Thursday, February 27, 2014

Big Picture, Individual Details

One of my personal pet peeves is when someone confuses their personal circumstances with the general trend of what's happening around them.

If someone is in less desirable circumstances than yourself, be it emotionally, physically, financially, educationally, or in any other way, it might mean that they haven't figured out yet, or have failed to apply, a few things that you understand.  But just as likely (if not more so) is that they were simply dealt a much different hand than you were.  Telling them ad nauseum how well things are going for you, and why, isn't being optimistic, it isn't teaching them principles to live by, it's being tone deaf to the personal challenges they are facing.

Serving is always more effective than sermonizing.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lessons on Sacrifice From Cain and the Hypocrites

Moses records that Cain made a sacrifice of fruits and vegetables, which the Lord rejected.  On the surface, it seems easy to commiserate with Cain:  he was a tiller of the earth, after all, he may have been giving up a lot in burning those vegetables.  The truth, however, is that it was an inappropriate, uncalled for sacrifice that was completely outside the law he had been taught since childhood--and he knew it.  It says that Satan commanded the sacrifice, not God.  So Cain, under direction of the Adversary, offered something he knew was not acceptable, that he knew would do him no good, and then he got mad when God didn't bless him for his sacrifice.  It wasn't a sacrifice at all;  it was a show, and a provocation.

That's not actually terribly uncommon in human behavior: making a show, pretending to be obedient or to be offering service, when in fact there is very little in the way of holy sacrifice in our hearts at all.  There are often times when we'll put everything, anything at all on that altar, except the things for which God has actually asked.  I'll give you anything, Lord, anything but my heart.  No way am I offering up my broken heart.  We want to appear obedient, to receive the approval or praise of others, we want the blessings of holiness without the price that righteousness demands.  All too often, we are hurting or angry because there is disobedience, pride, or selfishness in our hearts, and so we find ways to be provocative while appearing nominally obedient, or even trying to convince ourselves or others we are in fact making tremendous sacrifices to be obedient, so that we can have our deceptively selfish offer rejected and feel validated in our anger or hurt.  That's certainly what Cain did, and look where it got him.  Look where it got his brother.

This kind of unholy sacrifice poisons our hearts and our relationships.  When the Savior chastised those who were demonstrative in their fasting, it was not fasting that was the problem--it was the reason for their fast, manifest in the manner of their fast.  They weren't trying to draw closer to God or bring blessings to their community, they were seeking the praise of men. If the fast wasn't done gratefully and quietly, it wasn't a holy fast at all--it was merely going hungry so they could prove to everyone how righteous and devoted they were.  Well, as the Savior said, they have their reward:  a bit of approval, perhaps, or hollow respect from people whose opinions don't actually matter.  Bully for you.  When you make sacrifices for someone, it does you or them little good if you then are constantly focused on (and constantly reminding them) of all the sacrifices you make for them.  By engaging in such self-pity and self-righteousness, you show that your sacrifices aren't actually freely expressing your love and devotion to them; you're emotionally bullying them, holding them hostage to what you've supposedly done for them.  As long as you're keeping score, you're losing. If you sacrifice with a "sad countenance" and showing to the world a "disfigured face" so that everyone will know how selfless and righteous you are, you are focused on you, and you have your reward.

It would be better for you--and certainly for those you claim to serve--if you would follow the Savior's instructions to "anoint thy head" and "wash thy face" so "thou appear not unto men" to sacrifice.  When we sacrifice grudgingly, or merely to make the appearance of sacrifice, it doesn't sanctify us, it merely inconveniences us.  Those things which are offered truly selflessly, out of love, out of the joy of giving, are those which enlarge and sanctify the soul.  Don't serve your neighbor so that when you need to borrow his snow shovel you can hold that service over his head should he hesitate.  Serve your neighbor because you love him and its the right thing to do.  If you stick a smile on your face and stop thinking about how hard it is, and instead forget yourself and willingly place your whole heart on the alter to the Lord and offer your hands to those around you, it will get easier, your love will grow and the sacrifice will bring you true joy as your soul is sanctified.  That's what sanctification is after all: being drawn more closely and more securely into God's tremendous love for us, and for each of his children.

Monday, February 10, 2014


"Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." ~Galatians 6:2

I ran away once.  It didn't look like that's what I was doing. In my heart, though, running away was exactly what I was doing.  I didn't want to go.  But I ran away because I felt helpless, and I can't stand to feel helpless.  I felt like I was watching people I loved dearly suffer, and I was powerless to do anything about it.  It overwhelmed me.  I had to go away.  So I went far, far away.

I was small and selfish in that respect.  All the many good reasons I had for doing what I did were always slightly outweighed in my heart by that one cowardly, weak motivation.  I've grown up a lot since then.  Life has taught me a lot.

One thing I've learned over the years is that God will absolutely, undoubtedly, give you more than you can handle.  Giving you more than you can handle--allowing you to be overwhelmed with pain and grief far beyond your own capacity to bear--is one of the most effective tools the Savior has to show you who He is, and what He does.  If he never gives you more than you can handle, you never have much reason to look to him to carry your burdens.

He also allows you to suffer and be overwhelmed in order to allow others around you to know him better, to understand what he does for each of us.  When someone is in pain and lost and afraid, often the only thing we can give them is our presence.  In my moments of overwhelming sadness and grief the people that meant the most to me are those who didn't turn away from my pain.  When my sister-in-law and dear friend lost her toddler in a household accident, at first looking at the anguish in her face was overwhelming--part of me wanted to run away.  But I was not as selfish then as I had been earlier in life.  I stayed.  I let her pain wash over me in waves, I hugged her, I cried with her, I let her be angry and miserable, and I stayed put.  I didn't run away.  And somehow, in sharing her pain, I was healed.  There was absolutely nothing I could do to change the reality of her child being lost, but somehow, she got better, and so did I.  When we are in the depths of agony, sometimes what we need most is someone who will stand next to us, feel the pangs of pain reverberate without turning away from us, and remind us that everything can be alright when we are having trouble believing that anything will ever be OK again.  No, perhaps they can't promise us that everything will be OK, because some afflictions cannot be undone, but they can reassure us that someday we can be OK--they can reach down into our grief and assure us that the light is still there at times when we can't see it ourselves.  When we are broken, we need someone to reassure us that healing is possible--slow and difficult, perhaps, but still attainable.  Sometimes the grief is big enough that what we need isn't someone who will make us smile: what we need is someone who will not shrink away from the magnitude of our pain.

When the Savior worked the Atonement, that's what he did:  he looked into the lowest depths of our most grievous sins, the most profound aches of our worst turmoil, and didn't flee or flinch.  He instead stepped into that pain, took it all upon himself and forever made himself a bridge between the darkness and the light.   He showed his love by embracing our pain and taking it upon him, making of himself a light that can penetrate the bleakest darkness.  In our pain he is there.  And in the pain of others, he is there.  In our love, in our willingness to face their pain and stand beside them in their grief, we will find ourselves closer to the Savior.

As Elder Maxwell once said, "When, for a moment, we find ourselves not being stretched on a particular cross, we ought to be at the foot of someone else's--full of empathy and proffering spiritual refreshment.  On the strait, narrow path that leads to our little Calvarys, one does not hear the serious traveler exclaiming, 'Look, no hands!'"

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Richest Hill on Earth

I had to be in Butte at 8am today.  When I woke up, it was -33*.  Going out to start the car at 7 in the morning, in the dark, in that kind of cold, is pretty unpleasant.   When the A&P lab--which has to be kept at a relatively low temperature since there are constantly cadavers and preserved animals in use--feels like a sauna when you walk in, you know the world has gone a little too cold.  Campus sits on top of a hill overlooking town, so when I walked out of my lab after the most welcome sun had finally come up, I saw Butte in all her glory (no sarcasm, I promise).

When I was growing up (and long before me) Butte was often the butt (pun intended, always) of jokes.  For decades (the better part of a century), in a state that was quite rural, very agricultural and rather politically conservative, Butte was an industrial powerhouse (can I use that word? I think I can--in 1920, the population of Butte was nearly 100,000), a mining town, and solidly blue: still a union town 100 years later, they elected some of the first openly socialist politicians in America.  Its houses seem to practically sit on top of each other.  It feels like a city in a way other Montana towns never quite have. It had a rough reputation, the way that boom towns often did.  The mines started with silver, but with the harnessing and development of electricity and electric lighting in particular, it rode high on copper at the turn of the century, and powered America through the first World War.  The mines in Butte and the smelter in Anaconda provided good-paying jobs to working-class men, though there were constant battles with "the Company", and several large strikes over the years. 

By the 1950s, companies had started open-strip mining, and by the early 80s, active mining all but ceased, and the Anaconda smelter went with it.  Like a typical boomtown, it went from boom to bust relatively quickly, and has still never really recovered from the loss of the mining industry.  Now there are only about 35,000 people in Butte, and the median family income is only about $22,000/year.  After a devastating fire in the 1880s, the city council passed a resolution requiring that all the downtown buildings be built from brick or stone, leading to some incredible buildings, most of which now sit in some degree of disrepair.

So, the whole time I was growing up, Butte's reputation was poor, ugly, unsophisticated and broken down.  The first time I saw it as anything else was thanks to my father.  My dad built an amazing educational program from the ground up, and administered it in many school districts around the state.  Every summer, he put on an institute for the teachers participating in the project, in a different Montana city each year.  Since the entire basis of the Heritage Project was community-centered education, in addition to planning for the next year, the teachers would spend time learning about the unique history of that city and the surrounding area.  The year he held the institute in Butte, I wasn't all that excited about going (I usually got to go to the conferences as a babysitter for my oldest sister, whose first child was very young at the time).  But one day, we did one of the historical walking tours and it happened that one of the teachers from Libby, Bob Malivak, grew up in Butte.  Going on the tour with him was a revelation, as he gave names and memories and lives to these run-down places.  In his stories, Butte came alive for me for the first time--and he was old enough that he knew the old Butte, before the slide into economic hardship and physical disrepair.  He knew a lot of the old family names, he could talk about the old miners who took pride in powering America--in lighting up her cities and helping her win wars (its estimated that from the late 1890s through WWI, Butte supplied fully a third of America's copper).  He made me see with affection and delight what previously had only been seen through the eyes of an unimpressed pre-teen Millennial.  It was not only the first time I could see the beauty in those glorious old buildings, the power in the industry that built the town, it was the first time I really had any inkling of how purposeful and powerful the Montana Heritage Project was.  I finally started to get what my dad was doing, and why.

One thing in particular that Bob said stuck with me: "The sun shines 364 days a year in Butte".  A few of the teachers laughed, since Butte is as famous for its harsh climate as anything else.  "It may be 20 below," he added, "but the sun will be shining.  And if the sun's shining, you can be happy. That's Butte."  I thought about that as I walked out into the -30* sunshine this morning.  Butte has long been known as "The Richest Hill on Earth".  I always assumed that was because of the tremendous amount or ore pried from under her hills.  I recently learned that the phrase was coined by a reporter who had come to cover the Speculator Mine fire.  In 1917, a mishap (that, quite ironically, occurred while trying to install parts of a fire safety system) caused a fire in the mine, which quickly spread throughout several tunnels and ended up claiming the lives 168 miners--still the deadliest accident in US hard-rock mining history.  As this reporter gathered stories, watched the efforts of rescue workers and other miners as they tried to rescue their coworkers, and saw the support that was poured out whole-heartedly for the families who lost husbands and fathers and breadwinners, it was the richness of human spirit he saw that prompted him to use the phrase.  He was impressed by the generosity and dedication the community gave each other.

I've been impressed many times since we moved here with the generosity of people in both Butte and Anaconda.  They are communities that have seen big highs and lows in terms of physical wealth, but there is still very much a sense of community.  There's a lot of frustration, stagnation, even anger at the loss of prosperity--where there doesn't seem to be much to take its place--and there is a sense of fatigue about the place.  As a city, Butte has sort of the feel of a middle-aged man who looks older than his years because he lived a bit too hard.  But when the sun shines on his face, you can see the beauty that's there.  You can see the worth underneath the rough exterior, you can coax a genuine smile.  Maybe its all that sunshine that's helped Butte keep its head just above water.  When its dark, that -30 is bitterly cold.  But when the sun's shining, even that terrible cold loses a bit of its bite.  Maybe its because when its dark, we naturally tend to look down, seeing only more darkness, and the hard, frozen ground;  but when the sun shines and there are bright, blue skies, we remember to look up.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Me: "Keira, can you please help Dylan pick up his Legos?"

Keira (cheerfully): "No, I'm too busy.  Today my job is to play with my purse and my horses."

Its tough that everyone in our house has so much to do.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Bonds that Make Us Free*

*Title shamelessly lifted from Terry Warner's wonderful book of the same name.  You can purchase it here.

Since all of my classes are prerequisites for the nursing program, most of the other students are young women.  I've really enjoyed having classes with so many bright, friendly girls.  It has also made me really grateful that I'm not 20 anymore.  Today, as we were leaving the chem lab, several of the girls were making jokes about the big, bright red ring the splash goggles inevitably leave around your eyes, across the middle of your forehead and cheeks.  Most of the jokes were of the trying-to-convince-myself-I-don't-care-because-I-know-I-shouldn't variety, while the hesitating self-consciousness was quite obvious.  I wouldn't have even thought about it had it not been for their jokes.  And then I simply laughed with them and walked outside--because I honestly don't care.  In 10 years, I doubt they would either.

I try to put myself together nicely before I leave the house in the morning--a bit of makeup, a simple, neat hairstyle, whatever decent clothes I can find--and that's generally the last time I think about what I look like all day.  Being comfortably confident and beyond caring much what someone else may think of my appearance is a very liberating thing.  Its a confidence I didn't have at 20.  Its a confidence I still sometimes struggle with in my personal behavior and conversation, but I've come a long way in the last decade.  Usually now my self-confidence wanes only when I know--either consciously or instinctively--that my behavior is somehow out of line with my own ideals.  External validation is not as important to me as it once was.

As I thought about that while I was walked to my car, I remembered a comment my mom made yesterday.  I posted a photo on Facebook of me and Keilana when she was about 7 months old:
My mom said, "You look too young to be a mom."  I responded, half-joking and half-serious, "I was!"  I got married three weeks after I turned 19, and I had my first baby exactly three weeks before I turned 20.  I had a husband to love, support and serve, and a busy infant who demanded nearly all of the energy and attention I had.  Quite early into adulthood, in a very real, day to day way, my life stopped being about me.  I didn't have much time to think about myself.  So I didn't.

Furthermore, I was in an environment where people were frequently making their disdain for my life choices known in ways both subtle and direct.  At first it made me very irritated and even angry, but I started asking myself, "Am I doing the right thing?  Am I happy?"  The answer to both questions was a resounding "Yes!", and so I thought, "Then why do I care?"  It quickly became apparent that what other people thought of me or my decisions was not my problem, and none of my business.  I had a husband and a baby (and another on the way) to think about--I didn't have time for other people's misplaced moral superiority or lashing out because of their own insecurities.  Why worry about the disapproval of people whose approval I didn't need, or, in truth, even want?

Committing oneself to a marriage, wholly, completely, without reservation, and to the blessings of that marriage--namely, the children who demand so much from both spouses--seems quite limiting and restrictive to some people, because you can't focus so much on yourself.  And sure, its harder to get to the movies, or out to dinner, or to go on a vacation.  But what does any of that really matter, anyway? There is, in truth, nothing more liberating than devoting yourself as completely as possible to something bigger than and other than yourself.  Sure, it may mean less pampering and fewer luxuries, but forgetting yourself frees you from envy, insecurity, self-consciousness, irritation, impatience, and a whole host of other limiting and unpleasant traits.  It frees you from seeking, either directly or subconsciously, the approval of others.  All that really matters is the love that you can give--and that is completely within your control, and there is always more than you think there is.  The only person's approval you will care about is the Savior's, and if you are at peace with him, odds are good that the relationships that matter most in your life will be warm and peaceful.  And that will free you from a great deal of worry, hurt, and anger.

To paraphrase Alma, selfishness never was happiness.  Or, as the Savior himself said, "He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it."  Its common to say "Carpe diem" or, less elegantly "YOLO", to glorify wantonly selfish, indulgent behavior.  But you've never known true happiness, or true freedom, until you've learned to live for someone besides yourself.  Thinking about yourself, prioritizing yourself, puts so many limitations on you, and, quite frankly, its boring.