Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Last week we were in San Diego for a little vacation. On Sunday (June 2), we attended church in the ward on Fanuel Street in Pacific Beach. We got there a few minutes early, and just before the meeting started, I looked to my left, and who should be walking down the aisle but Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann. We were mildly surprised, but we knew Mitt had built a house in the area, so we assumed this was his “home” ward when he is at his home away from home away from home. During the meeting, I Googled “Mitt Romney’s California home” and was sent to a couple of local newspaper articles about the small uproar Mitt’s construction project caused among the neighbors. I guess he was knocking down a 4,000-square-foot beachfront house in La Jolla and replacing it with an 11,000-square-foot beachfront mansion, complete with a four-car garage and the infamous car elevator. The neighbors were none too excited. More on this later. Interestingly, one article gave the address, so we plugged it into the Church’s meetinghouse locator, and sure enough, we were attending Mitt and Ann’s ward.
I posted a picture to Instagram of the ocean view from the balcony of the timeshare where we were staying along with a sentence about seeing Mitt at church. My daughter posted a comment: “Did you go shake his hand and give him a bit of voting advice?” Of course that would have been fun, but not at church. When we left, Mitt was busy talking to one of the ward members, so we just slipped out quietly and drove back to the condo. He should be glad.
Now, here’s where things start to get a little odd. The next day I received an email from the office of Senator Mitt Romney. The odd thing is the timing. Sometime between when Mitt was elected and when he took office, I wrote him a three-page letter telling him that while I hadn’t voted for him, he was still my representative in the Senate, and I expected a few things from him (advice he hasn’t taken, I should add), much of it related to our boorish Tweeter-in-Chief. Anyway, it took that long for his office to reply to my letter, but I found it an odd coincidence that it would come the day after I had seen him at church in San Diego. The email was just a form letter thanking me for contacting Senator Romney and telling me that he would speak out now and then when the president said or did something outrageous. Definitely not the approach I advised.
Well, the same day I got the email, since we had the address and were heading out to La Jolla anyway to play on the rocks at Cuvier Park and see the seals at La Jolla Cove, we decided to drive by and see the 11,000-square-foot Romney beach mansion. We found it, but we couldn’t get closer than a hundred feet or so, because he “lives” on a very narrow dead-end street that has a no-access sign posted at its entrance. Only residents and their visitors are allowed, I suppose, for both the Romneys and the two houses across the street. All the streets in this neighborhood are very narrow. With cars parked on either side, there’s only room for one vehicle to drive down the center. So I can imagine what a nightmare it was for the neighbors to have backhoes and cement trucks and lumber trucks trying to access the property.
And now the story gets even a bit more strange. Several days later, after we were home, I had a dream. Now, usually I don’t remember my dreams, and when I do, they are generally the bizarre, frustrating kind where you’re trying to get somewhere but you can’t get your legs to move, or where you’re trying to find something and can’t locate it. But this particular dream was crystal clear and not frustrating at all. As with all dreams, it just sort of started in the middle of the story. I was on my way to drop in on Mitt (I’m sure my daughter’s comment triggered something in my subconscious). I arrived at his house, but it wasn’t the one in La Jolla. It was in a different type of neighborhood. So I parked my truck and walked up to the door and rang the bell. Mitt answered and invited me in. I sat down on the couch. Ann was on the opposite end, and several grandkids were in the room. A couple of them came and snuggled up next to me like I was a family member. It was a very comfortable setting and I didn’t feel at all out of place. Mitt was seated across the room in a chair, and he and I chatted for a while about this and that. Then I informed him that he and I didn’t see eye to eye politically, but I hoped he could do something about the disaster in the White House. He agreed noncommittally that the situation was indeed unfortunate, but he didn’t make any promises.
At that point, I guess I ran out of things to say, so I excused myself and walked out to my truck and drove off. And got lost in the neighborhood. I guess there had to be a frustrating element or it wouldn’t have been one of my dreams. So I drove back to Mitt’s house, where he gave me instructions. I drove off again, and as far as I can remember that’s where the dream ended. But it was all extremely vivid and left me with a rather warm feeling toward the Romneys. Now, I’m pretty sure this dream doesn’t mean anything. I doubt that I’ll ever meet Mitt Romney. I doubt that I’ll ever get anything more than that form email from his office. But these events have created some sort of connection that I feel to Utah’s junior Senator. I still disagree with his politics. I’m still not happy with his response to Trump’s incessant assault on our republic. And I will certainly never vote for Mitt. But, hey, I’ve visited him at his house and had a nice chat—even if it’s only in my dreams.
Tuesday, May 21, 2019
The reversal of the POX has highlighted a growing problem for the Church. Church leaders have never claimed to be infallible—in fact, in recent years we have had at least one straightforward admission by a member of the First Presidency that Church leaders sometimes make mistakes1—but they never actually admit to specific mistakes. In fact, even when a “revealed” policy is reversed, somehow we are expected to believe that both the policy and its removal are inspired. This results in what I call de facto infallibility. The leaders admit to being fallible, but in practice they want us to believe that everything they do or say is inspired. Then, when something like the recent policy reversal comes along, the way they announce it damages their credibility. And this damaged credibility spreads to everything else they do or say.
This is a tricky problem for a Church that claims to be led by revelation. It would actually be refreshing for one of the Apostles or a member of the First Presidency to announce that even though they thought they were doing what was right, they missed this one, so they are reversing the policy. Such honesty would be welcome among most members, I believe, since the opposite creates so many problems. But admitting to mistakes creates other problems. If the General Authorities are capable of getting significant policies wrong now and then, how can we trust other things they say? And if we can’t trust what they say, where does that leave us? I’m sure this reasoning lies somewhere behind the de facto infallibility we see. But this is really a fallacy. Just because the leadership can’t admit to making a mistake when things turn out wrong doesn’t mean the membership isn’t aware that they were wrong, or at least a significant portion of Church members. So, in essence, they really aren’t fooling most members. This being the case, it would be better to just be honest and admit it when they make mistakes, because the result is essentially the same, except for the unnecessary pretense of infallibility, which any member with eyes to see will see through.
The real problem, the one they ought to be talking about, is the fact that revelation is not easy. Interpreting spiritual manifestations correctly is difficult. If the General Authorities acknowledged this, it would not only create more realistic expectations among members, but it would help members in dealing with local leaders, who—surprise!—also sometimes get things wrong. Let me illustrate with a couple of stories.
Many years ago, when we had two small children, my wife received a calling to be Primary president in our ward. She accepted the call, but in the hours after accepting, she felt awful about it. And it wasn’t just the fact that she was the busy mother of two small children. Something else was wrong. She felt the calling was a mistake. She talked with me about it, and I suggested she call the bishop and tell him how she felt. She did, and this humble man said he’d pray about it. The next day he called her, and he said, “Sister Terry, you’re right. This calling is not for you right now.” We didn’t understand why until a few weeks later when she started experiencing problems with a pregnancy that resulted in our third child being born twelve weeks early. This would have prevented her from serving in that calling.
I’m sure the bishopric had felt inspired to extend the call to serve, but sometimes inspiration is just hard to decipher. Sometimes we just get it wrong. In my own life, I’ve had a few major spiritual manifestations that I was sure about. But about half the time, I’ve been wrong. Now, the other story.
This one comes from Gerald Lund. He told about a bishop who had been called to the hospital in the middle of the night to give a young mother a blessing. She had collapsed and was in a coma. Her vital signs were dropping. When the bishop laid his hands on her head, he was overcome with a wonderful feeling of peace and light. He assumed the Spirit was telling him that the woman would be healed, so he blessed her that she would rise from her sickbed and would be able to raise her children to adulthood. A few hours later, she was dead. Lund points out that experiences like this are common.2 So, why does this happen? Because spiritual experiences often come as feelings, and feelings are devilishly difficult to decipher. Even for prophets and apostles. The bishop in the second story may have been sent the message by the Lord, “I’m in charge. Everything will be fine.” But the message he received (his interpretation) was that the young mother would be healed. Revelation is actually a very complicated thing, much more complicated than we are led to believe.
It’s fairly easy to look back over Church history and see instances when leaders got it wrong. The priesthood ban and all the awful doctrinal explanations to justify it is merely the most obvious example (and yet the Church even struggles to admit this mistake). But it’s harder in the present to talk openly about mistakes by leaders. We are taught that they will never “lead the Church astray,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. And we are taught to sustain them and to never speak evil of them. But where does simply acknowledging that our leaders have made a mistake have a place in the Church? I would suggest that, culturally, we have made such an acknowledgment practically impossible. Therefore, we have de facto infallibility. And any way you slice it, it causes problems.
1. “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes.” Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” Ensign 43, no. 11 (November 2013): 22.
2. Gerald N. Lund, Hearing the Voice of the Lord (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 8.
Tuesday, May 14, 2019
A distinguished professor has a son who gets accepted to a prestigious university on the far side of the country. The son moves away from home and gets settled in a new apartment in a new city. School is hard, but he does well in his classes. He calls home every week to talk to his father, but his father never says anything. There’s just silence on the other end of the line. The young man would like to talk to his mother, but his father is a very patriarchal man and doesn’t allow his wife to talk on the phone. The son doesn’t know quite what to do when confronted with this silence, so he just talks. He tells his father about his new life, his new friends, and his studies. He has decided to major in the same subject his father has specialized in. In fact, his father once wrote a popular textbook, which is required for one of the son’s classes, so the son asks his father questions about various points he doesn’t understand. The father doesn’t answer, doesn’t explain the concepts he has written about, some of which are rather confusing. Every now and then, the son imagines he hears something on the phone, very faint, but he can’t be sure, and he can’t understand the sound he thinks he hears.
Eventually, the son runs a little short on money, as students tend to do. He feels awkward about his predicament, but he asks if his father might send him some money. Silence. Since there is no response, he takes out a student loan to stay afloat. Every now and then, however, at seemingly random intervals, a small deposit appears in his bank account. He assumes these deposits come from his father, so he calls to say thanks, but there’s no response on the other end. Once in a while, however, the father sends the son an unexpected text, but these brief messages are cryptic, almost like crossword puzzle clues, and the son doesn’t know quite what to make of them. He tries to interpret what his father is trying to say, but he usually ends up scratching his head, not really understanding these enigmatic missives. A couple of times he takes these text messages to a linguistics professor whose class he has taken. The professor comes up with an ingenious interpretation, but the son isn’t convinced the professor knows what he’s doing. As time goes on, the son feels more and more estranged from his father. He wonders whether he should just give up on the relationship, but instead he keeps making perfunctory calls, hoping that someday his father will answer him.
A friend of his father’s from his hometown comes to visit. He assures the son that his father loves him and would do anything to help him succeed at school. He claims that the father is actually answering his calls, but that the son just isn’t listening hard enough. The son doesn’t know what to make of this. He’d like to believe it, but it just doesn’t make sense to him. It seems to him that his father has just lost interest in him.
Eventually, the son nears graduation. He has done well, but he has not lined up a job, so he knows he must return home. His student debt has accumulated, so he has that to worry about. But his bigger worry is about his father. What will it be like to return home? Will his father be pleased? Will he allow him back in the house? The son isn’t sure, but he is resigned to the fact that whatever will be will be. So he dresses in his cap and gown and gets ready for the big ceremony.
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
So, I led a discussion on Sunday using the questions I listed in the last post as a general outline. Lots of discussion. Many insightful ideas on what’s preventing us from establishing Zion and what we can do to overcome these obstacles. I’ll share a few thoughts here on the third through sixth questions, about dwelling in righteousness and eliminating poverty.
First, though, another thought about what prevents us from being of one heart and one mind. Perhaps the greatest obstacle to unity is incomplete information (or just plain bad information). If we had all knowledge, we would see things clearly and would likely agree on everything. But the nature of mortality is ignorance about most things. We also have lots of information that is simply inaccurate. And then there’s the problem of people who want poor information, who only want to confirm their prejudices and preconceptions. So, better information is one key to creating greater unity.
But what about righteousness? What prevents us from dwelling in righteousness? Well, the usual suspects show up here. Temptation, sin, ignorance. I would also throw in bad laws. The more important question, I believe, is, what can we do to become more righteous? It’s pretty straightforward to make ourselves more righteous (not easy, but straightforward). But how do we get other people to be more righteous? How do parents get their children to be more righteous? Ah, that old problem. Well, even our Heavenly Father didn’t have great success on that count. We can list the usual ideas—teach correct principles, use love and compassion rather than criticism—but these methods have only limited effectiveness, because of that pesky thing called agency. This seems to be a rather large obstacle to creating a true Zion society. I suppose you could just kick everyone out who doesn’t fall in line, but in our modern society, where the Church is embedded in a variety of social and economic systems, we can’t create Zion isolated from the circumstances we find ourselves in. And as societies, we can’t simply exclude half the population. Where would we send them? Short of fleeing to some remote location where only the righteously inclined will gather, this appears to be an impossible requirement. And as I mentioned above, even Heavenly Father struggled with this. Which brings up the question of how God will maintain order and peace in his eternal kingdoms in the hereafter, particularly the telestial and terrestrial. Of course, that’s well beyond the scope of this post.
So let’s move on to the final characteristic of Zion: no poor. What are some of the causes of poverty? I was surprised and pleased that in two different wards where I asked this question, nobody mentioned laziness, which is a common explanation among some conservatives. Yes, there are a few people who are poor because they are lazy. But they are a minority, perhaps even a small minority. Other causes? Physical illness, disability, age, mental illness, lack of decent-paying jobs, lack of education or job-related skills, and even bad luck. Which reminds me of an experience I once had.
Back in 1999, Church magazines sent me to Quebec to write a story about the Montreal Homeless Choir. A young dental technician from France, Pierre Anthian, had moved to Montreal to get married. The engagement fell apart, but Pierre stayed. Because his mother had taught him to serve the less fortunate, he found a local homeless shelter/food kitchen and volunteered. But after a while he grew frustrated. Giving out meals was a short-term fix, he knew, but it wasn’t doing anything to create real change. So he cooked up an idea. He had been trained in the conservatories of Paris and Pau, and this background led him to the idea of forming a choir of homeless men. There was no requirement that the choir members had to be able to carry a tune. He advertised, and a few men showed up to practice. Then a few more. Eventually he had seventeen men who would follow his simple rules.
When they were ready, more or less, they went to the busiest Metro station in Montreal and started singing. Soon a crowd gathered, and people started dropping money into the hat Pierre had place in front of the choir. They became a news story. They sang regularly in the subway, but they also started getting invitations to sing at schools and businesses. They even performed at an NHL game. The money they earned from these appearances they donated to the food kitchen. The money they received in the subway station Pierre split among the seventeen singers. They earned enough to be able to afford apartments and food. Pierre’s idea got seventeen men off the street.
He told me one day that most of these men were criminals. Because of their circumstances, they had lived difficult lives. “Let’s just say thievery and attempted murder are not the worst offenses on the list,” Pierre once told a reporter. “And they are my friends.” He told me that the primary difference between himself and these men was just bad luck. Sometimes that’s all it takes. One bad break, and your life can spiral out of control. Pierre had given his life to serving these men. He gave up his business making dentures and devoted his time to the choir. The homeless shelter provided him a small living allowance so he could do this work.1
But seventeen is a drop in the bucket of floundering humanity. There are millions in America who are living in poverty and who don’t have a Pierre Anthian to rescue them. So, how do we eliminate poverty? One homeless choir at a time?
I think we sometimes get the idea that if we just live the gospel, Zion will somehow magically happen. Voila! No more poor. But I think this is naïve in the extreme. In any society, there will always be people who are sick, disabled, mentally ill, or poorly qualified for decent-paying work. There will always be people who experience bad luck. And sometimes the economy will dip into recession, which will tip millions of people into unemployment. To assume that there is some sort of solution to these circumstances that does not involve government is simply absurd. Most Mormons don’t even consider the notion that the city of Enoch had a government. And it undoubtedly had laws prohibiting the hoarding of wealth. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young tried to establish Zion in a variety of ways. But they always implemented economic restrictions that attempted to equalize wealth.
One of the causes of poverty that is more systemic than individual is the concentration of wealth. Today we are experiencing historic levels of economic inequality, and despite what some conservatives like to claim, this is indeed a cause of poverty, and it is unsustainable. All you have to do is plot the current trends on a chart to see that where we are heading is socially destructive and economically disastrous. But this problem is not unique to twenty-first-century America.
In 1875, Brigham Young and thirteen members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve issued a statement regarding the cooperative movement, particularly Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution, which the Church established to promote economic equality and stand against the inroads of American capitalism that had come with the railroad in 1869. It reads, in part:
The experience of mankind has shown that the people of communities and nations among whom wealth is the most equally distributed, enjoy the largest degree of liberty, are the least exposed to tyranny and oppression and suffer the least from luxurious habits which beget vice. . . . One of the great evils with which our own nation is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals. The very liberties for which our fathers contended so steadfastly and courageously, and which they bequeathed to us as a priceless legacy, are endangered by the monstrous power which this accumulation of wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations. . . . It threatens to give shape to the legislation, both state and national, of the entire country. If this evil should not be checked, and measures not taken to prevent the continued enormous growth of riches among the class already rich, and the painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is likely to be overtaken by disaster; for, according to history, such a tendency among nations once powerful was the sure precursor of ruin.2
A fitting warning for our day. There are a couple of ways to correct this imbalance. One is to tax massive wealth inequality out of existence to help lift up the lower levels of society. And progressive taxation will always be necessary as long as there are members of society who are sick, disabled, aged, mentally ill, or otherwise unable to provide for themselves. Charity is never sufficient to meet these needs. But there is another way we can equalize wealth in society that does not involve taxation. It is actually to create the sort of capitalism Adam Smith and other worldly philosophers envisioned. William Greider put it well: “The problem is not that capital is privately owned, as Marx supposed. The problem is that most people don’t own any.”3
In our current system, those who actually create the products and sell them, as well as those who fill support functions in businesses do not receive a proportionate share of the wealth they create. This is because they do not share in the ownership of the businesses where they work. Consequently, the profits all go to investors and executives. This creates a dual wage system. One group of people is paid as much as possible; the other group is paid as little as possible (a “competitive” wage, we call it). This system is designed to create increasing inequality. But consider Michael Ventura’s perspective on this system:
As a worker, I am not an “operating cost.” I am how the job gets done. I am the job. I am the company. . . . I’m willing to take my lumps in a world in which little is certain, but I deserve a say. Not just some cosmetic “input,” but significant power in good times or bad. A place at the table where decisions are made. Nothing less is fair. So nothing less is moral. . . . It takes more than investment and management to make a company live. It takes the labor, skill, and talent of the people who do the company’s work. Isn’t that an investment? Doesn’t it deserve a fair return, a voice, a share of the power? . . . If the people who do the work don’t own some part of the product, and don’t have any power over what happens to their enterprise—they are being robbed. You are being robbed. And don’t think for a minute that those who are robbing you don’t know they are robbing you. They know how much they get from you and how little they give back. They are thieves. They are stealing your life.4
Sharing ownership of businesses with workers would do more to equalize wealth in our modern society than any other method. This is not communism. It is capitalism as it was initially intended to be. How exactly the surviving Lehites achieved a society with not just no poor, but where “there were not rich and poor” (4 Ne. 1:3) is not explained in the Book of Mormon, but it certainly didn’t come about by allowing some people to own the time and labor of others or to treat them as “human resources” or “commodities.”
This last section was not part of my lesson on Sunday. Not nearly enough time. And it’s probably not appropriate for a priesthood meeting. But maybe it is. If we’re serious about establishing Zion, we need to consider the practical aspects of what we will need to do to accomplish this herculean task. It’s not going to happen by magic.
1. See Roger Terry, “The Least of These,” Liahona (December 2000), https://www.lds.org/study/liahona/2000/12/the-least-of-these?lang=eng.
2. James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–75), 2:267–72.
3. William Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 416.
4. Michael Ventura, “Someone Is Stealing Your Life,” Utne Reader (July/August 1991); 78, 80, reprinted from the L.A. Weekly.
Monday, April 15, 2019
The ward I work with on the high council is having ward conference in a couple of weeks, and I am responsible to teach the priesthood lesson. The topic, in general, is Zion. As I have thought about this subject, it occurred to me that we often talk about Zion in vague generalities. I don’t find this very productive, so I want to get more specific. I am going to ask a few questions to get people thinking in more detail.
As described in Moses 7:18, referring to the city of Enoch, “the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there were no poor among them.” Based on this definition, I plan to ask the following questions (with other embedded questions to steer the discussion a bit):
1. What prevents us from being of one heart and one mind?
2. What could we do to become more unified in our thoughts and desires?
3. What prevents us from dwelling in righteousness?
4. What could we do to become more righteous?
5. What are some of the causes of poverty?
6. What could we do to eliminate poverty among us?
I actually had a trial run with these questions in my own ward a few weeks ago, where I assisted our ward’s high councilor with his lesson. We ran out of time and didn’t go into much depth on the final two questions, but I can imagine they might lead to some very fascinating differences of opinion.
Today, though, I want to offer a few thoughts about the first two questions.
So, what does prevent us from being of one heart and one mind?
The first response I got in my own ward was “politics.” This is true, especially in today’s volatile political climate. But why do people disagree about politics (which often means social and economic issues)? Often, I believe, it is because people have different values and beliefs as well as different perceptions of life, and life is complicated.
Some Church members have the naïve assumption that all we have to do to achieve unity is to accept the gospel and live by its principles. But this is simplistic thinking, and it probably explains why most of our discussions of Zion are so general and unrealistic. Let me suggest something.
Zion is a society. Well, duh, you say. But sometimes we don’t understand what that means. All societies are extremely complex. Even when most members of a society share common goals, they often disagree with each other about how to achieve those goals. Why is this so? Because sometimes we have competing goals. Let me use a simple example. I think we would all agree that two desirable goals in our society are freedom and relief from suffering. The problem is that when we grant too much freedom, people inevitably suffer. For example, if we grant corporations freedom to pollute, people drink polluted water and breathe polluted air, and some, even many, will get sick or die. So, when trying to negotiate the tricky terrain between these two goals, we have to draw lines somewhere. Where do we draw those lines? In our current American society, Republicans shift the line toward corporations, allowing them more freedom to pollute. Democrats tend to shift the line closer to those who might suffer from pollution. This indicates two different sets of values.
These two competing goals—freedom and relief from suffering—have many other battlefields. Gun control is one. Health care is another. Global warming can be viewed through the lens of these two goals. So can taxation and so-called entitlement programs and hate-speech. And there are other pairs of competing goals. Prosperity and equality can compete with each other. So can ownership and fairness.
So far, all of the ideas I’ve mentioned assume that unity is a good thing. Last week, Angela C. over on BCC discussed a book that has a fascinating thesis: that consensus leads to sloppy thinking and suboptimal solutions. Sometimes dissent is healthy and produces better outcomes. So, what does this say about our Zion goal of being of one heart and one mind? Would Zion be a better society if we had a few nonconformists among its citizens? I suspect it might be.
What I hope to achieve with my lesson is to portray Zion as a real society that experiences the same challenges that every society faces, not some pie-in-the-sky perfect place where everything is hunky-dory. I just don’t think that’s realistic. For instance, most Church members don’t consider the fact that Zion will have a government. What sort of government should Zion have? And if we’re serious about creating a Zion society in the twenty-first century, Zion will have a health-care system. What sort of health-care system would Zion have? Now that’s something we ought to think about. But that’s a topic for another day. I’ll let you know how the priesthood lesson goes.
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Because the Democrats are proposing to actually do something about global warming, health care, runaway student debt, and rampant wealth inequality, the Republicans have trotted out the only response they can come up with: “Socialism!” We even hear cries of “Venezuela!” As if providing health care for all Americans would somehow turn us into a failed petrostate. On the right, there tends to be a lot of misinformation and fearmongering about what socialism even is. Perhaps a bit of personal history might shed some light on the question.
One sunny afternoon in August 1984, my wife and I passed through Checkpoint Charlie, where we were required to trade 50 Westmarks for 50 worthless Ostmarks. As we wandered the streets of East Berlin, we witnessed the somber, hopeless faces of the city’s few pedestrians. We marveled at the cheap-looking Trabants that motored loudly up and down the streets and belched foul fumes out of their tailpipes. We passed soldier after soldier, each fully armed, each exuding an almost tangible assurance that the Cold War was as real as any hot one. We watched people stand in lines a block long to buy produce. We tried to spend our allotted Ostmarks in the city’s most prestigious department store but couldn’t find even a souvenir we wouldn’t have thrown away. We finally bought a cheap noodle press and a metric measuring cup. We ate at a state cafeteria where the food tasted as unappetizing as it looked, then stopped at an ice cream parlor on Unter den Linden that was already out of practically everything on the menu by 4 p.m. By evening we were more than eager to return to the hustle and plenty of West Berlin. We left with most of our East German currency and absolutely no illusions about communism.
I can still remember later that evening visiting a little Slavic restaurant in a quiet corner of Neukölln and how ecstatic I was over a tossed salad with tomatoes and green peppers. “I could never get a salad like this in East Berlin!” I exulted. That one afternoon behind the Iron Curtain had made me see the world with new eyes. I marveled at how many stores and shops there were in the West, and at how fully stocked they were. In fact, because of that one afternoon, I can perhaps dimly imagine what the East Germans must have felt that November day five years later when the Wall came tumbling down. I can understand their desires for reunification and prosperity. I can understand their blind assumption that capitalism is right—because communism is definitely wrong. But there are many types of capitalism, and not all of them look like our top-heavy American form of corporate capitalism.
How many times have we heard from Republicans that socialism is evil, just one step, or perhaps even a half-step, away from communism? But is socialism really just a half-step away from communism? Remember the contrast I drew between the scarcity of goods in East Berlin and their abundance in West Berlin, between the oppression in the East and the freedom in West? Yes, this was a contrast between two opposing systems. But it was not a contrast between communist East Germany and capitalist America; it was a contrast between communist East Germany and socialist West Germany. West Germany in the 1980s was a solidly socialist country, with a universal multipayer health-care system, high marginal tax rates, a statutory guarantee of four weeks’ paid vacation every year (compared with none in America), and a substantial social safety net. Yes, West Germany was what Republicans would deride as a welfare state. It also had one of the strongest economies and highest standards of living in the world. It was strong enough to absorb the crumbling mess that was East Germany and still remain the strongest economy in Europe. Even today, Germany is solidly socialist, and in 2014 all German states also began offering free university tuition.
So, when you hear cries of “socialism” or “Venezuela,” please remember that this is simple partisan fearmongering by a party that has no solutions to the most pressing issues of our day.
Sunday, February 24, 2019
Excerpts from Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary
As I mentioned in my last post, BCC Press has recently released a rather unusual mission memoir by yours truly, in both print and ebook formats (available on Amazon). Of course, they want me to promote it in any way possible, but since I’m really bad at self-promotion, I guess I’ll just let the book mostly speak for itself. I’ll trot out a few excerpts here, which should give you some idea of what sort of book this is, with minimal connective text from me. So, here goes.
From the Vorwort (foreword):
I need to confess up front that this story didn’t turn out quite the way I thought it would. About thirty years ago, when I first had the idea of writing an MMM (Mormon Missionary Memoir, a genre that has become as common as crabgrass in the LDS literary lawn), I pictured this narrative as a triumphant, majestic, remarkable retelling of the most glorious two years of my life. But that was thirty years ago. I was incredibly naïve. I hadn’t had enough time to let the mission experience percolate for a few decades. I hadn’t lived long enough to see it through the long lens of real life. Oh, I knew the plotline all right. And I could remember the cast of characters much better than I do now. But I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see it in any sort of context. I couldn’t comprehend the broader implications of the experience. It has now been forty years since that distant summer day when the Salt Lake Mission Home swallowed me whole. . . . I think those forty years have given me enough perspective to finally make a semiserious attempt at this admittedly atypical MMM. . . .
I can honestly say that my life is still being shaped by Bruder Terry and what he experienced all those years ago. Little did he know how complicated some of those innocuous experiences he had would turn out to be.
So this is his story. I will tell it as best I can, but you must realize that I am not the person who stepped onto that America-bound plane in Hamburg, Germany, thirty-eight years ago. And that is why I will refer to that person in the third person. He is gone. Has been for a long time now. But wisps of his memories still float by at times, like bubbles on the breeze. I can see them for a moment, but they are both distorted and impossible to grasp and to hold.
One thing you need to know is that in spite of the stultifying sameness of dress imposed upon male Mormon missionaries (females get cut a little slack in this department), no two missionaries are alike. Beyond this, there is another level of diversity: between missions—all 406 of them. My youngest son recently returned from serving in Ukraine. At the same time, his cousin was serving in Florida. Reading their weekly emails was an exercise in head scratching. You never would have known they were doing anything remotely similar. Their experiences were as different as a root canal and a birthday party. And when the cousin’s brother was sent to Uruguay, the sense of disconnect seemed to triple. So any mission memoir is going to be a very, very, very idiosyncratic narrative. Of course, any memoir is only as mesmerizing as the mind and writing facility of its author, but I am just arrogant enough to believe that I can turn virtually anything into a fascinating read. So, what better challenge than the rigors and tedium and conformity of a Mormon mission?. . .
Also, please forgive me if I don’t keep this story completely in the 1970s or in Germany. There were many things Bruder Terry didn’t understand then that I do now. He had no historical or cultural context for some of the things he experienced. He also had a very simple understanding of LDS theology and history. Some commentary is therefore inevitable. Actually, a lot of commentary is inevitable. But remember, I’m trying to understand him and his experiences just as you are. So please allow me to mind-wander. And if I were to write this story ten years from now, it might be far different than it is today. But this is how I remember it now.
And why, you ask, would you even want to understand a Mormon missionary in Germany in the 1970s? First, because what Bruder Terry experienced in Germany all those years ago has a lot to do with many of the issues facing Latter-day Saints today. And second, because it’s a pretty good story, disjointed and introspective as I present it, and everybody likes a good story.
From chapter 3, “Old World, New World”:
“Right now I think I’m more tired than scared,” Bruder Terry lied. “I’ll save scared for tomorrow.” He was tired. Jet lag was creeping up on him, but cold fingers of fear gripped him through the curtain of weariness that dulled his mind.
What would tomorrow bring, though, after he had slept the jet lag off? Today he had his fourteen traveling companions with him. He had spent two months with them and felt comfortable if not exactly confident in their company. But tomorrow, tomorrow would come too fast. Today had come fast. Flying toward morning out of Chicago, he had seen the sun rise over Ireland just four hours after nightfall. He had slept fitfully, crumpled up in a plane seat like a heap of new clothes. On waking he felt wrinkled, rumpled, and a bit stale. And now Ireland was far behind.
His mind wandered back briefly to an encounter they had had in Chicago. During their layover, a strikingly handsome man in a Lufthansa pilot’s uniform approached them.
“Where are you going?” he asked in a foreign accent.
“Germany,” they had answered.
“Wonderful,” he said. “I’m a German, and I’m a Mormon. Are you flying on my plane? It’s a Lufthansa 747 that’s only about half full.”
“No,” they had told him. “We’re on a Pan Am 707.” And, as it turned out, the plane was full. No elbow room in sight.
“Too bad,” he said. “Well, good luck, elders.”
Years later, I would realize this German Lufthansa pilot was none other than Dieter Uchtdorf, who would become a Mormon Apostle and would go on to serve as second counselor in the LDS First Presidency. He left a very positive impression, but remembering that encounter, Terry squirmed in his seat. He was tired of sitting. The Lufthansa pilot, he thought, would probably have invited them into the cockpit to show them around. This was, after all, 1975. But on the Pan Am plane, they were just ordinary pieces of human cargo. Uncomfortable cargo at that.
The crowded 707 circled now above Frankfurt, slowly passing through thick banks of clouds. Bruder Terry was fortunate to have a window seat and sat pensively, watching the passing shrouds of grey mist. What would Germany be like? He had wanted to see that enchanted land for years. Now he was directly above it, and clouds heavy with rain concealed the countryside from view. Would he be disappointed? Suddenly the wing dipped, the tattered edges of a rain cloud passed swiftly upward, and there it was—patch-work fields and dark green forests. “This is really Germany,” he thought, mentally pinching himself to see if it was real. An apprehensive thrill shot through him. “What will the people be like? Will I be able to convert anyone? Maybe myself?” It was more than an idle question.
From chapter 9, “Going to the Gynecologist”:
Like a painful zit, their troubles came to a head at zone conference on February 20. It was an eventful day in more ways than one. They took the U-bahn out to Pinneberg to meet with all the missionaries in the northern portion of Hamburg. At one point during the conference, one of President Scharneman’s assistants made a rather audacious promise. He even introduced this promise by saying that the Spirit had authorized it. Now, this was a promise that I’m sure no General Authority would sanction. In fact, there are all sorts of doctrinal and logical problems with this promise. It was completely out of order. But Bruder Bradford made it nonetheless. With his hand raised to the square, he declared, “I promise you in the name of Jesus Christ that if you will work fifty-five hours each week in the month of March, someone you are teaching will be baptized.”
“Now wait just a minute!” I still want to yell after all these years. “You can’t make a promise like that. It cuts against the grain of free will (or ‘agency,’ as Mormons call it) and a whole host of other gospel principles. You simply can’t make that promise. Can’t, can’t, can’t! Especially in Germany, where baptisms are about as common as palm trees.” But when Bradford spoke this promise, an odd thing happened: what Terry assumed was the Holy Ghost hit him like sucker punch and confirmed to him, in what he felt was an unmistakable way, that Bradford did indeed have authorization to make this promise. Terry knew it was true. KNEW. As improbable as it seemed, he knew that if he and Carlson worked fifty-five hours each week for the next month, one of their investigators would be baptized. How, he had no idea. They didn’t have any likely candidates. But he figured he could leave those little details up to the Lord. Apparently almost everyone else felt the same thing Terry did, because when Bradford asked them to raise their right hands to the square and promise to work those fifty-five-hour weeks, everyone in the zone quickly raised his or her hand. Everyone, that is, except Bruder Carlson.
Terry couldn’t believe it. The wind went out of his sails as quickly as if he had floated into the Doldrums. How could he? Terry thought. Terry hadn’t seen a baptism yet on his mission, but here was a guarantee, a 100-percent sure-as-sheep-dip guarantee. All they had to do was work fifty-five hours. Heavens, they were already doing that. This was like promising to brush your teeth before going to bed. But his companion wouldn’t promise. Terry was so angry he could have strangled Carlson.
To make a long story short, Carlson did eventually make the promise, and he and Terry did work those fifty-five hours each week. But nobody got baptized. Of course, no time limit was specified. That baptism might have happened twenty years later. But that’s not the way Terry understood the promise. It should have happened while he was there, or at least soon, which is a relative term. Just in case, though, I checked with the Church membership department when I worked at Church magazines. They didn’t have a record for any of Bruder Terry’s investigators. Bruder Terry also knew a young man from a different ward who later became stake president in that area. I contacted him, and he sent me a list of all the members in area where Terry was assigned. No names matched the ones in Bruder Terry’s appointment book. I guess it’s possible that someone he and Carlson taught once or twice moved away and joined the Church, but I’m quite sure that none of their real investigators were baptized. Certainly none joined during Bruder Terry’s mission. So what can I conclude? Well, . . .
Maybe something else was going on that day at zone conference. Maybe in the enthusiasm of the moment, Terry felt something powerful and interpreted it wrong. That’s certainly possible. My experience over the years is that spiritual feelings are devilishly hard to decipher. I’ve been certain about what I felt were spiritual communications from time to time, but time and experience have proved me wrong as often as right. So at this point, I have no idea what to make of Bruder Terry’s experience that day.
By the way, the rest of this chapter, which explains why two male missionaries would visit a gynecologist, is pretty good, just too long to include here.
From chapter 22, “Leaving the Mortuary”:
If life were more like an adolescent fantasy novel, Bruder Terry would have been scheduled to go home the day after the amazing evening at Ortmanns’. Unfortunately, life is more like, well, life. Serendipity is the huge exception, not the rule. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be serendipity. So instead of going out on a high note, Terry slipped back into the harsh reality of missionary work in Berlin. In spite of how difficult things were, though, he felt like he was on a greased slippery slide. The end was coming too fast, but he felt like he still had years of work to do.
The final month of Terry’s mission was filled with all sorts of conflicting emotions and experiences. Now, as I read through his journal, it strikes me that he was feeling pretty high levels of anxiety on several fronts. The Work was hard. Some days they had no success finding people to teach, and often their appointments fell through, but they did find several possibly promising investigators. Again and again after a Discussion Terry would write, “He could be good” or “She could be good”—even Frau Herschel, who answered the door one day without any pants on and another day was wearing a see-through blouse with no bra, which made it rather hard for the missionaries to concentrate on the Discussion. “She needs to repent a lot,” Terry observed, but he also wrote in a fit of complete irrationality that “she could be good.” Unfortunately, this hopeful assessment was seldom true. In some ways, he sounded like a Golden [the Hamburg mission’s term for Greenies], jumping to overly optimistic conclusions about people instead of seeing the long and more realistic view. Perhaps this was because he had no long view anymore. He was slated to leave on July 7, just over a month after the glorious Discussion with Ortmanns. So he viewed everyone as through a pair of near-sighted spectacles. This undoubtedly distorted his vision. . . .
Speaking of emotional states, Terry was apparently struggling more than I recall from this safe distance. Frankly, after the mission was over, I think I developed a good case of selective memory (which my wife claims never went into remission). I remember, of course, that the end of Bruder Terry’s mission was no triumphant exit that would make a fitting end to a Church-produced missionary video, but his journal sort of surprises me. It repeatedly recorded heartfelt laments about how hard it was to stay enthused, how much energy he expended trying to force a spiritual experience that never came, and how inadequate he felt. A follow-up Discussion with the Ortmanns was emblematic of his frustrations. He wanted so much to duplicate the magical experience he and Holmes had had—both for the Ortmanns and for his struggling companion—but the Discussion fell flat. He tried too hard, and when no Spirit came, he was exhausted and depressed for a couple of days.
Two factors probably came into play here regarding his frustration. First, over the past two years, he had actually had a handful of rather mind-boggling spiritual experiences. He probably assumed he should be having these sorts of happenings on a weekly or even daily basis. But he was young and had very little life experience. How could he know that the Spirit was capricious and came only occasionally and unannounced? Jesus even admitted as much to Nicodemus. Second, although he worshiped the ground President Randall walked on, I believe the standard this young president set was so high that when Terry understood he wasn’t even within the same zip code of that ideal, he felt he was a failure. Repeatedly, his journal bemoans the fact that he had so little faith. In his mind, the proof of faith was success. He remembered the baptism goal he had set the year before, the one encouraged by President Randall, who tied faith directly to results, baptisms. And what did Terry have to show for his faith? An elderly lady and a young Donny groupie. He supposed he could also count half of a lonely middle-aged man. Terry had found Alfred Kraft, but someone else had baptized him. And that was it. He had come nowhere near the thirty baptisms he had idealistically plucked from the air as a goal under the spell of President Randall’s magic. Unfortunately, the spell didn’t endure away from his presence. And since Bruder Terry had had so little measurable success, he translated that into the conclusion that he had no faith. The fact that he was still a mere district leader while several of his good friends in the mission were already zone leaders or assistants made him believe he had underachieved, an inevitable and sad conclusion in the palpable mission (and LDS) environment where leadership positions were seen as evidence of righteousness and faith. Rather than focusing on the few true high points, Bruder Terry wallowed in the troughs. And this pattern persisted right up to his last week. As the end drew nearer and he realized he would not see another baptism, he focused on leaving Bruder Williams with a pool of potential converts, hence the repeated naïve exclamations “He could be good” and “She could be good.” In the end, he left Williams nobody within a light-year of baptism.
Well, that’s a small taste of what Bruder is all about. There’s a lot more, of course, and the Nachwort (Afterword) delves pretty deeply into what I think now about both Bruder Terry and the Church he represented. But, as I asked earlier, why would you even want to understand a Mormon missionary in Germany in the 1970s? I’ll let Steve Walker, emeritus professor of English at BYU, give another answer: “Bruder may be the best missionary memoir ever. I’ve read every one I could find, and this compelling volume is the best I’ve found. I like the vividness with which Terry lays out the day-to-day realities of missionary experience like a smorgasbord for those who haven’t yet tasted it, and even more appetizingly for those of us who thought we already had.”
Sunday, February 17, 2019
It’s been a while since I posted anything. I’ll explain that in a minute, but first a couple of significant events.
First, BCC Press has just released the ebook version of my mission memoir, Bruder: The Perplexingly Spiritual Life and Not Entirely Unexpected Death of a Mormon Missionary. It’s available on Amazon, and for a short time is priced at $0.99. If you’ve enjoyed this blog, you ought to check out the memoir. The print version will be released Tuesday. BCC will probably run a guest post this week with a few excerpts from the book.
Second, a shout out to the BYU ultimate frisbee team, CHI Ultimate. Our youngest son plays for this club team (meaning the university gives them no financial support), so we decided to follow them to Tampa for the big Florida Warm Up tournament. Most of the tournaments have a Sunday championship bracket, which BYU does not participate in, so they often accommodate CHI Ultimate by giving them a few extra preliminary games. In Florida, that meant the other teams played three games Friday and three Saturday to determine the seeding for the Sunday brackets. BYU was given four games each day. And they went 7-1, beating number 2, number 5, and a couple of other ranked opponents, and losing by one point to number 6, Wisconsin. BYU entered the tournament ranked 9th in the country and jumped to 4th afterward. So congratulations to BYU’s ultimate team. If you’ve never watched college-level ultimate, it’s pretty incredible. Lots of action, and the skill level in throwing and catching the disc is impressive. Much more fun than watching soccer (yawn). BYU plays next on March 1 and 2 at the Stanford Invite in California. It was fun to watch all eight games in Tampa, and especially nice to enjoy some 80-degree weather in the middle of February. We left a snowstorm in Utah.
Finally, an explanation for my infrequent posts of late. Life here at home has been rather chaotic lately. In June, our daughter and her family moved from Houston to Utah. Our son-in-law left Exxon after eight demanding years and took a job with an energy consulting firm in Utah County. The housing market here was crazy, though, so they finally decided to buy our nephew’s home. He’s a contractor and had decided to build himself a new house. This means that instead of having the grandkids in Houston, they’ve been living with us during construction. The nephew just finished his new house last week, though, so our daughter and family will be moving into his old house soon, after a little refurbishing. But it’s been fun having three grandkids running (around) the house for about eight months. They are seven, five, and two. Still, it has been crazy at times, and I’ve found that it’s much easier to write blog posts in a quiet house than in one ruled by a two-year-old. We’ll be sad to see them move—all the way to Lehi this time—but maybe I’ll have more time to blog.
Tuesday, January 1, 2019
I’m a big fan of book reviews. We publish them in each issue of BYU Studies Quarterly, and I read them in Dialogue and Journal of Mormon History. I like book reviews for three reasons. First, I love books. I want to know what’s being published, especially in the area of Mormon studies, where I work. Second, book reviews most often tell me enough about a book that I decide not to buy it and read it. Third, every now and then a review convinces me that I do want to read the book being evaluated. This is often how I narrow my reading list. Recently, I read a review that convinced me to buy the book. It is Moth and Rust: Mormon Encounters with Death, published by Signature Books and edited by Sunstone editor Stephen Carter.
Carter recruited forty-six different authors (including himself) to write about their encounters with death. This may sound morbid, but the stories, essays, and poetry in the book present fascinating views of a topic we all face up close and personal at times but usually avoid. Some of the authors raise provocative questions. I have not finished the book yet, but I’m far enough in to be hooked. This is a thought-provoking collection of reminiscences and ruminations. Carter has divided the book into five sections: Passages (thoughts on a loved one’s death), Piercing the Veil (ideas on the condition of the soul after death), Fleeting (on the death of children), A Wider View (death in other contexts), and A Single Soul (how death has affected the author personally). My purpose here is not to review the book. My purpose is to tell you about my mother, because Moth and Rust has made me think more deeply about the only person I have ever seen pass from mortality to the great beyond.
When I was a teenager, Mom told me she wouldn’t make it to sixty. She suffered from fibromyalgia and felt so awful that she couldn’t imagine living to old age. This was before anyone knew what fibromyalgia was. Her doctor couldn’t find a cause for her pain, so he told her it was all in her head. That was helpful. But she knew it wasn’t in her head. It was in her chest and arms. I also knew it wasn’t in her head. My bedroom was across the hall from my parents’ bedroom, and I remember hearing her crying in the night because she hurt so much. She never knew I was listening until I was older and mentioned it to her. She also had a damaged mitral valve in her heart from the rheumatic fever she contracted when I was eighteen months old. Her health issues were not life-threatening, but they were life-hampering and made her miserable. In her fifties, she added peripheral neuropathy to her list of ailments. This made her feet ache and limited her mobility. I know something about this one, because I inherited it from her. Later, after she had passed the sixty-year mark she thought she’d never reach, she was diagnosed with hypoglycemia, which eventually morphed into diabetes. She took so many medications (some to counter the side-effects of other medications) that we joked with her that when she died the EPA would have to dispose of her body.
In Mom’s late seventies, she needed bypass surgery, but she didn’t seem to recover as we expected. She seemed to tire easily and huff and puff with minor physical exertion. After a couple of years, just after she turned eighty, she was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension (high blood pressure in the pulmonary artery). Finally, after all the merely annoying health issues, this one was fatal.
She dealt with it like she had everything else to this point. You need to understand one thing about my mom. She was an angel. She wasn’t perfect, but she came awfully close. She was served faithfully in the Church, loved her family in quiet but impressive ways, and even worked consistently on her genealogy. She made a decision early on that no matter how awful she felt, she would try to be pleasant. This wasn’t something that just came naturally, and I’m sure it was tremendously difficult, but she succeeded marvelously. This was a conscious decision, and she wrote about it in her personal history. No matter how much she hurt, when you talked with her on the phone or even in person, you would never know anything was wrong. The only time I remember her complaining was when she broke her ankle and had to be confined to a wheelchair for a few weeks. All she said was “This is so hard.” This was near the end, and her oxygen needs were significant, so the broken ankle was a difficult complication in an already unraveling life.
She lasted almost four years from the fatal diagnosis. We watched as her oxygen setting went from two liters to four to six to eight to ten and finally to twelve. Since the oxygen concentrator could produce only ten liters, they combined two machines and ran them together. She also took a medication that cost $15,000 a month. Yes, that’s not a misprint. Fortunately, her insurance and a charity paid for almost all of it. And my dad took such good care of her. It almost killed him near the end. He was exhausted from not sleeping. He’s a worrier, and he would lie awake listening to her breathe, wondering at each breath if it would be her last.
But her last breath came in the hospital, and it will trouble me till the day when I take my last breath. At the end, her oxygen concentrators could not satisfy the needs of her ossifying lungs. She needed fifteen liters, and even the combined concentrators could not supply enough oxygen. In the hospital, she had a stroke, which rendered her unable to speak. But she held on long enough for her family to gather. She did not have a big family. She was able to have only two children, and my sister’s only child died of cancer at age eight. But finally, after my daughter and her two-year-old son—my mom’s only great-grandchild at the time—had arrived from Houston, Mom agreed to have the oxygen mask removed.
The pulmonologist told us they would give her morphine to make her comfortable and Ativan to relax her. Then they would take away her supplemental oxygen. They assured us that she would go to sleep and peacefully slip away. It didn’t happen that way. It was a difficult struggle. My dad and I held her hands and tried to calm her as she fought for breath. The stroke took from her the control of her facial muscles, and the pain distorted her face into a mask of agony that we had never seen before. After she was gone, my dad looked at her and said, “That’s not what I married.” I understood. She had always managed to be pleasant, to deal with the pain without letting anyone know how much discomfort she felt. But even the morticians were unable to restore the peaceful countenance we had always known, and I still feel bad about that.
My mom’s death will haunt me with questions until somewhere on the other side of the veil someone can give me answers that are unavailable here in mortality. I didn’t cry when she died. She did, after all, live almost twenty-four years longer than she told me she would, so I considered all those extra years an unexpected and blessed bonus. But the manner of her death was also very disturbing. If anyone deserved to slip away peacefully, it was my mom. The way she died was so incompatible with the way she lived. A revelation given to Joseph Smith states, “Those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them” (D&C 42:46). Since my mother’s death, I have had to consider this statement a platitude rather than a blanket truth. And since this is the only death I have ever witnessed, it definitely colors my view of the transition from mortality to whatever awaits us. I can only hope that the place Mom has gone to is worth the price she paid to be admitted.