The political is personal

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Afternoon Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Well, I didn't go into this session expecting to have my two favorite talks be the ones by Elder McConkie and Elder Benson. I don't want to categorize these men too simplistically, because I'm trying to learn to hear their voices for myself, so as to avoid having to rely on their "reputation" (often unreliable, built by hardly-objective observers). But…nevertheless, rightly or wrongly, I do associate both of these men with a more, um, forthright and unyielding stance on things, and I tend to have to work harder to appreciate that perspective than some other styles. Bruce R. McConkie is…well, he's who he is, and statements like this at the beginning of his talk just make me laugh with their pure McConkie-ish-ness:
"I have counseled with the Lord as to what I should say today; have made some suggestions to him as to what I thought proper, subject, of course, to his approving concurrence…"
Ha ha, "Made some suggestions to Him!" I'll just bet you have! It's so funny, but also unfair of me to laugh, because of course that IS a good way to go about preparing for a talk, using your own initiative and preparation and then asking the Lord for approval—but it's just the way Elder McConkie describes it. He sounds so much…like you'd expect him to. 

Anyway, from both him and Elder Benson, I was bracing myself for talks that were a bit stern or maybe abrasive, and then I ended up really liking both of them! 

There's a phrase in my consciousness—I think it came from feminist theory, trying to justify taking issues that were usually considered part of the private sphere and making them fodder for political activism: "The personal is political." But as I read these talks, I couldn't help thinking the truth is somewhere closer to the opposite: the political is actually personal. The spiritual is personal. The economic is personal. Everything is personal to God.

In other words, it's untrue that personal issues are caused by huge systemic and cultural failures. And it's certainly not true that personal problems will be cured by political solutions. Politics, economics, religion—these things ONLY matter because of how they affect an individual soul (or, if you like, a family)'s return to God. It is only on an individual level, with one person individually loving and caring for and serving another person, that hearts can be changed. And any love animated by Jesus Christ must necessarily be a personal love, because this is how Christ loves us: individually. 

Driven by such love, Elder Benson obviously felt his own responsibility as a prophet very much on a personal level. He quotes from the Old Testament about the blood of the people being on the prophet's hands, if he does not preach repentance (it reminds me of Jacob saying he must "rid his garments" of the people's sins) and then says, 
"As one of these watchmen, with a love for humanity, I accept humbly this obligation and challenge [to warn against wickedness] and gratefully strive to do my duty without fear. In times as serious as these, we must not permit fear of criticism to keep us from doing our duty."
No one likes being criticized and misunderstood, and Elder Benson DID get criticism for his message, and is still getting it, I'm sure! But it seems so clear that his personal love for the Savior, his personal concern for the saints, was the force behind everything he did. When he talked about political or economic or social issues, it was because he knew how fundamentally they could affect the personal righteousness of the church members he loved. I'm sure the same is true for Elder McConkie.

Some of you know how much I love the economist Thomas Sowell. Recently for our homeschool, I taught an Economics Unit based on his writings, and I kept thinking, "this may be one of the most important subjects we ever learn about!" It's not because I think knowing about the stock market, or about Keynesian vs. Supply-side Economics, matters so much. And Sowell often says that the study of economics doesn't provide any prescriptions for how to choose which resources to use, or how to prioritize things that are scarce. It simply tells us that there must BE choices, that resources ARE scarce and NEED prioritizing. So this, again, goes back to the personal, and why I feel these principles truly matter. Someone can tell us something is valuable. The government can set prices and manipulate supply; it can mandate ownership or prohibit distribution. But it cannot GIVE VALUE. Only we can do that—each of us, as individuals. Only we can decide if something has worth, TO US, and our actions display our true feelings much more truthfully than our rhetoric does. The things we seek, the things we choose to do with our own personal time and money—or with any of our scarce resources that have alternative uses—those choices convey the underlying reality of what we value. 

I think this is what Elder Benson means when he says, 
"Economics and morals are both part of one inseparable body of truth. They must be in harmony. We need to square our actions with these eternal verities."
You could say that Economics—how each person chooses to allocate his scarce resources—IS truth. Morality—how each person chooses to respond to the guidance of the light of Christ within him—IS truth. We can't protest that it is somehow separate from reality; that, although we chose to spend our time on earth murmuring or doubting or seeking worldly approval, we really did value God's advice, we really did value Christ's sacrifice. No. Our actions, as Elder Benson says, must "square with these eternal verities." Changing the price of something does not change its underlying costs; changing the label for something does not change its underlying reality; changing the worldly value of something does not change its heavenly value. And maybe most importantly, nothing—not cultural trends, not ignorance, not sin, not doubt—can change the reality of God and of his love for each of us, personally.

And THIS is why the personal level is the only true arena for change. It goes both ways. We can only be changed as we, personally, decide to change. We can only change others as we, personally, open their eyes to God's personal love. Organizations can illuminate or obscure truth. Governments can facilitate or inhibit choice. But love is only transferred person to person, and that is how God's kingdom is built.

That brings us to Elder McConkie's talk, which has this need for the personal as its entire point. Sharing the gospel, he says, must always have two components. There is the doctrinal side—the teaching of principle, the setting forth of truth, the arguments and the reasoning. He values this, as you would expect the author of Mormon Doctrine to value it. He says:
"We are obligated and required to know the doctrines of the Church….We are to reason as intelligently as we are able. We are to use every faculty and capacity with which we are endowed to proclaim the message of salvation and to make it intelligent to ourselves and to our Father’s other children."
But then (and this is more unexpected)—he says that more importantly, and even AS we are valuing the intellectual side, we must simply testify. The things that defy reason, the feelings, the impressions, the experiences in our hearts—the personal things—we must share these as well, even if we subject ourselves to ridicule or skepticism in the process. 

It is difficult to want to share the personal things, sometimes, because of that very economic principle of value. We hate to offer something of such great personal value and risk it being "set at naught and trampled under the feet" of others. And, of course, there are times the spirit will prompt us to hold back. But often, we are expected to just get over the difficulty and discomfort of sharing these personal experiences, and just to OFFER them, regardless of our fear or reluctance, because they are the things that, as Elder McConkie puts it, "put the seal" on all the other doctrines. 
"Now I do not minimize in any degree or to any extent the obligation that rests upon us to be gospel scholars, to search the revelations, to learn how to reason and analyze, to present the message of salvation among ourselves and to the world with all the power and ability we have; but that standing alone does not suffice….We have to put an approving, divine seal on the doctrine that we teach, and that seal is the seal of testimony, the seal of a personal knowledge borne of the Holy Ghost.…After you have reasoned and after you have analyzed, you have got to stand as a personal witness who knows what he is saying.
What I think is amazing is that our individual experiences with the spirit are not only intended to lead us personally to Christ, but also to give us a net of our own with which to gather other souls to Christ, to be fishers of men. Paradoxically, it is the very personal nature of our experiences that makes them potentially valuable to others, because only on this fundamental, heart-to-heart level can we communicate the things of the spirit; things that can be shared no other way. That's why I always love a talk or a lesson that shares something, anything, of the personal. A testimony is, by definition, personal, and perhaps that is why a testimony, no matter how limited or fragile—if borne sincerely—always carries spiritual power. 

Elder McConkie gives an example of this happening with Paul: 
"After he had taught the doctrines and after he had reasoned, he bore a personal witness of the truth and divinity of what he was presenting to his fellowmen; and the Lord prepared him to do just that by giving him spiritual experiences, by letting the power of the Holy Spirit rest upon him."
This emphasis on "the personal" is not selfishness; it is the opposite of that. It starts with our internal emphasis on personal humility and repentance. That leads to personal experiences with God, leading to deep gratitude for a personal salvation from a Savior who loves us personally, and that in turn leads to personal charity for those around us, leading to loving personal interactions, leading to personal conversion for ourselves and those we serve.

The personal is everything. It is the cure for the political. It is the solution to the spiritual. It is the fruition of the economical. It is the root of the moral. The personal begins with God's child, and God.

And, just as Elder McConkie would want me to, I can indeed bear my own personal witness of this. Politics matter to me. Of course I'm concerned about education, medical care, taxes, foreign policy. But it's because of how those things affect the personal that they really matter in my heart. And spiritual things are no different. I love to learn about the culture of the Old Testament. I'm interested in Nephite currency and the United Order and the City of Enoch. But the things that change me, that leave me full of love and gratitude and the desire to serve, are those times when somehow I feel a personal connection with God. That connection takes different forms: maybe a well-timed email from a friend who understands. Words written by Nephi that seem directed to me alone. A day that starts with despair but ends with hope. A sudden lightening of a burden, or the gradual opening of a clouded mind. These are experiences that come so often, so generously, that all I can do is marvel at God's goodness in giving them to me—and yet none of them, taken intellectually, mean much at all. It is on the personal level that they have worth, and I can't force anyone else to accept that worth. I only know that, to me, their value is inexpressible, because they convey God's very personal love.

Other posts in this series:

Goblin Valley

Oh, Goblin Valley. One of my favorite places in the world! I haven't been there since I was a little girl, pleasantly shivery from listening to my brother's stories about the goblins creeping out at dusk, and feeling that every spot I discovered there was mine alone.

My boys went here last Thanksgiving with my mom, and stayed in the yurts, which would be awesome, but they aren't big enough for our whole family…and I have never loved tent camping with babies. So, we stayed overnight in a hotel in Green River. It was nice because we swam in the pool in the hot part of the afternoon, then spent time in Goblin Valley during the cooler evening and again the next morning. Even better would be to go in earlier Spring, or Fall, but this was the time that we could make it work, and the heat wasn't too unbearable at those times of day.
I always wonder what it would have been like to come upon some of these places for the first time, without knowing what you were going to find there. As you get down toward the San Rafael Swell you can tell there's something interesting beyond, but Goblin Valley is set down low, to the other side, and from far away you wouldn't ever suspect anything was there!
We stopped by a spot where you can collect agate and jasper nearby. There was a great view of the San Rafael Reef. So jagged and cool!
One thing I love about Goblin Valley is how freely you can roam around. I love that you can climb over rocks and scramble through openings and you don't have to stay in certain areas. And yet the whole area is relatively small, enough that the older kids can go off exploring on their own and not get lost.
The Amazing Abe seems to have provoked a smile from Teddy…


It must begin with you personally

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Morning Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Recently my husband and I were in Berlin, where we visited the Berlin Wall Memorial. Before and after our visit, as I studied and immersed myself in that time period, I felt almost oppressed by an awareness of evil. It seemed clear to me that that's what the Berlin Wall was: Great Evil, done in the name of progress and equality and need.

And yet hardly any of the individuals involved seemed greatly evil; that was clear as well. They were weak, perhaps, or scared or ignorant or prideful. Certainly none of them thought themselves evil. Were they ordinary people, people like me? They seemed to be, for the most part. But—and this seems key—they WERE bringing about evil, nonetheless. They were furthering Satan's purposes—though unknowingly, most of the time. I felt angry with them. And yet also, sorry for them. And I wondered, if I had been in their place, which side would have won out in me. "How can we ever do Great Good in the world?" I kept thinking. "How can we fight and overcome Great Evil, when we ourselves all have such evil right within our natures, just waiting for the best chance to come out?" Obviously, we must have our natures changed. But how?

Ever since then I've been thinking about it a lot, especially the idea of "a change of heart," as I've pondered just why and how that miracle occurs. And then just this week I came across this amazing story, from a long article about how it came about that an LDS temple was built in East Germany during the time of the Berlin Wall. President Henry J. Burkhardt was the leader of the LDS Church in the German Democratic Republic, and he was always facing bureaucratic obstacles, suspicion, and outright danger from the leaders of the Communist government, who were openly hostile to anyone religious. After much delay and frustration, he managed to get approved on a temporary travel visa to visit Salt Lake City for General Conference, and to his surprise, was even allowed to return for multiple conferences over the years:
During a visit with President Spencer W. Kimball in April 1973, President Burkhardt was surprised when he was told to "develop a good relationship with the government." He received similar advice at each subsequent visit. President Burkhardt found it difficult at first to accept Kimball's advice. He responded inwardly, "You don't know the Communists. You can't have a good relationship with those people. They are anti-religious, they have threatened to throw me in jail several times, and they constantly make trouble for me." During one such visit, President Kimball expressed his personal philosophy that political solutions were generally ineffective—that the world changed when individuals changed. He gave President Burkhardt the following challenge: "Brother Burkhardt, if you want to see a change of things in East Germany, it must begin with you personally. It must begin with you because you are the leader of the Saints there, and you must have a change of heart, which means you must force yourself to befriend the Communists. You cannot hold any grudges against them. You must change your whole outlook and attitude." Eventually, Burkhardt accepted the advice. "It took a long time, from 1973 until 1976, before I came to realize that Communists were also children of our Heavenly Father, and that I should deal with them accordingly, in a friendly manner. . . . And from that time forth, miracle after miracle occurred in the history of the Church in this country. They became friendlier and more receptive to me, as a representative of the Church." (Quoted on page 101 here; all emphasis is mine.)
It's an amazing story. It sounds incredible. It sounds simplistic and Pollyanna-ish and naive. But now read what Elder Robert L. Simpson says in his April 1973 Conference talk:
During the past 12 months it has been my privilege to work closely with many emotionally disturbed people; others who have transgressed; some who have found themselves out of harmony with society; still others who were lonely and afraid. It has not been a year of discouragement and despair, however, because the vast majority of these people have made an important decision, and they have said: “I want to change my life. I am ready to take direction from someone who really cares.”
Elder Simpson saw the great evil in these people's situations—whether it was engaged in by an individual or inflicted upon another individual—and the resulting sorrow it brought. But what stopped that great evil in its tracks? A small good. A small, faith-filled, hopeful good: "I want to change my life."

He continues with some examples:
How touching it was to hear a hardened prisoner say: “That is the first time anybody ever told me they loved me.” This was after a six-year-old girl kissed him on the cheek during a Church-sponsored family home evening visit in the prison. 
Consider with me an unwed mother who came to her bishop with some reluctance. Her heart was belligerent, and she also had a drug problem; but months later, following compassionate service by many, she was heard to say: “Life was over for me. I didn’t want to live anymore, but things are different now, and I know the true meaning of God’s love.”
He tells a few more stories, but they have a common thread. In each case, the small good of a desire to change (in one person's heart) was followed up by another small good—that of connection with another person's heart which had already, perhaps, been changed, and was open to being changed some more:
Every success story of the past year has been the result of special effort on the part of people who cared. They cared enough to give some time and to be sincere and compassionate; in other words, to follow the great example set by the Savior.
It's really still too big of a subject for me to tackle: "How do we love others when we so fundamentally disagree? How do we fight evil when it's everywhere?" I don't have all the answers. But I am trying to translate what I sense from these stories, which is this: small evils do not just lead to Great Evil, they ARE, fundamentally, the same thing. "He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad." The Great Evil done by the Berlin Wall (or abortion…or divorce…or any other difficult matter) does not vanish even to the extent it was done incrementally, unknowingly, or with good intentions! Nothing is gained by pretending otherwise. It is painful to acknowledge this, when our instinct is to defend ourselves and, maybe even more vehemently, those we love; the individual cases we know of. "Surely there was no evil in this case! This person was trying to do the right thing! Think of the unfairness if individual situations were not considered!" Yet, still, it seems to me, there is no truly small evil. 

But if that reality seems too stark (for we are all of us evildoers in small ways, and none can escape that verdict), the corresponding truth is this: that there is no truly small good. For the small goods are where we will save others, and be saved. No sense trying to excuse or paper over the Great Evil, nor our contributions to it. That is why we need a Savior. But for our part, to become like Him, we must love in our small spheres. Make friends with those we can; be polite and meek toward those who refuse our friendship. Be humble and willing to admit our own weakness. These things will, literally, change everything.

I have heard people scoff at the idea of "love the sinner and hate the sin." Impossible, they say, to separate the two things so neatly; impossible for one whose sin is hated to still feel love and acceptance in his self and soul. I don't know. There are things I hate in myself, though I don't hate myself, so I think it is possible to separate sin from self. I think the evils in the world—big and small, external and internal, institutional and personal—must be faced for what they are, and fought against. But I also think that as an individual, I must spend my life chiefly on the small goods. Just as the church's refugee initiative encourages us to find the individual, to leave politics aside and simply love those who are here, right now, needing our love—I feel like Elder Simpson's message is that EVERY Great Good is made up of these small goods. That we quietly light the world, face by face. Maybe there is a place for people who have grand visions and schemes to "change the world"—and maybe my hesitancy in that direction is simply because that's not MY intended role—but it seems like the success of those grand plans is spotty at best, so for me, this talk made me resolve to do more of the personal:

To ask myself, when frustrated with the Great Evils I can't help seeing around me, "Is there anything I can do with this, on a personal level? No? Then who, in my own circles, CAN I reach out to and serve?"

To also remind myself, when I see those evils, "They are likely being perpetuated by people who, like you, have some desire to do good. Perhaps they simply need a true friend, more knowledge, more time, to allow that desire to work in them and grow large enough to bear fruit."

And so I think I can see now that it all fits together: the Great Evil of the Berlin Wall, the Concentration Camps, wars and terror. The small evil of each individual succumbing to the natural man, excusing his actions, refusing to follow the light of Christ. They are the same.

But on the other side: the small good of a friendly conversation. A gentle response, a personal humility that extends outward, allowing even avowed enemies to be treated with individual kindness. And the Great Good of a Zion society, a people ready for the Savior to come. They, too, are the same. And so, shall we begin?

Other posts in this series:

Berlin: Gartens and Gates

The Brandenburg Gate is one of those landmarks I recognized without even meaning to. So many significant things have happened here! So much history! When I went running in the mornings, I ran under this gate while there was no one else around. It was the strangest feeling to think about all the other people that have passed under these pillars over the centuries. It gave me chills.
Napoleon paraded through this gate, for crying out loud!
Photo from here


Berlin: Edifices

The Reichstag Building is the seat of the German Parliament—or it was. (They still meet there, but now the governing body is called the Bundestag; I'm not clear on the distinction. Maybe "Reichstag" just had bad associations with the Third Reich. Ah! Just looked it up; "bunde" means federal and "reich" means imperial.) Anyway, I didn't know many things about Berlin before we want, but I DID know this building. It's famous because of the big fire that almost destroyed it just after Hitler's rise to power. The Nazi Government used the fire as a justification for tightening up government control, suspending the parliament, and and putting new, restrictive security measures in place, saying all this was necessary for the public safety. But in fact, most people think the Nazis themselves SET the fire, so they could blame it on Jews and Anarchists and use it as an excuse for curtailing civil liberties. 

And of course, the building was heavily, heavily damaged from bombing during World War II, and I'd seen pictures of that too.

I also knew the Reichstag Building because it was redesigned, recently, by the architect Norman Foster, and we watched a documentary on him awhile ago when we were learning about architecture. He restored the dome (you can see the old one in this picture below, all mangled from bombing during the war) into a modern steel-and-glass structure, with a ramp circling around the inside so you can walk up and look out at the city. It's an interesting juxtaposition of old and new. It's another place about which, during the documentary, I thought, "Wow, that would be cool to see in person, but I probably never will."
Photo from here. There are a bunch of photos of Berlin with the past and present blended. It's really interesting.
You can see the new dome just peeking out behind those front columns.

Berlin: We eat

When Sam has done workshops with this group before, they've pretty much just done all the work of figuring out where and when to eat, and all we've had to do is show up. Which has been great. But this time we had a little more time on our own, which was also great in its own way. Sam and I love finding good things to eat! Maybe our favorite food of the whole trip was this bread and cheese and salami from some little market, which we bought and then just sat outside and tore into with our hands. They know their bread and cheese, these Europeans!
We walked through the farmer's market and drooled over the strawberries and white asparagus. I still remember how good the white asparagus was at some function or other I attended in Frankfurt when I went with the Halvorsens after high school. It was somewhat of a regional specialty, if I remember right. Anyway, I was strongly tempted to buy some here and try to steam it in the coffee maker or something, but better judgement prevailed. Not without a pang, though.
This was a restaurant up on the roof of the Reichstag Building. We had breakfast there with our group and it was beautiful.

Rocks, Fossils, and Dinosaurs

We've been studying Geology for the past month and a half and it makes me love living in Utah more than ever. I have this secret wish that someday, I will meet someone who tells me he or she moved to Utah just because it has such great geologic features. I like to imagine there are many such people. 

There are just so many great things to see! Minerals and fossils to find, mountains, deserts, volcanoes, rock formations. We went to lots of great places but there were about 10 more on my list that I wanted to go to, had there only been enough time. Well. Someday. But for now, here are some pictures from a few of our field trips.

Finding Calcite Onyx behind Mt. Nebo:

Berlin: A Wall and a Cemetery

I feel anxious to wrap up these posts about Berlin, as I know they are dragging on and on, but I have a few more I want to add first, and this one has been particularly hard for me to write. I've been doing so much thinking and reading about World War II and the Berlin Wall years that I've felt almost immersed in that period lately—but I also know how comparatively shallow my understanding really is, so I hesitate in the attempt to lay it all forth.

I also know that until you are interested, yourself, for some reason, wars and hardship can seem fairly colorless. Though you know they have importance, all those facts can blend together into a sort of obligatory "that-must-have-been-awful" lump in your chest, which you would just as soon shove aside and get on with real life.

And then there's the inescapable reality that someone like me who has never experienced anything, anything like the horror of war, must, when discussing it, run the constant risk of obtuseness or sentimentalism.

Well, I will just mention some of the things I read and learned, so that if you DO have an interest, you can pursue it for yourself. For my part, my interest in the world wars in Europe really blossomed last year when we studied World War I. The two wars are so inextricably linked that I have actually felt, all year now, like I've left off in the middle of a two-act play and am breathlessly waiting for what happens next. Once I found out we'd be going to Berlin, knowing that I'd be teaching World War II for school this Fall definitely sharpened my interest in the history of the city.
So, on the (long, long) plane ride to London at the beginning of our trip, I read two books. The first was Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. The "Stasi" was the nickname for the state police in the GDR (East Germany), and the enormity of their reach was incredible. They had citizen informants everywhere (one member of the Stasi for every 63 people, or something like that), who were gathering information about everyone, all the time. Some of it sounds almost silly now, like the way the police would collect "smell samples" from people's clothing or chairs sat on. The Stasti leaders were convinced they could use a sort of "smell print" to identify people's movements and provide evidence of illegal activities. But it wasn't funny at all to the people involved. They threatened and spied and blackmailed, and people either collaborated with them or faced bureaucratic obstacles (or worse) at every turn. The stories were heartbreaking. One talks about a young girl posting "revolutionary" fliers at school on a teenage whim and being taken, tortured, and put in prison for years. Another tells about a baby born with a medical condition that only the more advanced hospitals in West Berlin could treat. Somehow the East Berlin doctors got him to a West Berlin hospital, but that same week the Berlin Wall went up, and the mother was stranded back in East Berlin without her baby. Without access to the advanced treatments the baby would die, but the GDR authorities would not allow his parents out of the country. So the baby was raised to boyhood by the West Berlin doctors, living in the hospital and not meeting his mother and father until he was nearly five years old. The doctors and nurses had been kind to him, but he didn't even know what a family was, and addressed his parents with the formal "sie" like strangers. That story made me cry more than any of the others. And then there were stories from the other side; Communist leaders who were baffled by the opposition and still look back fondly on the glorious days of the "German Democratic Republic." It was fascinating.


I cannot go back

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. Today covers the Sunday Afternoon Session from Oct 1972 Conference.
I was talking last time about learning to know the voices of these earlier apostles. Well, just for a minute in President Lee's concluding talk—a short one, more like just closing remarks, really—I felt like I heard and understood his voice. This seems like such a stunningly humble, personal thing to say to the whole church:
I come now to the closing moments of this session when I have time for some sobered reflections. Somehow I have had the feeling that during the expressions here, whenever my name has been mentioned, they were talking of somebody other than myself. And I really think that is so, because one cannot go through the experience that I have gone through these last three days and be the same as before. I am different than I was before Friday morning. 
I cannot go back to where I was because of the love and faith and confidence that you, the people of the Lord, have reposed in me. So you have been talking of somebody else. You have been talking of somebody that you want me to become, which I hopefully pray God I may, with his help, become.
I love President Lee for saying this. I love his desire to become all that God and others wanted him to be! I've felt that same desire myself, and I'm impatient about it. I want to be transformed all at once. I hate battling the same weaknesses, revisiting the same old wounds. I want to change and STAY changed! After each renewed commitment, each meaningful experience or spiritual high, I want to say with President Lee that "I cannot go back" to who I was before. And I think that's why this section caught my attention.

Because…in spite of myself…it seems that I DO go back.

A few months ago, I sat watching the broadcast of the dedicatory session of the Provo temple, and it was one of those meetings where every moment spoke to my soul. I felt transformed. I felt full of goodness and gratitude and joy. There was nothing jarring or foreign in the ceremony of it all; in fact, I felt that nothing could better give voice to my feelings than shouting hosanna and giving God all the "thanks and praise which [my] whole soul [had] power to possess." I felt overcome, hollowed-out and yet at the same time completely overflowing—brimful of thanks, brimful of hope, brimful of determination to be and do anything God wished me to.

Then the meeting ended, and the feelings seeped out, as they do, leaving only little pricks and tingles like the feeling returning to your foot after it's been asleep, until soon that being of love and light had completely gone and I was again just…ME. Impatient, annoyed with arguing kids, anxious to eat lunch and have a nap.

This is always discouraging. I thought, "After all that, why can't I be truly transformed? Why can't I be changed for good, changed so that anyone could see the difference? Why am I still ME instead of someone better?" 

And so, as I'd had this on my mind for quite awhile now, I was struck by the construction of President Lee's thought. He says:
1. I am changed by this experience.
2. I cannot go back.
3. Thus, I pray I may become more.

It seems like he's saying that the change you feel in yourself, after a "transformative" experience—is not, in itself, the transformation. More "becoming" is still needed. So what does that mean? 

Well, back to my experience at the temple dedication—

As it turned out, events that day arranged themselves so I could go to the next dedicatory session as well. I knew it wouldn't feel exactly the same, nor (I told myself sternly), should I expect it to. And sure enough. The second session was great. The speakers were good, and the spirit was present, giving a feeling of peace to the proceedings. My mind wandered from time to time, but it felt good to be there. Not overwhelming, though. Not transformative. I began to wonder if my feelings in the earlier session had been the imaginings of an overwrought soul. No, I decided, they had been real, but temporary; the change I felt had not been permanent change.

"Maybe it would be presumptuous, even greedy, to expect more. God doesn't just pour out his spirit and transform us anytime we want it," I thought.

And at that precise moment, without warning, the spirit flooded back in. Who can ever describe it? I can't, except to say that, again, I was full, full, overflowing with joy and God's love. Transported, soaring, transformed—and then, before the tears had left my eyes—I was left to myself again.

I puzzled over it for weeks. What did it mean? Why was I given the gift of those first wondrous, joyous two hours? Why did those feelings ever have to go away? And why give them and take them again a second time, so pointedly and suddenly?

I don't know for sure, of course, and feelings are slippery things. I am hesitant in the sharing of this experience at all, except that it has come so persistently to mind as I've pondered President Lee's humble words. And the feeling I've kept coming back to wonder at, as I've pondered, is that swelling; that absolute filled-to-capacity, no-room-for-more, immersed-in-God's-love feeling that leaves you amazed and overwhelmed. I don't know why it comes sometimes, while other times, though I'm craving it and seeking it, it doesn't. But it seemed to me, as the abundance poured out so surely and so unbidden, that second time—that it was almost like Heavenly Father was saying, "What do you mean I won't give you this all the time? Of course I can. This is what I AM. I'm not the one who is limited—YOU are. I am willing to pour into you as much as you are capable of receiving, but it's you who aren't yet capable of holding more."

And so lately I've been thinking of it like this. There's the enlarging. And then there's the filling. The enlarging happens bit by bit, without us noticing. We serve in our callings, study the scriptures, give up some small selfishness we've been hanging on to. It stretches us and we become able to hold more, but we might not even know it—until at some point, when we're ready, the spirit pours out, and we are filled. And maybe it's only then that we feel the change. "I'm different!" we say. "I can never go back to who I was." That's the change we sense, and it's real, but it doesn't mean the fullness stays. Since we are imperfect vessels, the light that filled us eventually begins to drain away. We sin, we tire, or maybe we've just reached our current capacity. And so we have to start again, that process of enlarging, so that next time the opportunity comes to be filled, we will be able to hold even more of God's love.

And maybe each time we are filled with the spirit, that itself stretches us a bit as well. I think that's what President Lee meant. The experience of being sustained as prophet was amazing, enlarging, and transformative. His soul was filled to spiritual capacity. He knew this enlargement, like every other spiritual enlargement, could become permanent and thus he would never be "the same person" he once was, but he also knew the fullness wouldn't last forever. Only if he kept faith, more enlargement would take place, making a new, greater, capacity available to be filled—and so on, until at last he reached that ultimate transformation into a new creature, one with God.

I'm not sure we have control over the "filling" part. Maybe by being places we're supposed to be—church meetings, the temple, General Conference. I've felt that overwhelming love when working on a talk, being with my family, reading my scriptures, and even in other less-predictable situations. But not every time, and not always when I wish for it. I think we just have to trust that it will come. And I'm sure there are limits because of mortality, too. Not even the apostles walk around in a cloud of love and gratitude and the spirit when they are shopping for shoes or calling the insurance company, I assume. President Lee didn't see himself as the paragon others thought he was. So, yes, I know we have to live in this mortal world with distraction and necessity, and people have to face the messiness of life and deal with annoyances, and it can't just all be streams of love flowing into us and out of us all the time. That's part of the plan, I'm sure. BUT I keep coming back to that impression I had, of Heavenly Father saying, "Oh, it's possible all right. You just aren't ready"—and SHOWING me, by opening up those feelings again, that it was possible to have them at any moment. God DOES want to pour out his spirit and fill me, more often than I know, maybe. I'm just not enlarged enough, yet, to hold that goodness for long. 

I know people have to be transfigured to be with God, and this is kind of similar. The love and light is constantly pouring out of Him, and we can access it—theoretically—any time—but in practice, we aren't strong and light enough ourselves to bear it for as long as we might wish. And then, of course, we sin, and that puts up a barrier as well. So God gives us those transformative experiences in bite-size amounts and then says, "Okay, that's all you can handle for now." But maybe He also wants us to know, those cessations aren't coming because HE can't GIVE more. I keep thinking of that image of a cup overflowing. If I want the fullness to last longer, I need to make myself into a bigger or deeper vessel. I need to keep doing the small, enlarging tasks even when I feel a bit empty—because then, when the next filling-up comes, I will be able to receive more of what God so dearly wants to give—and hold it longer.

Other posts in this series:

Berlin: Instruments, Art, Spies

While Sam was teaching, I went by myself to this Musical Instrument Museum. It was really interesting and I liked it, but if you are thinking of going there this will be the least helpful guide ever, because I didn't know what anything was. They did have an audio guide that played music clips from some of the instruments, and that was interesting, but it didn't TELL anything about the instruments, and none of the signs were in English either. I was DYING to touch some of the instruments so I could hear what they sounded like, because some were so STRANGE, but of course I held myself back.

I did happen to be there at the time of the Wurlitzer organ demonstration, so that was cool. A guy came out and improvised a bunch of stuff from Harry Potter, Star Wars, etc. with sound effects. The Wurlitzer is that whole huge cabinet you can see in the right of the picture above—with the open wood slats at the front. It's more than an organ: it has vibraphones, whistles, cymbals, drums, bells, and all kinds of other things, played by levers and mechanical joints and controlled by the manuals and pedals on the console (which is the white part on the floor below the wood slats—in the picture someone is standing and looking at it). They used these organs to make sound effects for silent movies. It was really cool to see how much the organist could do with it. I can't imagine trying to remember which effect each key or stop controlled!
I took this picture for my violinist friend Rachael: a Stradivarius violin (the one on our right). Are you just itching to get your hands on it, Rach?

Spring, in pictures

A few things that happened this spring…besides all the other things that had their own posts written about them. :)
Teddy found lots of things on the floor and ate them. At the time this picture was taken, I had found him happily devouring a roll. The problem? We hadn't had any rolls that day! Hmm. Related: the time we were all at the dentist and I came out from my appointment (Abe had been "watching" the little kids in the waiting room, supposedly) to find Theo eating a Sausage McMuffin. Which had been sitting on a paper plate in a corner of the room. Did it belong to someone? How long had it been there? No one knows. Theo was super, super mad when I took it away.


Berlin: Palaces everywhere

After we left Sanssouci, we explored the Potsdam area for the other palaces and World Heritage Sites. According to Wikipedia, "around the city there are a series of interconnected lakes and cultural and historical landmarks." True! In fact, so committed were these Potsdamites to their historical landmarks that they appeared to be constantly constructing them. Well, make that renovating them—I assume—but since the construction companies for some reason didn't bother with signs in English explaining what they were doing, it was all conjecture anyway!

We didn't mind. We just enjoyed driving our little VW minivan up hill and down dale, through darling little cobblestone streets like this:
And quaint little tree-lined alleys like this:
All the while hoping those signs with big red X's didn't mean "One-way street"… (you'd think the rental car company would give you some sort of traffic sign training before sending you off on your merry way, but they don't. At least in Germany they drive on the right side of the road like decent people.)
We could decipher just enough German to read through a paragraph on a sign and then say things like, "Okay…parken…something about parking. Maybe park here? Or no parking? Parking on this side only? Wait, maybe that means this is a public park?" But we also had the magical Google translate app on our phones—have you tried it? It's pretty amazing. You can hold it up to written words in one language and it will change them, on your screen, into another language. Like this:

Goldie's Birthday Floppy Guy

Before Goldie's birthday in May, I kept trying to figure out how I could make her a little floppy guy of her very own. It seemed like it would be relatively simple, and it also seemed like surely someone would have done it before and put the instructions online. But, even after searching all sorts of combinations ("mini air dancer," and "DIY inflatable air dancer" and so forth) I couldn't find anything! Just this which used a type of fan I didn't have (and these which, incidentally, would be awesome Halloween costumes). 

I did find this video that showed the type of thing I wanted, but again, I couldn't tell what was being used for the fan. In the video he talks about the “knee” that forms from the built-up air pressure, and I thought maybe that wasn't happening for me because of the type of fan. Maybe a small fan meant for air circulation doesn't form a concentrated column of air like a dedicated "blower" does? My fan could turn on pretty high, but maybe it was too diffused. I had thought putting the entire bag over it would channel the air and solve that problem, but it didn't seem to.

Anyway, after some experimentation, I didn't have the time or equipment to do much more with the blower part (maybe a leaf blower mechanism would have worked better, if we'd had one?), but I sewed up several shapes out of one of those cheap plastic tablecloths and tried them on the fans I had. There were two I was choosing from (this USB plug-in and this) but the smaller USB fan seemed way too weak even though it would allow me to make a smaller guy, so I concentrated on just the latter. As far as the shape of the guy himself, smaller/shorter seemed to be better, and I finally figured out a shape that would fit over the entire fan but then narrow into a smaller tube. The guy never did really "FLOP" except sort of weakly, but he did stand up and sway a bit, and I knew Goldie would like him even if he wasn't ideal.

And I must say I really enjoyed watching her meet him on her birthday. We set him up next to her presents and then called her in.

She was thoughtful.
Then happy.
Then she kissed him.
So it was all very matey and festive.

We are the catalyst

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. Today covers the Sunday Morning Session from Oct 1972 Conference.
Last Sunday during church, I was trying to salvage some measure of spirituality by reading conference talks on my phone while sitting out in the hall with a screaming baby. He was, literally, screaming—not crying or fussing or searching for comfort, but just screaming because he can, and because he wants to, I guess. The harried parent pacing the halls with a baby and wondering about the point of it all is a Mormon cliché, and you'd think after doing this with six other babies I'd have resolved it in my mind, and learned that this time is temporary and it IS still worth it to keep coming to church. And I have learned that, actually, but it didn't stop me at this moment from feeling fragile and overwrought and overwhelmed and getting tears in my eyes every time someone smiled at me or said anything kind.

Onto this pathetic scene sprang Elder H. Burke Peterson with his "May I suggest that as parents we must require more of ourselves?" and I immediately knew he was right. Feeling sorry for myself doesn't ever help anything. I love his statement that "the ways of the Lord are simple ways," and then his examples of some simple things we can do, as parents, to make our homes happier:
What would you think of speaking more cheerfully? Trying more often to say please and thank you? What would you think of finding an opportunity for one sincere compliment for each child each day, and then watching them respond? What if you decided to be cheerful tonight at the dinner table, and in spite of what others might do or say, hold to your course. See how long you can uplift your whole family.
I felt chastened by this, as I often decide to "be cheerful tonight at the dinner table" and then do NOT "hold to my course," feeling that it is impossible to do when three people are asking me at the same time to pour more milk for them and one is needing her food cut up and another is throwing his bowl on the floor and two others are shoving each others' chairs farther away and two others are arguing about whether pennies are copper or bronze.

But of course Elder Peterson is right. It IS possible for a parent to rise above it, to maintain kindness and calm. I would do it if we had company, so of course I can do it when we don't. And he is also right that when a parent succeeds in the effort, it DOES uplift the whole family. If you are determined to outlast the crankiness and argumentativeness of the children with your own persistent good cheer—it can be done.

It reminds me of an article I read recently talking about how "family fun" usually requires lots of work and preparation, and part of her Q and A contained this:
Q. "What if I’m not having a super amount of fun myself?  
A. Before we left [for the circus], I gave myself a stern talking-to: You are forty-one years old. You have been to the circus before. If you have a bad seat or have to miss part of the show, you can deal with it! (I find that if I speak to myself in the second person, I listen. Stupid, but it works.) If they need to go to the bathroom more times than can possibly be biologically necessary, I will take them. And I did. I'm very proud of myself.
I find this is true for me as well. I really AM able to be an adult about it, and deal patiently with the fact that I might have to wait a staggering amount of time before finally getting to take my first bite of my own delicious soup—but it takes me being in the right mindset, and too often, I'm not.

I want to emphasize that neither I nor Elder Peterson would suggest that parents should just give up on teaching their kids to be pleasant, and resign themselves to twenty or thirty unhappy years of martyrish self-denial. In fact, he says:
Fathers and mothers, may I remind you that we are always teaching. The home should be the great workshop of the Lord. Here is where children must be taught to walk in ways of truth and soberness, of love and service to each other.
But he does emphasize the positive chain reaction that parents can create in their home:
These are contagious actions. Children will learn to be happy and more pleasant. Homes will be cheery. The gospel of Jesus Christ is more easily taught and longer remembered in a happy home.
I love the reminder that simply by elevating my own attitude—not least at times when the kids ARE screaming or fighting or being unpleasant, since even the "great workshop of the Lord" can't compel or produce instant results—I can have a bigger effect than I might think. I can remember that I chose this life freely, and that if I look for the good, I will find it. I can take a deep breath and decide not to give voice to my frustrations. And the fact that my children will also be better able to remember gospel truths in a calm atmosphere is a great motivation!
Parents, we are the catalyst. …let us be sure we lead our families in [the Lord's] way. Contention in a home starts and stops with the parents.
Elder Peterson ends with a hypothetical: 
[When a child is born,] instead of a doctor coming out and saying, “It’s another girl” or “It’s another boy,” how would we react if each time a child was born our Father in heaven made this kind of introduction to the parents: 
“Thank you for preparing this little body for the spirit I have created. Now, I present her to you for a season to care for. Please teach her of me and of my Son. I so much want her back with me some day. It all depends on you. Remember this: She is loving. She will respond to teaching. She wants to learn. Please treat her with respect. The road will not be easy. Some of the time it will be most difficult. I want to help you raise her. Please call on me often for advice and counsel. Together we can help her fulfill her purpose in the earth.” 
      I wonder how we might treat these little ones if they had this kind of introduction. Would it be different?
As I read these words—while, it must be confessed, holding the phone at arm's length so it wouldn't be kicked out my hand by my tired, angry, screaming baby—I felt the Lord's spirit confirming that this, indeed, is what I have agreed to as a parent. There are times of joy and fulfillment. There are times of exhaustion and discouragement. I chose this, and I'm an adult, and I can handle it. And if that sounds harsh—well, the good news is I don't have to do it alone, because the Lord is anxious to advise me, and calm me, and enable me to be better—whenever I will humble myself and ask Him.

Other posts in this series:

Berlin: Carefree

We didn't think we'd get to spend any time in the countryside during this trip, but then Jeff and Kit (one of the other instructors and his wife) wanted to rent a car and go see some castles, so we asked if we could come along too! This isn't really the part of Germany in which to see big, fairy-tale castles looming out of old-growth forests (that's more by where I went on my trip with Rachael), but Jeff said he'd read about some cool palaces within a few hours' drive, so off we went.

It turns out you can't go fifty feet without stubbing your toe on a palace in these parts, and we hadn't realized there was so much to see in Potsdam alone! So we spent most of our day there. I hadn't researched any of these landmarks, so I didn't even know what we were seeing until I listened to the audio guide and read the signs, and then I realized I HAD learned about this area—a long time ago in a European History class. The palace complex we went to was the home of Frederick the Great of Prussia. I've always felt a fondness for him because we chose famous historical figures to "be" in that class, and I was Catherine the Great, Frederick's fellow Enlightened Despot. (My friend Rachael may, in fact, have been Frederick. Were you, Rach?)
This was Frederick's "little" palace, his retreat where he could withdraw from the cares of every day. He called it "Sanssouci"—meaning, in French (everyone who was anyone spoke French in those days), something like "without care" or "carefree"? Same root as "insouciant," I assume. 

Berlin: Contrasts

There's probably nothing more annoying than a person making pronouncements about a city she only spent six days in, so I will try not to draw too many sweeping conclusions about Berlin. And on the upside, I'd never visited Berlin before this trip, so I won't be peppering everything with "when I was here last…".

However…I have been to Frankfurt and Heidelberg (you know, on my trip with the Candy Bomber) and I remember those areas as some of the most beautiful places I've ever been, so I couldn't help wondering how Berlin would compare.

I read some descriptions of it as an "ugly city" (maybe because so much was destroyed in the war and then rebuilt haphazardly), but I couldn't agree. I thought it was interesting and beautiful. Or maybe the poignancy of its history made it beautiful. Either way, it affected me more deeply than I expected, and left me feeling that melancholy "nothing-gold-can-stay" sort of feeling
This picture encapsulates it for me.
Part of that strange, thoughtful feeling comes as you walk around the city and see bullet holes and shrapnel scars in the buildings. It's such a…well, I hate to use the cliched phrase "sobering reminder," but it is sobering, and it does bring things to mind that one isn't accustomed to thinking about while strolling around seeing the sights. You can't feel carefree, quite. Not the way Frederick did at Sanssouci, ha ha.

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