A week ago, I sat in on a curious primary lesson. At the outset of the lesson, the teacher suggested that the child offering the opening prayer solicit freshly baked cookies. About midway through the lesson, cookies arrived at the door in an answer to that prayer. The children were elated, one even moved to tears. The teacher placed one cookie in front of each child, but with the cookie, a charge not to lay so much as a finger on it. To merit the cookie, they would need to behave for the rest of the lesson. The children obliged, and behavior immediately improved.
The teacher then opened the scriptures to Job, and now some of you see where this is going. The children read, “There was a man...whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil…And there were born unto him seven sons and three daughters. His substance also was...the greatest of all the men of the east” (Job 1:1-3).
And then, the unfolding of the drama: messenger upon messenger bears a burden unto him. His livestock, his servants, his children, and—yes—even his cookie, were gone. “Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and [—and this is where Job differed from the primary children—he] worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:20-21).
My parents, Dan and Neacie, are entrepreneurs. All the years I lived at home, they owned and operated a small chain of record stores in southeastern Wisconsin. The year was 2001, and I was fifteen years old. My parents had just had their sixth child, just opened a new store, and my father had just been called as bishop of our ward.
In the same period, digital piracy was gaining traction, leading the business my parents had developed over 17 years into serious decline. Within three years, Napster and the like had cut the family store sales volumes by 50%. At that time, I was tending to the store bookkeeping and had a front row seat to the declining revenues. More hidden from view were my parents’ struggles behind the scenes.
Of that time, my father recalls, “Neacie’s health challenges became as bad as they ever were and I was hit with bouts of illness the likes of which I had never experienced before. We were living off any reserves we had, and channeling additional extra reserves into our business while I wildly sought after additional directions to take the stores, different business models to try, or employment to take to support our family.
“The one thing at this time that we felt would bring us the most immediate personal gain was to sell the house we built and downsize into a fixer upper...[but] in our prayers...a very clear indication from the Holy Ghost would come telling us to stay - that everything would be alright. We had an idea of what ‘alright’ meant in our minds so we clung to that vision and we stayed...The crumbling nature of our personal calamities fell into full collapse, and we stayed.”
For two years my parents stayed the course, awaiting ‘alright’. My father likened this experience to that of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the famed explorer, whose purposed trans-Antarctic crossing literally froze in its progress. Though the crew of the ship, Endurance, had been united against the closing of the seas, they could not hold back the relentless encroach of ice. With the Endurance frozen fast, the crew set up camp Patience, and all hope was set on a spring thaw.
The thaw was arriving in my parents life when our stake president was moved upon to call a new bishop. My parents had stayed, had been faithful. My father continues, “We proceeded to sell our house, downsize, and [yet] watch all our reserves...disappear. We had to close up our stores; we went a total of five years without an income…[nothing could] stave off bankruptcy in the end. Seven years after staying in a place the Lord wanted us with the assurance everything would be ‘alright’, we were left bled dry by something akin to death by a thousand cuts.”
As spring arrived for Shackleton and his crew, the breaking of the ice and subsequent movement exerted gradually increasing pressure on the hull of the Endurance until it was crushed. Shackelton wrote, “It is hard to write what I feel, after long months of ceaseless anxiety and strain, after times when hope beat high and times when the outlook was black indeed, we have been compelled to abandon ship.”
Of such experience, Elder Maxwell penned, “Irony is the hard crust on the bread of adversity. Irony can try both our faith and our patience. Irony can be...particularly bitter...because it involves disturbing incongruity. It involves outcomes in violation of our expectations. We see the best laid plans laid waste” (Neal A. Maxwell - General Conference April 1989).
I recall that season in my parent’s life, in my life, selling our home during my senior year of high school and moving a family of eight into a two bedroom townhome forty minutes away. I remember driving myself and my siblings to and from our old schools for the remainder of the school year. I recall much of love and laughter, and a degree of family unity that may not have been otherwise achieved. Perhaps my mind fails me, but it offers no memory of murmuring nor complaint. My parents drank their bitter cup without becoming bitter.
Their meekness and resilience through years of deep, divine, determination has had a tremendous influence for good in my life. Though distressed, they practiced gratitude and happiness, and helped their children to do the same. As I came of age to decide whether I would serve a mission, I knew that my parents were ‘alright’, and that I also wanted to be ‘alright’.
I remember the last day that I worked a shift at one of our stores before heading on my mission. I was fairly certain then that it would not be there when I returned. I considered the cost of a mission, a cost I could not cover. I thought of my parents, their desire to provide, and their best laid plans laid waste. I wrote my parents a letter, sealed it in an envelope, and placed it under the stereo amplifier. I knew that when they would be emptying the store, they would listen to music, and that the amplifier would be the last item to go. I don’t recall what I wrote, but remember what I felt. I felt hope, so hope is what I wrote.
Hope is written in the pages of those that have gone before. Though at times we may feel disappointment and despair, “the leaves of [their] Testament[s] are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so” (C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”). Job declared, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and...yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26).
While working at additional employment in a health food store that, among other things, put me on a mission, my father noticed a woman who was trembling badly as she reached for something off the shelf. My father asked her if she needed help, and she said, “Yeah, I’m not doing very well today.” They got to talking and she eventually revealed, “You know, I am a cancer survivor. It was only several months after that that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It took me about five seconds to process ‘why me?’ to ‘why not me?’.” You see, she understood that if Parkinson’s is an affliction inherent to mortality, then there is some probability it will afflict mortal her. Settling this in her mind, she was able to continue trusting God and looking to Him for support rather than recoiling from the irony.
My patriarch, who was spared little of the tragedies that may befall us in life, taught from experience, “Don’t look to the Lord or to some sins you’ve committed as the reasons for your trials; rather look to handling the challenge at hand. The Lord has a much clearer view of the paths your life must follow.”
When my daughter Cameron was almost three years old, I took her to the park to learn how to ride a tricycle. At first, I just wanted her to learn how to pedal without any concern for steering. So, I set her down in the middle of a basketball court. She quickly got the hang of pedaling, but was retracing a tight circle as she had the handlebars pegged hard to the right.
With pedaling mastered, it was time to learn to steer. I set her down at one corner of the basketball court and instructed her to make it to the opposite corner. I told her not to worry about going in a straight line, but just to make it there, and that once she made it there, she will have mastered steering.
Off she went, concentrating on pedalling and immediately slipping into another infinite loop. After a number of cycles, she complained to me that she was only going in circles. I reminded her that she had the power to choose which way she was going, that she could turn. So she did.
Her newfound power was hard to handle at first as she careened across the court. She took some detours out of bounds before weaving back in, always keeping in mind where she was trying to go. She expressed her frustration when she’d notice she was headed further away from the goal until her seemingly random maneuvers had her pointed the right way again.
As time went on, she overshot less and had fewer corrections to make. After about twenty minutes of struggling, she made her final approach to the destination corner. She had a smile on her face. She was on course, and was confident she’d arrive.
When she finally arrived, I congratulated her on her accomplishment. I reminded her that she had just mastered a difficult task. I was surprised, though, when I watched her smile slowly fade as she reflected on her recent frustration. She lamented to me, “But, Dad, it was too hard.”
I stopped her there to correct her before that thought went any further. I said, “No, it was not too hard. You did it! Didn’t you?! It was hard to do, but you tried hard until you could do it, right?!”
“Yes,” she conceded, “but it was hard.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It was hard, but it was not too hard.”
Brethren and sisters, there will be no shortage of hard things in life, but we can hope with the utmost assurance that nothing in life critical to our eventual exaltation will ever be too hard. I testify that because of his atonement, Jesus Christ has the power to transform too hard into merly hard. Though at times we may rend our clothes, shave our heads, and fall upon the ground, if we continue to worship, there’s not one, but two cookies waiting at the end.
Of this I testify, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.