Peace: The Christmas Message

They were wholly preposterous words.

“On earth peace, good will toward men,”(1) sang angels hovering over a land heaving with political and racial tension, ruled by a degenerate despot, choked by Roman oppression, crowded in on all sides by competing foreign powers — a land, which in just one generation would collapse under revolt, its temple razed to the ground.

Gustav Doré, Empyrean Light

Yet it is precisely into the heart of such a conflict-rife setting that the shimmering, pulsating words “peace” and “good will” spilled down the conduit from God’s presence. Like pure water, they gushed into this murky sphere, sending bright, ever-expanding ripples across the thick Judean night. Peace, proclaimed the angels. Peace on this harsh, hostile earth.

The word “peace” makes us pause, shake our heads. Can reasonable people really believe in, let alone strive for peace? Can we, knowing what we do of human nature and of mankind’s history of soaking this earth’s crust in fratricidal blood — can we hope for peace?

Let us proclaim without reservation that not only can we hope for peace, but we must. At Christmastime especially, when we kneel before the Prince of Peace, we renew our covenant to hope for peace, to claim and proclaim peace, and to proliferate His peace.

One can hope for His peace only because it is independent of outward circumstances. His peace begins internally, in a heart aligning itself to truth and light, and once cultivated in that heart, extends ever outward to touch and embrace all of mankind.

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Such was the LDS General Presidency holiday message to the church in 1936, where members were urged to “manifest brotherly love, first toward one another, then toward all mankind; to seek unity, harmony and peace … within the Church, and then, by precept and example, extend these virtues throughout the world.”(2)

Like the original angelic annunciation, that plea for peace came at a time of escalating global tumult. The Great Depression was still ravaging the USA; the Spanish Civil War was surging; Stalin was executing his own; Mussolini was forging an “axis” alliance with Hitler; and the latter was promoting a devilish political agenda, which became official when he proclaimed himself the head of the German armed forces. This timing means that, five short years following that December Christmas message, untold numbers who had heard that call to peace would be called to the front lines of the bloodiest and longest conflict of history. On the beaches of Normandy, in the rice paddies of Okinawa, and in the rural jungles of the Philippines, perhaps those soldiers remembered that, despite the weight of the rifles strapped on their backs and the sodden camouflage uniforms stained in mud and blood, their covenant was then as always to manifest brotherly love and seek for peace.

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Modern conflict both global and intimate — whether originating in Pearl Harbor, Korea, Russia, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Libya, or Washington D.C.; whether due to joblessness, chronic or terminal illness, abuse, abandonment, addiction, the death of our beloved, the death of our faith — “mocks the song of peace on earth, good will toward men.”(3) Yet our gentle God rejoins all of this sharpness with a soft call to partake of His peace.

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It is this kind of peace that both opened and closed his mortal mission. The peaceful greeting angels sang at his birth He repeated in the hours prior to his death. Before the Roman guards would barter for his last bit of clothing, press thorns into his flesh, and hammer iron spikes through his hands and feet, He taught His followers that “peace on earth” would not mean peace in this world, but peace above and beyond it. “Peace I leave with you,” He said, “my peace I give you. Not as the world gives give I unto you. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”(4) In the face of all that He knew would surely come of torture, betrayal and blood (His own and His disciples’), “peace” surely seems a wholly preposterous word.

Or a holy, preposterous word. A blessing.

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When those angels blessed the quaking shepherds with a portion of holy peace, those same shepherds in turn took that testimony to what might well have been a quaking Joseph and Mary, who themselves perhaps needed reassurance that God’s peace, in their tiny Child, had indeed come to earth. Simple shepherds were among the first witnesses who heard and carried the blessing to others, thus revealing one of the secrets of God’s peace: it is always to be shared.

It must also be dared, wrote anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment… Battles are won not with weapons, but with God.”(5) Internal battles, Bonhoeffer seems to be saying, are won, and peace claimed when we do “the works of righteousness” receiving the reward of “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”(6)

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From a modern-day prophet comes wise counsel:

“No man is at peace with himself or his God who is untrue to his better self, who transgresses the law of what is right either in dealing with himself by indulging in passion, in appetite, yielding to temptations against his accusing conscience, or in dealing with his fellowmen, being untrue to their trust. Peace does not come to the transgressor of law; peace comes by obedience to law, and it is that message which Jesus would have us proclaim among men.”(7)

This season, will mine be the soul into which His sweet serenity enters? Into whose unsuspecting life will I dare to carry His gentle greeting? With which family members, friends or even strangers will I share His gift of peace that “passeth all understanding”?(8) And when this Christmas has passed, will we each have experienced something new about His peace? Will we have believed, received, and gifted to another that holy, wholly preposterous peace?

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.(9)

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1 Luke 2:14
2 Greetings from the First Presidency,” Liahona, the Elders’ Journal, 22 Dec.
1936, p. 315
3 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Henry W. Longfellow
4 John 14:27
5 Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy; Eric Metaxas, pp. 81
6 D&C 59:23
7 David O. McKay, Conference Report, Oct. 1938, p. 133.
8 Philippians 4:7
9 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810–1876)

How Our Covenant Community Could Save the World: Feature Article in Meridian Magazine

My piece. My peace.

Click on these words and follow straight to my heart.

Hands Of Young People On Stack At Beach

Image: Meridian Magazine

I have never felt the need or desire to hide my religious feelings. My devotion to my faith has never been questioned by anyone who knows me. On the contrary. I am what they call “all in.”

I have, however, sometimes felt the need to hide my political feelings —but only since November, 20016, and significantly, only within my religious community, my beloved tribe. It ought no be so. It must not be so

So please, read. Share. Let’s talk openly, friends. I’d be thrilled if you left your thoughts.

My Missionary Son Returns, Refugee Sons Don’t

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Teaching German to a smaller group of refugee men in a hot, stuffy, but practical converted camping wagon. Photo Aaron Dalton ©

I told my German students yesterday that, sorry, I’d be taking a two week break from teaching. Why? My son is entering university, I explained, and I am flying with him to the USA to get him settled in an apartment, buy him his textbooks, all the normal––

I stopped on “normal”. With “university” my voice had caught, and then it had faded at “flying.” By “apartment” I was whispering. They are trigger words, hard for refugees to hear.

No Private Homes, No Travel Over Borders, No Further Education

A few months ago, I’d have tra-la-laed right through that sentence, never thinking of those words as extraordinary — even painfully extraordinary for some. That is because several months ago I hadn’t known the world of Middle Eastern refugees who had fled bombed-out lives to trudge weeks or months westward where they would have to survive months on end in tents, shared facilities, or, as with my current students, in small camping caravans.

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Afghani, Syrian, both dedicated students of German. Photo Aaron Dalton ©

Some of my students, due to perpetual political unrest, resultant poverty, or the terror waged by extremist groups, have only limited education, and a few have never learned to read or write. Some have advanced university degrees, which they are now unable to use, and yearn to enter the work force or German university. That might still be years off.

For them and for now, the closest thing to furthering their education is this class I offer a couple of mornings a week in a former pub on the other side of the chain link fence from their dusty camp. A far cry from university, and leagues from Ivy League, but a small, cool oasis of hope.

This is why the mere mention of apartments (or hopping on planes, or enrolling in university) makes them sometimes sigh or even wince with longing. And it makes me scramble for other points of connection.

Separation is Where We Connect

Where do we connect? Every last refugee I have known has had to leave family members behind. Separation is our point of connection. So I explained in that conversation yesterday that this son with whom I’m flying to the States, I had not seen for two years straight.

Eyes widened.

And, I explained: I have only spoken with him via Skype four brief moments in those two years. We exchange emails once a week, yes, but we’ve had no phone calls. I have missed him. Deeply.

They asked where he has been.

In another country. In … England. (I hesitated before that trigger word.)

England. Wince.

England is some refugees’ Shangri-la. At least that’s the rumor. They talk about how much easier it is supposed to be there compared to here in Germany. This student from Kabul had an uncle who fled to Manchester in the ‘80s. He has residency, a real home, and his children got an education! This woman from Damascus has a brother whose kebab shop in Liverpool is doing well. And English! So much easier than this (as she points to my whiteboard of German grammar.)

I explained that my son has been in England for work. (Another word that hurts. How desperately these friends of mine want the right to work.) I didn’t mention of course that that work has been as a full-time volunteer for his faith – he’s been a Christian missionary — as any discussion about religion is strictly forbidden in camps. So I skirted that topic and flipped through a few pictures he’d sent that I’ve stored on my phone.

Sharing Photos, Seeing Contrast

Strangely, some of his shots are stored in between photos a Syrian refugee friend sent me of her fourteen-year-old son living in Istanbul. He’s been stuck there for nearly a year now, working slave labor to feed his father and two brothers who couldn’t get any farther on the exodus west. Their mother, by some border guard glitch, was able to go ahead with the youngest, who is eight. Both made it to Germany where they are living in a shelter.

I scrolled through the shots:

Dalton eating ice cream with Elder McCappin (Woolwich - Oct 2015)

This son of mine is always smiling.

Hers looks bleak.

Mine is hardy, well-dressed.

Hers looks weakened, and the clothing is borrowed.

Mine has probably taken those mega-vitamins I sent him in that huge care package.

Hers is sallow, rail thin, eating rice cross legged on a bare floor.

Mine is lighthearted in every shot, sometimes playful.

Hers stands like a  war prisoner.

This one is taken of mine in a shiny, bright apartment. Everything looks bathed in light.

Hers is a grainy shot of a grayed space where her son stands listlessly against a shadowed wall.

Mine is always in the company of other smiling, well-fed, well-dressed, vitamin-taking, lighthearted, light-bathed young people.

Dalton & Daniel Rainer

Hers is the portrait of The Terrified, The Mournful, The Stalked.

The Separated Among the Separated.

What Separation from Family Can Look Like

And what no one sees in any of these shots, what lies outside of the frame, but struck me with sudden and brass knuckle force, is that I have never seriously, frantically feared for my son’s life, my sons’ lives. Though separated from me, half my family has not been in peril. None of mine have lacked for food, shelter, clothing. And none have been living in the very city where the violence of a recent attempted coup left scores of people dead in the streets.

I scrolled, showing these refugees, all of whom are separated from family, my son from whom I’ve been separated, the son with whom I’ll be reunited in just a few hours. He will land on a jet plane. I will be on my toes at the arrivals gate. I will strain at every blond head coming my direction. My heart will thud, my palms will sweat, my voice will jitter, my eyes will tear up. And then I will see his face, his dimples, his smile, his whole healthy self. And I will run, arms flung wide.

When my friends will be able to do the same, none of us can guess.

That is part of the separation in humanity’s different separations. I’ve never had to weigh the possibility that a two-year separation could have easily turned into several years of separation, or even the ultimate separation of death. I have lived buffered from a whole other world of separation. Separated from it.

DAlton and Elder DeKock Because I'm Happy

They looked at these pictures. I could not read their thoughts exactly, but the weight of their thought bubbles ––the ones filled with loving memories of togetherness and the stinging, exquisite hunger to be united with beloveds in one safe place –– crowded the air around us. If I was quiet and receptive, I sensed how those thoughts pressed us together, bending us toward that common plane where we are all most vulnerable, most fierce: along our family lines. Thin lines made thick through separation.

With new eyes I return to teaching German grammar to refugees. And they, in turn, keep teaching everything else to me.

 

***

 

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2016.  This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

 

 

 

 

 

Revealing Interview: Mormon Women Project Talks With Global Mom

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The following is an excerpt from the recently published interview with Neylan McBaine of Mormon Women’s Project. To view the full interview in its original, and to read other intriguing interviews with women of my faith from around the world, go here.

MWP: Would you please describe the trajectory of the story that you’ve written in your recently published memoir?

MDB: The book begins when we had been married for seven years, Randall and I, and we were living in the New York City area. It was my husband’s first job and at that point we had two little children, Parker and Claire. I had been, as I describe in the book, busy following a few different career trajectories: I was a full time mother; I was teaching writing part time at a local college; and I was launching a career as a musical theater actress. And it was right in the middle of a musical that I was in that my husband received an offer pretty much out of the blue for us to move to Scandinavia for two or three years. As it turned out, that move ended up lasting a couple of decades. . .

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We were in Norway for just under five years, time to have our third child, Dalton, and then we moved to Versailles, a medium-sized city which lies just fifteen minutes outside of Paris. We were there for four years, just enough time to have our fourth child, Luc. . .We moved to the heart of Paris, two blocks from the Eiffel Tower. We enrolled our two youngest, Dalton and Luc, in French schools.  Our two oldest attended an international school, and we were there for a little over four years.

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We lived in Munich for three years, and then went to Singapore, where we were supposed to stay for many years, if not until the end of Randall’s career.  But there was a sudden restructuring and the entire international component of the multinational company he was working for was dispersed and his position was moved to Geneva. That’s where we live now. .

MWP: Tell me a little bit about the honest costs to you personally and to your family.

MDB: I will tell you what a couple of them are. The core costs are related to community. I don’t have a continuous, long-standing community with me, and I have not had that kind of permanent, reliable, known support ever while raising my family.  When your life is going peachy and there are no speed bumps whatsoever–then you might not feel you need a strong community. You can breaststroke all by yourself. But when you are paddling upstream against currents like new cultures, new languages, new ways of doing everything, parenting while your partner is half a world away and for over half the month, and when there are whirlpools . . . Oh, I didn’t think I would come to that metaphor, but I tend to always come back to water and drowning metaphors. . .

global MWP

For more of this extended interview about global living, traumatic loss, the journey with grief, and how to help someone who is hurting deeply, please click HERE.

My Daughter And The Mafia: 10 Reasons I Love My Church’s Missionary Program

Ragusa, Sicily.  Find it on a map, and you see it’s not even part of Italy’s proverbial boot.  Not even the boot’s toe. It’s more like the southernmost point on the underside of some clot kicked westward by the toe of that boot.  As far south as you can possibly go without hitting ocean and swimming as fast as you can to Malta.

Like any fleeing Mafioso.

Solreela Bradford and her group fo missionaries, learning Italian in the Missionary Training Center

Sorella Bradford and her group of fellow missionaries, learning Italian in the Missionary Training Center

Little, quiet hilltop Ragusa is reputedly Italian Mafia headquarters, where the narrow streets seem eerily tame.  That is, except when the ticked-off fruit vendor and irritated barber yell at each other in Sicilian (the region’s spicy dialect), and their insults ricochet off walls like bundles of barbed wire tumbling and scratching away at the dusty limestone.

This is where our daughter Claire (aka Sorella Bradford) earned her Sicilian stripes by beginning her full-time voluntary service as a Mormon missionary. It’s from here that she sent weekly letters that describe missionary life as it is: challenging, educational, humbling, exhilarating, hilarious, rough, purifying. Work.

Sorella Bradford and her first companion, Sorella Dall

Sorella Bradford and her first companion, Sorella Dall

Today I’m particularly grateful for the work of people like Claire.  For the past two months, we’ve had missionaries (who’ve served here in Switzerland, who’ve served in Italy, Finland, Japan, the U.S.) and their families visiting in our home.  Our conversations have revolved often around lessons learned, lives changed and reservoirs of gratitude filled for the life-altering work missionary service can be.

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So before Wednesday comes – the day when we exchange our weekly emails with our missionary – I’m listing 10 (of the 100) reasons why I love that Claire, recently transferred to Rome, has taken 18 moths off of university studies to serve her God and His good Italian people.

10 REASONS I LOVE MISSIONS

1- Missionaries are expected to live within the world (“Mom, we worked the Ragusa ghetto today, and taught English to 41 refugees tonight,”), but to hold themselves outside of what can be vulgar, trendy and materially distracting.

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2- Missionary work is about focusing on the wellbeing of others. The ego is reduced, the heart enlarged. 

3-Prolonged immersion in another culture can forever alter one’s world view. These kids learn a new language to the level of functional, fluent, and in some cases, near-native mastery. Cultural immersion can be rough, and such roughness can smooth corners of xenophobia, bigotry, lop-sided patriotism, and cultural smugness.

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4-Missionaries get to penetrate and observe the heart of any culture: the home.  Visiting homes lets young people learn at close range what works and what doesn’t in family relationships.  Some homes are models. Some are real-life cautionary tales.

5-This kind of work is rigorous training toward independence and self-motivation. Missionaries don’t simply opt out of a day of work because they’re tired or crampy or have swollen ankles.   Or if they have a bad companionship…

6-Because missionaries are always assigned to a companion (you don’t choose where or with whom you serve; these are considered sacred assignments and you learn to make the best of everything),  they learn to compromise, communicate, work as a team, and plan in tandem.  They might also learn why someone else finds them obnoxious. Great prep for any future relationship.

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7-Ever met more ridiculously optimistic young people? Missionaries, with their focus directed outside of themselves, wanting to bring joy to others, are brought on a daily basis to the sometimes painful interior of others’ lives.  And they are happy. Claire’s letters have more exclamation points than any other punctuation.  I’ve never known her so “up”, so fulfilled.

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8- Unpaid and sometimes ridiculed (“So today this lady on the bus screamed at us and tried to rip off my nametag! No one takes my TAG”), or even stoned (“They were just bored gypsy boys, Mom, but when that rock hit my companion, my tiger side kicked in”), missionaries are liberated from the natural tendency toward selfishness. At 18-22 years old, that’s a sheer miracle.

9-Right when many are sowing wild oats, testing (bucking) boundaries, deceiving parents and institutions and perfecting the popular sardonic posturing of the rising generation, missionaries are committing themselves to a life based on deep principles, high values, moral discipline, volunteer service and a world view that extends far beyond YOLO.

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10-At the heart of this all is love.  To learn to love – differences, others, God, self, truth, life, prayer, work, sacrifice, eating raw octopus, being stoned by gypsies, seeing a human heart and a whole life change – is, for me, the essence of the miracle of a mission.

In the words that ended Sorella Bradford’s last letter: I LOVE THE MISSION!!!!!…!!…!!!…!

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**

What pluses would you add to this list?

What experiences, missionary or non-missionary, have you had that have resulted in similar pluses?

What questions do you have about this whole missionary program that Sorella might answer herself?

(I’ll share this post and all your comments with Sorella Bradford. Go ahead. Write in Italian, if you wish.)

Fast Friends

Monkey Rock, sunset.

Monkey Rock, sunset.

“Naked, except for my water sandal stuck on my hand. Both my hips were dislocated.  Yeah, I was like . . . like pretty beat up, I guess.  Had some bad cuts all over the place especially this huge gash on the back of my head plus all these massive bruises.   Yuh, they said I was near dead.”

The young man’s voice over the phone was as lifeless as his body must have been when Idaho Search and Rescue had found him, “washed up,” as he told us, “pretty close to five miles downstream.”

“Five miles?” Randall asked into the receiver.  I scooted closer, still taking notes on my laptop. All this was going into our growing file: “What Happened At Monkey Rock?”

“Yeah,” the guy sighed then stalled. Then he caught his breath. “Yeah, five whole miles, if you can believe it. The rescuers told me if I hadn’t floated face up and flat on my back, well, you know. . . I would’ve never made it.”  He stopped again. Randall pinched his brow between his index finger and thumb while I held my hands ready over my keyboard, waiting to taken down the rest.

“Yeah.  I know,” the voice said, “I should’ve  died. I’m. . .uh. . .I’m real sorry about your son.”

Meet Robb.  Here, he's carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

Meet Robb. Here, he’s carrying 2-year-old Parker on his shoulders.

How did Randall and I, who now lived in Munich, Germany, end up in this conversation with a kid from a place called St. Anthony, Idaho, someone we’d never met, but who was going to prove to be vital in understanding the accident that took Parker’s life?

To answer that question, I need to veer a little bit into my religious beliefs. But I only do so hoping you won’t, 1) be offended, 2) feel preached to, 3) mistake me for a manic ascetic, or, 4) think I’m running for the papacy.

Meet 2-year- old Luc.  He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker's shoulders.

Meet 2-year- old Luc. He is being carried on 14-year-old Parker’s shoulders.

The way we made this important connection has something to do with fasting. As our immediate response to the news of Parker’s accident, Randall and I and our entire family and many of our close friends fasted. In fact, when I’d gotten The Call close to 11:00 p.m. on Thursday, July 19th, my immediate instinct was to shut down all eating and drinking. Randall’s inclination was identical. Claire’s, too.  And my parents.  And my siblings.  And my closest sister-friends, who either rushed to my side or kept closely connected in other ways.

Meet 2-year-old Claire and Robb's 2-year-old daughter, Audrey.

Meet 2-year-olds Claire and Audrey.

One of the first things Randall did while he agonized, waiting for his flight from Munich to Idaho, was to call Serge, our dear friend and the regional leader of our church in Paris, and ask him to invite the hundreds of members there to join in a communal fast for Parker, a boy many knew well.  Then Randall called Lutz, the regional leader of what was going to be our church in Munich. Lutz sent out the request, asking those church members to do the same for a family and a boy they did not yet know.  Only later did I learn that others around the world, some of my faith and many not, having heard of Parker’s accident, began their own private fasts and prayer vigil.  I can’t tell you how many people were joined with us in this intense spiritual focus over two days, but it was many.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children hiking Norwegian mountains with us. Norway.

Meet Robb and his wife, Jacque, and their children, including Audrey, hiking Norwegian mountains with us.

The habit of fasting for strength and clarity stuck with us throughout the months that followed Parker’s death. Again, this desire to fast was instinctive, not the adherence to a rote tradition dressed in sackcloth and ashes.  And while it’s true that to some extent I could not eat, there’s no food known to man that was going to give me the kind of spiritual strength I needed to pull my family through the tar-filled abyss I felt trapped us neck-deep.

So once a week, from Saturday to Sunday evening, Randall and I fasted. Fasting meant clearing out, airing out, making room for more spirit, growing more focused, making ourselves receptive for whatever whisperings (or turbo blasts) God might send our way.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Robb, Jacque, and children at the top of Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

Then on August 19th, the first month marker of the accident, in an email exchange with our lifelong friends Robb and Jacque, another pattern began.  

“It’s for solidarity,” Robb wrote. “Can we just fast with you guys on this day? Because really, what else could we do for you from all the way over here in Massachusetts?” 

Some sixty-seven months later, they’re still at it, these two, joining us in fasting on the 19th of each month.

Parker atop Norway's Preacher's Pulpit.

Parker atop Norway’s Preacher’s Pulpit.

More background: we’d left the States (and the funeral and the cemetery and the accident site) for Munich without a complete picture of what had happened the night of July 19th.  The local news had gotten it wrong.  The local police and university authorities were unsure.  There were rumors and variations of rumors mixed with speculation and hearsay spreading quickly in small town Idaho, and when word of this got back to us, we hurt and were deeply sad.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher's Pulpit.

Randall, Melissa, Parker and Claire heading up to Preacher’s Pulpit.

So Randall and I wanted to get to the bottom of things.  We pursued every lead, every name, every telephone number for weeks on end.  What we did know was that this place called Monkey Rock was a favorite gathering place for locals, was private property, but had never been marked as such.  Significantly, the local canal authorities had also told us that they were unaware of “any other accident in this canal like your son’s, Mrs. Bradford.”

Colin, Robb and Jacque's son, on Preacher's Pulpit.

Colin, Robb and Jacque’s son, on Preacher’s Pulpit.

Which was confusing.  The first local television coverage featured an interview with the area’s sheriff, who’d said, pointing to the canal, that everyone in those parts called this place “The Meat Grinder.” Names like that aren’t given without footnotes, so we set out finding out what those footnotes were.  How to do that? From the other side of the world? Having never lived in Idaho? Having never visited there except for the events surrounding our son’s accident? Knowing only the smallest handful of people anywhere in that area? With everyone involved now dispersed, gone their separate ways?

Claire and Audrey, Preacher's Pulpit.

Claire and Audrey, Preacher’s Pulpit.

As we gathered information (taking testimonies over the phone from people who lived in the area, paramedics, students who’d been  at the site of the accident), we saw it would be necessary to meet face-to-face with the county’s canal board. This was a panel of gentlemen who oversaw water and irrigation rights in what was southeast Idaho’s rich farmland. We wanted to explain what had happened to our son in one of their canals, the very canal they had been led to believe was harmless.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

Claire and Audrey, whale watching, Maine, U.S.A.

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We set a date, early April, for that trip to Idaho. And we continued fasting and praying as did others on our behalf, like Robb and Jacque, who knew we were searching doggedly for more information that would help us piece together a story that would make a difference at that important April meeting.

Bronx Zoo, New York City

Bronx Zoo, New York City

On March 3, Randall and I received this email.  (As context, at this time Robb was filling a volunteer position as the bishop or pastor of his LDS [Mormon] congregation in Massachusetts.) The mail began:

Jacque and I had a strange experience today that I wanted to tell you about.  I’m still shocked and don’t know exactly what to make of it.  I can’t ascribe it to mere coincidence.

I spoke in our meetings today about finding joy in fasting, and about the happiness that comes from following this gospel law.  I spoke about how our own family has been strengthened through our fasting on your behalf, and how focused fasting and prayers from around the world have hopefully fortified your family with the Spirit and with the pure love of friends and family.  I didn’t go into details of the accident, since Jacque spoke about Parker last week in her address, and I did myself in August in reference to the merciful doctrine of the resurrection.

[Of note: Jacque told me later that, although as the bishop’s family they were used to inviting people over nearly every Sunday for dinner at their home, on this given day Jacque was flat out not up to it. She has a demanding career as a corporate consultant with a Fortune 500 company, travels a great deal, they have four children, it had been one of those weeks. Her plan? To hunker down with her family curled up in jammies  around nothing more than big, cheap bowls of cold cereal. And sleep.]

Robb continued:

During the church meeting, Jacque noticed a missionary; the dark suit, white shirt, tie and name tag hard to miss on his 6′ 5″, near 300 lbs. of solid muscle.  (He played football for the past year and a half at college.)  He is physically imposing, and brand new (today was his first day in our congregation; he’s just arrived here in Massachusetts).  He looked overwhelmed and lost. Something made Jacque walk right up to him and invite him to dinner. 

[And I’m guessing something made Jacque plan on something other than cereal.]

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Parker with Audrey and his siblings in Brittany, France.

Robb went on to describe how, after dinner, over dessert, they cleared the table, kicked up their feet, leaned on their elbows, and started in on a conversation with this quiet, unsure new missionary.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

Shoreline, Brittany, France.

“So, tell us all where you’re from,” Jacque asked, setting out the makings for an ice cream bar.

“Idaho,” came the answer. “St. Anthony, Idaho. A farming town near Rexburg.”

Robb and Jacque and their children looked quickly at each other.  The fact that their dinner guest came from Idaho wasn’t so remarkable. Countless missionaries come from Idaho. But he came from St. Anthony, the address of Monkey Rock.  

“St. Anthony, Idaho?” Robb said. “Well, okay. You know of a place called Monkey Rock?”

The young man, mid-scoop, went whiter than his vanilla ice cream.

“Monkey Rock?” He put down his spoon. “I almost died there.”

And the football player went on to describe the following, which Robb writes in his email:

Best friends, our Paris apartment

Best friends, our Paris apartment

As a junior in high school, just three years ago, he was doing what he says all the kids in that area do for fun; he went bridge jumping in the rivers and irrigations canals. His favorite place was at a confluence of an irrigation canal and a river, joined near a bridge, just above Monkey Rock.  He explained that he had jumped off that bridge other times, but always when the water level was lower.  He’d never had any problems there.  This time, however, the water was up to within a foot of the underside of the bridge.  He didn’t know it at the time, but that made the undertow much more powerful.  One buddy jumped into the water, was spun around by the undertow and spat out on the other side.  Then he, our missionary dinner guest, followed, and jumped into the exact same place but was dragged down into the circular current.  He was held underwater, cycling around and around.  He struggled for what he said felt like minutes, then with his last strength, struggled to swim out, but hit the back of his head on a rock and was rendered unconscious.

He said that going limp must have allowed his body to slip beneath the powerful eddy and into the moving current underneath.  He said his unconscious body flowed with that current and over the lava rock falls that give Monkey Rock its name.  His high-school friends continued to search for him in vain in the murky water cycling below the bridge.  A group of college students downstream saw his shape move underwater beneath the falls, but did not come to his aid.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Colin and Audrey present when Parker received an ordination in the priesthood.

Before we even finished reading the email, we called Robb and Jacque in Massachusetts. How could we talk with this missionary? Robb arranged for that to happen, and this is where I bring you back to a phone conversation between Randall and the young man, the exchange that began this post.

Robb and Colin at that ordination

Robb and Colin at that ordination

“Doctors told me later I’d been unconscious underwater for probably 6 minutes. Being unconscious probably kept my lungs from filling with water and kept me from drowning.  I really should’ve drowned.”

“And your massive but lean body weight, that probably made you slip beneath that powerful undertow into the underlying current,” Randall said, wiping his hand over his forehead and then dragging that palm down the thigh of his jeans.

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“Yeah, and my friends on the shore couldn’t spot my body, so they were panicking, running up and down the rocks and scrub brush, screaming for me, then they called 911 on their cells. And 911 sent Idaho Search and Rescue.  They thought they were coming for a body pick up.”

Many phone calls later – conversations we always recorded, helpful discussions with this young missionary’s parents, with the head of Idaho Search and Rescue, with a local journalist whose own son had nearly lost his life there, too, who’d pushed doing a story on canal dangers but had been told he could not – after nearly a full month of nonstop long distance investigation, we discovered detailed, verifiable, chilling footnotes that explained “The Meat Grinder.” This place, among locals at least, was notorious.

Robb far right, after Parker's ordination.

Robb far right, after Parker’s ordination.

“Kids are getting caught up in there all the time,” Brett Mackert, the head of Search and Rescue told us.  “I’ve had to save a couple of them by dragging them out with my jumper cables.  These canals are nothing but death traps.  But they’re not marked, you know? No danger signs, no ‘No Trespassing’ signs, nothing. And I guess a foreigner like, well yeah, someone from France – what’d you say? He’d been one week there? Right, well, he wouldn’ta had a clue of the trouble in there.”

Parker, Dad & Mom (Melch Psthood Ord - Versailles, March 11, 2007)

With all this information in hand, we traveled days later from Munich, Germany to St. Anthony, Idaho.  There, in a small white municipal building, we met with the county’s canal board.  With us were my parents, the missionary’s parents, Brett Mackert, the journalist I just mentioned, other interested locals, and a hydraulics engineer who described the dangers of this particular canal’s construction, features that created the Bernoulli effect; a fierce confluence of currents that make suction that’s capable of pinning even heavy objects in a perpetual vortex.

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Picnic at the Grand Canal of the Château de Versailles

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Robb and Audrey, Versailles picnic

Unlike the missionary who dove intentionally into the whirlpool like many others we eventually learned of, Parker and his classmate had been standing in relatively calm and waist-high water downstream from the vortex which is hidden under the bridge, when an invisible undertow sucked them a few feet upstream, pinning them. It felt, the survivors said later, like the spinning barrel of a washing machine lined in rebar and chunks of raw cement.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker's passing.

Ellery, Audrey and Abigail with Dalton and Luc shortly after Parker’s passing.

Right here I’d love to say that this meeting of ours launched a county-wide initiative to make safe or at least mark dozens of irrigation canals. But I can’t say that.  And that’s not the point of my writing. My writing is to drill my focus and yours on the light that has burned off many of the biting ironies of this tragedy. Part of that light is shared here, as Robb ends his email:

Claire and Audrey, college roommates.  Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

Claire and Audrey, college roommates. Both young women are serving today as full-time missionaries for our church. Claire, in Italy, Audrey in Sacramento, California, Spanish- speaking.

This thing seems more than a mere happenstance, yet we don’t know what to make of it.  What are the chances that this young man would arrive in our church building today, that we would invite him over, and that we would discover right now when we know you need it most, this story of all his life stories?  What are we to understand or gain from this connection?  The only thing that seems certain is that Jacque and I feel a renewed, acute aching for you both.  We feel renewed love and affection for you and your entire family.  We continuously pray for you all, and pray for God’s mercies for you.  We remember you and we proudly remember Parker.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

Jacque and Robb, Easter 2008 in Trento, Italy.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

The boys in Trento. Colin departs soon on a full-ime mission for our church in South Dakota, U.S.A.

I can’t guess what this means to you, reader. But for me, there is a delicate but traceable connection between the active love from these friends and the fact that some missionary from St. Anthony, Idaho lands just in time at their Massachusetts kitchen table. And there would be other events, equally remarkable and equally inexplicable, at least in purely rational terms, unless perhaps you believe as I do in a reality larger than this often cramped and occasionally dismal mortal tunnel you and I are belly crawling through.  There are those happenings, our family’s been blessed with many,  that perforate the obscurity, that pierce through it in shafts of air and light and understanding, making this passage a conduit, as I see it;  bright and vibrating with hope and sloped, even if imperceptibly, on that long grade heavenward.

Our kids, Brittany, France.

Our kids, Brittany, France.