Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Friend I Thought I Knew

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “A good example is the best sermon.” A person may be blessed with eloquence in speaking; they may be able to convey in words alone that which is of most meaning to them. These are gifts, to be sure. However, if a person does not embrace by their actions that which they speak, it is almost as if they never spoke those words in the first place. Another Benjamin, my close friend Benjamin Steig, embodies those precious words spoken by Franklin. He is fully capable of speaking about any given subject, but more often than not, the way he lives and carries himself demonstrates who he really is. I’ve known Ben since I was nine, and we’ve shared many experiences and laughs over the years. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are at least four people who know more about Ben than myself: His parents, his Heavenly Father, and him.
            Not everyone has understood or recognized Ben’s ability to stand up for his beliefs, especially in the face of immense pressure. Two instances from his life are worth mentioning. His mother told me about a common misconception people have about Ben: “Many people think that he is not tough enough for the real world.” Before his mission, Ben worked in Salem, OR at Taco Bell, sometimes during the late night shift. In the back of the kitchen, some fellow employees often used vulgar and cruel languages, something that Ben is very sensitive to. I would add that Ben is very sensitive to anything that he knows is wrong, and I consider that one of his great strengths. As to these employees and their swearing, it was difficult for Ben to listen to it on a nightly basis, especially considering that he was trying to foster good thoughts and habits in preparation for his mission. Eventually, Ben informed his supervisor that he was quitting the job because he could no longer stand to listen to such vulgar and immature language. He was mocked and ridiculed by these employees, one of whom was his own cousin. As his mom said, “They laughed at him and said that he would never make it in the real world.” Then came this valuable lesson from that experience: His boss asked him to come back and apologized for allowing such awful behavior. He knew that Ben was a devout member of the Church and was working there so he could have money for his mission. This boss then shared with Ben that he too was LDS but hadn’t served a mission because he gave in to pressure situations, and he was grateful that Ben had the resolve to defend himself and his beliefs. Ben agrees with that assessment: “The most difficult aspect in my life has been overcoming my own self doubt, and believing in myself. Sometimes when you feel like you are walking alone in life is when you are growing the most.”
A lot of people see meekness as weakness. Not the case. Meekness does not mean being a doormat; one definition of the word that I like is, “great power under restraint.” Jesus Christ is the greatest example of meekness; He had plenty of moments during His life where He was surrounded by pressure, especially people who wanted to kill Him. He never backed down from what His purpose was, nor from any of the things He taught, particularly by example. Likewise, He never lost control of a situation, but still could demonstrate righteous indignation, particularly when casting the money-changers out of the temple. Ben is much the same way; he seldom raises his voice or loses his temper, but he is not afraid to tell someone when they are wrong.
            The second story that demonstrates Ben’s ability to hold up under pressure happened when he was being interviewed for his Eagle Scout award. On the interview board were Ben’s leaders, who were LDS, and also a man who was not. This man, Ben said, “Started asking me some pretty tough questions, that to some might seem pretty touchy and almost too personal. I'm not going to lie, I felt very uncomfortable and very nervous.” One question and comment from the man made the situation especially tense. This man said to Ben, “I'm not sure that you know who really are. You seem like the person that only likes to please people." I would add here that nothing could be further from the truth. This is a common misconception that I’ve noticed about Ben: Some out there think that because he is such an enthusiastic and ambitious person(another great strength) that he is only acting like it so as to get attention. Ironically, these same individuals think that he is too quiet. It would be difficult to imagine how I might feel if I found out someone was assuming things like this about myself. When this man said that to Ben, he said that he sat there for what felt like eternity, unsure of what to say next. Finally, he spoke the first thing that came to his mind: “You are wrong. I know who I am. I am a son of God.” Ben said that the man’s whole countenance changed, and he spoke of how special a young man Ben really was. A good lesson, I believe, about not making assumptions or judgments about a person, especially when you hardly even know them.
            I mentioned Ben’s enthusiasm, and it bears repeating. His mom pointed out to me that he has always been this way, even before he was born. Her story below illustrates:
            “I remember before Ben was born I had impressions that a very excited little boy wanted to come NOW to earth. His older sister was only 9 months old when I started feeling these impressions.  I was not at all ready for another baby so soon.  As I tried to put these impressions to the back of my mind, they only intensified over the coming months. So much so that I knew without a doubt that this child was a boy, a happy excited boy, and he was connecting with me from the other side of the veil.  He was ready, and he was coming whether I was ready or not.  Sure enough, Benjamin was soon on his way. He was the sparkplug in our family… always excited, passionate about everything he did in his life… from coloring as a 2 year old, to riding his bike, to sports, to church, and friends..  This child of ours is unique… I felt his personality, his character before he was even conceived.  And I knew when he was very young that he would be a great example of love and service.”
            I believe it would be fair to say that Ben’s greatest demonstration of this love and service would be his mission to Mendoza, Argentina. Every missionary faces different challenges that they have to overcome. For Ben, it was the challenge of learning and mastering the Spanish language. The lesson that he learned is a lesson that I believe every sincere missionary comes to learn eventually: As long as you do your absolute best and then hand the rest over to the Lord, your efforts are acceptable to Him. I learned this while in Ohio and Kentucky, and Ben certainly learned it in a country thousands of miles from home and in an environment different from anything he had ever experienced. The end result was that he now has a great desire to teach Spanish to others; such was the Lord’s gift to Him for his obedience and righteous desire to do what the Lord wanted Him to do. This is something I’ve long admired about Ben, and anyone else for that matter. It is that when people are humble enough to recognize that life is not about them, and that the Lord only asks that we do our best and do it His way, each day is so much more enjoyable and rewarding. Likewise, you want to spend as much time as possible being around those people. It goes back to the point I made earlier: It’s how you live and not what you say that sets you apart and defines your character. One of my favorite quotes comes from William G. Jordan: “Into the hands of every individual is given a marvelous power for good or for evil. The quiet, unconscious, unseen influence of his life. This is simply the constant radiation of what man really is, and not what he pretends to be.”
            When I asked both Ben and his mom about what is the most significant trend in Ben’s life, their answers were harmonious with each other. Like mother, like son; no big surprise. His mom’s words were, “He is able to take challenges where he feels overwhelmed and inadequate and turn them into strengths.  I have seen it over and over again in his 22 years.  His character has developed from his biggest trials and his biggest fears.”
Ben’s response was, “I suppose that what has surprised me most is probably being able to adapt to change. I've often struggled in my life with big changes, but somehow I've always been able to work through it all and adapt in a positive way. One trend has been going after what I really want in life. Many times I've had to step outside of my ‘bubble’ and do things that seemed challenging to me. Those things in turn made me a stronger person today.”

At this stage of his life, Ben is now preparing for what promises to be his greatest challenge, but the one which will bring him the greatest growth and blessings possible. This past weekend, Ben was engaged to his girlfriend, Ashley. Of all the people in Ben’s life who have influenced him and helped him become who he is now, Ashley is the one who will complete him. All of these previous experiences I have shared, along with many others, have prepared Ben for this time. It’s amazing to me how much time is spent preparing for major events in life, and then all of a sudden it’s right there in front of you. Those opportunities, if you’re not prepared or looking for them, can and do pass by very quickly. Regret is the only thing that remains from such times. I am not concerned in the slightest for Ben. As I have attempted to show, he knows exactly who he is and where he wants to go. And with a future eternal companion at his side, along with many others helping him through life’s adventures, he will continue to demonstrate that he is unique from everyone else. Not because others expected it or because he tried to get attention for it, but simply because that is who Benjamin Randall Steig is: A son of God and of his earthly parents, a brother, a fiancĂ©, a friend, and one who I am glad to call among my most influential people I have known. As Ben has often said, which he has also embodied, “You be the change you want to see in the world.” Great words spoken by the friend that I thought I knew.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Listening Counts

This is a paper I wrote for my English class. This could be the first of many that I share from this class, but I have no idea for certain. The topic we were asked to discuss this time around was a significant moment from our lives. Yeah, no easy task! I decided to talk about an experience on my mission where I clearly saw the value of listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Hope you all enjoy it!

It’s July 3, 2009, and I’m in Wilmington, OH at about the halfway point of my mission. My new companion, Elder Remington, and I feel that change is in the air. Change for the better. At this time, I have been in Wilmington for six months and have been to pretty much every street and every door in the area. Well, all of them except the roads  with houses few and far between, surrounded by endless miles of corn and soy bean fields that are nearly ripe at this time of year. With the nice weather, people are spending increasing amounts of time outside, and both Elder Remington and myself feel that we need to take a new approach to finding people to teach, and this is our opportunity.
“So, where should we start?” he asks me during our morning studies. I reply, “Well, I’ve always wanted to go to the local parks because there’s usually plenty of people there that we can talk to.”
“Yeah, that would definitely be a good place to start,” he responds. We decide to go to J.W. Denver Williams Park, the biggest one in the area. Being the middle of summer, it’s also very hot and humid out, but that obviously doesn’t keep us from doing our work. Despite it being ridiculously warm, Ohio is very green and has amazing scenery. The park is no exception: A bike trail wending its way through the park, a walking trail in a mini-forest, playgrounds, green baseball fields, basketball courts, and picnic tables. All of these surrounded by large, blooming trees and a pond filled with ducks. As we arrive at the park, we get the feeling that there’s someone here that we are supposed to talk to. The Lord has placed them here specifically for us.  We walk past a dad and his son fishing in the pond, but don’t feel like we’re supposed to talk to them. Unfortunately, it seems as though they are the only ones in the park, which is unusual given the nice weather. However, we decide to walk through the park a couple of times before figuring out what to do next. On our first pass, we don’t see anyone besides the dad and son by the pond. Elder Remington suggests that we make a wider pass around the park rather than taking the trail that cuts through, in order to give potential contacts some time to get there. As we near the end of our second pass, we spot three people across the field on the basketball court. We glance at each other and the same thought crosses our mind: “This is our best chance, and I have a good feeling about it.” As we start walking towards them, we discover that it’s two guys and a girl, all of them around our age. This makes it easier to carry on a conversation. The two guys, named Ryan Starks and Britt Wells, are playing basketball, and the girl---Kim Wells, Ryan’s girlfriend and Britt’s older sister--- is sitting off to the side with a cigarette and a baby boy named Charlie next to her in a car-seat. We split up to teach them, Elder Remington taking Ryan and Britt and me teaching Kim. The first thing she asks me is why I’m wearing a white shirt and tie with dark pants in such hot weather. It’s a question I got asked quite a lot during the summers on my mission, but one that actually intrigued people when I answered that I was a missionary. Her next question showed me that much: “What is it about your message that makes you different from other churches?” A golden question, and the perfect introduction to first message that we share: The Restoration of the gospel through Joseph Smith. As I go through each principle, I stop occasionally to explain things she hasn’t heard before and answer other questions she has. Kim, and as I learn later, Ryan as well, ask great questions. It’s something that I saw a lot during my mission: College-age young adults asking deep and sincere questions. Like me, they are at the stage of life where they are mulling over life-changing decisions. Like Ryan and Kim, this makes them great prospects for the message of the restored gospel. As I finish up my message, Ryan and Britt come over with Elder Remington, having concluded their discussion. We both bore our testimonies, and were just about to finish with a prayer and leave when I get the strongest impression; in fact, it was one of the strongest that I received during my whole mission. I knew that Ryan and Kim were the people that the Lord had placed in our path that day. The impression I received further told me that I needed to give them a specific reading assignment in the Book of Mormon and some things to think about while they read it. I told them, “As you read, write down questions you have as well as things that you learn. By doing this, I promise that you will know what direction in life that God wants you to take.” The words just flowed out, without hesitation and without stuttering. I know that I couldn’t have spoken those words without help from above. We concluded with a prayer and set a return appointment for two days later. 

When the day for our follow-up visit came, we headed to the address they gave us, and Ryan was there to greet us at the door. I’ll never forget what he said when he opened the door: “Hey Mormons, come right on in!” We sat down on the couch, with Ryan straight across from us in an armchair and Kim next to him on another couch. After a prayer, we asked them what questions they had and what they learned from their reading assignment. Ryan reached down and picked up a yellow note pad that had detailed notes on both sides. In addition to that, the pamphlet we gave them was heavily written on as well. Elder Remington and I had the biggest smiles. We went through and discussed each of the things they had learned and answered their questions the best we could. At the end, Ryan said to us: “Before we met you guys the other day, we had questions about what we should do with the spiritual aspect of our lives. Just this one reading answered some of those questions. We want to look into this some more.” For Ryan and Kim, this was the beginning of a new stage in their lives. Five or so months after we met them on that hot, humid day in a park in Wilmington, OH, they were baptized. I still keep in touch with them fairly regularly; they told me that even though they have had many different sets of missionaries since us, we will always be the ones they remember most, because we not only first taught them the gospel, but because we were friends to them at the same time. This is a key to being a successful missionary, and ultimately any calling in the Church: You have to be a friend to people or else you can’t teach them anything. However, the overall point I’m trying to make is this: What if Elder Remington and I had chosen not to go to the park? We never would’ve met Ryan and Kim, and therefore we would never have gotten the opportunity to teach them the gospel, and obviously we wouldn’t have had the chance to make a difference in their lives. Truly, listening to thoughts and impressions count. It can have eternal consequences for us and those around us. When promptings come, we should never postpone them for any reason. Nothing is worse than knowing what might have been had you listened.