God’s Gifts Put Man’s Best Dreams to Shame

My daughter at three weeks. Photo by Royal S. Cardon.

 

A few months ago, a friend recommended to me a BBC series titled “Call the Midwife.”  Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, it portrays a young nurse serving alongside Catholic nuns in the poorest neighborhoods of 1950s London.  My husband and I were hooked after the first episode.  As the new midwife catches babies in grimy flats, she is sometimes unable to contain her disgust at the crudeness and filth she encounters, and yet she is moved by the miracle of birth, the illimitable love parents feel for their infants, the sacrifices they make to raise them.  It seems my husband’s and my reaction was not unusual; to the surprise of some entertainment critics, the series has been wildly popular, attracting about 10 million viewers during its second season.

Last night my husband and I watched the show’s Christmas special.  When it ended and I’d finished blowing my nose, I returned to my world, September 2013.  You might think this would be a happy return.  Many things are much better now.  No workhouses.  No rats in my flat.  And yet I found myself complaining, “I wish I lived in the ’50s.” And my husband understood.  “Me too,” he said.

Those entertainment critics would think we’re duped by nostalgia, but I believe my feelings are not ungrounded.  Western civilization has acquired innumerable comforts and opportunities since the ‘1950s, and in many ways we’ve become more enlightened.  But we’ve also given up some crucial things.  Perhaps our greatest loss is babies.  Yes, babies.  Those bothersome creatures that wreak havoc on a woman’s body, that drain a man’s bank account, that ruin a good night’s sleep, that bring us to our knees in frustration, guilt, even shame and anger.  Babies are a lot of trouble.

But what is life without babies?

In our year, 2013, pundits and their audiences have been debating Time Magazine’s recent cover story, “The Childfree Life:  When Having it All Means Not Having Children.”  In the article, author Laura Sandler reports on and defends the increasing segment of adults who are choosing to avoid parenthood.  I heard her explain on talk radio that Americans are finally questioning our “cultural imperative” of procreation.  She recalled a college professor asking students to raise their hands if they wanted to someday raise a family.  Almost all hands went up, but when the professor asked why, no one had a ready answer.  The apparent moral of her anecdote was that countless generations of Americans have been duped into the oppressive assumption that they must procreate.  It must be emotionally traumatic for parents, she said, to meet the challenges of raising a child if it wasn’t their heartfelt desire to become a mom or dad.

The trouble with this modern philosophy is that it fails to admit what men and women are: members of the animal kingdom.  We have been reproducing for millennia not because we’re westerners, but because we’re home sapiens.  Clearly, procreation is not a cultural imperative; it’s a biological one.  That someone would argue otherwise and be taken seriously by the media establishment is nothing short of absurd and alarming.

Putting biology aside, let’s consider this philosophy from a spiritual perspective:  happiness springs from having what you want?  Pain and frustration are only endurable if they stem from an individual choice to pursue a dream?  This worldview—in addition to setting one up for a lifetime of disappointment–degrades parenthood from a meaningful sacrifice to a pet project.  It demeans the status of children to that of pets.   Indeed, when the subject of procreation arises, a prevalent theme in Internet discussions is “Each to his own and mind your own business!”  This attitude skirts the issue: We might believe that today’s birth control methods and abortion procedures have erased the biological imperative to reproduce, but the fact remains that babies are necessary.  If our civilization is to survive, someone has got to make them and raise them.  The discussion should center on the question “Who bears this responsibility?” but it usually revolves around the topic of self-determination, as though liberty erases responsibility.  Is childrearing to be delegated to the poor and uneducated so that the privileged classes are free to  pursue their dreams?

Few people seem to recognize that our nation’s most precious asset is our babies. One day they will run our government and economy.  One day they will see to our physical needs.  In the mean time, they do something even more important: they teach us to love.  They compel us to put others above self.  They force us to move beyond the adolescent pursuit of personal dreams to the discovery that, in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.”

Time conducted a survey along with their article in which 34% of respondents said our nation’s declining birth rate is a good thing, more than double the 11% who said it was a bad thing.  Fifty-five percent said it was neither good nor bad.  I marvel that Americans are ignorant of the economic woes that come with a below-replacement birthrate (woes that are now bedeviling nations like Japan and Russia) and are oblivious to the spiritual bankruptcy staring us in the face.  This is why the primitive 50s are looking better every day.  Life in the 21st century is so entertaining, so convenient, so comfortable and so empty.  We are pampered by time-saving technological miracles, but have less and less time for the miracle of life.

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“Ender’s Game,” Sci-Fi and Mormonism

Last Saturday I attended a private viewing of “Ender’s Game,” the new sci-fi adventure film based on Orson Scott Card’s best-selling book of the same name.  Card’s son and his wife—with whom we became friends several years ago through our church network—invited my husband and me to see it with a bunch of their local friends.  Perhaps my response was colored by the personal connection, but I loved the movie.  I can’t think of any film adaptation that is more faithful to the genius of the original work.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Card said something I thought was funny: “In a way, being a Mormon prepares you to deal with science fiction, because we live simultaneously in two very different cultures. The result is that we all know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land.  It’s not just a coincidence that there are so many effective Mormon science fiction writers. We don’t regard being an alien as an alien experience.”

Simpsons fans may remember that Homer has trouble differentiating between Mormons and extraterrestrial beings.  But it’s actually not unusual to be an alien in mainstream American society.  That’s the story of our nation, innumerable ethnic and religious minorities living with one foot in their subculture and one in the broader society.  Do most American subcultures produce more sci-fi writers than would be expected for their population size?  I don’t know, but I doubt it.  I see a better explanation for why Mormons are especially adept at sci-fi: our theology.  Like good sci-fi, Mormon theology is logical and expansive.

Much of “Ender’s Game” is about the interesting realities of waging war in a zero-gravity environment.  There’s no up or down.  Once a body is set in motion, it’s helpless to change direction until it collides with something else.  Brushing up against something doesn’t cause a glancing blow; it causes an object to spin.  When the protagonist Ender Wiggins and his comrades first enter a zero-gravity training room, they are disoriented.  The laws of physics haven’t changed, but without the Earth’s pull, they must adapt to realities they never before imagined.  They must change the way they think, the way they strategize.

Mormonism is to Christianity what a zero-gravity environment is to Earth’s environment.  Perhaps the best example of this is our foundational story of a pre-mortal existence.  We believe that everybody who ever lived or ever will live on Earth was once together in heaven with our Spiritual Father (and Mother–but that’s another blog post).  He oversaw the creation of the Earth and presented to us a plan designed for our progress.  We would go to Earth where we wouldn’t be able to remember Heaven, where we would acquire bodies, where we would learn and prove ourselves by confronting evil and death.  In this situation, would we fight valiantly for life and truth, or would we turn to darkness and despair?  Those who proved themselves true and faithful would be able to progress toward the ultimate goal of becoming like our Heavenly Parents.

Jesus Christ is still a central figure in this story.  He’s the Father’s firstborn son who was more capable than his younger siblings (us).  Because the plan meant descending out of God’s presence into darkness, we would need a Savior to rescue us.  Jesus volunteered.  Lucifer, another prominent spirit, also volunteered.  The trouble with his offer was he wanted to change God’s plan; he wanted to ensure that everybody would be rescued by robbing us of our agency (free will).  We believe this plan would not have worked; it would have thwarted God’s purposes.  Our Father chose Jesus, of course, and Lucifer rebelled and became Satan.  He persuaded a third of God’s children to follow him as he was cast out of God’s presence.  We refer to this conflict as the War in Heaven (We believe chapter 12 of the biblical book of Revelation is about this conflict).

I learned this story as a toddler.  Now I teach it to my own toddlers.  I grew up singing songs with words like “I am a Child of God” and “I lived in heaven a long time ago, so did you.”  I love this story.  It’s at the heart of my identity.  It’s the story by which I measure all other stories.  It teaches the infinite capacity of humankind while explaining the reason we encounter evil in this life.  It also enshrines free will as the most valuable gift other than life itself.

It troubles many Christians, though.  It’s disorienting to theologies that begin with Earth.  Which way is up?  Which way is down?  Does it degrade God to say that humans can reach His height?  Ultimately, this story brings God closer to man.  In fact, all of Mormonism brings God closer to man.  That is why it’s a powerful religion.  It expands on the Christian belief that God made Himself knowable by sending His Son into mortality.  And it holds humankind to the highest standard of being, literally, God’s children.

In an interview with Salon magazine, Card was asked, “Are any aspects of the two books particularly Mormon?”  “Not really,” he answered, “except in the sense that they’re written by me and I’m a committed, believing Mormon.”  Sometimes I say “Not really” to mean “Kind of, but this isn’t a good time to talk about it.”  I think this is what Card meant because I see many Mormon themes in “Ender’s Game.”  It doesn’t seem he intended the novel to be an allegory in the fashion of C.S. Lewis’  “Chronicles of Narnia.”  I’m guessing he wanted to tell a great sci-fi story that explored the human condition and ended up retelling part of what is for Mormons the story of all stories.  (Seeing as he’s an insightful man and has spent decades thinking about “Ender’s Game,” I can’t imagine he’s never noticed the parallels.)

For example, one might ask, “What kind of Father sends his Son to do the dirty work and overcome death?  Why didn’t the Father come to Earth himself?”  Most Christians don’t ask this question because they don’t believe Jesus is literally God’s son, but simply God in mortal form.  In Mormonism, though, this is a real question and there’s no pat answer.  The obvious assumption is that the plan couldn’t have worked that way.  In “Ender’s Game,” Card gives us a possible answer as to why this is the case.  Why didn’t Colonel Graff fight the war of all wars himself?  Because he couldn’t.  He was too mature.  But he did know how to select and prepare someone else to do it.  Jesus was God’s prodigy, as Ender was Colonel Graff’s prodigy.

And in Mormon theology, what is Earth but a simulator, a perfect game or test to prepare us for the next step in our journey toward becoming a Commander?  The conditions here on Earth are as close as possible to the realities of eternity so that we’ll be prepared for them.  I love how the climactic battle of the movie isn’t a simulation as Ender had supposed it was.  This reminds me of a long discussion I had with my brother.  He’s inclined to see mortality as only a simulation.  I’m inclined to see it like the Graduation Battle, the warriors thinking it’s an important dress rehearsal but afterward discovering that this performance has real, lasting consequence, including casualties.

Another principle of Mormonism is that God operates by faith.  Faith is the power by which the worlds were made, by which Christ atoned for our sins.  It’s the power by which everything good is accomplished.  And we also define faith as “not to have a perfect knowledge of things,” but a “hope for things which are not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21).  Colonel Graff believes Ender is the only one who can save humanity from destruction.  He believes Ender is “perfect” for this role.  But others doubt him, and he doesn’t know perfectly whether he’s right until the plan is actually executed.  Did the angels of heaven—like the commanders in “Ender’s Game”—watch in trepidation while Christ atoned for our sins and overcame death for all mortals?  I think they did.  I think God the Father watched God the Son with perfect faith, and the rest of us tried to mimic that.

Can you see now why Mormons might be uniquely prepared to tackle the interesting questions of sci-fi literature?  Because our theology blows out of the water many of the assumptions our society has formed around Christianity.  We use the same Bible, the same laws of physics, if you will.  But we use them without the mental gravity of viewing Earth as the beginning and end of reality.  This view is disorienting—at first.  Then it’s empowering.

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The Republicans’ Suicidal Wing

 I’m the sort of person who feels inspired by phrases like “rule of law.”  So it may seem odd that I’m turned off by the wing of Republicans who oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants as a matter of principle.  Illegal immigrants are criminals, they say.  Four million people are waiting patiently at our nation’s front door, they argue, and we don’t have the moral courage to kick out the 11 million schmucks who snuck in the back!  What about justice?!

The problem with this argument is that immigration’s not about justice.  Throughout time people have migrated around the planet not because they were moral or immoral, but because humans are like cattle:  they go where the grass is greenest.  I’m reminded of those who question whether our European forefathers were morally right to settle lands that first belonged to the American Indians.  In our gut we all know this is a ridiculous question.  It wasn’t right or wrong.  It was inevitable.  The opportunities were enormous, and the American Indians couldn’t stop them.

So when we talk about the northward migration of millions of Hispanics, we must keep in mind the giant economic forces at play, compared to which politicians and their laws are puny players.  Our nation’s reputation for freedom and prosperity has created a human river flowing to our borders from regions of poverty and unrest.  This flow can be managed but not erased (not so long as we are free and prosperous), and thus, as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services explains on its site, “severely restricting immigration often results in increased illegal immigration.”

If we, as a nation, were determined to dam the Mexico border crossing, of course we could do so.  Imagine Mexico and the United States going to war—we would seal the border in a matter of hours.  To build and maintain a sufficient barrier, though, would be enormously expensive.  We don’t have the political will to make that investment.  This is because our 11 million illegal neighbors aren’t actually a problem.  Their longtime presence here has proven there’s room for them in our pasture, way more room than our immigration policies suggest. 

This isn’t to say our Mexican border is adequately managed.  No one knows for sure how many people are croming from Mexico into the U.S. illegally, but it’s thought to be in the hundreds of thousands per year.  Clearly, this is a national security problem.  I believe an essential part of the solution is allowing many more people to come here lawfully, especially on temporary work visas.  Regular people are willing to stand in line and answer questions in order to enter a new country.  Let’s give them that opportunity so Border Patrolman don’t have to chase them down in the desert.  Let the Border Patrol save its resources for capturing the bad apples. 

As for those undocumented immigrants already here, we have three choices:  1) continue having a huge underclass that is vulnerable to abuse, is not paying taxes, and is not fully able to participate in our economy, politics and community life; 2) spend billions to forcibly remove them; or 3) offer legal status.  The first choice is not working.  We have a schizophrenic system that gives citizenship to children–including world-class education and healthcare–whose parents are not supposed to even be here, let alone work.  The first choice is also not in keeping with our faith in liberty and justice for all.  The second choice, deportation, is unpopular and inhumane.  And so we come to the last choice: amnesty. 

Some call amnesty justice.  Some call it mercy.  I call it our only viable choice.

Hispanic immigrants are changing the economy, culture and politics of their new home, just as all immigrants do.  This, of course, causes some grumbling among those who dislike change.  That’s life.  Let’s not be petty.  And let’s remember that they’re doing some necessary things we U.S. citizens have forgotten how to do, namely picking fruit and making babies.  As a fan of both fruit and babies, I’m grateful they’re here.  I’m glad to offer them citizenship.

If Republicans insist on making this debate a morality play, they will be playing the part of Javert, the policeman in Les Miserables.  Javert spends his life tracking down Valjean to bring him to justice for stealing a loaf of bread.  In the closing scenes, the selfless Valjean offers his very life for the sake of his loved ones while Javert, tormented by the conflict between law and mercy, throws himself into the river.  Like Valjean, Hispanic immigrants are sacrificing for the sake of their children.  Meanwhile, anti-amnesty Republicans, with their devotion to the letter of the law, are leading the party toward suicide.

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Facebook Prophecies

Facebook Prophecies

If you’re a Facebook user, you’ve probably seen a black-and-white photo of interracial marriage protesters presented alongside a current-day photo of gay marriage protesters.  Splashed across this meme are the taunting words, “Imagine how stupid you are going to look in 40 years.” 

The image would be perfect in a time capsule.  When I am 72 years old, will the Facebook prophecy have come to pass?  Will the controversy be dead?  Will I be embarrassed that I publicly opposed same-sex marriage?

The parallels between the Black Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement seem to be a driving force in our nation’s increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage.  Today the most celebrated era in American history is the one that made heroes of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., the era when our nation finally honored its creed that all men are created equal.  Nobody wants to be like the villains in this story, the segregationists who argued that blacks are inherently inferior to whites. 

We are proud and grateful, of course, for what civil rights activists achieved in the 1960s.  The story is an important part of our American legacy.  But is it the right historical lesson to apply in considering the Gay Rights Movement?  The fact that of all racial groups it is African Americans who are least likely to support same-sex marriage is a good reason to reexamine the comparison:  Both are stories about marginalized people seeking greater participation in mainstream society.  And like African Americans, LGBT activists have sought protection from bullying and for fair access to education, housing and employment. 

In these respects, the historical comparison seems valid; the LGBT cause seems just.  Even the request for domestic partnership laws does not seem unreasonable, an accommodation for those who don’t fit the usual mold. 

On the other hand, in their latest push, seeking the title of marriage and the opportunity to acquire children, LGBT activists have effectively jumped ship from the Civil Rights Movement into a different stream of history called the Sexual Revolution.  They are no longer asking to be treated like everyone else; they are asking society to fundamentally change the rules to accommodate their sexual inclinations. 

The Battle against Biology

And so we come to the first premise of the Gay Marriage Movement, which is that sexual orientation is a more significant characteristic than gender.  Scientifically speaking, the premise is absurd.  Second, the movement presumes that society’s primary purpose in recognizing marriages is to celebrate romantic love and create financial ties.  A quick survey of history and anthropology refutes this premise.  Throughout the world, concepts of religion, law and love vary widely, but on every continent and in every culture there is a core concept of marriage.  Universally, marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman, centered on the procreative act and, as night follows the day, the raising of children.  Even polygamous marriages fit this definition, making the same major contribution to society that monogamous marriages do: marriage secures a father to his children by tying him to their mother. 

Marriage, then, is first and foremast a biological institution that stems from nature.  Considering that no society has endured without it, we may well assume it’s also a biological necessity.    

This is where many Americans need a history lesson on the Sexual Revolution.  For more than a hundred years, sexual revolutionaries have sought to weaken moral norms that hinder sexual expression.  Promoting birth control, abortion, cohabitation, casual sex, no-fault divorce and homosexuality, the Sexual Revolution has succeeded in convincing the developed world that the primary purpose of sex is to have fun.  A few consequences of the Sexual Revolution have been good, but the most notable ones have been unintended and disastrous. 

Take, for example, the invention of oral contraceptives.  Margaret Sanger, who later financed the scientific research necessary to create the pill, wrote in 1916, “No one can doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable but they will become unnecessary when care is taken to prevent conception.  This is the only cure for abortions.” 

Since its debut in 1961, the pill has been a reliable, affordable form of birth control, offering physical and financial relief to countless women.  And what of Sanger’s cure for abortion?  Today effective contraceptives are available to practically all American women, yet the U.S. Census Bureau reports more than a million abortions are performed in the United States each year.  Today about half of all pregnancies in our country are unplanned.     

In other words, the magical pill has failed to stop the stork.  It did, though, seem to start something else.  In the five decades since the pill was invented, babies born to unwed mothers went from approximately 5% of all births to about 40% and continues to rise.  In other words, we have a historical correlation between access to contraceptives and a dramatic increase in out-of-wedlock births.  This bit of data would be perpelxing if the reason weren’t obvious to even the casual observer:  our society’s advances in reproductive medicine have been accompanied by a cultural shift in attitudes about sex and marriage.  The pill’s larger legacy is widespread promiscuity and thus, ironically, more unwanted pregnancies. 

Single mothers—most of them young and poor—and their fatherless children pay the largest price for our society’s acceptance of casual sex.  Social scientists have gathered a veritable mountain of evidence showing that children raised by single parents do not fair well compared to those with married parents.  These innocent vicitms of adult choices face serious challenges that are overburdening our school systems, welfare systems and justice systems.  We must help them the best we can, but so far no payment or program has been able to compensate for what is missing in their homes. 

A parallel story can be told about the other so-called victories of the Sexual Revolution.  The push for birth control created the notion that sex can and ought to be disconnected from babies.  The push for no-fault divorce created the notion that marriage can be separated from total commitment.  And now same-sex marriage promotes the idea that family can be disconnected from biology. 

Two people of the same gender are inherently unable to start a family, but we are asked to pretend they can.  We are asked to believe that babies don’t need mothers, that the differences between men’s and women’s minds and bodies are incidental, that shared DNA is not an important aspect of family bonds.  Absentee fathers are now called sperm donors and paid for their services.  Healthy young women with limited education make a median wage by renting their wombs and delivering babies.  The resemblance to prostitution is striking, but we are asked to call these women altruists.

The Family Forecast

This is all to say that our new invention called gay marriage is one more expression of the age-old desire to circumvent nature’s demands.  We don’t need a crystal ball to see the future; we can see the writing on the wall.  

Forty years from now, the consequences of same-sex marriage will be much larger than what the average supporter intends: the words marriage and family will mean anything and everything.  The cycle of attraction, commitment and conception will have been sliced into bits and sold to the highest bidder.  Eggs, sperm, wombs and babies will be commodities.  The love of many will wax cold as they avoid the natural sacrifices that teach devotion.  The wealthy will exploit lower-class women.  Children will be robbed of their right to a mother and father.  Sex will be a plaything.  Procreation will be a technological process.    

Of course not everyone will accept this way of life, and so, forty years from now, America will still be divided over the issue.  The battlefront will have moved, but the principles will be the same.  On the one side will be those who believe government and technology can free us from nature’s tyranny.  On the other side will be those who revere the God of nature, who know it’s foolish to thwart the processes He designed. 

Forty years from now, I’ll still be standing on this side.  I won’t be ashamed.  And a mountain of social science will confirm my position.

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A Talk on Love by Julie Weaver

One singular thing about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that our clergy is not paid.  All adult members are expected to help run the congregation by fulfilling assignments from teaching Sunday school to mopping the kitchen.  Not only does this keep costs down, it also keeps commitment up.  When I go to Sunday services, I am not just attending church; I am attending my church with my ward.  The bishop presides over our sacrament meetings, but he normally doesn’t do much speaking; instead, members of the ward give “talks” on an assigned topic.  Our services may not be as professional as some are, but they are personal and profound.   

A few months ago a friend of mine, Julie Weaver, gave a talk that I found especially meaningful.  I asked her if I could share it on my blog, and she said yes.  Julie is one of the women who mentored me through adolescence.  She’s a decade younger than my mom, a hairdresser and British, so she seemed very glamorous to me when I was a teen.  I remember her cutting my hair, giving out motherly advice at girls’ camp and coming to my rescue when I called her in a panic over a service project—a few minutes later she was at my house, urging me to say a prayer before I continued to panic.  She’s a remarkable woman and teacher.

 A Talk on Love by Julie Weaver

Since I was last up on this stand to give a talk, I have had the mind-blowing experience of going back to school as a 50-year-old.  I received my two-year degree from Cascadia, my Bachelors at the University of Washington, and I currently attend Antioch University in downtown Seattle in their masters program for clinical mental health counseling.  I have watched my husband hold his breath as I attend classes in the most liberal of universities, to see if my faith of this beautiful gospel will remain steadfast in my heart as my intellect grows.  In this program, critical thinking over culture, gender and religious belief is a high priority, and so when I read the words of Melissa Wei Tsing Inouye in the January 2013 Ensign, I wanted to share them with you:

“After graduating from high school, I attended Harvard University (Massachusetts, USA), where I made a wonderful discovery. Although my college classes placed a clear priority on critical thinking over religious belief, in the Latter-day Saint community that included university students, professors, and institute teachers from the Boston area, I met people who excelled in their academic work and still remained active, committed members of the Church.

“I looked up to these Latter-day Saints because they were sympathetic to my intellectual questions—many of them had grappled with similar questions themselves—and because of their cheerful faith. Their examples taught me that faith and intellect are not mutually exclusive. I began to realize that it was God who gave His children intelligence—described in Doctrine and Covenants 93:36 as “the glory of God”—and who instructed us to “seek … out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118). . .

“T. S. Eliot wrote a poem, “Little Gidding,” that has had deep significance for my perspective on intellect, experience, and faith. At one point in “Little Gidding,” the poet describes a place where one might set aside rational, critical purposes and focus solely on the experience of the spiritual:

You are not here to verify,

Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity

Or carry report. You are here to kneel

Where prayer has been valid.1

In such a place, we lay aside the critical means by which we evaluate the things of the world and prepare to encounter God on His terms. In such a place, we base our ultimate trust not in reasoning but in experience.”

It is with this spirit that I prepared a talk about love, Christ-like love and love of our Heavenly Father. 

The values which a child perceives to be most important to his parents may well become the values by which his own life will be guided.  For example, a father who spends most of his time teaching his son to play ball without putting the same emphasis on spiritual and intellectual training will likely influence the child to adopt athletics as the supreme value in life.  Parents who excessively stress the importance of wealth may find that the accumulation of money has become the highest value in a child’s life.  A parent who is overly concerned with physical beauty and fashionable clothes may find their child to be a vain person whose highest value is to appear physically attractive.  What do our children have as their highest value?  What do we have as our highest value?

I read a book about the life of a man who at six years old heard his aunt and uncle (who were looking after him) talk about how creepy and ugly he was.  He went through life with his head held down and was afraid when he met anyone that they would be scared of his ugliness.  He reasoned out in his mind and felt he understood why his mother did not love him, and consequently he had an awful life and was greatly disturbed. 

In my second graduate class, I was taught about the roots of the word psychopathology, which I had understood to mean illness of the mind.  It actually translates into “distress of the soul.”  The young man in the book I read could be diagnosed with several mental illnesses but I feel “distress of the soul,” from lack of warmth and love, is a better diagnosis.

It is no mistake that at the beginning of every treatment plan I have studied there have been strict instructions for the therapist to give unconditional positive regard, warmth and patience.  In other words, the key to good counseling intellectually is to help a client feel accepted and safe—or as we would put it here at church, “loved.”

John Powell said that “most people believe we are personally the masters of our own fates and the captains of our own souls.  The truth of the matter is that we are very largely shaped by others, who, in an almost frightening way, hold our destiny in their hands.  We are, each of us, the product of those who have loved us . . . or who have refused to love us.”

This could be a depressing thought, but I reaped some hope from part of this statement, because I have known some pretty wonderful people that came from some horrible family situations and the common denominator amongst these people was that at some point in their life, early and later on, they found out that God lived and that they were a child of God and that he loved them.  If we are a product of those that love us, then we can be a product of our Heavenly Father’s love, and this gives me great hope.

It is harder for a person to feel or recognize Heavenly Father’s love if they don’t experience some kind of love on this earth.  Just as “distress of the soul” can be relieved by good counseling from an empathic therapist, it can also be relieved by kind words and actions of those around them.  But before we can be practitioners of the highest, noblest, strongest kind of love, we have to understand it.  It is the pure love of Christ – it is charity.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians chapter 13:

“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”

So what this scripture is saying is that we can send our children to seminary, to Young Men’s and Young Women’s, to primary activities; we can take part in charitable activities, Eagle Scout projects; we can teach wonderful lessons every Sunday and prepare fabulous home teaching and visiting teaching visits; we can visit sick people until we are blue in the face; and we can help a million families move; we can donate all of our money to the mission fund and fast offering; and it is all worthless without the highest, noblest, strongest love called “charity” in our hearts.  

So if we have this highest, noblest, strongest Christ-like love, we would always have patience with our loved ones, not just with those who don’t try our patience.  We would be kind, never jealous, never selfish, never taking offense and always giving people the benefit of the doubt.  Have you noticed, these are all things we feel in our hearts?  It is easy to hide jealousy or harsh judgments, but we have the example of our Savior who truly gave every one the benefit of the doubt.  When he was on the cross, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Well, brothers and sisters, I personally feel there were plenty of people who know what they were doing, and when I think about them crucifying my Savior, I want to rip off their beards and slap them around a bit, but Christ with his purest, noblest love would and could not believe the worst.  He gave them all the benefit of the doubt and asked his father to forgive them.

My mother once wrote a poem for me that said the oil to soothe any earthly woes could not be removed from its Heavenly place.   It required my knees to bend and my head to bow.  I believe that oil to sooth is the love of our Heavenly Father, the love that he sent his son to show us.  It is a love we can forget we have if we do not humble ourselves for a few minutes on a regular basis to reap the strength it brings and relief it can be to our distressed souls through prayer. 

I want to bear my testimony that this is truly Christ’s church.  I believe this with all my heart and intellect.  I am thankful for this testimony, and I pray that we can all bend our knees more often and dip into the oil that soothes us as we live in this harsh world.  I promise that we will see things differently, feel things differently and love differently if we do this.

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When Sex is a Party Favor

A topic trending in the news over the last few months is rape.  There was the girl in Steubenville, Ohio, who was assaulted while unconscious at a party.  After she awoke, she learned that pictures of her naked body were circling among classmates.  An almost identical thing happened in California, but with a sadder ending.  When the victim discovered what her “friends” had done, she committed suicide.  A couple weeks ago, rapper Rick Ross lost his Reebok endorsement contract for publishing a song celebrating date rape.  “Put Molly all up in her champagne,” the lyrics go.  “I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.”   

A teenage writer published in the The Seattle Times last month decried the misogyny she sees in today’s youth culture.  The word “slut,” she reported, is “used casually in teenage conversations both as a cutting insult and a term of endearment.”  She noted that Facebook groups called “its not rape if you shout SURPRISE!!!” and “its not rape, it’s a snuggle struggle,” have received almost 1,000 likes.  “There is a surprising number of female participants in those rape-as-a-joke Facebook groups,” she wrote, “It’s the mindset of our generation, male and female both.”  

At a time when women have more educational and career opportunities than ever before, when the prevailing wisdom is that we are equal to men in our autonomy and value, what are we to make of this news trend?  Is this just a fluke string of outlier incidents?

I don’t think so, one reason being that I recently visited a shopping mall.  The enormous advertisement hanging over teendom’s coolest clothing store, Abercrombie & Fitch, was a shirtless young man with his pants unzipped.  I could not see his genitals only because words strategically covered them.  This is called pornography, but no one seemed to mind its prominent display in a public place.  

Youth today have grown up with these sorts of displays all around.  Sexual images, jokes and stories permeate our entertainment, commerce and even politics.  Promiscuity is embraced as normal.  And so our youth are taught that sex is at once all-important and inconsequential.  Sex is funny, cool and pleasurable, not sacred and not dangerous so long as there’s a condom.  Sex is no longer a tool for forming families, the story goes.  It can be a way to express love if you should happen to love someone, but if not, it’s still enjoyable.  Everyone needs it and deserves it, and it’s no big deal.  Sex is a joke, a status symbol, a party favor.    

Considering this cultural environment, it’s easy to imagine why young men emboldened by alcohol might believe rape is just a prank.

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Sifting Through the Supreme Court Oral Arguments

The Supreme Court’s recent hearings on cases involving gay marriage offered some relief from the storm of protests and media coverage raging outside the courtroom doors.  In sharp contrast to the tone of our national debate, the justices and lawyers operated under a code of decorum, reason and humility.  Their careful discussion centered on jurisprudence, such as the states’ right to regulate marriage verses the federal government’s practical need for a uniform definition in tax law.  This focus on technical questions indicated the justices may avoid the larger issue.

 The technical questions, though, bear on the larger issue more than one might think.  One in particular seemed telling:  In considering the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the justices wanted to know why President Obama is appealing a decision he claims to support.  Lower courts ordered the President to give homosexual married couples the same tax breaks as heterosexual married couples, and he purports to agree.  How can he appeal and then refuse to defend his appeal?  As Chief Justice John Roberts said, “I don’t see why he doesn’t have the courage of his convictions and execute not only the statues, but do it consistent with his view of the Constitution.”  Justice Antonin Scalia worried, “I’m wondering if we’re living in this new world where the Attorney General can simply decide, yeah, it’s unconstitutional, but it’s not so unconstitutional that I’m not willing to enforce it.”

Nestled within the legalese was a more simple dialogue about the merits of gay marriage.  Charles Cooper, defending California ’s Proposition 8, asserted that “redefining marriage as a genderless institution will sever its abiding connection to its historic traditional procreative purposes, and it will refocus, refocus the purpose of marriage and the definition of marriage away from the raising of children and to the emotional needs and desires of adults.”  Opposing him, Theodore Olson argued that Proposition 8 “walls off gays and lesbians from marriage, the most important relation in life, thus stigmatizing a class of Californians based upon their status and labeling their most cherished relationships as second-rate, different, unequal and not okay.”    

Olson used the popular argument that homosexual marriage is comparable to interracial marriage, but it seemed to fail.  Justice Anthony Kennedy pointed out that when the court overturned laws prohibiting interracial marriage, such marriages had been occurring for hundreds of years in other countries.  “The problem with the case,” he said, “is that you’re really asking, particularly because of the sociological evidence you cite, for us to go into uncharted waters.”  Chief Justice Roberts was also suspicious of the comparison to racism: “I’m not sure that it’s right to view this as excluding a particular group. . . . The institution developed to serve purposes that, by their nature, didn’t include homosexual couples.”  Justice Samuel Alito complained, “You want us to step in and render a decision based on an assessment of the effects of this institution which is newer than cell phones or the Internet.”  Referring to California ’s civil union laws, the chief justice wondered whether homosexual couples were seeking only for a label.   Olson confirmed this idea, saying, “It is like you were to say you can vote, you can travel, but you may not be a citizen.  There are certain labels in this country that are very very critical.” 

Altogether, the court seemed to believe gay marriage constitutes an unprecedented change and, at least in the state of California , this battle is over a single word.  The remaining argument, then, was that our nation’s new conception of homosexuality has altered the meaning of the law.  When Justice Scalia probed, “When did it become unconstitutional to exclude homosexual couples from marriage?” the counsel said there is no specific date.  He asserted that homosexual marriage became a constitutional right “when we –as a culture determined that sexual orientation is a characteristic of individuals that they cannot control.” 

Granted, this is true in a sense; today, even in conservative circles, most people believe homosexual orientation is a physical condition that is not chosen and cannot be erased through medicine or therapy.  The next step in this argument, though, constitutes a fantastic leap:  Roberta Kaplan, arguing against DOMA, claimed that America has reached “a moral understanding today that gay people are no different and that gay couples’ relationships are not significantly different from the relationships of straight married people.”  DOMA, she said, was based on “an incorrect understanding that gay couples were fundamentally different from straight couples, an understanding that I don’t think exists today.”

Kaplan is suffering from wishful thinking.  It has not yet been a year since President Obama changed his stance, and today more than 30 of the 50 states have laws banning gay marriage outright—there’s no consensus.  Her implicit hope that consensus is around the corner is not likely to be realized because the procreative act is unmistakably distinct from other sexual acts.  The difference between homosexual and heterosexual is the difference between man and woman.  Is this not fundamental?  As Cooper said in his closing argument, that is not a hard question.  The distinction is biological, not moral.  We may or may not attach moral meaning to the difference. 

Looking forward to June, the Supreme Court might punt the issue elsewhere or rule that homosexual couples deserve the tax breaks of married couples.  But the natural distinction between homosexual and heterosexual cannot be lost on these judicious men and women.  Thus a ruling that the Constitution forbids a state from making the distinction is not probable.  Judging from his convoluted legal-political stance, the President foresees this too.

 

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To Breed or Not To Breed

The Seattle Times recently published a personal essay by editorialist Sharon Pian Chan titled “Why I am not having kids,” in which she described how, after 15 years of waffling, she and her husband decided to skip parenthood.  Her article was followed a week later with a piece by Times columnist Danny Westneat, who reported that Chan’s narrative went viral online.  Then, speaking as a father, he offered several blithe reasons why parenthood is not all bad. 

I’ve been stewing over their discussion because the opinions expressed were disturbingly insubstantial.  The question of whether to procreate is a serious one and deserves a serious answer.  It’s also a simple question with a simple answer:  If you are married and if you have reasonably good health, the answer is an unequivocal yes.  And if you are capable of marriage and yet are single, then you should find a suitable spouse as quickly as you reasonably can. 

Why should we not eat, drink, be merry, establish our careers and avoid all the bother of babies?  Because we’re animals—homo sapiens, no less!  Because human life is more exquisite than anything else on Earth and, as far as we know, anything in the Universe.  It took billions of years—countless lives and deaths, joys and sorrows—for Mother Nature to produce you, an animal belonging to a species unparalleled in intelligence, creativity and depth of feeling.  Who are you to say you’ve got better things to do then pass on the torch of existence?  Who are you to enjoy sexual gratification without participating in the great wheel of love and sacrifice to which sex belongs?  Who are you to end the circle of life?   

Women, look at your bodies: your womb is made for growing babies; your breasts are made for suckling them; your voice is made for singing lullabies; your nature is to nurture.  Men, look at your bodies: you were made to sire children; you were made to protect them and their mother; you were made to labor so that they might eat.  Men and women, look into your minds and into your hearts: you were made to fall in love and brashly give your life in exchange for the love of another and the offspring you create.

“But my career?” some cry.  “But my hobby?” others lament.  “But my bank account!” they weep.  These complaints remind me of something my one-year-old loves to say: “Waa!  Waa!  Waa!”  They remind me of the couch potato who wishes his body were not meant for exertion.  The consequences of a sedentary life go well beyond obesity and diabetes to mental, social and spiritual problems.  And so it is with choosing not to marry or procreate: the consequences go beyond the financial waste of living singly or a staffing shortage in our retirement homes.  A generation that refuses to start families is a generation that refuses to grow up, a generation that lives out self-centered, lonely lives.  Life without marriage and children is a tragedy because family life is where we find the purest, strongest love.  There are some people with exceptional circumstances for whom remaining childless is the responsible choice, and a choice that has its silver lining, but theirs is a life lived on the periphery of human experience.  We are part of the animal world.  Our joy and success is defined by reproduction.   

And now we come to the, “Yes, buts,” to those people who think our age stands alone from all previous ages as the first one in which life has lost its basic mandate of continuation.  “The world is getting too warm!” they warn.  “Our cities are getting too crowded!” they whine.  “And what about the lions and spotted owls?” they worry.  These people remind me of the father of demography, the famed economist Thomas Mathus, who in 1798 argued brilliantly that the world’s food supply could never increase fast enough to feed the Earth’s exploding population.  He warned that if people continued to reproduce with such abandonment, they would experience widespread famine within a few generations.  Of course, he couldn’t have been more wrong.  He failed to predict future changes in the conditions of civilization, most notably the advance of agricultural methods.   

So while the only certain thing about the future is that it holds some surprises, let’s keep in mind that doomsayers are nothing new.  And let’s look at our lives and observe:  we are cleaner, more comfortable, fatter, safer and more entertained than any of our progenitors.  In fact, there may never have been a better age for reproducing.  Ironically, it is the very enormity of our world’s population that has made our unprecendented prosperity possible.  Scientific and technological advancements are not the fruits of a few lonely geniuses; they come from the combined efforts of billions of people.  Modern medicine, modern communications, modern transportation, modern homes, and modern agriculture have come about because innumerable scientists and innovators have built upon one another’s discoveries and ideas with small but significant contributions.  They were supported in their efforts by billions more who were their parents, teachers, farmers, doctors, governors, tradesman, clergymen, businessman, and on and on.  In other words, the advancements that make life so amazing today have only been possible because of the population explosion that worries the likes of Malthus.  If the population continues to grow, assuming we are mostly a peaceful and industrious people, our quality of life will surely continue to improve. Considering what humankind has accomplished so far, we have every reason to believe that our species will find a way to solve our environmental challenges and preserve some lions too. 

I do not mention God in my reasoning because I wish for atheists and agnostics to listen.  But if we believe in a Creator who designed this intricate world, it’s fair to assume he understands Evolution and intended for our planet to be teeming with homo sapiens as it is today.  If, on the other hand, we imagine there is no God, then it’s fair to assume the wisdom of the ages and the cycle of Natural Selection are wiser than you.  You might believe your life is yours and that we are all entitled to our own dreams, but the truth is, your life is not yours.  As we previously established, it was given to you by billions of others through a delicate chain of existence.  And looking into the future, countless lives depend on your reproductive choices today. 

As a mother of four, and as someone who has had ample educational and career opportunities, I can attest there is nothing that compares to family life.  My schooling and employment were good and interesting, but the pangs of joy were so few and far between I am stretched to name one.  On the other hand, I am overcome with love every day as I feed, dress, wash, teach and embrace my children.  I am a female mammal with four healthy babies to nurture, and so my days could not contain more purpose or contentment.  I look at my children and can scarcely believe that some people think careers are an adequate substitute for parenthood.  We can hardly have a sense of what the world is until we’ve been through the process of procreation and parenthood.  Family life is the universal vocation and should be our first vocation. 

Today some of our brightest journalists ask the question, “To breed or not to breed?”  Their befuddlement over an absurdly simple question is symptomatic of our era’s decadence.  I am reminded of a poem by The 14th Dalai Lama called “The Paradox of our Age:”  “We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time: We have  more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more experts, but more problems. . . . It’s a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room.”

Come now, my fellow homo sapiens, let us not be so emancipated that we forget who and what we are.  Let us not be so sophisticated that we cannot distinguish prestige from success.  Let us not be so deluded that we consider loneliness to be liberty.  Let us not be so shallow that we cannot recognize self-gratification from love.   

“To breed or not to breed?”  We may as well ask, “To be or not to be?”

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The Book of Mormon Musical

Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the satirical animated series “South Park,” have long been fascinated by Latter-day Saints, and on more than one occasion have skewered our history and goody-two-shoes personas on their show.  About ten years ago, Parker and Stone decided to write a Broadway musical about us.  Their efforts came to fruition in February 2011 with the debut of a ground-breaking, critically acclaimed, award-winning and wildly popular musical called “The Book of Mormon,” named after one of our books of scripture.  The show just finished its stop in my hometown, at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre, and judging from the buzz on Facebook and among my husband’s colleagues, it was a crowd-pleaser. 

 The play’s plot centers on two young, male, white, American Latter-day Saint missionaries (no, not all LDS missionaries are young, male, white or American) working in Africa, where they cluelessly try to share their faith with people more worried about war and AIDS than prophets and scriptures.  I enjoy a good laugh, even when the joke is Latter-day Saints’ simplicity, and I would go see the musical myself if profanity, sexual innuendo and mockery of religious faith were not the authors’ favorite comic devices.  From reading the reviews, it’s clear the musical goes far beyond poking fun to something like bigotry.  The production’s hilarious theme  is Mormons are lovable fools.

 Can you imagine what the public’s response would be if this musical were titled “The Talmud?”  Theater critics would be aghast at the anti-Semitism.  Or what if they made a musical called “The Koran?”  Theater critics would be aghast and we’d have a national security crisis.  Why is it that our generation’s passion for tolerance and respect does not apply to my faith?  

Compared to most religions, ours is young, and Latter-day Saints have a keen sense of history.  We remember well that our founder was assassinated by a mob of “upstanding” Midwesterners who were never brought to justice.  We haven’t forgotten that Latter-day Saint women were raped; Latter-day Saint men, women and children martyred; and their farms burned.  We haven’t forgotten that in 1838 the governor of Missouri ordered all Mormons in the state be driven out or “exterminated.”  Most of them fled to Illinois, where they heroically erected a new city and temple, only to watch the temple burn as once again they were driven from their homes, this time across the frozen Mississipi into the wilderness.  After they traversed the continent and built new cities in a bleak desert far from the boundaries of the United States, the U.S. government sent armies after them to stop the practice of polygamy.  Some church leaders were thrown in jail; other families fled to Mexico.  Fathers were forced to abandon their children.  

 I share this history because if you’re not LDS, you probably don’t know it.  Every American and his uncle seems to know that black Latter-day Saint men were not given the priesthood until 1978, but almost no one recalls that until just two years before that, it was still legal to exterminate Mormons in Missouri.  You’d think that we Americans would be more familiar with this shameful past and would have learned something from it, as we have been ashamed and enlightened by such things as slavery, the Trail of Tears, and Japanese internment camps.  You’d think Americans would want to distance themselves from perpetuating prejudices. 

So what was our church’s response to “The Book of Mormon” musical?  Our leadership published a single-sentence statement:  “The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”  A while later, a church PR official published a piece in The Washington Post called “Why I won’t be seeing the Book of Mormon musical,” in which he cautions people from confusing parody with reality.  He listed the many humanitarian projects our church has completed in Africa in recent years.  In Seattle, as it has in other locations, our church purchased ads in the production’s playbill.  As for average Latter-day Saints, they’re barely bothering to talk about it.  It’s only the sort of thing that makes us shake our heads and ask, “So they’re portraying us as small-minded?”

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Why Are Mass Murders Becoming More Common?

When I heard the terrible news last week of the children and educators murdered in Connecticut, my response was probably similar to that of millions of Americans:  first, an expression of horror and sorrow, followed by the distressed question, “Why does our country have so many madmen who shoot innocent people?”  Many news organizations have confirmed my sense that killing sprees are becoming more common.  While our national homicide rate has decreased dramatically over the last few decades, shooting rampages are increasing.  Of course, any murder is beyond awful, but this strange type of violence is especially disturbing because the killer has no clear motive.  Murdering an associate for money or revenge is one degree of horror; killing innocent strangers for personal gratification is another.

There’s no shortage of theories about why shooting sprees are trending upward.  Some blame mental health problems.  Some say a mass murderer’s notoriety inspires other madmen.  Some blame the availability of automatic assault weapons, others the violent videogames that are popular among young people.  My guess is all these things are factors, but I also believe there’s a broader reason that most are overlooking: the opportunity for profound loneliness that exists in modern civilizations like ours.  Our vast population, immense freedom and unprecedented prosperity are real blessings, but they also present a danger not found in more primitive societies, the danger of socially falling through the cracks.  From my vantage it seems that senseless violence such as the tragedy we are mourning today is related to the weakening of American communities.  Too many Americans have only slight social bonds.  More and more are experiencing life like corks bobbing on the surface of humanity, never immersed in real purpose or real connection.

This sort of existence is unnatural and uncomfortable because human beings are pack animals.  We belong in tribes, and for most of history that is how people have lived, in small communities where families relied on each other for their very survival.  Every person’s labor was valued, even children’s.  Most people had no real choice over where they lived, with whom they lived and what they did all day.  In these insular communities people were still abused, shamed, ostracized, even banished, but no one went unseen.  In other words, there were challenges in getting along with one another, but it wasn’t a challenge to get to know one another.   

The parameters of modern western societies are strikingly opposite:  We can travel for thousands of miles without being asked where we’re going.  We can spend a day rubbing shoulders with crowds of people and not recognize a single face.  Increasingly, people are living alone.  Many individuals can stay in bed all day without anyone noticing their absence.  The old and the young struggle to connect; sometimes they don’t even see a reason to try.  At school and at work our associates are usually kind, and sometimes they become lifelong friends; more often, though, they are in our lives one day and gone the next.  Two people might spend years sharing an office or a factory floor, and then one loses the job or gains another, and the two never see or hear of each other again.  Even families can dissolve without a trace when a couple divorces or siblings quarrel. 

What is the antidote for this social fragmentation?  Tribes: they can and do exist within modern civilization, and they’re our only sure protection from bleak loneliness.  A tight-knit small town, a Jewish synagogue, a Protestant congregation, a Mormon ward, a Chinatown, a neighborhood of Mexican immigrants, a large family of three or four generations—these can function as tribes.  A modern tribe is a group of people who spend significant time together, who form enduring bonds, who have common values and shared goals, who rejoice and mourn together.  Tribes are more cooperative than competitive.  When one member succeeds, the entire tribe feels proud.  When one member falls down, the other members hardly consider the sacrifice in picking him up.  In a tribe, no one is left without purpose because there are so many ways to strengthen the group.

At the core of one’s tribe is family, people tied together by biology or marriage, who love one another unconditionally.  Surrounding that core is a community held together by location and shared background, usually ethnic or religious.  The size of tribes is important.  They must be large enough for each member to feel secure that many people understand and appreciate him and large enough to share the burden of raising children, caring for the elderly and recovering from disasters and tragedies.  On the other hand, it must be small enough to be intimate and united.  So what’s the magic number?  I’d guess somewhere between 50 and 500 adults. 

Children who grow up within a well-functioning tribe have a feeling of security, a strong identity and purpose.  They have many teachers and mentors.  They enjoy meaningful traditions and rich celebrations.  They look forward to adulthood when they will make their elders proud by maintaining their cultural or religious heritage, by succeeding in their professions and leadership roles, by establishing lovely homes, by raising well-behaved children.  Tribal obligations sometimes hold people back in their pursuit of professional and personal goals, but it’s the tribe that makes success meaningful in the first place.  In the end, it’s not sustainable for a community to expect nothing of its most capable members; community is built around the strong protecting the weak, the middle-aged providing for the children and the elderly, around duty.  In a tribe, the generations are tied together by duty and love.

In our modern economy, it’s difficult to avoid moving for schooling and work, which can weaken families and communities.  A more troubling problem, though, is our highly individualistic, competitive, material, self-indulgent culture.  People are increasingly choosing careers, hobbies and entertainment over family and community.  They are choosing relationships and institutions that require almost nothing from them.  They are replacing tribal cultures with pop cultures.    

There are so many aspects and examples of this trend, that one could write volumes describing it.  An apt one is the rise of mega churches.  These churches have large, beautiful buildings, and they can put on an impressive worship service.  Those in attendance enjoy the professional music and amenable preaching.  At the end, they put a few bucks in the basket and go home.  It’s an efficient way for ministers to dispense the gospel and for congregants to satisfy their obligation to God.  But what kind of results can they get?  Are people going to learn the gospel from a rock concert?  Is a half-hour of preaching going to help them rise to the level of life that Jesus commanded?  Mega churches accomplish good, but there’s no way they can do what a small, intimate congregation can do.  Church is not just about hearing; it’s also about doing; it’s about forming a tribe of people who will bear one another’s burdens.  We can’t bear one another’s burdens if we don’t know one another.

As I read news accounts of the Connecticut shootings last Sunday, I was struck that the interviewees knew so little about the murderer and his mother.  No one could say how she made her living.  One neighbor knew that she liked to garden; an acquaintance from her favorite bar knew she collected guns.  A few people said they could tell she was struggling with a troubled son, but only that she did so with dignity.  Where was her tribe?  From the articles I read, it seemed she had none.  Recently divorced, her ex-husband and other son lived far away. 

Ultimately, the murderer is responsible for his own unthinkable actions, but I wonder whether this tragedy might have been averted if his parents had not divorced?  Or what if his mother had a large extended family that had rallied to her help when she was left alone with a disturbed son?  What if the murderer had been raised in a tight-knit neighborhood where he felt accepted and understood?  What if his mother had joined a congregation that helped him transform from an outsider to an insider? 

While politicians and activists tussle over gun laws and school security, let’s you and I use this special time of year to build and strengthen tribes.  Let’s spend more time with extended family.  Let’s find a church where people know our name.  Let’s rediscover our ethnic roots so we can give our children something more meaningful than pop culture.  And let’s be on the lookout for lonely souls whom we can welcome into our circles.

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