Friday, November 7, 2014

When I turned 64: The Great Beatles Party

My wife and I have been talking for years about what would happen when I turn 64.  Of course, it would have to be a Beatles party.  Well, the party took place this past Monday, November 3, 2014.

Margaret planned the event, invited lots of people, prepared food, and served as the hostess.  I helped too.  I couldn't restrain myself.  I created a playlist of my favorite 64 Beatles songs, came up with ideas for Beatles themed foods, and created a quiz--only part of which we had time for on the evening in question.

And then it happened.  The official tally of people who came is 52.  Three came only briefly, and not everyone was there at the same time.  But most were.  So we had over 40 people in our home for a couple of hours.

As people came, we asked them to identify the food items in the dining room, living room, and kitchen by Beatles song and album or otherwise guess why they were relevant.  We also asked them to cast a "secret ballot" indicating their favorite Beatle, their favorite Beatles song and album, and their least favorite Beatles song and album.  (A few people refused to pick a least favorite album, or said they didn't have one.)  I originally had the ballot ask people to pick their two favorite Beatles songs, but then when I tried to fill it out myself, after starting with 15 favorites and narrowing it to eight, I finally couldn't bear to list fewer than five favorites.  So I changed the ballots to allow everyone to pick up to five.

About a half hour after the official start time of 7:00 p.m., I asked everyone to gather and find out the Beatles-related meaning of all the food items.  Someone in the group knew the answers to just about all the questions I asked (actually, most of the answers came from three or four people who had crammed lots of Beatles information into their heads)--except for the question, "Why do we have 64 candles on a pie instead of a cake?"  The fairly obvious part of the answer is that I was turning 64 and that we were thinking of the song "When I'm 64."  But why a pie?

Phil Snyder (a friend of many years and currently the chair of BYU's English Department) reminded everyone that Paul McCartney had an album titled Flaming Pie.  OK . . . he was on the right track.  But where did that title come from?  As a very select group of readers may know, the answer is this.  In 1961 John Lennon explained in an interview where the name "Beatles" had come from:
It came in a vision--a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, "from this day on you are Beatles with an A."

After revealing the meaning of the food items, we had a blessing on the food (offered by Mary Elwood, an amazing lady who lives in the neighborhood) and got people eating.  Some had already partaken of treats that were set around the rooms in various spots: peanuts, truffles, dark chocolate coconut almond candies, apples, and tangerines.

But it was time now for the main dishes: rice, scrambled eggs, gluten free spaghetti, red pepper in a bed of humus and parsley (more on what that was all about below).  We also had two kinds of herbal tea: mint and vanilla hazelnut--neither of which many people had because we got so busy socializing that we failed to uncover the containers.  Other items that none or few partook of were pepper, mustard, and orange marmalade.

But there were quite a few takers for the remaining sweets: strawberry pie; another pie made from vanilla pudding, chocolate bars, and marshmallows; cookies made from cornflakes; and boxes of chocolates Margaret got from See's but patterned after the British product known as Mackintosh's Good News.  (More on that later.)

So . . just to whet your appetite:

What do scrambled eggs have to do with anything?

Which song mentions lemonade?

Five songs mention tea; can you name them?

Which song mentions peanuts?

Which song mentions rice?

Which two songs have a connection with Kellogg's Cornflakes?

And how about marshmallow pie? marmalade? tangerines (connected with two songs)? truffles? strawberries? apples?

Which songs mention honey?

And can you think of anything spaghetti would have to do with the Beatles?

For answers, see The Beatles themed food items link below.

(By the way, our daughter Jules and her boyfriend Travis noticed we were a bit thin in the main dish department and went out and got a bunch of pizzas.  This pleased many, especially some of the young people.)

In the background through much of the evening, I had my playlist of 64 favorite Beatles songs playing.  We never got around to the rest of my quiz or to counting the ballots and announcing the results.  (But the results will be revealed later in this post!)

But we did have one other major activity.  My son Robert--also a Beatles fan and quite well informed--decided to get me a present, one of the kind that keeps on giving: Beatles Rock Band for Xbox.  (It's his Xbox, so I don't know what we'll do when he moves.)  So part of our sizable congregation went downstairs to sing along with the Beatles.  I was busy saying goodbye to those who had to leave--including an unhappy 8-year-old who had not gotten a turn with the singing downstairs.  So I promised him and his family--the Westovers (including Paul, a colleague and friend of mine who is remarkably knowledgeable about the Beatles, especially considering that he's a long ways away from being 64)--that we would invite them over for a Beatles Rock Band session sometimes in the near future.

Among those who attended were colleagues from BYU, members of our local church congregation (for which I'm still serving as bishop), and relatives.  (I'll provide a link to a full list below.)  One family weren't able to spend as much time with us as they (and we) would have liked because they performed a special service for us: they picked up our former foster son, Tyrece Traylor, from the care center where he staying and had to get him back there back a predetermined hour.  The family I'm referring to are the Kennedys: Sheila and Branden and their sons T. J. and Justice.  It was great having them at least for part of the evening, along with Tyrece, who had lots of fun--including time with the Beatles Rock Band downstairs.

Something else important happened (upstairs) before the party ended.  Among the relatives who attended were nieces and nephews and several siblings-in-law (Dell Blair, Jen Lambert, and Traci Blair).  Along with Traci, was her daughter Sophie, who (at age 16) is just about as bit a Beatles fan as I am at 64.  I had asked her to bring her ukulele and sing for us.  She insisted on having us join her in singing, which made it all the more fun.  I believe she started with "Yesterday."  I don't remember if she did anything else--except to accompany a special number that had been prepared by the Sabeys--nephews and (in some cases) their spouses: Brian and Dia (they also brought their infant child Sina), Josh and Sarah, and Matt (not married--but he distinguished himself at the party by making me a guitar out of balloons, i.e., a genuine "air guitar").  They had written a song that they sang to the tune of "Yellow Submarine":
In a town known as Provo Lives a man we all adore,
And we'll tel l you of his life Now that he has reached age 64.
Well he studied in the East till he gained a few degrees,
Wed his student, had some kids, Now he's past age 63! 
Chorus: We're all glad Bruce has past age 63, past age 63, past age 63.
We're all glad Bruce has past age 63, past age 63 happily. 
And his wife is still on board! he has lots of friends around the world,
And the karaoke plays (do do do do do doo do doo do do do do do do do do do!) 
Though it's not a life of ease--Every spare second spent bishoping--
He will be forever Young, though he's past age 63! 
All right, yes, very clever.  But more than that, I felt amazingly blessed to have these beautiful young people (each averaging about a third of my age) showering me with wit and affection.  I felt surrounded by the warmth of their love.

As the evening wound down a bit, I took a turn going downstairs, and joined Jules, Travis, the Elwoods, and Traci and Sophie in singing with the Beatles.  At least one other friend was downstairs--Yoko Stevenson--and yes, she is named after Yoko Ono.  She told us that, unfortunately, she needed to leave--and so I started singing, "I don't want to spoil the party so I'll go . . ."  (Again, I'm tempted to say I couldn't help myself.)

My singing of "I don't want to spoil the party . . ." was without accompaniment (I don't think it's on the Beatles Rock Bank list).  But soon I took my turn singing along with the Beatles.  I sang "When I'm 64" and am delighted to say that, having set the bar at the "expert" level, got a score of 98%.  I got a bit lower on other songs, partly because I wasn't very good at the oohs and ahs and yelling and general silliness that comes in the final stretch of several of them.

As we passed 9:30 and parents started persuading the remaining young people they needed to get home, it was clear the party would finally have to end.  Margaret and I were left with lots of leftovers and lots of good memories.

On the left: I'm ready to blow out 64 candles; guests in the background.
On the right: My daughter Jules checks out my tummy; I'm wearing the Sgt. Pepper's shirt gifted me by the Snyders.


For more details, check the following links:

The playlist of my 64 favorite Beatles songs​ 
(and for a list of the songs:

The fabulous 52 people who attended

The Beatles themed food items (including items mentioned above and others):  (Among other things, you'll find out more about Mackintosh's Good News chocolates--and whatever we . . .or I should say Margaret . . . made out of a red pepper, humus, and parsley.)

The rest of the Beatles quiz (the part I didn't actually get around to asking):

The results of the "secret ballot" (favorite Beatle, favorite Beatles songs and albums, and least favorite Beatles songs and albums--and besides getting the overall results for the group, you'll find out what MY votes were):

For those who don't want to go to the trouble of getting the FULL results, here are partial results:

(1) Favorite Beatle: Paul won by a landslide (13 out of 25 votes)

(2) Favorite Beatles songs: The winner was "Eleanor Rigby," followed by "Here Comes the Sun," "Let It Be," "Hey Jude," "Blackbird," and five other songs that tied for 6th place ("Penny Lane," "Something," "A Hard Day's Night," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "I Will").

(3) Favorite Beatles albums: The winner was Abbey Road, followed by Revolver and three others that tied (Rubber Soul, Sgt. Pepper's, and Let It Be).  Interesting results.  In the post that accompanies the full results, I ponder why I think the results are a bit skewed--meaning distorted a bit by many voters' lack of thorough knowledge of all the albums.

(4) Least favorite Beatles song: The clear winner was "Revolution 9" (on the "White Album")--which, as someone pointed out, is not really a song.  There was no clear consensus for second place, though one odd result (explored if you follow the "secret ballot" link above) was that some songs had votes as both favorite and least favorite.  Someone also pointed out that most of the votes were for well-known songs that people didn't care for.  Only those who know all 211 songs we have listed on the ballot might be aware of how bad a few of the more obscure songs are.

(5) Least favorite Beatles albums: Again there was a clear "winner"--Yellow Submarine.  The only problem is that it's not really an album in the sense the others are.  It has only four new songs, repeats two from other albums, and then has orchestral music by George Martin.  I should probably have asked what your least favorite album is other than Yellow Submarine.

As you may have noticed, only 25 of our 52 guests cast ballots.  I guess that's a fairly good percentage as far as midterm elections go.  I have to say that the group's votes don't exactly match mine--I'm referring to the ballots cast at the party, not the actual midterm election that took place the following day (though I wasn't entirely happy with the results of that election either).  But to learn how I voted (in the Beatles "secret ballot"), you'll have to go the link listed above.

Finally, some related links:

Margaret has already published a post about the party on her nationally known "Welcome Table" blog. See

I also noticed that about a year ago, shortly before my 63rd birthday, I had another Beatles post--a fun one playing with song titles:

And then there's the Stake Picnic Beatles interview from many years ago:

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Young Women's Camp 2014

One of the great pleasures of my life has been attending bits and pieces of Stake Young Women's Camp over the years, usually held at Camp MIA Shalom near Fairview, Utah, about an hour and a half from where I live.  The week-long camping experience is organized and run by the women of the stake--including many of the young women--and includes fun, craziness, music, adventure, and spiritual peace and power.

This year I got to attend as the bishop of my ward.  I was invited to make it in time for lunch on Wednesday, July 2, take part in a hike, followed by dinner, help present a skit, and then join with the leaders and young women from our ward in a testimony meeting around a campfire.  Several years I have brought cobbler I've made for this last event, but this time I brought Klondike bars.

The hike was lots of fun.  We did geocaching--my first time doing that.  We were given the coordinates, along with hints, and then (using GPS devices) needed to find ammo boxes, each of which contained a log book for us to sign, stickers, and a story to read.

Each box was associated with one of the Young Women values (faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, integrity, and virtue).  The story in each box had to do with one of the values and was printed on paper of the color associated with the value.  We left candy in each of the boxes, the idea being that the candy would be of the color associated with the box's value.  (There's actually a Wikipedia article explaining all of this: )

In the evening everyone from Provo Utah Central Stake gathered for singing and other activities--including skits performed by the bishoprics of each ward.

There are currently 6 wards--geographical divisions of the stake: Pioneer 1st, Pioneer 2nd, Pioneer 4th (that's the ward of which I'm bishop), Pioneer 5th (aka Pionero quinto, the Spanish-speaking ward), Rivergrove 1st, and Rivergrove 2nd.  The other skits including a clever one based on the Studio C "Lobster Bisque" routine, off-key singing accompanied by throwing candy, singing "Cielito Lindo" with everyone joining in the chorus, pie throwing, and an amazing magic act.

I was the only bishopric member from my ward able to come, so I recruited Brian Grimsman, one of our Young Men leaders who had come for the day.  I told him while we were driving to the camp.  (He drove; the others in the car included me, Brian's wife Cody, and Courtney Bulsiewicz.)  We thought there was a chance my first counselor, Mike Hoffman, would make it, but he wasn't able to.  But it turns out Brother Grimsman was a godsend--he is a natural ham, and he does an expert job at saying "lobster bisque" in the bizarre Studio C pronunciation we needed for the skit.  For any who are curious, I've copied the skit at the end of this post.

After the evening's entertainment, we gathered as ward groups.  We built a fire, I shared Klondike bars, and then I gave a brief message (about how perfection is a process that will continue even after this life, and that we must be "patient until [we] are perfected").  Then we had a testimony meeting in which everyone said something.  It was dark by the time we finished (about 9:40 p.m.), and those of us who were not staying the night got ready to leave.  (They close the gates at 10pm.)  And I arrive home about 11:20pm.

I have lots of fun photos on Facebook, which you'll find by following this link: (I hope this works--even for people who are not my "friends.")

Here--for your enjoyment and illumination--is the skit Brian Grimsman and I performed:

[It began with me speaking:] I’m not sure we’re really following the rules: we sort of forgot about the skit until last night; one of my counselors is out of town for the summer, and the other wasn’t able to come.  So this is not a member of the bishopric; it’s one of our Young Men leaders, Brian Grimsman.  Anyway, we decided to do a skit about coming up with our skit; so imagine us last night trying to decide what to do.

(B=me, Bruce Young; G=Brian Grimsman)

G: So what should we do for our skit?

B: Well, you know I teach Shakespeare, and there are lots of funny things in Shakespeare.

G: I'm not sure that would work for Young Women’s camp.  You know, the language, and explaining the story, and all that.

B: I think you're right, unfortunately.
Hey, I know.  Back in 1997 at a Stake Picnic, I did a skit with my son, who was 10 years old at the time,
and he interviewed me and I answered every question with the title of a Beatles song. 
You’ve heard of the Beatles, right? 

G: Yeah. [we should have had him say: yeah, yeah, yeah]

B: I happen to be an expert on the Beatles.

G: No, I don't think that would work.  That is so YESTERDAY.

B: (singing) Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. 
(speaking) Seriously, I think I could pull it off--with a little help from my friends.
Get it? No?  Ok. So what do we do.

G: We could tell jokes.

B: My wife tells me I'm really awful at tellinig jokes.

G: OK.  But . . . do you know any jokes?

B: Sort of.   OK--you know what a kleptomaniac is?  I ask because I told this joke at stake youth conference and nobody got it.

G: A kleptomaniac is a compulsive thief, somebody who is always stealing things.

B: OK. And you know what a pun is, right?

G: Of course.

B: Something with a double meaning, right?  OK.  So do you know why you should not use puns with kleptomaniacs?

G: No, why?

B: Because they're always taking things, literally.  Literally, right? [BTW, this joke was apparently the creation of my nephew Brian Sabey.]

G: Uh, yes.  I think you kind of explained the joke a little bit too much.  Speaking of "literally," though, have you ever heard of Captain Literally on Studio C?

B: Yes.  Oh, that’s perfect.  We could rip off a skit from Studio C.  I hear another of the bishoprics is planning on doing that.

G: Yeah, that could work.

B: You know my wife is actually friends with Mallory.

G: Is she on Studio C?

B: yes.  She’s actually been in our house, literally.  (Oops, sorry.) 

G: So which skit could we rip off?

B: Well, one of my favorites is the one about lobster bisque.  Lobster beh-issk.  I can’t say that very well. [BTW, it turns out Brian Grimsman knows the Studio C skit and can say “lobster bisque” just like the actor on that show.]

G: OK.

B: Actually ... this is really true ... I was at Zupas the other day, and I actually said: Do you have have lobster beh-issk. [Every time I was supposed to say this, I pointed to Brother Grimsman, and he said the word.]  And they said yes.  And then they said they also had mushroom bisque too.  So I asked them if they had different kinds of mushroom beh-isssk.  And they said, no, they had only one kind.  And the guy behind the counter, the server, said—seriously, he literally . . . I mean, he actually said this: we only have one kind, and we don’t have any bisque made with poisonous mushrooms.

G: Well, you know the poison cooks out, right?

B: I’m not sure it really does.

G: OK.  Well.  So what are we going to do for the skit?  It looks like we can’t pull off a scene from Shakespeare, we’re not very good at telling jokes, Beatles songs will probably go over their heads, and if we do Studio C, they’ll just think about how much better those guys are than we are.

B: Well, maybe we could try bribing the judges. [Another bishopric had thrown candy at both the audience and the judges as a kind of “bribe,” so this was an allusion to them.] Anyway, it says here (in this letter from the stake Young Women’s presidency) that the young women like to see their leaders having fun.

G: I think that maybe means making fools of themselves.

B: All right.  I have an idea.  Let’s do rock-paper-scissors, and then just one of us has to make a fool of himself.


[rock-paper-scissors; the loser does a trick]

[I lost and did a “magic trick,” using my fingers as rings that got interlinked and then unlinked, while Brother Grimsman provided musical background.]

[Afterwards, the panel of “judges”—several of the Young Women—grilled me, mostly about whether I really thought they were not up to understanding the Beatles or Shakespeare, and I assured them I knew that they and everybody else there knew all about those things.  We were just short on time to prepare anything.  Unbeknownst to me, while I was trying to butter up the judges, Brother Grimsman was behind me, pantomiming the action of shoveling—I guess suggesting I was digging myself a deeper hole, or more likely that I was piling it higher and deeper.  Anyway, his action had people in stitches and probably helped ensure our 3rd place finish..  That and—as I later learned—the fact that I was so much more relaxed than they had remembered me being last year.  Which was true.]


One final note: For any who are curious about Studio C, here's a link:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Syria, Partisanship, and The West Wing

My wife and I are on our second time through The West Wing, a television series about the hypothetical presidency of Josiah Bartlet.  Several episodes in season 4, which we’re currently watching, deal with genocide in the fictional African country of Kundu and culminate in the declaration of the Bartlet doctrine—that the US will intervene for humanitarian reasons, not just when threatened directly—and in President Bartlet’s decision to send troops to Kundu to stop the violence.

Besides the series itself, two recent occurrences made me think of parallels between The West Wing and the current situation in Syria.  One was a remark made by a local commentator on KSL radio last night (Sept. 10) after President Obama’s speech on Syria.  The commentator said the current situation “is like an episode of The West Wing.”  The other is a moment in one of the television episodes when President Bartlet asks rhetorically, “Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?” A speech writer named Will Bailey responds: “I don’t know, sir, but it is.”  On the evening of President Obama’s speech I heard a national commentator make a similar remark.  He noted that the President, trying to persuade the nation to take action, had described the horrific suffering and death in Syria, including that of children.  The commentator said that Americans are a compassionate people but that the children who are suffering and dying are Syrian children, not American children.  Hence our relative lack of enthusiasm for helping them.

An image of some West Wing characters
(Pres. Bartlet is at the center, Will Bailey at the far right)

It has been interesting that so many, including many who enthusiastically supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have opposed taking military action in Syria.  Perhaps Americans have become war weary.  Perhaps we have learned something from the mixed results of these earlier adventures.  I suspect that some are inclined to criticize and oppose anything President Obama does, no matter what it is.  (I realize that many on the left did the same to Bush during his presidency.  I didn't, and I'm not happy with those who did.)  I happen to be on the e-mail lists of both left-wing and right-wing political action groups, and so it has been interesting to get messages from both sides opposing strikes on Syria.  The right-wing messages have been especially vociferous, claiming that the President, acting with ulterior motives, is “taking over TV” to sell his plan and sending out his “minions” to make the case for war.  The group sending these messages reports that 97.5% of its members oppose strikes on Syria.  Just eight years ago, this same group called opponents of the war in Iraq “reprehensible” and condemned them as unpatriotic for sending a message that “Americans are losing their will to fight.”  They organized pro-war demonstrations to counter anti-war protests.

The world of politics is nothing if not filled with paradox and irony.  I’ve been pleased to see Republicans who strongly supported war in Iraq now argue against military action and in favor of patient diplomacy—though I can’t help remembering that calls for much more serious action in Iraq, and with much less solid justification, were accepted by virtually all Republican politicians and by perhaps 80% of the nation. I also recall how often, over the past ten years or more, the traditional preference for diplomacy by Democrats has been decried by Republicans as naive and weak.  Current arguments that action against Syria is not required by our immediate national interest could also have been used against our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq—and indeed against many US military actions over the past century.  I accept as valid the argument that strikes on Syria may be dangerous and produce unintended negative consequences—an argument made by any number of both liberal and conservative commentators and political cartoons.  Yet when the US invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, similar dangers were largely ignored.

Whatever our partisan bias and whether we support military action in Syria, I hope we can agree that Syrian children matter as much as American children and that something must be done to respond to the terrible things happening in Syria.  In an article that will soon appear in a book titled Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues, I argue in favor of peace and against war, except in the most extreme circumstances.  But I acknowledge that sometimes war may be necessary to prevent horrific violence and suffering:
Perhaps another condition that might justify intervention is a breakdown of civil order that threatens innocent lives.  As thousands have been slaughtered in Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere in recent years, I have wondered whether nations working together could have done more, including the use of armed force, to prevent bloodshed.
At the same time, I argue that our discussions of war and peace ought to be peaceable, especially when we have been invited as Latter-day Saints to “be one” and to value our brothers and sisters of all nations.  As I conclude in my essay:
We must “renounce war and proclaim peace” in our personal lives as well as in nations and the world at large.  We must do so not only by seeking peaceful solutions to world problems but by being peaceable in all our relationships and our communications.
(The entire essay may be found online at

The situation in Syria is both horrifying and complicated.  It is not only natural but useful for there to be different views on what we ought to do.  We need a national dialogue on the subject, but it ought to be one that involves listening as well as speaking and respect and humility rather than name calling and scoring partisan points at any cost.  I am heartened that a diplomatic solution may be found to at least one element of the complicated conflict in Syria.  I am hopeful that diplomatic efforts will be successful.  In the meantime, I am also hopeful that we can all summon up as much humility, honesty, intelligence, compassion, and goodwill as we are capable of and engage in productive, civil conversation on this and other vital issues.  The problems we face are serious.  We are much more likely to find solutions if we can somehow learn to work together.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"The Miracle of Faith, The Miracle of Love" Revisited

Note: In 1986 I wrote an essay titled "The Miracle of Faith, The Miracle of Love: Some Personal Reflections" that was published as part of the book A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, edited by Philip Barlow.  A few years ago, Phil asked for addenda to the essays to be published as part of a reissuing of the book.  I wasn't satisfied with what I wrote in response to that request, in part because I was going through a bit of a dry spell, and by the time the reissuing was supposed to take place, I wanted to express my thoughts differently.  Fortunately for me (though maybe not so happily for the project), publication was delayed by several years.  So I was able to completely rewrite my addendum.  The original essay may be found at  Here is the addendum:

This essay has had an interesting afterlife.  I have regularly given copies to my students, numbering now, after 30 years of teaching, in the thousands.  My wife has had students in many of her classes read the essay.  For a time, the English Department at BYU gave copies to graduate students who were marrying.  And for a time, the essay was part of a collection used in BYU’s Honors writing classes.  Those who have read the essay have sometimes passed on copies to others.  I’ve even gotten e-mail requests for copies from strangers.

Given its wide distribution, I’ve wondered about its effect on readers.  The essay has a double focus: religious faith and the miracle of love, including the way it can bring two people together in marriage.  Some readers have found the essay helpful in overcoming their resistance to a relationship of closeness and commitment.  Some who have felt quite ready for such a relationship have shared the essay with a friend or a “significant other” who was hesitant.  Occasionally my wife and I have attended a wedding reception where the bride or groom has said, “Thank you so much for that essay!” 

Hearing such words, I’ve always felt a little nervous, hoping that any marriages that have been encouraged by the essay have been good ones, have thrived and lasted.  I’ve been consoled, though, when I’ve remembered that the essay acknowledges the difficulties that come with marriage and with life in general—“the antagonism” that “springs from fears and dark fantasies” and that can lead to resentment, hostility, and blindness; the tendency so many of us have to resist intimacy and love; the fact that “good things must often come through a process of struggle and disappointment and patient waiting” and that “Some things some of us desire will not come at all in this life.”

The essay also deals with the broader question of self-doubt—the worries so many have about their capacity for happiness and for love.  To that aspect of the essay, a common response I’ve gotten from students and other readers is this: “How did you know what I was thinking and feeling?  How have you managed to describe feelings that I thought were intensely and uniquely mine?”  My answer has been that apparently we all share similar fears and doubts.  If I’ve described them accurately, that’s because I chose to be as honest and open as I could about what I myself had experienced.  I felt compelled to make that choice once I took on the task of writing about realities as powerful and sacred as faith and love.

A few readers have not felt this kinship with the feelings I’ve described.  I remember one smart, ambitious young man who said, “Everybody else seems to be able to relate to what you’ve written.  I don’t.”  Several years later I saw him again, and he told me he had changed his mind about the essay.  He now felt it spoke to his own inner experience because he had now encountered and lived through the kind of challenges the essay describes.

Besides marriage and the problem of self-doubt, the essay deals with other challenges that life brings to thoughtful human beings, including the question of whether there is any essential or eternal meaning or purpose to it all and, specifically for Latter-day Saints, whether the things our beliefs point to are in fact real.  Is there a wise and loving God who concerns himself with us?  Is there a plan of happiness that offers access to fulfillment in this life and to an eternity of joy and progress?  Are the instruments by which God brings about his purposes—his divine Son, his Church, the ordinances and covenants of his gospel—truly and reliably his?  Is divine power available to assist us in dealing with suffering, loss, and discouragement and in overcoming what seem the most appalling and massive of obstacles to happiness and love: namely, death—our own and that of loved ones—and evil in the world and in ourselves?

The point of the essay is that the evidence in favor of all of the positive realities is abundant, but that we must open our eyes and hearts to the evidence and be willing to trust in it.  I find myself attracted to the idea, proposed by Terryl Givens and others, that the evidence for and against the restored gospel is about evenly divided, precisely so that we will be able to exercise faith freely and not be compelled to believe.  Intellectually, this idea makes a lot of sense.  At the same time, I find myself persuaded daily, once I open my eyes to it, that I am always surrounded by evidence of the reality of joy, love, goodness, and beauty.  Whatever difficulties my mind has in making sense of the complexities of the world around me, I am struck by the immense and absolute reality of my own existence and that of others, by the sense that there is profound meaning to our struggles and yearnings and hopes, and by the likelihood, at once astonishing and reassuring, that there is something enduringly meaningful in our lives and in the universe in which we are living them.

This essay was first published a year after I was married.  Since then my experience of life has included years of reflection, study, Church service, and professional work, with its accomplishments and disappointments.  It has also included the blessings and challenges, some of them heart-wrenching, that have come with marriage and family life.  I have learned from marriage and parenthood that I am not always as nice a person as I had supposed—in fact, that in many ways, I am deeply flawed.  I have learned through experiences that have embedded it in the core of my being what I had already believed in theory: that love is far more than pleasant or excited feelings, that it demands active and determined commitment and caring, even when I don’t feel like it.  I have learned that humility and repentance are essential.  More than just words or themes for talks, these have become the daily necessities of facing myself and my behavior, feeling the pain of my failures, including the harm I have inflicted on others, and seeking to undergo deep change.

Such experiences have modified and deepened my understanding of the issues taken up in the essay.  Yet in general I still happily affirm the essay’s main argument and in fact affirm it with greater confidence, based on years of living and testing it.  Faith—trust in and openness to the possibility of good things—is required for happiness and fulfillment; it provides the grounds for loving relationships; it “is the power to see, to choose, to act, and to enjoy, and . . . requires an abandonment of narrow certainties, preconceptions, defenses, and fears.”  As we step forward prior to full understanding, faith enables us “to see things that are real and good and then to have those things become fully real in our lives.”

In fact, in the years since the essay was published, at some moments when I have struggled with difficult issues or circumstances, I have reread my own words almost as if they were written by someone else and have found them helpful and comforting.  Despite flaws in the writing—some wordiness, perhaps too abstract, complicated, and inwardly focused an approach—I have found that the essay succeeds in opening my eyes and heart both to a hope in future possibilities and to an awareness of present realities, to the goodness and beauty and preciousness of the world and people and spiritual realities that surround me.

I confess that in the years that have passed since the essay was published I have not always felt as affirmative as I sound in the essay.  My moral and spiritual state and often simply my moods—feelings of worry or exhaustion or antagonism—have had a profound impact on the degree to which I’ve been able to enjoy the Spirit and experience spiritual things as real.

Yet through the difficult stretches when I’ve felt spiritually out of tune, I’ve taken comfort in C. S. Lewis’s idea (expressed in The Screwtape Letters) that it is in our times of spiritual dryness that we most truly choose, that when we look “around upon a universe from which every trace of [God] seems to have vanished,” and ask why we have been forsaken but still obey, we are then especially “growing into the sort of creature He wants [us] to be.”

I am, at least when I am most honest and humble, more open to possibilities than I was when I first wrote this essay—more open to different ways of seeing and understanding and explaining and to the limitations of my present understanding—and at the same time more deeply, firmly convinced of certain basic things.  Both intellectual study and spiritual witnesses have assured me of the inspiration and authenticity of the scriptures, including the Book of Mormon.  I am confident of the truth of the doctrines of the restored gospel about who we are and what we can become.  I am grateful to witness the exciting unfolding of God’s work for the blessing of his children.  I believe that the entire human family are brothers and sisters of divine parentage and that our calling as members of the Church is to love and bless all of God’s children. 
I am aware of the human limitations and imperfections of Church members and leaders, all the more from having served in positions of leadership myself.  Yet I am certain of the sincerity and goodness and am grateful for the love and willingness to sacrifice and serve demonstrated by many members and leaders of the Church.  I have witnessed instances of undeniable inspiration and spiritual power.  I am confident that the Church is being led by divine inspiration, that we are as a people making progress toward what God expects us to become, and that enormous good is being done to bless God’s children around the world.  I’ve seen the Church at work as I’ve taken part in memorable sacrament meetings in London, Paris, Beijing, and Patzicia in highland Guatemala; as I’ve traveled with my family through the Baltic states when my father-in-law was serving as mission president; as we’ve spent a year in the LDS community of Laie, Hawaii; and as we’ve communicated with missionaries serving around the world—all of this in addition to powerful general and regional Church meetings, meetings in my home ward and stake, and other gatherings and events, powerful not only in what I’ve felt but in the ways my mind and heart have been stretched.  My own ward, which I know intimately, is the setting for Spirit-filled meetings, daily acts of compassion and service, and abundant goodness in members’ actions and relationships.

At the same time I have many questions.  There is much I do not understand, and there are things that are hard to make sense of or deal with, including both intellectual and practical issues.  I try to deal with such questions and problems with patience, faith, and humility.  My efforts have consistently been blessed with new—deeper and more expansive—understandings so that what sometimes seemed most troubling has provided a path to some of the most precious things I’ve learned.  I am grateful for the challenges to my capacities and understanding since they help me see how far I have to go and give me opportunities for continued inquiry and growth.  I am most frequently aware of my own need to grow in goodness and caring for others.  I recognize my need for divine assistance if I am to move forward in the long road of progress still ahead of me.

If I were to change one thing in the essay published almost thirty years ago, it would be to put greater emphasis on charity, on “the pure love of Christ.”  Faith—reaching out and moving forward with trust—is essential; hope is essential, a vibrant hope that the promised blessings will come.  But as the scriptures tell us, the greatest of these is charity.  Learning to love in the pure, Christ-like way suggested by this word transforms us individually and binds us together with our fellow human beings and with our Father and his Son.  My efforts to love and serve others—family and friends, the wonderful and struggling people I’ve worked with in the Church, and the similarly wonderful and struggling people I’ve encountered in other ways—have confirmed the truth of an idea expressed in The Brothers Karamazov.  In this great novel by Dostoevsky, people come to the Elder Zosima filled with needs and worries.  Zosima tells one of these, a woman struggling to believe, that she can overcome her doubts and come to the faith she desires “by the experience of active love,” not just by dreaming about love but by trying to love those around her “actively and tirelessly.”  The active effort to love can have just this effect, in part because it changes our outlook and our desires.

I believe in Jesus Christ as the perfect embodiment of charity, as of every other virtue.  At age twelve, bearing my testimony for the first time in a public meeting, I said that I knew Jesus is the Son of God.  I still remember the clarity and power of that conviction.  Though spiritual fog has obscured my vision in varying degrees over the years, that conviction has remained with me, and I believe my acquaintance with the Savior has deepened.  Though I still have much to learn, I am convinced that this divine Person who is the foundation of my faith is absolutely real, that he did and taught the things recorded in the scriptures, and that I will some day meet him face to face.

When my essay was first published I had just embarked on the experience of marriage and anticipated bringing children into the world, pursuing a professional career, and enjoying the other adventures life would bring.  I’ve now experienced much of what I anticipated, along with many surprises and challenges that have stretched me and sometimes brought anguish as well as growth and joy.  My life and the lives of those I love have included problems and losses that could leave us bound in chains of regret and hopelessness.  But I have faith—an assurance in which I have heart-felt and enduring confidence—that all damage, every mistake, every hurt, every evil can be completely healed and overcome through God’s power and love, expressed and made available through the atonement of Christ.  As long as we are willing to see and act with faith, there is always hope, hope of the most glorious of possible futures.  No blessing we could possibly imagine will be withheld as long as we are willing to move forward with faith.

Now, along with anticipating further adventures in this world (and I am very actively involved in many of the concerns of this world), I look forward to the eternal fulfillment of those things in which I have put my faith.  I look forward to coming to know my Heavenly Father and my Savior more fully and directly and to enjoying an eternity of sweet association with family and friends.  I hope to share, with those I know and love and with a multitude of others I will yet come to know, the feast of joy that faith makes possible.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Some favorite inaugural moments

I'm not thinking of favorite moments in the inaugural ceremonies I've seen--though I might be able to dredge up some interesting memories if I made the effort--but rather favorite passages in some of my favorite inaugural addresses.

I'm thinking of ones I've been somewhat familiar with for much of my life (for instance, John F. Kennedy's and Lincoln's second), ones I've become more familiar with recently (such as Lincoln's first), and one I just looked at today (Jefferson's first--though I have heard one sentence from it before).

Let's proceed in chronological order, starting with Jefferson's first inaugural address (see for a transcript).  Here, commenting on the very rough political campaign through which the nation had suffered, is a passage that has quickly become one of my favorites, especially the part I've highlighted:

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course, arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. . . . [E]very difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. 
I had heard this last sentence before, but not with what leads up to it.

Lincoln's first inaugural address is remarkable, responding temperately and even affectionately to the storm of anger and suspicion his election had provoked.  (See and's_first_inaugural_address.)  Here are some selections:
Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.  . . . 
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect, and defend it." 
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. 
And of course, Lincoln's second inaugural address is justly famous, one of history's most moving and eloquent expressions of humility and compassion (see and
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. . . .  Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
. . . Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
John F. Kennedy's inaugural address fall short of this last one of Lincoln's, yet is one of the most memorable of the 57 or so that have been delivered over the past two hundred plus years.  (See and --and listen at  Some of my favorite passages:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans. . . .  Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
. . .
So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
. . .
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah--to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."
. . .
Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are--but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

All of these passages take on much of their meaning from the times in which they were first spoken.  But they also take on meaning from the character of those who spoke them and from the connection we feel over time with the speakers and their audiences and the generous desires that moved them to speak and listen.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Attending to the poor and suffering: should it always be purely voluntary?

In one of my other blogs ("Welcoming the Other"), I recently published a post about our obligation to attend to those who are poor or suffering.  Because I feel strongly about this topic, because I managed to sum up my thoughts in a way that I think makes sense, and because all of us need reminders and encouragement as we seek to live responsible and meaningful lives, I've decided to post a link here:

Monday, September 24, 2012

Can we still be friends . . . even if one of us votes for Romney and the other for Obama?

A couple of days ago I saw some photos of the presidential candidates and their families and wondered, "What does an Obama supporter think when looking at a photo of Mitt Romney playing with his grandchildren or of Ann Romney serving in a soup kitchen? What does a Romney supporter think when looking at a photo of Michelle Obama playing with a child or of Barack Obama embracing a serviceman?"  I suspect that many have a hard time restraining their hateful feelings, even when the photos are apparently candid and politically neutral.  And even if the feelings are not hateful, the response may be cynical, more concerned about how the photos are functioning as pieces in a political chess game than about appreciating them as images of real human beings living their lives.

Well, it may be too much to hope that people can have positive or even respectful feelings toward both of the major candidates--by which I mean the Republican and Democratic ones.  (My apologies to the Green or Libertarian party supporters who would like me to give their candidates equal time.)  But perhaps it's within the realm of possibility to hope that friends who support different candidates can still be friends after the elections are over.

What leaves me a bit uncertain even as I begin is that there are those who think the election of one or the other of the candidates will be a disaster of virtually cosmic proportions--that the election of Romney or Obama will mean the triumph of evil over good and will threaten the very existence of our nation and of any kind of world worth living in.  I admire the passion of such people, but sincerely believe they are not fully in touch with reality.  My own best thinking, coupled with the attitudes of people whose wisdom and inspiration I trust, leads me to believe we can look forward to the future with confidence and hope no matter which candidate is elected.  The sort of fearful and heated imagination that links the election of a particular candidate to an imminent disaster on a massive scale betrays a distorted sense of the true nature of things and incapacitates a person for the real work of engagement with others in finding solutions to problems.  (I have tried to avoid actually using the word "crazy.")

For the rest of you, I want to make my argument for why you can still respect and even continue to like and enjoy your friends who favor the other candidate.  My purpose here is not to argue that one candidate is better than the other.  (I make my case for my own view on that matter elsewhere.)  Here I just want to argue that a reasonable person of goodwill can end up favoring either of the major candidates.

I have had some personal association with one of the candidates and have followed both closely for a number of years, trying to assess both their personal characters and their political positions.  In my considered opinion, both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are decent, reasonable, intelligent men of goodwill.  They are both good fathers and faithful husbands (and we've had passable presidents who have been neither).  Both have leadership skills, energy, commitment, and a desire to accomplish positive things.  Both, of course, have significant flaws, but not flaws greater than we can reasonably expect in candidates for president.  And honestly, I think we could have done far worse--there are others who have shown interest in the presidency who are far less capable and admirable than the two most of us will be choosing between.

Obama's and Romney's positions and proposals are at different points on the political spectrum, but neither is truly extreme, and I'm relatively confident that in the real life workings of national life, their proposals will moderate further as they seek the enlist the support of the American people.  In addition, anything they do will be influenced not only by public opinion but by the competing authority of the legislative and judicial branches.  Assuming that some degree of cooperation can be established between the president and Congress, any legislation that comes into being will need to be acceptable to both.

To be more specific: Both candidates know that the federal debt is a pressing problem, and both think they have a plan for dealing with it.  Both support the view that the nation must be militarily strong, though they differ on some details of how that strength can be best maintained.  Both want to protect American interests abroad and encourage the positive aspirations of people around the world.  Both want to encourage prosperity at home.  Both favor individual responsibility and creativity, while also acknowledging the need for some kind of safety net for those truly in need.  Neither is proposing radical changes to our economic or political systems.  Though the differences in their approaches are certainly significant, these differences are relatively minor when viewed from a broad perspective of historical and global understanding.  And reasonable arguments can be made for both candidates' approaches.

So I guess what I'm proposing is that we try to lower the temperature, get in a frame of mind where we can actually consider the candidates' positions fairly and intelligently, and do our best to assess for ourselves who we think has the best approach and will do the best job.  We can share our views and make our arguments and perhaps even listen, with a desire for understanding, to the views and arguments of others.  But we don't need to descend into a frenzied state of contention and vilification or into a hardened state of cynicism and contempt.

We can respect the decisions of our friends, even when they differ from our own.  And we can remain friends not only after the election is over, but even during the season leading up to it.

An addendum: One factor that makes this sort of peaceable approach difficult for some is that some ultimate values are at stake, the sort often tied to religious beliefs and commitments.  For those who share my religious affiliation, I'll be creating an additional post explaining how I believe we can differ politically, even when we share--or are pretty sure we share--the same faith and moral values.  Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Of Patriots and Patriotism

Today is July 4; hence my thoughts on patriotism.  A “patriot” is someone who loves his or her country, making patriotism a worthy virtue and even a natural one, something like loving one’s family.  But love of family and of country comes in many varieties and can be used and abused in many ways.  Here I want to ponder a few of those uses and abuses.

First, one of my least favorite abuses: turning “patriotism” into a political issue.  The politicizing of patriotism, of which we’ve seen plenty, especially over the past decade, seems to me one of the most unpatriotic things one can do.  Arguing over who is most patriotic, who is most truly “American,” and using claims and counterclaims of patriotism and lack of patriotism as a tool for partisan gain—these are a lot like Christians arguing and fighting each other over the question of who are the truest followers of Christ.  “For verily, verily, I”—meaning Christ himself—“say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11:29).
In a similar way, to turn love of country into an issue that divides citizens against each other is deeply ironic—and unfortunately, it damages the very country one claims to love.  Obviously, this is not a sensible way for people to show their love for their country.   A country consists of many things, including a shared history, traditions, institutions, and values—as well as a geographical location.  But above all a country consists of the relationships among its citizens, what Lincoln called “our bonds of affection.”  True patriotism seeks to nurture and strengthen those bonds, not strain or break them.

Another abuse of patriotism—or to put it more kindly, misunderstanding of it—is to confuse patriotism with self-centered, competitive pride.  The partisan conflict over patriotism is pretty much a way of claiming, “I’m more patriotic than you are.”  And as with all self-exaltation, the result is really self-diminishment: among other things, those who exalt themselves are abased by the way they make themselves mean-spirited and dim-sighted.  And as many have pointed out, Pride is the "Great Sin" because it puts human beings into competition and even enmity against each other, as well as against God.  True patriotism requires humility (realizing one’s dependence on things much greater than oneself), generosity (toward one’s fellow citizens), and gratitude (for all the blessings that come with the place, people, and history that constitute one’s nation).  Pride, of the sort I've just described, is incompatible with all of these virtues.
But that doesn't mean patriotism is simply acquiesence in the current conditions and actions of one's nation.  I believe that true patriotism not only allows but requires raising questions about problems and evils within the nation—as long as the questions are raised in a spirit of civility, respect, and cooperation (along with those virtues of humility, generosity, and gratitude already mentioned).  The point of raising the questions is to help bring about constructive change, to work with others to find solutions, not just to criticize.  One reason for civility and humility in this enterprise is that, first, I can’t be sure I have a perfect understanding of either the problems or the solutions, and, second, even if I did, I couldn’t solve the problems myself.  I have to work with others.  That’s the essence of what it means to be part of a community.  And a community doesn’t work very well when one segment has complete power while disenfranchising the rest or when “compromise” becomes such a dirty word that politics becomes nothing more than a perpetual civil war.

“Pride” sometimes means something more benign than the “great sin” I’ve described.  It may (to quote the Oxford English Dictionary) refer to feeling “gratified, pleased, glad”—or (as I believe C. S. Lewis put it) feeling warm-hearted affection because of the good things one sees and experiences, including the good in others.  To be “proud” of one’s family can mean to be grateful for belonging to it and to enjoy the affection and other blessings that come with it.  It also means to feel and act on responsibility to serve the others in one's family.  The problem comes when family pride becomes a matter of competition and enmity, when one family pits itself against others (à la Romeo and Juliet).
I believe the same thing is true of patriotism.  We should be glad to belong to our nation; we should feel warm-hearted affection for our fellow citizens; and we should seek to serve our fellow citizens.  But if national pride becomes a matter of pitting one nation against another, such pride partakes of the evils of “the great sin.”  We are members of humankind, citizens of the world, as well as citizens of our own country.  We should ask God to bless the people of all nations, not just our own.  We should seek the good of all, not just ourselves.  Not to do that is to endanger our nation even as we seek to exalt it.  Because we are all members of one another, to demean the rest of humankind as we seek to exalt ourselves will end up damaging us.  And I believe it will also diminish the effectiveness of God’s protective care because, with the wrong kind of pride, we put ourselves into a wrong relationship with Him.  Perhaps that is one reason an ancient prophet said of a proud people: “the pride of this nation . . . hath proven their destruction except they should repent” (Moroni 8:27).  He was referring to the Nephites, in reference to whom it was said later: “beware of pride, lest ye become as the Nephites of old” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:39).

One of my favorite sayings of Joseph Smith is one reminding us of God’s generous and universal love: “while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men.”  The implication is that, while we have a special responsibility for our own family and our own nation, because they are closest to us, at the same time we should seek the good of all humankind and see all as our brothers and sisters.  We all, in fact, belong to the most expansive of families, the family of God. 
I also love both of Lincoln’s inaugural addresses.  I’m especially fond of the second one (the one that includes "with malice toward none" and other remarkable expressions of charity and humility).  Only in recent years (partly because our nation’s current president loves to quote from it) have I become familiar with Lincoln’s first inaugural address and have begun to have similar feelings about it.  Lincoln spoke knowing that his election had provoked negative feelings among many of his fellow citizens, especially in the South.  He hoped to avoid the civil conflict that ended up taking place.  It is remarkable that, in the situation he faced, he sought to “speak the truth with love.”  Among other things, he said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I am happy to say I count Lincoln as a great patriot, one of the greatest who has lived in the nation I am blessed to belong to.  I am also grateful for many other true patriots, including our nation’s founders.  I’ve enjoyed reading about them, even reading many of their words.  They were imperfect human beings, yet great ones and ones who acted with courage and inspiration.  I feel very confident in saying they would not recognize themselves (at least not much) in some of those who claim to be their successors—I’m thinking of so-called “Tea Party patriots,” among others, many of whom don’t seem to know much about the founders or about the details of the Constitution they claim to be defending.  I’m grateful for the Constitution, including the many remarkable elements that have made it of enduring value to the nation, including the capacity built into the Constitution for the document to be amended and interpreted and improved.
Other patriots include, of course, those who risk their lives for the common good, through military service and in many other ways.  But all of us should be patriots.  Some of the greatest patriots, I believe, are parents who seek to nurture their children; teachers and others who seek to encourage the blossoming of all that is good in those they work with; and those who use their means and skills, whether in the "private" or the "public" sector, in service of the common good.  Many are acting for the good of others simply because that is who they are.  Maybe the truest patriots are those who don’t call themselves patriots, who are not even aware of the splendor and depth of their patriotism.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Godly character, change of heart, and forgiveness of sins

Well, you can't say I don't try to take on big topics.  I was prompted to consider this subject--godly character, change of heart, and forgiveness of sins--when I read an article on Patheos by Francis J. Beckwith titled "Better to be an adulterer than a Mormon?: Evangelicals, Gingrich, and Romney"  (  Beckwith reflects on a visit to Utah including discussions with faculty at BYU and with the LDS Public Affairs office in Salt Lake.  Beckwith is sympathetic with the idea that moral character may count for more in a president than correct theology or even the status (according to a given theology) of being "forgiven."

One reader, Michael Bauman, left a comment questioning Beckwith's stance and suggesting that, if God forgives and regenerates a sinner, then past sins should not disqualify someone from being president--a position I pretty much agree with.  Otherwise, what would all the parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son mean--not to mention Christ's statement, "Neither do I condemn thee; go thy way and sin no more"?  But Bauman thinks either that Catholic forgiveness is superior to other kinds of forgiveness or that--even if people are equally forgiven in God's eyes--being a Catholic and having an understanding of Catholic theology would make someone a better president.  As he puts it, "All other things being equal, it's better to be a forgiven Catholic . . . than a forgiven Mormon . . ."

Reading the article and the comment prompted me to add a comment of my own--a rather long one, which I reproduce here:

Obviously the questions raised in this article are complicated. For instance, what factors make for the best president?  The truest and most nuanced theological understanding?  The best moral character?  Will the best president be the person theoretically (according to one's theology) most likely justified in God's eyes, despite serious character flaws?  And then there are factors less tied to theology, like leadership skills, knowledge of domestic and international issues, experience, etc.

The story about an Evangelical Protestant preferring an adulterer or a murderer over a Mormon likely includes the proviso, "As long as the adulterer or murderer has confessed Christ as his Savior."  In the view of many Evangelicals, such a confession--either before or after the adultery or murder--would guarantee justification and salvation, on the grounds of "once saved, always saved" (also known as "the perseverance of the saints").

I'm not Roman Catholic, but it appears from the comment made by Michael Bauman that a murderer or adulterer who has been absolved by priestly authority would, in the Catholic view, be better off than a non-Catholic who had never committed those sins or who had committed them and repented but lacked absolution.

Here's my problem with both the Evangelical and the Catholic response: does notional and even emotional reliance on Christ (as expressed in the Evangelical acceptance of Christ as Savior) guarantee a change of heart?  does going through the actions of confession and penance and receiving official absolution guarantee a change of heart?  And is God interested in such a change of heart, perhaps even more than simple freedom from sin?  Could it be that the means either Evangelicals or Catholics propose for obtaining forgiveness are valuable in God's eyes primarily as a way of starting someone on the path toward that change of heart?  And--back to politics--is a regenerate heart more important in a president than correct theology or even than officially "absolved" or "saved" status?

I'm sure many Evangelicals would agree that merely assenting to Christ's role as your Savior doesn't finish the process God intends.  And I assume absolution is not, in the view of thoughtful Roman Catholics, merely a magical action that changes a person without any serious engagement on their part.  If the state of a person's heart is what ultimately matters, then none of us really knows to what extent any of the candidates have obtained divine forgiveness or how far along they are in the process of becoming what God would like them to be.

A few final questions. Do Evangelicals and Catholics believe that non-Evangelicals and non-Catholics--perhaps even Mormons--can experience peace with God, forgiveness of sin, and improvement of character, even without what they consider a correct theological understanding or (in the Catholic view) without priestly absolution? 

If such absolution is required, then no non-Catholic can claim to be forgiven of past sins.  Michael Bauman suggests, though, that there might be such a being as "a forgiven Mormon."  If that means someone forgiven according to the Mormon view, then that would be someone who has faith in Christ, has sincerely repented (meaning changed in outlook and behavior), and is seeking to be obedient to God's commandments--all of this accomplished with God's enabling grace, leading to forgiveness of sins and change of heart through God's redeeming grace.  This process is nicely summed up in the Mormon belief that Christ will save people FROM their sins, not IN their sins [see Alma 11:37; Helaman 5:10].  Is such an understanding theologically correct--or close enough--from an Evangelical or Catholic point of view?  And how does its correctness or lack of correctness translate into reality?  In other words, do Evangelicals and Catholics believe that Mormons who engage in the process I've described can really be forgiven? 

For political purposes, the point of these questions is this: Can we know--without knowing the hearts of the candidates--who among them, Protestant, Catholic, or Mormon, is really forgiven in God's eyes and, beyond simply having been absolved of past sins, which of them has the godliest character?