Sunday, January 25, 2009

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, cont.

Well, it's nearly 5 a.m., but I'm not getting back to sleep. So let's write the Sunday reflection now, shall we?

As I explained in an earlier post, I replaced my D&C reading for the week with a different spiritual discipline: praying in observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. At the center of that devotion was my meditation on D&C 38:27, "I say to you, Be one; and if you are not one, you are not mine."

In his novel Ender's Game, Mormon sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card has a scenario in which a platoon of children at a military school is torn by a rivalry between two boys, Ender and Bernard. The rift finally gets smoothed over when another boy, Alai, forges a friendship with both rivals. Here's how Card describes it:
Ender and Alai were friends. Now others might believe that Ender had joined his group, but it wasn't so. Ender had joined a new group. Alai's group. Bernard had joined it too.

It wasn't obvious to everyone; Bernard still blustered and sent his cronies on errands. But Alai now moved freely through the whole room, and when Bernard was crazy, Alai could joke a little and calm him down. When it came time to choose their launch leader, Alai was the almost unanimous choice. . . . The launch was no longer divided into Bernard's in-group and Ender's outcasts. Alai was the bridge.
That serves—and Card may well intend something like this—as a parable for my understanding of why it's true to say that if we are not one, we are not Christ's.

What I understand D&C 38:27 to be saying is this: You can't claim to be one with Christ and at the same time identify someone else—anyone else—as an enemy or Other with whom you are not one, because Christ insists on being one with everybody. In 3 Nephi 27:14-15, Christ says that he was lifted up on the cross so that he would have the power to draw all people to himself. We are one with him, whether we know it or not, or accept it or not, or like it or not. And that means there's no division between in-group and outcasts. Christ is the bridge. If you're one with Christ, you're one with everyone. Like it or not.

Of course, when the scriptures talk of judgment, they inscribe an ultimate in-group/outcasts division between those at Christ's right hand and those at his left, those whom he lifts up at the last day and those whom he sends away into the fire, etc. And I discern truth in that to the extent that those potentially monstrous passages tell us that God demands justice, that God stands with victims and against oppression. I was careful to say "oppression," not "oppressors."

Those statements have to be interpreted in light of an understanding that, ultimately and above all, Christ loves all of us and suffers for all of us so that he can draw all of us to himself and make us all one. Which makes the statements very hard to reconcile. A few weeks back, reacting to the invasion of Gaza, I remarked on the difficulty of taking a stand, though I expressed my conviction that if we're going to talk about God taking a stand with one side or the other, he would be standing with the most vulnerable, not the most powerful. I believe that. And/But I also believe that Christ is one with all parties in that conflict, which means there's a sense in which he's on everyone's side. He is one with Hamas. He is one with the Israeli military. He is one with the Palestinian and Israeli populations. He has made all their suffering his own. He empathizes with all of them, utterly. And he asks us to do likewise.

This is the mystery at the heart of the gospel. It's by coming to understand and live that mystery, that we are transformed into the image of Christ, the way Moroni 7:48 talks about.
Pray to the Father with all the energy of heart
that you may be filled with this love,
which he has bestowed on all who are true followers
of his Son, Jesus Christ,
that you may become the sons [and daughters] of God;
that when he shall appear, we shall be like him . . .
I'm still praying, because I don't understand it yet.

Psalm for a tow truck

She stood outside in her bathrobe
in the frigid early morning
and asked him, "Why are you doing this to me?"
as he, unperturbed, kept lifting her car
onto the back of his truck.

I couldn't hear his response.
Maybe he ignored her.
Probably he said something like,
"I'm just doing my job."
Disclaiming responsibility.
Her question makes it personal,
which it is,
but of course he prefers not to see things in that light.

Her husband was more accommodating.
He tried to calm his wife down.
He smiled to the night security guard
and the policeman
who came to make sure nothing untoward happened
to the guy who was just doing his job.

The husband smiled and laughed
and bid them good night.
Did I hear him thank them?
He's black.
They're white.

I was standing on the landing
when he came down from his apartment
carrying his wallet to pay the put-down fee.
"Legally they can't charge you more than 50 dollars," I told him,
trying to make sure people at least know their rights.
I had to repeat it twice before he understood me.
He had an accent that suggested English might not be his first language.
"They're charging me fifty dollars to get my car back," he said.
He hadn't put on his happy have-to-deal-with-authority face yet.

I've watched the towing guy park his truck
and then walk around with the night security guard,
car by car, checking each dashboard with a flashlight
until they find someone to pick off.
It's not nearly as passive a process as
"I'm just doing my job" is meant to suggest.

Tonight, I was wakened by the sound of the truck
bumping through our parking lot.
He already had one car chained to the back
and was driving around with his flashlight,
looking for another one.
He paused at the car next to mine.
Within ten minutes, he was back to get it.

I wonder sometimes if we could make a legal case
for the sound of that truck outside our apartments at 3:30 a.m.
being a disturbance of the peace.
That's the worst part of this—
feeling helpless to do anything to stop
what amounts to legally sanctioned extortion of poor people.

I know this is a trivial injustice
compared to all the atrocities in the world.
But this one's happening to my neighbors,
on my watch,
and I feel like I ought to be able to do or say something
other than composing bad free verse for my blog,
which is really just compensation
and a way to let off steam.

I want you to punish them, Lord,
which is so childish of me.
But of course you don't actually work that way,
which at times like now makes me angry.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rare snowfall... and the inauguration

I, the Lord, send the snows upon the earth.
(D&C 117:1)

Soon, this . . . ruination will be blanketed white. You can smell it—can you smell it? . . . Softness, compliance, forgiveness, grace.
(Tony Kushner, Angels in America)
It's snowing—a rare occurrence for this part of North Carolina. In the four-plus years I've lived here, this is only the second snowfall I've seen. It's been falling lightly but steadily since early this morning: we're up to 2 or 3 inches now, I'd guess.

The snow's put me in a very happy mood. It uplifts my spirits in a way I'm not sure how to explain.


Have mercy, O Lord,
upon the rulers of our land.
Remember all people—
the poor, the needy,
and afflicted ones of the earth.
(D&C 109:54-55)
Hugo picked me up after class, and as we drove home, Obama was taking the presidential oath of office on NPR. Unexpectedly, I found myself getting a little teary.

I have no illusions that things are going to magically get better now. But the inauguration gives me a feeling of hope for the country I'd kind of forgotten what it's like to feel. So much about the past eight years has been depressing and infuriating. I remember the night Bush gave his speech before Congress announcing his intention to invade Afghanistan, and Congress unanimously rolling belly-up so Democrats could show the country they were good cheering flag-waving patriots. Afterward I left the house and walked up to the Salt Lake Cemetery, a few blocks away, and stood in the front of the big crucifix in the Catholic cemetery to rage quietly at Jesus in the dark.

Not that I can be sure things would have been different if we'd had a different president. The point is: For the past eight years I've felt like the country's been trapped under bad government, and now we finally have a chance for something better. It's a good feeling. God give our new rulers wisdom!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Today is the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an annual event of the World Council of Churches. It runs from January 18, which used to be a feast day associated with Peter, to January 25, which is the feast that commemorates the conversion of Paul. For Friday of this coming week, I'm organizing the monthly Taize service held by the Episcopal church Hugo and I attend (Taize refers to a meditative style of devotion involving repetitive singing and long periods of silence), and I'm bending the theme of that service toward Christian unity, the enduring hope that historical divisions among Christians will be overcome.

By a curious kind of coincidence—of the kind that my former spiritual mentor Michael Chase would have insisted isn't a coincidence at all—the scriptural theme for this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the passage in Ezekiel 37 about the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph becoming one, the passage Mormons have used as a prooftext about the Bible and the Book of Mormon. (Do they still do that, or have enough people in high places finally learned how to read in context that correlation has quietly backed away from that embarrassing misreading?) Apparently the team in charge of creating this year's worship resources for the Week of Prayer is Korean, and they liken Ezekiel's prophecy about the reunification of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the longed-for reunification of their own country, which in turn is being taken as a type of the unification of Christians. The coincidence of their using an old Mormon prooftext as their theme creates an odd kind of connection to the material for me.

It occurs to me that there's also an odd coincidence (an uncomfortable one) in that I'm beginning my observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity immediately after a week in which I've been reflecting on Joseph Smith's First Vision, with its thorny passage—thorny even to progressively orthodox Latter-day Saints—about all other churches being wrong, their creeds an abomination, their professors all corrupt, etc.

But let's not go there, except to say that that passage represents the kind of interreligious exclusivity and hostility I'll be praying against this week. I'm thinking that my devotion for the week will be to recite an adapted rosary each morning. I'll start with the Apostles Creed (which even an orthodox Mormon could assent to, if in the line "I believe in the holy catholic church," you understand "catholic" to mean "universal," as in open to all people, male and female, black and white, etc.). I'll use the Lord's Prayer at the usual points. And then in place of the Hail Mary, I'll repeat the injunction from D&C 38:27, "I say to you, Be one; and if you are not one, you are not mine."

I'm looking forward to this: in the past, I've found using the rosary this way to be a fruitful meditative experience. I'll pick a short verse of LDS scripture to repeat for the decades (the five sets of ten beads where Catholics pray the Hail Mary), and the concentrated repetition of the verse becomes a way of reflecting and opening myself up to whatever the Spirit might have to say.


One final thing before I go do my first rosary recitation of the week: I give thanks for the ceasefire in Gaza and the beginning of the Israeli pullout. I pray for the international attempt now underway at working out a long-term peace. In Christ's name, amen.

Joseph prays for wisdom: A fable

The subject of this week's reading was the First Vision. My reflection this week is a sort of fable.


Some time in the second year after Joseph Smith's family moved to Manchester, there was in the place where he lived an unusual excitement on the subject of gay marriage. The New York Court of Appeals had recently ruled in favor of allowing gays to be married by the state, and many of the sects in that region of the country immediately raised a cry and tumult, calling for the state constitution to be revised so as to restrict marriage to the union of a man and a woman. This created no small stir and division among the people, some contending in favor of gay marriage and some against. A great strife of words and contest about opinions ensued, with one side accusing the other of being motivated by prejudice and hate, while that side insisted that gay marriage would destroy the very fabric of society.

Joseph was at this time in his fifteenth year. His father's family had been proselyted by Latter-day Saint missionaries, and four of them had joined that church, namely, his mother, Lucy; his brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and his sister Sophronia. Joseph had been attending meetings of the Methodists as often as occasion would permit; but he too decided to be baptized into the LDS Church, partly for love of his mother and also because the teaching and the community among LDS members gave him a warm feeling.

During this time of great excitement over gay marriage, Joseph's mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness. The Methodists had been divided over issues related to homosexuality, but the leaders of the LDS Church were unanimously and forcefully opposed to gay marriage. There was much preaching on that subject in ward meetings, with members being exhorted to dedicate their time and means to campaign for the proposition that would revise the constitution to ban gay marriage. Outside the church, however, other parties were equally zealous in endeavoring to persuade the public to vote against the proposition. The feelings that each party's arguments evoked in Joseph were deep and poignant. He felt he ought to take direction from the leaders of the church to which he had committed himself; yet it also seemed to him that the campaign against gay marriage had led to the expression of much bad feeling against gay people on the part of church members. But so great were the confusion and strife on this issue that it was impossible for Joseph to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong, or what he ought to do.

One day, while he was laboring under the difficulties caused by the contests of these parties, Joseph read James 1:5. The passage spoke to his heart with great power. He reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, he did; for how to act, he did not know, and unless he could get more wisdom than he had, he would never know. At length he came to the conclusion that he must either remain in confusion, or else he must do as James directed. He determined to "ask of God," concluding that if God gave wisdom to those who lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, then he might venture.

In accordance with this determination, he retired to the woods to make the attempt. Having looked around, and finding himself alone, Joseph knelt down and began to offer up the desires of his heart to God.

The first intimation of the spirit of revelation came to him as a sudden stroke of an idea, a feeling of pure intelligence flowing into him. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of his heart. He knew as surely as he knew that he lived that the campaign to ban gay marriage was inhumane and unchristian, a work of fear and false traditions. He felt a powerful impression that God was doing away with former things and bringing to pass a new thing, shedding abroad new light and new understanding. That idea seemed delicious to him; it made him feel that his mind was being opened, his views expanded, and his soul enlightened. As the experience came to an end, these feelings faded, but Joseph was no longer in doubt about what he needed to do.

A few days after this experience, Joseph was in the company of the local LDS bishop, who wanted Joseph to join other ward members in going door-to-door urging people to vote for the proposition to ban gay marriage. Joseph told the bishop he could not do that in good conscience, and he gave the bishop an account of the experience he had when he prayed. The bishop treated his experience not only lightly but with contempt, saying that Joseph had plainly received his revelation from the wrong source; that personal revelation must always be measured against the teachings of church leaders; that the duty of members was to prepare themselves so that when the leaders speak, the Holy Ghost can confirm to them that what the leaders are saying is true; that the Lord would never allow church leaders to lead the church astray. The thought came to Joseph that if all this were true, then the apostle James ought to have advised those who seek wisdom, not to ask of God, but to search the teachings of church leaders, since that is where people would have to go in the end anyway to determine if the wisdom they thought they had received from God were truly of God. But Joseph did not want to contend with the bishop, so he said nothing.

Joseph soon found, however, that his telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against him in the ward. Other members became distant toward him. Remarks were made from the pulpit regarding the duty to follow church leaders and the arrogance of presuming to know better than those whom God had appointed to receive revelation. Joseph was even called in by the stake president, who warned him that if he spoke out publicly against the campaign to ban same-sex marriage, he could be subjected to discipline, perhaps leading to his being cast out from among the Saints.

This was a cause of great sorrow to Joseph. It caused him serious reflection how strange it was that with so many church members united in support of the campaign, his one voice of dissent should be thought of sufficient importance to attract attention, and in such a manner as to create a spirit of bitterness toward him. But all this did not destroy the reality of Joseph's experience. He knew what the Spirit had communicated to him. He knew it was true, and he knew that God knew it, and he could not deny it, nor could all the world make him think or believe otherwise.

He had now got his mind satisfied as far as this issue was concerned. He did not know how, exactly, the reality of his personal revelation was to be reconciled with the Church's teachings about following the leaders as living prophets. But he knew it was not his duty to join with other church members in support of the proposition to ban gay marriage, but to continue as he was in the confidence that someday there would be greater understanding. He had found the testimony of James to be true—that a person who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided. Not upbraided by God, anyway.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

D&C 6:20

As I explained in an earlier post, I want to experiment this year with ways of meditating on the scriptures other than through sustained written reflections. This week's reflection is an "icon" I drew based on D&C 6:20, one of the passages in the scripture chain that was the assigned reading for Lesson 2 of the Sunday School curriculum. D&C 6 is a favorite of mine—it contains a number of passages through which the Spirit speaks to me rather powerfully.

I'm not an artist, as you can see; but I hope the image conveys something of what this passage communicates to me emotionally and imaginatively (conceptually).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus has died

A few minutes ago, I was working on a conference paper related to my dissertation research (evangelical interfaith dialogues with Mormons and Catholics), and I popped online to check some biographical info for Richard John Neuhaus—and as I'm looking at the Wikipedia article on him, I suddenly find myself reading a line about his death date. I think, "I didn't know Neuhaus was dead—that must not have happened too long ago." And then it registers that according to what I'm reading, he died January 8, 2009. That's today. He died about three hours ago, and already someone has updated his Wikipedia entry.

Apart from being rather wonderstruck by how quickly information gets disseminated and recorded in the Internet age, I'm feeling this odd sense of . . . I don't know, a little bit of disorientation. My world just changed in a kind of small but permanent way. A man who embodied much of what I oppose about conservative Christian politics, a man whose influence hurt people I identify with (I'm thinking of the academic freedom controversies at BYU), a man who is going to be a peripheral character in my dissertation, is suddenly gone.

I have mixed feelings about that. It's a foretaste, I suppose, of what I will experience when Boyd K. Packer finally dies. There's an embittered part of me that's thinking vindictive, petty things I shouldn't commit to writing. And there's a kind of condescending part of me that feels like I can better afford to be more generous toward him now that he's dead. A more genuinely charitable part of me is conscious that his death is for many people a cause of grief, and a still small voice is chastening me to be sensitive to that.

Whatever I think—thought—of his politics and life's work, Richard Neuhaus has gone home to that God who gave him life, according to Alma 40. I trust, I hope, I think I can even sincerely say that I pray, that he is, as we speak, being enveloped in the arms of God's love. I'm not going to try to pretend that I love him, even in a condescending, wearing-my-love-for-my-enemies-on-my-sleeve kind of way. But his Heavenly Parents love him, and I hope that he is in a position to experience that.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


Today is Epiphany. Liturgically speaking, Christmas officially ended yesterday, January 5 (the proverbial twelfth day of Christmas). Epiphany commemorates the Magi's visit to the Christ Child, taken as symbolic of Christ's revelation as the manifestation of God's love for all people, not only to his own tribe. Given that theme, it strikes me as especially appropriate to be praying on this day for a truce in Gaza.

My eyes have seen your salvation,
     which you have prepared before the face of all people—
a light to lighten the Gentiles,
     and the glory of your people Israel.
(Luke 2:30-32)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

D&C 1: My "hopeview"

Setting aside verse 30—which makes every liberal Mormon squirm and prompts even a good number of progressively orthodox Mormons to do a little interpretive tapdancing to reduce the offense to other Christians—D&C 1 pretty much encapsulates my worldview. Or perhaps I should say more accurately (especially in light of last night's angry, gloomy post about the Israeli ground offensive), it encapsulates my "hopeview."

We're told in this section that the human race has broken God's covenant (v. 15). We are not living in relationship with God and one another in the way God intends. Instead of seeking to "establish [the Lord's] righteousness"—I'm thinking, love of God and neighbor, justice, mercy, Zion—people seek their own interests and material aggrandizement (v. 16). The result is that we are bringing upon ourselves "calamity" (v. 17)—I'm thinking, war, global poverty, economic collapse, environmental degradation. God, knowing this and desiring to prevent it, raises up prophets (vv. 17-18)—an entire community of disciples, actually, who are commissioned and empowered to raise "a voice of warning" to all people (vv. 4-5). Part of that message of warning is that in the day of judgment, we will recieve whatever we have seen fit to mete out to others: "the Lord shall . . . measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man" (v. 10).

Let's linger over vv. 17-18 again. We read that God called on Joseph Smith and gave him commandments—and also to others. It's possible that Smith intends that simply as a reference to the revelations he gave to his followers. But the words are capable of other readings, and I read them as indicating that God has raised up prophetic voices besides Smith in the effort to avert calamity, the large-scale suffering humans inflict on themselves and one another. I'm thinking, say, Oscar Romero. Gustavo Gutierrez. Desmond Tutu. Rachel Carson. Al Gore, annoying though he may be.

In vv. 19-28, we're given a list of objectives, as it were, for the divine work we call the Restoration, this raising up in our time of new prophetic voices and an empowered community of disciples:
  • That the weak things of the world will break down the mighty and strong.
  • That everyone might speak in the name of God—that everyone might be an inspired, prophetic mouthpiece.
  • That faith—hope, confidence for a better future—will increase on earth.
  • That God's covenant will be reestablished—that human beings will live in loving relationship with God and one another in the way we were meant to.
  • That the weak and simple will proclaim God's message of judgment and a better way through all the world and particularly to those who govern.
  • That by receiving revelation "from time to time," God's servants can grow out of error into greater wisdom, humility, and a more perfect understanding of God's will.
That's a set of objectives to which I can shout a hearty "Amen! May it be!" That's the work I want to be a part of.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Israeli ground offensive in Gaza

Israel has launched its threatened ground offensive into Gaza. This is going to be very bad—but, of course, Israel's just doing things the American way.

I'm certainly not inclined to take a stand with Hamas. On the other hand, Israel is unquestionably the more powerful force here and had already inflicted the greater number of casualties even before the ground assault began. As I understand the Hebrew Bible—which is one of my sacred texts, too—if we're going to talk about God standing on anyone's side in this conflict, he's not going to be siding with the most powerful.


God of the nations—

I feel like I should pray, but I really don't know what to pray for.
Peace. That sounds so f------ hollow.
A pox on both their houses, is more what I'm feeling right now.

I pray for civilians on both sides, but especially for the Palestinians, who are the most vulnerable.
I don't know what the hell it means to pray for that under the circumstances.
I guess I'm saying that I hope deaths and maiming and hunger and damage to houses and hospitals and schools and water mains and other vital infrastructre will be "minimal." Whatever that's supposed to mean.

All right, here's what I want:
I want this conflict to be over right now.
I want Israel to back the f--- off and stop reacting disproportionately to the Palestinian threat in ways that just exacerbate the problem.
I want Palestinians to stop supporting f------ terrorist regimes.
I want militant Arabs and Muslims to accept Israel's right to exist so we can move beyond that already.
I want my country's government to stop funding Israel's military until that country's government shows a real political will for peace and the creation of a Palestinian state.

I'm angry, and swearing, because I find the situation so hopeless.
And I'm feeling so invested in this conflict, as opposed to others, because I know that my country shares responsibility for this mess.

I don't know what good this does, but you're the one who asks us to pray, so here you have it.

In Christ's name, amen.