Sunday, October 18, 2009

Modern-day Jonahs

Several years ago I was privileged to hear the setting apart blessing of a friend’s husband. In that blessing he was told that as he fulfilled his calling his family, including his wayward son, would be blessed and his son would return to the gospel.

As he filled that calling the blessing was realized. Their family was blessed. Testimonies strengthened and their son, who’s rebellion was legendary, began to change. The son was hired by a young LDS business owner who set a powerful example. Because of that example their son began to ask questions about the gospel and even attended occasionally.

Less than a year ago, we bid farewell to that family as they moved from our area. I saw them in church today and was delighted to visit with my dear friend.

But the visit was filled with tears of sorrow.

Since the move nothing has worked out for them. They are struggling financially when they hoped moving would allow them to pare down and live more simply. Their son fell even further than before and is in jail. At one point she thought her marriage was over. Her husband’s testimony is almost gone and she is struggling spiritually herself.

“I know the Church is true,” she said, “but I’m losing my desire to live it. I feel so empty inside”

I let her talk; praying that the Lord would guide any words I might feel prompted to say to her.

At one point, as we visited, she made an astonishing confession. Just before they moved her husband was being considered for a leadership position in the Church. Fearful of being called he ran. He made the move, she said, because of fear. He wanted to avoid that particular calling.

At that point everything crystallized. I remembered the blessing he had received and saw the effects of what happens when you don’t fill a calling or, worse, run from one.

I thought of Jonah and I realized his situation wasn’t an ancient anomaly. I realized that all around us, in the Church and in our personal lives, there are modern-day Jonahs.

Called by the Lord to cry repentance, Jonah had valid reasons for not wanting to go to the city of Nineveh to preach. Every one of his reasons and fears were defendable. Nineveh was wicked. If Jonah accepted the call persecution was to be expected, torturous death probable. And, in his own battle with doubt, Jonah felt failure was guaranteed. He couldn’t do the job so why not send someone else?

Don’t we often feel that way?

So Jonah ran and every child in Sunday School knows what happened. He was swallowed by a great fish “And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” until Jonah was finally vomited out.

That is so true. You don’t get out of selfish situations like that without getting at least a little of life’s vomit on you.

But what was the real reason Jonah came out of the belly and went to Nineveh? It wasn’t because the fish didn’t like human fillets.

Jonah was released from his living Hell because the Lord heard and accepted Jonah’s prayers and his repentance. “I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed,” Jonah cried.

Jonah was finally willing to do what he feared, finally ready to sacrifice to serve the Lord. He was willing to keep his vows, both those made in mortality and before this life.

Before coming to earth, we all made vows to the Lord. (See Jer. 1:4-5 and others.) If one of those vows was service in His Kingdom here one earth and when faced with that earthly reality we choose to run rather than pay that which was vowed, life swallows us up and we can find ourselves in a belly of bile. Once there our only escape is prayer, returning to our vows, and being vomited out.

My friend’s story made me feel for her family. How great can be the effects if even one person in a family runs from responsibility, especially spiritual responsibility.

But we often forget what happens next.

In the rest of the story, Jonah does keep his vow and goes to Nineveh but he grows angry at the situation. He finally asks the Lord to destroy the city and sits down to wait.

As he sits and does nothing but wait for vengeance, he finds temporary pleasure in a gourd that has grown around him and shaded him from the sun. When the gourd dies, Jonah decides in his anger to give up. Why try anymore? He laments. The Lord doesn’t answer any of my prayers.

(Isn't it interesting that Jonah wasn't really trying at the time of his lament. He wasn't even trying to help the gourd! He is just letting life happen to him and all that are around him. He isn't getting involved.)

Hearing Jonah's angered pronouncement, the Lord lovingly responds that Jonah has been focused on, and finding pleasure with, the wrong thing.

“Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow.” Then, wisely the Lord asks, “should I not spare Nineveh?”

Nineveh, the city of 120,000 people…His children. Children He has labored for and loved. Why fret over a gourd when greater needs are before our eyes?

Jonah’s answer is not given. Have you noticed that?

Maybe that's because it isn’t Jonah’s answer to give but a personal answer we all must make.

Are we laboring for and taking pleasure in the wrong things?

Are we running from true service to the Lord?

If we are we will, eventually, find ourselves in the belly of misery.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

From nightmares to dreams

I had a nightmare last night. It jerked me completely awake and left me compressed by bands of residual terror. Even after I woke it took a moment to reclaim my mind and racing heart.

The nightmare involved two of my children and was so vivid I felt I needed to check on them; so I did what thousands of mothers around the world did last night. I got up in the dark and went from room to room checking on my sleeping family.

I found my teenage son still up playing video football games. (Alas, it was a Friday night.) We visited a moment then I moved on. My younger ones were sleeping soundly, the dog stretched out in peaceful slumber with them.

Then I went into the room another teenage son shares with the baby of the family. He hadn't wanted to let a four-year-old brother move in with him. He'd had his own room for a couple of years and he, understandably, didn't want to lose that privacy and independence. But circumstances (i.e. Mom and Dad) pressed upon him and they have shared a room ever since.

As I entered their darkened room last night I saw they were both sleeping soundly. I also saw that my teenage son had maneuvered a television into such a position that I knew he had watched a movie with his younger brother. How touched I was that he would put forth the effort to share a late night movie party with his little brother.

I returned to my room not longer terrified but filled with gratitude. After a prayer of thanksgiving I returned to bed but I couldn’t sleep. I knew my prayer was not finished.

So, as I lay in my bed I continued to express gratitude for my life—a life I have always thought of as average. But last night I realized it was not.

It's not average because I have a good marriage partner who is faithful, loyal and supportive in his non-perfect way. How grateful I am that he comes home to me every night. He has seen me sick and angry and at my worst, yet he has covenanted to stay with me and he honors that promise. What a blessing.

It's not average because I have tremendously good children. They are not perfect. They all have their strengths and weaknesses; but they truly do love each other. Laughter is more common in our home than shouts and angry voices.

It's not average because we pray together as a family every night and most mornings. We try to read the scriptures together. We hold weekly Family Home Evenings together. By their own initiative, even my teenagers come and give me hugs in front of their friends.

I forgot my nightmare and relished living a dream. What a wonderful way to finish a night! What a wonderful way to live a life!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Football, win or lose

It's football season. For mother's of football players that means worry.

It's been said that you don't have to see a hard hit, you hear it. That horrific crack of helmets and bodies can be heard over every announcement and volume level of the crowd; and when that noise reaches the ears and hearts of mothers in the stand, they all feel life stop for a moment. Their heads turn while their minds race: Is that my son out there? Will he get up?

Even after numbers are identified and all sons but two are accounted for--every mother, in both stands, nervously waits to see if those two 'sons' will stand on their own.

My son, in the white, after making a "big hit" on someone else's son. Thankfully, both got up and both congratulated the other on a great play.

Mothers don't have to know the players who were caught in the epicenter of that awful sound. Every mother at the game still waits and worries. Maternal instinct isn’t just for our own children. It is for all children.

I learned that more deeply during a losing season. Everything is different when the scoreboard reflects a numerical defeat. Injuries hurt more. Weaknesses are noticed more. When your son comes off the field with a pain in his eyes that goes deeper than any physical injury you want to hug him and give him part of your soul just to buoy him up. You tell him how great he did but you see in his eyes that what you are saying isn’t registering. At that moment those illuminated numbers are speaking louder than any thing he is hearing.

During that losing season my son’s team found themselves ahead at the half for the first time all season. The other team they were playing had also struggled that season. I knew it wasn’t a game of two Titans battling for supremacy, or even David versus Goliath. It was a game of failure versus failure and one, I knew, would have to fail again.

Selfishly, with thoughts of my own son, I went home during halftime and hit my bedroom floor in prayer. Please, I pleaded, let my son’s team hold on to the lead and win this game. The team was so discouraged, so emotionally defeated from all their defeats that season. Let them have at least one win.

Why would you pray for that? a voice asked. Why would you pray for another mother to have to greet her defeated son after the game and see the same pain in his eyes that you have seen?

That questioning entered my heart and soul with a power that has never left. I still feel its power when I reflect on that prayer.

Today, I don’t remember who won the game. All I really remember is during that halftime I won deep, unexpected understanding from a heartfelt prayer. It has changed the way I look at football and so many other things in life. It has changed my prayers. Now, before a game, I plead that all players will be safe from injury. I plead that all players will have the opportunity to play their very best. And I especially pray that that both teams will form bonds of respect and friendship across the line and set examples of sportsmanship for their teammates and others.

I haven’t been disappointed. My son has made many new friends across the lines in the games and seasons since that prayer.

This year my son’s team is 3-2. Not playoff numbers but better than that previous losing season. Now when he steps off the field, win or lose, he’s more likely to talk about the acts of sportsmanship and good players on both sides of the line. Last week, after my son’s team experienced a tough loss against a powerhouse team that left the numbers, 54-6, shining on the scoreboard, he still came off the field with a smile on his face.

“That was a great game! No one got injured and both teams were helping each other up after every play, telling each other good job. When we lined up to shake hands after the game, one of the guys on the other team told each of us God bless.”

Obviously there are other mothers out there praying for the same things.