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Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #3

     Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

     Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

     Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

~ Postcard #3 THERE ARE MANY PATHS UP THE SAME MOUNTAIN ~

(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark) Mother Teresa caring for the sick and dying.

(Photo credit: Mary Ellen Mark) Mother Teresa caring for the sick and dying.

THERE ARE 7.3 BILLION NON-MORMONS currently on the planet. I’ve met some of them. In India, we worked together in the leprosy colonies. Some of my fellow laborers found inspiration in the teachings of Guru Nanak or Muhammad or Jesus or Swami Vivekananda. Others were motivated by a love for Vishnu or Shiva or the Mother Goddess Devi. A few held no religious convictions at all, yet seemed as devoted to serving humanity as their god-fearing counterparts. In serving together, I never noticed a hint of difference in the love conveyed by Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists, Roman Catholics, Baha’is, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hindus, or non-theists. Any notion I’d carried into India that we Mormons were going to radiate a unique quality of goodness quickly evaporated in the sweltering heat, along with any lingering cultural arrogance. 

My Mormon beliefs have provided a well-spring of goodness in my life, and I continue to be grateful for the ethical grounding and strong sense of moral purpose that my faith system has endowed me with. But when I look around, I witness the same measure of goodness, the same infusion of moral purpose, in my non-Mormon brothers and sisters. I can’t honestly claim that my religious beliefs have been more fruitful in my life than theirs have been to them. This is not easy to admit, having donated tens of thousands of dollars and two years of my life as a full-time missionary inviting people to change their beliefs. Had I been more wise, I might have helped them connect to that well-spring of goodness found at the heart of their own tradition instead.

There is goodness everywhere. But within any belief system, there are lower laws and there are higher, more elevating laws. If we, like eagles, could find in the landscape of our own traditions those rising currents of warm air, those spiritual thermals, we might use them to soar to higher and higher states of consciousness. It was, after all, a rabbi named Jesus who pointed to the higher laws in his own Jewish tradition—leading no one out, but only up.

Huston Smith made the study of world religions his life’s work. The introduction to his popular and illuminating book, The World’s Religions, begins with this observation:

“..the various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal…. It is possible to climb life’s mountains from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge.” 

(Photo by Kristofor Gellert) Puu Keahiakahoe summit in Oahu.

(Photo by Kristofor Gellert) The famous “Stairway to Heaven” to Puu Keahiakahoe summit in Oahu.

This idea of elevation and convergence echoes the experience of Ramakrishna. The Indian mystic earnestly practiced Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity and discovered that, by shedding any religious biases, he could find God in each tradition. He insisted that

“As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo or a staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways.” 

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Photo credit: Thinkstock

While my Mormon beliefs provide me with a sturdy ladder, well-suited to its task, I now must acknowledge that others are climbing just as high by means of bamboo, stairs, or rope. 

Happily, as we ascend, the fog of provincialism fades, and we find our narrow views giving way to more expansive vistas.

Reflections during our family’s year-long stay in India, working among the leprosy-affected.

In June 2014, our family moved to southern India to volunteer among leprosy-affected communities. We ended up spending almost a year there, providing basic hygienic care and dressing wounds, building latrines, combatting stigma and social isolation, alleviating poverty through micro-lending, and empowering children from the leprosy colonies through education and talent development.

It was our privilege to work alongside inspiring volunteers and committed staff in situations that called for our deepest compassion, and every day was an invitation to stretch far beyond our selves. My five children, aged from 19 years down to 8, earned my life-long respect for how they rose to the occasion; and Rebecca, of course, was amazing–a natural born Mother Teresa. I, on the other hand, spent most of the year attempting to piece back together the shattered fragments of a naively-held Messiah Complex that couldn’t survive even the first week intact. By the end of the year, I’d given up trying to be that person; instead, I began allowing myself simply to show up, vulnerable and open. The following essays, written while we were in India and gathered here chronologically, reflect that journey towards presence, learning to sit as one wounded among the wounded and discovering the miracle of wholeness.

Beep, Beep. We are Here.

. . . I’m shaken by this. Not our safety–it’s becoming increasingly clear that Rajendiren will expertly navigate these perilous waters–it’s the sense that here, with a billion plus people, life is cheap. Like ants crawling over ants to get to work. I know this is only apparent, but that’s how I’m feeling as we drive. A collective sense that the stream of traffic, that ravenous beast, must continue to flow, even if must be fed a few lives from time to time. Read More

A Tale Cut Short

. . . there’s some tumult in the kitchen. Rebecca points up in the corner near the fan vent. There’s a gecko, the size of a pinky clinging to the wall, panting. And where a tail should be, there’s only a stump. I know tails regenerate, but none of us hold out much hope for this little fella. Rebecca points out a gash from the fan blade on its torso.

“I saw it skittering into the vent and then . . . . chink . . . it skittered out without a tail.”

One of the kids says they think they saw it fall.

“Saw what?”

“The tail.”

“Where?”

They point at the counter-top space next to the gas burners. “There.”

We look.

It’s twitching.

It’s the size of a chow mein noodle, translucent, and it’s arcing back and forth like a miniature windshield wiper. Read More

I Meet “Mountain of Wisdom”

. . . “God in me, God in them. No difference,” he says.

I’ve read similar sentiments from Mother Theresa, but Vedadhri says it as if asserting water is wet. This wasn’t some theological article of faith, but a basic fact of the universe. I think how the same religious world view that justifies the stigmatization of leprosy as cosmic payback for some karmic misdeed in a previous life could also provide the insights motivating compassion and charity. Hinduism is no different than Christianity and Islam in this, it seems, with some of us beating swords into plough-shares and some sharpening those plough-shares back into swords, depending on how our heart is swayed by our scriptures. Read More

Right Hand, Left Hand

. . . A meme has been floating around Facebook, suggesting that we are God’s hands. I don’t whether that’s true. If it is, then about half of us must be God’s left hand. My service so far is mostly of the left handed variety: digging holes for toilets and septic tanks; dumping basins of water made foul by oozing ulcers; clipping toenails of feet on which only one or two toes remain; emptying our bathroom bucket of used squares of imported toilet paper; tearing off a piece of chapatti when no one’s looking; and killing scorpions in the middle of the night with the same sandals that I take off every morning at the door of the meditation hut where I wish all living beings peace. I’m okay with that. And every morning, with hands pressed together into a lotus bud to begin my prayer of peace, it’s the left hand that most feels the throbbing of my heart. Read More

Still Life: A Study in Green

. . . Cohen depending on the tooth fairy to find her way to India, which she does, unbelievably, three times already. Lifting the pillow and placing three 10 rupee notes under his sleeping head, each bearing the likeness of Gandhi who will bring dreams of peace. And already the new teeth pushing through, each emptiness filling, slowly. Somewhere between hole and whole.

And Stumpy our gecko, fan-blade survivor, depending on the voodoo of cell regeneration. The brown-green bud sprouting like an onion bulb into another tail, until we can’t tell him apart from any of the other geckoes we see skittering across our bedroom walls at night, or, unseen, hear snickering behind curtains in the evening as the kids form words in their nightly round of Banana Grams. Tile by tile, cell by cell. Forming and reforming.

A baby tooth is lost no sooner than a new one is ready to take its place. A tail reforms, faithful to the genetic specs printed in the DNA of every cell of the gecko’s body. Without searching, what is lost becomes found; without mending, what was rent becomes whole. When wood is green, it’s alive, supple, vigorous. Lop off the trunk and the sap bubbles up, heals the wound, feeds new branches.

I wonder at the resilience of life. And now, here in India one month, I think of the people at the leprosy colonies, what their leprosy has cost them. The pinnacle of evolution, and their DNA as Homo sapiens doesn’t provide a lizard’s worth of instruction on how to regenerate a toe, or how to return the club of a hand back into sophisticated digital technology.  Read More

Cohen and I Spend the Morning Getting Buzzed at the Local Saloon

. . . Kumar’s scissors open and close, snick, snick, snick, in the same steady but unhurried way. Periodically he tilts Cohen’s head up back. A few young men step out of the street and into the saloon, pick up a spare comb from the barber’s grimy counter, and groom themselves in front of the mirror for a minute or two and then, as suddenly as they came in, they toss the comb back on his counter and step back out into the street. This happens twice more during Cohen’s haircut. I’m guessing they’d got haircuts from Kumar in the past, may have standing permission to come use his comb and mirror whenever they’re in the area. But seeing random people swooping in and sharing the same comb makes me a little uneasy, especially for a population where it’s not uncommon to see children and even some adults shorn to the scalp to rid themselves of nits. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lice.   Read More

What’s in the Bag?

. . . “What’s in the bag?” I ask.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve pulled out of the bag a Tibetan singing bowl, a toothbrush, a Native American flute, a blister pack of Mefloquine (anti-malarial medicine), a pound of uncooked basmati rice, and a stainless steel tea cup. And every day the mystery leads us to a story and the story leads us to a lesson. Actually, the story IS the lesson.

Today, I’ve brought a snake. A life-size, weighted, coiled, realistically painted, rubber snake. Cohen brought it along to India with him because we allowed each child to bring one “comfort animal” on the plane with them. And he wanted to bring his snake. Not a problem in LAX, nor at Amsterdam, but when we tried to get through security to board our final leg from Delhi to Chennai you’d have thought the X-ray specialist pausing at Cohen’s backpack had discovered a nuclear detonator. Soon a military guard was interrogating us.

“What is in the bag?” he asked us.

“Um . . . lot’s of stuff. It’s our little boy’s carry on,” Rebecca sputtered. “Is there a problem?”  Read More

Abraham’s Song

. . . I met Abraham in the Vandalore Leprosy Colony. He and I hit it off because we’re both musicians. I’d brought my Native American flute along, thinking it might be nice to play something soothing for the patients while their wounds were being treated by our medical team. I’m covering holes on the cedar flute with my fingertips, making up a melody, when Abraham steals the show. Now, I’ve studied the jazz art of improvisation in college, but this was improvistation in its truest form. Having no money for a proper instrument, and no intact fingers to play one with anyway, Abraham devised a way of humming while alternately plugging the stubs on his hand into his nostrils, as if pushing valves on a trumpet. The sound is, well, not exactly what you’d call beautiful, but I found myself entranced, snake charmed. Later, he took me to his home and banged on a plastic tambourine for me, singing full-throated. Pictures of the Virgin Mary floated along the walls. Read More

Sri Lanka, Part I: Mud and Mudras, Lotus and Dulip

. . . WHEN WE ARRIVE IN SRI LANKA, the first one to welcome us is the Buddha. I get the feeling he would have been just as content with us staying in India, but he doesn’t seem to mind that we’re here. He’s sitting in the lotus position, upturned soles resting on opposite thighs, gaze lowered. Passengers from our flight push past me, anxious to reclaim their baggage. I’m pausing, hoping to be rid of mine. A reverential spirit alights on the twig of my heart and then flutters away once I see the statue more closely. First I notice the pendulous lobes of the Enlightened One’s ears. They stretch so low he must have hung buckets of water from them as a boy, thus freeing his hands for gesturing. Which leads us to the second detail: the Compassionate One is flipping us off. Read More

Sri Lanka Part II: Climbing Up the Buddha’s Back with 400 Pounds of Poop

. . . They simply reasoned that if an elephant’s diet is mostly fiber, its poop must be, too. With that insight, the Mr. Ellie Pooh paper company was born. An employee gave us a tour of their factory, which borders the elephant sanctuary. The system goes something like this: They spread out the poop to fully expose it to the sun. Then they cook it, subjecting it to intense heat that sterilizes all the yucky stuff. What’s left is a slurry of fiber that’s dried over a screen, pressed smooth, cut, and sold to eco-conscious consumers at healthy profit margins.

Hearing the man talk about this process, I’m reminded of the Buddha’s most fundamental teaching, the 4 Noble Truths. The 1st Noble Truth? Poop happens! When we understand the nature of that poop and what it’s made of, we’ve arrived at the 2nd Noble Truth. Believing that we can transform that poop into something useful moves us to the 3rd Noble Truth. Then, following the path outlined in the 4th Noble Truth, we can bring sufficient energy to bear, transforming something stinky and toxic into something pure and productive. Read More

Divine Union: A Hindu-temple inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

. . . Large enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. Read More

That’s Where the Light Enters

. . . If we’re lucky, we shed any silly notions that we (the supposed “whole”) are bringing healing to them (the presumed “broken”). We simply share a space where healing happens, and it happens as much to us as to them, though one of us wears a mask and one wears a wound. Healing becomes another name for wholeness revealing itself. Read More

Brooklyn leaves (with a Matriarchal Blessing)

. . . So here I share a poem I’ve written for Brooklyn, in which I imagine she finds herself quite unexpectedly visited by a goddess in the form of the fearless Durga, who has come to endow her with the courage and wisdom she’ll need as she continues conquering the world.  Read More

A Few Notes Before We Leave . . .

. . . You seem like a very nice razor blade and I’m sure if we’d met under different circumstances, we would have hit it off handsomely. But see, I was next in line when the customer in the barber chair pulled off his t-shirt, lifted his right arm high into the air and grunted for Kumar to scrape his greasy pits with you. Read More

Vivid Dreams: A Valediction

. . . How much will stick? If I’ve come to recognize Jesus (or Infinite Worth or Buddha-nature) in the faces of the leprosy-affected, will I recognize it back home in the face of the grimy man holding a cardboard sign, the obnoxious neighbor, the surly skateboarder loitering in the school parking lot?

Obvious suffering engenders compassion–and in this way, serving the leprosy-affected required from me no special force of will–but how do I respond when someone triggers my contempt, my revulsion?  Already, I have to admit, back in Gate C-19 waiting to board, my small self, the smug, disconnected ego self, was chiming in with snide remarks about that passenger who could have been from Duck Dynasty. I caught myself feeling smarter, more sophisticated, more enlightened than him. And so I shrunk by just exactly that much.  Read More

Divine Union: a Hindu temple-inspired reflection on twenty years of marriage.

BACK IN NOVEMBER I STARTED letting my beard grow out. After three days, an Indian colleague looked at my face and frowned. “You are looking very dull,” she said. “You are not well?”

“I feel fine,” I said.

“Maybe you sleep not so good?”

“Slept just fine, thanks.”

“Your face is looking very dull.”

After a few more days, the children on campus started reaching up and touching my face, giggling as their fingers skimmed across the bristles. “It’s a beard,” I told them.

An older boy ran his hand across his own chin and then said, “Lon, why you are not shave?”

“I am shaving,” I say. “Every day I’m shaving.” I lift up my chin and point to the neatly trimmed border meeting my jaw line. “See?”

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 5.41.08 PMAfter 10 days or so, the beard was growing in nice and full, blonde and red with some mature white marbling. That’s when I start hearing the whispers. I’m walking by some sari-clad colleagues, and I hear one of them say something and then the others giggling as I go by.

“Lon, sir. She say you must be having the love failure.”

I walk over to them. “The what?”

“Your beard. You must be having the love failure.”

“I’m having love failure?”

“Yes, yes.” The other teachers are wobbling their heads. “You are not shaving. If you have love failure means your heart sad from no love.”

From what I was able to gather in the ensuing conversation, a clean-shaven man who stops shaving is the Indian equivalent of a metro-sexual who begins wearing sweat pants out in public. It’s very worrisome, and likely signals that the individual has recently experienced heartbreak of such staggering proportions that they can no longer muster even the minimum effort required to maintain basic social conventions such as shaving, or matching belts to shoes.

I continued to be hectored for the entire month of November by the India staff, before shaving it off on the first day in December. To be fair, one person liked my beard. He was a former Christian pastor who now serves as the hostel manager on campus. He brought his palms together one evening at the dining hall, smiled at me shyly and said, in broken English, “When I am seeing your face, I think of Jesus.”

(This was around the time that the New York Times and other media were reporting on the humiliations heaped on the Mormon student attending LDS Business College in Salt Lake who’d been granted a rare exception allowing him to sport a beard while appearing in a LDS produced film about Jesus Christ, but who was required to wear an explanatory sign around his neck while on campus. Also, he was told he must compensate for his outward display of spiritual slacker-hood by wearing dress slacks and a tie. I wasn’t wearing a tie or a sign around my neck when Pastor John was thinking of Jesus. And I don’t think it was the beard, either. I think Pastor John sees Jesus in everyone’s face.)

When the beard came off, the staff were relieved, and they let me know.

Very sharp, Sir.

You now are looking more healthy, Sir. You were very, very dull.

You and Miss Rebecca having no more love failure–is good.

It is good. And just in time for our 20th wedding anniversary.

TO COMMEMORATE THE BEGINNING OF our third decade together, we packed a light picnic and took a lovely walk down a village road whose winding path was almost as full of twists and turns as our own marriage has been. Around every corner some new, unexpected delight. And plenty of opportunities to reorient from time to time, to get our bearings. We wound up–appropriately enough–at a temple alongside a lake. We were married in a temple–the LDS temple in Oakland, California–all those years ago, and could never have imagined that we’d be spending our 20th anniversary in India standing beside a Hindu temple. It was late afternoon and the slanting sun spilled its gold on everything–on the temple, the pond, the palm trees and herdsman’s goats, the cattle egrets and pond herons stepping through the marsh grasses. Rebecca’s hair shone gold and copper.

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We settled onto a spot near the temple, overlooking the little lake. The temple was in the southern Indian style, with a pyramidal steeple adorned with hosts of vividly-painted gods and goddesses, devas, and even gargoyles for scaring away the asuras, or demon spirits. Ecstatic devotional music trumpeted from loudspeakers in four direction as we sat together and looked back and looked forward, it being the turning of the year and also that tipping point in our marriage where, after 20 years, we’ve been together longer than we’ve been apart.

The temple includes a shrine to the god Shiva, (whose seemingly contradictory associations with both Destruction and Creation might better be understood as Regeneration, not unlike a farmer who discs a harvested field to prepare the ground for next spring’s crop.) Shiva is represented by a polished phallus, called a lingam.

Lingam and Yoni

Lingam and YoniLarge enough to make even the most confident of men more than a little insecure, the lingam symbolizes the god’s male potency and virility. But on this late afternoon, twenty years since Rebecca and I, twain, became one flesh, I can’t help but reflect on a temple symbol that foreigners often miss: Shiva’s lingam is always set in and circumscribed by a divine womb, or Yoni. It is only together, Yoni and Lingam, that the Divine is fully expressed. If you look at some of the oldest statues of the Hindu god, you will see that only the right half is Male; the left half is Female. They, together, Shiva and Parvati, comprise the Divine Whole, co-equal in power and capacity, but each reliant on the Divine Union to unleash their creative energy.

Five red-headed bundles of creative energy later, I think of how inseparably entwined our lives have become. To borrow a term from the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, our marriage has invited us into a kind of inter-being, an ecology of relationships that recognizes, beyond the arbitrary epidermal boundaries, a complex system of inter-dependence that allows us to do more together than we could apart. To the extent I’m learning to yield to that inter-being, I expand exponentially.

This is what I couldn’t have fully understood at the temple 20 years ago. My Mormon tradition, too, has an audacious and sublime vision of Divine Union, which I cherish. But sometimes it’s obscured by ego-baiting rhetoric promising celestial dominions, kingdoms, glories, hierarchies of status. And perhaps it’s tainted, too, by a troubling history where polygamy seems to have been leveraged by its earliest practitioners not as a way for co-equals to enter a sacred partnership, but as a kind of celestial multi-level marketing scheme where the reach of a man’s exaltation was proportionate to the number of brides over which he presided.

This isn’t how I’ve come to understand my marriage. Those with a sublime vision of Divine Union aren’t embarrassed at the mere mention of a Heavenly Mother, nor fail to find a place for her in their temples, particularly during depictions of the Creation.

So it is fitting that we are here, where the Hindu temple at our shoulder can reminds us, perhaps better than our own temples dare, of the vision that has inspired our marriage for two decades and counting. A vision where we learn to embrace the other, loving and accepting until dualities dissolve, until that improbable partnership of opposites becomes a dynamic union of inter-beings, one in soul forever.

I didn’t know much twenty years ago when I married Rebecca Leavitt in the LDS temple in Oakland, California. The wedding rites hinted that we would one day rise to a fully divine nature. Now I better understand that our temple sealing wasn’t just a box to check off on a list of required ordinances that had to be satisfied. Now I see that the work of sealing was in truth the work of a lifetime spent together, learning to let the ego-boundaries of self melt away in the presence of the beloved. And if we do rise, we will rise as angels who, having each only one wing, ascend in each other’s embrace.

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Pioneer Spirit: Reclaiming our Spiritual Imagination

pioneer: noun. 1. one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; one who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 2. one of the first to settle in a territory.

Pioneer Day. Our day to celebrate how our spiritual progenitors followed their leaders to the Promised Land and made the desert bloom like the rose. That willingness to subjugate self-interest in the service of the common good is a legacy bequeathed to us by those forebearers. In the Mormon beehive, we’re all taught to hum the same tune.

But there’s another meaning of the word pioneer. According to Merriam Webster, a pioneer is one who originates or helps open up a new line of thought; who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc. 

In this sense of the term pioneer, can modern-day Mormons also claim a spiritual heritage? If so, to what extent has institutional and cultural Mormonism kept the “questing spirit” alive? Do we hold the conviction, burning bright in Joseph Smith’s day, that the door of knowledge swings open only when someone with a question comes knocking?

This, I’ve written before, used to be the essential spirit of Mormonism, and Joseph Smith was its primary advocate, resisting all attempts at reining in his expansive, even audacious,  imagination. This may be seen as an embarrassment now, as Church leaders are left with no intellectually honest way to reconcile theologically incompatible teachings, or to harmonize early doctrines with subsequently taught doctrines, but it’s also the reason we arrived at a theology as paradigm-shattering as that presented in the King Follett Address.

Surely the Church is more than a museum to protect historical artifacts from breaking. Surely its leaders are more than curators, ensuring that nothing gets knocked over. The terms prophet, seer, and revelator used to signify particular roles. Are any of those roles reflected in the phrase, maintaining the status quo? 

Even in religious life, a breakthrough requires a breaking through.

As I’ve been grappling with the question of how a Church once infused with the questing spirit could now view public questioners as faithless and subversive, warranting extermination from the beehive, I stumbled quite accidentally on a passage from a book* I’ve been reading that presents a cultural critique of Buddhism. The author, Stephen Batchelor, points to a general trend among religions. He explains that the founding figures, possessing a genius for imagination and the “capacity to express an authentic vision that responds creatively to the needs of their particular situation,” attract an eager following. (And surely there is nowhere a more apt description of Joseph Smith!) But once established, the new faith’s enthusiasm for new ideas soon cools. “For while the founding figures were imaginative and creative, imagination and creativity were rarely qualities encouraged in the schools and orders they established.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the institution perpetuate that founding spirit of innovation and creativity?  The author’s conclusion is that over time, “the preservation of orthodoxy became the main priority.” He elaborates:

While originating in acts of imagination, orthodoxies paradoxically seek to control imagination as a means of maintaining their authority . . . and to suppress authentic attempts at creative innovation that might threaten the status quo.

The more hierarchic and authoritarian a religious institution, the more it will require that the creations of imagination conform to its doctrines…

This is what I see happening. It’s not new. An honest appraisal would acknowledge that Joseph Smith himself fended off challenges to his authority, sometimes ruthlessly. But at least that Prophet was not afraid of a free marketplace of ideas. Why the insecurity now? Do we not believe, as the apostle Hugh B. Brown believed, that in that marketplace, “truth emerges triumphant?”  That apostle went on to say, “Only error fears freedom of expression.”

Batchelor finishes his observation by stating that religions may find it convenient in the short term to silence those who ask what is possible,

Yet, by the suppression of the imagination, the very life of dharma practice is cut off at its source. While religious orthodoxies may survive and even prosper for centuries, in the end they will ossify. When the world around them changes, they will lack the imaginative power to respond creatively to the challenges of the new situation.

On this Pioneer Day, I celebrate those among us who open up new lines of thinking, who invite us to reexamine our assumptions, who keep knocking on the door of knowledge. I celebrate the bishops and Sunday School teachers and neighbors who maintain a space for people who ask questions. I celebrate the breakthroughs–the breaking through–we’ve experienced in our short history after enough people dared to raise their voices against injustice or inequality or incomplete truth-telling.  I celebrate those among us sufficiently awake not to be lulled into thinking All is Well in Zion. These are Pioneers worthy of our legacy. And this is their day.

 

 

* Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. (p.108)

Facing “Peace and Violence” in our Collective Memory

“His duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.” 

Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface

It’s hard to look honestly at our past. Especially when some of our actions fall so short of our ideals. And when we do take a good hard look, Memory finds she’s not permitted to publish her report until it’s first been redacted by a team of lawyers and then forwarded on to the suits at PR for a slick revision. I’m not making this observation theoretically; I experience it personally, time and time again. My own ego keeps thousands of employees busy night and day crafting narratives that preserve its sense of self-respect. This is human nature, isn’t it? Portraying only the most flattering versions of ourselves?

My own trouble confronting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about myself inclines me to be understanding when others flounder in the same attempt. So it’s without condemnation that I observe this all too human tendency on full display in the series of essays being added to the LDS Church’s official website. Taken as a whole, the essays suggest a growing willingness by Church leaders to acknowledge decidedly unflattering moments from our history. This may be a watershed moment in an organization for whom transparency has been a one-way mirror where they could see us but we couldn’t see them.

As one who takes seriously the call to be a peacemaker in this world, I find myself encouraged by the arrival of the newest essay, “Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints.” But also disappointed.

For me, this essay falls short in the same way the others fell short: it seems more intent on deflection than reflection.

Let me explain what I mean analogously by way of a familiar scene at our house:

Hearing some commotion, my wife and I discover that one of our children has struck a sibling. Called to explain, the child recites a litany of abuses to which they’d been subjected. Once they’re certain that I fully appreciate the extent to which they themselves are the real victim, they will mention their own misdeed, but in terms that make their actions seem justifiable—or at least understandable—given the circumstances.

In “Peace and Violence,” the Church seems to be following this pattern. The anonymous author(s) appear to have been given the task of explaining egregious acts of violence, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in a way that reinforces our persecution narrative while also acknowledging a few isolated incidents in which Mormons were the aggressor. Throughout, allegations of violence perpetrated by members of the LDS church are either dismissed as being unfounded or over-blown, or, in the case of the well-documented Mountain Meadows incident, characterized as a tragic instance of the early Saints reacting poorly to the religiously-motivated hostility and sustained aggression they’d so long endured.

I don’t object to context, mind you. Indeed, as the essay takes pains to establish, a pervasive culture of violence typified 19th Century frontier life (as any even-handed treatment of the subject would recognize). But this essay’s portrayal of early Mormons as peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek folk who only occasionally lost their cool falls short of being fully candid. More importantly, it misses the opportunity to identify elements in our own church culture that kindled a spirit of vengeance and retaliation in our past, and which, I will argue in a future essay, continue to plague our present.

The audience for this and the other topical essays is most likely the member or investigator who has encountered deeply disturbing facts of history and returns to the official Church website seeking the most comforting explanation possible.

But what if we want our past to be a catalyst for transformation?

Comforting explanations only reinforce our sense that “all is well and was ever thus.” Such an approach lulls us into spiritual complacency and retards our growth, both personally and collectively. Sometimes we should squirm.

Hamlet’s words touched the nerve of his mother’s guilt. She wanted comfort, but he wanted her redemption. So he sat her down and said

…you shall not budge;

You go not till I set you up a glass

Where you may see the inmost part of you.

If we are honest, and if we are willing to squirm, we can use our history as a catalyst for transformation.

I’ll share two ways the essay fails to be transformative.

First, the authors of the essay didn’t invite us to learn from our past. While we can’t undo our historical failings, we can recognize the factors that contributed to those failings. As a Church, are we ready for those hard conversations? Can we recognize the presence of institutional factors that may still exist today, rendering us violence prone? I’m sobered by a passage I read in the prologue to Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Walker, Turley, Leonard), in which our own historians identify conditions that increase the likelihood of institutional violence:

Episodes of violence often begin when one people classify another as “the other,” stripping them of any humanity and mentally transforming them into enemies. Once this process of devaluing and demonizing occurs, stereotypes take over, rumors circulate, and pressure builds to conform to group action against the perceived threat. Those classified as the enemy are often seen as the transgressors, even as steps are being taken against them. When these tinderbox conditions exist, a single incident, small or ordinary in usual circumstances, may spark great violence ending in atrocity. The literature suggests other elements are often present when “good people” do terrible things. Usually there is an atmosphere of authority and obedience, which allows errant leaders to trump the moral instincts of their followers.

sermon-mount-jesus-christComing to recognize that many of these same elements are systemically perpetuated in our contemporary Church culture, these kinds of insights could be truly transformative, helping us to become a peaceful people whose discipleship is more Sermon on the Mount and less “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

The second way the essay could have been transformative is by telling the truth in a way that lays bare our greatest vulnerabilities. No spin. Serve it up plain, without any dipping sauce. And when it comes to recounting our crimes against others, it seems to me we are under a special moral obligation to be completely and unreservedly honest.

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The poster exhibits the slogan of the Commission: “The truth hurts, but silence kills.”

Official poster of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

By trying to preserve our own sense of our goodness, we fail to achieve a remission of our sins. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela taught the world this insight—that there is a redemptive quality found at the nexus of Truth and Reconciliation.

In a harrowing scene from Red Prophet, a fictionalized re-imagining of Mormon history penned by Orson Scott Card we see this principle of Truth and Reconciliation. Here, in a meadow flowing with the blood of innocent men, women, and children, the otherwise honorable men who did the killing are about to hear the conditions of their redemption:

From elbow to hands, they dripped with blood. Some tried to wipe it off on their shirts. Some searched for wounds that might be bleeding, but there were no wounds. Just bloody hands.

“Do you want your hands to be clean of the blood of my people?” asked the Red Prophet. He wasn’t shouting anymore, but they all heard him, every word. And yes, yes, they wanted their hands to be clean. “Then go home and tell this story to your wives and children, to your neighbors, to your friends. Tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. Don’t say that someone fooled you – you all knew when you fired on people who had no weapons that what you did was murder. No matter whether you thought some of us might have committed some crime. When you shot at babies in their mothers’ arms, little children, old men and women, you were murdering us because we were Red. So tell the story as it happened, and if you tell it true, your hands will be clean.”

Let’s tell the whole story. Leave nothing out. And when we tell it true, our hands will finally be clean.

 

Put Away Our Telescopes? Not a Chance! The Heavens are Calling.

From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth,

From the laziness that is content with half-truths,

From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,

Oh God of Truth, deliver us.

     ~ Ancient Prayer

IN 1633, THE ROMAN INQUISITION CHARGED Galileo Galilei with heresy. His crime? Entertaining the notion that the sun “does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the center of the world,” and for espousing a theory deemed “false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scripture.”

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 2.58.36 PMWhile Galileo didn’t invent the heliocentric model of the universe, he discovered plenty of evidence for it. His own powerful telescopes were showing him things never before encountered, and mathematical reasoning confirmed what others, like Copernicus, had been saying. To a rational mind, there was no denying the soundness of the astronomer’s conclusion, but it was an inconvenient truth, to say the least, in an age where burning heretics, not fossil fuels, contributed most to global warming.

To be fair, scientists and philosophers, not just the Church, opposed him. But it was the Church with the power to coerce and intimidate. As the sole mediator of rites essential to salvation, God’s priestly representatives could strip Galileo of his eternal salvation. What could man do more?

I can imagine Galileo’s family and friends pleading with him to stop studying the heavens. It’s dangerous, they must have said. Put away your telescope.

Inquisitive Latter-day Saints hear that, too. Why study the night sky when its constellations have already been named, catalogued, and described in our Church-approved manuals? Why look at the heavens when Deseret Book publishes thousands of titles on Astronomy? There’s no need to look for yourself. And it could be dangerous: You could lose faith in the truthfulness of the Star Map. Put away your telescope.

And yet, like Galileo, the urge to know the truth by our own experience, to understand what’s really out there, compels us to look for ourselves. So we look. And then we begin to understand why there was so much institutional hand-wringing over what we might find.

We’re discovering some stars in the night sky that don’t correspond to the official Star Maps we’ve been issued at Church. Certain constellations have been left off the official charts, and it appears that some stars have even been redrawn to suggest patterns that aren’t present in a clear reading of the starry sky. Not only that, but those who’ve traveled far and wide report that what we see printed on our Star Maps constitutes only one perspective, from a Northern line of latitude, and that skywatchers in the Southern Hemisphere see an entirely different set of stars. The discrepancies are not easily dismissed.

We are confused.

We hear leaders telling us not to trust our own eyesight, to doubt our faculties of reason. We hear apologists pat us on the head and explain that there’s really no contradiction between what we’re seeing in our telescopes and what’s on our official Star Maps. Then we go to Church and hear people bearing testimony of the Star Map. And we sing, Praise to the Cartographer. And what we hear most of all is that we shouldn’t be looking through our own telescopes in the first place, but instead should exercise faith that the Star Map is True.

That last point prompts me to ask: Should we have testimonies of the Star Map and its Cartographers? Or should we have direct encounters with the Heavens they attempt to describe? Isn’t it rather like going to a restaurant and worshipping the menu instead of savoring the food?

Screen Shot 2014-05-08 at 3.18.39 PMI’VE BEEN AIMING MY OWN TELESCOPE at the spectacular cosmos that is Mormonism, collapsing its distance, but until recently I’ve been reluctant to share an honest account of what I’ve seen. For one thing, I realize my view is filtered through a particular lens, shaped by my personal and cultural biases, faulty reasoning powers, and limited perception. For another, I haven’t wanted to force anyone to look through the telescope with me, believing it’s the prerogative of each person to decide if and when they look for themselves. But mostly, it’s fear that has kept me–and so many like me–from giving an honest report of our experience. We stand much to lose by admitting that we see things differently. We are branded as arrogant, faithless, deluded, disloyal, and dangerous.

I get it. I’ve been there myself. By discrediting a person, we don’t have to grapple with the questions he or she raises. And when our most crucial claim as an institution is that we’re right about everything, it’s simply not permissible to allow someone to suggest we may be wrong about anything. The community protects itself from the vulnerability of uncertainty by marginalizing anyone who doesn’t reinforce their sense of certainty. And if there’s one thing out of which we Mormons fashion a Golden Calf, it’s our personal and collective certainty.

Fortunately, astronomical charts can be redrawn to more closely reflect reality. At the institutional level, curriculum and resources are being re-written to acknowledge some of the more egregious discrepancies between our traditional narratives and more honest tellings. No doubt, this change comes as the Church is hoping to earn back the trust of those who have been far more more troubled by the lack of openness than they are by a clear reading of the stars. I applaud this forthrightness for its own sake, and am persuaded that whenever institutions resist transparency they will lose credibility with Millennials for whom unrestricted access to information is seen as a birthright.

Call me crazy, but I still find value in those Star Maps. They fire my spiritual imagination. They bestow a mythic power on our collective narrative. And the awe they’ve instilled in me over so many years has become the prime motivator for me to seek my own direct, unmediated experience with the Universe.

Put away our telescopes? Not a chance. The Heavens are calling!

 ~

Want to discuss? Share your thoughts and your experiences here, or start your own conversation among friends by sharing this essay with someone else.

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From Peek-a-Boo to Pale Blue Dot: An Earth Day Reflection

Eye-Spy1You know how a small child can make the rest of us disappear simply by shutting her eyes? Psychologists tell us that babies lack the capacity to conceive of perspectives beyond their own field of vision. It’s something they must develop as they mature—understanding that their perspective is not the only perspective, that they are not the axis around which the universe turns.

Civilization passes through developmental stages, too. As hunter-gatherers, family and clan affiliation were sufficient for our success. But in making the switch to agriculture, success meant  cooperation across family lines. Family and clan loyalties extended to tribal loyalties, chiefdoms, and city states. A robust population could now undertake labor-intensive enterprises like erecting walls and building infrastructure, and, critically, when attacked by marauding bands, a strong city-state could defend itself.

And so it went. City-states waged war with their nearest neighbor. Then a greater threat would inevitably come along that threatened to destroy them both. Leaders that could see past their mutual differences would form an alliance with their erstwhile enemy, ensuring their mutual survival in the face of a common enemy. Create a confederation of such alliances, and . . .voila! . . . nations are born.

And the cycle continues. Nations fight neighboring nations. A common enemy threatens their destruction. True leaders see past their mutual differences and form alliances with their erstwhile enemies, working together to solve global problems, collaborate on mutual interests, and increase the likelihood of an enduring peace.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Is civilization now poised to make the next leap? Can we transcend the arbitrary boundaries of ethnicity, religion, and geo-politics? Can we conceive of an identity so inclusive that it circumscribes the whole human family?

400px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-EarthriseIn 1968, on Christmas Eve, the crew of Apollo 8, in lunar orbit, snapped a picture of Earth rising from the moon’s surface. This was humanity’s first chance to see ourselves from a distance. (Shout out to Bette Midler) Beamed from the lunar orbiting capsule, it was as if the people of earth were the recipients of a Divine Greeting Card.

If this was humanity’s attempt at launching into a new era of pax cosmos, it soon became apparent that, to achieve escape velocity, we’d need to overcome the gravitational pull of old paradigms. When we landed on the moon that next summer, Neil Armstrong announced one giant leap for mankind, and then promptly jabbed an American flag deep into the moon dust.article-2193737-14B2A689000005DC-359_964x635

Still, it’s often the wide-frame perspective that we get from space that best expands our vision of what it means to be a citizen of Earth. I know of no more stirring call for a global ethos than that offered by Carl Sagan, whose Voyager I project afforded us a view of Earth as seen from the edge of the solar system. We were just a pale, blue dot.

I’ll close with Carl Sagan’s stirring words:

JO-D-111016-Sagan02-1“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

~ Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, (1994)

earth-glint

 

If you enjoyed this, stay tuned for my next post, in which I explore the challenges of dissolving personal boundaries of self that prevent atonement. “Follow” this blog to receive updates on new posts, or subscribe through email.