You Need to Serve a Mission!

Ten years ago this weekend (March 9, 2003) was the beginning of a major turning point in my life.

A big one.

You see, 10 years ago I made the decision to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  And I can say that bar none, that was the best decision I have ever made in my entire life.

I think it’s safe to say that most people who knew me as I grew up – especially my family – always figured that I would serve a mission.  No one ever said anything about it, no one ever pressured me to serve one.  But because my religion was such a big part of my life, I embraced it voluntarily and whole-heartedly – and I was in the habit of working with the missionaries in my hometown and often gave Books of Mormons to my friends and elementary and high school teachers – I think people naturally assumed that I’d follow in my father’s and both of my sisters’ footsteps and serve a mission.  So you can imagine people’s shock when I announced sometime during my first two years of college that I wasn’t going to serve one.  I had decided to focus on my studies and finish up the art program quickly so I could graduate and move on with my life.  And I was ok with that – females aren’t required to serve missions, and I figured that I’d be able to contribute to missionary work by serving in my church and continuing the good habits I’d already developed.

So you can imagine how completely blindsided I was when I received the impression that I needed to serve as a missionary.  I mean it literally came out of nowhere and at a time when I least expected it.  The experience was so unique, so powerful, and as I said above, so life-changing that I remember the exact date it happened, where it happened, who I was with, and if I were to return to the room where it happened, I can tell you exactly where I was sitting.

March 9, 2003 was stake conference (a church meeting comprised of about 1500-2000 college-aged students who lived in the same geographical area), and the meetings were held in the Wilkinson Center ballroom on the BYU campus.  I was in the middle of fighting a cold, so I wasn’t in the best spirits – my throat hurt, my nose was runny, my eyes were really itchy, and I had a pounding headache.  To put it frankly, I was not too thrilled about being at the meeting – in fact I had absolutely no desire to be there.  I would have much preferred to be home in my nice warm bed sleeping.  I sat grumpily in my chair and promptly tuned out what the speakers were saying.  From time to time I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, wishing that my head would stop hurting and that I could just go back to bed.

Elder Butler, an area authority, and his wife were there presiding over the meeting.  Evidently the Butlers had just finished a 3-year assignment as mission presidents of the Massachusetts Boston Mission (at least that’s the mission I think they presided over), and two of their former missionaries were in our congregation.  Elder Butler asked those individuals – a male and a female – to come to the rostrum and bear their testimonies.  The young man went first.  I have no recollection of what he said.   My headache prevented me from really focusing on what he was saying, and even if I could have, remember dear reader, I was being a total brat and I had categorically refused to enjoy the meeting.

Then the woman stood up.  She was one of those individuals who have the energy of three people and are so cheery and bubbly that they make you sick.  You know the type, the ones you’d love to punch in the face because really, it’s just not healthy to have an attitude like that.  I rolled my eyes, rested my elbows on my knees, plopped my head into my hands, and watched her from the corner of my eye.  My roommate, DeAnn, was sitting next to me and she started to rub on my back.  The girl at the podium was going on and on and on, and in my head I was willing her to be quiet.  Near the end of her address she said something to the effect of, “I encourage all of you women to serve a mission.  It’s the best thing in the world.”  At that I rolled my eyes again and dug the base of my hands into my eyes trying to get the pain in my head to go away.  I thought to myself, “Man, chica!  Shut up!  And no thanks, I don’t want to serve a mission.”  And I promptly tuned out the rest of her remarks.  Finally she stopped speaking and backed away from the microphone.  I was still bent over my knees with my head in my hands and I muttered to myself, “At least that’s over!!”  In the 10 seconds that lapsed from the time that the girl left the podium to the time that Elder Butler stood up to speak, the quiet words You need to serve a mission popped into my head.  I quipped, “Nope.  No way.  Don’t want to.”

I don’t really have the words to describe what happened next.  The closest thing to even begin to portray what happened is to say that an invisible force hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like it had grabbed me by the shoulders and shoved me upright.  It was practically tangible, and I sat straight up in my chair.  I sat up so fast that I scared DeAnn – she even jumped, poor thing!  My other two roommates were sitting on the opposite side of me, and they turned and looked at me, too, trying to figure out what was wrong.  Needless to say, that snapped me out of the negativity I was wallowing in.  All of my attention was directed at the words that accompanied that “shove.”  They weren’t louder, but they pressed upon my mind with a lot more force.  You need to serve a mission.  

I replied, “But I don’t want to serve a mission.  If I serve a mission I’ll end up going to France, and I hate speaking French.”

The quiet, piercing words responded, That doesn’t matter.  You need to serve a mission.  Then a calming warmth enveloped me, and it felt as if my heart was on fire.

Tears came to my eyes and I said, “But I don’t want to speak French.”

I immediately felt those same words.  You need to serve a mission.

I quickly enumerated the reasons why I “couldn’t” go on a mission – i.e.: I was making significant headway in the illustration program, I was almost done with school and it didn’t make sense to take a break from my studies, there was a young man that I was interested in and was willing to see where our relationship went and plus, I really didn’t want to go to France.

None of those things really matter.  You need to serve a mission.

Needless to say, I didn’t pay attention to the rest of the meeting (par for the day).  I vaguely remember seeing Elder Butler deliver his address, but I have no idea what he said.  I sat in that chair arguing back and forth with that voice (and for the record, no I am not schizophrenic).  I presented all of the things I thought were valid reasons to why I couldn’t or shouldn’t serve a mission, and each time I did, that burning feeling increased to the point that my whole body shook and tears streamed down my face.

Finally the meeting ended, and I made a bee-line home.  I don’t even remember the walk back, nor do I remember if my roommates returned with me.  The next thing I knew I was locked in my bedroom, kneeling at the side of my bed and trying to gather my thoughts before I prayed to God.  Finally I said, “Heavenly Father today I have had many impressions that I should serve a mission.  I know that they came from Thee.  But Father, do I–” I was about to ask if I had to serve a mission.  But this thought came: God doesn’t force anyone to do anything… no one has to do anything.  So I began praying again and rephrased the question.  “Father, is it really in my best interests to serve a mission?”  Immediately that burning feeling intensified, and I felt – rather than heard – the word Yes.  

That was it.  That’s all I had to know.

I took a deep breath and said, “Ok.  I’ll do it.  But I need Thy help with three things.  Please take care of my schooling.  I’m in a competitive program and I cannot afford to regress in my artistic abilities.  Please help me with my relationship with P so I can feel more at ease with putting that on hold.  And finally Father, I hate speaking French.  I had terrible experiences my senior year of high school with my French teacher.  I only took French 202 here at BYU so I wouldn’t have to take math classes because I hate math even more than I hate French.  I know if I serve a mission that I’ll get sent to France…  so please help me to learn to love French again.”

I got up from my knees and crawled on top of my bed.  I laid down and cried.  I really wasn’t too thrilled at the prospect of serving a mission.  I was almost devastated.  For those readers who aren’t familiar with how members of the LDS Church are assigned to missions, the applicant doesn’t decide where s/he serves.  Rather, members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles review his/her application and recommends a mission to the President of the Church – a man who we believe to be a prophet, a man with a calling similar to Moses – and he essentially makes the final decision.  He then issues the applicant’s mission call by letter.  I had absolutely no control over where I would go.

Yet I knew that I would be sent to France.

So I called my sister Amber and asked – or rather demanded – that she come to Provo and pick me up so I could talk with her.  I didn’t say why, but she’d figured out why by the time she arrived at my apartment.  According to her, she said that she knew I’d gotten “thumped.”  Seriously, that’s what she said – with a smile and laugh pulling at her lips.  She took me out to Village Inn and bought me pie, and we talked about her mission and how it had blessed her.  She was beaming the whole time because she was so happy that I was going, and I was hiccuping over my sobs because I didn’t want to go to France and I knew I would.  I was heartsick.

But I was true to the promise that I made with God in that prayer – I would prepare myself, and then serve.  And He was true to what I asked Him to do.  Within one week all three of the things that I asked for help with were taken care of.  I spoke with my art professors and learned what I had to do to reserve my place in the program, events happened enabled my heart to be at ease in regards to P, and I went out and bought a French translation of The Book of Mormon and began reading it from the beginning.

Many other things that I consider miracles happened between that day and the time when I was eligible to turn in my mission papers.  (I was 3 weeks shy of my 20th birthday, and back then the age at which females could first serve a mission was 21.  Applicants could send in their papers 3 months before their birthday).  One of those miracles occurred during the October 2003 sessions of General Conference.  The general leadership of the LDS Church address the church membership, and the broadcasts of the conference are sent via satellite to chapels all over the world and are simultaneously translated in over 80 languages.  My roommate Ginger and I were able to go up to Salt Lake and attend the conference in person.  When one of the Apostles, Elder Richard G. Scott, stood to speak, one of the most amazing things happened.  He began talking about the blessings one receives for serving a faithful mission.  Despite sitting in an auditorium that seats 21,000 people, it seemed as if he and I were the only ones there.  It was like he was talking directly to me, just for me.  He addressed concerns that I had.  Overall his talk acted as a confirmation that the decision I had made in regards to serving a mission was correct.

Fast forward to Thursday  February 19, 2004, 11 months after that stake conference with Elder Butler and his cheerful sister missionary.  My papers had been at Church Headquarters for approximately 2 weeks, and on that day I was sitting in the relaxing quiet of my figure drawing class drawing the live model.  Out of the blue I felt these words come to mind: Your mission call has just been decided by Elder Scott.  My eyes filled with tears and I had to stop drawing because I couldn’t see what I was doing.  Fortunately our professor called a 10 minute break, so I ran up the stairs and went to the computer lab to email my sister, Autumn.  Since I knew that Elder Scott’s recommendation would be sent on to President Gordon B. Hinckley within the next couple of business days, I wrote to tell her what had just happened and that I would receive my mission call and packet the next Wednesday, February 25th.  Later I spoke with some of my closest friends and said that I’d have my call the next week.  They asked how I knew and I said, “I just know it.”  One of them said, “You know, Lark, my brother’s mission call took 4 weeks to get to him, and he was here at BYU.    Your papers have only been in two weeks – there’s no way you could possibly know when it will arrive.”  I shrugged my shoulders and changed the subject.

On the morning of the 25th I woke up and was as excited as could be.  I knew that my letter would be in the mail when I got home that day.  It was all I could do to focus on my classes.  Finally I finished up on campus and rushed home.  Sure enough, there it was on the table.  Some of my closest friends came over to watch me open it (thanks, Nielson family!!), and I called my parents and opened my letter with them on the phone.  I read

Dear Sister Porter:  You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  You are assigned to labor in the France Toulouse Mission… [and signed by President Hinckley at the end]

France.  Big surprise.

But I was so excited and so happy!  By then I’d read The Book of Mormon all the way through in French – I’d already done so numerous times in English – and true to what I’d asked for in that prayer, I’d regained my enthusiasm for French.

My mission was by far the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.  I had to overcome lots of challenges.  I met people who were really rude and antagonistic towards my church and the message that I had to share.  But I served the full 18 months, and I was blessed beyond measure.  I made several lasting friendships, both with the persons I served and those who I served with.  My love for the Savior grew a thousand-fold, and I came home with a deep and abiding love for France, the French culture, and the French-speaking people I met and taught.

With my second mission president and his wife - President and Soeur Merrell

With my second mission president and his wife – President and Soeur Merrell

With Soeurs Poirier and Green in Nîmes

With Soeurs Poirier and Green in Nîmes

With one of my best friends from high school - she happened to be in Bordeaux doing a study abroad at the same time I was serving there.  We had no idea that the other person was there!

With one of my best friends from high school – she happened to be in Bordeaux doing a study abroad at the same time I was serving there. We had no idea that the other person was there!

Today, ten years later, as I reflect back on what happened on March 9, 2003 and on what I prayed for that afternoon, I am humbled and grateful that God hears and answers prayers.  My prayer was quite simple, and in many ways, it was kind of selfish.  Remember that I didn’t pray for the people that I’d eventually meet and teach…  They didn’t even enter my mind – I prayed that I would learn to love French again.

Well, I got a lot more than what I bargained for.

Little did I know that that one request would launch me on a path that has allowed me to use my French in some way every single day since I entered the Missionary Training Center on June 2, 2004.  Little did I know that that path would lead me to earn a bachelors degree in French Studies, a masters degree in French literature, and – in the near future – a PhD in French and Francophone African literatures.  Little did I know that I would teach French at BYU and at UW-Madison, little did I know that I’d return to my mission area in France and teach in a French high school.  Little did I know that ten years from that day I’d be living in Dakar, Senegal conducting doctoral research and gaining a love for the Senegalese and their culture.

With Mom and Dad at my BYU graduation - 2007

With Mom and Dad at my BYU graduation – 2007

With Madame Thompson, my BYU mentor and dear friend AND the reason why I am now earning a PhD in French and Francophone African Literatures

With Madame Thompson, my BYU mentor and dear friend AND the reason why I am now earning a PhD in French and Francophone African Literatures

Masters hood and gown at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Commencement Ceremony – Dec 2011

Lots of people ask me why I served a mission for my church.  I served a mission because I wanted to be obedient to what I felt that day.  I knew where those impressions came from, and I knew that God knew it.  I also served a mission because I know how much happiness the teachings of this Church can bring to people.  I served a mission because I knew that God loves His children, and I wanted to help people feel that love.

Who knew how far reaching the simple words of you need to serve a mission could be?

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Wait! I Know That Young Woman!

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That’s what Paul Thompson said to his wife, Marba, as they watched my mother, then a 20 year-old BYU co-ed, stop to pet a dog outside of her apartment complex.  Yet he’d never actually met her…  Paul and Marba had … Continue reading

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Saving Lives

Pete’s Dragon. You know, the movie, one of Disney’s most iconic films of the late 70s and mid 80s.  My sister hated it; I loved it.  Seriously, who wouldn’t want to have a dragon as their friend?  Move over Calvin and Hobbes, Pete and Elliot were the first dynamic duo and they could sing, too!  Although I have to admit I wasn’t, and am still not, a fan of Elliot’s pinkish-purple hair.  But the storyline is great, and I love Mickey Roonie’s role as Lampie.  Mom and Dad bought us the story book when we were little and I always giggled at the picture where Pete and Elliot are hiding out in the cave playing tic-tac-toe on Elliot’s stomach.

But this isn’t a post about magical dragons.  This post is much more substantial than that.  I mention Pete’s Dragon because that’s the first time that I recall being introduced to lighthouses and the important role they play in bringing sailors and boats safely to shore.  Remember the part when the lighthouse wick went out during that storm – which happened to be the exact moment when what’s-her-bucket’s boyfriend (or was he her husband?) was trying to sail into Passamaquoddy’s harbor?  And prior to the storm Pete and Elliot had had a falling-out so they weren’t talking to one another, but Pete had to convince Elliot to blow fire and re-light the wick?  And Elliot was too portly to fit in the tiny little doorway?  And he almost didn’t light it in time??  Talk about a nail-biter!!  If it weren’t for the lighthouse, what’s-his-bucket would have been smashed into smithereens on the rocks and then the movie wouldn’t have had a happy ending…

Ok, yes, I’m being overdramatic and a little sarcastic, but considering the fact that I still remember that scene after so many years tells you that it made an impression on me.  The light saved that guy’s life.  So thanks to one of my favorite movies from my childhood, I’ve always had a mild interest in lighthouses.  Well, I guess to be more accurate I should say that I always thought they were cool.

All of that changed one Sunday evening during my freshman year at BYU.  Every Sunday our ward would gather for ward prayer in the common area in Hinckley Hall (the best dorm in Helaman Halls, by the way).  Each week one person or a group of people gave a spiritual thought or performed a musical number, the bishopric shared announcements, someone prayed and then we went back to our rooms for the evening.  One Sunday four men sang a hymn – I’ve included the lyrics below – and then they talked about what the words meant.  Their rendition was very simple but thanks to their singing talent and execution, it was extremely powerful.  I’m completely serious when I say that I have never had such a touching and powerful experience while listening to a hymn as I did that night.  It was unbelievable.  Absolutely beautiful.  It touched me to the very center.  Unfortunately no one thought to record it; we should have because I am always disappointed when other individuals perform the same number.  The guys from my ward sang in such impeccable harmony, with such precision and with such feeling that I don’t think I’ll ever find a rendition that will match it.

Prior to that evening, I’d never heard the hymn.  But since then, thanks to the music and the lyrics, that hymn has been one of my top five favorites.  What is it, you ask?  It’s actually quite popular and the meaning is fairly well-known.  It’s the only hymn in the LDS hymnbook written in Barber Shop harmony: Brightly Beams Our Father’s Mercy.

Today I ran across a YouTube video of four men from Utah State singing the song.  While their recording does have some issues – their precision and diction is off in some places – their harmony is beautiful.  It’s the closest rendition I have found to what I heard that night at BYU.  My guys sang with much more passion and feeling, but I still like this one.  You’re welcome to listen to the mp3 as you read the lyrics below.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore,
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

[Chorus]
Let the lower lights be burning;
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

Dark the night of sin has settled;
Loud the angry billows roar.
Eager eyes are watching, longing,
For the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning;
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

Trim your feeble lamp, my brother;
Some poor sailor, tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor,
In the darkness may be lost

Let the lower lights be burning;
Send a gleam across the wave.
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

After the group finished singing, Scott, the one that put the group together, told us that he sang that with his companion and another set of missionaries at a zone conference.  After they sat down their mission president stood up to give his remarks, but instead of launching immediately into his topic he asked the missionaries if they knew what that song meant.  Evidently they didn’t, so he explained it to them.

Many people may not be aware that the lighthouse system – if we can call it that – doesn’t consist solely of a lighthouse on a craggy outcropping of rock.  In fact, by themselves, lighthouses don’t serve much of a purpose.  Lighthouses signal that dangerous rocks threaten the safety of the boats and the people that they carry.  But in the dark, a captain cannot see where those rocks are, nor does he know whether the rocks are all above water or if some are submerged.  In order to navigate the seen and unseen hazards that often create narrow, maze-like paths before they open up to a harbor, additional lights are spread out on the shore and in the water.  The lower lights designate safety whereas the main lighthouse stands as safety and the destination.

But there’s even more to it than that.  In order to prevent the ship from hitting rocks, the captain must align his vessel so that the lower lights line up with the lighthouse in a straight trajectory.  That may mean that he has to completely change his course, i.e. if he’s coming in from the west but the lights only line up from the southeast, he must to maneuver the ship to that bearing.  In other areas of the world, the lower lights act like the lines painted on either side of the interstate: they outline the route the ship is to take in order to reach land.  As the captain follows the lights, he will have to make constant corrections in his trajectory in order to stay within the boundaries set forth by the lights along the shore.

In the context of this hymn, Christ is the lighthouse and we are sailors.  Christ is the ultimate destination, He is the harbor.  The individual who seeks to be in His presence obviously sets his sights on Him.  The “sailor” may have to change the course of his life – or just make tiny course corrections – and sometimes that can be seen as a burden.  But if he doesn’t want to sink his ship, he has to do it.  And because ol’ Scratch likes to rear his ugly head at unforeseen moments, God places other people in the water and along the shore to act as guides and to be examples of good, wholesome and righteous living.  In essence, they help God pull the sailor into safety during the last leg of his journey.

We are the sailors.  The lower lights are the Prophets, Apostles and those chosen to stand in positions of leadership.

That analogy is beautiful by itself.  But the symbolism goes two ways.  Just as we are all certainly the sailors, God also works through us; we are our brother’s keeper and therefore, we are also “the lights along the shore.”  In order to be that guide, example and beacon in the immediate darkness, we have to not only align ourselves in places of safety, but we have to stay there!  We have get on the path and we can’t budge.  We have to shine in the thickest fog and in the blackest night.  We have to stay anchored during ferocious storms and we have to stay focused on the tempest-tossed boats that are beleaguered by time, the elements, and weaknesses.

It doesn’t matter if that vessel is the smallest and rustiest fishing boat or the largest and most impressive aircraft carrier.  Their human cargo is precious.

It doesn’t matter if we’re a tall, short, weather-beaten, or a sparkling new edifice.  We share the same light that glows from the Lighthouse.

To the “fainting, struggling seaman” whose eyes are “watching, longing” for us, our light is his hope.  Hope leads him to the Lighthouse and ultimately, the harbor.  Regardless of what we look like, how long we have been shining that light or how bright our beam is, to him we are beautiful and heaven-sent.

These images often work themselves into my thoughts, and I find myself pondering the various stormy waters or pitch-black nights that I’ve had to sail through.  I am grateful that the Lighthouse never stops sending His beam out across the waves.  I’m grateful for those individuals who are called to be the lights along the shore.  But most specifically, I’m in debt to loved ones who have set their sights on Christ and who have been and continue to be tremendous examples of obedient, faithful disciples of the Savior.

This concept of lighthouses and lower lights took on a new meaning for me when I was working in the French education system in Marseille, France.  My friend and former French 101/102 student, Helle Brimhall, stayed with me for a week during October 2008 and one day, we took a sightseeing boat around the coast of Marseille.  The guide pointed out the place where the oldest lighthouse had stood during the middle ages and into modern times; it was destroyed, but another more modern and smaller lighthouse took it’s place.  As we made our way out of the Vieux Port, toward le Château d’If, and then out into open water, I noticed that we passed several “miniature” lighthouses.  Some were located on the dykes and barriers that were scattered along the shore and in the water, some were on small outcroppings of rock protruding out of the sea, one was on the battlements of the l’Ile d’If, and a couple were anchored securely in the water and were floating out on their own.

The smaller lights guiding ships to the harbors of Marseille

When I returned home that night I looked at a satellite picture of the Marseillaise coast and sure enough, I saw that several lower lights lined up with various docks for cruise ships, cargo vessels, sailboats, etc.  Several more exist outside the confines of this photo.  I learned that certain lower lights flashed different colors or at different frequencies, and the ones that matched led to a specific dock.  A few months later I saw a detailed map of the city which included maritime routes and legends and I saw something that amazed me.

The lower lights have names.

Some are named after locations in France, objects, colors, etc.

But the majority of them have female names.

My favorite smaller light off the coast of Marseille: Sainte-Marie

When I saw that I almost cried.  Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not discrediting the good that men can do.  My life has been deeply blessed by the examples and service that honorable men have been and have done for me.  But as I have served in various capacities for academic and religious settings, I have witnessed the realization of many miracles that have come about by the selflessness of women.  When reflecting upon my own life I am cognizant of the many women who have sacrificed for my behalf or the behalf of their families.  In both situations I quietly observed them and saw them building foundations of faith.  Their diligence, whether performed specifically for me or not, has helped motivate me to strengthen my relationship with God.

I have also observed and counseled with women who feel that they or their efforts aren’t good enough, that they’re unworthy of blessings or God’s love, that what they do doesn’t matter or that no one notices their sacrifices.  And as I hear them express these feelings or as I see it in their behavior or body language, it saddens me.  Someone always notices their efforts.  They can be and are examples to others – the thing is that 99.9% of the time they’re not aware of the lives that they are touching.

So what have I learned throughout this 11 year journey?  Here’s a short list:

  • God does not leave us stranded.  He provides means by which we can return safely to Him.  We’re the ones that have to align ourselves with Him, but the pathway is clearly marked.
  • He places specific people in our lives who we can look to as examples and support in our journey, and
  • in turn, we become part of the lifeline for someone else.
  • Our efforts to follow the Master and to not give in when Scratch comes calling do not go unnoticed.
  • The lower lights have names and are identifiable.  We aren’t just numbers or unspecified objects – God knows who we are and knows our individual names.
  • The people who are looking to us for strength and as an example know exactly who we are and,
  • when asked who has impacted their life for good, they can and will name names.

But perhaps most importantly on a personal level, I learned that I need to express my gratitude to He who is the Lighthouse and to those lower lights who have joined in the effort to “rescue” and “save” me.  They come from all walks of life, from many different faiths, and are all very dear to my heart.

And to you, dear reader, keep shining.

**The photos in this post are all taken from the internet.  All of the lighthouses shown here are actually the “smaller lights” that guide the ships to the harbors of Marseille, France**

Sunrise, Sunset

I am convinced that God is a painter.

He’s the best painter in the universe.  He produces masterpieces every single day of the year.  But unlike the tableaux of the great masters this world has seen, His work is always displayed in free exhibits that are easily accessible to the general public.

Jacksonville, Florida – June 2012

Amazingly, He allows viewers to copy His oeuvres in oils, watercolors, sculpture and photography.  And the best part is that He doesn’t sue others for their counterfeit reproductions.

One of His greatest mediums is light.  To me, the science behind light is absolutely fascinating.  Everything that we see, even color, is based on it.  Light is an electromagnetic wave made up of 7 main wavelengths that vibrate, and every object (except those that are black and white) absorbs 6 out of those 7 wavelengths.  For example, tree leaves appear green because they absorb every wavelength except green.  The green wavelength reflects off of their surface which “produces” color and that reflection travels to our optic nerves.  Our brain takes that information and labels leaves as “green.”  White objects reflect all of the wavelengths and conversely, black objects absorb them.  White light is refracted when it travels through transparent optical elements such as glass – we commonly refer to them as prisms.  Most of the time we think that prisms have to be made of glass, but that’s not necessarily the case.  Water molecules can act as prisms, as well; that’s why after it rains we sometimes see rainbows in the sky.  They’re formed when enough water molecules are condensed together and positioned in such a way that they catch the sunlight as it breaks through the clouds.

This process is the main method by which God creates His paintings and the sky is His most commonly used canvas.

Utah Valley on the 4th of July – July 2008

Scientifically, sunrises and sunsets are created in a fashion similar to that of rainbows.  The gases and particles that make up Earth’s atmosphere act as prisms, and as the sun follows its 24 hour trajectory – or more accurately, as the earth rotates on its axis – light strikes those particles at varying angles.  The most spectacular refractions occur when those angles are acute, or in other words, at the beginning and the end of the day.  Sunrises transform the monotone periwinkle color that exists in the pre-dawn sky to light blues, grays, purples, pinks, and even some greens; soft oranges and yellows gradually take over the pallet as Earth turns closer to the sun.  When the sun is “directly overhead,” only one color refracts: blue.  Then, as Earth rotates farther away from sun the process reverses itself, vivid bold colors fire up the sky until finally, night shrouds the planet.

David at the Prado – Marseille, France November 2008

So what does this mini science lesson have to do with God’s artistry or anything else?  Well, kind of a lot…  First of all, He gives us at least two beautiful creations a day to contemplate.  Secondly, it acts as a metaphor for the blessings, joys, trials, and sacrifices that make up the totality of our lives.

Over the past several weeks, it has dawned on me – no pun intended – that our life experiences are exactly like the process I just described.  And no, I’m not talking about birth and death.  I’m talking about the decisions we make, the activities that we do and the events that turn into life-changing milestones.  A prospect shows up on the horizon and as we contemplate the various consequences it would have on our lives if we accept or reject it, our mind travels down several different paths.  To illustrate, let me use a personal example.  When I first started researching the Boren Fellowship, I envisioned the numerous possibilities that could potentially open up if I were to be awarded the funds.

Marseille, France from Notre Dame de la Gard – October 2008

Here’s a short list: going to Africa, finishing my PhD in a pertinent field and focus, working in Washington D.C. or an embassy somewhere in Africa or the French speaking world, getting a position in the State Department, eventually making it back to BYU to teach there, etc, etc, etc.  Heck, it may even be a round-about way to finally meeting the man that I’ll eventually marry and start a family with.  I can’t even begin to tell you how and in what way this one thing – winning the fellowship – will catapult me into the rest of my life.  It will literally put me at a crossroads comprised of several good, productive and satisfying options for me and my family.

We’ve all experienced something like this.  Going off to college, starting a new job, getting married, having children, moving to a new town, and the list goes on and on.  The options and opportunities these events and/or decisions could provide, seen at the beginning of the “day,” are like the various colors that appear in the sky during a sunrise.  They’re beautiful, exciting and at times, scary.  The only thing that we can see is the sky; the details of the earth or the things that are directly before us are obscured in darkness.  Yet the sky inspires us, takes our breath away and causes us to declare, It’s going to be a beautiful day.

As we take the first step on the journey and travel its path, the colors that we initially saw will disappear from sight until we see just one color: blue.  The sacrifice of working hard.  As the day progresses the details of what actually lay before us gradually appear.  Most of the time they’re the mundane things of everyday life.  Completely boring.  Exactly like what we did previous to this new journey.  Hard.  Stressful.  Annoying.  At times, depressing.  Just like the light of mid-day can be garish and uncomfortable at times, working for our goals requires grit and determination.

Mt. Timpanogos from Maesar Hill – Provo, Utah March 2006

Sometimes rainclouds develop and unleash torrential thunderstorms.  When that happens, sometimes the only thing that keeps us going is the memory of the beautiful light display of the sunrise.  Despite the times that they put life on hold, thunderstorms are essential because they replenish the earth and the earth provides the substance that we need in order to carry on.  They also give rise for moments where we pause, reflect, and regather our forces that we need as we strive to achieve our goals.  Sometimes those thunderstorms give rise floods of negativity and destruction.  But just like in real life, the water eventually dries up and people rebuild.  We shouldn’t necessarily read those events as signs to give up.

Montauban, France – March 2009

We also have to remember that despite the heat of the day, direct sunlight allows us to see the smiles of our friends and family members and the beautiful intricacies of the life and world around us.  It warms the body and soul.  It also lights the way before us and helps us see with clarity.  Storms and floods remind us of what is important in life and hopefully, they help us return to our roots and rally around our family as we get ready to continue forward.

Eventually the day and the journey come to a close.  Once again the color of the sky transforms.  Instead of the “mundane” blue of day, deep, bright yellows and oranges slowly burn down to patches of red like flames that retreat into logs and reveal fiery embers.  Bold pinks splash the sky like the splatters of a Jackson Pollack painting.  And finally rich, velvety blues and purples melt into the midnight blues and black of night.  Throughout this day-long process the sky didn’t physically change.  Neither did the light.  The position of Earth changed and adjusted the refracting process at various parts of the day.  Perspective colored the sky, just like it colors our outlook on life.  We realize that the boring blue that we saw in the afternoon only reflected one tiny portion of the total light spectrum.

Similarly, when we were in the thick of our trials or efforts to achieve a goal, we can only see that our patience is being tried, that this particular thing is really, really hard or we think that we’re not making any headway.  We forget that those periods are chunks of time taken out of context and that the picture is much larger than the here and now.  When we persevere and hang on until the end of the day, we’re reminded that light is made up of several colors, not one.  Hindsight is a refractive tool.  As we look at our journey and the satisfaction of having completed it, we will see that all of it was beautiful, even despite the bumps we experienced along the way.

Jacksonville, Florida – June 2012

If an individual were to watch an artist paint on a blank canvas, I guarantee that he or she would wonder more than once how the artist was going to transform seemingly unrelated shapes and colors into a completed painting.  But that individual should remember that the Artist saw the end product in His mind long before He began painting it.  He knows what He is doing.  He knows what brushes He needs to use, He knows what mediums will create the best effects, He knows how to mix the colors, He knows where to put the brushstrokes.  He sees the overall picture, He has the grand perspective.  Just trust Him and know that when all is finished, everything will be breathtaking.

Just like the sunset.

**Author’s note: All of these photographs are property of LarkPrints Photography.  Other than including my watermark, none of the photos were edited**