Finding the Light Amidst Uncertainties in Uncertain Seas

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golden gate bridge in fog

For the past five years, my life has had a great deal of turmoil. At least, a lot more than I’d ever had during the previous 30. Not so much because of the many changes, but because of the tremendous uncertainty and fear I’ve had to fight against. At times, I’ve been lost and alone. Broken and nearly drowning, ready to quit, or ready for someone else to put me out of my misery. Somehow I’ve stayed afloat by finding the light of Christ and holding on to the great many miracles that convincing me to hang on. Like a lighthouse on a dark sea.

I have always loved this idea and someday I’ll commission an artist to paint what I’ve been picturing in my head ever since I was 19. It will be of a dark and stormy sea, with tall cliffs and bluffs in the background, on top of which stands a majestic towering lighthouse, not really obvious, but definitely there if you look hard for it.

A beam streaking across the scene, dimly lighting the decks of many, many small boats in the water being tossed around on rough waves. Some boats heading towards and some away from the light. Some not sure which way to go. Some boats clinging to each other for support and help, and others smashing clumsily into others along the way. Along the shore will be smaller lights, lining up toward the safe harbor. Much like the song, “Bright Beams Our Father’s Mercy” in the hymnbook.

Van Gogh painting ships

 

Lighthouses are Symbolic of Guidance

Most of us, when we think of lighthouses, think of these grand majestic, often romantic towers, painted in swirling red and white, or built out of Gothic style bricks like fortresses at the seashore. Standing tall against towering waves and storms. Taking the beating and pushing it back. Guiding sailors safely away from rocks and towards their destinations. While this is often true, most lighthouses in the world are not grand, majestic, or even near the water’s edge.

Point Reyes California is an odd peninsula of rocky land that sticks ten miles out from the northern California coast, about 30 miles northwest of San Francisco and the Golden Gate. The nearest town by land is the small town of Inverness, 19 miles to the east. It is blanketed in about 110 days of fog each year, and holds the record of the windiest spot on the Pacific Coast.

It regularly gets hammered by 60 mph winds and often receives gale force winds of 75-100 mph. The record is 133mph, and these aren’t even from hurricanes! The coastline is almost entirely rocky and mountainous, with only isolated beaches surrounded by cliffs and mountains. In 1870, a lighthouse was built on the end of Point Reyes, about three hundred feet up the cliffs from the water’s edge and about 300 stair steps down from the top of the bluffs where all the support buildings are located. On certain foggy days, you cannot see the light house or it’s light from the top of the stairs or from the water below. Thus, a foghorn was needed.

Point Reyes Lighthouse from above
The fog horn was run by steam boilers. The boilers were fueled by coal. It is not uncommon for Point Reyes to receive non-stop fog for weeks at a time. To power the fog horn, it took two men working constantly to shovel coal into the boiler furnace. Imagine four men, taking shifts of two at a time, to shovel coal constantly for over a week, to power a fog horn! Not to mention having to run the light as well! All on an extremely empty, hostile, remote stretch of coast. Even with the foghorn and light, shipwrecks still occured, and the men would take turns walking up and down the nearby beach watching for floundering ships and manning the Rescue Station.

It is not a majestic tower of grand architecture. It is a shortish, little white building clinging to the rocks. Most of it’s height was used to house the clockwork weight mechanisms that turned the lens of the light, much like a Grandfather clock. It did have a new Fresnel Lense that boosted it’s visibility all the way to the horizon, about 24 miles!

The lighthouse has been in service non-stop for over 145 years. Even during the 1906 earthquake when the nearby San Andreas Fault slid the entirety of Point Reyes, including the light house, 20 feet to the north in just under a minute, it was only down for about 13 minutes until daylight took over. Since the 1960’s the light house has been automated and the keepers spend much of their time maintaining the lighthouse as a museum piece and visiting with the tourists who drive over an hour from the bay area to come see it.

Finding the Light that Saves Lives

This lighthouse saved a tremendous number of lives. As did so many others nearby. Just a little to the south is the Golden Gate of California. It was actually named “Golden” Before the Gold rush because of it’s similarity to historic passes of the old world. It is a straight and narrow pass of water that cuts through the Coastal Mountain Range, exposing the sunny skies, the wide fertile plains around the bays, valleys, and inland wealth and resources further in.

Because of the narrowness, the fog, and the treacherous shoreline, explorers failed to find it or even realize it was there for 200 years. They simply sailed right by without seeing it, staying far out at sea to avoid rocks and reefs along the shore.  It was a land expedition in the mid 1700’s that first discovered it for European settlement.

When the ship Brooklyn, the ship that brought so many early LDS pioneers around the point of South America arrived at the west coast, it had to wait out in the ocean for three days for the fog to lift enough for the boat to safely enter and navigate the gate. Over 300 ships have run aground on the rocks just outside the gate, and at least 100 have been wrecked inside the gate itself. The rocks, the cliffs, the fog, and even the tidal current — which can move several miles per hour in either direction — all make it an incredibly hazardous place. Yet, now, accidents are incredibly rare.

Golden Gate Fog

 

There are 7 historic lighthouses that have guided ships through the strait for over 100 years. Now there are dozens of newer lights strewn along the way, plus the Golden Gate Bridge itself with it’s incredibly distinctive appearance and fog horns. I had the incredible opportunity to live in a small windswept, fog-enveloped apartment about 300 feet above the Pacific Ocean at the entrance to the Golden Gate for a little over two years while I was in school.

I watched hundreds of ships coming in and out. I fell asleep listening to the deep rumbling tones of the Bridge’s horns and the high-pitched calls of the lighthouses singing into the night. I have sat terrified in my bed listening to the thundering and pounding surf below hit the shore hard enough to make the entire building shake and the windows rattle.

I enjoyed every minute of it.

When we Think we Are Unsinkable

In the General Conference of October 2014, President Monson spoke in his talk of the Great Ship Bismark. Built by the German navy during World War II, it was an incredible ship. The British threw just about everything they could at it and it resisted. Amazingly, a lucky hit by a torpedo jammed the rudder and the Bismark was stuck traveling in circles. Like a lame duck, it’s fate was sealed and sunk. (Do not ever call a ship,  “unsinkable”. That never bodes well. When we think we have achieved the unachievable, that is usually the time that God decides to show us how little is in our power.)

While I was living in San Francisco, going to school to for an advanced degree with a growing family, a happy marriage, a respectable calling at church, a healthy body and all, my wife and I began working on a Foster-Adoption program. To adopt a foster child through the county.

As I met and interviewed with the counselor over our case to discuss our personal lives, I was overcome and impressed with incredible gratitude at how lucky I was. How INCREDIBLY blessed I had been and was. I don’t think I was proud or arrogant of what I had. I knew how rare these gifts were, and I was in tremendous AWE that God would grant so many blessings to me. But life is supposed to be hard so that we can learn.

Near the end of this process, I flew out to Utah for a weekend to interview for some advanced training positions at the VA Hospital and the University of Utah in Salt Lake, to attend after graduation. As I sat waiting in the director’s office at the U, he had one of those funny de-motivational posters on his wall. It was a picture of a wrecked ship sticking out of the water. It read: Mistakes, It Could Be That the Purpose of Your Life is Only To Serve As A Warning To Others.

mistakes poster with sinking ship
via despair.com

Something hit me at that moment. Hard. From the Spirit. I knew then that was going to be my life really soon. To have my mistakes exposed to the world and I would have to be an example of what NOT to do. This impression wasn’t there to scare me, but to prepare me. It wasn’t scary, almost reassuring. I responded in my head, “So be it. I’ll do my best to fulfill my mission.”

Within two hours I found out that my wife had completely and unexpectedly left me and brought our kids here to Utah, citing mistakes I’d made as reasons for my failure as a husband and justification for divorce. She met me unexpectedly in the foyer after the interview, told me her intentions and dropped me off at the airport. I would have to go back to San Francisco alone.

Over the next few months I lost everything I valued except for some relationships, my knowledge, and my testimony, all of which became worth more than I ever could have imagined. I didn’t even have a degree to show for all my efforts and years of schooling, which I was ready to quit on. Fortunately for the mountain of student debt looming over my head, I stuck it out with tremendous help from others.

God took my incredible life and basically made me start over in a deep hole with nothing but the knowledge in my head a few friends, and a distant family I called often. Not very long after, God introduced me to Bronwyn, who had recently moved across the country all on her own, to try something new and completely different. She has been an incredible blessing in my life and I thank God every day that we get to be together and support each other through this stormy life.

Flying Above the Fog

During that dark time, in an effort to cheer me up (and as a birthday present to my dad), my older brother flew a small airplane from the desert near Tehachapi, California, to my hometown of Camarillo, where he picked up my parents and began flying up the coast to come see me for the day. The coast was lost in a fog that day, and if it was too thick where he was trying to land he’d have to call off the visit. I waited and waited for the fog to lift and the clouds to clear, but it didn’t happen.

Before he was supposed to arrive he called and told me it was fine and everything looked crystal clear to him. I looked out the window and saw whitish gray obscuring everything I could see. Still, I drove the 20 miles to Half Moon Bay, where indeed, the air was clear. I realized something very profound that day:

When we are lost in a fog or in the dark, when it is all that we can see, our natural tendency is to assume that EVERYONE is lost in the same fog. When we think that no one else can see the world clearly for what it is, it is usually because we, ourselves, can’t see the world clearly. When we are suffering under weakness, or ignorance, or addiction, it is easy to think that everyone is subject to the same problem. C.S. Lewis said, “Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.

Fog in mountains

Alma the Younger, the same Alma who saw angels, who converted thousands, who prophesied the destruction of cities and was rescued by prisons tumbling onto his tormenters, who was the first chief judge of the Nephite Nation, who was apparently translated by God, who had personally known hundreds who had been saved miraculously by the power of God, had to contend with Korihor. This same Korihor, told Alma, “Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come…  Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.”

Korihor couldn’t see, so he wrongly assumed that no one else could see either. How wrong he was.

Once, as a missionary in Canada, we held a youth fireside. Before the fireside started, I put up three pictures covered by sheets of paper on a chalkboard, behind one of the covers was a picture of the Savior. I picked one of the young men, took him aside privately and showed him which cover was hiding the Savior.

During the fireside, I pointed out the three sheets of paper on the chalkboard and asked the youth as a group, which one was hiding the picture of the Savior. They shouted out guesses, they tried to read my reactions and make judgments based on that. They argued and debated with each other. They tried to manipulate me into giving away clues.

The kid that I had shown the picture to beforehand, he started making timid attempts to tell the group where the Savior really was, but they assumed he didn’t know any better than they did. He got bolder and bolder, telling them, “It’s on the right! It’s the one on the right! Guys, you need to believe me, it’s the one on the right!” I would prompt him, “How do you know?” “I just know! You guys, it’s on the right!”

Several times, I prompted him, “What makes you so certain? How do you know? Why do you say it’s that one?” Unfortunately, his answer stayed the same, “I just KNOW!” and he was never able to convince the group of anything. I calmed the group down and revealed the truth to them, and they all realized he had been right the the whole time and for the right reason: Because I had told him! I had hoped he would say so, “Because Elder Lassen told me!” They had wrongly assumed that he was just as lost and confused as they were. But he wasn’t.

Getting back to Half Moon Bay and my brother’s airplane: I met my brother and parents that day, we ate some seafood, and took a little buzz up and around the Golden Gate Bridge in one of the most memorable moments of my life. I got some amazing pictures from the air and got to experience something rare and incredible.

I should have known from past experience that we’d be okay because I’d climbed above the fog so many times by bike and car and on foot into the hills around the Golden Gate, that the fog, as thick and soupy as it was, was often not very tall. While the deck of the Golden Gate Bridge was swallowed up in white mist with visibility down to a few feet, almost everything above it was crystal clear. It wouldn’t have taken much to rise above the fog. The fog had caused such a despair and fear in me I couldn’t think beyond it. Fortunately for me, God provided others in my life who were not lost in the same fog as me and could help me out of it.

There is a Guide Who Can See Everything

I like this quote from Carl Shurz, a US Senator, Secretary of the Interior, and Ambassador to Spain during the 1800’s.

Ideals are like stars. You will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them, you reach your destiny.

Something else I observed about the people in San Francisco, and in too many people all over this country and world, even (and sometimes especially here in Utah) When you look up and can’t see anything of any certainty, after a while you stop looking up and quit trying to be better.

This is a very natural and normal human tendency. We are all in danger of this at any point in our lives. And just like the supporters of the Bismark, when you think you’ve reached the top of something and have nowhere else to look or climb or can’t find anything up there worth looking at, that is often when you are actually your weakest and most vulnerable.

When we are at the top of our game, we are vulnerable to despair, to pride, and to sin. And only with HIS help and the help of those he sends can we escape it. Alma describes it as being “snatched”. He snatches us out of those traps. He rescues us. Very often at the last minute. Only at the moment that Joseph Smith was ready to give up to the power of the devil in the Sacred Grove did the light appear.

Only after the apostles toiled against the storm all night did the Savior come to them, or calm the storm (the fourth watch of the night, early in the morning, after the darkest hours are over). “We have a ‘Fourth-Watch-God’, one of my stake presidents said often.” He often only steps in to rescue us after we have given it our all and are about to collapse from fatigue.

I used to think that since I was doing everything in my power to keep the commandments that God would be obligated to let me into the Celestial Kingdom. Because I worked so hard at being faithful. That is what we read, right? “It is by grace we are saved after all we can do”? This is why so many of us got into arguments with Born Again Christians on our missions or in our hometowns outside of Utah. Works are crucial. Grace just fills in the gaps where we’re lacking.

I hope I can teach everyone who reads this, that this thinking is a bit backwards and self-centered. Grace is Crucial, and our works barely fill anything. They are a key ingredient, yes, but they amount to so much less than we’d like to give ourselves credit for. Our knowledge of the gospel, of the commandments, our ability to move and be and do and think, to BREATHE, are gifts of mercy and grace.

Our intelligence, our education, our very testimonies that inspire us to do our good works, are the result of mercy and grace. We are floundering little boats in a dark and stormy sea and we would be completely lost if it were not for the light that beams from the Savior standing on firm ground. He shares that light with others who then share it with us. And we work towards the shore, against wind, and waves, and currents, and other bumbling boats, to get there. But all the skillful sailing in the world would amount to absolutely nothing without the guiding light of the Savior.

Christ-Walking-On-The-Waters-Julius-Sergius-Klever

I now have a completely new and better understanding of Grace and Mercy and the endless value of the Atonement. If we do not have a problem, flaw, or weakness that we are constantly having to sincerely and desperately repent of, it only means that God has not put our face in it yet to see the damage it is causing, or we cannot see how far we have yet to go. He will show us. Just wait. It might be a long time until we see our imperfections for how serious they are, but he will eventually teach us all to be like Him as long as that’s what we want.

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

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

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.

I know this Church is true because I know that Joseph Smith is and always was a true prophet. I know this because God has made it unmistakably clear that he is and that the Priesthood is a real force, and that the Book of Mormon is true. He has told me in very specific moments, in ways that I could never deny or mistake. Those truths are more real to me than anything else I have ever seen or known about anything else in my life. They are the light that God has shared with me and I hope to share with others.

 

Christian is a mix of just about everything. Son of a Danish Immigrant and All-American Pioneer, grew up in a very conservative home in a liberal area, thinks there's room for science and religion in everyone's life, is educated in alternative and modern medicine, spends just as much time indoors as out, and is a closet writer who enjoys public speaking.