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.