Episode #21: Published April 15, 2019
Phil was just a boy when he and his friends made an impulse decision on a scouting trip that would reverberate throughout their lives and challenge their faith and the faith of an entire community. Though it seemed that the guilt and shame of that experience might haunt him and his future forever, a desperate prayer finally led Phil to a place of peace and understanding through Jesus Christ.
View a full transcript of the episode below.
KARYN LAY: Welcome to This is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host, KaRyn Lay. I want to come clean about something. Up until a few years ago, if you asked me how I felt about Easter, I would have said I'm more of a Christmas kind of girl. But recently, I've had a change of heart. Maybe it's the new Come Follow Me curriculum guiding my study of the Savior's life, but I feel so grateful that the last week of His life was so well documented in the scriptures because it has helped make Easter come alive to me. There's something amazing about being able to spend the week leading up to this holy day, experiencing these critical events in the Savior's life as a dynamic progressive holiday through his apostle's words. It's not just the resurrection of Easter Sunday that I celebrate. There's the throwing money changers out of the temple on Monday and breaking bread with his disciples for the last time on Thursday, and being brutally denounced by the very people he was sacrificing everything for on Good Friday. Though we primarily focus on the beautiful miracle of the resurrection, as we celebrate Easter, there was a lot that Christ had to go through to get us all to that miracle. And I find it comforting to know that throughout his mortal process, he chose to feel pain in order to succor us in hours. While the details of those days leading up to his resurrection are sometimes hard to hear and even harder to feel, the fact that he sacrificed so deeply makes the events of that Easter morning so much more powerful and personal. I can trust Him when He asks me to hand over my sins and my burdens with the promise of peace and change in return. And I can believe in His ability to transform my life and my soul when I give Him my will and my heart. Easter and its Advent reminds me that we, me and the Savior, walk together. This week's story is from Phil, who experienced that long walk with the Savior.
PHIL: In between my junior and senior year of high school, my best friend and I, his name is Tim, had just finished our Eagle Scout awards and also gone on the order of the arrow together. We loved being in the outdoors, we loved camping and we loved exploring and a group of eight scouts and one scoutmaster decided to go on a high adventure camp up into the Uinta's. And the Uinta's is a beautiful mountain range in eastern Utah, it's full of alpine lakes, white snowfields, beautiful trees, just a really, really pretty spot. We went into the granddaddy lakes, and it's a long and hard hike, especially when you're packing for a week. But we went in and set up camp right next to a lake called Betsy lake. And we're just having a great time, really having fun. And on the fourth day of the camp, then we were down at Betsy Lake, swimming and just playing around in the water. It was a beautiful day, blue sky and white billowing clouds and just the perfect day in the mountains. Just what you picture in the high Uinta's. Tim asked if we thought that he could swim across this bay, there was a peninsula that we were playing on and then there was another peninsula, and the Bay in between and he asked if we thought he could swim across that. And he was in really good shape and a really strong, healthy kid, stronger and healthier than I. And I told him that I thought that he could and I encouraged him to do it. And then he dove in and I grabbed his clothes and a towel and another scout and I, we started to run around to meet him on the other side. And this was a day in the Unitah's and sometimes this happens in the outdoors when you're a long ways away from any interference, then it can be really calm and really quiet. And noise travels a long ways. And it's incredible, you can be across a lake, and not a huge lake, but you can be a long ways from someone and hear a conversation or just almost whisper and it's incredible when you're in this kind of quiet. And of course, it's when there's no wind blowing. But we got about halfway around this bay. And we looked out to check on Tim and we could tell that his stroke had changed. And we could also hear him breathing. And we had a bad feeling come over us and we knew that he was in trouble. And so we picked up our pace a little bit, kept running. And by the time we got over to where we're going to meet him, then all you could see was his hand coming out of the water and trying to keep his head up and just fighting for his life. And we said a quick prayer. As soon as we lifted our heads from our prayer, we couldn't, we couldn't see him anymore. His hands were gone. Then I knew that he was gone.
I went to grab a log. And this other scout was already starting in, he was almost to his waist and just getting ready to dive in and go after him. We heard this voice and I don't know where the voice came from, but it was a voice that came to us and it was not a calm or a nice voice, but it said, "Don't go in there. The same thing will happen to you." And so then it just stopped us. John stopped and I dropped the log and just thought, "What just happened and how did this happen? And where's Tim? And can this really be happening?"
We went and told our Scoutmaster what had happened. And we were all just in shock, we were just wandering around. And then his brothers passed us, going in and that made it even harder, they were my friends. They were running up the trail, and they weren't running to anything. They were running to an empty lake and an empty camp. Somehow, they had been told that Tim had drowned. And as soon as they heard, then they must have just hustled to get up there, but it was too late.
So this was in the mid-70s and communication wasn't then what it is today. But somehow the word got out that Tim had drowned and the next thing we knew there was a helicopter there with a couple of divers that came in and went in and found him. And his family was notified. And then I went back and Tim and I were sharing a tent, a little orange pup tent and I was just devastated, we all were. And I started to put away his sleeping bag, and his pillow. And underneath this pillow was a little Articles of Faith card. And I thought then, I knew then that our Heavenly Father had taken the wrong person. And so I prayed and told him that, and pled with Him that if it could be me, I'd rather that was the case, knowing that that kind of thing can't happen. We ended up hauling his things out, I ended up carrying two packs and we came home to a devastated neighborhood. And because of the encouragement that I gave Tim to try this swim, I blamed myself for his death. And some of that was probably not just perceived, but I think that others, not in a vocal way, but others recognized that I hadn't been the best friend. And so I took that blame onto myself. And that's a hard thing for a 16 or 17-year-old boy. And every day, I thought about my friend. And I still live my life, I still did things, but every day I thought about my friend. I would think that I'd taken his life. I thought that I'd let him down, I thought that I'd let my Heavenly Father down. I thought that I'd let his brothers down and his mom and dad down. And it was hard on me because I took the blame. And I thought I knew in fact, that it was because of me that he wasn't living his life.
I ended up going on a mission for the church and had a great time on a mission. And came home and met my childhood sweetheart, met up with her and fell in love and married and went on my honeymoon, thinking every day about my best friend. And my wife, Greta, knew what had happened. But no one really knew the burden that I had, except for me. And I didn't share it or use it as an excuse or anything. But I knew that it was not the right thing for me to have this burden. And then, 14 months after we were married to the day, we had our first baby, a beautiful little girl. And I was changing her diaper, probably at a week old, when she was just a week old, and recognizing how precious life was and what a beautiful thing it is to be a father and just this miracle of life. And then, of course, this came into my mind, this daily visit. And I knew that I needed to be more than I was in, order to be the father that this daughter deserved. And so I remember praying one night and telling my Heavenly Father that I'm sorry that I hadn't been more responsible, that I hadn't been a better friend and promising him that I would be better. And that I'd try, in fact, to live the life that I was born to live and make up hopefully in some small way, for Tim's life, and for that loss. And I asked Heavenly Father to take this burden from me. And then a miracle happened.
The next day came and went and I didn't think about Tim. And then the following day, I did think about him and I realized that I hadn't thought about him the day before. I thought wow, that's strange. I wonder what's going on here. And then, of course, I realized that I prayed and that I'd asked Heavenly Father to take this away from me and then I realized that he had. And it was a beautiful time for me. I felt the Atonement of our Savior in my life like I never had before. I knew that my prayers had been answered, I knew that Heavenly Father loved me and I knew that the atonement could work in my life.
I still wish that he had a life. I still wish he had a family. My heart still breaks when I think about him. But I don't blame myself like I did. And it's sad. I'm sad for his family, I'm sad for his mom and dad, I'm sad for his brothers and his sister. But I know that it's a part of life.
So last summer, for the first time since the drowning, Greta and I hiked into the granddaddy lakes. And it was good to have her there with me. And we went into Betsy Lake, and then walked around Betsy Lake until we found the peninsula where I stood and watched his last breath. And it was good to be there. It was a calm, another other calm, beautiful day in the Uinta's. And there were some fishermen there, and some people on horseback. But there wasn't guilt there. There was peace, and there was calm and serenity. I was still sad that Tim didn't have his life. But I didn't have guilt. I've thought a lot about him and over the last 40 plus years, what his life would be like and what his family would be like. And that's part of the tragedy. And I've tried to live my life in a way that if he's looking down, then he's okay with who I am and what I've done. And it felt like on that day, that he was okay. I still look forward to meeting him again and saying sorry to him. But I don't think the sorry will just be for me, I think it will be from him as well. I have robbed him of a lot of life's treasures, but I know that he has understanding and that he sees the big picture. And I know that he's okay.
Understanding the atonement and how it's to pay for our sins and that kind of thing. But it's also so that we can have comfort in our lives and we can have peace in our lives. And so recognizing that the Atonement of our Savior covers, really all aspects of life, then this experience helped me understand that. It helped me understand that the atonement is not just about repentance, it's about living a life that's full of peace and full of happiness.
KARYN LAY: That was Phil. Some people talk about the atonement and you really listen because they seem to just know it so personally, Phil is one of those people. His quiet perspective on the breadth of the atonement is really moving to me.
It is such an incredible honor to work with your stories on this podcast. We know it's not always easy to be vulnerable, to share such heartfelt and transformative experiences, but it seems to me that there's no better way to celebrate Easter. One of the most compelling aspects of the atonement is Christ's redemptive power to turn bad things on their heads to become good things for us. We can see that when we share these stories with one another. What was once horrific and unspeakable, becomes something that connects us, the burden becomes lighter, we learn that we're not alone. And listening to each other's stories gives us the opportunity to partake in a sacrifice. to walk with one another on the longest roads as we learn to become more like Him. We may not be able to experience one another's pain the way the Savior can experience ours, but the act of listening is an opportunity to bear that burden. So as you embark on your Holy Week celebrations in honor of the restorer of all things, we wish you many opportunities to minister through stories, to share your moments of healing and possibility and to be the listener for other's stories of pain and seeking so that we can feel together the power of Christ's atonement as difficult things begin to transform in the hope of his resurrection.
That's it for this episode of This is the Gospel. Thank you to Phil for honoring us with his story and his experience and special thanks to his wife, Greta, for helping us as we gathered the story together. If you have a story to share about living the gospel, call our pitch line at 515-519-6179 and leave us a message with a short synopsis of your story. We use the stories from the pitch line to help round out our episodes and we'd love to hear from you.
If you've learned something or felt something from this podcast, would you please take time to leave a review on the Apple Podcast app. It will help more people find us. This episode was produced and edited by me, KaRyn Lay, Katie Lambert, Davi Johnson and Sarah Blake with additional help from Derek Campbell. It was mixed and mastered by Mix At Six studios. Our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at LDSliving.com/podcasts. Happy Easter.