With Faith and Trepidation

Dear Will:

For the last seven years I have arisen before dawn every day of the school year to teach Seminary, the early morning religion class for somnambulant high school kids. It’s a curiously glorious assignment, one I have performed willingly and gladly since they first asked me to do it in 2007.

Since our church does not have a paid clergy, the whole, elaborate local operation is run by volunteers like me, most of whom do as they’re asked when they’re asked to do it. But we are not given the option of choosing our assignments—we are simply pulled aside and offered the chance to serve. And because we are committed, when we are invited to teach the five-year-olds or lead the choir or clean the chapel, our inclination is generally to say: Sure.

Of course, often we are asked to do things for which we have no true qualifications or training. We simply plunge in with a combination of faith and trepidation, learning as we go—sometimes at the expense of confused five-year-olds or thoroughly bamboozled altos and tenors. That alacrity to both serve and be served in spite of manifest ineptitude is consistent, I think, with the nature of Christ’s early church, which was run by a ragtag bunch of fishermen and tentmakers. They stumbled along, no doubt, but history shows that they were magnified in their task and the world is better for it.

It all brings to mind a favorite story. Peter and John, fairly new to this business of running a church on behalf of the Master, encountered a man who had been unable to walk since birth. Day after day his friends brought him to the temple gates to beg for coins to make his living. When the apostles stopped in front of him, the lame man expected that they would open their purses.

But he was mistaken. “Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God” (Acts 3:6-8).

Peter and John may not have had much. What they did have was a willingness to give—such as they had. To give what they could and let the Savior compensate for that which they lacked. To bless another life—change it even—in spite of the fact that they were mere fishermen.

I bring this up to you now because I have been given a new assignment for which the term inadequate is itself inadequate to express my lack of qualifications. After this week, I will no longer be teaching sleepy teenagers in the morning because I have been called to serve as your new bishop, head of the entire ward congregation.

It’s a terrifying privilege to receive this assignment. I have not been blessed with great executive skills and I have no relevant professional or academic credentials. What I do have is a love for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and for the people in our ward. I don’t expect to be particularly good at this job, but I take comfort in Christ’s ability to help us overcome our weaknesses (see Ether 12:27). If not for that, I wouldn’t have a chance.

It comes to that and little more. I really don’t have much. But such as I have, I’ll gladly give.


Over Par for Life

Dear Will:

When I was around 16 years old, I had a life-changing experience while strolling down the fairway at the Glendora Country Club. It was summertime, and I was golfing with friends—Tim Patterson probably, perhaps Jeff Salter or Mike Daly or maybe Brian Regele. I was in the midst of a typical round of exasperating, worse-than-bogie golf. After chunking another short iron and slamming my club to the ground in frustration, I had a great epiphany—as if angelic choirs were singing a hymn composed for me and me alone. You will never be any good at this game, the cherubim seemed to intone. Amen and amen.

Even so, I’ve always liked golf—still do. But I’m terrible at it in ways that the word terrible fails to adequately express. I could spend thousands on lessons and equipment and greens fees, quit my job and devote myself to the game full time, but I would remain, at best, a mediocre golfer, one who knows that over par is the best he should ever reasonably hope for. Anything better than that, on any single hole on any single day, is not just an aberration but a fluke of miraculous proportions.

I was pondering all of this the other day while hacking my way around a course with some friends from work. I had five bogies and four worse-then-bogies in nine holes on a relatively easy golf course. Final score: many, many strokes more than allowed, significantly  and emphatically over par. As always. Forever. Just like my life, I thought.

At which point the choirs sang again.

Over Par for Life—the only standard I consistently live up to. If I had a personal website, down by my logo you might find the tagline: “Falling Short Since 1968.” Good intentions I have down cold. Successful follow-through, on the other hand? Not so much. In theory, I’m a terrific husband and father, a dedicated employee, an unselfish, generous, kindhearted soul who is unflappable in the face of trouble and impervious to stress. In practice, however,  I’m as proud as the next guy, self-serving and self-righteous, low on patience and cranky when it suits me. Plus I’m way too quick to raise my voice. Way.

Consequently, this is not one of my favorite scriptures: “What manner of men ought ye to be?” Jesus asked.  “Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). I think that pretty much means that I’m supposed to be nice to everyone all the time, control my temper, think of others first, give until I have nothing left to give. I’m supposed to uphold all 12 of the principles in the Scout Law and live the Young Women’s Values at the same time.  Be totally other than I am, in other words.

You will never be any good at this game. Amen and amen.

And yet, even for a perpetual duffer like me, there remains not just a glimmer of hope, but an incandescent hope so bright that it cannot be ignored. The whole reason Jesus came to this earth in the first place was to make a way for us, in spite of our imperfections, to reconcile ourselves with God.  “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness,” the Lord has said.  “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).

So there you have it: a fighting chance for all of us who perpetually fail to measure up. Over Par for Life, perhaps, but His grace is sufficient to make up the difference. Sufficient. Enough. Even for a hacker like me.

Now if only I could get that promise to apply to my golf game. That would be truly something.


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.