Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Worst Thing You've Ever Done

"Father G" and his homies
26 years ago a young Jesuit Catholic Priest named Gregory Boyle began a ministry in one of LA's more impoverished and troubled neighborhoods. He taught in Delores Mission (as well as in 25 juvenile detention centers) and was able to reach out the the neighborhoods and people that were suffering the ills of gangs and drugs and poverty.  

Determined to make a lasting change in the community, he used charitable gifts to purchase a bakery that had been closed down. It is now baking bread and employs dozens of women and men---mostly paroled felons--to give them hope and a place to start afresh. As the bakery has prospered, he has developed other businesses including a cafe, a silk-screen shop and tattoo removal service. Homeboy Industries (read the story; visit their site) now provides work for many in his community, where Father G is fiercely loved. In fact, there is a large mural one story high and half a block long with the faces of Martin Luther King, Emiliano Zapata, Cesar Chavez and Father Gregory Boyle.

Father G has many gifts, but perhaps his greatest is an uncommon vision.  He has cultivated the ability to see others as God sees them.  This vision is not distracted by race, tattoos, or the stains of sin. Affectionately calling his 'homies' mijo, dawg or kiddo, he reflects that vision in all that he does.  He is in the business of changing lives by giving unconditional love along with second, third and fourth chances. When he looks a person in the eye and says "you are exactly what God had in mind when he made you", or "you are so much more than the worst thing you've ever done", miracles take root in soil once thought to be sterile.

Father Boyle is not out there saying 'all is well in Zion' and or 'there is no devil'.  There are plenty of do-gooders out there that try in vain pacify the world with messages like 'whatever makes you happy--just be a nice person.' On the contrary, Father Boyle is healing hearts and saving lives with the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But that message rings hollow if the one that gives it doesn't believe the Lord can deliver on what he's promised: "he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord remember them no more" (D & C 58:42) and "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Isaiah 1:18).  Father G believes it, and recorded his experiences over the many years in his book (Tatoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. New York: Free Press, 2010).

It was Jesus Christ that told us: “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God” (D&C 18:10). We could all use a little more of that clarity of vision--same vision that sees a soul instead of gang tattoos; a son of God rather than a panhandler on the street. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Lights of Thessalonica

The lights of Thessalonica from afar
There are many sad stories in scripture, but one that has ever haunted me is that of Demas.  We know almost nothing about him. Paul described him in favorable terms to the saints as Colossae (Colossians 4:14), and referred to him as a fellow-laborer to Philemon (Philemon 1:24). He undoubtedly spent significant time with Paul, since he was mentioned in epistles from both first and second imprisonments at Rome. We presume him to have been a missionary and faithful member of the Roman church leadership. Most significantly, we assume him to have been Paul's trusted friend. But in the end, it seems to have gone terribly wrong. 

The sad footnote on Demas is made all the more tragic by nature of it's juxtaposition with some of Paul's most inspiring writings. Paul's last farewell to Timothy opens a window into Paul's soul where we see and feel his unshakable strength and resolve; we understand his confidence in the reality of his Savior. 

For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

Parenthetically, we feel Paul's bitter disappointment in his footnote about his friend Demas . . . 

Do thy diligence to come shortly unto me: For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus unto Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.    (2 Timothy 4:9-11)

The Greek word translated as present (G3568 - nyn) implies the here and now world. Demas' love of the here and now was in stark contrast to Paul's love of a better world that was promised to the faithful. It is one thing to love life, it is another to love the world so much that it crowds out God and our chances of worlds without end.

Behold, I, the Lord, who was crucified for the sins of the world, give unto you a commandment that you shall forsake the world.  (D&C 53:2)

And verily I say unto thee that thou shalt lay aside the things of this world, and seek for the things of a better.  (D&C 25:10)

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)

What the draw of Thessalonica was to Demas, we will never know.  But each us have our own Thessalonica. It's bright lights and magnetism are dazzling and distracting. In each of us there is a little bit of Demas that needs to be focused and restrained.  It is so easy to make a trip 'into the city' under false pretenses to gratify our obsessions with the present world.  In the process, we find ourselves forsaking something far more important in the eternal perspective. 

Though the story of Demas is tragic, it is instructive. In every instance in scripture wherein we find the name of Demas, we also find the name of Luke.  We cannot sorrow for Demas without rejoicing for Luke:  "Luke is with me."  He did not wander off to Thessalonica; he did not abandon Paul; he did not love the present world more than the Lord. He stands with Paul as an example of one who has fought a good fight, and kept the faith. Though I sorrow for Demas, it is my hope that I can fight a good fight, keep the faith and stand to the end with Luke and Paul and Christ.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Shades of The Godfather

"A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man." -- Don Corleone

When I first joined Tiffany’s family 26 years ago, I had the opportunity to have grandparents again.  Mine had long since died. Both her grandmothers were wonderful women; I loved them like my own almost immediately. Each was unique but in one respect they were very much alike: they were both full-fledged members of the D-A-R and the D-U-P (I wish I could spell with a Utah accent).  I remember them talking about the DAR and the DUP all the time. Initially I had no inkling of what they were talking about (I was fresh off the boat from Canada). It was self-evident that they were fiercely loyal to the organizations and considered their membership in them to be a great honor.

With time I came to know that the DAR was The Daughters of the American Revolution and the DUP was The Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. I remember one of them telling Tiffany that because her grandmother was a DAR and DUP, she was a DAR and DUP. Many could claim one or the other. She was both. The moment had me feeling like a silent and unseen observer in a scene from The Godfather. This was serious family business—but in a good way.

Although neither Blanche or Geneva were Cache Valley equivalents of Don Corleone, these women were forces to be reckoned with, and have always been great examples to me. They knew where they came from.  They were totally committed to the family.  They had remembered the struggles of their fathers and mothers and it helped define who they were. They had taught their daughters and granddaughters (and grandsons-in-law) these things.

Reading Alma's discourse to the church in Zarahemla (Alma 5) brought this memory flooding back to me.  It's enormously random, but I suspect there is something valuable in it.

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, you that belong to this church, have you sufficiently retained in remembrance the captivity of your fathers? Yea, and have you sufficiently retained in remembrance his mercy and long-suffering towards them? And moreover, have ye sufficiently retained in remembrance that he has delivered their souls from hell? (Alma 5:6)

I am not a descendent of slaves, but I am a descendant of women and men that have done great things, and overcome enormous obstacles. Most notable is the foundation they have laid in teaching me how to access 'the mercy and power of God' that delivers us from bondage of sin. Though Alma was referring to the physical captivity of the prior generation of Nephites, the ideas he was talking about were more figurative as he tried to inspire his people to greatness by reminding them of the courage, grit and faithfulness of their forefathers. In doing so, Alma also reminds me of the same attributes in my forefathers--who weren't even Italian, let alone Sicilian. In them, I see a dedication to the family that Vito Corleone could never come close to matching. It is one thing to talk about the family, it is quite another to live for the family.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Can People Change?

For a significant portion of every work day, I spend time with people that are trying to change.  Usually it's their weight, their diet, their bad habits or their attitudes--things that are well within their ability to control. Sometimes they are things that we can't control: their genetics, their medical problems, or other people's choices.  [There is often a disproportionate amount of energy directed at things that can't be changed instead of things that can be changed--it's more than a little ironic.]   

I wish I had a nickel for every person that looked me in the eye and promised me that they would change: 'Doc I'm going to lose 30 pounds, so lets NOT start any diabetes medications'. As a rule, people have great optimism about their ability to change. The problem is, they usually don't.  I try to give folks encouragement about the weight they are going to lose, but to make contingency plans. 'Lets begin the medication, and we'll stop it as soon as you lose the weight'. Usually they stay on the medication and have more medication added on within 6 months. Yet they remain optimistic about the prospects of dramatic changes looming on the horizon. 

I'd take a dime for every person that asked me if I thought someone they cared deeply about would change.  My answer has alway be this: People can change . . . but they usually don't. It's sad reality, but totally unproductive to carry on with the unrealistic expectation that people change through the wishful thinking, badgering or nagging of others.

Perhaps it is part of our divine nature to believe that we (or those we love) have within us the potential to cast off the things about ourselves we don't like and become the person we deeply want to be. It's definitely part of human nature to cling to the hope that these changes will occur by wishing them into reality--without concerted and consistent effort on our part.  

I will readily concede that there is bias in the population I spend my work days with. But, that being said, we all have things about ourselves that we would like to change, but haven't gotten around to doing the work to change them. Today I came across an awesome insight that speaks of our ability to affect ultimate change.

"The Lord works from the inside out.  The world works from the outside in.  The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of the people, and then they take themselves out of the slums.  The world would mold men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment.  The world would shape human behavior, but Christ can change human nature."  Ezra Taft Benson

There is no amount determination or self-control sufficient to effect the kind of eternal change that each of us need to reach our true potential.  Such change requires a Savior. It is well and good to work on motivating ourselves to change those things that lie within our reach and power to control. For the big stuff, we need to look to Christ.

For our conversation is in heaven; from when we also look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. Philippians 3:20-21

Thursday, June 7, 2012

It's All About Who You Know

Our church sometimes seems like a 'put your money where your mouth is' kind of organization that places high premiums on what we do as opposed to what we believe.  I'm certainly an advocate of us acting the part of believers--I think it is an evidence of conversion.  But, it is important to recognize that 'Rome wasn't built in a day' and we are not 'changed from a carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness' in an instant. That is a process that is going to take some time. I find it interesting that the Lord, in describing his church to Alma, emphasized what we believe and said little about what we do.

"And whomsoever ye receive shall believe in my name; and him will I freely forgive. For it is I that taketh upon me the sins of the world; for it is I that hath created them; and it is I that granteth unto him that believeth unto the end a place at my right hand. For behold, in my name they are called and if they know me they shall come forth, and shall have a place eternally at my right hand."  
Mosiah 26:22-24; emphasis mine

Every conversion begins with what we believe. Believing in his name is enough to be forgiven. Believing unto the end grants us a place at his side.  As we believe in his name and his ability to redeem us we start to change--or rather we are changed by his Spirit. With time, what we believe motivates us to act: "we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things that he shall command" (Mosiah 5:5).  What we believe therefore shapes what we do, and ultimately helps us to come to know the Lord. After all, he states that our place at his side requires that we truly know him. King Benjamin summed things up nicely by saying: "For how knoweth a man the master who he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts of his heart?" (Mosiah 5:13)

It starts with what we believe; it continues with what we do. With time and perseverance we come to know him and take our place at his side. We place a lot of pressure on ourselves to do. In the end, it's really more about who you know.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Transit of Venus

If you didn't make it out to see the transit of Venus as it moved across the solar disk this afternoon you missed something pretty cool. Unfortunately you'll have to wait a while to see the next one . . . December 2117 with an encore presentation in December 2125. We tried the trusty pinhole camera but resolution was too low. The astronomical glasses worked great for direct viewing. Not so great for trying to shoot a picture through an iPhone. You'll have to take two thumbs up from Robyn that it worked well.

Seeing Venus transit as a tiny spot was awe-inspiring. Made me feel incredibly small compared to the sun and the universe. It gave me a sense of the greatness of God who has created a universe with so much order and complexity. One would think that this would be his crowning glory, but he says it's not: "For behold this is my work and my glory--to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man (Moses 1:39)."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Zarahemla: The City of Brotherly Love

LOVE statue in Philadelphia
(purple color in fountain for Lupus awareness)

If you were to ask anyone what the city of brotherly love is, they'd quickly tell you it's Philadelphia. That being said, it sometimes doesn't always live up to the hype. We were treated great in Philadelphia and I enjoyed the visit, but that that couldn't be said of an immigrant family with little kids on the plane out of there.  One guy's racial epithets and excursion over the line of decency tarnished the image in a big way (kudos to Southwest Airlines for bringing the pilot and about 3 other employees out to shame this guy).

I was impressed with another city's example of brotherly love today. I had just finished reading the miraculous account of how the Lord liberated his people from bondage in Mosiah.  I found it curious that Gideon referred to the Lamanites as 'our brethren' (Mosiah 22:3).  These are hardly the words I expected from a man that was then enslaved by the Lamanites. It wouldn't have been terribly surprising to see him react more like the Philadelphian on the plane given that he'd spent his life on the battlefield fighting 'his brothers'. To my further surprise, Gideon's sentients were also expressed by the people of Zarahemla as they were joined by the peoples of Limhi and Alma.

"And again, when they thought upon the Lamanites, who were their brethren, of the sinful and polluted state, they were filled with pain and anguish for the welfare of their souls."  (Mosiah 25:11)

If the people of Zarahemla can feel this kind of concern for their former masters and arch-enemies, then Philadelphia is obliged to step aside. It begs the question: What were they doing right? and What are we doing wrong? We profess to be members of the same church as the one established in Zarahemla, yet so often can't talk civilly with someone with different political views, or ethnic background or religious traditions. So often it's us and them, and we certainly aren't prone to see them as our brothers. After all, they are different. Most of us aren't even close to being able to live by the Savior's charge to 'love thy neighbor as thyself' (Matthew 22:39). Fortunately, there's a lot of us that are trying to be better.  If we could simply get this down, so many of the world's problems would sort themselves out. 

I don't know exactly how the City of Zarahemla got there, but think part of it may lie in a detail towards the end of the same chapter.

"And they were called the people of God. And the Lord did pour out his Spirit upon them, and they were blessed and prospered in the land." (Mosiah 25: 24)

The Spirit of the Lord brings with it the spirit of brotherly love. To have the latter is good; to have them both is better.