Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Climax

Every Christmas Eve, my family reads through the nativity story. This year, I was particularly struck by the appearance of angels to the shepherds:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)
The climax of the angel’s declaration seems to be “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” The Messiah had come! However, it is not until later that the veil of heaven bursts open with what we now imagine as angelic choirs singing Handelian choruses. The moment when that heavenly host could no longer be restrained was after the seemingly anti-climactic statement, “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Perhaps heavenly hosts are simply more polite than mortal audiences, so they waited for the angel to finish its announcement before they began cheering. But, I like the idea of an anxious angelic audience unable to contain the overflowing joy of this occasion, suddenly erupting in songs of praise. And I like thinking that it was that final statement which induced their outburst: Not simply the birth of the long-awaited Messiah, but the birth of this Messiah who would condescend from eternal glory to be born in a stable and laid in a manger.

This thought reminds me of the following poem, by Leslie Leyland Fields, entitled, “Let the Stable Still Astonish:”

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child,
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.

Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said: "Yes,
Let the God of all the heavens and earth
be born here, in this place." ?

Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
and says, "Yes, let the God
of Heaven and Earth
be born here ----

        in this place."

On Christmas, I join with that heavenly host in praising a God who condescends to birth in a stable, to life among lepers, to death by crucifixion, and, ultimately, to me.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

School Shooting at Arapahoe High School, My Alma Mater

It is tradition at Arapahoe High School for the Singers to carol the hallways during 5th period on the last day before the winter semester’s finals week. They had just finished a song and were beginning the next when gunshots silenced their singing.

“Double time to the choir room now,” Ms. Parmenter, their director, shouted.

In full caroling regalia, they scrambled back to the choir room and hurried into the dressing room, where they locked the door, turned off the lights, and sat in an uncomfortable quiet broken by indiscernible shouting in the outside halls and the sniffles of their terrified peers. Knowing only that shots had been fired and that the school was in a hard lockdown, they sat and waited in that cheerless room which, only moments before, had rung with, “May your days be merry and bright.”

I received this text from my mom at about that time: “Shooting at ahs. Have not heard from Daniel. Prayers are needed.” I stopped in my tracks on my way to the principal’s office, suddenly unconcerned about whatever errand brought me there. I returned to my room and knelt behind my desk to pray. “Father, please bless Daniel. Protect him from harm.” I quickly searched the web for news on the shooting at my alma mater. All the sites simply reported “breaking news” that a shooting had occurred and that two students were confirmed to be injured. Horrible still, but the terror subsided somewhat when I learned there were no deaths.

And I soon received word that my little brother was unharmed.

There was only one death that day. The shooter killed himself. One other student was severely injured and hospitalized in critical condition, but no one else was seriously wounded. While there was sweet relief for the many reunited parents and children, the families of those two will have to wade through deep anguish in the coming days and weeks. My prayers are now full of gratitude for my family and my brother’s safety, of hope for the wounded student’s healing, and of sorrow for the family of the shooter. I cannot imagine how they will pass the holidays this year.

I will return home to Centennial in one week. I will drive past Arapahoe High School multiple times while I’m there—it’s only a few minutes from our house, and it is situated at the intersection of two significant local roads. My hometown will be scarred by this event, and that will be very perceptible while I’m there.

That will be the backdrop for us this Christmas: The song of “peace on earth, good will to men” mocked and muted by a confusing act of malevolence. But the song will not be silenced long. The Singers will gather again, and, once again in their knickers, scarfs, mittens, and sweaters, perform their carols. My family will go caroling too. And little by little, harmony will replace discord, and someday, I believe, “the whole world [will] send back the song which now the angels sing.” I yearn for that day more poignantly than ever.  

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Why is Religion Necessary?

I recently participated in an interfaith panel about the relationship between religion and education. That opportunity allowed me not only to become more familiar with several religions, but to get to know the other panelists representing the Baha’i, Sikh, Jewish and Buddhist faiths. I very much enjoyed that, and have appreciated our continued friendship and correspondence. The Baha’i panelist recently invited me and the others to her home for dinner. She also invited some people from a different interfaith panel, including one person representing atheism/humanism (he would want me to clarify that those are not interchangeable terms, but he feels comfortable identifying with both distinct perspectives). In our dinner discussion, this man said something like, “I’m not saying that religion does no good—I think it absolutely does. I believe, though, that it is possible to achieve those benefits without requiring religion. I think that you could get all the good things religion provides—community, counseling, morality, etc.—in a secular setting.”

As a religious person, I obviously believe that there is great value in religion, but I was unable to give an immediate response—what could I say? Since then, though, I have continued pondering the idea, and have come up with a few answers:

1.      Grace: Without a belief in God or a sense of sin, it would be impossible to feel the same kind of sweet relief and rejoicing in an unmerited gift. It would be possible to happily chuckle at a pleasantly serendipitous occurrence, but that is essentially different from feeling that Someone has lovingly given you something, despite justifiably withholding the gift.

2.      Mythological narrative: Religion gives people a mythological narrative which not only informs their lives, but often permits them to participate in some way with its events. This provides them with a sense of direction and belonging that transcends the contemporary. There are non-religious narratives (and I’m sure non-religious people strive to identify with them), but I do not think they have the same power. Identifying with a historical or social movement is one thing, but it pales in comparison with feeling a part of the epic clash between good and evil.

3.      A super-human ideal: Without religion, humanity’s highest ideal is humanity itself. With a belief in a higher power, we can look above and beyond ourselves. Goethe captured this idea, I think, when he said, “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”  Robert Browing likewise wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” By aiming not simply at the good, but at the perfect, we encourage greater goodness. 

There are certainly other answers, but these three have stood out in my mind. If nothing else, I can certainly say that my personal religious experiences and beliefs have been beautiful, uplifting, and meaningful in my life, and I'm grateful that my parents raised me with and within a faith. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Coming to Terms with Patriotism

I watched The Mission for the first time this weekend. It is the tragic, but beautiful story about a Jesuit mission in South America, and how two men demonstrate their love for the Guarani people in the face of an imperialist military attack. One, viewing violence as a sin, leads his converts in one final Mass before they are massacred; the other breaks his vows of obedience in order to take up the sword in defense of the people. The film celebrates the heroism of both men, and condemns the imperialist politics that led to that massacre. The final scenes had me in tears (for both their cinematic beauty and their portrayal of a heart-wrenching tragedy).

It is a coincidence that I watched this movie on Veteran's Day weekend, but the film coincides interestingly with some of my thoughts and feelings about patriotism. Before I write anything else, I want to make it perfectly clear that I esteem and respect the veterans of all wars. While I recognize that some of these wars have been waged for less than holy purposes, I honor the sacrifice of the individuals who actually fought in the battlefield, and believe many of them to be heroic and consummately admirable. At the same time, I sometimes question the value of patriotism and its various manifestations (including war). Although I do feel loyal to the country of my birth, my allegiance is most importantly with God, and with the ideals and values associated with Him--ideals and values sometimes, but certainly not always reflected in the creeds and actions of our government. There was even a period of time when I did not feel comfortable repeating the pledge of allegiance because of my misgivings about binding myself to an at least occasionally corrupt institution like the federal government. I have since reconciled those feelings by viewing the flag to which I pledge allegiance as a symbol not of the country per se, but of the ideals of liberty and justice; and now I do repeat the pledge of allegiance with my students every day.

Still, I feel a bit like Father Gabriel in The Mission who, in a conversation with a papal representative about the complex political web that put pressure on the Vatican to close some of the colonial missions, said simply, "Is that to stand in our way [in doing the work of God]?" Doesn't the work of God transcend national borders and trump political agendas? In fact, aren't those very things often instruments of division when, instead, we should be laboring to unite the human family? We believe that we are, after all, children of the same Heavenly Father. What's more, although we believe in "being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (Article of Faith 12), we foresee a time when those political affiliations will be irrelevant, for Christ will reign on the Earth, and the only affiliation that will matter will be with the Kingdom of God. What then of patriotism?

I may be unusual within Mormonism for these struggles. In my experience, Mormons are a rather patriotic lot, preaching it from the pulpit, and celebrating it in Stadiums of Fire. While I am not always comfortable with patriotic rhetoric (outside or within church), I will conclude this post quoting verses from a patriotic hymn included in our hymnal. These verses give voice to the particular kind of patriotism I feel, and to my appreciation of veterans:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What does it mean to be a Mormon?

What does it mean to be a Mormon?

I don’t think I can give you a pithy response. In fact, you could view this whole blog as a weekly attempt to answer that question—or at least provide a glimpse into what it means for me. This post, then, is just the beginning of a response.

To be a Mormon is to be a part of a global community. No matter where I go in the world, I would be able to find a Mormon congregation, and I would be welcomed in as a sibling (they would probably call me Brother Sabey, Brother David, or simply Brother). I have experienced this across the USA, in Europe, and in China. Being Mormon gives me access to an amazing worldwide network of people. Usually, though, it is my home ward that impacts my quotidian reality.

A ward is a congregation, comparable to a Catholic parish. I attend a “Singles Ward” for unmarried Mormons ages 18-30. We meet every Sunday for church services. We all have “callings” or responsibilities within the ward (for example, I oversee the Sunday school). And throughout the week, we have various meetings and activities. To conclude this post, I will simply outline what I did with my ward during the week.

Sunday: Church meetings from 12:30-3:30pm.

Monday: Family Home Evening (FHE) from 7:00-9:00pm. FHE is, as the name suggests, meant to be a family night (for more information, click here). Since we’re all unmarried and most of us live apart from our families, we have a ward FHE. This week, we had a costume party. I dressed as one of my 7th grade students (image below).

Tuesday: Nothing.

Wednesday: Hometeaching from 7:00-8:00pm. Everyone in the ward is assigned hometeachers (two other members of the ward), who are supposed to check in with you at least once a month to make sure you are doing well. As stereotypical, I waited until the end of month to complete my hometeaching assignment. For more information about this Mormon practice, click here.

Thursday: I usually go to “Institute” (a kind of Bible study class) on Thursday nights. It was cancelled tonight because of Halloween.

Friday: Nothing.

Saturday: Got Jamba Juice with a friend from the ward 1:00-2:30pm. Stake Conference from 7:00-9:00pm. (If a ward is like a parish, a stake is like a diocese. Stakes have conferences twice a year in which all the wards within that stake meet together.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

...and I'm a Mormon.

How many of you have seen those ads for the Mormon church--the ones with really hip people who talk about their hobbies, families, and careers, and then conclude with the statement, "and I'm a Mormon?"  (If you haven't, check some out here, here, and here.)

I'm probably not cool enough to be featured in one of those ads, but I too am a Mormon. My ad would probably be something like this: "My name is David. I'm a single guy in Vegas, but I practically never go to the strip. My idea of fun includes spending time with family, playing racquetball, discussing education reform with friends, learning Spanish, and enjoying a game of Catch Phrase (which, strangely enough, is not that popular in casinos).  I currently  teach 7th grade ELA at a Title 1 school...and I'm a Mormon."

I decided that I wanted to keep a blog about my life and what it's like being a Mormon in Vegas. I hope this can be a forum for sharing a bit about my religious activities and spiritual experiences and for answering questions about my faith. So, on one hand, it will simply be a kind of journal for myself--a reminder of how I've glimpsed God's hand in my life. On the other hand, it will be a channel of communication for anybody interested in Mormonism, religion in general, and/or the way faith can influence and inform our actions and decisions.