Saturday, September 29, 2007

Reflections from a Mixed-Race Family

Looking at us now, it is impossible on most days to see that we are, in a very real sense, a mixed-race family. After all, my wife and I and all six of our biological children are not only Caucasian but light skinned Caucasian. We have a hard time tanning; my wife was a red-head as a child; one of our sons still is a carrot top. We are the Wonder Bread in the bakery section of life.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Eternal Smile

I served briefly with a native Japanese missionary - 26 years old and always (I mean always) smiling. He woke up smiling; he walked and rode his bike with vigor, full speed and smiling; he smiled while he ate; he feel asleep with a smile etched on his face. You've heard of "The Never Ending Story"? His was the never-ending smile. When I first heard his story, I couldn't understand why.

He was the 14th or 16th generation (I forget) oldest son of the local Buddhist priestly line - his father’s only son - the only heir to a long heritage. After he met the missionaries, gained a testimony, then joined the Church, his father ceremonially acknowledged his dishonorable death, he was expelled from school and fired from his job, and he had to reconstruct an entirely new life from scratch. He worked and saved for years in order to pay for his own mission, then lived on 2/3 of the recommended minimum cost - because that's all he had been able to save.

I heard someone ask him, given what had happened to him, how he could be so happy all of the time. His response: “I have found the Gospel of Jesus Christ. How could I not be happy?” He said he wanted to be for someone else what those missionaries had been for him.

My mission ended in October, so I gave him my winter coat and boots (he had no boots of his own on the island of Hokkaido) a couple of months before I left. I found out a few days before I left that he had given the coat and boots to an investigator who “needed them more”. That was over 20 years ago, but I will never forget him - never.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sleep is Over-Rated

All my life, I have been taught the importance of family. I was raised in an active, loving, Mormon family in rural Utah – where the sky is blue, the grass is green only when irrigated constantly (and, often, not even then), the water runs through the tap cold, fishing and hunting are an hour’s walk from home – and all else is right in the world. I took domestic peace and marital joy for granted growing up, and my early married life did nothing to disabuse me of my adolescent assumptions. After all, I married the only girl I have ever loved – the girl who, at the ripe old age of 15 stole my heart and completed my soul. Once she turned 16, she was the only girl I dated – and we were married less than two months after I returned from my mission. I valued marriage, and I loved my wife – and I slept well each night.

I attended college as a visible anomaly – a 22-year-old, married freshman – the first married freshman in institutional memory, according to the Freshman Dean’s Office. By the time I graduated (six years later, but that’s a story for another time), we had our first three children – again, the first such situation in institutional memory. I didn’t sleep much during those six years, since working full-time, attending college full-time, serving in the Church in various callings, loving a wonderful woman and helping raise small children didn’t leave much time for trivial things like sleep. (If I tried to live that schedule now, it would kill me.)

Just before my senior year, I realized once again that I wanted to be a school teacher. I had spent six years dreaming of academic and social glory (international diplomacy was my intended occupation), but, fortunately, the strong impressions of my adolescence came back to me and put my future back into focus. I won’t take everyone through the journey that took me from the classroom in Alabama to where I am now in Ohio; suffice it to say that through both sweet peace and intense employment difficulty my family grew to include six beautiful children, various non-paying boarders at the house that is known among our children’s friends simply as “Hotel DeGraw” and, at its foundation, the girl who continued to amaze me through it all. I loved her more each year, particularly as I watched how deeply she cared about being a good person and helping others no matter the pain it caused her. For all those years, I ended each night at her side – talking about the day, our kids, our cares, our joys and our sorrows until we fell asleep arm-in-arm – sleeping as happily and contented as it is possible to be.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: When we first moved to Ohio, we did so for a job that required I travel. Eventually, I worked into a position where I was traveling extensively. I like to travel. Driving, flying, seeing new cities, staying in hotels, just about everything associated with travel I enjoy - except for those multiple thousand mile drives with multiple tired children in multiple foul moods after multiple days on the road. Otherwise, I like the open road and sky.

On the other hand, I quickly found that I have a hard time sleeping alone when I travel. You see, pretty much since our oldest son scared us out of our wits by getting out of his crib and going down the hardwood stairs all alone (at about 13 months old), we have had an open bedroom door policy in our house. This means that for the past 18 years I have spent most of my nights either crammed up next to my wife or crowded to the edge of our bed, hoping a strong wind (or a random push or kick) didn't send me tumbling to the floor – crammed or crowded by as many as 7 other bodies sprawled any which way but orderly and consuming every available square inch of the bed.

I remember so vividly, years ago, when I first started traveling overnight, how much I looked forward with anticipation to that first night away - my chance to sprawl in imitation of my children - to sleep diagonally if I so desired - to use the blanket and sheet however I pleased - to sleep the deep sleep of the quiet and undisturbed – to wake up refreshed from a deep sleep for the first time in many years. That simply wasn't my experience.

I lay there, eyes closed but unable to sleep, and I couldn't understand why. There were no bodies crowding me to the edge - no kicks to my unprotected kidneys or eyes - no incessant snoring or muttering or additional body heat in the summer. It was peaceful - and I couldn't sleep - at least not until about 4AM, and then for only two hours until the alarm shattered the shallow, fitful sleep I had not enjoyed. This lasted each time I traveled for about a month; then one night I discovered the solution: PILLOWS!

One night, in the middle of my sleep-deprived state, I had an epiphany - truly, I believe, inspiration from someone who took pity on my plight. I missed my ridiculously cluttered and cramped nights. I missed those toes in my nose - those knees in my back - the hair in my eyes whenever they opened. Most of all, I missed the sense of peace and contentment that came amid my chosen chaos. Quietude and solitude, I discovered, are not all they’re cracked up to be - at least not when fulfillment has been defined and wrapped up in noise and family for years. So, I asked for seven extra pillows, packed them around me on the bed (cramming myself into a small space within their embrace) and slept like a baby - at least like a baby whom others apparently have who sleeps through the night without a sound.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: The past few weeks, my wife has returned to work - since our youngest child started school this fall. She (my wife) has been working overnight a couple of nights each week, taking care of the elderly - and spending those nights away from me. It has not been easy, and I have found myself up late, falling asleep on the couch - even as our three youngest children lie sleeping in our bed upstairs.

I learned years ago that I like to have my children around me - even as I sleep. I learned this last couple of weeks that such a situation is not enough - that to be wholly happy and completely content my wife needs to be there, as well. I can sleep soundly with her by my side, with or without the children around us; I cannot sleep soundly without her there, even when they are crowded around me. I love my children with all my heart, but they are no substitute for my soul-mate - my split-apart - my chosen companion - my best friend in all the universe - the other half of the whole I hope to be throughout eternity.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: I truly am blessed, and I recognize now – a little more than ever before – just how grateful I am and should be. I know many people who are not blessed in this way – who never marry, who are divorced or widowed or abused – who sleep alone for many unplanned years – who want to live the standards of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but must renounce inclinations that would bring companionship in this life in order to do so. After feeling a small portion of what they live with day in and day out, I am much less inclined to judge them for the choices they make – and much more in awe of those who remain faithful to the difficult ideal required for temple attendance.

Eternal marriage and family mean just a little more to me at this moment, since I have caught a tiny glimpse of isolated immortality, living as half the whole she and I are meant to be. If I can’t handle each night we are apart, I can’t fathom living endlessly without her – feeling alone in a vast cosmos – sleeping in a great and spacious hotel – forever, fitfully alone. I want to live on with my arm around her – in a universe surrounded by our children – even if that means I only get a little edge of it as my own and never get enough sleep.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Introducing Me

I am posting this one last of the four I moved over from my previous blog, so that it will show up at the top and be the first one to which any readers are exposed. Welcome to my life and mind.

Unlike my wife, I lean more toward the "record the things of my spirit" motivation for blogging. I blog primarily to record how I view life, in order to preserve for my posterity my perspective on eternity and the mortal issues that, IMO, influence eternity. Generally, I am not as verbose as my wife - which really says something about her prodigious compilations. Concise, I am not. Furthermore, I have been told my common sentence composition puts Dickens and Hugo to shame - linguistic slackers that they are - not in quality of their vocabulary, but rather in the simplicity of their sentence structure. My mind meanders from point of interest to point of interest, and it takes more exertion than I often am willing to offer to restrict the journey to a straight and narrow path.

Having said that, I am an unrepentant parser. I try to be very clear about what I say, which is one reason I have a hard time writing simple, non-complex sentences - as my tendency to try to avoid confusion and misunderstanding often leads to a type of verbosity that requires slow and careful reading and, by extension, sometimes causes confusion. Such is life. I insist on addressing what others say, not what the reader assumes or thinks they must mean behind the words, since that is a courtesy I request from others.

I am personally conservative in my own lifestyle and, I have been told, quite perplexing in the balance I strive to achieve in my political views. I believe in teaching correct principles and letting people govern themselves - again as a product of believing the Golden Rule. I will request a conversation cease if people are talking past each other, not listening to understand and merely trying to shoutdown the other party; however, I never will request such a cessation simply because of fundamental disagreement - regardless of the intensity of the discussion.

I am a teacher by inclination and initial training, a salesman by trade, a preacher at heart (if not a Mormon, I would live at a pulpit), a musical performer and public speaker by nature and, most importantly, a husband of 20 years and father of 6 kids by choice and grace.

Welcome to my mind and my heart (and my sense of humor that both makes my wife laugh and embarrasses her on a regular basis). I hope you welcome me to yours.

Breaking My Heart

This is the second post published by someone else that I vowed to post on my own blog. It is copyrighted, so I am providing a link to see it in its original form.

Little Street Vendor - Wilfried Decoo
I do not mean to call the teacher a Pharisee. I am much (and I can’t emphasize just how much) less bothered by the “buying something on Sunday” aspect as I was by this thought:

“We shouldn’t chase that vendor away, but if you don’t buy from her, SHE WON’T COME BACK.”

Those last four words are what broke my heart. Not buying from her is one thing; not putting our arms around her and not talking with her and not thinking that perhaps God inspired a choice daughter to take up a post at our church and not inviting her into our fellowship but, instead, truly chasing her away - that breaks my heart. I want her there - where she is relatively safe, where she at least can hear that she is a child of God, where she can rest with faith that families with children of their own (relatively well-dressed, clean, happy children) will understand her plight and have pity on her, etc. Taking that away from her - that breaks my heart. She’s not an object lesson for Sabbath Day observance; she’s a daughter of God and my spiritual sister - and using her as the first instead of treating her as the second broke my heart.

I understand the overwhelming nature of poverty in Africa and the hesitancy to do anything that might encourage hundreds of poor vendors to flock to the Church, but I have a feeling that the astute businesswoman in her would have recognized the benefit of keeping her spot hidden from competition. I wonder if anyone sat down with her and just talked with her about her life, about the Gospel, about the Restoration, about her divine nature as a daughter of God. Whether or not anyone gave her money or bought something from her, did anyone take the time just to love her and listen to her and find something to give her that she could read? “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these . . .” couldn’t find a more perfect application than this little street vendor.

Understanding Scriptural Stories

I was trying to explain to someone recently how I go about trying to understand the scriptures - especially the stories in them - as opposed to the explicit teachings and sermons. I had explained that I don't think the mothers of the Sons of Helaman (the Stripling Warriors) necessarily meant that none of their sons would die in war when they taught them that God would deliver them if they would perform every command of God with exactness; rather, I think that they probably taught them that God would deliver them from evil - from the power of the adversary - from spiritual death, if you will - and give them an eternal reward.

My friend didn't understand how I could believe that, since "the text doesn't support that interpretation." The following was my response:
I always stress parsing what actually is said in written text or by someone we hear to understand what we can assert as definitive and then considering the entire context to see if there are possible implications from whatever simply is a given - what is indisputable. In Alma 56:47-48, all we are told is that the mothers “taught” their sons that “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” From what, we are not told. We only assume it was from physical death in war because of the situation (war and their preservation in it) that caused them to relate it to Helaman. Given that, it is legitimate to look at the rest of the context and realize that there might be other (or a more comprehensive), legitimate meanings for “God would deliver them.”

They had been “taught” - which might be a one time occurrence as they were leaving home. However, it seems like these young men had been “taught” dedication and obedience and exactness all their lives. Individuals might change in an instant, but it is unlikely that 2,000 young men would suddenly become super-righteous overnight. It is much more likely that they had been “taught” that God would deliver them from anything that might threaten their spiritual, eternal well-being than that their mothers simply pulled them aside on the way out the door and promised them they wouldn’t be killed in the war.

Remember, those mothers had seen many of their friends (and perhaps some fathers and sons and husbands) slaughtered by other Lamanites - killed in the act of calling upon God even though they did not “doubt God”. They knew full well that God didn’t always deliver His people from physical death, but they were convinced that He could deliver them from their natural, fallen, sinful and lost state - from spiritual death. (Alma 24:27 - “thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people.”)

Alma 53: 20-21 makes it obvious that these young men had been taught all their lives the reward for perfect faithfulness, obedience and dedication - the same reward their own “pioneers” had received, even those who had been killed for their faith, dedication and lack of doubt. I think it’s fairly safe to guess, as a parent myself, that their mothers reiterated what they had been taught all their lives as they were heading off to war - that if they did not doubt and obeyed every command with exactness that God would deliver them, no matter the physical outcome.

Remember, this was Helaman who was reporting about these young men. He was as close to them as any Nephite - ever. Yet, apparently, he did not know the specifics about what their mothers had taught them until they told him about it. He had been there when the parents had decided to fight; he was the one who had talked them out of it by invoking their sacred promise; he had been chosen as their sons’ military leader because they trusted him as a religious leader. He was intimately involved in the decision of their sons to fight in place of their parents.

Perhaps “taught” simply can mean “told” - but I tend to believe that Helaman would have been there for the great send off when all the mothers collectively told all the sons that they would not die in battle - that he would have known about it and not have to be told after the fact.

Having said all that, I do not discount the idea that the Lord promised the parents that He would preserve their sons in battle like He had preserved the sons of Mosiah on their missions - that is was couched in terms of “You’ve sacrificed enough lives to follow me. I won’t require that you sacrifice your children.” Even if that really is all it was, that’s enough for me, since it makes it an incredibly powerful story of the rewards of deep and difficult sacrifice and dedication.

Am I saying that this is the correct view of this statement? No. It might simply have been, “Stay valiant and none of you will be killed.” All I’m saying is that when you parse the text, there is more than one possible meaning for that phrase (”God would deliver them.”) - just as there is more than one possible meaning for “all the earth” in the Old Testament flood narrative.