Thursday, January 30, 2014

Three lessons from the Eternal Week


Earlier this month my wife and I celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary. Also, earlier this month marked four years since my father passed away. We had been preparing for both events for months, but never expected them to happen within the same week. It was a whirlwind experience full of happy tears and tears of mourning, but that time helped give me a deeper perspective on what this life is all about. The week was eternal--both in length and meaning. Here are three lessons I learned.

Love thy Neighbor 
The morning after my father passed, I attended church with my mother, sister, brother-in-law, and soon-to-be wife. We received handshakes, hugs, and all forms of condolences as we walked into the chapel. I’ll never forget the opening prayer of the meeting as a sister in the ward expressed sincere love and appreciation for my family, and prayed that we would receive special blessings of strength and comfort during this time. At that moment the spirit hit my heart with such piercing power and I felt an overwhelming sense of love around us from our friends and neighbors.

The Plan of Happiness 
I have thought that all we needed was someone in the family to have a baby and we would have had every major event in this life covered in one week. Birth, marriage, and death. There were multiple special and sacred moments that week that solidified my testimony of the Plan of Salvation. I know we lived with our Father in Heaven before we came to earth, and I know that we can return to live with him and have an opportunity to live with our families again.

Strength in the Savior 
I saw a quote by the pioneer prophet Brigham Young that read “We went West willingly--because we had to.” That sums up my explanation as to how I got through that week. Just as the early pioneers of the Church left their lives behind to go to the Salt Lake Valley, we willingly did everything because we had to and there was no other way. At the end of it all, I was both physically and emotionally exhausted, but I had never felt closer to my Savior and Father in Heaven and felt a deep inner strength moving forward.

I know that Jesus Christ is there for us, He will not leave us comfortless, but will lift us up and give us strength when needed. That is the most important lesson anyone can learn.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Choose This Day



"For those who are discouraged by their circumstances and are
therefore tempted to feel they cannot serve the Lord this day, I make you two
promises. Hard as things seem today, they will be better in the next day if you
choose to serve the Lord this day with your whole heart... The other promise I make to you is that by choosing to serve Him this day, you will feel His love and grow to love Him more
."

— President Henry B. Eyring

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Discovering the Dash: Why I Love Family History

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage—to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning.” 
Alex Haley
Henry Bigler, Stephen Courtright's great-great grandfather
It was usually after we crossed the Wyoming border when my father—who each summer packed our family of seven into a mini-van to drive 1,400 miles from Wisconsin to Idaho to visit family—would begin telling his travel-weary children stories of their “western heritage.” There were stories told of ancestors like my great-great grandfather Charley Courtright, a young backwoods blacksmith in California who stole the heart of a beautiful, proper English woman in a love story which rivals that of any other in the Old West. Dad also told of ancestors like Henry Bigler, who after joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church) traversed nearly the entire western U.S. landscape as a member of the Mormon Battalion, an outfit in the Mexican-American War credited with undertaking the longest domestic military march in U.S. history.

At times, my father must have felt that such stories were falling on deaf, uninterested ears. Yet, year after year, on those long treks across the western wilderness, the storytelling persisted. Why would Dad continue telling us of our heritage, even while being uncertain that his children would actually appreciate the stories? Now as a young father myself, I can see why.

We live in a world where it is increasingly difficult for family members to create strong, lasting bonds. Moreover, youth and adults alike are increasingly being given mixed messages about their worth and where that worth comes from, resulting in less resilience to life’s challenges and undermined faith in Jesus Christ. Parents and others like myself are thus asking themselves, “How can we strengthen bonds in our family?”, “How can we help our children to be more self-confident and resilient?” and “How can we develop greater individual and collective faith in Jesus Christ?”

This is why I love family history—because, perhaps surprisingly, it helps families and individuals to address each of these questions. In particular, let me highlight two blessings that can come from discovering and sharing about our family heritage.

1. Discovering and sharing about our heritage strengthens family bonds and helps individuals to be more resilient to life’s challenges.

Recently, I was intrigued by a study discussed in the New York Times and conducted by a group of Emory University psychologists who showed that the single best predictor of children’s emotional well-being and happiness was the extent to which children knew about their family history. Moreover, the researchers found that the more children knew the history of their families, the more successfully they believed their families functioned. Finally, families who told family history narratives which emphasized both the “ups” and “downs” of life had the most resilient children. All of these findings were attributed to family members forming a strong “intergenerational self”, or a sense that they belonged to something greater than themselves.

The implications of this study are profound. They show that family history is more than just an activity for “old” people, or a ploy to keep children quiet in a crowded mini-van (as I used to think on those long treks from Wisconsin to Idaho). Moreover, it is not just a process of collecting birth and death dates, such as finding out that Charley Courtright lived from 1853-1921. Instead, family history is about discovering the dash that lies between those dates—the life stories of these ancestors. And it is in “discovering the dash” and weaving family stories into a narrative that the blessings of strong family bonds and greater resiliency become more attainable.

For that and other reasons, across the global LDS Church and well as in our College Station congregation, there has been an ongoing emphasis on helping members to discover their heritage. In turn, I have witnessed how “discovering the dash” has helped our members, particularly our youth, to build stronger family bonds and become more resilient.

For instance, during a recent activity on a Wednesday evening, the youth in our congregation each used laptops and other devices to look at their family tree and to input stories and pictures of their ancestors on the familysearch.org website, which is sponsored by the LDS Church. While standing in the background and observing the youth, I noticed that one youth, who was reading a story of a grandfather whom she had never met, began to weep. Just as I was about to ask her if everything was okay, a friend sitting nearby asked her that same question. In response, I overheard the youth tell her friend: “Sometimes, when I’m reading about my grandparents, I am just overwhelmed by how grateful I am for them. It’s amazing to see that they faced similar challenges as me, and I know I can be helped through my trials just like they were.” 

2. Discovering our heritage can draw us nearer to the Savior Jesus Christ.

Yet, beyond even those blessings, I have found in my own life that discovering my heritage has drawn me closer to the Savior. I learned this lesson as a young LDS missionary in Chile.

Though my trials were not unique to what many young and inexperienced missionaries face, I struggled at first with learning a new language, the effects of food poisoning, and pangs of homesickness. I was admittedly doubtful as to how I could complete a two-year mission when the challenges I faced at the time seemed insurmountable. However, in the midst of those challenges, I remembered the stories about Henry Bigler that my father had shared all those years ago in our crowded mini-van.

Shortly after his service in the Mormon Battalion, Henry was part of the first group of LDS missionaries in Hawaii. Like me, Henry struggled with learning a new language and experienced bouts of homesickness and difficult adjustments to the new culture. However, unlike what I went through, Henry spent the nearly three years on his mission without a single pair of shoes, and he faced persecution and sicknesses to a degree that I could scarcely imagine.

Nevertheless, while I did not face nearly as dire of circumstances, I felt the presence of Henry Bigler encouraging me on in my missionary service. Indeed, thanks to the narratives shared by my father, I remembered how the Savior, through His grace, had strengthened Henry in his afflictions and how he had come to know the Lord through the sacrifices he made on his mission. I came to know that the Lord could do the same for me if, like Henry, I pressed on in His service.

In the end, my mission to Chile turned out to be the greatest adventure I could have ever experienced as a 19-21 year old young man. Though some will surely argue with me on this point, I believe that no young man was affected or changed more by an LDS mission than I was. I came to know the Savior and His mercy, a process that was aided by an ancestor who had died 100 years earlier but with whom I found a kinship as real as any earthly kinship. I continue to feel Henry Bigler’s presence in my life and feel nearer to Jesus Christ as a result.

And that is why I love family history.

“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage.” I invite all who read this post to respond to this hunger and “discover the dash” as it relates to their own heritage. In doing so, I pray that you will be able to strengthen family bonds, be more resilient to life’s challenges, and draw nearer to Jesus Christ, who I testify is the Savior and Redeemer of the world.

***For more information on doing family history, visit familysearch.org or, if you live in the B/CS area, visit our church’s Family History Center at 2500 Barak Lane in Bryan.***


Stephen Courtright is an assistant professor in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University and currently serves as second counselor of the College Station 3rd Ward bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He grew up in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and Kuna, Idaho and served a full-time mission for the Church in Concepcion, Chile from 2002-2004. He later graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho and the University of Iowa. He and his wife, Nicole, met when they were six years old and grew up together as close friends. They married in 2004 and are the proud parents of three children.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hope in Christ

A few weeks ago I was in an emergency room with a friend of mine who was my missionary companion. As missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are supposed to stay with our companion at all times. He was in some serious pain, and they were running tests to find out what was going on with him.  As some of these tests were pretty serious, I was asked to stand out in the hallway outside the door, doing my best to stay as close as I could in the situation we were in. We were in the hospital for most of that day, somewhere around 14-15 hours. Alone time is something you don't get a lot of as a missionary; but as I spent a good part of those 14 hours standing or sitting in a hallway, alone, I had a lot of time to think, read the scriptures, and watch the happenings and bustle of the Emergency Room. I have never needed to go to an ER before then, so I was captivated watching the diverse variety of people coming in and out, bringing with them a host of seemingly endless problems and concerns. Every so often a team of paramedics would arrive with an ambulance, burst through the door, and move with practiced efficiency as they went about their duty of maintaining life.

Then something happened that forever changed my outlook on life. During my stay there in the hallways of that hospital, I watched as two people left this life. I had seen death before, but never in this setting. As I watched these two individuals slip from mortality, I could see the effect of their departure on those around them. 

The first person was an older woman, who appeared to be on a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) basis. As the heart rate monitor flat-lined, several nurses rushed to the room only to quietly exit a few moments later to give the small group of what must have been loved ones and friends that stood near the bed their privacy; their heads bowed in quiet reverence as they shed tears of grief. 

The second was a young boy, probably no older than 6 or 7. As his small form went limp and still, I watched a young couple who must have been his parents slip into a desperation-fueled frenzy of sorrow. The mother fell to her knees, screaming, desperately trying to wake her son from his final rest. His father turned and begged the doctors and nurses who stood nearby to do something, anything to bring him back. The doctor confessed that there was nothing that he or anyone else could do.   

Though the older woman appeared to have been ill for a while and her passing seemed to be more expected than the young boy's, the loss of a loved one is always difficult. When that loved one is a child, it can be one of the most tragic things that happens here on this earth. But why was there such a difference in the reactions of these families? As I observed and thought about it more and more, some realizations came to me. The parents of the young boy had no hope. To them, their son was gone forever. As they watched him slip away, all their hopes and dreams went with him; and they were left with nothing but their regrets and their pain. As I watched them from a distance, I too started to feel that pain. That crushing, soul-tearing, sense of vulnerability. 

The other group, though they too were mourning, had a… light about them. They had hope. They knew that death was not the end of life, but yet another step in the path our Father in Heaven has established for us. Through the darkness of the sorrow in their hearts, the glorious light of hope burst into a brighter day. That hope is what keeps us going when there appears to be no way to continue, what saves us from drowning in our misery and gives us the energy and power to overcome.

That hope is found in Christ, “our Saviour, [the] Lord Jesus Christ [who] is our hope" (1 Timothy 1:1). Through Him, all our trials can be overcome. Death, sin, and hell itself were defeated by our Heavenly King. Because of His atoning sacrifice, we can have hope. The perfect love of Christ enables us to endure the trials and challenges we face in this life, and to do so with the knowledge and assurance that we will be with the ones we love again. 

As this new year commences, may we all remember the cry of the angels to the shepherds: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord…  Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:10-11, 14) God be thanked for the glorious gift of His Son!

Elder Duvall is a full-time LDS missionary serving in the Texas Houston Mission but originally hails from Cache Valley in Northern Utah.