Monday, December 27, 2010

Holiday Season Hiatus

My family and I are visiting family out-of-state, so I am taking a hiatus from blogging here until the new year. I will post my 2011 New Year's Resolution on . . . you guessed it . . . New Year's Day.  The regular daily posts will begin again on Monday, January 3rd.

I will try to handle the withdrawal symptoms properly and not give in to the urge to write from now until I write the New Year's post.  (*grin*)

May the next few days be blessed days for all of you - and may we all grow closer to our Heavenly parents this upcoming year than we are on this date.

God bless all of you.  You have enriched my life immeasurably.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

My Christmas Wish for All

May this day be one that is devoid of contention, anger, hard feelings and condemnation. May we commit to make it such within our own spheres of influence.

May love fill our hearts to overflowing this day. May we commit to allow it to be so on other days.

May our differences matter less than our common status as children of God. May we commit to see it as so no matter with whom we associate.

May all of us appreciate and respect those with whom we disagree - in word as well as in deed. May we commit to so speak and do, even with those who persecute and spitefully use us.

In all our deepest desires, may there be a road before us - and may we allow others to walk their own individual roads without throwing stones and placing unnecessary obstacles in their way. May we commit to walk thus, no matter how often our roads intersect.

May the example of those whose lives we use as our guide be ever before our eyes - and be honored in the way we live with and treat others. May we commit to remember to look back as we move forward.

May we see each other as God sees us. May we commit to be God's love for others.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Undeniable Revelation Really Does Occur: My Family's Personal Christmas Star


On Christmas morning, 2008, while we were reading about the wise men and discussing the possibilities of when and how and where and why the star appeared (and how it was ONLY a sign for those who recognized its significance), my oldest son said something that blew me away. He said, in effect: 

"The star for the wise men was like Jeff's baby blessing for us. Its appearance showed the wise men that the prophecy that had been given really did come from God, just like Jeff's health problems (his "physical trials") show us that his baby blessing really did come from God." 


To explain more fully: 

When our second son was born 20 years ago, he was 19 days early. There were NO complications, and he was released from the hospital without any delays. He was small, but he was perfectly normal and healthy. When he received his baby blessing, he was told something that really jumped out and surprised us all. Paraphrasing, he was told that none of the physical trials he would face in his life would have the power to keep him from his appointed mission in life. 


At the time, I had absolutely no idea why I said those words. There was no indication he would have any physical trials, and I certainly didn't go into it thinking that I should "bless him" to have lots of physical trials. It was a really weird experience for me after the blessing ended and I realized what I had said.


Fast forward 20 years. 

Of our 6 kids, he is the only one with severe and constant allergy issues. He is the only one who required speech therapy as a pre-schooler. He is the only one to have had major, emergency surgery (burst appendix at the age of 11 that almost killed him) - the only one to develop a serious medical disability (Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes at the age of 15 that was severe enough when discovered that he was rushed to the hospital for immediate attention). Our kids and his friends joke regularly about a pool to guess which organ will fail next and when it will happen. (When my daughter joked about him "having a heart attack" over being accepted into one of his top college choices, a friend responded with, "Oh, no, not another organ!")


I am grateful God reached down and put those words in my mouth 20 years ago, because they really are a comfort to my wife, a blessing to Jeff, and a testimony to our entire family. When Jeff's appendix burst and later when he was diagnosed with diabetes, the hospital staff was amazed at how calmly we reacted both times - but they didn't realize we had been prepared for those things to happen years before.  

They really were nothing more than our own Christmas star - confirming prophecy that had been given long before.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Resting in Christ

'....the Lord does not say to us, “Come unto me all ye that labor and I will give you a mile-long checklist, the completion of which is necessary in order to earn my approval and love.”
What he does say is, “come unto me all ye that labor and I will give you rest.” '

We All Need Rest - Patty (I Believe in Christ)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How God Intervenes in Our Lives

There are numerous ways that God can intervene in our lives. The following are a few; my experience with each is summarized, as well.

1) The Lord intervenes directly. In short, he commands the elements to obey, and they do.

I have had that sort of experience - once with the actual elements.

2) He sends heavenly messengers to help without making their presence known.

I’m not sure how I would know if that had happened, since it would be done “without making their presence known”. Just saying. *grin*

3) The Lord inspires someone at the right time, and sends inspiration so that someone can help someone else.

I have had this experience (miraculously) in the past, perhaps most obviously driving late one Saturday night to get my son from college. The “coincidences” it took to have my "broken" car fixed so quickly were so numerous I choose to chalk it up to intervention.

4) Someone is inspired as to what she needs to do to fix a problem. This inspiration goes beyond her current knowledge.

I have had this experience many times in various situations, especially with blessings.

5) Someone feels the spirit to fix what he is capable of making based on his knowledge.

This has happened to me many times.

I hope we teach our children that God can and will intervene sometimes (directly and miraculously), but that the general rule for most people appears to be inspiration to self or others. On the other hand, I also know members in countries or areas where there is little or no chance of receiving help from others (like in medical emergencies), and the obviously miraculous seems to occur there much more often than here. I don’t know if that is due to differing levels of faith or differing levels of need for intervention, but I like to think it is the latter - that God will help more where more help truly is needed.

Monday, December 20, 2010

When the Church Works, It Is Wonderful to Behold: Yesterday, I Saw It Work

I had an experience today that touched me deeply, and I want to share it with everyone here. 

My advising assignment was changed this month to include my home ward and a different branch than I had been visiting previously.  Yesterday was the first time I had visited officially as an adviser, and I normally would not have been there on the third Sunday of the month.  We speak on the second Sunday of each month, so I normally visit the other branch on the fourth Sunday - so I don't have to be away from my family two consecutive Sundays.  However, since we will be out of town next Sunday visiting family in Oklahoma, I decided I should attend the branch this week. 

I normally like to arrive at least 30 minutes early, but, due to circumstances I don't need to detail here, I got there with only about 5 minutes to spare.  When I walked in and spoke with the Branch President, he told me that they had just realized as the young men were preparing the sacrament this morning that they were out of cups for the water.  They were discussing what to do as a result. 

They had decided to shift the sacrament to the end of the meeting, so the Branch President could drive home and bring a bunch of small drinking cups from his house.  It would be a bit awkward and difficult to manage, but it was the only solution that came to mind.  I suggested they go ahead and follow that plan, but that I would call someone in my home ward (which met at the exact same time as the branch) and see if they had any extra sacrament cups - and to see if anyone in that ward would be willing to miss their own meeting to deliver the cups to the branch by the end of their meeting.  The Branch President left to go home to get his cups, and I called a few numbers I had on my cell phone until I reached the High Priest Group Leader. 

He stepped out of the chapel to take my call just as my ward was singing the opening hymn.  He then went back into the chapel, spoke with someone in the YM Presidency, called me back and told me he would bring four sleeves of cups to the branch right away - enough that they could use them again for a couple of weeks if they were unable to get more of their own right away.  This good man told his wife and sons what was going on, left Sacrament Meeting before the sacrament was passed, drove 40 minutes to the branch, handed me the cups, then turned around and drove back to his ward without taking the sacrament in the branch - because he had to get back in time to teach the lesson today to his own high priests

I took the cups to the priests at the sacrament table in the middle of the final talk, and they finished preparing the trays and the table just as the final special musical number was ending - an absolutely gorgeous solo about the birth of Jesus.  They literally were lowering the covering on the sacrament as the final note was ending. 

There's something amazing about hearing the sacrament prayer said immediately following a beautiful musical number - when the Spirit is so strong you can feel it almost tangibly.  There's also something truly touching about listening to that prayer ("are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son")  while picturing the good man who made it all possible driving ALONE back to his own building, having missed participating himself in either unit so that he could make it happen for others and still perform the very mundane tasks of his calling. 

I know it's a "small thing" in the grand scheme of things, but it certainly brought to my mind the verse:

"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." 

God bless you, Brother Coons.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Day That Forever Changed My Life: or, What I Wish for My Children

24 years ago, I was sealed to the most beautiful girl I had ever known, with a promise that we would never be separated - ever - eternally.

I wrote the following three years ago at Christmas, and I am re-posting it today as a tribute to my split-apart.  I only can hope and pray that our children find what we have found - even if they don't find it in quite the "Ahhhhhh"-inspiring way we did. 

My highest wish for all of my kids (including those who were born outside our biological family) is that they remember who they are collectively and learn who they are individually - that they think for themselves - that they be happy with who they are but be willing to let go of who they don't want to be (even if they never accomplish that fully in this life) - that they come to know their Father and His Son - that they come to understand "the grace that so fully He proffers" them - that they see repentance not as a burden of guilt but rather as an exciting process of growth and completion and discovery - that they become truly peculiar treasures, together and alone - that they find that certain someone without whom they will never be perfect (complete and whole) - and that, with that certain someone, they carve out lives that will satisfy and challenge and reward and fulfill and complete.

My wish is that this madhouse we call Hotel DeGraw will be able to accommodate boarders eternally, even if in both the here and now and the hereafter that simply means a moment here and there as we watch our children establish homes (and perhaps hotels) of their own. If I see this wish fulfilled, I will live and die and live again happily - even if nothing else I desire comes to pass. If they can be as happy as I am, living as half of an eternal whole, I will praise God eternally for the love He has allowed me to experience and the joy He has given me.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Repentance As a Liberating Movement Toward the Ideal

The single most amazing and empowering and liberating aspect of Mormonism to me is the idea that we should pursue the ideal for the very reason that it is possible. Sure, it won't happen in this lifetime, but the encouragement to strive constantly to become perfected (complete, whole, fully developed) and the defining of that perfection as centered on attributes like those in the Beatitudes (that generally are defined in society as "feminine" and discouraged especially in men) is one of the mind-blowing tenets of our faith. I understand the problems that such a theology includes (particularly the tendency of too many to obsess and succumb to natural pressures [like depression and shame] inherent in striving to improve), but I prefer the target to the lack thereof. I've seen what the lack thereof produces, and it's not something I want to see spread.

Repentance, to me, is a very liberating idea. It is perhaps the most important aspect of the concept of an Atonement - the core of the statement that "the truth shall make you free." When "repentance" is defined simply by its technical definition of "change" and not by its culturally prescriptive, "feel horrible about yourself and realize how worthless you are" definition . . . That, in my mind, is what constitutes the "good news" of the Gospel - that God has forgiven us of the things we can't change on our own and freed us to focus on changing what we can (and being astounded in the end by what we can change with His help that we formerly couldn't change on our own).

This view of repentance (assisted self-improvement, if you will) also is the only antidote of which I am aware for self-deception, since it forces the repentant to face his or her weaknesses and foibles and character flaws openly and head-on. It requires the repentant to admit his or her self-deception and tackle it directly. You can't repent - truly change - without serious introspection and analysis and recognition of need and humility - and without the theological and doctrinal motivation to repent in this way, it is hard for many to undertake the effort.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Multiple, Internal Cultures of Mormonism


The difficulty of understanding, navigating in and accepting different cultures is one of the things that makes Mormonism so challenging to so many, since "The Church" itself is comprised internally and explicitly of at least three very different cultures:

1) the hierarchical, vertical, correlated, authoritarian, meta/global one;
2) the hierarchical, but much more egalitarian, ever-shifting-when-callings-change, very practical and minimally symbolic, micro/local one;

3) the highly symbolic, radically egalitarian, wildly-different-than-anywhere-else, idealized, temple one.

That complexity enthralls some people, but it also drives others bonkers. Some members are totally comfortable in one of those cultures but struggle in one or both of the others. Some thrive in the local community of believers but struggle with the stricter, correlated focus of the global leadership or the ambiguous symbolism of the temple; some love the symbolism of the temple ordinances but don't fit in with their own local community or struggle to accept prophetic authority; etc.
This is not an easy religion, and the multiple, internal cultures constitute one of the reasons that is so.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Key - the Easy Answer - to Raising Kids

I have heard some people who have left the Church claim that the Church is damaging to children. I simply can't accept that.

I have listened to too many educators in too many school districts all throughout the Eastern United States express the wish that all their students were as well-adjusted, respectful, happy, dedicated, bright and caring as the Mormon students. (and, yes, I understand that is a stereotype and there are plenty of exceptions) I know far too many wonderful Mormon children from all kinds of family situations to worry that raising children in the Church, in and of itself, will damage them. My own children were and are being raised in the Church, and, if I do say so myself, they have not been damaged by that upbringing.

Having said that, my major point is that each couple needs to raise their kids according to the dictates of their own conscience - and that nobody can blame anyone else for how they choose to do so. At the end of the day, raising my children is my and my wife's responsibility - not anyone else's and not the Church's. If I really believe something (one way or the other) and fail to act on that belief, I can't blame someone with whom I disagreed but to whom I ceded responsibility. That decision is mine - not theirs.

Kids can be raised in the Church by active, believing parents and end up beautifully - or really screwed up; kids can be raised in the Church by totally non-believing parents and end up beautifully - or really screwed up; kids can be raised in the Church by any situation between those extremes and end up beautifully - or really screwed up. The same can be said about kids raised with any other religious ideology - including atheism or agnosticism.

The key is not the classification we use to describe the parents, but rather the way those parents interact with their kids.

I personally will continue to raise my children in the Mormon Church, simply because, outside the issue of my own testimony, I know of no better foundation for children than what the Church's structure and programs can provide. I have seen just about everything out there, and I would choose the Church. I am honest with them about my beliefs whenever I feel I have to add a different perspective than what they get at church, but I do so in a way that does not denigrate those who provide that other perspective. I keep it to statements like, "I can understand why others believe that, but I see it this way," or, "I just don't know if that is true or not," etc.

Above all else, I refuse to transmit condescension and disdain and ridicule of others to my kids. I have seen what that has done in the lives of friends, and the result is condescending, disdainful and ridiculing kids.

I have no easy answer to raising kids, but I do believe it's mine and my wife's to figure out for ourselves and our kids. Period.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Charity Endureth All Things: Even Others' Different Understanding of Joy


I believe you can tell more about people (both inside and outside the Church) by how they deal with the joy others find outside their own organization (or with differing perspectives that bring joy inside their own organization) than perhaps by any other criterion. One type of person lacks internal joy, constantly finds fault with the joy of others and actively seeks to undercut that joy; another type is secure in her joy and not interested in the differing joy of others; the final type accepts and embraces the idea that others have their own degree of joy - and tries to add to it (and, through it, add to their own joy) whenever possible.

I don’t want to argue with the healthy and happy; I want to learn from them. I want to spend most of my time administering joy to the sick and searching.

How does this relate to charity enduring all things? 

I have learned over the course of my life that there is an element of "enduring" things that don't make sense initially - like the idea that others can find great joy and peace and contentment and fulfillment and progress outside of the Restored Gospel - or even outside Christianity itself.  When someone believes something passionately, especially when there is a degree of exclusivity to their perspective (as there is in my own), it is very easy to form the opinion that "true joy" exists only within that perspective and those beliefs - to devalue others' joy as counterfeit or substandard in some way.  This occurs largely because it's hard to see others' joy and not feel like one's own perspective and beliefs are compromised in some way. 

I personally believe that the opposite it true from within what I would call the "pure Mormon" perspective.  Pure Mormonism says things like, "Learn ye out of the best books" - "Seek wisdom and learning" - "Bring all your good with you and let us add to it" (which implies there is good elsewhere we need, as well, but too many members don't stop and think about that) - "There must needs be opposition in ALL things" (which would include the Church itself, and "opposition" in that section cannot mean people) - "The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth" - and so many more.  Pure Mormonism grants that others truly can find joy outside of the LDS Church, since it embraces truth wherever it may be.  Pure Mormonism posits that anyone can be saved and exalted regardless of the specifics of their religious beliefs and faith.  Pure Mormonism is charitable in that sense - in that it "endureth" (continues, exists) without condemning different viewpoints and belief structures as automatically leading others to Hell. 

Individual members too often forget that and slip into a more Protestant attitude with regard to the beliefs of others, but charity enduring all things includes, I believe, the existence of joy outside "our own" - and, in the ideal, learns from it and incorporates it freely and willingly.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Danger of Universal Expectations

I want my children and church friends to fast fully once they turn eight, but I can't turn that into an unbendable expectation for all of them. For example, there might be situations of which I am not aware that make fasting for 24 hours medically dangerous for one or more of them - like my son's diabetes. Also, I can't project a desire for perfect obedience onto them in areas where they simply aren't capable of that obedience yet. Furthermore, I can't impose an even stricter standard than the Church's basic standard and expect them to be able to live it - simply because I am able to do so. I might see it as a "higher law" and a good thing, when, in reality, for someone else it might be just as unrealistic expectation - and a very bad thing.

I know siblings from a family to whom I was quite close growing up who still struggle to this day with deep feelings of failure and inadequacy because they were expected to be perfect as children. They were taught that good kids did (fill in the blank) and bad kids did (fill in the blank) - and that good kids felt (fill in the blank) and bad kids felt (fill in the blank). One child was chastised simply because she was vivacious - so the boys liked to be around her. Everything that was said to them could be justified in some way as "just teaching the Gospel to my kids", but the black and white, all or nothing, same expectation for all approach did serious harm to those children.

My point is that we need to do the best we possibly can to teach correct principles,
but we can't ever lose sight of the fact that not everyone is going to be able to internalize every principle (or a particular one) and live them (or it) fully - right away, certainly, but in many cases not ever in this life. We have to be founded first on a charitable base and not primarily on a judgmental one.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

There Are Things I Keep and Ponder In My Heart

I have had some amazingly personal experiences, and I have had some amazing experiences. There is a big difference. In the latter case, I share them generally without hesitation; in the former case, I share them rarely and with real hesitancy - only when I feel compelled to do so. For me, it usually has more to do with the idea of "casting your pearls before the swine" than with any other way I can explain it.

My deeply personal experiences have an added layer of intimacy that my other experiences lack. I have an intense desire to avoid having them ridiculed or mocked, so I share them carefully and selectively.

This reaction reminds me of Luke 2:17-19. The shepherds broadcast their experience widely, but Mary reacted very differently. With regard to my own deeply personal experiences, I feel much like I imagine Mary felt when this passage says, "(She) kept all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Hippo Birdie, Two Ewes. (Don't worry. I won't tell anyone how old you are.)

To my wife on her birthday:

(Not to sound like your father too much, but I really do like this version of the classic birthday song)

Hippo birdie, two ewes. Hippo birdie, two ewes. Hippo birdie, deer Mi-chan. Hippo birdie, two ewes.


Look on the bright side.  If you are middle-aged, it means you will live a very long life!! 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Do We Really Ever Search for the Lost Sheep?


I have heard people talk of the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to find the one and reach the conclusion that all of us, at some point in our lives, could be that one. I believe that, in some theoretical sense, we all have elements of "the one" in us that have the potential to take us from the fellowship of the saints, but I also think that highlighting this weakens the message of shepherds leaving the ninety-nine to FIND the one. I think there has to be some kind of demarcation to identify that one - something that justifies a shepherd leaving everyone else to search exclusively for that one.

I think the clearest demarcation is the obvious one: "the one" cannot be found by looking around in the group that is gathered together and can be counted collectively. In practical terms, "the one" really is that member who does not attend our meetings and activities and is "lost" - truly unknown to the ninety-nine. It is the brother or sister whose name gets a blank stare when mentioned. I think one of the mistakes we make is in equating "the one" with the partially active man or the woman who won't accept Visiting and Home Teachers. We know them and where they are; we don't have to "find" or "search for" them.

Sometimes I wonder how many of the LOST sheep really get found - mostly because I wonder how often we diligently search for them.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Charity Endureth All Things: Learning to Love All - Truly, in Practice

We can't love truly those we don't serve - those we don't get to know personally - those we shun and avoid. There's no way around the need to risk pain and rejection if we are to "love one another as I have loved you" - especially since he also said that we are to love those who don't love us, since even the publicans love those who love them. We have to start where we can start, but we also have to reach outside our comfort zones at some point.

I believe it helps to identify those people in your own sphere of influence who constitute the "lepers, publicans, sinners and Samaritans" in your own eyes - and then consciously choose a way to serve somebody in that group of people. Once you are comfortable with that effort, pick another person or people to serve - until, gradually, you are able to serve anyone whom you feel impressed / prompted to serve. Just make sure you are doing so with NO other motives - not to convert them or to have them thank you and bless your name or for recognition or any other "compensation" of some kind.

Start perhaps with someone who has no reasonable way to pay you back in any way - or even to acknowledge your effort positively - or even to value you as a person or Mormon. It can be a painful process at first, but it is a powerful one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Love at First Sight and the Gospel


The very first thing that crossed my mind when I saw my future wife was, “Wow, she’s beautiful.” The very first thing that my future brother-in-law said to his mother after meeting my sister was, “Mom, I just met the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.”

So, what?

My wife was thin with long, auburn hair. She was shy, so she wasn’t ultra-popular, but she was quite striking by most “worldly” standards. My sister is not thin and never has been. She is a wonderful person, but by most “worldly” standards, it would be very hard to call her “beautiful”. Her husband, however, looked at her and was bowled over by her beauty.

My wife has given birth to six children, and both of our waistlines are nowhere near what they used to be. Her hair now is auburn only when she colors it, and mine looks best when it is cut short enough to not accentuate my expanding bald spot. However, we love each other now every bit as much as we did when we both were skinny and good-looking by common worldy standards.

I believe that we are influenced, often subconsciously, by the media and culture around us, but I also think that there is an ambiguous SOMETHING that reaches out and grabs some people when they meet some other people that is hard (ok, impossible) to quantify.

There is a profound corollary with how people react to the Restored Gospel in there somewhere.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Simplicity

The Peace of Simplicity - Carol Brown (Finding Peace amid Sorrow)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Polygamy: Joseph, the Seer - Brigham, the Organizer

It seems to me, in reading the materials of the time, that Joseph was almost obsessed with the idea of the universal sealing of his people into a distinct community and people of God. The dynastic sealings and adoptions are particularly fascinating in this regard. Also, it's hard to imagine anything else that would have gotten the early saints driven into their own Promised Land and allowed them to solidify into their own "ethnic group" for so long.

The following is an over-simplification, but it appears to me that the more heavenly visionary Joseph (the seer) was fixated on the eternal teaching of a universally sealed family of God (the community of Christ), while the more earthly visionary Brigham (the organizer) was fixated on building a new House of Israel (the kingdom of God) through obvious blood connections. Polygamy fits well into both of those visions, and by the end of the 19th Century I think it had solidified both visions in a very real way.

Assuming from the start that polygamy in and of itself is a terrible thing makes it hard to justify in any way; removing that assumption makes it much easier - even if it still is easy to criticize certain aspects or results. I choose not to make that assumption.

So, I simply don't classify it as a mistake. I don't think the implementation was handled very well, and I certainly don't think Joseph understood it perfectly until the last few years of his life (if then), but I don't see it as a mistake. I also realize I am working from the soapbox of hindsight, so I try to keep 1 Corinthians 13 in mind and take as charitable a view as possible.