Friday, June 17, 2011

My Missionary Farewell Talk

Wow, I might actually give you guys things to read!  For those of you who don't know, it's kind of a tradition in our church to have whoever's going on a mission give a "farewell talk" in their home wards (congregations).  In recent years, the focus of these talks has changed to be about pretty much any subject, instead of the old "thank-you all, I'll miss you guys" talks.  Anyways, I was asked to forward it to a friend and I figured a few of you might be interested in reading it, too.  I'll try and write a post on why I'm serving a mission soon!

Good morning brothers and sisters. I know this is a military branch, so for those of you who don't know me, my name is Josh Jones.  I’m the son of David and Brenda Jones and I’m just visiting for a week before heading back to the States. My family will follow me out and we’ll be visiting family and friends before I report to the MTC in August for my mission to Santiago Chile.  I’m very excited.

This past year has been crazy.  I just finished my first year at school and even though I began feeling very confident and prepared, I have learned and grown more in the past nine months than I have in my entire life.  

But even though I could talk about any number of things I’ve learned, what I really feel prompted to talk about today is actually a lesson I began learning well before college.  I am talking about the principle of not judging, or more correctly, of striving to understand where people are on their journey towards eternal life, and learning to respond appropriately, compassionately, and un-hypocritically.  Unsurprisingly, my parents were eager to impress this idea into the minds of their children, especially with regards to our relationships with one another. I think most of us understand this concept on the surface and are readily able to parrot a scripture like, “where much is given much is required.” But for me, at least, it’s relatively easy to pay lip service to this belief and still act in a way that throws into question whether I really understand the principle or not.

I remember being younger and being really bugged about a particular parable Jesus taught.  It’s known as the Parable of the Laborers. 

Basically there’s a lord of a vineyard who goes out and hires some workers early in the morning, agreeing to pay them each a penny for the day.  The Lord hires an additional set of workers at the third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours, telling each of them that he would pay “whatsoever [was] right” that they should receive. At the end of the day, the Lord paid those who had been employed at the eleventh hour a penny. 

MATTHEW 20:10-15
10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny.
 11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house,
 12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day.
 13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny?
 14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee.
 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?”
I remember feeling so angry!  And feeling bad about feeling so angry, because this was Jesus talking, and you're just not supposed to feel angry when Jesus talks!  In my mind, the Lord had totally ripped off those guys who had worked all day.  Over the years, however, this has become one of my favorite stories in the New Testament because it has taught me so much, made me think so much more.  I know there are many interpretations for this story, (Talmage has a lot to say about it in Jesus the Christ), but for me the message has always been very clear.  I can almost hear the Lord saying to me, “My agreement, my contract, is between you and me.  You and I both understand the terms—you are to be saved by my grace, after all you can do.  Stop worrying about what my agreements are with your brothers and sisters."  (Actually, my dad said that last bit an awful lot while I was growing up!) "You don’t understand what their challenges and limitations are, and I know your own challenges and limitations better than you do.  In fact, if you really understood the plan at all, you’d see that even though you each have a different test, the same terms and conditions apply.”

Another one of my favorite stories is told by Brother Stephen E. Robinson. In his book, “Following Christ,” he shares his own modern day parable based on an experience he had as a boy.  The tale is called the Parable of the Divers.


"Many years ago, when I was somewhere between nine and eleven, I participated in a community summer recreation program in the town where I grew up. I remember in particular a diving competition for the different age groups held at the community swimming pool. Some of the wealthier kids in our area had their own pools with diving boards, and they were pretty good amateur divers. But there was one kid my age from the less affluent part of town who didn’t have his own pool. What he had was raw courage. While the rest of us did our crisp little swan dives, back dives, and jackknives, being ever so careful to arch our backs and point our toes, this young man attempted back flips, one-and-a-halfs, doubles, and so on. But, oh, he was sloppy. He seldom kept his feet together, he never pointed his toes, and he usually missed his vertical entry. The rest of us observed with smug satisfaction as the judges held up their scorecards that he consistently got lower marks than we did with our safe and simple dives, and we congratulated ourselves that we were actually the better divers. “He is all heart and no finesse,” we told ourselves. “After all, we keep our feet together and point our toes.”

The announcement of the winners was a great shock to us, for the brave young lad with the flips had apparently beaten us all.  However, I had kept rough track of the scores in my head, and I knew with the arrogance of limited information that the math didn’t add up. I had consistently outscored the boy with the flips. And so, certain that an injustice was being perpetrated, I stormed the scorer’s table and demanded and explanation. “Degree of difficulty,” the scorer replied matter-of-factly as he looked me in the eye. “Sure, you had better form, but he did harder dives. When you factor in the degree of difficulty, he beat you hands down, kid.”  Until that moment I hadn’t known that some dives were awarded “extra credit” because of their greater difficulty.

I have a friend to whom life has been unkind. Though she married in the temple, her husband proved unfaithful and eventually abandoned her and their small children.  Since he has never paid a penny in child support, my friend works full time to support herself and her kids.  For several years she also went to school at night to improve her financial situation. Therefore, out of necessity, she could not be with her children as much as she would have liked and could not always give them the guidance and discipline they needed.  It just wasn't possible in her difficult circumstances. One result of her less-than-perfect family situation was troubled teenagers. Now in middle age she is faced with raising some of her grandchildren--again, alone.  Without a faithful companion, without the priesthood in her home, without the blessings that are realized where the ideal family setting is possible, it is almost inevitable that my friend should feel that her "scores" as a wife and mother, and perhaps even as a person, aren't very high. When she goes to church and sees other "ideal" LDS families, when she hears them bear their testimonies and give thanks for all their spiritual and temporal blessings, she sees in her mind the judges holding up scorecards that say 9.9 or 10.0. When she looks at her own life, her own failed marriage, her own troubled children, she knows that the scores are much lower, and she worries about her place in the kingdom.

Whenever I am tempted to feel superior to other Saints, the parable of the divers comes to my mind, and I repent. At least at a swim meet, we can usually tell which dives are the most difficult. But here in mortality, we cannot always tell who is carrying what burdens: limited intelligence, chemical depression, compulsive behaviors, learning disabilities, dysfunctional or abusive family background, poor health, physical or psychological handicaps—no one chooses these things. So I must not judge my brothers and sisters. I am thankful for my blessings but not smug about them, for I never want to hear the Scorer say to me, “Sure, you had better form, but she had a harder life. When you factor in degree of difficulty, she beat you hands down.”

I love that story.  I’d add my own commentary, but Robinson’s says it all for me and I don’t have much time.   Just let me add quickly that at Stanford we have something known as “The Duck Syndrome.”  Basically everyone, on the surface, seems to be drifting happily along when in reality, many are paddling like mad underneath the water just to stay afloat.  Most times, we have no idea how hard or easy someone has it.  I love how Robinson talks about his friend who must see 9.9s and 10.0s walking around everywhere.  We must not allow ourselves to compare ourselves to others.  Even if you see through the Duck Syndrome and make the right judgment in grading yourself in relation to them, it comes to no good.  If you deem yourself to be “worse” than someone else, you will be discouraged.  And if you figure you are “better” than someone else, you are in even more danger—you will be proud.  In any case, both emotions are forms of dishonesty and tools of the Devil.

Speaking of the Devil, (no pun intended hahaha) I’d like to close with an excerpt from my favorite author, C.S. Lewis.  In his book The Screwtape Letters, the devil Screwtape writes to his nephew and apprentice devil Wormwood, instructing him on how to best corrupt his “patient.” I think this letter makes clear how Satan can use our inclinations to judge (for the most part, unrighteously) to corrupt our testimonies and make us miserable.

“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself…When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.
I have been writing hitherto on the assumption that the people in the next pew afford no rational ground for disappointment. Of course if they do—if the patient knows that the woman with the absurd hat is a fanatical bridge-player or the man with the squeaky boots is a miser and an extortioner—then your task is so much the easier. All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?’

You may ask whether it is possible to keep such an obvious thought from occurring even to a human mind. It is, Wormwood, it is! Handle him properly and it simply won’t come into his head. He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.”

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