Monday, July 21, 2014

Our Missionary Returns With Honor

We became increasingly anxious for our son's return as the date approached. Still, I tried to be careful about my communications with him. I wanted him to be dedicated to fulfilling his mission right up to the end. He had plenty of plans for life after his mission.

Communication with our son overseas was a dramatically different experience than when I served as a full-time missionary. Back then Mom wrote faithfully every week. I also wrote to the family every week. But the process of asking and answering a specific question took two to four weeks.

For the past two years I have started emailing back and forth with our son around 4 am every Monday. Although email is an asynchronous form of communication, it is immediate enough to address many questions in real time. We have learned much about our son's mission experiences through this process. I wonder what kind of communication method my kids will use with their kids a generation from now.

Our current family dynamics put us in a busy phase of life. I am told that time seems to pass more quickly when you're busy. My wife insists that our son's two-year absence went pretty rapidly for her. Besides being a busy mom, another part of that could be because our son was away at school for a year before he left and had previously spent summers working at scout camp in a remote region of the Tetons. We got used to him being gone. For me the time seemed to pass more piecemeal.

My lovely wife is a fantastic mother, although, she sometimes frets that when it comes to dealing with our Asperger Syndrome child everything she does seems to go wrong. (That's a topic that deserves its own post.) She does amazing work helping prepare for important functions and events in our family and in the life of each child.

So a couple of days before our son's return, my wife obtained a welcome home banner. She also plotted out a homemade welcome home sign to be built by plugging plastic cups into a chain link fence. The day before the blessed event, we spent family home evening committing an act of public vandalism by putting up our plastic cup sign on a freeway overpass under which we would drive on our way home from the airport. (Don't worry, we cleaned it up about 48 hours later.) We then drove up the freeway and took a photo of our work.

Given that our son was traveling from the other side of the world, I was prepared to be flexible about his travel. Flight connections don't always work out as planned. But this time around it went better than planned. Modern tools allow real time tracking of flights. We assumed that we'd hear if a connection was missed. Consequently, we arrived at the airport a little early because the airline's website said that the final leg of our son's flight was ahead of schedule.

We were among several families awaiting the return of a missionary, all of which were arriving on different flights. Our son had been awake for about 22 hours by the time we saw him walking into the luggage claim area. We held up the welcome sign and exchanged hugs and greetings. The reunion was brief and almost anticlimactic.

Before long we were on our way through rush hour traffic as my son and me exchanged comments in foreign tongues. (I speak a language that is close enough to his mission language that we can get along talking to each other.) At our son's request we went to a pizza restaurant for "real American pizza." He had gotten tired of "Muslim flatbread pizza."

On the way home we passed under our plastic cup sign. It was a good thing we had taken a photo of it because someone had tweaked the sign somewhat to also apply to someone else. What can you expect? It was on public property.

Before long some of our son's friends dropped by the house. But they didn't stay until extremely late like they used to back in the day. As our son approached his 26th hour of being awake he started to get pretty groggy. He was fine the following morning.

Yesterday morning our son gave a brief mission report to the high council. He later spoke at greater length in our ward sacrament meeting. Ever proud of his scholarly vocabulary, congregants had to pay close attention to what he was saying to understand what he was talking about. My wife leaned over and said that while she thought our son always had mumbled when speaking, she thought it had gotten worse. I reminded her that he had just come from two years of speaking a language that sounds like a mumbled and slurred version of one of the foreign languages I speak.

Following the meeting, family members gathered in the shade of our large silver maple tree to eat, welcome our son home, and enjoy rubbing shoulders with each other. The last of our son's friends left many hours later in the evening. But it was a good day.

As a father I am pleased to see my son's development. He seems to be well on his way to being a fine man and contributor to society. It is good to have him home. But he won't be around for long. He and his brother will soon be going away to college. Life changes, as it must and should.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

More on the Myth of the Job You Love

"I'll show you the video tomorrow," said a soft spoken coworker as he walked out of the office yesterday. He was talking about going skydiving that afternoon. I felt no particular envy when I watched the short video clip this morning, although, my colleague appeared to quite enjoy his fall. I currently harbor no particular yearning to go skydiving.

Confirming that the enjoyment apparent in the video clip was genuine, my coworker affirmed that, despite his skydiving and an earlier white water rafting trip, he was no thrill seeker. He talked about his skydiving coach and whitewater rafting guide. "What I liked most about each of these experiences was rubbing shoulders with people that have careers doing something they really love."

This last statement was tinged with a degree of melancholy and more than a little malcontent. Some fellow staff members chimed in and started talking about what they would rather be doing. All of these people have decent jobs and are good at what they do. Yet each in his own way seemed to lament about an inadequate level of passion for their chosen career. None of them hated their jobs. They just wished for something ... more.

As noted in this post, I long ago came to grips with the fact that very few people get to spend their careers doing jobs they absolutely love. There is no shortage of people that hate their jobs, but I'd wager that most of those that we think adore their jobs will admit to grappling with a fair amount of daily drudgery as part of their profession. I assume they are like me. Some days I love my job. Some days, not so much.

I'd also wager that most people working in jobs such as skydiving coach (such as the one to whom my colleague was strapped yesterday as he soared through the air) or whitewater rafting guide end up eventually migrating to some other kind of work as a matter of physical necessity.

A simple fact of life is that few people can manage to find others willing to pay them for following their passions. As I stated in my last post on this issue:
In real life, you don't get paid to do what you love to do. You get paid for doing something that somebody else needs to have done. Doing what you love to do is called recreation, and you generally pay to do it rather than getting paid for doing it. Jobs are called work because they involve a healthy dose of drudgery.
If we ever do get a job we love, we might soon discover that enjoyment + employment = annoyment. Once the prize for which we have longed is in our grasp we may discover negative facets we had previously ignored.

In other words, I think that my coworkers are needlessly longing for a fantasy that either doesn't exist or that is so scarce as to qualify as a myth. It is human nature to be somewhat dissatisfied with the state of our temporal lives. After all, something within each of us longs for something better, even something divine. Discontent is the precursor to nearly all improvement. But torturing oneself with envy for something that can't reasonably be had seems hardly like a path to happiness.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Why Fireworks are Like Christmas

I love fireworks. With a qualifier. I love fireworks in a similar fashion to the way I love Christmas.

You see, for Christmas to be special it needs to be confined to a season concise enough to make it special. I suppose the length of such a season differs from person to person. But for me it lasts about three, maybe three-and-a-half weeks. Much longer than that and its exceptional qualities wear off. It becomes ordinary.

I know a family that loves to set up a grand Christmas tree each year around the first week of October. They tend to keep the tree up until sometime in February. Others like to begin listening to Christmas music the moment the leaves start to change colors in the autumn. Some of these people tell me that their penchant for keeping these holiday elements around for such an extended period is proof of how much they love Christmas. I suppose the guy that takes his exterior Christmas lights down in July could say the same thing.

Far be it from me to tell other people how to observe their holidays. But for crying out loud, the folks that prominently display their large Christmas tree in the full length corner window of their house, which sits on a corner of one of the city's busiest streets are kind of rubbing their neighbors' nose in it, don't you think?

I am not opposed to fireworks. I kind of like a certain amount of fireworks. Every year we blow a little bit of cash on some of our own. But they're pretty modest. Snaps, sparklers, tanks, flowers, snakes (Whose stupid idea were those things?), and a couple of cheap fountains.

But I'm Mr. Responsibility. I have a bucket of water and a hose with a spray nozzle ready to go. We douse every firework as soon as it is spent. We push the debris into the gutter and then I clean it all up in the morning.

For years our local city has done a fireworks show to commemorate Independence Day. It might be my imagination, but I believe that these shows have tended to become more elaborate over time. When I was a child the show originated in one of the city parks. It lasted for about five minutes. Years ago they moved the show to the local high school, which is actually in a neighboring city. This allowed for better parking and viewing.

A couple of years ago the school district increased the cost of using the high school's facilities. While looking for ways to cut costs, the city council decided to move the show to a local park where costs were already sunk. The addition of two parks since the olden days made the show readily visible from two other parks. A nearby church increases the available parking. It's a win-win situation.

Given that the park where the show originates is about a block and a half from my home, we have a grand view of the show from the bay window in our dining area. We don't hear the music that accompanies the show unless we open the windows or sit outside. But we also don't have to battle crowds, traffic, and mosquitoes. It's a pretty nice arrangement for us. Not so much for our dog. He hates fireworks. But he tolerates them if he can lay on the floor at my feet.

As the city's fireworks show has become more elaborate, so have the private fireworks events sponsored by various neighbors. A family in the adjacent cul-de-sac must drop $1-2K on noise, flashes of light, and smoke every firework occasion (which around here is the week of July 4, the week of Utah's birthday on July 24, and New Year). While other families also have increasingly grand displays, most of those pale in comparison.

Until this year. Then a family in the neighboring cul-de-sac (our home is situated between these two rather close road pockets) put on an event they labeled The Cul-de-Sac of Fire! These two families graciously avoided putting on their shows at the same time that the city's show was being staged. But one of them did shows two nights in a row, with last Saturday evening featuring dueling cul-de-sacs for about an hour. It was all very spectacular.

But this is where fireworks are like Christmas for me. Except that what makes for 3-3½ weeks of Christmas enjoyment boils down to about 15 minutes for fireworks.

Fireworks are all very thrilling when you're in the oooh and aahhh stage. But that interval passes relatively quickly. Expressions of wonder soon devolve to analysis of what makes this one different than the last one or the one five before that. Eventually the murmur of even feigned curiosity fades away to people staring rather blankly at burst after burst of colored light. After a while I start to feel like, "Yup, there goes another one. When is this going to be over? I'm ready to go to bed."

Only you can't go to bed when your whole neighborhood is raucously shaking and brightly flashing for an hour straight. OK, you could go to bed but there would be no sleep involved. No earplugs on the planet would adequately reduce the noise. Even if you could sleep, your kids can't. And when you've got kids that can't sleep, neither can you. They won't permit it.

Another neighbor did fireworks last night just as I was preparing to hit the sack. Fortunately, the fireworks season is over for a couple of weeks. Although I cleaned up our firework leftovers on the morning of July 5, my yard, driveway, and walks are now littered with various bits of cardboard shrapnel and firework remnants. I suppose my neighbors figure that it is my duty to show my gratitude for their unsolicited shows and the fact that they miraculously didn't burn my house down by cleaning up after them. What could be better?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Three Spigots, a Sink, and the Holy Spirit

A friend recently confided in me that he was having difficulty interpreting promptings from the Holy Spirit. Probably just about anyone that seeks to feel the Spirit struggles with knowing whether they are receiving divine revelation as opposed to filling in the blanks with wishful thinking. The "Is it God or is it just me?" pattern is a familiar one.

This is understandable. Like learning to ride a bicycle, learning to feel and comprehend the Spirit's promptings takes practice and will necessarily include mistakes. It is a lifelong process.

But my friend's concerns were different. There was a time in his life when Spiritual promptings had greater clarity for him. But now he found things more fuzzy and more confusing. As he said this I had a flashback to what I call the parable of the spigots and the sink.

Years ago a friend's former mission president came to speak to our young adult ward. He said that he had run into many returned missionaries that complained precisely of the same spiritual vagueness my friend was experiencing. This happens, said the former mission president, because you turn off the spigots that bring the Spirit into your life.

Think of your spiritual life as a sink with a drain in the bottom. The water in the sink represents the Spirit, while the drain represents everything that drains the Spirit away, including sin and just the regular vicissitudes of life.

Now picture three spigots from which water (i.e. the Spirit) flows into the sink. These three spigots represent prayer, scripture study, and service to others. Most missionaries, said the mission president, tend to turn on those spigots full blast while serving their missions. Their sink fills up and stays full despite the drain in the bottom.

Upon returning home from their missions, former missionaries must focus more on regular life. So they necessarily turn down the flow from these three spigots. But all too often, the former mission president opined, they turn them down to a trickle or turn them off altogether. Then they wonder why their spiritual life becomes empty, why they feel more confused, and why they have difficulty sensing spiritual promptings. In reality, they have simply quit doing those things that bring the Spirit.

While few of us can turn on those spigots the way full time missionaries do, most of us can probably turn them on more than they now are. The former mission president promised that we would feel an increase of the Spirit in our lives if we did so. He challenged us to engage in mighty prayer, profound scripture study, and seriously selfless service.

He was not asking us to dabble a little more in the scriptures, kneel to pray for a couple of nights, and promise to show up at the next young adult service project. He was talking about much more than this.

Go to your scriptures and read every place that mighty prayer is mentioned. Then look up everywhere that "prayer of faith" is mentioned. Consider what you read and take it to heart.

Profound scripture study means studying the scriptures according to patterns similar to those discussed in Preach My Gospel. These patterns are not reserved for full time missionaries. They are discussed in the manual because they are tried and true methods that can work for anyone. It takes time and focus to study this way, but the payoff is worth the investment.

Service is the way we implement what we have learned in our scripture studies and to see our prayers answered. It is in serving others that we become greater than we have been.

Service also impacts the other two spigots. The former mission president reminded those that had served missions that the mightiest prayers they uttered on their missions were not for themselves, but for others that were investigating the gospel. It is not uncommon for missionaries to fast for investigators because they care more for the welfare of these people than they care to eat food. Even when investigators don't follow the path the missionaries desire, the missionaries experience tremendous spiritual growth in the process.

If you are sensing a spiritual void in your life, you should consider taking the former mission president's challenge. Over the next month engage in mighty prayer, profound scripture study, and seriously selfless service on a regular basis. Your spiritual reservoir will refill and the emptiness you feel will diminish because it will be filled instead with God.