Of Mothers and Sons

Photo by Lilian on Unsplash

Just a few years ago, which after this last 12 months seems like another era, I witnessed an event at Penn Station that still moves me.  I was seated at a crowded food court.  With time on my hands before my train, I was enjoying a little something that I hoped was gluten-free (a diet prompted by genetics rather than preference).

A dozen steps away was a man behind a counter selling ice-cream snacks.  With shuffling steps a gaunt, old, grey panhandler approached.  His hand pulled something from the pocket of his ill-fitting battered trousers.  I could see that it was some change, which he was counting as he shambled toward the counter.  There was a look of desire in his eyes, which took on a saddened cast as he paused, counted again, and turned away, just a few feet from the ice-cream counter.  His sum of pocket change was short.

I was not the only one watching.  At another end of the counter was a mother, enjoying ice-cream with her two teen-age boys.  A quick word from the mother to the older and taller son sent him on his way.  A couple of minutes and a brief conversation later the boy returned, escorting the old man.  In short order the man left again, with joy on his face and a tall, full ice-cream cone in his hand that just a few minutes before did not hold enough change.

That was it.  That was the end of the story.  Or was it?  A small expense became a rich lesson from mother to son.  The mother could have done nothing, or she might have called out to the disappointed man.  She sent her son and gave him a personal experience in kindness that the boy may long remember into manhood.

The service was not requested.  It was spontaneously offered.  The gift, the effort, the quick initiative, was a small event converted into a teaching moment by a mother drawing from ready wells of charity.  I feel confident that the mother did not know that I was a witness, as her attention was on both sons and on a man who could have a moment of disappointment, reinforcing his penury, converted into a bright memory of happiness.  Which was sweeter for him, the ice-cream or the friendly attention?  I suspect that the mother and her sons gained a happiness, too, sensing how their simple act of humanity toward a fellow child of God connected them all in a moment of goodness.

This was charity.  I do not refer to the price of the ice-cream but to what made it a gift.  The scriptures define this charity as the pure love of Christ, which can well up from our hearts in precisely the method and moment when it is needed.  There was nothing premeditated in the event.  It was just a mother from her fountain of love, blessing a luckless man, a son and his brother, and at least one witness who will hope to remain vigilant for when such opportunities cross my path.

Surely there are greater acts of love than this.  Yet millions of such small personal kindnesses are a contagious mortar that builds a community.  I am grateful for mothers who feel to teach that to their sons.

Of Burgers-Fries and Excellence

Photo by Peter Dawn on Unsplash

My favorite local hamburger joint is the simply named “Burger Shack.”  The hamburgers are good, made to order, with an option for a gluten-free bun; prices are decent.  Where this joint completely outshines the crowded competition is that the fries are far and away the best around.

One might think that with a commonplace menu centered on burgers, fries, and milkshakes the fare could easily become mediocre.  There is plenty of that available in the surrounding culinary community.  The national mass-production chains cater to the market for mediocre.  They had occupied the so-so field for so long that it appeared that all the burger rivalry was solely among the giant mediocrities, working hard to find new ways to repackage and remarket the same thing, becoming more alike in their efforts to appear different.

Who knew that people—lots of people—could be attracted to excellence in burgers and fries?  A few daring souls made a go at the chance that there may be customer demand for more than mediocre.  The market allowed it and rewarded it.  Competition to rise above mediocre has become fierce, with customers benefitting from the choices offered.    

Not that I would forbid mediocrity.  Mediocrity is O.K., as far as it goes, but only O.K.  I am happy that there can be more.

Enjoying better burgers, pleased with better shoes, and glad for better dentists, I find the insistence on mediocrity and the outcry against excellence astonishing.  How frequently we encounter voices decrying competition, seeking to standardize everything by treating everything and everyone the same!  Is that what people really want?  We used to have a shelf full of trophies “won” by our children just for showing up.  We failed to convince the kids to take them to their own homes for display.

More astonishing is the assertion that celebration of mediocrity and condemnation of competition promote diversity.  The theory is that diversity cannot compete in a system that rewards excellence.  What is the alternative prescription for diversity from these levelers?  They demand removal of standards that applaud excellence in achievement or that recognize merit in performance.

Reality reveals opposite results.  This leveler ethic promotes either or both of two outcomes.  First, things tend toward the same as differences are discouraged; efforts that improve performance are placed at risk of suppression.  Second—alternatively or concomitantly—the levelers who rise above to be in charge of administering this doctrine decide recognition and advancement, and they do so based on whatever standard suits their fancy or is then in vogue.  Such standards tend to be unmeasurable, subject to whim, suiting the arbitrary caprice of the chief levelers.

In short, diversity is always in danger in the tyranny of mediocrity.  No one must be more beautiful, according to the day’s definition of beauty.

For a time the big burger chains, which initially arose by offering a better, excellent idea (until the idea became standardized) put the local mom and pop joints out of business.  Markets, though, have allowed competition to work its magic, tolerating room for some intrepid innovators to test customer interest in burger excellence.  Some succeed.

There comes the levelers’ claim that competition is inhuman, or at least unkind.  It supposedly disadvantages those who are not excellent, who are only mediocre.  Since not everyone can excel, this competition must be stopped.

That claim is inhuman and unkind.  People everywhere are mediocre or less than mediocre at some things, but each can do something better than someone else can.  The variety of talents and gifts is constantly amazing (and sometimes amusing).

If mediocrity standards are imposed, however will we discern the excellence that each has to offer?  Each person may be stymied from discovering what he or she is best at doing.  How does one find the divinity in his or her humanity, embedded in the unique gifts from God awaiting to be developed?  How many advances will be lost? We will be poorer for the loss.

I do not know how long it took the owners of Burger Shack to find out that they could offer an excellent product.  Perhaps they are still finding out.  While the year’s virus restrictions play to the advantages of the big, national firms, the last time I was at Burger Shack it was booming, even under the restrictions.  If allowed, people find a way.

Of Prophets and Modern Times

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

In the eighth century, B.C., kings of Judah looked toward an alliance with Egypt to protect them from the Assyrians.  A prophet of God, Isaiah, warned them that insecurity would come from it.  He reminded the king and his people to trust in God, the source of their defense in their days of strength, spiritual and material.  Under divine inspiration Isaiah prophesied,

“Say ye not a confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither shall ye fear their fear, nor be afraid.  Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.  And he shall be for a sanctuary . . .” (Isaiah 8:12-14)

After efforts at alliance proved unreliable, Hezekiah, the king of Judah, eventually followed the Lord’s counsel.  As prophesied (see Isaiah 8:8), the armies of the Assyrian empire overran the land and laid siege to Jerusalem, reaching “even to the neck”, but the city did not fall.

In another part of the world, an ancient military leader in the Western Hemisphere wanted to know where his people were who had been taken captive by an invading army.  He asked the prophet of God, Alma, who inquired of the Lord.  Alma told the general where to find them, whose army then surprised the invaders, “and there was not one soul of them . . . that were taken captive” that was lost (Alma 16:8).

As a child I often mused how marvelous it would be to live in a time when Jesus’ Apostles, who lived so close to the Lord, walked the earth.  What would it be like to hear directly from those who personally knew the Savior?  In my youth I discovered that Apostles, called by Jesus Christ, were on the earth once again.

Through the power of modern communication, they recently spoke to all who would listen, as they do every six months (and as often as possible in between).  Here are some of the things that a few of them most recently said:

“Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God.  The question for each of us, regardless of race, is the same. Are you willing to let God prevail in your life? Are you willing to let God be the most important influence in your life?  Will you allow His voice to take priority over any other?”—Russell M. Nelson

“I bless you with an increased desire and ability to obey the laws of God. I promise that as you do, you will be showered with blessings, including greater courage, increased personal revelation, sweeter harmony in your homes, and joy even amid uncertainty.”—Russell M. Nelson

“The Lord’s teachings are for eternity and for all of God’s children.  As followers of Christ we must forgo the anger and hatred with which political choices are debated or denounced in many settings.  We move toward loving our adversaries when we avoid anger and hostility toward those with whom we disagree.”—Dallin H. Oaks

“We must notice the tribulation of others and try to help. That will be especially hard when we are being sorely tested ourselves. But we will discover as we lift another’s burden, even a little, that our backs are strengthened and we sense a light in the darkness.”—Henry B. Eyring

These are but a few nuggets chipped from the vein in the goldmine.  They are reminders that God the Father remains so mindful of us as to place living Apostles and prophets among us today as He did anciently.  I first learned that in my youth.  I have learned it again every day since.

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