The Grace of Rain

Praying for Rain

Dear Will:

“I woke this morning to the sound of rain.”

That’s how this letter was supposed to begin. The forecast was unambiguous. But when I opened my eyes and listened, I heard no rain. As usual. It seems there is NEVER any rain around here. Just ten days ago we hit 95 degrees, which is what passes for autumn here in Southern California. Our hills go from brown to browner, awaiting the seemingly inevitable wildfires that will finally turn them black. So when the forecast mentions even the possibility of rain, we do our best to hide our skepticism, watching the horizon, hoping, praying for just a little moisture, just this once.

As day began to dawn, I lay in bed, pondering our plight. We generally consider ourselves lucky to live in this desert paradise, where sunshine is the norm. Last Saturday I was hiking in the local hills and it was glorious: just-the-right-kind-of-warm, clear (!) blue skies, a gentle breeze. Elsewhere in the country they talk about bomb cyclones and the polar vortex, so we get no sympathy when we worry about another day of too much sun. Last night it dipped into the 40s here, which (I know) sounds pretty dreamy if you live in, say, Billings, Montana, where it’s not expected to get above 27 today. But it says here that the average November temperature in my town is 74 degrees. So yeah, we’ve got it pretty rough.

People are not likely to be any more sympathetic in Seattle, where they get fewer sunny days than wet days in a typical year. That’s 155 days of annual precipitation for them and around 34 for us, but I’m pretty sure you have to count foggy mornings in June to get to our total to 34. Earlier this year (March 5, to be exact), California was declared drought-free for the first time since December, 2011. That’s 376 weeks of drought—a stretch of truly biblical proportions. So perhaps you’ll understand why we constantly yearn for moisture without actually expecting it to come.

I acknowledge that in these matters we are the product of our own choices: the decision to live in a naturally arid environment, the preference for modern conveniences that contribute to a warming climate, the refusal to make meaningful compromises that might mitigate the consequences of our self-indulgence. It makes me wonder: How can I expect God to step in if I am not myself prepared to step up? Then again, how often do we truly deserve the blessings that He grants us anyway? Hasn’t he told us that hope is one of the three great virtues? Hasn’t he always invited us to trust in Him and in “good things to come”? Isn’t the whole idea of grace that He blesses us in spite of our manifest unworthiness?

And so, with “hope smiling brightly before us,” we pray for things beyond our merit, relying on a loving Father to hear our cries and reward our hope in spite of it all. To help us find a job when we screwed up the last one. To heal us of self-inflicted afflictions. To mend that which we have broken. To send the rain we need but perhaps do not deserve.

As I think about it, I woke this morning only to the promise of rain. And that promise was just enough to light within me a glimmer of hope that it might be so. I finish this short note to you listening to the fulfillment of that promise: pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat. The rain we long for, the rain we need. One more thing to give thanks for today when we say grace.

PW

An Allegory for Easter

boots

Dear Will:

Last Saturday morning I headed out to Weir Canyon for an easy morning hike. It had rained the night before, so I knew there was the possibility (or probability?) that the trail would be closed. But I was in the mood for a hike, so I did as I pleased and hoped for the best. When I pulled up, I was delighted to see that the trail was indeed open and that there was only one other car already parked at the trailhead on Hidden Canyon Road.

I chose the clockwise route this time, which features a short incline right out of the gate. The ground was still wet, but it was firm as I had hoped, so it seemed that everything was coming together according to plan. For about 30 feet, that is. I saw a couple of muddy skid marks where someone ahead of me had slipped. And then a couple more. Before long I was making skid marks of my own as the grippy tread of my Terrex hikers filled with mud and transformed into slippy tread instead. I quickly realized the futility of what I had undertaken and turned back to the car, practically skating down the slope on shoes now rendered twice as heavy (and nearly twice as wide) by the accumulating sludge. It was then that I spied and understood the trailside rock where others had smeared great glops of earthen goo in a quest to rescue their muddy soles.

Once on flatter, firmer ground, I did a bit of that smearing myself—on rocks, on the curb beside my car. I was forced to take the shoes off and bang them together as you might have done, flinging clumps of sticky clay in all directions and sending shocks up through my arms and shoulders. Ultimately I was transformed into tantrum-throwing percussionist, slamming down one shoe and then the other on the asphalt in a jarring and mostly successful effort to clear the Vibram crags in my heavy-laden trail shoes.

It was, perhaps, the dumbest of hikes. If I’m honest, I had made this same, post-rain mistake on this same trail once before, but in spite of knowing better I had insisted on trying to make things work my way anyway. But once I came to my senses, I made my way back home, parked my car, and headed out on the familiar streets of my neighborhood. The view was less dramatic and the experience less glamorous, but the roads were clear and the sun was out and it was lovely. The rains had turned the skies into the kind of blue we rarely see in car-crazy California—a blue that was intensified by random, puffy clouds that hung like cotton balls above the glistening trees. Had I chosen this route from the get-go, I would certainly have covered more ground—while increasing my pleasure and reducing the hardship—but because of my ill-conceived foray into the muck, I appreciated the clear, unobstructed path all the more.

Perhaps you’ve done this same thing yourself—chosen an enticing path even though, down in your heart, you knew better. Perhaps in consequence you too have found yourself stumbling along, slowed by the muck that you have accumulated along the way. And perhaps you’ve felt a similar desire to be rid of the mess and to find a clearer, more established path.

Perhaps you have also thought, as I do at this time of year: Thank God for the message of hope that Easter brings. Thank God for a Savior who has made it possible for even the grimiest among us to turn ourselves around and clear our muddy souls. And thank God for the clearer path that the Gospel of Jesus Christ illuminates for all of us. It truly is the better way. Way better.

PW

Photo: John Barwood Photography

Hope Without Optimism

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Dear Will:

One of my many (and most glaring) character flaws is that I care way too much whether or not my team wins. That hyper-competitiveness has served me well only to the degree that it has driven me to strive for excellence in most of my endeavors (home repair being a conspicuous contrapositive). And while I have been somewhat successful over the years at suppressing those emotional urges, they still manifest themselves from time to time in awkward circumstances: during the scramble for the final wedge in Trivial Pursuit, for example, or in a three-legged race at the company picnic. It’s embarrassing.

Where that desire to win manifests itself most darkly is in the world of competitive team sports. If my Bruins lose a close one, it can send me into a funk that lasts for days, especially (as it so often seems) when they should have won. If I had the misfortune of being from, say, Cleveland, this competitive spirit might not have such a firm hold on me. But I grew up cheering for the Dodgers and Lakers and UCLA, teams with enough history of success that victory and even championships are often a distinct possibility, resulting in expectations in profound disproportion to objective reality.

So you can imagine, without any creative effort, how I was feeling last night when my Dodgers, who haven’t won a championship since before my children were born, blew multiple leads and lost 13-12 to the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series. Now, if you are a well-adjusted human, you might reasonably think: I didn’t even realize the Dodgers were in the World Series; or, What’s the World Series? But if you’re me, and the Dodgers end up losing the Series, you can expect to relive the agony of last night’s debacle for years to come. I still get aggravated by how the USA got swindled out of an Olympic gold medal in basketball by the USSR. In 1972. When I was 12.

Unlike the stock market, which provides a buyer for every seller, the sports world is completely imbalanced, with devastated losers far outnumbering euphoric winners in any given season. In a playoff, in fact, every team but one ends its year with a disappointing loss. And if we shrink that world down to mine (the only one that TRULY matters in this context) the moments of euphoria are infrequent and precious. For even though my teams have a history of occasional excellence, history fades even as the possibility of a letdown casts a heavy, constant shadow over whatever is happening right now.

As a remedy to all of this, years ago I committed myself to the following rooting philosophy: Hope without optimism. I believe in it so firmly that I have taught it like a catechism to my children. For I believe that that philosophy carries with it both the fervent possibility of victory and the realistic expectation that we’ll miss the winning field goal in the final seconds. It’s my attempt to maximize the prospective euphoria while mitigating the nearly-inevitable devastation. It’s not a perfect remedy, but it helps.

All of this runs counter to what Jesus taught, of course. “In the world ye shall have tribulation,” He said, “but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Other scripture encourages us to have “a perfect brightness of hope,” knowing that, if we endure well the trials that may lie ahead, in the end we shall have eternal life (see 2 Nephi 31:20). That is the promise of Christ’s resurrection and Atonement: the promise of victory for everyone, a championship even for the most beleaguered among us. His message was all about both hope AND optimism.

Which is a very good thing—especially if the Dodgers blow this Series, which they should have won. Because if that happens, I could just die.

PW