The Version of Us That I Like Best

Dear Will:

It’s very likely that I’m giving us a little too much credit here, but I believe that my little family is pretty normal. We laugh a lot and squabble too often. We sometimes make a big deal of inconsequential slights and often say things we later regret. We mostly do our best to coexist in peace and harmony, but the fact remains that the parents are too often impatient and the teenagers are too often teenagers.

When we have guests in our home, however, we typically become our better selves—consistently more charming and tolerant and much more fun to be around.  We wag more and bark less, as the saying goes. It’s the version of us that I like best, as you might guess. It makes me wonder why we don’t invite dinner guests into our home every night.

That best-behavior business happens regardless of who has come to visit, but then there are those special friends whose impact on us extends far beyond a single evening at the dinner table. They do not merely move us to behave ourselves when they are around, they inspire us to want to be better all the time. They are in no way preachy or sanctimonious, they merely live life the right way. Something about their character and manner shows us a glimpse of our own potential. Their example alone is a force for good.

Exhibit A: Pat and Kevin and their remarkable children. Every time we get together with them Dana and I have the same post-visit conversation: Why can’t we be more like the Merkleys? (Then after a pause in which we both grasp the impossibility of that prospect): Or why can’t we at least be more like the version of ourselves that shows up when the Merkleys are around?

We were with the Merkleys just last week. And as I felt those familiar, I-need-to-be-a-better-person stirrings, I was reminded of a pledge I made many summers ago when I was working as a teenager at a YMCA camp in the San Bernardino mountains. It’s called the Raggers’ Creed:

I would be true, for there are those who trust me;
I would be pure, for there are those who care;
I would be strong, for there is much to suffer,
I would be brave, for there is much to dare.

I would be friend to all—the foe, the friendless;
I would be giving, and forget the gift;
I would be humble, for I know my weakness;
I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift.

I don’t mean to imply that our friends are the embodiment of truth, purity, strength, and bravery. But even without discussing or conspicuously displaying any of those ideals, they somehow make me want more deeply to strive for them. I think that’s what my friend Ron had in mind when he frequently proclaimed that he’d rather be at church gatherings than at any other place: It was an opportunity to be around—and be elevated by—the best people he knew.

Laugh. Love. Lift. That’s what the Merkleys do. Now if we could just figure out how to get them to join us every night for dinner. . . .


Neither Strangers Nor Foreigners

Dear Will:

When my wife Dana and I were first married, we lived in a two-bedroom duplex apartment in Westwood. We attended church in the building just north of the Los Angeles Temple, with an interesting cross-section of Angelenos: from young, poor married couples (mostly UCLA students like us) to wealthy, established families of Bel Air and Beverly Hills; we had Frenchmen and Persians and Iraqis and Nigerians mixed throughout the congregation along with the usual collection of expatriates from Utah and Arizona. And of course, there were lots of Californians. It was an interesting crowd, full of both ideas and faith. We loved them and loved attending church with them.

Eventually work (and children) made it necessary to move to Orange County, and the initial transition was difficult for us. It took us a few years, but eventually we found our way to Orange where we settled—quickly—to establish a permanent base-camp for raising our children.

One of the things that made it so easy to set down roots here was that the people we met at church—members of the Orange 2nd Ward—were so quick to take us in and treat us like family. We’re not necessarily an easy bunch to warm up to (too many idiosyncrasies, I’m afraid), but the locals were undeterred. They welcomed us, befriended us, cared about us and our children, loved us into submission. Even on the first Sunday we attended our church services, I can remember saying to my wife that it felt as though we had come home.

That was over 12 years ago. A lot has changed around these parts since then, as you know. Especially in the last four or five years, economic and demographic shifts have begun to take their toll on the area. Many of the people we love the most have cashed in their real estate and moved away; others have been driven out by the soaring cost of living and the battered job market. The spirit of the place hasn’t changed for us, but many of the faces have.

Such population trends have consequences, of course—which is why it was not altogether surprising to us when last week the Orange Stake Presidency announced a redrawing of the various boundaries to turn seven wards into six. So today we attended the first-ever meeting of the Santiago Creek Ward, which now meets at 1 p.m. in the Stake Center down on Yorba. Our friends who live east of Cannon are now members of the adjacent Peters Canyon Ward, and we in turn welcomed many new friends from the west side of the city. It was a strange day, meeting in a new place, greeting new faces, making a fresh start, as it were, even without having moved to a new place.

That’s one of the things that makes our church unique, I suppose: We don’t attend meetings based on convenience or preference; rather we are assigned to a place and time based on where we live and nothing else. That’s a hard practice when it means that you’ll no longer see good friends on a regular basis. But it’s a comforting practice as well, because it means that when people like us move to a place like this, we already have a family waiting for us—a group of instant friends who we can count on to help us settle in and feel at home.

I guess I look at it this way: Rather than losing old friends, we now have an opportunity to make new ones. Thus we will strive to emulate the teachings of Paul, congregating neither as strangers nor as foreigners, but as “fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19)—regardless of where we live or how we speak or what we look like. Our common bond—our faith in Jesus Christ—will provide us with instant unity, enabling us to call each other brother and sister even when meeting for the first time. Just how Christ would have wanted it, don’t you think?