The talk is long, but it's full of great discussion material and so that is why I have decided to "dissect" it here in a series of posts.
First of all, I should tell you all how I even came across this talk.
Recently we had a very special missionary serving in my branch. He wasn't just special because he was the first non-American serving in my branch, at least since I've been here -- he is German -- but because he was an excellent missionary. To me, that does not necessarily mean one that has had any great success in conversion statistics, but rather one who seems to sincerely care about the people around him and seems to be genuinely interested in service and friendship -- not simply baptisms. Many missionaries focus so much on leading people to the waters of baptism or "saving" everyone around them, that they forget to be a friend and thereby miss the opportunity to plant "seeds" -- ones that may never sprout in this lifetime, but may in the next. So, if missionary success is to be measured by seeds of friendship rather than baptisms, I would say that Elder W was about as successful as a missionary can hope to be.
Since Germany is special to my husband and me (it's where we met, and German was our main language of communication for several years), we quickly made a connection with Elder W. He had a good sense of humour, was a good sport with all our German jokes, and always honoured my request to not pressure my husband into further investigation of the Church, but rather just be our friend.
Before Elder W's mission ended, he said that he wanted to give me a talk on mp3 to listen to. So I transferred it onto my mp3 player and listened to it for the first time while flying home to Canada for a visit. I wasn't really sure what the talk was about, but expected it to be just another General Conference talk. It soon became evident that this was not the type of talk that we hear in in conference.
This talk is remarkable for several reasons and it was one that I needed to hear. As I listened to it, I had many thoughts and hope that I can capture just a few of them in this series of posts. I'm sure I'm not the only one who can benefit from it and therefore I wish to share it with all of my readers and hear their thoughts.
The first themes Elder Hafen touches on are prayer, God's involvement in ours lives, and the challenges to spirituality that come with intellectual maturity, as we read in the following excerpt:
"One Sunday morning, the Elders Quorum in our ward held a special testimony meeting characterized by spiritual warmth and personal openness. During that meeting, a fellow law student related a boyhood experience that had occurred just after he had been ordained a deacon. He lived on a farm and had been promised that a calf about to be born would be his very own to raise. One summer morning when his parents were away, he was working in the barn when the expectant cow began to calve prematurely. He watched in great amazement as the little calf was born; and then, without warning, the mother suddenly rolled over the little calf. He could see that she was trying to kill it. In his heart he cried out to the Lord for help. Not thinking about how much more the cow weighed than he did, he pushed on her with all his strength and somehow moved her away. He picked up the lifeless body of the calf in his arms and, brokenhearted, the tears running down his cheeks, he looked at it, wondering what had happened and what he could do. Then he remembered, he told us, that he now held the Priesthood and had every right to pray for additional help. And so he prayed from the depths of his boyish, believing heart. Before long the little animal began breathing again, and he knew that his prayer had been heard.
After relating the story, the tears welled up in his eyes and he said to us, "Brethren, I tell you that story because I don't know that I would do now what I did then. I think I might not expect the Lord's help in that kind of situation. I am not sure that I would believe now, even if I relived that experience, that the calf's survival was anything more than a coincidence. I don't understand what has happened to me since that incident, but I sense that something has gone a little bit wrong."
My friend in the Elders Quorum was not saying that he had lost faith in the Lord; rather, he was simply being very honest with us, I think, in sharing both the childlike and the sophisticated dimensions of his experience. This story reflects the thoughts and feelings that many of us experience, in our own way, during the college years. These thoughts and feelings are an important part of growing toward spiritual and intellectual maturity, as well as an important part of understanding both the strengths and the limitations of a college education."
Most of us probably have wondered if or how much God is really involved in our individual lives. Personally, I have more trouble believing that God hears the pleas of others than my own. I wonder why God will grant me the trivialities of my life -- yes, trivialities like fresh produce or a washing machine -- and yet literally leave others out in the cold without the bare necessities of life. We often say that God doesn't intervene much because he must allow us our free agency. In other words, He couldn't save all those in the depths of Auschwitz's gas chambers and He cannot save the people in Darfur from starvation because the free agency of the perpetrators overrides His ability to intervene, no matter how much the victims plead with God to save them.
So if God allows certain humans to have so much power over others -- on the grounds of free agency -- then why even ask Him to protect us from anything? If a knife-wielding lunatic on the street exercises his free agency and decides he is going to get me, can God do anything about it? If so, then why not at least throw suffering people a bone?
And yet I continue to pray for a blessing of safety upon me and my loved ones. A habit of hope and fear, I suppose. Hope that it will make a difference. Fear that it won't or even can't, because life is really just a big series of one coincidence after another. An intellectual maturity does not necessarily cause us to lose our faith in the Lord's existence. But I think that if we're honest with ourselves, a more sophisticated style of thinking makes us question just how big of a role He plays in our lives, which thereby challenges our spirituality.
What do you think? Was the calf's survival a coincidence? Is the very fact that you are living, breathing and reading right now a coincidence or divine intervention? Is it coincidence or divine intervention that separates your reality from that of the orphan with a shrapnel wound in Pakistan's Swat region?
To be honest, I'm not sure which alternative makes me feel better.