Friday, May 28, 2010

The parable and miracle of the goldfish

Our day started out with a death and a trash can burial. A silver-colored goldfish, named Smokey, jumped out of the aquarium at some point in the night and we found him on the floor this morning—stiff and dry. All traces of water on the hardwood floor from his unexpected arrival in our waterless world had long since dried up. Even the floor directly beneath his body was dry.

Four years ago, we purchased Smokey from a tank of mostly dead and sickly feeder goldfish. He cost us 10 cents. We had saved him, along with several others feeder fish that day. Now our rescue fish was dead, lying on the hardwood floor, dark and stiff.

Feeling sorrow for his lonely death, I picked him up by the hard tail fin, carried him into the kitchen and buried him in the trash can. At the breakfast table, my children saw and they, too, expressed sadness at his demise. After all, Smokey had lived for several years, grown to be the second largest in size, and was the only silver goldfish in the group.

During breakfast my children reminisced about Smokey while I started doing dishes. But I keep hearing the Spirit whisper to me. “Don’t give up on him yet. Don’t let him die this way. Give him a chance to live.”

You may recall the Spirit's whispering on behalf of the world's grumpiest cockatiel (see my March blog) Yet this fish was dead. This whispering was after the trauma, not before.

Then I recalled a similar fish incident years ago, when my firstborn child was only two. He decided to go ‘fishing’ in our tank and managed to catch one of the fish. When he proudly told my of his feat I looked in the tank and, sure enough, one fish was missing. I went searching for the fish. After an hour and a half I found him. He had flipped up under the couch and was dry and stiff. As I picked up my son’s ‘catch’ to throw it in the trash can I saw its gill move. Quickly I filled a bowl with water and dropped in the fish. He started breathing and went on to live for several more years.

Now, as I did the dishes, the whispering continued. “Don’t give up on him yet. Don’t let him die like this. Give him a chance to live.”

So, when my children were not looking, I retrieved Smokey from the trash can, filled up a bowl with water from his fish tank and dropped in the fish. By this time he had been in the trash can for 45 minutes and on the floor for much longer (possibly hours) yet, amazingly, he immediately responded and started to breathe.

In the photo below he has been in the bowl for half an hour and is almost completely upright.

I still didn’t tell my children—I didn’t want them to get their hopes up—so I sent them to school and continued to watch Smokey’s recovery. Within an hour he was swimming upright, though rather slowly, and I put him back into the tank.

I then went to the gym to work out. While on the treadmill my heart, and even my prayers, went out to this little fish. I don’t feel guilty praying for animals. I don't feel anyone should. I have come to know in my life that God loves all His creations, even the animals.

As I jogged I realized that Smokey had not jumped out of the tank on purpose. In the guise of ‘having a good time’ Smokey obviously went a bit too far and landed outside the safety of the water. There he found himself alone and needing help. He floundered and fought for life yet could do nothing to save himself until, finally, he succumbed to the consequences of his actions.

And then I thought of those people I know and I saw a gospel parallel. Often, in the guise of ‘having a good time,’ people go a bit too far and land outside the safety of the living water of the gospel. They break the commandments, they don’t feel they need to be in Church, but they are floundering and, soon enough, they will face the full effects of their actions. They can't save themselves. None of us can. That's why we all need Christ yet, if someone isn’t physically there to help those struggling in this life, the consequences can result in spiritual death, the drying up of a testimony and the stiffening of a soul.

We all know and love people like that. Maybe we see them and feel they are, somehow, too far gone to help. We may have even mentally placed them in the trash can of life, claiming they are gone for good.

Yet “Don’t give up on him yet” is powerful advice for all of us! The Lord runs on a different timetable. He doesn't care how long we've lain spiritual dead or even been in the trash can of life. He just wants someone to pull out each precious soul and give them a chance to live. There is no one so far gone, or so long gone that the Savior cannot yet reach them. We just have to keep trying. We should never give up on anyone!

And the Spirit also taught me another truth. By not telling my children that I had placed Smokey back into a bowl of water, I thought I was protecting them from disappointment in case he should die later. What the Spirit told me was that I had cut my children and Smokey off from the power of prayer. That was not a door for me to close for anyone or anything.

So, as I ran on the treadmill this morning I prayed for those friends of mine outside of the living water of the Gospel. If the Lord clearly tells me to not give up on a goldfish, I know He does not want me to give up on them!

I also prayed for forgiveness for not allowing my children to tap into the greatest power they possess…the power of prayer. I asked that my lesson to learn be mine alone, without Smokey or my children suffering.

And, so far, the Lord heard those prayers. Smokey is swimming with more strength and his fins are starting to open again. And my children have seen a miracle.

Great miracles and lessons often come in little packages.

Smokey, front and center, back in the tank where he belongs.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Speaking in church? No problem, most just read.

I carry in my scriptures a quote from Spencer W. Kimball. It says, “The Savior has told us to feed his sheep. I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uniformed. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come.”

Pres. Kimball spoke this in the October 1980 conference. So important was this statement that he repeated it, verbatim, a second time in the October 1981 conference.

During another discourse, Spencer W. Kimball said that those who passed by the Good Samaritan and did nothing to help will be held partially accountable for the pain and suffering the man endured from the moment they could have helped and did not but, instead, chose to pass by.

Think about that story. Do you realize the Levite and the priest were on the same road as the wounded man? They were within reaching distance yet they chose to focus only on their own concerns and walk on by. Maybe they were nervous. Maybe they were genuinely afraid. Whatever their reason, they did not trust Him to help them help another.

Now apply that to the calling to speak or teach. As speakers and teachers, we are standing on the same road as many members--some who may be spiritually wounded or malnourished. We may console ourselves by saying “I’m not a teacher” or “I’m terrified of speaking in public” but, no matter what our Levitical or priestly rationalization is, it is our duty to feed and care for His sheep! And, like the prophet said, I believe we will be held partially accountable for those members and investigators who go home unnourished if we did not adequately prepare to feed them while they were in our hands at Church.

And that is especially true with those in our classrooms or congregations who have come seeking spiritual uplift and light during a period of stress, temptation or crisis. We may not know who they are but in every class and in every congregation someone is crying out for Spiritual sustenance...sustenance we have been asked to give them that day.

It is our calling to prepare. It is their calling to come. They have done their job. They are there, waiting for us to feed them the message we have been asked to share with them. If there is a failure, it is usually on the part of the speaking or teaching shepherd, not the sheep. We must do better if we are going to change hearts and strengthen souls.

Now, I know not everyone is a public speaker but speaking or teaching in public is improved if we learn and apply this simple truth.

Do not read!

I tell my children they need to know their talks well enough that, if they are sitting on the stand and suddenly can’t find their notes they could still give the talk and do a good job. The same is true with each lesson. Know your material well enough that you could give it without the manual if you had to. That kind of preparation won’t happen by starting on Saturday night. You have to start preparing as soon as you are asked to teach or talk.

Yes, I know some weeks are hectic but, even then, preparation is essential and possible. During one hectic period of his life, my brother worked a job that required he leave the house between 7 and 8 in the morning. Often he did not get home from work until after 10 at night.

During that demanding time he was called to be an early morning seminary teacher. He had every right to turn it down but he did not. He chose to accept the Lord’s call and I learned a great truth because he did what he was asked to do.

The church was 40 minutes from their home. He had to get up at 4 a.m. each morning to be to seminary on time and have a bit of time to prepare. I asked his wife how he managed to find time to study a lesson each day with the demands of work. She said he often told her he was grateful he had spent time preparing his whole life through diligent scripture study and prayer. On days when he just did not have time, the Lord blessed him because he already had prepared…for years. Thankfully, my brother never read the lessons to the students as a cop-out. He taught them, with the Spirit, because he had spent a lifetime preparing.

When a speaker reads their talk, they are relying on the arm of flesh, called pen and paper, rather than on the Spirit to guide their words. True, they may have felt the Spirit guiding them as they wrote those things down but now they need to trust the Spirit, not the paper, to guide them as they share those thoughts and ideas.

More than once in the Book of Mormon the writers comment that the written word lacks the power of the spoken word. That is true in sacrament meeting talks and Sunday School lessons.

“When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.” (2 Nephi 33:1)

When reading must be done, keep the quotes and passages short. If they are long, select only the best or break it up into several short readings. Why? Because reading is what you do to put children to sleep at night! Do you think reading in Church causes a different reaction? No. If you read for longer than about a minute, people are sleeping.

Also, when we read our eyes are pointed downward. We cannot see the faces of those we teach and cannot read if they are being fed. We must see their faces to view their hearts!

Finally, we are not called to read in church, we are called to speak. We are not called to read in class, we are called to teach. There is a mighty difference.

Teachers and speakers will never know the power they can have until they learn to trust that Power and speak and teach, not read, from the heart.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

It happened without me.

For years I have wanted to go to a writer's conference but, alas, timing, distance and money have all conspired to keep me away from those gatherings of verbiage and knowledge. Finally, however, I learned of a writer’s conference that would fit my schedule, my budget, and my travel constraints. So, I sent in my fees almost two months ago, reserved a spot at the conference, marked the date on my calendar, submitted my first chapter for critique, and waited.

This morning I arose bright and early and left the house shortly after 5:30 a.m. to make the three and a half hour drive to the much anticipated conference.

But this time a late spring blizzard was my conspirator and I managed to travel only 80 miles in two and a half hours.

Earlier this week I had a feeling I should not attend the conference. Now, traveling through a steep, unplowed mountain pass those feelings increased until I could not shake the impression that I should turn around. For miles I fought the impression, prayed for guidance and, finally, managed to bring the car to a stop in the deepening snow. But there I hesitated. I wanted to go to the conference!

Yet the impression would not leave and finally, very reluctantly, I followed the prompting and turned around.

Ten miles down the mountain my human side returned. I turned my car around and headed back toward the conference. After all, I really wanted to go. Besides, I’m a Montanan. I’m used to driving in snow storms. It’s what we do.

As I headed toward the conference the impression returned, stronger this time. If you go, it said, the trip will be dangerous for you. You need to be home today.

It took several miles before I listened to the prompting. Feeling sad about not going, I turned the car toward home again, consoling myself that it is never wrong to choose family over other things.

This time, though, I only made it about five miles down the road when I started arguing the prompting and justifying the trip. I’d paid a non-refundable fee. I had wanted to go to a conference for years and this one was close, relatively speaking.

So I stopped justifying and decided I was going to the conference--no arguing about it. I turned around again and headed back toward the conference when a powerful voice said, Terri, do not go. I will not tell you again.

Okay. That caught my attention and this time I turned back toward home, for good.

Yet I cried over the decision. I really, really wanted to go to the conference. Worse, I wasn’t sure the impressions had come from the Lord or my own subconscious. Because of that, I felt added frustration I may have chosen wrong.

Don’t you wish you could see into the future and know for sure if your decision was really the one He wanted you to make?

That is when I felt a whispering in my mind. On those times when we make a decision because we think, hope, we are following the Lord—He is still pleased.

Remember when your young child tried to please you by making breakfast? I bet you smiled warmly and gave that child a big hug even though the eggs were not cooked, the toast was burned, and orange juice had spilled on the counter and floor. Why? Because it was the sincere effort that pleased you, not the outcome.

And I realized this morning the Lord often feels that same way about us.

It's the effort to follow Him, not the outcome, that means so much to Him.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Save $$$ at the grocery store

Recently I received a call from a church leader. He wanted to know how I budget my groceries. As a leader, he is often called upon to counsel families and individuals who are struggling—spiritually, financially, emotionally. He knew we run a tight budget and wanted to know how I control things in the grocery store.

So how tight is our budget? I guess that depends on your perspective. We currently feed a family of seven on about $350 a month; and that is a very large increase from just a few years ago when all my children were home and we fed our family of eight on $150 a month.

Outside of a house payment, groceries are the second largest cost of living families encounter. Did you know that? While most bills are fixed and cannot be lowered by much, with a few tips families can dramatically reduce their grocery bill and free up needed money. If you want, or need, to ease your financial outgo look to your food bill first.

Don’t eat out. To take our family out for hamburgers and fries will cost us $40. I can feed my family for several days on that amount. Besides, my children would rather make their own hamburgers at home anyway. We can custom make our own burgers, just the way we want, for less than $10. With savings like that, we can even splurge on something extra--like ice cream. This doesn’t mean we don’t eat out occasionally but we keep it selective and special.

Plan a menu. Each month I sit down and plan out a menu for the entire month. It helps me know so I’m not tempted to resort to quick, more expensive solutions. First I first plan Sunday meals. Since those meals are generally a bit more costly I spread that cost into a second meal as I plan on how to use the leftovers. For example, if we have roast on Sunday, I may plan stew a few days later to use up leftover meat, gravy, and vegetables and I will write that on the menu: use leftovers. Besides adding leftover ingredients to soups or stews, I have learned to add leftover mashed potatoes—even cooked oatmeal--to a loaf of homemade bread or throw vegetables into a new stir-fry or pasta dish. Get creative!

Plan inexpensive meals. During the winter, I serve homemade soup once a week. During the summer, I try to have a meatless or salad night each week. A couple of times each month I schedule breakfast for dinner. Pancakes or homemade waffles are inexpensive and with some homemade chokecherry syrup or fresh fruit and whipped cream on top they produce a meal my family enjoys.

Shop to the menu. After I make my menu, I make my shopping list from my menu and then I take my list with me to the store. I do not deviate from my list very often and my children have learned the importance of shopping to that list and comparison checking for the lowest prices. Two of my children are already turning into price-savvy shoppers themselves and find it challenging to look for the best buy.

Use wisdom in the store. Never grab the first thing you see! The best buys are often way down low or up high. The expensive products are easy to reach. Look harder for the less expensive item.

Don’t buy the label. Buy the product.

Buy in bulk when possible.

Avoid convenient food. You also won’t find individual yogurt, applesauce cups, or pudding cups in my house. If I buy yogurt, applesauce, etc., I buy them in large containers the family can share. No individually-wrapped slices of cheese or small packages of expensive grated cheese, either. At a warehouse store I can buy five-pound blocks of cheese slices for only a few pennies more than a one-pound package of individually wrapped slices at a regular grocery store.

Avoid instant foods.
While in the store, a man and his daughter approached me looking for the rice. The inexpensive long-grain rice was right in front of us. “No,” he said, “My wife doesn’t know how to cook that kind.” So I looked and pointed him to the vastly more expensive instant rices. Again he said his wife didn’t know how to cook that. She had only cooked rice in a bag. At which point I couldn’t help him. I’d never picked up boil-in-the-bag rice in my life. He eventually found a package and left. After he left I looked at the price and felt horror. He was paying $4 a pound for the item. I loaded my forty-cent a pound rice in my bag and went home.

Decide about coupons. I used to clip coupons but not any more. Most coupons are for the most expensive brand out there so, unless I’m getting double coupon value, which my area does not offer, I can find generic versions cheaper. In areas that still offer double or triple coupon days or other coupon perks, it may be worth it. Compare prices and decide for your area. Also, be aware of the temptation of using coupons you don't need. Unless the item was originally on your list to buy, using a coupon will cost you money, not save it.

Stock up on good buys. This means you have to know your prices. When you see a good buy, stock up. This keeps you from being forced to buy the same item later, when the price may be high. You can just wait until the price comes back down.

Pay cash. This is the biggest budget controller there is! When you go into the store with $200 cash in your wallet, you can’t go over. It is too easy to add a few extra items to your cart when you are using a credit card, debit card, or writing a check. Cash doesn’t stretch. You have to. That is what makes it the best budget controller around. If I can’t afford it, I get it later. If I have to have it, I put something else back. It’s that simple.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

When the power goes out

Recently we spent two days without electricity as a wet, late winter blizzard blew through our area and downed power lines.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches us to be prepared for emergencies. If we are prepared we do not need to fear, as the scriptures tell us. Also, if we are prepared we can better reach out to help others. To that end, we had plenty of food and a wood burning stove for heat and cooking. We were able to call on neighbors (through a real telephone, not a cell phone) and make sure they had food and heat. We were also able to house three school children safely and warmly in our home until they could return to their own families.

During the storm I also learned some things to help me prepare for future emergencies. The Lord often does that…allows us opportunities to learn and makes necessary corrections before they are truly needed.

Here is what we learned...a lot is common knowledge, just remembered during a disaster.

Cell phones die because they can't be recharged. If you have a cell phone, keep it turned off unless you need it. If it is an emergency, it can be recharged in the car with a special adaptor.

Keep your car's gas tank as full as possible all the time. Gas pumps are electric and, when disaster strikes, gas pumps are some of the first things to shut down. That is also a problem if you have a generator. Once you run out of stored fuel at home you will not be able to get more.

Have cash on hand, in the house. When there is no power there are no banks, debit card machines, credit card machines, ATMs, etc. The few stores that stay open for a few hours hoping the electricity will come back on, go to a cash-only basis.

We also learned some surprising things.

Regular oven pans catch fire when used with a wood burning stove (embarrassed giggle). After the storm passed, one of the first things we bought was a small collection of cast-iron pots, pans and a cast-iron skillet for use during the next power outage. We also now own long-handled, all metal utensils. Luckily we had tin foil but I also bought some tin foil just for food storage. We discovered tin foil is great when there is no electricity. We used it to wrap up and heat frozen burritos in the fire (yum) and I was getting ready to make tin foil dinners next.

Fun is important. Children can get bored easily and start to whine or argue if you are not prepared. We pulled out puzzles and games, did crafts, read books out loud as a family, and even had fun cleaning ‘new’ places in the house. (We challenged them to find some nook or cranny they had not cleaned or organized before and they actually had fun cleaning for an hour or two.)

We also used wire hangers to cook hot dogs and make s’mores but we discovered wire hangers are hard to find and they are flimsy. We also now own a set of real hotdog forks we can use with our wood burning stove. Next on the list, we will also add a campfire popcorn popper just for more fun during future difficult times.

If you have children, don’t count on flashlights! Every single one of our “emergency” flashlights was dead or missing the batteries entirely. That, I have decided, is a reoccurring problem when families have small children. No matter where you hide them, the children will find your flashlights. So we pulled out the candles and used them in the evening for an hour or two.

The first day was fun. The second day was still fun but I began to worry about two things that surprised me: laundry and perishable foods.

Food. We tied the refrigerator shut to keep little kids from peeking inside looking for something to eat. Later we moved everything from our refrigerator into the chest freezer and that helped keep things cold or frozen and gave us more time. We were also mentally planning to shift some things outside to the cold blizzard but, luckily, that did not have to happen. Because we had been told we may be without electricity for several more days I was also mentally planning menus to use the most perishable foods first.

I have never spent much money on canned or instant meals like stew, chili, canned pastas, instant oatmeal, etc., but I learned a few of those added to food storage could be nice…with a hand can opener, of course.

Laundry. While I learned how to wash clothes by hand on my mission, I wasn’t looking forward to the cold water. When the electricty first went off I put a pot of hot water on the wood burning stove. That was nice since we were able to dip into the hot water for a variety of purposes.

Without hot water, there are no showers, either. That's when I made a mental note to add sanitary wipes to our storage plan. Paper plates and cups would also be a nice addition so you don't have to worry about using your limited hot water for washing dishes. They can also be added to the fire for fuel when finished.

For two days we had fun. We stayed together as a family. When the power finally came on most of the kids were disappointed. “Now we can’t do fun stuff anymore,” they lamented.

My oldest two, however, rushed to the computer and their cell phones—grateful to be back in the electrically charged world.