You’ve been prepared — now don’t screw it up.

If there’s one thing you need to remember from today, it’s this: you are NOT alone. And, as I’m sure I’ll be reminded by at least one overly zealous companion, you CANNOT be alone.

While you are responsible for your own salvation, it’s simply not in The Plan do go it alone. On my mission packing list (amongst other things), is a four generation pedigree chart. I thought: “this should be easy. Aren’t there like a million genealogy websites now? I should be able to plug in my name and hit print, right?” Wrong. I made the mistake of getting my parents involved. Instead of four generations, we ended up in the 14th century.

Some common themes were immediately evident: willingness to travel across the known world for religious freedom, dedication to a cause, a dash of stubbornness, and a love affair with Asia. I was in awe. It’s as if the plan from the very beginning was to get me to China. We won’t go all the way back to the Vikings, but here’s the highlights:

1746 — Philip Jacob Ohler was born in Meckenheim, Germany. At 30 he landed in Pennsylvania. His wife Catarina gave birth to their son shortly thereafter, in 1776 and the height of American fervor.

1833 — Aggatha Ann Woolsey on July 23 wedded John D. Lee. They encountered Mormon missionaries and moved to Far West, Missouri . They were baptized on June 17, 1838 and experienced hardships created by Governor Boggs’ extermination order. Early in 1839, they fled Missouri along with twelve thousand other brethren and sisters.

In section 52 of the Doctrine & Covenants, Zebedee Coltrin was called to preach in Winchester, Indiana. He attended the School of the Prophets upon his return and would eventually travel to St. George where he died in 1887 as Church Patriarch, set apart by John Taylor.

June 25, 1844 John Solomon Fullmer was one of the last people to see Joseph Smith alive. Joseph sent him for help, but to no avail. The Prophet was martyred two days later. John, having served as Joseph’s private secretary for a period of time, was one of the Brethren left to handle church property after the Exodus from Nauvoo. Once settled in what is now Davis County Utah, John became active in politics and assisted drafting the constitution for the State of Deseret.

Fast forward to 1952. Larry Oler called to serve mission in Samoa. To put it succinctly, he fell in love with the Pacific Islands. After his mission, Larry promptly married his sweetheart and returned to that area as a CES educator and administrator. He’s known throughout the region for his generous nature, his love of the people, and his dedication to building Zion. He died a few years ago, having served as the first President of the Kona, Hawaii Temple.

Though not a relative… In 1980, Russell M. Nelson and his wife headed for China after urging from President Kimball to “be of service to the Chinese, learn their language, pray for them and help them.” Through his medical connections, Elder Nelson developed in Chinese what is known as guanxi. These connections allowed him unprecedented access to decision makers on various levels of Chinese government.

1985 – Craig and Liz boarded a plane at SEATAC that would land in Hong Kong 16 hours later. Transportation arrangements, as they usually do, fell through. So, with not even enough Chinese to buy a watermelon from a street vendor, my parents began their trek to Xi’an. 886 miles, five modes of public transit, and one foot-traffic-only border crossing later… they were in. With only three days before the start of the Fall semester.

One short year later, Elder Nelson was back in China… and looking for my Dad. He’d come with the intention of setting apart at least one, if not two Branch Presidents – one for the ExPats in Beijing and the other for…. well, the rest of China. His travelling companions were Elder Bradford, president of the Asia Area and Brother Rodgers, Polynesia Cultural Center supervisor. Interestingly enough, Brother Bradford grew up with Grandma Marcusen (maiden name, Fullmer… from John Solomon) while Brother Rogers worked closely with Larry Oler (my paternal grandma’s cousin). Thanks to the good ol’ Relief Society grapevine, both knew Craig and Liz were somewhere in China and thriving.

Yes. The world, in that moment, was excruciatingly small.

Family references in hand, Elder Nelson began an in depth interview with my parents — covering everything from flour for Sacrament bread to culture shock. Satisfied, on May 16th the Xi’an China Branch was organized with Craig Oler as Branch President. And now, here I stand. Called to serve in Taiwan —  a tiny island off the coast of China, a virtual gateway for pioneers into the Middle Kingdom.

In the Pearl of Great Price, God gives Abraham a similar pedigree. Abraham learns he was “chosen before he was born” just before God shows him the Creation of the Earth, as if to say “this Earth is for YOU.” It’s a staggering thought, but one we should all take a moment to ponder on. It’s easy to think big picture – to say, “oh yes, the Earth was created for us, for all mankind to use and enjoy and gain experience from.” But how often do we, like Abraham, have it laid out so personally? How often do we realize the hundreds and thousands of pioneers gone ahead of us, breaking train just for you?

This divine objective – unity in purpose throughout time and eternity – is an encouraging one. To think you have whole armies of family members rooting for you, making decisions with you and your happiness in mind.

In a fireside address at BYU in 1995, Elder Nelson pointed out: “In stark contrast to that divine objective, the real world in which we live is divided by diverse languages, culture, and politics. Even the privileges of a democracy carry the burden of bickering in election campaigns. Contention is all about us. Ours is a pessimistic and cynical world–one that, to a great extent, has no hope in Christ nor in God’s plan for human happiness. Why such global contention and gloom? The reason is plain. If there is no hope in Christ, there is no recognition of a divine plan for the redemption of mankind. Without that knowledge, people mistakenly believe that existence today is followed by extinction tomorrow–that happiness and family associations are only ephemeral.”

Families – those associations we cherish on Earth – are the nitty-gritty of God’s plan. Without that unencumbered love that can only exist between Father and Son, Mother and Daughter, mankind could not think to the future, could not make decisions for a greater good, could not be steady pioneers. This is truly what it means to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and hearts of the children to the fathers. The times this phrase is noted in Scripture, two things are always underlined: the why and the consequences if we don’t. The consequences hearken back to Abraham – if we don’t do this the Earth will be utterly wasted. The why reads something like a last will and testament – that whatever promises were made to the fathers can be passed on seamlessly to the children. To seal up these families for eternity, then, becomes vital.

Joseph Smith said about sealing: “It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of—a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah.”

This power – given to Elijah and restored in this time  — is the culmination of what we believe  and manifests itself today in our Temples. There we offer ourselves – the beneficiaries of our ancestors’ trail blazing and steadfastness – as a thanks for their work and a covenant to continue it. I challenge each of you, especially the youth who have just returned from Nauvoo, to keep the Spirit of Elijah with you always. Rejoice in it! Call upon it in times of need! You are, like Abraham, one of the “noble and great ones.” The Earth was created for you and each human being on it has prepared it to help you accomplish God’s. Find the details in your Patriarchal Blessing, in your family history, and in the Temple.

Paraphrasing President Hunter: This is a time of great hope and excitement and one of the greatest eras of all dispensations. I promise you tonight in the name of the Lord whose servant I am that God will always prepare places of peace, defense, and safety for his people. When we have faith in God we can hope for a better world – for us personally, for our families, and for all mankind. It is incumbent upon us to rejoice a little more and despair a little less, to give thanks for what we have and for the magnitude of God’s blessings to us.

I add to this my testimony that Christ is our Savior. In His name, Amen.

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Calendars, Caliche, and Customs

Well… I made the mistake of putting my blog address in the family “Christmas” letter which just landed at the homes of 60+ close friends and family members. Which means my two month forced hiatus from the blogosphere is officially ended!

Turns out all the suffering due to wisdom teeth (or lack thereof) was worth it. On April 12, I received and accepted the call to serve as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I’ll “labor in the Taiwan Taipei mission… for a period of 18 months” starting August 3, 2011. Speaking Mandarin, of course!

This news kicked my life into high gear — sending my passport and visa application off to the Travel Department, finishing out my Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, coordinating flights for Grandma to visit, interviews with the Bishop and Stake President, investigating fabrics and fits, scheduling the Temple, finishing Temple Prep classes… the list goes on, and it’s nowhere near complete… after all, there are still ugly “sister missionary shoes” to buy!

What’s been most humbling is this (and I’m kicking myself that I am already using a few classic Sister cliches, please forgive!): with each step in the right direction, doors open I didn’t even know existed. Since I started my job at the gun range, I’ve religiously skimmed 10% off the top to pay tithing. Two weeks ago, I evaluated my finances for my time in Taiwan and realized I was short. By a couple thousand dollars. I applied for a couple Summer positions as second jobs — a lifeguard at my neighborhood pool, a morning stocker at my local HEB, etc. Frankly, jobs I’m overqualified for and should have been easy to get. After almost two weeks of nothing, stress headaches started to get the better of me. Monday, as I reorganized the reloading section, the woman who doles out paychecks pulled up a chair. She began apologizing profusely that the raise I’d been promised had not been showing up on my paycheck for the last several months (hahaha — I never open my pay stubs because of direct deposit. Oh well!). To make up for it, even, she was increasing the raise and it would cover all back hours and from here on out. A quick calculation had me almost in tears: that was the exact amount of money I was short. So, as crazy as it sounds, God gave me a job at a gun range. And He’s determined that’s where I need to be until I leave for the MTC.

V, or Sister V. 😉

Ps — if you would like a postcard from Taiwan, please send your address to sistervoler(at)gmail(dot)com. Weekly emails to the family will be posted here for your reading pleasure.

Joe Bennion & Horseshoe Mountain Pottery

Leaning on the information desk on the 3rd floor of the BYU library was a daily ritual of mine for several years. Mostly due to a cute boy who worked on the other side of said counter…. but that’s a post for another day. One such day, I found myself fiddling with a bunch of pens in a mug. My fingertips grazed the rim and instantly recognized the texture: pottery. Hand-thrown and fired. I picked the mug up and was instantly transported home. Not to Texas per se, but that spiritual home that only exists whenever and wherever family is gathered. At first I couldn’t believe it, but that weight and shape were unmistakable . I rolled the mug over and sure enough, the stamp stood along the base proclaiming quietly to any who would take notice: this is one of Joe’s pots.

I have two distinct memories of Joe and his pots. The first is more a movie montage of long drives through the mountains South of Springville twice a year to visit a strange man in a small shop. We’d stay for what felt like an eternity and always head back North with several odd-shaped pieces of brown butcher paper.

The other is decidedly more concrete and a medium I relied on  once we moved to Texas: The Potter’s Meal, a short documentary by Steve W. Olpin about Joe’s life and the philosophy behind his pots.

The first time I saw this short film, it transfixed me. I swear it lasted three hours (28 minutes in reality) and opened my eyes to a few key concepts that a life-time of Sunday School lessons had never hit on. For our purposes, we’ll keep it to one: The Meal as a ritual communing (to communicate intimately). Digging around, I found this is not a new, strange, nor unique concept in any part of the world….

But let’s back up first. Ritual. You know the word, and you’ve probably participated in a few throughout your life. From secret handshakes at Girls’ Camp to ordinances performed in modern-day Temples. You recognize something different about the time and space a ritual exists in… but have you ever asked yourself why? Here’s an answer from Eliade:

The religious festival (ritual) is the reactualization of a primordial event, of a sacred history in which the actors are the gods or semi-divine beings. But sacred history is recounted in the myths, hence the participants in the festival become contemporaries of the gods and the semi-divine beings. They live in the primordial time that is sanctified by the presence and activity of the gods…. The religious experience of the festival — that is, participation in the sacred — enables man periodically to live in the presence of gods. … In so far as he imitates his gods, religious man lives in the time of origin, the time of myths. In other words, he emerges from profane duration to recover an unmoving time, eternity.

… It is not with the morphology of the festival that we are concerned; it is with the structure of the sacred time actualized in festivals. It can be said of sacred time that it is always the same, that it is “a succession of eternities” (Hubert and  Mauss). For, however complex (or simple, like family dinner) a religious festival may be, it always involves a sacred event that took place ab origine and that is ritually made present. The participants in the festival become contemporaries of the mythical event. In other words, they emerge from their historical time… and recover primordial time, which is always the same, which belongs to eternity. Religious man feels the need to plunge periodically into this sacred and indestructible time. For him it is sacred time that makes possible the other time –ordinary time–the profane duration in which every human life takes its course.

In Eliade’s terms, the religious festival we’re concerned with here and now is The Meal. Throughout Christianity exist examples of the highly complex ritual Meal to the simple “breaking bread.” Included are Meals with formal names like Passover and The Last Supper, Meals that punctuate intense periods of spiritual instruction, and Meals immediately following significant spiritual events.

[ I should note here that these scriptures depict more than just the institution or the execution of the Sacrament. While the Sacrament is definitely a ritual Meal, it’s morphology– to borrow from Eliade– is specified and unique enough that it deserves its own study. ]

But what about the everyday Meal? Is that not a ritual, too? A religious festival worthy of study? I say yes. Apparently Joe does, too:

“I think everything is connected, whether we know it or not. Quite often we function as if it isn’t. We walk in a straight line and don’t think about the returns we have in our life…. In making pots, in gardening, in raising a family you realize these circles – these cycles – and these things that come back. Science and faith and art all come together and should work together as part of the same system instead of being separate disciplines.

At one time, in more primary cultures this connection was taken for granted. For instance, the act of making pots… was seen as much a spiritual endeavor as offering sacrifice or working in the Temple. I like to think of the home as being an important temple. It’s a place where art and spirituality all come together.”

– The Potter’s Meal

Unsure of the details of our pre-mortal experience, I hesitate to pin one ab origine to the daily festival of the Meal, but what I can tell you with surety is this: it’s vital to our continued existence. Science tells us we can only live so many days without food, that physical nourishment provides our bodies with proteins and amino acids required for basic functions. Faith tells us we must continually draw nearer to the Lord, seek spiritual rejuvenation through reactualization of sacred space and time.

Members of the LDS faith have this scheduled like clock work — weekly partaking of the Sacrament, monthly Temple attendance, yearly interviews and check-ups with Bishops and Stake Presidents. But how often do we just “grab something” on the way toMutual, Institute, Dessert Night, Break the Fast, Presidency Meetings, Welfare Meeting, etc.? Are we missing the daily opportunity to communicate intimately with our Creator?

Sadly, yes.

Rewatching The Potter’s Meal, I noticed Joe is an enthusiastic gardener and makes the connection described above between organic spirituality and meal preparation in the home. The ritual Meal is not just about eating, but the connections discovered and created. Connections between Earth and mankind, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, between God and mortal. I suppose in those connections is where Eliade’s reactualization takes place — mortals are given a chance during The Meal to suspend profane time and enter sacred time not only for themselves but with those around them, with their family. And this is where Joe’s pottery comes into play:

I am fascinated with the idea that we are the children of a benevolent creator. The influences that most powerfully shape who we are seem to be located in the household and family. I want my pottery to be there and to promote and influence that growth, however small it’s part may be. The family dinner table is sacred space and the venue of first choice for my pottery.

— driving philosophy  behind Horseshoe Mountain Pottery



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Some of my favorite things from Joe in recent, blogging history:  This is about home and pottery in it’s natural habitat. This is the best window into Joe’s personality. This is the house I remember Joe and Lee living and gardening in.


PS: this is how innocently this post began, a footnote in an old journal of mine. “*duality of a meal — eating to fill the hole vs. recreating sacred space through gathering family, friends and breaking bread; Christ, appearance of food at sermons, moments of religious significance

via Herald Extra

Practical Christianity

The concept of eternal man, with its refinments in the prophets of this new era, has an immense philosophical and theological strength which is only beginning to be recognized.

What matters is that Christ and his prophets are, in all history, those most immersed in these realities and therefore in ours. If I had not known that self-understanding on the scale Christ had it, and through him others, can endow life — all of it — with glorious meaning, these articles would never have been begun.

No insights, no set of flashes, are more revolutinoary to the axioms of relition in the Western world than these three: a) Man and woman are not derived from a void. They are beginningless. Their primal existence, as uncreated and indestructible intelligence, is everlasting.  b) The ‘creation’ of spirit or soul is not a fiat act at the time of mortal conception or birth. It is really divine procreation in a world of glory. c) Physical birth in mortality is not totally at the initiative of God the Father. It is in part the result of premortal, individual election and foresight which are in harmony with uncreated law.

1 — Your conscious and purposive existence is guaranteed forever. The elements composing your intelligence, or begotten spirit and mortal body, are indestructible. Through stages, either of growth or degeneration, selfhood remains. Both utter extinction and permanent regression to a prior state are impossibilities.

2 — There is no creation ‘from nothing.’ There is ordering of elements: movement from simple to complex truth; from one degree to a greater degree, and from part to whole. You are not just a product; you are an originator. In space you are coexistent with God. In time you are coeternal with God.

3 — All three modes of your being — intelligence, spirit, and body — are essential to your self-fulfillment. Perfection of any one requires inseparable union with the others. God himself is God because of His tripartite perfection.

4 — Freedom was not created. You are, and always will be, indepedent in that stage of developement to which your voluntary decisions and divine powers have led. There are limits all along the way to what you can be and do. But you are not a billiard ball. No power in the universe can coerce your complete assent or dissent.

5 — God is responsible neither for the innate limits of uncreated element nor for the eternal and inviolate principles within the Gospel plan as instituted. By application of these, not by a cosmic accident, He became what He is. Likewise He aids all of us in reaching our fullness. Thus it is not a ‘decree’ that stress and pain are part of growth and enlightenment. The universe and the selves within it simply operate that way. It is enough to know that  God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, though not the source of tragedy, yet have the power to enable us to climb above it into everlasting joy.

As to present ills, we aticipated them. Yes we chose, and chose with knowledge, these very conditions and risks. In a word, we were not -contrary to French nihilists – ‘thrown’ into the world. Every mortal… did ask to be born. We might have avoided mortality. Billions did, and thus drastically limited their possiblities.

These are direct quotes from — forming my boiler-plate version of — Eternal Man by Truman G. Madsen. Madsen’s book (a collection of fleshed-out, somewhat apologetic essays on the five points above in relation to eternity of man) is a mere 78 pages, inclusive of an introduction and a preface. Still, I spent a week just reading the text, another sorting through meaning and application to my personal life. I can’t say I’ve produced much coherent or concrete thought yet… but the wisps are finally coalescing.

550 words doesn’t nearly do Madsen justice, but I do hope it links well enough the platform on which my following observations stand:

  • Could you imagine a world where each individual saw themselves as intelligences, co-eternal with God?

The recent trend on Top 40 radio is female power-ballads. Katy Perry, Pink, Lady Gaga all released dance anthems with accompanying inspirational lyrics. A subconscious reaction to the media frenzy over bullying, I’m sure… but they make for an interesting study nonetheless. Strangely, Katy Perry’s “Firework” comes closest to the truth while Pink and Gaga take to defending the route of misunderstanding and staving off accountability. In a world where art imitates popular sentiment (or vise versa? the eternal debate), it’s more than mildly distressing that human beings are so far from seeing themselves as they truly are: eternal, purposeful, agents of change, capable of overcoming great and long odds.

  • Could you imagine if we all saw each other as intelligences, co-eternal with God?

As heady as it might be — realizing you’re made of the same stuff as God — more profound is this: so is everyone else. That includes the idiot who cut you off in traffic this morning, the girl behind you who smacks her gum like she’s breathing, the  ridiculously rule-driven bureaucrat at your local Government office… the list goes on, and only gets more humbling.

About a month ago, I sat in the Bishop’s office updating him on our out-of-control Ward Unemployment list he’d asked me to tackle.  Our ward boundaries span a variety of cultural and socio-economic areas and in the same day, I could find myself in the richly furnished home of a genetic researcher and the shabby apartment of a waitress with three kids and no husband. Needless to say, working through this included a strange balance of getting out of my comfort zone and motivating the jobless to get out of theirs. More often than not, it was frustrating. However, the list started to shrink as resumes turned into interviews that turned into full-time positions.  At the conclusion of our meeting, the Bishop said something that struck me: “What you’re doing here is real, practical Christian service. Everybody prays for people to get handed a new job, but very few are willing or able to get down in the trenches and really help.”

Reading through Madsen’s text reminded me of the Bishop’s definition of practical Christianity — to actually do the good you pray for — and provided insight into why Christ was able to teach and serve the way he did. He saw human beings as they are — co-eternal with God — and he used his Divinity to inspire us to see ourselves and each other the same way. It’s not an easy mindset to keep (indeed, it took a member of the godhead coming to earth to provide a good example), but what are we here for if not to improve? Improvement and progression is not an overnight change — it takes place in each moment of every day and how we choose to see and treat those intelligences around us.

If you’re like me and looking for a challenge in 2011… there it is. To practice Christianity.


photo by Lisette

First Post: Two things…

… but not the two you’d think.

1) It’s tax season. Which means one of two things: you’re either broke or have just come into some money.

2) We’re well into 2011 and those New Year’s resolutions are looking more and more like my grandpa’s potato fields. I heard a radio ad for a local church last week, actually, that tugged at these very heartstrings. “You wanted to be a better person, to seek God, and be happy. It’s almost March. What happened?”

Given that both my parents work long hours w/ teams in foreign countries and my sister has more extracurriculars than a set of triplets, the role of House Elf lands on me. This includes but is not limited to cooking, cleaning, running errands, and general servitude. I secretly love the domesticity of it all.

Each Sunday night, I perch at my kitchen bar and jot down a rough menu for the week while chatting with my dad about the Sabbath Day’s proceedings. It’s always a lively conversation and reminds me what a beautiful pair (pear?) good food and the Gospel make.

So, tonight, let’s take your two things, add them to my two things (preparing for a mission and being a more consistent blogger), and see what we get.

I promise to blog at least twice a week: once about something from the reading list and once about the week’s latest culinary adventure.

And you promise to set aside some of your tax money to pick up a book or a new ingredient at least once a month.