Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas and New Years Resolutions

New Years Resolution #1: Actually respond to emails in my inbox within one day, instead of just reading them, starring them, and feeling guilty about not responding for weeks at a time.

This week my family drove from Chicago to spend Christmas here in Utah. With Grandma gone, I'm not sure how many more Utah Christmases we will have. But they came out and it has been nice. One night, we decided to drive to see the lights at Thanksgiving Point and had a bit of screaming in the car. No one was very happy, and none of us were really in the mood to see Christmas lights. At that exact point in time, none of the radio stations were playing Christmas music to improve the mood, so I turned off the radio and began singing “Angels We Have Heard on High.” I'm not sure what I was thinking. I definitely was not in the mood to sing Christmas carols... but thankfully the Lord (who had probably given me the idea, or urged the instinct that was already there) knew what would happen. After only a few moments, each person in the car joined in the singing. Singing has a profound effect on my family; in just a few minutes everyone was cheerful, happy, and the Spirit of Christmas poured into our hearts. We had forgotten about the issues left only a few miles back on the road. When we arrived to the entrance of Thanksgiving Point and saw a line of cars that was at least an hour long, we put on our coats, turned on the heater, rolled down the windows, and sang our hearts out to the cars nearby. Doesn't everyone sing glorious four-part harmony to pass the time? I love my family.

New Years Resolution #2: Study (for the entire year) from a great teacher without cringing at the cost.

This week the Lord helped me confirm a few things I need to do. I've felt that I need to study voice again and I found a voice professor at BYU who is really interested in physics (means that he should be able to give me scientific explanations for vocal phenomena instead of gibberish), teaches a number of styles (which is important), is a baritone (a first – a teacher who actually shares my voice type), and served his mission in Italy (sugar-free icing on a healthy cake). A short email confirmed that he had spots available in his studio. But, most of all, it feels right. He helped to write a book called “Beautiful Singing” that talks about the physics behind vocal beauty. I only hope he doesn't end up having some major family catastrophe like has happened to most of my previous voice teachers. My next To Do is to apply to the BYU Marriott school of business for the MBA program. When I first realized that I wanted/was supposed to get an MBA, I tried to identify places where I could do interdisciplinary studies and have new resources and new contacts. But, in the time since my application to Stanford, I've realized that the Lord may be taking me in a completely different direction than the one I had envisioned. I wanted to go to Stanford because I wanted something that would pack a punch... but I'm not sure I really need it. The people who would have been wowed by Stanford can be wowed in other ways, and maybe I need to attend BYU again for the same reasons that I attended it in my undergraduate years – for the incredible ability to learn by the Spirit in the classrooms, to share the light with others, and the people who live there on the campus. The next deadline is in a few weeks; I'll go in to talk with someone this week to discuss what would be the best option. And we'll see what happens.

New Years Resolution #3: Pray daily for the opportunity to teach principles of the gospel and invite others to come unto Christ.

Most of my life I've been motivated by wanting to do what is best for the world. I loved music but, truthfully, didn't feel it was a good enough use of my talents. I thought about studying dozens of different subjects, but when I couldn't find something surpassingly noble in my study, I often opted out. I didn't really see it as self-sacrificing – I only really felt fulfilled when I was doing something that I knew would impact the world in some meaningful way. Finally I found what I wanted in teaching – what I felt was the noblest of all professions (and it helped that David O. McKay agreed in a quote on the building that bears his name). Why? Because teaching, from my perspective, was the only real way to right the wrongs I saw in society – to bridge the gap between the poor and the rich, the learned and the unlearned. It was the only way to stop wars, end famine, and fight disease. And it felt right. But as soon as I found it, the Lord revealed to me that my motivation to change the world, while definitely noble, wasn't really what I wanted. My motivation to teach was born from the belief that people who are poor have fewer blessings than those who are rich – and that those with less knowledge have fewer blessings than those with more – hence it was my moral responsibility to right the wrong and bridge the gap. Most people believe that in our world. But the purpose of life has nothing to do with wealth or material possessions. It has very little to do with most knowledge, and has little to do even with health, safety, or even survival. The purpose of life is to come to earth to be tested to see if we will do all things that the Lord our God commands us – something inherently rooted in our actions and in our wisdom. Hence the people who are better off in life are not those with better health, more material wealth, food on the table, clothes on their backs, peace in their nations, or anything else that 'plagues' (I would now say “distracts” instead) our world. The only thing that matters is a knowledge of the gospel and the conviction to live by its teachings. Hence, at least for me, the nobility of a profession isn't tied to how well it rights the wrongs of the world, but how well it enables you to share the gospel and invite others to come unto Christ. Suddenly being a clerk at a bank is a viable lifelong career – simply because of your ability to interface with people, share the gospel in words and by example, and help others to come closer to Christ and live happier, more fulfilling lives. I can understand why the Lord would say that all honest work is good in His sight – because, while He definitely cares what we do, ultimately, our work is to help others come unto Christ. That has changed my goals in life. I've always set my sights really high – to change the world in some massive way or another. And perhaps I will. It's still my goal. But, as I go forward with that goal, I'm able to see how I can change it, day by day, in much more important and lasting ways.

New Years Resolution #4: Find meaningful ways to use the money I save to bless those around me.

Most of you know that I'm extremely frugal. We'll leave the outrageous examples for another time. I save my money so that I can make a difference in the world... and so this week was incredible as I did something I've felt strongly about for a few months. My family started researching complementary medicine a few months ago when my sister was diagnosed with cancer. In subsequent months, I dove in as well and was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of misinformation, outrageous pricing, bogus claims, and dishonest business practices that I was immediately turned off. My family focused on essential oils and I was especially frustrated that almost every essential oil company seemed to be a multi-level marketing scheme... and many books were simply advertisements for those companies published under a different name. But then I started finding medical research studies, international communities that were willing to give clear and factual information, and real results in my family and friends. My sister's exercise-induced asthma, where she previously used two inhalers, is gone. A good family friend uses essential oils to successfully fight pain from massive surgeries and scar tissue. And I've used them in my own life. Last night I gave them to a fellow performer who couldn't breathe or sing. By his solo, his voice was soaring. And medical research is slowly moving in that direction. So I felt that I needed to share it with the world – and to make it more accessible, truthful, and convenient. I prayed for help, found honest international suppliers, and this week finally put in the order for my first round of inventory. I'm starting an essential oil company, focusing on high quality, low prices, and accurate, truthful information. Had you told me that I would be opening an aromatherapy business six months ago, I would have told you that you were crazy. But it feels like a good choice. I see it as a social investment; if I make no money and change a few lives, I'll be happy. And I've already seen the changes that it can make.

New Years Resolution #5: Write another book that teaches principles of the gospel by the end of the year. Also, find an illustrator for Ten Days Until Forever and a publisher for Watching Cookies in the Oven (and maybe the rest of the manuscripts, too).

Ultimately, the Christmas season is about Christ. I know that Christ is our Savior. He came to earth to live a perfect live, take our sins and struggles upon Him, and then finally rise in glory... so that we can rise as well. I know that He lives, that He is with us, no matter what has happened and no matter what we have done. His hands are outstretched over us and He has numbered our days. And while He feels our physical pains, His greatest desire is that we will understand the meaning of life – and find joy no matter what our circumstances. He will come again. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, December 21, 2009

On Getting Older

I'm grateful I was born a few days before Christmas. It's one of the few times that I can cater to my minimalist self. I never have to schedule parties or come up with a list of things I want, since my birthday gets thrown into the mix. And Christmas and New Years are so much more involving that everyone has forgotten about me and can move on before long. At the same time, I'm grateful for a large family and lots of friends that make being a minimalist somewhat impossible. But mostly I'm grateful for the time that the holidays give me to think and to reflect. I look back on the past and can see so much change. A year ago I wrote about the realization that blessings and trials are the same in God's eyes. Two years ago, the Lord told me to write a book. Three years ago, I was a missionary in Florence. So much has happened - some good, some not-so-good; I've had more brushes with the adversary and more encounters with God, I've written books and composed songs, performed in plays and become a real, live physics teacher. And still, every time I feel like I understand life a little bit better, the Lord opens another door and I realize how clueless I really am.

We had our Christmas program at church today. I thought the entire program was amazing – from the choir numbers to the duets to the messages given by the speakers. Shortly after the program, though, I had to smile, as I was barraged with compliments. Long story short: the choir director had asked me to sing “I Wonder as I Wander” as a solo, a capella. From the nature of the comments, I think that many people who are uncomfortable performing without accompaniment think someone who isn't must be awesome. I'm a great singer; my voice is soothing; even without accompaniment it was perfect. Maybe I'm beginning to believe them. Maybe not. It's a lot more convenient to believe that compliments like that come from people who are caught up in the spirit of the moment, clueless, or very gracious. The other option – that they are sincere, aware, and knowledgeable of their statement – makes me uncomfortable. If I have a talent, the next step is massive internal reflection: What more should I be doing to share it with the world? Even though I'm in Savior of the World and two ward choirs, I could definitely be doing more.

I realize now that, for a long time, I didn't want to know what the Lord wanted me to do with performance. I wasn't willing to dedicate my life to it because I didn't feel it would make a big enough difference in the world. I thought it would be a selfish pursuit, and I had other important gifts to develop and use to build the kingdom. Afterwards, I realized that I was wrong to superimpose my own values as to what was important on God. Now? I've asked Him to help me determine the next step and I have conflicting feelings. I have a burning desire to throw myself into music performance – to take whatever steps are necessary to share my voice with the world. I would need to record a demo CD, network like crazy, find a great voice teacher, and ultimately spend more time and money than I've ever spent in my life. And the other emotion is... fear? Unwillingness? Wanting to simply wait? It must be fear, since it's hiding from me right now. I'm afraid of the ramifications if I succeed. And I'm afraid of the ramifications if I fail. If I succeed, I'm afraid it will ruin me. I've seen so many people who have been successful in their dreams and then turned away from God. I just want to be a faithful person and live a faithful life. If I fail, I'm afraid... I guess I'm really afraid of succeeding, not failure. I've come to realize that failure is a necessary part of learning which way to go in life. Failure isn't even a bad thing for me anymore. I didn't get into Stanford. Was it a failure? Maybe. It probably just means that Stanford wasn't the right direction for me. But success... success is different. It's wild and untamed. It's akin to finding an active volcano right before it erupts, then trying to balance on a rock as you are flung higher and higher into the air. I guess I'm also afraid of not being in control of my life. Either way, fears mean only one thing: I lack faith and need to trust in the Lord.

That opens up a world of questions for me... all the times I avoided doing something though I was good at it – what was the motivating factor then? But the Lord is telling me that those reflections aren't really important right now. Back on subject. I've found that explaining through my fears and looking at them has been the fundamental step in overcoming them. I'll try it now. Why am I afraid of going down an uncharted road – putting my life into God's hands? Because I want to be in control. I want to know what is happening and what comes next. And the telling question: which is more important to me – being in control of my life or allowing God to guide my ship? Something within me cries out, “This question isn't important. God would never ask me to surrender that.” But He already has. And this is the test. Is it really the right direction? Or will an angel stop me in the midst? It doesn't matter, because the choice that I make will have been made, and I will have proved myself one way or another. Being guided by the Lord is more important than being in control of the direction in my life. Wherever He calls me, whatever He asks me to do, whomever He asks me to be... and so my fear is gone. I know that He will guide me, direct me, and prepare the path before me.

As we grow towards perfection, each of us will encounter fear – gaps in our faith. At its heart, all fear (except maybe clinically diagnosed phobia) is a lack of faith. Sometimes it can be easier to live with fear than to face it and dive into its meaning – to search out what roots it to our lives. Maybe that's because, ultimately, overcoming our fears requires change. It may seem trite to say that a fear of heights or spiders comes from a lack of faith, but the same process through which I overcame my fear of losing control worked for my fear of the dark, of heights, of spiders, and of failure. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of faith. And as we honestly address our fears, He will help us to overcome them... and even to make them into our greatest strengths.

I know that God is our Father. Ultimately, He will ask us to give up the things that are most important to us. Whether we act upon faith or fear is our choice. As we act in faith, He will bless and guide us, enabling us to grow beyond anything we could have accomplished alone. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Visions of Grandeur

Even after 5 years of writing, beginning this letter doesn't get any easier each week. I have to admit that I thought it would – the whole, “As you do something more, it becomes easier” motif – but beginning has always been awful. I often find myself sitting in front of the computer on Sunday night, wishing that it would write itself and forward me a copy... and then, half an hour into writing, I wonder what was wrong with me. At least the writing part, once I'm sitting down, awake, and can convince myself that I have a general direction, has become easier over the years.

I feel like Christmas has come in a whirlwind of snow. Monday the MTC had a part-time staff member Christmas party at work; Tuesday was the ¾ and full-time meeting (since I'm ¾-time, I attended both); Friday was our department Christmas party/staff meeting. Friday we also had a ward Christmas party with gingerbread house competitions (my brother and I won with a gingerbread castle complete with turrets). Last Sunday I attended the First Presidency Christmas Devotional and on Saturday I went to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas concert. Then Sunday was the Christmas program in my morning ward, and the same ward participated in a musical fireside last night. The snow began early in the week, and by Saturday was coming down hard enough that I almost didn't make it up the hill driving home. Out shoveling the driveway, I envisioned a new kind of snow removal system that melts snow instead of moving it. Someday, when I have a massive laboratory, I'll be able to create the dozens of inventions that have appeared in my head over the years.

Christmas had brought with it a slew of life-changing decisions to make, and I'm still stuck on the most basic. I've been struggling to understand what I'm supposed to be accomplishing right now in my life – which will affect all the rest. My original goal was to attend graduate school immediately after BYU, but as I've applied to programs the Lord has shown me how they didn't really fit my needs. I realize now that part of the desire to attend graduate school was to simply postpone making important decisions (like, exactly what should I do in life?). I've already had almost every job I've ever wanted, and while each of them has been compelling in one way or another, none feels completely right. I could imagine myself as a baker – creating healthy recipes and sharing them with others, a game designer – creating new methodologies and designing norms to fix the world of interactive games, a curriculum writer – finding ways to help teachers create an interactive environment to meet the needs of each of their students, or a performer, a high school teacher, or an educational consultant. But experiencing each of my dream jobs has only led me to realize that none of them really fit my dreams... and to wonder if I will ever find anything that will. The realization that I had this week – one that made me very uncomfortable – was that perhaps I was looking in the wrong direction. Maybe the Lord never intended for me to go to graduate school. Maybe I simply need to be a normal person, living a normal life, without anything to make me stand out from the crowd. This had never crossed my mind, and it seemed to threaten my greatest desire – to constantly be learning. Would I be willing to give that up? Am I willing to give that up to build the kingdom?

I don't think that the Lord will actually ask me to not go to graduate school or to redirect my passion for learning. But I realized that the direction I've taken isn't necessarily the right direction for everyone. People can be successful, and happy, without taking tons of classes. They can be happy doing something completely different, whether it's product sales or working at fast food restaurants or simply raising animals. I've known that – people can learn to be happy in any situation – realizing that they wouldn't be happy doing what makes me shine was the shock. Drawing a parallel to the “white man's burden,” looking at Western society, we want to make people happy by teaching them our language, giving them our technology, and having them experience life as we experience it. But maybe those experiences wouldn't lead to happiness... because the individuals find greater joy doing what they are already doing.

I could live with that. But there was something else in my mind that was still irking me. After some thought, I realized that one of my measures of success in life was knowledge – and not just knowledge about the gospel, but knowledge about the world. In my mind, people with more knowledge were more successful (and hence, more happy) in that arena of life. The realization that people could be happy, follow the prophet, have joy, live fulfilling lives, inherit eternal glory, and not understand a minutia of computer science was foreign to me (however absurd it seems writing it right now). He who achieves a greater level of intelligence in this life has that much of an advantage in the world to come, right? While the scripture is true, its application is much broader than simply relating to our worldly happiness. In fact, knowledge isn't what makes you happy – it's integrity – the faithful and righteous application of that knowledge. People can be happy and successful as long as they have integrity, no matter where they are on the path of knowledge.

When I widened my vision of success, it didn't really help me better understand my future direction in life. To the contrary, it opened a thousand doors I had never contemplated entering. But it also helped me realize how motivations work in helping us make decisions in school, in work, in life. My greatest motivations are to learn and to serve. If I'm not learning or helping in some meaningful way, I am absolutely miserable... and understanding the things that make people happy – the motivations that move them to make choices in their lives – begins with understanding their core desires. Maybe understanding myself comes in the same way. In my patriarchal blessing, there is one line that talks about my future professional course: As you select your vocation in life, you will be able to set and accomplish goals that will prepare you to study and to recall the knowledge and truths of the world. After 10 years of trying to decode that statement, I've realized only that my future vocation, whatever I end up choosing, should involve continual learning and remembering/applying that knowledge. That doesn't close any doors, either. Whatever.

Ultimately, peace and happiness in life come from God when we live according to the knowledge we have been given. For much of my life, I've been concerned with determining exactly how much knowledge I needed to acquire to be a faithful servant in the kingdom – a masters? A PhD? Multiple post-docs? What the Lord has been trying to teach me is that happiness doesn't come when we have acquired great knowledge, but when we have applied the things that we know to be true. When we study the scriptures daily, repent of our sins, attend the temple, attend Church meetings, keep the commandments, give meaningful service to others, and put our lives in the hand of the Lord. We can, and will, be happy when we follow that simple outline. Does it make choosing my vocation any easier? No. But at least it gives me the assurance that, even if I don't make the right choice initially, I can still be happy on the road. I guess that's what life is – walking on the road to perfection, making some good choices and many not-so-good choices, and learning all the while to look to God, move forward, and be happy. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, December 7, 2009

For Thy Good

This was supposed to be the last week that Stanford sent out interview invitations. If you don't get an interview, you won't be accepted. I was never invited to interview. I'm okay with that. I mean, the Lord prompted me to apply to Stanford – not necessarily to attend – and the application process itself revealed things I hadn't known about myself. If I think about it, I have dualistic thoughts. On one hand, it's easy to think that I just wasn't good enough – perhaps something in my application was critically flawed. And then I think back on many of the other experiences I've had – times when I wanted something and it didn't happen. In every case, the Lord knew my needs and loved me enough to make sure that I went in the right direction – even if it meant closing (and barring) doors. No matter the intermediary causes, the end result of my life is in the Lord's hands.

I wish I could see far into the future – to see my pathway and the struggles in my life – and the ultimate deliverance from each of them. I'm still totally lost as to my end vocation in life – and perhaps even more lost than I thought before possible. I guess being lost is one of my gifts – being willing to follow the Lord wherever He leads me, even if I have no clue where we are going. Someday I'll understand.

While my professional goals became more vague this last week, at least one of my other goals became more clear. It began when I saw BYU's performance of Children of Eden this week – a musical by the writer who also wrote Wicked. It was well done; the actors were good; the singing was good... but when I compared it to Savior of the World (which was inevitable) it was completely lacking in anything worthwhile. Children of Eden is fun; Savior of the World is sublime. Savior of the World leaves the actors and the audience in tears – waiting for the return of the Savior; Children of Eden left me with a pit in my stomach and gratitude for the message of the gospel. And, in the contrast, the Lord answered my prayer. I had asked Him what He wanted me to do with performance in the future – whether I needed to throw myself into it wholeheartedly or to do something else. Having performed in Savior of the World... and seeing how deeply the Spirit can be integrated into a performance, I don't want to go back. Wednesday night, at Children of Eden, was one of the first times that not only did I not feel guilty at a performance, I didn't even want to be on stage... and so I've feel good (at least for now – the Lord often encourages me to change directions... but this is my current lifelong decision) auditioning for every Church production possible and not worrying about anything else. That means that my next audition will be for the core cast of the Nauvoo pageant. Auditions are mid-January, practices are at the end of June, and the pageant runs during the month of July. We'll see what happens.

I didn't take the time to give thanks last week for Thanksgiving, so I'll do it here. I'm grateful that the Lord is so intimately involved in my life. I'm grateful that He inspired me to be in Savior of the World, to work at the MTC, to teach part-time at a home school academy. I'm grateful for the ability to attend two completely different wards each Sunday, for my callings and friends in each ward, and for my leaders. I'm grateful for a loving, supportive family who expects the best from me... and I'm grateful for the Savior in my life – for missionary opportunities and time for reflection, for the snow and for the wind and the rain.

Here's a thought for each of you: Someday I am going to compile a book called “For Thy Good” - it will be a book based on the anonymous stories of people who have experienced the worst of life's trials in life... and how they ultimately learned to appreciate and give thanks to the Lord for the lessons He taught them through those trials – how they learned to see their trials, temptations, and everything else as blessings for their good.
Looking back on my own life, there are things so painful that I've never shared them with anyone. But the lessons I have learned from those experiences have made me who I am today... and though I wouldn't wish them on anyone, I am grateful that the Lord loved me enough to design them just for me. I know now that I needed the lessons that I learned. If I had had even a glimpse of the potential blessings in my pain, however, I think it would have helped me gain a better perspective – to have greater hope. 
Today I look around me and see people all around me with trials. My greatest desire is to share the perspective I have gained... and to help others share the blessings they have received. Just knowing that it is possible to overcome the hardest things in life – and to truly believe that they are blessings – is an incredible message of hope to anyone in pain. Think of the hardest things you have ever experienced. If you (even with pain) can honestly see blessings that have changed your life for the better – to the point that you are grateful for them – that's the kind of experience I want to share. How did you get to that point? I haven't started asking for stories, but I would love to hear your comments & thoughts.

As life progresses, each of us slowly come to realize our many purposes in life. Sometimes our visions seem to cloud as the Lord gives us new directions... and sometimes we are able to see incredible vistas where everything makes sense. Our trials, pains, and sorrows, as we turn to the Lord, can be changed into joy. I know that the Lord is with us; He wants us to be happy and He designed our lives so that we could learn to be happy. Go out and be missionaries!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My greatest dream. My greatest fear.

So many time-changing things have happened this week that it almost seems sacrilegious to list them together. My uncle's (the one younger than me) marriage. Thanksgiving with family in Nauvoo. Incredible experiences in the temple. Amazing opportunities to share the Gospel. A novel whose protagonist resonates with me more than I ever thought possible. Individually, they each could be their own lesson. I learned hope, happiness and simplicity from the marriage. Gratitude from Thanksgiving. Knowledge from the temple. Courage and faith from missionary work. And introspection from my light reading. But I won't do more than mention them, because there is another lesson, even more important that I am trying to learn. Combined together, the experiences of this week seem to shout a message from the Lord meant for me.

I remember being in elementary school and getting a field trip permission slip once. I noticed that the field trip had a fee... but the trip itself was optional. My teacher instructed us to take the slip home and bring it back signed. But, for some reason, even in first or second grade, I felt that the $1.50 would be better spent if it weren't spent on me. I didn't take the permission slip home, and when the field trip came, I watched through the window as the school bus pulled away. I only felt a tinge of regret for missing the fun; I was happy that I had been strong enough to make what I felt was the right decision - sacrificing my own temporary desires for a better good.

That same personal asceticism has followed me throughout my life. I had a hard time taking voice lessons because they cost money and time and it felt like a completely selfish pursuit. I had a hard time competing in sports because I was good... and I felt bad for my rivals and was afraid that success would affect how I felt about myself and inflate my head. There were dozens of times when I couldn't bring myself to apply for scholarships and, when I did, I prayed that the funds would be given to those who needed them most - especially if it wasn't me. And in business ventures I was only happy when I knew that I was giving others much more than I was asking in return.

When I began choosing a direction in life, I wanted something that would bless the world - not something that would bring attention to me. I began as a Music Dance Theater major. I wanted to be a performer... and found incredible joy in performing. But it didn't really feel like it fit - I didn't believe that I could ever really change the world through performance - and so I put it on the back burner for what seemed like a more noble cause - the hard sciences. I finally found the 'noblest of all professions' - teaching (quote by David O. McKay) - and found that I was also in love with it, which made it the best of both worlds. But, in the back of my mind, I felt like a traitor. I had so many gifts and talents and now I was putting them to waste - not necessarily hiding them under a bushel, but refusing to stick them in a candlestick before all the world to see. I went to musical performances and wished to be on stage. I attended lectures and wished to be on the stand. I read books and wished to be an author. And I did a lot of things. I filled my life with so many impressive things that I could honestly say that there wasn't enough time to accomplish all my dreams - to do everything that I wanted to do. Everyone else agreed with me - I was already accomplishing so much anyway. But while being anxiously engaged in good causes is a good thing, it isn't enough. Deep within me, I knew I had never really tried. I had never been willing to let go of my dreams long enough to bring them into reality... where they could grow into mountains of achievement or fall and shatter into a million pieces.

I've always believed that my greatest dreams were out of reach simply because that's what greatest dreams are meant to be - unreachable. The Cinderella romanticism - something to fantasize about, think about, never to really pursue in any meaningful way. But dreams that stay dreams can never bring you happiness - only grief. This evening I realize that dreams are meant to be real. In the pursuit of dreams we triumph and fail. The fulfillment of dreams raises our vision; their shattering rebuilds our destiny. A dream left unconquested - whether from fear of failure, success, or any other reason - consigns a portion of life to the outermost skirts of reality: transient and never really true.

My greatest fear in life has been this: I'm afraid that, in the end, with my talents and gifts and blessings and trials and everything else the Lord has given me, I will have never truly lived up to my potential. I would never learn to overcome arrogance and pride, never share my talents with the world, never accomplish anything worthwhile in mortality, and I would be miserable forever. The opposite is my greatest dream. And while I am not constantly petrified with fear, there are things I've held back because I didn't want to see failure... because I was afraid of success... but things that are a part of who I am and who I want to be. And so I've decided to make my dreams come true - to throw myself so deeply into what makes me who I am that all my dreams will come true. Success will breed more dreams; failure will blaze a road for change.

The realization started when I began reading a book on the plane home from Utah and felt compellingly drawn to the protagonist. It's Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. I don't approve of the moral conduct of the characters, so I'm loathe to suggest it. But Roark, regardless of his morals, in the book represents a person who is so completely calmly confident - of his direction, his goal, and that his life is in line with what he knows he needs to do - that people around him admire him, envy him, and finally think he is proud and hate him. It shocked me because, when I've asked people what they felt about me, some have said that my overwhelming confidence was the biggest issue in our relationship. The most important thing to Roark is personal integrity - being true to what he knows is true. It's the most important thing to me, too. And yet Roark's vision of perfect integrity is limited to architecture (his moral structure doesn't include some of the things I take for granted) and attainable in reality, perfect integrity in my respect should cause me, daily, to change who I am. I've made a lot of changes, but there are still some things I need to work on. If someone in a novel can be so dedicated to a cause, why can't I be that dedicated in real life? And so I realize the dream of living completely according to my ideals... constantly learning and becoming a new person each day.

I turned from the book to the man sitting next to me on the plane. He was from Norway and I said a silent prayer for courage and faith, then dove into a conversation with him. After half an hour of chatting, he asked me some questions about the Church and it turned into a compelling gospel discussion on life, death, and his family. He said something interesting, "You know what's really strange? I think I'm actually going to do this. I'm going to go look up this site and go visit the missionaries." As I spoke to him, I was filled with an overwhelming love... The next dream - being a lifelong missionary in every way possible.

The rest of the week proceeded in like manner; I attended a production in Nauvoo and felt the stirring where my dream to be a performer was revived. I spoke with others about health and wellness and remembered my dream to become an expert in that field - able to answer any question (or at least know where to find the answer) according to the best knowledge of the day. I saw my uncle's marriage and wanted to be a better friend, worked in the temple and wanted to be a lifelong temple-loving Saint, and saw the needs of others and wanted to make valuable changes in their lives, today. And so I will. I am going to try to achieve all of my dreams. It probably won't cause me to become instantly amazing, but it will bring each of my dreams out of the ether and into reality.

Each of us has dreams - the deepest inner desires of our hearts that consume our waking thoughts. Sometimes we have to truly choose between dreams. And sometimes we have to simply pursue them. But, whatever we do, we need to be willing to bring our dreams out of the shadows - to see the specters that shape our subconscious thoughts and mold them in the light of day. If we will, then the Lord can help us to achieve them or to change them to fit His vision for us. I know that God is with us. He has a vision and a plan for each one of us - a plan that centers on learning to be happy. Reach for your dreams. Whether they rise of their own accord or fall will be according to your work and the will of the Lord. Either way, He will guide and direct you... and, as you learn to dream the best dreams, all of your dreams will come true. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 23, 2009

In the Moment

This week was great. Work is finally picking up (in reality, it hit us like a ton of bricks), Savior of the World performances are going as planned, and while life is crazy, I know that the Lord will help me choose the right direction.

That said, I'm exhausted. My boss finally got back on Monday from months of work-related travel and gave me a project that took 2 hours just to explain. It involves an Excel spreadsheet with thousands of entries – along with one other coworker, I need to read, rate, organize, group, and color-code every entry (and some entries need to be coded and rated for multiple purposes) by the end of the day on Tuesday. Wow. He called it tedious and mind-numbing, and I have to agree with the mind-numbing aspect; every few hours I have to turn to my coworker and have a short conversation just to give my head a break.

I think that I take for granted that I work in such an incredible environment, with people who are so dedicated to a cause. Working at the Missionary Training Center – no matter where you work inside – is one of the most coveted positions in the valley simply because of the environment. Add the fact that my work directly impacts everyone else at the MTC and I am amazed at the course of events that brought me here. I could be working anywhere else... and yet the Lord was kind enough to bring me here. I know I definitely didn't plan it this way... and I'm grateful that the Lord was watching out for me.

Savior of the World has also been an amazing experience. I don't think I could have chosen a better part for me to play. I'm not a lead – so I don't feel like anything revolves around me – and yet I feel like I'm an integral part of the cast. I'm making friends, developing relationships, and learning principles from people I would have never met... all the while having a great time. It's nothing like any other musical performance I've ever been in – it doesn't really feel like acting. When Christ appears to the apostles, I feel as if He is actually there in a closed room with us; it doesn't even cross my mind that I am on a stage in front of hundreds of people... and every night I find myself learning Gospel principles that influence my life.

We began public performances on Friday and play through January 2, 2010. If you go online to buy tickets, almost all the tickets are sold out. I spoke with another cast member who told me about standby. She said that, historically, very few people have been turned away from standby. You just arrive an hour early (the show starts at 7:30, so between 6-6:30), put your name on a list at the ticket office at door 5 of the Conference Center (you can park under the Conference Center – just mention you're coming to see Savior of the World), then wait as tickets become available. They hold tickets for missionary use and for other reasons, and as it gets closer to curtain, they release all of those. So, if you're 8+ years old, you could come any night even without purchasing tickets in advance and still probably get in.

Work and Savior of the World have taken most of my time, but in the moments between, I find myself wondering what will happen when it is all done. So much in my life seems to be in limbo. The biggest thing is my medium-term plan for next year – I haven't heard anything from the business school at Stanford – and no news is not necessarily good news in this case. December 16 is the admission response date, and if I haven't been invited to interview before then, I can't get in. Either way, I'll know in just a few more weeks. If I'm accepted, then my plan is to attend next Fall. If not, then I have some more decisions to make. Should I apply to another school, even though I won't be able to do a cross-curricular study involving education? Should I just try to begin my massive change-the-world-of-education project and pick up the skills as I go along? Is that even possible? And, if not getting into Stanford means putting my goal of changing the world of education on hold, what do I do in the meantime? I've thought about starting a business, throwing myself into the acting/singing/performing world, performing in Church productions like the Nauvoo pageant, moving far away and finding an intense full-time job in another field, spending all my time writing and trying to get my books published... and yet while each idea holds merit, none seems truly compelling. I have no clue which pathway to take. Each one is so completely different, and the Lord is conspicuously quiet – which means either that He expects me to make the choice and/or that the correct choice isn't yet available (the latter is what I'm expecting).

And, in the midst of it all, as I wonder if I'm making the right choices and dating the right girls and even going in the right direction to fulfill my purpose in life, the Lord sends me signs to let me know that He loves me. A wind storm. A perfectly timed conversation with a friend. The wave of memories that accompanied seeing a poem I wrote 5 years ago. In everything I do, He is there with me... beside me... and He has gone before my face to prepare the way for me (whatever that way may be). Perhaps He is simply allowing me the time to appreciate the moment – to spend time living and learning today without thinking about what tomorrow will bring. It's definitely a lesson that I am still learning to appreciate.

Each of us is often at a crossroads in life. And, even if we aren't, crossroads always loom in the distance... and of all the things that can be scary in life, uncertainty (at least to me) is one of the worst. But there is a great quote from Savior of the World as it relates to this. “It's okay to wonder about yourself. But you must never wonder about the Lord. ...Trust in the Lord – trust that He will fulfill His promises in His due time.” It's natural to wonder if we will ever measure up to the gifts and talents God has given us – if we will ever be as good as the road He has paved for us. And alone, we will never make it. We will never be good enough when we rely on our own strength. But with Him at our side, if we are actively striving to do what is right, nothing is impossible. I know that God is with us, and that He will fulfill His promises to make us great, to make us perfect, and to make us happy. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rising from the shadows

I don't feel incredibly well right now. I'm not sick – it's an emotional / mental thing – and it has little to do with what has happened this week. But it, along with exhaustion, is affecting my ability to compose my thoughts clearly.

Looking back, this week has actually been really good. Work has been a little slow, but we're getting ready to pick up a massive project in the next few days. I went on a few dates, all of which went well. Our first preview performance of Savior of the World is Tuesday – and opening night is this coming Friday. Each practice has been a spiritual experience... and I am learning more about symbolism than I expected – from scriptural symbolism to symbolism from the temple to symbolism about everyday life.

Right now I'm fighting strong dualistic tendencies. One part of me wants to simply write about the good things that have happened – to fill my letter with whatever I can to be optimistic and bright. That's the feeling I've followed and, as I've tried, my mood has lightened and the darkness is shifting. On the other hand, I wanted to be truthful – to have my letter reflect what was going on in my head. And so, now that I feel a bit better, I'd like to share the experience I just had... because, perhaps, it may be what you need.

As soon as I returned home from a fireside this evening, I began writing my thoughts. I realized that I needed to better understand what was happening in my mind. I often do that while I'm writing letters – if I have strong thoughts or feelings, I take a detour, write what could be considered a long journal entry, then cut and paste pieces of it to use in my letter. This is part of what I wrote:

“Some days I'm around people who seem to have it all put together – at least in the areas where I lack. I see their talents, their blessings, and the happiness in their lives... and I see the stark contrast to my own life. What I want most seems to come so easily... and it seems as if they almost take it for granted. I look at my life and wonder why I don't have those skills – why I fall so completely behind – and, like demons in the night, everything I've ever done wrong comes back to haunt me. Maybe if I had spent more time engaged as a child... if I had been more dedicated... if I had not made so many horrible mistakes... if I were simply a better person... then the Lord would see fit to bless me. And then I look at the innumerable blessings and talents the Lord has already given me (including those that others want so badly), and I feel like an ungrateful wretch.

I have skills in learning, in teaching, in writing, in singing, in doing whatever I want... but I seem to lack the ability to get close to people. People come into my life and go out like water through my hands. And I do the same in theirs.

I have friends and a great family... and I know that people care about me and I about them. And so I know that this feeling isn't really real. And yet it comes and goes and I wonder if the Lord is simply teaching me that I need to rely on Him and Him alone... that I need to turn to Him for support and have Him be my truest confidant and friend. Through the years, I have developed my ability to communicate with Him and that has come partially true... but when I don't listen to His voice and it goes silent... I feel so completely alone that sometimes I just curl up in a ball and cry.

I guess that makes sense... since one of the greatest things that the Lord has taught me is to listen to His voice. And while I have definitely had friends to turn to, and a family to support me, He is always there for me when no one else knows what is wrong... when no one else can tell the difference. And, I guess I'm grateful for the blessing that He's given me – the utter feelings of helplessness and the requirement to turn to Him for relief. It keeps me humble... and each time that I turn to Him, I learn something more about who I am and who I might someday be.

Today I'm almost wracked with jealousy... Why am I so jealous? I think it's because I haven't yet learned how to be happy. I'm sorry, Father. I guess I should welcome the pain... since I deserve it and hopefully it will help me to be better. I guess I'm not really jealous – only so completely disheartened that I can't seem to make it in what seems so important in life. Sometimes I think that I'm ok – that it's simply an opportunity for me to grow. And perhaps my chance is over and life will go on without me, passing me by. I know that this may not be true, but it's what I feel. It's what aches me and pains me and the fear I have more than anything else in the world – that my mistakes will lead to everlasting sorrow and that I have, somehow, denied myself eternal peace.”

I didn't feel comfortable sending that by itself, especially since it's completely depressing. I didn't want to send it for a few reasons. First, every time I send something remotely desolate, people get concerned about me. I really appreciate it, but I don't want to be an emotional burden. You have enough stress in your life without my problems. Second, I really, really, really wish that I were perfect... and it's hard for me to admit that I struggle in life. So I went into the other room and asked for help to lift my feelings... and I tried to write something uplifting – to count my blessings and to be grateful for what I've received. As I wrote and prayed and thought about the good things in my life, amazingly, it worked. I feel full of peace and hope when before they were gone.

I don't know if each of us goes through times when we feel totally discouraged and alone. Most likely yes – if only so that the Lord can teach us and bless us for turning to Him in our times of need. As I've felt pain (self-inflicted from mistakes or not) and turned to Him, I've learned more than I ever thought possible... and grown so much closer to Him. And, while I won't wish for pain (or fully appreciate it when it inevitably returns), I'm grateful that the Lord has given me the obstacles I need to face on the road to perfection... and the strength to overcome them. My invitation for you – the next time you feel distraught, discouraged, downtrodden, or depressed, collect your thoughts. Write them down or pray aloud... and ask the Lord for help in rising from them. Pray to know that He loves you... and for peace and help in becoming better – no matter what you have done in the past. Count your blessings, engage in the service of others, and give away your sorrow to the Lord. He will give you peace. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Inward Reflections - Nov 9, 2009

This week my letter will be short. As far as outward progression goes, this week could rank pretty low on the scale. Projects at work are at a temporary standstill, no news from Stanford on my application (no news doesn't equal good news in this case), and everything is going as planned for Savior of the World. I haven't achieved any major accomplishments or even begun on the road to attempt anything world-changing. But life is a growing experience nonetheless – and that's important in my life. Last week I fretted about not having a powerful, passionate, urgent need to consume my time. Normally I throw myself head over heels into something and it devours every waking moment of my life. But I've realized that I don't need to have one overarching passion that consumes me – there are plenty of amazing things that I need to accomplish in life – things that are part of commitments that I've already made. And I can simply be passionate in the completion of those things.

Whenever I seem to have a bit of unscheduled time, I think of all the things that I could begin – projects, plans, and programs. And sometimes I overlook the commitments I've already made – and the projects that I started the last time it happened. Each of us has the opportunity to schedule our time. Sometimes we have passionate, overarching visions that can guide us in our lives... and sometimes we are simply surviving on the day-to-day. My invitation for you is to live in the moment this week – to be passionate in the little things each moment and to see the hand of God wherever you find yourself. As you turn to Him and focus on the little things in life, I promise that He will open your eyes, help you feel greater peace, and guide you on the path to happiness. Then you can go share it with the world. Go out and be missionaries!

Monday, November 2, 2009

An Ensemble Role in Life

This week has been good. My beard is finally getting long enough that it doesn't always make me want to rip my face off, there is a light at the end of the tunnel (or project) at work, and practices for Savior of the World are continuing in earnest. We start performing in two and a half weeks!

Looking back over the past few months, I had family reunions and vacations, the Pirates of Penzance with the movie on top of it, then Grandma got sick, I got another calling, and there was the chaos surrounding my sister getting cancer and reading research studies on rats and novel non-invasive cancer treatments, a new school year (even though I'm not attending school as a student), I started studying for the GMAT and applied to Stanford, then Grandma got really sick, then there was General Conference, Grandma's funeral, and two Stake Conferences. I've realized that each of those commitments was big enough that I've had no free time since the beginning of the summer! I didn't have to worry about planning out my day – I had already planned it by making massive commitments. Now, I'm to a point where every hour of every day isn't taken up by something massive and urgent, and I feel... much less useful. I've been struggling a bit to figure out what I need to be doing with the extra time in my life. I have two jobs and a major volunteering project, and my Sundays are booked with meetings. But I still have a few hours here and there – and without a pressing project I find them simply disappearing... gone without a trace. And that is completely not the way I want to live my life. So the question at the front of my mind has been, “what next?”

In the back of my mind I'm also wondering what direction to go if Stanford doesn't end up being the right option. I've only applied to one school so far... and even though Stanford has a much higher acceptance rate than the program I applied to last year, it's still pretty low. Add to that the fact that I don't know what will happen at work once our big project is finished (and the budget from which I'm being paid runs out) and I don't know how long I'll be living here... and I'm definitely walking in the dark. But that's ok. I know that the Lord will take care of me. And if He reveals what will happen tomorrow, today, I'll be that much happier. If not, then I'll wait for tomorrow.

At Savior of the World on Friday and in the temple on Saturday I received the answer to my question. I realized that life is somewhat like our production. In Savior of the World, every actor is cast as a member of the ensemble, and, with only a few exceptions, every cast member appears on the colonnade as an angel in heaven, watching events unfold. Some cast members are just part of the ensemble; others play temporary roles on stage, then put back on their angel robe and go back to their places on the colonnade. Though individual actors are each integral to a certain part, they aren't really center stage for long. In life, each of us is cast in an ensemble role. We are expected to do all the same things... and, then, if the Lord finds a need, He will ask us to move mountains (one of my jobs) or to be special witnesses of Him. How willing am I to accept an “ensemble role” in life – am I willing to simply do as He asks without being a major actor – without being someone horribly important or visible from the outside world?

When I was little, I thought that God would have to have some awesome work for me to accomplish in building the kingdom. He had given me so many talents, gifts, and blessings – seemingly more than anyone else I had ever met – so there must be something incredible that He wanted me to do. But, as I've watched the Lord in His work, and seen how and why He calls His children to help Him, I've realized that callings in life (both in and out of the Church) have very little to do with innate talents or gifts. There are incredible singers and actors in the ensemble of Savior of the World – and there are professional teachers who don't teach Sunday School. And, in both cases, that's ok. Because the Lord isn't focused on placing people where they fit best – He is focused on helping His children have experiences that will help them come unto Christ.

And so my calling in life may be to change the world. Maybe I'll stand center stage like I did during Pirates of Penzance... and leave a legacy for generations. Or my calling may be to simply be a good father, husband, son, brother, and missionary – play an ensemble role and support those around me. Either way, I can build the kingdom of God and be happy by doing the little things – exercising, praying, studying the scriptures, magnifying my callings, serving others... and those are the things that should be consuming my time when nothing else is happening.

Sometimes it can be easy to look at our lives and wonder if we are going in the right direction – if we are really making a difference or fulfilling our personal purpose in life. In reality, it doesn't take much to fulfill our purpose in life each day. If we will pray, study the scriptures, take time to attend the temple, and keep the commandments, the Lord will help us to make the right decisions to keep us on the path. And He will help us to accomplish our purpose... and to feel peace no matter where we are on the road to eternity. I know that God loves us, and that doing the little things will enable us to do whatever the Lord asks of us – whether seemingly great or small.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Dear Family and Friends,

On the whole, life is good. Savior of the World tickets went on sale this last week (I'm in the Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday Evening performances if you are trying to get tickets – click here then click "obtain tickets online" in the upper right hand corner or look for it on under events – Savior of the World), my beard is growing in and it's a variety of different colors (copper/red, brown, blond, clear...), and work at the MTC and teaching physics are both going well.

My family flew into town on Tuesday for Grandma's funeral. They've been here half a dozen times in the past year; it's been nice to spend so much time with them. Grandma's obituary came out Tuesday in the Deseret News as well – I guess that's both my claim to fame and my main contribution to the funeral effort.

The viewing was on Wednesday and I was touched by the beautiful flower arrangements sent by family and friends... and by the many people who came. It felt like we were having a mini family reunion – there were so many people that I hadn't seen in years. It was great to talk with everyone and to hear about their lives... and I'm sure that Grandma was having a wonderful reunion on the other side of the veil at the same time.

Thursday we had the funeral itself. We laid out different things that were stereotypically “grandma,” like her wooden nutcrackers or some of the pictures from her walls. The program was beautiful and uplifting – focused on the message that life doesn't end at death and that families can be together forever. All the grandchildren sang; while we sang I felt an incredible feeling of peace. Who would have thought that a funeral could be so enjoyable? After the funeral lunch, we drove to the family burial plot in Logan. After the grave was dedicated, they lowered the casket into a stone vault and then down into the ground. And then we helped the city cover it with the dirt the had been pulled out. Everyone who wanted to grabbed a shovel and filled the hole with rocks and dirt (mostly rocks, with a little dirt!). The professionals from the city of Logan were well-equipped with gloves and a machine that tamped down the earth, but even the littlest children got to help shovel.

My family left Saturday morning, and, just as quickly as it happened, it's over.

On another note, recently I've been having dreams about being at Stanford. At least, I assume it's Stanford, since I think that each time I've been somewhere in California. Each dream has highlighted different opportunities and struggles that will come from being a part of the Stanford community. Thankfully, instead of moving me away (as happens too frequently), I feel like it is simply preparing me for what is to come.

Life brings with it changes. There is always change. When we turn to the Lord, He will ensure that those changes are good changes – that we learn and grow and come closer to Christ. I encourage each of you to look at the things that are happening in your life – the changes that are taking place – and to determine what the Lord would have you learn. The lessons we gain from Him are often much more meaningful and relevant than anything we could have learned on our own.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Another Stage of Eternity - October 18, 2009

This morning my grandmother died. My father felt prompted to fly out from Chicago last night, so all three of her sons were there in the hospital, joined in prayer for her. Around 2:00, she slipped to the other side of the veil.
The viewing will be at 495 S State Street, the Sundberg Olpin Funeral Home in Orem on Wednesday evening from 6:00 to 8:00. There will be another viewing Thursday morning from 9:45 to 10:45 and then the funeral from 11:00 – 12:00 at the Edgemont North Stake Center – at the intersection of Canyon Road and Foothill Drive in Provo. The burial will be that afternoon in Logan.

Ever since I moved to Utah, I've spent time with Grandma. Before my mission, she would come pick me up from campus and always feed me – taking me out to dinner at a local restaurant when she was too tired to make a salad. Sometimes I dreaded coming to visit her because she made me eat so much. In the last few years we've gone to lunch each week at my uncle's house, and I've tried to get her to come out of the house to attend social events. She was the first person to experience the interactive scripts I was writing for work last year and she helped me brainstorm titles for my books. She gave me feedback on everything, and, even when I completely disagreed, I knew that she cared enough to listen. We are completely different... and there were definitely times when we disagreed... but as time has come and gone we learned to love each other in person (as opposed to at-a-distance). I've been with her in the hospital in the past, and while it has never been a great experience, each time she rallied and got well. When she entered the hospital this time, I thought she would be fine – just a few days ago she actually seemed like she was getting better. But her heart, lungs, and pancreas took a turn for the worse... and now she has gone on to the next stage of life.
Watching Grandma die has shown me that the events that surround death, and much of the emotions of death... are not really very relevant for the person who dies after all. An understanding of the gospel wipes away any tears that could ever fall for their sakes. They've passed the test and are finally moving on to better things. But we, here on earth, may lack that perspective... and grief comes when we have trouble letting go... thinking of all the conversations we now won't have... the times we won't be able to make them soup or talk over a homemade salad or wrap... how we won't be able to kiss them goodnight or talk about what we'll plant next year in the garden. But the Lord knows all that – and He has a plan for each of us. If we are doing what is right, everything in life is a blessing.

Years ago, I had recurring nightmares where I was together with my family on the expressway. Every time, we would swerve and fall off the on-ramp into a deep pool of water. My parents and siblings would die and leave me alone, floundering in the water. I had already gotten over my fears of dying; at the time, the thought of losing my family was the most horrific thing that could ever happen. As the dream continued... I realized that I had to deal with my feelings. I went through all the normal questions – Why would God allow my family to die? Why would He leave me alone, without anyone to understand me? And then, in the middle of a dream, my teenage self felt peace. And I realized if I would simply choose to do what was right, nothing else would matter. God would take care of me, and everything could somehow be a blessing in life – even the death of my loved ones. The nightmare stopped being a nightmare... and instead became a question – what would you do? Press forward with faith.

All of us will lose loved ones... or at least think that we have lost them. In reality, they have only been transferred to a different field of labor. Death is one of the things that is truly universal in the world. When loved ones of others have died, I've often wondered what to say. The only thing I really felt to be true – that it was a blessing for everyone and that we should turn our grief into a passion for becoming better – worked for me, but I wasn't sure if it would be as powerful for everyone else... and I didn't want to be trite. As death has taken those close to me, I realize that the message of the gospel is never trite. I know that the message of the gospel is true – it is the only way that we will be happy in this life... and it will support and sustain us no matter what happens.
I know that God loves us. He sent His Son to live for us, then to die for us. I know that each of us will rise in the Resurrection, and that we have the opportunity to live with our loved ones for eternity. The message of the gospel is one of peace and happiness!

Promptings - October 11, 2009

Life is in flux again... but the Lord is with me; I know that He will help me through it all. Monday, while at work, I had a strong impression that I needed to volunteer to help the missionaries learning Italian. If there was ever a week when that was not a convenient prompting, this was it. I tried to reason with myself, explaining that I needed the extra hours to work on my Stanford application, but I knew that the prompting hadn't come from my mind, but from God... and that meant that reasoning with myself wasn't going to do much good. So I went. When I arrived, I learned that there were three times as many volunteers as they needed. My mind said, “Go home! They don't need you.” My heart: “You were prompted to be here. So you need to be here.” I stayed. Near the end of the second lesson, I wondered if the Lord would tell me why He had sent me there. Then a knock came at the door. I opened it to find the director of the Teaching Resource Center. He asked if he could speak to me, then invited me to volunteer for another half hour to help another set of missionaries who were preparing for a demonstration. I said yes, helped, and went home. As I left that day, the Lord revealed why He had sent me there and reminded me of other times when He had prompted me to do something – not because it was truly important, but because it was important to someone else, and He needed someone to answer their prayers. The director of the TRC had asked for help in finding volunteers who could help train the missionaries, and the Lord sent me there to answer his prayer. It was important to him, so it was important to God. And, for me, it means that the Lord is guiding me, and, more importantly, that I am listening.

The last few weeks I've been dedicating every spare moment to the completion of my application to the joint MBA/MA in Education at Stanford. While writing the essays, I've had amazing experiences. Each of the essays allowed me to reflect on my goals in life, the things that I've done, and the person I've become over the last 23 years. My answer to the first, “What matters most to you, and why?” has focused my view of the Plan of Salvation and missionary work more into something powerful – I realized that everyone is searching for happiness – not just some people in the world, but everyone. The realization came at the end of a long gospel discussion that I had with myself. Two more essays fell into place as soon as I took my dad's advice to talk about business-related topics, and the next essay, about career goals, flew by. But it felt like I was missing something. I didn't realize what it was until Tuesday night.

Tuesday night I needed to get the application done – it was due Wednesday. Tuesday was also my brother's birthday, which meant that every hour spent on essays was an hour missing his dinner and party. I finally decided that I had done enough to justify going mini-golfing with him and friends when I realized that I had written the statement of objectives essay (for the education aspect of the program) wrong. Instead of being 2-3 pages, single-spaced (as was indicated on the site), it needed to be 2 pages, double-spaced (as indicated in the application itself). It was six times too long. When I got home from mini-golfing, I spent the rest of the night writing and fixing essays. I finished at 4:30 in the morning.

But during the refining process somewhere between 9:00 and 4:30 the Lord helped me realize an incredible thing. I knew that I wanted to change the world of education. The essays required me to be specific, so in the first drafts I listed everything I wanted to see change in our educational system. After listing the changes, it was easy for me to identify which ones needed to be accomplished first, which were most important, and which were most defined. The only idea that fit all three criteria was focused on changing educational assessment methods, and so I detailed what I wanted to change. As I continued to explain the process I wanted to see instated, I realized why I needed a business degree to make it happen – why the Lord had inspired me to apply to business school when I practically promised myself I would never do so. My dream includes creating a global nonprofit organization dedicated to centralizing assessments – to pull formal education out of the classrooms and into the world. Creating and administering a global nonprofit will definitely require business expertise... and the Lord knew, even before I did, what I needed. I went back and rewrote my essays to ensure that the admissions committee would catch my vision, and then sent them off.

I'll know by December 13th... but before then there are alumni interviews. Hopefully I'll get an interview, and hopefully I'll be admitted. Asking for help has become a daily part of my personal prayers. A few people have told me that Stanford doesn't like BYU graduates – which could potentially make it even harder for me to get in. But I know that, no matter what happens, the Lord is at my side. I'll do everything I can and leave the rest to Him. Whatever happens will be for the best.

After my one-day respite on Thursday, Friday I had Savior of the World practice. I'm an apostle during part of the second act, and we practiced the Upper Room scene where Christ appears following His Resurrection. The feeling in the room was incredible. We are listening to Cleopas and Peter speak about the road to Emmaus and then He is there. Every time we practiced the scene, I felt like I was really there – in a small upper room in Jerusalem, surrounded by disciples and apostles, the risen Lord before us. My tears were real every time.

That night, as I drove home from Bountiful, I realized why God had asked me to try out for Savior of the World. It wasn't because the directors needed me – there are plenty of people who could have filled my spot – but because He wanted me to be there. He wanted me to experience it. Simply, He wanted to bless me. I think I cried more driving home than I did throughout the entire rehearsal as I reflected and realized how intricately involved the Lord has been in my life. In everything I do, He is there. I ask a question and He answers. And every single day He guides me to be happier myself and to help others to be happy.

Often in my life I am prompted to do something I might not normally do. Sometimes it's easy to see why the Lord would ask me to serve others. I can see a need and it makes sense immediately. Other times it takes a little while to understand the purpose of the prompting – to see how my actions have blessed the lives of others. And, sometimes, the Lord prompts me for my own sake – to build my own testimony and to bless me in my own life.

Each of us can be prompted in our daily lives to act in accordance with the will of God. Sometimes those promptings are for others – the inclination to help a neighbor or call a friend. Other times, they are for us – to help us gain essential knowledge in life or to better understand the will of the Lord and to see His hand in everything around us. No matter who we are or where we are in life, He is willing to speak to us. We only need to be willing to listen. I still have a long way to go before I live up to the blessings God has given me... but I'd like to invite you to make a commitment this next week. Each morning, ask the Lord to speak to you throughout the day. Then, as you go about your normal tasks, listen. When (not if, when) a prompting to do good comes, follow it. Whether He shows you how it blessed the life of someone else, you gain knowledge that changes your life, or you simply have the confidence that comes from following what you know to be right, following the promptings of the Spirit will always bless your life.

I know that the Lord is with us; He walks before us and prepares the way so that we can be happy and successful in life. As we follow His promptings, we will come to better know His voice – and He will guide us on paths higher than we ever thought possible. He loves you and wants you to be happy.

The Right Perspective - October 4, 2009

Just when I think that my life is getting organized, the stress hits. Life is crazy, but Conference has helped me see a better perspective... and I don't think I'm drowning anymore.

Last week at Savior of the World practice the director asked the men to grow beards and long hair. I pulled the “I work at the MTC” card and they asked me to ask my supervisors for permission. The only problem with that procedure is that people are really willing to make exceptions for me – so when I asked my boss, she suggested that we ask the director of the MTC. He gave me permission... which essentially meant that now I get to (have to, have the opportunity to... depending on your point of view!) be an employee of the MTC with a beard. Since having a beard is an obvious deviation from the missionary clean-cut standard, they've asked me to come to work without a white shirt or name tag. I feel incredibly awkward at work now... and I try to avoid being around missionaries and other employees as much as possible.

I took the GMAT on Friday. I had studied a total of 10 hours – 3 hours for three days two weeks ago and an hour on Thursday night. I took the day off work so that I didn't have any major stressors beforehand... The math section was intense, but I felt like I had found the answer to most of the questions. The verbal section was a bit trickier, but I finished the test feeling happy about my performance. I got a 770, which fulfilled my goal of getting at least a 760. A 770 is competitive at most schools. I'm grateful that I take tests well!

Grandma entered the hospital on Thursday. She has had atrial fibrillation, which means that her atria (heart chambers) were not operating in harmony. The problem had escalated to the point that her heart wasn't pumping enough oxygen to her brain – affecting her motor skills and ability to speak. After wrestling with doctors who each had different ideas, we finally had her heart restarted (Cardioversion) and put into rhythm, which will hopefully address most of the problems. She is still doing really badly – not really willing to open her eyes, talk, or eat unless she's forced to. Hopefully she'll decide to get some life and wake up sometime soon. I spent all of Saturday in the hospital with her and consequently missed Conference.
It was Saturday that I realized that recently I've been stressed out of my mind. My application for Stanford which takes every waking non-Sunday hour, dating, Church callings, teaching physics, work, Grandma sick and then in the hospital, trying to find an illustrator for my book, growing a beard for Savior of the World... on Saturday I just felt completely overwhelmed and almost fainted in the hospital. It probably didn't help that I was watching the ultrasound machine as the attendant was looking for the right spot to put in a PIC line in Grandma's arm... but I only barely made it outside, vision blurred, for a short run to raise my blood pressure. As I came back in, my dad called me with some advice for my business school application. He attended Harvard, and he realizes how different of a perspective I have compared to the business world. He made some cogent suggestions on how to word work experiences, choose essay topics, and the like to ensure that I was communicating on a level that the admissions committee would understand. But even though I was aware of the accuracy of his statements, I felt so completely overwhelmed (add to the list four hours of conference that I missed since I was in the hospital) that I wondered if it was worth the effort to even try.

I went home from the hospital around 5 to prepare for the Priesthood session of General Conference and prayed for help. Help for Grandma, help in knowing what to do, help in doing it once I knew. Among those I asked whether I should follow my dad's advice.

I arrived to Conference at the Marriott Center... and smiled for the first time in a week. The first talk, of all topics in the world, was on the importance of taking advice from your dad, especially if you are a returned missionary making life decisions like choosing your educational pathway. The Lord is usually very clear in His answers to me, but I laugh when I hear Him speaking to me at General Conference.
As time has progressed through the rest of the Conference, I haven't gotten any closer to finishing the projects that loom over my head... but my perspective has changed. I know what I need to do (at least right now) to do my part in accomplishing God's work. I know that He is at my side, and that He will help me to accomplish His will as long as I am striving to follow His promptings. And while life will still continue to be hard (which means that I will be spending every waking hour from 4 tomorrow morning until Wednesday at 5:00 at work, at the hospital, or working on my application), I feel positive – that I'll be able to do my best... and I know that, no matter what happens, the Lord will take my best and mold me into something better.

When life overwhelms you, sometimes all you need is a bit of perspective – the understanding that God is with you and beside you every step of the way. Turn to Him for guidance, for comfort, and for help in applying the principles most important in your own life. Then go share it with the world.

What Matters Most - September 27, 2009

Life is starting to get busy again. Wow. General Conference is next week. Make sure you take a few questions with you so that the Lord can answer them.
We had our first Savior of the World practice yesterday in North Salt Lake and I haven't yet figured out why I'm supposed to be there. One thought I had – maybe it would have a bearing on finding an eternal companion – was quickly postponed when the director announced the “no dating within the cast” rule. After hearing every leader in the Church encourage young single adults to date everyone we meet, I doubt that the no dating rule went through Correlation or any of the Administrative Councils. Whatever. I guess I'll have to resort to “hanging out” with anyone I find really interesting.

I've spent every spare moment writing essays for my application to Stanford. Stanford has a dual MBA/MA in Education program that I think would be great (complete with professors that have already played a major part in educational reform)... but the competition will be pretty rough. Each year the MBA program has a graduating class of less than 400, and, projecting more than 8500 applications this year, that's an acceptance rate of less than 5%! The dual MBA/MA program accepts about 20. I'm only planning to apply to Stanford - it's the only program that fits... but I'll think of some other schools as potentials by Friday.

Why Friday? I take the GMAT this Friday at noon. At the testing center, I need to supply the school codes of every institution that I want to receive my scores. Scary, considering that everyone I know who has taken it recently spent months preparing. I spent three days two weeks ago and I don't think I'll make time in my schedule until maybe Wednesday or Thursday.

But, even though my chances are slim, I feel like this is the right thing to do. As I've worked on application essays, I have often typed for hours and then finally had a bolt of inspiration that resulted in essays far beyond what I originally envisioned. I've laughed, cried, and even gotten mad from the memories that each story evokes. One essay, the most notorious of the application, comes from this prompt: “What matters most to you, and why?” After struggling for days on this one, I had a number of realizations that helped me truthfully answer the question. This is what I have right now:

My first answer to the question of what matters most was simply, “My relationship with God.” Then I asked why. The answer I gave was, “Because through my relationship with God I've gained knowledge that has given me a better perspective in life.” For a while I was OK with that answer. But, as time went on, I thought, “But, then, isn't what matters most the knowledge? And why do I value that knowledge? Because it gives me hope, peace, and happiness. Then, really, isn't what I value hope, peace, and happiness? If my relationship with God didn't bring me those things, it wouldn't matter. But, then, why would happiness be the most important thing in my life?”

At this point I started struggling to understand everything I've done in life. Why am I religious? Why do I want to go to Stanford? Why do I do anything? I'm not willing to believe that we, as humans, are directed solely by instinct – that life is simply an exercise in maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. But what other answer was there to explain my desire to be happy? And so I did what I do whenever I have questions I can't answer – I prayed for help and turned to the scriptures. And as I read, I realized why.

Within the framework of the knowledge I have from God, I know that good and evil are irrevocably tied to the eternal opposites of happiness and misery. Happiness comes from being good, and misery comes from being evil. Still, that doesn't explain why I value happiness more than misery. I know that we are all children of an infinitely good God, and that we were created in His image. But that doesn't answer the question, either. There is no reason to assume that we have the same values as God; while we were formed in His image, the intelligence that makes us who we are has existed since the beginning of the time. We didn't inherit His personality or His values – only His potential. While we have traces of Divinity within ourselves, that Divinity cannot predispose us to good or evil. What matters most to us cannot be influenced by our past or even by our natures. Ultimately, what matters most depends solely on our individual choice.

Hence, the reason that happiness matters most to me is because I have decided it for myself. I have chosen happiness... and, from there, flow the rest of my decisions in life.

I believe that, deep down, happiness matters most to all people. The only other option is misery, and I don't think I've ever met someone who truly wanted to be miserable.

The differences in our lives and actions, then, come from the differences in what we perceive to be the road to happiness. One man believes that wealth and fame will bring him happiness – and so he values it more than anything else. Another believes that developing family bonds will lead to happiness, and so the family tops his list.

I believe that God knows the road to eternal happiness, and that He has created a plan for us so that we, too, can be happy in this life and in the life to come. He has revealed the things that we should do so that we can learn in this life to be happy. The plan of happiness is simple – we need to search out the truth in all places, make changes in our lives to adhere to that truth, and come closer to God by making covenants with Him. True happiness comes from following the plan and helping others to do the same.

On a professional level, I would say that what matters most is being in an organization that understands the basics of this plan. It means having an organizational structure like that of IDEO, where the CEO searches for truth in all places by meeting often with the people on the lowest tier, and where the ideas that shape the company's future come from the people at the bottom as well as the top. It means being willing to completely restructure, like Stanford achieved recently with its MBA curriculum, to meet the needs of an ever-changing society. And it means being willing to understand and accept what matters most to employees and clients – even when it isn't the company's stock – and creating an environment where they can continue to matter most.

It still needs a lot of work. I'll work on it tomorrow. But what was amazing to me was how involved the Lord was in the experience. After struggling, I turned to the scriptures and suddenly understood the answer... and not only was I able to answer the question for me, individually, but I was also able to answer the question for everyone – and to show that everyone is involved in the same search for happiness. I read the essay to my younger brother and he mentioned that, given a thousand essays, he would definitely pick this one as being representative of me. My only concern as I finished writing was that maybe the committee would be prejudiced against someone who is so clearly religious. Do the members of the admissions committee really want a response that requires understanding the gospel? But then I realized that that is exactly what they are looking for. They wouldn't ask a question like, “What matters most to you, and why?” if they didn't logically expect to get profoundly individual answers, each written in a completely different paradigm that would require a lifetime to understand. And, as much as I may want to write to please the committee (and therefore get a spot), the essay truthfully explains who I am.

As I edit this (and every other) essay, I'll certainly add simple information to help my readers better understand my perspective. But I don't know if I will take out the unique vocabulary or the thoughts that raced through my mind – because it's who I am. And while one part of me says, “Just hide under a bushel until you're there – and then let your light so shine,” another pulls me to uphold my personal integrity, “Be yourself. Have faith. Don't worry. Everything will work out.”
Each of us has high-stakes scenarios where it would be easier to leave the gospel at the door. Places where we know we could have an impact on the lives of others; conversations where we know that our viewpoint would be the dissenting vote. But personal integrity requires much more than being a different person for each circumstance. It requires being the same person, holding the same values, no matter where we are. It means being faithful, true, and honest – willing to make any sacrifice that is necessary. In my case, it means being willing to reveal what really matters most in my life, and thereby sharing the plan of salvation in a high-stakes MBA application essay. Maybe for you it's being willing to talk with a friend about the gospel. Whatever the stakes, be true to yourself. No matter what happens, if you are doing what is right, the Lord will protect and provide for you. He will go before and prepare the way for you.

A Bittersweet Harvest - Sep 20, 2009

I got a part in the Savior of the World musical at the Conference Center in Salt Lake City! After not being called back to callbacks, the director called me Friday night and offered me an ensemble role. That means that I'll be part of the chorus – no speaking parts or solos. Very different from being in the spotlight in the Pirates of Penzance. But since the Lord told me to take any part (He specifically mentioned an ensemble role), I'm taking it. I don't know any details yet – our first practice is on Saturday in Bountiful. I still don't even know why the Lord wanted me to be in it in the first place. I guess we'll see.

This week I also took my first GMAT practice test. I need to take it so I can study Organizational Behavior (which is usually connected to business schools). I've read three different GMAT preparation books in the last few days; after reading them I wanted to see how well I would do on a practice test to isolate which areas to study. I got a 760 the first time, then I took it again two days later and got a 790. Both times I made a few stupid mistakes, which means that hopefully I can do as well or better on the real test day (October 2nd). I looked online and both of those are competitive scores at most schools. One admissions counselor online even suggested that it doesn't matter whether you get a perfect score – once you score that high, they stop caring. That's good news for me – it means that I'll put studying on the back burner and work on the next step – application essays and letters of reference. Then I realized what had just happened. Most people study for the GMAT for months and dream of getting a 760. I studied for a few days and feel ready. I am grateful that I take standardized tests so well.

I went out to our garden a few days ago and almost fell over in shock. The deer, which are the bane of our existence here in the mountains, had decided to do something a bit unusual. Instead of eating/trampling the tomato plants or chewing the mountain laurel down to nibs, they had decided to try eating pumpkin. Now, this needs a little bit of background. We planted pumpkins this year and by early August they were already huge – at least 40 lbs a piece. We've left them on the vines and a few of them are probably over 75 pounds. That's a massive pumpkin. Maybe even more. I'll have to get a scale tomorrow and weigh them. Either way, there was a massive hole in one of the largest pumpkins, complete with dozens of bite marks. A deer, or more than one, had eaten the pumpkin! For some reason, I didn't do anything about it. The next day, the hole had grown – the deer had eaten almost half of it! So I decided to take some action. I coated the pumpkin with the bite mark in cayenne pepper and sprinkled it on the rest of the pumpkins. The next morning the pumpkin with cayenne had only one more bite out of it... but almost every other pumpkin in the patch had been attacked! I then realized that nothing was going to keep our pumpkins safe from the deer, so I cut all the pumpkins off the vine and put them in the garage for storage. Looking back, I should have harvested the pumpkins the first time I saw evidence that the deer could break through and damage them.

From a gospel perspective, the pumpkins in my garden represent the talents, blessings, and abilities that we cultivate while we are in the world. We work to provide for our families, take classes to become better teachers, or sing so that we can improve our singing abilities. Sometimes we grow and flourish and see incredible results over time. But sometimes the environment in which we work may be hostile. It's much easier to just do nothing and hope that the deer (or any major negative influences) will go away, but it's not very likely. And, sometimes, even our best efforts in avoiding the deer don't seem to be effective. It's a painful fact that once an adversary has found a soft spot, whether on a pumpkin or anything else in our lives, he will always come back to it until he has broken through and achieved his goal.

I didn't want to harvest the pumpkins initially because I was afraid that they wouldn't grow anymore. It's a logical fear – when you cut the pumpkin off the vine, it stops growing. But I didn't realize that my inaction would lead to even more devastating results – losing two of the pumpkins entirely and marring the rest of them. In life, if we are slow to make changes in a toxic environment, it can have much worse results – affecting our spirits and the lives of those we love. My suggestion? Go through a spiritual detox. Identify the things in your life that interfere with your spiritual progression... and then change your environment. I know that the Lord is with us. He wants us to grow to our full potential – and, sometimes, that means changing who we are and moving forward in a new direction. Make the sacrifice to harvest the pumpkin a month early. It's worth it.
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