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!
Custom Search