Follow by Email

Monday, October 31, 2011


There is a story of a Navy pilot who, after having his jet downed and spending 6 years in a North Vietnamese prison, met a former sailor.  The sailor smiled and told the pilot “I knew you’d be okay.  You wouldn’t be here today without me.”  Confused, the pilot said, “I’m sorry.  I don’t even know you.”    The sailor replied calmly, “That’s okay.  I knew you’d be okay because I’m the one who packed your parachute.”

I have heard the phrase “pack your own parachute” used in many different analogies.  But this story puts a different perspective on that phrase.  How many of us have had our parachutes packed by someone else – perhaps even someone we don’t know? 

In the military, parachute shrouds (ropes) must be arranged in a particular order, skillfully folded below, between, and above the silk of the chute itself, in order to open properly, and provide life-saving protection to the person wearing the parachute.  Someone with expert training and a commitment to the responsibility of doing a job exactly prepares and packs the chute for whomever another who will use it.  And in most cases, those two people don’t even know each other.

So in my own life, I wonder – who has packed my parachute?  Some I readily acknowledge: parents, family members, teachers, leaders, friends, and students.  I know I have thanked some of them; I hope all of them recognize the good influence they have been on my life.  And if there are any out there who have not yet recognized that, then thank you.  Thank you for the kindnesses you have shown me.  Thank you for the time you invested in getting to know me, in supporting me in my efforts.  Thank you for the patience you have exhibited in trying to understand me.  Thank you for the love you have extended to me through your words, and through your service to me.  You have truly arranged the shrouds and silks of my life in such order that I have been able to stay safe, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

But as I reflect, I recognize that there are many people I have encountered only fleetingly who have packed my chute as well.  I remember being on the streets of Pusan, South Korea, and watching in amazement as a young man with no legs powered himself along the sidewalk on a homemade dolly, using his leather-wrapped hands.  When I am asked for examples of persistence, his image is one of the first that comes to mind, and I am grateful for his part in packing my chute.

And more than humans have packed my chute, it seems.  There is something about the smell of wet concrete in the summer that transports me back to my childhood in Arlington, Virginia, and brings a peace that transcends memory.  The perfect combination of cloud and sunlight that creates a rainbow, the calm that follows a summer cloudburst, the sound of water trickling down the downspouts, the songs of birds as they celebrate the end of a storm, the taste of the air – the emotional markers tied to these memories are strong, perhaps stronger with each repeated sojourn.  I find myself filled with gratitude and wonder as I ponder the way this wonderful planet has packed my chute.

And how have I packed the chutes of those around me?  Not the ones I have intentionally packed, those of my children, my students, my colleagues and friends, but those whose chutes I may have packed unknowingly -  the man playing guitar at the corner with the sign, asking for money to feed his children,  the housekeeper in the motel where I recently stayed, or the cashier at the store – how careful have I been with their chutes?  What can I do to take more care in arranging their shrouds and silks?  My resolve to be more careful in all my interactions becomes more vital and more critical to my personal success when I consider that my every action becomes a part of someone else’s life.  The alternative is frightening to contemplate. 

How fragile we all are, and yet how strong!  I know that there are people in my life who had negative effects on me, and yet either their impact on my life has been washed away, or it has become an opportunity for change.  It seems as though I have chosen those who have packed my parachute.  I can only hope that the same can be said for those over whom I exercised a negative influence.  I cannot change my past, but I can choose my responses to my present circumstances, and I can create within myself a character worthy of those who have invested their responsibilities and efforts in packing my chute.  And I can work to serve those around me so that my time in packing their chutes will be well spent.

We are, after all, traversing a sky that is not just minutes long, or even years.  Our parachutes must equip us for the eternities.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Well, we have arrived!  Five days in New Zealand, and now seven in Tonga.  Both islands are exhilarating in very different ways, and we’ve had some great experiences in both places.  We know this is where we belong, this is where we’re supposed to be.  This is our new home – and it already feels like it.  Maybe that's because it feels a LOT like the military housing we lived in when we were in Japan and Korea.  Certainly looks similar, adjusting for the trees!

Our little one-bedroom missionary apartment – it might only be 400 square feet, but that means it’s quick to clean!

From Salt Lake City, we flew to Los Angeles and then boarded Air New Zealand for the thirteen-hour flight to Auckland.  We were packed in like sardines – 13 seats per row in economy, and there was actually a prompt to “raise your seat back to its upright position so that the person in back of you, because otherwise the person in back of you will have their food in their lap” – if you had space to find your lap!  But the service was nice, and the food was pretty good.  And the back of each seat had a video menu, so you could watch your own personal display.   You could check on the progress of the flight, you could listen to music, you could play video games, you could watch TV episodes or movies – all for free.  Helped pass the time between naps.

The best part of the flight, though, was the safety briefing.  It was done on the video displays, and it was done by the All Blacks, the New Zealand national rugby team (who just won the world championship – if you listen closely, you can still hear New Zealanders celebrating!).  “Don’t cinch your seat belt so closely that you can’t feel your legs” was one bit of advice, and we were warned that if we chose to smoke, we’d be dropped (from the team, hopefully, not the airplane).  Got to hear it again on the flight to Tonga, and it was fun to pay attention.  Maybe some American airlines ought to try that – but I’m afraid there’d be some rioting on board if the safety briefing out of D.C. featured the Dallas Cowboys.

Looking from the main North Island out to Rangitoto Island.

And who could get tired of this view?

New Zealand is completely built of many, many volcanic vents that rose above the ocean eons ago.  The climate varies from semi-tropical at the north to temperate in the south, and though we didn’t have much time for sightseeing, our hosts made sure we saw a few remarkable sights.  The beaches are dazzling, along with the water, and trees are far too close to the water to grow there, but they’re huge – star pines that are a hundred feet tall, deciduous trees that look like a South Pacific version of a baobab, and everywhere there are bushes that flash silver as the underside of their leaves are fluttered by the wind.  Remarkable place.

From this summit in an area called Devonport, you can see Auckland Harbor with its teal water, and miles beyond.  This is also where New Zealand placed gun batteries in WWII, to defend the harbor in case of attack.  Fortunately, the attacks never came, but the batteries are still in place.  These are our hosts and supervisors, Elder and Sister Ronnenkamp, from north of Salt Lake City.

Then there’s Auckland Harbor.  Windy, as a harbor should be.  Busy working place – we saw tugs, police boats, sailboats, ferries – everything that makes a harbor proper.  But the water was simply the wrong color.  Every other harbor I’ve been to has gray water.  This harbor’s water is teal. Impressive.

We got to Tonga late Thursday night (tried to slip us in under cover of darkness!) and were met by every single senior missionary in the mission – they all serve in the mission home or at Liahona Middle and High Schools.  They fussed over us like we were long-lost family, and I was a bit confused – until the next day, when the Tongans did the same thing.  And by the following Tuesday, I was fully immersed in the culture – a young sister missionary who had been on the same flight from New Zealand to Tonga (returning home after serving for 18 months in the Phoenix Arizona mission) showed up in our office, and we both hugged and squealed like long-lost sisters!  She came to get some help in applying to BYU-Hawaii.  I scheduled her for her English proficiency test, and joked that serving a mission in Arizona didn’t help her English any – she needs to take a Spanglish proficiency test!

 You know those paintings by Manet of all the South Pacific women with the huge flowers in their hair?  Well, those flowers are growing right outside my front door now.  The season here is spring, and the flowers are beginning to bloom, including this tree.  There are hibiscus everywhere, but the flowers get picked pretty quickly, so you’d better enjoy them while you can!  

 Look carefully at the “rock”, and you will see plant imprints 
and sea animal skeletons embedded  - it’s black coral.

Beautiful turquoise waters cover and uncover reef layers.  The Tongans have a saying:  "the reefs of today are the islands of tomorrow." Simple and profound at the same time.

Our second morning in Tonga, we had an earthquake.  It was recorded as a 7.4, but the epicenter was 544 miles south of Tonga, and we hardly felt it.  No worries, as the Kiwis (New Zealanders) would say – Tonga is not built of volcanic rock, but of coral.  The island is a coral rise.  I’ve been told that Tonga, under the water line, assumes the shape of a rectangle more than a triangle, which helps reduce the danger of tsunamis as well.  It appears that would take a lot of rocking and rolling to damage this little solid piece of real estate. 

That vertical spray is the product of teamwork 
between the coral and the waves. 

The reefs at the shore turn combers into beautiful breakers, and the water in turn creates holes in the coral, through which water rushes in as each wave comes ashore.  This produces a “blowhole”, and Tonga’s southwestern coast has blowholes for miles. I could watch this horizon for days.

We are figuring out our assignments.  Jim has already been asked by the high school principal to be a mentor, since he is still not comfortable in his position.  And teachers are asking for classes, so we’d better get to work!  First courses begin November 14!  But who could complain about work when you get this at the end of each day?

Friday, October 14, 2011


Come to the edge. 
We might fall. 

Come to the edge. 
It's too high! 

And we came, 
and they PUSHED -
And we flew.   - Christopher Logue

On October 3, we were delivered to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah.  Our luggage was handled by some generous young missionaries-in-training who stood by the curb and asked for our room number, which we had been given even before we had time to get out of the car.  We took the obligatory “We have arrived” photo, and then walked through the main classroom building, wide-eyed and clueless.  We were handed a binder with a lot of materials that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to us, and were told to be in a certain room at one o’clock for our first meeting.  Little did we know what was awaiting us – a truly overwhelming experience.

The past ten days have been maddening, wonderful, and bittersweet.   We are truly fledglings, nearly ready to leave the nest.  There have been long days filled with meetings that have challenged our thinking, stretched our estimations of our own abilities, and filled our hearts with repeated confirmations that we are doing the Lord’s work.  We are filled with hope that we can find ways to complete our assignments in a manner that will satisfy the needs of those who serve, and will please our Father in Heaven.

One of the most unexpected pleasures has been making connections with some of the other missionaries here.  We knew that we would find Marissa Hinchcliff here, sister of our son Kai’s friend Clark, but we looked for her unsuccessfully for five days.  Finally at Saturday dinner, we saw her in the cafeteria.  Both Marissa and Bea wept; their emotions simply spilled over.  Marissa said it was like seeing her own parents again, and that was a wonderful compliment.  We felt rather like she was family, also, since she has been part of Kai’s circle for so long.  And we have seen her a couple of times since; it is comforting to know that someone familiar is going through the same learning curve!

Sister Hinchcliff and her companion, with their French nametags.

But finding Marissa was not the only happy connection we made.  We have found a young sister from Alamosa, couples who know former members of our ward in Monte Vista, former members of Bea’s childhood ward in northern Virginia, couples who know our good friends the Herds in Kaysville, Utah, and couples who have simply struck chords in our hearts.   Connections like these have made our time here even more enjoyable, and have shown us how easy it is to love those we serve.

 We have had remarkable social, emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences here.  The spiritual ones have been highly personal, but here is a note we wrote to ourselves following one of those experiences:

 This note will be stuck to our refrigerator door for a long while.

Jim with two graduates of Liahona High School - class of 2009.
During our ten days here, we have seen an extraordinary outpouring of love.  And that goes for people we have gotten to know, and even some we haven’t.  We have talked with some of the young Tongan missionaries who are here for six weeks, training for their missions.  They will serve not only in Tonga, but Canada, South Carolina, the Philippines, and other places.  Their enthusiasm, their positive attitudes, and their joy at meeting us has been a magnificent experience.  

Sister Kesaia Havea and her mother-in-law, Sister Lili Havea
And learning the Tongan language has provided us a lot of amusement and entertainment.  We know we won’t ever be very good at Tongan, because we will only use it when we are away from school, which will only be on Saturdays.  But we have lived enough places to know that learning your host nation’s language is never time wasted.  We are fully aware that we have had divine help in learning to speak what little we can express.  But we have also had excellent visible help:  we have had a tutor and two native volunteers help us create phrases we want to learn, teach us some of the vocabulary we might use to introduce ourselves and use in the markets, and find out a little more about the recent history and culture of Tonga.  We have laughed every evening, as we work together to create the correct sounds and inflections – and most of the laughter is at our own mistakes!  And our final evening we got to meet Lili Havea, a past principal at Liahona Middle School.  She gave us some valuable information and important perspectives. 

We’ve done way too much walking, but my foot and Jim’s back are handling it pretty well.  Our biggest challenge has been the fact that the weather turned chilly for a few days, and we packed for the tropics!  Jim was okay in his wool suit, but I threatened to wrap myself in an extra blanket from our room!
 Our view out the parking lot.  Last snow we'll see for a couple of years!

We have been very busy; we’ve trained to work with “less active” Mormons, non-Mormons, students in the Seminary and Institute programs (religion classes), and young adults in need of help to find jobs and training for those jobs, through a program called the Perpetual Education Fund.  We’ve eaten too much (the food has been pretty good here, actually), we’ve slept too little, and we’ve hardly had time to realize how short our time in the U.S. really is.  Tomorrow we check out of here and board a plane for New Zealand, for three more days’ training there, then by Friday the 21st, we will be in Tonga, to begin our service.  Wow!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A Joyful Reunion With Friends

 This post is about Roberta/Bea.  But it is an important part of our story, so we want to tell it.

From September 30th  through October 2nd, I attended my college reunion – first time I had made it to a reunion since graduating in 1974.  I flew to Dulles Airport in northern Virginia, and then drove some of the back roads to Winchester.  The highways now bypass the little towns I remember driving through when I’d drive between home and college, when I was a student.  The drive was filled with lovely scenery, but my favorite was the Shenandoah River.  The leaves had not yet turned along the river – they were fading, but not assuming fall colors yet.  And the heavy overcast layer of clouds overhead made me sense a more intimate connection with the river.  It was hard to get back in the car and drive away.

Oh, Shenandoah, I loved hearing your rippling waters, and smelling your sweet muddy banks.  The quiet rhythms of your coursing are forever in my heart.

Shenandoah University is affiliated with the Methodist Church, and I spent four years as the only Mormon on campus.  But I never felt threatened, and I remember teaching others about my faith many times, while defending it only once.  And even then, a (no longer) unknown knight in shining armor rode to my rescue, defending my religion for me.  I have very pleasant memories of my four years here, and thanks to modern technology, I have been able to re-connect with many friends whom I met at Shenandoah.  My mind has been filled for weeks, rediscovering the sweet, funny, helpful, and even dumb things we did as students. 

As I drove onto campus, I simply had to stop and wonder at the beauty.  I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Shenandoah, but it was mostly for the people, not the campus itself.  Over the years, the leaders at Shenandoah have made some wonderful decisions, and the campus is now as beautiful as a park.

What was called “The Pit” when I was a student is now a wonderful duck pond, stocked with fish and engineered with a fountain in the center of the pond, to help aerate the water.  The building to the right in the background was where I spent most of my class time – the Conservatory building.  I got to spend some time in this building again, during the reunion.  The alumni choir rehearsed and participated in a concert here, and I got to sing next to some of my favorite friends.

I relived a scene from the movie “Hook” – remember when one of the lost boys took Peter’s face, scrunched it in his hands, and, looking carefully at his eyes, finally pronounced, “Oh, THERE you are, Peter!”  Those of us at the reunion did the same thing, and commented on learning to ignore the gray or bottle-colored hair, the differences in our bodies, but finding our long-unseen friends in our eyes.

With squeals of joy and cries of recognition, Friday night and Saturday morning rehearsals squeezed in some concentrated efforts at learning five or six pieces of music, so we could sing on our own as well as sing with a student chorus.  There was a balance of styles –  an opera chorus, a Handel piece, a fun arrangement of a sea chantey, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s arrangement of “Oh, Shenandoah”, which I am proud to say I was able to sing without weeping.  Can’t say as much for the arrangement of our Alma Mater song – once we put that song together with an amazing pianist and a total of about 100 singers, it called up some very strong emotions.  But my favorite piece was a wonderfully schmaltzy piece (of course) which took Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy from “Twelfth Night”, but instead of being a sarcastic, bitter speech, the words were edited to make it a lovely, romantic wish. 

This is Carl Harris, our alumni choir conductor, himself a Shenandoah grad.  He was was very patient and kind with us as we scrabbled to learn pieces in 3 (count them, 3) rehearsals!

I was honored at this reunion, which still amazes me.  I was chosen as the second-ever recipient of the “Service to the Community” award.  I was trained by my parents to offer service as I was able, and I’ve never thought that was anything but normal.  But the Alumni Committee still thought it worth noticing.  So I was able to invite some of my friends to come sit with me at the luncheon, and it was wonderful to have so many reminders of a happy time in my life.  Mrs. Doctor Madlon Laster, wife of Mr. Doctor Jim Laster, was willing to introduce me, and then I got an award and was able to urge those gathered to go out and serve.  Along with the pictures are my concluding remarks:

I want to share two important truths with you today.  The first is that God loves every one of His children, no matter where He has placed them.  An important corollary to that truth is that every one of his children has something to teach, and I should listen.

The second truth is that we in the United States of America are blessed beyond our recognition.  And the corollary here is that we have a responsibility, an obligation, to serve.  And when we do, we find that, more than enriching the lives of others, our own lives are enriched beyond our ability to measure.  Take the chance.  Go find someone to serve.

Shenandoah University taught me to love all kinds of music, all kinds of people, and all kinds of opportunities.  When I traveled back to our friends’ house in Salt Lake City on Sunday, October 2, I hardly needed an airline jet to fly – I could have floated!