Friday, August 24, 2012

The Numinous

A couple of weekends ago Ellie had a hard time sleeping, so I took her outside to see if we could catch the tail end of the Perseids, to watch the sky rain stars. Ellie is often calmed by the natural world—by the feeling of sun or stars on her skin. There is something remarkable and humbling and holy about a sky full of small, bright, distant specks of glory. “If a man would be alone,” writes Emerson, “let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. . . . If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” A good metaphor for the ubiquitous, commonplace glory that we swim in: like the miraculous, life-sustaining air we breathe, the beauty and grandeur of God’s creativities become invisible to us precisely because we see them so often.

"Celestial Rose" by Gustave Dore

How often has the green ground slipped out from beneath my feet as I’ve stared into the brilliant black and glistening night sky? I drove across a lovely blue and gray desert with my family, and as the sun lay down to rest, the stars came out to play. I felt for a few moments that smallness that comes from observing the tilting, whirling universe of light. Hopkins writes exuberantly, “Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies! / O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!”

But that night with Ellie the stars were not out, and we could not see brightness hurtling through the dark universe. The sky was closer, covered. It might have been smoke. The mountains around our home have been smoldering like Sinai for weeks. It has showered ash on our heads and on our lawns. Or it might have been clouds.

Lydia, who, like her mother, has exceptional olfactory capacities, sniffed loudly one day when she was probably three years old as we passed a gas station. “What’s that yucky smell I smell?” We told her we thought it was probably gasoline. She sniffed for a minute more. “I only smell one good smell.” She took a deep draught of air. “It’s the clouds,” she said.

I am struck by how often clouds are the manifestation of God’s presence in scripture: “And, behold, the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.” Or, “And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him.” God leads Israel out of Egypt by a cloud in the daytime. He promises to spread a cloud over His people for a covert in a day of heat. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the bright cloud overshadows Jesus and His three dusty, weary friends, and the voice of God the Father rains down out of the cloud. Peter’s simple and apt response has long resonated with me: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” I wonder what kind of cloud it was that covered the Son of God on that bright day. Cirrus—(which comes to mean “a curl of hair”)? Nimbus—(“rain”)? Cumulus—(“a heap”)? For a long time I thought the word numinous  must have something to do etymologically with clouds. In Spanish the word for cloud is “nube.” But I was wrong. It comes from the Latin for “nod,” and signifies God’s divine approval shown by a nod of the eternal Head. Oh, numinous clouds. There was a summer when I was a teenager in which I climbed up the fence onto my roof and sat watching the sunset every night. I took pictures. I wanted to document a whole summer of sunsets. That was a good summer.

But as often as not, the cloud also represents the hiddenness of God, our inability to perceive all that He is. Our failure to see. He’s always there on the fringe, just out of sight: just the hindquarters, but not the face. And yet, one day Christ will come in a cloud and in glory. And all people shall see it together. “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” So I watch the clouds as well as the stars.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Feeding Baby Snails

As I was about to throw a handful of dandelions into the garbage can, Lydia said to me, “Dad, I have a better idea to do with dandelions.” “What’s that?” I asked. “Just give them to me, and I’ll show you.” “I don’t think so,” I said and tossed them in the trash, figuring she planned to blow them around the yard or something. “Dad, I was going to put them down the drain grate in the backyard to feed the baby snails so they don’t starve.” I smiled. That seems like a lovely metaphor for living a life of compassion and imagination: Feed the baby snails. I think I’d like to see it on a bumper sticker. When I saw her a few minutes later heading to the backyard with a handful of dandelions, I didn't try to stop her.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An Apology

Tonight as we ate dinner, my wife said to me, “Don’t you think your post about vegetarianism was a little bit sacrilegious?” “Sacrilegious?” I asked. “Or blasphemous,” she said, “What’s the right word?” I began to feel uncomfortable. She said, “Maybe it’s just me. . . . You know me; I never even finish a book, except the scriptures. And I wouldn’t read those if they weren’t scripture.” This is true. My wife is one of the most spiritually sensitive people I know. She has no stomach for violence or distastefulness or darkness in media. She refuses to allow into her being anything that would offend the Holy Ghost. She will put down a book at the first taste of anything that is not virtuous, lovely, or praiseworthy. So, I trust her. I changed the last paragraph of that post. I will ask her if I should change more. And I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by my words. “Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.”

I think I should also say this: I don’t propose to propound much doctrine here. Sacrilege and blasphemy was certainly not my intention; maybe whimsy. But then whim can be pretty sacrilegious, I suppose. You probably remember that passage from “Self-Reliance”: “I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.” Apparently all whim is not entirely whimsical. So, please accept my apology.

And know that I realize many of my capricious musings about God and the world may be entirely wrong. Theologian and pastor Brian McLeron writes, “We must never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God, whether in prose or in poetry.” I look forward with great earnestness to the day when I will learn how wrong I truly was. I think God will absolutely surprise and delight us with how low our estimation of what He has prepared for us really is. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man.”

That said, I guess I should contradict myself, write a little doctrine (as I understand it), and let you know how holy and beautiful I find the whole idea of sacrifice in the Old Testament. I love the procession from sin offering to burnt offering to peace offering. These happened in a specific order for the ancient Israelite. We must first offer up our sins (made possible only through the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which all other sacrifices prefigured), we repent and turn from darkness to light; then we offer up the whole animal: burnt offering as ultimate consecration; and finally we sit down at peace with God to enjoy a meal of communion together. “Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

On Vegetarianism, or A Sweet-Smelling Savour

Joseph Smith said something about being wary of fanciful and flowery and heated imagination. So I am wary of what I will now write. But Einstein said that imagination is better than knowledge. And there’s just so much that God seems to have left to pure imagination.

So my mom was practically vegan for a time. It was for health. My grandma had lots of strokes, and my mom didn’t want that. When I was a teenager, my friend Blake who drowned in an underwater cave shortly after I got home from my mission, told me that the most political statement I could make was vegetarianism. He was a devout Krishna devotee, and he prayed and meditated while the rest of us scampered unawares over this God-created dust. He was vegan; for animal-rights reasons. Religious reasons. He gave me my first copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I think somehow that changed my life. It was the first book I had read in a long time for fun. I wept thinking of poor Holden Caulfield. I used to give copies of that book to every girl I fell in love with. One gave me my copy back with all the swear words marked. “This is your favorite book?” she asked. Well, Holden smears out the swear words on the school grounds, you know? And he’s a good brother to Phoebe.

But I wanted to write about vegetarianism. Did you know that in the Millennium we will all be vegetarian? When I tell my students this, they usually groan. Oh, there’s often that girl with the hemp shoulder bag with patches all over it who rejoices in this knowledge. But most teenagers just like hamburgers.

But, think about it. There is no death the way we experience it now after Jesus comes. There’s just the changing in the twinkling of an eye. You die, but you don’t sleep. Your body goes from translated to resurrected, just like that. So, it would follow that eating dead animals would be difficult, don’t you think? You go ahead and try to catch that glorified cow and grind immortal beef products. I don’t imagine it happening.

And, here’s the part that makes me smile: God lives in an immortal state. “Wait,” my students say, “so you’re saying we will never get to eat meat again?” Well, no, I’m not exactly saying that. But think about it, when God wipes away all tears from off all faces, do you think anyone’s really going to be lamenting the absence of hamburgers? “Yes,” says one of the boys on the back row, “I don’t want to be resurrected.” I try to assure them that Jesus will probably just open up a Burgers-of-Light stand and that no one will miss the cow ones. They’re not always convinced.

“But Jesus ate fish and honeycomb after His resurrection,” a shy girl on the front row might say. Ah. Now we are getting somewhere. But where was He when He did it? On a fallen, broken, death-filled world. I don’t know how the immortal palate is, but I imagine that a god might long for a taste of beef or fish again. So the first thing He does is to eat. I imagine the smile of delight.

But then He goes to His world of light and life. But what if, just what if He visited His worlds every once in a while just to get a burger? “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby many have entertained angels unawares.” And as often as not in scripture, it’s hard to tell if an angel is an angel or if it’s God Himself. Jacob wrestled an angel and declared, “I have seen God face to face.” In the plains of Mamre, Abraham rushed hospitably to feed a trio of angels “a calf tender and good.” But as they converse, the trifecta becomes God Himself: “And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh?” Well, so God could show up on my porch or on the sidewalk in front of my favorite restaurant and ask for a little hospitality. He might be testing me. But He might just want a burger, you know? And this mortal world is one of the only places to get one.

And that would explain why He delighted so in the olfactory aspect of offerings: “A sweet smelling savour unto the Lord.” Well, it’s something to think about.

(painting is "Bringing Food" by Brian Kershisnik)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I WAKE and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hoĆ¼rs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
    With witness I speak this. But where I say        5
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.
  I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;        10
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.
  Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins

We got back from ten days of vacation to find weeds thriving in our yard. Amazonian. We could barely see the house when we pulled up, and the lawn is thorns and thistles. By the sweat of my face, I’ll get to them eventually. But the thing that worries me more is the jungle in my soul. When Adam and his new bride walked out of that paradise into a weed-ridden world, they walked also into sort of internal hell that must have shocked and scared them. The natural man: carnal, sensual, devilish, wretched. I’m tired of being horrid. Here’s the thing. I usually write these joyful, affirmative little posts. But sometimes I feel wretched. Straight wretched. Makes-me-sick-to-my-stomach-and-want-to-retch wretched. The kind of wretched I think Paul and Nephi were talking about. Nephi says it well: “Notwithstanding the great goodness of the Lord, in showing me his great and marvelous works, my heart exclaimeth: O wretched man that I am!” Nephi possesses a keen perception of the holy, the beautiful, the lovely, and the good. But perhaps because of that he more fully senses the contrast between the exquisite things of God and the dirt in his soul. I get a little impatient when people in my Sunday school classes want to dismiss Nephi’s lament as oversensitivity to minor sinfulness. With all respect, I think he was straight wretched sometimes. A real devil. And I think the hellishness of his own heart saddened him.

Paul knew it, too. “What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that I do. . . . For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. . . . O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

A couple of Sundays ago, my brother-in-law spoke in church about Jesus and grace. After church we sat around a table at my wife’s parents’ house and spoke of sacred things. My heart burned. It was a day of holiness. My two-year-old was awake later than he should have been. I knew I should have put him in bed earlier. By the time I got around to it, he was past ballistic. He was hysterical with a sort of exhausted psychosis. I have seen that manic look in his eyes before, have had that bedtime wrestle, and I decided to take him for a drive. As I hoped, he fell asleep in his carseat within a couple of blocks of the house. When we pulled up back at my in-laws’, my other children came bouncing out of the house to greet us. They woke him up. He started screaming again. I tried to put him in bed, but to no avail. I put him back in the car and drove for a while. He screamed maniacally the whole time. I yelled at him to be quiet and go to sleep. I fully expected that would help. I was not rational. I felt my soul slipping away from me, offended. We got to a high school parking lot, and I stopped the car. I got him out and he hugged me tight and kissed me. I felt like dirt. Compassion filled me. I held him close and told him I love him. Then I asked if he wanted to go back to grandma’s house. He started screaming again. I didn’t know what to do. I asked him if he wanted to stay there in the dark parking lot or go back with me to grandma’s. He screamed that he wanted to stay there with me. I knew I did not want to do what I was about to do. But I was tired.

You need to know something about this two-year-old. I love him like I love the sun. He is my third child and so good-natured that I am convinced God sent me an ancient, good soul to uplift me. He has the smile of an elf and speaks in full sentences just because he can. When we were camping a couple of weeks ago, I stood up on a little tree stump. Oliver came and pushed against my foot. I don’t know what he was trying to do, but he said in his small voice, “My dad is so strong.” Later, he fell and got scraped up. I got a wet wipe to wash away the dust. While I wiped his arm, he snuggled his head into me and said, “You’re a good daddy.” Another night, when I was tucking him in with more patience and more love, he said to me, “I want you to thing me thome thongs an den thing me a thory.” “What do you want the story to be about?” I asked. “A dragon,” he said, “dat’s creepy. An a angel.” Later he wanted a story about Jesus, a hippopotamus, a bird and a gingerbread man.  It was a good one, I tell you. Sing me a story. That’s all he really wanted that night, a song and some love.

Instead, I roughly set him down in the high school parking lot and got in the car. I started the car and began to drive away. Something inside of me died when I looked back to see him running after the car in his white nightshirt. He looked like a ghost. He was sobbing. I stopped the car and picked him up. I put him in his carseat and drove home. I felt wretched. Unholy. Ungodly.

The next morning he loved me as if I had not betrayed my sacred responsibility to him as his father. He climbed into my bed to snuggle.

Light is my favorite cereal.
I thrive on the luminous, the iridescent.

This day, as I woke between the small child tucked into me
and the soft comfort of my best friend,
I drank light.

No summer sunset ever tasted so sweet.

And here’s the point: amid a world of wretchedness, I believe in grace. In some apocalyptic way, I think God will insert Himself into the flow of history and bring about a radical change, an abrupt rupture in the order of things. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” “Behold, I make all things new.” “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, not come to mind. But be ye glad and rejoice in that which I create: for, behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy.” God will one day climb into my bed and snuggle me, despite all the wretchedness of my soul. And my ashes will turn to beauty. My darkness will give way to His light.

The other day I asked Lydia, “What are you made of? Honey and light?” She smiled and said, “I’m made of everything. Except Satan and cigarettes and things like that.” Except with a lovely lisp that accentuated the alliteration: “Ekthept Thatan and thigaretth and thingth  like that.”

Sometimes I feel like I’m all Satan and cigarettes. But I wait earnestly with Paul who speaks of a glory that shall be revealed in us: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.” Make me holy. Come, Lord Jesus, come. We are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” In this I desperately hope. 

(The painting is "Hole" by Brian Kershisnik)