An Anchor in the Whirlwind

Dear Will:

On my way into work yesterday, I heard a report on NPR saying that, according to the Department of Transportation, Americans drove 10 billion fewer miles in May of 2008 than they did in May of 2007. That’s 10 billion. Imagine a guy who normally drives 1,000 miles in a month simply deciding not to drive anywhere for 30 days. You’d need 10 million such guys in order to make 10 billion. Incredible.

That’s what happens, I guess, when gas settles in at over $4.00 a gallon. Just this morning I filled my tank and paid only $4.15. And I was thinking I got a pretty good deal. That’s crazy.

Which is why I recently found myself online reading about how to get more miles per gallon without switching cars. It’s pretty simple, as it turns out: Accelerate slowly. Lose speed when climbing a hill. Coast whenever possible. Drive without the AC. In other words, all I have to do is change all of the bad habits I’ve formed over years and years of aggressive driving. (Update: I’ve tried, and it’s not going well.)

I also went online to figure out how to get to and from work if I were to rely solely on public transportation. It’s more straightforward than I expected: I can catch a bus on Chapman, ride it down to the train depot, and from there catch a second bus which will drop me at the corner by my office. Piece o’ cake. The only catch is that the one-way ride will take me two hours. (Let’s just say I’m not ready to make that switch just yet.)

I bring all of this up because I work for a large advertising agency. Our biggest client is a Japanese carmaker. So these issues affect more than just my “carbon footprint” and my disposable income. They threaten my very livelihood. It’s more than a bit unsettling.

Of course, I’m not alone when it comes to feeling threatened. You would be hard-pressed to name an industry which isn’t affected in some way by this recent shift in our economy. Transportation and manufacturing costs are skyrocketing even as real estate prices are plummeting. The price of everything is affected. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do get the sense that we are in the midst of a permanent shift to which we are all going to have to adapt. It will be painful, no doubt. Change generally is.

In times of such uncertainty, I confess that I draw a great deal of comfort from my faith. I get nervous for the future just like anybody else, but I feel as though my foundation is solid nonetheless. I’m reminded of these words from the Book of Mormon:

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman 5:12)

Now I’m not trying to suggest that our current economic woes are the work of the devil. All I mean is that in the midst of the current whirlwind, I feel anchored, confident that, come what may, my family and I will make it through. Somehow.

That’s my prayer, in any case. May God bless you likewise.

PW

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

Fill Your Cruse with Oil

Dear Will:

How have you been? Here at our house we have been mostly busy and frazzled—business as usual, I’m afraid. I have this deep belief that we would all be better off if we found a way to heed Henry David Thoreau’s advice: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Of course, Henry had to go live like a hermit in the woods to pull that off. With neither the woods nor the means at my disposal, I remain content to simply read Walden and continue feeling frazzled. (By the way: If you’ve never read it, you ought to. It’s a true classic.)

Speaking of classics, I was sharing a Bible story with my children the other day and thought of you. We were talking about Elijah, one of the great characters of the scriptures. He first appears in First Kings, chapter 17, wherein he picks a pretty good fight with King Ahab. Right off, Elijah draws his line in the sand: “As the Lord God of Israel liveth,” he says, “there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Then he sneaks off to live by a brook and be fed by ravens (how cool is that?).

The truly noteworthy part, however, is what comes next. The Lord sends Elijah to the town of Zeraphath, where he is to find a widow woman to take care of him. As you may recall, the unexpected twist of the story comes when Elijah finds the woman and asks for something to eat. She responds this way: “I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (1 Kings 17:12).

Now comes the tricky part—the test of the woman’s faith. Says Elijah: “Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son (1 Kings 17:13). Notice that Elijah didn’t say, “Could you make me one while you’re at it?” On the contrary, he asked the woman to feed him first before preparing the meal for herself and her son. Here’s why: “For thus saith the Lord,” declared Elijah, “The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth. And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat for many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah” (1 Kings 17:14-16).

The lesson of this story is simple, yet profound. The widow and all her house were blessed far beyond her simple act of faith, simply because she was willing to heed the counsel of the Prophet. Imagine how her story would have been different had she given a different, seemingly reasonable response such as this: “I’m sorry, but my child’s needs come first; you’ll have to ask someone else.” Read the concluding verses of the chapter and you’ll find out to what degree the woman was actually taking care of her child by showing faith in the Prophet’s counsel.

The main reason I bring all this up (besides the fact that it’s a great story) is that the Church’s semi-annual General Conference is coming up next week and I wanted to remind you of it. On Saturday, March 31, and Sunday, April 1, you can sit in the comfort of your own home and hear the counsel of a living Prophet, Gordon B. Hinckley. Sessions are typically broadcast on cable with sessions at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. each day. Even if you have other stuff you have to do around the house, I encourage you to turn on the Conference and let it play in the background. It will bring a marvelous spirit into your home.

It will also give you a chance to listen to a Prophet of God and exercise your faith by heeding his word. Given the widow’s experience, it’s an almost irresistible opportunity. I know that it will be a blessing to our family, and I am looking forward to the chance. I hope you’ll take advantage of it too.

Best wishes to you and yours.

PW