Thursday, December 17, 2015

Peace At Any Price


Liz Shropshire was one of my first close friends after moving to Los Angeles. She was studying music at USC at the same time my husband, Jeff, was in USC's cinema school. We instantly found lots of common ground...music, service, movies, and adventure. Together we sat side by side frantically copying orchestra parts for an assignment due, we ventured south of Los Angeles to visit the famous Watts towers, we served in the youth center at this beautiful Santa Monica site, a bastion of peace for us both, and one day we even helped rescue an old woman whose apartment was on fire in Liz's building. We've been through a lot together.

Amazingly, each of these stand-out activities that originally bonded us as friends now stands as a symbol of something bigger in both of our lives.

• I wasn't a music major, I knew only piano-lessons level theory, and I'd never copied parts before in my life. But somehow Liz believed in me and helped me believe I could do it too. She had the big vision. I just contributed my part. We did it together, and it worked.

• When we climbed and took pictures of ourselves on the Watts Towers, little did we know that the riots that tore apart the community of Watts in the 1960s would repeat themselves as the Rodney King riots in the 1990s, and our USC apartments were inside the first (most dangerous) curfew zone. We were survivors of a major outbreak of violence.

• Working at the youth center taught us not only to love teaching, and to love working with children, but that beautiful sacred space taught us what peace really is, what it feels like when you're standing on holy ground, and what it feels like inside your heart.

• The woman didn't even realize her apartment was on fire—something had combusted inside her kitchen cabinet—until Liz smelled smoke and pounded on her door.  I wonder how many other people smelled smoke and walked on by, but Liz is never afraid to act. She has a skillset I deeply admire—the ability to sense a need, and ACT—calmly and responsibly.

So it shouldn't surprise you that in 1999 Liz heard an NPR story about children in Kosovo, innocent victims in a war-torn country, and felt moved to act. That story tugged at something deep and compassionate inside her with such power that she decided to sell everything she had and buy a plane ticket to Kosovo. She didn't really have a plan in place at the time. She had a music degree and a ton of teaching experience in some rough, inner-city Los Angeles schools. And some loose ties to a service organization there. A Los Angeles friend encouraged her to "do what you do best" and take along some musical instruments, for the heck of it. By the time of her departure she had raised enough funds to arrive in Kosovo with $5000 worth of musical instruments to take to the children there. The Shropshire Music Foundation was born: Teaching Peace Through Music.


Liz has devoted everything she has over the past 16 years to teaching children peace—first in Kosovo, and later opening programs in Uganda and Northern Ireland—with a hope to expand to benefit the Syrian refugees in 2016. She is, without a doubt, one of my biggest heroes.

Last month Liz was in town for a conference. I dropped everything when I heard she was in town. I hadn't seen her in person since she was packing her bags for Kosovo in 1999. I went to listen to her speak, then we took her out to dinner with some friends the following night so our kids could also hear her amazing stories—how little children who used to wake up screaming every night because of the horrors they've witnessed now sleep through the night because of the soothing power of music;—how Ugandan youths who were turned into soldiers at age 5 are now learning music and leadership, and the true meaning of power and peace;—how 95% of their youth volunteers go on to attend college;—how Liz is guided by a Higher Power that continues to open doors and work miracles. It was one of the most motivating and inspiring evenings we've spent in a long time.



I tell parts of Liz's story on our latest Living Room show, "Peace, Be Still." There's a link at the top of the page where you can play it right from this site. Hear about Nelson Mandela's widow, Gra├ža Machel, and how her research backs up Liz's programs—that children heal best through the arts, and teens heal best in a teaching capacity. Liz and her children across the globe are living proof.

 bit.ly/TLRShowiTunes

In the past month we've seen so much violence and disruption, drawing ever closer to home. It becomes more and more apparent how desperately we all need peace on earth, and peace in our individual homes and hearts.

"Peace at any price" is a saying my mother-in-law uses to encourage us to let go of pride and selfishness in favor of peace within the family. Liz has taken that a step further and has literally given up everything she has—including a place to live—in order to work for peace. To her there is literally no pricetag too high to teach and further the cause of peace.

Our family has chosen the Shropshire Music Foundation as our charity of choice this giving season. I may not be able to do what Liz does, but I can help her teach and spread peace. We are donating a portion of all our online shopping through smile.amazon.com. And we are looking at other ways to contribute financially and in kind. I hope you'll join us.






Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Manger Scene as a Metaphor

In pondering the beauty of this season and the birth that inspires it, I have discovered that each figure of the Nativity represents its own aspects of discipleship. If we put them all together we can grasp a deeper understanding and a composite of traits that will help to render us true followers of Jesus. At the end of each section I’ve used the words of Neal A. Maxwell—who was himself a consummate disciple—to underscore these thoughts.


SHEPHERDS
These humble caregivers, among the lowliest station of society, were “watching over their flocks by night,” not unlike a mother who loses sleep caring for a sick child.

Being in the right place at the right time, these lowly servants were the first to hear and receive the news of Christ’s birth. They were visited by angels, bathed in glorious light, and witnessed a heavenly chorus.

Their response, “Let us now go,” indicates their lack of any hesitation in their journey to receive a personal witness of the things they’d been told. They didn’t worry about whether they were appropriately dressed or received an invitation. They just went.

The scriptures tell us they “came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” They sought Christ, came to Christ, and found Christ. But their discipleship doesn’t end there. Luke continues, “And when they had seen it, they made known abroad” all they had learned about the Savior.  To me, the shepherds signify CARE, HUMILITY and WITNESSING.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “Discipleship means being drawn by seemingly small and routine duties toward the fulfillment of the two great and most challenging commandments.” (“True Believers in Christ,” p. 135)

The sooner we are on the way to serious discipleship, the sooner the needed spiritual and personal reinforcements and intellectual reassurances will come to us personally.” (On Becoming A Disciple-Scholar, p.19)

MAGI
The wise men were prepared by learning and study. Because of their careful gospel scholarship, they were expectant of the signs surrounding the birth of the Messiah. Their focus was on the heavens, on light and truth. “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
They journeyed a great distance to Bethlehem. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 2:11) They made their journey to the Christ child, knelt and worshipped him, and laid their gifts at his feet. But their discipleship doesn’t end there.

“Being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.” By not returning to King Herod, they made a deliberate and symbolic decision to turn away from the power, riches, honor and violence of the world and journey “another way,” the journey of true discipleship. To me the Magi symbolize GOSPEL SCHOLARSHIP, CONSECRATION AND SPIRITUAL WISDOM.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “For a disciple of Christ, academic scholarship is a form of worship. It is another form of consecration...How else could one worship God with all of one’s heart, might, mind and strength?” —(Luke 10:27) On Becoming a Disciple-Scholar, p.7)

JOSEPH
Gentle Joseph understood his place and was not ego-driven. He was merciful to his bride-to-me, Mary, when he learned she was “with child” but not by him. He did not put her to death, as Mosaic law allowed, and had decided to “put her away privily” rather than shame her publicly. After “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, “ helping Joseph understand the baby’s true parentage, “...Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:” Joseph walked beside her every step of the journey.

He was a righteous father who received revelation for his family—a second visitation is recorded when an angel instructed him to take his family and flee to Egypt. In both cases his spiritual receptivity likely saved the life of Jesus, who in turn saved us. But his discipleship doesn’t end there. Joseph literally stood in for God as Jesus’s earthly father and early mentor. To me, Joseph symbolizes PERSONAL REVELATION, RIGHTEOUS LEADERSHIP, and above all, MERCY.

Elder Maxwell stated, “Discipleship in our day, as in all eras, has as a goal not our being different from other men, but our need to be more like God.” (A Time to Choose, p.16)


MARY
Though very young, Mary had tremendous “inward strength.” The angel told of her most remarkable mission, and her response resonates through the centuries. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” When she asked meekly, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” she soon learned that “with God, nothing is impossible.”

Later, after greeting her relative and mentor Elizabeth, Mary exclaimed, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” Her use of the word magnify seems to mean “celebrate with praise.”

When “the days were accomplished that she should deliver,” without mention of a midwife or other assistance “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” In the humblest of circumstances arrived the greatest of Gifts.

Surely no one knew and loved Jesus quite like Mary, who birthed him, nursed him, and nurtured him. Yet her discipleship doesn’t end there. Mary understood the sacredness of her mission and refrained from sharing much of her glorious experience. Luke tells us that “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” To me, Mary represents the qualities of SUBMISSIVENESS, PURITY and RESTRAINT.

Elder Maxwell wrote, “Even articulate discipleship has its side of silent certitude.” (Meek and Lowly, p.57)

COMMON THREADS
At this point we can find some common threads in our quest for discipleship.
We can agree that each of these representative figures from the Nativity deeply and personally KNOWS AND LOVES THE LORD. As a corollary, their deep affection for the Savior also prompts them to keep the second great commandment, to LOVE AND SERVE OTHER PEOPLE and deal with them MERCIFULLY.

I imagine that truly knowing the Lord causes us to see ourselves in relationship to Him, resulting in GENUINE HUMILITY. There is no self-deprecation here. Disciples merely choose to compare themselves to God rather than compare themselves to other people, resulting in a humble perspective that both honors God and unifies the human race.

This expansive brand of humility naturally breeds a deepening degree of SUBMISSIVENESS. When we know and understand His greatness, His goodness, we more naturally bend our own will to meet His. We obey—not just the written commandments, but the promptings of the Spirit that move us outside our comfort zone and away from the clipboard to be “anxiously engaged” in seeking out His will and doing it, daily, hourly moment by moment.

May we each deepen and find joy in this journey of a lifetime.

Friday, October 2, 2015

My Perfect Day: What Would Your House Look Like?





Back in California, fifteen years ago, we purchased what had been our dream house for YEARS. When the kids were little we’d walk past this house with our strollers, at it admiringly, and sigh, “If only…” And then, nearly a decade later, the dream became reality—the house was ours: century two-story Craftsman, big wraparound front porch, French doors and coffered ceiling in the dining room, spacious living room with fireplace and built-in bookcases, quarter-sawn oak floors, big second-story window seat…I could go on and on. It broke my heart when we decided to move. Second only to leaving our wonderful Pasadena friends was leaving this gracious Historic Highlands home.























The house we subsequently purchased was nothing like it. Built in 1978, complete with peach shag carpet and vinyl siding, it seemed the opposite of who we are and what we were seeking. But what the house lacked in old-world charm it had like no other: Spirit. We bought the house for the feeling inside. We spent a small fortune and fixed it up the best we could. Made it comfortable and livable and lovely. Ripped out the carpet and replaced it with Brazilian hardwood. Tore down the wallpaper, patched the resulting holes, and chose lovely shades of paint. Opened up the kitchen so it flowed better into the family room. 

Then all of a sudden one day I realized I was living in my dream house. Not our Pasadena dream house, a completely different dream house—the house I dreamed of when I was a child. 
I used to love watching The Waltons on television. I thought Olivia Walton was the source of all wisdom and loveliness, the crotchety grandparents were hilarious and adorable, and all the siblings saying good night at the end of every episode made theirs the coziest house ever. I also loved that there was a light on upstairs while nighttime journaling was happening. Never mind that they were living during the Great Depression—the food always looked amazing. I loved seeing the kids walk to school barefoot, along the banks of a stream. I fantasized a big, two-story white farmhouse like the Waltons, and wanted to live THERE…wherever there was. 

What I realized that day is that THERE is HERE. It's uncanny, really. I live in the big, two-story white farmhouse I envisioned as a child. We live on a beautiful wooded acre that feels as private and secluded as if we lived on a Virginia farm. Our dogs run through the trees, over the grassy hillsides, and deer and quail come to visit. Coveys of kids gather and walk to school, meandering through our yard. For the first several years we even had a stream running through our yard. I got exactly what I wanted. But I had no idea when we bought it.

I think what I learned is that “perfect” doesn’t always look like our mind’s conception of perfection. But it does answer our deepest desires.
On The Living Room's social media channels this month we're discussing topics centered around discovering our core identity through imagining our perfect, average day. This is Day 2: What Would Your House Look like?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When the Worst Possible Thing...Isn't

What I Gained When I Lost show
Last Tuesday the Living Room reran one of our earlier episodes, called What I Gained When I Lost. As I listened a second time, it reminded me of an experience I had back in high school:


It was the audition for Concerto Night, a competition amongst my musical peers for a chance to perform in the spotlight with a live orchestra (the high school orchestra, but still, a pretty big deal). I had been studying and practicing this particular concerto, the Beethoven I, for over a year and a half. I had all 28 pages thoroughly memorized, backwards and forwards, they were polished, and perfected. I even had two amazing master classes with concert pianist Grant Johannessen. I was ready. Except for a tiny little problem I have called Performance Anxiety.

It turned out that my cousin’s wedding reception, in which I was a bridesmaid, was the same night as the concerto competition. I slipped out of the reception line a few minutes early, and my mother and I raced our car through the slushy city streets, arriving at the A cappella room just in time for one of the last remaining audition slots. I sat there, wringing and shaking my hands to warm them up after being out in the brisk February air.

They called my name. I stood up in my burgundy velvet bridesmaid dress, took a deep breath, and walked to the piano. All eyes were on me. The room was deathly quiet. I sat down, adjusted the bench, uttered a silent prayer for help, and nodded to my mom, who was playing the orchestra score on the second piano, to let her know I was ready. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.

I listened for the opening chords, then attacked my entrance with confidence and aplomb. The runs were rapid and crystal-clear. My fingers were flying fast over the arpeggios. I was off! Then  about halfway through the concerto, in a section that I knew so well I could play it in my sleep, I hit a wrong note.

It completely threw me off. I couldn’t find the next note, or the one after that. That passage I could play in my sleep suddenly became my worst nightmare. Flustered, I went back to a section where I could start over. When I got to the exact same spot I panicked again and couldn’t find the note.  I began again a third time, and eventually muddled my way through to the end. The finish was big and dramatic. But I knew I’d completely blown the audition.

I was devastated. Everything I worked on so diligently for over a year and a half suddenly seemed all for nothing. My dreams of playing with the school orchestra were shattered. I didn’t have to wait for the judges’ decision; I knew. I couldn’t even look anyone in the eye as I trudged back to my car in the snow. My mom was powerless to console me. God had let me down. My prayers hadn’t reached him…or they got His answering machine!

I stepped completely away from the piano and didn’t touch it again for 18 months. I couldn’t stand to be part of an art where you could perfect something, and still have it go abysmally wrong on the final performance. I thought about my writing, where you perfect a story or an essay, submit it to a contest, and win a scholarship. I thought about my artwork, and how you perfect a painting, put it in a frame and hang it up on a wall. It stays that way. Everyone who walks by can see it, just as you intended it to be.

I decided right then and there that I was going to major in art. For my creative sanity. I would create pieces and frame them and hang them. Period. No risk of the final product gone awry.

Looking back on that moment—where it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen had just found me and dragged me down to the abyss—from my current mid-life vantage point, God didn’t abandon me at all. He used that moment to nudge me with a course-correction. He was being kind. And even a little bit generous. To let me discover my career path early, rather than after several other failed attempts. In retrospect, the demise of my piano-playing future signaled the birth of who I was really meant to be.

What I gained when I lost? Was my better self.

The Living Room is airing a brand new show today: Seeing Your Spouse. Listen when it airs at noon on fromthelivingroom.com, or tune in at your convenience on iTunes: bit.ly/TLRShowiTunes

Monday, September 14, 2015

Epilogue: Phi-Phi's Refugee Saga

I first heard Phi-Phi Chang Anderton's amazing refugee story 17 years ago, sitting on the one chair in their mostly-unfurnished living room, while Phi-Phi sat across the room on a hammock. We sometimes laugh about it now. A lot has changed since then. Their house is absolutely lovely, beautifully furnished, and they have filled it with three beautiful children. Our relationship has grown from fresh acquaintance to deeply rooted friendship. I don't live in California any more, so we visit mostly via texts and emails...and in person every December. 

There's one thing that hasn't changed, though, across time and miles, and that's how Phi-Phi's story has impacted me and lived with me over the years. I sat spell-bound as she shared with me her attempted boat escape, her captivity, the jungle, being separated from her mother, finally coming to the U.S. and all the rest.

The back-story of how I came to write about it now is pretty interesting. I was sitting in sacrament meeting (our Sunday worship service), the weekend before Pioneer Day (July 24 in Utah), singing pioneer hymns, and wondering how we could make that cherished tradition more timely, more global, more 21st century. Suddenly my thoughts were drawn to my dear friend Phi-Phi, and how she, too is a pioneer, and a remarkable one. In that instant the Lord told me to write HER pioneer story.

I started writing what I remembered, but realized I needed way more detail, the facts had become a little fuzzy since I’d heard it from her mouth 17 years ago. So I shot her a quick email, asked if we could talk on the phone sometime. She texted me back a day or two later and said she was in town that week. Miracle! I had no idea.

We enjoyed a wonderful 3 1/2-hour lunch at La Jolla Groves where I took copious notes, recorded our conversation, and was blown away yet again by the enormity of her journey, her suffering, and her ability to rise above it all. I was also stunned by the miracles...the way the hand of God had put the right people in place at all the right times so Phi-Phi could be who and where she is today.

I initially thought maybe I should post the story for Pioneer Day, but the scope was too great, I couldn’t finish it in time. So I’ve been sort of sitting on it…until September 3, when that sweet little Syrian refugee was washed ashore in Turkey. Suddenly REFUGEES rose to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and the Lord said NOW. I wanted to do something, anything, to help, and I felt prompted to share her story, along with some links where people could donate to alleviate the current refugee crisis.

Photos covering Phi-Phi's living room on September 5, 2015
Fortunately, I had the first several episodes already written and ready to post. I texted Phi-Phi and told her what I was planning to do, and she was very much on board. She spent several nights and an entire weekend rummaging through boxes of old photographs looking for just the right pictures to accompany each episode of the story. We texted, emailed and/or spoke on the phone daily, often many times a day, fine-tuning the details of each segment of the story. It has been a true collaboration.

I'm so humbled to have been permitted to share her amazing story, and hopefully to have been a small vehicle for outreach during a global crisis. I've been so moved by the outpouring of love and compassion from so many readers. The response has been staggering. Thank you, each of you, for reading, for loving, for caring, and for embracing a portion of humanity by investing in this story and caring for those in similar straits.



I thought it was fascinating and significant that the same week I started posting this story,  modern-day apostle Jeffrey R Holland visited Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the same three countries where Phi-Phi's harrowing journey begins—to deliver a message of healing and hope.

In a previous visit to Asia, Elder Holland said that members there are spiritual pioneers, and commended them for their strong character, saying they work daily “to take a stand, to be loyal devoted Latter-day Saints. They are courageous; they live the gospel and square their shoulders to be what they ought to be.”  Phi-Phi embodies every quality he ascribes to these modern-day pioneers. My friend the refugee truly is a Pioneer Girl.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

One Refugee's Happy Ending

L-R: Garyn, Ronan, and Gillian Anderton: Father's Day photo for Bryan, 2015
This is the final episode of a story that starts here.
 
Phi-Phi graduated from Occidental College in 1995 with a degree in Women’s Studies and a specialization in International Politics. They moved to San Diego while Bryan attended law school. She has worked for the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla, and at Occidental College in Eagle Rock—first as an Admission Counselor, and later promoted to Assistant Dean of Admission.

After Bryan passed the bar exam and worked in the legal field for a while, he realized that he was more fulfilled creatively working in the entertainment industry. Bryan is a master craftsman with meticulous skills and a vivid imagination. Among his numerous credits are (Production Designer): Yo Gabba Gabba, and (Set Designer/Set Builder): Pirates of the Caribbean, SpiderMan, Thor, Interstellar (this one blew me away—we saw some of the photos before the film came out and it made us extra excited to see the movie), and most recently, Straight Outta Compton.

I met Phi-Phi at their newly-purchased home in Pasadena, in November of 1998. I was asked to be Phi-Phi’s visiting teacher when they first moved into the area—what began as an assignment quickly became a treasured friendship. I was pregnant with our youngest son at the time, and just a few months later they found out Phi-Phi was expecting too. Phi-Phi and I were both working mothers, and a year or so after their oldest daughter was born, Phi-Phi and I shared a wonderful nanny, Corrina Vasquez. Our children practically grew up together in Corrina’s care! 



The Anderton Family at Bryan's brother's funeral in 2015
Though I have long since moved away from California, we have been great friends for the entire time we’ve known each other. (Phi-Phi is amazingly good at keeping in touch!) Bryan and Phi-Phi now have three beautiful children—Garyn, Gillian, and Ronan, a tiny, picture-book perfect house with a giant vegetable garden in back; and more joy than she could probably imagine throughout most of this story.

In all of our conversations and interviews in preparation for sharing this story, Phi-Phi continues to express her gratitude for all of her experiences, the painful and heartbreaking ones as well as the miraculous and joyful and inspiring ones. She insists that all of them—the whole package—are what make her who she is today.

Who she is, in my experience, is a warm, bright, beautiful and generous person with a rich inner strength and a wealth of compassion. Phi-Phi is one of those rare people who is perpetually positive, who smiles on others like rays of the sun and warms you from the inside-out. She radiates love and embodies hope. She has made her home a bastion of peace, which reflects this biblical passage: “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.” (Isaiah 54:13)

It has been an extraordinary blessing to enjoy her friendship over the past 17 years. And it has been a very humbling opportunity to share her story here. Thank you for reading through to the end.  (Click here to read a brief epilogue about how this story came to be.)


Call to action:

Although Phi-Phi is definitely one in a million, there are thousands of refugees in similar plights who need to be clothed, fed, rescued, sheltered, and loved. Just this week President Obama’s administration announced that while in this fiscal year the U.S. has accepted about 1500 refugees, next year he has increased that number to at least 10,000! This is wonderful news.
 

If any readers would like to join me in donating to the urgent cause of aiding today’s refugees, here are a few links to sponsoring sites with A- to A+ ratings by Charity Watch:


American Refugee Committee
CARE
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Service
Doctors Without Borders USA
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Lutheran World Relief
Mennonite Central Committee
Mercy Corps
Oxfam-America
Save the Children
United States Fund for UNICEF
World Vision