His Hand Is Stretched Out Still

Dear Will:

It was near dawn. The men, many of them fishermen by trade, had sailed through the night in an effort to cross the Sea of Galilee. Nevertheless, after many hours, still they had not reached Gennesaret because a powerful wind was working against them. Sleep-deprived and muscle-weary, no doubt they were exhausted by the ordeal, their nerves frazzled as they battled fatigue and fear and frustration. And still the waves rose, the wind blew, and their ship remained far from the distant shore.

If it’s true that it’s always darkest just before the dawn, then perhaps at that early morning hour they had begun to give up hope. Perhaps they felt—with good reason—that they had done all they could and yet all was for naught. Perhaps they felt as if they had been forsaken, left on their own to struggle against the forces of nature, to save their lives if they could or to resign themselves to the inevitable destruction that seemed to loom nearby.

And then, as if enough weren’t already enough, they gazed into the stormy distance and saw some sort of apparition—a phantasm, perhaps—approaching on the waves. It was very frightening—so frightening, we’re told, that they cried aloud.

Somehow, in the midst of the chaos and the panic, at this moment of ultimate desperation, a voice rose above the din. “Be of good cheer,” they heard. “It is I; be not afraid.”

It was a voice they knew. It was the voice of Jesus, their teacher, their mentor, their friend. With renewed hope surging in his breast, one of the fishermen answered back. “Lord,” cried Simon, “if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” When Jesus bade him come, Simon threw first one leg, then the other, over the side of the boat and walked upon the water toward his Lord. And still the wind blew. Still the waves climbed and fell.

We do not know how many miraculous steps Simon took that night. We do not know how far he ventured beyond the rail of that storm-tossed ship. But we do know that he walked toward Jesus, and that at some point he began to consider the difficulty of what he had undertaken, and that when he saw the effects of that boisterous wind—as the waves crashed all around him—it was, at last, too much. Giving in to fear, Simon began to sink, and he called out once again: ”Lord, save me.”

“And immediately,” we read, “Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, ‘Of a truth thou art the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:22-33).

Who among us has not felt at some point that his life was like a boat on a storm-tossed sea? Who among us has not felt overwhelmed, pushed to the point of emotional or physical exhaustion? Who hasn’t felt at one time or another that she simply could take no more? Who hasn’t felt to cry out, “Lord, save me”?

Of course, the promise of this story is not that the winds won’t blow. It isn’t that the waves will not rise up against us nor that journey will be made easy. The promise is that when we move toward Him He will move toward us. The promise is that if we feel ourselves starting to sink, He will reach out His hand and lift us up again.

It is not without effort, mind you. “Take my yoke upon you,” He says (Matthew 11:29). “Draw near unto me and [then] I will draw near unto you,” He promises (D&C 88:63). “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” He urges, and then, indeed, “all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33)

“Come unto me,” says Jesus, “all ye that labour, [all ye that] are heavy laden”—you and you and you and me—all of us—“and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

This brings to mind something I witnessed recently while hiking. A man and woman were climbing a steep trail together. The man was out in front, and after stepping up onto a rock he turned and—in a moment of old-fashioned chivalry—he extended his hand to help the woman up. But the woman would have none of it. In a moment of new-fashioned liberation, perhaps, she bounded on past as if her companion weren’t even there.

That’s right. She totally left him hanging.

I loved it. But as I watched that scene play out, it brought to mind a phrase often repeated by Isaiah in reference to our Lord and Savior: “His hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25, etc.). As I wandered the hills that day, I began to consider how often the Lord has extended His hand toward me and I have failed to grasp it.

How often have I have faced obstacles and chosen simply to power through them on my own? How often have I chosen to do things my way in contradiction to the inspired guidance of a loving Father? How often have I allowed pride and stubbornness to separate me from the Divine? And yet, no doubt, His hand was stretched out still.

How often do we disregard the commandments or think we know better than the prophets of God? How often do we make ourselves miserable, allowing ourselves to be dragged down to the gulf of misery and endless wo (Helaman 5:12)—and yet His hand is stretched out still?

How often? And yet—no matter how often—we cannot disqualify ourselves from this promise. We cannot put ourselves beyond His reach. In fact, no matter how foolish our choices may have been, no matter how far we may have drifted—He will be waiting there for us, and His hand will be stretched out still.

Even if we have been richly blessed and have chosen nonetheless to walk away, and even if in our wanderings we seem to have wasted our divine inheritance on riotous living, when we come unto ourselves and look, at last, toward Christ, we will see that His hand, as ever, is stretched out still (see Luke 15:11-24).

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has stated: “However many chances you think you have missed, however many mistakes you feel you have made or talents you think you don’t have, or however far from home and family and God you feel you have traveled, I testify that you have not traveled beyond the reach of divine love. It is not possible for you to sink lower than the infinite light of Christ’s Atonement shines” (“The Laborers in the Vineyard,” Ensign, May 2012).

When Jesus took on a mortal body—when He condescended to become like us—he suffered sicknesses and pains, afflictions and temptations, infirmities of every kind so that He would know, in that moment of despair, how to succor us commensurate with our suffering (Alma 7:11-12). That is, He came to understand and know what it is you feel when you lose your job or when the baby is sick or when you said that awful thing you never, ever should have said. He knows what it’s like when your husband dies or when your son is having a crisis of faith. He knows the ache that comes from feeling unloved or unnoticed, friendless even among the friendly. He knows all about your sleepless worry when the purse is empty and the end of the month is still two weeks away. He knows your disappointments, your frustrations, your hopelessness and your doubts. And above all, He knows the emptiness you feel when you commit that sin—again—that you swore you would never again commit, or when you find yourself bound by addiction or bad habits or spiritual weakness of any kind, weighed down by present-day consequences of bad choices made many years ago.

He descended below them all (D&C 122:8)—suffered them all—that we might not suffer (D&C 19:16). It is for that very reason that He said: “Come unto me,” for that very reason that He promised rest and relief to the heavy laden. It is for that very reason that His hand is stretched out still.

As we welcome in this Easter week, may we reflect on the promise of that outstretched hand—a promise He can keep today because of what He suffered for us nearly 2000 years ago. May we find ourselves, as Simon and Mary and Enos and countless others, calling out to Him in our moments of need. May we show our thanks for His sacrifice by accepting His love and taking His name upon us and keeping His commandments.

And may we always remember what took place on that first Good Friday—the very best Friday of all—when His hands were stretched out across that sacrificial beam. His hands were stretched out then . . . that they might be stretched out now. And to this day, His hands are stretched out still.

PW

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A Fitting Symbol

Dear Will:

It’s Easter morning and I awaken to a quiet house. The scene is very different from the one I encountered as a boy, when my siblings and I would arise on Easter morning to find a basket set out for each of us, baskets filled with that stringy, green cellophane stuff (what do you call that?), jelly beans, chocolate eggs, and other candy. Then my brothers and sisters and I would scatter about the house and yard looking for the Easter eggs we had colored the night before. Although I don’t remember ever visiting the Easter Bunny at the mall the way kids do these days, I do recall that one year we received an actual bunny on Easter morning. That was pretty cool.

Easter was fun. It was exciting. And the candy was delicious. But this quiet house now feels much more like Easter to me.

That change in perspective has been gradual, to be sure. At some point—at an age I do not now recall—I remember asking what bunnies and eggs and whatnot had to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus. I remember that the answer—some convoluted bit having to do with symbols of birth or life or whatever—seemed contrived and completely unsatisfying. It didn’t really make sense.

The problem, of course, is that bunnies and eggs (and bunny eggs, for that matter) have nothing whatsoever to do with the resurrection of Christ. I’m pretty sure these oddments were adapted from some pagan rites of centuries long ago, but no matter. They might have easily been cooked up by the writers of Seinfeld for all they tell us about the event we celebrate at this time every year. And in that sense they are harmless enough, I suppose. Harmless, that is, if they do not prevent us from seeing and feeling and understanding the larger Truth this Christian holiday (holy-day) commemorates.

The essential, truth-telling symbols of Easter are these: an otherwise nondescript patch of ground in a grove of olive trees, stained with drops of sweat and blood; a cross on a hill on the outskirts of town; linen clothes lying in an otherwise empty tomb, the head-wrap neatly folded, separate from the rest; two hands and two feet made perfect by the scars that now remain as a reminder of who He is and what He did for all of us.

When Mary, Joanna, and others arrived at the sepulcher on that historic Sunday morning, they were met by two men in shining robes who said to them: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen” (Luke 24:5-6). Later that day, Jesus—the Christ—appeared to Mary, Peter, Luke, Cleopas, and many others of his disciples. The “good news” of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was then taken to the world by these eyewitnesses, and it has spread across the globe since that glorious day.

The Apostle Paul, who himself witnessed the Living Christ one day on the road to Damascus, put it this way: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). In simpler terms, Elder David A. Bednar summarized the message of Easter morning this way: “Jesus died; He is not dead.”

That is good news—fitting for an annual commemoration. And while I treasure memories of my own children dashing about the yard, plucking up fluorescent, plastic eggs, those are not what I would consider Easter memories. If asked to choose, the decision for me would be an easy one: To honor the death and resurrection of my Savior, I will always prefer a quiet house at the dawning of a perfect Sabbath day.

PW

I Wish You Could Have Known Him

Dear Will:

It is with a combination of sadness and joy that I write to tell you that on April 17 my father passed away. He was 86.

We were fortunate to have him at home and alert for several days prior to his death. On Easter Sunday (just five days before he died, as it turns out), the family gathered at his home, where he was under hospice care. There were nearly 20 of us there, and in spite of his condition it was fun to be together. We took turns sitting around his bed and keeping him posted on the Masters golf tournament.

Earlier that day he had asked me to give him a Priesthood blessing, “releasing him,” as it were, to let go of mortality. So when the meal was over (he ate nothing) he said to me, “Let’s get on with it.” After a family prayer, I placed my hands on his head and pronounced some simple words, blessing him with comfort and peace and the assurance that he was “free to go” whenever he felt ready to do so.

It was one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. Afterwards, the grief I felt was overwhelming—a physically crushing sensation that all but consumed me. After pronouncing the blessing, each one there took a moment to express their love to him, one at a time. When each person had had a turn, he gathered us around his bed for some final words of counsel: He asked us to take care of my mother, to love one another, and expressed his confidence that God would watch over us after he was gone.

We cried a lot that day. But as I look back on it—now two weeks later—I recall the day with a great sense of joy and gratitude. What a wonderful blessing it was for us all to be together when he was still lucid, for us each to have some time with him to express our love, for the Spirit of God to be there in our midst and bless us in our moment of grief. I realize that often death comes so quickly and unexpectedly that we don’t get the chance to say our most tender goodbyes. Because we had that chance with my father, that Easter Sunday will remain a favorite memory of his dying days.

His funeral was last week. It became a great celebration of the man as we reminisced together about my father’s life: his charm, his idiosyncrasies, his talents, and his many accomplish­ments. Friends and family gathered from across the map, including some elderly lifelong friends of his. I was comforted by their presence there, for I saw it as an affirmation of a life well-lived.

I had the chance to speak at his funeral service, and although it wasn’t easy, I was honored to do so. I told some favorite stories, including this conversation:

Me: “Dad, if you really loved me you’d buy me a car.”

Dad: “Well, now you know.”

I expressed my thanks for all he taught me and all of the ways in which he blessed my life. In conclusion, I echoed the testimony of Job: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). I know I will see my father again, and when we see each other, we shall embrace and enjoy the richness of eternity together. And until then, he’s in a better place, freed at last from his crumbling mortal body.

I’m sorry you never got the chance to know Jay Watkins. He was a good man. You would have liked him.

PW