Thursday, September 26, 2013

A Parable of Life

Helen and Brent Goates, 1975
Continuing his semi-annual tradition of a Conference missive to his former missionaries in the old California Arcadia Mission, my father writes this time about life and football:

Welcome back, dear October –

My, how we’ve missed you! Renowned for more than just General Conference, October’s refreshing breezes with a slight bite to them proclaim it is also football season. You can smell football in the air.

Maybe it’s just the surcease from the hottest summer ever recorded in Utah, but those delightful cool breezes invite the thought of a sizzling hot dog while we can now enjoy being outdoor spectators again.

As October warps into November, it brings childhood memories back to me of kicking multi-colored leaves underfoot, as I held tightly to my sports editor father’s hand (he carried his portable typewriter in the other hand) and he guided me up the ramps of the University of Utah stadium to the press box. That set up a pattern that would continue, and I never missed a “U” home game from the press box until I was old enough to leave for the mission field. In those days we would never think of having Thanksgiving dinner until after the rivalry Utah vs. Utah State football game was played.

But those days are near forgotten memories now. The cherished days of brisk but delightful afternoon football games have all but disappeared, victims of the money-driven dominance of television schedules that are insane. Last year in Provo, Utah, for example, we had 65,000 BYU fans acting like Eskimos, trying to survive a game that started at 11 p.m. and lasted well into the Sabbath. 

University of Utah's faithful 45,000 came to a night game in a snowstorm which finally relented well past midnight. 

When Utah State plays Colorado State this year on November 23 in Logan, you can bet your sheepskin boots it will be more than nippy. If famous canyon winds arise, you know there will be 25,000 numbed fans taking on the appearance of human icicles.

Where have common sense and the “good old days” gone? Soon an entire generation of sporting fans will never have known how wonderful football games can be in the brisk, warming afternoon sun. This is, in my opinion, too high a price to pay for allowing television to command the ubiquitous rising costs of collegiate athletic expenditures.

BUT – what would you think if you saw a football game being played between the white helmets and the black helmets in the most absurd conditions imaginable, including all the natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires? In these terrible, sloppy conditions of wet and cold, the teams surged back and forth, neither one winning or losing, but taking turns leading and then falling behind again.

You see a player injured, hauled out of the battle on a stretcher. The ambulance crew comes and you hear them say, “It’s too late; he’s gone,” and immediately a replacement comes to take his place. Similar replacements keep coming and coming, and the struggle continues. It all seems so aimless. So you go to the Head Coach and say, “Stop it! It’s so senseless. No team is winning or losing, so why do you let it go on?”

But the Head Coach answers by calmly pointing to a long, long bench of players as far as the eye can behold, and says, “All of these players have a right to have their time on the field of battle, so they can be tested under conditions both favorable and unfavorable, of winning or losing. They are all growing and shall only be able to perfect themselves under game conditions where they can participate against the stern realities of forces both good and bad.”

Now that you understand the purpose of the game of life and the plan of the Head Coach, why do you get so upset about the way the game is being played? It now seems somewhat more reasonable why God would place us in a world that permits so many forms of evil and why we would have willingly agreed in the beginning to enter such a violent world.

"First, we must remember that the divine creative process is ongoing. The record of creation in the Book of Moses describes the creative cycle twice, the first a spiritual creation and the second physically. However, day seven, the day that follows the completion of creation and God’s rest, is described only once. So day seven in real time has not yet arrived. We still live in day six, when the creation of humanity is unfinished. This helps me to understand the continued existence of chaos and injustice and helps also to alleviate my resultant tensions.

"Next, it is important to comprehend that many virtues linked to the plan of salvation are such virtues that depend upon the prior existence, or even the coexistence of a vice. I can forgive someone only if I have first been sinned against. Likewise, unless I am allowed to sin against my brother, I will never have the opportunity to experience forgiveness from him. Think of the attributes praised by Jesus in the Beatitudes and those required for membership in the Church by Alma at the waters of Mormon. They are virtues whose very existence depends upon the pre-existence of vice. We cannot bear each other’s burden if such burdens didn’t exist. We cannot be comforted if we didn’t know sorrow. We can be generous only if there is someone in need. Mercy can be granted only to someone who is undeserving. Peacemakers can exist only in a world of conflict. Reconciliation can occur only where there is contention. Even though these virtues are the pillars of Christianity, they depend upon the coexistence of vices. Remove the evil and the suffering or the injustice from this world, and these virtues are all but lost." (John Sutton Welch, “Why Bad Things Happen at All”BYU Studies 42, no. 2 [2003] 75 - 90).

In these times of hardship we are drawn to God for help, comfort and support. Pain and agony allow us to empathize with each other, draw closer to one another and serve our fellowmen. It also changes our perspective of God. Instead of seeing Him as a cruel schoolmaster, we know He is a loving parent, willing to support us, sharing our successes and disappointments, even like Jesus did with Lazarus’s sisters, and be assured that adversity and chaos are just a part of this creative season. Order and justice will be established in day seven ahead in the millennial or celestial age.

Of His ultimate triumph over Satan and the elimination of his opposition in all things we can be assured. Let us prove faithful to the end, ever-believing, ever-faithful, and ever anxious to lift the burdens from those suffering in this intentionally embattled world.
Always, your friend,
President L. Brent Goates

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Putin or Obama as World Champion for Peace and Freedom? Vote Here

In this past week where we witnessed the observance of the 12th anniversary of the events of 9/11/01, many other tangential stories were also grabbing headlines. On the eighth anniversary, I recorded my thoughts about what has happened since that day. Today's post continues to reflect on the aftermath that has changed our national psyche perhaps forever.

President Barack Obama, September 10, 2013
Not the least of these tangential stories was a "bizarre" address to the nation from our current resident of the White House, President Barack Obama on September 10th, 2013. Only a skilled politician like him could have threaded such a delicate needle as Mr. Obama attempted to do. In essence, his message seemed to be we need to rush to bomb Syria to punish their use of chemical weapons, but we don't really want to go to war, and we're going to wait to see if Russia and Syria can agree on a plan to destroy Assad's stockpile of weapons, but we don't know if it's really viable, so we'll wait on Congress taking a vote on it until we can see if diplomacy will work. Oh, and we might even go to the U.N. Security Council for a vote for good measure, but since I think I have the authority to do anything I want anytime of my own choosing, I'll leave my cruise missile laden carriers in the region just in case. "Bizarre" messaging doesn't even begin to describe the scene today.

Wow, this last week was confusing, because it felt more like watching a tennis match at the recently concluded U.S. Open in New York than international intrigue. Every morning this week there has been a new twist on the story line. John Kerry is now in Switzerland apparently trying to take credit for what has now evolved into a "grand strategy" after tossing off a one-liner Putin seized upon to call his bluff. Watching Obama and Kerry is more like watching an episode of the old Keystone Cops, while the world waits breathlessly to see the outcome. One wonders after assessing the reactions to his performance if his best days of speech making are behind Obama. I lost interest in his soaring rhetoric a long time ago, don't know about you. Honestly, looking back on it, does anyone yet understand or know what he really intends to do? Is it bumbling amateurism at work here, or part of some diabolical plot against stability in the world?

Sensing accurately there is a gaping void in leadership in America these days, Vladimir Putin has inserted himself into our politics with an op/ed piece that appeared in the unofficial propaganda arm of the new Russia, The New York Times. In it he takes exception with Mr. Obama's characterization of America as "exceptional". How ironic that it was Obama himself during his election campaigns who routinely attacked his opponents on the political right for using such a phrase, and now as recently as his speech to the nation this week he seems to have embraced it again. These are, indeed, strange days. It appears Putin the Communist has the better of Obama the Marxist. Certainly, the body of the text of Putin's piece is much better thought out than Obama's rambling incoherent "call to action" to the nation other night. Here's the concluding paragraph that has given rise to an immediate reaction within the Beltway from both sides:

President Vladimir Putin
"My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is 'what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.' It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

Imagine a Communist leader (I know, you think the Communist Party is dead, but is it?) invoking the name of God, when for 70 years the regime did everything in its power to advance by brute force the cause of atheism! Ask yourself if Putin can now take center stage as the leader for the nations "still finding their way to democracy". May God grant that we may yet be able to find a leader in America who champions democracy and freedom. One may ask rightly if we have such a leader in Obama, but I would assert the world would not be well-served by looking to Putin for that leadership. We live under an "exceptional" form of government, not because we are "better than", but because we are collectively free and continue to oppose tyranny and despotism.

Peggy Noonan, one of my favorite commentators, summed it up this way in yesterday's column at The Wall Street Journal:

"Clearly he [Putin] is looking at President Obama and seeing weakness, lostness, lack of popularity. His essay is intended to exploit this and make some larger points, often sanctimoniously, about how the U.S. should conduct itself in the world. And so he chided American leadership, implicitly challenged its position as world leader, posited the U.N. Security Council, where Russia has done so much mischief, as the only appropriate decision-making body for international military action, and worried the U.N. will 'suffer the fate' of the League of Nations if 'influential countries' continue to take action without authorization.

"He does not doubt chemical weapons were used in Syria but doubts it was the government that used them. It was probably the rebels, he asserts, in an attempt to 'provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons.'

"Still, in general, Mr. Putin made a better case in the piece against a U.S. military strike than the American president has for it. And he did so, in a way, by getting to the left of the president, who he implies is insufficiently respectful to international bodies. Mr. Putin was candid about his primary anxiety — a spillover from Syria that could threaten Russian stability."

As we remember those who fell with the twin towers in the tragedy of 9/11, victims of a savage attack using jet planes and innocent passengers as missiles, may we never forget our resolve on that day to oppose the evil that attacked us. May we never deny the enormity of the problem of evil we still confront. There is little we can do to change hearts and minds determined to destroy us, but we must oppose it and resist it when it comes knocking at the door.

To continue thinking, however, we can embroil ourselves in the foreign intrigues of other nations, and unilaterally install democracy in the far-flung corners of the globe, particularly in the Middle East, now seems fool hearty at best. Remember the dictoms of the "neo-conservatives" with Dick Cheney at the helm? We now have some experience with those forays, as well-intentioned as they seemed. Now, we must ask, will we ever come to the end of the "tit for tat" mentality that says we must intervene whenever we are abhorred with bad behavior from dictators?

We should learn from what has transpired, not repeat it in yet another experiment with overthrowing Assad. To embroil ourselves in a brutal civil war in Syria that has killed over a hundred thousand in the last two years, is insane. At this writing it is anything but clear about who actually used those weapons against their own people.

Here again, Obama and Putin tell a different story - was it Assad and his military, or was it the rebels attempting to frame the government? So far I haven't seen a definitive answer. And where everyone in Syria involved in the fighting seems to be equally culpable, how does America presume to pick and back a winner from half a world away? One need look no further than the installation of the Shah of Iran for an example of failed policy.

If Putin can succeed in putting our current POTUS back in his box where his political opponents here at home have failed to, I'm asking how would that be a bad thing?

Noonan concludes her piece with this sobering assessment: We're not in a hot war or a cold war with Russians, but there's a definite chill in the air. Since its exceptional founding, America has always led the cause of freedom.

But that was yesterday, and even as I am writing this post, word has come there is a deal in place to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. Assad has one week in which to account for them, with an agreement they will be destroyed under international supervision by mid-2014. The deal was conceived and brokered by Russia with Assad's government. And now Putin is headed to Iran at the invitation of the mullahs there to see if he can intercede with America and blunt the U.S. opposition to their nuclear program.

I told you it was a strange world.