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)

Altars, Altar Cloths, and Our Covenant to Mourn

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All images: LDSLacemaker.com

Draped neatly on nearly every Mormon temple altar I have ever seen is a white crocheted covering. I had always assumed that such coverings were a quaint nod to our pioneer heritage, those skilled Irish, Dutch, Welsh and Scandinavian hands that provided delicate handiwork to adorn my faith’s earliest temples. It wasn’t until loss ripped through me with H-Bomb force that my eyes were opened to see a deeper meaning.

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It was a Thursday evening, one week to the hour from the tragic drowning accident that took our eldest son’s life, when my husband Randall and I, weak with grief and staggering under the molten lead weight of shock and sorrow, went to the LDS temple so that Randall could do what is a common but crowning rite in our faith; he would serve as proxy for our 18-year-old’s posthumous “endowment”, a bestowal of supreme blessings and promises conditioned upon faithfulness to the gospel. We happened to also be asked in that session to serve as something we call “the witness couple,” meaning that we represented all others in attendance as we approached and knelt at an altar, the central feature of the room in which temple goers are seated and instructed. Freshly amputated as we felt, we scarcely had the energy to get up and approach the altar or even kneel at it, but managed to by bracing ourselves—torsos against and elbows upon—that holy, lace-covered altar.

I recall crying quietly, head hung. Dark spots of dampness pooled on lace geometry, I can see them still, and I can also hear the Spirit telling me, “This suffering is a similitude.” My heart cramped. “And this,” referring to the altar covering I was wetting with the blood of my soul, “is the community of Saints.” I focused on that handiwork throughout that evening, seeing it all as if for the first time. And in each of the subsequent temples I’ve visited in the years since our life was imploded, I have reflected intensely on the altar covering’s meaning.

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What do I now see in those soft altars and in dainty altar cloths? I see these ten hard truths and endless thunderous power.

  • I see that life is an altar, not a stage, as I had believed before I knew that I had zero control over life. That all my efforts to do the right would not and could not protect me from death in all its iterations. That God does not, in the strictest sense, protect us from life, but provides us with exactly enough strength through Christ that sorrow be transformed into joy, suffering into strength, death—the greatest evil— into life, and even life eternal.
  • I see that our Christian covenant before anything else—before white shirts and ties, food storage, memorizing scripture, hosting elaborate youth theme nights—is one of connectivity, companionship, co-mourning and compassion. It is about stitching ourselves to each other in love. Alma, an ancient prophet featured in the Book of Mormon, offered this distilled truth when he taught that Christ’s disciples live to bear others’ burdens, mourn with them, comfort them, and to stand in for God in all things, times and places. (Book of Mormon, Mosiah 18:8-9)

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  • That any other expression of faith than the self-sacrificial and the other-rescuing risks becoming parochial, nothing more than navel-gazing, and ultimately lacks the substance that will create of our simple single threads Zion, and of our threadbare or shot-through selves, offspring truly like our Divine Parents.

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  • That extending our arms to one another knots — or knits—our hearts together, as we read in Mosiah 18:21. This intertwinedness results in a human fabric where each tatted patch represents a tattered and torn someone who is, through intimate, single stitches, held in our community and in turn in a greater, cosmic cloth.
  • That knitting our hearts to one another doesn’t require that we be perfectly whole to begin with. In fact, those altar cloths provide an aerial view of all our broken bodies and punctured spirits. It’s in our reaching outward to catch others or to be caught by others as if with a fine crochet hook, that we are caught by God. The parallel miracle appears when, in our human reciprocal catching and knitting, God knits and mends our individual broken and punctured hearts.

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  • That our brokenness, while making us feel acutely poorer and more fragile, frayed or shot through, also provides open spaces where we can be caught by God. Sewn closer to God, we are far richer and exponentially more robust than we had been before.
  • That such torn-to-pieces-hood, (William James’ translation of the German, “Zerissenheit”), is what we came to earth to know. We can, in our experiences with torn-to-pieces-hood rail and resist, rebel and rage. But we can also recognize that holes, not wholeness, invite holiness. Spaciousness invites the Spirit, and in His wounds we are healed, made whole.
  • That altars are mourning benches, and mourning benches are places of reverence. When we seek to meet someone in their grief, we are treading on sacred ground. This call to compassion—to suffering alongside another—is not a time for perfection, but a moment of supernal authenticity. Any self-consciousness and perfectionist leanings do nothing to help the grieving. We bond on our broken, not on our polished, edges.

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  • That we ought to bear burdens first. (Mow the grief-stricken’s lawn, wash their car, take their children for three days.) Mourn next. (Jesus wept.) Comfort later. (“Comfort” means con+fortis, or “with strength.” Bring all your strengths.) And witness of God (roll out your sermon) only after you have done all of the above, and for much longer than you had ever imagined necessary.
  • And I have learned that mourning, like kneeling at that altar, requires silence. The Jews sit seven days of shiva. We can begin with at least that. We need only to show up and sit in shared stillness. Indeed, altars are places of listening more than places of lengthy discourses. And real listening is more than a polite or professional act. It is total, imaginative focus requiring physical effort and divine inspiration. Listening to those who are suffering will teach all of us essential lessons in our shared humanity.

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As Nicolas Wolterstorff, Yale Divinity School theology professor and bereaved father writes about altars and mourning benches:

“What do you say to someone who is suffering?

Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.” Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit [or kneel] beside me on my mourning bench.”

—Wolterstorff , Lament for a Son, 34

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How have loss and grief stitched you to your God?

What have others done for you during times of acute grief that has knit your heart to theirs?

What has it meant for you to mourn with or comfort others?

What is to be learned from the seemingly endless landscape of mortal suffering?

If you are LDS and attend the temple, what has that temple-attendance done for you in your anguish and isolation?

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

Interview: Claire (Sorella) Bradford, Returned Missionary

Claire, our daughter, returned just three weeks ago from eighteen months of full-time service as a volunteer representative for our church in Italy. Taking some liberties here by ignoring my usual separation of church-and-blog, I want to report on her experience. I’ve captured her attention for a whole afternoon, and the following is a frank and detailed interview about her experience.

If you have any questions––any questions––Claire will respond to them here in the comment thread. Please don’t hold back: ask away! She will do her best to respect your sincere curiosity. As you’ll see, she’s used to answering all sort of questions. (And if for some reason you want this whole transcript in Italian, we do aim to please.)

Rome, St.Peter's Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Rome, St.Peter’s Basilica, Sorella Bradford and one of her mission companions

Claire, tell us about your decision to serve as a full-time missionary for your church.

I think I kind of always grew up thinking I would go on a mission. I’d always planned on it, and since both my parents went, it seemed like a logical thing to do. I prayed about the decision, talked to a lot of returned missionaries to hear about their experiences, and then knew it was something I had to do.

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You say, “had to do.” Did you feel pressure?

Well, yes, sort of. Maybe. There was one point, yes. I remember coming back from Tanzania, [where I had spent a semester working as a volunteer assistant warden at a juvenile detention center for boys] and not being sure at that moment if going on a mission was the right thing for me, at least not right then.  I voiced that hesitancy, and I think it surprised you and Dad.  So it made me think. You really hoped I’d have this experience.

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Can you describe the difference between your service in Tanzania and what you did in Italy?

Missionary work of the sort I did in Italy is not about working in orphanages, shelters, detention centers or building huts, digging wells. There are missions of my church meant just for that, for doing humanitarian work. They are all over the world and they do much good. But Italy was completely different, except for the fact that you’re giving 100% of your time to a cause bigger than you are, to something that should help others. As was the case with my Tanzania service, there’s really no quantifiable “gain” from going on a mission, except, I guess, that you could put in on a CV if you wanted to. But that was not my motivation, not at all. And I gained more than one could ever write up on a CV.  Also, I thought my internship in Tanzania would help me on mission.  But the work in Tanzania was different from what I did in Italy.

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You chose to go to Tanzania. But did you choose to serve in Italy?

Right. I chose one, the other was an assignment. If you’d asked me beforehand where I wanted to serve a mission, Italy would have been toward the top of the list. But I never told anyone. I kept that hope a secret. It was one of the places I wanted to go, and not every single missionary gets that answer or feeling right away that their location assignment is right. I remember that I’d prayed about it, and thought, well, I’m studying Humanities at university, and I don’t know if studying Humanities is the right thing, or the most practical thing, so it would be nice if getting my mission assignment would be an indication that my studies were heading in the right direction.  But I opened up that letter and ecco, Rome, Italy!  So, yeah, I realized that I should be studying Humanities. But I read that first line [ from the letter a missionary gets, declaring the mission assignment for 18 or 24 months] and the thing that got me emotional was not that I was called to Italy specifically, but that I would be called as a missionary. Period.

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Was Italy as a culture anything like what you had imagined it would be?

In some ways, yes. I’d lived in West European countries, I knew many cultural aspects of Latin Europe. There weren’t any big surprises, like I wasn’t surprised, as some other American missionaries were, maybe, that Italians built their cities up on hills, that there were strong and distinct dialects, huge 4-hour long meals, stuff that looked sometimes a bit chaotic. Most things for me were not that shocking. What was actually surprising was how much I loved Italy more than any other culture I’d ever lived in. I didn’t expect anything to pass up France or Norway or others places I grew up. Yet I felt so connected so quickly.

Ribs, anyone?

Ribs, anyone?

What do you ascribe that to?

I wonder if it’s the fact that I was serving 100% of the time while I was living there. I loved the people so much. Their quirks (others missionaries on occasion would criticize these things), just all made so much sense to me. They were endearing! They are such a loving people, but they didn’t feel fake or salesy or superficial.  When they trust you, they bring you into their home and treat you like their own child. They are extremely loyal and passionate and yes, some things they do don’t always make sense to outsiders. Look, it’s not really a country run on practicality, hyper organization, some mathematical spreadsheet. It is a culture that is driven by a love for the arts and architecture, painting, the language, the food, passion. And not passion of a sexual nature. How do I say it? There’s a HEAT. Italian culture runs on HEAT. Fluid, flowing, warm and Mediterranean heat. It’s not uptight or antiseptic. It’s more like doing yoga instead of doing punishing crunches and push-ups.

Palermo at night

Palermo at night

Roman countryside

Roman countryside

Gelato

Gelato

So, was a mission anything like what you had imagined it would be?

No. I think I thought the things that made me a good university student would make me a good missionary. I think I thought, okay, I’m organized, task-oriented, goal-driven, I’m good at getting things done, I’m a hard worker, I’m a rule-keeper.  I thought those qualities would make me a good missionary. In school, I could master the system. I could control it. At university, if you do this and this and work really hard, you will have success. You can get a certain grade. It was a straightforward formula. But I don’t think any missionary can ever say they have “gotten” or “mastered” the work.  No missionary ever “masters” it. You don’t master some formula then you can do anything, and you learn very quickly that that’s not at all the reality. Some missionaries are great with language, some are gifted socially, some are deep and sincere, but none of that can control other people’s lives. Nothing you do can control how people will act or react to your message about religion, especially about Christ. I wasn’t expecting that.

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So that sounds hard, not being able to see quantifiable results even from a lot of effort. Can you share other things that were hard?

Being tired emotionally and physically. You want to give your best, and sometimes you want to be all there, but you are totally exhausted. I felt limited by my energy. It is hard to constantly be thinking about other people, all day long. Not just the people you are teaching and working for, but also the people you are working with. If you are in a leadership and training position like I was, ( for many months I trained missionaries newly arrived from America), you have to be thinking about a lot of other missionaries and their needs. That can be exhausting, though always rewarding, with time. Also, it is hard to follow all the rules.

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Please tell us about the rules of being a missionary.

Well, I just mentioned that Italy is a culture run by heat. But as a missionary, you can’t get too close to people either with the language or in touch. In European languages, like Italian, you have the formal and informal form [the lei form and the tu form]. As a missionary, you are supposed to only use the formal form, although in some missions with other languages you can use informal form. To keep relationships professional and to guard an emotional distance (important as a missionary) you’re asked to be formal, socially distanced. Spiritually close, but socially distanced, if that makes sense.  All you want to do is love them, and for me, especially in the south where I served on the island of Sicily for many months, it felt sometimes strained and unnatural to be in such a warm and loving environment but hold my arms at my side.  Not hugging my many friends was hard for me, but the rule was to help me remember the dignity of my calling.  I said to myself more than once, “For the sake of my name tag I will restrain myself.”

During your mission only platonic relationships are allowed. That goes for interaction with those interested in your message, members of the church, other missionaries you work with. There can be no romances, no dating, no flirting, no interactions beyond the strictly professional. Friendships are very encouraged. But they have to be wisely balanced, keeping things non-romantic. This encourages an environment of mutual support and safety and total focus on your work.

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Some rules were a challenge, but I understand that not all rules were hard for you. What else was not hard?

Italian wasn’t really terribly hard for me. I had to study, but I was lucky that I loved to study, and I love languages, and that I loved, loved, loved Italian more than any language I had ever learned. I even loved the grammar. (I’d hated French grammar.) But Italian grammar! I’d sit and look at grammar book for hours and hours. I became known as the Queen of Conjunctivo. (or the subjunctive case).

Being away from family was not so hard. Italians would always ask, “How long have you been here? Don’t you miss your family?” The very idea of not being with family for 18 months was shocking to them. They live at home for 30 or 40 years, sometimes. Much more immediate family cohesion than I’d seen elsewhere, especially in the US where people move apart from parents early on. Not in Italy!

Not being paid was not a problem. Not dating, not going to movies, concerts, not reading the newspapers or literary books, not surfing the Internet. That wasn’t really that hard, neither was keeping a strict daily schedule . . .

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Strict schedule?

As a missionary, you’re required to be up at 6:30 a.m. to exercise until 7:00, then to do different kinds of study (alone and as a companionship) until you leave the house at 10:00. Then you leave the house and work until 1:00.  Then you have lunch and language study until early afternoon, then you are working (out on the streets talking with people, or visiting and teaching people in their homes, and we also taught a popular English course) until 8:00. From 8:00 until 9:00 pm, you have dinner, then until 10:30 you study again and go to bed.

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Sounds regimented. And this was every day except Sunday, 18 months straight? When did you relax?  And visit the Vatican?

Every missionary has something called a preparation day, or P-Day. In my companionships, we spent very few P-Days inside, just lounging. Sometimes, we did a spa day.  We soaked our feet, did facials, painted our nails, got our hair cut.  Most often, though, we went to interesting cultural sites, went food and/or clothes shopping. In all of this, we always wore our name tags. We’d called it a tourist P-Day, but we always wore our name tag, so we could be identified and so we acted the part.

Missionaries on their preparation day

Missionaries on their preparation day

How about never being alone, and always being with a companion you did not choose, but were assigned to?

Oh, that was okay. I served with 9 different Sorelle [sister missionaries] including when I was in the Missionary Training Center.

You didn’t know anyone of these young women before being assigned to work with them?

No, not a one. That’s hard for some people, I guess, but it was not hard for me, although I had prized my alone time before becoming a missionary. I’d had my own room at university, my own car, I was a very independent person and loved doing things my own way.  But I can count on one hand the times in my mission when I needed to sit alone on a little balcony in one of our little mission apartments.

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You lived in how many places/apartments?

I lived in three different apartments, three different cities, two different zones. I lived in Ragusa (Sicilia), Roma 3 (Roma), and Palermo (Sicilia).

And you trained missionaries, right?

“Trained”: You get a brand new missionary that has to be taught the ropes and the language. Yes, I trained four different new missionaries, new “greenies” they are called.

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What did it mean to be an STL?

A Sister Training Leader is an assignment given by the mission president. It means having responsibility for the emotional needs of the various sisters under your stewardship. There is a chain of command within a mission, and it is so stressful being the president of a mission (in our mission alone covering all of southern Italy, there were almost 200 young missionaries. You can imagine the needs that keep coming to the President and his wife.) So, the missions are divided into zones and zones are broken into districts. District and Zone leaders try to handle what needs arise, but if it can be dealt with on local level, (homesickness, language frustrations, health concerns, problems with a companion) you can do what you can as a Sister Training Leader to influence that part of the mission. Sister missionaries would sometimes call the president asking for help, and the Mission President would ask me to take care of it. He would say, “Sorella Bradford, you’re my ‘guy’ for this issue, okay?”  I served in this capacity for 9 months, so the whole second half of my mission.

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What did you learn from sharing messages about Jesus Christ?

(Long silence. Thinking, thinking…)

I found that a lot of people had a kind of memorized or scripted concept of God or an impersonal relationship with Christ. Not that I am any better than anyone else, but it really struck me that few understood that Christ was their personal Savior. They’d  heard things, maybe, from their parents, from school, from sermons, or rumors from grandparents, some truthful but some untruthful things, that they had heard and  memorized.  How many times did I hear, “I’m devoutly religious and I practice my faith,” but in a deeper conversation about the New Testament, for instance, this good person had little idea about Christ’s life, His miracles, parables, they had based their belief, it seemed, on a cultural norm or tradition, but hadn’t gotten much deeper than that.  Then I think we surprised them. They were taken aback that a young foreigner believed in Christ and would then express these very personal feelings about Him.

What did you learn further about teaching others about faith?

To teach simply. Especially going straight on a mission from college. There was a bit of a temptation to use complicated words and teach complex concepts and just blow people out of the water with major gospel knowledge. But the best lessons were when there was a conversation and we spoke simply.  Then I felt something powerful and special. We all did.

Claire and Martina

Claire and Martina

Can you give an example of teaching and having that special thing happen?

Martina. Normal, Roman through-and-through. Married. It was amazing from the very beginning. It was incredible to see someone so prepared for what we had to teach her. She had zero previous knowledge of or background of the church, she had no concept of certain doctrines. She was just, oh what’s the word, someone so normal, just a very normal woman who had some normal human questions and needed someone to just explain certain things, and she did her own research, and came to church and loved it. She was, ah!, incredible, It was incredible to see her progress and learn and become happier. Honestly, I went out of every lesson thinking, WOW.

As missionaries, we want to serve and help anyone who will listen to our message to live happier, more stable and productive lives, have happier families, better health, all that. When they progress and desire more, then we invite them to be baptized. When we invited Martina, she said yes. Her husband, who said no at first, later changed his mind and now both have become members of that congregation in Rome.

How are they doing?

Incredibly.  They are the strongest members in that little congregation.  I’m going to go see them next month. (Big smile. Little squeal.) I hope I know them forever.

Martina at her baptism

Martina at her baptism

Sounds like you miss it. A lot. Was it hard to come home, back to civilian life? Um…to…us?

Yeah. It’s hard to be home. A mammoth let down. For a lot of reasons. I had developed a strong identity that I don’t feel I brought back from my mission. It’s hard for me to be feeling like I’m not the person I was. I can’t demonstrate that I was a responsible leader in my mission, that I was entrusted with decision-making power by my president, I also feel far less on-the-go; the next day as a missionary was always planned and full, now that structure is gone. I really miss a culture that is loud and spontaneous, and so I feel a little lost, floating. I was so needed as a missionary. And so challenged. And I had so many people to love, who needed me.

Even if you’re busy at home doing all sort of good things, nothing will compare to the importance of the world you were in as a missionary. I just loved watching people change all the time. That is a satisfaction I’ve never experienced  doing anything else. It’s just such a dense spiritual experience, and life feels. . . a little superficial right now.

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Is this why you wanted it to last longer?

Yes. I begged to stay longer. But to tell the truth, I was so exhausted in the end. I don’t think the body or the mind is made to live with such intensity permanently. Still, maybe two years would have been the best for me.

If I can insert myself, Claire, I’ve often told you and others that the greatest blessings of my life have flowed from my opportunity to have served a full-time mission (in Austria in the ‘80’s.) The person I married, what I studied in undergrad and graduate school, where and how we have raised our children. Can you speak to that?

No question, this mission will have a huge impact on the rest of life. I can’t say from here what the long-range blessings will be, I can speak in theory. I want to live at some point again in Europe, probably Italy and probably long-term, not just a vacation or semester, but live there. That is my dream.  I won’t use Italian in my remaining two semesters of university, but I have no idea how it will affect my masters studies. For sure, I’ve gained countless life skills, tons and tons of life skills. What I hope is that my mission refined my good qualities, and showed me weaknesses I didn’t know I had. I feel like you can’t go through a process like a mission without being transformed.

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And since coming home as a transformed person. . . you have been keeping weekly email contact with another missionary still serving in Italy, someone you met at the very end of your service. Am I right?

Yes.

Can you ––?

Um. . . This is all new, so I am still not sure of how to––

Would you care to­––?

Let’s just say it’s pretty serious.

But can you tell us about hi––?

He is incredible. He is Italian. And I am committed.

Sounds like it.

(Interviewer and interviewee smile.)

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Any last thoughts?

It is not easy approaching people all the time, trying in the very few seconds you have to convey all of the joy and love you have for this gospel, for the message you are sharing. It is not easy watching people make great steps in their lives, seeing people make such progress, seeing them be happier, and then letting it all go. Letting all of it completely go. It is so hard watching that, and knowing that our job is not to force anyone, not to convince them. So you don’t. That is up to them and their God. You try and communicate why you love your mission, why you love what you are doing, and hope that they will feel that love. All of that difficulty is worth it, however. I have found my best friends in my mission. Some are missionaries, some are members of our Church, but not all of them. I have incredible friends that, for some reason or another, decided to not take our lessons, or decided to not be baptized members of our Church. But I love them so much anyway. You just get to be part of all that love, and it is so rewarding. So worth it.

 From an address Claire gave at a recent youth evening, where she spoke about her mission:

“Many of our missionaries begin their missions thinking they are going to repay Heavenly Father for His goodness toward them by serving Him for 18 months or two years.  But before long they learn an important eternal truth: you can never do more for the Lord than He can do for you.”

––M. Russell Ballard

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. . .

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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.

Many Waters and Fear

Fate is a fine-tuned poet.

Irreantum, (ear-ee-an’-tum: 1 Nephi 17:5. And we beheld the sea, which we called Irreantum, which, being interpreted, is many waters.) is the literary journal for the AML, or the Association for Mormon Letters.  It happens to also be where an essay on fear and joy that I wrote has found a home. (And a nice award.  Thank you so much, AML.)

That this essay ends up in Many Waters is poetic, I think. Because if you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, or if you’ve known something of our family’s story, you also know something about my 5-year-new fear of water.

Especially water in the plural.  The unpredictable, petrifying  plural.

And so to thank Irreantum (particularly Jack Harrell and Angela Hallstrom), as well as to encourage you to find the latest issue of the journal, and to give you a flavor of what that piece is about, I’m posting here a couple of excerpts of that essay, “Bridge to Elysium.”

(It’s an essay that pivots around a bridge we used to cross regularly the years we lived in Paris, the Pont de l’Alma.  Pont du Gard. Pont de l’Alma. This post as a bridge between the two. You see I have a thing for bridges. They keep you out of water’s why.)

When you finish with these excerpts and get around to procuring your own issue of Irreantum, you might note that a series of my poems, “Why I Carry Your I.D.” was also recently awarded there, too.  Those pieces will be published sometime in 2013.

Yuh, I know. I don’t blame you for thinking I’m paying off Jack and Angela on the side.  Honest, all I did was send an itsy bitsy 20 kilo crate of Swiss chocolate.

 And you call that a bribe?

**

Excerpts from “Bridge to Elysium”,  (in Irreantum)

We paused in the shadows between the glow of street lamps lining the bridge. There we stood, speechless on the Pont de l’Alma, the river flowing beneath us, its inky course pulsing with a glinting pelt of silver. Its flow teased that beauty from our grip, and we felt it slipping. This, too—the thought came unbidden—will end. How many more times, we asked each other, would we be able to stand just like this; together, safe, watching the river glide noiselessly under our feet, the sublime still pearling on our spirits the way sweat beads on the upper lip?

We tiptoed across the darkened threshold of our apartment. All was well: food in fridge, water in pipes, heat in radiators. Beethoven still rang in our ears, peace hung in the air, and no detergent was in the dishwasher, which, incidentally, had never been turned on. But who’s checking?

The three younger children were long since in bed. The one in charge, eighteen-year-old Parker, was still working, facing the bluish light of the computer screen, hunched over a psychology class research project.

“Freud,” he grunted, acknowledging our parental checking-in.

I gave half a chuckle. ”Know what his names means?”

Right palm spread against his brow, Parker propped up his exhausted head.

“Uh, let’s see. Boring?”

Joy. Joy boy Sigmund Freud!  ‘Freude’ means joy. You drop the “eh” at the end.”

“Okay. And oxymoron is what that means.” (At this late hour he was visibly unimpressed with Freud.) “You drop the ‘oxy’ at the start.

Snickering, I kissed the back of my big son’s head, and whistled Beethoven as I kicked off my heels. Randall loosened his tie. We hung our coats, tossed the tickets, and went to sleep in a world that felt part Elysian Field perfection, part garden variety quotidian, but both parts a completion; a whole, overflowing with abundance. And what abundance: all six of us under one roof. All of us together. All of us. Together. In the moment, that reality felt self-evident, more the standard mental checklist than the miraculous. But as I pulled the blanket over my shoulder, that knowledge returned: This, too, will end.

**

Our last year in Paris. Sounds like a chick flick, no way befitting of the stark reality that lay in store for our family. We would never again know our family as intact, life as whole. We would never again experience the world as continual, the next hour as a given. And we would never again refer to that year as “our last year in Paris.” In one split second, it would become The Last Year.

We would bury Parker.

**

Several of Parker’s friends had traveled from their different countries of origin to the site of his [funeral] services. At one point during the viewing, I noticed that these friends were clustered in a corner. There was the Jewish French-Portuguese musician, the red-headed New England atheist, the non-denominational Iranian, the staunch Philadelphian Catholic, the Italian Buddhist, the German-American brother-sister duo from New York City whose mother had come too. They were draped on each other, holding each other up, weeping, shoulders shaking.

I broke from the reception line and, in one spontaneous gesture, took them into a circle where, with our arms around one another’s shoulders, we bowed our heads. Then I prayed. I prayed out loud that our Father in Heaven and their friend Parker would calm and guide each of them, and that God’s presence would surround them and hold them up. Just like our circle. I cannot recall in detail all that poured out of me along with my tears, but when I ended—and this I do recall in every detail—I looked them each in the eye and said, “No fear. No fear.”

A strange thing to say. Better on a skateboarder’s T-shirt than on the lips of a grief-stricken mother. But the point is this. In that moment, I clearly saw the risk of them choking with fear, of them panicking at the prospect of living in a frightening world where random things like Parker’s death happen. I saw how any one of them could easily curl up in bitterness or despair and end up like Freud himself, who grumbled, “What good to us is a long life, if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?”[i] Did I want them to end up like that? Did I, for that matter,want to end up like that?So I repeated to them (and to myself) the same message Parker’s spirit and certainly other encircling spirits had been repeating to me from the first minutes of terror: “No fear. No fear.”

**

I could not sing the word joy. It seemed a mockery to me. Joy to this world? This world whose crust is, as writes Eleanor Stump, “soaked with the tears of the suffering”? (qtd. in Morris 236). Where there are trap doors and booby traps, ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­out-of-the-clear-blue-sky terminal diagnoses, crushing train wheels, hidden whirlpools? This perilous, unpredictably violent minefield of a world where, with one step (like the fatal step of my friend’s son; like the fatal step of my own son), that which we rely on—the solid, foreseeable—vanishes right out from under our feet? No wonder C.S. Lewis wrote that grief feels so much like fear. There is a decidedlyvertiginous sensation that overtakes you when grief is most acute. It is like standing in an elevator on the 58th floor when, without warning, all the cables snap. That free falling, falling, falling.

**

“Fear not” is, as I have gradually begun to understand it, a divine injunction straight from God. The angels are directed, before anything else, to drive out fear in this trembling, suffering—and by all mortal measurements justifiably frightened—world. God Himself, whose sufferings outstrip all the accumulated sufferings of the infinitude of creation, greets us with the same words. “Fear not,” he says to Abram, Isaac, Jacob, Joshua, Daniel, Joseph, Zacharias, Simon, and scores of others (Genesis 15:1; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 46:3; Joshua 8:1; Daniel 10:12; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13; Luke 5:10). “Fear not,” whole house of Israel. “Fear not,” all humankind. More than a pep talk, more than a pat on the head, “fear not” is a warning directed at fear—an exorcism, even, as writer Kathleen Norris suggests (144). “Fear not” is God’s steely, conquering command: “Fear, be not!  Fear, be gone!”

To exorcise fear, God flushes the darkness of this world with His blazing presence. And wherever His presence is, not only can fear not remain, but confidence, peace, contentment, wholeness, strength, and light—all cousins of joy—can flourish. Does the pain of loss necessarily disappear? No. Does my yearning for my son cease? No. Not in the least. But what does happen is that alongside—or better, from within—the pain and yearning comes a sense of being lovingly upheld by God. The terrifying free fall of fear lands, just in time, in His hands. It is then, eyes squeezed tightly shut in preparation for impact, when we realize with a gasp that those hands have been only a few inches ahead of our whole, dizzying descent. Indeed, those hands have descended below all things. They bear the marks to prove it. And so, still splayed flat and panting, we slowly open our view to this pellucid truth: Yes, we really can trust God with our lives.

http://irreantum.mormonletters.org/

**

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012.  This work (text and images) 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.