Monday, December 28, 2015

Our Star Wars Christmas

In the run-up to Christmas we made time to watch a few Christmas movies as a family. As usual, we watched A Christmas Story and the musical Scrooge. I brought nostalgia for these films into our marriage years ago and now they are Christmas favorites for (at least some of) our children.

Some of the kids watched the live version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I was pleased to have missed out on yet another viewing of that frenetic film. We have a stack of DVDs of other Christmas movies, including a number of animated and live action films. The kids have seen the various Tim Allen Santa Clause movies enough that they rarely watch those anymore. Not one of my kids likes The Polar Express, likely due to the uncanny valley effect.

Due to the way things worked out this year, we enjoyed Christmas morning with all seven members of our nuclear family and nobody else, for the first time in many years. I figured that since we no longer had small children, we'd be able to sleep in a bit. But apparently our junior high and high school kids still found Christmas morning magical enough to make the rest of us get up at 6:30 am.

The middle of the day was filled with family and food. As evening settled in, it was back to our nuclear family. Our two youngest insisted that we sit down and watch a Christmas movie together as a family. But then bickering ensued about which film to watch.

After the two main parties went back and forth for half an hour, I thought I'd play the funny man by suggesting that we watch Star Wars. Instead of laughter, one child noted that our youngest had never seen the first Star Wars movie (now episode IV). As a family Christmas gift, my wife had purchased tickets to see The Force Awakens the following day. She thought it would be good to review A New Hope before going to see the newly released film. I looked around the family room and saw a lot of head nodding.

Soon the lights were turned down, popcorn was popped, and the family was watching Star Wars IV. I said something to the effect that this must be a great Christmas movie. After all, more than one family in the neighborhood had some kind of Star Wars themed inflatable Christmas yard ornament.
For the record, the connection between Christmas and Star Wars continues to elude me. As does the appeal of inflatable yard ornaments of any kind. We didn't make it far into the movie before I realized that I had forgotten how whiny Luke Skywalker was in that movie.

OK, so Star Wars isn't much of a Christmas movie. But the family seemed to enjoy watching it together sans contention. Maybe that's more important.

The following day after lunch we sat in a packed movie theater to watch the new Star Wars movie. Don't worry, I'm not going to reveal any serious spoilers here. Besides being exciting, it had good special effects, fun callbacks to other Star Wars movies, acceptable acting, at least one gut wrenching scene, and unanswered questions that set up sequels. C3PO and R2D2 played more minor roles than they did in the original trilogy. C3PO's initial appearance was deliberately annoying. I laughed when one of my kids leaned over and whispered, "Worst human-cyborg relations droid ever!"

The entire family enjoyed the Star Wars excursion. It caused me to reflect on the enduring nature of the Star Wars franchise. I first saw Star Wars in a movie theater in Honolulu, after having spent the summer working in the pineapple fields on the island of Lanai, which was pretty rustic back in those days. Given the nature of our work, schedule, and surroundings, we hadn't heard much about the Star Wars phenomenon. But our entire 17-member group waited in a line that was several blocks long to watch the film.

Within a short time after returning home, it became clear that Star Wars was a pretty big thing. I saw the second movie by special permission while serving as a missionary in Norway. Given that Norway had a population of less than five million and a high rate of English proficiency, they rarely dubbed films into Norwegian, relying instead on Norwegian subtitles. I still remember being sorely disappointed at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.

Critics were happier with episode V than with episode IV, but I walked out of the cinema feeling that I had been robbed of an episode IV-like strong positive ending and a knowledge that I had to wait another three years to see the conclusion. Return of the Jedi finally provided the positive thrill I had hoped for with episode V, but I still feel conflicted about the whole Darth Vader deathbed repentance thing.

I watched the Star Wars prequels as a father seeing them through the eyes of my children. Frankly, I was appalled by the bad acting and brain dead writing in Revenge of the Sith. I walked out of the theater feeling like I had endured the film simply to finish a series I had started watching nearly three decades earlier. I consoled myself by telling myself that my expectations were likely too high and that I wouldn't have cared much for the first movie if it had had a 28-year build up. But even then I knew that wasn't completely true.

It would seem that many agree that JJ Abrams has produced a much higher quality film this time around. But even after seeing it, I still think that my favorite film from the Star Wars franchise to date is the short Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace. It is chock full of quirky humor and callbacks to other Star Wars works. (Not everyone will appreciate this kind of work, but I think it's great.)

After getting home from the movie, the two older boys left to return to their apartment near the University of Utah campus, where they are majoring in different engineering disciplines. Our family Christmas gathering, which had begun on Christmas Eve, was done for the year.

With one son leaving in a few days to serve for two years as a missionary and the older boys working toward graduation and life thereafter, we may never have another Christmas with just the seven of us. Life is meant to progress like that. But I will long cherish this year's Star Wars Christmas — not so much for the movies, but for the shared experience.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sometimes I hide from my inner Good Samaritan

I felt a familiar surge of irritation as I noticed that traffic was backed up at the busy intersection ahead. This intersection is noisome even on good days, at least when I'm on my way home from work. You are prohibited from turning right on a red light, even if there is no oncoming traffic. (In Utah you can generally turn right on a red light after stopping and ensuring that the way is clear.) So I was preconditioned to have a somewhat surly mood as I approached the intersection. Seeing the traffic backed up only enhanced that sentiment.

As vehicles slowly moved through the intersection, I finally got close enough to see the source of the problem. A lone man was pushing a pickup truck across the wide intersection. As I rounded the corner, I saw a car parked at the curb. It suddenly dawned on me that the man pushing the truck was the driver of the car. A woman was steering the truck as the man strained to push it, while other vehicles zipped by.

"You could pull over and help the man push the truck," said the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37) that lives somewhere in my mind. "Yeah, I could," I responded, "but by the time I got there, the truck would already be pulled to the shoulder on the other side of the intersection. Besides, traffic is heavy enough that trying to get to the truck would be dangerous."

A moment later my inner Good Samaritan said, "You might not get there in time to push, but maybe you could provide some other kind of assistance." "What, me?" I shot back. "You know I'm no good with mechanical stuff, especially when it comes to cars and trucks. It's not like they need my phone; everyone's got cell phones nowadays. It would be awkward. Besides, I frequently serve others. Do I really need to do it this time?"

The intersection was receding in my rear view mirror as I was having this conversation. As I accelerated, the Good Samaritan voice I had been hearing became quieter. I cruised my way home, but I knew inside that, like numerous other drivers that had passed the scene, I had been the priest or Levite while the sole man pushing the truck had been the Good Samaritan.
It's not like I haven't been steeped in the doctrine of service to others throughout my life. It's not as if I haven't deliberately gone out of my way to serve others. Often. It's not as if I don't belong to organizations where I actively reach out to serve. But sometimes I excuse myself from unplanned service, especially when it seems inconvenient.

A few days ago I happened to be working from home when my wife came in and said that a neighbor lady's car battery was dead. I may not know that much about cars, but I have successfully jumped dead car batteries many times. At my wife's importuning, I got up and went across the street as my wife pulled her car up along side the one with the dead battery. I soon attached the battery cables as the lady started the car and brought it to life. She was very grateful as she hurried away to pick up some relatives from the airport.

I went back across the street, stowed the battery cables and returned to my computer. Although the task had taken only six or seven minutes I  grumbled at the interruption, because interruptions can really throw someone doing a deep thinking task like software development completely off track.

I was just starting to get my head back into my work when my olfactory senses started to pick up on some undefined foreign scent. I sniffed my hands. Nothing. looked at my shirt. It looked OK. I checked my pant cuffs. Nothing there. Just then my mental classification system kicked in. "If I didn't know any better," I thought to myself, "I'd think that odor smells very much like ... cat crap!"

Oh, no! The neighbor I had helped owns cats. A quick check of the bottom of my shoes revealed the telltale yellowish greenish goulash of feline excrement firmly embedded in the well defined tread pattern of my fairly new hiker shoes. Although I immediately pulled the shoes off my feet, I realized that I had likely tracked pussycat poop all through the house.

The next few minutes were occupied by cleaning the bottoms of my shoes and cleaning spots on the flooring where I had stepped while wearing poopy shoes. This took much longer than the original car starting task had taken. I re-grumbled as I again tried to reengage my software developer brain.

There are lessons I can learn from both of these events. I really do enjoy serving others. But I like to do it on my own terms. It's best if it's planned and on my schedule. Sometimes I don't respond well when service opportunities inconveniently present themselves suddenly.

Years ago, Elder Rex D. Pinegar (then of the Seventy) told the following story.
One morning several years ago I was driving with my family to Disney World in Florida. Our four young daughters were excited as we approached the turnoff to that famous park. The laughter and happy chatter stopped suddenly, however, as our rented station wagon sputtered and chugged to an unexpected stop on the exit ramp. Many cars sped by us in the rush-hour traffic as I tried unsuccessfully to get the car running again. Finally, realizing there was nothing more we could do, we got out of the stalled car and huddled together off the road for a word of prayer.
As we looked up from our prayer we saw a smiling, handsome man and his son maneuver their bright red sports car through the lanes of traffic and pull off the road beside us. For the remainder of the morning and into the afternoon these men assisted us and cared for our needs in many kind and helpful ways. They took us and our belongings to the receiving area at the park. In their small car, it took several trips. They helped me locate a tow truck for the stranded car; they drove me to the rental agency to get a replacement vehicle. Then, because there was some delay, they drove back to where my family waited to let them know where I was. They bought refreshments for them and then waited with my family until I returned several hours later.
We felt that these men were truly an answer to our prayer, and we told them so as we said good-bye and tried to thank them. The father responded, “Every morning I tell the good Lord that if there is anyone in need of my help today, please guide me to them.”
Elder Pinegar went on to explain that planned and institutional acts of service are "important and commendable. They are the mark of a Christian people." But these opportunities "cannot fulfill the responsibility you and I have for personal acts of Christlike kindness. These lift our soul and renew our relationship with our Heavenly Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ."

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently detailed the following discussion between an 11-year-old girl name Eva and her Great-Aunt Rose.
Eva ... said, “But surely being busy isn’t what made you happy. There are a lot of busy people who aren’t happy.”
“How can you be so wise for someone so young?” Aunt Rose asked. “You’re absolutely right. And most of those busy, unhappy people have forgotten the one thing that matters most in all the world—the thing Jesus said is the heart of His gospel.”
“And what is that?” Eva asked.
“It is love—the pure love of Christ,” Rose said. “You see, everything else in the gospel—all the shoulds and the musts and the thou shalts —lead to love. When we love God, we want to serve Him. We want to be like Him. When we love our neighbors, we stop thinking so much about our own problems and help others to solve theirs.”
“And that is what makes us happy?” Eva asked.
Great-Aunt Rose nodded and smiled, her eyes filling with tears. “Yes, my dear. That is what makes us happy.”
Service by itself doesn't make us happy. The pure love of Christ makes us happy. While we often feel this love when serving others, those filled with this kind of love naturally serve. If I had been filled with this charity (see Moroni 7:47-48), I would have loved the woman in the stalled truck and the man pushing her truck enough to stop and help, instead of giving excuses to my inner Good Samaritan.

I didn't know about my neighbor's dead battery until my wife alerted me to the problem. Still, even if I had known, would I have gotten up off my duff and done something about it without my wife's encouragement? I would have if I had been filled with Christ-like love. Sometimes an invitation can help us get outside of ourselves and help others.

What about the cat crap on my shoes? If you're going to follow Jesus Christ, you have to accept the fact that you're going to have to deal with some crap when it comes to serving others. Service can be inconvenient, problematic, and even dangerous.

But I suppose that it was pretty inconvenient for the Savior when He bled great drops of blood for me in Gethsemane and when He allowed himself to be tortured to death on the cross for me. But He has a fullness of joy. And He wants you and me to have it too. I'm sure that in the long run we will see that the trade off is well worth it.

I want to go there. But I still often find myself listening to my inner priest or Levite on the road to Jericho, instead of listening to my inner Good Samaritan. Like Nephi, I am sometimes frustrated with my own wretchedness (see 2 Nephi 4:17-18). But God doesn't want us to think of ourselves as hopeless cases.

Pres. Uchtdorf recently said, "God will take you as you are at this very moment and begin to work with you. All you need is a willing heart, a desire to believe, and trust in the Lord." Like the desperate father that cried out "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mark 9:23-24), I feel like crying, "Lord, I am willing; help thou my unwillingness." If I keep working at it, I know that God won't give up on me.