2020: Year-End Thoughts

I started this year feeling very optimistic. As a participant in the new Children and Youth program, I set a goal in January 2020 to learn a song on the piano. The guitar is my main instrument, but I always felt like I was missing out by not having good skills on the keyboard, and by not being able to read music very well.

So I chose a favorite piano song, the Prelude I in C from The Well-Tempered Clavier by Johann Sebastian Bach, and started working on it. My goal was to play it through just once every day, and my family members might recall that I spent most of my early sessions counting lines and spaces on the staff, and then counting keys on the keyboard. I made some progress every day, and by early spring I could hobble through the piece well enough that listeners might not plug their ears or leave the room.

It was going to be a good year, and I was ready to learn what the Lord wanted to teach me. But as you all know, the curriculum for this year changed rather abruptly in mid-March, and the lessons turned out to be different from what any of us thought we would learn.

It has been a hard year for the world. Many of us have lost family members or friends to this pandemic. Just within the last month I have had several patients die of COVID-19. Many of us have also lost income or employment as a direct result of the lockdowns.

In addition to these disruptions, we have had political and racial tensions ripping through our communities, an unusual number of hurricanes and other disasters, terrible wildfires, and the continuing day-to-day personal struggles of illness, accidents, injuries, losses, depression, addiction, etc.

A few days before Christmas I had a phone call from my mother. She wanted my advice on whether she should let my younger brother and his wife and their baby stay with them for Christmas. Honestly, I didn’t know what to tell her. She and my father are at high risk of medical complications to COVID-19 because of their age and overall health. But should grandmothers really feel reluctant to host their grandchildren, especially when that grandchild is the cutest baby girl on the face of the planet? It just didn’t seem fair.

Nearly all of us have lost opportunities of some sort, but the teenagers and young adults have been particularly hard-hit with these losses. Educational, occupational, and social rites of passage have simply not happened for millions of young people this year. Last week I spoke with a woman in her 20’s who was training to become a medical assistant, but had been unable to find an externship because every clinic was trying to practice social distancing. Now she can’t get a job because she has no clinical work experience, and she felt like she wasted her time and money.

It occurred to me last week that the pandemic year has given millions of young people a taste of what it is like to live with social phobia. The reason for these losses of opportunity may be different, but the feelings of personal disappointment are the same. All of you young people have my sincere sympathy; I know something about how you feel, and I am sorry that this has happened to you.

Even the programs of the church came to a grinding halt this year. Church meetings and activities were canceled for weeks on end during the spring, and all of the temples were closed. Even now our meetings and activities are not the same as they were before, and everyone can attest that virtual meetings using technology are sometimes only slightly better than not having the meeting at all. At their best they are still a poor substitute for real in-person interaction.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides a lot of scaffolding to support and facilitate the growth of our personal relationships with the Savior. After all, that is the purpose of the Lord’s Church – to bring us to Him. We do this through living the gospel of Jesus Christ, caring for those in need the way he would, inviting all to receive his gospel, and by uniting families in eternal covenants with God. Each organization and class in the Church contributes to this work in some way, and over time the Lord’s prophets have directed changes to make these programs more effective.

But when virtually all classes, meetings, and activities of the Church were canceled, the responsibility for our discipleship fell squarely upon our own shoulders. Take away the scaffolding, and it is all between you and the Lord. There is really nowhere else for this responsibility to land.

But, truth be told, the responsibility has always ultimately been there anyway. When the pandemic someday fades into distant memory, and all of the Church programs are back to firing on all of their cylinders, the responsibility to learn and live the gospel in your own home and on your own time will still be yours. And you will still have the opportunity and privilege to turn the floor of your home into holy ground.


So what happened to that song I was learning on the piano? Well, I got better at it, and by about May I could almost play it through without a mistake. But I didn’t really understand the song musically until sometime in July when I started to play it on the guitar. I remember working out the introductory passage, and exclaiming, “Oh, it’s a D minor chord! And that’s been a G7 this whole time? Who knew?” Note-by-note, and chord-by-chord, I transferred everything I had learned on the piano keyboard to the guitar’s fretboard.

Then in August my grandmother died. She was 99 ½ years old, and had been living in a nursing home for some years. Because of visitor restrictions during the pandemic, none of her family members had been able to visit her for 5 months. And because of her dementia she was unable to even answer the telephone, let alone have a conversation. My younger brother and his beautiful infant baby were finally allowed to see her about an hour before she died.

We could not have a funeral, but we held a brief outdoor graveside memorial a week after her death. Years ago Grandma wrote some notes about her preferences for speakers and music at her funeral, and we tried to follow her wishes as best we could. For a postlude she had specifically requested something by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Dragging a piano onto the cemetery lawn over a dozen gravestones wasn’t really an option. We could have used an electronic keyboard, I suppose, but that didn’t seem classy enough for Grandma. And anyway, I had a better idea.

It was my great honor to play the guitar at Grandma’s graveside service, an honor I was surprisingly and uniquely prepared for. There was not time for me to learn the song in the week between Grandma’s death and her memorial. My preparation for this unexpected opportunity had to start long before I knew it was coming.

And the same kind of thing will happen to you, if you are faithful to the Lord and are diligent in your gospel study and gospel living. He will prepare you to serve and build his kingdom in remarkable ways, and many times you won’t know what you’re preparing for until the time comes to do it. Your contribution may be small, like mine was. A single performance at a graveside service isn’t really a big deal. But it was a big deal to me, and I like to think that it made Grandma smile.

To this day I still haven’t played that song through on the piano without an error, but that doesn’t really matter to me any more. What does matter is that the Lord was able to use me as an instrument in his hands because I had followed the promptings to set this goal and had worked on it consistently.

You may feel like you are small, but you are a big deal to the Lord. He is willing and able to be your personal and individual Savior. And you are contributing to something larger than yourself when you help to build the kingdom of God in your own home and in your own neighborhood, one heart at a time — starting with your own.

2020 has been a hard year, but so was 2019 in its own way, and 2018, 2017, and all of the years before. But these years were also full of blessings from heaven, and I can honestly say that this pandemic year has been a remarkable and even a wonderful experience for me.

I pray for a happy new year for you and for me, for your family and for mine.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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