Monday, June 30, 2008

Aggregate Agony and Personal Pain

I ran across a few paragraphs today that gave me hope and peace. They reminded me of a doctrine I have been taught, but often forget. I’ll quote them here, without further comment:

“We know that on some level Jesus experiences the totality of mortal existence in Gethsemane. It's our faith that He experienced everything — absolutely everything. Sometimes we don't think through the implications of that belief. We talk in great generalities about the sins of all humankind, about the suffering of the entire human family. But we don't experience pain in generalities. We experience it individually. That means Jesus knows what it felt like when your mother died of cancer — how it was for your mother, how it still is for you. He knows what it felt like to lose the student body election. He knows that moment when the brakes locked, and the car started to skid. He experienced the slave ship sailing from Ghana toward Virginia. He experienced the gas chambers at Dachau. He experienced napalm in Vietnam. He knows about drug addiction and alcoholism...

”His last recorded words to his disciples were, "And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20). What does that mean? It means he understands your mother-pain when your five-year-old leaves for kindergarten, when a bully picks on your fifth-grader, when your daughter calls to say that the new baby has Down's syndrome. He knows your mother-rage when a trusted babysitter sexually abuses your two-year-old, when someone gives your thirteen-year-old drugs, when someone seduces your seventeen-year-old. He knows the pain you live with when you come home to a quiet apartment where the only children who ever come are visitors, when you hear that your former husband and his new wife were sealed in the temple last week, when your fiftieth wedding anniversary rolls around and your husband has been dead for two years. He knows all that. He's been there. He's been lower than all that.”

(Chieko N. Okazaki, Lighten Up! pg. 174-175)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Dear John

I recently read a letter from a friend of my brother (we'll call him "John" (we always do)), who had, over the past several months, lost all faith in God. He was raised in a church that preached the old “believe what we tell you, or you’ll go to Hell” doctrine, and he had decided that their teachings were nonsense, and, therefore, that God was something invented to exert power over the weak-minded common people, that life after death was another fiction to console us all when life here on earth wasn’t going so hot.

Well, John, you’re half right.

There is no mean, vengeful being who sits in the sky and throws lightning bolts, turns a blind eye to our suffering, and gets a kick out of condemning people to Hell when they pick the wrong religion. So if that’s what you’ve decided, congratulations.

But John, there is a God. And He loves you. He is your Father, and you are His son. No matter what injustices power-hungry people have propagated in His name, He remains the same kind, loving, merciful being He always has been. He remains interested in the lives of His children.

John, you named many things in your letter that indicated to you that either God did not exist, or He did not care. Wars and atrocities were among them, and I assure you that the Lord weeps when His children hurt one another. But He allows us to make choices, even when others suffer the consequences of our poor choices. We would hardly think Him fair if He prevented anything bad from happening, just as we would think parents over-protective if they wrapped their children in twenty layers of bubble wrap to insulate them from any hurt, and then locked them in the house to prevent the kids at school from bullying them.

You mentioned natural disasters, illnesses, and accidents that take the lives of many good people before their time. All these are part of life in a fallen world. Bad things happen to good people, not because God does not care, but because He sees the bigger picture. If this life was the end of living, then early death would truly be a tragedy. If pain didn’t cause growth, it, too, would be pointless. But when we understand that living extends even beyond the grave, and that suffering molds us into wiser creatures with greater potential for compassion and love, suddenly the trials and heartaches of life (or, as Hamlet called them, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”) become less galling, as we become transformed into the image of a God who is more glorious, just, and merciful than we could ever imagine, and certainly not the being you depicted in your note.

John, life hasn’t been easy for my family, either. My grandmother died just over a year ago, from a horribly painful form of cancer that left her debilitated and unable to dress or toilet herself. Perhaps you knew my friend, who died several years ago of leukemia. He was in your grade, and only 13 years old when he died. He was my best friend’s youngest brother, and my brother's best friend. I have been betrayed by those I loved, and hurt deeply by those I called my friends. So in some ways, John, you’re right—life can be really, really hard, and the world sometimes looks very bleak.

But as one who has felt the presence of God in my life, I bear witness that He is very real. I know that He has a very personal, intimate knowledge of our lives, and that He cares deeply about His children. He wants them to find joy, even during the difficult times. He knows and loves me, and He knows and loves you, as well.

I, too, have a scientific background. My training is in engineering, and I work for a firm that designs and analyzes aircraft parts. I find a lot of joy in the work I do, in the ability to scrutinize things I can hold in my hand, things I can see, things I can examine.

But the more I look at this world, from the viewpoint of an engineer, the more I realize the complexity of its organization. From the smallest molecule to the largest galaxy, this universe was constructed by a master engineer. It passes all my understanding and destroys my skepticism. Because we’ve come to learn so much about how our universe functions, sometimes we forget that, for all our knowledge, there is still much we don’t understand. I love science. But scientists, for all their learning, still cannot decide whether light is a wave or a particle, so I certainly can’t trust them to determine the meaning or the course of my life for me.

I can understand your confusion and agnosticism, especially given the God in whom you have been taught to believe. May I suggest that you consider the possibility of a God much less vengeful than the one you have imagined, one who has blessed you with abilities, resources, and an inquiring mind, one who has given you opportunities to grow, and one who indeed yearns to accept you with open arms.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Finding My Knight in Shining Armor

Although I love the East, Utah has gained a special place in my heart. I had a lot of culture shocks moving to Utah from New England. Some made me wonder what I had gotten myself into, and others put a smile on my face. One of the most interesting was the day a young man, a complete stranger to me, walking ahead of me into a building on campus, opened the door, stepped aside, and motioned me through. I almost had a heart attack. No one does that in Connecticut. No one.

I've repeated this experience countless times since, though such behavior has ceased to shock me. I now think of it as part of a different culture. And I like it. I like being treated with respect and dignity by men. And though I may disparage chick flicks, I'm still looking for my knight in shining armor.

I've read (and disagreed with) essays from those that others pejoratively label "feminists," which decried this so-called "gentlemanly" behavior as smothering and patriarchal. I've scoffed at women who took insult when a man held a door for them. I freely admit that I revel in chivalry, and that my heart would melt if my sweetheart stood up out of respect when I entered the room (an old practice that seems to have fallen out of vogue).

But I've come to see chivalry in a new light. It seems to me that a man's desires to be courteous to the women of his acquaintance should be encouraged. But it also seems that those desires should be directed towards making life easier and more pleasant for a woman, rather than simply following a list of rules that presuppose a set of gender roles more appropriate for an earlier era.

I've been with men who couldn't be bothered to so much as unlock the car door for me before they started the car. And I've been with men who refused to allow me to get out of the car without their assistance. I've been with those who expected to go dutch for any activity, and with those who chided me for opening the door of a building on my own.

As an engineer, I live, work, and study in what is largely a man's world. The men I associate with therein don't give me any ground because I'm a woman, and I don't expect any. I compete at their level, woman or not. I work hard, I study hard, and I'm altogether a pretty tough girl. I was raised to be an independent woman. My mother dug up the septic tank with a backhoe, changed the oil in our car, and poured concrete footings for the deck. She could talk shop with the best of the men. She didn't need to be handled with kid gloves, and neither do I.

So while I love being treated like a lady, I hate being treated like an invalid. If you want to hold the door of a building for me, fine. If you don't, I'll open it myself. Just don't expect me to stand in front of the door waiting for you to come open it for me, if you happen to be a few steps behind me. That's annoying and unnecessary. For those of you whose fathers trained you to be gentlemen, I salute you. Please don't take it as an insult to your manhood when I use my perfectly functional arms and legs to meet my own needs. I understand that you want to be courteous. Please understand that sometimes courtesy involves honoring a woman's wishes and recognizing her contributions rather than blindly following the rules of a bygone era.

A lot of the confusion and bad feeling on this issue comes from misunderstanding what the real purpose of gentlemanly behavior is (or should be). The intent, it seems, should be to make the woman feel cared for, special, and at ease. And when I'm with a man whose I can tell finds pleasure in my company and genuinely wants to be good to me, I'm happy to let him open my door or carry my groceries—in fact, I feel flattered.

The same actions, however, performed because of a sense of duty or obligation, can have quite the opposite effect. When I feel like he’s getting the door because he feels like he ought to, because he’s the man and I’m the woman, I feel like a burden on his time and an annoyance in his life, and I’m much less likely to feel flattered by his gentlemanly overtures. I’m only too happy to let a man do a large part of the heavy lifting and bug-killing that needs to be done. But I chafe when a man chides me for acting like a capable adult, as if his desire to pull out his breastplate, helmet, and sturdy white stallion should stop me from lifting a finger on my own behalf.

I suppose the solution lies in keeping a proper balance. The times are changing, true, but we needn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. When we let rudeness and apathy replace attentive courtesy and care, we undermine the very foundation of good relationships. On the other hand, when we cling so tightly to the rules of a chivalric code that they become an end unto themselves instead of a means to an end, we risk stifling the organic growth and change that give good relationships their richness and depth. When men and women demonstrate respect to each other in a manner pleasing to them both and in keeping with the roles with which they feel most comfortable, they end up being far happier than when they arbitrarily subscribe to the roles and modes of interaction preferred by their grandparents.

At least, that’s been my experience. Your mileage may vary.

Picture from http://lib.store.yahoo.net/lib/carenginecare/

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lord, Evermore Give Us This Bread

By the sea of Galilee, Jesus fed a great multitude with a few loaves and fishes. Then He went to the mountain to be alone. At night, He walked out on the water to join His disciples on a boat to the other side. The next day, some of the multitude found Him on the other side, and wondered how He had gotten there, since they hadn't seen Him leave with His disciples in the boat. Jesus knew they were only seeking Him for a repeat of the previous day's miracle--after all, who wouldn't want a free lunch? But He used their interest to teach something truly great.


"Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.

Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.

Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread" (John 6:26-34).

When they sought food, He counseled them to seek for spiritual sustenance that came with no expiration date. When they asked Him for a sign, citing the manna in the wilderness, Christ, the Jehovah who had provided the manna, spoke instead of Himself as the true bread from heaven, who had come to give life to the world.

The people's response still rings in my ears: "Lord, evermore give us this bread." Please, they pled, continue to sustain us and give us life everlasting.

When you eat food that tastes incredible, you want to have more of it. It works the same way with spiritual matters. When you've experienced something so joyous, so completely satisfying, that it fills your heart to overflowing, you naturally want to repeat the experience. I have at times felt the joy that comes from tasting something that I know is filled with a life and a light that is endless, that can never be darkened. It's a feeling I now crave. And I, like those people millenia ago, cannot help but cry, "Lord, evermore give me this bread."

"And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst" (John 6:35).

Photo from rekindletheflame.files.wordpress.com

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Life You Chose

When Enoch talked with God, he saw the heavens weep over the wickedness of the people of the earth. When he asked the Lord about it, the Lord began His reply with a very important lesson: “Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32).

The principle of agency is a very powerful one, and yet so often ignored. Agency was so important to the Lord that before we came to this earth, He was willing to consign one third part of His children to eternal darkness so that He could preserve our agency (Doc. & Cov. 29:36). He preserves the freedom of our nation so that “every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land...to answer for his own sins” (Mosiah 29:38).

But He lets us answer for more than just our sins—we also answer for our decisions. One of the most powerful principles I have ever been taught is this: “Whoever will stand accountable for a decision must be free to make that decision.” And so sometimes, when we’re searching for the right path to take, though we pray fervently and sometimes wish the Lord would just tell us what to do, in the end, the answer is, “I will guide you, but you must choose.” And because we are free to choose, we can’t blame anyone for the consequences of our choices—we alone must bear them. It’s empowering to think that the Lord has so much faith in us, that even when we make poor choices, He will never contravene our agency.

I remember one night I spent many hours in the computer lab doing homework for a particularly difficult computer-heavy class. As I left the engineering building late that night, I was grumbling and complaining to myself about how much work I had had to do, and how unfair and difficult it was. In the midst of this internal bellyaching, a small but piercing voice spoke within me in words I will never forget: “Stop complaining," it said. And then, “Amy, this is the life you chose.”

The words stopped me cold, because I realized that they were true. I had chosen this major, knowing it was difficult. In fact, I had switched from the social sciences to engineering because my classes hadn’t been difficult enough. I had chosen this path and I had chosen to take this class. I had chosen to spend time on my homework. Ultimately, if I was overworked, it was because of choices I had made, not because the teacher was mean or the computer designer was incompetent.

Those words have come back to me throughout my life, as I have struggled with things that were difficult for me to do or handle. But the knowledge that I am choosing the things that shape my life gives me strength and power. Knowing that I chose to come to earth, even with an understanding of the trials and sorrows that life would hold, makes me rejoice in the blessings of this life and the joy that awaits me hereafter. My understanding of the principle of agency makes it all worth doing.

There was once a time in my life when I had to make a very difficult decision that I knew would have far-reaching consequences. But as I prayed fervently about the paths that lay ahead, I knew that the choice before me was so important that no one else could make it for me. So instead of asking the Lord how I should proceed, I simply asked Him to enlighten me with His Spirit as I pondered my decision. Ultimately, I made a choice that was difficult, but was the only one with which I felt comfortable. I still bear the consequences of that decision. But in the weeks and months that followed, I received very specific confirmation that the choice I had made was pleasing to the Lord, and that He ratified and approved of my decision. This time, though, His approval didn’t come because I had chosen well when confronted with sin and righteousness, but because I had, with His counsel and through the exercise of His gift of agency, made what was in my own judgment the best choice available to me, and had expressed a willingness to accept the consequences of my decision, both good and ill.

Agency is such a beautiful gift. The knowledge that we can choose our own course in life and out attitude toward whatever happens to us, and that we are therefore responsible for our own lives, gives us great strength. When we claim the power that comes from a wise use of agency and the accountability that accompanies it we become truly free.

“Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh...they are free to choose liberty and eternal life...or captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Very Small Helm



I learned a hard lesson this week. I unthinkingly hurt someone I love. It wasn't the first time, and I know it won't be the last, but it hit me over the head and stopped me dead in my tracks.

New Year or not, I've resolved to do better. I'm tempted to chisel James' words on a plaque:

"For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body. Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm...

Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!...

Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.

Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be" (James 3:1-10).


Clearly, I'm not yet a perfect person. But that's no excuse. These are still the most biting words of scriptural rebuke I've yet read, and the ones that speak to me most pointedly--"Amy, these things ought not so to be." They bring my flaws into sharp relief, and I am reminded yet again of how desperately I need the healing power and wholeness and grace that come only through the Atonement of Jesus Christ. It's the only way I can have hope--only if I come to the Lord with my weaknesses, in humility, will He, by His infinite power, make those things strong (see Ether 12:27). Without that power, I will always be weak. But if I come unto Christ, I can be perfected in Him (Moroni 10:32-33). What a compelling promise! What a desperate need!

"O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee, and that I may be raised from the dead, and be saved at the last day" (Alma 22:18).

Photo from the BBC.