Monday, July 27, 2015

(Some of) What We're Re-learning on Our Mission

By Rodger Dean Duncan

As a married couple, Rean and I have nearly a half century of service in the Church. In addition to callings in numerous wards and stakes, as well as special assignments in other countries, we’ve been blessed to observe—in an up-close-and-personal way—some of the most faithful (and in some cases, most well-known) people in the Church. We continue to learn from our experiences. And during our full-time missionary service in Texas, many lessons from the past are being reinforced daily.

Here are some of them.

The Lord qualifies whom He calls. Our church has no paid clergy. Nobody campaigns for office. Nobody lobbies for position. When someone receives “a calling” from the Lord (issued by people in authority), the recipient is often surprised. One of the most common responses is “Oh, am I ready for that responsibility? Can I do this?” And the answer is always “Of course you can, with the Lord’s help.”

We’ve seen this principle play out countless times with new bishops, new Relief Society officers, teachers, youth leaders, and in all the other service opportunities that can come to a faithful Latter-day Saint.

During our mission, we’ve been especially impressed by the nearly overnight growth and maturity of the young missionaries who serve with us. When they come to the mission field, most of the young men are only 18 or 19. The young women are typically 19 or 20. After only a few days at the Missionary Training Center in Utah, these young spiritual warriors report for duty. Many of them have never really been away from home. But they faithfully jump into the work with both feet, believing the Lord’s promise that they “can do all things through Christ who strengthens [them].” (Philippians 4:13)

Their faith and performance reflect well on their upbringing (thanks, parents!). But most of all, they prove the point that they are qualified by Him who called them to the work.

We fondly recall one young missionary who was serving as a District Leader. He prepared and conducted training meetings with remarkable maturity and insight. Then one day in commenting on his colleagues’ good work, he excitedly said their performance was “freaking awesome.” Rean and I were instantly reminded that there was still a lot of boy left in this missionary (he was only 20 and soon to return home after his two-year assignment). We thought “awesome” (without the “freaking’) was an excellent description of what the Lord had done with this faithful young man.

Age is largely irrelevant. (See previous item.) The new stake president in the Waco Stake, with responsibility for eleven congregations as well as his own family and thriving business, is still in his 30s. The new bishop in one of the stake’s largest wards is likewise in his 30s. Both are performing with great maturity and remarkable effectiveness. I was ordained a high priest at the age of 25, and I’m still going strong in my 70s and showing no signs of slowing down. As my grandfather always said (possibly paraphrasing Mark Twain), “Age is just mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” Carry on.

Life is a series of tender mercies. We’ve pretty much eliminated the word “coincidence” from our vocabularies. Through obvious tender mercies from the Lord, we’ve avoided several traffic accidents, some of which would have been fatal. (Including as recently as today.) Our health has been improved and our energy revitalized. Our first choice for an apartment was not available by our deadline, so we felt disappointed when we had to commit to a second choice. That second choice has turned out, in every conceivable way, to be the absolute best option. (Who knew? He who called us on this mission.) We miss our family and friends, but our days are currently occupied with service to new friends. We’re confident this work will make us even more effective with service in our home congregation and community. And it will make us better parents and better grandparents.

Multitasking is a myth. We thrive on activity and have always been busy people. Our to-do lists are never completely crossed off at the end of the day. Being anxiously engaged in good causes is one of the most satisfying parts of mortality. But the popular emphasis on “multitasking” is a trap. Laser focus on one task at a time has been proven to be the best way to get things done. By all means keep a list of action items, prioritized more by importance than by urgency. (Good time management keeps “urgent” items to a minimum.) Then give each task its appropriate, individual focus. And one other hint: when possible, allow important tasks to ripen. Example: Giving a talk next Sunday? Delaying preparation until Saturday night guarantees mediocrity. Instead, decide on a theme, make a rough outline, then allow the spirit to work with you for several days (and nights) before distilling your thoughts into a final product. The result will be far superior to a wing-it-and-sing-it attempt.

Pray before you study. For the past several decades we’ve made it a practice to read scriptures together before retiring each night. It’s a peaceful way to end the day, and puts the mind appropriately in “park.” We’ve almost always saved our nightly prayer for the very last thing of the day. A better practice for us, we’ve discovered, is to have our nightly prayer before scripture reading. When we ask for specific help, we find that the spirit opens our understanding to things in the scriptures that we might otherwise overlook. It’s sort of like putting on polarized glasses to see the fish right under the water.

Most of all, we're re-learning that the most important human relationship in our lives is the one we have with each other. In nearly 48 years of marriage, we've never spent so much time together. During this mission we are rarely apart, and then for only minutes at a time. Togetherness is a wonderful thing. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Full-Circle Week

By Rodger Dean Duncan

We might call these past few days our "Full Circle Week."

Story #1

In April of 2014, Rean and I came to Texas to visit Rodney and Kimberlee Ames. Rodney, as mentioned before, is president of the Texas Fort Worth Mission. He and Kimberlee are from our hometown of Liberty, Missouri, and have been our dear friends for many years. (Rodney is also our family attorney.)

When we came to Texas 15 months ago (for the Easter weekend), Rodney told us they would be in Waco to attend the first stake conference in the new Waco Stake Center. Naturally, this was of special interest to me because I graduated from Baylor University (in Waco) and the original Waco Ward was my first LDS congregation after my baptism in the summer of 1962. So we headed for Waco.

After stake conference on that Easter Sunday, Rodney and Rean and I drove over to see the original LDS chapel here (described in our February 15 blog post). Then in the evening Rodney and I went on an exchange with some of the young elders, and Rean went with a couple of sister missionaries.

Easter Sunday, 2014: Rean is preparing to accompany two
young missionaries to teach the first discussion to newlywed
Billie Whaley.
Rean's experience that evening is the beginning of this story. She and the sister missionaries visited Billie Whaley. Billie was only recently married. Her new husband Larry has been a member of the church for many years. Billie had been a lifelong Baptist and (as she continues to be) a faithful student of the Bible. On that Easter Sunday Rean assisted in teaching Billie the first missionary lesson. Rean answered some of Billie's probing questions and (according to Billie) bore her testimony in a way that touched both her mind and her heart.

Fast forward a few weeks. Rodney called us in Liberty to report that Billie was being baptized. When I reported this to Rean she instantly said "We're going!" I reminded her that we'd been in Waco only recently, but she repeated "We're going!" So we returned to Waco for Billie's baptism service and I was honored to participate in her confirmation.

Then we decided that, despite the fact that I have not yet retired, we should make ourselves available for full-time missionary service. We "applied for duty," had the requisite interviews, and agreed to serve anywhere in the world.

Elder and Sister Duncan with Larry and Billie Whaley at the
Dallas Temple, 17 July 2015. Wonderful day!
You know the rest. We were assigned to serve in the Texas Fort Worth Mission, specifically in Waco.

Since our arrival here in December, we have come to treasure Larry and Billie's friendship. In recent weeks we've taught Billie the temple preparation course. And then last Friday (drum roll, please) Billie received her endowment in the Dallas Temple and she and Larry were sealed for all eternity. We were honored to be their escorts on that special day. For missionaries, every day is a "pay day." But accompanying a beloved convert to the Temple is especially gratifying.

Story #2

Return to the scene: The Gazette gave us 
good memories, but the best ones are of 
friendships with the wonderful Latter-day 
Saints in Texarkana.
In 1969 Rean and I moved to Texarkana, Texas. I'd covered the 1968 presidential campaign for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Times Herald. Then I was hired as managing editor of both the newspapers in Texarkana, the morning Gazette and the afternoon Daily News. I was only 24.

The members of the Texarkana Branch of the church welcomed us with open arms. In all of the decades since, we have never felt more loved and appreciated than we did in Texarkana.

While running the news operation at the Gazette, I had a crackerjack sports editor named Johnny Green. He was a fine reporter, an excellent writer, and I enjoyed his dry sense of humor. Johnny was married to Karen Hill, a cousin to one of the members of the Texarkana Branch.

In the summer of 1969 I talked with Johnny about how the gospel blesses lives and puts all of mortality's challenges into manageable perspective. I challenged him to be baptized. He politely declined.

Standing at the waters of baptism is a great way to renew 
an old friendship.
Fast forward 46 years to July 2015.

Through a series of not-so-coincidental events, we learned that Johnny has recently been taught by the missionaries in New Boston (his home in East Texas) and was being baptized on July 18.

I telephoned Johnny and congratulated him. I reminded him of my challenge in 1969 and told him that some cakes simply take longer to bake. Then on Saturday, Rean and I drove to New Boston to attend the baptism. It was a joyous occasion to see an old friend make his gateway covenant with the Lord. On Sunday I was honored to stand in the priesthood circle as Johnny was confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Johnny Green retired after nearly a half century of service at the Texarkana Gazette. In athletic and journalism circles, he's something of a legend in East Texas. And later this year he'll be enshrined in the Fox Sports Hall of Fame. But he knows none of that matters a whit compared to his decision to be baptized.

Now we look forward to joining Johnny and his dear wife Karen when they enter the Temple next year.

You can count the number of seeds in an apple. But you can't count the number of apples in a seed.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Words and Action: They Both Matter

By Rodger Dean Duncan

On Rean's studio wall at our home in Liberty, Missouri, she has a sign displayed: "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."

Christians love good quotes. We use them in sermons, in our writing, and in our daily conversation.

This particular quote is usually attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order. (Some scholars insist he never said it. But regardless of its origin, it's thought-provoking.) It suggests that proclaiming the gospel by example may be more virtuous than proclaiming it with our voices. But I for one believe this is an unwarranted dichotomy between speech and action. To some, it might even suggest that those who "practice" the gospel are somehow more faithful to the faith than those who preach it.

I believe it's important to do both. Certainly our loving Father in Heaven expects us to live lives of gratitude and service. And his son, our Savior, expects us to exemplify our faith in and allegiance to him by way of observable action. Part of our Christian covenant is to be inconvenienced in the service of a cause bigger than ourselves. That includes no-strings-attached service to others.

This is the lovely Rachel Untch 
from our home congregation in 
Liberty. We watched Rachel grow 
up from small childhood. Next 
week she leaves on an 18-month 
mission. Like the other wonderful 
young missionaries we know, 
Rachel has the spiritual maturity 
to put first things first. We are 
honored to know her.
But even if we regard ourselves as socially awkward or conversationally inept, the Lord expects us to "speak up." And in this day of such explicit assault on religious freedom, it's more important than ever for Christians to emerge from the comfort of their cozy cocoons and defend their faith in the marketplace of thought and expression. As one scholar has said in addressing the preach/practice dichotomy: "It's simply impossible to preach the gospel without words. The gospel is inherently verbal, and preaching the gospel is inherently verbal behavior."

As a behavioral scientist might put it: action without passion will not endure, nor will passion without action. People must find meaning in the work they do and the service they render.

We continue to stand amazed at the young missionaries who serve with us. At this stage in their lives, they have many other options: school, employment, marriage, other adventures. But they set it all aside for a season of selfless Christian service. Inconvenience at their own expense. And they love it!

On a related note, I was recently reading about Thomas Jefferson. Our third U.S. president was a fascinating man, a facile practitioner of science, agriculture, mechanics, and architecture. He was equally brilliant in religion, philosophy, and politics. He was conversant in multiple languages. And of course he was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

It's in the Declaration that we read one of Jefferson's most memorable lines: "... all men are created equal ... endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights ... among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Interestingly, as any good history student knows, Jefferson lived a life of contradiction. He wrote that all men are created equal, yet he was a slave owner.

Jefferson's contradictions aside, those lines from the Declaration of Independence have clear linkage to the gospel that we're teaching on our mission. A key part in the Plan of Salvation is the opportunity of mortality. Every person on earth is a literal spiritual child of God. Each was sent to earth for the purpose of making choices. In that sense, all are indeed created equal. Of course there are obvious differences of social, economic and other factors in the mix. But each of us still has the opportunity to make choices. Even under the worst of circumstances, we have choice. In his book Man's Search for Meaning, we read Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl's story of survival in a Nazi concentration camp. How did he do it? In the midst of his horrific surroundings he imagined a future filled with hope.

Of course the attraction of the gospel is that it offers a hoped-filled future. In the meantime, it provides a wonderful recipe for happiness in the here and now.

That good news is worthy of proclamation by both words and action.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Legend of Stingy Myrtle

By Rodger Dean Duncan

In our regular District Meeting this past week, Rean and I were asked to provide some training based on chapter 6 of Preach My Gospel. The chapter deals with Christlike attributes. Rean talked about virtue. I talked about obedience.

I reminded the missionaries of the 46th Section of the Doctrine & Covenants. It deals with the wide range of gifts available to us. To emphasize the importance of using the gifts we already have, I told our missionaries a story that I've shared in many other venues. In our family, the story is known as The Legend of Stingy Myrtle.

In the panhandle region of western Oklahoma there’s a town – population of eight – known as Slapout. Seriously, that’s really the name of the town. Slapout. It got its name during the Great Depression when people would pass through and try to buy something at the local store. The storekeeper’s response to a request for something was often “I’m sorry, but we’re slapout of that.”
"Ya ain't getting no more 'til you stir whatcha got!" When I was about ten, my Dad took me on a trip. We stopped for breakfast at the small diner in Slapout. We watched as a truck driver ordered a bowl of oatmeal. The cook, a rugged-looking woman named Myrtle, slid the bowl down the counter like a bartender in a western movie. The truck driver opened the last packet of sugar and sprinkled it on his oatmeal. He then asked Myrtle for more sugar. Myrtle walked over to him and put her face practically nose-to-nose with his before announcing: "Nope, you ain't getting' no more 'til you stir whatcha got!" He laughed, apparently thinking she was joking. When she didn't reciprocate with as much as a half smile, he immediately complied by stirring his oatmeal. 

Decades later I still don’t know if Myrtle was joking. But I’ll always remember the way my Dad used that experience as a teaching moment. Each of us, he said, is given a set of gifts. Some of us may be inclined toward music, or math, or mechanics. Some of us may be good at writing, or speaking, or leading, or farming, or just helping people feel good about themselves. Regardless of our gifts, "we ain't getting' no more 'til we stir what we got!" Before we can expect to receive (or even request) additional heavenly help, we must discover and develop and use the gift we already have.

I was intrigued when Dad first taught me that principle, and was amused when he regaled others with the story from that little diner on that narrow windswept highway in western Oklahoma. The Legend of Stingy Myrtle is a lesson that has enhanced my understanding of my obligation to make the most of every circumstance. The lesson provides a good guide for mortality itself.
Blair and the MoTab

On Friday we received a call from our good friend Blair Garff. Blair was one of the young missionaries who first taught me the gospel 53 summers ago. We've kept in touch over all these years. Blair is from Salt Lake City, but has spent most of his adulthood in New York. After serving as mission president in Nigeria, he served as president of the Manhattan New York Temple. Rean and I visited him and his wonderful wife Sue on two occasions the past couple of years and loved staying with them in their apartment in the same building as the Temple ... right across the street from the Lincoln Center and only a short walk from Central Park. Great memories!

Blair's most recent activity was promoting the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's performances at Carnegie Hall. Click here to see a brief video.

Rean and I hope that our missionary efforts will still be bearing fruit 53 years from now.

At our Zone Conferences we take two photos: one in a "normal" pose, and one in a "goofy" pose. The latter 
because we so appreciate what Gordon B. Hinckley said: "In all of living, have much fun and laughter. Life
is to be enjoyed, not just endured." Rean and I noticed that our poses are exactly the same in both photos. Does
that mean we are "goofy" all the time? (Note our buddy Kermit on the front row.)