Readers love characters they can identify with, but they also want heroes who are fallible, redemptive, and larger than life. So as a writer develops characters, we try to create a person who is generally imperfect, while being perfect in his own way. I recently attended the funeral of such a man. Here is what I learned from him.
This man was very successful in his profession, a loving husband, father, and teacher who loved working with the youth. His career could have absorbed him, as it was dotted with stellar accomplishments, but it did not. And even though he designed many beautiful structures around the nation, the two things he was lauded for at his funeral were the amazing tree houses he designed for his extended family, and the local community center he designed for his hometown that could never have afforded to hire him.
His smile and confidence were infectious. He laughed loud and spoke softly when each was needed. He was a great listener, not a hearer, but a real listener, and the beautiful home he and his family lived in was known to always have it door opened wide for anyone who needed them.
His love for his family and the youth of the Church was both his hallmark and the bane of his leaders at time. He was raised by parents who were soldiers in the Gospel. No matter what was happening in their lives, they were at their meetings, fulfilling their callings, doing the Lord's work, lifting others, solving problems, and planning activities to bless the general Church. As their son lay dying, the mother knitted by his bedside to give the man's wife a reprieve, but when the wife returned, she wiped he tears and returned to her mission assignment each day.
Leaders who worked with this man soon discovered that he had a different plan. He accepted callings and assignments, and performed them beautifully, but he bypassed many meetings, firesides, etc., filled his own well, taught himself whatever principle was being taught at some meeting in far less time, so he could then attend a soccer game, a science fair, a choral concert, or a Pinewood Derby final. If there was a choice between an assigned, calendared meeting and a chance to support people, there was no questions where he would be.
When I attended classes this man taught, the Spirit was strong, the youth were compassionate and energetic, the lessons were tender and spot-on. He sent them out for the day with a challenge to be better. What more could one ask? Some questioned why he didn't show up at meetings to help teachers struggling with difficult classes, noting that his experiences could benefit more students than just his own class or quorum. Some referred thought he cuold be a better team player.
No one says that anymore. Everyone now understands the true gift this man possessed. His talent was more than time-management skills, or his vibrant testimony, or his generosity, or his love of family. His real gift was his ability to follow the Spirit.
He had a very limited time on this earth to be with his family, to set them on a good course, to make their financial future secure, to teach his sons to be men, and his daughter what to look for in a man. His time was short to whisper confidence in the ears of as many youth as possible, and to instill a love deep enough in his wife's heart to carry her through the lonely years ahead. He heard the Spirit whisper what his life mission was, and despite the disapproval of others, he followed it with exactness.
My take-away from this was three-fold. First, we are not cookie-cutter people. The Gospel is true, and the principles are unimpeachable, but we will need the Spirit to know how to apply them in our own lives. Our missions in life are as individual and different as we are, and sometimes fulfilling them may require us to step out of the herd, to buck the norm, even at the risk of being called cocky or a renegade. We will need the Spirit with us to know what, when, for how long, and how far we are to go.
My second take-away is about judging. We need to trust each other, and have the Spirit with us to know when a friend is acting in accordance with a separate, personal spiritual directive than ours, and when he is lost and needs help. That is not an easy or light matter, but I think if the people who fret over the choices of others would go to them, brother to brother, sister to sister, and speak with them spirit to spirit, instead of indicting them from afar, the Lord will give us them our answer and our own confirmation.
Thirdly, keep our eyes on the Prophets and principles. After reading President Hinckley's biography I realized the difference between principles of the Gospel and Church culture. The Hinckley's were stalwart on doctrinal issues, but their family choices frequently bucked Church culture, and they taught their children that they trusted their choices, so long as they were adhering to Gospel principles. Likewise, this man lived the principles. He never shaved truth, justified his actions, bucked responsibility, or rebelled against any doctrine, , but choices about how he spent his time were sacred and personal, and he never apologized for following the promptings he received.
One thing I notice more and more at General Conference are references about the need for us to live by the Spirit. The Brethren seem to be telling us over and over that this will be the single most critical factor in safely navigating through these times. Perhaps that's why this man's life and passing touched me so deeply. Let's make sure we are asking for this gift daily. Let's check ourselves from time to time, asking when was the last time we felt the Spirit really guiding us. If it's been a while, let's pray to have it more abundantly, and be sure we're doing the things that invite the Spirit into our homes, and hearts. Let's listen to each other, not just hear, but really listen, to know when we need to pray for each other.