Thursday, June 29, 2006

Jennifer (1 of 3)

It began, I think, in the hallway of an upscale, downtown Philadelphia apartment tower. Jennifer is a lawyer and Jake a student at a prestigious University. They have lived across the hall from one another for some time, but had never met until about six months ago. That night, in November, they ran into each other in the hallway. Each was taken with the other, and both hoped the other would make contact. Unable to overcome the inertia produced by busy lives, nothing hapenned again for about a month, until Jake finally asked Jennifer out--and with that began a beautiful and painful story, one that would leave most of our ward smiling, then crying, then baffled.

Jake and Jennifer began dating almost immediately after getting to know one another. Jake, sensing the direction in which the relationship was heading, asked Jennifer to have a DTR (define the religion). He is Mormon, she committed and non-denominational Christian. They talked and he explained that he was going to marry a Mormon. He told he that, obviously, her religious convictions were personal and private; he simply pointed out that there was little point in their pursuing a relationship if it was going to end in them parting ways over religion. Obstinate? Perhaps. Unfair? Maybe, but honest, nonetheless.

Jennifer agreed to take the discussions and she began to attend church. I still remember her first Sunday because she was hard to miss. She is short, with soft Asian facial features. She dresses smartly and is soft-spoken but with a distinct, punctuating laugh that bounces off walls and pierces through other sounds. Her demeanor is disarmingly calm and she carries herself softly.

The discussions, apparently, went very well for she was soon baptized. The day of her baptism, a longtime friend of hers, from across the country, flew out to "visit." She ostensibly came to support Jennifer, but the word whispered in the corners of the chapel was that this was a friend From Jennifer's former religion, here to convince her not to follow through with this decision.

I always wonder what such friends tell converts-to-be. That we are not Christian? That we are a cult? That sinister, shadowy forces lurk in the church's upper-eschelons? That we do evil things in the Temple? That we will take her to hell? I don't know what this friend said, perhaps she said nothing, but in any case it did not matter. Jennifer was baptized, much to our delight.

It ought not matter, I suppose. But there is something especially comforting to me about someone so learned and talented joining the Church. Jennifer immediately brought her eloquence, analytic mind, and quiet presence to be of service in the kingdom. She was called, somewhat strangely it seemed to us, to be FHE mom in our YSA ward. The Church, though, has never seen an FHE mom quite like Jennifer.

Jennifer treated her calling as if she had been called to be Relief Society President. She immediately prepared about a four month schedule of FHE lesson topics, all centered around the theme "Persepective on Christ from the Book of John." Then, each Monday was assigned a topic along the lines of "Jesus is the Word," "Jesus is the Light," and "Jesus is the Life." Jennifer would also spearhead an accompanying actitivy and, finally, she would cookbook and jaw-dropping home made dinner each and every Monday. Not pasta-roni, mind you, but pork loin, potatoes, and cake or stir fry with all the fixings--her service and dedication were truly remarkable.

The peak of her conversion, however, came a few months after she was baptized. I had brought a catholic friend to church that Sunday and so I had on my super-critical Sacrament Meeting talk ears. Jennifer, not to my surprise, gave one of the better "this is my conversion story" talks I have ever heard. She spoke with calm and raidance about how she came to know the Book of Mormon is true. She used a delicate, sophisticated, and beautiful Chritian lexicon grounded in the New Testament--it was like hearing Paul testify of the restoration. A wonderful and moving experience to be sure.

I wonder now, how we did not see. Were we so blind? Was she so blinded? Was she making it up? Were we hearing only what we wanted? For, in the end, it really did seem that was the peak of her conversion. As she spoke with such reassurance, a storm was brooding in her heart. All appeared well, but it was not. The next months would bring ominous tidings.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

And What Is It We Should Hope For?

Somewhere, tonight, a young woman sits cowering in a corner. She has just been raped and the man who did it told her not to tell anyone, ever. She feels guilty and confused, afraid and deceived, hopeless and dirty. Thoughts run through her head like hyenas, and she looks around listlessly, longing for someone into whose arms she can run--someone she can trust innately.

Somewhere else tonight, an old woman knits in a rocking chair. Her children have long since moved far away. Caught up in dreams of success and fame, they have forgotten about the woman who rocks back and forth, back and forth, tracing an endless loop with her knitting needles--hoping against hope that today will be the day: surely someone will call, visit, or care.

In a prison cell sits a convicted felon, finishing the last years of his sentence. He wrings his calloused hands and forlornly watches the walls, awaiting his freedom. Beyond that, however, he searches his heart for forgiveness, for light, for a lifting of his hidden burden. His life is like a sour chord--the second-to-last in a chorale work--which has never found its long-awaited resolution. His sins hover in the air about him, unforgiven and unresolved.

And on a freeway, bathed in the undulating red light of an ambulance, a young mother kneels, holding her daugher's limp and lifeless form in her arms--the mother has gone beyond weeping, she heaves without motion and almost without sound--wishing her grief could be as clean as crying, she feels like someone has sucked out her soul.

More than likely, all of these situations are occurring as I type these words.

And that is why the Gospel, the Atonement, and the Restoration are paramount in the world: "Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the Earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise."

I fear many Mormons accept an anemic Gospel. We ingest our daily diet of rote prayers, cute homes, and mundane meetings and fail to probe, to ponder, to attempt to grasp and understand the message at the core of the faith we profess. We fail to see the transformative power of the Atonement--a power which resolves the insoluble, forgives the unpardonable, and brings peace to the disconsolate.

Because we fail to grasp what we have, and because we fail to recognize the plight of the world's suffering, we keep our message to ourselves--not so much out of fear but out of ignorance and apathy--at least I know I have not spread the message as I should have. But in those rare moments when it all coalesces into focus, when I see things, even for a fleeting moment, as they "really are," I long to run from house to house sharing the miracle of the Atonement and the Restoration.

"Christ has paid the enormous enabling price for us!" I want to shout--"come, find solace, find peace, find forgiveness, find comfort, find love. Come, come know God speaks to man, come know His Prophet."

The Gospel, of course, does not offer easy answers. Why should it? The price Christ paid was not easy and the answers he offers are not easy either. But they are simple, they are free, and they are real. The Atonement changes nature, it changes not just thoughts, feelings, actions, and words, but identity--in some core, eternal, fundamental way.

To the ravished, the alone, the sinner, and the bereaved, Christ offers wholeness, company, pardon, and joy. Let us overcome our fears and our apathy--I, for one, anyway, can do a better job of letting those aroud me know the cause of the hope that is within me, for it is the Bright and Morning Star.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bishop and Historian

Picture this:

You are the Bishop of a well-educated Avenues ward in Salt Lake City; you are also an amateur Church historian who is preparing an article for a widely-read historical journal. Your article deals with an important leader of the early Church and, while researching, you stumble on a letter which recounts a particularly unsavory episode in this man's life. Intrigued, you research the incident further and find no previous author has brought it to light. Still, so far as you can tell, the depiction you found is accurate. This incident will add a significant facet to your portrayal of the man--it will help you round out the picture you paint. Still, because it is quite troubling, you wonder if you ought to mention it in your article.

You discuss the matter with your wife. She says, "Honey, you have to examine this letter in your article. To do otherwise would be dishonest. This one letter is not going to shake anyone's faith; in fact, such documents strengthen my faith because they remind me our leaders do great things despite their foibles. If you don't publish it, you will effectively be lying. You know what you need to do."

Still troubled, you take the issue to your best friend. "Well, Bishop," he explains, "I respect your wife--but I disagree with her. In fact, I think you're obligated not to examine this letter in your article. As a Bishop, your primary responsibility is for the welfare of your flock. The faith of the members is paramount, not historical accuracy. Besides, what obligates you to discuss the letter? You can still write a fair and balanced article without it. You never know, if you examine something so negative, it may impact one of your members--you know many of them read the journal. Why risk that harm when you have no way of knowing how ignorant you really are concerning the letter's antecedents and context?"

You must submit the article, one way or another, next Monday--whose advice do you follow? Why?