Sunday, December 28, 2008

Holy Innocents

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates the children whom king Herod had massacred when he was trying to kill the newborn Messiah, as recounted in Matthew 2. A year ago, today, I was in Haiti accompanying a small group from the Advocate who was going down to visit an Episcopal church called (in French) Saints Innocents. The visit was timed to coincide with the church's observance of their namesake feast day.

Yesterday I prepared a slide show of photos from the trip for my mother. Here's a few of them, plus an accompanying spiritual reflection. I feel uncomfortable about posting online photos of individuals who aren't in a position to speak up about how their image gets used publicly, so I'm going to be a bit vague about where we were, and I've avoided close-ups of anyone but myself. Thanks to Grace Camblos for the pictures.


Waiting to board a ferry that will take us to the island where Saints Innocents is located. (My luggage got lost, so I lived in the same clothes for five days. This was not the worst thing to go wrong on this trip. The worst was a group member starting to pass a kidney stone and spending three days in pain because the painkillers he needed were nowhere to be had.)


Squeezing into a truck for a two-hour ride up into the hills to reach Saints Innocents.


Saints Innocents church, viewed from an adjacent building that serves as a school. One purpose of the visit was to bring funds and supplies for the school.


Taking a walk in the cool of the evening.


Getting set up for bed in the school adjacent to the church. (I'm not quite as fat as I look. I'm wearing a pouch under my shirt containing valuables for safekeeping.)


Discussing the cistern behind the church. The cistern catches rainwater. Water is in short supply on the island.


The interior of Saints Innocents church, decorated for the feast day.


A nicer view of the church exterior. We helped paint the church during our visit.


Looking out across the bay toward the mainland of Haiti.

During the drive back to Port-au-Prince to catch our flight home, feeling somewhat worn out but also moody about the fact that we were leaving, I got to thinking about everyone I knew from my LDS mission in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. I was struck by the fact that all those people were actually here on Hispaniola with me, somewhere on the other side of those mountains, starting their day, going to work. This trip to Haiti was the closest I'd been to any of those people in years. Thinking about it, I started to cry. "The mission was a gift," I thought.

Then I thought, "If it’s a gift, then isn’t it a stewardship? Am I magnifying that stewardship?" And as I mulled that over, I thought: This trip to Haiti was a way of magnifying the gift of my LDS mission. During the trip, I had used the cross-cultural experience and language skills I gained during my mission to do a job here, in Haiti, in the present, not just storing my mission experiences as memories of the past to be cherished, like the servant in the parable who buries his talent. Instead I reinvested the gift I was given, applying the experience to serving a new set of people. I hadn’t done much. But I hoped I’d done some good.

Armed standoff

Evidently, an armed standoff is occurring in an apartment on the floor underneath ours. When I took the dog out for her early walk, we came down the stairs, and I saw a cop with his gun drawn (but not aimed) standing nearby. He didn't motion for me to get away or anything, so I walked the dog. I couldn't see the source of the excitement; I guessed it was happening on the other side of the building somewhere. Then as I was going back up the same stairs I'd come down, I saw that the door of the apartment near the foot of the stairs was open, and I could hear a cop inside saying, "I won't shoot you if you do what you're told and come out right now."

Welcome, welcome, Sabbath morning.

There's now six cops standing in the parking lot underneath my window. They seem relaxed, they're even smiling. Yes. They're leaving now. It doesn't look like an arrest has been made. I probably won't know what happened until tomorrow, when they print a little blurb in the police bulletin online and in the newspaper.

Thank God that ended well.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mingling with Gods

Today being Joseph Smith's birthday, the hymn "Praise to the Man" came to mind. I have lots of reasons to dislike that hymn: I'm not a fan of venerating Joseph Smith, and I wish Latter-day Saints would finally grow out of the "persecuted people" mentality this hymn reflects and perpetuates.

But I have to admit that I love the audacity of certain lines in this hymn: "Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah." "Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren."

Mormons don't write hymns like that anymore. For one thing, a religious culture that prizes conformity in the name of obedience, unity, and correlation tends to stifle the creativity required to produce lines like those. And no Mormon today could write those lines because nowadays everyone's so uptight about showing the public that we don't worship Joseph Smith, that we're not polytheists, etc.

"Mingling with Gods." This is one of the things I love about Mormonism—this notion that we can grow to a point where we could "mingle" with divine beings in council, participating as equals as they (we!) plan how to bring to pass God's work and glory.

Some Mormons today—BYU professors like Stephen Robinson and Robert Millet; people who write and read publications of FAIR—seem uncomfortable with that vision. Evangelical apologists and countercultists accuse Mormons of hubris; and some Mormons have apparently absorbed evangelical sensibilities about the absolute, unique sovereignty of God (they're Calvinist sensibilities, more precisely) to the point where they agree with the Calvinists that it's a terrible thing to want to be God's equal. And so these embarrassed Mormons rush to assure the evangelicals that while it's true Mormons believe people can become "gods"—which is a safe word to use because C. S. Lewis used it—we don't believe that we'll ever actually be equal to God.

Now, the King Follett discourse suggests that there's a sense in which Joseph Smith would agree with that statement: at least in that sermon, he seems to envision a kind of ascending hierarchy, where as we move up to where God was, he moves up higher, etc. Of course, Calvinists would have problems with that vision, too, since they can't cope with the idea of a God who progresses.

In any case, though, I imagine that Joseph would roll in his grave (assuming he hasn't already been resurrected) to learn that some of his followers are letting Calvinists of all people dictate their sense of what constitutes an appropriate thing to believe.

So even if this makes it harder for Bob Millet to convince evangelicals that we're not as weird or heretical as they think, I'm going to lift a glass of alcohol-free eggnog to the vision of Joseph Smith mingling with Gods. That's an unembarrassed capital-G "Gods," in the plural! And I understand the verb "mingling" to mean that he's rubbing shoulders with God as an equal—with the same audacious familiarity that's open to all of us.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Advent 4

The photo above shows a view of the village in the Dominican Republic where I served as an education volunteer for a few months in 1997. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.) The view is from the top of a very steep hill overlooking the village.

When I was living there, I was told that the population was about 2000. That's also, according to one estimate I've seen, about the size of the village of Nazareth during Jesus' day.

I don't know how Bethlehem compared in population in the time of Jesus, but let's assume for the sake of argument that it was at least the size of this village, if not larger.

Now imagine that you're a shepherd abiding in the fields keeping watch over your flocks by night. An angel appears and tells you the Savior's been born in Bethlehem; but in lieu of giving you even general directions for finding the newborn Messiah, he (she?) tells you simply to go look for a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

Luke tells us that the shepherds "came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger."

There has to be a whole lot of searching implicit in that little word "found."

Look at the photo of the village again. (Remember, click to enlarge.) Notice the maze-like layout of the main roads. Then peer more closely to see the little side streets. Finally, notice the little courtyards behind houses, which you can see clearly from the air but which would be hidden from view at street level. I assume that ancient Bethlehem was at least as complicatedly arranged. How long would it take you, wandering around at night, to find the stable that contains a baby lying in a manger? Do you wake people up and ask them if they can help you? Should you start your search in the main part of town or on the margins? If the stable's actually a grotto outside town, as I've heard proposed, how much does that widen the area you have to search?

The point I'm getting to is that the experience of the shepherds is very different from the experience of the Magi as narrated in Matthew. The Magi get a star that leads them along and stops over the house where the child is. The shepherds just get the name of the town and a brief description of what the kid's sleeping in. They then have to go looking on their own. The Magi follow; the shepherds search.

I've heard Christmas sermons in which people compare the star that led the Magi to the scriptures, or the teachings of Church leaders, or some other source of ostensibly divine guidance leading us to Christ and salvation. It's a simple, reassuring vision: you follow the scriptures, Church leaders, etc., and you'll be led to where you need to go. Just look to the scriptures, Church leaders, etc., and you don't have to worry about going astray.

My experience, though, feels more like that of the shepherds: wandering through a maze of streets in the dark, listening, poking around, exploring, backtracking. I've been given a charge, a promise, a declaration of good news, a general description of where I should be heading and what I'm looking for; but then I've been left largely on my own to find the way, and to recognize the One I've been told about when I find him.

It's not as simple as following a star. But it's the task on which I seem to have been sent, and I can live with it.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Advent 3

It may not prove particularly thought-provoking, but here's my Advent reflection for this week.

Actually, I'm abruptly changing directions. I'm not going to write about what I sat down planning to write about. I suddenly feel inspired to follow a different line of thought. Here goes...

When I started these Advent reflections a couple weeks back, I quoted D&C 88:63, "Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you." Dating back to the time I was a kid, I can say that part of what's fascinated me about the Nativity story is the various worshippers—shepherds, Magi, etc.—having to travel to the Christ Child. My family used to have a single long rope of tinsel that we would wrap around our tree in a helix from top to bottom, and as a kid, I would edge around the tree over and over, following the trail of tinsel from the base to the top, making up little stories about the Magi winding through the landscape of our ornamented Christmas tree until they reached the top, where the star led them to the Christ Child. I'm remembering another year, when I was in grad school the first time around, when I drew individualized Christmas cards for my parents and each sibling, each with a different scene from the Nativity story. I don't recall now all the scenes I created, but the ones I remember showed people on their way to Bethlehem, not actually there gathered around the manger.

I could go on, giving other examples. But my point is, for a long time that aspect of the Nativity story has called to me: the aspect of having to travel to Christ. This is the "Draw near to me" portion of the promise from D&C 88:63. And what unexpectedly popped into my head as I sat down to write this reflection was an anecdote from my LDS mission that I think embodies what it means to draw near to Christ in the real world—in a tangible sense.

Near the end of my mission, I started giving away a lot of my possessions—bike, clothes, etc. Among the things I wanted to leave behind were a collection of toys my parents had shipped me over the course of my mission to use when interacting with children: those little puzzles where you arrange shapes into what look like origami animals, some powerful little magnets, that kind of thing. I decided I was going to bequeath them to the children of a couple let's call Aricelis and Leo. Leo was a musician, and unfortunately the only place he'd been able to find steady work was playing at a nightclub in a tourist town out on the other side of the island, whereas Aricelis and the kids lived in Santo Domingo. This meant that Aricelis became, essentially, a single mother except for during the occasional weekends when Leo could come home to visit. It was a clearly stressful situation for the family, compounded when one night someone broke into the house while Leo was away, woke up Aricelis, put a knife to her throat, and demanded money. The local ward rallied around her, ward members started staying the night with her, etc.

So one night a couple weeks before I went home, my companion and I stopped by Aricelis' place. When we walked up to the house, I could hear her inside screaming at the children. The moment we knocked on the door, everything went silent inside, and she said in this meek voice, "Who is it?" "The missionaries," I said, and when she opened the door, looking sheepish, I grinned and said, "We are here to save you." My companion and I bustled inside, we sat the kids on the floor, I spent the next fifteen minutes or so unveiling one game after another. The magnets were the big finish: they stole the show hands-down once the kids saw how you could make all the silverware in the house stick together.

So once the kids were off on their own figuring out what in the house was magnetic, my companion and I sat down with Aracelis. I said, "How are you?" in a tone of voice intended to convey that this question was not a pleasantry, we really wanted to know... and she spilled, much more than I had intended, actually, to the point where I quickly began to feel I was in over my head. Problems with Leo, problems with the thief's family (she'd identified him on the street and had him arrested, and now the thief's family were harassing her), problems with a relative over ownership of their house. And of course, there was nothing I could do about any of these problems except listen—well, that, and give her a few toys that she could perhaps use to bribe some obedience and peace out of her children.

When she was done, I pulled out the hymnals we always carried with us to sing during discussions, and the three of us sang one of my favorite hymns, the pre-1992 Spanish translation of "Abide with Me." (The more recently correlated translation sucked all the poetry of it for the sake of making the translation more literal, a sin for which I hope someone is made to sweat very hard in the next life.) It was one of the most beautiful moments in my mission—the tangible peace afterwards. We prayed and left.

The lesson it occurs to me to take from this anecdote is this. Christ says that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there. I know—testimony time—that Christ was present during that visit with Aricelis and her children. But Christ drew near to us because my companion and I drew near to Aricelis. We got on our bikes, we rode to her house, we walked up to the front door even when the screaming inside might have given us an excuse to "come back another time," we knocked, we bustled inside, we sat on the floor with the kids, and then we pulled our chairs closer to Aricelis' and asked her how she was in a voice that said we really wanted to know even though we ended up getting more in response than I was prepared for. I cherish the memory of moments like that. I've said in an earlier post that I worry, in fact, that I'm prone to fondle the memory of these moments instead of getting out there and making new moments like this. And the lesson that I'm hearing the Spirit convey to me today is that, yes, drawing near to someone involves taking initiative, taking certain risks, getting out of my comfort zone, lowering some walls. But that's what I have to do if I want Christ to be present with me in the way he was that night at Aracelis'.

Friday, December 12, 2008

La Virgen de Guadalupe

I just got back from a mass in honor of the Virgin of Guadalupe held at the local Catholic church. It's the first communal celebration of Guadalupe's feast day that I've participated in since we moved to North Carolina, which I feel guilty about every time December 12 rolls around. Back in Salt Lake, Hugo and I used to go the "Virgin tree" on 700 South each year on the evening of December 12, where people would congregate to light candles. I'd bring my guitar, and people would join in singing traditional Guadalupan songs with us. It was a gesture of solidarity with Salt Lake's growing Mexican population. For me, it was also a way to remember and give thanks for the role that a Mexican Episcopal congregation played in my life during the interim before God sent a storm and a whale to make me realize I couldn't run away from Mormonism.

And, most importantly for me, it was a way to give thanks for the answering of a prayer I once made to the Virgin Mary.

Here's the story: In late 1996, I was lying in bed, worrying about whether I was going to be accepted into a Catholic program I'd applied to in order to get back to the Dominican Republic to do community development-oriented mission work. I wanted very badly to be accepted by this program; in fact, if I didn't get accepted, I had no idea what I'd do with myself after graduation. So as I was lying there, stewing and stressing, the thought suddenly came into my head: "Why don't you ask the Virgin of Altagracia? It's her country, after all."

Altagracia is the designated patroness of the Dominican Republic (as Guadalupe is for Mexico and for the Americas in general). She has a basilica in Higuey, which I visited a few times sightseeing as an LDS missionary. Now, when this still small voice suggested that I pray to the Virgin of Altagracia, I certainly did not believe that the Virgin Mary resides in heaven offering intercessory prayer. At that point in my life, I wasn't altogether sure I believed in God. But I thought, "Okay, I'm game." So lying there in bed, I asked the Virgin of Altagracia to open doors that would get me back to the Dominican Republic. Afterward, I lay there basking in that profound feeling of peace that every Latter-day Saint recognizes as the Spirit. Some weeks after that, I got the call telling me I'd been accepted into the program. And an entirely unexpected consequence of the time I spent with that program is that I began to reconnect with Mormonism as a spiritual heritage.

During a return trip to the Dominican Republic, I made a point of visiting Altagracia's basilica to thank her. In the U.S., I've never lived near a Dominican community that celebrated Altagracia's feast day, or I'd probably participate as an ongoing thanks offering. Instead, I honor the Virgin of Guadalupe's day as a kind of surrogate for Altagracia. Apart from this once-a-year (if that) devotion, Mary plays no role in my spiritual life. If I felt a need to connect with a feminine divinity (which, as it happens, I don't), I'd do it by way of the Mormon conception of Heavenly Mother. But once a year, on December 12, I like to pause and thank the Virgin for opening the door that set me on the path that brought me back to Mormonism. If that statement made you blink, that was the intent.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Kittens update

Walking the dog early this morning, I saw the two surviving kittens down in the gully, climbing a tree with their mother. I hadn't seen any sign of them in so long, I'd been assuming they probably froze to death: we've had some bitterly cold, frozen-wet nights lately.

I feel... I don't know what the best word is... relieved? happy? grateful? that they're alive. I get philosophical whenever I think about it. Living things die all the time. Some survive, some don't. It's just the way nature works. In the grand scheme of things, the lives of these two kittens—or the deaths of their two siblings—have no meaning whatsoever. They're practically random events. The same can be said for human lives. And yet I have faith in a God who proclaims the worth of every human soul, and who is said to observe the fall of every sparrow. It doesn't make sense, and if I were willing to be a more hard-headed, cold-hearted rationalist I might dismiss it all as wishful thinking. But I'm not willing to do that. This is one place where I make a leap of faith.

So even if, scientifically or philosophically speaking, the lives of these individual kittens have no special significance, I'm praying for their survival anyway even as I'm prepared for "nature to take its course," whatever that turns out to be.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Advent 2

My reflection today may not seem to have much to do with Advent, but I'll get to what I see as the connection.

A couple days ago, I was working through some literature on the Christian Right as part of my dissertation project. One of the books I was looking at was Religion, Politics, and the Christian Right by Mark Lewis Taylor. Despite the promising title, it actually turned out to be only peripherally useful for my project, since the primary purpose of the book is to lay out an agenda for the building up of a Christian Left. And for that reason, I ended up reading more closely than I'd expected.

As is often the case when I encounter left-leaning Christian literature, I'm ambivalent about this book. He calls for reconstructing liberalism in the name of a "prophetic spirit" oriented toward liberation and revolutionary expectation. He's interested in religious hybridity as a source of new ways to imagine liberation when a way forward seems impossible. In practical terms, he calls for Christians to join in solidarity with the liberatory projects developed by marginalized people: anti-war veterans, families of people in prison, advocates of slavery reparations, immigrants, indigenous peoples, environmental activists, sexual minorities, socialists. He envisions the creation of what he calls "paragovernmental councils" which will function the way white citizens' councils used to function back during the segregation era, i.e., organizing outside official government to orchestrate a certain vision of society, except (unlike the white citizens' councils) this would be an orchestration for good.

I warm to this vision—there's no question of that. With a couple exceptions, my politics and Taylor's flow in the same general direction. He's articulating a kind of liberation theology—a preferential option for the marginalized, which is something I profess to believe in, a fundamental dimension of the gospel. He's envisioning a way of going about doing what I would call building the kingdom or establishing Zion.

I was about to segue from what I just said above to explaining the Advent connection to all this, but I feel that first I should explain my ambivalence. It's the same problem whenever I encounter a politics that inspires me. I encountered this problem when I was reading for my doctoral exams. I encountered the work of a UNC anthropologist named Arturo Escobar, who works with other Latin Americanists on what's called the Modernity/Coloniality Research Program. I don't want to get bogged down here in explaining this program in detail, but the gist is that these are scholars who want to develop alternatives to globalizing modernity by thinking with intellectual-activists on the margins. When I discovered this work, it struck strong chords, and I ended up entirely revising one of the lists for my exams so I could explore it. I hoped that engaging with this project would help me recover a sense of mission in my scholarship. But that didn't happen in the end, because as I engaged with the project—and engaged with it critically—it inevitably lost its romance (or rather, I become skeptically conscious of its romance). I started to problematize it, to historicize it, to deconstruct it, etc.

The same thing happened as I was reading Taylor, and it happens when I revisit works of liberation theology that I found so inspiring ten years ago. I'm trained, as an academic, to problematize intellectual projects: to notice what they exclude, how they try to naturalize what's actually constructed, how they set up certain relations of power and privilege. So I start to wince; my stance becomes aloof, cool, detached, skeptical; it becomes hard for me to rally behind the project as a true believer. In the case of Taylor's book, I note with a grimace and a little eye-rolling that his "prophetic spirit" just happens to correspond to the thinking of someone who's been reading a lot of contemporary critical theory. I shift uncomfortably when he talks about trusting the agency of marginalized peoples—first, because I sense a kind of reification going on, as often happens in leftist literature the moment they start talking about "the marginalized" or "the oppressed," as if it's a given who's entitled to those labels and as if the people we're talking about weren't internally divided and pursuing various internal power ploys; and second, because as an academic I believe in a kind of intellectual elitism which makes me reluctant to throw my faith behind the ideas and projects of people who lack specialized training.

This is getting cerebral—I need to clarify what's at stake for me here, spiritually. The point is this: when I read scholarship that is actively committed to leftist agendas, part of me feels that I should be doing the same. Okay, maybe I'm not ready to put my faith in "intellectual-activists" among poor black Colombians, or rural Maya in Chiapas, or homeless people in New York City trying to organize themselves into an economic human rights campaign. But if I really see my scholarship as a stewardship, shouldn't I be using my specialized know-how to help those kinds of causes? Shouldn't helping those kinds of causes be my primary research and teaching agenda? Because—here's the Advent connection—Matthew 25 tells me that Christ is present in those who are "the least of these": those who are most marginalized, most disadvantaged, most vulnerable. If I'm serious about serving Christ, then I need to be serious about serving those people. To cast this in more clearly Advent-oriented terms: There's a sense in which we're still waiting for Christ to come, and there's a sense in which he's already come and has been among us all along. In calling us to walk in solidarity with the least of these, he calls us to walk with him.

But then I see people who do committed scholarship, and I think: No. They're not living up to certain duties of the scholarly vocation. Our job is to problematize everything. That's how we make new knowledge. In religious terms, it's how we serve as instruments of continuing, progressive revelation—bringing to light things that have "not been revealed since the world was until now" (D&C 121:26). That includes deconstructing our own commitments. But people who use their scholarship to advance their political commitments aren't engaging in that deconstructive work. And they make me nervous, frankly. People who can't convince me that they realize that their own most deeply held ideas are historical and social constructs, and that the projects they're pursuing involve establishing power relations with consequences that are not benign—those people frighten me because they seem set up to practice unrighteous dominion while remaining blissfully blinded to the injustices and suffering they perpetrate.

Then again, I suspect that my penchant for self-deconstruction makes me hopelessly useless politically. There comes a point where you have to take a stand. And when I read a book like Taylor's, I wonder—is God calling me to take a stand here? Is this the moment when Christ says to me: Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me? Let go of whatever academic kudos you think you gain by your stance of critical detachment and irony, and commit?

I don't know. I didn't achieve the clarity or insight I was hoping I might as I wrote this. In fact, I'm embarrassed at how arcane this reflection will probably seem to readers. I'm probably not communicating it well, but these issues are fundamental for me, because they strike at the heart of my identity as an intellectual and as a scholar. I'm investing a lot of time and energy into becoming an academic; and as a matter of my spiritual commitments, I want to use that professional identity to serve, to make a difference. How best do I do that? I don't want to come to the judgment bar in the end, wondering if I spent my career and my life pursuing intellectual projects that didn't really represent the best expenditure of my time and talents.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent 1

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. My plan during this season is to write a little each week about a different facet of what it means to me to wait for the coming of Christ, which is what we're doing during Advent—waiting for Christmas, for the birth of Jesus.

This week I feel moved to post the words to a song I wrote several years ago, while I was living in Salt Lake. I wrote it during Advent, drawing from passages in the Gospels and the Psalms. I'd been reflecting that season on the theme of waiting in the context of the latest round of anti-gay legislation in Utah (probably the adoption ban, if I'm remembering the timing correctly). Once again we'd seen equality deferred to the future, which was discouraging... and then it occurred to me. We were waiting. Waiting for justice and equity. Waiting for a transformation, an enlightenment, in public opinion around these issues. As the Latter-day Saints have been doing for 200 years, as Christians have been doing for 2000 years, we as gay/lesbian people and our straight friends are still waiting for the hoped-for day.

I may spend my whole life waiting. I hope not—God, I hope not. But I would hardly be the first person in the history of the world who waited his/her whole life for the coming of something that s/he didn't live to see come. I trust in God's promise of a regime that implements justice and equity; I have faith that the Spirit works through our efforts to build up that regime. But I may never enjoy the fruits. Or, then again, I might. I don't know. That's what it means to wait: to live in uncertainty. But a hopeful, confident uncertainty, if that makes any sense.

Advent reminds me that this hopeful, confident uncertainty is part of the Christian life. We wait for the fulfilment of the promises. We wait for Millennium. We wait for the Messiah.

So here's the song.
CHORUS:
Take ye heed, watch and pray,
for ye know not when the time is.
What I say unto you, I say unto all:
Let your lights burn, and watch.

1. O Lord, be gracious unto us;
we have waited for thee.
Be thou our arm every morning,
our salvation in the time of trouble.

2. I wait for the Lord;
in his word do I hope.
My soul waiteth for the Lord
more than they that watch for the morning.

3. Rest, O rest, in the Lord
and wait patiently for him.
Fret not thyself because of those
that bring to pass wicked devices.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving: Five kernels of corn

It's Thanksgiving morning. Sitting on my desk is the cheap plastic rosary I cherish because I received it during my second mission trip to the Dominican Republic. I dug it out of the box where it's been stored with other keepsakes, so I can use it during my Advent discipline. The idea came to me out of the blue a few days ago: every day between now and Christmas, I'm going to thumb my way through the beads, naming for each bead a person (or group of people) for whom I pray. In Mormon terms, think of it as like compiling a prayer roll. I'm going to try to avoid repetition, which makes it feel like an intimidating challenge: Can profoundly self-absorbed John-Charles think of 60 x 30 different people to pray for? (Can he remember their fricking names?) It forces me to widen my circle of concern, Enos style.

No prayers of thanksgiving allowed—that would make it about me again, whereas the point of the discipline is to focus on others' well-being. But today's Thanksgiving, so a different discipline is the order of the day. When I was growing up, my family did the "five kernels of corn" tradition. You have five kernels on your corn on your plate before you start Thanksgiving dinner, recalling the five kernels of corn that at one point supposedly became the Pilgrims' daily ration. You go around the table, and for each kernel, each person has to name something he or she is thankful for.

Here are my five:

1. I'm thankful for my partner. As of tomorrow (the day after Thanksgiving), we will have been lovers for nine years.

2. I'm thankful that my mother is still with us. And while I want to be absolutely clear that this does not make her illness acceptable, I'm grateful that out of the evil of her illness has come the good of a kind of reconciliation.

3. I'm thankful that we have an incoming government that I'm confident (hopeful) is trustworthy, respects human rights, can move toward (re)building better relations with other governments, and didn't win by hatemongering. Sorry to be partisan, but having that kind of government makes a huge difference in the world. I pray now they can cope with the enormous challenges facing us.

4. I'm thankful for communities that have provided support—here in North Carolina and in the past. As I say that, I'm wincing: Is there anyone out there who gives thanks for my support of them?

5. I'm thankful for the guidance of the Spirit in my life. That's not just a sappy "big finish." I actually paused a good while after writing those words, feeling hesitant about them. I feel I've been guided because I feel like my life has purpose and meaning, which is to say that I feel like my life has a direction, with prospects for accomplishment, for contribution, for service. But what if today it all ended in a senseless tragedy—a car crash, say? Would my life have had meaning? Do all lives have meaning? This reflection has taken an unexpectedly dark philosophical turn—but it's good, I guess, to not be facile in thanksgiving. I feel I've been guided. I feel God is making my life meaningful. I trust he does that for everyone, even though I have some inkling of how improbable that faith is. I give thanks for the meaning I discern. Whether the dead can find it in them to give thanks, or the living who suffer, is a different matter. But I seem to be one of the privileged ones—which isn't something to give thanks for; it's something to try to magnify into a remotely useful (it will never be "profitable") servanthood.

And on that uplifting note, let's go get ready to have a feast, shall we?

This reflection was not at all the uplifting little moment I expected.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Praying for kittens, part 2

I just got back from the dog's night walk. As we were making our way along the fence, I saw the black-and-white cat who recently had kittens eyeing us from behind a cement barrier, and then as we kept walking, I happened to glance down and saw two of the kittens curled up in a nest of leaves just on the other side of the fence from us. Two of the original four—I take it the others haven't survived the cold. I held the dog back, peered through at the kittens, said a prayer for them, and then dragged the dog off on our way.

For several months now, Hugo's been leaving cat food out by the fence. He started after we discovered that one of the feral cats we always saw hanging out around our parking lot and dumpster and underground drainage pipes had had a litter and that the mother looked very malnourished. I think this latest litter is the third generation since then, if I'm not miscounting. Feeding the cats is a little act of charity, though we are aware that once we move away, that will create a hardship for the generations that have gotten used to having a daily meal provided.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Come unto Christ" (Moro. 10:32)

Today is Christ the King, the feast that marks the end of the Western liturgical year. Next week comes the first Sunday of Advent. I finished the Book of Mormon this week so that I can dedicate the four weeks between now and Christmas to Advent reflections.

Given that today celebrates Christ the King, it seems even more especially appropriate to focus my final Book of Mormon reflection for this cycle on the theme of coming to Christ. That theme also sets me up well for Advent, which is fundamentally about waiting for the coming of Christ. I like the symmetry there: we come to Christ, Christ comes to us. "Draw near to me, and I will draw near to you" (D&C 88:63). I like that image because it doesn't require everyone to end up in one spot. If we move in Christ's general direction, he'll meet us somewhere in between. He'll meet us where we're at. That image best reflects my experience of the presence of Christ in my life.

Like last week's post, this is going to be an autobiographical entry. Last week's entry focused on the significance of the scriptures in my life. This week I want to construct a narrative—a testimony—about the significance of Christ in my life.

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My parents converted to Mormonism from different brands of Protestantism, so in our family we celebrated Advent, we held family sunrise services on Easter. Our family's Mormonism was distinctly Christ-centered, somewhat before Christ-centered rhetoric became so prominent in Church discourse.

As a teenager, I discovered the concept of grace while I was reading the letters of Paul. Again, this was before Stephen Robinson had rehabilitated that concept in LDS discourse: I grew up hearing in church that "salvation by grace" was an apostate concept, that Paul's teachings about the abrogation of the law referred to the higher law of the gospel superseding the lower law of Moses, etc. When I began to actually read the letters myself, I became convinced that the texts didn't support those interpretations. Paul was making a more radical point about how Christ's grace sets us free from law in the abstract—from judgment based on works righteousness. Christ enables us to do God's will, and his grace covers our inevitable failings.

As usual with me, this probably all sounds really cerebral. But it was hugely important to me. I'm a ridiculously perfectionistic person. Sometime after I was ordained a deacon, I got on my knees one night and vowed to God that I would never sin again. A week later, I realized I'd botched it (forgot my prayers, yelled at my brothers, etc.). In a panic, I renewed the vow—"I'll do it this time, really"—and then quickly I botched it again. I felt terrible because all the LDS discourse I'd been raised on, about commandments and obedience and becoming perfect, had given me the impression that I ought to be able to be perfectly obedient. Paul taught me that this perfectionism was hopelessly misguided. The concept of being transformed by grace was also important to me as puberty finally hit and I began to experience guilt about my sexuality.

What I'm trying to say is that embracing teachings of grace was an important part of how I embraced Christ in my life. But... this was happening at a time when embracing this way of understanding salvation through Christ's grace meant disagreeing with doctrinal authorities like Bruce R. McConkie and with the majority of the Latter-day Saints around me. So from early on, coming to Christ meant, for me, standing at some remove from the community of Saints and their leaders. That reality changed once Stephen Robinson and then Church leaders started speaking more about grace—which I found very exciting. But the pattern would recur: a relationship with Christ and a relationship with the Church have not been synonymous for me in the way Mormon orthodoxy wants them to be.

Perfectionism was a big problem for me during my mission—missionary culture encourages it, constantly pushing you to work harder, to produce higher numbers, to be more perfectly obedient, etc. In the midst of one depression, a letter from a friend serving her own mission inspired me to kneel in the corner of the bedroom and pray to feel Christ's arms around me. And I did—which may well have been psychosomatic or suggestion or whatever; but it's an experience for which I still thank God.

Dramatic change of scene: In the midst of the academic freedom controversy, during my last couple of years at BYU, I vented my anger at one point by setting next to my desk in my dorm room a postcard-sized copy of Del Parson's famous red-robed Christ with the slogan "Down with Big Brother!" (from Orwell's 1984) pasted over it. It wasn't really that I was rejecting Christ—I was attending the temple every Thursday—but it was a protest against an institution and a hierarchy that claimed to act as Christ's uniquely authorized representatives.

When I stopped attending the LDS Church, I retreated from orthodoxy and rejected even moderate versions of the claim that Christianity is the only true religion, the only way to salvation, etc. When I talked about my spirituality, I did so in terms of my relationship with God, not my relationship with Christ, because that seemed more ecumenical. And yet, in a paradox I wasn't entirely comfortable with but which seemed to be where I was drawn despite myself, I was worshipping with an Episcopal congregation where each week I affirmed faith in Christ by reciting the words of the Nicene Creed and participated in the sacrament of Christ's body and blood. For a few months in 1997, I served in the Dominican Republic with a Catholic program; the nun who ran the program often described our work as touching the wounds of Christ, which was an image that resonated strongly with me. In the years after I withdrew from LDS Church life, it remained (and still does today) extremely important for me—indispensible—to celebrate Christmas and Easter by attending Christian services, even if I didn't have a language for explaining why.

Grace, by the way, had become much less important to me as a concept or an experience once I'd gotten away from BYU and the LDS Church and started coming out of the closet and stopped feeling so guilty all the time.

I still tend to talk more about "God" than about "Christ." But I remember a moment at the end of the 1990s when I heard someone from the United Church of Christ talk about how her Christian faith called her to work for equality for gay/lesbian people; and the thought came to me, "Maybe it's time for me to start reclaiming a Christian voice. Maybe it's time for me to start speaking again in the name of Christ."

I need to wrap up and move on with my day. God—and for me, that term basically functions as a synonym for the Spirit—is integral to how I experience life in this world. I experience God's presence and guidance in ways that I understand as immediate. My experience of Christ is admittedly more abstract. "Christ" is a particular way of talking about the realities I more readily tend to call "God" or "the Spirit." I'm not comfortable talking about a personal relationship with Christ in the evangelical style that has become common among Mormons. That language doesn't really feel that it matches my experience, nor do I buy intellectually into the orthodox worldview that makes the Fall and the Atonement and the Resurrection straightforward, literal realities. Christ is not, for me, the bodily resurrected Jesus of Nazareth who looks down on me from another world. Instead, for me, Christ is "the revelation of God"—which is obviously a much more abstract concept (albeit one that can be found in the accumulated body of Mormon teaching). You can't relate to that kind of abstraction in the same way orthodox Mormons relate to someone they believe is an embodied human being who bled and died for them in places you can go visit in Jerusalem today and who now reaches out, unseen, to touch them through a veil. I don't relate to Christ as a person in that sense because I don't believe Christ exists as a person in that literal sense. I relate to stories about Christ, images of Christ, teachings attributed to Christ, rituals in which Christ is a central symbol. I relate to Christ as a particular way to envision the invisible God whose presence I detect in my life.

But still, even if abstractly, Christ is central to my spirituality. And not just as abstract theological concept, not just as language. My commitment to a Christ-centered spirituality is embodied concretely in the bread and water I bless each week, in the cross I'll be carrying in procession later today, in the Christian icons that hang on my walls, in the Nativity scenes I'll be setting out over Thanksgiving weekend, in the services I attend on Christmas Eve and Easter. I speak my prayers in Christ's name; I study texts that are said to be Christ's words. I take certain actions because I understand myself as being under a mandate to follow Christ's example, to serve Christ in others. Because my spirituality is Christian, rather than something else, it has a particular texture, particular emphases—most notably the fact that everything for me boils down to love.

Something's not feeling right about this reflection. There's something untrue about what I'm saying. I think I'm making my Christian commitments out to be more abstract than they are. Let me try to get closer to the truth by finishing with this story:

A year or two before we moved from Salt Lake to North Carolina, I walked down to Temple Square on a January evening. The Christmas crowds were over, and they were allowing free access to the Christus, so I sat in front of it for a while. They were piping in Tabernacle Choir music and periodically played that recording they do in different languages of a male voice reading selections of Christ's words from the various standard works. I was unhappy about the music and the recording because I resented the attempt at manipulating visitors emotionally and then trying to identify that as a testimony of the Spirit to the unique truth of Mormonism.

But then I thought, "Just ride through it." So I kept sitting, and after a while I got past my annoyance and began to feel meditiative, and I ended up having a rather long, intense, silent conversation with Christ as represented in front of me by the Christus. (The way Mormons construct a devotional space around that statue is so uncharacteristically Catholic—thank God!) I have no recollection what the conversation was about. All I know is that when I left Temple Square, I felt peaceful and emptied and yet at the same time overflowing with goodwill... so much so that I gave money to someone begging at the gates, which I never do.

That's what my relationship with Christ looks like in concrete terms.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gratitude for a spiritual moment

Before I go to bed, I wanted to quickly record (since this blog basically serves as my journal now) something that happened to me this morning. I was on the bus, riding in to campus, reading the Book of Mormon on the way—Moroni 7, to be precise. And suddenly, for no particular discernible reason, I had that lifting-of-the-heart feeling that I've learned to recognize as the Spirit. It went on for, I don't know, a minute or so maybe. And then it subsided.

I haven't experienced that for a while. The time in my life when I experienced those moments most frequently was my mission. The temple was another place where I often had them, which was really important to me during my last couple years at BYU, when going to church had become a white-knuckled agony. Nowadays these moments tend to come, when they come, while I'm reading the scriptures, though I don't experience them very often. I don't feel as much of a need for them as I did at BYU or on my mission, when I was often discouraged or depressed. There are other ways the Spirit communicates with me, and especially since coming out, I've come to appreciate how the Spirit guides imperceptibly over the long term, even over a period of years.

But still, I'm grateful for those lifting-of-the-heart moments when they come. It's a grace, a touch, a gift.

P.S.: It occurs to me add—and maybe there's a connection here—that I taught a good class today as well. We were discussing Angels in America, my all-time favorite play. Just before class started, I said a silent prayer as I was washing up in the restroom that the discussion I'd planned would go off well, that I'd be able to communicate effectively with the students, that I'd know how to guide the discussion as it unfolded. And I feel that prayer was answered.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"Seek this Jesus..." (Eth. 12:41)

I'm going to zoom in for this week's scriptural reflection on a single verse from the reading (Ether 7-15). At the end of a section in which Moroni laments that he can't write as eloquently as he speaks and prays that God will give the Gentiles charity to receive the record despite its weaknesses—at the end of all that, he says the following:
And now, I would commend you to seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God the Father, and also the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which bears record of them, may be and abide in you forever. (Eth. 12:41)
In response to that verse, I want to testify this week to the ways that, over the years, the scriptures have pointed me toward Christ, the grace of God, and the guiding witness of the Holy Ghost.

I've loved the scriptures since I was a child. I had scriptural storybooks from the time I started grade school. When I was eight, I decided for some reason that I wanted to actually read the Doctrine and Covenants, so I'd get up early in the morning and curl up by the heat vent in the living room and wade through a section. It was more about the accomplishment than about understanding, of course. The short sections were manageable, but then I hit section 10 and gave up.

Each Sunday during the four years between my baptism and my ordination to the Aaronic priesthood, my mother helped me memorize one of the high school seminary mastery scriptures. I read the standard works all the way through during high school, including the OT, start to finish. I had a rather elaborate system for marking verses in different colors and so on. The year before my mission, while I was taking a mission prep class at BYU, I decided I needed a less uncluttered set of scriptures to use with investigators, so I bought a new one, which is sitting on my desk as we speak, although the spines are starting to crack.

Before, during, and after my mission, I collected other translations of the Bible. I especially loved a Spanish translation of the Jerusalem Bible that I bought in my first proselyting area. It exposed me to critical scholarship—the documentary hypothesis, and so on—but also showed me how liberal religious thinkers found ways to listen to the Bible as scripture despite embracing theories about the text's historical origins that undercut literalist or inerrantist ways of reading scripture. As a missionary, I felt guilty about reading these non-LDS commentaries; I'd lock the Bibles I'd bought away in my suitcase for a few months, vowing not to look at them again until my mission was over and I was no longer under missionary restrictions regarding what I was supposed to be reading. But eventually my need for intellectual stimulation would win out and I'd return to them. One translation I'd bought, by the International Catholic Biblical Society, had commentary that I found quite inspiring and illuminating at a spiritual level. I still remember one line I underlined carefully in red: Without the Eucharist, the Bible is the words of one who is absent; without the Bible, the Eucharist is a mute presence.

At the same time, of course, I was reading the Book of Mormon every day, copying out passages that strengthened me for the work or gave me ideas about how to help our investigators, and taping them to the wall above my desk. When I felt the need for an aesthetic-spiritual pick-me-up, I would sit in a rocking chair on our balcony or porch and read out loud to myself from the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible.

After I got away from BYU and stopped attending church, there was a period of a few years when I wasn't sure where I was going. I assumed I was in a process of moving away from Mormonism. And yet I remained closely engaged with the LDS scriptures—so much so that when I look back I'm baffled that I could think I was moving away from this tradition. While serving as an education volunteer in a Catholic program in the Dominican Republic, I started writing songs for the guitar that drew on LDS scriptural texts but interpreted them in light of liberation theology. I wrote Endowed from on High, a short book that interpreted the endowment as a meditation on symbols from the scriptures; My Heart Cries out to Thee, essentially a Mormon "prayer book" composed of excerpts from the scriptures of the Restoration; For Times and for Seasons, a collection of ideas for family devotionals that used the scriptures as a resource for celebrating key life transitions and confronting adversity; and The Easy-to-Read Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, a simple modern English paraphrase for children but which I hoped might also help adults think about familiar texts in new ways.

During this period, an important influence in my spiritual life was a Salt Lake man named Michael Chase, a secular Jew who'd become a devotee of the writings of Mary Baker Eddy (but not a convert to the Christian Science church). Michael used to carry around a King James Bible in his pocket, almost like a talisman. It bothered him that I wouldn't let go of Mormonism because he wanted to persuade me to connect with God beyond organized religion; but conversations with Michael helped keep me spiritually grounded. Michael urged me to take seriously the idea that God was calling me to service. Michael's largely responsible for the fact that I didn't simply stop believing in God and spiritual realities—that I still understand the scriptures as texts through which God speaks to me, not simply as texts from the past.

During this period, I began to reread first the Hebrew prophets and later the Gospels. At first there was a kind of defiance about it: I was reading these texts for the purpose of reclaiming them from conservative Christians and Mormons. So at first I was reading all those prophetic denunciations of injustice and idolatry as being directed toward religious homophobes, for example. But the more I read, the more I found myself able to hear the scriptures calling me to repentance as well—toward greater charity, toward a vision of a future in which I would have to be reconciled to my enemies, to recognize my own failings to live out God's word.

After 2001, when I'd come to accept that Mormonism was and would remain my first language for communicating with God, I encountered Mormons for Equality and Social Justice. I'm grateful for the time I spent with that organization, and for the chance I had to help the organization identify resources for social justice work in the LDS scriptures. It was a chance for me to engage with these texts as God's word—to listen for the Spirit's voice in these texts, to articulate my faith and hope and my commitments to service and consecration in the language of these texts. Around the same time I began working on the project that eventually became LiberalMormon.net, which again involved engaging closely with the scriptures, listening for the voice of the Spirit. And I made the decision to start reading the scriptures on the Sunday School schedule, with weekly journal reflections, as a way of participating in the faith community's collective engagement with the scriptures, albeit from a distance.

The LDS scriptures are a lexicon. They provide the vocabulary, the language, that I use to speak to God and God uses to speak to me. They are an instrument through which God keeps calling me to Christlike living, through which God's love is revealed to me, and through which the Spirit guides me. That's my testimony.

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As I near the end of the Book of Mormon, I'm taking stock and thinking ahead to next year's scripture study. I haven't felt entirely happy with the blogging. The idea was to take the weekly journaling I'd been doing as I reflected on the scriptures and transfer it to a blog instead of a notebook. But writing with the knowledge that there's a potential audience has changed the way I journal. I'm pretty self-revelatory here—to a degree that I suspect a couple of my professors would find professionally inadvisable—but the journaling isn't as spontaneous or as intimate a conversation with God as it was back when I was writing in a notebook that I didn't expect anyone to ever see. And it hasn't felt quite as spiritually nourishing.

I want to keep doing the blog. I have no idea how many people actually read this—very few, I suspect—but I've received enough feedback that I think it's worth continuing to do, both as identity work and as testimony. But I want to make a couple of changes.

First, I want to make the reading itself more of a devotional experience. Lately, I've taken to reading the Book of Mormon on the bus. That's how I did it back in the late 1990s when I started to reengage with the Hebrew prophets, and it was fine then; but now I'm feeling like I want to be less casual about it. I want to clear time in my day, first thing in the morning, for some quality time with God—to commune with God through the scriptures.

Second, I want to be more open to other ways of reflecting on the scriptures beside written commentary such as I've been doing on the blog. In the past, I've reflected on the scriptures through the act of paraphrasing; by excerpting short verses or phrases to post where I'll see them frequently; by chanting passages of scripture; by creating songs based on scriptural texts; and through images. At the end of the 1990s, I taught a Bible study class for a Spanish-speaking Episcopal congregation, and at the end of every lesson I had everyone create a drawing that visually represented their reflections on the theme of that day's discussion. I still have the paperback copy of the VersiĆ³n Popular with my drawings taped into it.

I may start doing more of that on the blog: posting a drawing, for example, or a paraphrase, or a single verse without commentary. I'll experiment, try the fruits, see how it goes. The bottom line is: I want to seek communication from the Spirit as I study the scriptures, and then, as appropriate, I want to share it or bear witness of it in the spirit of all being edified by all.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Marriage equality rally . . . and autumn leaves

This afternoon, Hugo and I attended a rally for same-sex marriage in Raleigh, one of the 300-odd rallies held at the same time around the country. Attending the rally was a spiritual act for me in the sense that I saw it as a way to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, to bear a kind of public witness to what I know to be true, if only by my presence. I'd say there were a few hundred people there. It was, in fact, my first participation in any kind of organized gay demonstration in North Carolina, since I haven't attended any gay pride celebrations since we moved here.

I was grateful that the tone of the rally was positive, oriented toward galvanizing support to push for marriage equality here in North Carolina rather than venting anger about Proposition 8—though certainly some people carried signs to that effect. The only Mormon-themed message I saw was a sign one woman carried that read, "Ironically, my first kiss was from a Mormon." Early in the rally, they talked about having an open mic after we marched around the capitol, and I decided I would say something as a gay Mormon. A testimony of sorts. But the march turned out to be very long, and we got rained on torrentially at the beginning of it, so in the end everyone just dispersed afterward.

I'm not a big fan of rallies and marches. I've participated in I don't know how many, all since 9/11 (if you don't count marching at Salt Lake's gay pride with Affirmation). I spoke at one in Salt Lake just before the Iraq war began. They're usually too long—too many speakers—and most of the ones I've been at have had a hard time staying on message. During probably my second march, a peace demonstration, I had the thought that this was a kind of ritual act, an attempt to make change happen by reenacting the primordial sacred moment of the civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam demonstrations of the 1960s. Marching makes me uncomfortable. I feel on display and therefore awkward. I don't like chanting. I attend these events as a kind of discipline—like putting in your time at the Church cannery, if you will. They need warm bodies for when the media shows up, so there I am. It's a form of service.

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There's no self-evident connection between the above and what I'm about to say next, but there feels to me like there's some vague connection having to do with signs of grace and blessing and Providential favor. Before we went to the rally, I walked the dog along a local nature trail. A wind was blowing clouds of leaves off the trees, and at one point I found myself walking into one of those clouds, with the leaves showering down all around me. It was awe-some and called to mind the scripture about God sending the rain on the just and the unjust. I know (or suspect) that this kind of Romanticism is a luxury of the relatively rich in the global scheme of things, but expressions of beauty in nature have for a long, long time been an important way that I encounter God in my daily living.

Last week, as I was approaching the building where the religious studies department is housed, I suddenly found myself looking at a tree covered in bright yellow leaves, shining in the autumn noontime sunlight. I thought: That would make an incredible set for a temple film. Fill the Garden of Eden with trees whose leaves are different colors—brilliant shades of yellow, orange, red, purple. White leaves for the tree of life; a deep, dark, gorgeous wine-purple for the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Praying for kittens

I'm sitting down in my home office to begin my studying for the day. There's a cold autumn rain outside. A few minutes ago, I was in the bedroom, where the dog was lying on the bed with a blanket bundled around her, enjoying the warmth. I reached under the blanket to pet her, and she rolled lazily onto her back to have her belly rubbed.

Our apartment complex is separated from the neighboring complex by two fences, between which runs an overgrown, creek-like ditch. Feral cats live in that space. A few days ago, the dog was sniffing along the fence with particular sedulity, and when I peeped through, I discovered four kittens. I've been peeping in on them once or twice a day since then. At first, I often found their mother with them, but the past couple of days there's been no sign of her, and yesterday, which was also rainy, I peeped through the fence and found three of the kittens—the fourth has disappeared—wet, dirty, bedraggled, piled on top of one another. I wasn't even sure at first they were still alive, but then I saw one of them, at least, moving a little.

I worried that their mother had abandoned them. Hugo suggested that perhaps my intruding had scared the mother away, a possibility that made me feel sick.

So as I was rubbing my dog's belly, hearing the rain hit the windows, I thought about the kittens, and I felt moved to pray for them. And then I sat there thinking: And what the hell good is that supposed to do? If you're worried, you should go out there and check up on them, and if necessary crawl through the hole in the fence that people use as a shortcut to get from this apartment complex to the next, and go rescue the kittens and take them to a shelter, or at least bring them into the apartment until the rain stops, or something.

I sat there thinking about all the thoroughly practical reasons not to do any of those things. But my guilt wouldn't let me rest, so I put on my coat and went and looked through the fence. The kittens are gone, which I take as a good sign. I assume their mother has moved them somewhere else.

So wherever they are now, I'm praying for them.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ether 1-6: Daring to desire

The story of the 16 shining stones is one of my favorite in the Book of Mormon. It provides a model of human beings collaborating with God, working out together a plan for carrying out God's purposes. On a related theme, the story also shows God responding to human desire, incorporating our desires and dreams and aspirations into his own plans for history.

This theme of God responding to human desire shows up from the very beginning of the story, when Jared and his brother ask the Lord to spare them and their friends from the confounding of the people's language—which he does. Right off the bat, then, we see a community that seeks actively to shape the Lord's actions. This is not a community passively submitting to the Lord's will or trusting that if they're righteous, the Lord will spare them. They take their own desires to the Lord: "Cry unto the Lord, that he will not confound us" (1:34). And, we're told, the Lord takes compassion on them and does what they want.

Their next request is relatively more humble in one sense and more ambitious in another. This time Jared asks his brother to go find out what the Lord's plans are: Does he intend to drive them out of the land? And if it turns out that is the Lord's plan, then Jared wants his brother to ask the Lord where they should go—because, Jared says, "who knoweth but the Lord will carry us forth into a land which is choice above all the earth?" (1:38). In this case, then, we see the community going to the Lord with a dream, an aspiration, an ambition—a rather presumptuous one, actually: Maybe the Lord will lead us to the choicest place on earth. But again, despite the presumptuousness, the Lord gives them what they desire.

As I write this, I'm beginning to wince. As I'm writing, I'm realizing that this story can be read as childish wish-fulfillment. But that's not how I was reading it earlier this week, so let me shut down the potential Freudian reading and go back to reading this the way I believe the Spirit was prompting me to. What made this story "delicious" to my soul is the way it validates human desire and aspiration. This isn't a Calvinist story about how depraved human beings need to learn to relinquish their inherently evil desires and submit to the will of God so that he can regenerate them and give them godly desires instead. This story has a much stronger humanist bent in the sense that it validates human wanting, human willing, human ambition.

And what's particularly striking to me is that the story does that despite embracing a doctrine of the Fall and even a doctrine of human depravity. In 3:2, the brother of Jared is asking the Lord to touch the 16 stones and make them shine. He's apparently very hesitant about making this request because he does a lot of preliminary groveling. He asks the Lord not to be angry because of his weakness; we know we are unworthy before you; "because of the fall our natures have become evil continually." Pretty Calvinist, that. But then he continues: "Nevertheless, O Lord, thou hast given us a commandment that we must call upon thee, that from thee we may receive according to our desires."

I suspect a Calvinist theologian would see this passage as hopelessly confused and contradictory. But I think this passage is trying to move beyond the hard, clear-cut simplicities of Calvinism toward a more nuanced understanding of human nature—and I believe the Spirit is prompting that movement. Yes, we are fallen, which means we have ungodly desires, desires inconsistent with the divine nature. We want things that are bad for ourselves and for others. And yet, despite that, God wants us to lay our desires before him. He wants to give us what we desire—which I presume means that he wants to give us the best things we desire, or the things that will truly satisfy our flawed, misdirected desires. God is generous. God works with us where we're at. God wants us to desire. He commands us to desire. He even encourages us to dare to aspire to things we're not sure it's right to want or ask for. This story does not call us to submission, whatever truth there might be in such a call in the right circumstances and context. This story calls us to be daring, to be presumptuous even—to nurture grandiose dreams and then take those dreams to God and ask him to help us make them happen.

I'm sensing the need for caution here—I'm sensing what would horrify a Calvinist about what I'm saying, and I'm sensing the truth in that horror. There's something characteristically American about the message to dream and desire, and there's something to be said for critiquing that cultural gospel in the name of the gospel of Christ. Certainly desire and aspiration are at the basis of our insane consumer culture, our imperialist ambitions.

On the other hand: I entered young adulthood with powerful desires and aspirations that I was told were wrong—the desire to be held by a male lover; the desire to be part of the intellectual communities advancing critical scholarship (which culturally conservative Latter-day Saints saw as dangerous); the desire to see my faith community become more democratic, more egalitarian, more open, more culturally diverse, more politically progressive. I've seen injunctions to suppress one's desires and to submit to divine authority used for what the still, small, insistent voice of conscience tells me are repressive, even abusive and destructive, ends. And in that context, the story of the 16 small stones speaks to me as an affirmation of desire and aspiration, and a rebuff to the voices that preach submission and self-repression. It's a message that makes my soul feel enlarged, liberated. And so while I recognize that the message can be falsely applied—as is true of any gospel message, any gospel principle—I embrace this message. And at the risk of being presumptuous (which, after all, this story encourages me to risk being), I proclaim this message from the housetops as one that I think a conservative, conformist, authoritarian LDS faith community needs to hear.

I had planned to say more about the theme of collaboration, which you see especially in the dialogues between the Lord and the brother of Jared in chapter 2. But I need to move on to other tasks, and I sense this reflection has reached a natural ending point.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election aftermath

The results of the presidential election leave me with a profound feeling of relief, which I translate into an idiom of gratitude: Thank God. Thank God. I pray that the new administration will be blessed with a spirit of wisdom and discernment as they seek approaches to the disasters our government has created in the Middle East, and to the economic crisis, as well as to other pressing issues like health care, and energy, and climate change. It's depressing to think about the magnitude of the problems facing us.

The passing of Proposition 8 in California left me feeling unexpectedly angry. I've stayed relatively impassive about that particular political battle. I didn't follow the campaign closely; I didn't let myself get worked up into an outrage about the various forms of LDS involvement. But I now find myself getting very angry at the thought of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve gathering tomorrow for their weekly meeting in the Salt Lake Temple—perhaps in their temple robes, using the ceremonial trappings of the True Order of Prayer—to express their gratitude to God for blessing their efforts in support of Proposition 8. That image makes me want to explode into a blistering jeremiad about false priests who oppress; or idolatrers who defile the temple by offering prayers and sacrifices to a false God of their own vain imaginings; or apostate clerics, convinced they preach the orthodox religion, who reject the further light and knowledge God is sending into the world...

I hear the Spirit telling me that kind of radical rhetoric doesn't do any good. I should view the situation more charitably. They're afraid of what they don't understand. They're honorable men blinded by the false traditions of their fathers. They're zealously devoted to the strictures of what they understand to be God's law, and that misguided zeal prevents them from recognizing the coming of a kingdom that breaks down their conceptions of clean and unclean, sinner and righteous, in the name of charity and compassion and an expanded vision of God's love and salvation. They're in bondage, chained down by their own prejudice. And if I go on in this vein, I'm going to sound even more blatantly pompous and self-righteous than I already do, so let's stop now.

I will add this: My anger humbles me because it makes me realize that I can relate, after all, to the hostility toward religious Others that you encounter so often in the scriptures, i.e., the expressions of condemnation toward what the scriptural authors understand to be false religion. Normally I look down my enlightened nose at those sentiments: "Here you see the serious limitations of the scriptural authors, their inability to grasp a more pluralistic vision," etc. But I can be just as hostile, and I experience those feelings more often than is healthy for me. I pray that my anger can be transfigured into a truly fruitful zeal for justice wedded to charity.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

All Saints

Sitting on my desk is a little square-shaped piece of bread. It's what they use for communion at the Advocate, the Episcopal church Hugo and I have been attending since we moved to North Carolina. After communion, there were a few pieces left over, and I pocketed this one to bring home to use when I administer the sacrament to myself, which I'll do as soon as I finish this post.

I've never done this before—bring leftover communion bread home, I mean. Normally I just come home and bless the sacrament for myself using whatever bread we have in the apartment. I was moved to do it this time because of the sermon, which was dedicated to the theme of the communion of saints. Today was the Advocate's celebration of All Saints Day. The service started with a litany that memorialized various saints from the Bible and from the history of Christianity—I got to chant part of that, which I enjoyed very much. All around the worship space people had hung pictures of saints they wanted to remember, including their own relatives or admired figures like Martin Luther King. The sermon focused on the idea that we belong to a communion of saints composed of all those who have confessed the Christian faith throughout history.

I've commented in some earlier posts about my ambivalence toward the fact that my spirituality is so individualistic. I identify as Mormon but in my own idiosyncratic way. I'm not interested in LDS church life because I find the institutional church stultifying and authoritarian, and I don't have the patience and charity and rock-solid self-assurance to be the openly gay excommunicant who keeps attending ward meetings week after week even though he isn't really wanted. For the past four years, Hugo and I have attended the Advocate, but going was his idea, not mine; and while I enjoy and am grateful for the opportunities that community has given me to serve, I don't think of myself as a member of the Advocate: it's simply the place where I've taken up temporary residence as a Mormon exile. I never commune there. To me, communing at the Advocate would mean relinquishing my exile status, relinquishing my Mormonism, and throwing in my lot with this community instead, which is not what I want to do. It's not what I believe God wants me to do.

So why is there a piece of communion bread from the Advocate sitting on my desk, waiting for me to recite the LDS sacramental prayer over it? I only have a fuzzy sense of why I'm doing this, and my understanding of why I'm doing it really doesn't have much to do with my relationship to the Advocate. It has more to do with thoughts that came to my mind during the priest's sermon regarding my relationship to the communion of Latter-day Saints.

As the priest was inviting us to see ourselves as part of a communion of saints, I found myself thinking about whether I could see myself as a member of a communion that included Joseph Smith along with the other historical figures I'd named in the parts of the litany I chanted. Do I think of Joseph Smith as one of the saints? Certainly I regard the revelations he penned and the rituals he instituted as channels through which God speaks to me and teaches me, and in that sense I can say that I believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, a servant, an instrument. But if Joseph were alive today, I would not be one of his followers (though perhaps I might have found a home in one of the churches founded by those who broke with him). I would regard him as the leader of a fringe religious movement—a "cult"—someone who was authoritarian and unstable and perhaps even dangerous. I can accept that he was a servant of God, but that doesn't necessarily mean he was a good servant. Ultimately the judgment is God's, not mine, but I'm inclined to think that Joseph Smith was an instrument of God more in spite of what he did than because of it.

Nevertheless. I am wearing over my kneecap a marked garment that signifies that someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ. That can be taken in a judgmental, triumphalist sense to mean that someday everyone will recognize that Christianity is the one true religion, and those who rejected Jesus will be constrained to acknowledge that his retaliatory judgments against them are just. Obviously, I'm not interested in that way of understanding it. To me, the prophecy that every knee will bow is a promise that someday all people will be drawn together through the transforming love of God into a single communion, a single community, a single family cutting across all boundaries and dismantling all barriers—including, I believe, religious barriers, though my language for expressing this vision is distinctively Christian and therefore my mental image of this community has Christ at the center of it.

But let's set aside the interfaith dimensions of this vision for now. Let's just focus on a smaller, but still enormous, challenge—trying to imagine a unified communion of Latter-day Saints. Can I see myself worshipping side-by-side with Joseph Smith? Brigham Young? J. Reuben Clark? Boyd K. Packer? None of those are people I would be pleased to stand shoulder to shoulder with; and I doubt, for their part, that they'd think I was worthy to be standing alongside them in God's kingdom. But that's the vision I understand the Knee Mark to be pointing me toward. A single communion that includes the people I now hate as well as the people I now admire—the self-proclaimed insiders, and those who became outsiders because they felt betrayed, and those who were declared outsiders against their will. Howard W. Hunter. Eliza R. Snow. Emmeline B. Wells. Dallin H. Oaks. Lavina Fielding Anderson. Michael Quinn. Queer old Evan Stephens with his boy chums. Louie Felt and May Anderson. Sonia Johnson would be there—at least I hope she'd want to be. The same with William Law. Emma. Joseph Smith III.

I'm about to bless the sacrament. As I take it, I'll be imagining myself as part of this future LDS communion, where all have at last been reconciled to one another and all of the lost sheep have been gathered back to the fold. Taking the sacrament together, with Jesus, like in D&C 27. And why am I using leftover communion bread from the Advocate? I guess because it helps evoke for me that sense of partaking, not on my own, but as part of a communion of saints, forged by the transforming love of Christ, who suffered and died and rose again in order to make us his forever and to be able to draw us to him, no matter how long it takes.

Mormon 7-9

What's going on in these chapters? They represent one of a series of "false ends" to the book (i.e., you get the impression that Mormon and Moroni imagine they're not going to be able write more, but then they can after all). So I'm assuming that these chapters are meant to contain especially weighty exhortations—the author's last words to posterity. With that in mind, what are the major themes here?

First, chapters 8 and 9 contain a number of injunctions not to condemn the Book of Mormon for its imperfections. At one level, I read this as an aggressive expression of Joseph Smith's insecurities about his composition. But I also believe that in these passages, the Spirit is telling me to retain a teachable frame of mind in my engagement with the book, even as I'm alert to its flaws, which I believe are more numerous and grave than its author realizes. Mormon 9:31 captures well, actually, my approach to the book—or one of my approaches, anyway: "Give thanks to God that he has made manifest to you our imperfections, that you may learn to be wiser than we have been."

So with that groundwork laid, back to major themes.

Chapter 7 commands the Lamanites to embrace the Book of Mormon's account of their origins, to renounce war, and to become Christians. I want to be generous in my reading of this. The Book of Mormon is trying to open up terms on which Native Americans can be integrated into Euro-American society. By comparison to alternatives like distributing smallpox-infected blankets or the Trail of Tears, the Book of Mormon's approach is an improvement. In a sense, I think it's an improvement even over the missionary efforts of Puritans like John Eliot, since while the Book of Mormon reflects the usual colonial conception of Indians as savages, it gives them at least a dignified past and presents conversion to Christianity as a return to tradition, not a break with tradition. I hasten to add that the Book of Mormon vision for Native assimilation is still horribly deficient—it's an appropriation of Native identity that denies the value of existing Native cultures. But in the absence of more pluralistic options, this vision represents a better scenario than what actually ended up happening: removal, war, subjugation, compulsory "civilization." Again, I don't want to give Joseph Smith more credit than he deserves, but I also want to point out that he was trying to imagine an alternative to the Indian policies of the day.

A major theme in chapter 8 is latter-day materialism, especially on the part of churches. The Book of Mormon condemns the sale of sacraments (8:32), false assurances to sinners that God will uphold them at the last day (8:31), wearing fine apparel (8:36), internal strife and persecution (8:36), spending money on the adornment of churches instead of on aiding the poor (8:37-39), causing widows and orphans to mourn and the blood of fathers and husbands to cry from the ground (8:40).

The social justice bent to this pleases me, of course, and therefore I'm inclined to say a hearty "Amen!" Then again, I like beautiful churches; I like big cathedrals; I've had some important spiritual experiences in beautifully adorned churches of precisely the kind that I'm pretty sure these words are intended to condemn. There's a hard-core dirt-farmer holiness sensibility to these verses—"We're the true humble followers a' Jeezus, not like them high-falutin' Presbyterians with their fancy downtown church"—that I'm inclined to resist. On the other hand, materialism is bad. People spend money on luxuries they don't need—I spend money on luxuries I don't need—rather than practicing the kind of consecration and stewardship that would move us toward ending poverty. I shouldn't feel good about these verses: "Oh yes, I believe that helping the poor should be our top priority; see what a good person I am!" These verses goad me.

At the risk of seeming (being?) defensive, I want to say something about 8:31. When I read the prophecy that in the last days there will be many who say "Do this, or do that, and it mattereth not, for the Lord will uphold such at the last day," I grimaced as I imagined what Proposition 8 supporters might make of that. "Aha! You see: the Book of Mormon prophesies that there would be liberal churches telling gays that God supports their lifestyle." I read that verse differently, though. I was more inclined to see it as directed to a certain born-again Christian who believes God made him president—"the decider," as he said once, unburdened by the obligation to explain his actions to anyone—and to the millions of other born-again Christians, plus the majority of American Mormons, who assure him that God upholds him as he launches wars that make widows and orphans mourn and the blood of their fathers and husbands cry for vengeance from the ground.

Enough of that. The last theme I want to point to is chapter 9's emphasis on miracles. Again, we see here a holiness sensibility—an incipient Pentecostalism. The age of miracles has not ceased, contrary to some. Christ's disciples will be recognized by the miracles they perform, today as in the apostolic age. I don't share that holiness sensibility, and frankly I'm not so sure Church leaders do anymore, though miracle stories still circulate among the rank-and-file. When it becomes standard to interpret the "gift of tongues" as a reference to missionaries learning foreign languages through coursework—at that point you have to admit that the Church has moved more than a few steps away from the more defiantly supernaturalist position championed in chapter 9.

Mormons have come a long way from the days when consulting a doctor suggested that you lacked the faith to be healed; we've come a long way from people like Brigham Young and Eliza Snow uttering prophecies in unknown tongues. Now the policy is that people shouldn't talk about miracles: they're sacred, keep them private. Why is that? It's partly about power: Dallin H. Oaks's famous address on our strengths becoming our weaknesses reveals his awareness that people who claim to be able to perform miracles have a kind of charisma that can threaten the authority of the hierarchy. I suspect, too, that the desire to keep miracle stories under wraps stems from a certain embarrassment: we don't want people thinking we're like those credulous folks you see going to televangelists for faith healing. Whatever the reasons, exactly, the fact is that twenty-first century Mormons have become more like the "liberal," suspicious-of-miracles Christians that chapter 9 condemns for being "despisers of the works of the Lord" (9:26).

I'm not saying that's a bad thing. On the contrary—I'd like to see us move even farther away from supernaturalism. At the same time, I hear in this chapter a promise and a challenge: To be a Christian is to work wonders, to tackle the seemingly impossible, trusting that the same power which created the world can work through us as we grow in selflessness and commitment to service.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

My dark Mormon pessimism

And so it ends. A week after I read 4 Nephi, with its utopian vision of a communitarian society living in peace and unity and justice—a week and a few chapters later (Mormon 1-6), Nephite society has been obliterated and the surviving Lamanites are degenerating into savages. Yes, I'm wincing at the 19th-century notions of "civilization" versus "savagery," especially as they're being applied here to Native Americans. But let's set that aside for the moment. Let me listen to the text. Let me share what I've learned from it.

I'm in the middle of doing a seven-week discussion series on American religious history for the Episcopal church Hugo and I attend. Every week I pose a question about this particular church's identity or mission, and then I sketch broad historical contexts that can help the group think through an answer to the question. Last week's question was "Why does the Advocate have a woman priest?" The contexts I provided included not only the post-1960s push toward women's ordination among mainline Protestants and Catholics but the much longer history of women's leadership in more marginal religious movements and the less visible but indispensible contributions women have always made to America's religious organizations.

In our discussion at the end, the priest wondered aloud if in the long view, women's ordination in the Episcopal Church might prove a historical blip, given the increasing clout of the global South, where much more conservative views on gender and sexuality tend to dominate. (A few years ago, I expressed a similar fear during a brief conversation with Susan Skoor, an apostle in the Community of Christ.) Another participant in the discussion made a quite passionate speech to the effect that God wills the advancement of women, and God's word does not return empty, ergo fundamentalists who fight progress on this question are fighting a battle bound to lose. I disagreed, also rather dramatically. I said, essentially, that since God has made us free to choose our own way, humanity is entirely capable of instituting centuries of oppression or even destroying ourselves—"slit our throat" was the expression I used. I hadn't intended to get quite that intense, so I laughed and said, "That's my dark Mormon pessimism talking."

And by "dark Mormon pessimism," I meant precisely what I read about this week. The Book of Mormon is ultimately a dark, tragic book. It's a story about failure. It's a story about a society on a path to destruction, and the best that God's servants can do is (a) save their own souls through their faithful witness and (b) try to convince as many other souls as they can to accept Jesus before they're killed and dispatched to the judgment bar. It's incredibly bleak. In fact, it doesn't seem very characteristically Mormon, if you're judging by the quiet tones of General Conference or the unflagging optimism of a Gordon B. Hinckley. It's a worldview that seems more appropriate to Christian fundamentalists waiting for the Rapture and the rise of the Antichrist and imagining that people who don't accept Jesus as their personal Savior before they leave this world are doomed to burn in hell forever. I'm thinking of a conservative evangelical I met some years back at an interfaith conference on sexuality who said that he saw liberal Christianity as a burning building, and he was trying to save what few souls he could from the conflagration. That's Mormon's worldview—except that Mormon reaches a point where he's convinced the people's hearts are so hard that there isn't even any point in witnessing anymore.

In fact, Mormon's worldview seems to me to be even more pessimistic than early Mormon apocalypticism. At least the early Mormons imagined that Jesus was going to come soon to save them. Mormon doesn't even have that hope. His hope lies centuries in the future, when the Book of Mormon will be recovered. But for the present—his present—everything that he has worked for, or that Alma worked for, or that Nephi son of Lehi worked for back in 600 BC... it's all come to nothing.

Which is why I can't buy into the kind of liberalism that imagines progress is inevitable. My religious tradition's foundational text tells me otherwise. God has given us the freedom to choose our own path, but that means that if the consequences of our choices prove disastrous, we're trapped. God isn't going to intervene, or at least God's ability to intervene is entirely dependent on the willingness of human agents to work with him, which limits what God can do. In the case of the Book of Mormon, the best God can do at the end is find someone to write up a record and bury it so it can come forth at a later date as an instrument for working toward the fulfilment of the millennial promises. But there's no Rapture here, no deus ex machina. There's no magic forcefield shielding the righteous. The whole ship goes down, and Mormon and Moroni go down with it.

Progress doesn't just happen. God wills it to happen, God is constantly calling us, God's Spirit is constantly blowing across the face of the earth, touching hearts, inspiring minds, raising up prophetic voices here and there, breathing life and power into movements organized for good. I believe that. The story of the Restoration gives me a vivid set of images for how that happens. If earth asks, heaven will answer. We can be endowed with power from on high. We can proclaim the truth before kings and rulers. We can gather the exiles. We can make a feast for the poor. We can build the kingdom. We can build Zion. We can heal the sick. We can make the desert blossom. We can bring the nations together rejoicing. We can help God establish centuries of uninterrupted peace. We can do this. Or we can pursue a path that will destroy our societies. The choice is ours; and if we choose wrong, there will come a point, as it does for the Nephites, when "the day of grace [is] passed" (Morm. 2:15), when we reach the point where nothing can undo the damage we've caused or prevent the collapse of everything we and generations past have created. Maybe in the distant future God can find a way to pick up the pieces and start again. But that won't help us in the here and now. We'll just be ruins and a voice from the dust.