Saturday, December 30, 2023


What a train wreck of a year. So long, 2023. And good riddance.

Today I’m thinking about the word “deliver.” What does it mean? Google says it means "to be set free" from the Latin verb "liberare," but now I am wondering what exactly I am being set free from, and why my spiritual deliverance sometimes feels like bondage. Google can't answer that question for me. It has been a brutal year for me, and I am left pondering if I am missing something. Singing Christmas carols and watching nativities has brought me more questions than answers this year. Will my faith in Christ's deliverance hold strong if I am born into yet another new year of heartbreak and challenges? "Oh come, oh come Immanuel," I sing with renewed fervour, but what if He never comes?

At Christmas, we celebrate two parallel deliveries in the birth of our Savior. The first is literal. Birth is called a “delivery.” Mary delivered her Son with her own flesh, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. The second delivery we celebrate is more spiritual than physical. Christ delivers us spiritually with His flesh, swaddles us in the garment of His priesthood, and gathers us to His bosom the way a Mother receives her child, or like a hen gathers her chicks. It is an experience meant to parallel the birth of a child. Rebirth is as real an experience as our own miraculous birth from our mothers.

Delivery can also be a cruel experience, for both the mother and the child being delivered. I have witnessed it with my children, standing there like a helpless idiot at the suffering of my wife as my child remains too long wedged between worlds. All of my children ended up in the NICU because of the trauma of their birth, gasping on their own meconium. Some days I feel like I am also stuck in the birth canal, fighting for my life, choking on my own crap, heaved and contracted by the slow rhythm of days that shoves me out of the amnion and into what feels like a world of cold oblivion. 

Most weeks I am lost in the midst of my labor pains, unaware of the exceptional pains of my great Deliverer, the tearing of His flesh or the gushing of His blood that are required weekly for me to receive new breath, a new spirit, and a new life. But on New Year's Eve, I take a moment and recognize that Jesus and I have labored together through a lot this year, through another 365 circle around the sun in a timed contraction that brings me closer to the ever dilating cervix of my mortal exit. This has been terrifying for me, to face my own mortality and waning, but despite what it feels like, I have not been alone in my suffering. A mother in labor cannot be separated from her child. Neither Christ be separated from me.

Like the Lord’s people waiting for deliverance from the Romans at Jerusalem, all the world has been taxed. The tax is at times grievous to be borne. We all live and work and scroll our phones in a world run by usurpers. The irony is that we worship a God that’s completely absent from the pantheon of our oppressors. This tests my faith to its limits, because my God seems so powerless here in a system run by whoever has the most soldiers. How can I put stock in a sacrificial lamb in such a place as this? How can this brother nailed to a cross save me in a world already boasting in their victory won with warriors and weapons? I am mocked for believing in a God who appears to have lost the war. My victors make merry that when I most needed strength, I am reaching for a God they are crucifying before my very eyes. They inscribe on his cross, “Behold, the king of the Jews.” Or perhaps in my case, "Behold, the king of this poor repressed bisexual Mormon." There is no victory for me here. Or so it seems.

Christ does not immediately deliver me from them, this nation of selfish despots and grandiose tyrants. His kingdom is not of this world. This is always frustrating to me, and so my suffering continues. Though I hold onto my belief in Christ's eventual victory, I am often unable to feel anything else except the daily ache that I must carry with me, the relentless loneliness—my deepest, loneliest of hurts. It is hard to praise God when all I feel are the pangs of a wound that does not heal. But this cross I carry connects me to Him. Sometimes the tenor of my worship is more of a lament than a praise, but my God understands this even better than I do. "Is there any other way?" "If it be possible..." and “How long, O Lord?” are as holy prayers as anything else in the scriptures. They are prayers the God of all has uttered Himself as He groaned beneath my load.

In years like this, carrying the burdens I have now, I am annoyed and desperate at the news that Christ’s deliverance will not take me out of the fire. It was a rude jolt for me in recent years to gradually fall out of the comforting faith of my youth in which obedience alone brought blessings and safety. But the truth cuts deeper. A baptism is not just a cleansing baptism of water, but a purging baptism of fire. In some ways, Christ's deliverance is an extraction out of the womb of my comfortable innocence that puts me directly into the birth canal of my great purging—the sanctification that comes when I pass through this burning, dilating ring of fire. That is one meaning of deliverance that packs a punch. Though covenants with Christ can bring comfort, they can also bring pain. Both those things are true. But in the crucible of my faith, I'll admit that sometimes all I can feel is the pain.

Deliverance. Delivered. De-livered. In the myth of Prometheus, his punishment from the gods for stealing fire from mount Olympus was to be bound to a rock while an eagle swooped down at him daily to eat out his liver until it grew back again the next day. The savage cycle of eagles tearing open his flesh daily feels disturbingly relatable. Like Prometheus, I am also bound to this rock, de-livered by the daily grind of discipleship that tears at my bowels. But that is not the definition of de-livery Christ is talking about. To be delivered is not just to be insanely mutilated. No one would continue on such a path. Chapels and temples dedicated to this God wouldn't have anyone in them at all. 

And here is my declaration of faith: Jesus Christ is the rock we are tied to, but He is not the torture. He is the Deliverer. Binding myself to Him is not a pointless ravaging, but the purposeful purging of my natural man. Sometimes it grows back just as quickly as it is removed by the eagles, but daily repentance and taking up the cross of discipleship brings me peace and reconciliation. It is a work I will continue to engage in willingly, (though at times "turning a rather steely eye toward heaven" as Elder Holland puts it.) It is the joy of the saints, the comfort of the comfortless, that which always looks like madness to those watching on the outside of it.

Prometheus, by Patrick Rasenberg

So passes another day being de-livered by the eagles. Another year closer to my delivery as a Son of God. This is a difficult process, but it is not without joy or devoid of meaning. What gives my suffering meaning? What makes "all the difference" on this "road less traveled by?" 

It is the love of Christ. I can feel Him here with me. This is the path toward love. He is de-livered and delivered alongside me, like a mother giving birth to Her child, or like a Prometheus at the sacrament table regenerating for another go with the eagles. He is here with me in the sacred spaces of my innermost heart. I would rather spend a lifetime of purging with Him here than face a lifetime of comfortable luxury without Him. His love is perfect. It dazzles me. I am drawn to it again and again. Learning to love the way He loves breaks my heart wide open again and again with my incompetence, but I tie myself to this rock willingly, because this is the rock that bleeds for me. This is the rock that delivers me, the only sure foundation in a world of fiery darts and tempestuous whirlwinds and reliable unreliability. (Helaman 5:12) This is the rock that delivers me from the absurdity of my inevitable death and sin.

So here at the end of another year, I am reminded once more that "the days are accomplished that [I] should be delivered." (Luke 2:6) And we all will be. So I say Merry Christmas to that, and a very Happy New Year.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Gathering Israel or Spreading it?

President Nelson said, “The Gathering of Israel is the most important thing taking place on earth today.”

I like the phrase "gathering of Israel" because it suggests that we are the ones out there searching, not everyone else. If we are out there gathering, then we are the ones with the deficit. We are called to gather the people and truths we are missing. We are seeking wholeness. This should invite greater humility in how we interact with others because they have something to offer us, not just the other way around. Relationships come into sharper focus, instead of PR and marketing campaigns and trying to maintain a certain image.

I sometimes think of it as "spreading Israel" instead of gathering it. Framing it this way, however, missionary work tends to give me intense feelings of anxiety and guilt as I try to spread myself around, but always bump up against my own pride. And while there are aspects of sharing in the gathering process (Christ still asks us to be the light, the salt, the city on the hill, etc.) that doesn't mean we are asked to be door to door salesmen. Though we may have an excellent product, if we are only there to sell and never to buy, we won't come away with any sort of lasting relationship.

Instead, we are seeking our own salvation outside of ourselves, which is precisely what love makes us do. "He that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul." (D&C 4:4)

Thinking of ourselves as spreaders of Israel rather than its gatherers, we might miss the most exciting part of the gathering—the miracle of our own redemption that comes from participating in the gathering process! The part where we get to repent and change, not just everyone else. The primary indicators of success for the spreader are numbers of baptisms or likes on social media, but the indicator of success for the gatherer is simply an increase of love and a change of heart.

Our efforts at gathering Israel may bring healing and conversion to others from time to time (which is always a joyful bonus we can expect) but most importantly the work of gathering heals and converts us, the laborers in the vineyard. As we learn in Jacob 5, grafting branches not only gives new life to others by connecting them to Christ through the ordinances of the priesthood, but it also brings new life to our own very old and VERY high maintenance olive tree, saving us from the inevitable decay and death of our own stagnation and pride.

Gathering Israel should bring a spirit of life, flexibility, and newness to our congregations. It should invite humility and sharing, rather than smugness and salesmanship. It is the pathway to love. I will admit that I say all this to console myself because I am actually a terrible spreader. If God's missionary work really follows a business model that focuses on marketing and statistics (like it sometimes did for me as a full time missionary in the mid 2000s) I know I would flunk the program (and probably not be that unhappy I did.)

But as it turns out, I am actually a pretty good gatherer. Not that I am not still awkward and clunky and full of flaws, but that when I try to gather I am forced to face up to my own deficits, and so I end up picking up more truths than I was initially trying to spread. Gathering gives me the opportunity to learn how to carefully (and with the Spirit) find new ideas from all kinds of people and weave them together with the truths I already cherish. This alone makes it worth it for me. From my Latter-day Saint bubble, I once left on a mission as a 19 year old kid thinking I was going out to save the world, but I ended up finding the missing pieces I needed to save myself. While I did help some people come unto Christ through faith, repentance, and baptism, the main story was that the people I met as a missionary saved me. That was the miracle.

So what are we gathering? Everything and anything good! New ideas, new truths, new kinds of people that fit into the body of Christ. This requires a change in US as much as in THEM (whoever THEM is supposed to be, anyway.)

As we learn to gather Israel and unlearn the work of spreading it (or worse, scattering it!) the process becomes a collaboration instead of a transaction. We form friendships instead of treat people or groups as "projects." Marketing and PR are no longer our biggest concern, and honest dialogue and relationships become foremost in our minds. Our hearts are more open to recognizing our flaws, both as individuals and as a collective, and we repent of them because we know it's a process of change in ourselves to gather those people we need, along with their fresh perspectives, in order to be made whole. (And that includes everyone.)

So for me this year, that's my goal. To gather the truths and relationships that I need in order to be made whole. This time, I am doing it for me and my own salvation. I may still be awkward at it, and my own pride and fear will certainly keep getting in the way, but for me it's worth the effort.

It probably still won't convince me to buy a "gather" sign for my kitchen, though.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

"How Long?" Bringing Back the Lament

As a registered nurse, I sometimes work with patients that have been diagnosed with a terminal illness. One of the most common questions from them is also one that takes a fair amount of courage for them to ask out loud: How long?

It is also one of the most difficult to answer. How long depends on a lot of things. Some patients outlive their prognosis considerably, others may pass long before the estimated time. It's often a guessing game. All we know is that there will be an end, and that it won't be long.

Unlike most medical treatments, in palliative care the focus is not on curing the disease. Rather, we focus on symptom management until the end. Comfort care we call it. All medical treatments focus on providing comfort for the patient rather than removing the actual causes of affliction.

In a sense, we all are terminal. There is no cure for mortality, except through death and the promise of an eventual resurrection. We all have been designated as "comfort care measures only." There are some spiritual diseases that can be cured, certainly. Repentance does wonders, for one thing. But generally speaking, we are here to experience for ourselves spiritual and physical death. Spiritually, we are in a fallen world that has limitations on what we can do, and we face mortal challenges that cause us pain, suffering, and sorrows. If we are in tune to this reality at all, we might, in anguish of spirit, ask our Lord and Physician, "How long?"

How long must we suffer? How much time do we have? How long until this is all over?

This is usually asked when circumstances are such that we are forced to face our diagnosis in some way because we are in great pain. We might spend a lot of time and energy not facing our mortality and sins, of course, avoiding our spiritual disease until at last something happens and we have to confront it in ourselves. Trials come to all of us, and sometimes the symptoms of the disease of mortality can be pretty severe. 

The question, "How long" is very scriptural. It is a normal, even necessary step. The lament is a part of our journey towards our Physician, the Savior Jesus Christ. When we ask that question we are in good company.

For example, when Joseph Smith was in Liberty Jail in perhaps the lowest point in his life, he asked the Lord that question. "O God, where art thou?...How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?" (D&C 121:1-2)

Alma asked that same question "How long shall we suffer these great afflictions, O Lord?" (Alma 14:26) after seeing the people he converted thrown into a fire and was himself imprisoned and suffered great cruelty at the hands of his oppressors.

Job asks his unhelpful friends, "How long will ye vex my soul and break me in pieces with words?"

Habakkuk asks, "O Lord! How long shall I cry and thou wilt not hear!"

Numerous prophets were very familiar with the lament of How long?

Out of all scripture, however, it is the Psalms that use the phrase How long? the most.

Traditionally, we know the Psalms are hymns of praise, but we sometimes forget that they are also hymns of lamentation. The Psalms blur the line between lamenting and praising God. In fact, the two opposing ideas can actually happen in the same prayer. Can we really learn to lament the reality of our circumstances and praise God at the same time?

We live in a culture that eschews the lament. "Don't be so dramatic," we say to the person who is in process of rending their garments and covering themselves with sackcloth and ashes. "Don't you know things will be alright?" "If you just had more faith, you could see the hand of the Lord in your life." We conceal suffering, teaching our primary children: "No one likes a frowny face. Change it for a smile!" "Scatter sunshine all along the way!" We call honest, soulful anguish the "ugly cry." The lament is pushed away in our interactions with each other. We hide our deepest sorrows, our most painful wounds, from each other.

Sometimes, the lament needs to come first before we can rejoin the ward choir praising God. In my experience, a stifled lament will always get in the way of our journey to Christ. I am convinced that faking joy will eventually make our worship hollow. God does not want us to pretend away our suffering. That will deaden us spiritually as much as anything.

Christ, our perfect example, taught us how to truly lament: "My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" In Gethsemane, in the act of atonement, Christ did not kneel down to praise His Father. He knelt down and lamented to Him. 

Telling someone in their own personal Gethsemane to praise God instead of allowing them to lament goes against Christ's example and, unless we allow a friend or family member the appropriate time to lament, could become spiritually toxic. Continuing to hide our sorrows will divide us from each other instead of knit our hearts together in love.

As much as I wish we could, we cannot skip the lament on our path of discipleship. We cannot praise God without first recognizing and acknowledging the sorrow, the pain, the anxiety, and the human weakness that He delivers us from. He does this in His time, not ours. 

That does not mean we turn away from Christ in our sorrows. On the contrary, looking to Christ in our suffering is the very essence of the lament. We turn to Him when there is no one else to turn to. It is a part of looking to His suffering and beholding His wounds, weaving our narrative of suffering with His. Remember the Nephites lamenting because of the loss of their loved ones in the destruction in fires, earthquakes, etc. When Christ came down, He first asked them to behold His wounds. We can behold His suffering even before He heals us of our own wounds, because His wounds are our wounds. Having faith in Christ means connecting our suffering to His.

Do latter-day saints know how to lament?

I have a six year old daughter who is an expert at lamenting. It is not a skill I have. To my detriment, I am more of an expert at concealing and discounting negative feelings, but I have learned this is not helpful when someone is truly sorrowing. If I come in armed with explanations and resolutions and sunshine to shine on her problems while she is still lamenting, I make the problem worse. The howls get louder because obviously I can't see her suffering. I have learned that I need to get down in the sorrow with her, even if I think things will be alright. I have to mourn with her. I have to support her in her lament, to validate the six year old sorrow she is feeling. The lament is a part of healing, and trying to taking it away from her does more damage than good.

In my limited experience, more often than not I see us hiding the lament from each other. We skip that part. We bear our testimonies about how Christ is with us in the resolution of our problems. That part is obvious. But it is harder to bear our testimonies that Christ is with us while we are still in the thick of it, when He is silent, when He seems invisible to us, when it feels like we have to trudge our path alone, and we are mired in the mud. (Psalm 69)

Perhaps we fear that if we are not feeling peace and joy in the gospel, we are doing it wrong. Or that we are somehow unworthy of the blessings. Sometimes we feel alone because there must be something wrong with us if we feel this way, especially when we feel like we are the only one who isn't having a nice time at church. When everyone else is wearing their Sunday best faces, how can we show up at church with a face full of sackcloth and ashes? Or worse, maybe we fear the the Lord has really abandoned us after all.

Is our suffering even welcome at church?

Each of us made a covenant at baptism that we would mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. We made a covenant to share each other's burdens. (Mosiah 18) 

Can we do this when we consistently hide our burdens from each other?

Perhaps our culture could use an adjustment. In my opinion, I think we need to learn better how to mourn with those that mourn. "Blessed are those that mourn." We need to restore the lament as a vital, holy part of our worship. "How long," should not be seen as a lack of faith, but as a sacred prayer.

Sister Amy Wright in this last General Conference states:

"Oftentimes we can find ourselves, like the lame beggar at the gate of the temple, patiently—or sometimes impatiently—“wait[ing] upon the Lord.” Waiting to be healed physically or emotionally. Waiting for answers that penetrate the deepest part of our hearts. Waiting for a miracle.

"Waiting upon the Lord can be a sacred place—a place of polishing and refining where we can come to know the Savior in a deeply personal way. Waiting upon the Lord may also be a place where we find ourselves asking, “O God, where art thou?”—a place where spiritual perseverance requires us to exercise faith in Christ by intentionally choosing Him again and again and again. I know this place, and I understand this type of waiting."

"Waiting upon the Lord can be a sacred place."

Some of my most sacred prayers I have offered in my life have been angry prayers. Prayers that came from a place of intense suffering. Those hot angry tears when the heavens felt like brass and when the suffering continued in spite of my best attempts to live the gospel—when I felt forsaken and downtrodden and forgotten and left in extreme anguish of spirit. Looking back, it was in those moments that I have connected with Christ the most, when I have tasted in some small way the bitter cup of Gethsemane and known that He understands what it is like to suffer. He suffered so that "he may know how to succor his people in their infirmities." (Alma 7) Like Paul, my allotted suffering has become holy to me because it was in it that I understood better what my Savior suffered for me.

When we sing, "Who, who can understand?" we find the answer: "He only One." (Hymn 29 Where Can I Turn for Peace) Christ's words to the lament of Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail was this: "The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than thee?" (D&C 122:8) Our physician is the only one who knows how to provide "comfort care" in our long, slow, painful palliation. But He is with us to the end.

If you are lamenting, let yourself. Lament to the Lord. Connect your suffering to His. Without any resolution on your horizon, still mired in the mud and sinking, waiting for the miracle that doesn't seem to arrive, when all your faith feels vain, let yourself lament. Cry unto the Lord. "How long!" This is a sacred prayer. Your lament is a vital part of faith in Christ. You are in a sacred space. You are connecting yourself to Him in a way that is every bit as meaningful as any prayer of praise because you are connecting directly to Christ's atonement. He is a man despised, rejected, and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53) This is your path to become like Him, and you do not have to walk it alone because you are never closer to Christ than when you are walking the lonely path He trod.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Father's Day and Finding Balance

Last month for Mother's Day, I shared my opinion that the greatest gift men could give their wives and mothers for Mother's Day is to wake up and behold their suffering. This Father's Day weekend I am wondering if there's a corresponding invitation for men.

I have to conclude that maybe it's the same one: to wake up and behold our OWN suffering, and and see the trouble that comes when we see each other as a role instead of as a person.

With the social pressure men already feel, that "true" masculinity never shows weakness or is emotionally vulnerable (or even admits there is a problem at all) it takes courage to speak about ourselves in ways that aren't considered overtly masculine. It takes courage to acknowledge our own suffering as men and seek support in it. While masculinity is a good, crucial, and even divine part of who we are, there are some aspects of cultural masculinity we have inherited that hurt us, both men and women. It is especially problematic when false binaries based on gender stereotypes highjack a sacrament meeting or Sunday School class.

Now I am going to say something a little bit controversial here, but I think sometimes our gender role fixation built up around post World War II American middle class family dynamics is akin to a modern day golden calf.

Don't get me wrong, I believe in the Proclamation to the World on the Family, and I embrace the teachings of modern day prophets about marriage. I believe that "gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose." But the model for men AND women that should be lifted up for us to behold, on Father's Day and Mother's Day (and always) should not be based on any particular cultural gender construct. There is nothing in the scriptures that convinces me of that, and plenty of real life experience to convince me otherwise.

Instead, the model that should be lifted up is Christ.

Christ showed us that a person can develop a balance of "masculine" and "feminine" characteristics in oneself without having to rely on a complementary opposite sex spouse to be made perfect/complete. In Christ, we all can learn to become whole individuals, to be "at-one" with ourselves through Christ's at-one-ment, rather than turn into lopsided men and women who can't hardly function without the other one filling in the gaps. And this actually happens. It makes for terrible relationships. The way we make that balance work for us will be as unique as we are, but it must always be a balance.

I will be quick to point out that it is never helpful to judge individuals or leaders when we fall into this kind of idolatry and lose focus on Christ as our model as men and women, but it is helpful to call out the wicked systems that make it happen. We can start by recognizing that a lifetime spent in patriarchy hardens men and encourages toxic masculinity, abuse, addictions, and shame. This is because the feminized traits that we ALL need as men to be made whole are devalued and even feared. This leads to a myriad of social ills.

Christ's invitation is to help heal all that. His invitation is for men to receive His priesthood and exercise it in order to become more tender, to witness suffering and minister to it, to weep, talk about feelings, show affection, nurture youth—to become what some social constructs might define as "feminine." Through priesthood service, we can learn how to balance feminine traits in ourselves while still holding onto our masculinity with an appropriate sense of balance. For those who are fathers, being an active part of raising children can also help us develop those traits naturally.

While so much of patriarchal systems teach men to focus on efficiency and productivity over feelings and connection, to dominate in social hierarchies at all costs, or to amass wealth and seek after individual accomplishments, many men choose to reject that model and reorient themselves towards a balance of masculine and feminine qualities. Fatherhood can help make that happen, but it doesn't happen automatically. It isn't even instinctive. The natural man has always been "an enemy to God." 

And that's why I honor the many men, especially my own father, who deliberately work to protect a space for community and the feminine collective spirit to flourish. I am grateful to know men who know how to do this very well, and even wear out their lives trying to make it happen.

No father is perfect at this. "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion." (D&C 121:39) We know Christ's priesthood "cannot be controlled not handled, only upon principles of righteousness." (vs 41) This is a near impossible task in a power structure that is totally invested in encouraging men to do exactly the opposite of what Christ invites us to do. But we keep on trying, anyway. 

I see the suffering of men as they try to provide for their families without getting consumed in the process. I see the struggle of men who confront a system that attempts to turn our divinely ordained diversity into 9-5 drudgery,  making us a cog in an economic machine that everlastingly tries to separate us from our wives and families. I see the suffering of men who are taught by the devil to fear emotional vulnerability and to run away from beholding our own weakness.

But I also see the many good men who have chosen fatherhood in the fullest sense of the word: men who use their privilege in a patriarchal society to sacrifice and serve to help foster a place for families to flourish, transcending nonsensical gender labels in order to restore masculine/feminine balance in our communities, in our marriages—and most of all in ourselves. 

Friday, May 6, 2022

Mother's Day and Raising Lazarus

Parenting is hard

Having some experience being the stay at home parent, one thing I learned about taking care of kids is not only how much suffering is involved in being a caregiver, but how invisible you feel in that suffering. A person doesn't really need someone to tell you how wonderful you are, or how you have some natural ability to do things another person just doesn't want to do—things that feel anything but natural, like cleaning up vomit at 4AM or spreading peanut butter on pickles. Telling a person they are somehow divinely designed for hardship could end up making them feel even more invisible in their suffering than before. 

No one likes a pedestal. Sometimes what a person would really like is to be seen in their suffering and then have some real help.

Sometimes I wonder if on Mother's Day men end up giving talks or sending cards that are more about making ourselves feel more comfortable with the status quo of gender dynamics than they are about validating the real difficulty of motherhood. So what would be helpful? I think Mother's Day is an opportunity for us all, especially men, to behold the suffering associated with motherhood, and then step up to do what we can to help. 

In the Garden of Eden, we might consider God's words to Eve as a kind of prototype Mother's Day talk, a precedent for how to approach the topic of motherhood. It went like this:

"Unto the woman [God] said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." (Genesis 3:16)

No platitudes or candy-coating there. Try slapping that on a Hallmark greeting card and sending it out for Mother's Day. But the point, I think, is that the first thing God did was acknowledge the suffering that comes with being a "mother of all living." While men have a corresponding sorrow mentioned a few verses later, only women's sorrow is multiplied, because Eve's suffering turns into much more than just what a woman experiences in actually bearing children.

As men on Mother's Day, we get to choose whether to minimize the suffering of women and mothers in order to make ourselves more comfortable about it, or to stand as a witness to their suffering, to validate it and acknowledge it the way God did for Eve in the garden. Witnessing their suffering first may help us to know how to be a better support.

I don't think I am being controversial when I say that Mother's Day tends to minimize suffering. Men stand in line at Costco to throw some flowers or a nice meal at their wives' or mothers' suffering and hope for the best. Though motherhood certainly is a glorious part of the plan, a Christ-like act, a selfless endeavor, a tremendous triumph of love and creation, someone has to stand up and say that wiping noses and breaking up fights and staring into the abyss of your own inadequacy as you create and raise up actual people just sucks sometimes. And the suffering doesn't end when children grow up, either.

Perhaps we can acknowledge that suffering is as much a part of delivering us physically, the way our mothers do, as it was for Christ to deliver us spiritually. This parallel suffering and deliverance between birth and rebirth is referenced by Elder Holland in his talk "Behold Thy Mother!" and has me thinking of what it means when we promise to stand as witnesses of Christ. Maybe that can also mean witnessing the suffering of others, the way Christ did. For men on Mother's Day, perhaps that means especially witnessing the suffering of women, and maybe doing a little more trying to alleviate their suffering, and a little less of contributing to it.

I have noticed in myself that there is something uncomfortable about witnessing suffering, and I think this is especially common for men. Too often we want to fix it, explain it, reconcile it, contextualize it, or incorporate it into something more palatable to our own male experience. Perhaps this might even be because we feel some measure of guilt to recognize that we are actually complicit to women's suffering, because we are doing things (or not doing things) that directly contribute to their pain. But other times our discomfort might not be our fault necessarily, but come from simply living in patriarchal systems that tend to hurt women but benefit ourselves.

But most of the time, suffering has no words and no explanations. Some pain has to simply be felt and some wounds have to be witnessed by others before they can be fully healed. For example, there is no easy resolution to the fact that creating a human child hurts a woman a heck of a lot more than it hurts a man. The act of birth can literally tear flesh. There is no theological explanation for that inequality.

For hundreds if not thousands of years, men made themselves scarce during that sacred, painful act of delivery for their children, unable to stomach the anguish of their wife and behold the blood and horror of it all. Birth was something to be witnessed only by women, and men had no part of it. That has changed now. What can a man learn witnessing the suffering of childbirth? Maybe some humility.

For me, I remember how useless and bewildered I felt in that final, excruciating act of creation performed by my wife for each of our five children. Before I watched the birth of my first child, I had conjured up in my mind an idea that creation of human life is some kind of equal partnership between men and women, but it turns out that all I could do in that moment was just stand there like an idiot and witness something that was so one sided that it made my one night's tiny half cell contribution almost laughable.

Importantly, not all of the pain of motherhood is physical pain. As God says, sorrow "multiplies" from conception. I saw this first hand during the pregnancy of our last child, when my wife's emotional and mental pain was so intense she was hospitalized in the psychiatric ward. Just as I felt helpless during the actual labor, I also felt helpless then, visiting her in the hospital with some ridiculous cupcakes, trying to understand an emotional burden that was simply beyond my understanding. But at the very least, I could be with her and witness her pain.

Furthermore, the pain of a woman does not always correspond to being a mother at all. For some women, the pain includes not being a mother or a wife, or simply not fitting the mold of a patriarchal society at all. For some the pain involves an abusive relationship, past trauma, or simply the pain of being overlooked. Whatever the suffering is, as brothers, fathers, husbands, bishops, ministers, we need to wake up and see it, and not minimize it into Mother's Day platitudes for our own convenience.

Waking up Lazarus

In the scriptures, Christ spent much of his time waking up men. In the garden of Eden, the relationship between Adam and Eve began with Adam asleep while Eve waited for him to wake up. This seems to be a trend in many relationships, including mine. In another garden, Gethsemane, Christ's disciples were also found asleep, the way Adam was, when He asked them to witness His suffering as He performed for them the harrowing act of spiritual delivery, the atonement, in much the same way that our mothers delivered us through the suffering of their own bodies.

The atonement of Christ took place in two stages. The first, as I mentioned, was witnessed by men in the Garden of Gethsemane and seemed to be focused on the physical and emotional pains and sorrows of all humankind, which caused Christ to bleed from every pore. It was a bitter cup that even Christ shrunk away from.  He asked his disciples to watch with Him three times, but each time He found them asleep. He said, "What, could ye not watch with me one hour?" Apparently they could not. Their spirit was willing, but their flesh was weak.

The second act of the atonement, we learn, took place on the cross. This was specifically witnessed by women, including His own mother who watched and waited with the Savior until He announced, "It is finished." These two acts of the atonement included two separate witnesses, male and female. Significantly, there were no women asleep at the cross.  The final act of spiritual delivery was witnessed by a demographic that perhaps knew better than men something about watching and waiting and witnessing the pains of giving birth as they watched Christ spiritually bear us so that we could be "born again."

But what about those sleepy men? And how are we like Christ's disciples in the garden? Men who receive the priesthood take upon themselves a covenant specific to them, inviting them to wake up:

"O that ye would awake; awake from a deep sleep, yea, even from the sleep of hell, and shake off the awful chains by which ye are bound...Awake! and arise from the dust...Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust." (1 Nephi 1)

So much of priesthood leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is an invitation for men to wake up and behold the suffering of others, especially women. Three men are called to sit on the stand each week and supervise the breaking and passing of the emblems of Christ's suffering to His people, the way Peter, James, and John witnessed the body and blood shed for us in the garden of Gethsemane. This is an invitation that perhaps, this time, men will not be found asleep as they consider the ways Christ suffers with His people. I am not convinced we are doing this yet, but I do believe the priesthood has the potential to help men change the world, starting with themselves, and to see firsthand the wounds of patriarchy and then work to heal them, to spur men to get over themselves and move the world toward gender equality and Zion.

The final mortal miracle of Christ according to the gospel of John is also His most impressive: raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus is the brother of two of Jesus' closest friends, Mary and Martha. These two sisters send for Him to come heal their brother, but instead of coming right away, Jesus purposefully tarries a few days. When He finally gets ready to return to Judea to heal Lazarus, Jesus goes out of His way to explain that Lazarus is not dead, but sleeping:

"Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent that ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him." (John 11)

Upon reaching Mary and Martha, their grief was so great that Jesus "groaned within Himself." Lazarus had been dead and buried four days, and Martha came running to Jesus saying "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." While Martha was comforted by Christ's testimony that He was the Resurrection and the Life, Mary's grief was so great that she could only sit within the house. She was inconsolable.

When Jesus commanded that the stone be moved away, Martha's first concern was for the smell, saying "Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days." But in spite of the impossibility of such an act, to bring to life a body so far gone in decomposition, Christ succeeded in raising Lazarus from the dead, to unbind him from the grave clothes and untie the napkin on his face.

Waking up men is something Jesus specializes in. I believe there is much symbolism in this story of Lazarus, a reminder that Christ has the power to wake men out of sleep even if that sleep is so deep they are actually dead and rotting. Lazarus is a metaphor for all men in Israel whose sisters weep outside the tomb, hoping against hope that they can be woken up by Christ's call to "Come forth!" This call, as I mentioned, comes in the form of priesthood service.

In the latter days, I believe Lazarus wakes up by degrees. Jesus taught, "He who is greatest among you, let him be your servant." The burial clothes Lazarus is bound in could remind us of the robes of the priesthood, and that each time men repent and put off the natural man and exercise their priesthood, overcoming the universal tendency for unrighteous dominion (D&C 121) that results from gender hierarchies, and respond to the call to minister to help relieve suffering, we all get a little bit closer to Zion.

In that process of raising Lazarus, many will need to be comforted. Some women might be more like Martha, content with the current explanations about the role of women, with hope that things will be better in eternity the way Martha was comforted by Christ's testimony to her. But some women might be more like Mary, whose pain was so great that she "remained in the house" and wouldn't come out for that Mother's Day sacrament meeting. Sometimes the explanations simply do not help. But whether we are ministering to a Mary or a Martha, our task is the same: we need to wake up.

When Mary and Martha suffered, it says "And many of the Jews came to Martha and Mary, to comfort them concerning their brother." This is something we all can do to prepare ourselves for the day that Lazarus will be fully raised from the dead. Christ's Second Coming cannot happen until Lazarus is awake. Though Christ tarries today like He did in coming to Bethany, the sleeping men caught under the spell of patriarchy will eventually wake up, and we will witness with wonder Christ's power to perform His work and succor His people.

"The Raising of Lazarus after Rembrandt," Van Gogh, 1890

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Tower of Babel

The (Great) Tower of Babel, Bruegel the Elder, 1563

What is the difference between building Zion and building the Tower of Babel, when both stories are about trying to build our way to heaven? How do we know which work we are engaged in? We can know by whether or not we are listening to each other.

The people in the Old Testament were trying to get closer to God. I doubt we are supposed to take the story literally, that these people were actually dumb enough to think they could build a tower high enough to reach heaven, but there is good symbolism there.

"'Go to,' the people said, 'let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And the Lord said, 'Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'" (Genesis 11:4)

In today's polarization, we are likewise confounded in our language. Sometimes, we legitimately do not understand one another's speech. When I talk with someone about certain political issues, I sometimes wonder if we are speaking in foreign tongues. So many things break down in translation. "Freedom." "Common good." "Rights." "Responsibility." We have lost the ability to communicate different perspectives with much degree of comprehension or common ground, and I appreciate that it is as much my fault as anyone else's.

Why would God confound us, members of Christ's church trying to build His kingdom on the earth? Sometimes, I think, it is because we have forgotten that we are building Zion where there are "no poor among [us,]" and have instead been building a tower of Babel in its place.

For a long time, and emerging out of a complicated cultural framework in the early 1900s, we had at last developed a solid core name to be known by, an unofficial "Mormon" identity that involved a certain culture, politics, language, and which abided by grammatical rules of what it meant to speak properly about being a latter-day saint. Those who didn't speak that language were, to our detriment, often pushed out. Our identity eventually became less and less about our belief in Christ and his gospel, and more to mean a certain political orientation and certain set of social expectations. At the time, it was easy to work together this way, all of us predominantly located in the intermountain West and superficially united in the same cultural language. But the polarization of our world has changed all that. It has pointed us to the fracture lines in our foundation. Like the Salt Lake City Temple, we need a renovation. 

As we internationalized and faced more complex social issues at home, our makeshift language that we constructed as a defense against the world "lest we be scattered," lacked the vocabulary to move forward. We  became mired in an identity that tends toward exclusivity rather than inclusivity. From here on out, if we are going to move forward we are going to have to adapt and focus on our common faith in Christ regardless of our social or political views. We need to value our differences, instead of marginalize them. In short, we are going to need to learn to speak one another's languages.

In the day of Pentecost, there was an outpouring of the sign of the gift of tongues. I believe we need this gift now more than ever. Not necessarily literal languages, but we need ways to interpret each other's differences with edification and rejoicing. Every day I lack this gift! But with each of us and our thick pioneer accents that hail from a multitude of different motherlands, we must learn to understand one another. Our ways of gesturing and communicating will vary depending on our life's experiences and a variety of political and social backgrounds, but taking time to listen to someone who speaks differently is going to be necessary work. It will enrich our church with diversity. It is the gift of interpretation of tongues. Without it, there will be no Zion, only the Babel of the 6:00 news.

The common language, the one we shall never throw away because it is the everlasting alphabet of our Savior, is the gospel of Christ. It is the language of Zion, the means to make a society consist of the "pure in heart" and where there are truly no poor among us. Christ's gospel language demands a rhetoric of bold defense for the most vulnerable among us, rather than focusing on ourselves. Christ's gospel is the language of service, inclusion, and love. Without learning to listen with love, our work will look less and less like Zion and more and more like the Tower of Babel, or perhaps even like Lehi's vision of the great and spacious building.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

On Convoys and Caring

We talk a lot about a health care system because that's what it is. It's a system. Like any other, it is based on efficiencies and statistics and bottom line dollars. We analyze bed capacity and staffing and projections of possible admissions, equipment needs, budgets, vaccination rates, and skill sets. Like any system, it has hierarchies and values, and choices must be made every day about which values have priority.

So it is not surprising that some people feel lost, unheard, and invalidated in this system. It is a real problem. More than anything, I am concerned that many people are losing their trust in this system altogether, especially their trust in health care providers, as legitimate questions about a rapidly changing pandemic come about as quickly as the tidal waves of information and misinformation that try to answer them.

When we have a question about the wiring in our houses, we go to an electrician. When we have a question about migration patterns of dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, we ask a marine biologist. But for some reason, when it comes to our own bodies, more and more we are turning to the people on the internet, many whose credentials are inflated or entirely misrepresented, and then turning around to call the ones who have spent their entire lives studying the human body and epidemiology untrustworthy. What is going on here? Are some people just idiots? Or could there be some problem with us in healthcare?

Now, I am hardly some veteran, experienced nurse over here by any means, but I have done some thinking and tried really listening to a lot of people with different perspectives than mine, and while I still think many are totally quackers, I have come to the conclusion that not everything is their fault. I think part of the blame is with us. It is my opinion that much of the pandemic fallout shows us that our healthcare system could use some tweaking.

I hear many people who feel like their concerns about vaccines and side effects often go unanswered as we rush them through the system like a production line in a factory. The drive to vaccinate has always been about numbers, statistics, and a race against time, and to some degree rightly so. But we all know that one of the biggest problems in this pandemic has been that people are not feeling heard or seen. Some people feel talked down to or ignored by their health care providers in the rush to protect the public and stop the spread, or just because we don't have time or energy to explain the same thing one more time. Some people feel like they are even treated like the enemy because of their health beliefs. Some honest questions are met with derision or a brush of the hand instead of an attempt to give thoughtful answers. This has to be, in part at least, our own fault. The metaphorical call bells are going off somewhere else in the ward and so we triage, we prioritize, and sometimes we just don't have time to explain why we are doing what we are doing, Mr. Jones, so please just sit down and take your dang medicine because we don't have time for your shenanigans.

Right now a trucking convoy for freedom, with a lot of my friends hollering their support, is a symptom to this problem of not feeling seen or heard. The pressure has been building for a long time. It is hard to listen to and see the answers from someone when you don't feel listened to or seen by them first. It speaks to a demographic who hasn't had their concerns acknowledged for two years. In my church we teach that 

"No power or influence can or ought to be maintained...only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—reproving betimes with sharpness...and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy." 

As I see many who now esteem scientists, government officials, and even healthcare providers as their enemies, I wonder if we need to re-evaluate how we do things.

Any system like ours naturally thrives on administration and bureaucracy. We all know this. Rules and policies and rollouts and shareholders are what steer Alberta Health Services, not the benevolent nurse who holds hands and validates feelings. This does not mean administrators do not have their place. We need administrators and science informed policies and quality control and someone to balance a budget. But it isn't enough. It is not a balanced system if we don't carve out and protect a space for caring and compassion and listening and nurturing and a whole lot of patience. And I think this is what is missing today.

In any system there is a Yin and Yang of feminine and masculine qualities to make things run smoothly, but more often than not, the masculine qualities of efficiency and quantifiable production will beat out the feminine qualities of the compassionate, caring nurse every time. Because newsflash! We are living in a patriarchal system. We value masculinized characteristics over feminized ones. It's the very air we breathe, and healthcare is a pretty good case study for it. The administrative qualities will rise to the top and the nurturing qualities of caring will remain unpromoted at the bottom.

After the physician strolls in and gives the diagnosis and writes the prescription, he will have to move onto the next one, because this is an assembly line model with a waiting room out there full of other patients, and with specific billing procedures to follow. Most policies are formulated with the business model in mind. Almost all physicians I know are furious with recent changes in our province that make it even more like an assembly line, with artificial quotas and red tape that put unnecessary restraints on a physician's ability to take time and care. Meanwhile, on the other side of the team, nurses are facing the cutting block in virtually every budget meeting, and it is a constant fight to even keep our place in the system at all! Some suggest that humans in healthcare could be replaced with an App. Obviously, this is an imbalanced system. This is not news to anyone who works in health care, and we generally work out that balance between efficiency and caring in our practice as best we can.

Every nurse I know starts out caring deeply about people. They are naturally drawn to a profession that values listening, taking care of people, talking with them, alleviating suffering, and teaching. But more often than not, the system doesn't allow much time for that. When you are short staffed on the floor and the bells are ringing, the expectation is that you get the job done, even if it means treating people like pieces of meat in a factory as if everyone just needs a pill and a wipe and then you can send them out the door as fast as you can because the hospital is in overcapacity again. A nurse can quickly become jaded in such a system. There is a good reason you might get greeted by a tired, crusty, burnt out nurse who doesn't have time for your questions. It isn't that she or he doesn't care. They probably cared too much. But when you are treated like a cog in a factory, it will get to you eventually, and it isn't necessarily our fault.

Mind you, there are so many heroic caregivers that go above and beyond every day to take time to see the people instead of the numbers. But it is largely unsustainable in our current model. Anyone who cares deeply about people in this system all the time will burn himself or herself out. So you learn to ration your feelings and your caring, because compassion is not an inexhaustible resource. The time taken to explain treatments and answer questions and provide education about medications including vaccines to a blustering Mr. Jones is about maintaining an attitude of caring, sometimes superhuman acts of caring, and more often than not, this is the part that gives out well before the physical exhaustion sets in. 

This side of health care, good nursing care, cannot be valued properly when the entire system is based on a masculinized business model where the bottom line is efficiency and people's health become the commodity. The pandemic has put even more pressure on us, and the gaps are glaring at us even more than they were before.

There is so much about our health care system to love. Socialized health care for all is something I am fiercely enthusiastic about. But I know not everything we are doing is working great right now. For one thing, voting for policies and governments that continue to gut the healthcare and education system in the name of freedom and a dollar will not work for me anymore. For another thing, I despair to see more and more people I know turning to the wild west of the internet for their scientific and health information, wading through garbage because they don't know the difference between politics and peer review. But I can't blame them. There is a reason they don't feel comfortable to turn to their own health care providers for clarification. How would they even get an appointment? To me that is the most alarming thing.

As I watched this past week's freedom convoy, battling between feelings of charity and disillusionment, I began to wonder what freedom and caring even means anymore. What it means to me. What is freedom without caring? Without truth? Without responsibility? As caregivers drown in the impossible task of single handedly educating a nation, of listening to people mired in conspiracy fears and trying desperately to earn back the trust of a demographic that has become more and more disillusioned, and all this while we face the unrelenting workload of saving lives in a short staffed and burnt out fifth wave, it becomes obvious there will be no convoy on their way to Ottawa demanding support for nurses and healthcare providers anytime soon.