Charity: An Opportunity Missed

20-billMy wife and I were out for our morning walk on a cold December morning. We were busy talking about our plans for family holiday activities when we met part of a small family coming toward us—a woman and two children.

The woman was African—or at least the bright dress she wore, with no coat, seemed African. The children, a girl of about nine and a boy of about six or seven, wore thin jackets. The girl had outsize shoes that looked like they could have been her mother’s, or perhaps something from a thrift store rack. My mind registered the mother and children as perhaps recently arrived refugees. I hoped they had a secure place to settle in.

We were several seconds past them when a voice whispered in my mind, “She could have used that $20 bill you’re carrying in your pocket. You were looking for a way to donate to charity.”

I looked over my shoulder but could not see them. Which way had they gone? Around the corner to the store we just came from? Down a side street? Into one of the houses along here? No, probably not that.

Why am I so slow to see opportunity right in front of me?

What would she have said if I had offered her the money?

Most of us probably walk around every day overlooking opportunities to give and to serve. Often we’re too wrapped up in our own concerns; that is not only usual, but normal for mortals. We have to look outward to discern how others may be in need. The tip-off might not be a frayed old coat. It might be a frayed life, or a threadbare, gloomy outlook. It might be thin, struggling faith.

Maybe it’s too awkward to think of helping; we don’t know how to begin. Maybe “You have a problem and I want to help” could be phrased a bit more diplomatically. “Is there a way I could help you? May I?”

Maybe there’s a risk that helping could get out of control. “If I offer to help, they may take me up on it, and I have so much giong on right now. . . .” If we’re going to say “May I help?” we’d better mean it.

Offering to help might lead to more of a commitment than I expect. “What if $20 isn’t enough? That’s all I have to give right now.” Not so. We can give time, we can share faith in the heavenly proclamation of peace to mankind, and we can share resources. If we don’t have more money to give, perhaps we know someone who does. Or perhaps the time we give could help someone in need find spiritual or temporal aid to take away hopelessness or pain.

A little thought can open our minds to a lot of possibilities.

And what would that woman have said if I had stopped to offer her the $20?

I don’t know. But next time I’m going to find out.

 

“Some Assembly Required”

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Bolts, washers, and end caps ready for packaging.

Probably every adult reading this has had the experience of buying something that needs to be assembled according to “simple, easy” instructions. And many have had the experience of getting part way through the task only to find that a key component is missing.
The parts list says: “Eight 5/16 X 5 ½” bolts. Eight ¾” washers. Eight tan plastic bolt end caps.” Now where was that last bolt? Let’s see . . . one, two, three, four . . . seven! Only seven 5/16 by 5 ½” bolts! Now how am I supposed to finish this???
Sound familiar? The absolute worst time for this to happen is on Christmas Eve. (I can remember making a metal shim out of a piece of copper so a bolt would stay in place and I could finish putting together a little boy’s tricycle before morning.)
Maybe all the bolts are there, but one hole is in the wrong place. Or maybe the bolt is just too big to fit.
So we mentally curse the dunderheads at the factory who left out that one bolt, or drilled the hole in the wrong place.
Well, this afternoon I found myself on the other end of the process. In fulfilling a volunteer service assignment, I ended up working in a furniture factory putting together the hardware packages—bags of bolts, washers, and bolt end caps—that go with a piece of assemble-it-yourself furniture. It is precisely the kind of work I never could have done for a living. It seemed mind-numbing at first. Back when I was 16, I had the opportunity to visit a Chevrolet assembly plant in Wisconsin. Workers standing on the assembly line used air wrenches to tighten the same two or three bolts in the car frame, then stepped away until the next frame moved into place, and repeated the same process over and over and over. Never! No matter how much it paid, I thought, I could never do that hour after hour, day after endless day. (Maybe that is why robots are doing so much of the work in factories these days.)
But this afternoon I learned several things: the work is not as mindless as it looks; I can make the assignment challenging; and my mind can accomplish others things at the same time.
The supervisor showed me how to do it: Line up eight bolts in a specially slotted board, count out eight washers and eight end caps, put them all in a plastic locking bag, roll up that bag and pack it into a storage bin, then start over. He opened a new box of bolts for me and left me on my own. Soon I was experimenting with different ways to do the job more effectively or quicker. Some things worked well, others didn’t. I found the system that worked best for me, got into a rhythm, and built up my speed. Before the end of the shift, I met the goal I had set for myself—use up that entire large box of bolts and start on a new one.
After some practice, I found I could multitask; my body and part of my brain were doing the job at hand while another part of my brain was turning over and fleshing out some new ideas.
Life can be like that. Certain tasks can seem mundane, boring, even useless, though they must be done for us to move forward. We can curse them and put them off, or we can accept the challenge, find our own ways to simplify and overcome them, then move on to things we feel are more productive.
But in meeting the challenge, we grow, and God makes us more capable of doing the things He wants us to do, the things that are most important for us to do on earth.
That is the way we move toward the perfection the Savior expects of us (see Matthew 5:48). We will never reach it here on earth, but here on earth is the place to learn how to go forward in eternity.

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.

 

“The Merry Minuet” Goes On

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Slim Pickens as a crazed Air Force pilot riding a nuclear bomb down to certain oblivion in “Dr. Strangelove.”

Back in the late 1950s, my favorite singing group, The Kingston Trio, performed a song called “The Merry Minuet” by Sheldon Harnick. It mocked the current tragedies of the time and the possibility of our world ending in nuclear war. I suppose it was a form of whistling past the graveyard—of taking some of the edge off of the unthinkable possibilities. At 14, I thought the song was terribly funny and witty.
I still listen to my old Kingston Trio favorites, but I notice that this particular song isn’t included in their collections. And I can’t laugh about that song anymore. The reason isn’t that the world seems more grim now than it did back then, but that I am disappointed because the world doesn’t seem to have changed much. Almost 60 years have passed, and what progress have we made toward world peace or harmony?
The song spoke of natural calamities, of strife in Africa and Iraq, of political unrest and possible upheaval in Europe. Then—well, listen to some of the words that followed:
“But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For man’s been endowed with the mushroom-shaped cloud
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away . . . .”
Members of my generation were confronted in our teens with the possibility that nuclear war could end the world as we knew it. Want to see how that messed with our minds? Go online and look for a movie called “On the Beach,” a grim 1959 drama about the last survivors of a global nuclear war waiting in Australia to die as radiation poisoning in the atmosphere finally teaches them. Or check out the Peter Sellers black comedy classic “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” At the end of that one, audiences didn’t know whether to laugh or go home and hide.
In the decades that passed, the world was shaped politically by the concepts of Mutually Assured Destruction and détente to make nuclear war an almost unthinkable option for any nation. Perhaps we all came to breathe a little easier. The duck-and-cover drills of our youth and the idea of building a backyard bomb shelter faded away. (See the more recent movie “Blast from the Past.”) We all thought the Cold War was gone for good.
But now there are militant terrorist groups—not nations, but fanatical ideologues–unimpressed by the concept of détente and undeterred by the fear of Mutually Assured Destruction. Some of them would not care how many people might have to die in a nuclear exchange so long as they were the last people left standing. Some of them would dearly love to get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Listen to the ending of “The Merry Minuet”:
“What nature doesn’t do to us
Will be done by our fellow man.”
With random, unpredictable terrorist attacks, there seems to be almost no place on earth where we can be safe from the harm done by our fellow man or woman, if that person is determined to kill or wreak havoc. And a resurgent Russia, with egotistical, ambitious Vladimir Putin leading the way, seems bent on confronting the West militarily. So where is safety?
Of course, there are steps we can take—learn how to avoid places where terror attacks might happen, build that backyard bunker, maybe carry a weapon. But nothing can offer complete security. There is always the crazy who suddenly snaps when you’re on hand, or the stray meteorite.
I don’t mean to make light of the possibilities. Of course we should be as prepared as possible to protect ourselves. But life has always been unpredictable, and may be uncertain at times despite our best efforts. I believe that the best protection is to live a good life. Sure, protect yourself as best you can. But live so that you can confidently ask for God’s protection. He truly does give it when we still have work to do for Him on this earth. And when He chooses to take us, we will be prepared to meet Him—even if death comes at the hands of someone bent on murder and destruction.
The only real protection the world has against people like those is for all of us to live God’s laws. There will always be weapons of destruction available to people who want to use them. Preventing sick and hate-filled people from having these weapons is an excellent idea, of course, but ultimate protection lies in creating a world where there is no one who has the desire to use them.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

What’s in Your Handcart?

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Historic painting of handcart pioneers by LDS artist C.C.A. Christensen.

A few days ago, someone I respect and admire shared feelings of failure and lack of self-worth for not being able to handle the pressing burdens of life. They are the common burdens of everyday mortality—conflicts between work and home responsibilities, too little money, too few hours in the day. But to each of us at one time or another, they may seem overwhelming. We may feel that we just do not measure up.

I wish this person could look into the mirror of the soul and see inherent strengths and progress already made. But I know all too well the temptation to feel lacking on the inside—wholly inadequate for life. Nevertheless, I have learned from experience, and I want my friend to know this: You are far stronger and more accomplished than you are seeing right now. You are winning, not losing. You have what is needed to gain the victory.

Each summer Mormon youth throughout the world take part in handcart treks commemorating the 1,100-mile journey of Latter-day Saint pioneers across the Great Plains of the United States. In the 1850s, many converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived from Europe with almost nothing. Thousands of them took part in the westward migration over what was named the Mormon Trail, ending in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Often they were too poor to be outfitted with wagons and teams, so many groups made the trek on foot pulling or pushing two-wheeled handcarts that held everything they owned.

One of the groups, the Martin-Willie Handcart Company, became famous for the tragedy that befell them when they were trapped on the plains of Wyoming in October by an early winter storm. Many froze to death before they could be rescued. But other handcart companies made the trek over the years without the notice of the world in general. Men, women, and children pulled and pushed their handcarts day after day despite fatigue or pain or thirst or debilitating illness. There was no choice but to push onward over rocky, sometimes steep, terrain in burning sun or cutting wind. For more than 100 days, they moved toward and longed for their new home in the West. For some in the lesser-known groups, death on the plains was also the end of the journey. But the company moved on.

Young people who make those commemorative treks today know that after a few days of pulling or pushing their two-wheeled carts, they will return to comfortable homes, to a world with running water and cell phones. The pioneers had only a vision awaiting them—a distant Zion of the future. Perhaps occasionally on their trek they would get a glimpse of its beauty in the mind’s eye or a feel of its joy in the heart. Those were moments to cherish. But mostly, the trek was marked by labor and struggle that must have seemed like it would never end. Some they lightened their loads by throwing out of their carts things that had once seemed precious or important to them.

One pioneer said later that they came to know God in the “extremities” of their trials. A survivor of the Martin company asserted: “The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay.” Some would later tell of a day or an hour when they determined that they simply could go no farther. The next clump of sagebrush, the next rock outcropping, the top of the rise was their limit; at that point they would fall victims finally to exhaustion. And then, when they reached that critical point, suddenly they would feel unseen hands pushing the cart, and they knew angels were lending their strength to the task.

When we look back on their sacrifices, we often count ourselves blessed because we have not been called on to endure their tests. But the truth is that we are all, each one of us, engaged in our own trek across the thirsty, trying plains of mortality. We each are carrying in our carts the weight of things that have seemed important or essential in some way. I cannot know all you are carrying in your cart—the weight of pains or weaknesses or griefs—and you cannot know all that is in mine. Perhaps each one of us needs to reevaluate our load. Maybe something that once seemed essential is no longer needed. Maybe something we once chose is actually dead weight holding us back. Maybe we need to throw it out and leave it on the plains. We might need a savior, a redeemer—the Lord Jesus Christ—to help us shed some of these burdens of guilt.

But it is not for me to say what you should get rid of or what you must carry in your cart.

I can only observe the progress of other travelers with regard to where we all began the journey. And I want to say to that person I love, “You can do this. Look back for a moment; see how far you have come. Look ahead. You have already conquered obstacles like these, and you are constantly getting stronger on the journey.”

You are not failing, and you are not alone. Your Eternal Father knows exactly where you are on this trek. He is pleased with your effort, and he can lovingly send help—even unseen help—when he knows you need it most.

For now, keep going, knowing that you are on your way to victory. Your spiritual muscles may be sore and the way ahead may look stormy. But you are doing well, growing stronger, and you have protection that you cannot see. The struggle is not over—but all is well.