25 December 2010

It Feels Like Sunday

It feels like Sunday because I went to church this morning. We've already done the whole presents and stockings thing and the kids are with their mom this week. So I went to church on Christmas morning, following a Christian tradition that goes back centuries if not nearly two millenia. And you know what? It was really nice.

Every year one hears laments about how Christmas has become too commercialized and the "reason for the season" is lost sight of. I know the joke about "Axial tilt is the reason for the season" and think it's pretty funny, but that's not what I'm talking about.

Yet every year Christmas remains as commercialized and frantic as ever. So it was good to actually slow down, spend some time at church on Christmas morning and really reflect and focus on what it's all really about. Focusing on the simple truths. Singing music that was sung on Christmases in Shakespeare's time, and thereby feeling connected to Christians centuries ago who had the same hope I do. That resonates, somehow.

All of this has made this Christmas special in ways I didn't anticipate, and I'm really glad.

24 December 2010

The Journey That Christmas Means

In high school, before my brain was fully formed, I first encountered and hated a certain poem. Later when I figured out what it meant, I once even prevailed on my bishop to let me read it from the pulpit as part of a Christmas program, knowing and savoring the probability that some in the congregation might hate it the way I first did. But anything's better than boredom, right?

This Christmas Eve will be different from most I've had in the past. The kids are elsewhere, the rest of my family is far away. Shortly I will be singing with friends in some wonderful Christmas Eve services unlike those I was brought up with.

It's a good time to ponder and reflect. A good time to go back to this poem I used to hate, but which I now love, and which I'd like to share. I like it because it's not the standard soft, gauzy, sweet-Christmas-carol-in-the-background sentimental sappy treacly retelling of its story. It's rough, gritty, and probably a lot more true to what really happened to the people involved than most other recitations. There are two basic flavors to the Christmas story, you know, and for some reason I've always liked the one about the three kings better than the one about the shepherds.

Naturally, this version was written by the great sage T.S. Eliot. And the thing which most offended me at first about it is now the centerpiece of its meaning that I like the best. Fortunately I've grown up a bit since the days when I was a Boy Scout and sang with my friends "We three kings of Orient are trying to light a loaded cigar. Bang!"

No, I understand things a little better now. Including this poem. Paradoxically, for a Christmas story, it ends by saying that "another death" would be welcome. It wasn't till years after I first read it that I understood what Eliot meant. Not the physical death of someone, but the death of the short-term-focused, self-indulgent, temporal, "natural man" as a result of the journey which the poem describes. In favor of the birth of something--someone--better, higher, loftier. Or at least capable of trying for it. It's the story of one journey, but it's also an allegory for life, and what I believe the Savior makes possible for those who will listen to His message. I hope it will add a new and unique facet to your Christmas.

The Journey of the Magi
by T. S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
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.

21 December 2010

Walking Through the Cold and Wet

Stuck in this chair all day. I like what I do, but after a full day of it I need to get out. Kids are gone. Nothing much happens Tuesday nights. I need to move, breathe fresh air. It's dark and wet and blustery outside. I pull on a sweater, jeans, and my thick grey overcoat, and venture out.

Clouds overhead reflect back the glow of city lights. Streets wet, drizzling mist in the air. Traffic's light, night is quiet. Air fresh and clean. Christmas lights glint here and there through the trees, up and down the streets. Breezes gust, blow more leaves off the trees to skid and scrape along the sidewalk. I wish I could walk all night long. Soaking in the shiny, misty, cool, fresh tranquility.

Lines from T.S. Eliot, the greatest sage of the 20th Century, come to mind. His "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Lines like this:

Twelve o'clock.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations,
Its divisions and precisions.
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory . . .

Half past three,
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark. . .
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.

The lamp said,
Four o'clock,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair.
The bed is open; the toothbrush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.

The last twist of the knife."

I love paradox and Eliot captures it so well.

I stop at the local bakery for some orange almond biscotti to have with morning tea. Then the grocery store for some grapes and Stilton for lunch. A cold breeze billows my coat as I walk slowly under the lights hung from the palm trees that seem so out of place in this weather; they should be pines. But those are further down the sidewalk, the few Christmas trees still left on the sidewalk outside the drug store. Especially fragrant just after the rain. And on up the hill, homeward, past the dim street lamps and the memories of going hand in hand with absent children along those same paths. They'll be back. So I wait, and enjoy walks on rainy nights.

20 December 2010

Random Thoughts on a Rainy Night

I've noticed that my blogging has slowed down a bit lately. There are probably several reasons for that. One, just lots of things going on that pre-occupy, and when I stop working at the end of the day I'm really tired. I think for a living, basically, so sometimes the last thing I want to do in the evening is more heavy-duty thinking. Which is kinda why I'm writing this post, I guess. Nobody reads The Brothers Karamazov over and over for fun, right? So I shouldn't try to be profound or think deep thoughts with every post. It's exhausting. So I'm just gonna write down some light extemporania so y'all can see that my life is not all sturm und drang.

The kids are with their mom for Christmas week this year, so we already had "our Christmas." This means all the pressure is off for me, basically, and life has returned to normal. Except the tree's still up, and all the decorations round the house. When I was a kid I loved nothing better than to crawl as close as I could to underneath the Christmas tree and just stare up through the branches at the lights and the ornaments all glistening and glowing, especially if the rest of the room was dark. I kinda still do it, though I don't quite fit under the tree anymore, so I'm on the sofa instead. I think about being a kid again, remembering how it was to be so care-free. But there was a lot I couldn't do, and I was powerless in lots of ways too. Would I go back to that age, if it meant giving up all I've done and learned and accomplished since then? Not a chance. Funny how that works.

One of my favorite days of the year is 22nd or 23rd December, depending on when the winter solstice falls. Because on that date, the days start getting longer again. I love summer best, probably because I grew up on the beach. I love it when the sun doesn't set till 9 pm. One of these days I need to visit Tromso Norway, where one of my great-great-grandfathers came from, just to see the midnight sun; imagine the sun not setting from 21 May to 21 July!

Got hand-made Christmas presents from the kids this year. They don't comprehend why such presents should be so much more special to me than anything they buy, but that's okay. Sooner than I'd like they'll have grown up, and one day they'll have their own kids, and they'll get it.

Still raining outside. I like that I don't have to shovel rain or scrape it off a frozen car after it stops falling. Everything glistens after rain, especially when Christmas lights are reflecting off shiny dark streets and sidewalks and cars and windows.

Run-up to Christmas week. Freeways emptying out, that's nice. Helping out with Christmas music at church. Years ago I got so tired of the same old 15 or 20 songs most Americans think is the sum total of all existing Christmas music, and I started avoiding them in favor of other, lesser-known stuff, mostly from Europe. There's such an incredible wealth of Christmas music out there. Call me a grinch, but I really can't stand "Silent Night." Not that it's a bad song, I'm just so sick of hearing it. I much prefer "Quelle est cette odeur agreable", or "Quem Pastores Laudavere", or this one just below. THAT is my idea of wonderful Christmas music.

12 December 2010

Christmas Letter

Dear Family:

We've decided to start a new tradition and send out an annual Christmas letter! We noticed a lot of you had "other plans" around Thanksgiving so we didn't get to see any of you. Maybe you're following Uncle Dallin's advice? Whatever. We thought you might like to know what the Adam & Steve family have been up to this year.

This is our first Christmas together as a married couple, and some of you may not even know the story of how we met. It happened at an Evergreen Conference about 16 months ago. Adam was the organist and I was in charge of building security that day, and I had to unlock the Joseph Smith Building chapel early so Adam could practice. We started talking, and Adam ended up getting a good amount of practice that morning. Then I had to leave, so he started working on the music.

Adam worked just a few blocks away and started showing up at the JS Building a lot after that. We had a lot in common; both served French-speaking missions, we both like to cook and to play baseball, and both of us have uncles in the First Quorum of Seventy even! Actually, years ago Elder Packer assigned my uncle to attend every Evergreen Conference and report back on everything said and everyone who attended. Elder Packer seemed really interested in those reports. Never could figure out why. Whatev!

Anyway, Adam and I started dating, We'd meet in the JS Building lobby after work and head west for clubbing, or strolling at The Gateway, sometimes we'd catch a Bees game. In fact, that's where he proposed, on the scoreboard during the 7th inning stretch! The whole stadium cheered, even my uncle who was there, and the players waved us down onto the field to run the bases hand in hand. Isn't that romantic! A few guys in suits in the crowd didn't seem too happy but we didn't care.

We got married three months later in Iowa. It was nice to have a few family members there, too bad most of you couldn't clear the conflicts from your calendar. My uncle in the Seventy couldn't go because he was suddenly assigned to the East Africa Area Presidency right after we got engaged. Oh well. At least we had both grandmas there, and they arranged for all the food. It just wouldn't be a Mormon wedding without red punch and sugar cookies and green Jell-o salad afterward. Plus the local ward let us use their chapel, and the Young Women there even decorated it with white roses and pairs of silver rings and pairs of baseball bats!

When we got back to Utah, I was laid off from my job at the JS Building, but quickly got another with much better pay at the U. Adam and I found a beautiful Craftsman place in the Avenues and made it our first home. He's still working at Zion's Bank so we got a killer rate. The bishop of the local ward lives right next door. On weekdays he's as nice as can be, and on Sundays he doesn't seem to know quite what to do with us. Adam is the ward organist of course--so few guys in the Church can play the organ anymore--but the bishop hasn't asked me to do anything yet. It's fun to watch the different reactions at church when we sit together and hold hands or rub each others' backs like the straight couples do!

We had a bunch of the neighbors over for a Christmas party. The Relief Society president said she was going to copy our Christmas decorations, and the Elder's Quorum President couldn't believe I knew more about baseball than he did. He and the Pride Center director served in the same mission and had a great time swapping stories. Small world! The bishop even stopped in for a bit but said it was "unofficial," LOL.

OK, we've saved the best for last. By this time next year Adam and I expect to be parents! We've already started work on an adoption and so next Christmas we will be telling Santa Claus stories and sending family photos to all of you. We told the Primary President, and she was a little nonplussed at first, but then assured us our new addition would be warmly welcomed. So grandmas, we hope you're as excited as we are!

It's Monday night and we're watching the football game for FHE, then we're making fudge to take to the neighbors. We've enclosed a copy of our best wedding photo as your Christmas present. Have a wonderful holiday!

Adam & Steve

08 December 2010

Why They're Stuck

Abelard's latest post related only the latest example of how a large organization with top-down control can stifle creativity in a way that runs counter to the organization's own stated goals. This kind of thing isn't confined to the LDS Church, but it's unfortunate in any organization that tries to be devoted to purposes such as the LDS Church espouses.

Beyond that, though, I was intrigued by Abe's statements of belief that only outside pressure will cause the LDS Church to change its position on homosexuality, that it will never willingly change from within. I've had this discussion with numerous friends who think differently, but I agree with Abe. Yes, there is precedent for the Church to change as a result of internal efforts, but not on issues like this. The last issue of such theological magnitude faced by the Church was polygamy, which the Church agreed to suspend only when its very survival was at stake--due to outside pressures.

For the LDS Church to change its position on homosexuality, it'd have to re-write its current understanding of the "Plan of Salvation" more significantly than has ever been done since Joseph Smith's time. In a church led by revelation, should that be a problem?

Well, ah, yes, I think it would be. Why?

Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were radicals. They were most certainly not cautious or conservative. They shook things up in Christianity like few had ever done before. Joseph was not afraid to say "thus saith the Lord", nor Brigham either.

What do we see from the LDS Church of 2010?

As Daymon Smith recently pointed out, there actually is no such thing as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." There is The Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns a bunch of subsidiaries like Intellectual Reserve, Inc., which owns the trademark "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" as well as copyrights to things like hymnbooks, publications, media productions, and so forth. There are other subsidiaries which own real estate, or operate businesses, etc. But believe it or not, there is actually no formal organization that itself bears the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

What we actually have is a family of corporations with very defined business functions. Who runs them? General Authorities who, before full-time church service, were doing what? Well, a lot of them were running corporations, or businesses, or practicing law, or engaged in other high-demand professions. Men who know how to navigate large organizations. And who run the LDS Church in the same way they ran businesses or professional practices in their prior lives. I won't go into detail, but trust me on this. I have worked closely with General Authorities and regional authorities and seen close-up how they operate. I know what I'm talking about.

This is the kind of organization that hires a PR firm to re-design its name logo to try to build more street cred amongst other Christian churches. Which surveys its members as to what they like about the divinely inspired temple ceremonies and then changes those ceremonies based on that feedback. Which concentrates authority over its official messaging in the hands of a small group of "Correlation" employees who are reportedly not above trying to tell senior leadership what they can say and how to say it, in the name of "doctrinal purity."

In short, a church run exactly like a corporation.

Now, think of the corporate business people you've known or seen. Are they radicals like Joseph Smith? Are they risk-tolerant or risk-averse? That's an easy answer. The 1978 Official Declaration extending the priesthood to all worthy men regardless of race was the first clear "thus saith the Lord" since 1890. And its text was pretty vague, even so. Now, 30+ years on, with more corporatization and Correlation having almost completely taken over the church, how risk-tolerant will top management be for any public statement about homosexuality, if they don't have a direct conduit for divine instruction that'll make any such statement fail-safe?

Not very. In fact, I submit, not at all. They're going to run as fast as they can from taking on this issue. There will be conflicting signals from individual leaders but no clear statements from the very top. Because they don't know what to do about it, and as best I can tell, there's been no new inspiration or revelation to settle the question. Nor does it seem top leadership feels much need to consider any changes, in light of Boyd Packer's speech.

This is why I think only external factors will succeed. The Church's inertia on this issue is too tied not only to cultural prejudice but to a theological construct which prevents the kind of change that needs to happen, unless some unprecedented revelation comes that shatters prior understandings. And that, my friends, is something risk-averse corporate managers--who now have complete control of the LDS Church--will never seek.

06 December 2010

Ordinary Stuff

Saturday morning I went to help clean the church. This is not a task that most people relish. But I looked forward to it, and had a great time. Everybody had assigned tasks, of course. I worked by myself, sweeping, dusting, polishing furniture, cleaning doors and windows. Beethoven's 9th blaring in my ears.

I surprised myself a little, even. I knew I wouldn't mind doing it, but I liked it more than I'd expected to. Wonder why. Maybe it's because all my work during the week is conceptual: I write, I think, I read, I talk. That's basically it. I like it of course, but a steady diet of nothing but one thing all the time can get monotonous for anyone. So it was nice to literally get my hands dirty, see something transform from dusty and grimy to clean and shining right before my eyes. Therapeutic, in a way. The sort of almost instant gratification that I don't get very often. And nice to know that I had done my bit to keep the church clean. It was like saying to God "Here's a way I can actually show you that I'm grateful for everything I have, I'll help make Your house clean and neat so that those who come here will feel welcomed and comforted."

I'm struck by little things in life sometimes, ordinary things. Going to the grocery store or the drugstore no doubt seems like mindless drudgery to many, and I understand that. But I like it a lot. My first law firm job after school was in a far-away country which at the time had a very protectionist government; American goods were extremely expensive and hard to find, and local markets were very small and not well-stocked. But from time to time I was able to access the big American grocery store and drugstore on the US Army base, and it was like being instantly transported back home again.

Americans who haven't had the experience of living far away, without all the comforts and conveniences they take for granted, wouldn't fully understand how good we have it here. But I'm glad I had that experience because I have never again taken for granted the countless little things in my life that are good, and convenient, and helpful, and make my life easier and more pleasant. Things as minor as walking into a clean, well-lighted, well-stocked, safe, secure, friendly grocery store. Even today, whenever I walk into one here, I remember what it was like to be in that other country where imported bananas were illegal (I'm not kidding) and a "big" store was maybe 1000 square feet and its selection of goods was mediocre at best. To be surrounded every day here by such abundance, in such safety, is something I don't take for granted anymore. I'm grateful for it every day, and for all the little reminders, the ordinary things, that tell me my life is pretty good.