First some background information. I grew up in central Illinois, in a small town that has an elevation of 757 ft above sea level. For most of my childhood, this was the view that I was used to (corn on one side, soybeans on the other. Then the next year, they'd switch. It's called crop rotation, but I digress).
Yep, pretty flat. And for those useless trivia addicts (like me) the highest point in Illinois is a place called Charles Mound (yes, that's mound-not mountain, or peak, or anything like that, just mound). Elevation 1,257 feet above sea level. (I've never been there though). So, as you can imagine, there wasn't a lot of winter sport opportunities. We could go sledding down the occasional hill, but definitely nothing like skiing or snowboarding and those kind of things.
Fast forward a few years to my freshman year of college at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Elevation 4,549 feet. Surrounded by mountains. It was gorgeous. And caused occasional feelings of claustrophobia. But worth it. This is the view of the campus with the mountains in the background.
Anyway, back to my story. So there I was at BYU with a native Utahn as a roommate, and he and a few other friends decided that they should take me skiing. I had never been before (remember, it's difficult to ski when the highest point is a "mound"). But I was young and unafraid (and now I have the soundtrack for Les Miserables stuck in my head...), so I thought it would be fun. And I had friends that would be patient with me as they taught me how to ski-or so I thought. If I had known better I would have recognized the following danger signs:
- When you are first learning how to ski, they give you shorter skis. These are slower and allow you to figure out the basics. I didn't want to spend the extra money to rent some skis, so my roommate let me borrow his brother's skis. (His brother was on a mission at the time and wouldn't be using them). They were long. Too long for a beginner as I later found out.
- They decided to go to a ski resort called Snowbird. Those who are familiar with Utah have probably heard of it. And apparently it's not really a place for beginners. I wouldn't have guessed it at the time though, since there were a LOT of kids there. Like 5-6 year olds. I didn't realize that a lot of kids in Utah learn to ski before they can walk, so by the time they are 5 they are experts.The danger was that I was thinking something along the lines of "this can't be too hard if all these little kids are doing it."
- My ski instructions lasted about 5-10 minutes and consisted of my friends saying, "this is called a snowplow. When your skis form an upside down "V", you will go slower. When they are parallel you will go faster. Any questions? No? Ok, let's go."
- It is apparently a cardinal sin in Utah (or any ski resort) if they have to stop the lift for you to get on. Let's just say I sinned. And having the 5 year old next to me give me a look that could kill didn't help the situation. This was definitely not going to way I had envisioned.
- We got to the half-way point and decided to exit the lift here. They didn't have to stop the lift this time, but my exit was less-than-glamorous to say the least. I completely wiped out. That wouldn't be the last time I found myself laying on the ground.
- My friends decided that it would be a good idea to take away my ski poles at this point. Their reasoning being that I would need to learn to ski without them as to not use them as a crutch. That they were for more advanced skiers who would know how to use them properly. At which point they simply said "see you at the bottom" and took off.
I finally made it to the bottom and started looking for my friends, feeling a little more confident and thinking maybe I should try it again. When I finally found them, I discovered that one of the girls in our group had fallen while skiing down the slope, and as she tried to stop herself she ended up tearing something in her knee. We all decided at that point to call it a day, since it wouldn't be fair to leave her down below while the rest of us had fun. And thus ended my first and only time skiing.
So, what did I learn from this experience? I think (looking back now after 20+ years) that it taught me to be a better teacher. I learned that just because you're qualified doesn't mean you're able. My roommate and friends were very good skiers. They had had years of practice and experience. But when it came time to teach someone else how to ski they weren't very good at it. They couldn't remember what it was like to start out as a complete beginner, since they had grown up skiing. They covered what they thought were the basics, and just assumed that I'd be able to figure out the rest on my own. I was given the wrong equipment and wasn't given a lot of information ahead of time that could prepare me for the experience. Plus I didn't start at a place that was suitable for a novice-I learned later that most (if not all) little children first start learning to ski by standing on the skis of their parents and going down a small hill/slope in their backyard, or a park, or something similar. Or by having dad and mom on either side as they start on very mild slopes and gradually build their way up. The point is you have to start with the basics, practicing the fundamental skills along the way as you increase in your ability. It's only after you master the beginning levels that you are prepared for the more difficult (and ultimately more enjoyable) slopes.
As the church continues to grow and as missionary efforts are expanding, we need to be careful not to take the approach that my friends did (and don't misunderstand me, there was absolutely nothing malicious in their intentions) and bring new converts to the top of Snowbird, give them a cursory introduction to the church and the gospel, wish them luck and tell them we'll see them at the bottom. And then think after they fail to become fully engaged or active in the church that they just must not have been committed enough and how sad it is that they didn't make it or enjoy the journey.
Isaiah said: "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (Isaiah 28:10). We absolutely must be willing to take someone by the hand and have the patience necessary to teach them from whatever point they are at in their lives. Some will have had experiences that only need some minor refining before they are on their way. Others (like I was with skiing) are beginning something completely new and foreign to them and will take a lot of time before they are ready to be on their own. Let's take the time to figure out what they need and take the time to teach them. It'll be worth it.