 5:6-7).

Simon Peter’s reaction to this miraculous haul was immediate. We’re told “he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Of course, rather than departing, Jesus did just the opposite: he invited Peter to leave his boat and his nets at the lakeside and to become instead a fisher of men.

There is an essential lesson here for all of us. Consider what took place: Because he viewed himself as a “sinful man,” Peter tried foolishly to keep Jesus out of his life. Even in the face of an overwhelming miracle, Peter’s own sense of guilt and unworthiness caused him, as if by instinct, to ask Jesus to depart from him.

Such is the nature of sin, isn’t it? It fills us with self-doubt, making us feel unworthy even of that which requires no worthiness. The trouble is, we know ourselves too well, don’t we? Deep down in our hearts we know that God knows, that He’s onto us.

At the same time, the great promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that through Him even I can overcome my shortcomings. I must put my faith in Him and in His Atonement, believing as I do so that in the end “his grace is sufficient” to make up that huge gap between what I should be and what I am.  The scripture says:

And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.  I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.   (Ether 12:27)

I certainly hope that’s true. And, I suppose, so do my kids.

PW