Tuesday, December 17, 2019

On the Church's Investment Accounts

The Washington Post recently broke a story that a Church holding company, Ensign Peak Advisors, is allegedly holding more than twice as many assets as Harvard University's endowment fund. The story broke because there may be tax implications: there is mixed historical precedent over whether an organization such as Ensign Peak can qualify for its tax exemption by virtue of its alignment with the Church, which has a religious purpose granted special status under US tax law. There may be a related arcane legal debate: can saving for a future theological vision constitute a religious purpose on its own?

These questions, however, are not the reason anyone outside of tax law is interested in the story. People are interested in the story because wealth is fascinating and fraught. It is doubly fascinating and fraught when mixed with religion, and triply so when a concentration of wealth comes in a group outside the cultural mainstream. The Church's finances, made all the more alluring by the shroud of secrecy around them, make juicy gossip. Mix that basic instinct with the respectability that comes with philosophizing or moralizing about what should or should not be and it will be very hard for many people--myself apparently included--to resist the temptation to say something.

And so say something I shall. Maybe three things. What I think as a tithe-payer, what I think as an armchair philosopher, and what I think as a person with a deeply Mormon imagination.

My View as a Tithe-Payer

One angle on this story is to ask what a person who contributes 10% of their income to the Church might think about the Church's financial practices. I've seen people ask: if you were a stockholder in a company with reserves of that size, how would you react? If you had sent money to a charity only to learn it already had such a large reserve, how would you react?

I've paid tithing faithfully all my life. I can't answer those last two questions, though, because neither applies to tithing as I have always understood it. I don't see myself as a stockholder in the corporation of the Church. I don't see myself as a donor to a charity. I mean, I get that the money goes somewhere, but for me, the existence of any Church-related corporate structures has essentially nothing to do with tithing.

I don't pay tithing for the Church. I pay tithing, like Jacob in Genesis 28, as a spiritual practice. I pay because I believe it's good for me to mark my relationship with God by giving away a tenth of all I'm given. A symbolic returning. A confession.

If the Church disappeared tomorrow, I would still believe in giving up a tenth. And I don't mean just as a target contribution to society. If it came to it, I believe it would have spiritual value--and yes, I've thought about this before--to pile one tenth of my income on a stone altar and burn it.

I would watch the smoke rise heavenward. And it would be worth every dollar to be reminded that money creates only an illusion of control. To enact my understanding of our fundamental vulnerability to the universe. To embody my trust in a God behind it all.

Look: I'm not saying I want Church leaders to act like Samuel's corrupt sons in the Bible or anything. But even if they did: that's on them. I wouldn't feel like they'd conned me by telling me the stories of the long-ago nomads who had visions and started this whole thing. My tithing is not about the conduct of bureaucrats in suits. It's an old secret between me and Jacob's God.

My View as An Armchair Philosopher

It's not just the mystic in me who is drawn to the hypothetical image of burning dollar bills. The armchair philosopher, who runs a bit revolutionary, is intrigued by the idea too. Money as we know it is, after all, some strange sociology. What makes these scraps of paper in the pocket, or a certain pattern of ones and zeros in a screen, so horrifically potent anyway? Maybe the occasional cash fire would do us some good. Put things in perspective.

No, the armchair philosopher in me is more interested in the grey area between sacrifice and barbecue. What made the ancient Israelites decide that some of their sacrifices should go up entirely in flames, while some sacrificial meat was set aside for priests and some shared among the people?

On a practical level, I totally get it. If you're going to sacrifice animals, you might as well cook them sometimes. It can feel nice to eat with the group. Hungry bellies can be filled. And even having priests fed by the sacrificial meat and not by raising all their own food frees them up to do priestly things. Surely the value of shared meals and a specialized civic class offset the risks of gluttony or corruption.

And yet....what if the barbecue ends up messing up the sacrifice? After all, once it's a barbecue you'll always have to wonder whether it's God who wants the fire or if a priest is just hungry. And once you're counting priests or parishioners, there will be the risk that you start to feel like it's the size of the sacrifice not the fact of the sacrifice that matters. That throwing a bigger barbecue is the real point.

It sure feels like a point. To see you're bringing people together. To fill grumbling bellies. Why shouldn't you count them? It sure feels like a point.

You are a provider. That's your job. And it's the job of the priests, or else of the community at large, to ensure that the barbecue is well-organized with no cutting in line and feeding people with maximum efficiency.

What's vulnerability got to do with it?

My View from a Mormon Imagination

What does vulnerability have to do with it?

If as a tithe-payer, I focus on my own fundamental vulnerability, my own absolute decision to place myself under the mercy and the majesty of the nomads' God, as a Mormon I can't help but wonder how that plays out at the level of the kingdom.

My tithing may not be my money anymore once it's left my hands, but I still kind wonder what the Church--not as corporation, but as kingdom of the Prince-in-exile, does with it. Some of those questions are evergreen: when does not expense fall under the same ritual category as Christ's funeral ointment and when should it be saved for the poor? Like: are the pews I sit on, or the weird carpet on the walls, a justified expense? Or are those things just the cultural reflex of a people without greater openness to light and knowledge?

Some of the question saved tithing funds raise for me, though, are quite historically and eschatologically specific. I'll be honest: when I hear about the Church's assets, I kinda wonder if that money means the fulness of the Gentiles has come. That is: I wonder if God wants money gathered from the more affluent northern nations of the world like the Egyptians' jewelry, transferred over to the remnant of Jacob as the global Church shifts its gradely steadily (perhaps prophetically!) south.

And that's just one sign of what will come before the end. We can measure the changing seasons but we don't see the signs of the times. Is this endowment intended for us to grapple with the growing consequences of climate change for vulnerable members in the years to come? Has anything in our historical experience prepared us to calculate what we'll need in a future where human excess has caused the elements to melt with fervent heat?

Look. Maybe I'm crazy. Maybe Ensign Peak Advisors is just a bunch of middle-class Americans in ties. Or, more charitably, a bunch of children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who saw the Church pressed to its financial limits by events ranging from its postwar expansion to the pressures of the Raid and US government seizure of assets.

And yet: I can't help but wonder if there's more going on with the corporate entities associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because I have more than a corporate imagination. More on my mind than the relative sizes of Harvard and the Church's reserves and outlays, the tax traditions of how one might measure a year's balance sheet against a broad scope of mission.

Maybe the Church is holding onto too much money out of corruption or out of past conditioning. Or maybe the Church is holding onto a thoroughly reasonable amount of money relative to the tasks it will undertake in the next generation and only the shortness of American accounting gives us pause.

I don't know. It's not money, even though a bit of it was once my tithing.

Left to my own devices, I might've burned through it years ago.















Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter reflections

Three people in my tiny sphere of experience died unexpectedly this last week. 

The first was my grandfather-in-law, McCoy Christensen. He died Sunday, a day after having a stroke while walking laps in the Orem Rec Center pool, where he was a regular. At age 94, his passing maybe shouldn't have surprised us. But it did. Partly because he was in such great physical and mental condition. Partly because he was still making so plans for future: trips to go on, books to read, stories to record. But mostly, I think because he'd been such a steady and steadying presence in so many of our lives. A few days after he died, I was talking with my brother-in-law, who said it's still hard to imagine birthdays and holidays and other family gatherings without him.

Grandpa Christensen was a WWII veteran, so when we buried him yesterday, a group of veterans and soldiers came to give him a final farewell with military honors. They fired off a salute, played a mournful rendition of "Taps," folded the flag on his casket and presented it to Grandma Christensen with a solemn thanks for his service.

The second was my "uncle" (actually my mom's cousin's husband,) Will Smith. He was 53 when he died of a heart attack on Monday. On Facebook for the past while, I've been watching Uncle Will, a former coach, cheer his son through his college baseball career. My mind, though, has never caught up to the Will Smith with adult kids, since the cool young uncle he was when I was a kid still looms so large in my mind.

I remember, on one trip to Bakersfield to visit family, we went to this big maze. The details are hazy: I remember towers you could climb to get a sense of where to go, which was hard to track once you got down into the tall wooden walls that blocked your view of everything--except, in a genius design element, just enough of a gap at that bottom to let you see the feet of people walking by you on the other side. 

My brother and I begged to be on a team with Will when we split into teams. He let us lead the way enough, though, that we rushed ourselves lost again and again. I remember once, when we'd gotten ourselves stuck in yet another dead end, he just laughed and had us all slip under the bottom of the wall to get through to the other side. Maybe that was cheating, or maybe it was just another way of solving the problem. To my childhood self, it felt a little like magic.

The third was a co-worker, Pradeep Beryl. We didn't work closely together, but would pass each other in the halls, chat quickly in the break room. He had an easy smile. People who worked with him more closely likely his combination of approachability and efficiency.

He was the only other Indian in the Department: from Bangalore, a member of the Solomon family my grandpa knew well. I'd met different members of the family when they passed through town and stopped in to visit. He was 35--same age as me.

Early last week, he went down to visit Zion's National Park. He'd gone on the hike up Angel's Landing. I've been up before myself--it's a beautiful, breathtaking hike with no shortage of scary parts with steep drop-offs. Pradeep must've slipped and fallen. We got word a few days later they'd found his body.

I know people have been living and dying for millions of years, but it still feels so strange to have people there, and there, and then gone. Sometimes after a long life, sometimes in what feels like it should be life's middle, and sometimes still so early, with so much assumption of a future here on earth before them.

It's Easter today. I can't see it now, can't prove it now, but I'm trying to hold on to the promise of this day. That the strangeness of death isn't the end of our stories together. That death is a wall the spirit finds a way to slip under--and that maybe just beyond, there are angels to catch us, a familiar face to thank us for our service, and so many people to see once again. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Mormon Lit Recommendations

Just completed a marathon Twitter thread listing ten Mormon Lit reading recommendations. This list is neither ranked nor comprehensive: just ten books I like that I wanted to share.

As those who know me are well aware, I feel strongly that Mormons deserve to have literature that draws on the images of our own culture as much as any other group. At the same time, I'm a total perfectionist in my own work and have abnormally high aesthetic standards, so I'm not willing to celebrate books just for engaging with Mormonism. For me, a book has got to be a good experience while reading and serve some valuable purpose when I reflect back on it before I'm willing to make a recommendation.

You can go to Twitter for the thoughts on what I liked about each of these, but here are the books:

Third Wheel by Melissa Leilani Larson

Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom

Folk of the Fringe by Orson Scott Card

The Garden of Enid by Scott Hales

Wandering Realities by Steven Peck

Estampas del Libro de Mormón by Gabriel González Núñez

My Loving Vigil Keeping by Carla Kelly

Messages on the Water by Merrijane Rice

My Parents Married on a Dare by Carlfred Broderick

Slumming by Kristen D. Randle

I hope that somewhere in that list there's a title you haven't read and end up liking.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Phoenix Song: An Introduction and Some Thanks

I published my second collection of poetry last week. It's called Phoenix Song. 

I really like the cover. The designer, Emir Orucevic, did a great job coming up with imagery that lets you feel the ash even as you watch the phoenix rise.

I haven't figured out yet quite how to talk about the book, except to say in general terms that it matches the cover. I started writing the poems that later found their way into the collection in the fall of 2015, when I'd just gotten the diagnosis of a cancer relapse, and in the years since I've done some burning and rising and thought a lot about the process.

The poems that came out of that vary a lot, though. Two of the book's ten sections are overtly about chemotherapy. There's also a section made up entirely of true stories from my own recent experience at Church as part of a ward. And there are some direct responses to recent events in terms of treatment of migrants, etc. But sometimes, to wrap my head around our reality, I had to bend it or transcend it: there's also a section of alternate histories, a section with a poem exploring each of the virtues listed in D&C 4, and several pieces right along the line between poem and prayer. 

I didn't draft an introduction or end notes to this book, which was a mistake. I owe thanks to a lot of people for this work. Of course, I owe a lot to my immediate and extended family, who helped me through the last few years, and to my wife, Nicole Wilkes Goldberg and brother, Mattathias Singh Goldberg Westwood, who helped review drafts and kept me company through the really boring publication prep part of the process.

I also owe some specific thanks to members of the Mormon Lit community for giving me occasions to produce.
Eric (aka Theric) Jepson once invited me to do a simple devotional poem exchange, where we each came up with one piece to send to the other person. Mine was "Reach for Me."  Theric also shared a call for submissions for a Jewish alternative history anthology. That project never came to fruition, but two really strong poems in this collection come from his willingness to think of me and pass on that challenge.
This May, Darlene Young organized an event called "MoPoWriMo" (Mormon Poetry Writing Month) where a group of us committed to write a Mormon poem every day for a month. I think I made it to 27 out of 31...some of those were not great, but many others are included here. I doubt the collection would have come together without Darlene's challenge and organizational work.
And the closing poem comes from my review of William Morris's short story collection Dark Watch and Other Mormon-American Stories. I don't normally resort to poetic imagery in book reviews , but William's work has helped call my generation of Mormon literary writers to a higher standard, so I'm kinda not surprised that happened.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ashamnu

It's Yom Kippur. I've written here before about the ashamnu prayer, a traditional prayer of confession for the day. Just went over it again and was struck by how much it means to me right now.

One of the challenges of life in an era where we have so much access to information, so much capacity to weigh the consequences of sin, is to be able to do so without recoiling. To protect ourselves, we so often try to separate ourselves out and put them blame for the existence of injustice on some other group we do not belong to, in a self-deceiving attempt to avoid accountability.

The ashamnu prayer calls us back: invites us to stand, instead, to account. We, as humans, sin. The religious and the irreligious. The liberal and conservative. The privileged and the marginalized. And perhaps we can only truly reckon with sin by facing it in humility together.

And so, in troubling times, I say along with generations:

Ashamnu, Bagadnu...
We have sinned. We have dealt treacherously.

Gazalnu, Dibarnu dofi, He'evinu...
We have robbed. We have spoken slander. We have acted perversely. 

V'hirshanu, Zadnu...
We have done wrong. We have acted presumptuously.

Hamasnu, Tafalnu sheker...
We have done violence. We have practiced deceit.

Yaatsnu ra, Kizavnu, Latsnu...
We have counseled evil. We have spoken falsehood. We have scoffed.

Maradnu, Niatsnu, Sararnu...
We have revolted. We have blasphemed. We have rebelled.

Avinu, Pashanu...
We have committed iniquity. We have transgressed.

Tsararnu, Kishinu oref...
We have oppressed. We have been stiff-necked.

Rashanu, Shichatnu, Tiavnu...
We have acted wickedly. We have dealt corruptly. We have committed abomination. 

Tainu...
We have gone astray.

Titanu
We have led others astray. 

And today I pray:
O God of Israel, who led our ancestors out of Egypt and showed them their own shortcomings in a promised land, have mercy on us. 

O God, teach us to acknowledge ourselves among the transgressors. Give us strength to face the persistent of our guilt.

And God of Israel, guide us: as we learn to bind up what we've broken, to gather what we've divided, to rise (step by tiny step) above the sins we've lived with for so long.   

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Dealing with Darkness (Sacrament Meeting Talk)

On the border between Montana and Idaho, there’s a scenic bike route called the Hiawatha Trail. I’ve never been there, but I read about it in a General Conference talk. (Don’t judge me for that. I don’t get out much.)

This trail is built on a former railroad line, so you follow the train tracks through the mountains and it’s supposed to be really beautiful. You ride, at times, across narrow bridges over deep canyons, giving you a view that’s either breathtaking or hyperventilation-inducing, depending on how you feel about heights. You really get to know that mountains. Other times you go through these long, dark tunnels that open up onto stunning vistas of Montana’s signature big sky. And it’s supposed to feel just great.

Elder Vern P. Stanfill of the Seventy went once. He told the story in his October 2015 General Conference talk. He admits that even though people tried to warn him, he didn’t really understand how long and dark some of the tunnels were until he was deep enough into one to realize he did not have a great bike light. I want to read you a little bit of his description of how he felt when he got deep enough in the tunnel that there was no daylight left behind him and none in sight ahead:

“Suddenly I began to feel anxious, confused, and disoriented,” he says. “I was embarrassed to admit my anxieties to my friends and family. Although an experienced cyclist, I now felt as though I had never ridden a bicycle. I struggled to stay upright as my confusion increased.”

Brothers and sisters, I think life is like the Hiawatha Trail: we’ve all been warned there are dark tunnels we have to go through, but thinking about them from the outside is different than being stuck in the middle.

And so today, as we’re speaking in this sacrament meeting on the theme of light, I’m going to spend most of my talk dealing with darkness. Because it’s a condition we all spend some time in. A few of you may be there now: I hope I get enough right in my description that you can feel a little less alone. The rest of you have been or will be stuck sometime in the middle of a long dark tunnel—and maybe something I say will stick with you a little bit next time you’re there. There are going to be things in life that shake us. Some of them are also going to shake our faith. You can’t avoid that, but you can face the feelings that being stuck in the dark brings. And learning to face the anxiety is often the first step to getting past it.

Darkness

So what is it like to feel swallowed up in the darkness?

Let’s go back again and spend some time with Elder Stanfill’s description. When something in life shakes you, it’s natural to feel “anxious, confused, and disoriented.” It sucks, but it’s natural.

When you’re in the middle of a major trial, it is also natural to doubt the very things that are supposed to get you through. For Elder Stanfill, it was that bike light: it wasn’t as strong as he thought, and so in the moment the thing he’d counted on to guide him wasn’t sufficient. In life, the times we doubt our testimony are often the times we need it most. When we’re struggling, the wattage is just not high enough.

And—this is an important truth we don’t always acknowledge—like Elder Stanfill, you are probably not going to want to talk to friends and family when that happens. Maybe, like him, you’re embarrassed. Or maybe you’re defensive: feeling like they can’t understand and you don’t want to hear them tell you to just get over it.

Like Elder Stanfill, you might also find yourself disconnected from your own past. When he was describing his experience, he didn’t just say it was hard to ride a bike: he said he felt like he’d never ridden a bike before. In life, I call this a spiritual or emotional eclipse. Sometimes the trouble before you is so all-encompassing that no past experience can seem to get around it. Even if you remember the facts, you can’t always remember the feelings that let you be anchored and stable. That’s a real thing. No quantity of past experience can get us through the dark passages of our life because the pain of the present can block them almost entirely out of our minds.

And when you’re in that partial or full spiritual eclipse, it’s going to be tough to stay oriented. Elder Stanfill said it was hard to keep his bike upright. And for us, there are some many voices in the world that when our anchors start to fade, it’s hard to know what to hold on to.

So what do you do? If you’re shaken in a way that’s left you feeling isolated from your loved ones and your own past, how might you react?

Common First Reactions

It’s going to be tempting, first of all, to just blame yourself. And that never helps. Taking responsibility can, but there’s a difference between responsibility and blame.

If you want to understand that difference, try two things for me. First, take a deep breath. Now punch yourself in the eye.

You may laugh, but most of us have done that. We get in trouble and our first thought is: I feel like I should be better than this. I feel like I shouldn’t be struggling like this. So we beat ourselves up, and we make it worse.

Another thing that’s tempting to do when you’re in the middle of trouble and you feel like life has never been good is to seek out people who feel the same way, who are also disoriented in the dark. And that’s totally understandable. We want to be understood. We’re going to be drawn to that. And yet at the same time, it can be really risky, because if you feel panicked on your own, having a bunch of other people freaking out around you is not going to help you calm down. But, especially in the age of the internet, that’s a tempting way to deal with darkness. We look for people who know how we feel whether they know how to guide us forward or not.

Doubting your Doubts

President Uchtdorf’s advice for what to do when it feels dark, when you feel shaken, is to doubt your doubts before your doubt your faith. One reason I think that’s good advice is because it gives you room to admit you’ve got some doubts. And that’s an important thing to do if you’re going to get through them. Think of a broken bone: if you walk around forcing yourself to act like everything is fine, it’s gonna get worse. You need to give yourself a chance to feel what’s tender and to protect that a little bit. Maybe let the rest of your body carry you while the broken part has time to heal.

For spiritual and emotional wounds that leave you anxious, you can tame your feelings a little just by naming them. It’s OK to take an inventory and figure out what exactly is injured without self-blame or shame.

So when you’re struggling, ask yourself what exactly is broken. You can often break it down and be more precise than we’re used to being. We tend to think of a testimony as just one thing, but when I’m struggling, it helps me to think about the different parts. When we bear testimony, I think we’re actually getting at four related things we want God and the gospel and the Church to be.

We want our religion to be true. We want it to be good. We want it to feel possible. And we want it to feel personal.

Let me take a few minutes to go through each of those things.

True

“I know the Church is true” is something we often hear when people bear testimony. If you think about it, it’s sort a strange turn of phrase: “Church” is not actually a true/false statement. But truth is definitely something we expect from religion. When we say we want the Church or the gospel or a specific claim to be true, we probably mean it’s something safe to hold onto. I actually think that when we say want religious truth, we want a little more than truth. Something can be true and still misleading. We want something that goes beyond that, something trustworthy.

But when you say it like that, maybe it’s easy to see why this can get tough. When someone says “the Church is true,” it’s easier to nod along. If you say, “do you believe the Church is trustworthy?”—maybe you can see why there’s times when that’s tough to feel as secure about.

I believe God is 100% trustworthy, but I hear from him through human filters—whether that’s the words of the prophets or the filter of my own mind—and those filters are not 100% reliable. And so there are going to be misunderstandings and there are going to be mistakes and times when trust is strained. Maybe it’s a time when a leader has a genuinely inspired goal, but kind of sloppy implementation. Maybe it’s a time when a teenaged way of thinking about a gospel principle doesn’t hold up to the complexity I’m starting to see in the world as I age.

Like the apostle Paul says in the scriptures, “Prophecy shall fail. Knowledge shall pass away.” Sometimes we’re going to be disappointed by the ideas we’ve held onto or the leaders we’ve looked to for guidance. And especially if we’re already struggling, that can hurt. But it’s not the only part of a testimony.

Good

We also want God and the Church and the gospel to be good. But that, too, can be tough to believe sometimes when things are difficult.

I remember one night in the hospital during my cancer treatment. I had neutropenic fever, which is how your body responds to an infection when you’ve got a severely compromised immune system, at the same time I had a bunch of other uncomfortable chronic symptoms. I felt like my body was falling apart and I remember thinking, “OK, Lord. I know and I’ve accepted that life is supposed to be difficult, but how difficult?” I can accept some eggs have to get broken to bake a cake, but it’s getting hot in here and I’m pretty sure you’re gonna burn this one. And I remember the scripture coming to mind where God says he’s going to refine us as gold in a fire, and I thought. “Oh shoot. That’s a little bit hotter than I was counting on.” I can still believe that this is good, but it’s a strain.

There are going to be times in life when we wonder if God is really good. And there are going to be plenty of times when we wonder if the Church is good. And the pure gospel is good, though the garbled form in which it exists in my head at any given time might not always be good without some refining.

So there are things that can shake us. This happens all the time. Maybe it’s a political thing you have strong feelings about and it shakes you to wonder whether a Church stance is good. Maybe a past mistake, something in the Church’s history, that wasn’t good, quite frankly. And you wonder: is this Church as whole still good? Maybe it’s something dysfunctional in your own ward or family and it’s hard to see that the Church is good somewhere out there when you’re not feeling it close to you.

I think it’s interesting, though: I’ve watched people, who in their struggles, are able to play their connection to the true and the good off each other. In times of struggle, they’re able to hold on to one aspect of testimony long enough to reconnect with another. I’ve got an uncle who used to say, “I go to the Church for the Lord, not the ward.” And that was his way of saying that he couldn’t always see how the ward, the Church around him, was good, but he knew it was true and could hold on to that. Sometimes for me, I’ve got to admit, it’s the opposite: it’s hard for me to track what is true and what I can hold onto—I’m philosophical and I run in circles in my head—but if a ward member walks up to me and talks for a few minutes, my eyes are opened to recognize the good in them. And I trust that the source that got them there can work for me, too.

Possible

That trust—that something which works in theory or in another person’s life can also be accessible in my own—is its own aspect of testimony. It’s one we often undervalue, but it’s vital. Our religion is not just a series of observations about the divine: it’s fundamentally about our relationships with God and each other. And so it’s not just a clean list of eternal facts: it’s an intensely personal day to day discipline. We all need to believe not only that the gospel is true and good but also that we can do it.

That we can rise when we fall—or at least let ourselves be lifted. That we search and ponder and go and do and mourn and comfort and repent and be refined. And we need to be able, in the midst of everything else, to look forward and imagine ourselves doing the daily work of discipleship for the rest of our lives.

And there are going to be times in your life when you’re not sure that you can anymore. When your ability to imagine yourself putting one foot in front of the other is strained almost to the breaking point. Earlier in this meeting, Sister Carvalho spoke about times when as a parent there’s a lot going on and you haven’t slept enough and you just wonder if you can make it. And the doubt isn’t about the ideal and whether it’s valuable or correct—it’s just about what it feels like it will take to reach the finish line.

I think all of us have been a person or known a person where that was the part of a testimony that shook. That part about whether I, individually, can make it. And there are times when that’s the struggle, that’s the darkness we’re dealing with.

Personal

In a religion centered on relationships, wondering whether the demands of the gospel are possible is not the only concern our own sense of self plays a role in. At a fundamental level, we also need to feel connected to God and the gospel and the Church on a deeply personal level.

We have a need to feel like we belong, like we can be ourselves and disciples at the same time.

And it can be tough when that gets shaken. We sometimes dismiss concerns about belonging when they happen to others and say, in effect, “if you feel like you don’t fit in, suck it up and get over it” or worse, “if you don’t feel like you fit in, go somewhere else.” We sometimes assume that if you believe the Church is true—whatever that means—you can set aside your need for belonging for the sake of belief. But trying to keep the faith without finding a way to own your place in it is about as practical as dealing with an allergy by fasting for the rest of your life. In some ways, identity-level questions about how and whether we belong can be the most challenging of all.

I think of the prophet Elijah, who knew what was true more firmly than any of us do, who knew God is good, who knew that he had been totally personally faithful in the face of intense opposition—and yet he still told God, at one point on a mountain, that he felt so alone he just wanted to die.

And if Elijah the prophet could get there, then brothers and sisters, we can too. It’s hard to feel cut off, hard to hold on long enough to find a new way to think about how we fit. God’s kingdom has a place for each of us, but it takes real work to find it. We might, at times, have to make it through some dark passages to get there and I can only hope that acknowledging that the struggle to find your place matters helps ease the panic you might feel as you work your way forward toward the light.

Reaching Out

At different times in my life, I have wondered whether the Church or the gospel or God himself was trustworthy or good, when I’ve wondered whether my religion was possible or whether I personally belonged. Fortunately, I don’t usually doubt all four of those things with equal force at the same time and I can hold on to one while I work through another.

That’s how I doubt my doubts. I feel my way to the things I can hold on to while I sort through the things I’m struggling with. I might rely on the goodness of another person or go back to one treasured truth. I might depend on my own confidence if I’ve got it or remind myself that I belong no matter what—that I’m always a Mormon even if I’m not always great at it.

And during that process of sorting and rebuilding and healing, I allow myself some frustration and pain.

It’s OK to be scared or worried or angry. It’s OK to let the people we love be scared and worried and angry when they’re struggling. It’s OK to be shaken.

But my promise to you today, brothers and sisters, is that if we can still reach out through the darkness, in our pain, the Lord will be there for us.

I’d like to close with a poem. It’s one I wrote about Peter the apostle and what I’d like to ask him about making it through disorientation and anxiety when you don’t know where to stand. This poem’s called “How You Knew”:

Tell me if you remember
when the ground beneath your feet
still seemed solid

Tell me if you remember
when the things you knew
still seemed sure
and sound

Tell me
if you remember
what it felt like the very moment
when you looked down
and saw the words you’d trusted swirl
and churn

Tell me
if you remember
how the wind had just whipped up
how the breath caught in your throat
how your muscles all tensed and spasmed
how your body prepared to drown

Tell me
how you walked on water
Tell me how you knew
though soaked with terror
to cling to the Master’s hand

In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Poem: "The Fundamental Unit"


Some brief introduction to the writing process first: feel free to skip straight to the poem below.

During May, Darlene Young--one of my favorite Mormon poets--organized an event she called Mormon Poetry Writing Month (MoPoWriMo), modeled loosely on National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Basically, a bunch of us committed to try to write a Mormon poem every day for a month. Many of us also shared our drafts with each other at the time. I really love seeing people engaging with our faith with their full imaginations and I love what can happen when you take ideas you care about and put them in a poetic register: it was great to have a reason to write and constant inspiration from what other writers were playing with. 

I missed a few days--which meant that I finished the month with, I think, 27 poems. To put that in perspective, that's about as many poems as I'd written in the entire previous year. Thanks to Darlene, I've got enough now for a second collection to follow up my 2015 set Let Me Drown with Moses. This weekend, Nicole and I printed out all the possible material to include on 1/4 size pages and shuffled them around to find an order and a title. I've got some revisions to do, need a cover, etc., but I'm anticipating that Phoenix Song will be ready to release by the end of the year.

To give you a short glimpse at my MoPoWriMo work: here's a poem I wrote during May and later posted on a Facebook thread by the ever engaging Michael Haycock. Today, Walker Frahm asked if I could post it in a more share-friendly place. Here you go: 

The Fundamental Unit

Before we were a Church
that strengthened families
we were a Church
that built cities.
Back then

Zion
was the
fundamental unit
of society.

And in that
dreamed of city
it wouldn’t matter
if a quiet kitchen
happened to be yours
alone, because
even the streets
would be holy
to the Lord. 

They took
that away
from us, like
a child tearing
the legs, one
by one, off an
insect.

So maybe the pain
you feel is not from
God. Not some Saraic
trial. Maybe what you
feel is the phantom
pain of a kingdom
that has lost
its limbs.

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