Saturday, May 27, 2017

Seeing beyond the Terror of Our Days

This week--today--and in early Spring--and last year--and the year before last, acts of terrorism have shaken my soul, and they have shaken your soul. There are faces I cannot bear to see, and yet I must mourn them, even when I mourn on the run, in the car, while I read or buy groceries. (Then, in the long nights, we start to think and read news stories about those who might have lived, might have escaped, and did not.) They are not strangers. Coptic children are no strangers to a student of ancient Egypt who has engaged both Sahidic and Bohairic--earth's most delightful dialects--or attended Easter services in a Coptic Church. Copts are no strangers to any Christian. Of the children of Manchester, the Hebrides, I cannot even speak. I mutter in disbelief. Of the brother from Ogden killed in March near the Houses of Parliament, a member of my own Faith, I cannot even think. His wife, also seriously wounded, is interviewed. I turn instantly from the television screen, and then turn back, and tough it out with the heart. The missionaries in Belgium, somehow they were spared the worst. . . But I recall missionaries who lost their lives in Peru's crucible of terror. Now, years later, I can read about all that a little bit--if I must.

And then there is Paris. People complain, often and loudly, about the outcry over terrorist acts in France, the tricolor postings, and the relatively silence over attacks elsewhere. I would like to speak to this. I would like to explain why I almost instinctively turn to Radio France and listen to the news deep into the night. I would like to explain why I had to photograph the French flags on Temple Square or listen to the Marseillaise. I would like to explain the pain I feel for France--but there is no clean cut explanation. Paris, indeed all of France, all of Western Europe, represents that trembling flame of freedom. "I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue." That flame speaks very deeply to the human spirit, it's in every film about freedom and liberty I've ever seen, and I cannot help that. I bear the name of my father's older brother, who sacrificed his life for the liberation of Europe. I also shudder to remember the student from Cal State Long Beach killed in Paris--I simply couldn't bear the thought--and those killed in Riverside. I'm Californian. 

 I remember tonight the counsel my father gave family members on the very day of 9/11 and in the days that followed; I also remember the counsel of President James E. Faust about not fearing the terrorists, quoting Jesus: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul"; I recall how the Prophet Joseph repeated these words to his friends on the road to Carthage, as men on horseback approached the little group; I cherish the counsel on setting aside fear, lately given in Conference by President Uchtdorf; and I'll never forget the talk given by President Gordon B. Hinckley two days before 9/11--how I hung on every word he said.

 I think we will soon see the day—and we are here already—when the attacks by terrorists will be like the popping of popcorn, continuous, startling, explosive. We’ll call it World War III, talk of the end of the world, wonder how we can go on. And yet, it will be as Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “cloud cover,” and not yet “general darkness.” This beloved apostle urged us to see our future thus. Without such counsel, I wouldn't know how to discern the signs of the times, of today's moments. I recall prayer after prayer for Elder Maxwell, for the hope to hear just one or two more encouraging, or even chastening, sermons. We needed his voice then, and we need it now.

It’s now a War, and even though it has been a War for some time, and wars within wars, it's all really War now, and there will be times of battle, as in all wars—and occasional pauses—and it may last some years. More civilians than soldiers will die--and children. It's sobering to look over the list of cities hit; I stopped listening to Radio France. 

The wise will hold on their way, not fear. Such signs are of those of the fig tree, "a desolating sickness"--I can't read news stories about superbugs or killer strains without inner panic--"earthquakes," and of the time when men "will take up the sword, one against another, and they will kill one another." Jesus tells us in the 45th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants of how His disciples in Jerusalem "were troubled" when He said those very last words to them. 

"And now, when I the Lord had spoken these words unto my disciples, they were troubled. And I said unto them: Be not troubled, for, when all these things shall come to pass, ye may know that the promises which have been made unto you shall be fulfilled. " Jesus then said that "the light shall begin to break forth"; He confirmed them in hope. 

It seems passing strange that disciples of so long ago would be so very troubled about things so commonplace in this world of sorrows, men killing men with swords, especially things of prophecy, things yet to be. We cannot know what they were asked to know and to feel--and yet Jesus is sharing all this with Joseph Smith, and with all of us. They got the word anyhow--and it hit them to the core. The weight of every news report in the world somehow bore on their collective shoulders. They sensed something of being orphaned. It must have been a long moment, a moment when they looked at Jesus, turned pale, looked down.Then Jesus promptly responded Be not troubled and spoke of promises, of dawn.

I do not wish to say that we mustn’t mourn. Many of these events hit me right to the core. Some come as a glancing blow. All stop me in my tracks. I sorrowed over the events of the last week. And I plan to mourn again--and again after that, if need be. We refuse to become jaded. But we may also toughen heart and soul in such a way that our joys remain--and remain undisturbed at core, and their expression likewise undisturbed, and even buoyant and cheerful. We are invited to take on the toughness of a time of war, but this can nevertheless be a toughness that yet radiates hope and gospel joy, even a gospel joy that translates to the smiles and gracious ways of everyday life. We remember recent teachings of Russell M. Nelson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, about our needing that kind of joy to see us through our lives more than we need anything else ("Joy and Spiritual Survival," Conference Report, October 2016). 

We can laugh too, and celebrate music and nature and novels, and pursue adventure—though we will do well to put aside lightmindedness and idle practices. Those are things mature men and women should cut out of their lives anyhow. Instead, in our own circles, we can all be builders. Today I read the words of President Thomas S. Monson in the June 2017 First Presidency Message. In a "word" he shares with us right now, he reassures us that we may still lay hold of the promise he gave us in his first year of prophetic leadership: "The future will be as bright as your faith."

These are my thoughts, and it would seem that despite the heroic, even amazing, efforts of governments to see us all through, that startling terrorist attacks will still continue, like the popping of popcorn, everywhere. It will strike places hitherto seen as safe, secure. It is now—and it will yet be--with occasional seasons of intensity. And then, on top of everything, like cloud cumulus, or cloud worse, there's North Korea. For me, that spells "general darkness," but I will hold fast to the counsel of Elder Maxwell and not mistake "local cloud cover" for the end of the world. For these times we were born, though it seems as though the whole earth, all nations, will be shaken by the actions of a relatively small group of angry men and women. 

Many members of the Church teased--and yet tease--President Ezra Taft Benson about being overly concerned about Communism in the late 20th century; the teasing, though, becomes surprising when one reads that during the last century, and according to a study made by European socialists, Communist governments were responsible for the deaths of at least 103 million of their own citizens (see David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom). But I recall what was perhaps the last talk this modern Prophet gave in General Conference: He spoke of a group, as prophesied in the Book of Mormon, that would seek to overthrow the freedom of every land and people. I don't recall him naming names. No matter: We are living in the middle of what he was speaking of. Those 103 million are now dead. Communism came, killed, and went. Two World Wars came and went. Vietnam. Korea--well, it came to stay. So we start again, and President Benson left future generations with a new, as yet unnamed, unarmed foe. And we always start again because every time the terrorists attack (which network this time?) it feels like the beginning all over again. It feels like 9/11 or 77, but it is the middle. Yes, Manchester seemed like the beginning of it all again. I didn't sense that I was any tougher in heart or soul anyway.

One would think I was used to it all. Even before, and long before, 9/11 terror filled our television screens with regular visits. As a missionary in Peru, I lived in the middle of a war on terror, often a war of both-sides-enemy, though far from the epicenter. Terrorists struck, and down went electric lines along hundreds of miles of coast. We stumbled along in the night, a very dark Christmas Eve, I think it was, rumors everywhere. Once, a young friend said she slept through her English class, only to hear that a bomb had struck the school. You walked along, glanced at a random building, and just another day of automatic weapons leveled either at or just beyond you==you could never be quite sure how it was because there were moments. . . And, then, there was unthinkable poverty on all sides. Americans don't know.

I think often of late of the decades of terror in Peru. I've been reading. The books sicken me; they stun me. They hit somewhere between memory and unbelief. It just couldn't have been that way--just a year or two ago--and yet it was.

The cloud cover has now dispersed. Where there was a continuous rain of death and destruction throughout the mountains and valleys of Peru's interior regions, I now note hope and luxuriant growth, despite the unrelenting poverty. Those killed by terrorists are now honored by municipalities once cowed by terror. A few weeks ago photographs of such a memorial was placed in my hands: a nun who refused to stop giving to the poor, and therefore martyred by the Shining Path, was honored with a marker and with a school bearing her name. Books and memories mirror the whole for me in ways I cannot explain. There is an intensely gripping new world of music and dance, in both Quechua and Aymara, that Peru has never seen before. A whole nation appears to rise from the ashes of conquest. The same thing now unfolds in Guatemala. Never has the dawn shined brighter in the Americas. And, as the Book of Mormon prophesies, the light of day will shine brighter and brighter far.

And what of the Middle East? Though I know little, I teach classes about her history and culture. Books about deserts, oil, Islam, and the medieval palaces of Baghdad, surround me; languages intrigue me. Arabs and Persians walk and talk with a grace and a goodness that I've never seen in any other people. So, too, I today know very personally many dozens of young people who hail from Africa, refugees from war, genocide, camps. Even as we brace for the news about the most devastating famines ever to hit the world in modern times, there is one word to embrace all these dozens today: Hope. I always remember what Moroni taught: "Man must hope." We must hope, but how? Impossible! I will refuse to be comforted. Then Jesus quickly responded Be not troubled. They raised their eyes from the ground and met His gaze. He then spoke of promises and of a new and clearer dawn.

Then we may say, in the words of a modern disciple, prophet, seer, and apostle:  

"Even when the armaments of war ring out in deathly serenade and darkness and hatred reign in the hearts of some, there stands immovable, reassuring, comforting, and with great outreaching love the quiet figure of the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world"
(President Gordon B. Hinckley, Conference Report, April 2003).

Our future is as bright as our faith.

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