Thursday, December 17, 2020

Undecorating the Tree

Our Christmas tree has got a lot of ornaments on it this year. It is borderline absurd, but it is full of nostalgia and I love it. I have tacky ornaments I made in kindergarten, mixed together with the delicate glass ornaments that we got for our wedding 14 years ago. There is a creepy Santa ornament from who knows where. We have a glass bulb that says "Adrien" on it, even though we have no idea who Adrien is. There are 'First Christmas" ornaments for each of our children, and then there are the special and carefully chosen ornaments of our kids from their aunt and uncle each year. There are even just random items that our kids thought to stick a hook on and hang it on the tree. It is all quite messy and very lovely. The lights manage to shine brightly through all the ornaments, and I can still feel the spirit of Christmas when I sit quietly taking it all in from the couch in the darkness.

But I have to admit, with all those ornaments, it can be hard to see the Christmas tree underneath all those decorations.


Looking Beyond the Ornaments

When I was growing up, I remember being taught quite forcefully, "No matter what happens, no matter what trials or questions you might have, you always go to church." It was a good lesson, but I laughed just a bit to myself this year when the pandemic hit, and I was suddenly commanded by the prophet to stop going to church.

I wonder if, with all the well-meaning rigor of trying to point me in the right direction, the focus was too much on the church and not enough on the Savior whose church it isa little too much ornament and not enough tree.

The truth is, I love church. I always have. I love the gathering, the rituals, the forced tittering that goes out over the congregation when the same old icebreaker jokes re-emerge at the beginning of a talk. I miss the awkward conversations in the foyers and the crying babies being taken out by their parents. I miss the smiley grandpa ushers at the doors. I miss the rustle of green hymn books. I miss the teenage boy slip-ups over the sacrament prayers and the too-long primary presentations, and that one blessed member who always gets up and bears their quirky testimony. I miss the full pews and the last-minute clanking of metal chairs in the back as more people trickle in. I miss the smiling, mask-less faces. I miss the pulpit kleenex box and the scratchy walls in the hallway and the basketball hoops hanging over the congregation at the back. And oh how I miss the singing!

It filled my soul up.

But, as it turns out, all of that stuff was just ornaments on the tree.

During the past several months, there have been times when, trying to reconstruct my weekly worship, I almost felt spiritually orphaned. Home church was wonderful enough, and of course I loved gathering for the sacrament in my living room with my kids, and being able to participate more intimately in the emblems of the Lord's Supper. But I admit that I felt just a little bit lost without the traditions, the social side of church, and unwritten parts of my worship that have grown up with me right alongside my own hardwood testimony of Christ. 

I never realized how much I would miss "rubbing shoulders with such good brothers and sisters."

But I think the time away was well spent, because it forced me to focus on something even more important than churchmy own personal relationship with Christ.

All that stuff I have been missing you might call the form of the gospel. The ritual, the physical church building, and all the outward expressions of my faith that were expressed therein. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vessel, a carrier of the message of Jesus Christ, and a very good one, I believe. But I think sometimes I have confused the form with the substance of my Christian faith. I wonder if I have sometimes been guilty of over-emphasizing the church over the Christ. It has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

Form vs Substance

It is very easy to talk about the form of our faith. It is the statistics. It is the number of operational temples, the growing number of wards and branches, the number of missionaries, the callings, the policies, the formal and informal liturgy, the callings, the people in the pewsall the outward expressions of our worship. They are measurable. We can talk all day long about the dollars spent (or not spent) on humanitarian aide, or the growing (or dropping) activity rates, the subject matter of conference talks, the policies, the programs, and even the most sacred and necessary parts of the gospel and why they are important. But it is much harder, impossible even, to measure the substance.

What is the substance?

The substance is Jesus Christ, a very real resurrected being who lives today to change our hearts and our behavior with his everlasting love and grace. It is hard to measure the substance of Christ, because it is manifest in so many immeasurable ways, like an increase of love for a neighbor, a strengthened family bond, the unexpected forgiveness of an enemy, a changed heart, or the redemption of a sinner.

Both the form and the substance are necessaryyou can't have the substance of your faith without having some kind of container to carry it inbut focusing on the form rather than on the substance can be spiritually damaging. Nephi taught:

"And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words [the form], believe in Christ [the substance.] And if ye shall believe in Christ, ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good. And if they are not the words of Christ, judge yefor Christ will show unto you with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day." (2 Nephi 33:10-11)

Nephi's method asks us to put our belief squarely on the substance, on Jesus Christ. If you don't believe in the Church right now, believe in Christ. If you really don't know how you feel right now about this messy church, for whatever reason (many of which may be well justified) well then, try just believing in Christ. Peel back the layers of ornaments and get a glimpse of the tree. Examine the substance, putting aside all the ornaments that may have overcrowded Him. Talk to Him. Listen to His Spirit. Faith in Christ will lead anyone to the path we need to follow Him in, in whatever form that may look like. Focusing on Christ leads us to make surprising changes, and take both the most wayward sinner and ardent believer to some unexpected places.

Basing our testimony on the form can be terribly limiting, because the form does not have any power in itself to save a soul or change a heart. The church's function is only to carry the substance of Christ's body and blood shed for us. The church is the imperfect vessel for the perfect Christ, and it must change, shift, mature, grow, recant, and make mistakes according to the times it is in, the inperfect leaders appointed, and the general sins and blindspots of a generation at any given moment. Having a testimony of the church without qualifying it with our belief in Christ will never end well, because the church is in a process of refinement as much as we ourselves are. Sometimes it leaks. Sometimes it has to change course and adjust the sails. But ultimately, if you want to know if this church works in its mission to bring you to Christ, you have to focus on Christ, not the vessel. In the storm, the disciples didn't turn to the boat to save them. They turned to the Savior who was sleeping in it down below.

Sometimes I think we care more about keeping up with appearances with the form of our worship than we do about the substance of our worship. We often tell those that struggle to keep white-knuckling it, to always go to church, "fake it 'til you make it," as if we are looking to the church itself for our salvation. While I have learned for myself that the ordinances of the church are a necessary step to bring a person to Christ, and that our willingness to engage in the programs of the church can be essential to our spiritual growth, maybe the topic of church should not be the focus when we feel like a loved one is drifting away. Telling someone to believe in the Church and then, hopefully, somewhere along the line they will end up believing in Christ, is exactly backwards to the method Nephi recommends. 

If we make Christ the focus of all our invitations, rather than the Church, I believe He will better shepherd our loved ones back to the covenant path, in whatever way that looks like for His children, and He will do it in His way and in His time. Instead of inviting to church, we should invite to Christ, starting with ourselves.

Over the past few years, our prophet has decreased church by an hour, then cancelled it altogether for most of this year. He has retired and simplified the programs. He has slowly (or not so slowly!) removed more and more of the bells and whistles of our worship, and repeatedly asked us to focus on Christ. President Nelson has emphasized the sacrament, asking us to re-examine the tokens of Christ's body and blood that we take into our bodies every week (which is a beautiful interplay between the form and substance of our worship.) He is consistently reinforcing the foundation we need in order to survive spiritually in this unstable world. That foundation is always Christ, not the church.

I will be the first to admit that this pandemic has been hard on me. I miss very much being able to participate unrestrained in the traditions and weird, wonderful culture that represents my spiritual heritage. I would love a good and awkward ward Christmas party right about now. I ache for the routines and rituals that gave me much needed support for my faith. Having it all stripped back to the absolute basics has felt like lion claws in my spiritual hide. But I think it has been good for me. Even after this pandemic is over, I can't imagine the church ever going back to where it was. This gives me a fair amount of anxiety, but also hope. We have grown out of a shell, in a sense, and I think we are getting ready to move into the next one. I look forward to witnessing that change. 

We really have changed in 2020, and so has the world. Removing the many ornaments that have been accumulating for 200 years on the branches of this tree has been hard, but necessary. 

I will continue to commit myself to the form of this church by keeping my covenants, but I am also grateful for this year that has taught me where I really need to place my focus: on the tree of life, on the evergreen branches of my Savior's grace, and on the only true substance of my faith.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Spiritual Questions, Scientific Questions


General Conference, April 2020
General Conference, April 2020

It feels like a long time since our prophet spoke to us and announced that temple work, missionary work, and church services would be altered significantly, or even put on hold. It was a remarkable thing for a prophet of God, the ultimate spiritual authority, to defer to public health and scientific experts to shape policy for the church.

"After prayerful consideration and with our deep desire to be part of the solution to this challenge, we have recently made many temporary adjustments to the way we worship and serve the Lord."

And then, shortly after, 

"We are grateful for the helpful direction that government, health, and civic leaders have provided to keep us safe. And we will continue to be prayerful and proceed with an abundance of caution."

As a former physician and as a prophet, President Nelson asked members of the church to follow public health guidelines, and to pray and fast for those affected by the pandemic.

Since then, things have changed for Latter-day Saints. We adapted well to church at home, and our  revamped ministering program announced over 2 years ago seemed divinely tailored to this new situation. Our priesthood authority is already planted in individual homes around the globe, and gospel teaching and weekly sacrament continued without interruption for many of us. This was truly our time to shine! Our community centered belief system should have made conquering this virus easy-peasy. Utah could have emerged as a beacon, showing the world a doctrine that teaches us about unity, care for the vulnerable, and cheerful obedience to authority, which could help stem a plague as effectively as rams blood above the lintel.

But that was decidedly not the case.

Right now, Utah has emerged as one of the global hotspots for the virus. The disdain and outright antagonism there for public health restrictions is (hopefully) a vocal minority, but it is much louder than it should be. And unfortunately in a pandemic, it only takes a minority for a contagious disease to spread out of control. And it is also all that is needed for the contagious spread of lies and misinformation.

Oh Say, What is Truth?

In this 2020 pandemic, one of the big questions that is being debated right now is who on earth has authority to proclaim truth about what to do. These are indeed times of uncertainty and social upheaval. To me, one of the prophet's takeaway messages in this pandemic is that when it comes to spiritual questions, he will continue to provide very much needed direction from the Lord. That is his responsibility forever and always. But when it comes to scientific questions, he prayerfully defers to the experts. 

During my lifetime, I have seen the problems that happen when a person rejects spiritual authority in favor of something else. When you reject the prophets, carving out your own truth and making yourself or worldly voices your new authority on spiritual truths, you are setting yourself up for spiritual chaos. Similarly, when you reject scientific authority, making yourself a sudden expert on infectious diseases and epidemiology after some hours spent in the rabbit holes of youtube and fringe media sources and websites, you are setting yourself up for public health chaos. 

And that is exactly where we are right now.

What happens when we begin to disregard scientific authority? Even members who are spiritually anchored can still find themselves "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of [secular] doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive." (Eph 4:14) Just as we would be in a dangerous place if we were to say, "Prophets don't know what is right for me!" we are also in a dangerous place when we start to believe, "Overwhelming scientific evidence doesn't know what is right for me!"

What We Know

The fact is, we actually do know quite a lot about how pandemics work. We know how a respiratory virus spreads. We also know what works to make a virus stop spreading. We know all about the germ theory, that a virus doesn't spontaneously appear in your body from nowhere, but from contact with droplets of an infected person. This person may or may not know if he/she is infected. The virus doesn't care. We know that these droplets generally come from your nose and mouth. Wearing a mask over said orifices actually does work to stop these droplets from spreading. If you mask is medical grade, even better. Not reusing your crumpled juicy mask in your pocket day in and day out, and then going on to touch things with your unwashed, nose juice hands? That's public health nirvana. We also know that social gatherings is where most of the spread happens. Physical distancing, keeping your hugs and kisses and social gatherings to yourself, and washing your hands frequently is really going to make a difference. Because, science.

We also know that this virus is significantly more virulent than the flu. For example, John Hopkins states that COVID-19 has killed more people in the US in one year than the influenza has killed in the last 5 years. The death rate of influenza has been around 0.1%. The death rate for COVID-19 is more like 3.1%. This is a significant difference. Worldwide, 1.5 million(!) people have died, and this is likely an underestimate. As much as we would like to bury our head in the sand and believe that this is not a big deal, it just is.

Another thing we know is what our capacity is in the health care system. We know how many beds we have, and how many staff we have to care for sick patients. We know our limits, and we know when they are being pushed. We also know what happens when we don't have the capacity to care for sick patients. People die.

In the crass words of one conservative pundit, "Facts don't care about your feelings."

In spite of overwhelming evidence, these facts about the virus are being drowned out by loud and politically motivated individuals and groups that don't care much about scientific authority. This is particularly true in the United States, and for various reasons. Some groups rely on pseudo-science that works to tear down good research, basically the scientific equivalent of passing around anti-Mormon pamphlets. These groups have their own political interests and agenda. They will continue to call the pandemic a liberal hoax or "just the flu" because it is politically expedient to do so, facts and pesky scientists be darned. What do they care for the weight of scientific authority? Their efforts have effectively politicized this pandemic, making it much more difficult to control, and increasing death and loss of livelihood. 

This politicization is not totally unexpected in a world that is becoming more and more divided in the ongoing culture wars.

Truth Embraceth Truth

In the gospel, we are taught that scientific truth and spiritual truth fit together. "Truth embraceth truth" (D&C 88:40), and it doesn't matter whether that truth is spiritual or physical in nature. However, the process for obtaining spiritual or scientific truth are actually quite different. When we have spiritual questions, we go to the Lord. When we have scientific questions, we hunker down and do the research. 

Jesus Christ is the creator as well as the Savior, and he understands both scientific processes and spiritual ones equally well. The Lord can, and sometimes does, reveal things to us that may be considered scientific. President Nelson, for example, relates the time he had a revelation about how to perform a particular heart surgery and save a patient's life. But for the most part, and especially when it is within our ability, the Lord expects us to "study it out with our minds" (D&C 9:8) and seek for knowledge "out of the best books" (D&C 88:118). The Lord sent us to learn things from our own experience, to engage with scientific discoveries and increase our understanding of this incredible world. In short, we came to this earth to learn about things both physical and spiritual.

We get that mixed up sometimes. We rely on feelings when we should be relying on scientific evidence, and we rely on scientific evidence when we should be relying on our feelings. For example, some have pointed to a lack of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon to justify them leaving the Church of Jesus Christ. The question about whether the Book of Mormon is true is a spiritual question, not a scientific one. On the other hand, some people are relying on their feelings about masks, vaccines. essential oils, or what have you, when we should really be relying on the evidence. We can't let our emotions override the findings. Most importantly in light of this pandemic, we don't determine public health policy based on our feelings.

Neil L. Anderson said, "Spiritual questions deserve spiritual answers from God."

Likewise, we might also say, "Scientific questions deserve scientific answers from the united voice of experts and scientists across many fiends."

(And this should go without saying, but scientific truth is never, ever established in the newsfeeds and comment threads of social media, which is unfortunately where people are turning to more and more for their information.)

The Question of Authority

One of the problems is likely an honest ignorance about what constitutes good authority and good research. Not everyone can be a scientist or a public health expert, so we have to rely on the expertise and authority of others quite often, and this can be tricky. Is there anything wrong with this?

C.S. Lewis said, 

"Don't be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you've been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven't seen it myself. I couldn't prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority-because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life."

Unfortunately, some latter-day saints have gotten caught up in dishonest and biased researchunreliable authorityabout various things. This is maybe not their fault. It is hard to know what is good authority based on a surface level perusal of the internet. For example, there is plenty of people with apparent good authority, claiming excellent credentials that state they have evidence that vaccines cause autism. Closer investigation shows that these studies and authorities are definitely not reliable, and their disregard for ethical rules and the basic scientific process becomes quickly apparent.

But unfortunately, it is infinitely harder to kill a lie than to tell one. In the tidal wave of information on the internet, falsehoods spread without restraint, and it can be hard to know what is good evidence and what is not. You can find "evidence" of nearly anything on the internet nowadays, from aliens that place mysterious monoliths in the Utah desert to fairies. How can we possibly know what is true? 

Because we can't know everything, turning to people we trust with background and expertise in that area is always a good idea. Getting out of the echo chambers of our social media accounts is also vital. Admitting when we are wrong, especially when we unknowingly spread misinformation, is difficult but always a good idea. What is NOT a good idea is to dig in your heels when the evidence is against you. It is an even worse idea to reject science outright, and then go on to believe, without evidence, that there is a widespread conspiracy among all the experts in that field, one so insidious as to involve thousands of physicians and medical examiners and researchers across many nations, and that in their everlasting snobbery and greed and hiding behind their degrees and years of academic effort, they are collaborating together to lie to you. This is not only ridiculous, but it is a slap in the face to these people, many of whom are sacrificing much and working hard to keep you safe. They are not perfect, and science is by definition an ongoing process, not an end result, so asking questions and engaging with the research is always a good idea, particularly if you are a scientist and have a way of legitimately entering the conversation. But the authority of science is not something that should be dismissed just because you don't like what it has to say. Evidence based research has brought us incredible progress, and to reject it is to return our society back to the superstitions and social divisions of the dark ages.


One thing we are fairly good at in this church is recognizing spiritual authority. We believe that prophets act as watchmen on the tower, seeing things we can't, and that they know what we must do in order to stay safe. However, culturally, I think we are far too skeptical when public health officials stand at their pulpits as a kind of watchman on the tower, and explain to us the looming crisis based on their research, statistics, and the invisible things they see under their microscopes. Maybe what we are missing is a basic respect for scientific truth and an understanding of the scientific method.

And yes, perhaps we do have good reason to be suspicious at times. In the past, there have been plenty of instances when science was unkind to matters of faith, and definitely overstepped its boundaries. I am not advocating for science worship, or to accept wholesale whatever science is selling to us in every situation. To place our trust in science is not the point. "Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm" (Jeremiah 17:5). We never throw out spiritual truths from God for the transient truths of man.

But God is always interested in evidence. "Faith is the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1) and "the Spirit speaketh of things as they really are" (Jacob 4). We do not need to throw up our hands in despair, thinking we can't know anything anymore. This just isn't true. Just as we can all gain spiritual knowledge though a defined process, so can we engage with the evidence around us and listen to the united authority of those whose gifts and expertise we do not have in order to obtain a better understanding of the physical world as well.

Spiritually and scientifically, in order to conquer the enemy, we must act together in faith. Not blind faith, but faith based on the evidence of our own critical thinking and judgment, proceeding with careful humility and hope, and without fear. The truth can unite us, while misinformation will always divide. We will need to do better than fringy websites, conspiracy and fear driven belief systems, and crackpot politicians that are more interested in political gain than they are in your safety. In the words of President Nelson, "Good inspiration is based upon good information."

And in this brave new age of misinformation, we need to get a better handle on what good information really is.

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Election is Over (Kinda). Now What?

This has been a rough week/month/year/whatever.

The pandemic, the breakdown of civil discourse, the ignorance, the divisions, and then this deplorable, way-too-long American election—I think it has been exhausting for all of us, no matter where we land on the political spectrum.

If there is one thing that can unite us at this point, it is our shared misery.

I know that religion and politics are two things that you aren't supposed to talk about too much, but during the past year, our collective nose dive into chaos has made me wonder if avoiding difficult subjects is really a good idea.

It has also made me think about what the Church of Jesus Christ can possibly have to offer against these growing divisions.

It has made me think about some things we might be getting wrong.

Cracked Sandstone Foundations

In October Conference 2020, President Uchtdorf talked about the early Saints in Utah in the 1850s as they tried to establish Zion and build a temple. He said:
"Just as the temple foundation was nearing completion, an army of United States soldiers approached to forcibly install a new governor. Because Church leaders did not know how hostile the army would be, Brigham Young ordered the Saints to evacuate and bury the temple foundation.

"I'm sure some members of the Church wondered why their efforts to build God's kingdom were constantly being frustrated. Eventually the danger passed and the temple foundations were excavated and inspected. It was then that the pioneer builders discovered that some of the original sandstones had cracked, making them unsuitable for a foundation.

"Consequently, Brigham had them repair the foundation so that it could adequately support the granite walls of the majestic Salt Lake Temple. Finally the Saints could sing the hymn "How Firm a Foundation" and know their holy temple was built on a solid foundation that would last for generations.

If this sounds familiar given the circumstances in which we find ourselves today, it’s because it is." (God Will Do Something Unimaginable, October 2020 General Conference)

This year, as we have been forced to bury some aspects of our church worship in this pandemic, and now, as we slowly begin to excavate our foundations and return to church again, it may be a good time to ask ourselves, "What are some of the cracked sandstone foundations we have been building on? Is it possible that we may have made some mistakes trying to build Zion?"

1. The Gentile Dilemma:  Politics

About 8 years ago, I went to priesthood session in Utah with some family. There was the familiar buzz of brotherhood as we all crammed into the chapel in our white shirts and ties and made our way to the metal chairs at the back. One family member quipped to his young sons, "See that guy over there? He voted for Obama!" to which there was the sounds of teenage disgust and a chilling remark, "What is he even doing here?"

The warm feeling of unity and brotherhood I felt coming into the building immediately went cold. I wondered "If a worldwide priesthood conference cannot unite us, what on earth can?"

Both sides of the political spectrum have been engaged in a sort of "fight to the death" for some time now, basically the American political version of the Jaredite's last battle of extermination at Hill Cumorah. Unfortunately, this fight has spilled into our church culture as well. Because the church has been aligned for so long with conservative politics, the past decade has overwhelmingly marginalized people with liberal views, but it can certainly happen both ways. How does this happen? Hugh Nibley said:

I have been...much too easily drawn into what I call the Gentile Dilemma. That is, when I find myself called upon to stand up and be counted, to declare myself on one side of the other. Which do I prefergin or rum, cigarettes or cigars, tea or coffee, heroin or LSD,...Republican or Democrat, black power or white power, land pirates or sea pirates, commissars or corporations, capitalism or communism. The devilish neatness and simplicity of the thing is the easy illusion that I am choosing between good and evil, when in reality two or more evils by their rivalry distract my attention from the real issue. (Hugh Nibley, "How Firm a Foundation! CWHN 9:163)

As I mentioned, it is not just conservative members who have demonized the other side. Liberal members can look down in disdain at conservatives too. But, overwhelmingly, I have seen intolerance from Republican members towards Democrats. It ranges from suspicion ("OMgosh They voted Democrat, I bet they will be leaving the church soon) to outright antagonism (If you vote Biden, you support communism and killing babies.)

Increasingly, in our modern wasteland, we sometimes favor categorization over diversity. We divide the world into false binaries: good/evil, black/white, and liberal/conservative. For example, the American election took the incredible diversity of people with different political thought and opinions and attempted to squash every person into one of two parties. Over the past couple of decades, there has been an incredibly destructive polarization of nearly every issue. Suddenly, if you support humane immigration policies, you are immediately accused of killing the unborn. If you support tax cuts, you also support locking children in cages. You have to accept wholesale a political party and its leader, and to depart one iota on a complicated issue is to defect to the other side. Caught in this ridiculous binary, the space that the Constitution works so hard to protect, that specifically allows for diversity of opinion and a wide range of belief, is being whittled down into two insanely polarized groups: right versus left, conservative versus liberal, Republican versus Democrat. Ladies and gentlemen, arm yourselves for a Nephite/Lamanite battle to the death at Cumorah. Sleep on your sword. Prepare for civil war.

If the problem in America is a particular issue or seven, then it may be tempting to gravitate to the strongman that will fix it, that can own the enemy, wipe the floor with their liberal tears, and win the war. Vote for the president who can do this, no matter how divisive or ugly the method, no matter what character flaws he might have. But if the problem in America is actually our division, then our tactics will need to be very different. We will need to vote for someone who will unify us, not divide us. Then, and only then, when we are united as a people, can we come together to address any other issues that may be on our minds: tax cuts, immigration, abortion, gay marriage, etc. It is not one political leader or party that can save us in these culture wars. It is our collective unity and brotherhood.

It doesn't take a genius to note that our divisions are hurting our nation. And they are also hurting our church.

For years, I have sat in church classes where both students and teachers have discussed at length how "the liberals" are destroying the family, the church, the nation, and the world. How can we expect our brothers and sisters with liberal views to stay? At these times, I have looked around the room in these classes and seen faithful saints with their faces down, in obvious pain at the way they are being other-ized in a gospel that they love as much as anybody else. I have seen people hurt by insensitive and incredibly divisive social media posts of friends and family that only push away members who are sincerely trying to find their place in the gospel. At university, I watched helplessly as many of my friends found new and exciting ways to think about the gospel, and with a determination to stay faithful in the church, but over time started to feel pushed out. Some were called apostate just for voting for the wrong political party. Sometimes they were excluded or shut down in the Sunday School lesson. Other times they were just ignored, hoping they would go away and stop rocking the boat so that we could go back to talking about comfortable things. 

Eventually, many found that there was no place for them in their wards, and they left. Small wonder.

Would you stay?

In saying these things, I am not talking about who is politically right and who is wrong.  This is not about the "Gentile Dilemma." 

This is also not to say that we all don't have a very important right to express our opinions and views openly and freely. We do.

What I am talking about is how to create a culture of inclusion in our church. I am talking about putting down exclusionary language in the gospel. I hope we would never go the other way, and point to the people in our congregations and think, "See that guy over there? That man is a Trump supporter. What is he even doing here?" We need each other. Every one of us. We need to talk to each other, learn from each other, combine our different spiritual gifts and listen, regardless of our political views. The eye cannot say to the foot, "I have no need of thee." We need diversity to nudge us all along the path of spiritual progression. Losing our brothers and sisters in the gospel with different views is as spiritually stunting for us as it is for them.

2. The Tower of Babel

In the Old Testament, we read about how the people of Babel were trying to get to heaven by building a tower. Perhaps they had the City of Enoch in mind, and they figured that if the city of Zion could ascend to heaven, so could they.

"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)

Why would God disrupt their righteous goal to get to heaven? Wasn't their heart in the right place?  Well, perhaps they had fallen into the trap that there was a man-made way to reach God. They were united, to be sure, and "they had all one language," but it wasn't the right one. So the God of diversity made them speak a lot of different languages. Chaos ensued. From here on out, if they were going to try again, they were going to have to learn to speak one another's language.

One of our towers that we are erecting to get ourselves to heaven, I believe, is our politics. We who are trying to build our way to heaven may say, "And let us make a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth." We have to define ourselves somehow. We need a Latter-day Saint identity, lest we be "scattered" in the world. But sometimes that name we use to define ourselves is not Jesus Christ, and nothing else will do. "For there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved." (Acts 4:12) Do we have a different identity, a different set of beliefs that we are using to get to heaven, besides the gospel of Jesus Christ? Do we sometimes think that a certain set of political beliefs is necessary to get us to heaven? Some might call it conservatism, others liberalism, or Republican, or Democrat. Whatever name we use besides Christ doesn't matter. Satan doesn't care much which side of the horse we fall off on. 

Perhaps the current confusion in our political discourse is a little like the tower of Babel. Sometimes, trying to have a discussion with someone with different views feels like we are speaking a totally different language. We don't understand each other. But perhaps this time the only way to build our way to Zion is to learn to speak one another's languages.

3. Towards Inclusion

Sometimes I wonder how I can help friends and family who have left feel like they want to come back to church. I recently had the realization that maybe it is us that needs to change to bring our loved ones back, more than them. It may require more from me than making room on the pew. I need to make room for them in our culture. If only a certain "type" of person fits in, I mean really fits in—a red-blooded, white Republican who likes green jello—then how can I expect my inactive friends and family to return (who, I guarantee it, have also learned valuable lessons we could learn from, and have needed gifts they could share with us)? 

What if it was more about what they can do to fix us, rather than what we can do to fix them

Or what if it isn't really an "us versus them" scenario at all?

We need to stop with the quips and quotes like "No member can be good Mormon and a good Democrat." Put your artillery of out-of-context President Benson quotes away. Because nothing could be more intellectually and spiritually limiting than replacing the gospel with a political platform. Like the Zoramites in the Book of Mormon, I sometimes wonder if we have created for ourselves a scripted form of worship, one that leaves out Jesus Christ, that we preach atop our rameumptons of rigid political conservatism. "Thank you God that we are a more chosen and holy people than [the liberals.]" (Alma 31.) (No doubt some liberals could offer the same prayer!) Their homogenous and dystopian form of worship was maybe, at least in part, because the Zoramites had unceremoniously thrown out of their city all who disagreed with them. This led them to a dearth of diversity of thought. Diversity is the vehicle for learning and growth, and if we continue to push out members when their views don't fit in with a political narrative, we might just end up like the Zoramites, and we should not be surprised when our gospel experience goes stale and our Sunday School becomes an echo chamber.

Of course, our prophets are ahead of the game. The Come Follow Me program, together with a recent official endorsement of informal study groups and faithful podcasts and online resources outside of the correlated manuals, has opened up many doors for us to engage with new ideas and experience new perspectives. Who has not read the Book of Mormon this year and seen it differently than they ever have before? This pandemic has, interestingly, led us to some inspired time away from Sunday School, to discover some dynamic and innovative ways to engage with the gospel directly, most of all with the scriptures themselves. I believe it has helped us get beyond the tired manuals and scripted lesson plans of our past. The burying and excavating of our foundation in 2020 has revealed a cracked foundation that we can work together to replace.

It is important to state that I believe firmly that the core teachings and doctrine of Christ cannot and must not change. Certain commandments are not for us to revoke or alter. But there is enough pharisaical hedges around the law that we can legitimately clear away to make space for our brothers and sisters, and do so without dismantling the laws of God. As followers of Christ, our greatest strength should be our ability to love people who are outsiders, like He did, and nurture them gently onto the path of eternal life. We can accept each other as they are, and leave the changing entirely to the Lord. But unfortunately, this is something we fall on our faces with again and again. Myself included.

If we don't change our trajectory, the one that the Book of Mormon teaches us about, it won't be long before we are again classifying ourselves into "all manner of -ites," breaking down into tribalism along social, economic, and political lines. We will eventually reach the same epic downfall that the Nephites did. 

Truly, the gospel of Jesus Christ is all inclusive and has the power to break down all our petty divisions, because Christ's atonement is infinite and applies universally to all of us. We can put away fears and insecurities about our differences in this gospel, move on over, and make room both culturally and politically, putting our full faith in Christ's incredible ability to unite us while still preserving our beautiful diversity.

Conclusion: Hear Him

It has been 200 years since Joseph Smith, exhausted from so much ideological warfare, retired to a grove of trees to hear the voice of God.

"Nevermind, all is wellI am well enough off. I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true."

Those were the first words of Joseph Smith to his mother after he saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ in 1820.

Now, 200 years later, we live in a world that is again lost in a "war of words and tumult of opinions." This time, it is not about which church we should go to, a debate that has mostly died out years ago.

Today, the debate is about which party to join, how to interpret world events, what news source to go to, how to think, who to be loyal to, which policies are right, which philosophies to evangelize, which social media posts to share, which pages to follow. The debate is as intense now as it ever was in upstate New York in 1820, and I doubt that the arguments have changed much at all.

This year, our prophet has asked us to ponder the meaning of the restoration of the gospel, to celebrate 200 years since God told Joseph Smith to "join none of them."

We could all do with a little more sacred grove in our life.

We each can go to God and find revelation from Him that is entirely different from the old, tired, human arguments of whose interpretation of the world is right, and whose is wrong.

We all can witness the finger of God, which eternally points us to His Beloved Son, as he calls us each by name and asks us to "hear Him."

I truly believe this is the Church of Jesus Christ, but our politics and cultural differences, however right we think we are, should not distract us from who actually saves us. Him. Not our political or social views. The foundation, the rock upon which we are to build, is Christ.

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

 Everything else is just cracked sandstone.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Two Towers

I've been reading King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon lately. It says,
"For the multitude being so great that king Benjamin could not teach them all within the walls of the temple, therefore he caused a tower to be erected, that thereby his people might hear the words which he should speak unto them." (Mosiah 2:7)
From his tower, King Benjamin taught beautiful and powerful principles of humility, the atonement of Christ, covenants, and serving one another selflessly and without judgement.

I have thought about the utility of that tower. Being a prophet and king, Benjamin had something he wanted to say, and he wanted everyone to hear it, so he built a tower so he could accomplish that. For some reason the tower was a detail significant enough to include in the Book of Mormon narrative. 

Maybe there is some application for our day. What messages do we want to share? When is it appropriate to build a tower?

There is a second tower in the Book of Mormon that served a similar purpose:
"For [the Zoramites] had a place built up in the center of their synagogue, a place for standing, which was high above the head; and the top thereof would only admit one person...Now the place was called by them Rameumptom, which, being interpreted, is the holy stand." (Alma 31:13) 
From this Rameumptom, the author explains, "they did offer up, every man, the selfsame prayer unto God, thanking their God that they were chosen of him, and that he did not lead them away after the tradition of their brethren, and that their hearts were not stolen away to believe in things to come, which they knew nothing about. Now, after the people had all offered up thanks after this manner, they returned to their homes, never speaking of their God again until they had assembled themselves together again to the holy stand." (Alma 32:21-22)

Social media can be a lot like these two towers. It can literally be referred to as a "platform." Social media is a place where we can share a  message and be heard.

I have seen a lot of Rameumptoms, or "holy stands." I have spent plenty of time preaching from one myself. I would really like people to see me, like my posts, and think me wise and holy, that I am "chosen" and not deceived by all the idiots out there.

I have also seen King Benjamin towers on social media, and their authors have inspired me with their goodness, their truth, and their humility. Like King Benjamin they proclaim that "I of myself am not more than a mortal man...subject to all manner of infinities of body and mind." (Mosiah 2:10-11) And like King Benjamin, they teach the gospel of Christ.

Unfortunately, I think social media tends to be more Rameumptom than Benjamin's tower. We all try to say the right things, "to be seen of men," and then go home and do precious little to actually live our righteously proclaimed beliefs. (Or maybe that's just me.)

Significantly, a Rameumptom can only fit one person. It is always about furthering one's own interests. The posts on a Rameumptom tend to be pious and pretentious, self-interested, and cookie cutter.
Wanting a tower to share a message is not a bad thing. Finding ways to be heard can be a great idea. In fact, we have been encouraged by prophets to share the message and our faith on social media. Jesus Christ said, "A city on a hill cannot be hid."

But what matters, I must constantly remind myself, is not what others think of me, or about being seen or admired, but the content of my message, the content of my lived discipleship, and the content of my heart.

I want to be more like King Benjamin.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Earth Day 2020

I inherited a love of nature from my grandma and grandpa Matkin. 

As a young boy, my grandpa took me on walks in the coulees and in the mountains. He taught me how to identify and classify the plants and animals we saw. He showed me that the more you knew about nature, the more respect you had for it. More recently, I inherited from him his 35mm slides of wildflowers, with the flowers' names carefully labeled. As I went through them on an old projector with my kids, I thought how wonderful it is that I had a grandpa who took pictures of wildflowers.

My grandma taught me how to see and appreciate beauty. She was breathless in her enthusiasm over pretty flowers and trees, scenery and birds, especially hummingbirds. One of my favorite stories of her is when she was snorkeling in Hawaii. She became overcome by all the vibrant colors and diversity of the tropical fish to the point where she had to stand up in the crowded bay and shout out loud, "Oh! You are all so beautiful!" Her reverence for creation always felt like a big part of her religion, and it stuck with me.

Our church teaches some amazing doctrine about the earth, and how we must learn to both take care of it, and to share it.

Joseph Smith revealed:

"For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.

But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low." (D&C 104:13,16).

And again Joseph Smith teaches:

"For, behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance. 

But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. 

And wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need." (D&C 49:19-21)

That is some pretty radical stuff there.

Modern day prophets have pointed out the relationship between spiritual pollution, or sin, and the subsequent pollution of the earth. And while some stubbornly question man's environmental impact, especially climate change, I think that "seas heaving themselves beyond their bounds" and increased natural disasters and climate extremes in the last days is solidly scriptural, and that it is a result of our wickedness, namely our greed, our rampant consumerism, and social and economic disparity.

Enoch saw the earth groaning, saying "Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me?" (Moses 7:48)

And finally, President Spencer W. Kimball:

"When I pass through the lovely countryside or fly over the vast and beautiful expanses of our globe, I compare these beauties with many of the dark and miserable practices of men, and I have the feeling that the good earth can hardly bear our presence upon it." (The False Gods We Worship, 1976)

I believe that reverence and good stewardship for the earth, especially by sharing more freely our resources, will inevitably turn our hearts to God, and vice versa.

In short, I believe as Latter-day Saints and Christians, we should take our environmental stewardship very seriously.

Happy Earth Day.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Peter and His Shadow

This week, I had a sobbing nine year old in my arms. He was frustrated and burnt out trying to be good. He had done his very, very best. I could tell he had tried to be a kind brother, and to do what he was told, but he has a temper, he likes to tease, and when he doesn't get his way, he often resorts to violence. In despair, he said he was just bad no matter how much he tried; that he had might as well give up and accept it.

I had to admit to myself that I understood what he was feeling. I understood it so well that it hurt.

A thought hit me, though, and we got talking about Peter Pan and his rebellious shadow. His name is Peter, so the connection came easily.

The story of Peter Pan begins with a severed shadow that doesn't like to behave. The shadow romps wild, gets into mischief, and refuses to obey the real boy Peter, to whom it is supposed to be attached.

I asked him, "Which one of them was the real Peter? The shadow or the boy?" He answered of course, "The Peter." But this was a bit of a trick question, because both of them can feel just as real as the other.

He and I then spent some time in the scriptures discussing what it means to have a "natural man." Each of us comes to earth with a body, one that is full of passions, appetites, and carnal responses that are designed to survive in the fallen world around it. Like Peter, we all have a shadow and, try us as we might, we can't make it just "go away."

Though it feels as real as can be, our physical body, together with all our millenia of finely tuned evolutionary reactions and passions and animal instincts is only a shadow of who we really are. It is a temporary existence. It will die. The truest Peter is the spirit inside you, the son or daughter of God, the boss to whom the shadow must learn to obey and respond correctly to life's complicated stimuli. 

But that doesn't mean that our feelings and temptations aren't real. They are an integral part of who we are. We cannot become who we are inside by killing the shadow. Our mortal wrestle isn't to find out which one will live and which one will die. Having a shadow just means that we learn to integrate them together, to find balance between our spiritual and physical selves. They must learn to live together.

The Shadow

The amount of light we have shining in our lives will affects our shadow's size. Some days, when the source of light is low, our shadow rises up to 2, 3 times the natural size of our spirits. Other times, when the sun is high in the sky and all the world looks bright, it seems to shrink down to almost nothing.

Learning to master that shadow, our physical self, is the principal purpose of our existence here.

"For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father." (Mosiah 8:19)

So, what does that mean, to "put off the natural man"?

"You can't stick it on with soap, Peter. It needs sewing."

Everyone has a shadow. As a gay man, my shadow sometimes feels more complicated than most, but I don't think it really is essentially different. Like anyone else, my particular shadow does not always match my spiritual desires. I know that I am a child of eternal parents, that marriage is an inescapable part of both my physical and spiritual heritage, and my spirit truly wants to try and follow God's plan of marriage and family.

However, I simultaneously have a body that, simply put, wants to have a long-term, intimate relationship with a man. My natural self is not aligned to my spiritual self. They are mismatched. Like Peter, my shadow does not function the way my spirit wants it to.

Like Peter Pan, for years I tried to reconnect my shadow with soap. I believed I had to repent of my natural man. I had to "pray the gay away." I had to cleanse myself of my physical attractions. I believed that since I had a body that wanted those things, that I was sinful.

It was a huge and deeply personal revelation to me when I realized that the Lord accepts me how I am. I mean how I am now. He knows all about my shadow, and He doesn't expect me to kill it or wash it away with soap or get rid of it at all. He designed it. He gave my shadow to me this way. On purpose. He knows it doesn't match the celestial glory I came from and am trying to get back to. He doesn't need me to repent of my natural feelings or attractions or desires. They are not a sin. This is important, because if I thought I had to get rid of my shadow to get to heaven, and change my mortal attractions, extract any unrighteous desires in order to be accepted by Him, and, well, the only option to do that would be suicide. If the suicide rates among LGBT youth prove anything, forcing that kind of a narrative on a vulnerable person leads them to it. I have spent some time considering the logical conclusions to that line of thinking, and I will not go back there. There is a better way.

As Wendy told Peter, "You can't stick it on with soap, you know." While sins can be washed away by the atonement of our Savior, our shadows stick with us. This is important, and it is part of God's plan. Our shadows are the catalyst for both growth and grace.

However, God does expect us to learn to control our shadows. We can't have them romping around the nursery and making a mess. How can we do this? As the scriptures teach us, it is done by bringing our "natural man" to Christ. Christ has promised me a gospel program that will help get my shadow synchronized with who I am inside. This is done by keeping the commandments which He has provided. But just like Peter couldn't sew on a shadow, or even knew what sewing meant initially, I require a Savior to do this part. A disobedient shadow needs sewing. It requires sealing. A rebellious shadow requires making and keeping covenants that bind me to Christ.

In the book Peter Pan, Wendy says, "I daresay it will hurt a little." And it really does. But it is the only way there is to get me put back together properly.

The Resurrection

The Savior is the Master of dealing with our shadow selves. He does it not by throwing them away, or banishing them, or burying them forever in the graveyard. Our flavor of Christianity is somewhat unique in our insistence of a literal, physical resurrection, complete with a God with "body, parts, and passions." Our physical body, our "shadow," is not something to get rid of. It is an important part of the plan, that even God has one, and we need one to find joy. Christ promises us that our bodies will rise up, joined forever to our spirits to never again be separated. He promises us a resurrected body that matches perfectly our spiritual selves.

In the meantime, we get to decide what kind of spirit our resurrected body will be matched to:

Therefore, as they had become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature, this probationary state became a state for them to prepare; it became a preparatory state. (Alma 42:10)

Our physical selves will be joined forever with our spirit, yes. But the type of body we get will depend entirely on the type of spirit we have chosen to become here. Alma teaches Corianton at length about the resurrection, that who we are here will determine what we are resurrected to later.

And now behold, is the meaning of the word restoration to take a thing of a natural state and place it in an unnatural state, or to place it in a state opposite to its nature?

O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish—good for that which is good; righteous for that which is righteous; just for that which is just; merciful for that which is merciful. (Alma 41:12-13)

If I choose to live contrary to celestial law of marriage and eternal family now, how can I expect to be raised up a celestial body in the next?

Paul explains that there are different types of bodies we can receive, depending on our choices here in mortality:

"There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another...So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption...

The first man is of the earth, earthy [the shadow]: the second man is the Lord from heaven. As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly."(1 Corinthians 15:40,42, 47-49)

What we sow in this life will determine the type of body that will rise in the next. If we sow celestial seeds by submitting to the plan of God, putting off our natural, carnal selves (our earthy selves, as Paul puts it,) keeping commandments (including chastity), then we will receive a body that will match our "the image of the heavenly" of who we were before we came to this earth. The shadow will be synchronized with our spiritual selves. While we will all make many mistakes and live contrary to God's spiritual laws multiple times a day, if we stick with Christ and repent and try to live according to the gospel, He promises us that we will be made a new creature in the resurrection. A perfectly integrated creature.

As hopeless as you feel integrating your shadow into your spiritual self, His atonement is infinite. He specializes in miracles, even in raising the dead. He will raise your shadow romping around the nursery and grow him or her up into a son or daughter of God.

Who We Really Are

Growing up gay in the gospel was/is a difficult process. My main question I wrestled with is the one all people must face, "Who am I, really? What do I really want? Do I even want this stuff? Why would I want to live in an eternal family, anyway?"

When I was young, I knew I had felt the spirit before, I loved the gospel, and the teachings of the church resonated in my heart. I truly wanted to be a dad and a husband. I wanted family. My spirit wanted it. It was a part of who I was. It was an undeniable part of my spiritual identity.

But at the same time, I also had feelings that absolutely contradicted these desires. I wanted a husband. I wanted a sexual relationship with another man in a way that I was taught was contrary to the plan of God.  My whole self seemed to crave it. It was also a part of who I was. It was an absolute part of my mortal identity.

I was mismatched. The wrestle between those two parts of me was dire. It seemed like an impossible battle. And it is.

Lehi taught Jacob:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God. (2 Nephi 2:11-12)

There is not just opposition to all things. There is opposition in all things. In me. In my very nature. The struggle inside me was (and continues to be) a difficult part of my mortal experience. But the opposition is what helps me to grow, and it is by design.

Which part of me will I choose to follow?

Lehi reminds his son, "Remember, to be carnally minded is death, and to be spiritually minded is life eternal." (2 Nephi 9:39)

I can't put my physical and spiritual selves together any more than I can raise my dead body up and stick my spirit back into it. Putting them together is Christ's job, not mine. 

But what is my choice is whether I will stick with Christ and have faith in His ability to make a miracle out of my mismatched life.

As a son of God, my spiritual DNA is designed to become like Him. To grow up. But unfortunately, there is no forced maturity in God's plan. I have to choose, and then choose it again. And then again. Every broken day I get to choose.

My question is the same question for everyone, whether you are gay or not: Will I let my shadow self run wild in Never-Never Land and choose never to grow up, trying to find my identity with the rest of the lost boys? 

Or will I fly back to reality, and to Christ?


Monday, January 27, 2020

The Name Vivian Means Alive

When you were, you were full of life, clapping your hands when we got together, holding my little arms and dancing ragtime across the floor. You passed food around the room with authority, with the experienced motion of a well oiled machine. You arranged us into places; you gathered us, crammed us into your living room that was more than a living room. When I was a child, you felt like a womb, and when I sat there on your lap and had you read about Strawberry Shortcake and Huckleberry Pie, your breath was warm in my ear. You were all velveteen and lotion. When you put my own children on your ninety year old lap and bounced them up and down the way the lady rides, I remembered that. They all fell asleep in your arms while you hummed, rocked them gently as if your whole body were music.

The resistance you displayed when we cajoled you to sit down on the organ bench was a necessary act of humility. You sniffed before you played, reached your feet down to the foot pedals as though putting on your most comfortable shoes, and leaned back. Your fingers flipped the stops effortlessly and at last settled on the keys. You looked over at us and smiled. And then you played.

In the end, it was organ failure. A cruel joke, I thought. The infection spread through your mortal circuits and flipped off the switches of your melody, one by one. The rushing of air out of you was like a pipe organ being powered down. When I touched your hand as you lay dying in the hospital, it was not your hand. It was not your instrument anymore.

When we buried you, it was right next to the Organ family in the cemetery. I didn't even know that Organ was a surname and I almost wondered if they were put there as props. We poked each other through our winter coats and pointed to the snowcapped tombstones when we saw them there, and smiled our wan little smiles. Then I stepped forward, stood by your body, bowed my head, and dedicated a rectangular piece of ground to you, promising you that it would not stay closed forever, that you would rise in the morning of the first resurrection.

I was hardly your most musical grandchild by far, but I was the one who got your organ. I chuckled to call you my "organ donor." After we carried it into my home I sat down on the bench and cried when I realized the cover over your keyboard was locked, and I had lost the key in the move. For several weeks it sat there like a vacuum, like an aggravating weight, heavy in the silence. In desperation, I succeeded in picking the lock. I lifted the lid and started to play it surreptitiously, feeling like a bandit, looking behind me occasionally because I could never play it the way you did, and I thought you might be watching. Besides, it was still yours somehow without the key.

When we were pregnant again, you had been gone two years. It was a hard pregnancy for my wife. The valley of death for a mother can be in the mind, too. Depression is a thief. But with every little flutter of our child inside her, I knew there was hope still. There was a spirit fighting for life in there, and it would only grow stronger and more viable in time. At last, my wife became the mother of all living once again. It was a role, Nana, you had mastered by the end.

We named her Vivian, after you, and just before she was born, we found the key. Your old organ key. It was buried in a potted plant, of all places. My five year old scoundrel must have wedged it in there without thinking, the way little boys do mindless mischief when they wander bored through a room. I held it up and thought to myself, grasping for a metaphor, "This organ key was buried the same way you are." It was certainly rusted a bit, but it still fit the lock, and when I turned it this time, I knew it was with your permission. 

You are playing your music somewhere up there, and I have to believe you are still alive to share it with me.