As Mormon custom dictates, we gave our obligatory “we just moved into the ward” talks today. I liked reading Howard’s talk so I thought you guys might be interested to read mine. And yes, I did manage to work a Star Wars reference in there.
In 1830, while Joseph Smith was busy organizing the church, if you had come to the spot where the Chicago River empties into Lake Michigan around the present-day Loop, you would not have found it a particularly remarkable spot, apart from the way the lazy river bent at a right angle to empty into the lake. At the time, Chicago was only a small outpost for fur traders and explorers.
There was no hint of the skyscrapers, the bustling roads, or the centers of worldwide commerce that have become what we think of as Chicago. The name Chicago, meaning “the wild-garlic place”, given because of the wild garlic that grew among the prairie grasses here, hardly conjures images of a modern metropolis. If you were looking for a city, there would have been nothing here of particular interest.
Then they built the railroads and Chicago became a major chokepoint in the movement of goods from West to East and East to West. The trains brought people, and the people brought their streets and buildings and markets, trolleys and buggies. They brought commerce, ingenuity, determination, and energy. Above all, they brought vision. Chicago was to be the greatest of the world’s cities!
The people built the World’s Fair in 1893, where the world was introduced to the Ferris Wheel. But you might have stood at the Midway then and thought to yourself, “who could have ever guessed that out of the flat prairie we would build such a city as this?” And you would be right to do so, for no one could have foreseen Chicago’s massive growth into one of the world’s great cities.
Besides cities, I love baseball. Not the game so much as the history of baseball. Its proud tradition and nerdly obsession with statistics sets it apart from other major American sports in my mind. There is one special feature of baseball that makes it far more interesting than other sports. It is that baseball is the only major sport without any sort of timekeeping. Games can range from less than 1 hour to as long as 8 hours! This also means that no matter how far behind a team falls, there is always a chance to make a comeback, and of course, there have been some real doozies.
The American League officially became a “major league” in 1901. In May of that same year, the Cleveland Blues played the Washington Senators. By the start of the ninth inning, Washington led 11-5. Now you’re probably thinking, “this is where the comeback starts…” but it gets worse. During the top of the 9th, the Senators scored two more runs, making it 13-5 before Cleveland could put them away and take a turn batting. I can see the wives pulling on their husbands arms, “come on dear, the game’s over” they say.
There is something remarkable about sports fans. They have a strange ability to subject themselves to the agony of watching a slow and certain defeat to the most bitter end, all in the hopes that somehow, some way, their team will find a way to overcome, to do the impossible.
Don’t worry, it gets worse. Still 13-5 and Washington gets an out. “But darling, there might be a chance, and anyway, I want to see the end. Besides, we paid good money for these seats” says the husband. As if on queue, Washington gets another out. Cleveland is down by 8 runs in the bottom of the ninth and there are two outs.
We humans love to hear the stories about humble beginnings. We’re dazzled by stories of people who fight the bleakest odds and win. Perhaps we see something of ourselves in all of these tales. Have you ever met a kind, quiet old man who you’re certain is hiding a wild side from his youth, long since tamed and overwhelmed by gentle experience?
In the early 1970s, a young man named Arthur Kane joined a band getting its start in the New York City rock scene. The band was called New York Dolls and they became one of the more influential bands in American music. Their music was interesting enough, but it was their wild costumes and rock-and-roll antics that really set the stage for their more famous followers, bands like KISS and The Ramones.
If you had met Arthur “Killer” Kane (such was his nickname in the band) or even just heard of him at the height of his rock-and-roll career, you might have thought he was not on very good terms with Jesus. Would it surprise you, then, to know that by the end of his life Arthur was a mild mannered gentlemen working in the Church’s family history center at the Los Angeles Temple?
You see, it might have been easy to write him off as a lost cause, victim to the evils of drug and alcohol abuse and the “ways of the world,” but God will not give up.
The poet Longfellow once said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” That suffering, the daily struggle that we all make, in whatever capacity we find ourselves, provides experience that softens even the hardest of hearts.
In the book of Acts, we read about a young Pharisee named Saul who persecuted the church. You can read all about how he caused early Christians to be thrown into prison and actively fought the people of God. At one point, Saul visits the high priest and asks for permission to go to Damascus and capture more Christians. We know the story of Saul’s conversion, of how he became the apostle Paul.
Have you ever noticed the reaction of Ananias, the Christian in Damascus who is called by the Lord to visit Saul after his conversion? Jesus tells him to go and seek out Saul and to restore his sight. I imagine my own reply would not be much different from that of Ananias. “Lord,” he says, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.”
“Go,” the Lord replies, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”
In that moment, for Ananias, Saul was a troublemaker and an enemy of the church. But Jesus does not see us as a snapshot in time. To Jesus, Saul was an apostle and friend, one of the greatest Christian missionaries of all time.
In Mosiah chapter 27 we read about the prophet Alma’s son, Alma. He was “a very wicked and an idolatrous man.” He, like Saul, set out to destroy the Christians of his time, and he was very successful. I can only imagine the pain that his father must have felt on account of his son’s behavior. If you had seen Alma the Younger at work among your friends and family, you might have considered him the enemy of God.
Can you imagine what it would be like to see him again, years later, as the high priest of the church? In Alma 5:26 he asks, “And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” Alma, of all people, was intimately acquainted with the emotions that accompany a change of heart.
Forgive me if I’ve given the impression that we should ignore the evils of the world simply because change is possible; that is certainly not my intent. Each one of us has a responsibility to form ourselves and our fellow man in the image of God. Chicago did not magically grow out of the prairie like the garlic before it, and no baseball team ever scored a single run by watching fastballs sail past their bellies. Change is never easy and its genesis is rarely found in the visitation of an angel. Nevertheless, change we must, for we are born as natural men and natural women.
Despite the optimism that I feel talking about change and renewal, I am haunted by daily reminders on the TV and radio that the world in general seems to be getting worse and worse. I have a relatively easy time accepting that I can personally become a more Christ-like individual over time; my faith sometimes falls short when I think of an entire society dedicated to that same cause. I can only take comfort in the words of the prophets, who have promised us that righteousness will someday prevail and Jesus Christ will have us as His people.
We fight overwhelming odds in our quest to make this world one that is suitable to receive our Lord Jesus when He comes again. It is both a deeply personal quest to change ourselves and a mission to bring our society with us. What a comfort to know that God will not give up on any of us. He never forgets our sons or daughters, our mothers or fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, or enemies. As we struggle with our own personal weaknesses and failings, we are also fighting to make our world a better place.
“This is pointless,” says the wife, sitting with her husband at that Cleveland Blues game in May of 1901. The husband, weirdly enjoying the pain of watching his team breathe its last breaths of life, feels a spark of hope leap back into him as Cleveland scores a run. “I know it’s impossible,” says the husband, “but we paid good money for these seats.” His heart flutters a little as another player crosses home plate. His spirits lift higher as they score another run, and another, and then another. As you’ve guessed by now, Cleveland scored 9 straight runs on that day without a single out, one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history. Who would have guessed, after the second out in the bottom of the ninth, that Cleveland could accomplish the impossible?
When God looks upon our souls, he doesn’t see us as we see each other. We look at a flat prairie and see a flat prairie with a lazy river that bends funnily at its mouth and is full of sand. When Darth Vader first boards the rebel ship in Star Wars, we see a cruel, twisted shell of a man, not the contrite, sad father looking for the first time with his own eyes upon his only son.
It is our tendency to look at our brothers and sisters in light of the state of their souls in the present moment. God looks at a flat prairie and sees a great city. He looks at the most hardened among our ranks and sees not criminals, misfits, and cross-dressing rock stars, He sees potential. Maybe this is what causes Alma to sing the praises of redeeming love.