Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Lifting Hands That Hang Down

A friend of my mother once asked what I did for work. I responded that I worked with homeless families in Salt Lake City. She told me how sweet and kind that was of me, to which I responded, "I just feel blessed not to have a heroin addiction." I think she thought I was joking. I wasn't.

I began working in Salt Lake City doing case management with homeless families in July of this year. This was after months of stress, unemployment, and a very depressing bank account. I didn't know what to expect when I started at The Road Home, and a lot of times I still have no idea what to expect from day to day. That's the adventure of it. It's exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Yes, I actually get paid to work there. Yes, I get benefits, and even paid holidays (holla at you Columbus Day)! There are days that I love my job and days where I just want to hide. But, I love the people I work with -- both clients and coworkers.

I'm writing about this because I've had time to pause and reflect on what exactly the work I do means and why I do what I do. Working with people who are in constant crisis is anything but a walk in the park. Some days, it's downright hell. When I tell people about my work, they respond in a few ways: "Oh, that's so sweet." "That must be SO rewarding." "I could never do that." That last one frustrates me the most. In essence, individuals who respond in such a manner are saying, "I don't know that I could ever work with people who are so different than myself or get involved in work that required feelings and suffering." I paint with a broad brush, and do so on purpose.

That final response irritates me because I believe in a God who commands us to do the things that we would rather avoid. I believe in a God who commands me to be in the trenches loving my neighbors as myself and giving what I have to the poor and destitute. I believe in a God who blessed me with the capacity to do the work I love because He knew I could. I believe in a God who commands us to reach out to the poor and needy, to rescue those drowning in their own sufferings. I believe in a God who wants us to treat His children equally, regardless of situation, status, or station.

I feel blessed to believe in such a God. There are few things I believe in as firmly as the God I have just described to you. I was raised in a faith that preaches the ideals of a man who sought out the most destitute and forsaken people and dined with them, lived among them, and loved them. He did not do so at a distance, hoping a simple wave of his checkbook would solve the ills of the world; rather, this man, whom many call the Son of God, immersed himself and gave entirely of himself to the people like those I see every day.

The people I work with are not statistics or nameless bums. The people I work with have lives and stories and experiences that surpass anything I can even comprehend. As I sit with clients in my office or drive them to appointments, I get to know the deepest parts of their souls. And in that darkness, turmoil, and confusion, I find hope and love.

You may shudder or shy away from the individuals I work with. Some of you may even condemn them, spewing forth poisonous rhetoric that such people deserve what they got. That is not Christian. That is not what individuals who profess to be followers of Christ do in any circumstance. I'm not asking you to give money out to every person who asks you. That doesn't help. That merely satiates the desire to feel like a good person, much like the priest and the Levite must have done to the poor man who lay dying on the road to Jericho. Bind up the wounds. That is what I am asking. Lift the hands that hang down. Please do not just rest on your laurels and do nothing. There are people in need, there are chances for good all around. Please, do them, and do them because that is what God -- in whatever form you believe him to be -- wants from you and wants from me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sometimes, Life Changes

Sometimes, life changes in very unexpected ways. It did that when I was going to transfer out of BYU after my mission and instead stayed to complete my degree. It did it again when I got an offer to teach middle school English in Kansas City with Teach For America, and instead decided to once again stay at BYU to work on my Master's in Social Work. And now, life has done it again.

This last semester has been a hellish adventure. I began the semester with the highest of hopes for my clinical education. No longer were classes being taught by professors who had no theoretical grounding and just rambled. This was to be the semester of solid, theory-based practice. I started going to therapy, thought I was getting my life under control, and feeling confident about the work I was doing.

And then life changed.

In the middle of February, I had an emotional breakdown. I ended up at the hospital, and spent a week in inpatient care working through issues of depression and suicidal thoughts and plans. My time at the hospital taught me the importance of mindfulness and support networks. Throughout it all, my family and friends were a great support. I told the social workers at the hospital there that I was just there for an immersive social work experience so that I could understand what the client experiences in those settings. They didn't buy it.

After the hospital, I reentered the world of academia. I tried to slow down a little, but still keep my rigorous schedule. I had presentations to work on, papers to write, and statistical models to create. Life seemed to normalize again.

And then life changed. Again.

This time, it was much slower. I began to isolate myself from those closest to me, stopped doing things that I enjoyed, lost interest in my school work and social life. I became despondent. One night, I decided that I was going to end it all. The appeal of nonexistence became greater than the desire for life. The next day, I was once again in an inpatient facility, this time for five days. I ended up going back to the hospital, the one thing I committed myself not to do after the first stint. But, I was safe. That was important.

While in the hospital, I had a sort of Come to Jesus moment, where I realized that if I left the hospital and didn't change the status quo, I would end up dead before I had a Master's degree. That was a pretty sobering moment. And so, life began to change again. After lots of really deep discussions with professors, mentors, and my therapist, I came to the conclusion that I needed to take a break from school. That's right. No Master's. No more social work. No more BYU. For someone whose whole life since 2007 has revolved around school, academia, and BYU, this was scary. My therapist said I dreaded the idea of not being in school because that's where I got my validation for life.

The lesson here is that life changes, often in ways we don't expect or welcome. And sometimes, it's frightening as hell. And sometimes, even though it's terrifying, it's what is necessary or right or good. Even when such change is not what you wanted. Even when you do everything in your power to resist that change. And so, we adapt, evolve, and develop. All in a response to change. It is change that allows us to change.

Life changed. I'm still here. That's a good thing.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas 2013 -- First to the Shepherds

CHRISTMAS 2013 -- First to the Shepherds

As I ponder this Christmas season, I find myself going back to this painting by Carl Bloch. It captures the moment the angel of the Lord appears to shepherds who were "abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night."

I love this painting because it captures the essence of the message of Christ. Shepherds are kind of low on the whole socioeconomic status scale. They don't make tons of money. They probably smell bad. They spend their lives with animals who are probably dumber than rocks. Not exactly rock star status.

Yet, these are the choice individuals to whom the announcement of the birth of the Messiah was first made manifest. These are the individuals with whom the Savior of mankind would identify himself with when He referred to himself as the Good Shepherd. Isn't it curious that the Son of God would place himself with the often maligned shepherds rather than at the thrones of kings, where He rightfully belonged? To those who study the life of Christ, the answer is an obvious no.

To be a true Christian is, I think, to be like those messengers of Christ on that first Christmas Day. If, as so often said in church services, the spirit of Christmas is really the spirit of Christ, how are we honoring him? How are we striving to be more like Him whose message went first to the shepherds?

What does that mean? Here I am talking in abstractions without application. I'm getting there. Don't you fret your pretty little head.

The message of Christmas is the message of hope through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We maintain as Christians that we follow Him and His teachings. If this is true, ought not we be living and acting the way Christ did? He who sought out the poor, the broken, the ill and infirmed, the despised and rejected, the lonely. Ought not we do the same? Should we not spread His message of hope to the hopeless? Is that not the true spirit of Christmas?

Pope Francis, whom I affectionately think of as Pope Social Justice, recently wrote, "We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them." That, dear friends, is the spirit of Christ. His message of joy and hope was first preached to the shepherds and then to the woman taken in adultery and then to the leper and the lame man.

May we, too, during this Christmas season have the faith to be as the angel of the Lord and deliver hope, happiness, and healing. First and foremost to the shepherds.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Guest Post: The Parable of the Provo City Center Temple

My good friend Vance Marcus Bryce is an English student here at BYU. He wants to go to law school. He's basically amazing. Just saying. He has a way with words, and this post is evidence of that. I asked him if I could reblog it. He gave me permission. I hope you find as deep a meaning in his words as I did.

In the center of the City of Provo, Utah there is a large building made of brown brick. It is called the Provo Tabernacle. This particular tabernacle is built on the southwest plot where Center Street and University Avenue, the two arterial streets of Provo, intersect. This tabernacle is the hero of our story.

The Architect of the tabernacle wanted to create a building at the center of the city to represent the spiritual center of that society. The finest materials were gathered to build it and many people helped in its construction. The organ inside was costly, the woodwork and balconies took specific and unique skills to construct. When she was dedicated on April 17, 1898, the Tabernacle marveled at her beauty and magnificence. The people who had built her had sacrificed their time and money to construct her. The tabernacle could hold a congregation or audience of 3,000 people. She enjoyed the performances of many well known musicians, including Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her pulpit would play host to many speakers, including Provo Mayors, professors from the University, a President of the United States, Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.

After many years, as with any temporal structure, the Tabernacle begin to fall into disrepair. The cupola atop the edifice was removed because the magnificent roof had begun to sag. While many people still enjoyed its use, the tabernacle waned in her significance and novelty. As the building’s pipes and wires aged, they were replaced, and the grounds kept watered and tame. She gained a respect, her magnificence transformed into veneration. Many people began to see the tabernacle as a building that had always been and that would always be just that, a tabernacle.

The neighborhood around the tabernacle also transformed. With the advent of superstores and supermarkets, the downtown business district lost its charm and gained several pawn shops and seedy motels. The Architect watched in sadness as his building’s importance waning purpose was forgotten. The building became a place to attend an offhand graduation ceremony or stake conference. People began to forget her beauty. Almost no one remembered the sacrifices that the people who built it had endured to give this gift.

The tabernacle was content to enjoy her life outside of the limelight. She enjoyed watching the Fourth of July parades and festivities every year. She particularly enjoyed special performances from visiting music groups. It was then that she felt alive and useful again. Year after year she was the silent, penitent receptor of words of wisdom and beautiful music.

The Architect was happy because she was happy. To her creator, the tabernacle’s happiness was most important. Time passed, and things stayed rather the same. The Architect was only saddened because her potential had not been met. She was a beautiful old building but she did not serve as a spiritual center for her visitors. The friends she had gathered did not instil a sense of beauty or hope. When the Old Brigham Young Academy north of her was saved from demolition and re established as the city library, she rejoiced and wondered at the fortunes of those who fall on hard times.

Everything changed on one cold, Christmastime night in 2010. A lamp had been left on in the tabernacle. The heat from the lamp interacted with some chemicals and cloths and the unthinkable occurred. A small fire started and began to feed on the old curtains and carpets of the tabernacle. Her beautiful woodwork began to become scorched. For quite a while that night, the tabernacle hid the damage occurring inside of her, with shame. The quickness of the flame in overtaking her was startling. She had been content with her old pipes, and furnishings, but they were unable to serve her when the sprinkler system failed and the flames grew larger.

A man had responded to an alarm signaling the fire, but had only done so to silence the alarm. Hours later the entire building was engulfed in flames and the fireman served to save what they could of the ravaged tabernacle.

For weeks after the fire, people were shocked. They had expected the Tabernacle to always be what she had appeared to be, a tabernacle. The tabernacle was in a lot of pain. The old pipes and wires were something that nobody could see, so she had not been ashamed of her aging, but the fire had exposed many of her private weaknesses and histories to anyone who walked near her. She thought of the purpose that her Architect had given her and wept. She did not resemble any sort of spiritual center any more. She was broken, burnt, and worthless. She began to listen to the fire department officials as they deconstructed the reason for her demise. She heard the news reporters question her future. She gave up hope on her purpose. She understood that her Architect had built her weak enough to be conquered. She decided to believe the voices of the people around her that said she could not be anything greater than the debris she had become.

That was a long, cold winter. She wished they would knock her walls down and finish the job that the fire had started.

Then came whispers from different voices. A university student excited about discovering the original pattern of wallpaper from the architect, a group of Provo citizens concerned with her preservation, and rumors of a new purpose for the tabernacle.

One late night a redheaded boy walked slowly in front of her. She was surrounded by fences, her windows boarded up, her beautiful trees burned or cut down; her grass was yellow. The boy paused and looked at his feet. He turned and looked at the scorched brick and walls held up by supports. He sighed and looked at the debris. He began to cry. He sat down on the traffic barricade and sobbed. He tucked his knees under his chin and wailed. The tabernacle, ashamed at her appearance, tried with all of her might to comfort the boy. Frustrated, that she could not fulfill her purpose to comfort his spirit, she became angry at her Architect and cursed Him for ever being constructed.

Then something very unusual happened. The boy began to talk to the tabernacle. “You and I aren’t that different,” he sobbed. “I feel just like you look.” The tabernacle was surprised because the only things that talked to her were other buildings...and her Architect. What was this boy trying to do? What was his purpose? Why would he come consult an old, broken, burnt, tabernacle for comfort when she had no comfort to give? The boy began to talk out loud to his own Architect, his Creator. He talked of loneliness, of regret, and anger. He plead for help, for patience, for hope.

The tabernacle wondered at the boy. She understood his regret at not fulfilling his purpose. She understood that he too was burnt and broken. Then the boy asked something that astounded the tabernacle. He asked his Creator if the tabernacle could please be rebuilt as a Holy Temple. The tabernacle was flattered at such a prospect, but she knew that it was not possible. Provo already had a temple, and she could never be good enough to be such a building, especially now that she had given up on her purpose.

Months passed and the boy and the tabernacle forgot that prayer. The tabernacle became comfortable as debris, and welcomed the new attention she was getting. One day, her Architect came to inspect her. She was worried that her Architect would be disappointed. She wished she had been dismantled and sold off as souvenirs. Her Architect blinked tears away as he took off a hard hat. “She is so beautiful,” he said. “These walls were built with such hope and sacrifice, by those who loved her. This tabernacle was a spiritual center for many generations of people. We love her so much, just as she is now.” The tabernacle was surprised to know that her burnt and broken pieces could be loved. She began to understand something. She was not debris. She was not a landmark. She wasn’t even a tabernacle. She was something much more important. She was the reason that the boy had decided to continue living. She was fulfilling her purpose, even in her weakened and dilapidated state.

The Architect spoke again, “Yes, it can be done. It is going to take a lot of time, it is going to take an agonizing amount of work, it is going to get worse before it gets better. We are going to have to be very careful and diligent. All of my workers must follow my instructions carefully, in order to finish this Temple.” The tabernacle was shocked. She knew she was not a temple, she couldn’t be. She was ugly, burnt, and broken. Worst of all, she had not been fulfilling her purpose as she should. She would not believe.

Many people came to see her and offer advice. Plans were made, and plans were remade. There were voices that argued that she could not be a temple, there were voices that said that the resources and sacrifice needed to make her into a temple were not worth what she was. She liked listening to those voices, because she agreed. A Prophet came to dedicate and break her ground to become a Temple. She still did not believe.

She was shown a picture of what she would become and she feared at the beauty of that ideal. She did not understand how she could possibly obtain such grace and beauty. She doubted she would ever look as great as what they promised she could look. The Nu Skin building laughed at her aspirations and told her that he would always stand much taller and generate more money than she ever would. She convinced herself that she would be a better market than a temple, or maybe a stage.

The seedy hotel to her south was demolished, her grounds were dug up, everything was scraped from her walls and removed. This was very painful for the tabernacle. She missed her old friends and was very uncomfortable with all of the changes. Sometimes she wondered if she really wanted to be a temple. The big machines began digging all around her. They dug until there was nothing under her, but her foundation. The workers even removed her old foundation and established several temporary ones.

Some of the Architect’s workers became frustrated with the tabernacle, because it took so much time to change her. The workers looked at the tabernacle and saw debris. They wondered why they were doing this. The tabernacle plead with the workers to please have patience. She had begun to catch the Architect’s vision. The workers complained to the Architect, but the Architect asked the workers to keep scraping, keep removing, keep digging, continue strengthening. He reminded them that this was not the easiest way to do things, but it was the best way.

One cold, rainy, April night, the Tabernacle felt particularly lonely and hopeless. She was standing on several steel beams, but she felt like she was floating in midair. There was no foundation for her to keep herself solid. “I am not a very good temple,” she thought. “How long is this going to take? Is it even possible for such as I to become something so great?”

She looked down at the street in front of her and noticed the redheaded boy from over a year before standing in front of her. She could tell he had been crying. He stood on top of the traffic barricade and looked at her steel beams and wondered. He then did that weird thing he liked to do and started talking to her. “You are doing so well! Look at how far you have come! Remember when you didn’t even know you were a temple!?”

The tabernacle began to take courage. The boy said, “Do you know what the word tabernacle means?” The old bricks creaked in the wind as with a shake of the head. “It means, temporary dwelling.” The tabernacle frowned at this discovery. The boy got really excited and said, “The Architect always meant for you to be a Temple. He has just been working with you until you were ready to understand that you are not a meeting house. You are not a tabernacle and you are certainly not debris. You are a Temple!” The Temple understood what he meant. She realized what the Architect wanted her to become and it filled her with joy. Her hollow center, her broken windows, her removed ceiling, her absent landscape, the rain water flooding beneath her, the lies she had been told, the limitations she had given herself all vanished. She was a Temple, even now.

The boy laughed and skipped. He loosened his tie and he unbuttoned his top button. He grabbed the fence and smiled. He leaned in close and whispered very softly, “And so am I!”

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Lessons from a Rich Man

The other day at church I was sitting in Elders' Quorum as we discussed a lesson by Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title of the lesson was, "With God All Things Are Possible."  As I sat and pondered the discussion being led by the teacher, I recognized and empathized with one scriptural experience that Lorenzo Snow expounds upon. This story, the rich young man and Jesus, lends its concluding statement to the lesson title. 

Back story: A rich young ruler comes to Christ and asks what he can do to inherit eternal life. He tells Jesus that he keeps the Law of Moses, doing all the law commands. Christ looks at him and tenderly says, "One thing thou lackest. Go and sell all that thou hast and give to the poor and follow me." The rich young man is discomforted by this and leaves saddened, unwilling to give up the thing that brings him meaning and happiness.

Here's what Lorenzo Snow taught about the preceding interaction: 

"The Savior saw in this young man a cleaving to something that was not in accordance with the law of the celestial kingdom. He saw, peradventure, a disposition in him to adhere in his feelings to that which was injurious to him, and would render a compliance to all the demands of the gospel disagreeable or impossible, therefore he told him that he should go and sell all that he had “and give to the poor, and follow him.”

This was a note I wrote to myself as a result of reading the previous passage:

The Lord perhaps saw something in me that could have been injurious to my "compliance to all the demands of the gospel" and that's why he redirected me away from Teach For America. Do I understand it? Not entirely. I sometimes wonder if I would not be in the crazy spiritual or emotional state that I am in now had I been in Kansas City. But, apparently this is where The Lord wants me to be.

It was not that the rich young man wasn't righteous, wasn't trying his best to do what God wanted or expected him to do. It was that he could not imagine a greater happiness than that he found in his wealth, riches, and power. 

This comparison extends beyond just Teach For America. In other aspects of my life -- my Master's program, staying at BYU, my commitment to my faith, my career choices, and personal lifestyle choices -- I see the Lord posturing the same invitation, pleading with me to recognize the things in me that are "not in accordance with the law of the celestial kingdom." But I, like the young man, cannot imagine circumstances in which my happiness could be greater than it currently is. Granted, I also recognize that my level of happiness is not entirely where it could or should be, but that too is a part of life. 

What things do you have in your life that may "render a compliance to all the demands of the gospel disagreeable or impossible"? What do you need to "sell to the poor?" What do I need to sell?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Reading for Fun!

My parents should be grateful that I buy books instead of drugs. That's really all I have to say about that. I mean, there are worse things I could be spending my money on. 

Anyway, this is my summer fun reading list. I love all the books!

The Great Gatsby -- F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Perks of Being of Wallflower --Stephen Chbosky
The Gifts of Imperfection -- Brene Brown
Daring Greatly -- Brene Brown
Long Walk to Freedom -- Nelson Mandela
Conversations with Myself -- Nelson Mandela
I Thought it was Just Me (But It Isn't) -- Brene Brown
Teaching As Leadership -- Steven Farr (Teach For America)
Man's Search for Meaning --  Viktor Frankl
A Chance to Make History -- Wendy Kopp (Teach For America)
The Road Less Traveled -- M. Scott Peck
How Children Succeed -- Paul Tough
The Brothers Karamazov -- Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Audacity of Hope -- Barack Obama
The Little Prince -- Antoine de Saint-Exupery 
The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life -- Terryl Givens
The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics -- C.S. Lewis

Some of these books I have read before, some I'm already halfway through (or at least into), some of them may take more than the summer (see The Brothers Karamazov), and others I am reading for the first time. Might as well keep the imagination busy! Reading for pleasure is the best!