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Dawn in the Desert

cacticm51-23nv16_p1030216bWe’ve just spent a week in desert areas of southern Arizona, and it has helped me appreciate again the great variety and diversity of life on this planet, as well as the nature of our own growth.

When I was a boy, the Walt Disney company released a fascinating and beautiful film called The Living Desert. It taught a lot about the life we don’t see when we gaze out over a landscape filled with sagebrush and cactus—about the insects, reptiles, plants, birds, and other creatures that go about living in an interactive ecosystem.

By day, deserts look very bleak and forbidding. But dawn or sunset shows things in a different light.


There is struggle here for life,

challenge on every side,

and peril in the living things,

both plant and predator.

Thorns and spines protect

hardy plants and tenacious trees

sucking scarce moisture from the earth.

applesrx-23nv16_dsc00986bOnly on penalty of pain

can hungry desert dwellers

taste green succulence.

Venom, claws, and tearing teeth

are survival tools

for animals born and bred

in this environment.

There is no ease here

for any living thing.


So, too, for humans.

Some choose desert places

for their solitude,

or for opportunity

to do and be freely,

without dictate

of strict society.

Others choose luxuriant habitats

where thorns and spines,

venom and ripping claws

are seldom visible.

Rarely do we look, and understand,

that every environment,

whether place of choice

or of inevitable destiny,

has its frightening perils,

some obvious to the eye,

some disguised as pleasure.


A dawning in the desert

or the setting of the sun

put new and clear perspective

needlesrx-23nv16_dsc00989bon spikes and thorns and armor

and the life that these protect.

What endures here is hardy,

prepared for constant struggle,

magnificent in strength

and ability to thrive,

beautiful in resolve.


Blessed are the wise

who can see the beauty.


Good-bye to One of God’s Nobles

carl-funeralWe said good-bye to our friend Carl a couple of days ago. He passed away doing something he loved—looking for a little gold. Someone found him in one of the wild places of Idaho where he loved to go to pan for small flakes of the precious metal.

Carl would smile and say that he had gold fever. But he never cared about getting rich from the gold. He just loved being out in those beautiful, solitary places. It was always Carl and his beloved companion Buddy, the black and white spaniel, out there by one of those streams. Then a few months ago, sadly, Buddy had to be put down.


Carl teaches a grandson about panning for gold.

Carl always gave away the gold he discovered. Many family members and friends have a memento of his search for gold—a necklace with a small blue stone and a flake of gold for the women, or a tie tack in the shape of a gold pan with a flake of gold in it for the men.

That was the way Carl lived—always giving. We saw him from time to time walking past our house to check on the blind widow who lived on the other side of us. We learned at the funeral that he wasn’t just checking in at her door. He would sit and read to her for her pleasure.

Carl was buried with military honors. He served in Vietnam almost 50 years ago. He was trained for combat, but his posting had him in support areas behind the lines. He could not stand the Army’s “hurry up and wait” between assignments, so he scrounged some materials and built a “hootch” for him and his tent mates to live in. It afforded more protection than their tent. When his superiors saw what he had done by himself, they pulled Carl off of some of his regular assignments, provided the needed materials, and had him build more hootches to house other soldiers.

He was always resourceful. Sometime after returning home, he was in a snowmobile accident that severely damaged nerves in his left arm. He could use his hand well enough, but he carried the arm in a homemade leather sling strap he had made. He became a handyman to people in the small pioneer farm town where he lived. He was skilled in carpentry, plumbing, and maintenance. From across the street, he watched over our house for us when we weren’t there.

One day Carl saw me out trying to cut some dead limbs off a tree. He strolled over to tell me I ought to let him do that. What he said next was horrifying: “You’re so much more valuable to the kingdom of God than I am, and you could get hurt up there working on that ladder.” I assured him firmly that if there were any question of ranking in heaven, I would certainly not rank above him. But there was no dissuading him from the chore. Standing on the ladder, he used his good arm to swing the chain saw up to rest the blade on a limb, then triggered the saw to cut through the dead wood, and when the limb fell, let the saw swing in an arc down past his leg. He did it again and again, until the dead limbs were gone.


The gold never made him a rich man–but the searching did.

The funeral was well-attended. Everyone in town knew and trusted Carl. When Mrs. S. went across the street beforehand to see if she could retrieve our house keys, Carl’s daughter had to sort through many sets. It seems Carl had access to quite a number of the houses in town. We never knew when he had visited our house unless he told us; he always left everything in good order.

Carl was not perfect. None of us is. But he was vastly underrated by many people—including Carl. He was the kind of person the world desperately needs. His passing is a loss to us all.

With all he knew about everyone in town, I never heard him say a critical word about anyone. It just wasn’t in him. He could laugh about someone’s very human foibles—including his own—or allow as how he might have done things differently. But he wasn’t one to speak ill.

In his relationships with other people as in his hobby, Carl always looked for the gold.


What Does ‘Perfect’ Mean?


Do we focus on the withered edges, or on the beauty at the heart?

“Be ye perfect,” the Savior said,

like our Father in heaven.

It seems too bold a thought, at first,

And then—impossible!

How shall we aspire to this,

we mortals marred by flaws,

full of fears and weakness,

incapable of good at times

because we lack the will,

or stamina of spirit.

We do not have it in us

to conquer every sin,

or even our own doubts.

It seems sacrilege, damning pride,

to think the very thought

that “perfect” is possible.


And yet—it was His command.

There was no qualifying word,

no “if,” or “almost,” but only: “Be ye.”

He would not have said it

if the goal were beyond all hope,

or the mere thought forbidden.


What, then, does “perfect” mean?

The best of humankind

Is like the flower of summer,

with striking beauty at first sight,

but flaws and withered spots

on closer, careful view.

We cannot feed from

common mortal soil

without developing

earth-borne impurity of sin,

nor bask in burning sun

without the sometime searing

of our tenderest parts.

These flaws and lasting damage

we alone cannot repair.


And yet—it was a firm command,

with no deadline,

preceded by directions

to prepare us for the task.

Be meek and humble.

Hunger and thirst after good.

Be merciful, seek peace,

“let your light so shine”

that it brings glory to our Father.

Let go of even precious things

when they become stumbling blocks.

Love your enemies—yes,

even that is required.



When we admire finished beauty, do we recognize that we are still in the bud?

We are not as He.

How dare we even think it?

And yet—how could we tell Him no?


He bought us with a price.

He will mend the flaws,

forgive the glaring sin

if we but offer up

our stubborn, prideful will.

In everlasting patience

He lets us do the work

step by daily step.

But in His command

is the direction to begin.


This is not a project

to be finished in a day,

nor in the coming year.

It will be consuming labor

for all eternity.


But in this task for coming eons,

we shall begin today.

Remembering Those Who Served

Hand on wallMy mother’s older brother was in Pearl Harbor the day it was bombed. “I was running along Battleship Row while they [the Japanese] were sinking them,” he wrote in a one-page account I found in my mother’s papers after she died. When the attack started, Uncle Eddie had been sent to shore in a motor launch to fetch the officers for his ship; he had to swim for his life when shrapnel blew a hole in the bow of the launch.

My father, like many young men his age, felt the call to serve and joined the Navy in early 1942. He, two of his brothers, and my mother’s two brothers all served during the war. One fought his way across Europe with the infantry. One was a bombardier over Europe. One served with an Allied force in Russia. My father was accepted in Officers Candidate School and was commissioned an ensign on the day I was born. There is some strange irony, I suppose, in the fact that he saw less combat action than the others, then was killed in a car accident only a few months after coming home to civilian life when the war ended.

I grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s with a stron
g sense of gratitude for what they had sacrificed to make the world safer for my generation.

I knew veterans who served in Korea. I had friends who fought, and in two cases died, in Vietnam. I know others who have fought in wars since then. Many of them don’t get the respect they deserve for their willingness to sacrifice in defense of liberty—their own and that of others. Many who came home from Vietnam were treated cruelly and shamefully by people who should have celebrated their safe return.

Let it be clear that I am not saying we should celebrate war, in victory or loss. War is a terrible failure of the human spirit on the grandest scale. It is a great evil that ought to be eliminated. It is often brought on by evil in the arrogant, grasping hearts of those who crave power. Wars may be justified at times by patriots, but the combat is frequently mismanaged and manipulated by misguided politicians who ought to bear at least some of 3 GIsthe blame for the waste of lives. While others may disagree, I have come to see the war we fought in Vietnam in that light.

But I have deep respect for the veterans who fought it. They served no matter their feelings about the conflict and its causes. Like my father and his generation, they were willing to put everything on the line when their country needed them. Those who have served in the Middle East and Afghanistan have seen their duty clear even when the cause might have been murky.

Let us honor them—all of them—equally for their courage and sacrifice. It does not matter in which conflict they gave “the last full measure of devotion,” to quote Mr. Lincoln at BinghamGettysburg. Whether they laid down their lives on the battlefield or came home to continue contributing in civilian life, we owe them our thanks and respect. No one should question their devotion to freedom. They stepped up when they were called. For that alone, we owe them thanks.

That is what I will be thinking about this Memorial Day.


The Treasures We Seek

DC 928_P1020531P

These gems in the national museum of natural history are among the most precious stones known to mankind. They are priceless.

This does not mean that they are without monetary value; it only means that no one you or I know could ever hope to have enough money to buy one of them.

DC 928_P1020530P

The Hope Diamond

They have storied histories. This means some of the stories you hear about them are true, but some are questionable. There are stories that one of them is cursed—that those who own it come to tragic ends. A former owner, who evidently passed away peacefully, laughed at the stories. It is said that the woman who owned one of these large diamond used to let her Great Dane wear it.

All of the pendants, necklaces, bracelets, earrings, and rings in this collection are exquisite artistic creations, carefully crafted in gold and silver to display in the best light these rare and fine diamonds, sapphires, or rubies.

And yet—what good are they?

The fact that they are here and their past owners are gone simply attests to the truth of the saying: “You can’t take it with you.”

They lie under guard in museums, to be appreciated only by the few who happen upon DC 928_P1020532Pthem. They represent great wealth—but this wealth accomplishes nothing. It does not feed the poor, educate the unlearned, help to heal the sick, or bring comfort to those in need. What good is it? It simply attests to the fact that a few privileged people have been able to amass great fortunes.

There is in all of us something that accords honor and respect to the people who own these objects in life. Why? Why do we so often feel a certain awe toward people who possess such rare objects? Is there anything in those gems alone that could endow their owners with special qualities?

In this same museum there is an exhibit of mummies, accompanied by an explanation of Egyptian beliefs about the hereafter. The Egyptians believed that our eternal destiny would be determined not but the weight or quality of anything we possessed in mortal life, but by the weight and purity of our souls.

Please understand that I am not judging the people who owned these rare gems. I did not know them. They may have been charitable, caring individuals who used their wealth to accomplish great good among their fellow beings. They may have amassed untold treasures of the soul, the kind the Lord Jesus Christ talked about. None of us can know the weight of their souls.

But this exhibition of opulence and wealth raises a question that each one who sees it may need to consider.

What kind of treasures are we amassing in the things we collect in this life and the things we pursue every day? Are we laying up the kind of treasure we can take with us?


The Perennial Problem of Evil

St. George

St. George slaying the dragon.

Pick a day—any day, in our lifetimes—and you’ll find in the headlines stories of depredation and tragedy, of murder and torture, of degradation and slaughter of human beings. The systematic killing of innocent men, women, and children trapped in a mall in Kenya is simply the latest of these outrages against humanity.

To describe this slaughter in general terms seems to minimize the horror. To describe it in specifics brings revulsion.

Far from being some kind of blow for justice, it is a declaration of inhumanity and collective corruption by the group behind it.

Always after an occurrence like this, the question is asked somewhere: “How could a loving God, one who truly cares for His children, let something like this happen?”

The answer is simple: because He promised you, and me, and every one of us that when He sent us here to earth to learn and grow, He would give us freedom to choose whether to do good or evil. It is a promise He will not violate. But we must not blame Him when someone else chooses to use that agency to do great evil.

The implied question here—“Why didn’t He protect the innocents?”—used to bother me. Some years ago, after one of these troubling tragedies, I spent time pondering this question. A deeply personal spiritual experience—a moment of personal revelation, if you will—taught me that He is aware of every one of His children who suffers, and He will not permit any one of them to lose blessings that might have been gained in this life when it is cut short. He will compensate them in His own way; His touch will be sweet to their eternal spirits. Those who have used their agency to harm others will face His justice, and it will be appropriate to their crimes.

But why does God permit evil to exist at all?

If it were not for the existence of evil, we could not know and appreciate goodness, love, and joy. We could not grow by choosing good.

A very wise man, a prophet named Lehi, taught centuries ago: “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. . . . Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other. . . . [M]en are free . . . to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2: 11, 16, 27, Book of Mormon). This passage teaches of a Savior, Jesus Christ, who willingly and lovingly made it possible for us to repent of our choices, because we all sin and there is no power in us to undo evil choices and save ourselves. We would be lost without Jesus Christ, who paid the price for our sins.

His eternal justice will be proportionate to the crimes of the unrepentant and those who take innocent lives, a crime for which they cannot make restitution. His mercy and grace will ease the pain of those who have been hurt. But in this life each one of us will have the promised opportunity to choose good or evil.

Since the choices of others are beyond our control, there is only one way in which we can make any individual dent in evil. Many years ago, in a museum, I stood and studied a famous painting of St. George slaying the dragon—a dragon representing sin. We have no power to slay that dragon except within ourselves, and even then we lack the power to do it by ourselves. We need that great Redeemer and Mediator, the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Paul taught the Romans: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:23–24). Likewise, the prophet Nephi testified of the grace of Jesus Christ: “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God: for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23, Book of Mormon).

Even knowing the goodness of God and His love for His children who suffer, I still mourn for the pain of those who are victims of depravity. I pray for them and the loved ones left behind. But dealing with these tragedies in our minds and spirits is not so much a question of accepting His will as it is of accepting His wisdom. He will bless us for the use of our agency in doing good, and He will compensate us for the ways in which other’s use of agency brings evil into our lives. His divine, eternal plan covers all of it.

What others may do with their agency is out of my control. My efforts are more wisely spent on struggling to overcome my own foolish or wicked choices. I want the Lord to know that I am trying, and that I understand the need for the grace of Jesus Christ in my own life. I want him to help me slay that dragon. I so desperately need His grace “through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” I so desperately want my faith to demonstrate that I know “it is by grace we are saved after all we can do.”


Preparing to Meet Him

San Jose Costa Rica La Paz Stake

San Jose Costa Rica La Paz Stake

They wait quietly, more than 600 teenagers at a youth conference, dressed in their Sunday best. Some whisper or talk quietly, some read from their scriptures or write notes. They have been waiting for more than an hour, and when he finally comes into the outdoor theater, they stand respectfully until he bids them be seated.

This is no rock star or entertainer, no wealthy businessman or well-placed politician.  He is a man of God. They know him by reputation. They hear spiritual authority in his voice when he speaks, and finally they feel it in their own hearts, with a surety that rhetoric and logic cannot bring.

He begins with a little humor, some of self-deprecating. He has their complete trust.

By the time he finishes speaking to them, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is telling them that they must prepare to serve the Savior when He comes again. And within their hearts they resolve to be ready.

It is a message that Elder Christofferson carries to teens, young single adults, families, and local leaders in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Panama over ten days. The opportunity to travel with his party and to help cover the events is one reason for the gap between entries in this blog. (Trouble with an Internet provider—much more mundane—is the other reason.) Now, looking back, I have a chance to reflect on the effects of faith in the lives of those who greeted Elder Christofferson.

On Sunday mornings, chapels in the meetinghouses are filled two hours before he arrives; the congregation spills over into overflow rooms and even tents in the parking lots. He is not the only General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints visiting Central America for those few days, so perhaps some come not knowing who they will hear in their Sunday meeting. But it seems that they come more for the word than for the person.

DSC00657bIt is evident that they do not come simply as empty vessels waiting to be filled. Many obviously ponder what they are taught. Many take notes, either on paper or tablet computers and laptops. If you ask them afterward what they heard, most will be able to give you a thoughtful analysis of what they have learned. And it will be different in every case, because the Spirit has spoken to the heart of each person what he or she needed to hear.

Will every one of them keep his or her resolve to be prepared to meet the Savior? Or will some fall away?

Human nature being what it is, some may fall away. We all fall short of our own expectations of ourselves, of our own finest resolutions sometimes.  Sadly, some of us do it so often that we lose the power to live up to our spiritual privileges. In the end, when He knocks we may be too ashamed to open.

But some will keep their resolve. Some will be waiting in faith, eager for the opportunity to serve Him when He comes, eager to say, “Master, I will.” Watching now as members listen gratefully to an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, I can’t help but be awed by the thought of the spiritual force they will be when He comes again.