By This Shall All Men Know

Dear Will:

I sat yesterday in a Sunday School class with the finest people I know. Our text was John 13 (just following the Last Supper) wherein Jesus washes the feet of His apostles and utters these defining words of Christendom: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). He was saying, in essence, that the best way to tell who His true followers are is to watch how they treat others.

The scene there in the Santiago Creek Ward could not have been significantly different from the one you might have seen on the evening of June 17, at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. That is, until things became entirely different. About an hour into the Bible study that night, a visitor pulled out a gun and shot ten of the worshipers, leaving nine of them dead. The misguided ideas which drove him to that hateful act remain in stark contrast to the message of love inherent in the book they studied together that night.

Two days after the murders, survivors and relatives of some of the victims gathered at a legal hearing to confront the accused killer. But rather than releasing the full force of the anger and pain which surely they feel, they took the opportunity to extend forgiveness to the man apparently responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. To those who are not believers, what transpired at that hearing may have been entirely unexpected. But to those who have embraced the teachings of Jesus, they should not be. Remarkable still. Truly remarkable. But not unexpected at all.

How is such tenderness possible in the face of such heartbreak? Barack Obama explained it well on Friday, June 26, at the funeral services for The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who led the Bible study that night. In his wise and moving eulogy of the senior pastor, the President evoked a truth that rests at the heart of Christian theology. “God works in mysterious ways,” he said. “Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and that Bible study group—the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle.”

Grace. God’s love extended to the undeserving. Not earned, but given freely. Not claimed by the entitled, but accepted—humbly—by the unworthy. Not just manifested in the face of tragedy, but triggered by tragedy itself. Amazing grace. That has saved a wretch like me time and again. That compels me to be my best today and enables me tomorrow to strive for even better.

“As a nation,” said the President, “out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves.  We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.”

To do that, we must go and do likewise. We must follow the good example of the members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. “As I have loved you,” said Jesus, “love one another” (John 13:34). It’s what He asks of those He has loved. And it is the essence of discipleship.


All the Sense in the World

Dear Will:

This morning I was at work, about to go into our regular Monday morning planning meeting, when an unfamiliar number flashed on my cellphone. On the other end of the line was a woman from Bakersfield, calling on behalf of a friend. She explained that the friend’s four-year-old was in the intensive care unit at CHOC, with fluid in his tiny lungs and an irregular heartbeat. Was there someone, she wondered, who might be willing to go to the hospital and give the child a blessing? I knew there was and did my best to reassure her that we would have someone at the ICU shortly.

Immediately I called the hospital to speak with the mother of the boy. Too shaken to talk, she handed the phone to a daughter who gave me the full background on the situation: The boy was in town visiting Knott’s Berry Farm with another family. He had no history of health problems. He had collapsed and had to be revived. The hospital now had him sedated and on a ventilator while they worked to drain his lungs. Terrifying.

As you would imagine, the anxiety, fear, and emotion were palpable as she described the shocking phone call that summoned the family from the Central Valley just hours before. As a parent, it was not hard for me to feel some of that same anxiety myself as we talked. I’ve had some experience in the past with families fighting for the life of a child hundreds of miles from home. My heart ached.

As I considered their plight, my mind flashed to the life of Christ. I thought of the young man, sick since childhood, who gnashed and foamed and thrashed about uncontrollably. Beyond hope, his father finally came to Jesus. “If thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us,” the father said. The Lord responded, “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.”

Those terms were almost more than the desperate father could bear. Through tears he offered what little faith he could muster: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:22-24). Of course, that meager faith was plenty for the One whose grace is sufficient to heal all that befalls us. The tormented young man was cured on the spot.

And what of Jairus, one of the rulers of the synagogue, whose only daughter lay dying? He fell at the Master’s feet and “besought him greatly” on behalf of the girl. His circumstances were perhaps even more grave than those of the father of the demoniac, for Jairus’ daughter died before Jesus could arrive at her bedside. Nevertheless, once inside the home, the Savior took the girl by the hand and restored her to life (Mark 5:21-43).

The mother of the boy at CHOC no doubt felt the selfsame longing for divine assistance.  And thus she turned to those authorized to act on behalf of the Master Healer. Within a couple of hours, Bro. Miller and Bro. Fisher, two high priests from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were at her side. Invoking their Holy Priesthood, they placed hands on the head of the ailing boy, and with simple words pronounced a blessing in the name of Christ.

Several hours later, I called the boy’s sister to check on his condition. Her tone was completely different. Her brother had improved so markedly that they had removed the ventilator, withdrawn the sedatives. The boy was alert in bed, improved so vastly and so quickly that several doctors had gathered in his room to consider his remarkable case. His recovery was unprecedented. It seemed miraculous.

And yet it makes all the sense in the world.


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.