Thursday, November 10, 2022

Insisting on Saying "And" in Times of Complexity

My newest favorite word in the English language is "and."

I think it's a human tendency (or maybe it's just me) to categorize things as either/or, as if there is a psychological need to sort information into some kind of system in order to understand it, in order to process the overwhelming stimulus that washes over our brains at every moment. It is one or the other. There is no inbetween. We categorize. We sort. We label. 

Especially when things are complicated or painful, we crave the simplicity that comes from organizing the world into binaries. Like a computer that is programmed to speak in binary code, we tend to define something based on what it is not. "Don't touch that burner because it is hot." "Put on your coat because it is cold." Black/white. Right/wrong. Light/dark. Up/down. Our early years are spent learning what things are by defining them against their opposites. It is built into our language, and language is what defines our reality. 

Categories are just easier. When you ask a child about colors, they might think they know the entire rainbow when they tell you about ROYGBIV. But as we grow, we learn that earth is a spectrum of unnamed and limitless colors. Our world holds every degree of hue, tone, light and shadow, and the diversity of life is found in the vastness of Eden's rainforest that fits every plant and creature deliberately into its designated degree of light.

God's truth embraces all life, and "light cleaveth unto light" that "grows brighter and brighter until the perfect day." (D&C 88:40, 50:24) Meanwhile, Satan's lie to Eve that "everything has its opposite" breaks down Eden's divine diversity by leading us all into a lone and dreary world of devilish binaries. His way of defining reality will ultimately bring about the death of the self by forcing us to fit our spiritual identity into a wasteland of opposites, none of which truly capture who we are. He soothes us with his counterfeit identities and manufactures an alternate quest of self by enticing us with modern comforts bought with money and exploitation, but none of it is ever enough. We gradually get the feeling that it is all just emptiness. It is a worldview we learn to reject over time as we partake of the fruit of experience and learn wisdom.

One of the things I love about Joseph Smith is how his revelations get us away from these satanic binaries: right versus wrong, good versus evil, heaven versus hell. Instead, he set us up with an entirely different system: degrees of glory, degrees of light, degrees of intelligence. He frames our world in terms of truth and light that grows or diminishes by degrees instead of seeing things as "all or nothing."

The word "and" allows us to see the truth that lies hidden between the binary. The "and" principle (or "dialectics" as it is more properly called) is the process of taking two apparently contradictory ideas and putting them side by side in ways that help us learn how they can fit together. It can help us resolve cognitive dissonance and live with greater integrity. As everything around us accelerates toward polarization, finding new ways to use the word "and" can help us avoid contention and find better connection, love, and peace. It will protect us against the breakdown of our communities.

Allow me to take a quick look at a few dialectics that I have found useful to examine: 

1. Politics. I have learned that a person can choose to hold conservative political views about one issue AND liberal political views about another. You don't have to align the entire spectrum of political diversity into two political parties. There is no democracy in that. When we insist on whittling ourselves down into binaries, we lose our nation's collective experience and wisdom. Creating rigid binaries in politics is how wars get started. Instead, we can insist on the word "and" to discover what we really believe about a particular issue and allow others to do the same. We don't need to force ourselves into pre-manufactured political narratives, especially those specifically designed to spark contention.

2. Religious and non-religious. A person can leave the church AND still keep faith and goodness with them. A person can be going to church AND still be as far away from God as it is to get. While I have a growing testimony of the church and its priesthood ordinances, I am also convinced that we can't build Zion with an "us vs them" mentality. Any person can believe strongly in one true principle AND still struggle with believing another. We don't have to believe or do everything all at once, having an "all or nothing" sort of approach, but rather we learn "line upon line, precept upon precept" to increase our spiritual light and knowledge over time like a sunrise that is not done rising. A person can be going through that process both inside and outside of the church. Wherever you are at in your spiritual journey, you can reject narratives that are based on the "believer vs non-believer" binary because in reality we are all on a spectrum of faith that is either waxing or waning over time. In my opinion this shift can help us connect when we experience doubt, rather than cause unnecessary divides.

3. To go along with that, any person at any given time is simultaneously a sinner AND a saint. In other words, a person can be inherently good and worthy AND be struggling with the darkness inside them. We are all a dynamic mix of darkness and light.

4. Sexuality. (Okay, bear with me because this one gets a little personal.) Sexuality is not a binary. A person can be attracted to the same sex AND the opposite sex. Defining sexuality along a gay/straight binary does not really capture the spectrum that is the human experience. For example, those who know me well know that I experience same-sex attraction and that it is a significant part of my life's experience, but I am also a husband and father who is in love with his wife and to whom I am also very much attracted. How would a person like me categorize? Bisexual? That word doesn't seem to capture the choices of love and commitment we have built in our marriage, either.

Most people view sexuality as a binary, probably out of convenience more than anything, knowing full well that the categories breaks down. However, in the heat of the debate and to galvanize a cause, I have felt a low degree of tolerance for my existence from both those who champion LGBTQ rights and those who seek to protect traditional family values (though not all people do this.)  It would be wise and kind for us to use the word "and" a little more. I have learned that it is important to recognize that human sexuality absolutely does include feelings, identity, and attractions (which should never be minimized) AND it is also about our choices (which also should never be minimized.)

5. Gender. Men and women are not opposites. A person can have feminine traits AND still be a man, and vice versa. It is my belief that a strict and arbitrary "blue vs pink" gender paradigm and strict gender role system that doesn't allow for personal adaptation stymies our growth and stops us from seeking knowledge that might fall outside of our gender experience. It can also stop us from "seeking the best gifts" and develop Christ-like attributes regardless of gender stereotypes. Though most men might tend towards masculinity and most women might tend toward femininity, not all do. Gender is heavily influenced by cultural and social dynamics based on gendered power structures, and focusing more on the overlap between men and women can help take us beyond immature categories and into a place of better self-acceptance that allows for more healthy relationships. As it turns out, men are not from Mars and women are not from Venus, and actually we are just a giant jolly mess of people from planet Earth, each with a wide variety of interests, talents, and abilities that defy gender binaries.

6. One last one, and an important one: life can be incredibly painful AND so incredibly full of joy at the same time. (And contrary to what "Princess Bride" says, I am not trying to sell you something.)

There are SO many more I could mention. My newsfeed always seems to be flooded with new ways of categorizing and dividing us into teams that are based on fallen world binaries, and so there is always a new dialectic to be examined. It is exhausting work, but it is also worthwhile work. As we learn from latter-day interpretations of the Fall (as outlined in 2 Nephi 2 and in temple liturgy) experiencing opposition (situating ourselves in a fallen world of opposites) is the gateway for learning wisdom.

What are some complex questions you are wrestling with right now that could be clarified by applying the word "and?" Your dialectic will almost certainly look different from mine, but I am confident that all of us have to wrestle with more than a few in one way or another.

In practicing dialectics and using the word "and" I do not mean we should advocate for moral relativism—to take "right" and "wrong" and put them together in a way that throws out morality. On the contrary, it is my personal belief and experience that God's commandments and His very few "divine absolutes" given to us from prophets help us navigate our way out of these destructive binaries, but only as much as we are willing to keep the commandments with love. Without love, as we learn in the scriptures, the law is just another dead end. 

Jesus taught that "all the law and prophets" are about loving God and loving our neighbor. (Matthew 22:40) When we keep the commandments with love, we are adding to our reservoir of truth, because love leads us to truly listen to each other, and this helps us find new ways to use the word "and" to work our way through some of our more tricky dialectics. Relationships, for whatever reason, seem to be the best catalyst for bringing up ways to refine ourselves through this process—to learn how to hold onto yourself and your views AND another person's in a way that allows them both to exist at the same time. Love teaches us to use more of the word "and" and less of the word "or" in order to be inclusive rather than exclusive about who gets to belong in God's family. 

In my life, I have learned that holding two contradictory ideas together by this little conjunction "and" can be a painful, difficult task, especially when others try to pit certain sides of an issue against each other in an "us vs them" scenario. As a same-sex attracted, married, covenant keeping latter-day saint, living my life in this battleground has been my experience almost every day. Sometimes we are called to hold two white-hot and politically or socially charged truths together in our hands at the same time, and we may be tempted to drop one in order to allow ourselves to fall into simpler "either/or" narratives and binary categories. This was a central struggle for me, to find ways to hold onto my faith AND my sexuality. It was no cakewalk, but what I did learn was that with nuance and grace it is possible. Ignoring or rejecting one or the other may spare us the tension of what may seem like an irreconcilable contradiction, and sometimes for our mental health we may need to rest from the battle for a time, but I have learned that the experience of applying the "and" principle to see the truth on both sides can be a sanctifying experience.

For me, holding onto truths found on both sides of my dialectic has been the only way to live authentically and joyfully. It has allowed for God's love to thrive in my life. It has allowed me to open up my heart to others' experiences. For those whose experiences are different from mine, including many family and friends, I have space to hold onto their truth with love and respect by wielding the mighty word "and," doing my best to listen with an open heart and allowing their experience to exist without judgment alongside my own. I am by no means perfect at this (as many can testify, social media is where it can be hardest for me sometimes) but it has been beautiful the few times I have been able to do it. I rejoice when others can do the same for me.

The point of this post is not to make a statement about my sexuality specifically (which, to be honest, wouldn't otherwise be anyone else's business.) Neither do I mean to make myself into any kind of standard (to force my narrative onto another LGBTQ person is exactly the opposite point I am trying to make.) What I am saying is we must learn to turn away from false dichotomies more generally and insist on saying "and" instead of "or" in times of complexity. Learning how to do this, in my view, goes beyond the arena of individual growth and has now become an issue of global preservation. As so much of the world keeps trying to recruit us to their newest teams and we move steadily towards Book of Mormon tribalism and polarization, we must each reject Satan's model of opposites and seek "to circumscribe all truth into one great whole" by using the little word "and" as often as we can in our interactions with each other. In fact, our world depends on it.

I am grateful for Christ, who for me is the greatest example of how to use the word "and." That's the word He says to me when I learn to be more honest with Him and show unto Him my weaknesses and allow Him to turn them into strengths through His grace. (Ether 12:27) I have faith that He gets me, especially when most people do not. When I am called to dwell in that lonely, awkward in-between space between fallen world binaries, He "reaches my reaching" (Hymn 129) and helps me feel seen and loved for who I am. I believe He sees my potential as a child of Heavenly Parents, and through His grace reconciles every apparent contradiction inside of me through His love. He sees my dark AND my light and He weaves them both together in a way that makes me uniquely whole—more like myself than I ever could become without His help. For this I will be eternally grateful.

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.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

"It Shall Be Well With Him"

 "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." (1 Cor. 13:13) It has been helpful this week (for me anyway) to look at these three Christian virtues as they are situated in time. 

1. Faith

In a lot of ways, faith looks into the past. It is the evidence of things not seen, the substance of God's works as they have unfolded to us previously in human experience, either anciently as recorded in the scriptures, or in our own more recent family and personal experiences. Faith is a power of action. We build on past faith by "experimenting on the word," (as Alma puts it) which comes to us "like a voice from the dust" from the past to propel us forward into the unknown. Faith is not blind believing, but acting on past evidence. In some ways, faith is always dependent on the past. It is the "faith of our fathers [and mothers,]" the foundation upon which we, their children, must build. It is our first step in the gospel that connects us to God, but every step of faith we make, as soon as it is taken, becomes another part of the past upon which our discipleship is built.

2. Hope

If faith arrives to us from the past, hope always points us to the future. In Spanish, "to hope" is the same verb as "to wait." It is future tense, waiting with conviction for better things. It is the power that helps us see beyond the mortal muddle we are in, whatever feeling or emotion that drags us down in our lives. We hope for a future time where negative emotions or experiences can be resolved. We hope that some day we can sit down together in heaven through Christ, in a state of peace and total acceptance and with a perfect restoration of lost loved ones and lost blessings. Hope is the "anchor to our souls." (Hebrews 6:19) It is what helps us to make sense of less than ideal circumstances. Hope looks forward towards the ideal of what we and our fallen world can become in Christ.

3. Charity

But, of course, a life cannot be lived in either the past or the future, because it must be lived in the present. The most important time frame is now. We cannot focus our living on the experiences of the past, nor to the hope and idealism of the future at the expense of today. However much we would like to escape the discomfort of the present, to the suffering of the human experience around us on any given day, focusing solely on the past or future does not allow space for the crowning Christian virtue, which is charity, the pure love of Christ. Without His love today, our faith and hope in Christ is "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal," for without charity, we are "nothing." (1 Cor. 13) And so our lives must be spent trying to ground ourselves in the present, connecting with the beauty, humanity, and suffering of ourselves and the people around us by practicing love.

Charity is given to us only as we seek for it, pleading "with all energy of heart" that we might be filled with this love. (Moroni 7) Unlike faith and hope, which can be cultivated in solitude, love is relational. It forces us to connect to each other so that we can knit our hearts together in love. (Mosiah 18) It is what we are commanded to practice with each other now. Right now. Today.

Love is now. Love is not based on a person's past, or our past interactions with any person, because Christ's love does not allow itself to be clouded by how people once were. Neither does pure love look forward to the future, to some future state of a loved one, hoping that someday this person will be something other than what they are right now in order to love them. Just as Christ is present with us in each moment through His atonement (that perfect manifestation of His love) the pure love of Christ helps us to love and accept one another how they are now. Love does not demand that another person be different than they are in order for us to resolve our own feelings of tension or discomfort about a person's behavior. Love embraces that tension. Love hurts because it comes at a cost, which is the cost of our own growth, to expand ourselves more in order to include another person more completely in the orbit of our love. In other words, love is our work and willingness to grow so that we can better love another person.

Too often what I call love is not actually love, but another version of hope and faith. I think this is common. In other words, we love people because we hope they will change into something they are not, into what we think they should be. Hence we withhold love in the present tense by projecting our love for them onto the future, some time when they are more worthy of our love. Other times we love someone for what they once were, drawing on our love in the past tense, because of memories and experiences we shared together in better times, and so we have faith that things will work out for our relationship like they have done in other situations. Make no mistake, faith and hope can be good things, important and extremely vital things. With Christ, faith and hope are often the building blocks of love.

But every crisis of love comes to us in the present. It is charity that "never fails," not our hope or our faith. Love sees people without their baggage and without any expectation or ulterior motive from us for their change. We see each other for who they are. We listen to each other for what they are feeling in this moment. Love validates them in the present. It is what we are all so hungry for, because to be human is to hunger for this kind of love.

Christ loves us while we are yet sinners, that even if we should never cease to be sinners, His love would not falter at all. It is a constant the way the sun is, for it shines for us every day in the present. He suffered for us not based on our potential, but because of who we are right now, in this moment. We do not work to be worthy of His love someday, gaining love by degrees until we have cleaned up and shaped up and attained the fullness of His love. His love is already full. Christ loves us perfectly, infinitely, exactly how we are now.

How can I learn to love another person with this kind of charity? I believe it is the greatest task one can attempt to undertake, to learn to love someone exactly how they are without trying to manipulate or love them into submission. Learning to love another goes beyond my feelings for them. It is renovative. It is radical. It changes the world precisely because it changes myself, starting with my own heart. Love disrupts my natural tendencies, fundamentally making me a new creature. It makes me put away my "natural man"—all my insecurities, my fears, my ulterior motives, my comfort, my pride—so that I can be filled instead with Christ's love.

What I have learned about myself, for all my lengthy words and deep thoughts and circular arguments and righteous desires, however noble they may be, is this: I need this love in my life. I lack it. Every time I am called to put it into practice, I come up short. I feel the weight of my discipleship so much more when I try to act on it, than when I try to explain it or talk about it in the abstract. One can only know how impossibly heavy this task is by picking it up and trying to heft it for themselves. Charity is my biggest yearning and greatest potential for strength, but it is also my greatest weakness. Reading about the love of God in the scriptures points me to my need for repentance, to change my heart, clear away the overgrown brambles of my own fear and pride, so that Christ's love can take root.

Before I did this study exercise about charity, I believed that my love could change people. Perhaps, to my shame, that was what attracted me to it. It still can, I suppose, but now I am learning that it is not at all in the way I thought. I admit that I sometimes thought of charity as a kind of weapon. I wanted to obtain it mostly so I could use it to my advantage. I imagined, "If only I could love someone enough to change them." Studying about charity has taught me that the pure love of Christ isn't used to change other people. It is used to change me! Every opportunity to love someone is an opportunity for me to be changed, not the other way around. When I allow Christ's love into my heart, it makes me new. That is where the renovation occurs, not in some other person whose behavior or way of being happens to make me uncomfortable. Charity changes the world because it changes the heart of the person reaching for it.

In reality, being the self centered animals we are, I also have come to realize that charity is truly impossible. There is always some lingering animal fear that pops out of me, some selfish thought which interrupts it. Charity is the unattainable ideal of dreamers. As long as I am housed in mortal flesh, I am unable to generate this kind of selfless love on my own. But this is exactly why it is a miracle wherever it is found! And truly, I have seen it. I have felt it. Because my love is always tied up in my base and animal desires, Christ gives me His love, instead. When I pray for it, I am given opportunities to feel it, to see someone the way He sees them. Even if it only flashes into my heart for a moment, it leaves marks that permanently change me. Mine are simple moments that become recorded in my spiritual memory: an unexpected ice cream cake, a tupperware bowl of macaroni, a late night knock at a wooden door, the touch of a hand. These were times I was on the road to Emmaus and felt my heart burning.

"And whoso is found possessed of [charity] at the last day, it shall be well with him." (Moroni 7) I want to experience Christ's love not just once, but over and over again. I want that gift, to see someone with His love so that it changes me into something I am not, something more than I am. I already know I am a stubborn, insecure, anxious, prideful person with a fragile and easily deflated ego, and I know I become defensive and uncomfortable in the face of human vulnerability, especially my own. This has been a difficult but much needed discovery.

But I know His love changes me. It situates me not in the past, which is fraught with the evidence of my weakness, nor in the future, which is already looking like it will involve more of my failures. Choosing charity focuses me on the present, on the opportunities that are around me right now, because it is in the present where His grace is found, both to give it and receive it. Charity is the yoke we take upon ourselves when we take His name upon us. It includes the yoke of His grace that is both easy and light, but also impossibly difficult. But for now, it is sufficient for me to know that there is an unlimited supply of Christ's love to accompany me in what I will have to face today.