Friday, July 20, 2012

The Attentiveness of Angels

My mother-in-law’s refrigerator is a repository of wisdom and a shrine to joy. There’s a hand-drawn picture from my son with these words: “I love you, dear Nan. Happy Mother’s Day. Thanks for being the best Nana in the world. Thanks for being my mommy’s mommy. I love that sometimes you paint your nails. This is a picture of a baby monster. Love, Emerson.”

There’s a photograph of my daughter holding a plastic-wrapped chocolate mold of praying hands. My mother-in-law had taken her to the dollar store one Christmastime and told her she could pick anything she wanted to give my wife as a present. The chocolate hands were “perfect,” she had said. In the picture she is beaming to beat the band.

Then, among a couple of Far Side cartoons, some poems, and photos of family, there are magnets and little pieces of paper with wise, gentle sayings: “If you would have a lovely home, live a lovely life.” (Shaker Proverb). “Let go or be dragged.” (American Proverb). (I always read this one “Let God or be ragged,” which only requires moving one letter.) Or this nice one from Mother Teresa: “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness; kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile, kindness in your warm greeting.”

But the one that makes me catch my breath is this one, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’” (The Talmud). I looked it up. It’s from the Midrash Rabbah on Bereshit (Genesis). Another translation is that the angel has to hit the grass to make it grow. But I like the whisper. I also like the questions it raises about angels. And the affirmation of divine attentiveness to earthly endeavors.

I took my children to meet Brian Kershisnik at his studio in Kanosh. He had just finished painting a stunning, staggeringly lovely depiction of a woman downcast and downhearted with a column of angels soaring, swooping—maybe even stumbling—to lay hands on her. The paint was still wet, and I feared my bumpy children would bump into it. They did not, and Brian was exceptionally gracious and generous with the kids. But the image has stayed with me. Brian often depicts whorls of angels enveloping unseeing mortals. “So great a cloud of witnesses,” as it were. And it must be that way. Angels breathe peace down our necks day to day. And what else?

Billy Collins wrote a poem called “Questions About Angels.” Among other things, he writes,

Of all the questions you might want to ask
about angels, the only one you ever hear
is how many can dance on the head of a pin.

No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time
besides circling the Throne chanting in Latin
or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth
or guiding a boy and girl across a rickety wooden bridge.

Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing?
Do they swing like children from the hinges
of the spirit world saying their names backwards and forwards?
Do they sit alone in little gardens changing colors?

If an angel delivered the mail, would he arrive
in a blinding rush of wings or would he just assume
the appearance of the regular mailman and
whistle up the driveway reading the postcards?

The poem is good because it raises questions. Certainly, angels deliver cakes, if not the mail. I’ve often wondered who baked that bread brought by ravens and who prepared the cake delivered by an angel to Elijah. I like to imagine heavenly parents singing and swaying together in a celestial kitchen somewhere, cooking that which will nourish their weary mortal children. I believe in a God who would bake a cake for me in my juniper bush moments. And in the angels who shake us awake.

Back around Valentine’s day, I got Oliver up from a nap and laid him down to change his diaper. He smiled up and me and shouted, “Lew-yuh!” He followed it up with “HalleLEW-Yeah!” And then he began to laugh, almost maniacally. “Ah-hahahaha!” I joined him, and we laughed together. Hallelujah. I wrote about that experience to my mother-in-law, and she wrote back, “Lew yeah, indeed. I’m pretty sure that O-town awoke from his innocent sleep/communion-with-God-and-angels and spoke what his ancient soul knew for certain. That God is good and that He heals us all. Hallelujah. Oliver caught up a blazing brightness from the spiritual soup in his small dimpled hand and opened his fingers let a golden shaft of perfect love fall across your face as well. Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost, and so do baby boys with earnest brown eyes. And they laugh out loud for pure joy.”

Wyslawa Szymborska, an excellent Polish poet who passed away about the same time in February that Oliver awoke in praise, gives us this delightful thought:

If there are angels
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

Off-duty, between angelic-
i.e. inhuman—occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

They must laugh. Sometimes I think I hear them laughing at me. Or with me, as that would be more angelic. “Angels above us are silent notes taking.” Perhaps they are taking notes on the humorous and the lovely, shaking with silent laughter, wiping their tears.

Jacob wrestled an angel and got a blessing. I'll bet that was fun for the angel.

In the Apocryphal book “Bel and the Dragon,” Daniel has been cast into a lions’ den and is hungry. An angel asks the prophet Habakkuk in Jerusalem to take him some food. Habakkuk rejoins that he doesn’t know where Babylon is and could never find Daniel even if he wanted to. The angel, in apparent exasperation, picks him up and flies him to Babylon where he sort of bombs Daniel with food before being carried back to his own house.

The writer of Hebrews urged, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” That is a nice idea, because it humanizes angels and exalts people. Surely we are not so different from the angels, nor they from us. Every person we meet might be an angel in disguise. It certainly urges a sense of hospitality. That seems to be the point when three “men” came to Abraham in the plains of Mamre. He ran to fix them a meal. And for his kindness, he was told he would have a son of promise. He laughed and laughed and then when the promise was fulfilled, he named his son “He laugheth.”

When we were at Brian’s studio, I was holding my brand-new baby girl in one arm and the diaper bag in the other. I went to put the diaper bag over my shoulder, and Ellie shifted her weight. I watched in horror as my chubby-legged cherub flew through the air toward the cement floor. Surely some Kershisnikian seraphs assisted on that one, because she was floating for what felt like a whole minute before I reached out and plucked her by her onesie from midair.

When one of my student’s sister died of cancer, her best friend, another one of my students, walked out on her porch in grief and was given a song. It was about angels. It might have been given by an angel. I heard it again today, and it made me cry. You should check it out:

Here’s the point: there are angels. I don’t know exactly what they do. But I know they do. (And if you have any thoughts on what they do [surely they sing; I learned once in Mexico that they can sing in Spanish. We were in a tiny chapel for a temple dedication and we raised the roof with song. I looked around in astonishment, wondering where all this sound was coming from, then I realized it must be from the unseen world]—anyway, if you have any thoughts on what they do, I’d love to hear them in a comment.) But they are real, and I think that they are a testament to the infinite attentiveness of God for his kids. Whether they are whispering to grass or catching babies or watching over grieving sisters, they show the love and power of God. 

(The painting is "Angels" by Brian Kershisnik.)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Praise Song for Marriage

I lived in Mexico for two years as a missionary, and I’ve been accustomed to speaking, and thinking, of those years as the most formative of my life. There I walked a godly walk—entering into the homes and hearts of real people who loved and longed and ached and wept. I laid hands on heads and pronounced words far beyond my experience or knowledge. My heart expanded and my soul soared. It was more humanity, sometimes, than I could bear. I was only twenty. But I felt so much sorrow and so much love. I learned there what Paul means in his letter to the Philippians when he says that Jesus “emptied himself” and took upon himself “the form of a servant.” I poured myself out in service, and I felt close to God and his angels.

But it struck me the other day with the force of revelation that the most truly formative, shaping, re-creating experience of my life has been my interaction with my bright, holy wife. If my missionary years gave me a sense of the way I wanted to live my life, then my Half Orange (as they would call her in Mexico) has shown me how to mobilize those desires. Julie is the most salient element in my mortal experience.

Let’s celebrate in song-and-dance
the day that she said yes
and I said yes,
and songbirds sang, and angels left their nests.

Marilynne Robinson writes, in my favorite novel, “I know this [life] is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets. Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.” If that is true, and it feels true to me that we will look back with great affection on this strange and wonderful mortal existence, then for me the songs will largely deal with the quiet, gentle struggle for joy that marriage has mobilized.

I don’t really know why I feel so inclined, but I want to sing a paean for marriage today, in praise of the brilliant, dizzying adventure of matrimony. Marriage is holy. It is ordained of God because God loves us, and marriage is the vehicle for more joy in this life than any other thing. Joy is the measure of our creation. This is why a man leaves father and mother and cleaves to his wife. This is why the twain should be one. In our world there is a fear of marriage extant that frankly baffles me, and a propensity to give up on it too easily that saddens me. When I knelt in a sacred place across an altar with the girl—and she was really just a lovely, scared, excited girl—I love more than anything in the bright world and received a promise from her holy, wise grandfather that our love would sing and shout and shine long after the earth was a smoldering heap of rocks and steam, I could not have been happier.

But that was just the beginning. I had no idea then the strength that would come from having a helpmeet, a perpetual teammate who would always play on my side, lay by my side laughing in bed about something one of our little bedlamites said or did. This communion is the closest thing to contact with God I have ever achieved. And we do laugh. And it’s one of my favorite things. If I were trying to calm young Von Trapp children on a stormy night, I would sing of late night laughing and two heads on a pillow. Still, my wife is a holy mystery to me sometimes. But I know her better than any person on the planet. This is the deepest and richest of friendships. And that fact alone—the possibility of really coming to know just one person on this earth—makes marriage a really remarkable thing.

In oneness she’s shown me some things—
eternity is made up of more than solemnities,
though solemn sometimes I feel in the face of her faith,
her sunbright soul, her singsong spirit,
her God-gifted goodness, her yes.
And yes, this yes whispers shoutingly, brightbird-singingly.

My heart sits on the edge of a warm dirt path, next to hers,
(life-green grass) smells the air, takes in the dawnsong,
feels her fingers feeling, blessing, giving.
Outstretched and open.
And, oh, my heart beats: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that marriage can be quite difficult sometimes. Catholic theologian, Michael Novak, wrote something very nice about the benefits of marriage: “Marriage is an assault upon the lonely, atomic ego. Marriage is a threat to the solitary individual. Marriage does impose grueling, humbling, baffling, and frustrating responsibilities. Yet if one supposes that precisely such things are the preconditions for all true liberation, marriage is not the enemy of moral development in adults. Quite the opposite. Being married and having children has impressed on my mind certain lessons, for whose learning I cannot help being grateful. Most are lessons of difficulty and duress. Most of what I am forced to learn about myself is not pleasant. . . . My dignity as a human being depends perhaps more on what sort of husband and parent I am, than on any professional work I am called on to do. My bonds to my family hold me back (and my wife even more) from many sorts of opportunities. And yet these do not feel like bonds. They are, I know, my liberation. They force me to be a different sort of human being, in a way in which I want and need to be forced.” Do you sense what he’s saying? Of course it can be hard to pour yourself out, to empty yourself. That can hurt. But that is what makes a person like Jesus. This is a sanctifying experience.

Our first, and to this day most memorable, major argument was about chocolate chips. I argued emphatically for the benefits of milk chocolate chips. My wife retaliated with a fervent testimony regarding semi-sweet. I stormed out of the house. I really did. Now that all is affable we find the whole thing laughable. But not then. It mattered. It wasn’t until I realized that it didn’t matter that peace came. I had to pour myself out. And I’ve come to learn that it’s relieving, liberating, to do so. My soul wants to let go of things that don’t matter. And marriage has given my soul the opportunity.

Back to Robinson’s Gilead. Reverend Ames writes of the experience of blessing an infant, “There is a reality in blessing . . . . It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that.” Well, marriage is performed in holy places. And the ceremony certainly sanctifies the union, or at least acknowledges that this is a sacred thing: a man and a woman are about to become like Christ, to give themselves for the good of the other, to empty themselves out. They are about to experience communion and joy unrivaled. They are about to embark on the most creative endeavor.

We sometimes speak of some future godhood in which we will create worlds. But I think that is here and now. That is marriage. We create a home and a brand new culture, a small world, and children. That is surely godlike. Every day I am Adam, deeply grateful for my Eve.

Do you remember the morning
we awoke to see the deer
right outside our window?
I was Adam, you were Eve
and the golden world was new,
glistening with possibility.

He ate the trees, and you
kissed my cheek.
And now, every morning I awake
to the song of your smile,
and the world feels refreshed,
as if your lips had gently,
ever so gently,
brushed its brilliant face.

She is the mother of all living. Praise her. And praise the union that made us one.

(The painting is "Dancing on a Very Small Island" by Brian Kershisnik)

Saturday, July 14, 2012


A couple of months ago, I taught my classes about Ezekiel. Four years ago I skipped Ezekiel completely. I think I did not understand him well or I did not have time. But I will never skip Ezekiel again. He is one of my mortal heroes. And his heroism is precisely in his mortality, in his humanity. God calls him over and over again "son of man." Most commentators see this as a humbling appellation, the Hebrew word for “man”—“adam”—meaning also dirt or earth. But it can also be seen as affectionate. Either way, Ezekiel is very earthy, and that may be the source of God’s affection. I imagine He has great tenderness for this earth.  

Well, I love Ezekiel because of his unorthodox (but not all that uncommon among Old Testament prophets) mode of teaching. At the beginning of the book, Ezekiel is given a scroll to eat, God’s message. It seems that God wants Ezekiel to internalize the message in a very real way, to make the message a part of himself, deep in his bowels. And if you really are what you eat, Ezekiel is supposed to become the message. And he does. God asks him to enact several prophecies—to do strange acts in the presence of his people in order to teach them about some forthcoming destruction or hope. After making a tile on which he portrays Jerusalem, he is asked to lie on his side for 390 days next to the tile to represent the siege of Israel, and then to switch sides and lay another 40 days to symbolize the burden of Jerusalem, all the while eating defiled bread (see Ezekiel 4). Then he shaves his head and beard and divides the hair into three piles before burning one, chopping one up with a knife, and scattering the last one (Ezekiel 5). This is supposed to show the fate of the then-rebellious covenant people. He is asked to move and to eat his bread quaking and drink his water astonished (Ezekiel 12), to sigh (Ezekiel 21), to not mourn his wife’s death (Ezekiel 24), and to write on sticks and pick them up (Ezekiel 37), among other things. Can you imagine this? It heartbreakingly funny and wonderfully lonesome.

So I wanted to make a movie of it to make it real for my students. So on a whim the day before I taught it I bought a beard from a party store and got Julie to film me enacting a few of his dramatic prophecies (while holding the camera in one hand and Eleanor in the other. Who is this girl? Pretty cool, I say). When Oliver saw me with the beard, he said, “Take it off, daddy. You a bad guy. Take it off. It creepy. Take it off.” By the end of the filming, Lydia and Emerson loved Ezekiel. “Ezekiel’s funny,” they said. If that’s the only thing that came of the movie making, it is worth it to me, that they sense the humanity and humor of a prophet. Tonight I was singing “Ezekiel saw the wheel,” and Lyd asked what wheel he saw. I briefly explained the vision in Ezekiel 1, and she said, “That’s a cool vision, dad.” At dinner she tried to tell Emerson about it. You try telling someone about that vision. Ezekiel evidently had a hard time: “round about within it,” “the likeness of the appearance of the glory of the Lord,” etc.

But I digress, I wanted to tell you about the message of Ezekiel. His name means “God is strong,” and the whole book seems to support that thesis. Well, okay, let me tell you about His strength of goodness and mercy. This was Tuesday night, and I got the kids tucked in about nine o’clock (have I mentioned yet that we have missed Nana and Papa for myriad reasons—bless them for all the help they are). I came downstairs to do a (hopefully) quick editing job on my little video so it would be ready for the next day. My video editing software on my computer was damaged and would not work. It took me about an hour to figure this out. By then it was ten and I was thinking I should go to bed in case Ellie woke up for hours in the middle of the night. So I went to pray. I told Heavenly Father that my computer was broken, but I had shaved my head and cut up a really great fake beard, and well, I really wanted it to be worth something. “Go to bed,” He said. “I want to,” I told Him, “but I can’t sleep.” Okay, He relented.

Cue Allie and Alex, my sister- and brother-in-law. While I am praying, I hear a key turn and the front door open. I come downstairs to find Allie and Alex, whom we had invited to stay with us until they move, but I didn’t know where that had ended up. And Alex had just made a movie for his History of Creativity class and happened to have his laptop. Well, God is strong. Alex and I sat up for an hour or so editing and went to bed tired and happy with the result. Their arrival certainly felt like a tender mercy. Perfectly timed. Perfectly orchestrated. God is strong and God is good. He is smooth, I say.

Well, so the next day, first period kids are laughing and they clap at the end of the movie (they had complimented me on my haircut as they came into class). My next period, just as we are getting into the lesson, my computer crashes. Just stops working. I try rebooting it four times. Nothing. It comes up with a diagnostic thing. I try it. Nothing. My students can tell I’m a little disconcerted. So I set them to studying chapters two and three of Ezekiel, which they do very diligently and sweetly. I run to the office of my co-worker who has a little experience with computers. It is his prep period. God is strong. He tries a couple of things. Nothing. I need to get back to class. So I leave the computer with him, call Alex and ask if, maybe, he could bring his laptop down to the seminary. Luckily I had made it on his computer, so that it didn’t crash with mine. He is so good. So willing. I ask another co-worker if by chance I emailed him my Ezekiel powerpoint. It would make some of the teaching smoother. He finds it and lends me his computer. I get back to class. Students are very engaged and sensitive. We get past the point for the video and move on with the lesson.

Just then Alex shows up. I grab his laptop and am about to set it up when my co-worker with my computer comes it. It’s fixed. And my other co-worker is back for his computer. I look at these three men in my classroom, all sacrificing for me, for this lesson, and I feel like crying. God is strong. So strong. And He gives strength, which is an alternate reading of the meaning of Ezekiel. We watch the video and the kids laugh and tell me they are touched that I would shave my head for them. And then we look into Ezekiel’s testimony of the majesty, grace, power, and goodness of God. And I get to tell them that they have witnessed it that day. Prophetic object lesson. Acted out. As if on purpose. Oh, children, God is strong.

Here’s the video:

(the link: )

Friday, July 13, 2012

True Laughter

“Mom, you wanna hear my true laugh sometime?” my four-year-old son asked my wife this morning. I asked him what a true laugh was. He told me that you cross your arms over your chest and then someone pushes on your stomach. Then you laugh your true laugh. I like that in his mind this was a promise of some future event. For me this is something special to anticipate. The true laugh—a future revelation, something like glory—“the glory that shall be revealed in us” that Paul talks about—something so poignant and so powerful, so heartbreaking and so healing, that we can’t quite abide it yet. But “the vail shall be taken away” and the laugh that moves us, makes us, will be heard.

Jesus, who we know wept, said, “Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.” So there may well one day be a scripture that reads, “Jesus laughed.” Maybe it’s in the lost book of Enoch.

I think he does laugh, because laughter is holy and beautiful. Heber C. Kimball said of God, “I am perfectly satisfied that my Father and my God is a cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured Being.  Why?  Because I am cheerful, pleasant, lively, and good-natured when I have His Spirit.  That is one reason why I know; and another is ― the Lord said, through Joseph Smith, ‘I delight in a glad heart and a cheerful countenance.’  That arises from the perfection of His attributes; He is a jovial, lively person, and a beautiful man.” How’s that for a fitting description of the Man of Holiness?

I learned something about God’s laugh one day when I was pretty newlywed. We went camping with my wife’s family, and as we sat around the campfire my sister-in-law (who’s deeply funny, a soul with a good appreciation of humor) was making my father-in-law laugh. My father-in-law’s laugh taught me about God. He has this joyful, deep, rolling, booming, wonderful laugh. I thought, “God must laugh like that. Surely he does.” Shortly thereafter we had a message on our answering machine from my father-in-law. We had recorded something that made him laugh. The message was of him laughing for a good thirty seconds. I saved it and would replay it when I felt down. When it got erased on accident, I felt I had lost something of value.

I’ve thought a lot about how a perfect person like Jesus must have a perfect sense of humor. He must be wonderfully funny.

A third-century BC Egyptian creation myth says, “When [God] burst out laughing there was light. When he burst out laughing the second time the waters were born; at the seventh burst of laughter, the soul was born.” The Egyptians knew something of the creative power of laughter. It engenders joy in others—an infectious spreading of light. And it brings things and people together.

Last semester I had a class with three special needs students—all really bright and good and all. One day, one of them, Seth—a kid made of light with a great lisp—made a comment that delighted me. Delighted: “I liked last time’s lesson.” “Yeah?” “Samson.” “Yeah.” “I can imagine you growing out your hair like Samson and getting really strong.” “Oh.” (Pause) “I’m not calling you weak. . . . You’re . . . [he takes in my twig-like arms, averts his eyes, and tries to swallow the lie] . . . strong . . . [decides he better not lie in seminary] . . . in faith.” The class erupted into laughter, and it brought us together. We loved each other more after that.

One of my favorite sounds in the world is my wife’s laugh. My life is a quest to make her laugh. Her laugh is like a sudden summer rain that refreshes and cools the world and reflects the world drippingly anew. It’s like a flight of pelicans off the coast of California. It makes you catch your breath. It’s hard to describe. The best is to laugh with her. Therein is communion.

And then there’s my children’s laughter. My three-month-old daughter has begun to laugh. She seems to sense that there is something in it having to do with communion. She’ll look you in the eyes with her dark-bright stare and laugh tentatively, just to see if it works. When you laugh back, she laughs harder. Surely something so lovely will take place in the eternal worlds.

The fourteenth-century Sufi poet Hafiz wrote:

Now let’s get down to the real reason
Why we sit together and breathe
And begin the laughing, the divine laughing,
Like great heroic women
And magnificent
Strong men.

The other night I was tucking my children into bed, telling them a story. I hit on a gag that made them laugh. And I used it over and over. I couldn’t get enough of hearing their laughter. We snuggled and laughed. For me, it was the real reason. It was heaven.

I came home from work today to find the older three of my four children watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” They were laughing with such merriment, I just stood to let it wash over me for a minute. When I got upstairs I found that my two-year-old, who has a manic, wild sort of laugh and an almost-constantly-smiling face, and who is made of thunder and lightning and sugar, had taken a tub of Vaseline and smeared it all over the guest bathroom—floor, sink, mirror, faucet, walls. And we have a guest coming tonight. But I had a hard time putting a stop to the laughter. So I cleaned it up.

There’s something vulnerable about laughing, too. It’s a sort of unveiling of the soul. Maybe that’s why I have to wait for the true laugh in me to be revealed. I need to let go of all self-consciousness and sense of self-importance. I need to let go of masks and defenses and facades and let myself laugh. Because life is a sort of sacred hilarity. One day the laugh behind it all will be revealed.

And when I am that laugh, I hope that those who remain behind on this world of sadness and delight will feel it in part. I hope there’s lots of laughter at my funeral—because I have lived a life of joy and connectedness and humor and glee. I hope there’s something real and human to laugh about—that the stories will be funny. And the laugh that I am will join the chorus of raucous, gentle, holy laughter. It will be nice, don’t you think?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Liberty and Judgment for All


Of all the depictions of the final judgment in scripture, three resonate most with me. I love the absoluteness of grace in Doctrine and Covenants 45:3-5. I think I used to imagine standing before the judgment bar of God with Jesus pleading my case, saying something like, “Look, Father, at all the good Robbie has done. He was baptized and served a mission and married in the temple and . . . .” And I would stand there, feeling proud and pretty cool, trying not to blush as the Savior sang my praises. But the scene portrayed in this Second Coming section shows that there will be no place for pride in that day: “Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified.” He will not point to me at all. He will, in fact, ask the Father not to look at me. I have no merits on that day. Nothing I can or will do on this lovely green planet will qualify me for salvation—only the sufferings and death of Him who did no sin. “Wherefore [because of me, Jesus], Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life.” My greatest commendation, if indeed it can be honestly said of me, will be my friendship with the Light of the World. If that doesn’t urge a certain doctrinal humility, I don’t know what does.

The second judgment scene that captivates my imagination also appears in the Doctrine and Covenants, this time in section 88. It essentially shows judgment as a non-issue. There will be no adversarial banging of a gavel, proclaiming my ultimate fate. Instead, I will receive what I have become, what I have developed the capacity to receive: “They who are of a celestial spirit shall receive the same body which was a natural body; even ye shall receive your bodies, and your glory shall be that glory by which your bodies are quickened. Ye who are quickened by a portion of the celestial glory shall then receive of the same, even a fullness” (verses 28-29, italics added). What I have persistently chosen will be what I have become. Dallin H. Oaks puts it this way: “The Final Judgment is not just an evaluation of a sum total of good and evil acts—what we have done. It is an acknowledgment of the final effect of our acts and thoughts—what we have become.” Joseph Fielding Smith writes that the difference in bodies will be literal—if you are resurrected with a Celestial body, you will glow like the sun; God will need only to look at you, nod, and say, “Well done. Enter.” President Smith says, “In the resurrection there will be different kinds of bodies; they will not all be alike. The body a man receives will determine his place hereafter. There will be celestial bodies, terrestrial bodies, and telestial bodies, and these bodies will differ as distinctly as do bodies here. . . . Some will gain celestial bodies with all the powers of exaltation and eternal increase . These bodies will shine like the sun as our Savior’s does, as described by John. Those who enter the terrestrial kingdom will have terrestrial bodies, and they will not shine like the sun, but they will be more glorious than the bodies of those who receive the telestial glory.” I like the thought of luminosity as the determining factor at that day.

The final scene of judgment I like best comes from the mortal lips of Jesus. This last one does seem to imply merit of a sort, but perhaps only that which proves that I am indeed the friend of the dusty, compassionate God incarnate, and that I have actually become godlike. In Matthew 25, the evangelist records Jesus as saying,
When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (verses 31-40)

This seems to make the incarnation universal. Everyone we meet is Christ. Which is another way of saying that everyone we meet matters to God, is godly and holy. The determining factor on judgment day will be the way I cared for the people around me—the poor and the needy, the vulnerable and the lonely. I love the way C.S. Lewis puts it: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship . . . . It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

I have felt the holiness of the people around me. I remember walking down the sidewalk in college when I looked into someone’s eyes and realized there was a depth and strength and probably sorrow and fear and loneliness I would never comprehend. And I felt a lot of love that day. I began to choose person after person and to look into their eyes and to love them. My wife tells me that the more she gets to know people, the more she loves them. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”

I know I run a risk bringing politics into, well into anything, but Lewis brought it up first. He said that in light of the divinity inherent in every person we should conduct our politics. I don’t want to say much, but just this: I am glad the Supreme Court ruled the way it did on immigration and the Affordable Care Act these last couple of weeks. God seems to have a lot to say about caring for the stranger among us. And I know some people use the word “entitlement” when speaking of the health care reform, but I like to think of it as compassion. I recognize that am not the most politically-informed person, and it is okay to disagree with me, but I like what King Benjamin said about succoring those who stand in need of succor and administering of my substance to those who stand in need, no matter how "deserving" they might or might not be. And I like Moses’s injunction to “open wide thy hand” and to give liberally. I really am alright, even happy and perhaps grateful, if I end up sacrificing a little so that someone else gets the care they need. I hope I’m not just saying that. I hope when it comes down to it I really do believe in generosity and kindness and charity. I guess all I’m saying is that every person is holy, and I’m okay letting that be the guiding principle for my politics. I’d better end this one “with love.” It really is.

(Photo by Kyle Poulter)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Memory as Revelation

This evening I was shucking corn with my two-year-old son (“shucking corn”—that’s something you should hear my two-year-old say; you should pretty much hear him say anything; his bright, laughing eyes and water-clear voice dazzle me). And suddenly a ray of memories shone down: the first time I shucked corn. I was maybe six or seven, sitting on the lawn outside my best friend, Cache’s, house. His mom sat on a chair and taught me how to shuck corn and peel off the strings. I remember being concerned about the strings. She sang songs: “Go Tell Aunt Rodie” and “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.” It was the first time I had ever heard those songs, and they were strange and interesting to me. Music stirs memories like almost nothing else. Songs can transport me.

Another time this week memory came like revelation. I was driving home with my family from my grandmother’s funeral in California and it was raining outside and suddenly (that’s the word—suddenly) a smell came from outside. It was a mixture of summer rain and road and maybe air conditioning and something else. But it smelled just like a t-shirt I loved as a kid. I hadn’t thought about that t-shirt for years. A bright yellow Bart Simpson shirt. Man, I loved that shirt. Steinbeck writes, “The memory of odors is very rich.” And that is true. To this day certain smells convey me in time and being to another, earlier version of myself. The smell of fall and books brings back-to-school butterflies. And there’s this smell, a mixture of heat and meat and street that takes me to Mexico, to the feelings of my mission. The smell of dead dog takes me there, too, but with less fondness.

I’ve often wondered what heaven will smell like. Maybe honeysuckle. We had a honeysuckle bush outside my door when I was a kid. We have one now. Heaven might smell like that. Or my wife’s cinnamon rolls. That’s a smell I could abide for eternity. Or just summer rain. Or babies’ hair. Or caramels. I think the land of Canaan was said to flow with milk and honey because those are the ingredients for caramel—the flavor of paradise. Forget Wonka’s chocolate river; heaven’s rivers run caramel.

I’ve thought a lot about the power of memory. Just before he died, Jesus told his disciples that he would send a Comforter. Then he tells them that the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, will bring all things to their remembrance. So memory is a form of revelation, the way it overtakes us and seizes us and spirits us away. Memory, like music, is evidence to me that I have a soul, an inexplicable foray into the eternal. Linear time is so once-centered, but memory brings a sense of timelessness: a moment can return, and with it a whole series of emotions and feelings. The connectedness between remembering and feeling seems evidence of the holy nature of memory. God's voice can speak to me through memory. I believe that. Often it’s the memory of mortal joy—as we spoke of memory one day in a class I was teaching, one student told me of a tree she used to love and how she wept when they cut it down. There was genuine feeling in her telling. Her memory sparked one in me and I was taken to the orchard across the street from my childhood home. There was this tree that had this almost-throne at the top—three prongs of a branch all growing out then up. I would sit up in that seat on top of the world and feel mighty, brave, and gleefully alone. Another student told me of a day in Oregon when she played all day at the beach with her cousins and they found this sort of platform. It was heaven for her. It was a heartbreakingly lovely memory of human happiness, the kind of thing I think we'll look back on with great affection in the next life. The best memories usually involve communion—laughter and love and all that. But we remember pain, too, that we might have the wisdom to enjoy. Well, it’s a remarkable thing.