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, 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, Graça 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.

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 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.

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)

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)

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)

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)

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.