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! 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The World's Too Big

Before you read any further, watch the first 40 seconds of the video. Listen to the conversation that occurs between Clark and his mom. That's what I want to talk about.

The world's too big, Mom. 
Then make it small.

Do you ever feel like that? Like the world is just too big and you can't do anything about it? You don't know how to make it small or every attempt to do so ends poorly? Maybe not. I do. Almost every day as of late. It's kind of scary, to be honest.

I feel like the world is too big, like I am losing control over everything that I once had in control. Clark experiences this in a way a child with autism may experience sensory overload. Everything just comes at him all at once and he can't do it. For me, while it's not a audio-visual sensory overload, I feel a sense of emotional and psychological overload. There are too many things flying at me at the same time and I can't handle them all; I can't dodge them all. I can't control everything, and that scares me.

I end up freaking out as a result, going crazy wondering why the world is so big. I can't just do one thing, but I can't do everything. I don't know how to make the world small because I've spent countless amounts of time trying to process and take in everything.

I can't think again. Not ever again. I don't know if you've ever felt like that. That you wanted to sleep for a thousand years. Or just not exist. Or just not be aware that you do exist. Or something like that. I think wanting that is very morbid, but I want it when I get like this. That's why I'm trying not to think. I just want it all to stop spinning...It's getting that bad again. 
-- Charlie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, pg. 94.

That's pretty much how it feels when the world is too big. That's kind of how it feels right now.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Every Man and Superman

In a recent New York Times article, Henry Cavill, who plays Superman in Man of Steel, expressed his feelings that Superman is, "a hero who has spent his whole life hearing that he is special, while being told just as often that he must conceal the things that make him unique."

Kind of an interesting perspective, no? This is where I get this idea that Superman is a lot like all of us. Cliche? Deal with it. It's my blog, so I do what I want. As if you didn't already know that. 

I love Superman. A lot. He's been one of my heroes since childhood. This is the guy who looks just like everyone else, holds low key jobs, falls for an intelligent and gorgeous woman (played by the beautifully talented Amy Adams), and saves the people he cares most about. Yes, he's from an alien planet and his weakness is a rock. That's not the point. At some level, I think that we are all kind of aliens having a shared experience on some weird place we call Earth. And, at some level, our weaknesses are just as crippling (and as curious) as Kryptonite was for Superman.

Superman came to Earth to remind us of ourselves, to remind us that we are inherently good, that seemingly ordinary people have the capacity for extraordinary things, and that each life is important and filled with a purpose. Superman is told that he would "give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards." We are to learn from Superman what it means to be human, what it means to be entirely selfless, and what it takes to achieve the greatest of the greater goods. 

We love Superman because he inspires us to lift our sights. He is like a god to us -- the embodiment of all that is right, and good, and powerful, and just, and kind. Through all kinds of crumby costumes, red briefs, and poorly done movies, Superman prevails because we want him to. We will Superman into perpetual existence because he gives us something to hope for, to reach for, and to run wholeheartedly towards. We want to be saved, and who better than Superman to do so. 

How disheartening, then, it must be when Superman is no longer real, when the realities of life strike with a force greater than we can withstand. To know that Superman cannot and will not come to save us from our impoverished, imperiled, vulnerable, and often violent selves must tax the human mind beyond its capacity for hope. And yet, the mythology of Superman persists. It persists because we want to be saved. We want something to hope in, to hope for. That's what the "S" stands for -- hope. Despite the soul crushing reality that is (at times) life, we want hope. We want to believe that life will somehow get better.

I want to return now to the idea that Henry Cavill expressed in his Times interview. Superman was always told that he was special, that the world needed him. At the same time, he was told that if the world ever found out who he was, they would reject him. Why such contradiction? For Clark Kent to be Superman, he put everyone he loved at risk. To stay Clark Kent would have been to leave the world to its ruin. There are great intimations here into our lives, into my life. I am not claiming to be some alien life form that has super strength and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Unfortunate, I know. But, ask yourself how this dilemma is reflected in your own life. What is the greater good? To risk the ones you love to save others? To risk others, complete strangers at times, to save and protect those nearest to you? Which do you choose? How do you make or justify such a choice? Do we keep to ourselves our deepest parts in order to maintain the status quo? Am I true to every part of my being?

"I have to believe you were sent here for a reason," Jonathan Kent tells a young Clark. "And even if it takes the rest of your life, you owe it to yourself to find out what that reason is." That is all. Give the people of Earth something to strive for. Every man and Superman.