Well, most of you are in the USA, and it’s early morning there, so you haven’t missed church YET. But just in case you do, or in case you’re sick, this is my gift.
I didn’t get to go to church today, so I chose my own worship service. It was great. My late father gave the sermon and taught the Gospel Doctrine class. Here is what he said. It’s the devotional he presented at Brigham Young University in 1998. In it, he mostly tells stories–after an impressive introduction by a BYU administrator. As I listen to this one hour from 1998 which was preserved via recording, I find a sharp contrast between the introduction and Dad’s actual talk. Don’t you?
The introduction lists my dad’s accomplishments, his many books, the languages he studied, the scholarly contributions he made. And it is pretty much irrelevant. It’s like other introductions I’ve heard and even received, full of citations, lists of accomplishments, names of awards. But when Dad starts talking after that pregnant intro, he speaks simply. He is the man of stories. How bold it was of him to present himself so meekly at an academic citadel! I did not immediately appreciate what he had done. My inner reaction was, “Wow, Dad. You told stories. Wow. Don’t people already know those stories, though?”
Oh, I loved his devotional, but I did not realize how powerful his talk actually was, how and why it would come back to me over and over for the next nearly twenty years. As we sat next to Dad’s hospital while he slept after some surgery, I pulled the talk up on my computer. I started it. There was Dad’s voice, captured in a computer while he slept. I was quite aware that our time with him present was limited. Unbeknownst to me, we would live through many false alarms, and he would endure for three more years. I would learn to care for him at dialysis, and would learn to recognize the signs of him fainting–though the first time was terrifying, and I yelled, “Dad? Dad? Dad?” Eventually, I didn’t yell, but called him gently back to the moment. Finally, on February 19th, 2016, he died in his sleep. I was in his home with my mother, as we had gone into twenty-four-hour care. His death, or my realizing that he had actually died, will always be vivid in my mind–the nurse beckoning me into the room with the words, “Hurry!” Her words: “There is no pulse. What do you want me to do?” My words: “We have a DNR.” There was a bit of foam on his upper lip, and we cleaned that up before going to my mother’s room and telling her. That death is one of my life’s stories.
In the weeks following it, I brought the devotional back to my computer, cherishing that voice.
Listen to him. He speaks simply, employs adjectives only as needed, uses dialogue. He is setting a scene for us, inviting our imagination. (If you don’t know how to access it, look above. Click on the word HERE and the link will be provided. On you can click on this HERE and it’ll come up. I am speaking to people my age now.)
This is what I hear, in Africa, as it becomes my worship service:
King Midas, as Dad tells it:
In a panic, Midas fell to his knees and cried out, “No! No! Oh, what have I done? God, forgive me! In my lust for gold I have destroyed my own daughter.”
Just then the immortal visitor appeared again before him.
“Midas, you are weeping. What has happened?”
“Oh, immortal visitor, I am of all men most miserable.”
“Is it that I did not keep the promise I made you?”
“No, you granted me my wish. Whatever I touch turns to gold.”
“You told me that that power would bring you happiness, but now you tell me you are of all men most miserable. How can this be?”
“Oh, I didn’t realize how evil my selfish wish was. My lust for gold has robbed me forever of happiness.”
“But, Midas, is not gold the most beautiful thing in all the world?”
“I detest the very sight of it.”
“Tell me, is not gold the most valuable thing in all the world?”
“Immortal visitor, tell me wherein gold has its value.”
“Well, surely it is more valuable than a cup of tea, is it not?”
“No. A cup of tea is of more worth than all the gold I possess.”
“Surely gold is more valuable than a piece of fruit, do you not agree?”
“No. A piece of fruit is of more worth than all the gold I possess.”
“Is gold not more valuable than a daughter’s love?”
“Oh, immortal stranger, you don’t understand. I have come to see that the common things of life: our children, our friends, even the ordinary things we see and touch every day, these are our real treasures.”
Seeing that the king’s sorrow was genuine, the immortal visitor took pity on him and said, “Would you have me remove the power I gave you, and let you restore your daughter’s life?”
“Oh, noble stranger, do this and I will give you all my gold.”
In the Congo and throughout Africa, there are many like King Midas, willing to give up everything of real worth in order to have gold or other symbols of wealth. (Of course, the gold itself is not wealth and becomes wealth only as it is so perceived.) However, they do not offer their own food, but the food of the needy. They do not turn their own children to gold, but with a mere touch of the hand, paralyze or kill the children of others. Nonetheless, the story of King Midas teaches us that such behavior cannot go unanswered. Eventually, these leaders are either defeated by one who recognizes that the children of one are the responsibility of all, or the leader himself repents. (Of course, new leaders are assaulted by the same temptations and deceptions as were those who came before. We do not know how Patrice Lumumba would have governed, since he was assassinated so soon after his rise, but we know what happened to his successor, Mobutu. He started off relatively well, honoring education and providing for university students. Within twenty years, though, some of his counselors had persuaded him that this rising class of intelligentsia would overpower him with their new understanding. Mobutu, already in the habit of killing anyone who might overthrow him, started having them executed. They had been his most favored sons, but the threat to his power and wealth overcame any loyalty to them. He was the tyrant at the top of a kleptocracy and these, his children, were metaphorically turned into gold.
Other leaders arose, but the custom of corruption was set. I once asked a former ambassador to the DR-Congo if there were any in the government who was not corrupt. It was like asking if there were any in Sodom who could be spared because of righteousness. The ambassador pondered it, and I could see him going through the names in his mind. Finally, he shook his head. “No.”
The Prodigal Son
The next story my dad tells is of the Prodigal. Again, the dialogue is simple and evocative.
Suddenly he saw the figure of a young man approaching. His heart jumped. The boy’s clothes weren’t recognizable. They were tattered and dirty. The boy was limping. His hair was long and disheveled. But the father recognized his son, and his heart filled with compassion. Johnny had come home! He ran joyously to meet his son and threw himself on his neck and kissed him. “Johnny, my son, you’ve come back!”
But the son said to his father, “Father, I have sinned against God.”
“Yes, Johnny, I know.”
“I have sinned before you, Father.”
“Yes, my son, I know.”
“Oh, I am ashamed, Father. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“Johnny, my son, my son. How terribly you must have suffered.”
The father called to his servants: “Bring clean clothes and dress my son. Put shoes on his feet. Put this ring back on his finger. Come, let us celebrate. For this my son was lost but now is found. This my son was dead but has returned to life.”
In this story, I see not the African as the one who has sought worldly diversions rather than a life aligned with God and family. I see the privileged, the elite of any culture. Because I am a Latter-day Saint, I see US Mormons as those who have often been distracted by wealth, useless or redundant conversations, gossip, and the careful ignoring of those who need what we can offer. By “what we can offer,” I go beyond the gospel as defined in missionary lessons, and directly to our actual instructions to care for the poor, the widowed, the imprisoned, the lost.
Here, I reverse some of the images, and re-frame the story:Suddenly, he saw the figure of a young man approaching. His heart jumped. The boy’s clothes weren’t recognizable. They were silk and satin. But he had no servant with him. He was walking alone, though he looked like one who would always be accompanied by “lesser” men, those who would fetch his water and his meals. The boy was limping. No surprise. Surely he was unaccustomed to walking on his feet rather than being carried in a grand carriage or chariot. His hair was wrapped in a dingy turban, which suggested the length of the journey. But the father recognized his son, and his heart filled with compassion. Johnny had come home! He ran joyously to meet his son and threw himself on his neck and kissed him. “Johnny, my son, you’ve come back!”
But the son said to his father, “Father–you don’t realize.”
“My boy. You are tired. Let’s go inside?”
“Not yet. Let’s just sit.”
And they did, on tree stumps cut for that purpose.
“Go on,” said the father.
“I’ve done a lot of things. Good things, some. I’ve followed good causes. I spoke at some rallies, and I got a little bit famous–which is what I wanted. What I thought I wanted.”
“I know, Johnny. We heard of what you were doing. You cared for many.”
“At first. Then I was only imitating it. It was my own reflection I wanted.”
“I loved seeing my face on posters.”
“It’s a good face.”
“And people asked me to sign my name. I didn’t realize how magnetic my own name could be.”
“We gave you a good name.”
“But it was your name, and I signed it as if I owned it, as if it stood without its roots.”
“That’s an easy snare.”
“Somehow, I lost track of God.”
“And that, too, is easy.”
“Here–right here, I always felt that God was nearby, watching me, comforting me, magnifying everything I did. I haven’t sensed God since I left. “
“Why do you laugh, Son?”
“It’s so strange. I have headed so many campaigns. I got rich. In the end, my efforts were small, though. When I look back on them, I see how few changes came because of anything I did. My own strength is paltry. Here, God made my every effort magnificent. I have come home to find God again.”
“You must be hungry.”
“I have sinned greatly.”
“Yes, Johnny, I know.”
“I have sinned against you. I abandoned you in my pursuit of–of everything.”
“Yes, my son, I know.”
“I am ashamed. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”
“Oh my son, how terribly you must have suffered!”
“You think of my suffering? Of course you do. That has always been your way.”
“It only matters that you are here now.”
“What would you have me do?”
“You already know that. You have already done that. You’re here. You must be thirsty.”
From inside his old home, Johnny could hear his mother sing. He had not heard that song in so many years–or had he? Wasn’t it just on the edge of his sleep every night? Wasn’t it somehow in every river and every leaf?
“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace.”
And then his mother was there, smiling. In her hands were a dipper of water and a cup.
The final story Dad tells is Joseph and his Brothers. But that one deserves its own post.