Sunday, August 24, 2014

Is There a God?

Jesus Christ.
  LDS Media Library
Is there a God? Can you know that your Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, really exist? Can you know God personally?

The answer, of course, is yes. But while this is a critically important question to many people, there are many others who would rather not know and prefer, for their own vindication, that you not know.

I have always known that God existed, from the time that I was a toddler. I just knew Him, like I knew my own father. He was present in my life from the very beginning. I could see Him in my mind—He was a person who smiled at me and loved me. He glowed. He has always been as real to me as any person.

My earthly father has been dead for 25 years, but he is still present with me every day. He is unforgettable. I could show you evidence that he existed—photos, papers, legal documents, his high school yearbook—but you might not accept that evidence. You might not even care. You might not have time to bother considering it. Nevertheless, the evidence is there and it's real.

The same is true of our Heavenly Father. He is unforgettable, present with me every day. I could give you evidence after evidence, miracle after miracle, showing that He exists, but you might not believe me or care or even take the time to consider Him. That is up to you.

I have never, for example, been to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, but I know it's there. I can find plenty of evidence to attest to the fact. I have no doubt of it, and I would be hard pressed to find anyone who would dispute it.

Were you willing, you could find evidence and testimony from millions of people who could tell you countless reasons of why they know God and how they have experienced His power and love. If you are not willing to seek out the why and the how, no one will force it on you. No one can.

If you have an interest in one instance among hundreds, I will offer you a story from my own life.

It was the earliest miracle I remember. I was probably six years old. I was playing with some friends in the vast woods near our home. A pair of logs had fallen across a creek bed, making a natural bridge. The logs were slippery and as I crossed, I fell headfirst between the logs. Somehow my hands caught hold of a branch or limb that was below the fallen trees, and instead of falling on my head, I swung on that branch and landed upright with my feet in the water. I still remember how that branch flexed when I caught hold of it.

Do you believe me? Was the limb just a coincidence? Why did my hands unconsciously grab it and hold on tight? I don't know what would have happened if my head collided with the rocks in that creek bed, but it probably would not have been pretty business.

You might think I've conjured this story from my childish imagination, but I didn't. It really happened, and I still feel a divine, miraculous glow from it, as I did then. It was not my time to go. I had been preserved. Someone was watching over me, and that someone was my Heavenly Father and whoever He had dispatched to watch over me that day.

I could share other similar stories from my childhood, but let's fast forward. I was an unhappy teenager. I had a great life, a truly great life, but I had distanced myself from God by my sins. I yearned to know Him well again. It is often through the gift of extremity that we come to know Him better.

Independently, even before my conversion, I had lost interest in the ways of the world. They had become boring and stupid to me. I was open and ready and hungry. I was 17.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end [a hope and a future (NIV)]. Then shall ye call upon me, and ye shall go and pray unto me, and I will hearken unto you. And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11–13.) 
I would have given anything to know Him again and I held nothing back. I sought Him with all of my heart and I found Him. I searched high and low and He made Himself unmistakably known to me, by fire and light and the power of words and revelation and much, much more.

My faith is both rational and inexplicable. I know that God lives and I know that He loves me. I know He is there and that He cares. He has answered all my prayers though He has left many of them unfulfilled. He has expanded my mind and filled my heart and lifted my burdens and taught me how to live a happy life. I know I can trust and rely on Him for everything I need. Nothing could be more real to me.

I am not sharing this to convince you of anything or to dissuade you from your unbelief. I am sharing what I know. And anyone who wants to know can know what I know.

I am not alone and neither are you. Find the light and walk towards it. You'll find Him there.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Few Things I Love about Running

I want to share a few things I love about #running. Will you bear with me a few minutes? This won't take long.

When I think to myself, "I'll go running today," my body sort of jumps with excitement. It's like you just asked your dog, "Do you want to go for a ride in the car?" There is a cost in energy and time, for sure, but the benefits outweigh any downside 10 to 1. My body yearns for the run now and that feels pretty good.

I love the new spring and power in my legs. They aren't chumpy stumps anymore. I usually start out my runs with a climb. My favorite long run starts out with a gain of about 850 feet over the first three miles. I love an uphill challenge and it's fun to beat my old splits on that part of the route by even a minute.

I love it when my stride and breathing are perfectly in rhythm. It's like the cylinders are firing in sync. And I love how when I am running on flat ground at an easy pace, I breathe normally, as if I wasn't even running. When I first noticed that, it astonished me.

I love breaking the "sweat barrier." When I bust past that, I feel like I'm on a natural high, an earned high—nothing cheap or artificial but something real, something that lasts.

I love to pour out my heart in gratitude and prayer while I'm out. I can't bring myself to listen to music. I prefer to listen to a different kind of music when I run, the music of the soul. It's an intoxicating kind of peace and I love it.

I feel cleansed, spiritually and physically, when I'm done. There is nothing like it. The sweating helps a lot with toxicity (I have heavy metals toxicity—long story) and the increased, sludge-cutting circulation seems to make my mind and heart clear.

Most of all, I love defeating old perceptions. You can do what you never thought you could, become what no one thought you could. I like those kinds of surprises. I like conquering old "records." I feel free. It's like I found the key to my jail cell and let myself out.

You can do it too. Just start. Run a half mile, even just a quarter mile. Begin at a walk if you have to. Start and keep after it. If I can do this, you can. Why not?

I remember the day my running changed. It was April 16, 2014. I'd had a particularly good day. I took off for a run after work and kept going and going until I discovered I'd run seven miles. I felt like I could have gone further, but seven miles in a single run was a record for me.

I am so grateful to my Heavenly Father for restoring my health and giving me the encouragement and the will to try.

I found a feather on my run that day.  It's 16 inches long. I don't know what kind of bird it came from. Maybe it's just a turkey feather. I don't care. I kept it as a reminder of the day I found that secret current of air, when heaven exhaled and my feet left the ground.

Running is a bit of heaven.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How Much Is a Pass-Along Card Worth?

Today in church a woman told a story about a man she knew in her previous ward in Maryland. He was a Pakistani cab driver. He liked to give out pass-long cards to passengers so he kept a supply of them in his car.

One day he discovered that he had only one card left. He gave the card to a rider, a preoccupied businessman, as he was getting out of the cab, but the man promptly crumbled the card up and tossed it into a garbage can!

The driver couldn't stand it. He hopped out of his cab and retrieved the little abused card out of the trash and tried to flatten it back out.

Soon the businessman came back and they had a conversation that went something like this.

"What are you doing with the card?" asked the man.

"This card is important," answered the driver. "I need it to give it to someone else."

"Well, I'll take it then."

"No you won't. You threw the card away. I need to give it to someone who will appreciate it."

"If it's that important to you," said the businessman, "I think I should take a closer look at it."

The driver relented and returned the card.

I hope as I give out pass-along cards in the future that I can be as genuine and persuasive as this faithful man.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Heard Last Sunday in Testimony Meeting

Last Sunday, a member of our ward stood at the pulpit to bear his testimony and told the story of a woman, one of his clients (I believe he is a physical therapist). The woman was from Flatbush, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. She was born and raised a Jew.

The man sharing his testimony had been on his mission in New York and lived only a few blocks away from where the woman grew up in Flatbush. He then asked her how a Flatbush Jew wound up in Salt Lake, and she told him her story.

After she married, she moved away from New York to Texas where one day her husband left her "high and dry" with three children. She prayed for help—over a period of years, I think—without getting an answer. One day she said to God, "If I have to pray to Jesus, that's what I'll do." She was reluctant, having had her mouth washed out with soap for saying the name Jesus when she was young. Well, pray she did.

She got an answer. "Be patient. Help is coming soon." The answer came when one of her daughters called to say, "I met a guy. We went on a date and I really like him. The problem is, he's a Christian."

He happened to be a Latter-day Saint. They were married. In due time the woman and her daughter were baptized into the Church and are still faithful today.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Light and Apostasy

David O. McKay
When I was investigating the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 17, my family, particularly my father, stood in violent opposition to me uniting with the "Mormons," laying at my feet the most vitriolic and absurd allegations I had ever heard. They gave me—or I otherwise collected—a stack of anti-Mormon literature that was nearly two feet high. I read most of it and I am honestly glad I did at that time because it helped me see clear and unforgettable distinctions between light and darkness.

I could use neither logic nor reason to explain my new faith to my family and friends. They would not accept logic, reason, testimony, or faith when I tried to explain to them what I was experiencing. To them, I was deceived and deluded in the worst way. There was no court of appeal open to me, not as far as they were concerned. For a short time, I was thrown out of my house and, for quite sometime, legally disinherited.

All I knew was that before me was the most brilliant light I had ever seen and in that light I beheld a glorious lightness of being. I let the darkness fall behind me as I walked toward that light. Nothing else made sense to me then or now.

I have never turned back to drink that dark ink. I drank it once and it tasted like sewage. That was enough; I don't ever need to drink it again. (By the way, I know what sewage tastes like from personal, accidental experience. That's all I'll say.)

I don't denigrate what others hold as true or dear. I respect others' choices and beliefs, even if those beliefs differ from or even trash my own. I am sad when I hear stories of those who vilify what I hold dear and turn from what they once held dear.

I don't worry about such things, though. Not much. These things will get worked out in time.

I am thrilled to have opportunities to stand up for what I believe. The feelings and good name of honest people everywhere sometimes need defense, but the truth will vindicate itself in due time. The enemies of truth will be ashes under the soles of its feet (see Malachi 4:3).

Doubts appear to be solid walls. They are not solid. Even so, they often turn doubters away as if they were. Fears and doubts are normal. They are part of the game we call life. But what they represent is often not real or solid. They are mirages and illusions.

Please read this story from Piriko Valkama Petersen of Finland about David O. McKay. It is a story of moving from fear and doubt into the light. (Thanks to Larry Perkins, our Sunday School teacher today, for sharing it in class.)
In the summer of 1952 the young people from our branch were enjoying Girl Scout camp near Helsinki, Finland, and anticipating a visit from President David O. McKay. A beautiful grove surrounded by tall birch trees was chosen as the setting for welcoming the president, and since the summer had been lovely, we believed that this special day would be beautiful too.

As the time approached, and we talked of his visit, one of the girls suddenly asked, ‘What will happen to our testimonies if he does not act and look like a prophet?’ Little by little, doubts began to creep into our minds. The darkness of these doubts seemed to be reflected even in nature, as dark, heavy clouds gathered above our heads on the day of his coming and the rain came down in torrents. I remember sitting under a large tree with a friend, watching the rain beat down on the lake, and again and again my thoughts returned to the gnawing fear that the president might not meet our expectations. I knew he would not appear in white robes like the prophets of old we saw in pictures, but that he would be dressed like an ordinary man. So strongly did I fear losing my testimony that if I could, I would have run away. But that was not to be, I had been chosen to give the welcoming speech.

As we walked toward the grove, the rain let up, but the sky was so gray and the clouds so heavy it was almost dark. Our Scout uniforms were wet, and we were drained of enthusiasm. In silence we … waited. My place was in the middle of the line. I was supposed to take three steps forward, greet President McKay and his company, wish Sister McKay a happy birthday and give a flower to her.

Into this dark, damp setting drove a black car. And then, as President McKay stepped from the car, the sun broke through and suddenly the grove was a sea of light. The leaves and grass sparkled as the rays of sun hit the raindrops. We were stunned and momentarily blinded by this intense light.

I looked at the president but could not see him clearly. All I could see was his majestic silhouette against the sun, with the light against his beautiful white hair forming, it seemed, a shining halo around his head. We all gasped and stood in awed silence.

The time had come for me to take my three steps forward and welcome the president, but I could not move. I knew that if I took those three steps, he would immediately see the doubts and fears in my heart that had been tormenting me. Everyone waited, and I stood there helpless.

Finally we heard the mission president … prompting, ‘Sister Valkama, didn’t you have something to say to us?’ I forced myself to take three very small steps. The tears streamed down my face. . . .

I tried to speak. Confused and embarrassed, I stood there and wept quietly. Then I heard President McKay’s voice.

"Come here, my child."

I went to him and he took both my hands in his and held them while I gave my greeting. I was aware of his golden, tanned skin and the warm light in his eyes. I felt as though it was as important for him to help me as it was for me to give my message. A feeling of complete peace flowed from his hands into me. My fear of him judging me, which I had felt only a moment earlier, left me and an overwhelming feeling of love had taken its place. I knew he was the prophet of God who had come not to judge us but to love us. (“When the Sun Broke Through,” Ensign, Aug. 1976, 37).
I'll close with this thought: you can have great confidence in the light. It makes everything distinct—unless you are determined to believe otherwise.

I know, for example, that my mother loved me. She died over 30 years ago, but I know she loved me then and that, wherever she is, she loves me now. I always knew that. I know it with a very distinct knowing. No matter what anyone says or will say can dissuade me from that certainty. Would anyone in their right mind try to convince me otherwise? I wouldn't listen to them if they tried.

Do you understand what I am saying? Some things are real and true. They are indisputably knowable, in spite of earth and hell.

Being grumpy for "righteousness" sake just doesn't work for me. That's oil and water. They just don't mix.

Light is love. It is also truth. And it never changes. That is where you and I belong.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Jesus as a Boy Teaching in the Temple

I think about Jesus' personal life a lot. I think about it every day as a matter of fact. I am not putting myself out as some sort of Superheiligen. That I am not. It's just something that occupies my thoughts. Often. Here's a story I've been thinking about lately.

When Jesus was 12 years old, the same age as our deacons who pass the sacrament, He traveled to Jerusalem with His parents to observe the feast of the Passover. This week-long feast commemorates the exodus of the Hebrew nation from Egypt and was held during the Hebrew month of Nisan (March–April).

Traditionally, a boy would become a "son of the law" at age 12, and a trip to Jerusalem at Passover would be customary. It may have been Jesus' first trip to the holy city for the feast. That was the custom. But we don't know for sure.

Other than his birth and young childhood, this is the only narrative account of Jesus' boyhood that we have in scripture. Although there are many such stories in the pseudepigrapha, Luke's is the only canonized account. It's recorded in Luke 2:41–52.

You're probably familiar with the story, so I'll just highlight key elements from it, embellishing it with unanswerable questions along the way.

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple by William Holman Hunt(1854-60). Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery.

Luke says that when they "had fulfilled the days"—I suppose the feast had ended—"the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem" although his parents didn't realize it (v. 43). I don't think they would have knowingly left without Him. Perhaps they thought he was in the caravan with family members or friends. They must have had a great deal of trust in Him.

Can you imagine what it would have been like to bring Him up in your own home?

Also, what would it have been like to be friends with Jesus when He was that age? Did friends in the neighborhood knock on their door to ask if Jesus could come out to play? Who were His friends? What were their names? What kinds of things did they do together? Did they believe in Him when they were older?

Maybe his folks had complete confidence in Jesus or never felt a need to worry. Whatever the case, they traveled a day's journey before they discovered that he was missing from the company (v. 44–45) and came back to the city. Then it took three days to find Him. Three days!

When Mary and Joseph searched for the lost boy, what went through their minds? What did they talk about with each other? Was there regret or recrimination? It must have been a stressful episode for them.

They finally found Jesus in the temple "in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions" (v. 46).  The Joseph Smith Translation says that the doctors "were hearing him, and asking him questions" (JST Luke 2:46; italics mine) and "all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers" (v. 47).

Astonished! Imagine His insight and what it would have been like to listen to Him! What did they talk about, Jesus and the doctors of the law? Did they discuss the Passover which was symbolic of His atonement? Were the doctors or teachers listening to Him or arguing with Him? Where did He stay at night and how did He eat during the time that He spent away from his family?

When they found Him, Mary and Joseph were "amazed." Mary said, "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing" (v. 48).

Then came His famous answer, "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?" (v.49).  (The NIV reads "Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”)

At age 12, Jesus seems to already know what His mission and purpose was, and Joseph and His mother were somewhat bemused when He began to pursue it. Is it safe to say that they didn't fully understand their son?

I know I am leaving you with more questions than answers. That's all I can do here. Nevertheless, this story fills me with wonder and awe. Really. What an amazing, inspiring boy He must have been.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Running into My Past

Yesterday, I ran into my past. I've been running into it a lot lately.

The last time I ran regularly was when I was on my mission. That was a long time ago. Like, in the previous century. No. The previous millennia. Okay, 1978.

But last winter, I felt prompted to change that. In fact, I felt that I had to change that if I wanted to prolong my life. I was reluctantly, slowly, and disbelievingly obedient. But what a huge difference it has made.
Behold, the Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days. (D&C 64:34.)
So I started running again. It dispels stress like the wind scatters the fog. I lost weight and body fat. I got stronger. Freer. More confident. And spiritual.

For me, running is a time to pray and meditate, to think and worship. It has become a holy practice.

So how have I run into my past? First, the physical. I now weigh what I weighed in my 20s. I feel energetic. I feel strong and, best of all, hopeful. Yes, hopeful. Here's one reason why.

This is what happened yesterday. I ran the Temple to Temple 5K in Provo, Utah, a run from the Provo Temple to the new Provo City Center Temple (still under construction). I ran faster than I imagined possible, besting my last 5K by almost five minutes.

The best thing, though, the very best, was running together with so many members of our extended family. In all, 18 of us ran or walked or strollered the route. It was so great to meet up at the finish line. (I have to give a shout out to my nephew Brandon who ran a smokin' 17:45, coming in 14th in a field of 7,457. Wow.)

Second, the spiritual. I feel full of urgent possibility. My hope is beaming. I have the power to change and I have changed for the better. I have shaken off high school regrets. I keep bumping into my past, my old limits, my stale self-estimation, and keep making that past better, not stingy with satisfaction as it used to be. I feel cleansed.

Now, when I drive through my neighborhood and see the places I customarily run, my body, like the pooch seeing the squirrel, cries out, "Run? Run?"

I guess I'm into it. I won't be stopping soon, not if I can help it.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means . . . I myself should be a castaway. (1 Corinthians 9:24–27.)
I dedicated this race to my brother Mark. He died in 2012. I feel like he has been one of my angels through all this and much more. Thank you, Mark. I know you're there for me.