Last Wednesday, my nephew Dillon Ballard took his own life. Dillon was 20 years old.
Dillon was a miracle baby when he was born: his mom (my sister, Heidi) was battling leukemia, in the middle of her chemo-therapy when she discovered she was pregnant – something she didn’t think was possible. Her doctors recommended that she terminate the pregnancy, but Heidi refused to even consider that possibility. She postponed her treatment and did everything she could to keep her baby safe and well. Still, Dillon was born two months early, weighed less than five pounds, and had to stay in the NICU for several days before coming home.
His small beginning didn’t slow him down much. The boy was fearless. When I was in college he used to jump on my long board and race down the steepest hills he could find. He was all boy. And his little grin was absolutely contagious. As he got older, he used to come help me flip pancakes at a free breakfast I put on every Fourth of July. He loved being out on the parade route the whole night before, and I knew I could count on him to still have enough energy to help me flip and serve hundreds of pancakes the next morning. It was part of our tradition for Dillon to be there every year.
Dillon faced some very steep challenges in his life. His mom was very ill in his infant years and then, just five days after his fifth birthday, she died. He also had difficulty learning in traditional settings which held him back in many ways. But Dillon was a remarkable kid: he maintained a genuine cheerfulness and willingness to work hard.
Three months ago, Dillon became the father of a baby boy, Bradyn. He was so proud of that little boy, and told me how wanted to be there for his son (in contrast to his own father who hadn’t had any involvement with Dillon) – which makes what happened all the harder to understand. What was Dillon going through that made him do what he did? Perhaps only God knows.
I want to tell you about something that happened 15 years ago. It was just after Dillon’s mom died and his grandma and I had just told the Dillon and his older brother and sisters how the spirit and body are like a hand and a glove.
The spirit is like a hand that goes into a glove, and while the hand is in the glove, the glove appears to be alive. But it’s actually the hand that is alive and which continues to live even after it has been pulled out of the glove. Likewise, our bodies live and have life because of our spirits. Because it is actually our spirits that are alive and which continue to live even after they have left our bodies.
After our talk, the older three kids began writing letters to their mom. They were beautiful, sweet letters and we placed them in the casket before we buried her. But Dillon was just days past his fifth birthday and didn’t know how to write. So he took a piece of paper to his grandma and said: “Grandma, write this.” His grandma took the paper and Dillon said two words: “Mom died.” Grandma wrote it, and then Dillon took his paper with his two words, went to the front door, opened it, and taped his message to the front of it.
As sad as it was, I laughed when he did it because it was so cute: This five-year-old posting a declaration to the world of that which was the cause of his great sadness. But then Dillon did something truly remarkable which I will always remember. Four or five minutes after posting his first statement on the door, Dillon came back with a new piece of paper, and said again: “Grandma, write this.” He repeated the same two words he’d said before: “Mom died.” And then he added these words: “Jesus died too. But Jesus body comed alive.” He then took his second note to the front door, took down his earlier statement and replaced it with what really was a more complete message about what had happened and would happen.
I kept that note and put it in my scriptures. I still have it today.
I marveled at this little boy. He knew how sad he felt because of his mother’s passing, but he also knew that Jesus had died and been resurrected. And he knew, as a five-year-old, what that meant: It meant that his mom would also be resurrected. He knew that he would see her and be with her again! And he wanted the rest of the world to know it too.
Today I want to say that I know it and want the whole world to know it too.
Two summers ago I took my kids and two of their cousins to the Smithsonian Aerospace Museum in Washington, D.C. It was awesome! We walked into the cockpit of a 747. We saw the very first airplane that ever flew, the Wright Brothers’ Kittyhawk (they have the actual, original plane in its very own section of the museum). And we saw just about every plane, rocket, and space shuttle in between. I don’t think we even went into every room there—it’s a big place. But one of the things I remember most was seeing a display on the flight instruments.
Pilots have to rely on instruments when they fly because, even though our brains give us pretty good balance when our feet touch the ground, our brains just weren’t designed to stay balanced in flight, especially in conditions where the pilot can’t see the ground. Up in the clouds every pilot experiences what’s called spatial disorientation or vertigo (which is a fancy way of saying, he can’t tell which way is up).
To illustrate this, would-be pilots are seated in what’s called a spatial disorientation chair. The chair rotates and spins like a barber’s chair, varying between going faster and slower, and changing directions. Participants wear a helmet with a visor pulled down over their faces so that they can’t see a thing, and then try to indicate using a lever which direction they’re spinning. And guess what – everyone gets it wrong. They might guess right for a moment or two, but eventually everyone who tries loses their sense of which direction they’re spinning – or even whether they’re spinning at all.
Pilots experience the same sensation. So engineers came up with flight instruments like the artificial horizon (that tells a pilot his pitch and yaw), the gyroscopic compass (that points north even when the plane is banking hard on its side), and the altimeter (that tells him how high up he is). When first developed after WWI, they put these instruments into the planes of test pilots. The instruments worked fine, reported the pilots, until they flew into the clouds. Then the instruments all went completely haywire. They suspected that electrical or atmospheric interference was the cause. But after further study it was determined that the instruments worked fine – it was the pilots’ own sense of balance that had gone haywire. In other words, when they could no longer see the ground, the pilots had quit trusting their instruments, and instead placed their confidence in their own abilities to determine which was up. And they all got it wrong. All of them. And these were the finest, most experienced pilots of their day.
This was of great concern then and remains so today. Spatial disorientation is still a leading cause of aviation accidents, many of which end tragically. Pilots all too often find themselves flying in a slow downward spiral (called the death spiral), and too often crash into the ground without even knowing what hit them. A study done in 2004, concluded that pilots who don’t know how to fly using only their instruments, who find themselves flying in sightless conditions (like clouds or at night or anywhere that they can’t see the ground) suddenly have a radically shortened life expectancy. On average, according to that study, pilots finding themselves in those conditions had only 178 seconds left to live. That’s less than three minutes.
The take-away message of course was: Learn to use your instruments. Then use your instruments. Trust your instruments. They’re what keep you alive.
Life is kind of like flying a plane. Sometimes we get turned upside-down. Sometimes we lose our sense of which way really is up. Sometimes we crash and we don’t even know what hit us. Fortunately, we’ve been given instruments (the gift of the Holy Ghost, scriptures, living prophets), which if learned, trusted and used, can keep us flying on a straight and steady course.
Even so, God knew when he sent us here to prove us that there would be accidents. Even with instruments in place we would make mistakes, and so he provided a Savior for us who could rescue us, help us survive the crashes, and then make us better, and teach us to fly.
I’ve never flown as a pilot so as I thought about this analogy, I imagined the nervous excitement I know I would feel if I were about to fly on my own for the very first time. And then I pictured the nervous excitement we all must have felt before we were born, in the pre-mortal world, as we looked forward to our time here on earth. Can you imagine the anxious anticipation you must have felt as you envisioned your life here?
We’re told that there was a great council in Heaven, and I picture a bright, young Lieutenant, Lucifer, approaching the Commander there.
“Sir,” he said in a concerned voice. “You’re sending these pilots into dangerous flight conditions. They don’t all know how to use their instruments. Look, I’ve developed an auto-pilot flight system for them. We can bring all of them home again.”
And the Commander responded, “No…. You’re missing the point, son. They have to learn to fly.”
“But they’ll crash!” cried the Lieutenant.
“I know,” said our Commander. “But we’ll provide a Savior for them. If men will look to Him, He will rescue them, rebuild them, and turn them into strong, seasoned pilots.”
Sadly, that bright, young Lieutenant, a Son of the Morning, darkened at this answer. Lucifer lacked the faith to trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ. “How,” he must have argued, “could we possibly place the fate of all of Father’s children in life of one man, even Jesus?” “What if He makes a mistake? What if He crashes himself?” “Do you really want to take that chance?” And so began a war in Heaven over this one question: Will you place your faith in Jesus’ power to rescue you?
And that is the same spiritual war that is still being fought in the world today: Will we have faith in Jesus to save us?
We all chose before we were born to place our faith in Jesus’ power to save and rescue us. We know that because we’re here. And during our time here, He’s provided the instruments (the Holy Ghost, scriptures, living prophets) to keep us safe and steady. The challenge is when we’ve flown into the clouds or even after a crash: Will we remember that? When we can barely pull ourselves up, not knowing what hit us, will we still believe that Jesus can rescue us? I testify that He can and that He does.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
There isn’t a crash that exceeds the Saviors ability to rescue us. And other than blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, there isn’t a sin or any collection of sins that we can’t be healed of and saved from.
I don’t know what kind of a fog Dillon was flying through on Wednesday morning. I don’t know how he could have crashed the way he did. But I know what he knew when he was five years old. Jesus died too. But Jesus body comed alive.
Just like Dillon knew that death was not the end, I too testify that it is not. There will be a glorious resurrection. We’ll be together with Dillon and his mom again. And when we are, I’m sure Dillon will be helping me flip pancakes for breakfast.