A fixed point

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Afternoon Session from the October 1973 Conference.

I ran into some back-and-forth this week about various purported selfishnesses in a religious life. For example, the "selfishness" of having children, from an earnest fellow urging people to hold back for the sake of the planet. He says that children are "negative externalities" (i.e. costs suffered by third parties): 
We as parents, we as family members, we get the good. And the world, the community, pays the cost.
Also, of course, there's the "religious people only care about the next world, so they don't bother doing good in this one" myth.

Similarly, as this post discusses, many people allege the "selfishness" of various types of self-reliance or variance from the social norms. For example:
…I want to applaud parents for taking responsibility for educating their own children, but I’m concerned it stems from a deep-seated selfishness. Do the new home schoolers care about other children? About the legions of children who didn’t fare as well as their own in the lottery of life?…They’re not saying we want this society, this economy, and this democracy to thrive. I suspect what they want is for their five or six children to have an upperhand [sic] in the inevitable survival of the fittest competition that awaits them.
I read things like this and feel discouraged at the way even well-meaning people can so fundamentally fail to understand the most basic of economic principles! But, without getting into the political thickets here (since one could argue I have rather a vested interest), I was mostly struck by how easy it is to get confused about what "selfishness" really is, when one lacks knowledge about what Christianity really is: a plan to become like God by sharing in His work—by helping save each other. Selfishness does not come from holding on to principles like home and family and God. Selfishness comes from letting go of those things and trying to make sense of the world without them! It's as if someone were trying to draw a perfect circle with a compass, but refused to pin in the center needle as a pivot point. Without the anchor of a center point, the lines of the circle will waver, and the circle will never be complete. God's principles of truth are that fixed point around which all other goodness can extend.

I thought several quotes from the October 1973 General Conference reinforced this clarifying perspective. Why are we given positions of responsibility (in families or in the church)? To satisfy our selfish desires for power? Of course not:
A man needs the responsibility of a wife and family. He needs the responsibility of being an example of righteousness. There is wisdom in this requirement. This kind of gentle persuasion is needed to keep a father “on course” and gently guide him toward perfection. ("The Role of Fathers," Elder A. Theodore Tuttle)
Why do we try to live our religion and share it with our neighbors? To shame them and "other" them? To selfishly seek rewards in eternity? Of course not:
Let me say, my brothers and sisters, that if we want to save individuals, to save the souls of our Father’s children, we must be willing to get involved and to help others get involved in meaningful ways also. 
Some of those who are calling out for help are confused and disturbed by this complex, somewhat contradictory world in which we live, a world that has many crosswinds and crosscurrents, and even some eddies and whirlpools that can entrap and destroy. Let us remember that. Many of these people are yearning for the inner peace and joy that really can come only through love of God and love of fellowmen and from keeping God’s commandments. ("Which Way to Shore," Elder William H. Bennett)
And why do we have children? To selfishly make our lives easier or to seek immortality through our DNA? Of course not:
The Lord…has given us this miraculous power of procreation where we can create children in God’s own image and share with them the tremendous blessings of life itself. Then during our family home evenings we may share with them the great treasures of the gospel of salvation. And through the missionary program we can share the blessings of eternal life with all of our friends and neighbors. God has promised us that if we will effectively be his messengers he will share his fortune with both those who give it and those who receive it. ("A Fortune to Share," Elder Sterling W. Sill)
Everything in the gospel leads us away from selfishness. That is not to say that we as Christians are always unselfish; of course we are. We do things for the wrong reasons. We fail to live up to our ideals. But our imperfections don't change the fact that our religion is one of the few things in this world that attempts to lead us away from selfishness, and succeeds! To the extent we DO learn to live selflessly, we owe that to the teachings of the gospel, and to the extent we DON'T, it's because we've not absorbed what Jesus is trying to teach us.

Love of Christ leads us to give everything: our time, our talents, all that we possess. And to give all that—to whom? Not to Him, or to our Heavenly Parents, who already have everything anyway. But to the furtherance of Their plan, which is to say: to helping our brothers and sisters. To saving God's children. That is the sole aim of the Christian life.

Much socio-political thinking would have us believe that caring deeply for our own—whether that be our own property, our own families, our own children—is anti-social. But that view has it backwards. Caring for our own is necessary practice. We learn skills, principles, habits of love as we tend our personal little gardens. And it is through this work that we learn to extend the very idea of "our own"—and realize that the concept of my family, my neighbor is something more vast and more grand than a human mind can even grasp. Commitment to religion is not sinkhole, but mainstay. It is the needle point of the compass. Christ. Family. Home. The center there must hold, strong enough to anchor us as we stretch and circle ever outward, ever further, in God's work.

Other posts in this series:

Rome: In Which I Use the Word "Statuary"

We signed up for a tour of the Vatican Museums with one of those groups that gets in early so you don't have to wait in line, and even though Sam and I generally like to do things on our own, we were SO glad to have a guide in these museums. There is so much to see that no matter how amazing everything is, your eyes start to glaze over after awhile, and our tour guide helped us know what we should focus on—and (maybe more importantly) what to pass by quickly!

We got there quite early in the morning, so Sam and I wandered around the empty St. Peter's square for awhile, waiting for our tour to start. It's so enormous you can't even capture it in a photo! I remember learning about this square (designed by Bernini) when we studied architecture in school. It's amazing to have all these famous things all crowded together: Bernini's piazza, Maderno's facade, Raphael's architectural plans, Michelangelo's dome—not to mention all the amazing things inside the Basilica!
The piazza is surrounded by two beautiful arched colonnades, like two arms reaching out to hug someone—or as Bernini said, to "give an open-armed, maternal welcome to all Catholics, confirming their faith; to heretics, reconciling them with the Church; and to the infidels, enlightening them about the true faith." Not sure if I would count as a "heretic" to Bernini or not, but they are lovely, welcoming arms all the same.

Once we got inside Vatican City, we zipped through several long corridors (pausing only to admire an unwrapped mummy in the Egyptian section—very interesting) so we could enjoy the Sistine Chapel in relative seclusion before it became packed wall-to-wall with people. The Sistine Chapel, of course, is what everyone has heard of and what everyone comes to see, so I was prepared to be disappointed by it. You can't take pictures inside the chapel (interesting backstory here), but just for reference, it looks like this:
Image from Wikipedia
I knew this was the place with the painted ceiling done by Michelangelo, and the picture of God touching Adam's finger, but I didn't know (or had forgotten) that there were so many other panels showing so many other scenes and people! Our guide had gone over it while we were waiting to get into the Vatican, so we knew mostly what we'd be seeing.

Grace to Grace

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Saturday Morning Session from the October 1973 Conference.
In his talk "Think on These Things," Bruce R. McConkie quoted a scripture I hadn't noticed before. It's from Isaiah, setting forth what things will help us attain eternal life, and one of the characteristics listed is "he that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil.”

The meaning is a little obscure. It can't mean we are supposed to ignore evil, can it? Or pretend it doesn't exist? Here's how Elder McConkie interprets it:
That is, we must not center our attention on evil and wickedness. We must cease to find fault and look for good in government and in the world. We must take an affirmative, wholesome approach to all things.
I've thought about that this week, wondering how that counsel still applies. If he were talking about church leaders I could understand. But can he really mean we should "cease to find fault" with the government? And would he still advise that today? 

I don't know. But if I take the whole paragraph together, I can see the wisdom in looking for good anywhere we can find it. In being optimistic and refocusing, and making sure the evil in the world doesn't consume our attention. Not that we deny it or ignore it. But merely that we not place it at the center of our view.

Because, objectively, the goodness of God really is the central truth of the universe, isn't it? Whether we see it or not? And the more accurately we learn to see reality, the more fully we WILL see that truth?

I have been thinking lately of the difficulty of life. So many hard things to go through, even in a life full of blessings and ease. So many heartaches; so much loneliness; so much hard, painful struggle. Internal and external suffering. It's easy to be glib about how universal hardship is, but when you feel that ache in your soul, it's your reality. Often the worst part of suffering is looking ahead and realizing, "I will never feel better."

And yet, that's untrue. Or, it's only true in one sense. Yes, there are some trials that never leave us. Chronic illness, the weight of love and pain for our children, loss, uncertainty, self-doubt. In times of despair, these things stretch out ahead of us like bleak oceans of suffering, apparently endless. But it occurred to me that that view doesn't capture the day-to-day reality. I'm not even talking about eternal perspective here! Because of course in the eternal perspective, there IS an end, and we have faith that God will wipe away all tears. But even in the here and now, even in the very crush of heartache, life is not usually experienced as a bleak unbroken sea of grief. There are stepping stones of respite along the way. There's the ordinance of the sacrament, every week. A phone call or an email that makes you laugh. A meal that tastes unexpectedly delicious. A peaceful drive. A beautiful lightning storm. Those things keep happening, no matter how dark the trial we face! We go to a meeting and feel the spirit and it comforts us. We stop worrying for an hour or two while reading a good book. The endlessness of sorrow is an illusion we create for ourselves, and the uniformity of that illusion is sometimes what causes us more concern than the actual, unfolding, piecemeal reality of life.

I'm not trying to minimize the all-encompassing feeling trials often bring. And certainly, the ache of a death or a loss may never fully leave us—but that doesn't change the fact that happy days come, and joyful moments unfold unexpectedly, and KEEP unfolding, often far more frequently than our own internal vision would have us believe. When Sam and I were having marriage trouble some years ago, I would wake up feeling sick, dreading to face another day. And yet even THEN, goodness would make its way in and surprise me—somewhere interesting to go, a kind word from someone, some tender mercy from the Lord. It was only in some hypothetical (and, if I had only known it, FALSE) future that there was no goodness, no respite, no hope. But in the reality of the present, hope kept finding its way through.

And that's what I think Elder McConkie means when he says, 
If we are going to work out our salvation, we must rejoice in the Lord. We must ponder his truths in our hearts. We must rivet our attention and interests upon him and his goodness to us.
You know what that Isaiah scripture says next, after describing the person who "shutteth his eyes from seeing evil"? It says "his waters shall be sure." It makes me think, those scary waters will be around us—but we'll have a sure path through them, like Jesus did when he walked on the water. Because, like Peter, we're bravely, if shakily, trying to come to Him.

I don't know if this is really what it means in context, but the phrase "grace to grace" keeps coming to mind. I feel like we can go through our trials like that, from grace to grace to grace. From blessing to blessing to blessing, like stepping stones across deep water, knowing the water is all around, but also knowing there will always be another place to land and rest, safe for a moment before going on.

I tend to look ahead and conjure up a vision of vast troubles, an ocean of everything I'm most worried about right now, plus more. In my low moments I'll think, "this is awful! And this isn't even as bad as it's going to get! It will probably just get worse and worse, not to mention all the bad things that are going to happen that I don't even know about yet! And if I'm feeling so bad NOW, just imagine how bad I'll feel then!" But what a silly thing to do! It is "riveting my attention" on entirely the wrong things. That vision completely leaves out the things that get better, and the things that disappear altogether, and the innumerable moments of happiness and goodness, and the silliness and surprises and laughter, and the personal growth that will make me better able to cope with the things that DO persist. Instead, I should always be looking for the next good thing—and there will always and forever BE a next good thing, because that's the universal truth of a merciful God. Why not step on that more sure path, from grace to grace rather than from fear to fear?

Other posts in this series:

Rome: the Hidden Places

One of my favorite things in Rome (and Orvieto, the other city we visited) was finding little hidden, secluded areas that were tucked away inside buildings or behind doors. There were some similar places I loved in Berlin—courtyards only visible from the inside of buildings which, from the front, appeared forbidding and impenetrable. I guess this love of the hidden places is nothing unique to me: it's the attraction of the secret garden or the little turret window or the turning bookshelf-door in the library of an old house. I'm sure Sam has a Design Principle name for this attraction, for the innate appeal of a path that leads our eye and makes us want to follow it into the forest. And maybe it's nothing unique to Rome either; maybe every city has its hidden gardens and quiet courtyards, places the casual visitor never sees. But maybe because I had so much time in Rome to just wander, off the usual tourist track (though I did the tourist track TOO, and loved it), I felt like I caught more glimpses of these spots, and found myself more intrigued by them, than I have in other cities.
To start with, there were the doors themselves. So many of them, and with such varied appearance. This sort of imposing double door was everywhere, and made it seem like the most ordinary sort of apartment building might hide the most wonderful treasure inside.
Then there were the rooftop gardens. Everywhere we went, we noticed lit gardens and terraces on top of  buildings. Again, this is probably something you'd find in any big city (and so would likely be unremarkable to a New Yorker), but it just made me feel WILD with curiosity! Who lives up there? What kind of parties are they having out on their terraces? What are their lives like and what are they seeing up there, looking out across the rooftops? We did get to see one—we got to go up to someone's top-floor apartment for a cooking class we took—and I loved it, but it just made me want so much to see MORE!
View of other terraces and balconies, from a rooftop terrace. That golden sun on those iron arches!


Rome: I begin to love it

I felt almost apologetic when I realized this trip to Rome was really going to happen and I had to start mentioning it to people. I already felt like it was too much good fortune for any normal person when I got to go to London and Berlin in April, and now here we were jaunting off across the world again only a few months later! Sam had been asked to teach a class way back at the beginning of the year, but then it looked like it wouldn't go through, and I was pretty sure I couldn't leave the kids again, and—well, maybe the details are boring, but anyway the stars and the babysitters aligned, and suddenly (just as we were getting home from Yellowstone!) we had one week to get ready and go! The preparation (for me) was a jumble of laundry, and sleeplessness, and losing things, and forgetting things and remembering them at the last minute. And Sam was just frantically trying to prepare twenty-one hours' worth of class material. But finally we were on the plane and then we were flying over the Alps!—and realizing we were truly going to Italy. 

There was a bit of uncertainty and grumpiness that first day, I'm sorry to say (speaking in the passive voice so as not to assign blame to anyone in particular)—probably a combination of worry for the kids, and lack of sleep, and abject terror induced by the taxi ride from the airport (which was actually kind of fun, looking back on it—darting forays down crowded, one-way streets; and wholesale ignoring of traffic lights; and squeezing with complete abandon through impossibly tight alleys). We emerged from the taxi feeling dazed and hot and foreign, and after dropping off our suitcases, wandered around in the Borghese Gardens in a dutiful effort to stay awake till nighttime.
Everything was SO dry. The grasses were dead and the trees were brittle, and there were strange insects screeching above big bare patches of earth. It couldn't have been more different from Hyde Park or the Tiergarten if it had been on Mars!

And then there was the garbage…everywhere! Piles of it overflowing from dumpsters and spilling off of street corners, heaped up in ditches and cascading down gutters. It smelled so bad you could actually taste it, and there were little flies rising up in clouds from oozing bags and overturned cans.

But then, on the way from the airport, there had been a glimpse of THIS…:
And (if you could tear your eyes away from the acres of garbage), there were whole streets lined with flowering trees, like THIS:

Walk in newness

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Afternoon Session from the October 1973 Conference.
Five short sentences that stuck out from Elder ElRay Christiansen's talk, "There is Need for Repentance:"
Without the blessed privilege of repentance, we would have but little incentive to improve our lives. 
Repentance isn’t easy. It takes ability. It takes self-discipline and humility. 
Repentance is not a negative teaching, but rather it is a positive process of building good character.
"It takes ability." That made me think. Repentance is a skill? It takes practice? You can improve at it? Apparently so. Maybe we gain improved "ability" for repentance as we become more sensitive to what we need to repent of? Or maybe as we learn to do it more quickly after having sinned?

If someone were to have asked me, "How do you build good character?" I would probably not have answered "By becoming good at repenting." And yet, how else? You could say, "By doing good things," but that alone won't be enough. The change of heart we need comes through repentance, and realizing that our good is never good enough. Repentance means accepting Christ and our need for Him. That's kind of a new and upside-down way to think about it for me, since I'm usually looking at it from the "I need to be better and make fewer mistakes" end. Maybe instead I should think, "I need to more quickly repent and turn to God after my mistakes!"

There's a scripture in Romans I like. It says, 
Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
I've wondered about that phrase "WALK IN newness of life." It implies a perpetual state. I can understand having a rebirth. Being baptized, gaining a "new life," being born again. That makes sense. But to be continually renewed, to actually maintain that "newness," seems a different and more mysterious thing altogether. It seems like a contradiction. Newness is, by definition, something not the same as what came before! So how can we have it all the time? How can I, being over age eight and therefore no longer innocent, MAINTAIN the newness of life I achieved at baptism?

The answer seems obvious in this context, of course. By repentance. Continual, renewing repentance. The only way to not just obtain a spiritual rebirth once, but walk all the way back to God in that same purified state. 

I read these words from C.S. Lewis recently:
Before I became a Christian I do not think I fully realized that one's life, after conversion, would inevitably consist in doing most of the same things one had been doing before: one hopes, in a new spirit, but still the same things.
It struck me as so true. One's conversion does not change one's day-to-day life, not the drudgery of it. Things do not become suddenly grand and heroic. Many of us are blessed to have transcendent experiences from time to time, but as Elder Holland talked about in the most recent conference, we inevitably come down from those heights and have to trudge through our same old furrows. So as Elder Christiansen says, it is the "blessed privilege" of repentance that gives us hope even as we anticipate our repeated failures! It is repentance that constantly allows us that "new spirit" as we go through life doing the same, mundane, mortal things.

Anyone can have newness of life, with a little spurt of spiritual energy.

But only the skilled "repenter" can walk in that newness, all life long.

Other posts in this series:

Random Thoughts, These Days Edition

• Little Goldie is just about the sunniest little child I've ever met, which is saying something. She pops up out of bed early and happy, and when I go to bed at night I often peek into her room and see her bright little eyes still smiling out at me long after everyone else has fallen asleep.

• Every time I start going down stairs, Goldie drops whatever she's doing and comes racing toward me, calling "Don't go down yet! Don't go down yet! Can I hold your hand?" She doesn't even want to GO downstairs, particularly, but she just wants desperately to hold my hand. Sometimes if I go down without her (which I do when I'm intending to come right back up—hoping she won't notice) I will hear her just sobbing softly to herself upstairs. I have to go up again and come down holding her hand to make it right again.

• Often lately, I'll think at night when reviewing my day, "Well, it wasn't too great of a day and I was pretty impatient and frustrated at times, but tonight was better and I think I actually did pretty well for the…last few hours…when…no one except me was awake…"

• At the car place there was a poster with the following headings:
How's your timing?
Cooling problems have you steamed?
How are your curves?
Fuel costs got you down?
How's your brake fluid?
I felt bad for poor "How's your brake fluid," consigned to prosaic literality. Also, it seems like that would be one of the easier phrases to pun on. How about, "Need a break from your brake fluid?" Or maybe, "Breaking up from your brake fluid?" "Broken-hearted about break fluid?"
• "Why are you wearing those, Goldie?"
"So I will look PWETTY!"



This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Morning Session from the October 1973 Conference.
The children and I have been studying geology, which means rocks all over the house and rivers all over the yard. Seb and Malachi carved the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone along the side of the house, pouring buckets of water down the channel over and over, shoring up Upper and and Lower Falls with rocks so they wouldn't collapse, and creating huge deltas of mud and silt which fan out into the lawn for Abe to complain about when he mows.

They were insatiably curious about the Continental Divide, when we visited Yellowstone in June. "But how does the water know where to go?" Seb kept insisting. "It's way too coincidental for it to just happen to fall to either side in this exact spot!"

"It's not coincidence," I kept trying to explain. "The fact of the water going that way is WHY the divide is here. The water doesn't know, but it just goes downhill, wherever that is, and WE came by later on and traced the line and named it." 

And so I found it interesting to read Elder Packer's words about thoughts: 
I have come to know that thoughts, like water, will stay on course if we make a place for them to go. Otherwise our thoughts follow the course of least resistance, always seeking the lower levels.
He goes on to talk about singing a hymn to drive out unworthy thoughts, advice which I've heard quoted often, but my thoughts (following the path of least resistance, I suppose, ha ha) took a different direction this time. I thought about how hard it is to give my thoughts any channel at all these days. There is so much to keep track of, and I'm so frantically trying to stay afloat. I feel consumed with needs and desires for God's help in my life, but often when I finally get a free moment to sit down and pray or reflect, my mind is too chaotic for me to even remember what it is I wanted to ask. My thoughts spin in circles and I feel like I'm not even making progress on all the questions I half-form as I read or study.

When I was in college I used to love to "save something up" to think about at bedtime. Maybe I'd learn about a new symbol in New Testament class, or I'd have a sudden insight about how something was like something else, or I'd notice something about myself I'd never noticed before—and I'd hold those thoughts closely in my heart, waiting for the quiet of night, and look forward to spinning them out, writing poems or essays in my mind as I lay in bed. I'd fall asleep thinking and wondering and feeling secretly that I was figuring all the world out.

That sort of contemplation feels largely out of reach for me now. I miss it, but I'm too tired, mentally and physically, to summon it up. If I'm in a quiet place, there's a good chance I'm falling asleep—and if it's not quiet, my thoughts are scattered across the thousand things clamoring for attention. And yet I still have so many questions about the world, and more than ever I feel a need for revelation and enlightenment in my life! I have so often resorted to jotting down something briefly, or trying to make a mental note—"Faith and commandments. Need to think about." 

I realized how often I'm "saving these thoughts up" to think about when it's quiet, when I'm calm, when there's not something urgent to address. For a better time.

And then I read this quote by C.S. Lewis, about learning in war time:
If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. 
If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favourable conditions never come.
And I thought of Elder Packer's water channels, and realized that I don't have the luxury of silence and an unruffled mind, but I can still give direction to my thoughts. I just need to predetermine what channels I want them to flow into, so I don't end up spinning around in aimless circles, never moving forward. I've been doing it already a little, without really meaning to, as I've been reading these old conference sessions. I read the talks all week and I have certain topics on my mind, and when I come up against some new idea in my reading or conversation, my mind often automatically sends it into the channels I've already been traveling, channels laid down by the talks I read that week. It's helped me feel like I can actually follow a thought through to its conclusion (or at least a conclusion), which is very satisfying. The same process often naturally occurs when I have a decision to make or a problem to solve.

I think now that I'm conscious of it, though, I could even do more with this. Maybe during the week I could formulate an actual question during my scripture time, and try to carve it deeply enough into my memory that it leaves an impression. It would probably help to write it down, too. Then during the sacrament, for example, when my mind is usually so prone to wandering, I could send my thoughts into that channel rather than just letting them roam free. It would have to be a very simple and direct question (or maybe just a topic?), but I think it would work. I can envision this being helpful for the temple, as well—having some "channel" already set down that I'm planning to think about, and seeing how the words of the temple ceremony strike me as I let them flow down it.

Other posts in this series:

Yellowstone: Views and Flowers

I've saved my favorite part of Yellowstone for last. Wait, did I already name a favorite part? Well, this has to tie with it, at least! :) I was awestruck by how many beautiful, pristine forests and vast meadows there were in Yellowstone, and best of all the views from high on the mountains. I think I was just surprised at how much wilderness there was, and the beauty of it. I knew we'd love the thermal features. But I wasn't expecting the views!
The valleys around the Madison River as you drive in from the west are really beautiful. I love that wide, slow-moving river with the trees crowding both sides!

Yellowstone: Mammoth Hot Springs

I said Norris Geyser Basin was otherworldly? So was Mammoth Hot Springs! How on earth did the right conditions for these colorful travertine terraces manage to align all in one area? It's incredible. 

The bright white stepped areas are where the hot spring has stopped trickling down or changed course. In the areas where the water is still flowing, there are bright orange and yellow colors from the bacteria and archaea in the water. The signs said that Mammoth Hot Springs aren't "drying up" (lots of people see the parts where there's no water flowing anymore and assume they are), but they change course and the water level varies from season to season. I like seeing the contrasts between the wet and dry terraces!
This is one of those places where I couldn't stop thinking about fractals. As you looked closer, you could see steps and terraces in even these tiny ripples!

Yellowstone: Grand

Before we went to Yellowstone, Sam taught us about some of the great landscape painters of the Hudson River School, including his favorite, Albert Bierstadt, and of course Thomas Moran. Moran painted gorgeous pictures of Yellowstone when he explored it with the Hayden Expedition. You've probably seen his famous picture of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone:
(picture from here)
I love it! And you can see practically this same view now, from the spot in Yellowstone called "Artist's Point." The picture is so stunning, and yet the actual view is even more stunning!
You can see the magnificent Lower Falls from Artist's Point. It's so enormous! And beautiful!
Goldie loves her Daddy.

Yellowstone: Obsidian Cliff

We had read about Yellowstone's Obsidian Cliff a few times when learning about rocks and geology, so we were all anxious to see it. But it seems like it's not really an "encouraged" place to go anymore! It's by the side of a road where you can't walk easily, and the informational sign has a very scolding tone about how many people have taken obsidian from the cliff and ruined it for everyone. (For the record: I think it's sad too. But I'm weary of didacticism and lecturing in public spaces. I suppose maybe it works and makes people want to forsake their sins and joyfully obey…but I doubt it.) You aren't supposed to climb on the cliff itself, so we didn't.
There was such a beautiful meadow across the road from the cliff. You could see big chunks of obsidian that I guess had been blown out of the volcano. As you probably know, obsidian is formed from lava that cools so quickly, it doesn't have time to form crystals, so it's smooth and glassy. We've been to places in Utah where you can find small pieces of obsidian, but it's amazing to see whole boulders of this, let alone a WHOLE CLIFF made of it!

Yellowstone: Midway Geyser Basin

The Midway Geyser Basin is where you can see the Grand Prismatic Spring, which I'm sure you've seen pictures of before—it's an enormous hot spring, with absolutely amazing colors from the heat-loving bacteria and archaea that live along the edges! Sebastian was particularly excited about seeing this spring, which he called affectionately "the GPS." :)

Driving into the basin, there was steam coming up everywhere! I loved this about Yellowstone. It just never felt like a drive through a normal countryside. You couldn't forget that you were somewhere strange and amazing!

This was a nice geyser, "Flood Geyser," that we saw erupting just off the road. It was especially pretty against the backdrop of those rolling, wooded hills!
From Flood Geyser you could look up toward the Grand Prismatic Spring. Look how huge it is! And look at the color of the steam! You could actually see the reds and blues in the steam above it.


Yellowstone: Upper Geyser Basin

Upper Geyser Basin is where you can see Old Faithful. I was afraid since there are so many people, and even a viewing area with benches to sit on, maybe it wouldn't seem that cool. But it WAS cool! We loved it! It's so amazing to see that much water and steam just burst out of the ground—and to think of how consistently the chambers below are filling and pressurizing and emptying.
It felt like a long time waiting for Old Faithful to start. There were lots of little false alarms and small spurts of water first. But the main eruption is so BIG!

Relaying God's Love

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Sunday Afternoon Session from the April 1973 Conference.
When I was running track in high school, occasionally I'd be called upon to run one of the relays. My track and cross-country experience was an interesting one because I was a rather average runner, but I ran with two girls who were consistently the fastest in the country. They went on to Olympic Trials and NCAA Championships and all sorts of fame. What's more, they were smart, cute, nice girls who weren't stuck-up and who didn't mind running with me! And my senior year, we had a freshman girl join our team who rapidly became just as good as the older girls who had just graduated. So I was constantly surrounded by greatness. Anyway, when I had to run a relay with these amazing runners, my main thought was…JUST DON'T MESS IT UP! I knew we would probably win. My teammates would ensure that. But I had a great fear of falling SO far behind that EVEN THEY couldn't get us out of it—so I would be sick to my stomach and praying like crazy at the start of every relay. Please, please, just let me keep the pace, let me just get the baton safely to the next runner so SHE can bring it on home.

I've been thinking about that this week in connection with the idea of bringing God's love to His children. In Elder Marion D. Hanks' talk, he says of the Savior:
So closely is he tied with his fellowmen that in one of the most powerful parables he taught that bread given to one of the least of his brethren is bread given to him, and so is any kindness or act of grace or mercy or service. To deny help to one of the least of his brethren, he said, was to deny him.
Elder Hanks goes on to say that if we want to be like Christ, we too have to feel these close ties with our fellowmen. We have to seek such connection with others that we, like Christ, feel what they feel. And yet, it's obvious that we CAN'T do this to the extant that Christ does. He felt the pain of each person. He knows each person intimately. And we, even when we have similar experiences to others (and we often don't), frequently have a hard time truly understanding what they feel! Elder Hanks says:
A cherished friend who works with little children who have difficulties told me recently of a nine-year-old girl who has lived in 17 foster homes. She needs someone to cry with her, and laugh with her, and teach her, and love her. 
There are so many who are not—or feel they are not—understood…
[But] there is one who always understands, and those who seek to become the manner of person he is must seek to understand.
As I read this, the phrase "or feel they are not understood" stuck out to me. Of course people are never TRULY alone in their suffering! As Elder Hanks affirms, "There is one who always understands." But if someone doesn't FEEL understood—if they don't know or believe that there IS anyone else who knows their feelings—well, then they aren't much benefitted by that understanding.

So, the problem becomes for us, how do we convince others of Jesus' love for and knowledge of them? How do we help them feel the reality of His understanding? It seems clear that there has to be a transfer of love, from God to an individual. Of course He is able to do His own work. But often, there is an intermediary in the transfer from Christ to His children. WE are given the responsibility to bring HIS love, to them!

And just like when I used to run relays, I am overcome by that responsibility. God the Father, who loves us so much, embodied that love through His son. And Christ was a perfect reflection of His Father's love, bearing it intact to the world. The Holy Ghost, in its turn, testifies and affirms that love in individual hearts, converting and teaching Christ's followers. But now the baton passes to the weakest link in this chain—to the imperfect believer—in short, to ME. It terrifies me to realize how inadequate I am to bear that love. I DON'T understand everything my fellowmen are going through. I DON'T know their inner pain. I'm NOT able to forget myself completely in their service. And yet this is the charge I am given, as a follower of God. 

How can I do it? Luckily Elder Hanks gets to that:
They who would follow him and be the manner of person he is will, as he did, lift up the repentant who suffer and sorrow for sin, and bless them with love and forgiveness. 
Of course, all honest men on occasion feel their weakness and groan in the face of their inadequacies and ignorance and pride... 
But Christ will lift us up and help us to become as he is as we do as he did; as we love our Father and give him our lives; as we love each other and all men, and learn to live and teach his word; believe in the worth of souls and let our lives be the warrant of our earnestness; mourn with those who mourn, and bring hope to them; understand and comfort those who weep; cry unto the Lord.
It's obvious, I guess, that the way I can be the best bearer of God's love is to imitate Him as much as possible. To do what he did, as Elder Hanks says, and to "cry unto the Lord" for increased capacity. And there's another component, too. As often happens, when one of these talks brings up questions in my mind, another talk begins to answer them, and Franklin D. Richards' talk on the Holy Ghost made me think about His role in all this:
President Brigham Young stated: “The Holy Ghost … opens the vision of the mind, unlocks the treasures of wisdom, and they begin to understand the things of God. …
They comprehend themselves and the great object of their existence.”

Thus we see that the Holy Ghost is a witness of the Father and the Son, a comforter, a teacher, and the bearer of valuable gifts of the spirit, such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, discernment, and direction.
If I'm continuing the relay analogy, I guess I'd say this makes me think the Holy Ghost doesn't give up the baton completely after testifying to our hearts. He runs alongside us, and as we try to pass God's love on to others, He is there assisting with the transfer.

And so I've been thinking about how I could, of course not replace the Holy Ghost, but emulate Him. Since He does such a perfect job of conveying God's love, how could I look to His example as I try to do the same? I love the ideas in the quote above: open the vision of the mind, comfort, teach. Back in Elder Hanks' talk, he gives another clue:
Christ in our lives is not meant to grieve us or weigh us down unto death because we have been imperfect. Through him we may be lifted up by accepting his gifts and his mercy and long-suffering.
It's true. I've learned this through experience: the Holy Ghost always speaks with hope and positivity. As a bearer of "wisdom, discernment, and direction," of course He doesn't encourage us to ignore or deny our own sins! But He speaks truth in a voice of hope.

Franklin D. Richards gives an example of an Air Force cadet who was discouraged and failing his classes. He learned about the church and soon got baptized. Elder Richards says:
He bore witness that upon receiving the Holy Ghost he felt its influence quicken his mind and understanding and refresh his memory, and that thereafter he had no trouble in getting satisfactory grades. His feelings of discouragement left him, and a spirit of peace and comfort came over him. This was a most inspiring and impressive testimony of the great value of the Holy Ghost.
Could I do this? As I attempt to convey God's love to those who don't yet feel it, could I imitate the Holy Ghost's hopeful perspective? Could I, like Him, be both teacher AND comforter to those in my charge?

As President Harold B. Lee gave the concluding talk of this conference, he gave his listeners an invitation: "Take to your people out in the far reaches the feeling of love that we have for all of them," he said.

I keep imagining Heavenly Father, and Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit urging me to do the same. "This baton of love has passed through us to you," I envision them saying. "You've received it. Now it's your turn to run with it and take it to the rest of the human family." And even though I want to protest, knowing how likely I am to be the slowest and weakest in this race, I also know that all I really have to do is keep going, holding on tight to that love I've been entrusted with. I don't have to be the fastest or the best. I just have to get that love, somehow, into the hands and hearts of those around me, and the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost will do the rest. And with them on my team, how can I fail?

Other posts in this series:

Yellowstone: Island Park

We rented a cabin in Island Park, Idaho (about 45 minutes from the West Entrance to Yellowstone) for our trip, and we loved it. I love staying at rental houses so that we can all fit comfortably and have doors that can close off places for naps, etc. And the area was so beautiful! Mountainous and wooded. We were happy to have such a lovely place as our home base.
There were some pretty views of the Tetons, driving up past Rexburg.
I loved these bright yellow fields! I remember seeing this all over in England. Is it canola?

Yellowstone: Bear World

Abe has always loved bears, and ever since he was little he's wanted to go to Yellowstone to see a bear in the wild! He did get to go on a bear-tagging trip with his Grandma once, but they didn't find many bears and the one he did get close to was sleeping. Safer, of course, but a bit disappointing for a bear-lover like Abe.

Anyway, summer is the wrong time of year to see many bears at Yellowstone, I guess—too many crowds. I think you do glimpse them occasionally but I wasn't too hopeful. Then 
Sam's parents told us about this place—Yellowstone Bear World—in Rexburg, and it seemed like a great way to make sure we saw at least SOME bears, for Abe's sake. I even signed him up to feed the baby bears!

And honestly, I wasn't expecting much. Maybe some sad-looking bears lumbering around in a pen, and a petting zoo or something. But as it turned out, we loved the place! Abe was in heaven feeding these little cuties their bottles. He got to pet them and snuggle them and everything! And they were such hungry, furry, playful little cubs!

Yellowstone: Norris Geyser Basin

I haven't been to Yellowstone since I was a little girl, and I've been wanting our family to go for years now! I knew the kids would love it. We finally set aside a time and scheduled it for this last June. As it turned out, our spring and summer got crowded with a couple other trips as well, and even though it made logistics a little tricky, I was kind of glad we had the rental near Yellowstone already reserved, so we weren't tempted to put it off again! I planned a Geology Unit in our homeschool for May and June, and even a little mini-unit on just Yellowstone right before we went, so we were all extremely excited to see the things we'd been learning about!

It was hot and crowded, of course. But there are also lots of good things about going in the summer, like having all the roads be open and no chance of snow! And, of course, that was just when we could go, so no use worrying about it!

We stayed not quite a week (spending two days driving there and back, one day near our cabin, and three very full days in Yellowstone itself), and though we could certainly have stayed longer, we felt like it was a pretty good amount of time and we saw most of the things we wanted to in the park. I'd love to go again sometime in the Fall, though! I feel like I could never tire of that strange and beautiful landscape.
I was totally taken aback by the huge, forested expanses like this one. I didn't remember anything except Old Faithful from when I was younger, really, and I wasn't expecting such vast wilderness! 

Even though we'd learned about WHY all this geothermal activity takes place here, and we'd seen hundreds of pictures and watched dozens of videos—it still took our breath away to be driving along and then suddenly see a scene like this:
Steam rising up from the earth, morning light streaming through. It was spectacular. There are so many geothermal features that aren't even "notable" enough to appear on a map or a guide—but they are amazing all the same! I really loved just driving along and looking out at everything we passed.

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