Sunday, September 24, 2017

In Praise of Failure Sept 24, 2017

Sue’s lesson in Sunday School this week is on the pioneer trek west.  While there are many lessons that one might learn from that heroic movement, it struck us that perhaps thinking about the pioneers gives us a model for how to deal with failure.  
One of the portraits in our family history that always intrigued me is that of Stephen Winchester.  I wrote about him last July so I won’t go into all the details again.  In the picture he is an elderly man, but it is the look in his eyes that is so interesting.  He is gazing to one side, grim, wary, and perhaps suspicious or maybe just defiant.  When I made that comment to my mother one time she replied, “Yes, but look  what he went through!”

Stephen was typical of the early Mormon converts who stayed true to the faith.  They were working to establish “Zion”, that ideal society of harmony, peace, love, and communal sharing in worship of God and Jesus Christ.  First they gathered to Kirtland OH, but that didn’t work out.  Many went to Missouri for a few years until they were forced to leave homes again and were refugees in Nauvoo where they built a beautiful city.  That didn’t last more than 7 years before they were leaving again, this time through the mud and storms of Iowa and eventually across the plains to Utah.

How did they keep going in the face of the successive failures to achieve Zion (while many others didn’t continue on)?  How did they find the strength to keep starting over?  What does their experience teach us about failure in our own lives, personal and otherwise?

Perhaps we need to think about failure in a more positive way, to change our expectations.  It is a normal part of growth and development.  Who is the writer who wrote the perfect book without revision, the artist whose first work was a masterpiece, the musician who played perfectly on picking up the instrument, the athlete who performed a 10 on the first attempt?  If we think about failure as missing the mark of perfection, then we are all failures, over and over again.  

I have always liked the quote from Oscar Wilde that  experience is the name that men give to their mistakes.  Without mistakes, we can gain no experience, show no improvement, make no progress.  The question then becomes not “have we failed?, but what have we done because of that experience?

The scriptures are plain with the answer to failure: faith and repentance, prayer and action.  To exercise faith is to believe that Christ has the power to redeem us from our errors, and to try again.  To repent is to turn toward God and goodness in that trying.  There is something of euphoria in starting over, in making another attempt using what we have learned from our experience.  I think about all the rebuilding in Texas and Florida that will occur in the wake of the recent storms.  To build something new is wonderful, if we learn from the errors of the past. 

Above all perhaps, enduring failure only occurs if we quit, if we don’t try again.  That is the true tragedy of life - not that someone has tried and failed but that they have given up.  The pioneers never did quit.  They kept moving on and rebuilding until they accomplished their best version of Zion, imperfect as it still was.  And if we keep trying in this life, in faith, turning to the good, we will be able to continue the process in our next existence.  Becoming complete, or perfect, may not be possible here.  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sept. 17, 2017

One of our few spontaneous acts in the last 17 months happened on Friday. We invited the institute class to our apartment for pancakes .  We had some of our favorite whole wheat pancake flour to share (imported from Hutterites in Magrath, Alberta, thanks to sister Pudge) along with whipped cream and mixed berry syrup, bananas  and pecans.  We didn’t realize what a cultural experience we were providing . Few had ever seen a pancake, and no one had ever seen or tasted whipped cream or berries before. They asked where whipped cream came from and what it was. Berries do not grow here—our syrup was made from frozen blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and some little red berry that I did not recognize.  They told me that peanuts and cashews were the only nuts grown in Ghana. They were cautious as they spooned a little of each on a pancake.  I am not sure if they liked it - the berries most people thought were weird but they were very polite.   It was very fun!

Charles comes to Sunday school and Institute when he can.   He is in Art school and was showing me his first projects.  We purchased one and it sits above our bed.  It is a wood cutting with extra texture added [mosiacs and paper mache] I really like how it looks in our room.  I told him that when he is a rich and famous artist that I can tell people I was the first to buy one of his works.  What a grin that produced!

If you have listened to  Elder Bednar’s talk to young adults last Sunday, you have been introduced to Pres. Antwi who we live and work with every day.  He is on the same floor of the Ancillary Bldg, as we are and serves as Pres. Graham’s counselor. He is a wonderful man, very positive and very patient. We are honored to serve with him and his wife Victoria.

By Saturday night we are ready for a bit of a diversion and frequently go out for an early supper.  Zion Thai is one of our favorite places to retreat. This is a picture of the whole fish that we ordered - Sister Graham, Sister Roy [our new single temple worker originally from Quebec] and myself enjoying our food.

It seems ironic that after several years of hurricane and disaster preparedness training in Jacksonville , we found ourselves listening and watching from a long distance as the Irma went through. The vicarious experience is quite enough for us!  So sorry to see the images of someone kayaking through San Marco, and the houses washed into the ocean.  However we would have loved to have met Pres. Eyring who came to visit for support and encouragement!

We also followed with horror the fast moving Kenow fire as it swept through Waterton Lakes Park in Alberta.  The townsite and Prince of Wales Hotel were only saved by the diligence and perseverance of the fire crews.  We pray for all those who are suffering and all those who are cleaning up and all those who are firefighting  to save some of the most beautiful parts of the continent.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sept. 10, 2017

As we write today the Florida Keys are experiencing the eye of Irma, and the rest of the state will get the wind and rain over the next 36 hours or so.  We are grateful that the storm track has shifted westward from our home in Jacksonville but feel bad that this means Tampa-St.Pete will be hit harder.  As one friend in Jacksonville expressed, this means that he will be able to get out sooner to help those who are hit harder by the storm.  We are grateful for the Bridegans, who are taking care of our home while we are away and who decided to shelter in place.

Two stories from the institute class:

A young woman, now a medical student, told about her conversion and love for the Church while in Jr. High School.  She attended a school run by a denominational church, and one of the school requirements was that every student must attend worship services there on Sunday.  Those who did not attend that church were caned on Monday morning when they came to school. She had been asked to play the keyboard at her LDS ward so did not attend the required Sabbath meeting. She spoke about how even the anticipation of that punishment every week could not take away the wonderful feelings she had in her attendance at her own ward.  This lasted for two years.  One of her school teachers eventually asked why she would choose a whipping every week rather than just attend the school’s church.  She replied, “Because my church makes me happy”. 

Another young man spoke about life before joining the church.  He and 2 other boys had a friend who was a member and this friend would always read the Book of Mormon before school.  Even though they mocked and teased him for reading it, he always stayed calm and never got angry.  Once day Joseph snatched the member’s scriptures and threw them across the room but still he didn’t lose his temper.  The friend later gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon and asked him to just read some passages.  As he did, he felt the spirit testify that this book was true, and that led to his own conversion and later a mission call.

This week we celebrated Sue's 68th birthday with friends at a French restaurant. It was great to visit  over  authentic French bread and butter, tagine, and crême broulée. Being together, serving in Africa, and doing the Lord’s work binds us together. We are creating memories which will last longer than a life time.  We missed the Tolleys who were supposed to be with us. They will not be returning to Africa due to ongoing medical care.  We already miss them a great deal and pray for a new assignment that will be rewarding and challenging for them.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

September 3, 2017 - A Very Busy Week

This has to have been one of our more interesting weeks in the temple.  The group that came was from several different districts in one of the missions in Cote d’Ivoire, and there was not good communication amongst themselves.  Also, the people were mostly from “la brousse”, or as we would say in English, “the sticks”.  They were less familiar with organization, time and appointments, and following directions.  About 3 weeks ago the mission leaders sent us a list of all the people needing their own endowment and sealing.  It was over 100 endowments and about 50 sealings.  We sent information back asking them to reduce their numbers by about half, along with some sheets to help us organize the sessions.  What we received back was busy but doable in the three days (Tuesday through Thursday) that they would be here. 

We went through the usual planning and organizing and thought that by using every session possible on Tuesday and Wednesday morning we could get all the endowments done in time to have those same people then sealed as families, finishing Thursday afternoon.  Unfortunately their buses didn’t arrive until midnight Monday so we couldn't have our usual planning meeting with the leadership and confirm the plans.

Tuesday morning one of the leaders arrived in the temple and greeted us with one handwritten page full on both sides with names of people left off the schedule.  So we took a deep breath and said “We’ll do what we can”.  We reorganized the schedule to include everyone.  Patrons would often arrive about an hour late for their appointment, which meant that they were delayed into the following session.   Despite being asked beforehand about children to be sealed to parents, when the family arrived for the actual ordinance they would want to add more names - a time consuming request.

However, with much help and diligence from all the leaders and temple workers, by the time Thursday evening came we found that all the work was done.  In the three days we had helped over a hundred members receive their endowment and 38 families to be sealed together for eternity - more than we had ever done before in a whole week.  And everyone was exhausted.  Fortunately the next two days were light and a full recovery has been made.

We were surprised to hear that the Tolleys, executive secretary to the area presidency, were leaving Tuesday for medical tests in SLC. We  really miss them and hope all goes well enough that they might be able to return. We all fasted for them today.

A happy family after their sealing

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Aug 27, 2017

In the last two weeks I have started two new adventures in Africa.  I have started taking official French lessons which actually cost money and motivate me to study.  My teacher is a single young man who used to teach at the MTC and is Ivoirien.  We meet twice a week for an hour.  I am always tired from work when I get there but always inspired by the time I come home. I like him because he does not make me feel stupid, is always positive, and helps me learn phrases and put together sentences that are actually useful.  I can say the blessing on the food in French and have tried family prayer once.  When praying in another language, it makes you think about what you really need to say and how to say it.  Today I tapped Pres. and Sis. Assard on their shoulders and said "Je suis heureuse de vous voir"  [I am happy to see you].  It is the first time I have said that phrase but will add it to my orientation to the people I speak to in the temple when they are there for the first time.  It is very hard work learning a different language but I am grateful that all my children and their spouses and my husband have found it rewarding.  I am proud of them and am trying to be like them.  Don’t you think that I need to live in France for a while?

I have also started teaching an Institute class for ages 18-31 who are single.  It is part of my past life [about 20 years ago I did this for several years and loved it].  I have a small class of 8 students but they are a fascinating group and are helping me learn lots about Ghana.  This is the first class I have taught that I actually invited Tom to attend.  I always said he could not come as a Bishop or Stake President because he would inhibit what people would feel they could say.  He is a great asset and makes extremely valuable contributions.  Who knows at some point we may actually be able to team teach.  For many years I thought this would be impossible because we have very different styles but they may actually compliment each other.  We meet on Friday evenings from 6:00 -7:30 and we are having fun.  When I add prep time and my work at the temple, it does not leave much time for frivolity but I feel like I am growing.
Members of the Institute class
One of the interesting principles we have been discussing is consecration, and what that means for us.   To consecrate is, of course, to make something holy by giving it to God.  Elder Maxwell taught us many years ago that God owns everything except for our will, and thus the only thing we can truly give to God is just that.   This is shown quite clearly in the ordinance of the sacrament.  Rather than sacrificing an animal on an altar, we are asked to willingly sacrifice our agency to God.  “That they may… witness unto thee… that they are willing…”

Although the law of consecration is difficult to live completely each day, the easier aspect is being obedient to what we know, following the prophet’s counsel, striving to do our best in our relationships and our callings.  The physical aspect would include paying tithing, being generous in fast offerings, etc. A more difficult question is what does the Lord expect of us in relation to our worldly wealth? 

That is a question that each must decide individually, and for which we will each be held accountable.  The Church is clearly one of the most effective organizations at helping people rise above poverty and ignorance, but what of personal responsibility?  That answer can only come by personal revelation.  There are many heroic individuals whose stories we occasionally read - people who have started orphanages, clinics, schools, etc. to serve as best they can.  But most of us are not presently capable of being a Mother Teresa.    All we know for sure is that it is not enough to say, “If I were asked to give, I would.”  We must seek to understand how best to bless our Father’s children now, wherever we are and with whatever we have.  
Boys in Cape Coast carrying ropes from the fishing nets

Monday, August 21, 2017

Monday Aug 21, 2017 - Travels

Another tragedy hit Sierra Leone last week when there was major flooding with mudslides in the capital that killed 500+ people and left many others homeless.  We are always impressed by the members who come to the temple from there because they have lived through a civil war and the Ebola virus in the last 10 years.  The day after the flooding began we had 9 patrons from Sierra Leone in the temple for their own endowments and sealings. 

We had an opportunity to meet Elder Renlund and his wife and hear them speak to the missionaries of the Accra Ghana Mission.  He is an inspiring and humble man and concluded his talk with his testimony of Jesus Christ, where he said, “He loves to heal, to mend, and to repair.  He will lighten your burdens by making you strong.”

Saturday was the continent-wide Africa Day of Service so the temple was closed.  Pres. and Sr. Graham suggested that we and the Piersons take the weekend off and go to Cape Coast, where the church was first established in Ghana. We booked into an older resort on Elmina Bay where we sat by the pool,  walked on the beach, and listened to the crashing waves.  Our culinary treat of the weekend was hot pineapple fritters with ice cream.  Very therapeutic!  We watched a most unusual bird, about the size of a hummingbird but with tail feathers ten inches long.  His body was black and white with a red head and it looked like he was courting as he chirped merrily and chased a similar bird without the tail.  We found his picture on-line:  a pin-tailed Whydah.  What a relaxing day!
Walking past the hotel at sunrise on their way to market - 6 miles away.

Carolyn and Sue walked up the beach to a fishing village where this man was taking lobsters from his nets.

Pin-tailed Whydah


Sunday at church all four of us were invited to share our testimonies.  The ward seemed very stable and mature (Ola University Ward).   After, we visited the Cape Coast slave castle.  The museum there gave a very good history of Ghana and its people.  It is estimated that between 12 and 24 million slaves were sent through the slave castles on the African coast in the 200 years between about 1650 and 1850.  About a third went to Brazil, a third to the Caribbean, and up to 2 million into North America.  The conditions in the castle were deplorable and many died.  More died crossing the ocean.  The castle is preserved as a monument to man’s inhumanity to man.  A sobering afternoon.  Although nothing can undo those terrible events, it is gratifying to be part of the effort to bring hope for a better life to Africa.

We arrived home today to prepare for the busy week ahead with patrons from the Cocody Stake in Ivory Coast and the first intake of the new MTC.
Our favorite palm tree at the resort

Sunday, August 13, 2017

13 Aug 2017 Sunday Musings

In part because of Sue’s Sunday School lesson our thoughts have turned this week to the concept of trials in our lives.  What makes something a trial, what purpose do they serve in our growth, how should we deal with them, how can we help others who are experiencing them? - all questions to ponder.

We were reminded of the Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.  “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.  “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.

The point well-made is that we do not have enough wisdom or foreknowledge to know whether an event, whether painful or pleasant, will turn out to be a curse or a blessing.  A similar adage is that of the bride exclaiming to her mother on her wedding day, “Oh mother, I’m so happy!  I’m at the end of all my troubles!”  Whereupon her mother agrees: “Yes dear.  You just don’t know which end!”

When afflictions come we tend to ask why this is happening to us.  Only after we start to ask what we can learn from this, or how it might turn to be a blessing, do we begin to deal with the trial effectively.

There is a tendency to see God in our lives as a transactional relationship: when we do what he asks he gives us blessings; when we disobey we are cursed.  The scriptures tell us that repeatedly.  Then we make the mistaken leap to: when good things happen it is because we (or others) are doing good; when bad things happen it is because we (or others) have done something wrong.  Worse yet are the times when we try to bargain with Him: If you will only give me X, then I will do Y.

But He isn’t a cosmic Santa (although He does know who’s been naughty or nice).  His ultimate purpose is not to develop obedient servants, but to help his children grow into celestial adulthood.  And so he proposes a covenantal relationship.  If we will learn to love Him and strive to be like Him, we will surely be blessed and ultimately receive all that He has.  As we gradually understand how to bless His children we will receive greater power to do so.  But that does not eliminate the likelihood that part of our curriculum must include suffering - both personal and vicarious.  The price of the wisdom of old age is the pain gained from our own experiences and those of our loved ones.

God is good. Life is wonderful!  But not easy.