Sunday, January 22, 2012

Overcoming Adversity

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Every one of us has suffered adversity and each one of us is likely suffering some kind adversity today, right now. Adversity is the trouble, weakness, difficulty, pain, sorrow and opposition that we face in this life, for, as Father Lehi said, “there must needs be an opposition in all things” (2 Nephi 2:11).

Adversity comes in many forms. It can come to us in the form of a serious illness. It can come in the shape of a lost job, the death of a loved one, or the apostasy of one dear to us. It may appear as a stubborn addiction, a sullen attitude, or an oft repeated sin. Adversity can appear in human form: as a boss, employee, or coworker, a neighbor, a classmate, a friend or erstwhile friend, a parent or child or a spouse.  And, self-deceived and locked in pride, we ourselves can be our own adversity.

You can probably identify the three main sources of adversity:

  • The adversity that comes as a result of our own choices
  • The adversity that comes from the choices of others
  • The adversity that comes as a consequence of living in a fallen world
We have all suffered from the shame and embarrassment that comes from our own choices and failures, whether we made those choices willfully, through ignorance or because of a bewildered and broken heart.

And how about the sorrow and suffering we carry due to the hurtful choices of others, many of which the offending party hardly understands or is hardly aware?

We live on a dying planet that hosts a myriad of “thorns…and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), ills and sorrows. And though we don’t remember, we signed up for all of this.

Though we are reluctant to admit that there are blessings that come from our afflictions, it is true, nevertheless, that adversity is one of our best and dearest friends. It is a vital teacher and an indispensable guide. It helps us overcome the blunting distractions that deceive us, and helps us rediscover the real reason why we are here on earth. Adversity provides a priceless education that we cannot obtain in any other way, for any other price. 

Think of your favorite sport, and think what it would be like to watch that sport if the opposing team did not put up any opposition. Would that sport be interesting to watch? Not at all. If there were no challenge in sports, no opposition or no competition, there would be no one to watch them and a world-wide, multi-billion industry would die. Overcoming opposition is one of the greatest, most entertaining, most interesting, and most fulfilling opportunities of our lives.  Each of us, like it or not, must be hammered and shaped on the “anvil of adversity,” as President Hinckley once said of the pioneers.

Lehi also said, “Thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Nephi 2:2.) How will the Lord consecrate our affliction for our gain?

An important question we might ask is not, “How can I completely avoid adversity?”—which would be impossible and make for a boring, unchallenged life—but rather, “How should I handle trials and afflictions when they come my way?”

John Taylor, who was the President of the Church from 1880 until 1887, was a man of great faith and had an impressive attitude in the face of misfortune. Here is a story from the writings of B. H. Roberts which tells of President Taylor’s unusual tack on financial problems.

“While preaching the gospel ‘without purse or scrip,’ … John Taylor left it up to the Lord to manage his money matters, saying, ‘I would rather put my trust in the Lord than in any of the kings of the earth’ (Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 71).

“When he arrived in New York City, [on his way to] England, he had only one penny in his pocket. Still, he did not plead poverty. When asked about his financial status, he said he had ‘plenty of money.’

“One day Parley P. Pratt approached him, ‘Brother Taylor, I hear you have plenty of money?’ … ‘Yes, Brother Pratt, that’s true.’ ‘Well, I am about to publish my “Voice of Warning” and “[Millennial] Poems,” I am very much in need of money, and if you could furnish me two or three hundred dollars I should be very much obliged.’ … ‘Then [Brother Taylor said], you are welcome to all I have.’

“And putting his hand into his pocket Elder Taylor gave him his copper cent. A laugh followed.

“‘But I thought you gave it out that you had plenty of money,’ said Parley.

“‘Yes, and so I have,’ replied Elder Taylor. ‘I am well clothed, [furnished with] plenty to eat and drink and good lodging; with all these things and a penny over, as I owe nothing, is that not plenty?’” (Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 72–73).” (From The Presidents of the Church Teacher’s Manual, Lesson 12: John Taylor—Man of Faith.)

It is easy to have a uncultivated, hermetic attitude; it takes faith, courage and moral strength to have a positive, hopeful attitude—and to be able to laugh at your situation.

We make a mistake when we adopt an attitude that our obedience to God’s commandment entitles us from protection from all the woes of life, that we should not be forced off our velvet cushion, so to speak. There are promised blessings associated with obedience to law, but no exemptions. Those blessings are “irrevocably decreed” (see D&C 130:20,21), but God in His wisdom will grant them to us in His own way and in His own time.  As we read in Hebrews, after we are “illuminated,” we will endure “a great fight of afflictions” (Hebrews 10:32).

Like a bird breaking out of its shell or a butterfly from its cocoon, without the struggle and effort that is necessary to break free, they, like us, cannot thrive in this world, let alone survive.

Think of adversity as resistance training for the eternities.

Once when George A. Smith, cousin of Joseph Smith, was very ill, he was visited by the Prophet. George later reported: “[Joseph] told me I should never get discouraged, whatever difficulties might surround me. If I were sunk into the lowest pit of Nova Scotia and all the Rocky Mountains piled on top of me, I ought not to be discouraged, but hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage, and I should come out on the top of the heap.” (George A. Smith Family, comp. Zora Smith Jarvis, Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1962, 54.)

What about those times when your trials and problems just go on and on and on? What do you do then?

“There are times,” President Ezra Taft Benson said, “when you simply have to righteously hang on and outlast the devil...” (Ezra Taft Benson, “Do Not Despair,” Ensign, Nov. 1974.)  He also said: “Every man eventually is backed up to the wall of faith, and there he must make his stand.” (Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon Is the Word of God,” Ensign, Jan. 1988.)

At times all you have left is your will and determination to endure whatever comes. Now is the time to decide that you will hang on with your faith no matter what comes—no matter what—for this is the great test of life.

Remember that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” (Mosiah 3:19.)

Failure is an important part of success. We cannot get where we need to go without stumbling over failure on our way. The sooner we accept failure as an important part of life, and thaw the glacier of fear that entombs us, the sooner we will find the success we came here to find.

I recently read an article about a company that created a “Failure Wall” in an effort to create an atmosphere in the company where it was acceptable to fail without fear. One evening an executive, his wife and an assistant stenciled dozens of quotes about failure on a wall in a corporate office, quotes like this one from Winston Churchill:

“Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
Then they posted “these simple instructions: (1) describe a time when you failed, (2) state what you learned, and (3) sign your name.”  The business leader followed his own instructions and wrote three failures of his own, then provided permanent markers so the employees could write on the wall themselves.

What would you write on that wall?

We often view our failures and mistakes as great adversity, but what if we saw each failure as a gift, each misstep, a prize?  Jeff Stibel, the author of the article I read, went on to say:

In the beginning, the wall was met with surprise, curiosity and a bit of trepidation. We didn't ask anyone to contribute and we didn't tell people why it was there, but the wall quickly filled up. …I've said this before but it bears repeating: success by failure is not an oxymoron. When you make a mistake, you're forced to look back and find out exactly where you went wrong, and formulate a new plan for your next attempt…We don't just encourage risk taking at our offices: we demand failure. If you're not failing every now and then, you're probably not advancing. Mistakes are the predecessors to… success….

Alma and his faithful people who escaped the grasp of the wicked King Noah, his priests and armies, later found themselves in bondage to a clan of Lamanites who were led by Amulon, one of Noah’s unholy henchmen. Even though they were baptized and lived the laws of God with integrity, they were still brought under slavery and bondage. It was not until after they completely humbled themselves before the Lord that He said:

Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for…I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage. And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs…and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.

And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord. (Mosiah 24:13–15.)
Later when their captors were cast into a deep sleep, Alma and his people were able to escape from captivity, after which:

They poured out their thanks to God because he had been merciful unto them, and eased their burdens, and had delivered them out of bondage; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except it were the Lord their God. (Mosiah 24:21.)

Don’t look down in shame, brothers and sisters, or look for others to blame, but look up. Look up, for the Lord “will console you in your afflictions, and he will plead your cause, and send down justice upon those who seek your” misfortune (Jacob 3:1.)

Recognize that all around us, people are having a really hard time, a really hard time. The pain is often hidden from sight, but adversity is there, present in everyone’s life. Imagine how important and how desperately needed are your words of encouragement, praise, love or consolation.

I bear testimony that what I have said is true. Since adversity is our companion, we may as well make it our friend. Remember, the scriptures say “after much tribulation come the blessings.” (D&C 58:4.) And as the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: “Thine adversity and thine afflictions, shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.” (D&C 122:7–8.)

We can be grateful for our trials. Adversity helps us to loosen a white-knuckled grip on the things of this world, to turn our eyes upward, and our hearts outward. Adversity helps replace our judgment with understanding, our fear with confidence. It teaches us to decorate and recreate less, and to consecrate and dedicate more, to buy less and give more, to reach out a helping hand, to let go, to become, not bitter, but better.

Christ is our example. He suffered adversity beyond what any mortal could suffer, and yet He did so without murmuring or selfishness, without ever charging God with folly. He submitted His will to the Father, always keeping His eyes fixed on eternity and the heavens.

As Isaiah wrote, “Thou [Lord] wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” (Isaiah 26:3.) May we trust Him, no matter where our trials and adversity may lead us.

—A talk given on January 22, 2012

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Waiting for the Call Part 2

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My brother died yesterday afternoon. I was amazed at how long he lived after his doctor thought he had days or maybe a week to live. He was super tough.

On Thursday at work, I kept thinking about him over and over. It came to me fiercely that I had one more chance to see him alive.

After work, I booked a flight and took the bus to the airport. I keep an emergency bag in my desk at work, so I have the essentials with me—toothbrush, razor, a pair of socks, a pair of unmentionables, and a few other things. In a little over two hours, I was on a non-stop flight to LAX.

I finally arrived at my brother's side a little before 10 that night, I think. He responded almost imperceptibly, but I know he knew I was there. I spoke to him for something close to a half and hour. I talked to him about all kinds of things. I spoke to him quietly.

I stayed late talking to Mark's saintly fiancée. I mean that. I don't know anyone who could have done for my brother what she did. It was amazing. I am so grateful.

She has a beautiful engagement ring on her left hand, but my brother got too sick before their plans could gel, and they were not able to have the ceremony. I believe in my heart that their love is eternal and that they will be together again in the next life. I believe that all our losses will be made up in the resurrection.

I got to bed in my Priceline hotel room after 2:00 AM.

I was able to see him again yesterday morning, but only briefly. He was barely breathing. I knew he would be gone that day. I kissed him and bid him a tender farewell.

I believe my brother was greeted by loved ones and ushered free at last to his true home. He was a kind, gentle, honest soul, good through and through.

Today is a day of a thousand memories, a thousand hopes.

God be with you until we meet again.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Waiting for the Call

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I found out a few days before Christmas that my brother is in hospice. He has cancer, which largely has been in remission, but other complications have arisen, and it's not looking good. He is only 56 years old.

I was able to fly down to see him. He was not able to talk, but you could tell he was trying to because he moved his lips. He was able to respond by moving his eyebrows, a hand or a foot. Once when my sister was talking to him, he was able to open one eye.

I can tell he is at great peace. I felt a holy presence when I was near him, a presence of angels. I have felt that presence before when I have been with people near their time.

I am so grateful that I had a chance to see him and talk to him, to tell him that I loved him and that he was a great brother.  I know many people miss that opportunity.

I was talking with a friend yesterday who told me that he was able to reach his father's side minutes before he died, though his father lived several states away. He woke up one morning and knew he had to go. I see those promptings as tender mercies from the Lord.

My brother's fiancée is caring for him, along with round-the-clock hospice staff. Rarely have I seen such devotion in a person. He is loved unconditionally by her. It is such a comfort to know that he is in such wonderful hands. Who could ask for any greater gift, especially at a time like this?

Of course, I am rummaging through my regrets. So many things that I could have said and done, sooner, but did not. I wish I could be closer to him now.

So I wait for the call. The dreaded call. But part of me believes he can rally, hope against hope. It would not surprise me, especially given the love that surrounds him now.

I believe, however, that when a person is appointed unto death, there are no miracles forthcoming. Or maybe there are. I have to remind myself that most miracles are beyond my imagination, beyond what I can see in time and space.

So I wait. And pray.