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.