Sunday, January 30, 2011

In remembrance

A book of remembrance was written before the Lord
for those who thought on his name.
They will be mine, says the Lord,
in the day that I make up my jewels.
(3 Nephi 24:16-17)
This is my mother’s story, based on my memories of her experiences as I heard her recount them and based on my own observations. This is the “truth wherein [I] know [it]” (D&C 123:13).

Her father was physically abusive and was periodically in jail. I’ll skip those stories: it’s enough to say that she cut him out of her life as an adult. I'm told that I and my next youngest brother met him, but I have no memories of those visits, and they ended within a few years. We phoned my maternal grandmother regularly on holidays, but not my grandfather. I know him only from photos and a tape recording of a visit to him when I was an infant.

My mother joined the LDS Church as a teenager. She hoped that the rest of her family would follow and that they would become the happy family portrayed in church literature. Instead there were fights with pans being thrown around. My impression is that her ward wasn’t very welcoming—a girl from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, so to speak—but she stuck with it.

At a youth fireside, she heard the speaker say that those born in the church were special spirits whom God had sent into LDS families so they would be equipped to build the kingdom. My mother carried from that talk the idea that she was a lesser spirit, a conviction that I imagine her marginalization within her church community must have a reinforced—on top of the abuse she suffered at home, of course. She told me once that she thought she might be the spirit child of one of God’s polygamous wives, not the first, favored wife.

She went to BYU. At one point her mother cut off her funds, and she went a month without eating. She ended up in the hospital and spent time living with a local LDS family while she recovered. She met my father, who was also a teenaged convert. He courted her before and after his mission. She intended to turn him down, but after fasting about it at my father’s request, she heard an audible voice instruct her to marry him, so she did.

She threw herself into raising the privileged spirits God had entrusted to her. She had read the manual Gospel Principles with me by the time I was baptized at age eight, and by the time I was ordained a deacon at age 12, she had worked with me to memorize all the seminary mastery scriptures. We held family home evening regularly, family scripture study, family prayer. For family prayer, we knelt in a circle holding hands and repeated together the words of the person saying the prayer; she wanted us to feel at home when we finally reached the temple. (Her own first temple experience had been very alienating.) We held sunrise services in cemeteries for Easter. We observed the four weeks of Advent. Christmas was the occasion for amazing outputs of creativity on the part of my parents. My continued attachment to Mormonism has much to do with the positive memories—and spiritual experiences—created for me at home.

My mother's aspirations to a model Mormon family unravelled as her sons got older. In different ways we all deviated from the path she had mapped for us, though in the end most of her sons remained active in the church and gave her grandchildren. When I was in high school, one betrayal caused her to break down into a debilitating depression. (Bitter irony: When no one would tell me what was going on, I concluded she must have cancer.) She clawed her way back out, fragile but iron-willed, determined to put her household back in order. She reacted similarly when she discovered I was gay, telling me to leave graduate school and move back home so she could “fix this problem.” I had to put a lot of distance between us in order to have the room to let my life grow in the way I wanted it to. I formally cut off contact in 2001—a big dramatic production—aware of the irony that I was doing to her what she had done to her father, though I don’t know if she ever recognized that irony.

Her cancer prompted a slow, cautious reconciliation, the unspoken terms of which were that big parts of my life remained un-talked about while I expressed more sympathetic interest than I really felt in the church activities that were at the center of her life. This meant that our relationship was constantly feeding an element of dishonesty—like the body feeding a tumor, I suppose—but I consented as a gift to her. And I recognize the concessions she was making to me. On my last visit to her, this past November, we sat on the couch, embracing, and she said that she hoped she hadn’t said anything to make me uncomfortable while I was there. She asked my forgiveness. A decade earlier that would probably have made me feel vindicated, but by that point my thought was simply, “You don’t need to do this.”

Earlier in the visit, as we did the five-kernels-of-corn tradition before Thanksgiving dinner (you say five things you’re grateful for), I had said that while there were things about the church that made me very angry—I could feel the ice cracking under my feet as I said that—I was grateful for the ways it had supported my parents and for the positive influences it had on my upbringing. Even that wasn’t the full truth, though. I don’t know if I could ever have articulated my relationship with Mormonism to my mother in a language she would understand, given her basically fundamentalist way of seeing the world. I don’t intend that to sound pejorative; it’s just the reality of how she was raised as someone who passed through a succession of evangelically oriented Protestant churches growing up.

She approached cancer the same dogged way she approached “fixing” her wayward family. It was not the life she had hoped for; it was not the life she had trusted God to give her; and she hoped at first she would be able to wrestle it back onto the track she wanted it to run on. In the end, she had to reconcile herself to being carried whither she would not.

I hope she was met by her Heavenly Parents, and I hope they made her know she was acceptable and had been all along.


I assume the guilt driving this narrative screams loud and clear.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My mother's death

My mother died last night—I got the call around 11:30 p.m., and I knew as soon as the phone rang, "This is it." It was the end of a long fight (but I detest that metaphor) with cancer that first began several years ago when I was still living in Salt Lake City.

I feel an impulse to talk about this, but I don't know what to say. I'll say at least this for now: It was a shitty way to die. She was peaceful at the end, I'm told—spiritually as well as physically. But it's been a terrible, terrible process of her body going haywire and devouring itself. I've spent months wishing she would just let go already so she wouldn't suffer anymore. She was on hospice for a year. I hope she accomplished or obtained whatever she wanted with that time. And I hope that I provided what she wanted from me during that time.

As usual with me, I'm more angry than sad, though I'm both.


Now the time of liberation has come;
and my redeemed will declare
the loving-kindness of their Lord,
and all that he has bestowed upon them
according to his everlasting goodness.

In all their afflictions, he was afflicted.
The angel of his presence intervened for them.
And in his love, he bore them
and carried them all their days.

(Adapted from D&C 133:52-53)


The gaping chasm between those words and the lived reality of my mother's horrible decline is faith.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

It is finished

It has been made known to me by an angel
that the spirits of all people
as soon as they have departed from this mortal body
are taken home to that God who gave them life

a state of rest
a state of peace
where they shall rest
from all their troubles
and from all care
and sorrow

all things shall be restored
to their proper and perfect frame

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


People keep assuring me that she is at peace, comfortable, calm, etc.
I have to hope that's true.

Last week I called; she'd just finished dinner,
sitting at the kitchen table, which surprised me.
(It had surprised everyone.)
But as we talked, it seemed like it was going to be one of those conversations
where I end up talking as if to a child.
"What did you have for dinner?" I asked,
and I could hear them in the background prompting her what to answer.
Finally she said, "Stroganoff."
And then she kept repeating that as her answer to my next two questions,
which had nothing to do with her dinner.
"Stroganoff." "Stroganoff."
I had reconciled myself to the fact
that we weren't going to have meaningful conversation this time.
And that actually emboldened me
to drop the "talking-to-a-preschooler" voice and
to say something frank I probably would have been hesitant to say otherwise,
since I assumed she wasn't going to understand.
"I hope you're not in pain," I said.
And suddenly, for a moment, it seemed—
seemed, I say, because I don't really know—
that she was lucid.
"No. I'm afraid I am, actually," she said.
It was her regular voice, clear and with all its usual nuances.
I don't remember what I said after that.
Probably nothing. I wouldn't have known what to say.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Power will rest upon you.
I will be with you
and go before your face.
(D&C 39:12)

You are Christ's,
and Christ is God's,
and you will overcome all things.
(D&C 76:60)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon on immigration

Today Hugo and I gave a guest sermon on the issue of immigration. This was my portion of our remarks.


In 2008, there were an estimated 11 million people living in the United States without authorization—illegally. The majority of these, probably over three-fourths, are from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. About three million children living in the U.S. are citizens by virtue of having been born here but live in families where one or both parents is an unauthorized immigrant and therefore liable to deportation. Unauthorized immigrants are believed to make up 5 percent of the country's labor force, working mostly in farming, cleaning, construction, and food preparation. The economic impact of unauthorized immigrants—whether their contributions outweigh the social services they receive—is disputed.

Opposition to illegal immigration has become a more prominent element of American political discourse over the past several years. Concerns have been voiced about drug trafficking and violent crime, identity theft, citizens being crowded out of jobs, and potential threats to national security in a post-9/11 world. Efforts to reduce illegal immigration include constructing a high-tech barrier along much of the U.S.-Mexico border; enlisting police and the National Guard to assist with enforcement; more strictly penalizing employers; firing or deporting undocumented workers; and requiring proof of citizenship for access to social services such as obtaining a driver's license. Recent polls show that a majority of respondents support these efforts.

How should Christians respond to this reality?

Hugo and I aren't here to promote specific policy proposals that we think the people of the Advocate, or the Episcopal diocese of North Carolina, should rally behind. That needs to be the subject of conversation, not a sermon. But we do want to identify the principles that it seems to us ought to guide that conversation for Christians: Compassion. Generosity to people in need. Respect for the dignity of every human being. Loving our neighbor as ourselves.

When someone asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?", he replies with a parable about a Samaritan who goes out of his way to help a stranger—and not just a stranger, a foreigner, a Jew, which in that context means someone who probably despises Samaritans. This parable shows us that when Jesus talks about loving "our neighbor," he means what philosophers would call loving "the Other": the stranger, the foreigner, the enemy. Jesus' teaching is not primarily concerned with our relationships with those who are close to us; he's focused on raising the bar. Where is the virtue, he asks at one point, in loving people who love you? If you open your arms to your kin, how are you doing anything more than what anyone does? But I want you to do more, he tells his followers. I want you to love even your enemies. I want you to be like God, who showers the gifts of sun and rain on everyone, without distinctions (Matt. 5:43-47).

In the ongoing immigration debate, it's easy for Americans to advocate for the interests of American citizens—and certainly those interests are part of the moral and political algorithm we have to apply to this issue. But Jesus calls us to do more: to advocate for the Other, the unpopular or feared foreigner; the "illegals." Again, what that advocacy should look like in terms of specific policy proposals is another conversation to be had. But I think I'm on safe ground in asserting that the crucial task of Christians in the immigration debate is to pull the conversation in the direction of compassion and generosity and safeguarding the human dignity of unauthorized immigrants.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Haiti one year later

Yesterday Hugo and I attended a prayer circle (not the Mormon kind) held in remembrance of the earthquake in Haiti last year. We gathered on a lawn in the center of town, and at 4:53, people rang bells for 35 seconds, the duration of the first tremor.

Patches and Hugo ended up in the local paper. You probably can't see it well, but there's a conch on the ground between Hugo's right knee and the Haitian flag. I brought that with me from Haiti in 2007.

Read the news story.


Where are you, God?
Where are you hiding?
How long must your people cry out
before you will hear
and take action?

Mighty Creator—
open your eyes;
bend your ear;
be moved with compassion;
stretch out your hand;
show yourself.

(adapted from D&C 121:1-2, 4)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Announcing an Episcopal-Mormon liturgy

I'm putting out a shout-out to any liberal Mormon types in the Chapel Hill-Durham area of North Carolina. During the Epiphany season, the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, which Hugo and I have been attending for the past several years, will be using during its Sunday services a formula for the Prayers of the People which I've composed using language adapted from the "Olive Leaf" (D&C 88). I'm excited that they're using it. They used it for the first time in their morning service today; but during the evening service, which is what Hugo and I attend, they had a baptism, so they used a different formula for the prayers as part of the baptismal rite. So I won't actually get to hear the "Olive Leaf" Prayers of the People used until this coming Sunday, January 16.

If you're intrigued to see an ecumenical use of a Latter Day Saint text, I'd encourage you to come by. I understand we'll be using this formula for the Prayers of the People all through the Epiphany season, which runs through the beginning of Lent—so from now until early March. Evening services are held at 5:00 p.m. Directions here.

About these prayers: In Episcopal liturgical practice, the Prayers of the People come in the Sunday liturgy after the sermon. There are certain things that the Book of Common Prayer specifies should be prayed for—the universal church, the leaders of the nations, the needs of the local community, people in all kinds of trouble, the dead—but otherwise congregations have a lot of leeway about how exactly they conduct the prayers. At the Advocate, there are typically biddings followed by silences in which people can voice their petitions.

During the Epiphany season, the liturgy often invokes images of light. So I had the idea a few weeks ago, originally with the first-Friday Taize service in mind, of developing a text for prayers that used language from the "Olive Leaf," which talks a lot about the light of Christ. I didn't realize until later that the Olive Leaf was composed between Christmas 1832 and Epiphany 1833, a fact which makes that text all the more appropriate as a resource for an Epiphany liturgy.

After I composed a version of the prayers, I passed them on to the vicar because she's interested in innovative liturgies, and I wanted to show off some of the liturgical resources I see in the Latter Day Saint tradition. A couple of months ago, she and I were having a conversation about my religious identity, in the course of which I was surprised to realize that she didn't know Mormons consider themselves Christian. So I wanted her to see what this Latter Day Saint text had to say about the light of Christ.

She liked the text and asked if it might be possible to rework it in order to include all the biddings that the Book of Common Prayer prescribes for the Prayers of the People. So I did, and the results are below.

The stanzas that begin "Jesus Christ..." contain language from the "Olive Leaf." I drew from the following verses (though not in this order): D&C 88:5-13, 41, 49-50, 63. The stanzas that begin "Christ our light..." contain the biddings required by the Book of Common Prayer. There's one difference between the text I've pasted below and the text the Advocate is using: the "Olive Leaf" uses the word "abound" in a way that sounds ungrammatical to modern ears, so they've substituted "flourish."


Leader One:
Jesus Christ,
you are the light that is in us,
and we are in you.
In you and by you, we are quickened;
without you, we cannot abound.

Leader Two:
Christ our light, make your church grow in grace and truth.
Pour out your blessings on all who seek after righteousness.

The people add their own petitions.

Leader One:
Jesus Christ,
you are the light that proceeds from the presence of God
to fill the immensity of space—
the light which is in all things,
which gives life to all things,
which is the law by which all things are governed.

Leader Two:
Christ our light, make peace and justice prevail on this earth you have created.
Breathe a spirit of wisdom over the nations and all in authority.

The people add their own petitions.

Leader One:
Jesus Christ,
you are the light of truth.
You are the light of the sun,
the light of the moon,
the light of the stars,
and the power by which they were made.
You are the light that illuminates our eyes
and the light that enlivens our understanding.

Leader Two:
Christ our light, give us eyes to see the needs of our neighbors,
and give us hearts moved to act.
Lift up all who labor in service to others.

The people add their own petitions.

Leader One:
Jesus Christ,
you have ascended above all things,
and you have descended below all things,
so that you might be in all and through all.

Leader Two:
Christ our light, comfort all who suffer and are in trouble.
Wherever there is darkness, make your presence known.

The people add their own petitions.

Leader One:
Jesus Christ,
all things are before you,
and all things are round about you.
You are above all things,
and in all things,
and through all things,
and round about all things;
all things are by you, and of you,
forever and ever.

Leader Two:
Christ our light, we are yours in death as well as in life.
We pray for our dead: may eternal light shine upon them.

The people add their own petitions.

Leader One:
Jesus Christ,
you have promised
that if we seek you, we will find you;
that if we ask, we will receive;
that if we knock, the door will be opened to us.

Leader Two:
Christ our light, we live awash in an ocean of graces.
We thank you for all your gifts.

The people offer their thanksgivings.
The celebrant adds a concluding collect.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Taize service, Epiphany

I led the first-Friday Taize service tonight. Because we've just entered the season of Epiphany, the theme was "Christ our Light." Most of the readings I recycled from previous services: Psalm 67; Isaiah 60:16-20; John 1:1-5, 9-11. I composed new intercessions, though, to go with the theme of light.


Jesus Christ, light of all nations—
make your salvation shine to the ends of the earth.

Jesus Christ, bright morning star—
hasten the day of justice for the poor and the oppressed.

Jesus Christ, dayspring from on high—
renew the earth and restore the waste places.

Jesus Christ, lamp to our feet—
lead us into ways of peace and safety.

Jesus Christ, light of our hearts—
fill us with the love that makes us your true disciples.

Jesus Christ, light in our darkness—
comfort all who are in pain or despair.

Jesus Christ, glorious beyond all we can imagine—
all thanks and praise to you forever.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Little Miss Sunshine

Recovering this evening from a week-long miserable cold (the price to be paid for my winter wonderland Christmas gift), I caught the end of Little Miss Sunshine on cable. I loved this film when I first saw it on DVD a few years back—it reminded me why I miss not being able to attend the Sundance Film Festival like we used to when we lived in Salt Lake. A funny, touching fable about a family supporting one another in their crazy aspirations, even when it hurts, and hobbling to keep things together.

I'm weepy because of the headcold; but Olive's "perp walk" down the corridor to her big dance routine, with her mother calling out the family's support for her, and then the haunting Devotchka song that accompanies their final push-start of the van before the closing credits would probably have been enough to make me cry even without being sick.

This is what "forever families" look like.