Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Light Sings

"That Song" by Brian Kershisnik

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” —Plato

Charmer of stones and trees, Orpheus could make the clouds dance with his song. The poet-seer manifests the power of godsong, the truth that God sings. Or plays the lyre. Or both. A couple of months ago, as we listened to my cousin Annie play heartbreakingly beautiful music from her lonely, lovely violin, I thought that God must play an instrument. Oh, I imagine He could play all instruments. But what would He have played as a man if He lived in a world like mine? That question occupied my mind for much of the concert. I think I have often pictured him playing the piano—ragtime—and laughing like my father-in-law. But he might be a violinist. I can imagine His mortal self as a wiry, intelligent violin player with a wry smile and a twinkling eye playing plaintive, mournful, wonderful music. My cousin Wayne imagines a cello, and that can’t be far off. There is a godlike resonance to the cello. And of course He sings. Oh, how He sings. I can’t wait to sing with Him. That’s why angels sing—His voice is infectious: you just have to join in.

We took the kids to the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake for the Christmas Carols service. It was a mingling of disparate holinesses: transcendence and imminence intertwined. God up there, and godliness loudly, wildly here in the bodies of my children. There were times I was anxious about the rambunctiousness of my four. And there were times I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me and wash me. When the choir began to sing, the air shimmered with the sound. It was absolutely breathtaking. We were sitting toward the front of the chapel, and the choir started at the back, walking down the aisles. Oliver couldn’t see the choir from his seat. “Who’s singing?” he asked, over and over again in his one-volume two-year-old voice. The cathedral ceiling was painted with angels, and angels populated the stained-glass windows. “Are the angels singing? Is it the angels singing?” I tried to explain that it was a choir at the back of the chapel, but he wouldn’t have it. Finally I said, to silence him, “Yes, the angels are singing.” And I imagine they were.

“Music is part of the language of the Gods. It has been given to man so he can sing praises to the Lord. It is a means of expressing, with poetic words and in melodious tunes, the deep feelings of rejoicing and thanksgiving found in the hearts of those who have testimonies of the divine Sonship and who know of the wonders and glories wrought for them by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Music is both in the voice and in the heart. Every true saint finds his heart full of songs of praise to his Maker.” That’s Bruce R. McConkie. And it’s true.

A year ago I was driving Lydia to her ballet class. Lyd wanted to listen to some music, but all I had in the car were some old cassettes. So I told her she could choose between Simon and Garfunkel (“I can’t remember that, so I’ll just call it Uncle Carbuncle”) and Huey Lewis and the News. “This is kinda rockin’,” she said of Uncle Carbuncle. Her assessment of the News: “This is just plain.” She expounded: “My dance teacher always chooses rockin’ music to dance to, which is funny because we do pretty dances to rockin’ music. There are four kinds of music: rockin’, pretty, plain, and both. Some music is both pretty and rockin.” So there you have it. I think Lyd is both pretty and rockin’. Both is the best.

I love living in a world of music. Music is evidence to me that I have a soul. It moves me in ways that don’t make sense, communicates to a part of me that transcends understanding. Plato said, “Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.” My testimony of God’s attentive love for humanity began with a song. I was twelve and in church and we sang “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer”—that song about a pillar of divine light falling on a wiry boy in the woods—and I felt truth and light pour into my slight frame.

“Music takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Last Christmas, an institute choir came to my work’s holiday banquet as we were finishing our food, and my expectations were low at best. But they scattered themselves throughout the hall, among the tables—a tenor here and an alto there. And then they sang. They sang glorias and alleluias and they sang light and love and grace. They were close enough, the close ones, to hear the particularity of their voices, but they blended with unseen others off in the distance. I closed my eyes and let it flow over me. Audible grace. I felt close to heaven. Of course I can’t really explain it because it was ineffable. And we all sat there stunned and silent afterward, unsure of what to say to those at the table by us because words were insufficient. I know words are often sufficient (because love engenders language and a desire for communion begets communication), but music is extravagant, abundant. It is transcendent. And I love it. It seems that God might well have sung “Let there be light,” don’t you think?

Berthold Auerbach said, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” We were gathered as a family on Christmas Eve. After we had acted out the nativity and shared scripture and story and song, we were wrapping up. Oliver asked, “When are we going to sing more songs?” Julie asked, “Do you want to sing more?” “I’m not going to sing. I’m going to wave my shaker.” He was holding a pom-pom. “Well, what song do you want?” “Drummer boy!” We started singing. My family likes to sing, so it was lively. As soon as the song struck, Oliver began leaping, a manifestation of what might rightly be called earnest gleefulness. His face was sincere. His body was exuberance. He bounded and bounced. I thought of Frederick Delius’s thought: “Music is an outburst of the soul.” After a few songs, my brother laughed and said, “That was healing.”

“The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Johann Sebastian Bach.

Eight-month-old Eleanor loves to sing. She likes the pretty songs more than the rockin’. In church or with the family, when the world erupts into song, she opens her mouth and opens her eyes and sings along. She is very earnest. She feels it. “Aaaah! Aaahh!” Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent.” She neither has words nor can she remain silent. So she sings.

When we were up in Salt Lake one day, Emerson said to me, “Dad! The light sings!” He lay down on the cobblestones and placed his ear near the base of a lamppost which was emanating music. And the light does sing. How many celebrants expressed their joy at the birth of the Savior through song? Angels, Mary, Simeon, Anna, Zacharias. All sang. As well they might. One of the ancient temple responsibilities was that of singer. Because song is sacred. Because God sings. Because the song is light.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Could it be that the snow this morning might mean that even sins as scarlet as this new Adam’s may be made white? How can twenty small names, so sacred and so beloved, be scattered so easily, so quickly to the breathy wind? And six. And two. I have spent two days heartbroken and hurting in a world of holiness.

I have held my children close, have read with them and snuggled with them and have picked up scattered shards of light that I had left lying around, unnoticed until these two days. The way Ellie washes up to my ankles and then my knees like a rising tide. Oliver’s voice, telling me stories and singing me songs in his bed because I am too tired to tell them to him. Lydia’s rampant imagination. Her secrets and her crushes and her conspiracies. She is becoming a woman. Ellie’s habit of looking up when the family or the congregation has broken into song, a knowing look on her face, evidence that she came from a world of music.

Last night as I thought of those parents and all those children and the angels who were not fast enough, not strong enough, not here enough, I put my hand to Emerson’s chest as he lay next to me in bed. He is five, and his heart flutters and then thumps steadily as a five-year-old heart should. He bounces and shouts, and his exuberance is impossible to contain, and I love him. And I ache. And I pray. And I hope. “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

Sunday, December 2, 2012


So when God invited me to His choir practice, I said yes.
He carried me like an infant in His enormous arms.
I usually feel like a newborn when I’m with Him, helpless and soft.

He took me to this room on the other side of town,
Mostly stone and earthy wood. A cricket chirped outside.
Dimmish lights. I could tell the acoustics would be good.

When the room filled with music, my heart inflated.
God held me against his massive chest, and sound
Thrummed through my body. I shuttered and shook.
I breathed pure song.

I’ve always liked to imagine what it would feel like to be a baby
In someone else’s strong, brave arms.
The way my daughter puts her face into the crook of my shoulder,
The way my son feigns sleep so that I will carry him in from the car.

I looked around the room at all these warm glowing faces
And bright white robes—
Robes of light and righteousness and glory,
And I wondered,
“Who does all the laundry?”

Thursday, November 22, 2012


"Every Knee Shall Bow" by J. Kirk Richards

My children all lisp the letter s. I think it’s because we read so much scripture. Lydia says “sanctification” thanktification. A fitting word of the day. The process by which existence is rendered sacred through gratitude—thanktification.

The Spanish word for thanks is gracias—literally, “graces.” Thankfulness is one of the loveliest attributes, the most gracious. And we receive grace for grace. Blessings for thanksgiving. Grace upon grace.

Today and every day I am grateful for the infinite grace made graspable through Jesus Christ. That broken things may be mended. My friend Brandon—who I wrote about yesterday and whose second grade teacher’s love saved him from the small hell his parents created for him—tells students that things can change, people can change, but not by themselves. They need an outside power. Divine means of help or strength. As a teenager, once his life had been reclaimed by astonishing grace and he had been adopted into a real family, he one time saw his mom on the side of the road. He said her face was melting away from meth abuse. His friends made some offhand comment about this ragged and shabby woman, and he told them it was his mother. He stopped to pick her up and after a painful conversation he dropped her off in government custody, hoping against hope for an outpouring of grace for his mom.

After not seeing his father for years, Brandon went to the mental hospital where his dad was staying. He had destroyed his mind with drugs. “He was like a three year-old,” Brandon says. After a few minutes of helping his dad remember who he was, his father brought him a worn t-shirt and a small bag of beans. “I’ve been saving these for you,” he said, “for five years. I wanted to give them to you for Christmas.” Brandon said that his heart cracked and he felt grace heal his hatred for this man who had destroyed his childhood. He forgave him. He loves him. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise Him above, ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something Beautiful From God

"Flight Practice With Instruction" by Brian Kershisnik

During my freshman year of college, I one day sat transfixed as a teacher sang the world anew. I don’t know what the reality was, but in my mind’s eye Steve Walker stands in the middle of a room full of students, a radiant smile on his face, his hands uplifted. Swallows and some other small passerine birds shoot from his fingertips and flutter around the room, alighting on my head and arms, lifting me. Light emanated from him as he wove poetry into the air—a bright, warm covering.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

He was a magician and a miracle-worker. It was more than the words. His very being was poetry. His love and his enthusiasm and his gentleness and his humor. It was then I knew I wanted poetry flowing through my veins, quickening me and hastening my pulse. I perceived the igniting of a holy fire inside my immortal soul.

Teaching is more than mechanics and mnemonics; it is miracle and mystery. It is grace and a gift. A class is more than a system or a structure. It is soul and song and something else.

Professor Walker had memorized everyone’s name in a class of fifty students by the second day. He had us all up to his house for waffles and assorted jams. He loved us, and we knew it. He possessed an infectious enthusiasm. I have always loved the etymology of that word: en theos—God inside. One day he called me at my house. “Hi, this is Steve . . .” I racked my brain thinking of all the Steves who might be calling me. “You asked me a question in class and I didn’t like my answer. I looked into it.” He had done some research and spouted off three distinct sources for the answer he provided. No one knew about that call but me and him. He was genuine. He had a photographic memory and could read a ten page paper in five minutes and then quote back his favorite parts. My spirit stirred in that classroom. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” was the first poem I memorized.

This is my thesis: teachers matter. They make a difference. Mr. Jackson who surprised me by sincerely seeming to care when I dropped out of his calculus class. I still dropped the class, but his concern lingers with me. His gentle eyes. Mrs. Sillito, who asked me if I was alright one day as I slept through her Spanish class. Mrs. Black, who years after she taught me tracked me down where I work to tell me I was a bright and fun child in elementary school.

What was it old Nicodemus said to Jesus (who was the world's greatest teacher)? “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.” Sometimes teaching is thankless, but this Thanksgiving, I want to express my gratitude for teachers come from God.

My friend Brandon was born to drug-addicted parents. His mom was fourteen. His dad was fifteen. He had an older brother. By the time he was three, he was smoking marijuana. By five he was doing cocaine. He said that when he went to school, the other kids would make fun of him because he didn’t have any underwear and he was dirty and hungry and smelled like cigarettes and drugs. He would eat maybe once a day, at the local food shelter or at the school. His parents were dealing to fuel their addictions. One day in first grade he told his dad that he wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to go to school. His father punched him in the six-year-old face, breaking his nose and making him bleed and vomit. Then he told him to go to school. He went.

As a small boy he watched eight police officers attack his father. His dad sent three of them to the hospital before they finally subdued him with a tasers, batons, and a bean bag round. One officer had led him away so that he would not witness it all. He told me that by second grade he was so tired of life that he began to consider suicide. He wondered if he would always hurt, always be lonely, always be unloved. He felt worthless. No one cared about him. By second grade he was stealing and doing heavy drugs, and his second grade teacher pulled him aside and asked what was going on. He told her nothing. His father had threatened his life if he ever told about home. She told him she wasn’t going to let him leave until he told her. She told him everything would be alright. She told him she cared about him and wanted to help him. For the first time in his life he felt a faint glow of hope. I love that second grade teacher. I wonder if she knows what her career meant. If all it meant is that Brandon is okay, it was enough. He got taken into foster care and changed. He had more teachers who encouraged him, especially in his artwork. He became a sterling scholar in art with a 2.3 GPA. He is now a teacher. He teaches ceramics and makes pots with his feet and does one-handed pull-ups and wins rock-climbing championships and changes lives. And his students love him because he loves them and he has a catching laugh and a lot of joy. And he knows that love matters and love saves us.

There’s another teacher who I don’t really know, but who I heard speak in a church congregation I visited a few weeks ago. He teaches elementary school music. He said when they invited him to be a crossing guard before and after school he wondered why he got a masters degree. But that he loves to see the kids coming and going. That he loves to hear them laugh, and he loves to make them laugh. That nothing is better than serving kids. When he was in high school in California, he had a music teacher with a lot of enthusiasm. He loved him and kept in touch with him. This teacher had no kids, and when he retired, he and his wife moved out to Utah to be close to this man who was speaking in church. And when the old teachers wife had died and he was dying, this former student cared for his former teacher like a son would. Because teachers matter. Because teachers are holy. Thanks be to God.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Memo to Mr. Alighieri

"A Conversation Seldom Heard" by Brian Kershisnik

Some days I don’t believe very much in hell at all. It just seems so incongruous with all this. Friday the skies dumped inches and inches of snow on my unsuspecting head, my car, my life. Warmed by miracle clothes, I lay on my back on the softened ground, watching the white. The flakes fell without relenting. Emerson, lying next to me, asked, “Do they get in your eyes, dad?” “Yeah,” I answered. A scattershot of birds flew overhead, light brown on white-gray. Such a stillness in the world. One by one as the play wore on, my kids came to me to have their hands warmed. I held their small red hands between mine and willed warmth. Julie showed up at the park with Eleanor bundled in a backpack, bright eyes gleaming. By the time we trudged home, Oliver was tired. I hoisted him onto my shoulders. As we walked, he said, “I’m like a angel sitting on your head.” An angel sitting on my head.

Then he leaned to the tops of fences to eat the snow. When it got in his nose, he laughed. When I set him down, he lay down in the street to eat some more snow. He marched and sang to himself. At home we made hot chocolate and had soup for dinner. Ellie on my lap tilted her head back to look into my eyes, to see who was holding her. She smiled at me.

“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell . . . . Death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits. . . . O how great the plan of our God!”

I know that whatever hell there may be exists only with my permission, maybe even only at my bidding. I am among those who have “become free forever, knowing good and evil; to act for themselves and not be acted upon.” How did Goethe put it? “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or de-humanized.” Or Lehi: “Wherefore, men are free . . . to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death.” My choice.  

When I was seventeen, I was in the mountains with my friends, back-country boarding. I aimed my snowboard at a cliff and woke up a few minutes later. My friends were looking in the bloody snow for my front teeth. We found them still inside my mouth, dangling from the roots hanging from my broken maxilla. I broke my jaw and my nose and my teeth and my maxilla. My teeth went through my lips—all the way through. My friend shot down the mountain and found a snowmobiler who came as far up to us as he could. He took me to a ranger’s station. The ranger called an ambulance. After reconstructive and plastic surgery, my parents took my puffy face home to rest. Lots of things sprang from this. I couldn’t eat for weeks, shooting Carnation Instant Breakfast down my throat with a water bottle. To fix my jaw, the orthodontist gave me a device that might have been invented by Dante himself to punish the purveyors of orthodontia. It was called a Herbst appliance. It was essentially these two metal shock-like things on the insides of my mouth to keep my jaw straight as it healed. It dug into my cheeks, and when it came unhinged if I laughed or yawned, it would either stick open (to the delight of my mocking friends) or come apart and stab the roof of my mouth.

Originally I was told it would be in my mouth for six months. After almost fifteen months, the orthodontist said to set an appointment to get it out. With great enthusiasm I sat in the chair to have it removed. As he pulled on the metal, the doctor asked me if I had taken my amoxicillin. “Thay wha?” No one had told me I needed to premedicate. He told me he could not take it out without the medication. He told me to set an appointment to come back. When I asked the secretary to reschedule, she told me it would be several weeks before they could get me back in for an appointment. I had not understood the concept of blind fury until that day. I was so angry my vision blurred. I tried to slam the door on the way out, but it was a hydraulic door and took its time closing. I drove home blindly, furiously. When I got home, my mom asked me what was the matter. I yelled and stormed to the basement to get a computer monitor. “Rob? What are you doing?” On my back porch, I swung the screen around my head and smashed it into oblivion. I needed to walk. I ended up at a convenience store near my house and bought a kiwi-strawberry Mistic. When I opened it to drink, I saw a little message inscribed on the bottom of the lid: “Happiness is a decision.” I laughed out loud imagining the angel sent to place that drink in that store on that day. I imagined God laughing. I kept that lid. Happiness is a decision.

I realize that my refusal to acknowledge hell might appear to spring from a sheltered sort of naiveté. I recognize that we have a whole lot of history attesting to the manifold hells created by mankind for mankind, but that’s just my point. It doesn’t have to be this way. We could choose differently. That’s all I wanted to say. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Prayers for the Dead

"Rowing Slowly Through Eternity" by Anthea

The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.

That’s good old Billy Collins. The imagery makes me smile. I sometimes wonder about the dead and about the relationship between those who breathe light and those of us who are still inhaling oxygen. Halloween is tomorrow. All Hallows’ Eve. I remember last year seeing a small mass of slightly-older-than-my children running freely and costumed across the grass in a yard in our neighborhood on their way to ask for candy. It was a quintessential scene of childhood. While there’s much that’s unsavory about the way some celebrate the night, there’s so much that can be beautiful about Halloween. Illuminating smiling, carved gourds. Small heroes and princesses, animals and ninjas padding from house to house receiving kindnesses in the form of small edible things.

The holiday has its roots in Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival which usually takes place on the night directly between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, the threshold opening onto the dark half of the year. It is traditionally a night of liminality, in which the veil separating this world from the Otherworld is opened and the dead can visit this mortal sphere. An intermingling of the seen and unseen worlds. I learned this from a humanities professor who specialized in medieval cathedral architecture. The class was called “Framing the Sacred,” an interesting notion, I think. How do you frame the eternal and unbounded in artwork or literature or liturgy? These were the questions we studied. She took our class to the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City one All Saints’ Day. As the choir music rained upon us and raised itself to the stained-glass cherubim circling our heads, I felt the veil thin.

My wife sits at the computer with my eternity-eyed infant daughter in her lap, typing names. Each name is a prayer of sorts—a testimony of Jesus Christ’s infinite, unbounded mercy—and of the role we play in grace. These names, gathered like blueberries from the bushes of old censuses and city records, will be carried with gentle care into holy temples and spoken with affectionate reverence, sweetness on the tongue. Prayers for the dead. “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all?” asked Paul, “Why are they then baptized for the dead?” This in the middle of a discourse on the triumph of life over death, the energetic reality of resurrection: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? . . . But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”

Almost all religions that affirm the eternality of the soul offer prayers in behalf of the dead, to keep them in remembrance, to ask special protective care as they enter that bright unknown. Catholics perform masses and offer prayers for the dead. Jews offer Kaddish—the prayer of making holy. There is a lovely Jewish prayer of mourning, memorial, and obsecration called El Molai Rachamim: “God, filled with mercy, dwelling in the heavens’ heights, bring proper rest beneath the wings of your Shechinah, amid the ranks of the holy and the pure, illuminating like the brilliance of the skies the souls of our beloved and our blameless who went to their eternal place of rest. May You who are the source of mercy shelter them beneath Your wings eternally, and bind their souls among the living, that they may rest in peace. And let us say: Amen.” The Shechinah is the radiant cloud of God’s presence. What a nice place to rest.

Like so many others, members of my church believe perhaps paradoxically that death is not the end of living and that every life matters. Our way of offering prayers for the dead is to perform sacred ordinances on their behalf. We are baptized for the dead, immersed in water in the name of someone who has crossed over the expansive river of death. There is a physicality to the prayer, a heft and a weight. There is a sheer loveliness to it. It is a sanctifying experience to stand in another’s shoes as it were to receive the ordinances of salvation. I often imagine the people whose names are read with such affection sitting near me, or floating above me. Sometimes I imagine them laughing at the prospects and possibility opened up to them through these ordinances. Sometimes I imagine tears of joy and gratitude. Once when I received the ordinances for a long line of men from Italy, I could almost smell the spaghetti and hear their warm, excited voices. Perhaps it is only my imagination. Perhaps not.

Joseph Smith once wrote of the practice, “And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” I’ve thought often about those words “neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” My soft-spoken mission president once told me that “the salvation of a soul always requires the sacrifice of another.” He said that for all humanity, that sacrifice was the Savior, but that each of us is called upon to give of ourselves, to extend ourselves, to offer our time and our energy and our love to bring another to grace. This is what happens in the temple. Christ’s was the great vicarious sacrifice, but unless I become like Him and empty myself out for the blessing and benefit of others, neither I nor they can be saved.

These ordinances take place in temples. The temple is a liminal space, halfway between heaven and earth. What happens there conjoins the worlds. The late, gentle, Swedish Lutheran, Krister Stendahl, who in his lifetime was Dean of Divinity at Harvard University, once said of Mormon temple worship, “In antiquity, . . . the Jerusalem Temple was a place where you went to carry out holy acts, sacrifices and the like. I feel that the Mormon experience of the temple has sort of restored that meaning to the word temple.” Stendahl was a thoughtful, lovely soul. Of baptisms for the dead, which his church does not practice, he said, “It’s a beautiful thing. I could think of myself as taking part in such an act, extending the blessings that have come to me in and through Jesus Christ. That’s a beautiful way of letting the eternal mix into the temporal — which, in a way, is what Christianity is about.” He speaks of “holy envy,” saying if we might speak of such a thing, he has holy envy for the Mormon temple experience. What a nice thing to say.

In September of 1842, Joseph Smith was living in hiding from the infamous Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs, who had it out for the Mormon prophet. He spent much of his time in the space between the rafters and the roof of Edward Hunter’s house in Nauvoo, Illinois. In this setting, he wrote some gorgeous lines about salvation for the dead. Truman Madsen calls it “a rhapsody in an attic.” If poets are the minor prophets, Joseph belongs to both camps, major and minor. Here are his words:

Now, what do we hear in the gospel which we have received? A voice of gladness! A voice of mercy from heaven; and a voice of truth out of the earth; glad tidings for the dead; a voice of gladness for the living and the dead; glad tidings of great joy.

Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing. Let the dead speak forth anthems of eternal praise to the King Immanuel, who hath ordained, before the world was, that which would enable us to redeem them out of their prison; for the prisoners shall go free.

 Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud; and all ye seas and dry lands tell the wonders of your Eternal King! And ye rivers, and brooks, and rills, flow down with gladness. Let the woods and all the trees of the field praise the Lord; and ye solid rocks weep for joy! And let the sun, moon, and the morning stars sing together, and let all the sons of God shout for joy! And let the eternal creations declare his name forever and ever! And again I say, how glorious is the voice we hear from heaven, proclaiming in our ears, glory, and salvation, and honor, and immortality, and eternal life; kingdoms, principalities, and powers!

The temple is a house of poetry, of imagery and spirit and symbolism and beauty, like Emily Dickinson’s house of Possibility. It affirms the great mystical connectedness of humanity, of all hallowed ones, all saints, all souls. We matter to each other. This life matters to eternity. I always leave the temple more in love and more appreciative of this dark green living, this golden-bright autumn day.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Waiting for Aslan

I finished reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my two oldest tonight. “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be,” Aslan tells the children after they have run without tiring deeper and deeper and higher and higher into existence. What a line. The fourteenth century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote, “God wants to see / More love and playfulness in your eyes / For that is your greatest witness to Him.” So happy as I mean you to be. Gentle Lucy replies, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.” Aslan says, smiling, “Have not you guessed? . . . The dream is ended. This is the morning.” The real story begins then, the undying story in which every chapter is better than the last, perhaps the story Lucy read a fragment of in that magician’s room in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the one she “never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.”

For the past year or so, we’ve been reading these books together. My children lose interest a lot, but when Aslan shows up, they are all attentiveness. They love that Lion. So do I. For weeks after I saw the film version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I read my scriptures differently. I saw Jesus as the muscular, brawny, humble, gentle God-man that He is. I sensed His hidden, muted power.

When Lucy and Peter and Edmund and their friends ran up a waterfall at the speed of a unicorn without tiring, my kids’ thoughts turned to the resurrection. They trust absolutely and implicitly that death is not the end of life and that it’s not something to fear. They have been close to those close to death. When Julie’s grandfather died, Emerson was very small. For days after Sandy passed away, my small son would run into the room where he had stayed, calling, “Gampapa!” They know we’ll see him again. They sense the sense in that, the truth that life is too holy to ever really end. They often ask if we’ll see someone we know and haven’t seen for a while in the resurrection. Or someone from the scriptures. Or even from movies sometimes. “Does everything happen again in the resurrection?” Lydia asked one day. “What do you mean?” “I mean, like will I be a kid again? Or a baby?” “Well, I don’t know. . . . I think we’ll have a perfect knowledge and maybe a perfect memory. So maybe it’s something like that . . . .” When I was trying to teach Emerson to ride his bike without training wheels, he fell. “I don’t want everything to happen again in the resurrection!” he wailed, “Because I don’t want to fall off my bike again.” Well, if that’s the worst thing he’s experienced . . . .

As we were reading the last chapter of the series, Emerson said, “If I’m going to die, I just want to die soon. But if I’m not going to die, then I just want to not die.” I was a little confused, but Lydie caught his logic. “Yeah,” she said, “because I want to see what it’s like from Heaven, but I kind of want to stay here. Because Dylan’s here.” (Dylan’s the boy who almost kissed her once at lunch). They don’t fear death. It is another bright adventure, a foray into the radiant unknown. I’ve thought about this idea quite a lot myself—when I want to die and why. Because it’d be nice to be alive during the Millennium, but you’d miss out on the Spirit World completely. I’m not sure if this is really what I want, but it might be lovely to die with Julie two days before Jesus comes again in a cloud and in glory. We wouldn’t know the experience of being changed in the twinkling of an eye. But if our kids were still small, we’d be able to raise them in Millennial peace, we as glorified beings, and they as translated children. That is, if we died without them. We could be a whole glorified family. But I think it’d be nice for them to have some earthiness to them still. And then Julie and I would be able to experience disembodied-ness, to know what it feels like to have been physical and then to lose it. We’d be able to see what spirits see and know what they know. But the disembodied, they say, view death as a bondage. There are certain things that come with physicality. Like kissing. As I knelt across the altar at the temple the other day and heard words spoken of the morning of first resurrection, I imagined that bright morning enjoying the party but wanting to sneak off to some corner apart in this bright universe to be alone with Julie—to hold each other and kiss again like new lovers, like newlyweds. Yes, yes, the party is fine. Yes, yes. But that first resurrected kiss. Ah.

And then, we’d reunite with our kids in the air. They’d come flying to the beaming warmth descending from the east. Their bodies quivering with joy. The very air singing. We’d fall on each others’ necks and weep and kiss and join the dazzling song. Then we’d descend to the newly renewed earth and raise them in a world without sin. What will that look like? These are the sorts of questions Lewis gets at in these books. What will all this really look like?

One Saturday I was reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to the kids. I would usually read at night to Em but we were getting to the part in which the White Witch kills Aslan, and I wanted to read it in the daytime. So Lydie joined us. She had read part of it before with Julie but couldn’t remember much, so Em and I caught her up. I was impressed with how much my golden-haired boy had retained. (Tonight as we finished the last chapter, we read about how they approached the green hill and saw the tops of trees whose leaves were silver and whose fruit was golden. Emerson told me, “Silver is kind of like gray, but it almost has sparkles in it.” Lydia asked, “Dad, do you like silver or gold better?” I told her I like silver because it is the color of my wedding ring and my ring reminds me that mom and I will be married forever. Emerson told me he likes gold better because his hair is golden.)

Emerson could tell his sister the whole story. And they get the idea that Aslan is a symbol for the Savior. Anyway, I was reading the part where Aslan goes to be sacrificed, and I was telling them that Aslan was stronger than the White Witch and stronger than the giants and dwarves and hags and cruels and spectres and everything there. I wanted them to know that Aslan only got killed because he let them kill him, just like Jesus. “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels.” A Roman legion was six thousand soldiers. That would have been something to see: seventy-two thousand angels against a few men and boys with swords and staves. But the gentle, compassionate, powerful Son of God walked into their violent embrace. But as I was telling the kids all the people that Aslan was stronger than, Emerson looked at me wide-eyed and asked, “Is he even stronger than you?” Good to know that in his misperceptions, I am strong. (A sidenote on that note: One night I was reading the Sermon on the Mount to my kids, and I was telling them that I think Jesus is the best teacher who has ever lived, that I love the way He teaches. Emerson looked at me in wonder and asked, “Is he even a better teacher than you?” Oh, yes. Almost as strong as Aslan, and almost as good a teacher as Jesus. That’s me, Emerson’s dad. I love the misperceived world from his good son’s eyes.)

I finished reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader a few months ago to Lydia and Emerson. It was a holy experience. I started crying as soon as Reepicheep throws away his sword, and I pretty much didn’t stop until several minutes after we finished the last page. While I was reading, Emerson sat up suddenly and pointed excitedly at the ceiling. “I see a cliff that the people jump off onto a bridge! And a penguin going off the bridge!” Lydie examined the ceiling and declared that she saw the same thing, except the cliff. Emerson clarified that the cliff went all the way up to the wall. Then she saw it. And another penguin. When we got to the part in the book where Aslan tells Lucy and Edmund they will not return to Narnia but will come to know him, Aslan, by another name in their own world, I turned with tears running down my cheeks to Lydia and asked, “Do you know what that name is?” All choked up, she replied, “Yes. Jesus.” Then she started to sob. When we closed the book, she curled into me and shook with sobs. Emerson stood up and looked at the two of us in tears. “I’m the only one who doesn’t have to cry for joy,” he said, and he ran downstairs to find The Silver Chair. Lydie and I lay snuggling each other and sniffling a little. I kissed her forehead and told her, “I love you.” She choked back in a small voice, “I love you, too.” Then, to make sure I heard it, she said it again, this time a little louder. A holy experience.

We watched Prince Caspian one night when Julie had to work. You remember how it ends with that sad, lovely song by Regina Spektor as Susan and Peter tell the Narnians goodbye for the last time—Aslan has told them they will not return. It’s a wonderful sadness captured in song and story. Just the right sadness. Well, as we were walking upstairs to brush our teeth, Emerson, all choked up says, “I’m just so sad that Susan and Peter will never go back to Narnia.” “I know,” I tell him, and he begins to sob, a heartfelt, sympathetic, wonderful, cathartic cry. I look at my small, sensitive child and my heart dances with gratitude. He is a boy after his father’s heart. How I love him.

I have loved reading these books with my children. The process was an exercise in waiting for Aslan. So many apparently mundane moments. And then the arrival of the Lion. A glint of mane, a scent, a sense. I think our lives are like that—we live sensing there is always something more, waiting for Aslan to breathe on us, to sing, to roar. We hurt inside and hurt each other and hurt ourselves, but then the Lion comes and none of that matters. Our broken pieces are picked up and somehow, miraculously mended. We follow Him, a parade of joy into a city of light. This is the morning.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Liquids and Vowels

"Father and Child" by Brian Kershisnik

You know what one of my favorite words in the whole world is? Dad. Julie and I watched the movie “Courageous,” and it made me grateful to be a dad. We folded laundry as we watched, and as I was hanging clothes in kids’ closets, Oliver lay curled in his crib sleeping sweetly, Lydia stirred a little and stretched her skinny little heaven arms, and Emerson sat up and looked at me in the dark and said, “Dad?” That word shot electricity through me. I helped him lay back down and covered him with blankets, and I felt so grateful for fatherhood. For my own father, who has never left any doubt about what matters most to him, who has always fathered deliberately. And for Bob, and grandfathers still living and on the other side of the veil. For Heavenly Father. Dad.

I got to take Lydia to her dance class on Monday. She skipped ahead of me, skinny legs in pink tights tucked into white sneakers. She wore her hair in a bun high on her head and a blue hooded sweatshirt with colored hearts on the back. I thought about Lydia, seller of purple, and all the colors this little ballerina peddles—a whole rainbow without charge. Through the window I watched her dance, twirling and leaping like my heart, like David before the ark, like this fluttering bird in my old chest. Dad. What a word.

I love to hear Oliver say “Daddy!” as he toddles slantingly toward me after a day of teaching. He has taken to repeating something I or someone else has said and then following it up with, “Right, Daddy?” That will melt a heart.
This painful, exquisite love I have for these four small people who call me dad is true and salient even if sometimes in their sleep-deprivation-induced, too-much-parade-candy-aggravated mania they scream and scream when they should just be asleep and it makes me want to kick clothing and punch pillows and lock them in their bedrooms crying and weep and weep myself. Especially then, perhaps, this love is real.

Want to know another of my favorite words? Fongyloo. But don’t say it too loudly at our house, at least not near electrical outlets, because that’s where Spiderman’s family lives. And fongyloo is a bad word in Spiderman’s language. This Emerson told me as I tucked him in bed last night. Spiderman used to say it, until he turned three. As Emerson said his nighttime prayer, he prayed, “And please bless JonasJennyBirgithandKjell and NatalieandDevan. And please bless Spiderman that he won’t say ‘fongyloo.’” Afterward he told me that it’s alright to say fongyloo in a prayer. That made me rest easy. When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t remember the word (I really wanted to—you know my fascination with expletives), so I asked, “Hey, Em, what was that word that Spiderman shouldn’t say?” “Do you remember?” he asked. “No,” I said, thinking that he must have also forgotten and now he would just make up another word. “I’d better whisper it in your ear, in case his family is close by,” he said. And he came close and whispered, “Fongyloo.” I laughed. What a memory. What a mind. What a word.

And I love the names of my children. I noticed the other day that the sounds that make up their names are mostly liquids and vowels. Each has three syllables, and the litany of their Christian names drips from the open mouth like praise, like alleluia: Lydia, Emerson, Oliver, Eleanor.

Months or weeks after they came springing, singing into this world, I took each in my arms and gave them a name and a blessing. That experience is reason enough to be a member of a church which believes that discipleship is not a spectator sport. Have I told you that the fact that God gives His priesthood to all of His boys is one of my favorite things about living in the dispensation of the fullness of times? Think about it, the ancient tribe of Ephraim didn’t get to bless their own kids. Most fathers in most churches don’t get the honor. But I do. So rad. So good. As a father, who has had the opportunity to spend a little time with this newly-minted soul in the strict sense (body and spirit), and who cares deeply about its future, I get to take the child in my warm, imperfect hands and pronounce a blessing. It is sacred. One of my favorite things of being a member of the Church. These verses are often in my mind at those times: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee. The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). And this passage from Gilead: “There is a reality in blessing . . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” To acknowledge the holiness of these bright infants. To hold them in a circle of men with the express desire to pronounce words which will sanctify their existence. I love it.

Julie pointed out the other day that certain aspects of their blessings have foretold defining attributes in their lives. Oliver was blessed with a sense of humor. He has the greatest, quickest grin. He laughs out loud for joy. He tells knock knock jokes with no real punchline, but with astonishing comprehension for a two-year-old, I think. “Not-nok.” “Who’s there?” “Peetga.” “Peetga who?” “Peetga ah ah.” Uproarious laughter. Emerson was blessed to be a peacemaker. This morning as we snuggled in my bed he said, out of the blue and with no antecedent, “Dad, you know why I want to choose two? Because sometimes I want Reese’s Puffs, but Lydia doesn’t like them.” “Are you talking about birthday cereals?” “Yes.” I told him that since his motives were selfless I would consider letting him choose two cereals for his birthday. (A few weeks ago was his birthday and he chose four: Reese’s Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Frosted Flakes, and Lucky Charms. I told him from here on out it’s just one, buddy.) Eleanor was blessed to stand in awe of this world. Her eyes are so wide. She opens her mouth to eat the world. She calms in the outdoors. She cranes her head to see things as we pass them. She is, I think, astonished. Julie asked if the blessings bestow these qualities or acknowledge some premortal reality. Perhaps a little of both.

Their names came usually after spending some time with them, with their eyes and their smiles.

Lydia was the name of Julie’s great-grandmother. When she was three, Lydie would say something like this: “My mom is Mommy, and Mommy’s mom is Nana, and Nana’s mom is Gam, and Gam’s mom is me!” We were considering naming her Tuesday. As we stared in wonder at her new face, Lydia felt right in our mouths. Her name has, in addition to liquids and vowels, one small central tap, like in the word “butter.” When she was younger, she took to over-enunciating everything, calling me “datty” and pronouncing her own name “Lytia.” I think the first thing I did after she was born after I almost fainted and then cried was to sing to her. Then I held her and turned to my mother, “There’s no way you love me as much as I love this baby.” “You wouldn’t understand it until this moment, Rob.” The name mostly just means “a woman from Lydia,” but there’s a meaning of “beauty” from questionable etymology. When we named her, I imagined it had something to do with light. “Lover of light,” or something like that. She was always staring at the lights. Lydia was a seller of purple who loved and helped Paul. She worshipped God. A girl “whose heart the Lord opened” so that “she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” She was full of hospitality. She sold a color. She is, in my book, lovely.  

Emerson was named for my wife’s grandfather, in a roundabout sort of way. Julie’s grandpa was an American literature professor. Julie’s dad once asked his dad why he got a PhD in literature. “I was reading Emerson one day and thought to myself, ‘I have a master’s degree in literature, and I can’t understand Emerson.’ So I got a PhD.” That was the way Bri was. He was a deeply engaged and engaging man. He could talk with anyone about anything. He was genuinely interested in life. And so intelligent and so gentle. Bob then asked his dad, “So, now do you understand Emerson.” Bri’s response was quintessential: “You don’t understand Emerson; you experience him.” That is a very Emersonian sentiment. His name is also a shout-out to books and bookishness and writing. He comes from a family of bibliophiles, and he is one himself. Emerson means “son of a good home.” It’s a hopeful name. His middle name is my middle name, my grandfather’s name. A sturdy, usurping name: James.

Oliver was a childhood friend of mine, the good son of good parents. His father was in love with laughter. He had a solid door—oak, probably. It hurt my small hands to knock on it. Was their doorbell broken? Why was I always knocking on that hard door? His mother was Chinese. They invited us to dinner one night and I fear we were far from gracious. There is little sense of others’ feelings in children, at least of adults’ feelings. Oliver and I reconfigured fireworks and invited people to pay money to come to a dazzling show. The first one had surprised us with how well it worked. The grand finale just began to smoke and then flame, like a log, like newspaper. I can’t begin to tell you the disappointment I felt. We rode bikes on dirthills and threw mud balls filled with dog droppings at our neighborhood enemies. There were Olivers in our family tree. Mary Oliver writes lovely poetry sometimes. I think I had been reading her poetry around the time I blessed him:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

That’s a good poem. And all those vowels. The name means “peace” or “kind one.” He has brown eyes, the only one. He also has my face and my wife’s grandfather’s name for his middle name: Willis. There are more stories about all these people than I have time to tell. So many people we love so dearly.

Eleanor is almost all liquids and vowels. She was named for my gentle grandmother, who was at that time dying and who used to give me cinnamon gum when I visited her southern California house. She laughed easily and never scolded. She baked and cooked and fed and nourished. When I held my infant daughter, I would imagine I was holding my own grandmother. It was a strange thought. She was ten pounds, two ounces, and our souls delighted in fatness. Her name means “mercy,” and she has been a tender mercy. She is beginning to roll all over this green earth and to smile a lot and to sleep mostly through the night.

And I roll on, day by day, swimming in the liquids and vowels, in the miracle of dadness. O’s and A’s and E’s and I’s of praise. Beautiful, good home, peaceful, merciful dadness.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Water's Edge

Friday night I held Eleanor’s small, perfect, pajama-clothed body against me to warm her and to be warmed by her as we stood outside on a rooftop and listened to human beings pour music out of their insides and out of their (mostly stringed) instruments. Ellie watched wide-eyed and happy. She cooed and sang and I felt her small head vibrate under my warm hands which perched atop her head in the attitude of blessing, covering her ears to muffle the sound and offering what heat or fire I could. The songs they sang were mostly about light and water. The water ones washed around my thoughts:

Now Jordan’s banks they’re red and muddy,
And the rolling water is wide.
But I got no boat, so I’ll be good and muddy,
When I get to the other side.

And when I pass through the pearly gate,
Will my gown be gold instead?

How many times did ancient Israelites cross the river Jordan into a new life, an unknown? Joshua’s priests, hoping against hope that this swelling spring river would stop when the soles of their feet hit the wetness. As a heap. Those priests carrying their precious ark got a little wet, a small splash on the robes, but the others passed over dry-shod to the unknown of those high walls of Jericho. A new life. Utterly different from the wilderness they had just left. Of course, their fathers had passed through the waters as well. From slavery to freedom. From relative comfort to uncertainty, too. And Elijah crossed that same river to board his chariot of fire, off to a life of certain light. A new and different ministry. But he left behind poor Elisha to pick up the mantle and cross back—lonely, confused, uncertain. He walked into a world of miracles, though. They usually did. And then the Savior walked into that river a carpenter’s obedient Son and walked out the very Son of God. Well, or so it seemed to His mystified neighbors.

And there was this song: Wade in the water. Wade in the water, children. God’s gonna trouble the water.

A man sat by the pool of Bethesda—the pool of the house of mercy—waiting for an angel to trouble the waters. Troubled waters bring healing. But the waters came to him. A woman sat by a well, cracked like the worn jar in her hands. The Son of God said to her, “If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water.” How? You have nothing to draw with. “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” This woman spoke with the embodiment of Living Waters. The waters had come to seep into and soothe her broken soul. “Give me this water.”

So, then, just this: Maybe the water meant so much because I had come to that music from the baptism of a student of mine—a bright, glistering, good young woman who has waited a long time for this. It was good for us to be there. Baptism is a death and a birth at the same time. Every crossing of the waters is. “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” But this burial is into life itself, not in earth or under stone, but we are immersed in water, enveloped in life. “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Newness of life. “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” To die into living waters and to emerge transformed. The very air is different.

I don’t know the quality of life we will enjoy in the next world, but I feel somewhat certain that it will be life “coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy.” There will likely exist certain parallels between this life and that—for life is life. But we will glow. We will know. Life elevated. Death will be a birth into a newness of life. Resurrection always follows a passing away.

So, too, I suppose that the quality of Shain’s life will change dramatically after being immersed in that font of living water. She will breathe differently. When she came mewling into this world and screamed her first breath of mortal air, she began to experience something unparalleled in her existence. From the light of God into this diffused, slanted earthly light. But now embodied. Able to hold a hand and to hug a friend. To smell the wispy fresh-washed hair of an infant. That former life surely held its glories. But without dying to that life, I could never have experienced this.

For the past two days, I have bathed in a flow of Spirit and words. I love living apostles and prophets. My heart has hummed and sung and glowed. This new life. This new life.

When I was born, I was given a new name and a family. Every birth provides these gifts. My name identifies, distinguishes, and associates me. Shain too received a new name at baptism. She took upon her the name of Jesus—distinguished from the darkness of the world by her new relationship with the Light of the World and associated with the fellowship of the Saints. This is a family of open arms. She will stumble as she begins to walk in newness of life. She will stutter as she speaks with the new tongue—the tongue of angels. But she will grow up in this new life. She has come to the water’s edge. And she has crossed. I have come to the water’s edge now several times. Every crossing brings death, cleansing, and a resurrection to newness.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


"Heralding Angels" by Annie Henrie

Prayers for Rory, whose brother died Friday and who found out while he was in my classroom. Who seemed so lonely and sad and confused and my words failed. Prayers for the two babies and the wife of that brother, who found themselves widowed and fatherless and who must be, must be,  in the special providential care of the Father of all.

Prayers for Michael who told Rory that he worries every minute of every day that his father will be killed in Afghanistan but that he has learned to trust that death is not something to fear. Death is not the end, it is the beginning. Death is a great, bright adventure. We should not be afraid of death.

Prayers for Lorina who told Rory that three of her siblings died by the time she was twelve. When her six-year-old sister died when she was twelve, she saw her little brother and sister who had gone on before come to recover her and take her into a world of light. Who still feels their presences and thinks of their faces and wonders and hopes.

Prayers for Andre whose mother and father died in a car crash when he was a small boy and who was adopted, along with his four siblings, by his aunt and uncle who already had six small children of their own. Who began hating his aunt-mother when he was a young teenager and felt that his own mother would not be so demanding and his life would have been much better if she had not died but who eventually tried to serve and love her and realized she is a marvelous, beautiful woman. I really love her, he said. Who told us all this a week ago and who asked if he could maybe offer a prayer for Rory. He prayed for courage and hope and comfort and strength.

And prayers for all the rest of those bright, beautiful, broken kids who wept with and for Rory and who are fighting demons and devils and darkness of their own. Prayers for this world in which horrible things happen and people shine with a light so resplendent it makes you wince in agonizing love.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Tastes Like Glory

My friends are famous rock stars. I am not. I am a father of four with a part in his hair who loves to sit on the front porch of an almost-autumn afternoon watching the bees hover and buzz around the flowers of green onions which sprang up of their own accord and which remind me that so much that is gifted to us in this life is unmerited. I am a father whose heart breaks into a thousand pieces—shatters with joy and love and longing—every single day. Rilke says that we live “forever taking our leave.” In the eighth Duino elegy, he writes:

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
facing all this, never the beyond.
It overfills us. We arrange it. It falls apart.
We arrange it again, and fall apart ourselves.

Who has turned us around like this, so that
whatever we do, we find ourselves in the attitude
of someone going away? Just as that person
on the last hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, turns, stops, lingers—,
so we live, forever taking our leave.

What is it to live forever taking leave? I think Rilke is lamenting that we don’t walk recklessly, unencumbered into the eternal light—we are always and forever returned to this mortal world, we cannot get past it. But sometimes I think that I take my leave and take my leave because life is flowing always away from me. Because I perceive the light of each mortal moment. Facing the beyond of all this, I grant that no moment will linger. Everything flees and flies. And yet it is miracle. It is eternal, somehow. Marilynne Robinson writes, “So I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes. I think the concept of transcendence is based on a misreading of creation. With all respect to heaven, the scene of miracle is here, among us.” Of course, she is quite familiar with the sage of Concord, who said that Jesus “spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines.” 

These daily miracles shine: Oliver crouching—squatting, really—like a small animal, tail end one inch away from the ground as he colors with many markers. He is slender and has a sly grin. Today he bent over the bushes as a cricket chirped: “I hear a small bird singing,” he said, “Where is it, daddy?” He will grow and will no longer squat. At what age do children lose the capacity to squat so without tiring? Hopefully he will still smile and love, but I mourn the passing as it happens. Each heartbreakingly beautiful moment is heartbreaking both in its beauty and in its transience. Today I found Emerson eating a mini peaches and cream pie made by my solicitous, gracious mother. He sat on a blanket in the middle of the kitchen floor and ate with such delight I felt like crying. Ellie has dark, piercing, intelligent eyes, and she smiles at me and stares sternly at me and opens her mouth to eat my face, and I melt. I melt. Several times since Eleanor was born, Emerson has come close up to her face and said, “Hi, Eleanor. I'm not a giant. I was just born before you.” The other day we were on a walk in our triple stroller and suddenly Emerson said, “I want to walk now, dad. Can I get out?” I stopped the stroller and he hopped out and climbed up onto the low brick wall structure at the entrance to the little complex where we live. He followed the curve of the wall and climbed up to the top--higher than my head. The he clambered down the other side, hopped off, and climbed back into the stroller. The image of him crawling up and then down the wall is strangely delightful to me. It seems to encompass something, something I want to record and bear witness of. I saw this. And it made my day. 

 From the time Lydia was born and I knew that kind of love that comes pouring into this world with a child’s birth—not romantic love, not friendship, not even just family love, but paternal, fatherly love—from the first time I wept while singing and holding her, I always knew she would flow away from me and leave a hole the size and shape of a very small and lovely girl in my soul. She will one day marry. She will date and I will worry. Yesterday, as we snuggled in her bed, she told me how she was made to zip up her lunchbox before she was done eating and run out of the school cafeteria because Keaton was chanting to Dylan, “Kiss Lydia! Kiss Lydia! On the lips!” She flees now and tells me these things to hear me laugh, but one day she will hate me and yell at me. But now she tells me she loves me—every single night. She gives me two hugs and two kisses before I leave her room. It is our ritual. She told me the other day, after taking the book I was reading her out of my hands and looking at it with an intent intensity that I have seen in pictures of myself reading, “I love reading. I can’t wait until Emerson and Oliver and Eleanor can read.” I love to see language come alive in her, words sparking and crackling with luminescence in her bright child mind.

There’s a song I love by Mason Jennings. “Where would I be right now if all my dreams had come true? Deep down I know somehow I’d have never seen your face. This world would be a different place. Darling, there’s no way to know which way your heart will go.” You should hear him sing it:

When I was young, I hoped I would grow up to be a rock star. My friend Jared and I made music videos long before we could play. I bought a beat-up old electric bass from a kid leaving on his mission for $100. He got a guitar for Christmas, I think. I didn’t have an amp or even a cord. We would plug his cord into his guitar and then not into an amplifier but into my bass, and we would jump on the trampoline with our guitars, pretending to play. We videotaped this.  

I loved the music scene: the broken, holy people who had hearts the size of small elephants and who looked like very prickly souls. I once watched a kid get thrown through a wall while we were playing. The hole was large. That was almost exactly twelve years ago, the Friday before the Wednesday that changed my life. Twelve years ago today, I left my little country of music and walked into the vast ocean of my ministry as a young missionary. While I learned Spanish and cried myself to sleep; while I sat on the bed in a one-room house of a small, beautiful Mexican family; while I rode my bicycle through rivers of street, my friends signed a record contract with a major label. One day, while I ate rice and beans and chicken, a smiling Mexican husband turned to his wife and said, “Sabe a gloria.” “It tastes like glory.” That felt right. Goodness, quietness, peace tasted like glory. And I liked the flavor. By the time I got back from Mexico, I knew what T.S. Eliot was getting at in his poem about the Magi: “We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.” 

Once my feet again touched the ground and the sound of the choir faded, I called my old friend on the phone to see how life as a rock star felt. He told me that they had just played sold out shows throughout Japan. That the kids knew every word to their songs. I ran into the band, by this time part firmly in place in my hair. We hugged and talked. My friend said that he never imagined touring would be like this, and he pointed to his tour bus the size of Rhode Island. I might have felt a twinge of sadness then, of regret, perhaps, but there appeared in my mind a simple, dear picture. It was of me pointing upward. That was all. “What doth it profit a man . . .” rang in my thoughts.

Harold B. Lee, a gentle Idaho farmboy who grew up to be a prophet of God, wrote, “You may know you are living a full, rich life when you have the real joy of living, for ‘men are, that they might have joy’ (2 Nephi 2:25). What is it, then, that gives you that high emotional ecstasy called joy? Does it come from the unusual or does it come from common things? He who is moved thus only by the unusual is as one who must flag a failing appetite with strong spices and flavorings that destroy the true sense of taste. You are making a serious error if you mistake an emotional thrill that passes with the moment for the upsurge of deep feelings that is the joy of living. If one feels strong surges of happiness and desire from the quiet of a happy home, from the unfolding of a beautiful life, from the revelation of divine wisdom, or from a love for the beautiful, the true and good, he is having a taste of the fulness of the joy that the living of a rich, full life only can bring.” That’s a nice thought.

Jesus once said something that I did not understand until very recently. Perhaps I still don’t. He was always saying enigmatic, mystical, wonderful things. He is my favorite teacher. I love Him. He said, “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” For those familiar with the revelations to Joseph Smith, the idea of a singleness of eye reminds us of that marvelous phrase “an eye single to the glory of God,” an eye focused on the essential, the true, the godly. When my mother-in-law was a young mother, and my wife was a young girl, they were going through the nighttime ritual, preparing for sleep. My mother-in-law was impatient to finish the routine so she could watch a television show that she loved. Then a thought arose, or fell, perhaps, upon her. It was essentially that in eternity, she would not regret not having seen that show, but she might lament not taking time with this holy, bright child. She wept and determined not to sacrifice essential things for things that hold no value. She would lay up her treasures in heaven. After the girls were asleep, she went to tell her husband that she did not want to have television in her house. At all. She wanted her eye single. I love that story, because I see what it did. Not only did it fill her whole being with a radiant, infectious light, but that light has been the fruit that my wife was raised on. And now she is filled with light. And it tastes like glory.

So now I sit on my front porch and contemplate the grace that descended on my life, and I notice the watermelon vine snaking among the green onions. This, too, was not planted by my hand. We imagine that someone spit a watermelon seed into the front flower patch sometime during the summer. Now, the leafy plant winds around the entire garden, putting forth buds. There are at least five small watermelons on that vine. That seems like a metaphor to me. He who once spit in dirt to heal a blind man can take spit and folly and brokenness and carelessness and make beauty and grace and bright, red, juicy fruit. And I love Him for it. And I praise His grace. And it tastes like glory. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


I wasn't alive during the Holocaust, and as a child I wasn't aware of the Rwandan genocide. But eleven years ago I was a 20-year-old missionary in Mexico, and I remember the sinking feeling I felt as I watched an airplane smash into a building full of real people with real lives, real families, real hopes. Today I mourn man's inhumanity to man. I mourn the cruelty, the thoughtlessness, the violence, the hatred.

I mourn the difficulty we have seeing that every human being is worthy of honor, of love, of compassion, of respect. I don't know how we fail to see that people who think and feel differently than we do still think and feel, that their lives matter as much to them as mine does to me. Life is sacred. Humanity is holy.

Today as I mourn, I determine that I will be kinder because of what I remember. I decide that my sorrow will not turn to hatred, to vengeance, to violence, but rather to love, to forgiveness, to friendship.

Today I want eyes to see the hidden sorrows that surround each soul, I want ears to hear the silent cries of the oppressed, and I want a heart that responds with a willingness to give of myself to help alleviate pain, sorrow, fear, hatred. Today I choose love.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Blessed Thankfulness

"Healing" by Brian Kershisnik

I came across something recently in my scriptures that instructed and delighted me. Have you ever noticed the peculiar, powerful, lovely connection between giving thanks and blessing in the accounts of the life of the Savior? The two ideas seem to be synonymous, interchangeable, in the Gospel writers’ minds. When John Mark—that young boy who lived in the bright warm home of a mother who received apostles and prophets after they had escaped from prison with angelic help, and who grew up to write the greatest hero story in the universe—records the feeding of the four thousand, he writes that Jesus “took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples.” And then Peter's friend Mark writes that Jesus, (perhaps smilingly, certainly knowingly and  compassionately) reached for “a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded them to set them also before them. So they did eat, and were filled.” As I read this, I wonder if He did or said anything different when He gave thanks and when he blessed. Or are they one and the same? Is gratitude the essence of blessing? Does it sanctify and set apart? Does it render a thing holy and wonderful and blessed? Does the act of thanksgiving make life more radiant, saintly, godly, blessed?

And this isn’t the only time this connection occurs in scripture. Matthew—that filthy treacherous publican who used to take taxes from hard-working gentle Jews to fill the coffers of their overreaching Roman overlords, and who immediately abandoned money at the first beckon of the Divine Rabbi and thus showed the true tenor of his heart—writes of the feeding of five thousand that the sensitive, holy Son of God “took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled.” And when he records the later feeding of four thousand, the words are almost identical, with one slight variation: “And he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did eat, and were filled.” But the stories don’t end there. These are stories of abundance and extravagance. God’s grace was not only sufficient on these days to fill the hungry masses, but the profligate kindness of the mortal Messiah produced baskets and baskets of excess. Seven. Twelve. More than we can possibly eat. When I give thanks, I acknowledge and access the prodigality of God’s goodness. And I am blessed.  

During those last solemn hours with His mortal friends, Jesus broke bread and blessed wine. Both Matthew and Mark make the link between blessing and thanking obvious: “And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they drank all of it.”

Joseph B. Wirthlin, that tender, temperate apostle with the small voice and enormous soul once said, “Gratitude turns a meal into a feast and drudgery into delight. It softens our grief and heightens our pleasure. It turns the simple and common into the memorable and transcendent.”

My grandmother was a small, smiling woman. Her family was her life. She had eleven children in a small and loving home. She played the piano and my grandpa sang. When grandpa died, she was left with three small children still at home and no money. She taught piano lessons and trusted in miracles and grace. Every year at Christmas, she made batches and batches of strawberry jam. Every child and every grandchild got their own, with a small loaf of homebaked bread. And when I got married and had kids, I got a loaf and a jar of jam for every new member of the family. Everyone was family to grandma. She sent a dollar bill and a handmade birthday card without fail every year of my life. For me and my wife and my children and my forty-five cousins and all of their wives and husbands and children. She came to every baptism, every baby blessing, almost every baseball game. I don’t remember seeing my grandmother sad. When she was dying, her children and grandchildren took turns spending the night at her house. It’s just a matter of time, the nurses said, we just want to make sure she’s as comfortable as possible. There was lots of singing in those days around her bed. One night when I was sleeping over, I read to her from the Book of Mormon, sang her some of her favorite hymns, and asked her to tell me all the wicked things my father had ever done in his youth. She couldn’t come up with one. He was always such a sweet child, she said. If he hadn’t been so good, I wouldn’t have had any more children, she laughed. As it turned out, he was number six; five more would follow. After changing her briefs and her pads, I went to wash the dishes. The Christmas before, all of her progeny had banded together to buy her a dishwasher. She had lived for sixty-plus years of marriage with eleven children and she never had a dishwasher. As I rinsed the dishes in the sink to load into the automatic washer, I noticed a small sign I had seen before. It sat on the sill above the sink. It said, “Thank God for dirty dishes, they have a tale to tell: While others may go hungry, we’re eating very well.” I thought of my grandmother silently, smilingly washing dishes for all of her holy children for all of those years, and I sobbed at that sink as I thought of the power and beauty of a life defined by what is present rather than by what is not.

Gratitude is the highest form of praise. To acknowledge all that God is, all that He has done, all that He does, gives Him pleasure, I think. He does delight to bless us: “Yea, and the herb, and the good things which come of the earth . . . are made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for food and for raiment, for taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and enliven the soul. And it pleaseth God that he hath given all these things unto man.”

I spent two years living in Mexico as a missionary, and I wasn’t especially surprised at the poverty when I arrived there. I had expected dirt floors and one-room houses. I had not, perhaps, expected houses with no running water or cockroaches in the bathtub. But they did not shock me. The shock came when I returned home from that gentle, violent, miracle-ridden land. I remember very clearly my astonishment at the size of houses in my home state. And when I stepped into my parents’ house, I rolled on the ground with explosive, joyous laughter. My little sister thought I was crazy. And I was—crazy in love with carpet: wonderful, soft, miraculous carpet. I had not seen it for two years. And then, wonder of wonders, I stepped into the shower. I didn’t have to wear flip-flops to ward off cockroaches or snake bites or fungus. And when I turned the water on, not only did it come out of the faucet, but it rushed like a mighty river, with enough pressure to drench my whole body. It was the beginning of the cold season, and the wetness plummeting from this miraculous indoor waterfall was warm warm warm. I said a silent prayer of gratitude. And then it struck me: if I wanted to drink the water, I could, and I would not vomit violently, would not spend days in the bathroom, would, in fact, be nourished and refreshed. I cried, and my tears mingled with fresh, purified water. Now every shower is a prayer, if I remember. Every shower is a praisesong. And when I remember to give thanks, my life feels brighter, holier, blessed.

One of the greatest of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s holy sonnets is “God’s Grandeur”:

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The whole commonplace world shimmers and sparks with a brilliant holiness. God’s grandeur is ever-present. I think that gratitude is the act of removing one’s shoes and wriggling our toes in the rich, astonishing earth. It is the removal of that which separates us from the divine. Every child’s face and every sunset and every blade of grass possesses “the dearest freshness;” everything glistens, glimmers, glows, glitters, gleams with a miraculous light. Gratitude is the lens through which this light is perceived. It is attentiveness and reverence, awe and affection. John Ames—my favorite fictional pastor—writes, “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.” In this passage it appears that visions of the divine come unannounced and apparently uninvited, which may be true in certain instances, but Ames recognizes that the temporary nature implied in these words does not quite do justice to his notion of theophany. He amends, “But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than [that] seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” When I live in thanksgiving, swim in gratitude, bask in open-eyed awareness of God’s goodness and the blessedness of life, I manifest such courage. I see and I bless.