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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Life Altering Power of Choice

The Life Altering Power of Choice
          I normally have a rather comical side to the blogs I write, or at least try to tie some humor of certain life observations or spiritual lessons I discuss, in order to bring an optimistic smile to those who may sacrifice a few moments of time to read what I have tried to say.  But today I want to write with a more serious tone of something that literally has a life or death level of impact in our existence and happiness: The life altering power of Choice!

          Agency (or the ability to choose for ourselves) is a gift from God.  Life, health, breath and all our senses are also gifts from God, but despite all our efforts, we don’t’ have much control over those things.  We are all prone to sickness, disease and eventually death. But choice is different.  It is the one thing of actual power that we possess independently ourselves.

          Now many of the choices we make aren’t of the life or death variety, such as: what brand of toothpaste we use, what color of clothes we wear, what kind of cereal we eat for breakfast, etc… and many in society use that rationale and extend it out into the public concepts that people can choose to live however they want and it’s okay, because whatever pleases that individual is his/her right of choice.  They plead their case out into the arenas of defining what marriage is, claiming that pornography or infidelity is acceptable behavior, or legalization of drugs is a right or simple freedom of choice for those who want to indulge in such behavior.
          But many of the choices we make actually do have a life or death level of influence in our lives, such as: "Am I going to stop at the red light at the busy intersection?"
          You see, I can choose to jump off a cliff without a parachute if I want to experience the brief and false feeling of flight, but I can’t alter the laws of gravity to prevent the subsequent crushing outcome of landing on the jagged rocks below.
          Let me illustrate this point by sharing a personal story of a friend of mine, (whom I will not name).   When we were young kids, we lived across the street from one another, went to school together in the same grade, were deacons in our local church, camped out with our local Boy Scout group, had sleep-overs, etc…  In many ways we were from what most would say were similar environments.
          But along the way as the years went by and we advanced up into the Junior High School age, something happened to my friend and neighbor.  His parents got divorced when he was 8 years old (I don’t know the exact reasons why and won’t begin to speculate here), but this broken home led to some gradual differences over time.
          It wasn’t apparent during childhood, but he suffered from a condition known as “delayed growth syndrome”, which became apparent when I and most of his classmates hit puberty and started to grow facial hair and muscles, while he stayed small in stature with physically stunted growth.  Unfortunately this led to many of the kids in school teasing or harassing him at times.  He seemed to laugh and take it all in stride, but I know personally that it hurt him and caused him to feel like he didn’t fit into the normal group anymore.
          If I remember correctly, he went away for a while one summer between our 8th and 9th grade years, to either spend time with his father or an uncle.  I don’t know if it was to give his mother a break or spend some time with a male figure in his life, but when he came back at the start of the next school year he had changed in some small ways.
          He no longer came to church with the other boys, and because he was staying physically smaller, he no longer participated in the school sports activities.  As a result of this and the unfortunate occasional jokes as his expense, he started hanging out with a different group of kids who were also outcasts of a sort, because they liked to swear, sneak smoking cigarettes and drinking a few beers, etc…  (This behavior may be common among many areas of the country, but in our hometown of Rexburg, Idaho which is a fairly majority Mormon town, it was an aberrational behavior).  But these kids accepted him into their group of “different” kids and soon he chose to adopt some of their other behaviors, which unfortunately grew into experimentation with further alcohol and drug use.
          I didn’t know it at the time, but because of the teasing, he tried some medically supervised hormone treatments to increase his physical growth, but which had the unfortunate side effect of making him irritable and angry.  This combination soon led to some behavioral problems which had him in and out of the juvenile detention system, and as the rest of us progressed into high school, he wasn’t around very much at all.  He dropped out of school and I kind of lost track of him for a while as I went on with my own teenage life.
          At that time, as my friend drifted away, I started to come to a deeper realization of the importance of my family and religion in my life.  After my graduation from high school I voluntarily chose to serve a 2 year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Los Angeles, and experienced the wonderful growth and development that came with serving and giving of myself for the benefit of others.
          Unbeknownst to me, while I was away serving in California, my lost friend was battling a severe addiction to Cocaine.  With a juvenile record and an addiction, he had also turned to a life of crime in order to steal money for more drugs.  This next part of the story might be a little hard to read, but it is all completely true.
          On July 15, 1987, while I was away teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in Los Angeles, my friend attempted to rob a small grocery store in a nearby town of Ashton, Idaho.  He had hidden in the back of Jack’s Grocery Store with a gun and watched as the wife of the owner, a mother of two children, brought the cash from the registers back into safe.  Thinking she had left he came out of hiding to steal the money, but she returned and caught him.  He shot her in the stomach and then promised to call an ambulance for her if she opened the safe.  When she did, he then shot her point blank in the head and killed her.  He was later caught and confessed to the crime.
          When I returned home from my mission on December 24th, 1987 to a joyful celebration with my family, my former friend was on trial for first degree murder. He was convicted, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

          There are several factors about this story that I would like to discuss.  While some of the things apply directly to my friend’s situation, they also have some general relation to the world at large.  I am certainly not trying to tackle every social issue in depth, but simply pose some general comparisons and thoughts about certain issues.

          As I mentioned before, I don’t know the reason behind why my friend’s parents were divorced.  Divorce was still quite rare back in those days, but in today’s society with the at-fault divorce process the rates are staggering.  Couples seem to view marriage as something of convenience and throw the commitment and covenants of marriage out the window as soon as things get a little difficult or tough, leaving behind broken homes with single parents struggling to raise children and confused children often blaming themselves for why mom and dad aren’t still together.
          Think of just a few of the ramifications of choosing divorce (which we can’t possibly cover completely here), but single parents are more likely to end up needed government or church welfare assistance to survive, which can degrade feelings of self-worth.  Or often the single parent is forced to leave the home to work more, leaving behind a society of latch-key children who, without the regular influence of two parents are then left to video games, television or other peers to find their way through many of their formative years.
          Think of how the choice of viewing pornography has affected marital relationships and views of sexual intimacy in society.  With such filth and perversion so readily available in today’s world, many struggle with addictions that literally alter thinking patterns in the brain, degrade women, contribute to world problems of child kidnapping and a whole underworld of human trafficking that supporters of pornography like to sweep under the rug and pretend doesn’t exist.  The personal choices people make along this path, thinking that it is a personal and private decision, have ramifications which literally ripple out through generations of broken souls and lives.
          Consider how the choice of consuming alcohol can affect relationships.  Now I know that many feel that casual drinking is okay and doesn’t affect them, but anything that dulls your senses and removes inhibitions can lead to changed behavior, more serious alcoholism, which in turn has a history of domestic violence, shattered homes, and crime.  While not the case for many, the fact still remains that most hard core drug addictions likely begin with the initial choices of recreational smoking or alcohol consumption, which then leads to further drug experimentation and more serious addiction like my friend.
          Then there is the choice many teenagers and youth make to tease, bully or socially isolate others because they are different.  The news headlines are full of stories of teenage suicide, shooting rampages, or acts of violence which are related to these social issues, all of which stem from the lack of respect for others, absence of human decency, selfishness, and general decline in societal values.
          We could go on and discuss volumes about how moral and societal declines are related to increased divorce, violence, crime and so forth, but that is not the main point I want to expound on today.  And although my friend had a series of unfortunate things in his life, like the divorce of his parents, and physical problem, etc… I am not attempting to say that his problems were all the fault of someone else (although those things certainly did contribute to his situation).
          What I’m really trying to point out here is how our individual choices affect so much further than just our own personal satisfaction and situation.

          My friend’s choices left behind a devastated mother and siblings, not to mention a widower and two children who had to be raised without a mother, which in turn impacted their lives and subsequently many others.

          Now I am nothing special and have made my own share of mistakes along the way, but I have often thought over the years how our lives, though my friend and I started out in very similar circumstances, could have taken us in different directions.  I have at times lamented and wondered if I perhaps could have done something to help him.  Yet I feel so very blessed to have all of the wonderful freedoms and loving family relationships I personally enjoy.
          The fact is that we are all a result of the choices we make with the agency we have been given from a loving Heavenly Father, who wants to bless us and help us become more like Him if we will but use that agency to choose to follow Him.

          When as individuals and a society we choose to follow our own path of selfish, personal, fleeting gratification outside of the Lord’s guidelines, then an unfortunate ripple effect of broken hearts, broken homes and opportunities lost becomes evident in not only individuals, but society and the world at large today.  Thinking that our personal choices don’t have an effect on others around us is foolish.  The world, nations, states and local communities are merely the combined result of individuals and families and how they function. When viewed in that light of magnification, the individual choices we make every day have more of a life and death impact on our communities and nations than we can possibly realize.
          I know that many may disagree with these views and opinions. But the effect of the difference in choices between me and my friend is just an example of how a single choice or pattern of choices can, if we are not careful, can lead us down a vastly different path than we could ever imagine.

          My hope is that we can all comprehend a little more clearly how our individual choices impact not only ourselves, but our families (including generations yet to come), and so much more than we realize.  That is why the unchanging standards and commandments of God and the personal behavior that comes from following those values is so vitally needed in our personal lives and the world at large today!
          Just think of how different individuals, families and communities would be if each individual or their own free will and choice lived and taught the Christian standards and principles of love, respect, service and compassion for those around them!
          As I mentioned before, I realize that many may disagree with some of this thinking, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but if so, I challenge you to show me a better, more effective way to solve individual, family or world problems.

          Study and implementation of societal and government programs cannot and will never be able to replace the powerful effect and positive change in individuals, families, communities, nations and the world, as each individual's choice to follow the commandments and gospel of Jesus Christ!
          And that all starts with the individual choices we make each and every day!

“A determining and defining moment lies ahead for all mortals. Yet that defining moment turns on our choices today.” – Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why Life Keeps You Running Like A Dog!

Why Life Keeps You Running Like A Dog!
          There are two common phrases I’ve never quite understood:
1. I slept like a baby! (My kids never slept all that well when they were babies)
2. I’ve been working like a dog! (My dogs tend to eat, sleep and… well, not much work)
          But I want to talk today about the dog part of things... at least running like a dog.
          So it’s probably no secret to anybody who’s read any of my previous blog postings, but we are a dog loving family.  Since the time our youngest son was born we have had at least one dog in our family.  What can I say; other than they are great companions and have a lot to teach us humans about life and relationships.

          Since I am gone to work most days during the week, I try to take my turn each Saturday morning to take the dogs for a walk or a run.  Since I have a bad knee and can’t run too well myself, and since my two dogs run at dramatically different speeds, I will often take them outside of town in our van, and then give them a nice long run along some country roads.

          This past weekend, I noticed something interesting about our two current hounds, Missy (short for missy-fit) and Abby (short for abby-normal).

          Other than their size, and the fact that they are friends, they are about as different as two dogs can get! 

         Abby is a well-mannered, quiet, very obedient dog for the most part.

          While on the other hand, Missy is quite a “Diva” who likes to be the entire center of the Universe.  If she isn’t sleeping, she is usually begging for food, whining to be petted or pouting about like the entire world is against her.

          What I noticed about them on this last weekend run, was another example of how different their behavior is from one another, and how that applies to us in life as well.
          While I drive along at a near snail’s pace (so Missy’s short stubby legs don’t fall too far behind), Abby runs ahead of the van.  As I mentioned, she is usually a very reserved and quiet dog, but when we go for a run, she is like a Tasmanian devil!  She is off in the weeds and grain fields on one side, then scrambling off the road and out into the potato fields on the other side of the road.

          It’s as if she is afraid she will miss something and has to try to see everything around her before the run is finished.
          Missy on the other hand, is a stubby-legged, floppy eared, loose skinned wobbler!   She tends to have one initial short burst of energy, and then settles into a lethargic pace reminiscent of Eyeore from Winnie the Pooh!
          It’s not really her fault, she just has too much skin for her body size, which leads to some rather hilarious physics-in-motion dynamics! (The pic below isn't my Missy, but shows about what she looks like when she runs)

          I have to go slow because if she stops to smell something and I accidentally get too far ahead, she will despondently stop and just sit along the side of the road.  I once had to quickly run back home in an emergency and came back 15 minutes later, to find her sitting in the exact same spot where I left her.

          She has another funny tendency, which is if I am driving in front of her and come to a stop.  She wills top behind me and just wait.  She will wait to see if I am going to keep moving forward, turn around, or what?  She just doesn’t seem to want to expend any more energy that necessary, so she is content to just wait until I make the decision.

          The behavior of both dogs is a bit entertaining, but at times frustrating.  Missy’s slow pace makes the experience at least 3 times as long to get where you are going.
          Abby on the other hand, tends to get muddy during her off the road escapades, and will occasionally drag back some varmint she has killed, or will tend to roll about in some road kill and come back smelling like a rotting garbage heap!
          But they are our dogs, and we love them, so their weird behavior is tolerated because of the joy they bring to us in so many other ways (Like how to be forgiving, loyal, etc...!)
          But I realized that in the course of running through our various mortal lives, we aren’t much different than my two dogs.
          While our loving Master has laid out a straight and narrow path to follow, many of us are like my Abby:  We tend to venture off the approved course of commandments as often as we have the chance in order to try and “experience” what life has to offer.  This type of lifestyle usually leaves us dirtied to some degree, carrying some of life’s refuse and the unpleasant stench of spiritual road kill.
          I’m sure all of us know of individuals or maybe have been personally involved in how the habits of alcoholism, pornography, theft, infidelity, dishonesty or other worldly habits have devastated marriage relationships, and left behind a trail of broken homes and lives.
          You can’t indulge in behavior outside of God’s parameters and come away clean and unscathed.  The good news is that for those who have strayed, a loving Master has a way to cleanse us!
          My dogs don’t generally like a good bath and scrubbing down while the process is going on, but after it is over, they are so happy to be clean once again!

          The same is true for us.  When we have made mistakes (which all of us do), the process of repentance (although it is a process of love) isn’t always pleasant to go through, but once we find the peace and forgiveness and sense of spiritual cleanliness on the other side, we marvel and wonder why we have stayed away in our stench for so long!
          Others of us are like my dog Missy.  We tend to lumber methodically, despondently, making every effort to expend the least amount of effort possible.  When we can see our loving Master not far ahead, beckoning us forward, we plod along at our own contented pace and expect the Master to conform to our own speed and designs.
          If we get distracted somewhere along the journey of mortality, and look up to find that the Master isn’t easily in sight, we can tend to want to sit and do nothing, because the Master is constantly beckoning us along.
          The reality is in these situations, isn’t that the Master has left us, but because we have wandered away from Him.
          Fortunately for us, we do have a loving Master and Savior, who despite our weird tendencies and imperfections, loves to be intimately involved in our run through life.  He knows we have strange mortal propensities and behaviors, and understands and cares about us more than we will ever know.
          Because of this, if we are willing to heed His beckoning call to come back on the path and keep moving forward, He can and will lead us along the straight and narrow way, cleansing us and encouraging us as often as we need, as long as we are willing to hear His voice and try to obey!
          In this crazy world, which tends to keep us running like dogs, let us remember, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?  So run, that ye may obtain.” 1 Corinthians 9:24
          I know that if we all just do a little better to stay on the straight and narrow path, and keep up with the pace the Master has for us, the journey will be a lot more happy and joyful along the way!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

God’s Perfect Timing and His Refining Love

God’s Perfect Timing and His Refining Love
            Isn’t it interesting how, despite our good intentions and often very inspired decisions, things seldom turn out the way ‘WE’ expect them to.  I believe this is evidence not only of God’s infinite love for us, but also His perfect timing.
            To illustrate this point, I want to relate just one of many instances in my life where this truth was profoundly evidenced.  The year was 1999, and my wife and 3 young sons were living in the lovely little town of Springville, Utah.  Life had been going great in the previous years, after my graduation from Physical Therapy school in 1994.  I had a good job, we had purchased our first little house

 into which we poured our effort, sweat and love to fix up and make it a home.

And after driving old-broken-down-beaters for most of my lifetime, I had finally purchased a brand new pick-up truck!  I felt blessed and very comfortable in our situation.
            But God loves us, and because He loves us, he realizes that when we feel comfortable, we also often fail to make the personal progress He desires of us as His children.  He most often works through real life situations, however, to teach us the lessons that we so desperately need to learn.
            The first lesson came in the employment and finance department.  The government suddenly decided to drastically change the insurance reimbursement rates for rehabilitation and the next thing I knew, I was sitting across a desk from my employer.
            “The good news is, you still have a job.” He began. (Yes, that’s always good news, but doesn’t ever seem to bode well for what is to follow) “The bad news is, with the insurance changes we will have to reduce your salary by about $6,000 a year.” (Super Gut Punch to the Budget Plan!!!)
            Suddenly, I was working just as hard or harder than before, because they did have to lay off several other therapy assistants, but was making much less than what our expenses could handle.  Young and inexperienced, I made some critical mistakes.  Firstly, my pride made me hold onto my shiny new pick-up truck that I could no longer afford the monthly payments on.  To make up the difference I began using some credit cards to make the differences and then use other credit cards to pay those off and as you can imagine a bad cycle began to spiral downward.
            As my financial despair mounted, I listened to a speech by Gordon B. Hinckley, then President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in which he advised church members to get out of debt and prepare for the pending financial storms which would come in the years ahead.
           I prayed to know how I could do this, and humbly decided my beloved truck had to go. With my pride tucked between my legs, I ditched my truck and once again purchased an old beater car to get by with.  It was a start, but the financial damage hard already been done and the debt interest rates still buried my income.
            To top that off, my beloved grandfather who lived across town passed away in Feb. of 1999.  He was a dear friend to me, and had been a source of wisdom, love, support and wise advice throughout my life. 
But his passing opened up an unexpected blessing for us.  My remaining grandmother could not take care of herself, and as we considered the situation, the strong impression came to both my wife and I that we should move in with her and help take care of her and their home.  This would allow us to sell our own home, pay down all our debts and make a new start of things.  A sweet comfortable feeling accompanied these thoughts and we knew it was the Lord’s will for us to make this move, which we did in the late spring.
            I counted my blessings and thanked the Lord for opening the way before us to get out of debt as well as serve my grandma’s needs.  But once again, things didn’t work out as “I” had planned them to.
            Month after month, our house across town would not sell.  I spent countless weeks in prayer and fasting that it would sell and allow us to begin moving forward financially… but Nothing Happened!  I could not begin to realize why this would be after I had felt so confident that the Lord has inspired us to move in with my grandmother.
            In despair, the weeks turned into months.  All the while I was still working harder at my job for the reduced pay, struggling to just make the minimum payments on our debts, and now I was taking care of two houses, with two yards to mow and upkeep, etc…           I’ll have to admit that I felt more than a little depressed as to why things didn’t seem to be falling into place, despite my good intentions, prayers and heavenward petitions.   The only thing I could do was to keep moving forward with faith as best I could, trusting in the Lord despite not understanding His will in our situation.
            This went on for about 10 agonizing months, without a single offer on our cute little home across town.  To say it tried my faith would be an understatement!  I remember actually hoping that when Y2K came, the financial markets and computers would all collapse and somehow alleviate our situation.

            Our time with grandma had its challenges as well, but also brought many sweet memories and moments which could have never been captured otherwise.

Finally, In February 2000, she passed away just a few weeks shy of a year since my grandfather had died.  After 70 years of marriage, they didn’t even have to spend a Valentine’s Day apart from each other!  I was with grandma through the night she failed and passed away, and that was a profound spiritual experience which is far too sacred and private to share in a public forum such as this, but it was filled with peace and love.

            With Grandma now gone, we moved back into our own house again across town and were back to square one again.  Then something totally unexpected happened!
            Out of the blue I received a phone call from an old friend of mine, who was now living up in my home town of Rexburg, Idaho.  He and the company he was associated with offered me a job with a management role, with a much better salary than I was making at the time.  It would also allow us to be closer to my family and my wife’s grandparents.
            I accepted the offer, gave a 30 day notice at my current employer and we put our house back on the market to sale, but this time without the assistance of a real estate agent.  We just put a sign up in our front yard that said “For Sale by Owner”.

            In the back of my mind I fearfully worried that we would again be unable to sell it, and we would end up in Idaho, but now with 2 house payments.
            But a surprising thing happened!  Our house sold within 2 weeks of listing it and everything fell perfectly into place, allowing us to move to Idaho without any complications!
            As I look back on the situation, I am both grateful and humbled at God’s grace and mercy toward my family.  I am appreciative to realize that, despite how much “I”thought I had everything figured out that would be best for us, He knew better what was to come.  I am grateful that He cared enough about our situation to NOT answer my prayers the way I wanted them to be answered.
            If we had sold our house when we moved in with Grandma, then we she had passed away, we most likely would have just purchased a new home soon thereafter.  If that had happened, then I would have been tied up in that new contract and would not have been able to accept the much better job in Idaho which has blessed our family with many other wonderful opportunities over these past 14 years.
            The Lord knew that it was the right thing to do to move in with Grandma and take care of her.  But he also knew that there were far better things He had in store for us after that.  So He loved us enough to make us wait for the blessings.  This process resulted in a great lesson on being smarter with our finances, as well as an expanded lesson in faith and patience in the Lord’s timing.
            Despite how much we “think” that “we” have things in this life figured out, and “think” that “we” know what would be best for us, I have come to realize through this and many other experiences, that God definitely knows best!  He loves us and wants to guide us and bless us, and also wants us to learn and grow and develop into something better along the way.  If we are willing to patiently submit to His will, we can all come to better realize, that His ways are always right, His timing is always perfect, and His refining love is endless in our behalf!