Thursday, June 29, 2017

Ten years of mystical visions and cosmic vibrations!

Wow, it's been ten years to the day since my first post on this blog. I never would have guessed I'd've kept this thing going that long (not that I've been particularly good at keeping it up recently . . . sorry).

Easily my most popular post of all time is the one about the MLK Jr. Sermon "But If Not" which is linked from the youtube video I put up of it (the video has almost half a million views by now!). But I also still get hits on my analysis of Rapper's Delight from way back in 2008, which is fun.

Anyhoo, that's about all I have to say today.

So here's to another ten years!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Standing as a Witness of God at All Times — A Sacrament Meeting Talk

The below is a (more polished) version of a talk I gave on April 23, 2017, in the Arlington 2nd Ward of the McLean Virginia Stake. I hope someone finds it helpful in some way.

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In John 14:18, just before his passion and crucifixion, we read that Jesus said he wouldn’t leave his disciples alone: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” My topic is standing as a witness of God at all times. This can be a hard task because we sometimes we feel that we are alone; we don’t feel like we can see or experience God, and so how can we witness of him?

Interestingly, the Bible is not univocal regarding the ability for humans to see God. Compare Exodus 33:11 (“the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend”) with John 1:18 (“No man hath seen God at any time”), for one example of this. Obviously Mormons believe that God can be seen [1], but I’m not interested here in arguing that we’re right on this point of doctrine.  I think the Bible is teaching us something deeper here with these mixed messages, because we all have times when we can’t “see” God or feel his presence as well as at other times. Apparently, for some scriptural authors, God felt more distant than for others. So it is in different seasons in our own lives.

This existential loneliness, when heaven feels far, can happen for a variety of reasons and in many different ways. I myself suffer from bouts of serious depression from time to time, a situation where chemical imbalances in my brain tell me lies like that I’m a failure or worthless. As Elder Holland memorably described it in his most recent conference talk [2], sometimes there are songs I just can’t find the ability to sing. This kind of affliction requires professional counseling—and, when appropriate, medication—before the fog lifts.

Another form of loneliness can come from being a minority in church, whether racial or otherwise. For example, I had a friend at BYU who is gay, and he told me that for a long time he felt like he was the only gay student on campus—and BYU has 33,000 students! (Spoiler alert: he wasn’t the only one.) He obviously felt very alone at that time. Fortunately, he was able to find the Matis family firesides [3], where LGBT youth were welcomed and loved as they are and were provided gospel messages.

One other way I’ll mention when we can feel alone is when, through no fault of our own, we’re in the midst of a faith crisis, or dark night of the soul, where what we thought we knew is suddenly all in flux, or we are met with stony silence from the heavens. My mom recently finished reading a collection of Mother Teresa's letters [4] and told me about how she (Mother Teresa) famously went years between spiritual experiences at times even though she was doing deeply Christlike work. She didn't let that affect her faith, but I can only imagine how hard it must have been.

My message today is that even in difficult times, even when it feels otherwise, we are not alone. We are visited by Jesus as he promised. This happens in at least two ways. Sometimes fellow men and women act as instruments in Jesus’s hands. As Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “As we emulate His perfect example, our hands can become His hands; our eyes, His eyes; our heart, His heart.” [5]

As Jeffrey R. Holland said in another General Conference talk, “when we speak of those who are instruments in the hand of God, we are reminded that not all angels are from the other side of the veil. Some of them we walk with and talk with—here, now, every day. Some of them reside in our own neighborhoods. . . . Indeed heaven never seems closer than when we see the love of God manifested in the kindness and devotion of people so good and so pure that angelic is the only word that comes to mind.” [6]

Friends, family, home teachers, someone sitting beside me in the pews—all at some time or another have acted as Jesus’s hands in reaching out, embracing, and comforting me. That’s one way to be a witness of God—when I can’t “see” God, I often encounter witnesses of God’s reality and love. Unconditional love is always the best response to these problems, and I’m grateful for that grace.

But perhaps Jesus comes to me at least as often through the needs of friends and neighbors. Note that in A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief [7], Jesus appears as someone in need of service, not someone serving. But in serving that person, in the human connection that is formed through service, there is divinity. As the Gospel of Les Mis teaches, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” [8] This creates a beautiful interdependence, because in reality we are all always in both camps: those suffering, and those able to provide succor.

By the same token, if Jesus comes to us in the weary and downtrodden, we need to be willing to be vulnerable like he was. We need to be a little less protective of ourselves and be more willing to lay bare our own fears, worries, and insecurities to those around us at appropriate times. That is scary. But it is Christlike, too.

Christ was given the opportunity to save himself from suffering. He could have come down from the cross, he could have stopped the gruesome pain at any point. But he didn’t. He bled and died. Because of his love for us. Much of his power is in his vulnerability. He wasn't the conquering hero many expected him to be. He did not prevent his pain, he commanded that it be preached to the world.

Latter-day scripture paints this same picture with regard to Heavenly Father. In Moses 7, we read of Enoch’s vision of God. “And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” God ultimately responds “wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing [all those of God's children who] shall suffer?” [9]

We need to let others see the suffering Christ in us, and let them bind up our wounds and heal our brokenness. Sometimes those around us are directly inspired to know what to say or do before we say anything, but it’s my belief that we’ll get more miracles if we’re willing to speak up and ask for them. As the hymn states, “In the quiet heart is hidden / Sorrow that the eye can't see.” [10]

One of the most moving accounts of this openness and vulnerability in Mormon history that I’m aware of comes from Jane Manning James. She was a free black woman from Connecticut who converted to the church in 1842 and walked 800 miles from New York to Nauvoo, Illinois, and was welcomed to the city by Joseph Smith himself. She later walked across the plains to Salt Lake City. After the Salt Lake temple was constructed, she petitioned for permission to be endowed in the temple, an ordinance that at the time was not allowed for black people. She wrote to church president John Taylor, “God promised Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth should be blessed. As this is the fullness of all dispensations, is there no blessing for me?” [11] Her exceeding faith would not be rewarded until well after her death, when she received her endowment by proxy in 1979. Although she did not see all the blessings she sought in her own lifetime, her testimony endures and is an example for us all to speak up for what we need.

Another of my favorite examples of speaking our minds is found in the Old Testament. In Numbers chapter 27, we read of the daughters of a man named Zelophehad. Their names were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. Under the Mosaic law, only sons could inherit property, but Zelophehad didn’t have any sons. So the daughters of Zelophehad came to Moses and asked for an inheritance in the promised land. Moses asked God what to do, and God said “The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: thou shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them.” God went on to amend the law to explicitly include daughters when it came to inheritances. [12] Thank goodness for people who recognize an injustice and speak up! This too is being a witness of God.

To close, I love the scripture I was given to talk on. It states that part of entering the church community means being “willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and [to] comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death.” [13]  This describes Zion to me, and I’ve seen glimpses of it coming to pass in my life. I know we can do better at it, but I think we’re all striving beautifully to make it a lived reality right now, and for that I am eternally grateful.

My prayer is that we can be more Christlike, both in serving those in need and willing to be served as ones in need. I hope we can all be witnesses of Christ, reflecting his love for all and seeking out ways to forge deeper, more meaningful connections with all those we meet. I know that doing so will bring us closer to God and to each other. I am thankful for the scriptures which all testify of Christ and point us toward living a life like his. I pray that we can learn more and more from these lessons written for us, and always strive to be witnesses of God at all times.

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[1] Viz. the First Vision and Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-23, among others.
[2] Jeffrey R. Holland, Songs Sung and Unsung, April 2017 General Conference. See also Like A Broken Vessel.
[3] Parents of Stuart Matis, a young gay Mormon who infamously died by suicide in 2000. If you're feeling suicidal, don't hesitate to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or online chat. The Trevor Project also focuses on LGBTQ youth and suicide prevention. You're not alone.
[4] Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.
[5] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, "You Are My Hands", April 2010 General Conference.
[6] Jeffrey R. Holland, The Ministry of Angels, October 2008 General Conference.
[7] #29 in your hymnals, #1 in your hearts.
[8] Les Miserables, Epilogue [and if you don't like the 2012 film version, well forget you].
[9] Moses 7:28-29, 37.
[10] Lord, I Would Follow Thee, Hymns #220.
[11] Alice Faulkner Burch, Black Women in the LDS Church and the Role of the Genesis Group, Mormon Historian’s Association: Mormon Women’s History Initiative Team Annual Breakfast
Snowbird, Saturday, 11 June 2016. See also Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons (2008) [extended trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0S4gOqkxPQ].
[12] Numbers 27:1-11 (the quote is from verse 7).
[13] Mosiah 18:9.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Politics is What You Can Get Away With

I have a coffee mug with an Andy Warhol quote that I really like: "Art is what you can get away with." I was reminded of it today as President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

Viewed alone, I don't have a problem with Gorsuch. I mean, I disagree with a lot of his stances, and I certainly wouldn't nominate him, but he's clearly exceptionally qualified for the job and is not a nut.

But I don't think we can look at him in isolation. He has to be seen in the context of another eminently qualified jurist recently nominated to the Court: Merrick Garland. Republicans took the unprecedented step of simply refusing to even hold hearings on Pres. Obama's last nominee for almost an entire year. They hobbled the Court with an empty seat just because they could. They even hinted that they wouldn't have allowed Hillary Clinton to put someone on the bench either! For them, politics was what they could get away with. And they got away with it.

I don't know if it would be wise for Democrats to gum up the works for all four years of Trump/Pence (assuming they could--I doubt they would be disciplined enough to actually do it even if some tried). And yet, that seat on the Court, by all rights, should be Garland's. It's really frustrating to reward Republicans for their churlish behavior. But permanently hobbling the Court into 4-4 splits on fractious issues isn't a great way to govern, either.

Basically, it sucks. But I guess that's part and parcel of having Mr. Trump as president. Ugh.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Top 10 Hamiltunes

Because I am a sheeple, I must also make a list of my 10 favorite songs from Hamilton. And if you haven't listened to the soundtrack yet, you really, seriously, no joke need to stop reading this and do so right this second. With that out of the way: onwards.

10. Say No to This [catchy, and perfect fall-from-grace song]
9. You'll Be Back [can't really pick between these songs by King George, but being first and having the great line about "I'll send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love" puts it over the top for me]
8. Cabinet Battle #2 [hard to pick between them, but I go with this one because of Hamilton's passion, though I do love the line "A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor / Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor" from #1]
7. Aaron Burr, Sir [dat line about tha bursar doe]
6. Non-Stop [great pump-up music]
5. Satisfied [Angelica is one of my favorite characters in the show, and this song is why]
4. It's Quiet Uptown [perfect sadness. "Forgiveness -- can you imagine?"]
3. My Shot ["A-L-E-X-A-N-D-E-R" foreva. also, the foreshadowing pun on the phrase "throwing away my shot". and of course young/scrappy/hungry.]
2. Alexander Hamilton [this one probably wins the award for being stuck in my head the most. Amazing how it packs his entire young life into a compelling rap.]
1. Wait for It [love the progression in this -- love, death, life -- and the melody and those harmonies and the message and everything]


Honorable mentions: Hurricane, Burn, Ten Duel Commandments, That Would Be Enough, Take A Break, One Last Time, The World Was Wide Enough--any of these could really have been in the top ten if I made this list on another day. I don't think any of my top 7 would get swapped out for these, but 8-10 are up for grabs.

And now if you haven't already, jump down the rabbit hole that is the genius.com annotations to the lyrics--including some by Mr. Miranda himself!

Agree? Disagree? I want to hear your list.

Monday, February 22, 2016

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Smith Last Night

I'm semi-obsessed with the song Joe Hill, and figured what the hey, why not re-work it to be about Joe Smith? I liked the Mormon connection in the original with Salt Lake, and of course the name fits perfectly (albeit with what's usually considered a pejorative form of Smith's name). I'm not much with lyrics, but this was still fun to tinker with. In the spirit of folk music, feel free to take what you like and fix what you don't.
I dreamed I saw Joe Smith last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're decades dead,"
"I never died," says he.
"I never died," says he. 
"The blackface lynchers killed you, Joe,
"They shot you, Joe," says I.
"Takes more than mobs to kill a man,"
Says Joe "I didn't die,"
Says Joe "I didn't die." 
"In Carthage, Joe," says I to him,
Him standing by my bed,
"They shot you through the chest!"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead,"
Says Joe, "But I ain't dead."
And blazing there as bright as fire,
His eyes with pure love filled,
Says Joe "What they can never kill,
"Went on to Zion build,
"Went on to Zion build."
"Joe Smith ain't dead," he says to me,
"Joe Smith ain't never died.
"Where seekers pray to God for light,
"Joe Smith is at their side,
"Joe Smith is at their side." 
"In Kirkland, Nauvoo, Deseret,
"In every holy myth,
"Where children reach to God in faith,
"It's there you'll find Joe Smith,
"It's there you'll find Joe Smith."
I dreamed I saw Joe Smith last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, "But Joe, you're decades dead,"
"I never died," says he.
"I never died," says he.

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The original lyrics (or at least, the version of them I based mine off of), is available here:
A song by Alfred Hayes, Music by Earl Robinson ©1938 by Bob Miller, Inc. 
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you're ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he 
In Salt Lake, Joe, says I to him
Him standing by my bed
They framed you on a murder charge
Says Joe, But I ain't dead
Says Joe, But I ain't dead 
The copper bosses killed you, Joe
They shot you, Joe, says I
Takes more than guns to kill a man
Says Joe, I didn't die
Says Joe, I didn't die 
And standing there as big as life
And smiling with his eyes
Joe says, What they forgot to kill
Went on to organize
Went on to organize 
Joe Hill ain't dead, he says to me
Joe Hill ain't never died
Where working men are out on strike
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side 
From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill
Where workers strike and organize
Says he, You'll find Joe Hill
Says he, You'll find Joe Hill 
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you or me
Says I, But Joe, you're ten years dead
I never died, says he
I never died, says he 
And my two favorite versions are by Pete Seeger:


and Paul Robeson:

Monday, February 15, 2016

On Justice Scalia's Passing--Civility and Pain, and Making Room For Both

My immediate reaction to the news of Justice Scalia's sudden death was, like many people's, incredulity. That soon gave way to trying to think through the judicial and political effects this will have in a presidential election year. But many conflicted feelings quickly followed, too.

Let's get this out of the way: Scalia was a very polarizing guy. I disagreed with a significant portion* of his votes on the high-profile cases that make headlines, and I found some of his assumptions about how to interpret the constitution maddening. I believe that he stood in the way of significant social progress on racism, women's rights, LGBT rights, reproductive justice, and a host of other important issues. And the way he expressed his opinions--disdainful of the other side's reasoning, often sardonic, and (perhaps most painfully) very witty--didn't help make the disagreement go down any easier. (Which is a good thing, in that it certainly made me consider his and my positions more deeply.)

But all that being said, I don't think anyone who has known him (not that I did) has been of the opinion that he was anything other than brilliant, too. His writing was the most persuasive of any Justice on the Court today. He knew what he was talking about and he had many, many ardent supporters. He was a human being, with all his flaws and triumphs.

Which made it hard to read some of the pieces from fellow liberals. Most of the experiences I read from people on the left were, at their kindest, along the lines of "I'm certainly not glad a human being died . . . but he was getting in the way of progress, so . . ." And some explicitly began by stating they would be "speak[ing] ill of the dead"--and with "great enthusiasm and passion" at that! The Onion (which I absolutely adore) had an uncomfortably glib headline up within an hour or so of the news breaking.

My personality gravitates much more towards Justice Ginsburg's touching perspective, which noted that while she and Scalia "disagreed now and then," the disagreement was always very cordial and, ultimately, helped strengthen Ginsburg's own opinions. She even said she and Scalia were "best buddies" for decades, as has been well documented. I want there to be robust debate on important policy questions, but always with civility and respect for the human beings--the children of God, our siblings--on the other side of every issue.

And yet. When I said I disagreed with his stances on race, women's rights, LGBT rights, and reproductive justice, to name a few--those are all things that I have the luxury of considering academically. Fox News's bluster to the contrary, there's no such thing as reverse racism or a culture of oppressing white people in this country today (and there isn't going to be one in the future, either). I will never have to worry about whether my gender will be an issue with old boys' clubs at work. I'm not gay, bi, or trans, and my marriage in Nevada in 2014 went forward without a hitch even when other loving couples couldn't get married there. I will never have to worry personally about whether I would need an abortion, and if so, whether I would have access to a safe one. Most of the things I disagreed with Scalia about weren't personal for me. (I'm a big fan of "ask not for whom the bell tolls"-type stuff, but there's obviously a real distinction between your own life and body being oppressed or harmed versus experiencing that pain via empathy.)

Because of that, I don't feel entirely comfortable feeling uncomfortable with the posts that are not sad about Scalia's death. How many Mormons were willing to respect government authorities--whether in Missouri in the 1830s or the federal government in the 1880s--and peacefully, respectfully debate with them when they felt persecuted? While we (white people) may tend today to prefer (and caricature) Martin Luther King as the "good" civil rights leader, I can't find it in me to argue that Malcolm X, who was willing to stand up and defend himself, his family, and his people by any means necessary, was wrong. I think I can fall victim to smugness in a lot of ways myself, and one would be to glibly dismiss the real pain that Scalia's actions inflicted (and continues to inflict) on many vulnerable people in this country. I should feel uncomfortable--if not more--about that.

So I'm sad Scalia died. I didn't like his jurisprudence. I recognize his first-rate mind. I hated the real-world effects of (many of*) his decisions. I was moved by Justice Ginsburg's tribute to her friend. I honor the pain of those Justice Scalia hurt, and will not say they shouldn't feel that way or that they need to be "nicer" about it, not when it's something I can consider from my privileged perch. It's complicated.

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* To be fair, he sided with the more liberal members of the court on a number of criminal procedure issues (and probably some other issues I'm not aware of/am forgetting at the moment). I appreciate that he was principled.

Update - Also, here's a taste of some of his complexities:



(Part 2 is here)

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Racial Diversity in the Quorum of the Twelve is Important--and Worth Caring About Today (Part 3)

Quick recap: I'm riffing on a post by George Handley about concerns some Mormons have expressed about the fact that the three new apostles sustained at last week's general conference are all white Americans. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here. This is the final entry in this mini-series.

Like I said in Part 1, I really liked Handley's discussion of revelation:
Revelation involves reasoning, but it is ultimately unpredictable and sometimes flies in the face of reason. That is not to say that it is unreasonable, of course, but in my experience it rarely matches our most rational expectations. While this can be challenging at times, if we think about it (rationally of course!), this is as it should be. If revelation always came in direct harmony with our expectations, then we could hardly call it revelation at all. It would be indistinguishable from the result of human deliberation and casting a vote. While such deliberation is essential to reaching greater understanding in a democratic society, in the church we seek revelation by combining the needs and thoughts of a group with our faith in a higher power. This does not mean we put reason aside but it does mean that we have to trust in a higher authority than in our own individual or even our collective wisdom.
I agree that any meaningful understanding of revelation requires humility--the seeker/receiver by definition does not know the answer until revelation comes. It must at times differ from what we would otherwise do relying on our own wits. I think that's simple but profound, and needs to be kept in mind more often (speaking for myself, at least).

And I agree that if one believes the prophet is a prophet (and that being a prophet has some real, priesthood-y, revelatory meaning to it, however defined in the details), then you are under an obligation to seriously consider the things he says and give them a presumption of correctness. Automatically discounting anything they say that contradicts your priors means you don't really believe they're prophets.

However, by the same token, if you don't believe that leaders are infallible (which Mormons don't shouldn't), then that presumption of correctness should not become irrebuttable.  In other words, if personal revelation is to be meaningful when institutional revelation exists, there have to be some times when your personal revelation is not 100% in accord with institutional stances. Because leaders are fallible, blindly obeying everything they say means you'd be believing/doing some things that aren't right (or at least not 100% right). [1]

Ultimately, I think if we're doing all this in good faith--being willing to humble ourselves to revelation that goes against our mortal preferences, but also being willing to seek personal revelation for church issues that trouble us--then we're a much stronger community. Disagreeing with a systematic problem in the church and trying to constructively and properly change it (however those terms are defined) is a Good Thing as far as I'm concerned. [2]

Consider the words of Dallin H. Oaks:
Revelations from God—the teachings and directions of the Spirit—are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. Fortunately, we are never out of our Savior’s sight, and if our judgment leads us to actions beyond the limits of what is permissible and if we are listening to the still, small voice, the Lord will restrain us by the promptings of his Spirit. [3]
I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility for someone to have felt that it would have been a good idea to call a person of color to the apostleship in this most recent conference--based on personal revelation--and yet to also believe that it was within "the limits of what is permissible" to call the three good, spiritual, capable men who were chosen.

In the end, I strongly believe that it would have been wonderful for the church to have a person of color (or two or three!) in the Quorum of the Twelve by now. I believe that it would be a blessing both substantively--race and ethnicity affect the way we experience life and thus how we experience revelation, so people of color would bring valuable insights to the table--and in the message we send to members and the world about truly valuing all of the diversity that God has created. So yes, I was disappointed that it didn't happen this time, and I do think we still have a systemic (not intentional or mean-spirited, but nonetheless serious) problem with race in the church. But I know we will get men of color in the Quorum of the Twelve, and I have faith that it will be soon. And in the meantime, I sustain Elders Rasband, Stevenson, and Renlund as inspired choices, and I know they will have wonderful things to teach us all.

----------------

[1] How to respond when you disagree with the prophet's/the church's stance on something is a whole separate issue. Clearly it could be the case that while not ideal, the stance is well within the bounds of moving in a general good direction, in which case there might not be any real productivity in disagreeing publicly (an example of this might be someone who disagreed with, say, the missionary age change--not a huge deal even if you think that 18 year olds are a bit too young to be regularly sent out to preach the word). On the other end of the spectrum (say with the priesthood/temple ban for blacks), it might be appropriate in certain situations to speak up and voice concern with the stance. The details of all that are pretty complicated and personal and I certainly don't have them figured out, and anyway they are beyond the scope of this humble blog post.

[2] See, e.g., birth control, evolution, blacks and the temple/priesthood, loving and accepting your LGBTQ family members, etc.

[3] Dallin H. Oaks, "Teaching and Learning by the Spirit," Mar. 1997 Ensign.