Thursday, July 17, 2014

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Thought From Czeslaw Milosz

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother's keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Doubt is a noble thing. …[D]o not think that when I speak as one who knows with certainty that I do not also doubt; do not think, either, that when I doubt I am not also sensing right beside me, close enough to touch them, definite, indisputable things.
-- Czeslaw Milosz

I struggle with a lot of things.

Mormonism is built on knowing:  we are not satisfied with believing what we believe; obedience and study and fasting and prayer enables us to transcend belief, to actually see and know. Christ said that the pure in heart are blessed, for they shall see God, and we take that promise literally.  We are driven by the conviction that with the right amount of effort, with the proper levels of purity, we will have our own Sacred Grove experience.  Faith will end, for we will know.

The problem with that is that it's exhausting, this striving for purity.  It can lead to despair, when you are trying so hard to do right, to be Good, and not only are you not only seeing God; you can't even get Him to answer a prayer.  This is hard work, humbling, exhausting, and soul-stretching work.  Too hard, sometimes.   It's tempting to just slip quietly away.  (One of the things I've discovered, as I'm moved from ten years sitting on the stand to the strange anonymity of being the Former Bishop, is that you can not show up at Church, and nobody even notices.  One missed meeting becomes two, becomes three: I understand how people disappear.)

It's even more tempting to fashion a faux certainty.  We paper over our unkindness and intolerance and veniality with bluster, taking all of our closely held prejudices and calling them The Word of God.  There's no discernible tune in the bleating of our trumpets, but we play 'em loud and with confidence.  Lots of Mormons are wallowing in this goop, this mess of mangled doctrine, crackpot politics and lamebrained social criticism.  They need to pull themselves out.

There was a time when I wanted a vision, a manifestation, an irrefutable proof.  I didn't want light and knowledge; I wanted LIGHT! and KNOWLEDGE! personal revelation as presented by Cecil B. DeMille, with cheesy special effects and a cast of thousands.  I never got it, and I'm glad.

I have learned that Milosz was right.  

I do not need angels and visions to know that the Book of Mormon is true.  And I do not need the voices of dissent to know that knowing that is a difficult thing.  Light illuminates, but it also creates shadows.  Somehow the dark spots, the uncertainties, are as important to our growth as the places where the light shines with perfect brilliance. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Why I Hate Facebook

Not so very long ago, back in the days when people still communicated with ink and paper, Christmas brought with it the Christmas letter.

Christmas letters were horrid things, endless lists of Where I Vacationed and My Latest Diseases and Proof That My Children Are More Successful Than Yours.  It was bleak, poring through these epistles: "And in July, our 14 year old toy poodle, Mister Bumpkins, came face-to-snout with Jesus.  We're still grieving, but with time and prayer and several hundred hours of intense counseling, we're learning to cope."

The problem with Christmas letters is that, with very, very, very few exceptions, you already know what's going on in the lives of the people you care about, and you really don't care about what's going on in the others' lives, so what's the point?

Facebook is like receiving hundreds of Christmas letters, every day of the week, every hour of the day, for the rest of your life.  It's agony, the endless navel-gazing banality of it all.  For every legitimate piece of news -- "I got accepted to grad school," "the baby's fine," "the biopsy was negative" -- there are hundreds, possibly thousands of "I'm so bored" and "I am eating pie" and "help me win in Mafia Wars."  

I don't know what Mafia Wars is, and I don't want to ever find out.  

There are a few things that should stay private.  Bowel movements.  Romantic histories.  Political opinions.  It's all there on Facebook, pinned to a wall and inviting our comment. The last tattered shreds of Decency and Circumspection and Decorum, the stuff that was assaulted by Phil Donahue, brutalized by Oprah Winfrey, and subjected to the Unspeakable by Maury Povich and Jerry Springer and a host of imitators have been gathered up by Facebook, doused with jet fuel, and set aflame.  We stand shameless, a world of exhibitionists, naked as a "special guest" on the Howard Stern Show.  

So don't sit on the edge of your computer chair, waiting for me to update my status.

Conference Briefs

Friday, I bet my daughter that before Conference was over, President Monson would tell a story about visiting widows.  

I just won.

A couple of thoughts (one of my goals is to keep these entries short, so that people will actually read them):

-- I have never been more attentive, or more inspired by a Priesthood session.  Wonderful talks, wonderful counsel.  And it was made all the better by being there with my younger son (though we missed Number One son, who's up in New York).

-- I've always struggled with President Monson's speaking style, but my kids are sitting in front of the teevee right now, paying rapt attention.  He reaches people.  I need to pay closer attention.

-- President Packer's talk was important, because it represents a refocusing of the Church's position on marriage.  Policies have not changed, but we've spent so much time focusing on who shouldn't marry (and President Packer did spend some time on that), that we've taken for granted that marriage is actually working the way it's supposed to.  Love your children.  Love your spouses.  Avoid things -- cruelty, inattention, pornography -- that undermine family unity.  

One of the enduring challenges of belief is that we are so careless in living the standards we espouse, that our lives are an ineffectual argument for those standards.  The more we draw our hearts to Christ and Christian standards, the more compelling our endorsement of Christian principles.

I've always liked GK Chesterton's response to Bertram Russell's complaint that Christianity had been tried in the scales of history, and found wanting. Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting, Chesterton replied; it has been found difficult, and therefore not tried.

Anyway, I feel rejuvenated, and desirous to recommit myself to what I know is right.


Trek is for Suckers

Mormonism has always strenuously exerted to keep its youth "unspotted from the world."  Some of these efforts, like Boy Scouting, persist.  Others, like Road Show, have slipped from prominence.  The search for a new way to "engage the youth," to help them understand that they are "a royal generation," is constant.

In my day, we had the supremely creepy Plane Crash Fireside:  the evening starts as a happy little play, depicting a typical LDS family getting ready for a big family vacation.  This all goes down in typical Mormon style, with slapstick and sappiness and some really lame efforts at appealing to contemporary sensibilities (playing Kevin, the teenage son, in one of these productions, I was required to refer to myself as "Big Daddy," because our director, the imperious Sister Frond'ohdiak, thought that was the way Kids Today talked.  This was in 1980: it was as authentic as Pat Boone rapping.)

So it's a typical feel-good Mormon night of fellowship, until the plane crashes (or the car is rammed by a drunk driver, or the houseboat is sunk by a North Korean torpedo: there are variations).  The family is dead; after whatever special effects were employed to convey this concept, the newly departed reappear on stage, dressed all in white.  Then they are judged.  For their sins.

The afterlife consisted of a quick tour of the three degrees of Glory, represented by graduating intensity of spotlight and quality of chair: folding chair for the Telestial Kingdom; Relief Society room chair for the Terrestrial Kingdom; wing back from the foyer, covered by a white sheet, for the Celestial.  High Council members, dressed in white, acted as "angelic guides" for the evening. I seem to remember that Big Daddy Kevin ended up in the Terrestrial Kingdom.  

It was all meant to be edifying for the youth, to spur them to greater heights of devotion and fidelity.  Mostly, it made us scared, scared and confused.

The sure-fire save our youth program du jour is Trek.  Youth dress in homespun and gingham outfits, and spend three days pulling plywood handcarts through a local state park or farmer's field.  Food and water rations are kept to a minimum: hard-core Treks often include a night where the youth are presented with a dinner consisting of live chickens, which they are required to slaughter, clean, pluck and roast over open fires.

Trek hits all the traditional Mormon high points: it's a lot of work to prepare and execute, and we LOVE for things to be hard; it acknowledges our shared pioneer history, though in a convert Church, most members' connection to the pioneers is more conceptual than literal; it is something that no one else is doing -- can you imagine the Presbyterians going on Trek? -- and we wear our peculiarity like a badge of honor.  And it teaches Gospel Principles to our youth, dips them into a long weekend marinade of Sacrifice and Good Works and Building the Kingdom of God.

Except it doesn't do any of those things, not really.  Trek is built on hoary tradition, turning a difficult and challenging period of Church history into a fetish.   

Something like 100,000 people made the journey to Salt Lake Valley, over a period of about 45 years.  Roughly 2,700 traveled by handcart.  Brigham Young came up with the handcart idea as a stopgap: the Church was near bankrupt; ox teams were expensive to maintain and in short supply; and the converts -- mostly poor people from Great Britain and northern Europe -- just kept coming.  Handcarts were meant to be a cheap and efficient means of conveying large groups of people to Salt Lake.
There were ten groups, or "companies" of handcart pioneers, and the 1,200 miles from their base camp at Iowa City (then the terminus of the westbound trains) to Salt Lake represented only a portion of their journey.  There was behind them a more than 3,000 mile journey by ship from Liverpool or some other European port to Boston or Philadelphia or New York, then a 1,200 mile train journey (no easy thing in the 1850's) to Iowa City.  Once they arrived in Salt Lake, they would be assigned a place to settle, somewhere within the Great Basin expanses of Deseret, and there were hundreds of miles more to journey, to the far edges of what is now Utah or Arizona or Nevada or Wyoming or Idaho or for a lucky few, southern California.  Walking the plains was the least of their challenges.

Most of these handcart pioneers came from industrial centers; the mills and factories of Manchester, England were a particularly fruitful ground for the Mormon missionaries (in his exhaustive journals, Wilford Woodruff writes of his first day in the soot and poverty and filth of that northern city, "I have seen Hell, and it is Manchester").  They were novices, ill-suited for the demands of cross-continental pioneering.  Coupled to their inexperience was the near-complete inattention from Church leadership.  Then as now, a significant number of Church members saw the converts less as a blessing than a burden, and many leaders were resentful of their assignment to shepherd these neophytes across the plains. 

This combination of inexperience and inattention results in a shameful episode (given the Mormons' actions against the Indians in the Black Hawk War and the massacre at Mountain Meadows, it's hard to call it the most shameful episode of the period, but it's close).  Two companies of completely inexperienced converts, the Willie Company and the Martin Company, were allowed to leave Iowa City at the end of summer, weeks behind the recommended schedule, mainly because leadership in Iowa did not want them hanging around all winter.  The expectation was that they would move more quickly than previous companies, and that winter would come late that year.

They moved more slowly, and the first snows hit three weeks earlier than normal.  Food stores ran out.  In the hard country of what is now southern Wyoming, the companies were hit by disease, blizzards, and death.  Hundreds died before scouts found the beleaguered pioneers and arranged for a rescue team of oxcarts to recover them.  Dozens of survivors lost toes, fingers, even limbs to frostbite.  Heroic efforts were made to save the stranded travelers, but the central lesson of Willie and Martin is that poor planning and negligent leadership creates chaos.  Brigham Young admitted that the handcart experiment was a failure, and by 1860, just four years after its inception, the handcart program was scrapped in favor of ox-drawn wagons.  With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad at decade's end, those desiring to "gather to Zion" were doing it by train.

None of this is addressed in Trek.  

Trek embraces the Handcart Myth, which is itself an extension of that strange Mormon ethos: To be good, it must be difficult.  Had the trains been running in 1856, there never would have been a handcart movement.  (As it is, those who traveled West by train are not considered "pioneers" in official Church histories, further evidence that we are conditioned to respect efforts more for their degree of difficulty, than for their utility.)  

I have a hard time understanding how dressing teenagers in calico and keeping them sleep deprived and hungry leads to Great Spiritual Insight.  If my appreciation for the pioneers is wholly dependent on my living like a pioneer for a weekend, then it must follow that restaging historical events is the only way to grasp them.  Are we prepared to say that the only people on earth who truly understand the Atonement of Jesus Christ are those guys in the Philippines who nail themselves to crosses every Good Friday?  

Trek doesn't enrich understanding; it reduces the very real sacrifices of those 19th century converts, their earnest desires to unite with the Saints and their willingness to gather with the righteous or die trying, to a Nike-clad weekend of minor inconvenience, seventy-two hours without iPods and cell phones. 

There are so many people who need our service, our influence, our love.  Three days repairing the homes of elderly poor people, working in a soup kitchen, volunteering at a hospice: there are so many ways to teach our kids to serve, to sacrifice, to feel the Spirit that drove those pioneers to take up their handcarts and walk.  We don't need the silly stuff.  We don't need to turn our children into the Mormon equivalent of Civil War reenactors in order to stir their souls.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


The story is that Robert Johnson went to a dusty crossroads in Mississippi, and in exchange for the ability to play guitar better than anyone else in the world, sold his soul to Satan.

Lots of people say he was the greatest guitar player ever -- it's hard to tell, partly because there are only about 50 known recordings, partly because he died when he was 27 years old, and partly because there has been so much said about the guy, that it is nearly impossible to separate truth from fiction.

I don't really care about the guitar playing.  It's the Crossroads thing that interests me.

I have stood at a lot of crossroads and made a lot of questionable bargains, but I've never seen the Devil.  Every mess of pottage I've ever bought, I've bought from myself: all the compromises, all the bad deals, the Devil had nothing to do with them.  He may have been hiding in the bushes, sniggering at my folly, but he wasn't brokering anything.

Every single day, we have to choose.  Yesterday, in the temple, I realized that some long-held and cherished beliefs about my own history were wrong, or if not exactly wrong, unhealthy, and that I needed to abandon them.  These beliefs were my blues guitar, all hurt feelings and alienation, and I've played them with virtuoso skill.

If I am going to be who I am supposed to be, I can't keep playing.  They aren't major deals, these "If x hadn't conspired against me, I would have been a major league y" sorts of thoughts, little myths we all create to convince ourselves that nothing is our fault, nothing is our responsibility, and that we were supposed to be Derek Jeter, or Oprah Winfrey, or Zog, the King of the Albanians.  Living without them, being faithful enough and mature enough and humble enough to abandon our victim myths and accept responsibility for our lives (and more importantly, to be honestly grateful for the lives we have), is infinitely more rewarding than being the best in the world at anything.

Even playing the blues.